“A passable plan done in a day will nearly always beat an exquisite scheme requiring a month.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II
Truth be told, I’d never been enamoured with the thought of travelling. Even if I’d never become Black’s apprentice I would have left Laure eventually – I’d has plans to attend the War College, what felt like half a lifetime ago – but unlike some of the other girls at the orphanage my heartbeat had never quickened at the notion of journeying across Calernia. There’d been this girl I’d shared a room with, Gods, what’d been her name? Emily, maybe. Something that sounded like that. She’d found work at a street stall near the market just so she could buy a rough map of the continent and plan her travels when she came of age. She’d stolen the only volume of Anabas the Ashuran’s travelogues the orphanage had and read it so often the pages had been worn out. That’d never been for me. Having a gander at the most beautiful parts of southern Callow had been appealing, and I’d had vague plans to visit the Duchy of Daoine for as long as I could remember, but my interest in foreign vistas had always been limited.
And yet here I was now, camping with a few companions by the shore of a lake I doubted any human had seen in centuries. Few Praesi maps gave name to the body of water to the northeast of the Kingdom of the Dead, but the Procerans called it the Chalice. There was likely a story there, but not one I knew. It was beautiful, I had to the admit. The poisonous fumes that hung over the Dead King’s lands did not reach this far north, leaving me with unimpeded sight of a misty lake with sapphire-blue waters. The beach was pebbles of pale and grey, with the rare splash of colour breaking the mould. The winds were restless, here, and the dawning evening pleasantly cool. Even at noon, when the day was warmest most of the Woe wore cloaks. Unlike me they did not welcome to the touch of the cold. I palmed a stone and sent it skidding across the waters, the final plop surprisingly loud to my ears.
Hakram had dug a fire pit earlier and Indrani was now making some sort of sordid stew out of the fish she’d caught with her bare hands, standing hip-deep in the waters. It felt oddly domestic to watch them bicker around the flames, arguing about how much salt should go in a meal. Vivienne was napping right through it, huddled inside a pile of blankets close enough to the fire to feel the warmth of the flames. The last two had less carefree matters to attend to. I’d asked Masego to reach out to the Observatory the moment my little chat with Cordelia Hasenbach came to an end, but even with Akua as a helper the preparations had taken some time. He’d warned me the ritual had high chances of failure. Though the Whitecaps weren’t in the way, up here, the distance was massive. It’d taken three attempts before he succeeded mid-afternoon. Fadila had been there, luckily enough, though what she’d had to tell us had taken the wind right out of me. She only knew so much, though, so I’d ordered the Observatory to serve as a relay for another ritual at dusk. Juniper would know more.
I glanced at the tall tower of ice I’d formed to speak with the First Prince, which now served as the seat of Hierophant’s rituals. I could feel the ebb and flow of sorcery within, though it’d not reached that palpable crescendo of active scrying. I tossed another stone and let the sound of Indrani slapping Hakram with a ladle – clearly stolen from the royal kitchens by Vivienne, as it was pure silver and there was a suspicious hole where the Fairfax heraldry would be – until he submitted to her demands of another pinch of salt. It was calming. I was in great need of that, right now. The sun was dipping into the lake with a riot of red and gold, when Akua came for me. She said nothing, scarlet eyes hooded. She’d grown better at reading my moods, when idle talk would grate on my nerves instead of provide appreciated distraction. I passed the others on the way to the ice, waving a hand when Indrani called out, and found Masego crouched on the ground.
“Catherine,” he said without turning. “I believe we’ve stabilized the formula properly. There should be no more troubles.”
“Good work,” I said.
“They’ll be able to feel that as far south as Keter, at least, if they are keeping an eye out,” he reminded me.
“Let them,” I grunted. “Scry, Masego.”
He did not comment any further, tracing a few runes out of light that set the entire array glowing. I ran my fingers across the back of the seat I’d carved myself out of ice before sitting down. A look was enough to dismiss Akua, though Masego remained close. If the ritual had issues, I expected him to intervene. At the centre of the array lay a dark wooden bowl filled with dark waters taken from the Observatory’s own pools. A sympathetic connection, I thought, and silently praised myself for remembering the fancy terms. We’d improved somewhat on the usual spell, Hierophant having me weave Winter as he required. When Fadila’s face appeared in the bowl, it did in the mirrors surrounding me as well.
“Your Majesty,” she said, bowing.
“Mbafeno,” I mildly replied. “Any issues on your end?”
“Marshal Juniper awaits you,” she replied. “Shall I proceed?”
“By all means,” I said.
Her face rippled, then vanished, and a heartbeat later I was facing the Hellhound’s tired gaze. Juniper looked like she’d been put through a ringer. If half of what Fadila had said, that might very well be the case.
“Juniper,” I said. “Been a while.”
“Foundling,” she gravelled. “I have a dozen fires to put out, so let’s skip the courtesies.”
I almost replied with a sardonic lovely to see you too, but if the situation was as serious as I believed it was no time for banter.
“I had a talk with Fadila Mbafeno earlier today,” I said. “But she’s constrained to the palace, so most of it was hearsay. I’ll need a full report.”
The orc nodded.
“The Empire just fucked us hard,” Juniper bluntly said. “I can’t actually prove it’s them, but it has that Wasteland reek.”
I grimaced. That’d been Fadila’s opinion as well, but I’d hoped she might be wrong.
“How bad was it?” I asked.
“Every member of the King’s Council is dead,” she said. “Around a third of your court officials. It was a godsdamned massacre.”
My fingers clenched.
“Ratface?” I quietly asked.
She shook her head mutely.
“Knife to the back of the neck,” she said. “He wouldn’t have felt a thing.”
I closed my eyes. There was a cold, measured part of me that was furious I’d been robbed of a skilled Lord Treasurer for who I had no real replacement. The rest of me grieved the death of a boy I’d known since we were seventeen, children playing war games in the Tower’s shadow. Ratface had been with me since the beginning, since Rat Company. He’d been a friend, one of the few I had left. I inhaled, place the tempest of grief and wrath in a box and set it aside. I opened my eyes, calmed.
“Anne Kendall?” I asked.
“First to go,” Juniper said. “We think she was one of the primary targets.”
And there went the woman I’d considered my most likely successor to the queenship of Callow. I was slightly appalled that my first thought at hearing the death of Baroness Anne confirmed was how it’d complicate the line of succession, but I would not shy away from the facts. Anne Kendall had been a kind soul, a skilled ruler and if not a friend someone I had deep respect for. A patriot, of that rare breed that put the needs of her people above her own. And she’d been, informally, the closest thing to an acceptable successor I had at my court. Malicia – and this was her work, of that I had no doubt, for it’d been a crippling blow to Callow in too many ways not to be – had ordered her killed just to weaken my position. Fury flared, but I mastered myself. Anger is the death of reason. You need a lucid mind to survive, now.
“Merciless Gods,” I finally said. “Who holds Laure?”
“The got the legate I sent to command the garrison and all his staff,” Juniper said. “The highest-ranking officer in the city was a Senior Tribune by the name of Abigail. At a guess, they missed her because she was on leave. She’s been on the rolls since the Arcadian Campaign, fought under Nauk at the Battle of the Camps.”
“I know of her,” I said. “She used to serve under Hune, has a Summerholm accent. She’s got a handle on the situation?”
“People went to the streets after your court declared martial law,” Juniper replied. “So she had the palace cellars emptied and every winesink in the city do the same on the crown’s coin.”
“She got rioters drunk?” I hissed.
“Drunk enough they weren’t able to riot,” the Hellhound said. “She didn’t have the men to enforce the decree, Catherine, and spilling blood would have been like lighting a sharper. She made the best possible decision, even if she overstepped her authority. I’ll state that for the record, if I have to.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose.
“Fuck it, as long as it worked,” I finally said. “How quick can you have a senior officer in the city?”
“At least a month,” Juniper said. “We’re camped close to Ankou, at the moment, in talks with General Sacker’s legion.”
I drummed my fingers pensively.
“Promote her to legate, then,” I said. “Field promotion, to be confirmed at a later date. She’s in charge of Laure until I can send one of the Woe to take over.”
“I’ll pass it along,” the orc said.
Good. It’d been an unorthodox method, but then that was the kind of thinking the Army of Callow encouraged. If she had the mettle for higher rank, she’d get to keep it. Gods knew I was always in desperate need of fresh talent.
“Did they manage to assassinate within the army?” I asked.
“They tried,” Juniper said. “Had agents in the ranks, one made it as high as tribune. The Jacks caught most of them. The rest got knifed before they could do any real damage. Lord Black sends his regards.”
I chewed on that, split between relief at my teacher still being on my corner and displeasure as the fact he’d infiltrated the Army of Callow deeply enough his people were comfortable fighting Eyes of the Empire.
“You got his people?” I asked.
“They’re under arrest,” Juniper said. “None resisted, so I used a light touch. Only soft interrogations.”
“Try to get anything they know about Malicia’s people,” I said. “I’ll authorize release back to Black if they work with us.”
The orc nodded.
“Ranker has expressed willingness to work with us,” she told me.
The first bit of good news today, that.
“Her legion got mauled at the Vales,” I said.
“She’s got more than half in fighting fit,” Juniper replied. “More importantly, she’s willing to trade goblin munitions for supplies. Including goblinfire.”
“Get your hands on anything you can,” I ordered. “Had she said anything about the Empress?”
“Said politics don’t concern her, since she’s part of an Imperial expedition army under the direct command of the Black Knight,” my Marshal grunted. “She’d got no intention of heading east, and she’d publicly turned away messengers from the Tower.”
“Malicia’s still sending diplomats through Callow?” I frowned.
“Not anymore,” Juniper said. “It got bloody, Catherine. When word about Laure got out, fresh off that proclamation from Salia? They butchered any Praesi they could get their hands on. We lost legionaries that were on leave.”
Fuck. The last thing I needed was Callowans taking swings at the Army of Callow.
“The Tower hasn’t formally declared war, has it?” I asked.
“Not a word from the Empress,” she said. “But we’re having Praesi troubles anyway.”
“The High Lords can’t possibly be fools enough to pick a fight now,” I said.
“Worse,” the orc replied. “We have refugees coming through the Blessed Isle. Ashur’s torching the coast and the sack of Nok displaced thousands. The Wasteland’s already rationing, so they’re moving west where the food is.”
“How many?” I grimly asked.
“Two, three thousand for now,” the Marshal of Callow said. “Mostly families. There’ll Eyes and assassins among them though, that’s a certainty. Farmers have been forcing them to remain near the Isle, by force if need be.”
So Malicia was dumping her refugee troubles on me. I supposed from her perspective there was no loss to be had. Either I slaughtered them and became even more reviled in Praes, or I allowed them to stay and had to divert time and resources to force order onto the mess.
“We can’t allow them to go deeper into Callow,” I said.
“If we don’t get them out soon, the numbers will keep growing,” Juniper said. “And it’s only a matter of time until they get hungry and desperate enough to steal from farmers who won’t stand for it. When steel comes out it’ll get ugly fast.”
“Our only host close enough is the Summerholm garrison,” I said. “And that’s the key to our entire eastern defence. If she’s baiting it out to ambush it…”
“I know,” the Hellhound growled. “Her belly’s unprotected, but so is ours. She’s short on legions, but she could order the High Lords of the interior to send their household troops.”
The worst part was that I knew exactly what Malicia was doing, but there was no easy solution. She’d shaken Callow just as the Dead King got loose to prevent me from intervening in the war with Procer, and now she was trying to tie down my forces with the least possible effort on her part. If she’d sent an army into Callow, she’d had to feed and fund it. To commit men. Instead she’d mutilated the administration of the kingdom, then dropped a mess at the border on my lap. If I wanted to retaliate, I’d have to venture into the Wasteland. Where every major city was a fortress heavily warded and filled with horrors and it was impossible to live off the land. Hells, she could probably raid my godsdamned supply lines to fill her own granaries. I would have called it utter idiocy to provoke the Kingdom of Callow when she was already fighting a losing war with the Thalassocracy, but I knew my army was in no state for a protracted eastern campaign. I needed it elsewhere, and I needed it to be making up for the losses of the Battle of the Camps. If I acted, I risked incurring a major loss for no real gain. If I did not act, on the other hand, I would keep paying for it.
I was too furious to be admiring.
“Pull back all the people in the Fields to Summerholm,” I finally said. “Have them bring every bag of grain and herd of cattle back with them while they do. The refugees won’t keep coming if there’s nothing to be had.”
“And if they head towards Summerholm?” Juniper asked.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” I said. “They’re refugees, not a legion marching column. It’ll take months.”
“That’s a stopgap,” she said. “Not a fix.”
“A stopgap is what we need, right now,” I said. “I’ll send Thief back to Callow to take control of the situation.”
Juniper’s broad face grimaced.
“You’re not coming back?” she asked.
“We need an army,” I said. “The Dead King dealt with Malicia instead, so I’m getting us another.”
“The drow,” the Hellhound said.
“The drow,” I agreed softly. “We’re out of alternatives, Juniper. The Principate is about to be hit hard from the north, which at least will buy us time. I need Callow stable, and the army in fighting fit. That falls on you and Thief. I’ll return as swiftly as possible with reinforcements.”
“There’s good news on that front, at least,” Juniper announced. “We’re drowning in volunteers.”
“Even after I was named Arch-heretic of the East?” I said.
“That’s what got it started,” the orc said. “Half of Ankou’s been to our camp to enrol, Catherine. And after the assassinations in Laure it was like a damned fire was lit. There’s formed Royal Guard coming from as far as Holden to enrol, and there’s entire convoys on the roads coming towards training camps. Half a year, Warlord. Give me half a year and I’ll have you an army that’ll shake this fucking continent.”
I exhaled softly. They’d cornered us, hadn’t they? The Procerans and the Praesi. And the harder they struck, the harder my countrymen would dig their heels.
“Good,” I said. “I don’t care if you have to empty every treasure vault in Callow, Juniper, I want them armed and trained. The fights around the corner are going to be like nothing we’ve seen before.”
The orc grinned toothily.
“It’ll be my pleasure,” she said. “That would have been pleasant note to end on, but I have two more messes to pass you.”
“I’m listening,” I said. “Wait, shit, Prince Amadis and the Pilgrim. Are they…”
“No assassin went after them,” Juniper said. “But the Pilgrim’s a third mess, looked at a certain way. He legged it and left the prince behind. We haven’t seen sign of him since the killings.”
Shit. Yeah, it made sense. I wasn’t there for him to work on, and when we’d last spoken it had been with harsh words. The old man wouldn’t sit pretty in Laure while the Dead King was on the move. Even if he was so inclined, the Heavens wouldn’t let him.
“That’s a breach of our truce terms,” I said.
“The Hells can we do about it?” the Hellhound said. “Kill Milenan? It gets us nothing.”
Much as it irritated me, she was right. The northern crusaders were out of the passage and they’d likely be headed upwards to delay the Dead King. I did not want to do anything that might affect that decision, not right now anyway.
“Keep him under our thumb,” I finally said. “We’ll settle accounts with the Peregrine another day. What’s the first disaster?”
“Don’t know if it’s that,” Juniper said. “But diplomacy’s not my wheelhouse. The Snake Eater Tribe sent volunteers to enrol, but there was an envoy with them. She says she’s coming on the behalf of the Council of Matrons.”
Well, shit. It wasn’t the first time the ruthless old bats made discreet overtures to me. Back before we’d purged the worst of the Regals they matron-attendants that rule the Snake Eater Tribe had interrogated Pickler about what intention I might have for Praes, if I ended up on the winning side of a war with the Empire. There’d been no offer, back then. Malicia had yet to bleed enough the Matrons would consider her easy meat. I suspected that with the Ashurans running rampant across the coast and Black strolling around the Principate with half the Legions of Terror, that’d begun to change.
“What do they want?” I warily asked.
“She wouldn’t tell me everything,” Juniper replied. “Said she’d deal only with you. But I was given a taste, probably to bring you to the table. The Council of Matrons is offering to begin negotiations over the sale of goblin munitions to the Kingdom of Callow.”
My fingers clenched. That was very, very dangerous talk. The Tribes were bound by treaty to sell those only to the Tower, and it wasn’t the kind of clause that got a slap on the wrist when broken: it’d be called rebellion, if it got out. Even possession of goblin munitions was illegal in Praes. Highborn would have their entire direct family executed if they were caught with a stash.
“Fuck me,” I said quietly. “They’re preparing to rebel, aren’t they?”
“Who the Hells ever knows, with goblins?” the orc grunted. “Does look like it, though. We both know it’s been a long time coming.”
“And they won’t talk with anyone other than me?” I pressed.
“That’s what the envoy told me,” Juniper said.
Godsdamnit. I couldn’t afford to head to Callow right now, no matter how sweet the prize.
“I’ll give Thief full authority to negotiate in my name,” I said. “If that’s not enough, they’ll have to wait.”
The orc nodded.
“The second thing,” she said. “It’s the Warlock.”
“He’s in Callow?” I said, eyed widening.
“He was,” Juniper replied. “Long gone by now. He left a message for Hierophant.”
“And what would that be?” I flatly asked.
“To head to Thalassina immediately,” the orc said. “There’s a situation coming to head, and he wants his son there yesterday.”
The string of curses I let out at that was foul enough even the Hellhound winced.