“From small slights, long prices.”
– Deoraithe proverb
For all that the marshal’s envoy had impressed upon me the urgency of the situation, I found myself waiting. The balustrade overlooked an inside courtyard, and from my perch I watched the soldiers milling below. I’d left a line of the Gallowborne down there along with Robber and a line from his cohort. My personal retinue wouldn’t be mingling with the goblins, but the Special Tribune and his men were not so distant. They were, perhaps, a little too friendly. I winced when Robber rolled all over the paving stones, clawing at another goblin’s eyes and cackling loudly. Their sharp nails drew blood on each other, but aside from my own visibly horrified Callowans none of the legionaries seemed anything but amused. The other greenskin was larger – likely from a Matron lineage, then, since those were supposed to be bigger and smarter than other goblins – but my own bastard was younger and more vicious. It ended with him sitting atop his opponent, licking the blood off his fingers to the cheers of all the goblins in the courtyard.
The door my back was turned to opened silently, but my senses had gotten even sharper since Arcadia. I could feel the air moving, almost, and the soft creep of leather boots headed for me. The only other person in the room came to stand by my side at the balustrade, deftly climbing atop a stone seat so they’d be able to lean their elbows against the edge like I did. I didn’t show surprise, or even bother to turn around. I already knew who it was, and years of dealing with Robber had taught me the dangers of allowing a goblin to set the beat of a conversation.
“Tribe?” a soft voice asked.
“Rock Breaker,” I replied.
Marshal Ranker chuckled, the sound a dry rasp.
“I can see why a barren old bitch like Weaver would get rid of him,” she said.
Only then did I glance at the small, wrinkled old woman that was one of the three most important commanders in the Legions of Terror. Marshal Ranker’s skin looked like leather left out too long in the sun, all cracked and dry and a brown-green that was unpleasant to look at. Her face was a curtain of heavy wrinkles leading to thin brown lips and a pointed chin. Her eyes, though, had me wary. Deep set and dark, with small threads of red in the sclera. This one was ancient, by the standards of her people, and old goblins were either dead or exceedingly dangerous. The infamous blackened hand her legion was named for was curled and unmoving, looking crippled for good, but I knew better than to take anything shown by this woman as face value.
“Her loss,” I said. “His record speaks for itself.”
The goblin clicked her tongue.
“That boy learned his lessons too well,” she said. “We tell them they’re supposed to be fearless, but that’s a lie. They’re still supposed to be afraid of us.”
Of the Matrons. I didn’t know much about the Tribes, not that anybody did, but what little I’d learned from Robber and Pickler had not endeared their ruling class to me. It had always been absurd to me to wrest authority out of the hands of the capable because of some arbitrary objection to those capable individuals having bollocks. If there was one aspect of Black’s philosophy I had wholeheartedly embraces, it was that power belonged in the hands of the competent – wasting talent out of petty bias was to lessen all those involved.
“Fear’s never enough,” I said. “Not on its own.”
“Empires have been built on less,” the Marshal snorted.
“Not this one,” I said.
There was a pause.
“And yet you crucified them,” Ranker said.
“They crossed me,” I replied. “Some fear was required.”
I got a bark of harsh laughter for that.
“Marshal Ranker, of the Hungry Dog tribe,” she finally introduced herself.
“Catherine Foundling,” I said. “Duchess of Moonless Nights.”
“I’m aware,” the goblin lightly replied. “As I’m sure you are that you’ve had crossbows pointed at you since you first stepped into Denier.”
I smiled wryly.
“You’re not going to mention the fact that this entire room is rigged with demolition charges?” I asked.
Smell was a sense as well, and I’d learned to recognize the sharp tang of goblin munitions.
“Much like you weren’t going to mention you sent your Adjutant to poke around the city,” she replied.
“He’s not a spymaster,” I shrugged. “Just a friendly orc who likes to share a drink.”
“The dangerous ones always smile,” the Marshal said.
“I’ve been advised you’re not someone to trifle with,” I told her.
“I considered trapping your little crew in an avenue and setting the whole thing aflame with green,” Ranker casually said. “Your tiff with the Empress has poor timing. But that would trigger another uprising, and that’d be even more trouble than you.”
The sheer nonchalance she’d just admitted that with was chilling, but I was no stranger to cold these days.
“All I’m doing is hacking off the dead wood,” I said. “And there’s a great deal of that. You’ve been around long enough for-“
“Save me the speech, Duchess,” the goblin interrupted cuttingly. “I’m not one of your lapdogs, and whatever hopes you’re peddling I don’t care for. I’m a fucking Marshal of the Dread Empire, kid. I know where my loyalties lie. If it comes to it, I’ll kill you if only to spare Amadeus the pain of doing the deed himself.”
“The way things used to be done in Callow won’t work anymore,” I said. “You have to be aware of that.”
The Marshal hacked out a laugh.
“And whose fault is that? I read Sacker’s report on Summerholm. The Liesse Rebellion is as good as your doing. You set up that highborn chit in the south who’s giving us trouble now, too, and to add insult to fucking injury you’re taking advantage of an invasion to make a power grab,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned the only difference between you and those poor bastards you nailed to crosses is that you have a bigger stick and catchier battle cry.”
“I actually have a purpose, unlike those ‘poor bastards’,” I replied coldly. “And I’ll see it through no matter how much wailing comes from the gallery.”
“I’ve been threatened by scarier Named than you, Duchess,” Ranker said. “And I’ll say this for the Chancellor – he wasn’t dumb enough to do it in my own territory. You’ve risen quickly, and we all know how that story goes. The fall comes as quickly, and twice as hard. Take care not to drop your carcass on anything I care about.”
“Are we just going to stand around trading veiled threats all day?” I said. “I was under the impression Duchess Kegan was headed our way.”
“There is no us,” the Marshal said. “You’re one conversation gone south away from rebellion. And you have some sort of plan for the Deoraithe. Out with it. If it has to come to steel, let’s get it out of the way.”
“You wouldn’t leave this room alive if it did,” I said flatly.
Ranker eyed me with those dark, deep-set eyes.
“No,” she agreed. “But neither would you.”
I’d seen that look in the faces of people before. William’s, when he’d decided to call Contrition onto Liesse. Akua’s, when she’d told me she would collapse the dimension were were in if I refused to negotiate. Ranker wasn’t Named – she lacked the feelings of power and weight both – but she did have that kind of resolution to her. She would, if she found my intentions unacceptable, rather bring down this entire place on our heads than allow me to go through with them. I’d never had that goblin razor-sharp fearlessness turned on me before, and it wasn’t a pleasant feeling. Could I kill her before she even spoke an order? I had no doubt. I shouldn’t, though. There was nothing to gain from it, and it worried me the urge was there. Kilian’s soft accusation that I hated to compromise came back to my ears, along with the bundle of things I still felt about that conversation I’d set aside rather than deal with. Had I become too used to getting my way? Or maybe it was subtler than that. I’d won often enough that the idea of losing even in a small way had me reaching for violence. Because Ranker would be beating me, by coercing me into revealing my hand like this. That was a fact.
The surrender of control rankled. I’d stayed in this room even after smelling the munitions because I’d believed that whatever measures she had taken they wouldn’t be able to kill me. I’d done that even after being told by the person I trusted most in the world that I was dealing with a real threat. Stupid. More than that, I’d been arrogant. Ranker had survived the death of more powerful villains than me. This isn’t a mistake I would have made a year ago. I would have liked to blame this on my Name, on whatever the Winter King had done to me, but that felt like a cheap excuse. I’d gotten so used to reaping the lives of non-Named like wheat I’d stopped seeing them as truly dangerous, and that was the kind of conceit that got people killed. I wasn’t in a small pond anymore. I’d reached the sea, and the things that lurked in it would gobble me up if I didn’t start stepping more carefully. I breathed out. Decide on your objective, I told myself, returning to Black’s old mantra. Decide what lines you’re willing to cross to get to it. If I retreated here, all I lost was pride.
Perhaps I could use a little less of that.
“I want take Kegan’s army through Arcadia,” I said. “And use it on my enemies. The fae first, then Diabolist.”
“And why would she agree to that?” the Marshal asked.
“Because I know what she wants,” I said. “And I can help her get it before it’s too late.”
The wrinkled goblin looked down at the legionaries in the courtyard.
“We can deal,” she finally said.
We met the Deoraithe at nightfall.
Only ten of them came across the fishing boat, but they did not need to be any more: nine of those wore the brown-grey cloaks of the Watch, longbows strapped on their backs and longswords at their hips. I’d never fought a full-fledged member of the order once charged with manning the Wall protecting Daoine from orc incursions, but I knew better than to underestimate them. Even the half-baked observer they’d sent to the Lone Swordsman’s side had managed to put an arrow in my back barely an inch away from my spine. I still had the scar, a pink puckered star on the tan skin of my back. The tenth, then, must have been Duchess Kegan Iarsmai. The woman was short – though still taller than me – and learn, with always-moving brown eyes and the stride of someone used to others following behind. She wore no highborn clothes, only hardened leather armour with the crest of her house on the chest. The Duchess had forgone a helmet, allowing her long dark curls to stream down her back. She was not ugly, but neither was she pretty: her features were hawkish and her middle-aged bearing carved of sternness.
Our side of the negotiations was less uniform in nature. Marshal Ranker had taken a tenth of hardened Soninke and Taghreb regulars with her, while I’d picked a tenth from the Gallowborne. Callowans, mostly, but also two orcs. They were ten steps behind myself and the sole goblin on the scene, and the looming silhouettes of the Watch stayed at the same distance when the Duchess advanced. She glanced at Ranker with open dislike, then frowned at the sight of me.
“’Evening,” I said. “I’m-“
“Lady Catherine Foundling,” Kegan cut through. “We have paintings of you. Marshal, I was not made aware there would be a Named tonight.”
“A last moment adjustment,” Ranker replied. “But not unfitting. She does have to authority to treat with you.”
The Duchess turned her eyes to me.
“Daoine is not subject to the Ruling Council,” she said bluntly. “Nor will it ever be. Our tributary arrangements with the Tower need no broker.”
“Not what I’m here for,” I said. “I hear you have an army assembled on the other side of the river.”
“That is none of your concern, Squire,” she said.
She glared, at both me and Creation in general.
“Ancestors save us from meddlesome children,” she muttered in the Old Tongue.
“I also speak that,” I replied in the same.
She offered me a sneer.
“Poorly,” she replied.
Ouch. That actually kind of stung. Wasn’t my fault it was a hellishly complicated language. Even Alamani wasn’t as bad, and people from other parts of the Principate preferred speaking Lower Miezan than learning the language.
“You’re not crossing, Kegan,” Ranker informed her.
“You think a second legion and whatever the Carrion’s Lord apprentice brought will be enough to stop me?” the duchess coldly replied. “No amount of traps will be enough to turn me back. I am due, Marshal.”
“It would be,” I shrugged. “I’ve beat worse odds, Watch or no. But I’d rather avoid a fight.”
“Then get out of our way,” the Deoraithe hissed. “My debt lies not with the Tower.”
“I know,” I said.
“So how many did the chit take?” Ranker asked. “Twelve? Fifteen? Surely not twenty. You can’t have gotten that soft since the Conquest.”
“The man who beat us at the Wall is a long way from Denier, goblin,” Kegan said. “Do not make me teach the two of you what we have learned since those defeats.”
“You won’t get there in time,” I said, and her eyes went back to me.
“You know not what you speak of,” the duchess said.
“I know Akua Sahelian a lot better than you do,” I smiled thinly. “You’d have to march through the entire span of Callow, and if you force the crossing you’ll be doing it with the Empire harassing you the whole time. She knows that. She planned that. By the time you get to Liesse, she’ll have finished whatever ritual she’s cooking up.”
“I wanted answers from you, but I already obtained them,” the Marshal said. “What we have now is terms.”
“For what?” Duchess Kegan asked.
I rolled my shoulder, delighting in the crack.
“Allowing you to use my shortcut,” I said.