Chapter 22: All According To

Diplomacy is the art of selling a deal you don’t want to people you don’t trust for reasons you won’t admit to.”
-Prokopia Lekapene, first Hierarch of the League of Free Cities

“No one goes through the front gate, Callow,” Ratface told me pityingly. “Not unless you have a Name or you’re in disfavour with the Empress.”
“That just bloody figures,” I muttered. “There’s another way in?”
“Try twenty,” Hakram gravelled. “Most of them through tunnels, but the nobles have some fancy gate in the back.”
I scowled, much to the amusement of my officers. I’d missed the communal breakfast for my company, as Black had let me sleep in up to Morning Bell before sending me back. Within moments of setting foot on the grounds my officers had come to ambush me: morning classes had been dismissed because of an announcement that was the talk of the College. A five-way melee had been ordered by the Empress herself, and the participants had been informed in the middle of the meal. We commandeered one of the classrooms to serve as our meeting hall, ushering out the handful of cadets studying inside. There were advantages to Captain rank, even when it was a purely collegial title. My lieutenants clustered together on the same bench as if I was about to start a lesson while Hakram propped himself up on what was likely the teacher’s desk: he was the only sergeant in attendance, since this was theoretically a senior officers’ meeting. No one objected to his presence, not that I would have given in if they had: I’d come to value his advice too much to care if him being around ruffled a few feathers.
“So,” Kilian spoke up, “a five-way melee. Been a while since they organized one of those. I’m guessing it’s not a coincidence that the people in it are the four top companies and little old us?”
I’d paid little attention to the lieutenant of the mage line, when I’d first come across her in Ratface’s tent, and hadn’t see much of her since. Red-haired and pale-skinned, she was an unusual sight this deep in the Wasteland. Likely there’s a story to that. Setting aside my curiosity for the moment I grimaced, leaning back against the desk with my arms folded over my chest.
“There’s other forces at play here,” I told them. “My name, as you might have guessed, is not Callow.”
Pickler cocked her head to the side.
“You’re not actually the Duchess of Daoine’s secret bastard offspring, are you?” she asked flatly.
“I-” I opened my mouth, closed it and then opened it again. “I genuinely don’t know how to respond to that.”
“That’s the most popular rumour as to why the Blackguards picked you up,” Ratface informed me in an irritatingly amused tone. “Ran away to Praes so you could learn war from the best. Very romantic stuff. Until the melee everyone was talking about it.”
“I am not, in fact, the hidden heir to the Duchy of Daoine,” I replied patiently, rubbing the bridge of my nose to stem the no-doubt oncoming headache.
Ratface cursed under his breath, handing a smug-looking Kilian a handful of silver denarii.
“Told you it was Name stuff,” she crowed.
“She doesn’t do magic and there’s already a Squire and Heiress running around,” he argued. “What Name could she possibly have?”
I cleared my throat.
“Yeah, funny thing about that,” I admitted.
Surprisingly, Nauk was the first one to get it.
“You were there when Lord Black hung the Governor, huh,” he grunted. “Well, that explains that.”
A ripple of surprise went through the officers. I’d have to remember not to underestimate how sharp the orc lieutenant was just because he was muscled like a bear and liked punching people in the face. It took more than brawn to make his rank.
“Long story short,” I continued, “I got baited by Heiress and now we’re in this mess. You have my apologies for that.”
“Ah, Imperial politics,” Ratface murmured. “Someone always gets screwed, and never the one who deserves it.”
He got sympathetic looks from the others at that and I made a mental note to get the whole story about why from Hakram later. My sergeant seemed to have an inside track into every story going on in the College and displayed absolutely no reluctance in feeding me the juiciest morsels.
“Something like that,” I agreed. “If Heiress continues to make the same kind of plays she has so far, we might have a company – or more – going for us from the beginning. Girl has deep pockets, and she’s not above bribing her way to victory.”
Pickler shook her head.
“Won’t work,” she assessed. “Not here.”
I raised an eyebrow. Hopefully she wasn’t about to make a speech on the strength of Praesi moral fibre, because so far I’d found the subject less than impressive.
“She’s right,” Ratface agreed. “Anyone takes a bribe for this and their career in the Legions is over.”
I hadn’t considered that, actually. True, my teacher could just put in a quiet word with some of his followers and kill someone’s career if he wanted to. Would he? After a heartbeat I decided he would. It’d be seen as Heiress meddling in his backyard, so he’d have to make an example.
“Even then,” I finally said, “expect sabotage. She wouldn’t have put forward those terms if she didn’t think she could affect the odds.”
“Eh,” Nauk shrugged. “As long as they keep that shit off the battlefield it doesn’t matter, does it? We just need to wreck everyone else.”
“He’s right. This isn’t the kind of war game that can be easily stacked, anyhow,” Pickler murmured. “Too many people in play, too many different priorities.”
The almost adoring look Nauk sent her after the comment forced me to bite down on a smile. I’d never really gotten to see the two of them interacting before but I had no trouble at all believing what Hakram had told me about the large orc having a thing for the goblin lieutenant.
“Which brings me to the point of this little chat,” I broke in after having smoothed my face out of any amusement. “There’s four other captains participating and I’m going to need anything on them you can give me.”
“You sure you need us to tell you anything about the Hellhound?” Kilian mused, dark eyes dancing with amusement. “From what I hear you whipped her pretty bad even without us around.”
I smiled but inside I was wondering about the most polite way to nip this in the bud. I didn’t want to antagonize one of my senior officers within the three days of my getting a command, but underestimating Juniper was a sure-fire way to get spanked so hard our grandkids would still be feeling the sting.
“She actually played me like a fiddle from start to finish,” I admitted, deciding that a little self-deprecation was the way to go. It wasn’t like I’d have to lie to get my point across, or even stretch the truth. “If I hadn’t blindsided her by having a Name she would have won – and she nearly did anyway.”
Ratface cleared his throat, breaking in.
“On the bright side, she’d unlikely to hold a grudge,” he mentioned. “She’ll want to win this one too badly to focus on us: she’ll go for victory, not payback.”
“We can focus on Juniper later,” I agreed. “I think I’ve got a decent read on her anyway, it’s the other three that are unknowns. I only know the name of the guy in charge of Fox Company – Captain Snatcher, right?”
Pickler nodded.
“He’s not going to be an immediate threat,” she spoke quietly, “but we can’t afford to give him time to dig in. He’s turned his entire company into defence specialists – made it mandatory for every single one of his cadets to take the sapper classes.”
Defence, huh? Not the flashiest of specialties but it sounded like it could get troublesome. Snatcher might not meet us on an open plain – tough since I had no idea what our battlefield would look like, I had no idea whether we’d even have one of those handy – but recent history was full of stories making it very clear that giving Legion sappers the time to set up surprises always ended nastily for the attacker.
“Anyone assaulting a position he’s fortified is going to take brutal losses,” Hakram gravelled from my side. “That might be enough to lay the groundwork for cooperation with another company, at least until he’s out.”
“Something to think about,” I mused. “What are we looking at, in terms of allies?”
“Captain Aisha Bishara is our best bet,” Ratface contributed immediately, “she runs Wolf Company.”
Bishara. I’d heard the name before – hadn’t Juniper mentioned it last night? There was a wave of snickering by the others. Even Pickler cracked a smile.
“I bet you’d like to ally with her, all right,” Nauk grinned.
I raised an eyebrow and sent Hakram a quizzical look.
“They were involved,” my sergeant informed me. “She dumped him a few months back and he’s still in denial.”
“She didn’t dump me, you green arse,” Ratface scowled. “We’re just on a break until we’re less busy with things.”
“Like I said,” Hakram continued with a sagely nod. “Still in denial.”
“All right, let’s table further mockery of Lieutenant Ratface for the moment,” I replied with a wry smile. “Who’s our last contender?”
“Captain Morok,” Kilian spoke up. “Head of Lizard Company. They’re second in company rankings, so he’ll be wanting the Hellhound’s head on a pike.”
“They’ve got a feud running?” I asked my officers.
“Not really,” Ratface said. “Well, maybe him – he takes things personally. They’re nearly head to head in points, so if he wins this and Juniper loses he’ll climb up to first rank. It’s his last year before graduation, so he won’t be getting another chance.”
“That’s something I can use,” I muttered, passing a hand through my hair.
I’d braided it into a semblance of order this morning, but I might have to cut it soon. It was getting too long, and it was awkward to wear under a legionary helmet. Hakram cleared his throat, which made him sound like he was retching out half a desert.
“Have you decided how many points we’re going to be bidding, Captain?” he asked.
I frowned.
“Bidding? That’s the first I’m hearing of this.”
Kilian folded her hands together. “Instructor Bolade said we’re supposed to bid a set amount of points. If we win the melee, we’ll gain that many – and if we lose, we’ll lose that many.”
“An exercise in calculating risk, she called it,” Pickler contributed quietly.
I could see how. Company scores, as I understood, were not the affair of a single batch of cadets: they were a legacy inherited by the next one. All scores were set back to zero every decade, but considering the last reset had been two years ago a large bid that failed could haunt a company for a very long time. Nobody wanted to leave a mess like that behind and be remembered as the captain that tried to bite off more than they could chew, screwing over the next two batches of cadets. Which reminded me, I still had no idea what Rat Company’s score actually was.
“I know we’re in the negatives,” I said, “but how far down are we? Seventeen, twenty?”
Ratface closed his eyes, his face flushed.
“Forty-two,” he muttered.
I kept my face smooth, almost grateful for the refresher course in doing exactly that the Court had turned out to be. Forty-two? A win in the war games was a two point gain, a defeat a two point loss. A draw was a one point gain for the defender and a one point loss for the attacker. I knew Ratface had lost twelve in a row and that Rat Company hadn’t been doing well even before that, but I hadn’t expected them to be stuck that deep down the well. It meant that even before the Taghreb had been put in charge the company had been losing far, far more often than they won. I could see the embarrassment in the face of my officers, the shame of having let their standing fall so far, but now was not the time for self-recrimination.
“That’s a relief,” I said.
Ratface blinked. “Pardon?” he asked.
I smiled. “With that kind of a handicap, I feel a lot more comfortable in using some of my more… debatable ideas.”
Nauk laughed, apparently delighted at the prospect. Pickler was hard to read, but Kilian looked like she was wondering whether to be insulted or amused.
“Hopefully it doesn’t involve jumping logs this time,” Hakram muttered. “That hasn’t been a winner for me so far.”
I shot my sergeant an amused look.
“I’m sure I could find a drill, if you’d like,” I mused. “Always be prepared, right?”
“I seem to recall having urgent duties anywhere but here,” the tall orc replied. “I really should go see to them.”
I snorted. “All right, dismissed. Get the company ready, we don’t have a lot of time.”
They slid off the bench one by one, saluting before going through the door. Hakram shot me a questioning look, but I gestured for him to go. It was Ratface’s shoulder I clasped to hold him back.
“So you’re our supply guy,” I said, drumming my fingers against the desk, leaning back against it.
Ratface shrugged, his handsome features highlighting the absurdity of his chosen name.
“Something like that,” he agreed. “Usually it’s the captain’s job to handle this stuff, but you have enough on your plate already.”
Didn’t I just?
“I got a sealed letter from the Headmistress this morning, before I got back to the College. It specifies what quantity of stuff we’re allowed to requisition for the melee, with caps for types of goblin munitions,” I told him. “I’m considering our options, and you know your way around the College stocks a lot better than I do.”
The olive-skinned boy straightened his back, interest piqued.
“You’ve got something particular in mind?” he asked.
“We’ll get to that later,” I replied. “When we passed the stocks earlier I noticed that they have a parchment nailed down with what they have available on it. I want you to send someone to copy it. I’m guessing the other captains are doing the same.”
The grey-eyed lieutenant raised an eyebrow.
“You want to know what the others will be taking into the melee,” he said.
“It should give us an idea of the way they intend to go at it,” I acknowledged. “But what I really want to know is if there’s a way to get anything without going through the College stocks.”
Ratface paused, eyeing me very carefully.
“Not… officially,” he said. “But I might know a few people. Why? It’d be a lot of effort, and we can’t take more than allowed onto the field. More than that, the others will notice we haven’t drawn as much from the stocks as we can – they’ll know something is up.”
“They will,” I noted, “unless we draw up to our limit until the last possible moment. Then we return our surplus, and…”
“They’ll go into the match with wrong information about what we’re carrying,” Ratface finished thoughtfully. “I’ll talk with my friends. Get back to me as soon as you have hard numbers.”
I nodded.
“Another two things,” I added. “Send someone to the College archives. I want everything you have on the old melees. There’s also records of more recent games, right?”
Ratface nodded.
“I want a record of every game Juniper was a captain for,” I grunted. “As quickly as possible.”
“Anything else?” the lieutenant asked drily.
“Well, since you asked,” I mused. “I’ll need a guide for the day. I have a few people to meet.”

It seemed that having a vicious sense of humour might be a widespread Praesi trait instead of just my teacher’s: the guide Ratface had assigned me was Robber.
“He’ll be easy to recognize, Cap,” the goblin said. “Just look for the ugliest orc in the training yard, can’t miss him.”
The grounds we were headed to weren’t inside the College, though they were close. It was apparently possible to reserve them for a bell if you signed up with one of the instructors, and aside from First Company the Lizards were the company whose name came most often on the list.
“Is that so,” I said neutrally.
“Now, as is well known,” Robber told me in a tone implying he was about to impart a fundamental truth of life, “orcs are the ugliest creatures in Creation as well as the dumbest. But Morok is in a class in and of himself, as is only fitting for a captain. His face has been known to scare goats and make children cry.”
“Isn’t Hakram one of your friends?” I asked mildly. “And, you know, an orc.”
“He’s an honorary goblin,” the yellow-eyed sergeant replied without missing a beat. “One of these days I’ll get around to adopting him into the Rock Breaker tribe as my ugly but still-beloved son.”
I must have been a bad person, deep down, because I actually found the little shit kind of funny. Regardless, we’d arrived. A wall about a man’s height encircled the yard, though I could hear the sound of metal against metal coming from inside. A pair of human cadets flanked the main entrance, eyeing us distrustfully. Or not actually us, I noticed after a moment. They were both glaring at Robber.
“What did you do?” I asked with a sigh.
“Nothing,” the goblin sergeant protested.
“I’m sure those rats got into our dormitory all by themselves,” a dark-skinned boy said through gritted teeth.
“They must have heard you lot talking shit about Rat Company and gotten confused,” the small goblin grinned maliciously. “You know how small-brained creatures get, I’m sure.”
The other cadet, Soninke as well, let her hand drop to her sword.
“You utter prick,” she snarled. “One of them bit my-”
I cleared my throat, loudly. “Robber, go wait down the street. Cadets, I’m Captain Callow. I’d like to talk with Captain Morok.”
They exchanged looks. “He said-” the boy started.
“A visit by another Captain qualifies,” the girl grunted. “You might have to wait until he’s done, though.”
I nodded and granted Robber a steady look.
“Try not to get stabbed, Sergeant,” I ordered.
I was halfway through the doorway when I heard him call back “no promises!” I bit my cheek so I wouldn’t smile. The inside of the yard was beaten earth with weapon racks propped against the walls, though lines of ground chalk had been traced to form some patterns I vaguely recognized from my lectures on the Legions. Formation drills. There were benches between the racks and most of the hundred or so legionaries inside were sitting on them, watching two people fight in the middle of the yard.
One was a Taghreb girl, the largest I’d seen since Captain – meaty and thick-shouldered where her people were usually slight of frame. The other, who was currently hammering at her shield with his own, was the ugliest orc I’d ever seen. Godsdamnit, Robber. He wasn’t wearing his helmet so I could see from the occasional grin that his teeth were yellowish. His eyes were dark and deep-set, and I couldn’t help but notice he had a large brownish mole just above his lip that was almost fascinatingly hideous. Like most orcs Captain Morok was heavily-muscled, but where the likes of Hakram and Nauk were in perfect shape he had something a pot-belly.
Not that it seemed to be hindering him any: he was winning the fight, and pretty handily. Slower than Juniper, I assessed, and his movements were kind of sloppy. But the girl he was fighting looked like she was getting kicked by a horse every time he hit her, and he battered her defence down until she was kneeling in the dirt. There was a cheer when he helped her up afterwards, and I leaned against the wall as another legionary walked up to the pair. They talked, too far away for me to overhear, and Morok glanced in my direction. Spitting on the ground, he shoved his sword and shield in the cadet’s hands before beginning to walk towards me.
“Captain fucking Callow, is it?” he leered, passing me by to pick up a water skin off a bench.
Popping off the cork, he took a long swallow – some of the water trickled off his lips onto his chin, mixing with the sweat already there.
“That’s me,” I agreed.
“You’re a skinny thing, for the heiress to Daoine,” he snorted.
“This is going to be worse than the goblinfire, isn’t it?” I sighed.
The captain’s eyes sharpened. “What’s that?”
“Nothing,” I grunted. “No relation to Duchess Kegan, it’s just a rumour.”
“Sure it is,” he smirked.
It occurred to me then that he was being rude on purpose. Pushing me to see how I’d react, like I’d once done to fighters in the Pit. The thought was comforting: I might have been a long way from home, but some things stayed the same. And I know how to deal with his type.
“So, you’re Juniper’s runner-up,” I mused. “Must sting, that she whipped your lot like children when Rat Company pulled off a win.”
Morok smiled, showing off yellow but still very sharp fangs.
“Did your little helper Ratface tell you what I did to your company last time we fought?” he asked. “Didn’t even use munitions and we still took the fort. First time it ever happened, I’m told.”
I now had no problem whatsoever understanding why Robber had flooded their dormitory with disease-carrying rodents. Pushing down the flash of anger, I raised a hand in peace.
“We could do this all day,” I acknowledged, “but we’ve got better things to do.”
I do, anyway,” Morok snickered. “So why the fuck are you here, greenie?”
“Because I beat Juniper,” I stated flatly. “And she’s not the kind of person that takes that lying down.”
The other captain wiggled his hairless brows in a thoroughly horrifying gesture.
“You and the Hellhound lying down, now there’s an image,” he said.
Ripping out one of his teeth and jamming it in that fat ugly mole wouldn’t help me, I told myself. Id’t be deeply satisfying, but it wouldn’t help me.
“You’re second in rankings,” I gritted out. “If anyone else wants a shot at her, it’s you.”
Morok shrugged.
“Could be,” he said. “What’s that got to do with you?”
I narrowed my eyes. He wasn’t an idiot – he wouldn’t be a close second in company scores if that was the case. But he was deliberately ignoring the offer I’d implied. Why? My mind raced, and the answer I settled on had me tightening my lips. He thinks we’ll weaken First Company just enough for him to pick them off afterwards. He’s not interested in working together, he just wants us to tear at each other so his position’s stronger regardless of the result. Hellgods, I was sick of being used as a piece in other people’s games.
“She’d beat us,” I admitted. It was the truth: in a straight fight, First Company would walk over us like we were a freshly-paved Miezan road. “But Morok, here’s the thing: if I’m going down, I’m taking everyone else with me.”
The fat orc eyed me cautiously.
“I’m not getting into a fight I can’t win,” I said. “So we’ll surrender – and before getting the Hells off that field, I’ll clap her on the back and hand her all our munitions.”
He only half-managed to suppress his wince. Fighting First Company was one thing, but fighting a First Company at full strength with twice the amount of goblin munitions? There wasn’t a force on the field that’d be able to take Juniper then, and we both knew who she’d be headed for.
“It’d take someone with no pride to flop belly-up like that,” he growled.
I shrugged.
“I’m Callowan, Morok,” I spoke in Kharsum. “I’ve spent my entire life with an Imperial boot pushing down on my throat. How proud do you really think I am?”
The captain spat again, the fat gob of saliva coming dangerously close to my boots.
“So we ream her together,” he conceded in the same tongue. “But that’s all, Callow. You’re not riding this one on my coattails. The moment we withdraw from the field, the truce is done.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” I agreed.
I offered up my arm. After a moment, he clasped it.

I’d learned from the last trip and left Robber at a street corner close by.
“Tea?”
Captain Aisha Bishara was taller than me, I was chagrined to notice. Was it too much to ask to meet at least one military officer that was shorter? One that wasn’t a goblin, anyway.
“Please,” I replied.
She was rather pretty, in that way some Taghreb were. With a lovely heart-shaped face, tanned skin and wide dark eyes, I could easily see how she would have caught Ratface’s eye. Her hair was cut in short bob, though strictly speaking it was still longer than Legion regulations allowed. Then again, so’s mine. Like Morok she’d been rather easy to find: it was common knowledge she had a private room set aside in the Sword and Cup for her personal use. The busy tavern wasn’t the kind of place I would have expected a girl of her apparently noble origins to adopt as her unofficial headquarters, but then I supposed that if she’d been the kind of person who cared for that stuff she would never have gone to the College in the first place. Aisha poured for both of us, elegantly setting aside the porcelain tea cup when she was done. Hospitality was a point of pride for the Taghreb, I remembered Captain telling me. An old tradition from before the days the first Miezan galley had ever reached the Wasteland’s shore, and one that was central to the southern culture in many respects.
“Captain Callow,” the dark-eyed girl mused. “So you’re Ratface’s replacement.”
I felt a flicker of unease at that, though it never reached my face. Her involvement with the boy I’d replaced as captain of Rat Company had been mostly a source of amusement so far, but it occurred to me for the first time that she might have an issue with me replacing her – former? – paramour.
“So they keep telling me,” I said prudently. “Is it going to be an issue?”
She blinked, though that was the only sign of surprise she gave. That was what I hated about dealing with Praesi: you could dump a bucket full of sheep heads on one’s table and you wouldn’t get much more than a frown out of them. Trying to get a read on the nobility of the Wasteland was like trying to dry a godsdamned lake.
“Why would – Hakram, you gossipy bitch,” she cursed in a low voice.
I hid a grin. In other circumstances I might have tried to defend my favourite minion but he really was a gossip. Aisha let out a frustrated sigh.
“Look, Callow,” she addressed me flatly. “If he was cut out for that kind of command the Rats wouldn’t have lost as much as they did. It was right for him to be replaced. One sin, one grace.”
The last four words she’d said with the fervour of a woman at prayer, which would have gotten a pained grimace out of me if I weren’t already working on keeping my expression neutral. I was as good as apprenticed to the man who’d introduced that philosophy to the Legions, and that was why I could grasp how utterly terrifying it was. Black had indoctrinated the better part of a generation into thinking that morality was irrelevant to the battlefield: the only things that mattered when the swords came out were victory and defeat. When the next war came, and I had no doubt that one was coming, there would no blundering generals at the head of the Legions. The coming generation of Evil would not fall apart on its own. They’ve been taught that winning matters more than anything else, and they’re not above breaking the world if that’s the only way to own it.
“So I’ve heard,” I muttered.
“But I doubt you came to speak about my love life, Callow,” Aisha said pleasantly. “What is it you actually want?”
Ah, and now came the tricky part. Time to get my head in the game.
“I’m more interested in talking about what you want, Aisha,” I replied with a smile. “I’ve been keeping an eye on the stocks, you see.”
“Quick learner,” the dark-eyed girl said approvingly. “If you’ve been doing that, though, you know your company isn’t the one I’m after.”
Her grabbing as many siege munitions as she could had made that plain enough, true.
“That’s what I’m here about, to tell you the truth,” I told her, sipping at my tea for the first time. Huh, that was the first time I ever tasted that blend – it wasn’t the stuff Praesi usually served. Imported from the Senrima, maybe? That had to cost a fortune. “I’m not keen on letting Snatcher build his walls while the rest of us fight it out.”
Aisha smiled.
“Well now, Captain Callow,” she purred. “It seems like we have a common interest.”
I put down my teacup and my smile broadened.
“Let us talk business, then,” I replied in Taghrebi.

After touching base with my officers I’d gone back to Black for my usual lesson and stayed around afterwards, electing to remain in the comfortable solar he’d appropriated in central Ater instead of returning to the College.
“I’ve read through all the reports on games Juniper commanded a company in,” I said after a few hours of silence.
“And?”
I sighed, reaching for the cup of wine he’d poured me earlier and taking a sip.
“She doesn’t make mistakes,” I informed my teacher after swallowing. “Every time she had the necessary information, the calls she made were perfect.”
Black seemed more amused by that than sympathetic.
“Maybe I should have made her my Squire then,” he spoke airily.
I scowled at the bastard.
“You know people only laugh at your jokes because they’re scared of you right?”
He snorted. “I’m assuming you have a point, apart from your apparently upcoming nuptials with Istrid’s daughter.”
I sneered at him as best I could, though compared to the nobility he so often had to deal with I was an amateur at the art. I’d never found orcs particularly attractive, which I’d been informed was a shared opinion from their side of the wall.
“How do you beat someone who always makes the right choices?” I finally asked him.
Morok I could deal with – I’d faced men like him before, fought and beat them. Aisha was trickier, but her focus on Snatcher made it possible. And Snatcher? Well, I was keeping quiet on my way to deal with him. Some cards needed to stay face down until the very last moment. But Juniper? I’d tried to come up with something to trump the Hellhound and come up empty.
In a straight-up fight she’d crush me, I knew that much. She had more command experience, a formal education in tactics and she’d shaped First Company into a heavy combat force my own legionaries would be unable to deal with. Which was fine, anyway: I’d never been all that fond of straight-up fights. I could scrap with the best of them, sure, but there was always someone who was bigger or better at taking hits. The problem was that every single dirty trick I’d manage to think of was present in one of those reports, and she had beaten every single one of them.
Her only defeat on record was the one I’d inflicted on her, and it had been a fluke. She’d led me around by the nose the whole time and if she’d suspected I had a Name she might very well have managed to beat me even if I’d somehow managed to tap in my power. A power I couldn’t even count on, anyway, since I hadn’t managed to use my Name since the last game – and not for lack of trying. Godsdamned Lone Swordsman.
“Ah,” Black hummed. “She’s that kind of an opponent, then.”
“It’s kind of hateful how good she is at this,” I admitted.
“I’ve had Grem One-Eye under my command for twenty years, Catherine,” he told me dryly. “I can certainly empathize with the feeling.”
That was a pretty jarring admission, coming from a man I’d been told had once toppled the king of one of the Free Cities using only a rowboat, a donkey and a pair of broken shovels. There were stories about Marshall One-Eye too, of course – the Wall had stood firm against the greenskin clans for centuries before he’d somehow managed to take all three of the forts the same night – but they were nothing compared to the outrageous ones they told about the Black Knight. He smiled at me, once again managing to read me like a book despite my best efforts.
“There’s always someone better,” he said. “Nonetheless, in your particular situation there’s one thing that should do the trick.”
I raised an eyebrow, not savouring the suspense as much as he clearly was.
“Are you going to do that thing where you give me cryptic advice that later comes in useful at a critical moment?” I asked, trying to convey how irritating that particular habit was through my tone.
Black took a sip from his cup, though not quickly enough to hide that he’d actually been a little offended by that. I tried not to be openly amused, though not very hard.
“Well not now, I’m not,” he muttered. “Fine, you killjoy. Here’s your advice: cheat.”
I eyed him sceptically from across the table.
“So who do I talk to, to trade you in for a better mentor?” I asked.
“There’s no attributed Imperial bureau for uppity Squires, unfortunately,” he sneered at me.
I grinned, smothering a laugh, and even the cold fish that was my teacher deigned to offer a smile to the world.
“So,” I said after a moment. “Cheating, huh. I don’t suppose you’d care to elaborate on that?”
“War games are, ultimately, still games,” he murmured over the rim of his cup. “You’re still trying to win according to the rules, when you should be trying to win despite them.”
I leaned back into my comfortable seat, letting myself enjoy the warmth of the fire and the bellyful of wine as I closed my eyes. The both of us let silence fall over the room as we descended into our own thoughts. How do you beat someone you can’t beat? I asked myself. My teacher had long left the room when I felt a savage smile stretch my lips. There was a way, maybe. It was underhanded and unfair, not to mention a little immoral around the edges, but then I was a villain wasn’t I?
I supposed it was about time I started acting like one.

17 thoughts on “Chapter 22: All According To

      1. Lankhmar

        Pithy quotes are nice but the banter throughout is way more fun. Character development, scene setting and entertaining to read!

        Like

    1. Unmaker

      Robert Asprin did that for each chapter of the Myth Inc. series and commented later on how it started out fun but then turned into an awful chore.

      Like

  1. Evi

    An excellent chapter as always!! I love the sense of humor you get when you’re a bad person.

    Typo I noticed:

    In “apart from you apparently upcoming nuptials” the “from you” should probably be changed to “from your”??

    Like

  2. Unmaker

    More thorough review later, one big point now:

    Why aren’t the other captains doing diplomacy to start out with also? They have been written with tendencies to attack each other, fine, but there are still opportunities for alliance. In a similar vein, there should be at least one good betrayal worked into the mix to make things interesting, i.e. a hidden alliance.

    And one comment:

    This will be an interesting test of erraticerrata’s writing – I found the last combat believable, which is a nice surprise (too many people who haven’t wargamed make simple and obvious mistakes), but a five-way melee when you have to write one of the opponents as perfect is, I think, a little bit more of a challenge.

    Like

    1. Just because it hasn’t been shown “on screen” doesn’t mean it’s not happening. We haven’t even seen the full extent of Catherine’s diplomacy. As for betrayal, well, this is Praes. Backstabbing is the national sport.
      I wouldn’t call Juniper perfect, per se. She uses what she has very well, but the Legions as a military organization have several weaknesses. The fact that First Company is an all-rounder gives her a broader toolbox, but it also means she’ll never be as good in specific domains as a company that specializes in them.

      Like

    2. Lankhmar

      To be fair, they probably are a bit, but everyone else has an axe to grind and a target to use it on. Plus the top companies are going to be *competitive* and they know the others will want the victory just as much as them. The Rats though can probably be rolled up without too much difficulty – I mean losing a fort without needing goblin munitions when the defenders probably *were* using them….

      Plus importantly Juniper isn’t perfect, knowledge is the limiting factor and that was probably alluded to for a reason. Can’t defend against things you didn’t know existed. Or as Black so elegantly put it: cheat🙂

      Like

  3. Sean

    “After touching base with my officers I’d gone back to Black for my usual lesson and stayed around afterwards, electing to remain in the comfortable solar he’d appropriated in central Ater instead of returning to the College.”

    In a different font.

    Like

  4. DonRamon

    So I feel safe assuming Catherine is just going to swarm everybody’s bunks with rats and let Bubonic Plague win the grand melee. ”How do you beat someone you can’t beat?” Plague is a pretty good answer.

    But in all seriousness it seems we’re building for a reveal that Cheat will be her third aspect as Squire. Seeing as how that was the climax of Amadeus’s flashback when he was the Squire. It seems a fundamental aspect of how the Black Knight operates so it would naturally trickle through to his pupil.

    Like

  5. Unmaker

    Typos:

    into out own thoughts
    into our own thoughts

    had:I’d
    had: I’d

    There’s other forces
    There are other forces
    (character speech, may be written as intended)

    bit down on a smile
    bite down on a smile

    surefire
    sure-fire

    There’s also records
    There are also records
    (character speech, may be written as intended)

    an fundamental truth
    a fundamental truth

    I”m
    I’m

    Robber, got wait
    Robber, go wait

    “no promises!”.
    “no promises!”

    His eyes dark and deep-set
    His eyes were dark and deep-set

    it was was common knowledge
    it was common knowledge

    skeptically
    sceptically
    (and yes, the proofing language was set to UK English – it is the other way around in American English)

    My lieutenants cluttered together
    My lieutenants clustered together
    (usually)

    They’ve got feud running
    They’ve got a feud running
    (usually)

    If he was cut out for that
    If he were cut out for that
    (character speech, may be written as intended)

    (the paragraph that starts ‘After touching base’ is in a different font than the others)

    (the colons are back! please try other clause separators – my spell-checker recommended semicolons in several places, but I didn’t note those above)

    (further) Reactions:

    Catherine drank odd-tasting tea from Aisha Bishara. Long-term poison, maybe?

    The talk of bidding, which was then not mentioned again, strikes me as a Checkov’s gun – Catherine is bound to do something with this later. The implication that you can bid even when negative is interesting.

    The idea of skewing what the others expect by what you are carrying seems like a minor advantage at best, unless the switch is so radical that no-one is expecting it. She could then trade with someone, e.g. Aisha, and further skew the results. And how is she paying for the extra supplies? She isn’t a wealthy noble.

    Catherine may be one of the only people in the empire who dares to casually offend Black. I wonder if that is ever going to come back and bite her – Black might consider reprisal for offense to be a good object lesson for dealing with people who tend to back stab when offended.

    I don’t fully understand the “win despite the rules” thing, but one really nasty thing Catherine could do is somehow add extra stores to someone’s stash, thereby making them disqualified. I would classify that as “winning by unusual application of the rules” though.

    Like

    1. Daemion

      Poisoned tea? Now that’s a paranoid thought. Well done. You’d go far in the Empire.😛

      Is there a limit on how much she can bid? Because losing doesn’t change a thing if you’re dead last with no chance to recover through convential means. Bid 200 points, win the melee and come out on top of the rankings.

      I agree, the storehouse ploy won’t do her all that much good but it might give her a moment of surprise and that might be enough in the right circumstances. Juniper will likely adapt quickly while others might struggle more with it.

      She didn’t -really- offend him. He also likes her, as much as that counts with a villain like him. Since this happened in private there is no reason for him to do anything about it. It would be different if she sassing him in public but even then it wouldn’t be all that bad unless she goes against his authority or something. He’s quite rational and abhors waste, he wouldn’t just throw her away over hurt feelings.

      Catherine is trying to ally herself with everyone else and seems to have managed that. Question is, what other alliances exist, how are they going to interfer and how long is that whole mess going to last in the heat of battle? It’s not enough to win.

      Cheating. Well, the poison idea has some merit. If your enemy is too sick to fight, you win by default. It would also be very obvious and I don’t think they tolerate being caught while cheating. The trick with the rats (and perhaps spreading diseases that way) is probably not going to work again and it would point towards Rat Company in any case.
      If Catherine had money, she could perhaps hire lots of attractive girls (and boys) to seduce her enemies and get them drunk the night before the games start. Hungover soldiers won’t be as effective and no one could blame her. Problem is, she doesn’t have money. Heiress does though.

      Honestly, in Catherine’s place I would try to figure out what game Heiress is playing here. Her earlier assumption of Heiress bribing everyone to attack Rat Company was proven false, so what is the game now?
      Figure that out and use it for your own purposes, that’s the way to victory. Or at least to survival.

      What else could you do? If you knew the location beforehand, you could prepare it in advance. Have your defenses ready, lay traps for your enemies, turn the environment into your ally. Find the best location for a base camp, mine it and then make sure Juniper gets there ahead of you. Boom, no more First Company.
      It’s not very likely though and I don’t know if those mines would count against the resources you are permitted to use.
      Speaking of resources… if you had advanced knowledge of the battlefield, you could have caches of munitions in place before the start, too. Or arrange deliveries from merchants or something like that. Not sure that would work though.

      I doubt psychological warfare would work, she isn’t scary enough. Even if she was, it would probably unite everyone against her. Does she have the time to find and exploit the weaknesses of her enemies?

      Could she mess with the equipment of your enemies? Say… break into the storeroom and replace all munitions with duds? Could she do so without the sappers noticing?
      What about their food?

      Could she hire mercenaries? Again, doubt that would work and would cost money she doesn’t have.

      What about magical items? Something to turn invisible perhaps. Or something to create illusions.

      Maybe poison gas?

      Her Name likely won’t help at all and using it isn’t considered cheating. Juniper at least will have planned for it.

      I’m running out of ideas but I am looking forward to the next chapter.🙂

      Like

      1. None of the captains have prior knowledge of where the melee will be fought.
        Catherine has access to limited resources (essentially her own personal reserves of gold and whatever connections Rat Company members can bring to the table) and magical items are extremely expensive. It takes a very powerful practitioner to make a item that will last for more than a few weeks and people like that tend to charge heavily for their services, when they’re for sale at all.
        The seduction idea is fairly impractical, considering the forces of the other companies have members from three different species and about twice as many cultures. Taking into consideration different sexual preferences and just being able to find those legionaries to start with, the logistics would be nightmarish to organize – not to mention rather expensive. Besides, few of the captains would allow their soldiers to go out drinking the night before a melee that will define the company scores for the next few years.
        As for what game Heiress is playing, who knows? Her Name is in direct contrast to Catherine’s, more skilled in the subtler applications of power where Squires tend to be very martial.

        Like

    2. 1) The bidding will come back later, yes.

      2) She wouldn’t be paying for the extra supplies, in his case. What she asked Ratface for was essentially a way to not have the supplies she takes into the game on record – they’d still have to be College property, since taking real goblin munitions into the melee would have her disqualified. And it’s a minor advantage, yes, but then those can be used for specific purpose.

      3) You’ll note Black has a record of associating with people who sass him. Fear only brings you so far when you’re trying to foster loyalty in people you’re working closely with.

      Like

  6. Jerden

    Well, I’ll eagerly be checking back regularly on this story that was so good that I read the whole thing in a day. The impressive thing about it is that the characters are so likable and complex despite being ridiculously Evil. I mean, Dread Emperors and Legions of Doom and Evil Architecture?

    Like

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