Wrath of Empire by Brian McClellan: Prologue

Wrath of Empire

Prologue

Orz stood at the bottom of a narrow flight of steps, head tilted toward the light streaming in from the open hatch above him. He could hear gulls calling above and feel the gentle rocking of the ship as it sat in harbor. Both sensations had become ubiquitous to him these last few months.

“Go on,” a voice behind him said.

Orz looked over his shoulder at the morion-helmed soldier standing just behind him. The soldier held a short pike, a ceremonial weapon carried by some of the bone-eye bodyguards. Orz wondered where they were—what port had the floating prison sailed into this time. More importantly, he wondered which bone-eye had come to gawk at him now.

Bone-eyes were not unlike Privileged; their vast power was contained within fragile human bodies that could be broken as easily as any ceramic vase. Bone-eyes could die. This bodyguard could die. Orz envisioned himself stalking through the ship, murdering everyone in his path before swimming to shore and disappearing into the countryside.

“We don’t have all day,” the soldier behind him said, thrusting the blade of the pike against the small of Orz’s back. “Move.”

Orz snorted and took the first heavy step, careful lest the weight of his chains cause him to lose his balance and tumble backward onto the soldier’s blade. He jangled as he climbed, feeling the iron shackles scrape against his bare skin, and within a few moments he stepped out into the light of day for the first time in months.

He blinked, trying to let his eyes adjust, but was shoved along in front of the soldier. Several other guards arrived, forming a cordon around him, pushing and prodding him along the deck, half-blind, and then up another flight of stairs to the ship’s forecastle.

Orz felt a hand on his shoulder and jerked away, turning toward the railing and gazing through the pain of the light at an unfamiliar shore. A city rose above him, high onto an immense plateau covered in strange buildings. He felt his breath catch in his throat; during the long, secluded journey he had thought they were taking him to a new prison somewhere in Dynize.

This was not Dynize. This city; this plateau—he knew only one like it in the storybooks: Landfall.

He was not given further opportunity to wonder. Hands grasped him by the chains and pulled him forward, driving him to the other edge of the forecastle, where he was kicked to his knees. He fell without a sound, ignoring the pain as he had been taught, and instead raised his eyes to find the bone-eye he’d already guessed had called for him.

Orz had never met the old man sitting straight-backed on a stool, drinking out of a tiny porcelain cup, but he knew him by description and reputation. Ka-Sedial was the emperor’s second cousin and chief adviser, and most people in Dynize knew him as the true power behind the crown. He was a bone-eye who had risen to power on a tide of blood and taken credit for ending the Dynize civil war.

Orz was not impressed. As a dragonman, he was not impressed by much.

Ka-Sedial finished his tea and handed the cup to an attendant, then placed his hands palms-down on his knees and stared out to sea. Orz began to think that he was being purposefully ignored when he heard a commotion behind him: another person, wrapped in chains similarly to Orz, was dragged up to the forecastle and thrown to her knees.

Then another was brought up, and then another, until six men and women knelt before Ka-Sedial. Orz examined his companions. He only recognized two of them, but all five were covered in inky black tattoos, their bodies hard as granite. They were like him.

Six dragonmen, all in one place.

“This is an auspicious gathering,” Orz said softly.

Ka-Sedial finally turned his head, sweeping his gaze across all the prisoners. When he spoke, his voice was gentle, forcing Orz to strain to hear him over the creaking of the ship and the squawking of the gulls. “Do you know what you all have in common?”

They were all dragonmen, but Orz knew that was not the answer Ka-Sedial sought. Orz looked one way, then the other, at his five companions. The woman to his left had long, dirty red hair that covered most of her face, but he remembered the scar across her left eye. Her name was Ji-Karnari, and seven years ago she desecrated a bone-eye temple for reasons he never learned. The man to his right, willowy and small of stature, was named Ji-Matle. Nine years ago he was assigned to guard one of the emperor’s cousins, whom he bedded.

No one spoke up, so Orz cleared his throat. “We have all disgraced ourselves in the eyes of the emperor.”

“Very good.” Ka-Sedial stood up, and Orz couldn’t help but smile at how old and frail he looked. He could snap Ka-Sedial like a twig, if not for these chains. Ka-Sedial noticed the smile and his brow wrinkled. He took a step over to Orz. “Tell me, Ji-Orz, what was your crime?”

Orz closed his eyes, thinking of the last few years spent in this dungeon or that, every movement restricted, always watched, like a prize dog gone rabid whose masters could not bear to put him down. “I did not bow during an audience with the emperor.”

“And why did you not bow?”

“Because he is not my emperor.”

Ka-Sedial gave an almost grandfatherly sigh and gestured toward the shoreline and the city on the plateau. “The civil war is over. Your false emperor is dead and the governments of both sides have reconciled. We have turned our wars outward—as is proper—and we have come to Fatrasta to reclaim land that was once ours. We have come to find our god, and we have done so together. United.” He sighed once more, shaking his head like a disappointed teacher, and Orz found himself annoyed that after all he and his companions had suffered, Ka-Sedial would treat them all like children.

“Why are we here?” Orz asked.

Ka-Sedial looked down at him, a hint of disgust in his eyes, then raised his hands toward the chained dragonmen. “You have all disgraced yourselves in the eyes of the emperor, and your positions as dragonmen prevent us from spilling your blood. Every one of you will live long lives alone in the darkness, left to rot away.”

“Or?” Orz asked. He could smell it now—the scent of an option, a way out. He tried to think of what he knew about Ka-Sedial. The Ka was a driven man, cold and thoughtful but given, from time to time, to rage. He’d built his power by destroying or subjugating all that opposed him. He was a man who did not take no for an answer, and did not leave any enemy standing.

Annoyance flashed briefly across Ka-Sedial’s face at Orz’s interruption. He lowered his hands. “Or you can redeem yourselves. My armies have taken Landfall. We will take Fatrasta in due time. Meanwhile, I have an errand that needs to be run and I cannot spare any of the dragonmen, Privileged, or bone-eyes in my arm.”

The invasion of Fatrasta had been planned for almost a decade, but Orz still found himself surprised that it had actually happened—that the treaty between the two sides of the civil war had managed to hold long enough for this to happen. He needed more information about the invasion—what kind of people had been found in Fatrasta; their weapons and their warriors. But that would come later, he was sure of it.

Ji-Karnari, the scarred woman beside Orz, finally raised her head. Orz could see the eagerness in her eyes and couldn’t help but judge her. Dragonmen should hide their emotions better.

“What is this errand, Great Ka?” Ji-Karnari asked. “How can we be redeemed?”

Ka-Sedial put his hand out, brushing his fingertips along Ji-Karnari’s forehead. She shuddered at the sensation. He said, “There were…humiliations suffered in the taking of Landfall. Humiliations against the army, and humiliations against the dragonmen. I have already sent soldiers to deal with the former, but the latter…,” he trailed off, smiling coldly. “One of your order—one of the very best dragonmen by the name of Ji-Kushel—was murdered in Landfall by a common soldier.”

“So?” Orz asked. He felt emboldened. This was a way out now, and Ka-Sedial was going to give it to him. But he did not trust Ka-Sedial, and he would ask questions. “Many common soldiers have killed dragonmen. There are overwhelming numbers or lucky shots, or—”

“In single combat,” Ka-Sedial cut him off.

Orz heard his teeth click together as he quickly shut his mouth. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He’d heard rumors of powder mages, sorcerers who might have the speed and strength to kill a dragonman with the aid of their magic. But Ka-Sedial would have said so if it was one of those. For a common soldier to kill a dragonman in single combat? That was a humiliation.

Ka-Sedial looked toward the land again, one hand twitching as if in impatience. “I do not stand for such humiliation. This soldier is an old warrior and, if given time, may attract followers. He may become even more dangerous than he already is. I am cutting you loose. All six of you. I want you to work together, with Ji-Karnari in command.”

A smile crossed Ji-Karnari’s face. Orz resisted the urge to roll his eyes. A small part of him wanted to spit on Ka-Sedial’s feet and tell him off, but a much larger part had no interest in spending the rest of his life in chains. He would accomplish Ka-Sedial’s task, and then he would revel in his freedom.

“Who is this soldier?” Orz asked.

“He is a Lancer by the name of Ben Styke,” Ka-Sedial replied. “Find him and bring me his head.”