Wrath of Empire
“Why wasn’t this given to me immediately?” Vlora demanded.
She stood in the trampled grass of the river valley, her jacket soaked with sweat from an afternoon of riding back and forth across the valley, making sure her defensive line was properly prepared. It was almost six in the evening. Behind her, roughly two thousand men waited behind a narrow strip of raised earth they’d spent the entire afternoon constructing. They crouched against the muddy earthworks anticipating her orders.
A messenger stood in front of Vlora. He wore a black jacket with a yellow scarf, indicating that he was one of the Blackhats the Mad Lancers had recruited into their fold. She could smell the whiskey on his breath.
“Are you going to answer me, soldier?” Vlora asked in a low tone.
The Blackhat opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. Behind him, Olem stood with one hand on his pistol, his face grim, head turned to examine the southern horizon.
Vlora held a message between her fingers. All it said, in a hasty scrawl, was, Superior force encountered. Engaging. It was stamped with a skull and lance, and said the date and time. Nearly five hours ago. Vlora’s hand began to tremble with anger. “If you gasp at me like a fish one more time I will throw you in that goddamn river with a cannonball chained to your ankle.”
“General,” Olem said quietly.
“I…I…I…,” the messenger stuttered.
“You what? Took a message of utmost importance from a colonel in my army and rushed it back to camp? You were in such a state that you thought you’d have a drink to calm your nerves before you brought this to me? And then you had some more to drink, with a bloody urgent military correspondence in your pocket?”
The messenger gave a shaky nod.
Vlora drew a powder charge from her pocket and cut the paper with her thumb. She held it up to one nostril, snorting once, then followed suit with the other. Her rage became distant, more controlled, like the sound of a river far away, and after a few deep breaths she decided she would not kill a man in front of her infantry. Sights and sounds became sharper. The world made more sense.
“General,” Olem repeated in a gentle, but firm tone.
“I’m fine,” she said evenly. “Tell me,” she asked the messenger, “do you know what you’ve done?”
Another shaky nod.
“Do you really? Do you know the scope of this?”
“I…I think so.” Sweat poured down the man’s face and neck.
She leaned forward until their faces were almost touching. “I don’t kill men for incompetence, even when I want to. Even when they deserve it. Even when they may have just lost us a forthcoming battle. When the enemy comes, I expect you to be on the front line fighting like a man possessed. Now, get out of my sight.”
The messenger turned and fled.
Vlora took a few moments to calm down, her mind racing as she attempted to adjust all her stratagems. “We spent all afternoon preparing for enemy infantry. Now we find out that they have proper cavalry as well.”
“That seems to be the gist of things,” Olem agreed.
“Have we had any messages from Styke since?”
“Shit,” Vlora breathed. “He may be dead. Captured. For all we know, we’ll have five thousand enemy horses on our flank in an hour.” She closed her eyes. “He could have damn well said how superior their force was.”
“I can’t imagine it was much bigger, if he engaged,” Olem said hopefully.
“Mad Ben Styke charged forces several times his size during the Fatrastan War. You think he’s mellowed with age?”
Olem pursed his lips. “I don’t think he has.”
“Send out our scouts. Anyone we have left with a horse. I want to know where Styke is, and I want to know where the enemy cavalry are.”
“I already sent them.”
“Good. What’s our last report on the Dynize main army?”
“They’re still coming in quickly. Marching like a force possessed.”
Vlora hesitated. She didn’t know why the Dynize were moving so fast, but she would use it to her benefit.
“Did you get a confirmation on their numbers?”
“Twenty-five thousand, give or take.” Olem hesitated. “But again, we have no knowledge of their cavalry. I suggest we send five hundred of our reserves up to the ridge with sword-bayonets fixed. If they try to flank us with cavalry, that might give them pause.”
Vlora paced back and forth. The powder trance was helping, but she still wanted to hiss and spit and swear. She had to keep reminding herself that things could be worse. These odds—this Dynize army—it was still something she could beat. She had to beat it. “Give the order,” she confirmed.
Olem didn’t move. Something to the south had grabbed his attention.
Vlora’s pacing continued for a few more moments. “Well?” she asked. “What are you waiting for?”
The Dynize Army came around a bend in the river, marching in the footsteps of the vast migration of refugees. Vlora saw their advance force first—a few dozen cuirassiers decked out in enough silver, jade, and gold that they had to be a general’s bodyguard. The infantry fanned out and within thirty minutes the glitter of breastplates filled the river valley. The cadence of their march drifted to her across the wind and she could see that they were deploying with an almost reckless speed.
She didn’t have time to wonder why.
Vlora took a deep breath and opened her third eye, fighting a wave of nausea. Her vision became awash with glowing pastels as she looked into a sorcerous mirror of the real world. She stared into the Else for almost a minute, ignoring the rising tension of the approaching army, searching for little flickers of light.
“I don’t see any Privileged or bone-eyes,” Vlora finally said, closing her third eye. “Just the usual smattering of Knacked.”
“Same here,” Olem confirmed. “Nothing from Davd or Norrine, either.” He sent a runner for the flanking defensive force Vlora had ordered, and brought up extra messengers to handle the stream of orders they would no doubt soon be giving. Vlora called for her horse and mounted up, remaining about fifty yards in front of her army, watching as the Dynize finished their deployment.
Her powder trance allowed her to examine the enemy as if she were standing right in front of them. She looked into the eyes of the men, examined their stances, their armor, their faces. It was obvious that they were tired from a long, forced march up from Landfall. Some shoulders slumped and eyelids fluttered, but there was a resolve there she didn’t expect. They were ready for a fight.
The absence of bone-eyes meant that Vlora could break them. But she didn’t have experience fighting Dynize. She did not know how well their discipline would hold, or what actions would break their spirit.
And she did not know where her—or their—cavalry were at this moment. She needed a little more time.
“I’m going to seek terms,” she told Olem. “Gather a few men.”
Vlora rode out across the valley with a small bodyguard and Olem at her side. A mile or so separated the two forces, giving them ample space to size each other up. She wondered why they hadn’t tried to take the high ground of the ridge, trapping the Riflejacks against the river. Perhaps they knew that their cavalry would cover that flank. Perhaps they didn’t want to risk Vlora pulling back while they maneuvered.
Or perhaps Styke had managed to tie up their cavalry, and the Dynize were just as uncertain as she was. She barely dared to hope.
They reached the center point between the two armies, and watched while the gaudily dressed cuirassiers rode toward them. Vlora let Olem watch the enemy bodyguard, and kept her eyes on the ridge. She knew it was a fruitless exercise with Olem’s scouts up there now, but she couldn’t help but watch for the arrival of cavalry.
The Dynize came to a stop about a dozen yards away and a single horse rode out in front of the group. It was ridden by a middle-aged man with an orange-lacquered breastplate and teal uniform. He sat rigidly in the saddle, a distant expression on a gaunt face. Gold hoops and small feathers hung from his ears, and he wore silver rings mounted with human teeth. His fingernails were painted with gold.
“Lady Flint,” he said in thick, if understandable, Adran.
“I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure,” Vlora said, eyeing the army over the general’s shoulder, then shifting her gaze to the man himself.
“My name is General Bar-Levial. I command the Shrike Brigades of the Emperor’s Immortal Army.”
“That’s a mouthful,” Olem muttered. He tucked a cigarette between his lips and lit a match.
Bar-Levial’s eyes did not leave Vlora’s face. “You seek terms?”
“I want to know why you’re here. You hold Landfall, and the Fatrastans are no doubt pulling their armies in from the frontier, yet you’re here chasing the Landfall refugees as if they are important to your plans.”
“Refugees?” Bar-Levial seemed surprised. “We don’t care about the refugees. We’re here for you, Lady Flint.”
Vlora scoffed. “Me?”
“I’m here to satisfy the honor of my emperor and his appointed emissary.”
“I…” Vlora couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. “You’re here because I made you look like assholes at Landfall? You’re here for revenge?”
Bar-Levial’s eyes narrowed. He straightened in his saddle. “I am here to satisfy the honor of my emperor…”
“Yes, yes, you mentioned that already. But you marched an entire army out here to find me just for revenge? Don’t you have better things to do with your soldiers?” She wondered where Lindet’s field armies were at this moment—Fatrasta was a young power, but they would have gathered themselves by now and prepared to strike back.
“The emperor’s armies will not stand degradation,” Bar-Levial said coldly.
Beside Vlora, Olem ashed his cigarette. “You shouldn’t take it so hard. Yours isn’t the first army humiliated by an Adran general. It won’t be the last.”
“Silence your man, Lady Flint.”
“Shut up.” Vlora found herself getting angry. She would meet an enemy on any field of battle, but the idea that Ka-Sedial had sent an army after her—not the refugees, not to sow chaos—but specifically after her just because she’d beaten him in battle, was infuriating. “I’m a mercenary, and the Fatrastans don’t even want me anymore. What about this? How about I tell you that I’m leaving the continent, and I don’t give a shit about your bloody war? Will you turn around and go back to Landfall, and let me and my men walk away without a fight?”
“That changes nothing.”
“Because Ka-Sedial does not take defeat lightly. He believes that allowing a victorious enemy to remain victorious spells doom for an entire theater of war.”
“I’m a loose end he wants tied up?” The fact that Sedial had enough soldiers he could send an entire army to deal with a loose end was rather terrifying.
Bar-Levial’s lip curled. “Are you afraid, Lady Flint?”
These Dynize were new to her—their dress and customs as alien as anything she’d ever seen. But she’d spent her life with arrogant generals, and Bar-Levial would fit in at a military ball anywhere in the Nine. “Like any good general, I would prefer my men live to see their homes again.”
“The words of a coward.”
Vlora seethed inwardly. “Why are you in such a hurry? Why force a battle tonight?”
“A friendly contest,” Bar-Levial smiled. “I shall see you on the field of battle, Lady Flint, and I will take your head back to my emperor.”
“No,” Vlora replied. “You will do no such thing.” She turned her horse around and rode back to her line, trying to calm herself.
Olem caught up to her a moment later. “That was abrupt.”
“Levial’s not going to budge, and their scouts are heading toward our lines. Besides, he was pissing me off.”
She glanced over her shoulder at those scouts. She could guess what they saw from their vantage point—around two thousand riflemen, dug in and braced for the onslaught of a superior force. The Dynize would take heavy initial losses before rolling over those riflemen with ease.
It was precisely what Vlora wanted them to see. But if the scouts moved forward another half mile, it would force her to change her entire battle plan.
“Do we have eyes over the ridge?” she asked.
“We do,” Olem said. “They’ll let us know the moment anyone attempts to move on our flank.”
Vlora had not yet reached her own lines when she heard the sound of a trumpet. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the entire Dynize Army shift, the lines spreading out even farther to fill the entire valley, before lurching forward at another signal.
“He really is in a hurry,” Olem commented.
“He said something about a friendly contest. Any idea what that means?”
Olem shook his head.
Vlora reigned in her horse and turned in the saddle. She raised her arm high, pointing toward the ridge and the Dynize scouts moving along it. “I think it’s time we blind them.”
A shot rang out, quickly followed by another. Smoke rose from a copse of honey locusts near the ridgeline behind her own forces, and two Dynize scouts toppled from their horses. Two more followed, then another two. The shots continued every fifteen seconds or so, and Vlora watched with some satisfaction as the remaining scouts realized they were being picked off and fled toward the main body.
Vlora finally reached her line, retreating behind the earthworks that suddenly seemed so insignificant. She eyed the two thousand men she’d picked to hold this first line of defense. Their faces squinted against the morning sun, looking to her for leadership. That in itself always seemed more intimidating than the enemy armies.
“Aim for the center of the chest,” she shouted. “Those breastplates might be able to deflect a glancing shot, but they’re designed to stand up to softer bullets fired with inferior powder. These poor fools weren’t at the Battle of Landfall. Let’s show them what they missed, shall we?”
A cheer went up, rifles lifted into the air, then the line went deadly silent as the men crouched behind their earthworks and double-checked their weapons.
Vlora remained on horseback, pulling even farther behind the line, while Olem rode along the ranks shouting encouragement. The Dynize plodded onward, and every so often an officer would fall into the dirt, a victim of Vlora’s powder mages firing at will from their vantage.
Vlora searched for the general’s bodyguard as the front lines reached a quarter of a mile away from hers. She found the gaudy cuirassiers and Bar-Levial, and had a brief moment of morbid curiosity. In an age of canister shot and sorcery, was it poor sportsmanship to aim for the enemy officers? Perhaps. But this was war. Kill or be killed. Bar-Levial wanted so badly to take her head to his emperor, and Vlora decided not to risk giving him that chance. With a single thought, she set off the powder of every one of the cuirassiers. The sorcerous kickback nearly knocked her off her horse, and she bent double to catch her breath.
The conflagration caused the Dynize lines to waver as the sight of their general’s bodyguard being blown to pieces by their own powder no doubt made a few mouths go dry. Cheers rose from Vlora’s own men, but she just smiled coldly and hoped that one of those charred corpses belonged to that orange-lacquered prick.
The Dynize kept on. A disciplined army didn’t run just because their general died. This was just the beginning.
At two hundred yards, sergeants along Vlora’s lines gave the order to open fire. Dynize fell to the hail of bullets, but soldiers just moved up to take their place, and the army churned forward.
Another volley followed, then another. The Dynize reached a hundred yards. Vlora drew her pistol, aimed at a random officer, and put a bullet in his brain with a nudge of her sorcery. Seventy-five yards. Fifty yards. The Dynize stopped, the front line knelt, and they opened fire.
Anyone not hunkered behind their earthworks was cut down. A second Dynize volley fired and then a trumpet sounded, and like a slow wave rushing toward the beach, the Dynize infantry charged.
“Fall back!” Olem bellowed.
The Riflejacks leapt to their feet and fled, running flat out from the Dynize charge. Vlora watched, amused at the sight of the Dynize chasing her men, as if the two armies were playing out some coordinated game. As her men approached, she kicked her horse into a gallop, rushing along ahead of them. Her horse leapt a shallow ditch and she turned once again to face the enemy.
The valley was eerily quiet. Riflejacks ran. Dynize charged. The smoke cleared and no bullets were fired. Her men, fresher than the Dynize, widened the gap and then suddenly began to disappear, leaping into the same shallow trench that she’d just crossed. When they’d all reached that spot of safety, a voice cut the silence. “Companies, ready!”
A second line—two thousand more riflemen—rose from behind an earthwork of sod collected from the valley floor. A few yards behind them a third line emerged from hiding, and then a fourth and fifth behind that, composed of the Landfall garrison and volunteers from the refugee militia. Each line braced itself, aiming carefully as the enemy closed the distance.
“Fire!” Olem bellowed as his own horse cleared the ditch.
The first line fired and ducked. There was a pause of six or seven seconds, then the command came again. The second line fired and ducked, and the orders continued until ten thousand bullets had been sent into the enemy in the course of less than thirty seconds. Thousands of the Dynize were swept beneath the hail. Vlora leaned forward in her saddle, silently urging the enemy to break. The field was suddenly obscured by powder smoke, and when it cleared, she leaned back in her saddle, shaken, as she watched the Dynize flood forward, climbing over the corpses of their companions.
Olem returned to her, choking on powder smoke. “Even without sorcery, these bastards are tough,” he coughed.
Another volley hit the Dynize lines, and a few moments later they finally reached Vlora’s ditch, only to be met with a wall of fixed bayonets from her original front line.
The field dissolved into chaos. On her side, individual captains tried to keep some sort of sustained volley fire, while others gave a “fire at will” order. On the Dynize side, soldiers crouched behind piles of corpses to shoot back, their captains rallying them with swinging sabers and then falling when a powder mage shot them in the head.
“Kresimir,” Vlora breathed. “They’re still not breaking.”
“Even after that pummeling they outnumber us,” Olem said. He squinted toward the ridge. “Only a handful of their companies are wavering. No sign of either of our cavalry. Should we bring our reserves to bear and try to crack them?”
For a split second, Vlora waffled. Committing the last of her troops might tip the balance. But she wanted those men free in case the Dynize had something else up their sleeves. “Not yet,” she said.
The center of the battle became more chaotic as both sides dissolved into a bloody melee. The Riflejacks had longer bayonets, but the Dynize breastplates proved more effective against those than they did against rifle shot, and the Dynize soon drove her front line out of the ditch. She watched, snapping off a string of orders between shots from her pistol. “Bring up the Fifty-Third to relieve the Eighth Company. Commit three platoons of the Landfall garrison to our eastern flank. Pull back those volunteers, they’re not doing anything but shooting our own men in the back.”
Vlora set off powder when she could, blowing holes in the Dynize lines, but each effort hit her hard, threatening to overwhelm and exhaust her.
Despite the early slaughter, the battle slowly began to shift to the Dynize. Even with their officer corps cut to ribbons, they continued to push forward. An hour passed, then two. The light over the field began to wane. Soon her men had fallen back to the third line, and the volunteers on her right flank collapsed beneath a Dynize charge. Vlora called up the last of her reserves—two companies of Riflejacks wounded in the Battle of Landfall—and reluctantly sent them into the fray.
She leaned back in her saddle, breathing deeply of the powder smoke. This was it. This was all she had. The Dynize had faced an early slaughter and endured, and now their more numerous troops held the battle in balance.
“Contact on the Dynize rear!” a voice shouted behind her.
Vlora tried to squint through the haze, over the sea of infantry and corpses. Bleary-eyed, she spotted the movement and tried to make sense of it.
Cavalry. Breastplates glittered in the sun, and her breath caught in her throat. Dynize cuirassiers, at least five hundred of them. They were moving up to assist the infantry.
She desperately searched for some way to counter them, hoping that her powder mages could at least put a dent in their morale before they arrived. Her eyes swept the battle, looking for the freshest company of troops she could put in their path with a bayonet wall. She came up with nothing and turned back to the enemy, watching them helplessly. She shook her head, sensing something amiss. Why were they charging from the Dynize rear? Why didn’t they flank her army? Beside her, Olem stood in his stirrups, stock-still, squinting through an eyeglass. Vlora said to him, “They’ll break our ranks when they get here. Pull together some of our least-wounded. We need to form a bayonet line.”
Olem remained still.
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” he said.
“Because I don’t think Dynize cuirassiers carry lances. Or ride down their own troops. Or have a big, ugly bastard leading the charge.”
Vlora felt her chest suddenly lighten and she let out an involuntary breath, something between a gasp and a sigh. She sat back in her saddle.
Mad Ben Styke had arrived.
Wrath of Empire is book two in Gods of Blood and Powder. To check out book one, Sins of Empire, click here.