“The viper that bites a Matron dies poisoned.”
After the table was cleared most of my officers went with it. They had duties to attend to, after all. While Juniper wasn’t holding the legion to wartime duty rosters, the influx of fresh recruits in the Fifteenth meant the usual peacetime hours were far less than what was currently being demanded of them – especially with a budding portal to Arcadia in need of garrisoning. Of the four that remained seated at the table when servants brought wine, only two were a common fixture at these little meetings. Ratface and Aisha effectively ran what passed for my network of informants, through his underworld connections and her relatives in the nobility. They’d done well, in my opinion, but they were going up against spymasters who’d had decades to place their own people or outright inherited a web of informants from their predecessors. Spies were among the most precious parts of a noble’s inheritance, in the Wasteland.
Pickler, on he other hand, was a rarity. As much because she had no interest in these things as because she rarely had anything to contribute. That she’d stuck around would have surprised me, had I not remembered the Empress’ warning: I was going to be presented with an offer by the Matron of the High Ridge tribe. Pickler’s mother, allegedly estranged. I didn’t know much about that situation save for assurances I’d received that having Pickler in the Fifteenth wouldn’t mean a Matron would be looking to slide a knife in my back. Robber, usually maliciously eager to gossip, had been tight-lipped when I’d brought it up. Goblins always closed ranks the moment you brought up anything relating to what went on inside the Grey Eyries. Still, I could guess at the shape of it. Pickler’s open and vehement distaste for politics could not have gone over well back home, or her lack of interest in anything that didn’t involve building new and improved ways to kill people.
Kilian was around more often, as my Senior Mage. Since she had a finger in everything from our magical defences to setting up scrying channels her input was occasionally needed. And with Apprentice so often holed up in his tower these days, she served as our expert in the supernatural when he wasn’t around. Her knowledge wasn’t nearly as expansive, I had to admit, but she’d placed highly in the War College’s mage courses for a reason. Where Masego would have a tailored solution to any problem we encountered, Kilian simply hammered in obstacles with group rituals and repeated spellwork. Less elegant, maybe, but I didn’t want my legion to ever become too dependent on Apprentice. When it came to fights he’d be at my side more often than not, and it wouldn’t do for my mages to become ineffective whenever he wasn’t around. There was a reason my teacher deployed Warlock as a combat asset on his own instead of the leader of other mages.
That made for six of us in the room, if you counted Hakram and myself. There’d never been any debate about Adjutant being there, of course. At this point not having the tall orc at my side felt like I was missing a hand. I’d noticed over the last year that Hakram rarely spoke in meetings, not unless he wanted a point clarified for my benefit, and did not often venture his own opinion. Sometimes he gave it to me in private afterwards, but more often than not he simply kept his peace. Hakram listened and waited and when I came to a decision he saw that turned into a plan of action. It made it easy to rely on him, that I knew he had no objective – hidden or not – he was working towards. Of all the people I was close with, he stood alone in this. I accepted the cup of Vale summer wine Ratface poured from the carafe, allowing myself to savour the taste. It was a little early in the day, admittedly, but I was going to need a godsdamned drink if we were going to talk about the mess currently known as Marchford.
“So, watcha got for me,” I prompted.
The two Taghreb traded looks. For all that their relationship had apparently imploded years ago, in my experience they actually got along fairly well. Ratface inclined his head and Aisha cleared her throat.
“The upheaval in the Wasteland continues,” the Staff Tribune said. “The mass defections started by the High Lady of Aksum, while slowing in frequency, have yet to end.”
I grinned. It always put me in a good mood when I heard about the Truebloods get the bad end of the stick. Not long after I’d extorted three high nobles into backing the creation of the Ruling Council, one of them had officially withdraw from the Truebloods. High Lady Abreha of Aksum, the cackling old bat who’d cheerfully betrayed her fellows the very moment the wind had turned. Though she had not joined the Loyalists, Malicia’s faction in Praes, losing a High Lady had started an avalanche of setbacks for the Truebloods. Lesser nobles had begun withdrawing their support or been assassinated by successors who did before a fortnight had passed. While few of them changed their allegiance to the Loyalists, the humiliation for the remaining Truebloods had been both public and potent. I’d watched all of that unfold with no small amount of glee.
“The most recent defection was by a lord directly sworn to Wolof,” Aisha said. “As High Lady Tasia is the head of the Truebloods, the loss of face involved was massive. Rumour has it she could not afford to match the bribe offered by the Empress, which has… interesting implications.”
I let out a whistle.
“We’ve confirmed Heiress has made no attempt to send any of the revenues collected from Liesse to the Wasteland,” Ratface added. “Cat, I think there’s a wedge there.”
“Praesi stabbing Praesi in the back,” Pickler said derisively. “There’s a surprise.”
Aisha raised an eyebrow.
“An interesting comment, coming from a goblin,” she said.
Pickler shrugged, then looked away. That was as much as she seemed to want to get involved, at the moment.
“And all these unaligned nobles, what are they doing exactly?” Hakram asked.
Aisha smiled, then gracefully sipped at her wine. I could see no hint of her teeth as she did – that was Praesi etiquette for you.
“They are no longer unaligned,” the Staff Tribune said. “High Lady Abreha has begun to gather them under her banner.”
“The Moderates, they call themselves,” Ratface added.
I raised an eyebrow.
“That’s a promising name, but I’m not getting my hopes up,” I said.
“The Moderates oppose certain of the policies championed by the Empress,” Aisha said, “but do so without the undercurrent of opposing the Empress herself. They’re growing as an alternative to the Truebloods for nobles who disagree with certain recent reforms.”
The approval in her voice was not masked in the slightest.
“So they’re the good, polite racists,” Pickler said bitingly. “There’s a relief, I thought there were only bad, rude ones.”
“One does not need to hate greenskins to realize breeding restrictions on the Tribes are necessary,” Aisha replied, tone aggressively mild. “Or to believe that orcs chieftains being made nobility would disrupt a very delicate balance of power.”
“It probably helps, though,” the Senior Sapper said with a flash of needle-like teeth.
“That’s enough of that,” I said quietly. “Pickler, you know Aisha’s not one of those nobles. She’s never treated you anything but politely. Aisha, half your people would accept making a bridge out of dead goblins as a decent way to save on stone. She’s not swinging out of the blue.”
The Taghreb noble’s face went blank, but she inclined her head. Pickler grabbed her goblet and drank.
“I do love these little chats of ours,” Ratface said. “But I believe there’s one last thing for you to mention, Aisha?”
The lovely Staff Tribune cleared her throat.
“Infighting between the Truebloods and the Moderates has already begun, but their agents at court do agree on one prominent matter,” she said.
Well, that ought to be good.
“I’m on the edge of my seat,” I said drily.
“To be blunt,” Aisha said delicately, “that point is you. You are worrying them.”
“She’s had knives at her back since she became the Squire,” Hakram said calmly. “What makes this unusual?”
“When you were merely the Squire, Lady Catherine, you were a minor threat with the potential of turning into a larger one,” the olive-skinned aristocrat said. “Your coming to command the Fifteenth, while unfortunate, was not judged overly alarming. That changed, however, when the Fifteenth kept growing.”
“They think you’re amassing a private army to come knocking at their doors,” Ratface grinned nastily. “Their tender noble hearts are all aflutter at the notion.”
“That’s absurd,” Kilian spoke up from my left. “We don’t have nearly the men for that. We’re what, six thousand now?”
“Seven thousand as of the census last week,” Aisha said. “By my estimate, we’ll be eight thousand come summer. The size of two standard legions.”
“I don’t have the corresponding number of mages under my command,” the redhead frowned.
I frowned, then pieced the discrepancy together.
“Mages are required to graduate from the College before service,” I said. “We’ve been taking in Callowans.”
“There simply aren’t that many mages available for us to bring into the fold,” Aisha agreed. “Many went to the Fourteenth when it was formed, and there are rumours a Sixteenth is about to be raised.”
That, I realized with a grimace, was a problem. A lot of the legion military doctrine rested on the fact that mages and sappers would be available in proportionate numbers to the amount of regulars. No wonder Juniper was insisting on drills so much. She was going to have to revise her tactics entirely before we next got into a fight.
“I don’t suppose any of you have a workaround?” I asked.
“We could recruit from civilian talent,” Aisha said. “That would bring complications, however.”
“Good mages in the Wasteland have patrons,” Ratface said. “They’re not allowed not to.”
“And they’d need to be trained to Legion standards,” Kilian murmured. “We don’t have the facilities for that. Not to mention using the War College’s methods without sanction would be low treason, at the very least.”
“Joy,” I muttered. “Think about it anyway. If you have a stroke of genius, you know where my door is.”
Hakram set down his wine with a metallic clink.
“Practically speaking, what does the nobles being worried about our numbers mean?” the tall orc gravelled.
Ratface shrugged, looked at the other Taghreb in the room.
“Support for the only visible check on your power,” Aisha said.
“Heiress,” I said.
Well, wasn’t that a treat. It would have been too much to hope for I’d be allowed to expand my ranks without there being consequences, I supposed. I passed a hand through my mess of a hair, which I’d taken out of its usual ponytail for the meal. It would need combing soon. Kilian nudged me with her knee under the table, smiling.
“We’ll find a way,” she murmured. “We always do.”
I pressed a kiss against her shoulder as Ratface rolled his eyes and Aisha politely looked away. Acknowledging the sight of emotions in others was impolite, for Praesi, unless you were deeply intimate with them and behind closed doors. Pickler was looking at us like she would some sort of strange chimera, more puzzled than anything else. The goblin notion of romance, as I understood it, was rather different from the human one.
“That’s one,” I said. “Ratface?”
“Are we done already?” the Taghreb said. “It was just getting interesting.”
His lips tightened immediately afterwards, swallowing a whimper, and Aisha smiled. I suspected he was going to be limping out of the room when we were done. The bastard coughed.
“I’ve placed people in the lower rungs of two of the major Dark Guilds,” he said.
While there were apparently quite a few minor criminal associations that styled themselves guilds, there were only three in Callow that really deserved the name. The Assassins, the Thieves and the Smugglers. The Thieves had been the ones to make it through the Conquest the least affected, and the first to strike a deal with Black. Their activities were tacitly allowed as long as they didn’t threaten Praesi interests, in exchange for a few concessions. The only really important one among those was informing on any resistance group they came across. No wonder my teacher hadn’t been actually challenged by one of those in the two decades he’d run Callow. He really had eyes everywhere, didn’t he?
The second guild, the Smugglers, had not gotten away unscathed. Not because the Tower had tightened the screws, at least not in the usual sense.They’d been making a fortune out of importing Praesi luxuries before the Conquest, but their roles as middlemen had become unnecessary when actual trade routes had opened. Making it worse, quite a few drugs and substances that had been illegal under the Kingdom were nothing of the sort under Praes. After floundering for a few years, they’d managed to find a niche in importing foreign luxuries through Mercantis while bypassing tariffs – the Wasaliti, after all, was no longer patrolled by war barges. Their following attempts to get weapons into Callow had been met by the assassination of half their leadership, and they’d taken that warning to heart. Since they’d restricted their activities to what wouldn’t earn Black’s attention, offering a cut of their profits in penance. They were a pale shadow of what they’d used to be, though, by far the weakest of the three guilds.
The Assassins had happened upon a middle ground between those two, neither crippled nor largely untouched. Their more patriotic elements had been purged by the Named who exemplified their trade, leaving only hardened professionals behind. Those had shown no qualms in cooperating with the Tower and even some Imperial Governors, though assassinating Praesi without unofficial sanction had been forbidden. While not as numerous and entrenched as it had been before the Conquest, the Guild of Assassins had settled comfortably into its new role. They had, if anything, thrived under the rule of officials coming from a culture where their trade was not only accepted but held in some esteem. Few nobles of the Kingdom would have ever contracted a Dark Guild for work, after all, but Praesi were not above employing local talent when bringing in their own specialists would have been too costly.
“The Smugglers were easy enough to infiltrate, since I’ve had indirect dealings with them in the past,” Ratface said, shaking me out of my thoughts. “As for the Thieves, getting a foot in was doable but rising in the ranks will take years. They tend to operate in local cells.”
“You couldn’t get anyone in the Assassins?” I asked.
The handsome Taghreb shook his head.
“They recruit by invitation only,” he told me. “Murder convicts, mostly, taken in by spiriting them out of prison before they hang.”
I made an understanding noise. That would make it tricky to get anyone inside. If Black had managed the feat, he’d never told me.
“Got anything out of it so far?” I said.
“Nothing all that useful, though one piece does stand out,” Ratface mused. “The Guild of Thieves has recently had a change of leadership. Their ‘King of Thieves’ was overthrown.”
“A shadow war across Callow would have been noticed,” Hakram said.
“They don’t operate like that,” the Supply Tribune said, shaking his head. “The person in charge is whoever has some fancy crown. Any member of the guild can try to steal it.”
I raised an eyebrow. That seemed like a horrible way to run an organization, considering anyone close to the guildmaster would be tempted to steal it. Besides, all it took was for an idiot to get lucky once and you’d have a fool at the helm. Aisha made an approving noise and I glanced at her. Ah, of course she’d think well of it. Praes was run on basically the same principle, only with more murder and demons.
“Keep an eye on them,” I finally said. “I’ll want to know where they stand when we move on the Assassins.”
“Speaking of,” he said, “I found out what you wanted. They’ve none or negligible presence in Marchford.”
“Well, I was due something uplifting,” I muttered. “Any idea why?”
“The Countess Marchford hated them deeply,” Aisha said. “She cleared them out of the city a few years after the Conquest, after they killed her husband and infant son.”
I leaned forward in interest.
“How?” I asked.
“She torched the entire city quarter they operated out of,” Ratface told me grimly. “Had anyone that crawled out of the ashes drawn and quartered in the public square.”
Well. Not exactly something I could replicate across Callow. Horrifying as that method was, I couldn’t help but be somewhat impressed. Elizabeth Talbot had not been one to fuck around, when she wanted something done. The Duke of Liesse had no business ever getting near a throne, but the Countess Marchford would have made the kind of queen that took more than a page in chronicles. Not all of it good but, Hells, who was I to throw stones?
“My turn?” Pickler asked impatiently.
I looked at the two Taghreb, but neither of them had anything to add.
“Good,” the goblin muttered, then straightened in her seat. “Lady Foundling of Marchford, I bring an offer from Matron Sever of the High Ridge tribe.”
I watched my two Tribunes from the corner of my eye. Ratface looked surprised and concerned. Aisha’s brow rose, until her eyes widened in understanding. Then her face returned to pleasant and unreadable. Something that passed through Court at some point, then, I thought. I’d been under the impression goblins stayed out of Praesi politics, so my curiosity sharpened.
“I’ve got an official letter for you to gawk at,” Pickler continued, discarding ceremony as quickly as she’d taken it up, “but the gist of it is this: the High Ridge tribe and its allies would like to establish a goblin settlement in your lands.”
“What?” I said, for eloquence was one my foremost virtues.
“Is that even legal?”
“The Empress reinstated breeding restrictions to show favour to the Moderates,” Aisha said quietly. “In a gesture of goodwill, however, she allowed the establishment of a new goblin tribe for the first time in two hundred years.”
“Matrons fought over the right like a bag full of angry cats,” Pickler shrugged. “Mother’s the most vicious old bitch of that pack of vicious old bitches, though. She ended up on top of that pile of bodies.”
“There’s never been a goblin settlement outside of the Grey Eyries before,” Hakram said, sounding surprised.
I glanced at him.
“Foramen,” I reminded him.
“Foramen has been ruled by humans since the Miezan occupation, even if goblins work the forges,” the tall orc replied.
That… might be true? I really had no idea. Praesi history not related to the Tower wasn’t something I’d read a lot of. Anyway, no point in quibbling since odds were he was right and this wasn’t the most salient issue at the moment anyway. My eyes returned to the Senior Sapper.
“That’s an,” I started, looking for the word, “… interesting offer.”
“She doesn’t expect you to accept out of love for goblinkind,” Pickler said, amused. “She’s offering for the goblins in question to build fortifications for the city, free of charge. The tribe would occupy the designated land but pay rent for the privilege, as well bribe you generously for your generosity in considering the matter. Everybody knows Marchford’s ledgers are bleeding like slow raider.”
I felt it safe to assume the raider in question was bleeding because he’d been too slow to dodge a knife. That expression told me a lot about how what living in the Grey Eyries would be like.
“I’ve been looking into ways to fill the coffers,” I said, glancing at Aisha.
The lovely tribune shook her head.
“While I find the notion of a tribe of goblins within sight of where I sleep horrifying, none offered terms you would find acceptable,” she said. “There’s quite a few families willing to make a loan, and some are even willing to forego interest. All want a governorship as part of the deal.”
“Come on,” I griped. “There’s got to be at least one that just wants to fleece me.”
“With almost no remaining Praesi governors, anyone who could secure such a post under your reign would gain a massive advantage against their rivals,” Aisha said. “None are willing to forego that chance. I have, however, accumulated some funds when they attempted to bribe my intermediaries. The appropriate portion was added to your treasury.”
“That’s something, I guess,” I said, reluctantly amused.
The mirth died quickly enough when my gaze returned to Pickler.
“You talked about rent,” I said. “Not a grant of land.”
“While swearing fealty to you would have been hard enough to swallow,” the Senior Sapper said, “The possibility that one day a male descendant of yours might rule Marchford pretty much killed that idea.”
“They’re not wrong,” the yellow-eyed goblin said. “It’d be pretty disgusting for a Matron to take orders from a man.”
“I’m feeling somewhat insulted, right now,” Ratface mused.
Pickler eyed him pityingly.
“You’re a fine warleader, Ratface,” she reassured him. “You’re just not cut out for important matters like ruling or raising children. Men are too emotional for those things, it’s not your fault.”
“Matrons have taken orders from Dread Emperors,” I pointed out, morbidly fascinated.
I’d always known the Tribes were a matriarchy, but I’d never actually seen that in action before. Pickler was a clever, intelligent and talented officer. Who’d somehow come to believe that barring half her people from leadership positions could be anything but shooting herself in the foot.
“Tyrants don’t count,” she said, eyeing me sceptically. “They’re Named. They’re not like other men.”
“So you’re telling me an entire culture recognizes me as objectively better than Ratface?” Hakram said, leaning forward.
“You’re a traitor to your gender, Hakram,” the Taghreb said. “For shame. Where’s the solidarity?”
“I recognize you’re objectively better than Ratface,” Aisha told Hakram. “I’m sure I could get a petition passed around to collect broader opinion.”
“So I’m to leave this room both without all my toes unbroken and my dignity?” the bastard mused. “You people are animals.”
Pickler sneered in the general direction of the gallery before returning her attention to me.
“Think it over,” she said. “Left the letter in your affairs, since I didn’t want to bother remembering all the legalese. They’ll expect an answer soon.”
I nodded slowly. I had no intention of agreeing to anything before talking it over with a few other people, anyway. That the Empress had allowed this at all meant she tacitly endorsed the idea, but scrying her for a conversation wouldn’t be a bad idea. Getting Black on the other side of a bowl would be even better, but I had no real way to contact him. Pickler slid down her pile of cushions and saluted me before stalking away. Aisha and Ratface took the hint, and made their exit not long after. Hakram was polishing off the rest of his wine, so I turned to Kilian. Who was already looking at me, I was pleased to see.
“So, Senior Mage,” I said. “When do you get off duty?”
“I’ve no responsibilities until afternoon tomorrow,” she replied with a smile.
I raised an eyebrow.
“How’d you manage that?” I asked.
“I forewent my free days for the last month,” Kilian said. “Though I did manage to walk the city a bit before that.”
“Oh?” I said, fingers toying with the edge of her tunic.
“Found a little shop in the merchant district,” she said idly. “They do very interesting things with lace.”
My breath caught. Smiling impishly, she leaned closer.
“I’m wearing one of their creations right now,” she murmured.
I rose to my feet.
“And we’re done here,” I announced.
Catching Kilian by the hand I immediately headed for the door but paused when I passed by Adutant.
“Hakram,” I said. “My buddy. My friend.”
“Cat?” he replied bemusedly.
“I’ve been sleeping in an empty bed for two months,” I said. “If someone knocks at my door before noon tomorrow for anything short of an invasion, I will have them hanged.”
Kilian snorted, and we were out of the room before the orc could reply.
I woke up in the middle of the night.
The armful of redhead at my side was still asleep and my pillow was decadently soft after having been on the road so long, so I closed my eyes and buried my head back into it. Someone banged on the door again, more urgently this time. I cursed, then got up. Kilian’s eyes fluttered open.
“Cat?” she asked sleepily.
“Go back to sleep,” I said. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
I almost went to open the door before remembering I was naked. Picking up a shirt from the pile of dirty clothes I really needed to have laundered at some point, I slipped it on. The asshole on the other side of the door banged again. Adjusting the shirt to it covered my thighs, I made my way to the door and wrenched it open. On the other side, a legionary with lieutenant stripes stood with his hand raised.
“What?” I hissed at him.
The Soninke took in the sight of me dishevelled, half-asleep and entirely furious before gulping nervously.
“Lady Squire, the Winter Court is attempting to invade the city,” he managed to get out. “General Juniper sent me to wake you.”
I sighed, then rubbed the bridge of my nose. One of these days, I was going to learn to keep my fucking mouth shut.