“For though these armed men may carry banner and obey a prince, without justice they are only bandits.”
– Extract from “The Faith of Crowns”, by Sister Salienta
It’d be the first battle in a few years where I wouldn’t have Juniper to run my army for me. I hadn’t quite realized how much I’d come to rely on the Hellhound even before the blades were out, when it was all words and maps and trying to figure out how not to get your people killed. Not that map were all that reliable down here. I had four different tracings from mosaics, each contradicting each other on pretty major points and one insisting rather boldly that this entire cavern was actually three dozen miles to the west and I was sadly mistaken about what my eyes were seeing. I’d settled on having a chalk outline of the former islands and lakebed drawn on a slab of polished granite, well aware it would be imprecise and actual distances would be a guessing game. It’d been strange, though, looking down at a battlefield and not having Juniper leaning over at my side. Frowning over the latest imperfection in the war engine we’d raised together, muttering under her breath about Ratface being a tight-fisted twerp. She never would again, I realized with a start.
Ratface was dead.
There would be a reckoning for that, one day, I thought. It seemed a small sin when compared to all the many injuries levied unto Callow by the Empress, some likely to become actual legend in years to come, but it counted to me. As Diabolist might say, a hatred belonging the woman instead of the queen. Won’t matter if I don’t make it through this, I reminded myself. It wouldn’t either, I knew, if I survived in failure. Only victors ever got to truly settle their grudges. The grim thought called me the order. Perhaps, I decided as I studied the chalk battlefield, it was for the best that my marshal did not hold command for this one. Juniper’s art of war was one of discipline and manoeuvre, of bold tactics and vicious traps. It was the bastard child of the way the Legions of Terrors had won their wars, and for all that the faces of my legionaries had grown paler over the years the heart of it remained forged out of the Reforms. A core of well-trained infantry empowered by specialists, professional soldiers costly to train and equip but who could usually beat significantly larger enemy armies.
Like much of what Black had wrought, for the three Imperial marshals might have been deep contributors but there was no denying the central architect, it prized skill over power. It was almost more a set of tools a brilliant mind could use to produce spectacular results than a proper army – it was fortunate that there’d been so many promising generals to be found when the Reforms first took place, and in retrospective the number of them that wasn’t human did much to explain the sudden gains of greenskins and ogres in what had once been a very human institution. At least near the top. Few of the old Black Knights had balked at sending orcs and goblins into the meat grinder to the west when campaigns got going. It was a good model, I thought, though to maintain it in the long term Callow would have to build a War College of its own. Talented officers did not grow on trees. It had its limits, though. Procer had made that clear when it’d tossed a sea of conscripts at the two passes defending Callow and effectively accepted every trade in soldier’s lives, knowing they could afford the most spendthrift or rates and still come out the victor. The Legions, and even the Army of Callow, were armies built for a certain kind of war.
They would be lost, down here, so it was for the best Juniper was not here to go mad over the coming mess.
I would have liked to claim I had something as neat and pretty as a three-step scheme, that I’d read the opposition and would make them dance to my tune, but the unfortunate truth was that I was an outsider down here. Even now that I’d stolen Akua’s fluency in Crepuscular and I could read most runes as well as speak the tongue, a lot of what was taking place was beyond me. I didn’t have the Jacks and the Eyes feeding me reports of about who despised who and why, I didn’t have histories or supply assessments or even more than bare bones scout reports about enemy strength and position. The traitor sigils we’d approached had provided information, sure, but how much of it could really be relied on? They had objectives of their own which didn’t necessarily entail my own army coming out on top, no matter what they said, and without an easy way to independently confirm what they’d told me I’d had to make some choices half blind. At first, I’d tried to get as many solid numbers as I could and work from there. I had a good idea of what the Rumena Sigil could bring to the table, for example, because a lot of people in Strycht hated them and wanted them dead.
But then I’d tried to get a solid notion of what the Jindrich could field – the Rumena were the most powerful sigil by far, but there was a reason the Jindrich Sigil was the undisputed runner-up – but all that accomplished was making clear the scope of the problem. Mighty Jindrich’s envoy, fresh off the pact we’d made behind the back of the rest of the city, had informed me they had around one hundred and fifty Mighty of varying ranks they could bring into the fight when time came. We’d bribed three lesser sigils going thirsty with blocks of ice for information on the same subject, since ice was a lot easier to transport and didn’t require a highly visible fairy gate to deliver, and we’d gotten three different numbers between one and four hundred. Now, at the scale of the kind of battles I’d fought on the surface, a variation of a few hundred wouldn’t mean much. But down here? It’d made no sense to me. All the sigils had small territories, were bound to keep a vigilant eye on each other and constant raids should give them a good idea of enemy strength.
Diabolist figured it out first, because we had gotten some very precise out of those bribes that was the same over all three reports. Small details, like the first rylleh under Jindrich being able to shapeshift and the four shapes it could use, or that the third and fourth under Rumena usually fought as a pair. It wasn’t that the drow were shit at spying, I knew they weren’t. There was a Secret that was pretty close to fae glamour, after all, which was why Ivah had taken so well to it in the first place. It was just that, in fights between sigils, usually the only people that actually mattered to the outcome were the ten, fifteen strongest Mighty. Raids succeeded or failed depending on who was leading the attack and the defence. Why would anyone bother keeping track of how many dzulu there were when a single rylleh could tear through an entire cohort without even working up a sweat? We could and had gotten mostly reliable information on those particular individuals, but getting irritated that no one could give me good troop assessments was rather missing the point.
I wouldn’t win or lose the Battle of Great Strycht through dzulu and lesser Mighty, so instead of getting lost in a maze of unreliable reports I needed to focus on the aspects that would actually make me come out on top. Namely, that most of those people were at each other’s throats if not actively trying to kill each other even as I planned. When you looked at it through that lens, the situation was a lot less grim. For one, my own army was larger than the Rumena Sigil’s and I’d bet on my Peerage over their Mighty any day. My lords had lost nothing of their old prowess and gained much from Winter. Considering the Rumena were the most powerful tribe in Strycht, that meant I could expect that if it came to a slugging match I could come out on top against any one sigil – barring an unexpectedly powerful Mighty fucking up my day, which was admittedly quite possible. The crux of this, then, would be preventing the sigils of Strycht from actually unifying against me. Which wasn’t nearly as hard as it should have been, given that I was an eldritch invader of dubious purposes and origins. Unfortunately, there was also the Longstride Cabal to account for.
Two hundred of the most dangerous Mighty in the Everdark apt to pop out at any moment to come straight for my head, and probably the Peerage’s too for good measure. They weren’t here for territory or wealth, all they wanted was the glory of crushing me. Which meant negotiating with them in any way was effectively impossible unless I could punctuate my offer with ‘or you will immediately die’, and even then it might be a toss-up. I’d picked the brains of my lords for a little more on the Longstrides, wondering if the angle of promising them a battle at a designated time and place could get them off my back long enough to deal with the Strycht sigils. I’d gotten some pretty heart laughs in response, as my Peerage assumed that I was actually joking. Cultural divide, I decided. The whole glory in battle thing was tied pretty heavily to honour, back home, but in the Everdark was the word was only ever used in the sense meaning ‘respect’. The whole rules of behaviour part of drow culture had been pretty much ripped out and replaced with the Tenets of Night when Sve Noc decided it was time for a regime change… however long ago that’d been.
Since sidelining the Longstride Sigil wasn’t an option, I had to either secure the city before they arrived or make them part of the plan somehow.
The clean play was taking care of Strycht first. Ivah and my Peerage had found me the right tools to get that particular pile of dry burning, which would weaken the opposition before we struck and allow us to take it with moderate casualties before they realized what was happening. Give or take a few angry sigil-holders. Then before the Longstrides arrived we’d consolidate, harvest Night and title the willing before the enemy struck. Most my Peerage had been proponents of that course of action, betting on a proper ambush laid in Strycht to take care of the problem. I had issues with that plan, though. I’d taken enough cities in my time to know that soldiers walking through the streets wasn’t enough to actually establish control. That held twice as much for a place like the Everdark, where the nisi might not make the kind of mess an occupying force would have to deal with in Callow but millennia of tribal rule ensured there would be significant resistance among the drow ‘upper class’. In essence, anyone with a speck of power not under oath not to stab me in the back would the moment it looked like there was a chance it might pay off.
Wouldn’t be much of an issue if I did put everyone with a speck of power under oath, but practically speaking that’d take days we didn’t have. Establishing order after a battle always took longer than the fighting itself, and the margin of manoeuvre was thin enough as it was. I could have put the finest minds at my disposal to work on solving that – well, mind, Archer tended to solve her problems only one way – but there was a larger problem behind. Aside from the shaky foundations we’d be making our stand on, when the Longstride Cabal showed up we’d be the only enemy on the field. The totality of their efforts would be dedicated to killing me and wiping out my Peerage, with everything else a minor distraction at best. Sure, I could try to drown them in fresh recruits. Send every dzulu and Mighty I had after them, in warbands led by the Peerage, but casualties would be brutal. And when they converged on me, because they absolutely would, the kind of workings I’d need to pull out to stay alive would probably level Strycht and the people living in it. Evacuating the city in advance was certainly possible, but it’d also be hanging up a sign warning them of the ambush.
So either massive civilian death toll or the cohort of hardened killers drunk on Night came in forewarned. One I refused out of principle, the other had decent odds of leading to a rout.
Which brought us to the other option. That one had been cooking in the back of my head since I’d first gotten Ivah’s reports. The sigils in Great Strycht were, well, at each other’s throats to put it mildly. Starting a city-wide fight in there would be about as hard as starting a fire with a jug of oil and a torch in hand. Once hostilities erupted, there would be no banners and uniforms: only a lot of scared and angry drow attacking everything looking remotely like a threat. That was the thing with civil wars, wasn’t it? It was hard to tell who the enemy was. Sure, infighting within actual sigils would probably be minimal while they were in the middle of a battle. But cabals would split and even nominal allies would have to wonder what was going on and if the other ones were in on it. A very volatile mixture that could be made much worse with a few nudges, personified by a cheerfully murderous Indrani. For once, her ability to pick fights with anything sight could actually come in useful! Deep down I’d always known there would be a payoff for that eventually. This part, in and of itself, wasn’t significantly different from what an attempt to seize Strycht would be like.
Which was where the… interesting part came in. The Longstride Cabal, as my Peerage had noted, were not exactly the diplomatic kind of crew. Oh, to have survived this long they probably must have some degree of moderation. Otherwise another band of old monsters would have put them down by now. But while Great Strycht was further into the inner ring than say, Lotow, it was far from the heartlands. I tended to compare it to Marchford, in my mind. An important city, given the lake if loomed over, but not a major player – like Laure, Liesse and Vale had once been in Callow. The Longstrides could come in here and expect to be the biggest kids on the block because, well, they actually would be. Now, combine that with the way drow usually behaved whenever they stood even an inch over another drow and throw in that their cabal hunted powerful entities for sport? The moment someone gave them lip they’d answer with blades, and from there it would escalate. Sigil-holders would know what they were dealing with and likely withdraw if given the chance, but to be able to do that they’d need to have a clear idea of what was going on and the presence of mind to make that decision.
Both were pretty rare things, when in the middle of an all-out battle that would determine whether you and your tribe survived the night.
Akua had called it fighting fire with fire, when I’d put forward the notion, but I disagreed. That implied a degree of control we wouldn’t have after the blades came out. It was more like… fighting a battle by starting another half-dozen battles. I didn’t have to win, not exactly. I just had to lose less than everyone else. Just enough that I got to take home the prize when the dust settled. We’d used our last few days to put the pieces in motion for what Diabolist scathingly named Operation Damage Control, all coming to a head on the day we believed the Longstride Cabal would arrive. Spending the last night with Indrani should have cleared my mind, but instead when the hour came I had a fresh worry to chew over. I still believed that the plan, if it could be called that, would serve its purposes. There would be setbacks, but I still had cards up my sleeves. I hadn’t wasted my days since Great Lotow, or forgot the hard lesson the duel with Mighty Urulan had taught me. If I fought the same way I had since claiming my mantle, I would lose. Badly. Preparations had been made accordingly. But that wasn’t the worry, was it? There was only one thing I knew this morning I hadn’t last night.
Sve Noc would act. Not down the line, not through intermediaries. She’d strike, today and straight at me. If this really was a death match for Below’s favour, then the chosen would have to bleed. And that changed the nature of this battle, didn’t? I did not feel like a coincidence, that’s she’d shown her hand only this late. When the wheels were already turning and it was too late to stop them.
“A good morning to you, dearest.”
I did not turn or reply. Behind me the camp was stirring for war, preparing to march. Below me plains of half-dried mud stretched out all the way to the distant plateaus and hills of Great Strycht. My fingers drummed against the hilt of my sword, the gesture failing to settle me. Diabolist was not offended by my lack of reply, simply coming to stand by my side.
“Did you enjoy yourself, at least?” Akua drawled.
I glanced at her, eyebrow rising. Did she… Well, I supposed it hadn’t been the most discreet of trysts. Drow senses were shaper than those of humans, even those that weren’t Mighty, and the shade’s were sharper still.
“Sve Noc paid a visit to my dreams,” I said.
I had no intention of discussing how I spent my nights with Akua Sahelian. She was not the Scribe to my Calamities, part of us in her own way. I would not forget how she had come into my service, no matter how useful. Or how tiring. That was the part that surprised me, how tiring it could be to hate Diabolist. The Doom of Liesse was reminder enough, but sometimes it felt like I was flogging myself with the memory of it.
As, no doubt, she intended.
“Her purpose?” she asked.
Whatever whimsy there’d been was gone. She understood perhaps even better than me the seriousness of that.
“Information,” I said. “About what I’d do with the drow, if I led them out of the Everdark. About how I’d deal with the Heavens if they meddled.”
Scarlet eyes tightened.
“That such an entity would consider surrender is highly unlikely,” she said, pausing to allow me to contradict her.
Both assessing and fishing for fresh information with the same sentence. Fucking Praesi, I thought half-admiringly.
“She was definitely hostile,” I said. “And tried to overcompensate when I caught her out. All doom and damnation. But she slipped up – there’s two of them, I’m almost certain. And they’re not necessarily aligned in their opinions.”
“Now that is rather interesting,” Akua said. “I had previously assumed that her lack of action was the result of either rules or indifference. Power akin to a god’s does tend to come with the limitations of one.”
I raised a skeptical eyebrow at her.
“I got a pat on the back and a badge from that order’s grandmaster and I’m not feeling all that constrained,” I noted.
“You’ve only ever used a fraction of your power,” Diabolist said, and raised her hand to prevent me from replying to that. “For good reason, I am aware. The alienation would endanger you. Yet that is why such entities have seats of power, Catherine. The Dead King rules the Serenity. The Priestess of Night rules the Everdark, or close enough. There is a reason my ancestors raised pyramids to gather power, darling one. The summit stands on the steps, and is greater for it.”
“I do rule a kingdom, Akua,” I reminded her. “You know, little place between Praes and Procer? There was a coronation a while back, in between the constant fucking wars.”
“Ah, but do you rule it as Sovereign of Moonless Nights?” she said. “Hardly. Even the Wild Hunt are merely in your service, not true vassals. You bound neither the Woe nor the realm to your mantle.”
“Making Arcadia but worse out of my home isn’t exactly in the works, yes,” I flatly replied.
“And so you have not grown roots,” Diabolist said. “An apotheosis incomplete, so to speak. Did you not wonder why the Grey Pilgrim and his ilk are so desperate to remove you from the throne?”
“I’m a villain ruling Callow,” I said. “I don’t believe we need to revisit the whole Calernian balance of power argument, Gods know I’m tired of hearing about it.”
“The Carrion Lord ruled it for decades,” Akua said. “And, to be frank, the legitimacy of your rule is only marginally better.”
I frowned. It was a pretty sparse forest she was describing to me, and as a rule I tended to think I understood heroes better than she did. But she was a villain, in a way I’d never really been. From a people who’d been fighting heroes for centuries. She might not always be right, she often wasn’t, but once in a while her perspective did allow her to see things I didn’t.
“Roots,” I said. “That’s what you’re implying. The Peregrine worries about me growing roots in Callow.”
“It is one thing to slay a villainous queen of Callow,” Diabolist said. “Quite another to seek the destruction of the immortal Black Queen, the wintry personification of centuries of her people’s grudges. The first is a threat. The second is another Dead King, one whose armies can march through the realm of the fae.”
“He knows,” I said, then hesitated. “Or at least suspects that I intend to abdicate.”
“And so you were handled with gloves,” Akua said. “Deals and stories, marching armies instead of a Choir unleashed. You ascribe this to the man being reasonable, but he is a hero. If that decision was made, it was made because he feared that cornering you would see you tumbling through the threshold of apotheosis complete.”
Or he could have been genuinely trying to limit the damages the country would suffer. If he had started calling on Choirs, I’d have needed to escalate accordingly. But when the pivot came, I thought, he backed Hasenbach. Backed the crusade victorious at all costs. He was willing to play within certain boundaries, but only so long as he’d win. The trouble with Akua was she would be convincing even if she was wrong, because she was a persuasive person period. I was unwilling to put any stock in it before I had Hakram and maybe Masego serving as advocated for the opposite thought.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “For now, the war is down here. And it’s Sve Noc we’re facing.”
“Part of her, at least,” Diabolist mused. “I wonder if the simplest answer is truly the correct one.”
“One is the pyramid,” Akua smiled. “The other standing atop it.”
A rider and a horse, I thought. I’d considered that as well.
“It would explain why we’re not fighting the Night,” I said. “Just something using it.”
“Strife, mother of a thousand opportunities,” she quoted in Mthethwa.
An old proverb I would have been able to name the home of even if she’d spoken it in Lower Miezan.
“I need you to do something for me,” I said.
She turned to face me completely. In Masego that would have been a notice I had his full attention, but with her I always had that. Even when she pretended otherwise.
“I had role given in the battle to come,” Akua said.
“I know,” I said. “But this is more important.”
“And what exactly do you need of me, dearest?” she asked.
There were a lot of ways I could have answered her. Some true, others euphemisms or a hundred different shades of flippant. It’d helped me over the years, the quips. Allowed me to make it a joke or a game, anything but a reality so often ugly. But if I was to let the monster off her leash, then she should be given her due.
“Folly,” I said.
Akua Sahelian smiled, and in that smile lay the promise of things great and terrible to behold.