“Swiftness is the lifeblood of war. No army can win a battle if it isn’t standing on the battlefield.”
– Theodosius the Unconquered, Tyrant of Helike
There were still a few days before we linked up with the other Legions, but we were making good time.
The Fifteenth was camped for the night, sprawled over the plains of central Callow like some enormous steel-clad beast. Fires dotted the inside of the fortified encampment now that night was beginning to fall, both for cooking and heat: spring out here could get chilly after dark. The winter snows were long gone, melted by an unexpectedly early warming, but once the sun was gone traces of the harsh Callowan winter could still be felt. Especially for my Praesi legionaries, unused to it as they were. Seasons in the Wasteland were a complicated a changing affair, for at some point a Dread Empress had tried to “steal the Kingdom’s weather” and instead screwed up seasons for the entire Empire – not to mention breaking what little cultivable land she’d still had. It was, Black had told me, the reason that there was a permanently brewing storm in the sky above the Tower. One of the only parts of Praes spared the backlash had been the Green Stretch, forever cementing its role as the breadbasket of the Wasteland. Though that label now also extended to pretty much all of Callow, these days. The Empire imported grain and fruit heavily from the conquered lands, the wagonloads of food almost as precious as the gold they taxed out of the people farming it.
I was ahead of paperwork, for once in my life, and so I’d decided to reward myself with a bell of drinking with friends by the fire. I’d had precious little time for that kind of thing since the Fifteenth had been raised. Even with Hakram handling the lion’s share of the parchment that came my way I still needed to sign more forms than it was physically possible for me to read through during my waking hours. If our legion had been better structured I’d have been able to delegate more, but for all that legally speaking we were a full legion the fact that we remained at half-strength caused no end of headaches. Our stay in Summerholm after the Lone Swordsman business had been wrapped up had granted me a dent in the pile, though, and that was something to be celebrated. Nauk and Ratface were on duty tonight, but both Hakram and Nilin weren’t. Whether Juniper and Aisha would make an appearance was a toss up depending on the mood of my Legate, but with the addition of Masego to our little crew I’d nabbed another companion. The scholarly-looking mage was horrible at holding his drink, for a Soninke, but that only made it more hilarious.
Before I could decide what bonfire I’d claim for my miscreants I ran into Pickler, who looked to be in a murderous mood. Unusual, that: of all the goblins I’d met she was one of the most even-tempered. Not particularly diplomatic, sure – I’d caught her sketching out schematics a few times when general staff meetings ran too long – but on the goblin-eagerness-to-commit-violence scale she pretty much defined the low end. I whistled sharply to catch her attention before she passed me.
“Pickler,” I called out. “Is there a problem?”
The goblin started, jarred out of her thoughts. She came closer, pitching her voice so she wouldn’t be overheard.
“I’ve spent the afternoon within talking distance of both Nauk and Robber,” the Senior Sapper cursed. “If I don’t get a drink in me soon, I will drown the both of them.”
I winced in sympathy. I liked both the men she’d mentioned well enough, but together they could be a massive pain in the neck. It must have been worse for the common object of their affections.
“Hakram has a stash of aragh he thinks I don’t know about,” I told her with a friendly clap on the shoulder. “I’ll go grab it. Find us a fire and you can vent.”
The goblin eyed the hand still on her shoulder with a frown.
“I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re not signalling your willingness to sleep with me,” she said.
The hand came off like I’d gotten my fingers burned.
“Is that what shoulder claps mean for you guys?” I asked.
“We don’t usually do touching unless we’re involved with the individual,” Pickler grunted. “Except for males, but that’s more along the lines of roughhousing.”
If that meant goblins didn’t get hugged as children, in my opinion that explained a lot.
“Well,” I muttered. “I learned something today.”
“No need to feel bad,” she comforted me. “I still have a hard time telling Callowans apart. You’re all pale and dark-haired and your accent is horrendous.”
I snorted, resisted the urge to clap her shoulder again to say goodbye and went on a holy quest to pilfer my right’s hand secret liquor trove.
By the time I found her again Nilin was by her side, propped up against a log and warming his feet near the flame. I tossed the tribune one of the bottles and he deftly caught it, popping the cork with practiced ease. The other three were set aside as a reserve while I sat on Pickler’s free side.
“I don’t even know what they’re trying to accomplish with the bickering,” the Senior Sapper complained. “All it does is infuriate me.”
“Knowing Robber, that’s probably half the reason he does it,” the dark-skinned boy snorted.
“That’s being pretty generous,” I commented, allowing myself a little sigh of pleasure at the sensation of sitting down.
I no longer got as saddle-sore as I’d used to when I’d started out riding Zombie, but I still felt the ache at the end of the day.
“He’d be a lot more tolerable if he didn’t act so…” Pickler started then trailed off, looking for the word. “So manly.”
I spat out a mouthful of aragh, handing back the bottle to Nilin as I coughed it out.
“Robber?” I croaked. “Manly? I mean, he’s my friend, but he’s also the sentient equivalent of a pack of walking razor blades.”
“That’s what a male goblin is supposed to be, Callow,” the Senior Sapper sighed. “Vicious, clever, fearless of death. He’s our equivalent of the big hairy human who goes around picking fights in bars.”
“Now there’s a disturbing thought,” I murmured, drawing a chuckle out of Nilin.
“Nauk does fall for his provocations too easily,” the tribune admitted. “He usually regrets it afterwards, but he can’t help himself when it happens.”
“He’s a sweet man,” Pickler muttered. “A little too sweet, to be honest. And he couldn’t build a trebuchet if his life depended on it.”
I choked. That was her standard for who she kept company with? If they could build a trebuchet? I wasn’t sure whether that was a goblin thing or a Pickler thing, but I elected to have another swallow of aragh instead of pursuing the matter.
“You could just let them down gently, you know,” I said as the warmth burned down my throat. “That should be the end of it. That better be the end of it.”
A darker note had entered my voice for the last part. It was fine for my officers to express interest in one another, so long as it respected regulations, but continuing after a refusal would have crossed the line into harassment. That wasn’t something I had any tolerance for. Pickler coughed and looked away.
“It’s, uh,” she cleared her throat.
“She likes the attention,” Nilin smirked. “And I owe Hakram half a day’s pay. Gods, he’s never wrong about this stuff.”
“You can’t have it both ways, Pickler,” I said.
“It’s different for us,” the Senior Sapper admitted. “Our marriages are arranged by our mothers and overseen by the tribe’s matron. Having a choice is… refreshing.”
When it came down to it, I knew next to nothing about goblin culture. There weren’t books about it and people weren’t usually allowed into their territory past Foramen – where the vast majority of them actually lived, burrowed into the side of the Grey Eyries. They were a matriarchy ruled by the Council of Matrons, who answered directly to the Empress, but aside from that? Just general facts. They were the only ones who could make the eponymous munitions and as a species they had an interest in engineering going back since the Miezan occupation. They had a language of their own, though they never spoke it outside their confines of the Tribes and Black had implied that goblins inclined to break that rule tended to disappear. Only a handful of words from it had ever been translated, and records noted that within a generation every identified term disappeared, replaced by another. There’s a reason the chuckles are always a little nervous when Robber makes a Great Goblin Conspiracy joke. My train of thought was interrupted by a fresh arrival.
“The Deadhand finally graces us with his presence,” Pickler greeted my adjutant in a drunken slur, waving the bottle in his direction
The tall orc snorted. “I guess there’s no need to ask where my stash of aragh went.”
“I requisitioned it for the good of the Empire,” I informed him. “Besides, under your mattress? Seriously? That’s the first place people look.”
“I suppose that’s my own fault, for befriending a villain,” Hakram sighed melodramatically before claiming the space next to me. “What did I miss?”
“Goblin arranged marriages,” Nilin said. “Also, I owe half a day’s pay.”
The orc grinned. “It’s almost too easy fleecing you people.”
“I hope you get the ash plague,” Pickler muttered under her breath.
Hakram raised a hairless brow. “Worry not, dearest Pickler, I will keep your secrets,” he assured her. “… Probably. So arranged marriages, huh. I keep forget you lot do that. Seems unnatural.”
“Hakram Deadhand,” I mocked gently. “Champion of free love.”
“No proper orc would stand for that kind of foolishness,” he insisted. “Chiefs who meddle in stuff like that get an axe in the skull.”
“Save me the orc pride speech,” Nilin moaned. “Nauk already spits it out at least once a day. My clan could have walked twice that distance in the same time, Nilin. My sister’s daughter would have walked that off without a word, Nilin. I’m starting to think his sister’s daughter should be a legion of her own, with all those things she can do.”
I grinned at his utterly ineffectual imitation of Nauk’s gravelling tones. The Soninke’s voice wasn’t exactly high-pitched, but it was a far cry from his commander’s deep orcish baritone.
“In all fairness,” Hakram noted, “we really are better than you glorified herbivores.”
“Herbivore,” Pickler repeated dryly. “Big word you’re using, adjutant. Do you need to punch something to compensate?”
“The mighty Clans are ever surrounded by detractors,” the tall orc mourned. “You should be protecting my honour, Catherine. Doesn’t your House of Light say jealousy is a sin?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I admitted. “I tended to nap through the more boring sermons.”
“That explains a lot,” Nilin murmured with a smirk.
“Hakram, defend my moral fibre from the uppity Soninke,” I ordered, uncorking a second bottle and handing it to him.
He took a sip. “Tribune Nilin of the Fifteenth Legion,” he intoned solemnly. “You have impugned the reputation of the Squire. The sentence for which… is death.”
The dark-skinned boy gasped and put a hand over his heart.
“Let me tombstone read that I spoke only the truth,” he declared.
A shadow was cast over me, someone leaning over my head.
“The rebels would win this war outright, if they just kept sending us barrels of wine,” Juniper opined.
“This coming from a woman who spent the better part of a night trying to convince Nauk to wrestle an ox,” I shot back immediately.
“It would have done wonders for morale,” she gravelled, somehow managing to keep a straight face.
My legate sat on the log by Pickler, taking the offered bottle without missing a beat. I looked for her usual shadow only to find nothing.
“No Aisha tonight?” I asked.
Juniper growled. “Ratface has been dragging his leg in putting the trades he made in Summerholm on paper. She’ll be riding him hard tonight until he does.”
I exchanged a look with Nilin, then we burst out laughing.
“That’s one way to motivate him, I suppose,” Pickler snorted.
“Children,” Juniper grunted, rolling her eyes.
“Which reminds me,” Hakram said. “The warlock’s get won’t be joining us.”
I raised a questioning eyebrow.
“He was elbow-deep in something’s carcass when I went to check on him,” the adjutant explained. “I decided not to ask twice.”
“Understandable,” I conceded.
“But worry not, Boss,” he grinned. “We won’t be without mage presence tonight. Kilian should be joining us.”
I took in a sharp breath and straightened out the mess that was my hair. I really should have washed before coming here. Gods, I probably still smelled of horse. Dead horse, at that. I looked around and everyone was smirking at me.
“What?” I asked, the tone coming out a little defensive.
“I’m sure your hair looks just fine, Catherine,” Nilin grinned.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I replied, gathering the tattered shreds of my dignity.
“She did ask if you would be there,” Hakram gravelled knowingly.
I was not going to smile, not when I was being baited this obviously. Still, hearing that put a warm feeling in my stomach. It was just an infatuation, I told myself. Even if it’d been a while for me, it was just an infatuation.
“Why would we talk about the wasteland that is my love life when we have Pickler’s juicier one to dissect?” I replied, shamelessly throwing the Senior Sapper under the chariot.
There was a hoot of delight from the vultures and the conversation turned at the goblin’s expense. From the corner of my eye I watched Hakram’s skeletal hand close around the bottle and almost frowned.
“You do that a lot,” Juniper said.
The legate had moved next to me while the others talked, leaning close enough we wouldn’t be overheard.
“Do what?” I asked.
“Stare at the hand, when you think nobody’s looking,” the Hellhound spoke flatly.
We really need to go over the concept of letting people dodge uncomfortable subjects at some point, Juniper. I knew from experience the orc wasn’t one easily put off when she brought a subject up, so I sighed and resigned myself to the conversation.
“Can you blame me?” I asked. “I’m the reason it’s there.”
The legate rolled her eyes again.
I cleared my throat.
“Fine,” she growled. “Catherine. He’s an orc.”
“I’d noticed,” I replied.
“I don’t think you understand what that really means,” the Hellhound grunted. “We’re not green-skinned humans with better teeth. We’re orcs.”
“While human children are learning to read, we’re learning to kill. While you’re picking up a trade, we’re learning to kill. While you’re going to pray in your pretty little churches, we’re learning to kill. War isn’t just what we do, Catherine, it’s what we are.”
The orc rolled her shoulders.
“If we’re not fighting the Empire’s enemies, we’re fighting each other. If an orc loses a hand, it means they were too weak or too slow. Hakram, though? He went up against heroes and came out stronger for it. There’s not an orc who’ll look at those bones and see anything but a mark of pride.”
I guessed I’d known that, on some level. My adjutant had never once even implied that he was anything but satisfied with his new hand. But that wasn’t the part that really unsettled me, was it? It was that I’d given the order. Maybe not spoken the words out loud, but I’d tacitly sent Hakram to fight the Thief. He wasn’t even a claimant, not the way I’d been before becoming the Squire – he just had… potential, almost realized. In the heat of the fight, I’d sent the closest friend I’d made since leaving Laure into a duel with a heroine, knowing very well chances were he’d die in the process. It didn’t matter that he saw nothing wrong with that. I wasn’t comfortable with what it said about me that when blades came out I could make a decision like that without even hesitating. But that’s on me. It’s not their problem to deal with.
“If it makes you feel any better,” Juniper grunted, “you should see the way women look at him now.”
I laughed. “It’s bad?”
My legate wrinkled her nose. “He’s never been one to have an empty bed for long, but it’s almost disgraceful how often he gets hit on nowadays.”
My grin widened. “Are you telling me Hakram is a womanizer?”
The Hellhound nodded, distinctly amused. “He’s discreet about it, at least. You ever notice how for such a gossip he almost never talks about himself?”
Huh. I hadn’t, actually. Though now that she brought it up, I could see how he tended to steer the conversation towards other people. I knew who his friends were and what clan he was from, but that wasn’t much at all. Something to think on. The volume of the chatter rose suddenly and I glanced in the direction of the others. In the middle of the throng, suffering what passed for my minions’ sense of humour, Kilian stood. She looked a little overwhelmed by the drunken attention, though she was smiling. Her pixie-cut dark red hair had been freshly combed, by the looks of it, and she seemed to have traded the usual legionary under tunic for more comfortable cotton shirt and trousers. I could not help but notice how they made her legs look even longer than usual, or the fact that her armour hid away rather noticeable curves.
“And I don’t want any part of that look on your face, so if you’ll excuse me,” Juniper gravelled.
I let that go without a response, though I schooled my face into an expression that was a little more appropriate. My legate took back her old seat and everyone else shuffled along, leaving an empty space by my side in what I assumed to be the opposite of happenstance. Kilian promptly filled it, gracing me with a smile.
“Finally found his stash, did you?” she said.
I opened a new bottle and grinned. “Under his mattress, if you can believe it.”
“Rookie mistake,” the Senior Mage chuckled, shaking her head in mock dismay.
The redhead leaned back against the log, our bodies closer than was strictly necessary. The kick of the liquor wasn’t the only reason for the flush on my face, though the pleasant haze of drunkenness kept me in a mellow mood.
“We should have done this more often, back in the College,” I said. “With the responsibilities we all have now, we won’t be getting chances like this often.”
“There weren’t as many of us, back then,” Kilian replied. “Just Rat Company. It’s nice, having the others along.”
Juniper was the only one who’d not been with the Rats there tonight, but I took her point. Aisha was good company, when she got that stick out of her ass, and I took a twisted sort of satisfaction out of goading Masego into drinking the hard stuff. Apparently there was no magical cure for a hangover, which made his shambling the following morning a very entertaining spectacle.
“This is all still new to me,” I admitted.
Kilian raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t go drinking with your friends in Laure?”
“I didn’t really have friends, in Laure,” I shrugged. “Colleagues, some contacts. The occasional interest. But I didn’t quite fit in back at the orphanage, or anywhere else for that matter.”
The redhead looked surprised. “But you’re one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met,” she protested.
I snorted. “That’s overselling it a bit.”
“Catherine is convinced she’s uncharismatic, for some reason,” Hakram called out from the other side of the fire.
“I make enemies a lot more often than I make friends,” I reminded him.
Juniper barked out a laugh. “Can’t really call it “making” an enemy, if they were already out for your blood. Foundling, there’s not another captain that could have talked their company into following a plan as messed up as the one you pulled in the melee. And the Rats took it on faith, going in blind.”
I grimaced. “The company didn’t have a lot to lose by listening to me, no offense to you lot.”
“There’s a difference between hitting the bottom and believing someone can drag you back up,” Pickler said. “You were the one with a plan. We all learned to trust in that, before you were done.”
Her tone was a little odd and I shot her a quizzical look. Was she still feeing guilty about the way she’d spoken up against me during the melee? She’d had legitimate concerns, even if she’d phrased them unflatteringly. Besides, it was water under the bridge as far as I was concerned. The Senior Sapper had been one the cornerstones of what could be called my “faction” inside the Fifteenth, along with Nauk and Robber. The way everyone was looking at me was starting to make me uncomfortable so I raised my bottle.
“To taking refuge in audacity, then,” I toasted.
There was a round of cheers, some louder than others, and the conversation drifted away. Kilian eventually hummed quietly, looking away from my face.
“So “interests”, huh,” she said. “Left behind any broken hearts when you got out of Laure?”
“Hardly,” I snorted. “I never got into anything too serious. Well, there was that fisherman’s son who was getting there, but I broke it off. I was already aiming for the College, back then, staying in the capital wasn’t in the cards.”
“Oh,” she spoke. “A boy. I was under the impression you were…”
The redhead gestured vaguely, though I got the gist of the meaning.
“I’m bisexual,” I informed her amusedly. “I’ve been with people of both genders. I mean, don’t get me wrong, girls are nice but there was this boy called Duncan back home who had pecs like you wouldn’t believe.”
“You’re rather horrible at this, aren’t you?” Kilian spoke wryly.
Shit. Right. Maybe should have kept that one under wraps. The aragh was not doing wonders for my tact, not that it had ever been one of my strongest traits. I cleared my throat.
“Have you?” I asked. “Been interested in girls before, I mean.”
“Only the one, so far,” the redhead sighed. “I honestly can’t tell if she’s not interested or just very bad at picking up on signals.”
“Would you like to go for a walk, Kilian?” I croaked out.
“As long as it leads towards your tent,” she replied frankly.
“I think that can be arranged,” I said, hurriedly rising to my feet.
Well. This might turn out to be an even better night than I’d thought.