“As sage in Nicae is a fool in Stygia.”
– Free Cities saying
Afternoon Bell came and went before Hanno made his way into my tent. The bundle of reports that inevitably accompanied contact with Salia had eaten up even more of my time than I’d anticipated it would. Vivienne had been enthusiastic in her account of the progress in the talks over the Accords, writing that giving ground over whether or not scrying a foreign country could be considered an act of aggression – which both Procer very much wanted it to be, considering its massive deficiencies in both city-warding and scrying rituals compared to Callow and Levant – had allowed her to get concessions over what we’d termed ‘civil diabolism’, the summoning and binding of devils for purposes other than war. The rest had been more disparate a pack of news than a cohesive, though no less useful for it.
Archer had apparently been seen in the Proceran heartlands with a sixth member to her band, which meant a fresh Named had been added to our roster and would be in touch soon. The First Prince had passed along a note on the state of the Grand Alliance treasury – which remained surprisingly good, all things considered – but also cautioned that the Principality of Brabant’s harvests seemed headed for catastrophe. She went on to write me that feeding this territory, and its massive numbers of refugees, would put us squarely back in the red before winter came. Pickler had sent a refinement on the rotating siege harpoon ballistae schematics she’d made up in Twilight’s Pass. She also mentioned in a separate letter, sounding somewhat flattered, that Prince Otto Reitzenberg had extended a formal invitation for her to found and settle a tribe in Lycaonese lands after the war.
It was a grave misreading of my Sapper-General’s interest in leadership duties so I wasn’t worried about poaching, but I doubted this would be the last of it. Even the Iron Prince had expressed interest in goblin engineering and, considering that Hannoven was yet in the hands of the Dead King, his people had a great deal of rebuilding ahead of them. Still, maybe a strongly worded letter to Otto Redcrown might serve as a helpful reminder that trying to recruit from my sapper corps was, at the very least, a slight to the crown of Callow. Moving on to less grounded matters, the rumours gathered in the south and east by the Jacks remained wild as ever.
The dead were said to walk the streets of Nicae, General Basilia had supposedly eaten the heart of a holy oracle and could now see the future. A band of pale spectres was haunting the Green Stretch, all the while Dread Empress Sepulchral had turned into a black-scaled dragon and ravaged the outskirts of Wolof’s territory. That last one might in truth be the reappearance of General Nekheb of the Tenth Legion, though I’d also heard it said they were nesting among the ruins of the Red Flower Vales so I was less than sure. Somewhat amusingly, it was also quite a popular tale that I’d apaparently brought down the sky on Refuge so that I could steal its Named away into my service.
More important than the wild stories, though was the hastily tacked-on addition from Vivienne that Duchess Kegan had passed forward Dread Empress Sepulchral’s request to open formal diplomatic talks with the Grand Alliance. So far the diplomacy there had been informal and half a secret, and I’d gladly left it to my successor and Hasenbach. This, though, would require my personal attention. Joy. At least we might get enough leverage from that I might be able to wheedle out whether Sepulchral was a genuine claimant or just a horse for Black to ride. I’d better bring Akua into this as well, though that wasn’t unlike asking a wolf about their opinion of the hunt. Still, even years away from the Wasteland she had a better grasp of the way functioned there than anyone else under my command.
Aisha’s family was old and well-connected, after all, but ultimately minor nobility. The Sahelians lived and breathed intrigued at the very highest levels of Praes, and Akua hadn’t just been any one of the lot: she’d been the heiress to Wolof, groomed for either rule of the High Seat or the claiming the Tower itself. Short of kidnapping an actual High Lord there was just no beating that. I was considering who else to bring into this – Hakram, naturally, but it might be worth bringing in some of the high-ranking officers I’d inherited from the Legions of Terror as well – when one of my guards popped in to inform me Hanno had arrived. I thank the man and rose to my feet, limping my way to the commode even as the White Knight entered.
He looked at me then sighed.
“Let it be brandy, at least,” Hanno haggled.
I tapped the top of the commode, jostling a lock, and the door to left compartment popped open. I snatched out a bottle of Creusens brandy and two small silver cups. I’d been prepared. Amusingly enough it was easier to get him to drink liquor than wine, and he drank quick – if only to get it over with. He waited until my nonchalant gesture to take a seat, though I’d long told him not to bother anymore.
“Well bargained, White Knight,” I solemnly said.
“You only ever say that when I’ve been had, Black Queen,” he drily replied.
I limped back to the table, using his momentary distraction as he felt out one of Indrani’s latest carvings to take a closer look at him. Even after two years of facing one brutal horror after another, the Sword of Judgement had little changed in appearance. His fuzzy hair was so closely cropped as to seem almost shaved, leaving the eye to linger instead on a plain but well-formed face. He was built like someone who worked for a living, which I’d always found appealing, and the long-sleeved grey tunic he tended to wear when out of armour had earned a few more stitches since I last saw it but still framed those muscled arms rather nicely. He wasn’t a looker, not the way Ratface had been or Akua was, but he wasn’t without his charms either. Not that I’d ever seriously consider going there, Crows, though apparently Tariq still suspected we were somehow secretly engaging in torrid trysts.
You’d think that after trying to mentor me into the grave the man would have a better appreciation of how much I had no intention of coming anywhere close to something that could, even vaguely while in dim light, pass for a tragic love story. Dismissing the thought I idly noted that he’d brought a small leather satchel – papers, maybe? He shouldn’t need to, his memory was unusually sharp. It was a side-effect of his aspect of Recall, he’d told me, which I’d found fascinating. How many aspects had little quirks like this one, barely noticeable boons tucked away in the shade of the more prominent use? Looking back, after getting Struggle as the Squire I’d gotten rather good at assessing the skill and power of my opponents compared to me. How much of that had been my gaining experience, and how much an ancillary benefit? It was an interesting bit to consider, if at this point largely academic.
“Is that the Saint of Swords that the Archer depicted herself fighting?” Hanno asked.
I set the two silver cups on the table and went to work on the bottle’s cork.
“Battle of the Camps, it was,” I agreed. “They had a scrap while Masego and I were dreaming.”
“Impressive,” Hanno said even as I finally got the cork out with a pop. “There were not many capable of facing Laurence de Montfort’s sword up close and live to tell the tale.”
Indrani had privately admitted to me that she’d waited until the Saint was tired out from the battle and it’d still been a damned close thing, but I wouldn’t disagree with Hanno’s assessment even knowing that. Archer’s talent in close quarters was only slightly helped by her Name, while the Saint had been sharpening her skills in this regard for decades. Considering how much of a terror the woman had been in her old age, I often thought we’d been damned lucky not to fight her in her prime. I poured out two cups of brandy, quirking a brow at the dark-skinned man.
“Wouldn’t have you been able to check with Recall, anyway?” I asked.
“The fresher the death and the stronger the personality the more it… lingers after use,” the White Knight admitted. “I would not call on the Saint of Sword’s life without great need.”
“Lots of her tricks came from her domain, anyway,” I mused. “Which you can’t mimic, as far as I know.”
He shot me an amused look, well used by now to the way I went about digging up everything I could about his abilities. Well, it was no mystery I’d not been raised by angels. He touched his fingers to the brandy cup, brow rising.
“Two,” he said.
“Five,” I replied without missing a beat.
“Three,” he compromised.
Ah, an opening.
“Twelve,” I boldly tried.
“Four and I’ll not tell Tariq you tried to get me drunk,” he suggested.
Oh Gods was I not in the market for another hesitant, indirect conversation about not ‘casting doubts on the nature of the Truce and Terms through unwise indulgence’. On the other hand, apparently the Witch of the Woods had heard about those and thought the whole thing was fucking hilarious – she kept making fun of Hanno in that nonverbal Gigantes language they used with each other, with all the poses and shifts. He had a stake in this as well, I figured.
“Five and I’ll stop implying in front of Secretary Nestor that your tunic’s grey because you don’t wash it,” I retorted.
As something said by the Black Queen about the White Knight, it went into the Annals every time. Every single time.
“Four and I’ll share the Workshop gossip I received with you,” Hanno offered.
You shit, I thought, not without fondness. He would definitely have shared that before, but he’d hold it back now for sure just so that when we next negotiated he’d have this to point back to.
“Fine,” I mercifully allowed. “Four.”
I set down the bottle on the table and took my cup, offering a toast.
“May you live to bury your enemies,” I said.
“Fair winds and slow rivals,” Hanno replied.
We clinked our cups and drank deep, setting down in unison. It took the edge off enough I barely felt the sting when I seated myself across from him.
“Dare I ask what’s in the bag?” I probed.
“It is not meant to be a mystery,” he said, leaning down to take the satchel before setting it in front of me. “It is a gift, Catherine. Your twenty-third nameday happened while I was away, no?”
I blinked in surprise.
“Oh,” I said. “Yes. Thank you? I’m an orphan, so I don’t really have one of those – just the foundling day late in the spring.”
It also didn’t explain why he’d given me a gift, though I wasn’t complaining.
“From your polite confusion, I take it nameday gift-giving is not a Callowan tradition,” Hanno noted.
“Not really,” I admitted. “For nobles sometimes, I think, but for most people gifts are given at the solstices and when you reach fifteen.”
The dark-skinned man cocked his head to the side, curious.
“Fifteen?” he asked.
“Age of enrollment,” I told him. “Used to be, anyway. It was kept for private noble armies under the Empire but I kicked it up to seventeen all around when I took the throne.”
Keeping it at fifteen would have helped fill the ranks after our losses more quickly but, as both Ratface and Governess-General Kendal had pointed out back then, if we kept pressing the young into service there’d be no one left to practice trades and tend to the fields. A large army was no help when it was busy starving.
“How interesting,” Hanno said, sounding genuine. “Ashurans are expected to give yearly nameday gifts to those they are tied to – family, friends or close collaborators. All within the same tier, naturally. For a citizen to court favour from a higher tier or display favour to a lower one would be frowned upon.”
The Thalassocracy of Ashur sounded like a deeply unpleasant place to live in, as usual. Weren’t there families with citizens of different tiers in them? Still, the implications there were a little flattering: I was being called both an equal and close collaborator.
“Thank you,” I said again, and took the satchel this time.
It was easy to unmake the bronze buckles, and within I found in neat little cloth packets what must have been at least half a years’ worth of wakeleaf.
“You know, when I told you to keep some of the Delosi coin I didn’t mean for you to blow it all on enabling my worst habit,” I drily said.
It’d been, though, a rather touching gesture.
“I have also been considering buying another tunic,” the White Knight calmly replied. “I’ve been told it passes as unclean to the unskilled eye.”
I swallowed a grin and clasped his wrist in appreciation. He smoothly returned the gesture.
“So when should I be looking to return a gift in kind?” I asked.
“Two days past winter solstice,” he smiled.
Ought to bring him to twenty-nine, that. As I recalled he had more or less five years on me, not that it showed: he had one of those faces which would look much the same age until he started greying. I set down the satchel to the side.
“So,” I said. “Business?”
“To business,” he agreed.
I poured him another cup, then myself, and we knocked them back without a toast. I gestured for him to begin as soon as the burn had faded from my throat.
“The Titanomachy reached out to us through Levant,” Hanno began. “They are sending an envoy north.”
I sucked in a surprised breath. The Gigantes were notoriously isolationist, and though they had longstanding ties to the Dominion it’d been my understanding those were limited to exchanges of gifts and the occasional favour. They didn’t even trade with humans in the traditional sense, as far as I knew.
“You don’t sound all that thrilled,” I noted.
His body gave what might have seemed like a twitch at first glance but I’d learned to recognize as him beginning to use that silent language he used with the Witch before stopping himself.
“It will be a complicated matter to handle,” he admitted. “I am told it is Ykines Silver-on-Clouds that was sent.”
“Which is,” I slowly said, “… bad?”
“When I left the Titanomachy, Ykines was skope for Hushed Absence,” Hanno told me. “It is… hard to describe in human terms. A skope is one charged with a message, speaking for others, but it is not exactly a position of authority. It does denote respect, however, and the Hushed Absence is the chorus that most prizes retiring from the affairs of Calernia.”
“So they sent us a lesser noble from the isolationist faction at court as the envoy,” I tried.
“That is untrue in every single specific yet broadly accurate in essence,” the White Knight said, sounding impressed. “You have to understand, Catherine, that since Triumphant and the Seven Slayings the Gigantes have only ever spoken of ties outside their borders in terms of loss.”
“The Seven Slayings,” I repeated curiously. “That’s the Humbling of Titans, right?”
“I would not recommend using that name around any of their kind,” Hanno advised. “The Slayings soured most of their kind on humans, though the tendency had been there for ages before.”
“I never did get why they’re still so viscerally furious about the Hum- the Slayings,” I said. “Procer struck by surprise, sure, but that’s hardly a first for them. Their armies still got savaged when they got deeper in, and all the Principate got to show for those deaths was a modest stripe of land added to southern Valencis.”
They’d also gotten the Titanomachy to unofficially back down from its defence pacts with the Levantine petty kingdoms, which had allowed Procer to eventually keep pushing into Levant after its conquest of Vaccei. Yet the amount of losses taken during the Humbling had supposedly kicked back that conquest by at least a decade, so in a sense the Gigantes had fulfilled their treaty obligations.
“It is not the treachery itself but what was committed through it,” the brown-eyed man said. “When the Principate called for talks, it was some of the greatest left among the Gigantes who went. Three of the last elder spellsingers, the amphore for the Sublime Auspice chorus and two candidates for the Name of Stone Shaper.”
My brow rose.
“Choruses are court factions,” I guessed.
“Gigantes are not social in the way humans are,” Hanno admitted. “You would find their cities to be empty things, and there’d be no court to be found. A chorus is more akin to an ideology, though even within a chorus there will be differing songs. The Hushed Absence, for example, will call to both those who advocate for isolation and those who curtail wonder-making by all Gigantes. Yet some will speak to one over the other or speak of both these in relative moderation. A skope will be messenger for one of the shades of belief, should it gain enough adherents within the chorus.”
“So what does the Sublime Auspice sing about?” I asked.
“Guidance of younger peoples and intervention beyond the borders,” the White Knight said. “In the past they were also the foremost slavers among the Titan Lords.”
I grimaced. Proceran history wasn’t something I’d studied in great depth, especially not when it came to the south – which had barely ever crossed Callow’s path before the Principate was founded – but I had learned some broad strokes back at the orphanage. Arlesites are passionate and romantic people, fond of poetry and duels, Douglas Robinson’s much maligned yet still widely used ‘Peoples of East and West’ described them. Their name comes from the ancient Arlesen Confederacy, which rebelled against the slaving giants. There were stories to be found there, to be sure, but I’d always had a hundred other things to attend to and never had the Titanomachy seemed likely to become relevant to my affairs. It wasn’t the first time I’d been wrong and was unlikely to be the last.
“They never recovered from losing their amphore to human Named while under truce banner,” Hanno continued. “And though the killing of the candidates was a grave insult in the eyes of the Gigantes – not unlike killing a Fairfax prince would be to your people – it was the death of the spellsingers that incited outright hatred. The magnitude of that loss for them as a people is not easily put into words, so I will simply say it was worth great grief and grief often turns to matching enmity.”
My brow rose.
“Named did that?” I asked. “I’d heard it was just assassins.”
“All were Arlesite heroes save for the White Knight of the time, who was of the Cantalii,” Hanno said. “Most of those Names are dead and gone now. Of the twelve assassins to strike only the Drake Knight survived, and not even that potent blood allowed him to grow back the arm he lost.”
He had that distant look on his face as he spoke, the one that told me he was drawing on memories he’d obtained through Recall.
“So you’re saying that since they’re sending us the isolationist skope as an envoy, we shouldn’t get our hopes up about the Titanomachy entering the war,” I said, drawing him back to the here and now.
“To an extent,” he replied, brow creased. “From what I can remember, Ykines was of the Hushed over the Absent – that is to say, his isolationism came as consequence of his desire to restrict wonder-making. It might be he is meant to haggle down contributions, not obstruct involvement.”
“I’ve seen the wardstones the Blood use, Hanno,” I said, hands tightening with want. “They have no fucking idea of how those even work and they’re still better in most regards than anything my people can make. Hells, even if they don’t want to enter the war I’d take a hundred of them joining the ranks of the Arsenal and still lick their boots clean in thanks.”
Metaphorically speaking, anyway. Considering their probable boot size, it seemed like a bit of hassle to get done otherwise.
“That is the complication, Catherine,” he admitted. “In some ways, entering the war might be more popular. What I tell you now, I would have your oath no to repeat.”
I let out a whistle. That was rare. He wasn’t one to ask oaths without a reason, and I perhaps still a little charmed even now that the Sword of Judgement considered my oaths to have worth, so I gave it without argument.
“Gigantes are not ageless in the way of the elves or the drow,” Hanno said.
To this day I was still uncertain as to whether he actually knew that Winter had done away with the mortal lifespan of the Firstborn or he’d simply, like most, assumed that drow were effectively immortal if not taken by strife or sickness.
“They gather power unto themselves by bathing in the light of moon and star in sacred places, by songs and patience, and this power lends them vitality,” the White Knight said. “To be a spellsinger is to be born with the gift of power, to come to weave a second soul and through it be able to pluck at the chords of Creation. These are rare, and prized, as for most Gigantes to make a wonder is to craft with the very stuff of what keeps them alive.”
My eyes narrowed.
“The Seven Slayings,” I said. “They came after that tussle with Triumphant that’s said to have made the Titan’s Pond out of what used to be plains. How much of their lives did they spend to take her on?”
I’d always counted it passing odd, that a people capable of playing rough with the greatest monster to ever come out of the Wasteland had taken hits from an infant Principate without any great retaliation save for the building of the Red Snake Wall much later, after the Dominion freed itself. It made a little more sense now, especially if heroes were thrown into the mix. I knew better than most how dangerous those could be when properly motivated. Sisters bless, these days I’d come to rely on it.
“A fifth of their people died outright,” Hanno frankly said. “Centuries of accumulated power were spent in an hour, and many left themselves only enough to live until they could fill themselves again – yet, even now, a great many of the Gigantes are but a decade away from death should they not observe the old rituals.”
“So they’re not going to want to spend themselves close to the grave to save Proceran lives,” I grimaced. “Harsh. The spellsingers, though, if they’re born with the Gift wouldn’t they be effectively immortal?”
“In a sense,” Hanno conceded. “Yet most of them are young, by the reckoning of the Gigantes, and so have spent but a century or two accumulating power after forging their second soul – through both celestial rituals and their own gift folded onto itself, true, but even so it remains a delicate and time-consuming process. The trouble, here, is that the Titanomachy’s greatest wonders all require the stewardship of spellsingers to some extent.”
Of course they did, because those would have been made before good ol’ Triumphant swaggered in, butchered most of their spellsingers and emptied out the vitality-power reserves of a significant chunk of their population. Much like the Firstborn after Sve Noc first bargained for survival, they must have felt like rats scuttling in the ruins of their own empire, forced to choose between their lives and seeing their greatest works fall apart. Shit, no wonder they hated the Principate like poison: to them it must have felt like Procer savagely kicked them when they were down and just starting to consider how to get back up from the last kick.
“So if they’re with us they’re not keeping their own cities functional, which is going to be less than popular at home,” I sighed. “That’s great. If they’re that tied up, Hanno, why even bother sending an envoy?”
“Because inconvenience and hatred of Procer does not mean they are willing to surrender Calernia to Keter’s grasp without having lifted a finger to fight the encroaching doom,” the White Knight said. “I imagine that our failure to drive back the Dead King has them justly worried, given the scope of the efforts employed by the Great Alliance. I fully expect the Titanomachy will try to gift us old wonders instead of agreeing to craft new ones, and strictly limit the numbers they sent north. Yet even that much would be godsent, let’s not pretend otherwise.”
It’ll be fear that got them moving too, I mused, now that the initial disappointment had passed. Procer alone and surrounded by foes, the way it’d been before the Grand Alliance steadied, that’d be acceptable to them. But Procer as the heart of a great continental alliance that included even their old allies the Levantines? They couldn’t let that happen without keeping an eye on it. I imagined the great developments of the last few years would have attracted the attention as well. It was one thing to play the hermit kingdom when your magic was beyond the wildest dreams of your neighbours, but what happened if the Arsenal put Procer on even footing in even just some regards? A Principate with a few war-making artefacts like that under its belt might not be so inclined to let it go when the Gigantes killed its people on sight near the border.
And given that the Twilight Ways were without precedent, I imagined a lot of their defensive wards would need reworking to adapt to their existence. That had to be keeping them up at night. While they might be able to access the Ways on their own, they’d need deep study before they could feel safely walled up again – and the quickest way to achieve that was sending people to the Arsenal to look through what we’d already found out. No, there were decent reasons for them to reach out even though Hanno had already succeeded at weaning me off the hope that the Titans would come in at this late hour and turn the tide of the war. Hells, if nothing else just seeing how fragile the situation on the fronts was might motivate them to send more than crumbs our way.
“I’ll take what we can get,” I fervently agreed. “I’m guessing this was kicked up to you because we can’t use Cordelia as our diplomatic workhorse this once?”
“It would be unwise to ask the First Prince of Procer to meet Ykines Silver-on-Clouds on behalf of the Grand Alliance,” he mildly agreed. “The Holy Seljun noted that Antigone and I were both mentioned by name, as even to the Hushed Absence we are known.”
“Might have to be you, if they want a familiar face. Haven’t heard of the Witch in a month,” I said. “Not since she went up to have that gander in northern Cleves.”
“From there she struck at the Enemy,” Hanno informed me. “I expect you’ll be getting the message from Princess Rozala late tonight. Antigone put together a band of five and intercepted a turtle-ship before it could land.”
A savage grin split my lips. The Dead King marched his skeletons at the bottom of the Tomb and the Grave regularly, but it wasn’t without effects on the equipment of his soldiers: you couldn’t keep chain mail or a sword underwater for a month without it rusting. For the fodder that was all fine and good, but when Neshamah went to the trouble of arming a few thousand Binds in good steel he didn’t then proceed to scrap it by sending them on an underwater march. For those he used ship transports, in his own horrible manner: massive turtle-barges made of bone and wood with a hollow shell protecting his elites from the elements. As tended to be the way with him, the turtle-ships were made to move by a necromantic flesh construct that was more lizard than turtle and boasted both massive claws and bags of liquid poison it could spew out in a stream.
“Godsdamn,” I whistled. “Now that’s something to brag about. They sunk it? I thought he’d hardened the shells to magic after Akua ripped one open last summer.”
“It had the cold iron linings,” Hanno confirmed. “Antigone made the tactical decision to use her available assets according to methods that had previously proved successful.”
A beat passed and I cocked an unimpressed eyebrow at the hero.
“She threw the Mirror Knight real hard at it,” I deadpanned.
The slightest twitch of the hero’s lips was the most openly he allowed himself to be amused.
“I honestly can’t remember a time where that didn’t work,” I pondered out loud. “Maybe she’s onto something.”
The Mirror Knight was, admittedly, the closest thing to unkillable I’d ever seen even amongst the distinctly hard to kill company that was heroes. During the Dead King’s winter offensive, he’d lasted alone against three Revenants for an hour at Duchesne until Ishaq and I arrived. Though he’d put none of them down it was still utterly absurd that they’d not managed to put a serious wound on him either. Regardless, it was impressive he had a hard enough head that it had sent a few thousand of Neshamah’s finest troops at the bottom of the Tomb. I poured us each another cup of brandy and offered another toast.
“To the Mirror Knight living to be thrown another day,” I said.
“To success against the Enemy, whatever the shape of it,” Hanno said, almost reproachfully.
I wasn’t fooled, he found the whole thing just as hilarious as I did. The drinks went down, and the cups hit the table. A grimmer look passed across his face, afterwards, which immediately had my hackles rising.
“They did more than simply break a turtle-ship,” the White Knight said. “When out there they found a hollow where the scrying disruptions didn’t reach. They got a glimpse of northern Hainaut, before Keter adjusted to block them.”
“Tell me,” I said.
“The Hidden Horror is making a bridge across the tributary river to the Tomb,” he told me, tone calm. “We’ll be facing a full-on offensive within six months, and the numbers…”
I grimaced at his hesitation.
“At least two hundred thousand of his finest foot is preparing to cross,” Hanno replied. “He’s building from both shores and building in stone – if we don’t break it while unfinished, it will be warded and enchanted so thoroughly as to be near indestructible.”
Fuck, I feelingly thought. On parchment a bridge wasn’t much of an issue, considering Keter could walk its troops at the bottom of the lakes and ferry them across with turtle-ships, but in practice it might be a deathblow to our hopes of retaking Hainaut. The Tomb and the river limited how quickly the Hidden Horror could send his soldiers from the Kingdom of the Dead, especially considering the strong current of the tributary, and the turtle-ships were vulnerable to heroic raids. A bridge, though, meant he could just keep pouring troops into Hainaut day and night: and that wasn’t a metaphor, it wasn’t like the dead tired. So far we’d been keeping our edge against the massively larger numbers through superior troop quality: even a Proceran conscript could handle a few mindless zombies alone, or a pair of skeletons if their arms and armour were rusted through. Once we got full battalions of Binds to deal with, though, we’d be facing a well-armed and fully intelligent army.
If we gave them room to manoeuvre, let the Dead King deploy his full array of tricks against us, then this was the death knell of the Grand Alliance.
“Do you have dimensions for the bridge?” I said. “A notion of the timeline on its completion?”
“Antigone used one of the Repentant Magister’s artefacts to capture an illusory image,” he said. “And sent it south to me by a trusted hand.”
Who did he – ah, and that would be why the Valiant Champion was in my camp. The three of them were supposed to be close.
“Shit,” I cursed. “We need to bring this to the Alliance’s high command as soon as possible. This changes our schedule for the offensive into northern Hainaut, at the very least. If we can grab it back fast enough we could put this entire mess to rest, or at least take the southern end of the bridge and defend it.”
“Antigone went east to blunt another offensive against the western coast of Cleves,” Hanno said. “Which means I will have to move south to speak with the Gigantes envoy myself.”
“We’re due a proper council anyway,” I pointed out. “And a visit to the Arsenal couldn’t hurt. Hells, the Painted Knife is due back soon as well, the way I hear it, and I’m curious to hear what she has to say.”
“We gather it all at the Arsenal, then,” Hanno agreed. “It ought not to be impossible, given the facilities there.”
“It can be done in the other senses as well,” I grunted. “We have the pull to ensure it.”
Though the mood had grown more somber, I poured out another two cups. Hanno’s eyebrow rose questioningly.
“Surrendering the last cup so soon?” he said.
“Well, if we’re to have the conversation I suspect we’re about to have we might as well finish the drinks first,” I said. “Argument does tend to spoil the taste.”
“Ah,” Hanno exhaled.
He took the cup in hand and we drank. Because he was a polite sort, he waited a few heartbeats before speaking.
“You have lashed out at two heroes in two days, Black Queen,” the White Knight said. “I would know why, and what happened to the Named you meant to bring back to camp.”