“Sooner or later, the Tower always gets its due.”
– Praesi saying
Spices were a rarity in Callow, and before Ater I’d ever only tasted salt.
I shovelled in another mouthful of biryani, enjoying the taste of cumin and pepper. Some part of me felt vaguely guilty about enjoying the dish so much: the amount of spices used to season the rice alone would have sold for enough in Laure to buy three meals. The chicken with caramelized onion sauce that accompanied it wasn’t exactly my favourite – I’d never been one for sweets – but after a visit to the Tower I figured I could use the energy. The Sword and Cup, Aisha’s old haunt, had become the unofficial watering hole for the Fifteenth over the last few months. The Staff Tribune had managed to exact the concession that our legionaries paid less on drinks, a deal the owner had become more than happy with when the steady stream of patrons had started coming in whenever on leave.
Ratface had been the one to introduce me to biryani, mildly horrified when I’d confessed I had no idea what cumin tasted like. He’d rolled his eyes when Hakram had pointed out how the oddity of a Taghreb being so fond of Soninke cooking, pointing out that sharing a mezze with legionaries was a good way to go home with an empty stomach. Apparently Taghreb were fond of putting out large plates for communal eating, a concept utterly foreign to me. Sharing a plate with someone in Callow was a sign of deep intimacy, and done in public only by gushing young lovers. Still, it was far from the strangest custom I’d encountered in the Wasteland.
I’d never actually met the owner of the Sword and Cup, but the staff had been taught to recognize me by sight. The moment I stepped in I was ushered up into a private room, only stopping to exchange a few words with some of my off-duty legionaries. Taghreb, Soninke, orcs and even a goblin – but no Callowans. They had a preferred tavern of their own, I’d been informed, run by a retired member of the Thirteenth Legion. I could understand the urge to cling to what you knew, but that didn’t make it any less of a problem for me. Off-duty is where friendships are made.
I put down my spoon and took a long pull from my tankard, the warmth of ale washing away the last remnants of the tension my meeting with the Empress had set in my shoulders. I’d learned enough during that single hour to chew on for the better part of the coming campaign, and little of it had been good. That the Warlock and his son were in Summerholm was the most immediate danger, in my opinion. For all that the man was my teacher’s ally, I’d have to tread very carefully around him: people didn’t get a nickname like the ‘Sovereign of the Red Skies’ by cultivating pretty gardens.
My train of thought was interrupted by someone softly knocking at the door and I frowned. It was a little early for someone to come to pick up my plate, and the staff wasn’t in the habit of disturbing me without good reason.
“Come in,” I called out.
A middle-aged Soninke woman opened the door and bowed apologetically.
“An officer from the Fifteenth requests an audience, my Lady,” she informed me.
I raised an eyebrow, very much doubting that was the phrasing that had actually been used. I’d encouraged most officers I worked with to do away with the courtesies that had started flowing in after I openly admitted to being the Squire. The exaggerated servility was rather grating.
“Who?” I asked.
The few people I shared meals with on a regular basis should have been in camp at the moment, seeing to the last preparations for our departure.
“She introduced herself as Senior Mage Kilian,” the woman replied.
My brow rose even higher. A pleasant surprise then, but Kilian was definitely supposed to be in camp. As Senior Mage she didn’t have a command of her own, but she was a member of the General Staff and charged with overseeing all mage operations in the Fifteenth. She should have been coordinating with Ratface to make sure our healers had all the necessary stock for what promised to be a rather bloody affair.
“Show her in,” I replied.
The woman bowed again. “By your leave, my Lady,” she murmured.
I leaned back in my seat and drank another mouthful of ale, not even having time for a repeat performance before Kilian entered the room in full legionary armour. Well, mage’s armour anyway. The mage lines in companies were issued a kit lighter than even the regulars, since the use of magic was so physically draining. Mages had been known to pass out inside the old one, before the Legions had adjusted their kit. Still, she was a sight for sore eyes. Kilian wasn’t strikingly pretty, but she had the kind of looks that were more attractive the more you paid attention to her. Or so I told myself. It would have been a little shallow of me to develop an interest just because of the red hair and her ability to light a man on fire at twenty paces.
“Catherine,” she greeted me, saluting under my amused stare.
“Kilian,” I replied. “I’d order you a plate, but I’m getting the impressions there’s pressing news.”
The mage eyed the remains of my biryani with longing for a moment before she squared it away.
“There’s a… situation in the camp,” she grimaced.
I sighed. “They couldn’t have waited for me to finish my plate, at least?”
The redhead’s lips twitched. “Deserters are rarely so considerate.”
Deserters? That got her my full attention.
“Are you telling me we’ve lost legionaries before we even left the Wasteland?” I asked flatly.
“Only shortly,” she replied. “They were caught close to the city by one of our patrols.”
And to think I’d believed Juniper’s insistence to change the patrol schedules randomly had been pointless. I frowned, studying the Senior Mage’s expression.
“They’re Callowans, aren’t they?” I realized. “Juniper wouldn’t have sent you otherwise.”
The mage nodded slowly. “Two of them, one a sergeant.”
I resisted the urge to curse. How the fuck am I supposed to start pulling Callowans up the ranks when the few officers from home I do have are deserting? I pushed aside my plate, appetite lost.
“Where are they being held?” I asked tiredly.
“Legate Juniper had one of the fort’s cellars converted into a cell,” Kilian replied, then hesitated.
My frown deepened. We had tents set aside for disciplinary measures. There should have been no need for the Hellhound to go that far.
“There’s more,” I spoke calmly. “Kilian, what happened?”
The Senior Mage grimaced again, the expression out of place on her elfin face. “They stabbed two legionaries trying to escape when they were caught. One of them is in critical condition. The healers say he might not make it through the night.”
I was too old to start throwing tantrums, and that was the only reason I didn’t smash my fist into the table. That and the Fifteenth’s finances were tight enough already without needing to replace civilian tables.
“The bloody idiots,” I hissed.
Desertion was bad enough – unless there were some very extenuating circumstances, it was a capital offence – but that they’d employed violence in trying to escape made it that much worse. If the wounded soldier didn’t make it, the Legion’s regulations were clear. Stoned to death by the dead legionary’s line. A public spectacle like that was the last thing I needed before we marched into war: all the tensions that had gone underground would flare up again. Kilian remained silent, looking deeply uncomfortable. At least I knew why Juniper had sent for me. She’d want to avoid a stoning as much as I did. Yet my Legate couldn’t execute the deserters without assembling a court-martial, and that would take time. Time we might not have, if the wounded soldier died in the night. The only way around that was, well, me. As a Named apprenticed to the Black Knight himself, I had the legal authority to kill anyone under my command without bothering with the judicial niceties. It was a holdover from the old days that Malicia had been careful to maintain: it had allowed my teacher to clean house in Callow as much as needed without seeking the Tower’s permission every time. I passed a hand through my hair.
“Did you come by horse?” I asked Kilian.
“Requisitioned a mount from the Imperial messengers’ stable,” she nodded.
“Get a fresh one,” I ordered. “The quicker this is dealt with, the better.”
Night had fallen by the time we got back to camp.
The wounded man was still alive, thank the Gods. The Fifteenth’s healers had dealt with his wounds on the surface, but they could do nothing about the internal bleeding. Most of the medical jargon they’d used had gone over my head, but the gist of it seemed that one of the organs in the stomach that were too delicate to fix using magic had been torn through when the man had gotten stabbed. I felt another flare of anger at the thought of it: stomach wounds were a bad way to go. The legionary had gotten a potion for the pain, but there wasn’t much more the healers could do. Juniper was in a mood when we met, unsurprisingly.
“That kind of shit is why we spread out foreigners across multiple legions,” she growled, pacing across the room. “I don’t know what the fucking Marshals were thinking, giving us so may recruits from the same place.”
We both knew the Marshals had little to do with it, but Juniper had always been reluctant to speak ill of Black in any way.
“It’s done,” I replied wearily. “Pot’s broke, crying’s not going to get the water back in.”
“Do you see anyone crying?” she snarled. “My Lady,” she added a moment after, with visible effort.
I waved away the unspoken contrition. If she was finally starting to get stick out of her ass when it came to me, I wasn’t going to get picky about her language.
“I don’t suppose there’s still a way to keep this quiet?” I asked her.
The orc shook her head. “I ordered the legionaries who apprehended them to remain silent, but it’ll out sooner or later. Besides, the officers in charge of their lines will need a reason for why they’re not reporting for duty.”
The answer wouldn’t be pretty for either of the cases, unfortunately.
“The deserters are both from the same line?” I asked.
Juniper nodded. “Their lieutenant hadn’t even noticed they were missing,” she growled. “Our officer corps is too green, Foundling. They’ll make mistakes on the field. I wish we’d had time to run war games before being deployed.”
I smiled mirthlessly. One day, maybe I’d tell her why Callow had rebelled now and not ten years in the future. Not today, though, and I’d make sure she hit the aragh first.
“They’re sending us in the thick of it because we’re still green, Juniper,” I replied. “Black’s been tight-lipped about it, but I think there’s more to this than just a rebellion.”
The Hellhound’s dark eyes scrutinized me. “Procer?”
“The most likely suspect,” I grunted. “You’d think that after their civil war they’d leave the rest of Creation alone for a while, but that’s the Principate for you. They’re never happy unless they’re chewing at someone else’s borders.”
Juniper ran a pensive hand over the maps still adorning her table. She had surprisingly delicate fingers for an orc, I noticed. Nauk’s might as well have been sausages, but my Legate’s could almost have passed for a human’s if not for the colour.
“We’ve never fought the Principate except during the Crusades,” she said. “We’ll have to adjust tactics accordingly, if war breaks out. They don’t rely as heavily on cavalry as the Kingdom did.”
“I have a set of Theodosius’ treatises, if you want to look at it,” I told her. “I’m sure they’ve made adjustments to their doctrine since the League Wars, but the basics should remain similar.”
“Hakram has one too,” she replied absently. “I’ll borrow it.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. As my adjutant the other orc had been working closely with the Legate, but I hadn’t known they were friendly. I’d never seen Juniper spend her personal time with anyone other than Aisha, actually, though I put no stock in Robber’s constant insinuations those two were a couple. The goblin captain wasn’t exactly a credible source: he’d once spent the better part of a fortnight composing a ballad about the tragic forbidden love between Nauk and one of the oxen the Fifteenth used as beasts of burden. It had actually been a pretty catchy tune, not that I would ever admit that out loud.
“If we can’t kill the rumours, we’ll have to be straightforward about it,” I spoke, returning to our original topic. “Inform the officers as soon as it’s handled.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Juniper grunted. “It might be best if you distance yourself from the matter, Lady Squire.”
I rolled my eyes at the sudden return to formality.
“Distancing myself isn’t really an option, Juniper,” I replied. “That’s why you sent Kilian to get me in the first place.”
“I meant afterwards,” the Hellhound replied. “You’re not an officer, my Lady. Warlords don’t explain themselves to the ranks. They do what needs to be done, and the Clan falls into line.”
Like most orcs, Juniper used the Lower Miezan word ‘warlord’ regardless of the gender of the person being referred to. The Kharsum word for the same meaning had no gender attached to it, and if she was aware if the inaccuracy she didn’t seem to care.
“My Name isn’t Warlord, Juniper,” I reminded her.
“No, it’s Squire,” she acknowledged flatly. “A Callowan Squire. If you’re seen getting too heavily involved in this, our Praesi legionaries might think you’re favouring the Westerners. I don’t need to tell you how dangerous that could get.”
I grimaced, but did not dispute the point. My Legate had this nasty habit of being right, especially when I didn’t want to hear it. I was spared further discussion of the matter by Hakram returning from the errand I’d sent him on, tramping in with a bottle of wine and three cups. He saluted Juniper absent-mindedly and turned to face me.
“I’ve got what you asked,” he gravelled.
There was a look on his face, like he wanted to say more but was biting his tongue.
“Out with it, Adjutant,” I grunted.
“You sure you want to do this, Catherine?” he asked.
Ah, Hakram. I’d thought his objections would be about what would be said when word got out, but as always I underestimated him. That he was worried about me and not the consequences of my actions had me fonder of him than I probably should be.
“Needs to be done,” I finally said.
“You don’t have to be the one to do it,” he retorted.
“It’d be a dangerous habit to get in,” I murmured, “asking others to do what I’m not willing to do myself.”
That was the thing with villainy, I was starting to understand: every step downhill seemed more reasonable than the last. If hands have to be bloodied, let them be mine. And if I can’t bring myself to do it, then maybe it shouldn’t be done at all. The all orc nodded sharply and dropped the subject, handing me the bottle and cups. My eyes flicked to Juniper and I found her face inscrutable as she studied the both of us. Without another word to either of them, I made my way down the set of stairs leading to the cellar. A pair of Taghreb legionaries flanked the door and one of them fished out the key from the ring on his belt, unlocking the door without needing to be prompted. They saluted as I crossed the threshold, their gaze feeling heavy on my back.
“Well, shit,” a voice announced. “They kicked this up the ladder pretty quick.”
There were two men inside, crouched next to an empty barrel. One of them was older, a blond-haired and blue-eyed man built like a brawler and sporting a purpling black eye – he’d been the one to speak. The other was shorter and skinnier, brown-haired and dark-eyed. If the angle he was cradling his arm at was any indication, it had been broken pretty brutally. There was a small stool next to the door and I claimed it as my own, leaning my back against the wall.
“Something like that,” I agreed, the iron cups clinking as my fingers tightened.
The blond one would be Sergeant Pike, if I remembered Juniper’s briefing correctly. The other one had taken the option of adopting a new name when he’d joined the Legions and went by Alban. That he’d chosen the name of the first ruling dynasty of Callow as his own meant he’d either gone through the Imperial orphanages or that his family had been well-off – not just anyone could afford history lessons.
“So, “I mused out loud as the two of them eyes me warily. “Would either of you gentlemen care to explain how you came to hatch a plan so godsdamned stupid?”
There was a heartbeat, then Pike laughed.
“Hells, Squire,” he replied and I had to force my face to remain friendly at the unwarranted familiarity, “if we were that smart, we wouldn’t have ended up here in the first place.”
He smiled at me, cheeks dimpling handsomely as he did. He was fairly good-looking, in a Liessen way. Fair hair like his wasn’t as common around Laure, though not exactly rare either.
“I didn’t mean to stab the orc, ma’am,” the other one blurted out suddenly. “It was just, he was growling and I panicked and-“
I raised a hand to interrupt him. Uncorking the bottle with a twist of the wrist, I poured myself a cup and took a sip. Pike’s eyes followed me carefully, belying his almost nonchalant pose.
“Wine?” I asked. “It’s from Hedges, but it’s still better than a parched throat.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” the sergeant replied.
Alban blinked nervously. “Sarge,” he spoke with watery eyes. “Should we really-“
Pike slapped him across the face, his expression never changing. “Take the nice lady’s wine, Alby,” he said flatly. “If we’re going to get out of this alive, we need to listen very closely to what she says.”
Alban whimpered but took the cup when I handed it to him. So did Pike, though I noticed he only wet his lips until I took a second pull from my own.
“Here’s the thing,” I spoke. “If you two had tried to pull a runner after we’d crossed the Wasaliti, I would have understood. You might have managed to get lost in the Fields. But here, this deep in the Wasteland? Even if you’d managed to get into Ater, you would have stuck out like a sore thumb.”
Two white boys in a city where there couldn’t be more than a few hundred expatriated Callowans? They would have been caught the very day I put out a search order. Ater was big, but it was also full of Praesi who wanted nothing more than to see a few Westerners do the quick drop and the sudden stop.
“Officers would have kept a closer watch when we got close to combat,” Pike admitted. “Didn’t want to risk it.”
I sighed. “The two of you are gallows recruits, I take it?”
“Got into a fight with the city guard in Vale,” the sergeant smiled. “Things got a little out of hand.”
I hummed and turned my eyes to Alban. The boy shuddered, remaining silent until Pike elbowed him.
“My family’s from Denier,” the boy stammered. “They were, uh, implicated in a seditious movement.”
No wonder they got caught. Denier’s garrison was the Fourth Legion, and it was an open secret in Callow that the Imperial Governor was little more than a front for Marshal Ranker: legionaries patrolled openly in the streets in lieu of the city guard. Of the three Marshals the former goblin Matron was the most cunning – planning rebellion in a city where she ruled in all but name was doomed to failure.
“Drink your wine, Alby,” Pike told him. “Maybe you’ll be able to stop pissing your pants in front of the Squire with a little liquid courage in you.”
Alban obeyed. I was becoming more and more inclined to believe the boy’s claim that he hadn’t meant to stab anyone. He didn’t have the spine for real resistance, not that it made any difference. Pike drained the rest of his cup and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his aketon.
“So how bad is it, ma’am?” he asked. “The Hellhound’s got to be asking for our heads on a silver platter.”
“That depends on whether or not the legionary with the stomach wound survives the night,” I replied. “If he doesn’t, the usual punishment is being stoned to death.”
The brown-haired boy whimpered again, and I couldn’t help but feel a surge of contempt for him. Maybe it wasn’t fair of me, but he was just so… weak. Just a minion for Pike to push around, lacking any will of his own. And his spinelessness might cost me an actual soldier, one who’d been doing his job. Some of that must have shown on my face, because the fair-haired sergeant took a long look at me and immediately began changing tracks.
“The goblin I cut up is fine though, right?” he asked.
“It was a minor wound,” I replied. “He’ll have nothing left of it but a scar come morning.”
I got what he meant loud and clear – his own actions had been relatively harmless, so he should be spared Alban’s fate. I smiled at him. I’m an actual villain, Sergeant Pike, and I’m not that quick to throw my subordinates under the chariot. If I’d had any doubts left about people being born in a Good nation being any naturally better than those who weren’t, this conversation would have buried them. The fair-haired boy coughed.
“Anyway, we learned our lesson about desertion. Stupid idea, should have just served my term. I know the fucking greenskins will be howling for a meal, but d’you think we could get away with a flogging?”
“I have the ultimate authority over all disciplinary measures in the Fifteenth,” I noted. “If tell Juniper to just send you back to your lines, there’s nothing she can do about it.”
Pike snickered. “Wouldn’t that be a sight to see. You probably shouldn’t, though,” he advised. “If we get off without any punishment the Wastelanders will kick up a fuss.” He leaned closer. “I know you have to pretend to give a shit about what they think as long as you run the show. Must be a pain, huh?”
He elbowed Alban again to nudge him into agreeing, but the boy didn’t react.
“It’s been a little complicated telling right from wrong, since I became a villain,” I agreed softly. “The lines in the sand aren’t where I left them. I’m too used to seeing anyone from Callow as the good guys and anyone from Praes as the villains.”
“That’s pretty much how it is, though,” Pike frowned. “I mean, there’s a few of them who are tolerable – Alby here had this Soninke piece who was making eyes at him, for example. What was her name again?”
Alban did not reply. His eyes were closed. Pike snorted.
“Little shit probably passed out from sheer relief,” he told me.
“I’m afraid he’s quite dead,” I replied calmly. “Make sense he’d go first, he’s smaller – the poison won’t take as long to act.”
My Name blazed through my veins, burning out the rest of the toxin running through my body.
“You-“ Pike tried to snarl, but his tongue had gotten numb.
“I’m still soft, I know,” I replied quietly. “I asked for something painless when you don’t really deserve it. But that choice wasn’t about you, it was about me. I don’t want to be the kind of person who inflicts pain when they don’t need to.”
The sergeant tried to get up but his limbs gave out before he could do more than crawl, falling at my feet as I looked down on him.
“Here’s the thing, Sergeant,” I said. “I’m not sure what side I’m on. Not of them really fit. But I do know this: whatever side it is, you’re not on it.”
I got to my feet as the last of life left the man’s eyes, brushing off my armour. Had I been fair tonight, I wondered? I’d been within my rights, certainly, but they were rights given to me by the Empire. The laws of the Tower were supremely unconcerned by factors as trivial as morality. I eyed the two corpses for a long moment, then decided it didn’t matter. I hadn’t forgotten the lesson Heiress taught me, that night on the Blessed Isle.
Justifications only matter to the just.