Chapter 66: Blind Pigs

“I climbed the Tower at seventeen, Chancellor, and for ten years I have held it. So before you bare your knife at my back, ask yourself this – would you really be the first to try?”

– Dread Emperor Nihilis I, the Tanner

Flat and open grounds sat before us, the earth black and musky.

The sun peeked out solemnly from behind the cover of clouds, a wet and lazy breeze licking at the skin as the summer heat saw droplets gather and slither down the armour of my knights. Hidden near the edge of a thicket of oak and poplars, we watched as in the distance as a warband of armed corpses shambled forward. They were taking the same eastward trail that a hundred other like them had, over nights and days. There’d been no need of a tracker to find that well-beaten track. There was a name, I idly remembered, for this place. There was a village not too far, a mark on a map where men had lived and a lord had ruled. It slipped my mind, despite my best efforts, but I did not grieve myself the lapse. We had fought a dozen skirmishes in as many different places since morning, and by now they were beginning to meld into each other.

“Seven hundred or thereabouts, my queen,” Sir Brandon Talbot said. “And our outriders are adamant the closest warband is the better part of an hour away.”

I laid a hand on the neck of Zombie the Sixth, feeling him breathe in and out slowly. The stallion was a pale brown Salamans zancada, a breed favoured by both leisure racers and the light cavalry that Arlesites were so fond of. A gift from Princess Beatrice Volignac, and not an inexpensive one. I supposed I did qualify as light horse nowadays, since all I wore for armour was a breastplate with tassets and upper vambraces over an aketon – and the Mantle of Woe, over it all. It was a waste to give such a fine horse to a rider as ferociously average as myself, in my opinion, especially when I usually preferred riding dead horses to live ones. Yet it would have been unmannerly to refuse it, and while the Order had remounts they were from lesser breeds so I didn’t even have a good reason to do so.

I fully expected Zombie the Sixth to die before the end of the day, though, which would properly earn him his name would solve the issue anyway. I’d seriously debated killing him and raising him before Hakram got me to admit it would be somewhat unpolitic of me.

“Then we take them,” I said. “Have the horns sounded, Grandmaster Talbot.”

“It will be my pleasure,” the bearded knight replied with a hard grin.

He pulled one-handed on the reins of his purebred Liessen charger, leading away the large horse at a trot and shouting out his orders. The knights carrying long banners, both the Order’s own cracked bronze bells on black as well as my own Sword and Crown, brought the silver-banded horns hanging around their necks to their lips and blew. One, twice, thrice. The deep call echoed across the grounds of Hainaut, giving that age-old order my people knew the way they dawn: all knights, charge. I watched, hidden in the shade of a tall poplar tree. The dead had enough Binds among them that they began to mobilize before the Order had even begun to emerge from the cover of the trees, but the warband had been spread out in a loose column for the march. They would not gather quickly enough. Split into four wedges of five hundred, two on each side of the path, my knights lowered their lances and broke into a gallop.

My staff of yew resting against Zombie’s neck, my sword still sheathed, I waited with the remounts and the squires in the woods as the Order fell on the dead like packs of wolves. It was with a twinge of satisfaction that I watched lowered killing lances, engraved with hymns to the Heavens, scythe through the thin ranks of the enemy as large armoured horses trampled the surprised undead. All four wedges broke through the enemy lines, not allowing themselves to be drawn into melee but instead punching straight through. In good order, they gathered again and wheeled around to charge anew from fresh angles. Most undead were incapable of so much as denting the armour of my knights, and this column was low on javelinmen: maybe a score wounded and fewer dead were all it took before most the Binds were dead and the warband dissolved into a disorderly mass of corpses.

From there the knights of the Order of the Broken Bell went at it with cold and practiced efficiency, using the tactics developed over years of fighting Keter. A wedge skimmed the edge of the mass of the dead, drawing the enemy forward, only for two others to flank it with deadly charges. Before a protracted melee could ensure, all three wedges withdrew and the fourth wedge of unengaged knights went forward to serve as fresh bait for a repeat of the manoeuver. Binds would have punished such a repetition, but skeletons simply did not learn from their mistakes. It was grim and bloody work that followed, but repetitive and the danger involved was not as great as might look: unless pulled down from their mount, few of my knights were truly at risk unless the enemy got lucky.

It had all been going quite well, which was why I half-expected it when horns sounded from the woods on the other side of the open grounds. There would be squires and horses in that opposite thicket as well, though I could hardly see any of them, and it must be one of their number that was blowing the call for danger – two short, sharp sounds. My staff left Zombie’s neck and I spurred him forward without a word, ignoring the squires asking after me. Talbot had named ‘officers’ among them, lead squires, so it was not my job to hold their hand. My horse’s long and certain stride took us out of the woods and slightly downslope onto the battleground even as I kept an eye on the currents there. Talbot was in command, and he’d prudently ordered two wedges to draw the skeletons away while assembling the other two to head back to the squires.

Quick as he’d been, the enemy was quicker still. Panicked horses, the remounts of a thousand knights, were led hastily out of the woods by mounted squires in mail even as screams and the sound of fighting came from deeper in. I led Zombie into a hasty gallop, trampling a skeleton that tried to stand in my way in a crunch of steel-clad hooves, and broke into the shaded thicket even as another pack of squires fled it. They parted around me, and I glimpsed shame on some of those faces. Given what I glimpsed deeper in, though, there was truly none to be had. It was a man, if one long dead. The shoddy hide armour – little more than a vest – he wore over tattered shirt and trousers did nothing to distinguish him from the zombies Keter threw at soldiers by the hundreds, but the long blood-red hair and ancient claymore were… distinctive.

He padded forward on bare feet, blood dripping from the edge of his great sword as a smile accentuated the vertical tattooed red stripes around his mouth. The Drake, we’d taken to calling him. Against a Revenant of that calibre there was nothing my soldiers could do but die.

“Retreat,” I ordered the remainder, voice laced with power.

The squires scattered to the four winds, save for one who’d been too close – the Drake approached and the girl swung down her sword at his head, but the Revenant easily stepped around it. Zombie’s stride had not slowed and my staff rose as I gathered Night around the tip, but even that was too slow. In a single casual stroke, the Drake swung down and blood sprayed as he carved through the squire and the horse beneath her. I grit my teeth, letting loose a spinning javelin of Night at the Revenant that caught him in the ribs and shredded flesh and bone. The impact smashed him into a tree, making it crack, and the hide armour was smoldering around the edges. It wouldn’t do shit to this particular horror, though, I well knew. I passed the falling halves of the dead squire, unsheathing my sword as I began gathering Night again, but already flesh and bone had knitted themselves back together.

The Drake, laughing, cracked a shoulder and wrenched himself free of the tree.

“Black Queen,” the Revenant nonchalantly greeted me. “Yours, then?”

Five times I’d tried to kill that murderous cockroach, and never managed it. Once I’d so thoroughly incinerated his corpse that all that’d been left had been a single hand, and still he’d walked out of that battlefield on two feet. Whatever it was the Dead King had done to this one, it’d made him durable beyond reason. Even wounds inflicted with Light came back in a matter of moments. His capacity to recover from damage might genuinely surpass what my body had been able to do at the peak of my time holding Winter.

“Drake,” I coldly replied, deadwood staff levelled at him. “They were. Burn.”

A howling gout of blackflame erupted from the tip, swallowing him whole before beginning to spin on itself at my direction. I heard bits of crazed laughter through even the roar of the dark fire as used my knees to guide Zombie away from the blaze. Fuck, this one was always a pain to contain. I had enough hard-hitting ranged tricks that if I could catch him at a distance he wasn’t a major threat, but I’d yet to find anything that could actually put him down for good and not for lack of trying. Time to pull out my forces and find a softer target. Zombie slowed on the turn and I leant to the side to better slam the butt of my staff against the ground, drawing deep on Night and hastily shaping it. Thin threads of darkness skittered along the ground, running up trunks and binding trees as they hooked themselves deep.

The Drake leapt out of the flames, naked and burnt but already healing, just in time for me to wrench with my will and smash him down into the ground with a dozen bound trees. I heard bones break and organs pulp, his broken body stuck under the massive weight. That ought to slow him for a span, until I could get something sterner in place.

“That-” the Revenant began, then paused to spit out a thick glob of blood, “-that was unkind.”

Of all the dead Named in Keter’s service he might just be the chattiest, and the Dead King did seem to have left him most of his will and wits. It made him more flexible – the same tactics rarely worked twice against him – but it also meant he fell more easily into distractions. Getting him talking tended to work, especially if it was about himself.

“I’ve been curious,” I idly asked, drawing on Night. “How long did it take, before you turned?”

One more working to keep him stuck there for a bit then I’d retreat. The sooner I got my knights away from him the better. It might be worth coming back afterwards to have a crack at destroying him, though, I silently considered. Better here and now than at Maillac.

“Fifty three years,” the Drake amiably replied. “Would that I had bent at forty, that last decade was… inventive.”

I knew from experience that impaling him wouldn’t work for long – his healing was so aggressive that it shredded whatever went through him by sheer pressure – and that quartering only held him so long. He’d been physically strong even by Named standards, I suspected. It was burying alive that’d worked best so far, so I got to it methodically. Shaping Night into large blades I manipulated to cut a rough cube into the ground, I then shaped another working and ripped out the loose earth as if with great claws. I’d need to drag him into the hole before burying him, though, so best get the strings spun out already. I wasn’t always quick enough to snatch him when I wove them on the fly. Still, thank the Gods I’d caught him in the woods instead of on an open field. He was much hard to deal with without terrain to use. I spun out five threads, then threw in a sixth just to be sure and thickened them, then –

Darkness fell over the woods, pure and inky black. Shit, I thought, immediately releasing all my workings. Mantle’s here too. Was this an ambush? I threw myself off my horse, ripping my boots out of the stirrups, and felt Zombie kick about in a panic. I slapped his rump with the side of my staff so he’d know to run before spinning it about, smashing it into the ground. A tremor of Night shivered across the forest floor, sending the earth I’d loosened flying in a rain that should obscure Mantle’s vision just as she’d obscured mine. My consistent inability to see through her darkness while it did not impede her was one of the many reasons I fucking hated dealing with that particular Revenant. Still, this made it two from the nebulous roster that our heroes liked to call the Scourges. It really was beginning to smell like ambush to my nose.

I’d begun to count in the back of my mind the moment things went dark and I kept it up even as I threw up an obscuring veil of Night around myself and ducked behind where I remembered to be a tree. The tree blew up a moment later, though I heard no noise and only knew because I felt the shiver and wood shards ripping into my cloak. I slid further down, closer to the roots, as something whizzed near my head, knowing a helmet would have made no difference if a curse hit but still chastising myself for the lack of it anyway. Cocky gets you killed, Catherine, I reminded myself. You don’t grow back limbs anymore. The last three beats separating me from the count of sixteen passed agonizingly slowly, but when the timing struck I was ready.

The darkness winked out, revealing the Drake halfway through a leap in my direction with his claymore raised high and his crimson hair trailing behind, but I wove a thread of Night around his foot and without missing a beat I tossed him in the direction the strike on my tree should have come from. I knew I’d got it right when something ripped through my thread a moment later. Mantle had been some sort of priestess when she lived, and in death those gifts had turned towards the use of curses. Most of them worked against Night, which meant her specialty was shredding my own workings while being twice my size and heavily armored. I liked fighting Mantle even less than I did the Drake, and with her addition to the roster this was starting to look a mite risky. If it’d been a more vulnerable pair I would have embraced an occasion to try knocking off a first-class Revenant before the Dead King could put them to even sharper use, but this wasn’t a good match up for me at all.

It was, to be frank, suspiciously bad. If Tariq or Masego had been around to counter Mantle it might have been tempted to roll the dice anyway, but as things stood… No, I wouldn’t let pride get in the way of good sense here. Our objectives for this raid were either already achieved or beyond reach, so it was time to get the Hells out of here.

I opened a gate into Arcadia about six feet behind me and twenty feet high, making it broad and linked to water: the deluge pouring out served as my cover as I forced myself up and limped away. A wave of heat followed by the hiss of vapour told me the nature of Mantle’s answer, but I did not stop to glance back. I wouldn’t outrun either of them, given my limp, and just fleeing into Twilight wasn’t acceptable when the Order would be relying on me to return there. So when I opened a gate into the Twilight Ways, it wasn’t to go in: it was to allow something out. The ghostly blue wyvern that squeezed its way through lowered its wing so I could go up it and slid me onto its back by angling it. My water portal, though, could only buy me so long.

I felt it get shredded, and a heartbeat later a wide net of crackling shadow flew towards us. On the ground I glimpsed the Drake hastening towards us, so swift-footed his claymore dragged behind him.

“Up,” I ordered the wyvern, already drawing on Night.

I detonated the air in front of the net thrice, in a broad line, but though my enemy’s working wavered it did not break. That was fine, since all I’d wanted was to slow it. The Summoner’s wyvern-thing shot up just in time to avoid the net, batting its wings to pierce through the summit of the trees, but we weren’t done yet. Dark grey clouds began to form above us in a ring, and I held on for dear life I shouted for the wyvern to bank away. It did, narrowly, and only the tip of its tail touched the clouds. I’d seen this one before and… wait, what? The tail was just fine. Fuck, I thought as I glanced down and saw the Drake flying through the air towards us. It’d been a trick, she’d been buying time to throw him.

I loosed two spinning missiles of the same make as earlier, hoping to knock him back down, but he batted one aside – the claymore was enchanted, it didn’t even get a scratch – and spun on himself to narrowly avoid the other. If we’d kept going straight we would have avoided him, but Mantle’s bluff had paid off. Gods but I hated fighting clever opponents. There was no way I was allowing myself to be forced to engage the Drake up close, much less atop a moving magical construct, so with a grimace I glanced down at the woods and breathed out before taking a leap. Hopefully the wyvern would slow down the Revenant some. I wove a veil around myself on the way down, which proved to be a sound precautions when a spray of shard-like pieces of darkness tore through the air coming from below.

I flared out my cloak to slow my fall some, letting them pass below, and only then broke the veil to form tendrils of shadow that anchored themselves on one of the rapidly approaching trees. Using those I threw myself towards the open grounds, just in time for the tendrils to be torn through by Mantle as above me the wyvern-thing screeched. A glance told me the Drake had ripped into its belly and it was quickly falling apart. The dead priestess had never unmade the second gate I’d opened, though, the one the construct had come through, and a heartbeat later she was made to pay for that oversight. A ring of dark clouds that’d been forming ahead of me – the genuine acidic version this time, I was guessing – suddenly dispersed out as Archer made her presence known.

 I heard a cry of anger, but I couldn’t see what was going on from up here. Still, given that Indrani was involved it was safe to assume that Mantle was having a bad time.

I had other priorities anyway, to be honest, though before shaping a way to slow my descent I still took the time to form a thread of Night, snatching the Drake’s foot after he leapt off the shattering wyvern-construct and throwing him deeper into the woods. It had little room for manoeuvre, afterwards, so I brute-forced the landing by smashing the ground beneath me and then using the blowback to slow my fall. I swallowed a scream as my bones rattled and my bad leg burned with pain, but I landed on my feet and only stumbled after taking three slow steps forward. I swallowed a curse and a moan of pain, picking up the sword I’d dropped to sheathe it and forcing myself up by leaning on my staff. In the back of my mind I finally felt my last portal get shredded.

Not that it mattered. From the woods ahead of me, where the Order was gathering to retreat, I saw three arrows arcs upwards in quick succession. Archer was a prodigy at sidling, she’d be able to slip in and out of this battlefield more or less at will and shoot from her pick of places. The last of the undead had gone off to chase my knights in the distance, so unless the Revenants caught up we were safe to retreat. Best hurry just in case. I wasn’t looking forward to limping all the way, but – huh. Zombie the Sixth nonchalantly trotted up to my side, seemingly unworried by the skirmishing that’d taken place since we last saw each other. The purebred zancada slowed at my side, as if inviting me to saddle up again.

“Good horse,” I praised, genuinely impressed.

Might be I’d still get some use of him living after all. I slid a boot into a stirrup and dragged myself back into the saddle, speeding away back into the woods. With Archer harassing the enemy we ought to be able to retreat in relative peace, I figured, but there was no point in wasting time.

We still had a few raids in us before exhaustion set in.

“There’s a saying in back home, Catherine,” Adjutant gravelled in Kharsum. ” It goes ‘a hunter cannot carry a cookpot’.”

I leaned back into my seat in the tent that soldiers had raised for me in the heart of the Boot, along with those of a few other high officers. Sipping at a mug of tea, I was wishing I’d taken up Indrani on her offer of a massage even though odds were that would have devolved in more strenuous activity. After most of a day riding and fighting, my entire body felt like one throbbing bruise and no quantity of herbal brew was going to fix that.

“I mean, depends on the hunter,” I mused. “But I’m guessing I’m missing some of the nuances.”

Hakram was seated in his wheelchair, but all the same he was looking rather different: he had, after all two legs again. The prosthetic leg looked grim, all grey iron and leather, but it was him who’d chosen the appearance – he’d turned down the appearance of flesh or even a more polished casing in metal. It was still closed enough I couldn’t see the enchanted strands of copper that’d been tied to his muscles, fooling his body into thinking there was still a flesh leg to use, but the articulations around the ankle could be glimpsed. Now and then he moved the foot, as if to check that he still could. He couldn’t actually walk on this, not yet. There was still need of an operation on the hip to fix the cut bones there and shore it up so the pressure wouldn’t damage his side.

This was a first step, and the operation had been done in part so see if there would be any trouble with his body acclimating to the prosthetic. Masego would have preferred starting with the arm, but Hakram had been adamant otherwise. I could see both sides. Zeze wanted to minimize the risk, as if disease or spellrot took the arm would be much easier to heal, while Adjutant knew that starting with the arm instead of a leg meant at least two more months before he could begin trying to walk with crutches. Masego had insisted on leaving time for recovery between the surgeries so the body would be strained as little as possible and the chances of rejecting the limbs were lowest. Still, in the end it was a choice that was Hakram’s alone to make.

So long as he knew the risks, it was not my or anyone else’s place to gainsay his decision.

“It is a figure of speech,” Hakram said. “Those specific words for hunter and cookpot were picked because they sound like those for swift and slow, respectively. It means even victory weighs you down, if you’re not careful.”

Cookpot, huh. We both knew it wasn’t just mutton that ended up in there. Ah, implied cannibalism. That backbone of ancient orcish wisdom.

“Not the most promising of segues after I asked you to summarize our scouting reports,” I drily noted. “Shall I take it things aren’t exactly looking up?”

“This isn’t the war to fight, if you’re looking for pleasant turns,” Hakram snorted. “And my people are still taking in reports as we speak, so take all this with a grain of salt.”

My brow rose.

“Wow,” I said. “It must be really bad if you’re prefacing this much.”

“You did exactly what you set out to achieve,” Adjutant gallantly set. “Which was provoke the columns headed towards the Iron Prince into battle here.”

“So we drew them in,” I warily said. “That was the plan. What’s the issue?”

“You drew them in,” Adjutant repeated.

I blinked.

“And?”

“You drew them all in,” Adjutant clarified. “As far as we can tell there’s not a single warband, battalion or even individual construct east of us that’s not headed towards Maillac as quick as its legs can carry it.”

I paused, glancing down at the mug of tea that was inexplicably not aragh. A shameful oversight, that.

“Well,” I faintly said. “Klaus and our reinforcements should be winning their battle handily, at least.”

I’d been a little worried that even the raids by the Order of Broken Bells wouldn’t be enough to convince Keter to keep its eye on us, that the Dead King would write off the losses and still try to concentrate his forces against the Prince of Hannoven while we bled him, but it seemed like my seasoned pessimism had come all the way around and somehow become a different kind of naïve optimism. It was almost like doing magic, I thought, except for the part where every part of this was terrible.

“I have mastered a new and terrible art,” I mused, going fishing through faded lessons on Old Miezan. “Fortunomancy, I believe it would be called.”

“That would be luck magic,” Hakram commented. “Which would be useful, and I believe is actually practiced in some parts of southern Procer under a different name. You’re looking for infelicitomancy, which would be the branch of sorcery entirely about bad luck.”

“Thank you, Adjutant,” I gravely replied. “I would offer you my blessing for your service in this matter, but I fear a lightning strike would not be far.”

“They never are, when Masego’s around,” he agreed. “Though considering we’re about to be swimming up to our necks in undead, perhaps we could do with a few more.”

I grimaced, because that was too true for words.

“What kind of numbers are we looking at?” I asked.

“Depend on how long we fight,” Hakram said. “The first skirmishers will arrive by Early Bell, we reckon, but the first assault shouldn’t come until midday. Maybe twenty thousand, for that first wave?”

We could handle twenty thousand. Even if you discounted the Order of Broken Bells entirely, it was only a two to one numbers advantage for the dead while my people were properly dug-in and ready. The trouble would be that this wasn’t the whole battle, it was just the first fucking wave. It’d get worse, much worse. And unlike the skeletons my people would tire the longer it lasted.

“Do we have an opening for retreat?” I asked.

That would be the key. If we were at genuine risked of being surrounded and wiped out – or close enough – during a retreat into the Twilight Ways then I’d have to call an early retreat. Which might be the point, I thought. The Dead King’s calling my bluff, and if I retreat now he’ll hack at Klaus’ back while having lost less than a day’s worth of march.

“Between the second and the third wave, there should be a beat of four to six hours before the enemy can gather sufficient strength to be a threat,” Hakram gravelled. “If we use our pharos device it should be enough.”

Given our very limited stock of those I was always reluctant to use them, but this was a dire situation and the Iron Prince would have several of them with his army anyway. I’d swallow the loos, considering the circumstances.

“Second wave?” I asked.

“Thirty to forty thousand,” Adjutant said. “At least. Constructs in significant numbers. And while I cannot be sure, I’d be surprised if most of the Revenants with the columns couldn’t make in there in time as well.”

So, to make it out without being badly mauled then we would need to beat two armies outnumbering us significantly in the same day, and beat them badly enough that the losses inflicted meant the enemy would not have the numbers to press us significantly while we retreated back into the Twilight Ways. We would, no doubt, also be facing the latest batch of horrors from Keter and some of the Dead King’s finest Revenants. I set down my mug of tea, my hand surprisingly steady considering what lay ahead of us.

“Well,” I smiled, hard and toothy. “You know our policy when it comes scraps like this, Adjutant. I see no reason to change it at so late an hour.”

He laughed.

“Let them take a swing?” Hakram Deadhand asked, baring sharp fangs.

“Let them take a swing,” I softly agreed. “There are still graves we have yet to fill.”

Chapter 65: Cross-Check

“Victory lies in understanding the intentions of the enemy. Therefore, a general with no intentions cannot be beaten.”

– Isabella the Mad, Proceran general

“So what is this place called again?”

“Maillac, my queen.”

I idly glanced at the man who’d replied to my question. Sir Brandon Talbot, Grandmaster of the Order of Broken Bells, had not been much changed by the war. I was often surprised by that. His once-long hair had been cut short but the beard and the strong build remained just the same as when I’d first met him, sitting in a cell where Juniper had tossed him. Many of the great officers of the Army of Callow and other hosts strained under their burden of their position, but on the contrary Brandon Talbot had taken rather well to this war. It helped, I suspected, than this was all simpler the kinds of war he’d known before – be it the Folly, where he had fought to maintain Praesi rule under my banner, or the Tenth Crusade when he’d followed a homegrown villain against invading heroes.

There was no one alive who could bring horrors to bear that would rival the Dead King’s, but for all the madness this was the kind of war that my people were most comfortable waging: black and white, no truce with the Enemy. I sometimes envied that he was not in a position to truly grasp the kind of ugly dealings necessary to keep something like the Grand Alliance afloat. A great good too often came at the costs of a hundred petty evils, like a saint standing on a pedestals devils had paid for.

“Gods, and to think someone believed it a sound notion to build a village here,” I said. “They must have been drunk.”

The dark-haired nobleman – one of the few of the breed I caught myself occasionally liking – let out a small amused noise.

“Some of the land north of Harrow is not so dissimilar, I am told,” Brandon Talbot said. “I was taught as a boy that the people there are usually poor but skilled hunters and fishermen. As bowmen they have a high reputation in certain parts, though the Deoraithe are a hard shadow to escape in that art.”

“Not much left to hunt or fish here,” I replied. “Usually isn’t, after the Dead King had a go.”

If the Second Army was to make a stand against a wildly larger amount of enemy soldiers without getting butchered and overwhelmed, picking the ground it was going to make that stand on was crucial. We’d dug through maps and records as well as the officers from Hainaut that Princess Beatrice had leant me before picking the abandoned village of Maillac, and for all that the place was a hole in the ground for our purposes it was perfect. See, for all that undead had less trouble with difficult terrain than living soldiers they didn’t actually get to ignore that terrain. Swamps, bogs, or other combination of mud and scrum water and crawling things were easier for undead to go through because unlike people they wouldn’t get cold or tired or sick – or even attacked by animals, usually.

But in no way did that mean a swamp was something easy for undead soldiers to march through.

The skeletons still wore armour, still weighed heavy, and as a rule tended to be significantly less deft and agile than living soldiers besides. Marching through a mire would wreak havoc on their lines and they’d be damned slow going through mud – or, if they weren’t, would be so lightly armoured that our priests would scythe through them like wheat with volleys of Light. It was a comparative advantage the undead had, not an absolute one. And that meant that a place like Maillac made for very good grounds to defend: the village had stood on a relatively large peninsula surrounded by swamplands in every direction but the southeast, and with few trees in the immediate area that would obscure line of sight when the dead came from the west.

We wouldn’t be able to fit the entire Second Army on the peninsula that locals apparently called ‘the Boot’ – seen from a high hill in the distance it looked vaguely boot-like, I’d been told after asking – as ten thousand soldiers would be much too many, but we could fit at least half and then position the rest on the broader solid grounds behind the peninsula, which were thankfully rather difficult to access. To the north and south there were rock formations and deep water, both of which would screw with enemy advance even worse than the swamps. That meant that open grounds around the Boot would be the best approach for the dead, short of circling rather far around.

Which sounded like a good idea for them, at first glance, as it would allowed them to attack us from solid land an attempt an encirclement of our army divided between the Boot and the broader shore. I almost hoped they made the mistake of attempting that, though, as the amount of time it would take them to both gather large enough forces and circle around us meant my army would get to delay the dead long enough for Prince Klaus to get away and then escape ourselves without even giving battle. While I might have chosen Maillac as a battle site first and foremost, I wouldn’t complain if we got to evacuate it without first having fought said battle.

Not that we’d be so lucky. I’d stripped ten thousand legionaries and my finest horse from the rest of the army before dangling them like juicy bait out here in the wilds, the Dead King wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to bloody us a bit. Still, I’d not come this far by leaving things to chance.

“I can see little use for the Order in the battlefield you have chosen us, Your Majesty,” Sir Brandon admitted. “Yet it is not your habit to act without purpose, so I must presume there is one.”

“The swamp would be hell on the horses, and you’re much too heavy,” I agreed. “But I don’t actually intend for you to fight here, Talbot.”

Blue eyes brightened with understanding.

“We are to go a’raiding, then,” the Grandmaster smiled.

“And I with you,” I agreed. “We’ll be taking the Twilight Ways. Once the Second Army has begun setting up here, you and I are going to make such a nuisance out of the Order in these parts that Keter will have to come and give us a fight.”

“To vex the Enemy is always a pleasure,” the bearded knight said, sounding pleased. “Even more so if we confound him into an even greater defeat.”

I looked at him, for a moment, and glimpsed the part of his kind that my people had loved for so long. That fearless, hardy breed of nobles that’d known sword and spear just as well as dances and laughed as the charged under the banners of the Fairfaxes and the Albans to turn back the invaders of the east and the west. War wasn’t a trade to him, I thought, not like it was to the Legions and so many in the Army. War was part of who he was, just as much as his name or his blood. War isn’t just what we do, Catherine, it’s what we are, Juniper had once told me. She’d been speaking of her own people, that night, but so often I found that Praes and Callow were more deeply intertwined than either care to admit.

“I mean to do more than just vex,” I said. “Half the world still sits up when our war horns are sounded, Talbot. I mean to brand that fear anew in the legions of the dead.”

His fist struck his breastplate over his heart, the thump pleasantly solid to the ear.

“We are at your command, Queen Catherine,” the knight said.

For a few years yet, I thought. It would be enough.

I would make it enough.

Sapper-General Pickler, whose notion of the decorum due to her rank usually varied between ‘sounds like Commander Waffler’s problem’ and ‘if I’m not covered in dust I’m no doing this right’, crouched down on the shore and dipped a crooked green finger in the mud. After taking a long sniff, she licked it and hummed.

“So?”

“Rich silt,” Pickler told me. “Good material. Mind you, mudbricks in this humid a locale would be foolish. There’s clay, though, and we can use that for fired bricks. The trees in this dump aren’t for much of anything, though. I’ll need companies out foraging for decent firewood if we’re going to be cooking bricks.”

It was in moments like this that I was awe at what something like the War College actually stood for, what it achieved. That little exchange we’d just had alone was something that’d be impossible to have in most armies of our age. See, there were engineers in the ranks of Procer and the Free Cities with knowledge much like Pickler’s. Neither goblins nor Praesi had a monopoly on such things. But none of these had the rest. Pickler had been taught about mages, so she understood that we couldn’t just use spells to make her fired bricks: we’d half-kill our mages with exhaustion before we were anywhere done. Pickler had been taught about defensive tactics, so she knew how quickly I’d need the bricks and that if I didn’t get enough making any was a waste of time: that meant making many fires, and firewood.

Pickler had been taught about limited manpower logistics, too, and so combining all these teachings in a few moments she’d put together a proposal. One tailored to the rough amount of people I’d be able to spare, and how many would be needed to achieve what needed to done in our current time strictures. In effect, several companies of regulars on rotation with attached mages for Twilight Ways access.

Most of the contemporary armies of my allies and enemies had all this knowledge, in practice, but none of them had it concentrated in the same person. Maybe a few exceptional fantassin captains might have most of these competences, or rare Helikean generals, but those individuals would be rare. My father had made the War College into a place that could make entire companies of those rare individuals every year. There were many who still thought the Conquest had been an outlier, an anomaly made possible only by the genius of the Black Knight and the Marshals of Callow. Those people were fools. The Conquest had been won in stone classrooms a decade before armies lined up on both sides of the Fields of Streges.

“You’ll have them,” I said. “How much can you fortify in two days?”

“The Boot will be walled up, and we’ll have platforms for those of my ballistas you didn’t hand off to your toy general,” Pickler replied, a tad peevishly. “We’ll have to use palisades for the part stretching between the end of the boot and the deep waters to the south. We won’t be able to put up anything else in time.”

I slowly nodded, fixing the picture in my mind’s eyes. The peninsula was where I wanted clay walls the most, since it would be suffering the brunt of the enemy assault. Palisades to the south would get rough, given that Keter usually was capable of toppling those by throwing enough corpses at them – to say nothing of constructs or Revenants – but we weren’t trying to make an invincible citadel out of this chunk of swamp. Favourable fighting grounds would have to be enough.

“And the northern grounds?” I pressed.

The peninsula on which Maillac was built looked like a boot fitted to a particularly fat foot, but it wasn’t jutting out of perfectly straight dry – well, dryer anyway – land. To the south a wavy shoreline connected to the top edge of the boot kept going for about two hundred feet before jutting rocks and deep water made the grounds impractical to pass. As Pickler had said, we’d cover that stretch with palisades. But from the uppermost top edge of the boot the shoreline instead went straight for maybe forty feet before jutting upwards for a hundred feet and curving east into the second mass of rocks and deep water that were the reason I’d picked Maillac as our battlefield in the first place.

It meant there was a stretch of water between the Boot and the shore, which to make things even worse wasn’t even particularly deep. Skeletons coming through the mire would use it as a ramp to flood our northern flank, it was pretty much a given.

“If we had a week I’d sink a stone wall and drain it,” Pickler replied with a sigh that rattled through her teeth, “but we don’t. The mud is too soft there, Catherine, and unlike the Boot or the deeper shore there’s no solid layer to steady a palisade on.”

I grimaced.

“So we make a fort deeper in and dig in for a rough fight,” I summarized.

“I can make fortified nests for scorpions, with an eye to firing on anything that emerges from the water,” my Sapper-General said. “But anything beyond that would take more time and hands than we have to spare.”

She sounded almost apologetic, which was rare for her.

“These are imperfect grounds,” I said. “I didn’t expect you to wave a magic wand and make them into an impenetrable fortress. Already you’re doing wonders, Pickler.”

And I wasn’t lying for her benefit there: that in the span of a mere two days my sappers would be able to turn this defendable stretch of swamp into a makeshift fortress was beyond impressive. When I’d made the decision to use only the Second Army and the Order as delaying forces, I’d been able to make that decision comfortably because I’d known almost half of the sapper corps remained with me instead of manning the siege engines that by now General Abigail would be using to reduce the Cigelin Sisters. I relied on my sappers a great deal, which I knew they took pride in, but I would not let the burden of unrealistic expectations crush them.

“I want to do more,” Pickler admitted, to my surprise. “There won’t be another war like this in my lifetime, Catherine. This is the one I’ll get to fight, the one I’ll get to make my teeth on.”

She clicked her teeth, the flash of needle-like row betraying what had to be genuine irritation. Goblins were easier to read than humans, in some ways – most didn’t bother to hide their body language the way a deceitful human would, since most of my race never learned goblin body subtext.

“I work with imperfect tools, the way all my predecessors have,” Pickler said, “but it… irks, that I know we could be better. That we could match Keter blow for blow, if we had the time and the coin.”

I hid a fond smile. Leave it to my Sapper-General to be irked by being on the lesser side in an arms race with the Hidden Horror. Even most heroes, those chosen few blessed with the belief of promised victory, usually limited their ambition to survival and eking out a win when it came to the Original Abomination. Yet Pickler of the High Ridge tribe had been forged of goblin steel tempered in Wasteland fire, kept sharp by the whetstone of the Uncivil Wars. When faced with dreadful might, the Sapper-General of Callow’s nature was not to cower but to crave to surpass it.

“War’s not over,” I said. “One day it will take us to the gates of the Crown of the Dead itself, Pickler.”

I offered her a smile.

“On that day, I expect you will find your coffers filled to burst and few requests beyond acquiescence,” I said.

“Gobbler grant me breath until then,” Pickler of the High Ridge tribe grinned, all teeth and malice, and offered a quick bow. “I’ll get started on the work, Your Majesty.”

I nodded back, mind already moving. The Order of Broken Bells was already mustering for the raids, picking out targets with General Hune and Hakram, and now my Sapper-General had assignments and hands to see it through. It was time, then, to see to the… irregulars.

I’d begun with Masego because I’d figured it would be less unsettling to look at than whatever it was that Akua wanted the Rapacious Troubadour for, but alas it seemed that hubris had come around to bite me in the tit. That Hierophant would be standing atop a flat floating stone was sadly not unexpected, nor were the smaller rocks circling around him with visibly shifting runes carved into them. That the Grey Pilgrim would be stand with him there, though, head cocked to the side as if he were listening to someone talking as he corrected some of the runework, very much was.

“- being very helpful,” I heard Zeze say, tone appreciative. “I could talk to Catherine about remuneration, if you’d like, or draw from Arsenal discretionary funds.”

Well, that was nice of him.

“A kind thought,” Tariq drily replied, “but the Ophanim require no compensation for their help.”

Wait, had he been talking about paying the Choir of Mercy? Godsdamnit, Masego, we definitely didn’t have room for that in the budget. I cleared my throat as I got closer, as it seemed both of them were too involved with their work to be paying attention to their surroundings.

“Catherine,” Hierophant greeted me. “Come to have a look?”

“You might say that,” I replied. “Pilgrim, always a pleasure to see you.”

I did not bother to specify that I’d not actually expected to see him, though, as it was pretty much implied by his mere presence here.

“And you,” the old man said, sounding amused. “We have been lending a hand to the Lord Hierophant, you see, as his work has proved to have… surprising provenances.”

“I figured out how angels smite people,” Zeze said, sounding very pleased with himself. “More or less. When the Ophanim tried to kill us all at Lyonceau I got a good look.”

“That was not their intent at all,” Tariq sighed. “The death of the Tyrant of Helike – a necessity, I’m sure you’ll agree – was all that was sought.”

“By smiting,” Masego helpfully specified. “Which I am now reproducing, only without the angels.”

“Are you now,” I faintly said. “How lovely.”

I looked to the Pilgrim, expecting an elaboration but receiving only a blithe shrug.

“It’s not an inaccurate description,” Tariq said. “They’re very interested in seeing if it works.”

“Are they now,” I said, tone grown even fainter. “That’s nice.”

“Now,” Masego said, “I know what you’re thinking.”

He tried to lean against a rotating stone but mistimed it and almost stumbled off the floating stone, the Pilgrim discreetly pulling at his robes so he wouldn’t.

“I doubt that,” I noted, “but go on.”

“If a Choir does not power the smiting, what does?” Hierophant enthusiastically asked.

“The bone-deep existential dread of all who witness your works?” I suggested.

“Too narrow, but you’re along the right path,” Masego encouraged me.

I glanced at Tariq.

“I thought you Light-wielding types had objections to blasphemy,” I said.

And this felt, like, maybe two or three steps past simple blasphemy. I’d say we were uncovering fresh new heretical horizons, but that was always a hard claim to make for anyone remotely familiar with Praesi history.

“Smiting is being used as a purely technical term here, with no religious connotations,” the Grey Pilgrim serenely replied.

Tariq, you shit, I uncharitably thought.

“Besides, if this endeavour succeeds it may be possible to reproduce it purely using Light,” the old man airily continued.

Meaning that Zeze’s brain was being utterly terrifying, as usual, but that in this particular case it might lead to a skill usable for heroes down the line – and Crows, wasn’t that particular prospect worth a fucking shiver or two? – so he was willing to not only refrain from objecting but actively help. I narrowed my eyes at the smiling old man, knowing Goods might just be getting the better bargain here. There was no guaranteed that Hierophant would ever be able to pass this down to anyone else on my side, so the knowledge might very well die out. The Choir of Mercy, though, would not forget a damned thing.

And the Ophanim were not, in my experience, shy about handing out this sort of knowledge to their favourites.

“How fortunate,” I replied with a grunt. “What is it you’re using, Masego?”

“I had thought to use Night, at first,” the dark-skinned mage idly said, “but Sve Noc did not seem willing. So instead we will draw on Arcadia for power and use runework to give the power shape.”

I blinked.

“And that’ll work?” I asked

“Should it not, I expect the result will be a large explosion followed by temporary instability in the weave of Creation on a local level,” Tariq noted.

“We can use that too,” Masego happily told me. “So there’s really no downside.”

I closed my eyes and breathed out. Well, he wasn’t exactly wrong. Mind you, Zeze tended to be very reasonable even when suggesting utter lunacy so that wouldn’t be a first. And this seemed like a functioning weapon, if an unstable and dangerous one. I opened my eyes.

“This won’t hurt our own?” I asked.

“No,” Masego replied, tone serious. “Precautions were taken. It will not kill your soldiers.”

“Then all hail the mighty smiters,” I drily said. “Have fun, you two, and try not to bring down Arcadia Resplendent on our heads.”

Which might have been a tad hypocritical of me to say, I mentally acknowledged as I limped at and left them to their work, since I was the one who kept stealing lakes from there.

I caught a few bits of the song on the wind before I saw either of them, the almost mournful tone of the Troubadour’s voice matching the sad strums of his cithern. The tent was wide open, leaving the song to take to the sky unhindered.

“- we of steel,

Forged in the east

As turns the wheel

And carrion feast.”

I knew precious few Praesi songs, unless you counted Legion ones, but this one I’d heard of before. The Tyranny of the Sun, it was called, an old war song from the days of the Sixty Years War. It’d been banned since, but banning a song only rarely succeeded at stamping it out. Making it forbidden tended to raise interest, if anything. The few Praesi tunes I’d heard – Count the Nights, Upon All the World and Burning Kiss – tended towards the boastful or the romantic, not the almost wistful beat of this one. It was, I suddenly recalled, a favourite of my father’s. Given that this had to be a request if Akua’s, I almost smiled at the thoughts.

Neither of them would be particularly pleased to hear they had something in common, even something as small as a liking for a song.

I found the both of them seated inside. The Rapacious Troubadour was sprawled indolently in a chair, long crooked fingers dancing across his cithern as he smiled. Dark-haired and pale, the man would have been handsome if nor for the too-red lips and insincere eyes. Though he wore armour when battle was at hand, he rarely bothered without immediate danger to move him: his tunic and cloak were of tasteful cut and good make, in shades of purple, while both trousers and boots were leather. He’d been looking at Akua with something like hunger in his gaze when I entered, though he immediately averted his eyes. Ah, but is it the looks or the soul that draw your attention?

The shade herself had claimed a small table and a folding chair, leaning forward with quill and parchment in hand – which bared an interesting expanse of smooth skin, given the generous neckline of her red dress patterned with what looked like peacock feathers in blue. I’d seen enough of Akua actively trying to appeal to suspect she wasn’t even trying to be enticing at the moment. She was just good-looking enough that even at work it looked like she was posing for a painting.

“Dearest,” the devil in question said, raising her head to smile at me. “How kind of you to visit.”

The Troubadour eased into an interruption of the song, the notes fading naturally, and then offered me a short bow.

“Your Majesty,” Lucien greeted me. “Ever a pleasure.”

“Is it now?” I mused. “Good to know.”

“Do not bully my singer,” Akua chided me. “He has been singing the loveliest songs.”

“The Tyranny of the Sun?” I asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“Somewhat maudlin, I know,” she smiled, “but it has such a pleasant melody.”

I smiled at her, knowing something she did not and amused by the secret.

“Got anything out of it?” I asked, glancing at her parchment.

A magical formula, by the looks of it. I could recognize certain parts of it from our lessons – wait, no, this was a ritual but it was meant to be used with Night. It just looked like sorcery because she was basing its workings on Trismegistan principles. I leaned in, frowning as I took a closer look. The scale of the power used would be large, since she was using the notations that meant every number mean should be multiplied by a thousand, but the duration would be… short? Maybe just a few breaths. And I wasn’t recognizing the end of her formula at all, there wasn’t even a boundary strength or an allowed variance.

Mind you, for all my lessons I was still essentially a drunken monkey trying to decipher the works of one of the greats of our age so my incomprehension should not be a surprise.

“I believe so,” Akua smiled. “It occurred to me, my heart, that the strengths of Night lie in its flexibility. Yet this comes at the price of a weakness, namely that it is only ever second best in all the many things it can accomplish.”

If even that, I thought. I called it the power of a thief for a reason. She wasn’t wrong, though, and if anything she was underselling it: given equal Night and Light on both sides of a struggle, Light would win ten times out of ten. Entities wielding Light and Night weren’t necessarily bound to that outcome, mind you, but in a straight fight it had to be said that Light always won. Considering that the prevailing theory was that Light had been made by the Gods Above when Creation was first built and that Night was only indirectly the work of the Gods Below, that made a great deal of sense to me.

“Let’s say I agree,” I replied. “What follows?”

“A great deal of power that could benefit from a… more defined method of channeling,” Akua said. “One more deeply aligned with Creation.”

I studied her for a moment, then discreetly flicked my eyes towards the Rapacious Troubadour. Her smile widened.

“Huh,” I said. “Is that… wise?”

She read between the lines, catching on to my very delicate question of ‘are you sure using the soul-eating villain as a Night-channel isn’t going to fuck us over?’.

“It is my ritual,” she easily replied. “It remains in my hands from beginning to end.”

Meaning that the Rapacious Troubadour would be a ritual component more than an active participant. Ah, I was already slightly more comfortable with this. Still not exactly eager, but damned few of the tricks we needed to win this war were anything that could reasonably be called safe.

“And you’re sure you’ll get results,” I said.

“I have proved the underlying principles,” Akua said, and leaned back as if to offer me a closer look at her notes.

Yeah, that would serve no real purpose. I had an almost decent handle on basic Trismegistan spell formulas these days – might not be able to make one, but was reliably able to pick out which part did what – but taking a gander at the kind of work that lay behind crafting an entirely new ritual, one working and Night and somehow involving a Named, would be absurd. I did not have the knowledge to parse the knowledge necessary to grasp the principles behind the basics of what was involved there.

“I’ll take you to your word,” I easily said. “But what is it your ritual will do, exactly?”

She gestured for me to come closer and whispered the answer in my ear. I drew back with a startled look.

“You’re sure?” I asked.

“The effects could be inferior to my expectations, but there will be effects,” Akua calmly said. “Of that there can be no doubt.”

I let out a low whistle.

“Well, here’s hoping it takes fully,” I said. “It would make a real difference, and not just in the coming battle.”

“I expect Trismegistus will mend the weakness eventually,” the shade shrugged. “Yet for now we have the element of surprise, so a success can be reasonably hoped for.”

Mhm. She’d not used that name as a coincidence: it was a veiled reminder that there was a reason Praesi magic was called Trismegistan sorcery. We were using his own methods against him, which meant our advantage was likely to be quite temporary.

“I’ll dare hope for it, then,” I said. “Did I glimpse correctly that you’ll be using a song?”

“Indeed,” Akua said, sounding pleased. “Do you have a particular preference? Lucien has proved to have a remarkable repertoire at his disposal.”

I glanced at the smiling man in question. Yeah I figured he would, what with all the godsdamned souls he’d eaten.

“It’s your ritual,” I said. “Let it be your song as well.”

“You do me honour,” the golden-eyed beauty said. “As it happens, I did have a thought.”

“Oh?”

Stars From the Sky,” Akua said in Mtethwa. “It is ancient, but remains sung for good reason.”

“Never heard of it,” I replied, “but I’ll look forward to mending that.”

She inclined her head.

“I will endeavour,” Akua Sahelian smiled, “not to disappoint.”

Chapter 64: Candidate Moves

“To rule is to drag a lion by the whisker.”

– Helikean saying

Truth was, even now Masego hadn’t found a way to genuinely break the rituals that the Dead King used to prevent scrying in the territories he held. For two years the Arsenal had tried, after we made it it clear to some of the finest magical minds of Calernia that regaining that capacity would be militarily invaluable, but no working counter-ritual had come of it. We had brought together exceptional people, but our enemy was more than just that: he was the Hidden Horror, the exception itself. So Hierophant, for all that he’d suffered a god riding his mind for most of a year and studied the wards at Lyonceau – where the Tyrant had borrowed from the Dead King’s work, among other things – had not been able to overturn the weight of the millennia’s bearing down on us. Zeze was brilliant, but there were some things beyond brilliance.

So Hierophant had stolen a mystery from an entity that could win.

The clouds in the sky spun like a whirlpool, swallowed by the great eye that our ritual had opened high above. Even for me, the empty howling void was an unsettling sight. Sorcery burned loud and bright, the stone pillars we’d driven into the ground buzzing like hornets as they fought the enchantments that blanketed most of Hainaut and suppressed scrying. Hurrying, I limped my way down the rocky slope towards a box of burnished bronze and electrum that stood taller than me. Nestled against the hill, anchored with enchantments so it would not move so much as a hair’s breadth, the arcane patterns of electrum on the sides were now glimmering with eerie light. The bronze was warm enough that I could feel the heat just from passing my hand close, and it would only get warmer.

The front of the box was the most complex part of it: a harsh, labyrinthine electrum pattern that usually closed together like a puzzle box but had now been carefully pried open. Slender gaps had been bared in the pattern by the manipulations, their rims covered with small bronze-inscribed runes, and through them I glimpsed that within the box there was a cube of pure white marble. Without my noticing it Roland had returned from his work on the hill to our east, and now stood by Masego’s side close to the box. The sight was almost amusing, Hierophant being at least a head taller for all that the Rogue Sorcerer’s longcoat and layers made him seem larger, but the intent focus both displayed had me reluctant to disturb them with even a snort.

“Roland?” Masego asked, burning eyes on the box.

“Almost there,” the Rogue Sorcerer replied, his own gaze on a slender baton of obsidian in his hands where I glimpsed a few burning marks. “Five, four, three, two-“

As soon as the Proceran mage got to three Hierophant raised his arm, wresting sorcery from a small cube he held in his fist, and a circle of golden runes flared around his fingers.

“Discharge,” Masego warned.

Sorcery pulled towards us for half a heartbeat, as if the currents had reversed, and the flow was sucked into the box where I saw terrible fires bloom before the moment passed and the eye in the sky screamed anew. To the west of us, a hill blew up in a thundering rain of rock and mud.

“Our bleed margin is much too high,” Roland said. “We won’t make it to four instances.”

“Three will be enough,” Hierophant replied, leaning over the box.

With his bare hands – he’d known fires hotter than this, and even now their reflection burned in his eyes – he began to manipulate the top of the box, extracting what looked like a large gear before turning it briskly. Within the box, the marble cube turned to match and presented a fresh and unmarred face to the open gaps. The gear was pushed back down after adjustment, and within twenty heartbeats another discharge followed. The hill to the east of us blew up, but I had closer perils to worry about: the stone pillars anchored on this hill were vibrating so quickly and intensely it seemed only a matter of time before they shattered.

“Masego,” I asked, shouting over the din. “How safe are we on the hill?”

He turned towards me, offering a boyish grin.

“Not at all!” he shouted back, and raised his arm.

A fresh cube held in his fist, golden runes formed in a circle as Roland protested with a shout that the build-up was not yet done.

Discharge,” Hierophant cackled.

Cackling wasn’t usually a good sign, in my experience, so I wrapped myself up in Night the moment before the sorcery could be pulled in. The magic blew in, pillars popping as it passed them – ah, they’d somehow been built so the shards would go up instead of all around – and hammered into the cage. Some bits of stone fell on my Night-cloak, but nothing I couldn’t handle so I risked a glance at Roland. Whose obsidian baton was cracking, the burning runes on it going wild.

Oh merde,” I heard him curse, throwing away the baton.

It blew up in a great gout of flame maybe three feet above his head, liquid drops of obsidian hissing against mud and stone as they were sprinkled everywhere. Masego, though, ignored it all. He was trying to vent the contents of the box, where the fires had somehow gotten caught. He opened fresh gaps on two sides before the glimmer of the electrum patterns turned into a glare. The tall mage finally stepped back.

“It’s done?” I called out.

“In a manner of speaking,” Zeze calmly noted, continuing to move away. “I would recommend taking cover, Catherine.”

“You little-” I began, throwing myself behind a jutting stone just in time for a great crunching sound to resound.

Oh dear. That had sounded like the box crumpling inwards. Then there were a pulse of flame and metal shrapnel as the box blew up while I hid under my cloak. I waited ten full heartbeats before popping out for a look, and I saw with a dry swallow that the explosion had outright melted the top of the hill. The Grey Pilgrim had gotten off first, right? That was, uh, going to be tricky to explain to the Dominion otherwise.

“Anybody dead?” Roland called out, popping out from behind his own rock.

“A pointless question. It would require necromancy before-” Masego replied.

“I think everyone’s fine,” I interrupted before he could really get started. “Did it work?”

“Of course it worked,” Hierophant said, sounding offended. “Who do you take me for?”

“Ask me that question again when I don’t have melted rock all over my nice cloak,” I grunted. “You’re not fishing for a nice answer otherwise.”

I broke cover, brushing myself off, and the three of us came to look at the results. The marble cube was seared on three sides, but it’d not just been fire thrown at rock. It’d been a sculpture, in a sense: the central valley of Hainaut and some of the outskirts, as seen from the sky. Each of the three facets had captured that sight for the blink of that great eye above and seen it seared onto the marble. There were imprecisions, of course. The Dead King’s rituals had muddled it up some. But that was the entire point of having several discharges, as there’d be very few places on our ‘map’ where the imprecisions had taken all three times.

“So this is what the world looks like through a Choir’s eyes,” I said.

“Not exactly,” Roland told me. “Think of angels as seeing the world through a lens. What you can witness seared here is what we mortals would see when looking through that same lens.”

“Humans don’t have the parts necessary to observe Creation as a Choir would,” Masego absent-mindedly noted. “Even soul scaffolding wouldn’t be sufficient, it would require complete essence reconstruction. As Duchess of Moonless Nights we would have been able to replace the marble with your mind and allow you to look directly, as the damage would have repaired itself, but as you currently are you would not survive the experience.”

I still remembered how much of a pain just stealing Ashkaran from echoes in Arcadia had been, so I suspected that he was downplaying the difficulties involved when he simply called it ‘damage’.

“Good to know,” I muttered. “I believe we can work with this, Masego. We’ll need magnifying glass for some of the details, but I can already make out the bare bones.”

Such as they were, which was pretty worrying. I limped back and forth between the facets, narrowing my eyes at what I saw. If I correctly understood where we were, then at the moment we were… north-west of what had to be the Iron Prince’s army. Unfortunately, that put us in the wrong place. Ahead of the Prince Klaus’ column was a large force of undead, but not so large he shouldn’t be able to defeat it on the field. Behind it, though, was what had to be the missing Luciennerie army. By the looks of it it’d divided into three smaller forces: one was headed south towards the Cigelin Sisters, but the other two columns were marching straight towards where the Iron Prince was going to have to give battle.

That put them square to the south of us, and went some way in explaining why this part of Hainaut was swarming with warbands. Worse, it looked like my allies had left part of their forces behind: to the west of Juvelun there was something that looked like a camp. Hard to tell numbers without using something to magnify the details, though, which could wait until we’d gotten back to camp. I straightened, casting one last lingering look at the marble. For all that what I’d learned had not exactly good news, that I knew it at all was a great coup. If we’d gone about this blindly, the damage could have been… significant.

“Good work,” I said. “Both you.”

“It was,” Masego replied, clearly pleased I agreed with his own assessment.

“The Pilgrim and the Artificer will handle wiping all trace of what we did here with Light,” I said. “As for us, though, we’re done here. Let’s load up our rock on a cart and head back.”

“I’ll be glad to,” Roland admitted, casting a wary look at the mire. “I suspect we’re about to have a great deal more company.”

“Ain’t that always the way, with us?” I snorted. “It’s all about staying that one step ahead, Roland.”

Well, that or you died.

Adjutant had transcribed seared stone into what looked like a halfway decent overview of central Hainaut in less than an hour with only one hand to use. A useful reminder that, even when crippled in a wheelchair Hakram could do the work of several people in a fraction of the time it would have taken them with objectively superior results. Masego was making noises that the prosthetics would soon be sufficiently attuned to the orc’s body for surgery, so he might even be out of that chair soon – though he’d have to learn to walk all over again, and likely keep using crutches for months. I’d used the span of time where he worked to have a wash in the river we’d camped near in the Twilight Ways, so it was feeling quite refreshed that I returned to my tent.

Our venture of the morning had been rather productive, but now that we had the bird’s eye view of this campaign it was time to decide exactly how we were going to fight it. My initial notion had been to lay an ambush for the Luciennerie army, but I wasn’t sure how viable that would really be at the moment. I had a bottle of wine opened and sent for what was definitely not a war council: Indrani, Masego and Akua. Hakram was already at my side so there was hardly a need for an engraved invitation there. I rather wished Vivienne could have been there, as it’d been too long since all of the Woe had gathered, but she had duties of her own.

 Besides, without wanting to sound grim would have been gambling on my part to have my successor and I in the same theatre of war.

“You know, when I blow up mud hills I don’t get commended,” Indrani complained the moment she drifted in. “It’s all ‘that was valuable ammunition, Archer’, or ‘stop using our trebuchets outside battles’.”

“Your point?” I asked, cocking an eyebrow.

She slid into a seat on the other side of the table, Akua and Masego following her into the tent with long strides, speaking in Mthethwa – something about ‘complexity returns’, whatever those were – and settling further down, Zeze taking the place at Indrani’s side as if it were his natural one. I hid a smile.

“It’s favoritism, is my point,” Indrani said, jabbing an accusing finger at me.

“You’re right,” I admitted.

The surprise on her face was quite delightful.

“I do like him better than you,” I breezily added.

She gasped in half-genuine offence.

“Hakram, jot that down,” I mused. “We can look into having it made a royal decree.”

I didn’t go quite as far as jokingly offer Masego to blow up any hill he liked, because I was worried he might actually take me up on that offer. And, like, I did have a lot of hills in my demesne in Marchford but they weren’t exactly a renewable resource so while I wasn’t outright saying ‘never blow up my hills’ I’d at least want a reason first. I felt like that was a justifiable stance to take, all things considered.

“I’ll see about having the list ranking us in the order you like most made official,” Hakram idly said.

There was a heartbeat of silence.

“She doesn’t have that,” Indrani said, narrowing her eyes at me.

“Of course I don’t, number si- I mean, Indrani,” I replied with a smile.

I winked, botching it just because I knew it being half-assed would piss her off even more.

Come on,” Archer complained. “There’s no way I’m last.”

“That you think that is why you are, my dear,” Akua gently smiled.

I did admire how genuinely benign she could look while purposefully turning the knife in the wound, it was pretty impressive,

“That sounds very useful,” Masego said, sounding approving. “Could I have a transcript, along with the criteria for ranking?”

“I’ll think about,” I lied.

Adjutant cleared his throat, a call to order before this ended up into a pleasant waste of several hours. Archer avenged herself on me by pouring herself a cup of wine and filling it up to the rim, like a savage, while Akua considered me with golden eyes. A dress in red and white today, which while unable to decide whether it was a ballroom gown or a tabard remained quite flattering no matter the attached interpretation.

“I heard through the grapevine that your adventure back on Creation was a success,” Akua said.

“Heh,” Archer snickered, elbowing Zeze. “She called you a plant.”

“It was a metaphor,” he revealed to her. “… I think. I don’t believe even Wolof ever got the spell to work for a living person.”

“They haven’t,” Akua assured him. “Corpses only. Am I to take it, then, that this is to be a council of strategy?”

It was a rhetorical question, we both knew, but one that’d push us into the meat of this meeting. She did like to provide these helpful light touches, though when Hakram was there she was much more careful about their use – I got the feeling she was being exceedingly careful about never stepping on his toes. Likely she figured that trying to step into the position of my right hand was a fool’s errand, which to be frank it was. Akua was a lot of things, many of which were technically curses, but socially blind wasn’t one of them.

“We have a bit of trouble,” I said. “The Iron Prince is a long way from shore, and the tide’s getting rowdy.”

“Have even ever been on a boat?” Indrani skeptically asked.

“A fishing boat, yes,” I smugly replied.

Only when it’d been docked and to get handsy with a boy, but she didn’t need to know that.

“By custom she’s also high admiral of Callow unless the title is otherwise assigned,” Hakram noted. “Which makes her the finest sailor of all assembled here by far.”

“I’ve helmed sailing ships on the Wasaliti at least twice a summer ever since I was-” Akua began, tone irritated, then her face blanked and cleared her throat. “Yet I believe there will be no ships involved here beyond the metaphorical, so-“

I met Indrani’s eyes across the table, sharing triumphant grins. It was always a rare treat to bait out of her a genuine reaction. Back when we’d started she’d often fake those to fit in better, but these days when she tried we could usually tell.

“Why are we here, then?” Masego asked me, cutting through Akua’s verbal retreat. “Most of us don’t have military training, or at least not military officer training. Would you not be served better by a war council of your highest commanders?”

“I already know what needs to be done,” I honestly said. “Might have to move the numbers around a bit, but there’s not a lot of room for manoeuver when it comes down to it.”

I leaned forward over the ‘map’ Hakram had put together from the seared stone, tapping a finger on the representation of Klaus Papenheim’s army. The part of it on the march, at least.

“We need to reinforce those as they give battle to the undead ahead of them,” I said.

“No need to explain this for my benefit,” Masego frankly said. “I will only pretend to listen to regardless.”

Well, at least he was being honest about it.

I want to know,” Indrani piously said. “Because I care about you, and I’m a good friend.”

“A valiant effort, number six,” Akua murmured. “If stunningly transparent.”

“That’s rich coming from you, Shifty Spectre,” Archer muttered back. “I bet if I shone Light at you it’d go straight through.”

“Since Indrani requests it, a quick summary,” I said.

I glanced at Hakram, who kicked Zeze under the table. Good man.

“This,” I said, as I put down my finger on the Iron Prince’s army, “is the other Grand Alliance army in Hainaut. We want to save it, because if we don’t we’re fucked for the year – if not for much longer than that.”

I moved my finger slightly west on the map, maybe a day’s march away from Klaus’ army.

“This is an undead force, which has to be at least twenty thousand and probably more,” I said. “The Iron Prince is marching on it, and will probably beat it in an open battle, but it represents a trap.”

I moved even further west, still at the same height. There three forces could be made out, but I ignored the one headed south towards the Cigelin Sisters. That one was General Abigail’s problem, or if she got lucky her prey: should the Sisters fall before those reinforcements arrive, Abigail of Summerholm would be in a very good position to simply smash that army when it arrived before her. It was always pleasant to be reminded that, for all his advantages over us, the Dead King had limits to his sight as well.

“This is an army that used to be far to the west, in Luciennerie, but marched east to surprise us here in the valley,” I said. “It’s large, at least a hundred thousand, and odds are it’s going to hit the Iron Prince’s army just the day after it fought a battle against the undead force I mentioned previously. That would be bad.”

Not only had the Prince of Hannoven left part of his army behind, which meant he’d be understrength – I was guessing casualties had been rough taking Juvelun so he’d been forced to leave behind troops to protect a large amount of wounded – but the dead would strike after our very mortal enemy had finished fighting another battle, with all the casualties and exhaustion that involved. No, if the Luciennerie columns actually reached Prince Klaus’ army then it would be a disaster.

“We are here, more or less,” I finished, pointing to a spot on the map.

Northwest of the Iron Prince and the undead he would soon fight, north of the Luciennerie columns. I’d hoped the Twilight Ways would allow us to steal the march on those, but the Dead King hadn’t kept a sedate pace. Splitting into several columns would weaken him against an ambush, but it had also allowed the large army to march quicker. When you had the kind of numbers Keter could boast of, often timing was more important than formations.

“That does not seem like the right place to be,” Masego assessed. “We should perhaps move towards the Iron Prince, who we are meant to save.”

A conclusion I’d not dragged him towards, though I had perhaps gently taken him by the hand and walked him there.

“Which we’ll do,” I said. “But it can’t be only that. If we just reinforce Prince Klaus with all we have, the advancing columns will hit us not long afterwards. That’s not a battle I want to give, not right now.”

If we got there in time to reinforce our allies, which it was a coin toss we would, then we’d have numbers on our side for the first battle. We’d still take losses, though, and tire our men. Then for the battle that followed we wouldn’t have the numbers, and we’d have all the damage done by our first fight weighing us down. I honestly believed we’d be able to win that battle too, but the costs would be hard to bear. We’d want to have that fight when we were prepared and well-rested, not buried in blood and dust. As it happened I knew exactly where I wanted to fight that decisive battle: the city of Hainaut, the very capital of the principality.

Which meant I had to prevent the Luciennerie columns from reaching that battlefield, and there honestly weren’t twenty ways to do that.

“Which is why-“

“I see,” Masego sagely nodded.

I paused. Was he just going to say that at regular intervals in the hope I’d figure that meant he was listening? I glanced at Archer, who offered me winsome smile. Ugh. She hadn’t been listening either, had she? Gods, those two had gotten even worse now that they were together. It was like they’d crossbred their character flaws into one single great malevolent chimera.

“Hakram,” I sighed.

Masego yelped as he was kicked under the table, and though Indrani smiled mockingly and tried to move back her chair she found that shadows had mysteriously kept it stuck where it was. She glared at Akua.

“Praesi treache- ow, Hakram that was my knee you prick!”

“I’ve no idea what you could possibly mean, darling,” Akua smiled, sipping at a wine glass she’d never poured.

“Which is why we will be fighting a holding action against the enemy columns,” I said, “while the majority of our army reinforces Prince Klaus. At the moment, I’m inclined to field only the Order and the Second Army.  We’ll take a few Named as well, but once more the majority will be headed towards the Iron Prince.”

“Ah,” Masego frowned, “I must have missed something. Or is the plan truly to fight the largest enemy army with the small force you mentioned, while the rest all gathers to fight together a smaller army that the Prince of Hannoven could likely beat alone?”

“No,” I mused, “that’s a fairly apt summation actually.”

He frowned further.

“How many bottles have you had?” Zeze severely asked.

Indrani cackled in laughter, while even Hakram cracked a smile. Only loyal – treacherous – reliable – well, relatively speaking – Akua did not descend into opportunistic mockery.

“We slow the enemy by a day, perhaps two, and then retreat as the Prince of Hannoven will during the time we bought him,” she noted. “It seems achievable. Where is it that you intend to make our stand afterwards, Catherine?”

I tapped a finger on the capital, meeting her eyes.

“Bold,” Akua noted.

“Symbolic,” I said. “And, aside from that kind of consideration, it’s finest set of fortifications in the valley. Our best bet by far.”

Abigail would have the Cigelin Sisters secured by then, taking the pressure off of our defensive line, and from behind city walls we’d be able to supply ourselves through the Twilight Ways. If not necessarily for long, given the difficulties of feeding so many people by convoys. Neshamah was after our extermination, so he’d come for us in Hainaut sure as dawn – he might not ever again get this good an opportunity to wipe out our full forces in this front. The great army that’d chased after Prince Klaus from Malmedit would be drawn into this as well, and at the capital of the fallen principality we would roll the dice on the outcome of this campaign.

“It’s a delaying action we’ll be fighting, Zeze,” I added for his sake. “The objective here isn’t to win the battle, it’s to slow down the enemy while losing as few people as possible and making it away safely.”

“I see,” Masego said, and I narrowed my eyes.

It seemed like he meant it this time, though, so I let it go.

“I am still unsure why you gathered us here,” he then admitted.

“’cause we’re all going to be with her in that scrap,” Indrani casually said. “So she wants to hear us first. What we need, which Named we want to keep. That about right?”

“It is,” I said. “I’ve an idea or two to slow down the enemy while avoiding a bloody fight, but I’ll be relying on all of you. I’ll likely be on the field, which means Hakram will be holding command over our Named in my absence while General Hune and Grandmaster Talbot will handle the manoeuvering.”

“How many Named do we get to keep?” Indrani asked.

“Four, five tops,” I said. “Aside from the people here, of course.”

“Then we should bring the Blessed Artificer,” Archer bluntly said. “I know she’s not exactly the favourite of anyone at this table, but-“

“Large-scale workings, even in something as limited as Light, will be of great use,” Masego calmly interrupted. “I agree. I would request the Summoner, myself. His branch of sorcery is highly flexible, and unlike Roland there would be no complications in wresting his magic for use of my own should there be need.”

Why was it that the most useful Named so often ended up being the most unpleasant ones? Still, just because I personally disliked both people mentioned did not mean they’d not been brought up for good reasons. The Summoner, in particular, was someone I’d been inclined to bring in. While tiresome he wasn’t too difficult to handle, he really was just that damned useful to have around.

“Who will be leading the Named reinforcing Prince Klaus?” Akua asked.

“Unless one of you requests him, it will be Roland,” I said.

The shade cocked her head to the side.

“Not the Grey Pilgrim,” she observed.

“I have a use for him, as it happens,” I smiled. “Unless one of you objects?”

None did. I doubted Tariq would be hard to talk into it, if he needed to be convinced at all. This sort of stand was right up his alley, and while the Forsworn Healer brought similar strength in healing – superior when it came to groups actually – to the table, there were few Named who could boast of sharper bite than the Peregrine. That made three down, so we still had room for some. I glanced at Hakram.

“I would keep the Apprentice,” Adjutant gravelled. “She has been of use, and I have a particular idea in mind.”

That had a promising ring to it. Both this talk of idea and Hakram no longer talking of having the young girl along through his teeth.

“Do you now?” I muttered. “Done, then. I’ll look forward to it.”

My eyes moved to Akua, who had laid her chin on her palm and seemed deep in thought. She worked differently than I did, I’d noticed, when it came to laying schemes. I preferred to have someone to speak with, as I’d found that the back-and-forth and other set of eyes usually helped me find angles, but silence was her own way. I sometimes wondered how much of that had been that, as a girl, there simply would have been no one she could afford to trust with her thoughts.

“I take it you do not have a precise role in mind for me already?” Akua asked.

“No,” I said. “I expect I’ll be moving between places putting out fires, and I had a thought you might be the solution to my inability to be in two places at once, but that’s not set in stone. If you have a proposal, I’m all ears.”

“Very forward,” Indrani said, not disapprovingly.

I ignored her.

“I have a notion, perhaps,” the shade mused. “It have been considering the nature of our enemy, and how best it might be struck at.”

“So you have someone in mind,” I said.

“I do,” Akua Sahelian smiled. “I’ve a use for the Rapacious Troubadour, my heart.”

I blinked. That, uh, had not been the name – Name – I was expecting. But that actually made it easier to claim five Named, since neither the Apprentice nor the Troubadour were considered major battlefield assets. Mind you, if the Doom of Liesse has a use for a singer I doubt it’ll be because she has a hankering for a tune, I thought.

“You have him, then,” I said. “Which makes five.”

We had our roster, our plan and our enemy. There’d be a war council later to hammer all the details together, but as far as I was concerned the essentials were settled.

And just like that, to war we went.

Chapter 63: Dynamism

“Not quite what I imagine my father meant, when he said I should find a talent that would set me apart from my brothers.”

– Basileus Ioannes Trakas of Nicae, the Patricide

“Rocks,” Masego said, wrinkling his nose. “Bogs. More rocks.”

He turned to glance at me, a gesture he rarely bothered with these days.

“Why is it that you want to reconquer these lands again?”

At least the Princess of Hainaut wasn’t there, as I suspected she would have been less than enchanted by Zeze’s stark description of her principality. He wasn’t wrong, mind you. I’d visited the great valley – in reality more like a dozen or so smaller valleys whose boundaries melded into each other’s – before but it’d been closer to the capital, through the west and the heartlands. There was a reason the eastern parts of the great valley were more lightly settled than the rest: they were a damned dreary and inhospitable place. No doubt the Dead King had worsened things by killing everything that crawled or grew in the region, but somehow I doubted there’d been all that much to kill in the first place.

“Strategic reasons,” I replied.

It wasn’t like the fields and mines of Hainaut were going to turn the tide of the fight against Keter, even if we got both in a usable state again. Which we wouldn’t, as I didn’t expect there’d be any people moving back into the highlands aside from soldiers and camp followers after we took back the grounds. It was mostly the advantage of holding the shore against the dead instead of our defensive line in the lowlands that was the attraction, one made even more appealing by the Gigantes offer to set down great wards along the shoreline to keep out the undead.

“You’d think forcing people to live here would lower morale, not improve it,” Masego muttered.

“Says the Wastelander,” I snorted back.

The principality of Hainaut might not be a green garden of luxury, but at least it wasn’t filled with murderous monsters and afflicted with weather that changed on a whim. Hierophant turned to look at me in genuine surprise, as if he could not quite believe what he’d just heard.

“The Wasteland has all the best libraries,” he reminded me.

“People don’t usually live in those, Zeze,” I pointed out.

“I know,” Hierophant sadly replied. “I asked.”

It said a lot about him that I had no trouble believing that. I was just lucky Warlock must have talked him out of asking the Sahelians, back in the day. And he must have, for Masego would have asked on his own and I had absolutely no doubt that Tasia Sahelian would have given Zeze access to the infamous Wolof spell repositories for the cheap, cheap price of marrying her only daughter. My blind friend shifted about, his shining glass eyes turning in their sockets and studying something behind him before returning.

“Company?” I asked.

“The Grey Pilgrim has it-“

There was a soft flash of Light, gone in a heartbeat, and the air filled with the scent of incinerated flesh. Ghoul, probably, if it could still smell like that. Skeletons had their own distinctive stink when burnt.

“- handled,” Masego finished. “Interesting. I do believe he changes the properties he assigns Light nearly at will, Catherine. It’s not unheard of, but that sheer verisimilitude certainlyis.”

“Having angels around for a few decades will let you pick up all sorts of tricks, I imagine,” I shrugged.

The Peregrine’s tread was light, but he wasn’t trying to hide as he made his way up the rocky path to join us. That made it easy to pick on, for people with senses like ours.

“Light is the divine facet of faith,” Tariq Fleetfoot mildly said as he came to stand by our sides. “It has few limits save those that mortal hands impose on it.”

Masego look highly interested.

“So if I obtained fae hands in sufficient amounts-“

“You’d still be missing the faith,” I interrupted, hoping to distract him before he gave offence.

Back when we’d been younger, tripping him over small details had usually been enough to distract him.

“It wouldn’t be hard to insert into a captured fae, Catherine,” Masego chided me. “It’s not fundamentally different from any other kind of delusion.”

I might have made a small tactical mistake there, I mentally conceded. Tariq cleared his throat, but though he did not look amused he didn’t look all that angry either. Masego glanced at him through the dark eyecloth, entirely unabashed.

“Mathematically speaking, the chances of your particular interpretation of the Gods Above being correct of all-“

I cleared my throat. I did it twice as loud, when he kept trying to kindly explain to Tariq that basic applications of mathematics indicated that his entire life was probably a lie.

“How are the preparations going, Hierophant?” I asked.

He cocked his head to the side, burning eyes swivelling about to study the distance.

“Indrani is nearly done installing the columns,” he said. “We’ll be ready to proceed with the Respite ritual in about a quarter hour.”

“I’ll leave you to it then,” I said. “I know you like to make sure the alignments are as precise as possible.”

He smiled happily at me, which even now was enough to make me feel a little guilty.

“I appreciate it,” Masego said, then glanced at the Pilgrim.

He nodded at the man.

Comparative Numerics, by Marcellus the Elder,” Hierophant suggested. “It’s all quite simple, really, when you consider the-“

“I think I see ‘Drani spinning a pillar about,” I lightly interrupted.

Eyebrows widening in dismay, the man who even without magic to call on remained one of the finest mages in Calernia stomped away to prevent his partner from ‘misaligning the constrictive forces’. His grumbling wafted up to us on the breeze even when he disappeared behind the rocks below.

“Quite a bracing young man,” Tariq evenly said.

I winced.

“He means no harm,” I said.

“If I believed he did, we would be having a very different conversation,” the Peregrine said. “I’ve no qualms entertaining doubts, Catherine. Indeed, in different circumstances I suspect an evening talking with the Hierophant would make for fascinating conversation.”

He’d not said ‘safe’ or ‘religiously acceptable in any way’, so I’d give him that.

“But,” I said.

“But at the moment, perhaps a reminder that a certain moderation of words is in order would not go amiss,” Tariq gently suggested. “Others of faith might have more of a temper, and I do believe he’s been in three screaming matches with the Blessed Artificer since he arrived.”

“I’ll speak with him,” I sighed. “But you know the Blessed Artificer situation isn’t his fault alone, or entirely driven by either’s character.”

Their Names were clearly nudging them forward there, turning every small irritation into a slight and every disagreement into an argument. The fundamental nature of the Roles behind them were too opposed for there to be any hope of cordiality there: the Hierophant was a vivisector of all things divine, while the Blessed Artificer forged in what the Peregrine himself had called ‘the divine facet of faith’.

“I am aware,” Tariq said. “I have known rivals as well, Catherine, and not forgot the taste of it – and never did the enmity between my Bestowal and another’s run as deep as it does between those two.”

I glanced at him with interest.

“Anyone I’d have heard about?” I asked.

“They died,” the Peregrine serenely said, “long before you were born.”

Yeah, I just bet they did. It was good, now and then, to be reminded that the wrinkly old man in the grey robes had a body count in Named probably rivalling that of the Calamities. I’d yet to see a Revenant manage more than to mildly inconvenience the Grey Pilgrim, and it sure as Hells wasn’t for lack of trying. My gaze drifted downwards, following the curve of the rocky slope. We’d left the Twilight Ways in the driest part of this little mess of bogs, as the ritual would need solid grounding, but the marshlands were spread out in every direction with only a few hills rising from them on occasion in mounds of mud and rock. The bog water was foul-smelling and filthy, but the Concocter had already confirmed it’d not been poisoned or cursed so the worse we’d had to deal with was a few bands of undead.

The entire region seemed to be crawling with them, which boded ill for the Prince of Hannoven’s army. A decisive victory at Juvelun wouldn’t have left this many warbands out and about, so it was starting to look like Keter had bled the Iron Prince raw for that little town. Worse, it would have salvaged large enough a force that Prince Klaus would have to handle it before linking up with my incoming reinforcements. And worse than worse was that we still had little idea of where the Iron Prince’s host was, what kind of a force it was facing and exactly where the missing Luciennerie army would be relative to us, Papenheim or whoever the Hells it was he was scrapping with.

Time was of the essence if I wanted to rescue an army instead of broken remnant. Fortunately, Masego was finally back on the front at my side and he’d provided a solution for our current troubles. He called it a ‘respite’ ritual, though the name was catchy enough I figured he probably wasn’t the one to have come up with it. It was that very ritual that we’d crossed back into Creation to enact, with as light a presence as we dared. Only Named had come, all of them save Adjutant and our two youths.

Most our finest killers were out and about, combing through the mire to make sure that nothing snuck up on us and interrupted the ritual, but we’d clearly draw some enemy attention. Undead were starting to converge, which meant we needed to hurry. Thankfully, we were nearly ready. Roland had already sent word that the secondary arrays were ready – and Masego hadn’t even felt the need to check on his work afterwards, which had nearly seen me gape – and now that Indrani had finished setting up the seventh ring of pillars on our little hill there was not much left to do but the sorcery itself.

Hierophant had come loaded with artefacts that were effectively just receptacles filled with magic he could wrest for that purpose, but just in case I’d assigned the Summoner to stay at his side. We were fencing with rituals against Trismegistus himself, no matter how certain Masego was of his formulas I wanted him to have an additional source of magic at hand. I’d not phrased it to the Summoner that way of course. He was witnessing the Hierophant’s work personally so he could give me his opinion on it later, though of course I’d requested that if something went amok he lend his magic to my court mage to solve the trouble.

It was known in the right circles I’d been Queen of Winter once upon a time, he really should have known better than not to look twice at that phrasing.

“Eastern winds, when will you blow

And return my love to me?

His lack falls like winter snow,

Cruel torment made decree.”

The Rapacious Troubadour did have a lovely voice for an unrepentant monster, even when it was put to use singing horrid noble crap from back home. Archer’s inexplicable fondness for the Lay of Lothian’s Passing, a traditional ballad about the rise and fall of the love of Sir Lothian and his ladylove Eveline, remained a genuine puzzle to me even after years of knowing her. Mind you, it was a common enough personality defect back in Callow as well. The only reason I’d ever sat through the renditions of it at summer fairs had been that there were some pretty nifty fight scenes against Praesi – under Black, singers had prudently changed the word to ‘enemy’ instead – and Baroness Fallon, the scheming noblewoman trying to trick Lothian into marriage.

“You ever notice how it’s always barons and dukes that go bad in stories, but almost never counts?” I mused.

That was unfair, as in my experience most nobles were terrible regardless of their relative position of their rung in the social ladder.

“Baronial titles are at the bottom of the Callowan peerage, I believe,” Tariq said, “while ducal ones are beneath only royalty. I expect both of those positions tend to… excite ambition.”

Technically there were knights and lords beneath barons, but I got his point. Neither of those kinds of lesser nobles tended to ever be trouble for anyone aside from the greater nobles they were sworn to.

“I expect the Dukes of Liesse aren’t going to be trouble for my successors at least,” I darkly muttered. “So there’s that.”

Tariq, to my surprise, looked amused for a heartbeat before mastering himself.

“I know you care little for my opinion in this, and rightfully so,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “but your choice of successor is to be commended, Queen Catherine. Vivienne Dartwick will make an exceptional queen.”

I shot him a curious look. Tariq’s reluctance to be in the vicinity of anything even remotely akin to rule meant that he usually kept his piece when it came to this sort of thing – for example, I suspected he would very much prefer Rozala Malanza reign over Procer rather than Cordelia Hasenbach – so I was surprised he’d even admit to having an opinion on the matter of Callowan succession.

“She has the right qualities,” I warily agreed.

“And she will chase your shadow for the rest of her life, scouring her clean of the weaknesses that many crowned heads accrue,” the Pilgrim said. “Unlike many before her, I doubt she will ever cease to strive her utmost to do good: doing so would be a betrayal of not only herself but the trust you extended her.”

My lips thinned and I looked away. It wasn’t that I was unaware that Vivienne and I had a complicated relationship, or that it pulled at us both in ways that were usually to our betterment – if not necessarily through healthy means. To have the darker aspects of that bond dragged out in the light of day by a man who might be an ally but was definitely not a friend was not a pleasant experience. The Grey Pilgrim’s eyes had always seen too much for comfort.

“Lothian strove and mighty slew,

A score wicked enemies

Seven lords he cut in two

And settled great enmities.”

Poor dumb Lothian. When intriguing baronesses trying to get your lands offered to let your repay your family debts by valour on the battlefield, they weren’t actually trying to let you off – they were just baiting you into getting in over your head so they could bail you out and leverage you with a life debt on top of the rest. I’d occasionally wondered over the years if the enduring popularity of the ballad – and play, there were like ten different versions of the story including the one in inexplicable Old Miezan – in Callow was due to the cultural resonance of a martial noble covered in glory out east getting fucked over by a more high-ranking one the moment he returned to the kingdom.

For all that we deservedly complained about the Praesi and the Procerans, my people had always been capable of being terrible to each other without anyone else’s help.

“I fear I have given offence,” the Grey Pilgrim finally spoke into the silence.

“No,” I said. “Only discomfort. And not unearned, in the greater scheme of things.”

There was a pregnant pause.

“I sometimes forget that your Woe love each other,” Tariq admitted. “It is unusual, in a band of villains. Yet these are changing times. I meant my words as a compliment, however short of that they might have fallen. You found a protector for your home, and set her on a path that promises distinction.”

“Then I will endeavour to remember your words as they were meant,” I said.

There, and to think some people said I wasn’t diplomatic. The old man ruefully smiled.

“It is a bad habit,” the Pilgrim admitted.

Thinking the worse of us? It was, and often tiring to deal with, but he was hardly the worst of his kind when it came to that particular sin. That he faced and fought it already made him among the finest of their number when it came to address it, so I would not whine. Besides, I held no illusions about the truth of villainy on Calernia. Though in time it might be sanitized, turned into something worth embracing, at the moment it was the side that counted cannibals and rapists among its ranks. I would not moan about the distrust of villains when I hardly trusted any of them myself. As a woman of refined tastes, I preferred my hypocrisies to be at least somewhat deniable.

“There are worse to have,” I said. “I’ve dabbled in a few myself, Peregrine.”

“The mistaken comparisons to others I have known is certainly one such habit,” the old man said, “but as it happens I meant another. I was leading up to making a request, you see. Yet, as young Indrani once made clear to me, it is not for me to pull and prod at you: straightforward honesty will always fetch better result.”

Huh, I thought, glancing from the corner of my eye. When exactly was it that those two had had that purported conversation? I didn’t mind, but Archer had never mentioned it to me.

“I like to think so,” I finally said, a little taken aback. “I’m listening, Pilgrim, though I make no promises.”

As far as I was concerned, Razin and Aquiline were once more his problem. I’d only agreed to keep an eye on them as a temporary favour, not to forever be their guardian devil. They were way too much of a headache for me to be inclined to renew that promise anyway.

“I would request that you keep your distance from the White Knight, when our armies are joined,” Tariq said.

I frowned. This again? I’d thought that the old snickering rumours about Hanno and I being more than simply friendly were dead and buried. Hells, we weren’t even friendly anymore.

“I’ve told you before that-“

“And I believe you,” the Grey Pilgrim calmly interrupted. “This is unrelated, Catherine. Before I left the army, I glimpsed in the Sword of Judgement the beginnings of a crisis of faith.”

I fixed the old man with a steady look.

“This not the time for the White Knight to stumble,” I bluntly said.

Even when he disagreed with me, even when we did not get along, his participation to the Truce and Terms alone leant it an amount of legitimacy that we badly needed. I wasn’t going to pretend that one of the first things we hammered into heroes hesitating to sign up was’ the Sword of Judgement is part of this’.

“On that we must disagree,” the Pilgrim frankly said. “This is precisely the right time for the White Knight to stumble.”

I blinked. Right, fucking hero logic. It had all the hallmarks of madness, except for the part where it worked.

“You’re going to have to walk me through that one,” I admitted. “In my experience, when one of yours doubts they either die or lose their Name.”

“We are all tested, sooner or later,” Tariq said. “Often this begins with a loss of potency, brought about by doubt or fear, but should we rise to meet that test we do not simply resume what we were: we rise above it.”

My eyes narrowed. That came uncomfortably close to ‘iron sharpens iron’ in some ways, which made it all the more distressing coming from the eldest living hero on Calernia. Mind you the test as he described it wouldn’t necessarily be another person, which in the central philosophy of the Praesi highborn it always was. To the old guard of the Wasteland, even fighting off an invasion was just a setting for another duel against your rivals.

“I’m not too clear on what it is that Hanno has to doubt,” I frankly said. “He’s been mostly getting his way, except when it’d cost too much to others if he did. He’s an intelligent man and reasonable enough for one of your lot, so he shouldn’t be expecting much more of us wicked sinners.”

“His thoughts are his own, and not mine to divulge,” the Pilgrim said, “yet I will speak to my own. Hanno of Arwad is split between the man he wants to be and the man fate demands he should be.”

That did not sound like a particularly pleasant place to be in. I stayed silent, waiting for Tariq to elaborate, and he did not disappoint.

“He is the Sword of Judgement by choice,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “but he is the White Knight through the workings of fate.”

“There’s not supposed to be a difference between the two,” I pointed out.

“Yet there is,” the old man said. “The Sword of Judgement is growing increasingly unable to stomach the deals the White Knight has been forced to make to ensure that we survive this war. And soon that disparity will come to a head.”

I studied him for a bit, parsing his words. By ‘Sword of Judgement’ I figured he was actually referring to Hanno’s comfortable embrace of his role as the designated hatchetman of the Seraphim. It did tend to be what he defaulted to being when in conflict, I’d noticed, even now that Judgement had grown quiet. What was meant by ‘White Knight’, though, was a little more nebulous to my eye.

“Hanno the man who believes in Judgement,” I tried, “and Hanno the man who is an officer of the Grand Alliance.”

The Pilgrim gently smiled at me.

“The latter is a mortal tie, Catherine,” he said. “It would not bind him. It is, rather, Hanno the man who has sworn his faith to the Seraphim and Hanno the man who leads the heroes of our age.”

“I will not mistrust, said she,

And never shall I despair

Tenderness will set me free,

To lovers the world is fair.”

I mulled that over a while. Tariq was, in essence, telling me that the while Hanno might have been a good fit for the Name of White Knight in certain circumstances they were not the current ones. He fits the Name but not the Role, I tried out. At least not the Role the war has forced on him. He commanded obedience, through charisma and respect, but I could see how an argument could be made that Hanno didn’t particularly want to be in charge of heroes, or really of anything at all. He tended to see leadership as a burden, and only took it up when he perceived it at as his duty to do so. Which, given that this war was vaguely crusade-shaped and he was the White Knight, must have been a lot more often than he was comfortable with.

Throw in the Hierarch silencing the entire Choir of Judgement for what was, as far as I knew, the first time in recorded Calernian history? I could see why Hanno was having some troubles coming to terms with who he was turning into. Which tended to be a costly kind of doubt, for Named.

Our time at the Arsenal looks different seen through those eyes, I thought. What I’d seen as inflexibility and even obstructionism on his part took instead the shape of the White Knight considering the troubles in the Highest Assembly as a Cordelia’s sphere of trouble to deal with and not for him to meddle in, much like the Red Axe had been his sphere of responsibility where we should not have trespassed. That seemed overly simplistic to me, but then I was in a pretty unique situation wasn’t I? I’d accumulated influence until I’d come to sit on every council as both Queen of Callow and representative for the villains. I’d not really seen a difference because to me there really wasn’t.

Frankly, I still thought he was wrong. The moment the Red Axe had tried to kill a Proceran prince of the blood it had become problem that involved more than just heroes whether he liked it or not. But seen from that perspective, both Cordelia and I would have overreached and meddled in his sphere when he’d been scrupulously careful about never touching ours. And I just bet if things had gotten bad after we obeyed those invisible lines and Hasenbach had said she needed his help, he would have given it without hesitation, I ruefully thought. Because he would have been invited to step beyond his sphere, while on the other hand the First Prince and I had simply worked around him to get what we needed.

It was that fucking hero mindset, I silently cursed. He didn’t see something like the rebellious whispers in the Assembly as a real problem, because in his experience if he kept doing the right thing and trouble came then continuing to do the right thing would get him through that as well. Why compromise and dirty his principles, when the moment it all went to shit he could instead make an inspiring speech to the rebels and Creation would bend over backwards for it to work? There were godsdamned good reasons I was still trying to keep Named from being able to be rulers, even if my failure there was all but writ in the stars. There’d been blind spots all around, I finally admitted to myself, and they’d neatly fit into our worst expectations of each other.

Merciless Gods but that felt like something the Intercessor would have arranged. Surely even she couldn’t manipulate us this precisely, though. Right? I clenched my fingers and unclenched them. It was always the necessary degree of paranoia that was difficult to gauge with the Wandering Bard, not whether or not it was necessary at all.

“All right,” I said. “Say I buy that. What does it get the Heavens for their favourite knight to doubt his place in Creation?”

“Times are changing,” Tariq softly said. “And while I have grown distressed by the echo of truth there has been to the words of your once-teacher, I will not shy away from the truth: though it can be said that Good triumphed in the Age of Wonders, in this dawning Age of Order is it Evil that has seized the lead.”

“It doesn’t have to be a competition,” I began, then bit my tongue.

I sighed.

“It does,” I admitted. “It does have to be competition, that’s how we were made. But it doesn’t have to be the kind of wars it’s turned into, Tariq. The ones that shatter cities and break nations. It can be made, if not civil, then at least civilized.”

“I do not know if I believe that,” the Grey Pilgrim quietly replied.

I winced at the blunt admission.

“But I recognize that you believe it,” Tariq Fleetfoot continued. “And in that I can put my trust. The truth is, Catherine, that I am an old man. Set in my ways. And I will try to change them to better ones, so long as there is breath yet left in this carcass, but I have fought Evil for many years and it has taken its toll. I am not certain there would be a place for someone like me, in the world you seek to make.”

The Grey Pilgrim mirthlessly smiled.

“That is, in a sense, the highest compliment I can pay your dream,” the Peregrine said. “But I will not be alone in this, Black Queen. I am not alone in this. Consider Hanno of Arwad, the man as you know him, and tell me that if he had been born two centuries past he would have been the kind of hero we would still raise shrines to.”

“He would have made mincemeat of most Old Tyrants,” I agreed. “Your point?”

“That there are no longer Old Tyrants to fight,” the Grey Pilgrim honestly replied. “And so we must change with the times, or become relics. His struggle is not his alone, Catherine. We must, all of us, reconcile the wild heroics of my youth to what would be allowed in the world to come – as young Hanno must now reconcile the unalloyed purpose the Seraphim taught him and the demands made of a White Knight in a greying world.”

“You think he’s going to set the path,” I slowly said. “Carve the groove others will flow into.”

“I do,” Tariq said. “And so I ask you to leave him to his test, that he might find an answer that is his and his alone.”

Which meant, beyond the all the flowery talk, that he didn’t want me getting my hands anywhere near Hanno while he transitioned into… whatever it was that lay ahead. I doubted it’d be a new Name, but perhaps a second flowering of his current one was not out of the question. I forced myself to step out of my own perspective and consider what was being asked of me. Meddling in Hanno’s ‘test’, if he was really undergoing such a thing, could potentially yield advantages for me. It seemed possible to at least nudge him in a direction that wasn’t adversarial to my own. On the other hand, wasn’t that very kind of meddling something providence was bound to punish me over? Villains that thought they were the cleverest thing since Traitorous tended to end up in some pit or another, one that they’d even dug themselves most of the time.

It’d be damned easy to misstep and become the proverbial devil on Hanno’s shoulder, or worse the enemy he defined himself through. It might come to that anyway, I honestly admitted to myself. We were both prominent Named as well as representatives of a larger amount of Named. Yet so long as the enmity was one of means and ideals rather than, you know, demons and calling down Choirs I could deal with it. And I was honestly inclined to believe that the less I was involved the friendlier the end result would be: I doubted the Heavens would take kindly to my meddling with the tempering of their designated champion. If he was truly that, I reminded myself. I would not take the Grey Pilgrim’s opinions as facts, no matter how wizened and wise the old man was.

“Our duties will still see us working together,” I eventually said.

It was tacitly accepting his request, and neither of us pretended otherwise. Aside from all other considerations, antagonizing the Peregrine over something he believed to be this important would have been a blunder.

“Adjacency,” the Grey Pilgrim replied, “is not intrusion.”

Fair enough. So long as I didn’t actively meddle, he wouldn’t consider it meddling. Pretty fair terms, though admittedly these days Tariq wasn’t in a position to ask much of me that I didn’t want to give.

“I’ll look forward to the ending, then,” I said.

“So will I,” the Peregrine smiled. “I expect that light will burn bright, Black Queen, and come just when the night has grown darkest.”

That old trick again, huh? Kairos had liked to always have a fresh enemy to make, but Tariq had a favoured trick of his own: to keep a journey ongoing and undefined, so that providence might lead it to end at precisely the right time. It’d bit him in the ass at the Graveyard, but the old man was pretty much the patron saint of timely arrivals so I could see how leaning into that groove would have paid off for him over the years. That Hanno’s journey here would be a metaphorical one wouldn’t matter, as far as the Pilgrim was concerned.  

Fate, to his kind, was a book writ from ending to start.

It was not an answer I shared. Fate is a tug of war, I’d once heard a madman say, and for all that madness he had not been wrong. By our own hands we would make or break this world, and if either gods or Gods disagreed then let them bite their tongue bloody.

“Let me die then, Lothian said

I choose doom, end in honour

Many seasons my heart bled

As my oath kept me from her.”

The song, beautifully played as it had been, ended abruptly after the last note preceding Sir Lothian’s getting himself killed in battle before he was forced to marry Baroness Fallon. The Rapacious Troubadour, like us, had felt the power gathering. Below us sorcery flared as at last began the ritual we’d been awaiting. Our respite. Chords of magic, thick and burning, began to flow along the trajectory the columns had set as the smell of ozone filled the air and a dim pressure began to mount. The dead god on his throne in Keter had blinded us, here in Hainaut, but his hollow miracles were not beyond us.

Hierophant laughed, exulting as the ritual took, and ripped open an eye in the sky.

Interlude: Ietsism

“There is a natural order to the world and the peoples of the world must reflect it through law. Should all serve as ordained by the Heavens, all of Creation will be as a garden without sin.”

– Extract from ‘Ten Scales’, by Madrubal the Wise

They were not alone out here.

Leaning against the tall rock, the White Knight reached for the coin that was never far from his hand and palmed it, deftly sliding it between his thumb and forefinger. With a satisfying twang it went spinning upwards and for a heartbeat his heart soared before he mastered it. His fear was proved true a heartbeat later, as the coin ceased spinning at the apex and simply hung there as if frozen in amber. After a few heartbeats, it simply dropped down and back onto his palm. At no point did either the laurels or the swords take primacy, as the Hierarch of the Free Cities would brook not even the shadow of a verdict to be passed while he watched. Flicking his wrist with a defeated sigh, Hanno of Arwad disappeared the coin once more.

“Stern Singers again silent, huh,” Rafaella said, peering down at him from atop the stone.

“Anaxares the Diplomat is proving to be remarkably obstructive man,” Hanno replied with forced calm.

And on occasion he had proved more than simply that. That over the last three months the coin had begun to occasionally be seized instead of simply inert had been worrying enough, for not even the Grey Pilgrim knew whether it meant that the Hierarch was fading with a last hurrah or gaining ground against the Seraphim. Rather more troubling had been the word that’d come to Hanno that for the first year after the Peace of Salia, the heads of Bellerophans who had broken the city’s laws had taken to spontaneously exploding. Not for every infraction, but frequently enough that rumours had spread out of even the famously closed republic. The madman had succeeded at arrogating the powers of the Choir of Judgement, if only for a brief time.

“Bellerophon like bag of wet cats,” the Valiant Champion sympathetically said. “Never good idea to put hand in.”

“So I’ve been told,” the White Knight mildly said.

Catherine had graciously refrained from reminding him that she’d attempt to warn him off the course of action that had seen the Choir of Judgement sealed whenever they disagreed, but Tariq had not been shy in voicing his own opinions. Evil knows Evil in ways that we cannot, the Grey Pilgrim had chided him. To refuse expertise leant in good faith is not wisdom, it is vanity. Hanno had accepted the reproach for it was: not the lesson of a would-be mentor, which he would have cared little for, but the frank assessment of a peer. Few ever cared to offer those to him, which made such talks all the more precious.

“It seems our friends are not biting today,” Hanno added, changing the subject. “Any sign of the Hawk?”

“Just Wolfhound,” Rafaella sighed. “And he still boring loaf.”

Hanno cocked an eyebrow.

“Loafer?” he suggested. “Or perhaps oaf?”

“This too,” the Valiant Champion agreed.

Rafaella turned to look downslope, among the rocky expanse leading into the valley where central Hainaut awaited, and waved her greataxe eye-catchingly.

“Hear this, Wolfhound?” she yelled. “Fight me!”

The White Knight, though mildly amused, was now forced to admit that their little incursion looked like a wash. He’d thought it possible to bait the trickiest of the Scourges now that the camp was about to look vulnerable, but the Hawk had refused to bite. Even putting out the Young Slayer as well as the Valiant Champion had not moved to Revenant to try an attack. Hanno pressed against the stone to his side with his boot, and with a heave have himself just enough momentum he was able to leap out of the dip where he’d been waiting and join Rafaella atop the stone. Further downslope, the sculpted iron helm of the Wolfhound could be glimpsed among the rocks as the Revenant studied them unmoving.

He seemed unmoved at the notion of being alone around three Named with significant bite to them, not that Hanno was surprised. Of all the Scourges, that one had proved the hardest to put down save perhaps the Prince of Bones. Not that ‘Scourges’ were a formal band of any kind, mind you. They were, in essence, a loose designation for the Revenants that the heroes fighting on the lakeside fronts found to be the greatest threats. Each among the greatest of their kinds, they were considered to require either a full band of five or one of the greatest champions of the Grand Alliance to handle. Who actually counted among their number was the subject of lively campfire debate, though there were at least ten that all agreed on.

Nine now, Hanno mentally corrected, if word about the Stitcher being destroyed by the Firstborn was to be believed.

“Slayer,” the White Knight called out, “return. We’re done here.”

There was no sign of movement until the young hero seemingly popped out between stones, stalking towards the two heroes without a sound to his steps. The Young Slayer was tall for a Levantine and unusually slender as well, but the lithe build leant a grace to his movements that was almost fluid. Armed with a slayer’s arsenal, all hooked swords and darts and ropes, the dark-haired youth was among the more promising of the upcoming heroes. One of his aspects allowed him to most forms of armour as he cut, which had proved deadly against Revenants preferring close range. He was also something of a political headache, as it happened, which was why he’d been assigned to Hanno’s care.

The Young Slayer came from a family rival to the Osena, the descendants in Blood of the Silent Slayer, but had come into a Name that was widely considered to be the transitional one leading into the highly regarded Name of Silent Slayer. For the Osena this was something of an embarrassment, and though Lady Aquiline Osena had not proved outright hostile to the young hero she’d also made it clear there was no place with him in the ranks of the warriors of Tartessos. Hanno had promptly passed him into Rafaella’s care as much for the shared heritage as the fact that the Valiant Champion had managed to remain on good terms with Lord Yannu of the Champion’s Blood without being married into the Marave.

“Our hunt was fruitless, Lord White,” the Young Slayer sighed as he returned to their side. “For all we know, the Hawk is-“

Providence nudged at Hanno’s hand before his senses could, and he followed the current without resistance. His sword left the scabbard in a clean, crisp arc and cut through the arrow a hair’s breadth beyond the arrowhead. The Young Slayer flinched, the harmless steel arrowhead falling against his leathers with a slap instead of piercing through the back of his neck.

“Hawk still there,” Rafaella cheerfully noted.

“As a rule, it is unwise to tempt irony without being prepared to meet the consequences of it,” Hanno calmly told the younger man. “When you have come into the fullness of your might perhaps you will find the opposite tack to your liking, as it can prompt the Enemy to move at the timing of your choice, but until then I would advise a more restrained approach.”

The Young Slayer swallowed loudly.

“I understand, Lord White,” he feebly said, making the Mark of Mercy against his chest.

Promising but still so very young, Hanno thought as he sheathed his sword. There was still no sign of the Hawk out there, and now even the Wolfhound had disappeared into the rocks. Fighting against the Revenant he believed had been an Archer whilst she still drew breath had made the White Knight dimly grateful for having never fought the Woe in earnest. For all that the powers of the Black Queen and the Hierophant drew the eye the most, he suspected that it was Indrani the Archer that would have been the deadliest of the lot. The Hawk – named for the feathers she liked to fletch her arrows with – had certainly proved to be among the most lethal of the Scourges.

Christophe would have died during the taking of Juvelun if the Stalwart Apostle had not been by his side, and Prince Etienne of Brabant had died. The Hawk might not be as visibly destructive as the Archmage or the Unseelie, but she’d done more damage to the army than either so far. While Antigone fought the former and Hanno the latter, the Hawk had set about methodically killing her way through the captains and commanders of the Grand Alliance’s army. It was the Hawk’s head that the White Knight had been hoping to take today, betting on the disorder of the camp being enough to tempt her into an attack. Yet it seemed she was not to be baited into exposing herself.

The deadly arrows would resume when they went on the march, then.

“Back to camp,” the White Knight ordered. “We’ve lingered out here long enough. Best be gone before they bring in other Revenants and the hunt turns around on us.”

It was not a long walk, but it somehow felt like it anyway.

While Hanno had not reddened his blade today, the same could not be said of others. The pavilion had collapsed, its drapes drenched with blood. Half a hundred men and women, several bruised and cut, knelt outside in the mud surrounded by a ring of bared swords. Behind them Lycaonese armsmen, bearing the colours of Neustria and Hannoven, set to the work of dragging away the corpses with brisk efficiency. Few of the northerners had died in the ambush, having gone in fully armed and ready while most of the Alamans captains had kept swords and daggers but few bothered with even chainmail. Not a quarter hour had passed since the last of the steel was sheathed, but already the camp was like a kettle about to boil over.

Rumours had flown with swift wings, for the Iron Prince’s seizure and killing of the mutinous officers had been impossible to hide. Already two fantassin companies had holed themselves up behind their carts and hollered loudly at treachery and breach of contract, but they would not be the last. Lycaonese respected ruthlessness suborned to greater purpose, and in matters of law the Prince of Hannoven had been within his rights, but to southerners this was a grave overreach. Hanno had already sent the Balladeer and the Harrowed Witch, two of the more level-headed among his Named, to prevent that particular situation from spinning out of control.

Respect for the Chosen would stay hand and the Balladeer was highly popular besides, while the Witch had the means to quickly send word to him if need be. In truth, though, the White Knight did not believe that this would escalate much beyond the current trouble. The Prince of Hannoven had been hard-handed but also clear-sighted. There was no real support for the would-be mutineers among the broader army: the Lycaonese remained loyal to their rulers, the Levantines seemed to approve more than not and the Firstborn were either indifferent or amused. Hanno had spoken with their General Rumena on several occasions over the last month, and found the ancient drow to be contemptuously amused with what it deemed to be ‘human foibles’.

Its interest in the politics of its allies began and ended at their intersection with the interests of the Firstborn.

The Barrow Sword’s footsteps were not as quiet as the man believed them to be, but Hanno did not give it away until the bearded villain was almost close enough to be struck. Rafaella had twice warned him of how dangerous this one truly was, and she was not one to hand out such praise easily. She’d also had a few unkind words about the Black Queen’s protection of him, but then Hanno figured that the Barrow Sword would have had a few of the same to Catherine Foundling about his own protection of the Valiant Champion. That tended to be the way, with the Truce and Terms.

“Ishaq,” the White Knight acknowledged without turning. “Come to have a look?”

“Something like that,” the other man drawled. “Wasn’t sure the old man had it in him, truth be told.”

More the fool you, Hanno thought. The Lycaonese were a strange folk at first glance, but not so difficult to understand when studied in depth. In some ways their culture was more permissive than that of the Alamans and the Arlesites, especially when it came to privacy – though with the unspoken understanding that anything done in private could not be a danger to the community – and mores, but their land had made them a hard people. None of the northern soldiery had been affronted by the Iron Prince’s ambush today because, in their eyes, it was his undeniable right to act this way. They had never taken fully to Salienta’s Graces, up north, where instead it was strong rulers and hard choices that were trusted to get them through the dark.

The Iron Prince had never acted the tyrant before because he’d never seen a need to. It was as simple as that. Not all ruthless men needed to trumpet about their ruthlessness.

“It will be settled soon,” Hanno said.

The Barrow Sword let out a noise of disbelief.

“There’s four companies barricaded now,” Ishaq said. “And there’ll be more, mark my words. He only sent a few envoys there to inform them their officers had been arrested for high treason and they must set down their arms before letting them stew. He’s lucky they didn’t lynch any of them. Not the wiliest of schemers, our Prince of Hannoven.”

Hanno glanced at the other man, whose neatly-trimmed beard and elegantly subdued facepaint were both twisted by a jeer as he watched the bodies being stripped naked and dragged to the disposal pits. The Levantine villain did not seem to share the enmity much of his countrymen held for Procerans, but his general callous disregard for life meant there was little difference in practice.

“Not a schemer,” the White Knight agreed. “Yet not a fool. Where are the rest of the Hannoven armsmen, Barrow Sword, if they are neither here nor forcing the fantassins in line?”

Pale brown eyes flicked to him, narrowing in thought.

“Ah,” the Barrow Sword exhaled. “The conscripts. Not a fool indeed, while I have been yapping my jaw like one instead.”

Hanno bent his head in acknowledgement. The Prince of Hannoven had, correctly he believed, decided that the conscripts would be easier to get in line and so focused his efforts there. It went with the way Brabantines – and many Alamans armies – appointed their officers. A prince would usually name most his relatives and closest highborn allies to a command, but when the stock of those and trusted career soldiers were exhausted it was tradition for levies and conscripts to elect their officers from their own ranks. Given the high rates of attrition and the realities of raising an army by conscription, it had in truth been mostly lowborn captains who’d been in the tent.

And so by seizing or killing the Brabantine captains in the tent, Klaus Papenheim had effectively removed all the men and women who would have had the popularity and leadership to rouse the conscripts into organized resistance against him. His actions would still breed deep resentment and involved killing trusted officers shortly before seeking a pitched battle, but for now though the conscripts were mutinous they were a disorganized sort of mutinous. The kind that could be herded into companies and forced to prepare for a march west by Lycaonese soldiers, as was currently taking place while the fantassins failed to realize they were being isolated.

It wasn’t that the Iron Prince was unaware that a third of the camp now despised him, Hanno mused, but that in the old prince’s eyes that mattered little if no one here was alive to hate him in a week. He was not wrong in this.

“I take it we’re not going to intervene either way?” the Barrow Sword asked.

Hanno almost smiled. The man’s reason for seeking him out finally became clear.

“There will not be a need,” the White Knight said. “I have sent Antigone and Christophe to oversee the capitulation of the conscripts, and anything other than our visible presence would be interference beyond our mandate.”

The Barrow Sword turned to study him for a long moment.

“Huh,” Ishaq idly said. “Thought you’d be up in arms about all the killing, White Knight. It seemed like the kind of turn you might flip a coin over. So to speak.”

Hanno turned to level a calm stare on the villain, who met it defiantly. He said nothing, simply waiting in silence until the other man looked away.

“No offence meant,” the Barrow Sword said.

“Of course,” the White Knight mildly replied. “A good evening to you then, Ishaq.”

The bearded man balked at the implied dismissal but did not contest it. It would have been easier, Hanno suspected, if they had fought. It would have allowed the Barrow Sword to place him as the more powerful among them, and so end the incessant challenges that uncertainty in this matter drove him to attempt. Yet Hanno was a high officer of the Grand Alliance, and the Barrow Sword was not one of the Named in his charge. Duelling the villain, even if Catherine would likely end up excusing the matter, would be an act with repercussions. Gods but there were a great many of those, these days. His world had grown increasingly complicated since the inception of the Truce and Terms.

Duties had grown like weeds even as old certainties now passed like sand through his fingers. Hanno reached for the coin that was never far from his palm, though it had never been found by another, and closed his fingers around the silver. Laurels on one side, crossed swords on the other. The only verdict the Seraphim ever cared to give. Watching the corpses be dragged away in silence, the White Knight casually flipped it. It spun, a blink of silver, and landed on his open palm without anything beyond Creation’s laws having moved it. A relief, almost. At least it was not a spurt of the Hierarch’s madness again. It still left him feeling unpleasantly blind.

It was not that the White Knight believed himself to be unschooled in matters of law or in matters of right and wrong. He knew better. His interest in both matters – sometimes aligned, sometimes opposed – had begun early. As a boy, Hanno had once been a court scribe for the Outer Tribunal of Arwad. The courthouse of Halan District had been a minor one even among the lesser of the Thalassocracy’s two tribunals, but it had often deal with foreigners and their laws, as well as possessed a surprisingly large scrollhouse that the senior scribes and archivists had been lenient in allowing a young Hanno to use.

These days, when looking back in search of the first steps taken in becoming the man he was today, the White Knight had often lingered on that alignment of coincidences as a likely source. He had learned of many laws while quite young, not only those of his native Ashur but also those of Free Cities – Nicae and Delos, mostly – as well the southernmost of the Proceran principalities. He had also seen judgement given day after day, the law measured and applied by the tribunes of the courthouse for which he had kept records. It had fostered in him an interest in justice and law long before injustice slew his father and befell his mother in the wake of that death.

He’d read the famous treatise on Ashuran law, the Ten Scales of Madrubal, as much out of curiosity as because he had nursed ambitions to one day become an archivist at the courthouse. That same abundance of knowledge had come close to leading him astray, when he had sought the Riddle of Fault and earned the attention of the Seraphim, so in a sense it was not without peril. It was all too easy to become drunk your own learning and confuse it with wisdom. Yet Hanno had continued to learn, over the years that followed, for though it was not his place to judge there was rarely virtue to be found in willful ignorance.  And so he had sought knowledge of the laws of Calernia, sifting through them in search of wisdom.

He had found sense in some places, be they the graces the Principate granted to all from princes to beggars or the shrewdly even-handed way the Tower collected taxes, but always it had been… situational. Impermanent. Nothing at all like the timeless wisdom of the Choir of Judgement. And more often Hanno had found the laws twisted and turned into a tool of oppression by those who made them. The Magisterium of Stygia made property of men while calling it a godgiven right, Callowan nobles inherited the right to pass judgement along with their titles and Ashur in the same breath condemned slavery while buying foreign criminals whose sentences would be spent labouring in the Thalassocracy’s mines.

Watching soldiers in mail drag butchered naked corpses way, Hanno considered justice. Law, it could not be denied, gave the right to Prince Klaus Papenheim. Yet justice was not the same thing, and it rarely nested on the side that dragged corpses into mass graves – for all that the appellation of ‘disposal pits’ tiptoed around that words, that was what they were in truth. No, Hanno would not put blind trust in laws. Men were flawed and that imperfection bled into all that they made it was the simple way of things. Even laws. Especially laws, perhaps. So the White Knight had observed those that he could while pursuing what he knew to be right, and ignored those that he must while doing the same.

It was a straightforward path, in a way. While he was as blind as anyone else on Creation, he’d had the light of the Choir of Judgement to heed and follow instead. That had removed uncertainty. Allowed for purity of purpose, if not always action. Hanno had been blessed enough to benefit from the wisdom of the Seraphim since his first breath as the White Knight, and in a way the coin that represented it had become as much a part of him as his hands or feet. Even when he had not called on the judgement of the Seraphim, not tossed the coin, that he still held it at all had been a reassurance. A sign that he had not lost his way, that as the instrument of Judgement he still brought good into the world.

Now all that was left was a coin more silver than miracle and the growing awareness of his own imperfections.

Hanno’s hand went to trace the stumps of his missing fingers. He had not grown to question the worth of that bargain, but there had been other doubts that crept to his side under cover of night. The end of the troubles at the Arsenal had been no such thing, simply a transmutation of one form of trouble into another. And though the White Knight knew better than to linger on the attribution of fault, he had wondered much over the last months of how the parts of the blame there should be assigned. Some of it was his, but how much? Hanno had refused to bend on the principles at play because those principles simply could not be bent if the Truce and Terms were to remain worth enforcing.

But he’d not conveyed this properly to the First Prince and the Black Queen, and so they had joined hands to work around him.

It had stung. Not that they’d treated him as an obstacle, for he had absolutely been one. But rather that two women he’d held in high regard had so utterly failed to understand that the Truce and Terms were already a compromise on principle and they’d been asking him to compromise those even further. Behind all the talk of necessities and dues, what they’d wanted of him was to go back on the rights and protections promised to someone in his charge, with little more justification for it than ‘the fears of the Highest Assembly require quelling’. Which, while likely true, was not a valid reason to break half the oaths that made up the foundation of the Truce and Terms.

It was as if they’d believed he was being inflexible for the pleasure of it rather than because it was the only morally potable stance to take in that position. Even from a long-term perspective, a willingness to discard any Named that became inconvenient at the first… Hanno breathed out, reached for the calm. He would not fall into the trap of the backbiting, into the inherently losing game of beginning to think of this in terms of victory and loss. Yet he’d allowed the eminent reasonableness of the foremost villain of their age to lull him into a sense of comfort, and that was an illusion that must be discarded. While the trick with the corpse of the Red Axe had been disgraceful, it had mostly served as a reminder of a simpler truth.

Catherine Foundling did not have lines in the sand that she would not cross, if she thought it necessary. It did not erase her virtues, but neither must Hanno ever allow himself to forget that all that stood between the Black Queen and atrocities was the perception of need.

It was Cordelia Hasenbach’s complicity that had most troubled him. The White Knight was not an utter fool, he grasped that regardless of her character her position would make demands of her. Yet Cordelia Hasenbach had, once, been on the verge of being Named. The Heavens themselves had measured her being and not found it wanting. He’d honestly not believed, deep down, that she was someone who would put political needs over doing the right thing. He’d been wrong. The grim theatre of the desecration of young girl’s corpse, a trial that was a farce going back on the Principate’s own word – that Named alone would stand in judgement over Named – had proved otherwise.

 Cordelia Hasenbach had and would place the preservation of the Principate of Procer above all other callings, no matter how wicked or virtuous they might be.

It had been a disappointment. One less person he could trust among a number already exceedingly small. And there were even fewer he could both trust and be challenged by. The Grey Pilgrim was one, but Tariq was deathly afraid of stepping back into the role he had as a younger man and that made him… hesitant to speak up, sometimes. And so few of the other heroes ever cared to question Hanno’s actions, his reasons, save for those that questioned them badly. Or worse, for the wrong reasons as Christophe de Pavanie once had. The trust that had grown strong between the keystones of the Grand Alliance at the beginning of the war was fraying, slowly but surely. It was, Hanno had found, an unsettlingly lonely feeling.

And so now it was alone that Hanno of Arwad looked at the last of the corpses being dragged away, knowing he had tactically allowed this to happen. Veitland, Princess Mathilda of Neustria had succinctly asked. A cliffside village halfway through Twilight’s Pass, where Iron King Konrad had once shamed fleeing armies into turning around and facing the enemy. Hauptberg, Klaus Papenheim had just as succinctly replied. A small dip into Recall had been enough to confirm what he’d already suspected, that there the bloody birth of the Iron Crown had begun in murderous treachery. Even the Barrow Sword had sniffed out the nature of what was coming, giving a warning about Captain Nabila being a skilled captain but green to the Dominion’s bloody politics.

“It was lawful,” Hanno murmured, eyes lingering on the streaks of red trailing the ground.

But was it just? His hand itched for the coin, but the coin was just that now. A coin. The White Knight why this had been done, and that some restraint had been shown. He agreed with the Iron Prince that if the army stayed here, it would most likely perish. The Dead King was too canny an opponent to give them the kind of hopeless battle that they would end up winning. Which meant they must win in the mundane, in the dirt, and that meant marching west even when thousands among this army were unwilling. Leaving the mutineers behind would not have been possible, Hanno also knew. They would have been eaten up in a day and risen as soldiers in the service of Keter. These, the dark-skinned man knew, were all good reasons.

That this had been necessary was, in truth, difficult to deny. But had it been just?

No, his heart whispered. It wasn’t.

There had been better ways. If he had stepped in, involved himself regardless of authorities and restraints and how it would be seen as overstepping, there might be fewer corpses in the pit. Or none at all. And the heart was just as blind as the rest of him, but these days what else did Hanno have to follow? It would have been a mistake to step in. It had been a mistake not to step in. If he had acted, lives could have been saved. A simple answer. If he had acted, the potential ramifications might have killed rather more than fifty people. A complicated answer. Hanno knew himself to be in the right place, for he was the White Knight and doom was creeping across the land. Between it and Calernia was where he must stand

Sometimes, though, he wondered if he was there right man to be standing there.

The thought came lightly, and left just as easily, but it was not far. The White Knight eventually forced himself to look away, for soon the fantassins would be called to heel and he intended to be there to keep an eye on matters personally. Likely, he thought, the Prince of Hannoven would try to begin an early march west so that the mutinous soldiers felt like there could be   no turning back. The afternoon air was chilly and so Hanno called Light to him, letting it warm his bones as he had learned from the life of a Paladin long dead.

It came slower than it used to.

Interlude: Theism

“Seventy-four: if your lover does not have martial training have a rescue plan ready and waiting, as the eventual abduction by your nemesis is essentially inevitable.”

– ‘Two Hundred Heroic Axioms’, author unknown

Klaus breathed out, quashing all hesitation, and struck.

The axe-blade bit deep into the skull, killing Ratbiter before the horse realized what was happening. The Bremen stampfen dropped, mercifully, but the spray of blood still went high and hot. Messy thing killing a horse, even when done right. Some would have said that the Prince of Hannoven should have ceded the duty to another, that the arm he’d lost in the fall of Hainaut would make a clean kill harder, but he’d refused. Klaus Papenheim had ridden that horse through death and doom too long to let someone else swing the axe. Wiping the bloodspray off his cheek, the prince knelt by his old friend’s corpse and laid a hand on the unmoving flank.

“Rest, old friend,” the Prince of Hannoven murmured in Reitz. “And if there is a place for you on the other side, I will find you there.”

Klaus Papenheim was, in the end, Lycaonese. He’d miss Ratbiter, but he would not burden the army with a lame horse. His people knew well that hesitation in the face of the dead only deepened the losses, and the virtues of pragmatism had been ground deep into their common soul. Sentiment was of no use from the grave, or from the uglier end of walking death. The old general forced himself up, feeling his knees groan under the weight. Behind him, two bodyguards and a pack of army cooks were waiting.

“Butcher and skin him,” the Prince of Hannoven ordered. “Throw the bones and offal in the disposal pit.”

Pitch and magefire would make sure the Dead King found nothing there to use. Klaus passed the axe’s handle to one of his bodyguard – Dieter, whose scarred scalp had turned white as he became just another boy aged too soon by this infernal war – and strode away. His steps took him down the slope, towards the heart of the beleaguered army’s camp as his bodyguards followed in his wake. His parents would have disapproved of it, his leaving. If they’d thought they glimpsed squeamishness they would have made him watch, if not take up a skinning knife himself. A Papenheim cannot hesitate, Father had always said. A crown is a cage of hard choices, Mother had whispered, tucking him in a child.

Both had set out to burn weakness out of him so that Hannoven would not perish under his watch.

The white-haired prince almost smiled. It’d been many years since he had last thought of Ludwig and Sieglinde Papenheim, neither of which were remembered fondly by many of their kin. Klaus had come to understand, as a ruler in his own right, that much of what had seemed cruelty as a child had in truth been cold pragmatism of the breed necessary to survive at Keter’s gate. He’d even come to be grateful for the hard lessons, in time. Yet the passing of the years had not made him love the imperious and high-handed pair any more than he had whilst they still lived. Ironically enough, he figured neither would have minded: what did his aversion matter to them, when their ways had become his just as they had wished? Some legacies were insidious, he’d learned, and all the harder to shake for their quiet creep.

There were songs, among Klaus’ people, about the love he’d borne for his late wife. How even as a man in his prime he’d never considered remarrying. The truth was not as clean as that. Part of why Klaus had never remarried after Suse’s death had been his many failings as a father. He had, without even noticing, become his parents come again. No wonder Wilfried had pressed that charge too far against the ratlings: when had he ever smiled at his eldest save when the boy came back bloodied and victorious? And Gregor, his sweet secondborn he’d tried to harden for the days ahead, had hidden the sickness until it’d been much too late for even the priests.

Would he have, if he’d not been convinced his own father saw him as a weakling?

And so Klaus had decided he would not fail any more children, that legacy would die with him. Margaret had been the one to draw him out of the darkness of those days, after she gave birth to her own little daughter. His sister had been a hesitant mother, and sometimes distant, but rarely unkind: in this she had fared the best of the House of Hasenbach. All it’d taken was for Klaus to hold that bundle named Cordelia in his arms once and he’d been lost, besotted with the little blonde curls and at the laughing eyes. She’d been a merry child, his niece. Prone to gurgling at strangers and trying to eat her uncle’s beard.

More than once Klaus had found his hand reaching for ink and quill, after the talk that had buried their closeness. Where the First Prince of Procer had sent him to fight and die and Hainaut, ordered him to abandon the principality – the people! – he’d sworn to defend. Always he’d drawn back at the last moment, and only official reports had left for Salia. Yet he often found himself writing that letter in his mind, when he had a spare moment. Bits and pieces of it. Sometimes, niece, you remind me of your grandfather, Klaus would write if he took the quill today. When I was a boy of nine, Prince Ludwig Papenheim ordered the town of Ebelburg burned when he heard ratling warbands were two hours away.

If he hadn’t, the townsfolk would have insisted on fighting and standing their ground, the white-haired prince wrote in his mind. They would have said the children could not run quick enough, that the elderly would not survive the trip. Instead he had torches thrown, and four hundred people were saved. They did not thank him for it, Cordelia.

Klaus still remembered the soldiers talking when they returned to Hannoven, the way they’d described his father. Carved in iron, they’d said, and it had been as much invective as praise. Yet they had respected him for it, he remembered. Even the townsfolk he’d burned out of their own homes and brought back to his capital even as a larger force assembled to drive back the ratlings. So I understand it, the decision, Klaus Papenheim silently penned. It’s in our blood. But I am the townsfolk of my childhood, niece. I cannot thank you for having ordered the torches thrown at Hannoven. The old prince knew his home would have fallen even if he’d ridden out to defend it. He’d read the maps, counted the days. Hannoven had been doomed the moment this war began.

 And yet Klaus Papenheim had not been there to fight for it, and this he could not forgive himself – or anybody else.

The old general found his tent nestled near the bottom of the hill, surrounded by sworn swords from Hannoven. There the rest of their makeshift war council still held session, sifting through heap of troubles that the last bloody push to take the town of Juvelun from the dead had brought down on them. His second, Princess Mathilda Greensteel of Neustria, was sharing the table with Captain Nabila of Alava – a short, stout woman with a heavily painted face – as the Dominion’s man and Prince Arsene of Bayeux held down his own corner as the voice for the Alamans and the fantassins.

The last two men stood for smaller forces, but in their own way crucial ones: freshly back from healing the White Knight sat with a pleasant smile as he methodically ate his way through an apple, commander of all Named with the army. For the Damned it was the Barrow Sword that had been elected to stand. Klaus counted the man a rogue and a vicious specimen of the breed, but he was also solid in a fight and a devil against Revenants – the Prince of Hannoven was willing to forgive much in favour of that. The Dominion villain often clashed with Captain Nabila, but it seemed more like sparring than the venom Catherine Foundling had warned him might ensue.

The Gods only knew where General Rumena had gotten to, for it came and went as it pleased, but in its absence it had left behind a dark-skinned drow that spoke perfect Chantant and called itself Mighty Sagasbord. It was both habitually sardonic and eerily knowing, which usually made for good advice unpleasant to hear.

“- then we should split our forces and strike now, else the enemy will delay us further,” Captain Nabila insisted.

“We’re still uncertain how many escaped into the valley,” Prince Arsene skeptically replied. “We could be headed into-“

“She’s right,” Klaus cut in, striding into the tent.

The splatter of blood on him got a few surprised looks as he lowered himself into a seat at the table, but nothing more. Everyone here had gotten their hands bloody taking Juvelun, and if they were to survive this trap it wouldn’t be the last time.

“Dare we hope for an elaboration, Prince Klaus?” the Prince of Bayeux testily asked.

“We took the town but the dead retreated in good order,” the Prince of Hannoven replied. “It could be ten thousand made it out, it could be thirty thousand. Either way, every drifting warband in the central valley of Hainaut will be headed that way now. If we don’t strike before the enemy musters up properly, we’ll lose the battle ahead of us.”

It’d taken three days and night of brutal fighting before Juvelun fell, the ditches and walls dug by the dead stormed at all too high a cost. Yet there’d been no final keep to assail, no last redoubt: instead the undead had retreated under cover of night, leaving behind a token force for the drow under General Rumena to annihilate. Though their scouts had insisted that a hundred thousand undead had been holed up in Juvelun, in practice the Prince of Hannoven suspected they’d fought around seventy thousand at most. The rest had been kept back, and most likely were down in the valley preparing to prevent Klaus’ army from linking up with the Black Queen’s. Should the enemy succeed in that design, no one in this tent would still be drawing breath by the moon’s turn. They’d make a fight of it, the Prince of Hannoven knew, but it’d be a defeat engraved in stone.

“Strike hard, then keep moving,” the Barrow Sword approvingly said. “A sound notion.”

Dominion officers always thought like raiders, the old general deplored. It wasn’t always a weakness, as there were similarities between the glorified raids that the Levantines called ‘honour wars’ and an offensive into enemy territory. But the distances and numbers involved meant a lot of their instincts pulled them the wrong way. It’d been too long since the Dominion of Levant had been in a real war, one that didn’t end with a summer’s fighting and a few promises traded between Blood.

They lost the learning, Klaus thought. The Army of Callow had gone through a bevy of rough campaigns and sharpened the skills with war schools while Procer had been given a refresher in the art by the Great War and the latest round of the Uncivil Wars, but the Dominion had nothing of the sort. All their learning was done on the field, with bloody costs for every mistake.

“We’re not in fighting fit for a pitched battle,” Princess Mathilda of Neustria bluntly said. “It’s been a day since we took the town and the priests are still overwhelmed with wounded. We lost a dozen soldiers to infections this morning because the healers would have died if they kept drawing on Light.”

“I forced the Stalwart Apostle to drink a concoction that’d make her sleep,” the White Knight admitted. “She’d still be in the tents otherwise, and burned out permanently.”

She was a good kid that one, Klaus thought. A little soft and with too much faith the Heavens would swoop down and fix everything, but prayer had never gone amiss when things got dark.

“Exactly,” Prince Arsene said. “Are we to send forces into a battle without priests and mages, Your Grace, or consign wounded to death so that our hasty vanguard is not bare of protection?”

This is why your people lost the Great War, Prince Klaus Papenheim thought. Why none of you were able to win it, beyond the Tower’s manipulations. None of you were willing to pay what it would have cost you.

“We will consign wounded to die,” the Iron Prince flatly said. “If the Enemy still has swarms to spare, we would be facing a potential wipe without priests and mages to compensate.”

“The Witch of the Woods-“

“- will do what she can, but cannot be relied on,” Mathilda Greensteel interrupted the White Knight, nodding at Klaus. “If Revenants come after her, the protections she has to offer will not be enough.”

“This is madness,” Prince Arsene insisted. “We are to leave our own to die and risk it all on battle with a force we know little about?”

“Would you prefer to be besieged in this lovely ruin of a town?” the Barrow Sword drily asked.

Yes,” Prince Arsene emphatically replied. “We still have supplies for a few days – more, perhaps, considering our losses – and if we dig in the Black Queen can come relieve us as soon as she has secured the Cigelin Sisters.”

“What impressive eagerness to die,” Mighty Sagasbord noted, laying its chin on its palm. “Your confidence surprises, Prince of Man. We took this Juvelun from a numerically superior force, yet you now believe that should we be besieged by an enemy many times our greater we will prevail?”

“Our men are worth easily three of the dead,” Prince Arsene harshly said, pride clearly stung. “Ours anyway, dark elf.”

“No Firstborn will ever take your life, Prince of Man,” Mighty Sagasbord smiled, without a single speck of friendliness to it.

The Alamans prince looked surprised and confused, but those more familiar with the ways of the Firstborn winced at the bald insult. The drow ate the skills and knowledge of those they slew, Klaus knew, so the Mighty had been implying that there was nothing worth taking from Arsene of Bayeux. Best to step in before this went further astray, the Prince of Hannoven thought.

“We might be able to hold the down, if we can put up defences before the dead arrive,” Klaus admitted. “For a few days. But they won’t fight us, Prince Arsene. They will surround us and wait us out instead. The Hidden Horror is patient, he will starve us into the grave.”

The army that’d come out of Malmedit like devils pouring out of a Hellgate was not far behind them. Three, four days at most. If Klaus’ army stayed in Juvelun, it risked annihilation: the enemy in the valley would pen it in from the west, the great host of Malmedit from the east. If that happened, even using a pharos device to escape wouldn’t be enough. The dead would strike in force the moment the gates opened, on both flanks, and the more of Klaus’ soldiers made it into the Twilight Ways the higher the risk of those staying in Creation being overwhelmed by sheer numbers and horrors.

They’d ran the games, him and the Marshal of Callow. Any army trying to evacuate through the Twilight Ways while giving battle was facing at least half its number in losses, and more frequently up to two thirds. There came a tipping point early in the process that made it impossible to maintain cohesion in the ranks, and the moment panic set in a massacre was inevitable. No, Klaus Papenheim would not allow the enemy to slip that noose around his neck. Better the wounded perish today that a hundred times their number tomorrow.

“The Black Queen’s column will relieve us,” Prince Arsene pointed out. “With her numbers-“

“She does not have the supplies to feed us, Your Grace,” the White Knight calmly said. “Her force is even larger than ours, and stretched the Grand Alliance’s capacity to supply. Even if she empties all her stores, all she can accomplish is join us in our starvation after a few more days.”

The Prince of Bayeux’s face soured, but he argued no further. The man was overly cautious, but not a fool. He understood what a combined army of over a hundred thousand, surrounded and far behind enemy lines without any supply lines, meant in practice. The Prince of Hannoven’s insistence to take Juvelun had not been, contrary to what some wagging fantassin tongues insinuated, out of desire for a victory to gild his name. The other choices had all been worse: either turning back to the defensive line, and so tossing the Black Queen’s army to the wolves, or allowing a massive army of two hundred thousand to march down on threadbare defensive lines.

By taking Juvelun and smashing the army holding it, Klaus had forced the Malmedit army to pursue him west into the valley. He’d bled his army achieving this, but it was better than the disaster that would be the destruction of Catherine Foundling’s army or the end of Procer that the defensive lines breaking would represent.

“I have voiced my thoughts on what must be done,” Captain Nabila said. “And I do not take back these words. Yet I add this: if there is no appetite for the fight, we must withdraw. Take to the Twilight Ways and leave. I will not swear the warriors of Alava to a desperate end in Juvelun.”

Prince Klaus kept his face calm. That had been, however delicately put, a threat that if the army stayed in Juvelun the Levantines would take to the Twilight Ways and leave them all behind. His control over the coalition was slipping, the old general realized. Eyes turned to Prince Arsene of Bayeux, whose face had grown conflicted. The man, Klaus knew, did not enjoy being at odds with most of the table when it came to making war plans. But he saw it as his duty to speak not only for the soldiers of Bayeux and Brabant but also for the fantassins companies, which meant espousing their causes even when they were unpopular with other commanders.

“I’m not certain if an order to march towards another battle would be followed,” the fair-haired prince admitted. “My men will follow me, but the Brabant conscripts have been unruly since Prince Etienne died and half the fantassins are mutinous. They were hard used with the breaches on the second day, and have not forgot it.”

“Alava led the charge on the first, and the Lycaonese on the third,” Captain Nabila harshly said. “What sets them apart from us, I wonder?”

The appearance of cowardice was like throwing red meat at a starving dog, for Levantines. They couldn’t resist sinking their teeth in it, and they were especially quick to point those fingers when it came to Alamans.

“The hardest defences to assail were the second day’s,” the Iron Prince acknowledged. “And their losses were significant. I have not forgotten that.”

The other prince looked relieved.

“It is not mutiny, Your Grace,” Prince Arsene said. “Your command is not contested. They have simply reached their limits.”

It was a mutiny, whether the other man wanted to admit it or not. It was simply not yet an open one, not that illusion would survive his giving an order. The rank and file did not understand why they were here fighting and dying, could not grasp the broader theatre of war. That was why trust between soldiers and generals was so important: they had to trust in the person commanding them to steer them right even if they could not understand what was being done and why. It now seemed like trust in Klaus Papenheim was running out. What was it that’d done him in, he wondered – the darkly comical march to and away from Malmedit, or the brutal fighting taking a heavily defended town seemingly in the middle of nowhere? Either way, the horse had grown lame from the hard riding.

“They must be made to understand what is at stake,” the Iron Prince said. “Gather the officers for me, Prince Arsene. I will address them personally.”

The other man looked unconvinced. Klaus did not have a reputation as much of an orator, it was true. The only vote he’d ever personally cast in the Chamber of Assembly instead of letting an assermenté do it for him had been the one that’d put his niece on the high throne. Still, Prince Arsene nodded in assent. Likely he figured that after the old general failed to sway the vacillating captains discussion of a compromise could begin in earnest.

“Let us part ways until then,” Klaus said. “There is no need for further discussion.”

The Prince of Bayeux took his leave, and after a lingering look Captain Nabila did the same. Mathilde slowed as she passed by his seat.

“Veitland?” the Princess of Neustria asked.

“Hauptberg,” the Prince of Hannoven replied.

She nodded, and strode away without another word. Nothing more needed to be said. Klaus found that the Barrow Sword was looking at them, eyes considering.

“Nabila is young to the Lord of Alava’s service, did you know,” the bearded Damned casually said. “Only a decade as one of his captains, most of them spent far from Yannu Marave himself. She rose to her position on merit, not closeness or years.”

“She has proved a fine officer,” Klaus replied, for it was true.

“There’s a reason she held borders, back home, and did not stay at her lord’s side,” the Barrow Sword smiled. “In Levant, authority flows from either Blood or blood.”

The Prince of Hannoven met the other man’s gaze, unblinking. It would take more than cryptic talk from a mouthy grave robber to impress him.

“I do wonder how you’d do there, Iron Prince,” the Damned chuckled.

Someone, Klaus thought, ought to have beaten the smugness out of that mean by now. He gave no reply to the villain, who seemed to take it as a victory and left the tent. Behind stayed only the White Knight, whose look of unruffled patience had not changed a whit.  

“You have something to say?” Klaus asked.

“The Enemy breathes down our necks,” the White Knight said. “I do not understand its great designs, for I am no general, but the jaws of the trap are closing on us. That much I can sense.”

“We reach the turning point soon,” Klaus quietly agreed. “One way or another. There is a battle taking shape in Hainaut that will decide the fate of the Principate.”

“Not here in Juvelun,” the White Knight mused. “It has not come together properly. And you might be surprised, Prince Klaus, by the roar of this army should it allow itself to be surrounded here. There is a… power behind such stands. Even more so when there is salvation on the way, awaiting the darkest hour to deliver dawn.”

“There are not many things I would not trust the swords of the Lycaonese to prevail over, White Knight,” the Iron Prince replied, “but steel cannot triumph over hunger. There can be no victory over an empty belly.”

“So I’ve gathered,” the dark-skinned Chosen amiably replied. “And so now we must prepare for the storms on the horizon and pray that the most terrible of our allies will come to our aid.”

The old general stared at the other man, wondering at the tone used when speaking of the hero’s equal and opposite under the Terms. He’d never put any stock in the rumours about the Black Queen and the White Knight, but like many he’d always been unsettled by the cordiality between the two of them. Often the warmth in the voices when they spoke of each other had startled him, but now he heard no hint of it in the White Knight’s words. There had been a distancing there, he thought. Not enmity, but a cooling of relations. Merciful Gods, what was it that’d really happened in the Arsenal?

The rumours spread by the dozen, each wilder and more fanciful than the last, but truth was in short supply.

“We will have order,” Klaus Papenheim simply said. “And we will march west, as we must.”

“I expect we will,” the White Knight tiredly said. “I will ready my Named for the march, Iron Prince.”

The white-haired prince looked askance at the other man, almost surprise.

“That is all?” he said.

“I do not judge,” Hanno of Arwad said, rising to his feet. “This has not changed, and never will.”

The Chosen left the tent after offering a small bow, not speaking another word, and Klaus dragged himself upright once more. His day was far from over. The old prince attended to the army of Hannoven, speaking to his captains and preparing them for what was to come, and awaited the word of the Prince of Bayeux. Yet it was not another Proceran who came for him first but something altogether more eldritch. General Rumena, the only drow in all of the army come south to bear such the title, was stooped and old in a way that Firstborn never were. It was ancient, Klaus knew, in a way that it was hard to truly understand.

The fucker was also a bastard soldier of the old breed, so Klaus Papenheim had never found him difficult to deal with. He’d yet to manage to talk the other general into no longer invading his tent whenever it felt like it, but aside from that their relationship had been rather amiable from the start.

“You have something for me?” the Prince of Hannoven asked.

Complaining about the habitual intrusion would be wasted time in a day that already had too few hours.

“We went down to have a look in the valley,” General Rumena agreed. “The dead gather, Hannoven Prince. The valley had been stripped bare of warbands – Losara Queen’s work, I wager – but the dead salvaged a host from the fall of Juvelun. Perhaps thirty thousand, though they are not yet properly mustered for battle.”

Klaus grimaced at the news. He’d hoped for closer to twenty thousand, fool’s hope as it had been. That much could have been handled without leaning too heavily on the Alamans to supply soldiers for the force that would sally out.

“How long do we have?”

The wrinkled and grey-skinned creature considered that a moment.

“The dusk of tomorrow,” the drow finally said. “They will be ready for war then, and waiting for you. The disarray from the fall of Juvelun will last no longer than that.”

Klaus stiffly nodded.

“My thanks,” he said. “Will your sigils be in fighting fit tonight?”

“We always are,” General Rumena smiled unpleasantly. “Chno Sve Noc.”

“So your lot keep telling me,” the Iron Prince grunted back. “Get ready for a strike after dark. We can’t afford to linger here much longer.”

“Do your people not have a saying about the weakest link?” General Rumena mused.

“A curse,” Klaus corrected. “May you be the weakest link in the Chain of Hunger.”

“Yes,” the old drow nodded. “That is not us, Hannoven Prince. See to your own sigils, before speaking of dragging feet.”

And just as boldly as it’d slipping into his tent, the Firstborn strolled out after seizing the last word. Klaus could have fought it, but what would be the point? Better to let it keep its prize and remain pacified. His pride was not so overgrown as to be unable to tolerate the occasional pointed quip from a peer. It still took half a bell after that for the Prince of Bayeux to send a messenger to him, giving word that the other royal had at last gathered the captains in need of swaying. The reason for the delay became clear when the Prince of Hannoven headed to the pavilion mention by the messenger.

That it was a pavilion and not a simple tent where the talks were to be had said much about the numbers involved.

Twenty handpicked Hannoven armsmen followed him inside, his bodyguard, but there must have been almost a hundred men and women already packed tight within. Fantassins captains, mostly, but many peasant officers from the Brabant conscripts as well. Prince Arsene himself stood to the side with a handful of bodyguards, as if to make it clear he was not one of the wavering souls. From the start Klaus found that the mood within was mutinous. He spoke clearly and concisely, avoiding frills and japes out of respect for the grim deeds he was asking for, but twice he was interrupted by a challenge from a captain and more often than that by jeers.

“To stay in Juvelun is death,” the Prince of Hannoven told them. “We will be surrounded and destroyed.”

“And where would we go instead, bloody Keter?” a woman called out.

“Retreat,” another voice called out. “We must retreat.”

“We must go west,” Klaus roared, his voice rising above the din. “General Rumena has reported to me that the remnants from the defenders of Juvelun are gathering in the valley, and we must strike west to disperse them before they can mount a true threat.”

The shouts of dismay were deafening, interwoven with jeers and calls for retreat or holing up in the town. There would be no convincing them, the Prince of Hannoven thought. It was Prince Arsene who called the crowd to order, in the end.

“Hauptberg,” the Iron Prince spoke into the silence, “is the name of a town two days away from the Morgentor by horse.”

His bodyguards had closed ranks around him when the crowd had grown wild and stayed in formation since.

“My people,” Klaus Papenheim said, “know it as where the first of the Iron Kings, Alrich Fenne, was crowned ruler of all Lycaonese before smashing the ratling hordes in Twilight’s Pass.”

There had been seven kingdoms back then, though in time they became the four modern principalities of the north. But the first of the Iron Kings had not used to sweet words to convince the other royals to kneel to him, on that day. The truth was altogether bloodier. On the last day of the talks held at Hauptberg, none of the kings had been willing to swear to another and stand as a single force against the implacable foe coming their way.

And so Alrich Fenne had, in the dark of night, killed them all.

“Sometimes,” the old general said, “someone has to order the torches thrown.”

He curtly brought his hand down and the head of his bodyguards screamed out the order. Like a tide of steel, soldiers of Hannoven and Neustria began pouring into the pavilion.

“Arrest those who kneel,” the Iron Prince ordered. “Kill the rest.”

Disjunction

“Hate, earnest hate, requires understanding of yourself and your enemy. Anyone can despise a scarecrow of their own making, but to truly loathe another you must first recognize in them some part of yourself that you deeply detest.”

– Extract from ‘The Covenant of Iron’, a philosophical text by Dread Empress Foul II

People were already calling it the Peace of Salia.

The capital letter rolled off the tongue, as if the Gods themselves had designated this particular to be more momentous than old ones. Now the Principate’s capital was celebrating that peace with great enthusiasm, for a city that’d been aflame not a month ago. The streets had been adorned with flowers and streaming banners, tables brought out from houses and taverns and shops as the people gathered under torchlight. Simple but plentiful foodstuffs – paid for by the First Prince, under her title of Princess of Salia – had been freely distributed, and everywhere cellars doors were cracked open and a few choice bottles produced. It was as if the capital had turned into a massive summer fair.

The Peace had been a balm for the Principate’s soul, one direly needed for these days Procer was feeling rather more fragile than it was used to. For the greatest empire on the surface of Calernia, that was a shock difficult to swallow. Unlike her own people, it had been centuries since the Procerans had been made to look the possibility of annihilation in the eye – save for the Lycaonese, of course, though that people had never hid their disgust for the behaviour of their southern kin. For now the fear had made honest folk of these princes and princesses, but the heiress knew better than to expect that would last. The fear would fade with time, and when it did the scheming would begin again.

When it did she would be ready. Part of that, unfortunately, meant doing violence against her own patience.

Vivienne would have preferred taking to the streets with the commons, but as the heiress-designate to the throne of Callow her absence at the ball would have been very much noticed. Catherine’s clever, bloody gift from the Princes’ Graveyard carried few privileges that Vivienne Dartwick had not already possessed, and brought with it many, many duties. In a twisted way, it was why Vivienne considered it a gift at all: her queen, her friend, only ever thrust such heavy burdens onto those she trusted. The warmth of that trust still lingered and made the evening slightly more tolerable than it would otherwise had been.

Still, even so spending a few hours surrounded by drunk Blood and the cream of Proceran nobility wasn’t exactly Vivienne’s idea of a pleasant evening. Cordelia Hasenbach could throw a party, mind you. The food and décor made up for the chore to some extent, since if she was to dirty her hands smiling at fools at least it would be in beautiful surroundings. Le Palais Joyeux, this place was called, which if she remembered her Chantant well meant ‘the Joyous Palace’. Unlike most kinds of Proceran ostentation, which the baron’s daughter in her could not help but find garish and vulgar, she could not help but find this particular indulgence striking.

Save for the great marble pavilion at the heart of the palace, the grounds were entirely a great open-air garden. Terraces and gazebos provided islets of food and drink, but the talking and even the dancing was done on the grassy green. Topiaries and sculpted flower beds – prizing pale and purple blooms above all – sprawled out in loose rings emanating from the great pavilion, occasionally revealing bronze statues whose rust has been artfully and carefully managed. Lanterns hung from great ropes above, cast warm light, and enchanted motes of light drifted across the night like little stars. It was quite the enchanting sight, and for all their many flaws the western nobles had come out just as beautifully adorned.

Fortunes had been spent on brocade doublets for the men, as they were the current fashion in Salia, while the women favoured instead layered dresses with split skirts and long stockings. Powders and cosmetics were used to accentuate beauty, for few here were ugly. Visibly so, at least, for though Procerans nobility publicly held distaste for mages it was quite eager to use their sorceries on matters like appearance in private. Still, for all their splendour the Procerans were not the centre of attraction: it had been a very long time since either Blood or Callowan highborn had visited Salia, and so both were treated as something between prey and honoured guests.

“- it was added at the order of First Princess Armande Rohanon, in truth, who it is said was very fond of le Palais Joyeux,” Simon de Gorgeault finished.

Armande Rohanon, Vivienne dimly remembered, had been the last ruler of Procer before the one whose death had begun what the westerners called the Great War. The last of the three from the House of Rohanon to have claimed the high throne in row, explaining the line’s sharp descent in fortunes since – since the death of the last Merovins, the princes of Procer had not been inclined to allow another house among them to rise too high again. Vivienne’s eyes moved away from the statue she’d inquired about, a piece allegedly meant to represent Clothor Merovins but carved in a style so severe it was nearly Callowan. It was why she’d asked about it in the first place.

“I have never known a man to have even half as many statues as the Principate’s founder,” Vivienne dryly noted. “They would make a forest of their own, put together.”

“Procer is the youngest of the great realms in some ways,” the lay brother smiled. “Even the Dominion can claim descent from the Eighteen Cities, after all, while no single predecessor state ever occupied more than third of our lands. Our shorter history has accrued much gilding to offset that… insecurity.”

He really was good, Vivienne thought. Simon de Gorgeault, whose company she much preferred to younger men incapable of understanding she had no interest in a flirtation, was at first glance at an attractive older man with a pleasant speaking voice and interesting conversation. He was also one of the three highest-ranking spymasters in Procer, though his Holy Society was more diplomatic in nature than its rival Silver Letters and Circle of Thorns. He’d also emerged from the botched attempt to removed Cordelia Hasenbach from the throne as a very influential man high in the First Prince’s trust, on account of the red-handed loyalty he’d displayed to her during those mad hours.

He was charming enough it was easy to forget he was here to take her measure and report every word and nuance to Cordelia Hasenbach.

“Not a word I would have associated with your people until tonight,” Vivienne mildly replied, “but I thank you for the insight.”

The silver-haired man looked faintly amused.

“You don’t trust us at all, do you Lady Dartwick?” Simon de Gorgeault asked.

Vivienne smiled pleasantly, knowing it would not reach her eyes. I trust your rapacious pack of fellows not a whit, spymaster, she thought. I haven’t forgotten that even begging was not enough to stay your hand, when you thought you were winning. There was a greater war than any mortal squabble waiting up north, but she would not let that delude her as to the nature of the empire she was clasping hands with. Its only saving grace, as far as she was concerned, was that it was not as prone to doomsday horrors as the one laying to the east of Callow.

“Trust is much like this grand garden, Brother Simon,” she calmly replied. “Years in the making, even when carefully tended to.”

It was a diplomat’s answer, but then they were both diplomats of some stripe. The man excused himself with a bow, sensing the conversation was at an end, and Vivienne took to the garden paths again. Catherine was easy enough to find, considering there was never anything less than a crowd around her. Her victories on the field followed by a sudden turn allying with Procer would have made her fascinating to this lot even if she’d not been wildly charismatic – and, in small doses anyway, that she was ‘Damned’ only leant a scandalous appeal to her company. With a bottle of wine in her and Hakram at her side, though, Cat would be able to handle it.

The wave of laughter that passed through the assembled crowd of Proceran hanger-ons and Blood in her pavilion suggested that the Queen of Callow might have dusted off a story perhaps best left buried, but then that wouldn’t be the first time. And Vivienne was inclined to bet that it’d been a calculated move if she had.

Catherine Foundling had been eerily prescient since joining the fray in Iserre, and measured in a way she’d not been before. The Everdark had changed her, and perhaps everyone else who’d gone down there with here. Indrani’s changes were perhaps more subtle in nature, but nothing to be sneered at either. Vivienne had once doubted anything of what lay between her and Masego would be voiced before the Last Dusk, but even if she’d not been the mistress of the Jacks she would have noticed the changes slowly taking place there. Though Vivienne was not certain Zeze had it in him to offer what Indrani wanted of him, she wished them well in the attempt.

It seemed to make them both happy, which settled the matter as far as she was concerned.

Vivienne knew her station had obligations, and that it was important to forge ties now so that she might have existing relations with the princes to the west of Callow in years to come, but at the moment she’d had as much of this as she could stomach. She’d been a thief long before she’d been the Thief, so it wasn’t too difficult to slip into an elegant hedge maze and shake off her few ‘pursuers’ – nobles a little too eager to speak with her, or a little too drunk to realized she was not interested in flirting with bloody Procerans. The maze wasn’t too difficult to figure out, as though the walls were tall there were towers and bridges to orient herself with. Twice Vivienne kept to the shadows as she passed couples a lot more interested in each other than their surroundings, which gave a good hint as to what all these alcoves maze might actually be meant for.

She’d skimmed the edge of the labyrinth while allowing herself time to breathe, so eventually Vivienne was forced to admit that duty beckoned once more. There was only so long she could allow herself to disappear for. From what she recalled glimpsing from one of the higher tiers of the garden, one of the several way outs of the maze should be not too far ahead. When grassy grounds gave way to small tiles – checkered black and white, an unusually simple pattern by Proceran standards – she knew she was on the right track, as the tiles were surrounding a small fountain of silver and marble. Vivienne’s steps stuttered, however, when she saw who was waiting by the edge of the fountain.

The shade sat by the water, trailing gloved fingers against the surface as she sat artfully arranged on the chequered stone. The long wrap dress she wore was more Praesi than her usual fare – the vivid patterns of red, yellow and blue drew the eye to the slim waist and the red sash below it, tumbling down into a large patterned red skirt. Matching elbow-length gloves and veil coming down an elaborately tied head wrap finished the ensemble. Akua Sahelian was an eastern dream, tucked away in a hidden corner of a western court. Vivienne felt her fingers twitch, wishing for a knife.

“They’ll really let anybody in, these days,” Vivienne drawled.

The shade turned eerie golden eyes to her – a shade unnatural, that no mortal should have – and offered a charming smile under the gauzy veil.

“Lady Dartwick,” Akua pleasantly said.  “What a fortunate happenstance.”

“It’s neither,” she replied. “What do you want, Sahelian?”

“Why, can I not simply seek the simple pleasure of conversation with a peer?” the shade asked.

“I’ve yet to see another snake in the garden,” Vivienne coldly replied, “but should that change, I’ll be sure to send it your way.”

And yet she did not move to leave. Not because she enjoyed insulting the other woman, although she did, but because she very much doubted that Sahelian’s presence here was without purpose. Vivienne would not take off before having first learned it – or, should the opportunity appear, frustrate it instead.

“I thought we might reach an accord,” Akua Sahelian lightly said. “If not for each other’s sake, then for what it might cost others for us to remain at odds.”

Vivienne laughed. It was sharp and immediate, withholding no barbed bite in its utter scorn.

“It’s a clumsy game you’re playing,” she replied. “You’ll not muzzle me through Catherine, Sahelian. If my gaze burns when she enjoys you, it is because she knows it should.”

Not that the dark-skinned shade could understand that. It wasn’t the Wasteland way for the empress to suffer judgement from one she ruled, and Akua Sahelian remained the Wasteland’s creature beyond even the calls of flesh and blood. Vivienne watched the golden eyes, saw how the skin tightened around them as the – heiress, the diabolist, the – shade mastered her irritation. As always, the thief itched to peel back that control layer by layer until irk turned to anger and the garter snake at last revealed its viper’s fangs. The shade smiled, fingers coming down across her long veil and unmaking it in wisps wherever they touched.

The bare face left behind was lovely, but it was a poisonous sort of loveliness. Not the kind that Vivienne would ever find herself envying in another woman.

“I’ve always wondered at the hate you keep for me, Vivienne Dartwick,” Akua mused. “You claim it a matter of principle, earned by my folly, but I know what personal tastes like.”

The smiled broadened almost mockingly.

“And this, my dear lady, positively reeks of the intimate,” the golden-eyed shade said, her voice smooth as silk.

“That so,” Vivienne said, unimpressed. “Well spotted. Putting that expensive noble upbringing to good use, you are.”

“Your compliments mean the world to me,” Akua assured her, tone without the faintest trace of irony. “After all we’ve had such entertaining talks, you and I.”

What was it she was after? Going round and round in meaningless spars would accomplish nothing but wasting the time of the both of them. The dark-haired heiress saw no need to step lightly, though, which simplified things.

“What do you want, Sahelian?” Vivienne repeated. “And try a drop of honesty, this time – I know it doesn’t come naturally, but you ought to be able to fake it convincingly by now.”

“I have always been honest with my desires, if not how I intend to seize them,” the shade easily replied. “Is it so unbelievable I would seek at least a truce between us, even if peace is beyond our reach?”

Vivienne’s eyes narrowed. True, she figured, or close enough.

“A truce,” the dark-haired Callowan slowly said.

“I understand that there is bad blood between us,” Akua calmly said. “I would have it set aside, at least for the time being. And so I wondered how I might make redress, but found answers eluded me. Who then to ask but the woman herself?”

She shrugged, languid, and for a heartbeat Vivienne grasped why Catherine’s eyes so often strayed in that one’s direction. She was utterly disinterested in the fairer sex, herself, but even so the fluidity of the movement had caught her eye. There was more to seduction than sex or showing skin.

“You remind me of a girl I used to know in Southpool,” Vivienne smiled. “She, too, somehow came under the impression that when she threw coin at trouble she’d cause it made up for the act.”

“I offered no such thing,” the shade said, tone grown sharper.

Offended that Wasteland pride, had she? She’d get over it. Or not. Hardly her problem either way.

“A bribe’s a bribe,” Vivienne flatly dismissed. “You want to know what it’ll cost you to buy civility between us, let’s not pretend this is anything more.”

“Ah,” Akua hummed, voice melodious, “but let me ask you this – if it had been, would you have cared?”

“No,” Vivienne replied, bluntly and immediately.

That took the other woman aback, though she hid it well.

“There’s nothing you can do to dig your way back to daylight after the Folly, as far as I’m concerned,” the heiress to Callow said.

Elegantly, the shade rose to her feet. She took a step to the side, light, and Vivienne matched her the other way.

“There must be some bare measure of courtesy offered and received,” Akua said. “Else all we do is darken our standing in our queen’s eyes.”

Vivienne smiled, a cold slice of pale teeth bared.

“I used to be afraid that you’d edge me out of the Woe,” she idly said, watching the other woman’s attention sharpen. “That you’d slither your way into their affections and then steal my place among them.”

“No longer?” Akua asked, just as idly.

“It was weakness,” Vivienne said. “I didn’t trust myself, didn’t trust them. I should have known better.”

It’d taken Hakram carving through his own hand to yank her out of the downwards spiral, but he had. And now she was no longer afraid of shadows she’d painted in the corners with her own hands.

“Heartwarming,” Akua said. “Perhaps you might, then, from the depths of-“

“You haven’t slept with her,” Vivienne suddenly said. “You wouldn’t be…”

This afraid, she didn’t say, this insecure, if you’d shared a bed. The shade leaned forward, eyes mocking. But the mockery was brittle, the heiress decided.

“Would you have been jealous, if I had?” Akua asked, tone suggestive. “It must have been flattering, all those lingering looks. Even if you weren’t interested. And it must have stung when they ceased.”

She could have lied, or refused to answer, but why bother? The truth would not hurt her, not here. There was nothing about that relationship she was ashamed of, and she felt more certain of it than she ever had before. Catherine had entrusted her with Callow. Merciful Gods, what could any words or doubts possibly mean in the face of that?

“I missed it, at first,” Vivienne shrugged. “But even when I still did, never as much as I enjoyed our relationship being simplified.”

Catherine had never made advances and Vivienne never refused them, but the attraction had not been hidden either. It’d been a relief when it had faded as she’d figured it would, freeing her from being unable to return the feelings of someone she cared deeply for in other ways. It’d never been love, anyhow, just a passing torch. And while it had never been unpleasant, or made her feel pressed, she was glad the complication was gone.

“You want it to be a loss, something you took,” Vivienne continued. “But there was nothing there to lose. We are not in competition, Akua Sahelian.”

“You asked an oath for the end of my existence,” the shade replied. “We very much are, though you might prefer to pretend otherwise: you never were much good with a knife in hand, were you? That sort of work was always best left to others.”

A comment that would have drawn blood, a year ago. No longer.

“What I had to say on the matter of your fate, I have said,” Vivienne said. “It’s out of my hands, now, and entirely in hers.”

She was surprised to found she meant it. She’d spent most her life trying to take from Praesi to make for what they took, trying to get even with hard words and grasping hands. But she’d left that life behind, she really had. Her Name would not have left her otherwise. Tormenting Akua Sahelian, taking vengeance on her, wouldn’t make her home better. And she was, in that moment, glad that the long price there was not hers to take. Because it would be a burden, a vengeance of that magnitude. A crushing gone.

“You’re not my rival, Akua,” Vivienne said. “You’re not even my enemy, not really. You’re just someone else’s charge, until you get what’s coming to you.”

She almost laughed, feeling oddly uplifted by it all. It was matched only by the fury she saw on the face of the woman she’d dismissed. And it’s working, she thought, watching those troubled golden eyes. Whatever it is Catherine’s doing to you. Else you would not have come here tonight, unsure why you did. She’s turned you all upside down. And that might have given you a hold on her, because this is a two-way street, but if the emotions are genuine she’ll always win. Because she can kill her own heart, if she needs to, and you don’t even know what yours is.

“And once again, your pretty pale fingers stay clean,” Akua Sahelian said, eyes hard. “What a comfort it must be, to have always had others to bleed and be bled for you.”

“You’re going to cost her things she loves,” Vivienne quietly replied, ignoring the slight. “Respect she took years to earn, trust she’s still not entirely sure she deserves. You’ll cost her Callow, too, in some ways. She’ll stand by you anyways.”

“Why?” the dark-skinned woman asked.

It was, Vivienne thought, the rawest she’d ever seen Akua Sahelian. The eagerness, the desperation, the dread: they’d all had a piece of that one word, like hounds gnawing at the same bone.

“I don’t know,” Vivienne softly laughed. “It is not my price to exact, however long the taking. And why would I tell you, Doom of Liesse, even if I knew?”

The shade’s smiled turned rueful, her face mastered once more. The mask had returned and it still fit, however cracked it might have gotten.

“I could have every Choir and every Fairfax from Eleonor to Robert singing of my redemption before you,” Akua said, “and you would still not care a whit, would you? You do not believe the scales can move.”

“It’s not something you can learn, Sahelian,” Vivienne said. “It’s not a trick or a spell, to become more than the sum of what they made you. You’re trying to stay the same and be loved, hoping charms and favours will get you there, but that’s not how this works.”

She shrugged.

“You have to genuinely want it,” Vivienne said. “To do good, even if it does nothing for you. And for all your brilliance and your poisonous cleverness, Akua, at the end of the day I just don’t believe you have it in you.”

“You know precious little of me, Vivienne Dartwick,” the golden-eyed woman replied.

Her face had gone blank, like a mask of clay.

“Prove me wrong, then,” Vivienne smiled.

And she had, at last, what she came for. So Vivienne left, whistling a jaunty tune, and returned to the evening awaiting her. Behind her reigned only silence, though an even more careful ear would have heard a fait sound. A step.

Like the first step going up a hill.

Chapter 62: Adjournment

“Empires die to wars, emperors to knives.”

– Free Cities saying

General Abigail of Summerholm, I’d noticed, always entered a tent like she expected it was going to be filled with a pack of hungry wolves. Or maybe just mine, I mused. She’d never quite managed to hide that she was rather terrified of me, which made toying with her something of a guilty pleasure – kind of like ringing bell near a particularly twitchy rabbit. With the seemingly permanently sunburnt cheek and watery blue eyes, the first Callowan general since the Conquest didn’t look like much. That delicate little nose made her look almost dainty, and the messy hair was seemingly match with dark rings around her eyes that over the years I’d seen thin but never entirely go away.

She was also one of the sharper field commanders in the Army of Callow, though I doubted she’d agree if asked. I’d not bet on her against Hune, not for a few years yet, but General Bagram of the Fourth had some bad habits from his Legion days – too prone to being defensive, too fond of using his heavies as a hammer to smash everything – to match the experience those years had given him, so that fight would be a much closer one. Mind you, it had to be said that this was true in part because the Army was horribly thin on senior officers. Hells, it’d been thin on those even after it’d cannibalized two full legions in the wake of the Folly and we’d taken considerable losses since then.

If Juniper and I had been able to spare a few years between wars to build off a proper officer corps she’d merely be one of the finer youngbloods, marked for advancement but still needing seasoning. As things stood, though, the decision to appoint her as the head of the force that’d hit the Cigelin Sisters wasn’t me playing favourites with a fellow Callowan: I was genuinely putting the person in charge I believed was the finest pick. Hune herself might have been even better, but I’d need the Second with me. Though the sapper corps was now nominally separate from the rest of the Army of Callow, in practice the largest part of it had been lodged with the Second Army for years.

General Abigail saluted, biting the inside of her cheek, and approached my personal desk. At my side I felt Hakram shift in his wheelchair, trying to hide his amusement at the sight. The phalanges regularly seeded flattering rumours about Abigail to facilitate my long-term intentions for her – I’d need someone with an unimpeachable reputation and absolutely no ambition to hold the Army of Callow for Vivienne, when she became queen – and I knew for a fact that he’d indulged some of his gossipy tendencies by crafting a few himself. I was pretty sure that delightful yarn about the good general having impaled a Revenant with the standard of the Third was his work, for one.

“Your Majesty,” Abigail of Summerholm said. “I came as summoned.”

I leaned back into my seat, regarding her gravely, and drummed my fingers against the desk. The general visibly wilted.

“That is cruel,” Hakram said in Kharsum, tone appreciative.

“You’re right, Adjutant,” I somberly said, “it’s best to get this over with.”

The rabbit whimpered and I was a bad, bad woman. I wasn’t going to stop, this was much too entertaining, but dues where they were due.

“Ma’am?” Abigail squeaked out.

“You know why you’re here, general,” I severely said.

The other woman twitched, like nervousness made into a body spasm, and out the stream came.

“I’m sorry,” General Abigail stammered, “I know it’s Proceran wine, and that makes me unpatriotic, but it’s just so good-“

I sat back in my chair, smothering a grin.

“- I didn’t even know they were loaded die, I got them from this goblin sergeant in the Second and-“

Oh Crows, she was still talking.

“- I wasn’t sure if they were really flirting, I mean they’re Blood and they’re engaged-“

Had I broken one of my most valuable officers? Had I finally taken this too far?

“- in my defence Brotel is a very confusing name for a town, especially with Alamans pronunciation, and I didn’t know he was an actual lord-“

Nah, I decided. This was just my reward for suffering through the last few weeks of soul-grinding warfare. It was like having a good smoke, only better because it came at someone else’s expense. It occurred to me, after that thought, that perhaps the company I had kept over the last few years had not done wonders for my moral character. It was probably Black’s fault if you went back far enough, I reassured myself. Not at all something I’d picked up all on my own.

“- I didn’t really mean that we should eat all Proceran children, I mean how would we actually do that – okay, so maybe if we did like another sort of magistrate dedicated solely to baby-eating, but that would be really expensive and I don’t think the House of Light would-“

Hakram cleared his throat, which silenced her in a heartbeat.

“You know what must be done now, I think,” I solemnly said.

“You’ll send me back home, where I will officially be a general but in reality stripped of all authority,” General Abigail hopefully said.

“Even better,” I said. “Adjutant?”

He wheeled up to her, passing her a folded parchment which she opened warily. Her eyes widened when she caught sight of the royal seal at the bottom.

“Congratulations, Lady Abigail,” I said. “You’ll have to pick a last name, now that you’re a noble in the formal peerage of the Kingdom of Callow.”

“What,” Abigail weakly said.

“Quite right,” I agreed. “It’s not a landed title, mind you, but I’ve made my stance clear on handing those out.”

I’d largely inherited a nobility with its back broken from my father, but Gods knew I would have gotten rid of even my last few northern barons if I could. I had no issue with court titles and even knighthoods, but the notion of legitimate rulers whose only talent was having the luck of being born to the right womb still rubbed me wrong. The governorships weren’t a perfect system, but they were a damned sight better than the labyrinth of noble laws and privileges that’d preceded them.

“I don’t understand,” Abigail tried again.

“In recognition of your bold and heroic charge at the Second Battle of Lauzon’s Hollow,” Adjutant said, visibly enjoying every moment of this, “you have been made a noble of the Kingdom of Callow. The crown rewards exceptional service, General Abigail, and yours has not disappointed.”

It also cut off any avenue of retreat if she tried to retire. Being a noble war heroine would make her one of the most eligible women in Callow after the war – she’d be dragged into the kingdom’s affairs whether she wanted it or not.

“I,” General Abigail hesitantly said, “thank you?”

“It was my pleasure,” I grinned.

I meant every word, if not necessarily in the sense she might expect. It looked like she was trying to convince herself she was out of the woods, so immediately I hit her with the second announcement.

“It was also my pleasure to name you as the leading commander of the force that will continue with the assault on the Cigelin Sisters,” I casually added.

Abigail froze.

“I don’t mean to question your judgement, Your Majesty,” the general delicately said.

“I don’t think anyone’s ever told me that without adding ‘but’ afterwards,” I noted, and cocked an eyebrow.

She swallowed.

However,” General Abigail gallantly tried, “would General Hune not be a better fit for this appointment?”

“I’ve got other uses for her,” I dismissed.

“It is only natural the command should fall to you, general,” Hakram gravelled. “You are, after all, a member of the formal Callowan peerage.”

I hid a grin behind my hand, admiring the sheer bastardry involved in that sentence. He hadn’t lost his touch, evidently. General Abigail glared at the parchment that’d turned her into a noble as if the sheer depths of her hatred would be enough to set it aflame, though sadly for her Creation did not deign to indulge her.

“Surely Princess Beatrice-“

“Coming with me,” I idly said, “you’re getting the fantassins, though.”

She paused a moment, considering the odds of my agreeing to pass overall command to mercenaries before rightfully dismissing the notion.

“Grandmaster Talbot?” she attempted, with remarkable tenacity.

I looked at her steadily and she deflated. The Summerholm girl gathered her courage though, and back into the breach she went.

“Perhaps the Dominion should-” she began.

I watched the wheels turn as she weighed whether Razin or Aquiline being in charge was more or less likely to get her killed.

“- leave a few companies of scouts behind, to compensate for the departure of the goblins,” she hastily adjusted midsentence.

“Poor lordlings,” Hakram amusedly said in Kharsum. “That’d sting, if they ever got wind of it.”

“Quite right, Adjutant,” I happily said. “She should get Firstborn instead. Ten thousand under Mighty Sudone and Lord Soln will do the trick, I would think.”

She stared at me woefully.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” General Abigail said, in the tone of someone who’d just been asked to kiss the axe about to take their neck on the chopping block.

“I understand I’ll be putting something a burden on you, as you’ll still be commanding the Third while leading this part of the campaign,” I said. “For that reason, I’ve assigned you an assistant you should find helpful in many regards.”

With impeccable timing the guard outside my tent parted the flap to introduce the newest arrival, the young orc announcing the entrance of ‘Secretary Elene’. Scribe had objected to our using her true name, if ‘Eudokia’ truly was that. It’d been the name she used as a Calamity, at least, which counted for something. I found it fascinating that though Scribe’s aspect – Fade, she’d eventually told me, though it could be a lie – was pulsing as it always did and Abigail was in no way proof for it, the general’s perpetual wariness meant she kept noticing that she wasn’t noticing much about Scribe every few heartbeats.

A fascinating demonstration of the virtues of paranoia when you… oh Gods I was starting to sound like my father wasn’t I? I cleared my throat, addressing both women.

“General Abigail, allow me to introduce you to Secretary Elene,” I said. “She is a member of the adjunct secretariat.”

Which was true, she even had a salary. I’d already ordered her pay docked twice for ‘indecorous skulking’, which was an official breach of regulations in the Legions of Terror because it was an institution that’d had goblins in its ranks for over two decades.

“I mean no offence, Your Majesty,” General Abigail said, “but is she perhaps a magical assassin meant to kill me if I displease you?”

I choked on a startled burst of laughter. My lack of immediate denial had those sunburnt cheeks turning pale.

“For shame, general,” Adjutant chided. “We don’t enroll our magical assassins in the phalanges, it’s the first place people would look. We’re not amateurs.”

“That makes sense,” the dark-haired woman muttered, actually brightening some. “So this whole magical whammy I’m feeling is, uh, accidental?”

“Secretary Elene is Named,” I said. “But I’m speaking for her too much already. Why don’t you introduce yourself, secretary?”

“I am Secretary Elene of the adjunct secretariat,” Scribe told Abigail in a tone so dry it rivalled the Hungering Sands. “Pleased to meet you.”

“And you,” the general replied, seemingly by reflex.

There was a pregnant pause.

“She’s shy,” I confided. “You might know her better as the Scribe.”

General Abigail blinked in surprise.

“The old one’s finally dead?” she asked.

“There’s no need to be insulting,” Scribe mildly said, “I assure you I am still quite spry.”

“You’re a Calamity?” Abigail wailed.

“Retired,” Scribe noted. “I am now gainfully employed by the Kingdom of Callow. Which has my adequately remunerated loyalty.”

“You conquered the Kingdom of Callow,” the general said, voice gone shrill with dismay.

“It’s a fair point,” I admitted.

“She has you there,” Adjutant agreed.

Scribe shot us a look that was deeply put-upon, though I’d met the godsdamned Calamities so if she was going to try to sell me she was used to less fucking around she was going to have to do better than that.

“I promise not to do it again,” Scribe tried.

“See,” I beamed, “already we’re all getting along. I’m sure the two of you will both bloom from the cooperation.”

Abigail twitched.

“Of course,” she said. “I’m sure you’re right, Your Majesty.”

“I’m glad of your support for the notion,” I said, “I wouldn’t have forced it on you otherwise.”

I’d never seen someone die a little inside before, it was quite riveting. I dismissed them both afterwards, and by the time they were walking out already Scribe was asking questions about the supply situation that the general was clearly lying her way through answering. A promising pair, I decided. Abigail of Summerholm was too used to scraping by when the danger wasn’t immediate, which having Scribe keeping her on track should fix, while Scribe was too used to being the enabler of someone’s grand design: it would be a genuine challenge for her to assist someone as inclined to improvisation as General Abigail.

Named liked a challenge, deep down, and I suspected that having one would do more to keep Scribe bound to us than  everything else I’d done so far.

With them leaving Hakram and I were left alone, though only momentarily – within moments one of his helping hands drifted in, bringing a report. He looked through it and dismissed the man, wheeling up to the desk where I was pouring myself a finger of brandy. I raised an eyebrow questioningly and he nodded, so I rustled up a cup to pour another.

“Roland’s band has killed the last creatures previously bound to Beastmaster,” he said. “Casualties among the companies that accompanied them were light, mostly caused when the manticore went berserk.”

The least dangerous of the creatures the man had mastered had either fled or grieved, but those who preyed on humans had instead gone violently rabid. Fortunately standing orders had been for Beastmaster to keep his menagerie far from where the Dead King could weaponize it, so it’d not turned into a costly rampage. Not that the hunts had been bloodless, for all that the Vagrant Spear had been wildly enthusiastic and the Blood had treated it like the social event of the decade.

“Burn the corpses and go through the standard measures to ensure none of it ends up in the Dead King’s ranks,” I said. “Anything else?”

“Archer’s drinking,” Hakram said. “Heavily. The Concocter joined her not long ago.”

I grimaced, considering what heavily would mean when it was Indrani doing the drinking. I’d have to dip a toe there later and see if my presence was welcome. I’d not been light-handed while handing down discipline, so it might be that even though grieving she genuinely would not want to see me. Still, that she’d broken out the strong stuff before night even fell was not a good sign.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said. “But it seems delicate situation to step into.”

He hummed in agreement, offering up his cup. We knocked them and drank, the gesture smooth and practiced from years of repetition.

“She rarely talks about Refuge,” Hakram said afterwards, “it’s not shame, I think, but perhaps the absence of pride.”

“She talks about Ranger all the time,” I grunted.

“She mentions the Lady of the Lake,” Adjutant corrected. “When does she ever speak of the woman beyond a few words? Even Vivienne shares more easily.”

It had admittedly occurred to me in the past that Vivienne had been the Thief – a sneak and keep of secrets – and my enemy for years, and yet I’d still known her name before Indrani’s. For someone so outwardly rambunctious Archer actually kept her card pretty close to the chest.

“It’s how she is,” I eventually said. “We’re not all built for deep talks and scrutiny, Hakram. Some people prefer their dark corners without lights shined on them.”

“I’m not sure that is truly the case,” he gravelled. “Maybe a few years back, but now?”

He hesitated.

“Since the Everdark,” Hakram specified. “And I don’t mean because you two started sharing a bed down there.”

“Great Strycht,” I murmured.

Where I had died and risen again, First Under the Night. Where Archer had fought in my name against Mighty by the battalion, only to end up drowned in ice when my arrogance saw me eviscerated by the Sisters and Winter’s power spill out like a sea. That near-death, one that she’d admitted she would not have been able to avoid even if she’d known it was coming, had shaken her greatly. She’d grown past it, past the fear, but it had changed her nonetheless. Sometimes just seeing what lay past the door was enough, even if you managed to close it after.

“She’d never have admitted a thing to Masego, before that,” Hakram said. “She would have figured there was time enough later, and eventually that it was too late. No more, though. And I think it will be the same with Refuge, if the right person asks.”

“That might not be me,” I bluntly said.

The orc shook his head.

“It’s different, what she has with Masego,” Adjutant said. “He wouldn’t judge, it’s why she wouldn’t mind speaking. But you’re the one she confesses to, Catherine. Not me, not Vivienne, not the ties she’s made since she became a captain of Named.”

I leaned back, passing a hand through my hair.

“We’ll see,” I finally said. “I had to bring down the hammer on her yesterday, Hakram. It won’t have gone over well.”

The trouble was that, the way I figured, Indrani had joined the Truce and Terms largely because she was already part of the Woe and it was what we were doing. But the way I’d run the Woe wasn’t the way I had to behave as an officer of the Grand Alliance, and even if it was tempting I couldn’t just mark ‘the Woe’ as a different category within the Named I had authority over. It would undermine all I was trying to do if I treated them differently when it came to my duties. I wasn’t sure, though, how much Indran actually cared about the Terms – or even the Accords, in the long view. She’d not take the lash for a cause she was indifferent to, that much I knew.

It just wasn’t in her nature.

“You do her disservice, I think,” Hakram thoughtfully said, “but I understand why you would. Sometimes it’s more comforting to pick at a wound than have it healed.”

My lips thinned in irritation. It was not a charitable interpretation of this, and it would have earned more than a scowl for anyone else.

“I’m not sure what wound you’re supposed to be talking about,” I said.

“That she’s going to leave, eventually,” Adjutant calmly said. “That she made that choice long before she made the one to love you.”

I almost cursed – and not amusedly, not in poor humour. I almost cursed because that was the reflex, when something suddenly pricked you. I’d forgotten how sharp Hakram’s truths had a way of being.

“Figured it all out, did you?” I said, tone a tad bitter.

It was not a pleasant part of me he’d dragged up to the light of day. There’d been a reason I’d pushed it in a corner where the day didn’t reach.

“It was not insight, Catherine, but recognition,” he said.

His licked his chops then stayed silent for a moment.

“I have done the same,” Adjutant abruptly said. “With… this.”

He gestured all around us, encompassing everything as I went still. We’d not even come to close to addressing the subject since I’d refused the proposal to support the Clans in rebellion against the Tower as it currently said.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I carefully said.

“I needed to know,” Hakram quietly said, “if it was trust in principle or in truth. If you’d make a mistake simply because I asked you to, out of pity. More than anything else, that would have been intolerable.”

My eyes narrowed.

“Your proposal,” I said, “you botched it on purpose. It was never meant to be accepted.”

“I hacked away what might make it feasible,” he admitted. “And had them present you with what was left.”

My fingers clenched, but I forced myself to breathe out.

“I don’t think you understand how difficult the position you put me in was,” I said, tone forcefully calm.

“I do,” Hakram replied. “But I will not apologize for it, no more than you will apologize for barring from the battlefield and saddling me with a Named bodyguard.”

“That’s different,” I hissed.

He bared his fangs the slightest bit, but his neck remained straight – not bent to the side, which would imply apology or submission. He was unmoved.

“You did it so you’d sleep soundly at night,” Adjutant said. “So did I. And I will forgive you your shade of selfishness, if you forgive me mine.”

It wasn’t the same. I knew it stung, that I was keeping him away from the blades and saddling with what someone might consider a minder, but I was doing it so he wouldn’t get killed. What he’d done… But he doesn’t want to stay in the chair, Catherine, I reminded myself. He wants to risk the steel. And it was a decision I considered stupid and unreasonable, more a spasm of empty pride than anything with sense to it, but it wasn’t mine to make. Not really. He’d bent his neck because it would help me sleep at night, and now he was asking me to do the same. It tasted like ash, but I would not deny he was not asking more of me than I had asked of him.

Perhaps less, even. That tended to be the way with us.

“It stings,” I finally said. “That you didn’t trust me.”

He slowly nodded. I sighed and looked way.

“But maybe you’re not wrong, about picking at wounds,” I admitted. “Half the anger is fear that I could have failed the test.”

“You didn’t.”

It was simply said, without frills or false promises. It did not reassure me as much as I would have thought it would, for all that.

“It’s not going to be the same, is it?” I quietly asked. “Even when time passes. When it’s not so fresh.”

“Things change, Catherine,” the orc replied. “We are not the same people we were when this all began.”

Grief seized me by throat, as much for what had been done as who we’d once been. It had my eyes burning, for the first time in years.

“It’s not a failure, Cat,” Hakram gently said, taking my hand. “It’s what we were after from the start. We can’t change the world without changing with it.”

“Yet it feels like a failure,” I murmured, “doesn’t it?”

Like I’d broken something. Those days in the Arsenal had cost us all more than I’d first understood. As all things touched by the Intercessor, they were poison in every way.

“We pay our prices,” Adjutant simply said. “That’s what victory is, even at its finest.”

I blinked and rubbed at my eyes, parting my hand from his. My throat felt raw, like I’d swallowed glass and some had stayed lodged.

“So it is,” I breathed out.

He patted my leg, then took his wheels in hand and began to make his way out of the tent. He paused, though, after a few armfuls.

“One last thing,” Adjutant said, turning just enough to meet my eyes.

I waited in silence.

“If you ever speak to me of debt, Catherine,” Hakram of the Howling Wolves evenly said, “I will leave and never come back.”

It felt like a gut punch and I took it about as well, fingers clenching as he wheeled himself out of the tent without turning back. Gods. He’d said that and meant every word, hadn’t he? The fear that flowed through my veins at that realization was almost paralyzing, and it was with trembling hands I reached for my pipe and lit up a packet of wakeleaf. Fuck. I’d known that nothing was absolute, that everything had a breaking point, but for him to just say it outright… I stayed alone on my tent, eyes closed and seeking calm that would not come.

After most of an hour passed I gave it up for the lost cause it was, and forced myself to seek out Indrani. Just because I felt like someone had yanked out the ground from under me didn’t mean I could afford to stop moving.

I’d not been sure what to expect, exactly, when I entering the tent where I’d been told Indrani and the Concocter were drinking together. The two empty bottles of Creusens red abandoned on the ground were hardly a surprise, but I’d figured they would at least be seated. Instead the two women were leaning back against a flipped table, toppled chairs around them, and between the two of them a large glass bottle containing what looked like boiling water – though inexplicably the inside of the tent reeked of cherries – and half a dozen shoddily-made clay cups that were chipped from use.

Indrani, out of her armour and in a rough linen tunic with little usual scarf hanging loose around her neck, was very sloppily pouring herself some of the transparent boiling liquor and spilling more than she realized. The Concocter, on the other side of the flipped table, took a moment for me to recognize: every hair on her body was now coal black, and her eyes the darkest I had ever seen. She was seemingly a lot more invested in mocking Archer’s pouring skills than noticing there was a third person in the tent, so it was Indrani who noticed me.

“Cat,” she breathed out. “You’re here.”

She started, then scowled.

“Cocky’s a villain,” Indrani said. “I didn’t break your rule.”

“I’m not here for that,” I assured her, then glanced at the other woman. “Concocter, always a pleasure.”

“The very same,” she replied, in the slow and careful tone of someone trying to seem less drunk than they actually were. “Would you like to sit, Your Majesty?”

“She hates nobles,” Indrani confessed to her. “It’s hilarious, she can never resist stepping on them even if she’s the big noble now.”

“Nobles are always big,” Concocter solemnly replied. “Fat. Fucking Consortium pricks, they always gouge me on prices. S’why I sell them mostly poisons.”

“We’ve been drinking, I see,” I said, reluctantly amused. “Thank you, Concocter, I will.”

I grabbed a chair, though instead of setting it aright I kept it on the side and pulled back my cloak as I sat down on the ground and leaned back against the legs. My leg twinged with pain, but it passed.

“See,” Indrani slurred. “I told you she’s not prissy.”

“I never said she was,” Concocter said, sounding irritated. “You always put words in my mouth.”

I felt a pang of envy. Much as they seemed to genuinely rub each other wrong, there was an underlying closeness that I’d never really had the likes of. I’d made my own family, when I got older, but those two looked nothing all and yet in that moment of familiar irritation they’d seemed like sisters.

“So what are we drinking?” I asked. “Smells strong.”

“Orchard Elixir,” Concocter proudly said. “My own creation.”

“Kickin’ Cherries,” Archer snickered. “You gotta call it that, I keep telling you.”

“I would rather kiss John,” Concocter replied.

A heartbeat passed, and then laughing drunkenly they loudly shouted ‘and he’s dead’ together.

“Gods rest his soul,” Concocter added. “So pretty. So dumb.”

“Ah, Tinkles,” Indrani breathed out, still laughing a bit. “At least he went out like a champion. It was a good scrap, Marchford.”

“If you’re going to keep laughing that loud, I’ll require a glass of that elixir,” I said.

I ignored Indrani’s accusations of treachery and leaned forward after Concocter poured me a glass more deftly than I would have expected. When she took the clay cup in hand and began to pass it to me, though, she froze. So did Archer. They were both looking at the cup, the laughter gone.

“Fuck,” Archer sighed.

“I’m missing something,” I noted.

“Lysander made those,” Concocter said. “We must have been what, twelve?”

“He was a little older, but yeah,” Indrani sighed. “He needed help for his first shot at a pack of stryxes, so he made these little gifts for everyone.”

“It’s tradition when you’re asking a favour, in some parts of the Free Cities,” Concocter told me. “Shows goodwill. He was from there – outskirts of Atalante, he figured, but he was never sure. His family were hunters, moved around a lot.”

“I got a leather bracelet with stones sowed on,” Indrani said, half-smiling. “It was shittily made, like the cups, but…”

“He’d put in effort,” Concocter echoed. “It was hard to say no after that. We weren’t as hard with each other, back then.”

“I don’t have to drink from it if you don’t want me to,” I gently said.

“No,” Concocter softly said after a moment, pressing it into my hand. “It should be used. It’s what it’s for.”

I took it up and nodded thanks, taking an experimental sip from the transparent liquor – which was, even now, popping small bubbles like faintly boiling water – and immediately choked. The taste, Gods, the taste. It was exactly as strong as it smelled, and kicked just as strongly as aragh.

“Sisters,” I cursed. “That is abominable.”

They both cackled with laughter.

“I usually cut it with fruit juice,” Concocter smirked. “I could always fetch something lighter if you’d prefer, Your Majesty.”

“Call me Catherine,” I snorted, waving dismissively. “And I’ve drunk worse for worse reasons, Concocter. I pretty much switched exclusively to aragh after I ate Winter, and I think it might burn even worse.”

“She pretends she’s all tough, but you should see her guzzle that Vale summer wine,” Indrani said.

The traitorous wench. I drank from the cup again, and it wasn’t as bad. Presumably the first sip had killed everything inside my mouth capable of feeling taste, so this was just flogging a dead horse.

“I should have let the Prince of Nightfall have you when we first got to Skade,” I said. “It would have saved me heaps of trouble.”

“I’ll toast to that,” Concocter drily said, raising her cup.

Even Indrani drink, because evidently it was that kind of a night. Well, afternoon anyway.

“This is our wake for Lysander,” Indrani told me afterwards. “Such as it is.”

“Never drank much, Beastmaster,” Concocter said. “Didn’t like the loss of control. He was that kind of a prick.”

“I’ll toast to that,” Archer said, and again we drank.

I didn’t actually talk that much over the following hours. I didn’t need to: they were, I grasped almost eager to tell their stories to someone who’d not heard them before. I suspected that the Concocter was a lot lonelier than she seemed, for all that she proud as a cat. On occasion I used the power of being less drunk than the others to steer away from squabbles, but the two of them proved surprisingly amiable with each other. Eventually the Concocter fell into a drowse, slumping against the table, and Indrani rested her head against it as well. She closed her eyes, and I almost figured she’d fallen asleep as well until she spoke.

“I’m glad you came,” Indrani quietly said.

“So am I,” I replied, just as quietly. “Almost didn’t.”

“Why?”

“Figured you might not want me there, after yesterday,” I admitted.

She snorted.

“Silly,” Archer said. “Not angry about that. You were fighting for your way.”

“Not yours,” I said. “And I had to rap your knuckles.”

“It’s just what happens, in those situations,” Indrani said.

The well of gratefulness I felt at her words did not quite silence the curiosity.

“Thought you’d be angry,” I said. “You don’t really care for the Truce and Terms.”

“I don’t,” Archer easily said. “Don’t mind them either, they’re not likely to get in my way. But they’re your way, Cat. Your mark, what you want to get done. I stepped on that, even if I didn’t mean to. I’d do the same if it was the other way around, if clapped chains around my feet.”

I slowly nodded. Hakram did have, I thought, that nasty habit of being right.

“You going to be all right?” I softly asked.

Silence followed for a long moment.

“Yeah,” Archer finally said. “I just… I thought there was still time, Cat. To make something new.”

She smiled bitterly.

“Stupid,” Indrani said. “Should have learned better, after Great Strycht.”

“I get it,” I said. “Nauk wasn’t what he used to be to me, not at the end, but when I heard he’d died at Sarcella…”

We shared a comfortable silence after that.

“He wouldn’t have been as easy to live with as the image in my head,” Indrani smiled. “I know that. Probably wouldn’t even have worked. So I guess it’s just having the possibility that I’m really grieving.”

“It’s still something, ‘Drani,” I replied.

“I guess it is,” she murmured. “I guess it is.”

After a moment her breath evened out, and I realized she’d fallen asleep. Reluctant to wake her so soon, I stayed seated even if my leg was beginning to ache and polished off the last of that atrocious Orchard Elixir. I was keeping an ear out for breathing, which was how I realized that the Concocter was no longer asleep almost immediately.

“It’s a nice thing you did,” Concocter whispered. “Coming here. Taking here of her.”

“She’s one of mine,” I simply said.

“She used to be one of ours,” the dark-haired villainess said, “but nice was never our game of choice. It’s done well by her.”

She sighed.

You’ve done well by her,” Concocter said. “The Woe.”

“She’s done well by us,” I said. “Miss her?”

The other woman snorted.

“No,” Concocter said. “She was fucking horrible, you know? To all of us. And we were horrible right back, but she had this need to win and…”

She shook her head.

“But it was us, at the start,” she murmured. “The five of us. Other students came and went, but it was us and the Lady. It counts for something, even if we don’t want it to. Lysander was a vicious shit of a man, Catherine. Selfish and brutal. But I miss it too, just like her. The… possibility.”

“You weren’t asleep,” I said.

“Only half,” she shrugged. “Drifted in and out. But I don’t miss her, no. Maybe I’ll see her again in the years to come, and maybe I won’t. I’m not sure if I forgive her, or if there’s anything to forgive. But I like…”

She softly laughed.

“I like that I have the possibility, now,” Concocter said. “So thank you for that, Catherine Foundling. Because she wouldn’t have gotten there alone.”

“She would have,” I replied, meaning every word.

“And believe that, I figure, is what made her want it in the first place,” Concocter murmured.

I wasn’t going to argue the point, not with a grieving woman whose history with Archer was even more complicated than my own, so I stayed silent.

“The Huntress,” I said, “will she be all right?”

“Alexis never learned to cope with anything but her fists,” Concocter said. “It does her no favours, when tragedy strikes. But she’ll get better, if you keep them separate. They’ve always brought out the worst in each other.”

“Thought you might go see her instead if Indrani, at first,” I said.

 “She’s with her friends right now,” the dark-haired Named shrugged, “people she actually likes. I’ll look in on her tomorrow. I don’t expect much to come out of it.”

“I thought you two were closer,” I frowned.

“You measure us all by your band,” Concocter murmured. “You shouldn’t. It’s rare, what you have. I’ve seen the other side lives, Catherine, and they don’t get it handed to them either. It’s rare, and it’s precious. Don’t let it go easy.”

“I won’t,” I quietly said.

She nodded, and made herself comfortable against the table. I waited until her breath was even again, then slowly pushed myself up to my feet. Night had fallen, and with it the time I could spend here. I would soon be needed. Still a little drunk, I limped out into the dark. The time agreed upon was soon, very soon. I wasn’t surprised when a grey-clad wanderer crept out of the shade, falling in at my side as I headed to the edge of the camp.

“Do you even know why you’re here?” I curiously asked.

“Not yet,” the Grey Pilgrim said.

I snorted. Fucking heroes.

“You asked me what my contingencies were, once,” I said. “You’re about to see one.”

And at the edge of the wards, the two of us stood in the dark until Creation was opened with a slice and a dark-clad man strode through the opening. He smiled at seeing me. I smiled back.

“Welcome back, Hierophant,” I said.

Chapter 61: Adouber

“Fear is the prerequisite to any genuine learning; anything that can be learnt without questioning the foundations of your world is essentially decorative.”

– Dread Emperor Sorcerous

It was easy to forget that the Grey Pilgrim was, for all the power of his Name and the favour of the Ophanim, very much mortal. An old man with an old man’s frailties, whose relentless march towards my camp had brought to the brink of collapse. His loose grey robes looked half made of dust and even drabber than usual, his rheumy blue were clouded with exhaustion. It made me uncomfortable to look at, someone of that strength so openly at the end of their rope. His brandy was sipped at carefully and he declined my offer of sending for a warm meal, claiming that exhausted as he was he’d probably retch it right out. After gathering his bearings some, the Peregrine needed no prompting to begin speaking.

“The campaign went well, at first,” Tariq said. “The Enemy’s raids were heavy and sustained, but we held strong through the days and the nights belonged to the Firstborn.”

I’d poured myself a cup of brandy as well before dropping back into my seat. I had a feeling I was going to need a stiff drink before this conversation came to an end, and maybe second when it had.

“The last messenger I got from your column told me the army was preparing to pass Juvelun,” I said.

The Iron Prince’s part of the campaign plan had been relatively straightforward, when it came down to it. His smaller column – fifty-four thousand to my seventy – had left days earlier than mine from one of our defensive strongholds to the east of Neustal, just north of the town of Cassain. It’d then quickly advanced north along the old mining roads. Our intention had been for Prince Klaus’ army to draw the undead army at the town of Juvelun into battle, as the town sat over a passage through the hills towards the central valley where the capital lay, the army holding it also being the undead force closest to said capital.

Unfortunately the army in question had refused to leave Juvelun, instead remaining in a dug-in and defensible position that it would be difficult for Prince Klaus’ numerically inferior army to invest. We’d anticipated that was a possibility, though, and planned accordingly. To the north, further up the mining road, lay the city of Malmedit. To the Dead King it was a place of some strategic importance, as the mine shafts surrounding the city had been connected to tunnels he’d had dug through the northern hills and he now used Malmedit as a major staging area to pour warbands into the lowlands of Hainaut.

If the Iron Prince made it to Malmedit he could collapse the tunnels, which would be a significant setback for Keter. Knowing that, our working assumption had been that if Prince Klaus’ army kept marching north towards the city the undead army in Juvelun would have to engage him: the Dead King would just be pissing away his eastern road into Hainaut otherwise. Yet we had, it seemed, made a grievous mistake along the way.

“The plan seemed a success for the first few days of the march on Malmedit,” the Peregrine said. “Raiding parties began harassing our supply lines, and though young Hanno kept them open sword in hand our generals believed this to be the prelude to an enemy attack against our back.”

The old man paused, pressing down an errant tuft of white hair from the sparse crown around his head and sipping at his brandy.

“Yet the days passed,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “and that attack failed to take place.”

I grimaced. That’d be the point where I would have smelled a trap, so I refused to believe that a commander as experienced as the Prince of Hannoven had not.

“I’m guessing he ordered a heavy war party forward as reconnaissance,” I said.

Suspicious as he would be, Prince Klaus wouldn’t have turned back at the first suspicion. The Dead King could have been bluffing, or simply writing off Malmedit as a lost cause while focusing his attention elsewhere. In his place I would have encamped relatively close to the force I knew I could handle in a pitched battle – the Juvelun army – and sent out a strong contingent to probe the enemy’s defenses ahead.

“Six thousand horse,” Tariq agreed. “With the Witch of the Woods as magical muscle and two champions to escort her. One day shy of Malmedit itself they ran into the enemy’s own vanguard.”

I drank from my cup, fingers tight around the silver. With horses and that calibre of sorcery on their side, they would have gotten away mostly clean. It was the strategic situation being described that had me aghast. The Grey Pilgrim had earlier intimated that the army two hundred thousand we’d thought in the far north of the principality had been the one waiting for our eastern column in Malmedit, which meant pressing an attack forward against it would have been suicide. The Iron Prince would suddenly have found himself stuck between a massive force to the north and a smaller one to the southwest, the latter even being able to cut his supply lines if it was willing to bleed for it – and when was Keter ever unwilling to bleed?

“How bad was it?” I grimly asked.

“Even using the Twilight Ways, the war party only returned quickly enough to give us two days of forewarning,” the old man said.

Which sounded like a lot, if you’d never commanded an army. But I had and so I knew they were ungainly, lumbering things. Especially when being made to turn around.

“You retreated, I assume,” I slowly said.

“That was our intent,” Tariq said. “Until the Young Slayer and the Harrowed Witch found an enemy raiding party to our south yet strangely heading away from the army, further south. They followed it down and-“

My eyes narrowed. The pieces were falling into place.

“- found the dead dismantling the mining road,” I finished quietly.

The old man nodded. So that’d been Neshamah’s game: by ripping up the road, he was making sure that even if the Iron Prince’s army tried to march back to our defensive lines it’d be slowed enough that his large ambush army marching south from Malmedit would be able to catch up to it. That left only the Twilight Ways as a way out, but even that was… risky. Not on a tactical level, I meant. With two days of warning, an evacuation would be quite possible: so long as he wasn’t under attack, with a pharos device Prince Klaus should be able to shift his entire army into the Ways in a few hours. On a strategic level, though, his disappearance could lead to a disaster.

If the Iron Prince bailed on the eastern theatre of our campaign entirely, there would be nothing standing between a massive army of two hundred thousand – maybe even three hundred thousand, if the army in Juvelun joined forces when it passed near – and our dangerously bare defensive lines. Our reserve was already marching on the Cigelin Sisters, meaning all that was left there was the reinforcements from Daoine under Vivienne and a fresh wave of Proceran conscripts. Klaus could instead take his army back to our defensive lines, but if he did then he was leaving my column out to hang: all enemy armies would converge on my army and even with the Ways there was no possible way for him to reinforce me in time.

He read us like a book, I admitted to myself. The Dead King had seen us coming and now we were being made to bleed for it. I couldn’t even claim that at least that fucking surprise army in Malmedit had flushed out Keter’s hidden hand: we’d found that missing force, sure, but only after the other force of one hundred and fifty thousand in Luciennerie had vanished into thin air. The wily old monster had managed to keep the story of his ‘hidden threat’ going even after revealing another hidden threat – he’d baked a second cake while eating the first one, so he quite literally got to eat his cake and have it too. Gods but I hated fighting the fucking Dead King.

Tariq had kept silently sipping at his drink, letting me wrestle my thoughts into place, but when he saw my attention fully return to him he set the cup down.

“And after?” I simply asked.

I’d been able to make decent guesses as to what the Iron Prince would have done until then, with the benefit of multiple sources of information and insight, but now we were out in the wilds. I’d never fought the old prince on the field, and records of his campaigns against the ratlings and the dead were near nonexistent – Lycaonese marked only victories, defeats and tallies of the dead. Anything else was considered pettily boastful. And while the Iron Prince’s victories during the Great War were much better known, they’d been won waging a very different sort of war. I wasn’t sure what I would have done in his place, much less what would have gone through the Prince of Hannoven’s mind at that crossroads.

“A war council was called,” Tariq said. “And after some debate, it was agreed on that the wisest course would be to attack the enemy army in Juvelun to break through.”

My brow rose and I forced myself to think. I could see the sense in it, squinting a bit, from his point of view. Assuming my column broke through with swift victories at the Cigelin Sisters and Lauzon’s Hollow, seizing Juvelun would allow us to link our armies in the central valley of Hainaut. The undead army from Malmedit would still be able to march south on our defences, but at that point our unified force could answer by leaving a strong garrison at Cigelin and then outmarch that army of the dead through the Ways. A neat trick, turning the destruction of the mining road against those who’d done it. Sure he’d take losses taking Juvelun from pushing out the dead, an uncomfortable amount of them, but it would salvage the strategic situation.

The problem was that Klaus Papenheim didn’t know that the army in Luciennerie had disappeared: I’d tried to send messengers, but I very much doubted they’d made it through the gauntlet the Grey Pilgrim had described. Another army had vanished into thin air, and rubies to piglets that it was going to reappear near the capital around the time we finally took the Sisters. You know, right between a bloodied Papenheim and my own forces as the even larger Malmedit army marched on the Iron Prince’s back. That was going to turn into a bloody, ruinous mess.

“You were there for the battle?” I asked.

“I left before,” Tariq said. “Of all our Bestowed it was agreed I had the best chance of making it to you unharmed and in good time, so the duty fell to me. The battle for Juvelun will have taken place by now, but the outcome is known to neither myself nor the Ophanim.”

I slowly nodded.

“You arrived in time,” I admitted. “What you just told me will influence our pace quite a bit: I can no longer afford to take my time wiping out the remains of the enemy here and reducing the Sisters if the other column is in danger of a wipeout. We’ll have to hurry forward.”

Which was compounding risks with risk, I grimly thought. Already the Iron Prince had rolled the dice on taking Juvelun, and now I was going to have to rush taking Cigelin or his efforts might be in vain. The illusion of control we’d had when this campaign had begun, that bold armada of plans and schemes, was now dead and buried. We’d gained tactical victories but we were headed towards a strategic disaster. The only way to salvage this now was to push forward and through. If we don’t, all that’s left is measuring the scale of the losses we’ll incur. I drained the rest of my cup, letting the warmth pour down my throat, and set the silver down.

Gods, silver. Who would have thought I’d end up drinking in that one day, when I’d first started sneaking sips of beer at the- I froze. Oh, oh. Fuck me, I’d had the clues all along hadn’t I? I knew the movements, I even knew how the enemy thought of us. I’d just not put them together, taken that last step.

“It’s a rat trap,” I murmured.

Limpid blue eyes narrowed at me, the exhausted old man turning back into the Peregrine in a heartbeat. The marks of bone-deep weariness were still there, but the flame had lit again.

“Explain,” Tariq demanded.

“Back when I worked in a tavern,” I said, “the owner would make these little rectangular boxes with the front almost open and bread at the end. It’d have a ‘door’ angled like this-“

I formed a roof with one palm, and angled another palm inwards to represent the door.

“- so that the rats would go after the bread and push the door up a bit. Only when they were inside the box-“

“They found the ‘door’ couldn’t be pushed to let them out, as the wood only bent one way,” the Grey Pilgrim quietly interrupted. “I’ve seen their like before, they are used in Levant as well.”

“That bridge up north is our bread,” I said. “It’s not fake, I wouldn’t think. If it does get built we’re in a load of trouble, and we might actually lose this war the regular way. But that’s not why the Dead King built it.”

“He wanted us to enter the trap,” Tariq said.

He wasn’t getting it, though, I could hear it in his voice. A trap was a trap, to him, and it’d never been in doubt we’d fallen for one. I spelled it out more bluntly for him.

“You don’t make a rat trap to protect the bread, Pilgrim,” I said. “You make it to kill the rat.”

The old man frowned.

“He means to destroy our armies,” the Grey Pilgrim slowly said. “The battles, the bridge, even the capital – none of it means anything to him. Even if he loses all of Hainaut, so long as our armies are destroyed he doesn’t care.”

“It’s all expendable,” I agreed. “The army that disappeared from Luciennerie could be assaulting our defence lines around now, with an even larger army headed down the mining road to attack the eastern strongholds – with our own armies so far, and kept in the dark by lack of scrying, he might actually have had a shot at breaking through and into Brabant. But he didn’t even try, because what he wants is to trap us in the central valley and annihilate us. Not in one big battle where the odds are so utterly stacked against him-“

Which we’d probably win, given the amount of heroes in our ranks.

“- but in smaller engagements that will bleed us dry, be they victories or defeats,” Tariq muttered.

He didn’t disagree with my assessment, finger circling the rim of his cup.

“But why the sudden obsession with the armies in Hainaut?” he finally asked. “What changed?”

I’d been wondering the same thing.

“The Gigantes came up on our side,” I tried.

“Not in force,” Tariq said. “They commit to help, not alliance.”

“He might not know that,” I said.

“Might is a thin foundation to build on,” the Peregrine said. “Perhaps the Hierophant’s work in the Arsenal?”

“It might spook him into coming after us this hard,” I admitted. “Masego knows a lot more about him than can be comfortable for the likes of the Dead King. But the secrecy around Quartered Seasons was well-kept, Tariq. We were paranoid, and there’s been breaches but I don’t believe Malicia got through and so he should still be largely blind.”

The Peregrine smiled sadly.

“You fight the Bard, Catherine,” he said. “Neither walls nor locks nor oaths are enough to keep her from learning secrets if she wishes to know them.”

I blinked.

“You think she sold us out to the Dead King?” I skeptically said. “If there’s one person I’d buy she wouldn’t sell us out to, it’d be him. What would she even-“

I froze the dreadful thought that came all too soon. The Grey Pilgrim sighed.

“So he comes after us with his entire hateful might,” Tariq said. “So we suffer a stinging defeat at his hands and, like children in the dark, we pray for deliverance by our own guardian angel.”

I rose to pour myself a second goddamn drink, and when the Pilgrim silently extended his own empty cup I filled it without qualms.

“I thought you trusted her,” I finally said.

“I did,” Tariq tiredly said. “And now I don’t. If you live long enough, Catherine, you will find that time warps even the bonds you believed unshakable. And that we are never so wise as we think, even when we believe ourselves to be fools.”

I held my tongue, even though it would have been pretty easy to stick a dagger or two in him now considering how badly we’d butted heads over the Intercessor over the years. It’d been a rough year for everyone, and there was no need for allies to make it worse.

“I got the shivers when you said that,” I finally said, “and it makes me sick to even consider. So I’d tend to think you read this right. But he’s not coming at us with his full might, Tariq. I’ve seen the battles up north he wages against the drow, and they’re…”

I blew out a breath. In the back of my mind old words came to me as a harsh refrain.  Where are the devils, Catherine? the Intercessor had once asked me. Where are the hosts that darken the skies, and the demons he has kept leashed for centuries? Where are the rituals that poison the land and the sorceries never before seen?

“Well, he’s pulling out tricks there we haven’t seen down here,” I said. “And I know he has more: we haven’t seen either devils or demons yet, for one, and he’s perfectly capable of calling on both.”

The old man shook his head.

“He cannot use either,” Tariq said. “It would represent too steep an increase in strength on his side of the scales, Catherine. Providence would allow us to bridge the gap, and the last thing the Dead King wants is a war of equals with such power in play: it would put his forces at a genuine risk of annihilation.”

The Grey Pilgrim leaned back into his seat.

“He has been most careful to limit his efforts to grinding us into dust by attrition for good reason,” Tariq continued. “It is a method of victory that involves very little risk for him and has proved difficult to handle.”

I frowned. That… held up somewhat, I supposed. I honestly wasn’t sure what providence would be able to spit out to even the odds, but arguably that was rather the point. I’d known for a long time there was a risk to villains winning by too large or obvious a margin – invincibility as a prelude to failure, my father had once phrase it – but I’d not considered that on the scale the Pilgrim had. It was the crusading mindset, I supposed. It was not only battles and Named that had a story, but the crusade itself. It was what I knew of the Dead King’s rise to power that had me inclined to believe the Peregrine: carefulness had always been his priority back then, even if it meant slowing his advance.

He’d always preferred giving his enemies no opening to swift victories.

“This changes things,” I finally said.

He wetted his lips, sipping at the brandy.

“Does it?” the Peregrine asked. “Retreating serves no purpose. We are committed to war, even knowing his intentions are different than we’d expected.”

I went rifling through my pockets for my pipe, the long shaft of dragonbone that Masego had gifted me years ago comforting to the touch. A packet of wakeleaf, still from the White Knight’s gift, was carefully stuffed and I lit the leaf by tapping a finger against the rim and letting black flames slither in. I breathed in deep, the acrid smoke filling my lungs before I breathed out a long stream of it upwards.

“If it’s our armies that are in his sights, it means he’s gotten sloppy elsewhere,” I said. “His resources aren’t unlimited, and while it might seem like this trap has been years in the making I’d wager it’s a lot more hastily assembled than that.”

“The Intercessor would not have wanted him to win cleanly, that is true,” the Pilgrim mused. “The more costly the victory to him the better, in her eyes, and that means a warning as late as she could feasibly give it.”

I grunted in agreement, pulling at my pipe and blowing out a ring of smoke.

“We thought he’d guard that bridge up north like it was his own baby,” I said, “but I’d wager it’s been stripped clean. Sure we still can’t account for the Luciennerie army, but it can’t teleport – there’s no way it could have gone all the way up there so quickly.”

“You’re suggesting a raid,” Tariq said, sounding genuinely surprised.

“I am,” I replied. “First we’ll need to reunite with Prince Klaus’ army, but when do I believe we need to send at least one band of five up north to demolish that bridge. We won’t get that opportunity twice.”

“You suggest sending away five Bestowed, and they would have to be among our most powerful to have a real chance of succeeding, before a series of battle that promise to be the decisive clash of this war,” the Pilgrim slowly said. “That is… bold.”

Which meant he’d wanted to say foolish, I amusedly thought, but my favourable record against him had earned a more diplomatic phrasing.

“We can argue the point later,” I dismissed, “but I’d be a mistake to find out at this late hour we lack the stomach to take opportunities when they are afforded us. Regardless, we now need to move forward as quickly as we can and link with Prince Klaus’ column. If you rest through the rest of the day, will you be fighting fit tomorrow?”

“A few hours will have me back on my feet,” Tariq hesitatingly said. “I have never needed much sleep, and less so after I was blessed with the friendship of the Ophanim.”

He kept hesitating, so I cocked an eyebrow at him. It finally moved him to speak.

“You seem… invigorated,” the Grey Pilgrim said, and raised a hand as if to ward off a protest. “I mean no ill by it, only that a conversation that would have set others to despair seems instead to have lit a fire in you.”

Had it? I pulled at my pipe, considering it, then ultimately shrugged.

“This is the most confident I’ve felt about this campaign since it started,” I admitted.

The old man started in surprise.

“I take it you’re not making sport of me,” Tariq said.

I nodded and, to my own surprise, he snorted.

“Ashen Gods, why?” he asked. “I do not believe this will end in tears, though many will be shed along the way, but little of the news I brought you strike me as sources of confidence. The Enemy has fooled us and led us into great peril.”

“It was always going to get ugly,” I frankly said. “But now we knew the forces in motion, Pilgrim. We know – or have a good guess, at the very least – why the Dead King is acting now, what it is he is after and where all those things sit in the greater tapestry of the war. For the first time since our armies went marching north, we are no longer blind. We can finally find a way to win, and I mean properly win. Not just survive by the skin of our teeth or settle for a bloody draw.”

My fingers were already itching for ink and paper as well as a quiet place to think. Oh, we were in the pit for sure. I was pretty sure the Iron Prince was about to get stuck between two large armies while I caught up, and if either of us made a mistake then this could turn into the single worst military defeat the Grand Alliance had suffered since the beginning of the war. Hells, it could turn into the kind of defeat it was simply impossible to recover from by sheer dint of lives and resources lost. But this pit, it was an old friend. I’d been here before, through my own mistakes and the machinations of others, and the feeling of the bottom of the barrel under my feet did not scare me.

I grinned at the Grey Pilgrim, baring my teeth ferally.

“It’s the eleventh hour, Peregrine,” I said. “Midnight Bell is on the verge, and when it rings we’ll all have to pay our dues, but the song isn’t over. Not yet.”

“You have a plan, then?” Tariq Fleetfoot asked.

Blue eyes in a tanned face met my gaze, and in there I found a light that was not Light – no, that one was entirely his own. It was cold and patient and ruthless in a way that even some of my kind would blanch at, qualities that a lifetime of service to the Choir of Mercy had sharpened into a razor’s edge. There wasn’t a lot a man like the Grey Pilgrim wouldn’t do, for the sake of the world. Looking into those eyes, I wondered if there was really anything at all.

“I have the bare bones of one,” I said. “It begins by taking back the initiative.”

“There are still enemies ahead of you,” Tariq said. “The remnant of the army that held Lauzon’s Hollow, as I understand it, now heading towards the Cigelin Sisters.”

“And that force needs to be destroyed,” I agreed, “but I don’t need our entire army to do that. Not when our reserve under General Pallas will be joining the fray as well.”

“You would split your host in two,” the Pilgrim said. “And then take half to relieve the Iron Prince?”

“We’re going to do better than that, Tariq,” I said, rising to my feet.

I went looking through my desk, opening drawers until I found what I wanted: a small scroll, inked by Scribe’s own hand. It was a neat, lovely map of the Principality of Hainaut whose accuracy meant it was probably worth as much a herd of horses. I unfolded it across the table, gesturing for the Pilgrim to come closer as I set down a bottle on one corner to keep it down and an empty inkwell on the other.

“If Prince Klaus won the battle for Juvelun,” I said, tapping the town with a finger, “then right now he’s marching into the central valley of Hainaut, what the locals call the highlands.”

“And you believe an enemy army, the one that was once in Luciennerie, will have travelled unseen to strike him by surprise there,” the Pilgrim said.

“I do,” I said. “But I also think that the Dead King believes us more conservative in our attack than we actually have been: there’s nothing about the way his troops are moving that even hints at his being aware that the Cigelin Sisters are about to be attacked by General Pallas. So from his point of view, even if a hero likes you manages to bring word about what happened to the Prince Klaus’ column I’ll still be stuck here clearing out the dead heading towards the Sisters.”

It actually shed some light on why the army defending Lauzon’s Hollow had been so willing to retreat, even considering the bloody nose I’d given it. At this point holding the Hollow was no longer a strategic priority for him, it was a lot more important to tie down my army for a few more days while he finished mopping up Klaus Papenheim’s column. And the worse was that the Dead King wasn’t even wrong about my needing to clear out the dead ahead of us. It wasn’t a force that I could afford leaving at my back while taking the Ways to reinforce the Iron Prince. If I did, I would then be stuck with a massive army behind enemy lines and with no supply lines. Hells, at that point he would barely even need to fight: he could just keep harassing us and let starvation do the work for him.

Fortunately, General Pallas was still in the wind and about to make her bite felt.

“I’ll be leaving behind the Third Army and half the Firstborn along with some of the Proceran fantassins, but most of my army will be headed…”

I trailed off, leaning forward and squinting at the map before finally laying a finger at the height of halfway up the stretch of Julienne’s Highway connecting the Sisters to the capital, but a little to the east.

“There,” I finished.

The old man’s gaze followed my finger, taking in the map as he considered it all in silence.

“And what is it that you intend to do in the middle of nowhere?” the Grey Pilgrim finally asked.

I breathed in deep of the wakeleaf, enjoying the burn and taking my time before spewing out a stream of grey smoke. I smiled coldly at the Peregrine.

“Why, Tariq, but we’re going to ambush the force about to ambush the Iron Prince.”

Chapter 60: Zwischenschach

“In war and politics, we are all as men sharing the same dark cave and stumbling along blindly. The keys to victory in either matter are patience and seeing just a little further ahead than your opponents.”

– Luc Monseiller, thirty-second First Prince of Procer, largely remembered for the Great War that followed his assassination

A brawl. The last blows of the battle not even an hour past, and now they were brawling.

Sometimes I sympathized with Cordelia Hasenbach, for though I had fought her tooth and nail to keep the Truce and Terms from being beyond the reach of temporal laws I didn’t entirely disagree with her when it came down to it. I bent the rules for Named all the time, didn’t I? I’d made them beyond the authority of all but two of their own kind, allowed them to wield power over others and invested them with weighty responsibilities. But sometimes, Gods sometimes, they just went and did something that made it feel like I was biting down on a mouthful of embers. I knew the names and the Names, could discern the source of this stupidity, but to understand was not to excuse.

If they’d been soldiers under my command, this would end with a flogging and a demotion. If it had been allied officers, even nobles, I would have had them removed from command and sent away. But Names were rarer than noble blood, the power they gave more highly prized than titles in these days where the end times were howling at our door, so instead I would have to be lenient. To chide and discipline, as if dealing with children instead of hardened killers empowered by Creation. What hope was there for the Liesse Accords, when not even the Dead King at our gates was enough to force reason onto us?

I wrestled my mounting fury down as I limped through the dusty grounds of our camp, knowing calm would serve me better. It was exhaustion and anger talking, I told myself. There would be good days and bad ones in the era to come and no treaty could change that. It’d never been their purpose to fix the world, for that was too ambitious a charge for anything made by my hand. The Accords would do what they were meant to, and Calernia would muddle along with a few less atrocities splattered across the pages of its history. That alone would already be a better legacy than I had any right to claim, some would say.

In the distance, as I turned a corner, I heard cheering. The Night boiled in my veins, answering the livid streak of anger that seized me, and the closest legionaries shivered. I’d sent for a full company of armed soldiers, phalanges one and all, to accompany me. They were to serve as either escort or mailed fist, depending on my orders, and my mood was feeling more and more like clenching fingers. The cheering itself wasn’t bad, it was what it meant: that Named had decided to fucking brawl in public in front of any soldier that cared to watch. On the same day as a bruising battle with the Kingdom of the Dead, our corpses not even all burned. My fingers clenched.

Well, at least one was going to be one of mine so maybe flogging wasn’t off the table yet.

It was with that hard stomp particular to soldiers meaning business that my company entered the picture. A large crowd of soldiers – a few hundred, a thousand? – had gathered in a great ring. By their looks and armour they were from half a dozen different armies and oaths, a clean slice of our coalition shouting hoarsely as five Named brawled and coin changed hands. A quiet fell in the immediate surroundings of the phalanges, soldiers paling and hastily getting out of the way of authority having come to call. There was just enough of a quiet I finally made out one particular thread from the cacophony. An old ditty I’d learned as kid in Laure, beautifully sung by a cold-blooded monster.

“Maiden Mary, fair and merry

Your tears make poets sigh

But for a smile given sweetly

Tall banners will kiss the sky.”

The Rapacious Troubadour had a nasty sense of humour, it seemed. ‘Maiden Mary’ was a children’s song, but it dated back to the War of the Cousins – the civil war that’d put on the throne the same branch of House Fairfax that my father had later ended – and the Mary in question was Mary the Claimant. Queen Mary the Third, most scholars called her, as her Eastern Bells had won over the Southern Bells just long enough for her toddler son to die a crowned king and another cousin succeed him. I would have been impressed about the Troubadour knowing the song at all, if he’d not also been the same shit playing a song about civil war while Named fought in front of a crowd of rowdy soldiers.

There was blood on the floor, I saw, but at least no one was dead yet. Archer and the Silver Huntress were both bleeding, and I knew the look in Indrani’s eyes – she’d take a killing stroke without hesitation if she got the opportunity. The Silent Guardian and the Headhunter were both in better shape, the Guardian having nothing but marks on her plate while the Headhunter had suffered only a small cut on their cheek. The only voice of sanity in there was Roland, even now trying to force everyone apart and largely failing.

“- settles nothing,” I caught the Rogue Sorcerer saying. “You are only making it worse for-“

“Do it to ’em, Lady Archer,” someone with a heavy Liessen accent shouted. “Callow! The Sword and Crown!”

“Huntress,” an Alamans accent shouted back. “For grace and Heavens, Silver Huntress!”

The crowd roared, the crowd cheered, and the Rapacious Troubadour was still playing that fucking song.

“Maiden Mary, bright and lovely

What groom did you embrace?

Hand in hand, wooing roughly

Your troth is kingdom’s grace.”

Enough was enough. The mood might still be more joyous than bloody at the moment, but crowds were mercurial beasts – this could turn sour very, very quickly. I was still damned winded from the gates Akua and I had opened, but not so spent I couldn’t muster a resounding thunderclap when I struck the ground with the butt of my staff. The clap rolled across the ring, drowning out even the cheers, and I limped forward as the phalanges roughly shoved aside the few onlookers and gambled still in my way.

“Disperse,” I said, voice cold as steel. “Now, and I will not bother with arrests.”

A shiver went through the crowd, though my eye was on the fighting Named – which had ceased actively trying to stab each other, but were still close and holding weapons – and the mood was doused rather comprehensively. I’d half-expected someone to protest and to have to make an example, but instead already the edges of the crowd were fraying as people made quiet escapes. Like a crumbling stone, the whole ring would fall apart before long. There was a flicker of remembrance, just as the edge of my mind, as I recalled when I’d been a slip of a girl in Laure and I’d watched Black empty a hall’s worth of lords with but a handful of words. I’d sworn, that evening, that one day I’d have that power too.

It had taken years, but I’d gotten there. I wondered, though, what that wary wild girl from the orphanage would think of the woman I’d grown into. I thinly smiled, knowing that she might well have added me to the list of monsters in need of killing.

“Queen Catherine,” Roland started, “this is-“

“Utter stupidity,” I mildly said. “But your role in it was minor and well-meant. Walk back to your tent, Rogue Sorcerer.”

He caught my eyes, for a moment, and whatever it was he saw there it told him not to argue. My gaze lingered long enough to acknowledge his bow, then moved to the four remaining Named. I couldn’t see the Silent Guardian’s face under her helmet, but her stance was sheepish. As for the Headhunter, they – no, he if I understood the face paint correctly – looked rather unapologetic and entirely unembarrassed. He had an excuse for butting in, then, I decided. Which left the two who would have been the spark for the entire mess. Archer and the Silver Huntress.

“Who struck first?” I asked.

“She did,” the Huntress said, her high-pitched voice grown shrill with anger.

“I scored first blood,” Indrani dismissed. “You swung at me first, Alexis.”

“That is true,” the Headhunter jeered. “On both counts. And the Guardian couldn’t resist backing up her friend, could she? Hardly sporting, two on one.”

My gaze returned to Silent Guardian, who took off her helm and revealed a tanned and dark-haired head. While she looked like she rather wanted to smash in the Headhunter’s skull, to me she bowed in apology.

“You only intervened after blood was drawn?” I clarified.

She nodded. I hummed, eyeing the Headhunter.

“And you intervened out of your abiding love for fairness, I take it?” I mused.

“You have me pegged,” the Headhunter grinned.

“You tried to stab me in the back, you-“

The word the Huntress used was in tradertalk, but by the tone it wasn’t a compliment.

“You’re both dismissed,” I said, ignoring the Huntress. “For having participated in a brawl, you’re both docked pay for five months and you’ll be assigned menial work under an officer of my choosing.”

The Headhunter glared at me, opening his mouth, but his gazed dipped to my side – where my fingers, without my notice, had taken to clenching and unclenching. His mouth closed.

Dismissed,” I coldly repeated.

The Silent Guardian offered a bow first, which I returned with a nod. The Headhunter did not go quite as politely, elbowing some of the last remaining soldiers in his way as he went. Of the Rapacious Troubadour there was no sign, I noted. The clever little shit had made good on his escape before I could rap his knuckles. Indrani and the Huntress were still facing each other weapons in hand, long knives for Archer and the spear for her old acquaintance. I cocked an eyebrow.

“Is there a particular reason you two are still holding weapons?” I mildly asked.

I saw Indrani suppress a wince. She knew better than the Huntress that particular tone of voice did not herald a good mood on my part.

“If she puts away her blades,” the Silver Huntress began, “I will-“

“If I must make it an order, Alexis the Argent,” I lightly interrupted, “I might just lose my temper and fucking drum the two of you of this army before the eyes of gods and men.”

With a quiet sliding sound, Indrani’s long knives went back into the sheaths. I turned a dark eye on her: she’d timed that, I knew, just so that the Huntress would look like a recalcitrant malcontent and she the obedient subordinate. Unlucky for her, I wasn’t buying it. The Silver Huntress blinked in discomfort, then reluctantly stabbed her spear into the ground. She folded her arms over her chest, looking rather defensive.

“I’m going to ask you two questions,” I said. “You will reply to them calmly and concisely, without interrupting each other.”

I got nod. Indrani’s almost playful, as if it were set in stone she’d get out of this without losing any feathers. My irritation spiked.

“Huntress, why did you attack an ally?” I bluntly asked.

She grimaced, though I’d wager more from the phrasing than remembrance of the punch thrown. The Lady of the Lake had not raised those girls to shame easily.

“She got Lysander killed,” Alexis the Argent harshly said. “Same old story: Indrani has a lark and one of us bleeds for it. Only this time it didn’t stop with bleeding.”

The anger in her voice was a hard, cold thing. I found the hate threaded in it unsettling, as it was too strong to be a fresh – this was an old poison, just brought to the fore with a fresh wound.

“I assigned her to the Third Army myself,” I evenly said. “And by the reports I’ve read, she fulfilled her duties admirably. As for the death of Beastmaster, I understand she fought and had an arm broken trying to prevent it.”

The Silver Huntress’ eyes hardened, turning to Archer.

“Ranger, Black Queen, it makes no difference,” Alexis bitterly said. “You’ll always find skirts to hide behind, won’t you?”

“Say that again,” Indrani hissed, hand going for a knife.

“Watch your tongue, Huntress,” I sharply said. “And Archer, I ordered you not to interrupt. Don’t make me repeat myself again.”

She looked mulish but did not argue. She’d been more interested in protecting her pride than my ‘honour’ there, I thought, so my sympathy was limited. I felt a faint breeze against my neck, gone in a moment, but did not let it distract me.

“Archer,” I said. “You were struck with a fist. Why did you answer it with a knife?”

Indrani’s lips thinned.

“I was insulted beyond reasonable expectation of restraint,” she said.

“You lying-” Huntress began.

My anger, never far, burned cold and sharp as once more an order I’d given within my rights was disobeyed. This, this I was done tolerating. The breeze came back, but it’d never been a breeze at all: it was a breath. Warm, coming through an open maw.

“Be silent,” I Spoke.

The Silver Huntress fought it. But as the Beast leaned over my shoulder, hacking out a laugh, even as she struggled her mouth snapped shut. I felt a vicious twinge of satisfaction that I did not indulge, but did not ignore. Archer’s face was slack with surprise.

“The two of you are damned disgraces,” I said. “On the same day where thousands fought and died turning back the Enemy, you attacked each other like drunken bulls before we’d even finished burning the corpses. Shame on you both.”

Indrani reared back like I’d slapped her. With a twist of will, I peeled back the order I’d Spoken at the Huntress. Her lips parted and she breathed out in pants.

“Huntress, you are no longer commander for the heroes in this army,” I said. “The Rogue Sorcerer, who tried to put an end to this bout of idiocy, will take your place. The White Knight will handle the rest of your disciplining. I offer him this as a courtesy, but should you break the Truce again I will have no choice but to cease being polite.”

My eyes moved to the other offender.

“Your pay is docked for this entire campaign,” I told Archer. “You are not to speak with any hero outside of official duties without the explicit permission of the Rogue Sorcerer or myself. If you draw a blade on an ally again, I’ll send you south like the child you insist on acting as.”

Her hands clenched, but she stayed silent.

“You’ve also lost the right to refuse assignments for six months,” I finally said. “You’ll be accompanying the Firstborn on the raid tonight, so return to your tent and prepare.”

Both of them glared at me sullenly, in that heartbeat eerily resembling each other for all their starkly different appearances. Grief was a bitter brew, I knew that better than most, and they were both fresh off the death of someone they’d cared for in a very complicated way. I understood why it’d come to this, I really did. But I was also a high officer of the Grand Alliance, sworn to enforce the Truce and Terms – which they had just broken in a spectacularly public and untimely manner. My duty was clear, and my anger not faked in the slightest. I stared them both down until they left, not bothering with a proper dismissal. The moment they left the Beast brushed against my shoulder, almost affectionately, and without a single lingering wisp it was gone.

I could Speak again, I knew. It hadn’t been a fluke. I could feel the way my will once more struck against Creation like a queen’s decree. One step closer, I thought, and breathed out. To what I did not yet know, but the shape I was beginning to discern was not unpleasant to my eye.

“Bleed them,” I ordered the Firstborn. “Under this moon, your only mandate is the reaping of deaths.”

With nightfall had come our opportunity to savage the Dead King’s forces badly enough that tomorrow’s fighting would be the final stroke of annihilation. The Twilight Ways would allow the drow the harass the enemy’s camp on the other side of the pass from every direction, all the while staying out of the jaws of the trap that’d been sprung on us the previous night: here would be no wards to keep us penned in, this time. Only skirmishes in the manner that’d been the lifeblood of the Everdark for a millennium, perhaps the only manner of war in which the Firstborn could be said to be the most accomplished of all Calernian peoples. And out the sigils went, under the command of Ivah and its subordinate sigil-holders.

We went with them, a band of Named under my own lead. Archer, naturally, for I meant to keep her out of trouble and the camp for a span. To some a place in such a raid was considered a prize and so I awarded it accordingly: the Vagrant Spear came with us and the Headhunter as well. Roland I’d dragged along mostly on account of his expertise in breaking magics, knowing it was never wise to bet on Keter not having that one last trick up its sleeve. The choices had also been a balancing act, which naturally some noticed.

“I’m sure it’s just a coincidence,” Archer sardonically murmured, “that your picks are even on both sides of the fence. Ever the diplomat, eh?”

It was not an approving tone. Even the band was a good one, well-fitted, I suspected that in her eyes politics having had a say in making it tainted it irremediably.

“Are you complaining I’m calming waters you helped unsettle?” I replied.

“I didn’t pick that fight,” Indrani told me flatly.

“You still fought it,” I said. “You could have taken the lump, walked away.”

Her face tightened with genuine anger.

“I don’t owe you that,” she said. “I don’t owe anyone that.”

“Then spare me the comments,” I curtly replied. “I’ll take shit for you, Indrani, but I won’t take it from you as well. If you want to talk of things owed, best remember that.”

Not the most pleasant exchanges to precede going into battle, though only Roland seemed to notice the tension between us as we sidled through the Twilight Ways. He did not ask, that very Alamans instinct for discerning when a question would not be well-received sparing me the irritation of having to offer even a cursory explanation. Before long we were back in Creation, anyhow, and the raid claimed everyone’s full attention. I’d left the command in Ivah’s hand, knowing my Lord of Silent Steps was perfectly capable of leading sigils in war without my breathing down its neck, so I had the freedom to pick where I wanted to meddle. I had some thoughts already.

I rather itched to get rid of the Pale Knight, if it could be done without paying a ruinous price.

That plan went the way of dust, though, the moment we emerged from the Ways and found that the enemy was retreating. The pass was still in the hands of undead forces, and if anything the northern end of the passage was more heavily defended than before, but we’d come out to the north of the enemy’s camp – in the flat plains between Lauzon’s Hollow and the Cigelin Sisters – so it was impossible to miss that there were departing columns. I sharpened my eyes with Night, seeking numbers. Maybe ten to twenty thousand massed to hold the pass in case we struck overnight, but the rest were mobilizing to leave. Hells, there were already scouting detachments north of us in the distance.

“Leaving?” the Headhunter sneered. “Fools. We’ll catch up through the Ways.”

She – it was she, tonight – would have been right if our soldiers were things of stone instead of flesh and blood, but it wasn’t the case.

“I’m not sure we can,” the Rogue Sorcerer replied. “Not after today’s battle.”

One of these days, I was going to have to ask Roland exactly what kind of an upbringing had forged a man like him. He was surprisingly well learned in a variety of subjects, including quite a few that mages in the Praesi mold would have considered beneath their notice.

“He’s right,” I said. “Our army’s fit to battle, tomorrow, but not to march.”

Practically speaking parts of the army would be – the Second Army and the Proceran detachments freshly returned, as well as a healthy chunk of the Dominion’s warriors – but it’d be risky to engage in pursuit with low numbers and it’d leave the force behind us very vulnerable. Unlike us, though, the Dead King did not have to give a shit about wounded or exhaustion or supplies. He could just order the march. There were three days between the Sisters and Lauzon’s Hollow, so if we took a day to recuperate and immediately marched maybe we’d arrive at the Sisters before he did. Maybe. But it’d be risky. If the Cigelin Sisters had been reinforced, we might end up walking into a positional disaster.

“Then what is to be our purpose this night, Black Queen?” the Vagrant Spear asked.

I chewed on my lip. I wasn’t comfortable risking a night battle with Keter, even assuming I could muster enough of my army to wage one alongside the Firstborn. That left only one logical move.

“We’ll not be hunting Revenants, after all,” I said. “Damage is our purpose. We thin their numbers as much as we can – Binds over Bones, constructs over anything else. We avoid Revenants unless they’re alone and keep close as a band. Understood?”

Archer, even after our terse exchange, remained entirely dependable.

“Understood,” Indrani replied, stringing her bow.

“We hunt,” the Vagrant Spear agreed.

Roland sighed, offering a nod, and the Headhunter rolled her eyes.

“I’ll take a kill if it’s offered,” she insisted.

“By all means,” I mildly replied. “Though if you disobey my order I will, naturally, discipline you accordingly.”

The Levantine villain met my eyes and I smiled thinly. I’d killed harder women than her, and without too much trouble. After a moment she nodded.

“Good,” I said. “Let’s get to it, then.”

It’d be a stretch to say that what followed was boring – the danger might be limited, but it still existed – but it did get… repetitive. And it was dull from the start. Moving on foot we struck hard at the enemy’s columns, targeting Binds and the occasional constructs or supplies before retreating back into the Twilight ways and popping out elsewhere. We were quick enough no Revenants came even close to approaching us, though part of that must have been from the Firstborn being a larger and significantly more damaging threat. We saw, maybe two hours in, that things were actually turning starkly in favour of the drow.

Mighty were burning entire swaths of the enemy with impunity and casualties were mounting among the dead with only paltry costs to the Firstborn. Some of the sigils got too bold, though, it cost them. Revenants, at first, but the struck sigil doubled down and called allies – only for the Grey Legion finally to make an appearance. It was a major enough development that I parted ways form my band temporarily and called a sigil-holder to me for a report. Lord Soln bowed deep, but talked briskly. It wanted to return to the fray.

“The ironclads unmake the Night, Losara Queen, much as the carved pillars did during our previous raid,” Lord Soln said. “It appears they have also been invested with a ward that prevents access to the Twilight Ways. That surprise was… costly. Between them and the Revenants, we were forced to pull back.”

“Give me a look,” I ordered, extending a hand.

The sphere of Night was promptly offered and my damning suspicions were confirmed. I’d seen the Grey Legion before, those hulking dead encased in armour so thick it more of a rampart. Those armours had been well-maintained and quite distinctive, so it was easy to tell that the Grey Legion had been quite recently refitted. So that’s what you got out of this, Neshamah, I thought. You tested the pillars and wards on our Firstborn, and when they proved effective you used that Crab lurking around somewhere to refit your Grey Legion into drow-killers. It wouldn’t matter much here, where we could harass away from their ranks and avoid them, but there would come a time in this campaign when the drow would have to stand and fight.

And when they did, the Prince of Bones and his legion tailored to kill Firstborn would be waiting for them.

“Go,” I told Soln. “Return to the fight. Pass my order that the Grey Legion is to be avoided, lest we allow the enemy to further refine ways to kill us.”

It was worse than those troops just being a hard counter to drow, I knew. It also meant that two of the three assets we had at hand that could possibly deal with the Grey Legion without horrendous casualties – namely Akua and myself – had just been made equally obsolete. Some tricks would work to a limited extent, like flood gates, but I wasn’t confident in smashing them by myself anymore. And our last answer to their kind, the Blessed Artificer, worked exclusively in Light. I was not so confident that the Dead King did not have something to counteract that as well, considering how much he’d invested in building up this army. Fuck.

Unpleasant as the revelation was, there was nothing to do but to continue our raiding. I returned to my band and we resumed our attacks, continuing to inflict bloody noses wherever we went until around Early Bell. We were all beginning to slow, close calls were getting closer and victories getting sloppier, so I called it at an end. The Firstborn remained until a full hour before dawn, only then retreating into the Twilight Ways. I slept for as long as I dared, which wasn’t much, and woke all too soon to be presented with corpses. Named and Revenants, this time. I took two aspects from the Beastmaster before it grew unfeasible to do more, but unfortunately I did not have the rights to the Sage’s body.

The way the Headhunter took heads from the foes they defeated fucked with my ability to steal aspects, I discovered with displeasure after a very frustrating hour pawing at Revenants fruitlessly, but I still got two out of the kill the Vagrant Spear had made. Disappointingly weak, those two, but I was never one to sneer at having another artefact up my sleeve. When the war council held session afterwards, once more with the full roster, there was no real disagreement over the decisions to be made. The morning’s scouting parties and found Lauzon’s Hollow abandoned, so we’d send out Named to smell out the traps no doubt left behind and after them a forward force to hold the end of the pass.

The full army would only begin moving tomorrow at dawn, when we took to the Twilight Ways in an attempt to catch up to the enemy. If we were lucky, our surprise strike would seize the Cigelin Sisters before the enemy arrived and we’d be able to pincer the Dead King between the fortress and our field army. If not, we’d have to get… inventive. There were still too many unknowns for a proper battle plan to be made, unfortunately.

 There was a bit of a commotion before Noon Bell when the Gigantes delegation finally caught up to us, but the giants were polite and it did wonders for morale. I was sent a polite yet firm reminder that the Gigantes would not fight unless attacked, and could not be used as war casters by my order, but I had no qualms with that. Just as ward-makers they’d be worth a dozen times their weight in gold, which would be no small sum. The Gigantes, though, had been largely expected. I’d known they were coming from the messages received from Neustal. When there was once more a commotion at a sudden appearance though, it came as a genuine surprise to me. I figured it might have been an early supply convoy, at first, but Hakram swiftly send a phalange to inform me otherwise.

It was Scribe herself who escorted the surprise arrival into my tent, helping him into the chair with surprising gentleness. I dismissed her with a look afterwards – Hakam I’d trust with such a conversation, but she was not Hakram.

“Catherine,” the Grey Pilgrim greeted me tiredly.

Tariq looked a month past exhausted and all too frail even for a man of his age, which did not bode well. He was also supposed to be with Prince Klaus’ army, which boded significantly worse.

“Tariq,” I quietly replied. “Can I offer you a drink?”

I did not bother to ask if something had gone wrong, for he’d not be here otherwise. To my surprise, he took me up on my offer.

“Something stiff,” Tariq Fleetfoot asked. “It will keep me awake long enough to get through this conversation, at least. I’ve not slept in weeks.”

I silently revised my estimate of the trouble from ‘pretty bad’ to ‘fuck’ as I poured him a full glass of brandy and pressed it into his hand. He drank deep and offered thanks.

“We finally learned why the army in Juvelun did not chase us when we marched past it towards Malmedit,” the Grey Pilgrim told me.

“Did you,” I said, already grimacing.

“We also found that missing army of two hundred thousand,” the Peregrine mirthlessly smiled. “It was, after all, waiting for us in the latter city.”