“The final disappointment of heroism is to find that a just war was, in the end, just a war.”
– Theodore Langman, Wizard of the West
Ink and parchment would see the day recorded as a victory, but Juniper of the Red Shields knew better. Despite her best efforts, the Army of Callow had reached the threshold where even the slightest losses began to affect combat efficiency. The loss of the crossbowmen on the first day had already crippled the host’s ability to wage open battle, but the second day’s losses had been a mere hour away from catastrophe. Twenty-two thousand soldiers had come to these plains, and now less than fifteen thousand remained fighting fit. The mage lines had nearly burned themselves out fixing minor injuries, an ugly choice to make. The Hellhound had broken Legion triage doctrine, which emphasised keeping as many legionaries alive as possible, in favour of getting as many men able to fight as possible. The deeply wounded had been allowed to die, or put out of their misery when requested. It burned her, the knowledge that the other side would have no such decision to make. Priests were a larger logistical advantage than she’d believed they would be.
The Marshal of Callow set aside the thought temporarily, though it never strayed far. There were decisions to make tonight in the dark and they would be no more pleasant than those of the day. She entered the tent without a word, the pair of legionaries guarding it saluting as she passed.
“If you’re here to cheer me up, you should have left the armour behind,” Archer drawled.
The orc did not bother to humour the Named’s coarseness with an answer, instead looking her up calmly. Lady Ranger’s pupil had done away with the woven scarf that usually covered the lower half of her face, along with the cloak and coat she insisted on wearing even now that spring had come. It bared skin, but despite the other woman’s finest attempts at a suggestive pose there was nothing seductive to be found. She was a mass of bruises and cuts, a red scar going up her cheek and across her left eye, through the eyebrow.
“She beat you like a drum,” Juniper stated.
Archer’s nose wrinkled.
“Got a few shots in myself,” she denied. “Pretty sure I broke her shoulder, near the end.”
“It will have been fixed within the hour,” the Hellhound said. “They have a healer among their Named.”
“You asked me to cover Nauk’s retreat,” the ochre-skinned woman shrugged. “Mission accomplished. Now where’s my seraglio of doe-eyed Taghreb beauties and oiled-up Soninke manservants?”
“Lodge a request with my supply tribune,” Juniper blandly replied. “I’ll have it fast-tracked.”
“We are the least decadent Evil side I’ve ever heard of,” Archer whined. “Who does a girl have to stab, to get fresh dates and a fan-waving pretty boy?”
“The Empress, one assumes,” the Hellhound grunted. “Will you be able to fight tomorrow?”
“If you’re going to use me for my body, you could at least make it enjoyable,” the Named snorted.
Engaging with this one, Juniper knew from experience, was akin to giving a stone that initial push down a hill. She let silence do the talking.
“Not confident about taking on the greybeards,” Archer admitted. “I could handle a few round with the side-pieces, but the Saint’s gotten used to my forms and the best I can manage with the Pilgrim is a shooting war.”
The orc’s lips pressed tightly, revealing dismay. That limited their options sharply. Already the loss of most of Pickler’s repeating scorpions and all of the Spitters had taken a tool out of her available arsenal, but if Archer couldn’t even be counted on to check either of the prime threats? It might still be possible to win, if she defended cleverly enough. But even if she did, the ruin inflicted on the other side would be matched by the devastation of her own host. Should the Army of Callow take even another four thousand casualties – a very conservative estimate of minimal losses considering enemy numbers and Named – then it was done for the year as anything but a second-rate defensive force. The recruiting camps in central Callow would continue providing a trickle of freshly-trained companies, but that covered only mainline infantry. Sappers, mages, knights. Neither of these could be so easily replaced, and without them it would be exceedingly difficult for the Army of Callow to handle the numerically superior forces the Tenth Crusade would inevitably send their way.
“Rest up,” Juniper finally said. “We’ll need you tomorrow.”
Archer leaned back in her seat, eyes for a single heartbeat bereft of the usual mocking indolence.
“Hellhound,” she said. “The Saint? I might have gotten a handle on her weakness.”
The orc paused, meeting the gaze of the Named.
“She never used an aspect,” Archer said. “And her cuts, it looks like she’s tossing them around carelessly but there’s always a purpose to it. Either as a deterrent, to allow her to move quickly or to put down an opponent hard before they can fight back.”
Juniper chewed over that.
“I’ve had very few reports of her using the cuts against soldiers,” the Hellhound finally said.
“She’d been fighting for over an hour when we scrapped,” Archer murmured. “And she never used any of the fancier tricks Catherine mentioned she has up her sleeve. I think she physically couldn’t.”
“She has limited amount of power, then,” Juniper deduced.
The other woman shook her head.
“I think she’d old,” Archer replied. “And that using tricks and aspects takes a toll on her body. She doesn’t fight your boys because, even if she kills a thousand, after that she’s emptied her tankard. It’s why she’s not the tip of the spear, she only comes out to remove problems.”
The Marshal of Callow inclined her head in silent thanks. It would not tip the balance of the battle, but it was great contribution nonetheless. So far, the Saint and the Pilgrim had acted as invincible forces of nature wherever they arrived, only ever checked by other Named. Juniper already suspected that the Grey Pilgrim could only intervene when others were threatened – else why only take the field when the repeating scorpions had already struck? – but now there might be a vulnerability to exploit in the other monster as well. The Hellhound offered a simple nod before leaving the tent, mind already returning to the decisions ahead. Which, to her irritation, she would have to consult another before making. The Thief was easy enough to find. It had been hours since she’d first settled in front of the camp fire she now stared into. Juniper claimed a log by her side, displeased she had to share a fire with the likes of this one.
“We need to retreat,” the Hellhound bluntly said, eschewing greetings.
“You know we cannot,” Thief replied just as bluntly. “If the Principate keeps a foothold on this side of the Whitecaps, there will be no truce to be had.”
“There’ll be no truce if the Army of Callow is wrecked either,” Juniper growled. “Which is the best outcome to be counted on if we fight tomorrow.”
“Duchess Kegan-“ the other woman began.
“Is half a month away, at the earliest,” the orc interrupted. “And not to be relied on if the tide looks like it’s turning against us. The Watch contingent in our ranks is a blade that cuts both ways.”
“The duchess will not lightly go back on her word,” Thief said.
Juniper frowned. The Named spoke as if she knew something the orc did not.
“What are the odds of Malanza following us, if we retreat to Hedges?” the Callowan asked.
“Slim to none,” the Hellhound replied. “We just torched their last supplies. They can last a little longer by butchering their horses, but by my count they’ll be starving for at least a week before they get to the fortress. They’ll know they can’t win a battle in that state. If we withdraw, I am certain they’ll fall back to Harrow and disband part of the host while sending for supplies.”
“Which leaves half of northern Callow occupied,” Thief said. “I am no student of strategy, but I can assure you that is a diplomatic and political defeat that will cripple us.”
“The moment we get Catherine back, we can link up with the Deoraithe by gate and drive them entirely out of Callow,” Juniper replied. “They’d have a few months in the region at most.”
“It is still too long,” the woman tiredly said. “Depending on the outcome at the Red Flower Vales, the Empress might backstab us during that period. And if public perception is that Catherine cannot defend Callowan borders, much of the crown’s support vanishes. Riots, at the very least. Possibly small-scale rebellion. That divides our manpower, and I assure you we will not be allowed to put back the army together after it has been split. No major player save perhaps the Carrion Lord would see our strength preserved as being in their interest.”
“If Lord Black wins-“ Juniper began.
The Thief spat into the flames.
“Then it is a certainty that the Empire will sabotage us,” she said. “From Malicia’s perspective, a Proceran foothold in the north is a leash on both the Carrion Lord and Callow. Neither can turn against the Wasteland while the kingdom is in danger of falling to the next offensive. She’ll want us strong enough we can bleed the crusade, but weak enough we have no negotiating leverage.”
“If we fight tomorrow, the army’s done for the war,” Juniper honestly said. “At most, if we force them to retreat all the way back to Procer, with the Deoraithe backing us we can hold our end of the passage. Any offensive operations became a fantasy until our next three training cycles are done, and that’s at least a year. Longer, for sappers, and we drained the pool dry for both mages and knights.”
The Thief hesitated.
“Perhaps a partial retreat?” she ventured. “Followed by a counteroffensive when they are unaware.”
“Without the gates we don’t move nearly as swiftly as before,” the orc refused, shaking her head. “I’ve already considered it. Might soften them up a bit to let them starve, but it won’t make enough of a difference with heroes in the ranks. We still bleed too much.”
The Callowan brushed back her hair, then grimaced.
“You are telling me that either path has a decent chance of taking us out of the war,” she said. “That there are no good choices to make.”
“Only bad ones,” Juniper agreed. “And among those, there’s one we haven’t discussed.”
The Named stiffened, the fire’s flickering light revealing cold fury.
“You can’t be serious,” she hissed.
“You have a way to shut her down,” the Hellhound said, and it wasn’t a question.
Thief’s eyes grew cold.
“A heavy assumption,” she replied.
“I’ve known Catherine longer than you,” Juniper said, baring her fangs. “She didn’t even trust her Name, and her mantle is a great deal more dangerous. She would have contingencies in place, and within the Woe you’re the only she considers to have a moral compass.”
“I will not allow Akua Sahelian to walk free,” the Thief hissed. “Much less to wage war.”
“Then this conversation is over,” the Marshal of Callow said unflinchingly. “I refuse to a fight a battle tomorrow in the current circumstances. We’ll take our chances with a retreat.”
“How could you possibly trust her with any kind of power?” the Callowan said.
“She’s a Praesi of the old breed,” the Hellhound said. “In front of her is the Tenth Crusade. Blood will tell. Trust has nothing to do with it.”
“If she gets loose, she’ll turn on us,” Thief said. “Without a second thought.”
“You have your leash, and we still have Archer,” Juniper calmly said. “Sahelian is a coward at heart, and she plays the game according to the old rules. That makes her predictable. She will not make a move unless she is certain she can slip the noose.”
“The Callowan half of the army would defect, if they ever knew,” the woman said.
“If they ever knew,” Juniper repeated softly.
She had won the argument and they both knew it.
Akua Sahelian wore Catherine’s body seemingly without the slightest awkwardness. Sitting with her legs crossed, stripped of anything but a loose tunic, the Diabolist opened her eyes when Vivienne entered the tent. The glow of the wards keeping her contained was the only light there was to be had, weaving strange and moving shadows over the panes of cloth.
“Vivienne,” Sahelian smiled with lips not her own. “I’d expected another bell before you came to terms with the necessity. Your perspective has broadened since I last had you studied.”
Thief dragged a seat and dropped it in front of the butcher, dropping down into it without even the pretence of elegance. Idly flipping a knife her aspect had dropped into her palm, she watched the Diabolist silently. Were she not uncertain of the effect it would have on Catherine, she would have already ordered Sahelian’s soul to be ripped apart piece by piece.
“Think you have it all figured out, do you?” Thief said.
Catherine’s body inclined its head with an understated grace its true owner had never quite managed.
“Though your hostility is understandable, it is unnecessary,” Diabolist said. “We serve the same mistress, after all.”
“Eclipse,” Vivienne said. “Rip out your left eye.”
Over a month of late evenings had been spent wording the contingency oaths. Possession by the Diabolist had not been the issue they’d expected – Catherine’s fears had been centred around Winter making her lose perspective – but the conditions were cleared by this state of affairs regardless. Thief had reason to genuinely believe Catherine’s judgement was impaired by an external factor, which allowed her to call on the first three oaths. Sahelian smiled even as her fingers dug behind her eyeball, ripping it out. Vivienne noted with satisfaction the smile had grown a little stiff during. She could still feel pain, then.
“Try to play me again and I’ll have to get inventive,” Thief said even as the eye reformed.
“Noted,” the Diabolist replied, inclining her head. “You have a use for me, or at least the power this body holds.”
“I do,” she said. “You’re going to kill crusaders.”
“A most enjoyable task,” Sahelian smiled.
“Eclipse,” Vivienne said. “Rip out your left eye.”
She waited until the eye had reformed before speaking again.
“That one,” she said, “was just because you pissed me off.”
The fucking smile never went away.
“I expect there will be heroic opposition,” the Diabolist said.
“There should be at least ten left, maybe more,” Thief replied. “Most dangerous are the Saint of Swords and the Grey Pilgrim.”
The Queen of Callow’s body hummed and cocked its head to the side. The gesture was so Catherine that Vivienne almost ordered Sahelian to rip out her eye again.
“Not unworthy opponents,” Diabolist said. “I will prevail regardless.”
“You are not to cause a massacre,” Thief said. “After inflicting no more than six thousand casualties, you are to retreat.”
Sahelian’s smile turned sharp.
“Restraint,” she drawled. “How quaint. You miss an opportunity.”
“Eclipse,” Vivienne said. “Rip out your left eye.”
The Diabolist’s breath grew ragged, in the aftermath. She continued speaking anyway.
“You need the crusaders dead,” Sahelian said. “Yet you also require Catherine’s reputation to be unsullied when negotiating a truce. Allow me, then, to bloody my hands. I will make it clear to the heroes that this her body is not currently her own.”
“You don’t know shit about the current political situation,” Thief said.
“I know you cannot fight a war against Procer while unseating the Empress,” the Diabolist said. “What follows is a mere exercise of logic.”
We can’t negotiate with the heroes if they think Catherine is a sharper than can go off at any time, Vivienne thought. Sahelian had not grown beyond the causes of her failure. She still looked at all the nations of Calernia with the belief that sooner or later she would war against them all. Peace stretching further than a temporary truce never entered her calculations.
“You will pretend to be Catherine,” Thief said. “And stick to the limits I have already outlined. In addition, you may not slay the Grey Pilgrim.”
“Even if this body is at risk of permanent destruction?” the Diabolist probed.
“Eclipse,” Vivienne said. “Rip out your left eye.”
This time she flinched, to the Callowan’s satisfaction.
“Don’t attempt to make a loophole again,” Thief said. “Not even then. Flee instead.”
Sahelian softly laughed.
“And what,” Thief asked, “has you so happy?”
Catherine’s dark eyes met her own.
“Do you believe in redemption, Vivienne Dartwick?”
The Callowan shivered.
“There’s nothing in you to redeem,” Thief said. “You are a thing pretending to be human.”
“My people,” Akua Sahelian murmured, “do not put much stock in it either. But I have pondered this matter deeply, of late. Perhaps there is some worth to be found in it.”
The moment I have a speck of leverage, I will convince Catherine to break any semblance of thought in you, Vivienne thought. You are too dangerous a loose end to allow, and you should have forever disappeared after Liesse. There is no place left in this world for you.
“How hard could it be possibly be,” the Diabolist mused. “Acting heroically, that is.”
Vivienne rose to her feet.
“You will ‘awaken’ slightly before dawn,” she said. “Prepare yourself.”
“I look forward to our fruitful alliance, then, my trusted comrade,” Sahelian grinned.
The aristocrat clenched her fingers. That wasn’t her grin. She had no right to wear it.
“Eclipse,” Vivienne said. “Rip out your left eye, seven times in a row.”
She left the tent to the sound of muffled screaming.
Prince Amadis Milenan had only managed to sleep after drinking half a thimble of poppy brew, and even then he’d woken long before dawn. The trembling in his hands tempted him to indulge a second time during the darkened hours, but his father had always warned him off reliance on medicine. Many a great ruler had been unmade by growing too fond of a particular vice, when age or exhaustion weakened their resolve. He would not follow in that mistake. Instead he sent for inks and parchment, splaying them over his scribing desk and lighting a pair of oil lamps. The lines of the first illustration were botched by the shaking of his fingers, but the longer he forced himself to concentrate on the matter the steadier his hands became. It was a thorny issue to work these failures seamlessly into the greater design, but he’d had a taste for this sort of diversion since he’d been a boy and when the quill scratched the last of the blue on the parchment he found himself satisfied with the illustration. Not his finest work, but neither would he be ashamed of having it displayed before peers.
He’d sketched a view of Lake Pavin in the traditional Alamans manuscript style, that sprawling expanse of deep blue touching stony shores. He’d done so from memory, drawing on the beautiful summer he’d spent in Cleves as a young man. Having met his wife there had left him with a lingering fondness for the beautiful principality that had occasionally been politically inconvenient. Jonquille still occasionally teased him for being softer on the land of her birth than she was herself, to the amusement of their children. He rather missed her, at the moment. Her discerning judgement and sharp temper, the way she could soother him without ever saying a word. His father had been furious he’d betrothed himself to a girl from a largely insignificant branch family, but never once had Amadis regretted it. He’d paid for the sentimentality in the years that followed, even risked disinheritance in favour of his younger brother, but those were all passing things. The partnership had endured far longer than the grievances. The thought that he might never see her again was a sobering one.
He penned a missive for his wife beneath the illustration, strangely uneasy, and blew on the elegant cursive quoting the couplet by Drunken Berilion he’d botched declaiming at her on their first meeting. She’d recited it back at him properly with laughing eyes, and neither had looked back since. The prince sent for a footman to have it set with the diplomatic correspondence, a mild abuse of prerogative near every royal in the host had indulged in at least once. Even Arnaud, that old sot, liked to write to his bastard son. His worries having ebbed, the Prince of Iserre watched the sun begin to dawn as he ate his frugal breakfast. The most extravagant of his personal foodstuffs he’d had distributed to his men in a gesture of good will, though he’d kept enough there was no risk of either he or his personal household starving. He remained silent as his manservant removed the empty plate, contemplating the coming day. Twice now, his host had waged battle against the Army of Callow. Twice they had been driven back, at great cost. Prince Papenheim’s army would be facing that infamous old monster the Black Knight in the Vales, and the costs of that victory would not be slight. That thread woven with his own losses inked a picture he misliked.
The armies of the Dominion would enter the Principate soon enough, a Principate weakened by war. Prince Cordelia might put her faith in the alliances she had bargained for, but an alliance of victors was like a hearth in summer. The diminished and defeated found no friends, only hungry dogs. All of this, unfolding because a handful of children with an army refused to be defeated. No matter. Princess Rozala believed that this day’s fighting would end it all, though the price would be heavy. All could be remedied, once victory was attained. Trumpets sounded in the camp, and Amadis raised an eyebrow. It was not yet dawn, after all. Malanza was displaying unseemly haste. Then they sounded again, urgently, and his blood ran cold. This was not the call to rise.
It was the call to battle.