“Tonight we must speak of Callow, that stubborn graveyard of empires. Princes and princesses of Procer, we must now admit this truth: we have lost an entire kingdom to peasants and bandits.”
– Beginning of First Princess Éloïse of Aequitan’s speech to the Highest Assembly, on the subject of withdrawal from occupied Callow
Three thousand swords rose in salute, bare steel shining under the sun. I’d read about this, in what few records of the knightly orders still remained. A steel avenue, they called it. An old tradition born under Elizabeth Alban when the Queen of Blades had annexed almost a fourth of what was now Procer in a series of lightning-quick campaigns. It had only ever been used to honour ruling kings and queens of Callow, and now I was being greeted with one. The bluntness of that defiance was almost refreshing, since they had no idea I’d just been granted vicequeenship of the Callow. I’d talked a good game to the Empress, but I wasn’t unaware that by founding the Order of Broken Bells I’d saddled a hungry tiger. Now I had to ride it, or be dragged down and devoured. I wondered if rulers ever truly managed to be in control, sometimes. Malicia and Black certainly gave off the impression they were, but how much of that was a front? The more authority I gained the less I felt like I held the reins.
Brandon Talbot looked better than he had last time I’d seen him, a filthy prisoner in the underground gaols of Marchford. His dark beard was cropped closely, his hair combed with care and he now stood with his back straight. Proudly. I had no trouble believing a woman like the Countess Marchford had thought he would make a worthy successor to her title. His plate was of Callowan make, of lesser steel than what the Imperial forges could make but covered in hymns of the House of Light. Old, it was easy to tell, but recently polished and very well-maintained. There was no telling it had been used in battle a mere few days ago, much less against the likes of the Summer Court. I strode down the steel avenue and he fell in at my side.
“I hear congratulations are in order,” I said.
The man inclined his head.
“I will only remain as Grandmaster of the order for a few years, Your Grace,” he replied. “Until a younger candidate can be raised to take the title.”
He’d been elected by acclaim, as I understood it, in large part because he’d been the one mad enough to walk into Marchford unarmed back when Juniper was running it. That kind of risk-taking always earned some respect from soldiers, in my experience, especially with the kind of stakes he’d been playing for. Another hail sounded when we passed the end of the twin rows, headed for open pavilion that was the command tent for the Order of Broken Bells. A pair of tall banners trailed the wind to the sides, showing a pair of cracked bronze bells set on black.
“We would have flown your banner as well, Your Grace, but your quartermaster informed us you have none,” he said.
I kinda wished I’d been there for that conversation, Ratface of all people trying to explain to a highborn that I might have a demesne but I’d not actually bothered to get any of the symbols a proper noble considered their due.
“Never got around to it,” I said, entering the pavilion.
Robber had put a goat skull on a pike and tried to pass it for my heraldry, but Hakram had him assigned to latrine duty for a week in reprisal. Ah, Adjutant. He’d taken to my petty kind of justice like a wolf to a limping lamb.
“House Talbot has been dissolved, but it would be an honour for you to claim our sigil,” the man suggested.
An arched silver bridge set on blue, if I remembered correctly. There was worst heraldry to be had – the rulers of Hedges had sheep as theirs, which boggled my mind – but it wasn’t mine.
“That won’t be necessary,” I said politely.
No wine at the table in here. Right. Callowans didn’t usually start drinking until the evening, and and it wasn’t even noon yet. Even if the knights had been dispersed in the countryside for over two decades, I couldn’t help but notice their chairs were nicer than mine. Except the one I’d looted from Summer, anyway. That one was sinfully comfortable and I actually slept better in it than my own cot. I took the seat at the head at the table and Grandmaster Talbot seated himself at my right. I slapped down a sheath of leather on the table and took out the parchments within, Aisha’s beautiful Lower Miezan cursive filling it.
“You’ve officially been granted the rank of commander in the Fifteenth Legion, Grandmaster Talbot,” I said. “You’ve got more three times the men under you a commander usually does but you don’t qualify for legate rank, much less general.”
“Because I am Callowan,” he smiled thinly.
“Because you never went through the War College,” I corrected. “You don’t know shit about Legion tactics. You’ll still counted as a member of the general staff, though, so you’ll be in the high-level briefings as the commander of our cavalry contingent.”
Aisha had bitterly complained about the bureaucratic nightmare that was getting a mere commander that kind of clearance, but she’d gotten it done anyway. I could have just waved around my seal and gotten it done on my personal authority as the Squire, but I didn’t want to go that far unless I was forced to. Juniper already gave me enough lectures about how far we’d strayed from traditional Legion structure, and it would look better to the rest of the generals out there if I at least pretended I cared about the proper way things were done. The noble read through the papers, then glanced up.
“This states I have been given leave to organize the Order’s command hierarchy as I wish,” he said.
“The Empire doesn’t have a precedent for a cavalry contingent this large,” I said. “Even the Thirteenth Legion only has a thousand riders.”
He nodded slowly.
“Knightly orders were limited to a thousand full-fledged knights, under House Fairfax,” Grandmaster Talbot said. “One of the reasons there was such a wide variety.”
I was a little amused he was tiptoeing around the reason for that. Under the Alban dynasty the orders had been much larger, but there’d been a bunch of small-scale conflicts between them and nobles, both sides arguing the other was overreaching their authority. Triumphant had razed the whole squabble to the ground, but when it had begun to pop up under Eleanor Fairfax’s grandson he’d stripped the orders of their fortress holdings and severely limited their size. A dozen of small orders was a lot less dangerous to the nobility than three or four large ones, and easier to fold under the command of the crown when invaders came knocking. Traditionally it was the crown prince or princess who’d held command, a tradition that ended when Juniper’s mother had shattered the charges of the Shining Prince at the Fields of Streges right before a goblin slit his throat.
“Banners of a thousand,” Brandon finally said. “Under my ultimate command. We still have many squires in our ranks, and a single battle was not enough to season them.”
“Get it written properly,” I ordered. “And get the parchments to Staff Tribune Bishara before nightfall. She’ll be expecting them.”
“A very talented woman,” Talbot said approvingly.
There was a look in the man’s eyes I wasn’t unfamiliar with. Well, Aisha was exceedingly pretty. I doubted she’d be interested in a Callowan twice her age, but him looking wouldn’t hurt anyone as long as he kept it mannerly.
“A detachment of five hundred could be arranged to serve as your personal guard,” he said, putting away the parchments.
“I already have a retinue,” I said, raising an eyebrow. “Red shields, golden noose on them? They’re hard to miss.”
“The ‘Gallowborne’, yes,” he said. “Criminals and Praesi.”
“I’ve trained a lot of them myself,” I said calmly. “On foot, I’d put any of them against three of yours. I doubt there’s any company on Calernia that’s been through rougher fights.”
“They’re sharp men, I’m sure,” the Grandmaster said. “But a match for five hundred knights of Callow?”
I drummed my fingers against the table.
“The Gallowborne,” I said, forcing the calm to stay even as the temperature in the pavilion descended sharply, “are my retinue. They’ve been mine since I snatched them from the gallows, Talbot. They’ve bled for me. They’ve died for me. And they will remain at my side until they can no longer serve.”
I was uncomfortable with how possessive that had sounded, and the bearded man did not speak of the matter any further. Eager for a change of subject, I cleared my throat.
“You told Adjutant you needed to speak with me,” I said.
There was a reason it wasn’t Hakram handing him the paperwork, and it wasn’t because I’d been looking for a sword salute. Though I wasn’t complaining I’d gotten one, either.
“There are matters it has been brought to my attention you left unfinished, Your Grace,” he said. “I understand we are at war, but they still need to be dealt with in haste.”
I leaned against the back of my chair.
“I’m listening,” I allowed.
“House Foundling,” he said, and grimaced. “Forgive me, but that it an orphan’s name. It is not fit for the ruling dynasty of Callow.”
“What a funny coincidence,” I drawled. “I am an orphan.”
“You share that name with thousands of others,” he said. “Your Grace, you must consider the difficulties this will cause. Taking a reigning name is in order.”
I drummed my fingers against the table, again. A sliver of my opinion of this whole bullshit must have shown on my face, because the knight had to repress a flinch.
“As of last night, I am the Vicequeen of Callow by official sanction of Her Dread Majesty Malicia, First of Her Name,” I said. “Not queen, though. My successor to the title will be chosen by the Tower, when I see fit to surrender that position. There’s no need for a fancy dynastic name.”
“Your Grace-“ he began.
“The title will remain in Callowan hands,” I interrupted flatly. “Compromise was reached. Leave it at that. To be frank, Talbot, you’re not really qualified to weigh in about the shit that goes on that high up. I’ve survived dealing with the High Lords by stabbing them repeatedly and publicly until they got cautious. They would swallow you whole and spit out your bones.”
He seemed a little offended by the brusqueness of that, but he’d have to make his peace with it. What I’d said was very much true. If I put this poor bastard in a room with Akua Sahelian she’d have him on permanent puppet strings before a quarter hour had passed.
“Your line will still rule Marchford in perpetuity,” he said. “The name matters, Your Grace.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose.
“I became Named as Catherine Foundling,” I said flatly. “I will die with that name as well.”
“There must be records of your birth parents,” he tried desperately. “A Deoraithe name will not be as well received, but it is still something.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the closest thing I’ll ever have to a father is down south killing fools,” I replied coldly. “And he doesn’t have a last name. Born a farmer, you see. As for the people who birthed me, they are strangers. I owe them nothing and will take nothing from them.”
The man bit his tongue, but it was clear he wanted to argue.
“I am not a noble, Talbot,” I said. “I don’t really like them, as a rule. No offence meant to you in particular. I’ve bled for every inch of power I have, and the notion of anybody just… inheriting theirs has grown repulsive to me. There will be no restoration of highborn power in Callow.”
“You will still reign, Your Grace,” he said. “You must realize that certain measures have to be taken to cement your legitimacy.”
I peered at him closely, and read the deeper hesitation there.
“Oh Gods,” I said. “You want me to get married.”
“The baron of Hedges has a son your age,” he pressed on. “All the branches of House Fairfax were exterminated after the Conquest, but there are remains of other ancient lines. Duchess Kegan is the foremost remaining Callowan noble, and a direct marriage alliance with the House of Iarsmai through a cousin would yield great benefits.”
“You can’t be serious,” I said, mildly horrified.
“I am given to understand you might prefer the company of women,” he said delicately. “There are certain miracles known to the House of Light that could make such an arrangement feasible.”
“I go both ways,” I replied faintly. “But that’s not the issue here. I have a – I’m not looking for anyone, Talbot.”
“I have heard that you keep company with a Duni, yes,” he hinted. “You would not be the first ruler of Callow to keep a paramour, if you’ll forgive my crassness.”
Merciless Gods. I was eighteen, so I supposed in the eyes of the remaining nobles I was fair game in the marriage alliance market. Callowans got married a lot later than Praesi, since unlike the Wastelanders we didn’t actually breed bloodlines, but nobles did tend to be ahead of the curve in that regard.
“That’s not happening,” I said flatly. “And this conversation is over.”
I wasn’t getting saddled with a lordling or a child anytime soon, no matter what people might want. I honestly wasn’t sure I wanted to ever have kids, and even if I did make that decision down the line it wouldn’t be to pat some fucking aristocrats on the back. There were a lot of things I was willing to bargain with, but who shared my bed wasn’t one of them. Brandon Talbot’s lips thinned, but he did not argue.
“I’ll get heraldry done,” I sighed, throwing him a bone as I rose to my feet. “Get the paperwork to Aisha, Grandmaster. We’ll speak again at the staff meeting.”
I could not get out of that pavilion quickly enough.
I’d chosen to hold this meeting under the stars, since I felt most comfortable at night these days. The bonfire crackled, flames high and occasionally licking at the roots of the tall oak that oversaw our little quiet corner of Creation. Masego had slapped down some complicated-looking wards the moment he’d arrived, not even bothering to vocalize an incantation. His new Name came with some perks apparently. I took a moment to let this all settle in. It was the first time all five of us were in the same place, in Creation at least.
Archer was seated on a wide branch above us, because she never wasted an occasion to literally look down on everyone else, and with a knife in hand she was carving what looked like like a sphere out of dark wood. Her ochre skin looked ever darker at night, and though she’d left her longcoat and silver mail behind in favour of a woollen brown tunic and trousers, she’d kept the dark green scarf that she usually covered her lower face with around her neck. I had a much better look at the curves on her, without the armour on, and she winked when she saw me looking. I turned away. Because it was in Archer’s nature to be a bloody pest at all times, she made a point out of dropping the wood shavings on Masego’s head until he got tired of asking her to stop and put up a translucent pane of sorcery over his head.
Hierophant himself looked… strange. Familiar yet different. He wore a black cloth blindfold over his glass eyes, but sometimes bits of red and yellow light could be glimpsed through it. His hair was still long and braided but the shining trinkets he’d once worn in them had been replaced by dull bars of iron carved with runes. His usually colourful robes had been traded a black tunic that made him look like a chubby crow when he was sitting, but actually lent him something of a presence when he was on his feet. The Legion-issue boots were an amusing last touch to the ensemble, worn down as they were. His fingers kept twitching, as if to reach out for something no one else could see.
Hakram sat at his side, his heavy plate made something else entirely by the ravages of the battles we’d been through. The goblin steel had been darkened by Summer flame, twisted by heat not of Creation, and though it still fit with padding under the metal the appearance reminded me of the steps leading to the Tower. The obsidian that had been warped by sorcery, shaped into silhouettes of weeping men and women one must tread on to rise. Adjutant had gone through the crucible of fire and become stronger for it. His Name pulsed steady to my senses, firm yet oddly serene. His hand of bones was eerily still, reeking of dark sorcery anchored into his very Name. His eyes were dark and still as ponds, the fangs glinting in firelight still bloody from his supper.
Thief sat across the fire from me. I’d never been in her presence long enough to notice before, but she didn’t hold herself like a commoner. I’d had etiquette lessons at the orphanage and I recognized the same marks on her, in the way she kept her wrists straight and her back as if leaning against a high chair. Her leathers were loose, but I could tell we shared a body shape. She was taller than me, since it was basically divine mandate that everyone but goblins be, but not by as much as the other. Dark hair and blue-grey eyes that were always moving, always looking for movement. Pale fingers were toying with a carving knife that was clearly sapper issue: she has wandering hands, this one, and a habit of picking up knickknacks. Must have been part of her Name, because it seemed too compulsive for a mere habit.
Five Named were sitting around the fire. That was, I knew, no small thing. Even more now that Ranger had tossed us a name, turning the curse of the Queen of Summer into something more. The Woe, she’d called us. It had felt like a pivot then and still did now, the beginning of something larger. What it would be, I was almost scared to find out. Hakram tossed up a wineskin at Archer, which was enough to distract her from pissing off Masego for a bit. I took that as my cue to begin.
“So, on our first outing together we robbed Summer of what appears to be its literal sun, before capturing a princess of the blood,” I said. “I’m not one for omens, but it strikes me as a good note to begin on.”
“Lies and violence,” Archer cheered, dropping the wineskin on Masego’s shield.
The Soninke mage snatched it, taking a gulp and coughing when it went down the wrong pipe. Apparently a fresh Name didn’t mean he could handle drink any better. Good to know. I felt Thief glance at me, raising any eyebrow at what Archer had said.
“Archer is a horrid wench, and whatever she says about mottos is not to be trusted,” I stated.
“Well, it’s still better than sullen,” the Named in question mused.
There was a heartbeat of silence.
“I expected something more… professional,” the Thief finally said.
I raised an eyebrow.
“Did the Lone Swordsman run that kind of crew?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“No,” the heroine conceded, “but your band was a step ahead of us the whole time. I always thought it would be rather business-like, on your side.”
“You thought we were a step ahead?” Masego croaked, wiping his mouth.
“We strolled from one disaster to another, trying to keep the fires from spreading,” the orc said, sounding amused. “Mostly fires not of our making, I’ll add.”
“Haven’t been in this outfit for long,” Archer said, “but it hasn’t struck me as overburdened with plans.”
“That’s going a little far,” I intervened, mildly offended.
“We got into Skade by writing on a scrap of parchment that we could, Catherine,” she pointed out. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m on board with our whole ‘that’s stupid enough they’ll never see it coming’ way of going at it. But masterful schemers we are not.”
“You had us dead to rights at Summerholm,” Thief frowned.
“We only understood what was happening after the city was on fire,” Masego said.
“And we got blamed for that, after,” Hakram added.
“Everything in Liesse unfolded according to your plan,” Thief tried.
“Arguably. Though she did get killed,” Adjutant said.
Archer’s eyes swerved to me.
“Wait, you died? Have you been undead this while time?” she asked. “You don’t look it.”
“Resurrected,” I replied.
She looked even more dubious.
“You’re a villain, Cat,” she said. “That’s not exactly in your wheelhouse.”
“Yeah, the Hashmallim weren’t real pleased about it either,” I grunted. “They threw a fucking fit.”
“Is that how that happened?” Thief frowned. “I did wonder. You talked a Choir into breathing second life into you?”
“Talked is a strong word,” I mused.
“We;ve settled on ‘bullied’,” Hierophant contributed helpfully.
“You bullied,” the Thief said slowly, “the entire Choir of Contrition. Into resurrecting a villain actively trying to oppose them.”
“Not even the Lady of the Lake fucks around with angels,” Archer said approvingly. “That’s actually impressive.”
“Don’t bring Ranger into this,” I grunted. “She came a heartbeat away from slicing my throat open the only time we met.”
“Oh, she’s always like that,” the other woman dismissed. “Don’t take it personally. She once threw Tinkles out a window for hitting on a trader girl instead of practicing his stances.”
“I’m glad he was sloppy, then,” I admitted. “Hunter was hard enough to put down as he was.”
Thief blinked, then looked up at the woman on the branch.
“I forgot,” she said. “You are an apprentice of the Ranger as well. You must have known him well.”
“He was only around for a few years before joining up with your little rebellion,” Archer shrugged. “Of the Lady’s five pupils he was always the odd one out. Not surprised he ran off, though it was still monumentally stupid.”
“He was,” Thief began, looking for a diplomatic word, “different.”
“Half-naked,” I said. “Half-naked is the term you’re looking for.”
“I never minded the sights, Catherine,” Archer grinned. “The man had a body worth a stare. The bells, though, and the tattoos? Gods, it was like he was trying to ruin his looks.”
“The tattoos weren’t a Refuge tradition?” Thief asked, looking surprised.
“Is that what he said?” Archer snorted. “No, they aren’t.”
Masego cleared his throat politely.
“This conversation is both baffling and horribly tedious to me,” he informed us. “I believe you were addressing us, Catherine?”
“Right,” I said, and immediately delegated. “Hakram.”
The tall orc straightened, putting aside the wineskin he’d been hogging this whole time. Thief had thawed a bit when we talked, but her guard went right back up when she turned to him. There was story there, I thought. Adjutant must have had one of his little talks with her at some point. I trusted him, so I wouldn’t meddle, but I’d have some questions to ask my second.
“We currently have two threats that must be dealt with,” Hakram gravelled. “The first is Summer Court and its queen. The second is Akua Sahelian, lately the Diabolist.”
“The villain that let the devils loose on Liesse,” Thief said, eyes gone cold.
“That’s the one,” I said. “And believe me, devils are some of the milder stuff she’s thrown at us in the past. You’ve gone to the city yourself, I hear. You saw what she’s up to.”
“Some sort of ritual,” the skinny Callowan said. “It involves Deoraithe that are part of the Watch, and that’s about all I know.”
I glanced at Masego, who somehow picked up on it. That was going to keep being creepy for a while.
“While I’ve not conducted such experiments myself, I’ve read the notes my father has on the Watch,” the mage said. “They are connected to a deity of unknown nature, and gain their supernatural abilities by binding themselves to it through rituals they call Oaths.”
“Our best guess at the moment is that the Diabolist is trying to get at the deity through them,” I said.
“Considering the massive size of the array she created in the city,” Masego said, “she will need at least a lesser god to empower it. The scale of the effect might be comparable to that of the creation of the Kingdom of the Dead.”
“Liesse is also currently flying,” Hakram said. “Which will make it difficult to assault. That aside, the city’s current location is a mystery.”
I met Thief’s eyes.
“I’ll have my people look into it,” she said.
“Much as I hate giving Akua a reprieve, she’s not the most pressing threat at the moment,” I said. “Summer’s out for blood, and its Queen will be crossing into Creation about a month from now. What we can do about her is not inspiring. Masego?”
The dark-skinned mage smiled thinly.
“Given at least three days of preparation, I can buy us a quarter bell before she breaks through my wards and massacres every single one of us,” he said.
“That’s reassuring,” Thief said cuttingly.
“Not great, I’ll admit, but we still have two cards in hand,” I said. “First we have the Princess of High Noon, which she really needs if she doesn’t want to get knifed by Winter after we’re all dead. And we have the sun, courtesy of your kleptomania.”
Thief looked faintly amused, but did not reply.
“So,” I smiled. “We’ve got the whole night, and wine I really doubt was legally acquired. Let’s see if we can think of something to avoid dying horrible, horrible deaths. The floor’s open, my friends.”