“One hundred sixty nine: any companion volunteering to stay behind and hold off a superior enemy will be guaranteed success, twice over if having already taken a mortal wound.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown
It was like watching the sea split.
Even at the measured pace they’d been keeping fifty feet was too close for them to outright end the charge. There were seven thousand of them, and though they weren’t tightly packed those kinds of numbers had weight and momentum – that was what made cavalry charged so dangerous in the first place. No, stopping wasn’t in the cards, so instead the Proceran wheeled to the sides. It was beautiful display of horsemanship, the kind of skill I might have applauded were it not the work of soldiers still intent on killing mine. I kept a calm eye on the proceedings to see if any of the riders were crossing the line I’d traced in the snow, but whoever had called them back had pulled the leash in full: as if held back by an invisible wall, the stream of riders spread out on the sides but never crossed. I pulled at my pipe calmly, studying the enemy and running a mental tally of who might be in command. This lot should have been sent south by Hasenbach herself, but with her uncle and most her fellow Lycaonese up north fighting the Dead King she might not have had a competent loyalist to appoint at the head of the army.
Princess Rozala Malanza was a possible candidate, assuming the results of the Battle of the Camps hadn’t tarred her reputation as a general in the Principate, but she was one of Amadis Milenan’s supporters. If she held command, it meant that the situation up in Salia had gotten rather interesting. No, odds were it was one of the western princes or princesses that held the run of the host. I’d seen the banner for Lange flying, and that was possible, but more likely it’d been the rulers of Brus or Lyonis – both long-standing Hasenbach supporters – that held primacy. I’d find out soon enough, I supposed, because someone had given the order to hold back. I spat out a mouthful of grey smoke and adjusted my helm slightly so that the sun wouldn’t shine into my eyes. It was a nice day out, more cool than cold and nearly windless. The many plumes of smoke rising from the wrecked camp where Juniper’s trap had failed made the lack of breeze obvious, and I allowed myself a glance in that direction. The bitter fighting retreat of my forces had not ceased in the slightest: if anything, the Levantine foot was going after my soldiers even more aggressively than before.
The enemy ranks parted to let through a heavily-armed party of thirty, and though the faces of the royals coming to were still hidden to my eyes the three banners above them were not. The salamander of Aequitan was there, which meant Malanza herself was part of the delegation, but hers was the only heraldry I knew for certain of the three. The long-haired maiden clutching a bow and arrows I vaguely remembered to be from northern Procer, though which principality I couldn’t say. The green eagle perched on a crescent might be the arms of Cantal and therefore another old acquaintance – Prince Arnaud of Cantal had been at the Battle of the Camps – but I was pretty sure there was another principality that had a green hawk clutching a crescent moon for heraldry, and I did not trust myself to tell the difference. The Principate’s royal heraldries were a labyrinth at the best of times, and prone to changing along with the branches of the ruling families that held the seat. I got my answer before long, though, when the cavalry escort parted to allow three royals through. Would you look at that, it really is Prince Arnaud, I mused. This was getting rather nostalgic, wasn’t it?
Dark-haired and dark-eyed as Arlesites often were, Princess Rozala had little changed since we last met. Physically, anyway, I thought. There was no easy smile on her lips today, and the way she held herself even on the horse… Like there was nowhere that was entirely safe. I’d seen that before, in old soldiers. In Black too, who’d lived his entire life knowing he was one misstep away from death at heroic hands. You weren’t like at the peace talks after the Camps, Malanza, I thought. This was fresher, and I could think of only one war that’d leave so deep a mark so quickly. She’d fought up north, then. Prince Arnaud was still an unimpressive middle-aged specimen of Alamans royalty, though he appeared to have added a little muscle to his plump frame since we’d last met. Wouldn’t do to dismiss this one, I told myself. He’d stuck out to me as bearing watching during the truce talks, feigning emotions he did not feel very convincingly. The last of three was a woman I’d never seen before, fair-haired and blue-eyed. Older than Rozala but younger than Arnaud, with a soldier’s bearing and a narrow but handsome face. No great beauty, unlike Malanza whose curves and long curls would be well worth a second look in a different situation, but emanating a sort of robust health that was pleasing to the eye.
Rather interestingly, it was Princess Rozala that rode ahead of the other two. They reined in their horses a mere ten feet in front of me, riders bearing their banners behind them as the rest of their escort held tight on the sides.
“Black Queen,” the Princess of Aequitan said, tone grim. “It really is you.”
“In the flesh,” I replied. “It’s been some time, Malanza. I see you’ve still keeping Arnaud around, for some godsforsaken reason. Who’s the fresh face?”
The Prince of Cantal, who I’d so casually referred to, purpled with anger. I no longer had the senses of a fae to listen to his heartbeat, and calling on the Night might be taken as a hostile act, so I could only wonder if it was yet another piece of theatre on his part.
“Now see here, you filth Damned-” the prince snarled.
“Arnaud,” Princess Rozala said, tone sharp.
The man forced himself to calm, and I kept my face blank to hide my interest. Prince Amadis was still in the custody of Callow, last I heard. In his absence had someone else taken up the reins of his little cabal of crowned malcontents?
“I am Princess Sophie Louvroy of Lyonis,” the stranger blandly said. “You are, I believe, the self-proclaimed Queen of Callow.”
“Ah,” I hummed. “So, you’re the minder the First Prince set on ol’ Rozala. Should I be addressing you for the rest of this conversation, or is she actually allowed to speak for herself?”
“A petty and transparent scheme, as befits your reputation,” Princess Sophie coldly replied.
She twitched, though, like she’d wanted to glance at Princess Rozala but caught herself before she could. There were military types – and the Princess of Lyonis seemed too comfortable in armour not to be one of those – that were also subtle diplomats, but it looked like Sophie Louvroy wasn’t one of them. Good to know.
“You’ve refrained from attacking us, Foundling,” Princess Rozala said. “The courtesy has been returned. Evidently you want to talk, so talk. I’ve no time to waste on insults and posturing.”
I studied her for a moment, the tanned face visible through the raised visor of her elaborate helm. The fresh pink scar on her cheek, too rough to have been caused by a blade. Her armour was freshly polished, I saw, but it had blemishes now it’d not had at the Camps. She was worn, and the visible signs of it were the shallowest part.
“Withdraw,” I said. “And I will not pursue.”
“Pursue?” Princess Sophie hissed indignantly. “You are one woman-”
I ignored her, meeting Malanza’s eyes instead.
“We’ve been at this crossroads before, Rozala,” I said.
“So we have,” the other woman softly agreed. “But this is not Callow, Catherine Foundling. We did not seek this war.”
“Then let it end,” I said. “Those in my service who brought the sword to Procer, I will chastise appropriately. I don’t want to fight this battle, Rozala Malanza. But trust me, neither do you.”
“And we’re to take you word for this?” Princess Sophie mocked. “You, a-”
“Sophie,” I said, tone nonchalant. “If you interrupt this conversation one more time, I may very well lose patience and relieve you of your tongue.”
The fair-haired woman blanched, then reddened, and though she opened her mouth I stared at her calmly. In silence. A heartbeat passed, then another. Her mouth closed and I returned my gaze to Malanza.
“The Legions of Terror put half the heartlands to the torch,” Princess Rozala said. “That cannot go unanswered, Foundling. Break ties with them and the Army of Callow will be allowed to leave Procer unhindered. On this I give you my word.”
“You know I’m not going to give you that,” I said. “I offer you this instead: allow them to leave in my charge. They will be, from that moment onwards, my responsibility. I give you my word that should any of them attempt to enter Procer again, save at the invitation of the First Prince, I’ll see everyone involved hanged.”
“We could kill you right now,” Prince Arnaud said, voice grown cool for all the earlier heat. “Do you truly think yourself so powerful you could turn back so many horsemen, Damned? You overestimate your bargaining position.”
I cocked my head to the side and looked at the man. Eventually, I tapped the bottom of my staff against the line I’d drawn in the snow.
“Cross it, then,” I simply said.
I could see him considering it. It was in the way his legs shifted, like he was preparing to spur his horse forward. His fingers were inching towards the sword at his hip. Teeth worrying the dragonbone shaft of my pipe, I inhaled the wakeleaf and let it burn pleasantly at my throat. I exhaled, and Prince Arnaud grit his teeth but did not try me. It was the calm that was doing it, I dimly realized. Even more than the power they had seen me wield with their own eyes, the more they watched me fail to be cowed the more I could feel them grow unsettled. Thinking I knew something they didn’t, that I still had some card up my sleeve. I wondered if this was how Black had felt, making the armies of the Liesse Rebellion melt away like summer snow with nothing but a few tricks and the weight of his reputation.
“Malanza,” Princess Sophie whispered, “the longer we wait-”
“I know,” Princess Rozala crossly replied.
The longer they waited, the more of my legionaries retreated back to the safety of the southern camp. The more their chance to score a decisive victory slipped away.
“Where did you go, Black Queen?” the Princess of Aequitan suddenly asked. “For nigh a year you were gone.”
“I went into the darkness, Rozala,” I said. “And what I found there followed me out.”
“The Everdark,” she said, lips thinning.
“Withdraw,” I gently repeated. “And I will not pursue.”
“It cannot go unanswered, Foundling,” she wearily told me. “There would be… consequences.”
I looked up into the sky, at the burning glare of the sun.
“There would be consequences to forcing my hand as well,” I said, and returned my gaze to her. “A truce, for today. And tomorrow we will see if for once the costs can be paid with ink and gold instead of blood, for that last currency we can ill-afford.”
“It might come to a fight tomorrow regardless,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “So why should I hold my blade today, when the advantage lies with us?”
“Did you ever read about the old crusades, Rozala?” I idly asked.
“Prince Gontrand’s five volumes of ‘Empyrean Wars’ were part of my readings as a child,” Rozala frowned.
“Never read those,” I said. “See, my own education pulled a little to the east. What I got instead was the ‘Commentaries on the Campaigns of Terribilis the Second’, and there’s part that stayed with me. I thought about it, after Akua’s Folly. After the Camps too. It’s written that in the wake of the victory that broke the Fourth Crusade, on the shores of the Wasaliti, the High Lords sang Terribilis’ praises and called him the greatest general Praes had ever seen. He lost his temper with them, and here’s what he said-”
I cleared my throat.
“Another such victory and I will rule an empire of ghosts,” I recited.
Silence followed in the wake of my words.
“Now,” I quietly said, “you might win if we fought. Or maybe I’ll end up the victor of the field. But either way, Malanza, we’ll both be losing. You should know that, if you’ve been where I think you have.”
“What would you know of ghosts, Catherine Foundling?” the princess hoarsely replied.
“Enough I don’t want to fight today,” I said.
Her armoured hands closed around her reins as her lips trembled with a heady mixture of fear and rage.
“Princess Sophie, sound the retreat,” Rozala said, voice rough.
The Princess of Lyonis drew back as if stung, narrow face filling with surprise and indignation.
“Merciful Gods, Louvroy, just sound the fucking retreat,” the Princess of Aequitan seethed. “She’s a monster and half mad besides, but she’s right. How many soldiers are you willing to throw away putting her down? One thousand, two, three? Our entire horse?”
I dipped my head, if not in thanks then in respect.
“Spare me, you carrion thing,” Princess Rozala snarled. “This is not the respect of worthy opponents, and do not mistake this for some sort of arrangement. You’ve merely contrived to make yourself into the least of great evils yet one more time.”
Seizing her reins, she turned aside her horse.
“You will be seen to, Black Queen,” the Princess of Aequitan called out. “There will be a day where all sins will be called to account.”
Might be, I thought. But it won’t be today, or by the likes of you. I waited there, atop my horse, until the trumpets sounded. The cavalry was pulling back, almost embarrassedly, but it was to the fighting in the wreckage that my eyes turned. They did not listen, at first. They were Levantines, and this was a Proceran command. But the trumpets sounded again, insistently, and finally the call was heeded. Just like that, the battle came to a close. For now, I thought. The rest of their host was still marching towards this dawning nightmare, and even more were following behind the army I’d led here. This was far from over, and it was with that tired thought that I began the ride to the soldiers I’d just saved.
When I’d found the Third Army, I’d been welcomed with relief. When I’d reunited with the Fourth, it had been to a queen’s honours. What awaited me at the camp on the southern bank of the Odelle was entirely different, however. Oh, there were cheers. The ramparts of wood and beaten earth were filled with legionaries from the First and the Second, and they greeted my return with a deafening roar. But as I guided Zombie up the ramp that led into the camp proper and the gates were opened, I noticed that the escort awaiting me inside was not among the cheering throng. My eye ran quickly over their number – forty of them, more than should be needed for a mere escort if neither Juniper nor Vivienne were able to come themselves – and then lingered on the number of lightly armoured soldiers among them. Mages, fifteen of them, and I did not think it coincidence that there were five ogres among the remaining soldiers. Robber had mentioned there were instructions in case of my return, I remembered. To make certain I was me, and not some puppet of whatever I’d found below. It was not an unsound precaution, but I still felt my temper rise.
I’d just faced down an army of Proceran cavalry without even a fucking sword at my hip and this was my welcome home? An army we shouldn’t even be fighting, I thought with mounting anger, and two of the three people responsible for that particular bout of foolishness had been the ones to send me this escort. My mount slowed as I approached the two lines of soldiers awaiting me, and I raised an eyebrow when I recognized one among them – though she was hardly a soldier, truth be told.
“General Hune,” I said. “I see at least one of this army’s commanders found it in them to greet me in person.”
The thick plate on the ogre made her look more a steel fortress than a person, but she’d not worn her helm – the effect was almost comical, like a tuft of person over a siege engine. Hune Egeldotir’s face had not grown any less brutish, at first look, though neither had her eyes lost that look of patient cleverness. She didn’t look like she’d aged a day since we’d first met, though given the rumoured lifespan of her kind that should not have surprised me.
“Your Majesty,” Hune replied, her voice still surprisingly delicate for her size. “Welcome back.”
“Welcome indeed,” I flatly said, glancing at the rest of the party.
“Orders, ma’am,” the ogre said, though she did not sound apologetic in the slightest.
It would be, I thought, only be sensible to go along with this. To let the finest mages the army had on hand confirm I was not in fact a possessed shell before I was allowed the privilege of speaking to the Lady-Regent of Callow and the Marshal of the same. My fingers twitched. If I protested, I wondered where the legionaries around me would fall. There were a lot of Callowans among them, I thought. More than there would have been a few years ago, though with Vivienne as regent that loyalty might not be as clear-cut as I believed.
“Orders,” I repeated, tone pensive. “Funny thing, those.”
I hardened my voice.
“General Hune, kneel.”
The command rang, though my voice was not raised. It didn’t need to be. The ogre stilled, and I could see the shiver go through the rest of the soldiers she’d brought with her. All around us, the cheering began to peter out as legionaries realized something was afoot.
“Your Majesty-” Hune began.
“I have you an order, general,” I softly said.
She looked at me, and whatever she found there she knew better than to argue with. Like a tall oak breaking, the ogre knelt in the muddy snow. I glanced at the legionaries that’d come with her, the uneasy mages and tensing soldiers.
“Disperse,” I coldly said.
I didn’t bother to look if they’d obeyed, though the sound of hasty footsteps told me that had. I pressed my knees against Zombie and she tread forward, until I bid her to stop by Hune’s still-kneeling form.
“Get up, Hune,” I said. “And the next time one of them tries to give you an order like this, remember who you swore an oath to.”
The ogre rose to her feet, and though there was anger glittering in those eyes there was something else as well. I’d been content to leave the reins of the Army of Callow largely in Juniper’s hands, so far. Perhaps now and then, though, a reminder of who it was they served might not go amiss.
“I will not forget, Your Majesty,” General Hune said.
I glanced at her, almost amused at the boldness.
“Then come along,” I said. “I mean to have a frank conversation with the Lady-Regent and the Marshal.”
The glint in the ogre’s eyes told me that while she might not be all that fond of me, she’d not forgotten who had put her in this situation either. We made our way through the fortified camp, Hune taking the lead as she knew the lay of it, but with legionaries moving out of our way it was not long until we arrived before a tall pavilion. The banners besides it, I saw, included my own. I did not dismount. There was a guard of soldiers around, a full line.
“You are relieved, legionaries,” I said.
The lieutenant among them – an orc – glanced at Hune and my irritation spiked.
“If I need to repeat an order one more time,” I said, “there will be need a need for gallows today.”
“Ma’am,” the lieutenant got out in a croak, hastily saluting.
Under my cold stare the rest of them scrammed with him.
“General,” I said. “If you would?”
The ogre raised the flaps open for me and I rode in without even needing to lower my head. She looked surprised when I gestured for her to follow me in. The pavilion was still full of officers. Juniper’s full general staff was there, along with a few others. An old orc with a black band over an eye and two aides at his side needed no introduction, but Vivienne I almost did not recognize. She’d grown out her hair, and no longer wore leathers. There must have been around twenty people inside the pavilion, when I entered, but a heartbeat later you could have heard a pin drop. Juniper was first to react.
“Hune, what did you-”
“Juniper, if you still want to have a marshal’s baton by the end of this conversation you will sit down and shut up,” I calmly said.
The orc flinched like I’d struck her.
“On your oath, Hellhound,” I snarled in Kharsum, “you will be silent.”
She swallowed, loudly. I glanced at Marshal Grem One-Eye, whose face was a study in neutrality.
“A pleasure to meet you, Marshal,” I said. “We will speak later.”
“Well met, Black Queen,” the old orc gravelled.
A dip of the head was offered, respect but not submission, and he took the hint. His aides followed him, so I turned my eyes on the other officers. Those, at least, were mine. Aisha was studying me with a blank face, I saw, and had a hand on Juniper’s arm.
“Out,” I said, inclining my head.
“Catherine, this is not-”
Vivienne’s voice, the tone almost forcefully calming, had me clenching my fingers again. Zombie felt my legs tighten and whinnied angrily.
“Your regency is at an end, Vivienne Dartwick,” I said. “Put the seal on the table.”
The general staff had left the tent before the seal clattered against wood. Vivienne was looking at me like she’d never seen me before.
“General Hune, take a seat,” I said. “Depending on the outcome of this conversation you might in command of the Army of Callow by the end of the day.”
“You can’t be serious,” Vivienne said.
“Nauk is dead,” I said. “I’ve had to personally save the Third Army from encirclement and annihilation. The Fourth was bled savagely by Helike while essentially marching back and forth across the same patch of Iserre. Today, I found you engaged in a pitched battle with a Grand Alliance army – that is, a force that should be three months to the north preventing the fucking Dead King from rolling over Procer.”
My voice had risen, but I forced out a breath to calm myself.
“To add insult to injury,” I evenly said. “You were losing that battle to the extent that I had to personally step in and settle the matter. Now, I would have preferred to have this conversation with Adjutant there to speak as well and no enemy army within a day’s march. Your little stunt outside, however, has officially made me lose patience.”
My staff hit the ground beneath us with a hard thump. Both of them drew back.
“Now,” I calmly said, “do explain to me why either of you should still be trusted to make decisions about anything other than what you’ll have for dinner.”