Chapter 12: Contest

“The enemy’s come to die on this field, my friends, for an awful prince and terrible pay. We, on the other hand, have come to die on this field for a terrible prince and awful pay. That the Heavens are on our side ought to be evident.”
– Captain Thierry the Acerbic, addressing his company before the infamously bloody Battle of Motte-aux-Foins

Anticipation hung in the air like smoke.

The sigil of the Seventh General, Vesena Spear-Biter, was painted on thousands of stretches of dark cloth hanging from arms and armour and even hair: two jagged, monstrous fangs tearing at what looked like a thunderbolt of iron. Red and white set on black, it was eye-catching and when the breeze blew through the outskirts of Serolen a sea of pale teeth biting into iron stirred with it. These were not the drow from the Outer Rings I’d once fought, the dregs of the dreg-empire. No, the Vesena came armoured in iron and obsidian, bearing polished cuirasses and helmets shaped like angled bat wings. Tough tezkuze leather, those massive hard-skinned blind lizards who could eat even Mighty should they prove reckless, had been fashioned into trousers and long-sleeved vests touched by tinkling bracelets and sculpted greaves of stone or dull iron. There was an order to this host of the Firstborn, unlike in most of their kind, for in the days of the old Empire Ever Dark the Mighty Vesena Spear-Biter had been known as the ‘Relentless General Whose Victories Flow Like A River’.

The Vesena were not so much a sigil as they were the last field army of the ancient Empire Ever Dark, kept standing through the ages by sheer dint of the Spear-Biter’s brutal murder of all rivals and naysayers. Time had taken its toll, and warriors now stood where once soldiers had, but there was no closer among the Firstborn to a professional army than the Vesena Sigil. It had occupied the whole of the city of Great Noglof, before leaving with the Exodus, and made the entire city into a  bustling army camp – kept going by the plunder in Night and gifts and food that was brought back by the fighting drow of the sigil after every campaign. Even now, a discerning eye could make out what had been the components of a field army simply from the way the warriors were equipped.

First came long stretches of skirmishers, bearing hard bucklers of iron painted with their sigil while long barbed javelins hung from their backs and short blades were kept at their hips. Dzulu, most of them, but the Vesena were one of the rare sigils that taught Secrets to their own and so they all shared a deadly blackflame trick that allowed them to have quite the sting to them.Behind them came hunters, those that would have been infantry regulars in olden days. These stood in companies of nine times nine each led by the least of the Mighty, an ispe, and were armed as I had only ever seen the Watch be armed: though they bore long swords of Night-forged steel on the flanks, they also held horn bows. Short, stout and curved these little wonders were no match for a good Deoraithe longbow but they fired at surprising range – regular arrows would be next to useless against the dead, of course, so the Vesena had adapted by infusing obsidian arrowheads with Night in a way that made them burst on impact.

At heart of the army stood the finest warriors of the Vesena, three thousand hulking towering shapes whose shells of iron-joined obsidian left no opening at all from head to toe. The Ebonclad were a cabal of their own within the Vesena, each and everyone a jawor that drew on Night to breathe and see through the sealed armour and wield their large stone-and-steel maces. As another exotic addition, the Vesena Sigil also boasted no less than ten of the hulking things called zanikzen, the famed annihilation-engines that Mighty Ysengral had gone to war nine times to steal only to be driven back every time. House-sized and made entirely of bone and onyx, they looked like two-wheeled carts holding up the fused bones of a hundred ancient drow whose wretched half-seen silhouettes ended up pointing their hands towards the horizon and forming a gaping maw filled with spear-like spikes of onyx. As field siege engines I deemed to be to be inferior to what the Empire and Callow used, but they’d been murderously proficient at defending tunnels.

And in the very middle of the army, seated atop a writhing living throne made of once-Mighty foes stripped of Night so thoroughly they became nisi, Mighty Vesena the Spear-Biter waited. Though it would have been as ravaged by age as Rumena in appearance, being its senior, the long stripe scars going down its face made it impossible to tell what it might once have looked like. It wore an armoured cuirass of obsidian over flowing pale cloth, needles of bone woven into its pale long hair to keep it in an elaborate bun. It claimed for only a weapon a long-handled axe – so long as to be half as tall as they – whose head was steel so deeply imbued with Night it flickered around it like smoke. Around it an honour guard of rylleh stood, clad in bright colours, but the lesser Mighty had been spread among the host as commanders of dzulu. The Sisters had once told me that most titles among the Mighty had once been military ranks in the Empire Ever Dark, for the soldiers had been among the first to thrive in the nights after the end of the Twilight Sages, and the Vesena in a way kept closest that that old truth.

There were twenty thousand, all in all: but a fifth of the might of the Vesena Sigil, but its sharpest fangs were all bared here, spread amongst the trees. Facing them was only deep darkness and the mists of the Gloom. Open grounds for six hundred feet after the end of the forest, which struck me as having been the Dead King’s picked battlefield: the dead fared poorly in the woods. Against, drow, anyway.

“They haven’t even dug ditches,” I frowned. “Sloppy. Ysengral would have done better.”

Mighty Ysengral, the Cradle of Steel, had distinguished themselves to my eye as the finest of the Firstborn generals even if they were towards the lower end of the Ten Generals when it came to raw power. Considering it was debatable where Rumena would rank second or third among them, though, that was still nothing to sneer at.

“Ysengral was defending the Wilting March from another breakthrough,” Komena said, and I almost shivered.

Standing to my left, eyes silver-blue and form little more than flickering shadow, the image of what had once been a mortal woman was sharing the sights with me. Before I took my eye off her, every time I glimpsed a long-fanged skull beneath the shadows that was always gone if I tried to find it. There was a twang of something like iron and blood to her voice, something I could not help but taste against the roof of my mouth. Komena wore armour, and a sword at her hip. She was the Youngest Night.

“We did not foresee the Hidden Horror until it was edging into the Gloom,” Andronike said, her voice coming from my right.

Her eyes, too, burned pale blue. But over her face flickered the shape of the iron mask she had once worn as one of the Twilight Sages, and the thick billowing cloak she had decked herself in almost seemed like dark-feathered wings whenever she moved. There were strings twined among her fingers, which she ever twined. The affect to her words was subtler, like a drink thought harmless until your tongue was felt to be numb. She was the Oldest Night.

“You didn’t get time to dig in,” I put together. “Vesena was the closest?”

“Kurosiv,” Komena replied, shaking her head. “But its horde was spread out. Vesena was ready for war.”

“He’s able to slip past your scouts with entire armies now,” I whispered.

Shit. If they could only tell that the Dead King was attacking when he was beginning to breach the Gloom, then that gave them what – half a day to mobilize at most? They’d either have to permanently garrison a significant portion of their forces to defend all the southern stretches of Serolen, which would cripple their ability raid into Keter’s territory, or start breaking through whatever means he used to obscure the movements of his armies on this front. I would have pursued the matter in conversation, but was robbed of the opportunity: the battle was beginning. It started with a sound like the whistle of a falling arrow, though utterly deafening. Then flashes of blinding light scythed through the mist in five places, like a titan’s raking claws, and for a moment the passage between Keter and Serolen was forced open by the sorceries of the Dead King. In that heartbeat, long ladders of steel with spiked ends fell through the open space and buried deep in the ground, the runes carved on the glowing bright. Like a steel road, one meant to keep the gap open.

“Second through sixth,” Mighty Vesena said, voice ringing out. “Wail.”

The Crows and I were standing by its side and so we’d seen its eyes had not blinked, not even when the light had been at its brightest. Five of the massive zanikzen lit up, thousands of glyphs in Crepuscular craved into the bones unveiled, and as crews attended to the large engines I saw heat waft of the surface and half the body of a nisi too close to the maw turn to ash. Heat shimmered between the onyx spikes, near-invisible lances of impossibly hot air shooting out and lashing out at the ladders in a lazy, low arc. The needles went abruptly still afterwards, forcing out a strange sound like a hundred inhuman wails. The first to get hit dented, and its front melted like summer snow, but the dead had moved quick enough to contest three of the remaining four. Ghouls who’d moved forward like lightning threw themselves in the way, embracing annihilation to curb the blow, and though one of the lances tore through and broke a ladder’s end in a spray of earth the other two held. The dead had three beachheads. Further down the line, another five bursts of light signaled that Keter was broadening its offensive.

“Two by breach,” Mighty Vesena ordered.

Even as the drow annihilation-engines began hammering at the fresh beachheads, the Vesena Sigil began its advance without needing to be told.

“They’re impressively disciplined, for a sigil,” I admitted, eyes remaining on the battle.

“Vesena made of the old western army regulation a set of holy rites,” Komena told me, sounding fond. “All who break them are said to have broken faith with the sigil and are free to be slain.”

I’d gathered that Vesena Spear-Biter was a darling of hers, which didn’t surprise me all that much. Komena did tend to favour the old warhorses who’d survived the collapse of the Empire Ever Dark.

The ever-relentless dead had wasted no time getting through their protection for the three ladders that’d landed: shield-soldiers the size of ogres in heavy plate, protecting in a ring the more vulnerable mages putting up translucent shields of sorcery preventing repeating fire from the engines from getting through. With the second wave, if Keter’s usual northern doctrine held, would come another circle of corpse-mages to attempt to raise rough but swiftly functional wards that’d make it hard work dislodging the dead from that position. The Firstborn were well aware of that, of course. Even as the first rank of a shield wall formed beyond the beachheads the drow skirmishers finished closing in the distance. Javelins flew whistling, the drow never breaking stride or slowing as they threw, the barbed ends hitting the shields of the dead with dull thumps before exploding in black flames of Night.

The shield walls broke, shattered like overripe fruits as the the first line of skirmishers unsheathed swords and wading into close combat. The lines behind disrupted the gathering dead with further throws, enabling the nimble drow to slip through the gaps in the defences of the dead. Mighty Vesena had been, I gathered, one of the few Firstborn generals to win victories against the dwarves during the war that broke the Empire Ever Dark. It had typically won those victories by hitting the heavy-armoured but slow-moving dwarven armies with crippling blows while they were in movement, never allowing them to deploy the siege engines and harsh sorceries that’d shattered so many drow armies. Traces of that mindset could still be seen here I decided as I watched the drow skirmishers of what the expanding assault of the Dead King had made the right wing slink their way deeper behind the lines of Keter.

Their objective here was clear: hitting the dead mages putting up shields before a second wave could set up wards, then prying away the Dead King’s breaches from him one after another. It was a much more aggressive defence than Ysengral was prone to waging, or even the other general I was most familiar with: Radosa. The Hushing Dread actually preferred letting the greater strength of the dead past the Gloom before striking at the weakened defences of the breaches, picking off the enemies at its leisure within the forest. Its battles lasted twice as long as everyone else’s, but then it also counted about a third of the casualties most the time.

“He’s fought Vesena before,” I grimaced. “And no one else uses the blackflame skirmishers. If you use the same tricks against the Hidden Horror too many times…”

In the distance another set of blinding lights shone. And again. And again. You’re going to run out of skirmishers before he runs out of cabals capable of making those, Vesena, I grimaced. And I would give the Spear-Biter its due, the first three breaches the Dead King had forced through were swept back. The skirmishers were just a little too slow, a flow of reinforcing armoured Binds pulling them down and slaughtering them to the last, but, a second wave of longsword bearing warriors carved their way to the mages before the second wave could put up wards, helped through by the focused arrow-fire of their brethren. They slipped into shadow and danced around the bone-giants, artists at their work, but what was three beachheads when another ten had just dropped in the span it took to clear them? The right flank had gone quiet, but the wailing of the zanikzen was the herald of strife spreading to the left and the centre. The Vesena redeployed with impressive swiftness, as a well-oiled machine, but this time when the skirmishers hit the first wave of beachheads they found they were expected.

Through the black flames leapt out slender, almost insect-like silhouettes.

“Hexenghouls,” I whispered.

Shit, Neshamah really wasn’t pulling punches here. Those nasty little things weren’t like most ghouls: swift and passingly intelligent in a way that allowed them serve as both harassers and a sort of replacement for the Dead King’s general lack of cavalry. No, these were almost as smart as people. Hexenghouls, named by the Lycaonese, were good at two thing only: killing, and disrupting magic by their mere presence. They had hardened bronze rods instead of bones, enchanted in a way that Masego told me destabilized the structure of spell formulas when they got close enough. Those vicious beasts were the reason Lycaonese mages were relatively rare while as a people they had much reason to keep magical bloodlines going. Every year, scaling through passes and mountains, those monsters made it into the lowlands and went hunting. Tonight, deployed in numbers I’d rarely before seen, they went through the skirmishers like a sickle through wheat. The few dzulu who were quick enough to call on Night found they couldn’t focus it properly and were massacred within moments.

Night was not sorcery, but evidently the Dead King had been adjusting what he ordered carved onto those bronze rods.

The second wave of longswords drove them back, even if they destroyed but a handful, but by the time the hexenghouls retreated behind them stood a heavy shield wall of skeletons. Too heavy to punch through in time: valiantly the warriors threw themselves against it, but Neshamah’s second wave of mages came through. Wards came up and then, with a position finally secure, the dead began unleashing their real offensives. Beorns tumbled through, carelessly stamping through the skeletons, and spat out the corpses they held within them in the middle of drow ranks. Dzulu could do nothing against the likes of those, much less the even more heavily armoured ‘tusks’. Those were a recent addition to Keter’s arsenal, rarely seen on my front: catapult-sized necromantic constructs shaped rather like boards, unlike many of the Hidden Horror’s creations they held within then no lesser dead. They were instead filled with rocks, and in front of them jagged tusks of steel were meant to make them into moving battering rams designed to crack open shield walls.

Going against drow foot? They trampled straight through those lines like they weren’t even there.

“Now,” I murmured, “for the tug-of-war.”

With a slew of fresh casualties, Night and necromancy came out. Even as the officers-Mighty destroyed the war-constructs or died trying, the mage cadres of Keter competed with drow as to whether corpses would get up as undead or be emptied of Night first. The undead drow could not use Night, but they would explode with what they’d held when their corpses were shattered. It wreaked havoc on the attempt to keep a battle line going to have your own dead blow up on you when you drove them back. Not that there was much of a battle line: at best it could be said that there was a line where the Vesena and the dead met. And where half a hundred Firstborn must have died with every passing beat. Behind it was an ugly chaos of Mighty and war-constructs tangling in duels that paid no heed to the warriors around them. For all that Vesena Spear-Biter had mimicked the ways of the old armies of the Empire Ever Dark, it was only that: a mimicry. The Mighty were not true officers, they were chieftains who ceased paying mind to their own companies the moment there was a great foe for them to fight.

“Using the Mighty as construct-killers instead of officers works better,” I noted, brow creasing at the sight. “If the Spear-Biter sent packs of pravnat and jawor after the beorns and the tusks they could be put down much quicker. Instead they keep running into isolated ispe and pravnat and overwhelming them.”

Vesena’s strategy being a success had depended on breaking through the initial defence of the breaches and shutting them down before casualties could mount, but that’d failed. Now the attempt by its sigil to push through the dead was turning into the sort of meat grinder that could utterly destroy an army if a general got stubborn. With the centre and the left wing taking such a beating, the Vesena were forced to thin their right flank to reinforce the lines that’d been devastated by constructs. And even then, the remaining skirmishers were now pointless going around through the woods in a far-flung circle that might allow them to eventually flank the left wing of the dead but practically speaking would just take them out of the battle for the rest of its span. Mistake, that. They’d have been more useful kept anchoring the thinning right flank in my opinion.

“The Vesena are inflicting great losses on the dead,” Andronike replied.

“Sure,” I dismissed. “Those officer-Mighty are pure slaughter against Keter’s Bones and Binds. No denying that.”

It was hard to, when all it took was for even an ispe, the lowest of the Mighty, to reach the shield wall of the dead to contemptuously crack it open.

“And I don’t mean to dismiss what’s being achieved here,” I continued. “At this point Mighty Vesena had lost what, three or four thousand?”

“Closer to four,” Komena told me.

“And it’s cost the Dead King more than three score of his finest war-constructs, on top of at least thrice that in foot,” I said. “The problem here is that while Vesena’s sigil is killing the enemy, it’s not doing it in a way that wins the battle.”

I pointed at the worst of the slaughter, where the lines were going back and forth.

“They’ve been gaining and losing the same thirty feet since the battle started in earnest,” I pointed out. “Maybe this battle can be won, at this exchange rate of lives for undead, but it’d be pissing away the war to keep fighting it this way. Packs of Mighty striking together allows for decisive blows in a way spreading them out cannot.”

“General Rumena said much the same,” Andronike said. “Though it did mention that Vesena’s methods would function significantly better when on the offensive instead.”

I narrowed my eyes. Yeah, I could maybe see that. As an offensive army they’d be smashing through whatever forces the Dead King could put in their way, which tended to be light on war-constructs, and if they ran into a few of those then the same rylleh that’d yet to move so much as an inch would be able to handle them.

“Might be,” I muttered.

The battle was going badly for the Vesena, even a fool could have seen it, but to the Spear-Biter it must seem like it could still be turned around. The zanikzen had polished off every breach they could, leaving only the four whose wards had been raised, so they began pounding at the dead instead. Every burst of burning heat swatted down entire companies, and the crews prudently aimed them far behind the fighting so there’d be no risk of hitting their own. They wouldn’t be able to handle that rate of fire for long, not without risking the engines blowing up, but then they’d didn’t really need to. The superbly aimed hits slackened the pressure of the dead against the drow and, sensing an opening, Mighty Vesena sent in its finest. The Ebonclad advanced, flowing forward silently as if they were gliding over the ground. Signals went up in the sky, woven in Night, and a corridor was opened for them to strike cleanly at the dead. The sight of it was… I let out a sharp breath, genuinely impressed. It was like watching a hammer strike at an egg: clad in ebony armours sealed by melted iron, the Ebonclad were untouchable to the dead. Their large war maces, on the other hands, released waves of Night whenever they struck and so pulped the dead straight through their armour.

The tusks and beorns that’d not been handled were struck at in groups of then, methodically and cleanly if with little regard to the collateral damage against the dzulu. That armour did not seem to hinder them sinking into pools of shadows, and they even seemed to have greater control over the trick than most: they sometimes slunk up the beasts and let only the upper half of their body emerge form the shadow, striking at the necromantic constructs with impunity.

“Impressed?” Komena asked.

“They’re exceptional,” I acknowledged. “But Vesena just got played the fool.”

It’d been baited into committing its finest troops before Keter slapped its last cards on the table.

“Oh?” Andronike hummed.

This battle had already taken place, so they knew what had taken place while I was left to guess. But while Akua might have pointed out to me that the Dead King had grown to learn my tricks, the opposite was true as well.

“We haven’t seen Revenants yet,” I said. “When we do, I wager things will swiftly proceed downhill.”

The Ebonclad smashed their way through the dead on two of the breaches and began making serious assaults on two of the warded beachheads, but I bade my time an counted up to seventeen before my cynicism was ‘rewarded’.

Like great raking claws, five lights burned again where the battle had begun. On the right flank that’d been so weakened reinforcing the others.

“Vesena just lost this battle,” I grimly said.

Though the zanikzen were on the edge of breaking apart, they still fired unflinching at the fresh breaches. Two per breach, as Mighty Vesena had early ordered. Or so they attempted. Three of the annihilation-engines went up in storms of ashen heat, killing the crews instantly, and one aborted its shot. Still, every breach received a direct shot just as the rune-inscribed ladders came down and one even received two. That one broke. The other four held, protected by what looked like swarms of ghouls nailed to the ends as a grisly shield. With the army already too committed down the line, it would have been a disaster to try to redeploy. So instead Mighty Vesena sent into the breaches what few regulars it had left, and with them sent its hardest hitters: it sent out rylleh. Unfortunately, the Dead King had picked his timing exquisitely. Before the rylleh were halfway there, Revenants strode out of the warded breaches and tore into the Ebonclad. Half of the rylleh had to be recalled, which made a mess of things.

“So that’s where the Stitcher went,” I muttered.

A castle-sized abomination made from the bodies of half a dozen horrors put together – the scales and bones of a dragon, what looked like the heads of at least three sea snakes, the heavy fur and leather of ratling Ancient Ones – was butchering its way through the Ebonclad, even swatted down a rylleh that got too close. The Revenant was inside, and damnably hard to put down. We hadn’t seen her in a year, so I’d hoped the Blade of Mercy had damaged her beyond use in their last tangle, but it seemed not. Hanno was convinced she’d been a healer before the Hidden Horror got his hands on her, which somehow made it all even more horrifying. Even as I watched, Mighty Vesena tried to stabilize the situation by firing its remaining annihilation-engines directly into the Revenants, but that caught only one and killed a few hundred of the Ebonclad in the exchange. Bad trade, the Seventh General was losing its cool.

Even worse the rylleh who reached the fresh beachheads were not, to their surprise and mine, greeted by swarms of ghouls or skeletons. Awaiting them were dead mages and large pots of metal, heated and filled with two things: necromantic sorcery and steel scraps. Like sharpers they blew, the cursed metals ignoring most defenses that could be put up by Night, and I winced when I saw not one but three rylleh go down. They got up shortly, of course: rylleh were harder to kill than that, and even if one had actually died that probably wouldn’t have kept drow of that tier out of the battle for long. But the corpse-mages were bearing strange metal staffs, and though I could see no visible mark of sorcery being employed the three rylleh that’d been struck down…  stayed down.

“Weeping Heavens,” I murmured. “Has he found a way to shut down the Night?”

“Not quite,” Andronike said, voice grown cold. “Those staffs were made of an alloy of tin and antimony, and strangely enchanted – they did not disrupt Night, or end it, which we could have fought. They directed it away from our warriors, down into the earth.”

And moments later, petty ghouls they would otherwise have been able to slaughter by the hundreds began tearing into the downed rylleh. They devoured their flesh so that they would never recover from that death. Gods, I fucking hated fighting the Dead King. There was always another nasty trick just waiting to be unveiled. Binds began pouring of the breaches, forming up under arrow fire by the increasingly outnumbered and outflanked Vesena. This was going to turn from a defeat into a disaster, if something wasn’t done soon, and I wasn’t the only one to see it.

The Seventh General, Vesena Spear-Biter, took the field personally.

I did not even seen them move until they were standing before the Stitcher, long axe resting against the shoulder.

“Sa vrede?” Mighty Vesena asked of the Revenant.

Are you worthy? I shivered to hear my words spoken by one of the ancient monsters of the Firstborn, taken as writ of faith. Whether in fear or thrill – or perhaps both – I could not be certain. Vesena received no answer, and as the stitched up necks and heads of sea snakes struck out at it the Seventh General vanished into shadows and emerged atop the monster. The axe came down, head biting into the dragon scales, and inside the beast a sea of Night cut through. Split in two, the Stitcher’s monster poured our blood, guts and strange liquids of many colours. Inside a dead young woman screamed and the corpses of the drow began gathering to her, forming another shell, but Mighty Vesena landed before the Revenant and stood knee-deep in guts and blood. Its shoulder twitched, once, twice and then it proved why it had earned the sobriquet of Spear-Biter. I’d thought it a reference to mere spears, once, but that was not the case. Vesena had once warred against an ancient sigil-holder that’d unearthed and partially repaired one of the ancient wonders of the Empire Ever Dark, a great tower of arcane-forged steel that gathered lightning into itself and spewed it in a constant storm around itself. The steel walls had been thirty feet deep, surrounded by constant death, and the way the tower jutted out from a deep pit in the Inner Ring had led Firstborn to call it the Spear.

Night pouring out of it as it twitched, Mighty Vesena screamed in pain and its mouth unhinged, revealing a bestial maw as large as the sigil-holder itself had been. Bat-like wings tore out of its back, and even as the Stitcher tried to form a grisly homunculus of drow corpses roiling with Night the horrid creature Vesena had turned itself onto unhinged its great jaw even further and revealed glinting fangs – before biting straight through the corpses and Revenant, as it once had through thirty feet of solid steel, and swallowed the Stitcher and a bloody swath of her work whole.

Officers began calling for a retreat, heeding some unseen order, and the Vesena obeyed in largely good order. Their sigil-holder continued to sow destruction left and right, covering the retreat along with the remaining rylleh, and I slowly breathed out.

“After?” I asked.

“They pulled back and Kurosiv drowned the invaders in violence, sweeping them back to the breaches, then broke the wards personally,” Andronike said, her voice betraying little of her opinion of that Mighty.

Mighty Kurosiv the All-Knowing, the Second General. It rarely bothered with deeper tactics than throwing warriors at the enemy but given the absurd amount of those within its sigil that tended to work regardless. I found the way it benefited from the deaths of its own and so encouraged them to be rather disgusting, and I suspected the Sisters felt rather the same for different reasons: Kurosiv had found a way to grow fat as a parasite nestled in the heart of the Night, exploiting the system they had built as no one else had before or since. Rumena had allegedly taken it as enough of a threat it’d exterminated its first five sigils, earning the epithet of Tomb-maker in the process, but it was telling that in the end it was not Kurosiv that’d settled in the Outer Rings.

“Three other battles were fought that very same night, Queen of Lost and Found,” Komena said.

The images flickered quickly through my mind, almost a memory shared but not quite.

Ysengral the Cradle of Steel, the Eighth General: a lipless grin and tittering laughter hiding a mind like a steel trap. And traps did it wield, mazes and madness and traps behind which stood soldiers in steel and machine of war that worked on and fed of and spat out Night. Endless bands of dead slipping through the Gloom, testing the defences day and night.

Ishabog the Adversary, the Fourth General: ever-moving, ever-restless, a spear and song on the lip and a glint in its eye. Only Mighty may have the right to call themselves of the Ishabog, and mighty was their calling: always one against ten, ten against a hundred, a hundred against a thousand. Vicious creatures made of dead flesh hunting through darkened woods in packs, hunted in turn.

Radhoste the Dreamer, the Sixth General: a bed of stone like a sepulcher, carried by rigid in dread. Eyes closed but seeing, a mind that spans miles and sifts through the sleeping and the dead. A hundred battles fought with the Enemy like a fencer on the field, back and forth ever going for the throat as a thousand die with every hour.

All happening, all being fought.

“Remind Cordelia Hasenbach that she will be fighting those battles as well, if she does not leash her lackeys,” Komena hissed in my ear.

And in the heartbeat that followed, they were gone. Dawn shyly peeked through the flaps of my tent, and I eyed my shaking hands before sighing.

So much for getting a good night’s sleep before leaving.

Chapter 11: Veer

“A dog to the brave, a wolf to the craven.”
– Arlesite saying

I would head for the Arsenal tomorrow, I decided after the White Knight left.

There were still decisions to be made and responsibilities to discharge, so I put my back into it instead of leaning backing into my seat and sleeping for a few months the way I wanted to. It was tempting to simply say I could take the bundle of reports and letters with me, but if I wanted to keep a decent pace while on the move I couldn’t afford to have wagons of affairs and a crowd of attendants with me. That meant answering every bit of correspondence I’d received – or left to languish, honesty compelled me to admit – over an afternoon’s span, Hakram flitting in and out of my tent like some big green bureaucratic butterfly after I’d told him of my intention. I’d left Baron Henry Darlington’s complaint about the continued Deoraithe presence in the northern baronies unanswered for two months, considering the shit knew very well it’d been at Vivienne’s order that Duchess Kegan had sent her soldiers to hold our end of the Passage. He was just trying to extract concessions for the supply convoys passing through his territory to feed the host there, the rapacious prick.

I penned an amicable reply inviting him to propose a plan to field a force apt to replace Kegan’s, if his objections to the Deoraithe were so deeply felt. No doubt he’d enjoy that, it was the kind of thing that could be used to muster up some support and influence among the few remaining nobles of Callow. I added that he should forward such a plan to ‘Heiress-Designate to the Crown Vivienne Dartwick’ as soon as it was done, which he’d enjoy a great deal less. Did he really think I’d not noticed he was trying to go over Vivienne’s head by calling directly on me over something she’d already ordered? I might be the Queen of Callow, but I wasn’t fool enough to start undermining my own chosen successor’s authority. The invitation from the Closed Circle of Mercantis to attend one of their auctions had already expired by the time I got it, in a practical sense, given that the auction had already been held when I got the letter. I’d been meant a mark of honour than a real expectation I’d leave the front, though, so I wrote a polite refusal anyways.

It always paid to be polite to people you owed money to, even if the ‘you’ here was the Grand Alliance and not me personally.

The offer by the Holy Seljun of Levant, one Wazim Isbili – who was, to my understanding, Tariq’s grand-nephew – to formally send an ambassador to the Callowan court and receive one from us in Levante in turn was rather more pressing. It was heartening to see that the Dominion was willing to establish closer ties with my kingdom, and to an extent rarely sought given the distance between the two realms, but there were… complications. For one, I didn’t really have anyone to send as an ambassador. In the Old Kingdom that’d been a role for the highest ranks of nobility, which had been quite thoroughly exterminated in the decades since the Conquest. My father being the viciously meticulous bastard that he was, he’d also done all he could to stamp out what one might call diplomatic apprenticeships. Almost like he’d wanted to make sure Callow was isolated and incapable of properly reaching out. It was a sad but undeniable fact that most ‘diplomats’ I could send would be Praesi officers of noble birth from my army, with as other option maybe Brandon Talbot. Who I needed in command of the Order of Broken Bells anyway, making him highly unsuitable for the task.

I kicked that decision back to Vivienne, after pondering the matter a bit, along with a note outlining that she’d be in charge of finding a suitable ambassador if she decided to accept. I also suggested that a potential Levantine ambassador should be received by her in Salia rather than at my ‘court’ in Laure, and lastly stipulated that no ambassador of ours could be related to Duchess Kegan. There was already enough discontent at the way the Duchess of Daoine kept naming kin and vassals to key court and bureaucratic positions, she needed no encouragement. Especially if a decade from now the Duchy of Daoine was to be independent, complicating the loyalties of all such appointees by a great deal. More recently, the Iron Prince had sent a missive describing the way the dead beyond the defensive lines had massed for assault before suddenly withdrawing and asking if I had an explanation.

I spent the better part of an hour describing the Dead King’s latest plot to tie us here down south while he went on the offensive again. Klaus Papenheim had added a note that his envoy had spoken glowingly of the results of the assault formation on the field – somewhat to my surprise, given that she’d not expressed such enthusiasm before me – and that he would want to pit a formation against a more traditional mixed force of Bones and Binds before committing to that doctrine but he was definitely interested. Amusing enough, he also warned me that Otto Redcrown had extended an offer of settling in Lycaonese land to Sapper-General Pickler but that no offence should be taken by it. Any such offers made in the future would pass by me first. It was enough for me to soften my language when I wrote to the Prince of Bremen over the matter, mentioning that I was willing to serve as intermediary between the Lycaonese and the Confederation of the Grey Eyries if they wanted to extend that offer to the Tribes instead of to troops sworn to my service.

The rest was minor correspondence, mostly from my commanders on other fronts, including the usual letter written in Crepuscular from General Rumena that turned out to bear some insulting nuance to a native speaker I wouldn’t get without asking for help. Hence getting me insulted in front of an audience every single time. The old bastard never actually bothered to send me proper reports, given that Sve Noc saw to it we spoke in ‘person’ regularly. I’d be due that tonight, I thought. Not necessarily a conversation with Rumena, but communion with my patronesses. Last time they’d brought me in for a waking dream it’d been to show me the sigils of the Exodus raising the foundations of a hidden city in the depths of Serolen, though also to make a point that warfare around the edges of the Gloom reborn was growing… rougher. The Dead King was getting serious about dislodging them from their positions, not just trying to erode them one corpse at a time. I set those drifting thoughts – a sure sign I’d been going through these chores for a while – aside when Hakram flitted back in, wasting no time to bring another folded parchment to me. I took it with a sigh.

“What am I looking at?” I asked, eyes begin to scan the cramped lines.

“The proposed numbers and composition of our escort to the Arsenal,” he said.

I frowned.

“I don’t need knights,” I said. “They’re a lot more useful out here.”

“You’re the Queen of Callow,” Hakram pointed out. “Knights are expected. They expect is as well, Catherine.”

“I’ve no personal guard,” I said. “There will be no second Gallowborne. If the Order of Broken Bells understands this differently, Talbot is in need of being disciplined.”

These days I was not quite so prone to leaping into the fire, but what mortal guard could possibly be expected to survive the kind of messes I got into? No, there would be no revisiting that old blunder under a different name.

“And cut that number in half,” I added. “I want us riding briskly.”

“Wagons don’t ride briskly, Catherine,” Adjutant gravelled.

“Then they can catch up at the Arsenal,” I said. “I’ll not double the length of the trip for comfort.”

“Let me requisition packhorses, at least,” the orc said.

I waved my hand.

“So long as we don’t slow,” I said.  “And send for Akua, will you?”

He nodded.

“You’ll also need to personally write to the Rapacious Troubadour, if you want him to take up Origin Hunting without feeling slighted,” he reminded me before leaving.

Ugh, and I’d been just about done too. That letter I took my time in writing, since he was a prickly thing for a bandier of words and not half-bad with a knife. Mind you, when he’d admitted he stole songs from those he killed I probably shouldn’t have replied ‘surely you mean souls’ in a dry tone. He hadn’t taken that well. Still, vicious bastard or not he’d sniff out any Named popping out in this neck of the woods and ease them into the Truce – and I’d make it clear that Hanno was in the area too, which ought to keep him honest when it came to his more unsavoury tendencies. I was up and limping about looking for my seal when my right hand and my left arrived. I waved in their direction, pushing aside sheaths of parchment with a frown.

“It’s in your desk,” Hakram said.

“I looked in my desk, thank you very much,” I waspishly replied. “It’s not in-”

Having stepped around my desk and opened one of the drawers even as I spoke, he produced my personal seal – the Crown and Sword, as it’d come to be known – and said nothing. His silence was, admittedly, quite damning enough on its own.

“Must have been under something,” I weakly said.

“Walnut shells, mostly,” the orc reproached.

I winced.

“Look, sometimes it’s late and I’m not hungry enough for a meal,” I defended.

“And so the Black Queen so spoke to her dark legions,” Akua intoned. “Bring me walnuts, my wicked servants. But don’t tell Adjutant, for he gets snippy about the mess.”

I flipped a finger at her and hobbled to the side of the desk, picking up the bar of grey wax I’d set next to the letter before forming black flames against the side. Wax dripped and I dismissed the fire, extending my free hand and receiving my seal from Hakram. With a firm push the seal was affixed and I set the letter aside.

“Right,” I said. “So I considered it, and we’ll be scrapping the wardstone to get the obsidian spike.”

I gave a heartbeat of room for Akua to protest, but of course she’d been taught better than that.

“I’m not comfortable going on campaign against Keter with a repaired wardstone anyway,” I told the shade. “So we might as well get another weapon to study out of it.”

“You no longer speak in the theoretical,” Akua noted.

When it came to a summer campaign? No, no I did not. That little revelation about the bridge had ensured as much. We couldn’t afford to ignore that.

“Talks with the White Knight were fruitful,” I grunted. “I’ll need to speak with the rest of the Grand Alliance leaders, but an offensive campaign in Hainaut is now a certainty – the only thing up in the air is the timing of it.”

“I’ll see to extracting the spike immediately, then,” Akua decisively said. “If you’ll excuse me?”

I nodded my thanks, she returned them with a smile and just as quick as she’d come she was gone. The tent flap closed behind her, cutting through the slice of dusk it’d bared. She must have appreciated the courtesy of being told in person, I supposed, even if ultimately I’d not taken her advice.

“Tell me when it’s done,” I said, eyes turning to the tent flap. “I’ll have a look at it myself.”

“And until then?” Hakram asked, sounding curious.

“It’s getting dark out,” I said. “Time to speak with the Crows.”

At the exact moment night fell, I was seated alone in the dark of my tent.

The sprite-lanterns had been hooded, the braziers put out, and I’d dragged my fae seat away from the desk so that there’d be more room around. I’d long grown familiar with weaving silencing strands of Night around my tent that would prevent eavesdropping, be it physical or otherwise, and even my guards had been told to step further away. My pipe in hand, breathing in the wakeleaf I’d been gifted, I watched the burning red brand that was the only light inside and spat out a long stream of acrid smoke. The only sign that Sve Noc had deigned to join me was a slight breath of breeze, almost like an exhale, and then they were there. Perched on either side of me, on the back of the seat, great crows feathered in darkness so deep and even the dark of the tent seemed bright in comparison. Long, sharp talons dug into the wood of the armchair with a sound like steel scraping bone.

“First Under the Night,” Andronike said, voice cool.

Like stone far below where the sun never shone, like a deep lake whose waters were as a veil.

“Losara Queen,” Komena said, voice sharp.

Like the ring of steel against steel, like pride and hate and all the things that made men go mad.

“Sve Noc,” I replied, dipping my head in respect.

Two years was perhaps not so long a span, as gods would have it, but it had made a world of difference with these two. They were no longer taking their first stumbling steps past the threshold of apotheosis: these were goddesses in all the arrogant vigour of their youth, casting a covetous eye upon the world. And I was, on most days, the closest thing they possessed to restraint. I breathed in the smoke, held it in my throat and blew it back out. I ought, perhaps, to be afraid of those sharp-clawed patronesses of mine. I’d never quite managed, though. That might just be the reason they took my advice still.

“General Rumena brings ill tidings back to the Night,” Komena croaked.

“Do they?” I mused. “I’ve not had the displeasure to hear them.”

“Watch,” Andronike ordered. “Listen.”

The darkness within shifted as the Sisters seized the darkness for their own, made it as a domain forced onto Creation. It was one of their lesser tricks – a paltry thing, compared to the waking dreams that saw me tread grounds halfway across the continent and speak with others as if I were there – but it was still a casual display of power. Similar end could be achieved with sorcery, true. But it would be the work of years, not moments. I saw now, from my seat, two different fractured memories given unto the Night by willing Firstborn.

A human, a prince, an Alamans. All three and no longer young, seated with another crowned head: Rozala Malanza, vulgar in form to drow eye yet respected for its mettle. Not so its companion, this Prince of Cleves who could not preserve it sigil yet had not seen it stripped from its grasp.

“- this talk of leaving all conquered lands to the dark elves,” Prince Gaspard of Cleves snorted. “A kingdom’s worth, for a paltry few thousand raiders? It is madness, Princess Rozala.”

“The greater might of the Empire Ever Dark fights in the deep north,” Princess Rozala replied.

“And let them keep it, by all means,” Prince Gaspard dismissed. “But the lands south of Hannoven’s height should be brought into the fold: some of them would make good farmland, after a proper cleansing. It would be a waste to surrender them to these lesser elven cousins.”

A human, a killer, the Dawnstride: Mirror Knight, humans called it. Unsettling, its power like the sting of morning, and harder to kill than Savanov Hundred-Lives. But like most cattle, its guard lowered when it was busy mating with another of its kind. The other one in the bed: human, the daughter of a prince, Langevin. Carine, daughter of the Gaspard. They spoke after spending themselves.

“You really should consider it, Christophe,” Carine Langevin said, fingers trailing naked flesh.

“The war’s not won, Carine,” the Mirror Knight replied.

“But when it is, all those lands will need proper stewardship,” Carine Langevin insisted. “And who better than one of the Chosen who fought to reclaim it?”

“I wouldn’t know the first thing about ruling,” the Mirror Knight said.

“It would be my honour to help you, of course,” Carine Langevin smiled.

I let out a shallow gasp, closing my eyes. How very Proceran, I thought, to begin divvying the spoils of victory before the end of a war we were currently losing. Malanza had seemed lukewarm at the notion, at least, so I didn’t have to revise my opinion of her by too much. That she’d not stamped out this petty scheming immediately, though, got stuck in my throat. Hadn’t they learned by now that it was exactly this sort of habitual treachery that’d nearly seen them stand against the Dead King alone? What exactly did they think was going to happen next time a calamity like this struck and Procer had a record of backstabbing even the people who fought to save it? I brought the pipe to my lips and breathed in the wakeleaf, ordering my thoughts as I let the burn in my throat sharpen my attention, and spat it out.

“That’s one prince,” I finally said. “It would have been too much to ask for that all of that lot be kept honest by even the looming prospect of annihilation.”

And if it’d been going to happen anywhere, it was going to be Cleves. Between the Firstborn forces under Rumena, the veteran Dominion reinforcements under Lord Yannu Marave and Rozala Malanza’s practiced hand guiding the fight, it was the front that’d arguably least suffered. While the Dead King’s raiding parties frequently slipped the coastal defences and warfare around the lakeside fortresses was an almost permanent fixture, it was the most ‘stable’ of the fronts. The city of Cleves had not suffered a third siege, the supply lines remained wide open and the Named there were proving capable of dealing with Revenants – at least defensively, as the Stormcaller still had the run of all western Lake Pavin and we had no one that could touch her in the water. No, if anyone was going to start getting ideas it was the royals in Cleves. They’d not been afraid for their lives in too long.

“Does it go any further up?” I asked. “If they can’t even bring Malanza into the plot, it’s dead in the water.”

“If they continued down this path,” Komena said, “they will be as well.”

“More sinister than humorous, but not half bad,” I absent-mindedly praised.

Yeah, that the literal goddesses of murder and theft that were my patronesses would not look kindly upon their so-called allies planning to turn on them had been a given. I was not unaware, either, that they were in no way above calling back the forces under Rumena from Cleves and leaving the Procerans high to dry. It’d be a disaster both militarily and diplomatically speaking, but the Crows had no interest in playing nice with people sizing them up for a knife in the back. They’d cut ties with the Principate without batting an eye, if it came to that.

“The First Prince was told,” Andronike said.

My fingers clenched around the arms of my chair.

“You’re sure?” I asked.

The shadows shifted once more.

Humans, bearing the emblem of a red lion. Magelings, surrounding the Princess Malanza. They speak into the scrying bowl, believing themselves safe behind their wards. They are not, for the Lord of Silent Steps has brought great knowledge into the Night as to treading through without tripping.

“Gaspard is pushing hard, Your Highness,” Princess Rozala said. “But he’s toed the line carefully so I’ve no grounds to come down him. He’s still gathering support but the notion is a popular one.”

“It would permanently alienate the Empire Ever Dark,” the First Prince of Procer’s voice replied. “And perhaps Callow as well. If the Black Queen did not slaughter everyone involved first, that is. I do not suppose he spoke to this?”

“There’s a lot of heroes who don’t believe she’ll survive the war,” Princess Rozala said. “And with his daughter in the Mirror Knight’s bed, he gets to hear every rumour going around the Chosen. Callow under Vivienne Dartwick is a beast with a lot less bite, Gaspard argues.”

A long silence.

“I cannot step in,” the First Prince said. “Already the heartlands are chafing under the taxes and levies, there will be accusations of tyranny if I begin imprisoning princes over mere words. Let them plot, Princess Rozala. It will be seen to at a time of our choosing.”

It took a moment to gather my bearings. That turned to anger quickly enough, that Hasenbach was once more failing as an ally because of the Principate’s fucking internal politics. I mastered myself, though, and took a calming drag from my pipe. Procer was, undeniably, bearing the worst of the weight of the fight against the Dead King. It was its lands being ravaged, its people being conscripted and its traders being taxed into poverty. It was even its princes falling into debt. Callow and Levant, meanwhile, had sent north largely professional armies and while we’d felt the burden of war neither had suffered attacks from Keter. Procer, I then silently corrected, was bearing the worst of the weight among human nations. The Firstborn had been fighting against Keter in earnest for two years, and they’d had no reinforcements for any of it. But they were also fighting very far away, and people were people.

Sacrifices earned less gratitude when you didn’t get to see them happening.

“The two most prominent women in Procer don’t back the plot,” I said. “And it’s years away, besides. You’ve reason to be angry, and I’ll be taking up the issue when I next see Hasenbach, but it’s hardly a crisis.”

“An undeniable and weighty precedent for the Firstborn being reasonable, restrained actors,” Andronike said, mimicking my voice perfectly as I repeated words I’d once spoken to the Sisters.

“When we refrained from taking Twilight, you promised us our restraint would bring forth results,” Komena croaked.

“I’d have you fight this war in a manner that doesn’t guarantee having to fight another one in twenty years with your current allies,” Andronike said, eerily imitating my every intonation from back then without flaw.

“And yet,” the youngest of the sisters said.

They were questioning the value of playing nice when faced with allies like these, whose actions might very well lead to that war in a few decades regardless of what the drow did. It went back to the lessons they’d been taught while still mortals: that restraint would always be seen as weakness, that only the strong were bargained with and strength came without mercy. Of course, they were wrong in this.

“You did get that,” I pointed out without hesitation. “Sure, we might need to arrange an accident for Gaspard of Cleves in a way that can’t be traced back to us a few years from now, but you’re missing the point: the two most powerful people in Procer want to shut him down and will at the first good opportunity. The Empire Ever Dark is seen as valuable, something not to antagonize without reason. Considering the general amoral ruthlessness of Proceran diplomacy over the last centuries, that’s basically weaving you a crown of flowers and asking if you’re going to the fair with anyone.”

I’d, uh, maybe gotten a little too enthusiastic with that last metaphor.

Were you going to the fair with anyone?” Andronike asked, tone too serene for her not to be fucking with me.

Great, they were still missing the mark half the time with sarcasm but naturally they’d be the finest of students when it came to learning how to pull my leg.

“I had a shift at the Rat’s Nest anyway,” I said.

I felt Komena’s gaze descend on me, somehow coming across as skeptical even coming from a bird.

“Fine,” I grumpily admitted, “Duncan Brech did not, in fact, ask me to the fair.”

He’d asked Lily from one of the other rooms at the orphanage, whose… charms had developed quicker and more amply than mine. Mind you if I’d had my pick of the litter I might have chosen Lily as well, so I could hardly blame him.

“Procer has not asked us to the fair either,” Andronike comfortingly said.

See, if it’d been her sister I might have thought that halfway genuine but coming from her I just knew she was just having me on.

“Very droll,” I said. “Thank you for passing this along, then. I’ll be seeking out Hasenbach to bury it for good.”

Preferably without dead bodies being involved, but that depended on how reasonable Prince Gaspard intended to be. If he was willing to bend his neck and make reparations for overreaching in this way, I’d leave it at that. Otherwise I was going to have to take some measures to express my irritation, less than subtly. If even that didn’t make the point sink in, then I’d have to put some thought into how best to have him disappear without entangling the Mirror Knight into this mess. Tricky but not impossible, if I leaned on the White Knight to get him moved to another front and he’d not confused sleeping with the pretty Langevin girl for true love. Hells, though, why couldn’t he just have stayed out of this mess? The prince would not have been so bold without a Chosen to back him. Why was it that the only Proceran hero to have any degree of sense was Roland and he was the one I couldn’t have on the field? The Gods were pricks, as usual.

“How’s Serolen?” I asked.

There really wasn’t a proper, commonly accepted name for the massive forest in between Lake Netzach and the Chalice. Most maps ended at the bottom of the Kingdom of the Dead, and few people had an interest in what went on north of the human nations of Calernia. I’d seen it called the – inventively-named – Dead Wilds, the Forest of Ghosts and rather more poetically the Bleak Weald. Mapmakers tended to call it whatever they felt like, and there was no one to contradict them: it wasn’t like the Dead King’s legions had shared their name for it, if they even had one. Serolen was what the Firstborn had come to name the forest, and in Crepuscular it more or less meant the Duskwood. The Firstborn had fought nine battles and a hundred skirmishes before claiming the greater span of the woods, securing them enough that Sve Noc could bring down the Gloom around the edges and plunge the territory in permanent dusk.

Neshamah was perhaps the greatest sorcerer Calernia had ever known, so of course he’d found ways to pierce through the Gloom. They weren’t perfect, though, and it’d enabled the Firstborn to secure their frontline and begin settling in the depths of Serolen. The first drow city on the surface still shared its name with the Duskwood, for now, but I expected that would change with time. I’d already filled the ears of the Crows with rants about why Proceran principalities and capitals sharing their name was highly inconvenient in half a dozen senses, so you might even say it’d be a religious obligation. I’d shove that in the holy book if I had to, they knew damn well.

“See for yourself,” Komena said, open pride in her voice.

The shadows shifted, but this time it was not a memory that was offered up for me to tear through. I dragged myself up to my feet, teeth keeping my pipe in place, and walked over what had been made to seem like the evening sky. Below me, misty woods shrouded in shadow spread out as far as the eye could see. The ground fell beneath my feet as we closed in on the Duskwood, my old calcified fear of heights sending a familiar pang up my leg. What I found beneath the mists had me smiling, though. The sigils of the Everdark had come together under the Ten Generals and their great cabal of the Exodus, whose founders were Sve Noc themselves, and the results were a wonder. An empire’s worth of looted wealth had been made into a city at the heart of the gloomy woods, temples of stone and millennia-old steles held up by trees coaxed through Night to serve as stairs and roads and a hundred other things. Within the bark had been nestled precious stones and obsidian, while leaves around the sacred places were painted with colourful prayers and poems.

It was a city like none I’d ever seen, like no one had ever seen, made up from the stolen parts of half a dozen cities who’d once been among the most glorious of this land. And everywhere among the labyrinthine lay of its ‘streets’ the Firstborn were living. Sleeping and haggling and brewing their horrid drinks, making lizardscale clothes and harvesting the mushrooms from the deeps that’d spread like the plague. Waters had been diverted from half a dozen streams, and stolen lakes brought from their ancient homes, making the entire span richly watered and leading into an artifical lake at the heart of Serolen. There the great temple that had once been the soul of the Empire Ever Dark, the seat of the Twilight Sages and where Sve Noc had struck their ill-fated bargain with Below, stood tall. Entire flocks of crows like the ones on my shoulders perched there, ever-hungry and ever-watchful shards of godhood. I let out a low, impressed whistle after taking my pipe in hand.

“That’s new,” I said, pointing towards the great temple. “I didn’t know you’d looted that.”

“All of Holy Tvarigu is within us,” Andronike replied.

“It’s coming along nicely,” I approved. “Do you intend to keep a strong presence up here even after the war?”

“There would be advantages,” Komena said. “Like the nearness of the Chain of Hunger.”

Words to make a Lycaonese choke, that, but it made sense. To the drow, yearly ratling raids would be like a fresh harvest of Night coming over and asking to be scythed through.

“We’ve got time yet,” I said. “Might be worth speaking with the First Prince when you decide on where you’ll raise your cities. She’ll be better placed than I to point out the northern trade arteries of Procer.”

I received no acknowledgement of my words save for the two of them taking flight and landing on my shoulders, sharp talons digging into my flesh. I put my pipe back into my mouth and took a drag, spewing the smoke upwards just to spite them. It was time, it seemed.

“All right,” I said afterward. “Show me the war.”

I steeled myself and the shadows spun.

Horror swallowed me whole.

Chapter 10: Reflections

“Men pray only to angels because their devils need no summons.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand

“See, I thought that too at first,” I mused. “That I owed you some sort of explanation. But then I had another think, looked back at what I actually did. And, really, what’s the worse you can put on me? I was curt with a kid. I told a Named who came in my tent uninvited to get the Hells out before I tossed her out.”

I shrugged.

“I hurt a heroine’s feelings,” I said. “Twice. Ah, what utter perfidy.”

The last sentence I uttered with a cocked brow and the driest tone I could muster.

“I suppose we’ll have to get through this the usual way,” I announced. “I’ll bring the hammer and nails if you bring the cross, White Knight: if I’m going to be crucified over a trifle, the least you could do is go halfsies on the materials.”

Hanno’s face betrayed no reaction to my words as he studied me, calm as ever.  No, perhaps calm was the wrong word, for it implied a degree of peace. Indolence, when at its worst. The White Knight was a creature of certainty, which leant him the appearance of calm, but there was nothing peaceful about certainty. Especially in the hands of a hero, who could so often weave from it either death or salvation.

“You’ve not often had an equal, have you Catherine?” the dark-skinned man pensively said. “A few superiors, I imagine: most of them unkind or untrustworthy, more marks in the making than someone whose lead was worth following. And followers by the thousands, that one is beyond denial. Not all of them truly beneath you in skill and strength, either. You might insist that the Woe are more allies than subordinates, but when has one of them ever tried to give you an order?”

I rather hoped this wasn’t about to segue into a little speech about the nature of the Woe. I’d had quite a few people try their hand at those over the years, most with knowledge of the individuals involved about as deep as Keteran grave. Usually it was some sort of hackneyed comparison with the Calamities. I’d even once asked it of Black, out of morbid curiosity, to which he’d mildly answered that given the way even individuals who’d borne the same Names could vary so wildly in motivation and disposition any attempt to force precedent in groups of Named was, at best, misguided. Which had essentially been an elaborate way of telling me the Calamities were the Calamities and the Woe were the Woe, and anyone trying to hack at the truth of either to fit both into the mold of legacy was a fool. There were good reasons I remained fond of the man to this day.

“I will assume that this is meant to, eventually, reach something baring vague resemblance to a point,” I said.

“If you perceive me as being subordinate to you, or allied, then you have a rather sweet temper,” Hanno said, sounding rather fascinated. “Yet the moment I am seen as demanding answers from you or being set above you in some manner, you bare your fangs without hesitation. I have never seen it so neatly displayed in sequence as it was today, which I’ll chalk up to exhaustion on you part. You are rarely so easy to parse.”

I pushed down the toothy, slightly nasty smile I’d been about to send his way. No need to feed the metaphor.

“Most people don’t enjoy being described to themselves, Hanno,” I said.

Might be there was some part of truth to what he’d said, though. Adjutant saw more of me than anyone, so he’d be able to tell me – from there, it’d just be a question of how to smooth away that wrinkle. I couldn’t afford to have obvious levers on my temper in my position, especially when I had a nascent Name. Mantles tended to put the best and worst of you in sharp relief, so it was all the more important to know what those were.

“You are not most people,” Hanno calmly replied. “Already the measured part considers adjustment, while the one forged by your teachers begins to ponder if this is not a manner manipulation.”

It wasn’t difficult to manipulate who respected you, I knew. I did it all the time. His vocalization of that fact did nothing to put out the ever-burning embers of suspicion that seemed to fall asleep around fewer people every year.

“We’ve strayed far from whatever grievances you might want to bring to me,” I said. “Which I’ve yet to hear, regardless.”

“You were unkind to a scared and tired child of fourteen, for reasons which had little to do with her,” the White Knight said. “If you could offer an apology or a reassurance so that she does not believe the foremost villain of our age had personal enmity towards her, I would appreciate it. I am, however, aware I have neither right nor means to compel this of you.”

“Would you, if you did?”

I almost wondered who it was that’d asked that, before I recognize my own fool voice. The question had slipped out of me before it could be put away in the back of my mind, my lips moving of their own accord. Some part of me had expected some classical answer to come out of the White Knight’s mouth before a heartbeat had passed, but that was doing Hanno disservice. The Ashuran hero considered the matter seriously, only answering when he was certain of his answer. I trusted his words more for that, twisted as the thought might be. It was one thing to say you would never but we both knew it was different when you actually had that power. I’d come up the ranks of the Empire talking of reason and compromise but later in my career, when I’d had the strength to dictate terms, how many times had I refrained from doing so? People always found it easy to dismiss the thought of drink before sweet wine was pressed to their lips.

“No,” he said. “It is not a crime to be uncivil. Regardless, it is not my place to give such orders.”

“You give orders to your heroes all the time,” I retorted, and raised a hand to quiet him when he began to answer, “You don’t get to call them requests when people listen to them every single time, Hanno.”

“That is only the use of my authority as a representative under the Truce and the Terms,” the White Knight told me. “It is not a personal matter.”

“Yeah, so that’s nonsense,” I said. “We dressed it up real good, put it in ink and slapped some impressive seals onto the parchment, but pretending even for a moment that our authority isn’t personal is ridiculous. Heroes don’t listen to you because you’re a high officer of the Grand Alliance, they listen to you because you personally command their respect – either because of your record, your Name or your character.”

“That sounded almost like a compliment,” Hanno said, sounding amused.

I rolled my eyes.

“Look, to keep my side in line I have to show I’m powerful, ruthless and I’m willing to send a few plumb opportunities their way should they toe the line,” I said. “For you it’s more like a virtue pissing match paired with your war record – and on top of that you’ve got just a dash of divine right to lead, since this whole mess is somewhat crusade-shaped and you’re the White Knight.”

“I would ask how a virtue pissing match would take place in practice, but I’ve learned better than to provoke your talent for the descriptive,” the White Knight noted.

“I’m serious,” I flatly told him. “Tariq was everyone’s favourite grandfather, until he made a deal with me once. He’s still digging himself out of that hole. If he pulled out the same kind of tricks right now he used to catch my teacher, I’m not sure he wouldn’t get a hero after him for it. Why? ‘cause he made a truce with a villain. His virtue bragging rights were put in doubt, his heroic ‘reputation’, so now he couldn’t do the job you do even if he wanted to.”

“Trust in the Peregrine ebbed because a villain was instrumental in his resurrection,” Hanno corrected. “There is long precedent in corrupting magics and even necromancy being used on heroes, which means those with only glancing knowledge of those events have reason to worry about him being unduly influenced.”

He paused.

“Heroes who learn of even surface details of the affair tend to dismiss such concerns entirely,” he noted. “I would argue you overestimate how deeply the Princes’ Graveyard affected his repute, at least as far as faith in his judgement is concerned.”

“And you don’t think it’s grotesque,” I said, “that butchering an entire village by plague didn’t get people wondering about that, but that evening did?”

“I do not judge,” the White Knight replied. “Now less than ever.”

“But you do, Hanno,” I hissed out. “Because you chose to be part of a structure, and that structure doles out judgement all the time. It judged that your kid, the one whose answer to fucking death on the march was to get down on her knees and pray, she’s the good one. She gets to live. Mine, the one who actually tried to bloody well do something? Well, he was bad. He gets to die.”

His dark eyes were kind, which only strengthened the streak of anger that’d torn through me.

“How close was the mirroring?” Hanno quietly asked.

“The Scorched Apostate,” I said, baring teeth. “A mage too. His sorcery mimicked Light, with a tinge of fire to it.”

Tancred was the greater loss here, damn me twice for it. Healers were useful, but most were mediocre in fight against other Named unless they were part of a band of five. The Scorched Apostate would have been useful in half a dozen ways, from his eyes to his sorcery to the potential contribution to the Arsenal. What was the Stalwart Apostle going to do, except dole out Light? If the Heavens were going to pick the children they saved, they could at least pick them better.

“I take it he is dead,” the White Knight asked.

“The Dead King got the drop on me,” I straightforwardly said. “Kid fell asleep, the new ghouls ate and replaced my escort while I was studying the remains of the village and turned him into a Revenant.”

I saw him, saw the cast of his face and his mind as he almost asked why a village had become remains, but then he thought better of it. He had a knack for knowing when to advance and when to retreat, this one.

“I’m sorry,” Hanno said. “It would have been a blow, and Pascale’s survival would have been salting the wound.”

“I shouldn’t have been curt with your kid,” I conceded. “But I will not apologize for speaking the truth to her, either.”

The sooner she learned that providence was not a panacea for poor decisions, the better.

“That,” the White Knight calmly said, “is where we disagree. You did not speak the truth to her, you simply spoke in anger and dismay.”

“They’ve got it all handled, then? How lovely,” I scathingly replied. “If the Heavens have it all under control, forgive me for meddling. I’ll march my armies home and leave you lot to the business of winning.”

“Ninety-nine times out of a hundred,” Hanno quoted, “nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, that act of faith would have killed dozens of thousands. That is what you said, word for word. Regardless of your sarcasm, I disagree.”

“How many little villages did the zombies eat, to make up an army whose numbers warranted three heroes and a fourth forming to fight?” I said. “Five, ten, twenty? You really think none of the people there ever thought to pray their way out of it? They still died, White.”

“You take helplessness for negligence,” the dark-skinned man flatly replied. “Do you sincerely believe that, if the Heavens had been able to empower a champion during those tragedies instead, they would have stood by and done nothing? There are rules, Black. What you condemn as apathy, I mourn instead as inability.”

“Gods should not need to be excused,” I harshly said. “If you’re to claim yourself as the source of all that is Good, then either triumph or stop strutting about. If faith is a wager, then at the very least they should have the fucking decency to acknowledge it.”

“Below are deities as well,” Hanno said. “While deploring that the Heavens are not omnipotent, in the same breath you rage only at the half of the Gods trying to mend-”

“I’ve seen the work of Choirs,” I softly interrupted. “And I do not call that mending. I’ll say this for the Gods Below: utter bastards that they are, they always grant the precise measure of what was bargained for. And they don’t ask you to kiss their feet for it first.”

“Because Below does not have agents or servants,” the White Knight sharply said. “It has horses, and they are ridden ‘til they break. Or are you so enamoured of the Hellgods you will not acknowledge that by the time hero’s blade bites into the flesh the villain is long dead? That whatever beauty, whatever decency there might have been in what drove them at first, it ever transmutes into deaths and red madness?”

“I find it rich of you to argue this, given that before the Graveyard the two oldest heroes were the Saint and the Pilgrim,” I snorted. “Which of them did not have a body count to match those of the greatest villains of their age? Above warps you just as much as Below does us, except we’re supposed to pretend in your case it’s a good thing. It’s almost like wielding great power and rubbing elbows with unearthly entities for decades has consequences no matter what direction your prayers are headed.”

Vivienne had made it plainly clear that the Dominion of Levant would rather leave the Grand Alliance than sign onto the clause I’d pushed to be added against named rulers, but I still believed in the principle: Names affected you, everyone knew that. It was just that the side dressing in white had convinced itself into believing for them it was never a bad thing.

“Would you have balked at comforting a child you scared, in the days before you became the Squire?” Hanno simply asked.

That stung, though half the sting came from the surprise. I hardly ever thought about those times, nowadays. In every way that mattered the girl Catherine Foundling had been died when I chose to take the knife Black had offered me.

“I some ways I was even worse of an ass at sixteen,” I replied, unsure what the true answer to his question would be. “And you’re falling into that old heroic trap, White: looking back at olden times and thinking they were a golden age instead of an age just like this one, with troubles and joys both.”

“Or perhaps you are falling into that old villainous trap, Black,” Hanno said, “of refusing to look back at who you were in fear of what it might make you question now.”

“Funny thing, about fear,” I said. “I’d wager I know it a lot better than you, Sword of Judgement. I don’t get to kick my decisions upstairs when I have to make them.”

“And you believe this to be easy?” Hanno said, cocking his head to the side. “That restraint, patience, faith – they are somehow easier paths to follow than those you tread?”

I bit my tongue, because even angry as I was I would not descend into petty insults. That beat of silence let him take the initiative in speaking again.

“The child you so disdain,” the White Knight said, “had magic to call on. Enough she could have fled or fought the undead. Yet when death swallowed her little corner of the world, she did neither. She sought a way to heal the people who doubted her, and when all she knew failed her she still did not give up. She threw away what she was to help others, Black, and I will not let you even imply that such a decision was cowardice or laziness. It was courage, and a refusal to compromise over what she held dearest.”

“And if her story had been just a little off,” I said. “To the side, and it just didn’t quite settle into the proper groove for a Name – would you still be praising her then? Because she would have made for a courageous corpse, true enough, but we’d have a rampant plague on our hands.”

More corpses, and those would not be the sort inclined to stay in the ground. It was all nice and good to be principled, until those principles started applying mostly to the way the world should be and not the way it actually was.

“Yet that is not what happened,” Hanno said.

My frustration mounted.

“But it could have-”

“It did not, nor will it,” the White Knight said, sounding the faintest bit irritated as well. “She is the Stalwart Apostle, a story of faith in the dark rewarded. You were advising her to act in a manner that goes against her Role, Catherine. If she takes the wager, she’ll win every time.”

“She couldn’t have known that in advance, Hanno,” I said. “Or you, for that matter. Are you telling me we should give advice to kids that’ll get them killed most of the time?”

“I believe we should advise people according to who and what they are,” he replied. “Yet your objection, I see, is not with the advice some young Named benefit from being given.”

“You can’t tell people that praying will solve things,” I flatly said. “It won’t, except in one in a hundred thousand occurrences like this. If that’s what you put out as a story, that’s what people will do instead of acting to save themselves. People can’t rely on the Heavens for that, they’ll just die.”

If prayer somehow summoner heroes to the peril, or called forth angels or really anything useful at all this wouldn’t get stuck in my throat so much but it wasn’t like attending fucking sermons at the House made you able to use the Light.

“People rely on the Heavens for more than just intervention,” Hanno chided me. “Faith in Above guides a soul both on Creation and beyond; simply because it does not call a storm of fire does not make it worthless. Besides, prayer does not preclude action.”

“If you’ve got time to kneel and mutter, you’ve got time to raise a palisade,” I bluntly replied. “One of them’s a lot more useful than the other.”

“I understand that you do not keep to Above,” the White Knight said, frowning. “Nor would I expect you to. Yet your insistence that faith and ability are mutually exclusive is, to say the least, insulting.”

“Faith doesn’t keep the dead out,” I said.

“Most the time,” Hanno gently said, “neither does the palisade.”

But there was the gap, I thought. He was phrasing as prayer, faith, making it some grand old thing. But what it was, in practice, was sitting and hoping someone else would solve your problems for you. And I couldn’t abide that, not in people I was supposed to respect, not even if it worked. Because for most people it didn’t, and you couldn’t call it a solution if it worked one time in a thousand. But there was no point in arguing this with him, was there? This was a man who’d embraced the role of champion for the Choir of Judgement and never looked back – he’d been able to call on the judgement of the Seraphim with the flip of a coin for years. There was no questioning that kind of closeness with the divine and telling him the only two gods I’d ever liked were the ones I’d helped make would only amuse him.

“Nothing more to be said on this, I don’t think,” I sighed.

“Agreed,” the White Knight replied. “I do enjoy our talks, Catherine, though I doubt we’ll ever change each other’s mind. If your own philosophy is to be the face and method Evil takes in the decades to come, it is one I can make my peace with.”

I grunted, not replying outright. Of all the heroes I’d met he was one I had most affinity for, but sweet as that could be sometimes on other it only served to bring into relief the things we deeply disagreed on. None of them, though, we worth parting ways over. I’d tolerated worst of people I respected less.

“You’re not bringing me an official complaint under the Terms, am I understanding correctly?” I asked instead.

“Neither Rafaella nor Pascale sought me out for one, that is true,” Hanno confirmed

I might despise the Champion, but I’d at least admit she didn’t seem like the kind of woman who’d run to the White Knight after getting her pride bruised.

“I am not demanding answers of you,” the dark-skinned man continued. “I am simply noting your rather famous sense of diplomacy had lapsed of late.”

I rolled my eyes at that. I wasn’t a diplomat, I was just good at maneuvering myself into a position where people had to listen to me or the consequences to them would be horrid. As for handling villains, that wasn’t diplomacy: I was pretty sure you stopped being able to call it that after the first two times you dropped someone at the bottom of an Arcadian lake and left them there for thirty beats before taking back them out to… emphasize the importance of keeping a civil tongue.

“It has been made clear to me I’ve been taking on too much,” I admitted. “It’s taking its toll in a lot of ways, some of them more subtle than others.”

Some were not subtle at all, like the fact that the White Knight had brought back to camp a recruit while I’d brought back a corpse. Hanno grimaced, the expression odd to see on his face. While he was not solemn, neither was he prone to strong expressions. I watched his arm coil as he closed his hand, reaching for something against his palm. A coin, I thought. The coin.

“I have contributed to this, Catherine, and I apologize for it,” Hanno said as my brow rose in surprise. “I many matters I have deferred to you and relied on you to express to the Grand Alliance our shared opinions.”

“It’s not like you’ve been sleeping in,” I drily said. “You’ve been either out there, training heroes or here with me since the war got going.”

“You have duties I do not,” he frankly said. “As a queen and a general. I have known this yet often allowed you to take the lead on shared responsibilities whenever you offered.”

He slowed, looking uncomfortable for a passing beat.

“It was comfortable for me, deferring,” the White Knight admitted. “In the wake of the silence left by the Hierarch’s folly it was pleasant to let someone else take charge and rely on the sharpness of their vision until I got my bearings. And, after, I saw no harm in leaving matters as they were: you excelled, and I could contribute in ways that did not involve changing the way of things.”

“You didn’t force authority onto me,” I said. “I took it, knowingly.”

In those early days, even with our unsettling connection weighing on the scales I wasn’t sure how much I would have trusted him anyway. By that point I’d hardly ever met a hero that hadn’t tried to kill me, much less one who was actively trying to be helpful.

“And it has run you ragged, hasn’t it?” Hanno murmured. “You nearly never allowed yourself to be this… raw around me. Even drunk you are guarded.”

I clenched my teeth. This was starting to sound a lot like pity. Save your pity for the kid who’ll never reach fifteen, I thought. I’m just tired and wicked and wary.

“I would begin handling the formal correspondence with the First Prince and Highest Assembly, if you’ve no objection,” the White Knight firmly offered. “And, considering the many demands on your time, perhaps your end of the Origin Hunts could be passed to another villain.”

“Beastmaster-” I began.

“Cannot afford to alienate the both of us,” Hanno said. “And is well-aware of this. He’ll collaborate with whoever you choose.”

He said as much in the tone of someone who fully intended to make that prediction into a fact, blade bare if need be. The White Knight had taken to Ranger’s wayward pupil even less than I had, which was how Beastmaster had ended up largely in my wheelhouse in the first place.

“I intend to withdraw from the front for some time,” I admitted. “If necessity dictates that we begin preparing an all-out assault on northern Hainaut soon it’ll not be as long or restful a withdrawal as I’d been considering, but as it is I’m considering heading to the Arsenal early.”

Masego would be there, who I’d not seen in too long, and if I got lucky maybe Indrani would be as well – although in that sense the getting lucky would be coming after her presence was confirmed. Gods, that’d do me some good as well. When shady, ambitious Levantine villains were starting to look tempting it meant it’d been too long. And, Hells, even if she wasn’t odds were that Nephele would be there. That remained an enticing piece of unfinished business.

“You should,” Hanno encouraged. “We’ve ended the immediate threat of the plague and the Grey Pilgrim is tracking down whatever remnants might have been seeded – he might come to take Pascale for a journey soon – so aside from military matters you should be able to hand off there’s no pressing need for you to remain.”

“The Blood might come to you with another beehive that got kicked,” I told him.

“The Barrow Sword?” he asked.

I snorted.

“Guess,” I said.

“I expect it will and in a compromise that pleases no one in particular,” Hanno said. “Either separate rolls of the Blood for the villainous, or admission into the existing ones with most of the attendant privileges stripped out.”

Which would be a massive gain for Ishaq anyway, though well shot of what he wanted. Much as he might protest otherwise, the Barrow Sword very much wanted a little corner of Levant to rule. One where he could begin gathering other Bestowed from our side of the fence, and began smashing his way into a degree of prominence at some other family’s expense. He was not so much a fool as to think he had a chance of toppling the Isbili, but he was ambitious enough I would not put it beyond him to have an eye on taking one of the great cities belonging to another founding bloodline.

“Either way I can’t let them simply bury the man,” I said. “It’ll close the door on any other Levantine villain joining us, and I swore oaths otherwise besides.”

“I’ll advise restraint and compromise, then,” the White Knight replied. “Yet even that does not seem too pressing a need – scrying back and forth with Levante will take months.”

“So long as the Holy Seljun and the rest of them know I’ll frown on Ishaq being cheated,” I said. “At the very least the man is owed recognition for the things he’s actually doing.”

“A sensible stance,” Hanno nodded. “Is it him you’ll be naming as your stand-in for the Origin Hunts?”

The Barrow Sword, serving as some poor freshly-risen Named’s introduction to the Truce and the Terms? No, that had disaster written all over it. That’d need someone with a defter touch, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to spare Hakram.

“I’ll probably pull the Rapacious Troubadour back from Brabant,” I frowned. “He’s certainly got the knack for finding hidden things.”

Archer would probably have taken him into her band of five, compulsive killer or not, if she’d not already been full-up. I was rather happier with her trusting her back to the Harrowed Witch instead, even if she’d murdered her own brother – sometimes it could be slim pickings, when it came to recruiting ‘trustworthy’ villains. With his thirst for death and songs sated by the access the First Prince reluctantly had given him to death row prisoners, the Troubadour had nonetheless proved to be damned useful. He’d predicted the skirmishes between refugee camps and the Brabant locals months before they happened, even identifying the likely ringleaders for violence on both sides, which had allowed us to snuff that whole mess out in the crib. He’d also brought two other Named into the Truce and the Terms without there being violence involved, one of them even being a heroine, so between the instincts and the silvertongue he was probably my best bet around here.

I’d need someone to keep an eye on him, but that would also have been true if I named anyone outside the Woe.

“I don’t suppose I could talk you into sending for the Hunted Magician instead,” Hanno tried.

I snorted. The mage was much too useful in the Arsenal to be sent traipsing around the countryside.

“I’d thought not,” the White Knight sighed. “I’d hoped it would be someone halfway respectable.”

“I’ll take that as a backhanded compliment,” I said.

He smiled, surprised, and to my own surprise extended his arm to take the bottle of brandy in hand. He poured us each a cup with neat, measured spills that wasted not a drop.

“What are we drinking to?” I asked, taking my cup and raising it.

“Trouble waiting until tomorrow,” he toasted.

Hells, I’d drink to that.

Chapter 9: Acceleration

“As sage in Nicae is a fool in Stygia.”
– Free Cities saying

Afternoon Bell came and went before Hanno made his way into my tent. The bundle of reports that inevitably accompanied contact with Salia had eaten up even more of my time than I’d anticipated it would. Vivienne had been enthusiastic in her account of the progress in the talks over the Accords, writing that giving ground over whether or not scrying a foreign country could be considered an act of aggression – which both Procer very much wanted it to be, considering its massive deficiencies in both city-warding and scrying rituals compared to Callow and Levant – had allowed her to get concessions over what we’d termed ‘civil diabolism’, the summoning and binding of devils for purposes other than war. The rest had been more disparate a pack of news than a cohesive, though no less useful for it.

Archer had apparently been seen in the Proceran heartlands with a sixth member to her band, which meant a fresh Named had been added to our roster and would be in touch soon. The First Prince had passed along a note on the state of the Grand Alliance treasury – which remained surprisingly good, all things considered – but also cautioned that the Principality of Brabant’s harvests seemed headed for catastrophe. She went on to write me that feeding this territory, and its massive numbers of refugees, would put us squarely back in the red before winter came. Pickler had sent a refinement on the rotating siege harpoon ballistae schematics she’d made up in Twilight’s Pass. She also mentioned in a separate letter, sounding somewhat flattered, that Prince Otto Reitzenberg had extended a formal invitation for her to found and settle a tribe in Lycaonese lands after the war.

It was a grave misreading of my Sapper-General’s interest in leadership duties so I wasn’t worried about poaching, but I doubted this would be the last of it. Even the Iron Prince had expressed interest in goblin engineering and, considering that Hannoven was yet in the hands of the Dead King, his people had a great deal of rebuilding ahead of them. Still, maybe a strongly worded letter to Otto Redcrown might serve as a helpful reminder that trying to recruit from my sapper corps was, at the very least, a slight to the crown of Callow.  Moving on to less grounded matters, the rumours gathered in the south and east by the Jacks remained wild as ever.

The dead were said to walk the streets of Nicae, General Basilia had supposedly eaten the heart of a holy oracle and could now see the future. A band of pale spectres was haunting the Green Stretch, all the while Dread Empress Sepulchral had turned into a black-scaled dragon and ravaged the outskirts of Wolof’s territory. That last one might in truth be the reappearance of General Nekheb of the Tenth Legion, though I’d also heard it said they were nesting among the ruins of the Red Flower Vales so I was less than sure. Somewhat amusingly, it was also quite a popular tale that I’d apaparently brought down the sky on Refuge so that I could steal its Named away into my service.

More important than the wild stories, though was the hastily tacked-on addition from Vivienne that Duchess Kegan had passed forward Dread Empress Sepulchral’s request to open formal diplomatic talks with the Grand Alliance. So far the diplomacy there had been informal and half a secret, and I’d gladly left it to my successor and Hasenbach. This, though, would require my personal attention. Joy. At least we might get enough leverage from that I might be able to wheedle out whether Sepulchral was a genuine claimant or just a horse for Black to ride. I’d better bring Akua into this as well, though that wasn’t unlike asking a wolf about their opinion of the hunt. Still, even years away from the Wasteland she had a better grasp of the way functioned there than anyone else under my command.

Aisha’s family was old and well-connected, after all, but ultimately minor nobility. The Sahelians lived and breathed intrigued at the very highest levels of Praes, and Akua hadn’t just been any one of the lot: she’d been the heiress to Wolof, groomed for either rule of the High Seat or the claiming the Tower itself. Short of kidnapping an actual High Lord there was just no beating that. I was considering who else to bring into this – Hakram, naturally, but it might be worth bringing in some of the high-ranking officers I’d inherited from the Legions of Terror as well – when one of my guards popped in to inform me Hanno had arrived. I thank the man and rose to my feet, limping my way to the commode even as the White Knight entered.

He looked at me then sighed.

“Let it be brandy, at least,” Hanno haggled.

I tapped the top of the commode, jostling a lock, and the door to left compartment popped open. I snatched out a bottle of Creusens brandy and two small silver cups. I’d been prepared. Amusingly enough it was easier to get him to drink liquor than wine, and he drank quick – if only to get it over with. He waited until my nonchalant gesture to take a seat, though I’d long told him not to bother anymore.

“Well bargained, White Knight,” I solemnly said.

“You only ever say that when I’ve been had, Black Queen,” he drily replied.

I limped back to the table, using his momentary distraction as he felt out one of Indrani’s latest carvings to take a closer look at him. Even after two years of facing one brutal horror after another, the Sword of Judgement had little changed in appearance. His fuzzy hair was so closely cropped as to seem almost shaved, leaving the eye to linger instead on a plain but well-formed face. He was built like someone who worked for a living, which I’d always found appealing, and the long-sleeved grey tunic he tended to wear when out of armour had earned a few more stitches since I last saw it but still framed those muscled arms rather nicely. He wasn’t a looker, not the way Ratface had been or Akua was, but he wasn’t without his charms either. Not that I’d ever seriously consider going there, Crows, though apparently Tariq still suspected we were somehow secretly engaging in torrid trysts.

You’d think that after trying to mentor me into the grave the man would have a better appreciation of how much I had no intention of coming anywhere close to something that could, even vaguely while in dim light, pass for a tragic love story. Dismissing the thought I idly noted that he’d brought a small leather satchel – papers, maybe? He shouldn’t need to, his memory was unusually sharp. It was a side-effect of his aspect of Recall, he’d told me, which I’d found fascinating. How many aspects had little quirks like this one, barely noticeable boons tucked away in the shade of the more prominent use? Looking back, after getting Struggle as the Squire I’d gotten rather good at assessing the skill and power of my opponents compared to me. How much of that had been my gaining experience, and how much an ancillary benefit? It was an interesting bit to consider, if at this point largely academic.

“Is that the Saint of Swords that the Archer depicted herself fighting?” Hanno asked.

I set the two silver cups on the table and went to work on the bottle’s cork.

“Battle of the Camps, it was,” I agreed. “They had a scrap while Masego and I were dreaming.”

“Impressive,” Hanno said even as I finally got the cork out with a pop. “There were not many capable of facing Laurence de Montfort’s sword up close and live to tell the tale.”

Indrani had privately admitted to me that she’d waited until the Saint was tired out from the battle and it’d still been a damned close thing, but I wouldn’t disagree with Hanno’s assessment even knowing that. Archer’s talent in close quarters was only slightly helped by her Name, while the Saint had been sharpening her skills in this regard for decades. Considering how much of a terror the woman had been in her old age, I often thought we’d been damned lucky not to fight her in her prime. I poured out two cups of brandy, quirking a brow at the dark-skinned man.

“Wouldn’t have you been able to check with Recall, anyway?” I asked.

He grimaced.

“The fresher the death and the stronger the personality the more it… lingers after use,” the White Knight admitted. “I would not call on the Saint of Sword’s life without great need.”

“Lots of her tricks came from her domain, anyway,” I mused. “Which you can’t mimic, as far as I know.”

He shot me an amused look, well used by now to the way I went about digging up everything I could about his abilities. Well, it was no mystery I’d not been raised by angels. He touched his fingers to the brandy cup, brow rising.

“Two,” he said.

“Five,” I replied without missing a beat.

“Three,” he compromised.

Ah, an opening.

“Twelve,” I boldly tried.

“Four and I’ll not tell Tariq you tried to get me drunk,” he suggested.

Oh Gods was I not in the market for another hesitant, indirect conversation about not ‘casting doubts on the nature of the Truce and Terms through unwise indulgence’. On the other hand, apparently the Witch of the Woods had heard about those and thought the whole thing was fucking hilarious – she kept making fun of Hanno in that nonverbal Gigantes language they used with each other, with all the poses and shifts. He had a stake in this as well, I figured.

“Five and I’ll stop implying in front of Secretary Nestor that your tunic’s grey because you don’t wash it,” I retorted.

As something said by the Black Queen about the White Knight, it went into the Annals every time. Every single time.

“Four and I’ll share the Workshop gossip I received with you,” Hanno offered.

You shit, I thought, not without fondness. He would definitely have shared that before, but he’d hold it back now for sure just so that when we next negotiated he’d have this to point back to.

“Fine,” I mercifully allowed. “Four.”

I set down the bottle on the table and took my cup, offering a toast.

“May you live to bury your enemies,” I said.

“Fair winds and slow rivals,” Hanno replied.

We clinked our cups and drank deep, setting down in unison. It took the edge off enough I barely felt the sting when I seated myself across from him.

“Dare I ask what’s in the bag?” I probed.

“It is not meant to be a mystery,” he said, leaning down to take the satchel before setting it in front of me. “It is a gift, Catherine. Your twenty-third nameday happened while I was away, no?”

I blinked in surprise.

“Oh,” I said. “Yes. Thank you? I’m an orphan, so I don’t really have one of those – just the foundling day late in the spring.”

It also didn’t explain why he’d given me a gift, though I wasn’t complaining.

“From your polite confusion, I take it nameday gift-giving is not a Callowan tradition,” Hanno noted.

“Not really,” I admitted. “For nobles sometimes, I think, but for most people gifts are given at the solstices and when you reach fifteen.”

The dark-skinned man cocked his head to the side, curious.

“Fifteen?” he asked.

“Age of enrollment,” I told him. “Used to be, anyway. It was kept for private noble armies under the Empire but I kicked it up to seventeen all around when I took the throne.”

Keeping it at fifteen would have helped fill the ranks after our losses more quickly but, as both Ratface and Governess-General Kendal had pointed out back then, if we kept pressing the young into service there’d be no one left to practice trades and tend to the fields. A large army was no help when it was busy starving.

“How interesting,” Hanno said, sounding genuine. “Ashurans are expected to give yearly nameday gifts to those they are tied to – family, friends or close collaborators. All within the same tier, naturally. For a citizen to court favour from a higher tier or display favour to a lower one would be frowned upon.”

The Thalassocracy of Ashur sounded like a deeply unpleasant place to live in, as usual. Weren’t there families with citizens of different tiers in them? Still, the implications there were a little flattering: I was being called both an equal and close collaborator.

“Thank you,” I said again, and took the satchel this time.

It was easy to unmake the bronze buckles, and within I found in neat little cloth packets what must have been at least half a years’ worth of wakeleaf.

“You know, when I told you to keep some of the Delosi coin I didn’t mean for you to blow it all on enabling my worst habit,” I drily said.

It’d been, though, a rather touching gesture.

“I have also been considering buying another tunic,” the White Knight calmly replied. “I’ve been told it passes as unclean to the unskilled eye.”

I swallowed a grin and clasped his wrist in appreciation. He smoothly returned the gesture.

“So when should I be looking to return a gift in kind?” I asked.

“Two days past winter solstice,” he smiled.

Ought to bring him to twenty-nine, that. As I recalled he had more or less five years on me, not that it showed: he had one of those faces which would look much the same age until he started greying. I set down the satchel to the side.

“So,” I said. “Business?”

“To business,” he agreed.

I poured him another cup, then myself, and we knocked them back without a toast. I gestured for him to begin as soon as the burn had faded from my throat.

“The Titanomachy reached out to us through Levant,” Hanno began. “They are sending an envoy north.”

I sucked in a surprised breath. The Gigantes were notoriously isolationist, and though they had longstanding ties to the Dominion it’d been my understanding those were limited to exchanges of gifts and the occasional favour. They didn’t even trade with humans in the traditional sense, as far as I knew.

“You don’t sound all that thrilled,” I noted.

His body gave what might have seemed like a twitch at first glance but I’d learned to recognize as him beginning to use that silent language he used with the Witch before stopping himself.

“It will be a complicated matter to handle,” he admitted. “I am told it is Ykines Silver-on-Clouds that was sent.”

“Which is,” I slowly said, “… bad?”

“When I left the Titanomachy, Ykines was skope for Hushed Absence,” Hanno told me. “It is… hard to describe in human terms. A skope is one charged with a message, speaking for others, but it is not exactly a position of authority. It does denote respect, however, and the Hushed Absence is the chorus that most prizes retiring from the affairs of Calernia.”

“So they sent us a lesser noble from the isolationist faction at court as the envoy,” I tried.

“That is untrue in every single specific yet broadly accurate in essence,” the White Knight said, sounding impressed. “You have to understand, Catherine, that since Triumphant and the Seven Slayings the Gigantes have only ever spoken of ties outside their borders in terms of loss.”

“The Seven Slayings,” I repeated curiously. “That’s the Humbling of Titans, right?”

“I would not recommend using that name around any of their kind,” Hanno advised. “The Slayings soured most of their kind on humans, though the tendency had been there for ages before.”

“I never did get why they’re still so viscerally furious about the Hum- the Slayings,” I said. “Procer struck by surprise, sure, but that’s hardly a first for them. Their armies still got savaged when they got deeper in, and all the Principate got to show for those deaths was a modest stripe of land added to southern Valencis.”

They’d also gotten the Titanomachy to unofficially back down from its defence pacts with the Levantine petty kingdoms, which had allowed Procer to eventually keep pushing into Levant after its conquest of Vaccei. Yet the amount of losses taken during the Humbling had supposedly kicked back that conquest by at least a decade, so in a sense the Gigantes had fulfilled their treaty obligations.

“It is not the treachery itself but what was committed through it,” the brown-eyed man said. “When the Principate called for talks, it was some of the greatest left among the Gigantes who went. Three of the last elder spellsingers, the amphore for the Sublime Auspice chorus and two candidates for the Name of Stone Shaper.”

My brow rose.

“Choruses are court factions,” I guessed.

“Gigantes are not social in the way humans are,” Hanno admitted. “You would find their cities to be empty things, and there’d be no court to be found. A chorus is more akin to an ideology, though even within a chorus there will be differing songs. The Hushed Absence, for example, will call to both those who advocate for isolation and those who curtail wonder-making by all Gigantes. Yet some will speak to one over the other or speak of both these in relative moderation. A skope will be messenger for one of the shades of belief, should it gain enough adherents within the chorus.”

“So what does the Sublime Auspice sing about?” I asked.

“Guidance of younger peoples and intervention beyond the borders,” the White Knight said. “In the past they were also the foremost slavers among the Titan Lords.”

I grimaced. Proceran history wasn’t something I’d studied in great depth, especially not when it came to the south – which had barely ever crossed Callow’s path before the Principate was founded – but I had learned some broad strokes back at the orphanage. Arlesites are passionate and romantic people, fond of poetry and duels, Douglas Robinson’s much maligned yet still widely used ‘Peoples of East and West’ described them. Their name comes from the ancient Arlesen Confederacy, which rebelled against the slaving giants. There were stories to be found there, to be sure, but I’d always had a hundred other things to attend to and never had the Titanomachy seemed likely to become relevant to my affairs. It wasn’t the first time I’d been wrong and was unlikely to be the last.

“They never recovered from losing their amphore to human Named while under truce banner,” Hanno continued. “And though the killing of the candidates was a grave insult in the eyes of the Gigantes – not unlike killing a Fairfax prince would be to your people – it was the death of the spellsingers that incited outright hatred. The magnitude of that loss for them as a people is not easily put into words, so I will simply say it was worth great grief and grief often turns to matching enmity.”

My brow rose.

“Named did that?” I asked. “I’d heard it was just assassins.”

“All were Arlesite heroes save for the White Knight of the time, who was of the Cantalii,” Hanno said. “Most of those Names are dead and gone now. Of the twelve assassins to strike only the Drake Knight survived, and not even that potent blood allowed him to grow back the arm he lost.”

He had that distant look on his face as he spoke, the one that told me he was drawing on memories he’d obtained through Recall.

“So you’re saying that since they’re sending us the isolationist skope as an envoy, we shouldn’t get our hopes up about the Titanomachy entering the war,” I said, drawing him back to the here and now.

“To an extent,” he replied, brow creased. “From what I can remember, Ykines was of the Hushed over the Absent – that is to say, his isolationism came as consequence of his desire to restrict wonder-making. It might be he is meant to haggle down contributions, not obstruct involvement.”

“I’ve seen the wardstones the Blood use, Hanno,” I said, hands tightening with want. “They have no fucking idea of how those even work and they’re still better in most regards than anything my people can make. Hells, even if they don’t want to enter the war I’d take a hundred of them joining the ranks of the Arsenal and still lick their boots clean in thanks.”

Metaphorically speaking, anyway. Considering their probable boot size, it seemed like a bit of hassle to get done otherwise.

“That is the complication, Catherine,” he admitted. “In some ways, entering the war might be more popular. What I tell you now, I would have your oath no to repeat.”

I let out a whistle. That was rare. He wasn’t one to ask oaths without a reason, and I perhaps still a little charmed even now that the Sword of Judgement considered my oaths to have worth, so I gave it without argument.

“Gigantes are not ageless in the way of the elves or the drow,” Hanno said.

To this day I was still uncertain as to whether he actually knew that Winter had done away with the mortal lifespan of the Firstborn or he’d simply, like most, assumed that drow were effectively immortal if not taken by strife or sickness.

“They gather power unto themselves by bathing in the light of moon and star in sacred places, by songs and patience, and this power lends them vitality,” the White Knight said. “To be a spellsinger is to be born with the gift of power, to come to weave a second soul and through it be able to pluck at the chords of Creation. These are rare, and prized, as for most Gigantes to make a wonder is to craft with the very stuff of what keeps them alive.”

My eyes narrowed.

“The Seven Slayings,” I said. “They came after that tussle with Triumphant that’s said to have made the Titan’s Pond out of what used to be plains. How much of their lives did they spend to take her on?”

I’d always counted it passing odd, that a people capable of playing rough with the greatest monster to ever come out of the Wasteland had taken hits from an infant Principate without any great retaliation save for the building of the Red Snake Wall much later, after the Dominion freed itself. It made a little more sense now, especially if heroes were thrown into the mix. I knew better than most how dangerous those could be when properly motivated. Sisters bless, these days I’d come to rely on it.

“A fifth of their people died outright,” Hanno frankly said. “Centuries of accumulated power were spent in an hour, and many left themselves only enough to live until they could fill themselves again – yet, even now, a great many of the Gigantes are but a decade away from death should they not observe the old rituals.”

“So they’re not going to want to spend themselves close to the grave to save Proceran lives,” I grimaced. “Harsh. The spellsingers, though, if they’re born with the Gift wouldn’t they be effectively immortal?”

“In a sense,” Hanno conceded. “Yet most of them are young, by the reckoning of the Gigantes, and so have spent but a century or two accumulating power after forging their second soul – through both celestial rituals and their own gift folded onto itself, true, but even so it remains a delicate and time-consuming process. The trouble, here, is that the Titanomachy’s greatest wonders all require the stewardship of spellsingers to some extent.”

Of course they did, because those would have been made before good ol’ Triumphant swaggered in, butchered most of their spellsingers and emptied out the vitality-power reserves of a significant chunk of their population. Much like the Firstborn after Sve Noc first bargained for survival, they must have felt like rats scuttling in the ruins of their own empire, forced to choose between their lives and seeing their greatest works fall apart. Shit, no wonder they hated the Principate like poison: to them it must have felt like Procer savagely kicked them when they were down and just starting to consider how to get back up from the last kick.

“So if they’re with us they’re not keeping their own cities functional, which is going to be less than popular at home,” I sighed. “That’s great. If they’re that tied up, Hanno, why even bother sending an envoy?”

“Because inconvenience and hatred of Procer does not mean they are willing to surrender Calernia to Keter’s grasp without having lifted a finger to fight the encroaching doom,” the White Knight said. “I imagine that our failure to drive back the Dead King has them justly worried, given the scope of the efforts employed by the Great Alliance. I fully expect the Titanomachy will try to gift us old wonders instead of agreeing to craft new ones, and strictly limit the numbers they sent north. Yet even that much would be godsent, let’s not pretend otherwise.”

It’ll be fear that got them moving too, I mused, now that the initial disappointment had passed. Procer alone and surrounded by foes, the way it’d been before the Grand Alliance steadied, that’d be acceptable to them. But Procer as the heart of a great continental alliance that included even their old allies the Levantines? They couldn’t let that happen without keeping an eye on it. I imagined the great developments of the last few years would have attracted the attention as well. It was one thing to play the hermit kingdom when your magic was beyond the wildest dreams of your neighbours, but what happened if the Arsenal put Procer on even footing in even just some regards? A Principate with a few war-making artefacts like that under its belt might not be so inclined to let it go when the Gigantes killed its people on sight near the border.

And given that the Twilight Ways were without precedent, I imagined a lot of their defensive wards would need reworking to adapt to their existence. That had to be keeping them up at night. While they might be able to access the Ways on their own, they’d need deep study before they could feel safely walled up again – and the quickest way to achieve that was sending people to the Arsenal to look through what we’d already found out. No, there were decent reasons for them to reach out even though Hanno had already succeeded at weaning me off the hope that the Titans would come in at this late hour and turn the tide of the war. Hells, if nothing else just seeing how fragile the situation on the fronts was might motivate them to send more than crumbs our way.

“I’ll take what we can get,” I fervently agreed. “I’m guessing this was kicked up to you because we can’t use Cordelia as our diplomatic workhorse this once?”

“It would be unwise to ask the First Prince of Procer to meet Ykines Silver-on-Clouds on behalf of the Grand Alliance,” he mildly agreed. “The Holy Seljun noted that Antigone and I were both mentioned by name, as even to the Hushed Absence we are known.”

“Might have to be you, if they want a familiar face. Haven’t heard of the Witch in a month,” I said. “Not since she went up to have that gander in northern Cleves.”

“From there she struck at the Enemy,” Hanno informed me. “I expect you’ll be getting the message from Princess Rozala late tonight. Antigone put together a band of five and intercepted a turtle-ship before it could land.”

A savage grin split my lips. The Dead King marched his skeletons at the bottom of the Tomb and the Grave regularly, but it wasn’t without effects on the equipment of his soldiers: you couldn’t keep chain mail or a sword underwater for a month without it rusting. For the fodder that was all fine and good, but when Neshamah went to the trouble of arming a few thousand Binds in good steel he didn’t then proceed to scrap it by sending them on an underwater march. For those he used ship transports, in his own horrible manner: massive turtle-barges made of bone and wood with a hollow shell protecting his elites from the elements. As tended to be the way with him, the turtle-ships were made to move by a necromantic flesh construct that was more lizard than turtle and boasted both massive claws and bags of liquid poison it could spew out in a stream.

“Godsdamn,” I whistled. “Now that’s something to brag about. They sunk it? I thought he’d hardened the shells to magic after Akua ripped one open last summer.”

“It had the cold iron linings,” Hanno confirmed. “Antigone made the tactical decision to use her available assets according to methods that had previously proved successful.”

A beat passed and I cocked an unimpressed eyebrow at the hero.

“She threw the Mirror Knight real hard at it,” I deadpanned.

The slightest twitch of the hero’s lips was the most openly he allowed himself to be amused.

“I honestly can’t remember a time where that didn’t work,” I pondered out loud. “Maybe she’s onto something.”

The Mirror Knight was, admittedly, the closest thing to unkillable I’d ever seen even amongst the distinctly hard to kill company that was heroes. During the Dead King’s winter offensive, he’d lasted alone against three Revenants for an hour at Duchesne until Ishaq and I arrived. Though he’d put none of them down it was still utterly absurd that they’d not managed to put a serious wound on him either. Regardless, it was impressive he had a hard enough head that it had sent a few thousand of Neshamah’s finest troops at the bottom of the Tomb. I poured us each another cup of brandy and offered another toast.

“To the Mirror Knight living to be thrown another day,” I said.

“To success against the Enemy, whatever the shape of it,” Hanno said, almost reproachfully.

I wasn’t fooled, he found the whole thing just as hilarious as I did. The drinks went down, and the cups hit the table. A grimmer look passed across his face, afterwards, which immediately had my hackles rising.

“They did more than simply break a turtle-ship,” the White Knight said. “When out there they found a hollow where the scrying disruptions didn’t reach. They got a glimpse of northern Hainaut, before Keter adjusted to block them.”

“Tell me,” I said.

“The Hidden Horror is making a bridge across the tributary river to the Tomb,” he told me, tone calm. “We’ll be facing a full-on offensive within six months, and the numbers…”

I grimaced at his hesitation.

“How bad?”

“At least two hundred thousand of his finest foot is preparing to cross,” Hanno replied. “He’s building from both shores and building in stone – if we don’t break it while unfinished, it will be warded and enchanted so thoroughly as to be near indestructible.”

Fuck, I feelingly thought. On parchment a bridge wasn’t much of an issue, considering Keter could walk its troops at the bottom of the lakes and ferry them across with turtle-ships, but in practice it might be a deathblow to our hopes of retaking Hainaut. The Tomb and the river limited how quickly the Hidden Horror could send his soldiers from the Kingdom of the Dead, especially considering the strong current of the tributary, and the turtle-ships were vulnerable to heroic raids. A bridge, though, meant he could just keep pouring troops into Hainaut day and night: and that wasn’t a metaphor, it wasn’t like the dead tired. So far we’d been keeping our edge against the massively larger numbers through superior troop quality: even a Proceran conscript could handle a few mindless zombies alone, or a pair of skeletons if their arms and armour were rusted through. Once we got full battalions of Binds to deal with, though, we’d be facing a well-armed and fully intelligent army.

If we gave them room to manoeuvre, let the Dead King deploy his full array of tricks against us, then this was the death knell of the Grand Alliance.

“Do you have dimensions for the bridge?” I said. “A notion of the timeline on its completion?”

“Antigone used one of the Repentant Magister’s artefacts to capture an illusory image,” he said. “And sent it south to me by a trusted hand.”

Who did he – ah, and that would be why the Valiant Champion was in my camp. The three of them were supposed to be close.

“Shit,” I cursed. “We need to bring this to the Alliance’s high command as soon as possible. This changes our schedule for the offensive into northern Hainaut, at the very least. If we can grab it back fast enough we could put this entire mess to rest, or at least take the southern end of the bridge and defend it.”

“Antigone went east to blunt another offensive against the western coast of Cleves,” Hanno said. “Which means I will have to move south to speak with the Gigantes envoy myself.”

“We’re due a proper council anyway,” I pointed out. “And a visit to the Arsenal couldn’t hurt. Hells, the Painted Knife is due back soon as well, the way I hear it, and I’m curious to hear what she has to say.”

“We gather it all at the Arsenal, then,” Hanno agreed. “It ought not to be impossible, given the facilities there.”

“It can be done in the other senses as well,” I grunted. “We have the pull to ensure it.”

Though the mood had grown more somber, I poured out another two cups. Hanno’s eyebrow rose questioningly.

“Surrendering the last cup so soon?” he said.

“Well, if we’re to have the conversation I suspect we’re about to have we might as well finish the drinks first,” I said. “Argument does tend to spoil the taste.”

“Ah,” Hanno exhaled.

He took the cup in hand and we drank. Because he was a polite sort, he waited a few heartbeats before speaking.

“You have lashed out at two heroes in two days, Black Queen,” the White Knight said. “I would know why, and what happened to the Named you meant to bring back to camp.”

Kingfisher I

“Regrets will find you on their own, but redemption must be sought.”
– Hektor the Ecclesiast, Atalante preacher

In Brus there was a story every child knew, about the birth of kingfishers.

Some said it had been the House of Goethal that first spread it, for the kingfisher was their emblem, yet shrewder souls instead mused that it had long been a popular legend among the Bruseni and that a young royal line would be wise to tie itself to such roots. The House of Barthen was long gone, the last of its line married into the Goethals, but some yet remembered that Florianne Goethal had first seized the crown from a boy of three after the entire adult line of the Barthen had perished on the killing fields of the Sixth Crusade. Yet the story was told to children, and as is ever the way with stories it grew and changed with the span of the years.

Brus, the story went, was once a green and fertile land. Blessed by the Gods Above with ever-bountiful crops, its weather was fairer than even that of the southlands and none knew hunger within its bounds. It was a kingdom of peace and plenty where swords and disease were banished, for in those days the Halcyon kings and queens ruled and they had been hallowed above all others. Every year the king and queen journeyed west to the Skyron Ocean, where they humbly gave themselves to the waves and asked for the blessings of Above. And so, pleased with their obeisance and humility, Above returned them to the shore along with the favour of the Heavens for the coming year.

So it was, until Queen Alisanne and King Cenrich ruled, for the two were fair to behold and clever of mind. Their three sons were worthy princes too, and Halcyon was set to thrive for my years to come. Yet the king and queen of their virtues they grew too proud, telling men that they ruled a great realm of their own making and that its greatness owed nothing to the Heavens. When the days grew short and the nights long, they did not journey west to the sea and instead threw a great banquet where all were invited. For this impiety, the Gods Above punished them, turning their three sons into beasts: the eldest into a wolf, the second into a snake and the youngest into a bird.

Angry at the punishment, the king and queen renounced the Heavens and incited the people of Halcyon to anger. When statues of the Gods were broken and temples burned, Above sent a great wave from the sea that turned a third of the kingdom to rotting swamplands. There the people starved, until the youngest son taught them to fish and partake of the flesh. In doing so the bird-prince stained his throat red and belly with the guts of the catches, the feathers forever grown red. There the people renounced the king and queen and returned to the embrace of Above, sowing great fury in the heart of prideful rulers.

They set a crown on the brow of their eldest son, the wolf, and sent him to cause death and dismay among the people who had renounced them. For this heinous act the Gods Above made barren a third another third of the kingdom, making hills of stone where there had once been golden fields. The bird-prince, seeing the plight of his people, struck at his brother with sharp talons and sent him fleeing north, where he would breed with wolves and rule them, ever scheming vengeance. The lost people of the hills he led to a river whose waters had turned blue and bathed in it, teaching them the secrets of the hills: within the barren stone lay cobalt and copper, which could be dug out and traded for food. His feathers, doused in the waters, turned blue save for those which were already red. And so the people of the hills renounced the king and queen as well, singing praise to the Heavens.

Queen Alisanne and King Cenrich grew fearful, then, of what they had wrought through their arrogance. They sought to make amends and sent for the youngest son the bird-prince, but they had closed their eyes to evil. Their second son, the snake, had sworn his soul to Below for the throne and sunk his fangs deep into their hearts as they slept. He claimed the crown, coiling around the realm, and the people acclaimed him. For this obscene act the last third of the kingdom was cursed with strife, death repaid in death as all the kingdoms of the world struck the realm to take its bounties. It was to a land of swords and fear that the bird-prince returned, and at this he grew wroth.

The youngest son sought the people of the swamps and the hills, telling them of his brother’s foul deed, and asked for their aid. The people of the swamps, fishermen with spears of bone, answered the call but those of the hills were fearful of death. They made swords of copper, to arm the fishers, but did not heed their prince and for this were made lesser: the metals they dug out from the earth began to seed sickness in them, a weakness of the body to match the weakness of their souls. Yet with the fishermen alone the bird-prince went to war, and with the blessing of the Heavens cast down his treacherous brother before making peace with the kingdoms of the world.

There were those who would have proclaimed him king, then, yet instead he flew west and humbly gave himself to the sea. The Gods Above returned him to the shore, once more a man, and with their blessing he returned to be crowned. Never again would the golden days of Halcyon come, but King of Fishers had through the curse been taught how his people should be made to thrive and heeded the lessons of the Gods Above until old age took him. At the moment of his death it is said that his last breath left him in the shape of a bird in feathers of red and blue, which men now know as the kingfisher: the soul of the King of Fishers, hateful of wolf and snake until the Last Dusk, eternal guardian of the Bruseni.

On the day Florianne Goethal became Princess of Brus, it is said that hundreds of kingfishers were seen flocking to the capital. Struck by the sign from Above she chose the bird as her sigil, and ever since the House of Goethal had ruled ably and justly.

Frederic Goethal was five years old when his mother told him the story, and he only half-listened. It had been a long tale and he’d been tired out from his lessons of the day, then lulled into half-sleep by her tender hand against his brow. He could not remember falling into slumber, only waking up late the following morning with the unearthly slight of a kingfisher perched on his windowsill. The brazen plumage and long beak had him string in awe as the bird cast him a long glance before flying away. Somehow, even at five, he’d felt like he’d just failed at something. When the servants came and clothed him, later, they brought him into his father’s parlour and Robert Goethal glared down at his son through a thick frown to inform him that his mother had been sent away for being an embarrassment to the family.

Frederic asked what that meant and was slapped across the face. Tears stung his eyes, but he asked if he would ever see Mother again. He was slapped across the face, harder this time. He began weeping, five and in pain and confused. Father furiously bellowed for the servants to come and take him away.

As he grew older Frederic learned what an embarrassment to the family had truly meant, listening to the gossip of servants and household guards. Mother had taken a lover from the city’s House of Light, a sister good standing and high birth. That meant that when Mother refused to end the affair when confronted, Robert Goethal had not been able to simply order the priestess killed. Instead he’d had to ask a favour of his brother, the Prince of Brus, and use his influence to have the other woman sent to a temple in the far south. His wayward wife he’d had sent away to a summer house on the shores of Lake Pavins, where she would be kept luxuriously enough her kin in Lyonis could not complain but kept in utter isolation from the rest of the world.

At the age of seven, Frederic bribed a passing fantassin with nine stolen silver butter knives to bring a letter to Mother. Before the day’s end Father slapped him across the face and sent him in the courtyard to be switched by a servant. The mercenary had turned him in, of course she had. Why travel all the way lakeside when she could earn an even greater reward by betraying him? Twice more he attempted, once with a brother from the House – who left the mansion before day’s end with fresh Goethal silver for his temple wile Frederic got switched – and the other with a grizzled old Lycaonese soldier, who simply took the reward and left. The last stung most of all, in a way, for he’d been told that the northerners were savages but an honourable breed in their own way. Evidently not.

At the age of ten years old, Frederic Goethal set down his training sword after a afternoon’s work with his swordsmanship tutor and reached for a cool wet cloth only to find a kingfisher perched on the edge of the basin, long thin beak drinking from the water.

“If I am to lose the other,” Frederic told the bird, “you’ll get no grief from me.”

The bird flew away at the noise, spooked. It was just a bird, of course, and he’d been silly to believe otherwise. So he kept believing, until he was called to his father’s parlour that night.

“You will be leaving this house tomorrow,” Robert Goethal told him, deeply delighted.

He did not ask if he was to be sent to Mother’s side. Frederic had not taken long to learn that the slightest mention of her would have his cheek stinging.

“Am I to understand I have displeased you?” he asked instead.

“No, Frederic, you have done well,” his father said. “You have lived up to my blood. Tomorrow morning you will begin fostering with your uncle, at the palace.”

“With Prince Amaury?” Frederic exclaimed, genuinely surprised.

Though his father had another sibling, a younger brother, he hardly ever spoke of him.

“Indeed,” Robert Goethal triumphantly smiled. “His own sons have proved to be weak seeds. Bide your time, Frederic, and we might just get the last laugh.”

Frederic Goethal thought of the kingfisher, then, of the swift beat of wings and the ripples they’d caused across the water. A warning, a promise, or simply a herald of change? Perhaps the choice was his to make.

“Of course, Father,” Frederic smiled back.

There was no we to be had, here, and never would be. If there was a choice to be made on this night, let that be it.

He never called the man Uncle Amaury, not even once.

Prince Amaury Goethal of Brus was not a man who invited informality, not from his closest kin or even his wife. Being fostered in the palace was a bewildering experience for the first year largely because Frederic had no real notion of why he was even there. Prince Amaury had two sons, the first of his cousins the young boy had met, and it was the poisonous hatred the eldest of the two showed him at every opportunity that eventually allowed Frederic to put the pieces together. Nathanael was a womanizing drunk with persisting gambling debts, though his royal father had only washed his hands of him entirely after an incident where he killed the son of good family over allegedly cheating at cards. Frederic refrained from asking how many sons from families not quite as good had died and gone unlamented before the line was judged to be crossed.

His other cousin, Auguste, was on some days a perfectly fine and amiable fellow. Yet not even the finest efforts of the House of Light had not managed to end his unfortunate tendencies to fall into black rages and address thin air. A wizard had been brought in and fed him some tonics before babbling a few incantations, which only succeeded at making Auguste blind in one eye when the rages struck. The wizard was hanged as a charlatan, but there was no denying that Prince Amaury’s youngest son was no more suitable to rule than his eldest. And so Frederic Goethal, sole child of Prince Amaury’s oldest brother, had been brought to foster at the palace. No formal announcement was made, at first. Stringent lessons by an ever-shifting roster of tutors filled his days.

Languages with Monsieur Lucien, until his Tolesian and his Reitz were as fine as his Chantant, riding lessons with Captain Ghyslaine of the Lances Farfelues, the noble sword with an Arlesite nine-sun duellist and the soldier’s sword with a retired Hannoven instructor. History and poetry, the lute and the seventeen formal dances of Alamans courts, arithmetic and heraldry. His head was filled to burst and sometimes it felt like half of what was poured into him spilled out, but Prince Amaury did not send him away. Cousin Nathanel’s cruelties became more frequent as his stay lengthened. The older boy – who should have been a man, by that age, but Prince Amaury had ever only called his eldest son boy where Frederic could hear – was a petty tyrant, helped in arranging insults and torments by his feckless friends and favourite servants.

His uncle treated Frederic in a way the boy found hard to place at first, until one morning he went to the stables and realized he was being treated the same as stallion being trained to race. Watched closely, worked to exhaustion and scrutinized for every imperfection. Whatever kindness was doled out was distant and measured, but neither was he offered cruelty or mistreatment. Frederic Goethal was being assessed for his suitability to inherit Brus, and should he be found lacking one of his cousins from the third branch of the House of Goethal would be sent for as he returned to the house in the city, to live with Father. That, more than anything else, drove Frederic to excellence. He would not return there, he would not. He would distinguish himself, and one day he would be important enough that when he went to see Mother no one would be able to stop him. The fire lit in him was enough, in the end, to attract Prince Amaury’s approval.

His uncle found him, one afternoon, looking at one of the tapestries in the ivory wing of the palace. It was a beautiful piece, lightly woven with fil d’or and the finest Lange linen. It depicted Florianne Goethal’s victory over the grasping traitors who’d tried to sell Brus to foreign crowns after the House of Barthen was decimated in the Sixth Crusade. A flock of kingfishers flying above the triumphant warrior-princess as she led noble riders in trampling an assembly of distinctly snake-like traitors.

“My prince,” Frederic knelt, when he saw his uncle.

“Rise,” Prince Amaury replied, flicking a dismissive hand and turning his gaze to the tapestry. “A pretty thing, isn’t it?”

“Glorious, even,” Frederic replied. “It is the true birth of our house, my prince.”

“True? Truth has naught to do with it. Learn this well, nephew: all pretty things are lies,” his uncle conversationally said.

Frederic was rather aghast, though he kept this away from his face.

“Did you ever hear the story of the kingfisher’s birth, Frederic?” Prince Amaury asked.

“I have, my prince,” he replied.

“Stories are the dregs that gather in the grooves left by truth,” the ruler of Brus said. “The Bruseni, long ago, ruled a great kingdom in the north of what became Procer. That kingdom broke, and the kingfisher’s story tells us of reasons why – the sea’s encroachment, land turning barren, civil wars. Lycaonese raids. The rest is what men believe ought to be there, or were told was by their fathers.”

“Is there not truth in the story as well, then?” Frederic asked.

“Not in the manner you mean, nephew,” the prince thinly smiled. “Florianne Goethal had a wicked sense of humour, you see. Or so the story goes, among our kin. She chose the kingfisher as her royal sigil for the lesson she’d discerned in the story.”

“And what lessons were these?” the boy softly asked.

“Opportunity, Frederic,” Prince Amaury smiled. “Opportunity must always be seized, that is the lesson of our blood. The kingfisher-prince found fish in the swamps, found wealth within barren hills, found a throne amidst wars. Always where lesser souls faltered he sought opportunity and rose.”

“Is the lesson not one of humility, my prince?” Frederic asked. “For all his exploits he remained but a bird, until the Heavens deemed it otherwise.”

“The Heavens are another story we tell ourselves,” Prince Amaury said. “There is a groove of truth beneath it, never doubt that. But we have filled the silence with a madness of words. We must always fill the silence, nephew, as Florianne herself once did.”

The older man, handsome and regal even in his growing age, ran an almost tender hand down the tapestry.

“There were families that were closer kin to the Barthen,” the Prince of Brus told his nephew. “The Fenvain were so deeply married into the line they were considered a cadet branch. There were more powerful families, as well: the Manvers were seneschals of the city, the Loncoeur had ties to Lyonis and the greatest standing army in Brus. And yet it was Florianne Goethal, her line noble for only three generations and of soldier’s stock at the root, who became Princess of Brus.”

Prince Amaury stared at the depiction of their common forbear, her splendid golden locks a crown before she’d ever worn one.

“While they all quibbled at the capital, fighting over who would be regent and who would get the last Barthen as a son-in-law, she went to the country instead,” the fair-haired prince smiled. “She gathered every soldier she could call on, the sunk her fortune into buying every fantassin company in Brus.”

A pause, an admiring sigh.

“She took the city and she hung them all,” Prince Amaury said. “Every single last one of them. Because she had seen the opportunity and they had not. Oh, we wove stories afterwards. That the Loncouer were trying to sell the crown to Lyonis, that Fenvain and the Manvers had sworn oaths to part Brus in two so both could rule, and perhaps there is even a grain of truth to them. But we shall never know, because Florianne hanged everybody who might speak to that.”

“That is savagery,” Frederic said.

“That is ruling,” the Prince of Brus replied. “That is the truth of the House of Goethal, nephew: we are, in the end, the kingfishers. The children of opportunity. And that is why where other houses boast of honour and faith and prowess, ours are simpler. What are they, Frederic? Our words.”

J’ose,” the boy replied.

I dare, it meant. And Frederic now heard words at the end of them he had never imagined before: I dare to murder, to betray, to usurp. I dare to rule. All the pretty things he’d believed in now tasted like lies.

“It was my mother, who first told me this story,” Frederic said.

The fair-haired prince did not reply. Would not, the boy grasped, until he dared to ask.

“Is she still in the house by the lake?” he asked.

His cheek did not sting, though what followed made him wish it did.

“She is dead, Frederic,” Prince Amaury replied. “She was dead before you began your fostering. She went for a swim the first spring after her consignment and drowned.”

The sting of a hand would have passed. This, Frederic knew, this would not. This would stay.

“Are you going to defend him?” the boy asked, dimly curious.

“Your father is my brother, and there can be no closer tie than blood,” the fair-haired man said.

“That is not a defence,” Frederic said.

“He is my brother,” Prince Amaury acknowledged. “Yet I will not have my successor unduly influenced by even my kin.”

Past the tapestry, through the long sunny corridor of windowpanes filled by light and warmth, Frederic Goethal glimpsed a bird of red and blue.

He too, the boy decided, was a child of opportunity.

Chapter 8: Stanchion

“Friendship is as a garden: taking years to flourish, unmade by a season’s negligence.”
– Proceran saying

Neat rows of legionaries in polished armour stood in resounding silence as Zombie passed in front of them at a trot.

The three hundred men and women making up the assault formation that’d performed so well against the zombies yesterday – for all that the small victory had since been drowned out by bitterer defeats – had already been praised by their commander, Tribune Algernon Beesbury, and even been commended by Adjutant earlier. Hakram had also taken care to speak with the rank and file, asking what about the assault formation they felt had functioned properly and not, then passed along their answers put to ink to consider. I’d taken a glance, and while I’d read it properly later my glimpse had mostly told me the legionaries were satisfied in most respects, save that they were clamouring for more hammers. The raven beaks, as they were called, tended to be better at putting down dead than the halberds even if they lacked the flexibility of the other polearms. Reconsidering the proportions of each might be in order, though if thinned by too much the halberds would lose much of their effectiveness.

I gazed at the legionaries as I rode past them, most of the helmeted faces unfamiliar to me even after holding command in Hainaut for so long. Perhaps I ought not to be surprised, as most of these soldiers came from General Hune’s command and I did tend to stay with the Third Army rather than the Second. Its soldiers and officers were not as familiar to me, as much a single woman could ever be said to be familiar with an army. A few faces among these I’d seen before, if not put a name to, but it was some time before I pulled the reins to end Zombie’s stride. The leathery grey-green skin I was glimpsing through the lieutenant’s open helm stirred my memory, as did the vivid red scar cutting across the face of the orc.

“I know you,” I mused. “Second Liesse?”

“Yes, Warlord,” she grinned, showing teeth. “I was only a legionary, then. Fresh to the Fifteenth.”

I tapped a finger below my eye, mirroring the jagged bend of the red line under hers.

“Seasoned now,” I replied approvingly. “That was made by wight teeth or I’ll eat my hand, Lieutenant…”

“Gunborg,” she proudly said, “of the Howling Wolves Clan.”

Hakram’s clan, that, and Marshal Grem One Eye’s as well. She must have been in one of the last batches of recruits we got from the Steppes before the Empress stripped the Fifteenth of its recruitment rights.

“One of them slipped in below my shield and bit me, Warlord,” Lieutenant Gunborg said, then grinned nastily. “But I bit back.”

I couldn’t help but grin in answer. There was something about that iron-cast martial pride that served as the backbone of the Clans that’d always rung true with me. There were parts of what came with being an orc that I’d never truly be able to understand, but the pride? I’d partaken of it eagerly, as a young girl. It’d done more to bind me to the Dread Empire than any conversation I’d ever had to Malicia.

“Looks like you got the better end of that trade, lieutenant,” I laughed. “But polish your shieldwork a bit, would you? When I see you make captain, I’d prefer you not to be missing any bits.”

“You have my oath, Warlord,” she solemnly assured me.

With a last chuckle I set Zombie back to her walk, passing the rest of the full first rank without seeing another old comrade. At the end of the line Tribune Beesbury was waiting, a young dark-haired man with surprisingly gentle brown eyes. With the pretty curls and the delicate face, he looked more like a poet than an officer of my armies. Until one got a look at the callouses on his hands, anyway: those didn’t come from quillwork.

“Tribune Beesbury,” I said, pitching my voice so it could be heard as far as the back. “I appointed you to lead these assault companies while knowing little of you, because you were warmly recommended to me by General Hune and endorsed by Hakram Deadhand.”

I let a moment pass.

“You have lived up to every word spoken in your praise,” I said.

Though he had good mastery of his face, for one his age, he was no courtier. The flush of pleasure and brightened eyes let me know of his thoughts even as he tried to keep them from showing.

“You do me honour, Your Majesty,” Tribune Beesbury replied.

I shook my head.

“You do us all honour,” I said, voice rising as I turned to the assembled legionaries. “Assault formations like yours were untested, until yesterday, but you fought with prowess that cannot be denied. Not a single fatality!

I roared out the last sentence and got a roar back in return. It was not as great a victory as I was making it sound, in truth, since zombies were the least of the dead and numbers had only been slightly larger on Keter’s side. There’d been a score wounded, and without the House Insurgent there would have been two dead, but the performance had still been very promising. Enough that I was willing to invest time and coin into training legionaries in this method of making war even if was not backed by another ruler in the effort. I raised a hand and the cacophony went down, leaving me free to speak again.

“As a reward for your conduct in yesterday’s skirmish, I’ve ordered ale and meat rations be opened to all of you for supper,” I called out. “You sent the dead back to their graves, legionaries – fill your bellies tonight, and dream of doing it again!”

Cheers filled the air again, even louder than last time, and my name was even called out by some. It wasn’t my finest bit of speaking, truth be told, but I’d given so many of these speeches lately I couldn’t even remember how many this made. They couldn’t all be fresh and stirring. Besides, ale and meat would get people cheering even if they’d come with a sermon instead of the praise I’d freely doled out. A celebration, even a small one, ought to lift some of the pall of uncertainty that’d fallen over the camp since yesterday. Hanno had caught the Enemy in time, so spirits had not taken too hard a hit, but the revelation of the existence of shapeshifting ghouls had everyone distrustful and uneasy. I had a word with the senior officers of the formation, committing names and faces to memory, but did not linger long. Razin and Aquiline ought to have been sent for by now, unless Hakram had lost his touch, so I passed Zombie’s reins to a legionary and limped back to my tent.

The first hint that something was off came in the shape of a full line of legionaries whose pauldrons bore a distinctive scorched mark in the shape of a skeletal hand. Adjutant’s personal command, those, grown from a single tenth when I was still the Squire to a full cohort of two hundred now. The sight of them around camp was hardly unusual, but that twenty would be standing almost skittishly around my tent most definitely was. The lieutenant in charge saluted when I approached and I hobbled up to him, about to ask the reason for this reinforced guard when my tent’s entrance curtain was parted open. Hakram strolled out, leathery face offering up only forced calm.

“There has been a misunderstanding, Catherine,” Adjutant said. “If you’d only give me a few moments I’ll-”

My pulse quickened. Not from danger, but from something else I couldn’t quite parse yet. I’d been meant to sit with the Blood, hadn’t I? There were only so many people from their corner of the world that my second be struggling to prevent my talking with.

“Hakram,” I blandly interrupted. “Who’s in the tent?”

His face fell into an apologetic grimace, head angling to the side in an unconscious display of apology. Without another word I passed by him, staff forcing aside the curtain, and I felt my fingers clench in a spasm. Around the table Indrani was still carving me, four people were seated. Lord Razin Tanja and Lady Aquiline Osena were those who’d requested audience of me, but the other two were uninvited guests. The Barrow Sword’s presence I had no real issue with. Ishaq might insist on continuing to wear the ancient bronze scale suit for reasons dubious to me, but the equally bronze sword he’d stolen from an old barrow along with the armour was a vicious piece of work especially well-suited to dealing with Revenants. The way he was rather easy on the eyes – though I remained skeptical of beards, even well-groomed ones – and had been a solid partisan of mine since we’d established the pecking order meant I tended to be well-inclined towards him.

Oh, he was still a ruthless and largely amoral bastard who’d once tried to kill me just for the perks it’d earn him among his people. Yet, compared to some of the villains I had to deal with, he was agreeably straightforward in his intentions. It was the last of the four that had my lips thinning in barely mastered anger. The Valiant Champions’ name was, I’d been told, Rafaella. I’d never used it before, and did not intend to ever start. Short and stocky with a long braid going down her back, the Champion was the savage sort of cheerful that I might have appreciated in someone who hadn’t fucking skinned Captain and worn her fur as a cape. My eyes flicked towards the tanned ‘heroine’, who gazed back without either fear or embarrassment.

“Walk out of this tent,” I ordered in Chantant, tone eerily calm.

Hakram entered behind me and I could almost feel him wincing as Lady Aquiline opened her mouth.

“Queen Catherine, she is here at our-”

I’d coddled those kids too much, hadn’t I? I must have been for them to be so fucking unafraid. Night flooded my veins, singing back eagerly to the call of my boiling anger. The sprite-lanterns hanging from the strips of cloth crisscrossing my tent’s ceiling shone bright in the deepening shadows that swallowed everything between them, the enchanted braziers flickering as if touched by wind. A small ball of air formed above my palm, spinning, and Aquiline Osena gasped at the absence of the breath I’d just taken from her. My eyes never left the Champion.

“Walk,” I softly repeated, “out of this tent.”

She did not want to. Anyone with eyes could have seen that. I’d not been deft or delicate in my dismissal, and for a woman as proud as she it would rankle to have to obey. But she was in my tent, and an uninvited guest, so with a scowl the Valiant Champion got to her feet. She strode out, heading to my right since to my left Adjutant was silently standing. As she passed me, I spoke up again.

“Don’t forget my warning,” I murmured without looking at her. “If you ever wear that cloak again, even far from this camp, I’ll know.”

She left the tent without giving reply, showing she was not entirely a fool. The Barrow Sword’s soft, pleased laughter escorted her out. I loosened my grip on my anger, the shadows that’d swallowed up the tent fading, and crushed the ball of breath within my fist. Lady Aquiline gasped out, her voice returned to her. Razin eyed me with open anger, hands falling to his sword, and whatever ire might have been found in his gaze was matched twice over by what lay in Aquiline’s.

“You struck at-” she began.

“Bring Named into my tent uninvited again, Osena,” I softly interrupted, “and you’ll have to crawl on your belly to wherever Tariq’s hiding for healing, your severed feet hanging around neck. Do you understand me?”

They both looked at me with fear and surprise. I’d been too soft on the pair of them, I thought, and now familiarity had bred contempt. They were in dire need of a reminder of who exactly they were dealing with.

“I asked,” I hissed out, “do you understand me?”

The Lady of Tartessos’ tanned face paled, as much from humiliation as fear.

“I understand, Queen Catherine,” she replied through gritted teeth.

But the point hadn’t quite sunk in, I mused. Maybe being made to stand for the rest of the audience would do them some good, or –

“Catherine,” Hakram murmured in Kharsum. “There is discipline, and there is insult. Only one is warranted.”

I breathed out shallowly. He was right, of course he was right. There was no point to further turning the knife in the wound save that vicious little twinge of satisfaction it’d give me. And that was no reason to do anything at all. I let the sudden fury that’d seized me flow out and limped around the table, going towards the head. Hakram pulled out my seat for me and I sat with my staff propped up against my shoulder, eyeing the lot of them a tad more calmly.

“Ishaq,” I said, turning my steady stare to the Barrow Sword. “You, at least, ought to have known better than to bring Named uninvited into the quarters of a villain.”

“I was unaware until the last moment,” the bearded warrior replied, grinning crookedly. “Could have warned them, true, but then I wouldn’t have gotten to see that.”

He gestured a calloused hand the direction the Champion had left. Considering the Barrow Sword and Levantine heroes fought like cats and dogs whenever they were in the each other’s vicinity, I had no trouble whatsoever believing he’d kept silent just to see me expel the other woman from my tent. I grunted, unamused, and turned my gaze back to the two Dominion aristocrats. They were both glaring at the villain, though that rolled off like water from a duck’s back.

“You asked for an audience,” I said, tone still clipped. “You have it. Speak.”

“We come today to speak of the Barrow Sword,” Lord Razin said, not bothering to hide his irritation towards the man in question. “Who has, once more, petitioned the Majilis and the Holy Seljun for his deeds to be recorded by the rolls.”

The rolls were one of those peculiarities in the way the Dominion of Levant treated its Named. While there were highborn among the Levantines who were aristocrats purely because of their ancestry, they were ultimately all descended from Named and to their people that was the very source of being highborn. Coming into a Name would see one immediately raised to nobility, though like everywhere else on Calernia there were nobles and then there were nobles. There wasn’t a lot of difference between someone like the Painted Knife and, say, a Callowan landed knight or a baronet. Often merchants were wealthier in everything but largely decorative privileges.

Bestowed, as they called their Named, were always either associated to one of the already existing lineages or, when unprecedented, entered in the rolls as the founder of their own line of the Blood. The rolls themselves, aside from serving as records of such lineages in ‘Blood and Bestowal’, held records of all the great deeds of Levantine Named. Those who were not villains, anyway, at least in theory. I personally believed that a few villains had slipped through the cracks by virtue of not openly keeping to Below or being tied to an originally heroic lineage in some way. It might even go deeper than that: some of the things I’d read had been done by the Vengeful Brigand, one of their founding heroes, had been genuinely nasty in a way not often seen out of the Wasteland.

The issue here, though, was that Ishaq was openly a villain. While undeniably Bestowed, he was effectively demanding he be made a noble by a country keeping to Above, one where men like him were expected to be the proving grounds of more honourable lines and nothing else. In other times he’d be laughed out of the room or ignored, should he not instead find the Grey Pilgrim politely knocking at his door one evening, but times were changing. The Liesse Accords stipulated that being a villain was not inherently a crime and, though the members of the Grand Alliance hand not yet signed the Accords, the Truce and the Terms were widely seen as prelude and trial to their implementation.

It had been Cordelia Hasenbach’s own notion to keep the two separate so that mistakes in one would not taint the other before it was implemented. I suspected I might have come to resent how damnably clever that woman was, if it weren’t so damnably useful.

“Interesting,” I mildly said. “Yet also a matter for the Dominion of Levant to resolve.”

I mostly liked the Barrow Sword but I wasn’t going to meddle in the brutal debacle that was Levantine politics on his behalf, much less to try to force the raising of a villain to nobility. The backlash to such an act from, well, most everyone was likely to be spectacular.

“We came to request a clarification about the Truce and the Terms,” Lady Aquiline said, visibly still fuming. “And how they would apply against a decree of the Majilis.”

“The Majilis voted unanimously for the Dominion to sign onto the Truce and Terms,” I pointed out, frowning. “There is no conflict to be had.”

“There’s the trouble, Black Queen. I have been given amnesty for grave-robbing by the Terms, and my Bestowal is not itself an offence against the laws of Levant,” the Barrow Sword smiled. “So by the ancient laws of the Dominion, I must be added to the rolls as the founder of the Barrow’s Blood.”

“Those laws were written with the understand that Below’s servants would be hunted by the righteous without protection,” Aquiline flatly said.

I sucked in a breath.

“The Terms bend the meaning of your laws so that you no longer have grounds to refuse him,” Adjutant said, voicing my realization.

The two of the Blood nodded, while the villain leaned back in his seat with a smirk. Hence the clarification that was being requested here. They wanted me, as speaker for the villain Named of the Grand Alliance, to make it clear that the Terms couldn’t force their hand.

“The Holy Seljun has expressed his intention to call the Majilis to session and change the laws to reflect the will of the Heavens,” Lord Razin said. “When informed of this, the Barrow Sword-”

“The Barrow Sword told them he’d have to lodge a complaint with his representative under the Terms should the Majilis, seated halfway across the continent, try to fuck him up the ass while he’s fighting in the thick of the melee against the Dead King,” Ishaq said, tone hardening.

Fuck, I grimly thought. So that was why they’d come to me even thought this was a Dominion matter: I’d sworn oaths under the Terms to defend the Barrow Sword and settle complaints on his behalf. It was a thorny little predicament they were bringing to me, too. On one hand, if I twisted arms for Ishaq over this then the Black Queen was intervening in the Dominion’s own affairs. That was the kind of overstep that shattered coalitions. On the other hand, if I just looked away and did nothing then I was telling villains that I’d throw them under the horse the moment living up to my oaths became slightly inconvenient. That, and afterwards what Levantine villain would want to lend their power to the war if back home they were being forbidden by law the rights and privileges of other Named? Even those already fighting would think twice about keeping their oaths, if the Dominion scorned them so openly. That was the trouble, with making continent-spanning treaties: afterwards you had to deal with a continent’s worth of trouble.

“To clarify,” Hakram intervened, “no such complaint has been made, and no law was changed?”

“No,” the Barrow Sword smilingly agreed.

“The Majilis has not yet been called,” Lord Razin said. “Before the matter is to be debated, we meant to seek the insight of the Black Queen on this matter.”

Meaning they wanted to know how hard I’d come out swinging for Ishaq before they made a decision that couldn’t be easily walked back.

“I’ve also requested that a record of my deeds in Hainaut be sent to the Blood for consideration,” the Barrow Sword added.

That much, at least, I had no qualms promising. Whatever the rest I’d not deny the man acknowledgement of the fierceness he’d fought against Keter with.

“That will have been put to ink and bear personal seal by dawn tomorrow,” I said, flicking a meaningful glance at Hakram.

He’d be the one to write it, after all. From the rueful look in his eyes he’d understood my meaning perfectly.

“The Valiant Champion was meant to speak on this matter for Bestowed of the Dominion,” Lady Aquiline told me, defiantly. “Before she was so unreasonably sent away.”

“If Levantine heroes are to have a say in this dispute, that is a Dominion matter,” I coldly replied. “Under the Terms, my interlocutor is the White Knight. I owe not an inch beyond that.”

“How pettily you complain of another’s trophy, while wearing many yourself,” the Lady of Tartessos mocked.

Razin threw her an anguished look but said nothing. Trophies? Oh, I did wear those. Banners on my back and once, only once, I’d snatched the soul of a fallen foe who’d butchered an entire city in her folly. What I’d not done was mutilate the corpse of a fallen foe, made a wolf fur cloak of the woman who’d first taught me how to use a shield and – I breathed out. Sabah, Sabah had deserved better. Of all the Calamities, she’d deserved better.

“You get one warning, Osena,” I quietly said. “Test me on this again and you will not enjoy what follows.”

I met her gaze, the dark eyes so defiant, and did not blink. They’d been allowed too much leash, these two, and I’d be glad to see the back of them when next I met Tariq. But until then, they’d learn meekness again even if it had to be beaten back into their bones. Razin said something in one of the Levantine languages, tone flat, and only then did Aquiline of the Slayer’s Blood look away.

“Your audience is at an end,” I said.

Razin, often the deftest of the two when it came to matters like this, simply inclined his head.

“We can resume the discussion when a record of deeds has been written and the White Knight’s insight has been sought,” the Lord of Malaga replied.

In the same sentence establishing that nothing had been settled and that under the Terms they had someone to bring into this as well if I came out too hard on the Barrow Sword’s side. He was turning into a decent hand at that, I mused. Being surrounded by people who usually dwarfed him in power and influence had taught him something of subtlety, smoothed away some his rawness.

“A good day to you, Lord Razin, Lady Aquiline,” Hakram gravelled, standing at my side.

I blandly smiled and said nothing, letting them speak their own courtesies before leaving. The Barrow Sword made to do the same but I discreetly shook my head. I took a long look at Ishaq Deathless when her sat back down, allowing the silence to linger. With that tanned skin, strong brow and a thick – if well-maintained – beard he was a fine instance of what I’d been told was classic Alavan looks. He was broad-shouldered as an orc and not much taller than me, with for sole warpaint two long streaks of ash grey just below pale brown eyes. I’d seen him in a shirt, where the muscles under that armour had been well-moulded instead of tucked away, and I was honest enough with myself to admit I might have taken him to bed once or twice by now if he’d not been under my command and so brazenly ambitious. From his occasional lingering look I doubted it would have been all that difficult to talk him into it either.

“Your people have this saying, you told me,” I said. “Kick a barrow, die stupid?”

He looked highly amused.

“Kick a barrow, die a fool,” the dark-haired villain replied, half-grinning.

“That’s the one,” I agreeably said, then narrowed my eyes. “Ishaq, don’t go around kicking barrows when we’re in the middle of a war for the right to keep breathing.”

“You swore oaths, Black Queen,” he reminded me, carefully.

“The Truce and Terms are a vessel to help gather Named to fight the Dead King,” I said. “If the ambitions one of those Named threaten that cause, the Terms have failed in that purpose.”

“I’m not asking them for land, or for right of rule,” the Barrow Sword protested. “I ask that my deeds not fall into obscurity simply because I do not kneel at the altar of the Ashen Gods.”

“And I think that’s fair,” I told him. “I really do.”

All else aside, if a villain was rendering a service to Grand Alliance they were due the same recognition a hero would get for those deeds. Of course, fair only went so far in this world.

“So because I’ve grown passing fond of you, Ishaq,” I continued, tone casual, “I’ll tell you right now: if I have to choose between you and eighty thousand Dominion soldiers, you are going die tragically fighting Keter.”

I’d not raised my voice in the slightest, yet the hardened killer almost flinched. I smiled amicably at him.

“Ambition is a virtue, when tempered by restraint,” I said. “We understand each other, yes?”

“We do, Black Queen,” the Barrow Sword soberly replied.

Vinegar had been served, so the other hand must offer honey.

“Good,” I nodded. “Then I’ll have the record of your laudable efforts in Hainaut written up and lean on the White Knight to have it confirmed independently by heroes. If it still looks like they’re being unreasonable, I’ll personally take this to the Grey Pilgrim.”

His expression brightened, and I could only think of the way Wasteland villains would eat the poor bastard alive. Ishaq wasn’t stupid by any means, he was just… uncomplicated. He took what he could, retreated in the face of superior force and saw absolutely nothing wrong in either thing. There was a soothing clarity to that way of living I sometimes envied.

“Then I take my leave, Black Queen,” the Barrow Sword smiled. “I thank you for your time.”

“Keep putting down Revenants and my door’s always open,” I smiled back. “Fair days, Ishaq.”

“Fair nights, Black Queen,” the villain replied.

I waited until he’d left before letting out a long sigh. I slumped back into my seat and closed my eyes.

“So?” I asked Hakram.

“You went too hard on Aquiline,” Adjutant assessed. “I know why you did, but now she’ll feel she’s been dishonoured until she gets some sort of victory over you. We both know that your patience is going to run out on that.”

It would, which meant I’d probably have to serve her up a meaningless win over something to soother her wounded pride. Considering I was less than well-inclined towards Aquiline Osena at the moment, that prospect did not fill me with enthusiasm. What had she done, to deserve this from me?

“It’s not the same, Hakram,” I said. “The Mantle, and that abomination the Champion wore.”

A beat of silence.

“Levantine take trophies,” the orc said. “Especially from famous foes. It is part of who they are as a people. I expect if she could have taken armour instead of fur, she would have.”

I opened my eyes, stirred to anger once more.

“But she didn’t,” I hissed back. “And you know that’s entirely-”

He sat at my side, around the corner of the table. The chair did not creak under his weight, as Cordelia Hasenbach was not one to forget such details.

“I know, Catherine,” the orc told me. “Of course I know. But I also understand that to them there is no difference, and so your anger seems frivolous to their eyes.”

“Praesi highborn murder each other at the drop of a hat, Stygians practice slavery,” I flatly replied. “Am I to pretend their ways are just some quaint local custom as well?”

“My people eat corpses, and sometimes the living,” Hakram frankly said. “Goblins take oaths about as seriously as porridge. I would be bitterly disappointed if you only took us in because those things have yet to prick you too sharply.”

That actually stung to hear, and I drew back in surprise.

“That’s different,” I said, “it’s not…”

“It’s not one of the two Calamities you’ve loved,” Adjutant kindly finished for me. “It’s not the woman who taught you to keep your shield up when you swing a sword, worn on some stranger’s back.”

A long moment of silence passed as I struggled with my words.

“It’s not wrong, to be furious about that,” I quietly replied.

“No,” he agreed, “it isn’t. You can carry that grudge until you die, should you want to, and you’ll not be wrong.”

“But the Black Queen can’t?” I bitterly asked. “I don’t agree with that, Hakram. Akua said something once, about wants of the woman and the needs of the queen, but no one cuts it that clean. The Praesi have tried, and it’s sickened them perhaps beyond mending. I’ll have no part of it.”

Adjutant set against the oak the hand of bone he’d earned in my service, along with near every other wound that rent his body. It was, I thought, a statement powerful enough that it need not be spoken at all to be heard.

“I am not Akua Sahelian,” Hakram said, tone almost chiding. “I swore myself to Catherine Foundling, not a Name or a crown. I’ve no interest in splitting my oath between your and your shadow, seen by Wasteland eyes. But I will say, Warlord, that the moment you let hate choose your path for you at last fetters were clasped around your wrist.”

He bared long fangs, sharp and pale as bone.

“If you cannot tolerate the way of the world, change it,” Hakram Deadhand said, sounding even now like he did not doubt for a moment that I could. “If you will not take up those arms, though, do not keep clutching them in your grasp. Creation has no patience for the half-hearted.”

I leaned forward, elbows on the table as I passed tired hands through my hair.

“I’m tired, Hakram,” I admitted, looking down at the half-polished wood. “I’m tired and I slipped up and just… the moment I did, the single fucking moment, a kid died. Just like that. And I’d like to think I’m not the kind of monster that would wish a fourteen-year-old kid would die just because another one did, but…”

The tall orc leaned his head against mine, softly, and said nothing. It was one of the kindest things anyone had ever done for me.

“I understand him, now,” I said.

And though the anger was not on my tongue, it was even worse than that. It’d settled in my bones, in the marrow of them, and now it was a part of me. One that would never leave.

“Who?” Hakram softly asked.

“Black,” I murmured. “Why even knowing he was wrong he still wanted to win. To beat them. A single breath blown on the balance of Creation, so that for just a moment you could look at it and say: this is fair. This is equal. And know that it wasn’t but you made it that way.”

“There’s nothing at the end of that road, Catherine,” Adjutant said.

“I know,” I said. “Gods, I know. But every time I see their kid survives and ours dies, every time I see they get to walk around in the skin mother of three and we’re in the wrong for daring to be offended by that? I understand him a little better.”

In the end, though Black had wanted to even the scales by pushing down on Good. And that wasn’t a victory, not really, but for all his pale skin and cold steel mind there was something about my father that was utterly Praesi: the Wasteland only ever knew victory by triumph over others. The other way, the hard way, was pushing up the other scale. And I would walk that road, that was the choice I’d made. But, I thought as my forehead pressed against the cool oak and Hakram’s hand lay on my shoulder, before my feet began moving again I could… wait a while. Catch my breath. I closed my eyes, alone in my tent with the person I loved most in this world, and it was the closest I’d felt to peace in years.

It would pass, I knew. So I enjoyed it, for the little while it lasted.

Chapter 7: Approach

“Friend and foe know a different man.”
– Helikean saying

The contents of my tent were one of the few splurges of luxury I’d ever allowed myself. The bed was from Orense, whose carpenters were famous even within the Principate, and though it could be folded in two for transport it was nothing like the cots the Legions of Terror used as their standard. It was large enough for two and topped by a good woolen mattress, as even now featherbeds were just too soft for me – I found it difficult to fall asleep in them. A pair of enchanted braziers and a set of magelight lanterns saw to heat and light, while a small sculpted table flanked by a library-box and a few trunks held my personal affairs. That part of my tent was parted from the rest by a heavy curtain sown into the ceiling, keeping it separate from the larger segment where I received others.

The broad desk, which I’d had carved out of Ashuran cedar twice struck by lightning to my exact specifications, had been was the great expense there though I believed it worth ever copper. It’d been Akua that had told me about the cleansing and healing properties of the cedar trees that grew in the shade of Mount Tyro, the mountain where the mage-doctor schools of Ashur had first been raised centuries ago. Masego had added that a lightning strike would bring such properties to the surface, and Vivienne’s people in the Free Cities had found cedar that’d been struck twice being sold by a broker in Mercantis. Whatever the magic behind it, sitting at that desk never seemed to pain my leg no matter how long I did and I tired measurably slower working on it.

The seat behind was naturally the same sinfully comfortable armchair I’d stolen from a Summer count during the Arcadian campaign, my perennial favourite. A pair of less comfortable but prettily sculpted – roaring lionheads for the arms – seats sent to me by Vivienne matched it on the other side. My personal desk was only a part of the large tent, however, as it’d become inevitable that I would have to frequently ‘entertain’ the kind of people who expected luxuries even when at war.  The first wooden table I’d used was hacked straight through during either the fourth of fifth assassination attempt of last winter – I couldn’t quite recall, they rather melded into the same general sense of unpleasantness after a while – and the replacement had only lasted two months before I put the Bandit Lord’s head through it, but Archer had been sufficiently amused by that last setback she’d actually carved me one herself.

That oaken stretch was the single most beautiful thing I owned, as far as I was concerned. Though it was broadly rectangular and the surface was still only half-polished, Indrani must have put half a hundred hours into the carvings that adorned it. Four snakelike legs coiled their way up, jaws opened to swallow legionaries as had truly happened when Akua unleashed devils on the Fifteenth before the Battle of Marchford. From there Archer had carved scenes as her fancy struck, without rhyme or reason. The Woe’s battle with the Princess of High Noon abutted depiction of the duelling scene from the Lay of Lothian’s Passing she so enjoyed, the last moments of Larat’s splendid escape were wedged in between the dying gasp of the Kingdom of Sephirah and the view of the Silver Lake from her favourite Laure tavern.

It wasn’t finished, perhaps only two thirds of the sides having been carved and the wood atop the table still being prepared for carvings of its own, and already it was one of the most precious possessions I’d ever owned. My officers and allies had quickly caught on to Indrani’s habit of adding a few carvings whenever she passed through our camp, and it’d become a manner of entertainment for them to make a pretext to visit my tent and try to find the latest additions afterwards. The First Prince had sent a set of ten cushioned seats in matching oak as a gift, which given their delicate craftsmanship were likely worth a fortune, but coin couldn’t buy what it had meant for someone as restless as Archer to have spent so many hours working on a piece meant for me.

There were other adornments to the tent, of course. Heavy tapestries hung from the sides, woven in the Callowan manner – the Hedges style, to be precise, since the thickness of those helped keep the heat in the tent during winter. My people’s tapestries admittedly tended to only depict three things: hunting, the Book of All Things and war. Given that I had little taste for hunting or the Gods Above but more than a few wars under my belt, I’d settled for the last and matched that martial tendency with the grand maps I’d commissioned. Smaller ones of the fronts in Cleves and Twilight’s Pass, larger ones of the Principality of Hainaut and the Kingdom of the Dead. Braziers, sprite-lanterns and a long commode that was admittedly mostly a dump for scroll and parchment stacks – as well as holding a pair of compartments filled with bottles of wine and liquor – finished the last of it.

It was a comfortable dwelling, as had been made necessary by the sheer amount of time I’d spent in it over the last two years.

I rose with dawn and broke my fast on the carved table, wolfing down eggs and rashers as I read through the damage reports from last night’s troubles. Akua sat across from me and we shared a pot of tea in companionable silence as I busied myself frowning at the ink.  Most of the damage was superficial but one of the wardstones from the Third Army’s camp, which was where the Dead King’s ghouls had found the most success, had cracked. This was not beyond our ability to fix, but the artefact the ghouls has used to try to contaminate the stone – some sort of sharp obsidian spike that just reeked of sorcery – was still stuck in it. It’d have to be either destroyed or extracted. In destroying it we’d improve our chances of repairing the wardstone, but to extract it we’d have to cut through the stone instead and effectively wreck it permanently. On the other hand, if we could figure out what the spike was we could prepare countermeasures for its next use.

Adjutant joined us just as I finished reading the last of the report, his timing as fatefully impeccable as always, and he claimed a seat at a table. He demurred when Akua offered him a cup of tea, as they’d both known he would. He hated the Nok blends, insisted they made his fangs taste of herbs for days afterwards. Akua had not once, so far, missed an occasion to try to socially maneuver him into being forced to drink a cup regardless. It was easy to tell how well they were getting along on any given day simply by how playful the shade was being about that little game. This morning, though, I gave them no time to get into it.

“Thoughts?” I prompted.

“It’s only the wardstone against scrying that was affected,” Hakram calmly said. “The least important of the three. Carve it, send the spike to the Belfry and lean on the Arsenal to get a replacement sent as soon as possible.”

My eyes moved to Akua.

“Destroy the spike,” the dark-skinned woman replied. “It costs us more than weeks or months exposed to destroy a wardstone: it also costs us the hours spent realigning the array with the replacement stone. Hours that skilled mages would otherwise spend addressing current threats or preparing for those to come.”

“The Dead King seemingly believed he could sink our full ward array with the spike, Lady Akua,” Hakram pointed out. “If we do not learn the nature of the threat, that might just be the case when one is next used against us.”

“The Dead King has millennia of such accumulated tricks and tools to wield whenever he so pleases, Lord Adjutant,” Akua replied. “We cannot and indeed should not attempt to match every single blow with an exact parrying dagger. The superior approach would be tightening security around our wardstones and instead leaning our efforts towards innovations of our own.”

“Our innovations spring from Jaquinite and Trismegistan sorcery,” Adjutant gravelled. “One was forged in the Dead King’s shadow and he is the founding practitioner of the other. We might as well try to drown a shark.”

“However potent a practitioner of sorcery, the King of Death remains a single mage,” the shade argued. “While he can have helpers and acquire the knowledge of others, it is highly improbable for the Dead King’s mastery of the Gift to be so superior as to eclipse every advance come out of the Arsenal.”

I drummed my fingers against the table, thinking in silence. The two of them were, through the locus of an ultimately minor tactical decision, coming to stand in for the two great currents of thought among the strategists of the Grand Alliance. One school of thought, of which the most prominent advocates were Princess Rozala Malanza and Prince Otto Reitzenberg, argued that the Alliance should fight aggressively on a tactical scale but defensively on a strategic one. Stable defensive lines and regular sorties were to serve as way to grind down Keter’s forces in Procer while the Empire Ever Dark held Serolen and raided through dwarven tunnels behind the lines of the dead. All of this was to serve as a method of weakening the Dead King until either the Arsenal created armaments capable of turning the tide or a strategic opportunity to strike at Keter itself was made. The ever-increasing amount of Named joining our ranks had, of late, been added to the arguments. Defence was their creed, until we took the King of Death’s head in his seat of his power.

The other school of thought, which claimed Prince Klaus Papenheim and Lord Yannu Marave as leading lights, argued instead for full offensive war. Their belief was that the Grand Alliance would soon reach the peak of its capacity to wage war and would only be headed into a death spiral if it did not begin scoring decisive blows before that capacity was spent. The doctrine would begin with reclamation of northern Procer by three-pointed offensive, followed by a winter of preparation and then a joint all-fronts offensive into the Kingdom of the Dead while the Empire Ever Dark struck out from its position in Serolen. With enough victories to show for, we could bargain for open dwarven military support and offer them a clean strike at Keter while the Hidden Horror’s armies were tied up on four different campaigns in other corners of his realm. There were half a dozen other variations on how the offensives should be waged, some of them not even involving the Kingdom Under, but the common tie was always the call for offensive campaigning.

Akua was, I knew, very much inclined to agree with the defensive school. Like most Praesi highborn she still saw mages at the most important part of warfare and was generally inclined to believe Named were best suited to creating the kind of breakthrough that’d deliver victory against Keter, either in a study or on the field. Hakram was not quite so clear-cut in his preferences, but for good reason his sympathies tended more the way of the offensive school. While Akua was hardly uninformed, she was not nearly as aware of how fragile the Grand Alliance’s situation truly was as my second. The strain of the war against Keter was being felt across the entire coalition, but most keenly of all in Procer: high taxes, frequent requisitions and lasting restrictions on trade were causing mounting unrest. And that was without even mentioning the waves of refugees in need of settling, for whom sympathy tended to sour very quickly whenever food or room ran low and human nature took its usual course towards the ugly. Hakram tended to favour the aggressive approaches, including getting ready to fight the war now, because he was unsure how long we could keep waging it.

I leaned more towards the offensive school myself, as it happened, but only within limits. The Principality of Hainaut and the last stretches of Twilight’s Pass ought to be reclaimed in full and a proper defensive line raised across all shores that’d be able to prevent large-scale invasion by the dead. Then, and only then, could further aggressive campaigning be considered. Cordelia Hasenbach agreed, as it happened, at least when it came to the reclamation of Hainaut – she was less eager to try taking back the Pass once more, considering the lair of nightmares Neshamah had turned the last fortresses of it into. Regardless, the two of us agreeing and the Grey Pilgrim not opposing us meant that a summer offensive into northern Hainaut was a certainty unless disaster struck beforehand.

As it nearly had, with that seeded plague. We were not unexpected or unseen in our designs.

“Do either of you have anything else to add?” I finally said.

“Our armies will be headed north, to the warded fortresses of the defensive line,” Hakram said. “We can afford the window of vulnerability while we replace the stone.”

“Expanding the ritual repertoire of our mage cadres would be more efficient a use of their time, and the potential gains from breaking the wardstone are limited,” Akua calmly replied.

I sharply nodded, fingers withdrawing from the table. As things currently stood the scrying ward was incontinent but not outright broken, so while the choice shouldn’t be dragged out it did not need to be made immediately either.

“I’ll have a decision by Evening Bell,” I said. “Hakram, what have you got for me?”

“You intended on speaking with the soldiers and officers from the assault formation,” the orc reminded me. “Assembly can be had at half an hour’s notice. Reports will be coming in by the Alliance scrying network at Noon Bell, including Vivienne’s. Lady Aquiline and Lord Razin seek an audience, as does the White Knight.”

He paused for a beat.

“Nestor Ikaroi of the Secretariat arrived during the night as well,” he added. “Along with his usual scribes. He requested audience as well, and mentioned he’d been charged with diplomatic correspondence meant for you.”

My eyebrow rose. I did not ask from who – if he’d known, he would have told me – but it was not from lack of curiosity.

“I’ve the usual disciplinary action and assignment summaries for the Third Army for you to review,” Hakram added, moving on to more mundane matters. “As well as the patrol and guard roster suggestions for the coming month.”

The latter parchments could not be passed on to anyone else, since if they did not have my authority behind them those suggestions would be balked at by our rowdy collation of Proceran, Levantine and Callowan captains. They’d need another read, anyway, to see if someone had tried to favour their own again. The former, though…

“You don’t need to bring me the Third Army summaries anymore,” I grunted. “General Abigail doesn’t need me looking over her shoulder.”

He flicked a considering glance at Akua, whose face was serene as a pond as she drank from her cup of tea. I did not bother to hide my irritation at that when his gaze returned to me, and he clicked his fangs apologetically.

“I doubt she’d agree if asked,” Adjutant said. “I’ll see to it regardless.”

I hummed, sipping at my own cup thoughtfully.

“Send for Secretary Nestor first,” I decided.

The Blood could wait, it’d do them some good, and when Hanno came by for our chat I’d rather have it with a drink in hand. Past Noon Bell, then, which wasn’t a bad idea anyway. Though the White Knight did not get reports the way I did, relying on the First Prince for information on that scale, he did correspond with a great many heroes who, as heroes were wont to, found out all sorts of hidden things. Often what he learned there was little better than gossip, but on occasion there was treasure buried among the dross. Akua took her leave without needing to be prompted, heading out to organize the repairs of the lesser damage on the wardstones. Though Senior Mage Dastardly was still the ranking mage of the Third Army, he was suborned to Akua’s authority as the informal commander of our coalition’s mage cadres. Both the Proceran wizards and the Levantine binders – those Abigail hadn’t slaughtered like lambs, anyway – took orders from her as well, within certain limits.

From experience I knew Secretary Nestor Ikaroi would be awake even at this hour, as the Delosi askretis hardly ever slept even at his advanced age. I was, it had to be said, rather fond of the man. He was polite, useful and his dedication to recording history accurately bordered on being principled. It was therefore with a smile that I greeted him when Hakram ushered him into the tent, half-rising from the desk where I’d migrated before inviting him to sit across. He did so after a slight bow, the shallowness of it as much a reminder of his high status in Delos as the two stripes tattooed across each of his cheeks. One black and one blue, traditionally the highest rank one could rise to within the Secretariat.

“Queen Catherine,” he greeted me. “I thank you for the audience, and twice over of your promptness in granting it.”

Ikaroi’s long white hair was kept in a clean ponytail and his grooming was impeccable even so early, something made clear by his turning back to gesture for an attendant scribe to approach. A scroll case was passed to the Secretary, who in turn passed it to Hakram. Considering the last time someone from the Free Cities had tried to hand me something directly it’d been an assassination attempt, that particular bit of decorum had grown on me.

“The Secretariat has proved a good friend, if not outright an ally,” I replied. “It’s my pleasure to return the courtesy.”

I glanced at the scroll case Adjutant had taken in hand but not opened.

“Although it seems that this time we aren’t to discuss the submission of questions,” I added.

“In truth the Secretariat has also passed along a list of inquiries, along with making funds available to me,” the blue-eyed man noted.

Good news, that. The Grand Alliance’s war machine was ever hungry for coin.

“Anything interesting?” I idly asked.

“Secretary Thais stills seeks to prove her theories on the source of the Stygian Spring, so a perspective in attendance of the Violet Peace’s signing has been requested,” he replied.

I snorted. Secretary Thais remained convinced that a secret treaty had been signed between Nicae and Stygia beyond the officially recorded peacemaking, and that it was exactly such a secret that’d allowed the Magisterium to begin aggressive attacks against Delos and Atalante a few centuries back. That assertion had yet to have even a slight indication of being historically accurate but if the old woman was willing to sink a fortune in being proved wrong, I had no objection.

“A question on Callowan history as well, for the Annals,” Nestor Ikaroi said. “Seeking to ascertain if Queen Yolanda the Stern’s was a villain in metaphysical sense or a merely a political one.”

I hummed thoughtfully.

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind knowing that as well,” I admitted.

Callowan historians still debated to this day if Yolanda the Wicked had truly been one of Below’s or just Proceran-born and deeply despised, but I’d never cared much either way. It was ancient history, and not the sort I need be concerned about. On the other hand, if she’d truly been a villainous Named then it occurred to me there was precedent for one of those reigning as Queen of Callow for more than a decade. While I didn’t particularly want my reign to be painted with the same brush as a woman I’d once seen written of as ‘barely more popular than the plague’, it could serve as the foundation for a legal argument. One that lent my rule a little more legitimacy than that of a victorious warlord. That wasn’t much of an issue for me, these days – not unless I started losing battles anyway – but if I didn’t want Vivienne or her successors fighting a civil in twenty years then we needed a better arguments than brute force and wearing a fancy hat.

“Usual rates, you know the drill by now. I’ll be speaking with the White Knight later this evening,so I’ll see when it can be done,” I told Nestor. “The list?”

“Timo, if you would?” the old man asked.

The young scribe passed a neatly folded parchment to Hakram. Usually the Secretariat only sent ten questions at a time, which I’d been informed by the Jacks were the subject of much internal politicking between the upper ranks of their bureaucratic ruling class. This entire affair had begun when Hanno, early into the first Hainaut offensive, had offered during an idle conversation to use his Recall aspect in order to settle a question about the size of the armies at the Battle of Lerna as recoded in the Annals. The askretis had gone wild at the potential resource that was having access to the memories of thousands of heroes going centuries back, the Secretariat even lodging a formal request with the Grand Alliance to consult with the White Knight over historical matters only to be reluctantly informed by Cordelia that the Sword of Judgement was not hers to ‘lend’.

So they’d gone to Hanno himself, who like a complete chump would have simply answered their questions whenever time allowed and thought nothing more of it. Gods, heroes. It showed most of them had never had to handle a treasury, much less fund a war. So I’d had a private word with him and we’d emerged from that conversation with practical prices in coin if the Secretariat wanted to take advantage of an opportunity that might never come to them again. Most the gold went into the Grand Alliance’s coffers, because Hanno was Hanno, but I’d insisted he take a cut even if he ended up spending it on other people. These days the Delosi tended to bring the questions to me, since I was often easier to find, and strangely enough he seemed to prefer it that way. Hakram set the parchment bearing the questions aside on my commode and returned to hand me the leather scroll case after having inspected it thoroughly.

“I don’t suppose you know what’s in that,” I asked the Delosi.

“I have my suspicions,” Secretary Nestor said, “but cannot know for certain. I know only that General Basilia meant it for your hand.”

Yeah, I’d thought it might be from her. The woman who’d once been Kairos Theodosian’s favourite general was arguably the closest thing I – and the Grand Alliance at large – had to an ally in the Free Cities, sad as it was to say. I broke open to seal and fished out the scroll, unfurling it carefully. Though the courtesies were curt they were still present, followed by a few matter of fact sentences about her latest victories on the field. The part that caught my attention, however, was right afterwards.

“Stygia’s getting involved,” I summarized. “One of the Helikean patrols caught some of the Magisterium’s people bringing wagons of arms onto a ship whose captain was headed for Nicae.”

Secretary Nestor dipped his head, seemingly unsurprised.

“It is the Secretariat’s belief that the Magisterium seeks to prolong the war as much as possible,” the old man said. “So long as Basileus Leo holds the city and Strategos Zenobia holds the countryside, Nicae remains divided. It is so with General Basilia’s campaigns in Penthesian lands as well. Our archivist-oracles believe they will not hinder transport of supplies so long as no decisive victory is scored, but would begin sabotage immediately if General Basilia succeeded at forcing such an engagement.”

Which she hadn’t, and likely wouldn’t. Exarch Prodocius still held on to the throne he’d won by virtue of being the last puppet standing, but his authority hardly went beyond the walls of Penthes itself. Many towns and tributary cities had declared him usurper and unfit – moved either by genuine outrage or by the very real chance of being sacked by Helike should they not – but his control on the city-state itself and a few key fortresses had not been shaken. Malicia was propping him up, if rumours of warlock ‘diplomats’ having joined his court were true, but for all that he was a pawn the man was not a complete fool. General Basilia’s army had chewed through every Penthesian field army sent its way and taken lesser walls, but Helike did not have the siege weaponry or mages to take the city of Penthes itself. The Exarch would remain holed up behind his tall walls with the last of his armies, trying to wait out Basilia.

“For Stygia to interfere with a supply line that passes through Delosi territory might taken by some as an act of war,” I mildly said.

“The Magisterium has not done such a thing,” Secretary Nestor serenely replied. “The worse that can be laid at its feet is words.”

I could read between the lines. The Magisters had spoken words so the Secretariat was being forthcoming with those as well, tacitly passing information to the Grand Alliance through me. It wasn’t willing to escalate any further unless Stygia did first, though, their precious neutrality remaining in place. They could have gone to the First Prince with this instead, but by going to me they could better claim to have maintained an impartial approach: General Basilia was already sending me information, and Callow’s openly hostile relations with Dread Empress Malicia meant I could be said to have a legitimate stake in the war. They’re not helping a foreigner against the League, I sardonically thought, they’re helping Helike’s almost-ally against Stygia’s almost-ally. With a few added steps and tortured justifications, no doubt.

“One would think that Malicia would advise against Stygian ambitions, given the civil war she’s fighting,” I complained. “But it’s never that simple, is it?”

“Dread Empress Sepulchral has failed to gather support beyond the initial wave,” the old man shrugged. “She is a threat, to be sure, but for all her clever maneuvering she has not beaten the Legions.”

“The part of those that still fight for the Tower, anyway,” I replied, bit bothering to hide my relish.

Though Malicia had seized the rebel old guard of Black loyalists that’d refused to bend the knee and even crucified a few, she’d underestimated both how popular my father was with the rank and file and how badly the revelation her sorcerous mind control would be received by greenskin officers. Nearly half of the former Legions-in-Exile had deserted her service at the first opportunity. A few of those joined up with Sepulchral’s armies, but most had either thrown down their weapons or joined the ever-growing camp of disaffected soldiers on the edge of the Green Stretch. While Sepulchral’s – once known as High Lady Abreha Mirembe – own High Seat of Aksum had followed her into rebellion and Nok had declared for her as well, most of Praes still remained in Malicia’s hands.

She’d not managed to dislodge Sepulchral, though, despite Marshal Nim’s best efforts, and knowledge that the Grand Alliance had opened negotiations with the rival claimant to the Tower ought to have curbed her willingness to provoke us even through surrogates. Evidently not, though. Now if only Black would come out of the woodworks – or acknowledge he was behind Dread Empress Sepulchral, as many suspected he might be – this entire nest of snakes could be put to rest. But for some reason he’d yet to tip his hand.

“Praesi will do as Praesi have always done,” Secretary Nestor said, unconcerned. “It is nothing to Delos. Yet, Queen Catherine, if I might give a word of warning?”

My eyes sharpened. Not a word the man would use lightly, that.

“I’m listening,” I said.

“There are strange undercurrents in Mercantis, these days,” the old man warned. “Ones even the eyes and ears of the Secretariat cannot quite parse.”

I kept my dismay off my face. The City of Bought and Sold was a pack of despicable profiteers, there was no denying that, yet so far they’d known how to toe the line of how much they should attempt to profit. The wealth of Mercantis’ banks and merchant lords had been instrumental in keeping the Principate’s industry from collapsing as the strain of curtailed trade and heavy taxes took its toll, but the city-state was almost as useful as broker capable of obtaining materials and rarities for the Arsenal. If they turned on us now, it’d be a crippling blow. Yet I couldn’t quite believe even the famously avaricious merchant lords would be this foolish. What would their gold be worth, when the Dead King was at their gates? And if they pressed us now, they had to know that should we win the Grand Alliance’s fury would be a black thing to behold.

“Thank you for the advice,” I said, tone forcibly calm.

I’d have to speak with Cordelia, soon. She was the foremost diplomat of the Grand Alliance, by both talent and station, and I was still astounded she’d somehow managed to talk both Atalante and Delos into allowing the Helikean armies and supply train to pass their through territory. Last I’d heard from Vivienne the First Prince was looking into bringing Strategos Zenobia into the Grand Alliance’s orbit without angering her current patron General Basilia in the process, so she ought to have been keeping an eye on the region. If something was going wrong with Mercantis it was Hasenbach that’d be noticing the signs, and likely she who’d have to fix it anyway. If this was a ploy from Malicia, though, that’d make two provocations from her: Stygia’s growing interventionism and trying to strike at our finances. The Tower would be, to be blunt, picking a fight. If we didn’t answer her in kind she’d only grow bolder, too, and that simply couldn’t be allowed. On the other hand, we could hardly afford to send an army Praes’ way could we?

There was no easy answer to this, as tended to be the way when dealing with Dread Empress Malicia.

“I trouble you no longer, then, Your Majesty,” the old askretis said, rising only to offer another slight bow.

“Always a pleasure, Secretary Nestor,” I simply replied.

I slumped into my seat, after the old man and his attendant had left. And this, I thought, had been meant to be the pleasant part of my day. Adjutant stood in silence at my side, close but not reaching out.

“All right,” I sighed, opening my eyes. “Get me those rosters, Hakram. Let’s get this done before some other looming disaster appears on the horizon.”

One thing at a time. It could be done, if we did it one thing at a time.

I told myself I believed that, straightened my back and got to work.