One Tin Soldier, the last book in my The Murder of Crows trilogy, launches November 9th, 2021! I’m counting down to its release by sharing sample chapters, advance reviews, content warnings, and whatever else seems fun. Today, we’ll start at the beginning. And because this book is just a bit different than the first two, we’re beginning with a Prologue instead of Chapter 1.
If you haven’t read See These Bones or Red Right Hand yet, please be aware that these sample chapters will absolutely include spoilers from those books. Also, be aware that expletives abound. Read at your own risk!
In a suit and tie, Dominion looked old, worn, and shockingly normal. Just another civilian, come to watch the ceremony taking place in the auditorium below, wearing a rumpled suit, dark face etched with lines. It was hard to believe he was the most powerful man in the world.
It was far less difficult to believe he was dying.
The woman formally known as Midnight wove her way through the observation room’s small crowd to stand next to the old Power, breaching his perpetual bubble of space.
“Alexa.” Dominion’s voice was deep and gravelly, more suited for battlefields than quiet conversation.
“Sir.” She was a head taller than him, even in flats. “It’s good to see you. Jonathan wasn’t sure if you would be coming this year.”
“This is one of the Academy’s two ceremonies that I try never to miss. The other is graduation.” He nodded to the stage below. “You’re in time for Mammoth’s recruitment speech.”
“I’m surprised he even bothered this year.”
Dominion shrugged shoulders that had always looked too wide on his frame. “There’s something to be said for tradition. Mammoth always gets first crack at selling the third-years on the Mission’s work. They do a lot of good out in the Badlands, and it gives third-years who might not be getting an internship the chance to save face. Better to volunteer for field work with the Mission than to be forced to go because no Cape team wanted them.”
“Still. This year, of all years… he has to know every student down there will be getting an invitation.”
“He knows it. And while it’s also tradition to keep the students in the dark, some of them have probably run the numbers and figured it out too. Nevertheless, the man believes in what he does, and—” Dominion’s smile was a flash of white, almost lost in the greying wrinkles of his face. “—he does love to give a speech.”
Nineteen students sat in costume in the first two rows of the auditorium. Behind them were their instructors, along with representatives from every Cape team in the country. Of them all, only Nikolai, the Academy’s close-combat professor, came close to matching the size of the man on the stage. Mammoth was as much a descriptor as it was a Cape name.
“Speaking of those students,” continued Dominion, “how is your patient?”
As if of their own accord, Alexa’s eyes came to rest on one student in the second row. His costume was black with green accents, and he wore a full mask with a white skull on its front. To his left was a sharp-eyed, dark-haired woman in a matching color scheme. To his right, a stocky woman in shades of brown.
“Is this the part where I pretend ignorance as to which patient you’re referring to?”
“I’d rather you didn’t. Mammoth’s speech hasn’t changed in twelve years, so we have the time to talk in circles if you wish. But neither of us is getting any younger.”
Alexa winced. “Damian is… resilient. He’s had to be, given his childhood and his mother’s murder. And he’s survived everything the world threw at him these past eighteen months—his father’s death, the battle at the Hole, and even his own kidnapping and the loss of his hand. His instructors will all tell you he’s ready to be a Cape.”
“And what does his therapist say?”
“Damian has always been hard to read. On the surface, everything is fine, but the mind mirrors the body in some ways. Repetitive trauma causes damage that is invisible to the naked eye… and we don’t have the luxury of x-rays or MRIs when dealing with an individual’s psyche.”
“You think he’s damaged goods?”
“I think we’re all damaged goods. It comes with the territory. Damian has passed every test with a determination that puts even some professional Capes to shame, but…” She shook her head. “Professional distance is both harder to maintain and all the more necessary when making life or death decisions on behalf of your patient. I may be compromised when it comes to Damian Banach.”
Dominion said nothing.
Alexa sighed. “All things being equal, I think he would make an exceptional Cape and deserves the opportunity, but as we are both aware, all things are not equal.”
“Because of his power.”
“Yes. It always comes back to the necromancy. Despite all that he has achieved, no Cape team wants the risk of taking on a Crow. What if he goes full Crimson Death in the middle of an operation? Or worse?”
“Or worse? Have the results of his new Test leaked already?”
“Not yet. But the Academy’s students aren’t the only ones who can do the math. Other Capes look at the Black Hats he’s killed and the situations he’s survived, and they know damn well he’s not a Low-Three. If they knew the truth, that the Academy’s only Crow was a Full-Five…” She shook her head again. “When Paladin found out—Paladin senior, that is—he called Walker a walking bomb and wanted him sent as far away from the Free States as possible. That man’s an unmitigated asshole, but he’s also as media-savvy as they come. He knows there are only a handful of teams who could weather the public relations storm of even having a Crow join their roster. What team could actually survive Walker if he breaks bad?”
“I can think of one.”
That set Alexa back on her heels. For the first time, she tore her eyes from the students below to look Dominion in the face.
“Stormwatch hasn’t recruited in years.”
“We lost Tempest and Moth at the Hole.” The Cape’s voice was empty, failing to disguise emotional wounds a long way from healed. “Undertow is retiring to spend time with his grandchildren, and God bless him for that. Meanwhile, the doctors give me another eighteen months of active service, at best. We need new blood and—”
“And if Damian snaps while on his internship, you’ll be in position to stop him and minimize the damage,” she finished. “Shit.”
“I’d convinced Zeus to offer Damian an internship.”
“The Hammers of God are looking for members?”
“Not exactly. But they’re out on the borders and cover a lot of territory. Nobody would ever realize Damian was actually still here in California, training with my agency.”
“As a government shadow.”
“Rough edges notwithstanding, he’s shown all the requisite skills. And since we don’t officially exist, public relations aren’t a concern. I should have known it was coming together too smoothly.”
“You don’t think he’ll choose the Hammers of God once he realizes their offer is a smokescreen on your behalf?”
“According to Jonathan, he quoted you in his own expulsion hearing, Dominion. There’s no way he’s turning down an opportunity to join your team, even if it’s just a six-month internship.”
Mammoth was nearing the end of his speech, the almost ritualistic request for any third-year who had been moved by his words to stand and accept the call. Alexa would have felt sorry for the Shifter, whose recruiting trip to Los Angeles had been a lost cause from the beginning, if she didn’t know he’d be leaving again with a mountain of supplies and charitable donations.
“I won’t deny the value your agency provides,” said Dominion, “but the country needs its symbols. As someone who wore the cape, you understand that. Sooner or later, word about my condition will leak, and when it does, the Free States will need to know that a new generation stands ready to serve as its shield.”
“And you want Damian to be the face of that generation?”
“One of them, yes. Like you said, he deserves the opportunity. What he’s already done earns him that much.”
“I was thinking of the people he rescued in Reno. Killing is easy. Putting your own life at risk to save others is considerably less so.”
“As much as I think he’d flourish as an agent, I’m really happy to hear you say—”
Her words trailed off as a murmur swept the observation room. Mammoth had finished his speech, one enormous hand stretched out to the student audience in supplication. And against all expectations, one student—one of the nineteen who had made it this far—had risen to his feet.
The third-year’s left hand was clenched in a fist at his side, lumpy scar tissue stretched tight across white knuckles. His right arm was tucked behind his back as if to hide that it ended in a stump, and the voice that came from behind the skull mask was hoarse, worn thin by hours screaming in the ghost town of Reno.
“I volunteer,” said Walker.
It was the only time Alexa ever heard Dominion swear.
One Tin Soldier releases November 9th, and is now available for pre-order in digital format!
Thursday, I’ll be back with Chapter 1. See you then!