Interlude: East II

“I will do better, said the man,

than the tyrant, who said I will

I swear, do better than

the man I kill.

the man I kill

swore to do better than

his tyrant, and I say I will

do better now than either man.”

– “Better Than”, Ater folk song (couplets meant to be repeated)

It would have been a mistake for him to watch the swords.

It was her feet that warned him, when he had any warning at all. Amadeus circled to the side, shield raised and sword low. Hye darted forward, striking high, but he did not bite. Arm tightening, he took the real hit – come by the side, a blindingly quick swing and flick – on the shield and shot into a riposte. She stepped to the side, let it pass her, and turned to swing at the arm. Cursing in silence, he struck out with his shield. He wasn’t quite swift enough to withdraw, her blade slamming into his wrist harshly enough he almost dropped his sword, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The shield slam forced Hye to step back and abandon the killing stroke she’d been setting up.

Amadeus took two steps back, his back drenched with sweat from the hour of sparring now coming to an end. He was slowing, losing his edge. Old age, he supposed, though the now grey-haired man knew he was closer in shape to a man in his forties than this true age. For now, at least.

“You get baited into that riposte too easily,” Hye said. “You got too used to being able to kill people with it when you were Named. You’re slower now, you can’t keep using it.”

“I’m still used to being able to correct midstroke,” he admitted. “I collected too many habits that relied on Name reflexes.”

She snorted, bringing her blades back to the sheaths with a purely unnecessary twirl. Her long hair was kept in a braid today and he’d always loved the look on her – especially when she had a blade in hand. Which she was perfectly aware of, from the sly looks she kept sending him.

“You’re too hard on yourself,” Hye told him. “In terms of swordsmanship, you’re still one of the most impressive opponents I’ve had. In the finest ten, at least. You just have more practical limits to deal with than before.”

“I did have a skilled teacher,” Amadeus smiled.

She smiled back.

“I speak, of course, of my mother,” he casually continued.

He got a clump of dirt tossed at his head for that, ducking away laughing. Since early in theory acquaintance Hye had insisted that there be wagers to their sparring, which had never lost him much coin but ensured he’d cooked most of her meals on the move for decades. Tonight was not to be exception, though he’d been farsighted enough to get the stew going before they began. It was mostly ready by the time he went to check on it, needing only seasoning. Only roasted greens for side dish, as… Amadeus felt his heart clench. He forced himself to finish the thought. As Wekesa was gone and would no longer assembled a makeshift oven to help him make fresh bread.

Hye sat at his side, silent. She knew how to read his moods, and so stayed close but did not impose touch. An invitation. He leaned into her side, enjoying her arm going around his waist as he leaned his head on her shoulder.

“Who?” she asked.

“Wekesa,” he said.

“He went out on his own terms,” Hye said. “For his son. Remember that as well as the rest.”

Amadeus allowed himself to enjoy the comfort a little longer then moved away. Neither of them spoke more of it. Hye was one of the people he’d met who were even more private than him by inclination, she well understood that for some the light of day burned more than it cleaned. They sat with the stew, the old lacquered bowls – whose cracks were filled, oddly enough, with silver – that she’d been using longer than he’d been alive warm in their hands.

“I did miss your stew, and that damned lentil soup,” she laughingly told him. “My pupils were nowhere as fine cooks, even though Cocky at least should have been better by sheer divine mandate.”

“The Concocter?” he asked, cocking a brow.

It was not common for her to talk of her old students, but not uncommon either. She still had much fondness for her years in Refuge, even though she had left that part of her life behind much as she had once parted ways with the Calamities. He’d always admired – envied – that in her, the capacity to walk away. He was not so blessed.

“Feral little thing,” Hye fondly said. “Never seen a Crafter that much bite to them before.”

The Teoteul, her father’s people, called Named whose Role tended to creation ‘Crafters’. In those lands they were held in great respect, she’d told him, often greater than martial Named.

“The way you raised them likely had something to do with that,” Amadeus mildly said.

She cast him a sideways look.

“You can just say it outright,” Hye said, amused.

“You already know my thoughts on the affair,” he replied. “I can understand what you meant to accomplish, but when one’s means involve cruelty to children they are best reconsidered.”

“What I did accomplish,” Ranger calmly said. “They left my tutelage with all they needed to survive and thoroughly discouraged from banding together. I didn’t coddle them like you did your girl, Amadeus, but they came out stronger for it. Named that get tucked in at night get killed in their first decade. I’ve seen it happen to more heroes and villains than you’ve put in the ground.”

“Wealth of experience tends to mean more powerful aspects,” he conceded, “and personalities less brittle. But you only painted in black, Hye.”

I’d been painfully obvious the few times he’d encountered her pupils, never more so than when he’d spoken with young Indrani. The Archer, who’d thought the way to tame the evils of the world was to make herself and her Name into the Ranger’s shade.

“It’s what I know,” she frankly replied. “And it’s what sticks.”

He shrugged, seeing no point in further speaking of it. He’d already told her his thoughts before and she’d disagreed with them then too. She respected his opinions but had never felt bound to heed them in the slightest – which was, he would admit to himself, half the reason he was in love with her in the first place.

“I suppose you think your student-”

“My daughter,” he corrected calmly, evenly.

Pointedly, too. She winced.

“Look, I’ve already apologized for that talk in Arcadia,” Hye said. “I wouldn’t have been so hard on her if I’d known she mattered to you as more than an apprentice.”

An apology which she meant, and he’d accepted, but it would not mend the broken pot. Catherine was now singularly predisposed to seeing Hye as an enemy, which might just end up being a massive headache before this was all over.

“She does,” Amadeus said, “which is why I see little point in comparing the deeds of our former students. She would not have gotten so far without your Indrani at her side.”

Hye’s lips quirked at the mention. Ranger was not a particularly fair woman and she’d never shied away from having favourites. Of her little band of Named, Archer had been the one she most liked. Not out vanity, though one might be forgiven for believing that, but because Indrani had in her belly a rare sort of fire.

“Your little queen might still kill you, before this is said and done,” Hye plainly said. “She won’t like what you’re scheming.”

“Neither do you,” Amadeus teased.

She rolled her eyes and let it go. Eudokia, for all that he loved her dearly, would not have. It was not in her nature to leave details unattended to, to embrace the unnecessary risk. That attitude had saved his lives many a time, over the years, but it should not be taken as the iron law habit had slowly turned it into. They’d gotten old, set in their ways even as their bodies stayed the same preserved statues of wax. Hye, while older than any of them by centuries, never stayed still long enough to rot. There were lessons to learn in that. In embracing impermanence. Amadeus should not have presumed he would stay the same under the face because the face did not change.

Or believe the same of Alaya.

“She brought the last of your pupils east, you know,” he said. “I am not the only one who might face a rough end.”

Hye’s face was serene as a pond, the shadows of their fading fire clawing at her cheeks.

“Have they grown enough for that?” she asked. “I wonder. I will have to see, Amadeus, who it is they have become. One last test for the children of Refuge.”

They went to bed early, for they were to begin moving before the dawn. Northeast of them was an old run-down inn owned by the cousin of a friend, and there letters waited for him. A confirmation from one of his people in Ater that Grem was still alive and writing, growing fat in his house arrest. Alaya did not seem to suspect. Yet it was the other letter, the one from the south, that set him to smiling. Nahiza had corresponded with Wekesa for decades, back when she’d still lived in Kahtan instead of retiring to her tower, and it was only out of courtesy for that she’d accepted his first letter. After that, though, it had been out of curiosity.

The problem he’d put to her was one too fascinating for such a mind to resist, and the possibility of eternal glory a temptation to her pride.

It can be done, she wrote in that terse way of hers. But only with the Tower. No one else has the mages and coin. The formulas she’d sketched out as a proof of concept he could not understand, not even after all his years of trying to understand more than the barest edges of Trismegistan sorcery, but he tucked them away in his doublet anyway. They would have a use. What he’d needed of her had been confirmation that it was possible at all: the rest was only a matter of finding the right place and right time. The last letter he read twice, to commit the words to memory. Nim had ambushed Catherine out of the Wasteland but the Army of Callow had held fast and now all the vultures were drawing in. Good, rather like he’d thought it might go.

The game he’d not seen coming was the release of Akua Sahelian to become the Warlock, but then he’d been consistently blindsided when it came to Catherine’s treatment of Tasia’s girl. That she’d not been publicly and brutally executed years ago remained a source of bemusement.

With the loyalist Legions and those that’d deserted coming ever closer, the moment of truth was drawing near. He’d sown the seeds but done nothing more than that, could not do more than that. As he’d told Layan down south, the last thing Praes needed was another banner raised. When the time came, when the blades were out, what was it that would win – the mud or the orders? Amadeus of the Green Stretch had spent most of his life betting on the mud and he had no intention of ceasing at so late an hour. Leaning forward, he put the letter from Kala to a candle. It burned bright and quick, smoke curling upwards. He caught sight of it disturbing a spider, which crawled to a corner of its webs on long legs. Smiling, he dropped the last smouldering remnants of the letter and stepped on them.

Were he a superstitious man, he might have called that a good omen.

High Lady Takisha Muraqib of Kahtan was to come to Ater, along with most the nobility of the south.

It was an unusual and unforeseen decision, so Malicia investigated. What dearest Takisha had wanted out of gathering the entire Hungering Sands to her court had become plain enough after a little digging: she’d been trying to rally houses to her banner for an attempt at taking back Foramen. She could have made such an attempt without such pageantry, of course, as Malicia was in no position to stop her. Yet Takisha, for all that she was an intelligent woman, was prone to dithering.

It was a learned error. Kahtan had the most vassals out of all the High Seats, which made large scale enterprises for it difficult unless time was spent wrangling support. Takisha had heeded that lesson a little too well, to Malicia’s eye, and come to avoid bold action even when it would best serve.

Yet she was skilled at wrangling, and with the traditional rivals of the Muraqib for prominence in the desert – the Banu of Foramen – dead and gone Malicia had expected her to find a measure of success. That not only she had found none but that she had been driven to take her court north had been a noticeable enough reversal that it must be looked into. Even if this was not the action of a player but instead of an undercurrent of popular feeling, clarity was required. The empress’ plans had arrived at too delicate a stage for interference to be permissible.

Spies came and went, scrying rituals crisscrossed the land. Ime was busying herself chasing Amadeus’ trail, which she had finally caught, but Malicia left the matter to her capable hands. Instead, as she sat in a comfortable salon tea in hand, she poured over lists of names. Those who had petitioned High Lady Takisha to journey to Ater and formally petition the imperial court for intervention in the south. Some of those names she well knew.

Lord Feisal Rahab, whose great silver mines made one of the wealthiest men in Praes. Lady Nawal Morcos, whose kin had skirmished with the Tribes for centuries. Prominent names, at first, but they had met with Takisha late. And more importantly, they had little to gain from the decision made. She sent for earlier reports. The first to speak with the High Lady of Kahtan were less known to her. Lady Layan Kaisha, Lord Habid Tannen, and on it went for a dozen names. Lesser aristocrats, all of them, with few common interests that she could grasp.

She sent for the files the Eyes had on them. Layan Kaisha was one of Amadeus’ veterans, it turned out. So were two of the rest, but most were not. Yet Malicia’s mind itched with intuition. This had been done in accord, she grew convinced as her Name began to swell. There was something to Connect those names even if she did not yet understand it. Her aspect had never failed her before, even though the leaps of intuition it sometimes leant her were the ficklest part of the boons it granted. She set the Eyes to digging deeper at the nobles.

Behind closed doors, alone, Alaya would admit that the aspect’s blooming was a deep relief. After the encounter with Foundling in Wolof, she had feared… Her fingers clung desperately to the cup of tea she forced herself to drink with decorum. Be silent, the Black Queen had ordered, and Alaya’s soul had obeyed. As if to be able to declare silence was the girl’s due Alaya had found that she could no longer Rule. Not in the simulacrum she’d worn, not in her own body, not anywhere. It had taken days for the aspect to return, and even now it was weakened. She could feel it in the people around her, through the connections that Connect allowed her to instinctively understand.

Her authority had thinned.

It would come back into its fullness, she thought, that was the trend. But after how long? Another month, year, decade? She’d been told that the Black Queen was not yet Named and already she could do this. The thought was… frightening. As was the memory of the girl’s mad grin as she was wrestled down by a dozen men, Alaya tasting blood in her mouth as the little monster cackled. There’s always next time, the Black Queen had laughed. Foundling was coming for her head, Malicia now understood. She would settle for nothing less if she were not forced to settle otherwise. Practicality and gains would not be enough to sway her, Malicia had misread that very badly.

Spies came and went, scrying rituals crisscrossed the land and her Black Knight ambushed the Black Queen in the depths of the Wasteland. Akua Sahelian was proving worth the investment.

“All is in place with the deserters?” she asked Ime.

“It is,” her spymistress confirmed. “We’ve prepared the scapegoat.”

Good, that was one worry in hand.

“Sepulchral?” she probed.

“We still don’t know who plans her campaign,” Ime admitted. “Not anyone openly in her service, at least. It’s slickly done, Malicia. It’s possible whoever is doing it isn’t even with her army.”

That seemed… unlikely, from what Malicia understood of military affairs. Perhaps a Named would be able to work through such constraints, but there was none around to provide such guidance.

“Best prepare for a bloody end,” the empress pragmatically said. “She has served her purpose, the time has come to pull the curtain on her rebellion.”

“Troke Snaketooth is on track to win the election as High Lord of the Steppes,” Ime said. “And he’s reiterated to our agents that the terms still stand: if we confirm him in that title he’ll lead the Clans against Nok.”

Which, combined with the destruction of Abreha Mirembe’s field army, would be enough to bury the cause of Sepulchral. The Sahel of Nok and the Mirembe of Aksum would turn on their ruling kin the moment they thought the cause helpless, and Malicia was willing to offer relatively mild terms of surrender for their return to fold. No need for soulboxing, it would be overplaying her hand. Increases on a selection of taxes would hamper their economic recovery for long enough that the empress could smother them out instead of wielding an executioner’s axe. Perhaps an expansion of the Green Stretch at the expense of Aksum, she mused, as pointed lesson.

Treachery was treachery, but no one should swing at the Tower and miss without proper admonishment.

When the in-depth reports on the few nobles she’d asked for came, she finally connected the dots. The lords and ladies that were not veterans were nearly all from border or trade holdings. The kind that would be negatively affected in a direct way by the kind of civil war that’d afflicted the Empire for the last few years. Ah, Malicia thought with a smile. It was a faction she was looking at. A very discreet one, difficult to make out on parchment, but a faction nonetheless. One that was hostile to her rule of the Tower. A rash of assassinations would not be overly difficult to arrange, but Malicia restrained herself. When one got rid of weeds, it was best to burn them out root and stem.

It was too early for blades, and she could make use of this for other purposes.

She had letters from Wasteland lords that expressed concerns about the Clans being on the move, and those concerns were slowing her attempts to put together one of the measures that would keep her head on her shoulders and her crown atop her head. The ritual that might solve the Hellgates that terrified the Grand Alliance had exhaustive resource requirements, the kind that not even the Tower’s vaults could see to. She’d had to rely on drawing on the resources of northern lords for some of the substances. It needed to be ready soon, she knew. The ritual would bind the gates to open only once every decade for seven days and seven nights, an ideal solution, but it needed weeks of preparation before it could be implemented.

“Send word,” Malicia ordered Ime. “We are holding a formal court session in the Tower. As the nobility of the south is coming, so will the nobles of the north.”

The Taghreb play had Amadeus’ signature all over it. He liked to move pieces towards the centre, were they could be more easily dealt with. He’d get his wish, Malicia decided, and more. Much more. Using the gathering of the Clans as a reason for the court session would see even the most reluctant of lords and ladies come, the empress knew, and with them would come an army’s worth of retinues. Another assurance to have in her pocket, should it come to the worst. With the Empire tended to for now, Malicia could turn her attention to further measures that would preserve her life and reign. She needed leverage on the Grand Alliance, not only Callow, and there was only one place left to acquire it.

The Free Cities, where General Basilia’s attempted unification of the League was beginning to worry the cities yet to be conquered. There was potential in that, but none of the rulers involved were willing to engage in talks with the Tower. Between Hasenbach and Foundling, the costs of dealings with Praes had been made to steep for any there to still be willing to pay them. How fortunate, then, that Malicia had replaced the Merchant Prince of Mercantis with a creature of her own.

Alaya was the Dread Empress of Praes. Should weather this storm and emerge from it triumphant, as she had all others.

It ought to be an exciting sort of war, but somehow it was not.

Dear Sargon had offered Akua the use of the Amaranth, a sure indication he was looking to get rid of the Tower’s leash around his neck. The necklace was a splendid thing, a collar and trailing generous expanse of beads in polished gold and onyx. Each bead held a small sliver of power, at the fingertips of whoever wore the necklace. Yet it was the pale purple precious stone set in the hollow of the throat that made the Amaranth such a powerful artefact, for within it lay a Titan’s tear turned to crystal. The purity of the overwhelming grief it emanated allowed a caster to free themselves of all feelings and doubts, leaving one’s will the sharpest it could be. Akua’s ancestors had used the artefact to make even the most middling of their sorcerer-lords seem skilled, in the past, as the Amaranth was enough to turn even a middling fool into a passable battlemage.

Having been a prodigy herself, she had found instead that the Amaranth not only ended the difficulties she’d had in acclimating in her new body but that it had allowed her to surpass some of her old limitations. The swiftness of her recovery had made spawned many a murmur that she was becoming the Warlock in truth, as was only to be expected, but Akua knew it to be otherwise. She had been Named, once, and not forgot the sensation of it – the warmth of unbroken certainty settling on her shoulders like a cloak.

It had not been difficult to prove her value to the Black Knight, though the stern Marshal Nim had treated her as a hissing viper at first. Detailed information on the spellcasting capacity of the Army of Callow and Catherine’s own limitations – which were ever-shrouded, but Akua had deduced to some extent – had bought her a place at the table. From there, it had only been a matter of finding out the Named’s weaknesses and presenting herself as a remedy to them. The auxiliary cavalry that had been assembled from highborn sons and daughters from all over the Empire had been defiant of the ogre’s authority, at first, but Akua had eased the burden. She was of the greatest of lineages herself and rumoured to be Named: within days she had them eating out of her palm.

She took one of them to bed, on a whim. A Taghreb captain with a crooked smile and dangerous manners, whose large rough hands had appealed. Not so after she fucked him. She’d had her due of pleasure, more than once, but it had not sated her. It had… lacked intensity, somehow, though she knew that to be absurd. She’d been a shade for years, the sensations should have been almost overwhelming. Akua was careful not to think of what hands might have better pleased – smaller, knuckles always half-scuffed and, no, she was not this weak. There were better uses of her waking hours than chasing the never-be.

Settling the highborn cavalry had not given her a foothold with Nim, only ensured that she was now being treated as a mildly useful rattlesnake. Organizing the auxiliary mages into proper casting circles, however, would be a step in the right direction. Akua did not even have a rival there, as the only person of Praes who might have contested her – Nahiza Serrif, widely recognized as the greatest mage in the south – had declined service in war due to her age. Dubious, that, but Serrif was famously reluctant to ever leave her mage tower and Malicia had little to gain from throwing stones at the wasp’s nest. After a few brisk duels fought under the pretence of practice, Akua broke the ringleaders of the most important cliques to her service. Most gave way with good grace, as was custom, but some did not.

Kendi Akaze fell to his knees, panting and covered in sweat. The last wisps of his spell faded away, shattered at his feet. Swaths of the ground had burned, but Akua was well-learned in curses and he had not studied them deeply. His blood was slowly boiling.

“Surrender,” Akua ordered.

“Did you even know her name?” Kendi hoarsely asked.

She cocked an eyebrow.

“Of course you didn’t,” he laughed, wetly. “Just another mfuasa. A servant. We don’t even know if she died as your dog or if the Black Queen nailed her to a cross. We weren’t important enough the question was asked.”

Akua studied him for a long moment.

“Your sister?” she quietly asked.

“And two of my cousins,” Kendi snarled. “All for your pride. So you could go on serving the enemy. We’re all just games to you, aren’t we?”

Murmurs of disapproval. It was one thing to bear a grudge for the death of one’s kin, respected even, but for a mfuasa to question their place was… disgraceful. If they had been fit to be more than servants, jino-waza would have ensured that they were.

“Surrender,” Akua repeated.

He spat to the side, struggling to rise on shaking limbs.

“Her name,” he croaked, “was-”

The roar of the flames he formed, not even voicing an incantation, drowned out his own words. There was an irony in that, she thought. A lesson, for those who cared about such things. The spell was at her fingertips in an instant, quicker than even his despair. The flames were smothered in darkness, rot writhing its way up Kendi Akaze’s arm. He howled in pain, dropping unconscious, and Akua knew he had to die. He would try again, otherwise. Some grudges could not be set aside. And still she ended the spell. Ordered him dragged to a tent. They thought she would order him tortured, she saw in the eyes of the watchers. Made an example of.

She had him healed instead. The hatred was not gone in his eyes when he woke.

“This changes nothing,” Kendi hissed. “Nothing.”

“I did not expect it would,” Akua quietly said.

There was a long moment of silence. She looked outside the tent, hearing his steady breath.

“Why?”

She turned, met pale brown eyes with golden ones. Because you are my past made man, she thought. There is no pit in Creation deep enough I could bury you in it. Because I loved a girl as a sister, once. I murdered her, and a thousand other sisters since. Where does it end? If no one kills me, where does it end?

“Why not?” the Doom of Liesse replied.

She dreamt of her father, that night, and woke up with red eyes. Iron sharpens iron, the other mages praised her. She kept to the old ways truly, to have a kept a man who wanted to kill her alive just so she would remain sharp. Bile rose in her throat even as she smiled. This what who she was now, wasn’t it?

She did not regret sparing him.

With the mages in line, she proved her value to the Black Knight. A ritual to bring the Army of Callow forcefully into Creation, to deny retreat through the Twilight Ways. It was an inspired piece of spellcraft, she thought. And she found her hand, moving again and again. Adjusting numbers. It was pointless, Akua thought. Even if the blow was softened she would never be forgiven for it. And still. The hand moved. Some had hated her, in the Army of Callow. Many. Others had been… kind. In their own way. How many of them would she kill with her ritual?

A few less, she thought. If she could.

It worked, and the battles that followed saw her prove herself. Then there was that hard night where the Army of Callow reminded them it was still the same mule that’d kicked in the ribs of half the armies on the continent, slipping behind them. And there would have been battle, but Sepulchral surprised them all. Instead there was a tense, hesitant stalemate and Akua was at last invited to dine in private with Marshal Nim. It was a stiff affair, almost begrudged, and there was no dessert. The marshal proved remarkably forthright, by the time the plates were taken away.

“I can smell it on you, you know,” the Black Knight rumbled. “Ambition.”

Akua smiled easily, drinking of her wine.

“It seems like a singular curse to be able to smell such a thing while living in Praes.”

“You’re only charming to humans, Sahelian,” the Marshal glared. “Malicia saw use in you and she’s been proved right in that, but I still question her judgement to have taken up such a hiltless sword.”

“Do you often?” Akua asked.

The ogre eyed her in silence.

“Question the empress’ judgement, I mean,” the Doom of Liesse idly continued. “Idle curiosity, I assure you.”

“Highborn,” the Black Knight said, tone disgusted. “He was right about you all, B- Amadeus. Even if the sun fell down on us you’d jostle for the nicest place to die. You don’t know what loyalty means.”

Oh my, but what an intriguing mistake she’d almost made. Telling, too. She would not be the only to change the word halfway out of her mouth: the Carrion Lord had, for better or worse, been part of the backbone of the empire for decades. That was not a legacy easily cast out. Did it weaken her Name? It likely did. Enough, perhaps, that Catherine’s little Squire might be able to slay her given the right opening. Something to ponder.

“Interesting, this talk of loyalty,” Akua said. “There are some who would say you’ve broken faith, following the Empress over your predecessor.”

“That’s because you think like a child, Warlock,” the Black Knight scathingly replied. “Like loyalty can only be about people. You want to know what I follow? There’s no need for games, mageling, I’ll tell you. It’s not like I hide it.”

“That would be most helpful of you,” Akua agreeably replied.

“I believe in the empire promised us in the Reforms,” the Black Knight bluntly said. “A Tower that holds to law and order, that does not cater to the whims of the High Lords. A realm that is not a mangy pack of alley cats fighting over scraps.”

“And Malicia offers you this?” she asked, genuinely surprised.

Though the Empress was certainly of a mind to gather the power in Ater, she had never been one to mind a bit of intrigue. It would have been like a prize champion being shy of the arena.

“You’re not listening, Warlock,” the Black Knight bit out. “This isn’t about people. You know what the cornerstone of that dream is? The Legions of Terror. An army that can cow the High Seats, professional and modern and most of all loyal.

Akua studied the other woman with open fascination.

“This isn’t about the Tower at all,” she said. “This is about the Legions.”

“You think half my officers, half my men, don’t want him on the throne?” Nim said, tone hard. “She’s been good to us, Malicia. Better than most. But she’s not known. She’s the stranger in the Tower.”

“It would kill the Reforms, if you rose to help him climb the Tower,” Akua slowly said.

“We wouldn’t be an institution anymore,” the Black Knight said. “The bedrock of stability. It would make us into just another High Seat to please and defeat the entire purpose. Do you think it’s a coincidence that he’s been skulking about scheming instead of calling on the Legions of Terror? Soldiers would come if he raised a banner.”

“I have read the reports,” Akua delicately said. “That decision might not be one of principle, but driven instead by the Emerald Swords-”

Marshal Nim laughed, leaning over the table. Her breath was unpleasant.

“You think he’s the kind of man who’d flinch at killing elves?” she said mocked. “He’s got Ranger at his side. Don’t be a fool. He knows it too, what it would do to Praes to call. Just like he knows we’ll fight him tooth and nail if he comes for the Tower.”

“You sound like you admire him,” Akua said.

“I do,” the Black Knight said. “I don’t like him, Sahelian. I don’t love him either, and I fear what kind of an emperor he would make. But I do admire him. Even now, he still believes in the same dream that I do.”

The ogre bared her teeth.

“And he’d agree it matters more than any single man.”

And there it was, Akua thought. The Black Knight thought herself a fortress for her principles, unassailable to temptation because her loyalty was to something above the dross of petty ambition. She was wrong, of course. Idealists were no less fragile than anyone else if you knew the lay of their castle.

“Oh dear,” Akua sighed. “You really are going to get yourself killed, aren’t you?”

The Black Knight scoffed.

“Repeat that threat and-”

“It won’t be me, you fool,” Akua sighed. “Warlock. Black Knight. Scribe. Captain. Ranger.”

“The Calamities,” Marshal Nim said, impatient. “What of them?”

“Where are they now, Black Knight?” she asked.

A moment of startled silence.

“Gone,” Akua said. “The Dread Empress of Praes does not long tolerate other Named at her table. Even the band that made her bid for the Tower was broken and sent out in pieces, Nim. How long do you think you’ll last?”

“Captain died abroad,” Marshal Nim flatly replied.

“On whose behalf?” Akua laughed. “Come now, you ought to know better. Did you truly think yourself so different than me in the empress’ eyes? You, too, are a hound raised to run down a particular trouble.”

The golden-eyed mage pleasantly smiled.

“And Dread Empress Malicia is not the kind of woman who keeps a hound at the table when the hunt is finished, Black Knight,” Akua said. “It is a waste, to her. She puts them down.”

The Black Knight laughed mockingly.

“And you’d never, of course,” Marshal Nim said. “So I ought to back you instead, for fear of my life. You’ve only listened to the parts you wanted to hear.”

“I have listened to everything,” Akua sharply said. “It is you who ignores the reality around you. Do you think Malicia cares a whit about your little dream, save in how it helps her maintain control?”

“Wind,” Nim dismissed, “she benefits from-”

“Not enough,” Akua snarled. “Gods, when are you all going to understand? It will not be enough, because when you hold the Tower it can never be enough. There’s always another enemy, another doom, another doubt. She’ll cut open the Legions to make what’s left her creatures. She’ll hobble them so they can’t ever raise a hand against her. Because you have ideals, you fool, and she doesn’t share them. In the back of her mind the whisper is always there: is this the line that makes them turn on me? Is this the order they will refuse? She doesn’t make decisions because they are lawful or fair or they bring stability. Malicia cares about being in control. That’s it. That’s all of it.”

She had risen to her feet, at some point, but she did not recall.

“There’s no place for your dream in that Dread Empire,” Akua said. “And there’s no place for you either, Black Knight. For a Named that will get in the way of making the Legions safe. I have a spell that will kill me, somewhere in this body, but Gods burn me if there is not a sword hanging above your head just the same. We are meant to be temporary measures.”

The armoured ogre watched her in silence, still as a statue.

“I rode that black doom to my end, once,” Akua said. “I know the look of it, Marshal Nim, and the empress is a woman in the deep throes. There was a time where I thought-”

That I spoke words like these so they would trust me, she thought. So they would love me. So that I would have a seat by the fire, until they saw through it and turned on me. Her nails bit into the palm of her hand.

“It doesn’t matter,” Akua got out. “It is all scrapped iron, that’s all. Pointless.”

“You are,” the Black Knight slowly said, “perhaps the finest liar I have ever known.”

“You want truths?” Akua asked. “You want proof? Fine. Ask someone you trust to inquire as to what a pattern of three is, Black Knight. You who fought a Squire and won.”

She smiled mirthlessly.

“Because I know,” the Doom of Liesse said, “and I assure you the Empress does too.”

And she had not, Akua knew bone-deep without even have looked, said a word. And though tomorrow they would return to war, to the bitter fruit risen of the bitter seeds Akua had lain, she knew from the look in the Black Knight’s eyes that she had just cracked the stone with the blow.

And still, curse all the Gods who listened, she was not hearing the damned song.

Interlude: North I

“You cannot flee from fate, it is the road beneath your feet.”

– Levantine saying

The grass was coated with dust, blown in from a southern storm. It made for slippery footing and that was Borghold Bluesmile had tried her luck: she’d thought the dust would make it harder on his prosthetic leg. As if Masego would ever make such shoddy work. Hakram slapped away the other orc’s axe with his own, nimbly letting her pass by him, then flipped it in his hand and tapped her shoulder with the butt from behind. There was raucous laughter from the circle of warriors around them, fists thundering against shields. It’d been an insult to hold back the blow, a sign of disdain.

Adjutant had implied he was teaching a child, not duelling an equal.

“You fucking tame dog,” Borghold furiously snarled, turning around. “Servant to wallerspawn, whore for-”

She struck at him when he took a step forward, hard and blind, but he didn’t even bother to avoid it. He adjusted the angle of his steel limb, let the blow bounce off, and his dead hand snatched her throat. He squeezed hard enough the insults replaced by a gurgling choke, raising her high enough her feet left the ground. He met her eyes with his own, patient, and let the fear seep in. Then his bony fingers tightened, a hard warning, and he dropped her. Borghold fell in a sprawl, coughing spittle through her blue-painted teeth.

“Howling at the moon doesn’t turn a hound into a wolf,” Hakram snorted, then spat to the side.

Fists on shields, the sound drowning out even his opponent’s coughing. He did not bother to help her up, as he had some other foes. The Brass Wings Clan was no enemy of his, this was not a test or declaration of enmity. Borghold Bluesmile had just wanted to raise her reputation as a champion by bloodying him in the wake of so many more famous names failing. Hakram left the circle, shields parting for him but even as a few eager young greenhorns sought to offer him celebratory aragh he caught sight of a man waiting for him.

There were few orcs as tall as Hakram and even fewer still that were taller, but Oguz the Lame was one of them. Juniper’s father had been known as Oguz Sharphand once, one of the most famous champions of the Steppes until both his legs were broken in a fall. Even with a shaman’s attention they’d never healed quite right, ending the warrior’s stride just as he hit his pride. Still, he’d kept the edge he’d had when he’d given Grem One-Eye his sobriquet and served as the chief of the Red Shields in all but names for decades while General Istrid served in the Legions.

He’d been proclaimed her successor, after her death, which Hakram counted as a blessing. Oguz the Lame made as useful an ally as dangerous he would have made an enemy. Adjutant drank a mouthful of aragh, slapping the stripling’s shoulder in thanks as he returned the skin and heading straight for the chieftain before warriors could try to rope him into a bout of celebratory drinking. Oguz, leaning on his slender blackwood stick, eyed Borghold with scorn.

“Kids,” Oguz the Lame rumbled, shaking his head. “There are times to make a reputation. A taratoplu is not one of them.”

It was an old term, that one. In translation it would mean truce-gathering but that would be missing a crucial nuance. In Old Kharsum, what the clans of the far north still called the noble tongue, taratoplu was the first of a pair of bond-words. The second was ordutoplu, which meant camp-gathering. The Miezans had only ever bothered to learn the first and in their records they’d matched it to one of their own words after unwarrantedly making it a masculine: turbelus. Horde, in Lower Miezan. Though it had been laziness that’d led the conquerors to make that mistake, they’d stumbled into a partial truth. Taratoplu was as day to the night of ordutoplu, the gathering under truce meant to lead to the making of a great war camp.

Not even when the Steppes had been filled with talk of breaking ties with Ater under Grem One-Eye had a taratoplu been called. If the tales were to be believed, none had been called since the day the Broken Antler Horde was smashed into dust.

“We are what we are,” Hakram grunted back.

The older orc scoffed.

“They put too much in your heads, at the Carrion Lord’s college,” Oguz said. “Too many words meaning too little. The Blackspears aren’t wrong about that, even if they’re the bloody vulture whoresons.”

“The Blackspears would sell a wolf to a goat and boast of it,” Hakram snorted.

A favorite expression of his mother’s, implying terrible bad faith and shamelessness.

“And it’s serving them well,” Oguz the Lame replied, sucking at his fangs in displeasure. “Walk with me, Deadhand.”

Around the tall walls of the fortress of Chagoro, a sea of tents had spread out. Once the great warring clans had called a truce and gathered for talks, the others had flocked from all over the Steppes. Even some of the faraway clans who’d only ever known the Golden Bloom and other orcs had come, drawn by the rumours of a Horde gathering in the south. Never had Hakram ever seen so many of his people in one place: over two hundred banners reached for the sky, more than a hundred thousand orcs swarming under them. Not all warriors, but many. Hard to find out numbers when the camp was violent mayhem, not a semblance of organization to it.

Just finding your way to where you needed to go was a struggle: there was a reason the talks between the clans were held within the fortress, none allowed to set tents within.

“The Winter Hooves changed sides,” Oguz briskly said. “Their champions now drink with Troke’s and swear his fights will be theirs.”

Troke Snaketooth, chieftain of the Blackspear clan, was proving to be a problem. Hakram had not anticipated that the man would be so able at making allies, much less as ambitious as he was proving to be. The man had ridden the story of being the maker of this truce to greater influence, painting his greatest rivals – the Red Shields and the Howling Wolves – as warmongers who would rob all the Clans of the wealth of the south. Worse, his deeper game was only now starting to emerge. There had been no chief that could unite enough of the clans to have a claim at being acclaimed Warlord, not even Troke whose clans still had many enemies, but the Snaketooth had traded axe for arrow. He had put it to the clans that, in the Praesi way, a High Lord of the Steppes should be elected to lead the Clans into war south. Avoiding the title of Warlord, couching it all in terms of Praesi authority, had made the affair more palatable to clans who would have balked at proclaiming a Blackspear their Warlord.

Many had taken up the banner in the weeks since. Too many, and more were rallying by the day.

“The Winter Hooves were friends to the Howling Wolves,” Hakram quietly rumbled. “What changed?”

“They were friends to Grem One-Eye,” Oguz corrected. “They wanted him as Warlord, in the old days. Now there is no getting him back: even if the Tower returns him, how are we to be sure it is not just some creature riding his skin?”

There was an undertone of relish to the other orc’s word at the ruin of his old foe’s reputation, Hakram noted. That enmity had never quite faded, not helped by the old rumours that Grem was Juniper’s true father. Empty words, as far as Adjutant knew, but it was too tasty a slander not to be kept moving from mouth to ear.

“You’re saying they care more about the throne than who sits it,” he slowly said.

“Talk about thrones and you’ll get your throat ripped out,” Oguz warned. “But they’re looking for a stallion to ride, that much is true, and Troke’s the one prancing. They’re not the only ones, Deadhand. Praes is looking ripe but no one wants to try the Tower without a firm axehand to follow.”

On Rule, the fascinating treatise on politics that so many Procerans treated as a second Book of All Things, described this very phenomenon. In times of crisis, it wrote, authority will move from the periphery to the centre. In times of plenty, it will move form the centre to the periphery. Hakram had seen it unfold with his own eyes, the way a parade of enemies had pushed Callow deeper and deeper into Catherine’s embrace. Now, to his displeasure, he was seeing an opponent sail the same current. Clans would back Troke Snaketooth not because they were ardent supporters but because he was looking like the rising candidate.

The deed wasn’t done, though. And Troke had made that old and most unforgiving of Wasteland mistakes: you never wanted to be the one looking closest to claiming the Tower until you were ready to actually take it.

“The Hooves will bring over maybe three clans with them,” Hakram said. “That brings Troke to over sixty backers, by my count.”

“Just about,” Oguz said. “If he gets to eighty the tide will carry him over, mark my words. No one wants to be the last to proclaim a Warlord.”

That Troke would be High Lord of the Steppes instead would matter not a bit in practice, Hakram knew. Once he was in the chair, people would obey. It was what orcs did when someone was raised above. The Blackspear clan would make promises of lesser authority, of limits and restraint, but the moment Troke Snaketooth had a few victories under his belt he’d begin taking it back. And the Clans would let him, so long as he kept their axes red and their bellies full.

“Sixty is enough that the Weeping Arrows will be scared,” Hakram said. “They’re going to start bleeding clans and Inge Farsight knows if she drops under forty she’s done. She’ll negotiate now.”

“You want us to back her?” Oguz said, tone unconvinced. “Dag is still our man.”

“Unless you want your clan to serve as Troke’s footrest for the next twenty years, you don’t really have a choice,” Hakram bluntly replied. “Dag’s a hawk with lead wings, Grem’s cousin or not. He’s a solid champion but he’s not even chief to the Howling Wolves.”

The Howling Wolves clan was still led by Grem One-Eye, who they refused to name dead, though in practice much like the Red Shields had spent the last two decades led by Oguz in his wife’s name Dag Clawtoe had led the Howling Wolves as chief in all but name for his cousin.

“That lot is prickly,” Oguz warned. “They won’t like going from rider to wolf.”

“So we marry Dag to Inge,” Hakram said.

“She killed her last husband,” Oguz the Lame flatly replied.

“I’m sure Dag will enjoy the challenge,” Adjutant lied.

It needed to be done. The alliance between the Howling Wolves and the Red Shields was holding steady at forty clans but it’d not grown in days. Dag was respected but seen more a steward than a lord, to use Callowan parlance, and Oguz couldn’t be put forward because no one would follow a cripple. Their clans were by far the two largest of their alliance, and the warriors would not hear of putting forward the chief of a weaker clan as the figurehead for the alliance. Hakram knew there was no point in forcing the matter. Even if it worked, challenges would see the chief slain by his own allies before the day was out.

The bloody Blackspears were making gains, in large parts due to the skilled diplomacy of their Split Tree Clan allies. Hakram had been somewhat disposed to making peace with their ascension, as his and Catherine’s plans did not necessarily require the Wolves or the Shields to be raised as the highest of the clans, but Troke’s plans were a problem. The Snaketooth did intend to burn a swath through the lands of Okoro, but he’d called it madness to try the walls of a well-armed and forewarned High Seat. He had promised instead to keep raiding southwards, towards Nok.

Whose defences had been weakened by an Ashuran sack and who had sent many troops out west to fight with Sepulchral.

No doubt it was just happenstance that such an attack would cripple a rebellion against the very same woman who’d raised Troke to the rank of Lord of the Steppes and might just make her inclined to confirm him as High Lord of Steppes should the war end in her favour. Most of the Clans didn’t give a shit about that, though. What they saw was that Troke wanted to take them after a softer but still rich target, which was a pleasant song to the ear of many.

“I fucking doubt that, boy,” Oguz snorted. “But let’s ask him.”

Dag did not, in fact, enjoy the notion of that challenge. Hakram sold him on it anyway by pointing out that if he wed Inge Farsight even should his cousin return to become chieftain of the Howling Wolves he’d still have a high position as husband to the High Lady – or Warlord, depending on how things fell out – of the Steppes. Ambitious bastard, Dag, though personal loyalty to his famous cousin had kept that in check. A chance to step out of Grem One-Eye’s shadow, though, was not an opportunity to be lost. All that remained was selling to Inge and the Weeping Arrows.

She’d see reason, Hakram thought. Like most of the prominent chiefs, she had to know that food was beginning to run out. The countryside had already been stripped bare, Okoro no longer sent patrols that could be slain to eat and the clans had brought only so many herd with them to butcher for meat. Much as the chiefs would like to argue forever, someone would need to be acclaimed in Chagoro before the month was out or simple hunger would force the gathering to disperse.

Within moments of getting to the great tent of the Weeping Arrows, Hakram found trouble. Trouble looked back at him with a come-hither glare, going by the name of Sigvin of the Split Tree Clan. One of the twins that’d come as speakers for their clan to Wolof, Hakram had gotten to know her better since. She had these long fangs and wore tunics that prominently displayed ritual scarring on her shoulders, and Hakram had always had a weakness for dangerous women. It’d only made the fucking better to know that they both knew she was trying to turn him to her side, which might have been while they’d kept doing it.

Not that hers was the only bed he’d rolled in. Being the first Named of his kind in centuries and an unbroken streak of duelling victories had made Hakram a desirable orc. He wasn’t one to say no when the question was asked right.

Sigvin was leaning against a marking post outside the tent. Inside was a lot of shouting, not a pot he wanted to dip a toe hastily, so he came to lean on the other side of the post. Silence held between them, Hakram pricking an ear to try to discern what was happening in the Weeping Arrow tent. Names were being shouted, but also oaths and insults.

“If I didn’t know better,” Adjutant said, “I’d say it sounds like the acclamation of a chief, in there.”

The early part of it, at least.

“You haven’t heard?” Sigvin said, flaring her teeth provocatively at him. “Inge Farsight got killed. Some feud with a Black Tongue champion that went hard.”

The Black Tongue weren’t backers to Troke Snaketooth, from what Hakram recalled. At least not officially. How many knifes like that had the Blackspears kept in wait?

“No telling who they’ll raise now,” Hakram said.

Inge had led the clan almost twenty years but had no clear successor. Those kinds of acclamations always got messy and often left clans divided in their wake.

“Except that it won’t be Inge Farsight,” Sigvin laughed.

She met his eyes boldly.

“One step behind, Deadhand,” she said. “Might be time for you and your queen to talk with Snaketooth instead of keeping lead weights on your feet.”

Swift as a doe, she pushed away from her side of the post and swatted at his buttocks.

“Don’t worry,” Sigvin said, “I’ll not kick you out of my bedroll even after you lose. It’d be a waste.”

Hakram took the time to enjoy the sway as she strolled away, for he was only mortal, but as soon as she was gone he turned cold eyes to the tent. That was a setback. The Weeping Arrows were done, their alliance would collapse. The practical thing would be to take the offered branch the Blackspears had sent through Sigvin and have private talks with Troke. He would only pull further ahead in the coming days, and even if he couldn’t be turned against Malicia he still needed to be sounded out over… other matters. As the Adjutant, that was his duty. Much as it irked to have been outplayed, he had been. Now he needed to make sure Catherine’s plans were not too heavily damaged. Yet Hakram found his feet refusing to move. He thought, suddenly, of Scribe. Of the look she’d had on her face, that night he had taken her by the throat with a ghostly hand he could no longer make. How the glint in her eyes had scared him for the way he could so easily understand it. He looked down.

The grass at his feet was coated in dust, blown in from a southern storm. Tricky footing.

Just a few more steps, he decided.

The night sky would have been beautiful, were it not for the plumes of foul smoke clawing across it. The Dead King’s devilish machine, the dragon-furnace that had been meant to incinerate the armies that’d held Hainaut, had not ceased burning after being toppled. Miles of land had turned into a sea of fire as black pitch spread, and though the fuel was running out it was as if a curtain of black and pungent smoke had been drawn across the world. The kind of sight that would make men mutter about the end of the world, had they not already all known it had arrived.

“In Ashur, Speakers do not like to deal in simple truths,” Hanno of Arwad said. “Simplicity is a brittle thing, they claim. What lessons they have to share, they prefer to share through stories. To let us find our own meanings.”

“I hatred riddles,” Rafaella admitted. “And poems. Even Hidden Poets. Words trying to get clever.”

Hanno shifted in his seat, wincing as the bandages pulled tight against his wound. The priests had seen to his impalement as best they could but the enchantment on the Revenant’s spear had fought the Light. It would be days before he was truly fit to fight again.

“Cleverness isn’t the point,” he told his old friend. “It is a mark of respect, I always thought. A recognition that few truths are true for all.”

“Stories not about truth,” the Valiant Champion chided him. “They about glory and sex. And killing. Sometimes Gods, but mostly other three.”

He chuckled.

“But you can speaking bad Ashur story,” Rafaella allowed. “I am best of friends, will pretend to listen.”

“Convincingly?” he teased.

“Am not that best a friend,” Rafaella replied without batting an eye.

But he knew her enough to see she was curious, under the ribbing, so Hanno idly thumbed the stumps of his missing fingers and chose his words.

“There is one that I cannot seem to shake, lately,” he admitted. “It is a story about the Patient Man.”

“He villain?” Rafaella asked interestedly.

“I am not sure,” Hanno murmured. “Which I suppose is the point.”

In the distance, red lightning crackled across the sky. The aftermath of Antigone’s duel with the Archmage had left great scars on an already devastated land: power still lashed out wildly where they had clashed.

“In the far land across the sea, in the city of Akra, there was once a Patient Man,” Hanno said. “He was a man of faith and wisdom, who had grown wealthy before retiring and raising his two daughters. In time Akra went to war with the city of Yane, and so his eldest asked his blessing to fight. The Patient Man hesitated, for war is a dangerous trade and he did not want her to perish but neither did he want to shame the courage that made him proud. Knowing not which was the just course, he kept silent.”

The cadence came back to him easily, tradertalk having enough of High Tyrian to it that the tales he had learned a child could be recited to the same beats he had once learned. Hanno had never found the tale put to writ anywhere, and not for lack of looking. Like much of the wisdom of the Speakers, it was estranged from ink. Tales were living things, to the masked priests of Ashur, and the corpse of them on parchment would be almost as sacrilege.

“The eldest went to war without his blessing, captaining her ship, and though the city won the war her ship was lost,” Hanno gravely said. “Dead, they said, but the Patient Man did not yet grieve. His younger daughter grew wroth and cursed his silence as heartless. She blamed many for the death of her beloved elder sister but none more than the rulers of the city whose greedy ways had led to war. So that no sister would be lost again, the younger daughter sought to become a ruler herself.”

Rafaella had never been one to hide her thoughts, for all that she delighted in feigning false ones, so it was easy to see how she approved of the eldest daughter who had gone to war and less so of the youngest who sought to rule. Violence was familiar to the Valiant Champion. She had won her Name triumphing over others in honest battle, but it was no coincidence she had then left the hills of her native Alava. To stay in the lands of the Champion’s Blood would have seen her drawn into the feuds and schemes of the dynasties of the Blood, made precious by her inheritance of Bestowal.

It was a hard irony, that the same character that had made her the Valiant Champion had led her to want little to do with the Valiant Champion’s Blood.

“The younger daughter sought the Patient Man’s blessing and the help of his riches. This would be a long and arduous path, the Patient Man knew, for rulers do not like to share their power,” Hanno of Arwad said, with a wry twist of the lip. “Yet he held in esteem the conviction of his daughter and desired not to stand in the way of it. Knowing not which was the just course, he kept silent. Once more his daughter cursed him and rose to rule without help, but in rising she forgot her conviction and grew wicked.”

Hanno paused.

“To punish him for his silence she swore never to hear a word from him again, but the Patient Man did not yet grieve.”

“Good,” Rafaella grunted, speaking of the daughter and not the father. “Silence for silence. Honour in balance. Good girl.”

Rafaella had never once, in all the years they’d known each other, spoken of her family. It was not unusual for heroes to be born of tragedy but Hanno had long suspected that was not the truth of this. Sometimes he wondered at the kind of mother and father it would have taken, to raise a woman like Rafaella. Who could claim and hold such a hallowed Name at the age she had: seventeen, barely a woman grown.

“There came a day where a man came from the city of Yane,” he said, ignoring her guffaw and muttering of Yanu, “who was from there a prince, and he sought audience with the Patient Man. The man had been a captain for his kin in the war and found the shipwrecked eldest daughter. Falling in love, he wed her and had spent time gathering great gifts to bring the Patient Man to ask his blessing. A ship was sailing, with the eldest daughter and the gits among it, and the old man sent a messenger to his younger daughter to tell her of this wonder. It was a merry day, but the Patient Man did not yet rejoice.”

Rafaella’s brow tightened. Heroes did not live as long as either of them had without learning to catch the scent of tragedy in the air.

“The following day his younger daughter sailed into the harbour, bringing with her what she claimed a great war prize,” Hanno said. “A ship whose hull had been filled with great gifts and hated enemies from Yane, which she had all slain with her own hand. She had refused to hear the Patient Man’s messenger, keeping to her oath, and so in ignorance slain her own beloved sister. The prince was furious with grief, named her a kinslayer and swore revenge. He asked that the Patient Man condemn her, to show not all Akra was wicked, but the old man kept to his silence and so there was war.”

He’d told Antigone the story once, long ago in an airy city where they had been the only humans to be seen, and this had been where she balked. The Patient Man is made wicked by this, she had insisted. He and his daughter both deserve to be slain as reparations to Yane, for one committed a great crime and the other abides it. Rafaella did not balk, for her world was a vastly different one. The Dominion was bound as much by ties of blood as it was feuds between families: many a time would Blood forgive or ignore their trespasses of their own while the same dealt by the hands of their foes.

The Ashen Gods of Levant were not as the benevolent Hallowed of Procer or Callow’s stern Heavens. In the Dominion, the Gods were partisans. They had favourites, they took sides.

“Yet the younger daughter, broken by her crime, found her old conviction again,” Hanno continued. “She offered herself to the city of Yane as a penitent, and the truth of her earnest grief moved the hearts of the people. In time she was wed to the prince, who forgave her, and the cities of Akra and Yane were bound in peace and friendship. The Patient Man died in his bed, father to a grave and a woman estranged.”

His voice trailed off, leaving thoughtful silence in its wake. Rafaella was frowning, then eventually she sighed.

“Fucking hate riddles,” the Valiant Champion said. “Patient Man fool, good daughter dead bad daughter should have become priest?”

“That is an answer,” Hanno agreeably replied.

She sharply elbowed him.

“Is it right answer, though?” Rafaella asked.

“I was once told there are as many answers to that tale as there are Faces,” Hanno smiled, thinking of the masks hanged in the temples of Ashur and the priests who wore them. “You’re not any more wrong or right than any of us.”

Rafaella looked skeptical.

“So what’s your answer?” she seriously asked.

Hanno breathed out, looking at the marred sky.

“I don’t have an answer,” he quietly admitted. “All the story ever taught me was a question.”

He felt her eyes on him even without turning to look.

“Is it a greater evil to act unjustly,” the White Knight asked, “or not to act at all?”

The Patient Man might have saved his daughters great pain, even death, had he spoken. Had he grieved or rejoiced. Yet in keeping his silence, in trusting the Heavens, he had lived to see the birth of peace and friendship between once-warring cities. Was that great good worth the little evils caused by silence? The Choir of Mercy would say it was, had made a sword and law of that belief. But Hanno of Arwad was not the Sword of Mercy. And there had been a time where he had held an answer to the story, the one shown him in the depths of that unearthly place where he had become the White Knight. Mortals could not be just, he had been shown. Not truly.

They were flawed, blind creatures and even their finest intentions were blades without a handle. He could trust instead in the judgement of the Seraphim, impartial and farseeing. There was justice, beyond the fallibility of men. Hanno of Arwad palmed a small silver coin, one side bearing crossed swords and the other laurels, and deftly flipped it. It went spinning, a glint of silver in the dark, but it held no answers for him.

The Seraphim were yet silent.

“It true the coin woke?” Rafaella quietly asked.

Hanno caught the coin, snatching it out of the air.

“For a moment,” he said. “Would that it had not.”

The hope had burned, after the years left adrift. And burned harsher still when Hanno had understood what had truly happened: somewhere in the south, hidden away, Cordelia Hasenbach had ordered that the corpse of an angel be desecrated. Ealamal, such a corpse was called in the Dominion. Priests and mages in the service of the First Prince had meddled with something beyond mortal understanding, tried to turn the remnants of a Seraphim into a weapon. And the shadow of a shadow had woken for the barest of a moments without calamity ensuing. It had lit up like a beacon in an empty place within Hanno’s soul, blaring to him a warning of how far and fast the First Prince was falling.

Twice over her had been stung, in the Arsenal, and much had he thought of those days. Considered how he might have done things differently, looking into past lives for guidance – for the man he could have been and had failed to be, the one who would have passed that test. He had found no answers, the search only dwindling his power in the Light even as he warred against the dead, left to study only with his own meagre eyes. Catherine Foundling had startled him out of their pleasant détente, that day, but his anger there had waned. What wisdom was there in blaming a scorpion for striking? He would not allow himself to be lulled into complacency again, but neither had he misread the Black Queen as he’d once feared.

He had simply never been at odds with her before. It had been a lesson well worth learning, and cheap at the price.

Yet Cordelia Hasenbach had been looked upon with approval by the Choir of Judgement once. Her convictions been judged worthy, even as she denied the Name was her rightful mantle to bear. A scant year later and the same woman had been reduced to someone feeding people into the grinding gears of the Principate of Procer so that the machine’s wheels would be kept wet. Hasenbach had no ideals, only an ideal Procer. And though that land would be a beautiful thing to behold, Hanno thought, it would be grimly built and as Evil made it slip further and further away the First Prince was dipping her hands deep in the red.

Already she was up to her elbows, how long before she began to swim? Conviction and despair had been mothers to many a horror.

“Truth then,” Rafaella grunted, studying him. “Talk of ealamal.”

“It is,” Hanno simply said.

The Valiant Champion weighed him with her eyes.

“That why you been middling?” she asked.

He blinked.

“Meddling?” he suggested.

“Middle, meddle, muddle,” she growled. “Tradertalk is fool tongue. You understand, Hanno. Now you finger on scales.”

Her face grew serious.

“Time was you did not.”

He did not deny it.

It had begun as a small, simple thing. But then was the same not true of the first pebble before the avalanche? There had been trouble in the army, after the Black Queen left. The men of Hannoven had spoken of electing their own leader, after the death of the Iron Prince, and of marching to fight with their kin in the north. Mathilda Greensteel’s authority had been bucked, for she was not their princess nor kin to the Papenheims. And Hanno could have stood aside and watched, as he had when the Iron Prince had hung mutineers, for it was not his place to meddle in the affairs of Procer.

But he had glimpsed the shape of it, how it would unfold. They would leave and there would be no stopping them without a battle. Hainaut would weaken, then fall. So instead of standing aside, he instead had stood at Mathilda Greensteel’s side as she took the Hannoven captains to task and broke them to her service again. And though he had said not a word, his presence had spoken volumes. The White Knight agreed. The Sword of Judgement, like the Ashen Gods of the Dominion, had picked a side.

Once he’d dipped a toe, it had seemed pointless to balk when the Alamans princes began to bicker and their hosts to desert. He’d brokered a truce between Beatrice Volignac and Arsene Odon, exhorted the levies of Bayeux whose shame about routing at the Battle of Hainaut had been eating away. It had seemed almost just to him to speak to those levies, balancing the scale of the way he had done nothing as Klaus Papenheim slew and imprisoned their officers. He had not expected for them to look to him for command, after, but he was a high officer of the Grand Alliance – he could serve as a commander if he chose, he simply had not. They had fought like lions since, to regain their pride.

They called him Lord White, and meant it not as a courtesy.

Hanno had remembered the clarity he’d felt, when he had been fighting to the north to destroy the bridge, and then the sickening feeling when he had heard about the bloody battle at Hainaut. And with those memories following him around like loyal hounds, he had found his hand moving again and again. Stiffening General Abigail’s spine when she began to consider retreat further south, killing the dispute through a scrying ritual when the Red Knight and the Myrmidon almost came to blows in Cleves, advising the Kingfisher Prince to retreat long before the Morgentor came at threat of being encircled.

Small things, all. But many of them. And others had noticed. There was a deference to the way the princes now spoke to him that had not been there before, and it was slowly passing to Named. Many now looked to him for advice who had merely taken it when offered before.

None had noticed that his power was waning all the while, save for his closest friends. That troubled Hanno, for it would have been easy to decide from this that the Heavens were frowning on his action, but for all that he was weakening he did not feel… shunned by the Light. But it was his doubts, he suspected, that were behind it all. The end of his certainties. For Hanno of Arwad had once believed himself as a Patient Man vindicated, but as the silence of Judgement lingered his own was beginning to break. These days he often he dreamt of the story he had told Rafaella, the question burning in his mind as he woke.

The Valiant Champion had been watching him through his long silence, the sky above them alive with writhing smoke.

“Is it a greater evil to act unjustly,” Hanno quietly repeated, “or not to act at all?”

And he could not shake the fear that he had not heeded the warning of the story. That he had seeded a doom at the heart of the Grand Alliance by his action. Would Cordelia Hasenbach grown so desperate, if he had not begun to step beyond his old lines in the sand? He had proof, ruinous proof, that his actions and hers were interlinked. Yet some part of him balked at the notion that simply acting, trying to do all the good that he could, would be a seed of doom. What had he done here, save try to keep the dark from blowing out the last trembling lights in the west?

“Not fighting Evil,” the Valiant Champion said. “Rolling over. That is greatest evil. You cannot be others, only you. That is what you owe the Ashen Gods.”

He thought on that, for a moment.

“I could do more,” Hanno of Arwad quietly confessed. “Even now, I stay my hand.”

Rafaella smiled gently, and pressed a kiss against the side of his head. He looked at her in surprise, for love or lust she had never been shy in expressing but affection was rarer.

“It’s end of the world,” his friend said. “When, if not now?”

The words lingered long after she departed, leaving him to silence and the smoky sky. When, if not now? Was she wrong? He felt as if she should be, but he could not say how. And that left only a broad, terrifying expanse ahead of him. One that could be filled with anything.

“I could do more,” Hanno of Arwad said, voice pensive.

Then perhaps he should. He already knew how to begin. Speaking with Antigone, so that she might lead him to the one who had taught her. The sole man who could bring the Titanomachy fully into the war, the last of the ancient Titans. The thought fixed, firmed, became a decision. And in that moment, Hanno felt it fully for the first time. Not in parts, in moments, as he had until now. Like a beacon. The claim that was stirring in him, to a Name he could not yet grasp. He had his suspicions, however. He was feeling another claimant, after all, to the south.

If Hanno had to put a name to where, it would be Salia.

Chapter 15: Pull

“Only a child pretends there is value in defeat. Fool they who praise a bleeding wound.”

Dread Empress Massacre

Since we’d come crashing down into this godforsaken region three days ago, we had lost one thousand six hundred and thirty-two soldiers.

The last count came in from the Dominion midmorning, as they were less used to counting their dead. The Levantines had borne the brunt of those losses, almost a quarter of the men they’d brought east now dead. In the exchange we’d killed maybe a quarter of that number in enemy soldiers, mostly through skirmishes that had gone our way. The best that could be said of the last few days was that we’d avoided a rout, not that this narrow avoidance meant our situation was anything less than terrible. We’d camped near the northern shore of Nioqe Lake, beyond the long shadows cast by the Jini Plateau, and while we were somewhat safe at the moment our strategic situation had taken a sharp turn for the worse.

The mood was grim when our war council assembled. The usual few slunk their way into the tent: Vivienne and Brandon Talbot, Juniper and Aisha, Zola Osei. Of the two lordlings only one showed today, Razin Tanja. Aquiline was attending to their captains, who were not pleased with the way this campaign was going. It’d not escaped anyone’s attention that the Legions of Terror seemed to be focusing their efforts on the Dominion, which had brought old tensions to the fore – there was some talk in Levantine ranks of my Praesi legionaries being traitors, of there being some conspiracy afoot, and it needed to be stamped out. Aquiline tended to be more popular with their warriors, so it was only natural that we’d ended up with Razin.

“It is no longer feasible to take back our camp,” General Zola crisply said. “I can only argue in favour of retreat now, west to the half-road and then further north to grounds less at our disadvantage.”

“That marches us straight into the Gale Ribbon,” Aisha said, shaking her head. “Even with wards prepared we’ll take losses.”

“We could attempt to take the burned camp in Moule Hills for our own,” Brandon Talbot suggested.

“They’ll have mined that,” I grunted. “If not worse.”

It was against Legion regulations to use devils but I wasn’t sure how closely followed a rule that would be without my father around to enforce it. A lot of high-placed officers had shared his opinion, but many of those were now dead. I wasn’t sure the Black Knight would push back if Malicia insisted, which she might. The Empress would prefer burning contracts to losing men, at this stage of the war.

“And even if we swing wide away from Kala Hills to avoid giving battle, there is nothing to stop her from simply marching down and getting into a position to flanks us,” Aisha said. “Lady Black has made it clear that she will not let us entrench.”

“Is a ramp to access the plateau feasible?” Razin asked. “We could avoid the valley that so troubles us entirely by accessing the heights.”

Looks were shared. That was the closest thing to a good idea we’d heard so far.

“I’ll consult with Sapper-General Pickler,” I said.

“Even if it is something our sappers can accomplish,” General Zola began, “Marshal Nim will not leave us to build that ramp unmolested. We would need to stake out a more defensible position.”

I glanced at Juniper, who sat at the other end of the table in silence. She had been following the conversation attentively, but there was a peculiar look on her face. She had not once opened her mouth to give an opinion this entire council and did not break the streak to answer Zola.

“Send out riders to find one,” I ordered the general. “Even if Pickler says it can’t be done, it’ll be useful information to have under our belt.”

“I will see to the roster,” Aisha volunteered, smoothly rising to her feet.

She threw a worried glanced at Juniper, who did not meet her eyes. The council ended without much ceremony, the tent emptying until there were only three people left: Vivienne, me and the still-silent Hellhound. Brushing back a strand that’d slipped her braid, the princess was the first to speak up.

“You haven’t said a word all morning,” Vivienne stated.

Juniper let out a long breath, chair creaking under her.

“I haven’t,” she said.

A moment passed. She did not continue.

“We’ve had setbacks before,” I finally said. “And we’re far from defeated, we just-”

“I should resign,” the Hellhound interrupted me. “I can’t, I know it would be a bad look in the middle of a campaign, but I should. Command should informally be passed to Zola regardless.”

I balked.

“That’s not even slightly a good idea,” I said. “Zola’s solid, but she doesn’t have the spark. Nim will eat her alive.”

Hakram had been right when he’d warned I should temper my expectations of Zola Osei, as he often was. Hune’s replacement was not her equal, much less Juniper’s. She was the kind of commander that made for a respectable general but fell short of marshal talents.

“Nim is eating me alive, in case you hadn’t noticed,” Juniper barked out. “How many times are you going to make excuses for me, Catherine? I’m losing.”

“I’m not making excuses,” I flatly replied. “We’ve made some mistakes and paid for them but-”

“I should have asked you to send Named out in the hills, not just scouts,” Juniper growled. “The Eleventh wouldn’t have caught us out. The Order should have been out near the vanguard, not near the supply wagons – they could have chased Nim’s horse before they shredded the Levantines.”

“You’re not an oracle, Juniper,” I bit out. “We’d be having a very different conversation if she’d sent the horse after the wagons instead, and she might have attacked the moment we flushed out the Eleventh so-”

“I am not,” Juniper of the Red Shields quietly said, “equal to this task.”

I slammed my open palm onto the table.

“What the fuck is this?” I snarled. “She played her cards better, Juniper. We lost a few hands. So what? The goddamned pot is still on the table for anyone to take.”

I heard her hands creak as large fingers tightened into fists.

“I’m not sure it all came back,” Juniper hoarsely said. “After Malicia pulled her hooks. That I’m still all of me.”

And just for that look in my friend’s eyes, I wished I could kill Alaya of Satus twice.

“It did,” I flatly said.

The Pilgrim had told me as much and I had no reason to doubt him. There’d been physical scars it would take her years to overcome, but her mind was fine.

“I will not be another orc cripple for you to lug about, Catherine,” Juniper hissed. “Don’t you see it’s even worse if it’s all there? It just means I was never in the same league. If I’m no longer fit, if I ever was in the first place, and-”

“Do you genuinely believe I wouldn’t have advocated your removal if I believed you unfit for your office?”

Vivienne’s voice cut through our rising anger like a knife. Juniper rocked back like she’d been slapped, but she was listening.

“Catherine loves you like family,” Vivienne calmly continued. “She might excuse weakness out of sentiment. Would I, Hellhound? We have an understanding, but we both know I would not put you above Callowan lives.”

“You’re not a general,” Juniper replied, but it was weak and by the tone of her voice she knew it.

She just wasn’t convinced. Didn’t want to be, maybe couldn’t be. I grit my teeth. Though I was not unfamiliar with the flagellant’s whip, this was not the time for my marshal to indulge in it. We were already in deep enough trouble without losing our finest military mind halfway through a campaign.

“Neither are you, at the moment,” Vivienne evenly replied. “Perhaps you should attend to those duties before further defeat ensues, Marshal Juniper.”

The orc’s voice was stilted as she excused herself, almost fleeing the tent. I slumped back into my seat. Vivienne rose to pour two glasses of wine, pressing one into my hand.

“Fuck,” I eloquently said.

It’d not been good in the first place, but I suspected I might have made it worse.

“I can’t fix this,” Vivienne told me. “It’s not who we are to each other. She doesn’t call me Warlord, or ever will.”

I drank, biting down on my first answer. It was bitter enough on my tongue it almost spoiled the wine.

“I’m not sure how to fix this either,” I said. “Winning? If we could beat Nim so easily we’d already be doing it.”

“There are some who agree with her, you know,” Vivienne murmured. “Not just our countrymen, who sometimes mutter for the wrong reasons. Officers that were brought in from the Legions. They say she came up too quick, more out of closeness to you than merit. That a few College tricks and being Istrid Knightsbane’s daughter aren’t enough to warrant her being raised so high.”

I scoffed.

“I didn’t pick her name out of a hat, Viv,” I said. “Just yesterday she saved us a rout. How many officers would have figured out the Order needed to be sent to relieve us before the enemy cavalry even came out? It’s not her that’s the problem, it’s that we’re fighting the Legions of Terror on their picked grounds with the deck stacked in the favour. This was never going to be easy.”

I’d ridden Legion war doctrine like a warhorse over the back of half the fucking continent. It wasn’t going to stop being effective just because I wasn’t the only one on the field using it.

“I know that,” Vivienne said. “So do most people who matter.”

My heiress paused, offering me a wan smile.

“Does Juniper?”

“You might as well be asking me to build a ramp to the moon,” Pickler bluntly told me.

“I’m sure Ol’ Sorcerous would appreciate the way down, but my ambitions are slightly more grounded,” I easily replied.

Well, more or less. I only wanted to bind the entire continent to a treaty that would fundamentally change how Named would operate. You know, summer fair gift stuff.

“Funny,” my Sapper-General said, tone dry as sand. “I can’t do it, Catherine, at least not in the time you want it done. We didn’t have the wood to build a ramp that size in the first place and we lost too many of our stakes when we abandoned the camp last night. Unless you want me to build it out of stone we cut from the cliffside, it can’t be done.”

I eyed her with alarm. I’d not known our situation was so bad with the sudes. If we lost too many of the large stakes my legionaries carried to easily raise palisades then we’d be dependent on local wood. Of which there wasn’t much. The most we’d seen was the brushlands in the Kala Hills, which the Loyalist Legions now held.

“We can still raise palisades properly, can’t we?” I asked.

“Camp size’s been reduced. We’re toeing the line for sanitation,” Pickler admitted. “If not for the priests we’d be at risk of sicknesses.”

Well, it’d been a day for pleasant surprises so far. Why break that lovely trend?

“We need to do something, Pickler,” I got out.

“We’re not reaching that plateau, Catherine,” she said, then hesitated. “But I have an… idea. I need to look at some things first, though. See if it’s truly viable.”

I cocked an eyebrow.

“You’re not going to give me more than that?”

“No point in raising false hopes,” Pickler said. “I’ll find you when I’m sure.”

I was inclined to poke at her for at least a few scraps, but she was saved by the appearance of a phalange. The young Taghreb informed me that Archer was back in camp and she’d brought a package with her, which spurred my curiosity. I met with Vivienne as I limped my way back, as she’d been sent for too, the pair of us entering the tent together to the sight of Archer dumping a large cloth sack on the carved table. I paused.

“Is whatever’s in that bag breathing?” I bluntly asked.

“I would hope so,” Vivienne said. “That’s one of the abduction bags for the Jacks, if she got blood all over it I’ll be cross.”

Ah, Vivienne. Sometimes she said these things and I acutely felt the loss it was for my gender that she was only interested in the other one.

“Why, hello Archer,” Indrani brightly said. “Lovely to see you, how did your night go?”

I raised my staff then poked experimentally at the bag, ignoring her entirely.

“I think it’s a person,” I mused.

“She might have finally snapped and done in Masego,” Vivienne suggested. “There’s only so many times a woman can have her words nitpicked before blood ensues.”

“If you don’t stop I’ll put him back where I found him,” Indrani threatened.

I had to bite down on a ‘Masego? It’d be a walk, but I suppose you could’ that very much wanted to wriggle its way past my lips. It was rare that I got to gang up on one of the Woe instead of getting ganged up on, so it was only with reluctance that I moved on to business.

“And where would that be?” I asked.

Theatrically, Archer opened the bag to reveal the bruised face of an unconscious dark-skinned man in what I’d guess to be his early twenties.

“Kala Fortress,” Indrani said. “You’re looking at Sokoro Abara, third child of Lord Abara of Kala. Caught him while he was serving as a go-between between the fortress and the Legions.”

My brow rose. That was quite the catch. More than enough to make up for her absence last night, considering she wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the fight. I stayed silent a little longer, choosing my words.

“I know that look,” Indrani accused. “I did good but you want to insult me anyways so you’re moving around the sentence.”

“Of course not,” I lied.

“You did good, Archer,” Vivienne told her with a warm smile.

Indrani preened.

“You know,” my successor casually added, “for a sullen wench.”

I grinned even as wails of Callowan treachery began filling up the tent, already thinking about all the answers we were going to get out of that man.

Sokoro Abara was going to be a hard nut to crack, I figured.

Akua had once told me that a lot of Wasteland nobles trained their children in methods to resist torture and in my experience Praesi aristocrats needed to be made brutally aware that their situation was desperate before the veneer of arrogance even began to break. So we did the works: put him in a tent enchanted for darkness with the sole magelight facing him, had the Concocter feed him something to keep him slightly dazed and I handled the interrogation personally with only Vivienne at my side. Sokoro Abara woke up, blinking away the sleep, and then took in the sight of my being seated across from him and Vivienne standing behind me.

There was a pregnant pause.

“I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” he swore.

Well. I was feeling a little cheated, but there was a saying about gift horses. The young noble was quite frank about how he was not even slightly interested in dying or being tortured for his family’s sake, and instead offered information quite freely when asked. His position as the envoy between the fortress and Legions – he informed us quite bitterly that such a task had of course been beneath his elder half-siblings – and his confessed tendency to open sealed scrolls to read them meant he’d been in a good position to learn about the unfolding debacle.

“The Eleventh was in the hills for two days before you marched there,” he told us. “They went through Risas, using the shepherd paths. The Black Knight wanted them in position to strike at your army from behind should you fight in the valley.”

It was an odd feeling to know that our disastrous vanguard action had still been better than the likely alternative: picking a fight with Marshal Nim in the valley and getting smashed in the back by a full legion. Though it’d been a costly thing to learn that General Lucretia was hiding in the hills, better we learn it now than when a battle was on the line. He also had actionably useful information, of the recent kind.

“Lady Black ordered that the wells to both the east and west of the Kala Hills should be poisoned today,” Sokoro told us. “She had to ask us permission first, as it is still father’s land, but he bent over backwards to agree. Lady Warlock has offered to broker entering under Wolof’s protection on very favourable terms, so there’s little he won’t do to please her.”

My lips thinned. I could deduce why Marshal Nim would give the order easily enough. She wanted us to be stuck near Nioqe Lake, knowing that if we strayed too far from those shores we’d have no water source to draw from. Now that the Black Knight had put us in a corner, she meant for us to stay there.

“What do you know of Marshal Nim’s plans?” Vivienne asked.

“Not much,” Sokoro admitted. “She was raised under the Carrion Lord, you know. Like all his old soldiers she has high-handed manners even in the lands of her betters.”

I doubted this man was Nim’s better in any possible sense of the word – except passing through small doorways, maybe? – but I’d gain nothing from telling him that.

“Not much is still something,” I smiled.

He smiled back and asked for assurances about his captivity. I guaranteed him absence of torture and fair treatment if he talked – which he already had, but apparently did not know – yet when I offered right of ransom he scoffed.

“Father won’t pay,” Sokoro said. “I’d rather you promise wine instead, I imagine being a prisoner will be dreadfully dull.”

“We can arrange that,” Vivienne promised.

‘Not much’ hadn’t been him playing coy, unfortunately. He’d overheard useful bits but no plan. Nim’s legionaries were apparently convinced that she wanted to avoid giving us a pitched battle, which I had no trouble believing. The most interesting morsel was that apparently General Wheeler had been asked about raising field fortifications that would hem in the Army of Callow around Nioqe Lake. It was not a sure thing, but in my opinion it seemed likely she actually intended to try. Malicia did not want to wreck my army, just put me in a position where I was forced to negotiate. Bottled up against the shores of the lake with a larger force or impassable terrain encircling me as my supplies ran out would achieve that.

The best possible outcome of being forced into that corner was managing a stalemate until Sepulchral and the Rebel Legions arrived, but I had my doubts we’d manage as much. Besides, if it was the fight Marshal Nim was after then it was the last one we wanted to give her. Which meant moving before we got cornered.

Time to see if Pickler had a way for us to slip the noose before it got tightened.

“I told you that I can’t get us on that plateau,” Pickler hissed out in irritation.

“But you have something else,” I pressed.

“It’s a gamble,” my Sapper-General admitted. “But I believe it’ll work.”

She showed me to the inside of a tent where a tenth of sappers were chattering away as they worked, cutting away at wood and hammering in nails. It took me a moment to realize what I was looking at: one of our supply wagons, stripped of its wheels and bound tighter. Was that wax I was smelling?

“I can’t get you on the plateau,” Pickler repeated, standing at my side. “But there’s another way east. Nioqe Lake.”

“You want to make a pontoon bridge across,” I realized, then frowned. “We have enough wood?”

“If we use every supply wagon,” she replied. “And a significant portion of our stakes.”

She’d not been underselling it when she’d called that a gamble, then. If the enemy sunk that bridge, or even just prevented us from recovering it after we crossed, we’d be in heaps of trouble. As in, might seriously have to consider cutting a deal trouble: without wagons to carry our supplies we’d slow to a crawl even using roads. Out there on wild land, where there weren’t any, we’d be snails to the Black Knight’s hawk.

“How long would it take you to get it done?” I asked.

“We made a pattern, so I could have it ready for deployment by sundown if you don’t steal any of my sappers,” Pickler said. “Trouble is, Catherine, I don’t have a way to prevent them seeing us make it.”

Which would allow Nim to contest the crossing, the last thing I wanted. I clenched my fingers then unclenched them. There was a way. I didn’t like using it as a ploy, it felt disrespectful, but I’d do it anyway. The question was, then whether it was truly our way out. Sure, it’d get us out of Marshal Nim’s planned encirclement and on the other side of the lake if things went fine. What would we do once there, though? Taking a gamble to flee blindly was exactly the kind of mistake the Black Knight was waiting to capitalize on. She’d pushed her army hard, striking at us repeatedly over the same day and night, because she knew that our officer corps and general staff were of lesser quality than hers. We were, as an army, simply more prone to making mistakes when time grew short.

That was the difference training made.

The way I saw it, the point of crossing Nioqe Lake would be marching south afterwards. I’d been Juniper’s original plan to do as much, if from a significantly better position, and I still believed it was a sound notion. The problem now was Kala Fortress. It was a certainty the Loyalist Legions would move to cover it faster than we could get there – needing to fish out and rebuild our supply wagons ensured as much – so Nim was likely to entrench by the walls. That’d been true in the original iteration of the Hellhound’s plan as well, but our answer to that had simply been going around the Legions by marching further east before cutting south. That was no longer an option, because as I’d recently learned from our prisoner the Black Knight had ordered all the wells east of Kala Hills poisoned.

I wasn’t sure how far that order would be applied in practice but given that Nim had light cavalry to spare I wouldn’t bet on it being a small slice of land. We could last maybe two weeks without refreshing our water supplies if we began rationing immediately and nothing went wrong, which made risking an eastern march rolling the dice. If we got lucky it might rain and be the drinkable kind of rain instead of the brimstone kind that burned – a legitimate worry in these parts, Aisha had informed me – but that was a large if. Especially when the mage cadres of the Loyalist Legions had shown they were capable of large-scale weather manipulation rituals. Even if rainstorms gathered, there was nothing to prevent the Legions from just dispersing them.

No, the reliable water was south and down the half-road. And there was a set of fortifications on top of that road: Kala Fortress. If we could take it before Nim got there, we’d be in a very defensible position and sitting over her supply line. We’d be putting her in a corner instead of the other way around. I could maybe sneak a small force to that keep before the Black Knight got there, I finally thought, but nowhere large enough to actually take a well-defended castle. Which meant I needed to figure out how to bust open that lock before we got started on this plan.

“Catherine?” Pickler hesitantly asked.

I had gone silent for a long while, I supposed. I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. Taking Kala Fortress wasn’t really the issue, was it? As in, it did not need to be in the Army of Callow’s possession. I just needed it not to be in the hands of the Loyalist Legions. And that was something I might just have the tool to achieve.

“Get started on the work,” I said, then bit my tongue. “Talk to Juniper and General Zola first, but you have my full backing for this. Unless they object stridently, it’s happening.”

Leaving her quite bemused at the sudden turn, I set to talking around the key to the lock.

Sokoro Abara widely smiled, showing slightly yellowing teeth. His breath smelled like the wine we’d promised him and Vivienne had evidently delivered on.

“I do have some friends behind the walls, Your Majesty,” he said. “Though it behooves me to ask why I should introduce them to you. I am, after all, a prisoner.”

“You misunderstand me,” I said.

He flinched, as if preparing for a blow, but none followed.

“There would be no need for an introduction, as you would be the one speaking to them,” I idly continued.

His eyes narrowed.

“You’d release me?” he asked.

“Release is a strong word,” I thinly smiled. “Tell me, Sokoro, how would you like to be Lord of Kala?”

He stayed silent a moment, considering. If the Army of Callow put him in that seat Malicia might take offence in the aftermath should she beat us, but that was a relatively distant concern. He could place himself under a High Seat’s protection should he grow too worried of retribution.

“Part of the castle and the soldiers would back me over my siblings,” Sokoro finally said, tone even. “Not over my father. He is a well-respected man. I also have… concerns about my mother’s safety.”

“Your father is an eminently mortal man,” I said. “And we can whisk away your mother before we strike.”

Scribe had gotten to make her latest Assassin. We’d use it. The dark-skinned man’s eyes brightened at my words. It was what he’d wanted to hear. Wasn’t like he was ever going to rise high except through my good graces: everything he’d said about his half-siblings implied a degree of enmity. He might get cast out after the death of Lord Abara, and that was assuming none in the castle decided to… err on the side of caution.

“And what would you have of me in return?” he asked.

“All I want is a friend ruling that fortress,” I smiled. “Perhaps your help in learning the lay of the land. Nothing onerous.”

He looked hesitant. Right, Praesi. I’d get more trust out of him if I bled him some.

“Full use of your water is what I want most, of course,” I said. “I’ll not require your soldiers to fight by the side of the Army of Callow.”

“I might be amenable to such an arrangement,” Sokoro Abara lightly said.

“Good,” I smiled, and to his alarm the darkness began thickening around us.

Faint sounds could be heard, almost like cawing, and my smiled broadened.

“I’ll want an oath out of you, my friend,” I said. “Just in case, you see. Trust is hard come by in these troubled times.”

“It is only natural,” he stiffly replied. “On what would you have me swear?”

Night began filling the room, Sve Noc granting this a sliver of their attention, and I answered him.

In a ring outside our camp, one thousand six hundred and thirty-two corpses were dragged out on the plains and assembled in great piles. Mages came out in lines, setting fire to them with what little wood we could spare for this – which wasn’t much. As a result they had to stay and keep feeding more mageflame to the dead bodies, which took powerful flames to burn. The result was plumes of thick, guttering smoke that rose up into the afternoon sky. Enough of them that it was as if a curtain had been pulled in front of the camp.

Pickler’s sappers had their cover.

Meanwhile I set about giving the enemy something to react to, instead of leaving them to operate unhindered. I first picked a place on open grounds with a good view at the Black Knight’s fortified camp. Hierophant came with me, in expectation of the enemy’s answer, and the two of us stood out like black-plumed birds out on the rocky plains. A bodyguard of twenty knights had ridden with us, but I’d refused more. There would be no point. I took the lead, pulling down my hood and beginning to murmur under the pounding sun. Night was like a lazy brat refusing to get up, but I had time to spare. I coaxed it out properly and the Sisters helped me with the alignment. Zeze could have done it through the Observatory, but I wanted him free to act.

The same ring of red light as last night appeared over our heads, but I’d told Masego to leave it. No need to warn the enemy of his presence too early. Once I’d gathered the power to me, though, I told him to get ready.

“I am all eyes, Catherine,” he replied.

High above the enemy camp I ripped open a gate into Arcadia. There was a reason we’d not tried to keep moving through the faerie realm after being stranded: out here it was a nightmarish mirror of the Wasteland. Impossible storms that toppled mountains, landslides that charged like armies and rains that drew furrows in the ground. That was without even getting into the… fauna. Maybe a few Named could slip through, but entire companies? It’d be madness to even try. There was no lack of water, though, and that was what I’d been after. After a few heartbeats a flood began pouring, just in time for power to begin rising in the enemy camp.

Time to see what Akua had cooked up to handle my signature trick. I let out a startled snort when, instead of some fancy spell, what appeared was instead another gate. About the same size and placed below mine, like a bucket for the flood to be poured into. Well, that was certainly a solution. Nice sorcery, it’d be a shame if something happened to it.

“Zeze?” I asked.

Wrest,” Hierophant replied, and the world rippled.

The enemy gate rippled but did not break. I saw Masego frown and dimly felt power bloom in the distance again.

“Clever mage,” Hierophant murmured. “They are feeding the gate further magic so that I cannot fully wrest it-”

“Keep them stuck, then,” I grunted.

I was not without tricks of my own. My gate began to pull together, like a ball of twine being rolled up, and the flood of water ended. But with a grunt of effort I dragged the ‘twine’ to the side and down, only to begin unfolding it again. Sweat soaked my back and the gate was noticeably smaller than my first, but before long the flood began pouring again. About a hundred feet above Loyalist Legion camp, it hit transparent panes of sorcery. They buckled but held. Water began sliding down, revealing the broad shape of a dome. Masego tutted.

“The structure is too simple, Sahelian,” he said. “Here is why we want more intricate escapements.”

His hand whipped out, the ripples of his aspect strengthening, and the enemy gate blew up in blinding flash of light. The air thrummed with power as there was a sound of thunder, the enchantment protecting the camp shivering – and, in patches, failing. I’d kept my gate opened, and like an avalanche of bricks the water fell down on the enemy through a doze holes. Mages patched up the hole quick enough with shields, but not before we did some damage. I kept the gate open as long as I could, Hierophant swatting down a few other attempts to block it, but their mages were focusing on protection so there was no further break.

Didn’t matter. I’d got what I came for: I’d rattled their cage and something else they’d not notice until it was too late.

“The angle for your adjusted gate was far from the best you could have used,” Masego noted. “Too much to the east of the camp.”

“I aimed at what I wanted, don’t you worry about it,” I smiled.

I’d emptied half a lake on the eastern part of the camp, and though it’d rolled off the dome the important part was where it’d rolled off. Into Kala Hills, into the same paths the Eleventh had used to attack us last night. The same that Nim might be tempted to use as a shortcut to attack us when we crossed the lake.

Now they were a mess of mud and water, impossible to march an army through for at least a few days.

We launched a night attack.

It was the best way to cover our crossing, General Zola said. Marshal Juniper did not object. Five thousand of the Army of Callow and a thousand Levantine skirmishers marched out, every Named at hand save for me going with them. They were to shake the enemy and then retreat, actually fighting as little as possible. I even poured Night into a trinket and left it for Hierophant to wield: that ring of red light was a good way to feign my presence where I wasn’t. The Loyalist Legions would be very wary of attacking me after dark now that I’d had some time to prepare.

It was nerve-wracking to watch them march out without going with them, but I had other duties. Sokoro Abara was put on a horse and we kept our most mobile force in reserve: the moment the pontoon bridge was finished, the Order of the Broken Bells would ride across in full force. The knights were our change to get to Kala Fortress before the Black Knight could, much as they might be needed in the small battle about to take place in the plains.

It took hours, to my rising restlessness, before the bridge was done. We didn’t wait until it was; as soon as Pickler told me they’d reached the shallows on the other side, I saddled up and led the Order across. There’d been no news about the battle in the plains yet. We rode through the shallow water and then up the beach, the townsfolk of Risas barring their gates and hiding as we rode past. After that, the hasty ride in the dark was surprisingly boring. Sometimes a horse fell and a knight had to pull back and change their mount, but otherwise we went untroubled.

We rode down the eastern length of the Kala Hills, then swung around west to approach the keep itself. We rested the horses before coming into sight, not only to allow the beasts to catch their breath. Scribe and her almost-Named had come through for me: waiting for us in a fold of the rocks was Sokoro Abara’s mother, as I’d promised. I gave him a moment to reassure her – and confirm through someone he trusted we truly had assassinated his father – and then we saddled up again.

Kala Fortress was a grim old thing propped up against the side of the eponymous hills, with tall and thick wall of stones surrounding the small town at the bottom of a squat castle. Sokoro went in ahead with Assassin secretly shadowing him and contacted his partisans. There was some violence before they seized control of the outer gates, but once they were swung open my knights flooded into the town. We struck quick enough the castle gates were overridden before they could be closed, and with Sokoro serving as our emissary a surrender was not overly difficult to secure.

I had to blow up his sister’s head, she was the fight-to-the-end type, but the sight of that cooled ardours among the hardliners. Within the hour he was Lord Sokoro Abara and his half-brother in a cell, which was when I finally left out a breath of relief. Our part of this, at least, had gone well. It was past Early Bell, but we’d taken the fortress. Now all we could do was wait.

I got the news in waves. The first rider was sent by Juniper once the force we’d sent to stir up Nim had begun to retreat. The skirmishing had gone well and it looked like the Black Knight had preferred marching out with her full strength arrayed rather than pursuing us half-baked. She must have thought we were baiting her into a trap. The second rider informed me that the Loyalist Legions had sent out their entire horse to harass us when they’d realized we had raised a pontoon bridge but that our rearguard was holding. The crossing had begun and it was expected that the Army of Callow would be across before the enemy infantry arrived.

The third rider wasn’t from Juniper at all, it was from the Black Knight. We caught the man and killed him, but all it’d do was slow the realization that we were now at her back. The fourth rider brought harsher news: the enemy cavalry had set fire to the pontoon bridge before the last of my men crossed, leaving three companies stranded on the wrong side of the lake. General Zola had ordered them to surrender, which they had. The rest of the Army of Callow, however, had crossed. A detachment would stay to try to salvage as much of the bridge as possible, but the march to Kala had begun. The Black Knight sent a pair of companies to check the fortress, in the hours after, but I sallied with the Order and rode them down.

There were no survivors and Marshal Nim did not try us again.

By dawn my army was camped beneath the walls of Kala Fortress, the few sappers Pickler had been able to spare looking into setting up defensive positions. By Morning Bell our supplies had caught up. By Noon Bell horns sounded to call the beleaguered Army of Callow to fighting positions, because our forward elements had brought word: the Loyalist Legions had formed a battle line in the valley and were now beginning to march towards us. Lady Black had decided she’d rather fight than let herself be cornered.

An hour past Noon Bell, as I sat on Zombie’s back, I looked at the retreating Loyalist Legions and laughed until my belly hurt. It wasn’t us that’d given them pause, no. We were in good battle order, ready to receive them, but it was a banner that’d done the trick. Atop Moule Hills, on Nim’s left flank, a banner had been raised: a vulture cradling a white skull, with green and yellow lines emanating from it. And under the colours horse and infantry stood, poised on the heights and looking down at us.

Sepulchral’s vanguard had arrived even earlier than expected, and now everyone’s plans were merrily burning under the afternoon sun.

Chapter 14: Nock

“The right kind of defeat can be more useful than a victory.”

– Dread Empress Prudence, the Frequently Vanquished

The two of us reined in our horses a prudent hundred feet away from the bottom of the slope.

A fortified camp looked down at us from the heights of the Moule Hills, raised grounds with a palisade and a dry moat. There were artillery platforms looming beyond the wooden rampart, at least two that I saw, and more than a dozen scorpions glaring down at the Army of Callow’s vanguard from atop the palisade. My lips thinned as I took into consideration the steep slope leading up and the length of it going up – at least a few hundred feet – and how bloody taking that camp was likely to get should we try. I’d lose a hundred men for every foot, I darkly thought, the moment Marshal Nim brought out her crossbows.

“That wasn’t there yesterday,” Archer muttered. “I didn’t come too close, Cat, but I would have seen it in the distance.”

“They did it overnight, maybe?” I guessed. “Goblins can work during the dark, we’ve pulled that trick before. Then they bring in orc and humans after sunup when the foundations are laid.”

That might mean they’d not finished the works too long before we arrived. And possibly that the defences weren’t as thorough as it would seem from down here. Archer was visibly itching to ditch the horse and go have a closer look on foot but she restrained herself. Instead I felt the world shiver ever-so-slightly as she drew on an aspect, leaning forward on her horse.

“Moat’s not even,” Archer said, eyes distant. “And there’s still goblins working on the side of the camp to make it go fully around.”

I wouldn’t be able to match her sight without drawing on Night and I’d rather not draw on that frivolously under the afternoon sun, so I simply took her word for it.

“Definitely overnight, then,” I mused.

That made what they’d gotten up in time even more impressive. Much as it stung to admit it, the Army of Callow wouldn’t have been able to manage the same. We lacked the sappers and the expertise: a lot of my legionaries had spent no more than six months in training camps before being considered ready for war. The Legions regularly trained and drilled their soldiers in ways the war against Keter had simply not afforded me the time to do. My people were veterans, but they were veterans of a very particular kind of war.

“Your rider will get to Juniper soon,” Indrani noted. “We waiting for her orders or heading out to tickle the devils up early?”

I grimaced. Taking light foot up a hill into a hardened Legion position wasn’t going to achieve much except corpses. She’d not meant taking the Malaga troops, though, but the two of us. Thing was, I wasn’t sure we should. Not when the Marshal Nim would have a bunch of high-class mage cadres waiting and Akua Sahelian leading them. The odds of something nasty waiting for us up there were about the same as those of the sun rising tomorrow.

Might be it wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

“I’m not touching that camp without a bigger crew than just the two of us,” I said. “And I’ll let you loose to scout, since I know it’s a lost cause to stop you, but I want you to promise to keep your distance.”

Indrani considered me a moment.

“Worried about the mages?” she finally asked.

“They know which Named we field now,” I reminded her. “Nim and Malicia aren’t idiots, they’ll have spent time and coin figuring out how to kill all of you.”

“I’ll be a good girl, then,” Indrani drawled. “Promised.”

I rolled my eye at her, feeling a pang of discomfort when I realized I was facing the wrong way for her to be able to see it. All she had to look at was an eye cloth over a hollow socket. It was the little things that distressed me the most, somehow. Wounds I knew, had learned to live with. Limp along with. Losing an eye had been… more than that, in a lot of little ways. Archer waited until we’d returned to the ranks of the vanguard before passing off her horse, wandering off to find a way to sidle into the Ways. Though it was still dangerous to travel those and it’d still remain that way for the better part of two weeks, it was the sort of environment she thrived in.

A broken-down patch of the Ways where a single misstep might see her falling through the sky? Archer would take to that like a fish to water. It was when she’d be back in Creation that worried me.

Not that I had a lot of time to spare on that. The Levantine warriors that made up the vanguard of the Army of Callow had been advancing in a broad column until we’d caught sight of the enemy camp, going down the half-road, but when I’d called a halt Razin had pulled them out of marching order and begun ordering them into warbands. It was the right instinct, because right now the army behind was spread out along that road like a snake. Juniper would put the column into battle order soon enough, I thought, and I didn’t think that the Black Knight would have staked out that position in the heights to then abandon it at the first opportunity.

But there were troops Marshal Nim could throw at us without abandoning her position, and sure enough as I rode through the throng of Levantine warbands I heard exclamations of surprise from the ranks. From the eastern face of Moule Hills horsemen were pouring out in neat ranks, though where they’d emerged from was hidden by a large fold of rock. Hundreds, I counted, then more than a thousand. Fuck, was Nim throwing her entire horse at us? If so, we were in deep shit. The last reports had her at three thousand light horse to our vanguard of two thousand and a half-thousand of heavy horse from the Thirteenth to throw in should she feel like it.

“Razin,” I shouted over the din, forcing people away with my staff. “Razin.”

The sound of my voice caught his attention over the din, drawing his eyes to me and away from his advising captains.

“Shield wall now,” I called out. “Pack it tight or we’re all dead.”

If Nim had sent goblin skirmishers I would have advised we retreat instead, but we wouldn’t outrun cavalry on flat grounds. To Razin’s honour, he wasted in time in following through. Shouting in Ceseo he got his captains moving, the quick-footed Levantine warbands gathering into a fat uneven circle. I dismounted, heading for the front as shields were raised. In the distance, across the grounds, the enemy horse advanced at a brisk trot and formed into four slender wedges. They were long and thin, so it was hard to tell how many riders there were. More than a thousand, at least, but how many more? I found good solid ground to stand on, slightly away from the shields up front, and after making sure the warriors around were giving me a wide berth I closed my eyes and began to pray to the Sisters.

“Wake up,” I murmured in Crepuscular. “We have a war on our hands and I need a miracle to teach the enemy to fear me again. Wake up, carrion crows. There’s blood in the air.”

As I continued to murmur the Night began to move, lazily slithering into my veins, reluctant to brave the heavy sun. I kept drawing it in, murmurs flowing freely as the power began to accrue. There were shouts in Ceseo as the Levantine captains whose men had slingers among them – a lot of Dominion warriors had picked up the habit of carrying slings as well as their usual arms in Hainaut, since they were so useful against the dead – told them to get ready. A few heartbeats later the enemy closed the distance, Taghreb and Soninke in vividly coloured scale and cloth. War cries sounded on both sides, and though a few stones split open heads it was nothing to what we suffered in return.

Our shield wall was tight and packed, which I’d asked of Razin to discourage the enemy charging us. Light horse wouldn’t want to get mired in our ranks, it’d be like a mud pit for them. The downside was the same as the upside, unfortunately: the shield wall was tight and packed. So when the enemy cavalry began throwing javelins with all the strength of a charge behind them, those steel-tipped killers found their marks and then some. Shields splintered and broke, men fell with screams and I got my first good look at well-trained Wasteland horse making war. All four of the wedges that’d threatened a charge stopped well shy of our ranks, instead splitting to the sides and riding backwards smoothly.

The riders at the front threw their javelin and then retreated, making room for a fresh horseman to toss their own. The impact was… bloody. Worse than arrow fire would have been, if not as sustained.

I’d gathered power enough to give an answer, though. Night flared up, wreathing me in shadow, and above the enemy horse I began to gather specks of black flame. I wasn’t going to bother with subtle here: if I could burn through a chunk of their cavalry today the Loyalist Legions would be significantly easier to handle going forward. To my surprise the horsemen did not disperse at the sight, continuing their deadly javelin fire, and I saw why a moment later. There was a great surge of sorcery up on the heights, two transparent but roiling rings beginning to form. I stole away a sliver of the Night running through me, sharpening my eyes, and almost cursed. That was raw kinetic power they were gathering; I’d seen the likes of it before.

If that hit the ranks of the vanguard javelins would be the least of our problems. With the shield wall broken, we’d just get run down by the cavalry like animals.

Whoever had designed that trap had an uncomfortably good read on my abilities. I couldn’t abandon my working with the Night and rustle up another to handle this, not at this time of the day, which meant I’d have to break it apart and remake it. Gritting my teeth, I did. The black flames gutted out into smoke, the power instead expanding those puffs into great tendrils of dark mist. The kinetic rings flew out, the sound they made comically wobbly, but I moved the mist in the way. The working devoured the sorcery as it went through, leaving little more than a short burst of wind to reach our ranks. That wasn’t a victory, though, when the horsemen had been hammering at us all the while.

At this rate they’d run out of javelins before we gave an answer.

The Levantines were itching to ditch the shield wall and charge, given how close the riders were – another trap – but discipline held. Razin went through the ranks giving encouragement even as I began gathering Night again, his captains forcefully pulling back warriors that began to break the ranks. I’d have to let the Levantines take the hit, I realized. We could probably survive the magical bombardment, but if I didn’t hit the horsemen they were definitely going to overrun our position the moment they got done softening us up with javelins. It was a shitty choice to make, but I didn’t have a better one on the table. Best make my miracle count, then.

I had an idea or two in mind and I took to weaving even as power began rising atop the heights again – only to suddenly fall apart. I blinked in surprise, confused, only to then let out a sharp laugh. Archer. Archer had put an arrow into whoever had been leading that ritual. This was as close to an opening as I’d get.

Then the ground behind us began trembling. Yet it was not cries of dismay that greeted the change. I glanced back, finding the banner of the Broken Bells flying tall in the wind as they rode hard to relieve us. Juniper must have sent them out before we even caught sight of the enemy cavalry, for them to get her so quickly. The arrival of other horsemen saw the Legion auxiliaries lose their taste for the skirmish, unloading another few javelins our way spitefully and then smoothly pulling away. My knights began pursuit, passing by our position at a gallop, but they weren’t going to catch up to light horse and they knew it.

Brandon Talbot pulled the Order back when the enemy was driven most of the way back to their camp. I kept an eye on the heights all the while, waiting for magic to erupt again, but no ritual followed. I released the Night, feeling a wave of exhaustion, and the bloodied vanguard began its retreat back to the rest of the army. We’d survived, I told myself. Marshal Nim had given us a black eye, but we’d survived.

It wasn’t much, but it was something.

“The best we can say is that it stopped shy of being a disaster,” Juniper bluntly assessed.

Three hundred and sixty-three dead, almost twice that wounded. Over half of our two thousand strong vanguard had been shredded over the course of a skirmish that’d lasted maybe half an hour. There would have been a lot more corpses on the ground if we’d not been able to retreat to healers, but that was cold comfort considering we were unlikely to have all the wounded back on their feet before nightfall.

“The Black Knight caught us with our trousers down,” Aisha admitted. “Our scouts had no idea the Legions were here, much less camped above the only road. It is a major failure of our forward elements.”

That was a very polite way of phrasing ‘we stumbled in blind and got spanked’, but the lovely Taghreb did have a way of doing that.

“We turtled up after we got hit in the Ways,” I said. “And it cost us. Now two ways about it.”

I wouldn’t pretend otherwise.

“But now we know Nim’s here, so she’s shot her arrow,” I reminded them. “She won’t catch us out like this again.”

It’d been less than an hour since the enemy cavalry had retreated. We’d used that time to form up the Army of Callow and its auxiliaries in a battle line across the half-road, facing the fortified camp in the hills, but the Legions of Terror showed no inclination of coming down to fight us. It was just Juniper and Aisha here with me here in the field tent, General Zola being charged with handling affairs on the front, so none of us bothered to put a better face than was true on our current situation.

“We can’t attack that camp,” Aisha said, voicing an opinion we all shared. “It would be throwing an egg at a wall.”

“We need to turn her position,” I said. “Either to the east or west. So long she’s the one sitting on top of the half-road she can keep bringing up fresh supplies and water to her camp while we’ll be eating into our own reserves.”

“That’s the trap, Catherine,” the Hellhound growled. “She’s making it seem like she’s ceding us the initiative by staying up in her camp, but she hasn’t. We can’t leave through the Ways and we’ll slow to a crawl if we leave the road.”

I cocked an eyebrow at her.

“The grounds are too rocky west of Moule Hills,” Aisha told me in her stead. “Unless we put the sappers to making a path for us, we’d just be wrecking the wheels we just got done putting back on.”

Might still be possible to do it if we moved really slow, but if we did we’d get hit. She’d harass us with skirmishers and cavalry from a safe distance, bleeding my army out one cut at a time. And while it would be possible for the Army of Callow to advance ahead of its supplies at a quicker pace, it would be a very bad idea. We were tethered to those wagons, because the alternative was the Black Knight’s three thousand cavalry sallying out and torching the wagons carrying all our food and water. Marshal Nim was living up to her reputation as one of the three most decorated officers in all of Praes: she’d found a way to hem us in without even setting foot outside her fortified camp.

“That leaves only the half-road,” I said, openly unenthused.

It’d mean marching down the valley between Moule Hills and Kala Hills with a larger enemy force on our flank that was set up in entrenched high grounds. We’d be doing that on open grounds all the while, while the enemy had their war engines pointed at us from above. It had disaster written all over it.

“It might be possible to keep close to the bottom of the Kala Hills and make it south without a battle ensuing,” Aisha argued. “It’d be a risk for her to try us: in an enclosed space like the valley we could maneuver to negate her advantage in numbers.”

“And on tight grounds the Order would punch much harder than her own horse,” Juniper grunted. “But it won’t work, Aisha. She’ll just decamp and use the road to outpace us going south. Then she’ll set up at Kala Fortress with stone walls to defend from and her supply line still safe at her back.”

Which would just be moving the problem a few hours south, assuming it even worked. Which I was significantly less inclined to believe than Aisha was.

“We could march back north,” I suggested. “Go around this entire region, find another way through.”

“We’d be rolling dice,” Aisha grimaced. “We can’t go back into the Ways and if the Gale Ribbon spits out a storm at us the results could be almost as bad as a defeat.”

She wasn’t wrong, though it might honestly still be better than engaging the Black Knight on her chosen grounds. Unlike the Legions of Terror, after mauling us the storm wouldn’t pursue.

“North is right,” Juniper gravelled. “But into Kala Hills. Northeast.”

“Those are a dead end,” I frowned. “Even if we set up a camp on those heights facing hers, all we do is run out our supplies while she watches us.”

Nim wouldn’t be any more eager to attack our camp than we were to attack hers, we wouldn’t bait her into making that mistake. Especially not when Malicia and her Black Knight were well aware that I could only spend so long settling affairs in Praes. It was to their advantage to wait me out without even giving battle, since without a decisive victory against the Tower my bargaining position was weak.

“Are they a dead end?” Juniper replied, clicking her teeth thoughtfully.

She went looking through her papers, eventually taking out a parchment sheath she pressed into my hands. It was a report, I saw, from the captain that’d overseen the detachment that had gone to Nioqe Lake to fill water barrels. A significant chunk of it was spent going over the freshwater squid attack and praising the two young heroes that’d killed the creature. I glanced at Juniper, unsure why she’d hand me this. I’d already told the kids they’d done well.

“What am I looking for?” I asked.

“Captain Henry mentions seeing locals on the opposite shore,” Juniper said. “Fishermen, as is to be expected of a lakeside town, but also those bringing cattle to drink.”

I scanned for the line, eye narrowing when I found it. The officer had mentioned seeing sheep, specifically, and I finally found my marshal’s line of thought.

“Goats they could feed on scraps, but they’d need grazing lands for sheep,” I muttered. “And we haven’t seen any suitable grounds on the other side, so you think they’re-”

“In the Kala Hills,” Juniper finished. “And that means shepherd paths, maybe all the way through.”

Even if we found those paths they wouldn’t be broad enough to let our army cross, but that was why we had sappers. Should we cross the hills and march south it was almost certain that the Legions would still beat us to Kala Fortress, but it wouldn’t matter as much. We wouldn’t be bottled up in the valley anymore, we could swing wide to the east and go through the rainlands until we eventually found another stretch of the half-road to march on. Marshal Nim would have to come and fight us on our terms; otherwise we’d cut her supply lines and have freedom to march on a lightly defended Ater even as Sepulchral caught up to the Loyalist Legions.

“It is already too late in the afternoon for giving battle to be anything but risky, regardless,” Aisha noted.

No one argued with that. The Black Knight had the Eighth Legion with her, the Trailblazers, and General Wheeler’s ranks were heavy on both goblins and skirmishers. If fighting continued after dark we’d be at a stark disadvantage.

“Kala Hills, then,” I agreed.

The slopes weren’t as steep here as they were on the Moule Hills to the south, but the stone was softer. Easier to use as foundations. The Kala Hills were also covered with brushlands and Pickler assured me having local wood to cut made building the camp much easier. The work only began midafternoon, which was uncomfortably late, but the Black Knight hadn’t just sat in her camp looking pretty as we moved. Skirmishers were out and about with the hour’s turn, harassing our retreat as we marched away. Juniper sent out the Levantines and our own Army skirmishers to match them, but the Order stayed put. We needed the knights ready in case Nim sent out her own cavalry, we had nothing else that’d be swift enough to stop her from chewing up our light foot.

This once the fight went our way, at least. I was done fucking around after the mauling we’d taken, so I sent out Named in force. The Silver Huntress was like a thresher in a wheat field, fighting skirmishers, and she had a lot of anger to work out. The Squire got himself two crossbow bolts in the stomach after getting cocky but with the Apprentice at his side it was far from enough to kill him. He’d eat only broth for a week, I thought, and be a wiser man for it. Just because goblins were half his size didn’t mean that charging crossbowmen on foot was any less foolish. The Empire had designed those things to punch through plate, knight-killers.

The enemy broke off shortly before nightfall, their cavalry having never come out. Another hundred dead on our side, but we’d inflicted easily twice that. Nim would think twice about testing us like this in the future and the Malaga warriors raised their heads for having avenged their honour in the rematch.

I stayed back to level hilltops with Night so our sappers would make progress quicker but it was still frustratingly slow-going. There’d be no dry moat for us and the palisade was patchy in places: we’d put a priority on getting the wards in place, since the last thing we wanted was to suffer magic bombardment in the middle of the night. Nightfall saw the Army of Callow retreating into its half-done camp, tents raised and fires roaring. Come morning I’d take Archer and the Silver Huntress out in the hills, looking for paths, but after the exhausting day I just wanted to sleep. My head barely hit the pillow before I blacked out.

Cruelly, I was awakened what felt like a single heartbeat later.

Alarm wards were pounding away at the night air. I dragged myself into trousers and hastily put on my armour, snatching my sword and staff as I exited only to almost stumble into a large orc sergeant.

“Report,” I ordered, tightening my sword belt.

“Under attack ma’am,” he gravelled.

I rolled my eye. Yes, I’d deduced as much somehow.

“Who, where?” I pressed.

“They came from the hills, behind the camp,” the sergeant said. “Staff Tribune Bishara claims it’s the Eleventh Legion.”

It took me a moment to place that. Cognomen ‘Tenebrous’, led by General Lucretia. The sole officer that’d been a general in the Legions before the Reforms and stayed one after. Also a vampire, some sort of flesh-eating undead. Her legion had been under Grem One-Eye during the Conquest, attacking the Wall, but I couldn’t remember anything in particular that’d distinguished it. The Eleventh stayed in the Wasteland ever since, so I’d never had to deal with any part of it. My belt was comfortably set, so I laid a hand on the pommel of my sword and straightened my back.

“All right, sergeant,” I said. “What’s the situation?”

“Marshal Juniper requests that you head to the breach,” he said.

“Let’s get to it, then.”

The camp was in decent order, considering we’d gotten attacked right after Midnight Bell. My legionaries were gathering briskly for a counter push, the element of surprise having passed. It was only when we got to the breach that I winced. The Eleventh hadn’t hit the Army of Callow, I saw, but the Levantines. The chunk of the patchy palisade that’d been broken through with now-abandoned rams had led straight to where the day’s wounded were kept. The same warriors that’d bled down on the plains. Legionaries with shields painted in green and black had overwhelmed the tents and slaughtered the surprised Dominion force, but by the look of the bodies and scorch marks a force of Lanterns and Osena slayers had stopped them in their tracks. By the time I got here, the Legion incursion – a mere five companies, by the looks of it – was being driven back even if most of the Dominion warriors were only half-dressed.

The trouble came from further back: deadly crossbow volleys were being poured into the shield wall from a hill in the distance. We’d stemmed the tide, the camp was in no danger of being overwhelmed, but bodies would keep piling up until we cleared out that fucking hill. That’d be my job, looked like.  Razin and Aquiline were easy to pick out from the throng, just by the way their people rallied to them, and I saw that both the Silver Huntress and the Barrow Sword were with them. Deciding I could use the help, I limped my way to them. I quickly exchanged greetings with the lordlings, then the Named.

“Black Queen,” Ishaq greeted me, grinning. “Nice night, isn’t it?”

“They disturbed my beauty sleep,” I flatly replied. “Someone’s going to die for that.”

Some chuckles, but Alexis was grimly serious.

“Orders?” the Silver Huntress asked.

“I want you two and a good line of twenty killers,” I said. “We’re going to silence those crossbows.”

“It would help,” Razin admitted. “Marshal Juniper is sending crossbowmen of our own but they have yet to arrive.”

“I’ll go,” Aquiline said. “My retinue will serve.”

I wanted to argue, but that glint in her eye told me she was going to be obstinate and we didn’t have the time.

“Fine,” I grunted. “Lord Razin, you have the command.”

He nodded, then snuck a kiss to his fiancée.

“Do try not to get another scar,” he teased her. “You know how jealous I get.”

“No promises,” Aquiline grinned.

Ugh, young love. I shared a disgruntled look with Alexis, though for some reason the Barrow Sword was looking rather fondly at the pair. I didn’t want to take slayers with us, I made clear to Aquiline, so she drew twenty sword and board men from her retinue instead and we circled the melee at the gap. The Barrow Sword opened a path through a weak patch of the palisade with a mule kick, large enough for us to make it out onto the hills. All three of us Named could see in the dark at least decently, so we guided the Levantines through the sloping brushlands. Several times we had to outright climb up, so I had to kill the pain in my bad leg with Night, but we made good pace anyway.

The enemy had chosen a tall, flat-topped hill to position their crossbowmen so they weren’t difficult to spot. Two hundred of them, firing in rotation to obscure their numbers. They were probably hoping to bait legionaries into exposing themselves before unleashing proper volleys, I thought. I was not much enjoying fighting the Legions of Terrors. I’d much preferred having that particular war machine on my side. Still, the reason I grimaced and gestured for our warband to crouch into the bushes wasn’t the crossbowmen: it was the few skulking shapes at the bottom of that same hill. Goblins. Sappers.

“We have to hit the hill from here,” I whispered.

I got odd looks for it.

“There’s sappers afoot,” I flatly stated. “Every approach to that hill will be mined to the Hells and back. We try to walk through a field they set up and maybe two of us will make it there.”

Maybe. If the sappers were having an off night. Names helped you against a lot of things but stepping into a gout of goblinfire wasn’t one of them. We found defensible grounds, a dip between to hills that had just low enough a rim that I could look at the enemy crossbowmen and aim, and Aquiline’s men spread out around me in a loose circle. I silently gestured for Ishaq to keep an eye on the Lady of Tartessos when she wasn’t looking but kept the Silver Huntress close. She had sharp reflexes and I’d not be able to move much while weaving Night. I breathed out, looking at the sky, and struck my staff against the rocky ground.

“Sun’s gone, Sisters,” I spoke in Crepuscular. “Let’s play, yeah?”

The power came eagerly when I called, as if to make up for its sluggishness during the day. In a low murmur I spoke my prayers, shaping the working as I drew more and more Night into myself. I’d expected the enemy to catch on to our presence sooner or later, but that wasn’t exactly what we got. Suddenly – when I had gathered enough Night into one place, I guessed – there was a ripple of magic in the air and a red circle of light formed about two hundred feet above our position. You know, revealing it to anyone looking. I paused in my incantation.

“Fuck you,” I feelingly told the sky, and also Akua Sahelian.

The enemy must have been expecting us because it couldn’t have been longer than a hundred heartbeats before they struck. They came out of the night like ghosts, a single line of twenty legionaries. But these were not regulars or heavies, I thought. Their armour was light, leather and breastplates, and none of them wore helmets. Their hair flew freely in the wind, long and dark and oddly animated. Each bore a single sword and a long spear. They… didn’t move right. They were beautiful, I thought, dark-skinned and dark-eyed but with impossibly smooth skin. My mind was being clouded, I recognized. After I bit my lip hard the beauty waned. Their skin was smooth as corpse’s because that was exactly what they were.

Not a single one of them breathed.

They struck in silence, three warriors dying before Alexis could warn them we were under attack, but I kept whispering my prayers. Almost there. Aquiline and Ishaq took on one of the enemies together, the Osena hooking his spear and dragging him close enough the Barrow Sword could take off his head. The legionary exploded into a spray of dust and rotten flesh, armour falling into the rocks. The Silver Huntress parried a spear tossed at my side then threw her own with a flash of Light, slaying the sender without batting an eye. The proximity of Light almost destabilized my working, but with a soft curse and desperate haste I compensated. Just a moment now, aligning it just right…

“Burn them all,” I hissed in Crepuscular.

The circle of black flame erupted around the crossbowmen, rising the height of three men before spinning inwards. The crossbowmen died screaming, but I was not done. The circle kept spinning on itself, until I snapped my staff against the ground and it exploded outwards in a wave. I heard screaming from legionaries not mine as munitions began to explode, the brush burning bright as the wave of incineration continued outwards until it gutted. I breathed out, brow touched with sweat, and drew my sword. The animated corpses that’d been attacking us – vampires? – were retreating, I found. Half the Levantines that’d come with us were dead and Ishaq was bleeding from a bite mark on his face, but otherwise we’d made out decently.

Eye scanning the night, I found that in the hills there were glints of steel under moonlight. More legionaries. Pulling back, I realized. And so were those that’d been fighting in the breach, though the Dominion pressed them close and the crossbowmen Juniper had sent took their toll. Maybe a fifth of those five hundred would make it out. But why were they retreating already? It made little sense. If they feared what I could do with the Night, why attack after nightfall in the first place? Feeling like I’d missed something I led us back to camp in a hurry. And there was something wrong, I noticed it immediately. Too many legionary tents were empty, and those that weren’t were being brought down. Packed away.

I found Juniper and with her my answers. My marshal looked wretched. I thought it was a wound, at first, but her body was fine.

“She played us,” Juniper got out, words tumbling out of her fanged mouth like a confession. “She left her camp, Cat. The Legions are marching on us right now, they’re most the way across the valley, and we can’t fight. Not with the entire Eleventh out in the hills waiting to flank us.”

My fingers clenched.

“You’re saying we need to retreat,” I slowly said.

“We’re in disarray, flanked and our camp fortifications are incomplete,” the Hellhound said. “If we fight, we’ll lose.”

I rocked back in shock. She knew, and I knew she did, that a retreat at night with the enemy nipping at our heels was going to get bloody. Goblin skirmishers were going to scrape of our rearguard raw, and we’d be both slow and vulnerable on the move. That she was still arguing we needed to retreat could only mean that she was genuinely afraid that our army was going to get destroyed if we did not.

“Where would we even go?” I got out.

“Further north,” she said. “Near the Jini Plateau, close to Nioqe Lake.”

That wasn’t a strategic position, I thought. Or even a tactical one. There were no real gains to be made by going there except not being crushed. That was how bad out situation had gotten. Numbly, I nodded my permission. I needed a drink, I thought, before we got going. Gods but my leg hurt.

I could not remember the last time we had been this brutally outmaneuvered.

We cut our losses and ran. It was not as hard a retreat as it could have been, Marshal Nim perhaps wary of engaging in a full pitched battle in the dark, but it cost us more than I cared to admit. As we fled I looked back and froze, for in the distance I saw the Black Knight’s fortified camp was burning bright under the starry sky. It took me a moment to understand. Of course she was burning that camp. She no longer needed it, after all.

She’d just taken ours.

Chapter 13: Footing

“To hold a strong defensive position is not enough. You must force the enemy to attack it, which is the difference between tactics and strategy.”

– Extract from ‘Considerations on Warfare’ by Marshal Grem One-Eye

We made good pace.

The Army of Callow had been hammered into a host that could move on the quick by years of campaigning abroad, and for once we weren’t too starved on trained officers: the combination of the First and Second Army that Juniper commanded had benefitted from the officer pools being combined. It’d be Hells to split the armies back up when it was done, of course, but that was a problem for the future. There simply weren’t enough potential soldiers left back in Callow for the First and Second to be raised back up to full strength separately anyway, they’d be staying combined until the end of the war. The ‘Fifth’ Army, as the rank and file had taken to calling it, wasn’t going anywhere for some years.

The Levantines under Razin and Aquiline weren’t a drag on our pace, the way they’d sometimes been in Hainaut. Now that they were relying on our supply train instead of their own, the Dominion warriors were as cut free from a tether: they were usually quicker on the march than my legionaries now. The lighter armour and years of raiding had trained it into them. The Twilight Ways made for a pleasant reprieve from Wasteland weather, even if we’d only ever tasted the outskirts of that, and we advanced faster than Juniper had anticipated. We had to slow down around the end of the first week, waiting for reports about the march of the other armies.

Marshal Nim and her legions kept to the same brisk pace they had so far, which meant in about two weeks both our armies would be forced to emerge from the Ways or face the possibility of a contested crossing should we be beaten to returning to Creation. The surprising part was that Dread Empress Sepulchral seemed to have been gaining on the Black Knight: she was in hot pursuit, still a week behind even though the Legions were using the Ways and she was not. It seemed impossible, and the Jacks confirmed there was more to it a few days later. It was not Sepulchral’s entire army that’d been keeping up that breakneck pace but instead a large vanguard.

Two thousand household troops and her entire cavalry contingent, Vivienne’s people believed.

“She’s trying to keep up the pressure on Marshal Nim by having a force nipping at her rear,” Juniper opined. “They won’t engage, but they’ll raid her supply lines and try to hammer any detachment she splits from her main host.”

“If the Jacks have people in Sepulchral’s camp able to learn this, the Eyes will too,” Vivienne noted. “I have no doubt Malicia informed her Black Knight of the plan before it even began.”

I snorted.

“Old Abreha’s counting on it,” I said, reluctantly admiring. “She’s trying to goad the Black Knight into engaging us hastily.”

Sepulchral had nothing but gains to make from the Loyalist Legions and the Army of Callow getting into a messy, ill-planned battle.

“It’s cleverly done,” Juniper admitted. “If Nim sends a force south to make the vanguard back off, she has to either leave it there – and weaken herself just before she fights us – or slow her march so it can rejoin. Which would buy time for the slower part of Sepulchral’s army to catch up.”

I shared a look with my marshal. It was an inspired tactic, playing to the strengths of her army and the weaknesses of the Black Knight’s positions. It was, in other words, not a tactic that Abreha Mirembe or her generals had likely come up with. Sepulchral was a skilling intriguer but a solidly average battle commander, looking at her record. And as far as we knew neither Aksum nor Nok had any noteworthy military talents in their upper ranks. So who was planning Sepulchral’s campaign for her? I glanced at Scribe, who had been silently keeping notes as we spoke.

“Make it a priority to find out who’s been giving out those orders,” I ordered her. “The last thing we need is for Sepulchral to become a genuine threat.”

“Ime has been concentrating on putting out the last gasps of my influence in the Wasteland,” Eudokia said. “It might be possible to find this out, Queen Catherine, but I will have to burn most of the agents I have in Sepulchral’s camp.”

Meaning she would no longer be confident of catching anything going on there afterwards. We’d be relying solely on the Jacks, and Vivienne’s spies had been playing catch-up with the Eyes since the moment they were first raised without ever quite touching that prize. I hesitated, then turned to Juniper.

“How confident are you of beating that army if you know who commands it?” I asked.

She did not answer immediately, considering the question seriously.

“Seven parts in ten,” Juniper of the Red Shields finally said.

I nodded. Good enough for me.

“Do it,” I ordered Scribe.

Aside from that little surprise, the beginning of our southern offensive was trotting along nicely. As the second week since we’d left the outskirts of Wolof began, it looked like as if our preferred outcome would come to pass: a decisive pitched battle with the Loyalist Legions at least a week before anyone else was close enough to intervene. There’d been no real hiccup to our advance so far, which only made it natural that Creation would then promptly snatch the ground out from under our feet. Unlike some of the past instances of the Gods pissing in my morning gruel, however, this time the snatching was not a fucking metaphor.

Half-past Morning Bell, as we marched along the Twilight Ways, the ground literally fell out under my army.

Great cracks spread across the ground, fast enough my officers had time to do little more than shout warnings, then great chunks of the Ways fell down into Creation like shattered glass panes. It was all the more hellish for the suddenness of it: there’d been no warning, not ominous sign. In thirty heartbeats my army had turned from a smoothly marching column into a groaning and wounded beast, spread out in chunks in the middle of a particularly vicious Wasteland dust storm. There was enough order in my ranks that I managed to rustle up two mage lines and Hierophant to form a shaky protective ward around the column, keeping the whipping dust out of our faces long enough that priests from the House Insurgent could begin seeing to the wounded and dying.

I ran around trying to get proper wardstones in place, hindered by the fact that they’d been built to protect the shape of camps and not columns, but before I got anywhere the storm suddenly died. It’d lasted perhaps half an hour after my army fell, and just as suddenly as it had come it was gone. Clenching my teeth, I got to finding out the damage. It’d been a short fall down, at least. That’d taken off the edge some. Hardly more than four feet in most cases, and the Order of the Broken Bells had been in the vanguard ahead of the fall so it’d mostly been remounts that’d broken their legs falling.

The grassy grounds from the Ways that’d fallen with us began to decay quickly and the emanations were somewhat toxic so we had to move away and reform, but order was getting restored as lieutenants saw to their lines. Numbers for casualties and wounded quickly made it up the chain, eventually getting to Juniper and myself: only seventy-nine dead, but almost three hundred wounded. We’d also lost enough horses for the Order that their staying power was compromised for longer-term engagements. Not necessarily an immediate concern, but by the time we got to Ater any knight who lost a horse would be fighting the rest of the campaign on foot.

There’d been more painful damage in a strategic sense.

“We’re paralyzed for at least two days,” Juniper bluntly said. “That we still have any supply wagons capable of moving is a miracle, and if the healers can’t fix the oxen pulling them we’re going to have to kill the beasts.”

Which would further slow us, for all that it’d add to our meat reserves. We could compensate by putting the Order’s remaining remounts to work pulling the wagons and arranging relays of legionaries – mostly orcs, given their greater body strength – but it’d still be a blow to mobility. Hopefully our healers could salvage at least some of the beasts of burden while our sappers repaired the broken supply wagons. The only silver lining was that Pickler’s obsessive care for her field engines meant they’d been insulated from shock well enough the fall had caused need only for minor repairs and replacements. We wouldn’t be headed into battle with the Legions of Terror without working war engines.

“We need to find out where we are,” I sighed. “And if returning to the Ways will just see this happen again.”

I’d already asked Masego to look into it. Wasteland weather was infamously dangerous for good reason, but ripping an army out of the Twilight Ways was going too far. My instincts screamed enemy action, but which enemy?

“I’ve sent out scouts,” Juniper said. “I’ll send someone to fetch you when they begin coming back.”

“I’ll see what Hierophant has for me, then,” I said, groaning as I got back to my feet.

I’d almost lost Zombie the Sixth to this mess. He’d broken a leg and bucked me off, but the priests seemed to think he could be made better. I’d be stuck borrowing a mount from the Order until he was fit to ride again, though. Masego wasn’t hard to find, considering he was still exactly where I’d left him. The hastily raised tent was kept standing more by wards than wood, not that he seemed to notice. Earlier he’d been using scrying rituals with some difficulty, going through the Observatory, but now he was instead running spells on the storm dust he’d sent Apprentice out to gather. Though the outer ward would have warned him of my entry he did not immediately turn. I left him to his spells, waiting in silence as I leaned against my staff. He turned to me when he was good and ready.

“It was a ritual,” Hierophant said.

I glanced at the dust but he shook his head.

“This is simply dust,” he said. “We are near the Gust Ribbon from what I gathered while scrying, so the dust storm itself was drawn out of it by the first part of the ritual and only then empowered. There are striations in the magic saturation of the dust that make the sequence plain to see.”

Near the Gust Ribbon wasn’t saying much, as it was a winding and moving region that stretched across the northwest third of the Wasteland. Wasn’t overall reassuring, though, considering it was called that because it was plagued by sudden and powerful storms that had a nasty tendency to spill out in every direction. It wouldn’t be safe to stay here long even if we didn’t get hammered by another ritual.

“So someone leashed a dust storm, empowered it with a spell and sent it our way?” I asked.

“It was quite brilliantly done,” Masego said. “The dust, you see, solved the issue of air being able to hold too little magic for most large-scale ritual work. The storm was turned into an array that thinned the boundary between the Ways and Creation – which is already very thin – until it was on the very edge of shattering.”

“Are you telling me that the physical weight of my army is what shattered the Twilight Ways?” I flatly asked.

“As I said,” Masego smiled, “quite brilliantly done.”

I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.

“This is Malicia,” I said.

It had to be. People had been telling me again and again that weather sorcery was the specialty of Taghreb, and there was only one army out there that fielded a significant amount of high-calibre Taghreb mages. More than that, we’d known for months that while High Lady Takisha of Kahtan had played coy with sending the Tower actual troops she’d not been shy with providing mages instead. It’d take more than just a few cadres of talented mages to pull off something like this, though. I knew that and so did he.

“This is Akua Sahelian,” Masego corrected, confirming my fear. “There are maybe four other practitioners in Praes capable of such a ritual, but there appears to have been an uncontrolled surge in the middle of the span – I suspect mages grew exhausted and their replacements had inadequate control – that was masterfully redirected instead of allowed to collapse the entire working.”

He paused.

“I would be capable of this,” he said, without a hint of a boast. “My father was, and so was Dumisai of Aksum. I would not bet on Naziha Sarrif being so capable, however, and she is the finest mage in the south. There is only one woman in all of Praes with the talent and schooling to do it.”

His face was calm.

“I have already told you her name.”

That was what happened, I told myself, when you let someone as dangerous Akua go to your enemy’s side. She didn’t stop being dangerous, it was just turned on you instead. I breathed out, suddenly tired. I had seventy-nine names to learn. I owed that, and truthfully more than was possible to repay.

“I found something interesting, however,” Hierophant said. “The way the boundaries of the ritual array were defined was… peculiar.”

I cocked an eyebrow at him, silently urging him to continue.

“Much more of the Ways fell than was necessary,” Masego said. “Without looking at the equations myself I cannot be certain, but it seems to me that the power could have been made… narrower. Concentrated on ensuring there would be a faller from higher up instead of such a large swath of territory.”

My fingers clenched.

“What are you saying?” I asked.

“That no one capable of crafting such a ritual,” Hierophant evenly replied, “would have made such a mistake in ignorance. It was a choice.”

A pulled punch, he was saying. Seventy-nine dead, my entire army paralyzed, and still a pulled punch. Not without reason had we once named that woman the doom of an entire city. I silently nodded, at loss for words. Glowing, fiery eyes studied be from beneath the eye cloth.

“I do not understand why she is no longer with us,” Masego admitted. “Is this about revenge? Indrani tells me that in Hainaut you had the opportunity to let her go to her death. I had thought – and she – that you refused because you were letting go of all this long prices business.”

He paused.

“She is no longer here,” Masego plainly said, “and so I am confused.”

“One hundred thousand dead, Zeze,” I quietly said. “She doesn’t get to have that swept under the rug. Nobody does.”

“So it is revenge,” Masego mused, brightening for having understood. “Why let her go to the Tower and become the Warlock, then? It does not strike me as a very good vengeance.”

“Because she’ll hate it,” I quietly said. “It will be everything she has been taught to want, but even as she gets it every victory will taste like ashes in her mouth. And when reaches the end of that line, of that dreadful dream, it will not be joy she feels.”

It would be horror, I thought. Horror at the prospect of spending the rest of her life wearing shackles around her wrists that she would have put on herself. And the moment she understood that, understood that she wanted to be better than the girl she’d once been instead of simply an older, crueller version of her, I would be there. Waiting with an offer that she would accept.

“And after?” Masego asked.

“She trades a broken dream for a broken crown,” I murmured.

I did not believe we could destroy the Hidden Horror, not truly. Not now and even less after we gifted him the crown of Autumn. So he would need a prison and a warden. A box he would surely break in time, a pit he would dig himself out of, but a realm of endless paths? That might do the trick. There he would be cursed to wander forever alone, as a broken queen on a broken throne kept him imprisoned until the end of times. And that queen’s throne would lie in the heart of the city she had doomed, perched atop her very folly as she kept the peace of Twilight. She would make the choice herself, willingly and without coercion. That was the retribution I owed a hundred thousand screaming souls: an endless vigil holding back a greater evil, knowing every part of it was of her own making.

I was Callowan. My prices were long, and paid twice.

The first scouts returned with word of a town to our southeast. Scrying wasn’t working well in the region, which Masego believed to be because of the same ritual that’d brought us down. To sum up a quarter-hour explanation, ‘much magic in sky dust makes magic in sky difficult’. I shared this summary with the table, which prompted him to admit he wished he had a way to disown me. On the bright side, he also believed that while it was still unsafe to return to the Twilight Ways for at least two weeks it was unlikely that we were going to be hit with a storm again. The same phenomenon that screwed up scrying would make it ‘astronomically difficult’ to get another ritual going. I’d intended on going back into the camp after the conversation, but Juniper had notions of her own.

“You’re pacing back and forth like a tiger in a cage,” the Hellhound said. “Make yourself useful instead. Take knights and have a look at the town, find out where we are.”

“I’m not pacing,” I reflexively defended, but she had a point.

I took thirty knights of the Order and Scribe too, since she was the woman with the maps. Eudokia didn’t recognize the region itself, though she did note that the dusty and rocky grounds here would be a good fit for certain parts of the Cradle: a rough square of land near the middle of the Wasteland that had fairly steady weather but got the spills from more… exotic parts. We rode out briskly, finding the town the scouts had marked in less than an hour. It wasn’t anything all that impressive, I saw as we got closer. A walled town large enough to hold maybe a few hundred souls, surrounded by sparse farms and skeletal orchards. We found several wells on the way, though, which was good news. Too many of our water barrels had broken during the fall.

The gates were closed when we got there, an iron-barded set tall as a man but too cramped for most carts. No great traders, then. The walls weren’t anything I’d have a hard time smashing with Night if I put my back into it: six to eight uneven feet of stacked stone and mud with wooden spikes on top. Over the gates, an old dark-skinned woman in faded robes was waiting for us. Spread out further atop the walls were maybe a dozen archers and an unarmed pair of middle-aged siblings that must have been the town mages. They weren’t the ones in charge, though, as was made clear when we reined in our horses at the edge of bow range and got called out by the old woman.

“State your business,” she demanded. “Are you with the army to the north?”

I blinked. My knights carried the royal banner with them, which usually got recognized and took care of most questions before the talking began. Not so this time, evidently. Seeing no point in subtlety out in the middle of nowhere, I went with straightforward instead.

“I am Queen Catherine of Callow,” I called back. “I only want to talk and buy goods.”

There was some consternation atop the wall, several others coming close to the old woman before she angrily waved them away.

“There’s nothing worth burning here,” the old woman yelled out at me. “Go away.”

I sighed. Why was it never the useful parts of my reputation that preceded me? Deciding to make a point, I murmured a prayer to the Crows and let the Night sluggishly wake to my words. I went for something loud and dangerous looking over actually dangerous, blasting a chunk of the countryside in a whirl of black flames. I let silence follow in that sights’s wake as it sunk in that I could wield the same power against their wall to fairly predictable results. I then politely requested to be let in so we could talk and I could arrange the buying of goods, which after some arguing between the ‘warriors’ was granted.

The gates swung open and we were ushered through deserted dirt streets to a hall of stone. There the old woman from earlier received us by a great fire and extended hospitality in the name of the town, Ogarin. We refrained from accepting food or drink anyway. She introduced herself as Anan, the current haku to the town. Bailiff was probably the closest equivalent to the title we had back home, from what I understood, as a haku’s authority was centred around arranging the collection of communal taxes and work levies in the name of the local lord. The town was part of the territory of a Lord Abara, she informed us, who ruled from a fortress called Kala further to the southeast and situated at the bottom of the eponymous Kala Hills.

“I’ll bargain so the town does not get sacked, Your Majesty,” Anan said, “but we don’t have much to trade. We already sent our crop tax south to the fortress. There’s been a food levy across the Wasteland.”

I frowned.

“Who does Lord Abara swear to?” I asked.

She snorted.

“His uncle swore to Wolof, but that was in High Lady Tasia’s day,” she said. “Now he’s sworn to no one. It was the Tower that came to collect.”

So Malicia – more likely the Black Knight through her – had been emptying the Wasteland of food, to feed Marshal Nim army and make sure my own wouldn’t be able to add to its supplies from the local stores. Not without starving towns and villages, anyway, which aside from being deeply distasteful to me was likely to mean resistance to my troops from locals. No one liked having the table robbed by a foreign invader, as my childhood in Laure had intimately taught me. We got a little more out of Anan about the region we’d ended up in with some wheedling. Ogarin was at the northwestern edge of Lord Abara’s lands but linked by a dirt path to a better road that Anan called the ‘half-road’. I asked, naturally. It was a name that pretty much demanded it.

“We’re between imperial highways,” Anan said. “One of the old Abara – in my great, great grandmother’s day – swore himself to Aksum, and to make it stick he planned to connect Kala to the highway between Ater and Aksum. It was going to make us rich, he claimed. Only he died before it was done. His daughter instead went back to the Tower’s protection and pocketed the gold, leaving the job half done.”

The half-road wasn’t properly paved, she explained, just made of stone. While usable for carts it tended to be rough on the axles. It went towards the southeast, eventually coming close to the Moule Hills. Those were a bunch of steep slopes, so in practice the road was nestled in a valley between the Moule Hills to the south and Kala Hills to the north. North of said Kala Hills, she continued, was the small Nioqe Lake and the other town sworn to Lord Abara, Risas. Further north than that was the southern edge of the large Jini Plateau: all cliffs there, nothing we could travel through.

The way I figured, the sooner we got on the half-road and began moving south the better. I’d suggest a detachment head out to Nioqe Lake to see to our water situation, but there simply weren’t enough water sources in the region to sustain the presence of an army as large as mine for long.

As for trading, strictly speaking it was treason for the town to bargain with us while we were at war. I allowed the shadow of a possible sack to loom over the negotiations, though, which motivated the town to do it anyway. It wasn’t my intention to go through with it, but if my reputation was black in these parts then I had no qualms in using that. There wasn’t much food and Anan was reluctant to part with was left, but tools and wood were on the table – armies chewed through those like hounds through meat – and I promised to restrain my soldiers from robbing farms or entering the town. I even paid a generous fee for use of their wells, which Anan did not need to know was from the Wolof treasury.

When we were done talking I stretched, groaning, and offered her a friendly smile. We’d been at this for over an hour now, and I was ready to leave. There was still one little detail to take care of first, though,

“So,” I said, “how likely is it that some of your dimmer boys and girls are outside and planning something unwise?”

Her creased face tightened.

“Not unlikely,” Anan finally said.

“I still remember what it’s like, wanting to put down monster to make a name,” I said. “So I’ll let that go.”

I met her rheumy eyes with mine.

“If it ends now.”

She swallowed. Anan preceded us outside, and while there was some shouting and a small scuffle it ended without corpses on the ground.

Three cheers for diplomacy, I thought, and got back on my borrowed horse.

We got some trouble with the locals the first night after we crashed, but not the two-legged kind. Our palisade, which had been hastily raised, was hit just after Midnight Bell by what we first believed to be enemy soldiers but turned out to be a coordinated attack by a pack of tigers. The unreasonably astute animals actually hit another spot in the palisade as a distraction while the rest dug their way under, attacking horses and cattle. Archer and the Huntress got themselves a few pelts for the trouble, but of the dozen tigers that came six still survived and ran away with full bellies. It was only to be the beginning of our troubles, I found out to my dismay.

A colony of head-sized scorpions took offence to our presence the following day and began attacking legionaries whenever they stepped outside the vermin wards, which thankfully held them back. It only stopped when I set out with a mage line and torched their underground lair, to a disquieting amount of chittering screams. A decision was made not to openly prevent my sappers from going into the charred ruin and stealing some eggs, considering scorpion fights tended to be good for the morale of the little bastards.

Then the soldiers that went to fill up water barrels at Nioque Lake – under the wary eyes of the townsfolk of Risas, whose homes were on the opposite shore – were ambushed by some sort of shrieking freshwater squid that dragged two men under before the Squire and the Apprentice killed it. Its flesh was apparently considered a delicacy in the Wasteland, Aisha informed me, because everyone in this bloody place was completely mad. I refused to have a bite out of principle, though Masego assured me with guileless malice it was delicious.

Archer was having the time of her life, at least, and came dragging back the carcass of what looked like a cow-sized lion with bat wings and a stinger-tipped tail the following afternoon. Masego was delighted enough when she offered him the venom glands that he enthusiastically kissed her cheeks, which had her in a terrifyingly good mood the rest of the day. I was only glad she’d killed the damned thing while out hunting and not after it’d flown into the camp and eaten a few of my soldiers. Not that our short turn in luck stopped a flock of blood-drinking bats that spat out paralytic venom – charmingly called something that translated ‘night kissers’ by Soninke, Aisha said – from attacking one of our night patrols.

The entire Wasteland was a fucking death trap.

It looked like we were going to be ready to march by Noon Bell on the third day, though, so I sat with Juniper to put together a vanguard. Two thousand light foot from Levant would do, we decided, with Archer and I accompanying them. Razin Tanja, whose forces were chosen to march, was pleased to be given the front as Levantines always were when awarded the possibility of being the first to be shot by arrows. Took all sorts. The Dominion warriors had taken well to the Wasteland, to my amused horror, Lady Aquiline even admitted it made her a little homesick. Fewer trees here than the Brocelian, she said, but the animals had a lot in common.

No wonder Levantines raided so much, I unkindly thought. I’d get out of the house as much as possible if my home was full of godsdamned bloodsucking bats, and fight for the privilege too.

We set out in passably good order just after Noon Bell, largely as we’d planned and to the palpable relief of many Callowan legionaries. I rode out with Razin and Archer for company, to a surprising chill under the afternoon sun. A cold wind was blowing in from the northeast, over the Jini Plateau. An hour got us to the half-road and from there we quickened the pace going southeast, until we came in distance of the Moule Hills and I was forced to call a halt. Not because three hours of marching had tired us out, but something entirely worse. On the steep northern slopes of those hills a fortified camp had been raised, wooden walls bristling with scorpions and catapults as six banners flew above them in the wind.

One for each of the five legions under Marshal Nim, one for the Tower.

Chapter 12: String

“There are three decisions that can only be mistakes: trusting a peace in the Free Cities, intervening in an Alamans succession and campaigning in the Wasteland.”

Queen Matilda the Elder of Callow

It was General Sacker I’d wanted to talk to, as her informal patroness, but instead I found all three of the leaders of the Rebel Legions sitting on the other side of the scrying bowl.

That made an amusingly odd trio to look at, I must admit. Sacker was still the same old sack of wrinkles that looked deceptively half asleep, but General Mok was even larger than Hune had been on top of having half his face severely burned with spellfire. The difference in size between them somehow made the last of three stand out even more: General Jaiyana Seket of the Second Legion, a dark-haired and grey-eyed Taghreb in her late fifties. She’d been the only general already in the Wasteland to desert Malicia after the empress pulled her mind control trick a few years back. Only a little over half her legion had followed her, though, the rest sticking with the Tower.

That made the junior of the three generals in their informal hierarchy, considering that Sacker had filled her legion’s depleted ranks from deserters and the Jacks had reported that Mok’s own Third Legion now fielded six thousand soldiers instead of the standard four. Being the one with the relationship with Callow – and therefore its forges and foodstuffs – had put Sacker more or less on equal footing with Mok, however, so it wasn’t quite as straightforward a balance of power as one might think. General Seket tended to be the kingmaker in contested decisions, after all, which was a form of influence as well. It’d all worked out as being surprisingly communal for a military hierarchy, no one making a push for primacy.

Which unfortunately meant that I wasn’t negotiating with one person but three.

“I understand that the Grand Alliance has interests in Praes,” General Mok said, voice rumbling, “but it doesn’t get to impose terms here. Who rules in Ater is not to be determined in Salia or Laure.”

I wasn’t sure whether not mentioning Levante – the Dominion’s capital – reflected good intel about the fate of the Pilgrim’s Blood or simple dismissal of Levant, but either way he wasn’t wrong. These days the Blood wasn’t agreeing on much of anything, except fighting the war to the end.

“That ship sailed the moment Malicia began actively warring on us through proxies and attacking our diplomatic efforts,” I curtly replied. “She is, even now, the ally of the Dead King. Sovereignty’s all well and good, but it doesn’t buy you the rest of the world pretending nothing’s happened when you piss on the common table.”

General Seket looked amused at the turn of phrase – not a noble flower, this one, but a former bandit who’d chosen the Legions over the noose – and Sacker continued looking at me through those half-lidded eyes. Mok was getting angrier, though. I got the impression that out of them he most believed in the Dread Empire that’d been sold to the Legions after the Reforms: a place of order and rough fairness, where peoples that’d once been left out in the cold were slowly brought into the fold instead. It’d been the mind control he objected to on a fundamental level, not necessarily Malicia calling the Rebel Legions to heel. Sacker stepped in before Mok could speak again, perhaps sensing my irritation with the ogre was rising. I had little patience for people who let their ideals get in the way of looking at what was actually happening around them.

“No one is denying that you have a right to retaliate for attacks on the Grand Alliance,” Sacker said. “Our concern is that it seems few of the decisions relating to the empire’s future will be made by Praesi.”

“That Malicia has to go isn’t even something even worth arguing about,” I bluntly replied. “I will cheerfully massacre anything and anyone who gets in the way of that. If your issues are with the details of Malicia’s succession, however, then we have a lot more room for compromise.”

“We did not leave the empress’ service to now defend her,” General Seket said. “The matter my colleagues are tiptoeing around is different: to be frank, none of us want to raise a sword to win Dread Empress Foundling the Tower.”

I almost laughed in their faces, fighting that down to a snort with great effort.

“If that’s you worry, then we have no issue,” I said. “I have no interest whatsoever in climbing the Tower.”

“Akua Sahelian would not be a more acceptable candidate,” General Mok plainly said.

Huh. First Sargon had guessed that, now the Rebel Legions. The High Lord of Wolof I could forgive, but some of these people had served in Callow over the years. Did none of them realize that if I were known to have backed the Doom of Liesse for rule over the Wasteland I’d get strung up in the streets by my own people? It wasn’t like the Folly was some old wound barely remembered. Almost everyone in Callow had lost at least a distant relative when a city the size of Liesse got murdered.

“I’ve no interest in backing her claim either, assuming she makes one,” I replied just as plainly. “If I am to support anyone’s claim, it will be that of Amadeus of the Green Stretch.”

“You have been talking with Sepulchral for years,” Sacker pointed out.

“And we already discussed all this years ago,” I waspishly replied. “Why are we revisiting these grounds now?”

“Years ago you were not leading an army invading Praes,” General Mok replied. “We require different assurances now that battle is on the horizon.”

A little rich to say that, considering that they were at least three weeks behind Sepulchral’s army on the march and she was herself at least a week behind Marshal Nim. Maybe closer to two.

“I’m not interested in putting Abreha Mirembe on the throne,” I explicitly spelled out. “I see no need to make war on her, however, and she was a convenient ally against Malicia. Should she surrender to whoever claims the Tower peacefully I’ll even argue for leniency on her behalf.”

I actually believe she might take that deal, and so did Scribe. Sepulchral had rebelled because Malicia had cornered her, not because she’d intended to make a play for the Tower. That attack from Malicia had come because High Lady Abreha had been muscling in on the empress in the first place, of course, but that was Praesi politics for you. It was Malicia that Sepulchral couldn’t afford to surrender to, she wouldn’t be so constrained if someone else held the Tower. And someone who hadn’t been rebelled against could afford to offer her amnesty without taking a major hit to their reputation with the nobility. Looking closely at the three, I could see that General Seket was leaning the way of taking the bargain I’d offered: joining our armies to defeat the Loyalist Legions together, guaranteeing them a seat at the table in the aftermath. Mok was still very much against, and Sacker hard to read as she’d ever been.

“I cannot agree to putting imperial forces under the authority of a foreign nation,” General Mok finally said. “Not even in this manner.”

Sacker did not contradict him, a silence that rang loudly. I eyed the three of them coolly.

“Then it’s my turn to ask questions,” I said. “If not to reinforce my expedition, why is your army marching north?”

“You are not owed an answer,” the ogre general flatly replied.

“You weren’t owed food and steel,” I sharply said. “You still got it. Careful about what bridges you burn, Mok. There are no second chances at this game.”

“No offence was meant, I’m sure,” General Seket intervened. “We set out to march, Queen Catherine, because if we do not the civil war will end without our having ever raised a sword.”

I eyed her, distinctly unimpressed.

“So you’re either foolish enough to march an army without a campaign plan or baldly opportunistic enough to want to sit out the fight and leverage your numbers for concessions afterwards,” I said. “Which is it?”

“You put a hard slant on trying to avoid fratricide, Black Queen,” Sacker curtly replied. “You blame us for not being eager to fight legions still filled with friends and kin, comrades we have fought with for decades. With the situation on the knife’s edge, we will first attempt diplomacy.”

My fingers clenched, then unclenched. I did not like the sound of that.

“Elaborate,” I said.

“We will speak directly with the Black Knight,” General Mok said. “And offer simple terms: should Dread Empress Malicia abdicate, we will return to the fold and crush Sepulchral together.”

“Malicia will never take that deal,” I replied without batting an eye. “Or if she does, it’ll be as a trick to get you to dispose of her enemy before getting around to you.”

“It’s not her we’re offering the deal to,” General Seket said. “Nim is as good as her word. If the last legions turn on the Tower, Malicia will have to abdicate. All she has left in Ater are the First and the Fourth, which went skeletal from desertions.”

“And should the Black Knight refuse you?” I asked.

“She won’t,” Mok confidently said.

Ah, so that was it. Sacker genuinely had been on the fence, I just hadn’t offered enough to convince her. Mok had been against our armies joining from the start, though, because he’d already had a plan that was more palatable to him: cutting a deal with Marshal Nim.

“But if she does?” I pressed.

“Then you get your way, Black Queen,” General Sacker said, showing pale needle-like teeth. “Long live Dread Emperor Amadeus. In the defence of his cause, we will seek friendship with the same Grand Alliance that recognized him in Salia.”

I drummed my fingers on the table. The tremor had the water rippling, their faces rippling with it. And with that easy questions settled there was only one left to ask.

“And if the Black Knight does takes your deal,” I asked, “where would that leave us?”

“The Legions of Terror are the sword and shield of Praes,” General Seket said, tone conciliating, “but it doesn’t need to come to blows between us.”

“What it means is that there’ll be no more talk of you dictating anything, Queen of Callow,” General Mok rumbled.

Huh, I thought. This might just be the first time I’d been the hand that fed instead of the biter.

I wasn’t enjoying the change of pace.

There was need of a fresh war council after that. Yet I found that, in practice, learning that there was a chance the Rebel Legions might turn on us did not affect our plans much.

“Being generous,” Juniper said, “the rebels are a month behind the battle unless either we or Marshal Nim start wasting time. It’ll be settled by the time they get there.”

“If they can take the Twilight Ways they could cut ahead of Sepulchral, at least,” I pointed out.

Dread Empress Sepulchral’s army could not practically use the Ways, according to our spies. Some of its mages could access them, but they couldn’t yet make stable portals. The Rebel Legions were another story. I glanced at Vivienne questioningly, getting an uncertain palm wiggle.

“The Jacks aren’t sure either way,” she said. “They have enough mages in the ranks for it to be possible, but it’s not knowledge that grows on trees. I’d tend to err on the side of caution and assume they have some capacity with the Ways but not enough for their entire army.”

“That could still be trouble,” Grandmaster Talbot said. “Should we defeat the Black Knight in battle only for her to retreat in good order, a sudden swell of reinforcements could tip the balance against us. How large are their numbers, now that they’re finally marching?”

“Thirteen thousand legionaries,” I said. “They should have little to no goblin munitions, at least, unlike the Loyalist Legions.”

For the same reason the Army of Callow had finally filled its own stocks: I’d bought theirs.

“I do not understand this hesitation on your parts,” Lady Aquiline admitted. “We are yet sixteen thousand, or close, and the Black Knight commands only twenty-three thousand soldiers. I have seen the Army of Callow triumph against steeper odds than this.”

“You haven’t,” Juniper bluntly informed her. “You’ve seen us beat inferior or borderline peer armies, Lady Aquiline. You have never seen us fight a force that is at least our equal and possibly our superior.”

She wasn’t wrong, even if she was being pessimistic. We did have some advantages going for us. There were five legions marching with the Black Knight – the Eight, the Eleventh, the Thirteen, the Fourteenth and Nim’s own Seventh – but the Legions of Terror didn’t typically field cavalry. The Thirteenth did, having been raised from Callowan bandits and rebels, but only six hundred horsemen or so. The vast majority of Nim’s three thousand and change cavalry was auxiliaries. Taghreb and Soninke light horse sent by nobles, which my Order of the Broken Bells could shred if they engaged in melee. My entire army was made up of veterans, while the Legions would have fresher recruits, and we also had a decisive Named advantage.

On the other hand, the officer corps of the Legions would be flatly better than ours and we’d be down on mage firepower as well as general numbers. It was still very much a winnable battle, in my opinion, but there would be no repeat of the Third at Sarcella or the ridiculous odds against undead my soldiers had frequently taken on. We were facing the same army that’d held the Vales against the greater strength of Procer, and I had no reason to believe it’d lost a step since then. Throwing another thirteen thousand veteran infantry down on the Black Knight’s side of the scale would make for… hard odds, to say the least. At a minimum, it’d take field battles off the table.

To minimize the risks, we had to finish it before the Rebel Legions got there.

“Perhaps we should seek allies,” Lord Razin suggested. “Would Dread Empress Sepulchral not be amenable to helping us against her rival?”

“It was my instinct as well,” I told him, “but she’s broken off talks with us. At our best guess, she’s hoping we’ll clash with the Black Knight before she gets there and she can pick off the weakened Loyalist Legions.”

It would have been damned useful to string Abreha Mirembe along, but the trouble when dealing with people who’d survived at the top of the Wasteland for decades was that they tended to be rather hard to fool. Sepulchral had correctly assessed I wasn’t going to help put her on the throne, so she’d decided to use me to weaken her enemy and finish climbing the Tower on her own. Odds were she figured I wouldn’t actually fight a war to keep her off the throne, especially if I’d first taken losses casting Malicia down from it. To my distaste, she was fairly accurate in that judgement. I didn’t want to march west again until my father held the Tower, but if Sepulchral dug in and offered good terms I might not have a choice.

How large a portion of Procer was I willing to sacrifice to get my chosen candidate on the throne? Abreha wasn’t just a cutthroat snake: she was an old cutthroat snake. In Praes those were rare for a reason. She knew how to survive when the storms came calling.

“That’s another twenty thousand we have no certainties about,” Aisha noted. “We need to have a good grasp on the pace those force march at at before engaging, else we will be taking risks.”

“Half of Sepulchral’s army is levies that’ll break under steady munitions fire,” Juniper grunted. “But the other half is dangerous enough, I’ll grant.”

Like my Marshal of Callow, I could admit that I wasn’t worried about fighting Sepulchral’s army on the field. She had a little over six thousand household troops, which would be tough customers as that breed always was, but we had twice her horse in better quality. The thousand wavemen her allies in Nok had sent might be some trouble, true. They were supposed to be the finest archers in Praes, using great horn bows and honing their trade defending the ships of the House of Sahel. We were fighting the former High Lady of Aksum so naturally there’d be monsters too. It was what the city was famous for. But after having faced the Hidden Horror’s own menagerie of nightmares, I did not expect Aksum’s to impress me much.

“Unless the enemy tempo changes, it looks like our best shot at solving this cleanly remains a decisive victory against Marshal Nim,” I finally said.

If we forced the Black Knight’s army to surrender, the Rebel Legions would sink back into irrelevance. And Sepulchral couldn’t take a swing at us lightly: it’d put her at war against the Grand Alliance. Much more likely she’d march straight on Ater instead, and I had no real issue with that. I was skeptical she’d be able to take the City of Gates, but more than willing for her to soften up the capital some before the Army of Callow took a crack at it.

“Agreed,” the Hellhound replied. “I’ll want reports from the Jacks about the pace of every army to ensure we give battle with the best margin possible, but in around three weeks seems to be that window of opportunity.”

I nodded in agreement.

“Well,” I said, “council’s done, it seems. Get your affairs in order, ladies and gentlemen, because come dawn we begin our march south.”

Even in Hakram’s absence his phalanges were functioning like a well-oiled machine.

That left me in the odd position of, well, not actually having anything to do. It would be a week at least before I next spoke to Cordelia Hasenbach, Indrani was spending the evening with Masego and Vivienne was busy twisting arms are making promises through the Observatory to secure names for a plan she’d come up with that might kneecap the Black Knight in the field. Feeling restless, I took to the night and the dirt streets of our camp. Whenever I stopped moving it felt like I was losing ground: even when I stayed still, the world kept moving around me. The first act of my Praesi campaign had been an unequivocal victory, for all that Malicia and her Black Knight had scored blood of their own, but from now on things would get… complicated.

The number of moving pieces had increased and this wouldn’t be the Graveyard all over again. I wouldn’t be able to predict the whole array of leadership I was fighting the way I’d been able to read the Tyrant, Pilgrim and First Prince. Too many people, not enough of them Named. Legions rebel and loyalist, Sepulchral’s would-be army of conquest and hidden behind them all whatever my father’s scheme for this fight would be. I knew better than to believe he wouldn’t be putting a finger on the scale of the battle that would determine the fate of Praes for the coming decades. That he had yet to truly come out of the woodworks worried me more than I cared to admit. He wasn’t proud, as a man, at least not in ways that got in the way of him achieving his goals.

So if he’d not reached out to me, made common cause, it was because some of our objectives were at odds. I was not so arrogant as to pretend that the prospect of the fighting the man who’d taught me did not inspire in me a… healthy amount of caution.

The sound of steel on steel drew my attention as I drifted close to drilling grounds. There shouldn’t be any legionaries out at this hour, and a few steps confirmed there weren’t. The two people moving swiftly back and forth across the dusty ground weren’t my soldiers. The Silver Huntress deftly flicked her spear, barbed tip tickling at the Squire’s shield, and as Arthur Foundling took a cautious step back she circled around him to probe his flank. I approached quietly, laying my staff against the side of the fence before resting my elbows atop it. The Squire was being careful, keeping his shield up and only venturing out of his shell to try to rush her and leverage his advantage close up, but on open grounds like this the tactic was a mistake.

I winced as I saw him try a charge, banking on the Huntress being slow to retreat her spear after a feint, only to find out that Alexis was quite light-footed of maintaining their distance. She feinted his leg, then darted back up to slap the side of his helm hard when he lowered his shield to cover himself. The boy winced at the pain but did not complain. As well he shouldn’t: if that blow had come from someone out to kill him, it would have gone right through his throat instead. If Arthur was to ever to score a blow, I thought, he needed to pressure her from the start. Push forward steadily, learn to tell apart the feints from the real attacks and close the distance while she was committed to striking him.

I watched in silence as the two continued to move across the dust, the Mantle of Woe’s hood warm over my head, and to my pleased surprise I saw that the Squire was learning. No more bull rushing out of him, though he wasted a lot of time trying to figure out how to parry a spear with a sword. You couldn’t, really, not reliably. From Named to not, sure, but not between peer opponents. The Huntress worked him through a pretty straightforward sequence – shield edges the spear to the side, sword lunge for the throat as you dart forward – and he began trying it out. He took to it quickly. Unnaturally quickly, really, I decided as my brow rose.

His reflexes weren’t getting sharper or his footing more flexible, but with every try he moved a little faster through the sequence. A little smoother. By the eighth attempt his execution was impressive enough I would have thought he’d spent months drilling it. Name, I thought. Has to be. The spar ended after Arthur finally scored a blow on the Silver Huntress’ breastplate, though I suspected she’d actually allow him to land it. He was a quick lad, but Alexis the Argent wasIndrani’s superior in close combat. The two of them seemed surprised when they noticed I was there. Night was a friend to me in all sorts of ways. I clapped politely, to the older heroine’s amusement, but Arthur looked embarrassed.

They had water and cloths on a stone near the fence, so when they came to quench their thirst and get ride of the worst of the sweat it was only natural that we chat a bit.

“I’m rather ashamed you saw that, Your Majesty,” Arthur said. “I have been meaning to expand my experience fighting Named, but it is slow going.”

“In terms of pure swordsmanship you’re actually better than I was at your age,” I noted. “Not as good as the Lone Swordsman was, maybe, but there’s a reason I relied on tricks to kill the man.”

“It’s empty whining on his part,” the Huntress scoffed. “He improves daily. The Lady’s the only person I’ve ever seen pick up drills that fast.”

“The Ranger?” Arthur breathed out. “That’s… I’ve always admired what I heard of her in stories, truth be told.”

Oh dear. I shared a look with Alexis, the two of us silently agreeing it would be for the best if he never met the woman in question. The Silver Huntress had a much harsher opinion of the Lady of the Lake than Archer. I’d learned as much because she was not shy in expressing it even to strangers. It’d made for pleasant common ground over the months of campaigning. Still, I couldn’t let myself get distracted by this little detour. I’d had a nugget of information I wanted to dig for.

“Were you always this quick to catch on?” I casually asked. “It seems like the sort of thing the Order would have reported on.”

He ruefully smiled.

“No,” Arthur admitted. “It was after the fight with the puppet of the Black Knight, Your Majesty. The way it handled Sapan and I, then the way you stepped in and took care of it…”

His gauntlets clenched tight around his sword.

“I had believed myself a fine blade, but after that I couldn’t deny I stillhave so much to Learn,” the Squire said.

Ah, an old friend had returned. Was he leaning on that to improve his fighting? I’d not been able to do the same, back when I had the same aspect. Fighting had been the one thing it didn’t help me with.

“Aspect,” I noted, seeing no point in further subtlety. “Have you seen the same kind of leap forward in your studies?”

He looked baffled.

“No,” he said. “Should I have?”

I hummed, shaking my head.

“It’s somewhat reassuring that you did not,” I said. “There’s a balance to these things, Squire.”

The Silver Huntress grunted in agreement.

“No power comes without a hook,” Alexis the Argent said. “Beware of anything that pretends otherwise.”

Still, the Gods Above liked their nasty surprises, didn’t they? The Squire had gotten a flavour of the aspect attuned to martial pursuits after a defeat against the Black Knight, while being guaranteed weeks if not months of a relatively safe environment filled with veteran Named to train with. By the time Nim encountered the boy again for the continuation of their pattern, he was going to be a regular fucking monster. In an abstract sense my sympathies lay with Marshal Nim, because this all felt very much like the Heavens hooking an Evil fish and reeling her in, but in a practical sense our little Squire had my backing to the hilt. I’d put Indrani on training him too, maybe see if the Barrow Sword was amenable to pitching in.

“I know to be wary of shortcuts,” Arthur promised, then sent me an almost shy look. “Perhaps we may spar one day, Your Majesty? Many consider you among the finest swords in Callow.”

“My tricks are best kept up my sleeve,” I drily said. “We’ll see about getting you a few sessions with Archer, though. She tends to be my better close up.”

The boy did not quite manage to hide his disappointment but I quashed the pang I felt at the sight. I already walked the line perhaps a little too finely when it came to teaching Arthur Foundling. An occasional distant instructor tossing a few lessons his way shouldn’t be too prone to ending up story fodder, I figured, but considering he had a draw with the Black Knight coming up the last thing I wanted was stepping into a formal teacher’s role. That was a good way to stumble into buying his draw with my death. The Squire retired after chatting a little longer, but to my surprise the Silver Huntress did not. Had I offended her by mentioning Indrani training someone she was already training?

No, I decided, looking at her tense face. That wasn’t the tension of someone keeping a lid on their anger but the gritted teeth of someone forcing themselves to venture into uncomfortable grounds.

“I want to talk,” Alexis the Argent said, then bit her cheek. “Please.”

My hand found the staff of dead yew never too far from my hand, closing around the rough wood. I’d gotten used to the contrast between the Huntress’ startlingly girlish high-pitched voice and her rough appearance – broken nose and plain face, the messy bun of red hair and calloused hands – but I’d noticed she tended to speak slowly and curtly to take the edge off it. No doubt she’d been mercilessly mocked for the contrast as a child: it was the kind of thing even my fellow orphanage girls would have narrowed in on, much less children as skilled at cruelty as the Refuge kids had been. This time, though, the curtness was not an affection on her part. She was fighting the words as they came out.

I couldn’t think of many things I had a hand in that’d get this much emotion out of her.

“I’m listening,” I said.

Her lips pressed tight, like she was trying to clench them.

“The Lady’s in Praes,” she said. “With the Carrion Lord. Your spies said so.”

I nodded.

“You think we’re going to fight her?” the Huntress asked.

“I’d prefer not to,” I admitted. “But I don’t think she’s going to give us a choice.”

At some point, my father and I would clash. His continued silence spoke to that. And when that moment came, I did not believe it would be armies that marched. It would be a war of knives, not battalions, and the Ranger was the finest knife at his disposal. On my end of things, it was not a coincidence that all the surviving children of Refuge were with my host. I had planned for this eventuality in my own way.

“She won’t,” Alexis roughly said. “That’s not how she…”

She hesitated, stumbling over words before abandoning the sentence entirely.

“I hate her,” the Silver Huntress candidly admitted. “I honestly do. But I won’t lie. She didn’t think she was being cruel when she worked us. She thought she was toughening us up for the real world, so we could live like she does.”

“But you don’t buy that,” I murmured.

“We came out of Refuge fine killers, Black Queen,” Alexis said. “For that I’m thankful. But she was also trying to make us all into these…  she has this idea, this ideal, of ‘full’ persons that need no one else. That bind with others only because they want to, not because they ever need to.”

She spat to the side.

“And that fucked us,” the Huntress bluntly said. “Cocky still hasn’t told a living soul her name. John got himself killed because he thought he thought he needed to prove he was our equal. Lysander once spent most a year learning how to make shoes, when we were kids, because he thought just buying them would mean he was weak.”

I watched her silently, waiting for the last two names. Named. The last of the band of five that had never formed.

“I fight when I shouldn’t,” Alexis the Argent reluctantly admitted. “Because it feels like backing down if I don’t. But Indrani’s the worst off, because of all of us she’s the one that bought into it.”

“I think the woman you knew,” I gently said, “only shares so much with the woman I know.”

She didn’t like that.

“I know,” the Huntress bit out angrily, slamming a fist on the groaning fence. “I know, fuck.”

I let it go, this once, but my eye narrowed. It did not go unnoticed.

“She’s not the same as she was when she left to pick up John,” Alexis forced out. “She tries. I can see it, Black Queen, that sometimes the urge is there but she fucking bites down on it.”

“You don’t have to forgive her,” I quietly said. “She’s not owed that.”

The Silver Huntress faintly smiled.

“Sometimes I still wonder if Lysander got killed because Indrani went soft from her years with the Woe,” she confessed. “Whether it’d have gone down different, if she’d not turned into the kind of person who tries.”

Sometimes, looking at what Ranger had left in the children she’d raised, I wondered what it was Amadeus of the Green Stretch had left in me. What curse, what scar. That there would be one I had no doubt: one did not learn from a madman without learning some manner of madness with it.

“She got to us deep, the Lady,” Alexis tiredly said. “Even where we think she didn’t. But maybe that’s what we have – scars from the same fang. That’s for us to handle, anyway. It’s not what I came to you for.”

“Then what did you come for?” I asked.

“When Ranger comes for us, and she will,” Alexis the Argent said, voice eerily calm, “she’ll strike at every weakness. As hard as she can. She’ll try to break us.”

My fingers clenched.

“It’s how she believes love works, I think,” the Huntress quietly said. “To make someone stronger, even if it hurts them. So she will come for us, Catherine Foundling, with loving cruelty. To crown us, welcome us as women. Peers.”

Peers, the way she’d treated the Calamities in my Name dreams as the Squire. The way she treated those, I thought, that had not needed her hand to come into strength. There were people, I thought, that Ranger might be lovely to. My father was one of them, because there were things about him she admired. It excused none of it, as far as I was concerned.

“She is not my peer,” I coldly said. “And I’ll teach her why, should she come for any of you.”

“I can take care of myself,” Alexis brusquely dismissed. “But Indrani…”

The Silver Huntress bit her lip.

“That’s what I want from you, Black Queen,” she finally said. “Don’t let the Lady turn her back into who she used to be. That’s all I ask.”

A moment, as she choked on the word.

Please.”

The moon glared down at us, a full circle wreathing us both in pale.

“I won’t,” I swore.

Interlude: East I

“As a rule, principles are trouble. If you have them, unprincipled men will despise you. If you do not have them, principled men will despise you. My advice, my son, is therefore to choose terribly mediocre principles but keep to them religiously.”

Extract from the infamous ‘Sensible Testament’ of Basilea Chrysanthe of Nicae

“And the nature of her alliance with the First Prince?”

Akua Sahelian had found that betrayal was not unlike putting on an old dress. The cut did not quite fit as it would have once did, but there was a certain comfort in the… familiarity of the object. Sargon had been dear enough to grant her use of the family’s finest scrying mirrors – ancient artefacts, tall as a man and twice as broad – so the illusion that she was seated at a table in the same council room as the Dread Empress of Praes was rather convincing. The clarity of the spell allowed for the game to be played as if they were in person, Malicia reading her face as she read Malicia’s. It was rather invigorating to fence this way with a woman of the empress’ calibre.

“Largely a result of common interests,” Akua said. “There is a surprising degree of trust there, but that is not unexpected after Catherine’s restraint during the Peace of Salia.”

Callow had been well positioned to extort Procer when the time had come for bargaining. There was not much the First Prince could have afforded to do but bend, given the imminent collapse of her realm if she did not, but Catherine had instead chosen to court goodwill. Given how important the trust between the two greatest rulers of the Great Alliance had become, and the veiled frustration on Malicia’s face when she spoke of Procer, Akua was inclined to believe it had been the right decision to make.

“There has been some method to her recklessness,” Malicia conceded. “Your opinion, then, on her relationship with Yannu Marave and Itima Ifriqui?”

Oh my, she truly was frustrated. Mentioning those two names – the two heads of the great lines of the Blood that were not Catherine’s informal pupils – was a tacit admission that Malicia was trying to get a peace here in Praes by getting the broader Grand Alliance to twist Callow’s arm into accepting it. No doubt she’d already tried Cordelia Hasenbach and been rebuffed, so she was now looking for other angles of approach. Unfortunately for the empress, the Dominion was dead grounds in this regard.

“She is highly respected, due to her role in the Grey Pilgrim’s resurrection after the Princes’ Graveyard,” Akua said. “I don’t believe she has spoken much with the Lady of Vaccei at all, but she has a solid accord with Lord Yannu.”

Akua decided to keep it up her sleeve that not a single one of the Blood would dare to cross Catherine at the moment. Not while she had the Barrow Sword at her side and they very much wanted to avoid her protection of him extending beyond the confines of the war. If she kept meddling in the politics of Levant that might change, but for now having both fear and respect at her back meant that Malicia would find no purchase with the Levantines. It might be amusing to see her fail in the attempt, however, so Akua offered her empress a pleasant smile instead of potentially useful information.

“Her talent for ingratiating herself to key individuals is proving to be an obstacle,” Malicia deplored.

And perhaps Akua would have agreed, as a girl, when she could only think of strength through the Empire’s conception of it. An outlook that would claim Catherine was ahead because of a superior quality. In this case, Malicia seemed to have decided it was talent for making alliances at the highest rungs of power. To triumph over her the Dread Empress would have to bring her own superior qualities to bear and decisively beat her opponent. Yet the old certitudes no longer rang so true. Praes is so deeply despised out west nowadays that Hasenbach could not agree to a bargain even if it were advantageous, Akua thought. That is not of Catherine’s making.

The Dread Empress had won too many battles, ceasing to question if they needed to be fought at all. Victory was a heady brew, Akua knew better than most, but she was surprised that Malicia would fall prey to such a mistake. The empress had always struck her as being an exquisitely self-controlled woman. Then again, the Carrion Lord was involved. It was always harder to see clearly when the cut was so close to the heart.

Akua knew that too, and learned the lesson roughly enough it still left the edges of her raw.

“The Dead King has forced together strange alliances,” she simply said.

Malicia looked amused, understanding the sentence for the veiled reference that it was.

“How have you found the body?” the empress asked.

Akua closed the fingers of her right hand into a fist, enjoying the sensation of skin on skin. It had been almost overwhelming at first: her time as a shade had blurred the memory of what sensations actually felt like. Returning to the real thing after the pale shadow she’d lived with had needed some adjustment. There was an even greater boon attached, of course. Akua murmured a single word in the mage tongue, opening her hand into a flat palm, and a dot of hellfire bloomed above it.

“More than satisfactory,” she said. “A princely gift, Your Dread Majesty.”

“I reward loyalty, Warlock,” Malicia smiled. “And sometimes even the anticipation of it.”

The Named being spoken aloud earned a small shiver from Akua every time. She was not a claimant for it, not yet, but Creation was recognizing the… possibility. That the potential was there. Neither of them mentioned the spells Malicia’s mages had hidden that would allow the empress to kill her with a word, though they both knew they were somewhere in the flesh. As always, the Dread Empress’ words had two meanings: if loyalty earned reward, then disloyalty earned punishment. The mere anticipation of it would too, as Malicia had subtly warned.

“I’ve no doubt ours will be a close relationship, Your Dread Majesty,” Akua lied.

“Oh, I agree,” Malicia lied back.

The empress deigned to take a sip from her cup, some dark liquor cut with water.

“My decision to place trust in you is why I have decided to assign you to the Black Knight’s command for the coming battle,” Malicia continued. “Your unique insights into the adversary will be of great use, I am sure, but I most look forward to seeing your magic on display once more.”

A transparent enough ploy, but that was on purpose: the empress was asserting control. As the first measure of that control, she wanted Akua to kill enough of the Army of Callow with sorcery that the bridge back to that side would be forever burned. There was not a ruler worth their salt on the continent that did not know Catherine Foundling loved her soldiers just as fiercely as they loved her.

“Of course,” Akua replied, not batting an eye. “In that spirit, I would seek your permission to obtain artefacts from my cousin. The Sahelian arsenal is best put to your service, not left to gather dust.”

“If he is amenable, I don’t see why not,” Malicia smiled.

A lie, Akua decided. The answer had been too smooth, too unthinking. Sargon must have already been given strict instructions about the calibre of what he was allowed to lend her. The empress feared she might be able to slip the leash too early, then. Interesting.

“My thanks,” she said, bowing her head.

“Think nothing of it,” the empress dismissed. “Are you confident, with such aid, of being able to match the Hierophant on the field?”

“It would depend on the amount of magic he first ingests with Devour,” Akua said, feigning reluctance. “I have not seen his upper limit as a thaumatophage. Placing mage circles under my command or moving me to Marshal Nim’s side early so that I might begin preparing rituals would increase my chances.”

She liked Masego. He was a fascinating conversationalist and Akua had something of an inherited fondness for tactless mages. It had been marrying convenience to her own preference to lie about his abilities. With the Tower under the impression that he could simply suck dry entire battalion of mages if they were in sight, he’d be treated as an entity to be avoided instead of a Named that could be fought. And if Malicia’s most sensible answer to this was placing greater power in the hands of another special asset – like an incipient Warlock, just for example – then was it not the best of both worlds? The Dread Empress studied her for a moment, then conceded with the slightest movement of the head.

“I will speak with my Black Knight,” Malicia said, committing to nothing. “Expect to depart soon.”

A moment passed.

“Great gifts bring the expectation of great results, Warlock,” the empress added.

Meaning that should she be granted her request failure to match the Hierophant would have… consequences. Ah, how very old-fashioned of her. Akua found it rather charming.

“That is only natural,” Akua easily replied.

The empress chuckled. It was a languorous sound, and though it had little effect on her Akua could appreciate the artistry as a fellow seductress. Dread Empress Malicia was almost inhumanly beautiful, of course, but in truth that ran rather somewhat contrary to Akua’s tastes. She had spent many years surrounded by the perfect and the splendid, eventually growing tired of the fare. She preferred character nowadays, the interestingly imperfect. The empress was simply too exquisite to qualify. Besides, women were rarely of interest to her. She could count on one hand the number she’d been attracted to. She caught the scent of smoke.

Looking down Akua saw her hand had closed into a fist, smothering the hellflame. She’d not even realized she’d done it. The growing pains of a new body, she told herself.

“I do enjoy conversing with you, Akua,” Malicia lightly said. “They are always interesting, our little talks.”

“I aim to please,” she replied.

The empress smiled and Akua could feel the conversation was now to end. They had reached the end of their business for the day. And it was a whim, to ask, but she did not kill it when it rose. She had wondered from the moment she’d realized that work on the body awaiting her in the depths of the Empyrean Palace would have begun months before she ever set foot in Praes.

“How did you know?” Akua asked.

The Dread Empress of Praes studied her with dark eyes. Not a speck of gold in them. Blood as muddy as the land she’d been born of, running through the veins of the longest-reigning tyrant in the history of Praes.

“That I would turn on them,” she said. “I did not, until the very end. How did you know?”

Dread Empress Malicia’s smile was sad, she thought, and perhaps the sole genuine emotion she had shown this entire conversation.

“You came too late,” the empress said. “Even if some loved you, and I expect they did. You came to them too late, Akua. They were never going to forgive you for what they might have forgiven each other. There was no becoming one of the five.”

Her face went blank, like she was some kind of tipsy debutante. It was still better than the spasm of pain that would have shown on her face otherwise.

“In the end, darling, you were always going to come back,” Malicia gently said. “This is the only home you have.”

Sorcery rippled across the mirror, turning it back to simple polished silver, and Akua was left to wonder whether it had been kindness or an assertion of power to end the spell on that sentence. Perhaps a little of both, she decided. Though the dark-skinned woman knew she could have risen to her feet and distracted herself with movement, with pouring herself a cup of wine from the carafe or biting into a pear – the sheer pleasure of proper taste, after all this time – she did not. Instead she sat there and closed her eyes, thinking while it was all still fresh.

She had just fooled the empress successfully for the first time, after days of being interrogated for every scrap of knowledge on the Army of Callow and the Grand Alliance that she cared to divulge, but it did not feel like much a victory. She would admit it had been enjoyable, sparring with the empress. Sharpening iron with iron, the two of them knowing a single misstep would be enough for the other to pounce. Yet now that it was over, looking at what had been done, it felt… childish. Gaudy. No, neither of those were exactly right. More like she’d been indulging in something particularly-

“Wasteful,” Akua Sahelian murmured.

Scrapping iron for no real purpose save vanity. What had been gained from it all, really? They had circled each other like crocodiles snapping at each other’s tails, a triumph only of showing teeth. If instead they had sat and spoken plainly for even an hour, understood where they differed and where they might concur, would it not have – ah, she thought. And there it was. That old Sahelian greed, whispering again in her ear: she had left the fire for the dark, but she wanted all the pleasures of both. Akua rose to her feet at last, drawing back the chair and gliding past the wine carafe. It was the long window at the back of the room she sought, great panes of glass that could be pushed open to pair a lazy evening breeze with the view. She leaned against the windowsill, enjoying to the touch of the wind on her face, and lost herself looking at the distant silhouettes of Zaman Ango. The ancient maze, the sloping pyramids of mud.

Malicia had been right, she thought. This was home. The warmth of the fire had lulled her into indolence, but she’d snapped out of it at last. She would not forget that moment in the cave, where it had at last sunk in that nothing would make a change. That Akua could turn on her family, on her people, on everything she believed in and had ever loved since she was a child, and still it would not be enough. Because her folly had been the doom of a city, of a hundred thousand souls, and while the Gods knew of forgiveness Catherine Foundling did not. Had that been the revenge, she’d wondered then? Making her… and then ripping away the curtain, leaving her to look a merciless truth in the eye.

Maybe it was. Dartwick had wounded more shallowly when she’d made her rip out the eye instead.

And the worst of it was that, even now, part of her ached to leave. To return. It would not go without comment, her absence, and yet Akua thought she might be able to talk her way out of the worst of it. And she’d still have the evenings spent designing wards with Masego, the drinks and lurid gossip with Indrani. Even those cautious, almost Praesi talks with Adjutant – who wanted to learn all she had to tell of the highborn of the Wasteland while giving back as little as he could for it. And another, of course, the one she’d left behind most of all.

Akua had thought to kill Catherine Foundling, once. To slay her and claim all she had built, perhaps even wearing her face. When she had still been a prisoner of the Mantle of Woe, sent back to the maddening boredom of nothingness in between brief tastes of Creation. Ah, but what interesting tastes they had been. Grandiose plans of war against half the continent, diplomacy with the most powerful people on Calernia. Then even more terrible sights, on the way to Keter. And even as she was dragged from wonder to wonder, there was the once-Squire in the middle of it all. Now a Black Queen, turned into everything Akua had thought she might become.

Fascination had been the doom of many a Sahelian.

“But it doesn’t matter, does it?” Akua said to the wind.

There was no joy to chase at the end of that path. No long-awaited delight, nothing to suffer for. She would not be forgiven, and even a lifetime of saving strangers and helping fools would not see her redeemed in anyone’s eyes. She had been chasing ghosts the entire time. So why stay? Why not come back to the home she had sold for nothing, to the destiny that had been taken from her? Warlock, yes, for that was Malicia’s offer. But why stop there? Sargon wanted her to free him of the soulbox, and so she could use him to free this body from Malicia’s yoke. Beyond the walls of Wolof, Praes was a cauldron about to tip over and in such chaos a clever woman could rise far. If she was to have a foot in the Tower, why not climb all the way to the top?

If none of it mattered, why should Akua Sahelian not get everything she deserved?

A voice she was learning to hate whispered that perhaps she already had. She ignored it. It was the voice of weakness, of the lion gone tame. She could see it in her mind’s eye, the path up the stairs. It began with the Black Knight, Marshal Nim. The key to the Legions, not that Malicia seemed to have grasped that. Her only Black Knight before Nim had the loyalty of the Legions for having reformed them, but the bond ran deeper than that. Black Knights were the champions of the Tower, commander of armies and killers of heroes. There was a Role: Malicia had done more than simply name a new champion when she had recognized the ogre’s claim. Should Marshal Nim prove less than utterly loyal, why, it might just be that the armies of Praes would split between following the old Black Knight and the new.

Did that not simply reek of opportunity? Yes, she decided, it was the beginning of a plan. One that would allow her to sit on the sole throne in all of Praes, before all was said and done.

So why, Akua Sahelian wondered, was she not hearing the song?

Amadeus had always enjoyed looking at the Hungering Sands as night fell.

It was a pleasure to the eye, the way the sky turned to vivid purples and yellows with not a cloud in sight. The way the shadows lengthened among the dunes like slithering snakes. Even the coolness was pleasant, when wearing a cloak. That much had been a necessity, given that it was only feasible to meet the woman he’d come to see under some cover of darkness. He’d not seen her in at least fifteen years, by Amadeus’ reckoning, but neither of them would forget the other. Lady Layan Kaishi had once been Commander Layan of the Third Legion, before she came to rule a prosperous little town at the outskirts of the Hungering Sands.

She’d lost an arm at the siege of Laure, and not in a manner where it might be replaced, but the Legions had not abandoned her. When she’d sought a discharge and returned home to settle accounts with her family, ‘volunteer legionaries on leave’ had accompanied her. Lord Kaisha had fallen down some stairs, as had his young wife – Layan’s own age, he’d heard – whose luck in birthing a son possessing the Gift had first seen Layan given the choice of the Legions or the grave. Some of those legionaries had even returned after their terms were over, stayed on as household guards, and though the holdings of Lady Layan were not large or rich they were known to be orderly. It’d drawn people to her town, as safety always did in troubled times.

Layan had not forgotten whose help it was that’d seen her made a lady: when Amadeus had contacted her, she’d agreed to lend a hand without hesitation. It had not been an onerous favour he asked for, anyway, simply the use of one of her family mages for a scrying ritual. Sometimes the dark-haired man wondered if anyone aside from Eudokia really grasped the sheer number of veterans he’d settled across the breadth of Praes. Most of them were not lords or ladies, of course – a campaign to stack the nobility with his veterans would have caused rebellion – but he’d seen to their livelihoods. Appointments in the local bureaucracies, free land leases in the Green Stretch, cushy posts in city guards or advantageous trade permits.

The Legions of Terror had bled for him across a dozen fields. Amadeus would not let their legionaries tumble into destitution after they left the ranks. And now, in his own time on need, he had found many doors still open to him. It was not the same as when he had been able to call on the Eyes, when Eudokia and Ime had left no stone unturned and council unheard, but he’d learned he still had friends in many places. Not a net of them, but it was better that way. Ime would have been able to infiltrate an organized apparatus, but she could not track entire decades of friendships and loyalties forged through two wars. So long as Amadeus remained quick and careful, so long as he kept moving, the Eyes would stay one step behind. It’d be enough.

In most fights, one step’s worth of distance was all that he needed.

Layan had aged gracefully, hair threaded with silver and skin wrinkled but staying fit in form.  She’d come to him out in the sands with her mage, as the odds were good that there was at least one traitor in her keep, but when they met she had hesitated before clasping the arm he offered. Amadeus’s lips quirked in amusement. She had not been the first of his veterans to react this way.

“The beard?” he teased.

“And the grey,” Layan admitted. “Never thought I’d see you with either, sir. No offence.”

“None taken,” he said. “You’d be surprised how many reacted the same.”

She snorted.

“With all due respect, sir, no I wouldn’t,” Layan said.

For all the levity, her eyes had sharpened when he’d mentioned others. She hesitated, then spoke again.

“Is it true?” Layan asked. “That out west you made a claim on the Tower?”

“Rumours fly far and swift, I see,” Amadeus noted.

“Rashan up north was a captain in the Fifth,” Lady Layan said. “His kid and one of mine are married. Lady Salah’s husband, out in Jubar, he’s the brother of the Second’s last quartermaster. We talk, sir. And not just us. There’s a lot who came home after the wars who’re still around. And a lot of us who have kin in the Legions and the Army.”

It still filled Amadeus with a rueful sort of pride, every time he heard the army raised by Istrid’s daughter and his own spoken of as a peer to the Legions he’d given so many years of his life to.

“I spoke words at the Peace of Salia,” Amadeus said. “I stand by them still.”

Layan Kaishi nodded, eyes hooded in the unfolding dark of the evening.

“There’s a lot of us who’ll come, if you call,” she quietly said. “More than you know. Not just veterans and our families.”

She hesitated.

“It can’t go on like this, sir,” Layan said. “This chaos. Ashur burns our coasts and now we play parlour games pretending they’re allies?”

She spat to the side, into the sand.

“Fuck that,” Layan cursed. “And whatever the Hells is happening with Sepulchral up north should have been stamped out years ago, not left to burn for whatever scheme this is. The empress is getting lost in her plots, sir. Doesn’t matter she keeps winning, we’re just tired of the games.”

And in a way, Amadeus thought, those few sentences he’d just heard were the most damning a verdict passed on Alaya’s reign he’d yet to hear. Because when the Tower was losing people like Layan, who was neither rebellious nor ambitious by nature, who most wanted out of a ruler competence and order, something had gone wrong. Were you always like this, Alaya, and I simply never wanted to see it? No, he did not believe that. They had lost perspective, over the years. He as much as she. They’d spent too long sitting on high seats, forgot what the view from the mud was like. Like all empires, like all rulers, they had reached their zenith and begun to decay. Old mistakes were yet in need of mending, and Amadeus of the Green Stretch would not relent until he had laid them all to rest.

That much he owed, to all and to himself.

“I am already a rebel, Layan,” he faintly smiled.

“We can be too, if you want,” his veteran boldly offered. “And there’s enough of us we can get High Lady Takisha behind you if you toss her a few bones. It’s not just us old hands who want an end to the messes. We’ve got support.”

The High Lady of Kahtan would turn on him the very moment she felt she was in a position to claim the Tower for herself, of course. They both knew that without Layan needing to speak the words.

“Another banner raised won’t end this,” Amadeus gently declined. “But beyond your help tonight, there is something that can be done.”

Layan Kaisha was almost seventy. She’d not been in the Legions of Terror for over twenty years. And still, the moment he finished that sentence, she snapped at attention like a cadet fresh off the College rolls. Some things just stay with us, don’t they? he fondly thought. Amadeus understood. He, too, had never quite shaken the stray dog out of his bones. He still found it easier to bite than kneel.

“High Lady Takisha has gathered the nobles of the south to her court,” he said. “Do not let them disperse. Take them north: Ater is where this all comes to a close.”

Layan slowly nodded.

“So long as the Grey Eyries are rebelling and Old Wither’s holed up in Foramen, many will balk at leaving the Sands,” she said.

“The Tribes won’t move,” Amadeus said.

It was not a prediction or a promise. It was a statement of fact. Her eyes widened in surprise.

“Are they- no, best you don’t answer that,” she decided. “They can’t get out of me what I don’t know.”

It was rather heartwarming to see that the safety protocols Ranker had designed were still being kept to. Her contributions to the Reforms had been more discreet than his or Grem’s, but no less crucial for it.

“I’ll spread the word, sir,” Layan said. “We should have enough pull for it.”

And Alaya would want the nobles close, even if she lost the battle taking shape in the depths of the Wasteland. The starker her disarray, the closer she would want them to the Tower: troublesome as they would be in its shadow, it was nothing to the trouble they would make out of her reach. So even if the Eyes learned he had a hand in this, and they would, Alaya would allow it. She would trust in her mastery of the Court to triumph against whatever scheme he might have arranged.

“There’ll be a battle, before it ends,” Amadeus said, offering his arm to clasp.

“Then we’ll meet again, sir,” Layan smiled, taking it. “I still fit in my armour.”

She cast a look around, glossing over the young mage she’d brought as he requested – he had long prepared the ritual, needing only a word to begin – and casting about for another shadow in the gloom.

“I’d heard the Lady was with you,” she said, a question in her tone.

“Ranger’s out and about,” he smiled. “Checking to see if there are any rats.”

“I pity them if there are,” Layan muttered.

With one last glance they parted ways, Amadeus sliding down the side of the hill to speak to the mageling in neat robes awaiting by a simple scrying bowl laid atop a rock.

“I can begin at your pleasure, my lord,” the young man said. “Though the key you gave me is utter nonsense, so it ought to do nothing at all.”

“Then it will do nothing,” Amadeus serenely replied. “The spell, now.”

Though somewhat put out, the young sorcerer duly spoke the incantation and the spell shivered across the air. When the water’s surface rippled the mageling gaped in surprise. Amadeus’ cool stare shook him out of it, making the dismissal clear. He bowed, then ran off after his aunt into the sands. The green-eyed man passed a hand through his hair, which he decided was getting a little too long, and waited for the ripples to cease. It took nearly a quarter hour for it to happen, and only then did a face appear in the water. Deep-set yellow eyes and wrinkled skin that looked like brown-green leather swam into focus.

High Lady Wither of Foramen, formerly Matron of the High Ridge Tribe, looked highly irritated until she realized who it was she was looking at. Then her face went blank, mouth closing shut with a snap.

“Good evening, Wither,” Amadeus smiled, showing only the faintest slice of teeth. “It’s been some time, hasn’t it?”

The old goblin hissed in displeasure through her teeth, almost like a whistle. Obtaining the key to her private scrying bowl had not endeared him to her, evidently.

“Never long enough, Carrion Lord,” she said. “Come to threaten me into changing sides?”

“I usually threaten only people I intend to later kill regardless,” Amadeus noted. “Fear is a poor incentive for alliance. I suppose I could bluster a bit, if it will make you feel better about what is to follow.”

“And what’s that?” Wither mocked, flashing her teeth mockingly.

“I am going to tell you a story,” Amadeus amiably said, “and you will then give me what I politely ask for.”

“You’re getting thick in your old age, Carrion Lord,” Wither said. “My defences are fine enough Ranger didn’t even try for my life when you two passed through Foramen. You have nothing to threaten me with, and any offer you make the Tower will double without batting an eye.”

Ah, Wither. For all that she was the first Matron to truly enter the highest reach of Praesi politics, she’d yet to learn to think beyond the goblin conception of conflict. Amadeus had never attempted to lay a hand on the High Lady of Foramen because what he’d come for had been of much greater value than anything an assassination might bring about. The green-eyed man had promised his old acquaintance a story, however, and so he would tell it.

“After the fall of Summerholm, during the Conquest,” Amadeus said, “it took less than six hours for the first rebel group to form.”

Garrison soldiers and a hedge wizard that’d escaped the Fields of Streges, planning to go to ground until most of the Legions left the city and then strike out at the invasion’s supply lines while the siege of Laure began. It had been a reasoned and practical plan, in Amadeus’ opinion. He’d appreciated the professionalism of it. Unfortunately Wekesa had spared the mage on purpose at the Fields, marking him with a discreet tracking spell, so they’d all been executed after interrogation.

“Three more emerged the following day,” he continued. “Even with Scribe personally overseeing the Eyes in the city, it quickly became clear that the situation was not tenable. Sooner or later we’d miss the cabals and the push against Laure would be endangered. Something needed to be done.”

Some had suggested mass executions of former soldiers, but Amadeus had found that ill-advised. It would simply replace known possible insurgents with military training for thrice their number in grieving relatives inclined to methods of insurgency that were harder to put down. If not worse. Callowans had long proven that they were perfectly willing to torch their own towns and cities while invaders were in them, should they be pushed far enough.

“The grey’s brought rambling with it,” Wither snorted. “You’re turning into a joke, Amadeus.”

The dark-haired man’s friendly smile did not waver.

“It occurred to me, then, that fighting the inevitable was pointless,” he said. “There would be rebel cabals. This was not an issue, however, so long as they were manageable rebel cabals.”

“So you started making your own rebel groups,” Wither dismissed. “Where spies were in the ranks from the start. I know the tale, Carrion Lord. It’s an old one – have you run out of cleverness, to be boasting of tricks decades old?”

“Ah,” the Carrion Lord said. “So you do remember.”

He cocked his head to the side.

“Why, then, did you old witches believe I wouldn’t catch you out using the same trick?”

Wither’s face went blank.

“Come now,” Amadeus murmured. “Alaya never bothered to understand your people beyond the levers that could be used to move them, Wither, but I made a study of you. Did you really think I wouldn’t figure out the Tribes have been making their own traitors for centuries?”

On the surface, the goblin custom of constant backstabbing and treachery was remarkably similar to broader Praesi philosophies: iron sharpening iron, echoes of jino-waza. But that was a surface resemblance only. Goblins always preferred taking from outsiders than each other. Competition was brutal within units – within a family, a tribe, within the Tribes – but unlike the governing philosophies of Praes the Tribes did have a concept of the ‘common good’ of their kind. They could and did sacrifice, if not for each other, then for the sake of their race. When the Goblin Rebellions became losing proposition, the Matrons always made the same decision: one or more turned traitor, the rest were butchered to appease the Tower.

There must always be someone in the Grey Eyries that Ater could deal with, else the talk might turn to annihilation instead of vassalage.

“You are grasping at straws,” Wither dismissed, “your position has become des-”

“It was cleverly done,” Amadeus honestly praised. “Whoever wins the war, wherever the balance of power lies, the Tribes will gain. Either Alaya keeps the Tower and you are confirmed the first High Lady of your kind, or the Grand Alliance prevails and the Confederation of the Grey Eyries is recognized as a sovereign nation by more than half the continent.”

It had been, in that classically goblin way, a viciously executed gambit. Because whether it was Wither that was the face of goblinkind going forward or the Confederation, the ‘loser’ would have to be drowned in blood. The deception risked being found out otherwise, the truth that the Matrons had planned this entire civil war of theirs from the start and that Wither was still very much one of them.

“You have nothing,” Wither said. “Not a thimble of proof to back this, because it is complete lunacy.”

“You played it too straight, Wither,” Amadeus told her, not unkindly. “That is what gave you away. We came to Foramen and there was not a single secret line of communication between you and the Matrons.”

He saw the realization sink into her, the way her large eyes narrowed in dismay. They had overcorrected in cutting off ties entirely. The Matrons should have been secretly negotiating with Wither if this was a genuine civil war. They’d wholly cut ties because they did not want the Eyes to catch them talking and figure out the entire affair was a ploy, which had been the very detail to confirm for Amadeus that it was all a ploy. Alaya would understand it too, if it was brought to her. Wither knew that.

And so she knew that Amadeus now had his fingers around a throat: hers and all the Tribes’.

“You sat on that for more than a year,” Wither finally said. “You’ve not simply been wandering around drinking and fucking the Lady of the Lake.”

Well, he’d not done just that.

“In the spirit of our understanding,” Amadeus amiably said, “I would like to make polite requests of you.”

“What is it you want, Carrion Lord?” Wither hissed. “You’ve turned the knife enough for a night.”

“I would like you to refrain from sallies outside your territory.”

“Fine,” Wither said, with ill grace.

“I would like use of your smuggling routes into Ater.”

She began to speak, but Amadeus raised a hand to interrupt her.

“I know the Matrons’ own were closed, but also Alaya left you your own as a reward,” he said. “Don’t bother.”

Wither grunted.

“Anything else?” she mocked.

“Oh, just one last thing,” Amadeus nonchalantly said.

The friendly smile turned thin and blade-like.

“I would like every last drop of goblinfire in possession of the Tribes.”

Interlude: West I

“Terror is the hand that rips away the masks. What stays when it has stripped away all the civilized lies we tell ourselves is our truest face, ugly as it is.”

Alrich Fenne, first of the Iron Kings

Life was full of ironies, Prince Frederic Goethal had found.

Death too, he supposed, though circumstance dictated that one’s enjoyment of such humour would be severely curtailed. For this jest, however, the Gods Above were yet smiling down on them. The endless armies of the Hidden Horror had smashed themselves against the walls of the Morgentor again and again, hordes beyond counting and horrors beggaring nightmares. The last fortress of Twilight’s Pass had held back the madness, as Lycaonese grimly had for centuries, but all the world had known that it was only a matter of time until the Morgentor fell.

There were simply too many of the dead and too few soldiers to stop them, no matter how sharp the courage and tall the walls. All of Procer, perhaps even all of Calernia, had turned its eye to fortress in the frozen north where horror was yet dammed. Like a face cringing away from a blow yet struck.

Yet they had done it. Against the odds, against the night and the fear and the endless cruelty of Evil, the Morgentor had held. Towers had fallen, even the fortress itself for a time, but always the armies under Otto and Frederic had taken it back. Even now, as the morn’s light fell on the stony grounds below, Prince Frederic stood atop the tower known as the Westenhaupt and knew the living to be the masters of the field. The dead were scattered and burning, the miraculous engines known as Pickler’s Nails – picklernagel – pounding away at their retreating mass.

Balls of pitch hit the ground, tossed by spindly catapults, spilling blackness where they landed and spreading the flames everywhere. The changes goblin engineering had made here… The Dead King’s commanders had grown wary of committing beorns to the first wave of the assault, after the fourth time they died without even touching a wall. Wary! The absurdity of that old monster’s generals being wary of anything at all had been as fine wine.

It had been night and day. Even after the Hidden Horror plied fresh tricks and opened a gate into the very Hells, the lines had buckled yet stubbornly refused to break. With valour and fire, the armies of the west had held back the tide even as all the world expected them to fall. But life was full of delightful, cruel ironies and so it had not mattered. To the southeast the Hocheben Heights had fallen: the dead were now pouring into Bremen like an unstoppable tide, burning and killing as they went.

The Morgentor had not fallen but it was going to have to be abandoned, lest the dead march north and surround it entirely.

The Kingfisher Prince looked down at the fleeing dead, sword in hand and fingers tight on the grip. Two years he’d fought here. Bled here, with the hard-faced soldiers at his side. The Morgentor was hundreds of miles from the borders of Brus, but he fancied he now knew the fortress as well as if he had been born here. It was not his home, but Frederic had well thought it might be his grave before it all ended. It was… frustrating to abandon it like this. The prince knew well the strategic necessity – already it would be a hard campaign to push south through the enemy invading Bremen, to be enveloped here was death – yet what the mind knew the heart disavowed. It tasted like defeat, leaving.

It was in the soldiers around him too, he could feel it. Aid fluttered in him like butterfly wings, urging him to help but not quite knowing how. Westenhaupt was heavy on Neustrians, whose home was south of Bremen was now next to fall, but that stern lot was no more inclined to leave than the rest. Garbed in steel and iron the soldiers milled about the rampart, talking in terse Reitz and keeping an eye on the wyrms in the distance. Even Frederic’s own retinue was in a dark mood. Such a small thing, pride, but was it not the smallest of axles on which the world rested? Small wounds could kill an army if left to fester.

Yet what could he do?

“It is finished for the day, my prince. The curs will not return until they have greater numbers than this to field.”

Frederic glanced at his captain – a distant cousin of his, he’d been given to understand – who’d addressed him and nodded agreement.

“They’ll be back under cover of darkness,” the Prince of Brus said.

Even with goblin spotters, night had the living at a disadvantage. The span they’d just bought, however, would be the opportunity of their departure. The armies had been ready to decamp and march south for days, it was only the constant assaults of the Enemy that’d kept them still. A fighting retreat all the way to Bremen would be… difficult, even for veterans like these. The soldiers around them had been listening without even the pretence otherwise and a familiar officer stepped forward, Captain Fredda of the Neustrian royal army.

“It is done, then,” she said. “We will flee south?”

The question was blunt, but more importantly reflected on the faces of most around them. Aid fluttered in him still, insistent. The Kingfisher Prince looked away, down at the fleeing throng of corpses. What could he claim?

“We will be back,” Frederic said. “And so will they.”

Grim nods, but the arrow had missed. The Kingfisher Prince thought, for a moment, of what Otto would say in his place. Something stern, do doubt. They were a stern and unflinching lot, the Reitzenberg. The Prince of Bremen was called Otto Redcrown by men for the proof of that, the same stubborn charge that’d killed his father and two elder sisters before the crown passed to him and he carried it to its end. And like that, Frederic found his answer.

“It begins now, our war,” the Prince of Brus said.

That claimed their attention.

“We will march south,” Frederic Goethal said. “Through Bremen and Neustria, through my own Brus in time, but though battles await us on that path it cannot be called a campaign.”

He smiled.

“It is a muster,” the prince said. “The last muster we have in us, the last gasp of Procer. And you all know where we will strike, once the strength of the east and the west is gathered.”

The Kingfisher Prince raised his sword, pointed it east. Where, beyond mountains and lakes and clouds of poison, lay the Crown of the Dead. Keter, the Hidden Horror’s seat of power.

“You call it fleeing,” the Kingfisher Prince laughed, “but you should know better, Fredda. Today, at long last, we begin our march on Keter.”

And inside of him the wings ceased fluttering at last, a smile from Above, as all around him backs straightened and stares hardened. Frederic had not lied, after all. The dead would chase them south relentlessly, until the time came for the last battle of this war. Frederic Goethal watched the corpses fleeing below one last time, fingers tight around his sword. Doom had come for the Principate of Procer, doom as no realm of man had ever known before.

They would meet that end, the Kingfisher Prince swore, straight-backed and proud.

The blow had split open her helm.

A shallow cut, she’d been lucky, but head wounds always bled ugly. Rozala Malanza, Princess of Aequitan, ripped off the straps of her helmet and tossed it away. It was useless now anyway and shaking free her sweaty hair was a small pleasure. Irritated at the delay, she glared at the priest laying his hands on her back.

“Hurry up, would you?” the dark-haired princess bit out.

A cleared throat followed and she glanced guiltily at Louis Rohanon, the former prince of Creusens who was now her formal secretary. And something rather more thrilling, in private, though that was best kept quiet.

“It would be easier if you dismounted,” Louis mildly said.

“I’m not sure I’ll be able to get back on my horse if I do,” Rozala admitted.

Russet eyes narrowed, but he knew better than to argue against her getting back into the thick of the fight. The Princess of Aequitan was not the kind of general that shied away from the melee: it was why men followed her into the dark. She asked them to brave no peril she was not willing to risk at their side. Louis simply nodded, even though he disapproved, and she felt a sudden swell of affection. He was a wonderful lover, but she had often thought he could be more should politics allow. Perhaps even if not. She had come to suspect there might be… other considerations. The dark-haired princess laid a hand on her belly. It was still too early to tell, but there were signs.

“The Levantines are still holding strong out west,” Louis told her. “But the Red Knight sent word that the Hawk has been nipping at them all afternoon. Lord Yannu took an arrow but he still lives.”

Rozala grimaced, the Light wielded by the priest at her side finally reaching her scalp. The wound began to mend.

“Someone really needs to kill that thing for good,” Rozala cursed. “And the eastern flank?”

“Still harassed by skirmishers, but the Cleven horse is scattering them,” Louis said. “If we can push through to the south, we have our path to Peroulet.”

Where the last line of defence for the principality of Cleves would stand. How quicky the wind had turned against them, Rozala thought. But a few months ago she had triumphed at the Battle of Trifelin then resisted the siege that followed in the victory’s wake. Even the opening of the Hellgate had not been enough to dislodge her. Yet the Hidden Horror, while losing battles, had found ways to win the war. As he had done to the Lycaonese up north, he had done to her here in Cleves: when the neck did not bend, he had struck the ribs. Rozala had lost the western coast while pinned in Trifelin so and seen herself at risk of being surrounded should the city of Atandor fall.

Cordelia Hasenbach had sent the order to retreat south to Peroulet before she could even consider a stratagem to turn this around. And though part of her had wanted to fight the First Prince’s command to retreat, Rozala had known it to be the right decision. Cleves was good as lost and there would be no reinforcements coming until it was far, far too late. It had been good that she’d not dallied out of pique, for Atandor had fallen earlier than anticipated and the army that’d taken it had swung north to attack her from behind as she already led her armies into a fighting retreat. For three days now her forces had been fighting the dead in heavy skirmishes, the Hidden Horror trying to mire her out here in the open instead of behind the walls of Peroulet.

She would not give the old monster his wish.

“Find me a helmet,” Princess Rozala asked her lover. “And a fresh lance. We must pierce through, else half of us will be corpses come morning.”

“Both are already on their way,” Louis replied, ruefully smiling.

Rozala almost leaned down to kiss him, holding herself back at the very last moment. His lips quirked anyway. Rising her saddle, caressing her charger’s neck, she turned her gaze to the field in the distance. They would make it to Peroulet, that much she would swear to any Gods that cared enough to listen. After, however… That fortress would be the last holdout before the hordes of the Dead King broke into the plains to the south. And if they do then Principate is dead, Rozala thought. It was a harsh thing, to realize that she had already given all the ground that she could afford to give. The moment she raised her banner over Peroulet, Rozala Malanza’s back would be to the wall. And the terrible truth was that, beneath all the oaths and speeches, the Princess of Aequitan was not sure she could hold the city.

No, that was a lie. She knew she would lose those walls. It was only a question of how long she could eke out before she did.

Breathing out, Princess Rozala Malanza accepted the helmet her lover pressed into her hand, setting it atop the crown of her head. A lance filled her hand, familiar weight, and she looked up at the sunny afternoon sky. They must first survive today, she reminded herself, before being troubled by tomorrow.

“One miracle at a time,” Rozala murmured into the wind, and rode back to war.

The First Prince thought it would look much like this, if an empire could see the headsman’s axe coming down on its neck.

The Morgentor had fallen. Rhenia had fallen. Bremen was halfway into the grave. The sole major military force left in northern Procer, under the command of the princes of Brus and Bremen, was fighting through the horde so it could make it to the temporary safety of Neustria. Cordelia had done all she could to evacuate her people further south, into Segovia, but many had stayed. Too many. Lycaonese, she should have remembered, were a stubborn lot. They were not retreating, not leaving. They would fight the dead fiercely for every league of stone, every river, every hill and forest and muddy road. It was the old fight, the old duty. The walls must hold, lest dawn fail.

That pride might yet kill them all, and with every passing day Cordelia Hasenbach could do less to ward away that fate.

Cleves was holding better, but barely. A ring of forts had been raised along the line drawn by Peroulet, after Cordelia drew from the refugee camps for labour. Food and places on carts headed south for the families of those who accepted had earned her enough volunteers that pits could be dug, palisades raised and stones stacked fast enough it could almost be called a miracle. The First Prince knew better. If there was one thing the Principate still had plenty of, it was hands that could be put to work. The entire effort had felt much like raising a sandcastle to stop the tide, but the fair-haired princess had gritted her teeth and seen it done regardless. Despair was not worth a whistle. If Cordelia failed, it would be after she had moved Heavens and earth trying.

Even from Hainaut the news was grim. General Abigail had been dislodged from the Cigelin Sisters by an enemy offensive, though she’d retreated in good order to Lauzon’s Hollow after covering her retreat with swaths of goblinfire. The White Knight’s crushing victory at Juvelun had secured the eastern passage, for now at least, but all of Cordelia’s generals agreed it was now only a matter of time until the Army of Callow was pushed back to the old defence lines at Neustal. And once that was the case, once all that stood between Procer and annihilation was forts from the hills of western Cleves to eastern Hainaut, then it would be the beginning of the end. The Dead King would hold the shores of the lakes and be able to cross unimpeded.

Looking at the grey stealing inch after inch of the exquisite map at the heart of the Vogue Archive, Cordelia Hasenbach could almost hear the whistling sound the axe was making as it came down on the neck of the Principate of Procer.

Though tastefully clothed and as rested as she could afford to be, Cordelia could not help but feeling worn to the bone. It showed, too, in some ineffable part of her. She’d glimpsed it in her looking glass, that subtle quality that came from a tool being worked ‘til it was near breaking. Yet the fire in her belly would not let her close her eyes, not when every missed opportunity was a few hundred more of the people in her care sent to the grave. The First Prince heard the Forgetful Librarian approach, recognizing the footsteps, and afforded the other woman a questioning glance.

“Word from the Dominion just came,” the Damned said. “It worked.”

Cordelia did not hide her surprise quite quickly enough.

“They agreed to the oaths?” she pressed.

“Every major line of the Blood swore oaths that the seneschal of Levante is to hold the city until the end of the war, when the Majilis will convene to settle the succession of the Isbili,” the Librarian confirmed. “The peace-oaths were not as widespread, but the rumours the Circle seeded seem to have moved public opinion where you wanted.”

This time it was a smile she hid. Cordelia had ordered that word be spread the Grey Pilgrim had died wishing for peace between Levantines before his sacrifice at the Battle of Hainaut, which would have meant little in Procer but carried a great deal of weight in the Dominion. He had been revered as half a god, in those parts. There would still be bandits and raiders that took advantage of the chaos, but the spectre of the Peregrine’s disapproval would stay many a hand. Perhaps, if she were lucky, enough that the Dominion of Levant did not collapse into utter anarchy. Methodical anarchy, at least, she would be able to prop up for a little longer still.

Long enough that if she no longer could, it was because Cordelia could do nothing at all.

“We can turn our attention to the League, then,” the First Prince said. “Have our envoys to Bellerophon sent word back yet?”

“Yes,” the Librarian grimaced. “That they have yet to be received by the expedition’s generals.”

The Republic of Bellerophon had, to almost universal surprised, succeeded at assembling an army and sweeping over the last holdings of Penthes. Unfortunately, the victorious citizen-soldiers had then begun a siege of the city-state that they were very unlikely to be able to carry out successfully. Cordelia would have had little issue with this, had General Basilia not been leading a coalition army east with the intention of besieging that very same city only to find that there was already an army camped beneath its walls. Given that Basilia had bought dwarven engines so that she would at least be able to breach the walls of Penthes and put an end to the war she’d begun, this was a… frustrating situation.

The Secretariat of Delos had invited her to mediate a peace between the parties involved, but while Helike and its vassals were amenable the Republic was proving to be rather more obstinate. The People had voted that Anaxares the Diplomat yet lived, and so was still Hierarch of the League of Free Cities. As a consequence, it was illegal for them to receive foreign envoys. The situation in the south had therefore turned into a farce of standoff under the walls of Penthes, General Basilia having refused to give battle and instead sent war parties to pillage the Penthesian countryside. She was, Cordelia suspected, trying to earn back what she had spent on those dwarven war engines.

“Then we lean on Atalante,” the First Prince said. “If they consent, Delos could at last call a formal session of the League of Free Cities.”

The end of hostilities that entailed could be used to force Bellerophon back to its territory, given that the republic still claimed to be loyal to its lost Hierarch. If General Basilia could steal a march on Bellerophon when hostilities resumed after, she could claim the siege first and finally bring the civil war to an end. Beginning to consider how the ruling priests might be convinced to end their self-imposed isolation, Cordelia ceased when she saw a messenger come for her. She glanced at the Librarian, who snorted before taking the offered scroll for her. It was given unto her afterwards, however, and she frowned. The head of the Circle of Thorns, Louis de Sartrons, claimed he had urgent news.

And to think she had almost begun to find a silver lining to the cloud.

Cordelia wasted no time in heading towards the salon where her spymaster would be waiting. The conversation would trouble her carefully arranged schedule if it ran for too long, and she had an obligation that could not be put off later that evening, but she would have to adapt. Louis de Sartrons was not the kind of man to call anything urgent without good reason. Within moment of sitting across from him and taking a polite sip at the served tea, the skeletally thin older man spoke a sentence that chilled her blood.

“The Dead King is looking for the ealamal.”

Cordelia carefully set down the cup, painted porcelain of exquisite delicacy. She did not ask whether or not her spymaster was certain, as it would be an insult to the both of them.

“Has he found it?” she asked instead, forcing calm.

“I believe not,” Louis de Sartrons replied. “A Revenant was caught in southern Lyonis and another was seen in Lange, but the facility in Brabant has not been breached.”

It would not be catastrophic even if it were, Cordelia reminded herself. Brabant had been judged too close to the enemy, and so the weapon had been moved into southeastern Aisne.

“Destroy it,” Cordelia ordered. “We must be sure the Enemy learns as little as he can.”

“I will see it done,” her spymaster agreed, then thinly smiled. “It may very well be only a matter of time until it is found regardless of any measure, Your Highness. Unless we let Chosen see to the defences-”

“We will not,” the First Prince sharply interrupted.

She would not let the White Knight usurp control of the weapon. It had been made of the corpse of an angel of Judgement, there could be no pretence of Hanno of Arwad not becoming its master as soon as he laid hands on it – and he would, if any of the Chosen took up guarding the ealamal. The loyalty of the heroes went first to their champion, and the White Knight had already proved himself untrustworthy in the Arsenal. Cordelia would not make the same mistake twice.

“Then the best we can deliver is delay, Your Highness,” Louis de Sartrons blandly said. “And I would consider Sister Alberte’s proposal that a limited test be attempted. Otherwise we know too little of the weapon for it to be considered usable, in my opinion.”

The First Prince hesitated, staying silent. It had been the question that plagued them all ever since the Salian Peace. What would a weapon made of a fallen angel of Judgement do, if Judgement was kept silent by a madman? The Hidden Horror himself had claimed that the Tyrant of Helike had spared them all a great doom by arranging for the Hierarch to do this, and the secrets unearthed in Levant last year had borne this true in part. If the Intercessor truly could influence angels, using the ealamal would have been a mistake. It would have given that enigmatic monster power of life and death over half of Calernia. Yet with the Hierarch staying true to his course of obstruction, the situation had changed again.

If the ealamal could be used without the Intercessor’s meddling, then Cordelia still had a way to prevent the fall of Calernia. If. Only none could tell her what the weapon might do without the guidance of angels behind it, and there was no known precedent to draw on. What way but a test was there to gain an answer? A small use, limited in scope, but still a use. The First Prince was inclined to agree with her spymaster of the necessity, but it was not so simple as that. There was another crowned head whose assent must be gained before that, lest in chasing ghosts Cordelia make an enemy of the living. Catherine Foundling had not been shy in voicing her disapproval of the entire affair, and absurdly enough the Black Queen was now Cordelia’s closest and most important ally.

“I am to speak with the Black Queen tonight,” she finally said. “The subject will be broached.”

“That is all I can ask, Your Highness,” Louis de Sartrons said, bowing his head.

The parlour had been refurbished from floor to ceiling when it was first dedicated to a new purpose, that of serving as the scrying room the First Prince of Procer would use to speak with the Queen of Callow. An entire wall had been covered by a beautiful silver mirror while the plush sofas had been replaced by a beautiful yet severe set of Lycaonese armchairs and tables. Bureaus had been filled with papers which might be of use in discussion, the latest reports and predictions, while the walls were covered with maps and tapestries. Every detail had been tailored according to what her agents believed to be the preferences of Catherine Foundling.

Though Cordelia doubted their common amiability could be traced back to these changes, it had to be said that at least the change of furniture had ensured that the Black Queen would no longer eye the more elaborate Alamans furnishings with barely veiled disdain. The First Prince was in some ways rather amused by the other royal’s disdain for luxuries, considering that for all her severe inclinations she was likely one of the wealthiest women in all of Calernia these days.

The First Prince of Procer poured herself a cup of mead and set the pitcher down on the table before slipping into the armchair – discreetly made more comfortable with cushions – and allowed herself to take a sip. Unlike the Black Queen, who usually guzzled wine as if it were water while they talked, she moderated herself. It made it all the more frustrating that the drink usually came to redden her cheeks before it did the other ruler’s, to be frank. Before she had even set down the cup, the surface of the mirror before her rippled. It took a moment for the wizards of the Observatory in Laure to bind her to the Hierophant’s spell in Praes, but hardly more than a few breaths.

On the other side of the mirror the Black Queen, looking as tired as Cordelia herself felt, offered her a lopsided grin.

“Your Highness,” Queen Catherine of Callow said.

“Your Majesty,” First Prince Cordelia of Procer replied.

Catherine Foundling could be striking on a good day, but this did not seem to be one of them. Her clothes were ruffled, her expression drawn and there was no sign of the ruinous charisma that had drawn so many to her causes – fair and foul. The cloth covering the eye she’d lost in Hainaut was slightly askew, which made her shark cheekbones stand out more than usual. Cordelia almost wished she had not taken the time to put on a fine dress in Rhenian blue herself, but only almost. Even if Foundling noticed the difference between them, which a slight frown told Cordelia she had, the queen was was always easier to deal with when the Lycaonese princess was dressed becomingly.

The Black Queen’s wandering eye was well-know, and Cordelia had not gotten where she was by refusing to use the arrows in her quiver.

“A trying day?” the First Prince asked.

The tanned woman – even darker of skin, now that she campaigned under the Wasteland sun – barked out a laugh.

“In a way,” the Black Queen said. “I have what I came for: High Lord Sargon’s granary and his treasury are secured and ready to be moved. I can begin heading south for a decisive battle.”

“A great victory,” Cordelia said, meaning every word.

The city of Wolof was famous even in her native Rhenia, known as a great fortress that’d broken the same armies that had taken Ater and brought down the Tower. That Foundling had beggared it without even having to storm the walls or losing more than a handful of men was the kind of feat a reputation could be made of, were the Black Queen’s own not far beyond such tales nowadays.

“So they tell me,” Catherine Foundling tiredly said. “Akua Sahelian left my camp two days ago. Our spies in Wolof tell me she has entered the Empyrean Palace.”

Cordelia, knowing the Doom of Liesse to be a thorny matter, took a sip from her mead as she chose her words.

“Her desertion is as you predicted,” the First Prince said. “And planned for.”

The other woman winced.

“If I might give you a word of advice?”

Cordelia cocked a brow but nodded.

“I wouldn’t ever say anything that could be construed as a variation on ‘just as planned’,” the Black Queen said, and she seemed completely serious. “That never ends well.”

The blonde princess leaned back into her seat. It was absurd enough advice, on the surface, but it was no fool giving it.

“One of the obscure rules of… Named, I take it,” Cordelia said, deciding using Chosen or Damned would be undiplomatic.

“More for villains than heroes,” the Black Queen said, “but it’s best steered clear of across the board. Sharp irony tends to ensure.”

“I will keep it in mind when dealing with Named,” Cordelia replied.

It was useful information and there was no denying that in these matters Catherine Foundling was a great deal more learned than Frederic Goethal, who Cordelia had attempted to learn from only to find his knowledge of the affairs of Chosen to be rather shallow. The likes of the Peregrine and the Black Queen seemed, unfortunately, to be quite rare.

“Might be useful for you to keep in mind period,” the queen drawled.

“While I appreciate the implicit compliment, I am not Chosen,” Cordelia flatly said.

The other woman leaned back into her seat, inside that campaign tent of hers. She took up a goblet of what looked like that truly horrid orcish liquor – aragh – and knocked it back, offering a toothy smile afterwards.

“Maybe not right now,” the Black Queen said. “But I wouldn’t bet on that staying true forever. Vivienne tells me you’ve gotten Levant back into a semblance of order.”

The heiress to Callow would have read the report earlier. It seemed an odd change of subject, but likely wasn’t. These little detours were a staple of conversation with Catherine Foundling, she had learned.

“Lady Itima’s contributions were key,” Cordelia said. “But I will agree that the Dominion has somewhat stabilized.”

“Yeah,” the Queen of Callow drawled, rolling her eye. “I’m sure Itima Ifriqui was the one who came up with that oath and propaganda plan. Seems right up her alley, that play.”

Cordelia’s lips thinned.

“You have a point, I imagine?”

“You got Levant in order,” the Black Queen said. “You’re keeping Procer from falling apart and taking the lead in the fight against the Dead King. There’s a title for someone who does that, Hasenbach.”

Ah, were they now dispensing with titles? Foundling usually on began that a few drinks in.

“Is there?” the First Prince replied, skeptical.

“Sure,” Foundling shrugged. “Warden of the West. What a fun coincidence that you happen to already bear it.”

“That door lay open before me once,” Cordelia coldly said. “I did not step through the threshold. It is not a choice I regret.”

“You didn’t take the Name, maybe,” the Black Queen said. “But the Role, you made it yours anyway. There’s not a pie west of the Whitecaps you don’t have your finger in. Might take a year, might take twenty, but Creation will answer to the truth of that.”

She smiled, looking fearsome and sympathetic both.

“You can swim against the river all you like, Cordelia Hasenbach,” she said. “It won’t get tired before you do.”

The genuine sympathy in the other woman’s voice made it a harder blow than if she’d been cruel. It sounded like something she truly did believe. And though this talk of Name and Role was… esoteric, there seemed to be some manner of logic to it. However tortured. And though you are a madwoman, Catherine Foundling, Cordelia thought, you might just be the cleverest madwoman alive. This was not an assertion to be lightly dismissed.

“I will heed your warning,” the First Prince said, politely calling the subject to a close.

Foundling nodded, looking almost nonchalant. She was… loose tonight, Cordelia decided. Less controlled than usual. And for all her drinking and seeming carelessness, the Black Queen usually kept close mastery of herself. This, though, seemed unguarded.

“Does Sahelian’s betrayal truly trouble you so?” the fair-haired princess quietly asked. “You told me of its coming months ago.”

“It stings,” Catherine Foundling artlessly confessed. “I didn’t think it would. Wasn’t sure it would, maybe.”

“And still you went forward with this scheme,” Cordelia said. “Why? There are less convoluted ways to take revenge, Foundling. And I did not question your plans, for this is an affair of Named and Callowan besides, but I will admit I find what I know of this to be baffling.”

The one-eyed queen’s lips quirked. That had, somehow, pleased her to hear. She truly took as compliments the strangest of things.

“It’s not just about revenge,” the Black Queen said. “It’s… hard to articulate.”

Cordelia was not so sure. She thought it might instead be that it was the simplest thing to articulate in the world, but that the queen across the mirror would resist speaking those words to the bitter end. It was a shocking thought, that Catherine Foundling might have affections for the woman that’d destroyed Liesse, but in a way fascinating as well. Cordelia was not certain whether it was the tint of tragedy to the whole affair or simply that she had never before met someone with such spectacularly terrible taste in women before, but the perhaps the truth lay somewhere in the middle.

“A strange revenge indeed, to return her home and to the Tower’s service after having been one of your inner circle,” Cordelia mildly said. “Unless you have sabotaged her prospects?”

The Black Queen grinned, a vicious slice of ivory.

“Oh, not at all,” Catherine Foundling said. “She is going to get everything that she ever wanted.”

The queen poured herself another cupful of liquor.

“But that’s the thing with Praes, see,” she continued. “You get whatever you want, but never the way you want it.”

“It is your campaign to lead,” Cordelia finally said. “And I cannot gainsay your results so far.”

“It’ll be a battle next,” Foundling opined. “A convergence. The fate of Praes going forward is going to be wrestled over. And after that…”

“Ater,” the First Prince completed.

“It ends there,” the Black Queen said. “I’ll get it done, Cordelia. I know the stakes. I’ll muster the East and we’ll come with its full array of war.”

And the truth was that the First Prince believed her. Because the two of them had grown beyond enmity, even as enemies, and though they were not friends – would never be – a trust had grown between them. You could only share the burden of the world on your back with someone for so long before you took to them, even a little.

“We don’t have long left,” Cordelia quietly admitted. “We are giving ground on all fronts now. And the southern principalities are beginning to buck my authority, slowly but surely. I expect there will be defections before you return.”

There was only so long people were willing to have the lifeblood squeezed out of them to support a war they’d never seen with their own eyes. And though Cordelia had pushed through the Highest Assembly measures that would buy the realm a few more months, the hard measures she’d relied on to see it done had made her enemies.

“You’re keeping up the sky with your back, Hasenbach,” the Black Queen replied, tone oddly gentle. “I don’t expect the impossible of you. If it were anyone else in your seat, this war would already be lost.”

“We might lose it anyway,” Cordelia said, and hesitated.

It was now, she thought or never.

“The ealamal,” the First Prince said. “I want to find out what it does with Judgement silenced. In case…”

In case they lost the war, she left unsaid. The Black Queen grimaced.

“You want a test,” she said.

Cordelia nodded. Added nothing more.

“Fuck,” Catherine Foundling cursed, leaning back into her seat.

There was a long moment of silence.

“Crows take me. Do it.”

Chapter 11: Descent

“Loyalty is not opposite of betrayal, but in truth adjacent: to truly place a person or principle above all others is to promise injury to a thousand others.”

– Extract from the prisoner’s memoirs of Princess Eliza of Salamans

My soldiers cheered as I rode back into camp.

I’d had a party waiting for me shortly outside the gates, led by Vivienne herself. She’d pulled me in tight for a hug, to my surprise and pleasure, before we took the saddle and headed away from the prying eyes atop the walls of Wolof. I’d expected there to be something of a strange mood in camp after I’d spent a sennight in captivity, but if anything my sudden return seemed to have been expected. Like I’d been a given that I would pull a trick, find a way out of the pit. It was as once oddly touching and brute burden. Sooner or later, I thought, I would lead them to a doom there would be no bearding. The thought of the look on their faces then had my stomach dropping.

It wouldn’t do to return grim-faced, though, so I smiled and laughed and stopped to speak with men and women I recognized. There were more than I’d expected. The First Army had pulled heavily from rank and file of the Fifteenth, back when it’d been first raised, and in some ways it had seen less action than other parts of the Army of Callow. There were fewer holes in the ranks here than there would have been in the Third or the Fourth.

When I first got to my tent it was to a warming sight: all of my closest companions had gathered there. Gods, even Pickler had come and it was even more of a chore to pull her away from her work since Robber had died. Akua kept to the back, tactfully keeping away from Vivienne, but I found her eyes and inclined my head. I’d speak no more of it for now, but I’d not forgot whose scheming it would be that got me out of that cell. Scribe was keeping her company, anyway, another whose presence surprised me. Wine was poured, though little of it – it was before Noon Bell – and I was asked about my time imprisoned. There was a great deal of outrage when I explained I’d pretty much lived in the lap of luxury, with good wine and interesting books.

“It figures even in a cell you’d stumble into a better bed than us,” Indrani complained.

“Even got to maul Malicia twice,” I cheerfully added.

I had a thousand questions to ask them, but before getting to it I wanted a wash and a change of clothes. Pretty as mine were, I wasn’t going to keep wearing what my foes had given me. Masego insisted on inspecting me for illness or enchantments, which I agreed to once I was clean from the dust of the road, and most of them took the hint that I wanted to wash immediately. Hakram lingered, no doubt to brief me on all that I’d missed, but to my surprise so did another.

“A private word, if you please?”

I eyed Scribe with surprise. Over the length of our association she’d made it a point to avoid getting Adjutant out of the room whenever she reported to me, as if to make it perfectly clear that she was not trying to usurp his position at my side. I doubted she would have broken that custom without reason, so I slowly nodded before glancing at Hakram.

“We’ll talk before the evening council,” I said. “I need to be caught up.”

“And more,” Hakram gravelled. “The envoys.”

Ah, that. Yeah, it made sense the orcs wouldn’t begin the journey back to the Steppes until I was out of Wolof. Not only had we been meant to speak again but there would be no point in making a deal with me if I were to stay Malicia’s prisoner.

“Bring in Vivienne for that, then,” I said.

“I’ll see what can be done,” the orc drily replied.

He gave Scribe a nod before taking his leave, limping away on his iron leg. That left me alone with the Webweaver in my tent, for the first time in what must have been ages. I poured myself a cup of water with lemon slices in it, asking if she wanted one with a cocked eyebrow. She declined, standing rigidly before my desk. I still couldn’t see her face in more than small glimpsed, always half-faded, but from the way she held herself I would have thought her nervous – or at least as close to it as a woman like Eudokia ever came.

“Now you’ve got me curious,” I admitted. “This isn’t professional, is it?”

“Not entirely,” Scribe admitted. “I would like to make a request of you.”

My brow climbed up. That would be a first. I’d sometimes wondered if there was still a woman under the Name or if she’d died when the Calamities had split.

“What about?” I asked.

I wouldn’t accept or decline without knowing more, but I didn’t actually believe that’d been what she was baiting with her lack of elaboration. She was, I was growing certain, genuinely uncomfortable having this conversation. Was it about Black? No, we’d talked of that before. Of loyalties. It wouldn’t make her like… this.

“You still have in your possession the corpse of the soldier that Marshal Nim possessed,” Scribe said.

“Marshal Nim can’t possess shit, Scribe,” I amiably said. “The Black Knight did that.”

Neither of us were particularly comfortable matching that Name to anyone but Amadeus of the Green Stretch, but best we got used it. I did not think it likely he would ever resume his old Name, which meant that even if Marshal Nim survived the tussle over the fate of Praes someone else would step in and fill those shoes. Scribe conceded the point with a nod.

“I would like for it to be passed into my custody,” Eudokia the Scribe said.

I blinked. That, uh, hadn’t been what I was expecting. I wasn’t sure what I actually had been expecting, but it was emphatically Not That.

“Masego’s studying it,” I finally pointed out.

Or at least he’d been doing so when I’d been captured. It’d been too much to hope he would be able to give me the aspect that’d done this, but I wanted at least an understanding of the mechanics involved.

“He believes he has already learned all he can,” Scribe said. “I believe he would be amenable to closing the matter, should you ask him.”

Huh. She wouldn’t even have needed to spy on him for that, I reminded myself. Zeze considered her like an aunt of sorts, he would have simply told her if asked.

“So I feasibly could give you the body,” I acknowledged. “And we’re going to walk right past why I should – for now anyway – to ask instead why you’d want that corpse in the first place. What are you going to use it for?”

She had to know I’d ask, I thought. I was not exactly known for my policy of handing over dead bodies to Named without asking questions. She had to have known, and still she hesitated before answering. That was fascinating to me, given who I was dealing with.

“I want to Inscribe it,” the Scribe said.

I swallowed a grin. Oh my, that’d definitely been an aspect. I was finally getting a peek at the juicy secrets of the Calamities, was I?

“And what does that do, exactly?” I asked.

“When I first began to us the method,” Scribe quietly said, “it was little more than a trick. I could make my words… weigh more than those of others. Make them linger where they were written.”

But tricks improve, I thought, and this one she’d refined until it became an aspect.

“By the time I met Amadeus,” Scribe said, “I could make eyes and ears of vermin. Sometimes I could even Inscribe instructions onto others that they would be beholden to obey.”

I calmly set down my cup on the desk. Living people, living creatures. Yet she was now asking for a corpse.

“You can make corpse-puppets,” I said. “And the higher quality the corpse, the better the results.”

“The first one I made was a puppet,” Scribe said, and I glimpsed a faint smile. “Little better than undead. Yet when I was destroyed, I retrieved the corpse and found that what I had inscribed could be retrieved. That there was more. The inscription had changed. I used the changes, and so the second was… something more.”

I breathed out a soft, incredulous laugh as it all fell into place.

“Gods Below,” I said. “You madwoman. You actually made a Named, didn’t you? By fucking accident.”

“We began calling him Assassin after the fourteenth iteration,” Scribe told me. “Wekesa helped me with the inscriptions that made it coherent enough for sapience, based on the contract Tikoloshe was bound by. Quickly enough we realized that the primary limitation was the quality of the base material. Most bodies could only carry part of the inscription before they began to wither. “

“So you used dead Named,” I said.

Assassin had died over the years, I thought. Dozens and perhaps even hundreds of times. And every time the Scribe had retrieved the corpse, ripped out the inscription and shoved a refine version into another dead hero’s corpse. Gods, had that been what my father did with all the Callowan heroes he’d nipped in the bud? Dropped them in some crypt, stashed away until Eudokia needed more materials? I was as appalled by the desecration as I was impressed by the brutal pragmatism.

“This one was possessed by a Black Knight,” Scribe said. “I will only be able to Inscribe seven parts in ten, at most, and there will be need for extensive… surgery so the resulting entity has a human silhouette. But he would be a match for the Assassin we were using in the decade prior to the Conquest, by my estimation.”

I could think of a way or two to use such an asset, I thought, but I still far from sold. It would, for one, not be my asset.

“How much control on the entity do you have, after you Inscribe him?” I asked.

“It cannot refuse a command from me,” Scribe said, then grimaced. “I fear you do not fully understand, Queen Catherine. I do not simply write words on dead flesh when I do this. I give of myself. It is the wholeness of the aspect. He cannot act against what I make of him, because there is nothing else to the entity.”

When I had fought Akua in the depths of Liesse, when I had passed through the Fourfold Crossing she laid out before me, I had glimpse of a life in which I had kill the Assassin. Goblinfire had done it, masses of it. It’s not a metaphor when she says she invests her aspect, I realized. It’s physically in the corpse. Practically speaking, it was probably why the construct could mimic Named abilities to some degree. The ‘Assassin’ wouldn’t have aspects of its own, but it wasn’t just flesh and power either. Not exactly. So if the body’s destroyed with goblinfire or demons it probably ruins her aspect too, I decided.

“Does Malicia know?” I asked. “Ranger?”

“Ranger does,” Eudokia said. “Malicia does not. She is aware that Assassin has ‘died’ in the past, but believes him to be a manner of wraith possessing bodies.”

Which wasn’t even entirely wrong, as tended to be the case with the best lies. Huh. That would be a trump card up our sleeve dealing with the empress. Which was probably why Scribe figured I might agree to let her make it. And it wouldn’t be a real Named, I thought. That had implications, considering the other opponent I was facing here in Praes. An entity with some of the abilities of Named but who could not be manipulated or predicted the way they could? That was a rather more tempting offer than just another knife to pull on the Dread Empress of Praes. The trouble remained, of course, that in the end it wouldn’t be my sleeve that card was up in. It’d be Scribe’s tool, and Scribe’s loyalty to me was not on solid foundation.

Her enmity with Malicia was very real, though, I judged. It was what she’d broken with my father over. And she despised the Intercessor as the architect of Sabah’s death. Could I trust her, though, to use this almost-Assassin to match those threats instead of pursuing her own goals? I took my cup, sipped at it for a bit as I felt her study me.

“And what do you want to us the thing for?” I asked.

“I would like to assassinate Malicia,” Scribe frankly said, “but I recognize that there are political realities and that the Tower is likely too well-defended for an incomplete Assassin. Instead I would commit him under your command to offensive operations against her cause.”

That was believable enough, but why would a lie from the Webweaver’s mouth would be anything else? Best to be blunt, I decided, and avoid misunderstandings.

“I’m not comfortable with giving you that kind of power when you have no personal loyalty to me,” I honestly said. “Especially when we’re in Praes. And while I don’t doubt you could grant me partial control, I don’t have the time to handle that on top of my other responsibilities.”

To my mild surprise, she nodded without seeming particularly offended.

“I understand,” she said. “In other circumstances I would have offered that Adjutant be placed in stewardship over the entity, but given his coming departure I would venture that Vivienne Dartwick is now the best candidate.”

First my right hand and now my successor. She’d picked the names well, couldn’t deny that.

“And you’d surrender part of the control without argument?” I said, somewhat skeptical.

“I recognize the investment in trust and resources you are making,” Scribe calmly said. “I will not pretend offence, though I will remind you I can do significantly more damage to the Grand Alliance with a few letters bearing your fake signature than a dozen Assassins.”

I was not unaware of that, but ‘I didn’t cut your throat with this knife’ wasn’t much an argument for giving someone a sword either.

“So what is it you do want?” I pressed.

“The right to brief Princess Vivienne on operational opportunities and present targets of my own,” Scribe immediately said.

Ah, there it was. Even after she’d been evicted from leadership of the Eyes here in the Dread Empire by Malicia’s own spymistress, the Webweaver still had more spies here than Callow did. That meant she’d be able to indirectly guide what we used Assassin for by simple dint of often having better information than we did. I hummed. She could also simply go back on her word and use the entity for whatever the Hells she felt like doing, of course, but that wouldn’t be like her. And though you might yet betray me, I thought, even if you do it will be to Black. I simply couldn’t believe he’d order her to use something like the Assassin on anyone dear to me.

“Hierophant will supervise,” I finally said.

As much because I wanted someone I trusted in that room as because if I robbed him of the opportunity of witnessing that he’d sulk at me for months. Even through the aspect I saw a surprisingly girlish smile light up Eudokia’s face, as she eagerly agreed and began to thank.

I could only hope, I thought, that I had not just made a grave mistake.

The gold and grain began reaching us half past Noon Bell, after I’d washed and Masego had declared be to be in the fullness of health.

It was only good sense to check the merchandise when you bargained with Praesi, so I unleashed Zeze and Akua on the goods while I got caught up with my informal council. There’d been next to no skirmishing in my absence, as it turned out, and Juniper believed what few blows had been traded to have been accidental. Patrols running into each other by happenstance, nothing intentional. As I’d expected it had been Akua – with Vivienne along for formal authority – who’d conducted the negotiations that’d pressured Sargon into my release. High Lady Takisha had been most eager to get her hands on the Sahelian library.

Akua had even tied up the affair neatly by ensuring the three tomes she’d sent south as proof that we did have the library were precious enough the High Lady of Kahtan wouldn’t be too miffed by our ending the negotiations. It was a nice touch, and I told her as much.

Sepulchral had been handled more by Vivienne, though, and there the talks had been rockier. Not for any misstep on my heiress’ part, but because Abreha Mirembe had wanted more than simply the arsenal the Sahelians kept in their vaults: she’d wanted a formal alliance between us, as well as the backing of the Grand Alliance. Vivienne had put her off by saying we couldn’t agree to that without the First Prince’s permission and the backing of all four remaining great lines of the Blood, which Sepulchral had recognized for the putting off it was.

“She warned us that the time for sitting the fence is coming to an end,” Vivienne told me. “That the civil war will be coming to a close soon, one way or another.”

“Or another yet,” I mildly said.

High Lord Sargon hadn’t been wrong, when he’d implied that Sepulchral was about as trustworthy as a hungry tiger. I’d been happy to throw her the occasional bone so far because she was a thorn in Malicia’s side, but I was not enthused as the notion of Abreha Mirembe holding the Tower. She’d probably hold off on backstabbing us until the end of the war on Keter, I figured, but she’d be trouble in the years that followed. Dread Empress Sepulchral would have no real interest in reforming the empire into something less poisonous to everything it touched, and I honestly suspected that she’d pull out of the Liesse Accords at the first opportunity.

That was not acceptable to me.

“We will need to take inventory of the coin and grain as they come, Catherine, but I believe in both cases our expectations were lower than the reality,” Aisha told me. “Wolof’s treasury, in particular, appears to have been fuller than we thought.”

“My cousin has been sacking the hinterlands of Askum rather relentlessly,” Akua noted. “It would not be surprising that he aimed to steal wealth along population.”

That or Malicia had been propping up his reign with gold. As had been pointed out to me last year, given that she still drew taxes from most of Praes, half her army was gone and most foreign markets were closed to her the empress was actually sitting on a lot of gold she didn’t have that many uses for. Solidifying the position of the High Lord she’d soulboxed would have been a good investment for her.

“How much are we talking, Aisha?” I asked.

“If the wagons are all carrying the same amount of coin, we would be looking at around a million aurelii,” the Staff Tribune replied.

I let out a low whistle. In the year after Second Liesse, when the shock of the second largest city in all of Callow and the crisis that’d followed was still hitting us the hardest, my tax revenue for the entire Kingdom of Callow hadn’t actually been much higher than that. I let that sink in for a moment.

“Well,” I finally said, “I suppose that makes up for the ransom money being stolen back.”

That got some smiles, the good mood infectious. It’d been a long while since out treasury had been quite so full.

“We’ll give a cut of the loot to Razin and Aquiline,” I decided. “As they helped us take it.”

Maybe a tenth? Much like my own countrymen Levantines tended to get pissy about anything they saw as charity – the pride of our fellow poors, I amusedly thought – so I might have to end up calling it an early wedding gift. The gold ought to help them strengthen their position in Levant after the war, too, assuming we all made it there.  I would repay my debt to Tariq Fleetfoot in full, one bite at a time.

“So who was it that tried to rescue me, by the way?” I asked.

“Indrani led the attempt,” Vivienne said. “But Masego, the Silver Huntress and the Barrow Sword went as well.”

I let out a small whistle. Not a bad lineup, for a jaunt like this. I’d have to ask Archer how far she’d made it, for Sargon to find it worth filling my cell with guards.

“I suppose I ought to encourage that,” I drawled. “And since we’re rich, we ought to throw a feast before all the gold’s gone. Tonight.”

“A fire?” Juniper asked, leaning forward.

“It’s been too long,” I agreed.

My soldiers would get rewards of their own, extra rations and ale casks being broken out to celebrate our successful ‘siege’ of Wolof, but tonight I’d share a fire with my friends.

We did it proper.

Akua found us a good place, slightly away from the camp but not too far. Indrani and Hakram dug the pit, Vivienne got the benches and Pickler started the fire. I went with Aisha to obtain a few drinks – some of them smuggled, but we knew those tricks – while Juniper began to roast the pig. Masego rustled up a few wards, just in case, and we got old Legion cooks to make us a pot’s worth of the old staples from the War College. By the time the sun came down, we’d claimed our hilltop and seats as Juniper began cutting into the pork and the usual haggling began.

“I am a princess, nowadays,” Vivienne attempted. “Of Callow, too. Arguably-”

The rib chops were dropped unceremoniously into her plate as I cackled along with Indrani.

“This is borderline treasonous,” Vivi whined. “What do I have to do to get a shoulder cut?”

“Be named Aisha Bishara,” Hakram drily noted.

“It’s a little sad when being royalty doesn’t even get you on the right side of nepotism anymore,” I said, but then I caught Juniper’s hard stare being turned on me, “-is what I would say if I shared her opinion, which is obviously wrong.”

I got a satisfied nod for that, letting out a breath for that. I’d gotten used to juicy tenderloin cuts, I wasn’t going to let pride get me demoted back to chops. After we’d gotten our plates filled according to the arcane and mysterious system Juniper had developed over our years of companionship – Zeze got downgraded to leg for having suggested using a magical fire while Indrani got bumped up to fillet for having actually listened during briefings for a whole week – the bottles got opened the drink flowed freely. Aragh and ale, mostly, but some wine too. Nok pale for Akua, to Aisha’s profuse mockery, and Vale summer wine from my personal stock.

It was a reality that invitation to these little fires had come to be seen as a prize, a mark of favour from the Black Queen and her inner circle, so while I wasn’t going to spoil the whole thing I’d made some concessions to the inevitable. People came by, staying for a time before leaving. Razin and Aquiline were first, curious to try pork cooked in the orc way, and though they wanted to hear of my captivity at first the ended up spellbound by a tale Aisha told about ancient Taghreb legends that claimed her people had some kinship with those of Levant, that they’d been brought west on great ships by strange and cruel gods. It was why Taghreb disliked ships to this day, she told them.

I thought it more likely that the whole living in a desert thing had inspired a healthy dislike for seafaring, but what did I know?

The older Named came by, after that, and with them both Grandmaster Brandon Talbot and General Zola. The Refuge crowd, Silver Huntress and the Concocter, kept close to Archer. Akua caught the latter’s interest by speaking about some of the potions her family had accrued over the years and they ended up in an animated discussion in what I believed to be tradertalk, but Alexis the Argent and Indrani mostly spoke to each other in stilted, stiff tones. They didn’t argue, I saw, but it was hardly a triumph of diplomacy. They’re trying, though, I thought. Or at least Indrani is.

Juniper and I got into it with General Zola, who’d fought at the Doom of Liesse under General Afolabi. She’d been a supply tribune, then, but their legion had gotten into enough a mess during the battle that it’d been all hands on deck. Pickler actually seemed to be enjoying a talk with Brandon Talbot, to my surprise, though what little I overheard told me why. Marchford had been his home long before it was my personal fiefdom, and it was Pickler I’d once ordered to rebuild the defences there. The walls had been pulled down after the Conquest, but I’d had no intention of leaving my holdings so vulnerable.

Hakram and Ishaq were quietly talking on the other side of the fire, which I considered to be a situation well in hand. The Barrow Sword saw Adjutant as a peer of sorts, and that meant Hakram could work him I ways I could not. I wanted him disposed to pitching in for the peace in Levant after the war, so preparing him for it early was important.

The last to visit were the kids, well after the others, and though I’d expected Sapan to stick to Masego’s side as a barnacle the way she usually I instead found that she and Arthur Foundling wanted to hear from me. Like the lordlings my captivity was of interest to them, but more than that they were rather excited by the way High Lord Sargon had been forced to release me even as I lay in his power.

“Look,” I said, “there’s nothing wrong with a good sword. Stabbing the right people can get a lot done, don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise, but if you want a win that lasts longer than a season you’ve got to use other levers. The stuff that actually makes the world go round.”

“Was it not your use of the Night that forced him to surrender?” Sapan skeptically asked.

“I could have stolen his treasury with Night and it wouldn’t have done a thing,” I shrugged. “The man who taught me, he was a stark believer in the victory of cleverness over power. I’m not as much of a purist – Gods know I use artefacts much more than he’d be comfortable with – but he was right that power doesn’t mean much unless you know how and where to apply it.”

“Because it was politics that forced the High Lord to bend,” Arthur Foundling frowned. “Not power.”

I nodded.

“Night let me take his library, clean out his vaults,” I said. “But I knew what to take because I knew what was important to him. The power wouldn’t have meant much without the second part.”

“The Carrion Lord taught you this?” Sapan asked, a little hurriedly.

As if she’d been going through with it before she could think better, I decided with a grain of amusement.

“He did,” I replied. “I’d say it’s a shame he’s mostly remembered for the number of Named he’s killed, but that would be ignoring the fact he probably cultivated that reputation very much on purpose.”

“He conquered Callow, ma’am,” Arthur quietly said. “They say it was the governors that did most the ugly deeds, afterwards, but he’s the one who handed it all to the Empire.”

“He’s a monster,” I calmly agreed. “But he’s also one of the cleverest men I’ve ever met, and ironically enough perhaps the best chance we have for peace between Callow and Praes in the coming decades.”

It was why I meant to see him climb the Tower, even now. I could trust my father with the Dread Empire, to curb its worst instincts and tangle it so deeply into the bonds of peace with Callow that it would not be able to free itself of them without breaking. Neither Malicia nor Sepulchral were acceptable alternatives. The trouble was that I was not so sure the man in question wanted to claim the Tower. Maybe at the Salian Peace he had, but it’d been over a year since. And the way he’d left…

The conversation strayed to lighter subjects after that and eventually we sent the kids to bed. That left only us, as it was meant to be, and a second round of bottles was opened. I clenched, suddenly, when I felt Robber’s absence like a gut punch. How many ghosts were out there, just beyond the light of our fire? Nauk. Ratface. Hune. I pulled at aragh to chase the thought away and had succeeded in claiming a pleasant degree of inebriation when I caught sight of one of the phalanges approaching Hakram to whisper in his ear. Seeing he had my attention, he gestured for us to move away from the fire and dragged in Vivienne as well. Once we were slightly away from the others, he wasted no time.

“Word from Scribe and the Jacks,” Adjutant said. “Armies are moving towards us.”

My eyes narrowed. He wouldn’t be meaning the forces under Marshal Nim, which had already been headed our way for some time.

“Sepulchral?” Vivienne asked.

He nodded.

“But more,” Hakram said. “The deserters as well. They’ve decamped from the Green Stretched and they’re in close pursuit behind the loyalists and the rebels.”

Well, it looked like I was overdue a talk with General Sacker. Half the point of becoming her patron was being warned of things like this in advance. I breathed out, trying to parse it out in my mind’s eye. The armies of the empresses would reach us weeks before the deserters were in sight, if not months, but they wouldn’t have begun to march without a reason. They wanted a piece of this too, in some way or another.

“Northeast of Askum, northwest of Ater,” I finally said. “That looks to be our battlefield.”

Deep in the Wasteland, which was bloody campaigning grounds for all involved. I wasn’t looking forward to that.

“Agreed,” Adjutant said. “And it means I can no longer delay my departure. Come morning, we must speak with the envoys and I will leave with them come noon.”

I grimaced. I wanted to refuse. I’d just come back and already he was leaving, but I knew it was not a sensible answer. There could be no replacement for Hakram, no one who would mean what he did to his people or who would know my mind as well.

“Tomorrow,” I reluctantly agreed.

He must have caught my displeasure, for he squeezed my arm comfortingly with his skeletal hand.

“We still have tonight,” Hakram said. “Let’s not spoil it yet.”

I silently nodded, and after a moment he moved away. Vivienne lingered. I looked up at the night sky, the stars spread out as far as the eye could see and the moon glaring down as a pale eye. At least these days I did not feel irrational hatred at the sight of it.

“Beautiful night,” Vivienne quietly said, looking up as well. “Moon’s almost full.”

“It is,” I murmured. “It’ll turn soon.”

Tonight or tomorrow, but no later.

Well past Midnight Bell we began winding down, the drink and heavy meal taking their toll.

Usually we would have slept there, and some of us had fallen asleep, but we were outside the camp and in enemy territory still. Wards or not, it would be a risk. So instead everyone was roused and we began making our way back to the palisades, Hakram carrying a half-asleep Vivienne on his back to Indrani’s vocal amusement. I hung back with Masego to make sure nothing had been left behind, and after he took down the wards I torched the entire hilltop with blackflame. We were mere miles away from Wolof, the beating heart of sorcery in Praes, so I wasn’t going to be taking risks. I was mostly sober by now, having tapered off drinking near the end, so I did not feel vulnerable enough to rush back. I’d intended to walk back with Zeze after he took his last look, but when he did I found that someone else had stayed behind. Atop the burned hill, a golden-eyed shade was standing among the ash. My heart clenched.

Tonight, then. I’d almost hoped it would be tomorrow.

“You go on ahead,” I told Masego.

He frowned at me.

“Are your certain?” he asked.

He could see her as well, of course. But it wasn’t Masego’s way to meddle in what he saw as the personal affairs of his friends. I breathed out.

“I am,” I told him.

And he did not ask again. Hesitantly he brushed a hand against my arm and I smiled at him. Nodding and wishing me a good night, he began trodding back to camp. I murmured it back then turned to the hilltop. I limped my way back up through the ash, falling in at Akua’s side as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The two of us stood there for a moment, looking up at the night sky. She was the one to break the silence.

“There is a place I would like to show you,” she said. “Not far from here.”

“Cityside or waterside?” I asked.

“Closer to Sinka,” she said, and her eyes asked the question again.

I nodded. It had, I thought, the weight of the inevitable to it. We made our way through the darkness, sure-footed on small and winding paths. It was beautiful, out here. The sight of the orchards touched by moonlight, dappling the ground, the lights of Wolof in the distance as we went downhill towards the Wasaliti. There was little wind but the night was cool, and the thin breeze was enough to lazily stir leaves. We’d not broken the silence as we moved, her leading and I following, but as we crossed a cove of palm trees she began to talk.

“I did not find it myself,” Akua said. “It was shown to me, when I was a girl of thirteen.”

“Who by?” I asked.

She laughed, the amusement lighting up golden eyes as I caught a flash of pearly teeth.

“Some boy who thought he might become my consort,” she said. “Alas, his hopes were greater than his charms.”

“And I bet you were just the sweetest girl,” I drily replied.

“I was not so terrible, back then,” she smiled. “Not so artless as to be taken in, yet hardly the sharpest of irons.”

She would have spoken the last part of that sentence with a touch of reverence, once. No longer. It was, if anything, disdain. But then Akua Sahelian was, in her own way, one of the finest liars I had ever seen. She had made a game out of charming my inner circle, and largely succeeded even when some of them had spent years despising her. As Aisha had once warned me, that was the famous peril of the Sahelians: they were so charming and so useful that even the cleverest let them in. And then they turned on you. So how much of it was Akua’s truly held beliefs and how much of it the face she wore when around us? There was, in the end, only one way to tell.

The crucible. Trial by fire.

“I barely remember what I was like at thirteen,” I admitted. “Feels like a world away.”

“Much like you were at seventeen, I imagine,” Akua mused. “Swagger covering vigilance, looking every gift horse in the mouth twice. And, in your own way, dangerously insightful.”

I coughed to hide my embarrassment. That was the closest she’d come to giving me a genuine compliment – one not wrapped in anything else, honest praise – perhaps since we had first met.

“And terribly easy to embarrass, of course,” she teased.

“I wouldn’t have been that easy to fluster,” I snorted. “For one, unlike you I was the one taking the boys to dark corners.”

Girls, too, but not as many. I’d tended towards boys when I’d been younger.

“And yet I’m told the redheaded mage you took as a lover had to be the one to seduce you,” Akua said.

I’d noticed that she usually avoided using Killian’s name. Or talking about her at all, really. Not that it was hard, considering most of my closest friends tended to avoid the subject. Even Juniper, who was not known for shyness or tact, had not hazarded to venture an opinion on that whole debacle.

“It’s different when it’s someone under your authority,” I replied. “I thought there was something there, but I didn’t want to…”

“Overstep?” Akua suggested.

I hummed, not disagreeing. In a way. From the moment I’d held command of the Fifteenth I had been both a villain and the apprentice of the Black Knight, both positions that in many ways made me untouchable. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to abuse my position if I cared to, and arguably I had. I’d been very much against Legion regulations to sleep with my own Senior Mage, for one, but rules applied to Named in Praes more or less only when people higher up the ladder said they did. And in my case, Black had been more supportive than anything.

“I’m also not great at taking hints sometimes,” I admitted.

“Truly?” Akua said, tone drier than a desert.

I rolled my eye at her. We swerved to the north well before reaching the shore, to my surprise, still we into the cultivate parts of Wolof’s surroundings. The side of the hill where she led me, though, was cracked. Old scorch marks still blackened the stone, from some ancient battle, and she guided me through the broken grounds until we reached a tall flat stone covered with moss. Akua passed a hand against it affectionately.

“You’ll have to help me move it,” she said.

Interest piqued, I put my back into it and we toppled the stone to the side. It revealed a narrow, uneven passage going deeper into the hill. Akua glanced up at the sky, as if checking on the height of the moon, and nodded.

“Now is the best time,” she said. “Come.”

It was uncomfortable squeezing through the passage and the stone tore at my clothes some, but aside from the burn of my bad leg there was little to hinder me. To my relief the passage led to some sort of broader room, pitch dark – not that the darkness was trouble for me, blessed by the Sisters as I was. Here I could stand to my full height, and Akua almost, but it was still small. She showed a low fold in the stone to our left, though, and after crawling for a foot or so I followed her into a small cavern. I stopped almost immediately after rising, stunned.

It was not a large cavern, perhaps twenty feet wide, and most of the ground was covered by water. The sides had been scarred by spells, like the outside, but here the heat of the spell used has turned entire swaths of stone into something like smooth glass. And what brought it all together was the long opening in the ceiling that looked up straight at the night sky: the moon and stars were reflected perfectly on the water and the walls, as if we had crawled through the earth only to somehow stumble onto a slice of firmament. Akua leaned against wall, water lapping at the stone not far from her feet, and offered me a gentle smile.

She did not say anything, or need to.

I came to stand at her side, enjoying the coolness of the stone. There was no warmth from her, either, though we were almost close enough to touch. She was yet a shade, and a shadow had no warmth to share. We stood there for a long moment, silent and unmoving, as the stars and moon ghosted on stone and water. Eventually I felt her moving closer to me, and said nothing. My stomach tightened.

“Until tonight,” Akua quietly said, “I was the only person in all of Creation to know of this place.”

I did not ask what had happened to the boy. It was Praes. I knew well what had happened to the boy who had once wanted to be consort to a Sahelian. And I knew, too, what it meant that she had brought me here. Shared a wonder and a secret with me, asking for nothing. But, perhaps, hoping. We had toed the line closer and closer, as the years passed, but the line had always been there. Tonight she had not even touched me, and still somehow it felt as if it had been crossed. I turned enough to look at her but not to invite more. She’d always been gorgeous. I’d thought as much from the first time I’d glimpsed her in that tent.

Often, though, she made a spectacle of it. Magnificent dresses and jewelry, seductive smiles and teasing words. Right now, though, I found not a trace of it on her face. I could barely even make out what she wore, save that it was a dress, and there was nothing seductive about the look on her face. It was, I thought, longing and perhaps something like hunger. There was nothing veiled about it, and the nakedness of that realization had my stomach clench with desire and something else. I did not move, either closer or further away. A moment passed, heavy, and my arm tensed as she slowly began to lean closer – eyes on mine, asking. And I answered the question by turning away, looking down at that field of stars she had stared with me. I did not see her expression. Did not let myself see it, else I hesitate.

I must carry it out to the end, even if it stung. Especially if it stung.

“Even now?” Akua quietly asked, voice ailing.

“Even now,” I got out.

“I had thought it would be different,” she whispered. “There is… I chose you over my family, Catherine. My home. Everything I’ve loved since I was a girl, save for my father – and even his death I set aside, refusing vengeance on your own for it.”

“I know,” I said, wretchedly.

But her folly had been the death of Liesse. One hundred thousand lives, every single one of them in my care. My care. Even if the Gods Above and Below had demanded of me forgiveness of Akua’s folly, it would have been the same answer. I was who I was, and in the end that was a creature of long prices.

“It’s not something you can win,” I murmured. “That’s not how this works.”

Because that was the last thing that needed to be stripped away from her so she could truly enter the crucible: the thought that if she was kind, if she was good, if she fought for the cause the two of us might have a future together. It tasted like ash in my mouth to rip that out of the unspoken between us, but it must be done. The silence stretched out.

“There is no end to it, is there?” Akua finally said. “The shadow cast by that day. No sun that will chase it out.”

I smiled mirthlessly.

“We all live in it still,” I replied.

And always would. I still avoided looking at her, oddly ashamed, and so it was in utter surprise that I felt soft, cool lips press against the corner of my mouth.

“So we do,” she said, moving away.

Her golden eyes shone. Could a shade cry? I did not know.

“I would like you to leave, please,” Akua Sahelian said.

I didn’t argue. All I could wonder was if this was the way Hanno had felt, back in the day, when he flipped his coin and it spun in the air. Before it had landed.

By morning she had not come back, as I had known she would not.