“In its infancy, the Fifteenth was in the awkward position of being within spitting distance of the heart of the Empire without being part of it. Legate Juniper, ever brutally sardonic, pointed out that give how tall their manors stood, they had a better chance of landing the spit on us than us on them. History wasted no time in proving her correct.”
– Extract from the personal memoirs of Lady Aisha Bishara
Hakram had learned the move from the battlemaster for the Howling Wolves when he was nine years old. Catch the enemy’s wrist with your hand, leveraging greater muscles, and on the other side slap your open palm on the human’s ear. The wheat-eaters were known to be delicate in the head, by the standards of the Clans. There was a pop as the dark-skinned man’s eardrums burst: the pain stopped him for a moment. The adjutant snarled, lunging forward and sinking his teeth in the exposed throat. Long fangs buried in soft flesh, ripping through veins and arteries as he shook his head out. The stranger twitched, blood spraying everywhere and coating Hakram’s face with pleasant warmth, then dropped. Eyes perfectly calm, he looked for the other man who’d tried to accost them but found Aisha had already taken care of it: she’d buried a knife to hilt through the Soninke’s eye. With measured elegance she slid out the knife, flicking away some kind of transparent fluid. Robber popped out of the side-alley a moment later, shaking his head.
“There were only two,” the yellow-eyed tribune said, face unusually serious.
It seemed even Robber took attempts to kill them seriously, on occasion. Swallowing the last of the meat, Hakram cleared his chops of the gore with a rough tongue. Good thing no other orc was around, it was considered a pretty suggestive movement where he was from – but then the Howling Wolves kept to many of the traditions from the Lesser Steppes, for all that they lived in the heart of the Northern ones. An unbroken line of shamans and blood-witches going back to the Golden Age had done much to keep the old ways alive.
“You were the target,” Aisha decided, addressing him nonchalantly as she riffled through her corpse’s clothes. “Mine spent half the fight trying to get at you.”
Hakram almost chuckled. Aisha might call that little rumble a fight, but what he’d seen of her part of it had looked more like a cold-blooded execution. The Hellhound’s second had not hesitated so much as heartbeat before putting down her opponent, not that this surprised him. Taghreb were not a merciful people and their nobility had only gotten where it was by being terrifyingly nastier than all other comers. Not even the orcs had ventured in the Hungering Sands, back in the days of their power. The only people to have mastered the desert tribes were the Miezans, and hadn’t they mastered the whole world?
“Can’t blame them, my boy Hakram is a handsome bastard,” Robber added thoughtfully. “More bastard than handsome, in truth, but he only has so much to work with.”
“Your moral support humbles me,” the adjutant replied mildly, then returned his attention to the olive-skinned aristocrat. “If they had a target, this wasn’t two locals trying to shake up soldiers after pay-day.”
Aisha raised a condescending eyebrow at him. She’d yet to manage to shake herself of that habit, not that Juniper had done anything to help. The Hellhound apparently found the sight of humans sneering at other humans amusing.
“This was an assassination attempt, Hakram,” the aristocrat said. “There’s no use trying to pretend otherwise.”
The tall orc had arrived at the same conclusion, actually, be he disliked hurrying to judgement. In a city like Ater, acting too quickly was a dangerous thing. The Fifteenth was camped half a day away from the scheming heart of the Empire and this was far from the first time they’d been probed by unknown forces. Had Lord Black not still been in the capital, he imagined it would have been much worse – the Empress’ right hand cast a long shadow, and few were willing to risk the man’s ire by attacking his pupil directly. Until today, it seemed. Hakram would not delude himself into thinking he’d achieved enough as an individual to rank an assassination attempt: it was his function in the Fifteenth Legion that merited killing.
“The Boss is going to be in a mood when she hears about this,” Robber said delightedly.
Aisha frowned at the comment, then rose to her feet. “No personal effects,” she said. “He does have a tattoo between his shoulder blades, though.”
The Staff Tribune had thoughtfully flipped the corpse over for them to look at. Hakram knelt by the dead human and peered at the inked skin. Some kind of bird picking at a corpse. He cast a look at Aisha, silently asking for information.
“A buzzard, I think,” she said. “Associated with Aksum in Soninke heraldry but I’ve never seen this symbol before.”
That didn’t mean much. The Dread Empire wasn’t as bad as Callow or Procer, where everybody and their goat had a sigil, but the Wasteland bred ancient conspiracies the way the West whelped chivalric orders and every single one of them had some sort of meaningful secret sign. Tyrants stamped them out whenever they came in the open, but for every one out in the sun there were a dozen meeting in crypts. Ignoring Robber – never a good idea, that – Aisha met his eyes squarely. Unusual. Taghreb and Soninke both avoided doing that whenever they could. Demons and devils taking human shape could use eye contact to steal your soul, as could some Warlocks. Aisha was being serious about whatever she would say next.
“We can’t tell Lady Squire,” the Staff Tribune said.
Robber burst out laughing. “Boy, did you pick the wrong crowd to try to float that.”
The goblin tribune wasn’t wrong. Inside the unofficial ‘Squire faction’ of the Fifteenth, both he and Robber were prominent members. Nauk was the only one more outspoken about his allegiances: the other orc had decided that Cat was the warlord of their generation, and as far as he was considered that settled the matter. Every matter, really. Good orcs did not question their warlord, though they ripped out the guts of anyone who did. And yet. Hakram did not believe in unthinking service. Blind obedience had been the death of many a villain. Aisha Bishara was an aristocrat to the bone, but that did not make her the enemy. The Fifteenth would come to telly on her ability to navigate the treacherous waters of Tower politics in the coming years, he suspected.
“Why?” he asked.
Aisha straightened, her face smoothing out in a pleasant mask. The apparent charms of her appearance – that Ratface still couldn’t shut up about, when he got into his cups – were thankfully lost on Hakram. Humans were like ugly hairy two-legged cows. Unlike orcs they got hair on every part of their bodies instead of just the top of the head. Why the males got beards and moustaches when the females didn’t was just one of those mysteries of biology: he suspected whatever Gods had created humans had not been sober at the time.
“You’re her favourite, Hakram,” Tribune Bishara stated.
It was not a question and he did not deny it. Exactly what Cat saw in him he wasn’t sure, but he liked her enough he didn’t care to question the bond.
“If Lady Squire hears there was an attempt on your life, she’ll be kicking down every door in Ater until she gets to hang whoever she deems responsible.”
“It’ll be fun,” Robber grinned. “Been millennia since there was a proper greenskin raid on the capital.”
That’s her whole point, Robber, Hakram understood as he remained silent. Even the goblin had unconsciously realized that Praesi soldiers would balk at entering the streets of Ater in full gear to exact retribution. The Callowan recruits were still an unknown quantity but they might see the whole affair as a way to wiggle out of service to the Legions. Too many risks involved.
“Her response could be more measured than that,” he pointed out.
People who underestimated Catherine Foundling had this nasty habit of eating dust.
“It won’t be,” Aisha said confidently. “You didn’t see her in the Tower, when one of Heiress’ minions provoked her. She broke that girl’s finger without hesitating and then paid for it. The Fifteenth’s too young, we can’t afford to make the kind of enemies a heavy-handed retaliation would earn us.”
“We’re not without protection ourselves,” the orc said.
Aisha shook her head. “We can’t get the Black Knight involved. Relying on his protection every time we have a problem just makes us a liability. We need to start dealing with these kind of messes ourselves, Hakram. Quickly, quietly, cleanly.”
She wasn’t wrong, he decided. The orc was not sanguine at the idea of involving the most famous of the Calamities in their business, in all honesty. Cat seemed strangely fond of the man but Hakram considered him a considerable danger nonetheless. He wasn’t willing to hide any of this from Squire, but neither was it necessary to send a runner to her the moment things got complicated. Taking care of issues like this fell under his function as adjutant, in fact if not in name. He took a moment to consider the possible consequences, ignoring the way impatience flickered in Aisha’s eyes, then made his final decision.
“Agreed,” he said.
“Hakram,” Robber broke in, looking startled, “you can’t possibly-“
“We hang a dozen nobles and the entire court will be out for blood,” the orc replied. “It might become enough of a mess we won’t get deployed.”
Deployed where, he did not yet know. Cat was playing that one close to the chest, but she’d made no secret of how urgent getting the Fifteenth in fighting shape was. That much was common knowledge among all the high-ranked officers of the legion.
“We still need a lead,” Robber conceded grumpily.
“I have a cousin who may know something,” Aisha offered.
The same one who ran the Sword and Cup, if Hakram had to guess. Clever of the Staff Tribune to turn a family-owned property into the unofficial watering hole of her legion, but Hakram misliked the idea of getting too many unknowns involved.
“We’re keeping this in-house. We already have a man, if we need a guide in the underbelly of Ater,” he said.
Aisha grimaced and Robber cackled.
“Let’s go visit Ratface, then,” the goblin grinned.
Hakram waited until they’d left the alley ahead of him to lean over the closest corpse and pluck out the eyeballs, popping one into his mouth. No use wasting good meat, and it looked like he wouldn’t be getting dinner.
Aisha knew where Hasan – Ratface, as the others still called him – was. He’d already been a regular at the Burnished Swan when she’d first become involved with him, long before other cadets had taken to drinking. It had been part of what had made him attractive at the time, the way he seemed to have lived, strayed outside the confines of cadet routine and the War College. She should have known that no one took up frequenting dives like this unless there was already something wrong in their life, and the list of Hasan’s issues would cover several small books. Their parting had been amicable, though apparently surprising to him, but having been the one to distance herself she disliked the idea of asking for his help now. She’d let Hakram do the talking, if she could: owing the other Taghreb a favour was not something she desired to happen any time soon. Robber, the irritating pest, seemed to smell her discomfort.
“A romantic reunion, eh?” he leered. “Careful not to swoon too hard, the floors look dirty.”
Weakness is a goblin’s meal, the saying went. Give this one an inch and soon he’d be chewing your bones.
“I will have you drowned in a latrine pit,” she replied in Taghrebi, smiling invitingly at him.
Hakram snorted. The goblin was, at least, correct about the floors. The Burnished Swan was in dire need of a mop and a handful of stray dogs were digging at scraps the patrons occasionally threw them. The parlour was full of bangue smoke and the heavy smell of poppy pipes from the back where hard men and women gambled with dice and bones over narrow tables. She ignored the few leers she got from older men and headed straight for the stairs, taking the lead. There were a handful of private rooms there and the one furthest back had been set aside for Hasan permanently. How exactly he’d managed that she was not sure, but she suspected that more than money had changed hands. She rapped her knuckles thrice against the door before pushing it open, Hakram and Robber trailing in behind.
Much like the last time she’d been here, Hasan was seated on a pile of cushions with piles of parchment and a cheap set of scales at his side. Two empty jugs of wine were to his left and a full one was currently employed in pouring himself a cup. The Supply Tribune’s handsome features twisted in surprise, an unseemly display of bare emotion. He must have been rather drunk: the other Taghreb despised everything their culture stood for, but he’d not left behind the concept of losing face even in private.
“Well,” Hasan spoke up, the slur in his voice barely noticeable, “this is a surprise.”
“Oh Gods, he’s drunk,” Robber said, sounding thrilled. “Quick, Ratty, how many fingers am I holding up?”
Hasan replied to the goblin’s flipping off in kind, his eyes passing over her and finally coming to rest on Hakram.
“I have a feeling I’m not going to enjoy the coming conversation,” he said.
“We left two corpses in an alley,” Robber contributed cheerfully.
One of these days, Aisha was going to strangle him. No tonight, unfortunately, but the time would come.
“There was an assassination attempt on Hakram,” the olive-skinned aristocrat said. “We disposed of the assailants.”
Hasan rubbed the bridge of his nose, then carelessly gulped down his whole cup of wine.
“Fuck,” he said. “There goes my night off. Why are you three here instead of say, in camp, arming up?”
“There was a tattoo on the back of the corpses,” Hakram gravelled. “A buzzard picking at a corpse.”
“Marked men, it’s not unusual,” Hasan replied. “I reiterate, why the Hells are you three not in camp while a runner gets Foundling?”
Aisha almost frowned. The familiar way he insisted on referring to Lady Squire was quite irritating. The greenskins could be excused the poor manners, but she knew the other Taghreb had been raised better than that. Even bastards got etiquette lessons, and Hasan had been presumptive heir to his father’s lordship for the better part of a decade.
“We won’t be getting Lady Squire involved,” she said.
Her former lover laughed. “I could swear I just heard you say no one was going to tell Catherine Foundling an assassination attempt was made on her personal adjutant,” he said. “Clearly I’ve been drinking too much. Could someone speak again but use words that don’t make me want to order a fourth jug of wine?”
Hakram cleared his throat and Aisha cast the situation an interested look. Technically speaking, Hasan was of higher rank than the orc – so was she, as a tribune-ranked member of the general staff. The hierarchy at play was muddled by the fact that technically Hakram answered directly to the Lady Squire and was deepest in her confidence. The adjutant might yield little authority in theory, but at the moment he could end a career or string a noose with a single whisper. That he’d shown remarkable restraint in the use of his influence had cemented Aisha’s respect for the orc, who she’d always considered one of the most competent members of Rat Company.
“Concerns have been raised that she may retaliate in a way that burns a lot of bridges,” Hakram said.
Robber mimed getting hanged to help getting the point across. Almost useful of him. Maybe she’d have him drowned in scum water instead. Hasan smiled thinly.
“I bet she will,” the Supply Tribune agreed. “She’ll take fire and sword to the city until she owns the hide of whoever’s responsible.”
He poured himself a glass, hand surprisingly steady. Perhaps not so drunk, after all. Or just so used to drinking he’s developed a talent for this, she thought less flatteringly.
“I don’t see a problem with that,” he finished, sipping at his wine. “Ater could do with fewer fucking nobles. This whole Empire could.”
She’d known it would come to that. Aisha felt her blood rise. For someone talented in so many clever ways, Hasan was so horribly dim in others. He couldn’t see past his grudge against his father, and had extended that hatred to every aristocrat in Praes. Which was punishingly narrow-minded, if he wanted to pursue a career in the Legions. A hundred times she’d told him, that he’d never be more than a career tribune if he was openly hostile to anyone with influence in the Tower. Gods Below, half the students at the War College were nobly born. Aisha smoothed out her temper, which had thankfully escaped anyone’s notice. Reasoning would be of no use here. For all that, her quiver was not yet empty. Softening her face, she knelt next to the Supply Tribune.
“Please, Hasan,” she asked softly, lightly touching his bare wrist. “For me. Just this once.”
His hard-eyed defiance deflated almost instantly. Her met her eyes with his for half a heartbeat, just long enough not to break custom, then looked away. Aisha almost felt guilty for exploiting the fact that he was quite obviously still in love with her when she did not feel the same, but guilt weighed little on the scales compared to the consequences of failure here.
“Bish,” he murmured. “Don’t be like that. I’m following protocol here.”
“I’m not asking you to follow the rules, I’m asking you to do what’s best for the Fifteenth,” she replied just as quietly.
And that was what tipped the vase over, in his mind. Hasan loved the Legions with an almost childlike purity. He’d found the family there that his blood had denied him and all his allegiances were founded on that bedrock. He would do much for her but even more for the Fifteenth.
“Fine,” he finally grimaced. “I don’t recognize the mark, but I know someone who will.”
He rose to his feet a little unsteadily, only to be settled by the touch of her hand on his chest.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Don’t do that,” he muttered. “I know what you’re doing. I’m just fool enough to fall for it anyway.”
He left them in the room, heading down the stairs. There was a moment of silence, then Robber whistled.
“That was the coldest thing I’ve seen all day, and Hakram just ate a guy,” the goblin said.
“Part of one,” the orc corrected mildly.
Aisha glared at the wretch. He’d just slid back to latrine drowning.
So Juniper’s handmaiden had just worked the harshest of wiles on poor innocent Ratface, which boded ill for the guy’s love life. Robber sympathized, inasmuch as he could sympathize with anything or anyone. It wouldn’t stop him from mercilessly mocking the man later, but he liked to think of that as a labour of love. The Quartermaster came back with the shadiest woman Robber had ever seen, and he was a goblin. Matrons basically became Matrons by proving it was possible to be even more outrageously ruthless than their predecessors, and every single female goblin who wasn’t a Matron was one poisoning away from correcting that injustice. This wonder of humanity glared suspiciously at all of them, then spoke in soft aside to Ratface in some horribly garbled Taghrebi dialect.
“I trust them,” the Quartermaster said, with laudably poor judgement.
“You’ve killed marked men,” the woman said, then spat to the side. “What was the mark?”
“A buzzard tearing into a corpse,” Hakram said.
The stranger looked at the adjutant like he was something a dog had thrown up on her carpet. Ah, one of those. Ater wasn’t as bad as some of the northern cities of the Empire, but there were still quite a few people there who thought greenskins shouldn’t be allowed to step foot out of their lands until they were called for. Apparently Nauk had lost his shit over something like that in Thalassina, yet another proof that the thick-headed bastard was unfit to be with Pickler in any way.
“Catacomb Children,” the woman said. “Old gang, from Aksum. Used to do contract killings for the Truebloods, until Assassin had a talk with them.”
By which she likely meant that they’d all been found in a warehouse dead of a string of unlikely yet simultaneous mortal accidents. Robber had always approved of the sense of humour the Calamity was rumoured to have. If you couldn’t make murdering your enemies hilarious, what was even the point? Well, fun. And getting paid. But that wasn’t the particular point he’d been referring to, so his argument still stood flawless and unbroken.
“And where do those naughty kids hole up, my blatantly criminal friend?” Robber asked.
“Muzzle your pet,” the woman told Ratface in Taghrebi.
“That man is Tribune Robber of the Fifteenth Legion,” Aisha replied sharply in the same. “Watch your tongue, if you intend to keep it.”
Ah, good ol’ Aisha. Might despise him, but anybody insulting a legionary was in for a rough time if she was around. Almost endearing how easy it was to wind her up. The other woman spat again, but she didn’t care to get into a pissing match with someone who might as well have ‘highborn’ stamped on her forehead.
“Dekaram Quarter,” she said. “Near the buried sewer entrance.”
Robber almost whistled again. Taking a contract on a legionary was proof those boys hadn’t been great thinkers, but this was spectacular confirmation. Only raging imbeciles set up shop near Ater’s sewers: the whole place was crawling with giant spiders. At least half a million, by the last estimate, and they got bigger the deeper you went. They said Dread Emperor Tenebrous himself – well, herself now – was the one spawning them, having gone from thinking he was a giant spider in human skin to actually being one. Oh, those wacky humans. Second year tactics class spent a whole fortnight going over the logistics of clearing out the sewer system and the tunnels running under it, an exercise to demonstrate the concept of a victory too costly for the results achieved. Mages sworn to the Tower shad put wards over all the exits, but now and then one got out and nabbed some poor fool out in the streets at night. That these Catacomb Children had decided it was clever to base themselves close to a nigh-endless flood of death only barely bottled up promised it would be good clean fun to take them on.
“Two corpses, Fa’ir?” the criminal asked Ratface.
“In good shape, too. Where did you kill them, Aisha?”
The aristocrat looked like she was too good to frown but kind of wanted to anyway.
“Two streets east of the Sword and Cup,” she replied.
Hakram looked like he’d gotten caught hiding aragh under his bunk again.
“The eyes might be missing on one,” he admitted.
“Oh, was that eye-breath?” Robber asked. “Gods, you really have a problem with those.”
“Nobody sells them fresh around here,” the adjutant replied defensively.
The sketchy woman, who’d been about to hand Ratface seven denarii, took two back from the Quartermaster’s palm. She left without bothering with goodbyes, ignoring Robber’s cheerful wave.
“Hasan,” Aisha said. “What does that woman trade in?”
“Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to,” Ratface grunted, pocketing the silver.
Robber rubbed his palms together. “So this is the part where I talk to a few of my people and we have a nice chat with these Funeral Adults?”
“We all know you’re getting that wrong on purpose,” Hakram noted.
“Lies,” the goblin tribune exclaimed. “Calumny. Possibly even a set-up.”
He leaned closer to Aisha.
“You can never trust a greenskin, Bishara,” he confided. “They’re a shifty lot.”
The noble looked like she was about to say something scathing when Ratface broke in, because he was the enemy of all forms of joy and laughter.
“You can’t bring a goblin raiding party in the city, Robber,” he said. “This is Ater, not Foramen. Everyone important in the city will know they’re here within the hour and our targets disappear into the crowd.”
The tribune scowled. He’d been looking forward to giving his boys and girls some exercise.
“There’s currently two hundred legionaries on leave in the city,” Aisha said.
Staff Tribune, coming to the rescue with her intimate knowledge of duty rosters.
“So we assemble a crew, then get out hands on some weapons,” Robber grinned.
“And then we clean up this mess,” Hakram said, baring his fangs.