“What cannot bend is fated to break.”
– Taghreb saying
I wouldn’t say aragh had grown on me, but it was the most common of the strong stuff that was peddled among legionaries. That had always been a source of wonder to me, that men and women who already carried so much weight over so many miles would still find it in them to slip a bottle of drink somewhere in there. Booze always found a way, didn’t it? I hadn’t asked Ratface to get me one, but it had magically appeared in my quarters after I’d gotten paring knives to stop disappearing from our supplies. My quartermaster was a tricky bastard with many an axe to grind, but it was little things like this that endeared him so much to me. Trust a Praesi to understand sometimes after a shit day you could need something a little stronger than wine. I poured myself a finger’s worth in a silver goblet that Robber’s men had ‘found’ back in Arcadia, aware I’d be going through at least a third of that bottle but unwilling to actually pour myself a full glass. It would have felt like to blunt an admission. I knocked it back and let out a groan at the the fire going down my throat, shaking my hair.
“Gods, that would outright kill a child,” I rasped out. “Should I pour you one as well?”
Thief was pouting when she came into sight, going from not to there in a heartbeat’s span. She sat astride the table, leather creaking on wood, and presented a golden chalice. I looked closer at it. Those were bells engraved on the side, weren’t they? The heraldry of House Fairfax.
“Did you steal this in Laure?” I asked. “From my own treasury?”
“Stolen?” she said. “How dare you, sir. This was bestowed upon me by the Vicequeen of Callow herself, for services rendered.”
“I paid upfront, actually,” I grunted, but I poured and the aragh sloshed in her ill-gotten goods. “Orphanage never covered how to negotiate with thieves, which in retrospective is an oversight on Black’s part.”
Thief tried the liquor and grimaced, coughing.
“You drink this?” she croaked. “On purpose?”
“You get used to it,” I lied.
The look she shot me was more than a little sceptical, but she got down her second swallow without her windpipe rebelling. I leaned back into my chair and granted myself a second finger’s worth.
“How do you do it, anyway?” Thief asked. “Tell when I’m there. I was under cover of an aspect, and I’ve stood inches away from men in broad daylight without them batting an eye.”
“I guess you could call it a Name trick,” I said. “You never had a teacher, did you?”
“Not one Named,” Thief frowned.
“Then I will share my hard-earned knowledge with you,” I affably said. “You know how when you came into your Name there was this set of instincts just under your skin?”
The brown-haired woman cocked her head to the side.
“It felt more like a hand guiding mine,” she said.
“Close enough,” I said. “When you’re about to get wounded or killed, you’re going to get a tingle just like it.”
She nodded slowly.
“I had no intention of striking you,” she pointed out.
“Yeah, but you were looking at me,” I said. “It does the same thing just… fainter. Black had people following for weeks back in Ater until I learned to pick up on it.”
“Then if I moved without looking?” she said.
“Probably wouldn’t be able to tell you’re there at all,” I said. “I didn’t get the impression this was common knowledge, anyway. I doubt most Named we’ll face will know the trick.”
Thief finished her chalice and presented it for filling. Feeling magnanimous, I deigned to comply.
“Are you sure you should have told me that?” Thief asked suddenly. “If I turned on you, this could allow me to land my first strike unseen.”
I took another mouthful of aragh, the roughness of the drink now beginning to be replaced by a vague sense of warmth across my chest. I waved lazily.
“Will you?” I asked instead of replying. “Turn on me?”
“If I deem it necessary,” Thief said, and for all that she spoke nonchalantly her eyes were serious.
“You say that like it’s a rare thing,” I told her. “You think Masego obeys my every order? Gods, let’s not even talk about Archer. Even my soldiers have lines in the sand they won’t follow me past.”
“You did not mention Adjutant,” the other Callowan said.
“Hakram’s the only person in this misbegotten world I trust unconditionally,” I replied, perhaps too honestly. “If he turns on me, I’m fucked regardless. No point in worrying about it.”
“He does more than you know,” Thief said.
“That’s what trust is,” I said. “Not needing to know what he does. I’m guessing the two of you had an unpleasant conversation at some point. Is there anything you want to bring to me? I’ll listen if there is.”
She studied me for a while, then shook her head.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” she said.
I raised my cup in a toast, then polished off the remainder.
“So what do you have for me?” I asked.
“Less than you want,” she shrugged. “There’s twelve thousand of them, I only had time to have a look at the upper officers.”
“And?” I prompted.
“Nothing out of the ordinary, as far as I can tell,” Thief said. “If there are planted commands they are too subtle for my senses. I have difficulty feeling sorcery aside from wards, so it’s possible.”
“I hate dealing with Akua,” I sighed. “The bag of tricks she inherited is a bitch to handle.”
“I’m unsure why you would believe these legions would be her target,” she said. “Did you not send them away from the front?”
“She had to know I’d be pulling together all the forces I can before taking a swing at her,” I replied. “Istrid’s legions are going to be the core of our offensive against Liesse. If they break halfway through the assault we’ll be in deep trouble.”
“The Fifteenth still seems a better opportunity,” Thief noted. “It was raised recently and has a reputation for battlefield promotions.”
“The Fifteenth has been under Masego’s eyes for over a year,” I said. “She tries to enchant one of my senior officers and Hierophant will catch it. These three legions have been out of my sight for months.”
“And you believe she’ll have agents somewhere in them?” Thief said.
“I know she does,” I grunted. “That’s not even up for debate, it’s the base for half the plays I’ve seen her pull over the years.”
I filled my cup again, then hers when she hinted at desire for a top-off.
“Diabolist has been too… open,” I said. “She’s a chip off the old tyrannical block, I won’t deny that, but Akua’s wheelhouse has always been the indirect. The massive army of undead, whatever traps she cooked up around Liesse – those are dangerous, but they’re not the only arrows in her quiver. They’re blunt instruments when she’s a girl with a thing for daggers.”
“She spent months preparing for the ritual in the city,” Thief said. “I would look there for her sharpest blade.”
I drank and grimaced, though this once not because of the aragh.
“That’s been worrying me as well,” I said. “I mean, I’d have to be insane not to worry about a fucking ritual involving centuries of accumulated souls, but there’s more than that. Diabolist thinks what she’s prepared is going to put her on top of the pecking order, and she may have blinders but she’s not stupid.”
“I don’t follow,” the dark-haired-woman admitted.
“Think of it this way,” I said. “Akua has a large army and backers in the Wasteland, but not enough to handle the Empire at full tilt. Say we march up to Liesse, she pulls down the sky on our heads and our entire force is annihilated. She still loses, because she’s fresh out of a god and the Empire’s still standing. Weakened, sure, but there’s other armies it can field and other commanders too. She’s not winning, she’s delaying a defeat.”
Thief’s eyes narrowed.
“You’re implying she can use the ritual more than once,” she said.
“Pretty much,” I said. “This doesn’t make sense otherwise. And isn’t that the stuff of nightmares? Either the ritual works once but it has a permanent effect – but she didn’t rant about ascending to godhood when we talked, so I don’t like the odds – or whatever she can pull, she can several times. And it won’t be just a few either. If I die she’s up against Black, and he’s not the kind of man who shies away from a long slugging match.”
“Great sorcery always comes at a cost,” Thief said, but there was unease on her face.
“She won’t care, if she’s not the one paying,” I said. “We’ll have to go into that fight facing the possibility she has both her current armies and a deployable catastrophe in her pocket. We can’t face that and win with traitors in the ranks, Thief. It’ll be a razor’s edge as is.”
My fellow Callowan looked grim.
“I’ll take a closer look as we march, extend it to your men as well,” she said.
“Please do,” I said, indolently toasting her. “And while we’re on the subject, it’s getting tiresome to call you Thief all the time. I assume you have a name?”
“Juliet,” she replied without batting an eye.
I squinted at her.
“That was a lie,” I said. “Your heartbeat quickened.”
“Alas, you’ve seen through me,” she drawled. “Samantha.”
My squint deepened.
“Did you force your heartbeat to quicken just to sell this current lie?” I asked. “Because that’s genuinely impressive.”
“Did I? Vivienne,” she said.
“Your heart went faster again,” I sighed. “Now you’re just screwing with me.”
“I would never dare defy you, Your Grace,” Thief said, sounding wounded.
“I’ll call you Boris,” I threatened. “Don’t think I won’t. Robber will have a song about it before the moon’s turned and that’s a promise.”
She brushed back her bangs, seemingly amused.
“Vivienne Dartwick,” she said.
Huh, that sounded highborn. Wouldn’t have pegged her for one, though it wasn’t impossible. There’d been a lot of former nobles who’d fallen on hard times after the Conquest.
“Had a feeling it was that one,” I baldly lied.
My money had been on Juliet and I’d been coming pretty close to pretending I’d used a Name trick to know it was the truth. And they said I’d never learn prudence. I turned to offer an another refill but found only thin air. I waited for a long moment, but couldn’t feel her eyes on me.
“I might have shot myself in the foot there,” I admitted.
I ended up drifting from the path Masego had charted me. The fairy gate opened a few miles southwest of where I’d meant it to, though honesty compelled me to admit that might be on me more than Hierophant. Was I going to present it that way when we next spoke? No, absolutely not. Still, holding the destination in my mind when I opened the first gate was proving tricky when I’d never been there before. It was hardly a disaster, though. We’d have camp ready for sundown instead of Noon Bell, and a few hours of delay were hardly worth a second thought when I’d managed to lead fourteen thousand legionaries from Holden to central Callow in the span of a mere nine days. General Istrid was of the same opinion.
“That is a nasty trick you’ve got,” the orc gravelled. “The Procerans are going to piss their pants the first time you appear in the middle of their fields without warning.”
The two of us had gone with the vanguard, which for once was not made of my men. Istrid was riding a wolf the size of a pony, though noticeably broader. My own Zombie the Third had me standing taller than the orc, for once, since the great wolves stood closer to the ground. Mine also had wings, not that it was a competition. If it had been, though, hard to beat the flying undead horse. Her full contingent of wolf riders had preceded us, a horde of eight hundred that brought out old primal fears just to look upon. Beasts like those with riders just as green had been a plague on Callow for centuries, no match for the kingdom’s knights on the field but able to ravage large swaths of territory and withdraw if they were not checked quickly enough. The reminder that they were on my side rang a little hollow when Istrid’s own mount occasionally snapped at my own with fangs the size of daggers.
“Might not work out that cleanly,” I said. “Black tells me they have a Named future-teller on their side. I figure there’s decent odds there’ll be an army waiting for me on the other side of the gate.”
Neither of us bothered to pretend war with Procer wasn’t around the corner.
“Then they have to pull off thousands from the border to wait for you,” Istrid grinned savagely. “Their armies don’t march so quick, Squire. You hop south, then you hop north and just like that their army’s split in three – or the Fifteenth’s torching their fields and poisoning their wells. Big place, Procer. Won’t be easy to defend.”
I hummed and did not disagree. I wasn’t convinced, though. If Cordelia Hasenbach got her Crusade, that cause would attract more than armies. There’d be heroes too, and those had a knack for being in the right place at the right time to wreck the plans of people that worked on my side of the fence. The Fifteenth had been right behind the vanguard and I glimpsed Hune’s tall silhouette, surrounded by a dozen smaller ones as she advanced. I must have let my gaze linger a little too long, because Istrid noticed.
“Thought you liked them smaller than that,” the orc snorted.
“Wasn’t that kind of look,” I said.
The general wasn’t exactly someone I wanted to discuss who I kept bed with, so I did not elaborate. Although, to be fair, the Istrid Knightsbane had been happily married for several decades so in that regard she was definitely doing better than me. The orc’s very daughter had informed me that the word in Lower Miezan really was married and not ‘mated’, no matter what some Praesi books said. It wasn’t an exact translation from the Kharsum term, which was closer to bound-in-fortune, but the meaning was the same even if the customs differed some.
“Oh, I see how it is,” General Istrid grunted with amusement. “Got on your nerves, did she?”
I cast a steady look at the orc, who seemed rather unimpressed.
“We had something of a disagreement,” I diplomatically said.
“She doesn’t like you,” the orc said, fairly bluntly.
“That’s a possible interpretation of it, yes,” I said.
“You’ve been running with Named too long,” the general said. “That sort of thing matters with a pack of villains, but she’s an officer.”
“I can work with people who don’t like me,” I said. “Hells, Juniper didn’t when we started out.”
“She’s a sweet girl, my daughter,” Istrid casually dismissed. “Ogres are harder to deal with.”
I stared silently at the general. Juniper. Juniper, sweet? I’d seen her chew out a man so harshly over sloppy gear that he’d teared up. Even Robber tread lightly when she was in a bad mood, and the goblin regularly rode undead creatures I’d stuffed with explosives into active battlefields.
“The commander for my riders,” the orc elaborated. “Finest one I ever got, leagues above the woman I had during the Conquest. I still want to break his teeth every time his smug lips open. Don’t have to like him or trust him, though, because in the end we’re both under the banner. Doesn’t matter if you can’t stand your legate, it’s the Legions that come first – trust in that instead of the woman.”
Except my banner isn’t exactly Malicia’s, is it? It stood on the same side, I’d made sure of that as much as I could. But our interests weren’t all aligned. The ogre hadn’t been wrong when she’s said the Fifteenth was more likely to heed my orders than the Tower’s, if it came down to it. That Hune probably wouldn’t felt like a liability, but not one I could do much about. Setting aside the fact that the Hellhound would dig her heels in if tried to have the ogre transferred, I couldn’t exactly use ‘loyal to the Empire above me’ as a reason to act. I wasn’t sure I should, anyway. How likely was it that she was the only soldier in the Fifteenth who thought this way? We had a lot of Callowans these days but most my officers tribune rank and above were from the War College, and that meant greenskins and Praesi. I didn’t like the thought of having a lightning rod for those who shared the belief, but there were risks to not giving those people voice at all. I clenched my fingers and unclenched them. It would have to wait after the war, anyway. Changing the second in command of the Fifteenth right before the largest battle it’d ever been in would have been sheer stupidity.
“I got a lesson in ogre opinions,” I sighed. “Not a pleasant conversation, though it was worth having.”
“Nim’s never been accused of being too much of a laugh,” Istrid contributed. “There’s a reason she was assigned in the Wasteland. Mok’s better.”
Marshal Nim, that was who she referred to. The ogre that led the Seventh Legion and held overall command of every legion in Praes. The other was General Mok, commander of the Third and currently at the Proceran border under Grem One-Eye. The two most powerful ogres in the Empire, not that you’d know to hear Istrid speak of them.
“Surprised one made Marshal,” I finally said. “I didn’t get the feeling from Hune they particularly wanted to get involved with the rest of Praes.”
“Oh, they talk a good talk,” the general conceded. “But they like a good scrap as much as anyone. They can’t farm for shit in their hills, anyway, so they have to bring in the food with coin.”
“Thalassina’s pretty close,” I noted.
As the main trading port in the Wasteland, it was from there the grain imported from abroad poured through. There would be advantages to that, if trade was what kept the Hall of Skulls fed.
“Though that can’t be pleasant all the time,” I added after a moment.
The disadvantages of having a Praesi High Lord this close to your backyard rather spoke for themselves. Istrid snorted.
“They can talk when they share a border with Wolof,” she said. “Or the fucking Wallerspawn.”
A moment later she remembered my tan wasn’t all from the sun, and cleared her throat.
“No offence meant,” Istrid said.
I wasn’t eager to get into an argument with an orc about who exactly was in the wrong when it came to centuries-old border wars that had occurred often enough Daoine had seen fit to build a giant wall, so I let that one go. Probably for the best, since we were interrupted not long after. One of my mages hurried at our side, bringing word from the latest scrying. Diabolist was on the move, undead had poured out of Liesse. They were going, I was told, south. Towards the eight thousand men Ankou had sent out at my order.
It looked like the Second Battle of Liesse was going to have an opening act.