“I trust people to act according to their nature. Anything more is sentimentality.”
-Dread Empress Malicia the First
The First and the Second were swarming over Aksum, stamping down the last pockets of resistance. Warlock – for Wekesa had claimed the Name now, ripped it out of the corpse of his hated predecessor – had done well in clearing the fort north of the city. It had allowed Grem to steal a march on the enemy and hit the outer walls before they were fully manned. From there it had been a slaughter, with Sabah dealing the last blow by ripping off High Lord Duma’s head with her bare hands. That she was able to manage as much without letting the Beast out was a sign of how far she’d progressed in her mastery of her Name. The dark-haired man sat alone on the hill as the sun went down, watching the plumes of smoke rising from the city.
With High Lord Mawasi dead, Seneca long buried and the High Lady of Nok having declared for them the war was as good as done. Wolof still stood strong behind High Lady Tasia, but she’d already approached Malicia to cut a deal. The last of the highborn, the High Lady of Thalassina, might have been been a problem if circumstances had not intervened. Corsairs had hit the port and set what passed for the Imperial fleet on fire, looting the city before retreating to the Tideless Isles. Amadeus was going to have to take care of that, when matters were settled in the Empire. The pirates had essentially killed commerce with the Free Cities, and those trade lanes were the lifeblood of Praes.
“A great victory,” a woman’s voice noted.
One of these days, he was going to be able to notice Ranger when she snuck up on him. Not today, evidently.
“Was it?” he wondered.
Hye sat down at his side, her boots sliding soundlessly against the yellow grass. The dying sun cast her honey-coloured skin in gold and red, the sight of the lazy half-smile on her sharply angled face killing the breath in his throat. She was beautiful. Always was, of course, but now and then the realization of it scattered all other thoughts away.
“Your enemy is dead,” she told him patiently. “His armies destroyed, his city made yours. If you find a way to be dissatisfied about this, I will be most displeased.”
Considering how often she still made a game of him when they sparred, this was not a threat Amadeus would take lightly.
“Mercy, Lady Ranger,” he implored drily. “Spare my already aching bones. Anyhow, if you damage me too much you’ll have no more use of me.”
They’d taken to sharing a bed on the very night Alaya had crowned herself Dread Empress, and all of this was still new and wondrous to him. He’d never been interested in women before, or men for that matter. Desire had been unknown to him except in an abstract sense but now it flared up in his blood every time he looked at is lover. Sometimes he was puzzled such a change had come over him. He’d not started to be attracted to Hye in that manner until he’d come to trust her as much as he could trust anyone, so perhaps the root of it was there.
“That’d be unfortunate,” the dark-eyed woman admitted shamelessly. “I’ve finally gotten you trained up to my tastes.”
Carelessly she linked their fingers and he allowed their shoulders to lean against one another as they watched the night fall.
“You’re usually in a better mood, after you win,” Hye finally said. “What’s happening in that clever mind of yours, that has you so disappointed?”
He remained silent for a moment.
“This does not feel like a victory,” Amadeus admitted. “We’ve accomplished nothing here.”
“You made sure that scheming freeloader is getting the throne,” Ranger pointed out, tone dipping into distaste when she mentioned Malicia.
It had been too much to hope for these two would actually get along, he supposed. That Alaya had not taken to the field with them had been the last nail in the coffin for Hye – she had no patience for people who did not take what they wanted with their own hands. Malicia being the reason they’d been able to fill their ranks with household troops from Nok had failed to move his lover on the matter, unfortunately.
“There was never any doubt about that,” Black said frankly. “That is was irks me. All this death, all this destruction, just to confirm something I knew would happen two years ago. We’ve not improved the Empire’s situation in any measurable manner, Hye. All we’ve done is clean up the mess.”
Hye smiled languidly, a touch of heat coming to her dark eyes.
“Sometimes you say things like this, and I finally understand why they’re all terrified of you,” she said.
“You’ve reached the threshold, Amadeus,” Ranger murmured. “You have the Empire, you have your Calamities and your armies. You’ve broken the old, now you get to make the new.”
She slid onto his lap, and-
I woke up. For one moment, I was almost pathetically relieved I could still have dreams like this, that my Name could still manage that much. I pushed aside the covers and sat up in my bed, closing my eyes to think. I’d gotten to see a lot more of Black’s… personal life than I’d ever wanted to, though thankfully I’d woken before things got too graphic. Still, just associating my teacher with sex was ugh. That wasn’t the important part of the dream though. I doubted my Name would stoop to giving me a motivational pat on the back, which meant it was the details that were the crux of it. You’ve broken the old, now you get to make the new. Idly I thought I’d half expected Lady Ranger to have an accent, given her foreign origins, but I supposed it made since she didn’t. She’d been around for centuries, even if in the dream she’d looked of age with Black. I chewed on the words in silence. Had I really broken something, I wondered? It didn’t feel like it, not even after the twin victories the Fifteenth had gained. Then again, perhaps it was the second part of that sentence I should have been focusing on. Making something new.
That, I decided, was something I could do.
People had been on my back about choosing a personal retinue, an equivalent to my teacher’s Blackguards, and believed I’d found mine during the Battle of Marchford. I’d need to take a look at the officer rolls for the Gallowborne, but unless I was mistaken the highest ranked remaining officer among them was Lieutenant Farrier. He’d do, as their captain. Not a great supporter of the Empire, but then he’d been the one to bring to my attention that a chunk of my Legion rather despised Praes. Keeping a finger on the pulse of that sentiment would be important, in the future. I’d been wanting to bring Callowans up the ranks since the beginning, anyhow, and while having that happen through known deserters was not what I’d expected I’d take it. If the bastards could take on the literal host of Hell without flinching, they could be relied on in a fight. As far as the Fifteenth’s organization went, though, that was ultimately a small change. I needed to stop thinking of my army as a Legion of Terror I was borrowing and start thinking of it as the main tool in my arsenal. The reinforcements Black had promised would go some way in filling the ranks, but we’d still end up under the usual cut-off of four thousand the other legions used. Heiress’ men would get us up to that, more or less, but they could not be relied on. If anything, I’d do what I could to thin out their numbers in the dark.
So what did I have, that made the Fifteenth different? Juniper was the first thing to come to mind, but the Hellhound wasn’t something I could improve on. The toolbox magician, I’d heard Nauk call her once after a few drinks, and the label was accurate enough it had stuck in my mind. My legate was a fixed point, if anything. What she was could not be improve save in the unlikely event she gained a Name, so the most I could do about this was to give her more tools. Legionaries were one thing, but I needed specialists. Robber was one, because he was as much a vicious little goblin raider as he was a sapper. It might be time to take him out of Hune’s kabili and give him an independent command to mould in his image. Pickler had already shown she could handle the traps, artillery and infrastructure aspects of the Fifteenth in her station as Senior Sapper, there was no need for her to have additional help in the matter.
Saboteurs and raiders, using the same tactics William had proved could turn a city on itself in Summerholm. I’d even found them their first target already.
Wasn’t enough. What had I learned, from Three Hills and Marchford? What had been my best assets? The first time we’d fought the Silver Spears, the tipping point had been the goblinfire traps. My sappers were already all they could be, although my first order when I next sat with Juniper would be allowing Pickler free reign in building all the siege engines she wanted. Marchford had been won as much by magic as by steel, though. Three Hills too, now that I thought of it: it was Masego’s spell that had ignited the trap. Legion doctrine was to use many mages to concentrate firepower, but Legion doctrine did not take into consideration the fact that I had a mage of Apprentice’s calibre on my side. His ritual had turned a certain defeat into a battle where the Fifteenth had a fighting chance, fundamentally modifying the lay of the land. He’d needed several lines of mages to manage that, though. So I make their assignment a permanent one.
Black hadn’t been wrong, when he’d decided how to use his mages. He’d seen that the Praesi gave birth to more mages than any other Calernian polity and turned all those untrained youths into another tool for his generals, folding goblin blood mages and the rare orc casters into those ranks to bolster the firepower. By designing a doctrine that wasn’t centred around exceptional mages like Warlock he’d created an institution that would survive the death of individuals like that and remain a contributing factor on the battlefield. But to achieve this, he’d sacrificed the ability to use mass rituals that had made Praesi armies monstrously dangerous in the past. There was no need for me to follow his lead in the matter, not when I had Masego on my side. Heiress seemed to be fond of using magic to solve her problems, but I had a Named whose entire business was sorcery: she would not be able to match me in this, if I prepared correctly.
Even putting the matter of my rival aside, magic was still more of a trump card than I’d ever expected. That trick Masego had pulled with the hearths might have failed to kill the demon, but aimed at an enemy army it would kill hundreds and break morale. The rebel armies I was going to face didn’t have a caster that was a match for Apprentice, didn’t even use mages the way the Legions did. Did I have it it me to deploy that kind of mass murder against my enemies, knowing they had no counter for it? Maybe a year ago the thought of such one-sided killing would have had me flinching, but I’d gotten that sort of sentiment beaten out of me. I would not surrender an advantage out of a twisted sense of fair play, not when I already had so many hounds baying at the gate. Juniper drilled our soldiers into formations to deal with specific threats, there was no reason Masego could not drill a cadre of mages in the use of rituals to ruin an enemy general’s day.
I was feeling refreshed, the nap I’d taken clearing my mind of the brutal exhaustion that had been plaguing me since morning. There was one more thing I needed to fix about the Fifteenth, I knew. My legion didn’t have a Kachera Tribune, the general staff officer that would oversee scouting and information gathering. Filling the position wasn’t a real priority at the moment, but finding someone who could have that function was. Over and over I’d been outmanoeuvred because my opponents knew what I was doing while I was in the dark about their movements. This was no longer acceptable, not after the number of soldiers it had cost me. In the long term I might not always be able to rely on Black’s network of spies, anyhow, so the sooner I found someone to build my own the better. I could afford it, what with the general’s pay I was stacking up without ever really putting a dent in it. My instinct for that was to put Hakram on the case, but Adjutant might not be the best fit there.
He already had so many other responsibilities, including being at my side when I took the field. He did have contacts with officers in other legions, which would be useful, but it wasn’t enough by a long shot. I’ll table that for now, then, I thought with a grimace. Not for long, though. I was running out of time. Getting to my feet, I tested my bad leg and found with pleasure that the brew from earlier was still taking the edge off. The room had no windows so I had no idea what the time was, but odds were I’d slept through most of the day. My body had certainly needed as much. Picking up the trousers I’d lazily dropped on the floor, I slipped into them and picked up the cloth roll for my breast bindings. There might not have been much to bind, but the additional layer prevented chafing from the aketon. On the only table in the room a pair of journals were laid down, the same ones Black had given me. The one he’d said I needed to understand before he could answer my question.
My teacher had made no attempt to continue the conversation we’d started the night before we last parted ways, content to let me approach him in my own time, but it had been weeks since I’d made progress in understanding the last riddle inside the journals. That column outlining an area in square miles, roughly the size of two fifths of the Wasteland. Initially I’d thought it was the Green Stretch, but it was larger than that by a comfortable margin. Anyhow, what would be the relevance of just measuring the size of the Green Stretch? It had remained a constant area, while that column of numbers shifted from decade to decade. Its relation to the population census wasn’t easy to make a pattern of, either. It did tend to rise high before Tyrants attempted to invade Callow, but it also went down sharply seemingly without reason. Weather in some parts of the Wasteland could change from snow to drought in the span of an hour, so there might have been a link there, but I couldn’t quite put a finger on it.
I’d come close to asking Kilian if she could make anything of it several times, but ultimately held back. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust her, but I wanted to figure this out myself. Can I still afford to, though? Black hadn’t told me how long he’d stay in Marchford, but it couldn’t be more than a few days. And when he was gone, so was my chance to finish this conversation with him. Part of me knew there was no hurry for that to happen, but there’d been too many unknowns in my life lately. This felt… important. Like Creation had put a weight on it. Like the beginnings of a pivot. I opened the journal one last time and ran a finger down the mystery column, but nothing came to mind. I was shaken out of my thoughts by a firm knock on the door a moment later.
“Come in,” I called out, not bothering to put a shirt on.
As far as I was concerned modesty had been seen to by the bindings. To my delight, the person who came into the room was Hakram.
“Cat,” he managed to get out before I strode to him and enveloped him in a hug.
He was warm, and the loose cotton shirt wasn’t enough to cover the broad expanse of thick green muscle. He laid an arm around my shoulders pretty easily, given that he was over two feet taller, and clasped me close for a moment before gently pushing me away.
“Put a shirt on,” he requested firmly.
“I’m just too much woman for you to handle, I see,” I spoke drily.
He sighed. “Yes, your strangely-coloured thin skin and lack of proper canines has me all aflutter,” he deadpanned. “Please, cover up before I can no longer control myself. Or you catch a cold.”
“We don’t do that anymore,” I reminded him amusedly, reaching for top.
“You’ll find a way,” he muttered.
“You know, given how much you apparently sleep around I’m surprised you’re a bit of a prude,” I noted as I put my head through the shirt only to realize the sleeves were still folded in.
Good thing the troops weren’t around to that, I decided.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” the orc lied blatantly.
After Juniper had pointed it out, I’d started noticing how often other orcs gave my Adjutant the eye. Fighting multiple heroes and being the first of his species with a Name in centuries was apparently kind of an aphrodisiac his kind, though in all fairness it was much the same with human Named.
“You’re back on your feet, then,” I asked as I decided to actually put boots on for good measure.
“For now,” he grunted. “Though Masego told me to avoid anything too strenuous for a few days.”
“You’ve talked to him, then?” I murmured. “How did he look?”
“Tired, mostly,” Hakram shrugged. “Happy to be reunited with his father.”
I grimaced. “Saw Warlock, huh.”
Had mixed feelings about that. I’d not forgotten the pleasant little chat I’d had with the Calamity back in Summerholm, or the horrifying threat he’d made with a sunny smile. I wasn’t going to complain he was in the city, given how dire my need for a mage who could find corruption currently was, but the sooner he left after that the better. That Hakram had noticed nothing unusual with Masego was a mark in the mage’s favour, but still… I’d seen the demon ichor touch his arm. I still remembered the moment of hesitation before his father had declared him untouched. I’d need to make sure he was still whole, one way or another. Retreating in my thoughts for a moment as I finished putting on my last boot, I only noticed Hakram casting a curious look at the still-open journal when I was done.
“A lend from my teacher,” I informed him.
“I do not mean to pry,” the tall orc gravelled immediately.
I clenched my fingers and unclenched them. Pride had held me back, so far. That and a reluctance to act on trust even when I felt it. Still, if I couldn’t rely on Hakram then who could I rely on?
“Maybe you should,” I grunted. “Have a look, there’s a column I can’t quite pin down.”
He lumbered over to the table, overlarge fingers picking it up. He frowned at the pages I’d left open for a long moment, then flipped back to the beginning of the journal. His frown deepened, then he flipped to the last page. Black’s last entry was on the year he’d begun the Conquest, if I remembered correctly. Why he’d stopped then was something I’d mulled over for some time.
“I think,” he spoke slowly, “that number is the total territory in the Empire can bear crops.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” I told him flatly.
He shook his head.
“Look at this,” he said, returning to the first page. “The number is much larger, then it goes down after the reign of Dread Empress Sinistra the First.”
“And?” I prompted.
“She’s the one who tried to steal Callow’s weather and ended up making the Wasteland,” he reminded me.
“So it may be related to that,” I conceded. “Doesn’t have to be cultivable land.”
He flipped back to the last page.
“The year before the Conquest,” he gravelled, “the levees in the northern part of the Green Stretch broke. It flooded a massive chunk of the fields. Look at the number for that year.”
It took a sharp descent. And yet…
“Hakram, that makes no sense,” I said. “The population of Praes is slightly larger than Callow’s. There’s no way you can feed that many people with only that much farmland. Ater alone is half a million citizens. The whole reason death row prisoners are auctioned in Praes is so blood rituals can make parts of the Wasteland usable for crops.”
I’d been horrified at the systematic gruesome executions when I’d first learned of them, but Black had flatly informed me they were a necessity. They were, as a matter of fact, one of the reasons High Lords and Ladies had come to exist: one of their duties to the lesser nobles sworn to them was to ensure enough of their fields were fertile that they could feed their own. Since the prisoners were technically under the aegis of the Tower, the gold used to buy them helped fill Imperial coffers as an unofficial tax. The practice had become less popular since the annexation of the Kingdom, since foodstuffs could simply be imported, but it had not disappeared entirely.
“That’s why the area is larger than the Green Stretch,” he gravelled.
I bit my lip. I didn’t know much about blood magic, but for the amount of people that got bled over altars the gain seemed incredibly low. I knew mage healing was limited by the amount of magic you could pump into something living before it was saturated, though. There was a very real possibility that using the rituals on the same grounds two consecutive years might not work. Gods Below, though, these numbers…
“I mean, even if you import from the Free Cities it would be impossible to ever accumulate a surplus,” I said. “The coastal cities can fish, but every given year there would be a part of the Empire facing starvation. Hells, the moment you got a bad year of crops in the Green Stretch there’d be food shortages everywhere.”
The implications of that were massive. If from generation to generation starvation remained a constant, it would leave lasting marks on the mindset of the Praesi. And that shapes Names, in the long term. If you added what we’d just unearthed to the book of stories Black had given me, a pattern was beginning to form that put a shiver up my spine. I passed a hand through my hair, only now noticing I’d forgotten to tie it back into a ponytail. Fixing that would have to wait.
“I need to talk to Black,” I said. “Now.”