Shadow of an Empire is an upcoming Fantasy-Western Epic from author Max Florschutz, releasing on June 1st 2018 and available for pre-order now. Enjoy this free look at the third chapter of the novel, and be ready to enter the Indrim Empire when Shadow of an Empire hits this Friday!
If you’re new, chapter one can be read here.
Chapter two can be read here.
Chapter 3 – Meelo Karn
So, Meelo thought as the door to the office opened and the man they’d come to meet walked in. This is Adjudicator Salitore Amazd.
He was shorter than she’d expected, his height average rather than somewhat taller, as the reports in his file had led her to believe. From the way the criminals he’d caught had described him—”looming” was a word that had come up more than once—she’d expected someone at least a foot taller than herself. Instead he was closer to half that.
Well, she admitted. Maybe an inch or two more than that. It wasn’t that she was short, certainly, but she wasn’t tall either.
She saw him look around the room once before entering completely, his eyes panning first over Captains Erdis and Dava behind the desk and then rolling across the room until he saw her. If he felt any surprise at seeing three inquisitors in the same room, or any sense of curiosity as to why she was standing off to one side of the room rather than behind the desk with her superiors, he didn’t show it. Instead he just sauntered into the room, coming to a stop in front of the desk and tipping his hat at her superiors.
“Morning,” he said. “Adjudicator Salitore Amazd, as requested. Kind of early for personal visits, isn’t it?”
Early was an understatement. The sun wasn’t even up outside, and they’d been forced to jump off the train they’d chosen for transport as it had done a “running refuel.” At the time, she hadn’t expected it to be so literal, but after picking herself up off of the rough wood of the station’s deck, she’d been forced to concede that perhaps the workers had been right to warn her that they were moving faster than they looked.
“As you probably already guessed, it’s a matter of great importance. Please, have a seat.” Captain Erdis motioned towards one of the chairs in front of the desk. Adjudicator Amazd sat, dropping into the seat with a casual nod, flipping his hat from his head with one easy motion.
“I’m Captain Erdis,” Erdis said. “And this is Captain Dava.” He tilted his head towards the tall inquisitor standing at his side. Of Meelo, he said nothing, which she’d expected. There was a protocol to things. Always a protocol.
She watched as the lawman’s eyes flitted from one captain to another, studying them. She was surprised at the amount of wear on the man’s face. His file had declared him thirty-five, but the weathering of the Outlands made him look older than that, with a rough, leathery appearance to his sun-darkened skin. His dark hair, too, displayed signs of sun-bleaching, the color shifting from dark brown at the roots to an almost tan cast near the tips.
His hands look rough, too, she thought, eyeing a thin, white scar across the back of one knuckle. As Amazd lifted a hand, she caught sight of the palm and the heavy calluses there. If there was ever an individual you could call rugged, he would be it.
Even his clothes looked tough, as gritty as the determined set of his jaw. The light-colored leather duster he was wearing was scraped and scarred, the original color either buried under a layer of trail-dust or scraped away by so many years of desert living that it wasn’t possible to tell what shade it had originally been. His boots were a little better, but she could see that they were still well-worn, and not just on the soles. Scrapes and gouges in the leather painted a picture well-enough for her: Their owner was a man whose life was harsh, environment was harsh, and needed material and equipment that could survive that same harshness. She felt a momentary sense of pride at her own choices in preparation for the trip.
“So,” Amazd said, leaning back in his seat. “What’s the emergency?” His posture said he was relaxed, but she could hear the faintest tone of tenseness in his voice. “Is it about my family?”
That was odd. She almost frowned, but caught the emotion well before it showed on her face. Even so, she wondered if Captains Erdis or Dava had noticed the strangeness inherent in the question. Not only would inquisitors be out of place delivering news about an adjudicator’s family, Amazd’s file had made it quite clear that he was an only child, and his parents were both dead. Unless …
A lot of that file was old, she thought. From when they first gave him the office of adjudicator. Maybe he’s married since then? That would explain it.
But Captain Erdis was shaking his head. “No,” he said. “It’s about a crime.”
Amazd lifted a single eyebrow. “Must be some crime,” he said, the faint tenseness in his voice shifting but not fading. He glanced around the room once more, taking them all in. “You don’t normally see one inquisitor out in Outlands territory for a crime, much less three of them.” He put a slight pause on the number, his eyes stopping on her as if to note that yes, he could count.
“The Outlands are part of the empire,” Captain Erdis said. “And as such—”
“I know,” Amazd said, waving a hand. “You’ve got the right to be here, we’re part of the empire, the whole bag. I know. But what I don’t know, and what’s going to get tongues wagging …” He leaned forward in his seat. “Is why three.” He shrugged. “Like I said, it must be some crime.”
“It is,” Erdis said, though Meelo could tell from the way he put an emphasis on the last word that the captain was getting annoyed. Erdis was a by-the-book sort of officer, dedicated to every single step being as carefully followed as a lightdancer’s at a professional performance. Amazd’s more carefree attitude was apparently already getting to him. “You’re familiar with The Gulag?”
“Course I am,” Amazd said. “I’ve sent a few prisoners there myself.”
A few. That was an understatement, if the numbers in his file were anything to go by. Amazd had sent more than a few dangerous individuals to the empire’s most infamous prison over the years. She’d just sent her second a few weeks ago, and then—
“Well, we’ve had a bit of a problem,” Captain Erdis said. “A large problem.”
Amazd frowned. “Did someone break out?”
It was a legitimate question, but at the same time she knew he was probing. In The Gulag’s several hundred year existence, the number of prisoners who’d managed to escape could be counted on one hand, and even then the prison had shored up its security after each occurrence. The last escape had been almost a hundred years ago. Most prisoners were simply too concerned with trying to survive to effect any meaningful escape.
“Not … exactly,” Erdis said. “Not from the prison, no. From the train.”
Amazd frowned. “The train? As in, prisoner transport?”
Erdis nodded. “Exactly. Approximately three days ago, while en route to The Gulag with a number of convicted criminals, and sometime after passing Centuri, a breakout was staged among the prisoners.”
“Don’t you have failsafes in case something like that happens?” Amazd asked.
“We do.” It was Captain Dava who had spoken, which fit, since he was one of the captains heading the investigation into the breakout. “In the event of an organized breakout that somehow gains traction, the speed of the train is increased to prevent anyone from jumping overboard, and the guards are ordered to secure the engine, holding until they can arrive at a location from where they can be given assistance.”
“So what went wrong?” Amazd asked, and Meelo fought the urge to nod in agreement as he spoke, even though she’d already read the initial reports.
“We don’t know,” Dava said, a frown crossing his face. “That’s part of the problem. The guards followed protocol to the letter and, despite the loss of over half of their number, secured the engine and raced it with all speed to the next major settlement—Barados. But when they arrived, the majority of the prisoners were missing. Gone. Vanished somewhere between Barados and Centuri.”
“North of here,” Amazd said, rubbing a thumb against the stubble on his chin. “How’d the prisoners get free in the first place?”
“That much we do know,” Erdis said, reaching into a bag at his foot. “Because a few hours after we got news of the event, a copy of this was published in every newspaper in Indrim.” He tossed a news script onto the desk and Amazd picked it up, his brow furrowing as he started reading.
She didn’t blame him for the odd look. She was sure she’d had much the same reaction upon reading the letter the newspapers had so eagerly published. A letter that had arrived via standard mail at the front desk of every newspaper in Indrim right on the heels of the breakout, timed perfectly so that no newspaper could resist running the two stories aside one another.
She’d read it at least a dozen times so far, almost committing a few parts of it to memory. Much of it was calculated rhetoric, of course, designed to whip the public into a frenzy, but there was a core threat behind it that bound all the little threads together … even if it was a threat so ludicrous as to be completely unlikely.
Maybe. And therein lay the problem. After all, the man who had penned the missive had also managed to—however impossible it seemed—vanish off of a high-speed train with a number of convicts. After that, who could say how many of his words were merely empty shells?
To the people of the empire, the letter read, though no doubt Adjudicator Amazd had long since skimmed over that portion. My name is Markus Nirren, of the noble house Elkare, though I no longer call them my own.
Neither did the house Elkare, though there would doubtless be many checks in the weeks to come to be certain of that fact. But from what little they’d been able to gather, Nirren had gone his separate way from his family some years earlier.
I’m sure that many of you citizens of the empire have by now heard of the breakout that occurred on the train bound for The Gulag, and I will assure you now: I, Markus Nirren, was responsible for this breakout. But I was not the cause—
The next few paragraphs she hadn’t quite memorized, but there hadn’t been much reason to. The highlights were, for her, enough. Nirren claimed that the empire itself was corrupt, and that the men and women he’d freed had been little more than unjustly punished idealists who were going to be welcomed with open arms in the Outlands.
Then he’d gone into his plans. Again, the ultimate point had mattered more than the specific words, at least as far as her assignment was concerned. Nirren had stated his intention to partner with “the downtrodden of the Outlands” to “throw off the yoke of the unjust Indrim Empire” and see the Outlands their own country, free of the empire’s rule. As he’d told it, the Outlands wanted nothing to do with an empire that used them only for resources, and with his guidance, they would rise up to throw all representatives of the empire out.
Again, it was a ludicrous threat. After all, while the Outlands and the rest of the empire had always enjoyed a strained relationship, there had never been any animosity. Meelo’s superiors had agreed that if Nirren actually believed his words then he was surely mad.
Then again, however, he’d managed to spirit an entire contingent of prisoners off of a train traveling at over a hundred kilometers an hour in the middle of the desert. And then there was his other claim …
“Sand spit,” Amazd said, his face darkening, and she guessed that he’d reached the portion of the letter she was thinking of. “You can’t possibly be buying this.”
He didn’t have to say what it was that had set him off. Each of them knew. Right at the end of his letter, Nirren had openly declared that the Outlands were aware of his plans and supporting him—some secretly, some openly. And among those open, he’d singled out a single name.
—I have the support and help of each of the Adjudicators, the letter had said. Tough, dedicated men like Salitore Amazd.
“I mean … Abyss take him! You don’t believe that I’d—”
“Relax, Adjudicator Amazd,” Captain Erdis said as the man started to rise from his seat. “We don’t believe it any more than you do. It’s a ploy, nothing more.”
“And why me?” Amazd muttered as he sank back into his seat, tossing the paper away in disgust. “The whole empire’s going to have read that by the end of the—why me?”
“Easy,” Captain Dava said. “Because of where Nirren and the convicts he absconded with escaped. Half a day’s journey outside of Centuri, and a day yet away from Barados.”
Amazd nodded. “North of here. In other words, inside the region I’m responsible for.”
“Exactly,” Captain Erdis said. “The problem is that while we are clearly aware of the ridiculousness of Nirren’s claim—after all, we spend quite a bit of time vetting each adjudicator—there is another party whose emotions we must consider.”
“The public,” Amazd said, nodding as he understood. “Now I get it.”
“Exactly,” Erdis continued. “While there was always a small chance that perhaps somehow you had turned against the oaths you made when you became an adjudicator—” Amazd appeared to bristle a bit at the suggestion, but he said nothing, “—simply by coming here and confirming your whereabouts over even the last few days shows that if nothing else, you had nothing to do with Nirren’s breakout. Not in a hands-on way, at least.” A quick glance at Amazd’s face showed that he hadn’t missed the expanded meaning of the captain’s words.
“The problem we faced within hours of this letter being run, however, was—”
“Public opinion,” Amazd said. “Damn. I’ll bet they want me hung, don’t they?”
“In some of the more extreme cases, yes,” Erdis said. “Regardless, within six hours of this story being sent out across Indrim, we’d received numerous requests from all manner of citizens, from the average man on the street to nobles of great power, to arrest you and begin and investigation into your role in Nirren’s crime.”
“You have to understand,” Erdis continued. “With the recent tension between the noble houses, the public is on edge.”
“Has it gotten that bad?” Amazd asked.
“Some houses have actually hired grey knights,” Captain Erdis said. “Though covertly, of course.”
“I’ve heard of them,” Amazd said, his voice quiet. “They as tough as they say?”
“They are,” Erdis said. A short, but simple, explanation, Meelo knew, that downplayed the inquisitorial offices’ real worry about the massive, steam-powered soldiers. Big, heavy, and almost completely bulletproof. And all they needed was a boiler to pilot them and provide the heat that kept them going.
Worse, the house that had designed them had kept their design secret. It hadn’t been hard for the government to acquire parts and pieces from one of the highly sought after machines, but if the rumors were true, the complexities of the design meant that a replacement that equaled the machines was at least several years away … and in the meantime the house that owned them wasn’t shy about parading them around and pressuring the military arm to simply buy them rather than trying to make their own, inferior design.
And now they’re serving as guards to a bunch of panicked nobles, Meelo thought. A win with the public, and probably for a pretty shiny mark too.
“Regardless,” Erdis said. “The public is like a cord stretched between two wooden posts. Tight, and ready to snap. And this letter,” he said, waving a hand at the newspaper in distaste, “was very nearly an open flame. As is, however …”
“With the number of demands for it, you still have to arrest me,” Amazd said, sinking back in his seat and frowning again. Then he scowled. “Damn Nirren. That was his plan all along.”
“Exactly.” It was Dava who spoke this time. “Your arrest will not only waste valuable manpower, but time. In addition, it will only serve to make an oft prickly attitude towards the rest of the empire here in the Outlands—yes, we’re well aware of it—even more distrustful. To top it all off, it would deprive the region of its adjudicator, the one who would normally be our first source in the event of a crime there.”
“I’m liking this guy less and less,” Amazd said, his eyes narrowing. “So that’s how it’s going to be, huh?”
Meelo could tell by the look on the adjudicator’s face that Erdis’ declaration had surprised him. The man’s brow furrowed, his mouth opening and then closing again before opening to speak at last.
“What do you mean, ‘no?’” he asked. “Isn’t that why you’re all here? To appease the public? To arrest me?”
The corner of Erdis’ mouth turned upward, and then he leaned forward on the desk, intertwining his fingers. “Well, of course that’s why we’re here, adjudicator,” he said, his faint smile growing. “The public has demanded that we arrest you and investigate you, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
By now, she could see, the adjudicator had caught on to the fact that something was up. “Right, he said. “So …”
“So as of this moment, consider yourself arrested,” Captain Erdis said, a steel tone entering his voice. Captain Dava walked around the desk and pulled a heavy pair of metal restraints from his belt, locking them around Amazd’s wrists with a heavy click. “You will be released at such a time as we are able to turn you over to the officer in charge of the investigation. Which happens to be right now.”
“Adjudicator Salitore Amazd?” Erdis’ arm came up, pointing in Meelo’s direction. “Meet the inquisitor in charge of your investigation: Junior-Captain Meelo Karn. As of this moment, you’re being released into her care.” The captain stood before Amazd could say anything, bag in hand, and looked right at her. “Junior-captain?”
“Yes, captain?” she asked, holding herself perfectly at attention.
“Your prisoner, Adjudicator Salitore Amazd,” Erdis said. “Note that you are to treat him with all the rights of a citizen of the Indrim Empire, and that regardless of his status, he is still to be treated with the respect and honor his office holds.”
“Now hold on a moment—” Amazd began, but Erdis didn’t even look in his direction.
“We look forward to your report, junior-captain,” Erdis said, before snapping her a salute. She returned it, and with a click of his boots, Captain Erdis turned and strode out the door, Captain Dava right behind him. A second later the door shut with a click behind them, leaving her alone in the room with the handcuffed adjudicator, who was looking at her with a thoroughly baffled expression on his face.
“What just happened?” he asked after a moment.
She smiled. “Simple.” She glanced towards the desk, noting that Amazd’s eyes followed hers, and spotted the keys to his restraints sitting in the middle of the desktop. “You were arrested, and then released into my custody.” She crossed the room, her boots making faint thumps against the floor, and picked up the keys. A moment later there was another click as she undid the lock on Amazd’s restraints, and the heavy cuffs fell to the floor. “Captain Erdis has fulfilled what was required of him to the letter. He is, after all, known for being quite the stickler for protocol. Now it’s up to me to conduct my ‘investigation,’ in any way I choose, provided it’s legal.”
“And if that ‘investigation’ happens to be examining me in action as I track down Nirren and his new friends …” Amazd said, nodding as he let the words trail off.
“Well, that would be quite the elegant solution to the bind enforced upon us by Nirren’s letter now, wouldn’t it?” Meelo said, the corner of her own mouth edging upward. “Two chort, one shot, as I’ve heard some of you say out here.”
Amazd nodded as he rose from his seat, rubbing at his wrists. “We do say that,” he said. “So Erdis goes back to Indrim, and the inquisition gets to tell everyone that they’ve done just as they asked, that I’ve been arrested, and am under investigation.”
“Which you are,” she said. “I assure you, my report will be filed.”
“You just won’t say where or how.” The adjudicator let out a chuckle. “Clever.”
“I thought so,” Meelo said. “Though it wasn’t entirely my idea. Regardless …” She shrugged. “This is your region and responsibility, adjudicator, and if spending a few weeks following you out through the desert is what it takes, then that’s what it takes.”
“I see,” Amazd said. “And all while you investigate?”
“If it helps,” she said, holding out her hand. “Think of me as a temporary partner.”
“Partner, huh?” Amazd said as he took her hand. Her own palm was hardly soft, but even she could feel the difference in the calluses between them. “Well … partner … Adjudicator Salitore Amazd, at your service. Call me Sali.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said, giving his hand a quick shake. “Junior-Captain Meelo Karn. Call me Meelo.”
“Charmed,” Amazd—no, she corrected, Sali—said. “You a good shot? Good with a horse?”
“Absolutely,” she said.
“Have a horse?”
“No … not yet.”
Sali smiled. “Well then, we’ve got a few things to square away first.”
She nodded. “And then?”
“And then we’re going to go find out how a nobleman with a bunch of prisoners escaped from a moving train in several hundred kilometers of desert.”
Shadow of an Empire will release Friday, June 1st, and is available now for pre-order!
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