Chapter 3: Demesne

“You can never have too many tiger pits, Chancellor. That’s the same lack of vision that has people say “that’s too large a field of energy to absorb” or “calling yourself a living god is blasphemy”.”
– Dread Emperor Malignant III, before his death and second reign as Dread Emperor Revenant

Marchford had come under attack during my absence.

That much became clear as soon as we got in sight of the city. There was no dramatic plume of smoke announcing it but the way the Fifteenth had been deployed was sign enough. The outskirts of the city were untouched but I could see from a mile away that the central plaza had been heavily fortified and was manned with soldiers and siege engines – all of them pointing towards the inside instead of the outside. Juniper had managed to keep life going outside of the restricted zone she’d carved out in the middle of Marchford, to my approval, but that she’d even needed to do this much was telling. I’d learned much about Legion formations, over the last year, and what I was looking at was standard practice for a long-term static defence. Whatever fight had been picked it was not over, even if there was nothing to see right now. Just when things had been starting to pick up for the city, I glared. Typical.

Zombie the Second kept a slow pace, as I was the only mounted member of my party. The Gallowborne were infantry through and through and Hakram, who I would have preferred to be mounted, could not be. Orcs panicked horses just being being close, unless they were trained war destriers. Those were in a short enough supply that any the Legions of Terror could get their hands on were sent straight to Thalassina. The Thirteenth Legion was garrisoned there and, having been raised out of Callowan rebels and criminals, actually had a cavalry contingent. The knights of the Kingdom could have eaten that bunch for breakfast and still been hungry, but compared to the orc wolfriders that represented the Empire’s only other mounted option they were still a vast improvement.

“That’s two rings of defence,” Hakram said. “Whatever tickled the Hellhound was nothing to sneer at: she usually prefers stacking the first line to defence in depth.”

Which meant Juniper had to face the serious possibility that her first line of fortifications would be swept away by the opponent. There weren’t a lot of forces on Calernia that could threaten a hardened wall of legionaries backed by mages and siege engines. Most of them were supernatural in nature.

“You lost a month’s pay, then,” I said, squinting at the city ahead. “That’s too blatant to be Heiress’ work.”

“Whoever physically assaulted the city could be a catspaw for her,” Hakram said smugly. “It’s impossible to prove she wasn’t involved.”

I cursed under my breath. That was the same as people blaming Assassin whenever any prominent figure died – it could be true, in theory, but how the Hells would anyone know?

“You’re never going to win, either,” I pointed out.

“Until I do,” Hakram grinned toothily. “Just a matter of time.”

I’d put money on heroes, myself. They always turned up at the most inconvenient of times, and just when Marchford was beginning to have some breathing room would have definitely qualified. No head was on a pike by the road, though, so I could safely assume no hero had gone into my city and committed suicide by Hellhound.

“Did anyone have fairies?” I said.

“Ratface,” Adjutant said after a moment.

“I hate it when he places bets,” I muttered. “He always knows more than he’s letting on.”

We’d had to form the pool on the down low, since Juniper frowned on the practice. Something about it diminishing the dignity of officers. The general couldn’t technically punish me for anything, but she insisted on hour-long meetings about patrol routes and drills whenever she caught me involved. The Hellhound’s sadism knew no bounds. I cast a look at the column of Gallowborne following behind, then sighed.

“Let’s pick up the pace,” I said. “The sooner I hear the reports, the sooner we can take baths.”

Hakram frowned at me.

“I washed in the river not three days ago,” he said.

“So now you smell like river and wet dog,” I said, spurring on Zombie before he could reply. “Soap, Adjutant, soap.”

It was rare enough I got to have the last word these days I savoured the feeling all the way to Marchford.

A patrol met us outside the sight of the city walls, or at least the promise of walls. After I’d had the parts of the city wrecked during Battle of Marchford made liveable again, getting some actual defences for my home built had been a priority. I’d charged Pickler with designing and building the fortifications months ago and she’d had a shiver at the words I was fairly sure was a sign of arousal for goblins – her eyes had gone a little wide and fluttered, too. The first plan the Senior Sapper had drafted would have turned the city into the same kind of army-breaker Summerholm was meant to be, but I’d sent her back to the drawing table after a quick look. Marchford was not a border fortress and while it was to be the seat of the Fifteenth it would live or die on trade. Which her seven overlapping rings of walls and bastions would complicate a great deal: no real thought had been given to civilian streets and arteries, or even housing districts. The second draft had been much more reasonable.

The towered curtain wall around Marchford she’d sketched was nothing too fancy, but where the Talbot Manor had stood before I’d had it torched would become a proper fortress. Permanent barracks were added to accommodate the Fifteenth, with access to training fields for drills and mock battles. That draft I accepted, and mandated she start working on when feasible. That was the first rub, unfortunately: being feasible. Her sappers had been needed to repair the bridge in and out of Marchford, and when that was over simply would not have the numbers to undertake as large a project as building the fortifications for an entire city. Not if I wanted to be done before a decade has passed, anyway. That wasn’t acceptable: the entire reason I needed those walls now was so that when Heiress tossed her next abomination at me my soldiers would have something to stand on.

The obvious solution was drafting hand from the rest of the Fifteenth, but Juniper had flatly refused. It was one thing to keep sappers busy in peace time, another entirely to draw from the rank and file for a civilian project. Especially when she was integrating a massive influx of Callowans and other fresh recruits into the Fifteenth, trying to turn them into a cohesive fighting force. Fortunately, Marchford was a mining city. There was available skilled labour, which at the moment milled around aimlessly or enrolled into my legion to make ends meet. That was the second rub, so to speak. Those miners would need to be paid. I was, sadly, close to broke. There was not enough trade coming in to fill my coffers, and raising tariffs on what was currently coming would just kill it off entirely. Taxing a city who’d effectively been sacked less than a year ago and of which a third of the population had lost their income when the mines closed – courtesy of Heiress fucking me over with a demon whose corruption was still far from gone – was a good way to have revolt on my hands. I still drew my pay and so far had done little to spend it, but it was a drop in the bucket compared to what was needed.

The only saving grace here was that my legionaries also drew pay from the Tower and had nowhere to spend it but Marchford. That had slowed the bleeding some, though there was only so much that buying ale, whores and grub could do for a city. In the end I’d had Pickler outline the foundations for what would be be the city walls and freed her to take care of the bridge. We needed the trade more than the defences, right now. Staring at those ropes and pickets put me in a foul mood, a reminder that soon I’d need to either borrow coin or effectively go bankrupt. I’d ordered Aisha to look into my options before I left for Southpool, so maybe she’d have good news for me. That’d be a first.

I dismissed the patrolling legionaries without bothering to ask questions about what had happened to the city, heading straight for the guildhall Juniper had appropriate during the Battle of Marchford and never returned. On the way there, after having sent off most of the Gallowborne back to the barracks for well-deserved rest, I was presented with the sight of a tired but still ridiculously pretty redhead escorted by a gaggle of mages.

“Lady Squire,” Kilian smiled.

I spurred on Zombie instead of replying, scooping up my Senior Mage by the waist and setting her in front of me before she was even done squeaking in surprise.

Cat,” she protested. “We’re in-“

One arm still wrapped around her waist, I leaned forward to interrupt her with a kiss. She smiled against my lips before sliding a hand around the nape of my neck and replying in kind. Teasingly, I bit her lip before withdrawing when we were both out of breath.

“Kilian,” I finally said. “I missed you.”

She rested her head against my breastplate, for once the fact that she was slightly taller than me not apparent.

“Missed you too,” she muttered. “Even if you’re making a spectacle of us, you utter brute.”

Hakram cleared his throat loudly, because he was the most inconsiderate creature ever spawned in Creation. I ignored him, pressing my lips against the crown of Kilian’s head and already craving something stronger. I hadn’t seen my lover in two months and to say I’d missed her would have been something of an understatement. Hakram cleared his throat again, louder.

“We’re having a moment, you sack of sentient manure,” I said.

“Good afternoon to you, Senior Mage,” Adjutant said, cheerfully ignoring my insult.

“Lord Adjutant,” Kilian replied, with as much dignity as she could manage while wrapped in my arms.

“I see you’ve been abducted by some sort of barbarian warlord,” the tall orc mused. “Whenever you manage to free yourself from captivity, I imagine we’ll be needing you for the staff meeting with General Juniper.”

The redhead wiggled in my arms and reluctantly I allowed her to slid off the horse. Zombie the Second took all of this rather placidly, staring at a food stall on the other side of the street with greedy eyes. Kilian coughed, got her pixie-cut hair in order again and composed herself.

“I was actually sent by Juniper,” the Senior Mage said. “The general staff was assembled for a meal, so she’s extending an invitation. The most pressing reports could be handled at the same time.”

I grimaced. Well, no sense in delaying it. I could go for a bite anyway, there were only so many times you could eat standard Legion rations before wanting to jump off a bridge. Oh, and I’d get a real bed tonight. Gods that would be nice. I snuck a look at Kilian, drinking her in even if legion gear was the opposite of enticing. With a little luck I might even have company in that bed, and I was looking forward to that a great deal more than sleep. After I’d learned that our scrying sessions were very likely being listened in on I’d curtailed, uh, certain activities we’d sometimes indulged in when time allowed.

“You’re staring, Cat,” Hakram said.

“Am not,” I lied.

I slid off my saddle and handed Zombie to one of the Gallowborne. Kilian smiled and began moving, Adjutant and I following.

“Killjoy,” I hissed at him under my breath before we caught up.

He grinned back unrepentantly. One of these days, I promised myself, I was going to get a minion that didn’t give me lip.

“No wonder you’re so small,” Nauk said. “Look at the size of those portions.”

I pointed my fork at him over my bowl of oxtail stew and sambusa.

“I will end you, you ugly green gargoyle,” I promised. “Don’t think I won’t just because you’re a legate now.”

Hune rumbled in approval.

“His commander would handle the paperwork more quickly, if she had his rank,” the ogre said.

There were no seats capable of accommodating someone the other legate’s size, so in the end someone had taken off the back of a stone bench and dragged it inside. Unlike the rest of us, who were taking our portions from the communal bowls, Hune had been brought her own. Considering her side dish of koshari was larger than my torso I could see why.

“I’m not doing the forms for it, if you murder him,” Aisha said, daintily picking at her plate from her seat at Juniper’s left.

“They’ll be handled promptly, don’t you worry,” I said, and Hakram cursed under his breath.

He should, since they would most definitely end up on his desk instead of mine. The Hellhound speared another slab of uncooked red meat with cumin from the bowl only orcs were using and dropped it on her plate.

“Don’t start murdering officers, Foundling,” the general said. “I’m told it’s habit-forming.”

That was almost a joke, and I still wondered at how the orc was willing to unbend even that much in private. Never when anyone but the general staff was there, but it was still like night and day compared to when the Fifteenth had first been formed. Going through the Liesse Rebellion together, all the desperate battles of the campaign, had warmed her considerably towards me and the officers who could once have been considered my “faction” in the Fifteenth. Those old lines were long gone, now. Like Captain had once told me, showing proficiency at violence was the quickest way to earn an orc’s respect. Ratface and Kilian were chatting with Pickler further down the table but I refrained from sending a longing look in that direction. There would be time enough for that after we were done eating. I dipped the sambusa in the stew and bit off a piece of the meat-stuffed pastry. Still warm, I hummed in appreciation. Someone had gotten their hands on a decent cook from the Wasteland.

“So,” I finally said. “Looks like I missed a battle.”

The amiability – or what passed for that with Juniper – slid off my general’s face the moment the subject was broached.

“A single skirmish, so far,” the Hellhound said. “Fae crossed over from Arcadia in small numbers.”

Further down the table, Ratface smothered a grin. The bastard, in all senses of the word. He’d be filling his pockets deep with that one.

“Do we know why?” Hakram asked.

The conversation in the back had petered out when I’d begun the formal part of our meal, and Kilian was the one to field the question.

“They’re claiming the land for Arcadia,” she said. “Exactly how far their definition of ‘the land’ extends isn’t clear at the moment.”

I fished out a piece of ox and popped it into my mouth, chewing thoughtfully and wiping my hands on the cloth afterwards.

“That’s a problem,” I said. “I’m already using that land.”

“We think they’re Winter Court,” Nauk said. “They used ice, anyway, and they were arrogant little shits.”

“They’re all arrogant little shits,” Juniper grunted. “Wouldn’t be fairies otherwise.”

Sometimes it was reassuring to see that the vast majority of my officers were even more terrible at diplomacy than I was. Made me look better than comparison, at least.

“No negotiations were attempted so far,” Aisha said, the exception to that last thought. “That does not mean, however, they are impossible.”

“They did not seem inclined to negotiate, Aisha,” Kilian said mildly. “Otherwise we would have tried.”

I raised an eyebrow. She must have been on the scene herself, then. I would have been worried, but the redhead knew how to take care of herself. She might lack in power compared to some other mages, but she made up for it in swiftness and control.

“I believe the terms used by Legate Nauk after the introduction were ‘fuck off’,” the Taghreb said, tone sardonic.

I shot the orc in question a look. He grinned, then shrugged. Well, Nauk had always been more of a blunt tool than precise instrument. There was a place for that. Sometimes it wasn’t about how fancy the trick was, it was about how hard you could clobber the other guy. And as far as clubs went, my legate was among the finest.

“Dealing with fae is like dealing with devils,” Ratface said. “They always screw you on the technicalities.”

“I’m not taking the option off the table,” I broke in. “But at the moment, that’s not the situation we’re looking at. If they’re invading our priority is clear.”

“Defences,” Juniper growled with approval. “Our mages have set up wards, but the reports are the border between Creation and Arcadia is thinning regardless.”

I glanced at Kilian, who grimaced.

“That is beyond my knowledge,” she admitted. “Apprentice might know more.”

“I notice he’s not here,” I said. “What’s he been doing all this time?”

“He cleared out the strongest of the fae to cross and threatened them not to attempt it again,” Hune said. “He did not leave his tower before, and has not since. It borders on dereliction of duty.”

The ogre’s tone was thick with distaste. Masego, I sighed internally. How are you worse at making friends than I am? Not, I would admit, that Hune was the cuddliest of my merry bunch. She didn’t speak much and was easily irritated. I’d had her under my command for about a year and still knew next to nothing about her. Hakram, usually a fount of useful gossip, had nothing to tell me about her either. Quiet, competent, never socialized much even at the College. Nothing I hadn’t observed with my own eyes.

“Lord Apprentice is not officially part of the Fifteenth Legion,” Juniper said, in the tone of someone who’d had to make that point before on several occasions. “He has no obligation to us.”

“I’ll talk to him,” I said. “Assuming he can’t contribute, what do we have on our side of the field if the fae come back?”

Pickler rocked in her chair, which I noted with amusement was stacked with cushions so she’d sit about the same height as the rest of us.

“My sappers have built two rings of fortifications around the plaza, using the existing houses as props. We’ve installed cast iron foundations on everything, which Senior Mage Kilian informs me should afford them some protection against fae magic,” she said. “To target the fae themselves, I’ve had scorpions of my own design installed and nailed to the rooftops. One of the invaders used strong winds during the incursion, which would limit their effectiveness, so I’ve also had catapults loaded with sharper-filled iron balls placed behind the second ring.”

Pickler seemed as if she wanted to say more, but one look at Juniper and she rethought the notion. I checked with a glance and, predictably, Nauk looked like she’d just slipped him some tongue. Ugh. I should not have inflicted that image on myself.

“We need to consider the possibility those fortifications might be made permanent,” Juniper said, thankfully claiming my attention.

“We’ll need to redirect civilian traffic through different streets if that’s the case,” Ratface said. “The plaza sits in the middle of the main artery in and out of Marchford.”

I sighed.

“Start looking into it,” I ordered. “Wishful thinking isn’t going to make this go away.”

The Taghreb bastard raised an eyebrow.

“Well,” he said, “if you believe some of the stories…”

I looked at Aisha.

“Him you’ll do the forms for, right?”

“They’re already filled just in case,” the Staff Tribune replied without missing a beat.

“Defence is all well and good,” Nauk grunted. “But you don’t win wars from behind walls.”

“Can’t send scouts into Arcadia, Legate,” the Hellhound said. “Not with the way it warps time. The logistics would see them dead or the information gathered useless.”

“So don’t send scouts,” the large orc said, baring his teeth. “Send an army. We happen to have one of those lying around.”

“We don’t know enough to commit to that at the moment,” I said. “For all we know, this could be a minor incident that will never escalate.”

There was a moment of silence at the table. Hakram was the first to snicker, which broke the dam. Laughter splattered over the room, ebbing after a few moments.

“I’ll talk to Apprentice, see what he knows,” I said, still smiling. “Anything else that’s urgent?”

“No Legion business,” Juniper said, and that was that.

We dug into the meal properly and I allowed the renewed sounds of chatter to wash over me. It was, I thought, good to be home.

Heroic Interlude: Arraignment

“Sixty-seven: putting an arrow in a villain during their monologue is a perfectly acceptable method of victory. Heroes believing otherwise do not get to retire.”
– Two Hundred Heroic Axioms, unknown author

Delos was organized in tiers. It reminded Hanno of the city he’d been born in, Arwad. Smaller than Smyrna, the capital of the Thalassocracy, it had been even more strictly regimented than the larger city. There were differences, though, that grew more apparent the longer he spent here. In Arwad people lived and died in the citizenship tier they’d been born to, while in Delos positions in the Secretariat and the attending privileges were… fluid. The city itself was arranged to reflect this: behind the walls, districts were built on clockwise platforms that spiralled higher and thinner until they reached the House of Ink and Parchment. The district where one lived was determined by committees of Secretariat, the arrangements subject to monthly review according to performance and seniority. A botched report could see you lowered by a district, reaching fifty years in the civil service could earn you a manse in the shade of the city’s centre of power.

The way the city had been built had made it easy to defend in the siege. The Tyrant’s forces had broken through the gates once and found the lowest district turned into a killing field, the stairways up to the second district collapsed or barred as the walls of the houses above effectively became a set of inner walls. The Helikean madman had nearly won anyway. It was not his professional army he’d sent as the first wave: only mercenaries and forced conscripts from the people of Atalante. The sheer disregard the Tyrant had spent their lives with had almost managed to buckle the defences, until Hanno had intervened with his associates. Revealing there were heroes in the city had been tipping his hand early, but it was better than allowing Delos to fall. Blooding his team had been necessary, anyway. The sisters had never seen full scale battle before and the Valiant Champion had only ever worked alone. What the Bard did or did not know was buried under a sea of bad liquor, but to his understanding her Role was not meant for fighting.

As for him? To be the White Knight was to be an instrument of war in the hands of the Heavens. His years in the Chamber of Borrowed Lives had shown him the Role behind his Name, even as his skills grew, and made his hazy understanding of this into an irrefutable fact. Hanno was the veteran of a hundred battles, each more desperate than the last, but he’d not spilled blood himself before that day. Or perhaps he had. The sorceries of the Gigantes were beyond the comprehension of men, even those touched by the Gods Above. The Tyrant’s response to the repulsing of his first attack had been… unexpected, though not entirely unforeseen. The walls of Delos were sixty feet high and almost half as deep, the most impressive curtain walls in the Free Cities by a fair margin, which made the city brutally costly to assault. The villain, instead of preparing to starve out the defenders, had instead built a set of large stone towers and filled them with siege engines.

The Secretariat had been sceptical these could be a threat and denied him the permit to launch a sortie to disrupt the construction. The Bard had run around their table and tipped over their inkwells in protest, which had gotten all of them thrown out as well as fined for “disruption of order”, “miscreantism” and “wanton waste of Secretariat resources”. Hedge and Ash had been quite displeased with her afterwards, but the White Knight did not judge. The Tyrant, once the towers were built, had linked them with rope bridges and brought forward the prisoners. Six hundred and sixty-six per tower, men and women and children from Atalante. And just like that, as Hanno watched from the walls, the Tyrant had them butchered like animals. Sacrificed so that the ground around the towers would rise into the air, floating until it was above the height of Delos’ walls. They’d been bombarding the city ever since, night and day. The Hedge Wizard, tanned face paling in horror, had tried to compose herself by noting Praesi mages would have done better. They’d only have needed half as many sacrifices per tower.

They’d lost the first district again a fortnight later after Helikean infantry forced the gate under the cover of siege engines, and if the Champion had not fought her way through the host until she could hold the gates by herself for a bell the city might well have fallen. Hanno had led the counterattack of the beleaguered defenders from the ranks, the Ashen Priestess covering the host with her power so that any wound not mortal would heal within moments. It still might not have been enough, had her sister Hedge not hypnotized the Helikean officers into giving a hundred contradicting orders to their men. The Tyrant’s soldiers had been driven out, then the iron gate melted and fused with the stone so it could no longer open. It would not be enough. Hence why Hanno was here on the walls, waiting for a permit.

“You could at least look like you’re brooding,” the Wandering Bard complained. “At best you’re contemplative.”

Aoede’s feet were dangling off the walls, her ever-present flask in hand. He could smell the hard liquor from where he stood, the breeze carrying it like some toxic fume. The Wandering Bard looked like a hundred other girls from Nicae, full-figured and with dark curls going down to her back, but the stained leathers and the lute slung over her back set her apart. So did the way her liver had yet to kill her. Every Named learned the trick to burn poison out of their bodies early in their career and it could be used to sober yourself up, but as far as he could tell she didn’t use it. Interesting, though not as much as the way she sometimes moved between places faster than should be possible. Aoede often acted the fool, but she knew too much to be harmless. Of all the heroes in his band, she was the one he was wariest of. The others had their motivations worn on their sleeves, but the Bard? Behind the haze of drunkenness there was an intent he had yet to figure out.

“Brooding is pointless,” Hanno said in tradertalk. “If something distresses you, act upon it. Otherwise you surrender all right to complain.”

“So speaks the Choir of Judgement,” she said. “Though you’re fairly moderate for one of theirs. Most would have executed the upper Secretariat and taken command of the siege after out little tower episode.”

He eyed her silently for a moment.

“I do not judge,” he finally said. “That is not my Role.”

“You’re going to be a fun one, I think,” Aoede grinned.

Hanno wasn’t quite sure how to take that, so he let the matter go.

“Do you have a reason for seeking me out?” he asked.

“Secretariat just validated your permit,” the Bard said. “Tonight’s the night.”

The White Knight looked upwards, at the floating towers and the people manning them.

“Good.”

The earth under the towers gave a dim red glow in the dark, though it was not enough that torches and magelights were not used all over the floating platforms. The moon was near-gone tonight and behind clouds to boot, so the dark silhouette of the massive eagle was not greeted with shouts of alarm. Hedge was as graceless in this form as when she was human, but she managed a landing at the feet of the easternmost tower without crashing into the wall. The other three heroes riding her back, tied to it with ropes, slid down quietly. The Bard was gone again, no one knew where. Hanno adjusted the longsword at his belt when the moment he touched solid ground and put on his barbute. The solid steel helmet with the T-shaped opening lacked the protection of a visor, which most warriors preferred when wearing plate as he was, but the White Knight preferred the better visibility. The Champion and the Priestess came to his side a moment later.

Though they were both women, the two were a study in differences. The Ashen Priestess was tall and slender where the Champion was short and bulky, the first aggressively serene where the second always wore a sunny smile. The only commonalities were the tanned skin common to Levant and the Free Cities as well as his own native Ashur and the dark hair – though Priestess wore hers short while Champion kept hers in a thick braid that reached halfway down her back. As befitting of a martial Named the Champion was decked in plate even thicker than his own, her helmet forged to look like a snarling badger. Ash, as her more gregarious sister insisted she should be called, wore a mere coat of silvery mail covering a padded tunic. He could feel the power wafting from it, though it was not sorcery. Names like the Priestess’ relied on the magic of priests instead of mages, that gift of the Heavens that wove miracles beyond understanding.

The shape of the massive eagle shuddered, then collapsed into a kneeling woman. The blood relation between the Hedge Wizard and the Priestess could be seen with even cursory examination, the two sisters sharing much of the cast of their face as well as their build. The eyes were where they differed the most. Ash’s hickory-like eyes were common in the Free Cities but Hedge’s eclectic arcane bag of tricks had come at a cost: one of her eyes was blue, the other a vivid shade of yellow. The mage’s colourful patchwork robes were covered with barely-visible arcane symbols and more pockets than she could possibly be needing. Hedge stayed kneeling for a moment, the coughed out a few feathers.

“Gods,” she gasped. “I’m going to be craving rabbit for weeks.”

Champion helped her up to her feet, then clapped her back. Hanno saw the mage repress a wince.

“Eagle trick, very great,” the Levantine heroine said, her tradertalk heavily accented. “Witch can have many rabbits after victory.”

“Wizard,” Hedge corrected absent-mindedly. “It’s a genderless noun.”

The Champion ignored that as cheerfully as she usually did.

“We shouldn’t linger,” Priestess said. “We’ll be seen.”

Hanno cleared his throat quietly to draw their attention.

“Swiftness will be of the essence,” he said. “If they cut the bridges between the towers, this will get much more difficult.”

“Kill invaders quick,” the Champion agreed. “Then go back for parade.”

“You can fill out the paperwork for that, if you want one,” Hedge muttered under her breath.

The White Knight grimaced at the thought. It would take at least a fortnight to get the form to request the request form.

“You know the plan,” he said. “Let’s end this for good.”

They moved seamlessly, what they lacked in experience made up by the instincts of their Names. The door at the bottom of the tower was barred but the greataxe the Champion used – almost as tall as she was, and used single-handedly with her large shield on the other hand – smashed it down with a single swing. The hall behind it was swarming with Helikean infantry but Hanno did not waste time engaging them. The Priestess and the Champion would take care of it. Calmly unsheathing his longsword, the White Knight headed for the stairs. A cluster of soldiers tried to get into his way, shields raised, but a trickle of power to his legs had him smashing into the mass of them like a trebuchet stone. They scattered under the impact and Hedge hurried behind him, dropping a ball of multi-coloured light in their midst that exploded into bindings. His first kill of the night came when a spearman atop the stairs thrust the tip towards his head. The flat of his blade slapped away the shaft, then a twist of the wrist buried the point into the man’s throat. Without stopping he flicked out the sword, the Wizard pushing the body below when it fell on her.

Hedge’s assessment had been that the ritual room would be close to the middle of the tower and she was proved correct: a heavily barred iron door with glowing runes on it was the only thing on the second level. Letting the Wizard finagle her way through the wards would have taken too long and he could already hear soldiers rushing downstairs, so Hanno drew on his Name. The Light flooded his veins, harsh like a desert wind hollowing out his insides, and it wreathed his hand in a gauntlet. He punched through the iron like it was parchment, ripping out the bar holding the door in place on the other side.

“That’s one way to do it,” Hedge said.

She hurried inside anyway. The room was covered with ritual symbols, painted in what he was fairly sure was blood. In the centre, surrounded by a pentagram whose every corner bore line joining the broader web of runes, was a single perfect disc of obsidian.

“Stoneglass,” the Wizard grimaced. “Of course they’d use the most unstable kind of anchor available.”

“Is this a problem?” Hanno asked.

“There’s a not insignificant chance the ritual will blow up instead of converting,” she said.

The White Knight frowned.

“How not insignificant?”

“Eh,” Hedge said. “It’ll work out. Probably.”

He did not think that had been meant to be reassuring, which was good because he was not reassured in the slightest. Before he could reply, the mage muttered something under her breath and strode into the symbols. Immediately a dozen orbs of red light appeared in the air, but the Wizard snapped her fingers and a bluebird slipped out of her sleeve, wings flapping as it chirped merrily. A dozen rays of fire instantly incinerated it, but by the time its ashes fell to the ground Hedge was barely a foot away from the disk. A spherical barrier of transparent force formed around it but the Wizard whispered an incantation and it started flickering until it disappeared entirely. She deftly placed a polished pebble on the disk and backed away hastily.

“We don’t have long,” she said, absent-mindedly producing a little mirror to catch a ray of fire and turn it back against the orb that had shot it out. “Are the others done?”

Hanno cast an eye down the stairs. There was a plume of ash as Priestess dispersed a man out of existence with a word, and not a single person or object in the vicinity of the Champion remained unbroken. She, at least, seemed to be having a good time.

“More or less,” he replied.

He whistled sharply, drawing their attention. The Champion waved, Priestess sighed and immediately began making her way up. Hanno’s attention turned to the stairs leading above and he frowned. He’d heard soldiers earlier and prepared himself to cover Hedge’s back, but none had arrived. That was not a good sign. The White Knight put a spring to his step and emerged on the third floor, which was abandoned. There was a pair of unmanned ballistae and racks full of projectiles as well as a set of stairs leading to the roof, but no enemies. The threshold to the side led to the rope bridge linking this tower to the next one and he immediately moved towards it. The arrow whistled an inch to the left of his head, the soldiers on the other side of the bridge already in formation. That was no issue, but the way two of them seemed prepared to cut out the bridge was. Instead of pouring more reinforcements into the fight below, the Helikeans had retreated in good order and positioned themselves to cut off their losses if necessary. How unpleasantly competent of them.

Barely a heartbeat had passed since the arrow clattered against stone and Hanno’s mind quickened. He would not make it across the bridge in time, which would endanger the entire operation. He would not make it across the bridge in time on foot. The White Knight was moving forward before he even thought of it, Name pulsing inside of him. The winds howled through his veins, carving their marks.

Ride,” he whispered.

Light roiled violently by his side, taking shape and flesh until a horse stood – without breaking stride Hanno hoisted himself on it, extending his hand so that the lance of light would form inside it. The horse moved swifter than any mortal mount could have, across the rope bridge within three breaths. The lance pieced through the first soldier’s torso, flesh wafting smoke, and a sword stroke sent the other one’s head tumbling to the ground. He’d moved quickly enough the Helikeans were too surprised to immediately attack. Hanno let go of the lance, allowing it to disperse, and the horse’s hooves caved in the head of the man at the centre of the enemy formation. A heartbeat later the mount was gone and he dropped to his feet, landing gracefully even in plate.

“Fucking Hells,” one of the archers in the back exhaled, knocking an arrow.

The longsword cut through both the bow and his throat in the same swing.

“Retreat,” an officer barked. “Collapse the next-“

He swallowed his tongue before he could finish, clawing at his throat as he choked. Hedge had caught up. There’d been twelve soldiers, before he’d crossed the bridge. Now there eight, seven when he caught a man’s blade and broke it before his hand snaked out to grab him by the neck. His grip strengthened, the cracking sound heralding another death. These were Helikeans, though. The descendants of the same soldiers who had waged war on the mightiest nation as a single city-state and forced the man to surrender or see Salia burn to the ground. They did not flinch or fail. One allowed his blade to run him through to keep it stuck as the two remaining archers took aim again – only for the first to twitch, then disperse into a cloud of ashes that had the other coughing. Priestess had arrived. By the time the Champion had crossed the bridge with her axe raised, there was no one left alive on that side of the tower. The other two heroines made their way more slowly.

“Kill everyone,” the Levantine complained. “Like hog.”

“What do pigs have to do with this?” Hedge blinked.

“She means we hogged the kills,” Ash said.

“Yes,” Champion agreed enthusiastically. “You all big hogs.”

“Would you stop calling me a-“ Hedge began, tone irritated, before Hanno cleared his throat.

“You can take point, Champion,” he told the short woman. “We need to get to the westernmost tower and fast.”

There were seven towers, in all. The Wizard’s overtaking of the ritual on this one would take care of roughly half, but for the destruction to be complete they would need to do the same on the other side. They were on the third story now, where all the rope bridges would lead, so at least there would be no need to move around. That did not simplify matters as much as Hanno would have thought, as he found out. By the time they cleared the third tower, the one they’d landed on had begun to move. There was a deafening sound as it rammed itself into the second tower, half-collapsing but continuing to push it into the third one. At the fourth they found the bridge out already cut when they arrived. Hedge would not be able to turn into the giant eagle again until dawn, and she lacked another form that would carry them all. Priestess managed to craft a thin line of solid light for them to walk across while getting peppered with arrows. The Champion took three in the chest but her Name was remarkably robust: it barely slowed her down. Less than an hour had passed when they arrived to the last tower, but it had still taken much longer than he would have liked.

Behind them three towers had impacted into one large ruin, but the central one was barely touched. Hedge would have to add some momentum to the conversion on this side if they wanted to break the central tower, which she informed him would increase those “not insignificant” chances of blowing up. The seventh tower was already deserted when they arrived, the rope bridge that used to lead to it having been cut from the sixth tower’s side. Magelight could be seen shining through the stairs that led below.

“This is a trap,” Priestess said.

“Not even a subtle one,” the Wizard added.

“We mighty,” Champion argued. “Trap feeble and dim, like Procer soldier.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Hanno said. “We need that tower moving.”

And so down they went. There was no iron door here, only a single hall that took up the entire inside of the tower. A banquet hall, as it happened. There was a long table set there, set with a feast that would have fed three dozen people – and it was still warm, by the looks of it. There were five seats set, and one was already filled. The Bard waved.

“You lot really took your time,” Aoede said. “I’ve been here like, forever.”

The only other person in the room laughed. Behind the table the same ritual array that Hanno had seen before was reproduced in painstaking detail, save for one difference: at the centre of symbols, the obsidian disk was set on a ridiculously gaudy throne flanked by leering gargoyles. One where a boy was lounging lazily. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen, but he looked frail for that age. His limbs were thin and his skin unhealthily pale, his body topped by wispy brown curls bearing a crown of gold with jewels set in them. The boy had a sceptre of ivory across his lap, with a roaring gold lion’s head. The Tyrant of Helike smiled at them, his ugly red eye twitching.

“So you’d be the White Knight, then,” the boy mused. “And sundry sidekicks. By all means, sit. I’ve had a meal prepared for you.”

“The wine is great,” the Bard said. “Fruity, with a hint of arsenic.”

“You’ve had enough of it to kill several villages,” the Tyrant commented. “I’m actually impressed.”

“Pheasant look good,” Champion said.

“Poisoned,” Hedge hissed at her in a low voice. “The word you’re looking for is poisoned.”

Hanno ignored them, calmly making his way down the stairs. The villain stirred on his throne, looking at him.

“Is this the part where you rail at my Evil ways?” he asked. “I’ve been looking forward to that.”

“I do not judge,” the White Knight said.

The silver coin appeared in his open palm, as it always did. As a child, Hanno had seen the laws of men fail. He’d believed in the citizenship tiers, before he’d seen what they did to his mother. And yet Ashur was on the side of Good, was it not? So many places across Calernia were, and yet injustice was rampant. The thought had tormented him, as a child. How could one tell which laws were just and which were not? Picking and choosing was… imperfect. One’s discernment could never be flawless. It was constrained by the events of one’s life, the limits of one’s intellect. Hanno could have, he supposed, destroyed the laws he’d seen destroy his mother. But what would he have replaced them with? His own beliefs, as fallible as those of the men and women who’d crafted the laws he railed against? That was not rectifying an evil. It was replacing it with a different shade of the same. But he’d found an answer, hadn’t he? He flipped the coin, watched it spin in the air. It landed on his palm. The crossed silver swords, not the laurels. The Seraphim had rendered their judgement.

“Kairos Theodosian, Tyrant of Helike,” the White Knight said, tone eerily calm. “The Choir of Judgement has looked upon the sum of your existence, and found you wanting.”

Heat flooded his veins, lighting up his senses. For once, everything felt right.

“The verdict is removal from Creation.”

The boy cackled madly.

“Now that’s the stuff, hero,” he said.

The Tyrant rose to his feet, twirling his sceptre.

“Bard, play something ominous,” he ordered.

Aoede raised a finger, drained the rest of her cup, then picked up her lute. Every other time she’d played in front of Hanno it had sounded like she was committing musical murder but this once, the song ran true. Deep and urgent and dark, like death circling. He almost shivered.

“Your soldiers are dead,” the Priestess said, standing by his side.

“You are alone,” the Wizard said, hands already tracing runes.

“Your skull make cup,” the Champion enthused. “Get me many lovers.”

The boy grinned, red eye burning.

“I am the Tyrant of Helike,” he said. “Dead or not, they are in my service.”

The villain’s sceptre pulsed gold and made a sound like a gong ringing. Hazy silhouettes formed in ranks in front of him. Soldiers, all of them. Ranks upon ranks filled the room and they unsheathed their swords, strung their bows. Lances were raised and horses whinnied.

“Shit,” Hedge cursed to herself. “We got monologued. Never let them finish the monologue, Hedge, that’s how they get you.”

The soldiers moved and the White Knight charged. There was a sheen of light to his sword, and not even spectres were beyond his ability to cut. He sidestepped a lance, cut through the apparition’s belly and carved through the head of the man-at-arms behind it. The heat built up inside of him, spilling out in motes of power as he killed his way through the host. The Hedge Wizard spat out a stream of smoke that enveloped the spectres in front of her as Priestess wove a circle of sunlight around her that burned the soldiers whenever they neared it. The Champion bashed a spectre’s face with her shield, apparently indifferent to the fact that they were intangible. She was not, as far as he could tell, even using her name. The Tyrant’s crown lit up and shot a beam of red light at him, because naturally the madman would turn his regalia into a magical weapon, and Hanno grit his teeth as his plate began melting. If it was not lethal, then it was just pain and obstruction. Those he could deal with.

Hedge threw a small ball of fur at the Tyrant that turned into an angry ferret, distracting enough by clawing at his face that the beams ceased. Now would be the time to call on another of his aspects, he knew. But even with the villain distracted, spectres kept appearing faster than they could be killed and the Champion was beginning to get buried. The moment she was, the sisters would be under assault and it was all downhill from there. There were on the Tyrant’s chosen ground, and Hanno had seen enough heroes die in the Chamber to know how this would end.

“Hedge,” he called out. “Crash the tower.”

“We’re still in the tower,” she reminded him.

“Yes,” he said patiently. “There’s no way we could survive that. Therefore we will.”

“Do it, Alkmene,” Priestess hissed. “We can’t keep this up.”

The Wizard cursed again and leapt forward, turning into a sparrow before she hit the ground. She began rising in the air but archers took aim and Hanno hurried towards her – too late, he’d be too late. One after another, the arrows clattered uselessly against the Champion’s great shield as she charged through a spectre to get there in time. Casually, she decapitated an apparition and kicked the intangible body into another. The sparrow flew through the melee, weaving around swings and arrows to land in a crash on the obsidian disk. The Tyrant threw a now-dead ferret at her, but taking the stoneglass off the throne had been enough. The tower, after a heartbeat, began to fall. The villain frowned thoughtfully.

“I had something for this,” he said. “This tower will be your grave? No, Anaxares said that was second-rate. This isn’t over yet?”

The gargoyles flanking the throne animated and began flapping their stone wings, grabbing the Tyrant by the shoulders. The dragged him upwards, heading for the stairs. The boy suddenly inhaled.

“Oh! I’ll get you next time, heroes!” he said shaking his fist in their direction.

By the time the villain was out the hall, which was still falling, the spectres had dissipated into a thick mist lingering on the ground. Hanno waited until the Wizard had turned back into her proper form.

“I don’t suppose putting the disk back will end the freefall?” he asked.

“With the momentum we have going?” she grimaced. “It’ll blow up in our faces instantly.”

The White Knight sighed. So much for the easy way.

“Everyone, gather close,” he said, reaching for his Name.

They did. Hanno closed his eyes and gathered his power, waited for the beginning of the impact that would signal they’d touched the ground.

“Wait, how are you not wounded?” Hedge said. “I saw you take hits.”

“Witch not so smart,” Champion said. “Ghosts no real, can’t hurt.”

Ignorance is not a magical power,” the Wizard yelled.

The White Knight felt the shudder under his feet, and instantly released all he’d gathered. The world went white.

Crowned

“That slip of a girl from Rhenia is playing ruler, coming south with her pretty little army. I’ll have driven her out of Brus by winter, then we can turn our attentions to real threats like the Princess of Aisne.”
– Extract from the correspondence of Prince Dagobert of Lange, dated four months before the fall of Lange

 

Routine was something Cordelia embraced.

There were only so many hours in a day, to her regret, which made it important to regiment them so she could get the most out of what she had. Rising with dawn, she broke her fast with her closest advisors and took measure of any difficulties they might have encountered. Afterwards she walked the length of the fortress-city’s ramparts, allowing the brisk morning air to finish waking her as she paused to talk with soldiers. It was important, particularly in Lycaonese lands, to have the love of the army. The principality of Rhenia as she’d inherited it was more an army with a land than a land with an army, every institution in it shaped so that they could support country-wide mobilization at any moment. It had been decades since the Chain of Hunger had crossed the Three Rivers in numbers larger than a few hundreds, but her people had long memories: there’d been a time where every spring had thousands of hungry ratlings throwing themselves at the walls. Those days would come again, she knew as every Hasenbach before her had known deep in their bones. And when they did, her principality would be prepared.

For all that, in the two years since she’d become the Prince of Rhenia she had attempted to broaden the horizons of her people. While Lycaonese soldiers fought and died to keep the rest of Procer pristine, southern princes feasted and grew rich while sneering at the coarseness of the very soldiery saving them from the perils of the north. Their lands were fertile, compared to the rocky northern fields, and the numbers of southerners had been swelling for generations. Until recently, anyway. Since the First Prince had died, the rest of the Principate had taken to devouring itself with ugly zeal. The reforms Cordelia had dreamed of as a child, of tying the Lycaonese principalities together through common trade laws and the absence of borders, had been burnt up by the fires of civil war. None of the northern rulers were interested in implementing economic or diplomatic reforms when there might be an Alamans army at their doorstep demanding submission any day. Clearly, any progress to be made would have to wait until a First Prince of Princess was elected.

Or so Cordelia had thought when she was still a child of ten, her mother serving as her regent after a ratling raid took her father’s life. Margaret Hasenbach, once Margaret Papenheim, had never been entirely comfortable ruling the principality. She’d been a field commander for her brother in Hannoven until her marriage and had always balked at having to rule Rhenia when others did the fighting for her. Cordelia had begun taking on responsibilities as seneschal of the keep by age twelve, and by age thirteen effectively ran the fortress and its dependencies while Margaret Ironhand rooted out the ratling nests infesting the mountains. She’d died when Cordelia was fourteen, not by the blades of her enemies but by the affliction known as the bloodless heart. Priests could not heal what had been born weak: they could soothe the pains of the children of the Heavens, but not reverse what the Gods Above had wrought. Cordelia’s uncle, the Prince of Hannoven, had served as her regent for the last year before she came of age but he’d never presumed to contradict her in anything.

Uncle Klaus, a childless widower who’d flatly refused to remarry after the death of his deeply -loved wife, had always treated her more as a daughter than a niece. He’d gone as far as naming her his heir presumptive above any of the branch Papenheims, a decision that had caused some unrest when made official. Even now he was in Rhenia as often as Hannoven, the most trusted of all her councillors. She’d not been shy in leveraging her uncle’s fame as a military commander when forging the four Lyaonese principalities into a single united front, one that would give pause to any southern prince who would command the allegiance of any single Lycaonese ruler by force of arms. In some ways the reforms she’d sought as a youth had come to pass: in her correspondence she now spoke not only for Rhenia and Hannoven but also for Bremen and Neustria, an alliance the match of any of those setting the rest of the Principate aflame. And yet the Alamans and Arlesite rulers she wrote to insisted on treating her as an idiot child, to be deceived into supporting them by honeyed words and empty promises.

Cordelia Hasenbach was nineteen and well-bred, so she did not throw tantrums, but some of the letters she received made her wish she could choke the southerners the same way her mother had famously done to a ratling warlord. Correspondences, as it happened, was what occupied her time for half a bell after touring the fortress walls. On this particular morning she chose to read her missives in the squat hall overlooking the training yard, allowing the sound of drilling recruits to wash over her. A single cup of watered-down wine stood by the sheaths of parchment covering her table, sparsely indulged in. Uncle Klaus was ‘keeping her company’ as she worked, which meant he was resting his elbows on the balustrade, on his third skin of mead and regularly heckling the recruits below. Decorum was rarely a skill Lycaonese rulers prized, to her despair. Cordelia put down the letter she’d been reading and reached for the wine, allowing herself a fuller sip than usual.

A shame she despised the sensation of being drunk. After that letter, it felt almost warranted.

“Your father got that same look on his face, whenever people wanted him to arbitrate farming disputes,” Uncle Klaus said, laughter in his eyes.

The Prince of Rhenia put down her cup gingerly, touching her pristine lips with a cloth as etiquette dictated when a highborn lady drank spirits.

“Not an inapt metaphor, considering the pettiness of what was put to ink,” she admitted.

Klaus snorted, fingers coming up to put a semblance of order to his salt-and-pepper beard. It was getting shaggy, Cordelia noted. She’d have to arrange for a barber to attend him tonight, one that would not be cowed by her uncle’s ferocious scowling.

“You’re still talking to those idiots down south?” he said. “I don’t know where you got that patience of yours from, because it’s certainly not your mother.”

“One of those southern princes is likely to rule Procer in the years to come,” Cordelia said. “Cultivating a civil relationship before the ascension can only be to our benefit.”

The older man chuckled, dropping down on the seat across from her and bringing the skin of mead to his mouth to pull at it.

“And how is that civility going?” he asked.

Well-bred ladies did not scowl, Cordelia told herself. They were not, however, above having a man’s favourite fur coverlet disappeared and replaced with a fancy velour one. She’d even see to it it was embroidered in the Arlesite way, with fragments of courtly poetry and scenes of duels fought for praise and honour.

“Cleves and Hainaut pledge neutrality in all fights to come,” she said. “If they take any more losses they will no longer be able to effectively watch over the Tomb.”

“They never should have sent men south,” Uncle Klaus growled. “Just because the Dead King’s being quiet doesn’t mean he’s not watching. They have a duty, like we do.”

Cordelia rather thought he uncle was doing those particular princes injustice, but she did not comment. The principalities of Cleves and Hainaut formed, with Rhenia and Hannoven, what should be considered Procer’s most vital line of defence. If the Kingdom of the Dead began looking outwards again, they would be the ones charged with holding the line until southern armies could be mustered. The fair-haired Prince of Rhenia agreed with her uncle that above all those rulers should look to seeing their walls fully manned, but these were ultimately Alamans princes. They were more involved in the Ebb and the Flow than northerners, bound by the intricate webs of alliance that spanned the centre of the Principate. Neutrality from the onset would have been difficult for them to maintain, with their cousins and nephews taking up arms so close to their own borders.

“Those pledges are the only pleasant news this day has brought,” Cordelia said. “The rest is… unpromising.”

“Aequitan and their allies got whipped all the way out of Creusens,” Klaus frowned. “That should knock them out of the war. With his back secure, Lange will go after Aisne – the winner of that tussle will get the crown, by my reckoning.”

“Princess Aenor of Aequitan raised another army as of the last fortnight,” the fair-haired prince said. “Levies armed with dwarven weapons. They will resume their offensive as soon as they have gathered in sufficient numbers.”

The Prince of Hannoven scowled.

“That’s the third host she wrecked on the field,” he said. “Who’d be fool enough to lend her the coin for a fourth?”

“The Pravus Bank,” Cordelia replied quietly.

Fury flickered across the older man’s face until he mastered it.

“You told them it’s Praesi gold, Cordelia,” he hissed. “This flirts with godsdamned treason.”

It had taken her years, to ferret out that it was the Tower pouring gold into the defeated princes of Procer. Years and the help of her cousin, become the Augur by the grace of the Heavens. She’d related that truth to every ruler in Procer within the month after she’d acquired solid proof, to warn them from allowing the Dread Empress to continue fanning the flames of civil war. To no avail. The still took loans, still raised armies with them, and after near two decades of strife hatreds now ran so deep princes would rather be up to their neck in Praesi debt rather than allow their rivals to triumph. It was madness, the worst kind of madness. The first fluctuating alliances had eventually turned into a handful of steady blocs that bloodied each other on the field every summer without ever coming closer to the crown, ruining the very Principate they wanted to rule. Fields were going fallow, trade was effectively dead and rulers spent peasants like coin. The sheer disregard princes where showing to the men and women they were supposed to rule disgusted her deeply.

“They will not listen, Uncle Klaus,” she said tiredly. “They do not care anymore. Dagobert of Lange demands we raise our armies and support his claim, or suffer brutal taxes under his reign. Constance of Aisne offers to recognize me as overlord of all Lycaonese if I assault Dagobert’s back, as if this sort of splintering would not effectively dismantle the Principate.”

“So let them mutilate each other,” Klaus said. “They don’t deserve our help.”

Cordelia allowed herself to sigh. This kind of thinking, she knew, was common among Lycaonese. Let the southerners kill each other, what did the people of the mountains care for it? It would also be the death of the greatest nation Calernia had ever seen. A brutal but swift civil war would not have allowed for entire regions of the Principate to grow to despise each other. This drawn-out farce, however? As of this moment, Procer was effectively divided between four or five kingdoms that would rather see their cities burn than allow one of the others to rule over them. Another decade of this and it would be the end of the Principate. The fracture lines were already visible and growing deeper by the year.

“We have a duty, Uncle,” Cordelia said.

“To fucking Dagobert of Lange?” Klaus laughed. “I wouldn’t toss the bastard a copper if he was begging on the street. We owe that man nothing.”

“Think beyond our borders,” the blonde woman said. “Think of what it means, if Procer splinters.”

“It means we don’t send coin south ever again to men who’ve never seen the Grave,” the Prince of Hannoven said coldly. “It means green boys who’ve never fought a ratling don’t get to feast away spring while my people die for their sake.”

“Levant will gobble up at least Orense,” Cordelia assessed clinically. “Likely Segovia as well. Tenerife will become either one of the Free Cities or a dependency of Helike. The Dread Empire will take Bayeux and Orne before a decade has passed.”

“And why is that our business?” Klaus grunted.

“When the Dead King rouses his armies and crosses the lakes,” Cordelia said quietly, “who stands with us?”

She met her uncle’s eyes.

“When the Chain of Hunger gathers the might for an invasion, who bolsters our strength?” she said.

“We’ve held them back since before there was a Principate,” her uncle replied.

“We turned them a way as a nation that spreads from here to Valencis,” Cordelia said. “That is why Procer exists, Uncle. Because Triumphant slaughtered so many of us we had to band together as a nation or see ourselves devoured by our neighbours.”

“So now you want us to bleed for some princeling in silk,” Klaus said bitterly. “That’s always the way, isn’t it? The south makes a mess and we foot the bill.”

There was a truth in that, and for all that Cordelia had eschewed many of her people’s customs she was not beyond feeling that bitterness herself. Was she to entrust the fate of her people to a grasping idiot like the Prince of Lange? To the Princess of Aequitan, who would rather take Praesi gold than bow her head for the sake of the Principate?

“No,” she said. “Not this time.”

“Cordelia?” her uncle said.

Cordelia Hasenbach felt serenity take hold of her, for the first time in years. Her path was clear, finally. If no one else, then I.

“Send messengers,” she ordered. “To every tower, every hold, every fortress. We gather for war. Anyone we can afford to take from the defences comes with us.”

The greying man frowned.

“And who do we fight for?”

“The First Prince of Procer,” she said. “Cordelia Hasenbach, first of her name.”

Gods save them all, but she would salvage a nation out of this madness. No matter the cost.

Interlude: Gate

“Oh, I get it. The real treasure was the people I had executed along the way!”
– Dread Emperor Irritant I, the Oddly Successful

 

“Something’s coming through,” Kilian said.

Dawn was beginning to warm the stones of Marchford’s central plaza, but there would be no bustle of humans today. There hadn’t been for half a fortnight: the Hellhound had closed off this entire section of the city and garrisoned it heavily at Apprentice’s recommendation. Nauk brushed off a speck of ash from the stripes on his shoulder that now marked him a legate of the Fifteenth, irritated at the way the burnt wood got everywhere. The very redhead who’d just handed him the latest bit of bad news had ordered for braziers full of holly and apple tree to be set up in all four corners of the plaza and kept ever-burning.

“How big, this time?” the orc asked.

The Senior Mage muttered in the mage tongue and squinted at the runes that formed in the air.

“Still minor,” she said. “The frequency is increasing, though. They’re building up to something.”

Nauk spat to the side.

“Those are scouts, Kilian,” he said. “Like a clan would send before a killing raid. They’re looking for weaknesses.”

Spikes of iron had been hammered into the stone in irregular patterns on the first day to make it harder for the Fae to step into Creation, but the border had been getting thinner with every dawn anyway. Juniper had prudently ordered that containment wards be set up around this section of the city before moving in legionaries, deploying most of the Fifteenth’s mages to attend the defences. Nauk had been put in charge of manning the defences with his jesha of two thousand, the largest combat deployment of the legion since the Liesse Rebellion. While Kilian went around marking stones and muttering to herself with her posse of mages following, he’d looked for more pragmatic means of making sure anything that wandered into the plaza didn’t make it any further.

Pickler had set up half a dozen engines of her own design on the rooftops that offered the best lines of fire, sappers huddling around them in quiet clusters even now.  Fortifying the alleys was old hand for his legionaries, after the battles of Marchford and Liesse, but Nauk wouldn’t bet on stone doing much to hold back fairies. The scrawny little shits were basically magic poured into a body, as he understood it, and he’d seen the kind of damage a properly motivated mage could wreak. Grabbing his now-cold mug of tea from the table where he’d left it, the large orc rose to his feet and drained the bitter brew. Drinking leaf water still struck him as the most absurd of human habits, but unlike a good slab of meat the tea wouldn’t leave him indolent afterwards. One of the first lessons they taught young raiders, in the Waxing Moons: always hit the enemy after a meal, if you can. They get sloppy and slow.

There was no great flash of lightning or pretty lights, when the fairy entered Creation. A slight shimmer in the air, then a sparrow was flapping its wings at the centre of the iron spike maze. It narrowly avoided running into the iron-wrought invisible wall that had flattened the first of its kind to come through, skilfully weaving around it. Nauk left behind the informal command centre of his jesha, well behind fortifications and lines of legionaries, and strode to the edge of the plaza where he could get a better look. The fae-sparrow began threading through the maze, unaffected by any wind born of Creation as it flew.

“They’ve been watching from the other side the whole time,” Kilian said quietly.

Nauk had already deduced as much yesterday: the fae never made the same mistake twice. Kilian’s course track at the College had been the magic one, though, so he wasn’t surprised she hadn’t gotten her hand in the broth until now.

“No mischief in this,” the orc said. “They’re not behaving like tricksters. Something bigger and meaner is telling them what to do.”

“My wards wouldn’t even slow the Wild Hunt down,” the redheaded mage said. “So there’s that, at least.”

“Don’t know shit about fairies,” Nauk admitted.

Which wasn’t entirely true. He had an old family recipe for braising them with southern spices, but Kilian was quarter-fae and might be displeased by the revelation. Humans always got all offended when orcs mentioned eating other humans, like eating each other wasn’t the most natural state of Creation. You’d think they’d never eaten a rabbit, by the way their hackles got raised. You just had to accept that, to the Clans, everyone else might as well be rabbits.

“The Tower might have reliable records about them, but anything we have is useless,” the mage said, brushing back a strand of her short red hair. “Whichever is lord and lady of what might change thrice before one of our days is over. There’s supposedly four Courts of Arcadia – one for each season – but the delineation between them isn’t clear. They don’t all exist at the same time, either.”

“That sounds like a problem for General Juniper to figure out,” Nauk said cheerfully. “And the Boss, whenever she gets back.”

“She’s only a few days away now,” Kilian said absent-mindedly.

The orc eyed the human amusedly until she coughed to hide a blush and looked away. He had a feeling there’d been precious little military business discussed during that scrying session. It was an open secret in the upper echelons of the Fifteenth that Kilian and Cat were involved, though only among officers who’d been there since the founding of the legion. The fresh blood wasn’t trusted yet. Nauk didn’t have much against Callowans – they were steady in a shield wall and they died spitting in the enemy’s face, so there was spine to respect – but he wouldn’t be trusting any of those boys until he’d shared a proper battle with them. There was an unspoken line in the sand between the legionaries who’d fought in the Liesse campaign and those who hadn’t, one that had overtaken the weaker lines once drawn by race.

The sparrow made it out of the maze after a little while more, landing on the ground. The bid’s form shimmered and in its place came a kneeling man wearing silken robes all in shades of blue. Pale-skinned, like the locals, though fine-boned and taller. He was the first one to made it all the way through, and that did not bode well.

“Get that thing out of my backyard, Kilian,” Nauk ordered. “Before it can make a mess.”

The Senior Mage raised a hand, then made a fist. There was an eldritch crackle and the smell of ashes spread across the plaza as thin spikes of light gathered around the redhead’s hands. The fae’s silhouette twitched, but it did not disappear. Kilian gritted her teeth.

“O lords of iron, bar my gate through your embrace,” she barked. “Choke it that trespasses, smother in coils unmoving.”

The twitches identified until there was a sound like bone breaking and the fae dispersed into thin air. Kilian panted for a moment afterwards.

“They’ve got a foothold,” she said. “Prepare for combat.”

Finally,” Nauk grinned, rolling his shoulder with a loud crack.

The legate cast a look at the legionaries forming a steel-clad circle around the plaza, dug in behind wooden spikes and fields of caltrops.

“UP AND AT IT, YOU WHORESONS,” he called out. “THEY’VE COME KNOCKING.”

All around the formation swords were drawn, shields raised and crossbows armed. The veterans who’d defended this very city from devils now ready to give the boot to the latest idiots to believe they could get a slice of Catherine Foundling’s fiefdom. That was probably the best part about following Squire, Nauk thought. There was always someone trying to knock her off and they made the most hilarious faces when fed their own entrails.

“Outer boundaries are holding for now,” Kilian said quietly. “My mages are feeding the wards, though, so don’t expect magical support.”

“I brought my own support,” Nauk said, baring his teeth at the spindly scorpions Pickler had built.

Whatever arcane bullshit had been making it hard for the fairies to cross was gone now, the orc saw. Before there’d never been more than one coming across at a time – the only time two cats had manifested, they’d disappeared before even touching the ground – but now he could count at least three dozen shimmers in the air. The twinkly bastards must have been out of sparrows, because what came out was over thirty tall men and women in splendid court dress. Long-sleeved tunics of frost and woven shadows played off dresses of snow and bones, the fae wearing them even more striking than the otherworldly clothes. They were not humans, Nauk thought. Their faces were too long, their eyes too large and bright. Their teeth were the teeth of killers, not prey. Shades of skin went from dark as ebony to driven snow, not a single one of them resembling another. All were armed. Spears of bone and bronze, swords of translucent ice set with lapis-lazuli, even a few bows of dead wood whose string appeared to crafted from wind.

“The Fair Folk,” Kilian said, tone halfway between longing and fear.

“Twits should have worn armour,” Nauk grunted, unimpressed.

One of the ladies idly touched an iron spike with her foot. It shattered like glass. So much for that line of defence, the legate thought.

“Lovely children,” the same fae spoke, tone carrying everywhere without ever being loud. “Who speaks for you?”

Nauk pushed aside the legionaries in the front line and made his way through. Kilian followed, hands hidden behind her back. Some of the legionaries had almost dumbstruck look on their faces, the orc saw. Mostly humans. There’d been something lilting in the fairy’s voice, like a buzzing in his ears, but after years of dealing with the Red Rage it might as well have been tickling.

“Legate Nauk of the Fifteenth Legion,” the orc introduced himself.

He’d stopped sixty paces away, though he still felt exposed so far from the shield wall.

“Senior Mage Kilian, of the same,” the redhead added a moment later.

The fae’s gaze lingered on the mage, but turned to the orc soon enough. She smiled in a way that was probably meant to be enchanting. She might have succeeded, if she didn’t look like a skinny pale pack of twigs in a dress. Nauk like women a little greener, and with a talent for engineering.

“So strong,” the fae praised. “So wilful. This will be a day to remember.”

What was it with supernatural creatures and thinking creepy worked for them?

“You got a name?” the orc asked.

“I am the Lady of Snags and Bones,” she smiled. “The-“

“You’re trespassing,” Nauk interrupted flatly.

She looked a little miffed at that, the first time her mask of perfection was marred.

“This land belongs to the Lady of Marchford,” he continued. “You’re walking her street and breathing her air, without permission. Fuck off.”

It might have been for the best he’d never taken any of the diplomacy classes, Nauk mused.

“Ah, but we like it here,” one of the men said. “I think we’ll stay.”

There was a round of perfect laughter from the rest of the fae. The man strode forward and bowed theatrically.

“I am-“

“I don’t really care,” Nauk admitted bluntly.

“Nauk, let the man finish,” Kilian chided. “We’ll need more than one name for the report.”

“There will be no report,” the Lady of Snags and Bones smiled. “This place belongs to Arcadia now, and we do not bother with such bores in the Land Resplendant.”

“You must have many questions, Legate Nauk,” the man said in a conciliatory tone. “We will help you in this.”

“Only the one, really,” the orc said.

“Ask us, dearest one,” the woman encouraged.

“Iron,” Nauk of the Waxing Moons said, baring sharp fangs. “Does it spoil the taste?”

“Pardon?” the man said, blinking in surprise.

“For when you end up in the cookpot,” he explained.

Kilian finished casting the signal, the number five in Miezan numerals forming out of fire above them, and the scorpions began spitting out bolts of cold iron. The orc unsheathed his sword and began backing away as the first wave of bolts speared a handful of fairies, dragging out horrifying screams as their veins turned dark and pulsing all over their bodies. Now, typically speaking, would have been the dead moment between two scorpion volleys when the sappers reloaded the engines. These were not the classic design of the Legions of Terror, however, they were children of Senior Sapper Pickler of the High Ridge tribe. Bolts dropped down from wooden magazines, a lever was cocked and the scorpions fired again.

“LEGIONARIES, FORWARD!”

Commander Jwahir, one his Senior Tribune after – well, even now thinking of that too much was likely to make him lose control, so he forced his thoughts out of that path. Jwahir’s voice had been the one calling out, the Taghreb well-briefed on their defensive plans and her role in them. Even with the steady stream of scorpion fire coming from the rooftops, the fairies were not pinned down. Immediately they scattered in all directions, which unfortunately involved down the path of Nauk’s own retreat. The so-called Lady of Snags and Bones was one of two that did, as well as some dark-skinned fae with a long barbed spear.

“This could have been painless for all of you,” the Lady mourned, advancing with a sword that could have been either crystal or ice.

A crossbow bolt from the ranks sailed straight for her neck and she batted it aside without even looking.

“I feel like this might be the weak part of this plan,” Kilian said, hands quickly tracing runes in the air even as she retreated with him.

“Don’t be a killjoy,” Nauk said. “How often do we get to kill anything ourselves, these days?”

Us killing them is the weak part,” the mage replied.

The Lady leapt forward like a great cat but the orc was ready for her. His rectangular legionary’s shield caught the translucent blade and it bounced off the red-painted steel, though not before heavily denting the surface. Nauk had been a heavy before being an officer, so he wasn’t armed like a regular: his longsword swung before she could retreat. She ducked under the swing with a mocking laugh, scoring a blow on his greaves that frosted over immediately. Fucking fairies, now he’d have to requisition another set. Kilian would have been in more trouble than him, since she didn’t have a shield of her own, but when the other fae came for her she barked out a word in the arcane tongue and lightning flashed. The fairy parried the bolt of electricity with its spear without missing a beat and went to run through her throat only to hastily retreat when the lightning swung around and went for him again.

New trick, that. Her talks with Apprentice must be paying off. Feet steady, Nauk continued retreating with his shield up even as the Lady continued to assault him. She was too nimble for him to get a proper hit in, especially when wearing a full set of plate. Kilian kept her opponent away by weaving her streak of lightning, constantly murmuring under her breath even as she broke it into separate pieces and finally managed to sink part of it into her opponent’s shoulder. The fae twitched uncontrollably, skin burning until a volley of crossbow bolts from their left put him out of his misery.

“You cannot defeat the Court,” the Lady of Snags and Bones snarled, face turned ugly by hatred. “We will not die, will not relent, until we have our due.”

Her strike sheared off the upper third of Nauk’s shield but the legate smashed the rest into her stomach. She flinched, which bought him just long enough to toss the useless thing at her head. She batted that away easily enough and even managed to catch his downwards swing with her sword. Muscles flexing, Nauk tried to force his blade down. Useless, he realized. Even one-handed she was stronger than him and worse her pretty little sword was digging into goblin steel. A crack appeared, then the longsword shattered as she smirked triumphantly. She thought he was unarmed, now. Orcs are never unarmed. He lunged forward and his fangs sunk into her throat, his useless remains of a sword clattering against the ground. Nauk ripped out a chunk and pushed on the the ground, swallowing bloodless flesh as the Lady screamed. Ugh. Tasted like bad pork. A spear of flame erupted from Kilian’s hand and dispersed the Lady of Snags and Bones for good.

“A gorget would have covered the throat,” Nauk told the puddle of water. “That’s why we wear armour, you bloody glittering amateur.”

The closing wall of shields and the crossbows fired from behind them had managed to pick off the fae not run through by Pickler’s repeating scorpions. The Fifteenth Legion was, once again, master of the field. Nauk returned for lines as cheers spread, Kilian at his side.

“We’ll need to send Juniper a report,” he said. “First incursion was repulsed, but it won’t be the last.”

As if to prove him right, a sharp keen immediately erupted in the centre of the plaza. He glanced back, and the way there was only a single shimmer in the air was not as reassuring as it should have been.

“Kilian,” he growled urgently.

The mage was already looking at her warding runes, face pale.

“There’s nothing I can do to stop that,” she spoke in a low voice. “Nauk, whatever it is it’s huge. It has a bigger draw on the wards that the last band put together.”

The moment he was behind the shield wall he began barking orders. Whatever was crossing, they were hitting it with everything the moment it was corporeal. He’d been expecting some sort of giant winter monster, but what actually arrived was a single woman. Decked in an armour of twisted dead wood from head to toe, her long dark hair was the only part of her visible under the helmet – save for the eyes, an eerie unnatural blue. A sheathed longsword was at her hip and a spear made entirely of bronze was in her hand. The fae glanced at the storm of arrows and bolts headed for her, then tapped the bottom of her spear against the ground. Frozen out of the air, the projectiles fell in useless piles.

“We may have a problem,” Kilian said.

Mist rose from the bolts on the ground, obscuring the field of vision. Nauk’s officers were not prone to panic, though, and ranks tightened quietly. The mist thickened, then began swirling. Wicked-looking shards of ice began to form in the whirling mess and the legate grimaced at the idea of that spell hitting his lines. One of which, he noticed with a flare of anger, was splitting in two. A single man in robes passed through them, scowling heavily at the growing storm even as the ranks closed seamlessly behind him. Dark skin, spectacles, could stand to lose a few pounds. Apprentice had finally decided to intervene. The Named strode into the storm, tracing symbols, and a heartbeat later it erupted into a column of steam. The fae stood unruffled where it had been, pointing her spear at the Soninke.

“Do you have any idea,” Apprentice snapped, “how many experiments I’ve had to put on hold to come here?”

Nauk choked out a laugh. The warlock’s get was in a mood – this was going to hurt. A dozen blades of ice formed in the air in front of the spear and shot off in Apprentice’s direction, so swift they were but pale blurs. The mage extended a hand and they were yanked to the side, passing to his left before turning around his back and forming into a single large spiked sphere as they returned to the sender. Kilian let out a sharp breath. The orc glanced at her curiously.

“He rewrote the formula halfway through,” she said.

“That’s nice,” Nauk said.

“Nauk,” she said. “That’s like… solving an equation with blind variables, replacing those variables with the values you want to get an entirely different result and doing the whole thing in the span of three heartbeats.”

She sounded admiring, and more than a little envious.

“There can’t be more than six people alive today who can do that,” she said.

“Look, now he’s making a friend,” Nauk contributed helpfully.

The fae was hovering in the air now, desperately trying to reach for its sword even as Apprentice glared at it.

“Whoever sent you is still listening, right?” the Soninke said. “Allow me to make this perfectly clear: if you interrupt my research again, you will be the next test subject.”

Apprentice closed his fist and the fae wrenched into a ball with a sick crunch before falling to the ground. The Soninke was already walking away, complaining under his breath.

“I will abuse my rank to get out of writing the report for this,” Nauk informed Kilian, making a tactical retreat before the redhead could protest.

Chapter 2: Might

“We make the shepherds kings at the end of our stories because they already know how to lead recalcitrant, bleating creatures of limited intellect.”
– Prokopia Lekapene, first and only Hierarch of the Free Cities

 

Laure had not had an Imperial governor since the unlamented death of Mazus.

The former capital of the Kingdom had been put under martial law while the bastard was still swinging from a noose in the market place, but no replacement had been appointed afterwards – the Empress, as I understood it, had used the possibility of the appointment to effect a little spring cleaning at court. The final body count had been comparable to that of a small battle, with even the Truebloods discreetly clawing at each other through intermediaries as everyone tried to place a relative or dependent at the head of the richest city in Callow. It had come to nothing when the Liesse Rebellion had begun, as there had been no question of ending martial law in Laure while the south was in revolt. The issue of what to do with the city had ultimately become the subject of the very first meeting of the Ruling Council, and it had revealed how the lines would be drawn between its members.

There were, theoretically, seven members. Black was one, the designated head of the council and the only member with the right of veto – which he had given to me along with his vote. Baroness Anne Kendal was another, the first appointment I’dd made. Sister Abigail of the House of Light was the third, a septuagenarian who’d served as a travelling sister for thirty years before settling in an abbey near Ankou in her middle age. She’d been one of the most vocal members of the House to advocate against armed rebellion after the Conquest. She still had, Black had informed me, been put under surveillance by both he and Malicia by sheer virtue of having so many connections across Callow. The House of Light did not have a true hierarchy but some of its members were more influential than others, and Sister Abigail was in the highest tier even among those.

Hakram had also choked the life out of her great-nephew at Three Hills. He’d been the priest who’d prevented us from scrying the Silver Spears, having volunteered to serve with the mercenaries as a liaison for my predecessor in ruling Marchford. The way she seemed to genuinely hold no grudge over the events unsettled me, I had to admit. Priests who’d been under the vows for long enough were always… unearthly but Sister Abigail was in a league of her own. I’d never seen her be anything but the picture of health and Ratface had told me she’d healed a bleeding gut wound in the cathedral without breaking a sweat. There was power behind the doting grandmotherly smile.

The two Praesi with seats were like night and day. Murad Kalbid was sworn to the High Lady of Kahtan, a distant cousin who’d married into a lesser family, and was exactly what Callowans picture when they thought of the Taghreb. Desert-lean and with tanned skin like leather, the middle-aged man had a closely-cropped beard and moustache that made his dark eyes stand out. I’d never seen him without a sword at his hip and he could light candles with nothing but a word. Satang Motherless, as the Soninke was apparently named, was the survivor of a succession dispute in Aksum who’d come into the service of the High Lord of Okoro. She seemed to me a lesser take on Heiress, when it came to appearance, with cheekbones not quite as high and curves not quite as full. Her hair she kept in a series of braid the way Apprentice did, though without the magical trinkets. There was a red mark on her cheek that looked like three lines, and I couldn’t tell if it was a tattoo or some particularly vivid birthmark. Whatever it was there was sorcery in it.

The two foreigners had wasted no time in striking an informal alliance, working together to nudge the Council in directions their patrons would approve of. Early on they’d tried to suggest that properties seized from the nobles who’d fought in the rebellion should be put to auction under Murad’s supervision, supposedly to raise funds for the reconstruction, but I’d stamped the notion down hard with Sister Abigail’s support. Half the treasures would be gone before the first sell was ever made, packed in carts headed for the Wasteland. Aisha was convinced Satang was in communication with Heiress, but I was not so sure. Nothing concrete had been dug up by my people, though admittedly what passed for my spy network was barely out of the cradle. I’d still have to act as if she was, just in case. I knew for a fact Akua kept close eye on the proceedings here in Laure, to prepare for the blows before I could land them on her. So far I’d only tightened the screws by stripping the Liesse governorship of lands and by passing a decree that banned any Callowan official from summoning or dealing with devils, but I wasn’t done. Not until she crawled back to the Wasteland, or preferably straight into the Underworld.

The last and seventh seat was for Malicia’s personal representative, and had gone unfilled. The Empress had sent messengers to cast her vote on occasion, so far only for issues that related to the scope of the Ruling Council’s authority over Callow.

Tonight’s session would be light, in theory, with only my own accounting of the events in Southpool being a topic after we received the monthly report from the magistrates that now ruled Laure. Baroness Kendal had been tasked with overseeing them personally after the appointments were made, but the two Praesi had insisted on a regular report to the council. They weren’t entirely wrong. I doubted a woman like Anne Kendal would try to fill her pockets with bribes but General Orim still garrisoned the city and he’d been openly sceptical about a former rebel being given power over his legionaries. Being able to say there would be oversight by Wastelanders and myself had gone a long way in soothing those ruffled feathers. Compromises, I grimaced. I’d had to make quite a few of those lately, and I didn’t like it. I missed Black, to my dismay, and more than the man I missed his advice.

The room the Ruling Council used for its sessions had once been the private meeting room of the sovereigns of Callow. The Queen of Blades once sat in that same seat I called my own and so had Jehan the Wise. So had the likes of Mazus, later on, but that era was over now. It was tastefully decorated – marble floors with hexagonal tiles and old wood panelling under a beautifully painted ceiling – but I wasted no time on the sights before heading for my seat at the head of the table: the other members were already there. All six of them. So the Empress finally sent her representative, I thought, studying the woman in question. Soninke, dark eyes betraying a common birth and no callouses on her palms. Not a fighter then. Probably a court appointee. Neither of the other Praesi in the room seemed to know her and that clearly made them uncomfortable. As it should. Wastelanders were afraid of Black in the dark of night, I’d found, but they were always afraid of the Empress. She’d given them reason to.

“We’ve a newcomer, I see,” I said, taking off my riding gloves and setting them on the table.

The representative rose from her seat and gracefully bowed.

“An honour to make your acquaintance, Lady Squire,” she said. “I am Lady Naibu, representative for her Most Dreadful Majesty on the council.”

Lady Deputy, in Mtethwa. Ime’s sense of humour still made me wince from across an entire empire. I really shouldn’t have expected any better of a woman who thought calling herself patience would lend her mystique.

“We’re pleased to have you with us,” I half-lied.

Not that convincingly, if the way Sister Abigail discreetly coughed into her sleeve was any indication. Baroness Kendal smiled pleasantly, murmuring courtesies at the newcomer from her neighbouring chair as Naibu sat and I settled into my own seat.

“I didn’t see the magistrates waiting outside when coming in,” I said. “Was their report already given?”

“It was delayed until tomorrow, Lady Squire,” Setang said. “There’s been news of greater import from Dormer.”

I raised an eyebrow. Anne Kendal’s former barony had been one of the first governorships to be filled after the rebellion – she’d suggested one of the town’s eldermen for the first mandate, to smooth the transition when a more long-term appointee was found, and after having him looked into I’d seen no reason to refuse.

“There’s been a Fae incursion,” Sister Abigail said. “A handful of Summer court fairies snuck into the town after finagling an invitation, then forced the people to dance until a priest drove them off.”

I blinked slowly. The Fae? They never left the Waning Woods. Dormer was one of the Callowan holdings closest to the woods, certainly, but it was still a few days of riding away. The only known gate into Arcadia was near Refuge, and- I stopped cold. That was no longer true, was it? Masego had speculated as much months ago and he’d confirmed it since: when the demon of Corruption had lingered in Marchford, it had weakened the borders between Arcadia and Creation. Nothing had come through, so far, but… Shit. I need to talk with Apprentice.

“There were no dead, as I understand it,” Murad said, facing the sister.

“A handful of sprained limbs was the worst of it,” Baroness Kendal replied, drawing his attention.

“Then there should be no need to lower the taxes due,” Setang smiled.

The segue was too smooth for the two of them not to have planned it.

“The priority at the moment should be making sure the Fae don’t come back,” I said sharply. “There’s no legion garrisoning the region, if some of the fairies into the rougher stuff come knocking they’ll be vulnerable.”

“I am told the Fifteenth regularly holds field exercises,” Naibu spoke up, the first time since the conversation had begun. “Perhaps one might be arranged close to the town.”

I eyed her cautiously. I’d been thinking of saying as much, but hearing the words coming from an unknown had me rethinking it. My men would be close to Heiress’ wheelhouse, if they went there, and if she hadn’t cooked up some nasty tricks since we last met I’d eat my godsdamned gloves.

“I’ll speak with General Juniper,” I finally grunted. “It’s placeholder solution, regardless. The Fifteenth is based in Marchford so if this become an unstable border there’ll be a need for a more permanent presence.”

“Reaching out to the Lady of the Lake might yield answers as to why it happened,” Sister Abigail suggested. “She’s said to know Arcadia better than anyone alive.”

I knew the Empire was in diplomatic contact with Refuge, but I honestly had no idea how that contact was maintained. Scrying that close to a gate into Arcadia would basically be sending a written invitation to the Wild Hunt but surely they couldn’t be sending messengers on foot every time? Less than half of them would actually make it to Refuge: those entire woods were even more of a death trap than the Wasteland. I didn’t want to admit to ignorance in front of those people so I smiled knowingly instead, meeting Setang’s eyes until she looked away. When in doubt, pretend it was always part of the plan.

“Measures will be taken,” I said vaguely.

That should keep them guessing. No one else seemed to have anything else to add, so Baroness Kendal suggested we adjourn for the night – my own report on Southpool could wait until tomorrow, when we saw the magistrates. It was a little abrupt considering how little we’d talked but they’d grown to know a little of me in the last six months: whenever proceedings got too tedious or I had other business I tended to end the sessions early. Council members rose one after another, bowing before asking my leave. I gave it absent-mindedly, eyes on Naibu – who was still seated. Well now. That promised to be interesting. Sister Abigail was the last to leave and she closed the door behind her, leaving only silence. I was about to speak up when Malicia’s envoy suddenly twitched. Not just a little, too: her entire body convulsed before stilling suddenly. A heartbeat hadn’t even passed before I was on my feet, sword in hand.

“That won’t be necessary, Catherine,” she said, voice eerily calm.

The Soninke held herself differently now. Straighter in her seat, hands folded primly into her lap. There was command in her bearing.

“Your Most Dreadful Majesty,” I said.

The meat-puppet smiled approvingly.

“Deputy, is it?” I muttered. “Someone had fun with that.”

“This is a flesh simulacrum with a semblance of personality inserted,” Malicia shrugged gracefully. “One of Nefarious’ rare slivers of brilliance. It serves my purposes better than coming to Callow in person.”

I sheathed the sword slowly.

“Are you always in there, or…”

I gestured vaguely.

“Do not ask that question if you want to sleep well tonight,” the Empress smiled. “Suffice it to say, anything my deputy hears will eventually come to my ears. You may consider her opinions to be mine for all practical purposes.”

One of those days, I was going to come across something from the Tower that wasn’t the stuff of nightmares. But not today, evidently.

“I take it there’s things going on I don’t know about,” I said.

There was a safe bet if I’d ever made one.

“You are not incorrect. First, however, I bring news from the south,” Malicia said.

I perked up at that. Black had been in the Free Cities for a few months but word trickled up to Callow slowly. Whatever I heard was always late enough to be largely irrelevant.

“Last I heard he was in Penthes,” I said.

“There are currently twelve claimants to the title of Exarch in the city,” the Empress informed me amusedly. “A little excessive even for him, but they are effectively out of the war until the matter is resolved. At last contact he was headed for Nicae, but with the latest developments I believe he’ll turn to Delos.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“It hasn’t fallen?” I said. “I thought the Tyrant was marching on it.”

It had drawn quite a bit of attention when an unheard-of villain had come out of nowhere and grilled the third of an army on his way to Atalante. Said city-state had been sacked and conquered a few weeks afterwards, its armies dispersed in the field. Apparently half the mercenaries Atalante had bought turned to banditry after the defeat and had then been press-ganged into the Tyrant’s army one band at a time. The Named and his army had moved towards Delos afterwards, which was the last I’d heard.

“The initial assault was repulsed,” Malicia informed me. “The Tyrant is sieging the city with his… usual flair.”

The last part was spoken with distaste.

“The man basically tore through an army on his own,” I said slowly. “And he was slapped down by a place known for its scribes?”

“There are heroes in the city,” the Empress said.

Well, shit. That explained why Black was headed there, too.

“I don’t suppose we know the Names?” I asked.

“The White Knight is one,” she replied. “And a woman I believe you know, though she goes by a different face now: the Wandering Bard.”

I cursed. White Knight sounded ominous like all Hells, but the Bard was a pest I was more familiar with.

“Well, she was bound to turn up eventually,” I said. “That’s going to be a mess.”

“There are at least three others, but on those I’ve yet to acquire anything concrete,” the Empress added.

Five heroes. The usual number, when something was going to go horribly wrong for villains. Was there a specific term for that, I wondered? People used cluster for fish and herd for sheep, there had to be a term for heroes. A murder, I snorted. Or maybe a gaggle, like with cats. So Black was going to be stuck dealing with a full gaggle of heroes. That ought to make his year.

“Procer’s still staying out of it?” I said.

“Dearest Cordelia has been sending her disaffected soldiers to Nicae,” Malicia said. “More than ten thousand already and the number grows by the day. More importantly, she convinced Ashur to lift its restrictions on Nicean commerce – so they can actually afford to feed them. The fulcrum of the war will be the battle that host fights, the current conflicts are merely setting the stage.”

“Keeps her too busy to sniff around Callow, at least,” I muttered. “Small favours.”

The Empress took a hand off her lap and rested her chin on the palm, somehow managing elegance in a body not her own.

“Callow is what brings me here as it happens,” she said. “You’ve been rather busy of late, Catherine.”

That, I reflected, did not seem like the beginning of a pleasant conversation.

“Still learning the ropes,” I said. “There’s so much to do even three of me wouldn’t be on top of things.”

“Delegating to Baroness Kendal was the step in the right direction,” Malicia said. “Continue to find trustworthy individuals and invest them with authority.”

I cocked my head to the side.

“Not a lot of those around,” I admitted.

Most of the people I could rely on were in the Fifteenth, and I couldn’t keep piling civilian duties onto them. Their workload had already expanded massively with the way the legion had swelled.

“Then find leverage on people you do not trust and use them regardless,” the Empress said. “Murad has children in Kahtan and cares for them. A scare there would keep him in line. He has experience commanding a city guard and you need someone to head Laure’s.”

“I’m trying avoid importing leadership from Praes,” I said, trying to keep my tone not accusatory..

“The Empire decapitated Callow’s ruling class two generations in a row,” Malicia noted. “Train replacements, by all means, but you need people filling positions now. Through your actions you’ve begun to centralize authority in Callow without crafting an administration that can wield that power. The result of that can only be anarchy.”

I swallowed. I was, well, out of my depth here. The Empress sighed.

“You are young, younger than ever we were when we seized power,” she said. “I do not expect immediate flawlessness of you. What I can teach you, I will.”

She leaned back into her seat.

“Let us go over your actions in Southpool, as an exercise,” she said. “What do you believe the common perception is of what happened there?”

“A corrupt Praesi governess was removed,” I frowned.

“Forcefully,” Malicia said. “Strung up in front of the fortress gates for all to see.”

“The Empire isn’t exactly shy about making examples, as a rule,” I said.

“In exceptional cases,” the Empress said. “Governess Ife was not one. Removing her was necessary for your purposes, but the manner was incorrect. You should have had her assassinated discreetly and moved in your replacement.”

“If she just disappears then the point doesn’t get made,” I grunted.

That whole matter was still like an itch I couldn’t scratch, and going over it wasn’t exactly my idea of an agreeable evening. I listened anyway: the Empress hadn’t managed to command a pack of wolves like the High Lords for over forty years by looking pretty. If she had advice, it was worth hearing.

“It is made to the people it is meant for,” Malicia disagreed. “More than that, think on what the people of Southpool saw. Wasteland nobility, hung like a common Callowan criminal.”

“She acted like a common Callowan criminal,” I said, temper flaring as I struggled not to raise my voice.

“Every eye on Callow is on you, Catherine,” the Empress said. “You are the person setting their cues. If what you employ is violence, in violence they will follow. Against all available targets.”

I rubbed at the bridge of my nose, then grunted.

“Fair,” I said. “Riots against the legions aren’t what I was going for. Still, I don’t have assassins to use. My closest equivalent is…“

“Currently checking the progress of your opponent,” Malicia completed for me, when I let the sentence trail. “The natural tool for you would be the Guild of Assassins, but you’ve other ideas.”

I grimaced. Of course she knew. No part of that had been a question.

“In the future,” she said, “have your mages use a more advanced version of the scrying spell formula. Apprentice will know several. The one you currently use is exceedingly easy to listen into. Heiress certainly has been, among others.”

That she wasn’t being smug about it actually kind of made it worse.

“Their existence as an entity breaks Tower law,” I said defensively.

“There has never been nor will there ever be a nation without hired killers,” Malicia replied. “You might, at best, disband the organized aspect of it for a few decades. The trade will still be plied as long as someone has a knife and another has coin.”

“So I should just allow a pack of murderers to do as they want because people are assholes?” I retorted. “What’s the point of even having a law against it then?”

“The purpose of law is not to define right and wrong, it is to regulate behaviour,” the Empress said. “You are a ruler now, Catherine. Your only concern should be control.”

She shrugged languidly.

“If you deem it necessary to assert greater control over the Guild of Assassins, do so,” she said. “But attempting to destroy it entirely would set you on a collision course with all of the Dark Guilds. You cannot rule a realm if you are at war with every institution in it.”

“Are you ordering me not to disband them?” I asked through gritted teeth.

Anything short of that wasn’t going to make me back down. The simulacrum the Empress was possessing studied me for a moment.

“No,” she finally said. “If you fail, it will be a learning experience. If you succeed – well, I have been faced with the occasional surprise over the years. I will warn you, however, that you do not currently have the resources to face them.”

I grimaced. Marchford had been one of the richest cities in Callow, before the rebellion. Before a demon had set camp for a few days over the silver mines, filling the streets with disaffected miners and their families. There was a reason enrolling in the Fifteenth was so popular at the moment. With bridge that was the main trade route in and out of the hills only just freshly raised after the Silver Spears had torched it, trade had yet to pick up. And that wasn’t even counting on the gaping hungry maw that was rebuilding the devastated city. I was beginning to regret having told Robber to torch that manor, since I’d been supposed to actually live in it.

“Apprentice told me the mines will be purged of contamination within a few months,” I said. “It’ll be easier after that.”

“Upon you return to Marchford,” Malicia said, “you will be presented with an offer by the Matron of the High Ridge tribe. It could prove a solution to your woes, though you should think long before accepting it.”

I frowned. High Ridge? Pickler’s tribe, that, and the reigning Matron would be her mother. Ominous.

“Make haste back to your holdings, Catherine,” the Empress said. You’ll find greater trouble there than you know – your bastard has been surprisingly competent in suppressing rumours.”

The meat-puppet leaned forward, the Dread Empress of Praes looking through it.

“But above all, do not think for a moment that Heiress being silent means she has forgotten you. You might be a legacy, Catherine Foundling, but then so is she.”

Lady Naibu twitched, then went still. The only sign of life there was the steady rise and fall of her chest.

“It’s going to be one of those years, isn’t it?” I sighed.

Chapter 1: Right

“Do not make laws you do not intend to enforce. Allowing one law to be broken with impunity undermines them all.”
– Extract from the personal journals of Dread Emperor Terribilis II

 

Evening Bell had just rung and the room was now lit with candles.

Most of the Southpool eldermen – the ones involved in my little visit, anyway – had extended invitations for me to stay in their own homes, but I had politely declined. Governess Ife would have those under watch, for the first time in years. After the Conquest eldermen assemblies had been made toothless by the near-absolute powers granted to Imperial governors, an abrupt fall for men and women who had once been a power to rival the guilds and the nobility. Their newfound irrelevance had allowed them to survive the discreet purges that had gone through all cities under direct Praesi occupation, which the governors were only now learning had been a mistake. A mistake driven by culture, as it happened. There was no equivalent to eldermen in the Wasteland, where power inside the larger cities was always in the sole hands of the ruling High Lord. Black had apparently been of the opinion that time would smother the institution on its own without any need for blood: Callowans born without having ever known the assemblies would not be inclined to defer to them, particularly when their old powers were in the hands of others.

He’d only been half-right. In Laure – where the guilds and House Fairfax had always been much stronger – the assemblies were already dead and buried before I was born. In Southpool, though, it was a different story. The Counts of Southpool had long been weakened by their proximity to the seat of a beloved monarchy, and the city was not strong enough in trade for the guilds to have a major presence. Governess Ife, now on her third mandate ruling the city, had found the opposition to several of her toll stations and extraordinary taxes to be strong and exceedingly well-organized. There had been riots, and at first she’d backed down after manoeuvring so the manner of it would not make her lose face. Then she’d quietly begun eliminating the most respected of the eldermen, breaking the assembly’s influence one corpse at a time. Like most forms of Callowan resistance after the Conquest, the enterprise had been doomed from the start. The eldermen of Southpool were now a pale shadow of what they’d once been, unable to mount any opposition worth the name.

But oh, they wanted to.

When I’d had Ratface contact them through intermediaries, they’d accepted my offer without even listening to all the terms. They were lucky I wasn’t out to screw them, because it would have been child’s play. I wasn’t exactly a great admirer of eldermen assemblies – the way eldermen were appointed by the vote of other eldermen made them too much like a knock-off nobility for my tastes – but I needed a check on the authority of governors and they were my most palatable option. It was better than letting the guilds have the reins, anyway. Fairfax kings had spent centuries locking the guilds out of direct political power, and in my opinion they’d been right to. Whenever the guildmasters got a scrap of authority they immediately used it to forced every commerce they could under their thumb, which filled their coffers but also broke smaller traders. Harrion, the owner of the tavern I’d once worked at, had always held the guilds in disdain. He’d been one of the few people in Laure I’d actually liked, so I supposed his opinion might have coloured mine.

The tavern I was currently hiding out in reminded me of the Rat’s Nest quite a bit, actually. The wooden walls were just as rickety, the floor creaked like a dying man and the smell of soured wine and vomit was so ingrained it would remain even if the place was put to the torch. I’d preferred dipping in the lake to using the only bathtub they had here, judging I’d come out of that adventure rust-tinged. I hadn’t drawn attention in doing so: like in Laure, most everyone living by the lake used it to bathe. Without armour and with only a knife for weaponry, I’d been able to keep my presence quiet. Deoraithe, even half-bloods, were rare outside of Daoine but in this part of the city people knew better than to ask questions. The only reason I’d gotten a few looks was currently entering my room, closing the door behind him. Hakram had put on a cloak but there was no hiding his height or his fangs: Adjutant was the tallest orc I’d ever met, with only Juniper coming close.

“I have it,” Hakram said, taking out a thick leather-bound book from under his cloak and dropping it on the table.

I put aside The Death of the Age of Wonders, the treatise I was now reading for the second time. Written by Dread Empress Malicia, I’d thought I could glimpse something of how her mind worked through her words. All I’d gotten, though, was that she was a firm believe in checks and balances when it came to the nations of Calernia. That a woman who’d claimed the Tower could believe foreign alliances should be determined by shared interests instead of alignment to Good and Evil was a fascinating departure from the norm, but it taught me little about Malicia as a woman. Dismissing the thought, I cast my eyes on the book Hakram had brought and flipped it open. Columns of numbers and words, scribbled so poorly even my own handwriting was legible in comparison.

“Won’t that make for pleasant reading,” I sighed.

“I already took a look, it’s why I’m late,” the orc said. “Here, let me.”

He moved the pages with a carefulness that was almost comical, given the size and thickness of his fingers. About halfway through he ceased, and laid a finger on a particular number. Three thousand golden aurelii, spent on…

“Furniture repairs,” I snorted. “Maybe she does have a sense of humour.”

“I’ve found the carpenters that supposedly did the work,” Hakram said. “Elderwoman Keyes knew them. I have sworn statements they did no such thing.”

“And we have the ledger from the Guild of Assassins, accounting for the three thousand aurelii,” I said quietly. “That should be enough.”

Barely a fortnight after claiming my fiefdom in Marchford I’d tasked Ratface to get in touch with all the so-called Dark Guilds of Callow, the criminal mirror to the merchant organization. I really shouldn’t have been surprised he was already on speaking terms with all the major ones. The Assassins had been reluctant at the idea of letting me claim a ledger, even if it was to be used against a Praesi. Black had tacitly sanctioned the existence of all the Dark Guilds after the Conquest, preferring limiting them to quotas rather than attempting an eradication that would drive them into the arms of heroes. The Assassins had quibbled until I’d offered them a calm reminder that Tribune Robber could be pulled from his current assignment at any time. The malevolent little shit was starting to have a reputation and I wasn’t above using it for my purposes. Still had cost me a small fortune to buy the ledger off of them, which mattered a lot more now than it would have a year ago. Marchford was haemorrhaging coin with no solution in sight, but that was a problem I’d return to chewing on tomorrow. Tonight I had a governess to deal with.

“She didn’t have time to cook the books?” I said. “Better than this, I mean.”

“She let Heiress’ people take care of the official ones,” Hakram said, amused. “But she didn’t trust Akua with her personal records.”

Ah, Praesi backstabbing. The gift that kept on giving.

“You worked quickly,” I praised.

He shrugged.

“I knew what we needed, I just had to Find it,” he said.

I hummed. Adjutant’s second aspect, one I still wasn’t sure what to think about. There was no denying how useful it had turned out to be – Hakram now frequently stumbled onto exactly what we were looking for, as long as it was feasible for him to do so – but relying too much on aspects was a good way to earn a one-way trip to the graveyard. I’d encouraged him to use it sparingly, but the both of us were drowning in responsibilities these days: there was a reason he’d come into the aspect in the first place. I changed the subject to more current concerns.

“The Gallowborne are in the city?” I asked.

“As of an hour ago,” Adjutant said. “They’ll be noticed soon, if they haven’t been already.”

“I don’t mind if word spreads,” I grunted. “It’ll discourage Ife’s household troops from getting any ideas.”

The eldermen had assured me that the city guard would stay out of it, but Ife’s own men were from the Wasteland. The governess was from a family sworn to the High Lords of Nok, with minor but very old holdings – held since since before the Miezans kind of old. That tended to breed unusually strong loyalties in Praesi.

“One last thing,” Hakram said. “Heiress’ envoys, they’re led by an old friend of ours.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Can’t be Hawulti, she hasn’t set foot in Callow since our pleasant chat in Liesse,” I said.

As the heiress to Nok, the Soninke would have been the natural choice for an envoy here.

“Fasili,” the orc said. “Slow learner, that one.”

The heir to Aksum. Apparently his aunt bluntly stating he was expendable in a scryed conversation with me had driven him even deeper into Heiress’ camp. Unfortunate, that. Aksum sat on half a dozen emerald mines, the largest in Calernia, and it had grown rich off of them. Fucking Praesi, rolling in gold and gems when Marchford wasn’t even breaking even.

“Let’s gift him a reminder, then,” I said. “Come along, Adjutant. Let’s have a talk with Governess Ife.”

The ranks of the Gallowborne had swelled in the six months that had passed since the end of the Liesse Rebellion. They were not a single company any longer: they numbered four hundred at the moment, the members still handpicked by the former Captain Farrier – now a full Tribune. Still, after a conversation with Juniper I’d forced his hand when it came to selection: there were Praesi now, if only a few, and orcs. Keeping anybody but my countrymen out of the ranks of my personal guard would have sent the wrong message, on that much I agreed with the Hellhound. About seven out of ten were still Callowan, though, and some of those recruits were fresh off the battlefields of the rebellion.

Not all of them had fought on the Empire’s side.

The first time I’d gotten a report that a former member of the Countess Marchford’s retinue had tried to enrol in the Fifteenth, I’d poured myself a stiff drink. My initial thought that this would be an isolated occurrence was quickly proven wrong, as hardened soldiers who’d been ready to run out the Empire not a year ago kept on flocking to my banner. Juniper had been of the opinion that they should taken in and then dispersed across the legions that garrisoned Callow, never allowed to gather enough they would be an issue if they rebelled again. Aisha had been more nuanced, suggesting that folding some into the Gallowborne first as a sign of goodwill would gain me approval with the people of Marchford. It was Ratface who’d been the dissenting voice. Take them all in, he’d said. Otherwise you’ve a city full of veterans with no one to fight for. Yet. He’d been right. The others hadn’t liked it but I’d put my foot down. The Fifteenth filled its rank to the brim before the first month had passed, which was when the first problem had come. We had our four thousand men and still recruits kept showing up.

Word had spread outside of Marchford, and the retinues of half the lords and ladies who’d fought in the rebellion had come to my city. I could not scry Black to ask him for advice, as he was in the Free Cities at the moment and scrying spells tended to break up over the mountains, but to all our surprise it was Nauk who found a solution. Or rather, failed to see where the problem was. Why do we give a shit if we’re over four thousand? he’d said. Our charter’s incomplete. Every legion, when founded, was granted a charter by the Empress – truthfully the Black Knight, but he did so in her name. It granted the soldiers right to pay, specified right of recruitment and formalized the right to be equipped by the Imperial forges at Foramen. It also specified the size of the legion. The Fifteenth though, unlike any other legion in living memory, had been raised as a half-legion of two thousand legionaries. That part of the charter had been left unspecified as a consequence, which Nauk took to mean there was no hard limit on our numbers.

A reminder that Black always, always played the long game.

The Fifteenth Legion now consisted of a little over six thousand men and was still growing. Juniper had hastily brought in recruits from Praes to balance the composition of the legion, but now over half was made up of Callowans. My general regularly made pointed comments about their conflicting loyalties,and she was right to. I’d realized too late that those men and women had not stopped fighting for their rebellion: they simply thought they’d joined the banner of a quieter, more successful one. In Praes, these days, I was seen as a symbol of the permanence of the Tower’s rule over the former Kingdom. In Callow, though? Countess, they called me, but I knew that some of them really meant Queen. This was trouble, in the same sense that fire was warm or Heiress was a megalomaniac. Regardless, if there was currently an advantage to having recruits pouring in from all over Callow it was that some of my Gallowborne were familiar with Southpool. They knew their way around the palace.

“We’ll have control of the grounds before you get to the hall,” Tribune Farrier said quietly from my side.

The two of us were peering at the silhouette of the former residence of the Counts of Southpool. My personal guard has moved swiftly and professionally to secure the palace, after a relative of the eldermen had unlocked a servant entrance. The Gallowborne would be outnumbered, but it was unlikely it would actually come to a fight tonight. Their presence was largely meant as a deterrent for when desperation struck. And even if it comes to that, they’ve fought harder things than men. After Marchford and Liesse, there was precious little that would make the Gallowborne flinch.

“Try to avoid incidents,” I said. “I’d like this to go as cleanly as possible.”

Or I’d have to answer to the Ruling Council for the mess. While I did own a winning coalition of the votes there, I was not beyond questioning. Baroness Kendal – Anne, as she insisted I call her now – had not lost her principles with her surrender and Sister Abigail abhorred violence of any sort. The two Praesi members had been uncomfortable at the idea of what was going to unfold here tonight, though both were owned by High Lords opposed to the man who owned the governess. That had been enough to make it a unanimous vote, without the appearance of Malicia’s representative. The Dread Empress had sent a messenger to cast her vote anyway, without saying how she’d known what the motion put to the council would be.

“My officers are steady,” Tribune Farrier said calmly. “There’ll be no fuckups, Countess.”

“I’ve come to expect as much, John,” I said, clapping his shoulder.

He blushed. He always did, when I called him by his given name. A part of me was still girlishly delighted I could have that effect on people.

“Forgive me,” he said, “but I still believe you should take a full line.”

“There’s no one in that hall for me to be afraid of,” I said amusedly. “A tenth is more than enough. Besides, Hakram will be there.”

“With all due respect, ma’am,” he said, “Lord Adjutant is a target too. It’s been a month since they tried to knife him, we’re overdue another attempt.”

If you’d told me two years ago that assassination attempts on my closest friend in the world would become a somewhat tiresome routine, I would have been fairly sceptical. And yet, here I was, wondering how far the next hired killer would make it before someone but a crossbow bolt in them. The last one hadn’t even made it past Apprentice’s wards before getting put down. Robber had managed to get a betting pool running without having been in Marchford for months, I assumed through the magical power of being a vicious little bastard. Hopefully the next one would make it past the second line of defence, I had twenty denarii riding on it.

“A tenth will be enough,” I repeated dryly. “Hakram, how are we looking?”

A green cabinet with a cloak slapped on top it, also known as Adjutant, stirred in the distance.

“Like we could use a bath from a place where fish don’t swim,” he said.

“That’s insubordination, it is,” I complained.

“I’ll get away with it,” he shrugged. “My commanding officer’s a soft touch.”

“I’m surrounded by insolence, John,” I solemnly told the tribune. “What did I ever do to deserve this?”

“I’m told you flipped off an angel,” he replied frankly. “That’d probably do it.”

“That’s…” I started. “Well, kind of true I guess. Still.”

I strode away, my escorting tenth falling behind me seamlessly as Hakram came to my side. The tall orc had put on his legionary armour before we set out, making the cloak even more useless a disguise than before. I’d not bothered with plate myself, keeping to a simple cloth tunic dyed in pale blue. The cloak, though, was the one I was becoming known for. The same one Black had given me years ago, now adorned with strips from the standards of the enemies I’d beaten. It swirled dramatically behind me as I kept a quick pace towards the banquet hall of old fortress of the counts of Southpool. I had a sword at my hip, now, as well as the knife I’d taken my first life with. Overconfidence had killed more powerful villains than me. The Gallowborne had cleared the corridors of everyone when they’d seized the palace, so we moved without contest. The hall I was looking for was easy enough to find, as it had once served as the room where audiences were held: it was dead at the centre of the structure. The doors to it were already open, though I whimsically wished they hadn’t been. This reminded me of another night, in Laure, when I had been on the precipice of the changes that would lead me where I now stood. A lifetime ago, it felt like.

By the sound of it, the guests had yet to notice anything was going on. I made a note to compliment Tribune Farrier on the efficiency of his men. I strolled into the room casually, casting a steady look around. Twenty people in attendance, with Governess Ife at the head of the table. Servants stood to the side in silence, in the Praesi way. Most of the guests were Callowan, though I recognized Fasili as the governess’ right side. A Taghreb sat by him, a young woman I did not know. Hard eyes and a scar on her face hinted at a retainer, and one not unfamiliar with violence. Three of the eldermen I’d struck my deal with were in attendance, clustered near the end of the table. Like servants. They were the first to notice our presence, as Hakram pulled down the hood of his cloak and the Gallowborne fanned out behind me. For another few heartbeats the conversation continued, then awareness spread and the hall turned silent as a grave.

“Get out,” I said. “Now.”

When Black had stood in my place, he’d used his Name to spread fear in the crowd. I didn’t bother, though I’d finally managed to learn the trick to it. The Callowans rose in barely-veiled panic, streaming by the blank-faced silhouetted of the Gallowborne as they fled. Fasili and his retainer only rose after he finished his cup of wine.

“Governess,” the heir to Aksum said, slightly bowing his head. “Always a pleasure.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Ife replied with a gracious smile. “Until next time, Lord Fasili.”

The Soninke moved unhurriedly, pausing before me.

“Lady Squire,” he said icily.

The Taghreb retainer cast a wary eye on me, hand falling to the sword at her hip.

“Fasili,” I said. “Do be careful on the way back. I’m told Liesse has a banditry problem.”

“A temporary state of affairs,” he said.

“More than you know,” I smiled pleasantly.

I turned back to the governess, eyeing her curiously. A middle-aged Soninke, her frame still hinting at the slenderness of her youth but now grown thicker. Her eyes were not quite golden but very close. A sign of old blood, Aisha had told me.

“Lady Squire,” she greeted me. “You honour me with your presence.”

“Governess Ife,” I said, grabbing a seat and dragging it at the end of the table facing hers.

The sound of wood scraping on stone almost made her wince. I plopped myself down, then fished out the dragonbone pipe Masego had gifted me. Calmly, under her befuddled gaze, I stuffed it with wakeleaf from a small packet I got from a pocket sown into my cloak. I produced a pinewood match and struck it on the table, lighting the pipe. I inhaled a mouthful of grey smoke and spat it out, carelessly tossing the match into an abandoned cup of wine. There was a long moment of silence, broken only by Hakram failing to entirely smother a chuckle.

“Should I arrange for the servants to bring you a meal?” the Soninke finally said. “I have some of the finest cooks of the provinces in my employ.”

I inhaled the smoke, then let out a stream of it. The wakeleaf had become a guilty pleasure of mine, in the last few months. Aisha usually sprinkled a handful of leaves in her tea, as they sharpened wit, but Apprentice had informed me they could be smoked as well. They were, unfortunately, quite expensive. Grown only in Ashur, having been brought from the other side of the Tyrian Sea when the Baalites first founded the cities that would become the Thalassocracy. I used them sparingly as a consequence.

“The night I first became the Squire,” I said, “I stood in a hall much like this one.”

There was another long silence.

“The story is well known, in some circles,” she said, face without expression.

“Mazus wanted to be Chancellor,” I mused. “Ambitious, though back then I did not understand exactly how ambitious he truly was. I do not think you suffer from the same flaw, Governess Ife.”

“I do not understand your meaning, Lady Squire,” she said, eyes wary.

“Greed, you see, I can tolerate,” I said. “There’s probably been rulers that didn’t skim off the top, but I imagine they were in the minority. It’s an old sin, that one. As long as it doesn’t get out of hand, I can live with it.”

“An enlightened attitude,” the governess murmured. “If your visit is meant to be a… reminder of the virtues of moderation, your warning has been received.”

Hakram calmly placed the ledger on the table, pushing aside a plate filled with pheasant. I would give this to Governess Ife, the fear only showed in her eyes – and even then, only for a moment. I spewed out another mouthful of smoke, letting the haze wreathe my face like a grey crown.

“A thousand aurelii a head,” I said. “A point in your favour, that you bought Callowan instead of importing specialists from the Wasteland. Even if what you bought is murder.”

“I’ve no idea what you are referring to, my lady,” she said.

“We have the matching ledger from the Guild of Assassins,” I replied.

Ife closed her eyes.

“My term is at an end, then,” she said calmly. “I will be gone by the end of the fortnight. Will the replacement you have chosen require quarters before that?”

“So you don’t have a mage in Laure,” I said, cocking my head to the side. “Not one that can scry, anyway.”

I inhaled from the pipe, letting the wakeleaf quicken my blood. I’d thought, that same night in Laure, that when the time came I would enjoy this. That it would feel like justice. It feels like killing, I thought as I blew the smoke. And less cleanly than if I’d used a sword.

“As of last night, the Ruling Council has determined that acts committed as an Imperial governor fall under the jurisdiction of Callowan authorities,” I said.

She was a clever woman, the governess. She did not need for me to explain it any further.

“It would be a mercy,” she said, “to allow me poison.”

“It would be,” I agreed quietly. “But this is Callow, Governess. We hang murderers here.”

The Gallowborne moved forward.

“String her up,” I ordered.

She did not struggle as my soldiers took her away. I closed my eyes and leaned back in the seat. Eventually my pipe ran out and I emptied the ashes on a cooling plate.

“It was necessary,” Hakram said.

He was standing behind me, close enough to touch. He didn’t though. He knew me better than that, had seen me in this kind of mood before.

“When’s the last time we did the right thing, instead of the necessary one?” I asked tiredly.

“You think this wrong?” he said. “She commissioned murders, even if she did not wield the blade herself. By our laws, she has earned death.”

“I don’t think it was personal for her,” I said, eyes drifting to the ceiling. “She was just consolidating power. Like I’m doing right now, Hakram. If she deserves to hang, don’t I?”

“She was breaking the law,” the orc gravelled. “You are enforcing it.”

“The only reason I don’t break laws anymore is because I make them, now,” I scoffed.

Adjutant laughed softly.

“And that disturbs you?” he asked. “You have toiled to earn that prize since before we ever met.”

“There’s nothing right about this,” I finally said. “I didn’t win tonight because I’m better than her. I’m just more powerful. I have a bigger stick, so I decide how it goes.”

Humans,” Hakram mocked gently. “You speak that as if it were a tragedy, instead of the first truth of Creation: the strong rule, the weak obey.”

“I thought,” I said quietly, “that we could be better than that.”

“Justifications only matter to the just,” he gravelled.

I half-smiled. My own words, thrown back at me. And yet…

“I burned men alive, at Three Hills,” I said. “Hundreds of them.”

“Your enemies,” he said. “Soldiers.”

I let out a long breath.

“I have done, Hakram, terrible things,” I said. “Ugly things. I’ll do more, before this is over. If it is ever over.”

Once, when we’d talked under moonlight, the orc had compared trying to change the world to pushing a boulder up a mountain. And then watching it roll down the other slope. It doesn’t work that way, though, I thought. There is no summit to the mountain. You just keep pushing until your body gives, and you’re the first thing the stone crushes on the way down. If that was all it could be, though, if all you could ever do was buy some time…

“I made those decisions for a purpose,” I said. “I did not cover this land with corpses just to change the flavour of tyranny that rules it. If I don’t make it better now, when will I?”

I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.

“We hang murderers, in Callow. Even the ones Black struck deals with.”

I slid back the pipe into my cloak.

“Get a message to Ratface,” I said. “He is to prepare for the dismantling of the Guild of Assassins.”

Prologue

“The most dangerous opponent for a master is a novice. Therefore, seek to be a novice in all things.”
– Isabella the Mad, only general to ever defeat Theodosius the Unconquered on the field

Anaxares, to his surprise, was still alive.

Perhaps his utter irrelevance in the grand scheme of things had seen him spared, he pondered, but such a thought was too optimistic. More likely the kanenas had all assumed another one of them was going to trigger the stone in his stomach and one would get around to it whenever they remembered. His impending death was such a certainty he no longer spared any time troubling himself over it – what point was there in cursing the river when you were already drowning? At the very least his last days would be interesting, in a truly horrifying manner. The Tyrant of Helike had seemingly adopted him as a pet of sorts, naming him an official advisor to the crown and now dragged him along wherever he went. The villain was amused by his calm. Calling the contraption the two of them were currently on a litter would have been a misnomer: the boy had essentially built a massive dais, slapped a throne on it and now had it carried around by porters everywhere.

A pavilion could be added to cover the surface when weather demanded as much and tables were positioned to allow for the taking of a meal should the Tyrant demand it. The wretched labour involved offended his sensibilities. Foreign Slavers Will Be Known By Their Wicked Works, he added out of habit. May They All Choke On Ashes And Also Snakes. The villain had tried to have a smaller, noticeably cheaper throne put next to his for Anaxares to sit on but the Bellerophan had flatly refused. He’d claimed a wooden stool for the people and discreetly carved the sigil of Bellerophon – three peasants waving pitchforks – on the side. The small act of rebellion had been deeply satisfying, if utterly meaningless. Not, he decided, an inept description of his own existence.

Finally,” the Tyrant said, “we’re getting decent weather.”

Anaxares looked up at the massive storm clouds gathering and cocked an eyebrow. The lands between Helike and Atalante were known for the occasional bouts of week-long rain and storms, blown south from the Waning Woods and the madness that passed for nature over there. The Fae toyed with the winds and the sky the way men did with their clothes, and the farms beneath them paid the price.

“It will be harder for your army to retreat in the mud,” Anaxares said.

He knew next to nothing about strategy –  in Bellerophon the only people allowed to read books on the subject were the citizens who drew army positions, and even they had the knowledge erased from their minds past their term of service lest they Use It In Horrid Rebellion Against The People – but so far the Tyrant’s campaign against Atalante had not impressed him. For one, there’d been no battles. The famous Helikean army had marched east towards Atalante, whose farmers had already emptied their fields, without contest from the enemy. The Atalantians had remained behind their walls as the emptied their treasury buying up all the mercenaries in Mercantis they could afford, only taking the field after they outnumbered the Helikeans two to one. Twenty thousand men had then dutifully marched towards the Tyrant, who had immediately taken his army back through the farmlands he’d just gleefully set fire to.

“Oh, we’re done retreating,” the Tyrant said cheerfully. “I’m bored with it now. Got what I need anyway.”

Anaxares pulled at his third wineskin of the morning, trying to wash down the taste of impending doom. The Tyrant disapproved vocally of his drinking habits, but the man’s servants kept bringing him skins anyway.

“As my advisor,” the boy said, his bad hand visibly shaking, “what would you advise me to do now?”

Just being called that qualified Anaxares for thirty-three different counts of treason by Bellerophan law. Fifty-something, even, if you counted all the articles about foreign collusion separately. His remains would be on trial for years after the initial execution.

“Return to Helike, slit your own throat and let your replacement beg the mercy of the League,” he replied without missing a beat.

“You’re a terrible advisor,” the Tyrant complained. “I should have you hanged.”

Anaxares shrugged.

“If that is your wish.”

Less painful of a way to go than internal organ crushing, he assessed.

“You haven’t gotten tedious yet,” the boy mused. “I guess you can live.”

“I am, of course, relieved and grateful,” the Bellerophan deadpanned.

“You should be,” the Tyrant said cheerfully. “I’m so merciful, it’s why my people love me so much.”

As far as Anaxares could tell, the reason Helikeans ‘loved’ the Tyrant was that they had been told they did by men with swords and grim faces. The army, though, did seem genuinely loyal. Not surprising: whenever a Tyrant took the throne, they started invading everything in sight. The last one to hold the Name had broken the desperate alliance of Stygia, Atalante and Delos before the southern Proceran princes had intervened and put her down. Glorious war had been waged, victories tallied, and within a decade all the borders had returned to what they’d been before the woman had claimed the crown. Named or not, one could not change the face of the Free Cities.

“Admittedly there is no other claimant to the throne, since your nephew’s death,” the diplomat said instead of rehashing the histories.

“Pretty idiot got himself shot by an orc, of all things,” the Tyrant said delightedly, the red in his eye deepening for a heartbeat. “He always talked too much, it’s how he lost the throne in the first place.”

The Bellerophan’s eyes sharpened with interest as he swallowed another mouthful of wine. The Tyrant’s seizing of the throne of Helike had been one of the most unexpected diplomatic development of the last decade, in the Free Cities, but precious little was known about. A boy that had been by all reports a nonentity before the coup had in a single day taken control of the city and the army, killed the king in his own bed and purged his nephew’s supporters brutally. The nephew in question had fled the city with most of the young nobility and his surviving loyalists, becoming the Exiled Prince in the process.

“Talked too much,” Anaxares repeated, leaving the tone questioning.

“See, Dorian’s father was a lot like mine,” the Tyrant said. “Drank too much, dallied with servants, let the nobility and the army run things. Everybody liked that state of affairs. Dorian, though? He was just so pretty and so good.”

The bitter hatred in those words almost fouled the air.

“Now, the old guard didn’t care much for him. But their heirs? The swarmed him like flies a corpse. Hung on to his every word, his promises of reform and a better Helike.”

The Tyrant seemed almost amused at the prospect of the betterment of his city-state, as if such a thing was unimaginable.

“They figured out eventually that when Dorian took the throne, he was going to be an actual ruler,” he snickered. “Their own children would back him in this. Now that angered them quite a bit, Anaxares. If you steal power and keep it for long enough, eventually you start to think you have a right to it.”

He waved his good hand expansively.

“So they looked at the only other child of royal blood,” he said. “Approached me. And I said: why not?”

“They thought they could rule through you,” the diplomat said. “A mistake of some scale.”

“Most of the I fed to dogs,” the Tyrant smiled, that flash of sharp pearly teeth. “The others fell in line.”

“You were twelve years old,” Anaxares said, feeling old. “And already Named.”

“I wasn’t the Tyrant then,” the boy said. “Just Kairos. Can you keep a secret, advisor?”

“No,” the diplomat replied immediately. “I will report everything you say to the kanenas at the first opportunity, before my summary execution.”

The villain grinned.

“Treachery is pleasing to the Gods Below,” he said. “There’s a crypt in Helike, under the palace, where the first foundations of the city were laid. There’s a creature there, lying under a tomb of stone sculpted to look like someone holding a sword. There is a crack in the side just large enough that you can hear the thing inside whisper, if you press your ear to it.”

Anaxares would have shivered, if years of walking with death in his belly had not effectively burned fear out of him. The words were casually spoken but the description felt more vivid than it should have. He could smell the dusty air, feel the unsettling whisper of an abomination against his ear.

“I don’t know what it is. My father said it’s the first king of Helike, still straddling the line between life and death,” the Tyrant said. “The king, though, once said it is the god who once owned the ground the city was built on – tricked into the tomb and forever bound to give us advice.”

“Advice?” the diplomat repeated.

“Prophecies,” the boy said. “All of royal blood can ask one question if it, in our lifetime.”

“And it told you you would rule?” Anaxares guessed.

The Tyrant laughed.

“It told me,” he said, “that I would die when I turned thirteen. That there was nothing I could do to change this.”

The boy smiled.

“It was,” he said, “a great gift.”

Looking down at his shaking hand, the Tyrant seemed lost in memory for a moment before he gathered himself.

“We spend so much of our lives, Anaxares, shackling ourselves. Avoiding doing this and that because others would frown upon it. Because it is wrong and wicked and unworthy. Once I knew there was only death ahead of me, I started doing what I wanted. I ceased censuring what I was to please others.”

“The drow believed the same as you, when they embraced the Tenets of Night,” the Bellerophan said. “And look at them now, Tyrant – packs of savages inhabiting the ruins of an empire. Censure Is Just, Law Is Necessary.”

Glory To Peerless Bellerophon, Whose Laws Are That Of The People, he added silently.

“Your city is the mutilated remains of a people,” the boy said. “That you wielded the knife yourself is the only thing setting you apart from the rest of Creation.”

“We have no rulers, in Bellerophon,” Anaxares said.

This time there was no need for him to speak the words taught to all of them as children, the capitalized praises learned before one could walk. This, he believed for himself. Because the Republic was flawed, deeply flawed, and he could admit this to himself even if he deserved death for it. But what it stood for was… greater than the sum of its faults.

“No crowns. No nobles. No Names. This is not an accident, Helikean, it is a statement. We are all of us free or we are none of us free. There is no middle ground.”

“You’ve lived a heartbeat away from death all your life,” the Tyrant said, “and still you don’t quite get it, do you? You Bellerophans just traded one tyrant for fifty thousand. You don’t get to decide who you are. Others do that for you.”

The boy rose to his feet, stretching out gingerly. He looked almost fragile, thin and sickly under his red silken robes.

“When those nobles and generals came to whisper treason in my ear,” he said, “I did not hesitate. Because I felt like usurping a throne, because I hated Dorian. I was curious to see if it could be done. I was going to die soon, anyway, and what did I care what followed that?”

Anaxares was not a warrior, or a large man. He was thirty and more familiar with wine than a hard day’s work. For all that, looking at the boy, for a moment he was convinced he could snap his neck almost without effort. That the bones would break like a bird’s, shatter like glass. Then he saw the eye, the damnable red eye, and the Tyrant was a looming titan looking down on him.

“So I did it,” the boy hissed. “I crushed them and I stole the crown and I called the would-be puppeteers to heel. And when I turned thirteen, sitting on my throne as the Tyrant of Helike – I did not die. Because Fate isn’t a path we must follow, Anaxares, it’s a tug-of-war between the Gods.”

He leaned closer.

“And sometimes, if you put your hands to the rope, you can tug it your way,” he whispered.

The Named withdrew with unnatural agility, laughing. The intensity there had been to him was gone like mist in the sun. The Tyrant ripped out one of the banners that flew at every corner of his dais – his personal heraldry, a leering skull with a red eye on gold – and leapt down onto the wet grounds. The porters who’d been carrying the dais hastily slowed, not daring to drop the entire thing even as their muscles creaked lest their ruler be splattered with mud.

“Come along, advisor,” the boy said. “We must speak with my general.”

Anaxares followed. The soldiers, hard men and women in scale armour with swords and shield, turned into awed children whenever they saw the Tyrant. Some reached hesitantly for the hem of his silks, which the boy tolerantly allowed. There was no sign of discontent among them even after the pantomime that had been this campaign: in Helike, Tyrants did not fail. Not without betrayal or half the world set against them. They would follow the little madman into the fray without hesitation or doubt. The general they were seeking found them first, riding towards them. A woman, the diplomat saw, then his gaze lingered on her throat. Not that she had always been that.

“Sire,” the general said, dismounting hastily and kneeling.

“General Basilia,” the Tyrant said, patting her armoured shoulder affectionately. “The army is to cease retreating immediately.”

Something feral flashed in the woman’s eyes.

“We are to prepare for battle, then? The enemy is half a day’s march away, we can still set the grounds.”

The Named chuckled.

“There is no need to array our soldiers for a fight,” he said. “Stay in a column. We will be marching on Atalante before nightfall.”

She almost hesitated, Anaxares saw, but did not protest. Loyal, this one. To a boy more than half mad. Gods save them all. He should have brought the wine.

“As you command, sire,” she said. “There is a farm not far from here, should I prepare it to accommodate you?”

“No need,” the Tyrant said. “My advisor and I will be awaiting our friends on the field.”

Without even the semblance of an explication, the boy strode away with the standard resting on his shoulder. The diplomat sighed and made to follow but he was stopped by the general, who put a gauntleted hand on his shoulder. She glared down at him.

“If he dies,” General Basilia said, “you will follow him shortly. Screaming.”

“Nine,” Anaxares replied.

“What?” she said.

“The number of times I’ve been threatened with death today,” the diplomat clarified. “Will we make it to ten before noon? It is an auspicious number, in Bellerophon.”

He strode away after that, while she was still too surprised to protest. He found the Tyrant alone in a sprawling field of grass, gazing ahead. The boy hummed, as he approached.

“And now?” the diplomat asked.

“Now we wait,” the Tyrant said.

It was mid-afternoon when the forces of Atalante arrived.

They were a sorry bunch to look at, compared to the soldiers of Helike. Citizen levies armed with spears and shields and decked in hardened leather, city and caravan guards who’d traded cudgels for swords, unarmoured conscripts with javelins and slings. Only the cavalry looked professional, nobles with long lances and chain mail. The mercenaries looked more fearsome, infantry from all parts of Calernia that dwelled in the mercenary villages surrounding the shores of Mercantis until hired by patrons. There were Ashurans there, he saw, with their curved bows and ornate armours. Levantines with painted faces and hooked swords, even Callowan knights with long banners who must have survived the Praesi purges. Behind him, the army of Helike remained in an orderly column and did not move. The commanders on the other side ordered a halt, but after most of an hour passed without anyone moving orders began being screamed along the Atalantian lines. In good order, the enemy began to advance again.

“They’re not even sending an envoy to talk with me,” the Tyrant complained.

“You murdered the last one,” Anaxares said.

“It’s still very rude,” the boy said, rolling the wooden shaft of the standard between his palms. “They ought to have better manners than that.”

The diplomat watched twenty thousand soldiers marching in his direction and wondered which one would kill him. Hopefully one with a sword. Spear wounds tended to kill slowly, he’d been told, unless something important was pierced.

“Last night, Malicia’s hounds set foot in Penthes,” the Tyrant said conversationally.

“May The Ground Open Up To Swallow The Base Penthesians,” Anaxares replied out of habit.

“The city will be eating itself alive before a fortnight has passed,” he said. “Nicae won’t move until they’ve grown fat with Proceran silver and ‘mercenaries’, Delos will be dealing with the Stygian phalanx moving north. That leaves only our dear Atalantian friends and their escorts.”

“Who you have decided to fight,” the diplomat said. “Without your army.”

“Oh, I could have had General Basilia tear those poor fools alive, if you’ll forgive my language,” the Tyrant said. “It wouldn’t even have been very hard. That’s how the Praesi do things, nowadays. Let tactics and preparation carry the day.”

The frail boy’s lips curled in distaste.

“And to think they were once the greatest among us.”

“The Dread Empire is the most powerful it has been in centuries,” Anaxares frowned.

“And their Empress plays shatranj with the First Prince across an entire continent, winning more often than not,” the Named said. “For all that, they’ve lost their way.”

The Bellerophan raised a sceptical eyebrow.

“It’s not about winning, Anaxares,” the Tyrant said. “It’s about how you win.”

The standard rolled again between the boy’s palms as the enemy host crept ever closer.

“Even now, if I gave General Basilia the order I believe she could win this. It would be a victory, yes, but would it be a victory for Evil?”

“You are a villain,” the Bellerophan said. “A victory for you is a victory for Evil.”

“A mere clash between armies? No,” he said. “It takes more than that. The war I am fighting has little to do with steel: I am soldier for the Gods Below in the game that will settle Creation. A point has to be made, a sense to the story.”

“And what is the point of us standing on this field, watching death arrive?” Anaxares asked.

“Twenty thousand men march to end me,” the Tyrant said. “They will break, because they are in my way. Watch, diplomat, and learn.”

The boy drove the standard into the ground, flying his banner of one in the face of the host that spread across the plain.

“I am Kairos Theodosian,” he laughed. “Tyrant of Helike. And I say that my Rule extends to even the sky. Come, servants of the Heavens. The Age of Wonders is not dead yet. Not while I breathe.”

The cloud above thickened, more black than grey now. For a long moment nothing happened, and then lightning struck the soldiers of Atalante. Thunder clapped, the sky danced to the whims of a madman and Anaxares watched the largest army he had ever seen break apart at the seams. The Tyrant of Helike stood there, smiling.

His hand no longer shook.