“See, this is exactly the kind of trouble I’d be avoiding by mind controlling the entire world. You fools are making my point for me, can’t you see?”
– Dread Emperor Imperious, shortly before being torn apart by an Ater mob
“That’s not the good news face,” I said.
There were only three of us in the war room: Juniper, Ratface and myself. We’d have a real staff meeting later today or tomorrow, but for now I’d kept the people to a minimum. When the whole family was at the table discussions tended to take longer, and for now what I wanted was a solid notion of what had happened in Callow while I was gone. And, to my unpleasant surprise, I’d been gone quite a bit longer than I’d thought: three months as of the morning I woke up. Considering Summer had already been probing the borders when I’d left and being well aware that Heiress was going to go full bastard the moment I disappeared, I was not expecting a basket of flowers. Yet the sheer dourness on the Hellhound’s face gave me pause. I glanced at Ratface – he wasn’t looking any happier. Well, at least it was unlikely to be worse than having my heart stolen by an angry Winter god. Weeping Heavens, let it not be worse than having my heart stolen by an angry Winter god. I firmly believed that was not too high of a bar to set for this conversation, but already I was getting the beginnings of a headache.
“Everything’s fucked,” Ratface flatly contributed.
“Fucked how,” I prompted. “That’s the important part.”
“Military affairs first,” Juniper said. “We are at war on at least two fronts, possibly up to five.”
I missed the days when two mortal enemies had been the upper limit, not the starting point.
“Summer,” I counted out. “Heiress?”
“Diabolist,” Ratface corrected grimly.
“She transitioned?” I said. “Shit. I had my money on her aiming for Dread Empress off the bat.”
“You weren’t the only one,” my Supply Tribune said. “Everybody’s wondering what her game is, right now.”
“A lot of people dying, if I had to venture I guess,” I grunted. “All right, Juniper, lay it on me. Summer. What are we dealing with?”
“We don’t have hard numbers,” the Hellhound replied. “Trying to scry them lost two mages their eyesight.”
The dream I’d had before waking up in Creation was still fresh in my mind – it didn’t feel like a memory, something that would fade in time or become less vivid. A Name dream was the closest equivalent I could come up with, and even those didn’t feel quite as… tangible, afterwards. Considering some of the things I’d seen Summer do in that sequence, I wasn’t all that surprised scrying them was dangerous. It must have been like staring straight into the sun.
“But you have guesses,” I said.
She nodded, and tapped her thick fingers against the map spread across the table to get my attention. There were two red stones set in southern Callow: one on Dormer, the other on Holden. Considering those two were the closest Callowan cities to the Waning Woods, why they were marked as Summer strongholds needed no explanation.
“We’ve received intelligence from General Sacker that was collected from refugees of both cities,” Juniper gravelled. “One of them was former Royal Guard, so we can put more stock in her assessment of force numbers. At least five thousand both times, and we’re fairly sure it wasn’t the same army.”
Ten thousand godsdamned fairies. No wonder she’d looked like someone had shot Aisha, earlier. Even the few hundred lesser fae we’d had to contain in Marchford had inflicted rough losses on the Fifteenth, and unlike those poor expendable bastards Summer would have titled fae leading their hosts.
“Have they moved since taking the cities?” I asked.
“No,” my general said. “Not on any large scale, anyway. They’re sending raiding parties but nearly all of them are headed towards our second problem.”
The orc did not need to point at the black stone set over Liesse for me to know what she was talking about.
“She shouldn’t have any forces to speak of,” I said. “I had the Ruling Council strike down her right to anything but a city guard.”
And her own personal retinue, a privilege granted to Praesi highborn that not even I could touch. Given her high birth the number allowed was not negligible – a thousand men – but still very far from an army.
“She doesn’t care about the Council anymore,” Ratface said. “No one does, Cat. But we’ll talk about that mess later.”
A trickle of the fury that went through me at those words must have shown on my face, because when the dark-eyed Taghreb looked at me he paled. I took a long breath, calming myself. It did not escape my notice that the temperature in the war room had significantly cooled. Joy, another power that’ll start backfiring if I don’t learn how it works, I thought. Just what I needed.
“She’s hired mercenaries,” Juniper said. “Levantines, Helikeans and allegedly some drow.”
“The last bunch she hired was wiped out to the last man,” I frowned. “By us, even.”
“She scraped the bottom of the barrel in Mercantis,” Ratface said. “But over half her people are from the Wasteland and those will be reliable. She’s pretty much taken over the Truebloods.”
“And her mother’s done nothing about this?” I said, surprised.
“Her mother is fighting her own war in Wolof,” the tanned man replied. “Against a nephew trying to overthrow her and the Legions trying to contain the angry beehive the city turned into.”
“The Empress intervened,” I said.
“With a light touch,” Juniper grunted. “But she can’t allow the kind of summons they’re throwing at each other to spill out into the Wasteland. There’s reports of a demon being used.”
I didn’t ask what kind – any kind was bad enough. That meant no reinforcements from Praes, which was as much a relief as it was a problem. We’d be on our own for this.
“Praesi,” I said. “So, household troops and mages?”
“A lot of mages,” Ratface said. “And with Liesse currently packed with refugees, I don’t need to tell you how bad that could get.”
“If she so much as sacrifices a single man she’s rebelling,” I coldly said.
“She’s already rebelling, Foundling,” Juniper said. “She’s been summoning devils to pit against the fae – your Council made laws against that. And you don’t assemble an illegal army of ten thousand if you intend to return to the fold afterwards.”
“She’s reached her end game, then,” I muttered. “Fuck. It’s always trouble to fight Praesi when they’re cornered. Everybody knows that.”
There was no longer any debate about whether or not Heiress – no, Diabolist, I needed to remember that – was ending up on the chopping block by the end of this. She’d given me an excuse to see her head on a pike and she knew I would not allow it to pass me by. Which meant that, by the end of her play she intended to be beyond any sanctions I could inflict. Was she trying to carve out her own kingdom in southern Callow? That would be building on sand, she was hated there.
“All right,” I finally said, still digesting the news. “Those two are covered. Now what’s the rest?”
Juniper glanced at Ratface, who shrugged then cleared his throat.
“Duchess Kegan has put the Duchy of Daoine on war footing,” he said. “She’s mobilizing both her army and the Watch, and she’s refused to explain why.”
“Oh come on,” I barked. “I already conceded Council authority doesn’t extend to Daoine. What the Hells more does she think she’s going to get by rebelling?”
“We don’t think she’s rebelling, not since last week anyway,” Juniper said. “She’s imprisoned Praesi in the duchy but she hasn’t killed them and she hasn’t declared war on the Empire.”
“Deoraithe don’t declare war,” I replied flatly. “You realize there’s a one going on when you’re neck deep in Watch.”
“I said the same thing, but then Robber returned from the south,” Ratface said.
“Special Tribune Robber,” Juniper sternly corrected.
Considering how much grief she’d given me over promoting the goblin, I was more than a little amused she was now insisting on the proper address. It wasn’t that she’d disagreed that Robber with a detached cohort would bleed Akua’s forces in the south, the orc was well aware of what the vicious little bastard could do. But removing an ‘insubordinate wretch’ like him from the usual chain of command and the supervision it entailed had not sat well with her. She was Legion to the bone, though: now that he had the position she wouldn’t let anyone dismiss the respect it was supposed to carry. Not even Robber himself, much as he tried.
“Yes, Special Tribune Robber,” Ratface said, barely refraining from rolling his eyes.
He was going to be paying for that later, by the look on the Hellhound’s face.
“He broke into Liesse with a tenth,” the Supply Tribune continued. “And found out the Diabolist has Deoraithe stashed below the Ducal Palace, at the centre of some sort of array.”
I raised an eyebrow, reluctantly impressed.
“Her laboratory had to be a regular fortress,” I said. “He managed to get through the wards?”
“Not exactly,” Juniper growled.
“He ran into the Thief,” Ratface said, eyeing me carefully.
“She was bound to turn up eventually,” I sighed. “I’ll get furious about her meddling when I can spare the time. So, captive Deoraithe and the Duchess mobilizing her troops. Might not be rebellion, then.”
“We can’t afford the risk that it is,” Juniper said. “Marshal Ranker pulled the Twelfth Legion from Summerholm to reinforce her at Denier in case she needs to deny the crossing.”
Ranker would be horribly outnumbered, I frowned. Eight thousand legionaries against what, a conservative estimate of twenty thousand at least a fourth of which was Watch? Ranker’s Fourth Legion was heavy on the sappers, since the core of it had been raised from the tribe she’d once ruled over as Matron, but there was only so much preparation could do.
“Marshal Grem should be in charge,” I said. “What has he been doing?”
“He deferred operational command,” the Hellhound gravelled. “He’s need in the Vales.”
“Which brings us to our fourth problem,” Ratface said. “The Principate is moving.”
“Godsdamnit,” I cursed. “Is there anyone who’s not trying to invade us right now?”
There was pause.
“The Golden Bloom,” the Taghreb said.
“Don’t you bring the fucking elves into this, Ratface,” I said. “We already have a net surplus of genocidal maniacs.”
“The Tower’s used the emergency channels to inform everyone of general rank or higher that the Golden Bloom is phasing out of Creation,” Juniper told me.
I rubbed the bridge of my nose.
“Last time they did that was was when Triumphant was kicking around, right?” I moaned.
I ignored the twin ‘may she never return’ the other two spoke, while pressing their knuckles to their foreheads.
“That’s not a no,” I decided. “And just like that, Diabolist kicks up the priority list. Fucking Hells.”
“Most likely, yes” Ratface grimly agreed.
“If One Eye’s staying at the border, that means we have three full Legions sitting this out,” I said.
The First, Tenth and Eleventh. Considering a dragon and a vampire ran the last two, I could at least find a silver lining in the fact that their absence would limit collateral damage. Two thirds of the Tenth Legion were undead mostly because General Catastrophe had the nasty habit of torching his own soldiers as well as the enemy. What that would do close to a major city I preferred not to think about.
“The Marshal has sent word he does not believe the Principate seriously intends to make an invasion attempt,” the Hellhound said. “The two principalities at the border assembled their armies, but they don’t have the men to breach the Vales.”
“They’re just acting up so our Legions can’t leave,” I grimaced. “We could call that bluff.”
“We can’t afford a slugging match with the First Prince when our own backyard’s on fire, Cat,” Ratface said. “She gets to have this one.”
How lovely, that the old trend of Procer screwing over Callow continued no matter who was in charge of it. There were some permanent constants in Creation, like the Tower being a pile of horrors beyond human understand and the Principate always being run by a bunch of rapacious assholes. One of these days, Cordelia Hasenbach and I were going to sit down and have a nice little chat over the subject. Knives might be involved.
“So your mother’s in charge of Imperial response, then,” I said, eyes flicking to Juniper.
“General Istrid,” the orc replied, galaring, “has seniority. She’s currently mustering north of Vale. Her own Sixth Legion has been joined by General Sacker’s Ninth already. The Fifth under General Orim is supposed to be joining them, but has been delayed.”
Orim the Grim and his boys served as Laure’s garrison, so I supposed we’d arrived to the part of the conversation where I was going to get absolutely livid.
“Tell me,” I ordered.
Ratface swallowed loudly.
“Foundling,” Juniper said. “Your shadow’s moving. Cut it the Hells out. It’s not the Supply Tribune’s fault your Ruling Council collapsed.”
Surprised, I glanced behind me and found my shadow still as it should be. I raised an eyebrow. Juniper wasn’t the type to exaggerate, to I’d take her word for it.
“Sorry, Ratface,” I said. “Picked up something in Arcadia, it’s making my Name act up.”
The Hellhound’s eyes narrowed.
“Is that why you’ve turned into a botched weather ritual?” she asked. “Learn to control it before we march. If you can make ice at will it has useful implications for our supply train.”
Only Juniper, I mused, would respond to my usurping a part of Winter by trying to make me into the Fifteenth’s personal magic coldbox. I coughed to hide my amusement.
“I’ll get right on it, General,” I said. “Tell me about Laure, Supply Tribune.”
“Approximately two weeks after you disappeared into Arcadia,” Ratface said, “Murad Kalbid and Satang Motherless executed a coup in the capital.”
I closed my eyes and counted to ten. I’d tried, I had, to involved Praesi in ruling Callow. I’d held up my part of the deal I’d struck with the High Lords on the Empress’ side. I should have remembered that even if they were Malicia’s tigers, they were still fucking tigers. They’d always strike when they smelled weakness.
“And they succeeded?” I asked, eyes still closed.
“The two Callowan members of the Council are gone,” the dark-eyed man said. “Sister Abigail was killed in broad daylight, allegedly by members of the Guild of Assassins. Baroness Kendal was wounded, but she managed to flee and no body was found.”
I opened my eyes.
“Her Dread Majesty’s representative?” I prompted.
“Disappeared,” Ratface said. “If anyone knows where, they’re not telling. The usurpers are turning over every rock in Laure looking for her so it’s probably not their doing.”
“Oh, they’re not going to be finding that woman anytime soon,” I murmured. “So they murdered their way to the top, like good little Wastelanders. Then they declared martial law?”
“Across all of Callow,” Ratface agreed. “There’s been rioting in every major city as a consequence.”
I cursed in Kharsum, which had the Hellhound frowning. She kept telling me my accent was horrible, more offended by that than the rough language.
“Bad enough General Istrid is mustering outside Vale because she believes if she tries entering the city she’ll have to take it by force,” Juniper said.
“The governors you appointed, the Callowans,” Ratface said. “They’re denouncing the current Council as illegitimate and refuse to answer to Imperial authorities until you ‘restore order’.”
“They weren’t sure I would come back,” I groaned.
“Neither were the usurpers,” Ratface said. “They took a risk by making their move.”
I chewed over that for a while.
“Why’s Orim stuck in Laure?” I asked. “Those two are treacherous pricks, but they aren’t idiots – after the initial riot they should have lined the pocket of the Guilds to calm things down in the city.”
“They don’t have the treasury,” the dark-haired man said, sounding amused. “When they tried to take it they found the vaults empty.”
“Then who the Hells has it?” I asked.
“Guild of Thieves,” Juniper informed me. “They left a note.”
“They have to know they’re declaring war on me by doing that,” I frowned.
“Special Tribune Robber found the source of their courage in Liesse,” Ratface said.
I blinked. Before I’d left, he’d told me that the Guild was under new management: a new King of Thieves had taken their reins. No, not a king – a queen.
“Thief,” I hissed. “The Thief did this. She runs them now?”
“As far as we can tell,” Ratface said. “She, uh, passed a message through the Special Tribune. If you have an issue with what she’s been doing, you can take it up with her in Laure.”
I narrowed my eyes at him.
“You’re leaving something out,” I said.
“She was rather unpleasant about the phrasing,” the Supply Tribune replied frankly.
I decided not to push. I was pissed enough as was and more anger wasn’t going to make me think any clearer. I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes again, thinking this through. I had six months to either break the Summer Court or force a peace settlement on them. I hated the thought of giving Akua any longer to prepare, but bloodying my army on the walls of Liesse when there were still flame-happy demigods wandering the countryside would be a major blunder. I couldn’t just march the Fifteen south, though. I needed General Istrid’s army in the field, and they weren’t moving until the Fifth Legion joined them. Juniper’s mother was reckless but not even she would take on Summer with only eight thousand men. So that meant I had to clean up the mess in Laure before taking care of the rest. Opening my eyes, I set my hands on the table.
“I’ll need Nauk and his men ready to march,” I told Juniper. “And Robber’s cohort. Laure takes priority for now.”
“We’d be thinning the defences around the portal,” the Hellhound said.
“We’re emptying them,” I said. “Winter’s dealt with, at the moment. I bought us at least six months until anything goes down.”
Six times the coming of my title, the King of Winter had said. Overly dramatic phrasing but at least I had a number.
“Then the rest of the Fifteenth be moving as well,” Juniper said.
“Six months, Hellhound, is also our timetable for wrecking Summer,” I said. “I hope you’ve been thinking about ways to kill fae.”
“Oh, Foundling,” the orc replied happily, baring her teeth. “I have been thinking of precious little else.”
I was not too proud to admit to myself that Juniper scared me a little, sometimes.
“Give Nauk two thousand men,” I told her after a moment. “That should be more than enough. That leaves you a little over full legion to work with, no?”
“More,” my general replied. “As of yesterday’s census, the Fifteenth Legion now numbers eight thousand soldiers.”
“What?” I spluttered.
“The south is literally on fire, Cat,” Ratface said. “And we have a reputation for both taking in Callowan soldiers and killing anything that invades the region. We’ve had a lot of recruits pouring in.”
“As well as some less desirable individuals,” Juniper added coldly. “The nephew of the defunct Countess of Marchford showed up last month.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“He tried to take back the city when it was under fae siege and occupied by what’s pretty much two full legions?”
Nobility wasn’t as inbred in Callow as it was in the Principate, so that level of blatant idiocy was a little surprising.
“He’s renounced his claim on Marchford publicly, actually,” Ratface said. “Says he wants an audience with you, won’t talk to anyone else.”
“He’s in a cell,” the Hellhound said. “I’ve no patience for agitators.”
“I’ll look into it,” I said.
Another thing for the list. There either needed to be more hours in a day or I needed to find a way to get rid of sleep entirely.
“We’ll have a more formal meeting to plan our operations, but get Nauk ready to go as soon as possible,” I said, rising to my feet.
I made to leave, but turned when Juniper called out.
I met her eyes.
“Catherine,” she said, more softly. “What happened in Arcadia?”
“You’ll get the whole story when everyone’s there,” I said. “But in short? I fucked up. The Winter King was playing me before I ever stepped foot in there.”
I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.
“Doesn’t matter,” I finally added. “I think I got what we need to win this war.”
The hourglass had already been flipped and time was slipping away. What I’d thought I needed was more of it, but I might have found a way around the need. I was the Duchess of Moonless Nights, nowadays. And Apprentice had once told me that high-ranking fae could open portals both in and out of Arcadia.