(From toward the middle of what is becoming a novella)
Callida and I stood in the fog on the bridge, as the frogs rained down upon us.
“I hate this job.” she said.
“What are you complaining about?” I asked, smiling. “Your armour is protecting you isn’t it?”
“The smell.” she answered. “By Vulcan’s…”
“They don’t have any smell.” I said. “They are freshly created. No decay at all.”
“I can distinctly smell the swamp and rot in them.” she answered, casting a minor spell that filled the air with the scent of furnaces and hot metal. “Next time, any thing else.”
“You choose.” I shrugged.
“Streams of blood? Rain of blood? Rain of beer! Yes. Rain of beer!”
“Rain of beer it is. Three miles and it’s all the beer you can scoop in a bucket.”
She smiled, then sighed again as a particularly large frog hit her helmet.
We were sowing disinformation. The Diedne were advancing, and it was out duty to fill the space between their line and Durenmar with inexplicable things. Every magus who left their line to check on a rain of frogs was one les preparing for war. Every oddity they ignored could be a serious preparation that had gone awry: a weak point they chose not to probe. They were like a sentry who could not hear the wolves howling because some idiot was marching around their camp with a drum, a duck whistle and a trained dog. I’d mentioned this metaphor to Callida, then had to insist she was a duck whistle.
She was a different partner to Achlys. Achlys was trained to kill people. Callida was trained to throw bronze spikes at targets. One sought competition, the other was fundamentally certain she was superior to everyone else. Achlys had been like a sister. Callida only knew me as the reckless, lucky soldier . The differences were not, in practice, subtle. For example, Callida would accept orders like “Pack up the gear. Time to march out.”
We arrived at the next town as night fell. Beerfall would still work at night. The smell would draw people outside, so there would be witnesses enough. There was even a light shower of rain, to make the spell easier. Callida did the casting while I scouted around to make sure the Diedne were not nearby.
As I passed invisibly though the town. A small girl looked out through the shutter of a hovel and quietly brayed at me, like a mule. I froze. She cricked her neck at me, stared straight into my invisible face, and did it again. I waved a little. She made a pointing gesture which I interpreted as “Stay where you are!” and she opened the shutters. She took a deep breath, let some of the beer rain on her hand, and frowned.
She started counting on her fingers, silently. I took this as a signal to wait. Someone in a nearby house roared out about the miracle of the beer rain, and as the peasantry flooded the streets with pots, basins and buckets, she lightly sprang through the window and said “We need to talk.” in perfect Classical Latin.
I had spontaneously cast a spell which poked a hole in my inaudibility. “My partner’s at the edge of the woods.” She made a “lead on” gesture, grabbed a bucket, and skipped childishly through the beer rain, wearing it as a hat. Callida didn’t look pleased that I had a straggler, but she gave me time to explain.
“She’s a House asset.” I said.
The tiny girl asked “Is she under the flag?” obviously thinking that I’d been talking to her.
“For this, yes. What’s going on?” I said, rolling with
“Code?” she asked, and at that moment I knew she was perfectly confident that she could kill both of us, and had followed me back to Callida to make the environment more target-rich.
“Pieman.” I said, because that was the prearranged signal for if I met any of them.
She nodded. “I’m here as part of the quagmire plan. I’ve been embedded with these people.”
“Your house has children as spies?” asked Callida.
“I’m not a child. Do you know the spell that makes the strong arm of a warrior into that of a baby?”
“You’re a magus?”
“She’s a psilos.” I said. The girl looked stricken. “The other Houses know about the Hunters. They are not pleased. So your mission?” Callida looked like I’d just told her the girl was a vampire. The existence of a professional caste of mage-assassins was hitting the rest of the Order hard.
“Opportunistic sabotage and assassination, sir.” she said in her piping little voice. “Your mission may make mine harder. If they come through this village, they will be on their guard.”
“It would have been worse if we’d played our game in every other village and left this one alone.”
She nodded “What more do you need to do, sir?”
“This is enough. Is there anything we can do for you?”
“Leave a trail on your way out. Oh, wreck the bridge. If they have to pause to fix it, it may give me a better shot at them. Any chance of a Waiting Ward?”
“None, I’m afraid. Dispatches for command?”
“All nominal, sir. My nom de guerre is Smotherer.” Callida looked even more distressed.
“You smother people?”
Smotherer looked at me “What’s wrong with her?”
“Nothing. She doesn’t know your people.”
“Resume station, Smotherer.” I gave her a salute.
She saluted back, and skipped into the village, a bucket of beer comedically swaying on her tiny hip.
While we wrecked the bridge, Callida grilled me “What the actual Hell, Mirarius?”
“It’s quite straightforward. She’s an assassin pretending to be a child, who has reworked the memories of the people she is living with to give her cover.”
“He’s an older psilos. I worked with the Pieman and the Temptress on another mission, a long time ago. Odd to use his code name as a check word. He must have retired.”
“She’s going to suffocate the Diedne on their way through here?”
“Oh, no. Their codenames never have anything to do with their preferred method of execution. The Temptresss is an archer, and a man in his fifties.” I laughed. “It’s a deliberate obfuscation.” I laughed again.
“Why so garrulous?”
“I’m guessing she wasn’t sent out alone. I assume her partner is watching us and making sure I really am of the House.” I would not have seen it unless I was expecting something like it, but a patch of reeds in the river silently parted, and tiny ripples showed a human moving up the river, and crossing back to the village.
I told Callida about the reeds. She didn’t sleep soundly for the next three nights. She blamed me.