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 listened 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 pant legs 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 gardens at the black maws where the hedge mazes began and imagined 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 tightening. Perhaps they should light the garden lanterns . . .
A little part of him, the part that had once been a police inspector, 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, clattering 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 Privileged 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 murder 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.