Fifth in the series of fantasy yarns about the King’s Blades, those bodyguards magically bound to defend their ward to the death (Paragon Lost, 2002, etc.).
Grand Duke Rubin, of distant, land-locked, Austria-like Krupina, arrives in Chivial seeking the help of King Athelgar. Driven from power by his warrior-cousin, Lord Volpe, and harassed across Eurania by evil magic, Rubin has urgent need of Blades to defend his person and help him recover his throne. Even in Chivial’s Nocare Palace, magically animated corpses attack him. But just now Ironhall is all but devoid of suitable candidates. Ranter is uncouth and inexperienced, Ringwood a half-trained youth, and Bellman, his vision damaged in an accident, cannot become a Blade. Nevertheless, Sir Ranter and Sir Ringwood must serve the Grand Duke, with Bellman as an advisor. Also joining the party will be Trudy, formerly of the Sisterhood, with her unerring ability to sniff out and diagnose magic. She immediately notices that Rubin wears a magical device to alter his appearance: indeed, the Grand Duke turns out to be the Grand Duchess! Johanna has no idea whether her philandering husband is still alive, or where his son and heir, Frederik, might be. Also counted among her enemies must be Karl, Volpe’s lecherous son, and the Vamky Brotherhood, warrior-knights skilled in magic. Johanna must lead her raggle-taggle band to Krupina, knowing she can trust nobody—or the faces they wear.
Something like a fantasy whodunit—agreeably knotty and misleading, though not the best of this reliable series.