“I’ve been informed that the position of the King Under the Mountains is that ‘since only dwarves own property, only dwarves can be stolen from’. I’m afraid that if you insist on getting your family jewels back, my lord, we will have to buy them.”
– Official state missive from Cygnus of Liesse, ambassador to the Kingdom Under
9th of Majwa, Ater
I strode through the doorway, black cloak trailing behind me and assorted minions following suit. I’d kept the entourage light for this one: Ratface was a must, since he was the one who knew the details, Hakram was my designated loomer and Robber rounded up the gang by somehow managing to look like he was skulking in broad daylight. Commissioner Rashid’s office was larger than should have been strictly necessary for a man of his position, though I supposed there were plenty of old grandiose buildings to go around in Ater. The olive-skinned man’s eyes immediately flicked to his guards when we entered, the lot of them casually dropping their hands towards their swords. Ater City Guard, not legionaries. While the Supply Commissioner was directly associated with the Legions, he was technically part of the Imperial bureaucracy. Good ol’ Rashid had, therefore, been given his position through the Court. That probably explained why the moment Black had left the city I’d received a missive informing me that due to “unforeseen shortages” the Commissioner’s Office would be unable to provide me with the promised supplies. Fucking Heiress. She wasn’t even in Praes anymore and she was still managing to piss me off.
“Lady Squire,” the middle-aged Taghreb greeted me with a pleasant smile. “An unexpected pleasure. What can I do for you?”
He didn’t even bother to point out that I’d shown up without an appointment. His secretary had tried to, but I’d told Hakram to show the man his teeth and suddenly the schedule had been clear for the afternoon. Funny how these things went.
“Commissioner Rashid,” I replied just as pleasantly. “I came to confirm that the Fifteenth Legion’s rations would be delivered on time. Just a formality, really.”
The commissioner let out a saddened sigh. It almost seemed genuine.
“You must not have received my missive,” he decided. “It is unfortunate, my Lady, but the supplies you were supposed to receive were lost in transit. They’re halfway to Thalassina by now.”
Mhm. Now, was he telling the truth about that or was it only his excuse for whatever petty bastardry Heiress had cooked up? If the supplies weren’t actually in the city this was going to get complicated real fast.
“Be assured that the next shipment we’ll receive has already been earmarked for the Fifteenth,” he assured me.
“And when,” I smiled, “will this shipment be arriving?”
“By the end of the month, should there be no trouble on the road,” Rashid replied.
“Ah,” I murmured. “That really is unfortunate.”
Something like relief flickered through the Taghreb’s eyes but it was short-lived. I reached for my Name and it coiled around my arm almost eagerly, strands of shadow weaving themselves into a spear that I threw at the Commissioner without missing a beat. The impact splintered the chair behind the man and sent him spinning across the room until he landed in an ungainly sprawl of official robes. I heard three swords leave their scabbards behind me and idly glanced at Rashid’s guards. The Soninke woman in charge of them had her hand raised.
“Hold,” she called out. “Get your hand off that fucking sword, Mubasa. We’re not fighting godsdamned legionaries.”
“Huh,” I mused. “That’s surprisingly sensible of you…”
“Sergeant Jaha,” she provided. “I’ll be frank, ma’am – I’d rather not get involved in this, if that’s a possibility.”
“Jaha, you traitorous bitch,” the Commissioner wheezed out.
The Soninke rolled her eyes.
“The bribes were nice, Rashid,” she replied, “but I’m not going to fight the girl who set half a city on fire for a measly thirty denarii. It wouldn’t even cover my funeral.”
Eyeing her carefully, I decided after a heartbeat that she wasn’t heading out to get reinforcements.
“You are excused, Sergeant,” I allowed.
Jaha let out a shaky breath, saluted and sharply smacked the back of a young boy’s head when he tried to linger and glare at Hakram. Considering that my adjutant was the tallest orc I’d met so far, the sight of a scrawny boy in cheap armour trying to intimidate him was more than a little absurd.
“You appear to be getting something of a reputation,” Hakram noted wryly.
I rubbed the bridge of my nose.
“I keep telling people I’m not actually the one who used goblinfire but for some reason they think I’m playing coy,” I told him.
Ratface snorted. “When a villain up and tells you they’re not responsible for something, that doesn’t usually mean they didn’t do it.”
“Shut up, Tribune,” I muttered. “Don’t give me lip in front of the Commissioner, it’ll make us look unprofessional.”
As if on cue, Rashid moaned and got on his knees. He was being somewhat melodramatic about this, I felt: I’d hit him with the weakest version of that power I knew. The one Black had taught me punched through plate as well as an actual spear. Robber scuttled across the room in the blink of an eye and kicked the Taghreb back down.
“Now now, Commissioner,” the goblin captain purred. “None of that. It’s a nice clean floor, nothing wrong with it.”
I slowly took off my gloves and put them down on the man’s desk, taking a few careful steps until I stood looking down on him.
“As you may have deduced, I have some objections to the timeline you’ve given me,” I spoke calmly. “The Fifteenth is moving out tomorrow, and the rations we have at the moment will only take us as far as Summerholm.”
“You dare assault a duly appointed official of the Tower?” Rashid hissed. “I’ll see you hanged for this.”
I sighed. “Funny story, Rashid. May I call you Rashid?”
“No,” he replied immediately.
“You’re hurting my feelings, Rashid,” I told him. “You should probably be careful about that. But as I was saying, funny story. Before he left, my teacher delivered a ridiculously large pile of papers at the Fifteenth’s headquarters. Among those was a form called the Nihilis Report.”
The Commissioner paled and I smiled thinly.
“I’m honestly not sure what’s more screwed up about this,” I mused. “That the Empire has a designated form for killing off bureaucrats, or that they expect me to fill it in triplicate.”
“Killing me won’t get you the supplies,” Rashid said after a moment, managing to get back his composure – well, as much composure as man could have while lying on the ground anyway. “You’d still need the proper documentation with the Imperial seal on it.”
“We’ll get to that in a moment,” I assured him, crouching by his side. “I have a question for you first. When Heiress got to you, was it blackmail or bribery?”
I could see the denial on his face but before he could get out a word I laid a finger on his lips. He seemed deeply offended by the act, but I could have cared less. The continued patronizing slights were keeping him off balance and I needed him that way if he was going to buy what I was selling.
“Now before you say anything, Rashid,” I said. “I just want you to know something: when I met the Lone Swordsman, he had a Name trick he used. It allowed him to pick up on when people were lying. Guess what was the first thing I asked my teacher to show me?”
I did not, in fact, know the Swordsman’s trick. Black had been unable to replicate it, though he was good enough at reading people that it made no real difference. I wasn’t nearly there yet, but so far I was managing to even out by lying like a Mercantis chariot salesman.
“Bribery,” the commissioner admitted through gritted teeth.
I sighed. “You’re not making this easy on me, Rashid,” I told him. “Blackmail I could have sympathized with, at least.”
“I would have done it for free, uchaffe,” he sneered.
“Oh you really shouldn’t have said that,” Ratface winced.
“You ever notice how it’s always the Taghreb who go for the racial slurs?” I mused. “It’s about time we got to the part about the seal, I think. Supply Tribune Ratface over there has the documents all ready for you. All they need a little melted wax and for you to make the impression.”
“And how do you think you’ll make me do that, Callowan?” the commissioner laughed, having pumped the depths of his panic and found something vaguely resembling a spine. “Torture? You don’t have that in you. Why don’t you just walk out of here and save yourself more embarrassment.”
I patted his shoulder gently.
“You’re right, I don’t do torture,” I agreed. “Even now, I think it’s barbaric.”
I got up to my feet.
“Allow me to introduce Captain Robber,” I said. “He’s a horrible green barbarian.”
The goblin grinned malevolently at me, yellow eyes filled with glee. He enjoyed theatrics like this to a thoroughly unhealthy degree.
“You say the nicest things, Boss,” he replied.
I returned my attention to Rashid, whose face had frozen.
“There’s an old story in Callow,” I told the commissioner in a casual tone. “It’s about a fisherman who catches a magic fish in his net and finds it can talk. It offers him three wishes if he lets it go. There’s a formula to it, like in all the stories: the fisherman has to close his eyes and say his wish out loud.”
I picked up my gloves and gingerly put them on.
“Here’s what I’m going to do, Commissioner Rashid. I’m going to say my wish out loud and leave you in this room with Robber.”
My eyes turned cold.
“I get the feeling that, when I come back, there’ll be seal on those papers,” I finished.
Rashid’s eyes flickered to Robber.
“He’s just a goblin,” he sneered, though I could see the fear in his eyes.
“He’s a goblin I’ve been told keeps a jar full of eyeballs in his knapsack. I’ll be honest with you, Rashid: at this point I’m a little afraid to ask whose they are.”
The goblin captain’s brows rose. “How do you even – Hakram, you gossipy bitch.”
The tall orc scratched his chin unrepentantly. “I don’t get why people keep telling me things,” he admitted.
I cleared my throat. “That aside, I think we’re done here.” I smiled at the Commissioner. “I’ll see you in a bell, Rashid. Robber, try not to make too much of a mess. I don’t know what they pay the cleaning staff around here but it’s definitely not enough to deal with that.”
I hummed the first few notes of an old Laure tavern song under my breath and turned to leave. One, two, three, four-
Oh, good. I had no real intention of having anyone tortured, so if he’d called that bluff I would have had to take another angle. I turned to face the Commissioner, smile still present. He was watching Robber unroll what seemed to be a set of sapper’s tools on his desk, eyes gone white with terror.
“Do you have something to tell me, Commissioner?” I asked.
“Just give me the damn papers, Callowan,” he hissed. “I’ll seal them.”
I motioned for Ratface to bring the paperwork forward while Robber allowed the man to get back on his feet. The goblin was pouting, the sight of that arguably the most horrifying thing I’d seen in a fortnight. In a matter of moments, the melted wax was on the requisition form and the Commissioner pressed down the Imperial seal. The Fifteenth’s supplies for the march were secured.
“Now if you’d done that to begin with,” I pointed out, “there would have been no need for any of this unpleasantness.”
“Just get out, you smug Wallerspawn,” he replied tiredly. “You have what you want.”
I frowned, watching Ratface slip the papers in his scroll case from the corner of my eye.
“That’s twice, you know,” I noted.
The bureaucrat frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“Twice you’ve used a racial epithet while referring to me,” I clarified. “I like to think I’m a patient woman, Rashid-”
Ratface snorted, loudly.
“- but I only have so much tolerance for that kind of tomfoolery,” I finished, ignoring him. “Adjutant, break two of that man’s fingers.”
“Aye aye, ma’am,” Hakram grunted, moving forward.
“You- you can’t,” Rashid stammered out. “You already have what you-”
“This isn’t about you, Commissioner,” I told him calmly. “It’s not personal, anyhow. What I’m doing is teaching the Imperial bureaucracy to mind its tongue around me. I don’t expect you to stop being racist, I’m not that presumptuous. But I do expect you to be polite. I think you’ll remember that, should we ever meet again.”
The black cloak swirled around me as I sharply turned and made for the doorway, ignoring the sound of someone’s thumb being broken immediately followed by a hoarse scream.
By the time we got back to the Fifteenth’s headquarters, Noon Bell was about to ring.
When I’d first learned that it was illegal for a legion to be posted inside the capital, I’d half-expected to end up camping in the Wasteland. Preferably with ramparts built and a constant full watch, because there was some nasty stuff out there. Thankfully, it wasn’t the first time that one of the Legions had to be headquartered close to Ater without breaking the law: there were a handful of semi-permanent encampments a mile to the north of the city. They’d been, Hakram had informed me, where the Empire usually mustered its armies for an invasion of Callow. The irony in a Laurean girl being in command of one of those felt delicious. Stone walls with overlooking watchtowers came into sight long before even my Name-sight was able to make out the legionaries manning them. The walk was a long one but I’d decline to take Zombie along, preferring to remain on foot like the rest of my companions.
“I don’t get why Treacherous was so popular,” I told Ratface as we neared the gates. “I mean, he betrayed pretty much everyone that ever dealt with him.”
“Admittedly he was quite insane,” the Taghreb tribune agreed. “But as far as Dread Emperors go he was one of the better ones.”
“I don’t recall him actually accomplishing anything,” I replied. “And after something like the War of Thirteen Tyrants and One there must have been a lot of rebuilding to do.”
“It’s the same reason westerners are fond of Bards,” Hakram gravelled. “He was hilariously ineffective.”
“He managed to betray a villain called ‘the Betrayer’, Squire,” Ratface grinned. “You have to hand it to him: he might have had only one trick but he was great at it.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’d be a little more impressed if he’d ruled longer than a decade. That kind of stupidity is why you don’t put the comic relief in charge.”
“You’ve got to respect that kind of an exit, though,” Robber mused. “I mean, poisoning himself and pinning it on over a hundred different people? Man knew how to leave the stage.”
Every nation had its folk figures, when it came down to it. In Callow the most popular was probably Elizabeth Alban, the Queen of Blades – who’d had so many storied tacked onto her name that it was chronologically impossible for her to have lived through all of them – but there were plenty of heroes with colourful legends attached to them. I just had a hard time understanding why the likes of Dread Emperor Treacherous had made the cut here in Praes.
“I would have thought rulers like Triumphant-“
I paused when all three of my companions pressed a knuckle to their forehead and murmured “may she never return”.
“All right,” I frowned. “What’s that about? This isn’t the first time I see people do this when she’s mentioned.”
Ratface grimaced. “You know how Praesi don’t really have prayers?”
I raised an eyebrow. It had taken a while for me to get used to the idea that there was no organized religion for the Gods Below, after being raised on weekly sermons at the House of Light. Relationships with the Hellgods were a deeply personal matter, rarely more widespread than a family having a common shrine. Occasionally cults popped up, but Black had told me the Tower made a point of stomping those out. Not because of religious intolerance, he’d explained, but because they had a history of breaking the Imperial restrictions on human sacrifice. It was a little distressing to consider that in any case the Imperial bureaucracy could be the lesser Evil.
“Sure,” I grunted.
“This is a prayer, Catherine. As close as we get, anyway,” Hakram gravelled. “Whenever her name is spoken, anyone who’s not a fool petitions the Gods Below to make sure she never manages to return to Creation.”
My frown deepened, though a part of me was mildly amused when I remembered that Black had never used the prayer when referring to the Empress.
“Is that considered… likely?” I finally asked.
Robber chuckled. “You tell me, Boss. When she croaked it several of her Legions went down with her. Odds are they ended up in the same place. The old girl conquered more with less.”
Huh. Well, that was definitely making it onto the list of things I was asking my teacher about next time he scryed. It wasn’t like there wasn’t a precedent for a mortal taking over one of the Hells, though “mortal” was a bit of a misnomer when it came to the Dead King. I made a mental note of bringing up the subject as soon as possible while the encampment’s gates opened in front of us. The handful of legionaries on the watchtowers flanking it saluted as we went by and I replied with a nod, face carefully blank. Even months after the Fifteenth had been raised, I was still surprised to see Callowans in Legion armour whenever I came across them. And I came across them often: nearly half of my forces came from the recruitment camps in Callow, some of them having even been transferred from other Legions when my own was officially formed.
I wouldn’t have believed it was a coincidence even if Black hadn’t outright admitted he’d arranged it.
Why my teacher had arranged that remained unclear. The Knight never did anything without half a dozen reasons, most of them known only to himself. I’d originally thought he was doing me a favour, but integrating Callowans into the Fifteenth had proved… something of a challenge. Altercations had between soldiers had been common place during the first few weeks, though Juniper had come down hard on the troublemakers and managed to put a stop to it. Racial tensions, unfortunately, still ran high. I’d expected they would come mostly from more conservative Soninke and Taghreb elements but my fellow Callowans had turned out just as bad. It made sense, in a twisted way. The more respectable sorts weren’t the kind of people who signed up for a term of service in the Legions of Terror. The core of my Callowan recruits was made up of thieves and murderers who’d avoided the noose by ‘volunteering’ for service, and few of them were actually pleased to be here.
Things had come very close to a general brawl when the goblin elements of the Fifteenth had launched into a spree of borderline vicious pranks targeting the newcomers. It was, Pickler had later told me, tradition in the Legions. A hazing ritual meant to make fresh recruits earn their membership in the ranks. The Callowans had seen them as personal attacks instead, and several legionaries – goblins and humans alike – had ended up in a healer’s tent when tempers rose. The only good thing to come out of it was that all the wounded had insisted they’d ended up with broken bones through ‘training accidents’ instead of admitting they’d been fighting, falling back on common mistrust of authority when the time to hand out sanctions had come. I’d spent more than one evening discussing the subject with my Legate, but Juniper was largely unworried. She believed that the Fifteenth would come together after its first major engagement, regardless of prior tensions.
Personally, I thought that a large part of the problem came from the fact that there were no Callowan officers higher in rank than sergeant. Unfortunately there was no quick solution to this: the only people from the Kingdom who’d gone through the War College were Deoraithe, and none of them had stuck around to serve in the Legions afterwards. I couldn’t very well appoint a legionary from the ranks to a lieutenantship just for being Callowan when I had actually qualified candidates from other backgrounds available to me. Battle casualties will allow for field promotions, unpleasant as that thought is. We’ll see if any distinguish themselves enough to warrant a rise up the ranks. Robber peeled off from the group a few moments after we entered, returning to his company, but both Hakram and Ratface followed me to the walled bastion serving as the Fifteenth’s centre of operations.
As my adjutant Hakram was, officially, serving as my liaison to the legion. Practically speaking, he’d mostly ended up getting me up to date on reports and handling the bulk of the paperwork that kept flowing in my direction. Supply Tribune Ratface, on the other hand was part of Juniper’s General Staff. He served as the head of the Fifteenth’s supply and logistics. It was apparently custom to refer to an officer in his position as the Quartermaster, though it wasn’t his official title. The pair of orcs – former Rat Company, both of them – posted at the bastion’s door saluted as we passed by, ushering us into the room where most of the Fifteenth’s senior officers were already assembled. A handful of old tapestries covered roughly-hewn walls, their colours long faded though they were kept scrupulously clean of dust. The large stone table that was the centrepiece of the room was covered by a map of southern Callow, iron figurines placed where the Sixth and Ninth legions were positioned as of the last dispatches. Four copper knights had been set in the spots where skirmishes between the Duke’s forces and the Legions had already erupted.
Legate Juniper stopped speaking the moment we entered, turning her gaze onto me. The three other people in the room did the same after a heartbeat. Commander Hune was of about average height, for an ogre, which still meant she had to hunch over uncomfortably to avoid hitting her head onto the ceiling. The patient cleverness in her eyes contrasted with the brutish cast of her face, a hint at the sharp mind that lay beneath it. Hune Egeldotir had been the captain of Tiger Company, back in the College, and she’d come highly recommended to me by both Juniper and Hakram. Next to her, tapping his fingers against the stone, stood Commander Nauk. He sent a cheerful grin my way, pushing one of the knight figures half an inch forward when Juniper wasn’t looking. Oh, that’s going to drive her crazy when she notices it. Nauk was, I reflected, a bit of a bastard. But he was my bastard, and that made all the difference.
If the orc commander was my creature, though, then there was no denying that Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara was Juniper’s. Getting the Taghreb former captain on her staff had been, so far, the only favour my Legate had asked of me. I’d made a point of seeing it done: the deeper in my debt Juniper was, the better. Besides, she was too much of a professional to make the request if she didn’t think the Fifteenth would benefit from it. I’d kicked up the request to Black, and within two bells Scribe’s bureaucratic wizardry had seen to it that Aisha was one of mine.
“Lady Squire,” Juniper gravelled. “I take it all went well?”
I repressed a twitch at the formal address she insisted on keeping using. In some ways I’d preferred it when she constantly insulted me, mostly because the interaction felt more honest. But since the very moment the Fifteenth had been officially formed, she’d turned horribly formal on me and no amount of telling her to do otherwise had managed to break her of the habit.
“Well,” I mused. “I’m not getting invited to any social occasions for the foreseeable future but we have the papers.”
Commander Nauk barked out a laugh, elbowing Aisha in the sides – she eyed him like he’d just spit on a silk dress and quietly stepped on his foot. His steel-capped boots were thick enough he didn’t even notice.
“Gave them the old Callow treatment, did you?” the orc snickered.
“Is it really the original Callow treatment if nothing explodes, though?” Ratface wondered.
“Whoever gave you the impression you’re funny has a place waiting in the worst Hell, Quartermaster,” Juniper grunted. “When are we getting the rations?”
“They’ll be in our stocks before nightfall,” Ratface replied, thoroughly unoffended. “I appear to have misremembered the actual number of soldiers in the Fifteenth, so we’ll end up with some surplus.”
There was a reason the handsome Taghreb was our Supply Tribune. He had a way of getting his hands on whatever we needed and a little more, no matter how much bureaucracy stood in his way. I’d considered asking him exactly how he managed that, but a crate of Vale summer wine had appeared in my quarters before I could. How he’d even known it was my favourite drink was a mystery, as was the way he’d gotten his hands on it when Vale itself was currently one of the main strongholds of the rebellion.
“Useful,” Hune spoke mildly, her voice surprisingly delicate for a woman her size. “We can trade with other Legions on the way to the front.”
“Discretion will be key,” Aisha murmured. “A certain amount of that is tolerated, but it’s technically against regulations.”
I’d made all of my senior officers aware of why exactly we needed to toe the line of Legion rules, at least in appearance. There was no telling where Heiress had friends just waiting to kick up a fuss.
“Oh you know me,” Ratface smiled. “Discretion is my middle name.”
Aisha rolled her eyes, not deigning to humour him further.
“We’ll be ready to march tomorrow, Legate?” Hakram gravelled, getting the conversation back on track before I needed to step in.
“There should be no further issue,” Juniper agreed. “We’ll be off with dawn.”
I hummed, rather pleased.
“This will be the last staff meeting we have in this camp, then,” I said. “It feels like something that should be celebrated with drinks. Only the one cup, though, I’ll have to get going soon.”
Juniper frowned as Hakram passed her by to pick up a carafe of wine. “You have another appointment?”
I grimaced. “I’ve received summons to the Tower. The Empress requests that we have a talk.”
A ripple of curiosity went through my officers.
“There’s no court session tonight, so I’m assuming it will be a private meeting?” the Staff Tribune probed.
“The message didn’t specify,” I replied. “Just to be sure, Aisha, would there be an issue with my wearing armour? I don’t actually own court dress.”
The Taghreb aristocrat shook her head. “If you’re summoned in your station as the Squire, military apparel is appropriate. You’re a little young for the Empress’ usual tastes, anyhow.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware Malicia was inclined towards women.”
Aisha shrugged. “She hasn’t added men to the Imperial seraglio since her ascension, so that’s the current belief.”
My eyes narrowed in distaste. “She kept the seraglio? Weeping Heavens, she used to be a concubine. She should know better.”
The Staff Tribune met my eyes unflinchingly. “With all due respect, my Lady, your Callowan is showing. The Imperial seraglio is, above all, a political institution. Of course Malicia keeps one.”
“I’m not seeing anything particularly political about keeping a stable of women to sleep with, Bishara,” I replied flatly.
“That’s because you think this is about sex,” she replied bluntly. “It isn’t. Consorts only share a bed with a Tyrant if they wish to. High Lords and Ladies send relatives into the seraglio to openly back a ruler or curry influence. Traditionally it’s a way for an Emperor or Empress to install individuals of unsuitable background at Court without going through the bureaucracy.”
“Traditionally,” Ratface repeated quietly. “Let’s not forget Nefarious, and he wasn’t the first.”
“Keep your personal politics out of this, Hasan,” Aisha retorted harshly. “That Emperor Nefarious turned his seraglio in some sort of… sordid sex dungeon was a sign he’d lost the ability to rule, and he paid for it with his life.”
I raised a hand. “All right, that’s enough. I wasn’t aware there were nuances to this, or I obviously wouldn’t have stuck my foot so forcefully in my mouth. I fully intend to continue this discussion at some point, Aisha, since it seems like a glaring hole in my political education. Now’s not the moment, though.”
“We’re leaving Ater behind tomorrow,” Juniper spoke, stare sweeping across all the officers. “We will be leaving politics with it.”
It wasn’t a question. We grabbed glasses and the wine was passed around, the harsh Wasteland red Hakram had fetched making the rounds. I raised my cup.
“To the Fifteenth,” I announced.
“We march West, once more,” the tall orc quoted in Mthethwa.
“Waging that same old war,” we all echoed, cups clinking together.
It was just as well none of us had spoken the rest of the famous verse.
Onward to the fields of Callow,
Swift death and graves shallow.