“An alliance of victors is like a hearth in summer.”
– Julienne Merovins, tenth First Princess of Procer
I’d met a handful of heroes since I’d first become the Squire, and Thief was one of the harder ones to place. She was, quite blatantly, an egotist. Yet she lacked some of the traits that were common with the more arrogant heroes: both the Lone Swordsman and the Exiled Prince – the Prince in particular – had been almost unnaturally handsome. The appearance of a Named usually changed to reflect how they thought of themselves, after all. Yet Thief was not particularly good-looking, I noted as I studied her. Maybe two inches taller than me, she was a skinny woman with short dark hair and blue-grey eyes. The leathers she always wore had been cut for her frame, but weren’t particularly tight: much like me, she’d have little to show for it if they were. Most of all, she lacked the weight to her presence that I’d come to associate with powerful Named. William, for all his flaws, had been able to mesmerize a room full of rebels with but a few words. I had a hard time imagining Thief ever doing the same.
“You sure you should have taken off that helmet?” the heroine smiled. “You’ve seen how costly a mistake that can be.”
I withdrew my hand from the arm of the chair, and slowly sat down. The seat wasn’t made for someone wearing plate, evidently, and it groaned under the weight of my armour.
“We going to play the threat game?” I asked bluntly. “Thief, I could have killed you with a hand tied behind my back last time we met. I’ve since murdered a demigod for power. We both know how that fight goes.”
The other woman’s eyes turned cold.
“A fair fight, maybe,” she said. “I’m not in the habit of having those.”
“And I am?” I replied. “Look, I’m as willing as tangle as the next villain but if I get an occasion to put a shot someone’s back in the dark, I’m sure as Hells taking it.”
“How remarkable,” she sneered.
“Well, I have been spending a lot of time with goblins lately,” I said. “But I gotta say that putdown’s a little rich, coming from someone whose entire Name is about theft.”
“Oh?” she said. “Is someone displeased their treasury’s gone?”
“I am,” I smiled thinly. “I’m about to have to find food and lodgings for at least a hundred thousand refugees while also running a military campaign and I don’t have the funds for any of it.”
“The Tower will shell out the gold,” Thief dismissed.
“The Tower’s putting down internal troubles, and I’m about to spit in its eye,” I said. “It’s not going to be giving me a single copper for the foreseeable future.”
“Villains stabbing each other in the back at the first sign of trouble,” the heroine grinned unpleasantly. “History does tend to repeat itself, doesn’t it?”
“I’m not-“ I began, then stopped. “Oh fuck you.”
She blinked in surprise.
“Who do you think you are, exactly?” I asked.
“A heroine, villain,” she replied.
“Someone tried to mind rape a city of a hundred thousand last year, Thief, and it sure as Hells wasn’t anyone on my side,” I barked. “You think being William’s minion for a few months gives you a pass to be an asshole forever and still have the moral high ground? Think again.”
“I spoke against that,” Thief hissed.
“Words are wind,” I said. “You could have taken a stand. You didn’t. So much for heroism, eh?”
“I might have made mistakes,” she said through gritted teeth. “I’ll own up to that. But you know what I’m not, at least? A godsdamned collaborator.”
My face blanked. I’d been called a traitor before. By a crowd in Summerholm, when I was fresh into my name, and by the Lone Swordsman in the months that followed. But it was the first time anyone had actually called me a collaborator to my face. No doubt quite a few people had thought it in the past, but I’d never actually heard it spoken out loud. It stung more than I would have liked, even now. Things with a grain of truth to them usually did.
“I took the path that damages Callow the least,” I said.
“You took the path that involved selling your soul to the Hellgods,” she replied flatly.
“I got a close look at the Hashmallim, in Liesse,” I said. “I think you think your side’s any gentler than mine, you’ve been listening to stories too much.”
“My ‘side’ hasn’t stolen an entire fucking kingdom,” she snapped.
“And what’s it done to free it since?” I asked.
“It rebelled,” Thief said. “And you murdered the people that did. I’m sure they felt very saved.”
“You think putting a crown on Gaston Caen would have helped this country?” I said, leaning forward. “Gods, Thief, the man fled into exile before the first legion was in sight of Vale during the Conquest. He was a bloody coward and the First Prince owned him down to his toes.”
“So you say,” the heroine sneered.
“So the facts say,” I coldly said. “You think she poured that much silver into a doomed rebellion so an old rival of the Principate could be restored? She wanted a western protectorate to push back Praes, that’s all there was to it.”
“Elizabeth of Marchford would have been queen,” Thief said. “She would not have settled for that.”
“You think she would have had a choice?” I pressed. “After Praes burned the land on the way out, who would have leant the coin and crops to keep Callow alive through the winter?”
“That would have been the Empire’s fault,” she hissed.
“Gods Below, am I tired of hearing about fault,” I shouted. “Fault and blame and Good – none of it fixes any of this. If you want a solution, you deal with realities. With what exists, not the pretty little world that ‘should be’. Praes would have acted in its interest, and that meant torching the country. Procer would have acted in its interests, which was making us a protectorate. Anyone who plans without acknowledging that isn’t planning, they’re lying to themselves. That’s what I can’t stand about the lot of you. Do you think doing the right thing is enough? Fuck you. I’ve had to bloody my hands to get this far, Thief. I didn’t enjoy it, and some of the things I’ve done will haunt me to my grave. But the only clean victories are the ones in stories. Preach all you want, I have gotten things done.”
I panted, out of breath, my tone quieted.
“Which of you pricks on the other side can say the same?” I asked.
“Sometimes you have to take a stand even if you know you can’t win,” she said.
“That’s pride talking,” I replied. “That’s killing people for your principles, and I can’t think of anything more selfish than that.”
Thief laughed bitterly.
“You know, there’s truth in what you say,” she admitted. “But none of it would have mattered if you were a heroine.”
I’d been at this game long enough that the surprise never made it to my face.
“William was never meant to lead,” Thief said. “He was terrible at it. But I look at the party we had, and can’t help but thing there was always supposed to be one. All of us were born in Callow, except for the Wandering Bard – and I’m not convinced she was supposed to be a part of it. One Named for every Calamity, if you’d been on the side of Good. And we’ve all seen what you can do with an uphill battle.”
“I know them, the Calamities,” I said. “I know what they can do better than most. It wasn’t a fight that could be won.”
“The Heavens have a way of evening odds,” she said.
“Prayer is what people rely on when they’ve run out of plans,” I replied. “I’ve no patience for it.”
In this, at least, I was truly Black’s successor.
“What you’ve built is collapsing,” Thief said.
“By the end of the year, there will be no Praesi governor in Callow,” I said.
“I’m not talking about the governors,” she said. “I’m talking about the Ruling Council.”
“It’s done,” I said tiredly. “I tried, it failed. Come sunup the two of them will be dead and I’m not surrendering that authority ever again.”
The heroine frowned.
“You’re naming yourself queen,” she said.
“Vicequeen, most likely,” I said. “A ceremonial title: I can’t run the country if I’m waging war abroad, and it’s become clear I’m not great at it anyway. I’ll name a Governor-General to handle everything and keep power in name only. The Tower won’t accept anyone but a villain at the head of Callow.”
Thief stared at me for a long time.
“What do you want, Squire?” she said. “I thought you’d come here to threaten me or force a fight, but that’s obviously not the case. Why are we here?”
“A tenth,” I said.
The heroine blinked.
“You get to keep a tenth of the treasury,” I said. “The rest goes back in the vault.”
“Are you trying to bribe me with coin already in my possession?” she asked.
“Bribe, no,” I said. “I’m hiring the Guild of Thieves.”
“We’re not for hire,” Thief said.
“Fine, I’m giving you a ‘gift’ for anticipated services, then,” I grunted. “Do I need to wink, or are we on the same page?”
“That’s not-“ the heroine stopped before finishing her sentence. “What do you want to hire us for?”
“The Empress and Black have networks of informants forty years in the making, backed by the Legions of Terror,” I said. “The First Prince has a hundred thousand battle-hardened veterans and the wealthiest nation on Calernian at her feet. If I want to play in the same league, I need talented people and I need them now. Your people are criminals, but they’re criminals with presence in every Callowan city and a fountain of foreign contacts. Right now I only have eyes in the Legions and the Wasteland – I’m blind everywhere else and it’s already cost me.”
“I’m a heroine,” Thief reminded me.
“If William had stuck to killing criminals in the streets of Summerholm, I would have given him a salary and a godsdamned badge,” I replied frankly. “I work with the monsters because they give me the means to do what I need to, not because I have any illusions about what they are. I don’t fight heroes out of principle, Thief, I fight them because they keep trying to kill me and make a mess of Callow in the process.”
“And if I don’t cooperate?” she asked lightly, but her eyes betrayed how serious she was.
“This is the part where I say ‘if you’re not an asset, you’re a liability’, right?” I sighed. “I get back the treasury, is what I do, because I need it. And then as long as you stay out of my way, I will politely pretend you don’t exist.”
I smiled thinly.
“And I think you will,” I continued. “Stay out of my way. It’s not like you want any of my opponents to win instead: I’m the lesser evil. Besides, in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s wolves at the gates. I don’t have the time or energy to spare on pointless pissing matches.”
The Thief stared at me in silence. I met her eyes without flinching.
“Assassin tried to recruit me, when I first came into my Name,” she suddenly said.
“I’m told he’s a regular bundle of laughs,” I replied.
“The conversation couldn’t have lasted more than a quarter hour,” Thief said. “To this day, I shiver when I think of it. That… thing was death made flesh.”
I wasn’t sure where she was headed with this, so I kept my peace.
“And yet,” the heroine said, “I think you might just be the most dangerous villain I’ve ever met.”
“You’ve never met Black,” I said.
“It’s not about power,” Thief replied. “You make it easy to want to follow you. Because you make sense, because you get results. I should try to kill you tonight, because if I don’t you might just damage Calernia beyond repair.”
“Will you?” I asked.
“Baroness Kendal is still alive,” Thief said. “She was wounded, but took refuge in the cathedral. The priests are hiding her.”
I nodded slowly, then rose to my feet.
“I’ll need the treasury back in the vault before I leave,” I said.
“Minus our tenth,” Thief smiled bitterly, looking up at the ceiling.
I made for the door, passing her by.
“Squire,” she said. “No, Foundling now I suppose. If you ever become what you say you’re fighting…”
“Then more dangerous people than you will be putting me down,” I replied, and walked away.
I got the last word, I thought, largely because she had nothing to reply to that.
“Lady Squire,” Orim the Grim greeted me.
He’d been sleeping until recently. I’d learned to tell the signs, with orcs – the voices got a little deeper, and they showed their teeth more often. The general was almost as tall as Hakram, who was unusually so for his kind, and his skin was of a yellow-green I’d only ever seen in goblins before. It was uncommon in the Lesser Steppes, I knew: almost all my legionaries from there were of a green so dark it looked like black. Of the man himself, I knew little. When it had become clear he’d remain one of the important people of Laure for the foreseeable future I’d asked my own orcs about him, but gotten only vague outlines. Juniper had told me he’d been chieftain of the Silent Men before Black recruited him halfway through the civil war, one of larger clans in the Lesser Steppes. Nauk had remembered he’d been known for his warring with the Deoraithe of the Wall, and all Hakram knew was that he’d once wiped out an entire smaller clan in a single night for having stolen some of his cattle. I wasn’t surprised, considering the cognomen his legion had earned during the Conquest: Exterminatus.
The Fifth had been under Marshal Grem’s command during his assault on the Wall, a campaign undertaken to make sure none of the Deoraithe would be with the army of Callow at the Fields of Streges. After taking one of the forts, Orim the Grim had put every soldier in it to the sword as keeping any prisoners would have slowed his march. That had happened a long way from Laure, though. In the capital his reputation was as a fair but distant commander who would not hesitate to resort to violence if pushed. His open enmity with the late Governor Mazus had won him some esteem, since the Fifth’s legionaries had made it a point to put the governor’s men in their place whenever they could. I’d been raised to the sight of big armoured orcs punching the teeth out of city guard who overstepped, and it had gone a long way in teaching me to see greenskins were not the enemy. A long time ago, that. My ascension to the Ruling Council has not granted me any better insight into the man, since he’d withdrawn from any relation to it after ensuring the Fifth would not have to obey any orders from its members.
“General Orim,” I replied.
The room in the barracks was almost bare, a sure sign the orc didn’t use it regularly. In my experience greenskins like to decorate with trophies from victories anywhere they stayed longer than a few weeks. The Fifth’s general staff was nowhere in sight: it seemed Orim had grasped that this wouldn’t be that kind of meeting. Save for a table with a jug of some dark alcohol – almost empty by now – and two cups to accompany it, there was little of note here. I’d not been offered any of the drink, and had not asked: orcs drank liquor hard enough to leave holes in whatever it touched. Something about their stomachs taking to alcohol differently, Hakram had told me. As it happened said orc was seated at my side, across from the general. He polished off the rest of his cup and let out a pleased little sigh.
“Callowan drink just isn’t the same,” Adjutant said.
“They make passable wine in the north,” the general replied amusedly. “But nothing close to brannahal.”
My eyes narrowed. I did not recognize the word. It was from an older dialect of Kharsum, I thought, but aside from the part meaning fire I didn’t recognize the rest. As for the mention of the north of Callow, I almost grimaced. ‘Wine’ to the north of Ankou was actually a heavily concentrated version of brandy made by farmers and cattle-herders out in the field. It was said that in a pinch it could be used instead of lamp oil.
“Deadhand tells me you’re to handle order in the city,” Orim suddenly said.
Coming from a Praesi, the way he’d been called by his nickname instead of his Name would have been an insult. From an orc, though, the meaning was different. The Clans didn’t really have titles aside from chieftain. Even their rare mages did not get much distinction from the mass. Orcs who distinguished themselves in some way earned a nickname, and for someone not sharing a clan to use it was a mark of respect. Evidently Adjutant had made some inroads here while I’d been busy in the city.
“I have the usurpers in my custody,” I said. “I’ll be executing them publicly come morning and re-establishing a civilian government afterwards.”
“We’re under martial law,” Orim gravelled.
“We don’t have the soldiers to waste to enforce that,” I replied calmly. “I need you with General Istrid as soon as possible.”
“She knows the people here, general,” Hakram said. “If she says the peace will hold, it’ll hold.”
The older orc conceded the point with a grunt.
“Where is the Fifteenth headed?” he asked.
“I’ve sent Juniper south,” I said. “She’ll be gathering additional men as she goes.”
“She should be marching to Vale,” the orc bluntly stated. “To put her soldiers under her mother’s command.”
“That won’t be happening,” I replied frankly. “The forces will remain divided for the campaign.”
“Ruling Council’s dead,” Orim said. “And it didn’t have authority of the Legions went it was still breathing.”
“I am the Squire,” I coldly said. “Her Dread Majesty is preoccupied with Wolof and Black is abroad. My orders are not to be gainsaid.”
The general’s face went stony.
“Knightsbane’s fought two wars and a hundred skirmishes,” he growled. “So have I. What do you have under your belt, three half-baked battles? The soldiers should go to Vale.”
“I could make this about power,” I replied idly. “We both know that using a sliver of power I could order you to drown yourself and you would. But I don’t need to. I have information you don’t. The chain of command is clear. Do it.”
The orc was twice my size. Scarred, bursting with muscle and capable of popping a man’s neck off his shoulders with his bare hand – and yet he knew better than to try to loom. Orim glanced at Hakram and saw only ice there. Adjutant had picked his side long ago. The general scoffed, but did not push any further.
“You’ll have orders for General Istrid,” he said, tacitly offering to carry them.
“Juniper is already in contact with her by scrying,” I said. “The Knightsbane will be marching on Holden as soon as your men arrive.”
The older orc frowned.
“We’re pretty sure the fae can portal from one stronghold to the other,” he said.
“They can,” I confirmed. “We’ll be splitting their forces with multiple assault so you don’t bear the brunt of it.”
“And you think they’ll just let General Juniper leisurely stroll south?” he sceptically asked. “They’ve raiding parties out.”
“And the Diabolist has an army out in the field,” I said. “So far the Summer Court has refrained from hitting Liesse. I’ve sent two Named down there to remedy to that. Akua Sahelian will have to be dealt with after the fae are repelled, and I don’t want her forces fresh when it happens.”
Apprentice had been less than pleased at being partnered with Archer, but sending either one on their own would have been a disaster.
“My detachment will be stabilizing Laure, then we’ll move on,” I continued. “To Denier. I mean to free Marshal Ranker’s legions if I can.”
Orim’s dark eyes lingered on my skin, the visible reminder that I was at least half-Deoraithe by blood.
“Kegan’s not to be trusted,” he said. “She was never comfortable under the Tower – the Fairfaxes allowed her to run things the way she liked without even tribute.”
“I know what she wants,” I said. “That gives me leverage. And twenty thousand men is nothing to sneer at, if they can be pointed in the right direction.”
“Rely on them and you’ll get a knife in the back,” he gravelled.
“The correct word is use, not rely,” I said. “When can I expect you to move out?”
He mulled over it.
“Two days,” he said. “Supplies are mostly ready, but I want them prepared for a hard march.”
“We should be gone, by then,” I said. “Until we are you can liaise with Adjutant if you need anything. I’ll be busy pacifying the capital.”
He saluted, reluctantly, and I pushed back my chair.
“Hakram?” I prompted.
“I’ll be in touch, general,” Adjutant said.
We left together. I still had over a bell before dawn, by my reckoning, but I’d need to sleep at some point. And when I woke up, I’d have to make sure the largest city in Callow didn’t start rioting the moment my legionaries left. Joy.