“The key to popular reign is to blame the previous ruler for your every blunder and claim ownership of their every success, while avoiding the opposite. As a sign of my abiding love for you, my son, I have simplified this process by leaving you to inherit only a large amount of blunders.”
– Extract from the infamous ‘Sensible Testament’ of Basilea Chrysanthe of Nicae
We ran into the scouting party about half a bell before noon. Fifteen drow all wrapped up in furs, covering the grounds with admirable speed even though in the light of day they must feel half-blind. We saw them before they saw us, as this was a long way from the Everdark and it was a hard business keeping out of Archer’s sight while on open field. I urged Zombie to pull ahead, leaving my Peerage and companions to catch up. I did not call on Night to sharpen my gaze, disinclined to begin exhausting my body when there might very well be trouble ahead. General Rumena was a veteran, though the host it commanded now had little to do with the once-professional armies of the Empire Ever Dark. More importantly, I’d sat on its councils when it tossed duties and responsibilities at sigils like one would toss a bone to a hungry dog. Aside from the weary contempt for the Mighty under its command it did not hide quite well enough, I’d taken note of how it usually disposed its scouts and lookouts.
We weren’t close enough to have run into spotters keeping an eye on the back of the southern expedition, and these weren’t spread out enough to hold that duty besides. They weren’t numerous enough for a full-on scouting party, though, and that was what had me riding hard. Fifteen was plenty enough to have good odds the band wouldn’t miss anything moving, and few enough they’d be able to travel fast. No a scouting party, no. But if I had to canvass a fairly broad region for a small group, I’d send one or two dozen of those groups in staggered order to get the job done. General Rumena, it seemed, was looking for us. Hailing the drow confirmed as much. They’d been sent by the Tomb-Maker with the suggestion that my group hurry, since events to our south were unfolding at an even quicker pace than I’d wagered they would. An attempt to infiltrate the camp had been made last night, and prisoners taken.
I bid the scouts – dzulu one and all, by the looks of them, from the Brezlej Sigil – to spread out and recall the other bands, waiting just long enough for the rest of my escort to catch up. Akua and Indrani were the only ones in my company both curious and willing to ask answers of me. I indulged them willingly enough.
“The hornets are already out of the nest,” I told. “Someone tried Rumena’s camp. I’ll be riding full tilt, I need eyes on this as soon as possible.”
“We could gate,” Diabolist suggested.
“I’m not lighting up a beacon of our location for everyone looking,” I said, shaking my head. “Archer, don’t spend your strength too much trying to keep up. If there’s trouble I’ll want you at the tip of the spear.”
She slowly nodded and my gaze moved to Akua.
“My orders for you haven’t changed,” I said. “It’ll have to wait until nightfall, but prepare the necessities.”
“It will remove the Mighty of use from the field for days,” Diabolist said. “It might be more sensible for me to serve on the field until the situation is less… delicate.”
She was useful in a scrap, true enough. I still turned her down without a moment’s hesitation.
“Make me a well,” I calmly said. “That is your priority, bar none. There’s no point in deploying you to wipe out a few companies if a week later we’re caught unprepared by heroes and lose a hundred times that number. If you’ve time on your hands, assemble a schedule for the Mighty who will contribute. Take measurements, give me options. If you’ve still hours to waste after that, consult with the Sisters. We’ll get only one shot at this, Diabolist: if we miss it’s going to cost us something fierce.”
She didn’t argue any further after that. I suspected she rather wanted to, though there was no trace of it on her face, but she knew well enough by now not to push when my heels were fully dug in. Not that she knew why they were dug. I’d shared a lot of my suspicions with my companions, during our journey to catch up to the army, but not all of them. There were some I’d rather keep to myself until I had more information to go on. I rode on after that, straight south as the Brezlej scouts had told me. I kept to a quicker pace than them, on my latest Zombie, though that should be no surprise. I kept to a quicker pace than even riders whose skill made a mockery of mine simply because my horse would never tire. I was willing to damage the corpse a bit, if it got me there faster. It was a little past Afternoon Bell when I found the southern expedition’s army. On the way I’d run into another band of scouts, which I sent out with the same duty as the Brezlej, and then three successive screens of lookouts. Rumena had tightened the watch now that we’d entered troubled waters, I noted with approval.
Andronike had flown away in silence long before I got anywhere near here, and I couldn’t feel either her or her sister in the labyrinth of tents. There was a pulse I could barely make out further south, though. It sang to me, cool and comforting like a good night’s sleep come autumn. I rode into the camp, noting this late most drow had wakened, and ran my gaze along Rumena’s layout. It was a lost cause to get the southern expedition of the Empire Ever Dark to behave anything like a proper legion, with a carefully laid out camp and raised palisades before sundown, but since I’d left my general had forced some form of structure onto the chaos. Sigils raised their tents together, by the looks of it, with the larger ones on the edge of the broad circle the entire lot of them formed and the smaller ones filling that outline. Two clear paths, one facing north and the other south, had been cleared out – though I noted while riding down the northern one that it was hardly straight. Wobbly was a generous assessment, but it was already better than the utter lack of arrangements the drow had kept to until now.
Mighty Brezlej met me in advance, introducing itself as the appointed islne-ravce. It meant ‘keeper under the glare of the sun’, more or less, if I’d understood the emphases correctly. I took that to mean commander of the watch when it was daylight. Broadly muscled, short and a little thick around the waist the Mighty was strikingly unusual for a drow but I had no time to spare on the matter. I was informed that General Rumena was currently at a forward position, preparing a detachment to take the nearby town of Lancevilliers if it proved necessary.
“I was told there was an attempt to enter the camp,” I said, staring down from atop my mount.
“That is so, Losara Queen,” Mighty Brezlej agreed. “Twelve enemies, nine of which still live. They have been separated and we identified the one we believe to be the leader.”
“You’ve interrogated them?” I asked.
“Though questions were asked, they have refused to answer them,” the drow said. “It was spoken under Night that they should not be touched.”
Brezlej murmured prayers under its breath after saying the last sentence, under my steady stare. Well, at least Rumena wasn’t getting up to the torture of prisoners of war while my back was turned. Still, ‘spoken under Night’. That meant one of the Sisters had meddled, which was unusual to say the least. Who’d be important enough for them to speak? Maybe some bold Proceran royal with spirit but little brains to match had decided to gild the family name by taking a look at the foreigners, I mused. Prince Amadis was a cunning enough intriguer, but the Principate’s royal bloodlines tended to be large and many-branched. If a tree bore enough apples, one of them was bound to be inbred enough to try sneaking up on drow at night. I ordered Mighty Brezlej to prepare a full report of the ways the situation had changed in my absence, and to send the Mighty Archer directly to me should she arrive. I would, meanwhile, be having a chat with the officer among our catches of the night.
Drow, sadly, were not used to taking prisoners – it was simply not the way they were used to waging warfare. Night was best harvested from corpses, and when it wasn’t the insult was meant to be dealt to a living foe sent back into the wilds as a sign of contempt. That meant they had little experience holding captives, or raising structures to keep them. So far tents had been the makeshift solution, with the isolated prisoners tightly bound inside, but that wouldn’t work forever. It was all well and good when we only had a few, but if a few companies laid down their arms we just wouldn’t have enough spare tents to keep them. Four Soln dzulu were keeping guard at the corners of the tent where the officer awaited, looking bleary-eyed but attentive, and I met their deep bows with a nod before parting the flap and going in. I froze in surprise. Hanging down from the wooden frame holding up the dome-like tent of leather and linen, a small form was sleeping. I recognized regulation-issue undershirt, the skinny frame it was on and even the cast of the face covered in part by a too-large blindfold. Robber, I almost said, but then stopped. The leather and rope bindings were too loose to really keep someone from a race as flexible as his in place. And given goblin hearing, my entrance should have wakened him. So why was he still pretending to be asleep? A torturer wouldn’t-
I rubbed the bridge of my nose and forced down a sigh. It was a good thing I hadn’t walked further into the tent. Leaning against my staff, I crouched down to take a better look. Robber did not stir, but I felt him tense. Took me a bit, but I found what I was looking for. A thin, dull metal wire covered by snow leading up to a hook cleverly set into a sharper, barely peeking out from a pile of furs. No doubt the other end of the wire, which I couldn’t see, was anchored solidly and the wire itself tensed for a hair-trigger. One step on it and the sharper would blow, then he’d pop out of the bindings while the enemy was stunned. Knife to the throat, and off he went to try his hand at a getaway. Drow clearly needed better schooling in looking for hidden armaments, I decided, if they’d missed both a knife and a sharper trap while stripping him. I pushed myself back to my feet, then carefully picked my angle and positioned my staff. With a quick hand I lobbed the sharper through an opening in the tent flap, calling out scatter in Crepuscular, and turned even as it blew in the muddy snow outside. I was a little impressed he tried to knife me without even taking off the blindfold or fully slipping the bindings, I’d admit. My Special Tribune had been keeping sharp. Not sharp enough I didn’t catch the wrist under the hand holding a slender blade, though.
“The wire’s new,” I mused. “Won’t shine under light like the old stuff would, and something must have been done to make it more sensitive. Pickler’s been busy, I see.”
I grinned even as Robber went stiff as a board. I took a moment to yell out at the guards not to come in.
“Boss?” he hissed out.
“I’m not seeing a salute, Special Tribune,” I mildly said. “Do you really want to find out what’s below Lesser Lesser Footrest?”
The knife immediately went over his heart, which was the closest to an actual salute he’d given me in years, and deft green fingers hiked up his blindfold.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Special Tribune Robber said, large yellow eyes blinking. “It really is you. Wait, you could be an impostor. Tell me something only Catherine Foundling would know: what is my official salary as Lesser Footrest?”
“That I don’t let Indrani put ribbons in your hair, you adorable little princess,” I drawled.
“I don’t even have hair,” he complained. “And you know she’d glue on really coarse stuff just to spite me.”
For all that he was leaning into the exchange, I did not miss the way his eyes flicked towards my bad leg and then towards my chest. Since I was pretty sure he wasn’t looking at my tits – not that there’d been much to look at – that meant he was checking if I breathed.
“Leg’s back,” I agreeably told him. “So’s the more-than-decorative breathing.”
“There’s actual colour to your cheeks, Boss,” Robber bluntly said. “Like being out in the cold did something.”
“That’s a long story,” I said.
“Did you murder another demigod?” he mused. “Does doing that twice, like, cancel it out?”
“Oh, stop hanging like a bloody gargoyle and put that knife away,” I sighed.
My eyes narrowed as I remembered Mighty Brezlej’s full summary of how he’d ended up here, though. I waited until he’d deftly landed in the snow and taken off the blindfold before pressing the subject.
“You tried to infiltrate the camp with just a tenth,” I stated.
His mouth parted to reveal a short flash of hungry, needle-like teeth.
“That what the greyskins told you?” he said. “We only tried the outer perimeter, not the camp. Then it was all sorcery everywhere, and Sergeant Slicker’s flesh melted off his bones. Another two of my crew reached for blades and they had holes in the head before they could draw.”
“Gods, Robber, what took you to even try?” I said. “Hakram and Vivienne knew where I was headed – it should have been envoys sent, not scouts.”
“We didn’t even know it was the drow,” Robber admitted. “Just an army and not a small one. And there’s been, uh, instructions from up top even if we run into the greys.”
“Instructions,” I repeated blandly.
“We couldn’t know if you were still alive, Boss,” he said. “And if you were, that it’d be you in charge. And even if you looked in charge, that it was really you.”
He paused, then squinted at me.
“You are in charge, yeah?” he asked.
“Some,” I said. “It’s an alliance with limits to it. But I’ve got the ear of the people running the show, you might say.”
“Thank the fucking Gods,” Robber muttered. “That you’re back more than for the greys, I mean. This campaign is turning into a bastard mess, Boss. It’ll be good to have your hand holding the reins again.”
“Then you’ll have answers,” I flatly said. “About what Juniper’s doing campaignin here in the first place. I distinctly remember leaving my army on the other side of the Whitecaps.”
His lips quirked, sharp and mean.
“Well, Lady-Regent Dartwick got invited by our good friend the Prince of Iserre to ‘clear out bandits and foreign agents from his lands’, y’see,” Robber told me.
My brow rose. I honestly couldn’t imagine Vivienne willing to risk the Army of Callow at the say so of a Proceran prince, which likely meant Prince Amadis’ arm had been twisted until he gave said invitation. Might not be Thief’s notion at all, I decided. Hakram? What would he think we could gain from intervening here?
“What are we using Amadis as a pretence for?” I bluntly asked.
“Taking out the Carrion’s Lord legions from here with a semblance of clean, the way I hear it,” my Special Tribune said. “They were on the edge of a wipe, and no one wanted that. Plan was to prop him Amadis as a banner to force Procer to give us room, pop in, pick up Ol’ One-Eye and his people then then pop out.”
“By fairy gate,” I slowly said.
Which meant either Masego was back, with a titled fae bound, or the Wild Hunt had not been freed of its oaths when Winter ended up in the Night’s belly. That was a relief, to be frank. I was bound by oath to Larat aside from the Hunt’s own terms – seven crowns and one, still to be delivered – but I’d not been sure that would be enough. The sooner I could have a good look at the fae the better.
“Yeah, the Hunt’s been all darling since you sent them back,” Robber said. “Which is suspicious as all Hells, if you ask me, but apparently putting that to verse and having a choir sing it to Marshal Juniper is ‘reprehensible’ and ‘a flagrant breach of regulations’. I mean, it was only the middle of the night.”
I smothered the smile, though not quite quickly enough for him to miss it. The humour waned, though, when I remembered what we were speaking about.
“But you’re still here,” I said, stating the obvious. “What happened?”
“We gated in just fine,” the goblin said. “Ran into a League force two days in, but after they missed taking the Hellhound’s head they mostly kept their distance. Made contact with Marshal Grem when the scrying block shut down for a bit-”
“The scrying block,” I said. “Wait, more important – you can still scry sometimes?”
“It’s like rolling dice,” Robber said. “Kilian says the block is something massive already using the sky, but once in a while it looks elsewhere – then there’s a short window where we can use the old rituals. And I do mean the old ones, Boss. Dunno if you noticed, but the Observatory went the way of an orc with the key to a liquor shop. No one can get it do to anything, and when we left Callow the pools were starting to evaporate.”
I clenched my fingers. Shit. Someone had definitely targeted us, then. If it were just Iserre being screwed with I could put that to a ritual or miracle we ended stumbling into, but the Observatory wouldn’t get in that bad a way if someone hadn’t aimed for it. And just like that, Kairos was back in the running for the prick most likely to be responsible. It seemed very much like his kind of play – he might have planned the ritual in Iserre first, then gone after the Observatory because it’d allow my forces to bypass it. If there was anyone who wanted everyone in this principality blind, right now, it was the Tyrant of Helike.
“Marshal Grem,” I said, setting that trail of thought aside for now. “He’s also still in Iserre?”
“We tried to pull him out,” the goblin told me. “The Levantines were starting to catch up when we arrived, too close to risk it, so the Hellhound had us gate in between their armies to force them to retreat. And it worked fine – the Legions gained a few days of lead while the Dominion got really angry at us being there. But then we tried to gate out, and on the other side was a godsdamned sea of boiling pitch.”
My fingers tightened around my staff.
“That doesn’t sound like Arcadia,” I said.
“Best we can tell, it was one of the Hells,” Robber snorted. “No one went in to check, you know, on account of the sea of boiling pitch.”
“And it’s all been leading there since?” I asked.
“Worse,” the goblin said. “It changes. Mostly Hells, so far, but once in a blue moon we get Arcadia again – not that we can travel it, since no one’s sure we’d be able to leave after entering. Hakram ordered an end to the attempts after we almost let out a horde of devils into the camp.”
“What has Masego said?” I frowned.
“Shit,” Robber said, eyeing me warily. “You haven’t heard.”
My stomach dropped.
“Tell me,” I ordered.
“The Lord Warlock blew up Thalassina sky high trying to hold it against Ashur, himself included,” the goblin told me. “Place is a graveyard, even those that fled got some sort of magic sickness and cacked it.”
“Masego?” I softly asked.
“Word from Praes is the warlock’s get made it out,” Robber said.
I let out a shaky breath. Thank whatever Gods were listening for that.
“Empress had people looking for him, anyway,” he continued. “No one knows where he is though. I know Deadhand and the general staff kept something about him under seal just before we gated for Procer, but I haven’t managed to ferret it out yet.”
“We’ll find him,” I grimly said.
His fathers were dead and he’d likely fled through the Wasteland alone with Malicia’s agents hounding him every step of the way. He must be a wreck of grief and exhaustion, I thought. I didn’t like this talk of magic sickness at all, either, considering he must not have been far from Thalassina when this all happened. I reluctantly forced myself to focus on more immediate concerns. There was little I could do for him right now, much as I hated to admit it.
“Juniper’s stuck between the Levantine armies, then,” I said. “Is she close? For that matter, is Marshal Grem backing her?”
Robber’s wide eyes thinned with sudden alarm.
“I never reported back,” he said. “Boss, we have a problem. If Nauk still thinks your greys are a Proceran army, then he won’t leave his dug-in positions. Which means you’re about to lose a quarter of the Army of Callow.”
Well, I darkly thought, it had been that kind of a week so far. Why stop now?