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The Infernal Battalion

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The Infernal Battalion

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Author: Django Wexler
Publisher: Ace Books, 2018
Series: The Shadow Campaigns: Book 5
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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The Beast, the ancient demon imprisoned beneath the fortress-city of Elysium for a thousand years, has been loosed on the world. It absorbs mind after mind, spreading like a plague through the north. The fell army it has raised threatens the heart of Vordan, and it is under the command of the Beast's greatest prize: legendary general Janus bet Vhalnich.

As Queen Raesinia Orboan and soldiers Marcus D'Ivoire and Winter Ihernglass grapple with the aftermath of a hard-fought military campaign, they soon discover a betrayal they never could have foreseen. The news arrives like a thunderbolt: Janus has declared himself the rightful Emperor of Vordan. Chaos grips the city as officers and regiments are forced to declare for queen or emperor.

Raesinia must struggle to keep her country under control and risks becoming everything she fought against. Marcus must take the field against his old commander, a man who has seemed an unbeatable strategist. And as Winter recovers from her injuries and mourns her losses, she knows the demon she carries inside her might be the only thing standing between the Beast and the destruction of everything in its path....


Chapter One


"Is that all?" Raesinia said.

"Nearly, Your Highness," said the royal dressmaker, a plump, red-faced woman who towered over her diminutive monarch. "One more, if you please. Take a breath and hold it."

Raesinia complied, and the dressmaker whipped a knotted cord around her middle with expert speed. She muttered to herself and tugged it a bit tighter, then looked.

"Wonderful. Thank you, Your Highness. I must say you are very lucky to have such a slender frame. And such beautiful skin! You will look magnificent."

Raesinia caught her own gaze in the mirror over the dressmaker's shoulder and rolled her eyes. Stripped down to her underthings, she could see the truth clearly enough. I look like a child. And she always would.

Her unaging state could be inconvenient, but her actual appearance had never really bothered her. It could be useful even-with the right outfit, she could pass for a boy, and political opponents had a persistent tendency to underestimate her. She'd never particularly wanted male attention, though it had occasionally come her way regardless. Poor Ben, who tried to protect me and died for it. Now, though...

"One in sea green, I think," the dressmaker was saying. "And one in that lovely Hamveltai crimson. I know just the supplier. And then-"

"I leave it entirely in your hands," Raesinia said. "But you must excuse me. There's a great deal of business to attend to."

That was wrong, she realized at once. A queen didn't ask a servant to excuse her. I should tell her to go. But politeness had been ground into Raesinia since her earliest education, and now that she was back in the palace, all the old lessons had resurfaced.

"Of course." The dressmaker bowed deeply. "I am honored by your custom, Your Highness."

Joanna opened the door. The large, silent woman and her slim, more talkative partner, Barely, were on permanent detachment from the Girls' Own as Raesinia's personal guards. Their presence had already become a comforting part of her landscape, and it was hard to imagine that she'd once been without them. They'd been part of the group that rescued her from the Penitent Damned and Maurisk's Directory, and they'd stayed at her side through the horrors of the Murnskai campaign. While Joanna was resplendent in a well-tailored blue-and-silver dress uniform, Raesinia had no doubt that the sword and pistol on her belt were extremely functional. Even with Vordan more or less at peace, it was a comforting thought.

"Tell Barely to send the girls in, please," Raesinia said.

Joanna nodded and leaned out the door. She never spoke, but she and her partner had a private language of hand signals that let her make herself understood. Raesinia was resolved to learn it herself someday. When I have time.

Someday I'll have all the time in the world.

Two young women in palace livery swept in and went to work, silent and efficient. Raesinia stood stock-still, raising or lowering her arms as required, feeling a bit like an articulated dummy. On campaign with the army, she'd mostly gotten away with reasonably practical riding outfits, and before that she'd still been in official mourning for her father. Now, though, with the echoes of the victory celebrations still fading from the palace and life returning to something like normal, standards had to be maintained. Or so said Mistress Lagovil, the intimidating head of the palace staff, and Raesinia hadn't yet worked up the nerve to argue with her.

One of those standards, apparently, was that the queen couldn't be seen in any outfit that she could possibly don under her own power. Raesinia had pushed for a little practicality-she did have work to do, whatever Mistress Lagovil might say-but that still meant yards of lace and silk, carefully matched with rings, bracelets, combs, necklaces, and whatever else could be scrounged from the Royal Jewelhouse. To Raesinia's eyes the final effect was, at best, "sparkly." She'd been raised to appreciate palace fashion, but the lessons had never really sunk in.

Mistress Lagovil had apologized for the sorry state of the wardrobe, and indeed the rest of Ohnlei. The palace had been sacked once by the revolution and again when Janus' army had been quartered there. Furniture had been broken up for firewood and drapes torn apart for uniforms and bandages. Much of the staff was gone, fled or drafted into the army, and only a handful had returned despite the end of the war. The nobles who'd once lent their splendor to the court were still mostly hunkered down at their country estates, waiting to be sure the storm had well and truly passed, and Raesinia couldn't say she blamed them.

At least some of the more tedious rituals had been temporarily suspended. Raesinia could take her meals in her quarters-the Grand Hall had been used to stable cavalry mounts and was still being cleaned out-and there were few dignitaries who required official receptions. No one suggested going hunting. Privately, Raesinia dreaded the day the full splendor of the palace was restored. Before her father's death, her days had been as tightly regulated as a clockmaker's apprentice, jammed with lessons, formal dinners, court outings, and other official occasions.

Once she was dressed, Raesinia took a few tentative steps in front of the mirror, to confirm that she could walk without anything falling off. It wasn't a bad dress, really, a deep Vordanai blue accented with silver, flattering to a figure that didn't have much to flatter. Raesinia rolled her eyes at herself again, signaled her approval to the maids, and followed them out into her private chambers.

Eric was waiting for her, practically vibrating with nerves, and Raesinia stifled a sigh. It really wasn't his fault, as he'd been thrust into a job he'd had no preparation for-he'd been a clerk doing the palace accounts until Raesinia had asked Mistress Lagovil for an assistant, and he was still overawed by the royal presence. He was competent enough, but...

No but. It's not his fault that he's not Sothe. Every time she saw Eric's too-serious face, struggling to maintain the constipated expression he associated with proper dignity, Raesinia missed her old maidservant. Maidservant, bodyguard, spy, assassin. Friend. She'd left, after thwarting Orlanko's assassins on the final night of the Murnskai campaign. Where are you, Sothe?

"Your Highness," Eric said. "You look lovely. And the dressmaker has given me her assurances that everything will be ready before-"

Raesinia waved a hand. "I'm sure she'll do fine. What do we have today?"

Eric looked down at the leather notebook he always carried. "The Duke of Brookspring is expecting you in twenty minutes, Your Highness. Then lunch with Mistress Cora, and you agreed to grant an audience to Deputy d'Andorre."

See? I do have work to do. Even if it sometimes seemed like everyone wanted her to sit back and ignore it. "We'd better get started, then."

The old Borelgai embassy, a rambling, ancient stone pile at the edge of the palace grounds, had been burned by a mob during the revolution. For now the Borelgai ambassador and his staff had been assigned to a suite in the palace itself. Eric led the way there, through corridors largely deserted except for guards at regular intervals. The soldiers-part of the First Division had the honor today, Raesinia saw-came smartly to attention as she passed. Joanna and Barely, her constant shadows, followed a few steps behind her.

"Did Dorsay say why he wanted to see me?" Raesinia said.

"His Grace did not mention a specific reason," Eric said. "As far as I'm aware, the treaty is progressing well, if slowly."

That was Dorsay's ostensible reason for being in Vordan, the peace treaty that would officially end the war between their two countries. There were a great many details to be ironed out, and in practice the negotiations were conducted between a swarm of bureaucrats from both sides. Trying to understand the actual points of contention made Raesinia's head hurt, but she did her best to keep abreast of the general shape of things. Dorsay didn't even seem to do that, happy to let his underlings do the work. Raesinia suspected he was here more as a reminder than anything else, Borel's greatest living soldier showing the flag to underline the fact that-unlike all her other opponents-Vordan hadn't beaten the Borelgai in open battle.

Two Borelgai Life Guards, their shakos lined with their trademark white fur, stood guard outside the door to the embassy suite. They came to attention as well, and the door opened to reveal the perpetual smile of Ihannes Pulwer-Monsangton, Borel's ambassador to Vordan. If Dorsay was all bluff informality, which Raesinia had come to respect during their time in Murnsk, Ihannes was the opposite, with the oily charm of the professional diplomat. Raesinia presented him with her own best smile and acknowledged his slight bow with a nod.

"Your Highness," he said. "You honor us."

"Ambassador." Raesinia paused when Ihannes didn't move aside.

His smile turned apologetic. "His Grace has asked that this be a private meeting."

"Of course." Raesinia gestured for Joanna and Barely to wait. "Eric, find me after my meeting with Mistress Cora."

Ihannes stepped aside, and Raesinia swept past him. The Borelgai suite was elaborately furnished, by the standards of the depleted palace, with furniture and decorations in the severe Borelgai style. More diplomatic posturing, she assumed.

Attua Dorsay, the Duke of Brookspring, was seated at the head of the long table, vigorously applying butter and jam to several slices of toast. Ihannes cleared his throat theatrically, and Dorsay looked up.

"You getting a cough, Ihannes?" he said. The twinkle in his eye made Raesinia certain he was needling the ambassador.

"No, Your Grace." Ihannes stepped aside. "The queen is here."

"I can see that," Dorsay said. He gestured at his plate. "Care for any breakfast, Your Highness?"

"No, thank you," Raesinia said, barely restraining a smile at Ihannes' pained expression.

"Sit down, then. That'll be all, Ihannes."

"Your Grace?" The ambassador's brow furrowed.

"I mean take yourself somewhere else," Dorsay said. "I told you I wanted this to be a private meeting."

Ihannes' expression went even frostier, but he bowed silently and left through an inner door. Dorsay resumed buttering his toast, which was already dripping.

"Butter," he said without much preamble. "You people have always been good at it."

"Thank you, Your Grace," Raesinia said cautiously.

"Butter, cream, cheese, and so on. All in short supply back home, since the war started. Do you know how much of our cheese comes from Vordan?" Before she could answer, he waved a hand. "I didn't, and neither did Georg. Nobody thinks about these things before they start a war."

Georg referred to Georg Pulwer, the King of Borel, with whom Dorsay was apparently on a first-name basis. Raesinia wasn't sure how much of that was bluster and how much was truth. It was always hard to tell with Dorsay.

"It was you who put us under blockade," Raesinia said, keeping her tone light. "If it were up to me, His Majesty could have all the cheese he could eat."

"Which is a shockingly large amount, I can attest." Dorsay crunched into the toast, getting flecks of butter in his bristly mustache. He sat back and sighed with pleasure. "Hells. No beating the real stuff. Back home they try to make something with goat's milk, if you can believe that. Goat's milk! Ha."

"Once the treaty is finished, I'll send a few casks with you, as a going-away present."

"A small price to pay to be rid of me!" Dorsay cackled. "No doubt you'll throw a party to celebrate."

"You'll always be welcome at my court," Raesinia said. "You helped me keep the peace when we might as easily have been at each other's throats."

"And your man d'Ivoire saved my neck from that snake Orlanko," Dorsay said. "I won't forget it, believe me." He finished the toast, wiped his face on a napkin, and turned to look up at her. His famous nose, long and curved, stuck out like the prow of a ship. "That's the spirit in which I asked you here, in fact. Nothing to do with the treaty. Wanted to pass on a bit of private information."

"Oh?" Raesinia hesitated for moment, then pulled a heavy wooden chair from the table and settled herself facing Dorsay. "Information is always appreciated."

"How much are you hearing out of Murnsk?"

"Not a great deal," Raesinia admitted. "They withdrew their ambassador when the war started, and we haven't received any official response to our inquiries since. The Army of the North has pulled back over the border into Vordan."

"I suspected as much. Our forces have pulled out as well, but Borel has significant commercial interest in western Murnsk, and sometimes they pass tidbits along."

Raesinia nodded. Once again, she missed Sothe. Vordan's intelligence service had been largely dismantled in the wake of Orlanko's rebellion, but Sothe had a knack for acquiring information. Raesinia had tasked Alek Giforte with creating something to fill the void left by the Concordat, but that project was still in its infancy.

"Western Murnsk is in chaos," Dorsay went on. "To put it mildly. The bizarre weather has wreaked havoc, and to make matters worse, the northern savages have crossed the Bataria in strength, raiding and burning as they go. I imagine you saw some of that for yourself."

"I did indeed," Raesinia said. Dorsay didn't know that neither event was a coincidence-the summer had turned freezing under the magical influence of the Black Priests, and the Trans-Batariai tribes had come in response to Elysium's call to defeat the approaching Vordanai army. "What is the emperor doing about it?"

"Not a great deal, and that's the part that's odd. There are some strange rumors coming out of Mohkba. Some people are saying the emperor's dead, and others insist that Prince Cesha Dzurk is a traitor and is lying about it to seize the throne."

"Janus smashed at least two sizable Murnskai armies on his way north," Raesinia said. "We heard that the crown prince was killed in the fighting. It wouldn't be a surprise if all that caused some upheaval." She shook her head. "If the harvest was ruined, the whole region must be facing famine. Perhaps we should organize some kind of aid."

"It's not usually the winners of a war who offer help to the losers," Dorsay said, eyes twinkling.

"We were never at war with the people of Murnsk," Raesinia said. "Our quarrel was with Elysium. And the emperor, once he set himself against us."

"Elysium is the crux of it," Dorsay said. "Something very strange has happened there. As best we can tell, much of the Church administration has decamped, legging it for Mohkba and points east as fast as their mules will carry them. No one has gotten close enough to Elysium to find out what's happening there in weeks. People who try just..." He waved his hands. "Vanish."

Copyright © 2018 by Django Wexler


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