“Six wars I fought since my coronation, so hear me when I say this: war may be fought for righteous reasons, but no war can ever deserve that epithet.”
-King Jehan the Wise, apocryphal last words
It was a cork forced into a leaking barrel, not a long-term solution. I hesitated to call this luck, because Black was nothing if not calculated even at his worst, but the damage had been limited. Destroying the array had freed the souls of the Deoraithe but there’d been an interval between that unleashing and the city smashing back into Creation. The wards Masego had promised held, keeping the dead shades from turning a third of central Callow into a haunted wasteland, but Liesse itself was beyond salvaging. The wights inside had gone wild, tearing apart everything that wasn’t nailed down and quite a bit that was. Thrice a ruin now, the old heart of the south. There was nothing inside left alive, not even the rebel forces who’d been dug in. That close to the flood of souls their protection had been about as useful a parchment shield. As far as my people could tell, the few that’d survived the initial onslaught had been killed by the rampaging wights. I’d been cheated out of my hangings, but it had been an execution nonetheless. Besides, there were survivors from the battle outside the city. I would settle my scores with Akua’s lot one way or another.
“It remains a major strategic liability so long as we leave it like this,” the Hellhound said.
I was avoiding the camp and he decisions that awaited me there, at the moment, but there was no getting away from Juniper. My general’s face was calm, but there was a subtle hunch to her frame she had once lacked. Like she was trying to fold into herself. Her mother had died, I’d been told, while trying to hold the right flank. He risen corpse had been hacked to pieces by her own legionaries and she’d had to be brought to the pyre in full armour to hide the marks. Juniper had put the torch herself, Adjutant said, while I lay half-conscious in a tent after crawling out of the ruins of Liesse. I might have died in there, if Thief had not come back for me. Black certainly would have, the backlash of his stand having put him in a coma he’d yet to wake from. Seated on an upturned stone, I watched the wreck of a once-great city and bit into mutton jerky. I offered the Hellhound a bite but got only a quelling glare for answer. Her loss.
“I’ll be putting Hierophant to work,” I finally said. “He believes the remaining wights can be brought under control.”
“That leaves the shades,” Juniper grunted. “I’m less than comfortable with having a jug of goblinfire in the middle of the supply line for the Vales. Much less camping by it. Those wards break, Catherine, and up goes two thirds of the remaining imperial forces in Callow. And you damn well know Duchess Kegan’s been making noise. Ignoring her won’t work forever.”
The necromantic nature of the powers backing the Watch was out of the bag for good, to no one’s pleasure. Procer would make something of that, no doubt. There were too many people on the plains who were seeing what was undeniably the souls of the dead for containment to be even remotely feasible, not that it was my secret to keep in the first place. And since the moment the dust settled the Duchess of Daoine had been loudly demanding her wizards be given access to the wards and the city so they could begin the work of weaving the souls back together into a gestalt. I’d had Adjutant’s people take a look at her forces: the Watch was powerless at the moment. Nothing more than well-trained soldiers. I’d refused to meet with Kegan until Hierophant could have a better look at Liesse, but around dawn today he’d given me his verdict: the weapon was broken. Not for good, but it would take several years and massive resources to bring it back to even superficial functionality and I could afford the costs in neither time nor coin. One word, that was all it’d taken, and just like that Black had smothered the last hope for my homeland being spared the Tenth Crusade.
“The souls go back to Daoine,” I told Juniper with a sigh. “They’re no use to anyone here, and I’ll need the Watch to take the field before long.”
“A start,” the Hellhound conceded. “Frankly, I believe we should torch the whole city with goblinfire. You’ve heard the reports.”
Soldiers near the wards said they glimpsed dead loved ones speaking to them from behind the boundary, begging to be let out. Some of the mages keeping Hierophant’s wards powered came back trembling and talking of whispers in their ears. Others lost track of time entirely for hours on end. I’d had to order the northernmost camps to be demolished and rebuilt south because the legionaries inside them were plagued with vivid and persistent nightmares. You couldn’t kill that many people in a place without there being consequences to it, and killing was only the first of horrors that’d been visited upon Liesse.
“I’m not committing to that until I get assurances it won’t worsen the situation,” I said. “But as soon as I get back to Laure I’ll make it an official decree that the area as far as two miles outwards is forbidden territory. Markers will be placed.”
“There’ll be adventurers heading in there even then,” Juniper said. “Looters with more balls than sense.”
“My options are limited, Juniper,” I told the orc flatly. “I will not compound ruin with disaster. Ratface has a blade to the throat of half the Dark Guilds and Thief has her own people – I’ll have to count on them to keep the situation as much under control as it can be.”
“Are coming,” I interrupted. “I know. Marshal Grem still holds the Vales, that should ward off the worst of it, but I’ve already ordered a watch on the Hwaerte. The Smugglers will know if anyone tries to sail up the river. If we’re lucky the first wave will only hit us with the crusade and we’ll have winter to prepare unhindered.”
“When have we ever been that lucky?” Juniper bitterly said.
The death of Istrid Knightsbane had changed her, I thought. Tempered her in some ways, but as in all things at a price. She’d always been sombre but her mother’s passing had put out some ineffable light in her. It’d cut close to home in a way the rest of our campaigns had not, I supposed. More than once I’d thought of reaching out, but her grief was not something I could truly understand. I was an orphan, after all. Aisha would pick up what pieces she could. I scarfed down the last of the jerky and licked my fingers clean.
“There are going to be changes,” I said.
She looked at me for a long time, then sighed. She gestured for me to move and I made room on the stone. The orc sat by my side, over a head taller and twice as broad. I studied her face and was surprised at how young she looked, even after all this. The Hellhound was such a force of nature it was easy to forget she was only a year older than me.
“What happened in the city, Catherine?” she asked.
No one had who’d not been in that room knew exactly what had gone down, not even Thief. There had been no order to arrest Black while he was unconscious forthcoming from the Tower, but I knew better than to believe the matter was at an end. I suspected the Empress would have tried it, if there wasn’t a real risk the legions around Liesse would have refused and raised banner of rebellion around my teacher’s sleeping form. That I could see no move on her part did not mean they were not being made.
“Lines were drawn,” I said. “I’m still deciding on which side I’m falling.”
“Are we rebelling?” she bluntly asked.
After a heartbeat of hesitation, I shook my head.
“Not for now, anyway,” I admitted. “But we can no longer be dependant on the Tower for protection. Right now the situation is… fluid.”
A year ago, I thought, I would have backed Black against the Empress without hesitation. Maybe even a fortnight ago. But not after today, not when he’d consigned thousands of my countrymen to death for a point of pride.
“We can’t afford a civil war with Procer at the gates,” Juniper growled.
“I doubt it’ll come to that,” I said. “But there was a break. The blades might be sheathed until the outside threat is dealt with but they’ll come out eventually. I will not allow Callow to be the field where that struggle is settled, and that means an army giving them all pause.”
“You want me to head it,” the Hellhound said.
“You already are heading it,” I replied. “Your responsibilities will just expand.”
“Raising an army without the Tower’s permission is treason,” Juniper reluctantly said.
“I have permission,” I said. “Or had. I will proceed regardless of whether that’s confirmed. Like you said, the Empire cannot afford a civil war. Much less one fought against me.”
“Callowan recruits, I assume,” she said.
“I’d grab every legionary in the country if I could,” I said. “As it is I’ve had Adjutant working on the Fifth and the Twelfth. The orc now in interim command of the Fifth has been… open to overtures.”
“But not the Sixth,” Juniper said, dark eyes studying me.
Her mother’s legion. No, I’d not crossed that line. I would have liked to say I’d made that choice out of consideration for the feelings of a dear friend, but the truth was not as pretty. I’d refrained because Juniper in command of Callow’s army was worth more to me than a chance of pulling into my orbit the remains of the Sixth.
“No,” I agreed. “Not the Sixth.”
She closed her eyes.
“I’ll talk to Legate Bagram,” the Hellhound whispered. “I know him well.”
“I’m not asking you to,” I told her, wanting to be exceedingly clear about that.
“I have already chosen the side I fall on, Warlord,” Juniper replied, eyes opening and flashing with anger. “My words were not lightly spoken. Do not bring dishonour to us both by coddling me.”
Only an orc, I thought, would find offense in someone respecting their grief. Best not to linger on this, and as it happened I had no lack of distractions to offer.
“The Fourth and the Ninth are the real wildcards,” I said. “Precarious as their position is.”
It had not escaped anyone’s attention that the only senior commanders to survive the battle were both goblins and Matrons. Rumours of betrayal were already sweeping through the camps and in truth I’d done nothing to stamp them out. Adjutant had given me a report by voice only that I’d ordered him to never repeat: Istrid Knightsbane had been killed by poison, not sorcery or undead. He’d told me the cut that killed her was too clean to have been made with anything but goblin steel, and that raised questions. All legionary weapons were made with the stuff, straight out of the Imperial forges of Foramen, and the High Lords had definitely gotten their hands on some of it. Yet I very much doubted this was Diabolist’s handiwork. The timing was off, and I suspected she would have gloated about it when we fought if it was her doing. If only to make it plain she had more support among Praesi than I believed, even in the Legions. It shouldn’t be Black’s either – General Istrid had been one of his most vocal loyalists. That left three likely culprits in my eyes, the ones who had the most to gain from that death.
First was the Empress, who’d had to know when considering her scheme that Black would stand opposed to it. Had she begun cleaning the upper ranks of his most loyal before the insurrection was over? It was unlikely she’d get an opportunity to make a kill this quiet for years. She was not to be dismissed as to practical for this, not after the flying murder fortress gambit she’d tacitly allowed. The second was the First Prince. Assassinating senior and famous commanders before an invasion was right up her wheelhouse, from what I’d heard of her. I found it hard to believe she’d managed to place an agent in the legions without the Eyes noticing it, but then she had shut down major imperial operations in Procer before. With the home front settled, she might be looking outwards. The last I hesitated to even think, because if it was true the Empire was done and this entire house of cards was going to fall down on my head.
It might be the Matrons. Isolationist as they were said to be, Robber had told me enough about the crones ruling his people I knew taking a few scalps to better position commanders of their own kind was not something they’d think twice about doing – if they thought they could get away with it. And if it was them… Suddenly it no longer felt like a coincidence I’d been offered desperately needed coin in exchange for a goblin settlement in Marchford. It felt like a calculated move to secure an ally before an uprising could be started. It might be I was being paranoid in thinking this, but in Praes the question was never if you were being paranoid or not. It was if you were being paranoid enough.
“General Sacker would not have a hand in my mother’s death, no matter the rumours,” Juniper sneered. “They were like sisters, Catherine. Their bond was decades in the making.”
“I don’t believe it either,” I replied, only saying half the truth.
Goblins just didn’t think the way humans or even orcs did. To them betrayal in the name of advancement was no betrayal at all. Still, I suspected that if there’d been an agent of the Matrons at work here it would be Marshal Ranker. She was the one who’d been left the senior commander here by the deaths, and though the rumours were impugning her reputation no one was daring to question her authority. Not even me, as she’d stepped lightly knowing that a Named outranked even a marshal in the eyes of the Tower if push came to shove. But neither had I helped her any with my not inconsiderable clout: as long as her reputation was in the gutter, I had an in with anyone who bought the rumours. And I needed the men, needed them badly if I was to give any of the jackals fighting over Callow’s bleeding body any reason to be wary. The Fifteenth wasn’t enough for that, not with the nearly one thousand men the fucking Warlock had left stranded on the wrong side of the Hellgate. If the villain had been here to deal with, we would have had words on the subject. The legionaries going in had known it was a possibility they would never come back, but the blow was still being felt and I doubted the bastard had done anything to try to save them.
“They may retreat to Summerholm,” Juniper finally said. “Without Lord Black to mediate or the Tower ordering otherwise, that is the safest hold for them to wait out the mess.”
“It’s not happening,” I told her flatly. “The don’t get to garrison one of my fucking cities anymore. If they want to go east, let them go all the way to the Blessed Isle. The Empire can supply them there, because it sure as Hells won’t be my granaries coughing out the goods.”
The Hellhound stared at me, frowning.
“You are establishing borders,” she said.
“I am,” I acknowledged.
“That is too large a territory to cover for a single host,” Juniper stated. “You mean to raise several armies, then, and that is beyond the writ of a general’s authority. My command extends only to the Fifteenth.”
“You would need to be a marshal,” I agreed.
I’d had Hakram take care of the physical aspect of that last night. A marshal’s baton was traditionally made of wood from the Wasteland, usually ebony, but I didn’t have any on hand. The elongated stick I took out from under my cloak and handed to Juniper was stone, rough granite. It’d been sculpted, but where was no mandate from the Tower in formal Mthethwa to be read. Among the traditional relief of legionaries in arms was set my own heraldry, the scales with the sword and the crown. The detail did not escape the orc’s considering eyes.
“They will never promote you to marshal,” I said. “You’ve been with me for too long, your loyalties are suspect.”
“Then this is a mere bauble,” she said.
“It is the regalia of the Marshal of Callow,” I smiled thinly. “It’s not actually illegal for a serving commander to have other titles, you see. I had Aisha look into the legalities.”
It wasn’t nearly that clean-cut, no matter what I said. Lords and ladies of Praesi who served in the Legions had to renounce their claim to any noble title for the duration of their service. But that was landed titles, and what I was granting her was not. There was even a precedent, though a distant one: Dread Empress Maleficent II had showered her successful commander in the Free Cities with local honours, since those were much less expensive than rewards at home. As a client state under the Tower, Callow currently fell in the same areas as the subjugated territories down south the ancient empress had taken. It was a fairly thin excuse and the High Lords were bound to howl, but Malicia had a lot more to prove than I did at the moment. If she couldn’t even finagle her way through this, what point was there in backing her? Juniper’s thick fingers clasped around the stone.
“I dreamt of holding a baton, as a girl,” she said. “But not like this.”
Isn’t that Praes in a sentence? I thought. Everything you want, just not the way you want it.
“You’re now the highest commander in this kingdom,” I told her. “Your rank of general is irrelevant. The Fifteenth, while remaining a legion, is also the first division of the army of Callow. Congratulations, Juniper. You’re the youngest marshal in the history of this empire.”
“I am not,” she said darkly, “an imperial marshal. I can live with that disappointment, if I hold the command regardless. But if I am to be your second, Catherine, I will need my hands unbound. There will be conscription, even if limited. I will need forges to make what the Imperial ones in Foramen will no longer provide, and granaries to feed the soldiers.”
“And you’ll have them,” I promised. “I will have this country ready for war, when it comes.”
The Hellhound suddenly snorted.
“I suppose I should kneel,” she said. “Are there no ceremonies to be observed? Should a blade not be laid on my shoulders?”
“That’s for knighting,” I told her. “It would also involve me slapping you across the face as hard as I can, and no offense but I’m not sure you would survive that.”
“Then we do this the way of my own people,” Juniper said, and rose to her feet.
She unsheathed her sword and bared her arm, cutting across leathery flesh. I rose and did the same under her expectant gaze.
“Under the gaze of That Which Lurks Below, I make these oaths,” the Hellhound said, tone heavy. “I will make war for you, and be true in the shedding of blood. In lean seasons I will offer meat from my table, and in bountiful days be granted the same from yours. Your foe is my foe, your kin is my kin. I swear this by iron and salt, by grass and wind and the death of men. In ruin and glory, our threads are bound. Let they who would sunder this pact be devoured ‘til not even bones remain.”
She offered her bleeding arm and I met it with mine, crimson trails staining us both. I did not know her people’s customs, but I knew those of mine. Not from teaching, for etiquette lessons had never covered the likes of this, but from old stories. From days when this land of mine had still be a true kingdom.
“Gods be my witness, and strike me down should I break this solemn oath,” I said. “Honour granted will be kept, homage rewarded by sanctuary unbroken. To she who is faithful and true I will be the same. She who loves me I will love, and shun all that she shuns. No injury or slight shall go unavenged, be they the work of the great or the small.”
“I name you Warlord,” Juniper grinned sharply. “Willing and hungry.”
“I name you Marshal of Callow,” I replied, “and in my own blood anoint you.”
The baton was touched with red, when she took it, the both of us having shed droplets. Fitting, I thought.
There would be more to come.