“Gaining power’s a lot like scaling a tower, Chancellor. The longer you do, the more likely you are to fall.”
– Dread Empress Regalia the First, before ordering her Chancellor thrown out the window
I was swatted down by the hand of an angry god, fire licking at my face.
The world went silent and dark until I realized I’d closed my eyes: when I opened them I still saw spots of colour but the fear of having gone blind that had taken me for an instant left my frame. Everything around me was smoking or on fire: the top of the pavilion had been outright blown away and the rest of the cloth was twenty feet away, cheerfully burning. I pushed myself up, noticing with a grimace that the elbow joint of my armour had been partly melted by the heat. The damned ringing in my ears made it hard to focus on anything, but when I passed my hand over my face I felt with dismay that part of my eyebrows was missing. My fingers came away covered in soot but I pushed concern over my appearance way down the priority list: whoever had just attempted to kill every one of us might still be around, and the second shot might be a little more accurate.
Black was already up and about, helping up a prone and shaky-legged Istrid as Captain hovered around him protectively. I reached for my sword, checking wearily wether the heat had damaged the scabbard – no, it still came out just fine. Good. Now, time to disembowel whoever was responsible for that. My eyebrows are like, my one good feature. Someone kicked my ankle and I felt it through the aketon, only now noticing that my left greaves had somehow been blown away during the impact. I snarled and look down only to find General Sacker staring back up at me peevishly. I gaped at the sight of her: half of her face was gone, a wasteland of blackened flesh with hints of meat peeking through. One of her eyes had popped out of its socket, not that she seemed to care in the slightest. She snapped her fingers in front of my face several times and –
“-can’t hear me at all, can you? Typical Callowan, all bark and no-”
“Now let’s not make this a cultural thing,” I rasped out. “Do you hear me talking about how goblins always look like they’re up to something shady?”
She slapped me. I snarled at her and reached for my sword before common sense could kick in. That little-
“Just making sure you’re not in shock,” she grinned malevolently at me, baring a mere handful of broken yellow molars.
“Maybe I should make sure of the same,” I told her through gritted teeth. “You know, just in case.”
She swaggered away towards Black without replying, though how someone who’d lost half their armour – and face – in the blast could manage a swagger was beyond me. Don’t kick the Praesi general, Catherine. It’ll be very gratifying, but there’ll be Hells to pay afterwards. I followed Sacker, making a point of getting ahead of her through use of my Heaven-gifted longer legs.
“– put the camp under lockdown. I don’t want anyone getting out,” Black instructed Captain.
“They’ll be long gone,” the gargantuan woman replied. “But there might be a-”
“I’ll survive without you dogging my shadow for an hour,” he spoke, tone flat and emotionless. “Go.”
She went without further protest, stopping to look me over as she passed me by before moving on with a silent nod.
“Fuck,” I heard Istrid gasp as she leaned on Black’s arm. “Been a while since I’ve been on the receiving end of one of those.”
I looked around and found that, strangely enough, a single chair had been left untouched by the carnage except for being knocked over. I strolled away to pick it up and place it next to General Istrid, acknowledging her grateful glance with an inclination of the head.
“So, out of curiosity,” I rasped out. “Did someone just drop a godsdamned comet on us? Because that’s a bold opening move, not gonna lie.”
“No. Goblin munitions,” Black replied.
“Sharpers,” Istrid specified in a growl. “They always mess with my hearing.”
“A bad batch,” General Sacker murmured. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be standing right now.”
The tall orc seemed to notice that half of her colleague’s face had been kissed by fire just then, a flicker of surprise and dismay going through her eyes.
“Well,” she gravelled after a moment. “How many eyes do you really need, anyway? You can get an eyepatch that matches Grem’s.”
Sacker palmed what remained of her face, looking pained for the first time that night. I ignored the byplay, mind already spinning. Goblin munitions, huh. I knew a few things about those, though not as much as I’d like. Sharpers blow, if you’re too slow. Smokers choke, and then you croak. Brightsticks blind, and none too kind. Children in the Laure had a whole game made up around the rhyme, a sort of morbid take on what Imperial sappers had done to the enemy during the Conquest.
“Sharpers wouldn’t kill a Name without a good spot of luck, would they?” I suddenly asked, looking at Black.
A heartbeat passed as the cogs between those unsettling green eyes turned and arrived at the same conclusion I had.
“We weren’t the target,” the Knight stated. He glanced at the two generals thoughtfully.
“If I wanted to create a right mess in Summerholm,” I spoke up, “first I’d off the people commanding the garrison and then-”
He grimaced. “The Governess.”
Legionaries had finally arrived on the scene and immediately my teacher pulled one of them aside, sending him to check on Governess Kansoleh with a few curt sentences. Only after that did he return the full weight of his attention to me.
“There will be no lesson tonight,” he said. “I trust you’ll manage an evening by yourself?”
“I’ll find a way to keep myself busy,” I replied neutrally.
It suited me just fine, as it happened: lately I’d been going with the current a little too much for my tastes. While I didn’t doubt that at some point I’d be introduced to the three bundles of murder in the back of my head in a formal capacity, I had no intention of waiting that long to get a closer look at people who were supposedly out for my blood. Surrendering the initiative was starting the fight on the defensive, and I’d always been an attack-minded kind of girl. The Knight paused to meet my eyes, a long moment passing before he snorted.
“Talk with Scribe,” he said. “She’ll see to it you have what you need.”
I really need to find a book on Names, I decided. If he can’t read minds, I think that would actually make it creepier.
Displaying his usual level of helpfulness, my teacher had not deigned it necessary to tell me where Scribe was.
Thankfully, I lucked out when I asked a legionary to direct me to wherever the Blackguards had been settled. None of them were actually in the temporary barracks – if I’d had to guess, I would have said they would have started running towards Black as fast as they could the moment they heard the explosion – but the woman in question was kneeling on the ground in front of a low table already covered in parchments. I tried to get a glimpse, but none of it made sense to me: it was gibberish in a mix of Kharsum and Mthethwa, as far as I could tell. Cyphered, most likely. The flat indifference she was displaying in her own quiet way was at odds with how close to Black I’d thought she was – wasn’t she worried even a little bit? A sharper wouldn’t kill a bloody Calamity, but it could have wounded him pretty badly.
“No one died,” I told her. “Black’s not even wounded – General Sacker got the worst of it.”
“I know,” Scribe replied, adroitly dipping her quill in the inkwell.
I might as well have tried to empathize with a statue. A particularly unconcerned statue, even. Pushing down a sight, I knelt across the table from her.
“I’m going to be heading out into Summerholm,” I said. “I need a few things before I do.”
I wanted a quiet look, not a melee in the streets of a city that had just gone into high alert, and that meant no armour and no Praesi clothes. I was keeping the sword, inconspicuous as it would be, because screw going unarmed in a city with a hero loose in it – especially a hero that considered blowing up people a valid tactic. Scribe pointed to my left and I followed the finger to a bundle of clothes resting on a shelf.
“Bullshit,” I replied flatly. “How could you possibly have known I would need those before I even did?”
Scribe glanced up. “I’ve had those set aside since we left Laure,” she simply said.
I was starting to hate that I was playing a game where everybody seemed to know the next ten moves except for me, I thought with a scowl. It came in useful more often than not, sure, but it also left me with the sensation that I was being herded towards a finish they’d already planned out for me. What was I going to do, though, complain my needs were being seen to too well? Yeah, I’m overdue something reckless. Been walking down roads they paved for me a little too much. Without a word I shed my armour and the still-singed aketon underneath, slipping on the woollen trousers and short-sleeved blouse that came with it. Good make, both of them, but not so expensive as to warrant a second look.
My old boots had been preserved and it was a glorious feeling to wiggle my toes inside the used leather instead of the steel-capped stuff I’d been given before we moved out of Laure. I already felt a little more like me and a little less like a doll dressed up in Evil clothes. With the goblin-steel sword and my knife on either sides of my hips I was fully equipped for murder if it came down to it, which if Black’s line about the intention of the other Squire claimants was accurate it very well might. There was also a leather purse with some coins in it, which might come in useful: about twenty silver coins, with the Marchford crest on them. They wouldn’t be as widely accepted as Praesi denarii – Countess Marchford was well-known to short the precious metals in her currency – but they’d certainly attract less attention than a Deoraithe girl running around with a purse full of Imperial silver.
“I’m heading out,” I told Scribe. “Have fun doing… whatever it is you’re doing?”
The plain-faced woman hummed in response, which seemed to be the sum of the attention she was willing to grant me. I walked out of the barracks, already focusing on the other claimants as I did: one of them had gotten a little closer, as it turned out.
I smiled grimly: time to check out the competition.
Outside of the Sixth’s military camp, the tent city was a lot like a hornet’s nest that had just received a good kick. Legionaries had pulled back to their fortifications and now refused to allow anyone through – at least coming in, I had no problem getting out except for a few suspicious looks – which had not gone unnoticed by the civilians. The explosion itself had not been a cause for panic, since any halfway decent mage could manage something just as loud, but the way the legions had reacted in the aftermath made people nervous. Yet not, I saw, nervous enough to shut down all activity for the night. The sea of torches and camp fires shed light in a way that made the labyrinth of tents look like actual streets instead of empty spaces, and while people went about their business quietly they were still very much out and about. I kept to the shadows as I tried to narrow down where the closest claimant actually was, something made increasingly difficult by the way he or she kept moving away when I got closer. It occurred to me for the first time that the… sensation might go both ways – if I could tell when they were close, could they do the same?
That could make this whole spying business unfortunately difficult, if it were true.
I might as well assume it was, given how my luck tended to run. Which meant his was no longer about sneaking around: it was about cornering a quarry. I found myself wishing I’d paid closer attention to the layout of the camp, but what little I remembered from earlier would have to do: I was somewhere to the left of the legion fortifications, I knew that much, so now I just needed to drive the stranger into a place where there was no crowd to hide behind. Ignoring the huddled families casting curious looks in my direction, I closed my eyes and tried to sink deeper into my Name like I had when I’d helped Black raise Zombie. It was harder without his own power to act as an anchor for mine, but this was also less… complex to accomplish. It was like my Name wanted me to know, and it required focus more than direction. The other claimant was a little north of me, moving towards the larger avenues, and I would have none of that: the less people around for this, the easier it would be to pick out my quarry. I moved in between and the presence backed off.
Yeah, they can definitely feel me too.
I ducked around a tent, moving as fast as I could without outright running, and the sensation kept giving ground. Twice it tried to circle around me, but I was quicker: as soon as I got in the way the presence back-pedalled, staying out of my sight if not out of my mind. How long we played this game of cat and mouse I wasn’t sure: night had fallen a while back, and the smoke from the fires made it hard to get a good look at the moon. It was a tedious business, but I grit my teeth and did it anyways – it was a long, methodical grind to force the claimant somewhere I’d be able to look at them, but as long as I remained calm and methodical it was just a matter of time. Eventually, we ended up close to the edge of the camp. There were fewer fires out here but Black’s earlier prediction had come true: I saw better in the dark than any human should. I felt the presence pause as it neared the open ground and a feral smile stretched my lips. Where are you going to run now, my pretty? I put a spring to my step and moved towards the now-still claimant, slipping between tents as quick as I could to make sure they wouldn’t have time to try and circle around again.
The presence in my mind was suddenly snuffed out.
The surprise nearly made me stumble, but I caught myself at the last moment. My hand drifted to my sword, and with a sinking feeling I struck me that I hadn’t been the only one playing a game tonight. Here I was, far away from any witnesses and alone in the dark with only my sword for company. I wasn’t running the bastard down, I realized, I was being baited. And I’d fallen for it like a farmer buying magic beans, which added insult to the very real risk of injury.
“Well,” I muttered to myself, “no need to be coy about this.”
I drew my sword and wished I’d taken my shield with me, even if it would have made me stick out like a sore thumb. The tents surrounding me had seemed like nothing more than irritants getting in my way, earlier, but now every one of them could be cover for someone wanting to slit my throat. My nice little moonlit walk was taking a sinister turn, but I forced myself to take a deep breath. Fear is sloppiness. Fear is the fault line in solid stone. Fear is the enemy’s mind, drawing blood before his sword. The words stilled my heartbeat and I let anger flood my veins instead. I might have fallen for my enemy’s trick, but I was not without fangs of my own.
“So,” I called out into the silence. “Are you going to make me wait all night?”
There was no warning except for a flicker of movement at the edge of my sight – the shape moved fast, faster than I’d seen anyone without a Name ever move, but I’d been waiting for it. In a flutter of robes my enemy struck, scimitar coming low for my leg. I managed to bring up my sword down in time, the angle awkward but good enough to stop the blade from scything into my flesh. I only got a quick look at whoever was attacking me before they leapt back before a tent, ducking out of sight: long dark robes that hid the body shape and some sort of clay mask over the face. Taller than me, but not real way to tell if it was a man or a woman. The claimant did not attack again, silence falling in their wake. I tightened my grip around the handle of my short sword taking a careful step back as I considered my options. Did I want to turn this into a death match?
I was reluctant at the prospect of killing three strangers, even if it got me a Name, but this particular stranger did not seem to be overly burdened by the same moral objections. Taking out one of the contenders early appealed to the fighter in me – one less person to worry about – but I’d been given to understand that I was already ahead of the curve when it came to claiming my Name. Killing one of the claimants on my first night in Summerholm might drive the remaining two to work together against me. And I don’t know if I could handle that. If this bastard’s disappearing trick is any indication, they have a few cards up their sleeves I didn’t even know were in the deck. They came from behind, this time. Thank the Heavens for those robes, otherwise I wouldn’t have heard it coming: I turned around and struck blindly, hitting nothing but air but forcing the claimant to move around my swing. The clay mask and its creepy leering rictus looked back at me silently as my opponent tried to slice up my wrist. I got the pommel in the way but the masked claimant’s scimitar slid down and bit into my fingers – I drew back with a curse, trying to kick them in the crotch as they melted back into the dark.
“Fuck,” I swore again, taking a look at my hand.
It stung like a bitch but the cut wasn’t deep: I wasn’t at any risk of losing the finger. It was bleeding a lot, though, and that was dangerous if left unattended – worse, it was making my grip slippery. And that’s why we wear gauntlets, Catherine.
“First blood to you, you creepily silent masked ambusher,” I conceded out loud. “Still, to quote-”
I felt someone moving behind me again and bared my teeth. This time the blade came for my throat and I ducked under it, burrowing my fist in my opponent’s abdomen with great relish. The pained groan I heard even through the mask was sweeter than any hymn and before they could step back I slammed the pommel of my sword right in their mask. A chip fell off of the cheek and they rocked back – after a moment of hesitation the stranger ducked out again before I could press my advantage, dodging the point of my blade by less than an inch.
“-to quote a really unpleasant acquaintance of mine, last blood is the only one that matters,” I finished, falling back into a low guard.
I’d wondered why someone who was so intent on surprise would have first struck after I’d invited a hit. It was after they attacked the second time I’d understood why: the robes made noise when they moved too fast, so they’d taken advantage of the sound of my voice to cover it. It had made the third strike easy to predict, though I doubted it would work again. I checked my hand again, grimacing when I saw the blood was soaking my grip and dripping to the ground. I couldn’t let this go on for too long, the more it dragged out the larger my opponent’s advantage got. All right, the time for subtle is done. It’s never been my specialty anyway. If my enemy was using the environment we were in to their advantage, then there was an obvious solution: break the godsdamned environment. I kicked the stakes keeping together the tent closest to me, ignoring the angry yells that came from inside as it fell and I cut through the rope holding up the one next to it.
To my opponent’s credit, they were on me before I could bring down a third. I slapped aside the scimitar coming for my kidney with the flat of my sword, moving in close. The masked claimant tried to push me back, but to my delight I discovered I was stronger than them: when I shoved back they stumbled, immediately giving ground as I pursued. From the corner of my eye I saw people coming out of the tents, faces turning from angry to fearful the moment they saw people with swords in hand. An older man grabbed his daughter by the hand and legged it, which brought a hard smile to my face. They were getting legionaries, most likely, and chances were good those would side with me over my opponent. The stranger must have thought the same, because they stopped backing away and returned on the offensive.
I knew how to handle them now, though. I own close range, you quiet bastard. We’re dancing to my song now. I kept pushing forward, watching for the blade and driving my opponents into tents as they tried to put a little distance between us. The masked ambushed was in the tricky position of having to keep an eye on me as they stepped back, though, and after a moment they stumbled over a stake. That was the opening I’d been waiting for – the point of my blade missed the throat but slid into their shoulder. I was forced to step back by a wild swing of the scimitar, but I laughed: now the both of us were bleeding, and that wound was a lot worse than mine.
“Cow,” the stranger hissed through the mask in Taghrebi, the voice distinctly male.
He hadn’t said cow, exactly – the actual word he’d used meant bull’s daughter, though the meaning was the same. Very roundabout language, Taghrebi.
“Goat-husband,” I replied cheerfully in the same tongue, drawing on the extensive repertoire of insults Captain and Lieutenant Abase had been teaching me when Black wasn’t paying attention. His fingers touched the wound and came back red: I raised an eyebrow when he used the blood to trace a line across the clay mask.
“Would it be culturally insensitive to ask what in the Hells you just did?” I mused out loud.
“This isn’t over,” the boy hissed again, and Weeping Heavens why did villains always say shit like that before trying to run away? He might as well have sent me a written warning he was about to flee. He turned to make his escape but screw that: my schedule was tricky enough without having to watch over my shoulder for a vengeful masked jackass waiting to pounce at any moment. Our very dramatic confrontation turned to a very ridiculous foot race in the dark. Now and then he tried to duck around a tent and do the melting-in-shadows trick he’d pulled on me during the fight, but it seemed to fail if I had an eye on him while he was doing it.
He was trying to get back towards the crowd where he could hide among the crowd, but that kind of thing was harder to manage when I knew exactly what he was trying to do. He must not have known the layout of the tent city much better than I did, because our little race took an unexpected turn when he took a left into an alley that ended into a stone wall – a legion supply house, by the looks of it. He slowed when he realized he’d run into a dead end, turning to face me. I could see him pant through his robes, the red stain on his shoulder soaking the dark fabric further every moment. I was in slightly better shape, though not by much: fight in the Pit tended to be on the short side, and they rarely required much running.
“Well,” I gasped out, catching my breath. “I was aiming for a talk, but I suppose shanking you in a dark alley will have to do. In all fairness, you started it.”
I brought up my sword into the middle line and slowly strode forward. People were at their most dangerous when cornered, I knew, and so I stepped lightly. Barely three feet in front of me, a small clay cylinder landed in the dirt – there was a fuse on tip of it, nearly done burning. The children’s rhyme drifted to the surface of my thoughts almost mockingly: brightsicks blind, and none too kind. “Shit,” I cursed feelingly, closing my eyes just before it blew.
Looking straight into the flash was a good way never to see anything again, and even through my closed pupils the explosion light was horribly painful. Colours swam in my eyes and all I could think of was that I hadn’t seen the masked bastard throwing anything but I knew of at least one person with access to goblin munitions with a vested interest in seeing the both of us dead – I turned so that I’d have a tent at my back, refusing to give my ambusher a clear shot at me even as I half-faced the new threat. I heard two sets of steps coming down the alley, and when my vision cleared there were two people looking back at me. One was a goblin, the strangest-looking I’d ever seen: there was not a speck of green on her skin, all of the flesh bared by her chain mail a shade or red nearly orange. Next to her a tall Soninke girl with a white veil over her face was eyeing me curiously, a long spear propped up against her shoulder. It looked like a bridal veil to me, but she was no Callowan: to the Soninke, white was the colour of death. I felt the masked jackass move behind me and my eyes flicked back to him, my sword rising back to middle-line immediately.
“Now that we have your attention,” the goblin jeered. “Why don’t we all have a nice little talk?”
I didn’t need to reach for my name to know who those two were. Well, I thought to myself. I did want to check out the competition.