“There’s a natural hierarchy to the world, Chancellor: there’s me, then my boot, then all of Creation under the boot.”
– Dread Empress Regalia
It felt good to be back in plate. It felt even better to know that I’d be facing opponents that could actually be deterred by armour – no more of this ‘fae blades cut through everything’ bullshit. It’d been like fighting a hundred less competent version of the Lone Swordsman, though admittedly with much less lecturing thrown around. Small favours. My cloaks swirled behind me as I walked down the stairs, the most recent addition to it glimmering even in the dark. How Hakram had managed to get his hands on a piece of the Duke of Violent Squalls’ clothes I had no idea, but the wind-like cloth had been added as another mark of victory to my name. A third of the black cloth was now covered by stolen banners of dead men. How many years, before there is no black left? At the rate I was making enemies, not many. If I survived the year, odds were Akua Sahelian’s would be joining the lot. There was a thought to warm my absent heart.
It was cooler, underground. There’d been two sets of goals in Marchford, before I’d taken the city back in the rebellion. The cells for petty criminals, near the centre of the city: the ones I was currently in. The other had been for highborn prisoners, in a wing of the Countess of Marchford’s manner. The very same I’d had Robber put to the torch purely to piss then-Heiress off. If I’d known back then I’d have to pay for rebuilding the godsdamned thing, I might have held off. The awareness that I’d ordered that manor burned followed me into the dark. The man I was visiting, after all, had once called that seat of power his birthright. Elizabeth Talbot did not have any children, but she had a whole tribe of relatives. Her designated heir was her brother’s son, Lord Brandon Talbot – who’d been among the rebels broken by Black but had managed to escape and survive.
From the fact that his head had not ended up on a pike in the following months, I assumed neither my teacher nor Malicia had thought him worth the effort of hunting down. With that in mind I’d expected to find a living example of every noble wastrel tale waiting down in his cell, but the reality was different. Brandon Talbot was a man in his early thirties, powerfully built with a thick beard and long hair held in a ponytail much like mine. He was seated on a stone bench in the back, managing to make the position look almost dignified even if his well-tailored clothes had obviously not been washed in some time.
“I was beginning to think I’d been forgotten down here,” the man said.
“No such luck,” I replied.
I glanced around. There was a table and seats meant for guards, under a pair of torches, and I claimed one of the chars. Turning its back to the prisoner, I straddled it and propped up my elbows atop it. He was staring at me, I saw, a strange expression on his face.
“Taking a good look?” I said.
He blinked, then shook his head.
“I mean, I’d heard,” he said. “But it’s another thing to see it. You’re so young.”
I hid my surprise. Usually, at this point, my enemies offered up banter. Or a denunciation of some sort. Maybe a dig at my height, which made stabbing them afterwards a sort of justice.
“Age stops mattering, when you become Named,” I said.
“Age always matters,” he disagreed softly. “There was a time this country didn’t make soldiers of its children.”
I smiled thinly.
“And then we lost,” I said. “A lesson learned.”
“Of all the things we lost back then,” Brandon Talbot murmured, “I think I might grieve that one the most.”
“Is that why you came here?” I asked. “To tell me of the past glories of the Kingdom?”
“The Kingdom died,” he said, tone sad. “Once on the Fields of Streges, and again when the Carrion Lord snuffed out the dream last year.”
“It was not a Callowan dream,” I replied harshly. “It was a Proceran one, bought with the First Prince’s silver.”
“Oh we all knew that, deep down,” Lord Brandon admitted. “That we were being used. But we glimpsed a world that was more than waking up every morning with the Tower’s boot on our throat. It was not a bad dream, Countess Foundling.”
“Lady,” I corrected. “Lady Foundling.”
He peered at me, dark bangs and darker shadows framing his face.
“Are you really?” he asked.
“To you?” I said. “Yes.”
The man laughed.
“You think I’m your enemy,” he said.
“I think you committed treason,” I said. “I’ve hanged men for less.”
“And yet here I am,” Lord Brandon said. “Without a rope around my neck.”
I smiled mirthlessly.
“It would be a very grave mistake,” I said, “to confuse curiosity for mercy.”
“But you are curious,” he said. “Most would have sent me to the gallows without even an audience. Your orc certainly wanted to.”
“General Juniper would have been well within her rights to give you a traitor’s death,” I replied harshly.
“I’m not trying to speak ill of your friend, Countess Foundling,” he said, waving away the notion.
Blue eyes considered me carefully.
“She is your friend, yes?”
“Something like that,” I said.
“And yet they say you fight for Callow,” Lord Brandon mused. “Most would think those two things irreconcilable.”
“But not you?” I snorted. “If you’re looking for a pardon for that concession, you’re knocking at the wrong door. I’m eighteen, not an idiot.”
He did not entirely manage to hide his surprise when I mentioned my age. Oh fuck him, I thought. I wasn’t that short. I’d been almost an inch taller than Black before he left, it wasn’t my fault I was surrounded by godsdamned giants all the time.
“What do you want, Lord Talbot?” I said. “You had to know you’d end up in a cell if you turned up here.”
“I want you to save Callow,” he said. “While there’s still some of it left to save.”
“Always the cry of the highborn, isn’t it?” I laughed, darkly amused. “Bring it back the way it used to be! When everything was perfect because we were rich and powerful and we ran the fucking show.”
“This land was at peace, once,” he said.
“I keep hearing people talk about bringing back the Kingdom,” I said. “Like putting a crown on some Fairfax relative would magically fix this fucking country. You all act like everything was perfect before the Conquest, like it was some never-ending golden age. It wasn’t. I’ve read the records, and what you’re trying to resurrect never existed. All a rebellion won would accomplish is slapping a fresh coat of ruin over a bitter truth: all that’s changed is whose palace the taxes build.”
“If you hold us in such contempt,” he said, “why claim to fight for us?”
“Because there’s a difference between Callow and the Kingdom,” I hissed. “One is people. The other’s gilding. People I’ll draw my sword for, every time. The rest can burn. It’s not worth a single drop of godsdamned blood.”
“The people are dying, Countess,” Lord Brandon said.
“So they are,” I conceded tiredly. “And so I go to war again.”
“I don’t mean the fae,” the noble said, shaking his head. “Or even the butcher you gave Liesse to. Callow is dying. Our way of life. Another fifty years of this and we’ll be light-skinned Praesi, save for a few bitter enclaves.”
I didn’t reply, because he was right. I knew he was, and worst of all I didn’t have a solution. Because the monsters were as cunning as they were powerful, and they had been playing this game since before I was born. Winning it through schools and trade and the featherweight of apathy. It was one of the first thing Black had ever told me: he didn’t need people to agree, just not to care. And it was working, wasn’t it? During the Liesse Rebellion, no holding north of Vale has risen. So few soldiers had answered the Duke’s call that he’d needed to bolster his forces with mercenaries. The dream the noble said my teacher has snuffed out had been a feeble thing from the start: peasant levies ordered into the field, barely held together by household troops and foreign soldiery. And before the war was done those same levies had delivered the same nobles who’d called on them at the feet of Black, bound in chains. Fear, I knew, had driven them there. But also more than that: no one in that army had really believed they could win anymore. Some hadn’t even been sure they should.
“I know,” I admitted.
“But this is not your design,” Lord Brandon pressed, leaning forward.
His eyes were alight, almost fervent.
“I’m trying to find a path between destruction and rebellion,” I said.
“The let us be Callowans,” he said. “Changed, perhaps, but still us. There is still a spine under the boot, Countess. There’s still a flicker of the flame no matter how many times they stamp it out.”
“Those are pretty words,” I noted. “I don’t trust pretty words, Talbot. I trust practical measures. Tangible things I can work with.”
“Bring back the knightly orders,” he said.
I stared at him for a long moment. The knights of Callow, huh? Even over twenty years after the Conquest, their silhouettes were still branded behind the eyes of children who’d been born long after the last of them were disbanded. For a lot of people, the knights were Callow, just as much as the bells of Laure or golden fields spreading as far as they eye could see. They were also a basketful of military orders disbanded by order of the Dread Empress because they were a direct threat to Praesi hegemony.
“I don’t have the authority to repeal Tower decrees,” I said.
“Not lawfully,” the noble said very, very quietly.
It still rang loudly, in these rooms empty save for the two of us. Treason had a way of doing that. I looked at him, and finally understood what I was sitting across from.
“You’re not an agitator,” I said. “You’re an envoy.”
“So I am,” he agreed softly. “We’ve watched you, Countess. Seen what you preach more than empty words.”
I’d been playing this game for too long to be fooled by flattery.
“Don’t lie to me,” I said. “You’re not coming to be because you think I’m worthy. You’re coming to me because you’re desperate. Because in fifty years, we’ll be light-skinned Praesi – and if I die, you’re not getting another Squire who gives a shit about Callow.”
He did not deny it. I allowed myself to see it, for just a moment. Knights come again, and this time on my side. Not riding down my legionaries. With Summer and the Diabolist ahead of me, the thought was horribly tempting.
“How many?” I said, mouth gone dry.
“You have not agreed,” Lord Brandon grimaced. “You must understand that-“
“You’re asking me to cross Dread Empress Malicia,” I said, tone like steel. “If you think you grasp even a fraction of how dangerous that woman really is, you’re a fucking fool. How many?”
The man studied me in silence for a long time.
“Two thousand,” he said. “More may emerge if you don’t butcher us in our sleep.”
Two thousand. Gods be good.
“The Duke of Liesse didn’t even have that much horse,” I said faintly. “And Black had most his knights killed in their sleep.”
“Those of us that rose with Gaston of Liesse went to die, Foundling,” the noble murmured. “Reaching for that dream, one last time. It was the old, the tired, the despairing. The rest of us stayed hidden. To teach old ways to the young, and wait.”
Half the houses in the city will have swords and spears stashed under the floorboards or hidden away in the attic, I’d told Juniper the first night we spent in Marchford. Because this was Callow. Because we’d carry a grudge for ten generations, if that was how long it took to even the scales. Because those who wronged us always, always paid the long price no matter what it cost is. And now I’d just been told that two thousand knights were hiding in the countryside, biding their time. Under Black’s nose, for years. Pride in my countrymen warred with horror at the thought of what could have happened, if they’d all risen. Praesi thought they knew about patience but they’d only been invaded the once, and not like us. We’ve had wolves at the gate since the First Dawn. It taught us hard lessons and oh,look how well we’ve learned them. I was more moved by the thought than I cared to admit.
“How quickly can you gather them?” I croaked.
Lord Brandon kept his face calm, but his eyes betrayed him.
“Two, maybe three months,” he said.
“You’ll be part of the Fifteenth,” I said. “Under General Juniper. Anything less is declaring war on the Tower.”
“It is a lesser yoke,” the dark-haired man said, “than the one currently choking us.”
I rose to my feet, feeling faint. I could feel the Beast’s head leaning over my shoulder, its warm breath heating my cheek. It was grinning.
“I, Countess Catherine Foundling of Marchford,” I said, “do order the creation of the Order of Broken Bells and charge Lord Brandon Talbot with gathering men under its banner.”
The man looked about to weep, and softly nodded.
“You’ll be out within the hour,” I said. “Get me knights, Talbot. Before it’s too late.”
“I don’t like this,” Juniper said.
It was almost noon. Leaving the orc to hover behind me, I put a hand against the glass and tried to feel warmth. Nothing. I was so cold to the touch these days that my breath should come as vapour. I stared at the sun and idly thought that the conversation that I was about to have would have better fit the night.
“Are you listening, Foundling?” the general growled. “I don’t fucking like it, this inner circle shit. We’re a legion, not a gang. Officers of the same rank get the same briefings.”
“What I have to say isn’t for everybody’s ears,” I said.
“Hune should be there,” the grim-faced orc continued as if she hadn’t heard me. “She’s my second, not Nauk.”
“I trust Nauk,” I replied without turning. “Hune is a blank slate.”
“Then have one of your little talks with her,” the general said. “Like you did with Ratface and Aisha.”
“Jealous we never had one?” I teased, sounding more light-hearted than I felt.
“Please,” she dismissed. “I already see too much of you as is. Couldn’t stomach more.”
Before I could summon up a reply, my ‘inner circle’ began piling in. They’d come as a group, it seemed. Only officers for this one: Masego was holed up in his tower, seeing to the experiments he’d left in the hands of the assistant he’s stolen from Diabolist, and Hakram was keeping Archer busy in the sparring yard. Leaving her to her own devices would just lead to more property damage I couldn’t afford to repair. Nauk was the first in, from the sound of the steps. Robber and Ratface came in bickering about ‘misappropriation of Legion resources’, which I’d probably have to look into at some point, and Aisha’s presence could be deduced from the dainty sigh that followed them. Pickler was light-footed and silent, but my ears were more than mortal now. Kilian wasn’t here. I owed it to her to tell her when it was just the two of us.
“Boss,” Robber called out. “Do I not even get a ‘good murdering, you filthy goblin’? I really feel like I’ve earned it.”
“The filthy in particular,” Aisha commented.
I turned to look at the officer’s I’d had at my side since the College, who’d followed me through a rebellion of my own making and bled in my name. I did not manage to smile.
“Oh shit,” Ratface cursed.
He’d always been a perceptive man.
“About an hour ago,” I said, “I committed treason.”
There was a heartbeat of shocked silence, then the room exploded. Aisha’s face had gone blank, Juniper looked furious and Pickler somehow managed to be bored in the face of a blunt admission of sedition. Nauk was grinning and thumping the table. Ratface’s face was darkly pleased and the noise covering all the rest was Robber’s loud, shrill laughter.
“If I may request specifics, Lady Catherine?” Aisha politely asked.
Well, I wasn’t back to Lady Foundling or Lady Squire. That was something.
“Yes, Foundling,” the Hellhound barked. “Tell us more about the forveala’sak treason.”
I didn’t know the Kharsum term she’d put in there, but by the look on Nauk’s face it must have been truly filthy.
“I’ve founded a knightly order,” I calmly said. “And released the former Countess’ nephew to fill its ranks. I’m told we should have two thousand riders within three months.”
Not a single hint of her thoughts touched Aisha’s face. Ratface leaned forward, face eager.
“Are we rebelling?” he asked.
“You shut your fucking mouth,” Juniper shouted. “We’re not rebelling.”
“Not unless the Tower forces me to,” I replied frankly.
“Fingers crossed,” Nauk laughed loudly, like I’d just handed him a bag of rubies.
“How many cousins and uncles do you have in the Legions, Nauk?” Aisha asked him, tone emotionless. “Think for once in your life.”
“Now,” Juniper interrupted, turning to me. “Now you choose to pull this shit, when the horde is at the gate.”
“That is the best time to pull something like this,” Pickler clinically said. “The Tower can’t afford to antagonize us. Not if it wants to hold Callow.”
“So we’re going rogue,” Robber grinned malevolently. “About time. I was getting tired of playing nice.”
“I will not see the Fifteenth turn on the Empire while I breathe,” Juniper said and her voice was like bedstone.
That killed every smile in the room. There was no longer any anger in her voice, I heard. She was beyond that now. She was looking at me and I’d ever only seen her with eyes that cold when she was thinking of how to destroy an enemy. I’d learn to read orcs, since my days in the College, but even if I hadn’t I’d know exactly what I saw on her face: betrayed. She felt betrayed, by someone she’d thought a friend.
“Juniper,” Aisha spoke softly into the silence. “Listen to her. Don’t assume.”
The Hellhound shook her head.
“Is that what this has all been leading to, Catherine?” she asked, and the genuine grief in her voice tone cut me like a knife. “Recruiting Callowans. Subverting officers. Gathering Named Were you trying to ease us into treason before we ever began?”
Her voice shook.
“Was it just so you could carve yourself a kingdom?”
“Hellhound,” Nauk said, and for once his voice was soft. “We all knew this was coming. From the beginning.”
“Not like this,” Juniper said. “Not like this.”
“I’m not rebelling,” I told her, meeting her eyes. “I’m not asking you to fight your mother, Juniper. Or you your family, Aisha. But things can’t continue as they’ve gone on. Not anymore. Not after all the lines they’ve crossed.”
I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. Gods, why did I have to feel so cold? My gaze swept across the room.
“There’s something sick in the Empire,” I said. “You’ve all seen it. Some of you have felt it first-hand. Merciless Gods, the people ruling the Wasteland think half the people in this room are cattle.”
“And you think raising a banner will change that?” Pickler said, eyes hooded. “You’re good at killing, Foundling, but you can’t kill a thousand years of hatred. Your sword is of no use there.”
“If the people in power can’t even stop killing their own,” I said quietly, “why are they still in power?”
I felt the shiver go through the room. Was this what William had felt like, when he’d first spoken to his rebels behind barred doors and shuttered windows? That weight, power and responsibility both. It would kill me, if I was not careful, like it had killed him.
“We’ve taken oaths,” Juniper said. “All of us, and you too.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I swore. To the Legions. To what Praes says it is.”
I stared her down.
“Do you think the High Lords live up to those oaths?” I asked. “I look south, and I see the highest among them rebelling for the second time in two years. Twice she’s walked away with a warning, free to bleed us again. How many of us do they get to kill before we say enough?”
“They’ll never stop,” Ratface whispered fervently, addressing everyone and no one at all. “You know that. They’ll never stop unless we make them.”
“And how many people will die, for that better world?” Aisha asked quietly.
“Mountains,” I replied. “But for once, it won’t be us doing the dying.”
The beautiful Taghreb closed her eyes, let out a deep breath.
“Emperors rise,” she said. “Emperors fall. The Tower endures. Gods forgive me, the Tower endures.”
I did not allow myself to feel joy. This wasn’t over yet.
“Beautiful things, ideals,” Pickler said. “But I’m a goblin, Foundling. You can’t eat principles. You can’t carve a tunnel with them. They don’t win wars.”
Robber let out a whisper of a laugh, and my eyes immediately went to him. I’d never heard him a noise anything like it in all the time I’d known him. It had sounded, I thought, almost wistful.
“They kill us,” the Special Tribune smiled, “for sport.”
Pickler turned to face him, face flickering with dismay.
“Listen to me, Pickler,” Robber said. “No, actually listen for once. The Matrons, the High Lords, the whole fucking lot of them. They’ve had the crown for centuries. They’re fat, now. Lazy. They think they own it. You know what that means. You’re a goblin, right? They don’t get to play if they’re not willing to bleed.”
“We can’t win this. We can’t beat them,” Pickler hissed angrily, but her voice broke after. “I will not let us die doing the right thing. We are going to grow old, all of us. I will not – I don’t-“
“We can,” I said softly. “You know that already. It’s what scares you. No shame in that. I know what’s ahead better than any of you, and I’m terrified. It’ll be blood and mud and grief, but don’t think for a moment we can’t do it.”
The Senior Sapper took her hands of the table brusquely, to hide their shaking.
“It’ll be to the death, Foundling,” she said, amber eyes flicking away. “To the death. Do not start this lightly.”
She sagged in her seat afterwards. Ratface’s eyes sought mine and he chuckled.
“I always thought I’d die railing at them, you know,” he said conversationally. “Just another corpse for the pile.”
He paused, body shaking with nervous energy.
“I was brought into this war when they tried to murder me in my bed,” he said. “You never needed to ask.”
My eyes went to Nauk, who’d gotten up to lean against the wall. His arms were clasped and there was something hungry in his gaze.
“To the end,” he said, fangs bared. “I made my choice before I knew it was a choice, Callow. To the bitter fucking end.”
And just like that, there was only one. Juniper was close, had been this whole time, but she’d not moved in a while. She came closer to me, spine straight but shoulders tight.
“Swear to me, Catherine,” she said hoarsely. “Not my mother. Not any of them. That they won’t be the enemy.”
“I swear,” I told her, and offered my arm.
For the second time in our lives, she took it.
“Warlord,” she whispered, and it sounded like an oath.
It should have felt like a victory, I thought. All I felt was cold. Gods, all I felt was cold.