Wrath of empire, p.1
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       Wrath of Empire, p.1
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           Brian McClellan
Wrath of Empire


  orbitbooks.net

  orbitshortfiction.com

  Copyright

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

  Copyright © 2018 by Brian McClellan

  Author photograph by Emily Bischoff

  Cover design by Lauren Panepinto

  Cover art by Thom Tenery

  Cover copyright © 2018 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  Map by Isaac Stewart

  Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact permissions@hbgusa.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  Orbit

  Hachette Book Group

  1290 Avenue of the Americas

  New York, NY 10104

  orbitbooks.net

  First Edition: May 2018

  Orbit is an imprint of Hachette Book Group.

  The Orbit name and logo are trademarks of Little, Brown Book Group Limited.

  The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

  The Hachette Speakers Bureau provides a wide range of authors for speaking events. To find out more, go to www.hachettespeakersbureau.com or call (866) 376-6591.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been applied for.

  ISBNs: 978-0-316-40726-7 (hardcover), 978-0-316-40724-3 (ebook)

  E3-20180309-JV-PC

  Contents

  COVER

  TITLE PAGE

  COPYRIGHT

  DEDICATION

  MAPS

  PROLOGUE

  CHAPTER 1

  CHAPTER 2

  CHAPTER 3

  CHAPTER 4

  CHAPTER 5

  CHAPTER 6

  CHAPTER 7

  CHAPTER 8

  CHAPTER 9

  CHAPTER 10

  CHAPTER 11

  CHAPTER 12

  CHAPTER 13

  CHAPTER 14

  CHAPTER 15

  CHAPTER 16

  CHAPTER 17

  CHAPTER 18

  CHAPTER 19

  CHAPTER 20

  CHAPTER 21

  CHAPTER 22

  CHAPTER 23

  CHAPTER 24

  CHAPTER 25

  CHAPTER 26

  CHAPTER 27

  CHAPTER 28

  CHAPTER 29

  CHAPTER 30

  CHAPTER 31

  CHAPTER 32

  CHAPTER 33

  CHAPTER 34

  CHAPTER 35

  CHAPTER 36

  CHAPTER 37

  CHAPTER 38

  CHAPTER 39

  CHAPTER 40

  CHAPTER 41

  CHAPTER 42

  CHAPTER 43

  CHAPTER 44

  CHAPTER 45

  CHAPTER 46

  CHAPTER 47

  CHAPTER 48

  CHAPTER 49

  CHAPTER 50

  CHAPTER 51

  CHAPTER 52

  CHAPTER 53

  CHAPTER 54

  CHAPTER 55

  CHAPTER 56

  CHAPTER 57

  CHAPTER 58

  CHAPTER 59

  CHAPTER 60

  CHAPTER 61

  CHAPTER 62

  CHAPTER 63

  CHAPTER 64

  CHAPTER 65

  CHAPTER 66

  CHAPTER 67

  CHAPTER 68

  CHAPTER 69

  EPILOGUE

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  BY BRIAN MCCLELLAN

  ORBIT NEWSLETTER

  For Zina Petersen and Grant “The Boz” Boswell.

  My two favorite college professors, both of whom managed to teach stress-free but interesting classes about subjects I still think about ten years later.

  PROLOGUE

  Orz stood at the bottom of a narrow flight of steps, head tilted toward the light streaming in from the open hatch above him. He could hear gulls calling above and feel the gentle rocking of the ship as it sat in harbor. Both sensations had become ubiquitous to him these last few months.

  “Go on,” a voice said.

  Orz looked over his shoulder at the morion-helmed soldier standing just behind him. The soldier held a short pike, a ceremonial weapon carried by some of the bone-eye bodyguards. Orz wondered where they were—what port had the floating prison sailed into this time. More importantly, he wondered which bone-eye had come to gawk at him now.

  Bone-eyes were not unlike Privileged; their vast power was contained within fragile human bodies that could be broken as easily as any ceramic vase. Bone-eyes could die. This bodyguard could die. Orz envisioned himself stalking through the ship, murdering everyone in his path before swimming to shore and disappearing into the countryside.

  “We don’t have all day,” the soldier behind him said, thrusting the blade of the pike against the small of Orz’s back. “Move.”

  Orz snorted and took the first heavy step, careful lest the weight of his chains cause him to lose his balance and tumble backward onto the soldier’s blade. He jangled as he climbed, feeling the iron shackles scrape against his bare skin, and within a few moments he stepped out into the light of day for the first time in months.

  He blinked, trying to let his eyes adjust, but was shoved along in front of the soldier. Several other guards arrived, forming a cordon around him, pushing and prodding him along the deck, half-blind, and then up another flight of stairs to the ship’s forecastle.

  Orz felt a hand on his shoulder and jerked away, turning toward the railing and gazing through the pain of the light at an unfamiliar shore. A city rose above him, high on an immense plateau covered in strange buildings. He felt his breath catch in his throat; during the long, secluded journey he had thought they were taking him to a new prison somewhere in Dynize.

  This was not Dynize. This city, this plateau—he knew only one like it in the storybooks: Landfall.

  He was not given further opportunity to wonder. Hands grasped him by the chains and pulled him forward, driving him to the other edge of the forecastle, where he was kicked to his knees. He fell without a sound, ignoring the pain as he had been taught, and instead raised his eyes to find the bone-eye he’d already guessed had called for him.

  Orz had never met the old man sitting straight-backed on a stool, sipping from a tiny porcelain cup, but he knew him by description and reputation. Ka-Sedial was the emperor’s second cousin and chief adviser, and most people in Dynize knew him as the true power behind the crown. He was a bone-eye who had risen to power on a tide of blood and taken credit for ending the Dynize civil war.

  Orz was not impressed. As a dragonman, he was not impressed by much.

  Ka-Sedial finished his tea and handed the cup to an attendant, then placed his hands palms-down on his knees and stared out to sea. Orz began to think that he was being purposefully ignored when he heard a commotion behind him: another person, wrapped in chains similarly to Orz, was dragged up to the forecastle and thrown to her knees.

  Then another was brought up, and then another, until six men and women knelt before Ka-Sedial. Orz examined his companions. He only recognized two of them, but all five were covered in inky black tattoos, their bodies hard as granite. They were like him.

  Six dragonmen, all in one place.

  “This is
an auspicious gathering,” Orz said softly.

  Ka-Sedial finally turned his head, sweeping his gaze across all the prisoners. When he spoke, his voice was gentle, forcing Orz to strain to hear him over the creaking of the ship and the squawking of the gulls. “Do you know what you all have in common?”

  They were all dragonmen, but Orz suspected that was not the answer Ka-Sedial sought. Orz looked one way, then the other, at his five companions. The woman to his left had long, dirty red hair that covered most of her face, but he remembered the scar across her left eye. Her name was Ji-Karnari, and seven years ago she desecrated a bone-eye temple for reasons he never learned. The man to his right, willowy and small of stature, was named Ji-Matle. Nine years ago he was assigned to guard one of the emperor’s cousins, whom he bedded.

  No one spoke up, so Orz cleared his throat. “We have all disgraced ourselves in the eyes of the emperor.”

  “Very good.” Ka-Sedial stood up, and Orz couldn’t help but smile at how old and frail he looked. He could snap Ka-Sedial like a twig, if not for these chains. Ka-Sedial noticed the smile and his brow wrinkled. He took a step over to Orz. “Tell me, Ji-Orz, what was your crime?”

  Orz closed his eyes, thinking of the last few years spent in this dungeon or that, every movement restricted, always watched, like a prize dog gone rabid whose masters could not bear to put him down. “I did not bow during an audience with the emperor.”

  “And why did you not bow?”

  “Because he is not my emperor.”

  Ka-Sedial gave an almost grandfatherly sigh and gestured toward the shoreline and the city on the plateau. “The civil war is over. Your false emperor is dead and the governments of both sides have reconciled. We have turned our wars outward—as is proper—and we have come to Fatrasta to reclaim land that was once ours. We have come to find our god, and we have done so together. United.” He sighed once more, shaking his head like a disappointed teacher, and Orz found himself annoyed that after all he and his companions had suffered, Ka-Sedial would treat them all like children.

  “Why are we here?” Orz asked.

  Ka-Sedial looked down at him, a hint of disgust in his eyes, then raised his hands toward the chained dragonmen. “You have all disgraced yourselves in the eyes of the emperor, and your positions as dragonmen prevent us from spilling your blood. Every one of you will live long lives alone in the darkness, left to rot away.”

  “Or?” Orz asked. He could smell it now—the scent of an option, a way out. He tried to think of what he knew about Ka-Sedial. The Ka was a driven man, cold and thoughtful but given, from time to time, to rage. He’d built his power by destroying or subjugating all that opposed him. He was a man who did not take no for an answer, and did not leave any enemy standing.

  Annoyance flashed briefly across Ka-Sedial’s face at Orz’s interruption. He lowered his hands. “Or you can redeem yourselves. My armies have taken Landfall. We will take Fatrasta in due time. Meanwhile, I have an errand that needs to be run and I cannot spare any of the dragonmen, Privileged, or bone-eyes in my army.”

  The invasion of Fatrasta had been planned for almost a decade, but Orz still found himself surprised that it had actually happened—that the treaty between the two sides of the civil war had managed to hold long enough for this to happen. He needed more information about the invasion—what kind of people had been found in Fatrasta, their weapons and their warriors. But that would come later, he was sure of it.

  Ji-Karnari, the scarred woman beside Orz, finally raised her head. Orz could see the eagerness in her eyes and couldn’t help but judge her. Dragonmen should hide their emotions better.

  “What is this errand, Great Ka?” Ji-Karnari asked. “How can we be redeemed?”

  Ka-Sedial put his hand out, brushing his fingertips along Ji-Karnari’s forehead. She shuddered at the sensation. He said, “There were … humiliations suffered in the taking of Landfall. Humiliations against the army, and humiliations against the dragonmen. I have already sent soldiers to deal with the former, but the latter …” He trailed off, smiling coldly. “One of your order—one of the very best dragonmen by the name of Ji-Kushel—was murdered in Landfall by a common soldier.”

  “So?” Orz asked. He felt emboldened. This was a way out now, and Ka-Sedial was going to give it to him. But he did not trust Ka-Sedial, and he would ask questions. “Many common soldiers have killed dragonmen. There are overwhelming numbers or lucky shots, or—”

  “In single combat,” Ka-Sedial cut him off.

  Orz heard his teeth click together as he quickly shut his mouth. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He’d heard rumors of powder mages, sorcerers who might have the speed and strength to kill a dragonman with the aid of their magic. But Ka-Sedial would have said so if it was one of those. For a common soldier to kill a dragonman in single combat? That was a humiliation.

  Ka-Sedial looked toward the land again, one hand twitching as if in impatience. “I do not stand for such humiliation. This soldier is an old warrior and, if given time, may attract followers. He may become even more dangerous than he already is. I am cutting you loose. All six of you. I want you to work together, with Ji-Karnari in command.”

  A smile crossed Ji-Karnari’s face. Orz resisted the urge to roll his eyes. A small part of him wanted to spit on Ka-Sedial’s feet and tell him off, but a much larger part had no interest in spending the rest of his life in chains. He would accomplish Ka-Sedial’s task, and then he would revel in his freedom.

  “Who is this soldier?” Orz asked.

  “He is a lancer by the name of Ben Styke,” Ka-Sedial replied. “Find him and bring me his head.”

  CHAPTER 1

  As a child, General Vlora Flint had heard stories of refugee camps formed during the Gurlish Wars. Whole cities displaced, a million people on the run from enemy armies, or even forced from their homes by their own soldiers. The camps, she’d been told, were places of untold suffering and misery. Disease and starvation were rampant, bodies left unburied, and the people living in constant fear of the next army to come upon them.

  Vlora, in all her nightmares, had never imagined herself de facto leader of such a camp.

  She stood on a gentle rise overlooking the Hadshaw River Valley and surveyed the long, winding string of wagons, tents, and cookfires that stretched into the distance. It was early morning, the air heavy and humid, and all she could think about was the numbers that her quartermasters had brought her just an hour ago. They’d finished their counts and estimated that over three hundred thousand people had fled Landfall—just over a third of the city—and that of those, some two hundred and twenty thousand were following this river valley toward Redstone.

  Her own men, including the Mad Lancers and the Landfall garrison, had been badly mauled during the defense of the city. She had less than ten thousand men under her command, just one soldier for every twenty-two people.

  How in Adom’s name was she going to organize this mess, let alone protect it?

  She pulled herself out of her own head and looked at the camp below her. She could pick out her soldiers walking up and down the river, waking people up, telling everyone it was time to get moving. Three weeks since the Battle of Landfall and disease was already beginning to spread; many of her own soldiers had contracted dysentery. Food and medicine were in short supply. Most people had left the city in a panic, grabbing valuables rather than necessities, and fled without plan or destination.

  She inclined her head slightly toward the man waiting patiently beside her. Olem was of middle height, a few inches taller than her, with sandy hair and a graying beard. He walked with a slight limp, and his right arm was still in a sling from a bullet wound from Landfall. He was a Knacked—possessing a singular sorcerous talent that kept him from needing sleep—but even he looked tired as piss, with crow’s-feet in the corners of his eyes and his face gaunt with worry. She wanted to order him to rest, but knew he’d ignore her.

  She wasn’t entirely sure what she’d do
without him.

  “Any sign of the Dynize?” she asked, turning from her view of the refugees to look back down the river the way they’d come. Landfall was about sixty miles to their southeast, and the road that direction was dotted with stragglers. Her own army was camped here, guarding the rear of the refugee convoy.

  Olem sucked on a cigarette, smoke curling out of his nostrils, before giving a measured response. “Scouting parties,” he said. “They’re watching us leave. But I imagine they’re too busy solidifying their hold on Landfall to bother coming after us. For now.”

  “You know,” Vlora said, shooting him a sour look, “you could leave off the ‘for now.’ It just sounds ominous.”

  “I never try to give you anything but the facts,” Olem responded, straight-faced. “And the fact is they’re leaving us alone. I can’t imagine it’ll last forever. I’ve got our dragoons sweeping our rear, trying to catch one of those scouting parties, but they’ve come up with nothing so far.”

  Vlora swore inwardly. She needed to know the state of the city. She and her men had won the Battle of Landfall, only to be forced to abandon it at word of an even bigger Dynize army on the way. Last she knew, that army had begun to land near the city, and she had no intelligence since then. How big was that army? Were they pushing outward aggressively? Were they taking their time to fortify the city? Did they have more Privileged sorcerers and bone-eyes?

  Beyond food and supplies for so many people, the next most valuable commodity was information. She needed to know whether the Dynize were hot on her heels. She also needed to know if the Fatrastan Army was heading this direction, because that offered its own set of complications. “Any word from Lindet?”

  Olem pursed his lips. “Nothing official. We’ve taken in nearly two thousand Blackhats. None of them seem to have orders, or know of the falling out between you and their Lady Chancellor. I’ve put them to work as a police force among the refugees.”

  Olem’s ability to keep even the biggest army occupied and organized never failed to amaze her. “You’re a saint, but keep a close eye on those Blackhats. Any of them could be Lindet’s spies. She may have left town two steps ahead of us, but if she didn’t leave eyes and ears to keep track of me, I’ll eat my hat.”

 
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