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 Wednesday.

Chapter 40: Knock

“The Heavens have a way of favouring the general with the better army.”
-Theodosius the Unconquered, Tyrant of Helike

At a regular pace, the Fifteenth would have gotten to Liesse in twelve hours.

We managed it in two bells instead, eight hours, by letting the slower supply train slip behind. Juniper would never have taken the risk if the rebels had shown a willingness to sally before, but they hadn’t. They’d remained behind the walls of Liesse and now we knew why. They’d waited until we were close enough that if we fled out of the angel’s range, we wouldn’t have time to do anything else. And then we’d have to deal with over a hundred thousand conscripts for the Heavens. My senior staff was all in agreement: if an army that size suddenly appeared in the middle of southern Callow, the entire campaign was screwed. The Legions of Terror would have to retreat north to consolidate and bring reinforcements from Praes and western Callow. Which would leave the Wasteland without supervision and the borders with Procer unmanned. If this was just a peasant army we were dealing with the whole affair might be settled before the Principate’s forces came back north after dealing with the Dominion, but those people would be Hashmallim-touched. They would not break, retreat or surrender.

The summoning had to be stopped. So here we were, two hours or so before Afternoon Bell, setting up camp a mile away from the walls of the city. There was no point in trying to encircle Liesse so we didn’t bother to even make a token effort. There were only forty or so hours left before it all went to shit, we’d have to come in swinging and break through the defences to cut this off at the source. To avoid a panic, the rank and file had not been informed of what exactly was going on inside the city – just that the Lone Swordsman was attempting a ritual that couldn’t be allowed to finish. The sense of urgency would hopefully drive my legionaries to push through even when things got bad, because there was no doubt that they would.

The situation we’d been put it was… dire. We were horribly outnumbered, for one. The walls were manned by what Juniper had identified to be the Baroness Dormer’s army, a mix of retinue soldiers and southern levies. They were heavy on bows, and they’d know how to use them: Callowan professional armies like the defunct Royal Guard had been heavier on knights than archers, but farmers weren’t above hunting deer and rabbits to put on the dinner table. Smaller and swifter targets than my legionaries, if not as well armoured. The walls themselves could be pounded into rubble given long enough, but time was the thing we lacked most. The one redeeming factor in all this was that Liesse wasn’t a castle, it was a fortified city. Beyond the initial wall there was no immediate second circle of fortifications: it was houses and shops, a maze of old streets and avenues. Deeper inside, closer to the lake, there was the Ducal Palace. It had been a fortress once but after centuries of peace its rulers had come to prioritize luxury over defensibility. Which won’t matter, if we can’t get into the actual city.

“Not even a portcullis on that gate. Goddamn Liessen don’t know what a real fortress is,” Captain Farrier spoke up from my side. “The south has always been too soft.”

The Gallowborne followed me everywhere now. Twenty of them dogged my footsteps everywhere I went, no matter the hour. They even guarded my tent.

“Where are you from, John?”

The man blushed. He always did, when I called him by his given name.

“Summerholm, ma’am. Gate of the East.”

Where Legions go to die, he didn’t say. The old boast rang hollow these days, with legionaries patrolling the streets of the city.

“They’ll find a stomach for this fight,” I said. “They have a hero with them.”

“Lone Swordsman, huh?” the man mused. “Heard about him. Pretty boy, did a speech in Marchford about freeing Callow. Took the First Prince’s silver, though. So much for that.”

“He’s not the brightest man I’ve met,” I said. “But he’s a regular monster with a sword. I’ve seen Calamities fight and he’s nearly in the same league.”

“Hopefully you won’t torch the city to get him, this time,” Farrier smirked.

I rolled my eyes. If only that were an option. With the city this densely packed the tactics I could actually use were sharply limited: even the trebuchets would have to be carefully aimed not to hit the streets. Civilian casualties would be horrifying otherwise. Won’t be an issue if Masego comes through, I thought. Apprentice had gone to take a closer look at the gates, to see if what we had in mind was feasible. There would spells inlaid in the fortifications, of course. There wasn’t a defensive wall in Callow that was without that kind of protection – otherwise any powerful mage could tear through stone, given half a bell to work. Mages in Callow were rarer than in the Wasteland, though, and so the spellwork wasn’t refreshed as often. Large Imperial cities got new warding schemes every decade or so, according to my books, but in the Kingdom the wards had remained the same until they were broken. And Liesse hasn’t ever been invaded by the Legions, so it should be as old as it gets.

Masego would tell me soon. Until then there were other matters to look into. I wasn’t forced to wait long until Hakram came back with the man I’d sent for. Neither did I need to turn and look to see they were coming: all the Gallowborne had put their hands on their swords the moment they appeared.

“Lady Squire,” the man they called Arzachel greeted me with an insolent smile.

The mercenary was allegedly from Valencis, one of the southernmost principalities in Procer – the one bordering the Titanomanchy and the giants that lived in it. He looked almost like a Taghreb, though his skin wasn’t quite as tanned and the cast of his face was unfamiliar. The southernmost Procerans were called Arlesites, I remembered. Famous for their gallantry and tendency to be at war with all their neighbours, both inside and outside the Principate. With his elaborate moustache, forked beard and the wicked falchion at his side he looked like the kind of man who’d sup on babies. He was also still eyeing me with open disrespect.

“It would be proper for you to kneel,” I said.

I felt Captain Farrier hide a smile. Callowans had not been fond of Procerans even before they’d failed to lend help during the Conquest.

“I’m not a very proper man, milady,” the man shrugged.

I shared a glance with Hakram. Without the need for actual words, the tall orc laid the bone hand that had brought him his nickname and forcefully pushed Arzachel to his knees. The man spluttered and reached for his falchion, but within two heartbeats all twenty of the Gallowborne had unsheathed their swords. Arzachel cast a look at them, then spat.

“Will that be enough?” he sneered.

“You can stay there,” I replied flatly.

“You treat all your men this way, Lady Squire?” he said.

I hummed. “Not a single one of them. That’s why you’re here, actually. You’re not one of mine, you’re Akua’s – and she’s about to betray me.”

“Doubt it, but even if she was it’s got nothing to do with me or my men,” he said immediately. “We ain’t getting involved in Praesi scheming.”

“Then you should have better considered your choice of employer,” I replied without a shred of sympathy. “You’re here, and you’re a liability that cannot be left unattended.”

My tone had remained casual, but there must have been something about it that gave him pause. The smugness and self-assurance slid off his face.

“You still need my men,” he said cautiously. “You kill me and they won’t follow.”

“Yes,” I agreed softly. “I’m told they’re remarkably loyal. They’ll listen to you whatever you decide to do. That’s why your head in a basket isn’t serving as a prop while I talk to one of your lieutenants.”

Arzachel went very, very still.

“I’ve got under forty hours to take Liesse,” I said. “I don’t have time to waste on you, to find a more elegant way to do this. Elegant’s never really been my thing, anyway.”

“Lady Squire,” he said, “I-“

Shut up,” I Spoke. “Akua’s clever and she’s got some talent on her side, but I’ve got the single most powerful mage of our generation taking orders from me.”

Hakram smoothly unsheathed a knife and crouched at Arzachel’s side, forcing up his palm and nicking it. Blood dripped into a glass vial he held up in his other hand before rising to his feet and corking it.

“When he comes back,” I continued, “I’m giving Apprentice the vial with your blood in it. He’ll be under orders to use the nastiest way he has to kill someone if you so much as twitch in a way that looks treacherous to me.”

The Proceran’s eyes widened in fear. He was trying to speak but his lips wouldn’t move.

“Man’s got an affinity with fire,” I mused. “Reckon he might boil your blood in your veins.”

“Bad way to go,” Hakram gravelled, thick fingers slipping the vial under his breastplate. “Not at quick one, either.”

“Now,” I smiled, “you might be telling yourself ‘Heiress is a mage. She’ll put up something to protect me from that.’ Here’s thing thing, though: sure, if you talk to her she might put up a ward. She’s skilled. What she isn’t is an endless power sink – if Apprentice swings hard enough at that protection, it’ll break. She’s got other plans, Arzachel. How much do you really think she’s willing to invest in saving your skin instead of her own objectives?”

Adjutant hoisted the Proceran to his feet, patting his shoulder amicably.

“Off we go, mercenary,” he said.

Arzachel turned to leave but I raised my voice again, stopping him in his tracks.

“Oh, and one last thing.”

I allowed my Name to flare up, the beast howling in laughter as I felt my shadow stir behind me. I had a feeling that if I looked it wouldn’t my own silhouette outlined on the ground.

“Your men are auxiliaries in the Legions of Terror,” I said. “Regulations apply to them now. If any of them loot or rape when we get into the city, it’s the gallows for them and the officer who failed to keep them in line. Dismissed.”

“Blasting those gates would be pointless,” Masego said, wasting no time on small talk.

Juniper grunted in displeasure, glancing in my direction.

“Thought you said the wards in Liesse would be dusty relics,” the Hellhound said.

“They are,” Apprentice intervened. “I’m fairly sure that scheme predates Triumphant.”

Hakram and Pickler pressed knuckles to their foreheads, murmuring may she never return. Juniper didn’t bother with the formula, absent-mindedly moving her hand in the gesture. Masego drummed his fingers against his side irritably. He wasn’t any more inclined to superstition than I was, maybe even less.

“It’s simple in nature, but it’s lasted this long because it was cleverly designed. The runes inlaid on the iron take magic and move it into the walls it’s linked to. Those have been designed with some standard dispersal spellwork – anything trying to blast that door would have to be strong enough to bring down the entire set of walls at once.”

There were rituals that might be able to do that, I knew. Praesi had been horrifyingly skilled with rituals even before they’d been occupied by the Miezans, the unchallenged masters of that branch of sorcery. They usually required mass sacrifices, though, and I had neither the people nor the willingness to bleed them. Pickler spoke up.

“The trebuchets are positioned,” she said. “Give me the word and we start hammering away.”

“We won’t need that,” Apprentice said. “Simple in nature, remember? The scheme doesn’t deal with the physical aspects of manifested sorcery.”

I raised an eyebrow. “And for those of us not too clear on what that meant?”

“If I send fire at it, the flames won’t damage the gate. The flames themselves are magical energy, turned into a physical manifestation. But it’ll still be affected by the heat emanating from the flames, since the heat itself isn’t sorcerous in nature.”

Kilian had tried to explain something similar to me once. She’d said that sorcery was, in a way, using your will to lie to Creation. You convinced it that your magic was actually fire or ice or light or a curse, and that it should react accordingly. The bigger or more complex the lie, the more willpower it took. I had a feeling this was all an extreme oversimplification, but it was enough for me to get the gist of what Apprentice was saying.

“Melting the gate would require hours of constant, very high temperature fire,” Pickler pointed out.

“So we don’t use fire,” I said. “Masego, you used a trick in Summerholm. Can you do it again?”

He blinked, then frowned. After a moment his eyes lit up.

“Clever,” he praised. “Yes. Though we’ll need an impact afterwards.”

“You’ll get to use your trebuchets after all, Senior Sapper,” I said, and the goblin grinned.

For a moment she looked just like Robber about to slip a lit brightstick in someone’s pants. I nearly shuddered. Goblins. That this one preferred siege weapons to slitting throats in the night didn’t make her any less dangerous.

“It’s after the way is open that worries me,” Adjutant spoke up, grounding me back in the present. “There’s heroes in the city, they’ll have set up surprises. And there’s no trace of the Stygian spears on the walls.”

“They know we need the gate to invest the city in time,” Juniper said. “They’ll be waiting on the other side, in full phalanx. If there’s a competent commander on the other side, there’ll be archers on the streets and rooftops behind them.”

It would be like walking into a meat grinder. The ring of spears would remain an unmoving rampart skewering anyone coming at it, and with a constant stream of arrows falling on my legionaries they’d be unable to form up in enough of a mass to just push their way through. We’d expected to have to face the Stygians, though, and over the last few fortnights the Hellhound had developed her own tactics to deal with them.

“Sappers and heavies,” Juniper continued. “Crack open the formation with sharpers, then keep them split. We’ll use the Procerans to soften them up first, thin the numbers.”

“We have my little surprise, if it comes to that,” I said.

“You’ll need that to deal with the brat,” the Hellhound replied. “Keep as many trump cards in reserve as you can. Getting the latter parts of this battle done without you would be troublesome.”

“How sentimental of you, Juniper,” I said, but I also nodded to concede the point.

William was due a victory, but victory was a very broad concept. My being defeated in single combat might discharge that obligation and then leave him vulnerable to an ally picking him off – after the pattern of three was over, our lives were no longer bound to each other’s hands. The trick would be surviving the defeat. I’d had a lot of time to chew over the idea, to think up contingencies. I imagined most of them would fail, which was why I had a lot.

“Speaking of brats,” I said. “Heiress. The counters are ready?”

“Kilian has her orders,” Juniper gravelled.

“I had a look at our Proceran friend earlier,” Masego said amusedly. “He’s bare of protection, and I believe the slight warming of his blood for a moment was enough of a warning to ensure good behaviour.”

“He was shaking when he left,” Hakram said. “There was kind of a… pressure, when Catherine dismissed him. Even I felt it, and I wasn’t the target.”

I hid my surprise. I’d been on the other side of that trick once, the night I’d met Black. I’d seen him use it several times since, inflicting raw terror on people just by focusing his Name in their direction. Had I reproduced it accidentally? I’d need to look into that later. It was too useful an ability not to try and add it to my arsenal. Finding volunteers for testing might be a little hard though, I grimaced. Shaking away the thought, I met the eyes of my officers.

“We’re as ready as we’ll ever be. Another half bell for the legionaries to rest, and then we get this stone rolling.”

Afternoon Bell was ringing inside Liesse but no one paid the sound much attention.

My horse moved according to my will, trotting slightly ahead of the assembled lines of the Fifteenth. I’d considered making a speech before we struck the first blow, but what would be the point of it? My legionaries knew what needed to be done. They knew why, and they knew who we’d face doing it. Anything else was just posturing. Hakram was on foot at my side, the two of us surrounded by the full contingent of the Gallowborne. Masego was idling somewhere behind us, talking in low tones with his task force of mages as we waited for our last guest to arrive. She made us wait as long as she dared. Heiress arrived with her usual panache with her minion Barika in tow.

Akua was wearing ridiculously gorgeous armour, as was apparently her habit. This one was lamellar steel, with whispers of gold standing out from the red aketon underneath. It split on her upper thigh, revealing beautiful greaves set over high supple leather boots. Even her horse was covered in armour that was prettier than my own very plain – and somewhat scarred, because people kept shooting me – plate. Her horse was also alive, unlike Zombie. Whether that was a victory for me or not I still wasn’t sure. Refusing to stare at the sight of her, I fished out my dragonbone pipe out of one of my saddlebags and filled it with an herb satchel, striking a pinewood match on my own saddle to light it. I puffed out a mouthful of white smoke, eyeing her unkindly.

“You realize this is a military campaign, not a court session,” I said.

“It is the burden of nobility to be superior in all things,” she replied gravely. “Not that I would expect you to understand this, given your… origins.”

“Pretty armour,” Hakram spoke up mildly. “Crossbow will punch right through it, of course. There’s a reason we use mail and plate nowadays.”

Heiress graced him with a disdainful glance, but did not bother to reply. I breathed in the smoke then blew it out in her general direction. She wasn’t close enough to feel it, but the general pettiness of the gesture was still kind of satisfying.

“I assume you summoned me for something resembling a reason?” Akua said.

“A generous assumption,” Barika added in her wake.

“Barika Unonti, isn’t it?” I smiled. “How’s the finger?”

She looked like she wanted to show me one finger in particular but she controlled herself. Smugly, I blew out another mouthful of smoke. It was good to know that my talent for pissing off people hadn’t dulled since my days in the Pit.

“Your presence had been requested here so that you can offer technical advice on our offensive, Heiress,” Hakram lied blatantly in my name.

We had her here so that if she looked like she was about to double-cross us the goblin munitions buried under her feet could be detonated and a full company of eager Callowans got to stabbing her, should Apprentice fail to explode her head first. That was actually a thing he could do, I’d found out today. Explode people’s heads. What a world we lived in. It was a good thing I wasn’t a mage, I decided, because I wasn’t sure how good I’d be at resisting the temptation to use that spell whenever I had to deal with nobles.

“How flattering of you,” Akua said drily. “Not at all a waste of my abilities.”

I smiled. “See, you’re giving me advice already. Clearly you were born for this.”

Before the conversation could devolve any further, Apprentice strolled away from the other mages and broke in.

“Everything’s ready,” he said.

Heiress smiled in his direction, showing perfect teeth on her perfect godsdamned face.

“Lord Masego, how pleasant to see you,” she said. “I’ve been meaning to say that you and I should share of cup of wine soon. We could learn much from each other.”

The dark-skinned mage peered at her over his spectacles.

“Agreed,” he said quietly. “I’ve been meaning to dissect a Named for years, Heiress. Who knows, you might even survive the experience.”

Emptying the smouldering remnants of my pipe on the ground, I smothered a grin as the other Soninke’s face went blank. Considering Masego had been in the thick of the fighting against the demon, Heiress wasn’t going to be making any ground there in the foreseeable future. I cleared my throat, turning to the closest line of Gallowborne.

“Escort Lord Apprentice on the field, please,” I ordered. “Shields up. You should be out of arrow range but it pays to be careful.”

The twenty men clustered around Masego in a lozenge as they strode ahead of the army, watched silently by the rebels on the walls. They were too far away for me to hear when Apprentice told them to stop, or to hear him when he started incanting. Heiress leaned forward in the saddle, watching carefully.

“He’s calling on a contract,” she said.

“So he is,” I agreed.

“Magic won’t break the gate,” Akua said. “It is warded to ensure as much.”

“See, that’s the problem with you traditional Evil types,” I said. “You see a gate and it’s a personal affront for it to be in your way – so you have to batter it down. You think in straight lines. Even you, Akua. Your whole thing is scheming, but you only ever scheme to remove the obstacles straight in front of you.”

The front tip of the lozenge formation scattered as a globe of ice-clear water emerged from Masego’s hand. It flew forward steadily. Arrows streaked from the ramparts and the bastion above the gate but it was a small and moving target. It hit the gate without a sound and ice burst from the point of contact, swallowing the whole surface in a heartbeat. I did not spread to the walls, covering only the gate with inhuman precision.

“It is now frozen and closed,” Heiress said. “Truly, your tactical acumen is without peer. You have a mage who can call on Cocytus at his age and this is the best plan you can craft?”

In the distance, a trebuchet swung. The stone was too high – it hit the crenulations of the bastion above, taking the tip of it clear off and impacting inside the city. I really hoped the rebels had evacuated the outskirts of Liesse. In the distance I heard Pickler scream at the top of her lungs that if the next stone was off by that much the third projectile would be the goblin responsible for it. The second stone was better aimed: it hit the gate, cracking the ice. The metal behind it groaned. As the sappers loaded a third projectile, I smiled at Heiress.

“Gate’s warded, yes. The hinges, though? The hinges are just metal. And what happens when metal is exposed to the coldest temperature devils can muster?”

“It gets brittle,” Hakram said before she could.

The third stone hit, and with a ripping sound the gate… fell down. The hinges had broken and nothing held it up anymore. I smiled unpleasantly at the aristocrat.

“As you said, my tactical acumen is truly without peer.”

The Fifteenth roared its approval behind us as Masego returned to the safety of our lines and the Battle of Liesse began in earnest.

Heroic Interlude – Prise au Fer

“There is nowhere angels fear to tread.”
– Callowan proverb

William’s mother had been a woman of some education, a knight’s daughter. His father had only barely known how to read and always deeply distrusted any writing but the Book of All Things, which was said to have been spoken to the minds of mortal men by the Gods. It had been his mother who’d taught him his numbers and letters, and she’d been the one to keep his attention on the lessons by weaving stories from ancient Callowan rulers into them. The Queen of Blades had been the kind of vivid story that fascinated, never once defeated in battle though her invasion of Daoine had failed. So had the story of Eleanor Fairfax, the knight turned founder of the Fairfax dynasty who’d risen in rebellion against Triumphant when the Dread Empress had ruled over the entire continent. Now, though, as he walked the streets of Liesse alone and the moon was high in the sky, it was a king’s words he remembered. So had spoken Jehan the Wise: “Evil is cruel, and so men think it follows that Good is kind. This is a mistake, my son. Though fire is warm and in the dark of night we huddle around it, it also burns.”

This had unsettled him, as a child. Jehan had been Named, the Good King. A hero. Why be so wary of the very power he wielded? He understood now. Had ever since he’d gone into the wilderness half-mad and been presented with the face of Contrition. He’d seen the searing fires and felt them scour his soul clear. There were sorceries in the East – and even in some of the Free Cities – that could make a slave of a man. There were some who would compare standing in the presence of a Hashmallim to such a thing, but that was a fundamental misunderstanding of the thing. William had seen his life through their eyes. Every sin, every wrong, every petty unthinking cruelty. All of it without the veil of lies everyone cloaked themselves in without even realizing it. The lies of well-meaning and wilfully chosen ignorance. It had stripped William of his delusions and allowed him to see what he truly was.

Just a man, and not a particularly Good one.

He’d gone through those fires and come out a sword of the Heavens, handed a single feather from the wing of Contrition to see its will done upon Creation. Had they known, even then? Perhaps they had. Angels saw deeper into the nature of the world than mortals could, beyond artificial constructs like time. There was, to them, no difference between the first step of a journey and the last. That was what really changed people, when they met angels. The realization that in the end they were nothing but an assembly of sins. Choirs helped you accept this truth differently. Those touched by Compassion never took another life again, not even those of the worst monsters in Creation. Those touched by Mercy spent their days alleviating suffering wherever they went. Those touched by Judgement… did not survive the experience, should they be found wanting. Contrition was different from the others, in a sense.

The Hashmallim had never once forced anyone to take up the sword to fight Evil, but then they’d never once had to ask. Once you saw the truth of yourself and then then truth of Creation, what was left but to take arms? The only path to contrition was to leave the world a better place than you’d found it – and how could lesser be solutions be tolerated when so large a part of Calernia was still under the yoke of the Gods Below?

Nine crusades had been waged, all in all. Of those, five had been led by heroes aligned to the Choir of Contrition. Sometimes it amused William that the red cross that was the mark of all crusaders had been a symbol provided by the Dread Empire. Triumphant, in all her cruel madness, had been fond of having children crucify their own parents as a sign of obeisance. She’d paid for it eventually, when a Duchess of Daoine who’d consigned her own father to the cross met with an idealistic young knight named Eleanor Fairfax. Eleanor had been touched by Contrition, and when she rose in rebellion all of the continent gathered behind her banner and carried it all the way to the foot of the Tower. In the beginning only the Duchess’ soldiers had worn the cross, but symbols spread – by the time Triumphant’s empire was pulled down on her head every man and woman in that army had a scrap of red cloth sown on their clothes. Or branded into their skin.

And so the First Crusade came to an end. The Second came when the Praesi rose in revolt against the crusader kingdoms their realm had been divided into, and they were crushed into dust. When the Wastelanders rose the second time, though, they were led by the man who would become Dread Emperor Terribilis II. The Third Crusade ended in disaster and the end of the crusader nations – to further compound the disgrace, a weakened Callow was occupied by Procer in its wake. The Fourth Crusade, a last-ditch attempt to reclaim Praes, was drowned in such a sea of blood by Terribilis that never again was a crusade to turn East. After that the four crusades that followed were led by the hand of Contrition. Failures, all of them, for they were fighting the Dead King and his realm of horrors, a monster who called even devils to heel. Of those it was the Seventh Crusade that William found important, for as far as he knew it was the only time in the history of Calernia a Hashmallim had come into Creation.

Contrition had touched Salia, the capital of the Principate of Procer, and every soul inside had taken the cross – including the First Prince of the time. The rest of the continent had gathered behind that holy host, and for a time it seemed the endless hordes of the dead would finally run out. Siege was laid to Keter, the seat of the Dead King and ancient capital of his derelict kingdom. They’d lost, in the end. The Dead King has poisoned the land and called forth infernal hosts until there was nothing left standing in front of him but bones. But they’d come close. Liesse was smaller than Salia, only a hundred thousand people lived within the walls, but it was not the Kingdom of the Dead it would fight. Malicia was no great warlord, not the way Terribilis had been, and her greatest general was getting old. Sooner or later, a hero would finally manage to slay the Black Knight.

The First Prince of Procer was plotting a Tenth Crusade, holed up in her capital, and William would give it to her. But it would not be a Proceran enterprise, and it would not end with Callow as her protectorate. The rest of Calernia would not stand for that sin being committed a second time. The Lone Swordsman came upon the shores of the Hengest lake and looked up at the stars, breathing out slowly. There were small docks with fishing boats further down the waterside but that would not take him where he was headed. Every Callowan child knew there was a holy place somewhere in the waters, an island said to be untouched by war and the depredations of time alike. An island, it was said, but none could be seen from the city. Boots in the sand, William watched the shining waters and waited.

The white ship came, a small thing rowboat without any trace of an oar. It did not float so much as glide, the swan-shaped prow and stern almost lifelike. It beached in front of him and without a word William climbed on board, sitting on the only seat. It had been a clear night out but the ship led them into mist. How long he sat there alone with only the dark waters and the mist for company, he could not say. He’d been into Arcadia Resplendent, where time ran to a different stream than in Creation, but this was different. Whatever lay ahead was not in another realm, just a part of this one mortals were not lightly given access to. The Penitent’s Blade, always at his hip, was warm to the touch. It felt the proximity of its likeness. An angel had died in the waters of the Hengest, the legend went. He would soon find out the truth of that. He didn’t see the island until they were almost upon it, to his surprise. Pale sands formed a perfect circle in the water, entirely bare for a small chapel of roughly hewn stone.

William had been to Laure before and seen its beautiful cathedrals. He’d seen the many basilicas of the south, for that matter, and the outrageous wealth and splendour of Salia – capital of the mightiest nation on Calernia. For all that, the sight of that small chapel brought out… something in him. A sense of wonder. There were no grand materials or sculptures: it was, in truth, little more than a stone house with a pointed ceiling and a tower. The ship beached on the sands in perfect silence and the Lone Swordsman stepped onto the shore. There was, he now saw, no bell in the tower. Yet there was an empty space for one, a bar of ancient wood to hang it from. It was the first imperfection he’d glimpsed here, and he almost frowned at the sight. Dismissing the thought, he strode inside through the open door.

There were seven rows of benches on each side, little more than bare slabs of stone. No murals on the walls of paintings on the ceiling. Even the window in the back was without stained glass, revealing only endless waters blanked by swirling mists. For all that, he felt a little awed. The chapel felt unearthly, more than even Arcadia had. It was too real. The stone was the very essence of stone, the air the very essence of air: the only intruder here was him, a living imperfection in an otherwise flawless scene. Beyond the benches lay a small altar of pale stone, with a single mark on it. A sigil. It was a sinuous, complicated thing but his mind could not help but perceive it as the number three, in Miezan numerals. The Penitent’s Blade was so warm it almost burned his fingers when he touched the handle.

“You know what happens next, don’t you?”

Almorava’s voice was soft, almost kind. He was not surprised she’d turned up, though he glanced in her direction nonetheless. She was seated to his right, for once without a bottle in hand. Even she would not desecrate this place with idle drinking.

“The sword goes into the stone,” he said. “I may not know stories the way you do, but I know that.”

He’d also stay in prayer until dawn. There would be exactly seven hours left before the sun rose, no matter when he started praying. These things saw themselves into being.

“I wonder what the last hero though, when they called on Contrition,” he said quietly. “If they had doubts, too.”

“She didn’t,” Almorava replied. “The White Knight was in Salia, when the Dead King’s offer came. Five hundred children every year for peace on the borders. That the First Prince even considered it had her in such disgust she did it that very same night.”

He didn’t ask how she knew that. He wasn’t sure he’d liked the answer. Heroes were bound to the lifespan of a mortal, unlike villains, but the Wandering Bard had always known too much about things she seemed much too young to ever have witnessed with her own eyes. Perhaps it was part of her Name. Perhaps it is something else entirely.

“A better woman than me, then,” William said. “I know what I will be putting them through. It is not a gentle thing.”

“Good doesn’t have to be nice,” Almorava murmured. “Just righteous.”

The Lone Swordsman remained standing, looking at the pale stone and the sigil on it.

“She could take the Fifteenth out of range,” he finally said. “Forty-nine hours is more than enough time.”

“She won’t, though,” the Bard replied. “That’s not her nature. She’s the very worst kind of villain, you see – the kind who thinks they’re doing the right thing. In that sense, she’s even more dangerous than her teacher. He doesn’t labour under that impression.”

“And us?” he asked. “Are we also just clutching a delusion? I had a talk with Thief, before coming here. She told me she’s staying for the siege, but that she’ll be leaving Callow afterwards.”

Some vestige of amusement quirked his lips.

“She was, I believe, quite disgusted with me.”

“Thief sees Creation through the lens of her Name,” Almorava said. “That allows her more clarity than you’d think, but people with her kind of Role are not meant to look at a broader picture. She fights what she perceives as injustice wherever she sees it, but she’ll never root out the causes.”

The same, he thought, could be said of so many heroes. Theirs was a losing fight, from the onset. You could bring down the mighty who abused their power, turn back the great tides of Evil that would sweep over mankind, but how could a single person change the world? There was a reason for that, he believed. The Heavens had put the Fate of mankind in the hands of mankind, not the Named. Heroes, given extraordinary abilities, were meant to deal with extraordinary threats. Not to take the reins of the world.

“There are no root causes,” he said tiredly. “Or only one, if you prefer. People are people, with all the flaws that come with that. We strive to do Good and fall short, because we’re not meant for perfection. Sometimes I wonder if it’s all just a great jest at our expense, Almorava. If they placed a better world just out of our reach so that they can watch us try and fail to touch it.”

The Bard hummed. “Did you know it’s a matter of some debate among the priests of the House of Light whether or not Evil is inherent to the soul?”

William was Liessen: of course he knew that. Even after the Conquest the brothers and sisters were everywhere in the south of Callow, and their public debates on theological matters were considered a good show in most villages. People actually travelled to witness famous debaters at work. There was a great deal of betting involved, which was a lot less pious, but people tended to remember the arguments made even after money changed hands.

“Are you about to impart some great revelation onto me?” he asked. “That debate has been raging for as long as the House has stood, and some say the priests who built it were arguing as they lay the stones.”

“I think it’s a very interesting question, when you look at the current breed of villains we’re dealing with,” the Bard said. “There’s only three that matter: the Empress, the Knight and the Squire.”

Almorava raised a finger.

“Malicia has made a point of of improving the lot of common Callowans whenever she can. Purely out of self-interest, but she does it nonetheless.”

She raised a second finger.

“The Big Guy is stricter about enforcing those laws of the old kingdom he kept than the Fairfaxes were before him. He’s not gentle about it, but he keeps order and enforces something that looks like justice if you squint a bit.”

A third finger.

“Foundling. Well, you’ve met her yourself. She thinks she’s saving Callow. You could argue her intentions are heroic, even if she’s a little more complicated than that.”

“You despise the Empire even more than I do,” the hero frowned. “Yet this seems like a fairly impassioned defence of it.”

“The thing is, William,” she said, ignoring his interjection. “They’re not the first villains to ever win a few battles. It’s without precedent for the Empire to keep Callow for over twenty years, though. Why are they different?”

“We’ve never dealt with villains quite as skilled who did not compulsively backstab each other,” the Lone Swordsman said. “Or get killed by rivals.”

“That’s another thing, yes,” Almorava said. “There’s loyalty there. Affection, even. Not traits you usually associate with villains. Not that they’re incapable of them, but Names magnify everything you are – and you don’t get to shake hands with the Gods Below by being a choir boy.”

“I don’t follow your point,” William admitted.

“These are some of the most successful villains in the history of the Empire,” she said. “And they became that by going through the motions of being Good.”

The dark-haired man’s brow rose. “They are most definitely not.”

“Oh, I’m not arguing that they are,” the Bard said. “See, I think that we are born Evil. Because Evil is instinct. It’s that animal part of us that wants things for ourselves no matter what it does to others. It’s been dressed up in philosophy since, but that’s the heart of it.”

She smiled mirthlessly.

“But I want to believe that when the Gods made us, they gave us thought as well as instinct. We teach ourselves to be Good, William. Because we want to be better. It’s not as easy but maybe, just maybe, if we do it long enough it will be what comes naturally to us.”

“So you’re saying the Carrion Lord is trying to be Good?” he said sceptically.

“I’m saying these are the first villains in a long time who’re going with thought instead of instinct,” Almorava replied. “It’s why they’re weaker, too. They’re leaning in the wrong direction and it has cost them.”

“I don’t see how that makes anything better,” the Lone Swordsman sighed.

“Earlier, you spoke of a root cause. People being people, was it? Except people are learning, William. Even the other side’s noticed, to the extent that they try to bastardize what we are. They say that the Heavens gave us laws, but that’s not really true is it? What they actually gave us is guidelines, to make a better world. And it’s working.”

The Wandering Bard rose to her feet. Almorava wasn’t pretty, though in some light she could be called striking. The dark skin, curly hair and strong nose made her face interesting to look at but not so attractive to be intimidating. Normally she had her lute, but tonight it was nowhere in sight. She always wore the same clothes of silk and leather, but this time they were freshly cleaned. And for once she doesn’t smell like a brewery, William added a little less kindly.

“Day by day,” she said. “Year by year, century by century – we’re making Creation a better place. Even the bottom of the barrel is pulled up when you hoist the whole thing.”

“It’s a pretty thought,” the hero said. “Doesn’t help all of us who live in Creation now instead of in a hundred years, though.”

“I know,” she said, laying a hand on his shoulder. “But I don’t want you to put that sword into that stone thinking it’s for nothing. We’re part of something larger than us, William of Greenbury. Something that uses us sorely. But…”

“Good doesn’t have to be nice,” he quietly echoed her words from earlier. “Just righteous.”

He’d shivered, when she’d said his full name. He’d never told it to her, and no one had called him by that in years. What felt like a lifetime ago. Almorava stayed close to him and for a moment he thought she was going to kiss him. She’d certainly not been subtle about being attracted to him, or to quite a few other people. If she did, he would turn away. Instead she lay her head on his chest and looped her arms around him, sighing quietly. After a moment he hugged her back.

“Every time,” she whispered. “You poor Contrition fools break my heart every time.”

She drew away, hand lingering on his chest, and left without another word. Silently, William of Greenbury stepped to the altar. He unsheathed the Penitent’s Blade and slid it inside smoothly, the sword entering without resistance or leaving a mark. He knelt before the stone and closed his eyes. Behind all that Almorava had said about thought and instinct, he found a deeper truth. It Evil was truly inherent, as she seemed to believe, then to be Good was to make a choice. The thought moved him more than he thought it would.

“It is, we are told, the only choice that really matters,” he murmured.

The last line of the first page from the Book of All Things. He was making his choice, tonight. For seven hours he would pray, and then return to Liesse.

Forty-nine hours later, a Hashmallim would come into Creation the exact moment he died.

Conspiracy II

They call Ater the City of Gates and then forget to mention how often those are shut on people’s fingers.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II

Hakram picked up the axe.

Such a simple thing, really. A blade linked to a ring of steel at the top of a long shaft of wood. It was light, and when he tested the edge he found it was wickedly sharp. Military-grade steel, which was restricted. Either a noble had been ignoring the Empress’ interdicts or a weaponsmith in Foramen was making some coin on the side. That wouldn’t last long: either the goblins or the High Lady’s men would catch them if they continued. That grade of weaponry was only allowed to be made in the Imperial Forges, even if not all the stock went to the Legions. Their clever Empress now made gold out of the High Lords equipping their household troops and could gauge their numbers from the orders lodged. Would these ‘Catacomb Children’ be armed just as well? An hour ago the orc would have said no, but since then he’d gotten a glimpse at what went on in the streets of Ater when no one was paying attention. They were, after all, getting their weapons from civilians.

This will do,” Hakram said, idly spinning the axe like it was a child’s toy.

To him it might as well have been. Heavier than a legionary’s blade, but those were light as a feather to orcs. In the first days before the Conquest some of the Clans had grumbled at using glorified knives instead of their own favoured broadswords and axes, but the story was that the Carrion Lord had made his point by pitting twenty legionaries against twenty chosen warriors. The orcs had been big, hardened killers with at least twenty raids under their belts. They’d lost anyway. A hundred warriors would fight in a hundred instances of single combat. A hundred soldiers fought as a company and won the battle. The warrior societies had not liked the Black Knight’s lesson but they had fallen in line. After a thousand years of defeats and death, they had smelled the scent of victory in the air. We won’t fight as soldiers tonight, though, Hakram knew. Urban combat was not something he had much experience with, but he could take comfort in the fact that his men would be trained legionaries. The Catacomb Children were just civilians with too much blood flowing to their heads.

I will expect prompt payment, Fa’ir,” the old man said, grinning toothlessly.

You’ll have the merchandise within a fortnight,” Ratface replied flatly.

Humans could be hard to read, sometimes, but from the way the Taghreb stood he was wary of the smaller old Soninke. The stranger smelled of spices and refuse, lips cracked and all his teeth missing. He was, apparently, the man to talk to if you needed weapons quickly inside Ater. Hakram had expected him to ask for coin but apparently barter was the way things worked in the streets – large amounts of gold drew Imperial attention. The city guard might have been a sordid joke but whenever Malicia sent the Sentinels away from the Tower they drowned wherever they were sent in blood. The two humans had spent half an hour bickering over amount of pounds and purity, so the tall orc suspected the ‘merchandise’ would be laudanum, the pain-killing brew introduced by the Miezans so long ago. Whether the Supply Tribune had been robbed or not during the trade he did not know, but from the grim look on the olive-skinned man’s face he suspected it had been the case.

Enough blades for a hundred men,” the old man coughed, spittle flying as he hit his own chest. “The usual warehouse by the slaughterhouses.”

The humans spoke a little longer, the Soninke twice offering tea only to be declined. He did not offer a third time, but Hakram got the impression he hadn’t been supposed to. Another of those unspoken hospitality rules, he guessed. It was irksome that people expected greenskins to follow those even though nobody ever bothered to explain them. He’d picked up on a few through talking to Taghreb cadets in the College, since the desert people had been the ones to make them in the first place, but every year he unearthed fresh ones. The two officers of the Fifteenth left the spice shop through the same back door they’d used to enter it, coming out into a filth-laden alley where he could see fat rats gorging on scraps. The orc pressed his hand to his forehead at the sight of them, giving honour to the Tower – everybody knew the Empress could use carrion things as spies if she so wished. His companion smiled in amusement.

Ratface,” he said. “Those were not iron or bronze. These were goblin steel. How many weapons like this are floating around the city, that you can get a hundred in an hour?”

The Taghreb spit to the side, scattering some of the rats.

More than you’d think,” he said. “One of the quickest ways to get rich in this city is bringing in weapons, even bad ones.”

The gates are manned by the Sentinels,” Hakram said. “Those can’t be bought, and they look at all the carts coming in or out.”

Weapons were forbidden inside the walls, for civilians anyway. Legionaries were allowed to bring knives but not swords or shields, the city guard was armed with cudgels and short swords and the noble retinues could come in armed to the teeth – if the Empress granted them permits, which she charged through the nose for. The Sentinels were armed too, of course, but no one who liked having their head on their shoulders talked too much about them.

There’s smuggler tunnels under the walls,” Ratface admitted.

Hakram’s hairless brow rose in disbelief. “Under the city. Where the giant spiders are.”

They don’t have webs inside all the tunnels,” Ratface said. “If you’re lucky and fast, you can even get away with all your limbs.”

The human’s fingers twitched towards his hip, though he stopped himself from touching it. Either that or he had a cramp. The way the former captain had paid for his tuition at the War College had always been a subject of speculation among Rat Company. It was common knowledge among some that he’d stolen enough coin from his father to pay for his first year, but after that he’d had to pay the bursar himself. He was not on the Tower’s ticket or part of the greenskin contingents, so where had he gotten the gold? Most thought he stole it, either pawning College equipment on the sly or by rigging gambling games. Robber had started a rumour he ‘sold his body to the night’ that had been too juicy not to spread across their entire year but Hakram thought he might just have found the answer.

You’ve done a run before,” the orc said.

Three,” Ratface said. “First two set me up and on the third it became clear I’d only get lucky so many times. Got bit and had to spend most of the payment on a healer.”

The spiders under the capital were poisonous, it was said. Not a surprise if they were truly being spawned by the former Dread Emperor Tenebrous. Everything that came out of the Tower was poisonous in one way or another.

And now you handle ‘merchandise’,” Hakram said carefully.

The Taghreb scowled. “Do you know what would have happened, if I’d been put out of the College? My body would have been found in an alley the next morning. Too badly defaced to be recognized.”

I’m not castigating you, Ratface,” the orc said calmly. “I never knew. Or even suspected.”

The olive-skinned bastard sighed. “Selling the stuff is legal and most people don’t ask where it comes from. I mostly deal in debt now, anyway.”

Hakram refrained from pointing out how much of a stereotype that was. Sitting on most of the gold and silver deposits inside the Empire, the Taghreb were old hands at usury. Ruling nobles did not dirty their hands with matters like lending but that just meant lesser relatives handled the matters. The orc gently bumped his fist against the human’s shoulder, careful not to tip him over.

Scruples do not feed wolves,” he spoke in Kharsum, quoting the old orc proverb. “Let’s join up with the others. Aisha should have found us men.”

Hopefully, Robber hadn’t already baited her into stabbing him.

Aisha had never stepped foot into a brothel before.

She didn’t particularly approve of them, though she understood they were a necessity for the lower classes. Taghreb aristocracy did not seek the company of prostitutes: they kept paramours instead, if they were so inclined. Many nobles kept an unofficial seraglio even if they did not share a bed with the people in it – it was a sign of status and wealth to be able to keep one, especially if the members were strikingly good-looking or of good lineage. It was Dread Empress Maleficent, the Taghreb warlord who’d founded the Empire, who’d spread the practice to the north of the Empire when she’d made hers an imperial institution. Hers had been filled with the relatives of allies and talented individual without the lineage to earn a post in the bureaucracy on their own, but on occasion it was true the seraglio had been turned into little more than a highborn brothel. Dread Emperor Nefarious had been the worst Tyrant in living memory when it came to that, but he’d paid the price for it when Malicia had poisoned and overthrown him. As is only fitting.

The small antechamber where she stood, staring down her nose at the ‘madam’, was surprisingly well-lit and clean. She’d always thought of places like this as sordid dumps where only the desperate worked. Like in most of Calernia prostitution was legal in the Dread Empire, though Praes departed from the norm in having brothels regulated by law. No such establishment could exist without a license from either the Tower of the local ruler and the illegal brothels that popped up now and then were harshly dealt with. Everyone involved in one was executed, even the patrons. This particular place was properly licensed, however, and frequented by legionaries and city guards. While not luxurious – legionary pay was good, but not that good – she was reluctantly impressed by how… not seedy the place was. Aisha was unfortunately too well-bred to tap her foot impatiently so she eyed the madam instead.

They are taking too long,” she said.

Most Honoured Lady,” the older woman replied, bowing her head. “Word has been given to all your soldiers. Any delay is of their own will, not mine or that of my hired hands.”

She was correct. How irritating. Aisha wouldn’t even be able to chide the legionaries properly when they emerged from the rooms in the back: they were off-duty and this was not an assignment that would ever be on the books. It might never be on anything at all, if Hasan did not manage to get his hands on actual weapons. She’d done well enough against one of the assassins with her knife, but when they hunted down the Catacomb Children in their lair the wretches would have more than knives themselves. The people of Ater had ignored the dictates of the Tower that they should remain unarmed for generations, somehow getting their hands on everything from crossbows to longswords even though weapon smuggling was punished by flogging unto death. The three men and two women who’d been indulging themselves shuffled out eventually and paled when they saw who had been waiting for them. Good, they felt like they’d been caught out. That meant they were unlikely to question what they were going to be used for.

After a brief set of orders and a grudgingly polite nod to the madam, Aisha took the five legionaries to the warehouse Hasan had told them they could use. It reeked of guts and meat salted so it would not go bad, and she’d had to refrain from having one of the crates that cluttered it open more than once. With that last group they’d managed to assemble a little above eighty of the two hundred legionaries who’d been on leave in Ater. They’d have to do with this, as the rest could not be found unless they were going to spend all night on the matter. Five hundred thousand people lived inside the walls of the Empire’s capital, the city itself one of the largest on the continent. It was still not fully occupied: perhaps a third of the total grounds were left in ruin, left to the mercy of beggars and criminals or the occasional petty mage. Dekaram Quarter was part of that ugly wasteland, and their enemy lay inside of it. None of the legionaries in the warehouse dared to talk louder than a murmur, which made it all the more surprising when Robber popped out behind her.

Got another five, I see,” he grinned, crouched on top of a crate to her side.

There were few lamps inside and he was hidden by shadows, not that it would have mattered to a goblin.

This is as much as we’ll manage,” she said, keeping her face blank.

Probably,” he shrugged. “I hear those were in a brothel, though. That must have been fun for you. Humans and their little quirks, huh?”

Aisha’s cheeks flushed with anger. He was being intolerably smug and she couldn’t even throw the failings of his own people back in his face. Goblins did not have brothels, or relationships the way humans and orcs had them for that matter. Breeding for the Tribes was a regulated affair planned by Matrons. Their kind did not have an equivalent of marriage – the only bloodline that mattered was the mother’s and males were chosen for breeding either for their own physical traits or because of their relation to another female. For goblins sex had little to do with romance, and a woman could birth the children of half a dozen males while considered to be involved with one she’d never shared a bed with. While goblins as a whole were hard to land a blow on Robber, little bastard that he was, did have his weaknesses.

We do have our foibles, I must admit. Speaking of those, how is Senior Sapper Pickler?” she smiled sweetly, smoothing away the flush form her face.

The goblin did not flinch, but his pupils contracted to a point. She’d drawn blood.

Ratface and Hakram should be here in a moment,” he said as if he hadn’t heard the question.

He scuttled away after that, to Aisha’s satisfaction. Pickler’s disinterest in getting involved with the two greenskins who fancied her was common knowledge among War College graduates. The Senior Sapper had the right of it, she felt. Robber was disqualified as a paramour by legion regulations anyhow, since as a sapper he fell under Pickler’s nominal authority. Legionaries could not become involved with anyone in their direct chain of command, and even for those who managed that there were fairly restrictive rules. Pregnancies while in a term of service were forbidden unless a special permission was obtained and those were exceedingly rare. Legionaries who got another legionary pregnant or became pregnant themselves were unceremoniously drummed out of the army. Should a legionary be made pregnant by a civilian, that civilian’s property would be confiscated in equivalent value for the pay the legionary would have incurred in their total term of service. Herbs were provided by company healers to avoid all of this, of course, making both men and women temporarily infertile. But those were not foolproof methods and it was a rare legion who did not have its little scandals. Aisha took the time to mingle with the legionaries before she picked out her own weapon from the stacks that had been provided.

Curiosity and restlessness were running high. Humans made up perhaps a third of the force and she concentrated on those, politely stressing that this entire affair was to be kept under wraps even after it was done. As Staff Tribune she was responsible for all personnel assignment, which lent her just enough clout to get away with it. The greenskins she would leave to Robber and Hakram – they were respected enough by their people that the soldiers would fall in line without any trouble. She would have preferred to have more humans involved, but the list of people who could be both reached and trusted to keep their mouths shut was fairly limited. Greenskins were not less intriguing in nature – goblins in particular – but their own alternative loyalties would rarely see them band with enemies of the Fifteenth. Eventually she found a scimitar in the stack and gracefully slid it into her belt. Their forces had been gathered, she thought. Now all that was left was the killing.

As her people said: Creation was begat of blood, and to blood it inevitably returns.

Robber had never been part of a raiding party before.

The Tribes had cut down on those since the Conquest and he’d been from a mining tribe anyway: those were too important to be bothered too much. The Rock Breakers had been feuding on and off with the Dawnstones for seventeen generations but there was no real heat to it. Mostly their Matrons fucked each other over at every opportunity. Most males from the underground tribes lived and died without ever seeing the surface, toiling in the tunnels that ran through the upper reaches of the Grey Eyries. There were better veins deeper, sure, but there was also the risk of running into dwarvish mines down there. The idea of crawling in darkness until he died of fumes or a ceiling collapse had been what drove him to leave his tribe, claiming a one of the seats in the College they’d been due that year. He hadn’t been the only young goblin trying to get an out: three seats were available but there had been four dozen males trying to claim a place. His grandmother had been third daughter to a Matron’s daughter, which had seen him put directly into the ten seriously being considered.

After that he’d had to get his hands bloody.

The first boy he’d drawn into an honour duel and opened his head with a loose stone. The others had been too wary of him after that for a repeat performance to occur. Most of them had better blood than him anyhow: Matron lineages were larger and hardier than other goblins. The second boy he’d pushed down a mine shaft when no one was looking, and that was when the rest started seeing him as a real threat. He’d almost died when the candidate just above him dropped a venomous snake in his bedding but he’d replied by throwing a sack full of badgers into the alcove where he lived. The ensuing chaos had seen the entire family shamed in the eyes of their Matron and their too-clever son immediately disqualified. All the while the older women of the tribe, the matron-attendants, had watched his struggles and grinned. Fearless they said, and patted him on the back. Fearless and vicious as a male should be. And headed for an early death, they did not say. He heard it anyway. Before that it had never occurred to him that he might be a thing, a petty bauble toyed with for the amusement of his betters.

That was why instead of continuing to slaughter the opposition he’d called for them to sit together and talk it out. The others were wary but he’d earned enough respect through his ruthlessness that they were willing to listen. None would surrender their claim, so in the end they settled the matter by playing knuckle bones. Naturally, every single one of them had tried to cheat. Robber had not won the first round, but he’d come in second after slipping in a heavier bone so that a better player would misjudge the throw. The losers withdrew their claims but he’d almost not gone to the College anyway: the matron-attendants had wanted blood, to thin out the weakness in the tribe, and to have been denied this saw them displeased. So Robber sat in front of nine and nine old crones, the lessers and the highers, and for the first time in his life he’d grinned back. Because he was free now. Because the moment he’d realized that there was no difference between a death in the dark tunnels two decades from now or a death at their wrinkled hands just now, they had lost their leash.

It was the Matron who decided it. She walked into the cave, took one look at him and spat. You scheming old witches, can’t you see he’s heard the wind? she’d said. You’re the Tower’s now, boy. Go die in a gutter for the Empress. And so at seven years old they’d sent him to Ater and the War College, to learn the trade of war. Which had somehow led him to this moment, stalking his way up a collapsed wall in Dekaram Quarter. The Catacomb Children had not posted guards, filthy amateurs that they were. They’d claimed a mostly standing barracks as their lair, scrawling a buzzard in rotting old blood next to the entrance. There was light inside and the sound of people talking. Hakram had wanted to know numbers before they assaulted the place, so now Robber and three other goblins were scuttling up the ruined wall to a rooftop. The alley separating it from the barracks was narrow, jumping distance for a goblin.

If they have a mage, there could be an alarm ward surrounding the place,” Captain Borer said.

Good ol’ Borer the Boring. The Deep Pit boy wouldn’t get a sense of humour even if he was bit by a sarcasm werewolf. Which, if not a thing, definitely should be. Given the kind of stuff Tyrants got up to in the Tower, it was only a matter of time anyway.

We haven’t got a mage good enough to disarm one anyway,” Lieutenant Rattler murmured.

Robber hissed them into silence, even the lone legionary who hadn’t actually spoken.

If they were clever enough for a ward they wouldn’t have tried to kill one of us in the first place,” he said.

Probably true. If it wasn’t, he’d have Borer write himself up for poor advice-giving. Having Aisha deal with those little discipline reports – which always ended up on her desk, he made sure of that – was one of his small pleasures in life. Rising into a crouch the yellow-eyed tribune broke into a run and leapt over the alley, landing in a roll on top of the barracks. He paused for a moment, waiting for an alarm to ring or the gang members to cotton on to his presence. Nothing. He gestured for the others to follow as he crossed to the other side of the roof. There was a trapdoor to go inside the barracks proper and a whole corner of the roof reeked of piss. Leaning over the edge the tribune saw there was a window allowing a peek into the barracks near ground level, noise and laughter coming out of it. Definitely more than twenty people in there, which had been Ratface’s lower end estimate for how many Catacomb Children there could be. The other goblins made the leap one after the other, joining him at the edge.

Who will be jumping down to have a look?” Borer asked.

Captain,” Robber asked, deeply offended. “Jumping? Like an animal? No. Goblin engineering will provide. Minions, undertake the great ladder formation.”

There was a heartbeat, then the only goblin not an officer leaned closer to Rattler.

I told you he’s crazy, ma’am,” the sapper whispered. “I heard he keeps a jar full of eyeballs.”

Rattler cocked her head to the side, ignoring him. “Ladder, as in…”

Robber grinned. Borer looked like someone had stepped on his foot but he was too polite to complain about it. Moments later the tribune was hanging upside down with his head peeking out the window, his feet in the hands of Rattler, who herself was being held up by the other two. Stroking his chin thoughtfully, Robber took a look through the ratty wooden shutters and counted at least three dozen Soninke sitting around what had once been a common room, drinking and playing cards. There was a door leading to another room with light and sound also coming out of it. Tapping Rattler’s arm quietly, he signaled for the others to hoist him back up. Hakram needed his report, and Robber needed to stab something pretty badly. It had been, like, weeks.

There was no door, just an ugly red curtain.

It reeked. This whole place did. Not that it would for long: blood was pungent enough a smell it would cover the worst of it. Hakram strode in at a swift but steady pace, the twenty or so orcs they’d assembled following him in as the tip of the spear. It took a good five heartbeats before anyone even noticed he was inside and cries of alarm rang out in Mtethwa. Too late for the pretty young man standing with his back to the orc: the adjutant buried the ax blade in the human’s neck, cutting through the bones and spraying blood everywhere. Casually, he ripped it out.

Prisoners,” he reminded his warriors. “Anyone who looks important.”

He got howls in answer as the orcs barreled into the room, falling onto the Children still scrambling for weapons. An older man came for him, this one scarred ritually across the face and with a golden ring in his nose. The tall orc huffed out a laugh, catching the man’s wrist with his hand and crushing the bones. The human screamed in pain and dropped the notched blade he’d been grasping. A kick sent him sprawling to the ground and the axe opened his throat with a measuring swing. Like slaughtering cattle. A lot of cattle, however: more Catacomb Children were pouring into the room from a corridor. His orcs had cleared a space, though, and now humans and goblins were reinforcing them. Hakram could see the other greenskins were enjoying themselves, sinking into the battle-joy, and he howled a warning to keep them focused on the there and now. They needed answers, and corpses would not give those. His own head was clear. It always ways, when the blades came out. Oh, he knew anger now. Catherine had granted him that gift, to know burning in his veins and the all-consuming desire to crush his enemies and see them driven before him. But these poor fools were just tools, and there was no glory in putting them down. It was just work, like raising a palisade or marching a drill.

Aisha caught up to him, her scimitar bloodied, and took his left. A moment later Ratface fell onto his right – his ironically chosen bastard sword still unmarred. Hakram bared his fangs and the officers of the Fifteenth strode into the thickest knot of enemies. The Catacomb Children were untrained but not inexperienced: if anything, they were probably better at this kind of close quarters fighting than his own lot. They died anyway. Hakram slapped a big man on the side of the neck, sending him sprawling to the right where Ratface ran him through. Aisha ducked under another man’s swing and cut through his tendons, allowing the orc to step on his neck to end that struggle with a sharp crack. On all fronts the gangers were being pushed back, and with only a handful of casualties on their side so far. The first real challenge of the night came when a middle-aged Soninke even taller than Hakram and morbidly fat stepped up, barbed wire wrapped around his gauntleted hands. Fat means he’s important, the orc thought. So did the golden teeth in the man’s mouth replacing the ones he’d lost.

Mine,” he told his comrades and strode forward, idly dropping his axe.

The Catacomb Children moved back like a tide, the fighting ebbing away as all eyes turned on the two of them. Single combat, then. How traditional of them.

I am the Great Buzzard,” the Soninke thundered. “Fight me and die.”

You’re meat,” Hakram replied. “And this ends with you kneeling.”

Shouts from both sides drowned out the room as space was cleared in a rough circle for them. The Buzzard’s eyes turned black and spat out a mouthful of dark smoke before dashing forward at a speed that put lie to his size. The orc calmly stepped to the side, letting him pass and pivoting to continue facing his opponent. The Soninke snarled and took a swing – Hakram, harking back to his old lessons, slapped away the wrist with his open palm. It wasn’t enough. The barbed wires drew blood on his cheek, barely missing his eye. Whatever magery the man was using, it was making him faster and stronger than was natural.

You’re headed for the catacombs, fanger,” the Buzzard sneered. “Creation belongs to the true blood.”

He charged again and Hakram was done with probing. Squaring his stance he lowered his shoulder to the height of the man’s chest as he avoided a barbed jab, taking the impact with a grunt. His feet were driven back a few inches but he remained standing. Letting out a howl, the orc flexed his muscles and flipped the fat man on his back.

Through tall grass, come winter sun,” he recited in Kharsum.

The Buzzard screamed, veins popping out and darkening, and vaulted to his feet. His swings were wild now, though almost blindingly fast. Hakram gave ground carefully, then took a single step forward. His closed fist smashed the Soninke’s jaw, sending golden teeth flying.

Stand in our bones, coated in frost,” he said.

Another scream, this one more animal than man. The Buzzard’s eyes looked more like obsidian than flesh now. The beat of the old hymn was a pace, an exercise children of the Howling Wolves were taught. The warrior-poets of olden days had gone into battle weaving verses as skillfully as they wove death, though the practice was long lost. Now all that remained was a handful of hymns, the remnant of remnant. The obese Soninke spat a mouthful of steaming black goo but Hakram kept circling around him, ducking under the blow that followed and burrowing his fist in the man’s belly.

Where we were kings, by war undone,” he sang.

Behind him orcs stamped their feet with the meter, like a thunderclap following the ancient words. The Buzzard’s fist took him in the shoulder, shredding through his tunic and the flesh beneath, but Hakram ignored the flaring pain and lunged forward, fangs sinking into the man’s shoulder and ripping out a chunk of flesh. The Soninke let out a demented laughing scream, tearing him off and throwing him away. The orc landed in a half crouch, spitting out the flesh. If killing had been his objective he could have ended the fight there by going for the jugular.

To behold the world that we have lost,” he said.

Eighty feet struck the ground in his wake, even goblins and humans joining in now. The Catacomb Children looked uneasy, perhaps thinking the hymn was a curse of some kind spoken in a foreign tongue. Not so foreign, Hakram thought. The Clans knew these lands, once, when Warlords led us south in great warbands and Creation flinched at the sight of us. It was time to finish this. He’d taken the measure of his opponent, and knew his movements. After that, everything else was just acting out his mind’s intent. For the first time, the orc went on the offensive. The barbed fist came for his shoulder again but he wove around and caught the elbow. Steadying his stance, he broke it with a sharp twist.

Warmth fades, glory cannot linger,” he said.

This time, there was only silence. His leg swept the Buzzard’s and the man toppled to his knees. The Soninke opened his mouth but Hakram was done indulging the madman: he took the man’s hair in his fist and rammed his own knee into the face repeatedly. It took three times until the Soninke fell into unconsciousness, and his face wasted no time in swelling as he dropped fully to the ground.

All that we have left is the hunger,” the orc finished in Kharsum, feeling his blood cool.

He changed back to Mtethwa, gaze sweeping the still-frozen criminals.

Kneel, Catacomb Children, or be served the sword.”

They knelt. A moment later Robber popped out of the corridor, idly pocketing what looked like a handful of eyeballs. Behind him a few goblins were carrying the unconscious body of a half-naked man whose torso was covered in runic tattoos.

Good show, everyone,” the yellow-eyed tribune said. “That said, we may have a problem.”

He pointed towards where the red curtain had once hung, now trampled, and Hakram’s eyes followed. Out in the streets a full contingent of the city guard was surrounding the building.

Weapons on the ground,” a woman’s voice called out. “Come out one by one. All of you are under arrest for murder, conspiracy and illegal weapon possession.”

There was a pause.

If you resist, you will be put down.”

Aisha had just watched a man she thought she knew unleash the single most brutal putdown she’d ever seen and she shivered at the sight of it. Hakram was nice, mild-mannered and a bit of a gossip. And he’d methodically taken apart a giant of man with ritual enhancements while reciting some sort of orcish poetry. Like he was plucking out a bad weed. The Taghreb aristocrat was used to seeing strength and fury from greenskins but this? This had been calculated savagery. The other orcs were looking at him with worship in their eyes. Gods Below. She would never be able to look at him the same again. They had other problems on their hands now, though. The city guard was out in force, and Aisha forced her tired mind to unfold the matter. They shouldn’t be here, that much was a fact. The guards did not patrol or police the ruined part of Ater. This whole sector was considered a pressure valve for the poor and the destitute, allowed to exist without supervision until it caused noticeable trouble – at which point the Sentinels cleared it out with blades and sorcery.

And yet they were here.

They had been sent, then. By someone with enough influence or wealth to control at least a commander in the guard, which did not really narrow down the suspects. Any noble with a semblance of power could put together enough bribe or blackmail for that. No, the important part was what these guards were being used for. Aisha put the events in sequence, as her mother had taught her. First a shoddy assassination attempt was made on Hakram. Then select officers of the Fifteenth, understanding the necessity of taking care of the issue without Lady Squire being involved, assembled a force that could be trusted to keep quiet. They forced the submission of the Catacomb Children, but before interrogations could be made the city guard found them in possession of illegal weapons still covered in blood. A set up. A trap carefully designed to ensnare the very people in the Fifteenth who would understand how dangerous a scandal in its infancy could be.

And now whoever was behind this had the scandal Aisha had been struggling to avoid. Lady Squire’s own adjutant, two members of the general staff and a tribune caught breaking one of the Tower’s most harshly enforced interdicts. She’d been so busy trying to avoid the Squire making an ill-advised move she’d made one herself. If this was the Heiress’ work, then the Taghreb could almost admire how elegantly crafted the plot had been. What were their options now? If they surrendered, they’d be in a gaol and the whole city would know before a bell had passed. Lady Squire might have enough authority to get them out of this alive, but she’d be humiliated in front of the entire court and likely censured by the Empress herself. Not even Malicia’s own supporters would ever take her seriously after that. If they fought now, Aisha believed they might be able to win. But there would be noticeable losses and she would put hand to flame that on their way out of Dekaram Quarter they’d be running into a larger force of guards waiting for them. And then we’ll have killed city guards in addition to everything else.

Not even the Black Knight’s apprentice would be able to save them from the noose then.

We can’t fight them,” Hakram said.

Their legionaries were milling uneasily. The Catacomb Children were still docile for now, but some of them were still holding their weapons and they were feeling the change in the wind.

Sure we can,” Robber said cheerfully. “No witnesses, no crime.”

There’ll be more guards waiting for us afterwards,” Hasan said tiredly. “That was the whole plan, I think.”

The lovely aristocrat felt a wave of fondness for the man who’d once been her lover. Hasan had his flaws, but lack of cleverness had never been one of them.

Ratface,” Hakram said. “Do you know another way out of Dekaram Quarter? One that doesn’t take us through them.”

They’ll take us through the strongholds of other gangs,” the other Taghreb said. “They’ll fight us and block our way, either because they got a bribe or because they don’t want anyone going through their territory.”

And the guards would follow. All that would lead to was fighting a battle on two fronts and they would not be winning that. Not without shields and proper legionary gear.

Are you blanket-wetters really talking surrender?” Robber sneered.

Hakram turned dark eyes on his friend, face serene. “Negotiation,” he corrected. “Aisha, if you’ll come with me?”

She would really rather not, but who else here had any experience with this sort of thing? Hasan probably knew his way around a bribe, but this was no backalley dealing. The commander of those guards was used to rubbing elbows with the nobles they were under the thumb of. Aisha handed her scimitar to the closest legionary and got her hair in order, adjusting her clothes. She followed Hakram out of the abandoned barracks with her palms up in the air to show she was unarmed. She wasn’t, of course. There was still a knife up her sleeve and she fully intended to slit the throat of the person she’d be negotiating with if they were going to seek a violent end to said negotiations. Bisharas did not go quietly into oblivion. They were immediately surrounded by guards when they came out, some of them bearing manacles. Calmly, without saying a word, Aisha stared down the man who wanted her to present her hands. The Soninke gulped, then took a look at Hakram. The orc was smiling just enough to show his fangs. The guard backed away in a hurry, though the men surrounding them all had their cudgels out as they were escorted to the person in charge. Aisha rose an eyebrow when they finally stopped walking. The woman in front of them, bearing a guard commander’s insignia on her mail, was pale-skinned. A Duni, that high in the Ater city guard? Surprising, though less unusual since Malicia had opened the Imperial bureaucracy to all sorts.

Adjutant Hakram of the Fifteenth Legion,” her orc companion introduced himself.

Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara, of the same,” she said.

The Duni frowned at them, as if offended by their manners.

Commander Barsina, Ater city guard. Are you two the leaders of this band of criminals?”

We are senior officers in a Legion of Terror raised by the Carrion Lord’s apprentice,” Aisha replied sharply.

The woman smiled unpleasantly. “You got a parchment with the Tower’s seal exempting you from the weapon laws, then?”

It was a case of self-defense,” Hakram said. “However… extended the circumstances.”

Aisha watched the ugly gleam of satisfaction in the woman’s eyes and knew then negotiation was a waste of time. Bettering the bribe was not an option if she was also doing it because she wanted to stick it to the Legions.

I’m sure your story will check out,” Commander Barsina said. “Until then, you’ll be guests in some of my nicest cells.”

She frowned then, looking at their hands.

Captain Jarad, why aren’t their hands bound?” she barked.

Aisha let out a breath and considered flicking out her knife to settle the matter differently. By the way Hakram’s footing was shifting, he was debating the same. What gave her pause was the way the guards on the outer perimeter were starting to kneel. A lone silhouette passed through the crowd, armed men and women parting for her with hushed whispers. The Taghreb had expected Lady Squire or perhaps an envoy of the Empress, but what she saw was a small woman. Her face was unremarkable, her robes of passable make and she stood unarmed. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about her was her ink-stained hands. Aisha stiffened. She’d never met the woman before, but she knew who she was looking at: the Carrion’s Lord own shadow, one of the most successful spymistresses in living memory. The Scribe.Commander Barsina paled even further and bowed.

Lady Scribe,” she said. “A pleasant surprise.”

The Named smiled. There was no warmth in it, or anything else. It was just flesh being moved by muscles.

Is it, Commander?”

Barsina stood straighter, no doubt remembering she was not without friends or authority. Oh, Commander, Aisha thought. You’re misreading the people who own you if you think they’ll shield you from the Webweaver’s attentions.

My lady, I don’t know what you think you know but-”

Everything,” the Scribe said. “I know everything there is to know about you, Barsina. I know the name you had before you disfigured your sister in Satus for marrying the man you wanted. I know whose horse you stole to make your way to Ater. I know the amount and provenance of every bribe you’ve taken since you began patrolling these streets. I know what rivals you had beaten and by who to get to the post you hold. This was allowed, because you served as a counterweight for the two commanders owned by the Truebloods. It seems, however, that you have finally folded to the pressure.”

How dare you,” Barsina said.

You are of no more use to us,” Scribe simply said.

She had not raised her voice, or changed her intonation in any way. She stated it as a fact and the night had never before felt so cold to Aisha Bishara as it did in that moment.

Captain Jarad,” the Webweaver said, ignoring the Duni’s spluttering as her eyes sought out the Soninke who’d been about to be chewed out by her earlier. “Congratulations, you are now a commander of the Ater city guard.”

The young man saluted, hands shaking.

What is to happen to Com- former Commander Barsina?” he asked.

Scribe met his eyes.

I know of no such individual.”

A heartbeat later, an enterprising guard behind the former commander slipped a knife in the Duni’s back. Aisha did not shy away from watching the woman bleed out on the ground. Ater, o Ater, she thought, remembering the old verse by Sheherazad, you capricious old whore. You give and you take and you grow on our bones. This was not the first betrayal witnessed by the City of Gates. Likely it wasn’t even the first that night. Commander Jarad, now composed, bowed to the Scribe.

The Catacomb Children, my lady? Should I clear out the rabble?”

Leave them,” the Webweaver said. “You are dismissed. And when the offers come, Commander – remember tonight.”

The man bowed even lower. Orders were barked and the guards began withdrawing. The olive-skinned aristocrat found this little comfort as the Scribe’s eyes turned to them.

Such troublesome children you are,” she said. “You take after your mistress.”

Hakram cleared his throat, to her horror. “Lady Scribe,” he began, “we-”

Tried to step between Catherine Foundling and Akua Sahelian,” she interrupted. “An area that already promises to be littered with corpses. Take care you do not enter it so carelessly again.”

The orc had enough sense not to reply at that.

Most Esteemed Lady,” Aisha said, bowing. “Should we begin our interrogation of the Catacomb Children?”

We both know they will give you nothing of worth,” the Webweaver said, but she was smiling. “Leave them here. The only redeeming aspect of tonight is that I’ll get to see Assassin’s face when I tell him he botched the job.”

There was something in the woman’s eyes that would haunt the Taghreb’s dreams for months to come.

He’s going to be in a mood,” she said with delight.

The Scribe graced them with one last look before she turned a clear pair of heels, leaving as unhurriedly as she’d arrived. Hakram and Aisha stood there for a long time, as their legionaries slowly began filtering out of the old barracks.

Drinks?” Hakram asked.

Aisha eyed her still-shaking hands. “Ancestors forgive me, but yes.”

Just another day in the Fifteenth Legion. Gods take pity on them all.

Chapter 39: Countdown

Maybe I won’t go to Heaven but you’ve never owned a pit full of man-eating tapirs so who’s the real loser here?”
– Dread Empress Atrocious, best known for comprehensive tax reform and having been eaten by man-eating tapirs. They were later executed by her successor for treason after a lengthy trial.

Liesse was almost too pretty to be a real city.

The walls circling the city were forty feet high, a concession to the invasions that had plagued Callow since its inception, but they were also white or pale tan stone, with ornate crenellation sculpted to look like mated pairs of swans. That was the city’s unofficial name, among Callowans: Liesse, City of Swans. The jewel of the south, never marred by war. That was a myth, of course. When the Dukes of Liesse had still been kings they’d been brought forcefully into the fold by the fledgling Alban dynasty based in Laure and then then slapped down twice when they rebelled for independence. Under the later Fairfax dynasty they’d settled down, but the south had always looked to Liesse for instructions first. That was the whole reason Duke Gaston had been able to serve as a figurehead for the rebellion in the first place. They’d never had to throw back a Praesi army, though, and that showed in how the city had been built. A third of the city stood outside the gates, mostly trades like tanners and dyers that would have stained the pretty inside with their stink and mess. Poorer folk had shacks too, though, those who couldn’t afford the stone houses of the city proper.

It was not enough to spoil the sight. The city was all wide main avenues covered in flowers and trees, garlands hanging everywhere and sparrows flying from one church to another. While Liesse, unlike Laure, did not have a proper cathedral it had no less than seven smaller basilicas. The House of Light had a strong presence in the south, where it had grown in strength unchecked while its northern chapters were struggling to strike a balance with royal authority. Southern Callow was full of monasteries and rural chapels, all of which had fallen on hard times after the Conquest. My teacher had not outlawed worship of the Heavens – he’d been well aware he’d be dealing with constant rebellions of he did. Instead he’d repealed all the exemptions the House of Light had been granted under the Kingdom and made them just as subject as property taxes as everybody else. The brothers and sisters didn’t work for coin or keep it, though, it was a religious obligation for them. So they had to rely on donations from Callowans, who grew to resent having to pay for the upkeep of grand cathedrals and sprawling churches from their own pockets.

Here in the south the monasteries had been the worse off, with their cloistered communities suddenly forced to sell the wine and crops they’d once offered people for free. The priests couldn’t even do that themselves, they’d had to ask lay brothers and sisters to do it for them. Inevitably some unscrupulous bastards had managed to get some of the jobs and the ensuing scandals had further diminished the credibility of people who spent their whole lives interceding for others with the Heavens and offering free healing to all those that needed it. I’d never been a great admirer of the House of Light – they asked too many questions and their horses were a little too high for my tastes – but I did not approve what the Empire was doing to it. Priests saved lives all over my homeland every day and forcing them to focus on worldly matters was of no help to anyone but the Imperial coffers. I understood the political necessity of damaging their credibility with Callowans, since they’d be a hotbed for rebellion otherwise, but pushing them towards uselessness was not the answer.

I’d rather they be legally mandated to provide healing away from their own churches for a set amount of months a year, where they might make a positive impact but not become entrenched in the community. The Heavens weren’t going anywhere, I’d have to make my accommodations with them.

Pondering an assault?” Pickler probed, coming to stand besides me.

I’d called for my Senior Sapper earlier. We were less than half a day away from Liesse proper, and now that we were in sight of the ramparts I wanted her take on how the siege should proceed. Juniper and I had our own notions, but a fresh set of eyes was never a bad thing.

We’ll bombard them first,” I replied. “We’ve got more hours to spare than men. I want them as softened up as possible before we go in.”

With Black keeping the Countess Marchford busy we had free reign in the are. I’d expected to have to watch out for raids the moment we got within a fortnight of Liesse but all we’d seen so far was outriders. The lack of resistance bothered me. The Lone Swordsman had holed up everyone he could behind the walls, and that was a lot of mouths to feed. Even with full granaries that meant he had only a couple of months before starvation set it. Maybe he understood I couldn’t afford to let the siege go on this long. Or maybe he’s still got cards up his sleeve. That was the problem with William: he was an idealistic idiot, up until he started carving sinister messages in people’s foreheads. The combination of high-minded rhetoric and brutal terror tactics had proved a surprisingly potent mix.

We won’t be able to collapse the walls entirely without taking out the houses,” Pickler said. “But we wouldn’t need to – we just collapse the upper half, which’ll much easier, and then we build ramps up to that using the shacks. How costly going up those ramps will be depends on the amount of siege weapons they’ll have.”

They wouldn’t have much, I knew. Callow had never been a great user of those. The Kingdom had only rarely waged offensive wars and the few cities that did use siege weapons had fielded them to counter Praesi ones. Summerholm had plenty ballistas and small trebuchets, rote models imported from the Kingdom Under. Dormer and the Red Flower Vales, as the other Callowan marches, had been similarly garnished. Liesse, though, Liesse had not had to deal with an enemy army in several hundred years. Unless the rebels had bought siege weapons through Mercantis they’d have next to none.

It’s not the siege weapons that worry me, it’s the army,” I said.

The only professional soldiers inside the city would be the Stygian phalanx and the Baroness Dormer’s retinue, but that wouldn’t matter. Not with a hero leading them, a hero I couldn’t even face directly: my pattern of three with the Lone Swordsman was coming to a close, and that one was supposed to be his victory. Funny thing, though, the word ‘victory’. Covered a whole range of meanings, some of which left me standing with all my limbs intact at the end of them. And when the pattern was done, well… William and I no longer had Fate pulling our asses out of the fire. It was anybody’s game then, and while he might flatly outclass me with a sword there was more to my arsenal than that.

Heroes can accomplish strange and terrible feats,” Pickler finally said, shaking me out of my thoughts. “They’ll survive nearly anything. What they can’t do is save their armies from being pounded into mulch by artillery.”

There was a fervent light in the goblin’s eyes, her usually placid face split with a hungry smile.

Before the sappers were made into a corps, we were just knight-fodder,” Pickler said. “But oh, the things we’ve learned since then. A man can only swing a sword as hard as man can. A goblin behind a machine can pulverize a fortress.”

She turned to look at the walls of Liesse and for once I thought she looked as full of malice as Robber.

They fight with their arms, Lady Squire,” she said. “We fight with our minds. Clever beats strong every time.”

I understood why she needed to believe that, and so did not contradict her. But in my experience, there was a threshold of strength that pure cleverness could not triumph over. I’d learned that in the Pit, taking one hit for every ten I landed and still ending up the one unconscious in the mud. Sometimes you were too small, too weak, too light for your traps to matter much. It was not a pleasant thought and I tried not to linger too long on it. I’d been in a foul mood all day, ever since I’d learned… well, that was another unpleasant thought I was trying not to linger on. The betrayal still felt too fresh, even if it had apparently been an old one.

At the moment we don’t believe Heiress will betray us in the early stages of the siege,” I told my Senior Sapper. “One of the things I wanted to talk you about was contingencies for-”

There waves. Not just ripples but waves, coming from the south. My eyes turned to the city, still looking peaceful, but it had to be a lie. This was major, an even stronger presence than when Heiress had let the demon out. I could feel my Name howling in anger, fighting back a presence anathema to it.

Fucking Hells,” Pickler gasped. “What is that?”

I eyed her in dismay. If I’d felt that because I was Named it was one thing, but the goblin was as mundane as it got. If even she could feel what was going on in Liesse, what were dealing with?

I don’t know,” I said. “But we’ve got people who might.”

I kept the meeting as small as it could possibly be.

Juniper, of course, Hakram as my second and Apprentice as someone who could give answers. Heiress did not grant me the same courtesy: she brought her entire entourage. Fadila Mbafeno, a Soninke mage I’d already met in the Tower and that Masego had told me since was one of the most promising casters of their generation. Barika Unonti, whose finger I’d broken during the same meeting and was now eyeing me with poorly-veiled hatred. She was a mage too, and heiress to a lordship sworn to Wolof. The only Taghreb among her minions I also knew already, though Aisha had been the one to tell me his name: Ghassan Enazah, a lord in his own right sworn to Kahtan. Which put him in an awkward position, since he was openly a member of the Truebloods while his liege lady was an ally of the Empress’. The Taghreb were a fractious people, though, Aisha had told me. The High Lady of Foramen might have been one of the Truebloods but half her vassals were aligned with Malicia, the same holding true for the High Lady of Kahtan’s loyalist allegiances compared to her dependents’. The last two were the important ones, though. Not powerful in their own right but because of who they’d become in a few years: Fasili Mirembe, heir to the High Lordship of Aksum and Hawulti Sahel, heiress to the High Ladyship of Nok. Two major imperial cities, fully-fledged kingdoms before the Miezans came from across the Tyrian sea.

Not a single one of them was ugly. None as good-looking as Heiress herself, but it showed that Praesi aristocrats bred for looks as well as magic and lineage. I was used to feeling plain, though, so I put the envy aside easily. Their looks had come at too high a price anyway. Akua’s little minions stood behind her as she claimed the seat across from me, somehow draping herself across a folding chair like it was a godsdamned throne. If her dress wasn’t exquisite red silk from the Yan Tei lands I’d eat my own fingers: she was wearing a bloody fortune on her body, and said fortune was displaying her prominent cleavage. I’d long made my peace with the fact that I’d never grow into anything like those, but would it have killed her to wear a godsdamned collar for once? The heiress to Wolof smirked at me. One day, maybe even soon, she would die on a fire. Those tits wouldn’t show on a fucking skeleton, would they?

This is an emergency meeting, so spare me the smarm,” I said.

I will, of course, give you exactly the respect you are due,” Heiress said.

Her acolytes smirked as a group like they’d practice it.

See, that’s exactly what I’m talking about,” I smiled. “You mouth off like that again, and I’ll execute one of your little hanger-ons at random.”

That certainly got rid of the smirks, though they condensed on Juniper’s face instead. I checked on Hakram from the corner of my eye: he was immersed in a staring contest with the Ghassan lordling. He’d been the commander of Heiress’ host when she’d still had a host, I remembered. He’d been in charge when her Proceran mercenaries had been whipped bloody by the Stygians, though he’d apparently got off without a single wound to show for that defeat. If he wanted to start a rivalry with my Adjutant he was in for an even rougher ride.

That would be a grievous abuse of your authority,” Heiress said sharply.

So complain to the guy I answer to,” I shrugged. “Oh wait, that’s Black. And he’d pat me on the back and call it a good day’s work. Allow me to be perfectly clear, Akua. I am in no mood to be fucked with.”

The last part came out as a bark and to my satisfaction several of her minions flinched at the sound.

You’ve been summoned here because, though you might be constant pain in my ass, you might have something to contribute.”

I paused.

Actually, now that I think of it, this is my godsdamned meeting and you’re the only who could be useful. All of you Wasteland brats, get out of my tent.”

Several of them opened their mouths but I raised a finger.

At random,” I reminded them.

Make them draw lots,” Juniper suggested.

Hear that, we’ve even got a method now,” I smiled savagely.

Don’t kill Mbefano, she’ll be useful during the siege,” Apprentice spoke up lazily.

Hear that, Fadila?” I said. “You get an exemption. Feel free to speak up, someone else will get the axe.”

Fadila did not, in fact, take me up on my offer. She did look like she’d been force-fed a barrel of lemons, but given that she’d been the one allegedly in contact with several of the mage spies in the Fifteenth she was lucky I wasn’t having her drawn and quartered on principle. I was only allowing that stay of execution for so long, though. If she didn’t hightail back to Praes the moment we took Liesse, it was the quick stop and the sudden drop for Lady Mbefano. She was on my list, now. After checking in with Heiress, who gave them a curt nod, the lordlings filed out of the tent in a huff and puff of offended noble privilege. Hakram was showing the barest edge of his teeth in what was either a display of amusement or hunger. The line between those two was might thing with orcs.

Have you finished throwing your tantrum?” Heiress asked flatly.

I don’t know,” I said. “Have you finished bringing in your fucking posse at important staff meetings? I’m trying to work with you, Akua, but if you want to turn this into a pissing contest don’t get snippy when I put you in your place. You’re just a commander, here. Lesser than even Nauk and Hune, because they have more troops and they’ve never summoned a demon in the middle of a city full of civilians.”

Yeah, I wasn’t going to let that go anytime soon. Maybe when she was dead, and even then I’d probably deface her tombstone with the words “A demon? Really?”.

I tire of you saddling me with the responsibility with your blunders,” Heiress sighed.

I would have believed her had I, you know, not not summoned a demon. That kind of damaged her credibility. Still, it was a testament to how skilled a liar she was that I almost wanted to to trust her version of things.

That conversation’s not going anywhere, so let’s put it aside,” I said. “We’ve got a bigger problem now. Masego?”

That ripple in Creation came straight from Liesse,” Apprentice said, pushing himself up in his seat. “It was angelic in nature.”

Juniper barked out a laugh.

We whipped the get of Hells already,” she said. “I suppose we were due a fight with the other side of the field.”

Your are overly simplifying matters,” Heiress said, and to my surprise this was not wrapped in a coating of insinuation.

She was actually contributing, would you look at that. Any time soon we’d be buddies, except that apparently she’d owned Nilin body and soul since the beginning and I’d thought he was my friend and – I stopped when I heard the table splintering, every eye on the room on me. I took my hand off the wood, sweeping away the shards.

Continue,” I ordered.

The Hells and the Heavens are equivalent only in terms of absolute might, not numbers,” Heiress said warily. “Devils are endless and ever-spawning, but angels are a set and allegedly unchangeable number. Divided in Choirs, they can never be more or less than they have always been and always will be.”

So we won’t have to deal with a swarm of comically naked cherubim,” I said.

The House of Light taught these were the among the most powerful of angels, associated with the Choirs of Compassion and Fortitude. A few hundred years back, though a Proceran mosaic artist had displayed those mighty angels as chubby naked sexless flying sprites. Like all Proceran fancies that one had spread across the continent, to the mild amusement of many a priest. No one reacted to my joke, so I grimaced and kept quiet. Likely the only one with enough schooling in the Book of All Things to get it was Masego, and we had different takes on humour. Since I’d put explosives in his hair, I was willing to cut Apprentice a little slack on that front.

If it were a cherub we were dealing with, we’d be in a great deal more trouble,” Heiress said.

She’s right,” Masego said. “I don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with, but it’s not that high up in the Choirs.”

You both speak,” Juniper said slowly, “as if we’d personally have to deal with this angel.”

Masego eyed Heiress, who smiled charmingly at him. He ignored it. I was, I reflected, rather lucky that Apprentice was a great deal more interested in dissections than women. Or men, for that matter. Warlock’s son seemed to regard all of those matters with a certain intellectual disdain, as if he couldn’t possibly fathom why anyone would do anything so unhygienic.

I thought it was obvious to everyone,” Apprentice said. “Someone is trying to bring an angel into Creation.”

Seventh Choir,” Heiress added. “The Hashmallim, appointed rulers of the Choir of Contrition.”

Masego seemed surprise. “You’re certain?”

I have tools you don’t,” she replied flatly.

Seventh Choir,” Apprentice repeated. “So that’s how long we have.”

Juniper leaned forward. “You can give me an estimate?”

Seven times seven hours,” Heiress said. “And then an Angel of Contrition will grace Liesse with its presence.”

Oh, I didn’t like the sound of that at all.

Practically speaking, what does that mean?” I asked.

It won’t be there for long,” Masego said. “But anyone within forty-nine miles will be made… contrite.”

What he means,” Heiress said, “is that anyone without a Name in that range will be confronted will all their ‘sins’ until they’re broken to the will of the Heavens. The last time a Hashmallim touched the world, three hundred thousand people picked up a sword and fought until they reached the capital of the Kingdom of the Dead.”

If that angel comes into Creation,” Apprentice said quietly, “every soul in Liesse, and the Fifteenth with them, will form the tip of the spear for the Tenth Crusade.”

Interlude: Rats

Three can keep a secret, if two are dead. Unless you’re a necromancer, anyway, then the world is your blasphemous undead oyster.
Dread Emperor Sorcerous

About the only thing Ratface missed about the War College was the easy availability of good writing tables. Out on campaign he had to make do with a movable scribe’s desk, which did not contain nearly as much paperwork as he actually needed it to. Juniper’s insistence that everything be done by the book meant that reports like bred like vermin and he’d only barely managed to remain ahead of the curve since Ater by prioritizing what was immediately necessary. The backlog kept growing and even what passed for his staff – three unassigned literate legionaries he’d nabbed before someone could draft them into a higher priority chore – wasn’t enough to cut down the mass properly. Heiress, may she be devoured by a hundred different tigers, had dropped off what must be every single scrap of parchment her people had ever written on all mixed together. The Taghreb could almost admire the elegance of following an order to the letter in a way that defeated the purpose it had been given for, but as it happened he was the one stuck holding the sharper with a lit fuse. Still, he’d gotten some things out of the mess.

For one Heiress had meticulously kept track of how much she fed her former slave soldiers, and had apparently obtained those supplies by paying out of her on treasury. The rations had been nothing spectacular but they’d been nutritious and systematically on time. Slaver she might have been, he thought, but at least she had taken care of her slaves well. There was something to be said for that, though it did not make the act of buying men any less despicable. In the days before the Miezans both the Soninke and the Taghreb had practiced slavery themselves, but after being on the other side of the whip for a few centuries that concept had been forcefully excised out of their cultures. Oh, some of the High Lords treated their subjects little better than slaves – but though they might lay claim to the days of their followers, they never claimed ownership. There was a difference there, one that had been taught to visiting Free Cities slavers through gruesome executions and at least one magical plague.

The records on the Proceran mercenaries were much vaguer, and Ratface was fairly certain this Arzachel character was skimming off the top in both loot and pay. Likely Heiress tacitly allowed as much to keep him in her debt, ready to out his indiscretions to his own men if he ever misbehaved. Said men were unfortunately loyal to their leader, he’d found out when probing their allegiances. They were well aware that they were in a foreign land surrounded by hostile forces and not even gold on the side was enough to loosen tongues – not of men with any authority to speak of, anyway. It was standard practice among Wasteland to try to bribe your enemy’s troops to betray them, so most of the nobility made a point of matching any bribe offers if those were presented to them: he’d put hand to flame Heiress had done the same. She was a traditional woman in many regards, that one.

For now he was making do by reading Robber’s reports whenever they were handed in, but eventually he’d find a Proceran with more greed than sense. Heiress’ real council was her assembly of Praesi lordlings and those were beyond his reach to infiltrate, but orders had to go somewhere. A pair of ears in the right place would allow the Fifteenth an idea of what she intended when she would turn against them. They’d gotten caught off guard at Marchford but that would not happen twice on Ratface’s watch – may he swallow a hundred crows if he lied. Already he knew she’d gone to work putting out her version of the events in Praes: his contacts in Ater had reported as much. Apparently Catherine had meddled in things beyond her understanding and Heiress had been forced to step in for the sake of the Empire, putting the Tower’s interests above her own by saving a rival. No doubt the nobility were hiding smiles beyond their gasps of surprise, knowing the Callowan wretch had been outwitted by superior Praesi wiles once again.

Some days, most days, Ratface was of the opinion that taking a hatchet to every lord and lady of importance in the Empire would go a long way towards making the place run more smoothly. The real danger was if Heiress managed to get her lies entrenched in the people’s minds, which could make a lot of trouble down the line. Thankfully Praesi were so naturally cynical about any rumour putting the nobility in a positive light that many people were inclined to dismiss the story outright. Word of the Battle of Marchford had already trickled out in the legions posted in Callow though, according to a few friends, and there sides had been swiftly picked. If the choice was between rooting for he Carrion’s Lord apprentice and the daughter of Istrid Knightsbane or the daughter of High Lady Tasia it was barely a choice at all. In the Legions, Heiress was openly blamed for the demon being summoned. Whoever had been hired to make Lady Akua the saviour in that story had botched the assignment pretty badly.

Unfortunately, Ratface did not have the resources to start rumours of his own. Not outside the Fifteenth anyway. That kind of work took gold and contacts, both of which he was short on. Whenever Catherine and the Hellhound got around to appointing a Kachera Tribune he’d hand off the entire problem to them, but until then he’d have keep the Fifteenth afloat as best he could. The legion’s entire entire hierarchy was a mess, even more now that they’d gotten reinforced. Normally a full legion would be run by a general and their staff, under which stood two legates commanding a jesha of two thousand legionaries. The Fifteenth wasn’t a full legion though, and Juniper not a general: they’d gone on campaign with only two thousand men, which had made her a legate.

Commanders like Nauk and Hune usually numbered four and were responsible for a kabili of a thousand legionaries each, but even now that the Fifteenth numbered almost three thousand they remained the only officers of their rank. Both kabili were over strength, though detaching Robber’s cohort of two hundred as an independent force had cut down on that to an extent. Aisha’s purpose as an officer was to keep all this organized, a hellish nightmare on the best of days. Ratface’s tendency towards sympathizing was mitigated some by the fact that she kept denying his own requests for additional staff: known leaks in the legion had made the Staff Tribune very tight-fisted with the kind of security clearance needed to work under him. Ratface sighed and fished out one of the parchment rolls from the overdue pile, this one inherited from Nauk. The orc had never been great with numbers and leaned heavily on Nilin to handle his supply requests, which had made the man’s death at Three Hills a minor organisational disaster.

Nauk’s new Senior Tribune had stepped up since but Ratface had still inherited quite a few papers when Nilin’s affairs had been distributed. This one had been handed separately and later than the others, hence his curiosity.

Unrolling the parchment, the Quartermaster scanned the neatly written lines while only paying half-attention. Old supply numbers from Marchford, he saw. Nothing particularly relevant anymore. Setting aside the scroll, Ratface picked up another and then paused. He picked up  the previous parchment again, paying closer attention to the numbers. He’d already gotten a report for Nauk’s kabili for that month, he remembered. It did not match the numbers he was currently looking at. Some of them were outright absurd – seventy-three missing scutum? An early draft? No. Nilin was cleverer than that. He’d never been close to the Soninke tribune, not even when they’d both been in Rat Company, but they’d known each other socially. Nilin had been one of the most educated people in their company, one of the few who read in his leisure time. And yet the report in front of him could have only been written by a credulous idiot.

Oh, Merciless Gods,” the olive-skinned bastard murmured. “Let me be wrong about this.”

Sir?” one of his staff asked, raising her head from her own pile.

Abba,” he said, closing his eyes. “Get me one of Kilian’s mages, one who can scry. And then all of you clear the tent.”

He got Kilian herself.  Good. Better to keep this in the family as long as he could. The redheaded mage frowned when he told her exactly what he wanted.

That’s a specialized formula,” she said. “You’re targeting a specific scrying increment without it reaching back. That’s fairly sophisticated stuff, Ratface, and you’re not a mage. How do you even know about this?”

I paid for it,” he replied drily.

There were plenty of mages in Ater who were too weak to be worth forcefully adding to the forces of either the Empress or the High Lords, and they needed to eat just like everybody else. Some of them fell with bad crowds to keep their heads above the water, and Ratface had been swimming in those ugly waters since the day he’d stepped foot in Ater. Nowadays, he was just as home there as all the other predators.

Scrying’s restricted at the moment,” Kilian reminded him, her frown disinclined to leave.

I have a pass,” he said patiently.

I know, I know,” the Duni said. “This just seems, uh, pretty shady.”

Ratface hummed, but did not disagree.  She’d soon be upgrading that assessment from ‘pretty’ to ‘very’. The fae-blooded woman spoke the formula he’d provided, carefully enunciating every syllable in the mage tongue. Using magic made her look more alive, he noticed, put a flush to her cheeks and a shine to her eyes. He could understand why Catherine was so taken with their Senior Mage, though he was not interested himself. As a man with a few issues of his own, he could smell the same on Kilian buried under the smiling and the gentleness. The spell connected, linking the scrying bowl on the table to a cube of quartz set on a bed table. The Quartermaster cleared his throat loudly, bringing awake the shape of a man in a bed. Kilian blinked when she recognized the distorted face of Instructor Raman.

Instructor,” Ratface greeted the man. “Good evening.”

It’s the middle of the night, boy,” their former Basic Tactics instructor from the War College snarled. “What the Hells are you doing waking me up? I have classes tomorrow.”

The dark-eyed bastard raised an eyebrow.

Your tone,” he said. “Watch it.”

The man bit his tongue, though even through a distorted image Ratface could see he was furious.

I need you to look into records for me, from five years ago,” he said.

You know I’m not allowed to look at those,” the instructor said.

I know you have a key to the room,” Ratface replied. “The same one you use to get back into the facilities after nights of whoring and gambling.”

Don’t say that,” Raman whispered furiously. “Someone might be listening in.”

You’re going to look into the admittance record of a former student called Nilin of Dula,” the Quartermaster said calmly.

Kilian jumped in surprise, though her control over the spell did not waver.

I remember him,” the instructor said. “Boy on the imperial ticket, from your company.”

I want to know who sponsored him,” Ratface said.

The other man remained silent for a few heartbeats.

That’s Tower business, boy,” he said. “I’m not getting mixed up in it.”

It appears you’ve come to a misapprehension as to the nature of this relationship,” the Taghreb said. “When I tell you to do something, you do it. Or I sell your debt to the Night Harpies, who’ll collect after breaking your knees and taking a few fingers.”

At least I’ll still be alive,” Raman spat.

A different track, perhaps.

When dawn comes,” Ratface said, “I’ll be making a report to Catherine Foundling.”

The instructor laughed. “I’m employed at the War College, boy. We’re under the protection of the Carrion Lord.”

She can take that away with a single sentence, if she scries him,” he replied flatly. “I think you need to consider very carefully whether, when I make my report, you want your name to come up as an asset or an obstacle.”

Catherine had refrained from throwing around her weight in Wasteland politics, so far, but she’d gotten pushed by the Truebloods one time too many. More than once he’d seen her talking alone with Aisha, which he took to mean she was finally starting some trouble of her own. Lord Black would back her in this particular matter, he was sure of it. The man was openly protective of his student: when the Fifteenth had been in the process of being raised, word had been put out on the streets of Ater that plucking even a single strand of hair from her head would be met with brutal retaliation. When the mailed fist of the Empress gave a warning, people listened.  There were plenty of stories going around about the people who’d been stupid enough not to, and none of them ended nicely.

Have it your way, then,” the instructor said.

Now and then, that does happen,” Ratface spoke sardonically.

Nilin had been sponsored into the War College by a minor official called Kadun Lombo. Not, Ratface noted, the headmistress of the local Imperial school. That could be significant. Most students on the ticket were picked by the person running their school, though in all fairness meddling bureaucrats were commonplace in Praes. A favour to a promising student not chosen could end up being paid tenfold a few years down the line, should the student rise in authority.

You think Nilin was a spy,” Kilian said.

I suspect he was a spy,” Ratface corrected.

The redhead clenched her fingers into a fist. She was not angry at him, he thought, but at the thought that any member of Rat Company could have possibly passed information to the likes of Heiress. Ever since the founding of the their legion, the former cadets of the company had taken to watching each other’s backs around the others. Avoiding that kind of clannishness was one of the main reasons cadets were split among different legions when they graduated, but the Fifteenth was not an average legion in many regards.

We all got offers,” the Senior Mage finally said. “After the melee.”

They did not talk of it among themselves often, but all officers who’d been brought over from the Rats had been quietly approached before they set out for Callow. Oh, and what pretty offers they’d been. They’d told Ratface he could be reinstated as heir to his father’s lordship, if he turned his cloak. He wouldn’t even have to do much, just send a few messages now and then. He still clenched his teeth just thinking about it. Just a pawn, they’d thought of him. A tool that could be bought so the nobles could keep playing their games with the lives of their inferiors. The Truebloods were a rot in the body of Praes, a sickness in dire need of amputation. And on the day Catherine Foundling wielded the knife that would do away with them, he would be there. Smiling.

What did they offer you?” he asked.

Positions for my parents in Wolof,” Kilian said. “Gold too, of course, even some magical tomes. Everybody knows the Duni are a breed of servants, out only to fill our pockets.”

Her tone was a bitter thing. Even in the College there were some who’d looked down on Kilian for her pale skin. Blood of traitors and invaders, that was the whisper that followed all of the Duni. Born of the last of the Miezans in Praes and kept light by intermingling with the crusaders who’d once occupied most of the Empire.

“She wouldn’t have had to turn Nilin,” the Quartermaster said, “if she owned him from the start.”

Kilian looked ill at the thought.

“He was my friend, Ratface,” she said. “We used to trade books, since neither of us could afford much. And you’re telling me he was lying that whole time? Gods, we almost got together during our first year at the College.”

He’d never been good with emotions, so he remained silent. Eventually she sighed.

“Cat took his death hard, you know? She didn’t want to talk about it, but she wouldn’t look Nauk in the eyes for weeks afterwards.”

Ratface had noticed. They all had. There was a reason Catherine Foundling’s men loved her – she repaid that loyalty just as fiercely.

“If I’m right,” he said, “Nauk is going to take it hard.”

The redhead cursed under her breath. “I hadn’t even thought of that. They were like brothers, these two. He relied so much on Nilin to run his kabili.”

And that was the heart of the matter, wasn’t it? Ratface was under no illusion he could find anything the agents of the Scribe could not, but how deep would they really dig when it came to a mere Senior Tribune? One who had so little to do with Catherine directly? But Nilin hadn’t just been a Senior Tribune, he’d been Nauk’s closest friend. Anything the orc learned in the highest councils of the Fitfteenth he would then be told. Access to information above that of his rank. Even Named could make miss details.

“So you’ve got a name,” Kilian said. “What now?”

“Now,” the olive-skinned bastard grimaced, “we talk to Aisha.”

“You think Nilin was the traitor,” the Staff Tribune immediately said, face thoughtful.

Many things could be said about Aisha Bishara – and he’d thought even more, some of them perhaps a little too rose-tinted – but that she was slow on the uptake was one of them. Some days he wondered why they’d lasted so long as a couple, when they’d both known going in that they disagreed on nearly everything of import. The sex had probably held it together past its natural lifespan, he thought. That part of the relationship had always been an unequivocal success. Ratface directed his thoughts elsewhere before his body could stir at the memory of it.

“I’m hoping he was not,” he said. “But it needs to be looked into nonetheless.”

The other Taghreb nodded sharply.

“He was from Dula, right? The small city in Aksum territory.”

Kilian cocked her head to the side. “You know people there?”

“I have a cousin,” Aisha replied vaguely.

The Bishara family’s glory days were long gone, Ratface knew, but the bloodline was still prestigious. One of their ancient chieftains was said to have wed the daughter of a djinn prince, and though the creature blood ran thin nowadays it was still purer than in a lot of more powerful families. Aisha could still put her hand into an open brazier and feel no pain, or spend an entire day under the sun of the Devouring Sands and not have her skin burn. That meant the sons and daughter of the Bishara line made good consorts for nobles looking to improve their blood rather than make a strong alliance, and that in turn meant Aisha had relatives scattered all over the Empire.

For a Soninke that might not have meant much – they murdered even family over minor titles – but for the Taghreb it was different. The tribe, even if it was no longer called that, always came first. No matter who you married, no matter how many years had passed. Unless you were a mere bastard, of course. Then getting rid of you was just good planning. Ratface smiled so that the poisonous fury he felt would not show. They had to leave the tent while she got in touch with her relative and they got in touch with their own contacts, but within a bell they had their answer. Kadun Lombo had been, it appeared, nothing more than a minor official. No known ties to a higher authority.

“Two details, though,” Aisha said. “First, when he sponsored Nilin there were rumours he was a distant relative.”

Kilian’s eyes sharpened. “Nilin was an only child, and so were his parents. He used to joke about it. Said it ran in the family.”

From the well-hidden look of surprise on Aisha’s face, Ratface guessed she hadn’t known that. She’d only been trying to be thorough. But she has that tone of victory, so she found something else. Something relevant.

“Second, Kadun Lombo had a riding accident in the month following his sponsoring.”

The Quartermaster let out a long breath. He’d hoped. Against the mounting evidence, he’d hoped.

“A loose end being tied up,” he said.

“It’s standard practice when placing a long-term spy,” Aisha said quietly. “Getting rid of anyone who could possibly give them away. The Truebloods have people in the Legions, that much is a fact. He might have been an investment from the High Lady of Aksum – he certainly had the talent to rise into someone’s general staff. It could be any of them, for that matter. They all have the resources to pull off something like this.”

Them. The Truebloods. The War College did try to weed infiltrators out, or at least identify them, but some inevitably got through. Not enough to ever cripple the army if there was a rebellion, but definitely enough that the Truebloods would remain appraised of what the Legions were up to.

“Circumstantial evidence,” Ratface finally said. “We need more. All we have right now is an odd report and speculation.”

Aisha eyed him with unpleasantly familiar disappointment.

“You were handed an inaccurate report and you just noticed? Perhaps Juniper is right and we do need to audit your books.”

That the Hellhound was out to get him was not news. She’d disapproved of he and Aisha getting involved back in the day and taken no pains whatsoever to hide it. To the extent that she’d said as much to his face. Several times. In retrospective, she might have raised some valid points. It did not make Ratface any fonder of her.

“I only got it when Nilin died, and it dated back to Summerholm,” he said a touch sharply.

“Why?” Kilian interrupted before Aisha could respond. “Why only then?”

Ratface paused. “I don’t actually know. Hakram was the one to give the scroll to me, after Nilin died. Catherine told him to handle the whole thing since Nauk was too upset to get it done.”

Aisha shrugged, somehow managing to make the mundane gesture elegant. He really wished she wasn’t as good as that, or at being beautiful in general.

“Let’s ask Deadhand for answers.”


Hakram was not sleeping. Ratface was not convinced Adjutant ever slept – he certainly got an amount of work done that implied he was beyond such mortal foibles. The orc was paying shatranj with Apprentice and apparently beating the Warlock’s son handily. Both of the Named made him uncomfortable, though for very different reasons. He’d known Hakram before the orc had stepped into the realm of legend. Before he’d become Deadhand, the first orc with a Name in over a millennium. It was hard to reconcile the sergeant who’d used to badly hide his contraband alcohol with the warrior who was followed by hushed whispers from greenskins wherever he went, a demigod in the flesh to his people. As for Apprentice, well… No one who’d ever seen the mage at work would ever be comfortable around him. At Three Hills he’d turned an entire flank into a frozen wasteland of death and at Marchford he’d lit up the entire night sky with his wrath. So much power contained in the chubby frame of a mild-mannered bespectacled man, always at the tip of his fingers.

“Adjutant,” he greeted them. “Lord Apprentice.”

Hakram’s eyes swept over Aisha and Kilian before settling on him. The orc clicked his tongue over the roof of his mouth, the gesture strangely human.

“You’re hunting our rat,” Hakram said.

“There’ll be more than one,” Aisha replied. “But in essence you are correct. We think we’ve identified a leak.”

“That explains all the scrying that’s been going on,” Apprentice said. “I was going to have to ask questions about that.”

The man was distinctly indifferent when he mentioned it, toying with a new trinket in his braids. The bone amulet Catherine had made. He was only aware of its existence because she’d killed an oxen to craft it and the report had made it to his metaphorical desk.

“I got a pile of documents after Nilin died,” he said. “Among them was a parchment, apart from the rest. Why was it?”

Hakram hummed.

“It was found in his personal effects, not the papers for the kabili,” he said. “Hence why you got it later than the others.”

Kilian let out a sharp breath. “Ratface. You said what tipped you off was that there were odd numbers in the report.”

He nodded slowly.

“Adjutant,” she continued. “The parchment, did you find it in a book?”

The tall orc’s eyes were hard now, and cold. “Yes.”

Nilin’s personal affairs had been inherited by Nauk but they were held in one of the carts in the baggage train, all of which were under Ratface’s authority. Hakram pointed out the right book and from there it was only a matter of time until they figured out the cypher. Numbers for the page, the last letter of the word for the first letter of the word it actually meant. The message outlined the number of deserters in the Fifteenth to have disappeared in the wake of the fight with the heroes as well as the casualties incurred that night. It ended with a suggestion of what might be the Fifteent’s next assignment, namely the suppression of the Silver Spears.

“If it’s still here, it was never handed in,” Aisha said afterwards.

And yet Heiress had known where to find them and when. The implications of that were unpleasant.

Ratface grabbed a few hours of sleep before dawn came. He’d been unofficially mandated to be the one who would tell Catherine, much to his displeasure. She wasn’t the kind of woman who took her displeasure at bad news on the messenger but this was not a duty he looked forward to. Not when he’d had to see that guilty look on her face for weeks after Nilin’s death, when she thought no one was looking. The Squire had gotten up before he did, he found out. Dressed in a simple tunic and leggings she was sparring with five men from her freshly appointed personal guard, the so-called Gallowborne. The Callowans eyed him with distrust as he claimed a seat just to the side of the sparring ring, several of them moving behind him without a word. It was almost endearing how much Catherine was unaware of the fact that she fucking terrified people, he reflected.

The Squire was undefeated in battle, that was part of it, but it was the things she’d done that gave people the shivers. She’d torched Summerholm to flush out a hero barely two months out of Laure, killed a monster the size of a fortress with her bare hands and even being being crippled had failed to slow her down – apparently she’d strolled into the host of devils at Marchford and casually killed their leaders without sustaining a single wound. Hells, she’d taken a handful of Named into battle with a demon and wiped the floor with the thing for half an hour straight in front of hundreds of witnesses. That wasn’t the part that really scared the Truebloods, though. It was the way she seemed to gather talent around her effortlessly. She’d brought the most promising student in the history of the War College into the fold with a single conversation. She’d picked a nobody as her liaison and in a matter of months he’d become the Adjutant. The son of the Sovereign of the Red Skies took orders from her. She’d taken a company of deserters into battle against devils and somehow turned them into loyal hardened killers.

Men of the Gallowborne had been on report twice since Marchford for beating a man bloody for disparaging Catherine. The second time, when it had been implied the only reason the Black Knight had taken her in was to keep his bed warm, the legionary had to have all of his teeth grown back by a healer. Armoured boots were not a forgiving weapon. And now he was watching a woman his own age toy with five veterans like they were children, somehow making them run into each other without ever going quicker than at a walk. She’d mentioned once that she’d never used a sword before leaving Laure and Ratface honestly had trouble believing it. He’s known people who practiced the sword since they could walk who weren’t half that dangerous with one, and that was without even taking her uncanny reflexes into consideration. The Fifteenth had not even existed for a year and already it worshipped at the altar of Catherine Foundling – you only needed to hear the song already written about Three Hills to know that.

Squire stopped before her men were too bruised to walk, clapping them on the shoulder amicably before dismissing them. Ratface idly wondered how many of them were already in love with her. Her relationship with Kilian was not common knowledge – he’d made sure of that – and Named always attracted admirers the way carrion attracted flies. She wiped her face with a wet cloth, though she didn’t look particularly sweaty, and then finally noticed him. Catherine Foundling was not a strikingly beautiful woman, he decided: her face was sharp, almost austere unless she smiled. Her most attractive feature was the long hair that she kept in a loose ponytail. The Deoraithe colouring lent her touch of the exotic, admittedly, but compared to the likes of the Heiress there was no contest. And yet she had a strange charm of her own. Charisma, not beauty.

“Ratface,” she greeted him with a smile.

She eyed him thoughtfully after that.

“And you look like you just killed my horse, which seems a bit over the top since it’s already dead. All right, Supply Tribune, ruin my morning. I’m about due a nasty surprise.”

The Taghreb bastard cleared his throat.

“We’ve found one of the spies. You’re not going to like it.”

She didn’t, but she listened anyway.

Villainous Interlude: Impresario

“The victor in a war is usually decided before the first battle’s been fought.”
– Prince Louis of Brabant, later eighth First Prince of Procer

Traipsing through Arcadia like some sort of murderous errand boy had been oddly nostalgic, Black mused, especially with Wekesa at his side. It had been the both of them in the beginning, before they’d ever met Sabah or Alaya. Their little jaunt through the realm of the Fae had not carried with it the same sense of momentous wonderment he’d felt back all those years ago, but there was something refreshing about being just a man with a sword instead of the Empress’ implacable right hand. Things had been simpler, when he was young. The lines between friend and foe had been clear, the dangers understandable. He and Malicia had climbed the Tower only to then understand the unspoken truth of it: the higher the edifice, the narrower the summit – and the stiffer the winds. These days they spent as much time making sure they remained on top as they did actually ruling. It was like pulling weeds, he’d once told Hye, if ripping out one laid the seeds for a dozen more.

He’d put aside the thoughts by the time they arrived at the fortified camp Istrid and Sacker had established southwest of Vale. The city itself had been taken without contest before he’d left for Marchford, abandoned by the rebels. They’d only occupied it long enough to make sure no armed insurgents would be hitting their supply lines. The combined forces of the Sixth and Ninth legions theoretically numbered at eight thousand, though in truth they came closer to ten with all the camp followers and support personnel. Leaving a garrison in Vale had not been an acceptable option, not when the Countess Marchford’s host numbered twenty thousand. Half of it peasant levies, admittedly, but quantity could have a quality of its own. Wekesa dismissed that ridiculous chariot pulled by winged horses his husband had gifted him years ago as Amadeus rolled his eyes. He dismounted his own horse and allowed the necromantic construct to be led away by a legionary.

“You’ll be up to your neck in scheming soon, I imagine?” Warlock asked.

“I have a few irons in the fire,” Amadeus agreed.

His old friend grimaced. “I’ll be in my tent, then. Drinking. You always get irritatingly smug when a plan comes together.”

“I do not,” Black replied, but Wekesa dismissed the words with an absent wave of the hand as he walked away.

There was no way to win with this lot. He’d always made a point of not gloating even if the enemy was dead, but Hye had promptly informed him that he made such a point of not gloating that it counted as doing it. They never let anything go, really. He’d worn leather pants once at age sixteen and it had taken them twenty years to stop mentioning it every time they went drinking. It would be another twenty before he lived down Stygia, and since Nehebkau now led Tenth the whole ‘negotiating with a dragon’ affair would likely follow him to his grave. Sighing, Black made his way to the command tent. Eudokia was already waiting inside, the pile of parchments that followed her like an obedient dog stacked on a table as she read through his correspondence. Amadeus cast a curious look around.


“Gone hunting outriders,” Scribe replied without looking at him.

“On a horse, I hope?”

The plain-faced woman shook her head and he almost frowned. The days were Captain had relied on him to cow the Beast were long gone, but if she let it out too much she still had… issues. He’d have fresh meat rations set aside for her. He’d barely poured himself a cup of wine when the generals arrived, Istrid striding in without bothering to be announced and Sacker following close behind. He’d always liked Istrid Knightsbane, in all honesty. She had weaknesses as a commander but she was not above taking advice from her staff to make up for it – and she was viciously, viciously loyal. Sacker was another story. Though the two greenskins were as sisters, after all those years working together, the goblin general had never been part of what could generously be called the ‘loyalists’ in the Legions of Terror. Sacker had been a Matron before becoming an officer and though the official word was that no goblin could sit on the Council of Matrons while serving in the Legions he’d always suspected she was the eyes and ears of the Council in the army. She would look out for goblin interests above everything else.

“Warlord,” Istrid greeted him, clasping his arm.

“Istrid,” he replied, then nodded at Sacker. “General.”

“Lord,” the goblin murmured.

The eye she’d lost at the hands of the Lone Swordsman’s attack had been replaced by a well-crafted glass one and most of her burns had been healed through sorcery. The part of her face that had been touched by magic was not as wrinkled as the one that was untouched, making her look like she’d grafted the skin of a younger goblin on her face. The effect was somewhat gruesome and knowing her she’d been leveraging it ever since.

“Countess Talbot ain’t moving,” Istrid told him, accepting a cup of wine when he poured it.

Sacker shook her head when offered the same, her single living eye watching them carefully.

“She’s not retreating anymore, then,” Amadeus said. “Good. I was beginning to think she’d march all the way to Holden.”

“She’s trying to bait us into joining up with your apprentice and sieging Liesse,” Sacker spoke quietly. “That way they can cut our supply line and fall on our backs.”

“Catherine has Liesse in hand,” he simply said.

“So now the blades come out, eh?” Istrid grinned nastily. “About time. It’ll be like old times, stomping a Callowan host into the ground.”

Black sipped at his cup, still standing. Sacker let out a small noise of amusement.

“There’s not going to be a battle, is there?” she said.

“Not as such, no,” he agreed. “Within three days the Countess’ army will collapse.”

Istrid looked like he’d just stolen a dozen sheep from her pens. “We have them, Warlord. We force a battle here and it’ll be a massacre.”

“That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Scribe said from her corner.

Both generals jumped, though Sacker much less noticeably. Neither of them had noticed Eudokia was in the pavilion – people rarely did, unless she wanted them to. A pair of hasty ‘Lady Scribe’s later, Black cleared his throat.

“Half of that army is peasant levies, Istrid,” he said. “Farmers and craftsmen.”

There was a moment of silence.

“We kill them and there’s no one to till the fields when the time comes,” Sacker immediately grasped.

And there was the reason the goblin was slated to be the next Marshal, even with her mixed loyalties. She had an ability to grasp the larger picture that Istrid simply lacked.

“It’s not a coincidence that they started the rebellion just before sowing season,” Amadeus said. “Countess Talbot is holding all of the fields in the south hostage. If we break her army too badly or burn the farmland to smoke her out, there will be food shortages in Praes. We’ve become too dependent on Callow for grain and fruits since the Conquest.”

He’d tacitly allowed that to happen, with Malicia’s blessing. Food went into the Wasteland and luxuries into Callow: the trade relationship between the two lands bound them together tighter and improved the lot of the commons on both sides. Keeping the standards of living for the lower classes high enough was the keystone of killing rebellious sentiment in its crib, both in the Wasteland and in the former kingdom. Well-fed, gainfully employed individuals tended to think twice about throwing in their lot with rebels. They had too much to lose.

“No fight at all, then?” Istrid asked, disgruntled.

“I didn’t say that,” Black mused. “I’ll need your wolf riders ready for deployment. I am not of a mind to let rats flee the sinking ship.”

Istrid grunted and from the look in her eyes Amadeus knew she’d be among those riders when they left camp. Peace was not something orcs were particularly fond of, and the Knightsbane less than most. Crows are already gathering for what’s to come, Istrid. All you have to do is wait.

Morning came and word trickled out from the enemy camp that the Duke of Liesse was dead. Amadeus had ensured as much last night by slipping Scribe a piece of parchment with the words ‘Gaston Caen, Duke of Liesse’ on it. Since being raised by a school of hired killers had left Assassin with a particularly vicious sense of humour, the Duke had been found drowned in his own chamber pot. Relatively tame, Black decided, compared to some past killings. He blamed a twisted upbringing: the people who’d taught Assassin had used as a graduation exercise the murder of a target by use of as innocuous a tool as possible. Men had been killed with teacups, he’d been told, filing cabinets and even once half a blunted copper coin. Assassin’s own graduation exercise had been the murder of every single other assassin using them against each other. The other Named had a rather thorny take on irony. Buttering his bread, the green-eyed man paused to take a sip of tea as he watched the green fields ahead of him and the rebel host beyond them.

He’d had his table set at the edge of the fortified camp, a handful of Blackguards looming behind him in a concession to safety – not that they were particularly necessary, given the very lethal wards Wekesa had set around him before stealing most of his bacon and flouncing off to bother Sabah. Ahead the Callowan army was milling aimlessly like an anthill that had been kicked, hamstrung by the death of the man they’d been rebelling to put on the throne. Duke Gaston had been little more than a figurehead while Countess Elizabeth ran the campaign as his military commander and betrothed, but figureheads were important when you assembled an army drawn from the commons. The man’s claim had derived from being the highest ranked remaining Callowan noble and from some extent that the ancient Dukes of Liesse had once been kings in their own right, which put the rebels in a spot of trouble.

The only duchy with a ruler left in Callow was the Duchy of Daoine in the north, where Duchess Kegan still watched events unfolding with her armies assembled at her capital. She was not a participant in the rebellion, though, and more than that nobody wanted a Deoraithe on the throne. They might have been a people admired by other Callowans, but they were not liked. Scribe dipped a wheat biscuit in her own teacup, a truly horrible habit. He frowned at her, not that she cared.

“Why only the Duke?” she asked.

Black had been about to reply when he felt a flicker at the edge of his awareness. Ah, the pest had arrived. The Wandering Bard sat on the edge of the table with a grin, though it disappeared rather quickly when he casually palmed a throwing knife and flicked it at her head. The blade would have buried to the hilt between her eyes had the Ashuran not come out of existence as smoothly as she’d appeared. Amadeus raised an eyebrow. As he’d suspected, that was not teleportation. And it did not appear to be controlled. Another flicker and the Bard reappeared in front of the table, frowning.

“You know, that’s-“

Black’s shadow extended behind him, casually adjusting the aim of a mounted crossbow towards the heroine and pulling the trigger. She flickered out of existence before the bolt could tear through her lungs. The next time the pest reappeared she was standing thirty feet ahead of him. A tendril of shadow snuck across the grass as she glared.

“Gotta say, you’re being kind of a d-“

The tendril punctured the ground, setting off the demolition charges buried under the heroine. Black took a bite of his bread and chewed thoughtfully. The Wandering Bard did not reappear. Thrice beaten and she stayed gone, then. He’d thought that would do the trick: Names like Bards lived closer to patterns and were able to use them, but they were also more closely affected by them. None of the times where she’d been gone had been willingly triggered, he assessed. Odds were she did not control where and when she went. More than that, if the ability had not been teleportation the implications were… interesting. How could you be somewhere and then somewhere else, if not teleportation? Simply by being there, he thought, although that brought other questions with it. The appearances were not instantaneous. Where did the Bard go, when she was not in Creation? Possibly a pocket dimension. More likely, nowhere. Power did not come without costs, certainly not power of that magnitude. No wonder she drank.

“What were you asking again?” he asked Scribe after a moment.

“Why you had only the Duke killed,” she reminded him.

An apt question.

“Because the rebels are no more a monolith than we are,” he said. “As we speak, Countess Elizabeth is likely trying to put herself forward as the candidate for the throne – and she does have the most troops under her command. She is, however, widely disliked by the other nobles. Gaston picking her as a bride was a slight to the Marchioness Vale, whose rank is higher even if she is not as wealthy or militarily capable. The Countess also despises, and is despised in turn, by the Baroness Dormer. Something about being rivals over the hand of the Shining Prince in their youth. The Baroness is currently in Liesse, but she is extremely popular with the men she’s sent here.”

“That leaves the Baron Holden,” Scribe noted. “The Countess’ cousin once removed. He’ll support her.”

“He would,” Black agreed, “had I not told you to send that letter to Grem last month. By now he’ll have received a messenger informing him that Nekhaub is torching the odd barn in his holdings and that a cohort of undead is driving his landholders into the city. Not any real damage, you understand, and deaths will be avoided, but to scared civilians it will make no difference. He’ll want to return to protect his lands. It’s an ingrained instinct in Callowan aristocrats.”

“You’re dividing them,” Scribe said. “Setting them against each other.”

“Under the cover of dark, if I am not mistaken, the men from Dormer and Holden will desert,” Black shrugged. “Those from Dormer heading towards Liesse, the others towards home. That cuts down on their professional troops by a third.”

It didn’t, if you counted the mercenaries. Four thousand dwarven veterans, the heaviest of infantries. But since he’d had Eudokia deal with that matter already there was no need to belabour the explanation. As for the Baron Holden, if he followed his men in desertion – and Black was fairly certain he would – Istrid’s wolf riders would be taking him. Only when he was out of sight, though. It would not do to discourage desertion. Amadeus took another sip of tea. It was a beautiful day.

Wekesa was hogging the wine, as he always did. Sabah was tearing into a barely cooked side of lamb, looking vaguely guilty as she did. She avoided that kind of behaviour around her husband, who’d never so much as glimpsed the Beast, but she did not need to be so delicate around other Calamities. They’d all seen her in the fullness of her wrath, tearing off heads effortlessly and bathing her fur in blood. Black poured himself a cup of Aksum red before Warlock could finish it, slapping away the retrieval spell the smug-looking Sovereign of the Red Skies tried to hook around the jug.

“The army looks smaller than it did yesterday,” Wekesa said, trying to distract him as he pilfered some couscous from his plate.

Black refrained from rolling his eyes. Warlock only descended in petty thievery like this when he missed his husband too much, though when they’d been younger he’d also done it purely to spite the others. Until Hye had nailed his hand to a table, anyway. His lover did not brook threats to her morning tea. She’d apparently picked that up from her father, who’d been an admiral among the Teoteul until a defeat at Yan Tei hands had forced his exile. How he’d managed to cross the Tyrian Sea was a story in its own right, as was the way he’d romanced one of the few elves to ever leave the Golden Bloom. Amadeus patiently bid his shadow to form teeth and began sawing through the back leg of Wekesa’s chair, but he deigned to reply.

“The soldiers from two baronies deserted during the night,” he told them.

His prediction had been mostly accurate, though he’d somewhat underestimated the impact of the Duke’s death. At least a thousand men from the levies had melted away under the cover of darkness, smelling a losing fight. Istrid had gone to follow the unfortunate Baron Dormer with all of her wolf riders before dawn came. They had standing orders to retreat if a hero showed up, but otherwise the outcome of that fight was settled.

“They still have most of their knights,” Sabah said, clearing her throat and setting aside the clean bones of her meal.

“They do,” Black conceded. “And though we’ve proven we can deal with them now, they’ll cost us unnecessary casualties if they fight. Unlike the levies, they won’t desert easily. They badly want the return of chivalric orders and only a restoration of the Kingdom can accomplish that.”

“I still have that plague for horses you had me cook before the Conquest laying around somewhere,” Warlock offered.

“That kind of weapon is hard to put back in the box when it’s come out,” Black declined. “Anyhow, the matter is handled.”

“Can’t be too handled, the horses are still there,” Sabah pointed out.

Amadeus reached for his wine and found the cup empty. There was a very suspicious magical siphon at the bottom of it and Wekesa hadn’t refilled his own cup in some time. The Black Knight glared at the other man, who grinned mockingly. He set the teeth to saw faster.

“Contrary to what many treatises preach,” Black said, “I don’t believe that morale shocks off the battlefield are better off delivered all at once. Several consecutive blows bring the expectation of more to come. That perception comes in more useful than one instance of great panic.”

“He’s still hiding more tricks up his sleeve,” Sabah translated for the benefit of absolutely no one.

“I haven’t been around for too long,” Warlock said. “He’s gotten too-“

The back leg broke and the Sovereign of the Red Skies sprawled on the grass in a messy heap. Amadeus stole his cup of wine, pointedly not smug to such an extent it looped back around to smugness.

The third morning showed another chunk of the rebel host missing. The dwarven infantry had disappeared during the night, though not before quietly butchering most of the knights in their sleep. Their contract, though paid with Proceran silver, had technically been held by the Duke of Liesse. The fig leaf had been a necessary fiction for First Prince Cordelia, who could not be seen to be too directly involved in the rebellion if she wanted popular support. Black had simply hired the dwarves in advance for when their contract with Liesse expired and had the man killed. After that their orders were to stay for a single day, wipe out the enemy cavalry in the night and march back to the Wasaliti where barges would take them down to Mercantis. It had been a hideously expensive measure to take and he’d had to designate a route for the mercenaries to follow that wouldn’t allow them to loot most of southern Callow on their way out, but the results spoke for themselves. The rebel army was falling apart at the seams, fights breaking out between supporters of the Marchioness and the Countess.

The levies were staying mostly out of that, leaving the squabbles to the retinues of nobles, but seeing their only remaining real soldiers take blades to each other was the final nail in the coffin of their willingness to wage this war. Which was why Black had quietly sent envoys to the most prominent leaders among them and asked for a parley halfway between the armies. Idly trotting up on his horse, the Black Knight bade it to stop in front of the dozen men and women who eyed him warily without ever touching the reins. Those were an affectation, as he controlled his mount entirely through his Name – now and then enemies tried to seize them to unhorse him and got a blade through the throat for their trouble.

“Good morning,” Black greeted them politely.

Disbelieving glances were exchanged among the envoys, to his mild irritation. Why did people always expect him to be uncivil? Being Evil was no reason to be rude. Even when it was necessary to execute someone, there was no need to be unpleasant about it – and he had no intention of killing any of these people, if they did not force him to.

“Good morning,” a heavyset blond woman in her fifties replied, sounding as if she did not quite believe what she was saying.

One of the men, dark-haired and scarred by what he absent-mindedly decided to be a legionary’s blade, spat to the side.

“Ain’t come to exchange pleasantries,” the man said.

Black cocked his head to the side. The face was almost familiar, but then a lot of these soldierly types were.

“I’ve met you before,” he said. “Summerholm?”

If it had been on the Fields of Streges, the man would not be here to stand. The soldier blinked, then shook his head.

“Laure,” he replied. “Was in command at the Muddy Gate.”

“Your men held for half a bell,” Amadeus remembered idly. “Ranker thought you would be the first to fold, but she always did underestimate the Royal Guard. You were next to last.”

“Good soldiers, all of them,” the man glared. “Most of them dead now.”

“Yes,” Black spoke softly. “They fought well. They fought bravely. And they died.”

He had not raised his voice or used his Name to inflict fear, but a shiver went through them nonetheless. Alaya could weave lies so beautiful you wanted to believe them and Wekesa could turn a man mad with three words but Black, Black had always preferred to use truth. Nothing cut quite so deep as an unpleasant truth.

“You here to threaten us, then?” a young woman spoke belligerently.

“Do I need to?” he asked. “You know who I am. You know what I can do. Worst of all, you already know how this ends. It’s the reason you’re standing here in the first place.”

“We still got numbers on you,” another man grunted.

“I could carpet this plain with the dead,” Amadeus said frankly. “Make this a victory so brutal the Fields of Streges would pale in comparison, and they were bloodier than most. But I don’t want to, you see.”

“Yeah, you’re a real bleeding heart,” the young woman from earlier said.

Black smiled. “What’s your name, young lady?”

She paled, but after so much bravado she was too proud to back down in front of the others.

“Amelia,” she replied, chewing her lip as she did.

It seemed the rumours he could steal someone’s soul just by knowing their name had not quite died out in these parts of Callow.

“I’m a very bad man, Amelia,” he said. “What I am not is a wasteful one. I could slaughter the heart of southern Callow’s people today, but all that would accomplish is the making of corpses. Corpses don’t grow crops. Corpses don’t pay taxes.”

“Neither do rebels,” the old soldier grunted.

“So cease being rebels,” Black shrugged.

“Just like that?” the woman who’d returned his greeting asked. “We just walk away?”

“Go home,” Amadeus offered. “Go to your families. No sanctions will be imposed, no additional taxes levied or property confiscated. And the next time a lord comes to you with coffers full of Proceran silver talking of freedom, remember today. Remember that mercy once is an investment, but twice is a mistake.”

And I do not make mistakes, went the unspoken sentence.

“There is a price, of course,” he said and they stiffened.

Some smiled with triumph, confirmed in their private belief that Evil could never negotiate in good faith. Callow was a land of old grudges, lovingly tended to.

“The nobles,” he said. “The ones who took the silver. Give them to me.”

He leaned back in his saddle, then smiled at them.

“You have until nightfall to think it over.”

His horse wheeled away without a word as hushed whispers erupted among the envoys. Before the two bells had passed fighting erupted in the rebel camp, but it was all a foregone conclusion. Marchioness Victoria Lerness of Vale and Countess Elizabeth Talbot of Marchford were dropped off bound and gagged at the edge of his camp by men who wouldn’t meet his eyes as the army started dispersing into the countryside. Some of the retinues had not fought and still lived. They would be an issue later on, he knew. He’d have to assign a legion to the area to prevent the rise of banditry. The nobles were brought to his personal pavilion, where under guard they were allowed to wash up and compose themselves. Amadeus only entered afterwards, and calmly invited them to sit.

“Marchioness Victoria,” he greeted them. “Countess Elizabeth.”

They were both in their forties, though even he did not look it he was older than both of them. The Countess of Marchford was fair-haired and still roughly handsome, though too sharply boned to have ever been a great beauty. The Marchioness had dark hair braided and showing thin streaks of grey, her blue eyes watery but unblinking. Neither of them showed the fear he knew they felt.

“The Carrion Lord himself,” the Marchioness said. “Should I be honoured?”

“Come now, Victoria,” the Countess mused. “Anything less would have been a slight.”

Though mere hours before they had been at each other’s throats, in the presence of the Enemy they closed ranks without hesitation. Of all the qualities of the people of Callow, he had always admired that one best. Praesi never ceased sharpening their knives even when the enemy was knocking at the gate.

“I would receive your official surrender, if you would care to give it to me,” Black said.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” the Marchioness chuckled.

The Countess smiled. “Your offer, though kind, is declined. As the commander of the armies of the Kingdom of Callow, I must inform you that our official reply is go fuck yourself.”

Give me a hundred officers with that kind of backbone and I’d conquer all of Creation, Black thought.

“I expected as much,” Amadeus said. “Countess Marchford, the offer I made you after the Conquest still stands. A position as general at the head of a Legion as well as amnesty.”

“You don’t really get it, do you?” the Marchioness laughed. “I wouldn’t flip Elizabeth a copper if I saw her on the street starving but I would never, not for a moment, think she’d make a truce with the Enemy. We were born free, Praesi. That’s not something you forget.”

“The Marchioness of Vale is correct,” Elizabeth Talbot said calmly. “We both know how this ends, hound of Malicia. The noose, the chopping block, or whatever else your butchers in the East can think up.”

She leaned forward, meeting his eyes.

“I would do it again, Carrion Lord,” she spoke hoarsely. “Even knowing how it ends, I would do it again.”

There were a few heartbeats of silence, then he sighed.

“What an utter, utter waste,” Black murmured.

But the gears were turning, and didn’t that say everything that needed to be said? He rose to his feet.

“Crucifixion,” he said.

“Returning to Triumphant’s favourite, I see,” the Marchioness replied, though she paled.

“A legionary will be along soon, with a pitcher of wine,” Black said. “It will be poisoned. A painless one – you’d fall asleep and never wake. Whether or not you drink is up to you. Nailing your dead body to the cross will have the same effect as if you were alive.”

Villains must be graceful in victory, he believed. They knew defeat a lot more intimately than the other side. With a respectful nod, he left the two aristocrats to their last moments. The rebel army had died without the kind of battle that would make a pivot in the story unfolding across Callow. Liesse would be the closing of the rebellion, Liesse and Catherine. Looking up to the darkening sky, Black hummed an old song his mother had taught him.

It had been a beautiful day, but he’d always loved the night best.

Chapter 38: Juncture

“Hahahahaha. Ha. You can’t beat me now, this is the first part of my plan!”
– Dread Emperor Irritant I, the Oddly Successful

Some days I wondered how I’d ended up where I was. In a technical sense it had all started when I’d come across Black in that alley, or perhaps the moment where I’d decided I would be joining the Legions.

“What I mean, though, is how did I end up here,” I mused. “As in, asking a report from a blood-dripping goblin in the middle of the night while I lead some kind of shady war council.”

Robber, if anything, was tickled by my sudden comment. Masego was utterly indifferent to everything going on, as was his wont, and Hakram looked like the epithet of ‘shady’ offended him but he couldn’t find an argument to refute me.

“Bad life choices,” the goblin tribune offered. “Or the best. Maybe a little bit of both.”

“Don’t mind me,” I grunted. “It just suddenly hit home that I’m leading a Legion of Terror while wearing a black cape and plotting nefarious things in the dark.”

“You’re not currently wearing a cape,” Masego pointed out, about as helpful as tits on a sparrow.

“Apprentice,” I replied patiently, “I own like five capes. All of them black. I get we have a theme here, but would it kill anyone to get me some clothes that a vampire wouldn’t wear? I mean, Heiress is Evil and she wears actual colours. And does her hair nice! I bet she even has her nails filed by some half-naked oiled up manservant.”

I didn’t even have manservants. My closest equivalents were an orc with a gossip addiction and a goblin who owned a jar full of eyeballs. The House of Light had always told me Evil was decadent, where were all my creature comforts? My sheets weren’t even silk. The only opulence around was the way I never seemed to run out of wine and that was purely Ratface’s doing.

“The ponytail looks good,” Hakram said loyally.

“Hakram, I love you like a brother, but the day I take grooming advice from you is the day I jump into the Tyrian Sea,” I replied.

I poured myself a glass of Vale summer wine, ignoring the look from Hakram indicating he wouldn’t mind one. The crate Ratface had somehow gotten his hands on before we left Ater was mostly empty now and I wasn’t wasting my favourite drink on someone who’d guzzle it down like water. I sighed and got comfortable in my wooden camp chair.

“Well, I suppose I’ll have to ask at some point. Whose blood is this, Robber?”

“It could be mine,” he grinned.

“Goblins bleed black,” I grunted. “Try again.”

“Not always true,” Apprentice said. “Dread Emperor Sorcerous exsanguinated a Matron and filled in human-“

He trailed off when everyone stared at him then cleared his throat.

“Perhaps not the best time,” he conceded. “Still, it’s not an absolute.”

I let him retreat with a modicum of dignity while he still could and pushed down the morbid curiosity that almost made me ask why Sorcerous had done that. He’d been the one to make the sentient tiger army, if I recalled correctly. The one that had defected the moment it got out of the Tower and was the reason tigers in the Wastelands were still so intelligent. They still found half-chewed corpses by the road every year, a testament to the way the ‘cleverness’ of Tyrants could continue to backfire for centuries after their death.

“Robber,” I prompted.

“So some of the boys and I went to have a look in Heiress’ camp,” he said. “Might have slit a few throats on the way in.”

“I’d gathered as much,” I replied. “So why does that lead you to waking me up in the middle of the night?”

“They changed up their patrol schedules after the last time we left them a few corpses,” the yellow-eyed tribune grinned. “They haven’t figured out Kilian’s scrying them to lay out the timing.”

“They will soon,” Hakram grunted. “And Heiress has the mages to block us when she picks up on it.”

“If she uses standard wards, I can teach your paramour to slip past them,” Masego noted. I let the word pass by without a comment, since it was more or less accurate. “Though given who Akua’s father is, I would not bet on it.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Some other Praesi noble? I thought you could run circles around any of those.”

“Nioro of Aksum. Most talented practitioner to come out of that part of the Wasteland in at least half a century,” Apprentice said. “Father says he was good enough to have a claim on the Name of Warlock after the old one died, though he never pressed it.”

I’d never heard the name before, which was somewhat intriguing. I’d have to ask Aisha about it at some point, since none of the men in this tent followed Praesi politics in the least.

“Anyhow,” Robber said. “We planned around their schedules and routes so we could get deeper in the camp than we’ve ever been. Found out two interesting tidbits I thought you should know about now instead of the morning.”

“Amaze me,” I said.

“First, she’s got a goblin in there,” the tribune said.

Huh. I hadn’t seen that coming, I’d give Robber that much. Heiress wasn’t as consistently racist as some of the other Praesi nobility I’d come across, but she did have certain leanings. Though I’d never heard her lay on greenskins, now that I thought about it. Was she in league with one of the goblin tribes? That could get messy as all Hells.

“Recognized them?” Hakram asked.

“So just because I’m a goblin I know all the others, is that it?” Robber asked, his face the very picture of outrage.

“You’ve claimed as much repeatedly,” Adjutant replied amusedly.

The goblin tribune shrugged, the pretense of affront discarded in a heartbeat.

“Couldn’t get a good look,” he said. “Was going to, but a scroll sheath fell over and woke them up. Nasty customer, whoever they are. Pretty sure they had burn wounds, and not the small discrete kind.”

“I don’t suppose there’s a famous goblin with that as their signature?” I sighed.

“Wouldn’t know,” Robber said. “Didn’t get out much before I joined the College. Pickler might know something I don’t – she was much higher up the food chain in her own tribe.”

Another question for the pile, though I doubted it would be as easy as that.

“And the other thing?” Hakram asked.

“They’re making some kind of ritual array,” Robber said.

Apprentice’s back straightened in his seat, the reason my tribune had asked for him to be there finally clear.

“Not on the ground,” Masego immediately guessed. “The runes – on wood, stone or metal?”

“Twenty five metal pegs with small square stones between them,” the goblin informed us. “The stone’s granite, if that makes a difference.”

Robber’s tribe was one of the mining ones deep in the Grey Eyries, I remembered. Apparently he still remembered some of what he’d learned there.

“It does,” Apprentice muttered. “Ocean-dredged granite like the one found off Thalassina has properties linking it to the classical elements of earth and water. It’s used as a stabilizer.”

One of these days I was going to have to find out exactly what those ‘classical elements’ actually were.

“Got a look at the metal pegs,” Robber continued. “Wrought iron, all of it.”

“To attract, collect and retain power,” Masego frowned. “Whatever the ritual is, the scale will be massive.”

“Oh, I don’t like the sounds of that,” I cursed. “Robber did you get a look at the runes?”

“On the pegs,” he replied. “There was one that was everywhere, it was…”

He paused. Yellow eyes blinked in confusion.

“I can’t actually remember,” he admitted.

Masego let out a small noise of understanding.

“I’m going to trace symbols in the air,” he said. “Tell me when one looks familiar.”

The dark-skinned mage traced a finger in the air, hard light hovering behind his touch. A dozen runes were made before Robber stopped him.

“That,” he said. “I’m almost sure.”

Masego traced another one, two squiggly lines with a small dot between them.

“Are you sure it wasn’t this one?”

I peered at both, honestly incapable of seeing a difference between the two even if I kept staring at them.

“Could go either way,” Robber grunted.

Apprentice dismissed all the shapes with a casual wave of the hand.

“Why couldn’t he remember?” I asked.

“Those are High Arcana,” he explained. “No one without the Gift can hold them in their mind longer than they’re looking at them. Catherine, I cannot stress enough how dangerous this is. I’ve studied sorcery since I could walk and I’m not sure I could make an array using those. Someone on Heiress’ side is a mage of the very highest caliber.”

“Wolof is apparently full of stuff like this,” I pointed out. “She could just have inherited the ritual.”

Masego shook his head. “That’s not how High Arcana works. You can’t make a… recipe, using them. How the runes react to every practitioner varies wildly, even if the underlying principles are the same. The mage who made that ritual understands exactly what they’re doing.”

Last time I’d dismissed a warning from Apprentice I’d turned myself into a demon-touched cripple. I was not about to make the same mistake twice.

“So that just shot up to the top of my priority list,” I grunted.

“You recognized some of the runes,” Hakram said suddenly. “Can you guess the purpose of the ritual?”

“Retrieval,” Masego murmured. “That rune means retrieval. I can think of one entity she’s got contained.”

Well, fuck. That had just gone from bad to worse. I’d had my mage lines and Apprentice working on something to keep the demon inside the standard, but it didn’t look like Heiress was going to be using the same trick as last time. Had she anticipated I’d take countermeasures? She had a way of being one step ahead of me. Not this time, though.

“That ritual, can you shut it down?” I asked.

The bespectacled man smiled. “Breaking something is much easier than making it. I’m not without skills with High Arcana myself.”

“Whatever you need,” I said, “and I do mean whatever, you’ll get it. Hakram, I’m using my authority as the Squire to put all our resources at Apprentice’s disposal.”

There was a heartbeat after the words left my mouth where I wondered. Whether this was real or just a specter Masego had dredged up to get his hands on something. I grit my teeth and put the thought aside. Kilian would keep an eye on him, as much as she could. I couldn’t afford to leave a weapon like this in Heiress’ hands and do nothing, not even if my answer might be compromised. I rubbed the bridge of my nose.

“Robber, good work. You might have saved our lives tonight. Now get washed up before you stink up my camp,” I ordered. “The rest of you, dismissed.”

I’d need to grab whatever sleep I could before our march resumed. At least my bed was warm and full of Kilian. Apprentice lingered a moment after the others left. I raised an eyebrow at him.

“A gift,” he said, fishing out something from his tunic.

It was a long pipe of carved bone with an almost comically small mouth carved like a lion’s head. I blinked in surprise.

“I don’t smoke bangue,” I told him. “Or poppy leaves.”

Bangue was more or less unknown in Callow, save for very wealthy merchants. The dreamy trance it induced was said to be highly pleasant, and without the nausea abusing drink would bring. Poppy was better known, but so were its addictive properties. Anyhow, I’d been too strapped for gold back in Laure to ever consider trying something as expensive.

He snorted. “I didn’t expect you to,” he replied. “Save for wine you are remarkably free of vices. I did notice you disliked the brew I made you for the pain, though. As it happens those herbs can also be smoked.”

I closed my fingers around the offered pipe. Couldn’t feel any magic coming from it, but with a mage as skilled as Masego that meant nothing. Was he laying a trap as I had? I searched his face and found nothing but earnestness. Apprentice was not practiced enough a liar or intriguer to pull this kind of play, I decided. Although demon corruption might make his personality moot, if it had sunk deep enough. If it had, though, there’d be signs.

“Thank you,” I said, and got a sunny smile in response.

I was definitely having that looked at by a mage.

Dawn found me sitting by a campfire, alone. I’d already eaten a bowl the stew that was the Fifteenth’s morning meal and set it aside. Taking the pipe Masego had given me I took a piece of tinder from the flames and lit it up, breathing deep and letting the herbs do their work. I coughed out the first few times, but eventually got the hand of it. Kilian was on duty at the moment, but before she’d left I’d had her take a look at the gift. It was, apparently, dragonbone. That precluded enchantment of any kind: the bones and scales of dragons could not be touched by sorcery. It was why putting them down so often ended up the responsibility of heroes. Part of me wanted to chide myself for paranoia, but I could not. I’m paranoid, but am I paranoid enough? The lifespan of villains had not theoretical limit to it, yet they died about as old as their heroic counterparts. I noted eventually that the effect wasn’t as solid as when the herbs were drunk, so I lit up a second time. The medicine was common enough I was in no danger of running out, and as long as I kept myself below a certain dosage ingested per day there was no danger of side effects. Aisha arrived just as I spewed out a stream of white smoke. She eyed me strangely then shook her head. I raised an eyebrow.

“My mother does the same,” she said. “Joint pains.”

I snorted. “Sit down, Aisha,” I ordered.

She folded her legs and plopped down at my side, somehow managing to make the gesture fluid and graceful.

“We haven’t talked much, you and I,” I said.

“There has been no reason to, Lady Squire,” she said cautiously.

“Drop that,” I said. “I’m an orphan of no consequence, Aisha. Titles always sound mocking to me.”

“With all due respect, Lady Squire,” the lovely aristocrat replied, “you were an orphan of no consequence. Now you are, arguably, third in rank under the Empress and the Calamities. I understand you’re trying to foster a certain attitude in your closest collaborators, but I would shame my family if I referred to you so casually.”

“Gods, it’s like dealing with Juniper all over again,” I complained.

The Staff Tribune smiled. “It took me years to get her this trained up. The Red Moons are from the Northern Steppes, but her father is from the Lesser ones. That breed has a certain disregard for etiquette, even for orcs.”

The Lesser Steppes were the part of the steppes north of the Empire that were on the western side of the Wasaliti’s headwaters. Imperial writ had always run thin there, and so had Miezan authority before it. It was said they kept to more of the old ways there than anywhere else on Calernia. None of that had been mentioned in my history lectures at the orphanage, but orcs from there broke regulations so much more often than the others I’d gotten a primer on the subject from Hakram. I inhaled from the pipe, spitting out a mouthful of smoke as the pain in my leg finished ebbing away.

“I don’t know you very well,” I said. “I brought you into the Fifteenth at Juniper’s request, and you’ve served admirably ever since.”

A flicker of something passed through the Taghreb beauty’s eyes.

“But I am the only aristocrat on the general staff, and there is a leak in the Fifteenth,” she said.

Her tone was entirely calm, but for all that I could see she was angry from the way she held herself. A year ago I wouldn’t have noticed, but a side-effect of learning to read people on the battlefield had been picking up on their reactions off of it. It must have been galling to believe your birth was being held against you, especially after a lifetime of it being held in your favour.

“That’s not the issue,” I said. “You’ve already been vetted by Black, which ends the matter as far as I’m concerned.”

She paled at the mention of my teacher. My highborn officers usually did – his long-standing dislike of the nobility was well documented and several mass graves in the Empire served as standing reminders of it.

“I know what most of my people want,” I said, unashamed at the claim I was laying on my officers. “Pickler, Ratface, Nauk. Juniper, even. You though? You’re like Hune in that regard. I never quite got a handle on what you’re after.”

Aisha remained silent for a long moment, warming her hands by the fire.

“You’ve done this before,” she decided. “Not with Juniper, I’d have heard of it, but with Hakram. There’s a reason you trust him most of us. With Hasan too, most likely, not that you’d have to dig deep to find how much he despises the nobility.”

I’d always found her insistence on calling Ratface by his actual name a little strange, though since they’d been involved she likely had her reasons. I remained silent.

“You have a use for me,” she mused. “And so you must know what I want.”

She laughed lightly.

“Have it your way, then. I am fourth in line, Lady Squire, for a lordship sworn to Kahtan. A glorious phrasing for an inglorious reality: my family’s holdings are a tower by an oasis and a village of less than two hundred people. The rest is leagues of dunes and rock. There are freeholds in the Green Stretch with more people living on them.”

She turned her eyes on me, serious for all her smiling.

“My blood goes back to before the Miezan waged the War of Chains on us, Lady Catherine. The Bishara tribe was mighty once, the first to twine its ruling line with djinn. Twice we sacked Aksum and stole the wealth of its kingdom. Now? Now we die slowly in the desert, as all Taghreb do.”

Aisha spat in the fire, the gesture so uncouth I blinked in surprise.

“I could have stayed home, served as steward for my oldest sister when she succeeded Father, but the thought was horrid to me. You are Callowan, Lady Catherine. I do not mean this as denigration: you simply have not been raised to see Creation as my people do. Sooner or later, the sands swallow everything. So I left before they got me too, and sought my fortune at the War College – that ancient dumping ground for noble children.”

Aisha looked into the flames and smiled sadly.

“What I found there, I cannot put easily into words. Friends, yes. Something like a sister and more. But most of all, I found that my people had been left behind.”

She met my eyes.

“Oh, they study our battles and praise our victories – but we are a relic of the past. I look at Praes, and see that all I’ve ever loved is dying the slow death. I believe in tradition, Lady Catherine. I believe that my ways still have a place in this Empire, and I will not let the Taghreb become faceless soldiers in an Imperial horde. If I must temper the wisdom of my ancestors with the steel of the world your master has made, so be it. We will survive. We will adapt. We are not done yet.”

Teacher, not master. The distinction became more important with every passing day. I looked at her, this lovely slip of a girl I would have thought delicate if not for the callouses on her hands, and felt a thousand years of history looking back. Ancient Kahtan had been among the greatest cities in Calernia when Callow was a mere maze of petty kingdoms, I remembered. The Taghreb had been a force to be reckoned with, once upon a time. A people who prized freedom above all, fiercely independent. I called them Praesi but there was a lie in that, a denial of history. When it came down to it her people were just as old as mine, and I could feel the same fear behind her face that sometimes kept me up at night. Are my people done? Was all that made Callow, Callow to be discarded in the quest for survival? Honesty for honesty, that was the trade I’d made with Hakram. I would offer Aisha Bishara no less on this misty morning.

“I will rule Callow,” I said. “Some day. Because I can, because I have to. Not as the old kingdom, but as a part of the Empire – and to do it, I’ll need help. Someone who can guide me when I’m dealing with the Tower and the nobles.”

I offered an arm, the way Lieutenant Abase had taught me.

“Trade you,” I offered, the tone light compared to the promise I was making.

She clasped my arm in the warrior’s way. We both leaned away afterwards, too young for the gravity of the words we’d said. Most of the herbs in my pipe had burned during our conversation, but I pulled at the last of them and breathed out the smoke.

“So tell me,” I said. “Who do I need on my side, to establish a ruling council over Callow?”