“I’m not saying all your closest friends are shapeshifting devils I sent to spy on you after having the originals murdered, but I’m certainly implying it very heavily.”
– Dread Emperor Traitorous, making small talk
“I think I might hate your people,” Juniper growled.
The Hellhound was sprawled in her seat instead of sitting ramrod straight, a visible mark of how exhausted her duties had left her. A cup of orcish brew in hand – which I’d been oath-bound to decline when offered – she looked like a particularly grumpy green cat. Normally I’d be alarmed by the highest military officer in the kingdom professing hatred of its inhabitants, but I’d learned to read Juniper in our years together. That was a ‘I can’t believe I have to deal with this shit’ growl, not a ‘I won’t need supper after I’m done with you’ growl.
“Not even a month ago you were praising the quality of the foot you’ve been drilling,” I pointed out.
“The soldiers are fine,” the Marshal of Callow said. “Better than fine, even. They’re taking to the formations better than I’d hoped, and they’ve got fire in the belly. But your fucking nobles, Catherine. Now was a bad time to pick to stop answering backtalk with gallows.”
“Talbot can’t be crawling up your ass,” I frowned. “We sent him on manoeuvre out of the city specifically so he wouldn’t be able to have his little meetings.”
“His Regals are still knocking at my door,” the orc said. “Foundling, if a single more hints at favours in exchange for an officer’s commission there’s going to be blood on the ground.”
Grandmaster Brandon Talbot was more than just the head of the Order of Broken Bells, these days: he was also one of the founders of the tight-knight group of former aristocrats that had formed into one of my court’s two major power blocs. They’d called themselves the Patriots, at first, but I’d made an idle comment to Talbot about how that reminded me of the Truebloods and that name had died an early death. Considering the most infamous member of the Truebloods now had her soul sown into my collar, I could see why he’d taken that as a pointed hint. The Queen’s Men were the counterweight, centred around Anne Kendall, but they had much fewer connections. A consequence of the fact that were made up mostly of guildsmen and aldermen.
The Regals weren’t nearly as much of a nuisance as the people the northern baronies had sent to Laure, but they were also much smarter about how they were going about gaining influence. Instead of naked power grabs through trade they were placing men in the bureaucracy that had grown out of the court centred in Laure. The problem was that, often, their candidate was the most competent to be had. None of the Regals still had noble titles or privileges, Black had seen to that after the Liesse Rebellion, but several were still wealthy landowners. And their kinsmen were educated, which I was coming to prize most of all. Keeping their influence in check while making sure the cogs of the bureaucracy didn’t get clogged with incompetence was like walking a tightrope. And it wasn’t like I could hand every appointment to Anne’s men instead, they were barely more trustworthy and they tended to heavily favour the interests of Laure and the guilds.
“They’re still under the impression they can just buy commands?” I asked, surprised.
Juniper bared her teeth savagely.
“Of course not,” she mocked. “They’re simply recommending candidates for fast-tracked officer training. Every one of them above the cut. Every one of them someone’s cousin or aunt.”
My frown deepened. That was still overstepping.
“You know you have my full backing in this,” I told her. “If there’s anyone being too insistent…”
“They don’t repeat, Catherine,” Juniper sighed. “They always send another envoy, another candidate. And they’re just important enough I can’t foist them off on Aisha.”
I grit my teeth. We were at war, now, the same war Juniper had been trying to prepare the kingdom for since she first got her baton. That she’d had to spend hours fending off ambitious Regals while trying to scrape together enough force to resist Procer was getting on my nerves more than a little bit. A measured expression of displeasure to these fine men and women was in order.
“I’ll take care of it,” I said. “But you know that’s not what I’m here for.”
She nodded soberly.
“We’ll be ready to march half a day before predicted,” the Hellhound said. “All we’re waiting on is the Broken Bells. Hakram’s provision office delivered the goods smooth as silk.”
“Twenty thousand in whole then,” I said, leaning back into my seat. “We’re still outnumbered raw, Juniper.”
Her lips split into a fanged grimace.
“If you’d not spent coin on shit like the Observatory-“
“We’d have heroes in the heartlands,” I interrupted flatly. “Consider it an investment to ensure we didn’t have to fight this war on more than one front.”
She conceded the argument with an ill-humoured grunt.
“I can’t answer for the heroes with the host, we don’t have a clear enough assessment of what they can do,” Juniper began.
“Thief should be back soon with what the Jacks managed to put together,” I said. “But the army?”
“We can take them,” the Hellhound said. “Don’t get me wrong, it’ll be bloody. But our army’s in a much better shape than theirs. As long as we can bring them to battle on an open field, I believe we can beat them. Which is why I wish you’d reconsider Harrow. I can’t promise anything for two to one and walls.”
“Orders already went out,” I reminded her. “Baroness Morley is emptying her stores and evacuating towards Hedges.”
“The Proceran supply chain will be a nightmare when they’ve crossed,” Juniper noted. “And without granaries and cattle to plunder they can’t live off the land. So, all things aside, I agree with you there’s a decent chance they’ll be forced to continue pushing south or start eating faster than they can bring food. But if they don’t everything goes out the window. I don’t like that our plan is centred around the enemy doing what we want them to.”
“There’s too much of a risk involved in fighting them near Harrow, Juniper,” I sighed. “Even if we could manage to get there in time, I won’t engage when there’s a Hell Egg unaccounted for in the region.”
The north was one of the few parts of Callow that hadn’t been devastated by the latest round of wars to hit the country. Not even a better strategic position was enough to have me take the risk of changing that.
“There’s too much politics in this war, Foundling,” my Marshal said. “Careful you miss the defeat in front of you for staring at the treaties on the horizon.”
“We can’t slaughter fifty thousand Procerans,” I flatly said. “Aside from the brutal bounding our manpower would take in achieving that, it’d be impossible to make peace with Hasenbach afterwards.”
“Hasenbach’s invading us,” the Hellhound retorted. “The high horse stops being that when you ride it to war. If she doesn’t want dead soldiers, she has no business sending them to the field.”
I knew that in speaking that she spoke as an orc. She had the bone-deep conviction that no one with a sword in hand had the right of complaining about death. And there was a lot about that way of looking at the world that appealed to me even now. But that was a seductive simplicity that’d become the kind of luxury I could no longer afford. If I offed half a hundred thousand Procerans, the Principate would be fighting this to the bitter end. The First Prince might very well get deposed if she suggested otherwise. I had to defeat the crusaders, force them out of Callow, but it couldn’t be a massacre. Assuming I could even deliver one of those, which was quite an assumption given the number of Named on the other side.
“I still think we should have gone ahead with Bonfire,” the orc spoke into the silence. “I understand why you refused, but-“
“Juniper,” I said quietly. “I love you like a sister. You’re one of the smartest women I’ve ever met. But trust me when I say that Bonfire would have been the end of us.”
It’d begun as an exercise for her general staff. How to win against the crusade without Callow ever seeing combat? The answer had been crude, vicious, and horrifyingly popular among my high-ranking officers. Even Callowans. Only greenskins had been more vocal in their approval than my people. It was simple enough: instead of waiting for Procer to muster, I was to take twenty thousand men and a full siege train through Arcadia and emerge on the upper northern edge of Procer’s coast. Then I’d burn my way south, city by city, until the Principate mustered an army to force me out. At which point I’d pass through Arcadia again, and emerge on the other side of the Principate. Rinse, repeat. Again and again until Procer collapsed from the inside. The death toll would have been… It didn’t bear thinking about. It’d been the support the plan had found that surprised me. Hells, Talbot had spoken in favour. He’d ‘mourned the loss of innocent lives, but if losses must be had better Proceran than Callowan.’ I’d stomped the notion out of high command and not been gentle about it. Aside from the sickening mass slaughters Bonfire entailed, it would have made Callow the foremost enemy of every Calernian nation. It had not escaped my notice that my ability to take hosts through Arcadia might be seen as as dangerous a weapon as the Diabolist’s gate-device, in its own way. I had to use it sparingly and responsibly or we’d all pay for it. The thought came, uneasily, that we might regardless of what I did.
“Your call to make, Warlord,” the orc acknowledged.
Silence lingered for a while afterwards, the two of us alone in her tent.
“Finally back at it,” the Hellhound finally mused, and there was something like savage glee shining in her eyes.
“We march West, once more,” I spoke in Mthethwa.
I was quoting an old verse Nauk loved. He’d spoken it years ago, before we left for the Liesse Rebellion.
“Waging the same old war,” Juniper finished, and she met my gaze.
Neither of us finished the verse, though we both knew the words.
Onwards to the fields of Callow,
Swift death and graves shallow.
It was past midnight when I finally allowed myself a break. There was only so much time I could spend learning Reitz without wanting to jump off the balcony I was currently leaning against. It was important I learn, though. I’d have interpreters with me on the field, but going to war with the Principate without even understanding their languages was a weakness tailored to cause blunders. Still, I’d never missed my old aspect of Learn more. Hells, it wasn’t like I’d been lazy when it came to learning languages. Aside from the Lower Miezan of my childhood I spoke four others well, though my Old Tongue was still admittedly sloppier than the rest. It was enough for tonight, I decided. Back to the histories after that. I’d gotten my hands on an Ashuran chronicle of the Humbling of Titans, the abortive and bloody war between Procer and the Titanomachy that had sown the seeds of hate between the nations that still held to this day. Writings from the Thalassocracy were slightly less inclined to paint Procer in a bad light than those of Praes or the Free Cities, though from what little I’d read there wasn’t much defensible about why and how the Principate had waged that war. I looked up at the stars and allowed the wind to stream across my face. It was a cool breeze, not that I’d notice unless I forced myself to.
“Finally,” Thief crowed from behind me.
I almost lashed out by reflex, Winter coiling in my veins, but I let out a steamy breath instead.
“That game’s gotten a lot more dangerous than it used to be,” I told her, voice sounding with just the hint of an echo.
Vivienne leaned against the railing next to me, blowing away an errant strand with a mischievous smile.
“Just like you to say that when I start winning,” she said.
“Welcome back, Thief,” I sighed, and put an arm around her shoulder in the distant cousin of a hug.
She only squirmed a little. Vivienne had never been a touchy sort but compared to, say, Masego she was neediness incarnate. I released her after a heartbeat, and pretended not to notice the slightly pleased smile on her face.
“So I hear we have a Proceran problem on the march,” she said.
“They won’t start moving until tomorrow, according to Masego,” I replied. “But you might say that, yes. I don’t suppose you have anything to tell me that’d make this loom a little shorter?”
“You want a report?” she asked, eyebrow rising.
“Nothing too detailed,” I said. “We’ll have a proper briefing with everyone at a sane hour. But give me the broad strokes.”
“Well, before we touch Procer, I have something from down south,” she said.
My gaze sharpened.
She nodded and I grimaced. I’d wanted a garrison in Dormer to keep that front under control, but Juniper had dug in her heels. The city was indefensible, she’d argued, without a fleet. And Callow had neither the gold, the sailors or the know-how to make one. She had a point about Dormer, especially after the fight with Summer had wrecked major parts of its defences that we’d only partly repaired. Coin, coin, coin. More relentless a foe than even Akua. The men had been sent to Vale instead, with only a handful of mages in Dormer to sound the alarm if it came to war. Which it was hard to say if it might. My attempt at diplomatic correspondence with the newly-elected Hierarch had yielded only a neatly-penned letter chastising me for being a foreign despot, which while very politely phrased was less than promising. On the other hand, merchant shipping up the Hwaerte had actually increased over the last few months if Ratface was to be believed. Not the sign of hostilities about to erupt.
“I have reason to believe that the League has no interest in Callow,” Thief said.
“And how good is that reason?” I asked.
“The Tyrant of Helike had one of the Jacks taken off the streets and brought to him so he could swear eternal friendship with you,” Vivienne bluntly said.
I closed my eyes and rubbed the bridge of my nose, warding off the headache I knew wouldn’t come.
“The man,” I said slowly, “is notoriously mad. And treacherous. And, not to repeat myself but it bears mentioning, fucking insane.”
“Agreed,” Thief mildly replied. “He is also, as of last month, very discretely sending people into Waning Woods.”
My eyes flew open and I kept my mouth shut as I considered the implications of that. The Waning Woods could lead straight into southern Callow, true. But he didn’t need to go through there to make war on us. He had the fleets to just sail up the Hwaerte uncontested without any of the risks strolling through that hellscape of a forest entailed. Which meant he was considering that route to sidestep something else, and there was only one force I knew about that qualified. The Proceran army in the southern principality of Tenerife, sent there specifically to discourage League aggression.
“You’re sure?” I quietly pressed.
“There’s a decent chance that he allowed my people to see him sending his own in there,” Thief admitted. “It could be a plot to get us to lower our guards, but at this point does he really need us to lower our guard?”
No, I thought. Not with fifty thousand crusaders marching into Callow and an even larger host knocking at the front door in the Vales. There wasn’t a lot I could immediately do to drive him back if he just decided to invade without all the fanfare.
“That would change things,” I murmured. “If he pulls the trigger on that…”
“Looming shorter yet?” Vivienne teased.
“I’d kiss you, if you weren’t so painfully indifferent to women,” I replied with a smirk.
She coughed awkwardly. I had no intentions there whatsoever, but seeing her get jittery at the lightest of suggestions was always good for a laugh.
“Yes, well, Procer,” she muttered. “We’ve already had some talks about what’s waiting in Arans. As far as the Jacks can tell, there’s two real ringleaders in that crowd. The Procer part, anyway.”
“Prince Amadis Milenan of Iserre,” I said. “Princess Rozala Malanza of Aequitan. Milenan’s supposed to be the one holding most everyone else’s leash.”
“Don’t discount Malanza,” she warned me. “Politically she’d dependent on Milenan – her younger brother’s trying to sweet-talk Hasenbach into backing him – but she’s the one that’ll be leading the armies. Her mother fucked up so catastrophically during the civil war that she’s low on allies at the moment, but she’s the best commander in that army and they all know it. She’ll get a lot more influential in that circle when the swords come out.”
“And what do we know about her?” I frowned.
“Not much,” Thief reluctantly admitted. “She’s stayed off of the stage since taking her coronation. But I have somewhat reliable word that she’s one of the hardline expansionists in the Highest Assembly even if she’s quiet about it.”
“If she’s out of favour with Hasenbach, that reinforces the case the First Prince isn’t actually out to annex us,” I said.
“Hasenbach broke her mother’s bid for the throne and made her drink poison afterwards,” Thief hedged. “It might just be personal. Regardless, if the First Prince is out for land we both know she can’t admit that right know. It’d eat away at the crusade from the inside. Levant’s not mustering armies for the Principate to grow larger, and if they get even a hint that’s the plan…”
“I think she might genuinely be after only the Empire, Vivienne,” I admitted. “And if that’s really the case, she has a fucking point. Malicia fanned the civil war in her country for two decades. And there’s that other thing too.”
Stating out loud that the Empress had essentially given Diabolist free reign to do whatever she wanted so long as by the time the dust settled she had a weapon to frighten off the rest of Calernia would have been… dangerous. I’d already told the rest of the Woe this much, but not anyone else. Whether Hasenbach knew this was the case or she was just using Second Liesse to justify the Tenth Crusade, I could not know for sure. It wasn’t like I could ask the woman when we spoke, either, not while I was uncertain of what she knew and did not.
“I’ll applaud and toast her health, if she brings down the Tower,” Thief said. “But that is not a woman I want deciding what happens to my shit, Catherine. Even if we assume the best about her, she’s still got the Highest Assembly to answer to. And we’ve had long talks about the kind of people that have seats on that.”
“I’m not talking surrender,” I told Thief. “But you know how much there’s riding on Hasenbach being at least halfway reasonable.”
“That begs the question of how reasonable she’ll be allowed to be,” Vivienne replied flatly. “And that brings us back neatly to Amadis Milenan. I’ve confirmed he was in the know for the Liesse Rebellion.”
“We already knew Hasenbach would need a mandate to send that much silver across the border,” I said. “He’s the most influential man in Procer, it’s not really feasible for her to have kept him out of it.”
“What we didn’t know, at least until now, is that he argued strongly for a Proceran to be in command of the rebel forces,” Thief said. “The man likes his wine, and he’s not as careful about who might be listening as he should be. That said, there’s a two thousand denarii hole in the funds you allocated me.”
I stared at her incredulously.
“Yeah, well, even servants in that fucker’s palace are rich,” Vivienne muttered. “You wouldn’t believe how hard they were to bribe.”
Aside from a mournful thought about where I’d have to take that coin from to compensate, I came to grasp what she was getting at pretty quick.
“You think he wanted to be personally in command,” I said.
“Look, I know the Eyes think his ambition makes him usable to shake up Procer from the inside,” the dark-haired woman said. “But that’s Wasteland talk, Catherine. He’s a fucking snake and now we have precedent.”
Precedent for Prince Amadis Milenan to consider war in Callow as way to enable his bid for the throne of the Principate. Shit. That was a problem. I’d been banking on the commanders of the crusader host in the north being rational enough that after a series of minor field defeats they’d cut their losses and retreat back into Procer, if I gave them the space. But Milenan was in command, and if he saw this as his only good chance to dislodge Hasenbach? He might decide to gamble it all anyway, and that would force me to actually break his army. Which would fuck up all my long-term plans, to say the least.
“We’ll untangle that particular mess in full at the briefing,” I sighed. “What’ve you got on the heroes? None of this matters if they just splatter us across the countryside at the first scrap.”
“Wasn’t able to get all the Names,” Thief said. “But I do have a number for you: there’s fourteen of them.”
I let out a long breath. That was… a lot more than I’d hoped for. Given the reputation the Calamities still commanded, I’d thought most Named would be headed there for the offensive. Still fewer than they sent against Triumphant, I mused. So there’s that. Black had always told me that too many heroes in the same place might end up turning against them. That Creation would push some stories above others, and that those who ended up behind were much easier to kill. It made villains seem a lot stronger than they were when they killed a few, and incited sloppiness and overconfidence if they survived. The thing was, though, that those villains usually still died. That tended to happen when someone sent a battalion of Heavens-empowered hardened killers after someone’s head. I’d refined the Woe, over the last year. Turned them into a group eerily skilled at killing the heroes that came into Callow and refused my terms. But in those fights, we’d had either superior numbers or parity. On picked grounds, with enough time for me to prepare. None of that would apply up north.
“Most of them are green, and from all over Calernia,” Thief spoke into the silence. “Levant, the Free Cities, Ashur. Local Named, I guess you could call them. Not the kind you see at the head of an invasion.”
“Any from Procer?” I asked.
“Which brings me to the two I think we most need to watch out for,” Vivienne said. “The first is the Proceran, an Alamans. Laurence de Montfort, the Saint of Swords.”
“I think I’ve heard of her before,” I frowned.
“She got started killing some alchemist villain in western Procer under a transitional Name,” Thief said. “Nasty business. He was turning people into monsters. Then she killed the Prince of Valencis when she was in her twenties and no one’s quite sure why. She disappeared into the woodworks after that. There’s rumours she went up north, but mostly people say she was ‘perfecting her craft’ in a retreat from the earthly world.”
“She hasn’t done anything since?” I frowned.
“Dubious source, but I was told she stared down an army into marching around her hometown during the civil war,” Vivienne said. “Whatever the truth, she’s in her late sixties and she’s Hells on legs. Supposedly unbeatable with a sword, and she’s been known to cut through spells, wards and even once an actual miracle.”
“Well, that promises to be a fun evening,” I muttered.
That sounded a lot like Ranger, only with a Choir having her back, and wasn’t that stuff nightmares were made of?
“The other big club is Levantine,” Thief said. “The Grey Pilgrim, couldn’t dig up a name. This one… Well, the more I learn the more he scares me shitless.”
Thief wasn’t the bravest of my companions, but she wasn’t exactly faint of heart either. That she’d go this far was worth alarm.
“Priest Name?” I asked.
“Some kind of wandering monk, as far as I can tell,” Vivienne said. “He’s not, well, not like you. He’s not the one everyone attaches to. He’s the stranger in the night, and he’s been around for a while.”
“Heroes age,” I reminded her.
“And I’ve word of him going back at least sixty years under his current Name,” Thief bluntly replied. “Catherine, the man’s been everywhere. Every Levantine hero in the last forty years ran into him at some point, and in the Dominion if he said he felt like being king half the country would rise to put him on the throne. As long as he backs the crusade, there’s not a single hero from the Dominion that’ll flinch.”
“Influential and experienced, then,” I said, but honestly as far as direct threats went the Saint sounded a lot worse.
It also meant he couldn’t be killed if Levant was ever to be brought at the negotiating table. You couldn’t kill a people’s darling and then expect a nice peace treaty after, but I wasn’t sure I’d be given a choice there. Thief passed a hand through her hair, frustrated.
“I’m not explaining myself right,” she said. “Just – all right, think about it like this. Hero out on their first lark, meets a mysterious helpful stranger that gives advice and maybe teaches a trick. When’s the next time you see them?”
My fingers clenched.
“When that hero’s in over their head,” I said softly. “When the stranger appears out of nowhere and wipes the floor with the villain, enough that the hero can flee and prepare for the rematch.”
“Yeah,” Vivienne agreed grimly. “That’s the thing, Cat. He doesn’t always win, but I couldn’t find a single instance of when the Grey Pilgrim got into a fight and lost.”
Well. It was a good thing I didn’t need to sleep anymore, because that was the kind of thing that would keep a girl up at night.