Return to honor, p.5
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       Return to Honor, p.5

           Brian McClellan
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  “Sabon’s trainees?” Olem asked.

  Before Sabon’s death he had been tasked with setting up a school for powder mages just north of the city. Early reports were that he had over twenty men and women with some talent and that he was already teaching them how to shoot and fight and control their powers.

  They’d had only a few months of training. It would have to be good enough.

  “The trainees,” Tamas agreed. “At the very least we can get Telavere before we go to Ricard.”

  They headed across the Ad River in the cool dawn as the streets began to fill with people. Tamas noted that Brudanian patrols, while they were frequent and the street guards plentiful, seemed to leave the citizens unmolested. No one questioned him or his companions as they passed through the old city’s western gates or as they left the city once again to reach the suburban northland.

  Tamas saw Brudanian ships in the harbor along the river and their tall masts out in the bay to the south. The mountain-crossing canal that Ricard’s union had been building must have been a success, he noted wryly. It was the only way oceangoing vessels of that size could reach the Adsea.

  Tamas lost track of the number of destroyed churches and monasteries. It seemed as if every other city block had a pile of rubble where a church had once been. He couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the priests and priestesses that staffed them and why they in particular had been targeted by the Brudanian Privileged.

  It was something he’d have to ask Ricard.

  Their journey took them an hour north of the city by foot, where the school stood on the bank of the Ad River. It was an old brick building, a decommissioned clothing factory with a field off to one side that had been turned into a firing range. As they came off the road, Vlora grasped Tamas’s arm. He sensed panic in her touch.

  Tamas felt his chest tighten.

  The windows of the dormitory above the school were shuttered, and the main door hung off its hinges. A wooden placard, emblazoned with the silver powder keg of a powder mage, had been knocked from its place above the door and lay broken in the mud. The grounds around the school and the firing range beside it were quiet and abandoned, the grass overgrown.

  “Vlora,” Tamas said, “take the south side by the river. Olem, swing around to the north.”

  The two moved off with a “yessir” and no further questions. Vlora removed her hat and crept through the tall grass, while Olem continued up the street past the school, sauntering casually, before cutting across the firing range to approach the school from uphill.

  Tamas waited for them to be in position before he continued cautiously down the path to the school. He opened his third eye to look into the Else, searching for signs of sorcery, but it revealed nothing about the contents of the building. If anyone lay waiting inside, they weren’t Privileged or Knacked.

  Nor could he sense any powder mages, for that matter. Why was the school empty? Telavere had been left in charge. She was a powder mage of little raw power but excellent technical skill, a perfect choice to teach the recruits. Could she have taken them into hiding when the Brudanians arrived? Had they been attacked?

  Tamas drew his pistols as he neared the school, pausing only to sprinkle black powder on his tongue. A powder trance gripped his body, his eyesight, hearing, and smell sharpening and the pain of the ride ebbing away behind a curtain of strength.

  A low sound filled his ears, almost drowned out by the sound of the gentle flow of the Ad River. He couldn’t quite place the sound, but he knew the smell that filled his nostrils. It smelled of iron and decay. Blood.

  Tamas checked the front window of the school. The glare of the morning sun prevented him from piercing the darkness within. The low sound seemed a roar now in his trance-enhanced hearing, and the scent of death filled him with dread.

  He kicked the front door off its hinges and dove in with both pistols ready. He froze in the entryway, eyes adjusting to the dim light.

  His caution was unwarranted. The foyer was empty, and the silence stretched throughout the building—but for the low drone of what he now saw were thousands of flies. They buzzed and churned in the air, dancing against the windowpanes.

  Tamas shoved both pistols into his belt so he could tie a handkerchief about his mouth and nose. Despite the flies and the smell, there were no bodies in the entryway, and the only sign of violence was the smear of rust on the floors and splatters on the wall. Men had been killed here, and the bodies dragged away.

  He followed the trail of smeared blood from the entryway and proceeded deeper into the old factory building, one pistol held at the ready.

  The factory floor, an immense room that had no doubt once been home to dozens of long tables where seamstresses worked at their sewing by the hundred, was empty now but for a dozen desks along one side. There were fewer flies here except for the ones hanging out around a half-dozen stains and rusty puddles where men had died.

  The smears continued along the factory floor and out through a door in the back corner.

  Tamas whirled at a sound, leveling his pistol, but it was only Vlora coming down the stairway from the dormitory above. He noted plenty of blood on the stairs as well.

  “What did you find?” Tamas asked. His voice echoed eerily in the large room.

  “Flies.” Vlora spit on the floor. “Flies, and half the back wall of the school is missing. Plenty of scorch marks. Someone detonated at least two horns of powder up there.” She swore under her breath, the only crack in her professional demeanor.

  “What happened here?” Tamas asked.

  “I don’t know, sir.”

  “No bodies?”


  Tamas gritted his teeth in frustration. Plenty of blood—that’s what the flies were attracted to—and more than a little gore. Dozens of men had died in this building and not all that long ago.

  “They dragged the bodies out the back,” Olem said, his voice echoing in the large room as he stepped through a small doorway at the far corner of the room.

  When Tamas and Vlora had joined him, Olem pointed at the floor where the lines of rust overlapped each other all the way out the back, disappearing into the tall grass between the school and the Ad River. “Whoever did this,” Olem said, “cleaned up after themselves. They didn’t want any bodies to tell a story.”

  “The story tells itself,” Tamas snapped, striding back inside. He went to the front of the school, scattering flies in his wake. “They came in through the front.” He pointed to blood spatter and bullet holes in the wall. “Overran whoever was standing guard, then took the factory floor. Our mages made a last stand upstairs, using whatever powder was at their disposal…”

  He heard his voice crack. These men and women were his responsibility. They were his newest mages. Some were farmers, two of them bakers. One had been a librarian. They weren’t trained for combat. They’d been slaughtered like sheep.

  He could only pray that they had been able to take a few of the enemy with them.

  “Death is a bloody painter and this is his canvas,” Olem said quietly. He lit a cigarette and drew in a deep breath, then blew smoke against the wall, watching the flies scatter.

  “Sir,” Vlora said, stepping past Tamas and snatching something off the ground. She handed Tamas a round bit of leather with a hole in the middle. “Looks like it was behind the door. Whoever cleaned this place up must have missed it. Do you know what it is?”

  Tamas spit to get rid of the sudden bitter taste in his mouth. “It’s a leather gasket. You have to keep spares if you carry an air rifle. It must have fallen out of someone’s kit.”

  An air rifle. A weapon used specifically to kill powder mages. Whoever had done this had come prepared.

  Tamas threw the gasket away and stuffed his pistol into his belt. “Olem, who all knew the location of this school?”

  “Aside from the powder cabal?” Olem rolled his cigarette between his fingers, considering. “It wasn’t a closely guarded secret. They put
up a sign, after all.”

  “Who all knew directly?” Tamas said.

  “A couple members of the General Staff and Ricard Tumblar.”

  The General Staff were men and women who had been with him for decades. Tamas trusted them. He had to trust them.

  “I want answers, even if someone has to bleed to give them. Find me Ricard Tumblar.”

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  Table of Contents


  Title Page


  Return to Honor

  Meet the Author

  Also by Brian McClellan

  Bonus Material

  About Orbit Short Fiction

  Orbit Newsletter


  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 © 2015 by Brian McClellan

  Excerpt from The Autumn Republic copyright © 2015 by Brian McClellan

  Cover design by Wendy Chan

  Cover photo © Shutterstock

  Cover copyright © 2015 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher is unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.


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  First eBook edition: January 2015

  ISBN: 978-0-316-30022-3




  Brian McClellan, Return to Honor



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