“You have to enjoy life’s little pleasures, like lazy mornings and strawberries and invading Callow with an invisible army.”
– Dread Empress Malevolent III
A heartbeat passed as my brains struggled to cope with too many surprises in a row – I forced myself to focus on one at a time. Had Heiress just casually banished a fucking demon? No, that couldn’t be. I didn’t even think she was a mage, and even if she was there was no way a girl barely older than me had that much power at her fingertips. Apprentice couldn’t even do that, and sorcery was at the heart of his Name. Black I could see pulling out something from his apparently bottomless bag of tricks, Warlock probably and Malicia almost certainly but Heiress? No. I’d missed something. My eyes drifted to my rival’s saddle, noticing she was resting her gloved hand on a long wooden haft. Old wood, with fresh new runes carved into it. It took another heartbeat before everything clicked into place. Triumphant’s demons had been bound to the standards of her Legions, Masego had told us. She never let it loose. She let it out, and after she got what she wanted she just… popped it back in. Heiress’ irritatingly perfect face was the picture of friendliness, but I thought I saw a glimmer of vicious amusement in her eyes when she met my stare.
“Would I be correct in assuming she’s the person responsible for the demon running around?” Archer asked in a very, very calm tone.
“That’s the one,” I confirmed.
Heiress’ face painted itself with what I would have believed to be genuine surprise, had I not known who I was dealing with. I couldn’t make out too much of her in the dark, but what I did see was perfectly groomed. Not a speck of dust on her polished steel scales or that rather nice green shawl wrapped around her neck. Even the horse was spotless, and a beautiful beast besides: all grey, and Callowan stock too.
“Is that how you’ll be trying to get out of this grave you’ve dug?” the aristocrat asked. “By pinning the blame on me? We both know the Silver Spears would never had come over the temple holding the demon, had you not pushed them so relentlessly after your victory.”
“Oh, you bitch,” I replied.
“Uncouth language only betrays your lesser breeding,” she informed me with a sneer. “I will not take the fall for you, Squire. You made the decision to hound their retreat out of petty spite, I am told. Something about the death of a Tribune Nilin?”
My fingers tightened around the grip of my sword until I felt them turning white. I’d thought I knew hatred, from the days where I’d lived under the thumb of Mazus. I found now I’d been mistaken. The Governor grinding his heel over the city’s throat was an impersonal sort of attack, directed at a people instead of my own person. This? This was personal.
“Well, Miss,” Archer smiled. “You and I seem to have an account to settle. Do try to struggle, it’ll be that much more satisfying.”
My eyes remained on Heiress’ gloved fingers, watching them drum absent-mindedly against the haft of wood. I could see the place where metal rings had once bound the cloth part of the standard. The dark-skinned villain met my eyes again, the implied threat perfectly clear. I let it out once. If my life is in danger, I might just do it again.
“You’d be the representative from Refuge, yes?” my rival said.
Archer flicked her wrist, slowly spinning the longknife in her hand.
“Could be I’m just a concerned citizen,” she replied.
Heiress cocked her head to the side. “I’m given to understand that you were sent to smooth over a little diplomatic wrinkle with the Tower. I wonder what the consequences for your mistress would be, if you attempt the murder of a Praesi aristocrat in broad daylight?”
“Oh, I won’t be ‘attempting’ anything,” Archer chuckled. “Anyhow, I’ve got doubts anyone here will bear witness for your corpse afterwards.”
Why had she forced the demon back in the standard? I allowed their words to drift past me as I put all my mind to figuring that one riddle out. If she’d waited a few moments longer, it might have killed me. Or corrupted me, at which point she’d have an excuse to put me down that not even the Empress could dispute. Her victory condition for this does not involve me being permanently out of the game. What was she actually after, then? Crippling the Fifteenth, maybe. Or she might have been trying to avoid something that would cause her to lose. If I’d been dead or corrupted, there were decent odds the defence of Marchford would have collapsed. At which point the entire population and the remnants of a legion would have ended up corrupted puppets. And Black would have killed her outright for it, because she’d have been responsible for an existential threat to the Empire.
By stopping now, the only strength on the field to have been damaged was mine. The Fifteenth was in shambles, I’d damaged my Name irreparably and she could just stroll in at the end of the fight to claim credit for the “victory”. It was a twisted, labyrinthine plan that had at least half a dozen possible point of failures I could name off the top of my head. The very kind of plot the Praesi brand of villains loved the most. The enormity of what she’d just done slowly sunk in. She had, when it came down to it, used a genuine threat to Creation itself as a fucking hunting hound to damage my position. Hundreds of soldiers, my soldiers, had died just so that smiling failure of a human being could hobble me for the rest of this war. I took a long breath. Archer was right: Heiress didn’t get to walk away from something like this.
“Apprentice, you still with us?” I called out.
“Still alive,” Masego replied through gritted teeth.
“If you had the standard a demon is bound to, would you be able to use it?” I asked, glancing at the bespectacled mage.
“Easiest thing in the world,” he replied, baring his teeth at Heiress.
“I’ll need you to hold off the demon for a while,” I told Archer. “This is going to get messy.”
The ochre-skinned woman nodded sharply, leaning forward in anticipation. Heiress cleared her throat.
“As to your earlier point about witnesses, Envoy,” she said, idly waving her hand. “I would dispute that statement.”
The still-lingering cloud of dust and ash dispersed under an unseen wind. Magic, I knew instantly. Without incantation, which was even more worrying – although not as much as the sight now revealed. Lightly armoured men bearing large oval shields and spears, quietly marching down the avenue. Numbers were hard to gauge, but I could see them spreading out in the distance beyond how far I could see. At least a thousand. Behind me I heard Nauk calling for my legionaries to form up in proper ranks. Gods, I’d misunderstood her endgame. She didn’t want us mauled for a long-term advantage. She wanted us as weak as possible before wiping us out with her own men, using the excuse of possible corruption as a political shield afterwards. And I’d danced to her tune the whole time, never knowing who was playing the lute. I reached for my Name, finding the well still near-empty. Might be able to pass over that if I tap into Struggle.
Alarmed yells started coming from the back of Heiress’ column a moment later. Out of principle I refused to try to push myself up on the tip of my toes to catch a glimpse of what was happening – instead I looked at the aristocrat, and for the first time a flicker of doubt passed through her face. The crossbow bolt passed three inches away from her mount’s head, clattering on the ground, and I turned to watch Robber scuttle down from a roof to the left like an ugly leering green spider. His sappers lined that entire flank, crossbows loaded and ready.
“Evening, Boss,” he said.
“Tribune,” I replied, schooling my face to make it look like I knew exactly what was happening.
I’d gotten a lot of experience at that since I got put in charge of a legion.
“The Callowan volunteers are in place,” he reported. “Learning a bunch of Proceran looters were visiting their home got them motivated good and proper.”
Half of Heiress’ army had been made of Proceran light infantry, I remembered. Robber hadn’t been at the briefing where General Sacker had told me that… but Juniper had. Three cheers for the godsdamned Hellhound, may she ever keep one step ahead of our enemies, I thought, turning to face my opponent.
“Looks like you called it off too early,” I told Heiress.
“I have numbers on my side,” she noted in a neutral tone.
“Lady,” Robber broke in with a malevolent smile. “We just fucked up a bunch of devils and most our number in mercenaries with a demon’s hand shoved up their arse. Chewing up your pretty lads will be light exercise before we turn in for the night. But please, doubt me. Try us.”
I laughed. “You heard the goblin, Akua,” I grinned. “Take out your sword. Last time we had a chance to dance, you legged it before we got to the good stuff.”
Heiress’ face went blank and she remained silent for a long moment before she sighed.
“I suppose now and then one must be willing to settle for a draw,” she said.
“I still say we knife her and put the head on a pike,” Archer growled.
“You kill her now and the Empress might have to declare war on Refuge,” I admitted. “She’s not without backing.”
With another growl, the Named shoved her longknives back in their sheaths and strode away. My rival seemed about to add a pithy comment to the situation, but before she could someone tossed an empty bottle at her head. Or tried to, at least – it missed by a solid three feet.
“Boooo,” the Wandering Bard yelled. “Boooo, villains, boooo.”
Of course Almorava would show up. This night just wouldn’t be shitty enough with the mouthy heroine making an appearance. Evidently the godly quota for screwing me over this month had yet to be filled in full. I bet she practiced the booing, too, there’s no way it could sound this excruciatingly obnoxious otherwise.
“I paid good money for this seat,” she called out from the ledge where she was seated, surrounded by a line of my sappers. “Show me some blood, or at least lose some clothes!”
The olive-skinned heroine still wore the only outfit I’d ever seen her in, garishly coloured silks that were just a little too wide for her. The sleeves were longer than her arm and larger than her wrist, flopping around as she gesticulated. I could make out a few stains on her clothes, and I’d been a waitress long enough to recognize the effect of liquor spills on nice garments. Sloppy.
“Lieutenant Rattler,” Robber gasped. “What’s the meaning of this? Why is that woman’s kidney going unstabbed? This is against all we stand for.”
A female goblin – Lieutenant Rattler, I assumed – saluted sloppily.
“I’m afraid she bribed me, sir,” she replied.
“We don’t take bribes,” the yellow-eyed tribune chided her.
“I’ll cut you in for half?”
Robber turned towards me. “Protocol was followed, Boss.”
I knew from experience that actually getting the Bard to leave was next to impossible, but at least my soldiers were making pocket change out of her presence. That was… a win, maybe? Having to ask myself that question at all honestly felt like a loss of its own.
“You again,” Heiress spoke with distaste.
“Oh, it’s… Inheritor? Successor? Legatee, maybe?” Almorava mused. “I’m sorry, you just weren’t that interesting of a person. Anyhow, nice to see you again. Watcha been doing since you let that demon out?”
At the edge of my vision I saw Archer still for a heartbeat before she continued walking away. Most of my legionaries weren’t in hearing range of the Bard’s declaration, but those that were eyed Heiress like they were measuring where to slide the knife in. The knowledge of exactly who had caused our demon troubles hadn’t been spread outside of the Fifteenth general staff, but now it was a given all of my soldiers would know who to blame before dawn rose. Godsdamnit. I hadn’t had a reason to keep that morsel under wraps aside from not seeing a reason the information should be spread, but Almorava throwing it out there was bad news. She definitely had a reason, and I doubted it was to my benefit.
“Unusual, that your accusations and that of a known heroine coincide,” Heiress spoke, keeping me in her peripheral vision as she faced the drunken minstrel. “It smells of… untoward sympathies.”
“I’d watch my mouth, if I were you,” I replied cheerfully. “Accidents happen all the time, on campaigns.”
“You kinda grew into the villain thing, didn’t you Cat?” the Bard mused. “I mean, you’ve got the distinctive wound down with your limp. You’ve already got a notable tic with the clenching fingers thing, so basically all you need now is a catchphrase and you’re set.”
I did actually have one of those. One that had been crafted in response to something said by a hero, even. Not that I was about to admit as much to the bloody pest.
“You’ll probably even manage to get a few atrocities under your belt before the war’s over, if your friend here doesn’t beat you to them,” Almorava continued, toasting me with a half-empty bottle of rum.
“Ah, heroic posturing,” Heiress said softly. “Considering the behaviour of your little band of murderers in Summerholm, any talk of ‘atrocities’ coming from your mouth is the height of hypocrisy.”
“Says the slaver,” the Bard smiled.
“I employ only free men,” the aristocrat sneered.
“Well, at least you fed them properly after buying them,” Almorava conceded. “Truly, you are the cream of the scum of Creation.”
Huh. So the Bard could get under Heiress’ skin almost effortlessly. That was good to know. Exploitable right now? Unlikely. The Ashuran had no real combat abilities, as far as I knew. In a way that made her sudden presence more worrying: physical assault I could prepare for, but the subtler forms of Name warfare were largely beyond me. I could try to slit Heiress’ throat while she was being distracted, but I was nigh-powerless while she was at full tilt. No to mention I wasn’t sure exactly what the consequences would be, if I managed it. A fresh battle with her mercenaries, possibly, and for all that I’d pretended to be unmoved at the idea I really did not want to pull that trigger. My men were exhausted and the volunteers were not real soldiers – maybe we’d win, but the odds weren’t much in our favour.
“Why are you here, Almorava?” I asked instead, playing for time.
It should keep her distracted long enough for the sappers I was pretty sure Robber had discreetly mobilized to to make their move.
“Why are any of us here, Squire?” she wondered waving the now almost entirely empty bottle around. I hadn’t even seen her take another swig. “Interesting question. Well, for you it’s that you think you’re doing the right thing. That road to the Hells you’re paving is looking real good these days. Your fellow villain thinks she is the right thing, and is hilariously mistaken about that in pretty much every way that matters. As for me, I’m just having a gander.”
“One of these days, you wretched little foreigner,” Heiress said pleasantly, “I am going to have your mouth sown shut.”
“Everyone here who was actually born in Callow, raise your fucking hand,” I spoke sweetly.
Robber raised his hand.
“I feel that, spiritually, I have told the truth,” my tribune offered when I glared at him.
“The standards for Legion discipline have truly grown lax if you allow this kind of backtalk,” Heiress scoffed. “A trickle down effect, I imagine.”
“Oh, you don’t want to start going down that road,” I replied with bared teeth.
Almorava suddenly gasped, killing the tension before it could escalate.
“Clatter, you’ve betrayed me?”
“Rattler,” the sapper reminder her. “My name is Rattler. Also yes.”
“I thought we had something real,” the Ashuran deplored.
There were a series of sharper detonations under the roof where the Bard was seated, the tiles collapsing as a neat hole and the heroine dropping in. A long moment passed until another goblin popped his head out from the house’s front door.
“No body, ma’am,” he reported.
Yeah, I hadn’t really counted on one. At least she was gone. From the corner of my eyes I watched Lieutenant Rattler bite down on a silver coin and curse when it bent easily. Counterfeit silver, I realized with an involuntary twitch of the lips. She’d bribed my sappers with counterfeit silver, and not even a good fake.
“We appear do be done here,” Akua decided, turning her horse around. “My host will be occupying the Countess’ manor, as it is the only lodging in this… backwater befitting someone of my rank.”
“You do that,” I grunted, watching her ride away back to her troops.
I waited for her to be out of hearing range.
“I want that manor on fire before she ever sets foot on the grounds.”
“Gods, I love this outfit,” the yellow-eyed goblin confessed.