“Hahahahaha. Ha. You can’t beat me now, this is the first part of my plan!”
– Dread Emperor Irritant I, the Oddly Successful
Some days I wondered how I’d ended up where I was. In a technical sense it had all started when I’d come across Black in that alley, or perhaps the moment where I’d decided I would be joining the Legions.
“What I mean, though, is how did I end up here,” I mused. “As in, asking a report from a blood-dripping goblin in the middle of the night while I lead some kind of shady war council.”
Robber, if anything, was tickled by my sudden comment. Masego was utterly indifferent to everything going on, as was his wont, and Hakram looked like the epithet of ‘shady’ offended him but he couldn’t find an argument to refute me.
“Bad life choices,” the goblin tribune offered. “Or the best. Maybe a little bit of both.”
“Don’t mind me,” I grunted. “It just suddenly hit home that I’m leading a Legion of Terror while wearing a black cape and plotting nefarious things in the dark.”
“You’re not currently wearing a cape,” Masego pointed out, about as helpful as tits on a sparrow.
“Apprentice,” I replied patiently, “I own like five capes. All of them black. I get we have a theme here, but would it kill anyone to get me some clothes that a vampire wouldn’t wear? I mean, Heiress is Evil and she wears actual colours. And does her hair nice! I bet she even has her nails filed by some half-naked oiled up manservant.”
I didn’t even have manservants. My closest equivalents were an orc with a gossip addiction and a goblin who owned a jar full of eyeballs. The House of Light had always told me Evil was decadent, where were all my creature comforts? My sheets weren’t even silk. The only opulence around was the way I never seemed to run out of wine and that was purely Ratface’s doing.
“The ponytail looks good,” Hakram said loyally.
“Hakram, I love you like a brother, but the day I take grooming advice from you is the day I jump into the Tyrian Sea,” I replied.
I poured myself a glass of Vale summer wine, ignoring the look from Hakram indicating he wouldn’t mind one. The crate Ratface had somehow gotten his hands on before we left Ater was mostly empty now and I wasn’t wasting my favourite drink on someone who’d guzzle it down like water. I sighed and got comfortable in my wooden camp chair.
“Well, I suppose I’ll have to ask at some point. Whose blood is this, Robber?”
“It could be mine,” he grinned.
“Goblins bleed black,” I grunted. “Try again.”
“Not always true,” Apprentice said. “Dread Emperor Sorcerous exsanguinated a Matron and filled in human-“
He trailed off when everyone stared at him then cleared his throat.
“Perhaps not the best time,” he conceded. “Still, it’s not an absolute.”
I let him retreat with a modicum of dignity while he still could and pushed down the morbid curiosity that almost made me ask why Sorcerous had done that. He’d been the one to make the sentient tiger army, if I recalled correctly. The one that had defected the moment it got out of the Tower and was the reason tigers in the Wastelands were still so intelligent. They still found half-chewed corpses by the road every year, a testament to the way the ‘cleverness’ of Tyrants could continue to backfire for centuries after their death.
“Robber,” I prompted.
“So some of the boys and I went to have a look in Heiress’ camp,” he said. “Might have slit a few throats on the way in.”
“I’d gathered as much,” I replied. “So why does that lead you to waking me up in the middle of the night?”
“They changed up their patrol schedules after the last time we left them a few corpses,” the yellow-eyed tribune grinned. “They haven’t figured out Kilian’s scrying them to lay out the timing.”
“They will soon,” Hakram grunted. “And Heiress has the mages to block us when she picks up on it.”
“If she uses standard wards, I can teach your paramour to slip past them,” Masego noted. I let the word pass by without a comment, since it was more or less accurate. “Though given who Akua’s father is, I would not bet on it.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Some other Praesi noble? I thought you could run circles around any of those.”
“Nioro of Aksum. Most talented practitioner to come out of that part of the Wasteland in at least half a century,” Apprentice said. “Father says he was good enough to have a claim on the Name of Warlock after the old one died, though he never pressed it.”
I’d never heard the name before, which was somewhat intriguing. I’d have to ask Aisha about it at some point, since none of the men in this tent followed Praesi politics in the least.
“Anyhow,” Robber said. “We planned around their schedules and routes so we could get deeper in the camp than we’ve ever been. Found out two interesting tidbits I thought you should know about now instead of the morning.”
“Amaze me,” I said.
“First, she’s got a goblin in there,” the tribune said.
Huh. I hadn’t seen that coming, I’d give Robber that much. Heiress wasn’t as consistently racist as some of the other Praesi nobility I’d come across, but she did have certain leanings. Though I’d never heard her lay on greenskins, now that I thought about it. Was she in league with one of the goblin tribes? That could get messy as all Hells.
“Recognized them?” Hakram asked.
“So just because I’m a goblin I know all the others, is that it?” Robber asked, his face the very picture of outrage.
“You’ve claimed as much repeatedly,” Adjutant replied amusedly.
The goblin tribune shrugged, the pretense of affront discarded in a heartbeat.
“Couldn’t get a good look,” he said. “Was going to, but a scroll sheath fell over and woke them up. Nasty customer, whoever they are. Pretty sure they had burn wounds, and not the small discrete kind.”
“I don’t suppose there’s a famous goblin with that as their signature?” I sighed.
“Wouldn’t know,” Robber said. “Didn’t get out much before I joined the College. Pickler might know something I don’t – she was much higher up the food chain in her own tribe.”
Another question for the pile, though I doubted it would be as easy as that.
“And the other thing?” Hakram asked.
“They’re making some kind of ritual array,” Robber said.
Apprentice’s back straightened in his seat, the reason my tribune had asked for him to be there finally clear.
“Not on the ground,” Masego immediately guessed. “The runes – on wood, stone or metal?”
“Twenty five metal pegs with small square stones between them,” the goblin informed us. “The stone’s granite, if that makes a difference.”
Robber’s tribe was one of the mining ones deep in the Grey Eyries, I remembered. Apparently he still remembered some of what he’d learned there.
“It does,” Apprentice muttered. “Ocean-dredged granite like the one found off Thalassina has properties linking it to the classical elements of earth and water. It’s used as a stabilizer.”
One of these days I was going to have to find out exactly what those ‘classical elements’ actually were.
“Got a look at the metal pegs,” Robber continued. “Wrought iron, all of it.”
“To attract, collect and retain power,” Masego frowned. “Whatever the ritual is, the scale will be massive.”
“Oh, I don’t like the sounds of that,” I cursed. “Robber did you get a look at the runes?”
“On the pegs,” he replied. “There was one that was everywhere, it was…”
He paused. Yellow eyes blinked in confusion.
“I can’t actually remember,” he admitted.
Masego let out a small noise of understanding.
“I’m going to trace symbols in the air,” he said. “Tell me when one looks familiar.”
The dark-skinned mage traced a finger in the air, hard light hovering behind his touch. A dozen runes were made before Robber stopped him.
“That,” he said. “I’m almost sure.”
Masego traced another one, two squiggly lines with a small dot between them.
“Are you sure it wasn’t this one?”
I peered at both, honestly incapable of seeing a difference between the two even if I kept staring at them.
“Could go either way,” Robber grunted.
Apprentice dismissed all the shapes with a casual wave of the hand.
“Why couldn’t he remember?” I asked.
“Those are High Arcana,” he explained. “No one without the Gift can hold them in their mind longer than they’re looking at them. Catherine, I cannot stress enough how dangerous this is. I’ve studied sorcery since I could walk and I’m not sure I could make an array using those. Someone on Heiress’ side is a mage of the very highest caliber.”
“Wolof is apparently full of stuff like this,” I pointed out. “She could just have inherited the ritual.”
Masego shook his head. “That’s not how High Arcana works. You can’t make a… recipe, using them. How the runes react to every practitioner varies wildly, even if the underlying principles are the same. The mage who made that ritual understands exactly what they’re doing.”
Last time I’d dismissed a warning from Apprentice I’d turned myself into a demon-touched cripple. I was not about to make the same mistake twice.
“So that just shot up to the top of my priority list,” I grunted.
“You recognized some of the runes,” Hakram said suddenly. “Can you guess the purpose of the ritual?”
“Retrieval,” Masego murmured. “That rune means retrieval. I can think of one entity she’s got contained.”
Well, fuck. That had just gone from bad to worse. I’d had my mage lines and Apprentice working on something to keep the demon inside the standard, but it didn’t look like Heiress was going to be using the same trick as last time. Had she anticipated I’d take countermeasures? She had a way of being one step ahead of me. Not this time, though.
“That ritual, can you shut it down?” I asked.
The bespectacled man smiled. “Breaking something is much easier than making it. I’m not without skills with High Arcana myself.”
“Whatever you need,” I said, “and I do mean whatever, you’ll get it. Hakram, I’m using my authority as the Squire to put all our resources at Apprentice’s disposal.”
There was a heartbeat after the words left my mouth where I wondered. Whether this was real or just a specter Masego had dredged up to get his hands on something. I grit my teeth and put the thought aside. Kilian would keep an eye on him, as much as she could. I couldn’t afford to leave a weapon like this in Heiress’ hands and do nothing, not even if my answer might be compromised. I rubbed the bridge of my nose.
“Robber, good work. You might have saved our lives tonight. Now get washed up before you stink up my camp,” I ordered. “The rest of you, dismissed.”
I’d need to grab whatever sleep I could before our march resumed. At least my bed was warm and full of Kilian. Apprentice lingered a moment after the others left. I raised an eyebrow at him.
“A gift,” he said, fishing out something from his tunic.
It was a long pipe of carved bone with an almost comically small mouth carved like a lion’s head. I blinked in surprise.
“I don’t smoke bangue,” I told him. “Or poppy leaves.”
Bangue was more or less unknown in Callow, save for very wealthy merchants. The dreamy trance it induced was said to be highly pleasant, and without the nausea abusing drink would bring. Poppy was better known, but so were its addictive properties. Anyhow, I’d been too strapped for gold back in Laure to ever consider trying something as expensive.
He snorted. “I didn’t expect you to,” he replied. “Save for wine you are remarkably free of vices. I did notice you disliked the brew I made you for the pain, though. As it happens those herbs can also be smoked.”
I closed my fingers around the offered pipe. Couldn’t feel any magic coming from it, but with a mage as skilled as Masego that meant nothing. Was he laying a trap as I had? I searched his face and found nothing but earnestness. Apprentice was not practiced enough a liar or intriguer to pull this kind of play, I decided. Although demon corruption might make his personality moot, if it had sunk deep enough. If it had, though, there’d be signs.
“Thank you,” I said, and got a sunny smile in response.
I was definitely having that looked at by a mage.
Dawn found me sitting by a campfire, alone. I’d already eaten a bowl the stew that was the Fifteenth’s morning meal and set it aside. Taking the pipe Masego had given me I took a piece of tinder from the flames and lit it up, breathing deep and letting the herbs do their work. I coughed out the first few times, but eventually got the hand of it. Kilian was on duty at the moment, but before she’d left I’d had her take a look at the gift. It was, apparently, dragonbone. That precluded enchantment of any kind: the bones and scales of dragons could not be touched by sorcery. It was why putting them down so often ended up the responsibility of heroes. Part of me wanted to chide myself for paranoia, but I could not. I’m paranoid, but am I paranoid enough? The lifespan of villains had not theoretical limit to it, yet they died about as old as their heroic counterparts. I noted eventually that the effect wasn’t as solid as when the herbs were drunk, so I lit up a second time. The medicine was common enough I was in no danger of running out, and as long as I kept myself below a certain dosage ingested per day there was no danger of side effects. Aisha arrived just as I spewed out a stream of white smoke. She eyed me strangely then shook her head. I raised an eyebrow.
“My mother does the same,” she said. “Joint pains.”
I snorted. “Sit down, Aisha,” I ordered.
She folded her legs and plopped down at my side, somehow managing to make the gesture fluid and graceful.
“We haven’t talked much, you and I,” I said.
“There has been no reason to, Lady Squire,” she said cautiously.
“Drop that,” I said. “I’m an orphan of no consequence, Aisha. Titles always sound mocking to me.”
“With all due respect, Lady Squire,” the lovely aristocrat replied, “you were an orphan of no consequence. Now you are, arguably, third in rank under the Empress and the Calamities. I understand you’re trying to foster a certain attitude in your closest collaborators, but I would shame my family if I referred to you so casually.”
“Gods, it’s like dealing with Juniper all over again,” I complained.
The Staff Tribune smiled. “It took me years to get her this trained up. The Red Moons are from the Northern Steppes, but her father is from the Lesser ones. That breed has a certain disregard for etiquette, even for orcs.”
The Lesser Steppes were the part of the steppes north of the Empire that were on the western side of the Wasaliti’s headwaters. Imperial writ had always run thin there, and so had Miezan authority before it. It was said they kept to more of the old ways there than anywhere else on Calernia. None of that had been mentioned in my history lectures at the orphanage, but orcs from there broke regulations so much more often than the others I’d gotten a primer on the subject from Hakram. I inhaled from the pipe, spitting out a mouthful of smoke as the pain in my leg finished ebbing away.
“I don’t know you very well,” I said. “I brought you into the Fifteenth at Juniper’s request, and you’ve served admirably ever since.”
A flicker of something passed through the Taghreb beauty’s eyes.
“But I am the only aristocrat on the general staff, and there is a leak in the Fifteenth,” she said.
Her tone was entirely calm, but for all that I could see she was angry from the way she held herself. A year ago I wouldn’t have noticed, but a side-effect of learning to read people on the battlefield had been picking up on their reactions off of it. It must have been galling to believe your birth was being held against you, especially after a lifetime of it being held in your favour.
“That’s not the issue,” I said. “You’ve already been vetted by Black, which ends the matter as far as I’m concerned.”
She paled at the mention of my teacher. My highborn officers usually did – his long-standing dislike of the nobility was well documented and several mass graves in the Empire served as standing reminders of it.
“I know what most of my people want,” I said, unashamed at the claim I was laying on my officers. “Pickler, Ratface, Nauk. Juniper, even. You though? You’re like Hune in that regard. I never quite got a handle on what you’re after.”
Aisha remained silent for a long moment, warming her hands by the fire.
“You’ve done this before,” she decided. “Not with Juniper, I’d have heard of it, but with Hakram. There’s a reason you trust him most of us. With Hasan too, most likely, not that you’d have to dig deep to find how much he despises the nobility.”
I’d always found her insistence on calling Ratface by his actual name a little strange, though since they’d been involved she likely had her reasons. I remained silent.
“You have a use for me,” she mused. “And so you must know what I want.”
She laughed lightly.
“Have it your way, then. I am fourth in line, Lady Squire, for a lordship sworn to Kahtan. A glorious phrasing for an inglorious reality: my family’s holdings are a tower by an oasis and a village of less than two hundred people. The rest is leagues of dunes and rock. There are freeholds in the Green Stretch with more people living on them.”
She turned her eyes on me, serious for all her smiling.
“My blood goes back to before the Miezan waged the War of Chains on us, Lady Catherine. The Bishara tribe was mighty once, the first to twine its ruling line with djinn. Twice we sacked Aksum and stole the wealth of its kingdom. Now? Now we die slowly in the desert, as all Taghreb do.”
Aisha spat in the fire, the gesture so uncouth I blinked in surprise.
“I could have stayed home, served as steward for my oldest sister when she succeeded Father, but the thought was horrid to me. You are Callowan, Lady Catherine. I do not mean this as denigration: you simply have not been raised to see Creation as my people do. Sooner or later, the sands swallow everything. So I left before they got me too, and sought my fortune at the War College – that ancient dumping ground for noble children.”
Aisha looked into the flames and smiled sadly.
“What I found there, I cannot put easily into words. Friends, yes. Something like a sister and more. But most of all, I found that my people had been left behind.”
She met my eyes.
“Oh, they study our battles and praise our victories – but we are a relic of the past. I look at Praes, and see that all I’ve ever loved is dying the slow death. I believe in tradition, Lady Catherine. I believe that my ways still have a place in this Empire, and I will not let the Taghreb become faceless soldiers in an Imperial horde. If I must temper the wisdom of my ancestors with the steel of the world your master has made, so be it. We will survive. We will adapt. We are not done yet.”
Teacher, not master. The distinction became more important with every passing day. I looked at her, this lovely slip of a girl I would have thought delicate if not for the callouses on her hands, and felt a thousand years of history looking back. Ancient Kahtan had been among the greatest cities in Calernia when Callow was a mere maze of petty kingdoms, I remembered. The Taghreb had been a force to be reckoned with, once upon a time. A people who prized freedom above all, fiercely independent. I called them Praesi but there was a lie in that, a denial of history. When it came down to it her people were just as old as mine, and I could feel the same fear behind her face that sometimes kept me up at night. Are my people done? Was all that made Callow, Callow to be discarded in the quest for survival? Honesty for honesty, that was the trade I’d made with Hakram. I would offer Aisha Bishara no less on this misty morning.
“I will rule Callow,” I said. “Some day. Because I can, because I have to. Not as the old kingdom, but as a part of the Empire – and to do it, I’ll need help. Someone who can guide me when I’m dealing with the Tower and the nobles.”
I offered an arm, the way Lieutenant Abase had taught me.
“Trade you,” I offered, the tone light compared to the promise I was making.
She clasped my arm in the warrior’s way. We both leaned away afterwards, too young for the gravity of the words we’d said. Most of the herbs in my pipe had burned during our conversation, but I pulled at the last of them and breathed out the smoke.
“So tell me,” I said. “Who do I need on my side, to establish a ruling council over Callow?”