By Jon Skovron
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Red is being trained as a cold-blooded assassin by the biomancers. As he becomes increasingly embroiled in palace politics, he learns that even life among the nobility can be deadly.
While terrorizing imperial ships as the pirate Dire Bane, Hope stumbles onto a biomancer plot of such horrifying scope that it makes even the massacre of her childhood village seem small in comparison.
With the biomancers tightening their grip of fear over the empire, Hope and Red struggle to fill their new roles and responsibilities, but the cost will be greater than any of them realize.
It is neither fate nor chance alone that controls our destiny. Rather, it is the clash of those two terrible powers that gives violent and savage birth to our lives, and our legacy.
And what of choice? I have never seen compelling proof that it makes the slightest difference.
—from the secret writings of the Dark Mage
It wasn't Brice Vaderton's first tour of duty, but it felt near enough, because this was his first time captaining an imperial frigate. The Guardian was a newly constructed, three-masted, square-rigged warship with forty-two cannons. It was half again as large as his last ship, and with twice the firepower.
Captain Vaderton's quarters were big enough to hold a desk, a full-sized bunk, and a sofa. Had he been married, it would have been spacious enough to bring a wife. The cabin was positioned in the stern beneath the raised poop deck. It had several large portholes that offered a view of bright, cloudless blue skies and rippling dark green water as far as the eye could see. They'd had uncommonly good weather for the western edge of the empire, especially this time of year. As late summer gave way to fall, this region was usually raked with sudden, capricious blusters and sheets of icy rain. Instead, they'd had clear skies and a steady, manageable wind. Vaderton didn't expect it to last, but he'd run with it as long as he could.
The captain sat at his desk, catching up on his logbooks. He was meticulous in his record keeping, something his superiors told him was one of the reasons they felt confident entrusting him with one of the greatest ships in the empire, despite his age. Vaderton had just celebrated his fortieth year and was now the youngest officer to be given command of an imperial war frigate. He intended to prove that their trust in him was not misplaced. As part of the grand imperial inspection, his orders were to sail down the western edge of the empire until he reached the straights that separated the Southern Isles from the rest of the empire, then head east to Vance Post. Along the way, he was to stop in all ports of call, partly to gather the annual census reports, and partly to show the new, resplendent might of the imperial navy. As simple as this tour was, Vaderton intended to do it by the book, no exceptions.
He checked his watch. Nine o'clock. Time for his mid-morning deck inspection. He stood and pulled on his heavy white coat. Despite the late-summer heat that still hung in the air, he liked the weight of it. The stiffness of the gold brocade in the front and the gold epaulets on his shoulders made him feel as if he was protected by the might of the entire imperial navy. He smoothed back his short, navy regulation–cut brown hair, then took his captain's hat, also white with gold detail, and placed it securely on his head. He'd seen other captains wear their hat tilted back on the head. It cut a dashing figure, but it was terribly impractical. The first big gust of wind would fling it out to sea. Back at the academy, some of his classmates had teased him about obsessing over such minor details. However, none of them had yet been given command of a frigate, so he felt confident that his was the correct course.
Vaderton opened the door and stepped out onto the quarterdeck.
"Captain on deck!" called Midshipman Kellert.
Anyone on deck who could stop what they were doing did so, and gave Captain Vaderton a sharp salute. Only a month at sea, and they were already shaping up to be a fine crew. Counting the cannoneers, the Guardian had approximately two hundred crew, more than three times the number of his last ship. In the past, he'd always made a point of learning every name. That was impossible now, but as he scanned the deck, he gave them each a moment of eye contact. It was as important to acknowledge good behavior as it was to punish bad.
"Take your ease," he said gravely, and they went back to their tasks. He turned to Kellert, who looked smart in his own white imperial officer's jacket. That had been a point of contention between them when they first set out. By nature, Kellert was a slovenly, unkempt sort. Vaderton had suggested that if Kellert didn't wish to look like a proper officer, he was welcome to the less-formal accommodations of the crew. A few nights sleeping in a hammock and eating with the men had straightened him out. One of Vaderton's responsibilities was to groom his officers to one day serve the empire as a captain on their own ship. He took that duty as seriously as any other.
"Report, Mr. Kellert," he said as he scanned the deck, watching the men work.
"All clear, Captain." Kellert gave a slight smile and said, "Well, except the ghost ship."
Captain Vaderton did not return the smile. "What do you mean by 'ghost ship,' Mr. Kellert?"
"Oh, it's nothing, sir. Young Jillen, who takes the night watch in the crow's nest, thought he saw a ship in the distance a little before sunrise. But when he called down to me, I couldn't see anything with the glass. He'd probably just been dozing off for a minute, but the men started teasing him that he'd seen a ghost ship. You know, to frighten the poor boy."
"He still maintains that he saw a ship?" Captain Vaderton asked.
Kellert looked a little uncomfortable now. "I suppose, sir."
"You suppose? Did you not question him further? Perhaps for details on this ship he saw?"
"The boy's only twelve years old. It could have been anything, sir." Kellert was beginning to look nervous.
"Anything includes pirates, Mr. Kellert."
Kellert blanched. "Yes, sir. Would you like me to question him now?"
"Send him to me. I will question him myself."
"Yes, sir," said Kellert meekly.
Captain Vaderton nodded, then watched the midshipman hurry off. He decided his charge still had a long way before him.
Vaderton walked unhurriedly across the quarterdeck, then down to the main deck. As he went, he watched the crew move around him with tight precision. It made him marvel that these men—none of them interesting or remarkable on their own—could be combined to perform the daunting task of sailing one of the most powerful ships in the empire.
He climbed the short ladder up to the forecastle, where he stood and looked out across the rippling green water to where it met the smooth blue sky on the horizon. In general, Captain Vaderton kept his thoughts and feelings close. But the sight of the open sea before him and the smell of salt wind in his lungs always softened his grip, if only a little.
"You wanted to see me, sir?" asked a light voice.
Captain Vaderton turned and regarded Jillen. The boy was an odd one, which was probably why Vaderton remembered him. He was uncommonly short and slight of build, even for one so young. He spoke with the slurring cadence of someone born to the slums of New Laven, but he was surprisingly intelligent for such humble beginnings. Vaderton had even noticed him examining books and notes, as if he had some rudimentary knowledge of letters.
"Mr. Kellert informs me that you saw something on midnight watch?" he asked the boy.
"I did, sir. Off the port stern. Looked like a ship, sir."
"Can you describe this ship?"
"Two masts crowded with sail. Heading toward us. And it didn't have any imperial flags. Least, none that I could see."
"And did you report this to Mr. Kellert?"
"I did, sir."
"And he didn't think it worth bringing to my immediate attention?"
"As I understand it, sir, he thought I must have dreamed it. Because by the time he took a look, it had disappeared."
"A disappearing ship? That is your report?" Vaderton asked gravely.
"I suppose so, sir." Jillen gave the captain a nervous look. "I know it sounds slippy, but that's what I saw. Sir."
Captain Vaderton understood why Kellert had not been eager to report this. The midshipman thought it impossible. Vaderton might have made the same mistake himself when he was younger. But if the last few years had taught him anything, it was never to count on something being impossible.
"Young Mr. Jillen," said the captain. "Tell me what a ship is."
"Sir?" Jillen seemed even more nervous, his eyes darting around like he was looking for an escape.
"You're not in trouble, boy," said the captain. "Just tell me, in plain words, what you think constitutes a ship."
"It's a wooden vessel that floats and has sails that catch the wind to make it go."
Captain Vaderton nodded. "Not bad. But a ship is more than the vessel. It's also the people on it. They are a part of the ship as well. Each has his job, which he must carry out for the good of the whole. If any of those parts stops working, the entire ship suffers."
"Like bees," said Jillen.
"Bees?" asked Vaderton, caught off guard.
"Sure, it takes hundreds of bees to make a beehive and keep it going. Each bee has his or her job. The queen bee is in charge, but even she has a job to do. That's how a hive works." Jillen beamed up at him, then added, "Sir."
"Yes," said Vaderton, wondering at how this New Laven street urchin could have such knowledge. "And do any of the bees ever decide that perhaps they won't perform all their duties and hope the queen won't notice or mind?"
"Of course not, sir. If the bees stop working, the whole hive might die."
"Indeed," said Vaderton. "What if a person on a ship decided not to perform all his duties? Let us say he took it upon himself to determine if something was possible or not, instead of bringing it to the captain for him to decide. That crew member might well put the entire ship in jeopardy."
Jillen's eyes went wide. "But, Captain, I told—"
Captain Vaderton raised his hand and Jillen immediately went silent. Smart boy. "As I said before, young Mr. Jillen, you are not in trouble. But I want you to keep what I have said fixed firmly in your mind while you witness Midshipman Kellert receive ten lashes."
"Y-yes, sir," said Jillen, looking no less frightened.
All hands were called to witness Kellert receive his lashes at midday. The sun blazed brightly overhead, gleaming off the blood and sweat that ran down the midshipman's back as he clung to the mainmast. No doubt some of the men thought the captain too harsh, especially Kellert's fellow officers, who tended to think themselves above such punishment. But by such a public show, the captain made it clear that he would tolerate no shoddy work, be they crew or officers. Furthermore, this lesson also benefited Kellert. For all its great ships and fierce fighting men, it was the iron resolve of the officer class that kept the imperial navy afloat. And it was Captain Vaderton's solemn duty to make sure that the captains of the future were just as resilient and exacting, tempered by the fires of experience and discipline so that they had iron wills of their own.
Captain Vaderton took no pleasure in it, though. In fact, he was pleased to note that Kellert didn't cry out. Even as he was led away to the officers' quarters to recover, Kellert walked steadily, back straight, head high. He might not be the most reliable officer, but at least he could take a beating.
Once the ordeal was over, and the men sent back to their posts, Captain Vaderton set a double watch at all hours, with orders to report anything they saw, no matter how minor or strange, directly to him. Then he took a turn at the helm. It wasn't necessary, of course. The Guardian had several helmsmen. But Captain Vaderton liked the feel of the hard wooden wheel in his hands now and then, especially after performing some of his more distasteful duties. The late afternoon sun sent sparkles skittering across the white-flecked sea. He took in a slow breath and allowed himself to savor the steady pull of the wheel against his hands—the surge of the ocean itself. To his mind, there was nothing more grand in all the world.
Gradually, Captain Vaderton became aware of a presence standing respectfully nearby.
"Mr. Jillen," he said. "Something on your mind?"
"Begging your pardon, Captain." Jillen squinted up at him in the hard sun.
There was something almost pretty about the boy's delicate features. Vaderton knew if the boy didn't toughen up, his peers would soon be giving him hells. But it was not Vaderton's duty to instruct the regular crew. That was the bosun's responsibility. So Vaderton said nothing about it. "Out with it, Mr. Jillen. You've already disturbed my serene repose."
"Well, sir." Jillen looked up at him earnestly. "I just wanted to know what you think it was I saw. The disappearing ship, I mean."
"I don't know," said the captain. "But there are stranger things in this world than ships that seem to vanish, I can assure you. I have seen weather that gave no warning. I have seen oarfish the length of this deck. And once, off in the distance, I saw a giant ship encased in metal."
"A ship of metal, sir? How did it not sink?"
"Perhaps some sailing art not yet known to us. Perhaps by biomancery."
"Biomancers, sir?" Jillen hesitated for a moment. "The men say you know one, sir. A biomancer, I mean. Is it true?"
"I'm not sure any normal man can know a biomancer. But I did serve one for a time, and he was pleased with my service." Vaderton knew that many of his peers whispered that this was the real reason he had been given a frigate at such a young age. The favor of biomancers held sway in both the navy and the imperial court.
"Are they really sorcerers, sir?" asked Jillen. "It's not just tricks?"
The captain smiled faintly. "Did you know, young Mr. Jillen, that we are not the only large and deadly thing in these seas called the Guardian?"
"I thought no two ships could have the same name."
"Oh, but it isn't a ship," said Vaderton. "It's a great sea beast created by the biomancers to protect the northern borders of the empire against invaders. I saw it myself, once, while I was in service to the biomancers. A terrible kraken as big as an island that can crush a ship in one of its massive tentacles as easily as you crack an egg."
"It sounds incredible, sir." Jillen's eyes were as wide and round as whirlpools.
"Think of the power of that kraken. Then imagine the power it must have taken to create such a thing. And that is the power of the biomancers."
"You'll find, young Mr. Jillen, that the world is full of wonders and terrors far beyond our humble expectations. Like as not, you'll see some before the end of this tour."
Jillen looked frightened, but also thrilled. "I hope so, sir."
Vaderton smiled. "It is ever the prerogative of youth to seek adventure. But most have their fill sooner than they expect."
"Not me, sir," Jillen said, his thin face confident. "I'll seek until the end of my days."
Captain Vaderton nodded. "May it always be so for you, young Mr. Jillen."
It was near twilight when a shout went up from the crow's nest. Captain Vaderton was back in his quarters, dining alone, as was his wont. A fist pounded frantically at his door. "We're under attack, Captain!"
Captain Vaderton grabbed his coat and hat, then threw open the door. "How many?" he demanded of the ashen-faced officer. "Is it pirates?"
The officer shook his head, his words stuttering as he tried to get them out. "Ghost ship!"
"Get ahold of yourself." Vaderton shoved the officer aside, sending the young man sprawling. He strode across the quarterdeck as he pulled on his coat. Hecker stood at the helm, his knuckles white as he gripped the wheel.
"Report," snapped the captain.
"Coming up on the port stern, sir."
"Give me your glass."
Hecker handed it to him. "You won't need it, though, sir."
The captain frowned as he made his way astern and climbed the ladder to the poop deck. From that height, he could see plainly what Hecker meant. A ship bore down on them, its two masts crammed with as much canvas as they could hold, plus the jibs and trysail. What made it unusual was that the entire vessel, from hull to royals, glowed an eerie phosphorescent green, the sort he'd seen emanating from jellyfish beneath the surface of the ocean on a calm night. Even taking into account the amount of sail and the advantage of wind, it was coming at them impossibly fast. Evasion was out of the question. Not that he had any intention of running.
"All hands!" he bellowed. "Beat to quarters!"
The word went down the ship as the drums began to pound. Soon the mess hall was empty and the deck was crawling with men. The captain returned to Hecker at the helm. The cannon master, Mr. Frain, had just arrived, looking disheveled, his eyes wide with concern.
"Frain, tuck in your shirts. Hecker, bring us about and give them a look at our broadside. Ghost or not, we'll make driftwood of them."
Frain immediately began putting himself together, his expression calming. Hecker nodded and spun the wheel. "Aye, Captain."
Often that was all it took. Show a bit of courage, and the men would find their own.
The Guardian turned slowly, its massive bulk driving against the prevailing current.
"Reporting for duty, sir." Midshipman Kellert stood at attention, looking pale but steady, his uniform spotless and wrinkle-free.
Captain Vaderton had given him leave to rest after his lashing, and was pleased to see the young officer had declined. He put his hand on Kellert's shoulder and nodded. "Very good, Mr. Kellert. We'll make a man of you yet. Tell Mr. Bitlow to ready the bow chasers in case they try to come about suddenly."
"Aye, sir." Kellert saluted again and hurried off.
The Guardian had completed its turn so that the port side faced the oncoming ship.
"Mr. Frain, show them what they're in for," Vaderton called to the cannon master.
"Port-side cannons at the ready!" called Frain down to the gun deck below.
Vaderton heard the sound of twenty cannons slamming into position, their iron muzzles bristling from the hull. He could almost feel the destructive potential of the ship vibrating in the deck beneath his feet.
"She don't seem intent on coming about, sir," said Hecker.
The captain frowned. "A head-on charge at our broadside is suicide. Even at their speed, they'll most likely be torn to pieces before they get close enough to ram or grapple. Surely their captain must see that." He trained his glass on them, but it was difficult to make out details of the hazy green ship. He could see no men, no flags or markings. He felt in his bones there was some other trick at work here, but he had no idea what it was. He couldn't show that to the men, of course.
"Maybe it's because they're already dead, sir," said Hecker. "Could be our shot will pass right through them."
"If that's true, they'll pass right through us as well. Either way, we'll find out soon enough," Vaderton said grimly. "Mr. Frain, fire as soon as we're in range."
A stillness fell on the crew as every man watched the approaching luminous ship.
"Fire!" called Frain.
The line of cannons roared like thunder, sending up a thick cloud of smoke. Their aim was true and the shot struck the approaching ship square in the bow. But instead of merely taking on damage, the entire ship exploded silently into tiny glowing pieces that sprayed out in all directions before slowly sinking into the sea.
"What in all hells…," said Frain.
A roar of cannon fire came from the starboard, and the Guardian bucked furiously from the impact. Captain Vaderton spun around, struggling to keep his footing on the swaying deck. He stared in disbelief at the ship that had suddenly appeared on the other side. It looked exactly the same as the first one, except it wasn't hazy and glowing. This ship was all too real, and had just unloaded a volley of shot into their starboard hull at point-blank range.
"Captain," said Frain, his voice pinched with fear. "Look at that flag."
The flag that flew from this ship's main had a white background on which had been painted a black oval with eight black lines trailing down from it. It was the sign of the biomancers, which Vaderton knew all too well. But cutting across that symbol was a thick, bloodred X. That, he had never seen. But he'd heard about it in all the old stories.
"The flag of the Kraken Hunter," whispered Hecker. "It's Dire Bane."
"No," said Captain Vaderton, his voice faltering for the first time. "It can't be. He was slain some forty years ago by Vinchen hand. Dire Bane is dead!"
A sailor ran up from the gun deck and said something quietly to Frain, who flinched at the news, then turned to the captain. "She's taken out most of our starboard cannons, sir."
"Are we taking on water?" demanded Vaderton.
Frain shook his head.
"There's that, at least," said Vaderton, his voice steadying. He watched as the Kraken Hunter cut across the stern and came around to their port side. "They caught us in a neat trick, but this fight is far from over, gentlemen. I don't know who is flying the flag of Dire Bane, but it's time to show them what an imperial warship can do. Mr. Frain, how long until the port cannons are reloaded?"
"Should only be a minute or two," said Frain. "We'll be ready well before they are."
"Excellent. Have them fire when ready."
The Kraken Hunter came about fast and closed rapidly. But before the Guardian could fire a single shot, the Kraken Hunter unloaded another volley, this time at their port side. The ship shook again, and Vaderton could hear the screams of the dead and dying cannoneers below.
"How could they reload that fast?" Frain shook his head in disbelief. "I swear, Captain. It's not possible."
"Clearly, it is." Vaderton watched as the Kraken Hunter hewed closer. The distance was still too great to throw a grapple, but they would likely cut across the bow and close for a grapple on the other side, now that they had no fear of cannon fire.
But instead they fired a third volley. This time, it was grapeshot that scattered across the main deck, tearing apart men and rigging with equal ferocity.
"How are they reloading so fast!" yelled Frain.
The Kraken Hunter continued on its trajectory across their bow.
"Where's my bow chasers!" roared Captain Vaderton. He trained his glass on the bow and saw that the third shot had been concentrated near the forecastle. It had claimed fewer lives than if it had gone across the waist, but now there was no one manning the guns. Among the dead and dying, Vaderton saw Kellert lying dead across one of the guns, as if shielding it with his body. A cluster of shot had taken off the side of his skull, and his brains were spilled onto the iron bore.
Meanwhile, the Kraken Hunter had come about on the starboard side again. It was still too wide to board, and Vaderton thought it might unload a fourth volley. He bellowed, "Hit the decks!" and the entire crew threw themselves down, including the captain.
But instead of the roar of cannon fire, he heard two pops, like springs snapping. He jumped to his feet in time to see two grappling hooks latch on to the Guardian's starboard gunwale. The line went taut and the Kraken Hunter reeled itself in close.
"All hands on starboard side to be boarded!"
The crew stumbled to their feet, grabbing swords, pikes, and pistols as they hurried to the starboard side.
Before they reached it, four figures rose up from the Kraken Hunter.
On the far left was a tall, powerfully built man in a black vest. He had close-cropped dark hair and beard, his tan face grimy with soot. One leg was encased in a steel frame, and he held a heavy mace in his thick hand. His expression was calm. Almost disinterested.
On the far right was a woman with curly dark hair. She wore a short wool coat and breeches tucked into tall leather boots. In her hands was a strange weapon. It looked like a length of fine chain, but there was a heavy weight on one end, and a knife blade on the other. Her dark eyes glittered even more sharply than her chainblade, a slight snarl on her rich burgundy lips.
Next to her was the tallest woman Vaderton had ever seen. She stood erect, almost regal, in a tight white gown that flared out into long, billowing sleeves. A deep white hood hid most of her face. It reminded Vaderton alarmingly of those worn by biomancers. All that could be seen framed between locks of straight black hair was the lower half of her calm face, lips painted bright red.
The final figure was a woman with the pale skin and blond hair of someone from the Southern Isles. She wore black leather Vinchen armor and had a sword in place of her right hand. When she turned her cold blue eyes on the captain, they struck a chill in his heart.
"Surrender now, and there need not be any more bloodshed," she said, her voice ringing across the ship.
"You have some surprises, I'll grant you," said Vaderton. "But you're no Dire Bane, just a woman. And you're outnumbered besides. I'll see you dead before sunrise." Then he drew his pistol and fired at her.
She flicked her sword arm. The blade gave an eerie hum as it swiveled around on a hinge at her wrist and slapped the bullet away. At the same time, the woman in white lifted her arms, the long white sleeves swirling as she splayed her fingers. Then every loaded gun on the deck suddenly exploded. Men screamed as they clutched at powder-burned hands and faces.
No one but a Vinchen could knock a bullet out of the air. And who else but a biomancer could make guns spontaneously explode? But Vaderton knew for a fact that women were forbidden in both the Vinchen and biomancer orders. So what was he dealing with?
The woman dressed as a Vinchen pointed her sword at Captain Vaderton. Then she kept her eyes locked on his as she hacked her way slowly through the now-disorderly chaos of wounded, frightened men. Mixed with the cries of pain was her sword's dark, mournful song.
Her companions jumped into the fray as well. The man laid about him with his mace, caving in skulls almost casually, or sweeping men off their feet with his steel leg. The woman on the other side darted in and out, snapping her chainblade into a sailor's throat, then another's eye, all the while using the weighted end to defend herself from attack. The biomancer woman stood back from the rest, her hands weaving in front of her constantly, as if dancing. Wherever she pointed, death sprang up. Some men caught fire; others crumbled to dust. Still others clawed at their own skin and shrieked as if their blood was boiling them alive.
All too soon, the Vinchen woman gained the quarterdeck, leaving headless and limbless bodies in her wake. The air was thick with the smell of blood.
Captain Vaderton drew his sword, but his hand shook despite his best efforts to still it.
The Vinchen woman's gaze was as ferocious and unfathomable as the sea. "Captain Vaderton, known servant of the biomancer council. Surrender, or die."
"A captain never surrenders his ship," said Vaderton, his voice shaking as badly as his hands. "I will do my duty or die trying."
She nodded. "Perhaps there's still some honor left in you after all. I'll make it quick." She brought her sword down.
- "The trilogy continues with murder and mayhem written in a captivating style that is breathtaking. Unique appellations and ingenious description add flair and humor to this continuing saga."—RT Book Reviews, Top Pick on Bane and Shadow
- "Intricate world of military action, magic, and piracy . . . . an emotionally engrossing tale leaves one eagerly awaiting the next book in the series."—Library Journal (starred review) on Bane and Shadow
- "Hope and Red return in the ingenious second installment of the Empire of Storms trilogy . . . . a tremendously satisfying segment of the journey."—Publishers Weekly on Bane and Shadow
- "Furious where it needs to be, deceptively tender where it can get away with it, adventurous all around."—Sam Sykes on Hope and Red
- "Hope and Red is my favorite book of the year. Full of nonstop, irresistible adventure, it captures that wonderful classic epic fantasy feel, while introducing a fantastic pair of memorable new heroes. I can't wait for the sequel!"—Sarah Beth Durst, author of The Queen of Blood
- On Sale
- Feb 28, 2017
- Page Count
- 544 pages