“Take no comfort in that, hero. For though dawn ever comes, night ever does precede it.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II
“Well, this is a fine fucking mess,” I frowned.
The reports had been unfortunately delayed, mostly by the fact that the Red Flower Vales were apparently now the Red Flower Mountains. Only with brimstone instead of granite, because why would Warlock just make it a little bit worse when he could make thoroughly worse? If those things cracked open and devils started pouring out, I was going to be cross. That the current location of Masego’s father was still unknown did not improve the situation in the slightest, since it meant I had no idea whether he was still guarding the region or not.
“The passes are closed,” Hakram said. “Strategically, that is a victory. The only way into Callow is the northern passage, and it will be barred for at least six months.”
I flicked a glance at the tall orc, still basking in the satisfaction of having him by my side again. It never seemed quite as bad, when Adjutant was with me. He’d arrived only a few days after the peace conference, and remained with us as the Army of Callow escorted the crusaders back up north. It’d been a month since the Battle of the Camps now, since I’d snatched a peace from the butchery and put ink to what might quite possibly be my own death warrant. I shook my head and reached for the small silver thimble at my side, knocking back the brandy in a single swallow.
“I don’t mean that,” I said. “I mean whatever the Hells he’s up to.”
I touched the bottom of the thimble to the unfolded map occupying much of the desk we were sharing. The map itself was ours, but nothing else in this room was. This was the private solar of the Baroness of Harrow, who’d insisted we use it while we stayed in her keep. The liberation of her ancestral lands had apparently put me in her good books. That, or seeing me drop a lake on an army had made her reconsider her stance on royal taxation even though the Pilgrim had knocked me the fuck out after barely ten heartbeats. The silver thimble was touching the edge of the Principality of Bayeux, where news now a fortnight old had Black and his legions sacking towns for supplies on their march west.
“Well, at a glance,” Hakram drily said, “invading Procer.”
“With fifteen thousand men?” I sceptically said. “We’re not even sure he has siege with him. Even if he somehow starts taking cities without engines he can’t hold them.”
While on the surface the Tenth Crusade had tried to enter Callow and twice found the door shut on its fingers, the situation was a lot less promising than it appeared at first glance. The map held a handful of figurines standing for armies and their last reported locations, and the picture they painted was not pleasant. The three Proceran hosts we knew well: one down south in Tenerife guarding the border with the League, one marching out of northern Callow according to truce terms and the last, unfortunately, still camped in front of the Vales. Digging through the wreckage to reopen the pass. That alone would be bad, since the Jacks told me Papenheim should have between forty to fifty thousand soldiers under his command.
What was making it much, much worse was the Dominion of Levant was joining the fray. Half a year ago, Thief had passed me a report estimating they’d send an army about thirty thousand men. She’d been right, in a way. There was an army of that size marching to reinforce Papenheim. Unfortunately, there was also a second one by the shore of Lake Louvant – the massive lake in the centre of the Procer – currently preparing to embark on barges. Its destination was, allegedly, Salia. The seat of the First Prince, the capital of the Principate. And where Black would be headed if he continued to march in a straight line. At a guess, every single garrison in central Procer would be pulled together into a ramshackle army then swelled by the Levantines before they threw all of that at Black’s fifteen thousand. The result seemed fairly obvious, veteran legions or not.
“It is an unusual gamble, by my understanding of the man,” Adjutant conceded. “If those legions are lost, the Empire is crippled.”
“That’s a pretty way to put it,” I grunted. “More honest is that without those men on the field, Praes is left so bare even we could feasibly invade it.”
Odds weren’t good for a reverse of the Conquest, I’d admit. I was pretty sure I could break Malicia’s own legions on the field and seize most the countryside, but taking Praesi cities would be impossible without breaking my army. What I could do might still be enough for her reign to collapse, though, and that made it slightly tempting. Or would have, anyway, if there wasn’t a decent chance that by the time Papenheim’s army was done digging I’d be facing a host of eighty thousand men invading my kingdom. There was, to be blunt, no way the Army of Callow could beat them if they had heroes on their side, which they most certainly would. Not after the losses we’d taken at the Battle of the Camps.
“It may be safe to assume, then, that he does not intend to lose those men,” Hakram said.
“If he’d at least gotten Papenheim to chase him I’d sleep better at night, but the man stayed,” I sighed. “I mean, Gods, I see the strategic sense in it. The damage Black can actually do is limited, and if Callow falls the crusade is half-won. It’s still a damned cold call to make, though, basically writing off the heartlands of his own country.”
“We do not have a monopoly on ruthlessness,” the orc reminded me.
“It’d be a simpler war if we did,” I said. “But we have to face the facts, I suppose. Let’s be conservative and say it takes them four months to make a passage through the wreck. By that time, the Levantines will have reinforced them. They’ll invade together.”
The orc leaned over and filled my thimble for the second time this evening – he’d quietly claimed control of the bottle, perhaps for the best – before tending to his own.
“The Army of Callow will have largely recovered by then,” he said. “And Duchess Kegan has reinforced us.”
“The Deoraithe need to hold the northern passage, otherwise there’s a decent chance our truce gets shredded and the princes turn back,” I bluntly said. “It’s one thing to trust them with a sword in hand, another if the passage is left empty. No, down south we’ll be on our own.”
Hakram raised his sliver thimble.
“Dust and misfortune,” he said in Mthethwa.
I clinked mine against his.
“Doom pass you twice,” I replied, finishing the old Soninke toast and tossing back the brandy.
The harsh burn – Gods, this was rough stuff even by my standards – went down my throat pleasurably. I set the silver down.
“We’re not winning that battle,” I admitted. “Not against those numbers.”
“Then we seek an alternative,” Adjutant serenely said.
Not a hint of doubt there to be found. It felt like spring water for my soul. I snorted, and got to my feet.
“Not tonight,” I said. “It can wait until tomorrow. Get the others, I need to spend a few hours looking at something that’s not a godsdamned report in Vivienne’s chickenscratch.”
“By your command, Your Majesty,” Hakram drily replied.
He’d mouthed off, I noted, but took the bottle without my needing to tell him. Truly a prince among men, my Adjutant.
“You’re mad,” Archer said. “I knew you’d be mad. See, Zeze, it’s just like I told you.”
Hierophant frowned, smoothing his robes.
“You did not,” he noted. “You said, to be exact: ‘Trust me, Masego, she’ll love it. This will have no consequences whatsoever.’”
I eyed the dark-skinned mage with chagrin.
“And you believed her?” I asked.
“Trust is the foundation of a healthy friendship,” he told me. “I’ve acquired a book on the subject. Very informative.”
Hakram smothered a laugh by faking a coughing fit. Naturally, I elbowed him in the stomach. Questioningly. Considering how often I did that to him, he’d learned to tell apart the nuances.
“It’s actually a religious text from one of those love cults in southern Ashur,” the orc whispered, leaning towards me. “You know, the Face of Love folks? The real payoff is when he’ll get to those illustrated parts in the middle. Most lurid thing I’ve ever seen.”
“If he starts talking about sex rituals, you’ll be the one to clean up that mess,” I hissed back in a low voice. “I’ll use a royal decree if I have to.”
“It’s too far from Harrow to Baroness Ainsley’s personal property,” Vivienne considered out loud. “A household knight’s, maybe?”
“Hey, for all we know they’re already dead,” Indrani offered. “So no harm done, right?”
What had once been a lovely garden with stone benches and tasteful statues continued to burn down. A firepit with an entire stag roasting on a spit – another crime right there, I mused, we didn’t have hunting rights in the barony – had been dug in the heart of what’d previously been an elegant bed of flowers. I raised a finger, then put it down.
“All right, before I crack the whip I have to know,” I said. “I get why the pit is on fire, although Masego using hellfame seems like both horrible overkill and a good way to spoil the meat. But why are the trees on fire?”
“Zeze and I had a philosophical argument,” Indrani explained. “He’s a terribly sore loser.”
My gaze turned to Hierophant, who looked vaguely embarrassed.
“She dropped a branch on me,” he admitted. “And she’s quite good at avoiding fireballs.”
My brow rose.
“That’s seven trees, Masego,” I patiently said.
“I am the best at dodging,” Archer boasted without an ounce of shame in her body.
I closed my eyes and counted to five, then opened them.
“All right,” I said. “First, after we’re done here the two of you are going to rebuild this.”
“That’s fair,” Indrani said.
She had the look in her eyes of a woman fully prepared to lounge with a drink in hand while Masego did all the work.
“By hand,” I added. “Not a drop of magic involved.”
“Vivi, how would you like to be Queen of Callow?” Archer said without missing a beat. “I have ever been a sworn enemy of tyranny in all its forms.”
“Please,” Thief drawled. “Who’d be fool enough to want to rule this mess?”
Thank you, Vivienne, I thought, for your unflinching loyalty and support. Really warms the cockles of my heart in these trying times.
“You can’t be serious,” Masego said, glaring at me. “Manual labour?”
He spoke those words, I mused, in much the same tone other people spoke about raising the dead or your average black-hearted betrayal.
“You have hands, Zeze,” I said. “What do you think they’re for?”
“Oh, that was a mistake,” Hakram muttered.
Hierophant’s back straightened.
“According to the writings of Seljan Banu-” he began.
“According to the writings of Catherine Foundling, you’re doing it,” I interrupted flatly. “And the material costs are coming out of both your pay, split equally.”
“You don’t even pay us!” Archer protested.
I blinked in surprise.
“Of course I do,” I said. “All of you have been gathering general’s pay since Second Liesse. Indrani, you have a vault in Laure. I handed you the key myself, remember?”
“Yeah, but it was empty,” Archer said. “I thought you were just yanking my chain.”
“Fadila assures me I’ve been paid punctually,” Masego contributed hesitantly.
Indrani cast him a discrete look at the mention of his assistant.
“Mine was full, last I saw,” Hakram agreed.
Slowly, I turned to Thief. Who looked the very picture of maidenly innocence. I’ve seen you stab people, Dartwick, I thought. Pretty incompetently, but still. Try harder.
“Vivienne,” I said very mildly. “Have you been secretly robbing one of your beloved comrades for almost a year now?”
The dark-haired woman batted her eyes in lovely confusion.
“Masego’s book said that earthly possessions only distract from the holy principle of eternal love,” she said. “How could I let them burden such a dear friend?”
Archer let out a delighted cackle that would likely terrified any birds around into flight if the fire had not already done so. At first I was pleased they weren’t brawling in a garden they’d already set on fire, but then I frowned.
“Wait, Indrani, how have you been paying for your tavern crawls all this time?” I asked.
“I haven’t,” she cheerfully replied.
“They send the bills directly to the palace,” Hakram told me. “It’s under ‘sundry expenses’ in the treasury books.”
“I thought that was, like, bribes and stuff,” I faintly said.
The orc hummed.
“Well, I mean, from a certain point of view…”
I snatched the bottle out of his hands, a tithe for his perfidious treachery.
“All right, you incompetent gaggle of vandals,” I said. “Someone put out those trees. And get me a skewer of that stag, I want to find out how it tastes when you use hellfire to roast it.”
As it turned out, genuinely awful. By that time, though, we were too drunk to mind.
I found myself glaring blearily at the moon.
I’d rested my eyes for some time but never actually fallen asleep. Most the others had, though. Masego was seated on the ground, lying against a toppled stone bench. He was snoring very daintily, which brought the shadow of a smile to my face. Indrani’s feet were on his lap, occasionally kicking his legs as she moved in her sleep. She’d made a pillow out of her cloak, indifferent to the chill of the night. Vivienne was draped in actual sheets, which appeared to be mine and from the palace to boot by the cloth of gold bordering them and the embroidered heraldry. She was utterly still in her sleep, and unlike the others I could feel she was only a sudden movement away from waking. I’d not brought cloak of my own, since the one I usually wore did have the soul of a foe inconveniently attached to it. Besides, I hardly minded the cold these days. I’d remained close to Hakram, but instead of a comfort the warmth that emanated from him had me feeling restless.
“Awake?” Adjutant said, moving slightly aside.
Ugh, he’d been a comfortable mattress even if he was way too warm. How dare he.
“Wasn’t quite asleep,” I said. “Just not thinking. Closest I get to slumber, some nights.”
“You should try anyway,” he said. “You’re always better, afterwards. More human.”
“Since when do you think so well of humans?” I snorted.
“They’ve grown on me over the years,” he gravelled.
“The opposite, for me,” I admitted, more honestly than I’d meant to.
“Not them you were glaring at,” Hakram pointed out.
“I still feel like destroying the moon, whenever I look at it too long,” I said. “I know it’s irrational, but it’s like having as stone in my boot. The boot in this terrible metaphor being my soul, probably? Let’s be honest, it’s not the worse thing that tattered old mess has been compared to.”
“Who knows?” he said. “It might be for the best if you do. There’s an old Praesi story about Dread Emperor Sorcerous having bound his soul to it, that he’s still scheming his final escape from death.”
“There’s a distressing amount of Tyrants with stories like that,” I noted. “We’re going to have to get around to cleaning up all those loose ends some day.”
“Probably just a story,” Hakram shrugged. “He was one of the better ones, anyway. Made a place for the shamans at his court, treated them with respect.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Didn’t he also try the sentient tiger army?”
“The Tower’s tried worse over the centuries,” he mused. “If he’d gotten the tigers to pay taxes afterwards, it might even have counted as a gain.”
That surprised a laugh out of me.
“Imagine having all that power,” I said. “And using it for a godsdamned tiger army. The more Praesi histories I read the less I understand the Empire.”
“Funny thing, power,” Adjutant gravelled. “Never quite as straightforward as you’d think.”
“Preaching to the choir there,” I said. “Used to think that if I could blow up a fortress with a snap of my fingers it would all be so much simpler. Now I can, and so very few of my problems can be solved by that.”
The orc shuffled against the bench.
“The Clans have few written histories,” he said. “Oral tradition is how we pass it all down.”
“Miezans did a number on your people, yeah,” I said. “I remember. They had that nasty habit when conquering places.”
“There was a great repository of scrolls in the lands of the Broken Antlers Horde, or so I was taught as a child,” Hakram murmured. “They put it to the torch. I suppose they had reason to, from where they stood.”
“The reasons of conquerors tend to be acceptable only to them,” I said.
In this, I spoke as Callowan.
“Not that,” Hakram said. “The scrolls, most of them were parchment. Human skin.”
I blinked in surprise.
“Your ancestors were certainly a charming bunch,” I said.
“They were what they were,” Adjutant said. “The tragedy, I think, is that we only remember the worst of them. The excesses. We were more, in the dawn of days. And when they ripped out the heart of us they made it so that we could never be that again.”
“It’s getting better, though, isn’t it?” I said. “I remember when I first joined the College. Seeing orcs read and write and talk, like…”
“Like we were a people whole, and not the hissing shade of our heyday,” Hakram finished gently. “There is something taking shape, Catherine, that is true enough. But it is not what we once were. No more than Callow under your rule is the Callow of the old Alban kings.”
“That’s an old refrain, Hakram,” I said. “The same the Trueblood sang, and the rebels in Liesse. We only remember the golden parts of the good old days. They had their failings too. You can’t look at our own failures and match them to barely remembered victories. The comparison is false.”
“Oh, we were a terrible enough people in those days,” the orc murmured. “Glorious too, at times, but terrible always. But I was speaking of old stories. There is one I remember, that the old raiders past their prime would tell us when the snows kept us in our tents. It is a conversation, between the Warlord Gazog and her son. One of many, though few are remembered. We call it the Riddle of Power, learned from an ancient stele.”
I closed my eyes, leaning back against the stone.
“Tell me,” I said.
He remained silent for a moment, gathering his memories, and when he spoke it was in Kharsum cadenced.
“After her spear had broken and she had grown fat and grey from the tributes of mankind’s kings, Old Gazog took her young son to the great gathering of the thaw, where many clans assembled to trade and prepare the making of war,” he said. “With cups of blood-brew they sat beneath their banner in silence until the sun had passed. Under the dark sky, Old Gazog spoke this: my son, you have witnessed the multitude of our people before you. Young and old, warrior and chieftain, lorekeeper and bronzesmith. I ask you now, where lies power among them?”
Hakram’s voice lightened, as if he were a young boy of his kind.
“Honoured Mother, her son said. This is no riddle, for the answers has always been thus: it lies with chieftain and warlord, for their power is command over all. Old Gazog laughed, her teeth grown soft from many victories. Foolish son, she said. If their power comes from command, then how can their command come from power? How mighty is a chieftain, without obedience given?”
Adjutant clicked his fangs, and his were not soft at all.
“Old Gazog’s son pondered this, and saw her wisdom. In this he was enlightened, and so answered once more. Honoured Mother, he said, power then lies with the lorekeepers. For they hold much wisdom and learning, cunning and law, and in teaching it does their power manifest. Foolish son, she said. What is wisdom, without hand to carry it? Was it a word, without ear to hear it? But wind, and wind is no mother of glory.”
The orc’s voice grew rough.
“Honoured Mother you speak true, her son said,” Hakram said. “The birth of empire is bronze, and so power lies with the bronzesmiths for they alone know the secrets of fire and forge. They hold in their palm the source of war, and only in war can glory be found. Foolish son, said Old Gazog. You learn nothing. The whelping of fire is as wisdom, worthless without hand to wield it. Would a hoard of a thousand axe-blades bear the name of empire?”
He paused and I heard him lick his lips.
“Old Gazog’s son grew wroth, for he did not know of his foolishness. Hateful Mother, he said. You speak many words, yet deny all save the hand. Is this your wisdom, that an empire is naught but swing of blade? All the peoples of the world know this, and there can be no further learning of it. Foolish son, she said. Be silent if you cannot be wise. There is terrible truth beneath the riddle of power, and it I will reveal it to you now.”
Hakram went silent. I did not open my eyes.
“And?” I asked. “What did she say?”
The orc laughed harshly.
“No one knows,” he told me. “You see, the Miezans broke the stele.”
I heard him look up at the sky.
“Sometimes,” Hakram Deadhand said softly, “I think that a truer answer than what was written.”