When professional duelist Conn Labro escapes indentured servitude as the star player of Horder's Emporium, he abandons the gaming world of Thrais and sets out on an interstellar journey filled with murder, deceit, and self-discovery. His only friend on Thrais, discovered dead and tortured, left him enough money to buy himself out of his contract and a curious encrypted "bearer deed" to a mysterious property on the distant edge of the galactic Spray. With the seductive, secretive showgirl Jenore Mordene at his side and a villainous pleasure cult dogging his every move, Labro sets out to learn the truth behind his bearer deed and more about his own past than he had ever dared bargain for.
I've been reading Matt's work for a decade or more and was pleased to finally meet up with him several years ago at, as is usual in this field, a science fiction convention. We've since sat on numerous panels together and had good bar conversations not only about writing and publishing but our shared love of trotting around the globe. Template is a great introduction to Matt's SF. – Hayden Trenholm
"... a page-turning mystery, with all the vile villains, distressed damsels, dark secrets, and duels to the death anyone could wish for, so it would be easy to miss just how deeply philosophical Hughes novels truly are."– Robert Runté
"Template is a well-made story, easy and interesting to read, thoughtful, and – given the narrowly-ideological, reality-free decision-making that seems to be so prevalent in our times – a timely comment on the value of tolerance, diversity, and multi-cultural perspectives. The title is meaningful, and its ending quite satisfying. Bravo, Matthew Hughes."– David Mead, New York Review of Science Fiction
"My reviews of this author's books must now come with the disclaimer that I'm a fan. His books make me feel like a mouse whose pleasure centres are being deliberately tripped in a scientific experiment upon its brain. That disclaimer aside, I thought this was excellent. Conn has a fascinating personality, his romance with Jenore is sweet, the mysteries intrigue and the action excites. Brilliant."– Stephen Theaker, British Fantasy Awards
A Novel of the Archonate
by Matthew Hughes
The tall skinny one and the one with the shaved head kept circling to Conn Labro's right. When they came at him their attack was well coordinated, the points of their epiniards darting in at different angles, aimed at different parts of his body. Now they came again and Conn timed the double parry exactly, riposted against the skinny one so that he had to block the thrust in a way that hindered his partner's recovery.
But it was the third opponent who bothered him. The fat one kept circling widdershins to the others only to leap into the fight seemingly at random, not thrusting but flailing with the long thin epiniard while shouting what sounded like nonsense syllables. Conn would have to duck or leap back in an ungainly manner. Then the other two would come smoothly in and he would have to flick and click, parry and thrust again, trying to find their rhythm then turn it against them.
He soon realized that there was no rhythm to be found. The fat one was actually very good. He was capable, as very few are, of a truly asymmetrical attack, able to resist the unconscious urge to find a rhythm with his partners.
It was turning out to be an interesting contest. Conn surmised that the three must have practiced against a simulation based on some of his past fights. He knew that his employer, the impresario Ovam Horder, sold such artificial experiences to those who could never afford the fee required to meet Conn in the flesh or by remote connection. The trio must have augmented the simulation by factoring in other matches recorded from public performances, then using sophisticated means to meld all into one.
Now here came the two coordinated attackers once more, but this time there was a tiny disharmony to their movements. The skinny one was a quarter-beat behind his partner, meaning Conn must extend his parry an equally small interval of time past perfection before binding the skinny one's blade and sliding the point of Conn's epiniard over the wrist guard.
As he executed the move, he expected the fat one to come in swinging and burbling from his blind side. Instead, as Conn turned his head enough to bring the third man into his peripheral vision, he found the rotund attacker silently sliding toward him, crossing the smooth floor on his plump belly, the point of his weapon aimed at Conn's ankle.
Again, Conn had to make a less than graceful escape, leaping clear over the supine swordster, only to find the other two rushing at him once more. But they came on two different tangents this time, their flexible blades whipping and thrusting from all angles, so that Conn must exert near maximum speed to beat off the attack. And meanwhile, the fat one was coming in between the others, but this time he was actually on his knees, again aiming for Conn's ankles.
Conn felt a flash of irritation and automatically summoned the mental exercise that dissipated the feeling. He heard Hallis Tharp's voice speaking from his memory: He who loses his temper loses all, and again he spoke within his mind the syllables of the Lho-tso mantra that restored calm.
He flicked his point at the fat one's eyes, knocked away the bald man's thrust and sidestepped a slash from the thin one. He had to give the three of them credit for a novel strategy: they had known they could not win on skills — they were adequate swordsters, but even three of them were no match for one of Bay City's premier house players — so they had instead closely analyzed Conn's temperament. They must have thought that if they could annoy him enough, if they could bring him to anger...
The three were preparing for another attempt. He saw their eyes signal to each other as they readied themselves, and he looked closely at the fat one. And there it was, plain to be seen: the calculation behind the seeming randomness, and the way the man looked at Conn from the corner of his eye, weighing up the results so far.
Conn realized how the bets must be laid. That was why their attacks lacked true brio and why the fat one behaved like a clown. They were not out to win, nor even to draw, which would have been the best they might expect. Instead, they were intent on annoying and frustrating him to the point where he departed from his legendary equanimity.
He smiled. The moment his lips showed his amusement he read the signs in the others' faces and knew he had won. They stepped back and lowered their epiniards. "Will you continue?" Conn asked.
"To what point?" said the fat one.