“Look, if he didn’t want to be fed to my acid-spewing crocodiles he shouldn’t have brought me bad news.”
-Dread Emperor Malignant II, the Particularly Petty
It’d been a while since I’d had a proper Callowan breakfast.
Eggs, sausage and black pudding with a generous portion of buttered bread. The accompanying pot of tea was poor fare compared to the fancy brews my officers – Aisha in particular, who carried a stash imported from across the sea even on campaign – but the taste was pleasantly familiar. Tea wasn’t grown in Callow: it had to be imported from the Free Cities and Ashur, the cheap stuff from Nicae being most popular. Mercantis was said to hitch up the price on the way north, but no less should be expected from the City of Bought and Sold. I’d woken before dawn and gotten out of room the very moment I could, slipping away from the personal guard that attempted to follow me without a second thought. Tired of Legion fare I’d sought a Callowan inn and ignored the scared looks the innkeeper kept shooting me as I ordered.
Service was prompt and the fare hearty, though I was starting to get irritated at the skittishness of the innkeeper and her husband. They didn’t seem to recognize me, at least, which was refreshing. People had this unpleasant tendency to get deferential around me, these days, but the distance here was because of my Legion armour and not my station. The only local who didn’t jump at my every twitch was a young dark-haired girl who couldn’t be more than seven, peeking curiously at me from behind tables. Her parents had yet to notice her, apparently. I smiled at her while sipping at my mug of tea and she trotted up to me, sliding on the bench across the table.
“I’m Lily,” she gabbled.
“Hello, Lily,” I replied with a smile. “I’m Cat.”
She nodded seriously, then scrunched up her nose. “Are you a Deoraithe?”
“Lily,” the innkeeper suddenly barked. “Get off that bench right this instant!”
“It’s all right,” I said, waving away the objection. “It’s a quiet morning. I wouldn’t mind a little company.”
Lily glared. “I’m not little, I’m six,” she informed me.
I smothered a grin. Her mother seemed rather horrified at the idea of the child talking with me, but she seemed even more afraid to offend me by yanking Lily away from the table and hiding her away. She ended up hovering around the table before taking a seat next to her daughter after seeking wordless permission from me, clutching her offspring tightly. Lily tried to wiggle out to no avail.
“I’m half-blooded, I think,” I told the little girl. “I’m a little too pale for both my parents having been from the People.”
The child blinked. “How can you not know?”
“Don’t be rude to patrons, Lily,” the innkeeper said with the mechanical promptness of many repetitions. “Not everybody knows their mum and dad like you.”
“That’s sad,” the daughter said, patting my hand for comfort.
The mother looked panicked, but the tension loosened a bit after it became obvious I’d taken no offence.
“I’m used to it,” I shrugged. “Life at the orphanage wasn’t bad – I’ve seen people have much rougher childhoods.”
I’d never realized quite how privileged I’d been to get an education and three meals a day until my first forays into the Lakeside district. There were people there who spent their days on backbreaking labour and barely made enough to put food on the table. The only difference the Conquest had made there was that Mazus’ hunger for gold had driven ever more people to live in the wretched slums as their businesses went under. It would take years to undo the damage he’d done to the city’s economy.
“You’re Callowan, then,” the innkeeper said, tone puzzled. “I’d heard some of the soldiers in this legion are.”
Fear flashed through her eyes when she realized she’d used a rather familiar tone.
“No disrespect was meant, ma’am,” she added hastily.
“I’ve never been easy to offend,” I told her drily. “And after dealing with Wasteland nobility it’s a rather welcome change not to have to look for double meanings everywhere.”
“You’ve met nobles?” Lily breathed out, excited. “What were they like?”
“Most of them deserve to end up in a crocodile pit,” I replied frankly. “But there are some who’re aren’t bad people.”
Lily had responded to the mention of crocodiles by making vaguely reptilian noises and pretend-biting her mother’s arms, much to the woman’s dismay.
“I waved at the Countess, once,” the child told me when she got bored. “She didn’t wave back though.”
I snorted. “Well, she’s had a busy year.”
Rebellions didn’t spawn out of thin air. Most likely she’d been sitting on a plan for years, keeping her moves innocuous enough that my teacher’s agents wouldn’t pick up on them.
“People say she’s going to be queen,” Lily informed me. “She’s engaged to a duke and everything.”
I smiled mirthlessly. “That only happens if she wins the rebellion, Lily. And I wouldn’t count on it.”
That was, apparently, a little too close to home for her mother. The child was ushered away, told to go help her father make her breakfast. She muttered something about hating porridge and scampered off, though not before waving me goodbye. I waved back bemusedly. To my surprise, the innkeeper remained seated across from me.
“Ma’am, I don’t mean to pry but…” she started.
“Ask,” I replied. “If it’s restricted information I won’t tell you, but there’s no harm in asking.”
There were a few threads of grey in the woman’s hair, but the colour of it and the shape of her face was the same as her daughter’s – I could see the resemblance, if I cared to look. She screwed up her courage after a moment.
“Is it true, about the demon in the hills?” she said.
I grimaced. “Yes. It was kept bound in some sort of temple but someone let it loose.”
And we’ll have a reckoning for that, won’t we Heiress? That much I would swear oath to, and the longer that debt when unpaid the longer the price would be when I collected.
“But the Fifteenth will stay to protect the city?” she pressed.
“Orders came down from the top on the matter,” I replied, hiding my amusement.
The innkeeper let out a sound of relief. “The legion has behaved well, for an army. You don’t drink as much as the Exiled Prince’s men did.”
I very much doubted that, considering the Praesi relationship with spirits, but Juniper had likely given orders to keep the drinking out of sight.
“I’d heard there were a few incidents,” I probed.
“There were scuffles,” she admitted. “Some of the older men say it’s all the Empire’s fault.”
They were technically correct, I had to admit.
“That tall orc, the one they call Deadhand, he stopped it before it got out of hand,” the innkeeper continued. “And Tribune Ratface has been making rounds to see the people displaced by the goblins are properly fed. It’s bought a lot of goodwill, with those of us who remember the last war. Armies are not easy guests no matter who they obey to.”
Well now, Supply Tribune. I hadn’t seen much of him lately, since he wasn’t needed for most war councils, but it was pleasing to hear he’d been keeping busy.
“He’s a good sort, Ratface,” I spoke over the rim of my tea mug.
“You one of his, then?” the innkeeper asked.
“Something like that,” I replied vaguely.
She clearly recognized the non-answer for what it was and did not pursue the subject. Apparently the fact that I’d yet to ask for her head had qualified me as not a monster, because there was precious little fear in the older woman now.
“I suppose it helps you have a Callowan in charge of the legion,” she decided, then turned a curious eye on me. “You ever met her, the Squire?”
“A few times,” I agreed.
“Doesn’t seem proper, to have one of us a villain,” she said. “But it may not be a bad thing, you get my meaning? If the Empire’s going to stick around, we might as well have a voice in the Tower. Heard she helped hang Mazus so she can’t be all Evil. Nasty piece of work, that man.”
And how did you hear that, I wonder? There’d only been a handful of people there that night, and only one of them had the means to spread rumours that far and that quickly. I resisted the urge to clench my fingers. What are you up to, Black? Every time I thought I’d sketched out his endgame, something else cropped up to put the design into doubt.
“He got what was coming to him,” I agreed softly.
The front door was suddenly forced open and the innkeeper immediately flinched back, rising to her feet. I cast a look and saw the Fifteenth had finally caught up: Lieutenant Tordis and a handful of orcs snapped a salute as soon as the saw me.
“Lieutenant,” I greeted her, spearing the last of the now-cold sausage and taking a bite.
“Lady Squire,” she replied, fist over heart. “I apologize for disturbing your breakfast, but a war council has been convened.”
I heard the gasp from the innkeeper when my identity was revealed, but did not bother to turn. I put down the remains of the sausage and finished my tea before sliding two golden aurelii on the table – over fifteen times what the meal was worth, but what did coin really mean to me these days? I glanced at the greying woman.
“When the enemy is sighted,” I told her, “take your family to the centre of the city. It’ll be the safest place.”
I passed Tordis by and stepped into the morning light.
I’d been under for two days but my officers had not been idle.
I’d yet to take a look at the outer defences, but as we made for the council I saw that Juniper had ordered a second set of walls further in – though “walls” was perhaps too ambitious of a word. A ring of houses had been collapsed to form a citadel inside Marchford, the stone and wood stacked as a makeshift barricade already manned by legionaries. The Countess’ manor was long-abandoned, too removed from the rest of the city to be defensible. The people left bereft of a home by my sappers’ work had been packed in taverns, inns and the houses of relatives willing to put them up. Still, central Marchford was densely packed. The main avenues were kept clear by patrols so that deployments would not be hindered when the battle started, though eyes were peeking at us through blindfolds all the way through. Juniper had picked a large guildhall as the headquarters for the Fifteenth, clearing out the occupants and nailing most opening shuts with wooden planks.
The central hall was bustling with my legate’s men, reports coming in and orders coming out every few moments. Close to the wall in the back a pair of tables had been forced together to accommodate maps and seat all of the general staff – most of which, I saw, was missing. Nauk and Hune were there, as the highest-ranked officers after the Hellhound, and so were Hakram and Pickler. No sign of Kilian and Ratface, or even Aisha. I dismissed Lieutenant Tordis absent-mindedly, my attention already on the conversation to come. If so many were elsewhere then something had happened requiring their direct attention: that both Kilian and Apprentice were absent was telling in and of itself. Nauk eyed my bad leg with a frown but held his tongue as I made my way up to the others, keeping my pace steady so the limp wouldn’t be too obvious. I had a feeling tapping into my Name would allow me to power through the pain if I ever needed to run, but for daily life I might well have to take up Masego’s offer of herbs to take the edge off. Or start taking my drinking more seriously.
“I’m guessing we have a situation,” I spoke up, disinclined to indulge in small talk.
“The enemy has been sighted,” Commander Hune spoke in that incongruously delicate voice of hers.
“The Silver Spears?” I asked.
The last report I’d read had made it clear the devils were out there, though they’d yet to make a move. Juniper wouldn’t have sought me out unless the situation had changed more than that.
“They’ll be on us by nightfall,” Nauk growled. “The bastards finally arrived.”
Nightfall, huh. I supposed it’d be too much to hope whatever corruption the mercenaries had gone through wouldn’t allow them to see in the dark. When had I ever been that lucky? I glanced at the maps on the table, then frowned. There was half a dozen scrying bowls scattered in a half-circle around where Juniper stood. I tapped the rim of the one closest to me, then cast an eye on the Hellhound.
“I thought the demon scrambled scrying?”
The grim-faced orc bared her teeth. “Apprentice’s threshold ritual changed things. As long as the point of origin and the point of reception are under the ritual’s aegis, our mages can the simplest versions of the spell.”
Useful, that. Would allow my legate to react immediately to changes on the battlefield, if I grasped her intent correctly. There’d been no time to set up that sort of fanciness when we’d first taken on the Silver Spears, but defending a city was a different sort of business.
“Are we ready?” I finally asked, because what else could I say?
“I’ve spent most of my time setting up our killzone,” Pickler smiled unpleasantly, spindly fingers tracing the rectangle I’d told Masego to leave out of his ritual. “When the devils come, they will be warmly received.”
I nodded. “And the Spears?”
“They’ll go through the west,” Juniper grunted. “Quickest way to get to a hearth, and that’s what they’ll be aiming for. There’s a wider avenue where their horse will be able to charge properly.”
“I’ll be waiting for them there,” Nauk spat, and his fists tightened hard enough the knuckles popped.
“We’ll have to concentrate our forces on the mercenaries,” Hune spoke. “If the devils get loose in the city our entire defence will collapse.”
“Then I’ll be dealing with the devils,” I murmured.
No sign of surprise from anyone. I supposed that had been a rather obvious fit for me. Takes a monster to kill a monster, doesn’t it?
“Robber will be commanding the sappers assigned to that sector,” Pickler informed me. “You’ll have his full cohort.”
“You’ll get another company to follow you when the swords come out,” Juniper growled. “We haven’t settled on which one.”
“Words was put out,” Hakram told me. “Seven different companies volunteered – I have the list, if you want to take a look.”
“Don’t need it,” I replied. “I’m taking the Forlorn Hope.”
That finally got a reaction.
“Is that wise, Lady Squire?” Commander Hune asked, her buckler-sized palm resting on the table. “Deserters are not known for their ability to hold under pressure and that part of the battlefield will be the most brutal.”
“She means they could put a knife in your ribs and leg it if things look bad enough,” Pickler spoke more frankly.
“This is the very kind of situation I formed the company for,” I replied. “If they can’t be used, they should be hanged.”
I’d spoken calmly and without raising my voice but I could see several of them repressing the urge to move back. I smiled mirthlessly: one of these days, Praesi would learn to stop thinking that mercy and ruthlessness were mutually exclusive. I’d made the Forlorn Hope with the intent of deploying it in battle: if it could not be deployed, it could return to the gallows I’d snatched it from. There were only so many chances I was willing to give people.
“That’s settled, then,” Adjutant said, shutting the door on the topic. “We have one last issue to address: Archer has yet to take a stance on whether or not she’ll participate.”
“Said she’ll only talk with you,” Juniper spat, clearly disgruntled.
Not much of a diplomat, that one. I didn’t bother to specify which woman the statement was meant for, since it could easily go both ways.
“I’ll handle it,” I said. “Nothing else?”
The Hellhound shook her head. I almost walked out, but forced myself to stay a moment longer.
“Luck in battle,” I told my officers.
“Luck is for amateurs,” Juniper replied with bared teeth. “I have a plan.”
If there was ever to be a motto for the Fifteenth, I decided, that would be it. I have a plan. Watch how it goes south.
Archer was on a rooftop, because Named were inevitably afflicted with a deep thirst for melodrama.
Foot on the ledge, she looked in the distance where a cloud of dust revealed the Silver Spears were getting closer. I hoisted myself up through the trapdoor and waited for her to acknowledge my presence, sighing when it became clear she wouldn’t. Out of morbid curiosity I cleared my throat, just to see how far she’d be willing to push the farce. Fluidly the woman turned and a flash of silver was the only warning I got. The throwing knife had been placed expertly, spinning in a trajectory that would see it bury straight in my throat. Without missing a beat, I snatched it out of air.
“You can throw faster than that,” I said.
“I can,” Archer agreed, finally bothering to face me. “But this is still slightly swifter than a mundane mortal could manage.”
She’d been checking how much my Name had been affected by my latest debacle. Fair enough, even if this was an idiot way to go about it.
“I’m told you won’t talk with my legate,” I grunted.
“I don’t speak terms with minions,” she replied easily.
Maybe if I’d had an easier fortnight I would have been politer about it, but my well of patience was running pretty dry.
“Legate,” I corrected flatly. “She’s my legate. Regardless, here I am. Have you made a decision?”
If anything my abruptness seemed to amuse her. My irritation ratcheted up a knot in response.
“While your battle is not unworthy, is it not mine,” she shrugged. “Hunter and I will leave when enemy assaults the city. We’ll kill a few on the way out, out of politeness.”
“Fine,” I grunted.
Making my way down the trapdoor was going to be a godsdamned pain, but jumping down into the street would probably be worse. I turned to leave.
“Not going to try to convince me?” Archer asked, mildly surprised.
I shot her an aggravated look.
“I don’t have the time or the patience for this kind of game,” I said. “You’ll fight or you won’t. I get the feeling not much I’ll say will tip the balance either way.”
“Considering the corner you’re in,” the ochre-skinned woman spoke, “are you sure you can afford not to?”
I couldn’t help it – I laughed, right in her face. The look of incredulity that got me was a memory that would warm me on cold nights.
“I’m always in a fucking corner, Archer,” I told her. “I don’t think I’ve been in a fight where I wasn’t horribly outclassed since I can remember.”
I spread my arms and turned the palms up, encompassing all of the city.
“And yet, I’m still here. Standing.” I said softly. “So scuttle off if you want to. I don’t need you to make this a victory.”
I leaned forward and flashed her a hard smile.
“You think one less aspect and a limp is going to stop me? I don’t win fights because I’m the Squire – I win them because I’m Catherine Foundling. Watch them take a swing. See where it gets them.”