Return to honor, p.4
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       Return to Honor, p.4

           Brian McClellan
 
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  “Quite so,” Olem replied cheerfully.

  They were coming up beside the chapel and the lookout was eyeing them just a little too keenly. One hand itched toward the pistol hidden beneath his coat.

  Vlora turned suddenly to Olem and got on her toes, kissing him. Olem’s eyes went wide, and when Vlora pulled away, she said, “Let’s get married!” in a loud voice.

  The lookout made a sound in the back of his throat—a strangled laugh at the look on Olem’s face, perhaps—and studied his boots.

  Vlora dropped the pistol she had hidden up her sleeve, catching it by the barrel. Her swing took the lookout in the side of the head before he could call out, and he slumped to one side.

  Vlora wiped the blood off the butt of her pistol. Behind her, Olem rubbed his lips. “Well, that took me by surprise.”

  “Him, too,” Vlora said. The two other cabs pulled up in front of the church and Adran soldiers poured out. They fixed bayonets to their rifles, trying to keep the pans dry against the rain. Vlora readied her own rifle. “Fifteen seconds!” she said above the sound of rain hitting the cobbles.

  The soldiers spread out, three on each side of the front door, the rest moving along the north side of the chapel and taking up positions below the windows.

  Vlora reached out with her senses, taking stock of the powder inside the chapel. There was plenty of it in there—at least a hundred charges and several powder horns. She guessed there were as many as ten Prielight guards inside. None of the powder was moving, which meant they weren’t falling into position for an ambush.

  “Five, four,” Vlora counted down, tensing.

  Vlora’s powder mage senses picked up a sudden shout from the other side of the chapel, and then the unmistakable sound of soldiers scrambling inside. Olem’s men had tipped off the lookout around back.

  “Shit,” Vlora said. “Now!”

  She slammed one shoulder into the door, only to find it barred from one side. A vision of disaster flashed through her mind—of Olem’s men around back being overwhelmed and killed, of Wohler and his compatriots fleeing, of a running chase in the street that took more lives.

  Olem stepped up beside her. “One, two!”

  Vlora set her feet and the two of them slammed into the door together. It burst inward, and Vlora leveled her rifle as Olem’s soldiers streamed in behind her.

  She took in the building—the chapel was one large room, with pews in the middle and an altar to Kresimir at the front. The pews had been covered in blankets to form makeshift beds. Eight men and women, some of them still wearing the purple of the Prielight guard, scrambled for their weapons.

  Vlora detonated the powder of the first Prielight to snatch up her pistol. The crack of the blast rang in her ears and the woman stumbled back with a scream, clutching the remains of her hand.

  Glass broke as Olem’s men shattered the windows along the side of the chapel and thrust the barrels of their rifles through the openings. The blast of a rifle went off in Vlora’s ear, and a second Prielight guard stumbled and fell, sword half-drawn. Olem kept his smoking rifle raised, bayonet forward.

  The rest of the Prielight guards froze in their places.

  The entire entry had taken fewer than five seconds. Vlora searched the room, and panic set in. she didn’t see her target.

  He had to be in here somewhere. Maybe in a cellar? Hiding behind the altar? Unless he’d gone out the back before the ambush, or managed to slip out just as they arrived.

  “Where’s Wohler?” Vlora demanded.

  “Right here.”

  Every sense pricked as Vlora felt the tip of a blade press ever so gently against her throat. Her breathing grew shallow and she fought the urge to jerk back, not trusting her reflexes to be fast than Wohler’s. She’d seen what he could do with that sword.

  Out of the corner of her eye she could see that Wohler had been concealed by the door as it burst open. No one had swung to cover that side of their approach. Sloppy. Wohler was still half-behind the door now, his arm extended to press the tip of his sword against her throat.

  “I can kill every one of your men before you kill me,” she said.

  “Detonating their powder?” Wohler asked. “Certainly. But they’re not my men. Just church guards.” Vlora reached out with her senses. Wohler didn’t have an ounce of powder on him.

  “Sir,” one of Olem’s men outside the side windows shouted. “I have a clear shot.”

  Vlora could feel the tip of the sword tighten against her throat.

  “Stand down,” Olem shouted. “Damn it, I said stand down!”

  “Drop your rifle, woman,” Wohler said.

  Vlora lowered her rifle to the floor.

  “Have your men drop their rifles,” Wohler said to Olem.

  Olem snorted. “That’s not going to happen.”

  “I’ll kill her,” Wohler said.

  “And we’ll kill you,” Olem responded coldly. “And we’ll make sure it takes a very long time. Nobody wins that way.”

  Wohler sneered. “You have a proposal?”

  “Give us the intelligence you took from Charlemund’s estate and we’ll let you walk free,” Olem said.

  “Like pit we will,” Vlora said. “He killed Sabon.”

  Wohler ignored her. “Bloody Charlemund hasn’t brought me anything but trouble. You can have the intelligence. You swear on your honor as an officer?”

  “I do,” Olem said. “None of my men will come after you.”

  Vlora felt the prod of the blade and had to take a step to the side to keep from being skewered. Wohler forced her into the middle of the room as he came out from behind cover, the two of them moving together. Wohler, his blade still in place and his eyes on Olem’s soldiers, bent over one of the pews. He lifted a thick case and threw it to Olem’s feet.

  “Olem,” Vlora said, “I don’t like this.”

  Olem picked up the case and leafed through the papers inside. “You don’t have to like it, Captain,” he said. He nodded to Wohler. “I gave my word as an officer. You can go, Captain Wohler.”

  Vlora’s body trembled with anger. How could Olem let this man walk free? Did he really think her life was worth letting Sabon’s killer get away? She watched for a break in Wohler’s focus, but his sword blade was unwavering.

  Wohler directed Vlora’s movement again with the tip of his blade. He grabbed his jacket and threw it over one shoulder, then took his hat and forced Vlora between Olem’s soldiers and out into the rain.

  They walked together out into the street and down to the end of the block. Vlora waited for the pain of the thrust, for Wohler to take his chances with killing her and making a run for it. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Olem’s soldiers watching their retreat from the door of the chapel.

  “Wohler!” Olem’s voice called.

  Wohler stopped. He peered back through the rain.

  “Wohler,” Olem repeated. “I gave you my word that none of my men would come after you. I forgot to tell you: Vlora isn’t one of my men.”

  Vlora let her right leg drop out from beneath her and brought her left arm and shoulder up, slapping the blade away from her throat. The fingers of her left hand grasped the hilt of his small sword. Wohler jerked back, sawing the blade along her arm, slicing through her jacket and into the flesh. She knew that to let go would allow him to bring the tip around to thrust at her chest.

  Instead, she jerked on the hilt, bringing Wohler to her. She slammed her right fist into the side of his face. The blow should have broken his jaw, but it glanced off and the two of them stumbled together, tripping on the curb.

  Wohler’s forehead connected with Vlora’s nose. She felt a crack, and tasted the blood streaming down her chin. Wohler rolled away from her, slipping from her grasp. He slashed halfheartedly toward her as he leapt to his feet, then dashed down the street.

  She wasn’t going after him unarmed, and he knew it.

  Instead, Vlora sprinted for the chapel.

  She burst p
ast Olem and the soldiers, ignoring Olem’s worried inquiry, and snatched up her rifle before heading back into the street.

  She looped the rifle over her shoulder and hauled herself up the metal gutter of the chapel, her left arm slippery with blood, staring up into the black sky. The rain was coming down in sheets as she gained the roof, scrabbling up the slick tiles until she reached the apex.

  Her hat had fallen off in the climb, and she had to wipe water out of her eyes. Her left arm was torn up by Wohler’s sword, so she propped it lamely on the apex of the roof and lay the barrel of her rifle across it, sighting down the street the way Wohler had gone.

  She stared into the gloom, worried she’d taken too long.

  “Come out, you bastard.”

  There he was, emerging from an alley four streets over, running for the cover of the next building. He was over three hundred yards away. An easy shot for a powder mage in good conditions. But against a moving target, in the rain and the gloom? Vlora took an extra sniff of powder, willing all of her focus on the running figure. He’d reach the next alleyway and be out of her vision in thirty paces.

  Twenty-five.

  Twenty.

  Fifteen.

  Vlora remembered the first time she ever shot in the rain. Target practice when she was thirteen, up near the King’s Forest. She had trembled with anxiety, worried about disappointing Tamas. Sabon had stood next to her, the rain dripping off his hat, and whispered for her to focus on her breathing.

  Vlora didn’t pull the trigger—the powder in the pan was already soaked. She set off the dry powder in the barrel directly with her mind, then focused on the flash in the barrel, stabilizing the bullet with her sorcery, letting the energy of the powder charge carry it forward. It cut through the rain, covering the distance in a moment’s time, then blew through Wohler’s left ankle.

  Vlora let the muzzle of her rifle drop and watched as Wohler gave out a cry and fell to the ground.

  She wasn’t giving him the luxury of an easy death.

  * * *

  Vlora was awoken by the swish of her blinds being thrown open, and the cruel morning sunlight stabbed her eyes about half a day sooner than she would have liked. She wiped the drool of the side of her mouth and lifted herself onto her elbows, squinting over her shoulder.

  “Who the pit is it?”

  “Olem,” a voice said.

  She rolled over, clutching the sheet to her chest, and held up a hand against the light. The smell of cigarette smoke pricked her nostrils. “Olem?”

  “That’s what I said. Looks like you had quite a party last night.” Olem stood by the window, dressed in his uniform, hat under one hand.

  Vlora looked around at the piles of clothes and discarded wine bottles. Her head pounded, and she couldn’t remember much of anything after dragging Wohler screaming through the streets and delivering him to the Adopest police. “It takes a lot to get a powder mage drunk,” she said.

  Olem lifted one of the bottles and held it to the light. He swirled the contents and sniffed it, then took a swig.

  Vlora tossed the sheet away and reached for her pants, pausing to smile when Olem turned hastily away from her nudity. She pulled on her shirt and boots, then stood up and ran her fingers through her hair, trying to make herself presentable. Olem offered the half-empty wine bottle. She took it with a word of thanks and took a large gulp.

  Foul.

  “What’s going on?” she asked. “We caught Wohler, didn’t we?”

  “That we did. Good work. The intelligence is secured and Wohler will be talking to our boys about any of Charlemund’s other secrets he may be privy to.”

  “So, uh, what are you doing here?

  “I thought you might like to go get some breakfast down the road.”

  Vlora raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh?”

  Olem gave her a grin. “Indeed. You’ll want a full stomach. We’ve got a long way to ride today.”

  “We?”

  “I’m done with my recruiting, and my men and I need to be in Budwiel in four days. I thought you might want to come with us.”

  Vlora blinked lazily, her mind still trying to catch up. That’s right, she had captured Wohler, which meant she was welcome back at the front. She gave a sigh of relief. Two days ago she had all but resigned herself to failure. Now she had succeeded, with Olem’s help.

  To be honest, it felt like a hollow victory. It was all for what? To impress Tamas and go to the front, where she could get back to killing? No, she reminded herself. It was so Sabon could rest easy.

  “Was this meant to be a test all along? Were you here to watch me?”

  Olem looked around for someplace to ash his cigarette, then opened the window to do it outside. “No,” he said. “I was told to bring you if you succeed, leave you if you failed.”

  “And you weren’t supposed to help me?”

  “I was told not to, actually. But I figured that was just the field marshal’s mood talking.” Olem extended a hand. “Shall we?”

  Vlora clasped the hand. “Breakfast first?”

  “I don’t start the day any other way. Besides, there’s going to be a battle at Budwiel, and a damned big one. I figure it can wait for a good meal.”

  Meet the Author

  Photo by Kevin Kempton

  Brian McClellan is an avid reader of fantasy and a former student of Brandon Sanderson. When he is not writing, he loves baking, making jam from fruit grown in northeast Ohio, and playing video games. He currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with his wife. Find out more about Brian McClellan at www.brianmcclellan.com.

  Also by Brian McClellan

  POWDER MAGE TRILOGY

  Promise of Blood

  The Crimson Campaign

  The Autumn Republic

  SHORT FICTION IN THE POWDER MAGE UNIVERSE

  Forsworn (e-only novella)

  Servant of the Crown (e-only novella)

  Hope’s End (e-only short story)

  The Girl of Hrusch Avenue (e-only short story)

  Face in the Window (e-only short story)

  Return to Honor (e-only short story)

  If you enjoyed

  RETURN TO HONOR

  look out for

  THE AUTUMN REPUBLIC

  BOOK THREE OF THE POWDER MAGE TRILOGY

  by Brian McClellan

  1

  Field Marshal Tamas stood in the ruins of the Kresim Cathedral in Adopest.

  What had once been a magnificent building with golden spires that rose majestically above the surrounding buildings was now a pile of rubble being picked over by a small army of stonemasons in search of usable marble and limestone, and birds that had built their nests in those spires now wheeled aimlessly overhead as Tamas inspected the ruin by the light of the rising sun.

  The destruction had been wrought by Privileged elemental sorcery. Granite keystones had been cut apart with an almost casual indifference, and entire sections of the cathedral were melted away with fire hotter than the center of any forge. The sight turned Tamas’s stomach.

  “Looks worse from far off,” Olem said. He stood beside Tamas, hand resting on the butt of his pistol beneath his greatcoat, eyes scanning the streets for signs of Brudanian patrols. He spoke around the cigarette clenched between his lips. “This must have been the column of smoke our scouts saw. The rest of the city seems intact.”

  Tamas scowled at his bodyguard. “This cathedral was three hundred years old. It took sixty years to build. I refuse to be relieved that the damned Brudanians invaded Adopest just to destroy the cathedral.”

  “They had the chance to level the whole city. They didn’t. I call that lucky, sir.”

  Olem was right, of course. They had ridden hard for two weeks, dangerously far ahead of the Seventh and Ninth brigades and their new Deliv allies, in order to determine the fate of the city. Tamas had been relieved to see Adopest still standing.

  But now it lay in the hands of a Brudanian army and Tamas was forced to sneak about in his ow
n city. There were no words to describe the anger he felt.

  He pushed down that rage, trying to get control of himself. They’d arrived on the outskirts of the city only a few hours ago, sneaking in under cover of darkness. He had to get organized, to find his allies, scout his enemies, and find out how an entire city could fall into Brudanian hands with no sign of a fight. Pit, Brudania was eight hundred miles away!

  Had another one of his council betrayed him?

  “Sir,” Vlora said, drawing Tamas’s attention to the south. She stood above them on the remains of a buttress, watching the Ad River and the old quarter of the city beyond it. Like Tamas and Olem, she wore a greatcoat to conceal her Adran uniform, and her dark hair was tucked beneath a tricorne hat. “A Brudanian patrol. There’s a Privileged with them.”

  Tamas eyed the rubble and considered the lay of the street to their south, formulating a plan to ambush the Brudanian patrol. He forced himself to stop that line of thought. He couldn’t risk any open conflict. Not without more men. He’d only brought Vlora and Olem ahead of the army and while they might be able to cut through a single Brudanian patrol, any kind of firefight would bring more running.

  “We need soldiers,” Tamas said.

  Olem ashed his cigarette on the ruins of the cathedral altar. “I can try to find Sergeant Oldrich. He’s got fifteen of my Riflejacks with him.”

  “That would be a start,” Tamas said.

  “I think we should make contact with Ricard,” Vlora said. “Find out what happened to the city. He’ll have men that we can use.”

  Tamas acknowledged the advice with a nod. “In good time. Pit. I should have brought the whole powder cabal with me. I want more men before we go see Ricard.” I don’t know if he’s turned on us. Tamas had left Taniel’s unconscious body in Ricard’s care. If someone had harmed his boy, Tamas would…

  He swallowed bile and tried to gain control of his pounding heart.

 
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