“It is said that the founding First Prince spoke of Procer as a great tower, every principality a stone raising it to ever greater heights. I have found the sentiment more poetic than accurate. Procer is no single tower but twenty-three of them, and their owners constantly steal each other’s stones to rise at the expense of the others.”
-Extract from ‘The Labyrinth Empire, or, A Short History of Procer’, by Princess Eliza of Salamans
Even having kept out most of the general staff, the pavilion was crowded. Enough that we’d had to bring in a second table to shove at the end of our usual one, a ramshackle assembly Pickler had covered with a tablecloth in a move that fooled absolutely no one. It made me want to wince a little, considering who was seated around it. We were looking like disorganized amateurs to some of the most powerful people in Callow. The wine, at least, they couldn’t complain about. Northern red, because I sure as Hells wasn’t breaking into my own stash for the sake of people I mostly couldn’t stand, but decent vintage and cooled by mages. I’d helped myself to a cup early because I already had a feeling this conference was going to scrape my nerves raw. If there wasn’t frost on something before this was over, I owed Hakram more than I should have willingly bet. I’d stolen a horse – with wings, even – from Arcadia as well as gems and my favourite chair, but I had no illusions Zombie the Third would still be in one piece when the dust settled this year. That meant buying another charger, and those were costly.
To the left, Duchess Kegan Iarsmai of Daoine was seated, managing to convey general disapproval at the existence of everybody else without her face actually turning up in a sneer. I was reluctantly impressed by the feat, which was magic in its own right. Her second had taken a chair for once, the hooded and silent man I’d taken way too long to learn was called Commander Adair. The head of the Watch, though his title was just that and not a Name. That hadn’t always been the case, historically speaking, but as far as I knew the last Commander had been killed by my own teacher years before the Conquest. Something about skirmishes with the orc clans that lived in the Lesser Steppes had prompted him to step in, and explained how Black had forged bonds with prominent chieftains like Grem One-Eye and Istrid Knightsbane before the Praesi civil war.
To the right, the senior officers of the Legions of Terror had clustered. Marshal Ranker was at the heart of them, not even her blackened twisted hand managing to make the sight of a wrinkled goblin her size perched on a cushioned stool entirely humourless. She’d brought her own Staff Tribune and on her other side sat General Afolabi Magoro. The dark-skinned man had been less than fond of me even before I’d publicly spanked him for speaking out of line, and since then never faced me with anything less than the blank emotionless mask that was taught to all Soninke highborn from the cradle. Tonight, though, there was something wary about him. The Empress had been good as her word, I mused. Malicia had whispered in the right ears and made it clear that those who did not fall in line behind me were earning her displeasure as well as mine.
It would be a lot easier to dislike the monsters I worked with if they weren’t so competent, I thought.
Adjutant was seated at my left, a courtesy offered to Juniper who’d taken his usual place at my right instead. If the Hellhound was nervous at the prospect of addressing hardened veterans most of which outranked in both formal authority and experience, there was no trace of it on her broad face. The only cup of wine my general had taken had been duly watered, and left mostly untouched. Of her general staff, only three had been called to sit across us. Ratface, though mere a Supply Tribune, had the place of honour. The report he was slated to give was by far the most important. Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara flanked him on one side, here as much because she knew the duty rosters of the Fifteenth like the back of her hand as because I intended on picking her brains about the people here after the conference was over. The last addition was Grandmaster Brandon Talbot, and it had been a row to get him a seat in here at all. Juniper had made it clear she didn’t trust him in the least, commander or not, but I’d stood my ground. The same reasons she disliked him were why he needed to be in here: he was a voice for the Callowans, something none of my other senior officers could feasibly pass for. Considering more than half the Fifteenth had never stepped foot in the Wasteland, there was a need for that now. The Hellhound might not like it, but it was the truth.
It was more people than I would have liked, for a conference this sensitive, but the realities of the situation had imposed. The soldiers gathered outside formed the largest host Callow had seen since the Conquest, but it wasn’t near as united as the forces that had fought. A little less than half of them were Deoraithe, loose allies to me at the best of times, and the chain of command on the Praesi side was a fucking mess. That I was on top, no one could deny. Under that, though? Marshal Ranker had everyone else beat in rank and seniority, but Juniper commanded the largest legion by far and answered to me alone. Afolabi wasn’t a contender in this sense, but he had connections in the Wasteland and his Twelfth had gotten off the lightest casualty-wise from our expedition through Arcadia. That Kegan openly feuded with Ranker and spoke to Juniper like she was a particularly stupid child had made any attempts to keep things civil in the past a throbbing headache.
“All right, everyone’s here,” I eloquently begun. “We’ll begin the march south tomorrow at dawn, but before we do it’s time everybody was brought in on the campaign plans.”
“That would be pleasing,” Duchess Kegan said coldly.
“Unorthodox, making plans without your senior commanders,” Marshal Ranker added.
I reached for my cup, and reminded myself I still needed those two. It wasn’t feasible to shove them both in a bag and run away with their armies as they fought inside.
“Our operations are contingent on factors none of you have the clearance to know about,” Juniper growled.
“A Marshal of Praes lacked clearance?” General Afolabi said.
I turned to Adjutant.
“Hakram, you seen my pipe?” I nonchalantly asked.
The Soninke stiffened in his seat.
“In your tent,” the orc sighed.
“What a shame,” I said, and gave Afolabi a friendly grin.
I could have done without the approving look from Kegan, or Talbot for that matter. Just because I was stepping on the fucker didn’t mean I was any fonder of the rest of them.
“Before we set out, certain logistics have to be seen to,” Juniper said. “Our host currently numbers near forty thousand soldiers. The battles in Arcadia saw an unusually high proportion of wounded, many with with wounds that are beyond mage healing. Supply Tribune Bishara, report.”
Aisha inclined her head a fraction, then addressed the table in a calm voice that was very clearly trained.
“As you are all aware, the Imperial-held city closest to our camp is Vale,” she said. “Though it is not garrisoned at the moment and has proved recalcitrant to assist the Legions of late, this situation has been remedied.”
Marshal Ranker eyed me.
“You have people in the city?” she asked.
I raised an eyebrow.
“In a manner of speaking,” I said.
To be accurate, Thief had people in the city and she’d gotten in touch with them. That she’d been able to do that at all had interesting implications. Namely, that the Guild if Thieves had access to a form of communication swifter than riders. It couldn’t be scrying, since they shouldn’t have the mages for that and scrying was a lot less common that my exposure had led me to believe. The High Lords used it and so did the Legions, but outside those ranks it was actually fairly rare. Less now than before I’d been born, since the Warlock had published a spell formula on par with the ones the old Wasteland families had kept to themselves, but in Callow there weren’t a lot of mages that could scry. Same with most nations outside our borders as well: the highest tier of practitioners in Procer and the rest might know how, but even then not as proficiently as Praesi. The knowledge had been slow to trickle out of the Empire, though is was only a matter of time before it did. Still, that Thief had a trick that worked along same lines had been both intriguing and helpful. She’d contacted the guildmaster in Vale and gotten the man to pass the messages I needed.
“Though we will detach two mage lines to keep the worst of the wounded stable, treatment will have to be deferred to outside institutions,” Aisha continued.
I felt more than one look cast towards me at that. Though she’d not spoken the name, none of these people were unaware that ‘outside institutions’ meant the House of Light. Brothers and Sisters sworn to the Heavens, healing legionaries of the Tower. It wasn’t without precedent on individual basis, I knew from my childhood in Laure, but cooperation that open certainly was. I’d had to reach out to Governess-General Kendal to get that stone rolling, since she had pull with the priests. I spent more time negotiating than stabbing people that deserved it, nowadays, which never failed to foul my mood even if it was necessary. My Staff Tribune inclined her head again, her contribution finished for the moment. Marshal Ranker was the first to speak up.
“Akua Sahelian,” she said. “Do we have a read on her locations? I dislike sending off wounded without escort until we know she’d not going to ambush them.”
“Nothing solid,” I said. “Unless Duchess Kegan has something to share?”
It was an open secret among the people in the pavilion that what Diabolist was up to involved fucking with whatever empowered the Watch. She might have means to keep an eye on the other villain we didn’t know about.
“She’s still in Callow,” Kegan reluctantly said. “We know nothing more.”
“So far the Diabolist has avoided direct confrontation with the Legions,” Adjutant gravelled. “While this cannot be relied on, if she seeks to damage the armed forces of the Empire she has better targets.”
The three legions in Holden, under Juniper’s mother. They’d been warned to keep an eye on the sky just in case.
“Wounded legionaries and a civilian city are an easy target,” General Afolabi said. “If ritual fodder is what she seeks, Vale is wide open.”
“The Diabolist can strike any city in Callow if she wants,” Juniper grunted. “There isn’t much we can do about it. Vale is still the best bet for our wounded.”
I drummed my fingers on the table.
“I’ve seen the most of Akua of anyone in this room, as far as I know,” I said, leaving a heartbeat for someone to disagree. No one did. “From what I understand of her, she’s not going to actively harm Praesi military strength unless it’s set against her. No matter what she’s cooked up in Liesse, she’s going to need the Legions in the coming years. She wants to be in charge of more than just a flying city and for that she needs armies.”
“You believe she means to overthrow Her Dread Majesty,” General Afolabi said.
He didn’t seem particularly surprised. Whether it was because he hid it well or because of course Akua was going to try to take over the Empire, I couldn’t tell.
“She’ll need more than Liesse if she wants to breach the Tower,” Ranker snorted. “Even if the Empress doesn’t dig into the nasty stuff down in the vaults, it remains the most heavily fortified place on Calernia.”
“Better schemers than I have failed to predict what Diabolist is after,” I said flatly. “Guesswork will lead us nowhere, and we have more pressing concerns.”
I glanced at Juniper.
“The supply situation has been addressed,” the tall orc said. “Supply Tribune Ratface, elaborate.”
The Taghreb bastard smiled lazily.
“We’ve been in touch with the Legion headquarters in Ater and they’re sending rations and armaments down, but it’ll take at least three weeks to get it all in order,” he said. “Until then, we’ll be relying on brave Callowan volunteers to ship us food down the Hwaerte.”
“You mean smugglers,” Talbot said, lips thinning.
“Food is food, Grandmaster,” Ratface replied, managing to make the title sound like an insult. “Unless you would prefer magnificently legal starvation, of course. That could also be arranged.”
Ranker’s Staff Tribune coughed into his hand to disguise a laugh, but his Marshal didn’t even bother to hide her smirk. Fucking Hells, you’d think a literal god out for our blood would be enough to make them stop sniping at each other for a week.
“Ratface,” I warned.
“No offense was meant, my good knight,” the Taghreb apologized.
I turned a dark look on him and he made an effort to look a little more contrite. We’d be having words about this later, and by the face Juniper was making that would be after she got done with him.
“You’re all aware we’ll be marching on Dormer,” I said. “We’ll be keeping to the river as we go down, for ease of transport. It’ll delay us some but if we keep the pace we’ll arrive at the city in time to pre-empt the Queen of Summer.”
“Yes, the Queen,” Duchess Kegan said. “She has already demonstrated her ability to wipe out hundreds in moments. How is this do be dealt with?”
“I expected Warlock’s boy to be here to explain that,” Marshal Ranker noted.
“Hierophant is currently making preparations,” I lied.
Masego had bluntly told me he would rather set himself on fire than attend the conference, and I’d chosen not to fight that battle. This was delicate enough a balance without bringing his lack of social graces into it. The only worse idea I could come up with was bringing Archer, who by now would already have hit on two of them and brawled with a third.
“We will be bringing outside pressure to bear on Summer as we engage them,” Adjutant said.
Ranker’s eyes narrowed.
“Fae,” she said. “You dealt with Winter again.”
“I employed the services of a talented negotiator, this time,” I replied vaguely.
An understatement. I’d never seen the Empress in her element before, and it had been an… eye-opening experience.
“We don’t need to exterminate the enemy host,” Juniper said, as if she’d seen nothing difficult about tearing through a bunch of demigods and their mostly invincible magic army. “But a position of strength will need to be achieved before we can force terms on them.”
“They won’t fall for the same tricks twice,” Ranker warned.
“They lost most their winged knights,” Grandmaster Talbot said. “But the golden fae proved unusually resilient.”
They’d wiped out three quarters of Nauk’s force while simultaneously handling the Watch and a brutal pounding from Masego, he meant. They’d been hard fuckers to deal with.
“They’re called the Immortals,” I said. “And we found a weakness.”
“Their standards,” Juniper said. “Getting rid of them will sap their strength.”
“If this is to be a victory, that must take priority,” Kegan said. “I will not send the Watch into the grinder twice without assurances.”
“Hierophant will be busy handling the Queen, but I will be deploying Named to settle the matter,” I said.
“The nature of the planned engagement has not been touched upon,” General Afolabi said.
“We meant to assault Dormer directly,” Juniper said.
“And give them walls?” she said. “That’ll double the butcher’s bill.”
“Open field won’t work for us,” I said. “We don’t have twenty thousand Winter fae in the woods ready to pop out. If we’re to have any chance of beating them, they can’t be in a position to bring their full force to bear.”
“I’ve read the accounts of the siege in Arcadia,” the Hellhound said. “It stood out to me how ill-equipped they were to deal with Legion siege tactics.”
“Summer’s not used to being on the defence,” I said. “And they’ve never seen anything like goblin munitions or our engines.”
“Both of which we could use from our own fortified position,” Afolabi pointed out.
“Fae will be weaker in Creation,” Kegan said. “The possibility of a field battle has perhaps been too hastily dismissed.”
“Your Deoraithe are not trained to deal with the kind of quick redeployments flight allows the fae,” Juniper told her bluntly. “Your soldiers would be a liability.”
Duchess Kegan looked down her nose at the orc and smiled mockingly.
“Perhaps a more experience voice could weigh in on the matter, girl,” she said.
The temperature in the pavilion cooled and the Deoraithe’s eyes turned to me.
“General Juniper has more experience than you,” I smiled brightly. “Since being appointed at the head of the Fifteenth, she has won three pitched battles and a siege. What great victories do you have under your belt, Duchess?”
Ranker’s vicious satisfaction was palpable.
“Lady Squire speaks true,” Afolabi suddenly said. “Summer has demonstrated it has trouble dealing with unorthodox tactics. I would prefer the walls be ours, but penning them in the city would rob them of several advantages.”
I was feeling generous, so I’d chalk that up to him deserving his rank rather than the Empress having had a word with him.
“You have something in mind,” Ranker said, studying me. “For Dormer. I’m assuming more elaborate than tossing sharpers at the walls.”
I leaned back into my seat.
“Summer has some skill with fire,” I said. “But then, so do we.”
Gods, I thought, it’s never a good sign when goblins grin like that.