Here’s the first of two excerpts I’ll be sharing from Heroes of the Empire over this month (for a third, exclusive one, join my mailing list!). In this one, Belwyn shrugs off an old nemesis and is introduced to a new ally.
As Neven approached, Belwyn asked, “Is there a problem?”
“Only that you haven’t signed on yet,” Neven said. She was more pleasant than Belwyn remembered her ever being in Annanais. She was enjoying this. “I realize that’s not likely.”
“The gods returning to Oiwa is more likely.”
Unfazed, Neven said, “I wanted to thank you, before we’re done.”
“Thank me?” Belwyn chuckled. “For what?”
“You did the right thing, much as it surprised me. Not when you ran away from us and not when you put this rabble together, but at least when you realized where all this might be heading, you finally did the right thing.”
“And where is this heading?” Belwyn was generally curious what Neven might know, or just suspect, since she was apparently still in Chakat’s good graces.
“I don’t know,” she said with a sigh. “These loyalty oaths are not coming as quickly as was hoped. The emperor himself is going to relocate to the Imperial offices in Jerrod Square to take them personally. He thought it was going to bring the Empire together, but there is so much unrest out there.”
“That’s because the Empire is pulling apart,” Belwyn said. She was already an outlaw, what additional risk was there in telling Neven what she really thought? “It’s largely Chakat’s fault, of course. If he’d listen to the peoples’ complaints . . .”
Neven put up a hand. “I’m not here to talk politics, Lady. All I’m saying is that the women who stay behind, including yourself of course, will continue to be outlaws. If the emperor feels the need to deal with you more forcefully, he won’t hesitate.”
“That’s the risk we’re willing to take to get the answers we want, the change we need.” Belwyn did her best not to show that she was getting sick to her stomach. Visions of soldiers with more loyalty to Chakat gunning down ranks of marching, chanting women filled her head.
One of Neven’s underlings got her attention, and, without saying any more, she returned to her post.
Belwyn walked back into the woods, telling Valpari to come find her if anything else happened. She went to her tent, where Coleman, Granger, and a few others she didn’t recognize had congregated.
“How goes collaboration with the enemy?” Granger asked with a sarcastic smile.
“I’m giving the women who want to leave the chance to do so without risk,” Belwyn shot back. “I genuinely care for their safety.”
Before Granger could say anything else, Coleman jumped in. “How many are leaving?”
“Some,” Belwyn said, being deliberately vague. “When all is said and done, we’ll still have a sizeable host. And we’ll know that everyone left is completely committed.” She decided to shift the focus of the discussion. “Neven told me that Chakat is going to start taking these oaths in person?”
One of the young men Belwyn didn’t recognize nodded. “He’s moving to Jerrod Square in the next few days.”
“Then it really isn’t going as well as Chakat thought,” Belwyn said. “At least that’s something.”
“It’s promising,” Coleman said, “but it’s leading the vigilance gangs to step up their patrols, recruit new members. Now they can demand papers, require people to show their loyalty cards, and hand out beatings to those who don’t have one.”
“Good gods,” Belwyn said, leaning against the end of the table. “Don’t people have more time to sign them?”
“Of course,” Granger said, “but Chakat isn’t getting the obeisance he wanted, and the vigilance gangs are an extension of his dissatisfaction. He wants more oaths, given more quickly. How better to assure that than to throw in the threat of a random beating?”
Belwyn shook her head. Things were getting worse. “We can’t keep waiting for some perfect situation to move. Are your people ready?”
“Almost,” Coleman said. “Another few days.”
“I’m not sure we have it,” Belwyn said as Brixton ran up, out of breath. “What is it?”
“Someone to see you, says he has an offer,” he said. “He managed to get here from Cye without being seen and avoided the queue out by Neven’s table, all her men.”
Belwyn stood up, scowling. “Another offer? About what, this time?”
Brixton shrugged. “Hagan’s waiting with him near the edge of the camp.”
Belwyn was bone weary from the day. She didn’t want to deal with another distraction, but what choice did she have? “No more than a few days, Coleman. We can’t let things get away from us.” She left without giving him a chance to object.
Brixton led her through the camp, to the opposite edge from the location where Neven’s sign-ups were underway, where the valley met the high hills that helped define the outskirts of the city.
When they arrived, Hagan was standing with a thin man about her age, with prominent ears. No hat.
“Lady Belwyn,” he said, extended a hand. “Or is it just Belwyn these days?”
“Just Belwyn. And you are?”
“Aton Askins,” he said, shaking her hand. “I think we might be able to help each other.”
Heroes of the Empire – Out June 7. Preorders available here for Kindle and here for other ebook formats.