“They call Ater the City of Gates and then forget to mention how often those are shut on people’s fingers.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II
Hakram picked up the axe.
Such a simple thing, really. A blade linked to a ring of steel at the top of a long shaft of wood. It was light, and when he tested the edge he found it was wickedly sharp. Military-grade steel, which was restricted. Either a noble had been ignoring the Empress’ interdicts or a weaponsmith in Foramen was making some coin on the side. That wouldn’t last long: either the goblins or the High Lady’s men would catch them if they continued. That grade of weaponry was only allowed to be made in the Imperial Forges, even if not all the stock went to the Legions. Their clever Empress now made gold out of the High Lords equipping their household troops and could gauge their numbers from the orders lodged. Would these ‘Catacomb Children’ be armed just as well? An hour ago the orc would have said no, but since then he’d gotten a glimpse at what went on in the streets of Ater when no one was paying attention. They were, after all, getting their weapons from civilians.
“This will do,” Hakram said, idly spinning the axe like it was a child’s toy.
To him it might as well have been. Heavier than a legionary’s blade, but those were light as a feather to orcs. In the first days before the Conquest some of the Clans had grumbled at using glorified knives instead of their own favoured broadswords and axes, but the story was that the Carrion Lord had made his point by pitting twenty legionaries against twenty chosen warriors. The orcs had been big, hardened killers with at least twenty raids under their belts. They’d lost anyway. A hundred warriors would fight in a hundred instances of single combat. A hundred soldiers fought as a company and won the battle. The warrior societies had not liked the Black Knight’s lesson but they had fallen in line. After a thousand years of defeats and death, they had smelled the scent of victory in the air. We won’t fight as soldiers tonight, though, Hakram knew. Urban combat was not something he had much experience with, but he could take comfort in the fact that his men would be trained legionaries. The Catacomb Children were just civilians with too much blood flowing to their heads.
“I will expect prompt payment, Fa’ir,” the old man said, grinning toothlessly.
“You’ll have the merchandise within a fortnight,” Ratface replied flatly.
Humans could be hard to read, sometimes, but from the way the Taghreb stood he was wary of the smaller old Soninke. The stranger smelled of spices and refuse, lips cracked and all his teeth missing. He was, apparently, the man to talk to if you needed weapons quickly inside Ater. Hakram had expected him to ask for coin but apparently barter was the way things worked in the streets – large amounts of gold drew Imperial attention. The city guard might have been a sordid joke but whenever Malicia sent the Sentinels away from the Tower they drowned wherever they were sent in blood. The two humans had spent half an hour bickering over amount of pounds and purity, so the tall orc suspected the ‘merchandise’ would be laudanum, the pain-killing brew introduced by the Miezans so long ago. Whether the Supply Tribune had been robbed or not during the trade he did not know, but from the grim look on the olive-skinned man’s face he suspected it had been the case.
“Enough blades for a hundred men,” the old man coughed, spittle flying as he hit his own chest. “The usual warehouse by the slaughterhouses.”
The humans spoke a little longer, the Soninke twice offering tea only to be declined. He did not offer a third time, but Hakram got the impression he hadn’t been supposed to. Another of those unspoken hospitality rules, he guessed. It was irksome that people expected greenskins to follow those even though nobody ever bothered to explain them. He’d picked up on a few through talking to Taghreb cadets in the College, since the desert people had been the ones to make them in the first place, but every year he unearthed fresh ones. The two officers of the Fifteenth left the spice shop through the same back door they’d used to enter it, coming out into a filth-laden alley where he could see fat rats gorging on scraps. The orc pressed his hand to his forehead at the sight of them, giving honour to the Tower – everybody knew the Empress could use carrion things as spies if she so wished. His companion smiled in amusement.
“Ratface,” he said. “Those were not iron or bronze. These were goblin steel. How many weapons like this are floating around the city, that you can get a hundred in an hour?”
The Taghreb spit to the side, scattering some of the rats.
“More than you’d think,” he said. “One of the quickest ways to get rich in this city is bringing in weapons, even bad ones.”
“The gates are manned by the Sentinels,” Hakram said. “Those can’t be bought, and they look at all the carts coming in or out.”
Weapons were forbidden inside the walls, for civilians anyway. Legionaries were allowed to bring knives but not swords or shields, the city guard was armed with cudgels and short swords and the noble retinues could come in armed to the teeth – if the Empress granted them permits, which she charged through the nose for. The Sentinels were armed too, of course, but no one who liked having their head on their shoulders talked too much about them.
“There’s smuggler tunnels under the walls,” Ratface admitted.
Hakram’s hairless brow rose in disbelief. “Under the city. Where the giant spiders are.”
“They don’t have webs inside all the tunnels,” Ratface said. “If you’re lucky and fast, you can even get away with all your limbs.”
The human’s fingers twitched towards his hip, though he stopped himself from touching it. Either that or he had a cramp. The way the former captain had paid for his tuition at the War College had always been a subject of speculation among Rat Company. It was common knowledge among some that he’d stolen enough coin from his father to pay for his first year, but after that he’d had to pay the bursar himself. He was not on the Tower’s ticket or part of the greenskin contingents, so where had he gotten the gold? Most thought he stole it, either pawning College equipment on the sly or by rigging gambling games. Robber had started a rumour he ‘sold his body to the night’ that had been too juicy not to spread across their entire year but Hakram thought he might just have found the answer.
“You’ve done a run before,” the orc said.
“Three,” Ratface said. “First two set me up and on the third it became clear I’d only get lucky so many times. Got bit and had to spend most of the payment on a healer.”
The spiders under the capital were poisonous, it was said. Not a surprise if they were truly being spawned by the former Dread Emperor Tenebrous. Everything that came out of the Tower was poisonous in one way or another.
“And now you handle ‘merchandise’,” Hakram said carefully.
The Taghreb scowled. “Do you know what would have happened, if I’d been put out of the College? My body would have been found in an alley the next morning. Too badly defaced to be recognized.”
“I’m not castigating you, Ratface,” the orc said calmly. “I never knew. Or even suspected.”
The olive-skinned bastard sighed. “Selling the stuff is legal and most people don’t ask where it comes from. I mostly deal in debt now, anyway.”
Hakram refrained from pointing out how much of a stereotype that was. Sitting on most of the gold and silver deposits inside the Empire, the Taghreb were old hands at usury. Ruling nobles did not dirty their hands with matters like lending but that just meant lesser relatives handled the matters. The orc gently bumped his fist against the human’s shoulder, careful not to tip him over.
“Scruples do not feed wolves,” he spoke in Kharsum, quoting the old orc proverb. “Let’s join up with the others. Aisha should have found us men.”
Hopefully, Robber hadn’t already baited her into stabbing him.
Aisha had never stepped foot into a brothel before.
She didn’t particularly approve of them, though she understood they were a necessity for the lower classes. Taghreb aristocracy did not seek the company of prostitutes: they kept paramours instead, if they were so inclined. Many nobles kept an unofficial seraglio even if they did not share a bed with the people in it – it was a sign of status and wealth to be able to keep one, especially if the members were strikingly good-looking or of good lineage. It was Dread Empress Maleficent, the Taghreb warlord who’d founded the Empire, who’d spread the practice to the north of the Empire when she’d made hers an imperial institution. Hers had been filled with the relatives of allies and talented individual without the lineage to earn a post in the bureaucracy on their own, but on occasion it was true the seraglio had been turned into little more than a highborn brothel. Dread Emperor Nefarious had been the worst Tyrant in living memory when it came to that, but he’d paid the price for it when Malicia had poisoned and overthrown him. As is only fitting.
The small antechamber where she stood, staring down her nose at the ‘madam’, was surprisingly well-lit and clean. She’d always thought of places like this as sordid dumps where only the desperate worked. Like in most of Calernia prostitution was legal in the Dread Empire, though Praes departed from the norm in having brothels regulated by law. No such establishment could exist without a license from either the Tower of the local ruler and the illegal brothels that popped up now and then were harshly dealt with. Everyone involved in one was executed, even the patrons. This particular place was properly licensed, however, and frequented by legionaries and city guards. While not luxurious – legionary pay was good, but not that good – she was reluctantly impressed by how… not seedy the place was. Aisha was unfortunately too well-bred to tap her foot impatiently so she eyed the madam instead.
“They are taking too long,” she said.
“Most Honoured Lady,” the older woman replied, bowing her head. “Word has been given to all your soldiers. Any delay is of their own will, not mine or that of my hired hands.”
She was correct. How irritating. Aisha wouldn’t even be able to chide the legionaries properly when they emerged from the rooms in the back: they were off-duty and this was not an assignment that would ever be on the books. It might never be on anything at all, if Hasan did not manage to get his hands on actual weapons. She’d done well enough against one of the assassins with her knife, but when they hunted down the Catacomb Children in their lair the wretches would have more than knives themselves. The people of Ater had ignored the dictates of the Tower that they should remain unarmed for generations, somehow getting their hands on everything from crossbows to longswords even though weapon smuggling was punished by flogging unto death. The three men and two women who’d been indulging themselves shuffled out eventually and paled when they saw who had been waiting for them. Good, they felt like they’d been caught out. That meant they were unlikely to question what they were going to be used for.
After a brief set of orders and a grudgingly polite nod to the madam, Aisha took the five legionaries to the warehouse Hasan had told them they could use. It reeked of guts and meat salted so it would not go bad, and she’d had to refrain from having one of the crates that cluttered it open more than once. With that last group they’d managed to assemble a little above eighty of the two hundred legionaries who’d been on leave in Ater. They’d have to do with this, as the rest could not be found unless they were going to spend all night on the matter. Five hundred thousand people lived inside the walls of the Empire’s capital, the city itself one of the largest on the continent. It was still not fully occupied: perhaps a third of the total grounds were left in ruin, left to the mercy of beggars and criminals or the occasional petty mage. Dekaram Quarter was part of that ugly wasteland, and their enemy lay inside of it. None of the legionaries in the warehouse dared to talk louder than a murmur, which made it all the more surprising when Robber popped out behind her.
“Got another five, I see,” he grinned, crouched on top of a crate to her side.
There were few lamps inside and he was hidden by shadows, not that it would have mattered to a goblin.
“This is as much as we’ll manage,” she said, keeping her face blank.
“Probably,” he shrugged. “I hear those were in a brothel, though. That must have been fun for you. Humans and their little quirks, huh?”
Aisha’s cheeks flushed with anger. He was being intolerably smug and she couldn’t even throw the failings of his own people back in his face. Goblins did not have brothels, or relationships the way humans and orcs had them for that matter. Breeding for the Tribes was a regulated affair planned by Matrons. Their kind did not have an equivalent of marriage – the only bloodline that mattered was the mother’s and males were chosen for breeding either for their own physical traits or because of their relation to another female. For goblins sex had little to do with romance, and a woman could birth the children of half a dozen males while considered to be involved with one she’d never shared a bed with. While goblins as a whole were hard to land a blow on Robber, little bastard that he was, did have his weaknesses.
“We do have our foibles, I must admit. Speaking of those, how is Senior Sapper Pickler?” she smiled sweetly, smoothing away the flush form her face.
The goblin did not flinch, but his pupils contracted to a point. She’d drawn blood.
“Ratface and Hakram should be here in a moment,” he said as if he hadn’t heard the question.
He scuttled away after that, to Aisha’s satisfaction. Pickler’s disinterest in getting involved with the two greenskins who fancied her was common knowledge among War College graduates. The Senior Sapper had the right of it, she felt. Robber was disqualified as a paramour by legion regulations anyhow, since as a sapper he fell under Pickler’s nominal authority. Legionaries could not become involved with anyone in their direct chain of command, and even for those who managed that there were fairly restrictive rules. Pregnancies while in a term of service were forbidden unless a special permission was obtained and those were exceedingly rare. Legionaries who got another legionary pregnant or became pregnant themselves were unceremoniously drummed out of the army. Should a legionary be made pregnant by a civilian, that civilian’s property would be confiscated in equivalent value for the pay the legionary would have incurred in their total term of service. Herbs were provided by company healers to avoid all of this, of course, making both men and women temporarily infertile. But those were not foolproof methods and it was a rare legion who did not have its little scandals. Aisha took the time to mingle with the legionaries before she picked out her own weapon from the stacks that had been provided.
Curiosity and restlessness were running high. Humans made up perhaps a third of the force and she concentrated on those, politely stressing that this entire affair was to be kept under wraps even after it was done. As Staff Tribune she was responsible for all personnel assignment, which lent her just enough clout to get away with it. The greenskins she would leave to Robber and Hakram – they were respected enough by their people that the soldiers would fall in line without any trouble. She would have preferred to have more humans involved, but the list of people who could be both reached and trusted to keep their mouths shut was fairly limited. Greenskins were not less intriguing in nature – goblins in particular – but their own alternative loyalties would rarely see them band with enemies of the Fifteenth. Eventually she found a scimitar in the stack and gracefully slid it into her belt. Their forces had been gathered, she thought. Now all that was left was the killing.
As her people said: Creation was begat of blood, and to blood it inevitably returns.
Robber had never been part of a raiding party before.
The Tribes had cut down on those since the Conquest and he’d been from a mining tribe anyway: those were too important to be bothered too much. The Rock Breakers had been feuding on and off with the Dawnstones for seventeen generations but there was no real heat to it. Mostly their Matrons fucked each other over at every opportunity. Most males from the underground tribes lived and died without ever seeing the surface, toiling in the tunnels that ran through the upper reaches of the Grey Eyries. There were better veins deeper, sure, but there was also the risk of running into dwarvish mines down there. The idea of crawling in darkness until he died of fumes or a ceiling collapse had been what drove him to leave his tribe, claiming a one of the seats in the College they’d been due that year. He hadn’t been the only young goblin trying to get an out: three seats were available but there had been four dozen males trying to claim a place. His grandmother had been third daughter to a Matron’s daughter, which had seen him put directly into the ten seriously being considered.
After that he’d had to get his hands bloody.
The first boy he’d drawn into an honour duel and opened his head with a loose stone. The others had been too wary of him after that for a repeat performance to occur. Most of them had better blood than him anyhow: Matron lineages were larger and hardier than other goblins. The second boy he’d pushed down a mine shaft when no one was looking, and that was when the rest started seeing him as a real threat. He’d almost died when the candidate just above him dropped a venomous snake in his bedding but he’d replied by throwing a sack full of badgers into the alcove where he lived. The ensuing chaos had seen the entire family shamed in the eyes of their Matron and their too-clever son immediately disqualified. All the while the older women of the tribe, the matron-attendants, had watched his struggles and grinned. Fearless they said, and patted him on the back. Fearless and vicious as a male should be. And headed for an early death, they did not say. He heard it anyway. Before that it had never occurred to him that he might be a thing, a petty bauble toyed with for the amusement of his betters.
That was why instead of continuing to slaughter the opposition he’d called for them to sit together and talk it out. The others were wary but he’d earned enough respect through his ruthlessness that they were willing to listen. None would surrender their claim, so in the end they settled the matter by playing knuckle bones. Naturally, every single one of them had tried to cheat. Robber had not won the first round, but he’d come in second after slipping in a heavier bone so that a better player would misjudge the throw. The losers withdrew their claims but he’d almost not gone to the College anyway: the matron-attendants had wanted blood, to thin out the weakness in the tribe, and to have been denied this saw them displeased. So Robber sat in front of nine and nine old crones, the lessers and the highers, and for the first time in his life he’d grinned back. Because he was free now. Because the moment he’d realized that there was no difference between a death in the dark tunnels two decades from now or a death at their wrinkled hands just now, they had lost their leash.
It was the Matron who decided it. She walked into the cave, took one look at him and spat. You scheming old witches, can’t you see he’s heard the wind? she’d said. You’re the Tower’s now, boy. Go die in a gutter for the Empress. And so at seven years old they’d sent him to Ater and the War College, to learn the trade of war. Which had somehow led him to this moment, stalking his way up a collapsed wall in Dekaram Quarter. The Catacomb Children had not posted guards, filthy amateurs that they were. They’d claimed a mostly standing barracks as their lair, scrawling a buzzard in rotting old blood next to the entrance. There was light inside and the sound of people talking. Hakram had wanted to know numbers before they assaulted the place, so now Robber and three other goblins were scuttling up the ruined wall to a rooftop. The alley separating it from the barracks was narrow, jumping distance for a goblin.
“If they have a mage, there could be an alarm ward surrounding the place,” Captain Borer said.
Good ol’ Borer the Boring. The Deep Pit boy wouldn’t get a sense of humour even if he was bit by a sarcasm werewolf. Which, if not a thing, definitely should be. Given the kind of stuff Tyrants got up to in the Tower, it was only a matter of time anyway.
“We haven’t got a mage good enough to disarm one anyway,” Lieutenant Rattler murmured.
Robber hissed them into silence, even the lone legionary who hadn’t actually spoken.
“If they were clever enough for a ward they wouldn’t have tried to kill one of us in the first place,” he said.
Probably true. If it wasn’t, he’d have Borer write himself up for poor advice-giving. Having Aisha deal with those little discipline reports – which always ended up on her desk, he made sure of that – was one of his small pleasures in life. Rising into a crouch the yellow-eyed tribune broke into a run and leapt over the alley, landing in a roll on top of the barracks. He paused for a moment, waiting for an alarm to ring or the gang members to cotton on to his presence. Nothing. He gestured for the others to follow as he crossed to the other side of the roof. There was a trapdoor to go inside the barracks proper and a whole corner of the roof reeked of piss. Leaning over the edge the tribune saw there was a window allowing a peek into the barracks near ground level, noise and laughter coming out of it. Definitely more than twenty people in there, which had been Ratface’s lower end estimate for how many Catacomb Children there could be. The other goblins made the leap one after the other, joining him at the edge.
“Who will be jumping down to have a look?” Borer asked.
“Captain,” Robber asked, deeply offended. “Jumping? Like an animal? No. Goblin engineering will provide. Minions, undertake the great ladder formation.”
There was a heartbeat, then the only goblin not an officer leaned closer to Rattler.
“I told you he’s crazy, ma’am,” the sapper whispered. “I heard he keeps a jar full of eyeballs.”
Rattler cocked her head to the side, ignoring him. “Ladder, as in…”
Robber grinned. Borer looked like someone had stepped on his foot but he was too polite to complain about it. Moments later the tribune was hanging upside down with his head peeking out the window, his feet in the hands of Rattler, who herself was being held up by the other two. Stroking his chin thoughtfully, Robber took a look through the ratty wooden shutters and counted at least three dozen Soninke sitting around what had once been a common room, drinking and playing cards. There was a door leading to another room with light and sound also coming out of it. Tapping Rattler’s arm quietly, he signaled for the others to hoist him back up. Hakram needed his report, and Robber needed to stab something pretty badly. It had been, like, weeks.
There was no door, just an ugly red curtain.
It reeked. This whole place did. Not that it would for long: blood was pungent enough a smell it would cover the worst of it. Hakram strode in at a swift but steady pace, the twenty or so orcs they’d assembled following him in as the tip of the spear. It took a good five heartbeats before anyone even noticed he was inside and cries of alarm rang out in Mtethwa. Too late for the pretty young man standing with his back to the orc: the adjutant buried the ax blade in the human’s neck, cutting through the bones and spraying blood everywhere. Casually, he ripped it out.
“Prisoners,” he reminded his warriors. “Anyone who looks important.”
He got howls in answer as the orcs barreled into the room, falling onto the Children still scrambling for weapons. An older man came for him, this one scarred ritually across the face and with a golden ring in his nose. The tall orc huffed out a laugh, catching the man’s wrist with his hand and crushing the bones. The human screamed in pain and dropped the notched blade he’d been grasping. A kick sent him sprawling to the ground and the axe opened his throat with a measuring swing. Like slaughtering cattle. A lot of cattle, however: more Catacomb Children were pouring into the room from a corridor. His orcs had cleared a space, though, and now humans and goblins were reinforcing them. Hakram could see the other greenskins were enjoying themselves, sinking into the battle-joy, and he howled a warning to keep them focused on the there and now. They needed answers, and corpses would not give those. His own head was clear. It always ways, when the blades came out. Oh, he knew anger now. Catherine had granted him that gift, to know burning in his veins and the all-consuming desire to crush his enemies and see them driven before him. But these poor fools were just tools, and there was no glory in putting them down. It was just work, like raising a palisade or marching a drill.
Aisha caught up to him, her scimitar bloodied, and took his left. A moment later Ratface fell onto his right – his ironically chosen bastard sword still unmarred. Hakram bared his fangs and the officers of the Fifteenth strode into the thickest knot of enemies. The Catacomb Children were untrained but not inexperienced: if anything, they were probably better at this kind of close quarters fighting than his own lot. They died anyway. Hakram slapped a big man on the side of the neck, sending him sprawling to the right where Ratface ran him through. Aisha ducked under another man’s swing and cut through his tendons, allowing the orc to step on his neck to end that struggle with a sharp crack. On all fronts the gangers were being pushed back, and with only a handful of casualties on their side so far. The first real challenge of the night came when a middle-aged Soninke even taller than Hakram and morbidly fat stepped up, barbed wire wrapped around his gauntleted hands. Fat means he’s important, the orc thought. So did the golden teeth in the man’s mouth replacing the ones he’d lost.
“Mine,” he told his comrades and strode forward, idly dropping his axe.
The Catacomb Children moved back like a tide, the fighting ebbing away as all eyes turned on the two of them. Single combat, then. How traditional of them.
“I am the Great Buzzard,” the Soninke thundered. “Fight me and die.”
“You’re meat,” Hakram replied. “And this ends with you kneeling.”
Shouts from both sides drowned out the room as space was cleared in a rough circle for them. The Buzzard’s eyes turned black and spat out a mouthful of dark smoke before dashing forward at a speed that put lie to his size. The orc calmly stepped to the side, letting him pass and pivoting to continue facing his opponent. The Soninke snarled and took a swing – Hakram, harking back to his old lessons, slapped away the wrist with his open palm. It wasn’t enough. The barbed wires drew blood on his cheek, barely missing his eye. Whatever magery the man was using, it was making him faster and stronger than was natural.
“You’re headed for the catacombs, fanger,” the Buzzard sneered. “Creation belongs to the true blood.”
He charged again and Hakram was done with probing. Squaring his stance he lowered his shoulder to the height of the man’s chest as he avoided a barbed jab, taking the impact with a grunt. His feet were driven back a few inches but he remained standing. Letting out a howl, the orc flexed his muscles and flipped the fat man on his back.
“Through tall grass, come winter sun,” he recited in Kharsum.
The Buzzard screamed, veins popping out and darkening, and vaulted to his feet. His swings were wild now, though almost blindingly fast. Hakram gave ground carefully, then took a single step forward. His closed fist smashed the Soninke’s jaw, sending golden teeth flying.
“Stand in our bones, coated in frost,” he said.
Another scream, this one more animal than man. The Buzzard’s eyes looked more like obsidian than flesh now. The beat of the old hymn was a pace, an exercise children of the Howling Wolves were taught. The warrior-poets of olden days had gone into battle weaving verses as skillfully as they wove death, though the practice was long lost. Now all that remained was a handful of hymns, the remnant of remnant. The obese Soninke spat a mouthful of steaming black goo but Hakram kept circling around him, ducking under the blow that followed and burrowing his fist in the man’s belly.
“Where we were kings, by war undone,” he sang.
Behind him orcs stamped their feet with the meter, like a thunderclap following the ancient words. The Buzzard’s fist took him in the shoulder, shredding through his tunic and the flesh beneath, but Hakram ignored the flaring pain and lunged forward, fangs sinking into the man’s shoulder and ripping out a chunk of flesh. The Soninke let out a demented laughing scream, tearing him off and throwing him away. The orc landed in a half crouch, spitting out the flesh. If killing had been his objective he could have ended the fight there by going for the jugular.
“To behold the world that we have lost,” he said.
Eighty feet struck the ground in his wake, even goblins and humans joining in now. The Catacomb Children looked uneasy, perhaps thinking the hymn was a curse of some kind spoken in a foreign tongue. Not so foreign, Hakram thought. The Clans knew these lands, once, when Warlords led us south in great warbands and Creation flinched at the sight of us. It was time to finish this. He’d taken the measure of his opponent, and knew his movements. After that, everything else was just acting out his mind’s intent. For the first time, the orc went on the offensive. The barbed fist came for his shoulder again but he wove around and caught the elbow. Steadying his stance, he broke it with a sharp twist.
“Warmth fades, glory cannot linger,” he said.
This time, there was only silence. His leg swept the Buzzard’s and the man toppled to his knees. The Soninke opened his mouth but Hakram was done indulging the madman: he took the man’s hair in his fist and rammed his own knee into the face repeatedly. It took three times until the Soninke fell into unconsciousness, and his face wasted no time in swelling as he dropped fully to the ground.
“All that we have left is the hunger,” the orc finished in Kharsum, feeling his blood cool.
He changed back to Mtethwa, gaze sweeping the still-frozen criminals.
“Kneel, Catacomb Children, or be served the sword.”
They knelt. A moment later Robber popped out of the corridor, idly pocketing what looked like a handful of eyeballs. Behind him a few goblins were carrying the unconscious body of a half-naked man whose torso was covered in runic tattoos.
“Good show, everyone,” the yellow-eyed tribune said. “That said, we may have a problem.”
He pointed towards where the red curtain had once hung, now trampled, and Hakram’s eyes followed. Out in the streets a full contingent of the city guard was surrounding the building.
“Weapons on the ground,” a woman’s voice called out. “Come out one by one. All of you are under arrest for murder, conspiracy and illegal weapon possession.”
There was a pause.
“If you resist, you will be put down.”
Aisha had just watched a man she thought she knew unleash the single most brutal putdown she’d ever seen and she shivered at the sight of it. Hakram was nice, mild-mannered and a bit of a gossip. And he’d methodically taken apart a giant of man with ritual enhancements while reciting some sort of orcish poetry. Like he was plucking out a bad weed. The Taghreb aristocrat was used to seeing strength and fury from greenskins but this? This had been calculated savagery. The other orcs were looking at him with worship in their eyes. Gods Below. She would never be able to look at him the same again. They had other problems on their hands now, though. The city guard was out in force, and Aisha forced her tired mind to unfold the matter. They shouldn’t be here, that much was a fact. The guards did not patrol or police the ruined part of Ater. This whole sector was considered a pressure valve for the poor and the destitute, allowed to exist without supervision until it caused noticeable trouble – at which point the Sentinels cleared it out with blades and sorcery.
And yet they were here.
They had been sent, then. By someone with enough influence or wealth to control at least a commander in the guard, which did not really narrow down the suspects. Any noble with a semblance of power could put together enough bribe or blackmail for that. No, the important part was what these guards were being used for. Aisha put the events in sequence, as her mother had taught her. First a shoddy assassination attempt was made on Hakram. Then select officers of the Fifteenth, understanding the necessity of taking care of the issue without Lady Squire being involved, assembled a force that could be trusted to keep quiet. They forced the submission of the Catacomb Children, but before interrogations could be made the city guard found them in possession of illegal weapons still covered in blood. A set up. A trap carefully designed to ensnare the very people in the Fifteenth who would understand how dangerous a scandal in its infancy could be.
And now whoever was behind this had the scandal Aisha had been struggling to avoid. Lady Squire’s own adjutant, two members of the general staff and a tribune caught breaking one of the Tower’s most harshly enforced interdicts. She’d been so busy trying to avoid the Squire making an ill-advised move she’d made one herself. If this was the Heiress’ work, then the Taghreb could almost admire how elegantly crafted the plot had been. What were their options now? If they surrendered, they’d be in a gaol and the whole city would know before a bell had passed. Lady Squire might have enough authority to get them out of this alive, but she’d be humiliated in front of the entire court and likely censured by the Empress herself. Not even Malicia’s own supporters would ever take her seriously after that. If they fought now, Aisha believed they might be able to win. But there would be noticeable losses and she would put hand to flame that on their way out of Dekaram Quarter they’d be running into a larger force of guards waiting for them. And then we’ll have killed city guards in addition to everything else.
Not even the Black Knight’s apprentice would be able to save them from the noose then.
“We can’t fight them,” Hakram said.
Their legionaries were milling uneasily. The Catacomb Children were still docile for now, but some of them were still holding their weapons and they were feeling the change in the wind.
“Sure we can,” Robber said cheerfully. “No witnesses, no crime.”
“There’ll be more guards waiting for us afterwards,” Hasan said tiredly. “That was the whole plan, I think.”
The lovely aristocrat felt a wave of fondness for the man who’d once been her lover. Hasan had his flaws, but lack of cleverness had never been one of them.
“Ratface,” Hakram said. “Do you know another way out of Dekaram Quarter? One that doesn’t take us through them.”
“They’ll take us through the strongholds of other gangs,” the other Taghreb said. “They’ll fight us and block our way, either because they got a bribe or because they don’t want anyone going through their territory.”
And the guards would follow. All that would lead to was fighting a battle on two fronts and they would not be winning that. Not without shields and proper legionary gear.
“Are you blanket-wetters really talking surrender?” Robber sneered.
Hakram turned dark eyes on his friend, face serene. “Negotiation,” he corrected. “Aisha, if you’ll come with me?”
She would really rather not, but who else here had any experience with this sort of thing? Hasan probably knew his way around a bribe, but this was no backalley dealing. The commander of those guards was used to rubbing elbows with the nobles they were under the thumb of. Aisha handed her scimitar to the closest legionary and got her hair in order, adjusting her clothes. She followed Hakram out of the abandoned barracks with her palms up in the air to show she was unarmed. She wasn’t, of course. There was still a knife up her sleeve and she fully intended to slit the throat of the person she’d be negotiating with if they were going to seek a violent end to said negotiations. Bisharas did not go quietly into oblivion. They were immediately surrounded by guards when they came out, some of them bearing manacles. Calmly, without saying a word, Aisha stared down the man who wanted her to present her hands. The Soninke gulped, then took a look at Hakram. The orc was smiling just enough to show his fangs. The guard backed away in a hurry, though the men surrounding them all had their cudgels out as they were escorted to the person in charge. Aisha rose an eyebrow when they finally stopped walking. The woman in front of them, bearing a guard commander’s insignia on her mail, was pale-skinned. A Duni, that high in the Ater city guard? Surprising, though less unusual since Malicia had opened the Imperial bureaucracy to all sorts.
“Adjutant Hakram of the Fifteenth Legion,” her orc companion introduced himself.
“Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara, of the same,” she said.
The Duni frowned at them, as if offended by their manners.
“Commander Barsina, Ater city guard. Are you two the leaders of this band of criminals?”
“We are senior officers in a Legion of Terror raised by the Carrion Lord’s apprentice,” Aisha replied sharply.
The woman smiled unpleasantly. “You got a parchment with the Tower’s seal exempting you from the weapon laws, then?”
“It was a case of self-defense,” Hakram said. “However… extended the circumstances.”
Aisha watched the ugly gleam of satisfaction in the woman’s eyes and knew then negotiation was a waste of time. Bettering the bribe was not an option if she was also doing it because she wanted to stick it to the Legions.
“I’m sure your story will check out,” Commander Barsina said. “Until then, you’ll be guests in some of my nicest cells.”
She frowned then, looking at their hands.
“Captain Jarad, why aren’t their hands bound?” she barked.
Aisha let out a breath and considered flicking out her knife to settle the matter differently. By the way Hakram’s footing was shifting, he was debating the same. What gave her pause was the way the guards on the outer perimeter were starting to kneel. A lone silhouette passed through the crowd, armed men and women parting for her with hushed whispers. The Taghreb had expected Lady Squire or perhaps an envoy of the Empress, but what she saw was a small woman. Her face was unremarkable, her robes of passable make and she stood unarmed. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about her was her ink-stained hands. Aisha stiffened. She’d never met the woman before, but she knew who she was looking at: the Carrion’s Lord own shadow, one of the most successful spymistresses in living memory. The Scribe.Commander Barsina paled even further and bowed.
“Lady Scribe,” she said. “A pleasant surprise.”
The Named smiled. There was no warmth in it, or anything else. It was just flesh being moved by muscles.
“Is it, Commander?”
Barsina stood straighter, no doubt remembering she was not without friends or authority. Oh, Commander, Aisha thought. You’re misreading the people who own you if you think they’ll shield you from the Webweaver’s attentions.
“My lady, I don’t know what you think you know but-”
“Everything,” the Scribe said. “I know everything there is to know about you, Barsina. I know the name you had before you disfigured your sister in Satus for marrying the man you wanted. I know whose horse you stole to make your way to Ater. I know the amount and provenance of every bribe you’ve taken since you began patrolling these streets. I know what rivals you had beaten and by who to get to the post you hold. This was allowed, because you served as a counterweight for the two commanders owned by the Truebloods. It seems, however, that you have finally folded to the pressure.”
“How dare you,” Barsina said.
“You are of no more use to us,” Scribe simply said.
She had not raised her voice, or changed her intonation in any way. She stated it as a fact and the night had never before felt so cold to Aisha Bishara as it did in that moment.
“Captain Jarad,” the Webweaver said, ignoring the Duni’s spluttering as her eyes sought out the Soninke who’d been about to be chewed out by her earlier. “Congratulations, you are now a commander of the Ater city guard.”
The young man saluted, hands shaking.
“What is to happen to Com- former Commander Barsina?” he asked.
Scribe met his eyes.
“I know of no such individual.”
A heartbeat later, an enterprising guard behind the former commander slipped a knife in the Duni’s back. Aisha did not shy away from watching the woman bleed out on the ground. Ater, o Ater, she thought, remembering the old verse by Sheherazad, you capricious old whore. You give and you take and you grow on our bones. This was not the first betrayal witnessed by the City of Gates. Likely it wasn’t even the first that night. Commander Jarad, now composed, bowed to the Scribe.
“The Catacomb Children, my lady? Should I clear out the rabble?”
“Leave them,” the Webweaver said. “You are dismissed. And when the offers come, Commander – remember tonight.”
The man bowed even lower. Orders were barked and the guards began withdrawing. The olive-skinned aristocrat found this little comfort as the Scribe’s eyes turned to them.
“Such troublesome children you are,” she said. “You take after your mistress.”
Hakram cleared his throat, to her horror. “Lady Scribe,” he began, “we-”
“Tried to step between Catherine Foundling and Akua Sahelian,” she interrupted. “An area that already promises to be littered with corpses. Take care you do not enter it so carelessly again.”
The orc had enough sense not to reply at that.
“Most Esteemed Lady,” Aisha said, bowing. “Should we begin our interrogation of the Catacomb Children?”
“We both know they will give you nothing of worth,” the Webweaver said, but she was smiling. “Leave them here. The only redeeming aspect of tonight is that I’ll get to see Assassin’s face when I tell him he botched the job.”
There was something in the woman’s eyes that would haunt the Taghreb’s dreams for months to come.
“He’s going to be in a mood,” she said with delight.
The Scribe graced them with one last look before she turned a clear pair of heels, leaving as unhurriedly as she’d arrived. Hakram and Aisha stood there for a long time, as their legionaries slowly began filtering out of the old barracks.
“Drinks?” Hakram asked.
Aisha eyed her still-shaking hands. “Ancestors forgive me, but yes.”
Just another day in the Fifteenth Legion. Gods take pity on them all.