“Of course I fear my friends. If they did not scare me, why befriend them at all?”
– Dread Empress Prudence the First, the Frequently Vanquished
When dawn came to Laure it found Vivienne Dartwick already awake. She’d slept only fitfully on her too-soft bed, the sparse hours of rest broken by regular reports from her Jacks. Now that she’d returned to the capital she was like the spider returned to her web, her thieves and spies passing forward a river of whispers she had not understood how badly she missed before she could drink from it again. It’d been two months since she had last spoken with Catherine, time and distance watering her wine. She still believed most of what she’d said, but the dire state of affairs here had forced her to admit her queen had not been wrong in her predictions: neither she nor Adjutant had been able to afford a full night’s sleep since they stepped out of Arcadia. The orc was a work horse like no one she had ever met, yet she knew that if he’d been forced to handle the Jacks as well as the rest he would have buckled under the weight.
Sunlight passed through the open panes of her window as she sat in silence, two scrolls unfurled before her. Neither were pleasant news. Dread Empress Malicia had sent a diplomatic envoy under truce banner and the man was reported to be riding for Laure with all possible haste. His affairs had been looked through, and he carried no letter or instructions. Whatever the Empress wanted to be said would be spoke in person. Reluctantly, Vivienne had passed along orders for the envoy to be allowed use of courier horses and escorted by soldiers from the Summerholm garrison. The second scroll was a matter beyond her own purview to settle. After refugees began pouring into Callow through the Blessed Isle, Catherine had ordered for the farmers of the eastern fields to withdraw back to Summerholm with their grain and cattle. There had been concerns that if the city garrison sallied out to force the refugees back into the Empire it would be walking into a Praesi ambush.
The farmers and villagers closest to Summerholm had obeyed. Those closer to Praesi borders, however, were digging in their heels. They were refusing their abandon their possessions to the inevitable looting from the refugees but lacked the means to carry them westward, and so they’d refused to leave entirely. Already there had been strife between Callowans and refugees, and over a dozen deaths. It would only get worse, Vivienne knew. More refugees would come, and some would carry weapons. Callowan farmers would empty their cellars of dusty old spears and swords to fight for their land and property, and the killings would escalate. The Praesi were sure exploit the mounting fears and either arm or send troops to help their countrymen. Vivienne’s own countrymen would die, and not a damned thing would be done about it. Marshal Juniper, she knew, would be adamant it was not worth risking the garrison to protect farmers who’d refused to obey a royal decree.
There was only one man in the kingdom who could force her, and Hakram Deadhand was not known to smile upon those who disobeyed his mistress.
Vivienne passed a hand through her hair, noting it was beginning to grow long again. She’d need to have it cut soon enough, and it sent a private pang of fear in her that this was the case. The thief had worked with quite a few Named, since the Liesse Rebellion, and she had not known any of them to have such issues. The largest physical change she’d seen in someone with a Role was Masego’s noticeable loss of weight after the Observatory was raised – and given that the man had often forgotten to eat unless Indrani saw to it, the explanation was clear. The Hierophant had been wasting away chasing his visions, his thinning had been as much a reflection of that as his lack of meals. What did it mean, that her hair still grew and she tired almost as easily as when she’d been young? She’d never observed the same in any of the Named she’d known. The thought that she might lose her aspects, or even her Name itself, had been the fodder of persistent nightmares.
She was already dead weight as a Named, what would she be without even that?
Vivienne forced herself to breathe in and breathe out slowly, the old calming trick her thief master had taught her when he first took her roof-hopping. Yet she could only think of the pain, oh the pain when the lightning had coursed through her body. Of the searing green heat that engulfed her under the cold gaze of the Duke of Green Orchards. Of the flames that had licked at her body hungrily in the depths of the Doom of Liesse, cracking the gums of her teeth and scorching her tongue. A parade of pain, and what did she have but failures to contrast them with? How many of my victories were truly mine? Her hand was trembling with the answer, and the knowledge that followed – all of her defeats had been of her own making. Vivienne snarled and formed a fist with trembling fingers, hitting at the table.
“I will catch up,” she whispered, knuckles throbbing with pain. “I will.”
She breathed in, breathed out. The tremors had not left, but lazing about would not chase them away. She had had yet another losing fight to pick. She left the scrolls behind and left her rooms, grabbing the first palace servant she came across and ordering him to pass the message that Marshal Juniper was summoned to a council in the formal room at Morning Bell. Vivienne had no intention of spending time trading barbed words with the Hellhound as would inevitably ensue if she went herself to seek out the recently-arrived Marshal of Callow. The other whose attendance would be required, though, she would fetch herself. They’d not traded words in three days save through correspondences, their differing duties and long hours precluding the shared meals that Catherine insisted on the Woe having when she was there to enforce it. Honestly compelled the thief to admit she would not have taken occasion to have one even if there had been one. She’d warmed to some of the Woe more than she had ever thought she would. Masego and Indrani she even counted as friends of a sort, a notion that would have appalled her a few years ago.
She had no such conflicting feelings over Hakram Deadhand.
Adjutant was not difficult to find. The cramped and crooked room that had once belonged to some royal scribe was the orc’s office, and he did not leave it unless he was needed for council or court. He must sleep in there, if he even slept. The only distraction the Jacks had found he indulged in were occasional visits from his subordinate Captain Tordis. The other orc’s presence, when not required by reports, was followed by the door being locked and the captain emerging with her hair ruffled and her neck red around an hour afterwards. No other such visitors had been noted, which ran against Adjutant’s reputation for promiscuity. Vivienne suspected her was simply too tired and busy to chase skirts, even those made of mail. The door to the officer was cracked open, light filtering from inside. Neither candles, as Callowans preferred to use, not the finicky magelights the Praesi were so fond of. A handful of common sprites in bottles, spread around the room. Vivienne found the soft glow of them almost soothing as she rapped her knuckle against the door before opening it entirely. The orc was leaning over his desk, brows creased as he moved his quill against parchment with almost unnatural precision. He finished penning his sentence and blew the ink dry before looking up.
“Thief,” Adjutant said, nodding in welcome. “Didn’t think you’d still be up.”
“It will be Morning Bell within an hour,” Vivienne replied, then gestured at the seat across him. “May I?”
“Go ahead,” he replied, sounding surprised. “Gods, morning already? I could have sworn it was barely half a bell past midnight.”
The thief carefully picked up the handful of parchment sheaths left to pile on the seat, glimpsing a grain reserve tally left mostly open among them, and set them down on the floor. She dropped down into the chair, already wary. She forced herself not to look at his hand of bones, to not remember the sensation of it wrapping around her throat and squeezing.
“You look tired,” Deadhand gently said, fangs clicking inside his maw. “Don’t work yourself to death.”
“You’re hardly one to talk,” Vivienne said, painting a smile.
The kindly visage of the concerned friend, the shoulder all the Woe could lean on. That was to be his face today, then. It was one of many. Catherine’s dutiful steward and second, smoothing away every wrinkle. The laughing accomplice, trading jibes and jabs with the lowliest of soldiers. The terrifying giant of muscle and steel, roaring as he tore apart foes with fang and axe. The soft-spoken, cold-eyed thing that had told her mild as milk he would snap her neck if she even considered treachery. Which is your real face? Are any of them true? She did not look at the bones. Dead the hand and dead the man, the song went. She could not put it out of her head.
“I’ve set an hour or two aside for the purpose next month,” he drily said. “I take it there’s a reason for the pleasure of your company?”
“I’ve word from the Jacks,” she said. “The situation east is worsening and something needs to be done before it comes to a head. I’ve called a council with Marshal Juniper.”
“Hopefully Aisha will have gotten some tea into her before she arrives,” Adjutant grimaced, baring teeth like ivory knives.
She’d seen them rip into throats, more than once. Gobble down blood and flesh greedily like it was the finest of delicacies. The quickening in her pulse she kept away from her eyes, having learned from Akua Sahelian’s example. Diabolist had not quite managed to hide how wary she was of the orc, and though the shade’s discomfiture would usually have put a smile on her face Vivienne had been too dismayed to be sharing any opinion with the Butcher of Liesse to take any joy from it. Snakes know one another, she’d thought back then. Akua Sahelian was studying the Woe carefully, forging herself into a person they would allow themselves to like, but she’d found another had struck long before her. No wonder the shade feared him: she’d found a man whose face was as changeable as her own patiently watching her. And unlike Diabolist, Vivienne doubted there was anyone alive who knew what Hakram Deadhand truly wanted. The orc leaned back into his seat, rolling his shoulders and loudly cracking his neck with a little exhale of pleasure.
“I could eat,” Adjutant said. “Probably should, too. Care to join me on a trip to the kitchens?”
“I already ate,” she lied without batting an eye. “Though don’t let me stop you.”
She could think of few things she desired less than watching that maw at work from across a mere table’s width.
“You should get something warm in you,” the orc advised, rising to his feet. “You look like death warmed over. Indrani forgot some of her tea leaves in her room, I believe. I’ll ask a servant to brew you a pot for the council. Formal room?”
Vivienne agreed with a silent nod. She was not surprised he’d noticed her fondness for Indrani’s brews. Those dark eyes missed nothing and forgot even less. They parted ways two corridors further down, and she could not leave soon enough.
“So the farmers with spears are fighting the refugees with knives,” Marshal Juniper grunted. “There’s a surprise: there’d a damned reason they were recalled to Summerholm. The sole ingredient in that stew is desperation.”
Staff Tribune Bishara had not, in fact, gotten some tea into the Hellhound before she arrived. The orc’s particularly fine mood stood testament to this fact. The Marshal of Callow was of the opinion that she should be overseeing the training camps filled with fresh recruits from all across the kingdom, not cooling her heels at the capital, and had spared no pains in expression that opinion to all those even remotely involved. Adjutant was taking her spleen with at least the semblance of good humour. The constant gruff whining scraped Vivienne’s nerves raw, especially when paired with the outcome she already knew was in motion.
“The farmers are defending their lands from looters,” she sharply replied. “As is their right.”
“Starving looters,” Deadhand mildly said. “I doubt there’s any great enmity or deep scheme to it. They’re cold and hungry people, not a marauding army.”
“Leave this alone long enough, and that’s exactly what it’ll turn into,” Vivienne warned. “Blood has been spilled. They’ll band together for the safety in numbers, and so will Callowans to deal with it. By the turn of the month it will be skirmishes all across the river banks.”
“There wouldn’t be corpses on the floor if they’d obeyed Foundling’s fucking decree,” Marshal Juniper bluntly said. “Which was meant to avoid this very outcome, if you’ll remember. Last I checked someone had crowned her Queen of Callow. I’m no jurist, but I was under the impression ignoring royal decrees was some kind of treason.”
She’s Queen of Callow, not some eastern tyrant or a damned greenskin warlord, Vivienne thought, fingers tightening under the table. Our rulers know there’s limits to what they can order and reasonably expect to have obeyed. It was a losing fight, as she’d known from the start. Neither of these two bore any love for the land they’d been charged with ruling, or the people born to it.
“There’s no need to go quite that far,” Adjutant said. “As Thief noted, all their actions save for ignoring the recall are legal under Callowan law. It would be a mistake to paint all that followed with the same brush as that initial mistake.”
Deadhand the diplomat, now: half the friend, half the officer. Vivienne had not wanted the responsibility of the regency of Callow and found the burden of it suffocating, but the way the title seemed to be left at the door in their eyes remained galling. The difference between the authority in name and the authority in truth had grown to worry her, not for what it was but for what it might become. Catherine had come to the throne lawlessly, but that lawlessness could not keep lest the kingdom come apart at the seams. A few years of this, she thought, and it will be one law for those with swords and another for those without. If that came to be, the kingdom would burst like an overripe fruit without even need for an invasion. Callowans had long been under Imperial rule, but they were beginning to wake to the old freedoms. Hatred of Procer and Praes was keeping the peace for now, yet how long would that last?
“A decree’s a decree,” Marshal Juniper growled. “We start making excuses for everyone and this falls apart.”
“If you start hanging farmers for defending their land, excuses will be the last of your worries,” the thief coldly said. “They are not beast of burdens, to be browbeaten into the latest whim and whipped if they do not immediately obey.”
The orc’s maw opened, baring a row of sharp fangs. Vivienne forced her shoulders to loosen, affecting nonchalance. Perhaps even contempt. Show her fear, give her an inch, and it will be the end of you, she thought.
“You brought this to us,” Adjutant spoke before the other could. “And I’m glad you did. Have you already thought of a measure to remedy the issue?”
Always so smooth, so measured. Too perfect. It made her skin crawl. It was no mystery, why she could not make herself trust this one while she’d come to rely on a Praesi warlock and a vicious pupil of the Lady of the Lake. Masego cannot curb his tongue nor his face and Indrani has never been anything but brutally honest of her indifference to the suffering of others.
“The reason for their recalcitrance to leave is simple,” she said. “They will not abandon their possessions to looters but lack any method of bringing them west of they leave. If the means are provided, the matter will be largely settled.”
“Not much road in that region, save for the Imperial highway,” Marshal Juniper said, eyes narrowing. “You can’t just requisition merchant wagons from Summerholm, the axles will break in rough country.”
“The garrison of Summerholm has a large complement Legion-issue supply carts,” Vivienne said. “All reinforced with good steel.”
“No,” the Hellhound immediately said. “That’s out of the question. I will not allow military equipment to be doled out to farmers. Anyone could seize them.”
“I did not mean for them to be spelled away into the countryside miraculously,” she replied scathingly. “The garrison would be escorting the carts. The presence of soldiers will put an end to the skirmishes immediately, which should quicken the process enough the risks will be minimal.”
“You must have been struck on the ear in Keter,” Marshal Juniper growled. “I just gave you your answer. If I’m unwilling to risk carts why would you think I’m willing to risk the force holding the east?”
“It does not hold the east,” Vivienne said through gritted teeth, “it watches from tall walls as the entire eastern stretch slowly goes up in blood and flames.”
“All it takes is for Aksum or a pack of lesser lordships to see the garrison coming and we could lose the entire garrison to an ambush,” the Hellhound said slowly, as if addressing an idiot. “They have mages, Dartwick. They have household troops and devils. The Empire’s interior has been left entirely untouched by the Ashuran raids, they’re fresh and at full strength. If the garrison force is gone, they can push forward to Summerholm and there’s fuck all we can do about it. Half my army is spread across training camps and the rest guarding the Vales. If the enemy move quick enough, we could actually lose Summerholm itself. Walls mean nothing without men on them. All of this, for a pack of bloody farmers who refused a direct order and are now facing the eminently predictable consequences of that refusal.”
“Not your army, Hellhound,” the thief said softly. “The Army of Callow. Sworn to protect its people, not just turn back invasions or war abroad.”
“I know the godsdamned name,” Marshal Juniper snarled. “The queen of the place put me in charge of it. You sure you want to have a pissing contest over that? I don’t think you’ll like the results.”
“Enough,” Adjutant said.
The voice rang with power. Not quite Speaking, Vivienne thought, yet not too far from it. She’d never mastered that trick herself, but she’d seen Catherine employ it. Felt the ripples shudder through everyone, the air heavy like just before a storm struck. The Black Queen rarely used the tool, but when she did the casual display of power was always terrifying. The way she could snatch the will of anyone in earshot as easy as snapping her fingers, bludgeoning them into obedience with weight and power. Adjutant did not have the talent, and for that Vivienne thanked whatever Gods were listening. It was already terrifying enough to remember he’d been able to fight her before even claiming his Name. Every single conversation they held was tinted by the knowledge that the orc was now in the fullness of his power, capable of tearing apart lords of the fae. He could rip out her throat with but a moment’s effort and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.
“This bickering helps no one,” Deadhand said. “Juniper, there is a difference between having a rough tongue and pouring scorn. One is your character. The other has no place in this room, or in conversation with people who outrank you.”
The Hellhound lips thinned.
“There was no-”
Adjutant barked out a sentence in Kharsum, too swift and heavily accented for her to understand most of it. The words for oil and fires stood out, and the Marshal of Callow closed her maw with a loud click of fangs. She no longer spoke. Vivienne’s eyes remained on the other orc, wondering if she should be expressing her warm gratitude for Deadhand deigning to step in. She found little of that in her heart. The Hellhound’s open hostility was nothing new, and this did absolutely nothing to mend it.
“Juniper isn’t wrong about the risks,” Adjutant finally said, voice calm again.
Another losing fight lost, Vivienne bitterly thought. They did not trust her or her judgement. The worst part of it was that she could see why they did not. What had she achieved with the Jacks that required a Name, that could not be done by another spymistress? How had she proved herself the equal of the infamous Black Queen or dauntless Archer, of an orc celebrated in song or a mage who spat in the eye of lesser gods? She’d been enemies with these two, not so long ago. And even then it’d been William who took the hand now made of bones, while she’d been tossed through a window like a sack of radishes by an offhand spell. I do not belong here, she thought, the warm memories of laughter by the fire seeming so far away. She did not belong at this table, arguing over the fate of her people and losing inch by inch. She’d joined Catherine for more than this, hadn’t she? For something beyond Imperial rule, and there was no mistaking what this was. It might be orcs speaking, but the words were the harsh teaching of the War College – the Carrion Lord’s own.
Vivienne had not turned her cloak to keep living under the laws of the Black Knight. She tried, even now, to keep her eyes ahead. On the Liesse Accords, that single piece dream that could not be called anything but a good for the world. The lone and lonely light in this ugly sea of grey. Yet the Accord were far on the horizon, and the tide was drowning her now.
“We’ll need to amend the operational plan,” Adjutant said. “Leave some of the garrison behind and keep what we send out in a tight cluster with the Wild Hunt ready to gate them out if the Empire mobilizes.”
Vivienne’s heart skipped a beat. It was what she’d wanted to hear. What was his angle, here? What did he gain by this? What does he gain by the Liesse Accords, the old whisper came, that he would champion them so ardently?
“The Hunt is the key to our defence, Hakram,” Marshal Juniper said. “If the League or Procer strikes-”
“If,” Deadhand repeated. “A possibility. Is it a fact that we’re losing people now, Juniper.”
“I don’t like it,” the Hellhound said. “It leaves us fragile.”
“You don’t have to like it,” Adjutant said. “It’s an order. Now, Thief. I believe we have a map of the region somewhere around here for proper planning, but I’d like your thoughts on how we should go about the evacuation. I’m leaning towards a circular sweep, but you’ve people on the ground and I don’t.”
Vivienne Dartwick leaned forward and spoke, the council stretching for over an hour before the bare bones of a plan had been laid down and a recess was called until they’d all looked into the proper records and logistics.
The patient watchfulness in the orc’s eyes never left for a moment, and she never ceased to look for it.