“I’ve found that the best way to win at shatranj is usually to turn into a giant snake and tear my opponent’s throat out.”
– Dread Empress Vindictive III
We’d stopped for a late lunch before coming in sight of Ater. Black had pushed our usual personal lesson earlier in the day, since the evening would likely be spent introducing me at the Imperial Court, and he was spending more time talking than dipping his millet bread in the broth the Blackguards had put together.
“Early Praesi Names were divided along ethnic lines,” the green-eyed man spoke as I dug into my own bowl ravenously. “The Taghreb had the likes of the Red Fox – usually a thief, always clever – and the Grey Lion, often the strongest chief of the time. Soninke Names were associated with the rulers of their kingdoms, though some Champion derivatives arose during particularly brutal wars.”
“They’re all gone now, though?” I asked, hastily swallowing my mouthful when he raised his eyebrow at me.
“None have been seen in over a millennia,” he agreed. “Roles are usually a reflection of the people they spring from, you’ll find, and it’s been a long time since humans inside the Empire have ceased any designs of independence. Why settle for ruling a fraction of a realm, when you could claim the Tower itself?”
I could see his point. That was one of the most seductive parts of the Imperial philosophy, I’d found: in Old Callow, the throne had only ever passed between the various branches of the Fairfax dynasty. It would, theoretically, have been possible for one the duchies to topple them – and some had wanted to. The Dukes of Liesse, in particular, had never quite managed to forget that they’d been kings before the unification of Callow. In practice, though, the fact that more often than not the kingship came with a Name had seen them rule unchallenged. In Praes, though, anybody could claim the Tower if they were clever and ruthless enough. The High Lords got a turn in the seat more often than commoners, certainly, but the chronicles of the Empire were full of instances where a man or a woman with strong powers or a stronger vision had butchered their way to power. There was no Imperial dynasty: the longest a family had ever managed to claim the Tower was three generations, and they’d been wiped out to the last when the third Emperor was overthrown.
“I don’t recall hearing about any greenskin names, not since the Declaration of Empire,” I noted. “Which is weird, considering some ogres got Roles and there’s a lot less of them than orcs or goblins.”
Black set aside his bowl, offering me the full weight of his attention. We weren’t reconciled, not exactly. I would not forget or forgive the day we’d left Summerholm anytime soon, and he’d smelled the rat in the way the Lone Swordsman had managed to get away. Still, he spoke and I listened. For better or worse, the Calamity was the teacher I’d been given and I intended to learn everything I could from him. His successes, while ghastly, had still been successes. More than that, I’d planted the seeds of a war so I had better be ready to fight it when the time came.
“When it comes to the Clans,” he said, “we have the Miezans to blame for that. They systematically dismantled every aspect of orc culture. They went as far as razing the holy grounds of the Broken Antler Horde, the largest city on Callernia at the time. Roles do not come to be in a void, Catherine. There needs to be a weight behind them, a cultural imperative. Had the Clans broken away from Praes after the Declaration we might have seen a rebirth of their old Names, but the first Dread Empress managed to keep them in the fold by the skin of her teeth.”
“That’s kind of sad,” I admitted.
“Their most common Name was the Warlord,” Black murmured. “Mostly known for their propensity to put entire villages to the torch and take back their inhabitants to the Steppes as thralls.”
“Not too sad, then,” I mused.
He chuckled. “As for the Tribes, it’s trickier matter. They were never outright conquered by the Miezans, as you know. They knelt after the first few defeats and so kept the majority of their holdings.”
“There’s not a lot about goblins, in the books you gave me,” I told him. “Some stuff about their alchemies and when they started getting interested in engineering, but even the explanation about the Matrons was a little vague.”
“That’s because there’s nearly no reliable literature on them,” Black replied. “They’re frustratingly secretive, not that they haven’t been given reason to be. Personally, I suspect that they do have Names.”
I raised an eyebrow. “And they just what, never stepped out of the Grey Eyries? Roles are a little flashier than that.”
“They might not be,” the Knight said, “if the culture that spawned them values secrecy above all else.”
Huh. That made a twisted sort of sense, actually. For all we knew, the Matrons themselves might have been Named and just never told anyone. Roles like Assassin had aspects that allowed them to hide from scrutiny, so it wasn’t exactly unheard of. I had another question I wanted to ask, about the Name of Chancellor and how it had come to be forbidden – just laying claim to it apparently qualified as high treason – but before I could get anything out Scribe popped out of nowhere. More damningly, she managed to do it right next to me.
“Bloody Hells, how do you keep doing that?” I blurted out. “We’re standing in the middle of an open field, Scribe. The only footing here is rocks.”
She didn’t reply, though I’m pretty sure a glimmer of amusement flashed through her eyes.
“Scribe,” the green-eyed man frowned. “You don’t usually interrupt during lessons.”
Without a word, she handed him a scroll. It was, I saw, sealed with black wax and the official Imperial seal. That looks serious. Black broke it open and scanned the contents, face turning pale when he got halfway through.
“You’re sure?” he asked her.
“I have three different witnesses. Reliable,” the plain-faced woman replied.
“Fuck,” the Black Knight cursed, and my eyes widened. It was the first time I’d ever heard him curse. “We have those laws for a reason, Scribe. Not even Triumphant was fool enough to break the Decree and she broke nearly every other law on record.”
Weeping Heavens, he actually sounded worried.
The pale-skinned man rubbed the bridge of his nose, dropping the scroll on his lap.
“The Tower just received a Red Letter,” he said, tone grim.
I burst out laughing. “Really? The gnomes are knocking at the door? You could have at least put a little effort into the punchline.”
My mirth fell flat when neither of their expressions changed. “You’re serious,” I realized. “Are you telling me they actually exist?”
“Yes,” Black confirmed flatly. “And that’s the second Red Letter the Tower received this century. If we receive a third, the consequences would be… dire.”
“The gnomes, like the people with the huge metal armours and the flying machines that scream? We’re talking about those guys?”
“Have you ever heard of Kerguel, Catherine?” Black asked.
I shrugged. “The lost city that got sunk into the ocean by the Gods. There’s a great deal of bad poetry about it.”
“It was a real place,” the Knight told me. “One of the most powerful nations in the world at a time where the great Baalite cities were a collection of mud huts. They had an interest in natural physics and pursued it heedlessly, until one day they received a letter in a red leather sheath.”
That wasn’t the story as I’d been told it, so I listened in silence.
“The letter told them to cease their research or face extinction,” Black spoke into the quiet of the Wasteland. “The lords of Kerguel laughed and dismissed it as an esoteric joke. They laughed again, when a more strongly-worded letter came a month later.”
He paused, letting out a deep breath.
“They stopped laughing, when they lost contact with all their colonies. It was already too late by then. The Yan Tei have the only surviving records on the subject, and they say that the fleet of metal ships that came for Kerguel darkened the sky itself – it could be seen from miles away.”
“You mean they…” I trailed off.
“They sunk the island into the sea,” Black said. “Sorceries Kerguel had spent decades refining slid off the ships like water off a duck’s back. The explosions were larger than anything that’s been seen before or since. By the time the gnomes were done, there was not a living soul left on the barren rocks.”
I sat there listlessly, watching my teacher’s expression turn coldly furious.
“So you can understand how after that farming machine under Nefarious got us a Letter, I’m a little irritated that the Hearthmaker tribe was foolish enough to start playing with powders.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked quietly.
“They need to be purged,” he sighed. “Every last one of them, and the research destroyed. The Matrons will have a fit, but there’s no other way.”
“You could fight them,” I said. “If they’re threatening you, you must have found something they’re afraid of.”
Black smiled mirthlessly. “In the grander scheme of things, Catherine, I’m the petty warlord of a backwater kingdom. The only nation on our continent that can be considered something other than a regional power is the Kingdom Under. When one of the real world powers tells the Empire to do something, we do it. I will not face destruction in the name of pride.”
Well, shit. When someone with my teacher’s usual level of self-confidence told you someone was out of their league, they weren’t likely to be wrong. Would the gnomes also destroy Callow, if they came? It was part of the Empire, at the moment. Hopefully I’ll never have to find out.
“We’re going to Foramen, then?”
Black frowned. “You aren’t. It’s still too early for you to deal with the Matrons.”
I scoffed. “Can’t know if we don’t try, can we?”
“Spoken like someone who’s never been in the same room as those cunning old bats,” my teacher replied, faintly amused. “No, you’ll be going to the Academy until I’m done.”
Funny how these things went, wasn’t it? A month ago that had been the plan, and now it looked like I’d get what I’d wanted.
“Scribe,” the dark-haired man spoke. “Is there a company with a missing officer?”
The plain-faced woman replied immediately. “Rat Company. Lacking a lieutenant as of last week, still waiting on a transfer. They’re beginning war games at Spite Valley tonight.”
Black hummed thoughtfully. “Sink or swim. Fitting. Can you have a legionary’s kit brought to her on the way?”
Scribe inclined her head by an inch. “Already sent the runner.”
The Knight chuckled. “What would I do without you?”
“The same things,” Scribe replied blandly. “Just not as well.”
He turned his eyes to me and I shrugged in agreement. Wasn’t like I had anything else planned this week.
The War College was the only officer’s school in the Empire, meaning that every officer wanting to make a career in the Legions of Terror was expected to have graduated from those hallowed halls. There were other training camps scattered among the Empire for legionaries, of course, but anyone who wanted to enrol straight into the commissioned ranks went through the College. The institution had existed in one form or another since the founding of the Empire, though until recently admission had been restricted to the children of Imperial aristocracy – and in even earlier times, only to the boys among those. Dread Empress Terribilia the First had put a swift end to that particular brand of stupidity by using the Headmaster as ammunition for her latest catapults, much in the same way that my own teacher defenestrated the last Headmistress when she’d refused to allow “filthy greenskins” in her classrooms.
The College itself was situated on the outskirts of Ater, a large two-story stone hall made up mostly of classrooms, but the cadet barracks and training fields took up the entire city district known as the Five Swords Lanes. Towards the end of Dread Emperor Nefarious’ reign – which could more accurately be called the beginning of Dread Empress Malicia’s – the reform and rapid expansion of the Empire’s military had forced the Legions to set up a handful of semi-permanent camps outside Ater where the vast majority of the cadets actually slept. The old College barracks were reserved for students in their final year, nowadays, and the more practical classes were taught out in the Wasteland instead of in a classroom.
Within a week of joining, students were assigned to a company of a hundred other cadets that would serve as their mother unit for the rest of their time at the College. Given that there were around a thousand cadets in attendance, the student body was divided along the lines of ten companies. Each company had a name and a standard, typically an animal from the Wasteland, except for the company at the head of the monthly rankings: they were called only the First Company, and the competition to hold that title was nothing short of brutal. While individual cadet marks in the theoretical classes did affect company standing, the real way to rise in the rankings was to win the war games held every week in Spite Valley.
There was an old fort in the valley the Blackguards escorted me to, a leftover from the days where the Order of the White Hand had occasionally crusaded their way east to Ater itself. After the Conquest it had stopped being garrisoned and become the main site for the College’s war games. The most basic scenarios were favoured: typically an attack and defence simulation between to randomly drawn companies, though the Headmaster was known to occasionally pit several companies against each other in wider games. The valley itself was half a day’s march away from the capital and large enough that armies in the thousands could have gone through. The fort itself was situated on a hill guarding the way to Ater, sloping down into the deeper valley where a lone watchtower overlooked deep woods and a handful of streams. After a long walk the slope rose again, leading to a circle of hills backed by a veritable forest of rocky outcroppings: that was where Rat Company had elected to make camp, among the hills. I’d been able to see the smoke from the campfires long before the company itself.
Hiking my way through the camp with the legionary garb I’d put on hours earlier, I blessed the fact that there’d been a primer on the Legions inside the pile of books from Black – Heavens knew how confusing all the terms would have been otherwise.
The war game was being run between a pair of companies, which meant the hundred cadets on each side answered to a single captain. Under the captain there would be five lieutenants in charge of a “line” of twenty soldiers, and under each lieutenant a sergeant. Lines were expected to be able to split into two “tenths” if the battlefield required it, in which case the sergeant would end up in command of the second tenth. I felt uncomfortable in my standard-issue chain mail after having spent so long wearing a better-fitting armour, but that gear had belonged to Squire – I was ‘Lieutenant Callow’ as long as I attended the College, and she wasn’t supposed to have access to those kind of resources. I found my assigned line milling around a half-built campfire, digging into their rations gloomily. My sergeant was easy enough to spot, thankfully: a tall orc with the single red stripe of his rank sown into his shoulder pad, his skin closer to brown than green. He was talking with a particularly skinny goblin sporting the same insignia, I saw as I drew closer – they stopped as soon as they noticed me coming, the orc pushing himself up to snap a salute while the goblin merely afforded me a curious glance. “Sergeant Hakram?” I checked.
“That would be me,” the orc said in a gravelly voice. “You’re our new lieutenant, then?”
“Lieutenant Callow,” I agreed, offering my arm.
Hakram let out a pleased rumble at the gesture and clasped my forearm. “The little pipsqueak next to me is Sergeant Robber, from the Fourth line.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant,” the goblin greeted me. “I should get back to my men before Pickler realizes I’m gone. Luck in battle, Hakram.”
“Wade in their blood, Robber,” her sergeant replied in one of the most common orc forms of farewell. The goblin scuttled away around the hill after offering me an amusingly sloppy salute.
“So which company did you transfer from, Lieutenant?” Hakram asked.
“I’m new,” I replied. “Never been in any before.”
“Gods be kind,” Hakram cursed. “The Captain’s going to have a fit. We’re already at the bottom of the rankings and now we get a greenie?” The orc paused before shooting me an almost apologetic look. “No offence meant, it’s just that a seasoned Lieutenant might have made a difference tomorrow,” he continued. “We’re up against First Company, and they get to be on defence too.”<
“None taken,” I replied, a little bemused. “First Company’s that good?”
“They haven’t lost a single game,” Hakram grimaced. “Captain Juniper’s called the Hellhound for a reason.”
“They’re pitting the best company against the worst?” I mused. “That hardly seems fair.”
“Luck of the draw,” the sergeant offered ruefully. “Ratface’s been cursing his heart out since the moment he pulled our number.”
“The Captain’s name is Ratface?” I grinned, letting out a startled laugh. I knew that anyone who enrolled in the Legions could do it under the name of their choice, but who in the Hundred Hells would choose the name Ratface? Hakram grinned back, the sight made more than a little intimidating by his razor-sharp teeth.
“I heard the instructors assigned him to Rat Company just for the irony,” the orc said. “You should probably head out to the officer’s meeting, Lieutenant. I’ll take care of the watch rotations for the night.”
“The command tent’s on the other side of the hill, right?”
“It’s got a standard with rat skulls hanging off it,” Hakram grinned. “Can’t miss it.”
I offered the orc a salute he mirrored crisply and took the dirt trail up the hill. The legionary armour felt surprisingly light on my shoulders, after a month of traipsing around in plate, even with the thick rectangular shield strapped on my back. I missed my own sword already, but I supposed to keep a low profile while at the College and carrying around anything but standard-issue stock was a sure way to draw unwanted questions. Unlike some of the legionaries I’d read about, Rat Company didn’t seem equipped with the lever-action crossbows. They were probably meant to be an assault company, then.
Like my sergeant had said, the command tent was impossible to miss. It was twice as large as anyone else’s, for a start, and even if I’d somehow managed to miss the standard next to it the War College’s crossed silver swords were sown into the fabric on every side. There was a pair of legionaries standing guard by the entrance but after a cursory glance at the twin red stripes on my shoulder they let me through without a word. Four armoured legionaries were crouched by a crate someone had nailed a map to, most of them looking up at the sound of my coming in. I glanced through the room, noting that only half of the lieutenants attending were human. The only attending goblin was still tracing something on the edge of the map with her crooked fingers, looking almost comically small next to the thick, muscled orc at her side. A strikingly handsome boy with grey eyes and olive skin gave me a brief once-over before letting out a displeased grunt.
“You’d be Lieutenant Callow, I expect?” he asked.
“Reporting for duty, Captain…” I trailed off, wondering if I should actually call him by the name I’d been given. It had seemed amusing when talking with Hakram, but now it was turning out more along the lines of awkward.
>“Ratface,” the captain finished curtly. “You weren’t in the College rolls before being assigned to Rat Company. Would I be correct in assuming you’re a greenhorn?”
“I’ve seen combat before,” I replied. “And not with blunted swords either.”
“Have you now?” Ratface smiled, looking anything but friendly. “Good for you. Unfortunately that’s worth shit to me, Lieutenant. I don’t care if you castrated an ogre in single combat, you’re still a godsdamned greenie legionary they saddled me with on the day before an exercise with the First Company.”
I took a deep breath, wondering if punching my superior officer in his fat sneering face on the first day of my assignment would leave a black mark on my record. It probably would, so I forced my anger down for the moment. Let him whine all he wanted, I’d show what I was worth on the battlefield.
“More dead weight,” the large greenskin lieutenant cursed softly in Kharsum. “Just what we needed.”
My eyes flashed with quicksilver anger. I only had so much patience to spend. “You’re awfully mouthy for an unblooded boy,” I replied in the same language. “Looking for a fight?”
The orc barked out a laugh. “Hard words,” he grinned dangerously. “Keep a lid on it, greenie, it’d be a shame if I had to knock those pretty little human teeth out.”
The captain sighed, passing a hand through his short curls.
“Nauk, stop flirting with the rookie,” he said in Mthethwa, “we’ve got more pressing matters on our hands. Take a seat, Lieutenant. I suppose it’s not your fault you were assigned to us.”
Accepting the tacit apology, I gave a nod in response and went to crouch over the map with the others. The parchment laid out the cluster of hills Rat Company was camping in with the rocky outcroppings at our back as well as the valley separating us from the old fort I’d passed by earlier.
“Juniper will have the valley between us full of scouts,” Ratface announced, “but our best chance is still hitting them tonight. If we try a night assault tomorrow it’s a sure bet they’ll have had time to set up an ambush. Kilian, what did your men see when they got a look earlier?”
A short red-haired lieutenant cleared her throat and pointed out the watchtower in the middle of the valley. “There were at least two lines there setting up bonfires,” the girl murmured. “If we manage to take them out without too many losses we might actually have a shot at taking the fort.”
“My sappers have enough smokers to clog up a whole wall,” the goblin lieutenant said. “The melee for the rampart will be messy after we land the ladders, but if the lieutenant holding the wall panics we have a decent shot at punching through to the standard.”
“Nauk,” Ratface addressed the orc. “Your men will take the first wave of the assault. Callow, you’ll be right behind him.”
“Understood,” I replied.
“Sergeant Hakram knows his business. Frankly, I’d rather have him as lieutenant for your line but life is ever full of disappointments,” the captain continued. “If he tells you you’re doing something stupid, listen to him.” After a last lingering look at the map, Ratface spat in the dirt and raised his head to look us in the eyes. “We’ll get moving two hours before dawn,” he informed the assembled officers. “Keep your lines on half-watch, I want our soldiers as rested as they can be for the fight. I’ll see you all in a few hours.” We rose and saluted, exiting the tent one by one and leaving the captain to his map.