“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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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’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.
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.”
“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.
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.