“Kill an enemy,
We do usher!
-Extract from ‘And So I Dreamt I Was Awake’ by Sherehazad the Seer, Taghreb poet
“You’re certain?” I asked.
“As can be,” Vivienne replied. “Our own people have intercepted reports and the Scribe’s agents confirm it.”
“Then send for Pickler,” I said. “We’ll need someone navigate the implications of that.”
I paused, and the other Callowan caught my eye with understanding.
“Robber as well, then,” the dark-haired woman said.
She dipped out of the room long enough to send out messengers and returned as I poured us cups of wine. She took it when offered, and we both sipped in silence. Lost in our thoughts. It’d be better with the two of them, and I was glad she’d realized it. While it could not be denied that Senior Sapper Pickler’s upbringing as the daughter of a Matron leant her insights into the ways of goblinkind that a nobody like Robber wouldn’t have, neither should it be ignored that she was, well… horribly unsociable. Even with other goblins. Special Tribune Robber, on the other hand? He somehow seemed to know every other greenskin we came across, and though goblins were clannish in the extreme amongst themselves they gossiped with relish. Robber would have his finger on the pulse of things in a way Pickler would not. Gods, and to think I’d believed it would be quiet after the disaster in Lyonceau. Showed what I knew.
Midnight had come and passed, though it would be more than a bell still until dawn came, and no part of that span had been calm. I’d not returned to Salia, after the Dead King’s chilling farewell, for it would have been unwise. Riots were beginning again, though this time not as a tool of conspiracy: word had spread that the war against Keter was resuming, and in terror and impotent anger the people had taken to the streets. Given that there’d been killing of foreigners last time, it’d been judged cautious for the delegations not to return to the capital at least until the day after. If not longer. The First Prince had admitted that she’d rather not soldiers – even solely her own – to put down the turbulence but that she might not have a choice. Should it come to that, though, no other member of the Grand Alliance could be seen intervening even if only to help. It would feed the rumours from the coup attempt that’d not entirely died down, that the First Prince was in league with foreign powers that wanted to destroy Procer.
As Salia roiled and the rest of us kept to our camps, surrounded by soldiers, the last stretch of day into the night had been filled with fervent activity. For one, the two Named that’d been effectively keeping the League of Free Cities together were gone. The Hierarch perhaps not yet dead, as Masego had insisted, but undeniably he was in no place to rule. Not that he’d ever done that even when he was actually meant to. There’d been accusations of assassination from some cities, Penthes leading the charge, but it was hard to argue with a town covered in ash and two heroes stuck in bedrest. The League delegations had hastily withdrawn to their camp under a heavy escort of Proceran soldiers, howling mobs of Salians tossing everything they could get their hands on at them. I had Archer out and keeping an eye on them, though with strict instructions not the kick the hornet’s nest. That Penthes had been so aggressive earlier was a good indication that Hakram was right about Malicia having sunk in her hooks there, but there was no telling where much of the League would fall. Helike, in particular, promised to be a mess. Kairos Theodosian had no formal successor, and rumour was he’d pruned minor branches of the Theodosians quite enthusiastically after usurping his nephew. It was not impossible that the royal house of Helike was dead, and there was no telling if some other nobles would make a play for the throne or some distant relation was about to be produced so they could ‘rule’.
And now, like we didn’t have our plates full enough with the south, north and west trouble was coming from the east as well. The affairs of the Confederation of the Grey Eyries, the fledgling goblin state that’d risen in rebellion against the Tower and declared independence before going a step further and taking Foramen, had always been opaque to outsiders. The Council of Matrons had ruled the goblin tribes under the Empire and it still did under the Confederation, but to my understanding the alliance between the tribes was a loose thing even at the best of times. The Matrons were nominally an ally to Callow, for Hakram and Vivienne had backed their bid for independence with dwarven gold and foodstuffs, to be repaid in goods we needed: goblin steel and munitions. A blockade of the Hungering Sands by the loyalist Legions of Terror had made deliveries of these highly sporadic, though they’d not entirely ceased, but the Matrons were making visible efforts to keep their word.
I’d believed that to be a promising sign, and though the goblins were said to have committed atrocities against Taghrebi nobility when they took Foramen, the loss of the Imperial Forges and yet another great city of Praes had been a hard blow to Malicia. The Confederation was riddled with practices I despised, and the Matrons were generally speaking about as trustworthy as a nest of vipers, but as a counterweight to the Tower in the southeast they’d been an invaluable asset. Just the fact that they’d tied up the loyalist legions down south had been worth its weight in gold, since it meant I didn’t have to worry about those same troops securing the Empire for Malicia – or marching on Summerholm, for that matter. There was the promise of a long-term partnership there as well, with the Snake Eater Tribe having settled in my lands near Marchford. It’d allowed Juniper to recruit goblins to fill the ranks of the Army of Callow’s sappers and scouts, and more abstract benefits as well. The relative harmony with the locals had been both a proof that Callow might be able to handle greenskin settlers and a tie to the Council of Matrons themselves.
The generous income that rent of their tribal lands brought didn’t hurt either, given the until recently dreadful state of my coffers.
Some parts of it in particular: Pickler’s mother, Matron Wither of the High Ridge Tribe. Who’d been trying to push Pickler into retiring and becoming Matron of the Snake Eater Tribe since the moment it was settled on Callowan grounds. I’d been more amused than anything when I’d first heard, for trying to get Pickler interested in anything that wasn’t engineering was like pulling teeth, but given the fractious nature of goblin politics I’d found it shockingly impressive that Matron Wither has succeeded at ensuring no other matron was appointed in the wake of her daughter’s refusal to retire and take up matronship of the tribe. Guards knocked on the door and jolted me out of my thoughts, Vivienne calling out to allow entry as I took a sip from my now near-empty cup. The two goblins came in together, for a moment allowing a glimpse of the difference between them – Pickler was, I realized, growing significantly larger than Robber. Half a head more now, and where the male’s skin was beginning to wrinkle in some places as he approached his kind’s middle age her own was the same as when I’d first met her. Matron lines, it was said, were as a breed apart from the rest of their kind.
That did not strike me as the kind of thing that came about naturally.
“Boss, Princess,” Robber greeted us, scuttling in and sliding into a seat.
My brow rose as I glanced at Vivienne.
“Since I was designated your heiress,” she admitted. “It’s exactly as annoying as you’d think.”
Oh, Vivienne, why would you ever admit that out loud? There was no way he was ever going to stop, now.
“Catherine, Dartwick,” Pickler greeted us, slightly more deferentially.
She waited for me to invite her with a gesture before taking a seat, at least.
“I’ve need of your insights into the Confederation,” I admitted. “There’s been news.”
Amber eyes wary, Pickler watched me without blinking.
“I’m not corresponding with my mother, Catherine,” she said. “And even if I was, she would not share secrets with me. Nor I with her, if that is your-”
“Not in the slightest,” I interrupted. “But you were raised about as high as can be, by my understanding, and you know your mother better than anybody else we’ve got.”
“And I am here to speak for the common goblin, I assume,” Robber grinned, pearly needle-like teeth gleaming. “Allow me then to present our demands: first, we would like larger cookpots. The ones we have can’t fit a full Proceran child. Second-”
“Robber’s here because he hears gossip even Hakram doesn’t,” I said, pretending to have heard none of that.
“His ears are too high up,” Robber agreed without missing a beat, “it’s like someone carved an ugly mug onto a tree, Boss.”
“Matron Wither has seized control of the city of Foramen and, along with what seems to be another few tribes, evicted the Confederation from the region,” Vivienne calmly said.
It was like someone had dropped a sheet of ice-cold water on the two goblins. Genuine surprise, from the two of them.
“Was blood spilled?” Robber sharply asked.
Vivienne handed me the scroll carrying the latest summary report and I tossed it across the table. He caught it and passed it to Pickler without hesitating, eyes remaining on me.
“As far as we can tell, all forces within the city that didn’t belong to the High Ridge or their allies were taken by surprised and killed,” I said. “There were a series of skirmishes afterwards that droved back Confederation warriors into the Grey Eyries. Maybe four to five thousand dead, all in all.”
“The Legions haven’t moved,” Pickler slowly said.
“They have not,” I grimly said. “Even our allies in the Eyes are certain. I’m not all that familiar with Marshal Nim, but I’m told she’s the most aggressive commander among the marshals. She would not miss an opportunity like that without a good reason, I think.”
“The Tribes have always turned on each other when rebellions turn sour,” Robber said, “but this is… wrong. Too early. They’re winning, too.”
He did not, I thought, sound even slightly disapproving of the goblin tribes beginning to sell each other out to the Tower at the first hint of defeat. There was something in me that was disgusted by the notion – Gods, what kind of Callowan would sell out their own just because the going got rough? – but I forcefully reminded myself that goblins did not see the world as most humans did.
“No rebellion against the Tower ever lasted more than five years,” Pickler quietly said. “My mother told me this, once, when I was a child.”
“The Long War did,” Robber argued. “It took fifteen years for them to put down Matron Trifler up in her hidden fortress.”
“Trifler led one tribe and the castoffs of the rest,” Pickler said. “After three years the rest of the Council had submitted to Sulphurous, and for the twelve years that follow it was a war of raiders against raiders.”
Much as the Wasteland’s history could be interesting – and I was pretty sure Dread Empress Sulphurous had actually died to the first known Shining Prince after cornering him out in the Fields of Streges – and the parts of it involving the goblin rebellions as bloody as they were fascinating, I’d not brought them here to speak of it.
“Why bring this up, Pickler?” I said. “The Grey Eyries haven’t fallen.”
Nor were they likely to, in my opinion. The reports of the Eyes made it clear that Matron Wither and her allies comprised less than a third of the tribes of the Confederation and that surprise had been the deciding element in her victory against her former allies. She might even be able to hold Foramen, given the wards and walls on the city, but if she tried to take the Eyries she was in for the same bloody slog Praesi armies went through every time they put down rebellion there. And unlike the Empire, she didn’t have the numbers to simply take the casualties inflicted by constant vicious ambushes and keep advancing. Her people would know the grounds, sure, but so would the enemy.
“Because I do not believe my mother intends to go back to the Grey Eyries,” Pickler said.
“She doesn’t have the strength to fend off both the Confederation and the Empire,” I slowly said. “To be honest, I’m not sure she has the strength to fend off either if they put their back into it.”
“Malicia cannot tolerate losing the forges of her war machine to an independent power, from a practical perspective,” Vivienne noted. “Not even one at war with her enemies. And it would see her overthrown by the High Lords, besides.”
“Which she’s gathering in Ater,” I pointed out. “Where she has the Sentinels, the one force of soldiers that she can be assured the loyalty of.”
They were hardly an army, mind you, and more like the personal guard of the reigning tyrant. But within Ater they were undeniably the largest stick around, even if I wouldn’t bet on them against the household troops of most High Seats beyond those walls.
“It seems highly unlikely for her to attempt so risky a purge,” my successor said. “Especially when the aristocracy is bound to come down firmly in her favour when the Carrion Lord comes for the Tower.”
“You’re missing the point, Boss,” Robber quietly said. “Pickler’s saying her mother doesn’t think this can be won. So all she did was get her hands on goods to bargain with.”
I blinked in surprise. This was, on the surface, madness. The Dread Empire was largely without allies at the moment. Sure, the Empress had probably made pacts in the eastern Free Cities, but none of them would be willing to march to war for her. And the Dead King had most the continent arrayed against him. Crusades with lesser forces than those gathered in Salia had driven him back into Keter, so why would Wither choose now to change sides? The Matrons were a cautious bunch: they’d waited until Thalassina was dust, half the legions were in effective exile and Callowan support was secured before finally striking. Why would Wither not wait a few more months before making her decision, at least to see how the Grand Alliance did against Keter?
“And what might she trade the return of Foramen for?” Vivienne asked.
“Rule over the rest of the Tribes,” Robber suggested.
“That wouldn’t hold,” I said. “It solidifies goblins around a single ruler, even if it’s a hated one.”
And once the Tribes began to unify, a thousand years of Praesi work would begin to unravel. A coalition of tribes nudged into constant feuding by breeding restrictions and strictly limited trade was something the Tower could comfortably believe itself to be able to put down if it rose in rebellion, even with the difficulties inherent in campaigning in the Grey Eyries. An effective goblin queendom, though? That was a whole other kettle of fish. Even if the throne changed dynasties with every season, a common army and the ability to mobilize workforce from all tribes would make even a fledgling goblin state an utter nightmare to put down should it rebel. It would be much unlike Malicia to trade a short-term gain for a long-term disaster, considering she likely intended to reign until the long term came to pass. Especially when she could simply have waited until the goblin armies had bloodied each other then forcefully taken Foramen from whoever came out the victor.
I wished Akua was here, for her insights into Praes would have been welcome, but she had duties just as pressing. Someone needed to get in touch with our armies before they came out of the Twilight Ways, and though Masego still had the know-how he no longer had the sorcery. I’d told him to double down on exploring his theory, besides, with the help of the Rogue Sorcerer whenever he could be spared. If the Dead King was truly about to start flinging around a few millennia’s worth of accumulated nastiness, we needed anything that might truly be able to make a difference.
“Agreed,” Pickler said. “Nor is my mother a fool. If such an offer was made she would not have trusted it.”
“Then what did she bargain for?” Vivienne asked. “The current situation is untenable, Senior Sapper. Her seizure of Foramen has been the death knell of our supply routes for steel and munitions. We’ve enough in Callow to fill the Army’s stocks once more, but after that the well is dry.”
And that was without even speaking of the Legions-in-Exile, who after a year of campaigning had expended the vast majority of their own stocks. Marshals Juniper and Grem had combined their stores while they were fighting together in Iserre, but fought they had. There wasn’t much left in those common stores, now. Much of the Army of Callow’s war doctrine came from the Legions of Terror, straight from the Reforms, and that meant the sappers had a major role as both combat units and siege engineers. Losing one of those for lack of munitions to furnish them with would be a blow, and an ill-timed one if we were to fight Keter in the coming months. Against the hordes of the dead, goblin munitions would make a massive difference. One we badly needed if we were to have a prayer of holding the northern fronts.
“Poison Tooth,” Pickler said, quoting the scroll I’d handed her. “Bitter Stride, Clay Sun, every single tribe listed here – they are all face-tribes.”
“Pickler,” Robber hissed.
“That is not preserved knowledge, Robber,” she dismissed. “The Taghreb figured out that much centuries ago. And even if it was, what would the Preservers do?”
“The Preservers,” I slowly said.
“There are some among our kind that are tasked with the preservation of secrecy,” Pickler said.
Robber, never one to miss an occasion to be grisly, slit his throat with a finger.
“Loose tongues lead to open throats,” Robber said. “Even a child knows that.”
“And the Legions allow this?” I frowned.
“Not openly,” Pickler conceded. “Yet Marshal Ranker did not join her entire tribe to the Carrion Lord’s cause without requiring concessions, in the days before the Conquest. As for the days before the Reforms, well…”
What did your average Dread Emperor care for goblins killing each other, she meant. Not a lot, most likely, and they’d have to know that trying too hard to get at goblin secrets would mean a rebellion. I doubted that the common assertions that only goblins spoke the goblin tongues was true, but then Black had taught me they regularly changed their spoken language so that it could not ever truly be grasped.
“I made no such concessions,” I flatly said.
“They would have sought them form you, in time,” Pickler said, hissing through her teeth. “Made sale of steel and munitions contingent on them.”
“Allow me to be perfectly clear,” I said, tone clipped. “In choosing to serve in the Army of Callow, you have become citizens of Callow. With all rights and protections so afforded.”
“We do not make exceptions to this,” Vivienne said, voice as offended as I felt. “And if the old crones think they can twist our arms over such a matter with trade, then they will be taught otherwise harshly.”
Robber looked, to my deep unease, almost helpless.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “It is… you, we… We just don’t spill secrets, Boss. It’s not what we do. It’s not what a goblin does.”
“Matrons talk,” Pickler said, tone embittered. “All else hold their tongue. That is our way.”
We had, it seemed, tumbled into a deeper pit than I’d thought. It would not be bridged tonight, I thought, and there were prior callings. Best move on.
“Face-tribes,” I said. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Tribes who represent us with outsiders,” Pickler said. “The High Ridge learn and speak with the Taghreb, by custom, but under my mother the Banu of Foramen were the humans cultivated. No doubt the secrets she stole and traded helped the Confederation take the city from the Banu and helped her take it from the Confederation.”
“And all the other tribes she allied with have similar purposes?” I pressed.
“The Bitter Strides are a dark hand by custom – they hurt in concert with another tribe that speaks sweetly – but they too know well the peoples of the Hungering Sands,” Pickler said.
Suddenly Pickler’s assertion that her mother did not intend to return to the Grey Eyries sounded more believable. Matron Wither had assembled allies that could navigate the Wasteland and only that kind, which implied those were the people she had a use for.
“Fuck,” I said. “She’s trying for nobility, isn’t she? With so many nobles dead the Empress can find her a holding somewhere, and she’ll take in her allied tribes as retainers.”
“Thalassina was obliterated with sorcery, but it has a strategic location and great prestige as a holding,” Vivienne said. “A worthy reward, perhaps, for one returning Foramen to the Tower.”
The knock on the door saw my irritation rise sharply, but I mastered it. A young Callowan soldier – fair-haired, likely southern of birth – entered, face anxious. He was bringing, he said, word from Lord Hierophant and Royal Advisor Kivule as well Lord Adjutant. Contact had been made with the Army of Callow. My brow rose, since Akua had told me it was unlikely to work until we were much closer to dawn. Hierophant’s presence must have helped more than anticipated.
“Noted,” I said. “You may leave.”
He looked like he wanted to twist his hands anxiously, but he spoke up again.
“Your Majesty,” he said, “your presence has been required.”
“I left Lord Adjutant with them to see to anything that might require my presence in the first place,” I said.
“And it is he that sent me to you, Your Majesty,” the boy said. “I am to tell you that the Army of Callow has left the Twilight Ways, and is now encamped in northern Bayeux.”
It took me a moment to place the principality in my mind – it was south of Arans, where my army was meant to march, and had commanded one of the two paths into the Red Flower Vales before the passes were collapsed. Well short of where they should be.
“Are the Legions-in-Exile with them?” Vivienne asked.
The boy shook his head.
“My lady, they left,” he got out. “And Marshal Juniper has placed herself under arrest, along with almost third of the officers in the army.”