Chapter 23: Reassessment

“From small slights, long prices.”
– Deoraithe proverb

For all that the marshal’s envoy had impressed upon me the urgency of the situation, I found myself waiting. The balustrade overlooked an inside courtyard, and from my perch I watched the soldiers milling below. I’d left a line of the Gallowborne down there along with Robber and a line from his cohort. My personal retinue wouldn’t be mingling with the goblins, but the Special Tribune and his men were not so distant. They were, perhaps, a little too friendly. I winced when Robber rolled all over the paving stones, clawing at another goblin’s eyes and cackling loudly. Their sharp nails drew blood on each other, but aside from my own visibly horrified Callowans none of the legionaries seemed anything but amused. The other greenskin was larger – likely from a Matron lineage, then, since those were supposed to be bigger and smarter than other goblins – but my own bastard was younger and more vicious. It ended with him sitting atop his opponent, licking the blood off his fingers to the cheers of all the goblins in the courtyard.

The door my back was turned to opened silently, but my senses had gotten even sharper since Arcadia. I could feel the air moving, almost, and the soft creep of leather boots headed for me. The only other person in the room came to stand by my side at the balustrade, deftly climbing atop a stone seat so they’d be able to lean their elbows against the edge like I did. I didn’t show surprise, or even bother to turn around. I already knew who it was, and years of dealing with Robber had taught me the dangers of allowing a goblin to set the beat of a conversation.

“Tribe?” a soft voice asked.

“Rock Breaker,” I replied.

Marshal Ranker chuckled, the sound a dry rasp.

“I can see why a barren old bitch like Weaver would get rid of him,” she said.

Only then did I glance at the small, wrinkled old woman that was one of the three most important commanders in the Legions of Terror. Marshal Ranker’s skin looked like leather left out too long in the sun, all cracked and dry and a brown-green that was unpleasant to look at. Her face was a curtain of heavy wrinkles leading to thin brown lips and a pointed chin. Her eyes, though, had me wary. Deep set and dark, with small threads of red in the sclera. This one was ancient, by the standards of her people, and old goblins were either dead or exceedingly dangerous. The infamous blackened hand her legion was named for was curled and unmoving, looking crippled for good, but I knew better than to take anything shown by this woman as face value.

“Her loss,” I said. “His record speaks for itself.”

The goblin clicked her tongue.

“That boy learned his lessons too well,” she said. “We tell them they’re supposed to be fearless, but that’s a lie. They’re still supposed to be afraid of us.”

Of the Matrons. I didn’t know much about the Tribes, not that anybody did, but what little I’d learned from Robber and Pickler had not endeared their ruling class to me. It had always been absurd to me to wrest authority out of the hands of the capable because of some arbitrary objection to those capable individuals having bollocks. If there was one aspect of Black’s philosophy I had wholeheartedly embraces, it was that power belonged in the hands of the competent – wasting talent out of petty bias was to lessen all those involved.

“Fear’s never enough,” I said. “Not on its own.”

“Empires have been built on less,” the Marshal snorted.

“Not this one,” I said.

There was a pause.

“And yet you crucified them,” Ranker said.

“They crossed me,” I replied. “Some fear was required.”

I got a bark of harsh laughter for that.

“Marshal Ranker, of the Hungry Dog tribe,” she finally introduced herself.

“Catherine Foundling,” I said. “Duchess of Moonless Nights.”

“I’m aware,” the goblin lightly replied. “As I’m sure you are that you’ve had crossbows pointed at you since you first stepped into Denier.”

I smiled wryly.

“You’re not going to mention the fact that this entire room is rigged with demolition charges?” I asked.

Smell was a sense as well, and I’d learned to recognize the sharp tang of goblin munitions.

“Much like you weren’t going to mention you sent your Adjutant to poke around the city,” she replied.

“He’s not a spymaster,” I shrugged. “Just a friendly orc who likes to share a drink.”

“The dangerous ones always smile,” the Marshal said.

I snorted.

“I’ve been advised you’re not someone to trifle with,” I told her.

“I considered trapping your little crew in an avenue and setting the whole thing aflame with green,” Ranker casually said. “Your tiff with the Empress has poor timing. But that would trigger another uprising, and that’d be even more trouble than you.”

The sheer nonchalance she’d just admitted that with was chilling, but I was no stranger to cold these days.

“All I’m doing is hacking off the dead wood,” I said. “And there’s a great deal of that. You’ve been around long enough for-“

“Save me the speech, Duchess,” the goblin interrupted cuttingly. “I’m not one of your lapdogs, and whatever hopes you’re peddling I don’t care for. I’m a fucking Marshal of the Dread Empire, kid. I know where my loyalties lie. If it comes to it, I’ll kill you if only to spare Amadeus the pain of doing the deed himself.”

“The way things used to be done in Callow won’t work anymore,” I said. “You have to be aware of that.”

The Marshal hacked out a laugh.

“And whose fault is that? I read Sacker’s report on Summerholm. The Liesse Rebellion is as good as your doing. You set up that highborn chit in the south who’s giving us trouble now, too, and to add insult to fucking injury you’re taking advantage of an invasion to make a power grab,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned the only difference between you and those poor bastards you nailed to crosses is that you have a bigger stick and catchier battle cry.”

“I actually have a purpose, unlike those ‘poor bastards’,” I replied coldly. “And I’ll see it through no matter how much wailing comes from the gallery.”

“I’ve been threatened by scarier Named than you, Duchess,” Ranker said. “And I’ll say this for the Chancellor – he wasn’t dumb enough to do it in my own territory. You’ve risen quickly, and we all know how that story goes. The fall comes as quickly, and twice as hard. Take care not to drop your carcass on anything I care about.”

I sighed.

“Are we just going to stand around trading veiled threats all day?” I said. “I was under the impression Duchess Kegan was headed our way.”

“There is no us,” the Marshal said. “You’re one conversation gone south away from rebellion. And you have some sort of plan for the Deoraithe. Out with it. If it has to come to steel, let’s get it out of the way.”

“You wouldn’t leave this room alive if it did,” I said flatly.

Ranker eyed me with those dark, deep-set eyes.

“No,” she agreed. “But neither would you.”

I’d seen that look in the faces of people before. William’s, when he’d decided to call Contrition onto Liesse. Akua’s, when she’d told me she would collapse the dimension were were in if I refused to negotiate. Ranker wasn’t Named – she lacked the feelings of power and weight both – but she did have that kind of resolution to her. She would, if she found my intentions unacceptable, rather bring down this entire place on our heads than allow me to go through with them. I’d never had that goblin razor-sharp fearlessness turned on me before, and it wasn’t a pleasant feeling. Could I kill her before she even spoke an order? I had no doubt. I shouldn’t, though. There was nothing to gain from it, and it worried me the urge was there. Kilian’s soft accusation that I hated to compromise came back to my ears, along with the bundle of things I still felt about that conversation I’d set aside rather than deal with. Had I become too used to getting my way? Or maybe it was subtler than that. I’d won often enough that the idea of losing even in a small way had me reaching for violence. Because Ranker would be beating me, by coercing me into revealing my hand like this. That was a fact.

The surrender of control rankled. I’d stayed in this room even after smelling the munitions because I’d believed that whatever measures she had taken they wouldn’t be able to kill me. I’d done that even after being told by the person I trusted most in the world that I was dealing with a real threat. Stupid. More than that, I’d been arrogant. Ranker had survived the death of more powerful villains than me. This isn’t a mistake I would have made a year ago. I would have liked to blame this on my Name, on whatever the Winter King had done to me, but that felt like a cheap excuse. I’d gotten so used to reaping the lives of non-Named like wheat I’d stopped seeing them as truly dangerous, and that was the kind of conceit that got people killed. I wasn’t in a small pond anymore. I’d reached the sea, and the things that lurked in it would gobble me up if I didn’t start stepping more carefully. I breathed out. Decide on your objective, I told myself, returning to Black’s old mantra. Decide what lines you’re willing to cross to get to it. If I retreated here, all I lost was pride.

Perhaps I could use a little less of that.

“I want take Kegan’s army through Arcadia,” I said. “And use it on my enemies. The fae first, then Diabolist.”

“And why would she agree to that?” the Marshal asked.

“Because I know what she wants,” I said. “And I can help her get it before it’s too late.”

The wrinkled goblin looked down at the legionaries in the courtyard.

“We can deal,” she finally said.

We met the Deoraithe at nightfall.

Only ten of them came across the fishing boat, but they did not need to be any more: nine of those wore the brown-grey cloaks of the Watch, longbows strapped on their backs and longswords at their hips. I’d never fought a full-fledged member of the order once charged with manning the Wall protecting Daoine from orc incursions, but I knew better than to underestimate them. Even the half-baked observer they’d sent to the Lone Swordsman’s side had managed to put an arrow in my back barely an inch away from my spine. I still had the scar, a pink puckered star on the tan skin of my back. The tenth, then, must have been Duchess Kegan Iarsmai. The woman was short – though still taller than me – and learn, with always-moving brown eyes and the stride of someone used to others following behind. She wore no highborn clothes, only hardened leather armour with the crest of her house on the chest. The Duchess had forgone a helmet, allowing her long dark curls to stream down her back. She was not ugly, but neither was she pretty: her features were hawkish and her middle-aged bearing carved of sternness.

Our side of the negotiations was less uniform in nature. Marshal Ranker had taken a tenth of hardened Soninke and Taghreb regulars with her, while I’d picked a tenth from the Gallowborne. Callowans, mostly, but also two orcs. They were ten steps behind myself and the sole goblin on the scene, and the looming silhouettes of the Watch stayed at the same distance when the Duchess advanced. She glanced at Ranker with open dislike, then frowned at the sight of me.

“’Evening,” I said. “I’m-“

“Lady Catherine Foundling,” Kegan cut through. “We have paintings of you. Marshal, I was not made aware there would be a Named tonight.”

“A last moment adjustment,” Ranker replied. “But not unfitting. She does have to authority to treat with you.”

The Duchess turned her eyes to me.

“Daoine is not subject to the Ruling Council,” she said bluntly. “Nor will it ever be. Our tributary arrangements with the Tower need no broker.”

“Not what I’m here for,” I said. “I hear you have an army assembled on the other side of the river.”

“That is none of your concern, Squire,” she said.

She glared, at both me and Creation in general.

“Ancestors save us from meddlesome children,” she muttered in the Old Tongue.

“I also speak that,” I replied in the same.

She offered me a sneer.

“Poorly,” she replied.

Ouch. That actually kind of stung. Wasn’t my fault it was a hellishly complicated language. Even Alamani wasn’t as bad, and people from other parts of the Principate preferred speaking Lower Miezan than learning the language.

“You’re not crossing, Kegan,” Ranker informed her.

“You think a second legion and whatever the Carrion’s Lord apprentice brought will be enough to stop me?” the duchess coldly replied. “No amount of traps will be enough to turn me back. I am due, Marshal.”

“It would be,” I shrugged. “I’ve beat worse odds, Watch or no. But I’d rather avoid a fight.”

“Then get out of our way,” the Deoraithe hissed. “My debt lies not with the Tower.”

“I know,” I said.

“So how many did the chit take?” Ranker asked. “Twelve? Fifteen? Surely not twenty. You can’t have gotten that soft since the Conquest.”

“The man who beat us at the Wall is a long way from Denier, goblin,” Kegan said. “Do not make me teach the two of you what we have learned since those defeats.”

“You won’t get there in time,” I said, and her eyes went back to me.

“You know not what you speak of,” the duchess said.

“I know Akua Sahelian a lot better than you do,” I smiled thinly. “You’d have to march through the entire span of Callow, and if you force the crossing you’ll be doing it with the Empire harassing you the whole time. She knows that. She planned that. By the time you get to Liesse, she’ll have finished whatever ritual she’s cooking up.”

“I wanted answers from you, but I already obtained them,” the Marshal said. “What we have now is terms.”

“For what?” Duchess Kegan asked.

I rolled my shoulder, delighting in the crack.

“Allowing you to use my shortcut,” I said.

Chapter 22: Govern

“We do not forget.”
– Official motto of the House of Iarsmai

I hadn’t set foot in a House of Light since becoming the Squire, though to be fair my attendance at the daily sermons had always been shaky. This wasn’t just any house, though: it was the Alban Cathedral, the beating heart of the faith in Callow. There were hundreds of brothers and sister here at all times, and Praesi occupation had done nothing to change it. The priests, after all, had not taken part directly in the fighting for the capital during the Conquest. They’d healed any who went through their doors, but none had taken the field. The House of Light did not concern themselves with who ruled the land, only the souls of the people who lived on it. Or so they liked to say. Some priests were more politically-inclined than others: a few of the sermons had been very harsh on the subject of Evil and its servants, though they’d always refrained from outright preaching rebellion. That was the line Black had drawn when conceding freedom of worship in the conquered kingdom.

The main hall was filled with beds when I entered, though thankfully most of them were empty: with the end of the riots, the influx of wounded had ceased as well. I left the Gallowborne outside, and for once Tribune Farrier did not protest: the idea of being at risk here was as absurd for him as it was to me. White-robed priests stirred when I strode in, with an older woman coming forward. She did not have any marks distinguishing her from the others – the brothers and sisters had no ranks, and seniority did not always mean authority – but the simple fact that she was the one headed for me said it all. She had Deoraithe blood, I noted. Too pale to have both parents from the Duchy though. The sister bowed.

“Sermons have been suspended for a sennight, my lady,” she said.

“The it’s a good thing I’m not here for one,” I replied. “Take me to the baroness.”

She smiled with feinted confusion and began to answer, but I cut her off with a sharp gesture.

“I’m Catherine Foundling,” I said.

“I am aware, Lady Squire,” she said.

“Then you should know deceiving an Imperial dignitary while the city is under martial law qualifies as treason,” I said. “Don’t make that mistake. It would get ugly for both us, and I’m not here to hurt her.”

“The cathedral offers refuge to all,” she insisted.

“Look outside, sister,” I said tiredly. “There are no refuges left. Don’t make me ask twice.”

She looked like she’d bitten into a lemon, but didn’t protest again. There were catacombs under the cathedral, every child knew, but people not sworn to the House of Light were not allowed to set foot in them. Most of the Fairfax dynasty was buried there, save for the few whose heads were in the Hall of Screams. I hadn’t known for sure there were rooms other than the graveyard carved out in the foundations, but it was easy enough to suspect. They had to keep the food somewhere, not to mention the more contagious patients. Baroness Kendal was in one of the rooms that served the latter purposed, if I had to guess. I could feel power coming from the walls that made me uncomfortable, had the Beast raising its hackles underneath my skin. The whole cathedral was full of it, but it was particularly pure down here. I wasn’t surprised, considering I could be more than twenty feet away from consecrated grounds. The sister knocked at the door and the baroness herself opened it, her arm in a sling.

“Lady Catherine,” she said, blinking in surprise.

I looked at the priestess.

“You may go,” I said, and it wasn’t a suggestion.

She didn’t enjoy that, but I didn’t particularly care. I turned to Anne Kendal, taking in the sight of her. She was still pale, and not in the pretty way she usually was – it was the pale of someone who’d bled too much, not the ivory of good breeding.

“May I come in?” I asked.

“By all means,” she replied, moving out of the way.

The room wasn’t much to look at. A cot and a small table covered with fresh linens. A water basin in the corner, and an open book on the bed: something religious, by the looks of it. The baroness closed the door behind me.

“I’d invite you to sit down,” the baroness said, “but I seem to be short on furniture.”

“I don’t intend to stay long,” I half-smiled. “You should sit, though. You still look like you’re recovering.”

“The assassins punctured by lung and cut into my spine,” she admitted. “Even the touch of the Heavens has been slow in working.”

Gods. I hadn’t thought her wounds had been that bad. No wonder people thought she was dead. And I’d probably let the people who’d done it go not a bell ago. The taste of self-disgust was thick on my tongue.

“I was aware of the risks when I accepted your offer,” Kendal reassured me, misinterpreting the look on my face. “Praesi play for keeps.”

“Don’t they just,” I muttered.

So did I, these days. I had a fresh batch of corpses in the city to prove it.

“I’d heard the Fifteenth had arrived, but I hardly believed it,” the baroness, smoothing a silver curl back as she sat on the bed. “They’d have had to leave months ago.”

“We went through Arcadia,” I said.

She stared at me like I’d just grown another head.

“That’s… possible?” she said.

“If you’re a Duchess of Winter,” I replied.

She looked genuinely unsure what to say at that. I forgot, now and then, that the kind of eldritch places I went and the many different creatures that tried to kill me in them were just legends to most people. Stories they never expected to see take flesh. I’d lost those kind of certainties: if it could be real it was and it was probably after my head for some godforsaken reason.

“Will you be using that as your title?” she finally asked, which she probably felt was relatively safe grounds.

“I’m leaving that up in the air until I’ve had a chat with Her Dread Majesty,” I said. “I don’t suppose the priests carried word of what happened today?”

She shook her head.

“They say isolation from the worries of Creation will allow me to heal quicker,” she said.

“Ruling Council’s dissolved,” I said. “I stormed the palace last night and had Murad and Satang publicly crucified just before Noon Bell.”

“Gods save us all,” she whispered, closing her eyes. “It is ill-bred of me to say as much, but they deserved to die. Not this painfully, but they did.”

“My legionaries will put them out of the misery after sundown,” I shrugged. “Point will have been made by then.”

That was as much pity as I was willing to expend for those two. I only had so much to spare, and there were many souls more deserving of it.

“If I may ask, who rules Callow then?” Kendal asked, eyes fluttering open.

“I do,” I said. “But I’m going off to war for Gods know how long. Congratulations, Baroness Kendal: you’ve just been appointed Governess-General of Callow.”

She eyed me carefully.

“There is no such thing,” she said. “And if there was, the Empress would frown upon it.”

“The Empress will have to cope,” I said. “And I’ll have to give her something for it, I’m sure. No doubt she’ll have her price ready when we speak.”

“I suppose I should thank you for the privilege,” she finally said.

“Don’t thank me,” I said. “I want you to turn this country into something functional while I go off to kill the people burning it down. I’ll leave you my seal – that gives you authority over everyone in Callow who’s not in the Legions.”

“The city must be in shambles,” the baroness sighed.

“Heal quickly, Anne Kendal,” I said. “Your home needs you, and so do I.”

In the end, it took two more days before Laure was settled. The appointment of the Governess-General was met with enthusiasm by the city – she was well-known there and better liked – and quiet distaste by the legionaries of the Fifth. None of them had forgotten that she’d once been the Baroness Dormer and one of the foremost nobles of the Liesse Rebellion. That she had been made the highest-ranking person in Callow after myself was a bitter bill to swallow. They’d just have to deal with it: I didn’t have anyone else remotely as competent and trustworthy at my disposal. That made for one fire mostly put out, so on to the next: the Deoraithe. I’d used the Fifth’s mages to scry Marshal Ranker and inform her I would be headed for Denier immediately, though I couldn’t give her a clear date of arrival. It was a good thing I didn’t even try an estimate, because this time travelling was… difficult.

What I took my soldiers through did not look like Winter. Or Summer, for that matter. Unless I was mistaken we’d marched through the borderlands between both. It had been deserted on Winter’s side, but on the last few days of the journey we’d begun so see larger and larger patrols from Summer gathering in the distance. It took us a week, in the end. Still shorter than it would have taken us through Creation, but inexplicably longer than it took us to get to Laure from Machford. There did not seem to be any rhyme or reason to the time spent in Arcadia, and my control on it was erratic. I’d barely needed to do anything the first way through, but on this one not getting stuck for months had been a constant struggle. I did not believe our third way through would go uncontested.

The gate opened a full day south of Denier, since I’d never been in the city itself. I allowed my legionaries a bell to recover on these less-treacherous grounds before beginning the march anew. My two and and half thousand men came in sight of the city’s walls on the evening of the following day, though the Marshal’s scouts found us long before that. I didn’t bother to meet them in person – Nauk served as a go-between while I spoke with Hakram. When it came to Legion gossip, Adjutant was without equals.

“So,” I said as Zombie trotted at his side. “Fourth Legion.”

The tall orc shot me an amused look.

“Cognomen Blackhands,” he said.

“I already knew that part,” I complained. “Everybody knows that.”

“They don’t usually know where it’s from,” Hakram gravelled. “Ranker was the Matron of the Hungry Dog tribe, before she took up with Lord Black. She took all goblins of age with her into war and sent the children to half a dozen other tribes.”

I whistled, reluctantly impressed.

“That’s a hell of a bet to make,” I said. “He was still an up and comer back then, and the Empress a relative unknown. Still doesn’t tell me where that cognomen is from.”

“Hungry Dog tribe had a ritual, when time came to choose their matron,” Adjutant said. “All the candidates put their hand in a brazier – the one who kept it the longest got to rule.”

“High pain tolerance doesn’t mean good leadership,” I grunted.

“It’s about who was willing to suffer the most to get it,” the orc said. “I can respect that. Ranker kept her hand in there for half a day, long after everybody else had abandoned. Her left hand’s a blackened ruin, and she’s refused any healing ever since.”

“And they named an entire legion after that?” I frowned.

“Officers in the Fourth kept the tradition,” Hakram said. “Even those not goblins. Most of them take healing afterwards, but everybody has to be willing to burn for power.”

“That feels like it should be against regulations,” I said, then glanced at him. “… is it?”

The thing with being Named was that rules only applied to you if you allowed them to. For example, my relationship with Kilian was technically breaking a rule about fraternization – she was under me in the chain of command. I’d learned the most important of the regs, but some of the smaller ones I’d, uh, only skimmed. In my defence, there were a lot.

“It’s skirting the line about voluntary injuries,” the orc replied. “That can qualify as desertion, if you’re not careful. But the Marshal’s been with the Carrion Lord since the beginning. Those that were get to run their legion however they want.”

A woman used to getting her own way, then, and one of the three highest-ranked military officers in the Empire to boot. I narrowed my eyes, thinking back to an old Name dream of mine – she’d been with Grem One-Eye and Istrid during the civil war. That’d been what, thirty years ago? And she’d already been a matron candidate before that. I wasn’t clear how old you had to be for that, but at least ten years old felt like a safe bet. Considering it was rare for a goblin to make it past thirty-five, that Ranker was at least forty was notable.

“How old is she?” I asked.

“Near sixty,” Hakram said. “And no, nobody knows how she made it that old. Most common guess is that Lord Black had rituals done to extend her lifespan.”

“He doesn’t like using blood magic,” I frowned, as there was no real question about what kind of a ritual could be used for such a purpose. “He would have needed a very good reason.”

“She’s the most powerful goblin in the Empire, bar none,” Adjutant said. “And she’s a vocal advocate for the Tribes being involved with the Legions. Pickler says a lot of the Matrons were in favour of going isolationist after the civil war.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“They made a lot of gains when Malicia won the throne,” I pointed out. “Breeding restrictions were lifted and they pretty much run the Imperial Forges.”

That part hadn’t been taught in the histories back at the orphanage, but it had been in the pile of books Black had dropped into my lap when I first became the Squire. I’d taken me a few years to understand that those were meant in part to be a primer to Imperial politics – by learning how all the major players had gotten where they were, I could get a read on what they wanted. Before the civil war the High Lords of Foramen had owned all the forges in the city, though they’d used goblins as labour. Malicia had given ownership to the Tribes and only allowed High Lady Banu to take a cut from the proceeds. A significant one, but it’d been a sizeable blow to her power base. I’d not been surprised to learn that she was part of the Truebloods.

“They’ve always had a bend that way,” Hakram shrugged. “And no one gets involved with the Tower for long without getting burned. I can understand wanting to take their win and go home.”

I hummed.

“So she’s a key player, then,” I said. “If she goes, the Matrons she’d keeping in check get bolder.”

“She’s not someone you can bully, Cat,” he warned. “She’s run Denier for twenty years and the Fourth is rabidly loyal. Get on her bad side and even our goblins will get restless. She’s to the Tribes what One-Eye is to the Clans.”

The looming figure of an era, he meant. Even Juniper got star struck when she spoke about Marshal Grem, and she was not a girl who impressed easy. I allowed the conversation to ebb as I considered what was ahead of us. Duchess Kegan who’d raised her army of twenty thousand was only half the problem I had to deal with. I knew what the Deoraithe wanted, and our shared enemy was common ground enough I was more or less confident I could point her in the right direction. The question was whether I could make Marshal Ranker buy into the notion. Marshals weren’t just the Imperial officers with the authority to command several legions: they had a broader responsibility put on them.

One-Eye was charged with securing the border with the Principate, Marshal Nim with keeping peace in the Wasteland. Ranker was meant to keep the Duchy of Daoine in check, positioned near the best crossing of the Silver Lake’s tributary to slow the Deoraithe down if they rebelled. I had, theoretically, the authority to give her orders. But her responsibility to keep an eye on Daoine came straight from the Tower, and that meant gave Ranker at lot of leeway. Malicia’s orders came before anyone else’s, no matter the circumstances. I remained silent all the way to the city, but no solution presented itself.

Denier was a sleepy little city, about the size of Summerholm but nowhere as heavily fortified. It had rarely ever seen fighting: whenever the Empire had bypassed Summerholm and crossed the Hwaerte, they tended to go straight from Laure. The city had been stormed during the Conquest, but it had surrendered after a token resistance – it was in no way capable of resisting the likes of what Praesi sappers could unleash. Its only real military importance came from the fact that it stood near the easiest crossing into Daoine. Higher up the river the harsh currents made navigation tricky and the making of a pontoon bridge nigh impossible. The waters west of the city were almost lazy in comparison and full of large mud banks. There was no bridge into the Duchy, of course. That no such thing would be built without the sanction of the Dukes and Duchess of Daoine had been one of the conditions written into the treaty that saw Daoine folded into Callow after the First Crusade. No Fairfax had ever dared to go back on that word, even when the northerners flouted the authority of the throne.

The greatest general in Callowan history, Elizabeth Alban, had famously attempted to invade the then-Kingdom of Daoine. By the the Queen of Blades had already proven her ability by occupying three principalities of what was not yet the Principate, crushing a Liessen rebellion and turning back a Praesi invasion. The expectation had been that, within a few months, the Deoraithe would be made subjects of Callow. Instead she’d had to slog through the countryside for two long years, losing thousands to ambushes and night attacks while her supply trains disappeared. Historians usually noted that given another year she might have won anyway by forcing a decisive battle at the capital of Daoine, but the invasion had collapsed when the Praesi had crossed the border again under Dread Empress Regalia. After the Wastelanders were defeated and the Empress killed as her flying fortress crashed into Laure, the Queen of Blades had begun planning a second invasion.

So the Watch had murdered her in her bed, in her own seat of power.

No ruler of Callow had ever forgotten that pointed warning. Had half the population of Daoine not been wiped out by Dread Empress Triumphant when she took the continent, the Duchy might very well be a sovereign nation to this day. A combination of worries about Praesi resurgence even after Triumphant died and Eleanor Fairfax’s deft diplomacy – helped along by her famous ‘friendship’ with the Queen of Daoine – had seen the kingdom made a duchy, though one so removed from the authority of the throne it was effectively a vassal state instead of truly a part of Callow. That state of affairs had been maintained after the Conquest, with regular tributes and fixed war time obligations being signed over to the Tower by treaty. My short-lived Ruling Council had changed nothing in that regard: Duchess Kegan’s envoy had flatly refused any notion that they were subject to its authority and I’d recognized that as a fight I couldn’t win. And wasn’t even sure I wanted to, to be honest. Daoine had always gotten on just fine on its own. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.

The gates were open for us when my soldiers finally made it to Denier, ranks of legionaries atop the walls watching us. I rode in at a brisk pace, and only reined in my horse when a Taghreb with the markings of Staff Tribune headed in my direction with two lines for escort. I quietly ordered the Gallowborne to allow them passage, though Farrier saw to it they immediately surrounded the legionaries of the Fourth when they got lose.

“Lady Squire,” the olive-skinned man greeted me, sharply saluting.

“Staff Tribune,” I replied. “You look like a man carrying a message.”

“Marshal Ranker asks that you attend to her immediately, ma’am,” he said.

I cocked my head to the side.

“My men are not yet settled,” I said.

“I would handle this myself, my lady,” he said. “The Marshal would like you to that within a bell Duchess Kegan will be crossing the river with a party to treat with us. If you’re to be part of the conference, you will need to be briefed.”

I smiled at the Taghreb, cursing viciously inside. Well, there went my plan to work on Ranker for a day or two before talking with the Deoraithe. One of these days, I was going to force Fate into a physical manifestation and then I was going to stab it.

Chapter 21: Example

“To conquer until all of Creation is desert or province: that is the ideal of Praes. Mock their failures if you must but do not ever forget their victories.”
– King Albert Fairfax of Callow, the Thrice-Invaded

The sword tore through flesh and bone with a meaty sound, sending the guard’s head rolling on the ground. A waste – Black would not have pursued him, had he fled. Shaking the blood off his blade with a flick of the wrist, the green-eyed Knight stepped deeper into the Pirate Queen’s sanctum, feet burdened with grim purpose.

“Amateurs,” Ranger said from his side. “They didn’t even have a proper watch.”

“They thought they were safe,” Black replied.

“They won’t after tonight,” Warlock added. “If any of them survive, anyway.”

The chatter was unnecessary, but he’d long become used to Warlock’s cheerfully morbid comments enough that it barely registered. Still, he traded a half-amused, half-exasperated glance with Ranger. They met another corsair on their way to the throne room but this one did not even get to open her mouth before Wekesa turned her upper body into ash: dealing with the pirates was child’s play after a year of back alley dogfights with his rivals and the Order of the White Hand, not to mention the civil war that followed. Not a reason to get sloppy, but overestimating an enemy was just as dangerous as overestimating them. By the time they reached the doors to the Pirate Queen’s own throne room the sounds of the mess outside had started to drift up to their ears. Curses and screams of terrors tore through the night’s quiet, the same reaction Captain always elicited whens she dared to cut loose. Black pushed open the driftwood doors in front of him without breaking stride, ready to finally put an end to the night’s slaughter.

“They sent the Black Knight and his death squad for little ‘ole me? Guess I should be flattered,” the Queen laughed as she rose from her throne and unsheathed her cutlass. “So which of you feels like dancing with death, children?”

Ranger sighed and shot the Queen in the leg, arrow knocked and flying faster than you could take a breath.

“Is it me or does that never get old?” Warlock mused. “They always get the funniest look on their faces when we won’t play along.”

The Pirate Queen dropped to the floor with a hoarse cry of pain, clutching her leg. Black wasted no time closing the distance and kicked her cutlass out of her hands.

“You are correct,” he said. “I am the Black Knight.”

“Do you have no honour –”she started.

“No,” Black replied, crouching to be of a height with her. 

“Drop the knife, Pirate,” Ranger called out. “Otherwise the next one goes through the eye.”

There was the clatter of metal on the ground and the Queen let go of the blade she’d pulled from under her tunic, grimacing.

“Fine, you lot are big and bad,” she snarled. “You made your point. Why am I still alive?”

“Because you set half of Thalassina on fire a few months back,” Black said.

“You going to parade me around Ater ‘cause I’ve been a bad girl?” the pirate asked with an ugly smile. “And to think I’d heard you were dropping the old way bullshit.”

“You misunderstand me,” the Black Knight replied. “It takes talent, to execute an operation of that breadth.”

“You should work on your recruitment pitch, love,” Queen sneered. “I’m feeling a mite uncooperative at the moment.”

Black’s eyes hardened.

“Your prize ship has been sunk. Most your lieutenants are dead. You are kneeling on the floor of your very seat of power,” he murmured. “Bringing you to this took me four people and a rowboat, Pirate. You asked me what my point was? This is it. Do not make me repeat myself.”

“Fuck it, and fuck you,” the Pirate Queen smiled. “I’m not flying an Imperial flag, and I’m sure as Hells not gonna take orders from the Tower. Do your worst, boy – I’ve laughed in the face of harder men than you.”

Warlock’s eyes became wreathed in fire and the dark-skinned man stepped forward, but Black help up a hand to stop him.

“You call yourself the Pirate Queen, but I’ve noticed your crews sometimes refer to themselves as corsairs,” the Black Knight said.

“You trying to bore me to death, Knight? I’ll give you points for originality,”

“Unlike pirates, corsairs are known to sometimes operate under official sanction,” Black said. “Not as part of a nation’s navy, but as… auxiliaries of a sort.”

The Pirate Queen eyed him dubitatively.

“If we’re not raiding Praes then who?”

“By the end of the week word will spread to the Free Cities that the pirate threat has been dealt with,” Black smiled coldly. “I expect merchant shipping to Thalassina to resume soon after.”

“Well look at the balls on you,” the Queen whistled. “Won’t they just bail again when I start boarding their boats?”

“Not if you confine yourself to a handful of them per month,” Black said. “A risky business, certainly, but there will be enough who think the payoff worth it. The Dread Empire would, of course, collect a cut in exchange for the right to operate in its waters.”

“So you want my ships on a leash, is that it?” the pirate sneered. “What if I say no?”

The green-eyed man laid the flat of his blade on his knees.

“That is your prerogative.”

There was a long moment of silence as the Queen mulled over the offer. Sighing, she finally spat in the palm of her hand and offered it to the man in front of her. Black spat into his own without batting an eye, ignoring her puerile attempt to crush his fingers when they shook on it. He rose.

“A woman named Scribe will come tomorrow to work out the details of the arrangement. A pleasant evening to you, then,” the Knight said as he sheathed his sword. He made for the door, but before he could pass the threshold the Queen called out to him.

“Knight,” she asked. “If I’d said no, what would you have done?”

“Used your head a prop when making the same offer to your second-in-command,” Black replied, not even bothering to turn as he strode out of the Pirate Queen’s throne room.

There was no slow transition between sleep and wakefulness. I was one, then I the other. I rolled out of my sheets still tired and padded across the room to the window. Dawn had come a gone hours ago, by the looks of the sun. Grabbing a blanket from a seat, I wrapped myself in it but found it did nothing to hinder the cold. It wasn’t coming from outside, I supposed. Breathing out quietly, I stared at the gardens sprawling below and considered the Name dream I’d just woken up from. It’d been a while, since I’d last had one of those. I’d known for years that Black had handled the pirates based in the Tidelesse Isles after the Empress ascended to the throne, but that there’d been a Named involved was not common knowledge. Considering that the pirates had first come from a Praesi fleet smashed by the Thalassocracy one at port, that they’d eventually be forced back into Imperial service was darkly amusing. The history lesson wasn’t why I’d gotten the dream, of course. I had decisions ahead of me.

Robber, by now, would have prisoners from the Dark Guilds. If there were any from the Thieves I’d have to release them, but that still left the Smugglers and the Assassins. Months ago, I’d thought to dismantle the Guild of Assassins. Even before Ratface had laid out the logistical difficulties of that, I’d had a little chat with the Empress on the subject. Pointless, she’d called the entire enterprise. I still disagreed with her. There was a difference between a handful of men and woman who killed for coin spread all over Callow and an organized guild of them. The part she might have been correct about was that the amount of time and resources I’d have to sink into this far outweighed the gains to be made – namely, the absence of a godsdamned gang of killers for hire in my homeland. The situation had changed since she and I had talked: back then, all I’d had to worry about was Heiress plotting in the south. Now I had other cats to skin than a guild that probably killed fewer people in my territory every year than roadside accidents.

My Name was urging me to make vassals of them. Pretty bluntly, too. I clenched my fingers and unclenched them. It wasn’t a decision I was willing to make before looking one of them in the eyes. I turned away from the window. Breakfast, first, and then a show. Hakram should have organized everything by now.

“It’s not a Praesi invention, you know,” Adjutant said.

“Huh,” I said. “That’s surprising. They’re the ones famous for it.”

The sun had melted any traces of frost our passage had made in Fairfax Place. Not that anyone would be able to see them anyway: the plaza was packed to the brim with the people of Laure. Hakram had to place criers at street corners to arrange as much, since just nailing parchments announcing the mandatory presence would have been largely pointless. The overwhelming majority of people in the capital couldn’t read, and it was still one of the most educated places in Callow – some of the Fairfaxes had encouraged scholarship, though never to the extent of funding academies like they did in some of the Proceran principalities. I imagined that kind of expense would have been hard to justify when the Legions could be marching on Summerholm at any time. It was impossible for a crowd this size – there must have been twenty thousand people in the plaza alone – to be silent, but it was quiet. The appearance of my legionaries had been so sudden no one knew quite what to make of it.

“Miezans brought it with them over the sea,” Hakram told me. “It was the punishment for rowdy slaves.”

The tall orc was standing besides me, so I could see the displeasure on his face as he spoke. Considering orcs had made for very popular slaves in the Miezan Empire, I could take a guess as to why.

“So when Triumphant was using it, it had… implications,” I murmured.

Adjutant refrained from adding ‘may she never return’ though his hand twitched when he supressed the reflex of bringing his knuckles to his forehead.

“I’m telling you this because the High Lords will think it’s part of the message you’re sending,” the orc said.

I nodded. The both of us watched Nauk’s men drag the usurpers to the tall wooden crosses we’d had placed in the middle of the plaza. Satang looked numb, but Murad was struggling against the pair of Callowan legionaries forcing him to move. One of them lost patience and cracked a gauntleted hand across his mouth, drawing blood. The two Praesi were hoisted up the cross, and then an orc brought out the iron spikes and the hammer. Satang’s hoarse scream filled the plaza as the legionary nailed her first wrist down.

“You are rowdy slaves to me,” I muttered. “Well, that ought to get their attention.”

“They’ll be pushing to censure you through the Imperial court,” Hakram said.

“The Court I have to worry about isn’t in Ater,” I replied.

Another gut-wrenching scream echoed as the work on Murad began.

“Breaking entirely with the Tower would have consequences,” Adjutant said. “Ones we are ill-equipped to handle.”

“I’ll be calling myself a vicequeen, no a queen,” I said. “There’s an implication there I still answer to Her Dread Majesty.”

“You’re claiming a territory as large as Praes as under your direct command,” Hakram pointed out. “You’d be more an ally than a vassal.”

“She’ll get tribute and soldiers,” I said. “She struck the same deal with Daoine.”

“You’re not this thick,” the orc gravelled. “Don’t pretend.”

Callow wasn’t Daoine, of course. Its fields fed the Wasteland and its population was near the size of Praes’. There was a difference in the balance of power – Malicia could not allow me to just declare the de facto independence for a territory this large. It would be a major loss of face, influence and wealth for her. She would likely have to deal with internal rebellions if she was somehow convinced of the notion.

“I’m done letting High Lords having a say here, Hakram,” I said.

Please,” Murad screamed, but the legionaries forced his legs together and drove a spike through the flesh and bone.

“Then find concessions to make,” Adjutant replied. “We’ll have around twice our number in legionaries on the field by the end of this. Fighting them would not end well, and the Empress will give the order if you leave her no other choice.”

I conceded the point with a sullen grunt. Kilian hadn’t been wrong on one thing: I had tired of compromise. The last spike tore through Satang Motherless’ ankles and the legionaries wiped the blood off their armour with calm professionalism before moving away. The two Wastelanders hung from their crosses limply. Time for my part, then.

“The Ruling Council is officially dissolved,” I spoke, weaving a thread of power into my voice so it would carry for blocks. “As of this moment, I take command of Callow until martial law is lifted. A Governor-General will be appointed shortly to oversee Laure.”

I paused to let that sink in.

“You may disperse,” I finished.

I allowed my eyes to scan the crowd. This was, in essence, the pivot of my presence in the capital. If a riot ensued everything was gonna go to shit – I’d need to leave behind a garrison and it was all down here from there. The scene with the two usurpers had been as much to sate them with blood as to offer a reminder: rebels died ugly deaths. Silence, the kind you only got in a church, reigned supreme. Then the first man knelt. From there it was like an avalanche. Within heartbeats, there was not a man woman or child standing in Fairfax Place. I breathed out slowly, then composed myself.

“Take me where Robber keeps them,” I ordered Hakram, and we left without a word.

Going back Dockside was oddly nostalgic. I’d earned coin for blood here, back in the day. Would that the trades I made were still so innocent. The warehouse belonged to the fishermen’s guild, though they were more a loose association than one of the true powers claiming that same name. It smelled of salt and dry fish, the reason why becoming obvious when the two of us entered: rows of bluegills and widemouth basses were hanging from the ceiling. I vaguely knew the salting was done different in other parts of Callow, but Laure was known for its particular take on the process. Southpooleans insisted their way of doing it was better, but they were just as wrong about that as they were about everything else. That was the lightest thought I allowed myself before painting blankness over my face. Weakness had no place here. There’d been legionaries standing guard around the warehouse and what looked like at least half Robber’s cohort was spread inside.

Crossbows out, they kept an eye on the two dozen Callowans who’d been dragged out of their beds last night and brought here without an explanation any more elaborate than a kick in the back if they weren’t moving fast enough. None of them were tied, I saw, save for a single pair. A man and woman who looked – and smelled liked tanners – but had an entire tenth of goblins keeping an eye on them at all times. Robber strutted up to me, a bit of blood on his lower lip, and massacred yet another salute.

“I’ve got a treat for you, Boss,” the Special Tribune announced.

“It better not be a corpse,” I said.

It was always a godsdamned corpse with him. He was like the world’s most murderous cat, only it was worse because he was supposed to have a conscience. Or whatever the goblin equivalent of that was. Probably more knives.

“I would never,” the yellow-eyed wretch said, deeply offended. “I’m a tender, gentle soul. I’m just misunderstood.”

“I saw you eat a man’s finger once,” I said.

“Well, he was dead,” Robber shrugged. “Wasn’t like he was going to be using it.”

He made sure to pitch his voice high enough to our guests would be able to hear him. I used to wonder whether he did things like for entertainment or for interrogation tactics before I’d realized there was no real difference between the two for him.

“So what have you got for me,” I asked.

Engaging him would only keep sending this conversation spiralling further into madness and mind games.

“Smugglers’ Guild,” he said. “All except my present. Those two ‘tanners’ with enough steel and poison on them to kill a small village.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“How’d you find them?” I asked.

“Ratface had them marked as potential members in his briefings,” the goblin said. “We only had to kick the door and run in screaming to check if they actually were.”

I resisted the urge to rub the bridge of my nose. Results, Catherine, I reminded myself. He still got results.

“Anybody high ranked?” I said.

“Top two Smugglers in the city,” he said cheerfully. “Was going to torture that out of them, but they kept telling me. They seemed to think it would make us release them.”

“Black tolerated their activities,” I said. “They’re not used to Legion attention.”

To my teacher it had been more valuable to keep an eye on what was being brought into Callow illegally than to curtail their activities. Knowing him, he’d probably considered their dodging fees and tariffs like a payment of sorts.

“The were sloppy,” Robber grinned viciously. “If that’s the best criminals your people have to offer, it’s no wonder you turned to Praes to get things done.”

“We’ve a hole in the budget,” I warned him. “Don’t think I won’t sell your hide in Mercantis for a few coppers.”

“Please,” he cackled. “I’m the official footrest of the queen of Callow. I’m worth at least a couple silvers.”

I managed not to grimace at that, but it was a close thing. Not the footrest thing, that was an old joke between us, but this ‘queen’ business. That was a warning from him, that the rank and file of the Fifteenth expected for me to have a crown by the time we’d cleaned up the mess. Balancing the next few months was going to be like walking a tightrope. I allowed him to waddle away like he’d won. Little ‘victories’ like that usually kept him happy for a day or two, and when he was in a good mood he got into much less trouble.

“The assassins are watching you,” Hakram said quietly.

I knew better than to look.

“Let’s talk to our guests, then,” I grunted.

I gestured for the goblin cohort to get the prisoners moving, seating them on a row of wooden crated. A few of them recognized me, apparently, because the moment I got closer they spoke up.

“Lady Foundling,” a man in his fifties called out. “I must really  protest. This is entirely unnecessary! We could have met at our offices-“

I glanced at the lieutenant standing behind him. She grinned, then smashed the copper bottom of her crossbow into the back of his head.

“Let’s make one thing perfectly clear,” I said. “This is not a courtesy visit. If you want to walk out of this room alive, I would discard the notion that you are in any way protected by the deal you made with Black.”

I turned cold eyes on the crowd, saw a few shiver.

“I am not him,” I said. “I have different expectations of you.”

Sharp laughter came from further down the line. It was a woman, in her twenties with a missing eye. Looked like she’d been in a few scraps.

“Posturing,” she said. “You don’t have the balls to go against the Carrion Lord. We all know who you answer to.”

I studied her for a moment.

Choke on your tongue,” I Spoke.

Her eye went wide. She tried to breathe but couldn’t hand desperately clawing at her throat. You could have heard a pin drop in the warehouse, by the time she fell blue-faced to the ground.

“I trust,” I said, “that there will be no more of that.”

Several of the Smugglers had pissed themselves. I wrinkled my nose in distaste. Robber was right, they’d gotten soft under Imperial protection.

“Callow is at war,” I said. “You have been called upon to serve.”

The man from earlier – he must have been the local head – nodded in abject submission. His hands were shaking.

“Anything you need, Lady Foundling,” he babbled.

“You’ll be sending representatives to the Fifteenth,” I said. “They are to put themselves at Supply Tribune Ratface’s disposal and obey his every order. And while you do that, gather rations for an army on the march. You’ll be keeping my army supplied through the Wasaliti on its way south. I’ve no patience for parasites while the country is under siege.”

That should allow Juniper to manoeuvre the way she needed to. Marchford just didn’t have the supplies for an extended campaign, and with both the war in Wolof and General Istrid gathering legions near Vale there would be no time to requisition what we needed. I turned to the two assassins, who’d been watching all of this in silence. They were not scared, I saw. They weren’t from a breed as easily unnerved as the smugglers.

“Neither of us has the authority to grant any demands you could make,” the man among them said.

“Not even the head of our Guild in Laure would,” the woman added, then shrugged. “Kill us, if you must. It makes no difference.”

“You can carry a message,” I said. “That will do.”

“And you think the Guildmaster will listen?” the man said, cocking his head to the side.

“We have watched your men try to find us,” the woman told me. “Prune branches if you can. The tree will survive.”

I’d asked Ratface, a few months ago, to find me the Assassins. So I’d be able to wipe them out in one go. The anger that had driven me back then – the righteous indignation at the concept of a band of killers being allowed to run amok Callow without consequence – was not as sharp at it used to be. I had no spite left to spare for mortals, not when I was set against forces who thought of ripping out my heart as a mere warning.

“I won’t kill you,” I replied softly. “Oh no. I’ll drag you back to Marchford, and then I’ll let Apprentice rip out the information I need from your minds.”

The woman’s body stiffened ever so slightly.

“You’ll most likely survive that,” I casually continued. “Though not unscathed. What’s left of you, I will trade to the Winter Court for a favour. They do enjoy their little games, the fae.”

I felt the room cool around me.

“I doubt you will, though,” I said. “Winter tends to play rough.”

“Striking at us would take men you need elsewhere,” the woman said.

The male assassin’s eyes flicked towards her, then he sighed.

“A message can be carried,” he conceded.

“Tell your Guildmaster that he’s on notice,” I said coldly. “His actions over the next few months are what will determine whether I go through your ranks with fire and sword and all the things that are worse I’ve refrained from using.”

The woman nodded slowly.

“And the terms?” she asked.

“You take a contract in Callow, it goes by my desk,” I said. “There’s so much as a shoemaker that dies without my approval and I rip you out root and stem. You don’t need to worry about running out of work, though.”

I smiled thinly.

“I have a list,” I said. “It will grow longer, before all is said and done.”

The man considered this for a moment.

“And should the Guildmaster acceded to your request, will you handle the matters directly?”

“I’ll be the one handling you,” Adjutant said from my side. “Won’t be hard to find. There’s not a lot of orcs with one of those.”

He brought up his bone hand, displaying the fingers. It made the assassins visibly uncomfortable, hardened as they were. They were, after all, still Callowan. Necromancy was the Enemy’s tool, and one of its most unpleasant ones.

“You’re dismissed,” I said, gesturing for the goblins to untie the assassins.

It wasn’t enough to worry about this war. I had to worry about the one after that, and when the High Lords knocked at one gate and Procer snuck through the other? There would be a need for ill-gained goods and dead men. All it cost me to get them was a principle.

I was fast running out of those.

Chapter 20: Skew

“An alliance of victors is like a hearth in summer.”
– Julienne Merovins, tenth First Princess of Procer

I’d met a handful of heroes since I’d first become the Squire, and Thief was one of the harder ones to place. She was, quite blatantly, an egotist. Yet she lacked some of the traits that were common with the more arrogant heroes: both the Lone Swordsman and the Exiled Prince – the Prince in particular – had been almost unnaturally handsome. The appearance of a Named usually changed to reflect how they thought of themselves, after all. Yet Thief was not particularly good-looking, I noted as I studied her. Maybe two inches taller than me, she was a skinny woman with short dark hair and blue-grey eyes. The leathers she always wore had been cut for her frame, but weren’t particularly tight: much like me, she’d have little to show for it if they were. Most of all, she lacked the weight to her presence that I’d come to associate with powerful Named. William, for all his flaws, had been able to mesmerize a room full of rebels with but a few words. I had a hard time imagining Thief ever doing the same.

“You sure you should have taken off that helmet?” the heroine smiled. “You’ve seen how costly a mistake that can be.”

I withdrew my hand from the arm of the chair, and slowly sat down. The seat wasn’t made for someone wearing plate, evidently, and it groaned under the weight of my armour.

“We going to play the threat game?” I asked bluntly. “Thief, I could have killed you with a hand tied behind my back last time we met. I’ve since murdered a demigod for power. We both know how that fight goes.”

The other woman’s eyes turned cold.

“A fair fight, maybe,” she said. “I’m not in the habit of having those.”

I snorted.

“And I am?” I replied. “Look, I’m as willing as tangle as the next villain but if I get an occasion to put a shot someone’s back in the dark, I’m sure as Hells taking it.”

“How remarkable,” she sneered.

“Well, I have been spending a lot of time with goblins lately,” I said. “But I gotta say that putdown’s a little rich, coming from someone whose entire Name is about theft.”

Thief smirked.

“Oh?” she said. “Is someone displeased their treasury’s gone?”

“I am,” I smiled thinly. “I’m about to have to find food and lodgings for at least a hundred thousand refugees while also running a military campaign and I don’t have the funds for any of it.”

“The Tower will shell out the gold,” Thief dismissed.

“The Tower’s putting down internal troubles, and I’m about to spit in its eye,” I said. “It’s not going to be giving me a single copper for the foreseeable future.”

“Villains stabbing each other in the back at the first sign of trouble,” the heroine grinned unpleasantly. “History does tend to repeat itself, doesn’t it?”

“I’m not-“ I began, then stopped. “Oh fuck you.”

She blinked in surprise.

“Who do you think you are, exactly?” I asked.

“A heroine, villain,” she replied.

“Someone tried to mind rape a city of a hundred thousand last year, Thief, and it sure as Hells wasn’t anyone on my side,” I barked. “You think being William’s minion for a few months gives you a pass to be an asshole forever and still have the moral high ground? Think again.”

“I spoke against that,” Thief hissed.

“Words are wind,” I said. “You could have taken a stand. You didn’t. So much for heroism, eh?”

“I might have made mistakes,” she said through gritted teeth. “I’ll own up to that. But you know what I’m not, at least? A godsdamned collaborator.”

My face blanked. I’d been called a traitor before. By a crowd in Summerholm, when I was fresh into my name, and by the Lone Swordsman in the months that followed. But it was the first time anyone had actually called me a collaborator to my face. No doubt quite a few people had thought it in the past, but I’d never actually heard it spoken out loud. It stung more than I would have liked, even now. Things with a grain of truth to them usually did.

“I took the path that damages Callow the least,” I said.

“You took the path that involved selling your soul to the Hellgods,” she replied flatly.

“I got a close look at the Hashmallim, in Liesse,” I said. “I think you think your side’s any gentler than mine, you’ve been listening to stories too much.”

“My ‘side’ hasn’t stolen an entire fucking kingdom,” she snapped.

I shrugged.

“And what’s it done to free it since?” I asked.

“It rebelled,” Thief said. “And you murdered the people that did. I’m sure they felt very saved.”

“You think putting a crown on Gaston Caen would have helped this country?” I said, leaning forward. “Gods, Thief, the man fled into exile before the first legion was in sight of Vale during the Conquest. He was a bloody coward and the First Prince owned him down to his toes.”

“So you say,” the heroine sneered.

“So the facts say,” I coldly said. “You think she poured that much silver into a doomed rebellion so an old rival of the Principate could be restored? She wanted a western protectorate to push back Praes, that’s all there was to it.”

“Elizabeth of Marchford would have been queen,” Thief said. “She would not have settled for that.”

“You think she would have had a choice?” I pressed. “After Praes burned the land on the way out, who would have leant the coin and crops to keep Callow alive through the winter?”

“That would have been the Empire’s fault,” she hissed.

“Gods Below, am I tired of hearing about fault,” I shouted. “Fault and blame and Good – none of it fixes any of this. If you want a solution, you deal with realities. With what exists, not the pretty little world that ‘should be’. Praes would have acted in its interest, and that meant torching the country. Procer would have acted in its interests, which was making us a protectorate. Anyone who plans without acknowledging that isn’t planning, they’re lying to themselves. That’s what I can’t stand about the lot of you. Do you think doing the right thing is enough? Fuck you. I’ve had to bloody my hands to get this far, Thief. I didn’t enjoy it, and some of the things I’ve done will haunt me to my grave. But the only clean victories are the ones in stories. Preach all you want, I have gotten things done.”

I panted, out of breath, my tone quieted.

“Which of you pricks on the other side can say the same?” I asked.

“Sometimes you have to take a stand even if you know you can’t win,” she said.

“That’s pride talking,” I replied. “That’s killing people for your principles, and I can’t think of anything more selfish than that.”

Thief laughed bitterly.

“You know, there’s truth in what you say,” she admitted. “But none of it would have mattered if you were a heroine.”

I’d been at this game long enough that the surprise never made it to my face.

“William was never meant to lead,” Thief said. “He was terrible at it. But I look at the party we had, and can’t help but thing there was always supposed to be one. All of us were born in Callow, except for the Wandering Bard – and I’m not convinced she was supposed to be a part of it. One Named for every Calamity, if you’d been on the side of Good. And we’ve all seen what you can do with an uphill battle.”

“I know them, the Calamities,” I said. “I know what they can do better than most. It wasn’t a fight that could be won.”

“The Heavens have a way of evening odds,” she said.

“Prayer is what people rely on when they’ve run out of plans,” I replied. “I’ve no patience for it.”

In this, at least, I was truly Black’s successor.

“What you’ve built is collapsing,” Thief said.

“By the end of the year, there will be no Praesi governor in Callow,” I said.

“I’m not talking about the governors,” she said. “I’m talking about the Ruling Council.”

“It’s done,” I said tiredly. “I tried, it failed. Come sunup the two of them will be dead and I’m not surrendering that authority ever again.”

The heroine frowned.

“You’re naming yourself queen,” she said.

“Vicequeen, most likely,” I said. “A ceremonial title: I can’t run the country if I’m waging war abroad, and it’s become clear I’m not great at it anyway. I’ll name a Governor-General to handle everything and keep power in name only. The Tower won’t accept anyone but a villain at the head of Callow.”

Thief stared at me for a long time.

“What do you want, Squire?” she said. “I thought you’d come here to threaten me or force a fight, but that’s obviously not the case. Why are we here?”

“A tenth,” I said.

The heroine blinked.

“What?”

“You get to keep a tenth of the treasury,” I said. “The rest goes back in the vault.”

“Are you trying to bribe me with coin already in my possession?” she asked.

“Bribe, no,” I said. “I’m hiring the Guild of Thieves.”

“We’re not for hire,” Thief said.

“Fine, I’m giving you a ‘gift’ for anticipated services, then,” I grunted. “Do I need to wink, or are we on the same page?”

“That’s not-“ the heroine stopped before finishing her sentence. “What do you want to hire us for?”

“The Empress and Black have networks of informants forty years in the making, backed by the Legions of Terror,” I said. “The First Prince has a hundred thousand battle-hardened veterans and the wealthiest nation on Calernian at her feet. If I want to play in the same league, I need talented people and I need them now. Your people are criminals, but they’re criminals with presence in every Callowan city and a fountain of foreign contacts. Right now I only have eyes in the Legions and the Wasteland – I’m blind everywhere else and it’s already cost me.”

“I’m a heroine,” Thief reminded me.

“If William had stuck to killing criminals in the streets of Summerholm, I would have given him a salary and a godsdamned badge,” I replied frankly. “I work with the monsters because they give me the means to do what I need to, not because I have any illusions about what they are. I don’t fight heroes out of principle, Thief, I fight them because they keep trying to kill me and make a mess of Callow in the process.”

“And if I don’t cooperate?” she asked lightly, but her eyes betrayed how serious she was.

“This is the part where I say ‘if you’re not an asset, you’re a liability’, right?” I sighed. “I get back the treasury, is what I do, because I need it. And then as long as you stay out of my way, I will politely pretend you don’t exist.”

I smiled thinly.

“And I think you will,” I continued. “Stay out of my way. It’s not like you want any of my opponents to win instead: I’m the lesser evil. Besides, in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s wolves at the gates. I don’t have the time or energy to spare on pointless pissing matches.”

The Thief stared at me in silence. I met her eyes without flinching.

“Assassin tried to recruit me, when I first came into my Name,” she suddenly said.

“I’m told he’s a regular bundle of laughs,” I replied.

“The conversation couldn’t have lasted more than a quarter hour,” Thief said. “To this day, I shiver when I think of it. That… thing was death made flesh.”

I wasn’t sure where she was headed with this, so I kept my peace.

“And yet,” the heroine said, “I think you might just be the most dangerous villain I’ve ever met.”

“You’ve never met Black,” I said.

“It’s not about power,” Thief replied. “You make it easy to want to follow you. Because you make sense, because you get results. I should try to kill you tonight, because if I don’t you might just damage Calernia beyond repair.”

“Will you?” I asked.

Silence reigned.

“Baroness Kendal is still alive,” Thief said. “She was wounded, but took refuge in the cathedral. The priests are hiding her.”

I nodded slowly, then rose to my feet.

“I’ll need the treasury back in the vault before I leave,” I said.

“Minus our tenth,” Thief smiled bitterly, looking up at the ceiling.

I made for the door, passing her by.

“Squire,” she said. “No, Foundling now I suppose. If you ever become what you say you’re fighting…”

“Then more dangerous people than you will be putting me down,” I replied, and walked away.

I got the last word, I thought, largely because she had nothing to reply to that.

“Lady Squire,” Orim the Grim greeted me.

He’d been sleeping until recently. I’d learned to tell the signs, with orcs – the voices got a little deeper, and they showed their teeth more often. The general was almost as tall as Hakram, who was unusually so for his kind, and his skin was of a yellow-green I’d only ever seen in goblins before. It was uncommon in the Lesser Steppes, I knew: almost all my legionaries from there were of a green so dark it looked like black. Of the man himself, I knew little. When it had become clear he’d remain one of the important people of Laure for the foreseeable future I’d asked my own orcs about him, but gotten only vague outlines. Juniper had told me he’d been chieftain of the Silent Men before Black recruited him halfway through the civil war, one of larger clans in the Lesser Steppes. Nauk had remembered he’d been known for his warring with the Deoraithe of the Wall, and all Hakram knew was that he’d once wiped out an entire smaller clan in a single night for having stolen some of his cattle. I wasn’t surprised, considering the cognomen his legion had earned during the Conquest: Exterminatus.

The Fifth had been under Marshal Grem’s command during his assault on the Wall, a campaign undertaken to make sure none of the Deoraithe would be with the army of Callow at the Fields of Streges. After taking one of the forts, Orim the Grim had put every soldier in it to the sword as keeping any prisoners would have slowed his march. That had happened a long way from Laure, though. In the capital his reputation was as a fair but distant commander who would not hesitate to resort to violence if pushed. His open enmity with the late Governor Mazus had won him some esteem, since the Fifth’s legionaries had made it a point to put the governor’s men in their place whenever they could. I’d been raised to the sight of big armoured orcs punching the teeth out of city guard who overstepped, and it had gone a long way in teaching me to see greenskins were not the enemy. A long time ago, that. My ascension to the Ruling Council has not granted me any better insight into the man, since he’d withdrawn from any relation to it after ensuring the Fifth would not have to obey any orders from its members.

“General Orim,” I replied.

The room in the barracks was almost bare, a sure sign the orc didn’t use it regularly. In my experience greenskins like to decorate with trophies from victories anywhere they stayed longer than a few weeks. The Fifth’s general staff was nowhere in sight: it seemed Orim had grasped that this wouldn’t be that kind of meeting. Save for a table with a jug of some dark alcohol – almost empty by now – and two cups to accompany it, there was little of note here. I’d not been offered any of the drink, and had not asked: orcs drank liquor hard enough to leave holes in whatever it touched. Something about their stomachs taking to alcohol differently, Hakram had told me. As it happened said orc was seated at my side, across from the general. He polished off the rest of his cup and let out a pleased little sigh.

“Callowan drink just isn’t the same,” Adjutant said.

“They make passable wine in the north,” the general replied amusedly. “But nothing close to brannahal.”

My eyes narrowed. I did not recognize the word. It was from an older dialect of Kharsum, I thought, but aside from the part meaning fire I didn’t recognize the rest. As for the mention of the north of Callow, I almost grimaced. ‘Wine’ to the north of Ankou was actually a heavily concentrated version of brandy made by farmers and cattle-herders out in the field. It was said that in a pinch it could be used instead of lamp oil.

“Deadhand tells me you’re to handle order in the city,” Orim suddenly said.

Coming from a Praesi, the way he’d been called by his nickname instead of his Name would have been an insult. From an orc, though, the meaning was different. The Clans didn’t really have titles aside from chieftain. Even their rare mages did not get much distinction from the mass. Orcs who distinguished themselves in some way earned a nickname, and for someone not sharing a clan to use it was a mark of respect. Evidently Adjutant had made some inroads here while I’d been busy in the city.

“I have the usurpers in my custody,” I said. “I’ll be executing them publicly come morning and re-establishing a civilian government afterwards.”

“We’re under martial law,” Orim gravelled.

“We don’t have the soldiers to waste to enforce that,” I replied calmly. “I need you with General Istrid as soon as possible.”

“She knows the people here, general,” Hakram said. “If she says the peace will hold, it’ll hold.”

The older orc conceded the point with a grunt.

“Where is the Fifteenth headed?” he asked.

“I’ve sent Juniper south,” I said. “She’ll be gathering additional men as she goes.”

“She should be marching to Vale,” the orc bluntly stated. “To put her soldiers under her mother’s command.”

“That won’t be happening,” I replied frankly. “The forces will remain divided for the campaign.”

“Ruling Council’s dead,” Orim said. “And it didn’t have authority of the Legions went it was still breathing.”

“I am the Squire,” I coldly said. “Her Dread Majesty is preoccupied with Wolof and Black is abroad. My orders are not to be gainsaid.”

The general’s face went stony.

“Knightsbane’s fought two wars and a hundred skirmishes,” he growled. “So have I. What do you have under your belt, three half-baked battles? The soldiers should go to Vale.”

“I could make this about power,” I replied idly. “We both know that using a sliver of power I could order you to drown yourself and you would. But I don’t need to. I have information you don’t. The chain of command is clear. Do it.”

The orc was twice my size. Scarred, bursting with muscle and capable of popping a man’s neck off his shoulders with his bare hand – and yet he knew better than to try to loom. Orim glanced at Hakram and saw only ice there. Adjutant had picked his side long ago. The general scoffed, but did not push any further.

“You’ll have orders for General Istrid,” he said, tacitly offering to carry them.

“Juniper is already in contact with her by scrying,” I said. “The Knightsbane will be marching on Holden as soon as your men arrive.”

The older orc frowned.

“We’re pretty sure the fae can portal from one stronghold to the other,” he said.

“They can,” I confirmed. “We’ll be splitting their forces with multiple assault so you don’t bear the brunt of it.”

“And you think they’ll just let General Juniper leisurely stroll south?” he sceptically asked. “They’ve raiding parties out.”

“And the Diabolist has an army out in the field,” I said. “So far the Summer Court has refrained from hitting Liesse. I’ve sent two Named down there to remedy to that. Akua Sahelian will have to be dealt with after the fae are repelled, and I don’t want her forces fresh when it happens.”

Apprentice had been less than pleased at being partnered with Archer, but sending either one on their own would have been a disaster.

“My detachment will be stabilizing Laure, then we’ll move on,” I continued. “To Denier. I mean to free Marshal Ranker’s legions if I can.”

Orim’s dark eyes lingered on my skin, the visible reminder that I was at least half-Deoraithe by blood.

“Kegan’s not to be trusted,” he said. “She was never comfortable under the Tower – the Fairfaxes allowed her to run things the way she liked without even tribute.”

“I know what she wants,” I said. “That gives me leverage. And twenty thousand men is nothing to sneer at, if they can be pointed in the right direction.”

“Rely on them and you’ll get a knife in the back,” he gravelled.

“The correct word is use, not rely,” I said. “When can I expect you to move out?”

He mulled over it.

“Two days,” he said. “Supplies are mostly ready, but I want them prepared for a hard march.”

I nodded.

“We should be gone, by then,” I said. “Until we are you can liaise with Adjutant if you need anything. I’ll be busy pacifying the capital.”

He saluted, reluctantly, and I pushed back my chair.

“Hakram?” I prompted.

“I’ll be in touch, general,” Adjutant said.

We left together. I still had over a bell before dawn, by my reckoning, but I’d need to sleep at some point. And when I woke up, I’d have to make sure the largest city in Callow didn’t start rioting the moment my legionaries left. Joy.

Chapter 19: Order (Redux)

“In the aftermath of a rebellion do not execute merely those who rebelled. Remove those that remained uncommitted as well, for any power not bound to you is a threat.”
– Extract from the personal journals of Dread Emperor Terribilis II

The gate opened into Fairfax Square.

A year ago, this plaza had been filled to the brim with people come from all over the north of Callow to see the Empress bestow her rewards upon the victors of the Liesse Rebellion. Now? It was night-empty, though that had as much to do with the hour of the night as Laure’s recent… troubles. I’d thought about trying to open the portal directly into the Whitestone, since it was much closer to the palace, but ultimately decided against it. Even after experimenting with the power under Masego’s guidance it was still a roll of the dice where I’d carve a way out into Creation: better to take the widest place I knew in the capital and limit the risks. As for the time, well, it was much easier for me to open gates when it was dark out. My title in Winter likely had something to do with it. Not that even darkness seemed to affect the hard limit I’d found to my power: I could only open a portal once a day before my body began to revolt against the amount of fae power coursing through my veins.

Pushing myself to a second opening had hurt enough I’d not tried for a third. Having most liquid in my body freeze might very well have killed me, if not for the healing power I’d stolen from a hero and Apprentice’s immediate and panicked help. The coming of dawn seemed to wipe away the slate when it came to fae sorcery in my body, for some arcane reason, which was my most promising lead around the limitations so far. But given how dangerous toying with this power had turned out to be I was much more inclined to let Masego run the calculations in his tower than try more direct experimental methods. What I’d stolen in Winter, I had been forced to admit, was not without limits. No matter. It was still a massive advantage over all my opponents. Zombie the Second’s hooves clacked against the stone as I emerged first from Arcadia into the deserted heart of Laure. Legionaries followed in good order, their armour touched with frost even with the furs they wore over it.

“Three days,” Nauk said, striding to my side as his soldiers spread out. “Three days, Catherine.”

My horse stirred uneasily as the presence of an orc so close, but I stroked his neck until he calmed. Even mounts raised with greenskins never got entirely accustomed to them: there was just something wrong about the way orcs smelled, apparently. Considering that anything that moved qualified as meat for the cookpots, according to the Clans, I couldn’t really blame them.

“I don’t think all our crossings will be so uneventful,” I replied.

“I don’t care if we have to fight a running battle every time,” he laughed. “It was a month and half’s journey, if we marched my people halfway to the grave. The Fifteenth’s the fastest army in Creation now. Hells, we barely even need a supply train.”

“The fastest inside the Empire, maybe,” I said. “I wouldn’t try to portal anywhere I haven’t been before.”

“The warlock’s get said he’d be able to run the numbers for it,” the orc legate said.

“Masego was raised by a vicious creature of pure Evil and also a devil,” I said. “His definition of safe is a little skewed. I’m not using his model unless we get really desperate.”

“So in a few months, then,” Robber grinned.

I’d heard the goblin approach, for once. I was getting used to his skulking.

“You never know,” I sighed. “We could get through a single year without drowning in the deep end.”

“Just wouldn’t be the Fifteenth if it we were fighting battles we’re supposed to win,” Nauk contributed.

That was  so sadly true I didn’t bother to deny it.

“Hakram?” I asked the Special Tribune.

“With the rear guard,” he replied. “We’ve had some curious little bastards coming closer.”

I grimaced. While no Winter fae had made contact my sentries had reported silhouettes in the distance keeping an eye on us. I doubted any of the big ones would bother to come in person, but until I knew whose underlings those scouts were I’d have to tread carefully. I might be a Duchess but I was a Duchess of Winter. As usual, the side I’d ended up on was the one known for vicious infighting. I watched the legionaries move into a defensive formation across Fairfax Square and drummed my fingers against my saddle.

“Robber,” I said. “Hunt me some rats. I want anyone aligned with a Dark Guild in my city in custody, and soon.”

The goblin’s eyes glinted malevolently in the dark.

“And if they don’t want to come along?” he asked.

“You’re operating under my authority,” I replied. “Use whatever means you deem necessary.”

The chuckling sound he made was so unpleasant it should have counted as a crime.

“You’ll have them by sunup, Boss,” he said, saluting so sloppily I barely recognized the gesture.

He whistled sharply as he trotted off, his merry pack of killers popping out from the ranks to assemble around him. They looked like ugly green imps, I thought as I watched them, but they acted more like a pack of wolves – clustering around the nastiest among them, eager to sink their teeth into something.

“General Orim will have the city under martial law,” Nauk said. “That means patrols in the street.”

“Adjutant will be handling the Fifth,” I grunted.

In part because of all the men I had with me I trusted Hakram the most not to get into a pissing match with another legion, in part because he was the Adjutant. The importance of Hakram being the first orc Named in centuries had been piled on over by the messes we kept getting ourselves in, but it was no small thing. His kind looked at him with something like a worship, an old dream given new flesh. Orim the Grim was an orc of the Lesser Steppes: by my estimation, being faced with an orc with a Name instead of a Callowan girl with the skin tone of the enemy he’d spent half his life fighting would make him more apt to listen. My few past conversations with the man had been stilted, if polite, so there was no relationship to call on from my side. It was coming to regret, these days, that I’d not cultivated closer ties with the generals and marshals that served in Callowan territory. Having a better idea of the kind of people they were would have been useful in planning my actions.

The Gallowborne were the last to leave Arcadia and immediately they closed ranks around me. Tribune Farrier cast wary eyes around us, seeking out danger in the shadows. His inability to follow me in Arcadia had made him even more stubborn about my being accompanied at all times, which I hadn’t thought was actually physically possible. Getting him to close the read guard had been like pulling out nails with my teeth. Hakram took the tenth that I’d put under his direct command years ago – Sergeant Tordis’ men, though she was now a Lieutenant – and after offering me a nod from a distance headed west through the streets. The largest barracks in the city were close to the wall there, and that would be where General Orim had his headquarters. Hopefully he’d manage to handle that situation before it become a problem. I was, after all suddenly dumping almost two and a half thousand soldiers into a boiling pot that had already tipped over several times.

“Royal Palace?” Nauk said.

I nodded.

“Pass word down to your people,” I said. “If they see any Praesi in this city that are not part of the Fifth, they are to put them under arrest.”

“They won’t like that,” the broad orc said.

They weren’t meant to.

“They get one chance to surrender peacefully,” I said mildly. “If they resist? Kill them.”

The legate grinned.

“Aye,” he gravelled. “That we will.”

Nauk’s kabili of two thousand split into five groups of two cohorts, marching down the major avenues leading up to the Whitestone. The full cohort of Gallowborne remained around me as we took the centre of the formation with my legate’s own four hundred in front of us. It wasn’t long before we started getting attention. People peeked at us through shuttered windows, still too afraid to break curfew to come out. It was hard to read the mood of a city in the middle of the night, but fear was what I was getting. With the fake Ruling Council and the Fifth Legion openly at each other’s throats, that was more than understandable. We encountered our first patrol a quarter hour in – drawn by ripples we were causing in the city, a pair of lines from the Fifth came to see what was happening. They ran into the leftmost wing of our formation but were sent straight to me for an explanation. The Soninke lieutenant in charge saluted hastily when she realized who she was dealing with.

“Ma’am,” she greeted me. “Lieutenant Tomuka, Fifth Legion.”

“Lieutenant,” I replied pleasantly. “You may continue with your duties, though I believe you’ll be recalled to the barracks soon. The Fifteenth is taking over.”

“We, uh, weren’t aware you were going to be coming, ma’am,” the Soninke said. “Our scouting lines didn’t report a force headed for the capital.”

“They wouldn’t have,” I simply said. “Before you return to your patrol, I have a few questions for you.”

“I’m at your disposal,” she grimaced.

“The usurpers in the Royal Palace,” I said. “How many men do they have at their disposal?”

“Five hundred, by our latest estimate,” the lieutenant said. “They’ve barricaded upper Whitestone and forbid access to even legionaries.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“And General Orim has allowed this?”

“The general says as long as they’re holed up in the palace we won’t have to put down any more riots,” she replied frankly. “It’s not worth making an issue about.”

I leaned back on my saddle.

“Only five hundred, Nauk,” I called out. “We go in hard.”

Loud orcish laughter was my only response. I glanced down at the uneasy lieutenant.

“I’d suggest sending a runner to any patrols in the area,” I told her. “Wouldn’t want anybody caught in the crossfire.”

“I’ll kick that up the ladder, ma’am,” the Soninke said noncommittally.

Oh well. It didn’t particularly mind an audience, truth be told. It might remind General Orim exactly who he was dealing with, when we sat down to have a little chat.

“Dismissed, Lieutenant Tomuka,” I said, spurring Zombie the Second ahead.

A single line of Gallowborne broke from formation to follow me as I headed for my legate. Even when surrounded my other legionaries they didn’t feel I was quite protected enough, evidently. Nauk was in hushed conversation with one of his officers, a Taghreb with the marks of a commander on her armour.

“Nauk,” I said, interrupting him. “Scout reports.”

The orc turned to me after clasping his second-in-command on the shoulder.

“Three barricades,” he said. “About a hundred people on each. We’re assuming the rest will be inside the palace.”

I hummed. It would be smarter to wait until we had some flanking positions before making an assault, but I wanted this done with as quickly as possible. These people were too unimportant for me to able to spare much effort on them. I doubted the enemy had anything in their employ that would be able to handle an assault by legionaries, anyway.

“I’ll take the central one with the Gallowborne,” I said. “Staggered hit on the other two.”

“You’re hogging the good stuff, Cat,” the orc complained.

“Well, this ought to make up for it,” I said, “If they don’t surrender, Legate, I want you to make a point.”

“We flagging them as not citizens, then?” he pressed eagerly.

By Legion regulations, Imperial citizens – even those in rebellion – could not have their corpses eaten after death, unless their will specifically stated otherwise.  Even at the height of the Liesse Rebellion, the people who’d taken up arms had qualified as citizens. The Tower, after all, claimed all of Callow as its own.

“By my authority as the acting head of the Ruling Council, I strip any hostile forces inside Laure of their citizenship,” I replied after a moment.

That was a way to get my point across, sure enough. Corpses with their faces chewed off and missing limbs might would appal most the city, but it would send a message to the High Lords: fuck with Callow under my watch and I’ll take the gloves off. It was about time they started catching up to that truth. The Taghreb commander paled at my words, but she knew better than to comment. I glanced at Tribune Farrier.

“Muster your men, John,” I ordered. “We’re taking the lead.”

“Gladly, Countess,” he said, a hard look on his face.

Farrier had never thought much of Praes, and though he’d come to have a rough sort of camaraderie with the men and women of the Fifteenth his opinion of the Empire at large had taken a sharp nosedive when news of what had happened in Laure spread. He’d made it abundantly clear in the past that he followed me, not the Tower, and he’d not changed that stance by an inch in the months since that declaration. Nauk’s cohort split to allow us passage and I led my personal retinue forward at a brisk pace. It wasn’t long before we entered the pale facades and sprawling gardens of the Whitestone, and from there it was only a matter of time before we ran into the barricade.

The Ruling Council’s hirelings had picked a good spot. I’d give them that much. They’d propped up crates and carts between an iron fence surrounding a garden and the high wall of what must have once been a noble’s compound. The avenue was narrower than most, and I could see from atop Zombie that even at this hour the barricade bristled with pikes and crossbowmen. The latter of those weapons was as clear an indication of the origin of the soldiers as the skin colours I could discern in the dark: Callowans and most other Calernian nations fielded bows, not crossbows. And certainly not the lever-action crossbows whose designs were the work of the goblins of Foramen’s Imperial Forges. Household troops, then. Not mercenary pushovers. I set Zombie at a trot, gesturing for the Gallowborne to stay behind as I closed in on the barricade. I could see the enemy soldiers stirring, crossbows being brought to the fore.

“Disperse, citizen,” a man’s voice called out. “By order of the Ruling Council of Callow, this section of the city is closed off.”

A Taghreb had risen atop a crate, and he’d been the one to speak. An older man, scarred and with a curved scimitar at his hip. He looked liked he could be Aisha’s uncle, though one from the ugly side of the family.

“There is no Ruling Council,” I said. “Only two Wastelanders who illegally seized power and botched it so badly they have to hide from rioters.”

“General Orim acceded to our demands to stay out of this area,” the man replied impatiently. “You will be written up for disobeying orders if you press us any further.”

I snorted.

“Look at the symbol on the shields of the men behind me,” I said. “Do they look like they’re part of the Fifth?”

A golden noose on a field of red was what he’d find. My personal retinue had not existed for long but there were few people in Callow who wouldn’t recognize their heraldry. They’d made something of an impression, in Marchford and Liesse.

“Gallowborne?” he said. “The Hells are you doing this far north? No matter. The Ruling Council passed a decree forbidding entrance into the city to any legion but the Fifth. Your presence here goes against the Tower’s law. Your general should fuck off south to play with the fairies.”

“If Juniper was in command, we wouldn’t be talking,” I said. “You’d be eating your third volley. But I’m a soft touch. You get a chance to surrender before I string you up above the city gates.”

The Taghreb laughed.

“And who do you think you are, girl?”

Huh. It’d been a while since the last time someone hadn’t recognized me. Or basically fed me a line just asking for a witty retort. If I’d been in a better mood, I might just have toyed with him a bit. I wasn’t. I wasn’t angry either, just… irritated. That I had to lose hours dealing with the greed and stupidity of short-sighted fools when I should have been dealing with the monsters torching my homeland.

“Countess Catherine Foundling of Marchford,” I said. “The Squire.”

“And I’m the fucking Empress,” the Taghreb mocked. “I’m just hiding the tits under the-“

I called on my Name, forming a spear of shadows, but something… bled into it. The power I’d gotten from Winter, the one that had grown tendrils into my soul when I became the Duchess of Moonless Nights. I abandoned that working and turned my will to the enemy commander instead. Shadows coiled around his neck, coming into existence, and there was a sharp sound. His head popped off his body and fell to the ground where it shattered into shards of ice. Well, that was new. Not worth having my heart literally ripped from my chest for, but it would come in useful.

“I’ve got another half-dozen titles,” I continued calmly. “I won’t bother to list them out. Now that idiocy killed your commander, who’s in charge?”

Fire, you fools,” a woman’s voice hissed. “Before she kills us all.”

“The hard way it is, then,” I sighed. “GALLOWBORNE, FORWARD!”

I formed a panel of shadow in front of me to catch the crossbow bolts, frowning at how easy it was. It didn’t take any less power than it had before, I noted as the steel-tipped projectiles thudded into the makeshift shield. The well was just deeper than it used to be, deeper than it should be in a transitional Name like mine. Weaker than the kind of power I’d felt in the Duke of Violent Squalls, but not by that much – and wasn’t that a terrifying thought? That kind of a gain never came without a cost, and I wasn’t sure what I’d be paying with. If I ended up losing my soul because of fae shenanigans, I was going to be pissed. I just knew that stealing it back would be horrendously difficult, and I didn’t have the time to spare to murder my way back into a semblance of humanity with all the other things going on. The enemy didn’t bother shooting at me again after it was made abundantly clear they might as well be aiming at a wall, instead aiming their crossbows at the raised shields of my retinue.

I wasn’t having any of that.

Dismissing the shield, I called on the power a third time. I’d shot bolts of shadow out of my hand before, and even learned how to strengthen or weaken them: this time I poured as much as I could into the working without it blowing up in my face, and loosed the projectile at the foot of the barricade’s centre. The resulting explosion of wood and screams had me blink in surprise: I’d essentially pulverized three feet of barricade and assorted people with a gesture, and I wasn’t even winded yet. Yeah, definitely sitting down with Masego to have a talk about this.

“Plug the gap!” the same woman’s voice called out.

“Fire,” Tribune Farrier’s voice calmly ordered.

My own people’s volley did little more damage than the sporadic fire they’d been subjected to – it was hard to hit a target holed up behind cover, even a panicking one – but it did what it had been meant to: suppress the enemy before the first rank hit them. I spurred Zombie forward into the gap I’d created, where the enemy was trying to form a line, and didn’t even bother to call on my Name. My warhorse trampled his way through the fledgling formation and I spilled a man’s brains on the ground with a measured stroke of my sword. There must have been ten soldiers around me, but they were tired and scared and facing a Named. Well all knew how it was going to end. Within heartbeats the Gallowborne were at my sides, methodically butchering their way through the Praesi troops. Pikes and crossbows were no match for veteran sword and board infantry like my retinue on the best of days, and even less since I’d taken to occasionally drilling them muself. The skirmish was quick and brutally one-sided, the back of the enemy formation beginning to run for it before the front even collapsed. I waited for us to have seized the barricade properly, then picked out Farrier from the crowd.

“Tribune,” I said. “Send a runner to Nauk. The centre is secure. The Fifteenth is to advance on every front and converge on the Royal Palace. Leave a detachment behind for our wounded.”

I glanced at the rest of my personal guard. They were not, by the looks of it, particularly thrilled by the victory. There’d been nothing to this fight but whimpers and dead men. Like the seasoned professionals they were, the Gallowborne went around finishing off the enemy wounded as the meat of the cohort resumed formation.

“The rest of you, with me,” I said. “Let’s get this over with.”

I led and they followed. The outer gates to the Royal Palace were wide open, and its grounds freshly tread. Evidently the runners from our last engagement had made it here ahead of us. The gardens were similarly deserted but up ahead I could see where the remaining forces of the Ruling Council were waiting for us. Crossbows were peeking out of windows on both levels of the main hall and the large gates in front were closed. Probably barricaded from behind. I trotted up ahead again, and ignored the hesitant hail from a window to the left. Cloak streaming behind me, I guided Zombie to the bottom of the marble steps and stared at the massive bronze gates.

Break,” I said.

My Name flared even as the metal crumpled like parchment under my eyes, falling apart with a sound like a gong being struck. In the hall behind, two dozen soldiers stood shaking and pale.

“Surrender,” I ordered. “I will not tell you twice.”

As the Gallowborne silently spread their ranks behind me, soldiers began dropping the swords. In the windows crossbows dipped as men retreated and the poor fools in front of me knelt. Farrier came to my side and I addressed him without looking.

“The two usurpers will be inside,” I said. “Secure them.”

“By your will, Countess,” he murmured.

I got off my mount and offered the reins to one of my soldiers, dismissing John’s strong suggestion that I take an escort with a sharp gesture. They would be more hindrance than help where I was headed. Ignoring the terrified soldiers as I strode into the palace, I headed straight for the heart of what had once been the seat of power for the Fairfax dynasty – and the Albans before them. The room where the Ruling Council had once held its sessions was deserted, and the door to it locked. Nothing the strength of the Named couldn’t force open. It was evident by even a short look that the luxurious room hadn’t been used in some time. The two Wastelanders must actually have been arrogant enough to have used the former throne room for their audiences. Idly taking off my helmet and shaking loose the hair under it, I set down the chunk of goblin steel on the table with a loud thunk. My gauntlets soon followed it, thrown carelessly as I headed for the chair at the head of the table. I paused there, my hand on the arm of it.

“I’ve felt you looking since the moment I left Arcadia,” I spoke into the gloom. “Come out.”

The woman slipped out of the deeper shadows in the corner, idly strolling to the seat on the other end and plopping herself down on it.

“Evening, Squire,” the Thief said. “Fancy meeting you here.”

Chapter 18: Crack

“Kingdoms don’t die on battlefields. They die in dark, quiet rooms where deals are made between those who should know better.”
– King Edward Alban of Callow, best known for annexing the Kingdom of Liesse

Masego’s mage tower did not even attempt to look like anything else. It was at least a hundred feet tall, for one, which was taller than some keeps I’d come across. But that alone could have been the work of masons. The moat surrounding it was a different story: twenty feet wide and circling the building, it held no water but instead pitch-black darkness. No bottom could be seen, and a few months back I’d dropped a stone to see if it would do anything. As far as I knew, it was still falling. Apprentice had been particularly cagey about telling me exactly where the Hells it led, if anywhere, but that was in part my own fault. I’d flatly forbidden him to proceed with his original notion, which had been to fill a normal moat with giant fire-breathing lizards. Not dragons, he’d been very insistent in telling me. They didn’t have wings, and weren’t nearly as large. But the idea of those things inevitably getting loose and either rampaging across Marchford or making a lair in one of the silver mines had led me to put my foot down.

He’d been very snippy about it.

There was a single stone arch leading across the moat to the dark iron gate in front, wide for two people at a time at most and bare of any railing. There was a reason I picked messengers that weren’t faint of heart when trying to get in contact with him. I tread across carefully. The entire surface of the tower was covered in grey mosaics and leering carvings of obsidian, which he’d assured me were there for purely magical purposes. He’d thrown enough magic babble at me to justify that point that I was pretty sure that he just really liked how it looked. Being raised by a devil and a villain had let my friend to have some fairly specific tastes in architecture, sadly, which could be best described as ‘nightmare trying to seem friendly and failing’. The iron gate was covered in runes, and there was no knocker. In the centre, an iron-cast wolf’s head stood out from the surface and animated when I arrived. There was a devil bound inside, I knew, though Masego had tried to not say as much by referring to it as ‘an entity from a secondary realm of existence’.

“A visitor,” the wolf said. “Only the worthy may gain entrance here. To prove your wit, answer me this riddle-“

“Answer mine first,” I replied flatly. “Who’s going to find out if my punches can dent iron if they don’t open right now?”

The wolf paused.

“That is now how this usually goes,” it complained.

“I get that a lot,” I smiled thinly.

“Your name is on the allowed list,” it said. “You may enter.”

There was a pause, then it added uncouth barbarian in a loud whisper. I flicked its eye out of spite even as a doorway opened on the surface, ignoring its yelp and string of curses. The lowest level of the tower was much like any entrance hall decorated by a Praesi with too much gold to waste, though there was one major difference. Namely, the winged tapir that was fleeing down the stairs with loud shrieks as a dark-skinned woman in robes ran after it. It’d been a while since I’d last seen Fadila Mbafeno. Once one of Akua’s minions, I’d nearly killed her in Liesse before Masego intervened and said she was too talented a practitioner to waste. He’d extracted an oath from her to be safe she wouldn’t turn, in the early days, though she’d since been freed of it. Those kinds of binding magical oaths caused some fairly vicious side-effects if allowed to linger for too long. There was a burst of blue light from the Soninke’s hands and shining chains emerged from her sleeve, wrapping around the shrieking tapir and forcing its wings and feet to stop moving. She grunted in effort when dragging it back to her. I cleared my throat and had to admit I found the look of surprise and panic on her face when she realized I was here delightful.

“Fadila,” I said. “Keeping busy, I see.”

The winged tapir kept shrieking at the top of its lungs until she kicked it, at which point it moaned plaintively.

“Lady Squire,” she said, panting. “Some of the specimens occasionally get… rowdy.”

I snorted.

“First time I met Masego,” I said, “he was catching a fire-breathing pig with wings.”

I squinted at the tapir.

“That doesn’t breathe fire, right?”

“He does not,” Fadila replied, trying for poise. “Which has very interesting implications, considering the amount of sorcery he’s been exposed to.”

“I’m, uh, sure it does,” I lied. “Masego should be expecting me.”

“He’s set up the scrying room on the second level,” the Soninke said.

Oh, good. Then he’d found a way to get in contact with Black like I’d asked him. Apparently it was possible if we took advantage of the relay system the Empress used to receive my teacher’s reports, but he’d told me piggybacking on that without killing some of the mages involved would require some finagling.

“You have fun with this abomination of nature, then,” I said cheerfully, passing her by.

The tapir was licking her feet in what I gauged to be a gesture of appeasement, but she didn’t seem moved by the offering. By the time I was nearing the second level the shrieking had started again. The door to the scrying room was already open, so I wasted no time in going. This wasn’t the kind of place where it was healthy to wander, no matter what Apprentice insisted. The man in question was kneeling in front of a wall covered entirely by polished silver, the work so finely done it worked as a mirror. He muttered something under his breath and the silver shone for a heartbeat before dulling.

“Figured it out?” I asked.

Apprentice rose to his feet, brushing off his shoulder.

“If I shunt off enough of the Due into a dispersal ward, the weight shouldn’t cascade,” he told me.

“An obvious solution,” I said, pretending I knew what any of that meant.

He eyed me sceptically but didn’t bother to call me out.

“I can initiate the connection at any time,” he said.

“Before you do that, we need a little chat,” I said. “I don’t want to keep you in the dark, so I’ll just state it outright: I might have dabbled a bit in treason.”

“Dabbled?” he said, frowning over his glasses.

“You know, dipped a toe in the treason pool,” I said.

“I wish you would have told me beforehand,” he replied. “Now I’ll need to rework Marchford’s ward pattern to be able to face advanced scrying rituals.”

I cocked my head to the side.

“That’s it?”

“Oh no, treason,” he said in a mockingly high-pitched voice. “No villain has ever done such a thing before. All my extensive interest in Imperial politics is now put in danger.”

I snorted.

“What’s that voice supposed to even represent?” I asked.

“How little I care about any of this,” he replied frankly. “I’m sure you’ll find some compromise with Uncle Amadeus, and the Empress probably knew you were going to do this before the thought ever crossed your mind.”

The bespectacled mage pressed his hand against the mirror-wall, spoke a word in the arcane tongue and idly made for the door.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” he said. “I think one of the tapirs got loose.”

“Stuff like this is why you don’t get to have giant fire-breathing lizards,” I called out.

“You have no standards, Squire,” he complained one last time before closing the door behind him.

The wall had been pulsing this entire time, but with a silvery ring an image came into focus. Pale green eyes met mine as I leaned against a table. Black’s brow rose in surprise.

“Catherine,” he greeted me. “Masego tapped into the relays?”

“The technicalities went over my head, but yes,” I said. “Hello, Black. It’s been a while.”

“It has,” he agreed calmly. “I expect you’ve a reason for this. We’ll have to rebuild the entire network now – this will have sent flares for anyone looking.”

“This morning,” I said, “I founded a chivalric order.”

The pale man did not seem particularly surprised, though it was always hard to tell with him.

“I wondered if they’d get in touch with you,” he said. “I assumed they already would have, if they were ever going to.”

I blinked.

“You knew there were knights in hiding?”

He seemed amused.

“I am not without Eyes, even in the south,” he said. “Though I can’t say this strikes me as a wise decision. Making such a bold move for a few hundred men in cavalry is inviting backlash for limited gain.”

“Two thousand,” I said quietly. “Likely more.”

He wasn’t openly shocked. He had too much control for that. But his face went blank, for a heartbeat, and that was the closest thing he’d ever show.

“I miscalculated,” he said, and I could see his mind working furiously behind the calm. “No centralized organization – ah, relying on local support. Cells with no contact after the initial founding. Whoever came up with the notion is most likely dead by now. What a waste.”

Only Black, I thought, would go within moments from realizing he’d been outsmarted to being saddened at the loss of such talent.

“I thought you’d be angrier,” I said.

“Angry?” he mused. “You’ll have folded them into the Fifteenth, if I’m not mistaken. You’ve obtained half a legions’ worth of the finest heavy cavalry on Calernia for the Empire. Pleased would be closer to the truth, though doing this without Malicia’s sanction will bring trouble.”

I frowned.

“She wouldn’t have given it,” I said.

“Not without exacting concessions in exchange,” he said. “Which you’ll have to make anyway, unless you intend to wage ware on the Empire.”

His eyes narrowed a fraction as he studied me.

“If that is your intent, giving me prior warning was a mistake,” he said.

“I don’t want to fight you,” I confessed. “But I don’t think you’ll like what I’m about to do.”

“You know where I draw the line,” he reminded me.

“I’m not going to oversee the eradication of my own people’s culture, Black,” I said.

“Then don’t,” the dark-haired man frowned. “I take no issue with Callowans having a way of life, only the aspects of it that threaten Imperial control.”

“Imperial control is what got us here in the first place,” I flatly replied.

“An independent Callow is not feasible,” he said carefully. “You know this.”

“I know,” I said. “But if this is going to work, there’s going to be a need for heads on spikes. The rot needs to be cut out or we’ll be here again in five years.”

“You’ve more immediate threats to deal with than the Wasteland,” he said after a moment.

He was not disagreeing with me and it was enough to have me shiver. He’d told me, once, that after the civil war that saw Malicia crowned he’d wanted to get rid of the Wastelands’ nobility. It was the Empress who’d stopped him. I wouldn’t be going that far, but – he was not disagreeing with me.

“I do,” I said. “But after…”

“After,” he agreed softly. “When I return.”

His image on the wall turned and I heard someone speak to him.

“Then block it,” Black said. “Before they can-“

The mirror-wall dulled, my teacher’s profile disappearing without warning and leaving only my face looking back at me. I breathed out slowly. So I wasn’t burning this bridge by doing what I intended to. Relief flooded me as I closed my eyes. I stayed there for a moment, and eventually I thought back to an evening long ago, on a balcony where a storm was gathering.  I’d asked Black a question, back then and I could still hear his reply like he’d just spoken it. When they get in your way? Step on them.

Of all the lessons he’d taught me, I thought, I had learned that one best.

“So are you going to tell me why you made sure I wouldn’t be at that meeting?” Kilian asked.

We’d come to share a wineskin by the ruins of had once been Marchford Manor, the blackened remains swept away months ago by Pickler’s sappers. Rain and wind had scattered the ashes, leaving behind only the remains of the garden and the gaggle of statues that had filled it. The two of us were seated on a scorched stone bench, its once-elaborate carvings now hidden by soot. I passed her the wineskin and watched my lover drink from the Vale summer wine. Night had just fallen, the moon slowly climbing to its apex. I hesitated for a moment, then forged on.

“I’ve gone against the Empress,” I said.

The quarter-fae was lovely, in the shade. Her red hair had grown long enough it bordered the limit of what was acceptable by Legions regulation, framing her pale face and hazelnut eyes like a tongue of flame. Kilian set down the wineskin after a moment.

“The noble Juniper put in a cell,” she finally said. “He talked you into something.”

“I’ve been headed there, I think,” I said, “since the moment I learned there was a coup in Laure.”

“There will be consequences to that,” the redhead softly said.

“There would be consequences to doing nothing,” I replied. “I chose the ones I could live with.”

She remained silent for a long time. I could feel her, now, in a way that I previously could not. The bundle of power inside of me sang out when it came closer to the smaller sister-thing inside her. I no longer needed to hear or see her to know when she was in a room.

“You’ve never been very good at compromise,” Kilian said.

I frowned.

“I’ve done almost nothing but for the last two years,” I replied.

“You compromise,” the lovely mage said, “when the other is stronger. And you are no longer powerless.”

“I’m not sure what you’re saying,” I admitted.

She smiled gently at me.

“Why did you not tell me with the others?” she asked.

“I thought I owed it to you for it to be just the two of us,” I said.

She drank another mouthful of wine, then passed me the skin.

“Catherine,” she said. “Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not-“

“You didn’t want me in that room,” Kilian said calmly, “because if I left you over this, you didn’t want it to happen in front of the others.”

I very nearly denied that. But instead I took the wineskin and drank.

“The thought might have crossed my mind,” I said.

“I’m not sure whether I should take that as a kindness or an insult,” she murmured, looking up.

It’d been a long time since I’d last felt without so much as a speck of control over a conversation. I hadn’t missed the feeling.

“When we started this,” Kilian said. “I knew I’d always be third in line. Behind Callow, behind the the Fifteenth. On a good day, if duties allowed, I might wiggle up to second. But not often.”

I felt my stomach knot.

“Kilian, I know we haven’t spent a lot of time together lately. I’ve not been able to-“

She leaned into me and pressed a kiss against my shoulder.

“I’m not angry about it, Cat,” she said. “I just told you, I knew that from the start. But you’re leaving me behind. That’s just a fact.”

“I’m not,” I insisted.

“I have fae blood,” she said. “But you took two people into Arcadia, and I wasn’t one of them.”

“Kilian, it was dangerous,” I said. “The kind of things I do in places like that, the kind of risks I take, they’re…”

“Too much for me,” she finished after I hesitated. “Because I’m weak.”

“You’re one of the best mages in the Fifteenth,” I said.

She chuckled wearily.

“And what does that matter, when you have the Apprentice at your side?” she said.

“I don’t share a bed with Masego, for one,” I sharply replied.

“Is that what I’m to be remembered as, then?” Kilian said. “The girl who warmed your bed on your way to power?”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” I said. “I trust you.”

Her eyes met mine.

“Then why wasn’t I in that room?”

I looked away first.

“Just because I was afraid doesn’t mean I don’t trust you,” I said. “I’ve told you things I’ve never told anyone before, Kilian.”

“And I love you for that,” the redhead smiled. “Even though it’s stupid and dangerous and it might just get me killed.”

The rush that came with her saying those words had never dimmed and I gloried in it for a moment. But then the smile went away.

“But now I think of the conversation you had with them, earlier,” she said. “And I know you made a decision. You needed to convince all of them, and there was a risk I could distract from that effort. So you made the call.”

She sighed.

“You know, I think the better part of everyone you love in this world was in that room,” she mused. “And you manipulated them anyway. I don’t believe you had that in you, when we first met.”

You’re wrong, I thought. I’d just never had a reason to use it.

“I’m glad you do now,” she murmured. “We’ll need it to survive the coming months. But I have to think of myself too.”

“I thought you were happy,” I murmured. “With us, with-“

Me, I left unsaid.

“I am,” she said, laying a hand on my cheek. “But you’re leaving me behind, Cat. And the kind of things I would have to do to catch up would end us anyway.”

“I don’t believe that,” I said.

“As long as I don’t control my blood,” she said, “My magic is shackled.”

“Masego could find a way,” I said.

“He already has,” she replied. “It’s an old ritual. It requires sacrifice, and would make me as a full-fledged fae.”

“Kilian, I’d put half of Winter on an altar if it helped you,” I honestly said.

“It would require humans as a stabilizing element,” she added quietly.

My heart skipped a beat.

“You can’t seriously be considering that,” I said.

“It could all be done lawfully,” she said. “It would be costly to buy the death row prisoners, but demand has lessened and I’ve the funds for it.”

“It’s not about the law,” I hissed. “It’s about decency. They’re people, not things.”

The redhead chuckled softly.

“You can take the girl out of Callow,” she said. “But not Callow out of the girl.”

“You’re Duni,” I said.

As good as Callowan, in most Wastelanders’ eyes.

They make that distinction, not me,” Kilian said, tone hardening as she withdrew her hand. “I am Praesi, Catherine. It’s not any more a crime for me to love my home than you yours.”

“This isn’t about where we’re from,” I replied, aghast. “It’s about human sacrifice.”

“And how many of us will die so you can make what you want out of Callow?” she said tiredly. “I don’t see much of a difference. At least it’s strangers I would be using.”

“There is,” I started, but stopped when she lay a hand on my shoulder.

“I don’t want to have this fight, Cat,” she said. “If I did I would have brought up the notion when I first learned of it. I’ll just say this: if there’s anyone who should be able to understand how hateful it is to have a yoke around your neck, it’s you. To just be… less than you could be.”

“There’s lines you can’t uncross,” I said.

“And how many of those have you left behind?” she replied quietly, rising to her feet.

My stomach dropped.

“That’s it?” I said. “Just like that you’re leaving me?”

Because I won’t condone bleeding people like animals, I bit down on. Kilian’s face was hard to read in the dark, but there was no joy on it.

“No,” she finally said. “But I need to think. About what compromises I’m willing to make to make you happy.”

She passed a hand through her hair.

“I’ll be sleeping in the barracks from now on,” Kilian said. “Take care of yourself, Catherine. It only gets harder from here.”

I watched her walk away in silence, and kept watching long after she was gone. Eventually I looked up at the moon, and wondered if I was even still capable of crying.

Chapter 17: Allegiance

“There’s a natural hierarchy to the world, Chancellor: there’s me, then my boot, then all of Creation under the boot.”
– Dread Empress Regalia

It felt good to be back in plate. It felt even better to know that I’d be facing opponents that could actually be deterred by armour – no more of this ‘fae blades cut through everything’ bullshit. It’d been like fighting a hundred less competent version of the Lone Swordsman, though admittedly with much less lecturing thrown around. Small favours. My cloaks swirled behind me as I walked down the stairs, the most recent addition to it glimmering even in the dark. How Hakram had managed to get his hands on a piece of the Duke of Violent Squalls’ clothes I had no idea, but the wind-like cloth had been added as another mark of victory to my name. A third of the black cloth was now covered by stolen banners of dead men. How many years, before there is no black left? At the rate I was making enemies, not many. If I survived the year, odds were Akua Sahelian’s would be joining the lot. There was a thought to warm my absent heart.

It was cooler, underground. There’d been two sets of goals in Marchford, before I’d taken the city back in the rebellion. The cells for petty criminals, near the centre of the city: the ones I was currently in. The other had been for highborn prisoners, in a wing of the Countess of Marchford’s manner. The very same I’d had Robber put to the torch purely to piss then-Heiress off. If I’d known back then I’d have to pay for rebuilding the godsdamned thing, I might have held off. The awareness that I’d ordered that manor burned followed me into the dark. The man I was visiting, after all, had once called that seat of power his birthright. Elizabeth Talbot did not have any children, but she had a whole tribe of relatives. Her designated heir was her brother’s son, Lord Brandon Talbot – who’d been among the rebels broken by Black but had managed to escape and survive.

From the fact that his head had not ended up on a pike in the following months, I assumed neither my teacher nor Malicia had thought him worth the effort of hunting down. With that in mind I’d expected to find a living example of every noble wastrel tale waiting down in his cell, but the reality was different. Brandon Talbot was a man in his early thirties, powerfully built with a thick beard and long hair held in a ponytail much like mine. He was seated on a stone bench in the back, managing to make the position look almost dignified even if his well-tailored clothes had obviously not been washed in some time.

“I was beginning to think I’d been forgotten down here,” the man said.

“No such luck,” I replied.

I glanced around. There was a table and seats meant for guards, under a pair of torches, and I claimed one of the chars. Turning its back to the prisoner, I straddled it and propped up my elbows atop it. He was staring at me, I saw, a strange expression on his face.

“Taking a good look?” I said.

He blinked, then shook his head.

“I mean, I’d heard,” he said. “But it’s another thing to see it. You’re so young.”

I hid my surprise. Usually, at this point, my enemies offered up banter. Or a denunciation of some sort. Maybe a dig at my height, which made stabbing them afterwards a sort of justice.

“Age stops mattering, when you become Named,” I said.

“Age always matters,” he disagreed softly. “There was a time this country didn’t make soldiers of its children.”

I smiled thinly.

“And then we lost,” I said. “A lesson learned.”

“Of all the things we lost back then,” Brandon Talbot murmured, “I think I might grieve that one the most.”

“Is that why you came here?” I asked. “To tell me of the past glories of the Kingdom?”

“The Kingdom died,” he said, tone sad. “Once on the Fields of Streges, and again when the Carrion Lord snuffed out the dream last year.”

“It was not a Callowan dream,” I replied harshly. “It was a Proceran one, bought with the First Prince’s silver.”

“Oh we all knew that, deep down,” Lord Brandon admitted. “That we were being used. But we glimpsed a world that was more than waking up every morning with the Tower’s boot on our throat. It was not a bad dream, Countess Foundling.”

“Lady,” I corrected. “Lady Foundling.”

He peered at me, dark bangs and darker shadows framing his face.

“Are you really?” he asked.

“To you?” I said. “Yes.”

The man laughed.

“You think I’m your enemy,” he said.

“I think you committed treason,” I said. “I’ve hanged men for less.”

“And yet here I am,” Lord Brandon said. “Without a rope around my neck.”

I smiled mirthlessly.

“It would be a very grave mistake,” I said, “to confuse curiosity for mercy.”

“But you are curious,” he said. “Most would have sent me to the gallows without even an audience. Your orc certainly wanted to.”

“General Juniper would have been well within her rights to give you a traitor’s death,” I replied harshly.

“I’m not trying to speak ill of your friend, Countess Foundling,” he said, waving away the notion.

Blue eyes considered me carefully.

“She is your friend, yes?”

“Something like that,” I said.

“And yet they say you fight for Callow,” Lord Brandon mused. “Most would think those two things irreconcilable.”

“But not you?” I snorted. “If you’re looking for a pardon for that concession, you’re knocking at the wrong door. I’m eighteen, not an idiot.”

He did not entirely manage to hide his surprise when I mentioned my age. Oh fuck him, I thought. I wasn’t that short. I’d been almost an inch taller than Black before he left, it wasn’t my fault I was surrounded by godsdamned giants all the time.

“What do you want, Lord Talbot?” I said. “You had to know you’d end up in a cell if you turned up here.”

“I want you to save Callow,” he said. “While there’s still some of it left to save.”

“Always the cry of the highborn, isn’t it?” I laughed, darkly amused. “Bring it back the way it used to be! When everything was perfect because we were rich and powerful and we ran the fucking show.”

“This land was at peace, once,” he said.

“I keep hearing people talk about bringing back the Kingdom,” I said. “Like putting a crown on some Fairfax relative would magically fix this fucking country. You all act like everything was perfect before the Conquest, like it was some never-ending golden age. It wasn’t. I’ve read the records, and what you’re trying to resurrect never existed. All a rebellion won would accomplish is slapping a fresh coat of ruin over a bitter truth: all that’s changed is whose palace the taxes build.”

“If you hold us in such contempt,” he said, “why claim to fight for us?”

“Because there’s a difference between Callow and the Kingdom,” I hissed. “One is people. The other’s gilding. People I’ll draw my sword for, every time. The rest can burn. It’s not worth a single drop of godsdamned blood.”

“The people are dying, Countess,” Lord Brandon said.

“So they are,” I conceded tiredly. “And so I go to war again.”

“I don’t mean the fae,” the noble said, shaking his head. “Or even the butcher you gave Liesse to. Callow is dying. Our way of life. Another fifty years of this and we’ll be light-skinned Praesi, save for a few bitter enclaves.”

I didn’t reply, because he was right. I knew he was, and worst of all I didn’t have a solution. Because the monsters were as cunning as they were powerful, and they had been playing this game since before I was born. Winning it through schools and trade and the featherweight of apathy. It was one of the first thing Black had ever told me: he didn’t need people to agree, just not to care. And it was working, wasn’t it? During the Liesse Rebellion, no holding north of Vale has risen. So few soldiers had answered the Duke’s call that he’d needed to bolster his forces with mercenaries. The dream the noble said my teacher has snuffed out had been a feeble thing from the start: peasant levies ordered into the field, barely held together by household troops and foreign soldiery. And before the war was done those same levies had delivered the same nobles who’d called on them at the feet of Black, bound in chains. Fear, I knew, had driven them there. But also more than that: no one in that army had really believed they could win anymore. Some hadn’t even been sure they should.

“I know,” I admitted.

“But this is not your design,” Lord Brandon pressed, leaning forward.

His eyes were alight, almost fervent.

“I’m trying to find a path between destruction and rebellion,” I said.

“The let us be Callowans,” he said. “Changed, perhaps, but still us. There is still a spine under the boot, Countess. There’s still a flicker of the flame no matter how many times they stamp it out.”

“Those are pretty words,” I noted. “I don’t trust pretty words, Talbot. I trust practical measures. Tangible things I can work with.”

“Bring back the knightly orders,” he said.

I stared at him for a long moment. The knights of Callow, huh? Even over twenty years after the Conquest, their silhouettes were still branded behind the eyes of children who’d been born long after the last of them were disbanded. For a lot of people, the knights were Callow, just as much as the bells of Laure or golden fields spreading as far as they eye could see. They were also a basketful of military orders disbanded by order of the Dread Empress because they were a direct threat to Praesi hegemony.

“I don’t have the authority to repeal Tower decrees,” I said.

“Not lawfully,” the noble said very, very quietly.

It still rang loudly, in these rooms empty save for the two of us. Treason had a way of doing that. I looked at him, and finally understood what I was sitting across from.

“You’re not an agitator,” I said. “You’re an envoy.”

“So I am,” he agreed softly. “We’ve watched you, Countess. Seen what you preach more than empty words.”

I’d been playing this game for too long to be fooled by flattery.

“Don’t lie to me,” I said. “You’re not coming to be because you think I’m worthy. You’re coming to me because you’re desperate. Because in fifty years, we’ll be light-skinned Praesi – and if I die, you’re not getting another Squire who gives a shit about Callow.”

He did not deny it. I allowed myself to see it, for just a moment. Knights come again, and this time on my side. Not riding down my legionaries. With Summer and the Diabolist ahead of me, the thought was horribly tempting.

“How many?” I said, mouth gone dry.

“You have not agreed,” Lord Brandon grimaced. “You must understand that-“

“You’re asking me to cross Dread Empress Malicia,” I said, tone like steel. “If you think you grasp even a fraction of how dangerous that woman really is, you’re a fucking fool. How many?

The man studied me in silence for a long time.

“Two thousand,” he said. “More may emerge if you don’t butcher us in our sleep.”

Two thousand. Gods be good.

“The Duke of Liesse didn’t even have that much horse,” I said faintly. “And Black had most his knights killed in their sleep.”

“Those of us that rose with Gaston of Liesse went to die, Foundling,” the noble murmured. “Reaching for that dream, one last time. It was the old, the tired, the despairing. The rest of us stayed hidden. To teach old ways to the young, and wait.”

Half the houses in the city will have swords and spears stashed under the floorboards or hidden away in the attic, I’d told Juniper the first night we spent in Marchford. Because this was Callow. Because we’d carry a grudge for ten generations, if that was how long it took to even the scales. Because those who wronged us always, always paid the long price no matter what it cost is. And now I’d just been told that two thousand knights were hiding in the countryside, biding their time. Under Black’s nose, for years. Pride in my countrymen warred with horror at the thought of what could have happened, if they’d all risen. Praesi thought they knew about patience but they’d only been invaded the once, and not like us. We’ve had wolves at the gate since the First Dawn. It taught us hard lessons and oh,look  how well we’ve learned them. I was more moved by the thought than I cared to admit.

“How quickly can you gather them?” I croaked.

Lord Brandon kept his face calm, but his eyes betrayed him.

“Two, maybe three months,” he said.

“You’ll be part of the Fifteenth,” I said. “Under General Juniper. Anything less is declaring war on the Tower.”

“It is a lesser yoke,” the dark-haired man said, “than the one currently choking us.”

I rose to my feet, feeling faint. I could feel the Beast’s head leaning over my shoulder, its warm breath heating my cheek. It was grinning.

“I, Countess Catherine Foundling of Marchford,” I said, “do order the creation of the Order of Broken Bells and charge Lord Brandon Talbot with gathering men under its banner.”

The man looked about to weep, and softly nodded.

“You’ll be out within the hour,” I said. “Get me knights, Talbot. Before it’s too late.”

“I don’t like this,” Juniper said.

It was almost noon. Leaving the orc to hover behind me, I put a hand against the glass and tried to feel warmth. Nothing. I was so cold to the touch these days that my breath should come as vapour. I stared at the sun and idly thought that the conversation that I was about to have would have better fit the night.

“Are you listening, Foundling?” the general growled. “I don’t fucking like it, this inner circle shit. We’re a legion, not a gang. Officers of the same rank get the same briefings.”

“What I have to say isn’t for everybody’s ears,” I said.

“Hune should be there,” the grim-faced orc continued as if she hadn’t heard me. “She’s my second, not Nauk.”

“I trust Nauk,” I replied without turning. “Hune is a blank slate.”

“Then have one of your little talks with her,” the general said. “Like you did with Ratface and Aisha.”

I snorted.

“Jealous we never had one?” I teased, sounding more light-hearted than I felt.

“Please,” she dismissed. “I already see too much of you as is. Couldn’t stomach more.”

Before I could summon up a reply, my ‘inner circle’ began piling in. They’d come as a group, it seemed. Only officers for this one: Masego was holed up in his tower, seeing to the experiments he’d left in the hands of the assistant he’s stolen from Diabolist, and Hakram was keeping Archer busy in the sparring yard. Leaving her to her own devices would just lead to more property damage I couldn’t afford to repair. Nauk was the first in, from the sound of the steps. Robber and Ratface came in bickering about ‘misappropriation of Legion resources’, which I’d probably have to look into at some point, and Aisha’s presence could be deduced from the dainty sigh that followed them. Pickler was light-footed and silent, but my ears were more than mortal now. Kilian wasn’t here. I owed it to her to tell her when it was just the two of us.

“Boss,” Robber called out. “Do I not even get a ‘good murdering, you filthy goblin’? I really feel like I’ve earned it.”

“The filthy in particular,” Aisha commented.

I turned to look at the officer’s I’d had at my side since the College, who’d followed me through a rebellion of my own making and bled in my name. I did not manage to smile.

“Oh shit,” Ratface cursed.

He’d always been a perceptive man.

“About an hour ago,” I said, “I committed treason.”

There was a heartbeat of shocked silence, then the room exploded. Aisha’s face had gone blank, Juniper looked furious and Pickler somehow managed to be bored in the face of a blunt admission of sedition. Nauk was grinning and thumping the table. Ratface’s face was darkly pleased and the noise covering all the rest was Robber’s loud, shrill laughter.

“If I may request specifics, Lady Catherine?” Aisha politely asked.

Well, I wasn’t back to Lady Foundling or Lady Squire. That was something.

“Yes, Foundling,” the Hellhound barked. “Tell us more about the forveala’sak treason.”

I didn’t know the Kharsum term she’d put in there, but by the look on Nauk’s face it must have been truly filthy.

“I’ve founded a knightly order,” I calmly said. “And released the former Countess’ nephew to fill its ranks. I’m told we should have two thousand riders within three months.”

Not a single hint of her thoughts touched Aisha’s face. Ratface leaned forward, face eager.

“Are we rebelling?” he asked.

“You shut your fucking mouth,” Juniper shouted. “We’re not rebelling.”

“Not unless the Tower forces me to,” I replied frankly.

“Fingers crossed,” Nauk laughed loudly, like I’d just handed him a bag of rubies.

“How many cousins and uncles do you have in the Legions, Nauk?” Aisha asked him, tone emotionless. “Think for once in your life.”

“Now,” Juniper interrupted, turning to me. “Now you choose to pull this shit, when the horde is at the gate.”

“That is the best time to pull something like this,” Pickler clinically said. “The Tower can’t afford to antagonize us. Not if it wants to hold Callow.”

“So we’re going rogue,” Robber grinned malevolently. “About time. I was getting tired of playing nice.”

“I will not see the Fifteenth turn on the Empire while I breathe,” Juniper said and her voice was like bedstone.

That killed every smile in the room. There was no longer any anger in her voice, I heard. She was beyond that now. She was looking at me and I’d ever only seen her with eyes that cold when she was thinking of how to destroy an enemy. I’d learn to read orcs, since my days in the College, but even if I hadn’t I’d know exactly what I saw on her face: betrayed. She felt betrayed, by someone she’d thought a friend.

“Juniper,” Aisha spoke softly into the silence. “Listen to her. Don’t assume.”

The Hellhound shook her head.

“Is that what this has all been leading to, Catherine?” she asked, and the genuine grief in her voice tone cut me like a knife. “Recruiting Callowans. Subverting officers.  Gathering Named Were you trying to ease us into treason before we ever began?”

Her voice shook.

“Was it just so you could carve yourself a kingdom?”
“Hellhound,” Nauk said, and for once his voice was soft. “We all knew this was coming. From the beginning.”

“Not like this,” Juniper said. “Not like this.”

“I’m not rebelling,” I told her, meeting her eyes. “I’m not asking you to fight your mother, Juniper. Or you your family, Aisha. But things can’t continue as they’ve gone on. Not anymore. Not after all the lines they’ve crossed.”

I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. Gods, why did I have to feel so cold? My gaze swept across the room.

“There’s something sick in the Empire,” I said. “You’ve all seen it. Some of you have felt it first-hand. Merciless Gods, the people ruling the Wasteland  think half the people in this room are cattle.”

“And you think raising a banner will change that?” Pickler said, eyes hooded. “You’re good at killing, Foundling, but you can’t kill a thousand years of hatred. Your sword is of no use there.”

“If the people in power can’t even stop killing their own,” I said quietly, “why are they still in power?”

I felt the shiver go through the room. Was this what William had felt like, when he’d first spoken to his rebels behind barred doors and shuttered windows? That weight, power and responsibility both. It would kill me, if I was not careful, like it had killed him.

“We’ve taken oaths,” Juniper said. “All of us, and you too.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I swore. To the Legions. To what Praes says it is.”

I stared her down.

“Do you think the High Lords live up to those oaths?” I asked. “I look south, and I see the highest among them rebelling for the second time in two years. Twice she’s walked away with a warning, free to bleed us again. How many of us do they get to kill before we say enough?”

“They’ll never stop,” Ratface whispered fervently, addressing everyone and no one at all. “You know that. They’ll never stop unless we make them.”

“And how many people will die, for that better world?” Aisha asked quietly.

“Mountains,” I replied. “But for once, it won’t be us doing the dying.”

The beautiful Taghreb closed her eyes, let out a deep breath.

“Emperors rise,” she said. “Emperors fall. The Tower endures. Gods forgive me, the Tower endures.”

I did not allow myself to feel joy. This wasn’t over yet.

“Beautiful things, ideals,” Pickler said. “But I’m a goblin, Foundling. You can’t eat principles. You can’t carve a tunnel with them. They don’t win wars.”

Robber let out a whisper of a laugh, and my eyes immediately went to him. I’d never heard him a noise anything like it in all the time I’d known him. It had sounded, I thought, almost wistful.

“They kill us,” the Special Tribune smiled, “for sport.”

Pickler turned to face him, face flickering with dismay.

“Robber-“

“Listen to me, Pickler,” Robber said. “No, actually listen for once. The Matrons, the High Lords, the whole fucking lot of them. They’ve had the crown for centuries. They’re fat, now. Lazy. They think they own it. You know what that means. You’re a goblin, right? They don’t get to play if they’re not willing to bleed.”

“We can’t win this. We can’t beat them,” Pickler hissed angrily, but her voice broke after. “I will not let us die doing the right thing. We are going to grow old, all of us. I will not – I don’t-“

“We can,” I said softly. “You know that already. It’s what scares you. No shame in that. I know what’s ahead better than any of you, and I’m terrified. It’ll be blood and mud and grief, but don’t think for a moment we can’t do it.”

The Senior Sapper took her hands of the table brusquely, to hide their shaking.

“It’ll be to the death, Foundling,” she said, amber eyes flicking away. “To the death. Do not start this lightly.”

She sagged in her seat afterwards. Ratface’s eyes sought mine and he chuckled.

“I always thought I’d die railing at them, you know,” he said conversationally. “Just another corpse for the pile.”

He paused, body shaking with nervous energy.

“I was brought into this war when they tried to murder me in my bed,” he said. “You never needed to ask.”

My eyes went to Nauk, who’d gotten up to lean against the wall. His arms were clasped and there was something hungry in his gaze.

“To the end,” he said, fangs bared. “I made my choice before I knew it was a choice, Callow. To the bitter fucking end.”

And just like that, there was only one. Juniper was close, had been this whole time, but she’d not moved in a while. She came closer to me, spine straight but shoulders tight.

“Swear to me, Catherine,” she said hoarsely. “Not my mother. Not any of them. That they won’t be the enemy.”

“I swear,” I told her, and offered my arm.

For the second time in our lives, she took it.

“Warlord,” she whispered, and it sounded like an oath.

It should have felt like a victory, I thought. All I felt was cold. Gods, all I felt was cold.