“You can never have too many tiger pits, Chancellor. That’s the same lack of vision that has people say “that’s too large a field of energy to absorb” or “calling yourself a living god is blasphemy”.”
– Dread Emperor Malignant III, before his death and second reign as Dread Emperor Revenant
Marchford had come under attack during my absence.
That much became clear as soon as we got in sight of the city. There was no dramatic plume of smoke announcing it but the way the Fifteenth had been deployed was sign enough. The outskirts of the city were untouched but I could see from a mile away that the central plaza had been heavily fortified and was manned with soldiers and siege engines – all of them pointing towards the inside instead of the outside. Juniper had managed to keep life going outside of the restricted zone she’d carved out in the middle of Marchford, to my approval, but that she’d even needed to do this much was telling. I’d learned much about Legion formations, over the last year, and what I was looking at was standard practice for a long-term static defence. Whatever fight had been picked it was not over, even if there was nothing to see right now. Just when things had been starting to pick up for the city, I glared. Typical.
Zombie the Second kept a slow pace, as I was the only mounted member of my party. The Gallowborne were infantry through and through and Hakram, who I would have preferred to be mounted, could not be. Orcs panicked horses just being being close, unless they were trained war destriers. Those were in a short enough supply that any the Legions of Terror could get their hands on were sent straight to Thalassina. The Thirteenth Legion was garrisoned there and, having been raised out of Callowan rebels and criminals, actually had a cavalry contingent. The knights of the Kingdom could have eaten that bunch for breakfast and still been hungry, but compared to the orc wolfriders that represented the Empire’s only other mounted option they were still a vast improvement.
“That’s two rings of defence,” Hakram said. “Whatever tickled the Hellhound was nothing to sneer at: she usually prefers stacking the first line to defence in depth.”
Which meant Juniper had to face the serious possibility that her first line of fortifications would be swept away by the opponent. There weren’t a lot of forces on Calernia that could threaten a hardened wall of legionaries backed by mages and siege engines. Most of them were supernatural in nature.
“You lost a month’s pay, then,” I said, squinting at the city ahead. “That’s too blatant to be Heiress’ work.”
“Whoever physically assaulted the city could be a catspaw for her,” Hakram said smugly. “It’s impossible to prove she wasn’t involved.”
I cursed under my breath. That was the same as people blaming Assassin whenever any prominent figure died – it could be true, in theory, but how the Hells would anyone know?
“You’re never going to win, either,” I pointed out.
“Until I do,” Hakram grinned toothily. “Just a matter of time.”
I’d put money on heroes, myself. They always turned up at the most inconvenient of times, and just when Marchford was beginning to have some breathing room would have definitely qualified. No head was on a pike by the road, though, so I could safely assume no hero had gone into my city and committed suicide by Hellhound.
“Did anyone have fairies?” I said.
“Ratface,” Adjutant said after a moment.
“I hate it when he places bets,” I muttered. “He always knows more than he’s letting on.”
We’d had to form the pool on the down low, since Juniper frowned on the practice. Something about it diminishing the dignity of officers. The general couldn’t technically punish me for anything, but she insisted on hour-long meetings about patrol routes and drills whenever she caught me involved. The Hellhound’s sadism knew no bounds. I cast a look at the column of Gallowborne following behind, then sighed.
“Let’s pick up the pace,” I said. “The sooner I hear the reports, the sooner we can take baths.”
Hakram frowned at me.
“I washed in the river not three days ago,” he said.
“So now you smell like river and wet dog,” I said, spurring on Zombie before he could reply. “Soap, Adjutant, soap.”
It was rare enough I got to have the last word these days I savoured the feeling all the way to Marchford.
A patrol met us outside the sight of the city walls, or at least the promise of walls. After I’d had the parts of the city wrecked during Battle of Marchford made liveable again, getting some actual defences for my home built had been a priority. I’d charged Pickler with designing and building the fortifications months ago and she’d had a shiver at the words I was fairly sure was a sign of arousal for goblins – her eyes had gone a little wide and fluttered, too. The first plan the Senior Sapper had drafted would have turned the city into the same kind of army-breaker Summerholm was meant to be, but I’d sent her back to the drawing table after a quick look. Marchford was not a border fortress and while it was to be the seat of the Fifteenth it would live or die on trade. Which her seven overlapping rings of walls and bastions would complicate a great deal: no real thought had been given to civilian streets and arteries, or even housing districts. The second draft had been much more reasonable.
The towered curtain wall around Marchford she’d sketched was nothing too fancy, but where the Talbot Manor had stood before I’d had it torched would become a proper fortress. Permanent barracks were added to accommodate the Fifteenth, with access to training fields for drills and mock battles. That draft I accepted, and mandated she start working on when feasible. That was the first rub, unfortunately: being feasible. Her sappers had been needed to repair the bridge in and out of Marchford, and when that was over simply would not have the numbers to undertake as large a project as building the fortifications for an entire city. Not if I wanted to be done before a decade has passed, anyway. That wasn’t acceptable: the entire reason I needed those walls now was so that when Heiress tossed her next abomination at me my soldiers would have something to stand on.
The obvious solution was drafting hand from the rest of the Fifteenth, but Juniper had flatly refused. It was one thing to keep sappers busy in peace time, another entirely to draw from the rank and file for a civilian project. Especially when she was integrating a massive influx of Callowans and other fresh recruits into the Fifteenth, trying to turn them into a cohesive fighting force. Fortunately, Marchford was a mining city. There was available skilled labour, which at the moment milled around aimlessly or enrolled into my legion to make ends meet. That was the second rub, so to speak. Those miners would need to be paid. I was, sadly, close to broke. There was not enough trade coming in to fill my coffers, and raising tariffs on what was currently coming would just kill it off entirely. Taxing a city who’d effectively been sacked less than a year ago and of which a third of the population had lost their income when the mines closed – courtesy of Heiress fucking me over with a demon whose corruption was still far from gone – was a good way to have revolt on my hands. I still drew my pay and so far had done little to spend it, but it was a drop in the bucket compared to what was needed.
The only saving grace here was that my legionaries also drew pay from the Tower and had nowhere to spend it but Marchford. That had slowed the bleeding some, though there was only so much that buying ale, whores and grub could do for a city. In the end I’d had Pickler outline the foundations for what would be be the city walls and freed her to take care of the bridge. We needed the trade more than the defences, right now. Staring at those ropes and pickets put me in a foul mood, a reminder that soon I’d need to either borrow coin or effectively go bankrupt. I’d ordered Aisha to look into my options before I left for Southpool, so maybe she’d have good news for me. That’d be a first.
I dismissed the patrolling legionaries without bothering to ask questions about what had happened to the city, heading straight for the guildhall Juniper had appropriate during the Battle of Marchford and never returned. On the way there, after having sent off most of the Gallowborne back to the barracks for well-deserved rest, I was presented with the sight of a tired but still ridiculously pretty redhead escorted by a gaggle of mages.
“Lady Squire,” Kilian smiled.
I spurred on Zombie instead of replying, scooping up my Senior Mage by the waist and setting her in front of me before she was even done squeaking in surprise.
“Cat,” she protested. “We’re in-“
One arm still wrapped around her waist, I leaned forward to interrupt her with a kiss. She smiled against my lips before sliding a hand around the nape of my neck and replying in kind. Teasingly, I bit her lip before withdrawing when we were both out of breath.
“Kilian,” I finally said. “I missed you.”
She rested her head against my breastplate, for once the fact that she was slightly taller than me not apparent.
“Missed you too,” she muttered. “Even if you’re making a spectacle of us, you utter brute.”
Hakram cleared his throat loudly, because he was the most inconsiderate creature ever spawned in Creation. I ignored him, pressing my lips against the crown of Kilian’s head and already craving something stronger. I hadn’t seen my lover in two months and to say I’d missed her would have been something of an understatement. Hakram cleared his throat again, louder.
“We’re having a moment, you sack of sentient manure,” I said.
“Good afternoon to you, Senior Mage,” Adjutant said, cheerfully ignoring my insult.
“Lord Adjutant,” Kilian replied, with as much dignity as she could manage while wrapped in my arms.
“I see you’ve been abducted by some sort of barbarian warlord,” the tall orc mused. “Whenever you manage to free yourself from captivity, I imagine we’ll be needing you for the staff meeting with General Juniper.”
The redhead wiggled in my arms and reluctantly I allowed her to slid off the horse. Zombie the Second took all of this rather placidly, staring at a food stall on the other side of the street with greedy eyes. Kilian coughed, got her pixie-cut hair in order again and composed herself.
“I was actually sent by Juniper,” the Senior Mage said. “The general staff was assembled for a meal, so she’s extending an invitation. The most pressing reports could be handled at the same time.”
I grimaced. Well, no sense in delaying it. I could go for a bite anyway, there were only so many times you could eat standard Legion rations before wanting to jump off a bridge. Oh, and I’d get a real bed tonight. Gods that would be nice. I snuck a look at Kilian, drinking her in even if legion gear was the opposite of enticing. With a little luck I might even have company in that bed, and I was looking forward to that a great deal more than sleep. After I’d learned that our scrying sessions were very likely being listened in on I’d curtailed, uh, certain activities we’d sometimes indulged in when time allowed.
“You’re staring, Cat,” Hakram said.
“Am not,” I lied.
I slid off my saddle and handed Zombie to one of the Gallowborne. Kilian smiled and began moving, Adjutant and I following.
“Killjoy,” I hissed at him under my breath before we caught up.
He grinned back unrepentantly. One of these days, I promised myself, I was going to get a minion that didn’t give me lip.
“No wonder you’re so small,” Nauk said. “Look at the size of those portions.”
I pointed my fork at him over my bowl of oxtail stew and sambusa.
“I will end you, you ugly green gargoyle,” I promised. “Don’t think I won’t just because you’re a legate now.”
Hune rumbled in approval.
“His commander would handle the paperwork more quickly, if she had his rank,” the ogre said.
There were no seats capable of accommodating someone the other legate’s size, so in the end someone had taken off the back of a stone bench and dragged it inside. Unlike the rest of us, who were taking our portions from the communal bowls, Hune had been brought her own. Considering her side dish of koshari was larger than my torso I could see why.
“I’m not doing the forms for it, if you murder him,” Aisha said, daintily picking at her plate from her seat at Juniper’s left.
“They’ll be handled promptly, don’t you worry,” I said, and Hakram cursed under his breath.
He should, since they would most definitely end up on his desk instead of mine. The Hellhound speared another slab of uncooked red meat with cumin from the bowl only orcs were using and dropped it on her plate.
“Don’t start murdering officers, Foundling,” the general said. “I’m told it’s habit-forming.”
That was almost a joke, and I still wondered at how the orc was willing to unbend even that much in private. Never when anyone but the general staff was there, but it was still like night and day compared to when the Fifteenth had first been formed. Going through the Liesse Rebellion together, all the desperate battles of the campaign, had warmed her considerably towards me and the officers who could once have been considered my “faction” in the Fifteenth. Those old lines were long gone, now. Like Captain had once told me, showing proficiency at violence was the quickest way to earn an orc’s respect. Ratface and Kilian were chatting with Pickler further down the table but I refrained from sending a longing look in that direction. There would be time enough for that after we were done eating. I dipped the sambusa in the stew and bit off a piece of the meat-stuffed pastry. Still warm, I hummed in appreciation. Someone had gotten their hands on a decent cook from the Wasteland.
“So,” I finally said. “Looks like I missed a battle.”
The amiability – or what passed for that with Juniper – slid off my general’s face the moment the subject was broached.
“A single skirmish, so far,” the Hellhound said. “Fae crossed over from Arcadia in small numbers.”
Further down the table, Ratface smothered a grin. The bastard, in all senses of the word. He’d be filling his pockets deep with that one.
“Do we know why?” Hakram asked.
The conversation in the back had petered out when I’d begun the formal part of our meal, and Kilian was the one to field the question.
“They’re claiming the land for Arcadia,” she said. “Exactly how far their definition of ‘the land’ extends isn’t clear at the moment.”
I fished out a piece of ox and popped it into my mouth, chewing thoughtfully and wiping my hands on the cloth afterwards.
“That’s a problem,” I said. “I’m already using that land.”
“We think they’re Winter Court,” Nauk said. “They used ice, anyway, and they were arrogant little shits.”
“They’re all arrogant little shits,” Juniper grunted. “Wouldn’t be fairies otherwise.”
Sometimes it was reassuring to see that the vast majority of my officers were even more terrible at diplomacy than I was. Made me look better than comparison, at least.
“No negotiations were attempted so far,” Aisha said, the exception to that last thought. “That does not mean, however, they are impossible.”
“They did not seem inclined to negotiate, Aisha,” Kilian said mildly. “Otherwise we would have tried.”
I raised an eyebrow. She must have been on the scene herself, then. I would have been worried, but the redhead knew how to take care of herself. She might lack in power compared to some other mages, but she made up for it in swiftness and control.
“I believe the terms used by Legate Nauk after the introduction were ‘fuck off’,” the Taghreb said, tone sardonic.
I shot the orc in question a look. He grinned, then shrugged. Well, Nauk had always been more of a blunt tool than precise instrument. There was a place for that. Sometimes it wasn’t about how fancy the trick was, it was about how hard you could clobber the other guy. And as far as clubs went, my legate was among the finest.
“Dealing with fae is like dealing with devils,” Ratface said. “They always screw you on the technicalities.”
“I’m not taking the option off the table,” I broke in. “But at the moment, that’s not the situation we’re looking at. If they’re invading our priority is clear.”
“Defences,” Juniper growled with approval. “Our mages have set up wards, but the reports are the border between Creation and Arcadia is thinning regardless.”
I glanced at Kilian, who grimaced.
“That is beyond my knowledge,” she admitted. “Apprentice might know more.”
“I notice he’s not here,” I said. “What’s he been doing all this time?”
“He cleared out the strongest of the fae to cross and threatened them not to attempt it again,” Hune said. “He did not leave his tower before, and has not since. It borders on dereliction of duty.”
The ogre’s tone was thick with distaste. Masego, I sighed internally. How are you worse at making friends than I am? Not, I would admit, that Hune was the cuddliest of my merry bunch. She didn’t speak much and was easily irritated. I’d had her under my command for about a year and still knew next to nothing about her. Hakram, usually a fount of useful gossip, had nothing to tell me about her either. Quiet, competent, never socialized much even at the College. Nothing I hadn’t observed with my own eyes.
“Lord Apprentice is not officially part of the Fifteenth Legion,” Juniper said, in the tone of someone who’d had to make that point before on several occasions. “He has no obligation to us.”
“I’ll talk to him,” I said. “Assuming he can’t contribute, what do we have on our side of the field if the fae come back?”
Pickler rocked in her chair, which I noted with amusement was stacked with cushions so she’d sit about the same height as the rest of us.
“My sappers have built two rings of fortifications around the plaza, using the existing houses as props. We’ve installed cast iron foundations on everything, which Senior Mage Kilian informs me should afford them some protection against fae magic,” she said. “To target the fae themselves, I’ve had scorpions of my own design installed and nailed to the rooftops. One of the invaders used strong winds during the incursion, which would limit their effectiveness, so I’ve also had catapults loaded with sharper-filled iron balls placed behind the second ring.”
Pickler seemed as if she wanted to say more, but one look at Juniper and she rethought the notion. I checked with a glance and, predictably, Nauk looked like she’d just slipped him some tongue. Ugh. I should not have inflicted that image on myself.
“We need to consider the possibility those fortifications might be made permanent,” Juniper said, thankfully claiming my attention.
“We’ll need to redirect civilian traffic through different streets if that’s the case,” Ratface said. “The plaza sits in the middle of the main artery in and out of Marchford.”
“Start looking into it,” I ordered. “Wishful thinking isn’t going to make this go away.”
The Taghreb bastard raised an eyebrow.
“Well,” he said, “if you believe some of the stories…”
I looked at Aisha.
“Him you’ll do the forms for, right?”
“They’re already filled just in case,” the Staff Tribune replied without missing a beat.
“Defence is all well and good,” Nauk grunted. “But you don’t win wars from behind walls.”
“Can’t send scouts into Arcadia, Legate,” the Hellhound said. “Not with the way it warps time. The logistics would see them dead or the information gathered useless.”
“So don’t send scouts,” the large orc said, baring his teeth. “Send an army. We happen to have one of those lying around.”
“We don’t know enough to commit to that at the moment,” I said. “For all we know, this could be a minor incident that will never escalate.”
There was a moment of silence at the table. Hakram was the first to snicker, which broke the dam. Laughter splattered over the room, ebbing after a few moments.
“I’ll talk to Apprentice, see what he knows,” I said, still smiling. “Anything else that’s urgent?”
“No Legion business,” Juniper said, and that was that.
We dug into the meal properly and I allowed the renewed sounds of chatter to wash over me. It was, I thought, good to be home.