“Our doctrine is one of cost-efficiency. Any officer who believes extermination of the enemy is a valid path to victory should immediately be demoted back to the ranks.”
“What makes you think she’ll abandon the first wall?”
Kilian’s breath was steadier now that she’d had a few moments to catch it. Running in chain mail could really take it out of you, and if Captain hadn’t made a habit of drilling me in plate it might have been as hard on my lungs as the redhead’s. I cast her a sideways look.
“Having doubts, Lieutenant?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I’m trying to understand where your certainty is coming from,” she replied.
“It took me a while to get it, but Juniper’s actually somewhat predictable,” I grunted.
Now there definitely was scepticism on the pretty mage’s face.
“Predictable is, uh, not a word I’d use for the Hellhound. Sir,” she said delicately.
“She always makes the correct choice,” I pointed out, closing my eyes. “When she has the necessary information, she makes the best decision she could make.”
Kilian frowned. “So you’re saying…” she trailed off, evidently not too sure about what I was saying.
Couldn’t blame her, really. This wasn’t something I’d figured out using wits and logic – it had been instinctual. Similar to the way I’d read opponents in the Pit, only applied to warfare instead of breaking a single person’s legs.
“If I know what the best move for her to make is, I can be fairly certain it’s the one she’ll make,” I replied, opening my eyes and turning on my belly to crawl my way closer to the crest of the hill.
The redheaded lieutenant did the same, joining me in taking a peek over the dust and stone. Like I’d predicted, First Company’s lines were preparing to retreat back across the mine field. One of Juniper’s sappers casually tossed a smoker into the hole I’d blown through the palisade a moment later, preventing me from getting a look at the path they were using. Ugh. I mean, I was pretty sure they’d do that but it’s still going to be a pain to figure out the way through.
“It’s limited in scope, Kilian,” I told her as I pushed myself back into cover. “I have no reliable way of knowing what she does and doesn’t know, so it’s still very much a guessing game. But if I have the initiative, then I can predict some of her reactions.”
I waved vaguely in the direction of what had once been Fox Company’s stronghold.
“What she knows right now is that I have access to munitions that can blow through her first wall and some sort of expendable creature minions to deliver them,” I grunted. “So she’s going to pull back behind the rampart until she can figure out how I managed that. It’s not like she’s losing anything, anyway: even if we manned the first wall from the other side we don’t have the strength to hold it against her. She could just claim it back whenever she wants.”
By now the runner I’d sent to Nauk should have gotten the remnants of my company moving. Keeping out of sight as long as possible, they’d wait until the last moment to run across the ballista’s killing field until they could take shelter behind the enemy’s own palisade. Pickler had assured me that the same platform Snatcher had built to ensure the siege engine would have a clear shot at the enemy camps meant that once we got close enough Juniper wouldn’t be able to adjust the angle low enough to aim at us. There was something mildly absurd about using the enemy’s fortifications as cover against them, but the situation I was in was beyond the ability of orthodox tactics to salvage.
Pretty much the only advantage on my side at this point was that by holing up in the fortress Juniper had given up the initiative. It was, I believed, a conscious decision on her part. She could have assaulted us almost immediately after taking out Snatcher, but the Hellhound was aware of what kind of fuckery Names could pull when you put their backs up against the wall. She was doing all she could to avoid outright cornering me while still stacking the odds on her side. If I’d decided to pull out and head into the wilds, then she would have simply followed in her own time: First Company functioned at its best when on the field, so it wasn’t like she’d have been giving me much of an edge there. Regardless, after hitting the bottom of the barrel last night I’d bounced back into the semblance of a plan. My largest mistake so far was that I’d been trying to beat Juniper as a captain when the fact was that she was just better at this than I was.
She was a better tactician and her company was flatly superior to mine – which shouldn’t have come as a surprise, considering Ratface had tried to make Rat Company a knock-off version of hers. If I played this game the way it was meant to be played, I’d lose every time. Like Black had told me in his usual semi-cryptic jackass advice session, I had to win despite the rules instead of according to them. The suicide goats were a first step towards that, as a method of attack that had no real precedent in the war games. The necromantic constructs weren’t significant because of how effective they were, although it looked like they’d be pretty damned effective, but because by pulling out a new trick I’d been able to seize the initiative. As long as I had Juniper reacting instead of acting, the Heavens were on my side.
“Although I guess technically they’re on neither of our sides,” I muttered to myself. “Probably should stop calling on them period.”
Kilian shot me a curious look but passed no comment. I glanced at my tenth and was pleased to see they appeared to have recovered from the run. Whatever his flaws as a captain, Ratface had drilled his legionaries into very good shape.
“As soon as Nauk gets out of cover, we’ll be running across,” I called out, making sure all of them acknowledged the reminder before turning my attention back to more pressing matters.
Crawling my way back up the hill, I scanned the distance for the rest of my company. Couldn’t see any sign of them, which I put down as another mark in Nauk’s favour: the large lieutenant was a highly competent officer, when he wasn’t in the throes of the Red Rage. Overly aggressive in his tactics, maybe, but for a frontline commander that wasn’t always a bad thing. Captain had mentioned General Istrid was also considered a little too bloodthirsty and she was one of the most respected military commanders in the Empire. After the three Marshals, she was one of the household names forged during the Conquest. I waited in silence for Rat Company to appear, and my patience was eventually rewarded: without so much as a word of warning, sixty-odd legionaries started running downhill towards the palisade.
“That’s our cue, ladies and gentlemen,” I called out, pushing myself up.
I picked up my shield and waited a few heartbeats before starting to sprint back across the grounds I’d covered only moments ago. There was no point in having my legionaries form up: if anything, it would be a liability. A tenth moving slowly and clustered together was prime ballista bait. Feeling my lungs burn as I forced my body to move, I jumped over a low-riding bush and only barely managed not to trip as my foot got snagged into a root. Whirling on myself I steadied my footing at the last minute and continued to push through. My tenth wasn’t far behind and before I’d managed to catch my breath at the foot of the palisade the majority of them were already at my side.
“We got everyone?” I panted.
Kilian nodded, too out of breath to get any actual words out. Gods, I hated running in armour. I’d heard no impact in the distance, which meant First Company either hadn’t been ready to shoot in time or that we’d offered them no target worth the effort. Nauk’s soldiers were milling by the palisade further to the south-east, slowly spreading out, and I gestured for my own tenth to join them. We walked, taking our time – there was no need to hurry this part of the operation, and going in unprepared was likely to see us brutally spanked. The lieutenant with the still-broken arm found me easily. There was a restless way to him, like he had an itch he couldn’t quite scratch.
“Callow,” Nauk greeted me. “Divided the lot of them like you told me. We’ll be ready to move as soon as Kilian reclaims her tenth.”
From the corner of my eye I could see the redhead heading for her mages, soldiers moving out of her way as she did.
“Good,” I grunted. “Pickler managed to make all the screens?”
“They’re ready,” the orc nodded. “Shame we don’t have vinegar to soak them in, but we’ll make do.”
I’d been more than happy to delegate the whole affair to the sapper lieutenant, having no experience whatsoever in crafting the likes of it myself. To be honest, my skillset largely considered of “bashing people’s heads in” and “ordering people to bash other people’s heads in”. It was a good thing that for all their quirks my officers had a knack for their area of expertise, because what I knew about sapper’s work would fit into a thimble. And not even a very big one.
“Wish I could do more than stand around like a waste of flesh,” Nauk admitted. “I’ve been useless to you since the scrap with Morok.”
I clapped his shoulder. “I don’t need someone to break skulls right now, Nauk,” I told him honestly. “I need someone to watch over the company while I try to outmanoeuvre Juniper, and you’ve done that just fine.”
The large orc shuffled his feet uncomfortably. He looked pleased – or hungry. It could be hard to tell with orcs.
“Wade in their blood, Captain,” Nauk gravelled. “I’ve been looking forward to this part since you told us the plan.”
So had I. It was about time we got to be the ones causing trouble. I left the orc lieutenant to it and went to check on the walking absurdity that was my trump card. Unsurprisingly, Robber was the one watching over Ratface’s Ex. My legionaries insisted on calling the goat by the verbal abomination that was the other proposed name, but I refused to humour them in this. A girl had to have some principles, and I drew the line at puns.
“Everything ready, Sergeant?” I asked.
“On our part, sure,” the goblin replied, eyes still fixed on the unmoving goat. “Can’t answer for Lieutenant Kilian’s merry parade of magical minions.”
I let the dig pass without comment, since he’d at least bothered to tack on Kilian’s rank to it. Kneeling next to the corpse, I touched its forehead and with an exertion of will had it rise to its feet. To my surprise I’d manage to raise all of the carcasses provided by my men without any real trouble, though I’d yet to figure out how to manipulate more than one at a time. The corpses remained still unless I willed it otherwise, and I’d found that after leaving one alone for too long I needed physical contact to make it work properly again. There would be no zombie army for me, it seemed, and Weeping Heavens when had I reached a point in my life where I was using the words “zombie army” without a hint of irony?
“Tell Pickler to get the line in position,” I told another sapper standing close by. “We won’t have much time between the first hit and the second.”
The female goblin saluted and scuttled off without a word as I returned my attention to the zombie. My main obstacle at the moment was the mine field. Assaulting the rampart was nothing more than a daydream as long as my company hadn’t secured a way across it. That we weren’t in the ballista’s angle of fire anymore was one problem dealt with, but the fact remained that any people I sent through would be getting peppered with crossbow fire the whole time. I could more or less deal with that by putting my cadets in a testudo formation, but packing them that tightly as they made their way through a field line with demolition charges would lead to horrific casualties. My first step, then, was to be clearing a safe path for my company. Thankfully, I had expendable assets to send into the grinder.
Ratface’s Ex dutifully followed me as I passed through the gap I’d had blown into the palisade, coming to stand at the edge of the killing field and gazing at the rampart. As expected the top of it was bristling with enemy legionaries, all of them armed with Snatcher’s crossbows. I couldn’t see Juniper, but I had no doubt that she was standing somewhere she could see the whole battlefield. Behind me my sapper line trickled through the hole, the front ranks carrying large screens of leather framed by repurposed sudis. All of the components had been cannibalized from Aisha’s camp, the leather coming from her tents and the wood and nails taken from her first line of defence. In the absence of the second tenth of my mage line and their large shields this ramshackle kind of cover would have to serve – much to my displeasure, every single member of that tenth had been taken prisoner with Ratface. Kilian’s mages spread out among the sappers in groups of three, the redhead in question coming to stand by my side in silence. I cracked my fingers and took a deep breath. Time to get the stone rolling.
Before I could get so much as a word out, Robber broke formation and strolled to the edge of the field. Straightening his back, he stood as high as his four feet and a half of height allowed him and slowly unsheathed his sword. Face solemn, he brandished the blade at First Company.
“Unleash the goat,” he commanded, clearly relishing every word coming out of his mouth.
“Remind me to stick him with latrine duty for at least a month,” I told Kilian in an aside.
The mage snorted. With a sigh, I willed the goat to move forward. The pace I set was fast, though not enough to damage the corpse’s integrity, and I set it to a path that passed straight through the middle of the field. It was facing the only part of the ramparts that wasn’t ten feet high: instead of packed rock and dirt there was a palisade there serving as a makeshift gate. More importantly, it was the only part of the fortifications that wasn’t barred by the ditch. The goat made it about fifteen feet before the sand under it detonated. I grimaced. It was a good thing that my ability to sense through the creature’s skin numbed pretty quickly after I raised it, otherwise that would have been a bitch of a backlash. I focused on my connection to the necromantic construct and noted that while it was damaged it was still, in fact, capable of moving. Makes sense. Snatcher’s not going to use a munition grade that risks actually killing other cadets. No doubt a living creature would have been knocked unconscious or, barring that, been incapacitated by the shattered bones. Fortunately, Ratface’s Ex had no such limitations. Mustering vague memories of when I’d done the same to my own fingers, I pulled at strings and popped the goat’s bones back into place. It slowly got back to its feet and started limping forward the field. It managed to make it to fifty feet before the first fireball from the rampart struck it. Another three followed almost a heartbeat later, hitting the goat almost simultaneously.
“Gotcha,” I grinned sharply.
“NOW,” Kilian called out.
My three clusters of three mages immediately fired back fireballs of their own straight at the source of the enemy magic. All but one of the enemy casters were drowned in a storm of flame before they could get back in cover. One fireball they might have weathered without too much damage, but three? Those three mages had been knocked out of the melee for now. Unfortunate that I’d had to split my mage line in clusters of three instead of pairs, but Kilian had informed me she couldn’t promise a sure takedown if she couldn’t concentrate the magic at least that much. First Company was superbly trained: before I could count five heartbeats the rest of its mage line was returning fire at my now exposed mages. Too late, Hellhound. My sappers moved their screens forward and the mages ran to take cover behind the stretched out leather. I frowned as the flame impacted Pickler’s screens: two of them held up admirably, but the third’s frame splintered as fire spread across its surface. Kilian cursed and I followed her gaze to a lone silhouette on the rampart, where a mage’s raised hand was slowly wreathing itself in bolts of blinding energy. Shit. I hadn’t anticipated Juniper would have any mages capable of calling down lightning. If they managed to hit the screen that had already been damaged…
“No you don’t,” the Duni growled.
The redhead bit her thumb as I blinked in surprise, drawing blood and swiping a line of it across her cheek.
“I am the root and the crown, the source and the flow, the storm and the calm,” she murmured. “Power is purpose, purpose is will. Gods of my mother, take this offering and grant me the wrath of Heaven.”
The last words were an angry hiss, and she threw her hand forward in a snap. A gauntlet of lightning burst into existence around her fingers, a thick thread of it streaking forward across the air with a violent crackle and colliding with the bolt thrown by the enemy mage maybe four feet above my fleeing soldiers. The magic impacted with a deafening howl but Kilian’s spell held, both streaks of lightning flickering out of existence after the clash. My lieutenant’s cheeks were flushed and she was panting, the streak of blood on her cheek somehow turned to ash.
That had been… impressive. And, if I was to be entirely honest, just a little bit arousing. Seeing her harness that kind of power with nothing more than a handful of words and being pissed off… I coughed and turned my attention back to the now-smouldering Ratface’s Ex. Now was definitely not the time to wonder what the redhead looked like out of her armour.
Unfortunately, my zombie was no longer in a state fit for running. I willed it to crawl forward anyhow and it made it another ten feet before a last fireball destroyed it beyond even my ability to control. I clenched my fingers and unclenched them. Sixty feet out of a hundred, not bad. The question was, was there another charge buried in those last forty feet? The path I’d cleared was the easiest, quickest way to the fort’s entrance. If there was somewhere to mine, that was definitely it. On the other hand, Snatcher might have thought that no one would be stupid enough to go further in a straight line after running into a charge fifteen feet in. Out of my four undead, two were already unusable. The remaining goat and the gazelle were loaded with munitions I couldn’t afford to lose on a mine: I needed that gate blown up, and quickly.
“Well, Snatcher,” I murmured to myself. “Here’s hoping you decided to get tricky on our asses.”
Pickler had brought the next goat forward when she’d moved in her sappers, propping it up against the palisade like it was a poorly-built bookshelf. It took no more than a few moments to re-establish my connection with the undead, the animated corpse skipping back with me when I returned to Kilian’s side.
“Give the signal,” I ordered her. “We’re beginning phase three.”
“Operation Fainting Goat is a go,” she murmured, and I shot her a genuinely betrayed look.
Kilian had been one of the few strongholds of sanity left when the undead suicide goat plan had spread to the rank and file, that she would get on the wagon now was treachery of the worst sort. That Hakram had been the one to dryly suggest the name was even worse. Regardless, the mage raised her hand and with a few mangled syllables created the Miezan numeral for three out of flames. A moment later half of my sappers got moving, escorted by the surviving tenth of Ratface’s line: Sergeant Tordis led from the front, shield raised high. This would be the tricky part, when it came down to it. I should have made Juniper wary of using her mages by making it clear my own would immediately retaliate but she had other options. Risking one of my remaining tenths in fighting shape left a foul taste in the mouth yet it was necessary if the sappers were to get within range without getting put down by crossbow fire.
The first bolts hit when they’d made it twenty feet in through the path I’d cleared. Immediately my regulars tightened their ranks and the sappers crouched behind them, the lot of them still pushing forward at a glacial pace. When Juniper’s mages popped out my own were ready to pre-empt them, but she was ready for us this time: every one of First Company’s spellcasters had a pair of soldiers covering them with their shields. Not even concentration of fire managed to break through it. I grimaced when the enemy’s own fireballs impacted Sergeant Tordis’ group, knocking three cadets out of formation and immediately seeing them shot.
“Kilian,” I spoke up. “That thing you did with the lightning; could your mages do the same with enemy fireballs?”
“No,” she admitted. “The spell they teach us at the College isn’t precise enough for that.”
“Godsdamnit,” I cursed, watching as another two members of Tordis’ tenth bit the dust. “This is going to cost us.”
They were in position now, at least. The sappers wasted no time in throwing their smokers ahead, their whole position becoming obscured by the thick smoke in a matter of moments. They started backing up almost immediately, another regular getting hit by a blindly-thrown fireball but managing to shake it off since it wasn’t immediately followed by getting shot. The sappers dragged back our unconscious cadets, the entire formation managing to get back safely out of enemy range without any further trouble. From fifty feet into the path to the very bottom of the enemy rampart was now covered in smoke, but there was no time to waste. Smokers didn’t last as long when the space they filled was that broad, and though the day wasn’t particularly windy it wasn’t absent of wind either. Without so much as my looking in its direction, the goat started running forward.
“So what’s this one called, anyway?” I absently asked Kilian.
I could feel her smile through the tone, though my attention was still on my zombie.
“Snatcher’s Cousin,” she replied.
“That feels mildly racist,” I mused.
“Can it really be racist if goblins are the ones who named it?” she wondered out loud.
I didn’t answer the question, as the Cousin had finally entered the smoke. I’d ordered the obscuration of the battlefield to ensure Juniper couldn’t blow the zombie before I did, but the obvious downside was that I couldn’t see where it was going either. All my Name was giving was a vague sense of where it was standing and how its parts were moving. It would have been useful if I’d been able to see through the zombie’s own eyes but when it came down to it what my ability could create was little more than an elaborate flesh puppet. All I could do was send it in a straight line and hope for the best. With a silent tug of the strings I had the goat halt at what I estimated was about eighty feet, returning a portion of my attention to Kilian.
“I can have it at the gate in about six breaths,” I told her. “Tell me when to get it moving.”
The redhead frowned but nodded, eyes faraway as she tried to puzzle out the timing. Aiming for perfection here would be overestimating ourselves but we couldn’t let it stand in front of the gate too long either: I couldn’t take the risk Juniper had figured out a way to deal with it without blowing it up. Frankly, just sending out a legionary to pick it up and run back inside might do the trick if they were fast enough. The mage softly started chanting and I kept an eye on her as red-orange flames started forming around her hand. Suddenly she nodded and instead of replying I set my construct moving, the ball of flames shooting into the smoke a moment later. A few heartbeats later I felt the goat run into something solid. The explosion that struck a moment later was, once again, deafening. While I couldn’t see the effect of it through the smoke, I had a hard time believing it wouldn’t have wrecked the gate. There were twice as many sharpers stuck inside the goat as last time, after all. Hopefully none of Juniper’s soldiers had been standing right behind the gate, because that would have been pretty brutal to go through.
“Now what?” Kilian asked, peering into the distance.
Before I could finish the sentence a flash of lightning came out of the smoke. I reacted on instinct, trying to get Kilian down, but she pushed away my hand and thrust out her arm. I felt goose bumps on my arms as she spat out a word in that strange tongue mages used, sorcery meeting sorcery once again. Whatever it was she’d done, it stopped the better part of the lightning: a shudder run through me but that was the only effect I could feel. The redhead fell on her knees and I made to help her up when I noticed her hair had turned… strange. It looked more like fire than dark red locks, and when she turned to face me her eyes had turned from hazel to an inhumanly vivid green. Her body had a spasm, her back arching like something was trying to break out of it, and I wasn’t sure whether I should try to hold her down or let it happen. Thankfully, after a moment it stopped.
“Fuck,” she cursed, the words coming thick and slow on her tongue. “I hate it when that happens.”
I helped her back to her feet. “Too much magic?” I guessed.
“Tried to abshorb – absorb – the hit to keep it from splashing,” Kilian replied.
She took a deep breath, then stood on her own.
“I’ll be fine, Captain,” she told me. “Bit of a headache, that’s all, and I’ll keep the spells simple for a while.”
I clapped her shoulder. “Take a break, Lieutenant,” I ordered. “Nothing’ll happen until the smoke clears anyway.”
I let her limp away without comment, deciding it was about time I relocated myself. Whoever had said lightning never struck the same place twice obviously had little experience with mages.
By the time the smoke cleared I’d returned to my old vantage point, the undead gazelle idling by my side. Robber had informed me it had been dubbed ‘Stealth Goat’ by popular acclaim at which point I’d informed him that he was going to find me a stool or I would be dragging him along for the ride as my official footrest. I took great satisfaction in the fact that he looked genuinely worried by the threat. To my surprise he reappeared later with a fold-up stool apparently looted from Aisha’s camp. I blithely pretended I hadn’t been sending him on a fool’s errand and assured him he was safe from my feet for at least the next few days. The first thing I noticed when the ramparts came into sight again was that the new batch of munitions had definitely been more powerful than the last. There was no trace of the former gate and even the tightly packed sand and stone surrounding it had been damaged.
I stood in sight of the walls for a long time, letting the lazy breeze fall on my face. Juniper must have believed I was baiting her mages, because there was no repeat of the lightning incident. I didn’t think it would have been enough to take me out anyway. I’d punched a sharper two days ago and all my fingers had gotten out of the experience was a set of bruises. Squires were a hard breed to kill, apparently. After remaining in the open long enough that there could be no doubt Juniper had seen me, I left Stealth Goat behind and casually strolled down the path I’d cleared earlier. I left my shield behind, keeping the folded stool under my arm instead. My soldiers milled uncomfortably behind me as I kept walking, stopping about halfway through without anyone from the ramparts trying anything. I was close enough to see that two full lines had crossbows pointed at me, but for now they refrained from shooting. Calmly, I unfolded the stool and placed it on the ground. I plopped myself on it and waited.
Juniper didn’t make me wait long. The tall female orc strode out of the gate-hole without a shield or a helmet, though like me she’d kept her sword at her side. I was amused to note she’d brought a stool of her own, of identical make. Must have been Legion-issue. Her face was inscrutable as she made her way towards me, setting up her own seat to face mine barely a few feet away. The wooden frame creaked under the weight of her when she sat down, still silent. A moment passed, then she turned to the side and spat in the dirt.
“So you want a draw,” she flatly stated.
I raised an eyebrow. “That obvious, huh,” I said, not denying the truth of it.
“I looked up the old rules too, Callow,” she grunted. “Two-way draw means we keep half the points we bid. Probably shouldn’t have bid twice what Rat Company has in the negatives if you wanted to keep it quiet.”
The idea had struck me when the cadets Ratface had sent to scour the College archives for old five company melees had dug up a record three-way draw. When the instructors had outlined the rules for the melee they’d said nothing about draws of any sort, meaning they hadn’t specifically denied the old ruling. It was sketchy as Hells, but I was pretty sure I could swing it. There were advantages to having the Black Knight on your side, and if Heiress wasn’t above using family connections to her advantage then I wasn’t above pulling rank through my teacher.
“Figured it was a good thing to have as a back up, if things went south,” I admitted.
“You’d lose the bet,” Juniper pointed out.
“Ah, but here’s the thing,” I smiled. “The Dread Empress specifically phrased so that Heiress only got the appointment if I lost. A draw isn’t a defeat, it’s just not a victory.”
And should, Gods forbid, our Squire lose? Those had been her exact words. I’d wondered in the aftermath of court why a woman who was supposed to be the political patron of Black hadn’t seen fit to give me a helping hand when I was his de facto apprentice. It was only the night before the melee I’d realized that she’d subtly steered the terms of the bet to give me a better chance.
“Very clever,” Juniper smiled unpleasantly, flashing her fangs at me. “Now tell me, why exactly should I give a fuck?”
“Because it could go either way, right now,” I told her frankly. “I still have some of my little minions and I can make more.”
“You’ll run out of munitions eventually,” she growled.
“You’ll run out of soldiers eventually,” I replied. “The munitions won’t take you out of the game, sure, but then I still have fighting men left.”
“Who’ll have to cross an open field while getting shot at,” the Hellhound snarled.
“They will,” I shrugged. “Which is why I’ll put my wounded in the front to soak up the crossbow fire.”
The orc’s eyes narrowed. “Some of them could be crippled for life. It messes up mage healing if you break the bones again too quick.”
My answering smile was a cold, cold thing. “You underestimate how badly I want this, Hellhound. If you have moral qualms about crippling cadets, then don’t shoot your fucking crossbows at them.”
That was the thing with scruples: they could so very easily be thrown back at the person throwing them at you. Juniper looked at me like it was the first time we’d ever met. In a sense, it was. My little interlude at the War College had been a pleasant diversion and I’d picked up useful skills, but there was a reason I’d come here in first place. I was not so much of a hypocrite that I’d flinch in the face having people crippled when I’d signed the death warrant of thousands by letting the Lone Swordsman go. The other captain rolled a shoulder calmly, chewing it over.
“No deal,” she finally said. “Nothing in this for me, Callow. Could go either way, sure. Means I could win.”
I sighed. “You know, I wondered what company scores were for when I first heard about them,” I told her.
She’d been about to get up but when I continued speaking she stilled. If she was confused by my interjection, then she showed no sign of it.
“Get your officers to brief you,” she grunted. “It affects placement in the Legions when you graduate.”
“I know that now,” I replied. “Didn’t seem like a big deal to me at the time, but then I remembered I had a dream.”
The orc bared her teeth mockingly. “You going to tell me you have all these big plans so I should let you win? For shame, Callow. You were almost starting to be tolerable.”
“Not that kind of dream,” I said softly. “I mean the Name kind.”
That got her attention, sure enough. Her mouth closed with a snap.
“The gist of it, I think, was that sometimes you have to give to get,” I mused. “So that had me wondering: what do you want, Juniper?”
“You getting to a point would be nice,” she growled.
“See, I keep hearing all these things about you,” I continued. “The Hellhound, never lost a game. Best tactician to grace the College since the Reforms, top of the class in every class.”
I could see her mustering what was no doubt a pretty scathing retort but I interrupted her.
“The one thing I didn’t hear about you,” I spoke softly, “was that you‘re Istrid Knightsbane’s daughter.”
The orc’s meaty hand closed around the hilt of her sword.
“You threatening my mother, Callow?” she snarled.
I shook my head.
“It’s telling, that you don’t bring the family name into this,” I told her. “Means you want to make it on your own merits. Means you’re ambitious.”
“It’d be a pretty nice feather in my cap to waste you, you know,” the orc grinned nastily, “If I beat a Named on the field I’d join as a tribune, or at the very least senior captain.”
“You take your chances and try for that,” I agreed. “Or you could make a draw with me right now, and be named the highest-ranked officer in the Fifteenth Legion.”
She gaped at me and I really enjoyed the sight of it more than I should.
“You can’t promise that,” she growled.
“Sure I can,” I retorted flatly. “The whole thing with being a villain, Juniper, is that you can basically do whatever the Hells you want unless someone stops you. And who’s going to stop me in this? Black? If I know anything, he’s doing that vicious smile thing he does as he eavesdrops on us right now.”
The other captain got her bearings back after a few moments, her now calm face creasing with a frown.
“I’d be under your command,” Juniper said.
“You’ll be under someone’s command whatever happens,” I shrugged. “Do you want to serve under the shadow of someone who earned their spurs during the Conquest, or forge an entirely new legion with me?”
I could see the conflict in her eyes, and that meant I was winning.
“You’re bribing me,” she accused.
“Shamelessly so,” I admitted. “But the fact that I have to bribe you means you’re worth bribing.”
That got a snort out of her.
“All a draw means is that I’m admitting that, right here and right now, we’re equals,” I said, meeting her eyes. “I’m not too proud for that. Are you?”
I offered up my arm. After a long moment, she leaned forward and clasped it.
“Draw,” she grunted.
“Draw,” I echoed.
Thunder clapped twice and both our standards appeared in the sky, orange-red. We rose to our feet and I looked aside.
“Despite the rules, you said. See? I do listen, sometimes,” I whispered.