“He who trusts no one finds only enemies.”
– Callowan saying
Back when he’d been an unblooded boy in the middle of nowhere, Hakram had occasionally indulged in a game of his own devising. Tower-raising, he’d called it. It’d been a simple thing, at first, more an exercise in fantasy than anything deep. Three piles of ten coloured stones, each led by a lord or a lady, and to win one of them must accumulate twenty stones and so raise their tower. For a stone to be taken from a pile, two other lords must agree on the theft and who received the stone. Hakram had amused himself with elaborate intrigues, a web of vivid alliances and betrayals explaining every acquisition. He’d only ever played alone, in the Steppes, and never once finished a game: no rational alliance could ever last long enough for a winner to emerge, after all. His mother had mistaken his hours staring at rocks as an interest in things spiritual, and so urged him to seek apprenticeship under the shaman of the Howling Wolves clan. He lacked the gift of sorcery, true, but it was rare among orcs and not all rites and rituals required the touch. Most shamans could not actually light a torch without flint and tinder, no matter what was pretended in front of outsiders.
He’d had no reason to refuse her, and the half-hearted attempt had taught him some interesting tricks and stories before he was gently sent back to train with the other warrior younglings. Hakram had not forgot the game, though, and after he was sent to the War College he spared the odd hour for refining it now and then. Rules had been added. Ways to gift a stone as a bribe to break an alliance or make one, promises that could not be broken and even a way to destroy one’s own stones to apply pressure. And still, not a game finished. Not even to one’s loss, after losing became a technical possibility. Perhaps it was because he was the only player, he’d thought, and so roped a few humans gullible or ignorant enough to believe it was an old orc game into playing with him. He’d lost coin keeping the drinks coming without any success to show for it. Hakram had first met Robber, he still recalled fondly, when the goblin had found him playing while on watch in a war game and called him a fool before baldly stealing an entire pile.
“It’s not clever as you think it is,” the other cadet had said. “There’s no kingdom without borders, my splendidly ugly and dim-witted friend. Why are they alone building their tower?”
And so, over the months that followed, they’d tinkered with the game together. It had become an experiment for the two of them, one of the few thing that could truly keep his interest throughout the dreariness of the War College. First they’d added another pile of ten stones and called it Callow, from which any of the lords and ladies could take a stone. It’d not ended the stalemate, for as soon as one player pulled ahead the other two allied to steal away what he’d stolen. There’s a fitting metaphor for this glorious empire of ours, Robber had mused after a particularly well-watered evening. No crab will ever let another leave the bucket before it does. Perhaps the issue was that Callow could be taken from with no consequence, Hakram had decided. And so he’d added one more rule: if no tower was raised in thirty turns, the wrathful Callowans would come and hang all three lords. It’d been a naïve thought, in retrospective, and Robber had been right to mock it. Neither of them ever came across a player who would rather another win than all three lose. It’d been Ratface who’d solved the riddle and given the game its final form.
“Your problem,” the Taghreb had opined, “is that you two are too honest. Everything’s out in the open, the rules are identical for everyone. It’s a shit game for the same reason any halfway decent military strategist will laugh if you tell them shatranj is a good metaphor for war.”
Robber had been mortally wounded by the assertion of honesty, and promptly demanded a duel to avenge the impugnable dishonour of goblinkind. Ratface’s immediate denial had been met by threats he would be first up against the wall when the Great Goblin Conspiracy took action, but even as those two bickered Hakram had amended the rules one last time. Three lords, with uneven piles. One with ten stones, one with eight, one with six. Their stones would remain hidden until they won or lost, and so cold mathematics were diluted with skill at the oldest of Praesi arts: the lie. Even then, most games ended in threefold loss and bitter recriminations. But now and then, oh so rarely, someone managed to raise their tower. Hakram had come into the habit of playing a game at least once a month, afterwards, fascinated by the little details that meant difference between victory and defeat. No one had ever won twice in a row, for example, for one victory meant the specter of suspicion would remain on the victor for a long while.
Aisha, back when she’d still shared a bed with Ratface and so often spent evenings drinking with Rat Company, was the only person he’d ever seen win beginning with six stones. She’d bided her time and kept the game going until everyone was too drunk to remember properly, then bargained her count up until she could steal a victory from the Callow stones. Hakram still thought of those evenings in Ater sometimes, of the reek of smoke and cheap drinks in that winesink they’d whiled away so many hours in. Now Ratface was dead, his grave bought and paid for by the same Empress they’d once served, and he’d spoken to neither Robber nor Aisha in the better part of a year. The game remained, though the last he had played it was years ago. In one of those little ironies of life, it had been the day before he met Catherine. He’d lost along with a roaring-drunk Nauk and an indifferent Pickler.
Callow had taken them all.
He’d put the rules to ink, not long before the Woe left for Keter, and the scroll had been left to wait somewhere in the methodical chaos that was his office ever since. Hakram had mused of writing memoirs, once in a while, as he knew Juniper and Aisha were doing. Juniper’s were more commentary and chronicle of these Uncivil Wars, as the campaigns from the Liesse Rebellion onwards were beginning to be called by scholars, but then she’d always disdained everything but the military side of matters. There were days Adjutant thought he owed to all that came after him to pen a history of what was taking shape here that was true to the beliefs of the few making the decisions. On others he thought, rather ruefully, that such a work would be the very same kind of manuscript his duties would require him to order burned as a threat to the kingdom’s peace. And so instead he found himself, now that he’d been able to wrestle an hour away from his work, penning a short monograph on the subject of tower-raising that was about both much more and much less.
The foundation of the game, he’d written, is the manipulation of incomplete knowledge. It is possible to win with only loose grip of the arithmetic, so long as one’s understanding of their opponents runs contrastingly deep.
He’d come to see much through that lens in the last few years. It was not, he thought, an unfair way to sum up the way the fractious nations of Calernia were behaving. The rising towers differed in nature and appearance, the stones were made of a hundred different abstract details, but the underlying exchanges obeyed the same overarching rule: for someone to measurably benefit, someone else must lose. Cordelia Hasenbach had birthed the Tenth Crusade by promising benefits to all its participants, leaving unspoken that those benefits would have to be taken from Callow and Praes. Having failed to achieve that plunder, her Grand Alliance was now clawing at itself over their own stones. The Empire remained overlord of Callow only so long as it provided protection by other marauding powers who would take from it. Yet prominent elements of Praes had acted in a hostile manner at Second Liesse, with the tacit allowance of the Empress, and so Callow had pressed for independence. He still believed Malicia had made a reasonable decision in some ways, for if she had succeeded in securing the Diabolist’s doomsday weapon she would have made herself too costly a target to plunder.
From that position, all that would have been required of her was to wait for the lack of benefits to break apart the Grand Alliance.
And yet she’d failed, for she had not accounted for the fact that a game was a game and people were people. One could be philosophically correct while being wrong in practice, as she had been when she’d estimated neither the Black Knight nor Catherine would turn on her after the Doom of Liesse. He and Catherine had fallen for the same mistake, Hakram thought, when they’d predicted that military defeats within certain bounds would both force and allow the First Prince to come to the negotiating table. We did not account for the heroes, he thought. We did not account for the priests and the Heavens and the hand behind the hands. And so the desperate alliances that were the heart of tower-raising had followed, reaching out for the bargain offered by Keter for counterbalance against Proceran intransigence. Which had failed, for the Empress had much less to lose and so could afford to offer better terms. And so Catherine left for the Everdark, intent on making miracle out of misfortune. She might succeed. She was, after all, never more dangerous than when no one believed she could possibly triumph. Or she might not.
If that were the case, what he and Vivienne Dartwick were building in Callow would be the sum total of their assets. He was forced to act with incomplete knowledge, and that ignorance dictated harsh terms: if this was all there was, defeat here of any kind was unacceptable. When Catherine returned, this machine must be well-oiled with every cog in a pristine state. Hakram set aside his quill, suddenly having lost taste for further writing. He blew dry the ink on the mostly-empty parchment and rolled it up before sliding it into a sheath. It would keep. There were matters that might not, Thief most immediate among them. The orc draped cloths over the bottled sprites that cast the light in his office, knowing it would lull them to sleep and so offer brighter glow when he returned. Not common knowledge, that. It was a secret Masego had nonchalantly shared, forgetting as he always did that there were perhaps ten individuals more learned than him on all of Calernia and that hundreds would cheerfully commit murder just to have a look at his most casual set of notes.
There was a guard waiting outside the door, one of his own. Sergeant Audun, who was broad and covered with tattoos like all adults of the Frost Tread clan. He had the almost-black skin common in the furthest reaches of the Lesser Steppes, where the isolation had prevented the old bloodlines and customs from thinning.
“Sergeant,” Hakram greeted him in Kharsum. “Where is she?”
“Sir,” Audun acknowledged, keeping his lips tight over his fangs in deference. “Last report had her headed for the Docks. As per orders, we did not tail her out of the palace.”
Adjutant nodded and clapped his shoulder before heading out. Tordis kept suggesting that they send a few goblins out to shadow Thief whenever she went into the city, officially to make her easier to reach in case there was sudden council to be had. There was no point to even trying, in Hakram’s eyes: in a city, Thief was impossible to find unless she wanted to be found. Assigning her a shadow she would inevitably catch on to would only be tossing another ingredient in what was already turning out to be a dangerous brew. The orc knew the tavern that was her favourite haunt, deep in Guild of Thieves territory, and even if she was not already there she’d hear of his coming long before he got there. Long enough that she’d show up to meet with him, if she was so inclined, though of that there was no guarantee. With Catherine away the pretence of amity had given its death rattle. He would still go. At worse, he’d have a pint of terrible beer and leave one of her Jacks a message before returning to the palace. Not the way he would have preferred to spend what promised to be his only resftul hour for the next few days, but preferences were always the first thing headed for the altar when the going got hard.
He declined an escort when heading out. Malicia’s assassins had already emptied their quiver, and there would be few who could truly be a threat to him even if she had not. He almost wished they would try him, in truth. Laure was swimming with Jacks, and further hacking away at the Empire’s roster of hired killers would be a long-term boon. He drew gazes when passing through the Whitestone, as much from legionaries as from the locals. Anyone able to afford one of the district’s mansions would know him by name and description, if not necessarily by sight. Further into the city, though, the nature of the gazes changed. Hakram was not known well enough that Callowans would tell him apart from other orcs by sight, not with gloves covering his hands and his burnt plate still in the palace. Unlike Catherine and Indrani, whose Names were an invisible bonfire drawing the eye wherever they stood, his own was a muted thing. Noticeable enough, when it left the sheath, but it had not. The reception he got was, to his perpetual surprise, rather cordial. Now that the last legions in the kingdom had been folded into the Army of Callow, even greenskins who had never served in the Fifteenth found the locals had thawed to their presence.
The same could not be said for Soninke and Taghreb. The freshly-promoted Legate Abigail had passed down the order that all Wasteland legionaries on leave must carry clear indicating mark of their service in the Army of Callow, which had prevented angry killings in the streets after Malicia massacred a third of the royal court, but a handful of altercations had forced her to go even further and order such legionaries to move only in tenths and avoid certain parts of the capital entirely. Enterprising Callowan merchants had made a killing by setting up stalls of drinks and food near the army’s camps, allowing the soldiers a taste of the luxuries without risking their neck. The orc’s lips split in amusement, baring the slightest hint of fangs. It was a rare thing for his kind to be more popular in these parts than humans, even humans from the Wasteland. He passed by a cart near the edge of Mathilda’s District – known as the Usurper’s Quarter to the locals – and found his steps slowing when he caught scent of the grilled rabbit skewers on it.
It was a ramshackle thing, not even painted as such Callowan carts usually were, and he absent-mindedly noted it was unlikely its owner had paid the proper dues to whatever guild held the rights to sales on these streets. The dark-haired man running it had done well regardless, he thought, for two thirds of the cart were empty and the grease stains left behind made it clear it’d not begun the day that way. Hakram made his way to the skewers and reached for the handful of coins he carried, mostly coppers. The dark-haired man smiled.
“Afternoon. You Legion?” he asked, his Liessen accent thick.
Refugee, most likely, the orc decided. Good to see some of them were making their way without needing to rely on the grain handouts.
“Fifteenth,” Hakram agreed. “Since the raising. How much for one?”
The man hesitated, and there was movement behind the cart. The orc’s head cocked to the side as a little boy no older than nine popped out, fair-haired and not resembling the other human in the slightest.
“Hi,” the little creature grinned.
Meat, the lizard voice in the back of his head said. Soft, small, bones easy to crack and get at the marrow. He ignored it, as all orcs who left the Steppes were taught to. He’d learned well enough there was only silence around his comrades, but it was always harder with strangers. His people had been given rules by the Black Knight and then his successor, and they were good rules. The kind that ran against instinct but helped you grow further. You can eat foes, you can eat the dead, but you must not touch any other. Still, he knew the impulse would never entirely go away. The rules were taught, but the impulse came with the blood. Orcs had to learn discipline, he thought, make it as much a part of them as the blood. Or they would forever remain beasts of the steppes, good only for death dealt and received.
“Hello,” Hakram replied gently, keeping his fangs behind his lips.
“Albert, get back behind the cart,” the man sighed.
“But it’s boring,” the boy whined.
He was unceremoniously dragged back by his collar and the cart-owner offered the orc an apologetic glance. He picked out a skewer and handed it.
“On the house,” he said. “They’ve been out for a while anyway.”
Hakram inclined his head in thanks.
“Much appreciated,” he said, thick gloved fingers closing around the wooden stick holding the bits of meat together.
“My husband went to enroll last month,” the Liessen admitted. “Ended up sent to the training camp near Ankou.”
“General Hune’s,” the orc said. “He’ll do well there, especially if he can read and write. There’s a pressing need for officers.”
“We could use the pay,” the man ruefully said. “The only decent rents in this city are Dockside, and even with the Guild of Thieves keeping order that’s no place to raise a child.”
“You seem to be doing well enough,” Hakram said, eyes lingering on the cart before withdrawing.
He popped a bit of savoury meat into his mouth, swallowing it without chewing. Ah, nothing but salt and rabbit. He did enjoy Callowan cooking. Unlike the Praesi they didn’t drown every dish with spices, you could still taste the meat.
“No telling how long that’ll last,” the Liessen replied. “Word is Legate Abigail, bless her soul, told the guilds to take it easy on the streets for a while. The guards don’t enforce permits as heavily as they used to. But now the Lord Adjutant’s back in the capital, so it’ll be out of her hands. No one’s sure when the hammer will come down.”
“I’ve noticed she’s popular in these parts,” Hakram said, mildly amused at receiving a confession concerning himself.
“She got Laure through the troubles after the Night of Knives,” the merchant said. “And without swords coming out or riots wrecking half the city. Mind you, I’m not cussing out the army. They do good work, and I saw in the camps down south how bad it might get if they didn’t keep the peace. But there’s something reassuring about having one of ours in charge, you know?”
“Lady Thief holds the regency in the queen’s absence,” the orc pointed out.
The man rolled his eyes.
“You don’t spend much time in taverns, do you?” he said. “The old crown it got split in two, one part green and the other one too. It’s not a mystery who runs the kingdom with the Black Queen gone abroad to scare the shit out of Procer.”
It was not to Hakram. Giving Vivienne the regency had been, from the beginning and Catherine’s open admission, been a way to avoid the perception greenskins now ruled Callow. Thief did not want the duties, and Adjutant honestly did not believe she would fare well bearing their burden. That the man in the street knew it as well, however, was not a pleasant surprise. We keep underestimating these people, he thought. Malicia and Hasenbach have, to their ugly surprise, but we do as well and we should know better.
“She’ll be back,” the orc said, still too taken aback to muster better response.
“Aye, she will,” the Liessen said. “And maybe she’ll drop a lake on the western borders, this time. Let them try to invade across that.”
“We can only hope,” Hakram drily said.
“Ah, but I shouldn’t blabber,” the man said. “Don’t let me keep you. It tastes best while still warm.”
“Thanks again,” Adjutant said, inclining his head.
He stepped back onto the street, already mentally adding another entry to his never-ending tally. There might be others like this one, who’d trade on the streets instead of eating on the crown’s dime if they could. Getting the guilds to waive their dues even as a temporary measure would be like ripping out teeth, and sure to unsettle a city still uneasy, but there were ways around it. The House of Light in Laure had full coffers, according to the Jacks, having entirely recovered from their scarce years under Imperial rule. If they could be talked into paying the dues for merchants as an act of strategic charity, the guilds might even lower their demanded cut out of deference for the priests. Yet another council would be required, he thought tiredly, and with people prone to the kind of squabbling that would make Thief and Juniper seem like beloved sisters. The boy popped out to wave him goodbye and Hakram waved back, waiting until he was out of sight to gobble half the skewer and lick his chops. His good mood did not last, for even as he chewed he was forced to admit the Thief situation was worse than he’d previously believed. If a wander down the streets had him hearing the rumour, how often would the spymistress of Callow have heard it?
Even a small wound could go bad, if salt kept being rubbed into it, and this one was not small. Pride always bit the hardest and Vivienne Dartwick had no lack of that. Sundown was beginning when Hakram finally reached the signless tavern that was Thief’s favourite sink, and he’d been feeling eyes on the back of his head for at least half an hour. The Jacks had picked him out and their mistress would have been informed of his coming arrival. She was waiting inside when he entered, tucked away in a little alcove with a tankard in hand and her feet propped up on a chair. As always, she forced herself to not look at his bone hand – even covered – so blatantly she might as well have been staring. The orc lumbered over slowly, making sure to keep the skeletal limb always in her field of sight and moving slowly. He’d noticed it got even worse, when he hid it away from her eyes.
“Adjutant,” Thief drawled. “Heard you were looking for me.”
He sat down, the wooden frame creaking under him, and nodded.
“I was. Let’s have a talk, you and I,” Hakram gravelled. “An honest one, for once.”
The flare of wariness she poorly hid was not auspicious beginning, but he had no choice. It could not be put off any longer. He needed to be sure they were raising the same tower, for decisions had to be made.
In the game, as in all things, it was always better to be the betrayer than the betrayed.