Taniel stepped down the gangplank of the merchant galleon into his exile.
He pulled at the collar of his cut-across coat and unbuttoned the front, letting it hang loose as he hurried to the end of the dock. He had not expected the Fatrastan spring to be so hot and humid and was eager to find a cool pub where he could hide from the sun and wait.
More than a month by ship from Adro, then another two weeks touring the Fatrastan coastline, and Taniel didn’t care if he never saw a ship again. The quarters had been too cramped, and the only thing to keep him occupied had been drawing in his sketchbook and shooting seagulls. The view of the coastline had been nice enough, but Taniel was a soldier and a powder mage, not some foppish noble’s son. The landscape meant little to him beyond defensible positions.
This was the frontier—a wild place with immense trees that had never seen a woodsman’s ax, red-headed natives that would kill you at a wrong glance, and immense open spaces where you might not see another soul for weeks.
It might have been exciting, if Taniel wasn’t so angry with his father for sending him here in the first place. A ‘tour,’ Taniel’s father had called it. Time for him to see a little bit of the world between terms at the university.
Taniel saw it more like an exile. It would be half a year until he saw his fiancé and his homeland again. Half a year before he was back with his friends, skipping out on university classes to float bullets with Sabon, or spending nights with Vlora. It was going to be a long six months.
New Adopest, the city beyond the dock, bustled with excitement that Taniel couldn’t quite place. People spoke in hushed whispers, and boys and men were running back and forth. Everyone seemed to have a rifle or musket. Strange to see so many weapons in a city. Even one on the edge of the wilderness.
He’d seen the whole of New Adopest from the water, and it wasn’t immense. Perhaps fifty thousand souls. The docks took up more space than the city did. All around him ships were unloading immigrants or taking on raw goods to ship back to the Nine. The city had been founded by Adran colonists over a hundred years ago, but then the Fatrastan territories had been sold to the Kez less than six months ago. Taniel couldn’t imagine that made the colonists very happy.
He caught sight of a bronze statue of King Ipille of Kez, standing thirty feet high to look out over the harbor. As he watched, a young man climbed the base of the statue and dropped his pants to piss all over Ipille’s feet. Taniel chuckled at that, and waited for the Kez gendarmes to appear out of the crowd and chase the man off.
Perhaps it was a festival day. That would keep the gendarmes occupied, and would certainly explain all of the excitement around the city. His father had talked about colonial towns having a certain vibrancy that the big cities of the Nine lacked. Maybe that was it.
Taniel glanced around for a moment, confused, before remembering his chaperone. The idea of some stranger looking over his shoulder suddenly seemed distasteful, and he wondered if he could lose her in the city.
He pulled his bicorn hat over his face and headed at a brisk walk toward the closest pub. He had almost reached the building and its dark doorway with the promise of cool ale and anonymity, when he felt someone tug on his jacket.
“Taniel? Oh, yes, it is you. I can see your mother’s face in you, my dear.”
Taniel sniffed and tried to stifle his annoyance. “Dine?” he asked the old woman at his elbow.
She gave a half-bow, half-curtsy. “Dina, my dear,” she said, putting emphasis on the ‘a.’ “You’re Tamas and Erika’s boy.” It wasn’t a question, and Taniel wondered if he really did look that much like his mother. That’s what his father had always said, but his memories of her were sketchy at best.
Taniel tipped his hat. “Ma’am, a pleasure to meet you.”
Dina looked to be about fifty and wore a man’s jacket and a loose-fitting skirt that went down to her ankles. Her Adran was slightly accented and Taniel had to remind himself—regretfully—that his mother was, or had been, half-Kez, and as his mother’s cousin, Dina probably came from that side. Dina’s boots looked like they had plenty of wear to them, and she wore a Rope of Kresimir pinned to one breast.
A priestess. Delightful.
“A pleasure indeed,” Dina said. She paused, a hand on his shoulder, and looked him up and down. “I haven’t seen you since you were a boy. You probably don’t remember me at all.”
“Look at you,” she continued. “A man, now.” Her eyes fell on the flintlock rifle slung over his shoulder, and when she next spoke it was in a loud whisper. “Tell me, do you take black powder like your parents?”
“I’m a powder mage, yes.” And proud of it, too. Taniel could shoot the hat off a farmer at over a mile with a musket. Farther, with a proper rifle and little wind. A snort of gunpowder let him see in the dark and made him faster and stronger than ordinary soldiers.
Dina seemed a little put off by this. “Ah,” she said, before forcing a smile back onto her face. “Well, we won’t let that stand in the way of good company. Let’s take you home for the night and get you a good meal. Regretfully, I’m going to have to put you back on a ship tomorrow morning.”
“You’re going back to Adro tomorrow.”
Taniel felt his sour mood shift and had to struggle to keep the grin off his face. Home? He could leave this gods-forsaken land behind and....
Dina kept talking. “War has broken out.” She lowered her voice and leaned close. “The colony has rebelled against the Kez crown and declared that they’re a free country. It’s the damned busybody merchants and the commoners who are going along with it.” Louder, she said, “You can stay with me and my husband tonight, but I....”
“War?” Taniel cut her off. “With Kez?”
He felt his eye twitch, and he forgot every thought of home.
“Where do I sign up?”
Taniel had to shoot the buttons off a scarecrow at eight hundred yards to convince a colonial major that he was, indeed, a trained powder mage. It irked him that the man’s ears perked up at the name of Taniel’s father, but Taniel buried his pride, and three weeks later he was a captain in the Fatrastan militia, assigned to a company heading out toward the wetlands.
He wondered whether his father would be perturbed that Taniel had gotten involved in someone else’s conflict, or proud that he’d taken the initiative.
Taniel hoped it was the former.
He stepped along in marching ranks beside the almost two hundred members of his new company. With his rifle shouldered and his knapsack tied to his belt, he was the only one keeping any kind of a marching rhythm. The rest of them trudged or shuffled at their own paces, the column stretching out almost half a mile down the winding road.
He took a glance behind him. The tall trees—oak, maple, and ash—were well into their early summer greenery, keeping visibility low.
Word had it that the Kez army was patrolling these roads. If fifty cavalry rounded the bend in the road behind them, the whole company would be run down before they could scatter.
But then, these men weren’t soldiers. They were farmers and vagrants fighting for money or land, so that the so-called Fatrastan Coalition could win their independence from Kez.
“You smell that?” Dina asked.
Taniel cast her a sidelong glance. Despite the sweat on her brow, Dina walked along at an easy gait as if she were on an afternoon stroll. The old priestess didn’t seem like much, but she’d needed less rest on this march than any of the militiamen.
Taniel had been impressed, and more than a little annoyed, that she had come along when he enlisted in the Fatrastan militia. She had insisted that the men needed spiritual guidance, and Major Bertreau agreed.
She had promised to be his chaperone, she said. Wouldn’t want to let his father down, she said.
Kresimir forbid, anyone let his father down.
“What in Kresimir’s holy name is that smell?” a militiaman asked. A few others grumbled the same question, and Taniel lifted his nose to the wind. Nothing but road dust and unwashed frontiersmen. What could it be....
There. The scent hit him like a runaway cart full of cow shit. It was a heavy, earthy smell, like damp leaves and manure that had been sitting all winter and then suddenly disturbed.
“That’s the swamp,” Dina said, chewing on a bit of reed she’d plucked from the roadside. “The Tristan Basin, they call it. Over six thousand square miles of forested wetlands. The smell gets worse as you go.” She glanced at him, as if that might change his mind about going into the interior.
“How much do you know about the swamp?” Taniel asked.
“My husband and I did some preaching here when we were younger. You see, back then....”
“I see. I’d better check in with the major.” Taniel jogged up the column before Dina could launch into one of her long-winded stories.
Major Bertreau sat on her charger where the road emerged from the trees and crested the hill they’d been climbing. Her face was passive, but shifting eyes betrayed her nervousness and she gently ran her fingers along the thick scarred bruise on her neck. The scar that none of the men dared talk about.
She was originally from Kez, but from one of the mountain towns so close to the border that she might as well be Adran. Like many of the soldiers enlisted in this war, she claimed to be thoroughly Fatrastan now.
And like every Kez citizen that had signed on with the rebelling colonists, she had a death-mark on her head.
Bertreau pulled her collar up to conceal the scar on her neck and acknowledged Taniel with a nod. “Captain.”
“Major,” Taniel said.
“Looks like we’re here.”
The hillside below them gradually gave way to a thick stand of cypress trees growing out of a marshy, shallow lake. The forest seemed to stretch on forever from their vantage point, and Taniel quickly realized why the Tristan Basin was a perfect place from which to conduct their raids: it was immense.
Nothing was going to follow them into that swamp.
“Past the cypress are miles and miles of sawgrass,” Bertreau said. “Grasses taller than a house, and so thick you can’t hack through it with a sword.”
Bertreau’s fingers slowly crept back to her neck. She was a handsome woman with gold hair braided over one shoulder and pretty, round cheeks. Taniel had noted her wandering eye and guessed that had he not mentioned his fiancé waiting back in Adro, Bertreau would have had a go at him by now.
“The savages better be true to their word,” Bertreau said. Her lips twisted slightly when she said ‘savages.’ “If we head into that swamp and they’re not there to guide us, we’ll all be dragon food by tomorrow night.”
“Dragons?” Taniel asked.
“Swamp dragons,” Bertreau said. “Big lizards. Longer than a horse. Their jaws will snap a man in two.”
Taniel fingered the bayonet case at his hip. No one had said anything about giant lizards. Snakes, yes. He didn’t like the idea of them, either, but in a powder trance he was faster than a striking snake.
Was he stronger than one of these swamp dragons?
Taniel removed a snuff box from his belt pouch and tapped a line of black powder out on the back of his hand. He snorted it in one breath and felt the world warp and twist beneath his feet. He spread his feet to brace himself, and a moment later the world came into focus sharper than it had been before.
He let the powder trance take him fully, and he looked out across the Tristan Basin again. He could see a big boa in the top of a cypress over a mile away, sunning itself, black forked tongue darting in and out.
“Any word from the savages in the Basin, sir?” Taniel asked. “Or our outriders?”
Bertreau looked down the road back the way they’d come. “Should be back by now.”
Taniel took a step closer to Bertreau’s mount. “We need to tighten up this formation,” he said. “If the Kez catch up to us like this, we won’t get the chance to be eaten by swamp dragons.”
Bertreau snorted. “I know my way around a company of soldiers, captain,” she said, her voice suddenly cold. “And despite your talents and your father’s name, I don’t seem to remember you having bloodied your hands before.”
“My apologies, major,” Taniel said, forcing down a retort. He wasn’t here to tangle with Fatrastan officers. He was here to kill Kez soldiers, and if Kresimir was kind, a Kez Privileged sorcerer.
Bertreau lifted her eyes to the road curving down the hill toward the morass. “Our destination should be right down there,” she said. She lifted a hand and called to a man nearby. “Sergeant, bring the men in tight at this hilltop. We’ll rest momentarily, and then I want a smart march into Gladeside. The town should still be ours, but who knows where we’ll run into a Kez patrol. We’ll garrison the town and wait for contact with the Basin savages. Can you—”
She cut off at the sound of hooves coming up the road behind them at a full gallop.
Taniel could very clearly see the small gelding maneuvering its way through the soldiers sprawled across the road. Taniel wondered why they bothered calling them a ‘rear guard.’
The rider reined in beside Major Bertreau, a narrow-faced young man clearly exhausted from the long ride. “Five companies on foot, major,” the outrider said when he’d caught his breath. “Kez colors.”
“Of course they’re Kez,” Bertreau snapped. “We don’t have five companies in this neck of the country. How far are they?”
“They’ll be here by tomorrow afternoon.”
Bertreau looked up at the sun. It was well past its zenith and headed down to the western horizon.
Taniel noted the outrider shifting nervously in his saddle. “What else is there, soldier?”
“Well...,” he said, glancing at Taniel’s rifle and the silver powder keg pinned to his breast. “See, there’s a problem....”
Taniel felt his gut tighten. “Privileged?”
The man nodded.
“Well,” Taniel said, forcing a smile on his face, “that’s why I’m here. I’ll put a bullet in his eye from over a mile out.”
Taniel’s mouth tasted sour as he remembered that he’d been hoping for a Privileged just a few minutes ago. Privileged were not something to hope for. A single Privileged had potent elemental sorcery at his call and was more dangerous than ten companies of Kez soldiers. They could call fire and lightning down on his company as easily as Taniel could float a bullet.
“I don’t want him getting that close,” Bertreau said. “Sergeant, a double march down to Gladeside. We’ll quarter there tonight and head into the swamp at first light. With or without our savage guides.”
Taniel looked back the way they’d come and had to remind himself that there wouldn’t be a company of dragoons coming up that road any time soon. They were safe.
If their savage guide was waiting for them in Gladeside, then they’d be deep in the swamp by tomorrow night, and by the end of the week they’d be raiding Kez towns up and down the length of the Tristan Basin.
And if the Privileged caught them out in the open, they’d all be dead before they could load their muskets.
Taniel sat on a bench in the corner of the wide room of the common house, his foot tapping out the rhythm of the pub song the other soldiers were singing. The room was dimly lit by fireplace and candle and smelled like ale and wet dog, and every so often the singing would be drowned out by the hammer of a particularly fierce shower of heavy raindrops on the roof above.
He put a few finishing touches on the sketch of Bertreau he’d been working on, brushing softly with the stub of charcoal to shade the rope scar on her neck.
Three weeks of stealing glances when she wasn’t looking, and he was sure of it: sometime, probably not more than a few months ago, someone had tried to hang Bertreau. Her neck hadn’t snapped when she hit the end of the rope, and they had cut her down.
Why had they cut her down, he wondered.
She sat across the common room, nursing a mug of local ale and bobbing her head to the song but otherwise keeping herself aloof from her men. A bit of black powder still in Taniel’s system gave him just enough of a powder trance to see the details of her face clearly.
A squat, wide-shouldered barrel of a man slid onto the bench across from Taniel and dug a stubby finger into his ear, wiggling it about. Sergeant Mapel had told Taniel that his parents had originally been from Brudania, but his mother had been a dark skinned Deliv, and he favored her ebony complexion.
He grinned, dimples forming at the corners of his black cheeks. “If the major catches you drawing her....”
“She won’t,” Taniel said, taking his eyes off his battered, leather-bound sketchbook just long enough to look down his nose at Mapel. “Any word from the savages?”
A worried scowl crossed Mapel’s face. Their savage liaison should be here, ready to lead them into the swamp in the morning. In exchange for Hrusch rifles, ammunition, and powder, the savages were going to give the company succor from the Kez and help them raid Kez-held towns along the Tristan Basin.
A good prospect for the war, if the savages showed up before the Kez.
“We did hear from the coast,” Mapel said.
“The Kez burned Little Starland to the ground.”
Taniel let his hand fall away from his sketchbook. He’d sailed into Little Starland less than two months ago. It had been his first experience in this new land—a trade city of some eighty thousand souls and growing by the day. Little Starland had financed the university in Fatrasta. A university not all that different from the one Taniel attended in Adro.
“To the ground?” Taniel heard himself echo.
Taniel felt anger burning in his chest. His finger itched to pull the trigger of his rifle, a Kez Privileged in his sights. A shot of fear followed it, and a small voice asked: What if I miss?
“The Kez,” Mapel said, “win wars through shear force and brutality. They use fear to keep....”
“I know all about the Kez,” Taniel snapped. He closed his sketchbook and stowed it in its seal-skin pouch, fearful that he might tear it apart in a rage. “I know the Kez are a vindictive, cruel people who seek to master everything in their sight.” He fell silent, his hand resting on the butt of the pistol tucked in his belt. He’d bought it in Little Starland.
“Taniel,” a soft voice said.
“What!” Taniel rounded on Dina, the word coming out far louder than he’d meant. He took a deep breath. “What?” he asked again, quieter this time but unable to force the impatience from his voice.
“Bad time for it, priestess,” Mapel said to Dina. “I just worked the captain here into a lather.” Mapel had pushed back his bench as if ready to run. “Seems he has a particular hatred for the Kez.”
Taniel shot Dina a warning glance. Don’t you say a damn word....
“The Kez executed his mother,” Dina said, dropping onto the bench beside Taniel.
Mapel made an “oh” expression with his mouth.
“You have no right.”
Dina met his anger with her head cocked to one side in a challenge. “She was my cousin,” she said. “I have every right.”
“And so you avenge her by trying to convince me to turn back every night? To sail back to Adro, where I’ll have to look my father in the eye and tell him I had the chance to kill Kez and I didn’t take it?” Taniel knew he shouldn’t yell at her. She was just trying to do what she saw as right. Besides, she was almost old enough to be his grandmother.
Dina hesitated, and Taniel knew that’s exactly what she had come over here to do.
“I’m a priestess, not a warrior. War is a young man’s folly, and I have children, and my children have children. I’m only here now because your father asked me to chaperone you, and I’m a woman of my word.”
“Don’t you want to protect your children from the Kez?” Taniel glanced toward Mapel for an agreeing nod, only to find that the sergeant had slipped off. He cursed the man silently.
Dina raised an eyebrow. “I am Kez,” she said.
“With you? Here, now? I know. I told you, I’m a woman of my word.”
Taniel blinked in confusion. “But the Kez will execute you if they find you with the....” Taniel trailed off, suddenly realizing what a risk she had taken coming out here with him. All the while hoping to convince him to leave the war.
Taniel said, “If the Kez catch me trying to slip out of the country, they’ll execute me on the spot. You know how they feel about powder mages.” He refused to associate Dina with the Kez as a whole. She was family, after all.
“Do you think they’d risk your father’s wrath a second time?”
Dina had no idea how little Taniel’s father cared for him. “I think they’d jump on the opportunity to bring him to his knees.”
“I have a friend who’s been smuggling tobacco for years, to get around Kez tariffs. He could get you back to Adro safely.”
“I....” Taniel broke off.
He was going to get his first chance at Kez blood. He’d sworn to himself that he’d not return to Adro without at least a dozen notches on his rifle. If Dina got herself killed by the Kez, he wasn’t going to let that weigh on his conscience.
“I’m going outside,” Taniel said.
He snatched his rifle and knapsack and headed out onto the front porch of the common house.
Outside, the rain had managed to clear the air of the swamp smell. Half a dozen militiamen lounged under the awning, smoking pipes or cigarettes and staring sullenly out into the deluge. They knew they had to go out into the swamp in the morning, and none of them were relishing the idea.
Only one bothered to acknowledge Taniel.
Damned sloppy discipline.
Taniel stared into the night for a few moments. The rain managed to conceal most everything that the dark did not, and nothing but rough shapes stood out—the town buildings, most of their lanterns doused for the night.
His eyes caught a shadow in the middle of the road. He frowned and focused on that shadow. A person, maybe? Why would they be standing there in the rain?
Taniel kept his eyes on that shadow, afraid it might disappear if he looked away, and tapped a line of black powder out on the back of his hand.
He snorted it.
The shapes of the town buildings sprang into sharp relief as the powder trance washed over him, the rain brightening as if he’d shone a lantern on it, and the shadow became a girl.
She couldn’t have been more than fourteen, her shoulder-length hair soaked through, a satchel slung over one shoulder. Her skin was pale and covered with small grey freckles like tiny flecks of ash, and Taniel guessed that in the light of the day her hair would be red.
A savage girl, nothing more.
Then why was his heart racing? An instinct deeper than any of his senses screamed danger at him, and without realizing he was doing it, he found himself poised to run.
The girl met his eyes across the space, through the rain, and Taniel began to lift his rifle, not quite sure what he was going to do with it. Shoot a little savage girl? He didn’t kill children, and it would surely turn their guides against them, ruining this entire expedition.
Taniel braced himself and opened his third eye to look in to the Else and see where sorcery was touching the world. Everything suddenly shifted, the darkness brightening to become a myriad of pastel colors that revealed the presence of nearby sorcery.
The girl glowed with a dull light.
She was a sorcerer.
He’d heard of savage sorcerers. Bone-eyes, they called them. No one knew much about Bone-eyes, beyond that they had a magic different from Privileged elemental sorcery or powder mages’ gunpowder trance.
What was she doing out in the rain like that?
Taniel turned to ask one of the men smoking under the awning if they could see the girl, when something caught the corner of his vision.
Halfway up the road, on the hillside above the town, Taniel could see a strong glow of color in the Else.
“Privileged!” Taniel screamed, and threw himself to the muddy street as lightning sliced through the air and slammed into the common house behind him.
The explosion left Taniel’s ears ringing, and he struggled to get to his feet. Most of the common house was scattered across the street in pieces of debris not more than a foot long. What remained was on fire, and Taniel could hear the screams of the dying and wounded.
He helped pull someone to their feet—one of the militiamen who’d been smoking on the porch—and struggled to open his bayonet case. Where there was a Privileged there would be Kez soldiers.
He struggled to blink the echo of the lightning from his eyes, willing them to adjust to the darkness once again. A few moments later, and he saw the Kez soldiers running down the road into the town. They wore canvas ponchos over their tan uniforms and they had their bayonets fixed.
The Fatrastan militia was heavily outnumbered. Even without the Kez Privileged, the entire company would be decimated in minutes.
“Run for the swamp!” Taniel said.
“Are you mad?” a militiaman asked.
“It’s the only chance, damn it. Into the cypress!”
Taniel rushed into the smoldering remains of the common house. Survivors were picking themselves up off the ground, their weapons in hand. Taniel couldn’t find Major Bertreau in the chaos, but he snatched Sergeant Mapel by the shoulder.
“The swamp,” Taniel said, pointing in the direction opposite of the charging Kez soldiers.
Mapel nodded and began bellowing the retreat.
“Dina,” Taniel shouted. “Dina, damn it!” He kicked a bench out of the way, checking the charred bodies that had taken the brunt of the sorcery.
The old priestess was already on her feet, directing others after Sergeant Mapel.
Taniel suppressed a sigh of relief. He didn’t want a relative’s life on his hands, even if she was a Kez. “Have you seen Bertreau?”
“Out front,” Dina said.
Taniel dashed back into the street to find Major Bertreau organizing a line of some twenty men to meet the advance of Kez infantry.
“We have to lose ourselves in the trees,” Taniel shouted at her.
Bertreau drew her sword. “This is the rear-guard. Go on with the rest!”
“It’s suicide!” Taniel’s words were swallowed by a blast of lightning striking a nearby building and the accompanying roll of thunder. In the light, he thought he saw the same savage girl standing off to one side, her back to the swamp.
Then the Kez were on top of them.
Taniel turned a bayonet thrust with the stock of his rifle and cursed himself for not fixing his own bayonet when he had the chance. His heart hammered in his ears as he spun his rifle to hold it by the barrel, the way he’d been taught, and brought the stock down across the Kez soldier’s face.
Steel clashed and screams filled the air. Taniel drew the pistol from his belt, his powder mage senses telling him that the powder was still dry, and fired it into an infantryman.
Major Bertraeu turned suddenly and thrust her sword, and Taniel was bowled over by the dead weight of the Kez soldier that had taken her blade to the heart.
He pushed the man away and, not taking the time to thank Bertraeu, deftly slipped his bayonet out of his pouch and over the end of his rifle, twisting the ring to feel it slide into place. He dropped his weight onto his back leg and set himself, slipping past an infantryman’s thrust and driving his bayonet into the man’s eye.
With the powder in your veins, his father had said, you’ll be faster than other men—it’ll be as if they are moving under water and you are not. You know this feeling from your training, but you won’t in truth understand until you’re in a real melee.
Taniel suddenly knew what his father had meant. He could feel himself reacting faster than the others around him, even than Major Bertreau’s experienced sword. It was like battling children.
They didn’t stand a chance.
Don’t let yourself become overconfident. Trust yourself to react quickly, and you’ll kill them before they even realize what they’re fighting.
Taniel cut through three more infantry before there was no one else to fight. More Kez were coming down the road, but the militia had managed to fend off the first platoon.
Bertraeu stared at him, wide-eyed. “Pit, you’re fast,” she said.
“The swamp,” Taniel said.
“To the trees!” she yelled. “Run for it. Leave the wounded.” She winced as she said it.
They sprinted down the town streets, chased by sorcery. Lightning flashed, and fire soared overhead in streaking balls that detonated among the buildings with the strength of exploding mortar shells. Taniel considered finding a place to hide from the pursuing infantry and taking a shot at the Privileged, but he knew that it would be a stupid risk. He might be able to try once he’d lost the infantry in the swamp.
He caught sight of an old woman limping ahead of him.
“Come on, Dina, you have to move faster!”
Taniel threw his shoulder under Dina’s arm and half-carried her onward. The limp was a bad sign—an open wound in the swamp would put her on her way to a slow death by disease or a quick death by natural predators.
Fatrastan militiamen passed them at a sprint, trying to save their own skins in the relative safety of the swamp. Taniel recognized several members of Bertraeu’s rear guard. He and Dina were the last of the survivors to retreat.
Taniel could see the edge of the cypress forest looming out of the darkness just ahead. He was ready for the land to drop beneath him, the water of the Tristan river splashing beneath his boots, but the steep slope came up so quickly that he still tripped and tumbled down it. He landed on his back in the water, sputtering and cursing.
He scrambled about for his knapsack and rifle, recovering both. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Dina croaked.
His powder mage senses told him that most of his charges were wet. He paused only long enough to snort a pinch of powder from one of the few dry ones, renewing his trance.
Go easy on the powder, his father had always said. Even the strongest mage risks dependency and powder blindness.
Taniel banished that thought. No time for that kind of caution now.
The darkness left few secrets for him with his trance-enhanced sight, but the tumble down the hill had reminded him to be cautious. Slowly, he and Dina began to navigate into the swamp.
“Keep to the solid ground,” Dina said. “You won’t be able to see anything beneath the water. Sinkholes are common—they’ll pull you right down. Take it one step at a time, and if you feel your one foot start to sink, step back to firm ground.” Her voice came out as a raspy rush. “One foot at a time... oh, Kresimir, give me strength.”
“We can’t stop,” Taniel said as Dina began to fall.
“I’m all right,” Dina insisted. “Keep going. There will be frequent hummocks of dry land rising above the water—that’s the best place to rest.”
Taniel’s next words died on his lips as he caught sight of the savage girl he had seen in the street before the battle. She stood a couple dozen paces off, just like she had back in the town, facing him, catching his eye, her face emotionless. Taniel felt like cold fingers were tracing their way up the small of his back.
“Do you see....”
“I can’t see a blasted thing in this darkness,” Dina said. “You’re a powder mage, you’ll have to guide us on.”
“Here, I....” Taniel looked away for just half a moment, and the girl was gone.
There was shouting behind them, and Taniel knew he had two choices: move faster and risk stepping in a sinkhole, or take it slowly and let the Kez soldiers catch up with them.
A quick glance back showed that the Kez had entered the swamp about a hundred yards behind him. They carried lanterns, hooded against the rain.
Taniel would have to outrun them, risking the sinkholes and swamp dragons.
There, up ahead. The savage girl again. Taniel fought his fear with anger. Who the pit was she? What did she want? Why was she haunting him?
“There’s a girl,” Taniel hissed.
Dina clutched at him. “What did you say?”
“A savage girl. She’s up ahead, watching us.” He wanted to say the word “spirit” but fought against it. He didn’t need to scare Dina. Priests were notoriously excitable about this kind of things. “I’ve heard stories....”
“This is no time for superstition,” Dina said. “She must be one of the tribe, here to guide us. Follow her!”
Taniel stepped forward, only to feel his leg sink into the mud up to his knee. “Sinkhole!” He tried to step back, but too much of his weight had been on his front leg, leaving him with no leverage.
“Don’t move,” Dina said. Her raspy breathing filled Taniel’s ears, and he could feel her grasp him by the shoulder. “I’ve braced my feet,” she said. “I’ll pull on you now. Just wait until....”
Light suddenly blinded Taniel, searing Dina’s face into his vision. He felt the grip on his shoulder disappear, and he fell back into the mud, arms flailing for purchase. His right arm sank through the murk and he thought he might be sucked down forever, before one fingertip touched something solid.
He forced himself to freeze. Struggling would only make it worse. He focused on floating in the water above the sinkhole, one hand with a firm grip on a rock beneath the water. It was the only thing keeping him from being pulled down.
Pushing with that one hand, he felt his face break the surface and took in a ragged breath.
Calm, he reminded himself. He had to breathe slowly and work his way away from the sinkhole.
He remembered Dina’s face in the lightning—mouth open, eyes wide, features ashen—and he knew that she had likely been dead by the time she hit the water.
His eyes were caked shut by mud, and there was a pain in his side that hadn’t been there a moment ago. Had he been shot? Perhaps he had twisted something when he fell.
He could hear the splash of footsteps near, and his heart thundered like a volley of musket fire. All his training and his magery yet here he was, helpless to move in the mud and water. Someone could just walk up and push him down.
“Look at that, my lady,” a male voice said in Kez. “Cut right in two. Excellent aim.”
Another voice, female, and educated by the enunciation, said, “Is it the powder mage?”
“Hard to tell, the body is sinking fast. Can’t see the face.”
The body. Dina.
The woman sniffed. “There were two out here. Did I get them both?”
A few moments passed, and Taniel knew they were looking for him. From their voices, they had their backs to him. Taniel forced himself to breathe as quietly as possible and prayed to Kresimir they wouldn’t turn around.
“This is a deep sinkhole, my lady. Can’t feel the bottom with this pole. He must have been sucked down into the mud. See how quickly the corpse disappeared?”
“I want evidence of the powder mage’s death. Mark the spot. I’ll come back in the morning and raise the corpses.”
“The swamp dragons or snappers might have them by then, my lady.”
“Just mark the spot. We have more hunting to do.”
“Yes, my lady.”
Taniel waited, barely able to breath, and tried not to imagine the mud slowly sucking him under.
The two left, their boots splashing in the water, and Taniel listened to other soldiers shouting in Kez. The search carried on for at least an hour, and he remained still, only years of practice standing at attention allowing him the discipline to do so.
His side ached fiercely, and he knew he was losing blood. How much, he couldn’t be sure. The pain grew as his powder trance wore off. He shivered in the chill of the swamp water.
The sounds of searching soldiers were not long gone when Taniel felt something move past one foot. It was a soft feeling, like satin sliding across his skin, and he immediately thought of everything that they’d told him lurked in these swamps: snakes, snappers, and swamp dragons.
No more waiting. He had to get back to solid ground, find his rifle and kit if he could, and then work his way further into the swamp before morning. He moved slowly, pulling his leg toward him. With his whole head finally above the water, Taniel scrapped the mud from his eyes. The world was dark, his powder trance gone. His clothes were soaked and his muscles stiff, and something touched his leg again.
Even half-blinded by mud and cloaked in darkness, Taniel could see the figure of the savage girl standing on the bank, not three feet away.
Fear shot through him. Several moments passed, and Taniel forced himself to look her in the eye as he reached out with one hand, searching for firm ground. Then something snagged him by the leg and pulled. The scream didn’t have time to leave his mouth before he went under.
“Where are you leading me, girl?”
It was early in the morning, and the swamp teemed with life. Taniel limped along ten paces back from the savage girl, scanning their surroundings. He spotted a pair of swamp dragon nostrils poking up from the water and shuddered, remembering the teeth that had seized his leg last night.
The savage girl had already adjusted their path in order to go well around the creature.
She’d been silent all night, watching him carefully whenever he spoke but never replying. He wondered if she understood Adran, or if she could speak at all. Had she made any sort of war cry when she’d dove into the mud and killed the young swamp dragon with two strokes of her machete?
Taniel couldn’t remember. He’d been too busy struggling to get away.
He was lucky the beast had only snagged his pantleg. Otherwise the gash in his side would be second concern over a missing foot.
Taniel’s powder trance was wearing off. He’d maintained a trance all night, sniffing from his last bit of dry powder every half hour or so, but he knew that if he took any more he risked not having enough to fight Kez if they ran into any patrols.
He still clung to the hope of finding survivors from the militia, despite not having seen any sign of them all morning. His questions about them to this girl had all gone ignored.
He stopped to catch his breath, sitting on the bowed old roots of a cypress tree. His clothes were dirty and soaking, his rifle lost in the swamp; only his kit, wet knapsack, and a single pistol to help him survive.
And this savage girl.
“Wait,” Taniel said.
The girl turned and shook her head sharply, gesturing ahead. It was the first indication that she’d understood anything he said. She pointed between herself and him then made a walking motion with her fingers.
“I need to treat this wound,” Taniel said. “It’s going to be a problem if I don’t.” It was already a problem. He risked disease, infection, and bloodloss with every step he took; he only pushed on because he knew he had to get as far from the Kez as possible.
The girl splashed toward him, and he pulled his shirt up to show her the wound.
It wasn’t pretty. Mud-caked and angry red, it crossed his left side just below his arm, almost six inches long. The mud might have saved his life, preventing him from bleeding out over the last seven or eight hours, but infection was his greatest worry now.
The girl motioned for him to follow and led him to a hardwood hummock—a rise in the land about three feet above the water and fifty paces long. She began gathering dry sticks immediately, pulling down dead tree branches and plucking them from the highest point of the hummock.
“No fire,” Taniel said, dropping his kit. He felt his eyelids droop. He needed to rest, or take more powder. “Can’t risk them seeing the smoke.” He got to his feet, only for the girl to push him to the ground with one strong shove of her palm. “Ow.” Pit, the girl was strong.
Twenty minutes later she had a fire going and was feeding it dry twigs. She rummaged around in his kit without asking and came away with his small cookpot.
Taniel was too weak to raise a word of protest.
She put a pot of water over the fire and headed off into the swamp, giving him a hand-signal to stay. He chuckled at that. “I’m not going anywhere, girl.”
She was back sometime later, sporting a cut piece of vine about as thick as her wrist. She lay it on the ground and sliced it open lengthwise with her machete, expertly plying the white, soft pulp from the center.
Taniel watched her work. This vine was some kind of local medicine, perhaps?
Natives always know the land better, his father’s voice came to him. They can find fresh water in the desert, and they know which animals are poisonous. They have herbal remedies you’ve never heard of.
Careful, though. They can also kill you while making it look like they were trying to help.
Well, this girl had already had her chance to let him die, and he wouldn’t get out of this Kresimir-damned swamp without her.
Taniel cleaned the wound with the boiled water, then cut away charred and torn flesh with his knife, taking a hit of powder to help with the pain. The girl packed his wound with the innards of the vine, then used the skin of it like a bandage, wrapping it around his chest and tying it on the other side.
He sat back, watching her as she went to throw rocks at a swamp dragon creeping up their piece of dry land. A numbness spread through his side, and Taniel clutched his pistol to his chest. He needed to stay awake.
No telling how many Kez were patrolling this swamp, or if the Kez Privileged was out here, scouring the basin for him herself.
Taniel woke some hours later. By the sun shining through the cypress overhead, he guessed it was past four o’clock.
The pain in his side was gone, the numbness having spread to leave his left arm only passably useful. The narcotic the girl had packed into his wound was a strong one.
The girl herself was nowhere to be seen, and the swamp was uncharacteristically quiet. He pushed himself to his feet, finding his pistol already in his hand. He checked to be sure it was loaded, the barrel clear and the charge dry.
A small hit of powder set his mind ablaze and his blood pumping, but he could still feel sluggishness in his limbs.
A strong narcotic indeed.
He knew he should preserve his powder, but the trance would give him strength and help him think, and the allure of the heightened senses that came along with it was too strong to ignore.
A noise brought Taniel’s head around. Up in one of the trees, above where he’d been sleeping, the savage girl perched on a branch like an owl, with her machete sheathed. She held a reed in one hand about as thick as the charcoal Taniel used to draw in his sketchbook and was slowly tapping it against the tree trunk, head cocked as if listening to something.
She pointed at him, then gestured at the ashes of the fire.
Taniel snatched his pot and stowed it with his kit, then kicked the ashes into the water.
The girl shimmied down the weathered grey trunk of the cypress, landing lightly on bare feet. She held up four fingers and pointed toward the south, then scurried off the high ground. Taniel didn’t have a chance to respond before she disappeared beneath the water. Nothing remained but a few ripples and the long, trembling hollow reed that hadn’t been there a moment ago.
The distant splashing of someone approaching through the swamp caught Taniel’s ear. He moved to the far side of the cypress once he’d pinpointed their location, then crouched and waited.
They were coming right toward him. He tapped out a line of black powder on the back of his hand, snorting it to bring his powder trance to a vibrant hum, then leaned back around the tree.
There were four of them. Three Kez soldiers, spread in a triangular formation with one of them on point picking his way carefully through the water. A fourth man trailed along behind the trio, his hands bound and linked by a rope to one of the soldier’s belts.
The prisoner was a savage. Taller than the girl by far, with a wiry build and thin bony shoulders, Taniel guessed him to be about twenty-five years old. He had short, pale-red hair cut above his ears and the same ashen, freckled skin as the savage girl.
The trio of soldiers traveled in silence, their concentration focused on watching for swamp dragons and snakes. Their bayoneted muskets were held at the ready.
Taniel waited for them to come, from his hiding place behind the big cypress. He had his pistol and nothing else. Should he let them pass, staying hidden like the girl? Or should he try to capture them, and save the savage? He could ignite the powder in their muskets with a thought, killing or wounding all three at once, but he wasn’t particularly skilled at directing blasts, and that risked hurting their prisoner.
If it came to a fight, the three were better-armed. They might be able to best him.
Taniel pressed his back to the cypress and slowly moved around the trunk, keeping it between himself and the three soldiers.
The splashing suddenly stopped.
“Someone has been here.” one of them said in Kez. “Are those ashes?”
The splashing drew close to the hummock. “There was a fire. See this bootprint? Someone’s been here recently. One of those damn rebels.” He switched to Adran. “You, savage. Who else would be coming through here today?” A pause, then, “You hear me, boy? I know you understand.”
There was the dull smack of a musket butt striking flesh, and someone grunted but did not cry out.
“Are they warm?” one of the soldiers asked in Kez.
Taniel heard one of the soldiers climb onto the hummock, mud squelching beneath his boots. Taniel’s breath came fast and short, and the man suddenly stepped into view. Slowly, so as not to attract attention, Taniel leveled his pistol.
The soldier bent over the remains of Taniel’s fire; stuck his finger in them. “A little warm. They were here just a few hours ago. I....”
His head twisted and his eyes grew wide at the sight of Taniel.
“Set it down,” Taniel said in Kez.
The soldier dropped his musket.
“Who’s there?” one of the others demanded.
“A rebel,” the Kez said. “He has a pistol on me.”
“Put down your muskets!” Taniel shouted.
The soldier licked his lips and met Taniel’s eyes. “There’s just one!” he yelled as he dove to the side. Taniel tracked his movement, watched him snatch up his musket and turn to aim.
Taniel squeezed his trigger, felling the soldier with a shot to the heart.
He spun toward the other two, flipping his pistol around to take it by the barrel, feeling the heat burn his palm. He had half a second to decide whether to ignite their powder, killing them both and risking their prisoner, or to cross the space and attack. He’d have to duck past their bayonets and use his only weapon—the butt of the spent pistol.
The water beneath the soldiers erupted. The savage girl came up swinging, her hair whipping about as she hamstrung one soldier with her machete, slit the other’s belly, then returned to the first to cut his throat.
The action had taken half a heart-beat, faster than Taniel could follow, and both men were down.
He and the girl dragged the bodies onto the hummock.
The savage prisoner hadn’t flinched during the short, brutal fight, even leaping on the soldier Taniel had shot to finish him off with his bare hands. His eyes flicked over the three bodies with disdain, and Taniel guessed he was used to killing.
“I am Milgi, of the Stillwater tribe,” the male savage said, his voice deep, his Adran barely intelligible.
“I’m Taniel. Captain with the Fatrastan militia. And powder mage.” He added the last bit to give his words more weight, but wondered as he clasped hands with the savage whether they even knew what a powder mage was. He clasped hands with the savage.
The girl had already set about stripping the bodies of anything useful. Milgi stayed off the hummock, knee-deep in the water, and Taniel thought he saw a bit of fear in his eyes when he looked at the girl.
“Were you the one who was supposed to meet us in Gladeside?” Taniel asked.
“Yes. Your company arrived early, and the Kez—” Milgi paused to spit on one of the bodies— “caught up to you before we did.”
“Did anyone else make it out?” Taniel asked.
“Most of the company. My brothers are leading them to our village as we speak.”
Taniel let out a sigh of relief.
Milgi went on. “I was looking for you when these three caught me unawares. It was....”
The girl found one of the soldier’s powder horns. She popped it open, checking the powder, then resealed it and tossed it to Taniel.
Taniel caught it with one hand. “Can you take me to them?”
“I can,” Milgi said.
“Excellent. Let’s get going before we run into another patrol.”
Taniel took the best of the three muskets and fixed the bayonet. He preferred rifles—they were more accurate at the range that made powder mages so deadly, and the straighter he shot, the less work he had to do to float the bullet. The musket would have to do, though.
They left the bodies to be discovered by the Kez, if the swamp dragons didn’t get them first. “Fear,” Milgi had said, when Taniel wanted to hide them. “Doubt. The swamp frightens them already. This will make it worse.”
The girl ranged ahead of them as they picked their way through the swamp, wriggling her hand at them to indicate a snake or swamp dragon to avoid.
“What’s her name?” Taniel asked Milgi, pointing toward the girl. Milgi had been watching her for some time, and there was a hint of wariness in his eyes.
“Strange name. Strange girl.”
“Truthfully, I did not expect to find you with—” Milgi lowered his voice. “Her.”
“I thought she was one of you?”
Milgi’s next words were slow, hesitant. “She is. And isn’t. She has no place in our tribe. A foreigner, from across the narrow sea far to the west. But she is a Bone-eye, and we cannot shun her.”
“A Dynize?” Taniel asked.
No one knew much about the Dynize, save that they were a great empire west of Fatrasta, and that their borders had been closed to foreigners for decades. The savages of Fatrasta were their distant cousins—their looks and their languages similar but as different as Kez and Adro.
Taniel noted that the girl had half-turned her head toward them while she moved quietly through the swamp. She’d been listening.
“Can she speak?”
Taniel felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to find Milgi had stopped. “She’s not to be trusted,” he said.
“She saved my life. More than once already, and the day’s still young.” Taniel’s wit faded when he noticed Milgi didn’t catch the humor in his words.
“Not to be trusted,” Milgi said again, before heading on.
Taniel hurried to catch up with him. “Do you know anything about the Kez companies that attacked us?”
“Only what your major told us this morning, when we found your men. Five companies. Over a thousand muskets, and one Privileged.”
“Major Bertreau survived? I’m glad to hear that. Is your village deep enough in the swamp to hide us, if they decide to come looking?”
Milgi scowled. “From the men? Yes. Further in the basin, the water is deep and the hummocks are few. It would take a thousand men years of searching to find us.” He paused. “But when I was captured, I pretended I did not know their tongue and listened to the soldiers speak to each other. They said that their Privileged was going to burn her way through the basin.”
Taniel felt a coldness in his gut.
“I’m sure they won’t find us,” Milgi said, waving his hand as if to dispel the fear.
Taniel knew Privileged sorcery. He knew what they were capable of. His father had told stories about some of the strongest cabal heads from the Nine—men who could slaughter thousands with a casual gesture.
He’d felt that Privileged’s power last night when she attacked the company. Not as strong as a cabal head, but no pretender, either. She could lift the earth, burn the trees, and part the water, giving her men safe conduct through the swamp and finding the militia and savages no matter where they were hiding.
“We have to go back,” Taniel said.
Milgi stopped and stared at him.
“Are the Kez camped in Gladeside?” Taniel asked.
“Yes,” Milgi said, “but we can’t go back. They won’t find us deep in the swamp. Nothing to do against a Privileged but hide.”
“I’m a powder mage.” Taniel didn’t feel so well. His side ached, his head was light from little food, and his feet hurt. He hadn’t been dry since last night, and the idea of being anywhere near that Privileged scared the piss out of him.
But if he didn’t go back, his militia company and their savage allies would die.
“Privileged.” Milgi wagged his finger under Taniel’s nose as if Taniel were a slow child. “You don’t have a Privileged, and you can’t fight them.”
“Powder mages,” Taniel said, repeating what his father had reiterated over the years, “were made for one thing: killing Privileged.” He forced the words out, wondering if he still believed them. Sitting in a barracks, listening to his father’s stories, it had been easy enough to think he could kill a Privileged. But with nothing between him and their sorcery but a mile of space and single bullet, he wasn’t feeling so confident.
Milgi seemed torn. He looked the way they were going, then back the way they had come. “No,” he said firmly. “There is no shame in hiding from a Privileged. We can’t fight them.”
Taniel began heading back. “I’m going.”
“Then you go alone. You’ll never find your way.”
Taniel attempted to get his bearings, but Milgi was right. It was easy to get turned around in this swamp. He didn’t know the terrain, and he didn’t know how to spot swamp dragons and snappers hiding in the water.
“Ka-poel!” he shouted, startled to find the girl already at his side. “Ka-poel. Can you lead me back to Gladeside?”
She gave Milgi a mocking smile and nodded.
“She has no fear,” Milgi said. “She will get you killed.”
Ka-poel narrowed her eyes at Milgi, and the man took half a step back.
“I don’t have time for fear right now,” Taniel said. “I have to kill someone.”
He could have sworn that Ka-poel’s green eyes twinkled at that.
“I need to come out of the swamp either north or south of Gladeside. Two miles away would be best—somewhere I have a clear shot at Gladeside, and an easy path back into the swamp.”
Ka-poel listened, her brow furrowed, then gave a short nod.
She led them back the way they had come, leaving Milgi behind. The water was still, the day windless, and Taniel spoke to try and forget the pain in his side.
“It all looks alike,” he said. “How do you know where you’re going?”
Ka-poel pointed to her eyes with two fingers, then to the forest. She indicated a nearby hummock of gumbo and inkwood trees, then pointed to a uniquely twisted cypress rising out of the swamp to their left. She jabbed a finger behind her, toward a boulder that lay on its side in the water.
“Landmarks?” Taniel asked.
That’s how he’d been taught to track and survive in unfamiliar land, but the landmarks in this swamp seemed few and far between. He’d have to try harder, it seemed.
She stopped him as dusk fell, halting him with the flat of her hand. She pointed toward the sky, then traced the path of the sun until she pointed at the ground.
“It’ll be dark soon?”
A nod. She made the walking motion with her fingers and indicated the forest around them, then drew a finger across her throat.
“Very dangerous after dark.”
Another nod. She gave him a small smile, then spread her hands. What did he want to do?
“Can you see well in the dark?” He remembered her guiding him through the swamp last night, away from the Kez searchers.
She wobbled her hand uncertainly. Somewhat.
“The powder,” Taniel said, drawing a line of black powder on the back of his hand and taking a snort. “It lets me see in the dark almost as well as I can see during the day. Let’s keep going. We’ll make camp outside the basin. I’m not completely comfortable sleeping here with snakes, swamp dragons, and Kez patrols.”
The sun had set before they managed to clear the swamp. Climbing the hillside that marked the edge of the Tristan Basin, they made their way to a hilltop some quarter of a mile away from the swamp edge and set up camp as best they could with no fire and no bedding.
Taniel took first watch.
He didn’t bother waking Ka-poel for a second watch. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep.
Shooting a Privileged, his father had once said. It seems like the easiest thing in the world. Just like shooting a target.
You’ll do well to remember, though, that the most deadly thing in the world is an angry Privileged.
Because if you do, he’s going to decorate the landscape with bits of your corpse.
Taniel sat with his back to an oak tree, watching the distant town of Gladeside. It was a little over two miles away in the darkness. With a strong enough hit of powder, he could see the Kez sentries at their posts, just outside the town.
The remains of the common house had been cleaned up. A few houses had been burned down, and a pair of corpses had been strung up on a scaffold in the center of the town.
Rebel sympathizers, most likely. Probably the mayor—he had given Taniel’s company succor, after all.
The Kez were anything but subtle.
White tents were pitched throughout and around the town. Taniel counted them, just to be sure. With two to a tent, Taniel pegged their number at almost a thousand. Five companies and a Privileged, just like he’d been told.
A force to be reckoned with.
He let his eyes wander around the outskirts of the camp, singling out their sentries. One was picking his nose. Another’s lips were slightly parted, and though Taniel couldn’t hear it, he knew the sentry was whistling to himself.
Taniel had been on sentry duty before. Anything to keep yourself awake.
He rolled his eyes back in his head and let out a slow breath, then opened his third eye to see the Else.
The world became awash in pastel colors. Throughout the town and in the swamp immediately next to Gladeside, swatches of faded color stood testament to where the Privileged had used sorcery the night before. One of those swatches marked where Dina had died.
In the town itself, Taniel could see several dull, lesser spots of color. Knacked—men with minor sorcerous power. There was usually at least one in every company. Their skills always proved useful in any army.
His eyes stopped on one bright dot in the Else.
The Privileged. She was inside one of the houses, probably sound asleep in a feather bed.
He could try a shot right now, while she was asleep and unmoving. It would be the easiest thing.
But even if he managed to float the bullet through a window and around the corner—almost impossible at this range—he’d still afterwards have to flee into the swamp at night. He’d already tried running into the swamp in the dark once this week. He didn’t relish a second attempt.
He glanced at the girl.
Of course, he’d get her killed, too. He should have sent her back into the swamp hours ago. This was something he had to do alone.
“Ka-poel,” he whispered, some time later.
It was now near dawn. He could see the slight brightening on the eastern horizon, the moon dipping to the west. The Kez soldiers in the camp were beginning to stir.
He shook the girl awake. She was on her feet moments later, rubbing sleep out of her eyes, her red hair bedraggled.
“It’s time,” Taniel said. He listened to his stomach growl. It had been thirty hours or more since his last meal. The numbing vine Ka-poel had pressed into his wound had long ago lost its potency, and now his whole body hurt. His side felt tight, the arm stiff.
This wasn’t going to be an easy shot.
He settled himself on the hilltop beside a maple tree and pointed the musket’s barrel toward Gladeside, resting it on one thick, gnarled root.
“I have one shot,” Taniel told her. “If I miss, the Privileged will be alarmed and raise a shield around herself. I’ll try again regardless, just in case she’s sloppy, but that first shot is the only good one I’ll have.”
He glanced at Ka-poel to see if she was listening. She’d laid down on her belly beside him, watching the town.
She nodded to him.
“Two shots at most,” Taniel said. “And then we run for it.” He pointed down the hillside toward the basin. “She’ll send her soldiers after us. We have to move quickly. With a little luck we’ll be gone by the time they reach us. They won’t be able to track us in the swamp.”
Taniel checked the musket for the fifth time—the pan was primed, the barrel loaded, and the powder dry. Not all of that was necessary for a powder mage, but each bit of preparation made the shot a little bit easier.
He settled the butt of the musket against his shoulder and sighted down the barrel toward the house where he’d seen the Privileged.
Taniel opened his third eye.
The smudge of color that represented the Privileged was still in the house.
Taniel could hear his heart drumming in his ears. This wasn’t melee—there wasn’t a surge of black powder and adrenaline pushing him through the fight, years of training taking over to help him through the kill.
This was a calm, meditative shot.
The smudge of color was moving. Taniel closed his third eye and watched the house from the outside, focusing on the front door and the window facing him. Through the open window, with his powder-enhanced vision, he could see a washbasin and a tall mirror and one post of a bed.
Taniel lowered the musket and tapped out a line of powder and snorted it; felt it calm his nerves.
Back to his vigil. There was some movement through the window, and the Privileged came into view.
She was not at all what he had expected.
She was thirty at the oldest, younger than Major Bertreau. Her face hadn’t been marred by years of sorcery and cruelty, like most Privileged Taniel had met. Her nose was small and pinched. She wore a night shift, sagging to bare one shoulder, her blond hair curled and wild around her head. She splashed water on her face and looked at herself in the mirror for a moment.
Taniel regretted his sorcerous sight; cursed the black powder that gave him the power to see his target with such clarity.
She looked like a girl Taniel knew from university. Soulin. In fact, she could have been Soulin’s older sister. She had the same color hair, the same slight features, and even looked to be a similar height.
The barrel of his musket wavered. His hands were shaking.
He let his head fall away from the stock and closed his eyes a moment.
Ka-poel was staring at him. She scowled and made a pistol with her fingers, pointing at Gladeside.
Taniel took a deep breath and slowly let it out, setting his cheek against the rifle stock.
The Privileged was still in her room. She had finished washing her face and stepped away from the window, only to reappear a moment later wearing a clean shirt.
She stepped to the window, fluffing her long hair with both hands.
Taniel remembered the Privileged’s dry, matter-of-fact voice as she had spoken of corpses. He thought of Dina, and the look of surprise on her face as Privileged fire cut her in half.
He thought of Dina’s husband and children, who would never even see her body.
And he could never forget that it had been a Kez Privileged who, long ago, had presented his family with his mother’s head in a box.
The crack of the musket startled him, as he had barely felt his finger pull the trigger. An expanding cloud of black smoke rose overhead, filling his nostrils with sulfur.
He counted silently, burning the extra powder in his powder horn to keep the bullet floating far longer than any regular musket ball. A slight pain began in the back of his head as the effort of keeping the bullet up taxed his sorcery.
Powder mages normally used small caliber bullets and rifles with a high muzzle velocity, to be sure that the bullet hit their target before their target could hear the shot.
But with a standard Kez infantry musket, the bullet would hit the target about the same time as the sound.
As long as she didn’t see the puff of black smoke rising above him, giving away his position.
She was still standing at the window, enjoying the morning air, when the bullet entered her left eye and blew the back of her head across the mirror behind her.
Taniel didn’t wait for the sentries to figure out what had happened. The extra few minutes could mean the difference between getting away and being captured. He was on his feet in a moment, running half-crouched down the hillside in a straight beeline toward the Tristan Basin, with Ka-poel on his heels.
He heard his father’s voice in the back of his mind as Ka-poel led him into the swamp, the sound of Kez trumpets blaring the alarm behind them.
You’ll feel guilty about that first cold, calculating kill. After all, they never even saw the bullet coming.
Taniel was chilled, and it had nothing to do with the cold of the morning.
You’ll feel guilty on the second one, too, said his father’s voice. And the next. I lost that guilt around my twentieth, and I think part of my humanity died with it. Hopefully, my boy, you’ll keep it longer than I did.
“I didn’t,” Taniel whispered.
Ka-poel cast a questioning glance over her shoulder.
“Let’s get to your village,” Taniel said. “And get it prepared. They’ll send another Privileged eventually. I’m going to be here to kill that one, too.”