Return to honor, p.2
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       Return to Honor, p.2

           Brian McClellan
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  “Vlora,” Verundish said sharply.

  Vlora’s hands were wrapped in Emerson’s jacket, her arms shaking with rage. She could barely see through a cloud of red.

  “Vlora,” Verundish repeated, louder this time.

  Vlora let out her breath and released her grip, stumbling backward. The whole room was staring at them. She’d assaulted an officer in front of dozens of witnesses. Even if she was on Tamas’s good side, she might not have gotten away with it. Now…

  Verundish caught her by the arm. “Time for you to step outside,” she said.

  “Yeah,” Vlora muttered. She suddenly felt very small and far away, like she was looking at her actions from another place and time. How could she let herself be provoked like that?

  Vlora allowed herself to be escorted to the door, where Verundish took her by the shoulders and forced her to meet her eyes. “I’ll see what I can do to clean this up. Go on. Don’t worry about this trash. You’ve got work to do. If anyone can help you find Wohler, it’s Olem. Tell him I sent you.”

  * * *

  The Giggling Pig was a large whorehouse down where the Ad River flowed into the Adsea, just north of the docks in Adopest. Vlora had been in a few seedy parts of the city—either exploring with Taniel or on assignment for Tamas—but she usually stuck to the streets. She only had to open the door to see this was going to be a whole new experience.

  Soldiers lounged about the great common room with prostitutes of both sexes, all in various states of undress. Like the officers, the infantry preferred to spend the night in vice when they knew they were shipping off the next day. The drink flowed freely and dice rattled. Raucous laughter filled the room, and it smelled of beer and sex.

  Vlora took a deep breath of outside air and stepped inside. She half expected the whole room to freeze, turning to look at her, like when the villain steps on stage during a comedic play. But the only person who seemed to notice her was a tiny old woman in a rough-spun dress and apron.

  The woman’s head bobbed in a half curtsy, taking in Vlora’s rank insignia and silver powder-keg pin with sharp eyes. “Good evening, Captain,” she said. “My name’s Madame Gourina, and welcome to the Giggling Pig. What’s your pleasure this morning?”

  Vlora licked her lips, wondering when was the last time she shared a bed. Oh, right. That asshole she let seduce her, putting her in this whole mess. “I’m looking for Captain Olem,” she said.

  “And who can I say is looking for him?”

  “Captain Vlora.”

  Gourina gave her a pained look. “Captain Olem? I haven’t heard of him.”

  “Excuse me? You just asked…”

  “I’m old and addled, Captain. You’ll have to excuse me, I must not have heard you at first. Now, if there’s not something I can get for you, I really must see to my other patrons.”

  Vlora snorted. Did she have a reputation that reached even into this shit hole? Or… “You can tell him that it concerns Field Marshal Tamas.”

  Gourina seemed to perk up at that. “Well, now. Why didn’t you say so? I’ll go see if he’s around.”

  Vlora didn’t wait for the old woman to come back and find her. She followed her toward one of the many back rooms, waving pipe smoke from her face. Olem, it seemed, couldn’t be bothered if it didn’t have to do with Tamas. Not that Vlora blamed him. He had only been made Tamas’s bodyguard and aide in the last few months. He had Tamas’s ear, and that meant that everyone who wanted anything from Tamas probably came looking for him.

  Gourina went down a passage at the back of the room, then knocked on a door before entering. Vlora stole up the hallway after her. She feared what she’d see inside, but she’d already come this far. An eyeful of the captain wouldn’t kill her.

  She was surprised to see a rather spacious room with a round table and half a dozen men and women quietly playing cards. The room was lit by a fireplace and a handful of torches. There were two privates, a sergeant, a pair of lieutenants, and Captain Olem with his back to the open window, a cigarette hanging from his bottom lip.

  Olem was a man of medium height, in his mid-thirties, with a pleasant, boyish face made serious by a neatly trimmed beard, though military regulation forbade anything but a mustache and muttonchops. He had a reputation as a soldier’s soldier, preferring to take food and recreation with the men rather than with the officers, and of course there was his Knack, which kept him from needing sleep.

  Vlora imagined he played a lot of cards.

  Olem’s head was tilted, listening as Madame Gourina whispered in his ear. He glanced toward where Vlora watched from the hall. A smile crossed his face—the kind a man gets when he tells himself a joke in his head—and he lifted a hand to Vlora, gesturing her inside.

  Vlora squeezed past Gourina.

  “Beer for the captain,” Olem called after Gourina as the madam left. “Unless you’d like something else? I don’t recommend the Starlish vodka. Tastes like troll piss.”

  “Beer is fine,” Vlora said. “Thank you.”

  The card game had stopped. Six sets of eyes stared at her expectantly, and Vlora was suddenly afraid of a repeat of what had just happened in the officers’ mess. Olem broke the silence. “Care to join us?”

  One of the lieutenants, a middle-aged woman with short hair, cleared her throat. “We’ve got a full table.”

  “Room for another chair,” Olem said, shooting her a glance.

  “No thank you, really,” Vlora replied, eyeballing the lieutenant. “I just needed to see you briefly, if I may.”

  Olem nodded, raising one finger. He squinted at his cards for a long, silent moment, then tossed one of them down on the table faceup.

  “Son of a bitch,” the sergeant said, tossing his own cards down in disgust.

  The crack of a smile appeared on Olem’s face. He gathered a handful of coins from the middle of the table and scooped them into a pile in front of him. “I’ll be back for the next round.”

  Vlora followed him out into the hallway, where Madame Gourina brought them both a glass of beer. The glasses were dirty and the beer bitter, but somehow it tasted better than what she’d been drinking at the officers’ mess.

  “Step into my office,” Olem said, kicking open the door across the hallway. He stopped, made a face, and said, “Let’s go down the hall.”

  Vlora caught a whiff of some ungodly smell before following Olem to an empty room near the end of the corridor. He opened the window and ashed his cigarette out it, then sat on the rumpled bed, gesturing for Vlora to take the chair.

  “Thank you,” Vlora said, sipping her beer. “You know, I expected a little better out of a man of your reputation.”

  Olem’s eyebrows rose, and Vlora immediately cursed herself silently.

  “I’m sorry,” she said quickly. Powder mages didn’t get drunk, not like other people. But that didn’t mean a third beer had been a good idea. “That didn’t come out like I meant it to.” She once again felt herself going red. Here she was again, wasting more time. Tamas’s message had been clear—she wasn’t getting any help. No sense in even looking for it. “Sorry, I should go…”

  The shadow of a smile appeared on Olem’s lips. “No, no. I’m curious where you’re going with this.”

  “Look, I’m sorry, it’s just…” she trailed off.

  “Go on,” Olem said. The smile grew. She expected it to turn cruel or condescending, but it touched his eyes in a way that said he was laughing with her and not at her.

  Vlora looked around. Well, she was here, wasn’t she? Might as well dig her grave a little deeper. “The whorehouse. You’ve got a reputation as a gentleman. Private in your, er, affairs.” Pit, she didn’t even know if he was married.

  “I come here for the company, not for the whores,” Olem said.

  “I thought the whores were the company in a place like this.”

  “They’re better people than you think, but I’m here for the infantry. Far more fun to play cards with people in that room over t
here”—he jerked his head—“than with anyone at the officers’ mess. There are exceptions, certainly, but…”

  “Like Colonel Verundish?”

  Olem nodded. “Like Verundish. You know her?”

  “We’ve been friends for a few years. Took me under her wing when I started taking soldiering seriously. She’s the one who recommended I come find you, actually.”

  “Oh? So what kind of help are you looking for?”

  He didn’t question her coming to him, even though he knew better than anyone that she was on Tamas’s shit list. Vlora silently thanked him for that. “I’ve got an assignment to find a man named Wohler. He was the head of Charlemund’s personal guard until the villa, and now he’s on the run. Tamas wants him brought in.”

  “And the field marshal sent you to me?”

  “No, that was Verundish. Tamas, well, he made it clear I’m not getting any more help.”

  Olem cocked one eyebrow. “Oh?”

  “Look, I wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t for Verundish. She said you might know where the guards are hiding out in the city. I honestly don’t have any idea where to start, and…”

  “And?” Olem urged.

  “And I have to leave to join Tamas on the front in two days. If I fail, Wohler gets away.”

  Olem took a drag on his cigarette, found it had gone out, and relit it with a match. Smoke curled out his nose, his eyes narrowed, and he stared thoughtfully at a spot over Vlora’s shoulder. The silence dragged on for nearly a minute as he puffed hard, smoking the cigarette down to his fingertips before discarding it.

  “Look,” Vlora said to break the silence, “I don’t want to put you in a position of going against Tamas.”

  “This Wohler,” Olem said as if he hadn’t heard her. “You’ve asked after any friends or relations he may have in the city?”

  “Yes,” Vlora said. “I interrogated his captured compatriots and asked around at a dozen different chapels. He doesn’t have anyone he would go to ground with.”

  “Everyone has someone,” Olem mused.

  “Not everyone,” Vlora said quietly.

  Olem glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She was going to hate him if there was pity in his eyes, but he merely rolled a new cigarette and held it out to her.

  “Don’t smoke,” she said.

  He shrugged and lit it for himself. He stared up at the ceiling for a moment before his face lit up. “Attached to a retinue a thousand miles from home. The man’s going to have a mistress.”

  “You think so?”

  “He’s a captain in the Prielight guard. He certainly will have the money for one. If he doesn’t drink or gamble with anyone else, then he has to have a woman somewhere in the city.”

  It made sense. Vlora slowly nodded, a flutter of relief in her stomach. “It’s worth a try. I’ll go ask around.”

  “You’ll need help,” Olem said. “Two days isn’t much time. We better get moving.” He left the room before she could say another word.

  Back in the card room, Olem gathered his coins. “I’m out for the night, friends,” he said. “Duty calls.”

  “Tomorrow night?” the sergeant asked.

  “Plan on it. I’ll send word if I can’t. See you all then. And Filly, stop picking your damn teeth every time you have a shit hand.”

  The group chuckled, and Olem stepped back into the hallway, pulling the door shut behind him.

  “You don’t have to leave your game,” Vlora said.

  “This sounds more important,” he replied.

  “Really, I can manage on my own. I was told I wasn’t getting any more help.”

  Olem shrugged. “It’ll be unofficial, then. Things are always easier with two. Let’s go find out where Wohler takes off his boots.”

  * * *

  Six hours later, Vlora stood in a doorway across the street from a cobbler’s shop in one of the more affluent parts of West Laden, a district of Adopest. It was nearly two and a half days since she last slept. Her hands trembled and her eyelids felt heavier every minute, and she had to take progressively more powder every hour to keep from collapsing.

  The mistress, it turned out, owned the cobbler’s shop. Only one of the captured church guards had known about her, and he’d been reluctant to give up the information. Olem had helped persuade him.

  Vlora wanted nothing more than to kick down the door and rush inside, but Olem had insisted they do things right and had rushed off to see another one of his friends.

  She checked her pocket watch. Ten after noon. She’d give Olem another fifteen minutes before she headed inside.

  Afternoon traffic was heavy as everyone sought to get their daily errands done before the storm that had been threatening for almost two days finally broke. Vlora could tell it was going to be a big one, with thick sheets of rain that rivaled the monsoons in Gurla. The old soldiers called it a hundred-year rain.

  More than one company of Adran soldiers passed her on their way out of the city. No one recognized her in her civilian clothes, hat pulled down and greatcoat buttoned against the wind. Vlora was thankful for that. She’d not heard anything else about her conflict with Major Emerson, but when she next reported for duty, she couldn’t imagine anything less than a formal reprimand. Would Tamas strip her of her rank?

  She thrust the thought from her mind as Olem slipped out of the crowd and joined her in the doorway, flashing a folded piece of paper.

  “Warrant,” he said by way of explanation. “New government regulations requires us to have one of these for entry into a civilian’s home.”

  Vlora was impatient to be through the doors of the cobbler shop, either to lay hands on Wohler or to question his mistress. “Why bother?” she asked.

  Olem seemed taken aback. “We’re not savages. We want the people to trust us, not fear us.” He snorted. “How would you like someone bursting into your place of business with no more authority than a common thief?”

  “I wouldn’t like anyone of any authority bursting in,” Vlora said. “But I don’t mind doing the bursting.”

  “Double standard,” Olem countered. “Are you ready?”

  Vlora unbuttoned her greatcoat to reveal the two pistols and the sword at her belt. By the bulkiness she saw under Olem’s coat she guessed he carried the same.

  “You sense any powder in there?” Olem asked.

  Vlora closed her eyes, reaching out with her sorcerous senses toward the cobbler’s shop. She moved down into the cellar and up into the second floor, where the owner likely lived. “Powder charges upstairs,” she said. “Could be Wohler, but it could also just be a pistol the mistress keeps for protection. If either of them tries to use it, I’ll suppress the ignition. Ready?”

  Olem nodded, and Vlora led the way across the street.

  A bell rang as Vlora pushed open the door. The main floor of the building was one large room with two windows in the front and a staircase leading upstairs tucked into one corner. The room was a workshop with benches and shelves, and hundreds of pairs of shoes in various stages of repair, each of them carefully tagged with a name and date.

  A woman with long dark hair, wearing trousers and an apron, sat next to one of the benches with a pair of shoelaces in her hands. She looked up, a word of welcome dying on her lips as Vlora drew her pistol.

  “Cobbler Karin?” Vlora asked.

  The woman threw her hands up, scrambling backward. Vlora leapt forward and caught her by the wrist, twisting it around behind her with one hand and shoving her against the workbench.

  “Where’s Wohler?” she demanded.

  “I don’t know who you’re talking about!”

  “Captain Wohler, where is he?”

  Olem drew his pistol and ran upstairs. Vlora heard his footsteps up there, her senses attuned to the powder she’d sensed earlier, waiting to suppress the shot if someone was waiting in ambush. Olem returned a moment later, shaking his head.

  Vlora leaned forward, her mouth next to Karin’s ear. “Where
,” she said, “is he?”

  The woman shook her head. She was trembling.

  “Let her up,” Olem said.

  Vlora opened her mouth to protest, but Olem’s scowl silenced her. She released Karin’s wrist and stepped back. “Sit down,” she told her.

  Karin returned to her seat and looked up at the two of them.

  Olem said gently, “We’re soldiers in the Adran army. My name is Captain Olem, this is Captain Vlora. We have a warrant here for Captain Wohler’s arrest.” He took the folded paper from his pocket and handed it to Karin.

  “If you’re soldiers, where’s your uniforms?”

  Vlora produced her silver powder-keg pin. Karin’s eyes narrowed. “What are the charges?” she asked, raising her chin. She rubbed her wrist and shot Vlora a glare, having apparently recovered from and now resenting the manhandling.

  “Treason,” Vlora snapped.

  “It wasn’t treason!” Karin said. “He didn’t choose to be part of Charlemund’s guard. It was an assignment.”

  “During which he arranged an ambush that saw dozens of Adran soldiers killed.”

  “I don’t believe you,” Karin said.

  “Maybe it was just an assignment,” Olem said with a quiet, reassuring voice. “But now he’s carrying documents of national importance that could do a great deal of damage to the war effort. We have to bring him in.”

  Vlora chewed on the inside of her cheek. She could see the calming effect Olem’s demeanor had on the girl. Doing her best to level her tone, Vlora said, “We’d prefer to bring him in alive. If he tries to flee, we can’t guarantee his safety. Do you know where he is?”

  The bell on the door interrupted whatever Karin was about to say.

  “We’re closed,” Vlora said over her shoulder. “Come back tomorrow.” She cast a quick glance toward the door, then returned her gaze to Karin.

  Karin stared at the doorway, so Vlora took another look.

  A man in his early forties stood there in a greatcoat and tricorn hat. There was a piece of bread in his mouth and a pie in one hand. His eyes were wide at the sight of Vlora and Olem, and he reached for his sword with his open hand.

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