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Blood of Empire
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Michel Bravis stood in the doorway of a small Kressian chapel, sipping cold morning coffee while he watched Palo fishermen pass him in the street, their early haul hanging from long poles balanced on their shoulders. He examined each man and woman carefully, ticking them off mentally as he watched for new faces or suspicious glances or any amount of curiosity tossed in his direction. They bragged to one another about their catch or tagged along in sullen, unsuccessful silence, but not one of them gave Michel a second glance.
He’d grown and shorn the blond dye out of his hair over the previous month, and he’d made sure to spend plenty of time in the sun each day to allow the natural strawberry red to come out in both his hair and his beard. A starvation diet had allowed him to lose nearly two stone, and every shop-window reflection reminded him that he had changed his look about as much as possible since leaving Landfall.
To the townspeople of this Palo fishing village about twenty miles up the coast from Landfall, Michel was nothing more than just another Palo vagrant displaced from his home with the Dynize invasion. He spent his mornings on the chapel stoop, his afternoons cleaning fish at the only processing factory, and his evenings tucked into one of the dozen local pubs listening to gossip and playing the occasional hand of cards with loose-lipped Dynize soldiers. He gathered information, he kept his head down, and most of all he waited for an opportunity to present itself that would allow him and Ichtracia to slip out of this place and head inland to find Ka-poel.
Michel finished his coffee, tossing the grounds into the gutter and stowing his tin cup before slipping inside. He listened to the clatter of the big chapel door swinging shut behind him and tried to resist fiddling with the still-painful stub of the finger Sedial had cut off, hidden beneath bandages and a false splint. He took a deep breath and walked up the center aisle of the chapel.
To all appearances, Ichtracia looked like a grieving widow. She wore a black shawl and veil and sat hunched as if in prayer on the second row of benches. Michel glanced around the empty chapel, then came to stand beside her, raising his eyes to Kresimir’s Rope hanging above the altar. He noted that someone had written “KRESIMIR IS DEAD” under one of the stained-glass windows of the nave.
The hard-drinking fisherwoman who acted as the town priest hadn’t bothered to scrub it off.
“Are all Kressian churches like this?” Ichtracia asked, not raising her head.
Michel considered the question. “The cathedrals are more impressive.”
“I toured the one in Landfall. It certainly was big.” She didn’t sound impressed.
“Don’t Dynize have churches?” It had never occurred to him to ask before.
“Not really, not in the same way. We’re supposed to worship the emperor in the town square, but no one really does that, except on public holidays.”
That sounded very similar to Michel’s own relationship with religion. He’d never bothered with it as a boy, and as an adult he knew for a fact that Kresimir was indeed dead. He worked for the pair that had killed the Kressian god. “At least this keeps you from having to stay cooped up in our room all day,” Michel suggested.
“This bench is going to be the death of me.” Ichtracia stood suddenly, lifting her veil and stretching with a rather impious yawn. Ever since they had snuck out of Landfall, she’d been posing as his brother’s widow. Or at least, that was their story. No one had actually bothered to ask them yet. The Dynize didn’t have a strong presence here beyond the isolated, passing platoon, and the Palo simply didn’t care.
But such was Michel’s experience with aliases—they seemed unnecessary until suddenly one saved your life.
She continued, “Have you figured out how to get us out of here yet?”
Michel grimaced. Ichtracia had, to this point, taken their entire predicament rather well. She even seemed to enjoy playing the role of an anonymous widow, relishing every set of eyes that slid past her without a flicker of recognition. But the sight of the pulped corpse of her grandfather’s bodyguard was still fresh in Michel’s mind, along with her demand that she be taken to her sister. He was as cognizant as ever of the power imbalance between them and feared the moment her patience ran out.
“I have not,” he answered her. Something passed behind her eyes that made the base of his spine itch. He gave her his most charming smile. “I’m trying.”
“I’m sure you are.” She didn’t sound convinced. “Any news from the war?”
Michel came around and dropped onto the bench, waiting until she’d returned to her seat before he said, “A pitload of rumors. Lindet has retaken the Hammer and is pushing east across Fatrasta. Her army is immense but mostly conscripts, and the Dynize are rallying their field armies to put her down.” He frowned. “There are a lot of conflicting reports coming out of the north—a whole Dynize field army disappeared. Another army has New Adopest under siege and is expected to take it and come south by the end of next week.” To be honest, he was worried about that army. If they skirted the coast, they could march right past this little town, and Michel was not thrilled about the idea of thirty thousand Dynize or more, along with Privileged and bone-eyes, camped out nearby. Ichtracia claimed she could hide from any sorcery, but he didn’t want to put that to the test up close.
“Anything out of Landfall?”
“Just troop consolidation. Sedial is building a fortress around the godstone and using Fatrastan labor to do it. Nobody knows how many Kressians and Palo he’s hired, but rumor has it they’re being paid and fed well, so there’s not a lot of complaining.”
Ichtracia sniffed. “You seem surprised that the Palo are being treated well.”
“We’ve always been second-class citizens at best,” Michel answered. “Slaves and subhumans at worst.” He felt something else on the tip of his tongue—the guarded secret that the Blackhat je Tura had told him just before his death. For weeks he’d wanted to ask Ichtracia what she knew of her grandfather’s attempts to activate the godstone, and for weeks he’d suppressed that urge. He wasn’t sure whether he was worried she’d have no new information for him—or worried that she knew all about it.
“The Palo are Dynize cousins,” Ichtracia said. “He won’t treat them as well as our own people, of course, but they aren’t exactly foreigners, either.” She frowned. “A fortress around the godstone. I wonder if he’s truly worried about Lindet and her conscript armies. Or if there’s something else he’s up to.”
“No clue,” Michel answered, studying the side of Ichtracia’s face. Did she know? Was she lying to him this very moment? They’d been lovers and companions for some time now, but there were still a great many walls between them—and for good reason. He tried to shrug it off. It didn’t matter. His only task now was to figure out a way to get them out of this town and across to the other side of the continent. Once he reunited her with Ka-poel, he could get back to Landfall and try to find out the truth.
The creak of the chapel door gave Michel a little jump, and he resisted the urge to look over his shoulder as Ichtracia leaned forward and assumed the role of praying widow. Michel touched her shoulder as if in comfort, then got to his feet. If he left now, he’d have a couple hours listening to rumors in the pub before his afternoon shift.
He froze at the sight of the man standing just inside the chapel door, blinking several times to make sure that his eyes hadn’t tricked him. “Taniel?” he choked out.
Taniel Two-shot looked like he’d aged a decade in the few months since they’d last spoken. His riding clothes were filthy, his shoulders slumped, and his face was drawn out and haggard. A spot of silver had appeared at his temples and he gave Michel a tired smile. “Hello, Michel.” He ran a hand through his hair. “You really are a damned chameleon. I would have walked right out of here without recognizing you if you hadn’t said my name.”
“What the pit happened to you?” Michel asked, slipping past Ichtracia and into the aisle.
“I fought a couple of Dynize brigades,” Taniel said. It sounded like a joke, but he didn’t smile when he said it. “I may have overdone it a bit.” His eyes slid to Ichtracia, then back to Michel.
Ichtracia had gotten to her feet and now stared at Taniel in the same way Michel might have eyed an adder slithering through the door. Her fingers twitched as if for the Privileged gloves in her pockets. A look of uncertainty crossed her face. Michel cleared his throat. “Taniel, Ichtracia. Ichtracia, Taniel.”
“Ichtracia,” Taniel said, rolling the name across his tongue. “This is our mole?”
“I’m your sister-in-law, as I understand it,” Ichtracia said flatly.
Taniel eyeballed her right back. “I thought your name was Mara.”
“A nickname,” Michel explained. “It was a pain in the ass to find her, but I did. Why didn’t you tell me she was Ka-poel’s sister?” He hadn’t meant to ask—taking an accusatory tone with Taniel never ended well. But the question just kind of slipped out.
Taniel scowled for a moment before letting out a tired sigh. “I didn’t think you needed to know.”
“It might have narrowed things down.” Michel heard his own tone rising. All the annoyance he’d felt over the secrecy, no matter whether it was important or not, began to slip through. “You also could have told me she was a Privileged.”
“That’s right.” Taniel cocked his head as if listening to some distant sound. “You’re hiding it very well. I didn’t sense anything when I came through the door.”
“I’ve practiced a lot,” Ichtracia said. Her tone had gone from flat to annoyed. “So you’re the god-slayer?”
Taniel’s expression turned serious. “What have you been telling her?” he asked.
Michel threw up his hands, but Ichtracia answered before he could. “He hasn’t told me anything. The Dynize have spies all over the world. You were supposed to have died ten years ago. When Michel told me who he worked for—who my sister is married to—I couldn’t help but assume that you managed to finish the job you started on Kresimir.”
Taniel snorted and walked to the last pew in the back of the chapel, sinking into it. “Lots of rumors,” he said wearily. “I’m sorry about the misdirection, Michel. Pole and I decided together that it was best you figure out who and what Mar… Ichtracia was on your own. All we had to go on was the name Mara. A nickname, you say?”
“Something that our grandfather used to call us both as children,” Ichtracia said. “It means we were his little sacrifices.”
Taniel’s apologetic smile switched from Michel to Ichtracia. “I see. Thank you for joining Michel. I can only imagine that we have a lot to catch up on about each other. And that you want to see your sister.”
“Where is she?” A note of eagerness entered Ichtracia’s voice.
Taniel hesitated. “West. I’m on my way to find her.”
Michel watched Ichtracia. He wanted to tell her that she was in the presence of a great man. That she should show a little respect. But he was just annoyed enough at Taniel to keep his mouth shut. Besides, Ichtracia was no slouch herself. “Speaking of finding,” he said. “How did you find us?”
“I went to Landfall first,” Taniel replied. “I met with Emerald, and he told me that you’d accomplished your mission and pointed me in this direction. It’s… taken a couple of weeks.”
Michel scowled. “We’ve been trying to figure out a way through the Dynize roadblocks ever since we left. How did you just ride right into Landfall?”
“One of Emerald’s people was waiting for me north of the city with forged papers.” Taniel patted his breast pocket. “No one’s looking for a single Kressian rider, and the papers say I’m a spy for the Dynize. There were a few awkward questions, but I managed.”
Michel made a frustrated sound in the back of his throat. If only it had been so easy for him and Ichtracia, they’d be on the other side of the continent by now rather than waiting in this little fishing village for an opportunity to slip away. “So you’re here to take Ichtracia to Pole?”
Taniel gave Ichtracia a long glance. “I am.”
“Wait,” Ichtracia said, giving Michel a confused look. “You’re coming with us, right?”
“You’re more than welcome,” Taniel added.
Michel gave them both a tight smile. “I should. But I need to head back to the city.”
“You’re mad!” Ichtracia exclaimed. She exchanged a glance with Taniel and then continued, “You know that Sedial is turning over the city looking for you, right? The moment someone recognizes you, you’ll be captured, tortured, and killed.”
Michel stared at his hands for a few moments, considering his words.
“Michel?” Taniel prodded.
“I’ve got unfinished business.”
“What kind of business?” Taniel asked.
Michel avoided Ichtracia’s gaze. Choosing his words with care, he said, “While I was there, I helped the Dynize hunt down the last of the Blackhats in the city.”
“So Emerald told me,” Taniel replied.
“I found and killed Val je Tura.”
“The Gold Rose with the bastard sword?”
“The same. Before he died, he told me something.” Michel hesitated again, looking sidelong at Ichtracia. “He told me that the Dynize were scooping up Palo and using them in a blood ritual to activate the godstone.” The moment the last word left his mouth, he knew that he’d been wrong about Ichtracia—that he should have told her weeks ago. The blood drained from her face, her eyes widening. He expected an exclamation of surprise or denial or… something. Instead her jaw clamped shut.
“Pit,” Taniel muttered.
“I need to go back to the city, find out if it’s true, and try to do something about it.”
“You’ll get yourself killed,” Ichtracia said, the words tumbling out over one another.
Michel gave her a tight smile. “Taniel, what is it I’ve been working toward all this time?”
“Palo independence,” Taniel answered automatically.
Ichtracia seemed taken aback. “I thought that you planned on opposing my grandfather—to prevent the use of the godstones.”
“That… that’s Taniel and Ka-poel’s fight,” Michel said. “At the end of the day I have one purpose: to free the Palo of whoever is subjugating them, enslaving them, kicking them around. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Kressians or the Fatrastans or the Dynize. I have to pit myself against the enemies of my people. I’m of no use going along with you and Taniel. I need to head back into Landfall.”
“I thought you said the Palo were being treated better under the Dynize?” There was a note to her tone that Michel couldn’t quite place. It sounded like desperation.
“I don’t know,” Michel said with a shrug. “Maybe? Or it could be propaganda. Whatever it is, I need to go back to Landfall and find out the truth.”
The silence between them all grew deafening. Ichtracia stared at the wall. Taniel stared at Michel. Michel examined both their faces, trying to read something in them. Finally, Taniel cleared his throat. “Ka-poel is on her way to Dynize.”
“What?” The word tore itself from Ichtracia’s throat as she whirled on him.
“She’s going to find the third godstone. I’m on my way to join her.”
“She’s going to get herself killed, too! Why do all of you have a death wish?” Something in Taniel’s expression must have confused her, because she stopped and took a sharp breath. “You don’t know?”
“We already have the third godstone. It’s in Dynize, protected.”
Taniel muttered something under his breath. “Good thing she has a bodyguard, I suppose. If that’s true, I don’t have a second to lose. I’ve got to cross the continent, catch a ship, and sneak into Dynize. It’ll take me months to catch up with her.”
Michel scoffed. Taniel’s tone was optimistic, as if he were heading on a pleasure cruise. But anything could happen in months, especially if Ka-poel stumbled headlong into Dynize. He almost asked Taniel to forget that idea and come with him to Landfall. But there was no hope in that. Taniel would go wherever Ka-poel was.
“Are you coming?” Taniel asked Ichtracia briskly. Michel could see in his eyes that he’d already moved on from the conversation and was ready to bolt, like a racehorse waiting for the starting pistol.
Michel rounded on her. “What do you mean, no?”
“I’m going with you.” Ichtracia’s face had regained some of its color. Her jaw was now set stubbornly.
“You can’t go back to Landfall,” Michel protested. “You’ll be in danger.”
“No more than you,” she retorted. Her left eye and cheek twitched, a cascade of emotions crossing her face in the space of a moment.
“I can meet her when this is over!” she said forcefully. Quieter, to herself, she echoed, “When this is all over. Do we have a way to get back in?” she asked Taniel.
“Emerald sent a couple of Dynize passports for the two of you,” Taniel said. “They were meant for you to accompany me across the country, but I assume they’ll get you back into Landfall without a problem.”
Michel swallowed. He had been with Ichtracia long enough to see that she would not take no for an answer. His mentioning of the blood sacrifices had set something off in her. He felt like he should know what, but he was too taken up with his own plans to pinpoint the source of her distress. He immediately shifted his thinking, discarding all the ideas he’d had for a one-man operation and changing them to work for two.
“We’ll take the passports,” Ichtracia said.
“I think…” Michel began.
“Don’t think,” she snapped at him. “You should have told me about your intentions. You should have told me about the sacrifices. Mara!” She thumped her chest. “Mara! Sacrifice. That blood should have been mine! Instead, he’s killing thousands of innocent people to get the job done. I’m going with you, and that’s final.”
Ben Styke rested on the forecastle of a small transport ship called the Seaward, his big boz knife in one hand and a whetstone in the other, listening to the swell of the ocean and the calling of gulls undercut by the occasional slow rasp as he sharpened his blade. He wore a large, floppy hat to keep the sun from his face, despite the fact that Celine had told him on several different occasions that it made him look ridiculous.
He caught sight of one of the sailors staring in his direction and wondered if it was just the hat or him. Two weeks at sea, and the sailors still seemed uneasy to have twenty Mad Lancers and Ben Styke sleeping in their hold. The fear suited Styke just fine—if it meant that someone jumped when he said jump, it made his life easier. He wondered what they’d think if he told them about the genuine Dynize blood witch who had commandeered the first mate’s cabin.
At the thought, Styke raised his head and swept his gaze across the deck for Ka-poel. He hadn’t seen her much since they’d set sail. In fact, ever since the battle at Starlight, she’d looked exhausted, and had slept no less than fourteen hours a day. He suspected that the sorcerous power struggle she’d had with her grandfather had done more damage to her than she’d care to admit. He wondered if he should ask her outright—he needed her in top shape for this mission—but immediately discarded the thought. She was still alive, still moving, and she had enough energy to snicker silently at his hat.
She’d be fine. She would have to be.
Styke lifted his eyes farther up, to the mainmast, where he spotted Celine just as she leapt from the rigging and walked—no, ran—out to the end of the spar. He swallowed a lump in his throat and the urge to yell, reminding himself that he was jumping between galloping horses at that age. Eyes narrowed, he watched as she deftly untied a knot, let some slack out into one of the sails, then retied it and returned to the rigging, where a trio of sailors gave her a proud cheer. He had to admit, in these last two weeks she’d become startlingly good at navigating the rigging, sails, and knots on the ship.
He had no intention of telling her of the chat he’d had with the first mate to ensure that the sailors did not ask her to do anything beyond her size or strength.
Styke returned his gaze to his knife, drawing it across the whetstone a few more times, and tried not to look to starboard, where the rocky, cypress-choked Dynize shore dominated the horizon. The sight of it would only frustrate him: so close he could practically touch it, and yet he was no closer to his destination.
Four days ago, just when they were nearing Dynize, an immense gale had scattered his fleet. Dozens of transports and their heavily armed escorts had been caught up in the storm. When it finally passed, the Seaward had found itself all alone and blown a couple hundred miles north of their rendezvous point on the Dynize shore. Styke had no way of knowing how many of the ships had been lost, or how badly they’d been dispersed. He didn’t know if half of his Lancers had drowned, or been dashed against the shore, or if his entire army of twenty-five hundred cavalry had already landed and was waiting impatiently for him to arrive.
Regardless, the Seaward sailed south at speed, hoping to make up for lost time and avoid any Dynize warships along the way.
A shout brought his attention back up to the mainmast, where a boy in the crow’s nest waved desperately toward the aftcastle. There was a sudden commotion, and the sailors sent Celine scampering down the rigging as their fun was replaced by an air of seriousness. The watchman gave another shout and pointed to the southern horizon, but the sound was lost on the wind.
Styke put away his knife and whetstone, climbed reluctantly to his feet, and headed across the forecastle, down the main deck, and up to the aftcastle where Captain Bonnie stood staring pensively through her looking glass to the southeast. Bonnie was an old seadog; a piece of shoe leather in tattered pants and a tricorn hat, her skin so dark from the sun she might have been Deliv for all Styke knew. He sidled up beside her and waited for her report. They were soon joined by Jackal and Celine. The Palo Lancer mussed Celine’s hair and got a jab in the ribs for his effort, then gave Styke a very serious nod.
“You get anything new out of those spirits of yours?” Styke said just loudly enough to be heard over the wind.
“No,” Jackal reported, glancing down toward the first mate’s cabin below them, where Ka-poel was resting. “They still won’t come near the ship, not with her hanging about. I almost coaxed one to me yesterday—there are the spirits of Dynize sailors this close to shore, and they seem less scared of her, but…” He trailed off with a shrug.
Styke opened his mouth to respond, but was interrupted by Bonnie. “Here,” she said, thrusting the looking glass into his hands. “Directly southeast, ahead of us, you’ll see a point on the horizon.”
He put the glass to his eye. It didn’t take long to find the point she’d referenced. Three points, actually; three sets of sails, all of them black with an arc of red stars across the center. “Dynize ships,” he said.
“Very astute,” Bonnie responded with a snort. “Any idea what they are?” He gave her a flat look until she cleared her throat and continued. “Two frigates escorting one of those big monstrosities the Dynize call a ship of the line. Trios like that have been sweeping the ocean ever since the Dynize invaded. We call them the three-headed serpent.”
“Have they seen us?”
“They have much higher masts than the Seaward, so I’d be shocked if they haven’t—and if not, they will any minute.”
Styke felt his stomach lurch as he considered the possibilities. Their little transport was barely armed. He hadn’t chosen it for his own vessel because of size or power, but rather because Bonnie was the most experienced captain in the commandeered fleet and knew the Dynize shore better than anyone else. “Shit,” he said.
“Shit indeed.” She raised the looking glass to her eye for another few moments. “They’re already headed in this direction.” She paused, furrowing her brow. “Ah. The frigates are beginning to split off. They’ve definitely seen us, and they’re already preparing to widen the net. Probably hoping to get out far on our portside before we notice them.” She half turned toward the first mate and barked loudly, “Bring her around to starboard!”
A flurry of commotion followed as sailors scampered to adjust the sails. Styke felt a growing alarm. “We’re turning around?” he demanded.
- "Top-notch epic fantasy fare."—Publishers Weekly (starred review) on Wrath of Empire
- "A brisk and engaging narrative complete with fast-paced action and memorable characters... McClellan's explosive fantasy world will satisfy both established fans of the series and newcomers."—Booklist on Wrath of Empire
- "McClellan continues to add depth and richness to his characters and backdrop, swirls in some intriguing plot twists and complications, and sprinkles enough desperate fighting to satisfy the most insistently sanguineous readers...[his] design and construction grow steadily more impressive with each fresh installment."—Kirkus on Wrath of Empire
- "Skillful worldbuilding and nuanced characters."—Library Journal (starred review) on Sins of Empire
- "Fans of McClellan's Powder Mage trilogy will be happy to return to this fascinating fantasy world, where magic and technology come together in the midst of complicated relationships and unsure alliances . . . . [A] compelling read."—RT Book Reviews on Sins of Empire
- "Furious, visceral, and relentlessly thrilling action."—Kirkus on Sins of Empire
- "McClellan continues to expand and build on the interesting and engaging world of his previous trilogy while also providing an exciting and fast-paced new story that even those new to the series will enjoy immensely."—Booklist on Sins of Empire
- "In Sins of Empire, Brian McClellan returns to the world of his Powder Mage trilogy for a novel that is equal parts military adventure and spy tale, and succeeds wildly on both counts."—Barnes and Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog
- "This book is just plain awesome. I found myself enjoying every moment of it. Innovative magic, quick-paced plot, interesting world. I had a blast."—New York Times bestselling author, Brandon Sanderson on Promise of Blood
- "Promise of Blood is a hugely promising debut. Guns, swords, and magic together? What more could you want? How about tense action, memorable characters, rising stakes, and cool, cool magic? Not only the finest flintlock fantasy I've read, but also the most fun. Brian McClellan is the real thing."—New York Times bestseller Brent Weeks on Promise of Blood
- On Sale
- Jun 23, 2020
- Page Count
- 688 pages