“Maybe I won’t go to Heaven but you’ve never owned a pit full of man-eating tapirs so who’s the real loser here?”
– Dread Empress Atrocious, best known for comprehensive tax reform and having been eaten by man-eating tapirs. They were later executed by her successor for treason after a lengthy trial.
Liesse was almost too pretty to be a real city.
The walls circling the city were forty feet high, a concession to the invasions that had plagued Callow since its inception, but they were also white or pale tan stone, with ornate crenellation sculpted to look like mated pairs of swans. That was the city’s unofficial name, among Callowans: Liesse, City of Swans. The jewel of the south, never marred by war. That was a myth, of course. When the Dukes of Liesse had still been kings they’d been brought forcefully into the fold by the fledgling Alban dynasty based in Laure and then then slapped down twice when they rebelled for independence. Under the later Fairfax dynasty they’d settled down, but the south had always looked to Liesse for instructions first. That was the whole reason Duke Gaston had been able to serve as a figurehead for the rebellion in the first place. They’d never had to throw back a Praesi army, though, and that showed in how the city had been built. A third of the city stood outside the gates, mostly trades like tanners and dyers that would have stained the pretty inside with their stink and mess. Poorer folk had shacks too, though, those who couldn’t afford the stone houses of the city proper.
It was not enough to spoil the sight. The city was all wide main avenues covered in flowers and trees, garlands hanging everywhere and sparrows flying from one church to another. While Liesse, unlike Laure, did not have a proper cathedral it had no less than seven smaller basilicas. The House of Light had a strong presence in the south, where it had grown in strength unchecked while its northern chapters were struggling to strike a balance with royal authority. Southern Callow was full of monasteries and rural chapels, all of which had fallen on hard times after the Conquest. My teacher had not outlawed worship of the Heavens – he’d been well aware he’d be dealing with constant rebellions of he did. Instead he’d repealed all the exemptions the House of Light had been granted under the Kingdom and made them just as subject as property taxes as everybody else. The brothers and sisters didn’t work for coin or keep it, though, it was a religious obligation for them. So they had to rely on donations from Callowans, who grew to resent having to pay for the upkeep of grand cathedrals and sprawling churches from their own pockets.
Here in the south the monasteries had been the worse off, with their cloistered communities suddenly forced to sell the wine and crops they’d once offered people for free. The priests couldn’t even do that themselves, they’d had to ask lay brothers and sisters to do it for them. Inevitably some unscrupulous bastards had managed to get some of the jobs and the ensuing scandals had further diminished the credibility of people who spent their whole lives interceding for others with the Heavens and offering free healing to all those that needed it. I’d never been a great admirer of the House of Light – they asked too many questions and their horses were a little too high for my tastes – but I did not approve what the Empire was doing to it. Priests saved lives all over my homeland every day and forcing them to focus on worldly matters was of no help to anyone but the Imperial coffers. I understood the political necessity of damaging their credibility with Callowans, since they’d be a hotbed for rebellion otherwise, but pushing them towards uselessness was not the answer.
I’d rather they be legally mandated to provide healing away from their own churches for a set amount of months a year, where they might make a positive impact but not become entrenched in the community. The Heavens weren’t going anywhere, I’d have to make my accommodations with them.
“Pondering an assault?” Pickler probed, coming to stand besides me.
I’d called for my Senior Sapper earlier. We were less than half a day away from Liesse proper, and now that we were in sight of the ramparts I wanted her take on how the siege should proceed. Juniper and I had our own notions, but a fresh set of eyes was never a bad thing.
“We’ll bombard them first,” I replied. “We’ve got more hours to spare than men. I want them as softened up as possible before we go in.”
With Black keeping the Countess Marchford busy we had free reign in the are. I’d expected to have to watch out for raids the moment we got within a fortnight of Liesse but all we’d seen so far was outriders. The lack of resistance bothered me. The Lone Swordsman had holed up everyone he could behind the walls, and that was a lot of mouths to feed. Even with full granaries that meant he had only a couple of months before starvation set it. Maybe he understood I couldn’t afford to let the siege go on this long. Or maybe he’s still got cards up his sleeve. That was the problem with William: he was an idealistic idiot, up until he started carving sinister messages in people’s foreheads. The combination of high-minded rhetoric and brutal terror tactics had proved a surprisingly potent mix.
“We won’t be able to collapse the walls entirely without taking out the houses,” Pickler said. “But we wouldn’t need to – we just collapse the upper half, which’ll much easier, and then we build ramps up to that using the shacks. How costly going up those ramps will be depends on the amount of siege weapons they’ll have.”
They wouldn’t have much, I knew. Callow had never been a great user of those. The Kingdom had only rarely waged offensive wars and the few cities that did use siege weapons had fielded them to counter Praesi ones. Summerholm had plenty ballistas and small trebuchets, rote models imported from the Kingdom Under. Dormer and the Red Flower Vales, as the other Callowan marches, had been similarly garnished. Liesse, though, Liesse had not had to deal with an enemy army in several hundred years. Unless the rebels had bought siege weapons through Mercantis they’d have next to none.
“It’s not the siege weapons that worry me, it’s the army,” I said.
The only professional soldiers inside the city would be the Stygian phalanx and the Baroness Dormer’s retinue, but that wouldn’t matter. Not with a hero leading them, a hero I couldn’t even face directly: my pattern of three with the Lone Swordsman was coming to a close, and that one was supposed to be his victory. Funny thing, though, the word ‘victory’. Covered a whole range of meanings, some of which left me standing with all my limbs intact at the end of them. And when the pattern was done, well… William and I no longer had Fate pulling our asses out of the fire. It was anybody’s game then, and while he might flatly outclass me with a sword there was more to my arsenal than that.
“Heroes can accomplish strange and terrible feats,” Pickler finally said, shaking me out of my thoughts. “They’ll survive nearly anything. What they can’t do is save their armies from being pounded into mulch by artillery.”
There was a fervent light in the goblin’s eyes, her usually placid face split with a hungry smile.
“Before the sappers were made into a corps, we were just knight-fodder,” Pickler said. “But oh, the things we’ve learned since then. A man can only swing a sword as hard as man can. A goblin behind a machine can pulverize a fortress.”
She turned to look at the walls of Liesse and for once I thought she looked as full of malice as Robber.
“They fight with their arms, Lady Squire,” she said. “We fight with our minds. Clever beats strong every time.”
I understood why she needed to believe that, and so did not contradict her. But in my experience, there was a threshold of strength that pure cleverness could not triumph over. I’d learned that in the Pit, taking one hit for every ten I landed and still ending up the one unconscious in the mud. Sometimes you were too small, too weak, too light for your traps to matter much. It was not a pleasant thought and I tried not to linger too long on it. I’d been in a foul mood all day, ever since I’d learned… well, that was another unpleasant thought I was trying not to linger on. The betrayal still felt too fresh, even if it had apparently been an old one.
“At the moment we don’t believe Heiress will betray us in the early stages of the siege,” I told my Senior Sapper. “One of the things I wanted to talk you about was contingencies for-”
There waves. Not just ripples but waves, coming from the south. My eyes turned to the city, still looking peaceful, but it had to be a lie. This was major, an even stronger presence than when Heiress had let the demon out. I could feel my Name howling in anger, fighting back a presence anathema to it.
“Fucking Hells,” Pickler gasped. “What is that?”
I eyed her in dismay. If I’d felt that because I was Named it was one thing, but the goblin was as mundane as it got. If even she could feel what was going on in Liesse, what were dealing with?
“I don’t know,” I said. “But we’ve got people who might.”
I kept the meeting as small as it could possibly be.
Juniper, of course, Hakram as my second and Apprentice as someone who could give answers. Heiress did not grant me the same courtesy: she brought her entire entourage. Fadila Mbafeno, a Soninke mage I’d already met in the Tower and that Masego had told me since was one of the most promising casters of their generation. Barika Unonti, whose finger I’d broken during the same meeting and was now eyeing me with poorly-veiled hatred. She was a mage too, and heiress to a lordship sworn to Wolof. The only Taghreb among her minions I also knew already, though Aisha had been the one to tell me his name: Ghassan Enazah, a lord in his own right sworn to Kahtan. Which put him in an awkward position, since he was openly a member of the Truebloods while his liege lady was an ally of the Empress’. The Taghreb were a fractious people, though, Aisha had told me. The High Lady of Foramen might have been one of the Truebloods but half her vassals were aligned with Malicia, the same holding true for the High Lady of Kahtan’s loyalist allegiances compared to her dependents’. The last two were the important ones, though. Not powerful in their own right but because of who they’d become in a few years: Fasili Mirembe, heir to the High Lordship of Aksum and Hawulti Sahel, heiress to the High Ladyship of Nok. Two major imperial cities, fully-fledged kingdoms before the Miezans came from across the Tyrian sea.
Not a single one of them was ugly. None as good-looking as Heiress herself, but it showed that Praesi aristocrats bred for looks as well as magic and lineage. I was used to feeling plain, though, so I put the envy aside easily. Their looks had come at too high a price anyway. Akua’s little minions stood behind her as she claimed the seat across from me, somehow draping herself across a folding chair like it was a godsdamned throne. If her dress wasn’t exquisite red silk from the Yan Tei lands I’d eat my own fingers: she was wearing a bloody fortune on her body, and said fortune was displaying her prominent cleavage. I’d long made my peace with the fact that I’d never grow into anything like those, but would it have killed her to wear a godsdamned collar for once? The heiress to Wolof smirked at me. One day, maybe even soon, she would die on a fire. Those tits wouldn’t show on a fucking skeleton, would they?
“This is an emergency meeting, so spare me the smarm,” I said.
“I will, of course, give you exactly the respect you are due,” Heiress said.
Her acolytes smirked as a group like they’d practice it.
“See, that’s exactly what I’m talking about,” I smiled. “You mouth off like that again, and I’ll execute one of your little hanger-ons at random.”
That certainly got rid of the smirks, though they condensed on Juniper’s face instead. I checked on Hakram from the corner of my eye: he was immersed in a staring contest with the Ghassan lordling. He’d been the commander of Heiress’ host when she’d still had a host, I remembered. He’d been in charge when her Proceran mercenaries had been whipped bloody by the Stygians, though he’d apparently got off without a single wound to show for that defeat. If he wanted to start a rivalry with my Adjutant he was in for an even rougher ride.
“That would be a grievous abuse of your authority,” Heiress said sharply.
“So complain to the guy I answer to,” I shrugged. “Oh wait, that’s Black. And he’d pat me on the back and call it a good day’s work. Allow me to be perfectly clear, Akua. I am in no mood to be fucked with.”
The last part came out as a bark and to my satisfaction several of her minions flinched at the sound.
“You’ve been summoned here because, though you might be constant pain in my ass, you might have something to contribute.”
“Actually, now that I think of it, this is my godsdamned meeting and you’re the only who could be useful. All of you Wasteland brats, get out of my tent.”
Several of them opened their mouths but I raised a finger.
“At random,” I reminded them.
“Make them draw lots,” Juniper suggested.
“Hear that, we’ve even got a method now,” I smiled savagely.
“Don’t kill Mbefano, she’ll be useful during the siege,” Apprentice spoke up lazily.
“Hear that, Fadila?” I said. “You get an exemption. Feel free to speak up, someone else will get the axe.”
Fadila did not, in fact, take me up on my offer. She did look like she’d been force-fed a barrel of lemons, but given that she’d been the one allegedly in contact with several of the mage spies in the Fifteenth she was lucky I wasn’t having her drawn and quartered on principle. I was only allowing that stay of execution for so long, though. If she didn’t hightail back to Praes the moment we took Liesse, it was the quick stop and the sudden drop for Lady Mbefano. She was on my list, now. After checking in with Heiress, who gave them a curt nod, the lordlings filed out of the tent in a huff and puff of offended noble privilege. Hakram was showing the barest edge of his teeth in what was either a display of amusement or hunger. The line between those two was might thing with orcs.
“Have you finished throwing your tantrum?” Heiress asked flatly.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Have you finished bringing in your fucking posse at important staff meetings? I’m trying to work with you, Akua, but if you want to turn this into a pissing contest don’t get snippy when I put you in your place. You’re just a commander, here. Lesser than even Nauk and Hune, because they have more troops and they’ve never summoned a demon in the middle of a city full of civilians.”
Yeah, I wasn’t going to let that go anytime soon. Maybe when she was dead, and even then I’d probably deface her tombstone with the words “A demon? Really?”.
“I tire of you saddling me with the responsibility with your blunders,” Heiress sighed.
I would have believed her had I, you know, not not summoned a demon. That kind of damaged her credibility. Still, it was a testament to how skilled a liar she was that I almost wanted to to trust her version of things.
“That conversation’s not going anywhere, so let’s put it aside,” I said. “We’ve got a bigger problem now. Masego?”
“That ripple in Creation came straight from Liesse,” Apprentice said, pushing himself up in his seat. “It was angelic in nature.”
Juniper barked out a laugh.
“We whipped the get of Hells already,” she said. “I suppose we were due a fight with the other side of the field.”
“Your are overly simplifying matters,” Heiress said, and to my surprise this was not wrapped in a coating of insinuation.
She was actually contributing, would you look at that. Any time soon we’d be buddies, except that apparently she’d owned Nilin body and soul since the beginning and I’d thought he was my friend and – I stopped when I heard the table splintering, every eye on the room on me. I took my hand off the wood, sweeping away the shards.
“Continue,” I ordered.
“The Hells and the Heavens are equivalent only in terms of absolute might, not numbers,” Heiress said warily. “Devils are endless and ever-spawning, but angels are a set and allegedly unchangeable number. Divided in Choirs, they can never be more or less than they have always been and always will be.”
“So we won’t have to deal with a swarm of comically naked cherubim,” I said.
The House of Light taught these were the among the most powerful of angels, associated with the Choirs of Compassion and Fortitude. A few hundred years back, though a Proceran mosaic artist had displayed those mighty angels as chubby naked sexless flying sprites. Like all Proceran fancies that one had spread across the continent, to the mild amusement of many a priest. No one reacted to my joke, so I grimaced and kept quiet. Likely the only one with enough schooling in the Book of All Things to get it was Masego, and we had different takes on humour. Since I’d put explosives in his hair, I was willing to cut Apprentice a little slack on that front.
“If it were a cherub we were dealing with, we’d be in a great deal more trouble,” Heiress said.
“She’s right,” Masego said. “I don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with, but it’s not that high up in the Choirs.”
“You both speak,” Juniper said slowly, “as if we’d personally have to deal with this angel.”
Masego eyed Heiress, who smiled charmingly at him. He ignored it. I was, I reflected, rather lucky that Apprentice was a great deal more interested in dissections than women. Or men, for that matter. Warlock’s son seemed to regard all of those matters with a certain intellectual disdain, as if he couldn’t possibly fathom why anyone would do anything so unhygienic.
“I thought it was obvious to everyone,” Apprentice said. “Someone is trying to bring an angel into Creation.”
“Seventh Choir,” Heiress added. “The Hashmallim, appointed rulers of the Choir of Contrition.”
Masego seemed surprise. “You’re certain?”
“I have tools you don’t,” she replied flatly.
“Seventh Choir,” Apprentice repeated. “So that’s how long we have.”
Juniper leaned forward. “You can give me an estimate?”
“Seven times seven hours,” Heiress said. “And then an Angel of Contrition will grace Liesse with its presence.”
Oh, I didn’t like the sound of that at all.
“Practically speaking, what does that mean?” I asked.
“It won’t be there for long,” Masego said. “But anyone within forty-nine miles will be made… contrite.”
“What he means,” Heiress said, “is that anyone without a Name in that range will be confronted will all their ‘sins’ until they’re broken to the will of the Heavens. The last time a Hashmallim touched the world, three hundred thousand people picked up a sword and fought until they reached the capital of the Kingdom of the Dead.”
“If that angel comes into Creation,” Apprentice said quietly, “every soul in Liesse, and the Fifteenth with them, will form the tip of the spear for the Tenth Crusade.”