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Summary

The Empire stands triumphant.

For twenty years the Dread Empress has ruled over the lands that were once the Kingdom of Callow, but behind the scenes of this dawning golden age threats to the crown are rising. The nobles of the Wasteland, denied the power they crave, weave their plots behind pleasant smiles. In the north the Forever King eyes the ever-expanding borders of the Empire and ponders war. The greatest danger lies to the west, where the First Prince of Procer has finally claimed her throne: her people sundered, she wonders if a crusade might not be the way to secure her reign. Yet none of this matters, for in the heart of the conquered lands the most dangerous man alive sat across an orphan girl and offered her a knife.

Her name is Catherine Foundling, and she has a plan.


A Practical Guide to Evil is a YA fantasy novel about a young girl named Catherine Foundling making her way through the world – though, in a departure from the norm, not on the side of the heroes. Is there such a thing as doing bad things for good reasons, or is she just rationalizing her desire for control? Good and Evil are tricky concepts, and the more power you get the blurrier the lines between them become.

Updates every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. First update of every month will be accompanied by an Extra Chapter.

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Chapter 13: Following

“It is fortunate that virtue is its own reward, as it does not tend to accrue others.”
– Theodore Langman, Wizard of the West

The world had become as an oil painting and the Night was boiling in my veins.

Goddesses on dark wings claimed my shoulders, insolent shards of darkness refusing the ascendancy of the afternoon sun, and they said nothing. They didn’t need to. The expectation bloomed in the back of my mind like a swelling river: I’d offered them faith before they ever named me priestess, but now they required that purpose of me. Night still ran deep in the veins of the drow, however changed its nature, but none of their ancient favourites had been granted my office. First Under the Night, I thought. To others it might speak of supremacy, some perilous boast of standing closer to these quarrelsome goddesses than any other, but I knew better. I was first in that I was charged with the treading of unbroken grounds, as much a scream ringing into a dark tunnel as a priestess bearing their mandate. I was to stumble for them, make the mistakes and pay the costs so that my successors would not. These were still fair terms, by my reckoning. Alliance and the means to carry out my designs, for what I had freely given before they formally claimed it. But if they expected reverence of me, respect more than had been earned, then they would be disappointed.

“I never took well to prayer,” I murmured. “Either the secret whispers for help or the worn-down words they taught us to recite in the House. So I won’t offer you that.”

The sun above was searing, blinding. Fire from above none of us were meant to look in the eye. I breathed out and let the wind thread its fingers through my hair. The power came easy to me. It was holding it that was the trouble, for it was as temperamental as its mistresses: I’d ruled Winter, by the scavenger’s virtue of being last to hold sway over it, but the Night was not my domain. If I wanted the crows to smile upon me, I would have to swing them as sweet a song as I had it in me to sing.

“But that’s not what we’re about, is it?” I said. “The three of us. If you wanted someone who’d know your pretty rituals, you had thousands to raise. If you wanted devotion, or unquestioning faith, there just as plenty. You went through my mind mercilessly, that night, so you know exactly what you picked.”

My eyes left the sky and fell to the charging Levantines. Thousands in mail and leather and scales, steel blades and hide shields. Their faces painted with vivid strokes of colour, as true a language as the spoken tongues of their faraway land. They were close now, treading river grounds. I had chosen the broadest bent of the water for this, instead of where my armies had once tried to shatter winter’s work with the cleverness of the Grey Eyries. I raised my staff and let the darkness pulse with me.

“Here’s my prayer, Goddesses of Night,” I savagely smiled. “The three of us, together – let’s break something.”

Komena’s raucous, delighted laughter sounded in my ears even as the bottom of my staff struck the snow-covered ice. The oldest sister might see further, weave and scheme with cold judgement, but the younger one was my kindred in some ways. Even the span of millennia had not entirely faded the remembrance of what it felt like, shattering arrogance and host with the same single stroke. The soldier-goddess leaned into my intent more strongly than her sister, harsh and domineering where Andronike was skillful and subtle. The Night spread with a whisper before sinking its claws in the iced river, rending it mercilessly. Cracks tore open the frozen grounds, cold water sloshed out and hundreds of screams filled the air. Komena roughly withdrew her will from mine, leaving me gasping and leaning on my staff for reasons deeper than a bad leg. My sight swam, the glare of the sun failing to pierce through, and I had just enough presence left to hear Robber hesitantly stepping towards me. I warded him off with a raised hand. Gods, I thought. I felt like throwing up, like my veins were about to boil and melt. I’d never wielded a miracle this large during the light of day, and I wouldn’t do it again anytime soon if I had my way.

“Boss?” Robber called out.

“Took a bit out of me, that’s all,” I croaked out.

Too many breaths passed before I was myself again, but with eyes no longer rebelling I steadied my back spat to the side. The river had become a deep grave, I saw. There were chunks of ice floating in the water, but among them bodies were strewn. Fewer than had died, though that was no mystery: those with weightier armour had sunk straight to the bottom. The floaters had been savaged by broken ice. Some Levantines were still swimming and screaming, but I had little worry of survival. Taking a swim this deep into winter was as sure as death sentence as a swinging sword, unless some priest intervened. My last memories of the charge were vague, almost dreamlike – there were consequences, to calling upon that much Night and the aid of a goddess – but now I could more accurately assess numbers. Around two thousand had sallied out towards my little company, and less than half that died. Their mistake had been going into battle order, I mused. That’d broadened their line, turning the loss of a few hundred into something closer to a thousand. There were still a mass of soldiers mobilizing behind the survivors of the ill-fated assault, almost the full Levantine reserve, but I had no fear of that. They were on the wrong side of the river, after all.

The cavalry in the distance that had been heading for us earlier has slowed, and there seemed to be argument between its officers. They were on our bank, sure, but then they’d just watched me turn around a mile of ice into a deathtrap. And there’d be no reinforcements, if they tried their luck. I suspected they would be disinclined to find out if I had anymore tricks up my sleeves, which was for the best. I might actually fall unconscious, if I attempted to use the Night again, and not necessarily after I’d let loose a miracle. I wouldn’t risk it, not when anything capable of hurting the horsemen would be just as capable of ravaging my own soldiers if lashing out uncontrollably.

“That one wants your head on a pike,” Robber said, calling my attention back to the footsoldiers.

Or close enough. On the other bank, a rider stood surrounded by panicking captains. A young man, in beautiful plate that must have cost a fortune. He couldn’t even be twenty, I thought, though the ferocious-looking facepaint of iron grey and crimson made it hard to determine. He was looking at me with hatred and fear. The enemy’s commander?

“Might be able to end him with a volley,” my Special Tribune offered. “Best not to let snakes grow longer fangs.”

“So young,” I quietly said.

“You were younger, when you took your first command,” Robber shrugged.

Seventeen, and so sure I was ready to mend my little corner of the world. Gods, how lucky had I been to have the likes of Juniper and Hakram at my side? All of Rat Company, really, and those others handpicked by then then-legate Hellhound as well. But it wasn’t luck at all, was it? I suddenly thought. Heroes might have providence to furnish them with the tools of victory, but I’d had something of my own just as valuable. A patient man with green eyes, lending his weight where mine did not suffice and pulling a thousand strings to ease my way forward – so many of them I could not believe I’d found half, even after all these years.

“We learned our lessons quick,” I said. “We had to.”

Not always the right ones, I knew, but we had learned. We still did. The moment you stopped, Creation buried you.

“He’ll remember today, Boss,” Robber said. “You can count on that. And next time he comes swinging, he’ll be wiser about it.”

The warning was clear. It ran against goblin nature, to let a threat escape. And there’d been promise in this one, if he’d really been in command. Going for the general staff was a tactic that would have worked against almost any army on Calernia. He’d run into Grem One-Eye and Black’s reforms instead, the forced redundancies shaped by the knowledge that you couldn’t count on high command surviving a battle if heroes were on the loose, but the Dominion had never fought the modern Legions of Terror so the mistake was understandable. Pressing the offensive, as he’d obviously meant to, had not been unsound either. It would have been costly, but if General Abigail’s defences broken on even one front her army would have collapsed in short order. If he’d been slightly luckier, if I’d arrived a day later, he might very well have broken the Third Army completely. If you’d had maybe another ten years of seasoning, I thought. If you’d been trained better, learned to temper the bold with some patience… He could be a general of some talent, one day. No Juniper, mind you, but thankfully there were very few generals of that skill around. And if I gave him those ten years, one day the hate I saw might be turned on me with a wiser hand to wield it.

“Let him go,” I said.

Yellow eyes considered me carefully.

“This isn’t a victory, Robber,” I sighed, gesturing at the river full of dead. “It’s a waste.”

“Not like you to weep for the enemy,” the goblin said.

“Weep?” I mused. “No, hardly that. But every corpse we make today is a gap in the ranks when we turn to the Dead King.”

I sighed, then glanced aside. In the distance, I saw the cavalry had decided to ride around the river and return to the camp. Good.

“Come on,” I said. “Time to head back. General Abigail should be wrapping up inside the city.”

I began limping back to Sarcella, leaving ice and death behind. The hateful stare of the boy I’d spared followed my back, but what of it?

He wouldn’t be the first, or the last.

With the enemy riders away, there was no need to risk anything as foolish as trying the blaze a second time. Most the turtles were wrecked beyond use, anyway, and while Belles Portes had been under assault when we moved out I judged my forces too weak for a strike at the back of the Levantines still holding it. We took the long way around, the threat of the horsemen having removed itself, and long was no exaggeration. Though my drow tread snow like stone and goblins could scuttle through anything, I was exhausted beyond words and very much limping. It turned out that victory outpaced us: when we reached the eastern side of Sarcella, we were greeted by rowdy cheers. Word of the river’s break had spread faster than I could walk, and more besides. The cohort positioned to hold the eastern streets crowded us to deliver accolades, or at least tried to – I sent Robber ahead to have a quiet word with the captain about not approaching the drow. They looked a little stunned by the welcome, nonetheless, almost like children seeing the sea for the first time. The Everdark did not breed the kind of comradeship that the Legions and my armies used as mortar. Mighty Jindrich was strutting like a peacock and its sigil followed suit, which amused my legionaries to no end.

I left them to it, and took aside the orc captain in command of the cohort. The news were better than I had expected. General Abigail, it seemed, had vigorously prosecuted her offensive and then taken a gamble as well. She’d recalled the two thousand drow I’d left holding the north of the city and sent them to climb the ring of statues and arches around the city, to suddenly drop down at the back of the Levantines in Belles Portes. That’d neatly cut off both the bridges that still allowed a trickle of Dominion reinforcements to come through and the last way out of the force inside Sarcella. The enemy commander, facing annihilation, had been forced to surrender. I suspected the casualty rate for the drow who’d taken the climb and been forced to fight Levantines on both sides was a lot less sunny than the official version implied, but regardless I did not disapprove. Simply by ending the fighting early, General Abigail had likely significantly lowered overall casualties. The wary-eyed Callowan I’d promoted to the head of the Third Army had accepted the surrender as soon as it was offered, and Sarcella was now entirely ours. For now, anyway. There were still Dominion soldiers beyond the bridges, and the losses we’d taken during the offensive must not have been mild.

But it was only a few hours until sundown, now, so I had no fear of what was ahead.

After we advanced deeper into the city I sent Mighty Jindrich and its warriors back to the rest of the drow with a message to General Rumena, ordering it to pull back to the now-unguarded north of the city and away from the rest of the Third Army. It’d cover our bases, just in case, but that was only a side benefit. The longer my army and the Firstborn remained in close quarters, the higher the chances of blood being spilled rose – especially if I wasn’t there to supervise. The survivors of Robber’s cohort I relieved with my compliments, free to sleep or whatever no-doubt-against-regulations activity they got up to when they weren’t on duty. Robber himself wanted to stay at my side, but I had something else in mind and so refused.

“You keeping me away from the Dominion prisoners, Boss?” he pouted.

It was even odds, I mused whether or not he knew that make him look like a particularly horrid gargoyle. The amusement the sight caused was slight, though, and did not linger long. It wasn’t amusing at all, what I needed of him.

“No,” I softly said. “I need you to find out what happened to Nauk’s body. If they’ve burned it yet, if they had time for a Legion burial.”

The pout vanished, leaving behind a grim visage of wrinkled green skin. They’d had a complicated relationship, those two: adversarial and often petty, tainted by their largely one-sided competition for Pickler’s attentions, but there’d also been more to it than that. It’s been a comfortable kind of dislike, the kind so old and well-worn it had some kinship to friendship. And beyond that, Nauk had been Rat Company. He’d been with us from the start, the War College and those heady first days of the Fifteenth. That mattered, to those who’d been there. There weren’t as many of us left as I’d like.

“I’ll see to it,” Robber said, and for once his voice was completely serious.

“Please,” I said. “If the body’s still there…”

“I’ll arrange something, and send for you,” the goblin said.

It wasn’t a sweet parting, but this wasn’t sweet business. I ran into officers sent by General Abigail on my way to the Third Army’s headquarters, and learned the surrendered Levantine captains were being kept in the repurpose goal of Sarcella closer to the north, under heavy guard. The Dominion soldiers themselves had been disarmed, and while under watch had been provided healing by priests of the House Insurgent. I made my way to the headquarters as quick as I could, my leg was aching like someone had shoved an iron spike through. It was an effort not to visibly tremble from exhaustion, now that the miracle’s wake had fully settled over my shoulders, but I couldn’t show weakness in front of my soldiers. At least my shoulders were bare, now. The crows had left when I began the trek back to Sarcella earlier, presumably to look for fresh amusements. In this city full of corpses and ash I had no doubt they’d find something to their tastes. The merchant’s mansion that served as the location of the Third Army’s high command was a great deal fuller than the last time I’d swung by. It was surrounded by legionaries, and even inside soldiers were aplenty. The mood was celebratory, but while I offered smiles I did not linger. I was too tired to keep up the pretence of haleness for long, and I still had duties to discharge.

I made my way up to the war council room, finding what remained of Nauk’s general staff there and surrounding his successor. The general was the first to notice my arrival, rising up her seat looking like she would very much love to be halfway through a good night’s sleep right now. I could sympathize.

“Your Majesty,” she greeted me.

Huh, she’d done the salute perfectly even this exhausted. Whoever had drilled her at the recruitment camp must have left quite the impression.

“General,” I replied. “And all of you – you should be proud of what you’ve accomplished today. You went above and beyond my expectations.”

I was unsurprised to notice it was the orcs who were most pleased by that, demurely flashing fangs in a signal of humility.

“There will be another war council later, but for now I’ll need the room,” I calmly said. “I must speak with your general.”

Being sent out didn’t seem to dent their good mood all that much, and I smiled to take the sting out anyway. It wasn’t long before we had the room to ourselves, though I waited until footsteps could no longer be heard. General Abigail, I noted, seemed to be willing to look anywhere in the room except at me. I wondered whether she was always jumpy as a cat, or whether it was the result of days of march under harassment followed by battles and a spectacular assassination of her direct colleagues. She was a cagey one, this Abigail of Summerholm. Her eyes never quite stopped moving, as if always looking for a threat, and I’d yet to see her let her guard down entirely once even this far behind our defence lines. I would have thought her generally inclined to prudence, but the way she’d used the drow in the battle ran against that impression.

I’d been solid thinking, if risky, and raised my opinion of her as a tactician. It would have been safer to stick to a steady push, but overall casualties would have been higher by the time the dust settled. Add that to the clever trick she’d pulled using civilians to guard the back of Sarcella, and I had to admit she was one of the more promising commanders who’d risen over the last few years. Not yet enough to remain a general, maybe, but she had the potential to get there after a bit of blooding. Which Juniper had assigned her under Nauk to get, I remembered with a touch of rue. It seemed the Hellhound and I were sharing an opinion without needing to share a room. I dragged myself to one of the seats at the table and plopped myself down, brutally suppressing a sigh, and invited her to do the same. She did after the barest of hesitations.

“You did well today,” I said. “The river trick would have meant nothing if you hadn’t pushed them out beforehand.”

The black-haired woman forced a smile and a nod while muttering her thanks. I didn’t begrudge her that in the slightest. She’d sent quite a few of her soldiers to die, today, legionaries and officers she likely knew quite well. It never quite felt like a victory, when the butcher’s bill came in, did it?

“You’ll be remaining in command of the Third Army until we join up with the other columns,” I told her. “Possibly until we make contact with Marshal Juniper, if there’s no suitable replacement for you.”

She winced.

“Ma’am, I’m not sure that’s a wise decision,” Abigail said. “I went up the ranks fast, and I didn’t go through the War College. All I got was the officer training in the camps, and it didn’t cover a general’s duties.”

My lips quirked.

“If a few years at the College were enough to make a general, my life would be much easier,” I said. “I’ll be handling the drow, and a few other forms of trouble as well. I can’t run the Third Army as well. You’ve acquitted yourself well, and you have the instincts for it. It’ll have to do.”

Her face fell, and once more I was struck with how young she was. I wasn’t all that older, truth be told, but it’d been a long time since I’d felt my true age. Gods, were we ever really that young? We must have been, when we fought in the Liesse Rebellion. I wondered if we’d looked as fragile to old generals like Istrid and Sacker back then as Abigail now looked to me.

“A lot of people could die, if I make a mistake,” she muttered. “That would be on my head.”

Doubt, I thought. She wasn’t so difficult to read that I could not pick up on it. And resentment at being thrust into this role. Both things could turn out dangerous, if allowed to fester. A lighter touch would be needed here, or maybe a personal one. There were times when twisting the arm was in order, but not here. An entirely unwilling general was of no use to me, and likely a liability to the soldiers she’d be commanding. Doubt and resentment, huh. I was no stranger to either, and in my experience they tended to have a common source in fear. We’d begin there. Propping up my staff against the table, I leaned back into my seat.

“In my first serious fight, I was beaten within an inch of my life by a procession of strangers and afterwards eviscerated by the Lone Swordsman,” I told her quietly. “I still have the scar from where he opened me up. I was close enough to death I managed to use necromancy to get myself moving.”

The other woman’s eyes widened, with both surprise and disgust. The latter was at necromancy – most of my countrymen still considered the practice disgusting and dangerous – but the former was not. It wasn’t common knowledge, how badly William had trounced me during the first part of our encounter. I watched curiosity seep in after the words sunk in, so I pressed on while the iron was hot.

“I ended up kicking him off the ramparts and into the Hwaerte, after catching him by surprise,” I said, “but it was a very, very close thing. There are some who’d call it fate, the way it all turned out. I tend to think of it as luck.”

“You were Named, even then,” General Abigail said.

Like that said it all, explained everything. I supposed it might, to someone who’d never slipped into a Role. It was a lot more eye-catching the way some of us scythed through soldiers like wheat stalks than the way a single story misstep might kill you in truth an entire year before the blade actually opened your throat.

“I was green,” I corrected. “Scrappy, good at some parts of what I did, but dangerously arrogant in my approach and I nearly died choking on a floor for it. But it did teach me a valuable lesson.”

I smiled mirthlessly.

“You’ll get eviscerated too, Abigail,” I said, and she didn’t quite manage to hide her flinch. “Not literally as I was, but one day you’ll make a mistake and it’ll be costly. You can’t avoid that day, no one can. And it’s good that you’re afraid of it.”

I met her eyes, brown to blue.

“Take that fear and use it,” I said. “To make yourself think. About how it could go wrong, what you could do to avoid it or survive it. And from there you plan so that you don’t end up in that pit in the first place. You do that well enough, and you’ll push back the day some.”

I paused, just a heartbeat.

“It’ll still come,” I frankly said. “It comes for everyone, Abigail. But if you can ward it off for a year or two, you’ll still have done better than half the generals on Calernia.”

A grimace split the other woman’s face.

“I could have been a tanner,” General Abigail mournfully said. “No one ever expects anything from those.”

“I served drinks in a tavern for years,” I told her, reluctantly amused. “And I ended up with a crown on my head. You’re getting off light.”

She paled, which made her sun-tanned cheeks look rather blotchy, but gathered herself with remarkable alacrity.

“I don’t suppose I am dismissed for rest, now,” she cautiously ventured.

I snorted.

“There’s no rest for the wicked, General Abigail,” I said. “Find us a bottle of wine and come back. We’ll be going over the orders you’ve given since you took command of the Third Army, and why you gave them.”

The black-haired woman let out a sound that might have been a whimper. I raised an eyebrow and she rose to find us something to drink, while I let out a sigh at the relief that was no longer standing on my bad leg.

Much like her I’d rather be sleeping, but if she was to be the first Callowan general in my army then she needed to be taught.

Interlude: Beheld II

“A good sword will find a use, or make one.”
– Levantine saying

This was to be an iron day, Captain Elvera could feel it in her bones.

Twenty years she’d served as an officer under the Lord of Tartessos, then a further eight under his daughter the Lady Aquiline – and before that she’d been part of a Brocelian band, as both spearwoman and striker. It was the last of those experiences she drew on now, trusting the instincts that had seen her survive iron days ranging from chimeras maddened to an entire flock of ensorcelled drakes. Something nasty was about to come for the army that had been under her command until yersterday’s dusk, and they were not prepared. Elvera might be old and slow, these days, but she’d seen more bloodshed than the rest of this army of pups put together. They thought a few honour feuds and sanctioned hunts had them prepared for war, but it had not. The Army of Callow had spent most of a night and day making that viciously clear to anyone with eyes to see. It was just her luck that Razin Tanja, of the Binder’s Blood, had been stuck with blindness for want of glory. Just a fucking boy, she thought, not without bitterness. Some eighteen summers youth who saw a way to hallow his already hallowed line in sending soldiers charging to their deaths at Callowan hands.

Bones creaking as they would not have twenty years ago, the captain walked the streets of Beaumontant quarter with her twenty sworn swords at her side. A trail of smoke from the east, the quarter still aflame even now, marred the blue sky like stroke of charcoal. Under it the soldiers of the Dominion of Levant clustered behind thick planks of wood and half-broken houses, never daring to look across the divide for long. Callowan crossbowmen had proved to be mercilessly accurate from their distant perch, the sallow-eyed goblins never hesitating to put a bolt in any soldier out of cover for too long. Elvera saw no need to tempt such a fate by advancing too close, having already taken a good look when she led the assault that failed there that very morning. While red-clad legionaries had slowly retreated under the charge of the armsmen of Malaga and Tartessos, the damnable Callowan sappers had torn down two streets’ worth of structures and raised palisades between the houses standing behind – leaving an open killing field of stone and wood trapped with blasphemous munitions and vicious steel traps. Elvera had lost three hundred men trying to force a way through before she called a retreat under crossbow volleys and spellfire.

The Callowans knew war, these days, in a way few soldiers of her homeland did. Captain Elvera was old enough to have fought in the Sepulcher War, when the Barrow Lord rose from the depths of Brocelian Forest and struck out with his host of bespelled beasts, barrow-spirits and Blood traitors. She’d taken a hammer blow to the arm that never quite healed right dragging Lord Romeran away from the onslaught, and for that earned both captain’s rank and the suit of plate she still wore – enameled with the colours of the Slayer’s Blood, a rare honour. She’d even fought in the thick of it at River’s Bent, holding the shore sword in hand until the Bestowed slew the Barrow Lord in honourable combat and the Peregrine freed his soul from its earthly prison. That’d been war, but Levant had not known its like in the many years since. The Kingdom of Callow had and its soldiers carried those hard lessons with them. There’d been rumours, of course, fanciful tales that made it even as far as Tartessos – of fairies riding on wings of flame, of a city aflight and spewing out armies of ravenous dead, of a gate opened into the very Hells that unleashed endless hordes of devils. Elvera had not put much trust in these, knowing how stories grew with telling and miles, but now she wondered.

The captain had breached shield walls, under morning light, and seen under the helms more than just Callowans. Greenskins and Wastelanders standing elbow to elbow with warriors born to the Kingdom of Knights, striving and killing and dying together. Singing those harsh, bitter songs the Callowans were so fond of. Ten thousand of these without a speck of horse, their commanders slain by the Lanterns in the dark of night, had turned what should have been a rout into a bloody and costly stalemate. There was spine in that army, Captain Elvera thought, perhaps more so than in her own. She’d seen too many green boys and girls empty their stomachs in the mud when they came across the butcher’s yard in Belles Portes quarter, where the wounded and dying had been brought for what healing could be had. The stink of shit, death and bile had not sickened Elvera’s nostrils in many years, but at least she had known it before. The eager young captains and their just as young warriors had not, and it had made them flinch. Not that Razin Tanja, heir to Malaga, had been moved by the wails and spilled entrails. No, the boy was already ordering preparations for another push against Callowan defences.

The Tartessian slowed her walk when she reached the outskirts of Beaumontant, near the streets leading into Couteau D’Or. The Tanja boy would be holding council with captains there, but she was in no mood for exhortations and castigations from some pup of a southern Blood. Instead she spoke with the soldiers she’d led into the jaws of the jackal that very morning, preparing them for what was to come. Those officers had broken their bones on Callowan defences earlier, and so were more willing to listen to an old woman’s advice than most. They gathered around her, the sworn swords of captains that were attending to the noble boy who’d taken command from her.

“A simple shield wall will get your people killed,” Captain Elvera said. “The sappers prepared the grounds to break up tight formations, and their mages will use fire to batter at what holds.”

“It’s the traps that have been bleeding us the worst, Red Ella,” a middle-aged man with a heavy Malagan accent replied. “They’ve sown caltrops everywhere and the spikes go straight through leather soles.”

Elvera let the use of her old sobriquet pass without comment. She wasn’t so long in the tooth as not to slap the insolence out of a soldier’s mouth if need be, but these officers had never known the sobriquet as the insult it’d been meant to be – just a name other old soldiers called her by, when the ale was plentiful.

“Better those than the buried explosions,” a young girl in heavy scale grunted. “Those’ll shred a man up to the waist, and sharp pieces shoot out to carve at those near. I’ll call anyone a fool who says we’ve seen the last of those.”

If they had the mages or the war hounds of the Lord of Malaga’s host with them, the Callowan killing field could have been taken apart slowly but surely. But the vanguard had been ordered to attack without them, and so soldiers would die instead. Dark as the thought was, there was nothing Elvera could do about this and she would not further darken a dark day by speaking ill of the boy commanding this host. Even if he was a glory-thirsting Blood throwback from the least reputable of the founding lines. Command of the army had already been taken from her, she would not take an axe to morale or risk being sent away from the front by speaking out of turn.

“I’ll speak plain,” she said. “Whoever you send in front will likely die. We’ll have to bridge the gap with corpses before we can get to them with blades. Split in smaller bands with shields above the heads and move fast, that ought to thin the costs. But make no mistake, this will get bloody.”

The talk did not please them, though they had expected no salvation from her. Elvera had made no mystery of it that she thought it foolishness to attack the dug-in Army of Callow inside a city with so slight a numerical advantage. Even without walls. If they’d had a three or four thousand warriors more then encirclement and assault would have been a sound scheme, but they did not.

“We should wait for the Lord’s army,” a voice called out from the back.

There were mutters of agreement. For all that the captains were attending to Razin Tanja, they were not all so certain of his scheme to press the attack and this had bled into the lower ranks. The Malagan captains would follow one of their native Blood through Crown and Tower, but there were Tartessos captains as well – furious still at her removal from command – and those captains who had answered the call of the Holy Seljun, not the Lord of Malaga. The latter of these would not easy throw aside the notion of a patron meant to inherit a title, but neither would they destroy their own companies without concrete promises made. The boy’s initial strokes of brilliance had earned him some renown, it was true. Using  Proceran smugglers who knew of secret tunnels into Sarcella to bring a war-party of Lanterns into the city and kill the enemy commanders had been inspired, Elvara would freely admit, and not a risk she would have taken in his place. Lanterns were powerful, but few and precious. Striking at Belles Portes while the Callowans were in disarray had been good sense, and if not for a sudden enemy delaying action might well have won the city.

Pressing now, though, when the enemy was ready and waiting? The heir to Malaga was making his inexperience plain for all the captains to see, and it would win him no friends. And yet this kind of talk would not do at all, for an army without a leader was just a mob bearing arms.

“We have bled the Army of Callow harshly with our attack,” Captain Elvara replied. “Let none gainsay this. That is worthy feat, and with wisdom we may yet accrue greater honours.”

If her plate was not enchanted, she would have died in the heartbeat that followed. The barbed javelin struck at the hollow of her throat, where only a leather collar protected her, but Elvara had years ago paid a binder to make the material strong as iron. The bone tip of the javelin broke, though it still took her breath. Even in her surprise the old captain followed her instincts and ducked behind a fence – just in time to avoid an adeptly thrown sling stone that would have caved in her forehead.

“Attack,” she roared out. “Back to your soldiers! Tartessos, follow my lead.”

A score of officers were already dead by the time she finished speaking, and a few of her sworn swords with them. More were slain trying to flee, though the clever broke into houses to avoid that fate. Elvera risked a glance over the edge of the fence and caught sight only of grey-skinned silhouettes in furs stalking across rooftops before another javelin had her ducking back down. They were seizing the roofs between Beaumontant and Couteau D’Or, she realized with dismay. That’d be throwing away soldiers unless it was the prelude to a strike on one of those quarters, which meant that in defiance of all common sense the Army of Callow was back on the attack. Cursing under her breath, the old soldier prepared to make a run for it. Someone needed to get the Tanja boy out of the way before he got himself killed and the army’s spirits dropped into the pit, and who else save her was there? It was going to be an iron day, she’d felt it hours ago, and now that the iron had been in the fire long enough it’d grown red and burning.

Captain Elvera traced the Mark of Mercy with wrinkled hands, then steeled herself and ran out of cover.

Edgar was kicked awake, none too gently, and blearily rolled over.

“I was just resting my eyes, I was,” he immediately claimed.

A heartbeat later he remembered he’d been allowed his rest, captain’s orders, and his fear turned to resentment. The legionary pushed himself up, leaning against the wall, and began to glare at the source of his pain. Just as quick, resentment turned back to fear.

“Get up,” Sergeant Hadda grinned, baring twin rows of fangs. “The war’s back on, boy.”

Edgar counted himself lucky that after the hard fighting of the night and morning he’d been exhausted enough to pass out in his armour, aches in the back or not. Sergeant Hadda was not the kind of officer you ever wanted to keep waiting when she gave an order. He fumbled for his sword-belt under the orc’s amused gaze, and after slipping it back on ended up going through the pile of straw that’d been his bedding in order to find the helmet he could have sworn he’d set down to his left. The old sergeant took pity on him eventually, pointing it out, and Edgar hastily brushed aside the last of the straw inside before slamming it on.

“Thought we were pulled back until Afternoon Bell, sarge,” he said, warily eyeing her as he pulled the clasp together.

Depending on the orc’s mood, questions would either lead to pretty heavy-handed mockery or a fount of useful information. A sergeant was low as an officer could be, in the Army of Callow, but Hadda been in the Legions of Terror long before she took oath under Queen Catherine so she had all sorts of old friends in places. She tended to know more about what was going on than even Captain Pickering, to the man’s frustration.

“Everyone’s called back to the fronts,” Sergeant Hadda said. “Including us poor, exhausted souls. We’re about to teach Dominion meat why you don’t pick fights with the Legions.”

Like a lot of soldiers who’d been in the legions that were brought into the fold after Second Liesse, Hadda tended to speak of the Legions and the Army of Callow as the same thing. As far as they were concerned, Edgar had been told, the Black Queen was the Carrion Lord’s anointed successor so there was no distinction to be drawn. As a proper Laure boy he’d found that to be a mite unpatriotic, but then he supposed greenskins were new to the fold. Hadda had been good to him, anyway, for all the rough edges. She’d looked out for her tenth, taught them the little things like ‘don’t gamble with goblins’, ‘not all Soninke are warlocks’ and ‘if you fight a Taghreb the entire family comes after you’.

“Merciful Gods,” Edgar muttered. “Everyone said Legate Abigail was planning a retreat, not an assault.”

It’d been a shame the Princekiller got killed by them heretic Dominion priests, but he’d thought it nice that a Callowan was leading the Third Army now. It’d been a point pride, when he’d talked with other Laure enlisted. Sure enough the Legate was from Summerholm, and the folks from the Gate of the East tended to be prickly and proud as cats, but they’d all agreed Summerholm stock was good at warring. And Legate Abigail was a true veteran, he’d heard, from the days of the Fifteenth – she’d fought in the Arcadian Campaign and at Akua’s Folly. Heavens willing, she might end up confirmed by Marshal Juniper as the general of the Third Army if they all got out of Sarcella alive. Sergeant Hadda’s scarred, leathery face split into a nasty little grin.

General Abigail, now,” the orc said. “But that’s not the real treat of the day. Put some spring to your step, legionary – the Black Queen’s back, so we’re about to turn this fucking battle around.”

Edgar let out a low whistle. It was always a mixed bag, hearing about Queen Catherine. She’d filled a lot of graves since she’d appeared during the Liesse Rebellion, and no small amount of them had been Callowan ones. But she’d also smashed to pieces all the scavengers that came after the Kingdom, after she wrested it out of the Tower’s hand, and it was hard not to take pride in that. Edgar still remembered the sharp satisfaction he’d felt after hearing them sorcerers who’d done the Doom of Liesse had gotten crucified one and all. The queen might be a bit of tyrant, but the Fairfaxes hadn’t been all sweetness and light either. Sometimes you needed a hard hand to get it done, like Jehan the Wise hanging seven princes and one. But all that was back home, and before the fucking Procerans had declared her Arch-heretic of the East. The Principate tried the Vales and it tried the north, and when it got whipped like a dog it pulled the same trick it had in the old days. The Callowan House had called it ‘perverse service to earthly powers’, and that sounded about right to him.

Aye, there might be a time where the Black Queen got a little too black and Edgar found himself joining the rebel cause. But if the fucking Procerans thought their fucking princes and their fucking priests could unseat an anointed queen of Callow then they were in for a rude awakening. Maybe this time they should hang fourteen princes and two, and then another one too for Old King Selwin they’d done in at the Red Flower Vales. Edgar kept to the Heavens, as all Callowans should, but he kept to the long price as well and this one had been a very long time coming. One of these days they’d get around to evening the scales with the Wasteland too, for the Night of Knives and older slights as well, but that could wait some. The greenskins had been done in by the Tower too, bastards as they could be, and they should get their due along with the rest. Edgar did not mind at all the notion of sharing a fire with someone like Sergeant Hadda where the Tower used to stand. He didn’t speak out none of that, of course. He was just a legionary, so he ate his slop with the rest of the tenth and joined up with the rest of the cohort to march up to the outskirts of Couteau D’Or quarter. He’d been worried, when going to sleep, that they might all get caught in the city and killed. Edgar wasn’t worried anymore, though.

Say what you would about the Black Queen, she’d never lost a battle.

He clutched that knowledge tight as the cohorts gathered behind the defences, ranks and ranks of legionaries in red. It was all right to be afraid, he knew. On the other side of the killing grounds there would be warriors waiting, and Edgar had seen enough of his fellows die to learn that being clever or good with a sword wasn’t always enough to save you. He’d seen better fighters than him die because they’d been a little too slow raising their shield, because they’d slipped in the mud or even just because they’d been on watch when the Helike cataphracts struck. You couldn’t own that, you couldn’t force it: it was in the hands of the Gods Above. But he wasn’t just Edgar of Laure, a boy in armour in the third rank from the front. He was a legionary in the Third Army of the Kingdom of Callow, and in this strange city in this strange land they were going to win. He could feel it, and the others felt it too. It was in the air, the harsh taste of retribution in the making. He could see in the eyes of the orcs, burning red. He could see it in the way the soldiers from Laure and Ankou, from Vale and Summerholm, they were all standing like they wanted to lean forward. And the Wastelanders they had it as well, the Taghreb and the Soninke, with their calm faces and their hard eyes – like they knew how this would end and they were already savouring it.

He didn’t know who started singing, but Edgar did not hesitate to join his voice to it. There were times when the old rebel songs, the likes of Here They Come Again and Red The Flowers, they were what needed to be called out. But here, slowly beginning to advance against the soldiers of the Dominion? They’d give the Black Queen her due, just the once, for this song was hers and no one else’s. The tune of In Dread Crowned swelled up, as crossbow bolts flew and legionaries raised their shields. Step, step, step: the beat was in his bones, the rhythm of it. They advanced through the flat grounds, arrows and stones harmlessly glancing off. Edgar unsheathed his blade, smelling the scent of magic unleashed.

“Be they high or resplendent our oaths stand taller still
And in the west do quiet lie graves we have yet to fill-“

Balls of flame detonated against the enemy, and the Third Army charged into the chaos with a roar.

It was madness.

The Callowans were on their last rope and everybody knew it, but they might have held on to some part of the city until nightfall and spared themselves slaughter if they’d remained in their hiding holes instead of sallied out. Razin did not know whether to be delighted or infuriated they had not. He’d had plans in the making to land another crushing blow, and had been talking the most recalcitrant captains around to backing it: another push against Callowan lines accompanied with cavalry raids on the side, all to mask another strike by the Lanterns against the high command of the heretics. There would be no recovering from that, discipline or no. The war leader of the Lanterns had been most willing to send her warrior-priests into the fray, and the heir to Malaga had been slowly squeezing the Tartessos captains into silence when the damned Callowans struck instead. Some few thousand grey-skinned devils had been summoned and sent to disrupt his positions in Beaumontant and Couteau D’Or, though too few to truly be a threat. He’d immediately ordered them chased out from the rooftops they were skulking on, loyal captains heeding his calls and arranging for archers and slingers to disperse the abominations, but no sooner had the exchanges began that the Army of Callow attacked. It had been… grisly.

Razin Tanja was of the Grim Binder’s line and inherited her famous poise even if he had not been graced with her equally famed sorceries, so he’d not let the horror of it reach his face. But it would be a long time before her forgot the sight of it: those implacable rows of steel shields advancing in tight formations, heretics of all stripes singing their strange songs as they slew. The way crossbow bolts had fallen like summer rain, punching through all but the finest scale and plate. Foul eastern magics of flame and lightning arcing over ranks to blacken stone and sweep aside men like kindling. All the while whistles were sounded by their calm-faced officers, calling lines of legionaries forward or back like it was a parade ground and not as hellish a fight as this city could stomach. The strange devils had waited until Razin’s soldiers were on the backfoot before leaping down the rooftops and fiercely charging into the men of Levant, and that’d tipped the vase over the table’s edge. A rout had followed, Razin himself only escaping unscathed because that old dog of the Resafa, the one they called Red Ella, had him seized by her sworn swords before ordering them so slay any warriors impeding their way out.

Beaumontant was no safer, he’d soon learned. The Callowans had begun an offensive there as well, and the streets were packed tight with soldiers whose captains had died in Couteau D’Or or were still struggling to reach their companies. The chaos reached its apex when the Army of Callow reached the outskirts of Beaumontant from the side of Couteau D’Or as well, having wrought great slaughter. Panic spread at the realization that the Dominion’s force was now surrounded on three sides: on two of them red-bladed Callowans, and the third the blaze the heretics had started trying to kill the Lanterns during their retreat. Only behind them, in Belles Portes, did the Dominion still hold ground. But many of the wounded had been set there, for lack of an easy way to carry them out of the city after the assaults of the night and morning, and the makeshift infirmaries made did it difficult to get reinforcements through. It’d been a disaster in the making even before the Army of Callow began tossing its munitions – and Razin swore would see those declared blasphemy by Lanterns and House if it was the last thing he did – into the disorganized soldiers.

The second rout was even bloodier than the first. The heir to Malaga left the city in haste, passing the duty of holding Belles Portes to the doddering Captain Elvera in his absence, and went to stir up the rest of the army. The Callowans had struck a hard blow, he would give them that, but with that vain gesture they had doomed themselves. Their legionaries would be exhausted, their mages on the edge of burning out and their stocks of munitions running low. This had been a harder-earned victory than Razin would have preferred, but it would be a victory nonetheless. Father would forgive his impetuousness in seizing command of the vanguard without permission if he returned with the destruction of a Callowan army to honour their Blood. The wounded would be brought out onto the plains, to rest in the army’s camp, and then he would muster the might of Levant to crush these heretics. There were still seven thousand kept in reserve, and order would be sent to the riders probing the east and west to strike when given the proper signal. Razin was about to send summons to the Lanterns, to offer them the privilege of leading the counterattack at his side, when he was accosted by one of his lesser captains.

“Honoured Son, there is trouble,” the old man said after a cursory bow.

His mail was old and the leather lacking luster, which betrayed the nature of his soldiery where lack of an accent failed to provide. One of the captains who had answered the call of the Holy Seljun, not the lords and ladies of Levant. Razin forced himself to be courteous and offer back a nod of respectful acknowledgement. He already knew that after this battle was won the captains from Tartessos would seek to sully his name, and that support from those unsworn would do much to help his reputation. If all but the captains of Lady Aquiline sang his praises, the condemnations of her soldiers would be seen for the base defamation that they were.

“Have our captains of the horse sent word?” he asked.

“No, it was our camp watch,” the man said. “An enemy force has emerged from the southeast of the city.”

It took a moment for Razin to grasp what was being said, and just as long to fully disbelieve it.

“Through the fire?” he said. “Have the men been drinking?”

“I thought the same, and so sent trusted armsmen of my own to look,” the old captain replied, but shook his head. “The Callowans passed through using strange wooden engines covered in skins. There truly is a force of nearly six hundred, goblins and devils. They are led by a human, however.”

“A warlock from the East,” Razin frowned. “It would explain the appearance of these grey-skinned devils. The mage must be slain, it might make the abominations still in the city turn on the enemy.”

The old captain hesitated.

“Honoured Son, this I did not see with my own eyes,” he cautioned.

Razin almost gestured impatiently, before remembering himself, and so instead forced a smile.

“Speak, captain,” he encouraged.

“Some of my men say the human wore a cloak,” the old man said. “One of black cloth, but with strips of many colours.”

Razin Tanja of the Binder’s Blood paled. There was only one villain known in this age to wear such a strange garment.

“Ashen Gods,” the boy croaked. “Gather your men, captain. Gather everyone. We must slay the Black Queen before she pulls her foul tricks.”

Fear pulsed in his blood, but as Razin had his servants saddle his horse he found there was excitement buried deep beneath. If he could kill the black-hearted Queen of Callow, it might just break the back of her armies for good and sent the lot of them scuttling back across their borders. What an honour to the Blood that would be. It would not do to be reckless, he reminded himself: he was of the Binder’s line, not the Champion’s. He gathered two thousand men before setting out, the rest assembling behind with orders to catch up, and horns were sounded for the captains of the horse in the eastern plains to join battle as well. Razin was informed that the Lanterns were already gone to the fight for Sarcella, but messengers would fetch them. Better to share the glory than make a bold corpse. The Black Queen’s goblins and abominations had already slain a few brave outriders, by the looks of it, but the march of her warband was otherwise unimpeded. Captains riding at his side, summoned in haste, Razin watched the few hundred fools keep advancing even in the face of his superior force.

“It may be a distraction,” one of his officers mused. “Just some Callowan forced into a cloak, meant to delay us reinforcing the city.”

“Or she has gone mad in her arrogance, as her ilk often does,” Razin idly replied. “Perhaps she thinks her warriors will be enough to defeat us.”

“We so sure they won’t be?” another captain said. “I mean no disrespect, Honoured Son, but we’ve all heard the rumours about the Battle of the Camps. The sky falling, the dead rising with blue eyes and fairies riding across water…”

There were calls of cowardice, which Razin tacitly allowed to quiet the naysayer through shame. The heir to Malaga would put no stock in such stories, especially not ones so fanciful. First the tale was that the Black Queen had warred against the fae, now that they warred for her? Powerful necromancer as the villain might be, she could not raise corpses that did not exist. As for this tale of the sky being brought down, it could be no work of hers. Perhaps some Wasteland ritual she simply claimed to be her own effort, the scale of it inflated with every telling. Procerans always excused their defeats by making giants out of gargoyles, it was well-known. A splatter of laughter spread across the captains, commanding Razin’s immediate attention. It was not directed at him or the yellow-bellied naysayer, he saw, but at the Black Queen’s foolishness. She’d called a halt and now her warriors were spreading out in a circle around her, taking up defensive positions.

“Mad indeed,” one of the captains mocked. “Shall we order a charge, Honoured Son?”

Razin’s eyes narrowed at the sight of her. The cloak was well-known, but never before had he heard of the Queen of Callow wielding a crooked black staff. Especially not one so… unsettling to look at. Perhaps she did have a trick left to pull.

“Battle lines,” Razin Tanja ordered instead. “Our force will take the centre. Send word to the captains behind us that they are to split and flank the Black Queen’s warriors.”

He glanced into the distance, where the thousand cavalry he’d sent out at dawn was slowly making its way. Yes, this would do. No matter the dark magic, near seven thousand footsoldiers of Levant followed by a cavalry charge at the back would be enough to end this. Razin would not lead from the front, just in case, and allow one of these eager captains the honour instead. It mattered not who slew the goblins and devils, so long as the heir to Malaga was part of the warriors who slew the villain queen. The soldiers spread out as ordered, battle-prayers on their lips, and the assault promptly began. Razin remained with the second wave of the centre, listening to the hurried march of the rest of the troops behind him. Stride after stride the warriors closed the distance, and he watched victory in the making with bright eyes. The grey-skinned devils tightened their lines in front of the villain, the bloody goblins taking cover behind them, but it was the Black Queen he was staring at. Loose hair unbound and toyed with by the wind, she was staring at his soldiers and leaning against her long staff. Eventually she looked up, and Razin followed her gaze. There were shadows in the sky, two of them. Crows, he realized with a start. Corpses would draw carrion, but these were no such birds and flew with graceful purpose. They dove, and like twin blot of night landed on the Black Queen’s shoulders.

There was something surreal about the sight, he thought. The smiling, slim woman whose hair cascaded behind her, the cloak of story around her. Those ink-black and terrible crows on her shoulders, feathered out of shadows. Razin watched the crooked staff rise, then fall with a thunderous crash. Shadows whispered across the snow, until the sound of cracks scuttling across a river drowned out even that.

Razin Tanja of the Binder’s Blood had just sent the better part of two thousand men to drown, and in that stroke he had lost the Battle of Sarcella.

Interlude: Beheld I

“Necessity’s children are sometimes clever but always bloody.”
– Queen Yolanda of Callow, the Wicked (known as ‘the Stern’ in contemporary histories)

Godsdamnit, somehow she’d still ended up stuck in charge.

Legate – no, General now, because clearly someone Above was out to get her – Abigail had counted her blessings when she’d gotten word the Black Queen had come out of nowhere to save the day. The queen could take command, and she could go back to being as far as physically possible from the fighting while also not being expected to make any decisions that actually mattered. That was the trap, Abigail darkly thought. They lured you up the ranks with the promise of better pay and less people shooting arrows at you, until you got dragged so high you had to watch out for the noose instead. And she knew damn well what field promotion meant, thank you very much. It meant ‘do the work, Abigail, but we’ll only pay you what your last rank offered, and also best not fuck up or the Hellhound will eat your liver’. But she couldn’t exactly say any of that out loud, so General Abigail smiled all pretty for the very dangerous woman holding a staff that made people panic if they looked at it too long.

“I’m honoured, Your Majesty,” she lied.

Queen Catherine’s lips twitched the slightest bit. Abigail hid her flinch well. Could the Black Queen actually read thoughts and look into souls? Surely that was just a rumour. Still, best not to risk it and change the subject. You never knew with Named.

“The fire wasn’t our fault,” Abigail immediately said. “Wasn’t us who started it, either. I swear. The Lanterns ran out of the city after hitting the general staff and our people went after them. The chase ended up going through a grocer’s shop and there wasn’t no food in there, but there were candles and oil jugs.”

The Black Queen arched an eyebrow, saying nothing.

“It wasn’t us,” Abigail insisted. “I have five official reports showing it was some big Levant woman who broke into the room and tipped over the candles. We can’t be blamed for this, we even tried to stop the spread!”

Catherine Foundling’s lips twitched once more, and she patted the Abigail’s shoulder with open sympathy. She tried not to tremble at the touch. You were always less likely to get your blood frozen solid if you smiled.

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” the queen mused. “But I’ve been saying that for years, and no one ever believes me.”

The – temporary, if she had anything to say about it – general paled a little at the notion that she could end up getting a reputation like the Black Queen’s. Abigail had been in Summerholm when entire quarters burned green because the Squire needed to flush out a hero. Hells, she’d never have been dumb enough to enroll in the Legions if her family home and shop hadn’t been part of the cinders. Too late to bail now, though, she admitted to herself. She wasn’t sure if even temporary generals were allowed to retire. Maybe she could get herself thrown out, she mused. Might be time to consider getting ‘accidentally’ pregnant. The queen’s amusement passed quick enough, and Abigail straightened her back to look like she hadn’t been thinking of what was technically an attempt at desertion.

“How many Lanterns struck?” Her Majesty asked.

“We believe twenty,” Abigail said, comforted to be back on practical matters. “Twelve managed to escape the city, most of them killed while running.”

Only one of them had died during the attack, though it’d been a Hells of a kill. The Callowan wouldn’t forget the sight of Nauk Princekiller’s fangs having snapped straight through the neck of a priest anytime soon. Not when Light had melted his plate before he even got moving, drips of molten metal leaving a trail of how he’d leapt for the kill even dying. The general had been a bloodthirsty bastard, no two ways about it, but no one had ever called him a coward. Her thoughts stalled. General Nauk was supposed to be an old friend of the queen’s wasn’t he? From the War College, and the early Fifteenth. Abigail really hoped the Black Queen didn’t ask about the body, since she’d have to admit there was no splitting the corpse from the melted armour and no fire at hand would burn hot enough for both – the matter had been put aside for now, since there were more important things to take care of. It was odd, Abigail though, that something mattering to her mostly because it’d gotten the three veteran Legates that should be standing in her shoes right now killed could actually be tragic to someone else. Especially to the likes of the Black Queen, who had burned and buried dozens of thousands. Even monsters had friends though, she supposed.

“Is a second strike by them likely?” Her Majesty asked.

The Queen of Callow was staring at the battle map even as she spoke, dark eyes tracing the lay of the cohorts and fortified choke points. Abigail had done what she could. There’d been no keeping the Belles Portes quarter after the disorder of a decapitated general staff had allowed the Dominion to take the bridges and secure a foothold behind them, but she’d had houses collapsed on the outskirts of the quarter and kept them contained in there by her own jesha of two thousand until a better defence could be assembled. The Levantines had since driven the Third Army back to the outskirts of Beaumontant quarter and mounted a push that took Couteau D’Or, pretty much claiming the entire middle-southern and south-western partss of Sarcella. Since then it’d been a nasty slugging match, since the Dominion had run into the raised defences and goblin traps she’d ordered set up at that line.

The two fronts had quieted some, but that was just preparation for a serious assault in Abigail’s opinion. And if the next one passed her defensive lines? The Third Army was fucked, to put it bluntly. She’d been forced to send the reserves to the frontlines to slow down the fall of Beaumontant until the sappers were done, and with companies still stuck keeping an eye on the cavalry to the city’s sides there just weren’t enough soldiers left to take back grounds if they were lost to Levant. If the lines broke, it was all downhill from there. Or that’d been the situation an hour ago, anyway, Abigail of Summerholm thought with a hard smile. Now the Black Queen was back, so it was time for lakes to start dropping. It took Krolem clearing his throat to realize she still hadn’t answered the question Her Majesty had asked.

“We, uh, don’t believe so,” Abigail hastily said. “Senior Mage Dastardly has trip wards in place she believes will warn us if they do, but our priests say if they try anything that large again so soon they’ll burn out.”

The Queen of Callow blinked in surprise and tore her gaze away from the map. It was a pretty human gesture for some immortal evil-fae thing, Abigail decided. With the long, unbound brown hair and the lightly coloured cheeks, Catherine Foundling looked more like a young woman who hadn’t slept in a while than the infamous victor of Second Liesse and the Battle of the Camps.

“Our priests,” Her Majesty repeated. “We have priests, now?”

It was the temporary general’s turn to be surprised. Had she really not heard?

“The House of Light split after it came out what you did in Keter, Your Majesty,” Abigail said.

The Black Queen’s face went blank as a wax mask. The Summerholm girl pressed on with haste.

“After it was outed you went to the Crown of the Dead to kill the Dread Empress and prevent her making a deal, they called for a Callowan conclave,” she said. “They split over whether or not to name the entire Tenth Crusade graceless. About two thirds went against, but the Salian conclave’s decrees were declared heresy by unanimous vote. Wasn’t enough for some, though: the last third walked out and pronounced the Tenth Crusade to be godless Proceran intrigue. Nowadays they call themselves the ‘House Insurgent’, Your Majesty. Hundreds enrolled in the army as healers.”

For a moment the silence in the room was thick as oil, then the Queen of Callow glanced to the side. There was a half-empty bottle of wine at the edge of the table, leftovers from when Abigail had taken pity on Dastardly’s pain at having an entire cheek and eye grown back. It was her last bottle from Callow, too. The Black Queen grabbed it, sniffed at the rim and visibly brightened before taking a long swallow. A little sigh of pleasure followed.

“Oh, that’s the stuff,” Queen Catherine muttered. “Been way too long.”

She shook her head, afterwards, and got back to business. So no one’s going to die, Abigail mused. That’s nice. Tanners didn’t have to worry about things like that, she knew. No, Abigail, she thought, think of the ferret-faced cousins. Stick the course, how long can we really be at war anyway?

“Well,” the queen said. “You’ve had an interesting year, I see. We’ll set that aside for now, General Abigail. Your reserves aren’t marked on the map, how many have you held back?”

“They, uh, are, Your Majesty,” Abigail replied.

She leaned over and tapped her finger near the five cohorts holding the grounds between the fire and the edge of Beaumontant quarter. There was nothing held back because the reserves were on the front. The queen grimaced.

“I was afraid of that,” she said. “That’s going to get messy. These, are they paved roads or bridges?”

The Black Queen was pointing at the four grey streaks representing the bridges going into Belles Portes, and Abigail told her as much.

“How broad is the river?” Her Majesty asked.

“At the bridges, around twenty five feet,” the temporary general said. “It’s broader further west, going towards the source. Stays about the same going east, though a mile downriver it’ll start splitting and narrowing.”

The queen frowned at the map pensively. Abigail cleared her throat.

“If you’re thinking of using munitions on it, ma’am, we’ve already tried,” she said. “General Nauk had our sappers take a look, wanted to use that to repulse the first attack. It’s frozen too deep, though, took an entire cart of demolition charges and it didn’t spread all that far.”

“Munitions aren’t what I have in mind,” the Queen of Callow calmly replied. “General, if we hold until sundown our retreat is assured. Cracking the river will buy us that breathing room, but only if you can push the enemy out of the city first. We need a moat, not an obstruction.”

Abigail tried to think of a very polite, professional way of saying that this couldn’t be done but it wasn’t her fault. While she was considering what would work best, the Black Queen pressed on.

“I’ll be taking five hundred drow and Special Tribune Robber’s cohort with me,” Her Majesty continued in that same even tone, eyes remaining peeled on the parchment. “That grants you three thousand and a half fresh warriors to break the deadlock.”

“They’re dug in good, ma’am,” General Abigail said. “Unless the drow can scale walls barehanded-”

“They can,” Catherine Foundling casually said, like it was nothing out of the ordinary. “While light infantry and currently no more physically able than humans, they have extensive training in raiding tactics. I’d suggest you send a number of them here-”

The Queen of Callow’s finger tapped the boundary line between Beaumontant and Couteau D’Or, which by Abigail’s reckoning was a line of tightly-packed merchant homes facing outwards.

“- to split the Levantines up, then thin your right flank to reinforce your left,” she mused. “A hard assault on this ‘Couteau D’Or’ quarter will have them packed tight in the open when they draw back into Beaumontant, and a few sapper companies can bloody them into retreat from there.”

General Abigail squinted down. The right flank had better hard defences, it was true – she’d had a guild house’s lower level barred and turned the flat rooftop into a shooting galley for her crossbowmen – and it would hold against attack for a while even if thinned. With the recommended distraction and enough forces moved to bolster an assault on the left flank, this could possibly work. That’d still leave a pack of very angry Levantines with their blood up holding Belles Portes, though, and that quarter was the door to Sarcella. As long as the Dominion had their foothold there they’d keep bringing in troops. If the Levantines mounted a hard counterattack after the Third Army had left its defensive positions, the quarters it had taken might be just as soon taken back – and it wouldn’t stop there, Abigail knew. With the kind of losses that the assaults would bring, the Third Army might end up driven out of Sarcella entirely. That’d be the end of them, with the Levantine cavalry hacking them to pieces as they retreated into the plains.

“That’s only workable if the river is cracked,” General Abigail finally said. “And unless you intend on taking less than a thousand light infantry out onto plains where the Dominion fields at least that much in cavalry, to get to the river you’d need to go through Belles Portes – which we can’t take, until the river is cracked.”

The Black Queen smiled, thin and sharp and just a little mad.

“There’s another way through, as it happens,” she said.

Abigail followed where the gloved finger was pointing on the map. She choked.

“That’s the part that’s on fire, Your Majesty,” she said.

“So it is,” Catherine Foundling cheerfully said. “Get ready for the offensive, general. I’ll want it beginning within an hour.”

The Black Queen patted her shoulder once more and limped out of the war room, humming what Abigail was pretty sure was the opening notes of the Lord of the Silver Spears. She was also, the leader of – temporary leader, Abigail corrected – of the Third Army noted, still holding that half-empty bottle of Vale summer wine.

“Tribune Krolem,” she whispered. “I need you to looking into something.”

The orc leaned forward eagerly.

“Find out who you can lodge a protest to, if the Queen of Callow steals your wine,” General Abigail said.

The cattle-dwelling reeked.

Everything about the Burning Lands was mad, Mighty Jindrich decided. This land had never truly known order, not even in the days before the Tenets of Night, and while the Firstborn sought enlightenment through sacred strife – the worthy take, the worthy rise – the cattle had grown fat and insolent for that absence. The Mighty bared its teeth at small eyes peeking through a shuttered window, pleased at the squeak that sounded from inside the house. The shutters were wood, Mighty Jindrich saw. Most the house as well. How disgustingly decadent, that these Prokeren could afford to make a city mostly of wood. Even sigils of the Inner Ring were not so wealthy: it had taken an effort not to beat the cattle that had found it fit to burn wood, of all things. The Tomb-Maker had said that the Prokeren owned many forests, and that even if they allowed their wooden houses to rot and break they could afford to make new ones. Madness, waste and madness. Mighty Jindrich might have taken from the cattle what it knew not how to appreciate, had the First Under the Night not forbidden it.

The sigil-holder of the Jindrich let its eyes stray from the cattle-things trembling in their dwellings, instead turning to Losara Queen. Honour had been given, when the First Under the Night had picked Jindrich and many of its sigil to accompany it into battle. More so than could be truly grasped, for Losara Queen was the voice of the Night and so honour given by it was honour given by the Night itself. What more esteemed accolade could there be? The presence of the gobberin marred the situation some, but not so much that it grew beyond enjoyment. The green creatures were not true cattle, having many years ago warred against the nerezim with great fury and viciousness. They were being made to bear strange packs and drag carts, but no beasts of burden they. The leader of the pack, this Robber, it had spirit. If Losara Queen was to have servants from the Burning Lands, worse stock could be drawn from than a being that would mock Mighty at their own table. The pack following the Robber was just as dauntless, and already Losara Queen had ordered warriors of the Jindrich and the Cohort to sheath their blades thrice. This was pleasing, for sharing purpose with the weak and cowardly made for a weak cabal.

Mighty Jindrich threw back its head and hollered when their promised destination was reached, the sharp calls sounding out in defiance of the pale light. Its sigil answered in kind, approaching the heat and smoke of the blaze storming ahead without a speck of fear. The Mighty strode forward, elbowing some gobberin wearing strips on its shoulders and laughingly slapping aside the knife it pulled. The First Under the Night stood first before the blaze, as well it should. Even in the pale light of the sun Losara’s silhouette seemed shaded, soot and ash falling at its feet as it watched the flickering flame. Jindrich bowed respectfully before approaching. It had bargained with this holy one when it was still but a strange curiosity, a creature borne by these lands yet capable of slaying Mighty. It’d also intended to betray Losara as soon as the Rumena were dealt with, as was only fitting. Since then, Mighty Jindrich had been taught the extent of its foolishness. What could a Mighty hope to do, against the very herald of Sve Noc? Some ill-made things calling themselves Firstborn still murmured of Losara Queen being human, but this was crass ignorance. What human could possibly bear Sve Noc on its shoulders, speak for the Tenets?

No, Losara Queen was the get of Night itself. It would return the Firstborn to these lands and wrest a realm out of the hands of the Pale Gods, usher the Empire Ever Dark born anew. And Mighty Jindrich would be there to share in that glorious thing, drenched in the blood of those that dared to test the Tenets of Night.

“Losara Queen, we stand ready for war-making,” Jindrich said. “We will tread this blaze, should you wish it so.”

The holy one smiled, white teeth flashing like ivory in shade.

“Miracles don’t come cheap, Jindrich,” the First Under the Night said. “And there are only so many I can bear. Fortunately, I have something almost as dangerous to wield.”

The Mighty smiled, pleased at the sharing of wisdom.

“What may this be, Losara Queen?”

The holy one’s eyes crinkled in amusement, and it inclined its head behind them.

“Madmen, Jindrich,” the First Under the Night said. “Never underestimate what a few of those can accomplish when told something is impossible.”

Behind them the gobberin had opened begun empty the carts, to work with wood and steel to raising strange wooden structures and nail them solid. Skins reeking of vinegar were taken out from the bags, and boxes of snow prepared. Long staves of metal and wood, some with broom-like endings and others not, were prepared and made wet with a strange concoction kept in bottles.

“Prepare yourself, Mighty Jindrich,” Losara Queen said. “We’ll pass where the blaze is weakest, but to hesitate is death.”

“It was ever thus,” it laughed, and raised its fist to the sky.

All is Night, Mighty Jindrich yelled out, and its sigil echoed in kind. For a moment, it thought, that prophecy drowned out even the roar of the fire.

“I missed this,” Special Tribune Robber admitted.

There’d been some good laughs, since the Boss had gone underground to take over yet another nest of vipers in order to throw it at one of the other nests of vipers. He’d gotten to hunt Imperial agents in the streets like animals with the Guild of Assassins, stuck it to the Matrons while negotiating for munitions in Thief’s name and even gotten to see what happened when you sent back a High Lady’s threatening envoy by trebuchet. There’d been deaths, too, but no anyone he cared too much about. Well, Hakram had somehow managed to lose another hand but sad at was Robber was looking forward to the truly legendary amount of sarcasm the Boss would inflict him over it so it could be called a draw. Pickler was still both mind-blowingly lovely and completely out of reach, especially when putting shady dwarven gold to nefarious purposes, but that was just the way of life. Robber of the Rock Breaker Tribe, also known as the Lesser Footrest to Her Majesty the Queen of Callow, had started to figure he’d seen it all. He’d been to more places most goblins ever would, killed people in most of them and participate in the strategic arson of not one but several cities. He was no longer young, by his people’s standards, and he’d wondered if it might not be time to start thinking about a glorious death.

Then the Boss had come back, and she was as superbly mad as ever.

She’d left as some sort of bastardly immortal fae thing and come back breathing and smelling like a mortal, with an army of bloodthirsty treacherous magical dark elves she’d somehow become a religious figure for if he’d picked up on the chatter right. And she was going to use them to wage war on half the continent, so she could make it sign some sort of treaty then use that to attack the Hidden Horror as a united front. She also had in stand a blackwood staff that felt to his senses like some sort of silent, monstrously large predator and she was talking shit to some possibly god-like crows that no one but her seemed to be able to look at directly for more than a fraction of a heartbeat at a time. Robber had been close to those things for hours, and even avoiding to look at them he’d since been plagued with some of the most horrifying nightmares of his life. Gods, it was just like coming home. And now she’d decided that the best way to use tactical surprise was to attack through where no one had positioned troops, which had happened because the place in question was on fire. So he’d casually been informed that his cohort was to build several examples of a lighter siege turtle so that she could stuff seven hundred soldiers in them and run through a city fire, in order to crack a frozen river. All the while and enemy army and several larger cavalry contingents were on the prowl.

No one did crazy like the Boss. There was a reason goblins volunteered to enroll in the Army of Callow, and it wasn’t the Hellhound’s winning personality.

“You know, sometimes I wonder if there’s something in the water back in the Grey Eyries,” Catherine Foundling drawled. “It’d explain a lot about goblins. Isn’t lead supposed to make people go mad? How likely is it that there’s some in your wells?”

“I wouldn’t know, I’ve only ever drunk the blood of my enemies,” Robber shamelessly lied.

“That sounds rather unsanitary,” the Boss said. “Zeze says there’s all sort of humours in that.”

The inside of the modified siege turtle was stiflingly hot, even with all the preparations. Skins soaked in vinegar and water, boxes of snow to cool the air coming from the slight openings above and poles coming out of the shuttered panels that allowed enterprising drow to push down anything still on fire that came too close. Beneath the bottom rim, still-burning embers could be swept with broom-like poles when they were layered too thickly or skins of water used to put out open flames – though the smoke and vapour from that was wicked, and had already scalded a few unwary goblins. Each of the shells allowed for fifty people to hide under, fourteen brave turtles having tried the blaze. One had been struck by a falling beam barely twenty feet in, and less than ten of those inside had managed to crawl screaming back to the safety of outside the fire. The outer ring was the most dangerous part, though, they’d know that from the start. The fire had begun somewhere deeper in, and spread out more or less in a circle depending on where stone and space obstacles could be found. Past that part there’d been progressively less flame and more smoulder, though that hardly meant there was no danger. More than once the lack of air or the heat of what was left to breathe had made soldiers pass out.

The lucky ones fell inside the shell when there were enough in shape left to carry them. The others were left behind for the fire to take. The Boss had made it clear she couldn’t start calling on her tricks without putting the river work at risk, and there was no point in trying this at all if she exhausted herself trying to keep everyone alive. Another turtle was lost when its warriors misjudged what they were stepping on under the ash layer and got themselves over red-hot stone, a chunk of the drow immediately dropping with screams as their thinner boots got torched through and the turtle fell for lack of enough people holding it up. The structure turned into an oven within moments, and the four survivors only lasted long enough to make it out in the open – which wasn’t any more survivable than inside. Robber had been blessed enough to share a shell with the Boss herself, and she’d been utterly nonplussed the whole way through. Her face had darkened every time a turtle was lost, but they’d pressed on anyway. Everyone inside was sweating like a pig, including her. Robber watched the Queen of Callow pat down her cloak while hobbling forward and cleared his throat.

“Looking for something?” he asked.

In front of them a pair of drow shifted the panels open, knocking down a wooden wall half-devoured by flames and almost entirely blackened. The panels closed, and the turtle came forward. Soon they’d reach the last crucible, the second part of the outer ring – and after that, out onto the snow.

“Would you happen to have matches on you?” the Boss casually asked.

“Sure,” Robber snickered, reaching for his sapper’s bag.

Sadly all the munitions delicate in the face of heat had to be removed, but he still had a few goods left to peddle. Including a set of pinewood matches, which he handed to his queen. She let out a noise of appreciation then shoved her staff into the crook of her arm, produced from her cloak an already stuffed pipe and struck the match. Within moments it was lit, filling the turtle with the acrid scent of wakeleaf. She carelessly dropped the match on the ground, where it fell on embers and almost instantly began burning up.

“That is cruel,” Robber admiringly said.

And yet when he flicked his eyes, he caught most the drow smothering grins. Gods, they actually enjoyed the Boss being like that didn’t they? Kind of an asshole, and utterly indifferent to the fact that they were strolling through a bonfire of a city if it got in the way of her petty pleasures.

“I waited until we were on the last stretch,” the Black Queen defended herself.

She added something in the drow tongue afterwards, and the drow roared and sped up. Robber was pretty sure, by the tone, that it was along the lines of ‘put your back into it, I haven’t got all day’. After that it wasn’t long until through the thin openings made into the wood he was able to glimpse the silhouettes of tall granite statues, and a mostly open way to there. Which was for the best, given that some of his minions were starting to slow down and only kept from passing out by biting their lips bloody. There was a sudden crash behind, and the Boss called out in drow tongue: the porters at the back opened the shutters there, revealing a large wooden plank had scythed through the middle of the turtle right behind them. Catherine breathed in sharply at the sight, then cast a look in front. Not out of the woods yet, Robber thought. Another call in drow-tongue. The shutters were shut and the advance resumed. Eleven turtles made it out onto the snow, out of the fourteen who’d set out.

There were some, Robber thought, who’d call that a miracle.

Chapter 12: Relief

“After Isabella the Mad was appointed to the command of the hosts of Procer to turn back the forces of the Tyrant Theodosius, the First Prince asked of her when she expected the war to be brought to a successful conclusion. ‘It should take,’ she famously replied, ‘about a hundred battles.'”
– Extract from ‘The Banquet of Follies, or, A Comprehensive History of the First League War’ by Prince Alexandre of Lyonis

It was around half an hour before Noon Bell that we got close enough to Sarcella to get a decent idea of what was happening inside. Well, aside from the fire. That one had been pretty obvious even from miles away, which in my surprisingly extensive experience of setting fire to things wasn’t a good sign for the people in the area. As it turned out the city of Sarcella itself was, well, almost offensively Proceran. How anyone could bother to shell out coin for an elaborate ring of ogre-tall statues and arches around their city but not a proper curtain wall was beyond me. Oh, sure, whoever that tall bald man in furs with a sword was might be nicer to look at on a sunny day, but that was the kind of thinking that got you invaded by the Legions of Terror. The damned things were granite, too, which I vaguely remembered being one of the cheaper stones floating around Principate markets. Bastards hadn’t even been able to afford marble or limestone, had they? There was still a tax on granite back from the days of House Fairfax, I was pretty sure, though it wouldn’t have been applied in over forty years – trade with Procer had understandably hit something of a low point after the Conquest. I supposed the saving grace of the whole affair was that granite statues would at least take more than a single glancing trebuchet shot before breaking.

Still, for all that at least Sarcella was slightly more defensible than I’d expected. It’d been raised on a few lazily-sloped hills, so there was some incline to work with, and unlike the flammable nightmare maze that had been Rochelant this city had a few paved and relatively straight avenues for troop deployment. Some parts of the outer city had houses of wood and stone clustered so tightly together they were impassable, a wall in fact if not in name. I couldn’t quite get a look at the furthest reaches of Sarcella, but it looked like it’d been the same parts of it burning for most of our march: with a little luck, the flames had run into row stone houses or a ditch of some sort. I really hoped it’d been accident, to be honest, because if it wasn’t odds were it’d been Nauk giving the order and if that was the case I might be responsible in a broader, metaphysical sense. Well, it was my army, but aside from that I doubted Rat Company officers had been so prone to tactical arson before they’d come under my command. Aside from Robber, anyway, who in these matters did not count since he was both a goblin and a sapper – the moment he’d chosen that career track at the War College he’d grown beyond saving. Regardless, most of the southeastern corner of the city was a hellscape of flames and smoke but it wasn’t spreading much further out. Which had done absolutely nothing to prevent the inhabitants of Sarcella from fleeing in a panic.

That was even more obvious than the fire, in a way, because the Procerans were crowding the road out Sarcella like a massive flock of startled birds. There were at least five or six thousand civilians streaming out of the city, with more behind, and they were moving at a slug’s pace. Few of them had carts to carry their possessions, and those that did got stuck on the muddy road out more often than not. The overwhelming majority were carrying everything they could of what they owned in bags or tied on their backs, a roiling exodus of people and goods. Some were even dragging furniture, with a least one very nice armoire put on planks and dragged by two middle-aged men. Probably the most expensive thing they owned, I mused. The river of fleeing Procerans filled the road in full, moving forward sluggishly, and as my gaze lingered on the armoire I realized why they’d been allowed to drag even furniture out of the danger. General Rumena caught up to me after I reined in my horse ahead of the first fleeing civilians, our six thousand warriors still further behind.

“This is madness,” the old drow said, eyes contemptuous as it watched the civilians. “Why was this allowed to happen?”

“Because Nauk’s tactical acumen has improved,” I replied. “Watch the city’s sides, Tomb-Maker.”

He caught what I had quickly enough. Levantine light cavalry out in the snow, at least a thousand on either side. Not massing for an assault, at the moment – if I had to guess, there’d be crossbows and spikes awaiting them at every street large enough for a charge. But if I were the enemy commander, I’d keep them there to force those crossbow companies into remaining there where they weren’t shooting at my soldiers. Maybe strengthen the cavalry numbers when things got heated on the main front enough that a simultaneous charge on both sides could serve as the killing blow for the entire Callowan army. Having to watch both sides as well as the city’s back, where the avenues where the largest and most open, would have been a waste of soldiers. So I was thinking Nauk had encouraged the Procerans to flee with their possessions, neatly filling that space with scared civilians the Levantines couldn’t ride down without starting the kind of major diplomatic incident that’d send cracks going down the Great Alliance. I was honestly impressed with my general. He’d never been a fool, but his cleverness had always been a military one. It now seemed his thinking had expanded to other theatres. Unfortunately, at the moment his clever trick was also preventing us from reinforcing him quickly. I weighed down my options in silence.

I could probably scatter the crowd with some application of Night, but should I? That’d be leaving a hole in Nauk’s defensive perimeter, most likely. There’d be enough of a risk I’d have to leave drow behind to hold that territory, and considering the size of those cavalry contingents it would have to be at least two thousand warriors. Light horse or not the Firstborn just weren’t used to facing down cavalry charges, and they lacked the bows, pikes and discipline to be naturals at turning them back. Slipping in through one of the flanks would take longer, though. Maybe an hour or so, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take that risk without a better notion of how the fight for the city was going. There was no point in arriving neatly if the delay cost us the battle. And that the fight was going, there was no doubt about that – I could make out the command horns and the faint sound of screams and steel even from where I sat. There was nothing quite as catastrophically loud as a hard battle, was there? Clenching my fingers, I spit to the side.

“Rumena, pick out two thousand warriors,” I said.

“Will you be spitting on them as well, First Under the Night?” the old drow drily asked.

“That one’s a bit of a stretch,” I replied without missing a beat. “Careful with those, you know your back’s not what it used to be.”

“At least one of us should live to reach old age,” Rumena smoothly retorted.

Damn it. Was it really too much to ask to get the last word against it even once? The fact that my bloody goddesses were quite literally crowing in the back of my head at this most recent of defeats only made it worse. My eyes flicked ahead. It wouldn’t be long before the first fleeing Procerans arrived in shouting distance, but I’d have the drow at my side before it came to that. I yelled at Rumena to fetch me Robber while it was at it, watching it stroll away to carry out my orders. I looked up at the noon sky, that vast spread of blue without a single cloud to temper the glare of the sun. It was good fighting weather, I thought. Mild for a winter day, and the snow might thaw a bit if it kept up. Twin shadows flickered into sight, gliding down with lazy grace, and I turned my eyes back to the Procerans as the crow-shaped slivers of godhood landed on my shoulders. They ran their metaphysical fingers down the spine of my thoughts, partaking of my intent.

“First time I ever saw Black use the trick, I wasn’t sure it was one,” I mused. “The second time, though? I promise myself I’d make it my own one day.”

“Not a subtle tool,” Andronike said.

“Yet versatile,” Komena opined.

We left it at that, for now. General Rumena came back holding a wiggling Robber by the scruff of the neck – impressive, considering it was day and my Special Tribune still had his armour on – before offering him up like some kind of furious green cat.

“Get on,” I said, cutting in before the goblin could complain. “There’s a war on, Tribune. Rumena, tell our warriors to stick close to me and not spread out.”

“As in all things your guidance is paramount, Losara Queen,” it replied.

I detected the faintest hint of sarcasm in that, due to my unparalleled courtly sentivities.

“Wait, you speak Lower Miezan?” Robber hissed out. “You prick, you pretended you-”

I cleared my throat, and with ill-grace the goblin scampered onto the back of my mount. I patiently watched until my six thousand drow formed into a rough column. The vanguard of the fleeing civilians had finally noticed our presence and distant shouts in Chantant and Tolesian sounded. Some angry, some curious, some afraid. I could have tried to engage, but to be frank I didn’t have the time to be gentle about this.

“Follow,” I called in Crepuscular.

My staff of ebony rose, and I reached for the Night. The Sisters helped me shape it, refine my intent and cut away the impurities until all that was left was fear. I felt Robber stiffen behind me, then almost defiantly loosen his limbs and grip. Zombie started at a gallop without further ado and the drow followed behind me.

With screams of blind terror, the inhabitants of Sarcella parted like the sea.

It was a simple enough working that maintaining it wasn’t too much of a strain, especially with the guidance of the Sisters, but I was noticeably tired by the time we reached the tall arch that was the broadest entrance into the city. There’d been a few incidents making our way down the road, civilians who reacted to even supernatural terror with aggression, but they were beaten down and thrown to the side without any deaths involved. One drow was nicked by a wildly flailing sausage knife and was loudly mocked by the rest of its sigil for the rest of the walk, but that was the closest thing to a casualty we incurred. To my approval, the sight of my army approaching by the largest road into the city was met with hastily assembled palisade and at least half a hundred crossbows. From atop my horse I could even see messengers running further in to ask for reinforcements. I rode up ahead of the drow, allowing the fear to die and my shoulders to loosen. I felt like I’d run a footrace – in a metaphysical instance where both my legs were still in good shape, it should be said – but I was tired and not exhausted. Tired I could work with. It was old hand to me. The Sisters took flight before we were hailed, more interested in taking a look at the killing than staying around for the formalities.

“Close enough, stranger,” an officer called out from atop the palisade. “Identify yourself. This city has been seized by the Kingdom of Callow, in the name of Her Majesty Catherine Foundling – are you friend or foe to her?”

I cocked my head to the side. A mop of blond hair could be made out from under the helmet, and that was definitely a Liessen accent tainting the hail spoken in very shaky Chantant.

“Yes, Boss,” Robber murmured, sounding utterly delighted. “Are you friend or foe to Her Majesty? I think a case can be made for both. Tough call to make, really.”

“You’re talking to her, lieutenant,” I called back in Lower Miezan. “Split those palisades and take me to General Nauk.”

“Come off it,” the Liessen laughed. “You’re way too short. If you’re the bloody Black Queen then I’m Empress of Procer.”

Blowing up the palisade was not an acceptable response, I reminded myself. It was my palisade, technically speaking, so it was doubly beneath me to do so. Robber shook convulsively behind me, trying not to cackle out loud. There was some talk coming from out of sight, behind the palisade, then a goblin’s head popped over the edge. I squinted. I’d seen that one before, though I couldn’t put a name to the face. He was one of Robber’s officers.

“Captain Borer,” the ingrate gargoyle behind me provided, still snickering.

“Open the way immediately,” the goblin ordered. “Your Majesty, welcome back.”

I inclined my head in thanks. The Empress of Procer turned white as a sheet. I barked out orders in Crepuscular for the drow to follow me in good order, then put Zombie to a trot as the wooden fortifications were dragged open. Captain Borer, unlike his commanding officer, snapped a textbook-perfect salute when I approached. There were less than a hundred soldiers here, most of them crossbowmen, though I suspected with the runners I’d seen move out earlier that was about to change. I glanced at the still-pale Liessen lieutenant, who’d joined the throng of officers gathering around me, and cocked an eyebrow.

“Your Highness,” I drily said. “What a surprise to find you here.”

He forced out a shaky laugh, but ended up choking on it for trying to swallow nervously while keeping it up.

“Who’s in command here?” I asked.

There were lieutenants and sergeants here, but no one any higher up the ladder. Unusual.

“That would be me, Your Majesty,” Captain Borer replied. “I am the sole captain of this front.”

Not a good sign, I thought. Not only was the goblin a sapper, he was part of Robber’s cohort – which was detached from the usual chain of command, by my personal authority. Sappers were usually passed over in favour of the closest same-rank officer when it came to combined commands, which was hinting at a severe officer shortage.

“You’re relieved, Captain,” I said. “Behind me are foreign troops from the Empire Ever Dark, to be considered auxiliaries for the duration of this battle. They’ll be holding the area in your place. Robber?”

The goblin leapt down with unnatural agility, landing with a flourish.

“Boss?” he asked.

“Gather your full cohort, then join me wherever the general staff has set up,” I ordered. “Captain Borer, I’ll need you to appoint a liaison to the drow. At their head is General Rumena, who’ll be advancing deeper into the city with four thousand infantry. Have it led at a location allowing for easy deployment to the fronts.”

“I’ll see it done, ma’am,” the goblin saluted.

There was a shudder of whispers through the assembled officers, looks were cast at the grey-skinned warriors still advancing towards the arch. The drow in the front ranks were looking back, looking distinctly unimpressed by the first human city most them had encountered.

“Merciful Gods,” a tall, dark-haired man with sergeant stripes said. “Drow. I thought they were stories.”

“Stories start from something, sergeant,” I amusedly said. “And our friends came out from the Everdark to fight on our side. Do pass the word along that they can be rather touchy, though. It’d be best if a little distance was kept.”

The stares I got at that made me rather uncomfortable. It was just a handful of officers, I thought, already part of my army anyway. And still I wondered if there’d be as much awe on their faces, if they knew how badly botched and misguided my journey into the Everdark truly had been. I doubted it. All they saw was old stories with strange weapons and eerie eyes come to swell our ranks. Shaking my head, I dismissed the thought.

“I’ll need someone to guide me to the general staff,” I said. “Is General Nauk holding command from there, or has he gone to the front?”

The awe was gone, whisked away in a heartbeat.

“Ma’am,” Captain Borer quietly said. “General Nauk no longer holds command. He was killed last night when the assault began. Legate Abigail is the current commanding officer.”

I was in front of my soldiers, I couldn’t show weakness. And still I closed my eyes. Breathe in, breathe out. Control. You can grieve when the city’s no longer burning, when your people are no longer fighting. He’d not been the same man I had called my friend, but I’d come to hope… Hope is always dangerous, I remembered. My eyes opened and my voice came out calm.

“I will need a guide, regardless,” I said. “Let’s get to it.”

I pulled my hood over my head, then Zombie impatiently stepped into the avenue and away from my officers. Thirty heartbeats later, I had my guide and I rode the city with dried eyes.

Pittance that it was, it was all I could afford to spare.

The high command for what I’d been informed was currently being called the ‘Third Army’ – presumably Juniper’s four separate columns each having been granted such a number – was clearly buckling under the weight of its responsibilities. It’d been a mansion, once, though clearly a wealthy merchant’s and not a noble’s as it was near the heart of Sarcella and not one of the more rarefied quarters. The location had been well-chosen, close to most of the arteries of the city and so easy to get messages to and from. I was ushered through a parade of wide eyes and gasps, until I reached what must have been the war room. It was at the very highest of the mansion, with broad windows overlooking the parts of the city either currently fought over or burning down. My attention, though, lingered on the fact that there were too few people here. A few aides, a few messengers, mages and hornblowers. But the actual officers? Less than ten. There were more tables loaded with scrolls and maps than there were people above the rank of tribune in here, which was stark statement as to the state of the Third Army. The presumed commanders saluted tiredly when I entered, obviously warned in advance, but I noticed the gaze of several brighten at the sight of me. I offered a smile, and turned to the only person in the room wearing a legate’s insignia.

Legate Abigail, I realized with a start, was younger than me. Barely twenty, by the looks of her. I’d come across her once or twice before Akua’s Folly, and later Juniper mentioned her to me before as the woman who’d drowned the incipient riots in Laure through strategic use of the royal palace’s cellars. She’d had a field promotion to legate after that, so she’d have the authority to keep the capital in order, but I was surprised the Hellhound had chosen to confirm the promotion afterwards. At most I’d expected her to move up from senior tribune to commander, after an actual legate relieved her. Were we really that hard up for high-ranking officers? I set aside the worry for now, looking over the younger woman discretely. Her black hair was slightly longer than Legion regulations allowed, but acceptably so for a foreign campaign. Sunburnt cheeks, watery blue eyes and a delicate nose. She had dark rings around her eyes like she hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in much too long, quite visibly exhausted. She was taller than me, I noted, but then who wasn’t?

“Your Majesty,” the legate croaked out in that thick Summerholm accent. “Gods, am I glad to see you.”

The general staff around her really was absurdly sparse, and what remained was in rough shape. There was a senior mage – Soninke, it’d be years before any Callowan was fit for that command – with a face whose rosiness betrayed recent mage healing and a staff tribune missing her right arm up to the elbow, but that was it. No senior sapper, no kachera or supply tribune. Two commanders, and one large orc tribune, but that was no proper general staff. What the Hells had happened here?

“Legate Abigail,” I replied with a nod. “Our drow allies found Special Tribune Robber’s tenth, and I hurried a march here with a first wave of six thousand reinforcements. I’m beginning to suspect the situation is worse than what was described to me.”

A few mirthless smiles bloomed at that.

“It’s a bloody mess, Your Majesty,” Legate Abigail said. “General Nauk swatted their first probe on Sarcella and the vanguard drew back, so we figured they were waiting for the rest of the army. But then they attacked last night, completely out of the blue. We think some noble showed up, riled them up for it.”

“Are you saying Nauk and the rest of his senior officers were lost on the frontlines?” I frowned.

“Them Dominion priests hit a meeting of the general staff,” she replied. “Lanterns, I think they’re called. One moment it’s night, then it’s bloody Light everywhere and most the room is dead. I was looking into a supply discrepancy so they didn’t get me and Oakes-”

“Legate Oakes,” the orc at her side provided in a gravelling voice.

“-Legate Oakes was walking the perimeter, so he didn’t get hit either,” Legate Abigail seamlessly adjusted.

I hid my amusement at the interaction, and the habitual ease it had come with.

“You’re senior to this Legate Oakes?” I asked.

“By a day, ma’am,” the woman ruefully replied. “Marshal Juniper said we were to serve under General Nauk and Legate Jwahir for proper blooding.”

She paused.

“I guess we did get that, in the end,” she darkly said.

Well, wasn’t this a mess. It wasn’t like I had another commander to pull out of my sleeve – Rumena was arguably the most veteran, but it had not familiarity with Legion tactics and was needed to keep the drow orderly besides – so she’d have to do. I could take command myself, sure, but if this was as bad as it sounded like I’d be needed in the thick of it.

“Then you’ve just received a field promotion, General Abigail,” I grimly replied. “Congratulations. Now tell me how deep into the dark we are and, while we’re at it, why the Hells this city is on fire.”

Chapter 11: Forced March

“A hundred battles, even victories, will always lose you the war.”
– Theodosius the Unconquered, Tyrant of Helike

When I’d been told that General Rumena was at a forward position, in my mind’s eye I’d envisioned a Legion outpost: neat palisade with a dry moat in front, raised tower to serve as a better vantage point. Stone for everything instead, if it was meant to be a long-term outpost and funds allowed. I should have known better, by now, to expect more than a pack of tents and heavy screens of scouts.

“Your people are sloppy, Boss,” Robber said. “Nettles me a bit they caught my boys at all.”

The tone had been casual and the words mild, which was a telltale sign he was considering knifing a few drow to even scales the goblin way – which was to say, inflicting twice as many wounds as you’d received and then rubbing dirt in to make sure infection took. I might have taken it as face value, the posturing and the easy cutting lines, if I hadn’t seen him raw after losing people right before the beginning of the Battle of Three Hills. For all that Robber liked to put himself up as a goblin’s goblin, much like me he’d never quite learned how to make losses stop bruising. Juniper had always disapproved of that. Soldiers died, and it should not be taken lightly or misused but that was the nature of being a soldier. She’d always had the knack for keeping it distant. There were some people who had that in them, I supposed – Hakram did, and once upon a time Ratface had as well. Akua acted as if she belonged among those, but sometimes I did wonder. Is that who you are, or what you trained yourself to be? I didn’t turn around to look at him where he sat side-saddle on my horse, all bunched up behind me, but I pitched my voice to be well understood.

“I’m not happy some of ours got killed, Robber,” I said. “But there will be none of that. Like it or not, you came in quiet and ran into a watch that acted exactly as a watch should.”

“They don’t see so well in the day, though,” the goblin mildly said.

“About as well as humans,” I said, then dipped my tone towards a warning. “And I could warn you they’ve got entities behind them the sun doesn’t blind but I won’t have to, will I? Because I gave you an order.”

His teeth clicked softly as his mouth shut. He wasn’t happy about this – neither was I, even though I knew the fault did not lie on the side of the drow – but he knew better than to push. Legionaries baring blades on drow was the very last thing I needed right now. As Special Tribune, the goblin had the standing to sit in on most war councils: he knew better than most how precarious the situation was for the Army of Callow right now. Juniper had done well, in all fairness. Being stuck between two hostile armies that together made up near the double of your forces was no easy mess to squeak out of, if the enemy generals weren’t fools. And they were not, in this case. But her carefully laid plans had failed to account for one of the madmen on the stage, and now a crippling blow was coming. If we didn’t move fast enough to prevent it, anyway, which was the opposite of my intention. We’d get there in time even if I had to march the drow until they collapsed. I had absolutely no intention of losing ten thousand legionaries and the general that was the finest vanguard in Callow bar none.

There’d been a time where I would have been more effusive in describing Nauk, but the man under assault to the south wasn’t the same one I’d shared meals and fires with. If anything, the occasional similarities made the whole situation more disturbing – they put in relief everything that had changed when the Warlock had ‘healed’ him. I might not have to stay this way, I thought. Hope was always dangerous, but the thought refused to leave me. Warlock, for all his power and learning, had been a mage. Healing was an academic matter to them, a thing of physicality and measured energies. Most of what Summer’s fire had taken from Nauk was not anything the Sovereign of the Red Skies could bring back. I was no mage, and the more I learned the more I realized the endless depths of what I did not know. But these days I had goddesses at my back, and miracles in my hands. What sorcery had failed to return might not be beyond the reach of the Night. Winter had been match for Summer, hadn’t it? And Winter had been consumed. But hope was dangerous, and so I had kept my own council.

I rode into the camp at a brisk pace, having barely slowed from the gallop that brought me there, and ignored Robber’s malicious cackle at the splashes of muddy snow that drenched warriors too slow in getting out of my way. There was no missing where General Rumena itself would be: at the heart of the camp, within a tall pavilion, twin heartbeats of power whispered to me. The Sisters had known of my coming for some time, though conversation was difficult if we strayed too far from each other. They should have felt the urgency of my purpose, though, and Komena at least had served as a high-ranking officer many years ago. Between her and Rumena, I was not beyond hope that the six sigils whose banners I’d spied had prepared for immediate advance upon my arrival. I reined in Zombie with a thought when we arrived in front of the pavilion, sending a shiver of Night down my bad leg to make leaping down into the snow tolerable. It would ache later, I knew, but what patience I had left was better spent on other matters. Special Tribune Robber followed suit in his freshly-cleaned leathers and mail, shortsword at his side and crossbow at his back. The sapper’s bag hanging off his other side was still full, the drow not having bothered to paw at the munitions after making sure there were no maps or papers.

The goblin swaggered at my side as I entered the tent, baring his needle-like teeth at every warrior eyeing him. Well, he wasn’t one of the candidates I’d had in mind when I’d considered how to establish friendly ties between Callowan forces and the southern expedition. Maybe I should even consider this a good thing, I mused. The sooner the drow learned that trifling with goblins tended to end up in bear traps and mocking laughter the better, and who could get that point across faster than Robber? The war council awaiting me inside had few familiar faces aside from Rumena’s, as it turned out. Mighty Jindrich was the only one I knew even remotely – he’d apparently survived the mess in Great Strycht largely on account of being too angry to die – though names were hardly impossible to know considering their sigils spelled them out. Room had been left at the low table of obsidian and granite for me to join them down on the carpet, but instead of moving to do so I cast a look around. In the shadows of the upper pavilion I caught sight of a pair of crows. Their dark eyes rested on me, but they did not speak either in thoughts or words. The Sisters, it seemed, were currently disinclined to meddle. From the corner of my eye I caught Robber looking exactly where I was, though from the way his gaze swept over the goddesses without slowing I suspected he’d not been allowed to glimpse anything.

“General Rumena,” I greeted, leaning on my staff. “Many Mighty. At my side stands Special Tribune Robber, an officer in my service. He will be seated with us for this conversation.”

A few of the Mighty seemed displeased, but they stowed that away when my stare moved towards them. There was a reluctant bit of shuffling about until room for two was made. The sole goblin present’s amused smirk was a nearly physical thing. He might not speak Crepuscular, but he knew how to read a room.

“Losara Queen, First Under the Night,” General Rumena pleasantly greeted me in Crepuscular. “And… company. Please, claim seat at this table.”

“Our nice drow friends invited you to sit, Robber,” I translated in a mild tone. “And you’re going to be nice to them in return, aren’t you?”

“I will offer them every diplomatic courtesy you’ve taught me, Boss,” he smoothly agreed.

Well, there had to be at least one or two of those. Right? Not willing to take the plunge of thinking too deep about that, I sat myself down at the table and silently declined an offer of rodleva. While a few of the drow were sipping at polished cups of the brownish, warm mixture I’d never taken to it. That it involved butter made from the milk of a creature that looked cousin to a lizard would have put me off even if the liquid didn’t smell like cheese sent to the gallows and left for a week under the sun. Given the finer nose of goblins, no doubt Robber was taking it as torture.

“I won’t waste time on idle talk, given the situation,” I said. “I’ve had a fresh report from the Special Tribune including the location of an army in my service that it less than a day’s march from here. I assume our scouts have already found it?”

Rumena inclined its head.

“That and more,” it replied. “There is a force of horse-riders in the area that has been hunting our warriors.”

I frowned. If the Dominion already had cavalry this far behind Nauk’s back, his situation was worse than I’d been given to understand.

“Levantines?” I said.

“They do not bear the sigils as drawn by the Mighty Shade,” Rumena said.

Akua had used charcoal and skins to draw everything she remembered of Levantine heraldry, which was largely the great bloodlines but still much better than the previous nothing we’d had. I flicked at a glance at Robber, who was currently engaged in a staring contest with a very pleased Mighty Jindrich.

“Special Tribune,” I said. “When you left, did the Dominion have cavalry at the army’s back?”

The goblin let out a whistling breath.

“No,” he said. “But it might not be them, Your Majestic Terribleness. The riders, did they have bows?”

I almost translated for Rumena, until I remembered it spoke Lower Miezan just fine. It nodded when I met its eyes.

“Helike cataphracts,” I said. “Shit.”

I’d had a conversation with Juniper, once, about which Calernian cavalry was the finest. It’d been the knights of Callow in my eyes, of course, and the Hellhound had conceded that on open field and charging that was the case. She’d noted, though, that there was one other mounted force on the continent that would be able to take my countrymen apart. Helikean kataphractoi were more lightly armoured, as a rule, and unlike Callowan horse rarely used lances. They were, however, exceedingly well-trained in the use of curved bows meant to be used while mounted. There’d been no war between the League and Callow that would see the two forces conflict, and Helike as a city-state certainly couldn’t afford to field as many cataphracts as there’d been knights in the heyday of Callowan chivalric orders. But with matched numbers, Juniper had been of the opinion that given room to manoeuvre the Helikean horsemen would be able to slowly whittle away at Callowan heavy horse while taking minimal losses. And considering no other army on Calernia fielded mounted archers, there was no mistaking these for anyone else no matter the banner.

“Let me guess,” I sighed. “Less than four thousand overall, no infantry with them?”

“That is so,” General Rumena agreed.

Well, there was the rest of the Tyrant’s army. I’d suspected it wasn’t the full muster back in Rochelant, but I’d expected what remained to stay with the the League’s armies. Silly me, not anticipating Kairos would send his city’s entire cavalry contingent to stir up the pot as much as physically possible.

“All the more reason to link up with General Nauk’s forces,” I finally said. “If we want to drive them off on foot, we’ll need Callowan crossbow companies.”

Come night, it was true, a few packs of Mighty could probably tear through the Tyrant’s horsemen. But then somehow I doubted they’d risk that. They’d raid during the day, harass the expedition and retreat before a counterattack could be mounted. The drow didn’t have proper companies, after all, they had tribes. Some of those had archers and javelinmen, but getting a cohesive volley fired at the cataphracts would take too long – unless we took all the archers out of their sigils and made companies of them, which would be difficult. Not even a year ago most of these people had been at each other’s throats, and they weren’t used to taking commands from anyone but their own Mighty. Who’d be quite infuriated at having their warriors taken from their command, besides. I could see it done, of course. I had the Sisters at my back and General Rumena commanded respect from all but the most stubborn. But they weren’t trained to fight this way, and I was wary of eroding my goddess-given authority by using it too much. It was one thing to follow a high priestess to war against the contemptible surface peoples after the enterprise was blessed by the Night itself, another to remain all nice and supportive when said high priestess started chipping away at your subordinates. Proof, I supposed, that not even open divine favour was enough to get me out of fucking politics.

I needed the Mighty supportive, if I was to get steer this war to the right kind of ending.

“How soon can we set out?” I asked.

“Seven pridnis,” Genera Rumena replied without missing a beat. “Though we number only six thousand, Losara Queen. Fighting under pale light will carry risks.”

About two hours, I thought. We still had most of the afternoon until the sun set, but we wouldn’t get there today so that wasn’t what he meant. Our destination was past the town of Lancevilliers to the south. Even accounting for the second wind the drow would get after nightfall, the lethargy coming with dawn meant we wouldn’t be able to both arrive at Nauk’s position in Sarcella and be in fighting fit before at least Noon Bell. Unless I used a gate, which would get us there in hours but also light up the destination for anyone looking. I wasn’t ready for the Saint and the Pilgrim quite yet – if I drew them to that battle, I might just end up losing more than just the ten thousand under Nauk.

“We’ll have to regardless,” I said. “I ordered Mighty Breznej to send reinforcements our way before leaving, but we can’t afford to wait for them. Send back runner with an order to catch up as fast as they can, with a warning about the Helikeans.”

In a silent flutter the crows landed on my shoulders, and there was no further talk after that. Open divine favour, I mused, did have its perks.

We got to Lancevilliers before nightfall, not that it made much of a difference. The town was half-empty and there was no one in there remotely inclined to get in the way of an army. I would have preferred to avoid Proceran eyes entirely, but even a snowed-in road made for a quicker march than the countryside. I left behind a hundred drow led by Mighty Sudone to – gently, I made very clear – interrogate the locals for anything they might now. The southern expedition itself had standing orders not to a lay a hand on anyone but soldiers unless they were attacked, and to refrain from looting. The first one had been a hard sell, though the second surprisingly not. The Firstborn were amusingly skeptical that anything of human make could ever rival the works of their own kind, and centuries of barter economy meant they put little stock in silver and gold. Furniture and furs turned out to be the main temptations: both wood and furred creatures were a rarity underground. I’d leaned on Rumena to allow for supply requests to be lodged with the Mighty when it came to furs, given the weather, but for the furniture I had no sympathy. We weren’t going to start dragging around nice Alamans bureaux anytime soon, no matter how nice they looked in tents. I’d also laid down a rule against rape, though that’d mostly been a formality. Drow hardly even slept with their own kind, sexual interest in humans was nonexistent.

Ivah had once informed me that its kind considered the most visible characteristics associated with men and women – beards, breasts – to be somewhat vulgar. It had said that in a tone implying it was paying me a compliment, which when I’d grasped why had achieved something of the opposite effect. Sadly, Archer had yet to tire of talking about it.

Our pace significantly quickened after dusk, even dzulu moving at a pace Robber found impressive. Well he’d compared them to goblins, anyway, which in his eyes probably counted as a compliment. Not many non-goblins would agree, I suspected. Mighty Sudone and its hundred caught up a few hours in, bearing wild rumours but nothing of any real use. I used our time to brief General Rumena and its cadre of sigil-holders on the military happenings of the last few months in Iserre as related to me by Robber. How the Army of Callow had ended up stuck between two hosts of forty thousand Levantines I covered only the broad strokes of, focusing on their current inability to gate out. What had followed was, in essence, my marshal trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the enemy commanders and partially succeeding. The Dominion had moved to crush Juniper, the army to the north throwing a delaying force in the way of Grem’s legions before sending the rest of its number after her own forty thousand legionaries. The southern Levantines had not bothered with such subtlety, marching in full battle array towards the Army of Callow. The idea was, by the looks of it, to end the Callowan army before turning against the other forces in the principality: Grem and the League. The Hellhound wasn’t that easy to end, though. She’d decisively marched south and forced a minor battle against the lower Levantine army before she could be stuck in a pincer.

Reluctant to risk an all-out battle before the northern reinforcement arrived and their numbers grew overwhelming, the southern Levantines had given ground after the day’s battle. My soldiers did have something of a reputation, when it came to facing rough odds – and the Levantines had not boasted that. Juniper had then split the Army of Callow into four columns of ten thousand and fled under cover of night. Two columns had gone eastwards, to slip around the northern Levantines, while the remaining two had gone westwards and made sure they were loud about it. One of those columns was under General Nauk, the other General Bagram. The latter had taken a moment to place – he was an orc, once General Istrid’s second-in-command. Until recently he’d been tasked with holding Summerholm, but evidently he was moving up in the world. Nauk had been tasked with baiting the southern Levantines into following him, while General Bagram was to serve as reserve and guard his back in case the northern army wanted to try assaulting the western columns. It was classic Juniper, I thought when Robber first told me about it. Depending on enemy action, she could redeploy and put the hurt to them however she wanted.

If the northern Levantines went after the Hellhound’s two columns, she only had to keep them marching until Grem’s force could hit them in the back and the pincer manoeuvre became Callow’s. If they continued marching to join up with their southern comrades, the four columns would escape the noose and join up with Grem’s host. If the southern Levantines went after Nauk and Bagram, they’d be led in a merry chase until Juniper and Grem came down south together to relieve the western columns. If they marched east or north, instead, once again the four columns escaped disaster and linked up in northern Iserre. It’d seemed to work, at first. The last Robber had heard of the eastern columns, they had the northern Levantines after them. The problem had come when Nauk’s column was hit from the back even as the southern Levantines came after them. Helikean cavalry had ambushed his rearguard, slowing his advance just long enough for the Levantines to gain grounds and begin their own cavalry raids. Messages from General Bagram had ceased, presumably because cataphracts were killing the messengers, anf his column had never come to reinforce Nauk’s. What followed was a ragged retreat, eventually tumbling into the minor city of Sarcella which fell to the column without a fight.

Sarcella had no walls, most its people had fled because of the roving armies in the region and the city garrison had apparently ‘retreated towards a more defensible position’ the moment they saw an enemy host approaching. Knowing he was in a bad position, Nauk had raised field fortifications in Sarcella and held the grounds against a probing attack by a Levantine vanguard of around sixteen thousand – which didn’t want to commit to more before the full forty thousand were there. He’d planned to start the retreat once more after forcing an opening, but rumours of a large force marching towards his back had forced him to delay and send scouts lest he blunder into a battle he could not win. Said force was my drow, which was biting irony. Taking reinforcements for foes might very well see a quarter of the Army of Callow slain in the heartlands of Procer.

There were still things unaccounted for. No one knew where the Hells the column under General Bagram was. I doubted even Helike cataphracts could tie down two forces over twice their size, but the Tyrant might have more tricks up his sleeve. I’d been inclined to think that between reports of my drow army – an unknown – and the kataphractoi it might just be that General Bagram had written off Nauk’s column as done for and begun full retreat, but Robber had given me the first bit of good news in a while when explaining why that was unlikely. Adjutant was with the column, nominally as an observer but in fact because he was keeping an eye on the two western columns. Tyrant or not, I’d put my faith in Hakram coming through. If he wasn’t backing up Nauk there was a good reason for it. That, or he was on his way already. Gods, let it be the second. Even assuming Nauk’s forces hadn’t been mauled too badly holding Sarcella against a second assault, I was only bringing six thousand drow as reinforcements. And one goblin, I supposed. None of us could be sure whether or not the entire Dominion force of forty thousand had arrived yet, or if it was still only the vanguard, but if it had… Well, under the light of day the Firstborn were disorganized light infantry with poor armour and disparate weaponry. Six thousand of those in addition to what remained of Nauk’s army might not be enough to see us through to the night and the accompanying swing of the balance.

Dawn cost us four hours, to my seething impatience, but I used the time to nap and get my hands on a decent steel longsword. I’d fed my sword-within-the-staff throughout the night, but I had no intention of using it yet. I could wield it as a staff, but polearms were hardly my specialty and I was a lot more fragile than I used to be. Best to put the odds on my side in every way. We moved out the moment it was physically possible to, and by Morning Bell we could see Sarcella.

It was hard to miss it, what with the way it was on fire.

Chapter 10: Capture

“The key to popular reign is to blame the previous ruler for your every blunder and claim ownership of their every success, while avoiding the opposite. As a sign of my abiding love for you, my son, I have simplified this process by leaving you to inherit only a large amount of blunders.”
– Extract from the infamous ‘Sensible Testament’ of Basilea Chrysanthe of Nicae

We ran into the scouting party about half a bell before noon. Fifteen drow all wrapped up in furs, covering the grounds with admirable speed even though in the light of day they must feel half-blind. We saw them before they saw us, as this was a long way from the Everdark and it was a hard business keeping out of Archer’s sight while on open field. I urged Zombie to pull ahead, leaving my Peerage and companions to catch up. I did not call on Night to sharpen my gaze, disinclined to begin exhausting my body when there might very well be trouble ahead. General Rumena was a veteran, though the host it commanded now had little to do with the once-professional armies of the Empire Ever Dark. More importantly, I’d sat on its councils when it tossed duties and responsibilities at sigils like one would toss a bone to a hungry dog. Aside from the weary contempt for the Mighty under its command it did not hide quite well enough, I’d taken note of how it usually disposed its scouts and lookouts.

We weren’t close enough to have run into spotters keeping an eye on the back of the southern expedition, and these weren’t spread out enough to hold that duty besides. They weren’t numerous enough for a full-on scouting party, though, and that was what had me riding hard. Fifteen was plenty enough to have good odds the band wouldn’t miss anything moving, and few enough they’d be able to travel fast. No a scouting party, no. But if I had to canvass a fairly broad region for a small group, I’d send one or two dozen of those groups in staggered order to get the job done. General Rumena, it seemed, was looking for us. Hailing the drow confirmed as much. They’d been sent by the Tomb-Maker with the suggestion that my group hurry, since events to our south were unfolding at an even quicker pace than I’d wagered they would. An attempt to infiltrate the camp had been made last night, and prisoners taken.

I bid the scouts – dzulu one and all, by the looks of them, from the Brezlej Sigil – to spread out and recall the other bands, waiting just long enough for the rest of my escort to catch up. Akua and Indrani were the only ones in my company both curious and willing to ask answers of me. I indulged them willingly enough.

“The hornets are already out of the nest,” I told. “Someone tried Rumena’s camp. I’ll be riding full tilt, I need eyes on this as soon as possible.”

“We could gate,” Diabolist suggested.

“I’m not lighting up a beacon of our location for everyone looking,” I said, shaking my head. “Archer, don’t spend your strength too much trying to keep up. If there’s trouble I’ll want you at the tip of the spear.”

She slowly nodded and my gaze moved to Akua.

“My orders for you haven’t changed,” I said. “It’ll have to wait until nightfall, but prepare the necessities.”

“It will remove the Mighty of use from the field for days,” Diabolist said. “It might be more sensible for me to serve on the field until the situation is less… delicate.”

She was useful in a scrap, true enough. I still turned her down without a moment’s hesitation.

“Make me a well,” I calmly said. “That is your priority, bar none. There’s no point in deploying you to wipe out a few companies if a week later we’re caught unprepared by heroes and lose a hundred times that number. If you’ve time on your hands, assemble a schedule for the Mighty who will contribute. Take measurements, give me options. If you’ve still hours to waste after that, consult with the Sisters. We’ll get only one shot at this, Diabolist: if we miss it’s going to cost us something fierce.”

She didn’t argue any further after that. I suspected she rather wanted to, though there was no trace of it on her face, but she knew well enough by now not to push when my heels were fully dug in. Not that she knew why they were dug. I’d shared a lot of my suspicions with my companions, during our journey to catch up to the army, but not all of them. There were some I’d rather keep to myself until I had more information to go on. I rode on after that, straight south as the Brezlej scouts had told me. I kept to a quicker pace than them, on my latest Zombie, though that should be no surprise. I kept to a quicker pace than even riders whose skill made a mockery of mine simply because my horse would never tire. I was willing to damage the corpse a bit, if it got me there faster. It was a little past Afternoon Bell when I found the southern expedition’s army. On the way I’d run into another band of scouts, which I sent out with the same duty as the Brezlej, and then three successive screens of lookouts. Rumena had tightened the watch now that we’d entered troubled waters, I noted with approval.

Andronike had flown away in silence long before I got anywhere near here, and I couldn’t feel either her or her sister in the labyrinth of tents. There was a pulse I could barely make out further south, though. It sang to me, cool and comforting like a good night’s sleep come autumn. I rode into the camp, noting this late most drow had wakened, and ran my gaze along Rumena’s layout. It was a lost cause to get the southern expedition of the Empire Ever Dark to behave anything like a proper legion, with a carefully laid out camp and raised palisades before sundown, but since I’d left my general had forced some form of structure onto the chaos. Sigils raised their tents together, by the looks of it, with the larger ones on the edge of the broad circle the entire lot of them formed and the smaller ones filling that outline. Two clear paths, one facing north and the other south, had been cleared out – though I noted while riding down the northern one that it was hardly straight. Wobbly was a generous assessment, but it was already better than the utter lack of arrangements the drow had kept to until now.

Mighty Brezlej met me in advance, introducing itself as the appointed islne-ravce. It meant ‘keeper under the glare of the sun’, more or less, if I’d understood the emphases correctly. I took that to mean commander of the watch when it was daylight. Broadly muscled, short and a little thick around the waist the Mighty was strikingly unusual for a drow but I had no time to spare on the matter. I was informed that General Rumena was currently at a forward position, preparing a detachment to take the nearby town of Lancevilliers if it proved necessary.

“I was told there was an attempt to enter the camp,” I said, staring down from atop my mount.

“That is so, Losara Queen,” Mighty Brezlej agreed. “Twelve enemies, nine of which still live. They have been separated and we identified the one we believe to be the leader.”

“You’ve interrogated them?” I asked.

“Though questions were asked, they have refused to answer them,” the drow said. “It was spoken under Night that they should not be touched.”

Brezlej murmured prayers under its breath after saying the last sentence, under my steady stare. Well, at least Rumena wasn’t getting up to the torture of prisoners of war while my back was turned.  Still, ‘spoken under Night’. That meant one of the Sisters had meddled, which was unusual to say the least. Who’d be important enough for them to speak? Maybe some bold Proceran royal with spirit but little brains to match had decided to gild the family name by taking a look at the foreigners, I mused. Prince Amadis was a cunning enough intriguer, but the Principate’s royal bloodlines tended to be large and many-branched. If a tree bore enough apples, one of them was bound to be inbred enough to try sneaking up on drow at night. I ordered Mighty Brezlej to prepare a full report of the ways the situation had changed in my absence, and to send the Mighty Archer directly to me should she arrive. I would, meanwhile, be having a chat with the officer among our catches of the night.

Drow, sadly, were not used to taking prisoners – it was simply not the way they were used to waging warfare. Night was best harvested from corpses, and when it wasn’t the insult was meant to be dealt to a living foe sent back into the wilds as a sign of contempt. That meant they had little experience holding captives, or raising structures to keep them. So far tents had been the makeshift solution, with the isolated prisoners tightly bound inside, but that wouldn’t work forever. It was all well and good when we only had a few, but if a few companies laid down their arms we just wouldn’t have enough spare tents to keep them. Four Soln dzulu were keeping guard at the corners of the tent where the officer awaited, looking bleary-eyed but attentive, and I met their deep bows with a nod before parting the flap and going in. I froze in surprise. Hanging down from the wooden frame holding up the dome-like tent of leather and linen, a small form was sleeping. I recognized regulation-issue undershirt, the skinny frame it was on and even the cast of the face covered in part by a too-large blindfold. Robber, I almost said, but then stopped. The leather and rope bindings were too loose to really keep someone from a race as flexible as his in place. And given goblin hearing, my entrance should have wakened him. So why was he still pretending to be asleep? A torturer wouldn’t-

I rubbed the bridge of my nose and forced down a sigh. It was a good thing I hadn’t walked further into the tent. Leaning against my staff, I crouched down to take a better look. Robber did not stir, but I felt him tense. Took me a bit, but I found what I was looking for. A thin, dull metal wire covered by snow leading up to a hook cleverly set into a sharper, barely peeking out from a pile of furs. No doubt the other end of the wire, which I couldn’t see, was anchored solidly and the wire itself tensed for a hair-trigger. One step on it and the sharper would blow, then he’d pop out of the bindings while the enemy was stunned. Knife to the throat, and off he went to try his hand at a getaway. Drow clearly needed better schooling in looking for hidden armaments, I decided, if they’d missed both a knife and a sharper trap while stripping him. I pushed myself back to my feet, then carefully picked my angle and positioned my staff. With a quick hand I lobbed the sharper through an opening in the tent flap, calling out scatter in Crepuscular, and turned even as it blew in the muddy snow outside. I was a little impressed he tried to knife me without even taking off the blindfold or fully slipping the bindings, I’d admit. My Special Tribune had been keeping sharp. Not sharp enough I didn’t catch the wrist under the hand holding a slender blade, though.

“The wire’s new,” I mused. “Won’t shine under light like the old stuff would, and something must have been done to make it more sensitive. Pickler’s been busy, I see.”

I grinned even as Robber went stiff as a board. I took a moment to yell out at the guards not to come in.

“Boss?” he hissed out.

“I’m not seeing a salute, Special Tribune,” I mildly said. “Do you really want to find out what’s below Lesser Lesser Footrest?”

The knife immediately went over his heart, which was the closest to an actual salute he’d given me in years, and deft green fingers hiked up his blindfold.

“Well I’ll be damned,” Special Tribune Robber said, large yellow eyes blinking. “It really is you. Wait, you could be an impostor. Tell me something only Catherine Foundling would know: what is my official salary as Lesser Footrest?”

“That I don’t let Indrani put ribbons in your hair, you adorable little princess,” I drawled.

“I don’t even have hair,” he complained. “And you know she’d glue on really coarse stuff just to spite me.”

For all that he was leaning into the exchange, I did not miss the way his eyes flicked towards my bad leg and then towards my chest. Since I was pretty sure he wasn’t looking at my tits – not that there’d been much to look at – that meant he was checking if I breathed.

“Leg’s back,” I agreeably told him. “So’s the more-than-decorative breathing.”

“There’s actual colour to your cheeks, Boss,” Robber bluntly said. “Like being out in the cold did something.”

“That’s a long story,” I said.

“Did you murder another demigod?” he mused. “Does doing that twice, like, cancel it out?”

“Oh, stop hanging like a bloody gargoyle and put that knife away,” I sighed.

My eyes narrowed as I remembered Mighty Brezlej’s full summary of how he’d ended up here, though. I waited until he’d deftly landed in the snow and taken off the blindfold before pressing the subject.

“You tried to infiltrate the camp with just a tenth,” I stated.

His mouth parted to reveal a short flash of hungry, needle-like teeth.

“That what the greyskins told you?” he said. “We only tried the outer perimeter, not the camp. Then it was all sorcery everywhere, and Sergeant Slicker’s flesh melted off his bones. Another two of my crew reached for blades and they had holes in the head before they could draw.”

I grimaced.

“Gods, Robber, what took you to even try?” I said. “Hakram and Vivienne knew where I was headed – it should have been envoys sent, not scouts.”

“We didn’t even know it was the drow,” Robber admitted. “Just an army and not a small one. And there’s been, uh, instructions from up top even if we run into the greys.”

“Instructions,” I repeated blandly.

He grimaced.

“We couldn’t know if you were still alive, Boss,” he said. “And if you were, that it’d be you in charge. And even if you looked in charge, that it was really you.”

He paused, then squinted at me.

“You are in charge, yeah?” he asked.

“Some,” I said. “It’s an alliance with limits to it. But I’ve got the ear of the people running the show, you might say.”

“Thank the fucking Gods,” Robber muttered. “That you’re back more than for the greys, I mean. This campaign is turning into a bastard mess, Boss. It’ll be good to have your hand holding the reins again.”

“Then you’ll have answers,” I flatly said. “About what Juniper’s doing campaignin here in the first place. I distinctly remember leaving my army on the other side of the Whitecaps.”

His lips quirked, sharp and mean.

“Well, Lady-Regent Dartwick got invited by our good friend the Prince of Iserre to ‘clear out bandits and foreign agents from his lands’, y’see,” Robber told me.

My brow rose. I honestly couldn’t imagine Vivienne willing to risk the Army of Callow at the say so of a Proceran prince, which likely meant Prince Amadis’ arm had been twisted until he gave said invitation. Might not be Thief’s notion at all, I decided. Hakram? What would he think we could gain from intervening here?

“What are we using Amadis as a pretence for?” I bluntly asked.

“Taking out the Carrion’s Lord legions from here with a semblance of clean, the way I hear it,” my Special Tribune said. “They were on the edge of a wipe, and no one wanted that. Plan was to prop him Amadis as a banner to force Procer to give us room, pop in, pick up Ol’ One-Eye and his people then then pop out.”

“By fairy gate,” I slowly said.

Which meant either Masego was back, with a titled fae bound, or the Wild Hunt had not been freed of its oaths when Winter ended up in the Night’s belly. That was a relief, to be frank. I was bound by oath to Larat aside from the Hunt’s own terms – seven crowns and one, still to be delivered – but I’d not been sure that would be enough. The sooner I could have a good look at the fae the better.

“Yeah, the Hunt’s been all darling since you sent them back,” Robber said. “Which is suspicious as all Hells, if you ask me, but apparently putting that to verse and having a choir sing it to Marshal Juniper is ‘reprehensible’ and ‘a flagrant breach of regulations’. I mean, it was only the middle of the night.”

I smothered the smile, though not quite quickly enough for him to miss it. The humour waned, though, when I remembered what we were speaking about.

“But you’re still here,” I said, stating the obvious. “What happened?”

“We gated in just fine,” the goblin said. “Ran into a League force two days in, but after they missed taking the Hellhound’s head they mostly kept their distance. Made contact with Marshal Grem when the scrying block shut down for a bit-”

“The scrying block,” I said. “Wait, more important – you can still scry sometimes?”

“It’s like rolling dice,” Robber said. “Kilian says the block is something massive already using the sky, but once in a while it looks elsewhere – then there’s a short window where we can use the old rituals. And I do mean the old ones, Boss. Dunno if you noticed, but the Observatory went the way of an orc with the key to a liquor shop. No one can get it do to anything, and when we left Callow the pools were starting to evaporate.”

I clenched my fingers. Shit. Someone had definitely targeted us, then. If it were just Iserre being screwed with I could put that to a ritual or miracle we ended stumbling into, but the Observatory wouldn’t get in that bad a way if someone hadn’t aimed for it. And just like that, Kairos was back in the running for the prick most likely to be responsible. It seemed very much like his kind of play – he might have planned the ritual in Iserre first, then gone after the Observatory because it’d allow my forces to bypass it. If there was anyone who wanted everyone in this principality blind, right now, it was the Tyrant of Helike.

“Marshal Grem,” I said, setting that trail of thought aside for now. “He’s also still in Iserre?”

“We tried to pull him out,” the goblin told me. “The Levantines were starting to catch up when we arrived, too close to risk it, so the Hellhound had us gate in between their armies to force them to retreat. And it worked fine – the Legions gained a few days of lead while the Dominion got really angry at us being there. But then we tried to gate out, and on the other side was a godsdamned sea of boiling pitch.”

My fingers tightened around my staff.

“That doesn’t sound like Arcadia,” I said.

“Best we can tell, it was one of the Hells,” Robber snorted. “No one went in to check, you know, on account of the sea of boiling pitch.”

“And it’s all been leading there since?” I asked.

“Worse,” the goblin said. “It changes. Mostly Hells, so far, but once in a blue moon we get Arcadia again – not that we can travel it, since no one’s sure we’d be able to leave after entering. Hakram ordered an end to the attempts after we almost let out a horde of devils into the camp.”

“What has Masego said?” I frowned.

Shit,” Robber said, eyeing me warily. “You haven’t heard.”

My stomach dropped.

“Tell me,” I ordered.

“The Lord Warlock blew up Thalassina sky high trying to hold it against Ashur, himself included,” the goblin told me. “Place is a graveyard, even those that fled got some sort of magic sickness and cacked it.”

“Masego?” I softly asked.

“Word from Praes is the warlock’s get made it out,” Robber said.

I let out a shaky breath. Thank whatever Gods were listening for that.

“Empress had people looking for him, anyway,” he continued. “No one knows where he is though. I know Deadhand and the general staff kept something about him under seal just before we gated for Procer, but I haven’t managed to ferret it out yet.”

“We’ll find him,” I grimly said.

His fathers were dead and he’d likely fled through the Wasteland alone with Malicia’s agents hounding him every step of the way. He must be a wreck of grief and exhaustion, I thought. I didn’t like this talk of magic sickness at all, either, considering he must not have been far from Thalassina when this all happened. I reluctantly forced myself to focus on more immediate concerns. There was little I could do for him right now, much as I hated to admit it.

“Juniper’s stuck between the Levantine armies, then,” I said. “Is she close? For that matter, is Marshal Grem backing her?”

Robber’s wide eyes thinned with sudden alarm.

“I never reported back,” he said. “Boss, we have a problem. If Nauk still thinks your greys are a Proceran army, then he won’t leave his dug-in positions. Which means you’re about to lose a quarter of the Army of Callow.”

Well, I darkly thought, it had been that kind of a week so far. Why stop now?

Chapter 9: Patient Knives

“No man is an island, Chancellor. We’ve tried the ritual, the result is mostly screams.”
– Dread Emperor Malignant III

We were an hour out of Rochelant when Akua returned to my side. The night was still young – I knew that better than most – so we’d not wasted moonlight by lingering on the outskirts of the city until she finished. The sooner we caught up to my drow army the better, as far as I was concerned. Still, after she returned in a whisper of power on frost I called a halt. My Peerage took the following dismissal gracefully, and why wouldn’t it? They’d not stood in my deeper councils even when I was still their sole mistress, not even Ivah. It would have been convenient if there’d been a log or rock to sit on as we spoke, but Creation did not seem in an indulging mood tonight. At least getting off the damned horse for a moment was a relief to my calves and arse. I’d forgotten how irksome the cramps coming with long rides could be, when you weren’t used to horsemanship. Winter had seen to those, before, and my Name taken off the edge before that. Gods, at least it wasn’t as bad as the return of my monthlies. The surprise had been more than slightly unpleasant, when I’d had my first moon blood in years down in the Everdark. That Archer evidently found my discomfort hilarious had been no help at all.

I stretched my legs out carefully, leaning on my staff, and my ‘war council’ assembled around me. A bird, an archer and the shade of a dead woman. There’d probably been Dread Emperors in the old days that had more reliable-seeming councils than mine, and wasn’t that a troubling thought? The shade bowed with exquisite precision, but neither crow-Andronike nor Archer took it upon themselves to add even a semblance of ceremony to the affair. A sad day indeed, when the Doom of Liesse was the best behaved of my companions.

“Lay it on me,” I said.

Usually that would have prompted a dirty joke from Indrani – whose occasional evening in my bed had done absolutely nothing to curb the racy comments of, to my mixed amusement and despair – but tonight she kept her mouth shut. I had to force myself not to look at her. This was not the place, now was not the time. The thought felt like a betrayal of sorts, true as it was. The people in the stories threw aside little details like this in the name of friendship all the time, didn’t they? It’d been a long time since my story had been that clean or pretty, though, and sometimes I doubted it ever had been.

“There are at least eight thousand Helikean soldiers in Rochelant, though no more than twelve thousand,” Diabolist reported. “No soldiery from any other of the Free Cities could be found.”

I chewed on that for a moment. Old reports from the civil war in the League had the total muster of Helike at twenty thousand, but that army had sieged three cities since and stormed two of those three. The Tyrant might have recruited since, of course, but green troops wouldn’t have the discipline I’d noticed in the soldiers holding Rochelant. And they’d marched through the Waning Woods a few months back, anyway, so further losses were to be expected. Assuming the Tyrant hadn’t stripped Helike itself bare, inside that little Proceran city was the majority of the army his city-state could field. Considering Kairos Theodosian was the presumed general of the League’s united armies, that held interesting implications. Who was giving out orders, if not him? Whatever reports I’d read about the League’s military commanders were likely out of date by now, but unless someone had been hiding a very skilled general under a rock there should be no one of staggering competence. The other reputable professional army in their region was the Stygian slave phalanx, but while the Spears of Stygia had officers their orders ultimately came down from the ruling Magisterium of that city. Powerful warlocks, but not necessarily the most able of generals.

“The League’s going to be a fucking mess if it gives battle unless the Tyrant returns,” I bluntly said. “Which he shows absolutely no sign of doing right now.”

“Good news, then,” Archer shrugged. “Either they’ll be thrashed or they’ll stand back and let us settle the mess.”

I frowned, not so sure about that. Kairos wouldn’t be crippling his own army this early in the dance, it was his most valuable avenue of pressure on everyone else. If anything, he’d want to preserve its strength while the Grand Alliance and my own hodgepodge coalition bloodied each other for a bit. If he held command of the only mostly intact host on the field, everyone else would have to step carefully around him. On the other hand, if I was reading him right, he couldn’t just stay out of the melee either. He had to prove to be some sort of threat, if his way to victory involved both himself and the First Prince at the same negotiation table. The Hierarch was a forest fire in the making, sure, but the man alone wouldn’t be enough to have the likes of Cordelia Hasenbach flinching. Unless he stops haunting small cities and stirs up larger pots, I mused. Which would be difficult to implement, since the Hierarch should need to be in whatever city he stirred and the Helikeans didn’t have fairy gates to quicken their advance. As far as I knew, anyway.

“We’ll see,” I finally said. “Akua, you studied the Hierarch’s… pull?”

Diabolist nodded, face calm but gaze visibly unsettled.

“I am nearly certain this was an aspect,” she said. “And absolutely certain this was not the result of using some entity bound and bargained with.”

Archer spat into the snow, and I shared the sentiment.

“No one gets that strong a boon from their Name without a cost,” I said. “It’s not a city-killer he’s wielding, not exactly, but it’s almost as bad. William had to put his life on the scales and call down a bloody Choir to attempt something in the same league.”

“Contrition’s touch was stronger than this, practically speaking,” Akua dispassionately noted. “Closer to absolute in its effect, a result of the Choir’s own nature. The Hierarch’s influence seems to be closer to a nudge than a decree – I would wager it relied on grievances already existing.”

“Useful, but not what I’m asking you about,” I said.

Diabolist inclined her head in concession, then hesitated.

“This is not fact, only supposition,” she warned.

I simply cocked an eyebrow. Her suppositions were usually rather solid, as they should be. Even before I’d ripped out her soul and bound it to Winter, broadening her horizons, she’d had an education in matters eldritch that likely less than a dozen people on Calernia could boast of surpassing. And even then, not in every subject.

“The nature of the aspect might be extremely situational,” Akua said. “That is usually the case with more powerful aspects – either that or they are outright uncontrolled.”

My lips thinned. Uncontrolled did seem possible, since I doubted Anaxares of Bellerophon had done much experimenting with his abilities. But when I’d spoken with him, the pull had lessened while he engaged with me. Until I’d irked him, anyway. Reaction to emotions, maybe? That was hardly unusual with Named.

“Situational,” I repeated, implicitly inviting her to elaborate.

“I saw more of the city than either of you, I believe,” Akua said. “It struck me that, aside from the tribunals, there seemed to be no unnaturally-driven actions taking place.”

Archer snorted out a laugh.

“So his trick is only good at making trials?” she said. “Takes all sorts, I suppose.”

I was a lot less amused. Considering Kairos was the hand behind the Hierarch, I didn’t believe for a moment that even an aspect so narrow couldn’t be used to birth a hellish mess. There were a lot of important people – important entities, even – that would leave a disaster in their wake if they ended up getting behead by an alleyway tribunal. By now I was nearly certain the First Prince’s neck wasn’t what the Tyrant was after, but if I entertained the notion that it was for a moment? Using the right pivot, civil war could be sown in the Principate just as the Dead King started making gains up north. There was no need to expand on what kind of a disaster that would be for the rest of the continent.

“Judgement,” I said, honing in on what I considered the important kernel. “You think his aspect is bound to the concept. Stronger when he’s standing in judgement, or inciting others to do the same.”

Akua nodded.

“I am not certain how much you know of Bellerophon,” she delicately said.

Unlike Masego, she was usually more diplomatic than to outright call me ignorant to my face.

“They rule by popular vote and appoint officials by drawing lots,” I replied. “Terrible at war, though their city-state is too much trouble for anyone to want to seriously attempt annexation. They hate Penthes to the bone and they’ve got some sort of mage order that suppresses internal rebellions. Like to execute each other a lot, so I can see where the Hierarch gets it from.”

I knew more than that, but little relevant to our conversation. It was mostly anecdotes from histories which as a rule tended to take an amused, tolerant and slightly condescending view of the city. Good for a laugh, but not people to take too seriously. The rest of the League seemed content to leave them to their own devices in their dirt-poor holdings, only intervening for a cursory slap on the wrist when they agitated at the borders.

“It was not a city my education covered in great detail,” Akua admitted.

Which was pretty damning, since the Sahelians would have gone out of their way to thoroughly brief her on any nation of importance.

“That said, there is one detail to their democracy that my tutors found of interest,” Diabolist continued. “While it well-known that all citizens of Bellerophon have the right to cast a vote in the city’s popular assembly, not so that the Gods Below have one as well.”

I cocked an eyebrow, reluctantly amused.

“One vote,” I said. “For the whole lot of them?”

“Indeed,” Akua replied, without a speck of humour to her voice. “A droll detail, in most situations, though the Hierarch’s abilities change matters. You see, this makes the Gods Below honorary citizens of Bellerophon according to their own laws.”

A heartbeat passed.

“You can’t be serious,” I said. “They think their laws apply to the Gods?”

“Half of them, anyway,” Indrani snickered. “Wonder if they ever took the bastards to court?”

“Archer,” I hissed. “Think about this. The Hierarch’s mad as can be, but he believes in that tripe. Believes it hard enough it ripples across a whole city – and he’s under the impression he has a right to put even Gods on trial.”

I bit my lip, glancing at Akua.

“If he made an attempt,” I said. “What would happen?”

The shade looked dismayed.

“I have no idea,” she admitted. “There has never been a precedent as far as I know.”

Ah, Catherine, that’s the entire point, Kairos Theodosian told me. Finding out. Would he turn on Below like that? He might, I grimly admitted to myself. Akua herself had told me that when the Hellgods had taught the Wasteland about ‘sacred betrayal’ they hadn’t excluded themselves from the chain of treachery. I had no reason to believe their teachings in Helike ran along different lines. And if the man truly bought into Evil, he might not even see it as a betrayal. Or rather, he’d think about betrayal very differently: a holy thing, an act of worship. Which didn’t mean in the slightest that the Gods Below wouldn’t answer it by making a crater wherever the offence was given. The size of that possible crater, though, was the part worrying me most. A city, a province, a realm? A continent? It was one thing to make a play of the alleged purpose of Creation, as the Liesse Accords were meant to but quite, another to take a swing at the Gods who’d actually created the world. I wasn’t opposed to the act in principle, to be honest, but if all it took to end Above and Below was a pair of bold madmen we’d be long rid of them.

“Well, there’s a new name on the list,” I finally said.

“Which one?” Archer drily asked.

“The one with the people we need a solid plan to kill,” I said. “Akua, I want a record of everything you observed of the Hierarch and his abilities. We’ll start from there. He might be like Malicia, a Named with little combat weight. That hardly means he’ll be easy to kill, but at least he’s away from his seat of power. That ought to make it possible, at least.”

Unless, I suddenly thought, he’s carrying his damned seat of power with him. Did he just need to be near a mob, any mob? Was his aspect really that versatile, for all its apparent narrowness? I set that consideration aside for the moment. We wouldn’t get a proper assault plan done standing out here in the cold anyway, and preferably I’d want more than just us contributing to it. It’d be best if the full Woe could be involved, it’d rather broaden the toolbox we could call on to get it done. This was still speculation anyway, I reminded myself. It might be the Tyrant and the Hierarch would settle for some lesser madness behind the headsman’s axe they’d be swinging. But expecting the worst was only good sense, at this point, and you could never have too many plans to kill dangerous madmen. Oh Gods, I was starting to sound like Black. Which reminded me…

“I’ll see it done,” Diabolist replied with a nod.

“Speaking of dangerous madmen,” I said. “Black’s still alive according to the Tyrant.”

My two companions held their tongue, but I caught them sharing a look.

Yes, he could be lying,” I sharply said. “But Kairos also mentioned him to be a prisoner of the Grey Pilgrim, which strikes me more as an attempt to send me after the man than dangled false hope.”

“It could be both,” Indrani bluntly said.

“We know there’s no heroes with the Levantine armies,” I pointed out. “Which, if the Pilgrim was in Iserre to intervene in this fight, is where he would attach himself. If he’s actually in the principality – and the Tyrant wouldn’t send me on wild goose chase when he could send me into actual danger instead – then there’s a reason for it. Escorting a dangerous prisoner to Salia would fit. Unless either of you has a better explanation?”

“Speculating with this little information is rather pointless,” Akua said. “The Pilgrim’s schemes run deep.”

I was a little impressed that she, of all people, had the gall to say that about someone else.

“Still not sure why the old man wouldn’t just slit the Carrion Lord’s throat, to be honest,” Indrani said. “Not like he’s been shy about that sort of thing until now.”

“Bait,” Diabolist suggested.

“We’re already here,” Archer snorted. “We have to be, to get anything done. I guess he could be after the other Calamities, but why borrow a torch when the house is on fire?”

I couldn’t disagree, though I really wished it were otherwise. Especially if the Pilgrim was actually headed for Salia, which was the only destination making sense if they were traipsing through Iserre. Sure the Principate’s capital was massive and well-defended, but it was also the most populated city on Calernia bar none. Somehow I doubted Warlock would care all that much if he had to incinerate a few hundred thousand people to get my teacher out of a cell, but in principle the Grey Pilgrim was supposed to care. I supposed a funeral pyre of dead innocents by the thousands might set in stone the story of those who’d committed such a massacre being righteously slain by heroes, but that was a damned dark way of going after an end that could be reached through other methods.

“Indrani,” I hesitantly asked. “If he was killed, how would the Lady of the Lake react?”

She grimaced under her hood.

“Can’t be sure,” she said. “Odds are she’d cut whoever wielded the knife, at least, but she’s not his keeper. If he sailed his ship into the reefs on his own, and it sounds like he did, she might not see reason to take revenge. She’s not a Calamity anymore, Cat. She didn’t go after the heroine that killed Captain either.”

That might have been because she considered the remaining Calamities to have a better claim to that death, I had privately thought, but if anyone would know the truth of this it was Archer. It irritated me a little that the Ranger could band with people for years and then leave those bonds behind when it suited her, but then she’d not struck me as a woman dripping with tender sentiments.

“Which leaves diplomatic leverage,” Akua said. “The Empress’ deep fondness for her right hand is no secret. Neither, to be frank, is your own attachment. Hostage-taking to secure the left flank of the Principate while war is waged against the Kingdom of the Dead would be a gamble, but if successful then well worth the costs. And if a single individual could be used for that purpose, it would be the Black Knight.”

“He burned through quite a chunk of the Proceran heartlands not a year ago,” Indrani whistled, sounding impressed. “If Hasenbach thought up that scheme, she’s got ice in the veins and no lack of nerve. Her people are going to be howling for his head.”

The First Prince did have both, I silently conceded. And this was the best explanation I’d heard so far, assuming this wasn’t actually Black’s plan and we were all swinging at mist – which I wasn’t quite ready to discard as a possibility yet.

“We’ll find out sooner or later,” I said. “Regardless, if the Pilgrim is in the region you should know what that means.”

Akua’s face was the picture of serenity, but she did not speak and that was telling. Indrani had been with me for longer, though, so she followed the thought to the conclusion.

“We’ll run into the old man at some point,” she mused. “And with blades out, most likely.”

“Vivienne figured out one of the quirks to his Name,” I said. “We confirmed it at the Battle of the Camps – to put up his stronger stuff, likely to avoid getting killed, he needs to intervene on someone’s behalf. Assuming we manage to assemble all our forces in the field before we run into him, the weak link is obvious.”

Andronike, still on my shoulders and interested enough in the proceedings not to interrupt so far, stirred with displeasure at the thought yet unexpressed. That made it, I told her silently, no less true.

“The drow,” Akua said. “The consequences of dawn are a dangerously exploitable weakness.”

“If he knocks out the southern expedition we lose a lot of fighting power,” I said. “The Legions have held ground against him before – at a cost, but we held. If he wants to cripple us, he’ll be going after the drow.”

“That means he’ll take the offensive,” Archer mused. “Or at least, his soldiers will. That way he has people to save.”

And it might just be that the more people in peril there were, the greater the power granted to save them would be. He’d been no pushover at the Battle of the Camps, when he got going. Considering the amount of troops running around Iserre that was not a pleasant notion to entertain.

“He’s a tricky sort,” I said. “But his arsenal isn’t endless and we’re not without backing of our own. If he strays too far from his Name we can slap that down. I’ll pit Night against Light any day, when we’ve got our lovely goddesses along on the field.”

“Aspects, then,” Indrani frowned.

“He’s not going to blast an entire drow army into oblivion in a storm of Light,” I agreed. “I don’t care how much miracle wine the Gods make him drink, no one can stomach that kind of power without burning out. So he’ll hit us where it hurts, with something he’s personally strong in. And back at the Battle of the Camps, when he got all miraculous on us he was using a very specific kind of light.”

“We cannot kill him without ending chances of any diplomatic agreement with Levant,” Diabolist reminded me.

“No,” I agreed. “So that’s not what we’ll go after. The opposition isn’t the only side with miracles, these days, even though ours need to be bought and paid for.”

I met the shade’s golden eyes.

“Make me a well, Akua Sahelian,” I ordered. “I don’t care how many Mighty you have to rope in, get it done and quick.”

Diabolist flicked a glance at the silver of godhood on my shoulder, but found nothing there to fear. She wouldn’t, I thought. After all, Andronike’s crowing laughter was echoing in the back of my head with no sign of ceasing. She would be amused by that, I supposed. There was a degree of irony to my plan being, in essence, the first teaching of the Sisters. I rolled my other shoulder, limbering the muscles in an attempt to distract from the dull of throb of my bad leg. The staff could only help so much.

“All right, that’s enough for now,” I said. “Let’s get moving, I want to cover as much ground as possible before dawn catches us. If I’m not wrong, we’ll be joining General Rumena just in time to kick the hornet’s nest.”

“That’s why good boots are important,” Indrani laughed.

I was gladdened her mood had shifted, though I had to wonder how long that’d last.

“Also crushing one’s enemies,” Akua seriously said, then paused. “For justice, of course.”

I rolled my eyes and left them to it, heading back to my horse. I slipped onto the saddle, then waited for the sounds of their bickering to fade as they pulled ahead.

“Andronike,” I said. “If I needed you to look south for something…”

“Not until my sister is at my side,” the crow said. “Something clouds my sight.”

Yet another reason to reunite with the southern expedition as fast as possible, I thought, spurring on Zombie to catch up with the others.

If Cordelia Hasenbach had gone grave-digging, I needed to know what she was digging for.