“To conquer until all of Creation is desert or province: that is the ideal of Praes. Mock their failures if you must but do not ever forget their victories.”
– King Albert Fairfax of Callow, the Thrice-Invaded
The sword tore through flesh and bone with a meaty sound, sending the guard’s head rolling on the ground. A waste – Black would not have pursued him, had he fled. Shaking the blood off his blade with a flick of the wrist, the green-eyed Knight stepped deeper into the Pirate Queen’s sanctum, feet burdened with grim purpose.
“Amateurs,” Ranger said from his side. “They didn’t even have a proper watch.”
“They thought they were safe,” Black replied.
“They won’t after tonight,” Warlock added. “If any of them survive, anyway.”
The chatter was unnecessary, but he’d long become used to Warlock’s cheerfully morbid comments enough that it barely registered. Still, he traded a half-amused, half-exasperated glance with Ranger. They met another corsair on their way to the throne room but this one did not even get to open her mouth before Wekesa turned her upper body into ash: dealing with the pirates was child’s play after a year of back alley dogfights with his rivals and the Order of the White Hand, not to mention the civil war that followed. Not a reason to get sloppy, but overestimating an enemy was just as dangerous as overestimating them. By the time they reached the doors to the Pirate Queen’s own throne room the sounds of the mess outside had started to drift up to their ears. Curses and screams of terrors tore through the night’s quiet, the same reaction Captain always elicited whens she dared to cut loose. Black pushed open the driftwood doors in front of him without breaking stride, ready to finally put an end to the night’s slaughter.
“They sent the Black Knight and his death squad for little ‘ole me? Guess I should be flattered,” the Queen laughed as she rose from her throne and unsheathed her cutlass. “So which of you feels like dancing with death, children?”
Ranger sighed and shot the Queen in the leg, arrow knocked and flying faster than you could take a breath.
“Is it me or does that never get old?” Warlock mused. “They always get the funniest look on their faces when we won’t play along.”
The Pirate Queen dropped to the floor with a hoarse cry of pain, clutching her leg. Black wasted no time closing the distance and kicked her cutlass out of her hands.
“You are correct,” he said. “I am the Black Knight.”
“Do you have no honour –”she started.
“No,” Black replied, crouching to be of a height with her.
“Drop the knife, Pirate,” Ranger called out. “Otherwise the next one goes through the eye.”
There was the clatter of metal on the ground and the Queen let go of the blade she’d pulled from under her tunic, grimacing.
“Fine, you lot are big and bad,” she snarled. “You made your point. Why am I still alive?”
“Because you set half of Thalassina on fire a few months back,” Black said.
“You going to parade me around Ater ‘cause I’ve been a bad girl?” the pirate asked with an ugly smile. “And to think I’d heard you were dropping the old way bullshit.”
“You misunderstand me,” the Black Knight replied. “It takes talent, to execute an operation of that breadth.”
“You should work on your recruitment pitch, love,” Queen sneered. “I’m feeling a mite uncooperative at the moment.”
Black’s eyes hardened.
“Your prize ship has been sunk. Most your lieutenants are dead. You are kneeling on the floor of your very seat of power,” he murmured. “Bringing you to this took me four people and a rowboat, Pirate. You asked me what my point was? This is it. Do not make me repeat myself.”
“Fuck it, and fuck you,” the Pirate Queen smiled. “I’m not flying an Imperial flag, and I’m sure as Hells not gonna take orders from the Tower. Do your worst, boy – I’ve laughed in the face of harder men than you.”
Warlock’s eyes became wreathed in fire and the dark-skinned man stepped forward, but Black help up a hand to stop him.
“You call yourself the Pirate Queen, but I’ve noticed your crews sometimes refer to themselves as corsairs,” the Black Knight said.
“You trying to bore me to death, Knight? I’ll give you points for originality,”
“Unlike pirates, corsairs are known to sometimes operate under official sanction,” Black said. “Not as part of a nation’s navy, but as… auxiliaries of a sort.”
The Pirate Queen eyed him dubitatively.
“If we’re not raiding Praes then who?”
“By the end of the week word will spread to the Free Cities that the pirate threat has been dealt with,” Black smiled coldly. “I expect merchant shipping to Thalassina to resume soon after.”
“Well look at the balls on you,” the Queen whistled. “Won’t they just bail again when I start boarding their boats?”
“Not if you confine yourself to a handful of them per month,” Black said. “A risky business, certainly, but there will be enough who think the payoff worth it. The Dread Empire would, of course, collect a cut in exchange for the right to operate in its waters.”
“So you want my ships on a leash, is that it?” the pirate sneered. “What if I say no?”
The green-eyed man laid the flat of his blade on his knees.
“That is your prerogative.”
There was a long moment of silence as the Queen mulled over the offer. Sighing, she finally spat in the palm of her hand and offered it to the man in front of her. Black spat into his own without batting an eye, ignoring her puerile attempt to crush his fingers when they shook on it. He rose.
“A woman named Scribe will come tomorrow to work out the details of the arrangement. A pleasant evening to you, then,” the Knight said as he sheathed his sword. He made for the door, but before he could pass the threshold the Queen called out to him.
“Knight,” she asked. “If I’d said no, what would you have done?”
“Used your head a prop when making the same offer to your second-in-command,” Black replied, not even bothering to turn as he strode out of the Pirate Queen’s throne room.
There was no slow transition between sleep and wakefulness. I was one, then I the other. I rolled out of my sheets still tired and padded across the room to the window. Dawn had come a gone hours ago, by the looks of the sun. Grabbing a blanket from a seat, I wrapped myself in it but found it did nothing to hinder the cold. It wasn’t coming from outside, I supposed. Breathing out quietly, I stared at the gardens sprawling below and considered the Name dream I’d just woken up from. It’d been a while, since I’d last had one of those. I’d known for years that Black had handled the pirates based in the Tidelesse Isles after the Empress ascended to the throne, but that there’d been a Named involved was not common knowledge. Considering that the pirates had first come from a Praesi fleet smashed by the Thalassocracy one at port, that they’d eventually be forced back into Imperial service was darkly amusing. The history lesson wasn’t why I’d gotten the dream, of course. I had decisions ahead of me.
Robber, by now, would have prisoners from the Dark Guilds. If there were any from the Thieves I’d have to release them, but that still left the Smugglers and the Assassins. Months ago, I’d thought to dismantle the Guild of Assassins. Even before Ratface had laid out the logistical difficulties of that, I’d had a little chat with the Empress on the subject. Pointless, she’d called the entire enterprise. I still disagreed with her. There was a difference between a handful of men and woman who killed for coin spread all over Callow and an organized guild of them. The part she might have been correct about was that the amount of time and resources I’d have to sink into this far outweighed the gains to be made – namely, the absence of a godsdamned gang of killers for hire in my homeland. The situation had changed since she and I had talked: back then, all I’d had to worry about was Heiress plotting in the south. Now I had other cats to skin than a guild that probably killed fewer people in my territory every year than roadside accidents.
My Name was urging me to make vassals of them. Pretty bluntly, too. I clenched my fingers and unclenched them. It wasn’t a decision I was willing to make before looking one of them in the eyes. I turned away from the window. Breakfast, first, and then a show. Hakram should have organized everything by now.
“It’s not a Praesi invention, you know,” Adjutant said.
“Huh,” I said. “That’s surprising. They’re the ones famous for it.”
The sun had melted any traces of frost our passage had made in Fairfax Place. Not that anyone would be able to see them anyway: the plaza was packed to the brim with the people of Laure. Hakram had to place criers at street corners to arrange as much, since just nailing parchments announcing the mandatory presence would have been largely pointless. The overwhelming majority of people in the capital couldn’t read, and it was still one of the most educated places in Callow – some of the Fairfaxes had encouraged scholarship, though never to the extent of funding academies like they did in some of the Proceran principalities. I imagined that kind of expense would have been hard to justify when the Legions could be marching on Summerholm at any time. It was impossible for a crowd this size – there must have been twenty thousand people in the plaza alone – to be silent, but it was quiet. The appearance of my legionaries had been so sudden no one knew quite what to make of it.
“Miezans brought it with them over the sea,” Hakram told me. “It was the punishment for rowdy slaves.”
The tall orc was standing besides me, so I could see the displeasure on his face as he spoke. Considering orcs had made for very popular slaves in the Miezan Empire, I could take a guess as to why.
“So when Triumphant was using it, it had… implications,” I murmured.
Adjutant refrained from adding ‘may she never return’ though his hand twitched when he supressed the reflex of bringing his knuckles to his forehead.
“I’m telling you this because the High Lords will think it’s part of the message you’re sending,” the orc said.
I nodded. The both of us watched Nauk’s men drag the usurpers to the tall wooden crosses we’d had placed in the middle of the plaza. Satang looked numb, but Murad was struggling against the pair of Callowan legionaries forcing him to move. One of them lost patience and cracked a gauntleted hand across his mouth, drawing blood. The two Praesi were hoisted up the cross, and then an orc brought out the iron spikes and the hammer. Satang’s hoarse scream filled the plaza as the legionary nailed her first wrist down.
“You are rowdy slaves to me,” I muttered. “Well, that ought to get their attention.”
“They’ll be pushing to censure you through the Imperial court,” Hakram said.
“The Court I have to worry about isn’t in Ater,” I replied.
Another gut-wrenching scream echoed as the work on Murad began.
“Breaking entirely with the Tower would have consequences,” Adjutant said. “Ones we are ill-equipped to handle.”
“I’ll be calling myself a vicequeen, no a queen,” I said. “There’s an implication there I still answer to Her Dread Majesty.”
“You’re claiming a territory as large as Praes as under your direct command,” Hakram pointed out. “You’d be more an ally than a vassal.”
“She’ll get tribute and soldiers,” I said. “She struck the same deal with Daoine.”
“You’re not this thick,” the orc gravelled. “Don’t pretend.”
Callow wasn’t Daoine, of course. Its fields fed the Wasteland and its population was near the size of Praes’. There was a difference in the balance of power – Malicia could not allow me to just declare the de facto independence for a territory this large. It would be a major loss of face, influence and wealth for her. She would likely have to deal with internal rebellions if she was somehow convinced of the notion.
“I’m done letting High Lords having a say here, Hakram,” I said.
“Please,” Murad screamed, but the legionaries forced his legs together and drove a spike through the flesh and bone.
“Then find concessions to make,” Adjutant replied. “We’ll have around twice our number in legionaries on the field by the end of this. Fighting them would not end well, and the Empress will give the order if you leave her no other choice.”
I conceded the point with a sullen grunt. Kilian hadn’t been wrong on one thing: I had tired of compromise. The last spike tore through Satang Motherless’ ankles and the legionaries wiped the blood off their armour with calm professionalism before moving away. The two Wastelanders hung from their crosses limply. Time for my part, then.
“The Ruling Council is officially dissolved,” I spoke, weaving a thread of power into my voice so it would carry for blocks. “As of this moment, I take command of Callow until martial law is lifted. A Governor-General will be appointed shortly to oversee Laure.”
I paused to let that sink in.
“You may disperse,” I finished.
I allowed my eyes to scan the crowd. This was, in essence, the pivot of my presence in the capital. If a riot ensued everything was gonna go to shit – I’d need to leave behind a garrison and it was all down here from there. The scene with the two usurpers had been as much to sate them with blood as to offer a reminder: rebels died ugly deaths. Silence, the kind you only got in a church, reigned supreme. Then the first man knelt. From there it was like an avalanche. Within heartbeats, there was not a man woman or child standing in Fairfax Place. I breathed out slowly, then composed myself.
“Take me where Robber keeps them,” I ordered Hakram, and we left without a word.
Going back Dockside was oddly nostalgic. I’d earned coin for blood here, back in the day. Would that the trades I made were still so innocent. The warehouse belonged to the fishermen’s guild, though they were more a loose association than one of the true powers claiming that same name. It smelled of salt and dry fish, the reason why becoming obvious when the two of us entered: rows of bluegills and widemouth basses were hanging from the ceiling. I vaguely knew the salting was done different in other parts of Callow, but Laure was known for its particular take on the process. Southpooleans insisted their way of doing it was better, but they were just as wrong about that as they were about everything else. That was the lightest thought I allowed myself before painting blankness over my face. Weakness had no place here. There’d been legionaries standing guard around the warehouse and what looked like at least half Robber’s cohort was spread inside.
Crossbows out, they kept an eye on the two dozen Callowans who’d been dragged out of their beds last night and brought here without an explanation any more elaborate than a kick in the back if they weren’t moving fast enough. None of them were tied, I saw, save for a single pair. A man and woman who looked – and smelled liked tanners – but had an entire tenth of goblins keeping an eye on them at all times. Robber strutted up to me, a bit of blood on his lower lip, and massacred yet another salute.
“I’ve got a treat for you, Boss,” the Special Tribune announced.
“It better not be a corpse,” I said.
It was always a godsdamned corpse with him. He was like the world’s most murderous cat, only it was worse because he was supposed to have a conscience. Or whatever the goblin equivalent of that was. Probably more knives.
“I would never,” the yellow-eyed wretch said, deeply offended. “I’m a tender, gentle soul. I’m just misunderstood.”
“I saw you eat a man’s finger once,” I said.
“Well, he was dead,” Robber shrugged. “Wasn’t like he was going to be using it.”
He made sure to pitch his voice high enough to our guests would be able to hear him. I used to wonder whether he did things like for entertainment or for interrogation tactics before I’d realized there was no real difference between the two for him.
“So what have you got for me,” I asked.
Engaging him would only keep sending this conversation spiralling further into madness and mind games.
“Smugglers’ Guild,” he said. “All except my present. Those two ‘tanners’ with enough steel and poison on them to kill a small village.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“How’d you find them?” I asked.
“Ratface had them marked as potential members in his briefings,” the goblin said. “We only had to kick the door and run in screaming to check if they actually were.”
I resisted the urge to rub the bridge of my nose. Results, Catherine, I reminded myself. He still got results.
“Anybody high ranked?” I said.
“Top two Smugglers in the city,” he said cheerfully. “Was going to torture that out of them, but they kept telling me. They seemed to think it would make us release them.”
“Black tolerated their activities,” I said. “They’re not used to Legion attention.”
To my teacher it had been more valuable to keep an eye on what was being brought into Callow illegally than to curtail their activities. Knowing him, he’d probably considered their dodging fees and tariffs like a payment of sorts.
“The were sloppy,” Robber grinned viciously. “If that’s the best criminals your people have to offer, it’s no wonder you turned to Praes to get things done.”
“We’ve a hole in the budget,” I warned him. “Don’t think I won’t sell your hide in Mercantis for a few coppers.”
“Please,” he cackled. “I’m the official footrest of the queen of Callow. I’m worth at least a couple silvers.”
I managed not to grimace at that, but it was a close thing. Not the footrest thing, that was an old joke between us, but this ‘queen’ business. That was a warning from him, that the rank and file of the Fifteenth expected for me to have a crown by the time we’d cleaned up the mess. Balancing the next few months was going to be like walking a tightrope. I allowed him to waddle away like he’d won. Little ‘victories’ like that usually kept him happy for a day or two, and when he was in a good mood he got into much less trouble.
“The assassins are watching you,” Hakram said quietly.
I knew better than to look.
“Let’s talk to our guests, then,” I grunted.
I gestured for the goblin cohort to get the prisoners moving, seating them on a row of wooden crated. A few of them recognized me, apparently, because the moment I got closer they spoke up.
“Lady Foundling,” a man in his fifties called out. “I must really protest. This is entirely unnecessary! We could have met at our offices-“
I glanced at the lieutenant standing behind him. She grinned, then smashed the copper bottom of her crossbow into the back of his head.
“Let’s make one thing perfectly clear,” I said. “This is not a courtesy visit. If you want to walk out of this room alive, I would discard the notion that you are in any way protected by the deal you made with Black.”
I turned cold eyes on the crowd, saw a few shiver.
“I am not him,” I said. “I have different expectations of you.”
Sharp laughter came from further down the line. It was a woman, in her twenties with a missing eye. Looked like she’d been in a few scraps.
“Posturing,” she said. “You don’t have the balls to go against the Carrion Lord. We all know who you answer to.”
I studied her for a moment.
“Choke on your tongue,” I Spoke.
Her eye went wide. She tried to breathe but couldn’t hand desperately clawing at her throat. You could have heard a pin drop in the warehouse, by the time she fell blue-faced to the ground.
“I trust,” I said, “that there will be no more of that.”
Several of the Smugglers had pissed themselves. I wrinkled my nose in distaste. Robber was right, they’d gotten soft under Imperial protection.
“Callow is at war,” I said. “You have been called upon to serve.”
The man from earlier – he must have been the local head – nodded in abject submission. His hands were shaking.
“Anything you need, Lady Foundling,” he babbled.
“You’ll be sending representatives to the Fifteenth,” I said. “They are to put themselves at Supply Tribune Ratface’s disposal and obey his every order. And while you do that, gather rations for an army on the march. You’ll be keeping my army supplied through the Wasaliti on its way south. I’ve no patience for parasites while the country is under siege.”
That should allow Juniper to manoeuvre the way she needed to. Marchford just didn’t have the supplies for an extended campaign, and with both the war in Wolof and General Istrid gathering legions near Vale there would be no time to requisition what we needed. I turned to the two assassins, who’d been watching all of this in silence. They were not scared, I saw. They weren’t from a breed as easily unnerved as the smugglers.
“Neither of us has the authority to grant any demands you could make,” the man among them said.
“Not even the head of our Guild in Laure would,” the woman added, then shrugged. “Kill us, if you must. It makes no difference.”
“You can carry a message,” I said. “That will do.”
“And you think the Guildmaster will listen?” the man said, cocking his head to the side.
“We have watched your men try to find us,” the woman told me. “Prune branches if you can. The tree will survive.”
I’d asked Ratface, a few months ago, to find me the Assassins. So I’d be able to wipe them out in one go. The anger that had driven me back then – the righteous indignation at the concept of a band of killers being allowed to run amok Callow without consequence – was not as sharp at it used to be. I had no spite left to spare for mortals, not when I was set against forces who thought of ripping out my heart as a mere warning.
“I won’t kill you,” I replied softly. “Oh no. I’ll drag you back to Marchford, and then I’ll let Apprentice rip out the information I need from your minds.”
The woman’s body stiffened ever so slightly.
“You’ll most likely survive that,” I casually continued. “Though not unscathed. What’s left of you, I will trade to the Winter Court for a favour. They do enjoy their little games, the fae.”
I felt the room cool around me.
“I doubt you will, though,” I said. “Winter tends to play rough.”
“Striking at us would take men you need elsewhere,” the woman said.
The male assassin’s eyes flicked towards her, then he sighed.
“A message can be carried,” he conceded.
“Tell your Guildmaster that he’s on notice,” I said coldly. “His actions over the next few months are what will determine whether I go through your ranks with fire and sword and all the things that are worse I’ve refrained from using.”
The woman nodded slowly.
“And the terms?” she asked.
“You take a contract in Callow, it goes by my desk,” I said. “There’s so much as a shoemaker that dies without my approval and I rip you out root and stem. You don’t need to worry about running out of work, though.”
I smiled thinly.
“I have a list,” I said. “It will grow longer, before all is said and done.”
The man considered this for a moment.
“And should the Guildmaster acceded to your request, will you handle the matters directly?”
“I’ll be the one handling you,” Adjutant said from my side. “Won’t be hard to find. There’s not a lot of orcs with one of those.”
He brought up his bone hand, displaying the fingers. It made the assassins visibly uncomfortable, hardened as they were. They were, after all, still Callowan. Necromancy was the Enemy’s tool, and one of its most unpleasant ones.
“You’re dismissed,” I said, gesturing for the goblins to untie the assassins.
It wasn’t enough to worry about this war. I had to worry about the one after that, and when the High Lords knocked at one gate and Procer snuck through the other? There would be a need for ill-gained goods and dead men. All it cost me to get them was a principle.
I was fast running out of those.