“Please, do keep digging your own grave. I look forward to your splendidly inevitable demise.”
– Dread Emperor Benevolent the First
Two hundred swords rose up in the air, both companies standing at attention in the plain below the hills where a bell ago my band of survivors had been making their desperate last stand. Hakram grinned at me from where he stood in the ranks and I winked back as Ratface and I walked towards Juniper. The orc in question looked like she’d been force-fed a barrel of lemons, but she was pressing on gamely. The Taghreb captain had earlier informed me be there was a ritual involved to the declaration of victory and that I should follow his lead until I learned how it went. Nauk had seemed surprised when Ratface had told the officers of Rat Company I’d be with him during the process, the lot of them exchanging meaningful looks I wasn’t quite sure what to make of.
“Hellhound,” he greeted Juniper as he clasped her arm. “Not how we expected this one to go, huh?”
First Company’s captain growled under her breath.
“Gonna be a while before I live this down,” she replied frankly. “I might have to break Morok’s nose again if he gloats. Let’s get this over with.”
She turned towards her legionaries, unsheathing her sword.
“One sin,” she called out abruptly.
“DEFEAT,” they thundered back
Ratface took out his own blade, facing our men.
“One grace,” he yelled.
“VICTORY,” they chorused back, slapping their swords against their shields with an enthusiasm that drowned out everything else.
The scowl on Juniper’s face was the stuff of nightmares as she handed her blade to Ratface, handle first. The handsome boy took it but, after a heartbeat, handed it to me. There hadn’t been any mention of this in the books but then they were about the Legions themselves, not the College. Silence fell over the crowd until Rat Company burst out in another roaring cheer. My eyes flicked to my captain, whose face was an odd mixture of resignation and amusement.
“Hand it back to her,” he whispered.
I did, and Juniper slammed it back into her scabbard before striding away. We were… done, I guessed? I turned to Ratface.
“So we just head back to Ater, now? Seems anticlimactic,” I mused.
He grinned. “Silly greenie,” he replied. “Now comes the fun part. We spend the night here, and the extra rations should have arrived.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Extra rations?”
He smirked. “Ever tried aragh, Callow? There’s a reason us Taghreb aren’t fucking miserable all the time like the Soninke.”
Night had fallen, and the site of Rat Company’s original defeat had turned into a giant feast. Fire pits had been dug and entire pigs put to roast while barrels of dark ale flowed freely. Legionaries from both companies mingled freely, clustering around great bonfires. Nobody seemed to be holding grudges over beating each other bloody during the game, which I supposed made sense if they were held every week. I took a sip from the cup of milky white liquor I’d been handed and immediately started coughing, much to Nauk’s amusement.
“Gods Below, what is that stuff?” I croaked out.
“We call it dragon’s milk,” the other lieutenant replied, easily polishing off the rest of his cup. “If you drink enough it’s possible to set your breath on fire.”
“Bullshit,” I decided, pulling at it again. It was easier to swallow the second time.
“I tell no lie,” the massive orc laughed. “Some mage from Vulture Company did it last year, had to spend three weeks with the healers to get her throat fixed.”
“People made dragon noises whenever she came into a room for the rest of the year,” Ratface grinned from his seat on the other side of the fire.
“If you think this is hard stuff, you should try orc liquor some time,” Hakram weighed in. “Some sappers use it as cleaning fluid for the catapults.”
“I haven’t been in this company for a week and my sergeant is already trying to kill me,” I mourned.
There was a round of laughter and I smiled at the warmth coursing through my veins. Unlike most of the older girls in my dormitory, I’d never gone drinking on the beach with the guys from the boy’s orphanage down the street. I’d tasted enough drinks at the Nest that the novelty had worn off, and most of the time I had better things to do. Scraping together enough gold for tuition at the College wasn’t going to happen on its own. Still, this was… nice. I wasn’t sure I’d call any of the other three friends, but for all that they were easy to like. What does it say about me that I find it easier to laugh with the Empire’s freshest batch of killers than my own people?
“Looking grim there, Callow,” Ratface noted. “Thinking heavy thoughts?”
“Remembering home,” I half-lied.
“You’re from Laure, aren’t you?” Hakram guessed. “You’ve got the accent.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I am,” I agreed. “But how would you know what a Laurean accent sounds like?”
“Our history teacher is from there,” Nauk said. “Used to be part of the Thirteenth.”
Ah, the famous Traitor Legion. Legio XIII, Auxilia. It had been raised in the wake of the Conquest, made up mostly of former bandits and mercenaries. Every Callowan with a grudge against the throne had flocked to the banner, and they’d been instrumental in making sure the south surrendered after the fall of the capital – the prospect of that band of armed malcontents sacking their way through the southern cities had been utterly horrifying to the few remaining nobles. Before I could comment on the subject, though, a band of drunken legionaries passed right behind us singing at the top of their lungs.
“- they got a wizard in the West
But no matter how he’s blessed
We got a Warlock in the Tower
Who’ll use his bones for flour
Let them keep their priestly king
Cause no matter how sweet he sings
We’ve got an Empress black as sin
Who’ll take his throne and grin
We’re the Legion and the Terror
They’re in the right but we’re meaner-”
That was perhaps the most horribly sung rendition of the Legionary’s Song I’d ever heard, and I’d heard some pretty bad ones. They continued towards the closest barrel of ale, singing the last couplet until they ended on the customarily yelled we’re gonna swallow the world whole. The old marching song had always been popular with the rank and file, penned by some unnamed legionary during the Conquest. From the unsurprised looks on everyone’s face, this was apparently a common event.
“The thing with Praesi,” I started.
Hakram rasped out an amused laugh, biting into his pork, and Ratface rolled his eyes.
“The thing with Praesi,” I pressed on bravely. “Is that you have so many godsdamned rituals. Like that thing with the grace and sin earlier. What was that even about?”
Ratface grinned, which suited him much better than his usual sour expression. He really was a handsome one, if a little delicate-looking compared to my usual tastes.
“You’ve never heard of the Speech at the Fields?” he asked. “That’s the thing with Callowans, you always leave out the best parts of history.”
I blinked. “You mean the Fields of Streges?”
Nauk flashed me a double-row of pearly whites.
“Those are the ones. The Black Knight spoke to the Legions, before the battle,” he gravelled. “Every kid knows the words.”
“Today we set aside Good and Evil,” Hakram quoted with reverence. “There is only one sin, defeat. There is only one grace, victory. Everything else is meaningless.”
I sometimes forgot that the man who’d claimed me as his student was the same one from all the legends. Back home the Calamities were the monsters under the bed but here in Wasteland it was different. All of them were treated like giants among men, the epitome of all it meant to be Praesi.
“Huh,” I mused, taking another sip of dragon’s milk. “Well, I learned something today.”
“That and I named you captain of Rat Company,” Ratface continued airily.
I sprayed out the alcohol, to the delight of all the assholes surrounding me.
“Why did you think he handed you Juniper’s sword?” Hakram asked, cocking his head to the side. “He was acknowledging it was your victory. No offence, Ratface.”
The olive-skinned boy snorted. “I spent the entire game as a prisoner, Hakram. The truth’s the truth.”
“This is stupid,” I objected vehemently. “All I know about the Legions I learned second-hand. I’ve never even set foot in the College!”
The now former captain of Rat Company shrugged.
“Twelve losses and you lose the captainship. That’s the rule. I didn’t win this, Callow. In fact I lost pretty badly. Your win, your claim. That’s what that entire scene was about, when it comes down to it.”
“You’ve got other lieutenants,” I pointed out. “Who might feel a little slighted they got passed over for the promotion.”
Ratface turned to face Nauk.
“Are you feeling particularly slighted, Lieutenant Nauk?” he asked.
“We ain’t so thin-skinned as you monkeys, taking offence at everything,” the large orc scoffed before addressing me. “Callow, the reason Ratface ended up Captain in the first place was that none of the lieutenants want to be.”
The boy in question shrugged. “Not that I particularly wanted the job either, but my marks are the highest in the company.”
I was about to muster up another denial when Hakram intervened.
“It’s only for two months, Callow,” he grunted. “We’re graduating soon, and our points are so badly in the negatives it’s not like you could do much damage anyway.”
“Fine,” I surrendered. “But I want my objections on the record.”
“To Captain Callow, then,” Nauk toasted, raising his cup.
“May she manage to have us graduate slightly less in the negatives,” Ratface replied cheerfully.
It was a horrible toast, but we all drank anyway.
I wasn’t sure how much time passed when I found myself wandering away from the fire to get my hands on a fresh bottle of aragh. Nauk had disappeared at least half a bell ago when he saw Lieutenant Pickler pass by, running off after her while we all jeered at him and Hakram made some very suggestive comments about his canine length. Apparently that was a thing with orcs? He was replaced almost immediately by Sergeant Nilin. The dark-skinned boy was quiet one, compared to the others, but he had a wry sense of humour that was almost Callowan. I supposed it made sense for Nauk’s sergeant to be more grounded, given the large orc’s tendency for impulsive decisions. Ratface passed out by the time we’d polished off our second bottle of dragon’s milk and I was officially mandated by the survivors to get us a new one before we did the same. It hadn’t occurred to anyone, including myself, that I had no idea where to get one. I headed for the latrines first anyway, only to find a grim-looking orc waiting for me when I came out.
“Captain Callow,” Captain Juniper said flatly. “Let’s take a walk.”
I followed the Hellhound to the edge of the festivities, too drunk to be nervous but sober enough to be wary. We ended up standing at the top of the tallest slope, where a few bells before Juniper had tried to bury me under an avalanche of logs – the wood in question was still at the bottom of the hill, mostly intact.
“You have a Name,” the captain of First Company spoke.
It was not a question.
“That’s quite an assumption to make,” I replied anyway. “For all you know, my family might have a long tradition of being great jumpers.”
It might even be true, though admittedly the odds weren’t that great.
“I’ve seen Roles in action before,” Juniper denied me sharply. “Don’t take me for an idiot.”
I probably should have put in a little more effort into that parry, I admitted ruefully to myself. I’d been lulled into a sense of false security by the fact that no one had called me out on the fact that I’d done something that bordered on the limits of human capabilities – part of it, I assumed, was that few people had been looking at me except for Juniper and her personal line. For something done in broad daylight, there’d been surprisingly few witnesses.
“Everything’s possible,” I finally said, deciding that vagueness was still the way to go. I’d been supposed to keep a low profile, after all. “Are you here to complain that made the fight unfair?”
The orc eyed me like I’d just sprouted wings.
“This is practice for a real war,” she said slowly. “Fair doesn’t factor in it. Anyhow, I should have seen it coming. An unknown stranger with an obviously fake name takes a rank in the lowest-ranked company on the edge of their twelfth defeat? Name bait. I should have sent two lines to bury you on the first night just in case.”
“Yeah, that would probably have worked,” I admitted.
The greenskin captain’s eyes narrowed.
“So not a Name that’s overwhelmingly strong,” she murmured in that smoky voice of hers. “Something transitional, maybe?”
Juniper, I noticed, did not smell of alcohol at all. Had she been waiting for me to get drunk before we had this conversation? I would have admired that kind of patient ruthlessness, if it hadn’t been directed at me.
“Something that’s supposed to stay quiet,” I replied briskly.
“You’re the Squire,” the Hellhound realized after a heartbeat. “You’re the girl who set half of Summerholm on fire just to smoke out a hero.”
She eyed me up and down, like she had a hard time reconciling what was apparently my reputation with the person standing before her.
“Why do people keep blaming me for the goblinfire?” I complained, deciding that at his point the deception was so flimsy it wasn’t even worth it to keep trying. “I’m not the one who was throwing munitions around!”
“I’m sure you weren’t,” Juniper replied, clearly not believing a word of what I’d said. “So the Squire, huh. No wonder you ended up being a pivot for Rat Company.”
I really wished people would stop using words out of the blue and somehow keep expecting me to know exactly what they were talking about. It always made me feel like an idiot when I had to ask.
“A pivot,” I repeated, flavouring the words with an invitation to elaborate.
Juniper frowned, which I’d always thought looked strange on orcs – they had no hair on their brows, only thick ridges of skin.
“Your ignorance offends me on a personal level,” the other captain informed me. “How can you not know what a pivot is? It’s basic Name knowledge.”
“Hey! I’m new at this,” I defended myself. “And my teacher’s a bit of an ass. He never tells me anything outright. I think me might be physically incapable of not being cryptic.”
“Did you just call the Black Knight an ass?” Juniper replied, aghast.
“He really is,” I told her frankly.
“Lord Black is the best thing to happen to the Empire in centuries,” the Hellhound glared.
“Are you blushing?” I asked. “It’s hard to tell in the dark.”
“You’re seeing things,” Juniper growled. “Fine, I’ll educate you. Names are stories.”
“I do know that much,” I said with a roll of the eyes.
I was familiar with the look she got at that – it was the face someone made whenever they were asking their deities of choice for patience.
“The stories have been around since the dawn of Creation, meaning there’s an endless variety of ways they can go. A pivot is a point in time or a decision where the Named pushes her story in a particular direction. It influences the kind of powers you develop.”
Mhm. Had I ever had one of those? My little talk with Heiress, maybe. Otherwise I couldn’t think of-
“Oh,” I spoke. “Oh.”
“I fucked up,” I admitted out loud. “Today was the first time in weeks I’ve been able to tap into my Name, and I think I just realized why.”
“That ought to be illuminating,” Juniper sneered. “Do continue.”
“So a pivot is the beginning of a plot in the story, right?” I mumbled.
“Truly, your insight is an awe-inspiring thing,” the Hellhound commented.
I glared at her, but she was magnificently unconcerned.
“So take a boy and a girl, of roughly the same age. They’re on opposite sides. The boy doesn’t take a golden opportunity to finish the girl when he has it, and after she gets her shit together and beats him she also spares him.”
“The girl’s on the side of Evil?” Juniper asked, eyes much too knowing for my comfort.
“Something like that,” I grimaced.
“That’s a redemption story,” the Hellhound opined.
It was. I’d heard a dozen different tales that went that way, all with the same pattern. Spared on the first fight, an even match on the second and the climactic third meeting ended up with the conflicted evildoer changing sides after an impassioned speech by the hero or the heroine. No wonder my Name threw a shitfit. I looked back on the way I’d reacted to the hangings in Summerholm, and I could see I’d been… influenced. Not by much: most of the disgust I’d felt then I still felt, but my reaction had been too strong. I’d been nudged just a little to the side of my usual mindset, and the realization sickened me. I’d been pulled by my own mind in two different directions, and the effect had been bad enough I’d ended up weeping my eyes out in an alley.
“I’m going to smother him with his own intestines,” I spoke into the night, tone cold as ice.
The Lone Swordsman had muddled my free will. Unforgivable. Not even Mazus had tried to rob me from who I was, and he’d hanged for what he’d done. My fingers clenched and I felt hatred twist my stomach. Juniper’s face was unreadable.
“We’re done here,” she finally said. “Go to sleep, Callow. We’ve got a long march ahead of us tomorrow.”
I stumbled into my tent, my good mood evaporated into thin air. The others would have to soldier on without me, I didn’t feel like keeping company with anyone at the moment. Besides, Juniper was right. The hangover I was headed for would already make the march back to Ater a painful affair, there was no need to add to it. My bedroll was where I’d left it, blessedly unrolled. There was, however, a small bowl next it. I knelt on the ground to take a closer look. It was unadorned wood, full of water and with a small piece of granite incrusted at the bottom. Was it supposed to be symbolic of something, or had someone put it here by mistake? The answer came when the water rippled, the barely-visible reflection of my own face turning into the profile of my teacher as a subtle glow lit up the surface.
“Lieutenant Callow,” Black greeted me, his voice sounding like he was speaking from across the room.
“Black,” I replied, not as surprised as I should have been. “This is new.”
“Long-distance scrying. One of Warlock’s more useful tricks,” he acknowledged. “I hear the war game is over?”
“Pulled off a win at the last minute,” I grinned. “Though you seem to be missing a crucial piece of information.”
His brow rose. “And that would be?”
“You are addressing Captain Callow,” I informed him.
His lips twitched. “Well done. We’ll go over your campaign when I return. Which company did you happen to beat?”
“Who do you think? First Company, of course,” I replied haughtily.
“It wouldn’t happen to be headed by an orc girl by the name of Juniper, would it?” he asked.
“You’ve heard of her?” I blinked.
“Istrid keeps bragging about how her eldest is the next Grem One-Eye whenever she gets into her cups,” he murmured. “Well now. Finally I have a retort.”
“General Istrid?” I said, surprised. “She never said anything about being her daughter.”
“I imagine it’s not common knowledge,” Black mused. “She’s rather independent-minded, I’ve been given to understand. Doesn’t want to trade in on the family name.”
I could respect that. The orc captain rose up a notch in my esteem.
“How are things in the south?” I asked, changing the subject. “Are the Matrons giving you trouble?”
“Much to the contrary,” he replied. “The situation’s already taken care of. They even sent an envoy to apologize for not catching on before the situation warranted a Red Letter. I should be back in Ater by tomorrow evening.”
“Good to know,” I grunted. “Am I staying in the College even after you’re back? I’d prefer not to leave Rat Company until graduation, if that’s possible.”
He inclined his head. “I’m inclined to grant that, within reason. You won’t be attending most of the classes – we’ll be continuing our lessons instead.”
I nodded. It was what I’d wanted anyway: I was sure the teachers at the College were competent sorts, but I doubted what they had to offer compared to one-on-one tutelage by the Dread Empress’ right hand.
“Did you have time to look into what I asked you to?” I asked after a breath of hesitation.
“The orphanage is untouched,” he replied. “Not a soul missing. A good thing you killed the other claimants in such spectacular manners, I doubt Heiress would have taken you seriously otherwise.”
“That would have been unfortunate,” I murmured. “Because I meant every word.”
He smiled. “You’re beginning to garner enough of a reputation that you can leverage it. Be careful in managing it. Oh, and there’s one last thing.”
“Now why did you have to say that?” I complained, rubbing the bridge of my nose. “This conversation was going so well.”
He snorted. “Keep your evening free tomorrow, you already have plans.”
“Am I allowed to know what those plans are?” I asked sardonically.
“Of course,” he agreed. “Catherine Foundling is being officially introduced to the Imperial Court.”