“We do not forget.”
– Official motto of the House of Iarsmai
I hadn’t set foot in a House of Light since becoming the Squire, though to be fair my attendance at the daily sermons had always been shaky. This wasn’t just any house, though: it was the Alban Cathedral, the beating heart of the faith in Callow. There were hundreds of brothers and sister here at all times, and Praesi occupation had done nothing to change it. The priests, after all, had not taken part directly in the fighting for the capital during the Conquest. They’d healed any who went through their doors, but none had taken the field. The House of Light did not concern themselves with who ruled the land, only the souls of the people who lived on it. Or so they liked to say. Some priests were more politically-inclined than others: a few of the sermons had been very harsh on the subject of Evil and its servants, though they’d always refrained from outright preaching rebellion. That was the line Black had drawn when conceding freedom of worship in the conquered kingdom.
The main hall was filled with beds when I entered, though thankfully most of them were empty: with the end of the riots, the influx of wounded had ceased as well. I left the Gallowborne outside, and for once Tribune Farrier did not protest: the idea of being at risk here was as absurd for him as it was to me. White-robed priests stirred when I strode in, with an older woman coming forward. She did not have any marks distinguishing her from the others – the brothers and sisters had no ranks, and seniority did not always mean authority – but the simple fact that she was the one headed for me said it all. She had Deoraithe blood, I noted. Too pale to have both parents from the Duchy though. The sister bowed.
“Sermons have been suspended for a sennight, my lady,” she said.
“The it’s a good thing I’m not here for one,” I replied. “Take me to the baroness.”
She smiled with feinted confusion and began to answer, but I cut her off with a sharp gesture.
“I’m Catherine Foundling,” I said.
“I am aware, Lady Squire,” she said.
“Then you should know deceiving an Imperial dignitary while the city is under martial law qualifies as treason,” I said. “Don’t make that mistake. It would get ugly for both us, and I’m not here to hurt her.”
“The cathedral offers refuge to all,” she insisted.
“Look outside, sister,” I said tiredly. “There are no refuges left. Don’t make me ask twice.”
She looked like she’d bitten into a lemon, but didn’t protest again. There were catacombs under the cathedral, every child knew, but people not sworn to the House of Light were not allowed to set foot in them. Most of the Fairfax dynasty was buried there, save for the few whose heads were in the Hall of Screams. I hadn’t known for sure there were rooms other than the graveyard carved out in the foundations, but it was easy enough to suspect. They had to keep the food somewhere, not to mention the more contagious patients. Baroness Kendal was in one of the rooms that served the latter purposed, if I had to guess. I could feel power coming from the walls that made me uncomfortable, had the Beast raising its hackles underneath my skin. The whole cathedral was full of it, but it was particularly pure down here. I wasn’t surprised, considering I could be more than twenty feet away from consecrated grounds. The sister knocked at the door and the baroness herself opened it, her arm in a sling.
“Lady Catherine,” she said, blinking in surprise.
I looked at the priestess.
“You may go,” I said, and it wasn’t a suggestion.
She didn’t enjoy that, but I didn’t particularly care. I turned to Anne Kendal, taking in the sight of her. She was still pale, and not in the pretty way she usually was – it was the pale of someone who’d bled too much, not the ivory of good breeding.
“May I come in?” I asked.
“By all means,” she replied, moving out of the way.
The room wasn’t much to look at. A cot and a small table covered with fresh linens. A water basin in the corner, and an open book on the bed: something religious, by the looks of it. The baroness closed the door behind me.
“I’d invite you to sit down,” the baroness said, “but I seem to be short on furniture.”
“I don’t intend to stay long,” I half-smiled. “You should sit, though. You still look like you’re recovering.”
“The assassins punctured by lung and cut into my spine,” she admitted. “Even the touch of the Heavens has been slow in working.”
Gods. I hadn’t thought her wounds had been that bad. No wonder people thought she was dead. And I’d probably let the people who’d done it go not a bell ago. The taste of self-disgust was thick on my tongue.
“I was aware of the risks when I accepted your offer,” Kendal reassured me, misinterpreting the look on my face. “Praesi play for keeps.”
“Don’t they just,” I muttered.
So did I, these days. I had a fresh batch of corpses in the city to prove it.
“I’d heard the Fifteenth had arrived, but I hardly believed it,” the baroness, smoothing a silver curl back as she sat on the bed. “They’d have had to leave months ago.”
“We went through Arcadia,” I said.
She stared at me like I’d just grown another head.
“That’s… possible?” she said.
“If you’re a Duchess of Winter,” I replied.
She looked genuinely unsure what to say at that. I forgot, now and then, that the kind of eldritch places I went and the many different creatures that tried to kill me in them were just legends to most people. Stories they never expected to see take flesh. I’d lost those kind of certainties: if it could be real it was and it was probably after my head for some godforsaken reason.
“Will you be using that as your title?” she finally asked, which she probably felt was relatively safe grounds.
“I’m leaving that up in the air until I’ve had a chat with Her Dread Majesty,” I said. “I don’t suppose the priests carried word of what happened today?”
She shook her head.
“They say isolation from the worries of Creation will allow me to heal quicker,” she said.
“Ruling Council’s dissolved,” I said. “I stormed the palace last night and had Murad and Satang publicly crucified just before Noon Bell.”
“Gods save us all,” she whispered, closing her eyes. “It is ill-bred of me to say as much, but they deserved to die. Not this painfully, but they did.”
“My legionaries will put them out of the misery after sundown,” I shrugged. “Point will have been made by then.”
That was as much pity as I was willing to expend for those two. I only had so much to spare, and there were many souls more deserving of it.
“If I may ask, who rules Callow then?” Kendal asked, eyes fluttering open.
“I do,” I said. “But I’m going off to war for Gods know how long. Congratulations, Baroness Kendal: you’ve just been appointed Governess-General of Callow.”
She eyed me carefully.
“There is no such thing,” she said. “And if there was, the Empress would frown upon it.”
“The Empress will have to cope,” I said. “And I’ll have to give her something for it, I’m sure. No doubt she’ll have her price ready when we speak.”
“I suppose I should thank you for the privilege,” she finally said.
“Don’t thank me,” I said. “I want you to turn this country into something functional while I go off to kill the people burning it down. I’ll leave you my seal – that gives you authority over everyone in Callow who’s not in the Legions.”
“The city must be in shambles,” the baroness sighed.
“Heal quickly, Anne Kendal,” I said. “Your home needs you, and so do I.”
In the end, it took two more days before Laure was settled. The appointment of the Governess-General was met with enthusiasm by the city – she was well-known there and better liked – and quiet distaste by the legionaries of the Fifth. None of them had forgotten that she’d once been the Baroness Dormer and one of the foremost nobles of the Liesse Rebellion. That she had been made the highest-ranking person in Callow after myself was a bitter bill to swallow. They’d just have to deal with it: I didn’t have anyone else remotely as competent and trustworthy at my disposal. That made for one fire mostly put out, so on to the next: the Deoraithe. I’d used the Fifth’s mages to scry Marshal Ranker and inform her I would be headed for Denier immediately, though I couldn’t give her a clear date of arrival. It was a good thing I didn’t even try an estimate, because this time travelling was… difficult.
What I took my soldiers through did not look like Winter. Or Summer, for that matter. Unless I was mistaken we’d marched through the borderlands between both. It had been deserted on Winter’s side, but on the last few days of the journey we’d begun so see larger and larger patrols from Summer gathering in the distance. It took us a week, in the end. Still shorter than it would have taken us through Creation, but inexplicably longer than it took us to get to Laure from Machford. There did not seem to be any rhyme or reason to the time spent in Arcadia, and my control on it was erratic. I’d barely needed to do anything the first way through, but on this one not getting stuck for months had been a constant struggle. I did not believe our third way through would go uncontested.
The gate opened a full day south of Denier, since I’d never been in the city itself. I allowed my legionaries a bell to recover on these less-treacherous grounds before beginning the march anew. My two and and half thousand men came in sight of the city’s walls on the evening of the following day, though the Marshal’s scouts found us long before that. I didn’t bother to meet them in person – Nauk served as a go-between while I spoke with Hakram. When it came to Legion gossip, Adjutant was without equals.
“So,” I said as Zombie trotted at his side. “Fourth Legion.”
The tall orc shot me an amused look.
“Cognomen Blackhands,” he said.
“I already knew that part,” I complained. “Everybody knows that.”
“They don’t usually know where it’s from,” Hakram gravelled. “Ranker was the Matron of the Hungry Dog tribe, before she took up with Lord Black. She took all goblins of age with her into war and sent the children to half a dozen other tribes.”
I whistled, reluctantly impressed.
“That’s a hell of a bet to make,” I said. “He was still an up and comer back then, and the Empress a relative unknown. Still doesn’t tell me where that cognomen is from.”
“Hungry Dog tribe had a ritual, when time came to choose their matron,” Adjutant said. “All the candidates put their hand in a brazier – the one who kept it the longest got to rule.”
“High pain tolerance doesn’t mean good leadership,” I grunted.
“It’s about who was willing to suffer the most to get it,” the orc said. “I can respect that. Ranker kept her hand in there for half a day, long after everybody else had abandoned. Her left hand’s a blackened ruin, and she’s refused any healing ever since.”
“And they named an entire legion after that?” I frowned.
“Officers in the Fourth kept the tradition,” Hakram said. “Even those not goblins. Most of them take healing afterwards, but everybody has to be willing to burn for power.”
“That feels like it should be against regulations,” I said, then glanced at him. “… is it?”
The thing with being Named was that rules only applied to you if you allowed them to. For example, my relationship with Kilian was technically breaking a rule about fraternization – she was under me in the chain of command. I’d learned the most important of the regs, but some of the smaller ones I’d, uh, only skimmed. In my defence, there were a lot.
“It’s skirting the line about voluntary injuries,” the orc replied. “That can qualify as desertion, if you’re not careful. But the Marshal’s been with the Carrion Lord since the beginning. Those that were get to run their legion however they want.”
A woman used to getting her own way, then, and one of the three highest-ranked military officers in the Empire to boot. I narrowed my eyes, thinking back to an old Name dream of mine – she’d been with Grem One-Eye and Istrid during the civil war. That’d been what, thirty years ago? And she’d already been a matron candidate before that. I wasn’t clear how old you had to be for that, but at least ten years old felt like a safe bet. Considering it was rare for a goblin to make it past thirty-five, that Ranker was at least forty was notable.
“How old is she?” I asked.
“Near sixty,” Hakram said. “And no, nobody knows how she made it that old. Most common guess is that Lord Black had rituals done to extend her lifespan.”
“He doesn’t like using blood magic,” I frowned, as there was no real question about what kind of a ritual could be used for such a purpose. “He would have needed a very good reason.”
“She’s the most powerful goblin in the Empire, bar none,” Adjutant said. “And she’s a vocal advocate for the Tribes being involved with the Legions. Pickler says a lot of the Matrons were in favour of going isolationist after the civil war.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“They made a lot of gains when Malicia won the throne,” I pointed out. “Breeding restrictions were lifted and they pretty much run the Imperial Forges.”
That part hadn’t been taught in the histories back at the orphanage, but it had been in the pile of books Black had dropped into my lap when I first became the Squire. I’d taken me a few years to understand that those were meant in part to be a primer to Imperial politics – by learning how all the major players had gotten where they were, I could get a read on what they wanted. Before the civil war the High Lords of Foramen had owned all the forges in the city, though they’d used goblins as labour. Malicia had given ownership to the Tribes and only allowed High Lady Banu to take a cut from the proceeds. A significant one, but it’d been a sizeable blow to her power base. I’d not been surprised to learn that she was part of the Truebloods.
“They’ve always had a bend that way,” Hakram shrugged. “And no one gets involved with the Tower for long without getting burned. I can understand wanting to take their win and go home.”
“So she’s a key player, then,” I said. “If she goes, the Matrons she’d keeping in check get bolder.”
“She’s not someone you can bully, Cat,” he warned. “She’s run Denier for twenty years and the Fourth is rabidly loyal. Get on her bad side and even our goblins will get restless. She’s to the Tribes what One-Eye is to the Clans.”
The looming figure of an era, he meant. Even Juniper got star struck when she spoke about Marshal Grem, and she was not a girl who impressed easy. I allowed the conversation to ebb as I considered what was ahead of us. Duchess Kegan who’d raised her army of twenty thousand was only half the problem I had to deal with. I knew what the Deoraithe wanted, and our shared enemy was common ground enough I was more or less confident I could point her in the right direction. The question was whether I could make Marshal Ranker buy into the notion. Marshals weren’t just the Imperial officers with the authority to command several legions: they had a broader responsibility put on them.
One-Eye was charged with securing the border with the Principate, Marshal Nim with keeping peace in the Wasteland. Ranker was meant to keep the Duchy of Daoine in check, positioned near the best crossing of the Silver Lake’s tributary to slow the Deoraithe down if they rebelled. I had, theoretically, the authority to give her orders. But her responsibility to keep an eye on Daoine came straight from the Tower, and that meant gave Ranker at lot of leeway. Malicia’s orders came before anyone else’s, no matter the circumstances. I remained silent all the way to the city, but no solution presented itself.
Denier was a sleepy little city, about the size of Summerholm but nowhere as heavily fortified. It had rarely ever seen fighting: whenever the Empire had bypassed Summerholm and crossed the Hwaerte, they tended to go straight from Laure. The city had been stormed during the Conquest, but it had surrendered after a token resistance – it was in no way capable of resisting the likes of what Praesi sappers could unleash. Its only real military importance came from the fact that it stood near the easiest crossing into Daoine. Higher up the river the harsh currents made navigation tricky and the making of a pontoon bridge nigh impossible. The waters west of the city were almost lazy in comparison and full of large mud banks. There was no bridge into the Duchy, of course. That no such thing would be built without the sanction of the Dukes and Duchess of Daoine had been one of the conditions written into the treaty that saw Daoine folded into Callow after the First Crusade. No Fairfax had ever dared to go back on that word, even when the northerners flouted the authority of the throne.
The greatest general in Callowan history, Elizabeth Alban, had famously attempted to invade the then-Kingdom of Daoine. By the the Queen of Blades had already proven her ability by occupying three principalities of what was not yet the Principate, crushing a Liessen rebellion and turning back a Praesi invasion. The expectation had been that, within a few months, the Deoraithe would be made subjects of Callow. Instead she’d had to slog through the countryside for two long years, losing thousands to ambushes and night attacks while her supply trains disappeared. Historians usually noted that given another year she might have won anyway by forcing a decisive battle at the capital of Daoine, but the invasion had collapsed when the Praesi had crossed the border again under Dread Empress Regalia. After the Wastelanders were defeated and the Empress killed as her flying fortress crashed into Laure, the Queen of Blades had begun planning a second invasion.
So the Watch had murdered her in her bed, in her own seat of power.
No ruler of Callow had ever forgotten that pointed warning. Had half the population of Daoine not been wiped out by Dread Empress Triumphant when she took the continent, the Duchy might very well be a sovereign nation to this day. A combination of worries about Praesi resurgence even after Triumphant died and Eleanor Fairfax’s deft diplomacy – helped along by her famous ‘friendship’ with the Queen of Daoine – had seen the kingdom made a duchy, though one so removed from the authority of the throne it was effectively a vassal state instead of truly a part of Callow. That state of affairs had been maintained after the Conquest, with regular tributes and fixed war time obligations being signed over to the Tower by treaty. My short-lived Ruling Council had changed nothing in that regard: Duchess Kegan’s envoy had flatly refused any notion that they were subject to its authority and I’d recognized that as a fight I couldn’t win. And wasn’t even sure I wanted to, to be honest. Daoine had always gotten on just fine on its own. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.
The gates were open for us when my soldiers finally made it to Denier, ranks of legionaries atop the walls watching us. I rode in at a brisk pace, and only reined in my horse when a Taghreb with the markings of Staff Tribune headed in my direction with two lines for escort. I quietly ordered the Gallowborne to allow them passage, though Farrier saw to it they immediately surrounded the legionaries of the Fourth when they got lose.
“Lady Squire,” the olive-skinned man greeted me, sharply saluting.
“Staff Tribune,” I replied. “You look like a man carrying a message.”
“Marshal Ranker asks that you attend to her immediately, ma’am,” he said.
I cocked my head to the side.
“My men are not yet settled,” I said.
“I would handle this myself, my lady,” he said. “The Marshal would like you to that within a bell Duchess Kegan will be crossing the river with a party to treat with us. If you’re to be part of the conference, you will need to be briefed.”
I smiled at the Taghreb, cursing viciously inside. Well, there went my plan to work on Ranker for a day or two before talking with the Deoraithe. One of these days, I was going to force Fate into a physical manifestation and then I was going to stab it.