“An immensely entertaining novel” (Tor.com) from the author of The Thousand Names...
The King of the Vordan is on his deathbed. Soon his daughter, Raesinia will be the first Queen Regnant in centuries—and a target for those who seek to control her. The most dangerous is Duke Orlanko, Minister of Information, and master of the secret police. He is the most feared man in the kingdom, and he knows an arcane secret that puts Raesinia completely at his mercy.
But Raesinia has found unlikely allies in the returning war hero Janus bet Vhalnich, and his loyal deputies, Captain Marcus d’Ivoire and Lieutenant Winter Ihernglass. As Marcus and Winter struggle to find their places in the home they never thought they would see again, they help Janus and Raesinia set in motion events that could shatter Orlanko’s powers, but perhaps at the price of throwing the nation into chaos. But with the people suffering under the Duke’s tyranny, they intend to protect the kingdom with every power they can command, earthly or otherwise.
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Django Wexler is the author of the Shadow Campaigns novel, The Thousand Names. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not planning Shadow Campaigns, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts. He is also the author of two middle-grade fantasy novels, The Forbidden Library and The Mad Apprentice.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE LAST DUKE
There were stories about what went on inside the Ministry of Information. The building—dubbed “the Cobweb”—was innocuous enough on the outside, another example of Farus VI’s fondness for marble, classical columns, and elaborately decorated facades. Inside, the stories ran, it was a place of dust and shadows, full of hidden archives, rat-infested cells, and elaborate death traps. More than one adventure serial had featured some hero rescuing his ladylove from its forgotten oubliettes.
Duke Mallus Kengire Orlanko, Minister of Information and head of the Concordat, found all of this faintly offensive. In reality the Cobweb was lit by thousands of standing lamps, day and night, and a whole corps of junior servants was employed refilling oil and replacing wicks. There was no point in having the clerks ruin their eyesight trying to squint by candlelight, after all. And if one thought about it logically for a moment, it would be much harder to sneak into a brightly lit building bustling with activity than a moldering dungeon full of death traps. As for cells, there were a few, of course, but they were hardly rat-infested. Orlanko tolerated no vermin in his domain.
It was yet another example of the popular taste for colorful fantasy over prosaic reality. In Orlanko’s opinion, if the Vordanai as a people could be said to have a fault, it was an excess of imagination outweighing proper sense. Not that the duke was complaining. He’d become an expert at playing on that imagination over the years.
His private office, at the top of the building, was a remarkably small and well-organized one. If an outsider had wandered in—though of course none were ever allowed to do so—he might have wondered where all the books and papers had gotten to. This was, after all, the heart of the Ministry of Information, the nerve center of the Concordat, the omniscient (again, in the popular imagination) secret police who knew everything about everyone. And yet here was the Last Duke himself, sitting behind a modest oak desk with only a few clipped bundles of paper, and not even a bookshelf to decorate the walls or a leather-bound tome full of dark secrets.
Again, the duke thought, a failure of common sense. What was the point of turning his office into a library? The whole building was his library, and all he really needed to do his business was the little copper bell on his desk. Ringing it would send in a clerk—there was always a queue of them waiting outside—who would silently accept the Last Duke’s instructions and take them down into the archives, deputizing subclerks and sub-subclerks to break his order into manageable tasks. Files would be read, copied, summarized, and collated, until the original clerk returned to Orlanko’s desk with another neat clipped bundle of paper. It was a machine for knowing things, for carrying out the will of the man sitting behind the desk, and Orlanko was immensely proud of it. Building it had been his life’s work.
In that sense, Andreas bothered him. Not the man specifically, but the need for him, and others like him. Duke Orlanko wished that everything was like his Ministry, where he could just ring a little bell and speak a few words to set the whole vast apparatus clicking into motion. Beyond the walls of the Cobweb, unfortunately, things were messier, and required the employment of those who, like Andreas, had . . . special talents.
Andreas was in his middle thirties, with an average build and a forgettable face, both assets in his line of work. He wore one of the black, floor-length leather greatcoats that were the unofficial uniform of the Concordat. The coat had become a symbol. Parents frightened their children with it. This was useful, since if everyone knew what a Concordat agent looked like, it made it all the easier not to look like one when that was what was required.
Orlanko shifted in his special chair, which creaked slightly as hidden springs took up his weight. He adjusted his spectacles and pretended to notice Andreas for the first time, though the man had been waiting patiently for at least a quarter of an hour.
“Any progress with your investigation of the Gray Rose?”
Some things were too delicate to trust to the machine. The Gray Rose had been another of Orlanko’s special employees, one of the best, but she’d slipped the leash several years back and disappeared without a trace. As a matter of principle, the duke couldn’t allow that sort of thing. Andreas had been pursuing her ever since, patiently following the faintest traces with a persistence that would have done credit to a bloodhound. Andreas, the duke sometimes thought, was a bit like an automaton himself.
“I have several promising leads, sir,” Andreas said. “My people are following them up.”
“You’re still convinced she hasn’t left the country?”
“The balance of evidence seems to suggest she remains in the city, sir.”
Damn the woman, Orlanko thought. If she’d done the logical thing and fled beyond his supposedly all-powerful reach, he would have happily called off the hunt. She knew nothing that would damage him, not at this stage. But by remaining close by, she implicitly challenged his authority, and that could not be tolerated. It was an irritating waste of resources.
“Well, I’m sure your men can proceed without you for a time. There are other matters that require our attention.”
“Yes, sir.” Andreas waited patiently, hands crossed behind his back.
“Have you heard the news from Khandar?”
“Yes, sir. Colonel Vhalnich appears to have won a great victory. The Vermillion Throne is secure, and newly indebted to His Majesty.”
“So the papers would have us believe,” Orlanko said sourly. Vhalnich was already well on his way to becoming a popular hero. Such stories were usually exaggerations, but the duke’s own agents reported that the broadsheets were, if anything, understating the case. “Vhalnich is on his way back here, apparently. He’s expected any day.”
“And the special asset you sent with him?”
“I’ve heard nothing.” Orlanko’s finger tap-tap-tapped on the report. “Which, in itself, speaks volumes. If we assume the worst, she’s been eliminated.”
“And the Thousand Names may be in Vhalnich’s hands.” A hint of animation entered Andreas’ face. “Would you like him removed upon arrival?”
The duke stifled a sigh. If Andreas had a fault, it was a definite tendency to resort to drastic measures too quickly. It was an odd failing in someone so patient in every other respect. Orlanko suspected that Andreas simply liked to kill people.
“That would be a bit obvious, don’t you think?” Orlanko shook his head. “No, Vhalnich will undoubtedly enjoy the favor of the king and the adoration of the mob. For the moment, we dare not touch him. But His Majesty is very ill. If he dies . . . we shall see.”
“We need to know what happened in Khandar, Andreas. If these Names our Elysian friends are so interested in really exist, and whether or not Vhalnich has them. Whether he even understands their importance.” He leaned back in his chair, springs creaking. “Find out.”
“Vhalnich is a very clever man, and he’ll be on his guard. Concentrate on the people around him. Nothing too obvious, of course.”
“Yes, sir.” Andreas betrayed only a hint of disappointment.
“And I may have another assignment for you soon, depending on how the king’s health progresses. There are quite a few little cabals out there hoping to capitalize on the confusion. We have them all infiltrated, naturally, and there’s nothing terribly dangerous. But a few well-timed disappearances should put the fear of God into them.” Or rather, he thought, the fear of the Last Duke. That was better. “Make sure your people are ready.”
“Of course, sir.”
“That will be all.”
Andreas ghosted out. Orlanko looked at the stack of reports, adjusted his glasses, and unclipped the top pile.
What nobody understood was how hard his job was. Riding herd on the city sometimes felt like trying to keep his seat on an unruly stallion. Yes, he knew about everything of importance practically before it happened, and yes, he could whisper a name and Andreas or someone like him would drag that person into a cell where they’d never see the light of day again. But really, what good was that? You couldn’t lock everybody up. His task was much trickier—to make them forge a prison in their own minds, out of their own fears, in which they would lock themselves and throw away the key. He’d been working at it for years, and he liked to think he’d done a fair job. The black coats were part of it. The occasional vanishing, the odd body found floating in the river, those just helped to grease the hinges. Fear would populate every shadow with hooded figures, when even he couldn’t possibly employ enough agents to do the job.
He wasn’t afraid of conspiracies. No conspiracy could survive exposure and decapitation, after all, and he was an expert at both. But Orlanko had learned to feel the mood of the city, as though it were a single vast organism. Sometimes it was sleepy and complacent, when times were good and people were fat and happy. When times were lean, it was snappy and irritable, prone to sudden rages and panics. And the death of a king always put people on edge.
He could feel something coming. The city was like a dog growling deep in its throat, not quite ready to leap but not far from it. It was his job to calm it, with either a nice bloody steak or a well-placed boot. Which it would be, Duke Orlanko had not yet decided.
But once the king died, after the chaos subsided, he would finally have what he’d dreamed of all these years. A ruler who would listen.
She’ll listen. Orlanko smiled to himself. Or else . . .
The mirrored halls of the Royal Palace at Ohnlei were dark and quiet.
Not silent, for the thousands of footmen, maids, gardeners, guards, cook and candle boys who made the great palace run could never really stop moving, any more than a heart could stop pumping. But they moved cautiously, avoiding loud footfalls on the marble floors and talking in low voices, and only a few candles flickered in the enormous braziers. The great black velvet drapes and carpets had not been hung, for the king had not yet died, but in a hundred cellars and storerooms they had been unrolled, aired out, and checked for wear.
Raesinia and her party clattered through the hush like a wild stallion in a glazier’s. First came the princess’ hard-soled shoes, tak-tak-tak, and then the heavy, flat-footed tromp of the trio of Noreldrai Grays who provided her escort. It gave everyone plenty of warning to form up and clear the way, so that her progress was marked by a bow wave of dipping heads from staff lined up on either side of the corridor. The occasional courtier sparkled like a precious stone among the pale blue of the Royal livery. Ordinarily, politeness would have obliged her to stop and exchange a few pleasant words with anyone of sufficient rank, but under the circumstances the nobles merely bowed their heads and let her by. No doubt they began whispering as soon as she turned the corner, but Raesinia was used to that.
The ground-floor apartments of the king were reached through a broad marble arch, carved with a frieze depicting King Farus VI in the act of smiting some armored foe. Raesinia’s great-grandfather was everywhere at Ohnlei. He’d died decades before she was born, but she’d seen his narrow-cheeked, pointy-bearded countenance on so many statues, bas-reliefs, and portraits that he was as familiar to her as any of her living family. This one was actually not a particularly good likeness, she’d always suspected. The sculptor had given the king a squint, and he looked out at the viewer rather than keeping his eyes on the business at hand, as though to say, “Who are you, and what are you doing at my battle?”
Beyond the arch was a grassy courtyard, roofed over with great sliding panes of glass that could be opened to let the air in when the weather was good. Here the king, in better days, would receive guests or dine with his favorites. It was surrounded by a colonnade and a terrace floored with marble, from which a dozen oak-and-gilt doors led to the king’s private chambers and the residences of his servants and guards. A dozen of the latter were scattered around the courtyard, not just the somber-uniformed Noreldrai Grays but Armsmen in their forest green coats and white trousers and Royal Army grenadiers in Vordanai blue and polished brass. Guarding the king was a great honor, and none of the three services was willing to leave it to the others.
In the middle of the lawn, looking a bit incongruous, was a polished oak dining table surrounded by high-backed chairs. Raesinia had eaten there many times with her father, in the company of the mightiest nobles of the land, surrounded by a veritable swarm of servants and flunkies. Now the long, mirror-smooth surface was nearly empty. At the far end sat a gray-haired man, back hunched from a lifetime of bending over the beds of his patients. He got painfully to his feet as Raesinia approached, in spite of her urgent gesture.
“Good morning, Your Highness,” he said, with as much of a bow as his stiff back could muster. “I hope you are well?”
He had a Hamveltai accent, which turned “well” into “vell.” Raesinia nodded.
“As well as ever, Doctor-Professor Indergast,” she said.
He peered at her over the top of thin-rimmed half-moon spectacles. “I ought to have a look at your diet,” he said. “Some days it seems to me that you are not growing up properly. Your mother was nearly as tall as I when she was nineteen, you know.”
Raesinia, who had to look up slightly to meet the stoop-shouldered doctor’s gaze, gave a careful shrug. “Perhaps, someday. But we have more important things to worry about at the moment. I got a message to come at once—is he all right?”
“His condition has not changed, Your Highness,” Indergast said. “I am sorry to have worried you. It is only that he is awake, and asked to see you.”
Raesinia’s heart gave a weak flop. Her father slept more than he was awake, these days, and sometimes he was delirious with pain and fever. She’d spent many hours at his bedside, holding his hand, but he hadn’t often known she was there.
“I’d better go and see him, then,” she said, “before he falls asleep again.”
“Of course, Your Highness. Pay no mind to me.” He gestured at a huge book, which lay open on the table where he’d been sitting. “I was only paging through a volume of Acheleos that the Grand Bishop was kind enough to lend me, to see if he had anything useful to tell us.”
“And does he?”
“Alas, no. Like all the ancients, he has many theories but very little practical advice.”
“You’ll figure something out. You always have.”
Doctor-Professor Indergast ran one gnarled hand through his wispy hair. He had been personal physician to her father since before Rae...
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