“Home is wherever you can order someone drowned and not get any odd looks.”
-Dread Emperor Malignant III
He’d found a spot ringed by bushes a little off the road. It must have been used by travellers: there were still ashes from the last time someone had lit a fire. Gathering wood was a little trickier than usual since he had his mother’s sword instead of a hatchet, but he’d managed without cutting off any of his limbs. No bedroll for him, though his cloak was thick enough it would serve just as well – it wouldn’t be his first time sleeping out in the wild. He wasn’t close enough to the Wasteland for the things that roamed the night out there to be an issue, thank the Gods Below. There was a rustle in the bushes ahead and the green-eyed boy’s hand dropped to his sword. Fate was ever fond of its little ironies. Still, bandits this close to Satus? Unusual. He’d heard the freeholder militia kept the land safe, or at least as safe as land could get in the Empire. After a moment a dark-skinned boy around his age emerged from the greens, looking a little harried.
“Good evening,” the stranger said.
His voice was deep and smooth, the kind you could listen to for hours even if the conversation was boring. Amadeus’ fingers relaxed against the hilt of the sword but did not leave it entirely. No point in taking any stupid risks.
“Evening,” he replied cautiously.
“I ask for the shelter of your fire, traveller,” the other boy said, tone ceremonial.
“Granted,” Amadeus answered, keeping his relief off his face.
He was familiar with the Taghreb custom: the stranger had just agreed there would be no violence between them until dawn. The other boy’s skin was too dark for him to be one of the desert-dwellers, but at the moment he wasn’t inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“Oh thank the Gods,” the other traveler said, running a hand through his short black hair. “I was beginning to think I’d have to roll up under a tree for the night.”
Amadeus raised an eyebrow.
“You don’t know how to make a fire?”
The other boy flashed him a grin, white teeth gleaming in the fire’s light.
“Not the sort you use in a camp,” he replied, licks of blue flame wreathing his hand for a moment before dissipating into nothingness.
“Useful trick,” the green-eyed boy said. “Mage?”
The stranger nodded.
“I go by Apprentice. You?”
The dream stayed with me long after I woke.
A warning or an introduction? If I wasn’t mistaken the boy who’d come out of the bushes had been Warlock, long before he claimed his current Name. The vision had been shorter than the glimpses I usually got and, well, arguably not as important. The dreams I’d dreamt before had always been turning points in Black’s life, lessons he learned or taught. Unless this was a turning point. There was no denying that without a mage of the Warlock’s calibre on his side much of what Black had accomplished would have been beyond his reach. Ultimately, I sighed and put the whole thing aside. The meaning would become clear in due time, I imagined.
We were halfway through the month of Taj by the time the Fifteenth got to Summerholm. There’d never been any question of our being accommodated inside the city-fortress: what remained of the Twelfth took up all the available space and then some. Some citizens had apparently been forced to quarter soldiers and I could just imagine how well that had gone over. It hadn’t even been a year since the hangings, after all, and no one held grudges quite like Callowans. My legion would need to trickle through the city and settle in one of the now-abandoned camps on the western bank. I’d elected to enter Summerholm ahead of the ranks, fully expecting I’d meet with General Afolabi at some point. My weekly scrying sessions with Black had me mostly up to date on the state of the war but I’d be better to have the perspective of someone with boots on the ground. How friendly the general would actually be was still unknown, though. Afolabi Magoro was old Soninke nobility, and though I doubted anyone so high up the food chain would be affiliated with the Truebloods, being a racist asshole didn’t exactly disqualify people from command in the Legions. That he’d lost almost a quarter of the Twelfth to the rebels when they rose up in Marchford wasn’t doing much to inspire hope in that regard.
I reined up Zombie ahead of the bridge, more for show than anything else. The undead horse responded to my will, not actual physical stimulus. Squinting ahead to see who Nauk had picked for my escort yielded a pleasant surprise: Nilin was patiently waiting a little further ahead, flanked by a pair of lines from his cohort. That Nauk had sent his Senior Tribune to escort me was a little surprising given how heavily I knew the orc relied on the man’s organisational skills, but I supposed he’d decided to keep my safety in the family, so to speak. While I’d been careful not to show outright favouritism, there was no denying I was a lot closer to the officers who’d followed me into the Fifteenth from Rat Company. The calm-eyed Soninke saluted when I trotted Zombie up to him – if he was uncomfortable at standing so close to a necromantic construct, there was no trace of it on his face. Then again, Praesi don’t really get worked up about necromancy. That made sense, in a way: more often than not, if there were undead on the field they’d be on the Empire’s side.
“Lady Squire,” Nilin greeted me.
“Tribune,” I replied a tad drily.
I’d already made my opinion of formality between us perfectly clear, and though he acceded to my wishes whenever we went for drinks he defaulted to titles whenever we were in public. The dark-skinned man rolled his eyes at the unspoken dig.
“Are you ready to enter the city?” he asked.
“Juniper’s already handling the marching orders,” I shrugged. “Might as well bite the blade and get the politics over with.”
Nilin nodded and whistled sharply. The lines fell behind us in good order, the Tribune himself keeping pace with my horse’s gait with little effort. I cast a pensive look at the legionaries following us, idly rubbing a thumb against the hilt of my sword. Soon I’d need to assemble a retinue of my own, my personal equivalent to my teacher’s Blackguards. I’d been given no limit on the size of it, though given that I’d have to feed and equip them from my own pocket I’d have to keep it manageable. I was currently getting paid the equivalent of a general’s salary, an income that made the savings I’d brought from Callow with me laughable in comparison. By Laurean standards I had the means of a merchant from the upper crust, though I still fell way short of most landed nobles. I’d have to be careful who I took in, though. My retinue would serve to handle the matters I couldn’t pursue through the Fifteenth as well as my personal security, which made me reluctant to involve Praesi. Not an urgent matter yet, I decided. While I’d been lost in my own thoughts Nilin had apparently turned his attention to the bridge we were crossing, seemingly fascinated with the construction.
“I’m not seeing much here but stone,” I told him, shaking him out of his own introspection.
The dark-skinned man cleared his throat, mildly embarrassed. “I have something of an interest in architecture,” he admitted. “The way Callowans adapted Miezan engineering is completely different than ours – the style is purely local, but the underlying principles are the same.”
I cocked my head to the side. “A good bridge, then?”
“It won’t last as long as the structures on the Blessed Isle, but I’d consider it vastly superior to anything else in Callow. Or even some parts of Praes, to be honest.”
I filed that away for further reference, though I was more interested in this previously-unseen aspect of the tribune.
“I hadn’t pegged you for the scholarly type,” I informed him.
The Soninke shrugged. “I was on the Imperial ticket before the War College,” he replied. “I considered taking the sapper classes before falling in with Nauk, but the command track had better career prospects.”
I blinked in surprise. “You attended one of the Imperial schools? I think you’re the first student from there I met. I honestly still have a hard time believing the Tower funds free education.”
Nilin chuckled, the sound halfway between bitter and amused.
“Free is a bit of a stretch, Lady Squire,” he told me. “Students might not need to pay in gold, but we are bound to serve the Tower for time equivalent to the span of our education – either as public servants or soldiers.”
I grimaced. That did sound a little more like the Empire I knew. “So how’d you end up in the College from there?” I asked. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you’re under my command but the War College isn’t exactly a scholarly institution.”
“I placed among the first five students of my year, so I was offered a full scholarship for the College,” Nilin explained. “Not where I thought I’d end up, but it beat ending up as a tax collector in Callow.”
“I’m sure you would have been a splendidly efficient tax collector,” I replied loyally, though I couldn’t quite hide the twitch of my lips.
“No doubt,” the Soninke replied dryly. “Still, it would have been a shame to miss all this excitement. Nauk’s been rather eager to sink his teeth into a real battle and I must admit the enthusiasm is contagious.”
I raised an eyebrow: neither his face nor his tone had been in any way affected by this supposed enthusiasm, though I supposed that was kind of Nilin’s way. When the Rat Company veterans went drinking, he was the only one who never got rowdy when drunk – the most affected I’d ever seen him was when he’d spent half a bell lecturing Robber on why it was exceedingly rude to insinuate people from Wolof still practiced mass sacrifice in the Maze of Kilns. We spent the rest of the walk across the bridge in idle chit chat, a pleasant distraction from what lay ahead of me. Still, soon enough we arrived at the gates. The tall bronze-forged doors were wide open and it seemed like General Afolabi had been expecting me. A line of legionaries was waiting by the sentries, standing ramrod straight now that I’d come into view. The officer among them came forward and I was pleasantly surprised to note she was a Senior Tribune: Afolabi could have gotten away with sending me someone lower in rank as a greeter. That he’d bothered sending someone that high-ranking was a good sign.
“Ma’am,” the woman welcomed me with a sharp salute. “Welcome to Summerholm. The General sends his compliments on making such good time.”
“Very kind of him,” I replied easily. “Your name, soldier?”
“Senior Tribune Fadia,” she introduced herself. “I’m to be your escort in the city.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware the situation in Summerholm warranted an additional line to complement my own guard.”
The Senior Tribune’s lips thinned. “I’ve been instructed to answer all your questions until the general can meet you,” she replied. “But, if I may, this is not the kind of conversation that should be had in the open. Rooms have been made available to you in the Comital Palace for rest and refreshments.”
Very cagey, I decided. But not disrespectful, so there was no need to burn goodwill by pressing the matter here. What exactly was going on in Summerholm? The city was far enough away from the frontlines of the Liesse Rebellion that there shouldn’t be any risk of assault. Not to mention that attacking a place as heavily fortified as this one would be bald idiocy. Was this relating to Warlock? The Calamity was, as far as I knew, still in the city.
“Lead on, then, Senior Tribune,” I finally replied.
One of these days, I was going to manage a Summerholm visit where nobody tried to kill me. But odds are it isn’t going to be this one.
The Comital Palace was remarkably austere, compared to its equivalent in Laure.
It wasn’t an entirely unexpected development. The Counts of Summerholm had always been the martial sorts, even back when they’d ruled a petty kingdom of their own before the founding of Callow. The room I’d been given was smaller than the one Black had set aside for me in his own Ater estate but it was comfortable nonetheless: the furniture was expensive imported Liessen wood and freshly polished. The tapestries adorning the walls depicted hunts or battles, and if the amount of Imperial defeats showing was any indication nobody had bothered to change them since the Conquest. A carafe of cooled wine was waiting for me on the antechamber’s table when I entered, flanked by a pair of glasses. It was a little early in the day to start drinking, but the sun had been out in force and I’d worked up a thirst – I poured myself a glass and offered the same to Nilin, though my minion declined. Senior Tribune Fadia stood uncomfortably as I claimed a seat with a little sigh of pleasure, my own Senior Tribune coming to stand at my right like an unflappable gargoyle.
“The information I’m about to share is considered restricted,” Fadia spoke, too polite to outright say she’d like me to send Nilin out of the room.
Well bully for her, because he wasn’t going anywhere. I’d already made as much of a concession as I intended to make by keeping my legionaries out in the corridors.
“I wouldn’t have brought Senior Tribune Nilin at all if I didn’t trust him,” I replied flatly. “Now what exactly is going on here, soldier? My patience is running thin.”
The woman cleared her throat. “We have reason to suspect there are heroes in the city.”
I closed my eyes and leaned back in my seat, rubbing the bridge of my nose. “Of course that fucker decided to make an appearance,” I complained. “Clearly, the situation wasn’t volatile enough already – and wait, did you say heroes?”
It’d taken me a moment to notice the plural.
“Our assessment is at least two,” Fadia said. “Likely more.”
“Whatever happened to the Lone in Lone Swordsman?” I griped. “This is unacceptable. Do you see Black prancing about in white robes? It’s called a Name, not a Suggestion.”
The woman made a noncommittal noise, face blank and eyes just a little too wide.
“The Lady Squire isn’t one to blame the messenger, Senior Tribune,” Nilin spoke calmly. “There is no need to fear for your life.”
Fadia let out a ragged breath. Huh. Had that been why she’d been so nervous around me? I supposed I could see where she was coming from. For all that my teacher and his associates were the practical sorts, they were just the latest generation in a long tradition of villainy. I’d read enough about past Tyrants to know that killing the bearers of bad news had been one of the milder vices they’d displayed. I’d have to go a long way to ever top forcing a High Lord to build an alligator pit at their own expense just to push them into it.
“Has the general been able to identify any of the heroes?” I asked.
The Senior Tribune nodded. “We know a Thief is currently active in the city. A recent theft fits the pattern she displayed when she was last in Summerholm.”
I cocked my head to the side. “What did she steal?”
“Keys,” Fadia replied. “Several sets, most of them giving access to military infrastructure.”
I frowned. “I have a hard time believing a Thief would need keys to – ah. There’s enough of them they expect to be operating at multiple places simultaneously.”
“That is General Afolabi’s conclusion as well,” she nodded. “Lord Warlock has set up defensive wards over key positions, but he’s informed us that they have counter-measures blocking his scrying.”
“Then they have either a priest or a mage of some talent,” Nilin contributed quietly. “This is not a probe, they’re here for a specific reason.”
I frowned. Had my old buddy the Swordsman come to settle our disagreement? It would be a break in pattern for him to gather other heroes just for the purpose of taking me out. How much help they’d be was debatable, anyway: in the end, it would come down to the two of us. Unless he’s trying to kill me on our second encounter. That seemed… unusually flexible of him, though. I wasn’t buying it.
“How is order in the city?” I asked the Senior Tribune.
The woman smiled thinly. “There was some rioting after the Hanging at Marchford, but things quieted down when Lord Warlock entered the city. There’s been no widespread resistance since, but we’ve been losing men for the last few fortnights.”
“Patrols are getting hit?” I asked.
“Assassinations,” Fadia corrected quietly. “Every morning we find an officer carved up in the streets.”
I hissed out a curse in Kharsum. “They’re torturing soldiers?”
“Someone’s taking a knife to their face to cut up a message,” she admitted. “It’s always the same words.”
I stared her down until she continued.
“No truce with the Enemy,” she quoted. She hesitated a moment before continuing. “Our healers say that the wound pattern means they’re still alive when the message is carved.”
Well, shit. That wasn’t even anti-hero behaviour, it was downright villainous. The Lone Swordsman had always had that gritty edge to him, but this was… And we know whose fault this is, don’t we Catherine? Turns out letting angry vicious heroes loose on Creation can have consequences. Who would have thought? Fuck, I might as well have wielded the knife myself. You can have a self-flagellation session later, I told myself. Business first.
“How many people know?” I asked tiredly.
“The first corpse was found in the Court of Swords,” the Senior Tribune grimaced. “The whole city knows.”
I resisted the urge to curse again. So much for keeping a lid on this.
“And you say there’s been no resistance?” I repeated in a sceptical tone.
“Nothing open, if anything that’s more worrying,” the woman said. “Ma’am, Summerholm is a boiling pot about to tip over. If things continue like this, the general thinks we’ll be facing a full-scale uprising before the end of the month.”
I grit my teeth. “And what has the Warlock been doing about this?”
“Besides the wards? Nothing. He’s been holed up in the western bastion with his son since he arrived,” Fadia replied with poorly-masked resentment. “Requests for his intervention have been systematically ignored.”
What the Hells is going on here? I wondered. The man was a Calamity, he’d been part of the crew to conquer Callow in the first place. Why wasn’t he stepping in before things got out of control? Weeping Heavens, why wasn’t Black ordering him to intervene? I knew for a fact they were in contact. Some part of me was wondering whether this was another test, but I’d gotten to know my teacher better than that – he wouldn’t allow a situation like this to fester without a damned good reason, and seeing whether or not I had it in me to put down rioting Callowans hardly qualified. It would be… wasteful, and Black was anything but.
“Nilin,” I spoke up. “Send a runner to Juniper. We’re walking into a shed full of sharpers, and someone just stole a matchbox.”
The Soninke nodded and made for the corridor to see it done. I returned my attention to the other Senior Tribune, forcing my face into a mask of equanimity.
“Is there anything else I should know?”
“General Afolabi invites you and your senior officers to sup with him tonight,” she replied. “Lord Warlock has asked that you come see him as soon as feasible.”
I smiled sharply. “That’s nice. I need to have a good, long talk with the man anyway.”
Fadia looked mildly embarrassed, then cleared her throat again. “The general has also respectfully requested that, uh, you not bring goblinfire stocks within city limits.”
I closed my eyes and let out a deep sigh, ignoring the choking noise that was Nilin trying not to laugh. “That won’t be a problem,” I replied, getting up to my feet.
Time to find Hakram: I had a few questions to ask the Sovereign of the Red Skies, and he’d better have some good godsdamned answers.
“Morale has hit the bottom of the barrel,” Hakram informed me as we made our way to the western bastion. “The Legions weren’t designed to suppress civilian unrest and it’s been showing.”
I grunted in agreement. There was a reason the Empire had kept most of the Kingdom’s civilian infrastructure intact after the Conquest. Putting aside how the dismantling of major Callowan institutions would have been a headache and a half to implement, the Legions of Terror were not a peacekeeping organisation. Legionaries were trained to solve their problems through efficient application of violence, but putting all malcontents to the noose would just have been adding fuel to the fire. And the Empire wants very, very badly to avoid being in a position where they have to stamp down open flames. I wondered if Black had lost credibility when the Liesse Rebellion had broken out: he had, after all, been the closest thing Callow had to a ruler in the last twenty years. Imperial Governors were ultimately answerable only to the Tower, but as Malicia’s mandated right hand my teacher had been straight above them in the pecking order. Or would this reflect badly on the Empress?
“What’s the word on General Afolabi?” I asked, deciding to table the train of thought for the moment.
I’d bring it up to Aisha later: she was the closest thing to a political adviser I had in the Fifteenth. Hakram hummed thoughtfully, gathering his thought before he answered my question. My adjutant had spent the last half-bell mingling with the rank and file of the Twelfth Legion, getting an idea of where their mind set was at. That I hadn’t even needed to ask him to do it was yet another mark in the orc’s favour: Hakram had a way of putting the finger on problems before I even noticed they existed and setting out to fix them.
“They haven’t lost faith in him, not exactly,” the orc replied. “He wasn’t in command at Marchford and nobody expects him to be able to deal with heroes on his own. But this is the second bloody nose the Twelfth has gotten in two months, and they need to blame someone.”
I grimaced. So in bad position but not yet desperate. I’d have to take care of the situation before it ever got to that part: I had no intention whatsoever of allowing legionaries to put down riots by the sword. The whole reason I’d become the Squire in the first place was to stop the likes of this, and I couldn’t quite ignore the guilty itch in the back of my head that whispered I was directly responsible for this mess in the first place. Besides, a civilian massacre would have consequences in the rest of Callow. The centre and the north were still under control but if the Empire starting killing people in the streets, unrest would flare up.
Nothing exists in a vacuum, Catherine, Black’s voice reminded me. Not Names, not thrones, not armies. Pull the thread and something will always give.
“And the Imperial Governor?” I wondered. “I’d expected to get a message from them by now.”
Hakram snorted. “That’d be quite the feat. The man’s dead – he bought it in the first batch of assassinations. Summerholm’s been under martial law since.”
“I’m starting to think the Swordsman has a fetish for killing those,” I grunted in displeasure. “That’s two he got rid of in the span of a year.”
“Different folk, different strokes,” Hakram mused and I snorted.
Before the conversation could further get off track we arrived at the bastion’s entrance, such as it was. The squat tower in front of us was one of the several that dotted the outer ring of the city, overlooking the streets under it with a wide top designed to accommodate bowmen and siege engines. Should an army manage to make it past the outer walls, Summerholm had been built to bleed them dry. A handful of legionaries stood in the alcoves flanking the gates to the bastion itself, but there was no sign of any Legion activity up above. Had the Calamity claimed an entire defensive structure for himself? I laid a hand on the wooden doors but immediately drew it back.
“Catherine?” Hakram asked.
“Magic,” I replied. “Powerful stuff.”
“Lord Warlock has been said to have put wards out in the city,” the orc noted. “It would have been stranger if there wasn’t one over his lodgings.”
“That’s not a defensive ward,” I spoke with a frown. “I know what those feel like, Black taught me to recognize them. This is… weird. Like the entire bastion is some sort of spell.”
“Is it harmful?” my adjutant questioned.
“I don’t think so,” I admitted after a heartbeat. “It feels prickly when there’s an active pattern. This is passive, if anything.”
Whatever it was, it was also kept working by a gargantuan amount of power. Maybe not as large as the old sorcery laid in the Tower’s stones, but much larger than anything else I’d seen. Taking a deep breath, I pushed the doors open and stepped through the threshold. I felt something wash over my skin, but nothing else happened. I cast a look around only to see that the ground floor was empty. It was supposed to serve as a common room, but besides benches and tables there was nothing of note. Ignoring the uneasy feeling settling in my stomach I pressed forward to the stairs in the back of the room, Hakram following suit in silence. The second floor served as guard quarters but I didn’t stick around to explore: there was a glow filtering through the stairs leading to the third floor. Would it have killed you to send someone to greet us instead of letting us wander through the creepy empty bastion?
The creepiness got pushed up a rung up the ladder when we set foot on the last floor. The stone here was completely different than anything else in the bastion, veined with blue that seemed to shift around if you looked too long at it. More than that, the floor was larger than it had any business being: the parlour where we stood alone was as wide as the bastion had looked from the outside and there were corridors leading away. Across from us a pair of large tinted glass windows allowed a glimpse into what seemed to be a workshop, and I could hear people talking through the closed door. The voices suddenly rose in volume and I stepped closer to the glass.
“- got out again!”
I barely managed to raise my shield before the glass exploded.