“I imagine the High Lords would be inclined to protest the mind control, if I hadn’t seized control of their minds, which just goes to show this was the right decision all along.”
– Dread Emperor Imperious
I’d believed, once, that the way Black thought was what made him different from his predecessors. The manner he tallied gains and losses, let the numbers guide his decisions instead of more sentimental inclinations. I’d thought it a strange thing, that a man born in Praes could think that way at all. But I’d understood, as I watched a thousand men die in a manner I tacitly allowed as part of an overarching strategy, that it’d been a false perception. Most Praesi thought that way already, when you dug a little deeper. That was the principle behind a sacrifice, wasn’t it? Breaking something of worth so it would bring you something else you found of greater worth. A few thousand people for a flying fortress? Well, the Empire had a lot of people but few sorcerous war machines. Tendrils of something eldritch touching your mind for a demon summoning? Power was prized over sanity, when one intended to climb the Tower. My teacher had just taken a concept at the heart of everything Praesi and brought it to its logical, cold-eyed conclusion.
The House of Light said men could be worse than devils, for devils were driven to Evil by their nature and not by choice. That it was greater sin to turn away from the light than be born of the dark. Choice, that was the word the priests exalted above all others. That men had the right to make decisions granted by the Gods and that what they did with this right defined who they were. For the Children of the Heavens sin is in action, not in birth. I didn’t believe that, not really. Malicia was a monster not because she’d fed a civil war that lasted decades and killed dozens of thousands, but because she was someone who had it in her to make that decision. Her sin, if I was to insist on such a word, was that she was a woman with that capacity. Even if she’d become a cloistered sister in southern Callow and never hurt a fly until she died, she would still have that bleak thing within her. Evil was not an act so much as it was a state of mind, a way of thinking I had been raised to despise even against the best efforts of the Imperial orphanages.
But I had the bleakness in me too. It was almost pathetic it had taken me so long to admit to that fact, that it had taken writing off a thousand men under my protection as bait before I could no longer deny it, even deep down. I’d sacrificed the Ankouans, and men of the Fifteenth as well, to draw out the ritual Akua’s hounds had up their sleeves. I’d have done the same with General Istrid’s men or any other of the soldiers on this field, because that ugly bloodletting had seemed to me the path to victory. Was this what you saw in me, Black? The same absence where better people have qualms. The decision had been no different – no worse – than sending the vanguard into the jaws of Summer at Dormer or forcing a battle against the full might of the Court in Arcadia. But the selfishness of this one had been bare, beyond even my ability to paint over. It should have grieved me, but aside from dull shame the sight of the dying had done nothing to move me. If I cannot be kind or just, then I will at least be victorious.
I had sacrificed my last illusion of being a decent person for a win, and I could not even muster regret at the the thought of that. Maybe Diabolist had spoken truth, when she’d said I’d become like Praesi. The gap between them and me was not as wide or deep as I would have liked. I heard Hune approach through the silence, her heavy footsteps unlike any other, but did not turn to greet her.
“Legate,” I simply said. “You have a report for me?”
Ahead of us were the remains of the day. My little necromantic trick, turned from dagger to sword by Winter’s mantle, had turned the tide at exactly the right time. While I led my own dead smashing the wights, the legions on the flanks had begun breaking through. Istrid’s Fourth had been the first among them, but closely followed by General Orim and the Fifth. Ranker’s legion had not been far behind them, a quarter bell at most, and the moment the Ninth was free move the battle had been over. With four breaches in the enemy line their formation had collapsed and then the rebels had grown desperate. They’d fled, of course. Dying for the cause was not a Wasteland virtue. To prevent pursuit Lord Fasili had thinned his centre and thrown everything he could at the marching veteran legions while he and his fellow living escaped. It hadn’t been enough. Orim had sent a division of one thousand to delay the wights meant to block him and pursued, only backing down when Fasili threw his last reserve of three thousand wights at the Fifth. Akua’s general had brought twenty-three thousand soldiers south and fled with barely two thousand when the Battle of Dead Dawn ended.
To my fury, I’d been unable to engage in pursuit. With the necromancers gone the wights had gone wild, turning on each other as well as my soldiers, but their numbers had not dwindled swiftly enough. I could have followed on foot, or with a confiscated horse. But I’d weighed the gains and losses. If I pursued, there was a chance I could kill Akua’s best general. It was not a given I’d be able to, though, since he had hundreds of mages and at least one ward he believed could trap me. If I remained, I could significantly lower casualties on my side by carving my way through the disorganized wights with my procession of dead soldiers. Uncertain greater gain or certain lesser one. A year ago I would have pursued, but I’d been taught the price of recklessness since then. Powerful as they might be, villains who faced armies on their own died to them more often than not.
“Two hundred and thirty-three fatalities from the Fifteenth,” Hune said, delicately handing me a scroll. “Twice that many wounded. Numbers are still coming from the other three legions and the Callowans lack even basic registries, but I am projecting at least two thousand dead Ankouans from the debriefs.”
A quarter of the initial Ankouan force gone before Afternoon Bell even rang. The colder part of me assessed that, even with the five thousand men from Southpool sure to have been lost, this battle had still seen me come out ahead in the grim arithmetic of war. On the surface, at least. Diabolist could afford to lose more troops than I could. At this rate of exchange, I’d be the last woman standing in my army and she’d still have over a third of hers. Or what we thought was hers, anyway. Inside the walls of Liesse was barred to scrying and trying to guess the amount of people there’d been in the city when it rose into the sky was a logistical nightmare. Refugees didn’t exactly declare their intent to travel, nor fae offer casualty reports.
“Then we’ve decisively proven the Legions can beat wights when the armies field similar numbers,” I said after a long moment.
“I would mitigate that statement,” the ogre said. “A third of our number were Ankou watchmen. That said, Liesse is a fortified city. The nature of the engagement there will be different.”
“You’re worried about her mages,” I said, hazarding a guess.
It wasn’t a stretch to do so. They had me worried as well.
“They will have had months to prepare the grounds,” Hune said. “Superior spellpower and numerical advantage will weigh heavily against us, ma’am.”
“Superior spellpower,” I smiled wanly. “Not something they can claim, I think, so long as we have Hierophant.”
“One man,” she said.
“One Named,” I replied.
“They have one of those as well, Your Grace,” the ogre reminded me. “Had I not been informed there are temporal concerns at work, I would have advised for a protracted siege instead of an assault.”
Temporal concerns, huh. A roundabout way of saying everybody was worried about what Akua Sahelian would be able to cook up if we didn’t kick down her front door quickly enough. The ogre’s notion wouldn’t have been wrong on a tactical level, if we set aside Diabolist. But it would have been a mistake on a strategic one. The longer it took us to put the rebels down, the higher the chances Procer would attack while half the legions were tied up around Liesse. The ogre wasn’t high enough up the ranks to be in the know for that, though I’d wager she’d heard some rumours. They were cropping up often of late and I doubted it was a coincidence. The Empress, I suspected, was preparing public opinion for the wars to come. Even if she had a plan in the works that involved never fighting those at all. Malicia was not the kind of woman inclined to leave any of the angles uncovered. I had no intention of discussing any of that with the ogre, through, so I changed the subject.
“Fasili Mirembe,” I said. “Your opinion on him?”
“Skilled,” the legate immediately replied. “Clearly studied Legion doctrine in depth. He accurately gauged how long it would take the legions to deal with the wights set against them. His tactical judgement is solid as well. The Ankouans were the correct target for his ritual.”
“Terror tactics,” I murmured. “He was banking on a Callowan rout to win this.”
“They have evidently made plans to limit your ability to act on the battlefield, ma’am,” Hune said. “I am somewhat at a loss as to how they were fooled by a decoy.”
“That was Thief,” I said. “Keep quiet a Name’s power and it can be hard to differentiate between them, from a distance. It won’t work twice, but it shouldn’t need to. Using wards against Masego is like trying to drown a fish.”
“I confess a degree of wariness over how heavily we rely on Named for for our tactics,” the ogre noted.
She sounded, I thought, almost like my teacher. Never rely on an artefact or a power for victory. They will always fail you. There is no such thing as being invincible, but lack of glaringly exploitable crutches will do wonders for your lifespan. There was truth in that, but the number of Named on my side was my main advantage. I would be a fool not to exploit it to the fullest.
“We’ll meet him again in Liesse,” I said, winding the conversation back to Lord Fasili.
“I would rank him as inferior to most Imperial generals, General Juniper among them,” the ogre said. “Though battles are rarely so clear-cut as to allow such gaps in ability to be a deciding factor.”
She was right about that. On open grounds with identical armies, it would change quite a bit. But in a massive pitched battle around Liesse? That was a different story. I had faith in the Hellhound, but I did not think she would be better at leading a traditional Wasteland army than an intelligent man who’d been raised to do that very thing. We still come out ahead by miles when it comes to experienced officers. They’ll be dependent on magic to control the wights, and that’ll make it hard to manoeuver quickly. Juniper had been crafting a plan of attack for Liesse for quite some time now, refining and improving it every day. I would trust in her, as she trusted in me. I silently watched the legionaries piling up corpses all over the field, preparing the pyres that would be lit before nightfall. Wights broke after they were damaged enough, whatever sorcery animated them ceasing to function, but some of the corpses still struggled as they were dragged away. They would burn anyway.
“Do you think you’re a good person, Hune?” I suddenly asked.
“That’s a human way of looking at the world,” the ogre said. “Drawing lines and saying that standing before or past them defines who you are.”
“Then how do ogres think of it?” I said, glancing at her.
The legate smiled thinly, fat lips tightening in a line.
“We are what Creation lets us be,” she said. “That we get to decide is the first and oldest lie.”
“I was taught differently,” I said.
“And how much control did you have over that?” she asked.
She shook her head before I could reply.
“I must return to my duties, Your Grace,” she continued. “I leave you to your musings.”
I inclined my head in dismissal, not eager to keep her around. I had another conversation ahead of me, after all. As she strode away I sought the six hundred and forty-nine remaining undead I had raised, a writhing bundle in the back of my mind. I could see through their eyes, guide their hands and feet, but there was… danger in that. There were too many, more than I could truly handle. Orders that were more thought than word could direct them as a pack, but if I went any deeper I was certain there would be consequences. A god, perhaps, would not have been troubled by those. But stealing one’s mantle had not raised me to godhood: all it had done was allow me to claim some of that power as my own. Safety lay in shallowness. It was my instinct to release the dead from service now that the battle was over, but I thought twice of it. I’d proved in the past that I could go a great deal of damage by filling dead animals with munitions. Six hundred purely expendable troops were too useful of a tool to dismiss without good reason.
“I know you’re around,” I said.
Thief clucked her tongue, and appeared ahead of me. She was sitting on a dead man’s back, though from this angle I could not tell whether it’d been one of mine or a wight. She pulled at a waterskin, looking somewhat ill.
“I’ll never get used to the smell,” Vivienne Dartwick said. “The reek clings to you, somehow.”
“I thought the same after my first real battle,” I said. “I barely notice it now, to tell you the truth.”
Thief’s answering smile was sharp.
“And that doesn’t worry you?”
“Not only villains fight battles,” I said. “Or have noses, for that matter.”
She didn’t press the subject, nor I had not expected her to. Talking with Vivienne, I thought, was much like sparring. All deft footwork and probing for weaknesses, a game where victory and defeat were ever moving targets for both players.
“A great victory,” Thief drawled. “Should I offer you congratulations?”
“A skirmish,” I said.
“Forty thousand men fought on this field,” Vivienne said.
“Not even a third of either real armies,” I said. “Minor parts of the whole. That makes it a skirmish, no matter how large of one.”
“If this was just a skirmish,” Vivienne said. “Then why did Diabolist risk her best general?”
My fingers clenched, then unclenched.
“I,” I murmured, “have been wondering about the same thing.”
Looking at all of this, there were parts that weren’t adding up. I could generously assume that I’d lost five thousand men today. Diabolist, on the other hand, had lost twenty thousand. Even with the five thousand Southpooleans she would kill and raise, I’d come out of this round ahead by ten thousand souls. It wasn’t a horrible trade, for her. The more troops I lost the fewer I had to assault her walls with. But she sent Fasili, and hundreds of mages. Knowing she could lose them. Akua never did anything with only one intention in mind.
“The wards they tried to pen me in with,” Thief said. “I could have strolled out at any time. They weren’t keyed to me, if you get my drift.”
“You think she wanted to find out if she could put me in a box at will,” I said.
“I’m no general,” the dark-haired woman said. “But I get the impression that, army for army, she has you beat. What you’ve got over her is a bunch of Named, and arguably you’re the most powerful of them.”
I wasn’t so sure of that, to be honest. When it came to killing single opponents, maybe, and Named in particular. But Hierophant could wipe a company from the face of Creation without losing his breath, these days. And Archer was, well… Hard to contain, for lack of better term. She was the living incarnation of the proverbial grain of sand in the machinery. Adjutant wasn’t overwhelming by himself, but that wasn’t his Role in the first place. He was supposed to empower another Named, and though he worked best with me he could serve that function with others as well.
“It would be reckless of her, to risk so many mages just to answer that question,” I said.
“If you’d been stuck behind the wards,” Thief said, “would this battle have been won?”
I grimaced. Maybe. But then, maybe not. And if Diabolist had wiped three legions and a contingent of the Fifteenth right before our last battle, well, there went my chances of taking Liesse. This campaign could survive the loss of the Ankou city guard. Fourteen thousand legionaries were another story.
“There’s too much we don’t know for sure,” I finally said. “Guesswork and schemes are her bread and butter, we won’t be coming out on top if we keep playing this her way.”
Thief was silent for a long moment, staring at me.
“You want me to go to Liesse,” she said.
I slowly nodded.
“Not to fight,” I clarified. “But I need eyes in the city before attacking it. I’ve tried to seize the initiative repeatedly, Vivienne, but she’s always been a step ahead of us.”
“It won’t be like my last visit there,” Thief said. “She knows I’m part of your little band of miscreants. She will have measures in place.”
“I know,” I said quietly. “I’m asking anyway.”
“This is the part,” she said, “where you use your eloquence to talk me into this.”
I looked up at the blue sky and smiled bitterly. I could manipulate her, I thought. I’d glimpsed levers to pull in our past conversations. I had a grasp on the kind of threats and pressures that would make her cave. But this, the urge to bend her to my will that I was feeling in my bones? That was how villains forged the same blade that’d kill them. I didn’t know if that sharp instinct was from my Name or Winter, or more distressingly neither of them at all. But I would not give in to it.
“Do you think you’re a good person, Vivienne?” I asked instead.
“Good is irrelevant,” Thief said. “There are debts, paid and not. The rest is garnish.”
“A hundred thousand Callowans,” I said. “Killed and made servants. That, I think, may be the debt of our lifetime. Help me settle it. Please.”
Vivienne said nothing at all, and drank from the water skin. She wiped her lips and chuckled darkly.
“I used to think there wouldn’t be a need for idiotic heroics, on this side of the fence,” she said. “How I miss that assumption.”
I didn’t push any further. It had, in the end, to be her decision. Anything else and there would be a cost, sooner or later. I do no want servants, I thought, the conversation I’d had with Hune on a hill still fresh in my mind. But some part of me whispered that kindness was as much a leash as fear, in its own way, and that what I wanted mattered a great deal less than what I actually did.
“Don’t dawdle south,” Thief said. “I’ll be cautious, and retreat if the danger’s too great.”
“That’s all I can ask,” I said, and the matter was settled.
By nightfall, the pyres were burning. A hundred candles of cooking flesh in the night. Thief went north, to the enemy’s lair. I had the three legions under General Istrid escort the Ankouans to our mustering grounds, and returned south with the remained of my men. To the Fifteenth, to Juniper and Hierophant and the plans that would make or break Callow.
And, I found out, to Black.