“In conclusion, the court recognizes the desertion of the sentient tiger army raised by Dread Emperor Sorcerous as sufficient precedent to rule that tapirs can, in fact, commit treason but that lack of sentience bars them from laying claim to the Tower by right of usurpation.”
– Official transcript from the Trial of Unexpected Teeth, which resulted in the execution of the man-eating tapirs that devoured Dread Empress Atrocious
The mist had come out of the clay pot and formed a mirror-like surface in front of us without any need for visible prompting. Even as Archer loudly cussed me out and dragged herself out of the pool like a hissing wet cat, my eyes went to the images that had bloomed across solidified must. Massive was the first word that came to mind. Masego had somehow raised the perspective to high up in the sky, above the still-unfolding ritual, and only vague memories of how large that mountain range stood otherwise allowed to grasp the scale of what was being done. It was deceptively simple, at first look. Some kind of white fire was being used to carve a passage across the Whitecaps from the Principate to Callow. It was difficult to put a finger on the exact size of the passage from this perspective, but I’d gauge as broad enough for two large carriages to pass simultaneously without getting too close. Hierophant had taken the moments I spent looking at his scrying to gather himself. I could tell from the way his breath was steadying and his heartbeat calming.
“I will begin by clarifying this is a ritual and not the making of an artefact,” the blind mage said.
“Afternoon, Masego,” I said. “How are you doing? I’m doing great myself, thanks for asking.”
He cast me a dubious look.
“I would have thought that the obvious precursor to an invasion would spoil your mood,” he said.
“She’s being sarcastic, Zeze,” Archer said.
She got close enough to me before shaking off the wet that my entire left side was made dripping. She was a charmer, our Indrani.
“Ah,” Hierophant said. “Is that entirely necessary?”
I sighed, if only to prevent my sharpening worry from showing. A few months ago he would have caught that. Spending his days strapped to the Observatory’s central device looked like it might be unmaking years of progress. I needed to keep a closer eye on him, force him to talk with actual people once in a while. I knew Archer broke the wards protecting this place with chagrining regularity to come pester him, but that alone obviously wasn’t enough.
“Not an artefact, you said,” I said. “I thought those were pretty small by definition.”
“Liesse as rebuilt by Diabolist would be considered an artefact under most accepted definitions,” he noted. “It certainly served a sorcerous purpose.”
Mildly interesting, but not the kind of edification I was currently after.
“Ritual,” I repeated. “I was under the impression Procer doesn’t usually have the chops for those. You’ve been pretty dismissive about their mages whenever we discuss threat assessments.”
“Eh, the Lady says the same thing,” Archer said. “She always told us Proceran wizards are nothing to worry about unless they’re Named. Apparently their kind’s not real popular with the powers that be in the west.”
“The Principate has been consistently at least a generation behind the Empire in matters of sorcery for centuries,” Masego said, almost sneering. “No other nation has even half their number of hedge practitioners and even their ‘finest’ still ascribe to the Jaquinite theory of magic. It tells in their work here, Catherine. It is amateurish in everything but scale.”
I wrinkled my nose at the sight of the white flame burning through rock. It hadn’t moved in a while, I noted. Was something messing with our scrying?
“I was going to ask you when they’d be done, but they don’t seem to be moving,” I said.
“Performance issues,” Archer suggested. “I mean, if they’re going to wave around a big fire dick it’s only fitting.”
Oh Gods, now that she’d put the image in my head I couldn’t unsee it. Fucking Hells, Indrani.
“That is planned,” Masego said vaguely. “And the reason is… ah, there we are.”
I raised an eyebrow and it kept rising when I saw half a mountain’s worth of snow and stone collapse into the flame. Avalanche. They’ll only start moving when they’re sure the passage wont be clogged, I thought.
“It is not fire,” Hierophant suddenly said. “They are… um, the structure seems based on a miracle? Fascinating.”
I whistled sharply.
“Focus, Zeze,” I said. “We’re at war.”
“And I have another wooden duck,” Archer added cheerfully.
He seemed a lot more concerned by Indrani’s announcement than mine, but then she’d been spending a lot of time with him. I doubted it was the first time a shitty wooden carving ended up bouncing off his forehead, knowing them both as I did.
“Dispersal of matter,” Hierophant said. “That is the nature of the working employed.”
“The passage smokes after they clear it,” I pointed out.
“Because they are sloppy,” he disdainfully said. “Their spell formula is inexact, thus the dispersal causes the release of heat. Had they done it properly their army could be walking behind the front but they’re Jaquinites, Catherine. The man was a priest. I’m pleasantly surprised they didn’t just kneel down to pray the passage would happen on its own.”
“Let’s not even speak about that,” I grimaced. “With the amount of heroes they’ve assembled, I wouldn’t call that too much of a stretch to take place.”
“Praying,” Archer drawled. “By far the least interesting thing that can follow someone getting on their knees.”
I shot her a look. Indrani really needed a roll in the hay, didn’t she? My court was packed with attractive men and women around my eye these days – and Gods Below, that Talbot thought he was being subtle really was the most insulting part of that – so the fact that she hadn’t dragged anyone into her rooms yet was starting to warrant a conversation.
“They’ve mastered the basics of scrying, at least,” Masego conceded. “It’s why they’re forging a pass instead of a tunnel even if it risks avalanches.”
“Wait, I know that one,” I said. “Scrying doesn’t work underground. Or across tall obstacles.”
“An oversimplification on both counts,” Hierophant told me. “The Greyfang Range-“
“The Whitecaps,” I corrected him.
The glass orbs that were his eyes shifted under the cloth in what was likely the reflex of a blink without the physical ability to do one.
“That is not their name in Imperial atlases,” he said.
“The Empire doesn’t have a city next to them either,” I replied.
“That is not how atlases work, Catherine,” he plaintively said.
“I thought they were called the Parish,” Archer contributed, because never once in her life had she seen a fire without reaching for a jug of oil.
“That’s the Proceran name for them,” I grunted. One of them, anyway. “Whitecaps. Moving on.”
“There’s mushrooms called that,” Hierophant mutinously said under his breath.
“But not capitalized,” I pointed out.
If there was one thing to love about Masego, it was that he could easily be side tracked by technicalities. I was getting fairly good at that, these days. His expression brightened and he nodded. From the corner of my eye I saw Archer looking at me amusedly.
“The Whitecaps are a too broad a range to penetrate through blindly,” Hierophant said, picking up where I’d interrupted.
“Yeah, penetrating blindly never helps,” Indrani agreed, voice choked up.
“You’re bargaining for another visit to the pond,” I whispered at her.
“I’ll be good,” Archer whispered back, hands raised and her vulpine grin immediately betraying the lie.
“They’re adjusting with scrying,” Masgeo said, blithely unaware of the background chatter. “The entire array is a backwards mess, however. They likely have to communicate adjustments by voice.”
I consciously refrained from asking what the alterative to speaking was.
“Can you tell me when the ritual will be done?” I asked, then winced. “Never mind, don’t answer that. Can you tell me when you think the ritual will be done?”
Hierophant’s mouth closed over this initial answer, then he took a moment to consider.
“Assuming there are fewer than five avalanches,” he said. “And that the pool of accumulated power they’re using does not run out… Two days. Going into three. It depends on the amount of practitioners they’ve gathered. Serving as guide for so large a working will be exhausting. If they’ve fewer than three hundred mages some will begin to die or birth derangements before nightfall.”
I worried my lip. Worst case, two days. Actually crossing the passage would take them longer. A week before the first troops were in Callow? No, shorter if they used cavalry for the vanguard. Which I would, in their place. The Order of Broken Bells had swelled, but it was still just a fraction of the horse the Principate could bring to bear. Imperial spy reports and what the Jacks had managed to compile had the host waiting in Arans around fifty thousand strong. The commanders weren’t supposed to be anything too worrying, a Prince Milenan and his allies none of who had notable military achievements under their belt from the civil war. They were the First Prince’s primary opposition within Procer, though, so I suspected she would not be shy about spending their lives to damage my position. Even if I pulled together every part of my armies in Callow – which I couldn’t, not without leaving my borders with Praes and the Free Cities dangerously bare – the invaders still outnumber me a little less than two to one. I’d have what Juniper called a qualitative edge, considering most my soldiers were professionals while a lot of theirs would be levies, but the core of that army was principality troops. Varying shades of light cavalry and professional heavy infantry. Those would be a hard nut to crack, and that was without even considering the fucking battalion of heroes reports placed in the war camp. It would take me at least two days to have the Army of Callow ready for a march, and that was just the part in the permanent camps near Laure. Taking them through Arcadia was spinning the wheel, but we’d made tests. For that kind of distance, the average was eight days. Going as low as six and high as fifteen.
“I don’t suppose you could shut down the ritual?” I asked Masego.
He shook his head.
“They are not using their own sorcery to do this, Catherine,” he elaborated. “A receptacle was forged and what must be hundreds of practitioners poured their own magic into for years to create the reservoir they are now employing. It would be like trying to put out a bonfire by spitting on it.”
“And if I gave you every mage in Laure to work on a ritual?” I pressed.
He considered it seriously.
“No,” he finally said. “If we had caught their ritual before it began in earnest, perhaps, but no longer. Considering the distance it would be insufficient to do anything but slow it a few hours. And even that would come at great cost.”
“You’re going at this wrong,” Archer said. “Let them make their hole. After they’re spent, prevent them from using it.”
I looked at her suspiciously.
“You’re not usually this helpful,” I said.
“I’m a woman of many layers,” Indrani haughtily replied.
I had a fairly scathing comment to offer involving onions and how she should perhaps bathe more often but the grass was cut under my feet.
“You mean attacking them as they pass,” Hierophant said, tone musing. “That is a possibility. Triggering further avalanches from Laure is possible, with sufficient preparations.”
“You don’t sound enthused,” I said.
“While their practitioners are a backwards lot, I do not believe them to be actual imbeciles,” Masego said. “At least one of them was clever enough to conceive of this ritual.”
“You think they’ll have protections,” I guessed.
“If they do not disperse the wizards they have massed to carry this out, they have the ability to resist anything I would seriously consider using against them,” Hierophant said. “Three hundred blunderers with a heavy club are dangerous even to someone of my proficiency.”
Throwing bodies at the problem, huh. Well, the Principate had no lack of those to swear into service. It wasn’t an elegant solution, but I was living proof that sometimes hitting things really hard could be enough to pull through.
“They’ll have priests, too,” Archer said. “The robed rats are everywhere in Procer.”
Brothers and Sisters of the House of Light swore oaths that prevented them from taking lives, but there’d always been a lot of wiggling room left to interpret how that should be carried out. Priests were a historical staple of Callowan hosts, to shut down sorceries and heal wounded soldiers. And there were always a few to be found who were willing to make an exception about that whole no killing thing and repent afterwards. Turning miracles against an avalanche sent down by an Evil mage wouldn’t even require them to do some rhetorical footwork afterwards. And let’s not forget the House of Light in Procer is a different creature than the Callowan one. The Fairfaxes had always kept the House out of the crown’s affairs, but in Procer the priests were influential power brokers. It would be safe to assume they’d be involved, and that was the final nail in the coffin of considered magical intervention. If we couldn’t head them off at the pass, it’d have to be in the field. And odds were they’d get close to Harrow before I could get my army up north.
“Masego,” I said quietly, pitching my voice so none of the guild mages would overhear. “The Hell Egg up north, have you managed to find it?”
“I am still awaiting answer from the Tower about consulting the private histories,” the blind man replied.
My lips thinned. The Empress had been quite willing to share reports from the Eyes about the unfolding situation on Procer and beyond, but my people were being given polite brush-offs and non-answers when it came to pretty much everything else. I couldn’t tell whether that was pressure she was applying to bring me back under her thumb or that in her eyes I now only counted as something to be tossed at the crusade to blunt its advance. The former gave me room to deal, especially now that the invasion had begun. The latter would mean my situation was even more precarious than I currently believed it to be. Her people would be in touch soon enough, I reflected. Cold as the diplomatic exchanges had become, a Proceran offensive would thaw them a great deal. Especially since I doubted that the northern crusader army would be moving alone. Odds were the host in the south under Prince Papenheim was preparing for a run at the Vales. Black wouldn’t be easy meat, especially not with Scribe and Warlock at his side. But he was starkly outnumbered, and he’d be in no position to do anything but hold the valleys for months to come. At the moment, the Empress needed me.
“I thought Ratface was supposed to be some kind of bureaucratic wizard,” Archer said, eyeing me sideways.
She was sharper than Masego about these things, regardless of her vocal disinterest in matters of intrigue. I nodded discreetly and she grimaced. Yeah, I wasn’t happy either that it was quite possible instructions had come down from Malicia to make it much harder for me to locate the fucking demon that was supposed to be bound somewhere in northern Callow.
“Have you narrowed down what kind of a demon it is?” I tried.
“It cannot be Corruption,” Hierophant said. “That was my initial theory, when we last spoke of the subject in Marchford, but that particular entity has since been found and fought. It might very well be Absence, Catherine. That would be…”
“Balls,” Archer helpfully provided.
“Genitalia has nothing to-“
“Bad, it’d be bad,” I interrupted before this could turn into a full-blown squabble.
I clenched my fingers.
“I don’t like the shape of it,” I admitted. “That many Named, near a threat unaccounted for?”
It wasn’t a guarantee that a brawl with heroes would end up letting it loose, but the odds were high enough it couldn’t be discounted. But if catching the crusaders before they reached Harrow wasn’t an option, then the alternative was ceding most the barony before giving battle. I would much prefer not doing that, and not only because of the military implications of giving the enemy a fortified city to operate from. It wouldn’t look good within Callow either. People had been willing to tighten their belts if it was for rebuilding the kingdom and raising armies to defend it. If I was seen to have failed in either regard, there would be consequences. But if the choice is between that and rolling the dice with a demon… I needed to talk with Juniper. Archer and Hierophant were here with me in Laure and the last time I’d spoken with Thief she’d said she should be back within a few days, but Hakram was still in Vale trying to coax the refugees out of the tent cities and back behind stone walls. I might have to leave him behind when marching.
“Tell Fadila to keep a full roster tonight,” I told Masego. “I’ll need to speak to the baronies up north.”
And half a dozen other people, since Adjutant wasn’t there to do it for me.
“We getting ready for war, then?” Archer asked, and there was a pleased glint in her eyes.
“I’d prefer not to,” I said. “But the choice is out of my hands. Wrap up anything you have going on, Masego. When we go on the offensive you’re coming with us.”
He pouted. I blamed Indrani for teaching him that, it was surprisingly effective even now that his face had lost most of the baby fat.
“I’m not hearing anything otherwise,” I firmly told him. “Look on the bright side, Hierophant. Odds are you’ll be taking a close look at that passage soon enough.”
“There is that,” he conceded, but it was half-hearted.
I cast a look at Archer, who smiled back and wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. It was telling that I barely even noticed when she did that nowadays.
“If you run into Thief, send her my way,” I told her.
She waved in a manner that could vaguely be interpreted as agreement. About as good as I could expect. I clapped her on the shoulder, reminded Masego we were nearing supper time and made my exit. I had one last thing to do before mustering for war, after all. Tonight was the night for my little monthly chat with the enemy.
Cordelia Hasenbach had just begun her invasion of Callow, so we should have a few things to talk about.