Midday of 18 Erastus, 4708
Part 1: The Maiden’s Secret
Valeria wanted a dead stoat, but the imp would have to do. It dangled limply from her belt, claws rattling against the steel of her thighs as she scrambled across the ledges and catwalks of the Shingles. Stealth had never been her strong point, but her path away from the Acadamae kept her hidden enough from view. She’d left the others to muster with the Hellknights for the attack on the Castle. She’d make her own way there, but first there was something she needed to get.
She slid down a low rooftop, shingles sheering off under her plate. The abandoned butcher’s shop was just a block away, hopefully still intact. Most of the heavier fighting in North Point had taken place around the bank and the Longacre. The devils had largely ignored this rundown neighborhood, save for the imps. One of them had tried to charm her on the way over. It was the only thing the fiend could have done, its talons and barbed tail too puny to pierce her iron skin. But a Gray Maiden’s mind was as armored in discipline as her body was shod in metal. The imp had soon met the underside of her boot, and no other flying pests had bothered her since.
It was embarrassing, really. Flint was up there battling the lords of Hell in a floating fortress, and she was down here, stomping on imps in muddy gutters. Well, that would change, as soon as she got to the butcher’s shop.
A faded wooden sign still hung outside, with the words “All the World’s Meat” scrawled out across it. The locals thought the place was haunted, so she never had to worry about squatters. In the past, she’d only visited at night, lest one of the commoners—or worse, one of her sisters—see her enter, and she took care to leave no trace. Now she marched brazenly across the the muddy yard, heading straight for the double doors in the back.
She still felt a twinge of guilt as she reached the heavy latch. She’d never explicitly broken her Queen’s commands in arranging this safehouse, but neither was it in the spirit of Her Radiant Majesty’s orders. Gray Maidens were meant to give up their old lives, commit themselves fully to the Queen’s service. That’s what they’d told her, when they’d come with the knives and the steel and the soothing voices. And she’d given up everything—her old life, her old friends, her old hopes and dreams—so she could fulfill her purpose as an instrument of the Queen’s will. But there had always been one thing she couldn’t quite let go of. And her disobedience just might save her Queen’s life today.
Gauntleted fingers trembling, she unlatched her crimson cloak and stowed it carefully in her pack. The cloak was a symbol of royal authority, meant to call attention and command respect. In the end, though, it was just a trapping that would get in the way. Unlike her armor, cloaks were just clothes. And before she wore crimson, she’d dressed in sable.
The doors to the butcher shop’s killing floor creaked open, letting in a sliver of eerie orange light. She heard a rustle of feathers as the shop’s sole denizen stirred with interest. Valeria pulled the dead imp from her belt and dangled in front of her. She really wished it was a stoat.
“Bertrand,” she called, “I brought you a present!”
The familiar click-click of four sets of razor sharp talons clattered across the stone floor. With a flick of her wrist, Valeria tossed the imp into the room. She grinned inside her helmet as an enormous golden beak lunged out into the light to snap it up whole.
“I know it’s not your favorite, Bertie, but after you take me to the Castle gates, I am going to get you a whole bushel of stoats!”
Part 2: Charge of the Sworn Swords
“I don’t know which of us is crazier,” Chammady said as the last of the potion drained into the bucket. “You for coming up with this plan, or me for going along.”
“Oh, definitely me,” Laori said, tossing the empty bottle into one of the crates lining the stinking alley. The bottle crashed against its fellows with a noise that made Chammady wince. She didn’t want to attract any stray devils. Not when the great battle was about to begin.
Two dozen of the Sworn Swords and their mounts had managed to squeeze into the alley, just across the avenue from the Grand Mastaba on which Castle Korvosa perched. A few blocks to the west, the Hellknights were assembling for the assault. Chammady had tried to link up with them, but the knights weren’t interested in her help.
Her ears still burned at the Lictor’s curt comment that “Heavy cavalry can’t climb stone walls.” He’d offered to put her Sworn Swords at the back of the column, but only if they fought as infantry. That wasn’t going to happen.
She knew that far too many of her people were still green. On horseback, they had mobility. But tramping along on foot would get too many of them killed. She couldn’t do that to them. Yet the Lictor had been right, there was little they could do in the assault. Their chance to strike a blow against the legions of hell—and take some pressure off Ser Arlynn—and they were being benched.
Then the elf had shown up, the sword and halo of Iomedae painted in fiend’s blood on the front of her chainmail. She claimed to have a plan. Now Chammady was standing in a piss-stained alley, trying to coax her horse to drink a potion from a bucket. She couldn’t help feeling like something had gone horribly wrong.
“Are you sure this stuff even works on horses?” Chammady asked as her chestnut grudgingly lapped it up.
“We’re about to find out!” the elf grinned.
Chammady shot her a glare. What did Ser Arlynn see in that creature? Laori claimed to be following the Inheritor now, but she still wore the hooked mail of her old master. And she wouldn’t stop smiling, like this was all a game. If Chammady had anywhere else to turn, she would have told the ex-Kuthite to bugger off.
One by one, the Sworn Swords set their empty buckets on the ground. The horses had drunk their fill. It the distance, she heard the thunderous blare of the Hellknights’ war horns. The attack had begun. It was now or never.
Chammady gave her chestnut a reassuring pat on the neck. As she was about to lever herself into the saddle, Laori rushed over, arms outstretched.
“Here, let me help you!” she chirped.
Chammady tried to brush the elf off, but got caught on the hooked armor as Laori tried to boost her into the saddle. There was a tangle of flailing limbs and the piercing scrape of steel on steel. The war horse reared up in surprise and kicked out with its hooves. Chammady coiled an arm around its neck to avoid falling off.
After a moment, she realized that the horse was still standing upright. The chestnut mare was staring at its front hooves with a look of confusion, as both feet were sticking firmly to the stone wall of the adjacent building. Tentatively, the horse pulled one foot free and then stuck it back down.
“It works!” Laori cheered, dangling off the side of the horse with one arm still hooked onto Chammady’s belt.
Chammady’s foot managed to find the other stirrup. Once she was firmly in the saddle, she reached down and pulled the elf up into the saddle with her.
“It works,” she nodded.
Giggling, Laori used her spiked chain to lash the two of them together in the saddle, while Chammady coaxed her horse off the wall. Once they were clear, she turned to face her troop of Sworn Sworns. Behind her, she could hear the cries and howls of the battle underway at the Castle.
“Dani, you’ll carry the Inheritor’s banner,” she ordered. “Tika, on my signal, you’ll sound the charge. We aim for the gatehouse. Once we’re on the walls, we will make a circuit of the battlements, wheeling left, until the fiends are cleared out and the way is open for the infantry. Stay close to one another, remember your training, and above all else, keep moving. Now, let’s climb some stone walls!”
“For victory! For the heart!” the Sworn Swords cried back to her, raising their swords in salute to the Goddess.
“Yo, yo, Iomedae!” Laori belted out, right into her ear.
Chammady should have winced at that, but she was too excited. Besides, the elf was still new at this, just as she had been not so long ago. If they survived this, maybe they could compare notes.
She wheeled her war horse around to face the castle. Devils on the walls were raining fire down onto the Hellknights, who were using a mixture of magic and conventional ladders to try to take the walls. Overhead, a hippogryph weaved among the castle towers, chased by half a dozen winged fiends while its rider loosed arrows back at them. No time for delay.
Chammady tightened her grip on Ser Arlynn’s fabled blade and thrust it into the air.