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       In the Field Marshal's Shadow: Stories from the Powder Mage Universe, p.1
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           Brian McClellan
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In the Field Marshal's Shadow: Stories from the Powder Mage Universe


  In the Field Marshal’s Shadow

  Stories from the Powder Mage Universe

  Brian McClellan

  “Hope’s End” copyright © Brian McClellan, 2013. All rights reserved.

  “The Girl of Hrusch Avenue” copyright © Brian McClellan, 2013. All rights reserved.

  “Green-Eyed Vipers” copyright © Brian McClellan, 2015. All rights reserved.

  “The Face in the Window” copyright © Brian McClellan, 2014. All rights reserved. First published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #140 on February 6th, 2014.

  “Return to Honor” copyright © Brian McClellan, 2015. All rights reserved. First published digitally by Orbit Books, January 2015.

  All stories contained within are a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and scenarios are either products of the authors imagination or used fictitiously. All resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  Typesetting and ebook conversion by handebooks.co.uk.

  Contents

  Hope’s End

  The Girl of Hrusch Avenue

  Green-Eyed Vipers

  The Face in the Window

  Return to Honor

  Hope’s End

  Eighteen years before the events of Promise of Blood...

  Captain Verundish contemplated killing herself.

  The pistol sat in her lap, the muzzle loaded, the flint cocked and the pan primed.

  It would be a simple thing to put the barrel in her mouth, angle it upward to her brain, and pull the trigger. Some poor infantryman would have to clean the blood and bits of bone off the back of her tent—or maybe they’d just take it down and burn it. Her body would be sent back to Adro, where...

  Well, why concern herself with the details? None of it would matter to her.

  She wrapped her fingers around the butt of the pistol that had belonged to her grandfather, the grip worn and smooth to the touch, and she was glad that she had so little family left behind to mourn her. Would they mourn her after she took the coward’s way out?

  Would Genevie remember her mother?

  A letter lay on the table beside her cot. The sender was a man who legally called himself her husband, but had no further claim to that position beyond the letter of the law. Verundish wanted to burn the letter and erase everything it said.

  A familiar voice called out a greeting to someone else outside her tent. Verundish shoved the pistol beneath her pillow and brushed flecks of gunpowder off her lap just as a man threw the tent flap aside.

  Captain Constaire ducked inside, removing his hat with a flourish. He was a tall man, willow-thin with long brown hair tied back over one shoulder and the playful eyes of a prankster. He wore thick mutton chops that touched the corners of his lips and his uniform hung loosely from his wiry frame.

  He stepped over to her and bent low, kissing her on the mouth, smothering her protestations. She found herself kissing back after a moment, and far too soon Constaire pulled away, a grin on his face. “Love,” he said, “I’m just stopping by on my way to see General Tamas.”

  Verundish raised her eyebrows. “The promotion?”

  “I think so,” Constaire said. He drew up to his full height, his head pushing up the top of her tent, and mimed as if he were throwing a cape over his arm. “The next time we meet, I shall be Major Constaire.”

  Verundish leaned back on her cot and regarded the man. “You’re a fool.”

  “But you love me anyways.”

  “I’m not a smart woman.”

  He paused, as if he sensed something amiss. “Verie?”

  She gave a slight shake of her head to warn him off asking. He ignored her.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Tell me. Was it another letter?” his eyes went to the envelope on the table beside her cot. “That bloody bastard! What does he want this time? Is Genevie all right?”

  “It’s nothing,” Verundish said quietly. Constaire was not making this easy. Better if she had no lover, no one to worry over her death. It would make things simple. She took a deep breath and reminded herself that this was only a soldier’s love. Eventually, the campaign would end and they’d both return home. Constaire would find a younger woman, and Verundish would go back to a cold house with a hateful husband.

  Well. She wouldn’t have to go back if she killed herself.

  Constaire threw himself to one knee. “Divorce him,” he said. “Marry me. I’m about to be made major. We could return to Adopest and take Genevie away from that monster.”

  Oh, this fool. He only twisted the knife. “You’re not serious.”

  “I am. Deadly so.”

  If only it were so easy. But life, as her mother had always told her, was never easy. “He wants a divorce even more than I do,” Verundish said.

  “Perfect! Apply for a divorce and marry me.”

  “You know who my father is?”

  Constaire seemed taken aback. “He’s a priest, I think you said.”

  “Yes. He’s the priest who married us, and he’d have to sign the papers to authorize my divorce.”

  Constaire’s face fell and he rocked back from his knees into a sitting position on the floor of her tent. “And he doesn’t believe in divorce. Is that it?”

  “He thinks it’s a sin against Kresimir. He thinks it is better I weather this marriage of mine, with a husband who cheats and steals and lies and threatens to beat my daughter, than go through with a divorce.”

  “I’m sorry to say it, my love, but your father is a fool.”

  “I know. I’ve told him that to his face. Now you’ll be late to see the general. You better go.” She leaned forward and touched his knees, then ran a thumb across his cheek. “Come back when you’re finished and we’ll celebrate.”

  Constaire left the tent with the spry step of a young man whose world was covered in gold. Verundish kept the smile on her face until he was gone, and then let it slide away like a weathered mask.

  She picked up the letter and read the last paragraph.

  Your father will still not grant us a divorce. I intend to wed my mistress by the end of the year. Either ensure our divorce or kill yourself. If I’m not rid of you within three months I will sell the girl to a Starlish slaver.

  She had no idea how much time had passed, but Verundish was still staring at the letter when she heard Constaire’s voice call her name from outside the tent. She stirred, and registered the distant thump of Adran artillery as it pounded the Gurlish stronghold of Darjah. She could hear the clamoring of her fellow soldiers as they prepared the evening meal.

  She had meant to be wearing considerably less when Constaire returned. She struggled to bring a smile to her face. It was the least she could do.

  Wait. Something was wrong. Constaire never called her by her full name. He was the only one in the army with the gall to call her ‘Verie.’ He was the only man in the army she would allow to do so. And she couldn’t remember the last time he had asked before entering her tent.

  “Come,” she said.

  Constaire lacked his normal smile, and his eyes were sightless and haunted as he slipped inside. Verundish had seen a similar look on men who had lost a limb to cannon fire or watched a friend gunned down beside them.

  “What’s wrong?” she said, tucking her own troubles into the back of her mind. Time enough to shoot herself later tonight, after Constaire had left.

  “May I sit?” he asked. His eyes didn’t meet hers.

  Verundish remembered all of the times he had swept into her tent and taken her in hi
s arms, throwing them both down onto the cot in a fit of laughter. Her concern deepened. “Of course.” She straightened the blankets, and as she did she slid the loaded pistol beneath her pillow to a better hiding spot under her cot.

  Constaire lowered himself onto the cot beside her. She took his hand, noting the way his tender white skin contrasted so deeply with the black roughness of her fingers. Constaire had never worked a day in his life, but Verundish did not hold it against him. It was his carefree attitude that had attracted her in the first place.

  “They’ve chosen me to lead the Hope’s End against Darjah,” Constaire said.

  Verundish’s breath caught in her throat. “No. I thought you were being considered for promotion!”

  “If I survive, I’ll be a major.” The ghost of a smile crossed his lips and disappeared. He bent his head forward as if to pray.

  Hope’s End. The leading charge against an enemy’s stronghold. The first through the breach—facing fixed bayonets, cannons, and sorcery. Members of the Hope’s End rarely survived the first volley, let alone the capture of the fortress itself.

  “There’s nothing you can do?” Verundish asked.

  Constaire shook his head. “The order came directly from General Tamas. I think,” his eye twitched, “that he does not like that my father bought me this commission.”

  General Tamas was infamous for his belief that rank should be earned, not bought. He often put nobles in a place of danger in order to test their mettle. His stance had benefited the commoners beneath his command, and the men loved him for it. But this was going too far. Constaire would die.

  “Why a Hope’s End? Why now?”

  Constaire examined his boots. “Field Marshal Beravich has ordered the city taken immediately. I can’t imagine what threats he holds over General Tamas’ head.”

  “When will it be?” Verundish asked.

  “Three days from now. We’ll redouble our artillery until then. The Privileged say that they’ve found a weakness in the wall and will exploit it with sorcery the night of the attack. It will form a breach just large enough for us to enter the fortress.”

  Verundish leaned back on her cot. The Privileged sorcerers, with their powerful elemental magic, might indeed be able to finally cause a breach in the wall. Yet a Hope’s End was a common enough tactic. The Gurlish would be ready.

  “I should run,” Constaire said.

  “They’ll brand you a coward.”

  “I’d rather be a living coward than a dead hero.”

  Verundish squeezed his hand. “You won’t get far. You know how General Tamas feels about deserters. He’ll catch you and hang you, and you’ll be both dead and a coward.”

  “I can get away,” Constaire said. “I have friends...” he trailed off, as if considering his course of action.

  “Don’t do it,” Verundish said.

  A flicker of doubt crossed Constaire’s face.

  “Spend the night,” Verundish said. “And promise me that you won’t do anything rash until tomorrow.”

  She took Constaire in her arms, thinking she might have a solution for both of their problems.

  General Tamas was not a man to cross.

  The son of an apothecary, he was the first commoner to ever achieve the rank of general in the Adran army. The people adored him, and the king respected him. He was both a tactician and a fighter, and the only powder mage in the all the Nine to hold such a lofty position.

  It was said that even the king’s cabal of Privileged sorcerers feared him.

  They were right to do so. Powder mages could imbibe common gunpowder to make themselves stronger and faster than normal men. They could use their sorcery to float a bullet across an entire battlefield, killing their target at a mile or more. They were some of the most efficient and capable killers in the army.

  It was the morning after Constaire had come to Verundish. She stood at attention in the corner of Tamas’ command tent with her hands at her sides, legs together, and back straight. The general bent over a large table with a map of the Gurlish terrain smoothed flat beneath his hands. His eyes scanned the yellowed paper for several minutes, his lips moving slightly as he did figures in his head.

  “This map,” he said, breaking the silence of over fifteen minutes, “is almost two hundred years old.”

  “Sir?” Verundish said.

  “Two hundred years old, captain. We have the greatest army in the entire world, and we can’t get an updated map of the bloody area. Is there something you needed, captain?”

  Verundish opened her mouth to speak, only for Tamas to cut her off.

  “Darjah is one of the oldest fortresses in all of Gurla. The walls are laced with protective sorcery, the ground around the foot of the fortress thick with wards that could kill a man to step on them.” Tamas pushed himself away from the table and began to pace one end of the tent.

  “Field Marshal Beravich has given me just half a brigade and only four Privileged sorcerers. A hundred men could hold Darjah against us, and the shah hiding back there has over a thousand. And seven Privileged. Seven!”

  Tamas dropped into a chair at one end of the tent and cocked his head at Verundish. “Beravich loves watching me fail. Doubly so because it happens so infrequently. He doesn’t care how many men have to die in order for that to happen. Now, what did you want to see me about?”

  Why would Tamas tell her all of this? Most officers would find it unprofessional to speak so candidly to one of lesser rank. Verundish cleared her throat.

  Tamas held up a finger, cutting her off again. “I should tell you that I’ve had soldiers come through here all morning petitioning me to rescind my order that Captain Constaire lead the Hope’s End. I know you’re his lover. I don’t care how popular the man is, he’s leading the charge. Everyone around here has to put their life on the line sometime. Now is that what you came here about? To waste my time?”

  The last thing Verundish wanted to do was exacerbate Tamas’ already foul mood. She fought down the urge to fight with him.

  “Not at all, sir. I’ve come to offer myself as Constaire’s replacement.”

  The chair creaked as Tamas leaned back, stroking his black mustache thoughtfully. For a moment Verundish thought she could see his thoughts turning behind his stern brown eyes as he reevaluated her.

  “Intriguing,” he said, getting to his feet. “You’re a smart, brave young officer. You’ll likely advance through the ranks over the coming years as you prove your worth. Constaire, on the other hand, is a fop. He has no value to me. Why the pit would I let you die in his place?”

  Young, he’d called her, though as a man in his forties, Tamas couldn’t be more than a decade her senior.

  “Because I volunteered,” Verundish said, “And you know that a volunteer will more effectively lead the charge.”

  “Is that a challenge I hear in your tone, captain?” Tamas asked. “No, don’t answer that. I always hated it when a superior officer made me choose between dishonesty and my pride. I won’t do it to you.” He paused to clean bits of black powder from beneath his nails. “Perhaps I have orders from my superiors that Constaire lead the charge.”

  Verundish felt her heart beat a little faster. An order like that would only come from Field Marshal Beravich or from the king himself. Was Constaire involved in some kind of plot? Or had he been made a pawn in some nobleman’s maneuverings?

  “I don’t, of course,” Tamas said, waving away the thought with a small smile. “Can I ask why, beyond some misguided sense of affection for that fool, you would sacrifice your life for Constaire?”

  “Sometimes, sir, the attack succeeds. If it does, I’ll be up for immediate promotion. I’ll be a hero, sir.”

  “That’s awfully optimistic,” Tamas muttered. He stood up, indicating that the meeting was over, and said, “I’ll take it under advisement, captain. You’ll have your answer by this evening.”

  Verundish went through the rest of the day in a fog.

  She had a way
out. In two days she would lead a Hope’s End through the breach and into the face of musket fire and Privileged sorcery where she would be killed almost instantly. She would die a hero’s death and be given a hero’s burial, and Genevie could take pride in the mother she barely knew.

  Her hated husband would release Genevie into the care of Verundish’s father and mother, and she would receive Verundish’s ample pension for the rest of her life.

  If General Tamas gave her leave to lead the charge.

  She was walking through the camp, reviewing her company, when Constaire found her.

  He took her firmly by the arm, not saying a word, and steered her behind the relative privacy of a colonel’s pavilion tent.

  “What are you doing?” she demanded, shaking off his grip.

  “No,” he hissed. “What do you think you’re doing?”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  Constaire’s face was red with anger. In four years of campaigning together, she had never seen him so furious. “I’ve just been informed by General Tamas that you volunteered to take my place at Hope’s End. I won’t allow it!”

  “There’s nothing you can’t allow me to do,” she said.

  “You think me a coward?” Constaire stamped his foot. It was a terribly childish thing to do, and Verundish wondered if perhaps he needed practice being angry. “You think that I can’t do it? Why would you do something like this?”

  She thought of all the reasons she could give him and put her finger to his lips. He was a coward, but that wasn’t the right thing to say at this moment.

  “I don’t think you’re a coward,” she said. “But I know that this isn’t something you can do.”

  “You would die in my place?”

  His face was so raw in that moment that Verundish wondered if he had really meant it when he offered to marry her. She had assumed it was brash declaration, with nothing of substance to back it up. Soldiers didn’t marry each other. The chance that one of them would die was just too great.

  “I would,” she said. She didn’t tell him that she would surely die by her own hand if not at the weapons of the Gurlish.

 
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