As the “audacious and subversive”* Shadow Campaigns novels continue, the weather is growing warmer, but the frosty threat of Vordan’s enemies is only growing worse...
As the roar of the guns subsides and the smoke of battle clears, the country of Vordan is offered a fragile peace…
After their shattering defeats at the hands of brilliant General Janus bet Vhalnich, the opposing powers have called all sides to the negotiating table in hopes of securing an end to the war. Queen Raesinia of Vordan is anxious to see the return of peace, but Janus insists that any peace with the implacable Sworn Church of Elysium is doomed to fail. For their Priests of the Black, there can be no truce with heretics and demons they seek to destroy, and the war is to the death.
Soldiers Marcus d’Ivoire and Winter Ihernglass find themselves caught between their general and their queen. Now, each must decide which leader truly commands their loyalty—and what price they might pay for final victory.
And in the depths of Elysium, a malign force is rising—and defeating it might mean making sacrifices beyond anything they have ever imagined.
About the Author
Django Wexler is the author of the Shadow Campaigns novels, including The Infernal Battalion, The Guns of Empire, The Price of Valor, The Shadow Throne, and The Thousand Names. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. When not planning Shadow Campaigns, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts. He is also the author of the middle-grade fantasy novels The Forbidden Library, The Mad Apprentice, and The Palace of Glass.
Read an Excerpt
Alex stared up at the road from the ditch and licked her lips.
Three men. Four horses.
They were uhlans, light cavalry from the emperor's regular army, with tall embroidered caps and smart uniforms. Their horses were good ones, and the saddlebags practically bulged with provisions and supplies.
They probably have wool socks. For the past three nights, ever since she'd abandoned the last husks of her shoes rather than try to repair them for the hundredth time, Alex had been lusting after wool socks. In the old days she'd hardly ever thought about socks. They'd been hers for the asking, along with clever, noiseless shoes perfect for sneaking across rooftops or padding down darkened halls. Now she was barefoot, and the stony ground of Murnsk had sliced and blistered her feet.
Socks, she had to admit, were probably not the most important thing in those saddlebags. If she was going to make it, she needed food, and most of all she needed those horses. They were there for the taking, and all that stood in her way were three young men who'd done nothing worse than sign up to wear a fancy uniform and ride in parades.
They work for the emperor, which means they work for Elysium, which means they work for the Black Priests, whether they know it or not. But Alex knew that was thin. All of Murnsk works for the emperor, in the end. Does that make them all just as guilty? She'd been a thief-the best thief in the world-but she'd never thought of herself as a murderer. Once, she'd kept a count of the men she'd killed, when she absolutely couldn't avoid it. Now she'd lost track, or purposely forgotten.
It had been three days since she'd eaten, and that had been a squirrel she'd clumsily skinned herself, a few mouthfuls of stringy muscle and fat.
Now is not the time for second thoughts. She'd left the Mountain because she loved Abraham and very much thought she loved Maxwell, and also because the two of them were the most sanctimonious, infuriating pair she'd ever met. They all agreed what had to be done, but even when an opportunity fell into their laps they refused to take it. So Alex had decided to take it for them.
She stared at the three men. Abraham would have told her to wait, not to be impulsive, to consider other ways of getting the supplies she needed. Easy for him to say. He's not eating squirrel.
In the end, what decided her was the thought of going back. It seemed like the only alternative, apart from dying of starvation, and she couldn't bear to think what they'd say to her. Especially Maxwell, with everything she'd said to him before she left. Bullheaded stubbornness was probably a poor reason to decide to kill three men, she thought, but honestly, did the reason really matter? Maxwell and his tutor can debate it in their endless hairsplitting.
She rose from the tall grass and climbed out of the ditch, just beside where the three uhlans stood together, talking and smoking. One of them noticed her and did a double take, tossing his pipe down and putting his hand on his sword.
"Hey there!" he said. "Stop!"
The senior of the three regarded her and sniffed. "You'll be getting no charity from us. Off with you."
"I believe it's a girl." The third uhlan peered closer. "Are you selling, is that it? I'll give you a box of hardtack for a quick ride."
"I can't believe you," the first said. "She's filthy."
The third uhlan shrugged. "Cunny is cunny."
Well, Alex thought, that makes this a little easier.
She raised her hands and exerted her will. Two globes of darkness formed around her fingers, congealing out of the late-afternoon shadows like pools of ink. As the uhlans gaped, the darkness formed itself into three long, thin needles and stabbed out to catch each man just above the bridge of his nose, punching effortlessly through flesh and bone. A moment later the three tendrils withdrew, and the uhlans collapsed like puppets with their strings cut, blood leaking from neat holes in their brows the size of a pencil.
Alex let out a ragged breath. Done. There was no taking it back. Now food, and socks, and-
There was the crack of a pistol shot, and she stumbled forward, as though she'd been punched in the side. She managed to stay on her feet, turning to see a fourth uhlan stumbling out of the opposite ditch, his pants still unfastened. He was fumbling with his pistol, clawing at the pouch on his belt for another cartridge.
"Demon!" he shouted. "M-m-monster-"
Another line of darkness speared out, going through his throat like a flat-bladed spear. When it withdrew, blood fountained, drowning his cries.
Four horses, Alex thought muzzily, and four men.
She found herself lying on the ground, with no memory of how she'd gotten there. One of the horses had come over to investigate her, its hot breath brushing her face. Her side stung, the first tendrils of a pain that promised much worse to come.
Get up. Find out how bad it is. Alex closed her eyes, then forced them open. I didn't give up when they had me chained to the bed of a cart. I'm not giving up now.
She raised her head and fumbled with her shirt. It was slick with blood, but it seemed to be leaking, rather than spurting, which was probably good. Her probing fingers found the wound, all the way to one side of her torso. She tried to remember long-ago lessons. If the ball had torn her guts, she would fester and die, sure as sunrise, but she didn't think it had.
I could go back to the Mountain. If she could make it that far, Abraham would help her whether he was angry at her or not. I could . . .
Slowly, one hand pressed against her side, Alex sat up, then got to her feet. Gritting her teeth through the pain, she stumbled toward the nearest horse and pulled open the saddlebags, looking for bandages.
The horses would take her south. And somewhere to the south was Janus bet Vhalnich and the army of Vordan, and the best chance she would ever have to get her revenge on the Priests of the Black.
Talbonn was not a city with a great deal to recommend it, in Raesinia's opinion.
It stood at Vordan's northern frontier, the last major settlement before the Murnskai border. The highway that passed through it was an important artery of commerce, but it didn't look the part. It barely looked like a road at all, more like a track worn in the mud by a bunch of animals all going the same way. Which was more or less the truth-the biggest trade here was cattle from the Transpale, driven north along this road in exchange for heavy wagonloads of timber and iron from the freezing forests of vast, empty Murnsk. Talbonn was the sort of city that grows up to cater to carters and cattlemen, with filthy, stinking streets, low, mean buildings, and an overabundance of winesinks and whorehouses.
Nevertheless, it had made an effort to rise to the occasion. Uniformed armsmen stood at regular intervals along the main road, which had been swept clean of dung and broken glass for the benefit of the noble visitors. The largest hotel in the city, which called itself the Grand in pale imitation of the real thing back in Vordan, was a four-story eyesore of plaster and gilt with pretensions to architecture, covered with unnecessary buttresses and ornamental balconies. Raesinia rolled her eyes at it as her carriage drew closer and pulled into the circular drive, passing footmen with too many shiny buttons.
"When we stop," Sothe said, "remember not to open the door until the second carriage pulls up."
"We've been over this," Raesinia said. "More than once."
"Forgive me," Sothe said. "You have a habit of ignoring my instructions."
That brought a faint smile to Raesinia's lips. Her Head of Household was as jumpy as a startled cat, unhappy at how hastily the conference had been assembled and how little time she'd been given to secure the site. Though, truth be told, Raesinia wasn't sure any amount of time would have been enough for Sothe to feel comfortable. It had been almost six months since their clash with the Penitent Damned, but the attack of the supernatural assassins had clearly left a deep impression. Sothe opened every door as though she expected to find a murderous Black Priest behind it.
The carriage drew to a halt, and a few moments later Raesinia heard the second vehicle draw up behind it. Booted feet crunched on the gravel, and there was a rap at the door.
"Your Majesty?" Barely said from outside. "We're ready."
Raesinia glanced at Sothe and got a slight nod. She stood, hardly needing to duck to fit through the doorway, and stepped out.
At least wartime was good for banishing some of the more ridiculous formality of the royal court. Raesinia wore a sober dress of black and gray, with a sash in Vordanai blue providing the only splash of color. She'd impressed upon her dressmakers that it wouldn't do to have the queen going around in some gaudy confection while Vordanai soldiers were risking their lives at the front. Sothe, coming behind her, was dressed even more severely, in a long, dark skirt that Raesinia assumed provided plenty of space for concealed weapons. As an ex-Concordat assassin, Sothe never went unarmed.
Her guards formed a loose ring around the carriage. She'd restored the old Grenadier Guards to their traditional position of protecting the person of the monarch, but insisted on adding a few of Colonel Ihernglass' Girls' Own to her security detail. The Grenadier Guards looked handsome, with their tailored uniforms, polished caps, and colorful sashes, but they hadn't been very effective the last time it had come to a fight.
The two women Ihernglass had left her, in contrast, had been part of the group that had rescued her from Maurisk and Ionkovo during the last throes of the previous year's fighting. Corporal Barley was universally known as "Barely," the joke being that with her slight stature she was barely there at all. She was a canny soldier, though, and a deadly fighter. Her companion, the mute Joanna, was a foot taller and built like a blacksmith. Raesinia had a good deal more faith in these veterans-and Sothe's diligence-than in the spit-and-polish men of the Guards.
More local armsmen stood at the entrance to the hotel. A bowing footman led the way inside, Raesinia and Sothe at the center of a column of smart blue uniforms. They wound their way through the lobby, drawing bows and stares from the curious staff, and toward the ballroom. Sothe accepted a scrap of paper from a hurrying messenger, glanced at it, and bent close to Raesinia's ear.
"Everyone's here, except for Janus. Apparently there's been a delay on the road."
Raesinia frowned. They'd deliberately tried to arrive after the First Consul, just to make the relative hierarchy clear to the foreign guests. Did he anticipate that? Is this a message? Or, of course, a cart-horse could have thrown a shoe.
"There's more." Sothe grimaced. "Orlanko is here."
"What?" Raesinia hissed.
Orlanko, the infamous Last Duke, had been the head of the Concordat secret police and had tried to seize power after her father's death. His coup had been thwarted with Janus' help, but the man himself had fled the country after his final attempt to turn the army against Raesinia had failed.
"As a guest of the Borelgai. The king's given him shelter." Sothe lowered her voice even further. "Do you want me to put together a squad to arrest him?"
Damnation. Satisfying as it might be, she couldn't, not without driving the Borels away from the conference table. Whatever their true intentions, they couldn't allow the capture of a guest under their protection.
"No," Raesinia said. "But you'd better stay clear." Sothe had once been one of Orlanko's best killers, and Raesinia had no idea if he was aware of her current role. Easier to play it safe. "I'll keep Barely and Jo with me. Have the Guards keep an eye on their foreign counterparts."
Sothe nodded. At the entrance to the ballroom, she and the Grenadier Guards peeled off, and Raesinia continued to the double doors with only the two women from the Girls' Own for escort. Footmen pushed the doors open, and a butler with a carrying voice announced, "Her Majesty Queen Raesinia Orboan of Vordan!"
I must be getting used to this. She hardly flinched at the introduction, or the sudden stares from everyone in the big room. Once, the suffocating blanket of official attention might have driven her to flee; now she only had to take a deep breath before gliding forward, her old court training automatically making her steps careful and smooth.
The ballroom, like the hotel, was dressed up to look like something it wasn't. Gaudy hangings covered the walls, and a hundred lamps hung from the ceiling. But there was no way to disguise the awkward, boxy lines of the room. Raesinia pictured it being used for cattlemen's rustic dances once the dignitaries had departed.
No dancing seemed likely today. Small tables were covered with food and tiny glasses of wine, and hotel staff circulated among the guests, offering pastries. There were soldiers, in the uniforms of four countries-Vordanai blue, the yellow and black of Hamvelt, Borelgai mud red, and Murnskai white. Men in shabby suits were probably clerks, while those more impressively attired were civilian officials of their governments. Raesinia had the feeling that she, Barely, and Joanna were the only women in the room.
It was easy to see where the nexuses of power lay, just by watching the movement of the crowd. Lesser lights orbited dense knots of conversation the way that philosophers said the world went around the sun, drawn in by their gravity but unable to penetrate to the inner circle. The largest group was also the loudest, a mob of wasp-colored soldiers and men in long-tailed coats engaged in such energetic argument that it seemed like punches might soon be thrown. The Hamveltai were in the most precarious situation of all the attendees, having suffered grievous reverses the previous year-their field army smashed and their greatest fortress forced to surrender, while their ally Desland had actually been occupied by Vordanai forces.
Evidently they haven't figured out what to do about it. Raesinia decided to let them stew for a moment. She walked instead toward the Murnskai delegation. This was mostly soldiers, spotless white uniforms dripping with gold braid and trimmed with fur at the collars. Their tight circle opened at her approach, revealing a tall, broad man at its center. His uniform was the most impressive of all, both sides of his chest studded with medals alongside a cloth-of-gold sash, and he wore a long cloak of flowing white fur.