“No matter how good the horse, it can only bear one saddle.”
Our march through Summer had taken a month, from the perspective of Creation. Longer than I would have liked, but still miraculous compared to how long it would have taken me to come down from Denier the old fashioned way. Juniper agreed.
“Hugging,” she sneered. “You’ve gotten soft, Foundling.”
It was awkward embracing an orc with a solid two feet on me and broad as a barn, but I put the effort in. For all that the Hellhound mocked me, her grip was tight as well. We’d not gone this long without seeing each other since the Fifteenth was founded.
“You haven’t,” I said. “Gods, what do you eat? It’s like they carved you out of slab of muscle.”
She tried not to look pleased at that, but I’d been dealing with wilier operators of late. My general was a refreshingly open book. Ratface had apparently gone mad with power since I’d suborned the Smugglers’ Guild to him, but since he’d abused his power to find me a fresh crate of Vale summer wine I was going to let that one go. Pouring myself a full cup of the pale wine, I allowed myself a little sigh of pleasure after sipping the alcohol. The stuff I’d dragged with me through Arcadia just wasn’t the same, mostly cheap red vintages from the south. The two of us claimed the folding chairs in her own tent, not having bothered to gather people in the larger command pavilion. We’d have a proper briefing with the others at some point, but I wanted to talk with her before Marshal Ranker and the Deoraithe were dragged into the conversation.
“You’ll have news for me,” I said.
She grunted in assent, sniffing at her goblet full of aragh before downing it. A sure sign this was to be informal: Juniper never touched anything stronger than watered wine in the usual officer meetings.
“Holden is back into the Imperial fold,” she announced. “General Istrid and her legions annihilated the fae garrison and are now fortifying the grounds.”
It was one of Juniper’s little quirks that she only ever referred to her mother by her rank even in private. As for what she’d told me, I was pleased. I needed to herd the Summer Court through known grounds and allowing them two footholds into Callow would have muddied the waters. Now they’d have to come through Dormer, which made it a great deal easier to plan for them. It was shame three legions and some of the finest battle commanders in the field had to be left where I couldn’t use them, but anything less and I was fairly sure the Summer Court would try to force passage. After our last scrap they’d be wary of picking a fight with the Legions of Terror on a chosen field, though. They might win but their losses would leave them too weak to be able to handle the army I’d assembled. Some days it gave me pause, that I’d become someone who could use twelve thousand veterans of the Conquest as a mere deterrent. I’d come a long way from pit fights and waiting tables.
“Losses?” I asked.
“Light,” the orc noted. “It was only the bare bones of a garrison. You kicked the hornet’s nest when you invaded Summer.”
“Oh, I pissed them off way beyond that,” I grunted. “I’ve got a Princess of Summer in chains, Juniper. They’ll be out for blood.”
“Keeping that prisoner secure is a logistical nightmare, I’ll have you know,” the Hellhound growled. “Kilian and half our mages had to be set aside permanently so we’d never lack practitioners for the rotations.”
“It’ll be worth it,” I said. “Largest bargaining chip I could get my hands on short of taking the seat of the Summer Court itself.”
“You assume the fae can be bargained with,” the Hellhound said.
“They always cut deals, it’s in their nature,” I said. “And if for once I can avoid having to pay the price by scraping myself raw, I’ll have no complaints.”
“Devils and fairies always get more than they give,” the orc warned.
“Then it’s a good thing I stole a lot of their shit,” I replied bluntly. “I don’t mind overpaying as long as I get what I want. I’m not going to get stuck in games with them, Juniper. I’ll get exactly what I need not try for an inch more. Only way I can get away without getting fucked too hard.”
“We’ll get nothing if we’re not winning,” she said. “Don’t lose sight of that.”
That was the Praesi way, wasn’t it? No, maybe not Praesi. The way of the Legions, Black’s way. Compromise could be reached, but only from a position of strength. On their own terms. Our way, I must confess. Kilian hadn’t been wrong when she’d said I had no taste to compromise when I could get things how I wanted them instead.
“Masego’s getting ready for the Queen,” I noted. “Or as much as he can, with an entity like her.”
“The Hierophant now, I hear,” Juniper said. “Fancy Name. Never heard of it before.”
There was hint of doubt there. Older Names, those better known, tended to be more powerful than relative outliers like my friend’s. They’d accumulated more weight over the centuries, greater legends to draw from.
“He’ll pull through,” I said. “Always does. But I’ll admit, for this kind of work I almost wish Diabolist was on our side. There’s a lot of bad to be said about the old school, but they have a peerless record when it comes to things like this.”
“She might pull it off,” the Hellhound said. “But whatever she gained from that victory she’d use to screw us the moment the battle was over.”
“I know,” I sighed. “The competence doesn’t come without the rabid crazy. And speaking of dear old Akua, where the Hells is she?”
“We have no idea,” Juniper grunted. “Scrying doesn’t work, and the last time we had eyes on her was when she took Liesse above the clouds. She could be anywhere by now.”
“She can’t stay up there forever,” I said. “She’s got over a hundred thousand mouths to feed, and if she starts dragging civilians to altars she’ll have riots on her hands.”
I wasn’t sure what a riot would look like a dozen leagues above solid ground, but I’d guess it wouldn’t be pretty. Akua’s mind was like a sack of angry, treacherous badgers but she wasn’t stupid. She had pretty thick blinders on, sure, but I’d never seen one of her schemes collapse on its own. She wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous if they did.
“Ratface says she can manage two months at most,” the Hellhound said. “A guess based on what she reported to your Ruling Council when she was Governess, with the assumption she was lying through her teeth on the numbers.”
I’d trust the Taghreb’s judgement in this. He was a middling tactician at best but when it came to supplies and logistics, there was no better man in the Fifteenth. I’d been lucky to get my hands on him back at the College, and even Juniper occasionally offered praise of his abilities. Never where he could hear, and always tempered with generous criticism about his more underhanded dealings, but that my general said anything at all was telling.
“So now we have to guess at the where she’ll be coming down,” I said.
“We don’t know enough about what she’s after to be remotely accurate,” the Hellhound grunted. “Will she be after supplies? If so, Vale will likely be the target. Is she aiming to cripple the Legions in Callow, to carve a realm from the ruins of the south? If so, she must turn her eyes to Holden.”
“Or she could be after sorcery,” I said.
“Legion mages don’t have the learning to even try to unpack that,” Juniper said. “You’ll need the Hierophant to write a report about possible targets.”
Then I’d need Hakram to go through it and cut out all the unnecessary parts Masego would have added, I noted silently. Odds were Hierophant would write me a damned volume with an annex twice as thick. The Soninke was ridiculously wordy, when given ink and parchment. I drank deep from my cup, mood soured.
“So we have a month before the Queen of Summer can enter Creation, if Masego is to be believed,” I said. “Then another month before Akua drops down from the sky to fuck everything up, as is her sacred and solemn duty.”
“Busy year,” Juniper snorted.
“At least Procer hasn’t invaded,” I said, trying for a bright side. “And no one’s unleashed a demon in a year.”
“High Lady Tasia did, in Wolof,” the orc reminded me.
“I can’t believe I have to lower my standards lower than they already are,” I complained. “Well, nobody’s opened a permanent portal into the Hells. There. I refused to go any lower.”
“Give it time,” Juniper grinned, ivory fangs flaring.
She’d meant it as a jest, but there was too much truth to it for me to laugh.
It would be two days before the armies marched south, beginning the trek to Dormer. We were still waiting on supplies and we had a horde of wounded to deal with. I could have begun to put a dent into the pile of urgent scrolls that no doubt awaited me, but for tonight I decided I’d done enough. My body could go on, but I was exhausted in a deeper way. There were only so many twists and turns I could take before it was too much. I slogged my way back to my tent, painfully aware that no one would be awaiting me inside. I’d passed by Ratface’s quarters beforehand and ignored his many requests for me to look at the books in favour of bullying him to hand me another bottle. Juniper and I had polished off the last one after she’d finished her aragh, talking for a few hours until it got dark. It still amazed me that the two of us had gone from being at each other’s throats to people who could actually enjoy the other’s company, no matter how much she insisted otherwise. It was rare thing for me to seek two bottles in a day, but I had a feeling I’d need another drink if I was going to sleep at all tonight. I could still smell the incinerated corpses of the soldiers I’d failed in Arcadia, the hundreds that had died at the whim of two vicious creatures beyond my understanding.
There were Gallowborne around my tent and I spent a few moments chatting with them before going inside. They’d gotten off light from the last battle in Arcadia, and Tribune Farrier was already recruiting to fill the ranks left empty by the dead. I hoped the volunteers would understand what they were in for. I’d gotten half my retinue killed because I’d been sloppy and arrogant, and while I didn’t intend to ever make that mistake again there were harder fights ahead. I wished Black was there so he could tell me about his own guard. He’d had his for decades, he must have known ways to keep them safe without making them irrelevant. Or maybe he didn’t. My teacher might not share my qualms about people being killed in his name, not even people he knew. I’d gotten harsher in the last few years but I was still a long way from being iron as cold as the Black Knight. There was no candle lit in my tent, but to a Named that made no difference. That was why I saw the silhouette sitting on the edge of my cot, and though for a hopeful moment I thought it was Kilian the notion disappeared when the details sunk in.
It was a woman. Soninke, dark eyes, and while shy of pretty not exactly ugly. I’d seen her before, known her under the name of Lady Naibu. Lady Deputy, in Mtethwa. My hand left the grip of my sword and I inclined my head respectfully.
“Your Most Dreadful Majesty,” I said.
This was Empress Malicia’s own puppet, the soulless flesh simulacrum she could use to be two places at once.
“I’ve already told you there is no need for such formality,” the Empress dismissed, using someone else’s hands.
I glanced at the flaps of the tent but the Gallowborne had yet to move.
“You may consider this a private audience, Catherine,” Malicia smiled.
Fuck. My tent was in the middle of an army over thirty thousand strong. The boundaries of the Fifteenth’s fortified camp were set with wards Masego had designed personally. I had thousands of sharp-eyed goblins running around. And yet there she was, on my own godsdamned bed. This could have been an assassin and no one would ever have known. I wasn’t ashamed to say that it was almost enough to scare me, this reminder about how far the Empress’ reach went. I set the bottle on the table and ripped out the cork.
“A glass as well, if you please,” the Empress said. “It has been ages since I’ve tried anything from Vale.”
And she knew my favourite wine. I wasn’t even surprised, to be honest. Black had already told me he’d had a file about me before I ever became the Squire, and it was pretty much a given the Empress would have one twice as thick somewhere in the Tower. I poured her a goblet as well and handed it to her.
“Thank you,” she said. “I hear you’ve finally met Ranger.”
“This is turning out a lot more civil of a conversation than I expected,” I frankly said.
The meat-puppet chuckled. It would not do forget that was what I was looking at, to be taken in by the charm and the pleasantries. I was dealing with a woman who’d hollowed out a body of its immortal soul for the sake of convenient conversation.
“Did you expect me to come storming in, demanding justifications?” she said. “The Empire is a balancing act, Catherine. I do not introduce weight without careful consideration.”
There was silence after that, until I realized she was still expecting to answer her first sentence. Gods, I was exhausted. And near enough to tipsy.
“She came real close to killing me,” I said. “Just for suggesting I could help her in a fight, if I’m not mistaken. She’s not much like the stories.”
“I am not particularly fond of her myself,” the Empress said. “And not only because she attempted to talk Amadeus into running me through and seizing the throne after the Conquest.”
I grimaced. I’d gotten hints from Scribe there’d been undercurrents of that in the past, but never heard it so bluntly stated before. Or been sure the Empress knew of it.
“She’s a monster,” I said. “Bad as the Diabolist, in her own way. I don’t get why Black likes her so much.”
“Love,” the Empress said. “It is love, my dear. She’s an extraordinary creature, I’ll grant that. Her little philosophy is what drew him in, and eventually what parted them.”
I raised an eyebrow. That the puppet managed to see that in the still-dark tent was another detail I filed away for the future.
“Be all you can be,” Malicia murmured. “Do anything you want. If someone stands in your way, end them. If you cannot, respect that rule until you can end them.”
“That’s just anarchy,” I said. “I won’t lie and say I don’t break laws when it’s useful, but I still recognize there’s a need for them.”
“It is easy to believe your whims are the only law of Creation, when you grow powerful enough,” the Empress replied. “She will kill herself sooner or later, crossing something she could not afford to cross.”
“She got into a death match with the Summer Queen,” I said. “I doubt that’ll do the trick but she won’t walk it off easy.”
I was getting tired of standing up with a goblet in hand, so I downed the wine and grabbed a chair. I set it to face the Empress, sagging against the wooden frame.
“Hye always did overestimate herself,” Malicia shrugged. “A matter of little import, in the end. She’s remained in her little hovel in the woods for decades and shows no sign of greater ambitions.”
I could have told her otherwise. That Archer believed her teacher was the best thing to come along since the Gods had whelped Creation, that I’d lost three hundred soldiers because Ranger couldn’t be fucked to do anything about them. But those words I kept for people I trusted. I respected the Empress, what she’d accomplished and the people she’d crushed to get where she was, but I didn’t trust her in the slightest. So instead I leant over to grab the bottle and filled my goblet. Fishing out a satchel of wakeleaf from my pocket, I grabbed my pipe as well and looked at Malicia.
“Do you mind?” I asked.
“By all means,” she said. “A filthy habit, but one I tolerated in Wekesa for over forty years.”
Good enough. I struck the match and lit the dragonbone pipe, taking a deep breath. Time to get to the meat of this conversation, I believed.
“I created a chivalric order,” I said, and blew out a stream of smoke.
“I am aware,” the puppet replied. “The obtainment of cavalry, I do not begrudge you. We’ve never managed to secure more horses than needed to replenish the ranks of the Thirteenth Legion without risking rebellion. But this is more than cavalry. It is a Callowan institution.”
“You tried to kill it,” I said bluntly. “The both of you. It failed, so I’m making use of it instead.”
Malicia raised an eyebrow.
“Another decade and it would have disappeared painlessly,” she said. “It takes coin to train armed men, Catherine. Their means had to be running low, especially given the numbers you managed to gather.”
That was true enough, and the reason the knights had approached me in the first place. A little more honesty, then. I drank from my cup and chose my words carefully.
“I won’t allow them to disappear,” I said. “They’re a keystone of what Callow should be.”
“There lies the issue, my dear,” the Empress said. “The abolition of the Imperial governorships, I can stomach. You will have to be publically given sanction for it and pay for the gain of authority, but as a tool they have effectively run their course. The forging anew of a Callowan state, however, is a different matter. In large part your people have defined themselves as nation by their resistance to outside invaders. Some of which currently occupy the country.”
I pulled at the pipe, inhaled the bitter smoke and let it out.
“I’ve never called for rebellion against Praes,” I finally said.
“That is irrelevant, and untrue besides,” she replied flatly. “You’ve preached the destruction of the aristocracy of the Wasteland, which cannot feasibly be achieved without warfare. That is rebellion, no matter your semantics. Even if you personally never raise your banner, Catherine, you will not live forever. Your successors will inherit a well-armed and centralized ethnically Callowan state, trained at the expense of Praesi gold in the methods of the Legions. It is a certainty they will seek independence, by force of arms if need be.”
I grimaced. She wasn’t wrong, not entirely. Fifty years for now, if I got myself killed, I could easily see the next Governor-General call on mostly Callowan legions to give Praes the boot. And it was not the outcome I wanted, seductive as the idea of a resurgent Kingdom was sometimes. Even if they managed to win, which I knew better to assume, half the country would be ruined for a generation. And should they succeed, it would just be going back to the old cycle of invasion and death, the plague on my birthplace I’d taken it upon myself to end.
“I tried the Ruling Council,” I said. “It failed, Malicia. Badly.”
“You botched the Ruling Council,” she corrected. “It could have been in the palm of your hand, but you disdained the methods to see this through. All the while chipping at Praesi authority by hanging one governor after another. It was a functional method of rule, Squire. You dislike Wasteland influence, but you seem to forget that we won the Conquest. I’ve already compromised a great deal. Almost more than is reasonable.”
“You also engineered the destruction of an entire culture,” I bit back. “You won, yeah. But I’m not in this seat across from you because of my sunny personality. I’m here because you want Callow to be brought into the fold without having to put down another dozen rebellion and assorted heroes. You had to know there would be costs to that.”
“Then present me with alternatives,” Malicia said. “I could attempt to craft one myself, in truth, but that would be a mistake. If you want to hold the power and authority you do, both granted to you by the Tower, then prove you deserve them. You are not a partner, if I have to salvage your every blunder. You are a burden.”
That was harsh, but I recognized it for what it was. An invitation. An opportunity to actually become a player in Imperial politics. That wasn’t the kind of offer that came twice in a lifetime. I set aside the half-empty cup and breathed out the wakeleaf smoke.
“Name me Vicequeen of Callow,” I said.
“An empty title,” she replied. “Your Governess-General will be doing the governing while you lead your legion.”
“I won’t keep it long,” I said. “A few years at most. And you’ll have set the precedent that the Tower appoints them.”
She did not reply but studied me instead, which I took as prompting to continue.
“They have to be Callowan, that’s what I ask,” I said. “You still get to pick someone that won’t hinder Praesi interests.”
“And the knights?” she said.
“Folded into the Legions,” I said. “Malicia, you and Black have occupied this country but you haven’t really made use of it. You got taxes out of the governorships, but what else? If all you want is to shake a land until gold comes out, there’s easier targets. You can still get your cut from the viceroy, but there’s so much more that could be had. How many Callowans are really in the Legions, aside from the Fifteenth? There should be a portion in every one, even those in the Wasteland. Callow has population on par with Praes, and if you don’t need to use your armies to keep it in check that population goes to fill your armies. You could get cavalry that doesn’t need to eat its full weight in meat every month. Hells, you could start fielding priests with the Legions if you name someone who has pull with the House of Light. But to get all that, you need someone Callowans will actually listen to.”
“And you can accomplish all this?” the Empress said. “Without breaking from the Tower?”
“Yes,” I said hoarsely. “No matter who gets in my way. Whether they be gods or kings or all the armies in Creation.”
On the second evening I’d ever spent with Black, I’d remembered a sermon from the House of Light. One about the really dangerous devils. How they gave you exactly what you wanted, and let you find your own way to the Hells with it.
I took her hand anyway, Gods forgive me.