“Three can keep a secret, if two are dead. Unless you’re a necromancer, anyway, then the world is your blasphemous undead oyster.”
– Dread Emperor Sorcerous
About the only thing Ratface missed about the War College was the easy availability of good writing tables. Out on campaign he had to make do with a movable scribe’s desk, which did not contain nearly as much paperwork as he actually needed it to. Juniper’s insistence that everything be done by the book meant that reports like bred like vermin and he’d only barely managed to remain ahead of the curve since Ater by prioritizing what was immediately necessary. The backlog kept growing and even what passed for his staff – three unassigned literate legionaries he’d nabbed before someone could draft them into a higher priority chore – wasn’t enough to cut down the mass properly. Heiress, may she be devoured by a hundred different tigers, had dropped off what must be every single scrap of parchment her people had ever written on all mixed together. The Taghreb could almost admire the elegance of following an order to the letter in a way that defeated the purpose it had been given for, but as it happened he was the one stuck holding the sharper with a lit fuse. Still, he’d gotten some things out of the mess.
For one Heiress had meticulously kept track of how much she fed her former slave soldiers, and had apparently obtained those supplies by paying out of her on treasury. The rations had been nothing spectacular but they’d been nutritious and systematically on time. Slaver she might have been, he thought, but at least she had taken care of her slaves well. There was something to be said for that, though it did not make the act of buying men any less despicable. In the days before the Miezans both the Soninke and the Taghreb had practiced slavery themselves, but after being on the other side of the whip for a few centuries that concept had been forcefully excised out of their cultures. Oh, some of the High Lords treated their subjects little better than slaves – but though they might lay claim to the days of their followers, they never claimed ownership. There was a difference there, one that had been taught to visiting Free Cities slavers through gruesome executions and at least one magical plague.
The records on the Proceran mercenaries were much vaguer, and Ratface was fairly certain this Arzachel character was skimming off the top in both loot and pay. Likely Heiress tacitly allowed as much to keep him in her debt, ready to out his indiscretions to his own men if he ever misbehaved. Said men were unfortunately loyal to their leader, he’d found out when probing their allegiances. They were well aware that they were in a foreign land surrounded by hostile forces and not even gold on the side was enough to loosen tongues – not of men with any authority to speak of, anyway. It was standard practice among Wasteland to try to bribe your enemy’s troops to betray them, so most of the nobility made a point of matching any bribe offers if those were presented to them: he’d put hand to flame Heiress had done the same. She was a traditional woman in many regards, that one.
For now he was making do by reading Robber’s reports whenever they were handed in, but eventually he’d find a Proceran with more greed than sense. Heiress’ real council was her assembly of Praesi lordlings and those were beyond his reach to infiltrate, but orders had to go somewhere. A pair of ears in the right place would allow the Fifteenth an idea of what she intended when she would turn against them. They’d gotten caught off guard at Marchford but that would not happen twice on Ratface’s watch – may he swallow a hundred crows if he lied. Already he knew she’d gone to work putting out her version of the events in Praes: his contacts in Ater had reported as much. Apparently Catherine had meddled in things beyond her understanding and Heiress had been forced to step in for the sake of the Empire, putting the Tower’s interests above her own by saving a rival. No doubt the nobility were hiding smiles beyond their gasps of surprise, knowing the Callowan wretch had been outwitted by superior Praesi wiles once again.
Some days, most days, Ratface was of the opinion that taking a hatchet to every lord and lady of importance in the Empire would go a long way towards making the place run more smoothly. The real danger was if Heiress managed to get her lies entrenched in the people’s minds, which could make a lot of trouble down the line. Thankfully Praesi were so naturally cynical about any rumour putting the nobility in a positive light that many people were inclined to dismiss the story outright. Word of the Battle of Marchford had already trickled out in the legions posted in Callow though, according to a few friends, and there sides had been swiftly picked. If the choice was between rooting for he Carrion’s Lord apprentice and the daughter of Istrid Knightsbane or the daughter of High Lady Tasia it was barely a choice at all. In the Legions, Heiress was openly blamed for the demon being summoned. Whoever had been hired to make Lady Akua the saviour in that story had botched the assignment pretty badly.
Unfortunately, Ratface did not have the resources to start rumours of his own. Not outside the Fifteenth anyway. That kind of work took gold and contacts, both of which he was short on. Whenever Catherine and the Hellhound got around to appointing a Kachera Tribune he’d hand off the entire problem to them, but until then he’d have keep the Fifteenth afloat as best he could. The legion’s entire entire hierarchy was a mess, even more now that they’d gotten reinforced. Normally a full legion would be run by a general and their staff, under which stood two legates commanding a jesha of two thousand legionaries. The Fifteenth wasn’t a full legion though, and Juniper not a general: they’d gone on campaign with only two thousand men, which had made her a legate.
Commanders like Nauk and Hune usually numbered four and were responsible for a kabili of a thousand legionaries each, but even now that the Fifteenth numbered almost three thousand they remained the only officers of their rank. Both kabili were over strength, though detaching Robber’s cohort of two hundred as an independent force had cut down on that to an extent. Aisha’s purpose as an officer was to keep all this organized, a hellish nightmare on the best of days. Ratface’s tendency towards sympathizing was mitigated some by the fact that she kept denying his own requests for additional staff: known leaks in the legion had made the Staff Tribune very tight-fisted with the kind of security clearance needed to work under him. Ratface sighed and fished out one of the parchment rolls from the overdue pile, this one inherited from Nauk. The orc had never been great with numbers and leaned heavily on Nilin to handle his supply requests, which had made the man’s death at Three Hills a minor organisational disaster.
Nauk’s new Senior Tribune had stepped up since but Ratface had still inherited quite a few papers when Nilin’s affairs had been distributed. This one had been handed separately and later than the others, hence his curiosity.
Unrolling the parchment, the Quartermaster scanned the neatly written lines while only paying half-attention. Old supply numbers from Marchford, he saw. Nothing particularly relevant anymore. Setting aside the scroll, Ratface picked up another and then paused. He picked up the previous parchment again, paying closer attention to the numbers. He’d already gotten a report for Nauk’s kabili for that month, he remembered. It did not match the numbers he was currently looking at. Some of them were outright absurd – seventy-three missing scutum? An early draft? No. Nilin was cleverer than that. He’d never been close to the Soninke tribune, not even when they’d both been in Rat Company, but they’d known each other socially. Nilin had been one of the most educated people in their company, one of the few who read in his leisure time. And yet the report in front of him could have only been written by a credulous idiot.
“Oh, Merciless Gods,” the olive-skinned bastard murmured. “Let me be wrong about this.”
“Sir?” one of his staff asked, raising her head from her own pile.
“Abba,” he said, closing his eyes. “Get me one of Kilian’s mages, one who can scry. And then all of you clear the tent.”
He got Kilian herself. Good. Better to keep this in the family as long as he could. The redheaded mage frowned when he told her exactly what he wanted.
“That’s a specialized formula,” she said. “You’re targeting a specific scrying increment without it reaching back. That’s fairly sophisticated stuff, Ratface, and you’re not a mage. How do you even know about this?”
“I paid for it,” he replied drily.
There were plenty of mages in Ater who were too weak to be worth forcefully adding to the forces of either the Empress or the High Lords, and they needed to eat just like everybody else. Some of them fell with bad crowds to keep their heads above the water, and Ratface had been swimming in those ugly waters since the day he’d stepped foot in Ater. Nowadays, he was just as home there as all the other predators.
“Scrying’s restricted at the moment,” Kilian reminded him, her frown disinclined to leave.
“I have a pass,” he said patiently.
“I know, I know,” the Duni said. “This just seems, uh, pretty shady.”
Ratface hummed, but did not disagree. She’d soon be upgrading that assessment from ‘pretty’ to ‘very’. The fae-blooded woman spoke the formula he’d provided, carefully enunciating every syllable in the mage tongue. Using magic made her look more alive, he noticed, put a flush to her cheeks and a shine to her eyes. He could understand why Catherine was so taken with their Senior Mage, though he was not interested himself. As a man with a few issues of his own, he could smell the same on Kilian buried under the smiling and the gentleness. The spell connected, linking the scrying bowl on the table to a cube of quartz set on a bed table. The Quartermaster cleared his throat loudly, bringing awake the shape of a man in a bed. Kilian blinked when she recognized the distorted face of Instructor Raman.
“Instructor,” Ratface greeted the man. “Good evening.”
“It’s the middle of the night, boy,” their former Basic Tactics instructor from the War College snarled. “What the Hells are you doing waking me up? I have classes tomorrow.”
The dark-eyed bastard raised an eyebrow.
“Your tone,” he said. “Watch it.”
The man bit his tongue, though even through a distorted image Ratface could see he was furious.
“I need you to look into records for me, from five years ago,” he said.
“You know I’m not allowed to look at those,” the instructor said.
“I know you have a key to the room,” Ratface replied. “The same one you use to get back into the facilities after nights of whoring and gambling.”
“Don’t say that,” Raman whispered furiously. “Someone might be listening in.”
“You’re going to look into the admittance record of a former student called Nilin of Dula,” the Quartermaster said calmly.
Kilian jumped in surprise, though her control over the spell did not waver.
“I remember him,” the instructor said. “Boy on the imperial ticket, from your company.”
“I want to know who sponsored him,” Ratface said.
The other man remained silent for a few heartbeats.
“That’s Tower business, boy,” he said. “I’m not getting mixed up in it.”
“It appears you’ve come to a misapprehension as to the nature of this relationship,” the Taghreb said. “When I tell you to do something, you do it. Or I sell your debt to the Night Harpies, who’ll collect after breaking your knees and taking a few fingers.”
“At least I’ll still be alive,” Raman spat.
A different track, perhaps.
“When dawn comes,” Ratface said, “I’ll be making a report to Catherine Foundling.”
The instructor laughed. “I’m employed at the War College, boy. We’re under the protection of the Carrion Lord.”
“She can take that away with a single sentence, if she scries him,” he replied flatly. “I think you need to consider very carefully whether, when I make my report, you want your name to come up as an asset or an obstacle.”
Catherine had refrained from throwing around her weight in Wasteland politics, so far, but she’d gotten pushed by the Truebloods one time too many. More than once he’d seen her talking alone with Aisha, which he took to mean she was finally starting some trouble of her own. Lord Black would back her in this particular matter, he was sure of it. The man was openly protective of his student: when the Fifteenth had been in the process of being raised, word had been put out on the streets of Ater that plucking even a single strand of hair from her head would be met with brutal retaliation. When the mailed fist of the Empress gave a warning, people listened. There were plenty of stories going around about the people who’d been stupid enough not to, and none of them ended nicely.
“Have it your way, then,” the instructor said.
“Now and then, that does happen,” Ratface spoke sardonically.
Nilin had been sponsored into the War College by a minor official called Kadun Lombo. Not, Ratface noted, the headmistress of the local Imperial school. That could be significant. Most students on the ticket were picked by the person running their school, though in all fairness meddling bureaucrats were commonplace in Praes. A favour to a promising student not chosen could end up being paid tenfold a few years down the line, should the student rise in authority.
“You think Nilin was a spy,” Kilian said.
“I suspect he was a spy,” Ratface corrected.
The redhead clenched her fingers into a fist. She was not angry at him, he thought, but at the thought that any member of Rat Company could have possibly passed information to the likes of Heiress. Ever since the founding of the their legion, the former cadets of the company had taken to watching each other’s backs around the others. Avoiding that kind of clannishness was one of the main reasons cadets were split among different legions when they graduated, but the Fifteenth was not an average legion in many regards.
“We all got offers,” the Senior Mage finally said. “After the melee.”
They did not talk of it among themselves often, but all officers who’d been brought over from the Rats had been quietly approached before they set out for Callow. Oh, and what pretty offers they’d been. They’d told Ratface he could be reinstated as heir to his father’s lordship, if he turned his cloak. He wouldn’t even have to do much, just send a few messages now and then. He still clenched his teeth just thinking about it. Just a pawn, they’d thought of him. A tool that could be bought so the nobles could keep playing their games with the lives of their inferiors. The Truebloods were a rot in the body of Praes, a sickness in dire need of amputation. And on the day Catherine Foundling wielded the knife that would do away with them, he would be there. Smiling.
“What did they offer you?” he asked.
“Positions for my parents in Wolof,” Kilian said. “Gold too, of course, even some magical tomes. Everybody knows the Duni are a breed of servants, out only to fill our pockets.”
Her tone was a bitter thing. Even in the College there were some who’d looked down on Kilian for her pale skin. Blood of traitors and invaders, that was the whisper that followed all of the Duni. Born of the last of the Miezans in Praes and kept light by intermingling with the crusaders who’d once occupied most of the Empire.
“She wouldn’t have had to turn Nilin,” the Quartermaster said, “if she owned him from the start.”
Kilian looked ill at the thought.
“He was my friend, Ratface,” she said. “We used to trade books, since neither of us could afford much. And you’re telling me he was lying that whole time? Gods, we almost got together during our first year at the College.”
He’d never been good with emotions, so he remained silent. Eventually she sighed.
“Cat took his death hard, you know? She didn’t want to talk about it, but she wouldn’t look Nauk in the eyes for weeks afterwards.”
Ratface had noticed. They all had. There was a reason Catherine Foundling’s men loved her – she repaid that loyalty just as fiercely.
“If I’m right,” he said, “Nauk is going to take it hard.”
The redhead cursed under her breath. “I hadn’t even thought of that. They were like brothers, these two. He relied so much on Nilin to run his kabili.”
And that was the heart of the matter, wasn’t it? Ratface was under no illusion he could find anything the agents of the Scribe could not, but how deep would they really dig when it came to a mere Senior Tribune? One who had so little to do with Catherine directly? But Nilin hadn’t just been a Senior Tribune, he’d been Nauk’s closest friend. Anything the orc learned in the highest councils of the Fitfteenth he would then be told. Access to information above that of his rank. Even Named could make miss details.
“So you’ve got a name,” Kilian said. “What now?”
“Now,” the olive-skinned bastard grimaced, “we talk to Aisha.”
“You think Nilin was the traitor,” the Staff Tribune immediately said, face thoughtful.
Many things could be said about Aisha Bishara – and he’d thought even more, some of them perhaps a little too rose-tinted – but that she was slow on the uptake was one of them. Some days he wondered why they’d lasted so long as a couple, when they’d both known going in that they disagreed on nearly everything of import. The sex had probably held it together past its natural lifespan, he thought. That part of the relationship had always been an unequivocal success. Ratface directed his thoughts elsewhere before his body could stir at the memory of it.
“I’m hoping he was not,” he said. “But it needs to be looked into nonetheless.”
The other Taghreb nodded sharply.
“He was from Dula, right? The small city in Aksum territory.”
Kilian cocked her head to the side. “You know people there?”
“I have a cousin,” Aisha replied vaguely.
The Bishara family’s glory days were long gone, Ratface knew, but the bloodline was still prestigious. One of their ancient chieftains was said to have wed the daughter of a djinn prince, and though the creature blood ran thin nowadays it was still purer than in a lot of more powerful families. Aisha could still put her hand into an open brazier and feel no pain, or spend an entire day under the sun of the Devouring Sands and not have her skin burn. That meant the sons and daughter of the Bishara line made good consorts for nobles looking to improve their blood rather than make a strong alliance, and that in turn meant Aisha had relatives scattered all over the Empire.
For a Soninke that might not have meant much – they murdered even family over minor titles – but for the Taghreb it was different. The tribe, even if it was no longer called that, always came first. No matter who you married, no matter how many years had passed. Unless you were a mere bastard, of course. Then getting rid of you was just good planning. Ratface smiled so that the poisonous fury he felt would not show. They had to leave the tent while she got in touch with her relative and they got in touch with their own contacts, but within a bell they had their answer. Kadun Lombo had been, it appeared, nothing more than a minor official. No known ties to a higher authority.
“Two details, though,” Aisha said. “First, when he sponsored Nilin there were rumours he was a distant relative.”
Kilian’s eyes sharpened. “Nilin was an only child, and so were his parents. He used to joke about it. Said it ran in the family.”
From the well-hidden look of surprise on Aisha’s face, Ratface guessed she hadn’t known that. She’d only been trying to be thorough. But she has that tone of victory, so she found something else. Something relevant.
“Second, Kadun Lombo had a riding accident in the month following his sponsoring.”
The Quartermaster let out a long breath. He’d hoped. Against the mounting evidence, he’d hoped.
“A loose end being tied up,” he said.
“It’s standard practice when placing a long-term spy,” Aisha said quietly. “Getting rid of anyone who could possibly give them away. The Truebloods have people in the Legions, that much is a fact. He might have been an investment from the High Lady of Aksum – he certainly had the talent to rise into someone’s general staff. It could be any of them, for that matter. They all have the resources to pull off something like this.”
Them. The Truebloods. The War College did try to weed infiltrators out, or at least identify them, but some inevitably got through. Not enough to ever cripple the army if there was a rebellion, but definitely enough that the Truebloods would remain appraised of what the Legions were up to.
“Circumstantial evidence,” Ratface finally said. “We need more. All we have right now is an odd report and speculation.”
Aisha eyed him with unpleasantly familiar disappointment.
“You were handed an inaccurate report and you just noticed? Perhaps Juniper is right and we do need to audit your books.”
That the Hellhound was out to get him was not news. She’d disapproved of he and Aisha getting involved back in the day and taken no pains whatsoever to hide it. To the extent that she’d said as much to his face. Several times. In retrospective, she might have raised some valid points. It did not make Ratface any fonder of her.
“I only got it when Nilin died, and it dated back to Summerholm,” he said a touch sharply.
“Why?” Kilian interrupted before Aisha could respond. “Why only then?”
Ratface paused. “I don’t actually know. Hakram was the one to give the scroll to me, after Nilin died. Catherine told him to handle the whole thing since Nauk was too upset to get it done.”
Aisha shrugged, somehow managing to make the mundane gesture elegant. He really wished she wasn’t as good as that, or at being beautiful in general.
“Let’s ask Deadhand for answers.”
Hakram was not sleeping. Ratface was not convinced Adjutant ever slept – he certainly got an amount of work done that implied he was beyond such mortal foibles. The orc was paying shatranj with Apprentice and apparently beating the Warlock’s son handily. Both of the Named made him uncomfortable, though for very different reasons. He’d known Hakram before the orc had stepped into the realm of legend. Before he’d become Deadhand, the first orc with a Name in over a millennium. It was hard to reconcile the sergeant who’d used to badly hide his contraband alcohol with the warrior who was followed by hushed whispers from greenskins wherever he went, a demigod in the flesh to his people. As for Apprentice, well… No one who’d ever seen the mage at work would ever be comfortable around him. At Three Hills he’d turned an entire flank into a frozen wasteland of death and at Marchford he’d lit up the entire night sky with his wrath. So much power contained in the chubby frame of a mild-mannered bespectacled man, always at the tip of his fingers.
“Adjutant,” he greeted them. “Lord Apprentice.”
Hakram’s eyes swept over Aisha and Kilian before settling on him. The orc clicked his tongue over the roof of his mouth, the gesture strangely human.
“You’re hunting our rat,” Hakram said.
“There’ll be more than one,” Aisha replied. “But in essence you are correct. We think we’ve identified a leak.”
“That explains all the scrying that’s been going on,” Apprentice said. “I was going to have to ask questions about that.”
The man was distinctly indifferent when he mentioned it, toying with a new trinket in his braids. The bone amulet Catherine had made. He was only aware of its existence because she’d killed an oxen to craft it and the report had made it to his metaphorical desk.
“I got a pile of documents after Nilin died,” he said. “Among them was a parchment, apart from the rest. Why was it?”
“It was found in his personal effects, not the papers for the kabili,” he said. “Hence why you got it later than the others.”
Kilian let out a sharp breath. “Ratface. You said what tipped you off was that there were odd numbers in the report.”
He nodded slowly.
“Adjutant,” she continued. “The parchment, did you find it in a book?”
The tall orc’s eyes were hard now, and cold. “Yes.”
Nilin’s personal affairs had been inherited by Nauk but they were held in one of the carts in the baggage train, all of which were under Ratface’s authority. Hakram pointed out the right book and from there it was only a matter of time until they figured out the cypher. Numbers for the page, the last letter of the word for the first letter of the word it actually meant. The message outlined the number of deserters in the Fifteenth to have disappeared in the wake of the fight with the heroes as well as the casualties incurred that night. It ended with a suggestion of what might be the Fifteent’s next assignment, namely the suppression of the Silver Spears.
“If it’s still here, it was never handed in,” Aisha said afterwards.
And yet Heiress had known where to find them and when. The implications of that were unpleasant.
Ratface grabbed a few hours of sleep before dawn came. He’d been unofficially mandated to be the one who would tell Catherine, much to his displeasure. She wasn’t the kind of woman who took her displeasure at bad news on the messenger but this was not a duty he looked forward to. Not when he’d had to see that guilty look on her face for weeks after Nilin’s death, when she thought no one was looking. The Squire had gotten up before he did, he found out. Dressed in a simple tunic and leggings she was sparring with five men from her freshly appointed personal guard, the so-called Gallowborne. The Callowans eyed him with distrust as he claimed a seat just to the side of the sparring ring, several of them moving behind him without a word. It was almost endearing how much Catherine was unaware of the fact that she fucking terrified people, he reflected.
The Squire was undefeated in battle, that was part of it, but it was the things she’d done that gave people the shivers. She’d torched Summerholm to flush out a hero barely two months out of Laure, killed a monster the size of a fortress with her bare hands and even being being crippled had failed to slow her down – apparently she’d strolled into the host of devils at Marchford and casually killed their leaders without sustaining a single wound. Hells, she’d taken a handful of Named into battle with a demon and wiped the floor with the thing for half an hour straight in front of hundreds of witnesses. That wasn’t the part that really scared the Truebloods, though. It was the way she seemed to gather talent around her effortlessly. She’d brought the most promising student in the history of the War College into the fold with a single conversation. She’d picked a nobody as her liaison and in a matter of months he’d become the Adjutant. The son of the Sovereign of the Red Skies took orders from her. She’d taken a company of deserters into battle against devils and somehow turned them into loyal hardened killers.
Men of the Gallowborne had been on report twice since Marchford for beating a man bloody for disparaging Catherine. The second time, when it had been implied the only reason the Black Knight had taken her in was to keep his bed warm, the legionary had to have all of his teeth grown back by a healer. Armoured boots were not a forgiving weapon. And now he was watching a woman his own age toy with five veterans like they were children, somehow making them run into each other without ever going quicker than at a walk. She’d mentioned once that she’d never used a sword before leaving Laure and Ratface honestly had trouble believing it. He’s known people who practiced the sword since they could walk who weren’t half that dangerous with one, and that was without even taking her uncanny reflexes into consideration. The Fifteenth had not even existed for a year and already it worshipped at the altar of Catherine Foundling – you only needed to hear the song already written about Three Hills to know that.
Squire stopped before her men were too bruised to walk, clapping them on the shoulder amicably before dismissing them. Ratface idly wondered how many of them were already in love with her. Her relationship with Kilian was not common knowledge – he’d made sure of that – and Named always attracted admirers the way carrion attracted flies. She wiped her face with a wet cloth, though she didn’t look particularly sweaty, and then finally noticed him. Catherine Foundling was not a strikingly beautiful woman, he decided: her face was sharp, almost austere unless she smiled. Her most attractive feature was the long hair that she kept in a loose ponytail. The Deoraithe colouring lent her touch of the exotic, admittedly, but compared to the likes of the Heiress there was no contest. And yet she had a strange charm of her own. Charisma, not beauty.
“Ratface,” she greeted him with a smile.
She eyed him thoughtfully after that.
“And you look like you just killed my horse, which seems a bit over the top since it’s already dead. All right, Supply Tribune, ruin my morning. I’m about due a nasty surprise.”
The Taghreb bastard cleared his throat.
“We’ve found one of the spies. You’re not going to like it.”
She didn’t, but she listened anyway.