“The trick is to always invite an unrelated highborn idiot to every council. When you inevitably execute them, all the other highborn idiots will behave for the rest of the discussion.”– Dread Emperor Vindictive I
It was an impressive watchtower. All red brick and stone, three stories high and jutting out of the hills with an elegant silhouette. It’d fallen victim to that unfortunate Praesi tendency of having an open-sky spellcasting platform instead of a rooftop, but that was the most common practice in the Wasteland. The Sahelians had clearly shelled out good coin for this place, which made it all the more amusing that they’d not done the same for the force garrisoning it. The two dozen soldiers had prudently begun to leg it long before my first knights reached the bottom of the hills, so now it was my personal banner flying in the wind.
The phalange who’d pulled down the golden lion banner of the Sahelians and replaced it with the Sword and Crown was gone, leaving the four of us to look out at the view spread out below, and even though it was a thing of beauty I found myself growing irritated. No, not ‘even though’. Because.
Wolof was beautiful, and it kind of pissed me off.
“This is ridiculous,” I complained. “I read the reports, they had a goddamn demon loose in the streets just a few years ago.”
“Ah, the old Wasteland special,” Her Grace, Princess Vivienne of Callow, drawled.
I rolled my eye at her. Being a magnanimous soul, I was not bitter in the slightest that she could wear a nice pale blue dress with simple silver circlet over her milkman’s braid instead of, you know, being stuck in full regalia and the Mantle of Woe. Truly, why would I envy anyone the privilege of not wearing a fucking cloak in the Wasteland’s heat? It wasn’t like I’d seriously considered weaving a miracle that’d warm her with Night, much less almost done it twice.
I was a better person than that, and also she’d probably notice.
“That’s actually civil war,” Hakram noted. “Though considering the demon incident came at the end of a brutal war of succession, you’re not entirely wrong.”
Adjutant was standing on his prosthetic limbs comfortably, not needing to lean against the crenellation in the slightest, and like it often did the sight had my lips quirking into a satisfied smile. He wasn’t going to be winning footraces anytime soon and I’d not send him into too rough a fight, but Hakram was far gone from the days of hissing pain and being wheelchair-bound. Masego’s work on the arm and leg had been extraordinary, the shifting parts of steel and leather that mimicked muscles returning much of what he had lost to the tall orc. He no longer wore the whole set of burned plate he’d once been known by, instead keeping only the breastplate and the skirt, and his black hair was worn shorter than I’d seen it in years.
“You can never go wrong betting on civil war, when it comes to Praes,” Vivienne conceded.
“Don’t you two go pretending this is normal,” I insisted. “I mean, look at the place!”
Almost half of Wolof’s population had died when Sargon Sahelian rose up to overthrow his aunt, Lady Tasia, and the situation had gotten bad enough in there that the Legions of Terror had seen no choice but to forcefully invest the city. Something their doctrine specifically warned against attempting unless there was no other choice, when that city was a High Seat of Praes. Now, though? You’d never know unless you were told. Tall walls rose elegantly from the dusty ground, all sun-drenched stone and pale red brick, but from our position here atop a distant hill we could see a stretch of the city itself and it was impressive.
Wolof as it now stood had little to do with the village sprouted around a ritual site it’d supposedly grown out of. The modern city had actually shed those old grounds, part of them ending up as a handful of riverside villages that served as an informal port called Sinka and the rest now a closed compound to the north of the city that the locals called Zaman Ango: a great mass of mazes and pyramids hidden behind mud brick walls, ancient places of power that the Sahelians kept to themselves and their favourites. The actual city, surrounded by the greater walls, had instead been cut away at and remade until it was as glorious as its rulers believed themselves to be.
Broadly speaking, Wolof was a thin half-circle with the flatness facing north and two parts jutting out of said flatness: towering noble palaces and the set of fortifications surrounding an aqueduct. Avenues criss-crossed the length of it like arteries, tying together gates and districts by a pleasing design, while that great aqueduct – much too ornate to be of Miezan make, with its stele-like pillars – swept down from a great hill to the north-east like a raised river of stone. Cisterns and smaller water funnels covered rooftops, spreading out like a web of stone and copper, while three-story houses on tall steps stood so close together their backs were as walls. Windows were curved and often thick pillars of stone jutted out of walls, like strange handholds for giants to climb.
It was the colour that staggered me, though. Wolof was said to be the greatest vault of magic in all of Praes, its libraries and spell repositories rival to the Tower’s if not even greater, and unconsciously that’d made me think of it as dark and dreary. Black magic made into a city. Instead it was a riot of red and yellow, some paints fading but others biting fresh, and everywhere subtle lines of green were woven in. Rooftop gardens gathered around cisterns and pools were adorned with bright banners – green and yellow, orange and purple, cream and blue – hung to look like shivering walls. It was a gorgeous, thriving city that somehow made Laure look like half a hovel even after being half-razed by godsdamned demon of Madness. It was infuriating as it was impressive.
The last of us, correctly interpreting my vehemence as a polite and reasonable request of explanation, broke the almost melancholy she’d been in as she watched her childhood home in the distance.
“My cousin Sargon was made to study wards as a young man,” Akua said. “For a time it was a fad with the great families, after Wekesa the Warlock came to prominence. Everyone fancied they would raise a mage to beat him at his own game.”
I snorted. Yeah, they would. Never mind that Masego’s father had been apprentice – and Apprentice – to the last Warlock as well as a frankly ridiculously talented man in a lot of regards. No doubt there’d been an expectation that gold and a noble pedigree would beat out any peasant mage’s effort at anything.
“How’d that go?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“Corpses and screaming, mostly,” Akua noted. “Warding becomes a rather dangerous art when one reaches the heights of High Arcana.”
“And this leads to the city looking pristine how?” Vivienne impatiently asked.
My successor, made a genuine princess by some truly inspired wrangling of Callowan law courtesy of Hakram, kept a civil tone as she spoke. Much of the venom had gone out over the years, though Vivienne quite clearly despised the Doom of Liesse – who was not particularly above needling her when she could, I’d admit.
“Though Sargon was only ever a passable practitioner of the Art,” Akua continued, “he did take to the paired engineering studies impressively. He was often called on for work in Zaman Ango because of this, and evidently his experiences there proved of use when rebuilding the city.”
A grunt of acknowledgement was her only answer, while I allowed my own gaze to wander around.
It was a nice morning, I thought. The sun was warm, the wind lazy and the company more than decent. It was hard to enjoy nice mornings, though, when I knew the world was coming closer to toppling into the dark with every breath we took. Hasenbach was still keeping Procer together, but the cracks were spreading and I couldn’t be sure how long it would be before the Principate collapsed. Still, at least the view was stunning. The watchtower the four of us stood on was maybe an hour’s ride away from the city, set on few hilly sloped. South of Wolof, these were as close to heights as you could get for a dozen miles.
Behind us the Army of Callow and its auxiliaries were encamped in force, palisades already half-raised, while to the west the raging waters of the Upper Wasaliti roiled. The east led deeper into the Wasteland, into the lands of the closest families sworn to the Sahelians, while between us and the city there was nothing save roads and farmland. Not the kind of fields you’d see in Callow, though. Small hills of stratified stone and dust rose gently, with vividly green small ‘valleys’ filled with orchards or crops nestled in between. I couldn’t see much wheat here, but sweet potatoes and cucumbers were common and I saw fruits that would be worth a fortune in Callow – lemons, dates and pineapples, to name just a few.
“Those small green nooks,” I said, studying a few of the closer ones with a narrowed eye. “There’s raised stones around them. Those aren’t wards, though, are they?”
It’d be a frankly absurd amount of magic, if they were, and even people without the Gift or my sensitivities to power would have been able to feel it.
“Not exactly,” Akua hedged. “It is the setting of a metaphysical boundary, but nothing as… decisive as a ward. It is meant to keep the magic of field rituals contained when they are used.”
Right, I thought. They’d need to, otherwise the inefficiency of trying to make the ground cultivable would be a nightmare. The amount of wasted power would make the rituals nigh unusable, and probably wreck the soil too. There was a reason magical healing was dangerous when you did it too much in the same place, and the principles involved here weren’t all that different.
“You’re saying all those gardens of green were made with blood?” Vivienne asked, sounding horrified.
“The grounds around Wolof are not so poor,” Akua replied, shaking her head. “Perhaps a tenth of these are made fertile by ritual killing, on a good year. It is only when the weather spoils crops or the ground sickens that widespread sacrifices are required.”
“And the Sahelians are said to have the finest rituals in Praes,” Hakram gravelled. “Fewer deaths required and the ground is healed longer.”
Akua laughed, the motion pleasing to watch in the conservatively cut but tightly fitting blue and orange dress she’d elected to wear as her form. As had become her habit she wore no jewels, even her black and orange cloak kept closed by a simple iron brooch.
“You can simply ask, Adjutant,” she said. “It is true enough my kin’s ritual rites are superior, though the mages of Kahtan yet make our attempts to manipulate the weather look like the work of fumbling children. My ancestors parlayed their advantage into expanded influence: we could usually afford to spare sacrifices as gifts, which in turn spared lords the costs of relying on the Tower instead.”
As a young girl I would have been sickened to the bone by the thought of human sacrifice, and in truth part of me still was. Akua was talking about trading people like cattle – and the laws that restricted that fate to criminals only were rather recent to Praes – and consigning them to ugly deaths so magic could be squeezed out of their lifeblood. I’d sent too many people into the grinding gears of wars to be able to speak on that without the hypocrisy choking me, though. How many people would a Praesi lord kill like that, in a lifetime’s span? A hundred, three hundred? I’d spent more of my people on skirmishes leading up to battles without batting an eye.
I could tell myself it was soldiers I’d spent and I’d not opened their throats like lambs headed for the spit, but that was just dressing up the truth. And so I stayed silent, did not allow my lips to curl in disgust. If a practice offended me, I ought to either act to end it or shut up. Empty condemnations served no purpose but patting yourself on the back. Establishing a solid grain trade between Praes and Callow would do more to kill the practice than the most convincing sermon in the history of sermons, and I fully intended on securing that by treaty before I left the Empire. Among other things. Praes had been left to moulder for too long. That mess didn’t look like it was going to fix itself, so all that was left was getting my hands dirty.
“Horrid,” Vivienne flatly replied. “Though it seems to have bought loyalty. My Jacks believe none of High Lord Sargon’s vassals have turned on him.”
“Not openly, anyway,” I muttered.
“Scribe was in agreement, before you sent her away with Archer,” Hakram reminded me.
“Scribe lost control of the Eyes in the empire to Ime,” I said. “She’s got people around here, but she’s not all-seeing.”
The Webweaver, like every other kind of spider, needed a web to crawl on.
“In the wake of my mother’s death and the financial difficulties that preceded it, I expect the Tower’s spymistress to have sunk deep hooks in the region,” Akua sighed. “My cousin proved to be a fine enough lord, but his seat was shattered and he had to spend time to consolidate power. The Eyes will not have missed the opportunity.”
We weren’t blind in the region, far from it, but it couldn’t be denied the opposition had better eyes on most everything. That was fine: I’d gotten used to fighting that sort of war. The trick was to hit hard and move quicker than the enemy could follow.
“The real question is how many of his vassals will bring their armies if he calls,” I said. “Only a third of his personal forces are with High Marshal Nim’s field army, but that doesn’t make what he’s got here a large force. He’ll need his lords if he wants to do more than hide behind his walls.”
We believed Sargon Sahelian to have forces in the area of five thousand soldiers in the city and its outskirts, which in most cases would have been a pittance compared to the sixteen thousand Callowans and auxiliaries I’d brought with me. The trouble was that this wasn’t a petty border fort, it was Wolof. If we tried to take that city by force our numbers might genuinely not be enough. High Seats were always full of nasty surprises, and this one would be worse than most.
“If it comes that, we’ll have to take the city before they get here,” Vivienne said.
“I do not recommend trying the Sererian Walls,” Akua frankly replied. “Repairing their wards will have been my cousin’s utmost priority after his ascension, it will be long done. His mages will hammer away at any force we send from behind their protection.”
“Juniper doesn’t believe we can take the city in fewer than six months,” Hakram noted. “Even if we seize the fortress in the northern hills and cut off the aqueduct there, there are too many wells inside the walls. We would be betting on food running out instead of water if it comes to a siege.”
Which would be quite the gamble, considering we had no supply lines of our own. We might end up hungry before the enemy did. My army was carrying its foodstuff with it, in the Legion manner, but aside from the rare convoy through the Twilight Ways there wouldn’t be more coming. If we’d emerged further south, closer to the Blessed Isle, it might have been possible to arrange a supply line out of Callow. I’d chosen otherwise, though. First because down south was exactly where Malicia and Sepulchral wanted us, but also because I didn’t want to set up that supply line in the first place. I couldn’t really afford to, when I needed all that food and people headed west instead for the greater war still being waged there.
So instead we’d emptied granaries and grabbed everything we could before moving out east. In practice we had about six month’s worth of food with us, though with the planned convoys we would maybe manage to stretch that to seven in a pinch. That would be enough if everything went according to plan, which pretty much meant it wasn’t enough. So the Hellhound and I had gotten… inventive.
“We don’t actually need to take the city,” I said. “It’s not what we’re after here. There’s going to be a battle before this campaign is over, but it won’t be in Wolof unless something goes catastrophically wrong. We’re here to rob Sargon Sahelian, not kill him.”
Funny thing about Wolof, these days: it was probably the only High Seat in the whole of Praes that had a significant food surplus. After its losses during the war of succession its population had been massively lowered while its farmland remained largely untouched, and it’d kept trading heavily with Callow until relations broke. Throw in that the field force it’d had to feed had been relatively small – by virtue of large chunks of the Sahelian household troops either dying at Second Liesse or when the Fourteenth stormed the city – and the city was currently the Wasteland’s undisputed queen when it came to the fullness of her granaries.
I wanted that grain to feed my army, so naturally I was going to trick a High Lord of Praes out of it.
“Banners are approaching,” Vivienne sharply said.
I followed her gaze, eye narrowing as I found what she meant. Riders, maybe twenty of them, and a half dozen banners between them. I murmured a short prayer to the Crows before drawing on Night, a sluggish handful of power answering my will after a moment. I sharpened my eyesight with it, wasting not a drop, and studied the approaching men. The golden lion of the Sahelians flew highest, standing out starkly on the elaborate banner of that line: an oval filled with curved swaths of black and red, stripes of small white teeth cutting through looking outwards. I saw a blue stork and purple dog flying lower, while the other banners were entirely patterning of colour.
“The stork and dog are the Bassa and the Chenoi,” Akua explained after I shared. “The two closest houses to the east. They must have already had a presence in the city when we arrived.”
So Sargon was sending us a message that he wasn’t standing alone. I rather admired how quickly he’d gotten over the surprise of our arrival, considering my army had begun moving out of the gates south of Wolof barely an hour before dawn and it wasn’t even noon. In a few hours he’d put together enough of a plan to feel comfortable sending an embassy to me, which I took as a healthy reminder that underestimating anyone who’d been able to claim and keep a High Seat of Praes was a good way to end up dead. I watched the riders approached and smiled, rolling my shoulder as if to limber it.
“Finally,” I said. “Let’s go see what your cousin has to say, Akua.”
I waited for them at the top of the shallowest slope, easy to see from a distance.
Hakram and Vivienne stood at my right, Akua at my left and around us the Order of Broken Bells sat the saddle in utter silence. Like statues armoured in shining steel, lances raised like a whispered promise of violence. The envoys dismounted at the bottom of the hill. Not all of them, though, only three: two men and a woman, all Soninke and no older than thirty. Akua leaned closed to whisper in my ear.
“The man in the centre is Chikodi Sahelian,” she said. “He is my cousin twice removed, but more closely related to Sargon. They were at odds as children.”
I inclined my head in thanks, her breath still warm against my cheek. The other two were nobles too, going by the golden eyes, so at a guess I’d say they were from the Bassa and the Chenoi. The rest of the delegation stayed mounted like my knights, their horses well-disciplined and their colourful scale armour of fine make. Career soldiers, those, career killers. That was fine. I had those too, and mine were better. Chikodi Sahelian, a strikingly good-looking man almost as tall as Hakram, took the lead of his party and rose halfway up the slope before offering a perfect courtly bow.
“This one humbly greets you, Queen of Callow,” the noble said.
Ugh. I glanced at Akua, who looked amused. She’d only ever used formal Praesi diplomatic language with me the once and it’d been mostly to mock me, something I found myself belatedly grateful for. Not the mockery, the other thing. If he stuck to that the whole time this was going to be irritating.
“So, out of curiosity,” I said, allowing a Laure drawl to slip into my voice. “What is it you did that made you so eminently expendable you got picked?”
Chikodi’s face blanked. Ah, how nostalgic. As if him aggressively not giving me a reaction wasn’t already one.
“This one begs your pardon, mighty one,” Chikodi calmly said, “for he does not understand your meaning.”
“He used to shove Sargon down the stairs in the Western Palace,” Akua noted. “And spill ink on his parchments just before we had assignments due. There was also enmity between their fathers over the position of seneschal of Sinka, I believe.”
“And Sargon sent him here over that, knowing there was a decent chance I’d just crack open his skull and rip out whatever I wanted to know?”
Chikodi’s face did not change, though a slight tremor went up his leg. Akua elegantly shrugged.
“We are Sahelians, dearest,” she reminded me.
“Cold,” I replied, not without appreciation.
Small slights and all that. I’d never been one to mind a bit of petty retribution.
“Gods Below,” Chikodi hoarsely said. “It is true. You really are Lady Akua returned, as the stories said.”
The woman at his side, soft-skinned but sharp-eyed, let out a small hiss of surprise. I glanced at her hand and found a few fading motes of magic there, reluctantly impressed she’d been able to use even a minor spell without my noticing.
“And unbound,” she said. “A shade, yet unbound.”
The conversation might have unravelled further, if someone hadn’t stepped in.
“You used a spell on one of us under truce banner,” Vivienne said, tone even.
All three of them froze. It wasn’t necessarily a breach of truce terms to do as much, in truth, but it was… toeing a line.
“Not on any of you, not directly,” the woman began, but I interrupted with a snort.
“What an auspicious start,” I said. “Fine, I’ll let this one go.”
She looked relieved for a moment, before smiling and bowing and thanks.
“Break your fingers,” I casually said. “Five of them. Same hand.”
The smile went away. A moment of silence passed, all eyes on me. I cocked an eyebrow.
“Well?” I asked.
Golden eyes sought me out and found not a speck of sympathy. You couldn’t let Wasteland nobles get one of you, not even a small thing. And you could never just let it go without answer – they’d lose all respect for you immediately, see you as someone that could be crossed with impunity. The fingers would heal easy enough, she might even be able to do it herself if she was a fine enough mage. It was the pain that was the price I was asking. The pain and the humiliation. She looked through the rest of us and found no purchase, no willing intercessor, and her face stilled.
“As you say, Black Queen,” the mage replied.
There was a sharp crack, as she began with her thumb and swallowed a scream. Granting her no further attention, I moved my gaze to a shaken Chikodi.
“You’ve got my attention,” I said. “What does High Lord Sargon want?”
“The High Lord desires only peace and friendship, mighty one,” Chikodi said. “And shares that this is the will of Her Dread Majesty herself, not merely his own wish.”
“Huh,” I replied, unimpressed. “That’s quite polite of you, really, but I happen to have come over for a spot of war. Whether or not that involves me sacking your city and putting every Sahelian not in my service to the sword is up to Sargon, but I’ll be honest – we’re not looking good at the moment.”
It was surprisingly cathartic to threaten Praesi nobility like this, I found. I really should do it more often.
“The Sererian Walls have never fallen,” Chikodi evenly said. “This would be-”
“They fell to the Legions, when your lord was raised,” Adjutant interrupted.
Anger flickered on the nobleman’s face, the most visible reaction so far. It took me a heartbeat to understand why he would likely be more offended at Hakram interrupting than the rest of us, and my fingers tightened around my staff when I did. Ah, Praesi. The remembrance of why I’d despised so many of them as young girl had begun to fade but here they were, so kindly restoring it for me.
“They have never fallen when the city was not at war with itself,” Chikodi curtly said.
“Not quite as impressive a boast,” I noted. “All right, this is beginning to turn into a waste of my time. What exactly is it that Sargon’s offering as terms so I don’t torch his home to teach the Tower a lesson?”
Chikodi’s eyes moved to Akua, but she only faintly smiled. She had asked no mercy of me when it came to Wolof or her kin. I was still uncertain whether that was before she did not believe it would be needed or because she did not believe it deserved. I glanced at the mage, who had finished breaking her fingers, and coldly smiled. She flinched.
“High Lord Sargon requests nothing of you, mighty one,” Chikodi said. “He only offers tokens of his friendship and esteem, as well as his help to achieve your intent in these lands.”
“So a bribe,” I said, rolling my eye. “Disappointing. Give the numbers on offer to Adjutant, I’ve been bored enough for a day.”
I didn’t even bother to give goodbyes before turning my back on him, limping away. It was hard to see properly under the helms so I couldn’t be sure, but what little I could glimpse told me that more than a few of my knights were grinning like sharks under their helmet. For all that they looked dignified, they must have been enjoying seeing Praes being under the boot after keeping it on our throat for over half my life. Vivienne fell in at my side, abandoning the talks just as indifferently. We’d never had any intention of negotiating with the first envoy the High Lord sent us.
“We’ve given enough slights that Sargon should be livid when he hears,” Vivienne said.
Which was good, because right now we wanted him angry.
“He’s a Sahelian,” I reluctantly said. “He won’t be that easy to bait.”
If he were, he’d be dead by now. I had little good to say of the way Praesi highborn raised their own, but I’d not deny that their methods were cruelly effective at weeding out those who could easily be manipulated.
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Catherine. I know Juniper wants him goaded into an attack, but we don’t need that to get what we want,” Vivienne said. “So long as he believes you meant what you said, that we came for Wolof to burn out Malicia’s allies, we have our foot in the door.”
That had been the point of mistreating and mocking the delegation so much, after all: getting across the impression that was utterly uninterested in talks. Making sport of envoys was the sort of thing a half-mad warlord might do, if she really had come here to sack the city so that Malicia would lose her strongest northern supporter. Why bother to keep to the niceties when you were talking to torch fodder? What Juniper had wanted out of this was more military in nature. She was hoping the insults would either anger Sargon enough to risk a night attack on our camp or make him desperate enough that he resorted to one anyway to improve his bargaining position.
We’d be waiting for him if he did.
“If we catch him out while he’s trying a sortie and wipe the attacking force, it only strengthens our hand,” I said.
The first part of robbing someone was putting their knife at their throat. People were disinclined to part with gold and goods unless you made it clear they had something a lot more precious to lose. It was why the Army of Callow had crossed into Creation so early: I wanted our fortified camp built, finished with some time to spare for the men to rest. My soldiers wouldn’t be getting a full night’s sleep: under cover of dark, we would be going on the offensive.
“So long as we come out on top of that skirmish,” Vivienne said. “If we lose, it’s us who’s pushed on the backfoot.”
“Best we don’t lose, then,” I simply said.
Wasn’t that always the way? Some of my officers still insisted that the Battle of Hainaut had been a victory, but I knew better. In a strategic sense, the battle had brought us to the ragged edge: a major defeat either here in Praes or on any Proceran front was now all it took for the house of cards to come tumbling down on our heads. Besides, there was another plan behind all this that my friend didn’t know. One I was keeping closer to my chest: it had not been a mistake that Akua was there for the envoys to see, so verifiably unbound. I was dangling bait for someone to catch.
“More than you know,” Vivienne said. “I got word from Archer before joining you with the delegation.”
My limping steps stuttered to a stop.
“And?” I asked.
“They’ll be here tonight,” the blue-eyed princess said. “I expect losing a fight while they’re watching would rather undermine our cause, so caution is in order.”
I grinned. Splendid timing, this. A little too splendid to be natural, in this case it was no accident: I’d sent Archer and Scribe ahead counting on ‘coincidence’ ensuring they came back at the right time. I’d not yet known what the right time would be, but what did that matter? The day didn’t matter, so long as I knew where the step was in the dance. I knew my grin had turned a tad savage, but I didn’t mind. This had been overdue. Malicia had had herself a grand old time these last few years, lighting fires in all our backyards while she rode out the messes she caused hidden in the Tower. Safely away from the fray.
It was time I returned the favour and started lighting fires of my own.