“In the aftermath of a rebellion do not execute merely those who rebelled. Remove those that remained uncommitted as well, for any power not bound to you is a threat.”
– Extract from the personal journals of Dread Emperor Terribilis II
The gate opened into Fairfax Square.
A year ago, this plaza had been filled to the brim with people come from all over the north of Callow to see the Empress bestow her rewards upon the victors of the Liesse Rebellion. Now? It was night-empty, though that had as much to do with the hour of the night as Laure’s recent… troubles. I’d thought about trying to open the portal directly into the Whitestone, since it was much closer to the palace, but ultimately decided against it. Even after experimenting with the power under Masego’s guidance it was still a roll of the dice where I’d carve a way out into Creation: better to take the widest place I knew in the capital and limit the risks. As for the time, well, it was much easier for me to open gates when it was dark out. My title in Winter likely had something to do with it. Not that even darkness seemed to affect the hard limit I’d found to my power: I could only open a portal once a day before my body began to revolt against the amount of fae power coursing through my veins.
Pushing myself to a second opening had hurt enough I’d not tried for a third. Having most liquid in my body freeze might very well have killed me, if not for the healing power I’d stolen from a hero and Apprentice’s immediate and panicked help. The coming of dawn seemed to wipe away the slate when it came to fae sorcery in my body, for some arcane reason, which was my most promising lead around the limitations so far. But given how dangerous toying with this power had turned out to be I was much more inclined to let Masego run the calculations in his tower than try more direct experimental methods. What I’d stolen in Winter, I had been forced to admit, was not without limits. No matter. It was still a massive advantage over all my opponents. Zombie the Second’s hooves clacked against the stone as I emerged first from Arcadia into the deserted heart of Laure. Legionaries followed in good order, their armour touched with frost even with the furs they wore over it.
“Three days,” Nauk said, striding to my side as his soldiers spread out. “Three days, Catherine.”
My horse stirred uneasily as the presence of an orc so close, but I stroked his neck until he calmed. Even mounts raised with greenskins never got entirely accustomed to them: there was just something wrong about the way orcs smelled, apparently. Considering that anything that moved qualified as meat for the cookpots, according to the Clans, I couldn’t really blame them.
“I don’t think all our crossings will be so uneventful,” I replied.
“I don’t care if we have to fight a running battle every time,” he laughed. “It was a month and half’s journey, if we marched my people halfway to the grave. The Fifteenth’s the fastest army in Creation now. Hells, we barely even need a supply train.”
“The fastest inside the Empire, maybe,” I said. “I wouldn’t try to portal anywhere I haven’t been before.”
“The warlock’s get said he’d be able to run the numbers for it,” the orc legate said.
“Masego was raised by a vicious creature of pure Evil and also a devil,” I said. “His definition of safe is a little skewed. I’m not using his model unless we get really desperate.”
“So in a few months, then,” Robber grinned.
I’d heard the goblin approach, for once. I was getting used to his skulking.
“You never know,” I sighed. “We could get through a single year without drowning in the deep end.”
“Just wouldn’t be the Fifteenth if it we were fighting battles we’re supposed to win,” Nauk contributed.
That was so sadly true I didn’t bother to deny it.
“Hakram?” I asked the Special Tribune.
“With the rear guard,” he replied. “We’ve had some curious little bastards coming closer.”
I grimaced. While no Winter fae had made contact my sentries had reported silhouettes in the distance keeping an eye on us. I doubted any of the big ones would bother to come in person, but until I knew whose underlings those scouts were I’d have to tread carefully. I might be a Duchess but I was a Duchess of Winter. As usual, the side I’d ended up on was the one known for vicious infighting. I watched the legionaries move into a defensive formation across Fairfax Square and drummed my fingers against my saddle.
“Robber,” I said. “Hunt me some rats. I want anyone aligned with a Dark Guild in my city in custody, and soon.”
The goblin’s eyes glinted malevolently in the dark.
“And if they don’t want to come along?” he asked.
“You’re operating under my authority,” I replied. “Use whatever means you deem necessary.”
The chuckling sound he made was so unpleasant it should have counted as a crime.
“You’ll have them by sunup, Boss,” he said, saluting so sloppily I barely recognized the gesture.
He whistled sharply as he trotted off, his merry pack of killers popping out from the ranks to assemble around him. They looked like ugly green imps, I thought as I watched them, but they acted more like a pack of wolves – clustering around the nastiest among them, eager to sink their teeth into something.
“General Orim will have the city under martial law,” Nauk said. “That means patrols in the street.”
“Adjutant will be handling the Fifth,” I grunted.
In part because of all the men I had with me I trusted Hakram the most not to get into a pissing match with another legion, in part because he was the Adjutant. The importance of Hakram being the first orc Named in centuries had been piled on over by the messes we kept getting ourselves in, but it was no small thing. His kind looked at him with something like a worship, an old dream given new flesh. Orim the Grim was an orc of the Lesser Steppes: by my estimation, being faced with an orc with a Name instead of a Callowan girl with the skin tone of the enemy he’d spent half his life fighting would make him more apt to listen. My few past conversations with the man had been stilted, if polite, so there was no relationship to call on from my side. It was coming to regret, these days, that I’d not cultivated closer ties with the generals and marshals that served in Callowan territory. Having a better idea of the kind of people they were would have been useful in planning my actions.
The Gallowborne were the last to leave Arcadia and immediately they closed ranks around me. Tribune Farrier cast wary eyes around us, seeking out danger in the shadows. His inability to follow me in Arcadia had made him even more stubborn about my being accompanied at all times, which I hadn’t thought was actually physically possible. Getting him to close the read guard had been like pulling out nails with my teeth. Hakram took the tenth that I’d put under his direct command years ago – Sergeant Tordis’ men, though she was now a Lieutenant – and after offering me a nod from a distance headed west through the streets. The largest barracks in the city were close to the wall there, and that would be where General Orim had his headquarters. Hopefully he’d manage to handle that situation before it become a problem. I was, after all suddenly dumping almost two and a half thousand soldiers into a boiling pot that had already tipped over several times.
“Royal Palace?” Nauk said.
“Pass word down to your people,” I said. “If they see any Praesi in this city that are not part of the Fifth, they are to put them under arrest.”
“They won’t like that,” the broad orc said.
They weren’t meant to.
“They get one chance to surrender peacefully,” I said mildly. “If they resist? Kill them.”
The legate grinned.
“Aye,” he gravelled. “That we will.”
Nauk’s kabili of two thousand split into five groups of two cohorts, marching down the major avenues leading up to the Whitestone. The full cohort of Gallowborne remained around me as we took the centre of the formation with my legate’s own four hundred in front of us. It wasn’t long before we started getting attention. People peeked at us through shuttered windows, still too afraid to break curfew to come out. It was hard to read the mood of a city in the middle of the night, but fear was what I was getting. With the fake Ruling Council and the Fifth Legion openly at each other’s throats, that was more than understandable. We encountered our first patrol a quarter hour in – drawn by ripples we were causing in the city, a pair of lines from the Fifth came to see what was happening. They ran into the leftmost wing of our formation but were sent straight to me for an explanation. The Soninke lieutenant in charge saluted hastily when she realized who she was dealing with.
“Ma’am,” she greeted me. “Lieutenant Tomuka, Fifth Legion.”
“Lieutenant,” I replied pleasantly. “You may continue with your duties, though I believe you’ll be recalled to the barracks soon. The Fifteenth is taking over.”
“We, uh, weren’t aware you were going to be coming, ma’am,” the Soninke said. “Our scouting lines didn’t report a force headed for the capital.”
“They wouldn’t have,” I simply said. “Before you return to your patrol, I have a few questions for you.”
“I’m at your disposal,” she grimaced.
“The usurpers in the Royal Palace,” I said. “How many men do they have at their disposal?”
“Five hundred, by our latest estimate,” the lieutenant said. “They’ve barricaded upper Whitestone and forbid access to even legionaries.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“And General Orim has allowed this?”
“The general says as long as they’re holed up in the palace we won’t have to put down any more riots,” she replied frankly. “It’s not worth making an issue about.”
I leaned back on my saddle.
“Only five hundred, Nauk,” I called out. “We go in hard.”
Loud orcish laughter was my only response. I glanced down at the uneasy lieutenant.
“I’d suggest sending a runner to any patrols in the area,” I told her. “Wouldn’t want anybody caught in the crossfire.”
“I’ll kick that up the ladder, ma’am,” the Soninke said noncommittally.
Oh well. It didn’t particularly mind an audience, truth be told. It might remind General Orim exactly who he was dealing with, when we sat down to have a little chat.
“Dismissed, Lieutenant Tomuka,” I said, spurring Zombie the Second ahead.
A single line of Gallowborne broke from formation to follow me as I headed for my legate. Even when surrounded my other legionaries they didn’t feel I was quite protected enough, evidently. Nauk was in hushed conversation with one of his officers, a Taghreb with the marks of a commander on her armour.
“Nauk,” I said, interrupting him. “Scout reports.”
The orc turned to me after clasping his second-in-command on the shoulder.
“Three barricades,” he said. “About a hundred people on each. We’re assuming the rest will be inside the palace.”
I hummed. It would be smarter to wait until we had some flanking positions before making an assault, but I wanted this done with as quickly as possible. These people were too unimportant for me to able to spare much effort on them. I doubted the enemy had anything in their employ that would be able to handle an assault by legionaries, anyway.
“I’ll take the central one with the Gallowborne,” I said. “Staggered hit on the other two.”
“You’re hogging the good stuff, Cat,” the orc complained.
“Well, this ought to make up for it,” I said, “If they don’t surrender, Legate, I want you to make a point.”
“We flagging them as not citizens, then?” he pressed eagerly.
By Legion regulations, Imperial citizens – even those in rebellion – could not have their corpses eaten after death, unless their will specifically stated otherwise. Even at the height of the Liesse Rebellion, the people who’d taken up arms had qualified as citizens. The Tower, after all, claimed all of Callow as its own.
“By my authority as the acting head of the Ruling Council, I strip any hostile forces inside Laure of their citizenship,” I replied after a moment.
That was a way to get my point across, sure enough. Corpses with their faces chewed off and missing limbs might would appal most the city, but it would send a message to the High Lords: fuck with Callow under my watch and I’ll take the gloves off. It was about time they started catching up to that truth. The Taghreb commander paled at my words, but she knew better than to comment. I glanced at Tribune Farrier.
“Muster your men, John,” I ordered. “We’re taking the lead.”
“Gladly, Countess,” he said, a hard look on his face.
Farrier had never thought much of Praes, and though he’d come to have a rough sort of camaraderie with the men and women of the Fifteenth his opinion of the Empire at large had taken a sharp nosedive when news of what had happened in Laure spread. He’d made it abundantly clear in the past that he followed me, not the Tower, and he’d not changed that stance by an inch in the months since that declaration. Nauk’s cohort split to allow us passage and I led my personal retinue forward at a brisk pace. It wasn’t long before we entered the pale facades and sprawling gardens of the Whitestone, and from there it was only a matter of time before we ran into the barricade.
The Ruling Council’s hirelings had picked a good spot. I’d give them that much. They’d propped up crates and carts between an iron fence surrounding a garden and the high wall of what must have once been a noble’s compound. The avenue was narrower than most, and I could see from atop Zombie that even at this hour the barricade bristled with pikes and crossbowmen. The latter of those weapons was as clear an indication of the origin of the soldiers as the skin colours I could discern in the dark: Callowans and most other Calernian nations fielded bows, not crossbows. And certainly not the lever-action crossbows whose designs were the work of the goblins of Foramen’s Imperial Forges. Household troops, then. Not mercenary pushovers. I set Zombie at a trot, gesturing for the Gallowborne to stay behind as I closed in on the barricade. I could see the enemy soldiers stirring, crossbows being brought to the fore.
“Disperse, citizen,” a man’s voice called out. “By order of the Ruling Council of Callow, this section of the city is closed off.”
A Taghreb had risen atop a crate, and he’d been the one to speak. An older man, scarred and with a curved scimitar at his hip. He looked liked he could be Aisha’s uncle, though one from the ugly side of the family.
“There is no Ruling Council,” I said. “Only two Wastelanders who illegally seized power and botched it so badly they have to hide from rioters.”
“General Orim acceded to our demands to stay out of this area,” the man replied impatiently. “You will be written up for disobeying orders if you press us any further.”
“Look at the symbol on the shields of the men behind me,” I said. “Do they look like they’re part of the Fifth?”
A golden noose on a field of red was what he’d find. My personal retinue had not existed for long but there were few people in Callow who wouldn’t recognize their heraldry. They’d made something of an impression, in Marchford and Liesse.
“Gallowborne?” he said. “The Hells are you doing this far north? No matter. The Ruling Council passed a decree forbidding entrance into the city to any legion but the Fifth. Your presence here goes against the Tower’s law. Your general should fuck off south to play with the fairies.”
“If Juniper was in command, we wouldn’t be talking,” I said. “You’d be eating your third volley. But I’m a soft touch. You get a chance to surrender before I string you up above the city gates.”
The Taghreb laughed.
“And who do you think you are, girl?”
Huh. It’d been a while since the last time someone hadn’t recognized me. Or basically fed me a line just asking for a witty retort. If I’d been in a better mood, I might just have toyed with him a bit. I wasn’t. I wasn’t angry either, just… irritated. That I had to lose hours dealing with the greed and stupidity of short-sighted fools when I should have been dealing with the monsters torching my homeland.
“Countess Catherine Foundling of Marchford,” I said. “The Squire.”
“And I’m the fucking Empress,” the Taghreb mocked. “I’m just hiding the tits under the-“
I called on my Name, forming a spear of shadows, but something… bled into it. The power I’d gotten from Winter, the one that had grown tendrils into my soul when I became the Duchess of Moonless Nights. I abandoned that working and turned my will to the enemy commander instead. Shadows coiled around his neck, coming into existence, and there was a sharp sound. His head popped off his body and fell to the ground where it shattered into shards of ice. Well, that was new. Not worth having my heart literally ripped from my chest for, but it would come in useful.
“I’ve got another half-dozen titles,” I continued calmly. “I won’t bother to list them out. Now that idiocy killed your commander, who’s in charge?”
“Fire, you fools,” a woman’s voice hissed. “Before she kills us all.”
“The hard way it is, then,” I sighed. “GALLOWBORNE, FORWARD!”
I formed a panel of shadow in front of me to catch the crossbow bolts, frowning at how easy it was. It didn’t take any less power than it had before, I noted as the steel-tipped projectiles thudded into the makeshift shield. The well was just deeper than it used to be, deeper than it should be in a transitional Name like mine. Weaker than the kind of power I’d felt in the Duke of Violent Squalls, but not by that much – and wasn’t that a terrifying thought? That kind of a gain never came without a cost, and I wasn’t sure what I’d be paying with. If I ended up losing my soul because of fae shenanigans, I was going to be pissed. I just knew that stealing it back would be horrendously difficult, and I didn’t have the time to spare to murder my way back into a semblance of humanity with all the other things going on. The enemy didn’t bother shooting at me again after it was made abundantly clear they might as well be aiming at a wall, instead aiming their crossbows at the raised shields of my retinue.
I wasn’t having any of that.
Dismissing the shield, I called on the power a third time. I’d shot bolts of shadow out of my hand before, and even learned how to strengthen or weaken them: this time I poured as much as I could into the working without it blowing up in my face, and loosed the projectile at the foot of the barricade’s centre. The resulting explosion of wood and screams had me blink in surprise: I’d essentially pulverized three feet of barricade and assorted people with a gesture, and I wasn’t even winded yet. Yeah, definitely sitting down with Masego to have a talk about this.
“Plug the gap!” the same woman’s voice called out.
“Fire,” Tribune Farrier’s voice calmly ordered.
My own people’s volley did little more damage than the sporadic fire they’d been subjected to – it was hard to hit a target holed up behind cover, even a panicking one – but it did what it had been meant to: suppress the enemy before the first rank hit them. I spurred Zombie forward into the gap I’d created, where the enemy was trying to form a line, and didn’t even bother to call on my Name. My warhorse trampled his way through the fledgling formation and I spilled a man’s brains on the ground with a measured stroke of my sword. There must have been ten soldiers around me, but they were tired and scared and facing a Named. Well all knew how it was going to end. Within heartbeats the Gallowborne were at my sides, methodically butchering their way through the Praesi troops. Pikes and crossbows were no match for veteran sword and board infantry like my retinue on the best of days, and even less since I’d taken to occasionally drilling them muself. The skirmish was quick and brutally one-sided, the back of the enemy formation beginning to run for it before the front even collapsed. I waited for us to have seized the barricade properly, then picked out Farrier from the crowd.
“Tribune,” I said. “Send a runner to Nauk. The centre is secure. The Fifteenth is to advance on every front and converge on the Royal Palace. Leave a detachment behind for our wounded.”
I glanced at the rest of my personal guard. They were not, by the looks of it, particularly thrilled by the victory. There’d been nothing to this fight but whimpers and dead men. Like the seasoned professionals they were, the Gallowborne went around finishing off the enemy wounded as the meat of the cohort resumed formation.
“The rest of you, with me,” I said. “Let’s get this over with.”
I led and they followed. The outer gates to the Royal Palace were wide open, and its grounds freshly tread. Evidently the runners from our last engagement had made it here ahead of us. The gardens were similarly deserted but up ahead I could see where the remaining forces of the Ruling Council were waiting for us. Crossbows were peeking out of windows on both levels of the main hall and the large gates in front were closed. Probably barricaded from behind. I trotted up ahead again, and ignored the hesitant hail from a window to the left. Cloak streaming behind me, I guided Zombie to the bottom of the marble steps and stared at the massive bronze gates.
“Break,” I said.
My Name flared even as the metal crumpled like parchment under my eyes, falling apart with a sound like a gong being struck. In the hall behind, two dozen soldiers stood shaking and pale.
“Surrender,” I ordered. “I will not tell you twice.”
As the Gallowborne silently spread their ranks behind me, soldiers began dropping the swords. In the windows crossbows dipped as men retreated and the poor fools in front of me knelt. Farrier came to my side and I addressed him without looking.
“The two usurpers will be inside,” I said. “Secure them.”
“By your will, Countess,” he murmured.
I got off my mount and offered the reins to one of my soldiers, dismissing John’s strong suggestion that I take an escort with a sharp gesture. They would be more hindrance than help where I was headed. Ignoring the terrified soldiers as I strode into the palace, I headed straight for the heart of what had once been the seat of power for the Fairfax dynasty – and the Albans before them. The room where the Ruling Council had once held its sessions was deserted, and the door to it locked. Nothing the strength of the Named couldn’t force open. It was evident by even a short look that the luxurious room hadn’t been used in some time. The two Wastelanders must actually have been arrogant enough to have used the former throne room for their audiences. Idly taking off my helmet and shaking loose the hair under it, I set down the chunk of goblin steel on the table with a loud thunk. My gauntlets soon followed it, thrown carelessly as I headed for the chair at the head of the table. I paused there, my hand on the arm of it.
“I’ve felt you looking since the moment I left Arcadia,” I spoke into the gloom. “Come out.”
The woman slipped out of the deeper shadows in the corner, idly strolling to the seat on the other end and plopping herself down on it.
“Evening, Squire,” the Thief said. “Fancy meeting you here.”