Read a sample from PROMISE OF BLOOD by Brian McClellan
From debut author Brian McClellan comes a thrilling fantasy about politics, kingdoms, and the retribution that falls swiftly on broken promises. Read the first four chapters and become a fan of The Powder Mage Trilogy on Facebook for news and updates.
Adamat wore his coat tight, top buttons fastened against a wet night air that seemed to want to drown him. He tugged at his sleeves, trying to coax more length, and picked at the front of the jacket where it was too close by far around the waist. It’d been half a decade since he’d even seen this jacket, but when summons came from the king at this hour, there was no time to get his good one from the tailor. Yet this summer coat provided no defense against the chill snaking through the carriage window.
The morning was not far off but dawn would have a hard time scattering the fog. Adamat could feel it. It was humid even for early spring in Adopest, and chillier than Novi’s frozen toes. The soothsayers in Noman’s Alley said it was a bad omen. Yet who lis- tened to soothsayers these days? Adamat reasoned it would give him a cold and wondered why he had been summoned out on a pit-made night like this.
The carriage approached the front gate of Skyline and moved on without a stop. Adamat clutched at his pantlegs and peered out the window. The guards were not at their posts. Odder still, as they continued along the wide path amid the fountains, there were no lights. Skyline had so many lanterns, it could be seen all the way from the city even on the cloudiest night. Tonight the gardens were dark.
Adamat was fine with this. Manhouch used enough of their taxes for his personal amusement. Adamat stared out into the gar- dens at the black maws where the hedge mazes began and imag- ined shapes flitting back and forth in the lawn. What was…ah, just a sculpture. Adamat sat back, took a deep breath. He could hear his heart beating, thumping, frightened, his stomach tighten- ing. Perhaps they should light the garden lanterns . . .
A little part of him, the part that had once been a police inspec- tor, prowling nights such as these for the thieves and pickpockets in dark alleys, laughed out from inside. Still your heart, old man, he said to himself. You were once the eyes staring back from the darkness.
The carriage jerked to a stop. Adamat waited for the coachman to open the door. He might have waited all night. The driver rapped on the roof. “You’re here,” a gruff voice said.
Adamat stepped from the coach, just having time to snatch his hat and cane before the driver flicked the reins and was off, clatter- ing into the night. Adamat uttered a quiet curse after the man and turned around, looking up at Skyline.
The nobility called Skyline Palace “the Jewel of Adro.” It rested on a high hill east of Adopest so that the sun rose above it every morning. One particularly bold newspaper had compared it to a starving pauper wearing a diamond ring. It was an apt comparison in these lean times. A king’s pride doesn’t fill the people’s bellies.
He was at the main entrance. By day, it was a grand avenue of marbled walks and fountains, all leading to a pair of giant, silverplated doors, themselves dwarfed by the sheer façade of the biggest single building in Adro. Adamat listened for the soft footfalls of patrolling Hielmen. It was said the king’s personal guard were everywhere in these gardens, watching every secluded corner, muskets always loaded, bayonets fixed, their gray-and-white sashes somber among the green-and-gold splendor. But there were no footfalls, nor were the fountains running. He’d heard once that the fountains only stopped for the death of the king. Surely he’d not have been summoned here if Manhouch were dead. He smoothed the front of his jacket. Here, next to the building, a few of the lanterns were lit.
A figure emerged from the darkness. Adamat tightened his grip on his cane, ready to draw the hidden sword inside at a moment’s notice.
It was a man in uniform, but little could be discerned in such ill light. He held a rifle or a musket, trained loosely on Adamat, and wore a flat-topped forage cap with a stiff visor. Only one thing could be certain . . . he was not a Hielman. Their tall, plumed hats were easy to recognize, and they never went without them.
“You’re alone?” a voice asked.
“Yes,” Adamat said. He held up both hands and turned around.
“All right. Come on.”
The soldier edged forward and yanked on one of the mighty silver doors. It rolled outward slowly, ponderously, despite the man putting his weight into it. Adamat moved closer and examined the soldier’s jacket. It was dark blue with silver braiding. Adran military. In theory, the military reported to the king. In practice, one man held their leash: Field Marshal Tamas.
“Step back, friend,” the soldier said. There was a note of impatience in his voice, some unseen stress—but that could have been the weight of the door. Adamat did as he was told, only coming forward again to slip through the entrance when the soldier gestured.
“Go ahead,” the soldier directed. “Take a right at the diadem and head through the Diamond Hall. Keep walking until you find yourself in the Answering Room.” The door inched shut behind him and closed with a muffled thump.
Adamat was alone in the palace vestibule. Adran military, he mused. Why would a soldier be here, on the grounds, without any sign of the Hielmen? The most frightening answer sprang to mind first. A power struggle. Had the military been called in to deal with a rebellion? There were a number of powerful factions within Adro: the Wings of Adom mercenaries, the royal cabal, the Mountainwatch, and the great noble families. Any one of them could have been giving Manhouch trouble. None of it made sense, though. If there had been a power struggle, the palace grounds would be a battlefield, or destroyed outright by the royal cabal.
Adamat passed the diadem—a giant facsimile of the Adran crown—and noted it was in as bad taste as rumor had it. He entered the Diamond Hall, where the walls and floor were of scarlet, accented in gold leaf, and thousands of tiny gems, which gave the room its name, glittered from the ceiling in the light of a single lit candelabra. The tiny flames of the candelabra flickered as if in the wind, and the room was cold.
Adamat’s sense of unease deepened as he neared the far end of the gallery. Not a sign of life, and the only sound came from his own echoing footfalls on the marble floor. A window had been shattered, explaining the chill. The result of one of the king’s famous temper tantrums? Or something else? He could hear his heart beating in his ears. There. Behind a curtain, a pair of boots? Adamat passed his hand before his eyes. A trick of the light. He stepped over to reassure himself and pulled back the curtain.
A body lay in the shadows. Adamat bent over it, touched the skin. It was warm, but the man was most certainly dead. He wore gray pants with a white stripe down the side and a matching jacket. A tall hat with a white plume lay on the floor some ways away. A Hielman. The shadows played on a young, clean-shaven face, peaceful except for a single hole in the side of his skull and the dark, wet stain on the floor.
He’d been right. A struggle of some kind. Had the Hielmen rebelled, and the military been brought in to deal with them? Again, it didn’t make any sense. The Hielmen were fanatically loyal to the king, and any matters within Skyline Palace would have been dealt with by the royal cabal.
Adamat cursed silently. Every question compounded itself. He suspected he’d find some answers soon enough.
Adamat left the body behind the curtain. He lifted his cane and twisted, bared a few inches of steel, and approached a tall doorway flanked by two hooded, scepter-wielding sculptures. He paused between the ancient statues and took a deep breath, letting his eyes wander over a set of arcane script scrawled into the portal. He entered.
The Answering Room made the Hall of Diamonds look small. A pair of staircases, one to either side of him and each as wide across as three coaches, led to a high gallery that ran the length of the room on both sides. Few outside the king and his cabal of Privi- leged sorcerers ever entered this room.
In the center of the room was a single chair, on a dais a handbreadth off the floor, facing a collection of knee pillows, where the cabal acknowledged their liege. The room was well lit, though from no discernible source of light.
A man sat on the stairs to Adamat’s right. He was older than Adamat, just into his sixtieth year with silver hair and a neatly trimmed mustache that still retained a hint of black. He had a strong but not overly large jaw and his cheekbones were well defined. His skin was darkened by the sun, and there were deep lines at the corners of his mouth and eyes. He wore a dark-blue soldier’s uniform with a silver representation of a powder keg pinned above the heart and nine gold service stripes sewn on the right breast, one for every five years in the Adran military. His uniform lacked an officer’s epaulettes, but the weary experience in the man’s brown eyes left no question that he’d led armies on the battlefield. There was a single pistol, hammer cocked, on the stair next to him. He leaned on a sheathed small sword and watched as a stream of blood slowly trickled down each step, a dark line on the yellow-and-white marble.
“Field Marshal Tamas,” Adamat said. He sheathed his cane sword and twisted until it clicked shut.
The man looked up. “I don’t believe we’ve ever met.”
“We have,” Adamat said. “Fourteen years ago. A charity ball thrown by Lord Aumen.”
“I have a terrible time with faces,” the field marshal said. “I apologize.”
Adamat couldn’t take his eyes off the rivulet of blood. “Sir. I was summoned here. I wasn’t told by whom, or for what reason.”
“Yes,” Tamas said. “I summoned you. On the recommendation of one of my Marked. Cenka. He said you served together on the police force in the twelfth district.”
Adamat pictured Cenka in his mind. He was a short man with an unruly beard and a penchant for wines and fine food. He’d seen him last seven years ago. “I didn’t know he was a powder mage.”
“We try to find anyone with an affinity for it as soon as possible,” Tamas said, “but Cenka was a late bloomer. In any case”— he waved a hand—“we’ve come upon a problem.”
Adamat blinked. “You . . . want my help?”
The field marshal raised an eyebrow. “Is that such an unusual request? You were once a fine police investigator, a good servant of Adro, and Cenka tells me that you have a perfect memory.”
“I’m still an investigator. Not with the police, sir, but I still take jobs.”
“Excellent. Then it’s not so odd for me to seek your services?”
“Well, no,” Adamat said, “but sir, this is Skyline Palace. There’s a dead Hielman in the Diamond Hall and…” He pointed at the stream of blood on the stairs. “Where’s the king?”
Tamas tilted his head to the side. “He’s locked himself in the chapel.”
“You’ve staged a coup,” Adamat said. He caught a glimpse of movement with the corner of his eye, saw a soldier appear at the top of the stairs. The man was a Deliv, a dark-skinned northerner. He wore the same uniform as Tamas, with eight golden stripes on the right breast. The left breast of his uniform displayed a silver powder keg, the sign of a Marked. Another powder mage.
“We have a lot of bodies to move,” the Deliv said.
Tamas gave his subordinate a glance. “I know, Sabon.”
“Who’s this?” Sabon asked.
“The inspector that Cenka requested.”
“I don’t like him being here,” Sabon said. “It could compromise everything.”
“Cenka trusted him.”
“You’ve staged a coup,” Adamat said again with certainty.
“I’ll help with the bodies in a moment,” Tamas said. “I’m old, need some rest now and then.” The Deliv gave a sharp nod and disappeared.
“Sir!” Adamat said. “What have you done?” He tightened his grip on his cane sword.
Tamas pursed his lips. “Some say the Adran royal cabal had the most powerful Privileged sorcerers in all the Nine Nations, second only to Kez,” he said quietly. “Yet I’ve just slaughtered every one of them. Do you think I’d have trouble with an old inspector and his cane sword?”
Adamat loosened his grip. He felt ill. “I suppose not.”
“Cenka led me to believe that you were pragmatic. If that is the case, I would like to employ your services. If not, I’ll kill you now and look for a solution elsewhere.”
“You’ve staged a coup,” Adamat said again.
Tamas sighed. “Must we keep coming back to that? Is it so shocking? Tell me, can you think of any fewer than a dozen factions within Adro with reason to dethrone the king?”
“I didn’t think any of them had the skill,” Adamat said. “Or the daring.” His eyes returned to the blood on the stairs, before his mind traveled to his wife and children, asleep in their beds. He looked at the field marshal. His hair was tousled; there were drops of blood on his jacket—a lot, now that he thought to look. Tamas might as well have been sprayed with it. There were dark circles under his eyes and a weariness that spoke of more than just age.
“I will not agree to a job blindly,” Adamat said. “Tell me what you want.”
“We killed them in their sleep,” Tamas said without preamble. “There’s no easy way to kill a Privileged, but that’s the best. A mistake was made and we had a fight on our hands.” Tamas looked pained for a moment, and Adamat suspected that the fight had not gone as well as Tamas would have liked. “We prevailed. Yet upon the lips of the dying was one phrase.”
“ ‘You can’t break Kresimir’s Promise,’ ” Tamas said. “That’s what the dying sorcerers said to me. Does it mean anything to you?”
Adamat smoothed the front of his coat and sought to recall old memories. “No. ‘Kresimir’s Promise’…‘Break’…‘Broken’… Wait—‘Kresimir’s Broken Promise.’” He looked up. “It was the name of a street gang. Twenty…twenty-two years ago. Cenka couldn’t remember that?”
Tamas continued. “Cenka thought it sounded familiar. He was certain you’d remember it.”
“I don’t forget things,” Adamat said. “Kresimir’s Broken Promise was a street gang with forty-three members. They were all young, some of them no more than children, the oldest not yet twenty. We were trying to round up some of the leaders to put a stop to a string of thefts. They were an odd lot—they broke into churches and robbed priests.”
“What happened to them?”
Adamat couldn’t help but look at the blood on the stairs. “One day they disappeared, every one of them—including our informants. We found the whole lot a few days later, forty-three bodies jammed into a drain culvert like pickled pigs’ feet. They’d been massacred by powerful sorceries, with excessive brutality. The marks of the king’s royal cabal. The investigation ended there.” Adamat suppressed a shiver. He’d not once seen a thing like that, not before or since. He’d witnessed executions and riots and mur- der scenes that filled him with less dread.
The Deliv soldier appeared again at the top of the stairs. “We need you,” he said to Tamas.
“Find out why these mages would utter those words with their final breath,” Tamas said. “It may be connected to your street gang. Maybe not. Either way, find me an answer. I don’t like the riddles of the dead.” He got to his feet quickly, moving like a man twenty years younger, and jogged up the stairs after the Deliv. His boot splashed in the blood, leaving behind red prints. “Also,” he called over his shoulder, “keep silent about what you have seen here until the execution. It will begin at noon.”
“But…” Adamat said. “Where do I start? Can I speak with Cenka?”
Tamas paused near the top of the stairs and turned. “If you can speak with the dead, you’re welcome to.”
Adamat ground his teeth. “How did they say the words?” he said. “Was it a command, or a statement, or . . . ?”
Tamas frowned. “An entreaty. As if the blood draining from their bodies was not their primary concern. I must go now.”
“One more thing,” Adamat said.
Tamas looked to be near the end of his patience.
“If I’m to help you, tell me why all of this?” He gestured to the blood on the stairs.
“I have things that require my attention,” Tamas warned. Adamat felt his jaw tighten. “Did you do this for power?”
“I did this for me,” Tamas said. “And I did this for Adro. So that Manhouch wouldn’t sign us all into slavery to the Kez with the Accords. I did it because those grumbling students of philosophy at the university only play at rebellion. The age of kings is dead, Adamat, and I have killed it.”
Adamat examined Tamas’s face. The Accords was a treaty to be signed with the king of Kez that would absolve all Adran debt but impose strict tax and regulation on Adro, making it little more than a Kez vassal. The field marshal had been outspoken about the Accords. But then, that was expected. The Kez had executed Tamas’s late wife.
“It is,” Adamat said.
“Then get me some bloody answers.” The field marshal whirled and disappeared into the hallway above.
Adamat remembered the bodies of that street gang as they were being pulled from the drain in the wet and mud, remembered the horror etched upon their dead faces. The answers may very well be bloody.
Lajos is dying,” Sabon said.
Tamas entered the apartments of the Privileged who’d been Zakary the Beadle. He swept through the salon and entered the bedchamber—a room bigger than most merchants’ houses. The walls were indigo and covered with colorful paintings that displayed various Beadles in the history of Adro’s royal cabal. Doors led off to auxiliary rooms, such as the privy and Beadle’s kitchens. The door to the Beadle’s private brothel had been ripped apart, splinters no bigger than a finger scattered across the room.
The Beadle’s bed had been stripped of sheets, the Beadle’s body tossed aside for a wounded powder mage.
“How do you feel?” Tamas said.
Lajos managed a weak cough. Marked were tougher than most, and with the gunpowder Lajos had ingested, now coursing through his blood, he would feel little pain. It was little consolation as Tamas gazed on his friend. Half of Lajos’s right arm was gone— lengthwise—and a hole the size of a melon had been torn through his abdomen. It was a miracle he’d lived this long. They’d given him half a horn’s worth of powder. That alone should have killed him.
“I’ve felt better,” Lajos said. He coughed again, blood leaking from the corner of his mouth.
Tamas drew his handkerchief and dabbed the blood away. “It won’t be much longer,” he said.
“I know,” Lajos said.
Tamas squeezed his friend’s hand.
Lajos mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
Tamas took a deep breath. It was suddenly hard to see. He blinked his eyes clear. Lajos’s breathing came to a rasping stop. Tamas made to pull his hand away when Lajos gripped it suddenly. Lajos’s eyes opened.
“It’s all right, my friend,” Lajos said. “You’ve done what needed to be done. Have peace.” His eyes focused elsewhere and then stilled. He was dead.
Tamas closed his friend’s eyes with the tips of his fingers and turned to Sabon. The Deliv stood on the other side of the room, examining what was left of the door to the harem where it hung on the frame by one hinge. Tamas joined him and looked inside. The women had been corralled away an hour ago by his soldiers, taken to some other part of the palace with the rest of the Privilegeds’ whores.
“The fury of a woman,” Sabon murmured.
“Indeed,” Tamas said.
“There’s no way we could have planned for this.”
“Tell that to them,” Tamas said. He jerked his head at the row of four bodies on the floor, and the fifth that would soon be joining them. Five powder mages. Five friends. All because of one Privileged that had been unaccounted for. Tamas had just put a bullet in the Beadle’s head—a man who he’d shaken hands with and spoken to on a regular basis. Tamas’s Marked stood around him, ready in case the old man had some fight in him. They were not ready for the other Privileged, the one hiding in the brothel. She’d sliced through that door like a guillotine blade through a melon, Privileged’s gloves on her hands, fingers dancing as her sorcery tore Tamas’s powder mages to shreds.
A powder mage could float a bullet over a mile and hit the bull’s-eye every time. He could angle a bullet around corners with the power of his mind, and ingest black powder to make himself stronger and faster than other men. But he could do little to contest Privileged sorcery at close range.
Tamas, Sabon, and Lajos had been the only men with time to react, and they’d barely fought her off. She’d fled, echoes of sorcer- ous destruction following her through the palace as she went— probably nothing more than a show to keep them from following. Her parting shot had been Lajos’s mortal wound, but it had been randomly flung. It very well could have been Sabon, or even Tamas himself, who’d died there on the bed a moment ago. The thought chilled Tamas’s blood.
Tamas looked away from the door. “We’ll have to follow her. Find her and kill her. She’s dangerous on the loose.”
“A job for the magebreaker?” Sabon said. “I wondered why you’ve kept him around.”
“A contingency I didn’t want to use,” Tamas said. “I wish I had a mage to send with him.”
“His partner is a Privileged,” Sabon said. “A magebreaker and a Privileged should be more than a match for a single cabal Privi- leged.” He gestured at the wrecked door.
“I don’t like to fight fair when it comes to the royal cabal,” Tamas said. “And remember, there’s a difference between a member of the royal cabal and a hired thug.”
“Who was she?” Sabon asked. There was a note in his voice, perhaps reproach.
“I have no idea,” Tamas snapped. “I knew every one of the king’s cabal. I’ve met them, dined with them. She was a stranger.”
Sabon took Tamas’s anger without comment. “A spy for another cabal?”
“Not likely. The brothel girls are all checked. She didn’t look like a whore. She was strong, weathered. The Beadle’s lover, maybe. I’ve never seen her before in my life.”
“Could the Beadle have been training someone in secret?”
“Apprentices are never secret,” Tamas said. “Privileged are too suspicious to allow that.”
“Their suspicions are often well founded,” Sabon said. “There has to be a reason for her presence.”
“I know. We’ll deal with her in good time.”
“If the others had been here . . .” Sabon said.
“More of us would be dead,” Tamas said. He counted the bodies again, as if there might be fewer this time. Five. Out of seventeen of his mages. “We split into two groups for precisely this reason.” He turned away from the bodies. “Any word from Taniel?”
“He’s in the city,” Sabon said.
“Perfect. I’ll send him with the magebreaker.”
“Are you sure?” Sabon said. “He just got back from Fatrasta. He needs time to rest, to see his fiancée . . .”
“Is Vlora with him?”
“Let’s hope she gets here soon. Our work is not yet done.” He raised a hand to forestall protests. “And Taniel can rest when the coup’s over.”
“What must be done will be done,” Sabon said quietly.
They both fell silent, regarding their fallen comrades. Moments passed before Tamas saw a smile spread on Sabon’s wrinkled black face. The Deliv was tired and haggard, but with a hint of restrained joy. “We succeeded.”
Tamas eyed the bodies of his friends—his soldiers—again. “Yes,” he said. “We did.” He forced himself to look away.
A painting stood in the corner, a monstrosity with a gilded frame on a silver tripod befitting a herald of the royal cabal. Tamas studied the painting briefly. It showed Zakary in his prime as a strong young man with broad shoulders and a stern frown.
A far cry from the old, bent body in the corner. The bullet had entered his brain in such a way as to kill him instantly, yet his lifeless throat had gasped the same words as the others: “You can’t break Kresimir’s Promise.”
Cenka was white as a mummer’s painted face after the first of the Privileged cried out as they died. He’d demanded that Tamas summon Adamat here, to the heart of their crime. Tamas hoped that Cenka was wrong. He hoped that the investigator found nothing.
Tamas left the cabal’s wing of the palace, Sabon following close behind.
“I’ll need a new bodyguard,” Tamas said as they walked. It pained him to speak of it, with Lajos’s body still cooling.
“A Marked?” Sabon asked.
“I can’t spare one. Not now.”
“I’ve had my eye on a Knacked,” Sabon said. “A man named Olem.”
“He’s a soldier?” Tamas asked. He thought he knew the name.
He held his hand just slightly below his eyes. “About this tall? Sandy hair?”
“What’s his Knack?”
“He doesn’t need sleep. Ever.”
“That’s useful,” Tamas said.
“Quite. He has a strong third eye as well, so he can watch for Privileged. I’ll have him briefed and by your side for the execution.”
A Knacked wouldn’t be as useful as a powder mage. Knacked were more common, and their abilities were more like a talent than a sorcerous power. But if he could use his third eye to see sorcery, he would be of some benefit.
Tamas approached the barred doors of the chapel. A pair of Tamas’s soldiers emerged from the shadows by the wall, muskets at the ready. Tamas nodded to them and gestured at the door.
One of the soldiers removed a long knife from his belt and slid it between the doors to the chapels. “He flipped the Diocel’s latch,” said the soldier fiddling with the knife, “but he didn’t even bother to stack anything in front of the door. Not very enterprising, if you ask me.” He flipped up the lock and he and his companion pushed the doors open.
The chapel was large, as were all the rooms in the palace. Unlike the rest of the palace, however, it had been spared the seasonal remodeling customary of the king’s whims and remained close to what it must have looked like two hundred years ago. The ceiling was vaulted impossibly high, with boxes for the royalty and high nobles set about halfway up the walls in between columns as wide across as an oxcart. The floor was tiled in marble designed in intricate mosaics of various shapes and sizes, while the ceiling contained paneled depictions of the saints as they founded the Nine Nations under the god Kresimir’s fatherly gaze.
Two altars sat at the front of the chapel, raised slightly above the benches, next to a pulpit of blackwood. The first altar, smaller, closer to the people, was dedicated to Adro’s founding saint, Adom. The second, larger altar, sided by marble and covered with satin, was dedicated to Kresimir. Beside this altar huddled Manhouch XII, sovereign of Adro, and his wife Natalija, Duchess of Tarony. Natalija stared behind and above the altar, her lips moving in silent prayer to Kresimir’s Rope. Manhouch was pale, his eyes red, lips drawn to a thin line. He spoke in a desperate whisper to the Diocel. He stopped as Tamas approached.
“Wait,” the Diocel called, one hand rising as the king jogged down the steps from the altar and stormed toward Tamas with purpose. The Diocel’s old face was fraught, his robes wrinkled from a hasty rush to the chapel.
Tamas watched Manhouch march toward him. He noted the one hand held behind his back, the fury of emotions playing across Manhouch’s aristocratic young face. Manhouch looked barely seventeen thanks to the high sorceries of his royal cabal, though in reality he was well into his thirties. It was supposed to reflect the monarchy’s agelessness, but Tamas had always found it hard to take such a young-looking man seriously. Tamas stopped and regarded the king, watched him falter before coming closer.
Five paces away, Manhouch revealed his pistol. It came up swiftly. His aim was sure at that range—after all, Tamas himself had taught the king to shoot. It was an unfortunate reflection on his detachment from the world, however, that Manhouch attempted it at all. He pulled the trigger.
Tamas reached out mentally and absorbed the power of the powder blast. He felt the energy course through him, warming his body like a sip of fine spirits. He redirected the power of the blast harmlessly into the floor, cracking a marble tile beneath the king. Manhouch danced away from the cracked tile. The ball rolled from the barrel of his pistol and clattered to the ground, stopping by Tamas’s feet.
Tamas stepped forward, taking the pistol from the king by the barrel. He barely felt it burn his hand.
“How dare you,” Manhouch said. His face was powdered, his cheeks blushed. His silk bedclothes were rumpled, soaked with sweat. “We trusted you to protect us.” He trembled slightly.
Tamas looked past Manhouch to the Diocel still beside the altar. The old priest leaned against the wall, his tall, embroidered hat of office balanced precariously on his head. “I suppose,” Tamas said, shaking the pistol, “he got this from you?”
“It wasn’t meant for that,” the Diocel wheezed. He stuck his chin up. “It was meant for the king. So he can take his life honorably and not be struck down by a godless traitor.”
Tamas sent forth his senses, looking for more powder charges, but there were none. “You only brought one pistol, with one bullet,” Tamas said. “It would have been kinder to bring two.” He glanced at the queen, still directing her prayers toward Kresimir’s Rope.
“You wouldn’t . . .” the Diocel said.
“He won’t!” Manhouch spoke over him. “He won’t kill us. He can’t. We are God’s chosen.” He took a deep, shaky breath.
Tamas felt a ripple of pity for the king. He knew Manhouch was older than he looked, but in reality he was nothing more than a child. It wasn’t all his fault. Greedy councillors, idiot tutors, indulgent sorcerers. There were any number of reasons he’d been a bad—no, terrible—king. He was, however, king. Tamas squashed the pity. Manhouch would face the consequences.
“Manhouch the Twelfth,” Tamas said, “you are under arrest for the utmost neglect of your people. You will be tried for treason, fraud, and murder through starvation.”
“A trial?” Manhouch whispered.
“Your trial is now,” Tamas said. “I am your judge and jury. You have been found guilty before the people and before Kresimir.”
“Don’t pretend to speak in God’s name!” the Diocel said. “Manhouch is our king! Sanctioned by Kresimir!”
Tamas laughed mirthlessly. “You’re quick enough to invoke Kresimir when it suits you. Is he on your mind when you’ve got a concubine wrapped in your silk sheets or when you eat a meal of delicacies that would have fed fifty peasants? Your place is not at the right hand of God, Diocel. The Church has sanctioned this coup.”
The Diocel’s eyes grew large. “I would have known.”
“Do the arch-diocels tell you everything? I thought not.” Manhouch gathered his strength and matched Tamas’s gaze.
“You have no evidence! No witnesses! This is not a trial.”
Tamas flung his hand out to the side. “My evidence is out there! The people are unemployed and starving. Your nobles whore and hunt and fill their plates with meat and their glasses with wine while the common man starves in the gutter. Witnesses? You plan on signing the entire country over to the Kez next week with the Accords. You would make us all vassals to a foreign power simply to dissolve your debt.”
“Baseless claims, spoken by a traitor,” Manhouch whispered weakly.
Tamas shook his head. “You will be executed at noon along with your councillors, your queen, and many hundreds of your relatives.”
“My cabal will destroy you!”
“They’ve already been executed.”
The king paled further and began to shake violently, collapsing to the floor. The Diocel slowly made his way forward. Tamas looked down on Manhouch for a moment and pushed aside the unbidden image of a young prince, perhaps six or seven, bouncing on his knee.
The Diocel reached Manhouch’s side and knelt. He looked up at Tamas. “Is this because of your wife?”
Yes. Tamas said aloud, “No. It’s because Manhouch has proved that the lives of an entire nation shouldn’t be subject to the whims of a single inbred fool.”
“You would dethrone a God-sanctioned ruler and become a tyrant, and still claim to love Adro?” the Diocel said.
Tamas glanced at Manhouch. “God no longer sanctions this. If you weren’t so blinded by your gold-lined robes and young concubines, you’d see it is so. Manhouch deserves the pit for his neglect of Adro.”
“You’ll surely see him there,” the Diocel said.
“I don’t doubt it, Diocel. I’m sure the company will be anything but dull.” Tamas dropped the empty pistol at Manhouch’s feet. “You have until noon to make your peace with God.”
Taniel paused on the top step of the House of Nobles. The building was dark and silent as a graveyard this hour of the morning. There were soldiers stationed at intervals on the steps, at the street, and at every door. He recognized Field Marshal Tamas’s men in their dark-blue jackets. Many of them knew him by sight. Those who didn’t saw the silver powder keg pinned to his buckskin jacket. One of them raised a hand in greeting. Taniel returned the gesture and then produced a snuffbox and sprinkled a line of black powder on the back of his hand. He snorted it.
The powder made him feel vibrant, animated. It sharpened his senses and his mind. It made his heart beat faster and soothed frayed nerves. For a Marked, powder was life.
Taniel felt a tap on his shoulder and turned. His companion stood a full head shorter than he, and her body was as slight as a youth’s. She wore a full-length travel duster that filled her out only a little and kept her warm, and a wide-brimmed hat that concealed most of her features. An early spring chill filled the air, and Ka-poel came from a much warmer place than this.
She pointed up at the building above them quizzically, revealing a small, freckled hand. Taniel had to remind himself that she’d never seen a building like the House of Nobles. Six stories high and as wide as a battlefield, the center of the Adran government was big enough to house the offices of every noble and their staff.
“We’re here.” Taniel’s voice seemed unusually stark in the quiet of the early hour. “This is where his soldiers said to go. He doesn’t have an office here. Did it happen tonight? I could have picked a better time . . .” He trailed off.
He was prattling on to a mute, betraying his nervousness. Tamas would be livid when he heard about Vlora. Of course, it would be Taniel’s fault. Taniel noticed he still held the snuffbox. His hands were trembling. He tapped out another dark line on the back of his thumb. He snorted the powder and tilted his head back as his heart pumped faster. Lines in the darkness grew sharper, sounds louder, and he sighed at the comfort the powder trance gave him. He held up a hand to the light of the streetlamp. It no longer shook.
“Pole,” he said, addressing the girl. “I haven’t seen Tamas in some time. He’s a hard man to all but a close few. Sabon. Lajos. Those are his friends. I am just another soldier.” Green eyes regarded him from beneath the wide-brimmed hat. “Understand?” he said.
Ka-poel nodded briefly.
“Here,” Taniel said. He reached into the front of his jacket and removed his sketchbook. It was a worn book, ragged from use and travels, bound in faded calfskin. He flipped through the pages until he found a likeness of Field Marshal Tamas and handed it to Ka-poel. The sketch was in charcoal and smudged from wear, but the field marshal’s severe face was hard to mistake. Ka-poel studied the drawing for a moment before handing the book back.
Taniel pushed open one of the giant doors and headed into the grand hall. The place was pitch-black but for one pool of light near a staircase to Taniel’s left. A single lantern hung on the wall, and beneath it dozed a weary form in a servant’s chair.
“I see Tamas has moved up in the world.”
Taniel listened to his own voice echo in the grand hall and was satisfied to see Sabon jump from his chair. Lines stood out on Sabon’s dark face, details Taniel could only see because of the powder trance. Sabon looked to have aged ten years in the mere two it had been since they’d last met.
“I don’t like it,” Taniel added, swinging his rifle and knapsack from his shoulder and onto the plush red carpet. He bent to rub feeling into his legs after twenty hours in a coach. “Too cold in the winter, too lonely in the summer. And space like this just invites houseguests.”
Sabon chuckled as he came over. He clasped Taniel’s hand and pulled him into an embrace. “How is Fatrasta?”
“Officially? Still at war with the Kez,” Taniel said. “Unofficially, the Kez have sued for peace and all but a few regiments have returned to the Nine. Fatrasta has won their independence.”
“You kill a Kez Privileged or two for me?” Sabon said.
Taniel lifted his rifle to the light. Sabon ran his finger along the row of notches in the stock and whistled appreciatively. “Even a few Wardens,” Taniel said.
“Those are hard to kill,” Sabon said.
Taniel nodded. “Took more than one bullet for the Wardens.”
“Taniel Two-Shot,” Sabon said. “You’ve been the talk of the Nine for a year. The royal cabal has been scared stiff. Wanted Manhouch to recall you. Marked killing Privileged, even Kez Privileged, is a bad precedent.”
“Too late, I assume?” Taniel said, glancing around the dark grand hall. Else he wouldn’t be here. If all went as planned, Tamas had slaughtered the royal cabal and captured Manhouch.
“It was done a few hours ago,” Sabon said.
Taniel thought he saw a hardness to the old soldier’s eyes. “Things didn’t go well?”
“We lost five men.” Sabon rattled off a list of names.
“May they rest with Kresimir.” Even as he said it, the prayer sounded hollow in Taniel’s ears. He winced. “And Tamas?”
Sabon sighed. “He is…tired. Toppling Manhouch is only the first step. We still have the execution, a new government to establish, the Kez to deal with, starvation, the poor. The list goes on.”
“Does he foresee problems with the people?”
“Tamas foresees just about everything. There will be royalists. It would be stupid to think there won’t, in a city of a million people. We just don’t know how many or how organized they’ll be. Tamas needs you; you and Vlora both. She didn’t come with you?” Taniel glanced toward Ka-poel. She was the only other person in the hall. She’d left Taniel’s gear in a pile on the floor and was making a slow round of the place, gazing up at paintings that could barely be seen in the dim light. Her rucksack was slung over one shoulder.
Taniel felt his jaw clench. “No.”
Sabon drifted a step back and jerked his head toward Ka-poel. “My servant,” Taniel said. “A Dynize.”
“A savage, eh?” Sabon mused. “Did the Dynize Empire finally open their borders? That’s big news.”
“No,” Taniel said. “Some of the Dynize tribes live in western Fatrasta.”
“Doesn’t look more than a boy.”
“Careful who you call a boy,” Taniel said. “She can be a bit prickly about that.”
“A girl, then,” Sabon said, giving Taniel a wry glance. “Can she be trusted?”
“I’ve saved her life more times than she has mine,” Taniel said.
“Savages take that sort of thing very seriously.”
“Not so savage,” Sabon murmured. “Tamas will want to know why Vlora’s not here.”
“Let me handle that.” Tamas would ask about Vlora before he even asked about Fatrasta. Taniel knew he’d be a fool to imagine two years would have changed much. Two years. Pit. Had it been that long? Two years ago Taniel had gone abroad for what would have been a short tour of the Kez colony of Fatrasta. Time to “cool his head,” Tamas had said. Taniel arrived a week before they declared their independence from Kez and he’d been forced to pick sides.
Sabon gave a curt nod. “I’ll take you to him, then.”
Sabon lifted the lantern from its hook while Taniel gathered his things. Ka-poel drifted a few steps behind them as they traveled the dark corridors. The House of Nobles was eerie and huge. Thick carpet muffled their footsteps, so they trod almost like ghosts. Taniel didn’t like the silence. It reminded him too much of the forest when there were enemies on the prowl. They rounded a corner, and there was light coming from a room at the end of the hallway. Voices, too, and they were raised in anger.
Taniel paused in the doorway of a well-lit sitting room—the antechamber of some noble’s office. Inside, two men faced each other before an overlarge fireplace. They stood not a foot apart, fists clenched, on the edge of blows. A third man, a bodyguard, with more presence than most and the battered features of a boxer, stood off to the side, looking perplexed, wondering if he should step in.
“You knew!” the smaller man was saying. His face was red, and he stood on his toes to try to match the other’s height. He pushed a pair of spectacles up his nose, only to have them slide down again. “Tell me true, have you planned this all along? Did you know you’d move up the schedule?”
Taniel watched Field Marshal Tamas raise his hands before him, palms outward. “Of course I didn’t know,” he said. “I’m going to explain it all in the morning.”
“At the execution! What kind of a coup…” The little man noticed Taniel and trailed off. “Get out,” he said. “This is a private conversation.”
Taniel removed his hat and leaned against the doorframe, fanning himself casually. “But it was just getting interesting,” he said.
“Who is this boy?” the little man demanded of Tamas.
Boy? Taniel glanced at the field marshal. Tamas couldn’t have expected him this very night, but he didn’t show a bit of surprise. Tamas wasn’t one to betray his emotions. Taniel sometimes won- dered if Tamas had any emotions.
Tamas let out a sigh. “Taniel, it’s good to see you.”
Was it? Tamas looked anything but happy. His hair had thinned in the last two years, and his mustache had more gray than black now. Tamas was getting old. Taniel nodded slowly to the field marshal.
“Forgive me,” Tamas said after a brief pause. “Taniel, this is Ondraus the Reeve. Ondraus, this is Marked Taniel, one of my mages.”
“This is no place for a boy.” Ondraus caught sight of Ka-poel hovering behind Taniel. He squinted. “…And a savage,” he finished. He squinted again, as if unsure of what he saw the first time. He muttered something under his breath.
Tamas introduced Taniel as a powder mage. Was that all he was to the field marshal? Just another soldier?
Tamas opened his mouth, but Taniel spoke first.
“Sir,” he said. “I’m a captain in the Fatrastan army, a Marked in service to Adro, and I know all about the coup. I can kill a pair of Privileged at over a mile with one shot and have done so on several occasions. I’m hardly a boy.”
Ondraus sniffed. “Ah, yes, Tamas. So this is your famous son.” Taniel played at his teeth with his tongue and watched his father. So I am, aren’t I? It’s good of you to remind him, Ondraus. He tends to forget.
“Taniel has a right to be here,” Tamas said.
Ondraus examined Taniel for a moment. His anger was slowly replaced by a look of calculation. He took a deep breath. “I want promises,” he said to Tamas. The emotion had gone from his voice. It was all business, and there was a note of danger there far more frightening than his former fury. “The others will be as angry as I, but if you let me get my hands on the royal ledgers before the exe- cution, I’ll give you my support.”
“How kind,” Tamas said dryly. “You’re the king’s reeve. You already have the royal ledgers.”
“No,” Ondraus said as if explaining something to a child. “I’m the city reeve. I want Manhouch’s private accounting. He’s been spending like an expensive whore at the jeweler’s for ten years, and I intend to balance the books.”
“We agreed to open his coffers to the poor.”
“After I balance the books.”
Tamas considered this for a moment. “Done. You have until the execution. At noon.”
“Right.” Ondraus crossed the room, leaning heavily on a cane. He gestured the big man to follow him. They both pushed past Taniel and moved down the dark hall, their footsteps echoing on marble.
“Without so much as a ‘by your leave,’ ” Taniel said.
“The world is nothing more than figures and arithmetic to Ondraus,” Tamas said with a dismissive gesture. He motioned Taniel into the room and stepped forward. They shook hands. Taniel searched his father’s eyes, wondered if he should pull him into a hug like he might with comrades long absent. Tamas was frowning at the wall, his mind on something else, and Taniel let the thought go.
“Where is Vlora?” Tamas asked, looking curiously at Ka-poel. “Didn’t you visit her in Jileman on the way here?”
“She’s taking another coach,” Taniel said. He tried to keep his tone neutral. First thing Tamas asked. Of course.
“Sit down,” Tamas said. “There is so much to talk about. Let’s begin with this. Who is she?”
Ka-poel had set Taniel’s knapsack and rifle in the corner and was examining the room and the curtains with some interest. Her time in the cities of the Nine had been hurried, as she and Taniel had taken coach after coach, sleeping as they traveled, to arrive in Adopest.
“Her name is Ka-poel,” Taniel said. “She’s a Dynize, from a tribe in western Fatrasta. Pole,” Taniel instructed, “remove your hat.” He gave his father an apologetic smile. “I’m still teaching her Adran manners. Their ways are very different from ours.”
“The Dynize Empire has opened their borders?” Tamas seemed skeptical.
“A number of natives in the Fatrastan Wilds share blood with the Dynize, but the strait between Dynize and Fatrasta keeps them from suffering their cousins’ isolationism.”
“Does Dynize concern the Fatrastan generals?”
“Concern? The mere thought gives them heartburn. But the Dynize civil war has shown no signs of stopping. They won’t turn their eyes outward for some time.”
“And the Kez?” Tamas asked.
“When I left, they were already making overtures of peace.”
“That’s a pity. I’d hoped Fatrasta would keep them occupied for some time yet.” Tamas gave Taniel a look up and down. “I see you’re still wearing frontier clothing.”
“And what’s wrong with that? I spent all my money on passage home.” Taniel tugged on the front of his buckskin jacket. “These are the best clothes on the frontier. Warm, durable. I forgot how bloody cold Adro can be. I’m glad I have them.”
“I see.” Tamas stepped over to Ka-poel and gave her a look-over. She held her hat in both hands and boldly returned Tamas’s gaze. Her hair was fire red, and her light skin was covered in ashen freckles—an oddity unseen in the Nine. Her features were small, petite. Not at all the image of a big, savage warrior that most of the Nine had of the Dynize.
“Fascinating,” Tamas said. “How did you come across her?”
“She was the scout for our regiment,” Taniel said. “Helped us track Kez Privileged through the Fatrastan Wilds. She became my spotter, and I saved her life a few times. She hasn’t left my side since.”
“She speaks Adran?”
“She’s a mute. She understands it, though.”
Tamas leaned forward, looking into Ka-poel’s eyes. He examined her cheeks and ears as well, as one might a prize horse. Taniel wondered if Tamas would check the teeth next. Ka-poel would bite him for that. Taniel almost hoped he did.
Taniel said, “She’s a sorcerer, a Bone-eye. The Dynize version of a Privileged, though their magic is somewhat different, from what I gather.”
“Savage sorcerers,” Tamas said. “I’ve heard something about them. She’s very small. How old is she?”
“Fourteen years,” Taniel said. “I think. They’re a small-statured people, but demons on the battlefield. Not bad with a rifle either. Ah,” he said as he suddenly remembered. “I wanted to show you something.”
He pointed to his rifle. Ka-poel undid the knot holding his satchel to it and brought it to him. Taniel grinned and held the rifle out to his father.
“Is this . . . ? Is this the rifle you used for that shot?” Tamas asked. “Sure is.”
Tamas took the rifle by the barrel, flipped it up, and sighted.
“Awfully long. Good weight. Rifled bore and a covered pan on the flintlock. Beautiful craftsmanship.”
“Take a look at the name under the barrel.”
“A Hrusch. Very nice.”
“Not just the design,” Taniel said. “Made by the man himself. I spent a month with him in Fatrasta. He’d been working on it for quite some time, made it a gift to me.”
Tamas’s eyes widened. “Genuine? I’ve not seen better-made rifles. We bought rights to the patent a year ago and have been churning them out for the army, but I’ve only seen one made by the man himself.”
Taniel felt warmth at his father’s wonder. Finally something new. Something Tamas might be proud of. “The Kez tried to buy the patent too,” Taniel said.
“Really? Even though they were at war with Fatrasta?”
“Of course. The Hrusch rifle kicked their asses on the frontier. Hardly a misfire, even in the worst of weather. Hrusch wouldn’t sell it to them, not for a chest of gold and an earldom. And Kez gunsmiths can’t replicate his work.”
“No one can, not unless they’ve been trained by the man himself.” Tamas examined the rifle closely for several minutes before handing it back.
“You like it?” Taniel said.
“Remarkable.” His interest seemed to wane suddenly, his attenttion becoming distant.
Taniel hesitated. “Then you’ll like this.” He held out a hand to Ka-poel. She brought him a wooden case, a little longer than a man’s forearm and made of polished mahogany.
“A gift,” Taniel said.
Tamas set the case on a table and flipped open the top.
“Incredible,” he breathed.
“Saw-handled dueling pistols,” Taniel said. “Made by Hrusch’s oldest son—who they say is a better gunsmith than his father. Refined flintlock with a rainproof pan and a roller bearing on the steel spring. A smoothbore, but more accurate than most.” Taniel felt the warmth return as his father’s face lit up.
Tamas lifted one of the matched pair of pistols and ran his fingers up and down the octagonal barrel. Ivory inlay caught the lamplight, the polish on it shining beautifully. “These are incredible. I’ll have to provoke an insult, just so I can use them.”
Taniel chuckled. That sounded like something Tamas would do. “These are . . . wonderful,” Tamas said.
Taniel thought he saw something glisten in his father’s eyes. Was he proud? Grateful? No, he decided, Tamas doesn’t know the meaning of those words.
“I wish we had more time to talk,” Tamas said.
“On to business?” Of course. No time for chatting. No time to catch up with a long-absent son.
“Unfortunately,” Tamas said, either missing or ignoring the sar- casm. “Sabon,” he called. The Deliv appeared in the doorway. “Bring in the mercenaries.” Sabon disappeared again. “Now, where is Vlora? We need you both. Did Sabon tell you about our losses?”
“Sabon told me. Sad news. I imagine Vlora will be along eventually,” he said with a shrug. “I didn’t exactly talk to her.”
Tamas scowled. “I thought—”
“I found her in another man’s bed,” Taniel said, feeling a jolt of satisfaction at the shock on Tamas’s face. The shock turned to anger, then grief.
“Why? When? For how long?” The words tumbled from Tamas, a moment of true confusion that Taniel wondered if any had ever seen in Tamas, or would again.
Taniel leaned on his rifle and fought back a sneer. Why should Tamas care? It wasn’t his fiancée. “For several months, from the gossip. The man was paid to seduce her. Some nobleman’s son, in it for the thrill and the money.”
“Paid?” Tamas asked, his eyes narrowing.
“A scheme,” Taniel said. “Petty revenge. No doubt hatched by a wealthy nobleman.” Taniel hadn’t taken the time to find out who the culprit was, but he had little uncertainty. The nobility hated Tamas. He was commonborn and had used his influence with the king to prevent the wealthy from purchasing commissions in the army. Only the capable rose in the ranks. It flew in the face of tradition, but also made the Adran army one of the best in the Nine. The nobility feared Tamas too much to attack him directly, but they’d strike him any way they could, even through his son.
Tamas’s teeth clenched in a snarl. “I’ve arrested half the nobility this very night. They face the guillotine with their king. I’ll find out who paid, and then . . .”
Taniel suddenly felt tired. Years fighting a war that wasn’t his, followed by months of cramped traveling, only to come home to betrayal and a coup. His anger had been sapped. He thumbed a line of black powder onto his hand and snorted it. “The guillotine is enough. Save your men.” Save your anger, though Kresimir knows you have enough of it. No pity, though. None for your son, the betrayed.
Tamas rubbed his eyes. “I should have had her watched.”
“She’s free to do what she wants,” Taniel said. It came out as a snarl.
“I nailed her ring to the bastard bedding her. They’ll have had to cut him off his own sword.”
Sabon reentered the room. He was followed by a pair of disreputable-looking characters wearing the clothes of people who slept in the saddle, or on a barroom bench. One was a man, tall and lanky with a hairline that touched the back of his head, though he couldn’t have been older than thirty. He wore a belt that covered his entire stomach, carried four swords and three pistols of differ- ent sizes and shapes, and he wore the gloves of a Privileged— though instead of white with colored runes, the gloves were navy blue with gold runes. The man was a magebreaker: a Privileged who’d given up his natural-born sorcery to nullify magic at will.
The other was a woman. She looked to be in her late thirties and wore riding pants and a jacket. She would have been beautiful but for the old scar that lifted the corner of her lip and traveled all the way to her temple. She, too, wore the gloves of a Privileged, which allowed her to touch the Else. Hers were white with blood-red runes. Taniel wondered why she wasn’t in a cabal. He could sense she was strong enough even without opening his third eye.
Mercenaries, Tamas had said. These two had a look. A Privileged and a magebreaker together were a dangerous combination. They were used to hunt Knacked, Marked, and Privileged. Taniel wondered which his father had in mind.
“A Privileged escaped our cull at Skyline,” Tamas said. “Not one of the royal cabal, but powerful nonetheless. I want you three”—a glance at Ka-poel—“four to track her down and kill her.”
Tamas settled into the role of a man used to briefing his soldiers, and Taniel realized his homecoming amounted to little more than a briefing and an assignment. Off hunting another Privileged. He glanced at the two mercenaries. They had a competent look to them. Taniel had had less to work with in Fatrasta. This Privileged they meant to hunt had killed five seasoned powder mages in half a breath. She’d be dangerous, and Taniel had never hunted in a city before. He decided the challenge would keep his mind off… things.
Taniel lifted his snuffbox once more and tapped out a line on the back of his hand, ignoring his father’s disapproving look.
Nila paused for a moment to watch the fire burn beneath the big iron pot suspended in the fireplace. She rubbed her chapped hands together and warmed them over the flames. The water would boil soon, and she’d finish washing the laundry for everyone in the townhouse. There was a small pile of dirty laundry stacked by the pantry, but most of the family’s clothes, as well as the servants’ livery, had been soaking in the large vats of warm water and lye soap since last evening. They would need to be boiled, rinsed, and then hung out to dry, but first she needed to iron the duke’s dress uniform. He had a meeting with the king at ten. That was still hours away, but all of it, the washing, rinsing, and ironing, had to be done before the cooks got up to make breakfast.
The door to the washroom opened and a boy of five came into the kitchen rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Can’t sleep, young master?” Nila asked.
“No,” he said. The only child of Duke Eldaminse, Jakob was very sickly. He had blond hair and a pale face with narrow cheeks. He was small for his age, but bright, and friendlier to the help than a duke’s son ought to be. Nila had been thirteen and an apprentice laundress for the Eldaminse when he was born. From the time he could walk he’d taken a liking to her, much to the chagrin of his mother and governess.
“Have a seat here,” Nila said, rearranging a clean, dry blanket near the fire for Jakob. “Only for a couple of minutes, then you need to go back to bed before Ganny awakes.”
He settled onto the blanket and watched her heat the irons on the stove and lay out his father’s clothes. His eyes soon began to droop and he settled onto his side.
Nila dragged a large washbasin over beside the iron pot. She was just about to pour in the water when the door opened again.
“Nila!” Ganny stood in the doorway, hands on her hips. She was twenty-six, and severe beyond her age; well suited to be the governess of a ducal heir. She wore her cocoa-colored hair up in a tight bun behind her head. Even in her nightclothes, Ganny seemed more proper than Nila with her plain dress and unruly auburn curls.
Nila put a finger to her lips.
“You know he’s not supposed to be in here,” Ganny said, lowering her voice.
“What should I do? Say no?”
“Leave him be, he’s finally asleep.”
“He’ll catch a cold down here.”
“He’s right next to the fire,” Nila said.
“If the duchess finds him here, she’ll be furious!” Ganny shook her finger at Nila. “I won’t stick up for you when she turns you out on the street.”
“And when have you ever stuck up for me?”
Ganny’s lips took on a hard line. “I’ll recommend your dismissal to the duchess tonight. You’re nothing but a bad influence on Jakob.”
“I will . . .” Nila took one look at the sleeping boy and closed her mouth. She had no family, no connections. The duchess already disliked her. Duke Eldaminse had a habit of bedding the help, and he’d been looking at her more often lately. Nila didn’t need any trouble with Ganny, even if she was a bully. “I’m sorry, Ganny,” Nila said. “I’ll get him back to bed now. Do you have any clothes I can get the stains out of for you?”
“That’s a better attitude,” Ganny said. “Now . . .”
She was interrupted by a hammering on the front door, loud enough to be heard all the way at the back of the townhouse.
“Who is that at this early hour?” Ganny pulled her nightclothes tightly around her and headed into the hallway. “They’ll wake up the lord and lady!”
Nila put her hands on her hips and looked at Jakob. “You’ll get me in trouble, young master.”
His eyes fluttered open. “Sorry,” he said.
She knelt down beside him. “It’s all right, go back to sleep. Let me carry you to bed.”
She’d just lifted him up when she heard the scream from the front of the house. Shouts followed and then the hammering foot- steps running up the stairs in the main hallway. She heard angry male voices that didn’t belong to any of the house staff.
“What is that?” Jakob asked.
She set him on his feet so that he couldn’t feel her hands shaking. “Quickly,” she said. “In the washtub.”
Jakob’s bottom lip trembled.
“Why, what’s happening?”
He climbed into the washtub. She dumped the dirty laundry on top of him and stacked it high and then hurried into the hallway.
She ran right into a soldier. The man shoved her back into the kitchen. He was soon joined by two other men, then another holding Ganny by the back of the neck. He shoved Ganny to the floor. The governess’s eyes were full of fear mingled with indignation.
“These two will do,” one of the soldiers said. He wore the dark blue of the Adran army, with two golden service stripes on his chest and a silver medal that indicated he’d served the crown overseas. He began to loosen his belt and stepped toward Nila.
Nila grabbed the hot iron from the stove and hit him hard across the face. He went down, to the shouts of his comrades.
Someone grabbed her arms, another her legs.
“Feisty,” one said.
“That will leave a mark,” said another.
“What is the meaning of this!” Ganny had finally gotten to her feet. “Do you know whose house this is?”
“Shut up.” The soldier Nila had hit climbed to his feet, a swollen burn covering half of his face. He punched Ganny hard in the stomach. “We’ll get to you soon enough.” He turned to Nila.
Nila struggled against hands too strong for her. She turned to the washbasin, hoping Jakob would not see this, and closed her eyes to wait for the blow.
“Heathlo!” a voice barked.
She opened her eyes again when the hands that held her sud- denly let up.
“What the pit you doing, soldier?” The man who spoke wore the same uniform as the others, only set apart by a gold triangle pinned to his silver lapel. He had sandy hair and a neatly trimmed beard. A cigarette hung out of the corner of his mouth. Nila had never seen a soldier with a beard before.
“Just having some fun, Sergeant.” Heathlo gave Nila a menacing glare and turned toward the sergeant.
“Fun? No fun for us, soldier. This is the army. You heard the field marshal’s orders.”
“But, Sergeant . . .”
The sergeant leaned over and picked up the iron from where it lay on the floor. He looked at the bottom, then at the burn on the soldier’s face. “You want me to give you a matching one on the other side?”
Heathlo’s eyes hardened. “This bitch struck me.”
“I’ll hit you somewhere prettier than your face next time I see you try to rape an Adran citizen.” The sergeant pointed his cigarette at Heathlo. “This isn’t Gurla.”
“I’ll report this to the captain, sir,” Heathlo sneered.
The sergeant shrugged.
“Heathlo,” one of the other soldiers said. “Don’t push him.
Sorry, Sergeant, he’s new to the company and all.”
“Keep him in line,” the sergeant said. “He’s new, but I expect better from you two.” He helped Ganny to her feet, then touched his finger to his forehead toward Nila. “Ma’am. We’re looking for Duke Eldaminse’s son.”
Ganny looked at Nila. Nila could tell she was terrified. “He was with you,” the governess said.
Nila forced herself to look into the sergeant’s blue eyes. “I just carried him up to bed.”
“Go on,” the sergeant said to his soldiers. “Find him.” They left the room quickly. He remained and gave a slow look around the kitchen. “He’s not in his bed.”
“He has a habit of wandering,” Nila said. “I just put him to bed, but I’m sure he was scared by the noise. What is happening?” This was no accident. Those soldiers knew exactly whose house this was. The sergeant had mentioned a field marshal. Adro only had one man of that rank: Field Marshal Tamas.
“Duke Eldaminse and his family are under arrest for treason,” the sergeant said.
Ganny blanched and looked as if she might faint.
Nila felt her stomach tighten. Treason. Accusations like that would see the whole staff put to the question. There was no escape. She’d heard a story once of an archduke, the Iron King’s own cousin, who plotted against the throne. His family and every member of his staff had been sent to the guillotine.
“You’re free to go,” the sergeant said. “We’re only here for the duke and his family.” He stepped toward the washbasin, frowning. “You’ll want to find new employment. In fact, if you can, you should leave the city for at least a few days.” He put the cigarette between his lips and lifted a pair of trousers from the top of the washbasin.
The sergeant turned his head as another soldier entered the room.
“They find the boy?” Olem said, the washbasin forgotten. “No, but a summons came for you. From the field marshal.” “For me?” Olem sounded doubtful.
“Report to Commander Sabon immediately.”
“All right,” Olem said. He crushed his cigarette out on the kitchen table. “Keep an eye on Heathlo. Don’t let him rough up any of the women. If you have to give the boys an armful of loot to keep ’em occupied, do it.”
“But our orders—”
“The boys will break some of our orders one way or another. I’d rather they break the ones that won’t see them hanged.”
Olem took one last look around the kitchen. “Get any valuables you have here and leave,” he said. “The duke won’t be coming back for anything, either…” He touched his forehead toward Ganny and Nila before leaving.
So take what you want. Nila finished the sentence in her head.
Ganny gave Nila one quick look before she ran into the hallway. Nila could hear her feet on the servants’ stairs a moment later.
Nila fished the butler’s key from its hiding place above the mantel and unlocked the silverware cabinet. Nothing she had hidden under her mattress upstairs was worth a fraction of the silver she now piled into a burlap bag.
She waited until she couldn’t hear any of the soldiers in the hall- way and pulled Jakob from the washbasin. She helped him pull his nightclothes over his head and handed him a pair of dirty trousers and a shirt from one of the serving boys. They’d be too big, but they’d do.
“What are we doing?” he asked.
“Taking you someplace safe.”
“What about Miss Ganny?”
“I think she’s gone for good,” Nila said. “Mother and father?”
“I don’t know,” Nila said. “They’ll want you to come with me, I think.” She took a handful of cool ashes from the corner of the fireplace and mixed them in her palm with water. “Hold still,” she said, smearing the ashes in his hair and on his face. She took his hand, and with a sack full of pilfered silver over her shoulder, Nila headed out the back entrance.
Two soldiers watched the alley behind the townhouse. Nila walked toward them, head down.
“You there,” one of the men said. “Whose child is this?” “Mine,” Nila said.
The soldier lifted Jakob’s chin. “Doesn’t look like a duke’s son.” “Should we hold him till we find the boy?” the other said. “Sergeant Olem said we could go,” Nila said.
“Fine,” the soldier said. “Off with you, then. We’ve a busy night.”
Adamat took a carriage straight home from Skyline, driven by one of Tamas’s soldiers. It was a long journey, accompanied only by his worries and self-doubts as the driver navigated the quiet night streets of Adro. Adamat silently wished they could go faster. It didn’t help. The eastern sky had begun to lighten when he leapt from the carriage and pushed through the old gate and past his small garden to his front door. He fumbled with his keys, dropping them once, before he stopped to take a deep breath.
He’d seen worse than this, he told himself. It would be no worse than the riots in Oktersehn. He jammed the key in the lock and twisted, the rusted metal squeaking as he half pushed, half kicked the door open.
He took the stairs two at a time to the second floor and thumped each door as he ran down the hallway. He reached his own room and threw open the door.
His wife lifted her head from the pillow and regarded him by the light of a low-burning lamp. The shadows moved across her face, darkened by a halo of black, curly hair. “What hour is it?” she asked.
“Sometime after five o’clock,” Adamat said. He turned the lamp up and threw the covers back. “Get up. You’re going to the house in Offendale.”
Faye clutched the covers to her chest. “What’s gotten into you? What house in Offendale?”
“The one we bought when I first entered the force. In case there was ever danger to you and the children.”
Faye sat up. “I thought we sold that house. I…Adamat. What has happened?” A note of worry entered her voice. “Is this about the Lourent family? Or a new case?”
The Lourent family had hired him to look into the checkered past of their youngest daughter’s suitor. The whole affair had ended badly when he was forced to expose the man as a fraud.
“No, not the Lourent case. Bigger than that.” Adamat turned at soft footfalls in the hall. “Astrit,” he said softly. His youngest daughter held a frayed, stuffed dog under one arm. She wore her nightgown and an old pair of Faye’s slippers that were several sizes too big, and in the dim light she looked like a miniature version of her mother. She tilted her head quizzically. Adamat said, “Go get your travel coat, darling. You’re going on a trip.”
“Do I have to wear a dress?” she asked.
Adamat forced a smile. “No, love, just a travel coat over your nightgown. You’re leaving very soon. Don’t forget your shoes.”
She smiled at him and turned, skipping down the hallway, the old stuffed dog dangling from one hand. Her older siblings gave her odd looks as they began to emerge from their rooms.
“Josep,” Adamat said to his oldest son. “Get your brothers and sisters ready to go. Quickly. Get them all to pack a bag for a few weeks.”
The boy was a serious youth, just past his sixteenth year and on holiday from school. He rubbed nervously at the ring on his finger; it had been a gift from Adamat’s father before the old man passed, and the boy was seldom without it. Josep waited a moment for an explanation. When none was forthcoming, he nodded before herd- ing his siblings back to their rooms.
Good lad. Adamat turned back to Faye, who was now sitting up in bed. She ran a hand through her hair, pulling at tangles.
“You’d better have a good explanation,” she said. “What has happened? Is there danger to the children? To you? Is this about some new job you’ve taken? I told you to stop snooping after noble- men’s wives and going on about other people’s business.”
Adamat closed his eyes. “I’m an investigator, my dear. Other people’s business is my business. There will be riots. I want you and the children out of the city within the hour. Just a precaution, of course.”
“Why will there be riots?”
Damned woman. What he’d give for an obedient wife. “There has been a coup. Manhouch will face the guillotine at noon.”
He had the brief satisfaction of watching her jaw drop. Then she was on her feet, headed toward the closet. Adamat watched her for a moment. Her body was more angular than it had once been; sharp elbows and wrinkled skin in place of soft curves and a gentle, lovely plumpness. The years since his retirement from the force had taken their toll on her, and she was not as beautiful as in her youth. Adamat pictured himself. He was no one to judge. Short, balding, his round face grown leaner over the years, his mustache and beard thinner. He wasn’t exactly as young as he used to be. Still . . . he bit his lower lip as he watched Faye, entertaining actions that would need to wait some time.
She turned, saw him watching her. “You’re coming with us, aren’t you?” she said.
She paused. “Why not?”
He should lie. Tell her he had previous commitments. “I’ve become . . . involved.”
“Oh no. Adamat, what the pit did you do?”
He stifled a smile. He loved it when she swore. “Not like that.
No. Tonight’s summons. Field Marshal Tamas has a task for me.” She scowled. “Only he’ d have the rocks to pull down a king. Well, stop grinning and summon a carriage and help the children with
their shoes.” She made a brushing motion with her hand. “Go on!” Twenty minutes later, Adamat watched as his family piled into a pair of carriages. He paid the drivers and stood for a moment with his wife. “If the riots seem to be moving toward you, don’t hesitate to take the children to Deliv. I’ll come find you when things have settled down.”
Faye’s face—usually harsh, firmly disapproving—was suddenly
soft. She was young again in his eyes, a worried girl waiting for her lover to walk the midnight roads. She leaned forward and kissed him tenderly on the lips. “What should I tell the children?”
“Don’t lie to them,” Adamat said. “They’re old enough.” “They’ll worry. Especially Astrit.”
“Of course,” Adamat said.
Faye sniffed. “I haven’t been to Offendale since we went on holiday after Astrit was born. Is the house there in good order?”
“It’ll be small,” Adamat said. “Cozy. But safe. Do you remember our code phrases? The post office is in the next town. I’ll send a letter to Saddie asking her to bring you the mail.”
“Is all that necessary?” Faye asked. “I thought it was just riots.” “Field Marshal Tamas is a dangerous man,” Adamat said. “I don’t . . .” He paused. “Just as a precaution. Humor me.”
Faye said, “Of course. Take care of yourself.” Adamat returned his wife’s kiss, then leaned in the window of each carriage in turn, giving every one of the nine children a kiss, two for each of the twins. He stopped at Astrit and knelt down on the floor of the carriage to look her in the eye. “You’ll be away for a couple of weeks. The city is going to be a bit rough.”
“Why aren’t you coming?” she asked.
“I’ve got to help make it safer.” He thought of Kresimir’s Broken Promise. The words made him shiver.
“Are you cold?” Astrit asked.
He brushed a finger across her cheek. “Yes,” he said. “It’s very chilly. I’d better go in before I catch cold. Have a safe trip!”
He closed the carriage door and stood in the street, watching them trundle off until they turned a corner. He would miss Faye for many reasons. When it came to his investigations, she was more than a wife to him. She was a partner. She had a vast network of friends and acquaintances and knew how to coerce gossip to find out information that even he could not turn up.
He headed back to the house, stopping for a moment only as he saw a movement in a doorway across the street. A young man in a long, stiff coat emerged from the shadows and headed off in the opposite direction from the carriages. He spared one glance for Adamat and doubled his step.
Adamat watched the young man go, making sure the stranger felt his gaze. One of Palagyi’s goons, no doubt. Adamat would hear from him shortly. Adamat returned to the house, locking the door behind him, and went immediately to the study. He dug through his desk drawers until he found a stack of stationery.
The sun had finally touched his study window, looking in over the houses and the distant mountains, when Adamat finished addressing letters. His hand ached from writing, and his candle had burned to a nub. He yawned, letting his mind wander for a moment, when the faint scratching sound of metal on metal caught his ear.
Adamat pushed the whole stack of letters into a desk drawer and locked it. He picked up his cane and twisted until it clicked, then walked through the house, listening for the sound. He reached a rear door, small and old, that led to an overgrown trellis in what amounted to their garden between their house and the one behind it. The garden could be reached from the house itself or from a small corridor that ran between two houses, which contained a locked gate.
Adamat jerked the door open, cane in hand. Three men stared back at him. Two of them wore the faded coats and simple brimmed hats of street workers. The one’s knees and shirtsleeves were stained black— likely from shoveling coal into a furnace—and the second, the lock- pick, wore clothes much too big for him, the common practice of a street thief who wanted to secret a number of things about his person. The third man was richly dressed, a gray overcoat over a sharp black waistcoat, and had shoes shined well enough that one could check one’s teeth in them.
The lockpick gaped up at Adamat from his knees.
“You’re making enough noise, you might as well have knocked on the front door,” Adamat said. He sighed and lowered his cane and spoke to the best-dressed of the three. “What do you want, Palagyi?”
Palagyi seemed surprised to see him here. He pushed at a pair of round spectacles that rested more on his chubby cheeks than on his thin nose. The man was an oddity, with a body that would seem more at home in a circus than anywhere else. He had a round belly that hung far over his belt, but his arms and legs were no thicker than a sapling. It made him look like an oversized cannonball with sticks for arms.
He was a longtime street thug who had just enough ruthlessness to rise to legitimate businesses and not quite enough intelligence to leave his dark life behind him. Aptly suited as a banker. Adamat cataloged his criminal record in his mind in an instant.
“Word had it that you’d skipped town,” Palagyi said.
“You mean the word of that inbred you’ve had skulking around my house for the last couple of weeks?”
“I have a reason to keep my eye on you.” He seemed annoyed that Adamat was actually still there.
Adamat gave a long-suffering sigh and watched Palagyi grind his teeth. Palagyi hated when he wasn’t taken seriously. He’d changed little since he was just a half-drunk loan shark. “I’ve got two months until my debt is due.”
“There is absolutely no way you’re going to gather seventy thou- sand krana in two months. So when I hear your family is skipping town in the middle of the night, I think perhaps you’ve decided to take the coward’s way and run for it.”
“Careful who you call a coward,” Adamat said. He reversed his grip on his cane.
Palagyi flinched. “I took my last beating from you long ago,” he said, “and you’re no longer protected by the police. You’re just one of us now, an ordinary gutter rat. You shouldn’t have taken out a loan with me.” He laughed. It was a tinny sound that grated on Adamat’s nerves.
It was Adamat’s turn to grind his teeth. He’d not taken out a loan from Palagyi, but from a bank belonging to a friend. That friend proved a bad one when he sold the loan to Palagyi for nearly one hundred and fifty percent of its worth. Palagyi had promptly tripled the interest and sat back and waited for Adamat’s new pub- lishing business to fail. Which it had.
Palagyi wiped a tear of mirth from his eye and snorted. “When I learn that one of my biggest private loans has sent his family out of town just two months before his loan is due, I check on it personally.”
“And try to break into his house?” Adamat said. “You can’t clean me out and throw us onto the street until after I’ve defaulted.”
“Perhaps I got greedy.” Palagyi smiled thinly. “Now, I’m going to need to know where your family is so that I can check in on them.”
Adamat spoke through clenched teeth. “They’re at my cousin’s. East of Nafolk. Check all you want.”
“Good. I will.” Palagyi turned to go, when he stopped suddenly. “What’s your girl’s name? The youngest one. I think I’ll have some of my boys bring her back, just in case you try to slip onto one of those new steamers and make for Fatrasta.”
Palagyi had just enough time to flinch before Adamat’s cane cracked over his shoulder. Palagyi cried out and stumbled into the garden. The coal shoveler punched Adamat in the belly.
Adamat doubled over from pain. He’d not expected the man to hit so fast or so hard. He nearly dropped his cane, and it was all he could do to remain standing.
“I’ll have the police on you!” Palagyi wailed.
“Try it,” Adamat wheezed. “I still have friends there. They’ll laugh you into the street.” He regained his composure and pulled himself up enough to slam the door. “Come back in two months!” He locked the door and slid the deadbolt.
Adamat held his stomach and staggered back to his office. He’d have indigestion from that blow for a week. He hoped he wasn’t bleeding.
Adamat spent a few minutes recovering before he gathered his letters and set out into the streets. He could feel tension growing around him. He wanted to attribute it to the coming conflict that he knew would happen—the revolution that would sweep the city when Manhouch was declared dead, and the chaos that would fol- low. Adamat prayed that Tamas would keep it in check. A task that might very well prove impossible. But no, the tension was likely just Adamat’s growing headache and the pain in the pit of his stomach.
Not far from the postmaster’s, Adamat stopped on a street cor- ner to catch his breath. His stride had been unconsciously hurried, his breathing hard, a worried sense of danger lurking in the back of his mind.
A newsie lad, no more than ten, sprinted into view. He stopped on the corner next to Adamat and took mighty gasps before throw- ing his head back and shouting:
“Manhouch has fallen! The king has fallen! Manhouch faces the guillotine at noon!” Then the boy was gone, onto the next corner.
Adamat snapped himself out of a stunned silence and turned to watch others do the same. He knew that Manhouch had fallen. He’d seen the blood of the royal cabal on Tamas’s jacket. Yet hearing it spoken aloud on a public street made his hands tremble. The king had fallen. Change had been forced on the country, and the people would be forced to choose how they’d react.
The initial shock of the news passed. Confusion set in as pedes- trians changed their plans midstride. A carriage turned around abruptly in the street. The driver didn’t see the small girl selling flowers. Adamat rushed out, grabbed her by the arm, and pulled her away before the horses could trample her. Her flowers spilled into the street. One man shoved another in a sudden, hurried dash across the street and was in turn shoved to the ground. A fistfight began, only to be quickly put down by a truncheon-wielding police officer.
Adamat helped the girl pick up her flowers before she ran off. He sighed. It’s begun. He put his head down and pushed on toward the postmaster’s.