“The victor in a war is usually decided before the first battle’s been fought.”
– Prince Louis of Brabant, later eighth First Prince of Procer
Traipsing through Arcadia like some sort of murderous errand boy had been oddly nostalgic, Black mused, especially with Wekesa at his side. It had been the both of them in the beginning, before they’d ever met Sabah or Alaya. Their little jaunt through the realm of the Fae had not carried with it the same sense of momentous wonderment he’d felt back all those years ago, but there was something refreshing about being just a man with a sword instead of the Empress’ implacable right hand. Things had been simpler, when he was young. The lines between friend and foe had been clear, the dangers understandable. He and Malicia had climbed the Tower only to then understand the unspoken truth of it: the higher the edifice, the narrower the summit – and the stiffer the winds. These days they spent as much time making sure they remained on top as they did actually ruling. It was like pulling weeds, he’d once told Hye, if ripping out one laid the seeds for a dozen more.
He’d put aside the thoughts by the time they arrived at the fortified camp Istrid and Sacker had established southwest of Vale. The city itself had been taken without contest before he’d left for Marchford, abandoned by the rebels. They’d only occupied it long enough to make sure no armed insurgents would be hitting their supply lines. The combined forces of the Sixth and Ninth legions theoretically numbered at eight thousand, though in truth they came closer to ten with all the camp followers and support personnel. Leaving a garrison in Vale had not been an acceptable option, not when the Countess Marchford’s host numbered twenty thousand. Half of it peasant levies, admittedly, but quantity could have a quality of its own. Wekesa dismissed that ridiculous chariot pulled by winged horses his husband had gifted him years ago as Amadeus rolled his eyes. He dismounted his own horse and allowed the necromantic construct to be led away by a legionary.
“You’ll be up to your neck in scheming soon, I imagine?” Warlock asked.
“I have a few irons in the fire,” Amadeus agreed.
His old friend grimaced. “I’ll be in my tent, then. Drinking. You always get irritatingly smug when a plan comes together.”
“I do not,” Black replied, but Wekesa dismissed the words with an absent wave of the hand as he walked away.
There was no way to win with this lot. He’d always made a point of not gloating even if the enemy was dead, but Hye had promptly informed him that he made such a point of not gloating that it counted as doing it. They never let anything go, really. He’d worn leather pants once at age sixteen and it had taken them twenty years to stop mentioning it every time they went drinking. It would be another twenty before he lived down Stygia, and since Nehebkau now led Tenth the whole ‘negotiating with a dragon’ affair would likely follow him to his grave. Sighing, Black made his way to the command tent. Eudokia was already waiting inside, the pile of parchments that followed her like an obedient dog stacked on a table as she read through his correspondence. Amadeus cast a curious look around.
“Gone hunting outriders,” Scribe replied without looking at him.
“On a horse, I hope?”
The plain-faced woman shook her head and he almost frowned. The days were Captain had relied on him to cow the Beast were long gone, but if she let it out too much she still had… issues. He’d have fresh meat rations set aside for her. He’d barely poured himself a cup of wine when the generals arrived, Istrid striding in without bothering to be announced and Sacker following close behind. He’d always liked Istrid Knightsbane, in all honesty. She had weaknesses as a commander but she was not above taking advice from her staff to make up for it – and she was viciously, viciously loyal. Sacker was another story. Though the two greenskins were as sisters, after all those years working together, the goblin general had never been part of what could generously be called the ‘loyalists’ in the Legions of Terror. Sacker had been a Matron before becoming an officer and though the official word was that no goblin could sit on the Council of Matrons while serving in the Legions he’d always suspected she was the eyes and ears of the Council in the army. She would look out for goblin interests above everything else.
“Warlord,” Istrid greeted him, clasping his arm.
“Istrid,” he replied, then nodded at Sacker. “General.”
“Lord,” the goblin murmured.
The eye she’d lost at the hands of the Lone Swordsman’s attack had been replaced by a well-crafted glass one and most of her burns had been healed through sorcery. The part of her face that had been touched by magic was not as wrinkled as the one that was untouched, making her look like she’d grafted the skin of a younger goblin on her face. The effect was somewhat gruesome and knowing her she’d been leveraging it ever since.
“Countess Talbot ain’t moving,” Istrid told him, accepting a cup of wine when he poured it.
Sacker shook her head when offered the same, her single living eye watching them carefully.
“She’s not retreating anymore, then,” Amadeus said. “Good. I was beginning to think she’d march all the way to Holden.”
“She’s trying to bait us into joining up with your apprentice and sieging Liesse,” Sacker spoke quietly. “That way they can cut our supply line and fall on our backs.”
“Catherine has Liesse in hand,” he simply said.
“So now the blades come out, eh?” Istrid grinned nastily. “About time. It’ll be like old times, stomping a Callowan host into the ground.”
Black sipped at his cup, still standing. Sacker let out a small noise of amusement.
“There’s not going to be a battle, is there?” she said.
“Not as such, no,” he agreed. “Within three days the Countess’ army will collapse.”
Istrid looked like he’d just stolen a dozen sheep from her pens. “We have them, Warlord. We force a battle here and it’ll be a massacre.”
“That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Scribe said from her corner.
Both generals jumped, though Sacker much less noticeably. Neither of them had noticed Eudokia was in the pavilion – people rarely did, unless she wanted them to. A pair of hasty ‘Lady Scribe’s later, Black cleared his throat.
“Half of that army is peasant levies, Istrid,” he said. “Farmers and craftsmen.”
There was a moment of silence.
“We kill them and there’s no one to till the fields when the time comes,” Sacker immediately grasped.
And there was the reason the goblin was slated to be the next Marshal, even with her mixed loyalties. She had an ability to grasp the larger picture that Istrid simply lacked.
“It’s not a coincidence that they started the rebellion just before sowing season,” Amadeus said. “Countess Talbot is holding all of the fields in the south hostage. If we break her army too badly or burn the farmland to smoke her out, there will be food shortages in Praes. We’ve become too dependent on Callow for grain and fruits since the Conquest.”
He’d tacitly allowed that to happen, with Malicia’s blessing. Food went into the Wasteland and luxuries into Callow: the trade relationship between the two lands bound them together tighter and improved the lot of the commons on both sides. Keeping the standards of living for the lower classes high enough was the keystone of killing rebellious sentiment in its crib, both in the Wasteland and in the former kingdom. Well-fed, gainfully employed individuals tended to think twice about throwing in their lot with rebels. They had too much to lose.
“No fight at all, then?” Istrid asked, disgruntled.
“I didn’t say that,” Black mused. “I’ll need your wolf riders ready for deployment. I am not of a mind to let rats flee the sinking ship.”
Istrid grunted and from the look in her eyes Amadeus knew she’d be among those riders when they left camp. Peace was not something orcs were particularly fond of, and the Knightsbane less than most. Crows are already gathering for what’s to come, Istrid. All you have to do is wait.
Morning came and word trickled out from the enemy camp that the Duke of Liesse was dead. Amadeus had ensured as much last night by slipping Scribe a piece of parchment with the words ‘Gaston Caen, Duke of Liesse’ on it. Since being raised by a school of hired killers had left Assassin with a particularly vicious sense of humour, the Duke had been found drowned in his own chamber pot. Relatively tame, Black decided, compared to some past killings. He blamed a twisted upbringing: the people who’d taught Assassin had used as a graduation exercise the murder of a target by use of as innocuous a tool as possible. Men had been killed with teacups, he’d been told, filing cabinets and even once half a blunted copper coin. Assassin’s own graduation exercise had been the murder of every single other assassin using them against each other. The other Named had a rather thorny take on irony. Buttering his bread, the green-eyed man paused to take a sip of tea as he watched the green fields ahead of him and the rebel host beyond them.
He’d had his table set at the edge of the fortified camp, a handful of Blackguards looming behind him in a concession to safety – not that they were particularly necessary, given the very lethal wards Wekesa had set around him before stealing most of his bacon and flouncing off to bother Sabah. Ahead the Callowan army was milling aimlessly like an anthill that had been kicked, hamstrung by the death of the man they’d been rebelling to put on the throne. Duke Gaston had been little more than a figurehead while Countess Elizabeth ran the campaign as his military commander and betrothed, but figureheads were important when you assembled an army drawn from the commons. The man’s claim had derived from being the highest ranked remaining Callowan noble and from some extent that the ancient Dukes of Liesse had once been kings in their own right, which put the rebels in a spot of trouble.
The only duchy with a ruler left in Callow was the Duchy of Daoine in the north, where Duchess Kegan still watched events unfolding with her armies assembled at her capital. She was not a participant in the rebellion, though, and more than that nobody wanted a Deoraithe on the throne. They might have been a people admired by other Callowans, but they were not liked. Scribe dipped a wheat biscuit in her own teacup, a truly horrible habit. He frowned at her, not that she cared.
“Why only the Duke?” she asked.
Black had been about to reply when he felt a flicker at the edge of his awareness. Ah, the pest had arrived. The Wandering Bard sat on the edge of the table with a grin, though it disappeared rather quickly when he casually palmed a throwing knife and flicked it at her head. The blade would have buried to the hilt between her eyes had the Ashuran not come out of existence as smoothly as she’d appeared. Amadeus raised an eyebrow. As he’d suspected, that was not teleportation. And it did not appear to be controlled. Another flicker and the Bard reappeared in front of the table, frowning.
“You know, that’s-“
Black’s shadow extended behind him, casually adjusting the aim of a mounted crossbow towards the heroine and pulling the trigger. She flickered out of existence before the bolt could tear through her lungs. The next time the pest reappeared she was standing thirty feet ahead of him. A tendril of shadow snuck across the grass as she glared.
“Gotta say, you’re being kind of a d-“
The tendril punctured the ground, setting off the demolition charges buried under the heroine. Black took a bite of his bread and chewed thoughtfully. The Wandering Bard did not reappear. Thrice beaten and she stayed gone, then. He’d thought that would do the trick: Names like Bards lived closer to patterns and were able to use them, but they were also more closely affected by them. None of the times where she’d been gone had been willingly triggered, he assessed. Odds were she did not control where and when she went. More than that, if the ability had not been teleportation the implications were… interesting. How could you be somewhere and then somewhere else, if not teleportation? Simply by being there, he thought, although that brought other questions with it. The appearances were not instantaneous. Where did the Bard go, when she was not in Creation? Possibly a pocket dimension. More likely, nowhere. Power did not come without costs, certainly not power of that magnitude. No wonder she drank.
“What were you asking again?” he asked Scribe after a moment.
“Why you had only the Duke killed,” she reminded him.
An apt question.
“Because the rebels are no more a monolith than we are,” he said. “As we speak, Countess Elizabeth is likely trying to put herself forward as the candidate for the throne – and she does have the most troops under her command. She is, however, widely disliked by the other nobles. Gaston picking her as a bride was a slight to the Marchioness Vale, whose rank is higher even if she is not as wealthy or militarily capable. The Countess also despises, and is despised in turn, by the Baroness Dormer. Something about being rivals over the hand of the Shining Prince in their youth. The Baroness is currently in Liesse, but she is extremely popular with the men she’s sent here.”
“That leaves the Baron Holden,” Scribe noted. “The Countess’ cousin once removed. He’ll support her.”
“He would,” Black agreed, “had I not told you to send that letter to Grem last month. By now he’ll have received a messenger informing him that Nekhaub is torching the odd barn in his holdings and that a cohort of undead is driving his landholders into the city. Not any real damage, you understand, and deaths will be avoided, but to scared civilians it will make no difference. He’ll want to return to protect his lands. It’s an ingrained instinct in Callowan aristocrats.”
“You’re dividing them,” Scribe said. “Setting them against each other.”
“Under the cover of dark, if I am not mistaken, the men from Dormer and Holden will desert,” Black shrugged. “Those from Dormer heading towards Liesse, the others towards home. That cuts down on their professional troops by a third.”
It didn’t, if you counted the mercenaries. Four thousand dwarven veterans, the heaviest of infantries. But since he’d had Eudokia deal with that matter already there was no need to belabour the explanation. As for the Baron Holden, if he followed his men in desertion – and Black was fairly certain he would – Istrid’s wolf riders would be taking him. Only when he was out of sight, though. It would not do to discourage desertion. Amadeus took another sip of tea. It was a beautiful day.
Wekesa was hogging the wine, as he always did. Sabah was tearing into a barely cooked side of lamb, looking vaguely guilty as she did. She avoided that kind of behaviour around her husband, who’d never so much as glimpsed the Beast, but she did not need to be so delicate around other Calamities. They’d all seen her in the fullness of her wrath, tearing off heads effortlessly and bathing her fur in blood. Black poured himself a cup of Aksum red before Warlock could finish it, slapping away the retrieval spell the smug-looking Sovereign of the Red Skies tried to hook around the jug.
“The army looks smaller than it did yesterday,” Wekesa said, trying to distract him as he pilfered some couscous from his plate.
Black refrained from rolling his eyes. Warlock only descended in petty thievery like this when he missed his husband too much, though when they’d been younger he’d also done it purely to spite the others. Until Hye had nailed his hand to a table, anyway. His lover did not brook threats to her morning tea. She’d apparently picked that up from her father, who’d been an admiral among the Teoteul until a defeat at Yan Tei hands had forced his exile. How he’d managed to cross the Tyrian Sea was a story in its own right, as was the way he’d romanced one of the few elves to ever leave the Golden Bloom. Amadeus patiently bid his shadow to form teeth and began sawing through the back leg of Wekesa’s chair, but he deigned to reply.
“The soldiers from two baronies deserted during the night,” he told them.
His prediction had been mostly accurate, though he’d somewhat underestimated the impact of the Duke’s death. At least a thousand men from the levies had melted away under the cover of darkness, smelling a losing fight. Istrid had gone to follow the unfortunate Baron Dormer with all of her wolf riders before dawn came. They had standing orders to retreat if a hero showed up, but otherwise the outcome of that fight was settled.
“They still have most of their knights,” Sabah said, clearing her throat and setting aside the clean bones of her meal.
“They do,” Black conceded. “And though we’ve proven we can deal with them now, they’ll cost us unnecessary casualties if they fight. Unlike the levies, they won’t desert easily. They badly want the return of chivalric orders and only a restoration of the Kingdom can accomplish that.”
“I still have that plague for horses you had me cook before the Conquest laying around somewhere,” Warlock offered.
“That kind of weapon is hard to put back in the box when it’s come out,” Black declined. “Anyhow, the matter is handled.”
“Can’t be too handled, the horses are still there,” Sabah pointed out.
Amadeus reached for his wine and found the cup empty. There was a very suspicious magical siphon at the bottom of it and Wekesa hadn’t refilled his own cup in some time. The Black Knight glared at the other man, who grinned mockingly. He set the teeth to saw faster.
“Contrary to what many treatises preach,” Black said, “I don’t believe that morale shocks off the battlefield are better off delivered all at once. Several consecutive blows bring the expectation of more to come. That perception comes in more useful than one instance of great panic.”
“He’s still hiding more tricks up his sleeve,” Sabah translated for the benefit of absolutely no one.
“I haven’t been around for too long,” Warlock said. “He’s gotten too-“
The back leg broke and the Sovereign of the Red Skies sprawled on the grass in a messy heap. Amadeus stole his cup of wine, pointedly not smug to such an extent it looped back around to smugness.
The third morning showed another chunk of the rebel host missing. The dwarven infantry had disappeared during the night, though not before quietly butchering most of the knights in their sleep. Their contract, though paid with Proceran silver, had technically been held by the Duke of Liesse. The fig leaf had been a necessary fiction for First Prince Cordelia, who could not be seen to be too directly involved in the rebellion if she wanted popular support. Black had simply hired the dwarves in advance for when their contract with Liesse expired and had the man killed. After that their orders were to stay for a single day, wipe out the enemy cavalry in the night and march back to the Wasaliti where barges would take them down to Mercantis. It had been a hideously expensive measure to take and he’d had to designate a route for the mercenaries to follow that wouldn’t allow them to loot most of southern Callow on their way out, but the results spoke for themselves. The rebel army was falling apart at the seams, fights breaking out between supporters of the Marchioness and the Countess.
The levies were staying mostly out of that, leaving the squabbles to the retinues of nobles, but seeing their only remaining real soldiers take blades to each other was the final nail in the coffin of their willingness to wage this war. Which was why Black had quietly sent envoys to the most prominent leaders among them and asked for a parley halfway between the armies. Idly trotting up on his horse, the Black Knight bade it to stop in front of the dozen men and women who eyed him warily without ever touching the reins. Those were an affectation, as he controlled his mount entirely through his Name – now and then enemies tried to seize them to unhorse him and got a blade through the throat for their trouble.
“Good morning,” Black greeted them politely.
Disbelieving glances were exchanged among the envoys, to his mild irritation. Why did people always expect him to be uncivil? Being Evil was no reason to be rude. Even when it was necessary to execute someone, there was no need to be unpleasant about it – and he had no intention of killing any of these people, if they did not force him to.
“Good morning,” a heavyset blond woman in her fifties replied, sounding as if she did not quite believe what she was saying.
One of the men, dark-haired and scarred by what he absent-mindedly decided to be a legionary’s blade, spat to the side.
“Ain’t come to exchange pleasantries,” the man said.
Black cocked his head to the side. The face was almost familiar, but then a lot of these soldierly types were.
“I’ve met you before,” he said. “Summerholm?”
If it had been on the Fields of Streges, the man would not be here to stand. The soldier blinked, then shook his head.
“Laure,” he replied. “Was in command at the Muddy Gate.”
“Your men held for half a bell,” Amadeus remembered idly. “Ranker thought you would be the first to fold, but she always did underestimate the Royal Guard. You were next to last.”
“Good soldiers, all of them,” the man glared. “Most of them dead now.”
“Yes,” Black spoke softly. “They fought well. They fought bravely. And they died.”
He had not raised his voice or used his Name to inflict fear, but a shiver went through them nonetheless. Alaya could weave lies so beautiful you wanted to believe them and Wekesa could turn a man mad with three words but Black, Black had always preferred to use truth. Nothing cut quite so deep as an unpleasant truth.
“You here to threaten us, then?” a young woman spoke belligerently.
“Do I need to?” he asked. “You know who I am. You know what I can do. Worst of all, you already know how this ends. It’s the reason you’re standing here in the first place.”
“We still got numbers on you,” another man grunted.
“I could carpet this plain with the dead,” Amadeus said frankly. “Make this a victory so brutal the Fields of Streges would pale in comparison, and they were bloodier than most. But I don’t want to, you see.”
“Yeah, you’re a real bleeding heart,” the young woman from earlier said.
Black smiled. “What’s your name, young lady?”
She paled, but after so much bravado she was too proud to back down in front of the others.
“Amelia,” she replied, chewing her lip as she did.
It seemed the rumours he could steal someone’s soul just by knowing their name had not quite died out in these parts of Callow.
“I’m a very bad man, Amelia,” he said. “What I am not is a wasteful one. I could slaughter the heart of southern Callow’s people today, but all that would accomplish is the making of corpses. Corpses don’t grow crops. Corpses don’t pay taxes.”
“Neither do rebels,” the old soldier grunted.
“So cease being rebels,” Black shrugged.
“Just like that?” the woman who’d returned his greeting asked. “We just walk away?”
“Go home,” Amadeus offered. “Go to your families. No sanctions will be imposed, no additional taxes levied or property confiscated. And the next time a lord comes to you with coffers full of Proceran silver talking of freedom, remember today. Remember that mercy once is an investment, but twice is a mistake.”
And I do not make mistakes, went the unspoken sentence.
“There is a price, of course,” he said and they stiffened.
Some smiled with triumph, confirmed in their private belief that Evil could never negotiate in good faith. Callow was a land of old grudges, lovingly tended to.
“The nobles,” he said. “The ones who took the silver. Give them to me.”
He leaned back in his saddle, then smiled at them.
“You have until nightfall to think it over.”
His horse wheeled away without a word as hushed whispers erupted among the envoys. Before the two bells had passed fighting erupted in the rebel camp, but it was all a foregone conclusion. Marchioness Victoria Lerness of Vale and Countess Elizabeth Talbot of Marchford were dropped off bound and gagged at the edge of his camp by men who wouldn’t meet his eyes as the army started dispersing into the countryside. Some of the retinues had not fought and still lived. They would be an issue later on, he knew. He’d have to assign a legion to the area to prevent the rise of banditry. The nobles were brought to his personal pavilion, where under guard they were allowed to wash up and compose themselves. Amadeus only entered afterwards, and calmly invited them to sit.
“Marchioness Victoria,” he greeted them. “Countess Elizabeth.”
They were both in their forties, though even he did not look it he was older than both of them. The Countess of Marchford was fair-haired and still roughly handsome, though too sharply boned to have ever been a great beauty. The Marchioness had dark hair braided and showing thin streaks of grey, her blue eyes watery but unblinking. Neither of them showed the fear he knew they felt.
“The Carrion Lord himself,” the Marchioness said. “Should I be honoured?”
“Come now, Victoria,” the Countess mused. “Anything less would have been a slight.”
Though mere hours before they had been at each other’s throats, in the presence of the Enemy they closed ranks without hesitation. Of all the qualities of the people of Callow, he had always admired that one best. Praesi never ceased sharpening their knives even when the enemy was knocking at the gate.
“I would receive your official surrender, if you would care to give it to me,” Black said.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” the Marchioness chuckled.
The Countess smiled. “Your offer, though kind, is declined. As the commander of the armies of the Kingdom of Callow, I must inform you that our official reply is go fuck yourself.”
Give me a hundred officers with that kind of backbone and I’d conquer all of Creation, Black thought.
“I expected as much,” Amadeus said. “Countess Marchford, the offer I made you after the Conquest still stands. A position as general at the head of a Legion as well as amnesty.”
“You don’t really get it, do you?” the Marchioness laughed. “I wouldn’t flip Elizabeth a copper if I saw her on the street starving but I would never, not for a moment, think she’d make a truce with the Enemy. We were born free, Praesi. That’s not something you forget.”
“The Marchioness of Vale is correct,” Elizabeth Talbot said calmly. “We both know how this ends, hound of Malicia. The noose, the chopping block, or whatever else your butchers in the East can think up.”
She leaned forward, meeting his eyes.
“I would do it again, Carrion Lord,” she spoke hoarsely. “Even knowing how it ends, I would do it again.”
There were a few heartbeats of silence, then he sighed.
“What an utter, utter waste,” Black murmured.
But the gears were turning, and didn’t that say everything that needed to be said? He rose to his feet.
“Crucifixion,” he said.
“Returning to Triumphant’s favourite, I see,” the Marchioness replied, though she paled.
“A legionary will be along soon, with a pitcher of wine,” Black said. “It will be poisoned. A painless one – you’d fall asleep and never wake. Whether or not you drink is up to you. Nailing your dead body to the cross will have the same effect as if you were alive.”
Villains must be graceful in victory, he believed. They knew defeat a lot more intimately than the other side. With a respectful nod, he left the two aristocrats to their last moments. The rebel army had died without the kind of battle that would make a pivot in the story unfolding across Callow. Liesse would be the closing of the rebellion, Liesse and Catherine. Looking up to the darkening sky, Black hummed an old song his mother had taught him.
It had been a beautiful day, but he’d always loved the night best.