“Always walk into traps. Evil is clever and patient and never as vulnerable as when it thinks it holds all the cards.”
– Eudokia the Oft-Abducted, Basilea of Nicae
I’d been in a few dinner halls, now that I’d actually left Laure, but the Comital Palace’s was by far the grimmest.
No tapestries or mosaics, not even a statue: naked stone everywhere, with carved large stone slabs for tables and smaller ones for benches. The only concession to the principle of decoration was the heraldry of the old Counts discreetly engraved on the seats – a lone soldier’s silhouette standing on a wall. Even back in those days Summerholm had been the city where Imperial armies came to die, and its rulers had not been above making that quiet boast. In the back, at the head of the largest table, an imposing stone-wrought armchair sat as a makeshift throne. There was something undeniably odd about seeing a middle-aged Soninke in a silken tunic installed in an ancient Callowan throne, but I had to admit that General Afolabi Magoro cut a striking figure. Tall and broad-shouldered, his sharply angled face held deep-set eyes that restlessly scanned his surroundings. On someone less powerfully built it might have leant the appearance of nervousness, but on this one it spoke of a careful awareness of his surroundings.
The guest list for the reception was blessedly short, thank the Gods. I’d brought few officers myself – Juniper, Aisha and Pickler. And Hakram, of course, but that went without saying. My adjutant dogged my steps like a second shadow, these days, a reassuring presence ever at my back. Commanders Hune and Nauk remained back in the Fifteenth’s camp, overseeing our preparations, and Ratface had made himself scarce within moments of entering the city. He’d left a message indicating he’d gone to “make like a fishmonger”, which I assumed to mean he was coordinating with Afolabi’s Supply Tribune and discreetly swapping supplies with the other man. It better be, anyway, because if he’d ducked out for a drink I was assigning him to dig the latrines for Nauk’s entire kabili. All bloody one thousand of them.
On the general’s side attendance was even lighter: two Taghreb wearing the red and gold shoulder decorations of a Legate and a middle-aged goblin that bore a tribune’s insignia. Afolabi’s own Kachera Tribune, if I had to take a guess. Of all the man’s general staff it would be the tribune in charge of scouting and information-gathering who’d have the most to contribute to the dinner conversation. Assuming we even got to dinner. I bet the Swordsman was the kind of asshole who’d launch his attack right before dessert, too. I’d been craving a good Callowan pastry for a while now and Summerholm was known for baking a sort of sweet bread with apple slices inside. If someone burst in with stirring heroics right before I got to dig in, things were going to get violent.
“Thinking deep thoughts, Catherine?”
The cheerful voice wasn’t one I was accustomed to, but I did recognize it.
“Pondering dessert,” I told Masego as he approached. “What passes for it in Praes has been something of a disappointment.”
Pudding and strange pies, mostly.
“I hear you,” the mage replied solemnly. “Father’s fondness for lemon pie borders on self-destructive.”
I snorted. “The Lord Warlock is a lemon enthusiast. Wouldn’t have guessed.”
“Wrong father,” Apprentice grinned. “He doesn’t even need to eat, you know, he just likes the taste.”
I filed away the knowledge that incubi didn’t need physical sustenance, wondering if it applied only to this particular breed or to devils in general. I had half a dozen questions on the tip of my tongue about how it had been, being raised by a couple half of which literally came from Hell, but this was neither the time nor the place. I’d already been borderline rude by delaying my meeting with the General to chat with a minstrel, no need to flagrantly snub him to make small talk with another guest.
“I suppose we should give General Afolabi our greetings,” I sighed.
“Ah, politics,” Apprentice chuckled. “I am so very glad my Role concerns itself almost entirely with sorcery.”
“Lucky you,” I grunted, making my way to the head table.
The man I’d come to greet was already seated, the only one in the hall to do so, and was talking with Juniper when I approached. Hakram stood a little behind my Legate, his face the picture of calm equanimity.
“- they field at least five hundred cavalry, from the reports.”
“Callowan knights?” Juniper asked, frowning.
“Free Cities men, equipped in the style of Proceran cataphracts,” Afolabi replied. “Make no mistake, Legate, they are deadly on flat ground. The Exiled Prince has been using them for lightning raids and they’ve caused more casualties on their own than the rest of Liesse’s army put together.”
He put aside the line of conversation when I came to stand before him.
“Lady Squire,” he greeted me, offering his arm in the warrior’s grip.
“General,” I replied, firmly clasping his forearm.
“And Apprentice,” he added after our arms withdrew. “Your presence is a rare surprise. Will your lord father be joining us?”
Masego ignored the pointed undertone and lack of offered grip without blinking an eye.
“Maybe later,” the younger Soninke shrugged. “He’s putting the finishing touches on a project better not left unattended.”
Afolabi almost winced before getting his face under control. I could sympathize: anything the Sovereign of the Red Skies deemed worthy of continued supervision was not something you wanted loose in a city that was your responsibility. Putting Summerholm under martial law meant that if any damages occurred while the city was under it the Tower would be expected to foot the bill. Explaining to the Imperial bureaucracy that a few hundred thousand aurei had to be sent west to make up the damages caused by a fully incarnated demon would be a very, very unpleasant conversation. I decided to steer this towards a relatively safer subject.
“The Duke of Liesse is fielding cavalry, then?” I asked. “I hadn’t heard.”
“The only thing the Duke fields is a banquet table,” Afolabi sneered in contempt. “The Countess Marchford is the only opposing strategist worth considering in this campaign, but it is not her forces with the horsemen. She based the mercenary company known as the Silver Spears in her demesne and it’s been harassing our flanks.”
Cavalry had always been the glaring weakness of the Legions of Terror. Horses were rare in Praes and the Empire’s neighbours had been understandably reluctant to ever sell them any. The closest the Legions could put forward was orcish wolf riders, but Black had spent an entire evening with me detailing the many limitations of those. They were harder to supply, for one. The breed of Steppe wolves that grew large enough to be ridden required a prodigious amount of meat to sate their hunger, and out on a campaign letting them hunt was rarely an option. There was also the fact that, when it came down to it, horse cavalry was almost always better. They were quicker, heavier, and much less reluctant to run straight into a line of enemy soldiers. Wolf mounts were also much harder to replace: they were raised with their rider and should the orc die they would violently refuse another one. Sometimes they even went berserk with grief and had to be put down. Worse, humans and goblins were unable to use them. The few experiments made to adapt them had led, Black implied, to well-fed mounts but no progress whatsoever. As raiders and tools to spread terror they were second to none, but it had to be kept in mind they were a very specialized kind of cavalry.
“We’ll have to root them out if we’re to move deeper south,” I noted.
“Word is that will be the Fifteenth’s assignment,” Afolabi murmured. “A decent way to blood your legion before sending it into heavy combat.”
“Finally,” Juniper grinned. “Something to sink our teeth in.”
The general looked amused. “You really are your mother’s- “
A distant explosion struck, covering the end of the older Soninke’s sentence. Everyone but Masego reached for their weapon, even Afolabi fishing out a wicked-looking dagger from his sleeve.
“Sharpers,” Juniper stated.
“At least three, no more than six,” Senior Sapper Pickler contributed, scuttling up to us with her sword out. “The detonation was inside the palace.”
“Our guests have arrived, Hakram,” I spoke. “Send word to Commander Hune – move the troops in place. I want the palace surrounded immediately.”
The general stared me down. “You knew this was coming.”
“I had a feeling,” I admitted.
“A word of warning would have allowed my legionaries to prepare,” he spoke through gritted teeth.
“Your legion has been infiltrated,” I informed him. “It would have tipped our hand early.”
He looked rather displeased at that, but he’d have to live with it. It wasn’t like it wasn’t true. My gaze swept over our guests, now including the bards from earlier, and inspiration suddenly struck.
“Masego,” I asked urgently. “That time when you picked up on a Name, can you do it again?”
The younger Soninke pushed up his spectacles. “Depends on the Name, but usually yes. Why?”
“Look at the Ashuran bard and tell me-“
And shit, she was moving. I’d known there was something strange about her.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Almorava announced, unslinging her lute. “A song I composed for you. It’s called ‘walking into an obvious trap because William has a chip on his shoulder, godsdamnit’.”
I brought my hand down without missing a beat and the two crossbowmen watching her immediately fired. The Ashuran twisted in a way that suggested highly unnatural degrees of limberness, both bolts coming within a hair’s breadth of her without actually drawing blood.
“Swords out,” I ordered. “She’s a hero.”
Everyone in the room save for the other bards unsheathed their blades, the other musicians hurriedly edging away from the declared heroine.
“You could have let me sing a bit, at least,” the minstrel complained. “I’ve been working on the tune for like a fortnight.”
I deftly jumped over the table, Hakram and Juniper following close behind as Pickler produced a sharper from Gods knew where. She wasn’t even carrying a satchel. I was more than a little wary of engaging a single hero when we had such an overwhelming numerical superiority – that did not usually end well for the villains, in the stories – but I couldn’t just let her be either. Reluctantly, I admitted to myself that capture wasn’t an option here. I had no idea what she was capable of, but Names like Bard and Minstrel were usually talented escape artists.
“If you surrender now I can make it painless,” I told her.
“I’m not going to die, Catherine Foundling,” she replied, apparently unmoved by the fact that she was surrounded and unarmed. “I can’t fight for the life of me and the only magic at my disposal is my glorious musical talent, but I do have one thing on you.”
“And what would that be?” I asked, against my better judgement.
Hakram groaned behind me.
“Now and then, I get to have a look at the script. Today’s not the day I bite it.”
She smiled as I crossed the last few feet between us at a run, sword in hand.
“See you soon. Wandering Bard, exit stage left.”
She took a step to the left, and before her foot could actually touch the ground she was… gone. Not a trace of her. Had she teleported? No, that was impossible. The amount of power needed for that would have been felt everywhere in the city, and I hadn’t gotten so much as a twinge from this.
“Masego, do you have a spell that checks for invisibility?” I barked.
Without bothering to reply, Apprentice murmured an incantation and waved his hand across the room. Another explosion sounded in the distance, louder. Not sharpers, this time. I recognized the noise without Pickler’s help: those had been demolition charges. Shit. None of my legionaries had brought those, which meant the heroes had gotten their hands on munitions. So that’s why the Thief wanted those keys. I should have prepared for that, I chastised myself. The Lone Swordsman had a history of using goblin munitions, it wasn’t that hard to put together.
“No one’s in here but us,” Masego spoke up.
I frowned at him. “You’re sure?”
He looked mildly offended. “Not even Assassin could hide from that spell. I’m quite sure.”
I took his word for it, turning to Juniper. “I want you and the Tribunes to stay here and protect the general, he’s bound to be a target.”
The man in question snorted. “Much appreciated.”
My Legate nodded, slowly sheathing her sword.
“Hakram, Masego,” I said without turning. “We’re going hunting.”
I left a full line covering Afolabi along with my officers, bolstering his own guard.
I hadn’t brought my shield or helmet into the banquet hall, but Hakram had arranged for one of the guards to be carrying them. Going against the Swordsman with anything but my best struck me as a very bad idea. I tightened my helmet’s clasps under Apprentice’s impatient gaze, noting he was rather eager to move for someone who’d never been in proper combat as far as I knew. He snorted when I pointed out as much.
“It’s a rare thing to get the chance for a magical duel between Named these days,” Masego informed me. “Uncle Amadeus and Assassin kill most heroes before they can make a nuisance of themselves.”
“With reason,” I grunted, picking up my shield.
The Soninke shrugged. “I’ve been meaning to test the limits of what I can do, and Legion mages are a laughable benchmark in this regard.”
Not exactly complimentary, but mage lines weren’t meant to be particularly versatile. Their purpose was massed firepower, and in that regard they served perfectly well. I wasted no time in explaining this, though, since now wasn’t the time for a debate. I’d placed several fast-response teams in key positions inside the Comital Palace in anticipation of the heroes’ arrival, with orders to engage at a distance only and to immediately send a runner if they came across someone with a Name. While I fully intended on engaging the heroes only with legionary support, sending them in alone against the likes of the Lone Swordsman was a recipe for slaughter. I led my small team in the direction the demolition charges had been detonated, but before we ran into the enemy we came across Robber’s line. And a little more, actually. There were a handful of orcs with the goblins, most of which were wounded. Nothing life-threating, but there would be scars.
“Boss,” the goblin greeted me, idly smothering the sharper he’d just lit. “Good to see you.”
“Report, Tribune,” I grunted. “You were watching the prisoners, what happened?”
“Some angry guy with a whiny sword and a tattooed streetwalker with spear,” he explained. “We blew up the captives and bailed, like you said, but most of the other line was slaughtered during our retreat.”
I winced. Evidently the whole ‘killing the prisoners’ backup plan had put the Swordsman in a foul mood.
“Stick with us,” I ordered. “We’re going after them.”
“Hear that boys and girls?” the tribune called out to his legionaries. “We’re having a rematch with shiny boots and his concubine, only this time we’ve got Catherine fucking Foundling. What do we say to that?”
“Stab the kidney, loot the corpse,” the goblins in his line called out with enthusiasm, the handful of surviving orcs echoing the sentiment with growls.
Sometimes I worried about my sappers, I really did. The legionaries fell behind in proper order and we moved out at a brisk pace, weapons at the ready. Progress was too slow for my tastes, but I’d always known I’d be on the defensive for this fight.
“So who are you, four-eyes?” I heard Robber ask behind me.
“Four-eyes, really?” Masego replied. “That’s what you’re bringing to the table? I’ve met wittier imps, and most of them aren’t sentient enough to talk.”
“Ah, the warlock’s get,” the tribune caught on. “I’ve always wondered – when your daddies do the deed, who’s the sword and who’s the sheath? Be precise, I have twenty denarii riding on this.”
“So that’s why goblin life expectancy is so short,” Apprentice mused.
Evidently, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The wing of the palace we were headed towards held the armoury as well as the palace guard quarters. Why the Swordsman had chosen to hit there as his opening move remained to be seen: it was bound to be swarming with Twelfth Legion soldiers, not to mention Kilian’s mage line had been close by. Maybe he’d been trying to take out as many legionaries as possible? That can’t be it, he’s got to know if he does a straightforward assault we’ll overwhelm him through sheer numbers. What else was there? From what I remembered of the palace plans Hakram had found for me, there were stairs leading up to the fortifications on top of the palace and one of the two side exits. I guess we’ll find out soon. We kept the same fast pace all the way to the guard quarters, where from the moment we stepped into the neighbouring hallway we were able to hear the noise of fighting ahead.
“Regulars with me and Hakram,” I ordered grimly. “Sappers, take your shots carefully and remain out of range. Masego…” I hesitated. “Do what you think is best.”
“I always do,” Apprentice replied indifferently.
I got a chorus of acknowledgements from the legionaries and we burst into the quarters at a run. A wide room with now upended tables and benches greeted me, a rack full of weapons propped up against the wall having been tipped over at some point in the fighting. The first thing I noticed was Kilian’s line headed by the woman herself, her tenth of regulars kneeling with their large shields in front of the mages like a makeshift wall. A salvo of fireballs sailed up towards a set of stairs in the back, where a dozen people armed with sword and shield were making a retreat. A man in too-large clothes standing behind them let out a startled yelp and waved his hand, detonating the spellwork from my mages in mid-air. The flash of fire was blinding but I charged forward, Hakram at my side and my orc legionaries close behind. I’d only been in the room for a heartbeat but there was no mistaking the power pulsing from the enemy mage: he had a Name, and not a meek one.
“She’s here!” the man called out. “Do it now!”
Half a dozen clay balls landed across the room, breaking easily and spreading a dark oily liquid. One of the invaders threw a torch without missing a beat and in the blink of an eye half the room was swallowed by vivid green flames. Goblinfire.
“Godsdamnit,” I cursed. “I better not be blamed for this one.”