The Markhat series revival is still in progress! Today I decided to give you all a sneak peek at the new cover for THE BROKEN BELL.
THE BROKEN BELL is a turning point in the series. Darla's transition from supporting character to full partner begins here, so it's only appropriate that she joins Markhat on the cover.
Thanks again to the fine folks at AdSmith, who created this cover. I can hardly wait to see the next one!
I love the way the artist worked in various elements from the book. There's the Broken Bell itself, of course. The red and white fireflowers. Even the fireworks in the background are significant.
It's been great working with people who take the time to get the small details right.
If you haven't read the book, THE BROKEN BELL centers on Markhat's search for a missing groom. His fiancee is convinced the young man didn't simply take off, as his family insists. The titular broken bell is part of a long-standing Rannite tradition, which holds that couples married under the so-called broken bell will enjoy long, happy marriages.
If, that is, anyone manages to live long enough to say 'I do.'
The Broken Bell also introduced gunpowder and guns to the series. Created in the labyrinth of laboratories hidden beneath House Avalante, rifles, cannon, and revolvers bring about a subtle change in the series narrative. Whereas magic has long been the primary weapon of the rich and the powerful, guns quickly begin to level the field. Magic in Markhat's world is unpredictable, and quite often just as deadly to the practicioner as to the target. But as weapons begin to be mass-produced, the balance of power begins a slow shift away from mercurial sorcery.
But all that happens in the background. What the book is really about is commitment. When faced with the apparent end of the world, Markhat and Darla make what I believe was a brave choice. I hope readers agree.
I'll leave you with a (long) excerpt from THE BROKEN BELL. In this scene, Markhat and his friend Evis the vampire have been whisked away, via sorcery, to the Corpsemaster's secret R&D site, where she is preparing the kind of monstrous weapons that will be employed should war once again visit Rannit.
From THE BROKEN BELL:
Once Evis was shielded from the sun, we set out.
The cobblestone circle, Lopside explained, was just the point of arrival. Leading away from it was a cobblestone path that bore the same metallic swoops and turns as the circle. I learned quickly not to try and follow their meandering path, because that made one’s walk unsteady. Piper and Lopside were clear on the deadly consequences of stepping off the path.
The things lurking in the grass, they explained, were always hungry.
The path, like the circle, was lined with waist-high wooden stakes each painted a cheery white.
Human skulls watched from atop each stake. Fresh white skulls, so new they gleamed. Each skull bore an equally preserved pair of bright blue eyes, and every set of eyes in every gleaming skull followed you as you passed.
“Twenty-two thousand, eight hundred and six,” said Lopside as we walked.
Evis was faster to catch on than I.
“How long did it take you to count them?”
“A month. We get bored sometimes.”
Skulls. They were talking about the skulls. Twenty-odd thousand.
I moved my ass to the center of the path.
“How much farther?” Evis’s voice was strained. Even beneath yards of black silk, I imagined that impossible sun was bright enough to nearly blind him.
“Not much.” I heard a far-off shout, and Lopside waved us to a halt.
“They got the oh-threes ready a day early,” he said.
I was about to ask him what the Hell he meant when something louder and sharper than thunder split the air.
Bam. Bam. Bam.
The blasts were so loud I felt them in my chest, felt them rattle my teeth.
Unseen things in the grass made waves on its surface as they fled. Piper laughed.
“Reckon they got the mixture just right that time.”
“Shut your mouth,” Lopside spoke. “Let’s make sure they’re done.”
Smoke billowed up in the distance. The blasts faded, and the smoke dispersed, blowing over us in gouts.
It stank. It was strange, but not entirely alien. I realized I’d smelled something like it, once before.
“Cannon,” said Evis softly. “Remember that smell from Werewilk, Markhat? Same thing.”
“Ours are better,” said Piper. “They’re still using a two-to-one ratio of—”
“I said shut your mouth,” snapped Lopside. “No talking out here.”
Piper reddened and fell silent.
Evis pulled back enough silk to let me see his dark lenses. “Well. This should prove interesting, after all.”
A horn blew ahead of us, then again, and again.
“All clear.” Lopside motioned us forward. “Keep walking. Stay on the path. When you get to the painted red line, close your eyes and take one more step.”
“You’re not coming?”
“Orders. Get moving. He doesn’t like to wait.”
Evis was already in motion. I shrugged and caught up.
“You know what’s going on?”
“Not entirely,” he whispered. “But I’ve heard rumors. It seems Avalante’s research into mundane projectile weapons has been resumed by the Corpsemaster.”
There was nothing around us but a prairie. Ahead was just more of the same, cut only by the curving path we followed.
“It’s flatter than ogre-stomped. And empty.”
“I suspect not.” We walked on a bit in silence, and there it was—a thick red line of paint directly ahead, marking the end of the cobblestone path.
And nothing on the far side of it but weeds.
Evis paused. I looked back but Piper and Lopside were hoofing it toward the carriage.
Evis and I were privy to a few of the Corpsemaster’s most intimate secrets. I knew the location of the house she called home. We both knew of the army of the dead she kept hidden in plain sight across Rannit.
Knowing such secrets doesn’t help either Evis or I sleep soundly.
Because if we were to both vanish suddenly, say after being eaten by whatever lurked amid those tall grasses, the Corpsemaster could sleep more soundly.
“I’ll go first, if you wish,” Evis offered.
“Bah. You’d just snatch up all the good beer. Better we go together, don’t you think?”
Evis laughed and nodded. We made our way to the painted red line. Evis threw his hood back and grimaced at the sun, and I loosened my collar and pushed down my hat.
We stepped across at the same time. I’ll have to ask Evis if he closed his eyes, like Lopside suggested. I know I damned well didn’t.
There was a flash, and a sensation of falling, and then the sneaky sun swung around so that it shone not in my face, but on my back.
And then there was noise. And men. And wagons and horses and the fall of hammers and the smell of wood burning.
Hell, we had just stepped into the midst of a bustling work camp. A line of canvas Army field tents stretched off as far as I could see. Stables and barns followed it. Tall brick smokestacks attached to tin-roofed sheds dotted the landscape haphazardly. The stink of a nearby outhouse filled my nose. Men ambled, marched or idled by the hundreds.
All of them had just appeared from nowhere.
I turned around.
The cobblestone path was gone. Behind us was a smaller circle, twin to the big one we’d left behind, ringed by a thick band of bright red paint.
Beyond it was sand. Red sand, red rocks, shadows that fell long and dark over a wasteland the color of rust.
My head began to pound anew.
Evis pulled his hood back over his face.
“Hurrah. We’re not dead.”
“Always the ray of sunshine.”
A dozen armed men trotted toward us. The one in the lead slowed and met my gaze. He had a pair of vertical silver pips on the front of his cap, barely big enough so see.
“Mr. Markhat. Mr. Prestley. Welcome to the Battery. Come this way.”
The man was bellowing. Bellowing, but smiling. I bellowed right back.
He frowned. “The Corpsemaster. That good enough for you?”
I sighed. “Sorry. We’ve been knocked out and sent on a hike and the sun keeps changing places. It’s not been a good morning.”
A wagon rolled up behind the troops eyeing Evis and me. I didn’t even notice at first it was being driven by a corpse.
The ponies whinnied and stamped their feet, looking back over their shoulders nervously.
“Well, you won’t be walking anymore. Get on.”
He turned and dismissed his detail. They faded into the milling crowd with obvious relief on their faces.
“I’ll come along, give you the two penny tour.” He stuck his hand out. “Call me Rafe.”
I shook his hand. He was still shouting. I began to wonder if the man was partially deaf. If so, he was getting an early start. He was probably ten years my junior.
“I’m Markhat. You knew that. This is my friend Evis. He’s a deaf mute.”
“I am nothing of the sort.” Evis shook Rafe’s hand as well. “Just Rafe? No rank?”
Rafe shrugged. “Orders. We don’t talk rank with outsiders.” He climbed aboard the wagon, sliding right up to the corpse without any sign of hesitation before turning around and motioning Evis and I into the bed of the wagon. “You probably have questions.”
We clambered aboard. The dead man stank, but there wasn’t a fly to be seen.
The corpse snapped his reins, and we rolled forward, winding our way between men and mounts and stacks of lumber and wafts of odd-smelling smokes.
“So this is where the Corpsemaster is building his cannons.”
I hadn’t phrased it as a question. I certainly hadn't referred to the Corpsemaster as 'she.' That was going to remain our little secret.
Rafe nodded. He was sun burnt and peeling. His hair was sticking out in shaggy red clumps beneath his cap. The skin on the backs of his hands was pocked with tiny burns. “Has been for ten months. How’s the weather back home? Storms been bad this spring?”
“No worse than usual. You haven’t been back?”
“Nobody goes back, unless it’s in a bag. But the pay. Oh, the pay.” Rafe grinned.
Evis leaned forward. “So, the cannons? They are operational?”
“You’ll see for yourself. But yes. We can blow the shit out of ten-foot thick walls from a mile away. Knock down infantry by the hundreds with one shot. In another month, we’ll have the big aught-eights ready to ship back home.” He waited for a response, obviously under the impression that either Evis or I had any idea what a big aught-eight might be. “An aught-seven can put a hundred pound shell nearly six miles. We figure the eights can do nine.”
Rafe raised his hands at our blank faces. “Sorry. I’m getting ahead of myself. Look. You know how cannons work?”
“A thick iron tube is packed with a powder that explodes when lit by a spark. This propels an iron sphere out of the tube at great speed.” Evis looked at Rafe over the tops of his dark glasses. “Is that correct?”
Rafe nodded and grinned. “That’s exactly how the first cannon, the old Henry, worked, Mr. Prestley. Were you on the halfdead—er, the Avalante team—working on them, during the War?”
“I was not,” replied Evis. “But I’ve read their reports.”
“Then you know about the problems they faced. The unstable powder. The balls that got stuck and cracked the cannon bodies. Misfires. Duds.”
Evis nodded, with a sideways glance at me. Whoever Rafe was, one thing was clear—the boy liked his cannons.
Rafe waved his hands. “We’ve fixed all that. No more random explosions. Well, hardly ever. No more cracked shafts. And the rounds—Mr. Prestley, we have explosive rounds now. Timed rounds. We can penetrate walls or burst them in the air over troops or…”
Rafe went on, describing in intricate, enthusiastic detail a brand new method of slaughter. I couldn’t follow all of it. There was talk of trajectory calculators and paper fuses and friction primers, delivered in a throaty bellow that got hoarser as Rafe grew more animated.
I shrugged at Evis and quit trying to follow Rafe’s running description of Parrot guns and howitzers.
I watched the camp instead.
Everywhere I looked, there was more of it. More and more of the structures were brick. The largest brick buildings were set apart from other structures and flanked by thick mounds of sand. I spotted a couple of suspicious building-sized holes in the ground, also flanked by mounds and heaps of rubble that had been left where they fell.
And everywhere there were men, moving with a purpose. They wore the same plain uniforms. My original estimate of hundreds was quickly giving way to thousands. No one shied away at sight of the dead man driving the wagon.
In the distance, I heard crashes and booms. Not thunder, as it lacked the volume and intensity, but something much like it.
Rafe grinned. “They’re just burning old powder kegs,” he shouted. “Can’t re-fill ’em. They tend to blow.”
“Wouldn’t want that,” I agreed.
Rafe turned back to Evis and resumed his cheery recounting of the wonders of an aught-eight, which could apparently be crewed by six men and fire twice a minute.
I thought back to the weapons Evis and I had seen that day, many months ago, at Werewilk. They had been small affairs, and yet a few of them had brought down the entire House within moments. The things Rafe were shouting about were, I gathered, rather more destructive.
A chill ran up and down my spine.
Thousands of soldiers. A frantic, secret weapons development program. Funding that flowed from a bottomless purse—hell, just feeding several thousand men would require tens of thousands of crowns a day. But if you also have to clothe them and house them and pay them and provide them with big Aught Eights to fire, you were getting ready for something bigger than just another Victory Day parade.
“Rafe,” I yelled, cutting him off in mid-sentence. “When’s the big day?”
“The big day? Sir?”
“When do the first of the big ones ship back to Rannit?”
I was guessing. But it was plain Rafe didn’t know how much or how little we knew.
He almost answered me. But then a ghost of caution whispered in his sunburnt ear, and he bit back the words.
“Best ask the Corpsemaster, sir. I’m just an engineer.”
I didn’t need a date anymore. I’d seen such a date existed.
And that scared me worse than any number of dead carriage drivers or mysterious booms.
Evis regarded me over his glasses and then drew Rafe back into a spirited recounting of something called a back-handled caisson stabilizer.
I put my head in my hands.
Rannit was going to war. The words ran hobnailed through my mind.
The carriage driver turned and winked. I stared at my boots for the rest of the ride.
“Mr. Prestley. Markhat. Welcome to the Battery.”
The Corpsemaster had shed her customary female body for a male one. Her new body showed no signs of trauma or decay, save for a paleness of features and dark circles under his unblinking eyes. The body was maybe twenty-five. Its hands were smooth. He looked like a banker would look the morning after he breathed his last.
I nodded a greeting. Evis did the same. Rafe stood shifting from foot to foot, staring at the dirt.
“Prepare a Howler crew,” the Corpsemaster said to Rafe.
Rafe straightened, beaming. “Solid or explosive round?” he asked without a hint of fear or any honorific. “The new short delay shells are ready.”
The Corpsemaster chuckled. “You choose,” she said. “Make haste.”
Rafe charged away, bellowing at the gaggle of soldiers who lingered nearby.
The Corpsemaster smiled a dry little smile and began to walk. She was setting a brisk pace on the dead man’s legs.
“I trust your journey was not unacceptably unpleasant?”
We had to trot to keep up.
“Not at all,” I said. “Very restful, as a matter of fact.”
“Liar.” The Corpsemaster glanced sideways at me. “The secrecy under which the Battery operates is paramount. I can make no exceptions, even for old and trusted friends.”
Old and trusted friends. Neither Evis nor I dared comment.
“You nearly saw me bested by a pair of cannon, not so many months ago,” continued the Corpsemaster. We were climbing a small hill toward a perfectly flat top. “I will not be bested again. Behold, gentlemen. I give you the future of warfare. Angels help us all.”
Below us stretched a long, shallow valley. The other side of it was maybe three hundred yards distant, and the bare, sandy soil was blasted down to the reddish bedrock in some places.
A dozen or so flat-topped hills lay beside ours, all in a careful line. I wondered how many thousands of shovels had worked to create this.
Wheels rattled up behind us, and a dozen men with them.
And then something else.
I’d seen such a thing before—a thick-walled iron cylinder taller than me, and fatter, and hollow. Fixed to a pair of wagon wheels, and the wheels were fixed to a sturdy wooden tail that kept the cylinder aimed upwards at a slight angle.
“Follow,” said the Corpsemaster. We did, barely getting out of the way of the cannon and its crew.
Rafe trotted up, wiping his hands on a rag. “Now?” he asked.
The Corpsemaster pulled out a shiny brass pocket watch. “Now,” she said, starting it with a click.
Rafe whirled. “Load,” he bellowed.
Six men snapped from stillness to action, handling tools and descending on their machine with the studied precision of a bawdy hall dance troupe. One dipped a sponge set on a pole into a water bucket and ran it down the throat of the cylinder. Another shoved a burlap parcel into the barrel as soon as the sponge was out. The sponge man whirled his pole around and pushed the burlap parcel to the back of the barrel while a man at the rear slammed something shut on the cannon’s back end.
Evis poked me in my gut and then stuck his fingers in his ears. I followed suit.
It dawned on me why Rafe seemed half-deaf despite his youth.
The contrivance was aimed quickly by a man in the rear, who sighted along the tube and adjusted the rear-facing tail with a hooked wooden rod set into the end of the tail. Two other men fussed with a massive iron sphere and hoisted it expertly into the cannon’s maw despite its apparent weight.
That was rammed home and tapped twice. All but the spongeman were behind the cannon by the second tap, and he joined them a heartbeat later. There was motion, one of the men at the rear shouted “Ready,” and then Rafe bellowed, “fire.”
The Corpsemaster clicked her stopwatch.
The cannon cried thunder, and heaved a great gout of smoke, and the blast hit me in the chest with sufficient force to knock the fool breath right out of me.
On the far wall of the Corpsemaster’s young valley, something struck and exploded, sending up a vast plume of shattered earth and leaving behind a smoking crater large enough to hide wagons.
“Twenty-six seconds,” said the Corpsemaster.
The Corpsemaster repeated herself. Rafe heard it that time, and started bellowing at his crew, who were by then halfway ready to fire the awful thing again.
The thing—the cannon—needed only a crew of six stalwart young men. No years of sorcerous schooling. No decades of perfecting spells that themselves took years to create.
Just six men, a cannon and whatever bits of iron and powder they stuffed into the thing.
“Heaven help us.”
I didn’t realize I’d spoken aloud.
“That, gentleman, was a Howler. Firing an explosive ten-pound round fused to detonate a half of a second after firing. Its effectiveness as a projectile weapon is formidable, especially considering it can be fired twice a minute until the barrel begins to soften.”
“That’s twenty-two rounds with this barrel,” shouted Rafe. “Then we have to douse it with water and wait twenty minutes. The newer ones will go twenty-seven rounds.”
“Indeed.” The Corpsemaster smiled. “I trust you gentlemen are favorably impressed. I shall never again be caught lacking appropriate firepower.”
“It’s a big chunk of Hell put on cute little wheels.” I couldn’t force a smile. “And I gather this is a small one, at that.”
“It is the smallest of the mobile units. Designed for use against infantry and enemy guns in a changing battlefield environment.”
“And just when do you foresee this battlefield being joined?”
“Fire,” bellowed Rafe, and again the cannon belched fire and raised a rain of shattered rocks on the far side of the valley.
“Thank you, Rafe. That was three seconds faster. Return the weapon to the armory.”
Rafe nodded and barked out the orders.
Within moments, Evis and the Corpsemaster and I were alone on the flat-topped hill.
I surveyed the far side of the valley. It was blasted and scarred down to the bedrock, and that too was shattered and pitted. I thought of Rannit’s old walls. Centuries to build.
Hours to be felled.
The Corpsemaster sighed. Even for a dead man, she looked suddenly tired and sad.
“What I am about to tell you is unknown, outside the High House. I trust you will keep it so. Because, gentleman, war is coming to Rannit.”
Smoke from the cannon drifted over us. In the distance, Rafe’s powder kegs burst, one after another, with the sound of infant thunder.
Evis spat a cuss word.
The Corpsemaster smiled through pale lips. “Don’t despair, gentlemen. This time, you’ll both be officers. With rather handsome pay.”
I groaned, plopped my ass down in the red sand, and narrowly avoided crying like a fresh-spanked baby.