“To repudiate what lies at the heart of Praes – ambition, skill, learning – would be a mistake, yet to allow those traits to be principle rather than tool has been the mother of a great many dooms. The greatness of olden days must be put to modern purpose or see itself turn irrelevant to the lay of Creation.”
– Extract from ‘The Death of the Age of Wonders’, a treatise by Dread Empress Malicia
Afternoon soon drifted into evening, and it seemed for a moment as if I’d found the Laure beat of affairs once more: too many things to do and so little time to do them. The herbal brew Hakram had made me took the edge off the pain just enough that if I remained still while seated it didn’t throb too badly, so I took full advantage of the relief when seeing to the many duties that’d piled up while I slumbered. Still, I did not regret having a physical need to sleep once more even if it ate away at the hours I could work. It was a pleasurable sensation, sleeping, but also one I’d found grounding in some ways. It was easier to make mistakes when your thoughts ran uninterrupted for days and nights, like a hound chasing its own tail. Sleep was a wedge in between it, a way for thoughts to cool and distance to come down. I’d need another night’s sleep, I decided, before speaking of the Accords with my father again. I’d not made nearly as good an argument for the banning of ruling Named as I could have now that I’d had time to better gather my thoughts – no one touched by a Choir, for example, should be allowed anywhere near a throne – but I would not resume the back and forth without rest and preparation. Besides, we’d both have demands on out time for days to come.
Marshal Grem and the Legions-in-Exile had been parted from him for months, simply getting the bare bones reports about months of campaign in order would take at least a day. And he’d have more waiting, especially now that scrying worked properly again. No, Black would have busy days ahead and myself even more so. By the time I’d come down from the barrow-top there was a mixed honour guard of legionaries and Firstborn, dzulu from the Brezlej and Soln sigils, waiting for me along with Adjutant. A full line of veterans from the First Legion, Marshal Grem’s personal command, was waiting for Black slightly to their side. I offered them a respectful nod and got the same in return. Legio I Invicta had fought like lions in the Red Flower Vales, I’d been told, facing down a charge of Lycaone heavy horse the White Knight himself had led. I would not forget anytime soon that the Legions-in-Exile were the same who’d fought in the defence of Callow. For those that’d remained holed up in Praes while the wolves howled at my gates I had no great fondness, but these? They’d bled for my home, even though once upon a time they had also conquered it.
I claimed a comfortable seat in the First Army’s war council tent, hiding under the broad table how carefully I had to manage my leg, and as Hakram stood by my side I sunk my teeth in the day’s first work. Casualty reports began it all on a high note. The Army of Callow and its sister-legions from Praes had taken negligible losses in last night’s battle, and though Ivah came bearing the drow losses in Rumena’s name it revealed the losses there had been relatively light as well. Less than two thousand dead, and though the Levantines had found a surprising amount of success while killing Mighty – my Lord of Silent Steps mentioned that the warriors of Tartessos in particular had made an impression – most those killed had not been sigil-holders or even rylleh but lesser Mighty. The Dominion has pulled out some sort of enchanted or blessed lantern that’d interfered with the Night, and the least of the Mighty had been struck hardest by it. Both the League and the Alliance would have gotten significantly worse off from last night, which was a damned wasted of soldiery on the eve of war to the north but also a boon to my own diplomatic position. The situation of our supplies was a great deal less promising, unfortunately.
The Hellhound had arranged baggage and foodstuffs for a long campaign, as she’d originally believed it might be necessary for the army to seize the principality of Arans to hold it against the Dead King’s advance, and the Southern Expedition of the Empire Ever Dark had been dragging around the supplies I’d bargained for with the dwarves throughout its Iserran fighting. We were not, by any measure, in danger of running out of food or necessities soon. But the Army of Callow had been campaigning for months now, and probably would have suffered from a steady trickle of desertions were it not the middle of winter in hostile foreign lands. Professional soldiers or not, my legionaries needed rest and recovery before going into another fight. That would be difficult to arrange in Procer, I suspected, and while the details of the use of the Twilight Ways remained unknown to me I doubted they’d be much more efficient at moving troops than the Arcadian paths. That meant bringing my soldiers back to Callow would take them out of the war for at least the better part of a year. I couldn’t do that. Victory or defeat against Keter might very well be decided by then.
The issues with the Firstborn were more complicated in nature, and I ignored the irritated look on Juniper’s face – and the fascinated one on Hakram’s – while Ivah expanded on them in Crepuscular. One sigil-holder, the Mighty Zoitsa, and two rylleh from other sigils had been slain in the fighting. The former Zoitsa Sigil would have begun tearing itself apart over succession had General Rumena not personally intervened and broken all the limbs of the two most prominent rylleh aiming to claim the sigil. The other two casualties had prompted power struggles as well, as the complicated weave of alignments and enmities that made up the upper levels of a stable sigil was upset by the removal of two high-placed killers. Those had, for now, been kept under control by the own sigil-holders. But my decree that drow could not have killing duels while we were on campaign was being tested sorely by the situation, and the strain was showing. Rumena had politely suggested that I come adjudicate the matters myself, which was enough to tell me it was serious. It was almost never polite to me if it could help it, and its command of the southern expedition gave it the right to settle such disputes without my involvement in principle. If my presence was being sought, then it meant neither the respect nor the fear General Rumena commanded had been enough to settle the situation.
“I’ll come after dusk,” I said. “Unless the general believes the situation is so dire as to require my immediate intervention?”
Ivah bowed low.
“It is not so, Losara Queen,” it said. “The general has remarked that containment will be more… arduous after the coming of Night, but under pale light all will be brought to order.”
In other words, Rumena was willing to run roughshod over the squabblers while the sun was out but would have to get pretty hard-handed to keep it all under control after Mighty started slinging Night around. Fair enough. For all that it had been appointed general and commander of the southern expedition by divine mandate, Rumena remained very much a first among equal: there were limits to the orders it could give without having to spill blood to see them enforced. Ivah left, and I marked the whole situation as a cauldron I’d need to see settled before it tipped over and burned everybody else. And Hells, this was just a single sigil-holder and a pair of rylleh. How bad would it get when we started taking real losses? Another method needed to be put into place, one that didn’t end up with Mighty turning on each other violently whenever one of them died.
“What did the drow want?” Juniper asked.
“They’re having some internal disputes,” I grunted. “It’ll be taken care of.”
The orc eyed me carefully, then accurately guessed that if I believed she needed to know more about that then she would. The conversation moved on to the debate on whether or not the old Legion tradition of ale rations being broken out after a victory should be indulged with so many other armies camped around us. I argued in favour, for not even the League would be foolish enough to think an evening of drinking would be enough to save it if it resumed hostilities now, but Juniper dug in her heels at it being an unnecessary risk regardless of the improvement to morale. A compromise over shifts that’d allow at least half the army to be on war footing at any time was being put together when Vivienne joined us, a little over an hour before sundown. Wearing a practical cloak and dress over boots and trousers, the heiress-designate to the throne of Callow strode in looking pink-cheeked and well-rested. We dismissed the general staff, after that, and she settled at the high table by Hakram’s side when he finally took a seat instead of standing by my side like some grim green gargoyle.
“Indrani?” I asked.
“Wandered off after we ate,” Vivienne replied. “You know how restless she gets after a long sleep.”
From closer up than the former thief suspected, yes, though usually having slept together beforehand made her slightly more mellow about it. Knowing Indrani she’d be having a look at the League positions or feeling out the half-there paths into the Twilight Ways. In the overwhelming majority of situations she was more likely to be the danger encountered than the one encountering danger, so I wasn’t all that worried about her safety. She’d drift back in to check on Masego before too long anyway.
“She’ll turn up,” Juniper gravelled, unmoved. “Damn hard woman, the Archer.”
Coming from the Hellhound, that was high praise. I fished out my dragonbone pipe and stuffed it, calling on the slightest touch of Night as I passed my palm above the bowl. I breathed in lightly before looking up, finding the other three gazing at me expectantly. A heartbeat passed.
“I’ve only got the one pipe on me,” I said. “And I’m not sharing, folks.”
Irritation for Juniper, resignation for Vivienne and some sort of rueful amusement for Hakram.
“Yours talks with Lord Black,” Marshal Juniper said. “How did they go?”
My brow rose and I glanced at Hakram.
“Everyone knows,” Adjutant admitted. “Even putting the matter under seal would have changed nothing. Word began to spread before you were even all the way up the barrow.”
Merciless Gods. No one who made jests about gossiping fishwives had ever served a term in an army.
“The Exile Legions haven’t withdrawn or begun to muster, so it can’t have gone too badly,” Vivienne noted.
The Jacks were still hard at work, it was heartening to see.
“I have his backing for the Liesse Accords,” I said. “He’s not committing to a stance on the Tower until he knows more of what’s happening in the Wasteland.”
I caught a look between Juniper and Vivienne, which had me suppressing a spike of irritation. From these two in particular, the impression that things were being hidden from me would remain ill-received for some time.
“The Observatory works again, though essentially crippled in capacity,” Vivienne volunteered. “Fadila Mbafeno repaired what she could, though she maintains that without Hierophant’s personally attention it is a fantasy to attain full functions.”
“But our scrying web is back,” I flatly said. “What have you learned?”
“General Sacker moved east on the Blessed Isle,” Juniper said. “Our man in Summerholm – Legate Asadel – requested that she evict the Praesi refugees before taking up positions on the shore.”
Which, considering that we were feeding General Sacker’s legion out of Callowan granaries, was a request that’d carry a great deal of weight.
“Legate Asadel,” I slowly repeated.
“Fifteenth,” Juniper said. “Taghreb, originally one of General Hune’s at the War College. He’s loyal, Catherine. No reason to doubt that.”
There was always a reason to doubt that, I thought, though if you did not learn where to draw the line such worries could only drive you mad.
“I take it the refugees declined to follow the orders,” I said.
“They also called on Governess Abreha’s protection, which was granted,” the orc continued. “Household troops were sent to discourage Sacker, but she picked out their positions and broken them in night raids. Then she set the refugee camps on fire and ordered shot any who fled west instead of east.”
I let out a hissing breath.
“Shit,” I said. “Tell me the announcement was enough, Juniper. Tell me one of our own fucking legates didn’t have a role in the slaughter of terrified civilians.”
“One caravan was butchered,” the Marshal of Callow said. “Two hundred dead, we think. Children were spared. It was enough to get everyone else running.”
I closed my eyes. Breathed in, breathed out. Why was it that the moment I took my eyes off anywhere it all went to shit? No, I thought, that wasn’t fair. If Legate Asadel was a contemporary of Hune’s and so the rest of is back at the College, then he was no older than twenty-five. His rank was high, for one his age, and while part of that might have been talent it was also undeniably because we were running out of College-taught officers and most the veterans of the old legions we had left had loyalties too complex to be entrusted dangerous postings. I could not put men and women still green around the edges and then become furious when they made mistakes.
“Recall Legate Asadel,” I said, opening my eyes. “Move him to a garrison where he can’t do any damage and replace him with someone more seasoned.”
“No one in Praes will raise a ruckus of the civilians, Catherine,” Juniper said. “By going into Callow they were abandoning Tower law.”
I saw Vivienne wince from the corner of my eye.
“Aye,” I said. “That’s true. And also the finest argument I’ve heard for Black’s old dream of putting every highborn in the Wasteland to the sword. Recall Asadel, Juniper. That’s an order.”
“That won’t be all,” I said. “Get on with it.”
“Governess Abreha deemed the attack on her household troops to be treason, given her Tower-granted rank,” Juniper said. “General Sacker replied that she was following orders from the Black Knight, supreme commander of the Legions of Terror, and so therefore it was Abreha’s own interference with her operations that was treason. She lodged an official protest with the Tower.”
“The Empress won’t knife High Lady Abreha in the back so soon,” Hakram said. “Not to Sacker, of all people, who has ties to the Matrons and remains a close associate of the Carrion Lord. Malicia might need Abreha either dead or disgraced, but if she throws her under the wheels now then she might as well abdicate to the Black Knight.”
If a general’s mere claim to be working at Black’s behest when he was on the other side of the continent was enough to make the Dread Empress back down, then Adjutant was absolutely correct: she’d have effectively stated herself to be less influential than one of her own right hand’s servants, and so by Wasteland standards she’d be meat on the plate. On the other hand, could she really afford to throw to the side the Legions-in-Exile? Given that she’d lost Foramen to the Confederation of the Grey Eyries and her coastlands were a bloody wound, I’d argue not.
“The Empress is considering the petition,” Juniper said. “But has yet to act on it. General Sacker seized the western shore of the Wasiliti and dug in. It’s been a standoff with Governess Abreha ever since.”
“We need to find out who General Sacker answers to,” I said. “It best be Black, because if it’s the Matrons we have trouble on our hands.”
The fledgling goblin nation south of the Hungering Sands could only benefit from enmity between Praes and Callow deepening, since history had made it clear that the Tribes could only fail if they attempted to stand against the Dread Empire on their own. An embittered Callow, on the other hand, would have a vested interested in keeping the Confederation standing as a thorn in the Wasteland’s side. And considering my kingdom had largely adopted the war doctrines introduced by the Reforms, we’d keep needing goblin steel and munitions only they could produce. They’d have good we wanted, and we’d share a common enemy – alliances had been built on less. Unfortunately for the Matrons, they were planning their schemes blind. They had no real idea of what went on this far west, and they would not be aware of anything related to the Accords. They were fighting last century’s war, not this one, playing a game of Good Queens and Dread Empresses when that was the very manner of existence I want to strike a match over. If they were brought into the talks, I suspected they’d sign. If nothing else, the clause establishing that a signatory nation attacked by a non-signatory one could call on the aid of all other signatories would get them interested. Either as a deterrent for a non-signatory Praes, or because Praes had signed and they could not afford to be on the other side of that rule.
Yet they were blind, at the moment, at a lot of damage could be done by an assembly of vicious old goblins matrons pursuing what they saw as their own interests.
“Vivienne,” I finally said. “Anything to add?”
She bit her lip.
“There are rumours,” she said, “that Malicia is calling near every highborn in Praes to the Tower.”
My brow rose.
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t believe anyone knows aside from her,” Vivienne admitted. “The usual rumours are there – the edict making it treason to claim the Name of Chancellor is to be ended, she seeks another Black Knight or a spouse – but there’s nothing certain. Whatever she’s planning, though there’s a lot of expectation.”
“Given the recent string of disasters, such a great assembly of highborn would either see her deposed or her reign secured for many years by a great victory,” Hakram opined. “She’s rolling the dice on her reign.”
Malicia doesn’t roll dice, I thought. She only ever plays when she believes she’ll win for sure. Sometimes she was disastrously wrong about that, as she had been at Second Liesse, but no one was without blind spots and I suspected in some ways Black was hers. This, though? This was Wasteland politics and she’d danced around these well-dressed killers without missing a step for decades. If she was acting now it was because she had something in the works that’d secure her hold on Praes. She would not expose herself to the wolves of the Imperial Court for anything less, in my eyes. I breathed out.
“Send an official messenger to the Carrion Lord, then,” I drily said. “Requesting a sharing of intelligence concerning Praes tomorrow. Odds are he’ll know more than us.”
Vivienne nodded, I noted, instead of Juniper. Interesting, that the Hellhound would recognize her as the higher authority in diplomatic matters even when those matters involved Black and the Legions. It was the implicit mark of a respect I’d been well aware did not exist when I left for the Everdark.
“We need to determine where the army’s headed,” Juniper bluntly said. “We’re wearing thing, Catherine. Your return and a win did wonders for morale, but it’s been a long winter and we fought through most of it. Even if it’s up north we’re headed, I want winter quarters raised and a rotation of leave for soldiers. The edge will grow ragged otherwise.”
“I can’t give you an answer to that before the diplomacy’s been worked through, Juniper,” I replied just as bluntly. “And for that I need to sit with the Pilgrim, and likely Arnaud Brogloise – if not the First Prince herself through scrying link.”
Whatever the Hellhound would have answered to that I was not fated to know, for before she could speak the Advisor Kivule was introduced. My eyes moved in surprise to Akua’s veiled silhouette even as she entered the tent and bowed.
“The Hierophant is awake, Your Majesty,” the shade said.
I rose to my feet, ignoring the throb of pain from my leg.
“Meeting adjourned,” I said, and they all knew better than to gainsay me on that.