Read Servant of the Crown Online
Authors: Brian McClellan
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Epic, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages), #Literature & Fiction
All material contained within copyright © Brian McClellan, 2014. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and scenarios are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. All resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Typesetting and ebook conversion by handebooks.co.uk
was a crisp fall day with a slight breeze and clouds overhead that rolled and boiled in the gray sky, threatening rain as Captain Tamas prepared for the duel.
The field of honor was an hour’s ride outside of Adopest, the capital of Adro. The wheat had been harvested and the ground lay bare but for the chaff and trampled stalk. In the distance, a farmer and his wife stood outside their stone-walled hovel and watched as Tamas’s second, and the second of his opponent, paced off the points for the duel.
Tamas’s second was a man named Matin. He was only an officer cadet preparing to enter the army at the rank of lieutenant, but it had been the best Tamas could do at such short notice. Few commissioned officers wanted anything to do with him.
Tamas checked his pistol for the third time. His powder was dry, the pan primed, and bullet loaded. The seconds had inspected both pistols but Tamas would rather be confident in his weapon and have his opponent think him nervous than suffer a misfire.
The ground was paced out, the center marked, and the swords stuck point-first into the ground where the opponents would turn and fire. Matin spoke quietly to his opposite number and then approached Tamas.
“Sir, I beg you to reconsider.”
“Has he apologized?” Tamas asked.
“No, sir.” Matin rushed on before Tamas could respond. “But this is a mistake, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“And why is that?” Tamas stared at the cadet, forcing the young officer to look up and meet his eye.
Matin swallowed hard, and Tamas was secretly pleased he could have that effect on a man. At twenty-one, Matin was six years younger than Tamas, the third son of a baron and already engaged to be married. While Tamas had nothing but his name.
“It’s just,” Matin said slowly. “It doesn’t seem wise. You’ll risk your rank! Captain Linz’s father is a duke and, uh, well you’re a …”
“A commoner? I’m aware, Matin. You don’t have to stutter.” Tamas had fought over two dozen duels in the last ten years, almost exclusively against nobles, and he’d even killed a few of his opponents. But he’d never challenged the son of a duke before. Even if he was a second son. “If you would rather not be involved, I will understand. I just ask that you speak to my opponent and schedule a new date for the duel.”
Matin visibly steeled himself, straightening his back. “I gave my word I would second for you, sir.”
“And I’ll remember that when I’m your commanding officer.”
Matin smiled as if Tamas had made a joke. Tamas ignored that, turning to eye his opponent from across the field. Captain Linz was a tall man, broad in the chest with gold hair like a lion—a natural-born grenadier if Tamas had ever seen one. He was grateful that Linz had not demanded sabers, as he would have likely defeated Tamas.
“I am not without mercy,” Tamas said. “Would you please remind the captain that I am a powder mage? I’ll accept his apology for the slur against my parentage and the parentage of my hounds, and we can part as friends.” Tamas caught Linz’s eye and gave him a wan smile.
Matin looked at him as if he were mad.
“Well, go on,” Tamas said.
“Yes, sir.” Matin headed across the field to meet Linz’s second.
Tamas used the time to check his pistol yet again, and wonder about his own wisdom in pursuing this duel. If he were wounded, he had no funds for a Privileged healer and his recovery would keep him from leaving on the next campaign. If he won and wounded or killed his opponent, he would gain the enmity of a duke.
Absently, Tamas tore the end off a powder charge and sprinkled the granules on his tongue. He could feel the effect immediately. His vision and hearing sharpened, his blood pounded in his ears and everything else in the world seemed sluggish. The powder trance would give him increased strength, agility, and speed, but he had no intention of using any of those for this duel.
No, he just needed focus.
Matin spoke with Linz’s second, who relayed Tamas’s message to Linz. The big captain threw his head back and gave a booming laugh. Even without the benefit of a powder trance Tamas could have heard his reply.
“Tell that son of a whore that I don’t believe in fairy tales. He can shoot at me with whatever powder sorcery he thinks he has.”
Tamas sighed and waited for Matin to return.
“He said,” Matin began.
“I heard him,” Tamas responded. “Bloody fool has a third cousin in the royal cabal. He’s fought beside Privileged sorcerers, and he thinks the idea of powder magic is a fairy tale?”
“I’ve killed men at a mile and a quarter. Pit, I’ve killed Gurlish Privileged at that distance. There is no rule that keeps me from using my powers in a duel, so long as my opponent knows about them.” Tamas could feel his ire rising and forced himself to take a deep breath.
Bloody nobles. Arrogant and ignorant, every one of them
, he thought. After a second deep breath, he said, “Shall we?”
The seconds accompanied both opponents to the middle point, and Tamas and Linz took up a stance back to back.
“Damned peasant,” Linz said in a low voice.
Tamas didn’t respond.
“Gentlemen,” Matin said. “You will each proceed to the furthest point at a measured pace, at which time you will both turn and fire one pistol. Upon firing both parties will consider the matter closed and honor satisfied. Do we agree?”
“Yes,” Linz said.
“Of course,” Tamas said.
“Very well. Begin!”
Tamas took slow steps until he reached his marker and turned sharply on his heel. Linz did the same, his pistol coming up in one quick motion. Tamas could tell that Linz had pulled the trigger prematurely, and his preternatural senses heard the bullet smack into the ground just in front of his feet.
Tamas watched Linz for a moment. He could sense Linz’s uneasiness begin to grow as he realized he had missed, could see Linz pull the trigger again and again, as if willing out a second bullet.
Tamas turned toward his opponent sidelong and slowly raised his pistol. He took a long, steady breath, leveling his weapon. Linz glanced at his second as the moments ticked by, and Tamas briefly wondered if he’d shout out an apology in hopes of a reprieve.
Tamas pulled the trigger. He
have willed the bullet along a straight path with the strength of his sorcery, taking it through Linz’s heart with surgical precision. At thirty paces, however, he didn’t have to. The bullet flew from the smoothbore barrel of Tamas’s pistol and took off Linz’s right earlobe.
Linz immediately clutched at the side of his face. “Bloody pit!” he screamed, dancing about, nearly tripping over the sword that marked the end of the dueling ground. Blood streamed through his fingers and his second rushed to help him, brandishing a handkerchief.
Tamas turned away from the swearing officer and savored the sulfur smell of spent powder, his mind already moving to other things. “You may tell Captain Linz that I am satisfied.”
“Did you aim for his face?” Matin asked, mouth agape.
“No, my good man. That would not have been gentlemanly. I aimed for his earlobe.”
“You’re that good?”
“It may have been safer to kill him, sir.”
Tamas cocked an eyebrow at his second. “And why is that?”
“He’ll either think you were showing off or that you meant to aim at his face. One is an insult, and the other, as you said, is ungentlemanly.”
“Or,” Tamas countered, “He’ll learn not to challenge a powder mage to a duel with pistols. Either way, I expect I’ll be hearing from Linz or his father. You may tell either of them that I’d welcome another duel.”
Tamas couldn’t help the spring to his gait as he jogged up the front steps of the House of Nobles clutching a summons from General Seske.
The letter did not say why he had been summoned. His duel with Captain Linz had been eight days prior, and he suspected that if any action were to be taken against him it would have happened already. No, Tamas had been called before the general for an entirely different reason.
His advancement to the rank of major had been approved.
The hub of the Adran government was an immense, six-story building in the center of Adopest. It had marble floors, gorgeously-wrought stonework, and magnificent arched hallways. It was a building that could take away the breath of even a seasoned campaigner—which Tamas was.
He marched swiftly up to the second floor, where he reached the landing only to be shoved roughly to one side.
A challenge died on his lips. He’d been shoved—or rather, brusquely shouldered—by a hulking woman in the crimson and gray of the royal cabal. Tamas pressed himself against the wall without comment to let her and the other five guards tramp past him. Each of them bore a pike, with a heavy saber at their belt and a cuirass on their breast, and they marched in a diamond formation around a Privileged sorcerer.
The Privileged was a handsome woman of about forty-five with streaks of gray in her raven hair. She had a regal bearing and wore the runed gloves that allowed her to draw sorcery from the Else. In his thirteen years in the army he’d seen countless Privileged, both at home and abroad, but had never spoken to one. And he’d never seen one in the House of Nobles.
He watched her proceed down the stairs, troubled for a reason that he could not pinpoint, the smell of jasmine perfume lingering behind her.
When he’d managed to shake himself of his reverie, he looked down at the summons in his hand and proceeded down the hallway. He entered a small antechamber, where the general’s secretary immediately ushered him into the general’s office.
The man behind the desk was
Tamas snapped to attention. “Colonel Westeven, sir!”
The colonel was a tall man, thin as a fencepost, and in his late forties, he was already completely bald. He was one of the few superiors for which Tamas felt any sort of respect. Both a capable commander and politician, he was expected to be named general before the end of the year.
“Sit down, Captain,” Westeven said without looking up from the letter he was writing.
“Thank you, sir.” Tamas took the chair across from Westeven and smoothed out the message he received. “I was told that I was to meet General Seske here, sir.” He resisted the urge to rub at his nose. He could still smell the Privileged’s jasmine perfume.
“General Seske is in Budwiel,” Westeven said.
Tamas frowned. “Sir?”
Westeven finally looked up. His face was somber. “The general has me handling all of his business while he is on holiday.”
“Indeed. Captain, do you mind if I call you Tamas?”
Tamas hesitated. The colonel was acting very strangely. “No, sir.”
“Tamas, I like to think of myself as an honest man, so I will not lie to you. Until five minutes ago I had intended to present you with papers honoring your advancement to the rank of major. I would have done so with pleasure.”
Tamas wet his lips. This was not going anywhere good, and he didn’t trust himself to speak.
“Five minutes ago, I was informed that you have been accused of cheating in a duel. Furthermore …”
Tamas leapt to his feet, hand on his small sword. “That is a lie!”
“Furthermore,” Westeven continued, talking over him and gesturing that he sit, “I have been instructed to suspend you until we can convene a hearing before two magistrates and two members of the General Staff.”
“I must protest, sir! I would never do such a thing. My last duel was completely legal and witnessed by two seconds. My opponent was barely wounded!”
“Be quiet, Captain, and let me speak!” Westeven gave a frustrated sigh. “Your suspension from duty begins immediately. I know this means you’ll miss the next campaigning season in Gurla, and I know how much that means to you. But this is a grave accusation that the Adran army takes most seriously.”
“Sir, the hearing may not be for months.”
“That is true,” Westeven admitted.
“Is Captain Linz my accuser?“
“I’m not able to give you that information right now,” Westeven said. “And I strongly suggest that you don’t do anything rash. You and I both know that a man of your station cannot afford to make any mistakes.”
“Which is why I would not have —” Tamas began.
Westeven cut him off. “That is not for me to decide. Again, Tamas, I do this regretfully.” He got to his feet and crossed to the window, clasping his hands behind his back as he looked out over the square below. “I’m your greatest admirer, Tamas. Only a handful of commoners have ever risen to captain in the Adran army and none of them have made major. Unlike many of my colleagues, I see it not as an embarrassment to the system but rather a testament to your own skill and bravery. I’ve watched you lead men into battle. I’ve seen you fight. You’re a damned good soldier and a natural leader.”
Tamas sat stiffly, the summons that he had so happily grasped as he hurried to the House of Nobles now forgotten on the desk. “Thank you, sir,” he rasped. He stared at his boots, cursing his pride. If he had just walked away from Linz the night he had been insulted, none of this would have happened. “Is there anything I can do for myself, sir?”
“Keep your boots polished and mind your manners. Cheating in a duel is enough to see you lose your rank. It shouldn’t be enough to see you tossed from the army completely, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone pushes it that far. There are a lot of men who don’t like seeing a commoner climb the ranks.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“And Tamas, I can do one thing for you; this will be a private suspension. You will continue to receive your pay and be allowed in the officer’s mess until the hearing.”
Tamas nodded, unable to speak. This was an outrage. It went beyond politics and decorum. Certainly shooting off Linz’s earlobe had been an insult. But nothing worthy of this!
He was dismissed and retired to the hallway, where he slumped against the wall, his energy gone. For years he had fought his way up the ranks. He had played their games, kissing asses and leading suicide charges. And all for his next advancement to be snatched away because he’d dueled a duke’s son.