“Doubt is the mother of failure.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis I, the Lawgiver
In the end, it took me three days to get eyes on Liesse. Marshal Grem One-Eye had sent out mages as soon as the city was glimpsed over the horizon, and my own mage lines kept coordinated with his own until we had four scrying links covering the major angles of the Diabolist’s lair. What I saw did not bode well. The city had gone up with its walls largely intact and significant portions of the grounds under it and lost neither as it went down. The surrounding territory had been worked over with magic so that Liesse now stood atop a steep hill. Thousands were digging trenches and traps in the plains around it, working day and night without pause because they needed none. They were Callowans, but they were also dead. Without fanfare or a cackle, without a sound at all, Akua Sahelian had killed more of my people in a night than Black had throughout the entire Conquest. Men, women and children. The young and the old – Still Water drew no difference, and neither had she.
I’d been a viciously dark mood since I’d gotten proof of it, and the mood had only gone darker when I’d seen what she was up to. Devil-summoning arrays had been carved on the walls, large siege weapons like those of the Legions placed onto bastions and additional wards were made every hour to fortify the city against magical interference. Hierophant had already confirmed I couldn’t open a portal directly within the walls, not that I’d ever seriously thought there was a chance of it. The Summer fae would not have dithered attacking her for months if they’d had that as an available option, and I was still much less skilled than they at using fairy gates. I disliked wasting time in Dormer, but Juniper had flatly informed me that after a brutal battle like the last one the men needed time to recoup and recuperate.
It wasn’t just a matter of dealing with the wounded, though there’d been a great many of those. Our supplies had been running thin, and it was only Ratface’s promised river barges coming through the city harbour filled with steel and goblin munitions that had the Legions in proper fighting fit again. Aisha had been a little less blunt in reminding me I’d had our troops going through forced marches and battles one after another for months, but no less firm. Even if it gave Akua time to dig in, the truth was that the Fifteenth simply hadn’t been in a state to take the fight to her right away. As I saw to my house, Ranker and Kegan saw to theirs. The duchess kept to herself, but I saw almost too much of the old goblin for my tastes. It was her that suggested we had siege weapons of our own prepared in Laure and Southpool rather than rely on only our own, and when she began approaching the problem that way the Hellhound followed with aplomb.
For one, there were three legions in Holden under her mother that were sitting ducks unless I intervened. General Istrid had been sent there at my own order to prevent the Summer court from making a beachhead other than Dormer, and discharged that duty perfectly. But her twelve thousand men were now months away from the actual fighting, with a supply line that was chancy at best. Even if she began marching north immediately, she wouldn’t be able to reach Liesse before the battle was weeks past. Could I afford to allow twelve thousand veteran legionaries to sit over a strategically useless position while I fought Akua? No, I could not. Not if the assault on the city was going to be as brutal as I suspected.
The only question then, was where I would transport them. The gates allowed me to significantly quicken the logistics of assembling a host that was spread throughout Callow, but they weren’t a perfect solution. For one, I needed to be with the moving armies. And much more importantly, I couldn’t actually use Arcadia as a staging ground. Whether the terms of my bargain with the fae court would protect my soldiers when they weren’t actually travelling was irrelevant, since that wasn’t how gates worked from my end: whenever I made an entrance, there was a corresponding exit. I couldn’t actually get out of Arcadia by another place, as far as I knew, and our previous alternative of having Hierophant use fae nobles as portal-openers was no longer an option. Our prisoners had all been rather forcefully released by the Summer Queen when she still bore that name. And, last of all the weaknesses, going through Arcadia still took time. It as a shortcut, not fucking teleportation, which as probably for the best. Even with the mantle of a Duchess on my shoulders I was pretty sure attempting teleportation of any kind would flat-out kill me.
And so, sitting with Marshal Ranker and General Juniper, we planned out our little shell game. Akua had eyes on us, we on her. The side that would have the advantage when the battle began was the one who’d hide the knives better. Callow had already been put under martial law long before I went south, and as things stood I was both vicequeen and highest-ranked Named remaining of the region. I was also wielding my authority with the explicit backing of Her Dread Majesty – there was not a single in person in my home who had solid ground to stand on in refusing an order of mine. Would that I could enjoy that power even a little: I had wanted nothing more than to have it since the age of thirteen, when I’d made the decision to start saving up for the War College. I couldn’t, not when the first order I gave was for immediate muster of the city guard in Southpool, Ankou and Vale. There was immediate pushback, argument from the Callowan governors I’d overseen the very appointment of that none of those men were trained soldiers.
I ordered for them to come anyway. Southpool was on the weak end of the scale, with only five thousand, but Ankou’s city guard traditionally served as militia when Procer attacked the Vales and even though the city was smaller it boasted eight thousand and better equipped. Vale was the largest of the three, and though it put up only six thousand men I sent Grandmaster Talbot to squeeze blood out of that rock. Vale had always been the heart of central Callow, and though no great trade city as an agricultural one there were few equals to it on Calernia. There was wealth there, and though second-rate compared to the real wealthy cities of Callow it had historically been enough to support a great many soldiers and knights – some of the earliest chivalric orders had been founded there, they said. I left Talbot work his patriotic sorcery on the powerful of the city and another three thousand came out of that, including about a hundred knights. Gods, it was like those had been hiding under every rock. It was pleasing, in a way, that the governors were willing to fight for the people under their care when I would order those people to the grinder.
A shame I was not in a position to entertain their worries.
The place of muster for the city guards was set a little to the east of halfway between Southpool and Vale, which meant the Ankouans would have to pass south of Diabolist’s lair and lose at least a week to it. Wouldn’t matter, since I’d be busy ferrying Legions meanwhile. My options there had been more limited than I would have liked. The legions under Marshal Grem, for one, weren’t going anywhere. I’d approached the subject of peeling off at least one, but the reports I’d been given in return were… stark. There’d been increasing skirmishes with the border principalities over the last months and Procer was massing soldiers in Bayeux. The Marshal’s assessment was that if there was any large troop movement on the Empire’s side, the Principate would try an assault on the Red Flower Vales. Fucking First Prince. It didn’t matter if she was bluffing us or not, since we couldn’t afford to chance losing the narrow valleys that would give us a fighting chance against Proceran invasion. The Wasteland wasn’t going to be any help either. Malicia’s meat-puppet had made it clear the legions in her backyard needed to stay there, to keep the highborn in line and more importantly keep the fucking mess Akua’s mother had made in Wolof contained.
Much as I would have liked another twelve thousand soldiers, I couldn’t blame the Empress for not pulling them out when the alternative was devils spilling out in the Wasteland. The only reinforcements from the Legions at hand were the same I’d sent into Holden, and they were nothing to sneer at. I’d met all the generals in command there – Istrid, Sacker and Orim – and all three had been through the crucible that was the Conquest, but more importantly the civil war before it. Almost every one of my highest tier of commanders in this campaign would be familiar with Praesi war tactics of the kind Diabolist was likely to pull. That knowledge wasn’t as reassuring to have on my side as another ten thousand soldiers, but it might end up saving more lives. Already I winced at the notion of sending guards into the kind of madness Akua would have prepared for them. There was no choice. The usual voice in the back of my head that insisted there had been and I had made it saw itself buried. I would allow myself doubt and grief when the wars was done. Until then, all they would so was slow me down in what had very clearly become a race of sorts.
Either Akua Sahelian would finish her scheme and break the Empire, or I’d mass enough strength to put her down.
There was a part of me, the same that had been taught by Black, that kept to the iron-clad belief that she would fail in the end. That whatever she was juggling would backfire on her, either because she’d but off more than she could chew or because I’d break her stride. But as the days passed, I had to concede it was a possibility I might fail. I couldn’t quite manage to believe I would, but then I doubted any of the rulers Triumphant had crushed had thought they’d end up a note in the margins of history either. I knew better than most how dangerous Diabolist was, and how disparate the forces I was bringing against her was. There was advantage in that bastard mixture of Deoraithe, Callowans and Praesi I was leading. But there was weakness too. I failed, Hells even if I won but died winning… Well, I would be leaving behind me a mess that might be beyond salvaging. In rising to prominence I’d crossed a lot of lines and ripped open quite a few old wounds. None of that would be undone in the wake of my death, but I’d no longer be there to even try to guide the currents.
I wondered if Black had that same sense of cold fear, when he looked at the Empire. The ugly realization that a lot of what you’d built was dependent on you to remain functional, and that if some farmboy with a magic sword put six inches of steel through your throat it would bring ruin on hundreds of thousands. Recklessness, for all that it often cost me, had seen me win one uphill battle after another. Never without some of my blood spilled on the ground, but I’d forged victory out of being the only person in a fight willing to cross the line. Whether it was allowing my own death to get out of a Heaven-mandated defeat or lying my way to the contraptions of godhood, audacity had allowed me pull through situations that should have seen me dead or broken. But I could, I was coming to realize, no longer operate this way. Before all it took was for one gamble to fail, and the whole house of cards I had built around myself would come tumbling down. I’d gone out of my way to make myself, if not essential, then as close as anyone could be in Malicia’s empire. But that cut both ways. If I get myself killed, everything I bound to me suffers.
I’d bound quite a few things to me, by now. Armies and institutions, even the very hierarchy that now ruled Callow. When you became someone of consequence, if only followed that your death would have those same consequences.
I’d never been good with fear. I’d always pushed through it by heading into the breach repeatedly until I stopped flinching, steeling myself by taking the weakness as a personal insult. But this… this was no longer dealing with a fear of heights by standing at a rooftop’s edge the way I had when I was a girl. If I slipped and fell, Callow went up in flames. It wasn’t a fear for my own death as much as fear of what it would mean, and I was finding it much harder to push down. That was the problem with learning the currents that guided an empire from behind the scenes – you could never unsee it, after. It was not a pleasant thing admit I knew no other way to fight. Black had once told me I needed to start thinking ahead if I did not forever want to be fighting to the tune of my opponents, and I liked to think I’d learned how. To an extent. But it was one thing to sit with the Empress and plan the unmaking of the Summer Court, another to plan the steps of a waltz with the Diabolist. Fae had rules they could not break. They were, in some ways, predictable.
All that Akua had binding her was having been raised with all the blind spots of the old breed of Praesi villainy, and those weaknesses were not meant for villains to exploit. One slip and it was all over. I’d long become used to gambling with my own life, and once when I had been younger and more ignorant even gambled with Callow’s fate through my clash against the Lone Swordsman. I was older now, and if not wiser at least a great deal more aware. If I threw the dice and they came up wrong, then from Harrow to Dormer my people suffered for it. If there is no Named to use to bind Callow to the Empire, they start to use harsher methods. I hated the thought, and the hesitation it brought with it. One of the old monsters who’d held the Tower had once said that the worst sin a villain could commit was to hesitate. She’d been right. I had won and kept winning because I had made a blade of temerity and struck out at my enemies with it. After a year of trying to keep Callow together in the face of slaughter and invasion, I wasn’t certain how long I could keep doing that.
The thought came, unbidden, that this was not a coincidence. That Her Dread Majesty had uses for a hunting hound, but only so long as it could be leashed. And hadn’t she done exactly that, by giving me the very same authority I asked for? I did not allow myself to think if it too much, not right now. I could spend months trying to discern the intent of the likes of the Empress and still end up grievously, hilariously wrong in my conclusions. But. I would, one of these days, sit with Hakram over a bottle and ponder this. Because it would have been arrogant to believe that the Empress had spent decades trying to suborn Callow with soft methods but would never try tactics that had proved so effective on me as well.
The itinerary that was ultimately settled on was simple. I would take Legate Hune and a detachment of two thousand into Arcadia, taking a fairy gate to Holden where we’d link up with General Istrid and her three legions. From there we’d take another gate to the muster point north of Vale where the guards form the adjoining cities had been ordered to gather. Then I’d make one last trip south, to hopefully shave off a few weeks from my host’s march to the north to assemble with the rest. I’d always taken Nauk with me on journeys like this, and the Gallowborne as well. One was unconscious and more than halfway into the grave, and there remained only five of the cohort of two hundred that had once made up the other. Aisha had already suggested I disband them and assemble another retinue, but I’d refused. They’d died for me, John and his men. I would not spit on that by replacing them before the moon had even finished waxing.
“Senior Mage Kilian will have to remain with the Fifteenth,” Juniper said, “but her second should go with you. I want our own mages on the ground, to keep scrying in our house.”
“We have to assume Diabolist can listen in on all of those,” I grunted. “The Empress certainly can.”
“Ratface made his own codes that differ from Legion protocols,” Aisha said. “I would think that our conversations, at least, will be hard for her people to decipher.”
“She’ll still be expecting most our troop movements,” I said. “The Callowans I ordered to muster were warned she might make a sortie, but that only takes us so far.”
“I am not certain she will,” Juniper growled. “There would be obvious benefits to hitting our forces before they’re gathered, but the heart of her strategy remains to defend Liesse until she can deploy her ritual. She might not want to take the risk, considering you can pop out of Arcadia at any time to hit the city.”
“Assuming she can’t track me when I leave Creation,” I said. “We don’t know that she can’t.”
“I would not plan strategy around the assumption,” the Hellhound conceded. “But overestimating an opponent is just as dangerous as the opposite. If we are too careful to guard against means she does not have, we uselessly limit ourselves.”
“Yeah, true enough,” I said. “Pinpointing exactly what she can do has proved to be something a problem, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter that much. If we’re too slow we’re fucked anyway.”
Juniper rasped out a laugh.
“Won’t be the first time we fight against the hours as well as the enemy,” she said. “I doubt it will be the last. You leave with dawn?”
“That’s the plan,” I said, and turned to Hune. “Your people will be ready?”
“Orders were already given,” the ogre replied.
I looked away quickly, knowing if I kept staring anger would well up again. I had axes to grind with Hune, though I’d forced myself to keep my mouth shut about it. She’d done nothing that was against regulations, or outside her authority. Didn’t make me any happier about it.
“Dismissed, then,” Juniper grunted. “Catherine, a word?”
This hadn’t been an official staff meeting, and so there were only four of us in the command tent. Aisha gave my general a warning look before following the ogre out.
“I’m listening,” I told the orc.
“What the fuck is your problem?” she bluntly said. “You’ve been treating Hune like she ate your horse ever since Dormer. If you have something to say, say it. I’m her commanding officer.”
My eyes hardened.
“You don’t want to knock on this door, Hellhound,” I warned.
“I just did, Foundling,” she growled. “Out with it.”
I’d gained enough control that the wood under my fingers did not freeze, but not enough it didn’t fog as the temperature cooled.
“We had two trump cards to play, when taking a swing at the upper city,” I said flatly. “The Watch and the knights. She sent both to the flanks against the Immortals instead bolstering my own push.”
Juniper eyed me in silence.
“I get one,” I said. “The Immortals were taking their tool. But if the knights had backed me, Nauk would be awake right now.”
The Hellhound’s lips curled into a snarl.
“If you were an orc, you’d be on the floor bleeding from the mouth right now,” Juniper said, tone eerily calm. “And if you say anything like that ever again, I’ll resign my commission.”
My fingers clenched.
“Explain,” I said through gritted teeth.
“She made a call,” the Hellhound said. “As commander on the field. She did not do it lightly, or with unsound reasons. Just because you’re angry Nauk got wounded does not give you the right to treat her this way. She isn’t your friend, Catherine. She is an officer in the Legions of Terror.”
“I took four hundred men when I advanced,” I said. “You know how many came back.”
“And she saved twice that many by sending our heaviest hitters against the Immortals,” Juniper barked. “She made a tactical decision. It was the right decision, and I would have made the same. You had four Named with you, one way or another you were getting through. The others were expendable.”
Juniper rose to her feet and paused when she passed me by, laying a hand on my shoulder.
“It’s good,” she said gruffly. “That you care. The Empress wouldn’t. But you need the harden the fuck up, Catherine. We’ll both have a lot of dead friends before this is over.”
She left me to ponder that in the silent tent, eyes closed. Callowans had a lot of songs about the glory and righteousness of sacrificing yourself for the kingdom. I knew quite a few. None of them spoke of sacrificing those you loved though.
As always, the songs were thin gilding over the ugly truths of what I’d have to do.