“Any plan with more than four steps is not a plan, it is wishful thinking.”
– Dread Empress Maleficent II
I was in an unusually good mood.
That we’d finally come within half a day’s march of where the Sixth and the Ninth were camped was contributing: traipsing around Callow had held an element of novelty for the first few days, but by now I was sick and tired of looking at empty fields. That Hakram was so close to coming into his Name that I could finally feel something coming off of him was another factor. Soon he’d be in a position where any assassin trying to take him on was in for a rude awakening. Yet it would be a lie to pretend that the main reason for my occasional urge to whistle wasn’t that’d I’d been sharing a bed with Kilian for the last three nights. She was usually gone by the time I woke up, sadly, but that was military life for you. We were expected to put up the pretence of professionalism regardless of the reality. Besides, what we got up to before going to sleep more than made up for it. For all that she’d apparently never been with a woman before Kilian had proved to be an, uh, eager and dedicated student. I had a fresh new appreciation for all those ribald jokes about nimble mage’s hands.
According to Juniper, the latest milestone our scouting lines had found indicated we were actually ahead of schedule: Black had installed his legions at the village of Harper’s Crossing and at our current pace we’d be there before Noon Bell. It was a warm spring day, the clouds were clear and the sky was blue – I’d allowed myself to be tempted to ride in front of the Fifteenth, keeping Nauk and Nilin company. The conversation had drifted towards our coming assignment and the battle inevitably coming with it. Opinions on the fighting strength the Silver Spears would bring to bear were, as it turned out, somewhat mixed.
“Sure, Helike messed up Procer something good during the League Wars,” Commander Nauk growled. “But they were under Theodosius the Unconquered. The man was brilliant, could have done the same with a pack of goatherds. He was also a villain. Tyrants are a special breed of competent.”
“I think there’s quite a bit of difference between goatherds and Free Cities men-at-arms,” Nilin replied patiently. “Better armour, for one. Fewer unwholesome entanglements with bovids, most likely – though I’m not putting anything above soldiers if they campaign long enough.”
“I’m sure they’d put togas on the poor creatures at least,” I opined. “You know how they are about proper dress, down south.”
Nauk barked out a laugh and his tribune graced me with a smile.
“That said, I’ve gotten some preliminary reports from Black,” I continued. “At least five hundred cavalry, equipped in the Proceran style. That’ll be tricky to deal with.”
The large orc grinned nastily. “The Legions handled the knights of the Old Kingdom, Boss. We’ll swallow those pretty bastards whole and spit out their bones.”
“Poetic,” Nilin spoke drily. “And I’ll grant you that after Callowan knights every other cavalrymen look like children, but we’re not the Ironsides. We don’t field nearly enough pike to cover our entire first rank.”
“Juniper is of the opinion that if we deploy your ogres in the right place it won’t matter,” I said. “I’m inclined to agree. Not that their riders are the only challenge they’ll offer.”
There were three full lines of ogres under Nauk’s command, armoured in the thickest plate to ever come out of Foramen and wielding war hammers that were outright taller than me. I knew that because I’d stood next to one and found out with dismay that the crown of my head didn’t even reach the top of the shaft. My damnable height aside, the ogres could stop a cavalry charge flat if they stood in front of it. The war hammers would crush through the kind of scale mail cataphracts wore like wet parchment and lances would hardly do more than sting. That said, I’d fought ogres during the melee. I knew damn well they weren’t invincible. They got tired like everybody else, and they could be swarmed if the enemy had the numbers to throw at them. Which they did, in the case of the Silver Spears: Scribe’s estimates had them at two thousand men-at-arms in addition to the cavalry.
The war doctrine taught at the College stated that a legion could take two-to-one odds and reasonably expect to come out on top if they had a full supply of goblin munitions, but in this case it was different. The Fifteenth could barely field one thousand and seven hundred legionaries, a full company of which would be… unreliable. The Forlorn Hope would have to be deployed carefully, preferably in range of goblin crossbowmen in case they got the wrong sort of ideas. More than that, the Silver Spears were led by a hero. My teacher had promised he’d get me a look at the files both his and the Empress’ spies had mounted on this Exiled Prince, but even if he was an incompetent wretch just his being present changed everything. Current Legion doctrine relied on shock and awe tactics to break superior numbers, after all. If the first rank of the enemy host disappeared in a hail of sharpers and the one behind it was drowned in a wave of fireballs, enemy morale usually got shaken up something fierce.
All that went out the window with a hero in the ranks. As long as the Prince drew breath, no army he commanded would rout. They’d walk unflinchingly into the grinder and fight like devils until either we were dead or they were wiped out. Captain had told me once that, before the Reforms, no Imperial host took on a Callowan one unless they had them four to one. My own studies of the Empire’s chequered military history had illustrated why: there were at least a dozen incidents were a Callowan army brutally outnumbered had made a desperate last stand and managed a miraculous last-moment victory. Amusingly enough, under Terribilis II there’d been an official decree from the Tower forbidding the Legions from giving battle when it seemed like they couldn’t possibly lose. There’s a reason the man managed to turn back two Crusades. A shame that he’d been assassinated shortly afterwards, but that was the way Praesi politics worked: no great accomplishment went unpunished.
“That’s what we got you for, Callow,” Nauk spoke bluntly. “I’m looking forward to you running that pretentious little princeling down. Hells, I’d take a potshot at him myself if I thought it would work.”
“Getting competitive with Hakram, are we?” Nilin teased. “A commander should know better than to open war on multiple fronts – you’ve already got Robber to deal with.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Nauk grunted. “But I’d like it on official record that you’re an insubordinate twit.”
“I’ll see it done,” I promised gravely, lips twitching.
Before I could turn back the subject to our slice of the coming campaign, my attention was drawn to a pair of goblins making their way through the ranks towards us. My vision sharpened with barely a thought and I made out the green markings on their armour indicating they were scouts and not sappers – not that there’d been much of a chance otherwise, since they were coming from ahead of the column. The two of them were male, and relatively young-looking: closer to ten than fifteen, if I had to wager.
“Ma’am,” the officer among them saluted. “Commander Nauk, Tribute Nilin.”
I cocked my head to the side. “You have something for me, sergeant?”
He bobbed his head. “Sergeant Latcher, ma’am, Second Company. We were scouting the road ahead when we ran into a detachment from the Sixth.”
I raised an eyebrow. “We’re getting fairly close to their camp, so that’s not too unexpected. I’m assuming there’s more?”
“Wolf riders,” the other goblin muttered. “Ma’am,” he added hastily.
I raised a silent eyebrow, waiting for them to elaborate. The mounted orcs covered ground even faster than goblins, it was only natural for General Istrid to use them as a patrols. Especially after getting her supply line hit by the Silver Spears. She’s got to be that much more careful about them sneaking about.
“They, uh, bring a message from Lord Black,” Sergeant Latcher explained. “He’s requesting for you come ahead of the Fifteenth. Something about an imminent war council.”
I sighed. “He could have mentioned that last time we scried,” I grunted. “Still, doesn’t matter. Are they still here?”
Latcher bobbed his head again. “They’ve been instructed to act as your escort.”
“Kind of them,” I spoke drily. I glanced at my companions. “Looks like we’ll have to cut this short. Send a runner to Juniper to tell her where I’ve gone.”
“Duly noted,” Nilin replied.
“Have fun,” Nauk waved airily.
“My teacher’s a lot of things, Nauk,” I noted. “Fun is, unfortunately, not one of them.”
The largest of the two inns in Harper’s Crossing had been appropriated as the official headquarters for the joint Sixth and Ninth Legions. While it hadn’t been fortified – which was considerate of Black – the Blackguards were swarming the entire area, a sure sign my teacher was inside. His faceless guards were never far behind, not even in the middle of a village-turned-fortified-camp. As it happened, when my grim-faced orc escorts left me behind they were surrendering me to an old acquaintance.
“Lieutenant Abase,” I spoke up, pleasantly surprised.
The Soninke pushed up his visor and revealed his face, looking mildly exasperated.
“I should have known eventually you’d start telling us apart,” he replied. He offered his arm to clasp like he’d taught me what seemed like an eternity ago and I took it. “Good to see you Catherine.”
“Same,” I replied. “Any reason you lot are out in force today? It looks like you’re pulling out all the stops.”
“A pair of assassins tried to infiltrate the camp yesterday,” he grimaced. “Lady Scribe found them out but they killed themselves before they could be taken prisoner. We’re not sure who their target was.”
Well, shit. Abase probably wasn’t in the loop when it came to Hakram, but I had a pretty good idea who’d sent the assassins and who they’d been hired to kill. The only real question was whether they’d been sent by Heiress herself or by the Truebloods as a whole. I was definitely upping the guard around Hakram’s tent, discreet measure or not.
“He in a foul mood, then?” I asked.
“Not exactly,” Abase shrugged. “But he’s been keeping long hours. I get the impression there are foreign concerns.”
“Well, only one way to find out,” I murmured. “Take care, Lieutenant.”
“Same to you, Lady Squire,” he replied with a nod.
The other Blackguards moved aside to let me pass, well used to my presence from the afternoon lessons I’d had in my teacher’s Ater estate. The inside of the inn was comfortable and well-lit, but I barely paid attention to it: there were three people inside the common room, seated around a broad table covered in maps and the tidy piles of paperwork that inevitably followed Scribe around. Black rose from his seat when I entered, a smile on his face as he strode towards me.
“Catherine,” he greeted me warmly.
I found myself engulfed in a hug I leaned into, against my better judgement. I had missed him, much as it pained me to admit it. I didn’t have to trust him to like him, and some days it was hard to manage even that much. It didn’t help he was obviously fond of me, and though I knew he could fake that easily enough I was almost sure he wasn’t. I allowed myself a moment to enjoy the rare display of affection before returning to the present. I was almost as tall as he was now, I noticed. I must have grown without noticing, not that standing higher than Black would be much of an accomplishment.
“Black,” I replied, a smile tugging at my lips.
A large hand clasped my shoulder as I drew back and I turned to face Captain.
“Sabah,” I said. “It’s been a while.”
“Too long,” the gargantuan woman replied. “Look at you, you went up the better part of an inch.”
“Hadn’t noticed,” I admitted. “My armour still fits just fine.”
I glanced at the third villain and found Scribe quietly studying me. She nodded once, then turned back her attention to the report she was reading. That she’d acknowledged my presence at all was already an accomplishment, in my experience. Still, in the back of my mind Ime’s warning sounded. Be very careful around Scribe, she’d said. Do not ever let her believe you are a threat to him.
“Oh my, Sabah,” Black murmured. “Look at the lack of tension in her shoulders.”
The warrior woman chuckled. “I see it. The Taghreb boy or the redhead?” she asked.
I grimaced. “Should I even ask how the two of you know about that?”
Black raised an expectant eyebrow, declining to reply.
“Kilian,” I finally admitted.
Not that I’d ever seriously considered Ratface. He was nice enough to look at, but if he was actually over Aisha I’d plunger my head in a brazier. My teacher raised a hand and Captain cursed, flipping a golden aureus he deftly snatched out of the air.
“Never bet against a redhead,” he said smugly.
“It’s not like you need the gold,” the Taghreb complained.
“Wine tastes better when bought through victory,” Black replied easily.
“This isn’t exactly the reaction I expected when you learned I’d taken up with someone without a Name,” I interrupted.
Better not to let them get started. Captain could bicker with the best of them, when the mood took her, and my teacher was physically incapable of letting anyone else have the last word. Black shrugged indifferently.
“We’ll need to have a conversation about risk management later,” he said. “But I am not unduly worried. It’s not without precedent.”
“Wekesa’s husband might be a devil,” Captain rumbled, “but Amna isn’t.”
I sometimes forgot Captain was married, mostly because she rarely spoke of her husband. Or her children, for that matter. I’d been rather surprised to learn she had two, her eldest actually a few years older than me. That of all people she’d ended marrying a minor Taghreb bureaucrat from the Tower had been a shock, though it did explain her occasional maternal leanings. I’d never gotten the entire story of how it came about, though given how private of a woman she could be that was to be expected.
“I’m guessing you didn’t send wolf riders out for me just to discuss my love life, no matter how much gold you had riding on it,” I finally spoke up. “The messengers mentioned a war council?”
“Take a seat,” Black said. “There will be a briefing with Istrid and Sacker later tonight, though we’ll wait for your legate for that. The council was an excuse to get you here early.”
I frowned. “Do we have a problem?”
“You might say that,” he replied. “There were developments abroad.”
“Ominous,” I commented. “Been a while since someone has been so vague at me.”
The pale-skinned man’s lips twitched, though the amusement was short-lived. Sabah idly adjusted her belt, then looked askance at Black.
“Go ahead,” he said. “We’re having her over for dinner anyhow.”
Sabah clapped my shoulder again. “I have business to attend to,” she said. “I’ll see you later tonight.”
Had she come just to greet me? That was oddly touching, in a way. I nodded back and watched her walk away.
“The Principate is assembling a host,” Black told me, claiming back my attention. “We’ve had several reports confirming that Klaus Papenheim will be leading it.”
“The First Prince’s uncle,” I mused. “Prince of Hannoven, right?”
“Correct,” he agreed. “Arguably her staunchest supporter, as well as one of her best generals.”
“You think they’re making a play for the Vales while we’re busy here?” I asked. “I thought she had domestic matters to deal with before she could.”
“I think he’s headed south,” the green-eyed man replied. “To the Dominion.”
Levant, huh. It wasn’t a nation I spent a lot of time thinking about. It was on the other side of Calernia, and considering it was surrounded by the Principate and the Titanomanchy it was unlikely we’d ever have to fight them. I did know they had several axes to grind with Procer, from back when their territory had been a fresh three principalities added to the Principate by force of arms. They’d rebelled with Ashuran backing and since built the Red Snake Wall, which made their northern border more or less impossible to cross.
“She’s not trying to conquer them again, is she? I thought she was supposed to be some sort of political mastermind,” I said.
“I doubt it will come to open war,” Black spoke. “But they’ve been making trouble in Orense. She needs to settle that before turning her attention elsewhere.”
“And the Dominion is going to be impressed by a few thousand footmen standing around awkwardly?” I snorted. “Their wall would literally eat them if they tried anything.”
“It would if they assaulted it,” the Knight replied. “That won’t be the case. She’s had the fleets of all sea-side principalities mobilized.”
“They have to be charging her through the nose for that,” I pointed out.
“Her treasury can weather it,” Black said. “It might be a different story if she went on a protracted campaign, but she won’t have to – the mere threat of landing an army past the wall will be enough to give Levant pause.”
“So she’s bluffing?” I frowned. “That strikes me as a costly gambit to run.”
“The Principate is the second wealthiest nation of Calernia, and at the moment they have more coin to spare than soldiers,” the green-eyed man noted. “There’s also the fact that throwing around that much gold will go a long way in convincing the Dominion she’s willing to pull the trigger if she has to. That her own uncle heads the host will only further that impression.”
“The Majilis has met on the subject already, though the official reason for the session was another one,” a quiet voice contributed.
I glanced at Scribe, who’d put down her quill while speaking.
“That’s the Dominion’s equivalent of the Highest Assembly, right?” I frowned, scrabbling for what little I’d learned about Levant’s political system.
“Roughly,” Black conceded. “Their official head of state is more a spiritual leader than a temporal one. Every city has their own ruler descended from one of the heroes that originally founded Levant – together they form the Majilis and choose the Seljun by consensus. Unlike the Principate, however, they have no real nation-wide policy. The ruler of Vaccei is the one who’s been testing Orense’s borders.”
“She has no support in the rest of the Majilis,” Scribe murmured. “They voted against censuring her, but she’s aware she would be standing alone. She’ll have to swallow her pride if the First Prince pushes hard enough.”
I hummed. “That’s troubling, though I don’t see why you needed me to come ahead of the Fifteenth to learn it.”
Black ran a finger along the surface of the table.
“Because when Levant backs down, Hasenbach’s last foreign liability will be Helike. Which she’ll be able to muzzle through a vote of the League, when she gathers enough allies in the Free Cities.”
I raised an eyebrow. “And that means?”
Black’s lips thinned in displeasure, though it was not directed at me. “Our timetable in Callow has changed. The rebellion must be over before summer is over, or we may very well be facing a war on two fronts.”