“Note: those meddling heroes keep surviving getting thrown off cliffs. Must build taller ones in anticipation of the next encounter.”
– Extract from the journal of Dread Emperor Malignant II
There was something morbidly fascinating about watching Hakram’s new hand move.
The naked bones were just as dextrous as when they’d been hidden under my adjutant’s flesh and muscle, though they were now animated by necromancy instead of more natural means. He got no sensation from the skeleton hand, he’d told me, though he could roughly gauge how much pressure he was putting on something when holding it. I could feel the threads of magic that kept it moving according to his will, feel how they dug into his body and used his soul as fuel to maintain the enchantment. I was fairly sure I could tie my own threads to puppet the bones if I tried, which meant any decent necromancer could likely do the same. Not a great worry considering not even antiheroes like the Swordsman would be caught dead with anyone that dealt with the dead, but somewhere down the line Heiress might get it into her head to pull something. I’d have to ask Apprentice if anything could be done about it. Hakram followed closely behind me as we strode through the main avenue of the Fifteenth’s camp, absent-mindedly returning salutes from legionaries as we did so.
“A whole company,” I finally sighed. “And that’s just the ones we caught.”
The tall orc grimaced. “A sad day when we lose more legionaries to desertion than a run-in with heroes.”
When the dust had settled, Juniper had slapped down a report on my desk that had taken the taste of victory, however slight, right out of my mouth. While the soldiers under Commander Hune had been keeping the city from exploding into revolt, almost two companies’ worth of Callowan recruits had taken advantage of the chaos to escape into the countryside. Nauk had kept a lid on the situation as best he could and his patrols had managed to corral about half of the deserters into a prisoner camp, but the aftermath of that mess was a logistical nightmare. Juniper and I had made a point out of spreading out my countrymen across as many lines as possible to avoid the formation of Praesi and Callowan cliques in the ranks, That measure had failed spectacularly and now half the lines in Nauk’s kabili were missing one or two recruits, forcing a never-ending nightmare of transfers to fill the gaps. That we were adjusting our ranks and the most basic unit level right before heading into an active theatre of war had both Juniper and I in a dark mood: we couldn’t linger in Summerholm much longer, but neither could we go tangle with the rebels half-cocked.
The last news had the Silver Spears digging deep into General Istrid’s supply line until Captain and the Blackguards drove them off. Countess Marchford had intensified skirmishes all over the front, sending packs of barely-armed peasant conscripts to burn the fields between Vale and the Legions of Terror to deny General Sacker foraging when she advanced. The Empire wasn’t losing by any stretch of the situation – if anything, that the Countess had seen fit to burn some of the best farmland in Callow proved that much – but neither was it winning. And the longer the rebels were loose, the further talk of revolt would spread. Black knew that better than I, so I had no idea why he’d yet to pull away another pair of legions from border duty to flank the enemy. There must have been angles at play I couldn’t see. Regardless, the Fifteenth needed to get into the fight yesterday and all the fucking deserters were costing me time. The only upside to this I could see was that all our Callowan recruits who intended to pull a runner likely already had. That a full fifth of my countrymen’s numbers in the Fifteenth had tried to disappear into the wilds at the first occasion was incredibly galling, but in some ways I should have expected it. The overwhelming majority of the deserters had been gallows recruits, criminals given a choice between the noose and five years of service in the Legions.
Which also meant that there were about one hundred hardened criminals with legionary training loose in western Callow, but for now that wasn’t my problem. General Afolabi was the one who’d have to keep the region together after we joined the front and I wished him luck with the task. He’d been dropping hints for the last few days that the Fifteenth’s presence in Summerholm was disruptive to civil order, and while he wasn’t wrong it still irritated me that after I’d pulled his ass out of the fire the Soninke was trying to shoo me away. Juniper warned me that by acting this high-handed I wouldn’t be making any friends. Fuck it, if he couldn’t deal with me taking charge to put an end to the mess he’d allowed to fester I would likely had ended up making an enemy out of him down the line. He was near the bottom of the pecking order when it came to the Empire’s generals, anyway: he was the most junior among them and one of the least trusted by the Tower.
“It’s a risk, Catherine,” my adjutant gravelled. “I won’t deny if it works they’ll be useful, but if it fails…”
“It’ll hurt my credibility with the ranks,” I acknowledged sourly.
My age had been surprisingly little of an issue when it came getting my authority respected: I supposed I had centuries of young heroes and villains leading armies to thank for that. Besides, according to the census I’d had taken there was not a single of my legionaries older than twenty-five. Which was troubling, in and of itself. Not so much that I had no veterans to advise me, though Juniper had expressed private misgivings about that, but that if I’d been able to arrange this as it currently was I would have. This would not be the last war I’d be involved in, and having the core of the Fifteenth following me from the beginning of my career would only encourage them to obey my own orders over those of the Tower further down the line. Once again, Black knew this. And yet he had arranged it. More than that, nearly half my soldiers were from Callow. My teacher was making this easy on me, and he wasn’t in the habit of giving me unnecessary advantages.
If anything, he was a firm believer in hobbling me so I’d learn to deal with problems from a position of weakness. So what’s your game, oh teacher of mine? No point in thinking too long about it right now. Black’s mind was a labyrinth of vicious cleverness on the best of days. Besides, for all that the deck had been stacked in my favour when it came down to it I had yet to acquire the trust of the rank and file of the Fifteenth. My age and lack of experience might not have been divisive issues but my birth certainly was. Even having a Name and the tutelage of a Calamity could only get me so far. If I screwed up, if I made an obvious mistake that could be attributed to Callowan sympathies… That concern had made deciding the fate of those one hundred imprisoned deserters a godsdamned thorn in my side. Juniper had argued for crucifying the lot of them and putting them up on the ramparts of Summerholm as a warning for the rest, but that wouldn’t solve anything.
I was also, to be frank, a lot less sanguine than my Legate at the idea of casually ordering a hundred gruesome deaths. And yet, I couldn’t just reintegrate them in the ranks. There was no guarantee they wouldn’t run again given the chance and I’d have a mutiny on my hands if they got off without punishment. Besides, there was a difference between not wanting the lot to die a brutal death spread over several days and wanting them to get off easy. I had little sympathy for the bastards: while the rest of my soldiers had been doing their jobs and dying in the line of duty they’d tried to flee. The cowardice was revolting, regardless of the circumstances of their enrolment.
I was still in a foul mood when we arrived at the open clearing where the deserters had been herded, forced to kneel and surrounded by twice their number in loyal legionaries. They’d been disarmed and divested of their armour, of course. No point in taking unnecessary risks. I strode past them towards the wooden crate my adjutant had installed in anticipation my address, the both of us ignoring the whispers of “Deadhand” that spread when Hakram was recognized. The orc had acquired something of a reputation, by surviving a fight against not one but two heroes with only a lost hand to show for it. I climbed on top of the crate, resenting the absurdity of it but painfully aware that even kneeling some of the prisoners reached up to my chin.
“Silence,” I ordered, and the whispers were snatched right out of their mouths.
I resisted the urge to clear my throat, taking a deep breath. Black’s lesson on pitching my voice so it could carry far without being a yell had seemed an affectation at the time, but I was glad of them now.
“Military tribunals were convened last night and sentences have been given,” I announced.
It felt strange, standing in front of over two hundred people decked out in plate and wreathed in the dark cloak my teacher had gifted me. I felt like a fake, like the fact that I’d been so often making it up as I went along should have been obvious to everyone, but my gaze swept over the prisoners and I saw only fear on their faces. There was something darkly satisfying about that, much as the feeling unsettled me.
“For desertion, low treason and dereliction of duty while the Empire is in a state of war, you have all been condemned to death,” I said.
There were a few cries of dismay and some prisoners tried to get up. My temper flared.
“Sit the Hells down,” I Spoke, and my voice rang like steel.
As if they’d been struck, the deserters fell back to the ground. So did quite a few of my legionaries, I noted, though since they’d not been the people I addressed the effect of the Speaking on them was much weaker.
“I have been urged to make examples of you,” I growled. “To put you up on a hundred crosses as a warning for the next fools tempted to run.”
I mastered my irritation and let out a deep breath.
“But that would be a waste. You owe military service to the Tower and I fully intend to collect.”
Confusion and a little hope, but most were just wary. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. As well they should. It had occurred to me, eventually, that I was trying to solve a Callowan problem through Praesi means. It was the wrong set of tools for the job. The Kingdom of Callow had its own military traditions, more than just the now-disbanded knightly orders. My girlhood hero Elizabeth Alban, the Queen of Blades, had tried to invade the Duchy of Daoine once – though back then it had been an independent kingdom. Well aware that the Watch would inevitably make a butchery of whatever troops she sent in to breach their strongholds, she’d founded a new division in the Callowan host: the Forlorn Hope. Criminals, traitors, deserters – she’d conscripted all the scum at the bottom of the barrel, armed them and sent them first into the grinder at every occasion. Using the worst of the Kingdom to do the Kingdom’s best work, she’d famously called it. And now here I was, with hard battles ahead of me and a full company of deserters. There were lessons to be learned from the past, if one was willing to look in the right places.
“As of this morning, the Forlorn Hope company has been added to the rolls of the Fifteenth. Congratulations on your reenrolment in the Legions of Terror,” I announced. I paused, eyes sweeping across the crowd. “I see some of you are rejoicing. Wipe that smile off of your faces. Make no mistake, deserters: this is not a mercy. I own you now.”
The words rolled off my tongue easily, coming unprompted now.
“Lawfully you are a dead men and women, all of you. The manner and time of your death is at my discretion, and I intend to use you sorely before letting you go.”
I allowed a hard smile to stretch my lips.
“Your officers will be Praesi, as they have refrained from disgracing themselves. Their authority over you is absolute: they’ve been granted the power to carry out your sentence at any time, for any reason they see fit.”
That had been the hardest part to implement. Obviously I couldn’t use Callowan officers, but finding volunteers to lead soldiers likely to slip a knife in your ribs if they got a chance had been… tricky. Ultimately Juniper had agreed that any officer serving in the Forlorn Hope would get a promotion out of the company after a fixed duration of service. Ambition was not a quality my legionaries lacked, especially those who’d gone through the College. There’d have to be oversight to make sure that unprecedented amount of power of their soldiers wouldn’t be abused, but mentioning as much right now would have been counter-productive to my goals. I needed them scared. But not desperate. If they thought they had nothing to lose, there’d be no telling what they’d do to get out.
“Your situation is not, however, entirely hopeless,” I continued. “Should you serve out the remaining years of your term without incident, you will be released and your record wiped clean.”
I stared the prisoners down, feeling my Name simmer in approbation under my skin.
“You want to be free? Earn it.”
I let the silence that followed my last words remain for a moment, weighing down on them, then sighed.
“Dismissed,” I finished.
The guards set to the chore of bringing back the prisoners to their separate camp as I stepped down from my crate, taking Hakram’s offered hand. The live one, because I wasn’t touching that other one without a damned good reason.
“We’ll need to hurry if we don’t want to be late,” my adjutant reminded me.
“Time to face the music, huh?” I grunted.
It’d been a while since I’d seen my teacher anyway.
It was utterly bizarre to stand by a Miezan-style open bath while in full armour, but not as strange as watching a Calamity putter around the cold waters while lighting candles.
Not normal ones, I noted. They were little carved figurines of obsidian covered in runes, and while I could see no wick they were nonetheless burning. I almost asked Masego but he was watching his father work quite intently: apparently he’d never attempted a scrying spell of this particular breed before. Warlock had taken the opportunity of turning our report to Black into a lesson for his son, which was rather thoughtful of him. Hakram shuffled uneasily behind me, nervousness easy to read even on his inhuman face. It was about the teeth, with the orcs: showing the lower part of their fangs without going up to the tips was a sign of agitation, apparently. Or so Captain had told me, and after all those years of working with orcs I figured she’d know. My adjutant had never met Black in person, even back in Ater. That he was now doing so after the entire Comital Palace had been turned into a smoking wreck probably wasn’t helping his nerves. The four city blocs surrounding the western bastion had gone the same way, but thankfully Hune’s legionaries had evacuated them in time. There was a little more to it than that, of course: the Black Knight was a big deal, to most orcs. A living legend, even, to those who’d been born after the Conquest and the Reforms. I supposed it wasn’t unlike if I’d been able to meet Eleonore Fairfax or Jehan the Wise, had they still alive.
“It will do,” Warlock suddenly announced, rising back to his feet and tidying up his robes.
I eyed the circle of candles surrounding the water sceptically.
“I thought the reason most two-way scrying has those little pebbles at the bottom of the bowls was so there’s a sympathetic link to ground the spell in? How does this one even work?”
The Soninke raised an eyebrow.
“Do you have a few days for me to grant you a layman’s understanding of metaphysical sympathetic effects?” he asked drily.
“Probably not,” I admitted.
“Then take my word for it,” the still ridiculously handsome older man replied. “Masego, did you commit the pattern to memory?”
“The escapement seems a little weak to me,” the bespectacled boy muttered. “I’d have to write down to formula to grasp how it actually works, but reproducing it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Warlock clicked his tongue against the top of his mouth.
“What do we say about blind imitation, Masego?” he prompted.
Apprentice rolled his eyes. “Sorcery without understanding is a sword without a handle,” he dutifully quoted. “I don’t know why you’re so fond of that saying, Father, you wouldn’t be caught dead using an actual sword.”
Warlock looked aghast at the very idea. “Only plebs kill with their own hands,” he asserted, remembering Hakram and I were still in the room only a moment latter. “No offense,” he added, not bothering to inject a great deal of credibility in the appeasement.
“Some taken,” I replied honestly.
Masego snorted. His father ignored me and waved a hand, muttering under his breath. The waters rippled, then lit up with an unearthly glow. My teacher’s silhouette appeared on the surface, seated by a table and – why wasn’t I surprised? – a cup of wine in hand. It was barely Noon Bell! Praesi drinking habits were downright unwholesome.
“I can’t believe you fell for that goblinfire trick, Wekesa,” Back spoke amusedly. “We used the exact same one to flush out the Grey Wizard.”
Warlock sneered. “If Afolabi, your general, had kept a closer eye on his stocks it wouldn’t have been an issue. Besides, I’m not the one who toppled Stygia’s government while drunk as a lord.”
Black threw up his hands in exasperation. “Are you ever going to let that one go?” he replied in irrigation. “I got a jug of wine when we traded the donkey, was else was I supposed to do with it? I swear, you’re worse with that than Sabah is with the whole dragon affair.”
“She’s right to hold it over your head,” the other Calamity replied with a twitch of the lips. “It was sizing her up for dinner while you haggled over terms.”
“It was asking for an absurd amount of goats and you know it,” the green-eyed man replied peevishly.
While in my case regular meals in the company of Black and Captain had long disabused me of the notion that living legends were above petty bickering, if the stunned look on Hakram’s face was any indication it was a fresh revelation for the orc. I cleared my throat.
“While I’d like to revisit why the Empire would be meddling in one of the Free Cities’ internal affairs at some point in the future,” I noted, “I think there might be more pressing matters at hand.”
And just like that, all traces of amusement slid off the two men’s faces. I’d seen it happen in my teacher before, but witnessing the same on a man as amiable as Warlock was a little unsettling.
“Catherine,” Black finally bothered to greet me. “I hear you’ve managed to get the Summerholm situation under control.”
“Hello to you too, Uncle Amadeus,” Apprentice interrupted, tone a little irked.
“Don’t be a brat, Masego,” the dark-haired man replied lazily. “The greeting was implied. The same goes for your adjutant, Catherine.”
Green eyes turned to Hakram, too considering to be anything close to friendly.
“Hakram Deadhand,” he murmured. “Catchy, that. If the story spreads it will accelerate your growth into your Name.”
“Sir,” the orc replied stiffly, saluting out of reflex.
I winced in embarrassment for him.
“At ease, Adjutant,” my teacher replied, kind enough not to voice the amusement I suspected he felt. “This is not an official debriefing; we’re merely sharing information. Scribe tells me the Fifteenth managed to take one of the heroes prisoner.”
The last sentence was inflected to sound like a question, though everybody in the room knew it wasn’t. It was one of Black’s more irritating habits to leave sentences hanging as an invitation to elaborate instead of actually asking a question – he did it all the times when we had our evening lessons.
“The Hunter,” I grunted. “He survived the wounds only barely, he’s been kept in enchanted sleep ever since.”
Green eyes turned to Warlock and his eyebrow arched.
“He’s from Refuge, I’ve confirmed it,” the older Soninke said and I blinked in surprise.
That was news to me. Wasn’t Refuge ruled by Ranger? It was an independent polity, sure, but the few times the subject of the other Calamity had come up she’d always been spoken of fondly. That didn’t really mesh with heroes trickling into the Empire from there, unless there was a plan in the works.
“One of Hye’s pupils,” the Knight grimaced. “That’s going to be a mess. Malicia will insist on diplomatic sanctions.”
“I’m sorry, did I miss something here?” I broke in incredulously. “Because the implication seems to be that a fairly notorious villain was a hero’s teacher.”
Warlock graced me with an amused look, Black leaned back in his seat.
“Calling Ranger a villain is something of a stretch,” my own teacher finally said. “She’s not particularly concerned with matters of Good and Evil. Mostly, she does what she feels like doing. We can discuss it more later, Catherine – it’s a somewhat complicated issue.”
The other Calamity smirked. “You can say that again.”
Black’s eyes turned cold, for a heartbeat. “Glass houses, Wekesa,” he simply said, and Warlock looked abashed for a moment before they smoothly changed the subject.
“You’ll need to bring him with you when you join us south,” the pale-skinned Named informed me.
I frowned. “That seems like a recipe for a heroic rescue,” I told him bluntly.
“The Swordsman lost,” Masego disagreed quietly. “You’ll have free hand for at least a month.”
Black nodded in approval. “By that time we’ll have gotten word back from Refuge and found out whether he’s been disavowed or not. If so, summary execution. As a matter of fact, if he somehow manages to wake up and attempt an escape you’re free to deal with him however you wish. There’s limits to our forbearance, even with old friends.”
“And if he hasn’t been disavowed?” I asked.
Black’s smile was perfectly pleasant, and all the more frightening for it.
“Then things will get interesting,” was all he said.
“We haven’t identified the other prisoner yet,” Masego contributed when it became obvious the subject was closed. “We’ve managed to heal the burns enough to ascertain she’s Deoraithe, but she’s yet to regain consciousness.”
“I might have been a little heavy-handed,” Warlock idly admitted. “I forget how fragile people without Names can be.”
Black drained the rest of his cup, then set it aside. “Is she from the Watch? Sacker says they’ve been quiet, but sometimes they slip between the cracks.”
“I was waiting on your approval for that,” the Soninke replied. “The procedure always has risks, as you well know.”
“See if you can get anything out of her when she wakes up,” Black ordered. “If not, go ahead with it. And do a bloodline ritual, just in case.”
Warlock grinned. “Not going to get on my case for summoning those nasty, nasty devils?” he teased.
“I’m enough of a general to know a lost battle when I see one,” the Knight replied sourly.
“So you can learn,” Warlock mused. “I take it you need the room for the next part of this conversation?”
“If you would,” my teacher agreed. “I’ll be in touch later this evening regardless.”
The dark-skinned nodded, putting his hand over his son’s shoulder.
“Come, Masego,” he announced carelessly. “The unwashed masses have business to discuss.”
“That’s funny,” Apprentice mused, “you know, considering we’re in a-“
The voices faded abruptly as they passed the room’s threshold, like they’d been swallowed up. A protective ward. Hadn’t even noticed it. I still couldn’t, even now that I knew it was here, and that bothered me more than a little bit. I knew there were few mages of Warlock’s calibre out there, but there were some. A liability to look into, when I next found the time. Hakram made to follow the mages but my teacher spoke up.
“Stay, Adjutant,” he ordered. “This concerns you more than Catherine.”
The sudden set of the orc’s jaw betrayed his concern, but overall he kept his face remarkably calm.
“Warlock’s professional opinion is that you’re less than a month away from coming into your Name, Hakram Deadhand,” Black announced conversationally. “Which means you need to be made aware of the broader concerns regarding it.”
“There’s going to be pushback,” the orc gravelled. “From the more conservative elements in the Empire.”
“Pushback is something of an understatement,” Black replied. “I expect that the assassination attempts will begin before the end of this campaign.”
My fingers closed into a fist at the blunt statement of fact. “They’d try assassinate a Legion officer in the middle of a war?” I spat.
“The nobility sees the outcome of the Rebellion as a foregone conclusion,” he noted. “Meanwhile, Adjutant, you personify the very trend they’ve been spending the last forty years trying to bury.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, sir,” Hakram muttered.
“You should,” Black agreed. “The last orc to have the potential for a Name was Grem One-Eye, boy. You walk in hallowed company.”
My officer swallowed loudly, and I couldn’t blame him for it.
“Isn’t there anything you can do about the assassins?” I asked. “I thought those all answered to the the Tower.”
“They’ll hire their blades through Mercantis, and short of burning that city down there’s not much we can do about that,” Black admitted. “Malicia’s already suppressing the rumours in Praes and she’s put the information under the seal of the Tower – it’s illegal to even speak of it at the moment. But those are stopgap measures, Catherine, and there’s only so long it will work.”
I gritted my teeth. “We’ve got our hands full enough without dealing with assassins on top of it,” I grunted. “There’s got to be a way to take care of it.”
“There is,” Black replied mildly. “Kill them. Brutally, publicly and repeatedly. Eventually they’ll decided that assassination isn’t a feasible way to remove him from the board and turn to other means.”
“Might be simpler to choke that off at the source,” I said.
He snorted. “While the thought of cleaning up the political scene of the Empire with a vigorous round of hangings has a certain appeal, we should deal with the open rebellion putting the south of Callow to the torch before starting a civil war.”
I recognized the change of subject for the tacit declaration that this particular discussion was over with.
“You’ve decided where the Fifteenth will be deployed, then?” I asked.
“It’s time,” he agreed. “You’ll link up with us for a few days but split off towards Marchford when we move south to force a battle. It’s time for the Silver Spears to be dealt with. Congratulations, Catherine: your first battle will be as an independent detached force.”
I grinned. “Best news I’ve had all week.”