The Crimson Campaign(The Powder Mage Trilogy)(4)
Author:Brian McClellan


    He leaned over, his hand reaching for a refill for his own mala pipe. The table next to his hammock held a plate with a few scraps of dark mala, an empty purse, and a pistol. He couldn’t remember where the pistol came from.

    Taniel gathered the bits of mala together into one small, sticky ball and pushed it into the end of his pipe. It lit instantly, and he took a long pull into his lungs.

    “Want more?”

    The den’s owner sidled up to Taniel’s hammock. He was Gurlish, his skin brown but not as dark as a Deliv’s, with a lighter tone under his eyes and on his palms. He was tall, like most Gurlish, and skinny, his back bent from years of leaning into the niches of his mala den to clean them out or light an addict’s pipe. His name was Kin.

    Taniel reached for his purse, wiggled his fingers around inside before remembering that it was empty. “No money,” he said, his own voice ragged in his ears.

    How long had he been here? Two weeks, Taniel decided after putting his mind to the question. More importantly, how did he get here?

    Not here, the mala den, but here in Adopest. Taniel remembered the fight on top of Kresimir’s palace as Ka-poel destroyed the Kez Cabal, and he remembered pulling the trigger of his rifle and watching a bullet take the god Kresimir in the eye.

    It was all darkness after that until he woke up, covered in sweat, Ka-poel straddling him with fresh blood on her hands. He remembered bodies in the hallway of the hotel – his father’s soldiers with an unfamiliar insignia on their jackets. He’d left the hotel and stumbled here, where he’d hoped to forget.

    Of course, if he still remembered all that, then the mala wasn’t doing its job.

    “Army jacket,” Kin said, fingering his lapel. “Your buttons.”

    Taniel looked down at the jacket he wore. It was Adran-army dark blue, with silver trim and buttons. He’d taken it from the hotel. It wasn’t his – too big. There was a powder mage pin – a silver powder keg – pinned to the lapel. Maybe it was his. Had he lost weight?

    The jacket had been clean two days ago. He remembered that much. Now it was stained with drool, bits of food, and small burns from mala embers. When the pit had he eaten?

    Taniel pulled his belt knife and took one of the buttons in his fingers. He paused. Kin’s daughter walked through the room. She wore a faded white dress, clean despite the squalor of the den. She must have been a few years older than Taniel, but no children clung to her skirts.

    “Do you like my daughter?” Kin asked. “She will dance for you. Two buttons!” He held up two fingers for emphasis. “Much prettier than the Fatrastan witch.”

    Kin’s wife, sitting in the corner and playing the Gurlish pipes, stopped the music long enough to say something to Kin. They exchanged a few words in Gurlish, then Kin turned back to Taniel. “Two buttons!” he reiterated.

    Taniel cut a button loose and put it in Kin’s hand. Dance, eh? Taniel wondered if Kin had a strong enough grasp of Adran for euphemism, or if dance was indeed all she’d do.

    “Maybe later,” Taniel said, settling back in the hammock with a fresh ball of mala the size of a child’s fist. “Ka-poel isn’t a witch. She’s…” He paused, trying to figure out a way to describe her to a Gurlish. His thoughts moved slowly, sluggish from the mala. “All right,” he conceded. “She’s a witch.”

    Taniel topped off his mala pipe. Kin’s daughter was watching him. He returned her open stare with a half-lidded gaze. She was pretty, by some standards. Too tall by far for Taniel, and much too gaunt – most Gurlish were. She stayed there, laundry balanced on her hip, until her father shooed her out.

    How long had it been since he’d had a woman?

    A woman? He laughed, smoke curling out his nose. The laugh ended in a cough and received no more than a curious glance from Kin. No, not a woman. The woman. Vlora. How long had it been? Two and a half years now? Three?

    He sat back up and fished around in his pocket for a powder charge, wondering where Vlora was now. Probably still with Tamas and the rest of the powder cabal.

    Tamas would want Taniel back on the front line.

    To the pit with that. Let Tamas come to Adopest looking for Taniel. The last place he’d look was a mala den.

    There wasn’t a powder charge in Taniel’s pocket. Ka-poel had cleaned him out. He’d not had a smidgen of powder since she brought him out of that goddamned coma. Not even his pistol was loaded. He could go out and get some. Find a barracks, show them his powder-mage pin.

    The very idea of getting out of the hammock made his head spin.

    Ka-poel came down the steps into the mala den just as Taniel was beginning to drift off. He kept his eyes mostly closed, the smoke curling from his lips. She stopped and examined him.

    She was short, her features petite. Her skin was white, with ashen freckles and her red hair was no more than an inch long. He didn’t like it so short, it made her look boyish. No mistaking her for a boy, Taniel thought as she shrugged out of her long black duster. Underneath she wore a white sleeveless shirt, scrounged from who-knew-where, and close-fitting black pants.

    Ka-poel touched Taniel’s shoulder. He ignored her. Let her think him asleep, or too deep in a mala haze to notice her. All the better.

    She reached out and squeezed his nose shut with one hand, pushing his mouth closed with the other.

    He jerked up, taking a breath when she let go. “What the pit, Pole? Trying to kill me?”

    She smiled, and it wasn’t the first time under the mala haze that he’d stared into those glass-green eyes with less than proper thoughts. He shook them away. She was his ward. He was her protector. Or was it the other way around? She was the one who’d done the protecting up on South Pike.

    Taniel settled back into the hammock. “What do you want?”

    She held up a thick pad of paper, bound in leather. A sketchbook. To replace the one lost on South Pike Mountain. He felt a pang at that. Sketches from eight years of his life. People he’d known, many of them long dead. Some friends, some enemies. Losing that sketchbook hurt almost as much as losing his genuine Hrusch rifle.

    Almost as much as…

    He pushed the stem of his mala pipe between his teeth and sucked in hard. He shivered as the smoke burned his throat and lungs and seeped into his body, deadening the memories.

    When he reached out for the sketchbook, he saw that his hand was shaking. He snatched it back quickly.

    Ka-poel’s eyes narrowed. She set the sketchbook on his stomach, followed by a pack of charcoal pencils. Finer sketching tools than he’d ever had in Fatrasta. She pointed at them, and mimed him sketching.

    Taniel made his right hand into a fist. He didn’t want her to see him shaking. “I… not now, Pole.”

    She pointed again, more insistently.

    Taniel took another deep breath of mala and closed his eyes. He felt tears roll down his cheeks.

    He felt her take the book and pencils off his chest. Heard the table move. He expected a reproach. A punch. Something. When he opened his eyes again, he saw her bare feet disappearing up the stairs of the mala den and she was gone. He took another deep breath of mala and wiped the tears off his face.

    The room began to fade into the mala haze along with his memories; all the people he’d killed, all the friends he’d seen die. The god he’d seen with his own eyes, and then put down with an ensorcelled bullet. He didn’t want to remember any of that.

    Just another few days in the mala den, then he’d be fine. Back to his old self. He’d report to Tamas and get back to what he was good at: killing Kez.

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