“Petty thieves hang, the great wear crowns.”
– Proceran saying
“We’re being baited,” Juniper announced.
We’d cut loose the general staff for this particular meeting, at my insistence. The Arcadian Campaign had taught me that while the broader officer councils had their uses they also devoured time and focus that would be better spent on other matters. The Hellhound was my Marshal of Callow now, she had the clout to run those however she liked without my being at the table to back her up. There were advantages to formal rank and not leading an awkward coalition I had only nominal authority over. Only the bare bones of a council were in attendance, the people that would have direct relevance, and that meant three aside from me: Juniper herself, Thief and Grandmaster Talbot. I preferred to cut that latter out of these little evenings when it came to politics, but on campaign was a different beast. I could not have the head of my horse ignorant of the larger realities at work.
“That’s the theory, anyway,” Thief hedged. “There’s a few unprovable assumptions at work.”
“May I assume we are speaking of the Proceran vanguard?” Brandon Talbot asked.
“We are,” I confirmed. “The report you haven’t gotten to read yet states that, as of midmorning, five thousand Proceran horse has invested Harrow.”
The Grandmaster’s eyes narrowed. We’d given ground to the crusaders knowing they would take or pass through the city on their way south, but Talbot was a clever sort. He’d noticed, as the rest of us had, what the reports didn’t mention. Which was anything but a detachment of horse sent far ahead of the still-lumbering Proceran army.
“The Jacks could not get into the city itself, mind you,” Vivienne said. “But I had knots of people out in the country and they say the riders came alone. The crusader army is at least two days behind.”
Talbot smiled ruefully.
“Five thousand light horse,” he said. “We have number parity with the Order, and the strength of the Woe and the Hunt besides. Should we play it carefully, we could wipe out a significant part of their cavalry before it comes to a pitched battle.”
“We’re being baited,” Juniper repeated.
“Too good to be true, isn’t?” I agreed darkly. “I think we need to reassess how much of a threat Princess Malanza actually is. I didn’t expect that kind of sophistication from a Proceran commander, given the nature of the trap.”
The Principate was famous for rarely fielding Named, unlike Praes and Callow who usually had at least a handful on each side when the blades came out. And while it was an assumption, like Thief had reminded us, I was willing to put hand to flame that if we gated into Harrow we’d be walking straight into a carefully arranged heroic kill zone.
“Assuming this is her notion,” Talbot frowned.
“It’s not Milenan,” I said. “We know exactly what he’s up to, as it happens.”
The Grandmaster raised an inquisitive eyebrow, though he knew better than to request information he might not be cleared to know. I cast a look at Vivienne and nodded.
“Prince Amadis Milenan had a previously unknown agent within Hedges,” she said. “We know that now, because this morning the woman attempted to discretely get in touch with Baron Darlington.”
Talbot grit his teeth.
“He always did fancy himself ruler of the north,” the aristocrat unkindly said.
“We allowed it to happen,” Thief said. “While watching, of course, but we wanted to know exactly what he was after.”
“Land,” I bluntly said. “Land is what he’s after, as it turns out. Prince Milenan is already gathering support for the divvying up of Callow, and he seems to believe Darlington is the key to the north.”
“The man’s making a lot of promises, for someone without a field victory to his name,” Juniper growled.
Brandon Talbot, for all that his meddling got on my nerves, was not slow-witted. He understood what we were driving at without need for an explicit statement.
“Darlington’s been promised the north as his own principality under the First Prince,” he deduced, visibly appalled.
“Mostly right,” Vivienne said. “There’s a prior change of throne involved in that promise coming true. Amadis is a little more openly ambitious than we’d previously assumed.”
And he was gathering allies for his bid. I’d let Talbot into the loop for the Darlington play, but for now there was no need to tell him that Prince Milenan was also sending men towards the Silver Lake as quickly as they could ride. The Observatory had picked them out two days ago, and I agreed with Thief’s assessment of their ultimate destination: Daoine. The crusaders were trying to get Duchess Kegan on their side before moving south. I could see why he’d assume there was room to negotiate there: the last time Callow had come under Proceran occupation, the Duchy of Daoine had remained out of the fray in exchange for concessions and effective independence. They’d even fielded armies alongside Procer’s, when the Empire began the Sixty Years War by trying to invade occupied Callow. Both Praes and the Old Kingdom had come out of that ruinous war on the brink of collapse, but Daoine had gotten off light. It always did. House Ismail had a well-earned reputation for knowing when to strike its banners and cut its losses. Unfortunately for Milenan, I’d cut a deal there long before he’d thought of opening negotiations.
“Regardless of all that, I think we can safely discard the possibility that the crusaders don’t know about the fairy gates and the Hunt,” I said. “The trap doesn’t work otherwise.”
Without cutting through Arcadia, it would take my men weeks to get close enough to Harrow for a battle. Long after the rest of the crusader army caught up to the vanguard.
“And that puts a lot of their behaviour up until now in question,” Juniper grunted. “I’m having a hard time reconciling a general clever enough for this kind of snare and one who’d willingly take her army through a bottleneck – especially one she knows we might have been able to seize the end of.”
To be frank, trying to hold a narrow pass against a company of heroes would have been godsdamned ugly work. But I had the Named and the trump cards to be able to make a solid try at it, and if we did manage to hold then the entire invasion plan collapsed. Which meant, most likely, that we’d missed something.
“If this trap is not Malanza’s own notion,” Talbot tried. “Then your estimation of her competence might be…”
“Believe me,” I interrupted quietly. “I’d love to have an idiot in charge on the other side. But that’s genuinely not feasible, not with Hasenbach running the show in Procer. She doesn’t want this army to do too well, but she’s still banking on a victory. That means whoever holds the reins of the soldiers knows what they’re doing.”
“Without alleging incompetence, the information they’re using might be imperfect,” Thief said. “There’s not a lot of reliable witnesses outside our most loyal for how quickly we can move through gates. She might have been under the impression that even by Arcadia you wouldn’t be able to arrive in time to hold the pass.”
“If we’re lucky, that’s the case,” Juniper said.
“If we’re not – and let’s be honest, when have we been that lucky? – I think we have to proceed under the assumption that they’re sitting on something that would have blown us away at the pass,” I said.
“Proceran sorcery is nothing like the Wasteland’s,” Talbot said.
“Sorcery is the least of our troubles,” I said. “This is a crusade. The Choirs aren’t shy about stacking the deck even when it’s just skirmishes between Named. For something of this magnitude they’ll have taken out the good silver.”
That saw grim looks bloom across the table, with good reason. No one had forgotten the kind of threat the Lone Swordsman had been able to cause in Liesse with just a few days and a singe angelic feather. And Masego tells me Contrition isn’t exactly head of the pack when it comes to the Choirs, I thought. If Judgement or Mercy gets involved, this will be a whole lot nastier.
“It goes without saying we have to reassess a lot of our engagement doctrine,” Juniper announced bluntly. “Which is why I think we need to dust off Headsman.”
“It’s not going to look good abroad if we pull the trigger on that,” I grimaced.
“I made it clear when we killed the plan that I considered it a measured and reasonable response,” Talbot noted. “The Dread Empire has signed no treaties barring the targeting of officers, and while the Principate has they’ve never enforced the terms unless it suited them.”
“If we want a seat at the table by the end of this, people, we can’t act like Praes,” I reminded them. “There’s a reason we didn’t spend the last year scrabbling for every destructive artefact and ritual we could get our hands on. We start using shit like the Dark Days protocols and the only peace we’re getting is after one side has been pounded into dust.”
“No one’s dumping alchemy into rivers,” the Hellhound said. “We’re talking two hundred dead at most, including projected collaterals.”
“We made those projections before we knew how many heroes there’d be on the other side,” I pointed out. “I’m not refusing out of hand, Juniper, but if we start using assassination campaigns then we get a reputation that might cost us more in the long term than we gain in the short term.”
“If you have another way to shake them before battle, I’m listening,” she said. “Look, I don’t give a damn about the politics of this. I’ll own that. But I think the hole we fall in if we lose is a lot deeper than the one we dig with Headsman.”
She wasn’t wrong about that, even if I didn’t like it. Hasenbach would have absolutely no interest in negotiating the kind of peace I was after if she had me on the ropes.
“Talk with Kegan,” I finally said. “She was never eager, and it’s not a given she’ll still be willing. There’s risks involved for her people. If she agrees, though, start laying the groundwork. But we’re not going through with it until I give the word.”
“Chances of success improve significantly if we don’t wait,” Thief said, tone mild. “Especially given the amount of heroes they’ve got floating around.”
“It also kills every other option than pitched battle to get the crusaders out of Callow,” I flatly replied. “I’m not committing to that unless I have no other choice.”
“As you say,” Vivienne shrugged. “That still leaves our little problem in Harrow.”
“I realize we’re dealing with a trap,” Talbot said. “That said, Your Majesty, if we don’t thin their horse soon we’re going to have trouble.”
I raised an eyebrow at Juniper in silent invitation.
“He’s right,” she admitted. “If Malanza moves against us with the meat of her host and peels off a few thousand horsemen just before, the only assets we have to check them are assets we’re going to need in that battle.”
“What kind of damage are we looking at?” I grimaced.
“If Darlington flips, or even just stays out of the way, they’ve got free rein until Southpool,” the Hellhound said. “If they move quick enough, they could possibly hit central Callow before Adjutant manages to force a battle. Our forces just aren’t deployed to block raiding parties coming from up north. Even if I pull the garrison from Vale tonight, there’s no guarantee it’ll get there in time.”
“We have watchers on Darlington,” I told her. “He’s not changing sides anytime soon.”
“I understand we are worrying about the devastation the riders could cause in the countryside,” Talbot said slowly. “Yet it occurs to me there is another possible target for a detachment. The Red Flower Vales.”
I almost dismissed him out of hand. A few thousand horse wasn’t going to worry Black in the slightest, considering the kind of forces he had at hand. On the other hand, what if they didn’t fight Black?
“The supply lines,” I said.
“It would be risky,” the Grandmaster said. “Hostile territory, and they’ll be within our scrying net – though they might not know about that yet, at least not for certain. But the Carrion Lord is already heavily outnumbered, Your Majesty. Can he afford to detach the men to keep his supply lines clear?”
“He’s been stacking food, munitions and steel for almost a year now,” I said, but it was half-hearted.
“We lose the Vales, our entire defence collapses,” Juniper said. “We have contingencies in case they lose, Catherine, but none of them involved fighting up here at the same time. None of us saw the passage coming.”
Shit. I hadn’t thought of that. Which was exactly the point of these councils, I supposed.
“Juniper, I know this is a lot to ask but I need…”
“You need me to get close enough that if this is Malanza’s intent she will send off the horse, then avoid battle until you’ve dealt with the threat,” the orc said.
“Is it possible?” I asked.
“You did not appoint me Marshal of Callow because I look good in furs,” the Hellhound grinned, slow and savage. “You will have the margin you need.”
I’d made a few good decisions, over the years, but none that’d paid off quite as much as offering her that draw back at the War College. I smiled gratefully at her, not that she seemed particularly moved by that gratitude.
“There is one last matter to address,” Vivienne said.
“Prince Milenan attempted to arrange a meeting with Baron Darlington through his envoy,” I said. “That means I’ll be away from the army for a while.”
“I don’t follow,” Talbot frowned.
“He wants to talk to a Callowan?” I smiled thinly. “Well, he’s going to get his wish. It’s about time we had a closer look at the opposition.”
It took three weeks for the meeting to become feasible. Three weeks where we watched the crusader host slowly move south, camp at Harrow for a few days and then resuming the march when it become clear my own army wouldn’t march to meet it. They were still at least a month of march away from Hedges, at their current pace, but we wouldn’t be letting them get that deep into Callow unchallenged. The border between the baronies was the battlefield Juniper had picked, and I’d seen no reason to gainsay her on that. We had scouts out on the green to find us the kind of field that would best play up our advantages, but for now the location was still in the air. It’d been tempting to grab and interrogate Prince Milenan’s envoy, for a plethora of reasons. The strongest among them that if Milenan hadn’t known about the pass – and we were reasonably sure he hadn’t – then he’d sent that envoy months ago and trusted her judgement enough she would have been able to negotiate in his name without being in contact afterwards. Plenipotentiary authority was not something Procerans gave lightly, and she would have been a treasure trove of information. But that would have been giving the game too early, so instead Baron Henry Darlington was given strict instructions and arranged the meeting where and when I wanted it.
He wasn’t going himself, of course. The envoy had not requested as much, understanding that with my army camped outside his city his absence would not go unnoticed. Instead he’d sent his nephew, an anointed knight who stood fourth in the line of succession for Hedges and was young enough to be unmarried. The other diplomats were people Thief had gauged we had enough leverage over they wouldn’t speak up, including a small escort. Of which I was part, riding a still-living horse for the first time in quite a while. The possibility of heroic presence had meant it was necessary for me to take some additional precautions, but those wouldn’t come out of the woodworks unless blades left the scabbard. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. We were fewer than twenty all in all, and dawn found us out in the wet plains waiting for the other side to arrive. The nephew – Julian Darlington – had insisted we get a fire started for cooking before the Procerans came and I’d declined to speak against it.
I sat on a hollow log I’d dragged by the fire, surrounded by men too visibly scared of me to attempt conversation. I didn’t particularly mind, since I was in not in a talkative mood myself. Milenan’s envoys arrived half a bell later, riding in on tall steeds. I raised an eyebrow at the Darlington nephew and he hurried to raise the truce banner as we all got to our feet. The anointed knight stood behind a pair of guards but positioned himself clearly as the leader for our side while the Procerans approached. I watched them as discretely as I could. The one in the gilded armour seemed in charge, and from the looks of his nose I could guess why. The Jacks had gotten their hands on a few sketches of Amadis Milenan’s likeness, and the resemblance was noticeable. A kinsman, then. The Prince of Iserre was taking this seriously. Most the others were soldiers, with only one woman bearing a scrivener’s kit over her back. Only one man wore entirely unadorned clothes, a loose grey robe that seemed almost a priest’s garment. I kept my face schooled into mild boredom.
If that wasn’t the Grey Pilgrim, I’d eat my hand.
Julian Darlington greeted them warily, and was answered by the man who confirmed himself to be highborn – and a Milenan, too. Likely a cousin or a close branch family. Elaborate courtesies were offered by the Proceran side while the Callowans offered stilted greetings in return. It wasn’t long before they got to the meat of the meeting, as I suspected neither of them were comfortable speaking in the open like this. The Proceran envoy and Darlington strode off away from the rest, standing side by side and speaking in low voices. No matter. I could hear them well enough from where I was, back sitting on the log as the soldiers all stood down.
“-the duty of all children of the Heavens to deliver their fellows from the tyranny of the Tower’s get, of course. Still, there are practical necessities to be addressed.”
The Grey Pilgrim stood before me, hand gesturing at the log.
“By all means,” I replied.
Did he know? It shouldn’t be the case. I was wearing leathers and mail with a Callowan-forged longsword, nothing out of the ordinary for a retainer. And without drawing on Winter or him actively looking for it, he shouldn’t be able to tell I bore a mantle. Assuming he didn’t have some sort of trick that allowed him to see through those things, anyway. Something I was less certain of by the moment. The old man gingerly sat at my side, warming his hands by the fire. It was my first time seeing a Levantine, and I had to admit they really did look like the cousins of Taghreb. This one was darker in skin, though, his face tanned and leathery. But the limpid blue eyes were sharp, and for someone as old as he allegedly was he displayed surprising vitality. The few tufts of white hair on his head made a makeshift crown, but his face was either hairless or very closely shaved.
“Nothing quite like a fire on a cool morning, is there?” he sighed.
“One of the little pleasures in life,” I agreed.
Or it had been, before Second Liesse. Nowadays neither heat nor cold made much of a difference.
“The truce banner,” the Grey Pilgrim said mildly. “Is it genuine?”
My fingers clenched. So much for being unnoticed. And he’s distracting me from overhearing what his people are saying to mine. I’d have to let that go, irritating as it was. This was the more important conversion of the two.
“It holds,” I said.
“There have been rumours you care little for such arrangements,” he noted.
I grimaced. Three Hills, when I’d had the Exiled Prince shot.
“I was younger, then,” I said. “And no banner was raised.”
He hummed, and did not disagree.
“Then your friends in Arcadia will not be joining us?” he politely asked.
Well, shit. So much for that remaining quiet.
“No unless that is made necessary,” I replied.
“It won’t,” the Grey Pilgrim said, with bedrock certainty. “Shall we have a talk then, Catherine Foundling?”
My eyes narrowed.
“We’re about due,” I agreed.