“And on your grave we shall have inscribed: he was witty all the way into the tiger pit.”
– Dread Emperor Vindictive
Nauk had a whole tent to himself, unlike the rest of our wounded remaining with the host. Unconscious or not he kept his rank. His Senior Tribune had been temporarily granted full legate authority, but no one had ever dared to talk of actual promotion in front of me. All those that could speak of the matter knew me better than that. There was no lit candle inside, but that hadn’t made a difference to me in years. I dragged the lone stool in the corner across the dirt and sat on it, eyes stuck on the orc’s inanimate form. His breath still rose and fell faintly and the wounds had begun to heal, but there was nothing pretty about it. His left eye was gone, taken by Summer flame along with ear and cheek and a chunk of his dark hair. It looked like a bonfire had devoured half his face, and though the burns were no longer a horror of charred skin they had scabbed green and peeling. This, I knew, he would be able to live with. That kind of scarring was almost a point of honour to orcs. My eyes shifted to the side and lingered on the stump that ended at his shoulder. The loss of his fighting arm would be harder blow.
Prosthetics could be made, I knew. The Warlock had made a hand for Hakram, after Summerholm, and I did not doubt Masego would be able to make something even more functional now that he had transitioned into Hierophant. But Nauk would forever be a cripple in the eyes of his own, without a Name to make up for his defect. There was much to love in orcs, be it the bone-deep loyalty or the fierceness in the face of peril, but the Clans were not known to be kind to failures – and that was what they would call him for this, I had no doubt.
“I never should have taken you into that fight,” I murmured, brushing back an errant strand of hair. “Neither you nor the Gallowborne. It was arrogant, to think I was powerful to keep you alive.”
I was, in the end, a villain. My power was not meant to be a shield for those I loved. All I can do is kill the enemy before they kill you, I thought. But that too would fail in time, like Black had failed Captain. Death could only be cheated for so long no matter how cunning and ruthless and strong you thought you were.
“I’ve been told Pickler visits you every night, after her hours are done,” I told the orc. “The others came too, even Robber. You haven’t been forgotten.”
There were no wards around the tent but there were guards, and when I heard them give way without comment my mind ran down the list of the few people with that authority. Wouldn’t be Juniper or any of the general staff – most of them had ordered a bonfire made away from prying eyes and begun showing up with bottles when Evening Bell rang. I meant to join them, eventually, but I’d come to visit my mistake first. Not Black, either. He’d been scrying generals and court officials all day, and likely would continue until we left for Liesse. That left only three. Hakram, but the approaching steps were too light. Archer wouldn’t have come here at all. And that meant…
“Lord Warlock,” I said calmly, hand withdrawing from Nauk’s forehead.
The Sovereign of the Red Skies was no more bothered by the darkness than me. He strolled casually to my legate’s side, leaving the body between us, and frowned at the unconscious orc. I studied the villain in silence, eyes tracing the sculpted face and fit form that was made plain by his tailored tunic. There’d always been traces of silver in the man’s short hair, and salt as well as pepper in his beard, but I fancied I saw a little more of both now. He was still, I thought, perhaps one of the most handsome men I’d ever seen. An older man, certainly, but that only added to the allure: there was nothing boyish about him at all. The admission was set aside earlier than it used to be, the way I could dismiss Akua’s looks. Some part of me considered the Warlock an enemy, and enemies were not to be blushed over. He did not reply to my greeting, or call on sorcery. All he did was stand there and look.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “About Sabah.”
Dark eyes finally turned to me.
“Your sympathy is a shallow thing of little meaning, Squire,” he replied. “You knew her for scarcely three years, perhaps a month in all of shared presence. Your grief is pale imitation of ours.”
“And yet I still grieve her,” I said.
His face twitched, sorrow and hatred mingled. In my veins Winter flowed, the darkness in the room thickening. My mantle craved the strife like a parched man craved water.
“She was always the best of us,” Warlock said. “All she wanted was for us to be alive and happy. It made her so very easy to love.”
I did not reply. Tread lightly here, Catherine. Winter had caught the scent of war, and in this it is so very rarely wrong. The tall man continued to watch me, the silence growing tenser every heartbeat.
“I am trying,” the Sovereign of the Red Skies said, “to think of a reason not to kill you right here and now.”
“You might not find that so easily achieved,” I calmly replied.
I’d come too far to flinch in the face of even a man like this. A slow smirk split the Soninke’s face.
“You speak to me of trouble when your soul is one spell away from turning on itself,” he said. “Proud little Squire, having learned all the wrong lessons. Did you really think a mantle was so easily claimed? That there would not be consequences to usurping a demigod?”
My eyes flicked to Nauk’s silent form.
“I am sharply aware of my limitations,” I said.
“You are an altar raised to your own ambition, child, and the foundations are shaking,” he jeered. “You have lied and murdered your way through affairs beyond your understanding. Can you even still suffer the touch of cold iron?”
He laughed sharply, teeth like ivory showing in the dark.
“Perhaps it is too early for that still,” he said. “But thresholds must already be growing difficult, yes? Wards stand stone where they were once parchment, your power mercurial where it was once firmly grasped. You are not more than human, Catherine Foundling, merely other.”
My fingers twitched, hidden under Nauk’s cot by the angle. I felt like reaching for my sword even as the words winded their way into my head. There was an unfortunate stench of truth about them. The edges being turned on me did not cut deep, but my patience was running thin in the face of a berating I had not earned. Or, at the very least, not from him.
“You once warned me about lines I shouldn’t cross,” I coldly said. “I’ve kept to those terms. And yet here you are, knife on your fucking tongue. Act like even half the man you pretend to be, Warlock.”
Power flooded the tent. Not as a spell or an attack – the Sovereign of the Red Skies had simply ceased hiding the sorcery always roiling inside him. Just by standing there, just by being, he was a storm made flesh. My Name’s hackles rose in answer, frost touching my shoulders and my shadow deepening into an endless pit. I stood in front of Hashmallim unbowed, Wastelander. You will not scare me into lowering my head with cheap theatrics.
“Lines,” the Warlock hissed. “You dare speak to me of lines when just by existing you bring death to Amadeus? You stand before me reeking of bargain incomplete, a thing stitched together by blood and ignorance, and pretend you are safe for even a single soul in this wretched world?”
Something bubbled up inside me, and against my will a laugh escaped my lips.
“You blustering fucking hypocrite,” I said. “Who are you to cast stones, Sovereign? You’re more abattoir than man. Have you ever accomplished a single damned thing by means other than cutting up men? All I can put to your name is death and horror. I have been civil because Masego is family and for some godforsaken reason Black forgives what you are, but do not mistake that for fear, not for a single moment. You think your record cows me? I’ve bled for it, Warlock, but I have beaten gods. All you are is an aging bag of curses.”
The cloth of the tent around us withered until it was threadbare and blackened, Winter baring its fangs through my open snarl. The Warlock’s eyes dilated, red bleeding into them as the smell of brimstone spread through cold air.
“Hye should have killed you when she had the chance,” he said. “He would have forgiven her, eventually. Damn her for having looked only at the hunt.”
My fingers clasped around the hilt of my sword.
“Talk is meaningless,” I said. “Either act or shut the Hells up.”
The Soninke’s shoulders twitched and for a moment a I thought it would come to violence, my sword already halfway out the scabbard, but in the end the monster stayed his hand.
“My son asked for the life of this tin soldier of yours,” he said, tone emotionless. “Have it back, and count the debt of protecting Masego through his transition paid. Watch your step, Squire. If slaying you keeps him alive, you will not live to see winter.”
I forced myself to leave, because if I stayed there would be blood. Terror was writ plain on the faces of the two legionaries standing guard outsides, and any notion they hadn’t heard the argument was dead the moment I glimpsed it. My sword slid back fully into the sheath and I took a deep breath, wrestling down fury I knew to be not entirely my own. My temper was worsening. Like all the rest, I thought darkly.
“Everything you heard here is under the Tower’s seal,” I told the guards.
I lingered long enough to receive stammering assurances from them, then left. Part of me wanted nothing with the bonfire and comrades awaiting, but disappearing into my tent to stew over this wasn’t going to improve anything about my night. Even if the mood was gone, I would show up. Other, the Warlock had called me. Other than human. Maybe I needed all the company I could get.
“You’re having another,” Hakram bluntly ordered. “It’s a little early for morning dew, so I can hazard a guess why you have wet shoulders.”
I grimaced but offered up my cup to the orc.
“Could we at least drink something that doesn’t taste of burnt orange?” I complained.
I got a few smiles for that, though no laughter. No one was quite drunk enough yet to have reached that place where everything was funny.
“Dhahab is an acquired taste,” Aisha conceded.
“Acquired is the right word,” Ratface drawled. “That bottle is worth twice its weight in gold.”
There were ten of us around the crackling flames, and though some of the faces had changed it had reminded me so much of evenings in the War College that I’d ached. Simpler times, though back then they’d felt anything but. These days whatever didn’t involve half a river’s worth of blood felt innocent.
“They served this at receptions in Ater,” Masego noted. “Though it tasted different then.”
“Milkweed extract,” Aisha explained, her cheeks rosy. “It’s the traditional paired poison.”
My Taghreb staff tribune had begun hitting the bottle early tonight and already abandoned the flat stone that had been her seat in favour of lying against the large trunk we were using as a bench. Having traded a cotton shirt and slender trousers for her usual uniform, I got a good glimpse of why Ratface had been stuck on her for so long every time she stretched. The toned curves were hard to notice under the aketon, but now they were in full display. I didn’t allow my eyes to linger, though, and the reason why spoke up right after.
“We’re roughing it like proper peasants, then,” Kilian smiled, cheeks dimpling. “How appropriate.”
I expected Archer to make something out of that, but when I looked she was busy trying to discreetly tie Masego’s braids in a knot. He kept slapping away her hands, so evidently not a great success.
“Frosted another table talking with Kegan?” Juniper asked, seizing Aisha’s cup and watering down her liquor even as she pouted.
“I wish,” I grunted. “Got into an argument with the Warlock.”
“Were you asking about his s-“ Robber started, but Pickler pushed him off his seat with the ease of long practice.
It did not escape my notice he half-leaned into the touch before allowing himself to be toppled. That infatuation had yet to disappear, then.
“Really?” Masego said, coil of lightning forming around his finger just in time for him to shock away Archer from her latest attempt with a flick. “Father doesn’t lose his temper often. As far as I know, the last argument he got into was before I was born.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Huh,” I eloquently said, nursing the liquor. “Who with?”
I wasn’t actually all that curious, but steering the talk away from the fact that I’d drawn steel on one of the Calamities in the middle of my own war camp seemed a solid notion. Even if he’d been fucking asking for it.
“Uncle Amadeus,” Masego said. “Uncle wanted him to open an academy for mages, after the Conquest.”
“There already is,” Ratface pointed out. “There’s a track for mages at the College.”
Hierophant rolled his glass eyes under the cloth.
“A real academy,” he said. “He refused, of course. Father had no interest in teaching squalling Wasteland brats.”
“The War College has a limited curriculum, it’s true,” Pickler said, and I noticed a subtle slur to her words. “The Eyries have entire volumes on engineering and alchemy that will never see light of day.”
“The spell scrolls at the College are very narrow in scope,” Kilian agreed. “And all the more sophisticated treatises are theory, not practical.”
“Praesi hoard spells like dragons do gold,” Juniper said. “That’s always been the way.”
I downed the rest of dhahab and reached for an open bottle of wine before Hakram could fill my cup with that sin against tastebuds a third time. I poured too quick, red spilling over the rim, and unthinkingly licked my fingers clean. Feeling eyes on me I turned, and found Kilian watching. I cleared my throat, in a hurry for a distraction.
“That may change,” I said. “I’ve had a talk with Black.”
There was a heartbeat of silence, my teacher’s name falling like a shroud on the previously light mood.
“Lord Black,” Juniper insisted, breaking the silence.
I snorted into my cup and saw a few smiles bloom. I hesitated to call anything about the Hellhound girlish, but the way she got so coquettishly proper about Black came pretty close.
“I call him sir about once a year, that should be enough formality to meet the quota,” I said. “Regardless, there’s going to be changes in the Wasteland after we clean up the Sahelian mess.”
Stillness hung in the air like fog, the fire crackling loudly around us. The quiet was pregnant with words none of us dared say.
“That sounds like murder talk,” Archer cheerfully said. “Doesn’t that sound like murder talk?”
“It does,” Robber said, grinning hungrily in the dark. “And with official sanction, no less. That is going to be a ride.”
Hakram cleared his throat.
“Enough blade-talk for he night,” Adjutant announced. “War will still be looming tomorrow, but then we’ll have to be sober.”
“Cheers to that,” I said, raising my cup.
“A toast,” Ratface shouted. “To liquor, obtained by entirely legal means!”
“To victory, fickle bitch that she is,” Aisha added just as loudly.
She handed her cup to Juniper long enough to pass the bottle to Pickler, never noticing that the orc poured half of it to the ground.
“To stabbing Diabolist in the face,” Archer said. “Like, at least twice.”
“To claiming her personal possessions afterwards,” Masego contributed.
“If you keep that up, warlock’s get, I’ll have to adopt you into my tribe,” Robber said, placing his hand over his heart.
“That’s illegal, they’ll have you killed,” Pickler noted.
“Then I’ll make my own tribe,” Robber said.
“Also illegal, will also get you killed,” Pickler replied without missing a beat.
“Boss,” Robber said, turning to me, “you need to make your own tribe so I can abuse that power most sorely.”
My brows rose.
“Congratulations, Special Tribune Robber,” I ceremoniously said. “You are the first and only member of the Lesser Lesser Footrest Tribe, by my authority as Vicefuckingqueen of Callow.”
“You said I’d go back to just lesser if I behaved,” the goblin whined.
“Which you did not,” Pickler said, sounding amused.
“Goblins,” Juniper sighed, then raised her cup. “To the Fifteenth.”
“Boring,” Archer catcalled from the side, obnoxiously drawing out the word.
“To making it this far,” Kilian said, bringing up her cup before a squabble could erupt.
“To us,” Hakram said, and with that sentimental finish we all drank.
The drinks kept flowing after that, and as the hours passed the stillness returned bearing sted tiredness instead of nervous anticipation. We did not speak of plans or war or the deaths to come, however close they may be. We talked like the friends I’d wished to have, back at the orphanage, and that I had found in this strange place along that winding path my life had taken. That the path also took me to dark and ugly places, I could not deny, but once in a while it led to golden nights like this as well – and they almost made up for the rest. When talk finally died down half my friends were asleep, Aisha draped over Juniper’s side and softly snoring as the general fondly looked down at her. Hierophant was having a quiet conversation with Pickler as Robber interjected less than helpfully, Archer passed out over the mage’s lap. For all that they bickered constantly, it had become plain for anyone to see how close the two of them were. He’d tightened her cloak around her shoulders, earlier, gentle in a way I’d never Masego be with anything but books. I was gazing at the scene, something between happiness and contentment having found me, when Hakram nudged my rib. He inclined his head to the side and I followed the direction, finding Kilian worrying her lip. She rose when she noticed my gaze and I closed my eyes. An overdue conversation, this. I rose to my feet as well, clapping Adjutant on the shoulder, and offered the redhead my arm.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I whispered.