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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 and Wednesday.

Chapter 20: Skew

“An alliance of victors is like a hearth in summer.”
– Julienne Merovins, tenth First Princess of Procer

I’d met a handful of heroes since I’d first become the Squire, and Thief was one of the harder ones to place. She was, quite blatantly, an egotist. Yet she lacked some of the traits that were common with the more arrogant heroes: both the Lone Swordsman and the Exiled Prince – the Prince in particular – had been almost unnaturally handsome. The appearance of a Named usually changed to reflect how they thought of themselves, after all. Yet Thief was not particularly good-looking, I noted as I studied her. Maybe two inches taller than me, she was a skinny woman with short dark hair and blue-grey eyes. The leathers she always wore had been cut for her frame, but weren’t particularly tight: much like me, she’d have little to show for it if they were. Most of all, she lacked the weight to her presence that I’d come to associate with powerful Named. William, for all his flaws, had been able to mesmerize a room full of rebels with but a few words. I had a hard time imagining Thief ever doing the same.

“You sure you should have taken off that helmet?” the heroine smiled. “You’ve seen how costly a mistake that can be.”

I withdrew my hand from the arm of the chair, and slowly sat down. The seat wasn’t made for someone wearing plate, evidently, and it groaned under the weight of my armour.

“We going to play the threat game?” I asked bluntly. “Thief, I could have killed you with a hand tied behind my back last time we met. I’ve since murdered a demigod for power. We both know how that fight goes.”

The other woman’s eyes turned cold.

“A fair fight, maybe,” she said. “I’m not in the habit of having those.”

I snorted.

“And I am?” I replied. “Look, I’m as willing as tangle as the next villain but if I get an occasion to put a shot someone’s back in the dark, I’m sure as Hells taking it.”

“How remarkable,” she sneered.

“Well, I have been spending a lot of time with goblins lately,” I said. “But I gotta say that putdown’s a little rich, coming from someone whose entire Name is about theft.”

Thief smirked.

“Oh?” she said. “Is someone displeased their treasury’s gone?”

“I am,” I smiled thinly. “I’m about to have to find food and lodgings for at least a hundred thousand refugees while also running a military campaign and I don’t have the funds for any of it.”

“The Tower will shell out the gold,” Thief dismissed.

“The Tower’s putting down internal troubles, and I’m about to spit in its eye,” I said. “It’s not going to be giving me a single copper for the foreseeable future.”

“Villains stabbing each other in the back at the first sign of trouble,” the heroine grinned unpleasantly. “History does tend to repeat itself, doesn’t it?”

“I’m not-“ I began, then stopped. “Oh fuck you.”

She blinked in surprise.

“Who do you think you are, exactly?” I asked.

“A heroine, villain,” she replied.

“Someone tried to mind rape a city of a hundred thousand last year, Thief, and it sure as Hells wasn’t anyone on my side,” I barked. “You think being William’s minion for a few months gives you a pass to be an asshole forever and still have the moral high ground? Think again.”

“I spoke against that,” Thief hissed.

“Words are wind,” I said. “You could have taken a stand. You didn’t. So much for heroism, eh?”

“I might have made mistakes,” she said through gritted teeth. “I’ll own up to that. But you know what I’m not, at least? A godsdamned collaborator.”

My face blanked. I’d been called a traitor before. By a crowd in Summerholm, when I was fresh into my name, and by the Lone Swordsman in the months that followed. But it was the first time anyone had actually called me a collaborator to my face. No doubt quite a few people had thought it in the past, but I’d never actually heard it spoken out loud. It stung more than I would have liked, even now. Things with a grain of truth to them usually did.

“I took the path that damages Callow the least,” I said.

“You took the path that involved selling your soul to the Hellgods,” she replied flatly.

“I got a close look at the Hashmallim, in Liesse,” I said. “I think you think your side’s any gentler than mine, you’ve been listening to stories too much.”

“My ‘side’ hasn’t stolen an entire fucking kingdom,” she snapped.

I shrugged.

“And what’s it done to free it since?” I asked.

“It rebelled,” Thief said. “And you murdered the people that did. I’m sure they felt very saved.”

“You think putting a crown on Gaston Caen would have helped this country?” I said, leaning forward. “Gods, Thief, the man fled into exile before the first legion was in sight of Vale during the Conquest. He was a bloody coward and the First Prince owned him down to his toes.”

“So you say,” the heroine sneered.

“So the facts say,” I coldly said. “You think she poured that much silver into a doomed rebellion so an old rival of the Principate could be restored? She wanted a western protectorate to push back Praes, that’s all there was to it.”

“Elizabeth of Marchford would have been queen,” Thief said. “She would not have settled for that.”

“You think she would have had a choice?” I pressed. “After Praes burned the land on the way out, who would have leant the coin and crops to keep Callow alive through the winter?”

“That would have been the Empire’s fault,” she hissed.

“Gods Below, am I tired of hearing about fault,” I shouted. “Fault and blame and Good – none of it fixes any of this. If you want a solution, you deal with realities. With what exists, not the pretty little world that ‘should be’. Praes would have acted in its interest, and that meant torching the country. Procer would have acted in its interests, which was making us a protectorate. Anyone who plans without acknowledging that isn’t planning, they’re lying to themselves. That’s what I can’t stand about the lot of you. Do you think doing the right thing is enough? Fuck you. I’ve had to bloody my hands to get this far, Thief. I didn’t enjoy it, and some of the things I’ve done will haunt me to my grave. But the only clean victories are the ones in stories. Preach all you want, I have gotten things done.”

I panted, out of breath, my tone quieted.

“Which of you pricks on the other side can say the same?” I asked.

“Sometimes you have to take a stand even if you know you can’t win,” she said.

“That’s pride talking,” I replied. “That’s killing people for your principles, and I can’t think of anything more selfish than that.”

Thief laughed bitterly.

“You know, there’s truth in what you say,” she admitted. “But none of it would have mattered if you were a heroine.”

I’d been at this game long enough that the surprise never made it to my face.

“William was never meant to lead,” Thief said. “He was terrible at it. But I look at the party we had, and can’t help but thing there was always supposed to be one. All of us were born in Callow, except for the Wandering Bard – and I’m not convinced she was supposed to be a part of it. One Named for every Calamity, if you’d been on the side of Good. And we’ve all seen what you can do with an uphill battle.”

“I know them, the Calamities,” I said. “I know what they can do better than most. It wasn’t a fight that could be won.”

“The Heavens have a way of evening odds,” she said.

“Prayer is what people rely on when they’ve run out of plans,” I replied. “I’ve no patience for it.”

In this, at least, I was truly Black’s successor.

“What you’ve built is collapsing,” Thief said.

“By the end of the year, there will be no Praesi governor in Callow,” I said.

“I’m not talking about the governors,” she said. “I’m talking about the Ruling Council.”

“It’s done,” I said tiredly. “I tried, it failed. Come sunup the two of them will be dead and I’m not surrendering that authority ever again.”

The heroine frowned.

“You’re naming yourself queen,” she said.

“Vicequeen, most likely,” I said. “A ceremonial title: I can’t run the country if I’m waging war abroad, and it’s become clear I’m not great at it anyway. I’ll name a Governor-General to handle everything and keep power in name only. The Tower won’t accept anyone but a villain at the head of Callow.”

Thief stared at me for a long time.

“What do you want, Squire?” she said. “I thought you’d come here to threaten me or force a fight, but that’s obviously not the case. Why are we here?”

“A tenth,” I said.

The heroine blinked.

“What?”

“You get to keep a tenth of the treasury,” I said. “The rest goes back in the vault.”

“Are you trying to bribe me with coin already in my possession?” she asked.

“Bribe, no,” I said. “I’m hiring the Guild of Thieves.”

“We’re not for hire,” Thief said.

“Fine, I’m giving you a ‘gift’ for anticipated services, then,” I grunted. “Do I need to wink, or are we on the same page?”

“That’s not-“ the heroine stopped before finishing her sentence. “What do you want to hire us for?”

“The Empress and Black have networks of informants forty years in the making, backed by the Legions of Terror,” I said. “The First Prince has a hundred thousand battle-hardened veterans and the wealthiest nation on Calernian at her feet. If I want to play in the same league, I need talented people and I need them now. Your people are criminals, but they’re criminals with presence in every Callowan city and a fountain of foreign contacts. Right now I only have eyes in the Legions and the Wasteland – I’m blind everywhere else and it’s already cost me.”

“I’m a heroine,” Thief reminded me.

“If William had stuck to killing criminals in the streets of Summerholm, I would have given him a salary and a godsdamned badge,” I replied frankly. “I work with the monsters because they give me the means to do what I need to, not because I have any illusions about what they are. I don’t fight heroes out of principle, Thief, I fight them because they keep trying to kill me and make a mess of Callow in the process.”

“And if I don’t cooperate?” she asked lightly, but her eyes betrayed how serious she was.

“This is the part where I say ‘if you’re not an asset, you’re a liability’, right?” I sighed. “I get back the treasury, is what I do, because I need it. And then as long as you stay out of my way, I will politely pretend you don’t exist.”

I smiled thinly.

“And I think you will,” I continued. “Stay out of my way. It’s not like you want any of my opponents to win instead: I’m the lesser evil. Besides, in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s wolves at the gates. I don’t have the time or energy to spare on pointless pissing matches.”

The Thief stared at me in silence. I met her eyes without flinching.

“Assassin tried to recruit me, when I first came into my Name,” she suddenly said.

“I’m told he’s a regular bundle of laughs,” I replied.

“The conversation couldn’t have lasted more than a quarter hour,” Thief said. “To this day, I shiver when I think of it. That… thing was death made flesh.”

I wasn’t sure where she was headed with this, so I kept my peace.

“And yet,” the heroine said, “I think you might just be the most dangerous villain I’ve ever met.”

“You’ve never met Black,” I said.

“It’s not about power,” Thief replied. “You make it easy to want to follow you. Because you make sense, because you get results. I should try to kill you tonight, because if I don’t you might just damage Calernia beyond repair.”

“Will you?” I asked.

Silence reigned.

“Baroness Kendal is still alive,” Thief said. “She was wounded, but took refuge in the cathedral. The priests are hiding her.”

I nodded slowly, then rose to my feet.

“I’ll need the treasury back in the vault before I leave,” I said.

“Minus our tenth,” Thief smiled bitterly, looking up at the ceiling.

I made for the door, passing her by.

“Squire,” she said. “No, Foundling now I suppose. If you ever become what you say you’re fighting…”

“Then more dangerous people than you will be putting me down,” I replied, and walked away.

I got the last word, I thought, largely because she had nothing to reply to that.

“Lady Squire,” Orim the Grim greeted me.

He’d been sleeping until recently. I’d learned to tell the signs, with orcs – the voices got a little deeper, and they showed their teeth more often. The general was almost as tall as Hakram, who was unusually so for his kind, and his skin was of a yellow-green I’d only ever seen in goblins before. It was uncommon in the Lesser Steppes, I knew: almost all my legionaries from there were of a green so dark it looked like black. Of the man himself, I knew little. When it had become clear he’d remain one of the important people of Laure for the foreseeable future I’d asked my own orcs about him, but gotten only vague outlines. Juniper had told me he’d been chieftain of the Silent Men before Black recruited him halfway through the civil war, one of larger clans in the Lesser Steppes. Nauk had remembered he’d been known for his warring with the Deoraithe of the Wall, and all Hakram knew was that he’d once wiped out an entire smaller clan in a single night for having stolen some of his cattle. I wasn’t surprised, considering the cognomen his legion had earned during the Conquest: Exterminatus.

The Fifth had been under Marshal Grem’s command during his assault on the Wall, a campaign undertaken to make sure none of the Deoraithe would be with the army of Callow at the Fields of Streges. After taking one of the forts, Orim the Grim had put every soldier in it to the sword as keeping any prisoners would have slowed his march. That had happened a long way from Laure, though. In the capital his reputation was as a fair but distant commander who would not hesitate to resort to violence if pushed. His open enmity with the late Governor Mazus had won him some esteem, since the Fifth’s legionaries had made it a point to put the governor’s men in their place whenever they could. I’d been raised to the sight of big armoured orcs punching the teeth out of city guard who overstepped, and it had gone a long way in teaching me to see greenskins were not the enemy. A long time ago, that. My ascension to the Ruling Council has not granted me any better insight into the man, since he’d withdrawn from any relation to it after ensuring the Fifth would not have to obey any orders from its members.

“General Orim,” I replied.

The room in the barracks was almost bare, a sure sign the orc didn’t use it regularly. In my experience greenskins like to decorate with trophies from victories anywhere they stayed longer than a few weeks. The Fifth’s general staff was nowhere in sight: it seemed Orim had grasped that this wouldn’t be that kind of meeting. Save for a table with a jug of some dark alcohol – almost empty by now – and two cups to accompany it, there was little of note here. I’d not been offered any of the drink, and had not asked: orcs drank liquor hard enough to leave holes in whatever it touched. Something about their stomachs taking to alcohol differently, Hakram had told me. As it happened said orc was seated at my side, across from the general. He polished off the rest of his cup and let out a pleased little sigh.

“Callowan drink just isn’t the same,” Adjutant said.

“They make passable wine in the north,” the general replied amusedly. “But nothing close to brannahal.”

My eyes narrowed. I did not recognize the word. It was from an older dialect of Kharsum, I thought, but aside from the part meaning fire I didn’t recognize the rest. As for the mention of the north of Callow, I almost grimaced. ‘Wine’ to the north of Ankou was actually a heavily concentrated version of brandy made by farmers and cattle-herders out in the field. It was said that in a pinch it could be used instead of lamp oil.

“Deadhand tells me you’re to handle order in the city,” Orim suddenly said.

Coming from a Praesi, the way he’d been called by his nickname instead of his Name would have been an insult. From an orc, though, the meaning was different. The Clans didn’t really have titles aside from chieftain. Even their rare mages did not get much distinction from the mass. Orcs who distinguished themselves in some way earned a nickname, and for someone not sharing a clan to use it was a mark of respect. Evidently Adjutant had made some inroads here while I’d been busy in the city.

“I have the usurpers in my custody,” I said. “I’ll be executing them publicly come morning and re-establishing a civilian government afterwards.”

“We’re under martial law,” Orim gravelled.

“We don’t have the soldiers to waste to enforce that,” I replied calmly. “I need you with General Istrid as soon as possible.”

“She knows the people here, general,” Hakram said. “If she says the peace will hold, it’ll hold.”

The older orc conceded the point with a grunt.

“Where is the Fifteenth headed?” he asked.

“I’ve sent Juniper south,” I said. “She’ll be gathering additional men as she goes.”

“She should be marching to Vale,” the orc bluntly stated. “To put her soldiers under her mother’s command.”

“That won’t be happening,” I replied frankly. “The forces will remain divided for the campaign.”

“Ruling Council’s dead,” Orim said. “And it didn’t have authority of the Legions went it was still breathing.”

“I am the Squire,” I coldly said. “Her Dread Majesty is preoccupied with Wolof and Black is abroad. My orders are not to be gainsaid.”

The general’s face went stony.

“Knightsbane’s fought two wars and a hundred skirmishes,” he growled. “So have I. What do you have under your belt, three half-baked battles? The soldiers should go to Vale.”

“I could make this about power,” I replied idly. “We both know that using a sliver of power I could order you to drown yourself and you would. But I don’t need to. I have information you don’t. The chain of command is clear. Do it.”

The orc was twice my size. Scarred, bursting with muscle and capable of popping a man’s neck off his shoulders with his bare hand – and yet he knew better than to try to loom. Orim glanced at Hakram and saw only ice there. Adjutant had picked his side long ago. The general scoffed, but did not push any further.

“You’ll have orders for General Istrid,” he said, tacitly offering to carry them.

“Juniper is already in contact with her by scrying,” I said. “The Knightsbane will be marching on Holden as soon as your men arrive.”

The older orc frowned.

“We’re pretty sure the fae can portal from one stronghold to the other,” he said.

“They can,” I confirmed. “We’ll be splitting their forces with multiple assault so you don’t bear the brunt of it.”

“And you think they’ll just let General Juniper leisurely stroll south?” he sceptically asked. “They’ve raiding parties out.”

“And the Diabolist has an army out in the field,” I said. “So far the Summer Court has refrained from hitting Liesse. I’ve sent two Named down there to remedy to that. Akua Sahelian will have to be dealt with after the fae are repelled, and I don’t want her forces fresh when it happens.”

Apprentice had been less than pleased at being partnered with Archer, but sending either one on their own would have been a disaster.

“My detachment will be stabilizing Laure, then we’ll move on,” I continued. “To Denier. I mean to free Marshal Ranker’s legions if I can.”

Orim’s dark eyes lingered on my skin, the visible reminder that I was at least half-Deoraithe by blood.

“Kegan’s not to be trusted,” he said. “She was never comfortable under the Tower – the Fairfaxes allowed her to run things the way she liked without even tribute.”

“I know what she wants,” I said. “That gives me leverage. And twenty thousand men is nothing to sneer at, if they can be pointed in the right direction.”

“Rely on them and you’ll get a knife in the back,” he gravelled.

“The correct word is use, not rely,” I said. “When can I expect you to move out?”

He mulled over it.

“Two days,” he said. “Supplies are mostly ready, but I want them prepared for a hard march.”

I nodded.

“We should be gone, by then,” I said. “Until we are you can liaise with Adjutant if you need anything. I’ll be busy pacifying the capital.”

He saluted, reluctantly, and I pushed back my chair.

“Hakram?” I prompted.

“I’ll be in touch, general,” Adjutant said.

We left together. I still had over a bell before dawn, by my reckoning, but I’d need to sleep at some point. And when I woke up, I’d have to make sure the largest city in Callow didn’t start rioting the moment my legionaries left. Joy.

Chapter 19: Order (Redux)

“In the aftermath of a rebellion do not execute merely those who rebelled. Remove those that remained uncommitted as well, for any power not bound to you is a threat.”
– Extract from the personal journals of Dread Emperor Terribilis II

The gate opened into Fairfax Square.

A year ago, this plaza had been filled to the brim with people come from all over the north of Callow to see the Empress bestow her rewards upon the victors of the Liesse Rebellion. Now? It was night-empty, though that had as much to do with the hour of the night as Laure’s recent… troubles. I’d thought about trying to open the portal directly into the Whitestone, since it was much closer to the palace, but ultimately decided against it. Even after experimenting with the power under Masego’s guidance it was still a roll of the dice where I’d carve a way out into Creation: better to take the widest place I knew in the capital and limit the risks. As for the time, well, it was much easier for me to open gates when it was dark out. My title in Winter likely had something to do with it. Not that even darkness seemed to affect the hard limit I’d found to my power: I could only open a portal once a day before my body began to revolt against the amount of fae power coursing through my veins.

Pushing myself to a second opening had hurt enough I’d not tried for a third. Having most liquid in my body freeze might very well have killed me, if not for the healing power I’d stolen from a hero and Apprentice’s immediate and panicked help. The coming of dawn seemed to wipe away the slate when it came to fae sorcery in my body, for some arcane reason, which was my most promising lead around the limitations so far. But given how dangerous toying with this power had turned out to be I was much more inclined to let Masego run the calculations in his tower than try more direct experimental methods. What I’d stolen in Winter, I had been forced to admit, was not without limits. No matter. It was still a massive advantage over all my opponents. Zombie the Second’s hooves clacked against the stone as I emerged first from Arcadia into the deserted heart of Laure. Legionaries followed in good order, their armour touched with frost even with the furs they wore over it.

“Three days,” Nauk said, striding to my side as his soldiers spread out. “Three days, Catherine.”

My horse stirred uneasily as the presence of an orc so close, but I stroked his neck until he calmed. Even mounts raised with greenskins never got entirely accustomed to them: there was just something wrong about the way orcs smelled, apparently. Considering that anything that moved qualified as meat for the cookpots, according to the Clans, I couldn’t really blame them.

“I don’t think all our crossings will be so uneventful,” I replied.

“I don’t care if we have to fight a running battle every time,” he laughed. “It was a month and half’s journey, if we marched my people halfway to the grave. The Fifteenth’s the fastest army in Creation now. Hells, we barely even need a supply train.”

“The fastest inside the Empire, maybe,” I said. “I wouldn’t try to portal anywhere I haven’t been before.”

“The warlock’s get said he’d be able to run the numbers for it,” the orc legate said.

“Masego was raised by a vicious creature of pure Evil and also a devil,” I said. “His definition of safe is a little skewed. I’m not using his model unless we get really desperate.”

“So in a few months, then,” Robber grinned.

I’d heard the goblin approach, for once. I was getting used to his skulking.

“You never know,” I sighed. “We could get through a single year without drowning in the deep end.”

“Just wouldn’t be the Fifteenth if it we were fighting battles we’re supposed to win,” Nauk contributed.

That was  so sadly true I didn’t bother to deny it.

“Hakram?” I asked the Special Tribune.

“With the rear guard,” he replied. “We’ve had some curious little bastards coming closer.”

I grimaced. While no Winter fae had made contact my sentries had reported silhouettes in the distance keeping an eye on us. I doubted any of the big ones would bother to come in person, but until I knew whose underlings those scouts were I’d have to tread carefully. I might be a Duchess but I was a Duchess of Winter. As usual, the side I’d ended up on was the one known for vicious infighting. I watched the legionaries move into a defensive formation across Fairfax Square and drummed my fingers against my saddle.

“Robber,” I said. “Hunt me some rats. I want anyone aligned with a Dark Guild in my city in custody, and soon.”

The goblin’s eyes glinted malevolently in the dark.

“And if they don’t want to come along?” he asked.

“You’re operating under my authority,” I replied. “Use whatever means you deem necessary.”

The chuckling sound he made was so unpleasant it should have counted as a crime.

“You’ll have them by sunup, Boss,” he said, saluting so sloppily I barely recognized the gesture.

He whistled sharply as he trotted off, his merry pack of killers popping out from the ranks to assemble around him. They looked like ugly green imps, I thought as I watched them, but they acted more like a pack of wolves – clustering around the nastiest among them, eager to sink their teeth into something.

“General Orim will have the city under martial law,” Nauk said. “That means patrols in the street.”

“Adjutant will be handling the Fifth,” I grunted.

In part because of all the men I had with me I trusted Hakram the most not to get into a pissing match with another legion, in part because he was the Adjutant. The importance of Hakram being the first orc Named in centuries had been piled on over by the messes we kept getting ourselves in, but it was no small thing. His kind looked at him with something like a worship, an old dream given new flesh. Orim the Grim was an orc of the Lesser Steppes: by my estimation, being faced with an orc with a Name instead of a Callowan girl with the skin tone of the enemy he’d spent half his life fighting would make him more apt to listen. My few past conversations with the man had been stilted, if polite, so there was no relationship to call on from my side. It was coming to regret, these days, that I’d not cultivated closer ties with the generals and marshals that served in Callowan territory. Having a better idea of the kind of people they were would have been useful in planning my actions.

The Gallowborne were the last to leave Arcadia and immediately they closed ranks around me. Tribune Farrier cast wary eyes around us, seeking out danger in the shadows. His inability to follow me in Arcadia had made him even more stubborn about my being accompanied at all times, which I hadn’t thought was actually physically possible. Getting him to close the read guard had been like pulling out nails with my teeth. Hakram took the tenth that I’d put under his direct command years ago – Sergeant Tordis’ men, though she was now a Lieutenant – and after offering me a nod from a distance headed west through the streets. The largest barracks in the city were close to the wall there, and that would be where General Orim had his headquarters. Hopefully he’d manage to handle that situation before it become a problem. I was, after all suddenly dumping almost two and a half thousand soldiers into a boiling pot that had already tipped over several times.

“Royal Palace?” Nauk said.

I nodded.

“Pass word down to your people,” I said. “If they see any Praesi in this city that are not part of the Fifth, they are to put them under arrest.”

“They won’t like that,” the broad orc said.

They weren’t meant to.

“They get one chance to surrender peacefully,” I said mildly. “If they resist? Kill them.”

The legate grinned.

“Aye,” he gravelled. “That we will.”

Nauk’s kabili of two thousand split into five groups of two cohorts, marching down the major avenues leading up to the Whitestone. The full cohort of Gallowborne remained around me as we took the centre of the formation with my legate’s own four hundred in front of us. It wasn’t long before we started getting attention. People peeked at us through shuttered windows, still too afraid to break curfew to come out. It was hard to read the mood of a city in the middle of the night, but fear was what I was getting. With the fake Ruling Council and the Fifth Legion openly at each other’s throats, that was more than understandable. We encountered our first patrol a quarter hour in – drawn by ripples we were causing in the city, a pair of lines from the Fifth came to see what was happening. They ran into the leftmost wing of our formation but were sent straight to me for an explanation. The Soninke lieutenant in charge saluted hastily when she realized who she was dealing with.

“Ma’am,” she greeted me. “Lieutenant Tomuka, Fifth Legion.”

“Lieutenant,” I replied pleasantly. “You may continue with your duties, though I believe you’ll be recalled to the barracks soon. The Fifteenth is taking over.”

“We, uh, weren’t aware you were going to be coming, ma’am,” the Soninke said. “Our scouting lines didn’t report a force headed for the capital.”

“They wouldn’t have,” I simply said. “Before you return to your patrol, I have a few questions for you.”

“I’m at your disposal,” she grimaced.

“The usurpers in the Royal Palace,” I said. “How many men do they have at their disposal?”

“Five hundred, by our latest estimate,” the lieutenant said. “They’ve barricaded upper Whitestone and forbid access to even legionaries.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“And General Orim has allowed this?”

“The general says as long as they’re holed up in the palace we won’t have to put down any more riots,” she replied frankly. “It’s not worth making an issue about.”

I leaned back on my saddle.

“Only five hundred, Nauk,” I called out. “We go in hard.”

Loud orcish laughter was my only response. I glanced down at the uneasy lieutenant.

“I’d suggest sending a runner to any patrols in the area,” I told her. “Wouldn’t want anybody caught in the crossfire.”

“I’ll kick that up the ladder, ma’am,” the Soninke said noncommittally.

Oh well. It didn’t particularly mind an audience, truth be told. It might remind General Orim exactly who he was dealing with, when we sat down to have a little chat.

“Dismissed, Lieutenant Tomuka,” I said, spurring Zombie the Second ahead.

A single line of Gallowborne broke from formation to follow me as I headed for my legate. Even when surrounded my other legionaries they didn’t feel I was quite protected enough, evidently. Nauk was in hushed conversation with one of his officers, a Taghreb with the marks of a commander on her armour.

“Nauk,” I said, interrupting him. “Scout reports.”

The orc turned to me after clasping his second-in-command on the shoulder.

“Three barricades,” he said. “About a hundred people on each. We’re assuming the rest will be inside the palace.”

I hummed. It would be smarter to wait until we had some flanking positions before making an assault, but I wanted this done with as quickly as possible. These people were too unimportant for me to able to spare much effort on them. I doubted the enemy had anything in their employ that would be able to handle an assault by legionaries, anyway.

“I’ll take the central one with the Gallowborne,” I said. “Staggered hit on the other two.”

“You’re hogging the good stuff, Cat,” the orc complained.

“Well, this ought to make up for it,” I said, “If they don’t surrender, Legate, I want you to make a point.”

“We flagging them as not citizens, then?” he pressed eagerly.

By Legion regulations, Imperial citizens – even those in rebellion – could not have their corpses eaten after death, unless their will specifically stated otherwise.  Even at the height of the Liesse Rebellion, the people who’d taken up arms had qualified as citizens. The Tower, after all, claimed all of Callow as its own.

“By my authority as the acting head of the Ruling Council, I strip any hostile forces inside Laure of their citizenship,” I replied after a moment.

That was a way to get my point across, sure enough. Corpses with their faces chewed off and missing limbs might would appal most the city, but it would send a message to the High Lords: fuck with Callow under my watch and I’ll take the gloves off. It was about time they started catching up to that truth. The Taghreb commander paled at my words, but she knew better than to comment. I glanced at Tribune Farrier.

“Muster your men, John,” I ordered. “We’re taking the lead.”

“Gladly, Countess,” he said, a hard look on his face.

Farrier had never thought much of Praes, and though he’d come to have a rough sort of camaraderie with the men and women of the Fifteenth his opinion of the Empire at large had taken a sharp nosedive when news of what had happened in Laure spread. He’d made it abundantly clear in the past that he followed me, not the Tower, and he’d not changed that stance by an inch in the months since that declaration. Nauk’s cohort split to allow us passage and I led my personal retinue forward at a brisk pace. It wasn’t long before we entered the pale facades and sprawling gardens of the Whitestone, and from there it was only a matter of time before we ran into the barricade.

The Ruling Council’s hirelings had picked a good spot. I’d give them that much. They’d propped up crates and carts between an iron fence surrounding a garden and the high wall of what must have once been a noble’s compound. The avenue was narrower than most, and I could see from atop Zombie that even at this hour the barricade bristled with pikes and crossbowmen. The latter of those weapons was as clear an indication of the origin of the soldiers as the skin colours I could discern in the dark: Callowans and most other Calernian nations fielded bows, not crossbows. And certainly not the lever-action crossbows whose designs were the work of the goblins of Foramen’s Imperial Forges. Household troops, then. Not mercenary pushovers. I set Zombie at a trot, gesturing for the Gallowborne to stay behind as I closed in on the barricade. I could see the enemy soldiers stirring, crossbows being brought to the fore.

“Disperse, citizen,” a man’s voice called out. “By order of the Ruling Council of Callow, this section of the city is closed off.”

A Taghreb had risen atop a crate, and he’d been the one to speak. An older man, scarred and with a curved scimitar at his hip. He looked liked he could be Aisha’s uncle, though one from the ugly side of the family.

“There is no Ruling Council,” I said. “Only two Wastelanders who illegally seized power and botched it so badly they have to hide from rioters.”

“General Orim acceded to our demands to stay out of this area,” the man replied impatiently. “You will be written up for disobeying orders if you press us any further.”

I snorted.

“Look at the symbol on the shields of the men behind me,” I said. “Do they look like they’re part of the Fifth?”

A golden noose on a field of red was what he’d find. My personal retinue had not existed for long but there were few people in Callow who wouldn’t recognize their heraldry. They’d made something of an impression, in Marchford and Liesse.

“Gallowborne?” he said. “The Hells are you doing this far north? No matter. The Ruling Council passed a decree forbidding entrance into the city to any legion but the Fifth. Your presence here goes against the Tower’s law. Your general should fuck off south to play with the fairies.”

“If Juniper was in command, we wouldn’t be talking,” I said. “You’d be eating your third volley. But I’m a soft touch. You get a chance to surrender before I string you up above the city gates.”

The Taghreb laughed.

“And who do you think you are, girl?”

Huh. It’d been a while since the last time someone hadn’t recognized me. Or basically fed me a line just asking for a witty retort. If I’d been in a better mood, I might just have toyed with him a bit. I wasn’t. I wasn’t angry either, just… irritated. That I had to lose hours dealing with the greed and stupidity of short-sighted fools when I should have been dealing with the monsters torching my homeland.

“Countess Catherine Foundling of Marchford,” I said. “The Squire.”

“And I’m the fucking Empress,” the Taghreb mocked. “I’m just hiding the tits under the-“

I called on my Name, forming a spear of shadows, but something… bled into it. The power I’d gotten from Winter, the one that had grown tendrils into my soul when I became the Duchess of Moonless Nights. I abandoned that working and turned my will to the enemy commander instead. Shadows coiled around his neck, coming into existence, and there was a sharp sound. His head popped off his body and fell to the ground where it shattered into shards of ice. Well, that was new. Not worth having my heart literally ripped from my chest for, but it would come in useful.

“I’ve got another half-dozen titles,” I continued calmly. “I won’t bother to list them out. Now that idiocy killed your commander, who’s in charge?”

Fire, you fools,” a woman’s voice hissed. “Before she kills us all.”

“The hard way it is, then,” I sighed. “GALLOWBORNE, FORWARD!”

I formed a panel of shadow in front of me to catch the crossbow bolts, frowning at how easy it was. It didn’t take any less power than it had before, I noted as the steel-tipped projectiles thudded into the makeshift shield. The well was just deeper than it used to be, deeper than it should be in a transitional Name like mine. Weaker than the kind of power I’d felt in the Duke of Violent Squalls, but not by that much – and wasn’t that a terrifying thought? That kind of a gain never came without a cost, and I wasn’t sure what I’d be paying with. If I ended up losing my soul because of fae shenanigans, I was going to be pissed. I just knew that stealing it back would be horrendously difficult, and I didn’t have the time to spare to murder my way back into a semblance of humanity with all the other things going on. The enemy didn’t bother shooting at me again after it was made abundantly clear they might as well be aiming at a wall, instead aiming their crossbows at the raised shields of my retinue.

I wasn’t having any of that.

Dismissing the shield, I called on the power a third time. I’d shot bolts of shadow out of my hand before, and even learned how to strengthen or weaken them: this time I poured as much as I could into the working without it blowing up in my face, and loosed the projectile at the foot of the barricade’s centre. The resulting explosion of wood and screams had me blink in surprise: I’d essentially pulverized three feet of barricade and assorted people with a gesture, and I wasn’t even winded yet. Yeah, definitely sitting down with Masego to have a talk about this.

“Plug the gap!” the same woman’s voice called out.

“Fire,” Tribune Farrier’s voice calmly ordered.

My own people’s volley did little more damage than the sporadic fire they’d been subjected to – it was hard to hit a target holed up behind cover, even a panicking one – but it did what it had been meant to: suppress the enemy before the first rank hit them. I spurred Zombie forward into the gap I’d created, where the enemy was trying to form a line, and didn’t even bother to call on my Name. My warhorse trampled his way through the fledgling formation and I spilled a man’s brains on the ground with a measured stroke of my sword. There must have been ten soldiers around me, but they were tired and scared and facing a Named. Well all knew how it was going to end. Within heartbeats the Gallowborne were at my sides, methodically butchering their way through the Praesi troops. Pikes and crossbows were no match for veteran sword and board infantry like my retinue on the best of days, and even less since I’d taken to occasionally drilling them muself. The skirmish was quick and brutally one-sided, the back of the enemy formation beginning to run for it before the front even collapsed. I waited for us to have seized the barricade properly, then picked out Farrier from the crowd.

“Tribune,” I said. “Send a runner to Nauk. The centre is secure. The Fifteenth is to advance on every front and converge on the Royal Palace. Leave a detachment behind for our wounded.”

I glanced at the rest of my personal guard. They were not, by the looks of it, particularly thrilled by the victory. There’d been nothing to this fight but whimpers and dead men. Like the seasoned professionals they were, the Gallowborne went around finishing off the enemy wounded as the meat of the cohort resumed formation.

“The rest of you, with me,” I said. “Let’s get this over with.”

I led and they followed. The outer gates to the Royal Palace were wide open, and its grounds freshly tread. Evidently the runners from our last engagement had made it here ahead of us. The gardens were similarly deserted but up ahead I could see where the remaining forces of the Ruling Council were waiting for us. Crossbows were peeking out of windows on both levels of the main hall and the large gates in front were closed. Probably barricaded from behind. I trotted up ahead again, and ignored the hesitant hail from a window to the left. Cloak streaming behind me, I guided Zombie to the bottom of the marble steps and stared at the massive bronze gates.

Break,” I said.

My Name flared even as the metal crumpled like parchment under my eyes, falling apart with a sound like a gong being struck. In the hall behind, two dozen soldiers stood shaking and pale.

“Surrender,” I ordered. “I will not tell you twice.”

As the Gallowborne silently spread their ranks behind me, soldiers began dropping the swords. In the windows crossbows dipped as men retreated and the poor fools in front of me knelt. Farrier came to my side and I addressed him without looking.

“The two usurpers will be inside,” I said. “Secure them.”

“By your will, Countess,” he murmured.

I got off my mount and offered the reins to one of my soldiers, dismissing John’s strong suggestion that I take an escort with a sharp gesture. They would be more hindrance than help where I was headed. Ignoring the terrified soldiers as I strode into the palace, I headed straight for the heart of what had once been the seat of power for the Fairfax dynasty – and the Albans before them. The room where the Ruling Council had once held its sessions was deserted, and the door to it locked. Nothing the strength of the Named couldn’t force open. It was evident by even a short look that the luxurious room hadn’t been used in some time. The two Wastelanders must actually have been arrogant enough to have used the former throne room for their audiences. Idly taking off my helmet and shaking loose the hair under it, I set down the chunk of goblin steel on the table with a loud thunk. My gauntlets soon followed it, thrown carelessly as I headed for the chair at the head of the table. I paused there, my hand on the arm of it.

“I’ve felt you looking since the moment I left Arcadia,” I spoke into the gloom. “Come out.”

The woman slipped out of the deeper shadows in the corner, idly strolling to the seat on the other end and plopping herself down on it.

“Evening, Squire,” the Thief said. “Fancy meeting you here.”

Chapter 18: Crack

“Kingdoms don’t die on battlefields. They die in dark, quiet rooms where deals are made between those who should know better.”
– King Edward Alban of Callow, best known for annexing the Kingdom of Liesse

Masego’s mage tower did not even attempt to look like anything else. It was at least a hundred feet tall, for one, which was taller than some keeps I’d come across. But that alone could have been the work of masons. The moat surrounding it was a different story: twenty feet wide and circling the building, it held no water but instead pitch-black darkness. No bottom could be seen, and a few months back I’d dropped a stone to see if it would do anything. As far as I knew, it was still falling. Apprentice had been particularly cagey about telling me exactly where the Hells it led, if anywhere, but that was in part my own fault. I’d flatly forbidden him to proceed with his original notion, which had been to fill a normal moat with giant fire-breathing lizards. Not dragons, he’d been very insistent in telling me. They didn’t have wings, and weren’t nearly as large. But the idea of those things inevitably getting loose and either rampaging across Marchford or making a lair in one of the silver mines had led me to put my foot down.

He’d been very snippy about it.

There was a single stone arch leading across the moat to the dark iron gate in front, wide for two people at a time at most and bare of any railing. There was a reason I picked messengers that weren’t faint of heart when trying to get in contact with him. I tread across carefully. The entire surface of the tower was covered in grey mosaics and leering carvings of obsidian, which he’d assured me were there for purely magical purposes. He’d thrown enough magic babble at me to justify that point that I was pretty sure that he just really liked how it looked. Being raised by a devil and a villain had let my friend to have some fairly specific tastes in architecture, sadly, which could be best described as ‘nightmare trying to seem friendly and failing’. The iron gate was covered in runes, and there was no knocker. In the centre, an iron-cast wolf’s head stood out from the surface and animated when I arrived. There was a devil bound inside, I knew, though Masego had tried to not say as much by referring to it as ‘an entity from a secondary realm of existence’.

“A visitor,” the wolf said. “Only the worthy may gain entrance here. To prove your wit, answer me this riddle-“

“Answer mine first,” I replied flatly. “Who’s going to find out if my punches can dent iron if they don’t open right now?”

The wolf paused.

“That is now how this usually goes,” it complained.

“I get that a lot,” I smiled thinly.

“Your name is on the allowed list,” it said. “You may enter.”

There was a pause, then it added uncouth barbarian in a loud whisper. I flicked its eye out of spite even as a doorway opened on the surface, ignoring its yelp and string of curses. The lowest level of the tower was much like any entrance hall decorated by a Praesi with too much gold to waste, though there was one major difference. Namely, the winged tapir that was fleeing down the stairs with loud shrieks as a dark-skinned woman in robes ran after it. It’d been a while since I’d last seen Fadila Mbafeno. Once one of Akua’s minions, I’d nearly killed her in Liesse before Masego intervened and said she was too talented a practitioner to waste. He’d extracted an oath from her to be safe she wouldn’t turn, in the early days, though she’d since been freed of it. Those kinds of binding magical oaths caused some fairly vicious side-effects if allowed to linger for too long. There was a burst of blue light from the Soninke’s hands and shining chains emerged from her sleeve, wrapping around the shrieking tapir and forcing its wings and feet to stop moving. She grunted in effort when dragging it back to her. I cleared my throat and had to admit I found the look of surprise and panic on her face when she realized I was here delightful.

“Fadila,” I said. “Keeping busy, I see.”

The winged tapir kept shrieking at the top of its lungs until she kicked it, at which point it moaned plaintively.

“Lady Squire,” she said, panting. “Some of the specimens occasionally get… rowdy.”

I snorted.

“First time I met Masego,” I said, “he was catching a fire-breathing pig with wings.”

I squinted at the tapir.

“That doesn’t breathe fire, right?”

“He does not,” Fadila replied, trying for poise. “Which has very interesting implications, considering the amount of sorcery he’s been exposed to.”

“I’m, uh, sure it does,” I lied. “Masego should be expecting me.”

“He’s set up the scrying room on the second level,” the Soninke said.

Oh, good. Then he’d found a way to get in contact with Black like I’d asked him. Apparently it was possible if we took advantage of the relay system the Empress used to receive my teacher’s reports, but he’d told me piggybacking on that without killing some of the mages involved would require some finagling.

“You have fun with this abomination of nature, then,” I said cheerfully, passing her by.

The tapir was licking her feet in what I gauged to be a gesture of appeasement, but she didn’t seem moved by the offering. By the time I was nearing the second level the shrieking had started again. The door to the scrying room was already open, so I wasted no time in going. This wasn’t the kind of place where it was healthy to wander, no matter what Apprentice insisted. The man in question was kneeling in front of a wall covered entirely by polished silver, the work so finely done it worked as a mirror. He muttered something under his breath and the silver shone for a heartbeat before dulling.

“Figured it out?” I asked.

Apprentice rose to his feet, brushing off his shoulder.

“If I shunt off enough of the Due into a dispersal ward, the weight shouldn’t cascade,” he told me.

“An obvious solution,” I said, pretending I knew what any of that meant.

He eyed me sceptically but didn’t bother to call me out.

“I can initiate the connection at any time,” he said.

“Before you do that, we need a little chat,” I said. “I don’t want to keep you in the dark, so I’ll just state it outright: I might have dabbled a bit in treason.”

“Dabbled?” he said, frowning over his glasses.

“You know, dipped a toe in the treason pool,” I said.

“I wish you would have told me beforehand,” he replied. “Now I’ll need to rework Marchford’s ward pattern to be able to face advanced scrying rituals.”

I cocked my head to the side.

“That’s it?”

“Oh no, treason,” he said in a mockingly high-pitched voice. “No villain has ever done such a thing before. All my extensive interest in Imperial politics is now put in danger.”

I snorted.

“What’s that voice supposed to even represent?” I asked.

“How little I care about any of this,” he replied frankly. “I’m sure you’ll find some compromise with Uncle Amadeus, and the Empress probably knew you were going to do this before the thought ever crossed your mind.”

The bespectacled mage pressed his hand against the mirror-wall, spoke a word in the arcane tongue and idly made for the door.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” he said. “I think one of the tapirs got loose.”

“Stuff like this is why you don’t get to have giant fire-breathing lizards,” I called out.

“You have no standards, Squire,” he complained one last time before closing the door behind him.

The wall had been pulsing this entire time, but with a silvery ring an image came into focus. Pale green eyes met mine as I leaned against a table. Black’s brow rose in surprise.

“Catherine,” he greeted me. “Masego tapped into the relays?”

“The technicalities went over my head, but yes,” I said. “Hello, Black. It’s been a while.”

“It has,” he agreed calmly. “I expect you’ve a reason for this. We’ll have to rebuild the entire network now – this will have sent flares for anyone looking.”

“This morning,” I said, “I founded a chivalric order.”

The pale man did not seem particularly surprised, though it was always hard to tell with him.

“I wondered if they’d get in touch with you,” he said. “I assumed they already would have, if they were ever going to.”

I blinked.

“You knew there were knights in hiding?”

He seemed amused.

“I am not without Eyes, even in the south,” he said. “Though I can’t say this strikes me as a wise decision. Making such a bold move for a few hundred men in cavalry is inviting backlash for limited gain.”

“Two thousand,” I said quietly. “Likely more.”

He wasn’t openly shocked. He had too much control for that. But his face went blank, for a heartbeat, and that was the closest thing he’d ever show.

“I miscalculated,” he said, and I could see his mind working furiously behind the calm. “No centralized organization – ah, relying on local support. Cells with no contact after the initial founding. Whoever came up with the notion is most likely dead by now. What a waste.”

Only Black, I thought, would go within moments from realizing he’d been outsmarted to being saddened at the loss of such talent.

“I thought you’d be angrier,” I said.

“Angry?” he mused. “You’ll have folded them into the Fifteenth, if I’m not mistaken. You’ve obtained half a legions’ worth of the finest heavy cavalry on Calernia for the Empire. Pleased would be closer to the truth, though doing this without Malicia’s sanction will bring trouble.”

I frowned.

“She wouldn’t have given it,” I said.

“Not without exacting concessions in exchange,” he said. “Which you’ll have to make anyway, unless you intend to wage ware on the Empire.”

His eyes narrowed a fraction as he studied me.

“If that is your intent, giving me prior warning was a mistake,” he said.

“I don’t want to fight you,” I confessed. “But I don’t think you’ll like what I’m about to do.”

“You know where I draw the line,” he reminded me.

“I’m not going to oversee the eradication of my own people’s culture, Black,” I said.

“Then don’t,” the dark-haired man frowned. “I take no issue with Callowans having a way of life, only the aspects of it that threaten Imperial control.”

“Imperial control is what got us here in the first place,” I flatly replied.

“An independent Callow is not feasible,” he said carefully. “You know this.”

“I know,” I said. “But if this is going to work, there’s going to be a need for heads on spikes. The rot needs to be cut out or we’ll be here again in five years.”

“You’ve more immediate threats to deal with than the Wasteland,” he said after a moment.

He was not disagreeing with me and it was enough to have me shiver. He’d told me, once, that after the civil war that saw Malicia crowned he’d wanted to get rid of the Wastelands’ nobility. It was the Empress who’d stopped him. I wouldn’t be going that far, but – he was not disagreeing with me.

“I do,” I said. “But after…”

“After,” he agreed softly. “When I return.”

His image on the wall turned and I heard someone speak to him.

“Then block it,” Black said. “Before they can-“

The mirror-wall dulled, my teacher’s profile disappearing without warning and leaving only my face looking back at me. I breathed out slowly. So I wasn’t burning this bridge by doing what I intended to. Relief flooded me as I closed my eyes. I stayed there for a moment, and eventually I thought back to an evening long ago, on a balcony where a storm was gathering.  I’d asked Black a question, back then and I could still hear his reply like he’d just spoken it. When they get in your way? Step on them.

Of all the lessons he’d taught me, I thought, I had learned that one best.

“So are you going to tell me why you made sure I wouldn’t be at that meeting?” Kilian asked.

We’d come to share a wineskin by the ruins of had once been Marchford Manor, the blackened remains swept away months ago by Pickler’s sappers. Rain and wind had scattered the ashes, leaving behind only the remains of the garden and the gaggle of statues that had filled it. The two of us were seated on a scorched stone bench, its once-elaborate carvings now hidden by soot. I passed her the wineskin and watched my lover drink from the Vale summer wine. Night had just fallen, the moon slowly climbing to its apex. I hesitated for a moment, then forged on.

“I’ve gone against the Empress,” I said.

The quarter-fae was lovely, in the shade. Her red hair had grown long enough it bordered the limit of what was acceptable by Legions regulation, framing her pale face and hazelnut eyes like a tongue of flame. Kilian set down the wineskin after a moment.

“The noble Juniper put in a cell,” she finally said. “He talked you into something.”

“I’ve been headed there, I think,” I said, “since the moment I learned there was a coup in Laure.”

“There will be consequences to that,” the redhead softly said.

“There would be consequences to doing nothing,” I replied. “I chose the ones I could live with.”

She remained silent for a long time. I could feel her, now, in a way that I previously could not. The bundle of power inside of me sang out when it came closer to the smaller sister-thing inside her. I no longer needed to hear or see her to know when she was in a room.

“You’ve never been very good at compromise,” Kilian said.

I frowned.

“I’ve done almost nothing but for the last two years,” I replied.

“You compromise,” the lovely mage said, “when the other is stronger. And you are no longer powerless.”

“I’m not sure what you’re saying,” I admitted.

She smiled gently at me.

“Why did you not tell me with the others?” she asked.

“I thought I owed it to you for it to be just the two of us,” I said.

She drank another mouthful of wine, then passed me the skin.

“Catherine,” she said. “Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not-“

“You didn’t want me in that room,” Kilian said calmly, “because if I left you over this, you didn’t want it to happen in front of the others.”

I very nearly denied that. But instead I took the wineskin and drank.

“The thought might have crossed my mind,” I said.

“I’m not sure whether I should take that as a kindness or an insult,” she murmured, looking up.

It’d been a long time since I’d last felt without so much as a speck of control over a conversation. I hadn’t missed the feeling.

“When we started this,” Kilian said. “I knew I’d always be third in line. Behind Callow, behind the the Fifteenth. On a good day, if duties allowed, I might wiggle up to second. But not often.”

I felt my stomach knot.

“Kilian, I know we haven’t spent a lot of time together lately. I’ve not been able to-“

She leaned into me and pressed a kiss against my shoulder.

“I’m not angry about it, Cat,” she said. “I just told you, I knew that from the start. But you’re leaving me behind. That’s just a fact.”

“I’m not,” I insisted.

“I have fae blood,” she said. “But you took two people into Arcadia, and I wasn’t one of them.”

“Kilian, it was dangerous,” I said. “The kind of things I do in places like that, the kind of risks I take, they’re…”

“Too much for me,” she finished after I hesitated. “Because I’m weak.”

“You’re one of the best mages in the Fifteenth,” I said.

She chuckled wearily.

“And what does that matter, when you have the Apprentice at your side?” she said.

“I don’t share a bed with Masego, for one,” I sharply replied.

“Is that what I’m to be remembered as, then?” Kilian said. “The girl who warmed your bed on your way to power?”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” I said. “I trust you.”

Her eyes met mine.

“Then why wasn’t I in that room?”

I looked away first.

“Just because I was afraid doesn’t mean I don’t trust you,” I said. “I’ve told you things I’ve never told anyone before, Kilian.”

“And I love you for that,” the redhead smiled. “Even though it’s stupid and dangerous and it might just get me killed.”

The rush that came with her saying those words had never dimmed and I gloried in it for a moment. But then the smile went away.

“But now I think of the conversation you had with them, earlier,” she said. “And I know you made a decision. You needed to convince all of them, and there was a risk I could distract from that effort. So you made the call.”

She sighed.

“You know, I think the better part of everyone you love in this world was in that room,” she mused. “And you manipulated them anyway. I don’t believe you had that in you, when we first met.”

You’re wrong, I thought. I’d just never had a reason to use it.

“I’m glad you do now,” she murmured. “We’ll need it to survive the coming months. But I have to think of myself too.”

“I thought you were happy,” I murmured. “With us, with-“

Me, I left unsaid.

“I am,” she said, laying a hand on my cheek. “But you’re leaving me behind, Cat. And the kind of things I would have to do to catch up would end us anyway.”

“I don’t believe that,” I said.

“As long as I don’t control my blood,” she said, “My magic is shackled.”

“Masego could find a way,” I said.

“He already has,” she replied. “It’s an old ritual. It requires sacrifice, and would make me as a full-fledged fae.”

“Kilian, I’d put half of Winter on an altar if it helped you,” I honestly said.

“It would require humans as a stabilizing element,” she added quietly.

My heart skipped a beat.

“You can’t seriously be considering that,” I said.

“It could all be done lawfully,” she said. “It would be costly to buy the death row prisoners, but demand has lessened and I’ve the funds for it.”

“It’s not about the law,” I hissed. “It’s about decency. They’re people, not things.”

The redhead chuckled softly.

“You can take the girl out of Callow,” she said. “But not Callow out of the girl.”

“You’re Duni,” I said.

As good as Callowan, in most Wastelanders’ eyes.

They make that distinction, not me,” Kilian said, tone hardening as she withdrew her hand. “I am Praesi, Catherine. It’s not any more a crime for me to love my home than you yours.”

“This isn’t about where we’re from,” I replied, aghast. “It’s about human sacrifice.”

“And how many of us will die so you can make what you want out of Callow?” she said tiredly. “I don’t see much of a difference. At least it’s strangers I would be using.”

“There is,” I started, but stopped when she lay a hand on my shoulder.

“I don’t want to have this fight, Cat,” she said. “If I did I would have brought up the notion when I first learned of it. I’ll just say this: if there’s anyone who should be able to understand how hateful it is to have a yoke around your neck, it’s you. To just be… less than you could be.”

“There’s lines you can’t uncross,” I said.

“And how many of those have you left behind?” she replied quietly, rising to her feet.

My stomach dropped.

“That’s it?” I said. “Just like that you’re leaving me?”

Because I won’t condone bleeding people like animals, I bit down on. Kilian’s face was hard to read in the dark, but there was no joy on it.

“No,” she finally said. “But I need to think. About what compromises I’m willing to make to make you happy.”

She passed a hand through her hair.

“I’ll be sleeping in the barracks from now on,” Kilian said. “Take care of yourself, Catherine. It only gets harder from here.”

I watched her walk away in silence, and kept watching long after she was gone. Eventually I looked up at the moon, and wondered if I was even still capable of crying.

Chapter 17: Allegiance

“There’s a natural hierarchy to the world, Chancellor: there’s me, then my boot, then all of Creation under the boot.”
– Dread Empress Regalia

It felt good to be back in plate. It felt even better to know that I’d be facing opponents that could actually be deterred by armour – no more of this ‘fae blades cut through everything’ bullshit. It’d been like fighting a hundred less competent version of the Lone Swordsman, though admittedly with much less lecturing thrown around. Small favours. My cloaks swirled behind me as I walked down the stairs, the most recent addition to it glimmering even in the dark. How Hakram had managed to get his hands on a piece of the Duke of Violent Squalls’ clothes I had no idea, but the wind-like cloth had been added as another mark of victory to my name. A third of the black cloth was now covered by stolen banners of dead men. How many years, before there is no black left? At the rate I was making enemies, not many. If I survived the year, odds were Akua Sahelian’s would be joining the lot. There was a thought to warm my absent heart.

It was cooler, underground. There’d been two sets of goals in Marchford, before I’d taken the city back in the rebellion. The cells for petty criminals, near the centre of the city: the ones I was currently in. The other had been for highborn prisoners, in a wing of the Countess of Marchford’s manner. The very same I’d had Robber put to the torch purely to piss then-Heiress off. If I’d known back then I’d have to pay for rebuilding the godsdamned thing, I might have held off. The awareness that I’d ordered that manor burned followed me into the dark. The man I was visiting, after all, had once called that seat of power his birthright. Elizabeth Talbot did not have any children, but she had a whole tribe of relatives. Her designated heir was her brother’s son, Lord Brandon Talbot – who’d been among the rebels broken by Black but had managed to escape and survive.

From the fact that his head had not ended up on a pike in the following months, I assumed neither my teacher nor Malicia had thought him worth the effort of hunting down. With that in mind I’d expected to find a living example of every noble wastrel tale waiting down in his cell, but the reality was different. Brandon Talbot was a man in his early thirties, powerfully built with a thick beard and long hair held in a ponytail much like mine. He was seated on a stone bench in the back, managing to make the position look almost dignified even if his well-tailored clothes had obviously not been washed in some time.

“I was beginning to think I’d been forgotten down here,” the man said.

“No such luck,” I replied.

I glanced around. There was a table and seats meant for guards, under a pair of torches, and I claimed one of the chars. Turning its back to the prisoner, I straddled it and propped up my elbows atop it. He was staring at me, I saw, a strange expression on his face.

“Taking a good look?” I said.

He blinked, then shook his head.

“I mean, I’d heard,” he said. “But it’s another thing to see it. You’re so young.”

I hid my surprise. Usually, at this point, my enemies offered up banter. Or a denunciation of some sort. Maybe a dig at my height, which made stabbing them afterwards a sort of justice.

“Age stops mattering, when you become Named,” I said.

“Age always matters,” he disagreed softly. “There was a time this country didn’t make soldiers of its children.”

I smiled thinly.

“And then we lost,” I said. “A lesson learned.”

“Of all the things we lost back then,” Brandon Talbot murmured, “I think I might grieve that one the most.”

“Is that why you came here?” I asked. “To tell me of the past glories of the Kingdom?”

“The Kingdom died,” he said, tone sad. “Once on the Fields of Streges, and again when the Carrion Lord snuffed out the dream last year.”

“It was not a Callowan dream,” I replied harshly. “It was a Proceran one, bought with the First Prince’s silver.”

“Oh we all knew that, deep down,” Lord Brandon admitted. “That we were being used. But we glimpsed a world that was more than waking up every morning with the Tower’s boot on our throat. It was not a bad dream, Countess Foundling.”

“Lady,” I corrected. “Lady Foundling.”

He peered at me, dark bangs and darker shadows framing his face.

“Are you really?” he asked.

“To you?” I said. “Yes.”

The man laughed.

“You think I’m your enemy,” he said.

“I think you committed treason,” I said. “I’ve hanged men for less.”

“And yet here I am,” Lord Brandon said. “Without a rope around my neck.”

I smiled mirthlessly.

“It would be a very grave mistake,” I said, “to confuse curiosity for mercy.”

“But you are curious,” he said. “Most would have sent me to the gallows without even an audience. Your orc certainly wanted to.”

“General Juniper would have been well within her rights to give you a traitor’s death,” I replied harshly.

“I’m not trying to speak ill of your friend, Countess Foundling,” he said, waving away the notion.

Blue eyes considered me carefully.

“She is your friend, yes?”

“Something like that,” I said.

“And yet they say you fight for Callow,” Lord Brandon mused. “Most would think those two things irreconcilable.”

“But not you?” I snorted. “If you’re looking for a pardon for that concession, you’re knocking at the wrong door. I’m eighteen, not an idiot.”

He did not entirely manage to hide his surprise when I mentioned my age. Oh fuck him, I thought. I wasn’t that short. I’d been almost an inch taller than Black before he left, it wasn’t my fault I was surrounded by godsdamned giants all the time.

“What do you want, Lord Talbot?” I said. “You had to know you’d end up in a cell if you turned up here.”

“I want you to save Callow,” he said. “While there’s still some of it left to save.”

“Always the cry of the highborn, isn’t it?” I laughed, darkly amused. “Bring it back the way it used to be! When everything was perfect because we were rich and powerful and we ran the fucking show.”

“This land was at peace, once,” he said.

“I keep hearing people talk about bringing back the Kingdom,” I said. “Like putting a crown on some Fairfax relative would magically fix this fucking country. You all act like everything was perfect before the Conquest, like it was some never-ending golden age. It wasn’t. I’ve read the records, and what you’re trying to resurrect never existed. All a rebellion won would accomplish is slapping a fresh coat of ruin over a bitter truth: all that’s changed is whose palace the taxes build.”

“If you hold us in such contempt,” he said, “why claim to fight for us?”

“Because there’s a difference between Callow and the Kingdom,” I hissed. “One is people. The other’s gilding. People I’ll draw my sword for, every time. The rest can burn. It’s not worth a single drop of godsdamned blood.”

“The people are dying, Countess,” Lord Brandon said.

“So they are,” I conceded tiredly. “And so I go to war again.”

“I don’t mean the fae,” the noble said, shaking his head. “Or even the butcher you gave Liesse to. Callow is dying. Our way of life. Another fifty years of this and we’ll be light-skinned Praesi, save for a few bitter enclaves.”

I didn’t reply, because he was right. I knew he was, and worst of all I didn’t have a solution. Because the monsters were as cunning as they were powerful, and they had been playing this game since before I was born. Winning it through schools and trade and the featherweight of apathy. It was one of the first thing Black had ever told me: he didn’t need people to agree, just not to care. And it was working, wasn’t it? During the Liesse Rebellion, no holding north of Vale has risen. So few soldiers had answered the Duke’s call that he’d needed to bolster his forces with mercenaries. The dream the noble said my teacher has snuffed out had been a feeble thing from the start: peasant levies ordered into the field, barely held together by household troops and foreign soldiery. And before the war was done those same levies had delivered the same nobles who’d called on them at the feet of Black, bound in chains. Fear, I knew, had driven them there. But also more than that: no one in that army had really believed they could win anymore. Some hadn’t even been sure they should.

“I know,” I admitted.

“But this is not your design,” Lord Brandon pressed, leaning forward.

His eyes were alight, almost fervent.

“I’m trying to find a path between destruction and rebellion,” I said.

“The let us be Callowans,” he said. “Changed, perhaps, but still us. There is still a spine under the boot, Countess. There’s still a flicker of the flame no matter how many times they stamp it out.”

“Those are pretty words,” I noted. “I don’t trust pretty words, Talbot. I trust practical measures. Tangible things I can work with.”

“Bring back the knightly orders,” he said.

I stared at him for a long moment. The knights of Callow, huh? Even over twenty years after the Conquest, their silhouettes were still branded behind the eyes of children who’d been born long after the last of them were disbanded. For a lot of people, the knights were Callow, just as much as the bells of Laure or golden fields spreading as far as they eye could see. They were also a basketful of military orders disbanded by order of the Dread Empress because they were a direct threat to Praesi hegemony.

“I don’t have the authority to repeal Tower decrees,” I said.

“Not lawfully,” the noble said very, very quietly.

It still rang loudly, in these rooms empty save for the two of us. Treason had a way of doing that. I looked at him, and finally understood what I was sitting across from.

“You’re not an agitator,” I said. “You’re an envoy.”

“So I am,” he agreed softly. “We’ve watched you, Countess. Seen what you preach more than empty words.”

I’d been playing this game for too long to be fooled by flattery.

“Don’t lie to me,” I said. “You’re not coming to be because you think I’m worthy. You’re coming to me because you’re desperate. Because in fifty years, we’ll be light-skinned Praesi – and if I die, you’re not getting another Squire who gives a shit about Callow.”

He did not deny it. I allowed myself to see it, for just a moment. Knights come again, and this time on my side. Not riding down my legionaries. With Summer and the Diabolist ahead of me, the thought was horribly tempting.

“How many?” I said, mouth gone dry.

“You have not agreed,” Lord Brandon grimaced. “You must understand that-“

“You’re asking me to cross Dread Empress Malicia,” I said, tone like steel. “If you think you grasp even a fraction of how dangerous that woman really is, you’re a fucking fool. How many?

The man studied me in silence for a long time.

“Two thousand,” he said. “More may emerge if you don’t butcher us in our sleep.”

Two thousand. Gods be good.

“The Duke of Liesse didn’t even have that much horse,” I said faintly. “And Black had most his knights killed in their sleep.”

“Those of us that rose with Gaston of Liesse went to die, Foundling,” the noble murmured. “Reaching for that dream, one last time. It was the old, the tired, the despairing. The rest of us stayed hidden. To teach old ways to the young, and wait.”

Half the houses in the city will have swords and spears stashed under the floorboards or hidden away in the attic, I’d told Juniper the first night we spent in Marchford. Because this was Callow. Because we’d carry a grudge for ten generations, if that was how long it took to even the scales. Because those who wronged us always, always paid the long price no matter what it cost is. And now I’d just been told that two thousand knights were hiding in the countryside, biding their time. Under Black’s nose, for years. Pride in my countrymen warred with horror at the thought of what could have happened, if they’d all risen. Praesi thought they knew about patience but they’d only been invaded the once, and not like us. We’ve had wolves at the gate since the First Dawn. It taught us hard lessons and oh,look  how well we’ve learned them. I was more moved by the thought than I cared to admit.

“How quickly can you gather them?” I croaked.

Lord Brandon kept his face calm, but his eyes betrayed him.

“Two, maybe three months,” he said.

“You’ll be part of the Fifteenth,” I said. “Under General Juniper. Anything less is declaring war on the Tower.”

“It is a lesser yoke,” the dark-haired man said, “than the one currently choking us.”

I rose to my feet, feeling faint. I could feel the Beast’s head leaning over my shoulder, its warm breath heating my cheek. It was grinning.

“I, Countess Catherine Foundling of Marchford,” I said, “do order the creation of the Order of Broken Bells and charge Lord Brandon Talbot with gathering men under its banner.”

The man looked about to weep, and softly nodded.

“You’ll be out within the hour,” I said. “Get me knights, Talbot. Before it’s too late.”

“I don’t like this,” Juniper said.

It was almost noon. Leaving the orc to hover behind me, I put a hand against the glass and tried to feel warmth. Nothing. I was so cold to the touch these days that my breath should come as vapour. I stared at the sun and idly thought that the conversation that I was about to have would have better fit the night.

“Are you listening, Foundling?” the general growled. “I don’t fucking like it, this inner circle shit. We’re a legion, not a gang. Officers of the same rank get the same briefings.”

“What I have to say isn’t for everybody’s ears,” I said.

“Hune should be there,” the grim-faced orc continued as if she hadn’t heard me. “She’s my second, not Nauk.”

“I trust Nauk,” I replied without turning. “Hune is a blank slate.”

“Then have one of your little talks with her,” the general said. “Like you did with Ratface and Aisha.”

I snorted.

“Jealous we never had one?” I teased, sounding more light-hearted than I felt.

“Please,” she dismissed. “I already see too much of you as is. Couldn’t stomach more.”

Before I could summon up a reply, my ‘inner circle’ began piling in. They’d come as a group, it seemed. Only officers for this one: Masego was holed up in his tower, seeing to the experiments he’d left in the hands of the assistant he’s stolen from Diabolist, and Hakram was keeping Archer busy in the sparring yard. Leaving her to her own devices would just lead to more property damage I couldn’t afford to repair. Nauk was the first in, from the sound of the steps. Robber and Ratface came in bickering about ‘misappropriation of Legion resources’, which I’d probably have to look into at some point, and Aisha’s presence could be deduced from the dainty sigh that followed them. Pickler was light-footed and silent, but my ears were more than mortal now. Kilian wasn’t here. I owed it to her to tell her when it was just the two of us.

“Boss,” Robber called out. “Do I not even get a ‘good murdering, you filthy goblin’? I really feel like I’ve earned it.”

“The filthy in particular,” Aisha commented.

I turned to look at the officer’s I’d had at my side since the College, who’d followed me through a rebellion of my own making and bled in my name. I did not manage to smile.

“Oh shit,” Ratface cursed.

He’d always been a perceptive man.

“About an hour ago,” I said, “I committed treason.”

There was a heartbeat of shocked silence, then the room exploded. Aisha’s face had gone blank, Juniper looked furious and Pickler somehow managed to be bored in the face of a blunt admission of sedition. Nauk was grinning and thumping the table. Ratface’s face was darkly pleased and the noise covering all the rest was Robber’s loud, shrill laughter.

“If I may request specifics, Lady Catherine?” Aisha politely asked.

Well, I wasn’t back to Lady Foundling or Lady Squire. That was something.

“Yes, Foundling,” the Hellhound barked. “Tell us more about the forveala’sak treason.”

I didn’t know the Kharsum term she’d put in there, but by the look on Nauk’s face it must have been truly filthy.

“I’ve founded a knightly order,” I calmly said. “And released the former Countess’ nephew to fill its ranks. I’m told we should have two thousand riders within three months.”

Not a single hint of her thoughts touched Aisha’s face. Ratface leaned forward, face eager.

“Are we rebelling?” he asked.

“You shut your fucking mouth,” Juniper shouted. “We’re not rebelling.”

“Not unless the Tower forces me to,” I replied frankly.

“Fingers crossed,” Nauk laughed loudly, like I’d just handed him a bag of rubies.

“How many cousins and uncles do you have in the Legions, Nauk?” Aisha asked him, tone emotionless. “Think for once in your life.”

“Now,” Juniper interrupted, turning to me. “Now you choose to pull this shit, when the horde is at the gate.”

“That is the best time to pull something like this,” Pickler clinically said. “The Tower can’t afford to antagonize us. Not if it wants to hold Callow.”

“So we’re going rogue,” Robber grinned malevolently. “About time. I was getting tired of playing nice.”

“I will not see the Fifteenth turn on the Empire while I breathe,” Juniper said and her voice was like bedstone.

That killed every smile in the room. There was no longer any anger in her voice, I heard. She was beyond that now. She was looking at me and I’d ever only seen her with eyes that cold when she was thinking of how to destroy an enemy. I’d learn to read orcs, since my days in the College, but even if I hadn’t I’d know exactly what I saw on her face: betrayed. She felt betrayed, by someone she’d thought a friend.

“Juniper,” Aisha spoke softly into the silence. “Listen to her. Don’t assume.”

The Hellhound shook her head.

“Is that what this has all been leading to, Catherine?” she asked, and the genuine grief in her voice tone cut me like a knife. “Recruiting Callowans. Subverting officers.  Gathering Named Were you trying to ease us into treason before we ever began?”

Her voice shook.

“Was it just so you could carve yourself a kingdom?”
“Hellhound,” Nauk said, and for once his voice was soft. “We all knew this was coming. From the beginning.”

“Not like this,” Juniper said. “Not like this.”

“I’m not rebelling,” I told her, meeting her eyes. “I’m not asking you to fight your mother, Juniper. Or you your family, Aisha. But things can’t continue as they’ve gone on. Not anymore. Not after all the lines they’ve crossed.”

I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. Gods, why did I have to feel so cold? My gaze swept across the room.

“There’s something sick in the Empire,” I said. “You’ve all seen it. Some of you have felt it first-hand. Merciless Gods, the people ruling the Wasteland  think half the people in this room are cattle.”

“And you think raising a banner will change that?” Pickler said, eyes hooded. “You’re good at killing, Foundling, but you can’t kill a thousand years of hatred. Your sword is of no use there.”

“If the people in power can’t even stop killing their own,” I said quietly, “why are they still in power?”

I felt the shiver go through the room. Was this what William had felt like, when he’d first spoken to his rebels behind barred doors and shuttered windows? That weight, power and responsibility both. It would kill me, if I was not careful, like it had killed him.

“We’ve taken oaths,” Juniper said. “All of us, and you too.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I swore. To the Legions. To what Praes says it is.”

I stared her down.

“Do you think the High Lords live up to those oaths?” I asked. “I look south, and I see the highest among them rebelling for the second time in two years. Twice she’s walked away with a warning, free to bleed us again. How many of us do they get to kill before we say enough?”

“They’ll never stop,” Ratface whispered fervently, addressing everyone and no one at all. “You know that. They’ll never stop unless we make them.”

“And how many people will die, for that better world?” Aisha asked quietly.

“Mountains,” I replied. “But for once, it won’t be us doing the dying.”

The beautiful Taghreb closed her eyes, let out a deep breath.

“Emperors rise,” she said. “Emperors fall. The Tower endures. Gods forgive me, the Tower endures.”

I did not allow myself to feel joy. This wasn’t over yet.

“Beautiful things, ideals,” Pickler said. “But I’m a goblin, Foundling. You can’t eat principles. You can’t carve a tunnel with them. They don’t win wars.”

Robber let out a whisper of a laugh, and my eyes immediately went to him. I’d never heard him a noise anything like it in all the time I’d known him. It had sounded, I thought, almost wistful.

“They kill us,” the Special Tribune smiled, “for sport.”

Pickler turned to face him, face flickering with dismay.

“Robber-“

“Listen to me, Pickler,” Robber said. “No, actually listen for once. The Matrons, the High Lords, the whole fucking lot of them. They’ve had the crown for centuries. They’re fat, now. Lazy. They think they own it. You know what that means. You’re a goblin, right? They don’t get to play if they’re not willing to bleed.”

“We can’t win this. We can’t beat them,” Pickler hissed angrily, but her voice broke after. “I will not let us die doing the right thing. We are going to grow old, all of us. I will not – I don’t-“

“We can,” I said softly. “You know that already. It’s what scares you. No shame in that. I know what’s ahead better than any of you, and I’m terrified. It’ll be blood and mud and grief, but don’t think for a moment we can’t do it.”

The Senior Sapper took her hands of the table brusquely, to hide their shaking.

“It’ll be to the death, Foundling,” she said, amber eyes flicking away. “To the death. Do not start this lightly.”

She sagged in her seat afterwards. Ratface’s eyes sought mine and he chuckled.

“I always thought I’d die railing at them, you know,” he said conversationally. “Just another corpse for the pile.”

He paused, body shaking with nervous energy.

“I was brought into this war when they tried to murder me in my bed,” he said. “You never needed to ask.”

My eyes went to Nauk, who’d gotten up to lean against the wall. His arms were clasped and there was something hungry in his gaze.

“To the end,” he said, fangs bared. “I made my choice before I knew it was a choice, Callow. To the bitter fucking end.”

And just like that, there was only one. Juniper was close, had been this whole time, but she’d not moved in a while. She came closer to me, spine straight but shoulders tight.

“Swear to me, Catherine,” she said hoarsely. “Not my mother. Not any of them. That they won’t be the enemy.”

“I swear,” I told her, and offered my arm.

For the second time in our lives, she took it.

“Warlord,” she whispered, and it sounded like an oath.

It should have felt like a victory, I thought. All I felt was cold. Gods, all I felt was cold.

Chapter 16: Shambles

“See, this is exactly the kind of trouble I’d be avoiding by mind controlling the entire world. You fools are making my point for me, can’t you see?”
– Dread Emperor Imperious, shortly before being torn apart by an Ater mob

“That’s not the good news face,” I said.

There were only three of us in the war room: Juniper, Ratface and myself. We’d have a real staff meeting later today or tomorrow, but for now I’d kept the people to a minimum. When the whole family was at the table discussions tended to take longer, and for now what I wanted was a solid notion of what had happened in Callow while I was gone. And, to my unpleasant surprise, I’d been gone quite a bit longer than I’d thought: three months as of the morning I woke up. Considering Summer had already been probing the borders when I’d left and being well aware that Heiress was going to go full bastard the moment I disappeared, I was not expecting a basket of flowers. Yet the sheer dourness on the Hellhound’s face gave me pause. I glanced at Ratface – he wasn’t looking any happier. Well, at least it was unlikely to be worse than having my heart stolen by an angry Winter god. Weeping Heavens, let it not be worse than having my heart stolen by an angry Winter god. I firmly believed that was not too high of a bar to set for this conversation, but already I was getting the beginnings of a headache.

“Everything’s fucked,” Ratface flatly contributed.

“Fucked how,” I prompted. “That’s the important part.”

“Military affairs first,” Juniper said. “We are at war on at least two fronts, possibly up to five.”

I missed the days when two mortal enemies had been the upper limit, not the starting point.

“Summer,” I counted out. “Heiress?”

“Diabolist,” Ratface corrected grimly.

“She transitioned?” I said. “Shit. I had my money on her aiming for Dread Empress off the bat.”

“You weren’t the only one,” my Supply Tribune said. “Everybody’s wondering what her game is, right now.”

“A lot of people dying, if I had to venture I guess,” I grunted. “All right, Juniper, lay it on me. Summer. What are we dealing with?”

“We don’t have hard numbers,” the Hellhound replied. “Trying to scry them lost two mages their eyesight.”

The dream I’d had before waking up in Creation was still fresh in my mind – it didn’t feel like a memory, something that would fade in time or become less vivid. A Name dream was the closest equivalent I could come up with, and even those didn’t feel quite as… tangible, afterwards. Considering some of the things I’d seen Summer do in that sequence, I wasn’t all that surprised scrying them was dangerous. It must have been like staring straight into the sun.

“But you have guesses,” I said.

She nodded, and tapped her thick fingers against the map spread across the table to get my attention. There were two red stones set in southern Callow: one on Dormer, the other on Holden. Considering those two were the closest Callowan cities to the Waning Woods, why they were marked as Summer strongholds needed no explanation.

“We’ve received intelligence from General Sacker that was collected from refugees of both cities,” Juniper gravelled. “One of them was former Royal Guard, so we can put more stock in her assessment of force numbers. At least five thousand both times, and we’re fairly sure it wasn’t the same army.”

Ten thousand godsdamned fairies. No wonder she’d looked like someone had shot Aisha, earlier. Even the few hundred lesser fae we’d had to contain in Marchford had inflicted rough losses on the Fifteenth, and unlike those poor expendable bastards Summer would have titled fae leading their hosts.

“Have they moved since taking the cities?” I asked.

“No,” my general said. “Not on any large scale, anyway. They’re sending raiding parties but nearly all of them are headed towards our second problem.”

The orc did not need to point at the black stone set over Liesse for me to know what she was talking about.

“She shouldn’t have any forces to speak of,” I said. “I had the Ruling Council strike down her right to anything but a city guard.”

And her own personal retinue, a privilege granted to Praesi highborn that not even I could touch. Given her high birth the number allowed was not negligible – a thousand men – but still very far from an army.

“She doesn’t care about the Council anymore,” Ratface said. “No one does, Cat. But we’ll talk about that mess later.”

A trickle of the fury that went through me at those words must have shown on my face, because when the dark-eyed Taghreb looked at me he paled. I took a long breath, calming myself. It did not escape my notice that the temperature in the war room had significantly cooled. Joy, another power that’ll start backfiring if I don’t learn how it works, I thought. Just what I needed.

“She’s hired mercenaries,” Juniper said. “Levantines, Helikeans and allegedly some drow.”

“The last bunch she hired was wiped out to the last man,” I frowned. “By us, even.”

“She scraped the bottom of the barrel in Mercantis,” Ratface said. “But over half her people are from the Wasteland and those will be reliable. She’s pretty much taken over the Truebloods.”

“And her mother’s done nothing about this?” I said, surprised.

“Her mother is fighting her own war in Wolof,” the tanned man replied. “Against a nephew trying to overthrow her and the Legions trying to contain the angry beehive the city turned into.”

“The Empress intervened,” I said.

“With a light touch,” Juniper grunted. “But she can’t allow the kind of summons they’re throwing at each other to spill out into the Wasteland. There’s reports of a demon being used.”

I didn’t ask what kind – any kind was bad enough. That meant no reinforcements from Praes, which was as much a relief as it was a problem. We’d be on our own for this.

“Praesi,” I said. “So, household troops and mages?”

“A lot of mages,” Ratface said. “And with Liesse currently packed with refugees, I don’t need to tell you how bad that could get.”

“If she so much as sacrifices a single man she’s rebelling,” I coldly said.

“She’s already rebelling, Foundling,” Juniper said. “She’s been summoning devils to pit against the fae – your Council made laws against that. And you don’t assemble an illegal army of ten thousand if you intend to return to the fold afterwards.”

“She’s reached her end game, then,” I muttered. “Fuck. It’s always trouble to fight Praesi when they’re cornered. Everybody knows that.”

There was no longer any debate about whether or not Heiress – no, Diabolist, I needed to remember that – was ending up on the chopping block by the end of this. She’d given me an excuse to see her head on a pike and she knew I would not allow it to pass me by. Which meant that, by the end of her play she intended to be beyond any sanctions I could inflict. Was she trying to carve out her own kingdom in southern Callow? That would be building on sand, she was hated there.

“All right,” I finally said, still digesting the news. “Those two are covered. Now what’s the rest?”

Juniper glanced at Ratface, who shrugged then cleared his throat.

“Duchess Kegan has put the Duchy of Daoine on war footing,” he said. “She’s mobilizing both her army and the Watch, and she’s refused to explain why.”

“Oh come on,” I barked. “I already conceded Council authority doesn’t extend to Daoine. What the Hells more does she think she’s going to get by rebelling?”

“We don’t think she’s rebelling, not since last week anyway,” Juniper said. “She’s imprisoned Praesi in the duchy but she hasn’t killed them and she hasn’t declared war on the Empire.”

“Deoraithe don’t declare war,” I replied flatly. “You realize there’s a one going on when you’re neck deep in Watch.”

“I said the same thing, but then Robber returned from the south,” Ratface said.

“Special Tribune Robber,” Juniper sternly corrected.

Considering how much grief she’d given me over promoting the goblin, I was more than a little amused she was now insisting on the proper address. It wasn’t that she’d disagreed that Robber with a detached cohort would bleed Akua’s forces in the south, the orc was well aware of what the vicious little bastard could do. But removing an ‘insubordinate wretch’ like him from the usual chain of command and the supervision it entailed had not sat well with her. She was Legion to the bone, though: now that he had the position she wouldn’t let anyone dismiss the respect it was supposed to carry. Not even Robber himself, much as he tried.

“Yes, Special Tribune Robber,” Ratface said, barely refraining from rolling his eyes.

He was going to be paying for that later, by the look on the Hellhound’s face.

“He broke into Liesse with a tenth,” the Supply Tribune continued. “And found out the Diabolist has Deoraithe stashed below the Ducal Palace, at the centre of some sort of array.”

I raised an eyebrow, reluctantly impressed.

“Her laboratory had to be a regular fortress,” I said. “He managed to get through the wards?”

“Not exactly,” Juniper growled.

“He ran into the Thief,” Ratface said, eyeing me carefully.

“She was bound to turn up eventually,” I sighed. “I’ll get furious about her meddling when I can spare the time. So, captive Deoraithe and the Duchess mobilizing her troops. Might not be rebellion, then.”

“We can’t afford the risk that it is,” Juniper said. “Marshal Ranker pulled the Twelfth Legion from Summerholm to reinforce her at Denier in case she needs to deny the crossing.”

Ranker would be horribly outnumbered, I frowned. Eight thousand legionaries against what, a conservative estimate of twenty thousand at least a fourth of which was Watch? Ranker’s Fourth Legion was heavy on the sappers, since the core of it had been raised from the tribe she’d once ruled over as Matron, but there was only so much preparation could do.

“Marshal Grem should be in charge,” I said. “What has he been doing?”

“He deferred operational command,” the Hellhound gravelled. “He’s need in the Vales.”

“Which brings us to our fourth problem,” Ratface said. “The Principate is moving.”

“Godsdamnit,” I cursed. “Is there anyone who’s not trying to invade us right now?”

There was pause.

“The Golden Bloom,” the Taghreb said.

“Don’t you bring the fucking elves into this, Ratface,” I said. “We already have a net surplus of genocidal maniacs.”

“The Tower’s used the emergency channels to inform everyone of general rank or higher that the Golden Bloom is phasing out of Creation,” Juniper told me.

I rubbed the bridge of my nose.

“Last time they did that was was when Triumphant was kicking around, right?” I moaned.

I ignored the twin ‘may she never return’ the other two spoke, while pressing their knuckles to their foreheads.

“That’s not a no,” I decided. “And just like that, Diabolist kicks up the priority list. Fucking Hells.”

“Most likely, yes” Ratface grimly agreed.

“If One Eye’s staying at the border, that means we have three full Legions sitting this out,” I said.

The First, Tenth and Eleventh. Considering a dragon and a vampire ran the last two, I could at least find a silver lining in the fact that their absence would limit collateral damage. Two thirds of the Tenth Legion were undead mostly because General Catastrophe had the nasty habit of torching his own soldiers as well as the enemy. What that would do close to a major city I preferred not to think about.

“The Marshal has sent word he does not believe the Principate seriously intends to make an invasion attempt,” the Hellhound said. “The two principalities at the border assembled their armies, but they don’t have the men to breach the Vales.”

“They’re just acting up so our Legions can’t leave,” I grimaced. “We could call that bluff.”

“We can’t afford a slugging match with the First Prince when our own backyard’s on fire, Cat,” Ratface said. “She gets to have this one.”

How lovely, that the old trend of Procer screwing over Callow continued no matter who was in charge of it. There were some permanent constants in Creation, like the Tower being a pile of horrors beyond human understand and the Principate always being run by a bunch of rapacious assholes. One of these days, Cordelia Hasenbach and I were going to sit down and have a nice little chat over the subject. Knives might be involved.

“So your mother’s in charge of Imperial response, then,” I said, eyes flicking to Juniper.

“General Istrid,” the orc replied, galaring, “has seniority. She’s currently mustering north of Vale. Her own Sixth Legion has been joined by General Sacker’s Ninth already. The Fifth under General Orim is supposed to be joining them, but has been delayed.”

Orim the Grim and his boys served as Laure’s garrison, so I supposed we’d arrived to the part of the conversation where I was going to get absolutely livid.

“Tell me,” I ordered.

Ratface swallowed loudly.

“Foundling,” Juniper said. “Your shadow’s moving. Cut it the Hells out. It’s not the Supply Tribune’s fault your Ruling Council collapsed.”

Surprised, I glanced behind me and found my shadow still as it should be. I raised an eyebrow. Juniper wasn’t the type to exaggerate, to I’d take her word for it.

“Sorry, Ratface,” I said. “Picked up something in Arcadia, it’s making my Name act up.”

The Hellhound’s eyes narrowed.

“Is that why you’ve turned into a botched weather ritual?” she asked. “Learn to control it before we march. If you can make ice at will it has useful implications for our supply train.”

Only Juniper, I mused, would respond to my usurping a part of Winter by trying to make me into the Fifteenth’s personal magic coldbox. I coughed to hide my amusement.

“I’ll get right on it, General,” I said. “Tell me about Laure, Supply Tribune.”

“Approximately two weeks after you disappeared into Arcadia,” Ratface said, “Murad Kalbid and Satang Motherless executed a coup in the capital.”

I closed my eyes and counted to ten. I’d tried, I had, to involved Praesi in ruling Callow. I’d held up my part of the deal I’d struck with the High Lords on the Empress’ side. I should have remembered that even if they were Malicia’s tigers, they were still fucking tigers. They’d always strike when they smelled weakness.

“And they succeeded?” I asked, eyes still closed.

“The two Callowan members of the Council are gone,” the dark-eyed man said. “Sister Abigail was killed in broad daylight, allegedly by members of the Guild of Assassins. Baroness Kendal was wounded, but she managed to flee and no body was found.”

I opened my eyes.

“Her Dread Majesty’s representative?” I prompted.

“Disappeared,” Ratface said. “If anyone knows where, they’re not telling. The usurpers are turning over every rock in Laure looking for her so it’s probably not their doing.”

“Oh, they’re not going to be finding that woman anytime soon,” I murmured. “So they murdered their way to the top, like good little Wastelanders. Then they declared martial law?”

“Across all of Callow,” Ratface agreed. “There’s been rioting in every major city as a consequence.”

I cursed in Kharsum, which had the Hellhound frowning. She kept telling me my accent was horrible, more offended by that than the rough language.

“How bad?”

“Bad enough General Istrid is mustering outside Vale because she believes if she tries entering the city she’ll have to take it by force,” Juniper said.

“The governors you appointed, the Callowans,” Ratface said. “They’re denouncing the current Council as illegitimate and refuse to answer to Imperial authorities until you ‘restore order’.”

“They weren’t sure I would come back,” I groaned.

“Neither were the usurpers,” Ratface said. “They took a risk by making their move.”

I chewed over that for a while.

“Why’s Orim stuck in Laure?” I asked. “Those two are treacherous pricks, but they aren’t idiots – after the initial riot they should have lined the pocket of the Guilds to calm things down in the city.”

“They don’t have the treasury,” the dark-haired man said, sounding amused. “When they tried to take it they found the vaults empty.”

“Then who the Hells has it?” I asked.

“Guild of Thieves,” Juniper informed me. “They left a note.”

“They have to know they’re declaring war on me by doing that,” I frowned.

“Special Tribune Robber found the source of their courage in Liesse,” Ratface said.

I blinked. Before I’d left, he’d told me that the Guild was under new management: a new King of Thieves had taken their reins. No, not a king – a queen.

“Thief,” I hissed. “The Thief did this. She runs them now?”

“As far as we can tell,” Ratface said. “She, uh, passed a message through the Special Tribune. If you have an issue with what she’s been doing, you can take it up with her in Laure.”

I narrowed my eyes at him.

“You’re leaving something out,” I said.

“She was rather unpleasant about the phrasing,” the Supply Tribune replied frankly.

I decided not to push. I was pissed enough as was and more anger wasn’t going to make me think any clearer. I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes again, thinking this through. I had six months to either break the Summer Court or force a peace settlement on them. I hated the thought of giving Akua any longer to prepare, but bloodying my army on the walls of Liesse when there were still flame-happy demigods wandering the countryside would be a major blunder. I couldn’t just march the Fifteen south, though. I needed General Istrid’s army in the field, and they weren’t moving until the Fifth Legion joined them. Juniper’s mother was reckless but not even she would take on Summer with only eight thousand men. So that meant I had to clean up the mess in Laure before taking care of the rest. Opening my eyes, I set my hands on the table.

“I’ll need Nauk and his men ready to march,” I told Juniper. “And Robber’s cohort. Laure takes priority for now.”

“We’d be thinning the defences around the portal,” the Hellhound said.

“We’re emptying them,” I said. “Winter’s dealt with, at the moment. I bought us at least six months until anything goes down.”

Six times the coming of my title, the King of Winter had said. Overly dramatic phrasing but at least I had a number.

“Then the rest of the Fifteenth be moving as well,” Juniper said.

“Six months, Hellhound, is also our timetable for wrecking Summer,” I said. “I hope you’ve been thinking about ways to kill fae.”

“Oh, Foundling,” the orc replied happily, baring her teeth. “I have been thinking of precious little else.”

I was not too proud to admit to myself that Juniper scared me a little, sometimes.

“Give Nauk two thousand men,” I told her after a moment. “That should be more than enough. That leaves you a little over full legion to work with, no?”

“More,” my general replied. “As of yesterday’s census, the Fifteenth Legion now numbers eight thousand soldiers.”

I blinked.

What?” I spluttered.

“The south is literally on fire, Cat,” Ratface said. “And we have a reputation for both taking in Callowan soldiers and killing anything that invades the region. We’ve had a lot of recruits pouring in.”

“As well as some less desirable individuals,” Juniper added coldly. “The nephew of the defunct Countess of Marchford showed up last month.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“He tried to take back the city when it was under fae siege and occupied by what’s pretty much two full legions?”

Nobility wasn’t as inbred in Callow as it was in the Principate, so that level of blatant idiocy was a little surprising.

“He’s renounced his claim on Marchford publicly, actually,” Ratface said. “Says he wants an audience with you, won’t talk to anyone else.”

“He’s in a cell,” the Hellhound said. “I’ve no patience for agitators.”

“I’ll look into it,” I said.

Another thing for the list. There either needed to be more hours in a day or I needed to find a way to get rid of sleep entirely.

“We’ll have a more formal meeting to plan our operations, but get Nauk ready to go as soon as possible,” I said, rising to my feet.

I made to leave, but turned when Juniper called out.

“Foundling.”

I met her eyes.

“Catherine,” she said, more softly. “What happened in Arcadia?”

“You’ll get the whole story when everyone’s there,” I said. “But in short? I fucked up. The Winter King was playing me before I ever stepped foot in there.”

I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.

“Doesn’t matter,” I finally added. “I think I got what we need to win this war.”

The hourglass had already been flipped and time was slipping away. What I’d thought I needed was more of it, but I might have found a way around the need. I was the Duchess of Moonless Nights, nowadays. And Apprentice had once told me that high-ranking fae could open portals both in and out of Arcadia.

Villainous Interlude: Stormfront

“The covenant of the hungry lasts as long as the meal.”
– Taghreb saying

Anaxares was having a tea party with monsters.

A civil one, he had to admit. The ridiculously large and opulent table – it was Ashuran pearwood, he was fairly sure, which meant it was worth a small castle – had been set on a platform in the morning, long before the Black Knight had actually arrived. There were jewels set into the surface of it that glinted the same no matter what light fell on them that he believed would be able to shoot out beams of energy if the Tyrant spoke the right incantation. At least the whole thing wasn’t floating. The boy had suggested all of this should be happening with the platform a hundred feet up in the air, but Anaxares had flatly informed him he wasn’t setting foot on anything that wasn’t touching solid ground. After the usual round of inventive death threats, the Tyrant had conceded the point and instead had gargoyles place over all four corners. At least one of them was badly failing to pretend it was still inanimate. Anaxares had thrown a biscuit at it earlier, just to see what it would do.

Glare at his back when it thought he wasn’t looking, apparently. Foolish creature, all Bellerophans knew you should always assume someone was looking at you. The Kanenas See All, For Their Eyes Are The Eyes Of The Law And The Law Is Omniscient, he added dutifully. Kairos had put on a version of the Helikean infantry armour that was made of pure gold, with pauldrons he suspected were actual real skulls. All three people at the table were politely pretending they could not hear the hissing angry ghosts bound inside said skulls. The Tyrant had tried to dress him up in silks but Anaxares had ignored the servants and instead continued to wear his old diplomat’s robes, which he made a point of washing himself. They were beginning to look rather frayed, but accepting clothes from the boy would count as Taking A Bribe From A Foreign Despot. Him aside, the two villains sitting across each other were a study in contrasts. Studying Named as openly as he was always a dangerous business, but Anaxares was already a dead man. What was left to fear?

He’d expected the Black Knight to be some tall muscled Soninke, but the villain was short – shorter than the Tyrant, if not by much – and pale like a Callowan. He’d not believed that particular rumour to be true. Weren’t the farmers on the side of Good? It was hard to tell what his build was under the plain plate he wore, but it was obvious that though he was no slab of muscle he was an athletic man. In opposition Kairos Theodosian was so thin he looked almost sickly. Like most people of the Free Cities the Tyrant was tan and dark of hair, that last part one of the few things the villains had in common. It was the eyes, though, that set them apart the most. The murderous red eye of the Tyrant looked upon everything with warm poison while the pale green gaze of the Black Knight was cold, unmoving detachment. They were two different takes on an old breed, these villains, and though their faces were pleasant and smiling Anaxares could smell the violence wafting in the air like summer heat. The Praesi set down his cup on the saucer, Nicean porcelain clinking softly.

“That was the purest arsenic I’ve ever drunk,” the Knight said. “My compliments to your alchemists.”

There was a reason Anaxares had left his own cup untouched. Unlike these two he couldn’t be expected to walk off a mouthful of poison.

“That’s very kind of you,” the Tyrant beamed. “We tortured the secrets of substance refinement out of a Taghreb exile a few decades back, so really it’s all thanks to the Empire.”

The two of them were still smiling. Anaxares would have shivered, if terror had any point to it.

“I see you’ve set your table with fire rubies,” the Black Knight noted. “A nice touch. I might lose an eye if you triggered those without warning.”

Burn,” the Tyrant suddenly barked, leaning forward.

A heartbeat of silence passed and nothing happened.

“You could have flinched, at least,” the boy pouted.

The Black Knight smiled serenely, drinking another sip of poison.

“Shame the rest of the Calamities couldn’t come,” Kairos said, whimsically changing the subject.

“It would have been most impolite of me to enter your camp without some precautions,” the green-eyed man said.

“Are you implying I would murder an ally in broad daylight for no good reason?” the Tyrant said, aghast.

“You would,” Anaxares said.

“I could state it outright, if you’d prefer,” the Black Knight kindly offered.

The crippled boy tried to drum his fingers on the table casually, but his hand was shaking so badly it looked more like he was thumping it. The ghosts bound to his armour screamed angrily, the sound strangely muted. The diplomat was beginning to find it soothing, to be honest. He felt too weary to scream in horror himself but having someone else express the sentiment was gratifying.

“Don’t,” Kairos finally decided. “My most trusted advisor took the fun out of it.”

Green eyes turned to study said advisor almost curiously, to the man’s dismay.

“You are Bellerophan, correct?” the Knight asked.

“You already know the answer to that,” Anaxares replied, picking up a biscuit.

He’d been assured those weren’t poisoned, so he broke off a piece and scarfed it down.

“It’s been a subject of debate as to why you are still alive,” the pale-skinned man said, not denying it.

His eyes flicked at the Tyrant, who shrugged.

“Haven’t done a thing,” Kairos said.

It was actually hard to tell when the Tyrant was lying, in Anaxares’ opinion. He did so frequently and about matters both mundane and important without rhyme or reason, which meant establishing a baseline for truth and lies was difficult.

“Thinking too much about why is the curse of unenlightened peoples,” the diplomat asserted. “Peerless Bellerophon Is Always Correct For The People Cannot Be Wrong, May They Reign Forever.”

“I love it when he does that,” the Tyrant said. “It’s like they’re whispering sweet propaganda straight into my ear.”

“Bellerophon does have a surprisingly effective indoctrination apparatus,” the Knight agreed.

Spoken like an Enemy Of The People, Anaxares thought with a frown.

“So why are you haunting my doorstep, Black Knight?” Kairos suddenly said.

There’d been no transition from pleasantries to business, no hint or warning. The Bellerophan had seen him do this many a time now, with almost everyone he spoke to. He was not sure whether the quicksilver change was meant to unsettle whoever he dealt with and gain him an advantage or if the Tyrant was genuinely that unstable. It might, he suspected, be both.

“We meant to speak with you in Delos, but events conspired against it,” the other villain replied.

As a career diplomat, Anaxares could admire how well-crafted that sentence had been. The use of the word conspiracy would imply fault, while on surface absolving responsibility – a counterpart already on the defensive would feel bound to offer explanation. A shame that tactics like those were worthless against the Tyrant. The boy, after all, was mad.

“Your play there spoiled my amusement,” Kairos complained. “I was a sennight away from making a dragon from the bones of their fallen. I was going to crash it into the citadel and demand their surrender.”

“You would have been repulsed,” the Knight said, and it was spoken like a fact.

Considering every assault by Helike on Delos had met that exact fate, Anaxares believed him to be entirely correct.

“That’s the problem with Praesi, these days,” the Tyrant replied with an unpleasant smile. “You worry too much about things like victory and defeat.”

“No worry would have been necessary on your part,” the pale man said. “Victory would have been yours if your host had assaulted the walls instead of retreating.”

“And how boring that would have been,” Kairos said. “I take no hand outs from the Tower, Carrion Lord.”

“We have enemies in common,” the Knight calmly pointed out. “Dismissing the possibility of common striving against them is counterproductive.”

Kairos cackled.

“You don’t have a pattern of three against the White Knight, do you?” he said.

The Praesi’s face was blank, a wax mask without expression. Then, slowly, his brow creased.

“Neither do you,” he said.

“Someone’s hourglass is running out,” the Tyrant grinned, sing-songing the words as his red eye pulsed. “Regretting taking that apprentice, are we?”

“My decision has never been more justified,” the man disagreed serenely.

Spineless,” Kairos stated with thick contempt. “You lack rage, Black Knight. If you were any more resigned to your fate you’d be licking the boots of the Heavens.”

The Knight did not seem particularly offended by the insults. He did not seem, Anaxares, as the kind of man who could easily be offended. It would have been most unpleasant to negotiate with him.

“There is a difference between acknowledging the possibility of failure and embracing the outcome,” the Praesi said.

“That you even accept the chance of defeat is disgusting, if you’ll forgive my language, much less that you plan for it,” the Tyrant hissed. “You are a villain. We do not go gently into the night.”

“There are graveyards full of men who thought the same,” the Knight replied. “They died having accomplished nothing.”

“You’re scribbling on sand and calling it a legacy,” Kairos mocked. “Nothing that happens before or after you matters – only the decisions you make now. And those I see you make? I find lacking.”

“Means are irrelevant,” the Black Knight coldly said. “Results dictate all else.”

“I despise you and everything you stand for from the bottom of my heart,” the Tyrant enthused. “Shall we work together?”

Anaxares quietly choked on the biscuit he’d been nibbling at, entirely ignored by the other two.

“That would be best,” the green-eyed man acknowledged. “The Empire is not interested in direct intervention. Resolution by local actors is preferable in Her Dread Majesty’s eyes.”

“What you actually want is for Procer to lose their pretext to go a’crusading,” Kairos laughed. “So what’s the plan, my dearest friend? Peace with Nicae?”

“Cessations of hostilities between League constituents would allow you to turn your attention elsewhere,” the Black Knight replied. “There are no real gains left for you to make.”

“And just by coincidence, that ‘elsewhere’ happens to be eyeing your borders,” the Tyrant mused.

“Aligned interests are not the same as subordination,” the other villain said.

“Not all that far, though,” Kairos said. “Regardless, Nicae’s not interested in peace right now. They’re growing too fat on Proceran silver and soldiers.”

“Stripping them of that fat would make them reconsider their position,” the Knight said.

“One last battle, eh?” the Tyrant laughed. “That could be interesting. But they’ve so many heroes, my dear friend. I’m terrified of what those could do to me. I’m only one boy, after all.”

Kairos had not even attempted a token effort to make that lie sound plausible, the diplomat noted.

“We intend to engage the White Knight and his companions again,” the pale man said.

“I feel safer already,” the Tyrant grinned toothily. “It’s so nice, having friends.”

The Black Knight nodded, unmoved.

“Scribe will be in contact with you shortly,” he said, rising to his feet.

The boy waved away the notion, unconcerned. He waited until the Praesi was at the edge of the platform.

“Black?” he called out.

The man glanced back.

“I’m going to betray you, you know,” the Tyrant promised.

The thing that looked back at the boy then was not a person Named or not. Humanity had slid off that face like water off a clay mask, leaving behind absolutely nothing – the thing behind those eyes was coldly taking their measure, calculating the span of their usefulness and the death that would follow it. Carrion Lord, they called him, and the diplomat finally understood why. Why this… thing could cow the third of a continent.

“You will try,” the Black Knight replied. “They always do.”

The diplomat had expected them to leave after the other villain exited the camp, but they remained at the table. Kairos was still drinking his tea, exaggeratedly holding up his little finger so it never touched the cup.

“What are we waiting for?” Anaxares finally asked.

It was the crown of noon, and staying in the sun this long always gave him a headache.

“The counteroffer,” the Tyrant said.

The sound of the teapot’s lid being raised drew his attention a moment later. There was a woman leaning over it, from the Free Cities by the looks of her. Long and curly dark hair, curvy under her leathers that he could smell reeked of spirits even from where he was seated. The stranger had a silvery flask in hand and was pouring what looked like Proceran brandy inside the teapot – she didn’t stop until it started spilling over, only then pouring herself a cup of ‘tea’. Nine tenths of that had to be liquor, he thought. And it was probably still lethal to drink, not that it stopped her from gulping down her her cup and messily wiping her lips with her sleeve.

“I don’t know where you get your arsenic, Kairos, but it’s the good stuff,” she said. “You can really taste the almonds.”

“Anaxares, this is Aoede the Wandering Bard,” the Tyrant smiled fondly. “She’s here to manipulate me like she did near Delos.”

“You’re a heroine,” the diplomat said, face creasing in surprise.

“I’m starving is what I am,” the Bard complained. “Hand me a biscuit, would you?”

Anaxares did, too baffled to object.

“Did you have fun with the Big Guy?” Aoede asked with her mouth full.

“You were right,” Kairos said. “I want to kill him so very much.”

“Yeah, he doesn’t really play your kind of game,” the Bard said. “Who’s this charming fellow, by the way?”

She was pointing the remnant of his biscuit at him like a wand, hand wavering as she poured herself another cup of of tea-flavoured liquor.

“This is Anaxares, my most trusted advisor,” Kairos grinned. “I abducted him. He’s not very happy about it.”

The dark-haired woman squinted at him, slurping her cup loudly. For a moment Anaxares could have sworn she was entirely sober and studying him with a piercing gaze, but then she choked on the liquor and the moment was gone. She thumped her own chest until she stopped coughing, spilling biscuit crumbs everywhere.

“You’re a class act, Tyrant,” she said admiringly, still breathless. “Haven’t seen anything that brazen since Traitorous.”

“Flatterer,” Kairos replied. “Now, speak treachery to me Aoede. Treachery most foul.”

“Right,” the Bard said, putting her cup down and leaning against the table. “So obviously I’m trying to trick you to your death here.”

“As is only right and proper,” the Tyrant agreed.

“So here’s something for you to consider,” she continued. “You should off a Calamity.”

“Or not,” Anaxares suggested mildly. “We could, in fact, not do this.”

“Tell me more,” Kairos ordered.

“So your grand plan, it’s not really a plan,” the Bard said. “It’s a juggler’s philosophy.”

“I’ve no idea what you could possibly mean,” the Tyrant smiled.

“First step always works, so always have a first step going,” Aoede said. “Now, a lesser soul would say all that will accomplish is destroy more and and more of Creation until it all collapses on your head because you missed a beat.”

“The part that matters is the dance,” Kairos smiled. “Not the bow at the end.”

“And I applaud that, I really do. Here’s the thing, though,” the Bard said. “You’re running out of enemies, Kairos Theodosian.”

“I can make more,” the Tyrant pointed out.

“Lesser ones,” Aoede shrugged. “Not a lot of heroes running around at the moment and you’ve already slapped around most of the League. You need to expand your roster, my friend.”

She added an exaggerated wink after calling him that, to the Tyrant’s visible delight.

“So I backstab Praes, if you’ll forgive my language,” he mused. “Alas, killing a Calamity also helps the horse you have in this race.”

“You don’t need to wield the knife yourself,” the Bard said. “Use my heroes against them, just blatantly enough the Big Guy knows what you did.”

“It is lesser treachery that you peddle, then,” Kairos replied, tone disappointed.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” the dark-haired woman slurred. “Point isn’t to make the Calamity die, it’s to make an enemy of Black. He loves them like family, you know. You need to hurt him at least that deep if you want him not to let go of the grudge. Anything less and the moment he’s back in Praes you drop off the stage.”

“This plan involves making an enemy of one of the most dangerous men on this continent for no tangible gain,” Anaxares said. “It is not a good plan.”

“Don’t be foolish, advisor,” Kairos said. “Making an enemy of one of the most dangerous men on this continent is the point of the plan, not a side-effect.”

“And to think you said I was bringing lesser treachery to the table,” the Bard said shaking her head. “I’m wounded, Kairos.”

“I’m deeply sorry,” the Tyrant said. “As an apology, let me offer you this: nocere.”

The jewels on the table immediately lit up and shot half a dozen beams of scorching red light at the Wandering Bard, who disappeared into thin air before a single one of them made contact. There was a long moment of silence.

“She’s playing you,” Anaxares pointed out, aware it was blindingly obvious but believing the boy could use a reminder.

“Oh yes,” the Tyrant smiled, and his eye pulsed red. “Just imagine the kind of enemy she’ll make, when I betray her too.”

Raid

“Though goblins are the most secretive of all peoples, audiences with Matrons granted me some insight into their people. The Tribes have no true concept of war because there is no such thing as peace, to a goblin – only the temporary witholding of violence.”
– Extract from “Horrors and Wonders”, famed travelogue of Anabas the Ashuran

There was nothing quite like a spot of murder to get the blood going in the morning. There weren’t any proper roads this close to the southern Marchford hills, but there was a dirt path wide enough for carts to take. Special Tribune Robber’s detached cohort had never set an ambush there before: it had been easier to catch them close to Dormer previously, but since that whole region had gone up into literal flames he’d had to readjust. The Wasteland was bleeding people and wealth like a slow fucking raider, and all the meat was headed for Liesse. Not a week past he’d watched a full thousand Taghreb household troops march to Heiress’ – well, Diabolist now if the rumours were to be believed – stronghold in an orderly column. That had been too much of a mouthful for his people to swallow, though he’d had the wells ahead of them poisoned as a ‘welcome to Callow’ present. They’d get a few corpses out of it before wising up and sticking to their own supplies.

This particular bunch was more in his wheelhouse. Only a hundred of them, though his scouts said they were heavy on the mages. That was fine. The Tribes had not gone through seven goblin rebellions without learning how to deal with those, even before the War College had shoved anti-caster doctrine down his trousers. Hit first, hit hard and mess with the field of vision. Robber’s cohort had been lying in wait for half the night, and now that dawn had broken the Praesi were on the move again. Five carts, dragged by oxen. Hard to tell what was inside with the cloths over the loads, but the last two they’d caught had been full of stone and metals. What the Diabolist wanted those for was anyone’s guess, but to the yellow-eyed tribune it smelled of a flying fortress. He kind of hoped it was. Not only would it mean he’d get to assault one of those before the year was out, it would also solve the Boss’ refugee problem.

Call him a cynic, but he doubted the Diabolist had let all of those people into Liesse out of the goodness of her Wastelander heart. They might as well have ‘ritual fuel’ branded onto their foreheads.

All of his raiders were old hands at this by now, so there was no need for him to give any orders. The tribune remained pressed into the ground, his form covered with grass and leaves. Most of the time putting soldiers on both sides of the road meant you were a fucking amateur commander and losing a few of your own to crossfire, but his people weren’t greenhorns. They wouldn’t blindly volley into the mass: his cohort wasn’t rich enough in ammunition to afford not picking its targets. Wide unblinking eyes watching the Praesi approach, Robber silently counted down until the fun began. Just as the middle of the procession hit the ground they’d picked, Captain Clipper whistled and the demolition charges blew. Lieutenant Rattler had dug underneath the path during the night to place them. By the looks of it, she’d flavoured the mix with a few smokers. Robber approved, it was a vicious little twist on the usual recipe: even as the oxen panicked, three patches of billowing toxic smoke spread along the enemy column.

“KILL THEM!” Robber called out, rising to his feet.

“TAKE THEIR STUFF!” the call came back.

The Praesi just screamed, which wasn’t anywhere as snappy. Bad form, the goblin mused. Even the usual yells of you can’t do this or do you know who I am had more of a flavour to them. That flavour was usually blood, more specifically blood in their mouths, but who was he to judge? Still alive, that was who. The tribune left his crossbow on the ground, leaning into a run even as he unsheathed his knives. Borer was in charge of the shooting, and though the man remained hopelessly worthy of his name bolts began taking lives before the special tribune stepped into the fray. A streak of lightning from the column hit the ground with a spray of dirt ahead of him, but Robber adjusted his stride to go around without missing a beat. The casting from the mages was sporadic, and wherever it came from was drowned in brightsticks before they could manage a second round. Sliding under a frenzied ox, the yellow-eyed tribune emerged at the back of black-robed Taghreb and punctured her kidney without any warning. She tried to get a last word out, but a knife to the throat took care of that. Blades still dripping, the goblin moved on.

He’d given orders to take a few prisoners, but his merry minions did tend to pull the trigger whenever something got into their crosshairs. He didn’t entirely blame them: any Praesi important enough to know something would have a few nasty curses in their arsenal. Smoothly scuttling under a cart, Robber sought his next target. Of the original hundred Praesi, half had died to the initial charges and volley. Another few had been incapacitated by the smoke and maybe twenty had died to the blades of the raiders who’d gone charging in. Borer’s boys were putting bolts in any isolated ones, and that left… a nice little cluster of twenty near the middle of the skirmish, shielding a furious-looking Soninke from the violence. Now that looked like someone who’d give up useful stuff under the knife. Robber sheathed one of his blades, took a brightstick out of his haversack and shoved it under his armpit as he struck the match. A heartbeat later he popped out from under the cart with a lit cylinder in hand, running at the cluster as fast as he could.

Two robed men turned their eyes to him immediately. Robber grinned nastily and went though the old drill. One, they cast. Two pairs of hands rose and two pairs of lips spoke words in the arcane tongue as his feet devoured the distance. Two, they aim. They’d been trained for battle-casting, he saw. They only picked their angle once his feet were on the ground, between steps. Three, be elsewhere. He rolled to the side, the space he’d occupied a heartbeat earlier filling with flame and sizzling dark energy. Smoothly returning to his feet, he tossed the brightstick right above their heads and closed his eyes.  The bright flash and loud bang would make sure they weren’t able to cast a second time before he was on them. Pupils contracting even under his eyelids, Robber blessed the Gobbler for having made his people’s senses harder to shake than those of humans: he’d been in the brightstick’s range too, but he’d get back his eyes and ears before the mages did. Leaning so far forward his chin almost touched the floor, the tribune sliced through the back of one’s leg and simultaneously buried his other blade in the other’s belly.

The Praesi in charge was still blinded, he saw, and with a grin he leapt onto the man’s face. Wrapping his legs around the Soninke’s neck as he toppled to the ground, Robber sunk his teeth into the flesh beneath the hair. Much screaming ensued, to his amusement. Please, I didn’t even touch the skull. Unlike orcs fangs, goblins ones weren’t capable of crunching through bone: his kind were more scavengers than predators.

“I got the big one,” he called out. “Wipe out the rest.”

“Crossbows, fire at will,” Captain Borer calmly ordered. “Munitions, withhold.”

The tribune’s second-in-command lacked that touch of in-your-face that was the usual signature of sappers, but something had to be said for keeping your calm when the blades were out. He almost reminded Robber of Hakram, if the orc had traded away his sense of humour and a few feet in height for superior goblin good looks. Poor Hakram, sadly born one of goblinkind’s homelier cousins. Thick skin, thick bones, but small eyes like a ferret and too much muscle to ever crawl his way through a tunnel. The Soninke under him was panicking so Robber let go long enough to kick him in the face until he fell unconscious. A handful of crossbow bolts later and no Praesi were left to make trouble, his people swarming the field eagerly. Robber wiped his blades on the unconscious Soninke’s face before sheathing them.

“So what have we got, my pretties?” he asked.

“Stone, Special Tribune,” word came from further down as canvas was ripped off carts.

“These guys have the worst loot,” Lieutenant Rattler complained.

“Rattler, stop whining and bind this one,” Robber said, pointing a foot at the unconscious Soninke.

“You know I’m right, Chief,” she muttered, eyes flicking down and lips demurely covering her teeth in a display acknowledging his authority.

She’d been Loud Eagle tribe before joining the Legions. One of the few surface tribes that still raided regularly – their Matrons and women took more of an interest in matters of violence, as a consequence. War was still spoken of of male’s work with that understated contempt, but no Matron would let a matter so important to her tribe entirely in the hands of males. There was a reason Robber didn’t put anyone fresh from the Eyries in her line: Rattler was opinionated enough that she’d reinforce bad habits from home. A lot of male goblins deferred to women, even those of lower rank, for their first few years in the Legions. Fucked with the chain of command, not that the Special Tribune cared a lot about that – but officers afraid of contradicting a female wouldn’t speak up themselves, and that he actually gave a shit about. Didn’t help that there wasn’t a single female goblin in the Fifteenth that wasn’t an officer, since they didn’t enrol in the ranks: it was the War College for them or nothing at all. Command was the birthright of their gender, after all.

The Special Tribune spat to the side. There was a reason unruly types like him were dumped into the Legions: back home he’d have started to ask questions eventually, and though he’d have gotten a shallow grave for it the Matrons didn’t like anyone rocking their boat.

“Well, would you look at that,” Captain Clipper called out. “Chief, we’re rich.”

Robber flicked a glance in the direction: Clipper was in the middle cart, sitting on what looked like a pile of solid gold ingots. The Special Tribune whistled.

“There’s your prize, Rattler,” he said. “Praesi gold. We get any richer than this and it’ll start the Eight Rising.”

“I nominate myself as Goddess-Queen of all the Tribes,” Clipper announced imperiously.

“Will you use your power for good?” one of the sappers asked, grinning.

“No,” Clipper decided. “Fear me, expendable minions. You will die in droves for my amusement.”

“As rival candidate, I nominate Borer wearing a wig,” Robber yelled.

Considering goblins were hairless, the hilarity of an expressionless Borer ruling with luscious blond curls was not to be underestimated. There were murmurs of approval among the horde.

“You can serve as my treacherous consort, Robber,” Clipper generously allowed.

The seductive flash of fangs was nothing new – the captain was a notorious flirt – but the way she’d accented his name in Lower Miezan had him frowning. It was almost the same that his name would be pronounced in stonetongue. Well, the last part of it anyway. Though in the bastard tongue of the Empire he was called Robber, a more accurate translation of his name in the Eyries would be the-glint-in-the-eyes-of-one-about-to-rob-the-unwary. Doing even that much was walking the line of what got you Preserver attention. Robber was not eager to have the hounds of the Matrons slaughter his entire cohort in their beds for leaking parts of the stonetongue to outsiders. He’d chastise her later in private.

“Float the notion by the Boss, see how that turns out,” he suggested.

“Fifty fifty odds, if it results in dead Truebloods,” a sapper called out.

There was a hearty round of cackles. His cohort set to torching everything but the gold cart – that was headed back to Marchford with their wounded – as Robber signalled for Borer to join him and they headed together for the still-unconscious Soninke. Rattler had tied him up good and proper, so they wasted no time in slapping the Wastelander awake. Eyes opened blearily and filled with rage before a heartbeat had passed. Gods, they were so predictable sometimes.

“Do you have any idea-“

Robber slapped him.

“Name?” he asked.

“I am Mulade Humin, heir to-“

Robber slapped him again.

“Nice to meet you, Mumu,” he said. “I’m Special Tribune Robber, official lesser lesser footrest to the Lady of Marchford.”

“What is the meaning of this attack, goblin?” the Soninke spat.

“You mean, like, in a philosophical sense?” Robber mused.

“I mean how dare you attack a highborn under the protection of the Lady Diabolist?” the noble sneered. “We will have your hide for this.”

Robber slapped him a third time, this once more for his personal satisfaction than anything.

“I’d worry more about surviving this conversation than what’s going to happen to me, if I were you,” the goblin said. “Borer, show him the knife.”

Captain Borer sighed and went fishing in his haversack, producing an oversized dagger with saw teeth and a ruby the size of an egg set into the pommel.

“This is the murder knife, Mumu,” Robber said. “Every time you don’t tell us what we want to know, we’re gonna use it.”

“Cheap tactics will not-“

Borer stabbed him in the shoulder without any need for prompting. The Soninke screamed.

“It’s like you’re not even listening,” Robber said, sadly shaking his head. “Now, Mumu, what does dear ol’ Akua need all this stone and gold for?”

“I don’t know,” Mulade said.

“Guess,” Robber said before Borer stabbed the man in the other shoulder.

“Sandstone is used in rituals,” the noble finally panted after another bout of screaming. “It has the property of clarity and you can’t find the right kind in the provinces.”

“What’s she building?” the Special Tribune asked.

“No one knows,” Mulade babbled hastily. “The Empress is trying to find out.”

“And if I asked you to guess?” Robber said, brow raising again.

“I’m not a mage,” the noble replied mulishly. “And you killed all of mine.”

“Fair enough,” the goblin shrugged.

He rose to his feet. Borer, without missing a beat, slit the prisoner’s throat. The man didn’t even have time to panic. Which was good, fear gave human flesh a bad taste and they were low on rations. The Special Tribune took a brightstick out of his haversack and began flipping it absent-mindedly. His cohort had done good work down here, but it was all diminishing returns from now on. Fae moved fast, and there was no telling how far up north they intended on going. Slitting Praesi throats was one thing, but tangling with a Court? Robber’s minions didn’t have the munitions for that. Nowhere near enough goblinfire in stock. His instincts told him it was time to bail before the hammer fell, but leaving a mystery untouched behind the walls of Liesse didn’t sit right with him either.

“Borer,” he finally said.

“Special Tribune?” the other goblin replied calmly.

“Take the cohort back to Marchford with the gold,” he ordered. “I’m taking a tenth south to have a closer look.”

“Is that wise, sir?” his captain asked, large eyes more green than yellow blinking.

Robber grinned unpleasantly, tossing up the brightstick.

“You know what they say, Captain – only cowards live to fifteen.”

He was thirteen, now, going on fourteen. About time he started taking some serious risks.

They’d waited for a moonless night. Swimming in the Hengest Lake wasn’t exactly his idea of a good time – as a rule goblins made better drowners than swimmers – but whoever ruled Liesse with the Diabolist gone ran a tight crew. Patrols were regular and wary, wards had been put everywhere and no cart passed the gates without a thorough inspection. Couldn’t put wards on water, though. It was one of those weird magical rules, like being unable to scry underground. Robber’s tenth emerged by the docks in silence, keeping to the shadows until the patrol above them passed. The Hellhound would be pissed, the goblin thought, when she heard that Liesse had tighter defences than Marchford. He’d make sure to send her a written report about it so she couldn’t ignore him.

“Rooftops,” Robber whispered, and his raiders nodded.

Going up was an old favourite of his people when forced to infiltrate cities. Unlike goblins humans rarely looked up unless given a reason, and Robber’s kind had no problem scaling stone walls – anything that couldn’t climb and lived in the Grey Eyries wouldn’t get to live long. Liesse was good territory for this kind of travelling, even better than Summerholm. The Gate of the East had been built to resist the Legions so its districts were punctured with wide avenues meant to stop exactly what he was doing, while Liesse was just an old maze of narrow streets this far into the city. Keeping out of sight, the dripping goblin waited for the rest of his tenth to join him. Going through the lake sadly meant they’d had to leave their munitions behind: the haversacks had been made with resisting rain in mind, but swimming was a little too much. Lieutenant Rattler was the last to scuttle across the tiles, and all of them knelt quietly as another patrol passed below.

“We’re going to trigger a ward sooner or later,” Rattler murmured.

“There should only be alarms, this deep,” the Special Tribune said. “And those are prone to triggering too easily. As long as we move fast we have a chance.”

“The Ducal Palace will be a fortress,” a sapper whispered.

“That just means it’s where the good stuff is,” Robber grinned, baring his fangs. “Quiet as the grave, my lovelies, or we’ll end up in one.”

They moved out. Parts of the city weren’t as he remembered, the goblin saw. Entire areas had been torn down and rebuilt in stone. And there’s guards on all of those. Whatever the Diabolist was up to, it was big. The Special Tribune made a point out of memorizing the layout as they travelled: the warlock’s get might be able to make something out of the pattern. Getting a closer look at whatever was inside those new buildings might have been even more useful, but it would also mean giving up the game early. Wastelanders always put the important stuff in the palaces, it wasn’t worth scrapping their chances to have a look there just for some minor hints in the inner city. The raiders only slowed when they reached the furthest edge of the roofs, the open expanse in front of them allowing no discrete path into the headquarters of the Praesi in Liesse.

Even at this hour of the night, the Ducal Palace was an orgy of torches. Most of those were fancy blue ever-burning flames that weren’t actually ever-burning – they needed regular juice from mages to keep going. Sadly, they did cast better light than regular torches. There was a full company of guards around the main entrance and from their perch they could see that behind the wall surrounding the palace there were more soldiers patrolling. Like they’d thought, the place was a fucking fortress. And if it didn’t have more wards than the average mage’s tower, Robber would eat his own toes. They waited for an hour in silence, trying to find a pattern in the patrols before admitting it would take too long to figure one out. Likely the Praesi had borrowed Legion doctrine anyway, which meant varied intervals.

“Side, has to be,” Lieutenant Rattler finally said.

“We won’t have long before a patrol passes,” Robber said. “I want us up that balcony with the closed doors within sixty heartbeats.”

Tricky, even for his folk. Goblins were usually faster on their feet than humans and he’d taken no deadweight with him south, but that was a very narrow window of action even for them.

“We could send a bleeder,” a sapper whispered.

Robber shook his head. It was an old raiding tactic to send a few young boys to bait the enemy while the real raiders struck another flank, but it wouldn’t work here.

“The moment they see one of us this entire place goes on lockdown,” he replied. “They’ll activate all the wards until sunup just in case, and that’s the end of it for us.”

Triggered wards, they could deal with. You just had to be lucky and quick enough not to get the nastiness going, or not be there when it did. But Praesi with enough magic to burn would just fill an entire area with flame so no one could pass through, and he wasn’t going to bet that the Diabolist didn’t have the juice. Heroes might have the constitution to walk through blockades like that, but Robber’s tenth was a great deal squishier.

“On my mark,” the Special Tribune said.

They waited for most of an hour before making for the outer wall. Robber took the lead, and was exceedingly careful about looking for runes when scaling the stone – he didn’t see any until he reached the top, and leapt down instead of risking putting his feet too close. His tenth followed him like shadows as the padded across the promenade and reached the side of the palace. Above them, two stories up, the balcony that would be their way in towered. There was a mark against the wall where what he guessed had been a trellis once stood, but the Diabolist’s people had removed it. Bare hands would have to do. The old stone didn’t give them much purchase, since it had been recently polished, but the mortar lines were enough for a goblin. Robber was the first over the balustrade, and there he froze. Two things gave him pause: first the doors to the inside were cracked open just large enough for someone to get through. Second, he’d just set foot on a rune trigger array.

“Chief?” the sapper behind him asked.

“I am so invincible,” Robber decided, “that even magic refuses to get into a fight with me.”

Someone climbing up cursed and he moved to make room for the others. Kneeling over the runes carved onto the floor, he ran a finger down the grooves.

“Huh,” Rattler said, once again last to arrive. “How are we not dead?”

“Someone was here ahead of us,” the yellow-eyed tribune murmured. “Someone who can make wards dormant.”

“You think the Boss went through?” a sapper asked.

“If she had, there’d be a hole in the ground and half the city would be on fire,” Robber noted. “Boss isn’t great at quiet.”

“But Named work, you think,” Rattler guessed.

“Could be the Eyes,” he frowned. “But whoever did this, they’re inside now.”

He rose back to his feet.

“Too late to turn back,” he said. “We go forward.”

They didn’t wander around blindly. Robber had been in the loop before the Battle of Liesse, when the Hellhound had ordered Pickler to draw up plans to breach the palace if the rebels holed up inside. He’d been more interested in the choke points he’d need to blow to separate the defenders, but he’d gotten a notion of how the Ducal Palace was laid out as a result. The rooms the Dukes and later the Imperial Governors had claimed for their own were in the back, with a view of the lake, but there was no point in heading there. The Diabolist wouldn’t be keeping anything interesting upside where anyone could find it. No, it would all be below. Thrice the goblins found other dormant wards on their way to the cellars, at least one of which they would have triggered before noticing it. Merciless Gods, whatever was down there the Diabolist really didn’t want anyone to find. The room that barred the access to the cellars, they found, had a closed door. Robber pressed his ear to the wood and heard nothing. Empty or warded to be soundproof? Whichever it was, the risk had to be taken.

“Blades out,” he ordered.

He pushed the door open, knife in hand, and found a room full of guards. All of which were on the ground and unmoving.

“Fucking Hells,” Lieutenant Rattler breathed. “The Assassin?”

Well, it certainly wasn’t the work of the Eyes. They were good, but not that good. The Special Tribune ushered everyone in and closed the door behind him, only then taking a closer look at the guards.

“No, not the Assassin,” he replied, seeing one breathe. “They’re still alive.”

Shit,” a sapper hissed. “That reeks of hero, Chief.”

The situation did have the right combination of overwhelming skill and rank stupidity to be heroic work, he had to admit.

“Draper, slit their throats then catch up,” he ordered. “The rest of you with me.”

The stairs down beckoned him, the way wide open. The goblin froze for the second time tha night when he felt the touch of steel on the side of his neck.

“Draper,” a voice spoke quietly. “Don’t slit those throats. I don’t like leaving corpses behind. Good thieves don’t need to.”

Robber knew for a fact that a heartbeat ago there had been absolutely nothing to his side. And yet, right now, a woman stood there. Callowan, by the skin tone, with short dark hair and wearing comfortable leathers. Sharp blue eyes were studying him amusedly. They had met before, once.

“Evening, Thief,” Robber said. “Taking a stroll?”

“What can I say,” the heroine smiled. “I’m the curious type and there’s just so much here to be curious about.”

“Was thinking the same thing,” the goblin grinned. “Mind you, would you sheathe that knife?”

The woman raised an eyebrow.

“And why would I do that?”

“’cause I’ll sheathe mine,” Robber said, lightly tapping the blade he had pointed at her kidney.

“I could kill you before your wrist moved,” the heroine said.

“Probably,” Robber shrugged. “It’ll get messy afterwards, though. And hey, if I’m croaking, you can be sure I’m not gonna do it quietly.”

“You’d be sacrificing your own soldiers,” Thief said, narrowing her eyes.

“Lady, we’re sappers,” Lieutenant Rattler chuckled. “The only way we die is loud.”

The Callowan thinned her lips.

“No throat-slitting?” she asked.

“Goblin word of honour,” Robber grinned.

“What’s that actually worth?” the heroine asked with morbid curiosity.

“Gold, as long as you’re winning,” the goblin chuckled.

The Thief rolled her eyes, but the blade returned to its sheath.

“Well, this was delightful but we can go on our merry ways now,” Robber suggested. “We just want a peek downstairs.”

“You can’t,” the heroine replied. “It took me an aspect to get through those wards, and when you trigger them you’ll empty half a Hell.”

The Special Tribune hummed.

“We trade gossip, then,” he said. “What’s in the basement?”

“A millennium of paranoia carved into the walls,” the Thief said. “And over a dozen Deoraithe strapped on stone beds.”

Robber chewed over that for a moment.

“Are they Watch?”

“No idea,” Thief shrugged.

“Doesn’t sound good even if they aren’t,” the goblin admitted.

“There’s a reason we’re even having this conversation, goblin,” the heroine replied frankly.

Robber decided to let that one go. Heroes in general did not have a great many quandaries on the subject of stabbing goblins.

“So, word is you robbed the treasury in Laure,” he said.

“I like shiny things,” the dark-haired woman smiled.

“Boss might take offence to that, when she’s back,” he said.

“Everybody knows Foundling’s in Arcadia,” the heroine snorted. “She’s not getting out for a few years, if ever.”

“I’ve known Squire for two years now,” Robber said. “And I’ve never known anyone to make a profit by betting against her.”

The Thief rolled her eyes.

“It’s one thing to kill a hero, another to fuck with the Winter Court,” she said. “And if she’s got issue with what I’ve been doing? She can take it up with me. I’ll be in Laure, wearing her jewels.”

Robber would have replied, but before he could he was once more looking into thin air.

“Chief?” Rattler prompted. “What do we do now?”

The goblin sighed.

“We run, my lovelies, all the way back to Marchford,” he said.

He paused.

“We can steal the silverware on the way out, at least,” he decided. “Wouldn’t feel right not to.”