“I don’t trust wizards. Every time I levy taxes on them, they try to get my political opponents to pull swords from stones.”
-Attributed to Louis Merovins, seventh First Prince of Procer
“She’s going to betray us,” I stated.
I’d kept it to only my senior officers tonight, but the circle was still larger than I liked. Juniper was lounging in her seat, face grim as Aisha stood a step behind her with her hands behind her back. Nauk and Hune occupied half the tent by themselves, the broad-shouldered orc looking like a child next to the hulking shape of my ogre commander. Pickler and Kilian shared a bench, which I noted with amusement was high enough off the ground neither of their feet touched the ground. Probably built with orcs in mind. Hakram stood behind me as a mirror of Aisha for Juniper, though a Named one. Apprentice had taken the seat next to me without a word, and barely seemed to be paying attention. The last person in the room was Ratface, who raised a sardonic eyebrow before speaking.
“Really?” he drawled. “Because Heiress always struck me as so trustworthy.”
There were a few smiles at that, though no laughs. The mood was serious, as was our problem.
“Most of you already know our mandate,” I said. “The Fifteenth, now bolstered with reinforcements from Callowan recruitment camps and a fresh set of auxiliaries, has been assigned to take the city of Liesse.”
“The head of the snake,” Nauk gravelled with a pleased note to his stone.
“The heart maybe,” Aisha disagreed. “The head is Countess Marchford, and she’s with the rebel host.”
“Off-subject,” Hune said. “There has been warning of betrayal, an immediate danger. More important than semantics.”
From the corner of my eye I saw Masego visibly restrain himself from responding to that. I hurried on before the situation could devolve.
“Our auxiliary corps, which we may have to suppress before this is over, is made of a little above a thousand Proceran light infantry. All mercenaries hired through Mercantis. Juniper?”
The Hellhound stirred in her seat, dark eyes sweeping across the room.
“Proceran infantry can broadly be divided in three categories,” she said. “The first is peasant levies, which usually make up most of the Principate’s armies. Little to no training, basic equipment. Vulnerable to shock tactics, which are usually how Proceran win battles. The second is principality troops. Cataphracts like the ones fielded by the Silver Spears and what would qualify as heavy infantry under our classification sheets.”
She leaned forward for the last part.
“The third is the type Heiress has bought. In times of war inside the Principate, fields are burned and villages sacked. Men and women who no longer have a trade take up war as a full-time occupation, though without the benefit of princely funding for their arms. Leather and mail for armour, wooden shields and longswords for armament. Almost every single one of them will be carrying javelins, and they’re more lethal a volley at close range than anything we carry.”
The Hellhound let out a grunt.
“If you’ve been wondering why I covered the other two categories of soldiers, it’s to give you comparison points when planning. We are not talking about better-armed peasants: these are soldiers who fought in the Proceran civil war and took on infantry that’s in the same league as our heavies. They won’t be used to sappers or field artillery, but they’ll have fought mages before and some of the same tactics apply: move fast and disperse, use terrain as cover when possible. They’re faster than we are, and they’ll avoid a collision of shield walls.”
There was a pause as everyone allowed that to sink in. Nauk was frowning, Hune looked like she’d learned nothing new and Apprentice might as well have been napping for how aware he’d been of what was going on. I cast a look at Ratface and he cleared his throat.
“I’ve been given access to all the records kept by Heiress in my function as Quartermaster,” he announced. “I imagine some of them are falsified and she’s already tried to bury me in irrelevant documents, but some things can’t be hidden. They won’t have enough javelins for more than three volleys, I’m almost certain of that, and before our advance to Liesse is over they’ll be relying on us for food and water. Their forced march to Marchford burned through most of their supplies, and they lost some before when they got whipped by the Lone Swordsman.”
News of that defeat, when it had finally trickled to the Fifteenth, had evoked mixed feeling in me. Heiress getting so spectacularly beaten, even if she hadn’t been there at the time, was a win in my book. She’d had four thousand men when she’d started the night, then lost half to defection and half again to a fighting retreat. On the other hand, William had picked up two thousand former Stygian spear-slaves to add to an army that was apparently already larger than mine. The Stygian magisters were a disgusting piece of work, there was no denying that, but their horrifying training methods had also produced some of the finest Calernian infantry since the early days of the continent. The phalanx was going to stop cold whatever part of my own army faced it and then start shredding it. I had a few counters to that, thankfully, but from now on I’d have to start planning around their existence on the other side of the field.
“Our current assessment is that the forces in Liesse won’t be meeting us on the field,” Hakram spoke up from behind me, getting the meeting back on track. “We’ve prepared for the eventuality of a siege.”
I looked at Pickler and the serious-faced goblin jumped in.
“The reinforcements we picked up brought a pair of Fante model trebuchets, as well as a standard load of goblin munitions. My sappers managed to make another two ballistae before we left Marchford, bringing our total to three. We can bring down the city’s walls, if we take the time to do it properly.”
Hune cleared her throat, the sound like caged thunder. “Are all of the ballistae irregular?”
My Senior Sapper looked displeased at the question, but she deigned to answer anyway.
“We’ve got two larger ones designed to clear the top of the enemy walls as well as the one we fielded against the devils – which is fit for use as field artillery.”
The ogre commander grunted. “That’s a yes, then. I’m not entirely comfortable with using untested designs on the field.”
I raised a hand to quiet down the brewing argument before it could properly develop. Hune was a stickler for regulations and Pickler took questioning of her abilities in machinery building very personally. It was honestly surprising they’d never butted heads until now, at least never in front of me.
“We’ll be running tests as soon as feasible, but it’s my understanding of the situation that Senior Sapper Pickler’s plans are derived from blueprints in use by the Legions,” I said, and no one thought it a good idea to argue.
I disliked intervening too directly in the dynamics between the member of my high command but now wasn’t the time for anyone to get hurt feelings. Internal dissensions were close to the top of the list of things I couldn’t allow to pass. I doubted anyone here was eager to defect to Heiress after she’d unleashed a demon on us, but we’d not found all the leaks yet. Hakram had identified two small fries with unexplained scrying equipment and I’d had them quietly executed before we left Marchford, but the kind of information Heiress kept getting her hands on had to be coming from someone higher up in the Fifteenth’s food chain. Or at least someone who had access to someone cleared to know that kind of information.
“She’s going to betray us,” I reiterated. “And we need to be ready for it. When it comes to troops we have them outclassed in every way, but there’s another aspect to this fight. Kilian?”
My lover offered me a discreet smile before she started speaking, prompting a swell of guilt in me. I hadn’t had much time for her lately, and the grace with which she’d taken that only made it worse in my eyes.
“We’ve been coordinating with Lord Apprentice to set up a few surprises for the enemy,” the redhead announced.
Masego seemed to wake, finally.
“The current suspicion is that Heiress has possession of a standard which holds the binding of a relatively minor demon from the Thirteenth Hell,” the bespectacled man spoke, still slumped in his seat. “I’ve retooled a ritual that will allow us to forbid its manifestation, essentially keeping it stuck inside the standard.”
“Unfortunately, the ritual requires very precise timing,” Kilian explained when it became clear he wouldn’t keep talking. “And at least forty mages acting in concert under the supervision of Lord Apprentice.”
If there’d been a table in this tent instead of just a handful of seats and benches, I would have drummed my fingers on the surface of it.
“Heiress can’t be allowed to play that card,” I stated. “Not a second time, not if we’re to win. I’m creating a temporary task force whose sole purpose is preparing for that ritual. The involved personnel will be assigned by Senior Mage Kilian, who’ll be forwarding you a list of names later tonight.”
There was no argument from the gallery, even at the loss of mages. The memory of the rampaging demon and the round of executions that had followed its appearance was still fresh for everyone.
“I’m worried we’re focusing too much on Heiress, Boss,” Nauk gravelled. “She’s dangerous, but all she’s got is a thousand mercs and some nasty mage tricks. In Liesse there’s at least seven thousand soldiers and a bunch of heroes waiting for us. They’ve got walls, they’ve got numbers and they’ve got access to a lake. Starving them out isn’t an option, we’ll have to punch through.”
“We’ve got ideas for Liesse,” the Hellhound intervened. “At the moment we’re focusing on Heiress because those ideas require time and lack of intervention on her part.”
“Are we allowed to know what those ideas are?” Ratface asked drily.
I didn’t want to risk the plans Juniper and I had hatched getting out before they were implemented, but I could at least point my officers in the general direction.
“We’ve got a massive imbalance in our favour on the magical side,” I told Ratface. “We intend to leverage that.”
“Fortifications in all major Callowan cities have wards woven in,” Apprentice contributed. “But they’re not unbreakable and if the other side doesn’t use mages to counter us we’ll have free reign.”
“As for the Lone Swordsman,” I said. “He’ll be mine to handle. The Thief and the Bard have limited combat value, though when we get closer to Liesse we’ll have another briefing to address them.”
With everyone up to date on the latest developments, it was about time to wrap this up.
“Any other questions?” I prompted.
Pickler raised her head.
“Robber has been on assignment for over a fortnight, now,” she said.
I looked at Juniper, who nodded.
“You can consider his cohort of sappers detached from other duties for the foreseeable future,” I said. “I’ve got work for them.”
“Anything to do with the Procerans who turned up dead this morning?” Hune asked.
“We’re keeping that operation under wraps,” Juniper grunted. “High command must retain plausible deniability as much as possible.”
Given the specific orders I’d given the tribune, that much was an understatement. We were breaking both Tower law and Legion regulations, and not in ways that got you a fine and a slap on the wrist. No one else had anything to bring up so my officers scattered shortly afterwards. Hakram made to linger but I shook my head – Apprentice remained in the seat opposite of mine, slouched with his eyes closed. He’d been sleeping almost ten hours a day lately, often catching naps in supply wagons when the rest of us were marching. I waited until we were alone in the tent before speaking again.
“Masego,” I spoke up.
Dark eyes blinked open, staring at me through enchanted spectacles.
“Catherine,” he replied, fingers rubbing at his left wrist where the demon’s blood had touched his skin and now burned flesh remained. “I expect you’re about to spit out whatever you’ve been almost saying to me for the last fortnight.”
He’d noticed that, had he? At first I’d kept my distance to see if he was acting strangely. Whether or not his judgement seemed to have been affected by an outside source. The problem was, I didn’t know Masego that well. I’d shared drinks with him, spoken alone quite often, but I didn’t have the kind of friendship with him I had with Adjutant. Would I even notice, if he was acting strange? Warlock had cleared him of corruption, but I remembered that the man had paused before doing so. It could have been how the spell took to cast… or something else entirely. I’d nearly brought up the concern to Black, but I already knew what his answer would be: he’d trust Warlock’s word. Scribe had told me, once, that Blacks great flaw as a villain was personal loyalty. Warlock was his first and oldest friend. The conclusion there wrote itself. Whatever precautions I took would have to be my own.
“I’m sorry,” I said and I was, though not for the reasons he’d think.
He looked baffled. “Whatever for?”
I tapped my own left wrist and he flinched. “I took you into a fight with a demon, ill-prepared and knowing the kind of consequences it could have.”
Masego sighed, the trinkets in his dreadlocks tinkling gently as he shook his head.
“Is that really what you’ve been chewing on all this time? I would have gone with or without you, Catherine.”
I kept my surprise off my face as well as I could.
“You never struck me as the kind of man who took stands to defend strangers,” I said, cautiously.
I did not mean to give offense, though I did believe what I’d just said. Masego didn’t really care about people in a broader sense. A few individuals he liked, perhaps, but even then sacrifice was not in the cards for Apprentice. It just wasn’t the way he thought. The dark-skinned man snorted.
“Thank the Gods I’m not,” he said. “Look at all the trouble that keeps getting you into. No, this wasn’t about the people. It was about the demon.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Is this a Warlock thing? You think you have a duty to keep demons contained?”
That could be useful, though it would be coming out of nowhere. I’d never gotten the impression that diabolism and demonology were anything but passing interests of his. He’d known ways to handle the demon, sure, but it hadn’t felt like a personal specialty.
“I don’t owe anyone a damned thing,” Masego said, displaying white teeth in a hard smile. “The demon itself was besides the point, it was the effect their kind has on Creation that was worth witnessing first hand.”
“You went into battle against a monster like that for a scholarly pursuit?” I repeated disbelievingly.
His face turned from amused to serious in a heartbeat.
“It may be that to you,” he conceded. “It isn’t to me.”
“Then help me understand,” I asked, “because this makes no sense to me.”
A pudgy hand pushed back and errant braid, ignoring the silver mirror shard woven into it.
“I don’t remember my life from before my fathers adopted me,” he admitted. “My first memories are of playing in a sprawling garden under a warm sun, tripping in a pile of daffodils.”
I didn’t interrupt, though the image had my lips twitching in amusement.
“I grew up there in that garden, sleeping outside more often than inside the tower where Father ran his experiments. Dada used to bury me in blankets and tell me stories until the moon came out. Never once did it become winter.”
Weather control? That was an almost absurdly costly branch of sorcery, and rarely behaved as it was supposed to. Besides, I’d have heard of it if some part of the Empire had resisted the passing of seasons for several years in a row – it was the kind of thing that drew attention. Masego smiled at the curiosity on my face.
“It was a spell, of a sort. When I turned nine years old, Father decided I was old enough for us to return to Ater. So he unmoored the chunk of land he’d stolen from Arcadia and allowed it to crumble.”
My eyes widened. “You weren’t in Creation?”
“Between it and Arcadia,” he replied. “Did you know the full name for that place is ‘Arcadia Resplendent’? There’s a reason for that. Beautiful doesn’t even begin to cover it.”
He laughed but there was no joy in it.
“Nine years old and I saw the world end,” he said. “I don’t think Father realized what he was teaching me. Creation is aptly named, Catherine: it was created by the Gods, Above and Below. To settle some kind of moral pissing match, apparently, but I’ve no interest in that.”
He raised his palm up and whispered a word in the mage tongue. A globe of light appeared over his hand, small sprites of energy spinning inside of it.
“All we are is a spell, and spells…” he closed his hand over the globe and it winked out, “can be dismissed. At any time. For any reason. All that’s required is will.”
“There’s more to it than that,” I said.
“Is there?” he smiled. “I’d like to believe so. Am I just an insect on a speck of cosmic mud, or does my immortal soul make me something greater? That is the question that has been hounding me all my life.”
“So you watch the places where Creation comes apart,” I spoke slowly. “To understand what makes it tick?”
Masego’s eyes behind his spectacles were smouldering with real passion, for the first time since I’d met him.
“There is a law in sorcery called the Sapience Limit,” he told me. “A mage cannot create something of a higher order of sentience than themselves. For millennia sorcerers and wizards alike have tried to discover whether it is a creational law or an original one, without success. An original law applies to the Gods themselves, Catherine. Consider the implications of that.”
I was starting to think I needed to pay more attention to Kilian when she talked magic after we got done with the fun parts.
“You’re saying that the only difference between us and the Gods is power,” I said.
He shook his head.
“Power is a consequence, a happenstance enforced by laws that were artificially set in place. Knowledge is the heart of this. And should a man know as much as a God…”
“Would there even be a difference?”
I took a long moment to process that, silence heavy in the tent. Weeping Heavens, and I’d thought my teacher was ambitious.
“This is more than a little blasphemous,” I finally said.
“Fuck the Gods,” he said, calmly. “Every single one of them. I can respect what you and Uncle Amadeus are trying to accomplish, I really can – but you’re looking at the other prisoners, when you should be looking at the bars.”
I need a drink, I thought. The philosophy he’d just described could have been taken straight out of one of those old Praesi fairy tales I had a book full of. The madman with great power trying to grasp something beyond his understanding, wrecking the world in his hubris. Fuck. I’d gone into this conversation hoping my contingency wouldn’t be needed, but now I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t even a little bit. Had he been like this, before the demon? I couldn’t know. I cursed myself again for not having taken the time to get know Masego better after Summerholm.
“I’ll stay with you until the end of the rebellion,” Apprentice assured me, misinterpreting my silence. “I made a commitment, and seeing heroes in action again might yield some additional understandings. When the campaign is over, I’ll return to Marchford to study the thinning there between Creation and Arcadia.”
I cleared my throat. “That’s all I can ask of you, Masego,” I said. “You’ve already helped us much, and you’ll be missed sorely when you leave.”
“Flatterer,” he replied, but he pushed up his spectacles to hide his embarrassed pleasure.
“I know you’re not part of the Fifteenth in any official fashion,” I continued, “but I’ve considered you one of us since Summerholm. The men agree, so I made you this.”
I fished out a small brooch from inside my doublet. Bone, roughly shaped as two snakes swallowing each other’s tails around a circle stamped with the Fifteenth’s Miezan numbers.
“You made this?” he asked in surprise.
“Can’t carve for the life of me,” I admitted, “but I killed an oxen and raised it. I can kind of shape the bones when my power is in it.”
“That explains the traces of your Name in it,” he smiled. “Help me put it on?”
I rose easily and stood behind him, picking a braid on the back of his neck and carefully threading it inside the hair. I adjusted a last time and stepped back around, only to be greeted with a warm smile.
“Thank you,” he said, touching my arm. “It means more than you think.”
He excused himself afterwards and I felt dirty as I watched him part the folds of the tent. There was just a bit of my power left in the brooch, just like he’d said. Enough to activate a small mechanism Robber had created inside before treating and filling the whole bone with goblin munitions. During the war games last year, I’d gotten to observe that the alchemy reacted violently to Name power: if it was ever activated, it would blow his neck clean off.
“Contingencies,” I murmured to myself.
I went to look for a fucking drink.