“There’s no surer sign you’re being played than being certain you’ve grasped your opponent’s intent.”
– Dread Emperor Benevolent
“It’s from the Trismegistan theory of magic,” Kilian explained.
“Well, that certainly clears things up,” I replied dryly.
The redhead frowned at me. “Don’t be a tit,” she said, adding an absent-minded ‘ma’am’ a moment later. “I won’t go into too many details – it’s fairly technical knowledge – but the basics are that when the Gods made Creation they set down laws for the way everything works. Haven’t you ever wondered why an apple falls down when you drop it?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Gravity seems the likely culprit, unless you’re telling me it was a frame up all along.”
“It’s probably for the best you never attended any of the mage classes,” the Senior Mage muttered under her breath. “Look, gravity doesn’t apply everywhere. Exposed to the classical element of void, it tends to fizzle out.”
I got the distinct impression out of that last sentence that the classical elements weren’t what I thought they were.
“So it’s not an immutable law,” I grunted. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Kilian took a sip of the wine glass I’d handed her before beginning the conversation, leaning back in her seat. I was very careful not to let my thoughts linger on the fact that she was sitting just a dozen feet away from a very nice bed that could likely fit two people in it, should said people be willing to do a bit of… creative juxtaposition.
“It means the Gods put that law into place through their own power,” Kilian informed me. “That’s what we call a creational law, a rule that came into existence when the Gods manifested their power as the physical realm we inhabit.”
I was fairly uneducated in matters of sorcery – pretty much all Black had ever bothered to teach me was that I did not have the inborn talent for it before moving on to the best ways to kill mages of different skill levels – but I wasn’t an idiot. The implications here were fairly straightforward.
“So an original law is something that predates Creation,” I guessed.
Kilian wiggled her hand in equivocation. “It’s a law that exists independently of it. Like how you can’t make something out of nothing, for example. Some argue that to qualify as an original law it has to apply to even the Gods.”
“That sounds a mite heretical,” I noted.
Implying that the Heavens were not omnipotent was a good way to get tossed out of the House of Light. Sure the priests admitted that the Gods had limits, but according to them they were self-imposed for the good of Creation.
The redhead smiled behind the rim of her glass. “Trismegistus is the Praesi name for the man who became the Dead King. A little heresy is to be expected,” she replied.
That would explain it. Anyone who’d ended up turning the entire nation they ruled over into a horde of slavering undead was bound to have a few disagreements on the nature of Creation with the clergy. Still, hard to argue with a man who invaded one of the Hells. Clearly the Dead King had done something right, for a very specific meaning of right.
“I’m curious where you encountered those terms to begin with,” Kilian half-asked, her tone implying that if it wasn’t something I could talk about she would understand.
She’d always been good about things like that. Maybe it was the way mages dealt with so many more secrets than regular people, especially in Praes.
“Ran into an experiment Apprentice and Lord Warlock were having in their tower,” I told her. “Something about determining the nature of Demiurgian phenomena.”
“Ah,” the Senior Mage mused. “That would explain that massive ward around the bastion. They’re separating the place from Creation proper.”
I leaned forward, suddenly intent. “Is that what that was? I knew it wasn’t a defensive thing, but what I can get from my trick is pretty limited. If it’s not out to disembowel me, my Name doesn’t give me much.”
“I’d need to have a look up close to be sure,” Kilian hedged, “but I can’t think of anything else that big they would set up in a city. I’m not sure if it’s a pocket dimension or if they’re reaching for Arcadia, but the end result is largely the same.”
Mhm. There were probably academic differences at play, but from a tactical point of view I could think of one reason the Warlock would set his home territory apart from Creation. It meant the man could actually cut loose if the heroes came knocking. I’d read the histories, after all. Warlock had ever only been deployed as a combat asset when my teacher was willing to write off wherever the battle was happening. If the Sovereign of the Red Skies decided to go all out in Summerholm it would make the goblinfire incident look like a tavern scuffle. It explained why he’d been sitting pretty in the bastion all this time, too. So he wasn’t just letting Summerholm spiral out of control, he was setting up his battlefield for a confrontation.
“You have that look on your face,” the redhead spoke softly. “The one that means you’ve figured out you were wrong about something.”
“That a bad thing?” I asked mildly.
Kilian cleared her throat, looking rather bashful. “I like it. Most people do. Even Juniper said that the way you don’t get stuck in your preconceptions is ‘laudable’, and getting compliments out of her is like milking a stone.”
I snorted. “Hard to get all high and mighty when you’re wrong about things as often as I am,” I admitted. “I’m lucky I found the people I did, to be honest. I’d have a lot more blind spots if I hadn’t.”
Sometimes I wondered what it said about me that all the people I trusted were Praesi, but what else could I do? If I wanted to get anything done in Callow I’d need the Fifteenth backing me and the core of my legion was from the Empire. In time that might change, but as the months passed I was beginning to think certain things might not. How could I trust a new officer more just because of the land of their birth, when the likes of Nauk and Robber had been with me since the beginning?
“I think we’re luckier to have you,” the redhead said softly. “I don’t think you realize what it means, for the Fifteenth to have someone like you at the helm.”
I hadn’t drunk nearly enough wine to justify the flush that took my cheeks at the almost-whispered words. Gods but Kilian was pretty. I still didn’t know if she had any interest in women, though. I’d thought about asking Hakram, but that would have been as good as declaring an interest and I wasn’t quite there yet. Still. Unlike with pregnancies, it wasn’t like… fraternization was against regulations, so long as the people involved weren’t in a direct chain of command.
“Someone like me,” I repeated in a murmur, wishing the redhead wasn’t sitting on the other side of the table.
Kilian bit her lip. “A woman who-“
Someone knocked at the door and I felt the sudden urge to order a round of hangings. Really. Couldn’t whoever that was have waited for another few moments? Hakram entered the antechamber a moment later and for the first time since I could remember I glared at my adjutant. The Senior Mage recoiled like she’d been burned, cheeks reddening. The tall orc eyed us both curiously, but he knew better than to ask.
“Report, Adjutant,” I ordered with ill-grace.
“Ma’am,” he saluted, raising hairless brows at my tone. “Your hunch was right. About twenty servants were indisposed at the last minute and had to be replaced by ‘relatives’. We have the replacements in custody.”
I grumbled under my breath, irked at the knowledge that the news would have kept if he’d waited a little longer.
“Were any of them armed?” I asked, setting aside my irritation for the moment.
The orc shook his head. “Several of them had scars, however. The kind you get in military service.”
I grimaced. That was suspicious, but circumstantial at best. There were plenty of veterans from the Conquest who’d had to get mundane jobs after the Empire had taken over. The legal aspect of things didn’t concern me overmuch: this would have been trickier elsewhere, but Summerholm was under martial law and regardless as the Squire I was pretty much a law unto myself. But part of me balked at ordering forceful interrogation based on barely floating evidence. We’d have to do without.
“Keep them under heavy guard,” I told Hakram. “At least two lines, one of them with munitions. If someone with a Name mounts a rescue operation they should toss sharpers in the cells before getting the Hells out of there.”
I was less than optimistic when the it came to the victory chances of my legionaries against a band of heroes, goblin munitions or not. The Fifteenth was already at half-strength, I had no intention of losing any more soldiers in a fool stand against the likes of the Lone Swordsman. A rough voice cleared their throat from the threshold to my rooms.
“Afolabi will get pissy if we move too many troops into the Comital Palace,” Legate Juniper told me, strolling into the room.
Like the rest of the people in my quarters, she was in full legion gear. From the looks of it she’d had hers cleaned and polished recently, which as much of a concession to propriety I’d been willing to order my officers to make. Attending a dinner with a general of the Empire in armour was in poor taste but with the Swordsman likely to make an appearance I wanted them ready to fight.
“The general should have taken care of this fucking mess before we arrived, if he wanted to have that right,” I grunted.
Juniper flashed ivory fangs in a hard smile at my words.
“I don’t disagree,” my Legate replied. “Just warning you we won’t be making friends in the Twelfth with your plan.”
“We’ll deal with that if we survive the night,” I mused.
Which was, truthfully, still up in the air. We had the defensive position and we knew they were coming, but four heroes weren’t something to sneeze at. Entire kingdoms had been toppled by less. I wasn’t going to risk Hakram in a fight, nascent Name or not, so my only back up for the initial phases of the battle would be Apprentice. How useful the Soninke would actually be in a life-and-death struggle remained to be seen: he hadn’t given me the impression he was someone used to the rougher side of being Named.
“Senior Mage,” Juniper spoke flatly, only now deigning to acknowledge Kilian’s existence. “Our caster lines will be needing their instructions soon.”
The redhead flushed, looking guiltily at her half-finished wineglass.
“I had a few questions for her earlier,” I told Juniper, hoping to deflect some of the attention.
“I’m sure you did,” the Legate replied serenely, not a hint of impropriety on her face.
Hakram coughed into his fist and I made a mental note to take revenge on him for this at some point.
“Lady Squire, ma’am,” Kilian saluted the both of us, pausing by a still-grinning Hakram to daintily kick his ankle.
Considering the orc’s armour was the only thing thicker than his skin it did absolutely nothing to discipline him, but I approved of the general intention. I waited until she left the quarters to return my focus to Juniper.
“We’ve reinforced the palace garrison at all choke points?” I prompted.
The orc officer nodded. “Your special orders have been given to the troops at the gates,” she said.
I’d kept those rather simple. If a lone individual in a cloak approaches the entrance, shoot them until they stop moving. And then a few more times to be sure. Don’t even bother hailing them, just unload your crossbows. If the Lone Swordsman intended on making a dramatic entrance, he was in for a rough evening. Unfortunately, the bastard had taken to irregular warfare like a fish to water. I doubted he’d be stupid enough to try getting into the palace the old-fashioned way.
“I suppose we’d better get moving then,” I grunted. “Has Apprentice showed up yet?”
Juniper cast a look at Hakram, who shook his head.
“Not yet,” the adjutant replied. “I’ve taken the liberty of providing him an escort when he leaves the bastion.”
I smiled at my officer, pleased at the initiative. I doubted the heroes would try picking off the Warlock’s own adopted son in broad daylight, but there was no sense in taking unnecessary risks.
“Ah, diplomatic dinners,” Juniper grinned unpleasantly. “Everybody’s favourites.”
“At least the food won’t be poisoned this time,” I noted. “That’s a marked improvement.”
“Does that mean you won’t be breaking anyone’s bones tonight?” the Legate asked wryly. “Shame, that was the best part of the evening.”
I pushed myself to my feet, adjusting the sword at my belt.
“I’ll see what I can do, Legate,” I replied. “I’m sure there’s at least one guest that could use the exercise.”
The palace’s banquet hall was the oldest part of the building and it showed in the stonework. Not that it was shoddy, but instead of imported granite from northern Callow the petty kings of old Summerholm had had to make do with local quartz deposits. Nowhere as good to hide under when trebuchets started singing, but back then siege engines had been fairly rare. I had two lines from Nauk’s command idling around the hall’s entrance, the boredom of the assignment warring with the warning their officers had given that they were likely to see fighting before the end of the night. General Afolabi had posted only a tenth of his own soldiers and they looked rather displeased to be sharing the duty with my own. As long as they don’t start fighting I couldn’t care less.
I let Juniper and Hakram stride ahead of me into the hall, slowing when I noticed a handful of people being interrogated by my soldiers. Four of them, to be exact. Three men and a woman, all of them adorned in fancy clothes and bearing musical instruments. The lieutenant in charge of security was ignoring the protests of the musicians and patting them down for weapons, at least those of them that were standing. The only woman had claimed a chair, propped her lute over her knees and seemed to be polishing off a flask of alcohol so strong I could smell it from where I was standing. I found the supreme unconcern rather amusing and out of curiosity I claimed the seat next to hers.
“Dare I ask what you’re drinking?” I said.
She grinned drunkenly, shaking the silvery flask.
“Why, the very elixir of life,” she replied theatrically. “Back home they call it the ‘water that burns’.”
“Well, anything in contact with it definitely would become flammable,” I observed.
I didn’t recognize her accent. Not Praesi or Callowan, and her colouring was a little too light to be a Taghreb’s. Her strong nose and curly dark hair were striking, if short of outright attractive, provided no real hint as to her origins.
“Ashuran,” the stranger said.
“Pardon me?” I replied.
“I’m Ashuran. You’re trying to figure out where I come from,” she told me amusedly. “The staring was a bit of a giveaway.”
The Thalassocracy of Ashur, huh. First time I’d ever met anyone from there. It wasn’t that they were isolationist, per se, but more that they rarely bothered visiting anywhere boats couldn’t reach. The Ashurans had stayed much closer to their Baalite roots than the Dominion – they were still part of the Hegemony, for one. Not that being a member of the Baalite Hegemony meant as much as they once had. The old maritime empire had been on the decline since centuries before my birth.
“So why’s an Ashuran bard trying to get drunk in a Callowan fortress?” I asked.
“I am not trying,” she informed me proudly. “I am succeeding.”
I snorted. She offered me the flask and, against my better judgement, I took a sip. I promptly started coughing.
“Gods,” I rasped out. “How are you not dead?”
“My liver is cast iron,” she admitted solemnly. “To answer your question, I drifted towards here when I heard about the rebellion. Seems to me there’s a song in there.”
I handed her the flask back and to my horror she drank from it like it was river water going down her throat.
“Are you even going to feel your fingers when you strum that lute?” I asked dubiously.
“Doesn’t make as much of a difference as you’d think,” she acknowledged cheerfully. “Besides, I am not a mere bard.”
“This will be good,” I coughed, still trying to rid my throat from the stranger’s devil-water.
She rose to her feet, teetering back and forth and reached for something above her head. Her hand came back empty.
“Right,” she muttered. “I lost the hat. No matter!”
Striking a pose with her foot resting on the seat she’d vacated, the woman swept the horizon in a generous gesture.
“Before you stands Almorava of Symra, minstrel without peer!”
She punctuated the announcement by sweeping a few strings, the resulting sound eerily similar to a cat getting stepped on. I could feel everyone else in the hallway suddenly staring at us and had to suppress a smile.
“That sounds technically true,” I mused. “Have you considered you may have a drinking problem?”
“My flask is almost empty,” Almorava agreed. “That is a problem.”
The officer in command approached us carefully, hand on his sword.
“Lady Squire,” he asked. “Is there a problem?”
I waved the question away. “None at all,” I replied. “Continue your work, Lieutenant.”
He saluted before returning to the other musicians. I felt the bard – ah, minstrel – staring at me and sighed. Well, so much for anonymity.
“Catherine Foundling,” I introduced myself.
“I had a feeling,” the Ashuran said. “Can’t think of another reason they’d allow a Deoraithe your age this deep into the palace with a sword at her hip.”
“Most people would be a little warier at the revelation they’ve been talking with a villain,” I murmured.
“Most people would have passed out before they got hallway through the flask,” Almorava grinned. “Besides, you’ve yet to set anyone on fire so at least one of the rumours is wrong.”
Godsdamnit. Was that really going to follow me everywhere? At least she hadn’t mentioned Summerholm or goblinfire. “There’s rumours?”
The minstrel chuckled. “My dear lady, you’re the Callowan apprentice of the man who conquered the Kingdom. There’s a tale in every city from Ater to Salia, each wilder than the last.”
“All of them flattering, I’m sure,” I spoke drily.
Almorava hummed. “Opinions are split, actually. Of course there’s the usual crowd in favour of removing the head of anything in contact with the Empire, but you’d be surprised how many Callowans are cautiously optimistic.”
“That…” I trailed off. “You’re right. I am surprised.”
“There are some who think having one of their own high up in Imperial ranks might solve some of the most undesirable aspects of the Praesi occupation,” the minstrel said. “They might not be a loud as the ‘stone her to death’ crowd, but they do exist.”
“You seem remarkably well informed for a wandering minstrel,” I said.
The Ashuran shrugged. “You pick up things, playing in taverns.”
I’m sure you do. I rose to my feet.
“It was a pleasure, Almorava,” I said. “But I have a reception to attend.”
“Have fun,” the minstrel waved cheerfully.
I kept my smile on my face until I’d turned, taking aside the lieutenant when I passed by him. I leaned into his ear.
“The woman I was talking to. She won’t have any weapons, but I want a pair of crossbowmen keeping an eye on her at all times,” I murmured.
The man nodded and I patted him on the shoulder, squaring my own as I entered the banquet hall. Come out and play, Lone Swordsman. I’m ready for you this time.