“Men should always make grand plans. What better way is there to please the Gods than to make them laugh?”
– Louis Merovins, seventh First Prince of Procer
Ater had been deeply wounded by the siege that brought about the fall of the Tower.
Praes’ capital had not been sacked – though the Clans had cheerfully helped themselves to all the riches in the camps of the High Lords outside the city – but the battle within its walls had arguably been more brutal than your average sack was. The destructive brawls between Named and harsh street-to-street fighting between Praesi defenders and my Army of Callow had been damaging enough, but then my father had unleashed the giant spiders and the High Lords had answered by emptying their arsenal of horrors to turn the tide. When I left Ater for Salia, the number floating around was about a quarter of the citizenry dead and large part of the city uninhabitable.
It wasn’t a bad a butcher’s bill as the Doom or the end of Thalassina, but it had still been a cruel day for innocents.
Still, like most of the many Praesi tragedies it had not come without attendant opportunities. Corpses were raised to lend a hand to the rebuilding, devils summoned to clear out the last spider nests, spellfire unleashed to clear the streets. That’d been only the small part, though, because the finest mages in the once-Empire had been tasked with raising flying fortresses for the war on Keter and given the forbidding of human sacrifice they’d gotten… inventive. With a clear path into the caverns under Ater, the Praesi had gone in and hemmed in the spiders with wards before sacrificing them by the thousands. It wasn’t as good as humans would be, I was told, but quantity had a quality of its own.
The first wave of ‘fortresses’ had been chunks of Ater ripped from the ground, mostly towers and gatehouses. After that it’d gotten trickier, the mages having to gather the sacrificial power before moving it out of the city for a second ritual. There were, to my absolute lack of surprise, a bunch of mostly empty fortresses around Ater whose purpose was largely to wait around until someone would set them aflight. The War College had used them for war games occasionally, though most of the time they’d simply been used as fortified storehouses for whatever Dread Emperors had wanted to keep outside the city.
All in all, there were thirteen flying fortresses that the newly minted Confederation of Praes had brought to the siege. The three largest, the ‘Old Mothers’, were essentially massive flying castles with full garrisons and mage contingents. After that we got the three the rank-and-file had called the ‘Sisters’, smaller castles with strong curtain walls that’d been built explicitly to be raised as flying fortresses. The last seven were nameless, cobbled together from the ruins of Ater. I’d used one in Salia when having my… polite disagreement with Cordelia and the heroes, and two more had been along, but the last four had been slower to follow.
That was because High Marshal Nim and the now-reinstated General Sacker had gotten together to think about the siege of Keter before beginning their march, and they’d come to a realization: about nine tenths of the traditional Legion arsenal was going to be useless when attacking the city.
The Crown of the Dead had a moat in the form of the gaping chasm, but that bloody thing was miles deep at least. Unlike a river moat or a pit a few feet deep, there was no way we could fill it. We weren’t going to be starving out undead, either, which left siege weaponry as the way forward. Only those walls were thicker than any other city’s on Calernia, because the Dead King had nothing but hands and time and enemies to prepare against, so while chipping away at them with catapults and trebuchets was technically possible it would be… difficult.
We had the range, it was true, but even regular city walls took long to crack even under concentrated fire. It would take months of bombardment, if it worked at all, and we didn’t have months to spare. That was without bringing sorcery into the mix, since those walls were all warded to the Hells and they’d be defended by dead mages. No, if we wanted to take the Crown of the Dead before doom came calling then we’d need to storm the walls. More precisely, the gates: the four stone bridges across the chasm were the only ways in and out of Keter.
They were also, naturally, the most heavily defended parts of the ramparts.
Nim and Sacker had considered what an attack on those gates through four funnels with overlapping siege weaponry positions and waiting mage nests would be like and I’d felt their wince all the way from Salia. It’d be a fucking slaughter, exactly the kind of killing floor that Neshamah could use to erode our army into nothing. Their solution to that, instead of finding a way to force the gates quickly, had been to broaden the assault. Which was how I’d come to stand looking at the four constructs the Jacks told me legionaries had taken to calling the ‘Ugly Cousins’.
When not in flight the things looked like some sort of botched stone corridor, but when they began to rise their purpose was suddenly clear: they were siege towers, the kind only Praesi could make. Only since the moat was so wide and deep, they’d ended up looking like some sort of oblique, upwards-sloping hallway. I laid my palm against the stone of the one I stood close to, feeling the sorcery pulsing within even when it was grounded.
“I am told they take almost an hour to get up in the sky.”
I’d heard Chancellor Alaya coming. I’d even heard her dismiss her guards when she got close, though it was only now that she’d addressed me directly I was bothering to turn and face her. She’d gotten older, that was the first thing I noticed. Her once perfect skin had gained some crow’s feet, but it was more than that. Malicia had always been immaculate, perfectly put together even when it was absurd she should be, but that’d been the Name. Alaya of Satus, who was Chancellor of Praes but not Named, was just as mortal as the rest of us.
That meant dust stuck to her clothes now, that light didn’t always offer her the most flattering of angles and the tailored green dress she wore was just that. Tailored. Not cut for her by the very hand of fate. She was still one of the most strikingly beautiful women I had ever met – more beautiful than Akua, even, honestly compelled me to admit – but it was no longer supernatural. She was beauty, now, not the beauty.
“We still have to keep them grounded until the assault,” I replied. “We’ve got the power to spare to keep them in the sky, sure, but up there they wouldn’t be under the protection of our wards.”
And I had no doubt whatsoever that the Dead King would begin taking shots at them the moment he could.
“So they remain asleep until tomorrow,” Chancellor Alaya said.
I grunted, agreeing but displeased about it. I’d told ordered Juniper yesterday to prepare for an assault today, and she had, but that was the Army of Callow. The Legions were able to prepare quickly enough to follow suit, but most other armies were not. For once it wasn’t even Procer that was the worst foot dragger, since the despite Empress Basilia’s best efforts the League armies were still a fucking mess. Their command structure was unified in name only, and apparently Bellerophon’s generals took to instructions like cats to water. Tomorrow morning that was what I’d gotten back.
Frustrating, but going in half-cocked against Neshamah would cost us more than just time.
“So they will,” I said. “I hear the Confederation will be taking the lead on the storming of the walls.”
“We have the assets to make the attempt and High Marshal Nim believes it is sound tactics,” she replied. “Besides, to be the first to bleed will wipe away some of the blemishes on our reputation.”
Blemishes you put, I almost said, but bit my tongue. It was true, but what point was there in saying it?
“You don’t think the assault will succeed,” I noted.
An eyebrow was cocked at me.
“Do you?” she challenged.
“No,” I admitted. “And it’ll be a costly butcher’s bill for the first to poke their head in.”
“So my generals agreed,” the chancellor said. “But someone must take that first step regardless.”
I considered her from the corner of my eye.
“And I’m sure that it’ll be just a coincidence that your auxiliaries take the front,” I said.
The former private armies of the High Lords still had very dubious loyalty to the new regime, for all that their owners had agreed to the dissolution of the Dread Empire and the birth of the Confederation. Even if they were brought into the fold of the Legions of Terror, their loyalties would never be certain enough for the chancellor’s tastes. Bloodying them by making them the first to try Keter’s defences would thin their numbers to something easier for Alaya of Satus to handle.
“Unexpected talk, coming from the woman who brought back forlorn hopes to Callow,” the dark-eyed woman mildly replied.
My jaw clenched.
“You wanted to talk,” I said. “Not show me the fortresses, however impressive. So talk.”
I was pretty sure I knew what this was about, but I saw no need to make it easy on her. The chancellor sighed.
“Your talks with the Procerans have the Council of Matrons up in arms,” she said. “And they are not yet aware that treaties were signed: the talks alone were enough for them to threaten civil war.”
Good on the Jacks for catching that, I thought approvingly. In the report I read while eating breakfast there’d been a note that observers from the Matrons had been hounding the chancellor for meetings over the last week.
“Tragic,” I replied, entirely unsympathetic.
Her face tightened and I got a sliver of satisfaction from having gotten under her skin.
“It is not an empty threat, Your Excellency,” Alaya said. “When tribes begin to migrate, they will fight to preserve their power.”
“And they’ll lose,” I bluntly replied. “Which will only accelerate their decline. The smart ones will realize that and stay out of it, find other ways to keep their tribes under their thumb.”
My bet was isolation. The tribes that lived in the Grey Eyries would close their borders and clamp down on internal trade to prevent word from spreading. It would only work in the short term, though. Sooner or later the seal would break, and then the Matrons would be facing the same dilemma: be less fucking awful or have the people they’re awful to run out on them. Truly the thorniest moral conundrum of our age, with no obvious and easy solution.
“They will not begin with civil war,” the chancellor warned. “First they will send out the Preservers.”
“Right, their little killing squads,” I snorted. “Good luck with that.”
“They will begin by stirring incidents between the settled tribes and the locals, Your Excellency,” Alaya said, “not attempting wholesale slaughter.”
“And when we catch the first lot, Vivienne will have them drawn and quartered in a Laure public square before sending word of it to every ruler on Calernia,” I patiently replied. “What you don’t seem to understand, Chancellor, is that I’m not fucking afraid of the Matrons. Neither are Vivienne and a hardened soldier princes who live on the other side of the continent from the Eyries.”
My gaze hardened as I met hers.
“If they step out of line,” I coldly said, “they will be stepped on.”
If the Council of Matrons needed me to bring down a mountain or two on the heads before the lesson sunk in that they did not own their entire race, then I’d bring down a three just to be sure the message was crystal clear.
“How lightly you think of civil war, when it will not be yours to settle,” Alaya bitterly replied.
“Coming from you,” I pleasantly replied, “that’s a little rich.”
And then I scoffed, because now she’d gotten me good and angry and for all her flaws the Chancellor of Praes was not a stupid woman. She wouldn’t do it by accident.
“Now tell me what it is you actually want,” I continued, “and figured that riling me up first would help you get.”
Her face went blank, like a mask of clay, and I almost laughed. I wasn’t seventeen anymore and she wasn’t the only schemer I’d ever had to deal with. Cordelia had also made it a point of angering me when we first started talking, since it made me more impulsive. Akua had been the one to pick up on it first, but I’d not forgotten.
“A concession,” Chancellor Alaya said. “So that I might split them in half before conflict erupts.”
“I already threw you a bone,” I replied. “No munitions to be made in Procer, it’s in the treaties.”
“Which as, Princess Vivienne pointed out, will allow Praes and the Tribes to keep control of these goods,” the dark-eyed woman said, then paused. “Or it would, if a workshop was not being built where Liesse once stood whose purpose is to make goblin munitions.”
I kept the grimace off my face. Even after the purges they’d suffered in Callow, the Eyes remained uncomfortably good at their jobs. While the knowledge of how to make munitions was strictly keep within the Grey Eyries and we hadn’t gotten our hands on it, we had sappers that believed they were on the track of how to make them. They wouldn’t be the first, since Akua had once told me the Sahelians were pretty sure devils were one of the ingredients, and Vivienne had agreed that this was very much worth funding. The Army of Callow would lose bite without the munitions and it was a bad position to be dependent on Praes for the providing of them.
Besides, if we did crack the recipe we would crack a monopoly along with it. Callow could make pretty coin, selling the stuff to Procer for use against the ratlings and the dead.
“That would break no treaty,” I said.
“It corners the Matrons enough that they will likely attempt secession again,” Chancellor Alaya said. “And though you have no sympathy for me, Your Excellency, it is not only my legacy that such a thing would threaten.”
My fingers clenched.
“I’m getting tired of repeating myself,” I bit out. “What do you want?”
“Are you familiar,” she said, “with the term ‘cartel’?”
“It’s what you call it when merchants band together to fix the price for something,” I said. “A consortium, only with full control on the goods they’re selling.”
“I would ask that all sales of goblin munitions beyond the Legions of Terror and the Army of Callow be handled entirely by a common trade company,” Chancellor Alaya said, “whose profits would be shared among the owners.”
So that was her angle, I thought. She’d throw parts of the ownerships at a few of the strongest Matrons so they’d get rich and continue backing her against other tribes, turning the goblins against each other instead of all the Tribes against her. A classic Malicia play, especially the part where her office would be one of the owners and would rake in gold as well with very little effort needed to be put in. And the worst part was, it was a good deal for Callow as well. Not only did it help stabilize Praes while it was trying to reform, if the only two existing sources of munitions agreed on a price when selling outside then we couldn’t be played against one another. And with both the chancellorship of Praes and the crown of Callow having a direct stake in the company, even other nations would be wary of trying to strong-arm the company.
It’d make the trade even more profitable than we’d anticipated.
“I’ll consider it,” I said. “Vivienne will be handling that long after I abdicate, so she would need to agree as well.”
But she would, I thought, and from the glint of triumph in Malicia’s eyes – Alaya, I reminded myself, Alaya – she knew it as well. I was only refraining from telling her as much because I still hated her to the bone.
“You know,” I said, “I’d wondered if anything would change when I saw you in person again.”
If I’d hate you less or more, I meant. If I could still look at you and see anything but the reason he got himself killed.
“Did it?” Alaya asked, her indifference too airy to be true.
“No,” I admitted with a soft laugh. “Not a goddamn thing. It’s like we’re still standing on those fucking steps with the Tower burning behind us.”
I clenched my fingers around my staff until the knuckles turned white.
“It’ll always be like that, I think,” I said. “Some hatreds don’t burn out.”
The dark-skinned woman met my eye unflinchingly.
“Oh,” she softly said, “but I understand exactly what you mean. It took two of us to kill him, after all.”
And I wanted to break these perfect white teeth, so rip out her heart and let it fry under the sun, but I still remembered what it had felt like when the knife sunk into him. It was her that’d paved the road to that moment, I would believe that until the day I died, but I wouldn’t deny that in the end it was my hand that’d held the blade. Even if she owned every step that had led us to that murder, it was my hand stained in red.
We were done here, I decided.
“I’ll see you around, Alaya,” I said, eye cold. “Don’t die before I come to collect.”
I’d voiced my opinion on war councils that got too large more than once and it seemed that others shared it, since there were relatively few of us around the table. Two for each power, more or less. Lord Yannu and Aquiline Osena for the Dominion, Rozala Malanza and Prince Otto for Procer, Empress Basilia and Nestor Ikaroi for the League, Chancellor Alaya and Hakram for Praes, General Rumena and Ivah for the Empire Ever Dark, myself and the Hellhound for Callow. Twelve people were a lot when you were trying to fit a group to a table in a tavern, but it was positively austere for the war council of a continental alliance. Once upon a time Hanno and Ishaq would have gotten seats as well, but that era was over. I was the Warden, now. There was no need of another voice to speak for Named.
It was a colourful assembly, fit for the stories that would one day be told of this siege. Almost like a painting, I thought.
Careful Yannu Marave looming tall and broad over slender, deadly Aquiline as dour-faced Otto sat excruciatingly careful not to even brush against First Princess Rozala’s swelling pregnant belly regardless of the steel breastplate fitted to it. Empress Basilia and Secretary Nestor leaning close as if scheming, a plain-faced woman of warrior’s build that had carved out an empire and the old, tattooed scholar trying to trap her inside it. Ever-beautiful Alaya of Satus, soberly dressed in green, and the Warlord at her side: a hand of steel and a hand of bone, neither half as dangerous as the mind behind Hakram Deadhand’s calm eyes.
Ivah, a cold flame in the Night whose face was silver on purple, and stooped old Rumena in his obsidian ringmail who’d be able to kill most people in this room without even using a Secret. And to finish it all Juniper and I, the tall marshal in her Army’s plain armour while I kept the Mantle of Woe pulled tight around me.
It was as worthy a company as any, I thought, to chart the course that would either save or bury Calernia. I was not the only one to feel the weight of that on our shoulders, and so there was none of the politicking and pleasantries that would usually accompany the presence of so many influential people in a room. Instead we sat in sparse silence, drinks of cool water being passed, and once everyone was ready the talks began. Rozala spoke up first.
“Reports from our outriders paint what we believe to be a picture of the Dead King’s plans for this campaign,” the First Princess of Procer said. “In every direction undead are gathering streams from the outskirts of the Kingdom of the Dead, forming into massed armies.”
“At the moment we have counted four such armies in the process of assembly,” First Princess Rozala said. “One, to our northwest, is a mere forty miles away.”
“Numbers?” I asked.
“Somewhere between thirty and fifty thousand,” Prince Otto briskly replied. “A true army, not the rabble that was routed yesterday.”
“They are gathering around a Crab,” Rozala added. “Perhaps the only one left in the entire Kingdom of the Dead.”
An uplifting thing to hear, until one realized that just meant all the rest were with the armies ravaging Procer. The massive fortress-constructs were rare and we’d thinned out the numbers over the course of the war, but not anywhere near a wipeout.
“I have something in mind to handle the Crab,” I said, earning raised eyebrows. “Our trouble is that those armies need to be pinned down while we take a swing at Keter.”
The Dead King’s plan, as the First Princess had said, was hardly impossible to figure out. Neshamah was going to keep tossing those armies at our camp whenever we tried an assault on Keter and otherwise stay back. Why should he even try to kill us when he could wait us out instead? Every passing day got him closer to victory, as another mile of Procer was devoured and our army’s strength waned from tiredness and growing hunger.
“The other three armies,” Empress Basilia said, “are they fighting fit?”
“Not for days yet, perhaps as much as ten for the largest force,” Rozala replied. “More importantly, all of them are at least two days of march away.”
Considering undead did not need to rest and could walk through the night, closer to one in practice. It was still a significant distance in the sense that none of them could realistically arrive in time to reinforce another if it gave battle near our camp. As a general some part of me was hungry at the potential defeat in detail that the position represented, but that was thinking about this wrong. Sure we might clear them out through a series of pitched battles, but to accomplish that we’d have to abandon the protection of our camp for several days and weaken our forces for only a minor gain.
Beating those armies meant nothing, after all. The only thing that mattered was taking Keter itself and those undead hosts were just expendable distractions.
“So part of our force gives battle,” Basilia said, “while the rest storms the walls.”
Like most Helikean commanders, the empress had an aggressive bent to her tactics. It came from Helike usually being assured of having the better army when fighting with the League or Procer, which made it tempting for its generals to seek decisive battles so the war might be won hard and fast. It was the way she’d waged war to cow her enemies in the south and it’d worked out well for her, though if she tried the same tactics against professional soldiers like the Army or the Legions she was likely to get her teeth kicked in instead. It was not a coincidence that she’d preferred to make a deal with Stygia than try to beat the Spears on the field.
In this case, though, her instincts were spot on.
“Agreed,” I said. “We should take the initiative to catch them in the field instead of letting them come to the camp.”
“The camps are fortified,” Prince Otto pointed out. “With walls and siege artillery positions.”
“We can’t afford to let the Crab get too close,” Lord Yannu replied, shaking his head. “Its presence has the reek of a trap.”
I grunted in approval, receiving a nod of appreciation from the Lord of Alava and returning it. Lord Yannu was a cold customer, but he probably the finest general in the Dominion. Juniper had considered him as much of a headache as Rozala Malanza, when the two of them had been pursuing her in Iserre.
“There’s a reason the Dead King left that particular Crab behind,” I added. “It can’t be needed for army upkeep, not with Keter and its forges so close.”
“It’ll be meant for war,” Hakram agreed, bone fingers clenching. “Best to break it before it gets anywhere near our wards. You have that in hand, then?”
“I’ve been keeping some surprises up my sleeves,” I idly said.
I was a little flattered by the number of wary looks that got me.
“Then we must only choose the forces to send out into the field,” Lady Aquiline said. “I would claim that honour for Levant.”
The other Blood flicked a glance at her, then nodded.
“Our skirmishers will be of no use forcing a wall,” Careful Yannu said. “The Dominion would best serve in battle.”
“Levant’s captains alone will not be enough to face fifty thousand,” Prince Otto said.
Which was the upper bound of what our scouts believed to be gathering to the northwest, but it was not senseless to plan for the worst case. Lycaonese had been taught the hard way to never count on luck tangling with the Hidden Horror.
“Then the Clans will march with them,” Hakram gravelled. “The Confederation’s forces will be key to the assault, but my warriors will be of no use until the city’s cracked open. I would take a third of number lead them out with the Dominion.”
The Clans had sent a little over seventy thousand warriors, all of them fine if somewhat undisciplined foot, so he was proposing to add twenty-three thousand or some to the Dominion’s remaining twenty-seven. About a match in numbers, I noted, though too light on cavalry for my tastes. Basilia seemed to agree.
“I would offer the kataphraktoi to round out the force,” the Empress of Aenia said. “General Pallas has experience working with most of you, she can have the command.”
And she’d officially returned to the fold of Helike, now that Basilia had caught up to her. There was a round of agreement around the table, from Rozala most of all. Between serving as outriders and yesterday’s battle, her own horse was being run ragged. General Rumena caught my eye, but I shook my head.
“We want to keep the surprises up our sleeves as long as possible,” I told it in Crepuscular.
Besides, if the assault went south we were likely to be hit hard in retaliation during the night. If that came to pass we would need the Firstborn at full strength to defend the camps. I received a nod and that was the end of that. The talks continued for another hour, details and plans being laid out, but the bare bones were there.
Tomorrow, the steel came out.
Happenstance had offered me one more night than I’d planned for, one last evening before I plunged into war, and I would not waste it. I had given my word and meant to keep it. There was never time, so it would have to be made. I got my hand on a couple of rabbits and put them to roast, sent one of the phalanges to get their hands on few bottles of aragh – not the good stuff but the rough, throat-burning fare that the rank and file drank. Then I sat in the dark and waited, until I heard a gait almost as odd as my own coming close. Hakram came out of the gloom and into the fire’s light, slowly coming to sit by my side. I took out a spit, the rabbit still half raw and entirely without spices, and offered it up. He took it.
Silence hung in the air, thick enough to choke.
“So I hear you’ve fought another god in Serolen,” Hakram suddenly said. “And here I thought you’d finally kicked the habit.”
And just like that, the silence was dead. My shoulders loosened.
“If we’re going to talk about that shitshow,” I said, “you’re cracking open the bottle first.”
He laughed, taking a bite of his rabbit before groping blindly for the aragh.
“So hear me out,” I began, “say you’re a drow looking to become a god instead of your current gods, then the Dead King comes to offer you a hand. You know, just because he’s such a good friend. What do you answer?”
The Warlord mulled on that.
“Pull the other one,” he sagely answered.
“That sort of answer is why you ran out of hands, Hakram,” I reproached. “But hey, at least you’re smarter than someone who called themselves the fucking All-Knowing.”
I got a laugh, a brutal crack about how he hoped they’d taught me how to dodge so I wouldn’t run out of eyes like he had hands, and just like that I knew it was going to be a good night.
I went to bed smiling, even knowing what was ahead of me.