“Fairness is the refrain of the lazy, the inept, the heroic. Anyone unwilling to stack the deck and murder the judge to seize victory has no place wielding any real power.”
– Dread Emperor Callous
I’d seen enough presage boxes by now I could tell who it was from the Workshop that’d made them. The Blind Maker’s carved enchantments were in beautifully fluid cursive, like the High Tyrian they derived from, and they felt warm to the touch. The Bitter Blacksmith – the heroine, not her villain brother at the Morgentor – chiselled in hers with swift, impersonal precision while avoiding flourishes. She had little taste for such work and always sought to finish it as quickly as was possible without compromising quality. The Hunted Magician, whose work was being held up in front of me right now, took to the craft with the same amount of cryptic paranoia that was his signature in everything else. Though the symbols he used were some sort of ancient Mavii runes and like much of that ancient people’s work they were as much art as function, within them the villain carved entirely unnecessary and unrelated symbols. Masego had told me that carving those signs in any order but what it must have originally been done in would make the box fail to function, sounding about as impressed by this as he’d been miffed.
The runes on the side, which I fancied to look like a wheel woven from winds when taken in all at once, remained inert even when brought close to me. The mage from the Third Army – a lieutenant, by the stripes – tested Akua as well before drawing back with a sharp nod at the rest of the force surrounding us. She saluted me, pointedly not looking at Akua more than she needed to. Blonde, that woman, I noted. Liessen did tend to be fair-haired.
“Your Majesty,” she greeted me in Chantant. “Lieutenant Eve Baldry, tenth company. I’m currently under loan to Captain Raphael Twice-Drowned of the Ardeni Guard.”
Fantassins, then, not proper Volignac foot. The ten soldiers who’d come along with the Lanterns and the lieutenant had undeniably had that look about them, it must be said. It wasn’t a question of equipment, not anymore, as Cordelia had with my enthusiastic blessing begun offering to pay the mercenary companies with good steel the moment trade with the Kingdom Under opened again. Nowadays fantassins were not significantly better or worse off in equipment than Proceran regulars, though the personal armies of the princes and princesses still boasted superior arms as well as training. But where regulars and sworn men wore the colours of some royalty or another, fantassins wore marks just as garish as the names of their leaders and companies. As a rule, the more outlandish the names and colours the longer they’d been in the mercenary trade, which meant the eye-watering shades of orange and green on their feathered helms were a good sign.
Any soldiers wearing colours that bright in a war against Black’s legions would get a goblin arrow in the throat before the campaign’s first night was over, but the Principate had fought a different sort of wars in the days before the Dead King. The Ardeni Guard was not familiar to me as I knew only the most distinguished of the companies in Hainaut, like the Grands Routiers and Hermosa Foxes. I’d taken Klaus Papenheim’s solid advice and left Princess Beatrice Volignac to handle the fantassins along with southern Procer process as a whole, which meant I was not forced to entertain half a hundred swaggering captains for meals regularly but also that I was only passingly knowledgeable about that particular slice of our forces. I cast a curious glance at the Lanterns – faces painted white and gold and built like they’d spent the better part of their lives in a shield wall instead of a temple – but got no introduction out of them, only respectful nods. The formal priesthood the Dominion answered to only the Gods Above, in principle, and not even the Holy Seljun could command something of them should they be disciplined. In practice they tended to be receptive to requests from the Blood, though not to the point of outright subservience. The only person I’d ever seen the warrior-priests take a knee for was the Grey Pilgrim.
To me they offered respect but no great deference, and to use them on the field I usually needed to pass the order down to them through Aquiline or Razin. Inconvenient, but given how brutally effective they’d proved against undead I’d keep my complaining down to a pittance.
“Well met, lieutenant,” I replied in Lower Miezan. “I don’t suppose you could tell me what the lights above are about?”
“Above my paygrade I’m afraid, ma’am,” the blonde mage said. “I heard there was a scuffle, but my orders didn’t come with a briefing attached. Captain Raphael might know, though, they’re in charge of the gate for the first night rotation.”
I frowned. I was more inclined to head directly to the heart of the camp and interrogate someone in charge than stop by for a chat with a fantassin captain, but the casualness of the mage’s reply was surprising me. She did not seem concern in the slightest.
“Muster wasn’t sounded?” I asked.
“It wasn’t,” Lieutenant Baldry confirmed.
Akua hummed out in amusement.
“The White Knight has returned, hasn’t he?” she asked.
The Callowan lieutenant turned a cold glare to the shade, long enough to acknowledge a question had been asked before turning to me to answer it.
“Lord White returned about half a bell ago, ma’am,” Lieutenant Baldry agreed. “He’s got another two Named with him, though I can’t say I recognized either.”
I could have said I was warned of another’s coming by the sound of footsteps, but that would almost have been untrue. The sound of boots on earth was a small thing compared to the almost aggressive loudness of what the approaching soldier was wearing: there was a good coat of mail somewhere under there, and a cuirass, but it was almost hard to see under the green-and-orange striped vest that went down to their thigh, which were in turn covered by bouffant pants going down to the knees that added bright blue to the palette. None of the… frills, though, seemed to hinder movement: the pants were tucked into good steel greaves, and the vest was close enough to the body it shouldn’t get caught in anything when a sword was being swung. The long dyed hair, half orange and half green with two small stripes of blue, was the finishing touch to the ensemble, framing an almost comically unremarkable face. The fantassins parted for them, which allowed me an easy guess.
“Captain Raphael?” I asked in Chantant.
Gods, let them be the captain. I was not sure my eyes could physically take the amount of garishness it would take for the captain to out-peacock this one.
“We meet once more, Black Queen,” the Proceran boldly replied. “A strange turn of fate, that would see us fight side by side when we were once enemies.”
I smiled blandly, wondering if I was meant to have any clue at all who this was beyond some mercenary captain. Still, it wouldn’t do to let anyone know I was confused.
“Yes,” I gallantly tried. “That is true.”
At my side Akua’s stance stiffened the slightest bit, which was the Sahelian equivalent of uproarious laughter at my expense. All right, so maybe it’d not been the finest of my illusions.
“Twice-Drowned?” I prodded, cocking my head to the side.
“When the grounds collapsed at the Battle of Trifelin, I fell into an underground well,” Captain Raphael smiled. “Along with a few hundred pounds of stone. Yet it was still more pleasant an evening than being subjected to your tender mercies at the Battle of the Camps, Your Majesty.”
Trifelin was, from what I recalled, a major defeat that Princess Rozala had been inflicted in the early months of her defence of Cleves the first time she’d been charged with the defence of the principality. It’d been a hard setback that could have turned into a proper disaster had heroes not held the rearguard of the retreat. Impressive they’d survived that mess when standing in the thick of it, much less the implication they’d been on the field at the Camps when I’d opened the gate into Arcadia and dropped a lake on the crusaders. Someone to keep an eye on, I decided. Survive enough scraps by the skin of your teeth, these days, and a Name might not be too far ahead.
“You may rest assured, captain, that when lakes next fall you’ll be on the side welcoming it,” I said, tone droll. “And as it happens, I’ve questions you might have the answer to.”
“It would be my pleasure, Your Majesty,” the captain replied with a sweeping bow.
I took a step forward, Akua falling in behind, only to found Captain Raphael had offered me their arm. How long has it been since someone tried that? I wondered, baffled and just a little charmed. I took the offered courtesy and we walked towards the closest watchtower, where a brazier was being used to roast meat in a way that would have seen a legionary of my armies harshly reprimanded for. Fantassins, though, had different standards of discipline.
“I have heard that the White Knight returned,” I began.
“Indeed,” the captain agreed. “Along with the Valiant Champion and a girl from parts unknown.”
I forced my face to remain calm, my fingers to remain unclenched. The Valiant Champion, huh. Hanno was usually cleverer than this when bringing strays home – that I’d not skinned that so-called heroine alive and made a cloak out of the leather was already showing great restraint, as far as I was concerned. The Champion was an ally in the fight against Keter, and so would be extended all courtesies and privileges that the Truce and Terms required of me. Yet I’d rather eat my own hand than offer a thimble more to that woman, and that was not an enmity that would ever be buried.
“And it was Lord Hanno who ordered the use of the warding array?” I asked.
Raphael nodded and leaned in close, lowering their voice.
“I am told there was some manner of infiltration by the Dead King,” the captain said. “It was quickly dealt with through use of the sorcery that lies at the heart of the camps, though that section still remains closed.”
“Casualties?” I bluntly asked.
It wasn’t that Neshamah wasn’t capable of subtlety: he was, and often the costs of missing his quieter schemes were the stuff nightmares were made of. On the other hand, even if Hanno had ridden in with providence at his back to unmask the Hidden Horror’s latest ploy this seemed too sloppy of an attempt to feasibly have lasted on the long term. Which meant this wasn’t an infiltration attempt, it was strapping goblinfire to a sapper’s back and sending him running at a gate. The Dead King was always willing to trade lives or resources for corpses, even at seemingly ruinous rates.
“I know not, Your Majesty,” Captain Raphael said. “Though I was told the central camp was closed by the Deadhand’s order, so your man ought to have the answers you seek.”
He usually did, truth be told. I’d come to sincerely believe that the Empire’s occupation of my homeland might have led to widespread chaos and rebellion within a few years, if Scribe hadn’t been at my father’s side. Like Black, who’d never settled in a Callowan city to rule the kingdom from, I’d been forced to discharge a great many responsibilities from a glum succession of army camps, small towns and fortresses – without Hakram keeping everything organized even as we moved, it would have all gone to shit with remarkable haste. Even now, he tended to know more about what was going on in the camp than I did.
“Then I will seek him in turn,” I said. “I thank you for the conversation, Captain Raphael.”
Taking the hint, they adroitly extricated their arm from mine and offered another gallant bow.
“Until fate deigns to reunite us, Black Queen,” the mercenary smoothly replied.
While I wasn’t always the, uh, sharpest when it came to picking up on this sort of thing I was pretty sure I was being flirted with. One hand, well, Alamans. They’d try to seduce the Choir of Contrition, if the angels showed enough leg. On the other hand, it was kind of flattering. It’d been a while since someone without a Name had tried their hand at that with me, even so superficially. It put the slightest of springs to my step as I left the fantassin captain behind. Akua did not say a word, though she did begin walking at my side instead of remaining a step behind as we headed deeper into camp.
“Hakram’s on board with whatever the White Knight pulled, sounds like,” I murmured.
Reassuring, that. I’d come to put a surprising degree of trust onto Hanno’s shoulders, since the Peace of Salia, but it was not the kind of trust that went without questioning or disagreement. Adjutant, though, I trusted implicitly. I might as well begin questioning my own limbs, should I not. If he’d backed this there was a good reason it for it.
“The Sword of Judgement has proved a capable ally,” Akua conceded. “And unlike some of his more rambunctious colleagues, he is not one to resort to collateral damage when there are other approaches to be had.”
That’d been a pleasant surprise, since while heroes tended to be careful with the lives of others they tended to be a great deal less so with equipment. Even when that equipment was very, very valuable. It was a cold hard truth that there were artefacts and siege machinery in this camp that were worth more than soldiers, and though that was an ugly thing to face it came with being a professional soldier. I could send for reinforcements, if what was lost was lives, but there were only so many wardstones to distribute across all the fronts and they were not easily replaced.
“He’s a solid one,” I grunted in agreement.
I wouldn’t have been able to pull off the Terms and Truce without him, that much couldn’t be denied. There’d been heroes that simply would not have been willing to deal with a villain if he’d not leant me the weight of his seal of approval, and that would have led to deaths. Even just a few of those would have made it seem like I was trying to conscript Named into my service, which would have gone… badly. Tariq still had a lot of pull with heroes he’d helped or saved when they were younger, that much couldn’t be denied, but as word of my raising him from the dead at the Graveyard had spread so had rumours that he was somehow under my influence. He was no longer the unquestioned grandfatherly fount of wisdom he’d once been to his side, though his record over the last two years had certainly begun redeeming the dip in his reputation.
The avenue leading to the heart of the camp was guarded by checkpoints at regular intervals and it was not long before we found our first one, along with a proper company of my soldiers. The captain commanding it knew about as much as Captain Raphael had, which wasn’t much, but she sent a runner ahead of us along before providing us with a full line in escort. I did not need more defending inside my own camp, but twenty legionaries at your back did tend to expedite most conversations. We continued deeper in, the sparse conversation I’d shared with Akua petering out entirely. I spoke with my soldiers instead, learning with pleasure that the line’s lieutenant was an old hand from the Fifteenth. He’d been from the second wave of Callowan recruits, after Three Hills and Marchford – when Black had essentially emptied the Legion training camps in the kingdom and tossed all those green men my way.
“Lost a finger at Dormer,” Lieutenant Oliver told me almost eagerly. “From one of them Immortals critters, after the Hellhound sent us up the hill.”
“They were hard bastards, even for fae,” I said. “Summer’s finest.”
“Shit name though, no offence Your Majesty,” the veteran snorted, and I grinned back. “After Lady Dartwick nicked those banners, they were pretty moral when the gobbos from ninth company unloaded. Finger got fixed up good anyway, one of them Soninke wizards from Afolabi’s legion put it right back on.”
“Not even a scar?” I teased. “All the best war stories have scars to go with them.”
“Aye,” Lieutenant Oliver mourned. “It tingles a little when there’s magic in the air, I know it, but these fresh pups from after the Folly don’t believe me. Say it’s all in my head.”
“Tell them you have me convinced, next time,” I suggested.
“That ought to make a few of the little pricks piss their armour,” Lieutenant Oliver gleefully said, then remembered who he was speaking to. “Um, Your Majesty.”
I snorted, clapped the man’s shoulder.
“I’ve spent more time on a saddle than a throne, soldier,” I reminded him amusedly. “By all means, make the little pricks piss their armour.”
That got a howl of laughter out of the lot of them, and it was in a better mood that I hit the second checkpoint. Where, looming tall above Osena sworn swords, I found the key to getting answers about what had happened in the camp tonight. No amount of polish would ever remove the scorch marks Summer flame had left on Adjutant’s plate, though as time passed he’d come to like the look. It was distinctive, as was his height even among his own kind. The black, fur-like hair nowadays going down to his jaw on the sides was another distinction, as it was far longer than either Legion or Army regulations would allow. Still, there was a reason he was not known as the Blacksteel: the most distinctive part of all was the fleshless hands, one of sheer bone and the other cast in pale spectral light. Hakram Deadhand had earned his sobriquet twice over, and Dead the Hand remained a favourite to sing among my soldiers.
A few lines had even been added after his scrap with the Baron of Thorns, as his brutal dismantling of the Revenant while reciting orc poetry had made something of an impression. Hakram strode through the Levantine armsmen, either not noticing or caring how a few of them had to hastily move out of the way or been bowled over. His broad face looked relieved.
“Catherine,” he greeted me, arm taking arm in a legionary’s salute. “I’d wondered if you were ambushed. Beastmaster knew little, but it seemed likely.”
“We were,” I darkly replied.
Good mood gone the way of mist under morning sun, I fixed a calm look on my face before dismissing my legionary escort with a few kind words. By the considering look on Hakram’s face, he’d picked up on the general vicinity of how badly my night had gone.
“So were we,” Adjutant added in a low voice as we passed through the checkpoint.
He settled at my right side, so naturally I almost didn’t notice, while Akua took my left. Not an unapt summation of the last two years, I thought.
“What happened?” I quietly asked. “Our defences shouldn’t allow for infiltration, Hakram. We’ve put the stones in every gate, any enchantment he hits our people with should be disrupted.”
“Ghouls slipped in,” the tall orc told me. “A new kind, that can-”
“Shapeshift,” Akua murmured.
Hakram shot her a considering look and she offered back a slight nod.
“Your escort,” Adjutant told me, and it was not a question.
“We have the bodies in the Night,” I said.
A halfwit would have put one and one together, given that much to go on, and Hakram was the very opposite.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Beastmaster said he was just a boy.”
My finger clenched around my staff until the knuckles turned white.
“Sometimes we just lose,” I softly replied, through teeth I did not remember clenching.
It fit, though. I felt like my entire body was clenching every time I thought of the kid I’d had to put down because of my own sloppiness.
“I’ll be seeing what duties I can shake loose, to avoid repeating the mistakes that led do that loss,” I forced out.
As if by coincidence, his flank leaned against mine. It was the most comfort either of us would allow him to give me in public but, trivial as it might seem, I was shamefully grateful for it.
“The presage boxes should have caught them,” I said, and if my voice was a little choked all three of us pretended not to have heard it.
“We’ve found a weakness in our defences,” Adjutant gravelled. “The Order of Broken Bells.”
Akua caught on before me, somewhat unsurprisingly. Generations of her forbears had cut their teeth on this very obstacle, after all.
“Their armour,” the golden-eyed shade said. “The same hymn carvings that disrupt active sorcery prevented the ghouls from triggering the boxes.”
Fuck, I thought. The weakness we could fix, the corpses we could not. I’d lost even more knights, by the sounds of it.
“Talbot?” I asked.
Losing him would be a setback. Not only was he the highest-ranking noble officer in my armies, the man had essentially put the Broken Bells together from scratch. In both politics and war, his death would be a loss keenly felt.
“Getting his eye fixed by the White Knight’s fresh helper,” Hakram replied. “The ghouls were caught out before they could finish what they’d been sent for.”
My eyes narrowed, relief at the Grandmaster of the Broken Bells surviving being shoved at the back of my mind.
“Assassinations, but that’s nothing new,” I said. “Wouldn’t have been worth revealing another breed of ghouls for. They went after the wardstones.”
“They meant to contaminate the lesser array in the Third Army camp,” the orc confirmed. “They were caught out by the White Knight, but the alarm being rung only made them strike out aggressively.”
“Losses?” Akua asked.
“Light,” Adjutant said. “Twenty dead, half again that wounded. They aimed for high-ranking officers but got caught before getting to them. The wardstones from the Third’s camp were hit with some sort of sorcery that Senior Mage Dastardly called ‘poisonous’. He had some difficulty elaborating on this, but was adamant it was a problem.”
I felt Akua gaze’s fall on me.
“Go,” I said. “I’ll want a damage assessment as soon as you can deliver.”
She bowed, more for the eyes peeled on us than anything else, and without another word melted into the nearest shadows.
“So the array purge was used to flush out the ‘poison’,” I said, then flicked a glance at the lights in the distance.
It’d take more than one purge to have that much sorcerous aftermath left behind.
“Whatever shapeshifting trick it is the ghouls use, it is of a nature similar to enchantment,” Hakram replied.
And the sorcery sent flowing out by a purge screwed with enchantments, which was why I disliked using those in the first place.
“It unmasked them,” I mused. “Clever.”
Sounded like Hanno, too. He preferred helping people help themselves rather than sweeping in on a white horse and fixing everything before disappearing into the sunset. Hopefully that hadn’t cost us a few months of vulnerability to the Dead King’s tricks, though. Gods, the vermin wards better be fucking holding at least. The atrocities Neshamah could commit with undead rats and bugs were not something I ever intended to suffer through again.
“I ordered the central camp closed as soon as we learned, but they were already inside,” Hakram told me. “They eat and impersonate people at a distressing rate, Catherine. We think the Barrow Sword and the White Knight’s followers cleared them out, but we’re keeping the camp closed until everyone with access to the stones has been cleared with both Light and sorcery.”
I grunted in approval.
“Full audit of the ranks come morning,” I said. “I don’t care if they grumble, there’ll be no risks taken with something that dangerous. And for the Order-”
“Talbot already offered that every knight should dismount and submit to testing by Light whenever they enter camp,” Hakram told me.
“We’ll see if something less clumsy can be arranged,” I replied.
I had clever enough people in my employ, and if nothing else I could have Razin and Aquiline cut their teeth on the logistics of it. After I shoved them back into the Pilgrim’s tender embrace, they’d hold their commands without my looking over their shoulder. They needed to be prepared to deal with situations like this on their own. This deep in the camp and with Adjutant at my side, we went through the last checkpoints without anyone trying to stop us. Even though the situation had, in principle, already been handled I still wanted to at least speak with Hanno. Besides, since he’d brought in another Named I would prefer having a look at them before too long. Best not to have one of those wandering camp without being able to put a Name and face to them, even if a name wasn’t always forthcoming. The last ring of defences was manned entirely by the Army of Callow, which did tend to end up with those duties by virtue of both being my personal army and the best organized of the troops. When the Iron Prince’s own troops were around it was another story, but Prince Klaus was far from here, holding the northern defence line in our absence.
I got to hit three birds with one stone when the captain in command informed me that the White Knight was currently in the same tent where Grandmaster Brandon Talbot was being healed, supervising the work being done by the healer he’d brought in. It wasn’t a long walk from there, and I knew my way around the camp well: a few moments later I was parting open the tent flap and passing it to Hakram before slipping into the tent. Within a heartbeat of that I saw a half-naked Brandon Talbot try to rise to his feet, to the vocal if inarticulate protest of the two heroes in the tent, but he only stopped when I sharply gestured for him to sit.
“Don’t blind yourself on my account,” I said. “My queenly honour will withstand your staying seated.”
“Much obliged, Your Majesty,” Grandmaster Talbot replied.
He was careful not to move his head this time, having been levied a heavy frown by the healer in front of him.
“The nerves were almost healed,” said young girl mourned. “We’ll have to start over, Sir Brandon. Please remain still, if it pleases you.”
The tent flap closed behind Hakram, who had to bend his neck the slightest bit to avoid his head touching the ceiling of it.
“Catherine,” the White Knight greeted me with a smile.
“Hanno,” I replied, feeling my lips quirk the slightest bit.
It really was good to have him back. Even just sitting on a crate in a leather jerking, keeping an eye on his duckling, the dark-skinned man felt like an island of calm in a chaotic sea.
“I would greet you properly, Your Majesty, but I cannot stay my hand,” the young girl apologized without turning.
And she was young, I saw. Scrawny and that dirty tunic she wore had seen better days, but for all that there was no denying the pulsing potency of the Light she was wielding to help my knight.
“You do me more courtesy by healing Brandon Talbot than a hundred curtsies would scrape together,” I said. “White Knight?”
“Introductions can be seen to when her attention is not elsewhere demanded,” Hanno said. “Though I wager you’ve other questions. I’ve news to give you, regardless.”
“Do you now?” Hakram gravelled from behind me.
“Not so urgent as to need an intermediary, Adjutant,” the White Knight told my second, unmoved.
The relationship between those two was best described as cordial dislike, though I’d never quite managed to put a finger on the source of it.
“What happened, Hanno?” I asked, cutting through the tension.
“After stumbling across one of the ghouls, I did what was necessary to flush out those in hiding before major damage could be done,” he said. “Yet this was part of a greater scheme, Catherine. I’ve been speaking with Prince Klaus, and before coming here I met with the Peregrine.”
My brow rose.
“Tell me,” I ordered.
“The Order of the Red Lion confirmed that the dead were massing for an offensive until an hour ago,” he said. “And now I fully understand why they gathered, and now no longer do.”
“I don’t suppose you intend to share at some point?” I drily replied.
He shot me an amused look.
“I found Pascale here,” he said, gesturing towards the young girl, “with the help of the Valiant Champion after following up on a rumour that Tariq had been seen in the region.”
I’d already made plain my feelings on that woman to the hero, so I saw no need to belabor the point by expressing the again now. Talk of the Pilgrim, though, sparked my interest. The Peregrine had lent his hand to none of the fronts, instead staying true to the roots of his Name and journeying wherever the Choir of Mercy deemed him to be most needed. If he’d really come here, then either we’d narrowly avoided a disaster or we were about to have one on our hands.
“It was a Revenant behind all of this,” Hanno told me. “We named her the Plague-Maker, though besides her Praesi origins and talent in sorcery we know little of her.”
“You found plague seeds as well,” I breathed out.
“It was a scheme in two parts, as far as we can tell,” the White Knight said. “First, after slipping through our defensive lines-”
“Which she shouldn’t have fucking been able to do, Revenant or not,” I bluntly said. “That’s the reason we send the Augur all our oracles, so that she can warn us about shit like this.”
“There was demonic taint on her,” he told me. “Absence, Tariq believes, which might be why she blindsided us. I do not know when the Dead King might have found such a Named-”
“I do,” I replied. “And if it’s from when I believe, she’s not the last one he’ll have in store.”
Malicia herself had once told me that Dread Empress Maleficent II had used demons of absence to avert the disastrous consequences of the three Secret Wars, for after failed invasions of the Serenity a counter-invasion of Ater by hellgate had been imminent. I couldn’t know how many people the general who’d later become Dread Empress had throw to the dogs to avert utter calamity, but considering how ruthless Maleficent the Second had ended up being as a ruler I doubted that it’d be a small number. Hells, considering half the continent was fighting Keter these days and we were still slowly losing I couldn’t even blame her.
“A discussion to be had later, then,” the White Knight said. “Regardless, the undead plagues were meant to draw a significant fighting force south. A large force of zombies was massed around the Plague-Maker, hidden in the wilds, which I believe was meant to attack this very camp.”
“The new ghouls were meant to hit our wards and leadership right before,” I said.
“Exactly,” Hanno nodded. “And, as a precaution, even if we won that battle handily we would be kept occupied by massive breakouts of the seeded plague in Brabant.”
“Which we’d have to move to suppress, even as his armies took a swing at the northern defence line,” I muttered.
It’d been, I thought, a pretty good plan. And it ought to have scrapped this summer as a season for an offensive war even if it didn’t go entirely his way, all at the price of at most a single Revenant.
“You caught the Plague-Maker first, I take it,” I said.
“Tariq found her in a western crossroads town, seeding refugee caravans passing through,” Hanno said. “Rafaella and I caught up with him just as the confrontation began.”
My eyes flicked to the young girl who was, by the looks of it, checking on Talbot’s eye one last time before declaring him healed.
“That is where we found Pascale,” Hanno agreed. “She’d caught on to the Plague-Maker’s work.”
I felt my hackles raise, though I wasn’t quite sure why.
“Hale as you might hope to be, Sir Brandon,” the girl – Pascale, apparently – smiled. “I am finished, if it pleases you.”
“You have my most sincere thanks, Lady Apostle,” the Grandmaster replied, rising to his feet. “If there is anything I can do to repay you-”
“I have already been repaid,” the girl said, “in the only way that matters.”
He bowed to her anyway, for he was a decent man, and offered to give me a report even as he put on a shirt before I bluntly told him to sleep off his healing and find me on the morrow. My shoulders were still tense, and I was not quite sure why. Hakram hovered close behind me, having picked up on my discomfort but being as confused as to the source of it as I was.
“I take it the Grey Pilgrim did as the Grey Pilgrim does,” I said, getting the conversation going again.
“He stepped in to protect me, when I tried to heal the plague,” Pascale happily told me. “My Choosing had already happened, but it is not suited to strife and I was most distressed.”
“He drove the Revenant off and we caught her as she tried to escape,” Hanno elaborated. “She called on the undead she’d been gathering, but we held them off long enough for the pilgrim’s star to shine.”
Meaning Tariq had smote into the ground what must have been at least a few hundred zombies but most likely had been a few thousand. It was easy to forget how fucking terrifying Tariq Fleetfoot could be, when he had the right story had his back.
“Lucky us you’d learned enough of the Light by then to pick up on the plague,” I warmly told the girl.
“I had not, Your Majesty,” she admitted. “My father was a wizard, who taught me of the Three Tells and the Seven Essences. Yet even so, magic would have failed. Yet my prayers were answered by Above, in our hour of need.”
“You are,” I slowly said, “a mage.”
“I was,” the young girl told me with an elated smile. “When I became the Stalwart Apostle the sorcery vanished from my veins, and the Light finally answered my prayers.”
A crack resounded in the room. It had, I dimly realized, come from my staff. My grip had been too tight around it.
“Did they listen to you?” I quietly asked. “When you warned them about the plague?”
I felt the White Knight’s heavy gaze on me but did not meet in. I looked only at this slip of a girl, who was so smilingly alive where the boy was dead.
“They did not,” Pascale sadly said. “But the Heavens did, when I knelt and asked for guidance. And through the Light, I found the way to dissolve the plague.”
This was, I told myself, nothing I should not have expected. A Named – or close enough – in the service of Evil, had been sowing death and preparing to bring about a great woe. It was only natural for the Heavens to put together a Named meant to end those designs, as the girl clearly had been.
“Ninety-nine times out of a hundred,” I said, voice cold, “nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, that act of faith would have killed dozens of thousands.”
The girl looked like I’d struck her.
“Catherine,” the White Knight warned me.
My fingers clenched tighter still around the staff of yew, death made into a marching stick. He’d been a wretched boy, Tancred, but he’d not been wrong. To act instead of pray, to trust his the ugly work of his hands rather than the silent Heavens. How many thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions had stood in this girl’s place over the centuries and seen their faith rewarded only by a grisly death? No, the Scorched Apostate had not been wrong. He’d not been Chosen either, he’d done his own choosing. And the Heavens had damned him for it, so damn the presumptuous fucks for that in turn. Hakram’s hand warmed my shoulder and I closed my eyes for a long moment.
“It’s been a long day,” I finally said. “We’ll speak tomorrow.”
There was a reason I was more than halfway fond of Hanno of Arwad: he looked at me for a heartbeat the nodded.
“Tomorrow,” the White Knight softly agreed, eyes considering.
I walked out of the tent and into the night, Hakram hastening to catch up.
Tancred had not been wrong, I thought, shoulders tight and teeth gritted.
But what did that matter, when he was dead?