Return to honor, p.1
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       Return to Honor, p.1

           Brian McClellan
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Return to Honor


  Return to Honor

  A short story in the world of the Powder Mage Trilogy

  Brian McClellan

  www.orbitbooks.net

  www.orbitshortfiction.com

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  Return to Honor

  Captain Vlora stood the first honor watch over the grave of her fallen comrade.

  She could feel the cool breeze of a summer storm blowing away the heat of the day. The small graveyard with its high brick walls cast deep shadows in the moonlight, but a sprinkling of black powder on her tongue gave her catlike vision. Powder mage sorcery enhanced her senses, calmed her nerves, sharpened her reflexes, but right now she just wished it would help her forget.

  Vlora wore her dress uniform—dark Adran blues with silver buttons, red trim, and a silver powder-keg pin. Her rifle rested on her shoulder, a pistol and sword at her belt, and arms and shoulders at attention. The breeze tugged at her black hair pulled back in a tight braid.

  The gravestone was a marble monolith nearly six feet tall, tapered to be slightly thinner at the top. It bore a stamp in the likeness of her own powder-keg pin and the name Special Commander Sabon.

  She felt a grimace cross her face.

  Sabon. The man who, nine years ago, had first noticed her as a little orphan girl with an unnatural inclination toward guns, and had directed Field Marshal Tamas to seek her out. The man who had been like an uncle to her—a little distant, like Tamas himself, but always willing to show her a new trick with gunpowder or switch between the roles of friend and superior officer as needed.

  She could still remember looking out the window of her carriage and seeing the first shot of the ambush blow Sabon’s brains across the gravel drive of Charlemund’s villa. She could close her eyes and hear the screams of soldiers caught in the initial volley, remember how her heart had thundered in her ears as she fled, dragging a wounded soldier toward cover.

  She wished that Charlemund had not been captured. That he was still out there so she could find him and wrap her fingers around his throat and make him suffer for all the lives his betrayal had cost.

  She wanted to take the next few weeks to grieve properly for Sabon, but she did not have that luxury. Not with a war on. The most she could do was stand a four-hour vigil at his graveside.

  The whine of the iron cemetery gate brought Vlora back to the here and now. She lifted her eyes to find a figure standing just inside the wall. He was a tall man in his sixties with gray hair and a mustache. He wore a uniform that matched hers, save for the golden epaulettes on his shoulders, and he carried a bicorn hat under one arm.

  Vlora fought to keep herself outwardly calm. Sabon had been the field marshal’s closest friend, but she expected Tamas to avoid the grave during her watch.

  “Good evening, sir,” Vlora said.

  Tamas didn’t answer. He came to stand beside the monument, looking down at the mound of earth. He remained in silent contemplation for nearly five minutes, still as any of the obelisks in the graveyard, before he seemed to notice her presence.

  “I have work for you, Captain,” he said tersely, without a word of greeting.

  Their relationship had been more than strained since the end of her engagement to Tamas’s son. The brusqueness was expected, but it still stung. To have a man she once considered her adoptive father behave so coldly, even in private, kept Vlora up at night.

  “Sir?” she asked.

  “I’m leaving for the front in the morning,” he said.

  “I’ll have my things ready to go,” Vlora said.

  “You’re not coming yet.”

  Vlora swallowed. She didn’t like the sound of that.

  “A Prielight guard escaped the battle at the villa,” Tamas said, glancing down at the grave. “A man named Wohler.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Wohler means to go to the enemy with all of the intelligence that Charlemund gleaned during the meetings of my council, including troop movements and supply records. We’re not entirely sure how much information he has, but we know it has some value. I want you to find him. Capture him. Secure that intelligence and then join me at the front in a week.”

  “Are you certain you want me on this, sir?” Vlora had no delusions. She was one of Tamas’s best powder mages, invaluable on the battlefield. To have her hunting spies seemed like a waste of her talents.

  Tamas made fists with both hands. She could see him trembling. “Taniel is in a coma. The enemy knocks on our southern gates. I can barely stand the sight of you, yet here I am. Yes, it’s important.”

  Vlora avoided meeting his eyes. “Yes, sir. Sir, the ambush at the villa was a week ago. Wohler may already be over the border.”

  Tamas visibly brought himself under control. “Our borders are closed, and Wohler is a cautious man. He’ll be waiting for the fighting to start so he can sneak over in the chaos.” Vlora opened her mouth, but Tamas seemed to have anticipated her next question. “It’s important,” he said, “but I can’t spare any more men. You are completely on your own.”

  Vlora did some mental math. If he wanted her to join him at the front in a week, that only left her three days to find Wohler. “And if I fail?”

  “Then so be it,” Tamas said simply. “The war will go on, and the enemy will have a new advantage.” Tamas turned on his heel and left Vlora alone to finish her watch in the graveyard.

  She watched him leave and worked to steady her breathing. Three days until she could head to the front, where she would arrive either with an extra notch on the stock of her rifle or empty-handed.

  This mission would give her a chance to clean up after the villa, to give Sabon’s death some kind of meaning. If she read Tamas right—and she had known him for many years—this was an olive branch. Perhaps a test of sorts, a chance to win her way back into his good graces.

  She had better not fail.

  * * *

  Vlora could count the number of people she considered friends on one hand. She’d been a loner as a child, and through her teens she’d never really needed anyone but Taniel. It was four in the morning, a full twenty-four hours after receiving her assignment, and she was wishing she had spent a little more time developing other relationships.

  She had wasted the entirety of the last day canvassing the city for any sign of Wohler, only to find out the man—like her—had no friends in Adopest. All his known associates had been members of Charlemund’s guard and were either dead or captured, and none of the captives knew where he might have gone to ground. His wife and family lived in Brudania. Vlora had exhausted every lead she could think of.

  Which brought her to the officer’s mess in downtown Adopest. The mess was surprisingly busy at this hour of the morning. Most of the officers were shipping to the front within twenty-four hours with their commands. The room was filled with the sound of drunken laughter, heated conversation, and gambling—soldiers enjoying their last hurrah before heading toward the front.

  The tables nearest the door went silent as Vlora passed. She tried not to notice, giving a few of the men a thin smile, and headed over to the bar, where the barkeep eyed her silver pow
der-keg pin before pouring her a beer.

  She turned around and leaned against the bar, letting her eyes roam over the large room with its vaulted ceiling, crimson drapes, and white tablecloths. It was lit by half a dozen chandeliers, the fireplaces roaring to take off the chill of the approaching storm.

  The occupants of more than one nearby table noticed her gaze and they none-too-subtly pulled in an open seat or even glared back at her, openly hostile.

  She told herself that they weren’t worth her time. She had work to do, and nothing was going to distract her from it.

  She found the person she was looking for at the other end of the room, sitting at a small table by herself, an open book in her hands. Vlora drained her beer, ordered two more, then threaded her way through the tables.

  Colonel Verundish was a striking woman with black skin and long, straight black hair. She wore a white shirt, unbuttoned at the collar and cuffs, her uniform jacket hanging over the back of her chair. She looked up over the top of her book as Vlora took the empty chair across from her and set both glasses of beer on the table.

  “Hi, Verie,” Vlora said.

  “That’s Colonel Verundish to you, Captain,” Verundish responded coldly. Her eyes went back to the book in her hands.

  That hurt. Vlora closed her eyes and took a deep breath, fighting off the urge to leave. Would it be so bad to fail this assignment? Surely Tamas would have put more men on it if he really thought Wohler had intelligence of importance.

  Would her success even gain her the approval she desired?

  Giving up would be the easy way out. She would only fall even further in Tamas’s eyes and—perhaps more importantly—in her own.

  “Colonel Verundish,” Vlora said. “I need your help.”

  Verundish turned a page. “I’m surprised you’re showing your face around here after what you did to Taniel.”

  “I suppose it’s too much to hope that there’s anyone in this Kresimir-damned army that doesn’t know?”

  “That you cheated on the field marshal’s son? Everyone’s favorite powder mage, who just so happens to be on the verge of death?” Verundish snorted.

  Vlora stared at her glass, feeling the anger boil in her blood. This was a waste of time. She had no friends here. “Not that it’s anyone’s goddamn business.” Her voice rose sharply at the end, and Vlora found herself gripping the edge of the table. She was trembling.

  The outburst drew enough glances to make Vlora’s cheeks grow warm. She stood up. “But yes,” she continued calmly, “I did do that. It was a foolish, juvenile mistake that has cost me the respect of everyone I hold dear.” She turned to go.

  Verundish sighed and set down her book. “Sit down.”

  “No, it’s fine,” Vlora said. “Forget I was here.”

  “Sit. Down.”

  Against her better judgment, Vlora returned to her seat. She gripped her glass to keep herself from shaking with anger.

  Verundish noticed the extra beer Vlora had brought her and picked it up. “Everyone makes mistakes,” she said, letting out a sigh, the cold demeanor softening a little. “I’ve made a few myself. What do you need?”

  Vlora drained the rest of her second beer to give herself courage. “I’m looking for someone,” she said. “A Prielight guard by the name of Captain Wohler.”

  “Sounds familiar.”

  “It should. He was the head of Charlemund’s personal guard.”

  Verundish turned and spit at the mention of the name. “Traitorous sack of shit.”

  “Agreed,” Vlora said. “Wohler escaped the battle at the villa, and he’s got a whole case of army intelligence that he’s going to hand to the enemy. I have three—sorry, two days to find him and capture him.”

  Verundish idly flipped the pages of her book with the fingers of her right hand, drumming the fingers of the left on her glass. “I don’t know where he is,” she said. “And believe me, I’d tell you if I did. Everyone in this room wants to get a hold of one of Charlemund’s men after what happened to Commander Sabon. Anyone who escaped has been keeping out of sight.”

  “Shit,” Vlora said.

  “My guess is the Prielight guards are hiding in some church cellar. Maybe even Kresim Cathedral. Any place that will give them sanctuary.”

  “Think they’ll stick together?”

  “Wouldn’t you, if the city suddenly turned hostile?”

  “No,” Vlora said. “I’d ditch everything I owned and hide out in plain sight.”

  “Yeah, well, you were tutored by Tamas. Normal people don’t think like that. Normal people are like sheep. They huddle.”

  Vlora nodded unhappily. If Wohler was hiding out with a group of his compatriots, he might be easier to find, but capturing him would be a whole other story.

  “When do you leave for the front?” Vlora asked.

  Verundish shook her head. “No time soon. I’m on special assignment with a few squads. I’ll be staying in the city.”

  “If I can find Wohler,” Vlora said, suddenly hopeful, “could you give me a squad of your men to help me bring him in?”

  Verundish considered this for a moment, then reached around and pinched the shoulder of her uniform jacket. “See this?” The jacket had a pin with a chevron over a powder horn. Vlora had seen a couple of those around, but she didn’t know what they meant.

  “I’m part of Captain Olem’s new Riflejacks,” Verundish said. “Special company that reports directly to Field Marshal Tamas. I can’t pull those men away from their duty.” She paused, barking a quiet laugh. “Not unless you’ve got seventy-five thousand krana on you.”

  “Seventy-five?” Vlora asked. “That’s your price, eh?”

  Verundish waved her glass. “Everyone has one.” She paused, waited a beat, then chuckled. “I joke, I joke.”

  Vlora had the feeling it hadn’t been entirely in jest. But even if Verundish were serious, where would Vlora get that much money?

  “Really,” Verunish said, “I wish I could help.”

  Vlora swore to herself. Verundish had been her best shot. There was no one else around who would help her without a direct order from Tamas, and he had made it clear she wasn’t getting help. Which meant she had to locate a company of Prielight guards and then carve through them herself in the hopes of finding Wohler. Even for a powder mage, it sounded like a good way to get killed.

  “Well,” Vlora said, tapping her empty glass. “Me too. I better get moving. Thanks anyway.”

  “Wait,” Verundish said.

  Vlora paused halfway out of her seat, then lowered herself back down.

  “He probably won’t lend you any men,” Verundish said, “but if anyone can find where the Prielights are hiding, it’ll be Captain Olem. I’d suggest you see him.”

  “Olem? He’s Tamas’s personal bodyguard. You think he’d help me?”

  Verundish shrugged. “Olem’s a good man. Try him. Never hurts to ask.”

  Yes, Vlora said to herself. Yes it does. She lifted her head to scan the room. “Is he here?”

  “Pit, no. Olem doesn’t like officers’ messes. They make him uncomfortable. He’ll be at the Giggling Pig over on Flatfoot Lane.”

  “That’s the worst bar name I’ve ever heard.”

  “It’s not a bar. It’s a whorehouse.”

  Of course. Where the regular infantry spent their time. Vlora opened her mouth to protest the earliness of the hour when she remembered that Olem’s Knack—his minor sorcery—was that he needed no sleep, a fact that made him an ideal bodyguard for Tamas.

  Vlora was trying to think of another excuse to not ask Olem for help when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up, and then up some more into the bloated red face of a major wearing the red-striped Adran blues of a dragoon. The man’s jacket was undone, and he smelled of whiskey and sweat. Vlora sought to remember his name. Emerson. Major Emerson.

  “Captain Vlora, you are not welcome here,” he said, pausing between words so that he didn’t slur.

&nb
sp; Vlora opened her mouth. She had been about to say she was just leaving, but a spike of anger had broken through her carefully measured calm. She felt her eye twitch. She would take this shit from Taniel’s family and closest friends, but Emerson wasn’t one of them. Just some idiot trying to curry favor with the field marshal by publicly humiliating her.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I’m an officer in the Adran army. I am as welcome here as you.”

  Emerson drew himself up. “I shall show you the door.”

  “No,” Vlora said, looking pointedly at the hand on her shoulder. “You won’t.” She removed a powder charge from her pocket and bit the end, the sulfuric taste of the powder spilling out onto her tongue. She felt a surge of energy and a heightened buzz as her senses sought to take in every smell, sound, and sight in the room all at once. She mentally brought the powder trance under control and stared up at the major.

  “I said you should leave,” Emerson slurred.

  “I’ll leave when I’m damn well ready.”

  “I am your superior officer,” Emerson said. “I order you to leave.”

  “And I’m a powder mage. Field Marshal Tamas is my superior officer. Remove your hand, or I will remove it for you.”

  Through the whole exchange, Verundish had remained quiet. At Vlora’s threat she stood up and took Emerson by the arm. “Go sit down, Major,” she said. “You’re drunk.”

  Emerson jerked his arm from Verundish’s grip and tightened his own on Vlora’s shoulder. His whole body trembled. “Remove yourself, or I will throw you out the door.”

  Vlora reached up and grabbed Emerson by the front of his shirt. She kicked out with one foot, knocking his knee sideways, and brought his face down onto the table with enough force to knock the wind out of an ox. He bounced with a drunken shout, somehow still conscious, and struggled to reach for her.

  Vlora leapt to her feet and hauled Emerson up to his, holding him by both lapels, then slammed him down into the table. She was half his size, but the powder trance would allow her to manhandle five men just like him. A second thumping took the fight out of him completely.

 
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