“I do not fear wicked men, who know only cruelty and pain. The fear they inflict leashes them as well. But a decent man? Oh, there is no limit to the devilry a decent man will fall to, if he believes it necessary.”
– King Edward III of Callow
Catherine, after some gentle prodding, had finally gone to bed. She still had quarters that were nominally hers in the royal palace, and not even the rebels had been arrogant enough to lay a hand on those. The dark-haired woman he called both friend and leader was too tired to even notice the Gallowborne discreetly following her at a distance, three of them ordered to guard her door through the rest of the night. Hakram did not believe that there were many entities within the bounds of Callow that could kill Squire in combat, but daggers in the nights were a different matter. They still got the occasional assassin paid for by Wasteland gold, though considering the amount they’d killed over the last year Praes had to be running out – there were only so many times Adjutant could have the heads of those enterprising fellows put on pikes before the pool of volunteers got truly shallow. Tribune Farrier lingered close, wiping blood off his sword hand with a cloth as Catherine’s retinue herded the prisoners away none too gently. The Praesi household troops were still too shocked to protest the treatment.
“Lord Adjutant,” the pale-skinned man finally saluted, thumping his fist against his breastplate.
The tall orc replied with the same gesture. He rather liked John Farrier, and believed the feeling was nearly mutual. The man was less than fond of greenskins in general – his grandfather had gotten his head caved in by an orc during the Conquest, and Callowans kept grudges – but their shared loyalties had done much to bring them closer. Another few months to work on him, Hakram thought, and they might even get to a place where they shared drinks. Adjutant would keep at it. The two of them were arguably the members of the Fifteenth who saw the most of Catherine, it was worth putting in an effort for them to get along. Hakram’s purpose had been to keep everything running smoothly long before it became his Role.
“You look like you want to say something, Tribune,” Hakram gravelled.
That or he was in pain. Humans had such delicate faces, it made their expressions harder to read: neither orcs nor goblins were so… complicated. That the wheat-eaters rarely meant to use their teeth to convey what they were actually conveying only made it more confusing.
“She pulled ahead of the cohort twice, tonight,” the dark-haired human said, “And refused to take an escort when she went deeper into the palace.”
Worry. This he could deal with.
“That was no slight to your abilities, Tribune,” he said. “She’s… impatient with this entire situation. And when she was headed for her meeting, guards would have been of no help. If anything she might have needed to protect them.”
The pale man’s eyes narrowed.
“The Thief,” he guessed.
“You haven’t had to clean up a corpse,” Hakram said, “which means she will be cooperating with us.”
“She ain’t the nice heroine type,” Farrier said. “She won’t be above sliding a knife in the Countess’ back down the line.”
The orc rumbled his approval. Awareness of threats was a good trait for the head of a personal guard to have. Catherine has chosen well in catapulting Farrier up the ranks instead of drawing someone from the officer pool. But then she’d always had a way for gathering talent to her banner, hadn’t she?
“It will be seen to,” Adjutant said.
The Callowan nodded sharply.
“The Countess didn’t give me any orders for the prisoners,” he added after a moment.
A concession, this. Tribune Farrier only answered to the Squire, theoretically speaking. That he was requesting instructions, even in such a sideways manner, was an offered hand. Though not an unexpected one: as far as the Empire was concerned, whenever Adjutant spoke it was Catherine Foundling’s voice articulating the words. Even nobles courted his attention, nowadays, and wasn’t that just the most hilarious thing he’d heard all year? Some brute like him from the Northern Steppes, wielding enough influence to give pause to highborn. Most days Hakram would have preferred to wash his hands of that entirely, but having that kind of clout made it easier to fulfil his duties.
“Staff Tribune Bishara lent us one of her men,” he said. “He’ll be going through the prisoners to see which can be ransomed back to the Wasteland. The rest we’ll be handing to the Governess-General for judgement.”
The Tribune’s eyes widened.
“It’s true, then?” he said. “Baroness Kendall is still alive?”
“We’ve had word of it,” Adjutant grunted. “We still need to confirm, but it seems likely.”
“Thank the Gods,” Farrier said. “If anyone can put some order in Laure, it’s her.”
He bit his lip the moment the words left his mouth.
“Not that I mean to impugn the Countess’ abilities,” he hurriedly added.
“She doesn’t enjoy being behind a desk,” Hakram said. “It’s not a crime to notice it.”
It would have been hard for the both of them not to, given how often she used personally drilling the Gallowborne as an excuse to foist off paperwork on him. It wasn’t that she was incapable of ruling, Adjutant knew. She had, after all, managed to set Callow on the path to recovery after less than a year in charge even with the Ruling Council slowing the process. In large part that had been through allowing her newly-appointed Callowan governors the leeway to do as the saw fit, but knowing when to give over power was also part of ruling. But she hadn’t taken to it the way she had to battlefield command, that much was glaringly obvious. The Squire shone brightest with a sword in hand, like the Warlords of old. There was a reason orcs called her that, and it wasn’t just respect. A damned shame it was not possible for her to transition into that Name: it would suit her better than that of Black Knight in many ways. But even after centuries to be the Warlord was, deep down, to be an orc. The orc. There was no changing that bedrock foundation.
“We’ll keep them in the city gaols, then,” Farrier said. “It would save the Baroness some trouble to execute them now, but I suppose a public trial will help strengthen her grip on the city.”
Hakram nodded and allowed the man to leave, trading salutes. He waited until the Tribune had left before clearing his throat.
“Tordis,” he said.
The orc lieutenant emerged from the shadows where’d she been leaning against the wall, hand resting idly on the pommel of her sword.
“Deadhand,” she replied, inclining her head.
Catherine had granted him a tenth under Tordis as his personal command during the Liesse campaign, and he’d later expanded their numbers to a full line after having Tordis promoted from sergeant to lieutenant. He’d needed the manpower, even if his original task of finding the leaks in the Fifteenth had largely been handed off to Ratface and Aisha since. The lieutenant was an old friend from Rat Company, and one he’d shared a bedroll with in the past. There’d been nothing more to that than flesh and comradeship, and neither of them had been interested in anything more serious – her being under his command had effectively closed off that avenue for good since. Squire had already amusedly called him a harlot for a month last time she’d seen a woman come out of his tent, and if she ever did that around Robber odds were he’d have to deal with a song about it. The goblin had proved he could compose truly filthy rhymes when’d he’d penned that tune about Nauk and the Fifteenth’s oxen, so Hakram was eager to avoid the pitfall if he could. He’d made a point of being even more discreet since becoming the Adjutant.
“Take word to Nauk,” he said. “I’ll need legionaries tomorrow to serve as public criers. Callowans, if possible. No more than a company.”
“And send someone to speak to Farrier,” he added after a moment. “We’ve got two high-profile prisoners, and I want them held separately from both each other and the rest of the soldiers.”
There might be mages among them, and there were discreet ways to scry. Better to keep the High Lords in the dark about what was happening in Laure as long as possible, or they’d start to wonder how the Fifteenth had made it so quickly to the old capital. It was only a short set of conclusions from there to figuring out they’d used Arcadia, and that trump card was best kept under wraps while they still could. The moment they realized that the Fifteenth could march straight into the Wasteland without ever needing to cross at the Blessed Isles, they’d start taking desperate measures. Too many of them had openly aligned with the Diabolist for them not to fear brutal retribution now. Catherine had something of a reputation in that regard.
“Should I have a study prepared for you?” Tordis asked.
Hakram shook his head. His bare bone fingers tightened.
“I still need to have one last conversation tonight,” he said.
Hakram had visited Laure more than he’d ever thought he would, since the Liesse Rebellion, but the former capital of Callow was still foreign city to him. Unlike Robber, who would start feeling at home the moment he’d stabbed someone in an alley anywhere in Calernia, he’d never become comfortable here. Marchford was starting to feel like home, though not as much as the Fifteenth, but the history here would never allow the orc to feel as anything but a stranger. How many hundreds of thousands of his kind had died, trying to take these streets for the Tower? Laure had been the beating heart of the Praesi occupation since the Conquest, but for all that it still felt Callowan to the core in a way few other cities he’d visited did. It was unlike Summerholm, where Callowans strode through the streets eating Soninke grilled meats and Praesi bartered in the markets with pale-skinned merchants, or even Marchford where young widows now traded heated glances with good-looking legionaries while goblins cheated at dice games with old men in older taverns.
Even Liesse, in the depths of the south, had felt… different. There was a difference there the way there was a difference between Taghreb and Soninke: cousins, but not ones who always got along well. Hakram had come to learn that Callow was no more a monolith than Callowans often assumed Praes was. The northern baronies to the east of Daoine were little involved with the rest of the realm, busy with their cattle-herding and weaving, and the wide central plains surrounding Vale saw themselves as a breed apart from both the Liessen to the south and the larger cities bordering the Silver Lake. There were divisions, but shallower ones than in the Wasteland. They were more like the Clans, only willing to squabble amongst themselves so long as there was no other enemy to fight. The Legions of Terror had forged unity between these old tribes one failed invasion at a time, he thought. Breathing the foul city air, Hakram dismissed the thoughts and slowed his steps until he stood in the centre of an intersection.
He reached for his Name, the feeling like putting on his armour and letting the weight of it settle on his shoulders. Find, he whispered inside his mind, and the wheel spun.
He picked the avenue his Name nudged him towards and trod down until the next intersection, where he invoked his aspect again. It was slow going, and twice he had to readjust the course. His target was moving, and had noticed it was being pursued: his ears caught the sound of footsteps on rooftops, too large to be those of goblins. It took half a bell for him to end up in the part of the city Catherine called “Dockside”, though no sign marked it as such. The orc was panting lightly when he found the alehouse he suspected was the hiding hole, cold sweat going down his back. The more he called on the aspect the more tiring using it became. But he was well-rested, and barely needed to sleep these days. He could take it. The establishment was shuttered, but there were lights peeking through. The footsteps quickened behind him, and Adjutant turned to meet his greeters.
Two men, Callowans. The older one took out a knife, a slender little thing that almost made him want to laugh.
“Alehouse’s closed,” the younger one said.
“Not to me,” Hakram gravelled.
“Shouldn’t have come alone,” the older one said, “if you were going to mouth off.”
He moved. Adjutant did not bother to take his axe in hand. He waited, then caught the wrist holding the knife and bent his legs: his muscles shifted as he swung the man around, using him to clobber the other Callowan. The two of them landed in a pile of limbs and curses.
“I’d be within my rights to kill them,” Hakram called out to the night.
“Squire agreed to a truce,” Thief replied, strolling out of the alley.
“Then discipline your people,” Adjutant grunted. “If they’d killed a legionary, a great deal of blood would have followed.”
“I refrained from drowning your goblins in the Lake when they poked around,” the short-haired heroine said. “That’s already showing a great deal of restraint.”
The orc glanced contemptuously at the two thieves, who were hastily rising to their feet.
“Don’t try to rob Legion personel again,” he told them. “You’ll live longer.”
The Thief glanced at her men.
“Scuttle off, boys,” she ordered. “And remember not all orcs are this calm after steel comes out.”
Hakram did not bother to watch them flee into the night, his attention all on the Thief.
“Let’s talk,” he said, and it wasn’t a suggestion.
“For a bunch of villains, the lot of you sure do chatter a lot,” the woman sighed.
She signalled from him to follow her anyway, her knuckles against the door resounding in a pattern so swift he almost missed it. The door opened and they were ushered in. The place was a pisshole, as the exterior had indicated. After his years at the War College Hakram was no stranger to those, though, and at least out here his nose didn’t have to deal with clouds of poppy smoke hanging in the air. The dozen men and women inside, scattered throughout the tables, watched him in silence as he followed Thief to to a dimly lit alcove in the corner. She already had a pitcher of ale on the table, and she stole a tankard from another table on the way to the table to fill it. The tall orc sat, the wooden chair creaking under the weight of him, and after taking a sip made an effort not to grimace. The ale might as well have a rat still floating in it. She couldn’t possibly be drinking the same stuff, could she?
“Deadhand,” Thief enunciated. “Now there’s a fancy title. Catchy, too. Praesi do have a way with that.”
“You were there when I earned it,” Hakram said.
The heroine laughed, pushing back her bangs.
“Is that what this is about?” she asked. “Are you holding a grudge, Adjutant?”
Her grin was almost mocking.
“Can’t have that,” she said. “We’re on the same side now. Gotta get along.”
Hakram set aside the tankard patiently.
“Catherine likes to think of the best of people,” he said. “That they see reason. That they will hold to their promises.”
“Naïve, for a villain,” Thief said.
“It has paid off more often than not,” Adjutant said. “Put trust in people and they feel the need to live up to it.”
“I’m deeply honoured Her Gracious Majesty Foundling has seen fit to make me a minion, of course,” Thief smiled. “All hail the queen.”
“Of course,” Hakram continued calmly, “sometimes people think to take advantage of that. To use their second chance against her.”
“It’s almost like the fish she’s selling smells slightly off,” the Thief mocked.
Adjutant’s dead hand snaked across the table, lightning-quick, and seized the woman by the throat. He knocked the table away rising, slamming her against the wall hard enough the wood shattered like clay. He heard a chorus of knives being taken out in the room to their side, and slightly raised his voice as he continued choking the heroine.
“A single one of you moves and I’ll snap her neck,” he mildly informed them.
None of them did.
“When people make that mistake, Thief, and aim a knife at her back – they find me waiting,” he continued, still in that mild tone. “Now, what I’m doing tonight will make you hate me. That’s fine. As long as you also remember the fear in your guts right now. Listen to that fear, when you start thinking about turning on her. Because I’ll be watching, and unlike Catherine I don’t believe in second chances. Much less third ones.”
He released Thief, letting her drop to the floor and gasp for breath.
“Enjoy your evening,” he said politely. “I look forward to working with you.”
He walked away, and not a soul dared stop him.