“Treason is more art than act.”
-Dread Emperor Traitorous
I tightened the belt around Kilian’s armour, leaning in to place a kiss on the side of her neck. I felt her smile as she grabbed her helmet, half-turning to catch my lips with her own. The metal of her legionary cuirass was cold but I could almost feel the heat and softness of her underneath – it was all too easy to imagine the curves I’d taken such pleasure in unwrapping not an hour past under my hands again. She had such soft skin, for a soldier. The redhead withdrew to catch her breath and leant her forehead against mine.
“If you start that again I’ll be late for the briefing,” she murmured.
“Tempting,” I admitted. “But I suppose I’ll have to let you go for now. You’ll be back afterwards?”
Her smile turned a touch wicked and she nudged my nose with her own, playfully biting my lip.
“Can you think of a better way to work out all that tediousness?” she asked.
“I genuinely cannot,” I mused, grabbing the helmet out of her hands and carefully sliding it over her head.
She adjusted it so it wouldn’t tangle her hair – though her own pixie cut made that a trivial matter compared to the mess that my own long locks could turn into – and I tied the straps together. The redhead turned to grin at me.
“By your leave, Lady Squire?” she teased.
“Out,” I smiled. “Before I change my mind.”
“Ma’am,” she saluted with a grin, sashaying out of my tent.
How she managed that while wearing fifteen pounds of metal was beyond me, but I wasn’t above enjoying the sights. I waited until she was gone before turning to the wooden folding table that served as my desk and the two books still on it. Four days has passed since the evening Black had given them to me, and I still wasn’t sure what his intent had been. The children’s tales were, apparently, just that. There did not seem to be a hidden meaning to them. Oh, they were interesting enough on their own – they were very different from the tales I’d been raised on – but they weren’t anything I couldn’t have found in any bookstore in Ater. Unlike the other manuscript my teacher had not annotated it, though it was still in his handwriting. The lessons it taught were… strange. There was a formula to most Callowan fairy tales, patterns that could be found if you looked. First the hero or heroine’s character was established, then they were presented with a problem. A catalyst ignited the struggle against that problem, and the hero’s fight changed them in some way. Through victory the resolution came, and the state of affairs for the future was established: the ever-famous happy ending, most of the time, though even Callow dabbled in the occasional tragedy.
Praesi went at it differently. The initial stretch of the story, where Callowans would establish the virtues that would carry the hero through the story, was dedicated to establishing the ambition of the protagonists. A warlock who wanted to build a tower reaching the sky, a soldier wanting to conquer an invincible fortress. Never once were those ambitions spoken of as being overreaching hubris: the urge to be more was always praised. One of my favourite tales as a child had been the Fearless Lass, a young girl who went out in the world to learn fear and after many misadventures only found it after she married a king and put a crown on her head. In Black’s book, though, every single protagonist was born with that fear in them. The awareness that no matter how clever and powerful and ruthless they were, eventually they would be unmade. The stories all ended with defeat, either at the hands of a hero or by the betrayal of someone they loved. It was the opposite of a happy ending: there was no sense of permanence to it. Taghreb tales were particularly brutal in that regard, the most striking example being the story of “The Well in the Sands”. A young tribeswoman trying to dig a well in the desert so her tribe would not die of thirst. After tricking rival raiders, stealing the gold of a Soninke lord and capturing a goblin to dig for her, she finally managed it. Her whole tribe drank – and the morning after, found the well had gone empty. Victory, most fickle of friends, the moral went.
Was that what he was trying to make me understand? That eventually, villains always lost? Is that why you chose now of all times to pick a Squire, because war is knocking at the Empire’s door? Malicia certainly seemed to think so.
My instincts told me there was more to it than that. That he’d given me a second book only made me more certain of it. There was a story to the other manuscript too, though not written in words. The first column that stretched across the pages was, I’d found, a series of population censuses undertaken by the Tower. Not all Tyrants had bothered to take those, so there were blind spots, but most of the Empire’s span was covered. They were cross-referenced with the name of the Emperor or Empress who’d reigned at the time, and the wars they’d fought in – either civil ones or attempted invasions of their neighbours. The last column’s meaning still eluded me. It measured an area in square miles, that dropped sharply after the reign of an early Dread Empress and then remained more or less the same. No hint was given as to what exactly it was supposed to mean. Still, there was at least one pattern easy enough to notice: all the most productive periods in Imperial history, when Tyrants had undertaken great building projects like the road network and the great forges in Foramen, had come in the wake of a lost war. The Tyrant who failed was overthrown or assassinated and their replacement put Praes in order for a few decades.
So the Empire was easier to govern after getting losing wars. If that was true, then the implications were worrying. Praes hadn’t lost a war since my teacher became the Black Knight, about forty years ago. But that would explain a lot. When we’d had the war council with Istrid and Sacker, Black had said that the political situation in Ater made it impossible for Malicia to just recall Heiress regardless of the trouble she was causing. The Empire’s getting harder to keep together. I closed my eyes, sighed and killed the candle on my desk. That complicated my own plans a lot. If Praes collapsed into civil war, there was no certainty the Empress would come out on top. The Truebloods were racist aristocratic pricks but they weren’t stupid: they wouldn’t pick a fight they didn’t think they could win. Keeping Callow as a semi-independent vassal state under Malicia’s Praes was one thing, but under someone like Heiress? No. I’d rather raise a flag in rebellion than allow that. But if I did, would the Fifteenth follow me? Parts of it would, I thought. Nauk, Hakram, likely Ratface. Kilian. Juniper, though… Juniper believed in the Empire. Maybe not the people in it, but certainly the institution. And Aisha would follow her. Where Hune and Pickler stood in this remained to be seen.
So far I’d been willing to take things slow, but that time looked like it was past. If civil war did erupt, I needed to be sure what I’d have to work with – and that meant finding out where the loyalties of my officers lay. Black had told me start taking be the initiative, hadn’t he? Start solving problems before they blew up in my face. Drumming my fingers on the hilt of my sword, I frowned. Well, there was at least one problem I could check on right now.
The tent where Hunter was kept had a full line of guards on it at all times, as did the chariot we kept him in when we were on the move. At least four legionaries were watching him sleep at all times, with orders to slit his throat the moment it looked like he was waking up. How much good that would actually do if the hero actually returned to consciousness was arguable, but the precaution had been so basic it seemed ridiculous to me not to take it. Masego checked on the spells keeping him asleep every morning and every night, checking them for lapses or imperfections – not that there were likely to be any, given that they were Warlock’s work. The legionaries saluted as I arrived, stepping aside to let me in. Apprentice himself was leaning over the sleeping form of Hunter, wearing the leather apron I’d first me him in above his riding robes. He was peering at what appeared to be empty space through his spectacles.
“Masego?” I prompted.
“We have a problem,” he, braids shaking as he turned towards me.
My hand instantly dropped to my sword.
“Not the Hunter,” he spoke after a moment.
I glared at him. “Could have led with that,” I said.
He blinked in surprise. Social skills, I realized not for the first time, were not the mage’s strong point.
“Oh, I can see how that might have sounded alarming,” he mused. “Funny.”
“The spells are fine?” I confirmed as patiently as I could.
He waved airily. “Yes, he won’t be waking up anytime soon. Not that I’m not looking forward to handing him over to the representative from Refuge anyway.”
Black had scryed me the day after our departure from Harper’s Crossing to inform me he’d been in touch with the Lady of the Lake. She had not, in fact, sent a hero out to kill her old friend Warlock. She’d given specific instructions otherwise, actually, and was rather displeased Hunter wasn’t in the Free Cities like he was supposed to be. She’d be sending another of her pupils to pick him up and bring him back to Refuge, where he’d be tried. My teacher had implied said trial wouldn’t really be anything of the sort: the sole dispenser of justice in Refuge was the Lady of the Lake, and the only law she’d set down was do what I say. I was looking forward to getting rid of the liability, though I would have much preferred for it to happen before we marched into war. I had an itch to take care of the risk permanently, but my instructions otherwise had been made very clear. It wasn’t something I was willing to fight Black on, not for now. He’d maintained my authorization to put Hunter down if the hero was trying to escape, it would have to be enough.
“A problem?” I finally prompted.
“Possibly,” he hedged. “I felt someone scrying earlier. Did you have one of your mages try to find the Silver Spears again?”
“No,” I frowned.
Whatever means the mercenaries had using to shield themselves from Black’s mages, it worked against mine too. I still ordered regular attempts, but that was before we moved out at dawn.
“Didn’t think so,” he shrugged. “It connected somewhere down south, anyway, so the direction was wrong.”
My eyes sharpened. Callowans didn’t field mages in armies the way the Legions did, and there was no indication the Countess Marchford had changed that habit. I did, however, know of someone in southern Callow who was bound to have brought a few with her.
“Did you manage to listen in?”
Masego shook his head, the silver trinkets woven into his hair catching torchlight as he did.
“They used a modified formula and I only caught on just before they broke off contact,” he explained. “Good work, and subtle. I wouldn’t have caught it if I weren’t already examining the spells on our sleeping friend here.”
I swore. It had been a given Heiress would have plants in the Fifteenth, no matter how good Hakram’s screening process, but if one of them was a mage then it was worse than I’d thought. Passing word through physical messages was one thing and the time lapse meant I’d still have a degree of surprise on my side, but if she could check in regularly? She’d know exactly where we were and what we were up to. I doubted she was in a position to ambush us with her own troops, either physically or politically, but there were a hundred ways she could make a nuisance of herself.
“I did, however,” Masego continued, “manage to ferret out where the connection was made on both sides.”
I smiled unpleasantly. “You can find who was speaking to them?”
“I can narrow down the area to about a dozen feet,” Apprentice replied. “The rest you’ll have to find on your own, which shouldn’t be too hard: a formula like that will require very specific equipment.”
My fingers tightened around the grip of my sword. I opened the tent’s flap and called one of legionaries closer.
“Get me Hakram,” I ordered. “And tell him to assemble a full line.”
I turned to Apprentice, who was eyeing me with a raised eyebrow over the rim of his spectacles.
“Let’s find our rat,” I said.
“Blackspear clan,” Hakram spat. “Should have known. Not a spit of loyalty in that blood.”
Two legionaries held down the struggling orc, snarling back when he showed his teeth. Masego already looked bored with the whole affair. He’d created a glowing red thread out of thin air after my adjutant and Lieutenant Tordis’ line had arrived, following it all the way to one of the ten-man tents in Hune’s kabili. All ten legionaries had been inside and they’d been made to stand at attention while we rifled through the insides. Tordis herself had found the polished metal circle covered in runes that had been used as focus for the scrying – the spy had tried to run when he’d realized, but he’d been tackled down before he could make it even three feet away.
“Return to your tent,” I ordered the others. “And don’t speak a word of this to anyone. The whole matter is under seal, by my authority as the Squire.”
The informant had been the sergeant of the tenth, as it turned out. Not a War College alumni, one of the legionaries from the regular recruitment camps. He’d kept that he was a mage under wraps, apparently, because he wasn’t on the roster as one of Kilian’s. I glanced at Hakram.
“Let’s take him somewhere private,” I said. “I have a few questions to ask Sergeant…”
“Asger,” Tordis told me. “Sergeant Asger.”
Said sergeant seemed rather displeased at the idea of getting dragged out of sight and managed to wrench out a hand. He started an incantation, but I was having none of that: my armoured boot impacted his mouth and I heard his jaw break with a wrenching sound. The boot came down a second time and he was knocked out cold.
“Apprentice,” I spoke calmly. “I’ll need you to fix that jaw before we interrogate him.”
The Soninke mage rolled his eyes. “You sure you don’t want to get a few more kicks in first?”
I raised an eyebrow. “No, but feel free if you are so inclined.”
I saw Hakram’s lips twitch from the corner of my eye and the legionaries who’d been holding down Asger picked him up, glancing in my direction for instructions. As it happened, there was a supply tent not too far away: my adjutant oversaw the informant’s tying up and Masego set up a privacy ward without me needing to ask. Considering who’d raised him, I supposed it must have been habit by now. I ordered Tordis and her line to stand guard outside while Apprentice got to work fixing the sergeant’s jaw enough that he could speak.
“Do we know who he was talking to?” Hakram gravelled.
“Not for sure,” I admitted. “But he was talking south, and we both know who’s down there.”
“One of these days,” the tall orc bit out, “I’m going to stand on that woman’s grave and smile.”
A common sentiment, that. Apprentice stepped away from Asger and nodded when I sent a questioning look his way. He leaned back against a crate of barley bread, to my surprise. I would have thought he’d want to be done with this as quickly as possible, but it looked like curiosity had won out this once. I stepped forward and kicked the prisoner awake. The orc came back with a hiss of pain, glaring at us hatefully.
“Sergeant Asger,” I spoke pleasantly. “It has come to my attention that you’ve been engaging in unauthorized scrying rituals.”
“No idea what you’re talking about,” he spat. “I’m not even a mage.”
“Masego?” I prompted.
The Warlock’s son peered at the orc through his spectacles.
“Definitely a mage,” he noted. “Though a fairly weak one. Orcs rarely produce casters of a decent calibre.”
“And that’s your first lie of the evening,” I said in an even tone. “I’d advise you not to speak a second.”
“Fuck you, Wallerspawn,” he replied, baring his teeth.
“Watch your godsdamned mouth,” Hakram growled in Kharsum.
“Look at you, human’s pet,” Asger mocked in the same. “Another Howling Wolves slave serving the masters.”
“You are a shame even on what passes for your clan,” my adjutant retorted.
“Yeah, let’s spit on the Blackspears again,” the sergeant laughed. “It’s done well for you lot, hasn’t it? Wolves and Red Shields and Waxing Moons – favourites of the Praesi, even those who play at being Praesi.”
Howling Wolves for Hakram, Red Shields for Juniper and Waxing Moons for Nauk. Was he really throwing a fit because there was no Blackspear clan member in my senior officers? It wasn’t like there weren’t any high placed officers belonging to them period – Morok was a Blackspear and he was a tribune in the Fourteenth, last I heard.
“You’re not here because of what clan you were born to,” I broke in, before the situation could degenerate even further. “You’re here because you’ve been passing information to Heiress’ people.”
“Allegedly,” Masego said. “It has not yet been established as fact.”
I shot him a quelling look. Now was not the time to get pedantic on me.
“May you kill each other and spare us your work,” Asger, pausing only to spit in the dirt.
He was not, I noted, denying it.
“Who was your contact on the other side?” I asked.
“Your mother, Wallerspawn,” he mocked.
“I’m an orphan, actually,” I informed him. “That said, I don’t have all night to indulge you.”
I took a deep breath and reached for the wellspring of power inside of me. The beast opened its eyes, coiling around me and baring its fangs.
“Tell me,” I Spoke.
Asger tried to keep his mouth closed but inch by inch it snapped open.
“Fadila Mbafeno,” he gasped. “May you choke on her her bones.”
Masego let out a little surprised noise.
“You’ve heard of her?” I asked.
“One of the better noble mages from our generation,” Apprentice said. “Old blood, sworn to Wolof.”
The city Heiress’ mother ruled over. That was probably as close to confirmation as I was going to get.
“Do you know of other spies in the Fifteenth?” I questioned with a frown.
“Everyone you love,” Asger grinned, but he’d hesitated for a heartbeat.
“I do dislike repeating myself,” I grunted. “Answer the question.”
He screamed in anger but the words got out anyway.
“There is another. Turned in Summerholm,” he choked out. “Don’t know the name. Or anything else.”
I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.
“More than one, most likely,” Hakram grunted. “Gold opens more doors than keys.”
“I’ll set up a trip ward over our camps from now on,” Masego spoke. “If they’re a mage, I’ll be able to catch them scrying.”
If they were not, however, ferreting them out would be much trickier. Unlike Black I didn’t have a Scribe to direct agents to watch all the dark corners of Creation. I don’t have anywhere as large a charge to watch over either, though. Regardless, I’d need to stop depending on the information fed to me by my teacher eventually. Now was good a time as any to start setting the groundwork for that. But until then the Fifteenth is a barrel with a hole at the bottom, leaking out information all over the Empire.
“So what am I to do with you now, Sergeant Asger?” I murmured.
“The sale of military information when the Empire is in a state of war is high treason,” Hakram growled. “The noose for him.”
“If you keep him alive, you might be able to pass false information through him,” Masego pointed out.
Could I, though? Could I actually keep this quiet enough Heiress wouldn’t realize I’d caught her informant? It wasn’t like I could just let the sergeant return to his tenth after this. And though I’d put this incident under the seal, word would spread. It was impossible to make an arrest like this without someone noticing, even at this time of the night. Before the week was done word would have spread through the entire Fifteenth. Even if the spies didn’t know each other’s identities – which I assumed to be the case – there would still be suspicions as to why Asger had been arrested. It might be notable enough to pass either way, and there was no telling if Heiress had given instructions to report any and all arrests. Which I would have done, in her place. Then let’s presume she has. If none of the other spies were mages, or if they were too scared to scry after tonight, then I might still manage to pass some false information before Heiress caught on.
“The advantage that could give us is too minor to go through all the trouble of keeping a liability like him around,” I finally said.
“I see how it is,” Asger sneered. “When your Callowan buddies do it they get the soft death or your special company, but if it’s a greenskin? Slaves who misbehave get the noose.”
“You’re right,” I admitted, and Hakram started in surprise. “I’ve been too soft on people. And things like this will keep happening as long as I continue. So I’ll start correcting that error with you.”
I glanced at Hakram.
“Have Tordis’ men take him. He hangs at dawn, before the entire legion.”
I was too restless to return to my tent afterwards.
I took a walk around camp, stopping to talk with the sentries, then made my way out. Juniper has chosen a place close to a hill for us to stop today, the kind of low slope that occasionally dotted the landscape of this part of Callow. It was a half-moon out tonight, and I breathed in the night breeze with a sigh of pleasure. The camp might not smell as bad as a city, but the stench of nearly two thousand soldiers was not something to dismiss out of hand. I was amusing myself by picking out the constellations in the sky when Hakram found me. I heard him long before I saw him, even with my Name vision – my adjutant was a lot of things, but stealthy was not one of them.
“I’ve had the scrying tool handed over to Apprentice,” he told me without bothering with a greeting. “He says he might be able to make something of it, given enough time.”
I hummed in acknowledgement.
“I’ve had a melody stuck in my head, these last few months,” I said. “I just recalled a verse from it.”
I looked up at the night sky and recited the lyrics.
“The first step is hardest, they said to her
You will have to walk through fire
It will burn away what you once were,
And always devour whole a liar.”
“Never heard it before,” Hakram admitted. “Though the melody does sound familiar.”
“I can’t remember where I heard it,” I admitted. “Silly thing to be bothered over, I guess.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” the tall orc replied, coming to stand besides me.
We enjoyed the silence for a long moment, the wind stirring my hair.
“Tordis’ line,” I spoke suddenly. “They’re trustworthy?”
“As can be,” he agreed.
I clenched my fingers and unclenched them.
“I’m transferring them – and her – to your direct command. I have a job for you.”
“Hunting rats, is it?” he said.
“All of them, Hakram,” I murmured. “I want all of Heiress’ informants found. I don’t know what she’s planning, but I fully intend to set fire to that fucking plan and shove the ashes down her throat.”
“Looking forward to it,” the orc gravelled, tone low and fierce.
I let out a tired sigh. I could feel, deep in my bones, that we were standing on the edge of a precipice. Not just with the Silver Spears, though I had a feeling I’d be feeling the aftermaths of that battle for the coming years. Here, on this hill, I had to make a choice. Trust him or not. He was my friend. Of all the people I’d met since leaving Laure, he was perhaps the only person I’d give that title to without quibbling. But like Juniper had pointed out, how much did I really know about him?
“Why did you join the Legions, Hakram?”
He chuckled, the sound like rocks being ground to dust.
“That’s not the question you’re really asking,” he said. “What you mean is what do you want out of the Legions?”
I did not deny it. I felt him smile.
“I didn’t have dreams, when I was a kid. I learned to fight because that’s what we do. I was clever, I suppose, so the chief picked me for College and I figured – why not? The company fights weren’t interesting but they weren’t boring, and some of the classes were worth the time. Then one day I looked around and realized I was about to graduate. It scared me, Catherine, because I was going to become a soldier and there was nothing I wanted to fight for.”
I glanced at him and saw his eyes were hooded under the moonlight, lost in remembrance.
“It’s not a problem we usually have, you know,” he spoke. “Needing a reason to fight. They always tell us it’s in the blood. But it isn’t, for me. I don’t get the battle-joy when smashing some poor bastard’s face in. Still, I was prepared to just… drift through the rest of my life.”
He shook himself, as if waking up.
“Then you arrived. Some slip of a girl with a fake name, who looked defeat in the face and decided she would win anyway,” his lips stretched into a grin. “You had blind spots, though, needed someone to cover them for you. I did, and it made me realize I’m good at this.”
He waved, encompassing everything and nothing.
“So I followed and I watched. It was during the melee that I realized half the Empire would rather set the table on fire than let you have a seat – and they expected to win, too. Don’t they always? Sooner or later, better blood wins out. We mongrels are only ever meant to bow.”
His skeletal hand tightened, grinding against the hilt of his sword.
“The presumption makes my blood boil,” he growled. “It makes we want to crush them, cut through them with fire and sword down until there’s nothing left but wails and a field of ashes. It doesn’t really matter, if you end up making the world better or worse with your plans. I just want to break the odds, to bring down the ceiling on their fucking heads.”
The tension went out of him as suddenly as it had appeared and Hakram laughed, the sound delighted.
“And so, at last, I am an orc.”
I breathed out. There were things I could have said, promises I could have made, but all of them meaningless in the face of the brutal truth he had offered.
“I spoke with Black, the other night,” I spoke instead. “He told me he’s the most selfish man I’ll ever meet, and I know him well enough by now to know he meant every word. I should have been repulsed by that, but I wasn’t. Underneath all the rationalizations I think I’m just the same.”
There’d been a time where confessing that would have stung, but I was no longer that young. No longer so set in the ways of my childhood, when death had been a sin instead of a method.
“When I was younger, I looked at how Laure was falling apart and wondered why no one was doing anything. Why they were just trying to squeak away a living around the mess instead of fixing it. For years, I wanted there to be a hero who came in an offered salvation. But no one came. Then I got older and started to hear the rumours, about how they did come – and died, having accomplished nothing.”
I close my eyes.
“That’s when I realized that nothing was ever going to change, if I just waited for someone else to step up. It’s not that I think I’ve been chosen, Hakram. I haven’t. I choose.”
I bared my teeth at the moon in a defiant rictus.
“I am no longer willing to let someone else decide my fate for me, not even for my own good. I despise the idea with every fibre of my being. And if I don’t trust them with my own life, why would I trust them with anyone else’s? Why would I entrust them with the land of my birth?”
The sentence had been spoken softly, but for all that it resonated clearly. Treason often did.
“I could dance around the words, call it a reform or a takeover of the system – but the truth is simpler. I want to rule Callow.”
It felt strange, to finally say it out loud. All these years I’d avoided even thinking it, the concept too close to selfish ambition for comfort.
“For my sake. For everyone else’s. And so I will break anything, anybody who gets in my way,” I admitted quietly. “Whether they be gods or kings or all the armies in Creation.”
Hakram met my eyes and then slowly, with all the inevitability of a great tree falling, knelt. The breeze ruffled the tall grass in the fields below us, shiver and caress both. His silhouette looked unearthly in the moonlight, more faerie than orc.
“Warlord,” he rasped.
A promise. An oath. I clasped his arm and hoisted him up.
“Adjutant,” I replied, and in that same moment it became the truth.
And so it ended. And so it began.