The Empire stands triumphant.

For twenty years the Dread Empress has ruled over the lands that were once the Kingdom of Callow, but behind the scenes of this dawning golden age threats to the crown are rising. The nobles of the Wasteland, denied the power they crave, weave their plots behind pleasant smiles. In the north the Forever King eyes the ever-expanding borders of the Empire and ponders war. The greatest danger lies to the west, where the First Prince of Procer has finally claimed her throne: her people sundered, she wonders if a crusade might not be the way to secure her reign. Yet none of this matters, for in the heart of the conquered lands the most dangerous man alive sat across an orphan girl and offered her a knife.

Her name is Catherine Foundling, and she has a plan.

A Practical Guide to Evil is a YA fantasy novel about a young girl named Catherine Foundling making her way through the world – though, in a departure from the norm, not on the side of the heroes. Is there such a thing as doing bad things for good reasons, or is she just rationalizing her desire for control? Good and Evil are tricky concepts, and the more power you get the blurrier the lines between them become.

Updates every Tuesday and Friday as of the latest Patreon goal. First update of every month will be accompanied by an Extra Chapter.

The author can be contacted at erraticerrata@gmail.com

Under no circumstances will Epub, PDF files, audiobooks or translation of the Guide be allowed.

Chapter 13: Footing

“To hold a strong defensive position is not enough. You must force the enemy to attack it, which is the difference between tactics and strategy.”

– Extract from ‘Considerations on Warfare’ by Marshal Grem One-Eye

We made good pace.

The Army of Callow had been hammered into a host that could move on the quick by years of campaigning abroad, and for once we weren’t too starved on trained officers: the combination of the First and Second Army that Juniper commanded had benefitted from the officer pools being combined. It’d be Hells to split the armies back up when it was done, of course, but that was a problem for the future. There simply weren’t enough potential soldiers left back in Callow for the First and Second to be raised back up to full strength separately anyway, they’d be staying combined until the end of the war. The ‘Fifth’ Army, as the rank and file had taken to calling it, wasn’t going anywhere for some years.

The Levantines under Razin and Aquiline weren’t a drag on our pace, the way they’d sometimes been in Hainaut. Now that they were relying on our supply train instead of their own, the Dominion warriors were as cut free from a tether: they were usually quicker on the march than my legionaries now. The lighter armour and years of raiding had trained it into them. The Twilight Ways made for a pleasant reprieve from Wasteland weather, even if we’d only ever tasted the outskirts of that, and we advanced faster than Juniper had anticipated. We had to slow down around the end of the first week, waiting for reports about the march of the other armies.

Marshal Nim and her legions kept to the same brisk pace they had so far, which meant in about two weeks both our armies would be forced to emerge from the Ways or face the possibility of a contested crossing should we be beaten to returning to Creation. The surprising part was that Dread Empress Sepulchral seemed to have been gaining on the Black Knight: she was in hot pursuit, still a week behind even though the Legions were using the Ways and she was not. It seemed impossible, and the Jacks confirmed there was more to it a few days later. It was not Sepulchral’s entire army that’d been keeping up that breakneck pace but instead a large vanguard.

Two thousand household troops and her entire cavalry contingent, Vivienne’s people believed.

“She’s trying to keep up the pressure on Marshal Nim by having a force nipping at her rear,” Juniper opined. “They won’t engage, but they’ll raid her supply lines and try to hammer any detachment she splits from her main host.”

“If the Jacks have people in Sepulchral’s camp able to learn this, the Eyes will too,” Vivienne noted. “I have no doubt Malicia informed her Black Knight of the plan before it even began.”

I snorted.

“Old Abreha’s counting on it,” I said, reluctantly admiring. “She’s trying to goad the Black Knight into engaging us hastily.”

Sepulchral had nothing but gains to make from the Loyalist Legions and the Army of Callow getting into a messy, ill-planned battle.

“It’s cleverly done,” Juniper admitted. “If Nim sends a force south to make the vanguard back off, she has to either leave it there – and weaken herself just before she fights us – or slow her march so it can rejoin. Which would buy time for the slower part of Sepulchral’s army to catch up.”

I shared a look with my marshal. It was an inspired tactic, playing to the strengths of her army and the weaknesses of the Black Knight’s positions. It was, in other words, not a tactic that Abreha Mirembe or her generals had likely come up with. Sepulchral was a skilling intriguer but a solidly average battle commander, looking at her record. And as far as we knew neither Aksum nor Nok had any noteworthy military talents in their upper ranks. So who was planning Sepulchral’s campaign for her? I glanced at Scribe, who had been silently keeping notes as we spoke.

“Make it a priority to find out who’s been giving out those orders,” I ordered her. “The last thing we need is for Sepulchral to become a genuine threat.”

“Ime has been concentrating on putting out the last gasps of my influence in the Wasteland,” Eudokia said. “It might be possible to find this out, Queen Catherine, but I will have to burn most of the agents I have in Sepulchral’s camp.”

Meaning she would no longer be confident of catching anything going on there afterwards. We’d be relying solely on the Jacks, and Vivienne’s spies had been playing catch-up with the Eyes since the moment they were first raised without ever quite touching that prize. I hesitated, then turned to Juniper.

“How confident are you of beating that army if you know who commands it?” I asked.

She did not answer immediately, considering the question seriously.

“Seven parts in ten,” Juniper of the Red Shields finally said.

I nodded. Good enough for me.

“Do it,” I ordered Scribe.

Aside from that little surprise, the beginning of our southern offensive was trotting along nicely. As the second week since we’d left the outskirts of Wolof began, it looked like as if our preferred outcome would come to pass: a decisive pitched battle with the Loyalist Legions at least a week before anyone else was close enough to intervene. There’d been no real hiccup to our advance so far, which only made it natural that Creation would then promptly snatch the ground out from under our feet. Unlike some of the past instances of the Gods pissing in my morning gruel, however, this time the snatching was not a fucking metaphor.

Half-past Morning Bell, as we marched along the Twilight Ways, the ground literally fell out under my army.

Great cracks spread across the ground, fast enough my officers had time to do little more than shout warnings, then great chunks of the Ways fell down into Creation like shattered glass panes. It was all the more hellish for the suddenness of it: there’d been no warning, not ominous sign. In thirty heartbeats my army had turned from a smoothly marching column into a groaning and wounded beast, spread out in chunks in the middle of a particularly vicious Wasteland dust storm. There was enough order in my ranks that I managed to rustle up two mage lines and Hierophant to form a shaky protective ward around the column, keeping the whipping dust out of our faces long enough that priests from the House Resurgent could begin seeing to the wounded and dying.

I ran around trying to get proper wardstones in place, hindered by the fact that they’d been built to protect the shape of camps and not columns, but before I got anywhere the storm suddenly died. It’d lasted perhaps half an hour after my army fell, and just as suddenly as it had come it was gone. Clenching my teeth, I got to finding out the damage. It’d been a short fall down, at least. That’d taken off the edge some. Hardly more than four feet in most cases, and the Order of the Broken Bells had been in the vanguard ahead of the fall so it’d mostly been remounts that’d broken their legs falling.

The grassy grounds from the Ways that’d fallen with us began to decay quickly and the emanations were somewhat toxic so we had to move away and reform, but order was getting restored as lieutenants saw to their lines. Numbers for casualties and wounded quickly made it up the chain, eventually getting to Juniper and myself: only seventy-nine dead, but almost three hundred wounded. We’d also lost enough horses for the Order that their staying power was compromised for longer-term engagements. Not necessarily an immediate concern, but by the time we got to Ater any knight who lost a horse would be fighting the rest of the campaign on foot.

There’d been more painful damage in a strategic sense.

“We’re paralyzed for at least two days,” Juniper bluntly said. “That we still have any supply wagons capable of moving is a miracle, and if the healers can’t fix the oxen pulling them we’re going to have to kill the beasts.”

Which would further slow us, for all that it’d add to our meat reserves. We could compensate by putting the Order’s remaining remounts to work pulling the wagons and arranging relays of legionaries – mostly orcs, given their greater body strength – but it’d still be a blow to mobility. Hopefully our healers could salvage at least some of the beasts of burden while our sappers repaired the broken supply wagons. The only silver lining was that Pickler’s obsessive care for her field engines meant they’d been insulated from shock well enough the fall had caused need only for minor repairs and replacements. We wouldn’t be headed into battle with the Legions of Terror without working war engines.

“We need to find out where we are,” I sighed. “And if returning to the Ways will just see this happen again.”

I’d already asked Masego to look into it. Wasteland weather was infamously dangerous for good reason, but ripping an army out of the Twilight Ways was going too far. My instincts screamed enemy action, but which enemy?

“I’ve sent out scouts,” Juniper said. “I’ll send someone to fetch you when they begin coming back.”

“I’ll see what Hierophant has for me, then,” I said, groaning as I got back to my feet.

I’d almost lost Zombie the Sixth to this mess. He’d broken a leg and bucked me off, but the priests seemed to think he could be made better. I’d be stuck borrowing a mount from the Order until he was fit to ride again, though. Masego wasn’t hard to find, considering he was still exactly where I’d left him. The hastily raised tent was kept standing more by wards than wood, not that he seemed to notice. Earlier he’d been using scrying rituals with some difficulty, going through the Observatory, but now he was instead running spells on the storm dust he’d sent Apprentice out to gather. Though the outer ward would have warned him of my entry he did not immediately turn. I left him to his spells, waiting in silence as I leaned against my staff. He turned to me when he was good and ready.

“It was a ritual,” Hierophant said.

I glanced at the dust but he shook his head.

“This is simply dust,” he said. “We are near the Gust Ribbon from what I gathered while scrying, so the dust storm itself was drawn out of it by the first part of the ritual and only then empowered. There are striations in the magic saturation of the dust that make the sequence plain to see.”

Near the Gust Ribbon wasn’t saying much, as it was a winding and moving region that stretched across the northwest third of the Wasteland. Wasn’t overall reassuring, though, considering it was called that because it was plagued by sudden and powerful storms that had a nasty tendency to spill out in every direction. It wouldn’t be safe to stay here long even if we didn’t get hammered by another ritual.

“So someone leashed a dust storm, empowered it with a spell and sent it our way?” I asked.

“It was quite brilliantly done,” Masego said. “The dust, you see, solved the issue of air being able to hold too little magic for most large-scale ritual work. The storm was turned into an array that thinned the boundary between the Ways and Creation – which is already very thin – until it was on the very edge of shattering.”

“Are you telling me that the physical weight of my army is what shattered the Twilight Ways?” I flatly asked.

“As I said,” Masego smiled, “quite brilliantly done.”

I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.

“This is Malicia,” I said.

It had to be. People had been telling me again and again that weather sorcery was the specialty of Taghreb, and there was only one army out there that fielded a significant amount of high-calibre Taghreb mages. More than that, we’d known for months that while High Lady Takisha of Kahtan had played coy with sending the Tower actual troops she’d not been shy with providing mages instead. It’d take more than just a few cadres of talented mages to pull off something like this, though. I knew that and so did he.

“This is Akua Sahelian,” Masego corrected, confirming my fear. “There are maybe four other practitioners in Praes capable of such a ritual, but there appears to have been an uncontrolled surge in the middle of the span – I suspect mages grew exhausted and their replacements had inadequate control – that was masterfully redirected instead of allowed to collapse the entire working.”

He paused.

“I would be capable of this,” he said, without a hint of a boast. “My father was, and so was Dumisai of Aksum. I would not bet on Naziha Sarrif being so capable, however, and she is the finest mage in the south. There is only one woman in all of Praes with the talent and schooling to do it.”

His face was calm.

“I have already told you her name.”

That was what happened, I told myself, when you let someone as dangerous Akua go to your enemy’s side. She didn’t stop being dangerous, it was just turned on you instead. I breathed out, suddenly tired. I had seventy-nine names to learn. I owed that, and truthfully more than was possible to repay.

“I found something interesting, however,” Hierophant said. “The way the boundaries of the ritual array were defined was… peculiar.”

I cocked an eyebrow at him, silently urging him to continue.

“Much more of the Ways fell than was necessary,” Masego said. “Without looking at the equations myself I cannot be certain, but it seems to me that the power could have been made… narrower. Concentrated on ensuring there would be a faller from higher up instead of such a large swath of territory.”

My fingers clenched.

“What are you saying?” I asked.

“That no one capable of crafting such a ritual,” Hierophant evenly replied, “would have made such a mistake in ignorance. It was a choice.”

A pulled punch, he was saying. Seventy-nine dead, my entire army paralyzed, and still a pulled punch. Not without reason had we once named that woman the doom of an entire city. I silently nodded, at loss for words. Glowing, fiery eyes studied be from beneath the eye cloth.

“I do not understand why she is no longer with us,” Masego admitted. “Is this about revenge? Indrani tells me that in Hainaut you had the opportunity to let her go to her death. I had thought – and she – that you refused because you were letting go of all this long prices business.”

He paused.

“She is no longer here,” Masego plainly said, “and so I am confused.”

“One hundred thousand dead, Zeze,” I quietly said. “She doesn’t get to have that swept under the rug. Nobody does.”

“So it is revenge,” Masego mused, brightening for having understood. “Why let her go to the Tower and become the Warlock, then? It does not strike me as a very good vengeance.”

“Because she’ll hate it,” I quietly said. “It will be everything she has been taught to want, but even as she gets it every victory will taste like ashes in her mouth. And when reaches the end of that line, of that dreadful dream, it will not be joy she feels.”

It would be horror, I thought. Horror at the prospect of spending the rest of her life wearing shackles around her wrists that she would have put on herself. And the moment she understood that, understood that she wanted to be better than the girl she’d once been instead of simply an older, crueller version of her, I would be there. Waiting with an offer that she would accept.

“And after?” Masego asked.

“She trades a broken dream for a broken crown,” I murmured.

I did not believe we could destroy the Hidden Horror, not truly. Not now and even less after we gifted him the crown of Autumn. So he would need a prison and a warden. A box he would surely break in time, a pit he would dig himself out of, but a realm of endless paths? That might do the trick. There he would be cursed to wander forever alone, as a broken queen on a broken throne kept him imprisoned until the end of times. And that queen’s throne would lie in the heart of the city she had doomed, perched atop her very folly as she kept the peace of Twilight. She would make the choice herself, willingly and without coercion. That was the retribution I owed a hundred thousand screaming souls: an endless vigil holding back a greater evil, knowing every part of it was of her own making.

I was Callowan. My prices were long, and paid twice.

The first scouts returned with word of a town to our southeast. Scrying wasn’t working well in the region, which Masego believed to be because of the same ritual that’d brought us down. To sum up a quarter-hour explanation, ‘much magic in sky dust makes magic in sky difficult’. I shared this summary with the table, which prompted him to admit he wished he had a way to disown me. On the bright side, he also believed that while it was still unsafe to return to the Twilight Ways for at least two weeks it was unlikely that we were going to be hit with a storm again. The same phenomenon that screwed up scrying would make it ‘astronomically difficult’ to get another ritual going. I’d intended on going back into the camp after the conversation, but Juniper had notions of her own.

“You’re pacing back and forth like a tiger in a cage,” the Hellhound said. “Make yourself useful instead. Take knights and have a look at the town, find out where we are.”

“I’m not pacing,” I reflexively defended, but she had a point.

I took thirty knights of the Order and Scribe too, since she was the woman with the maps. Eudokia didn’t recognize the region itself, though she did note that the dusty and rocky grounds here would be a good fit for certain parts of the Cradle: a rough square of land near the middle of the Wasteland that had fairly steady weather but got the spills from more… exotic parts. We rode out briskly, finding the town the scouts had marked in less than an hour. It wasn’t anything all that impressive, I saw as we got closer. A walled town large enough to hold maybe a few hundred souls, surrounded by sparse farms and skeletal orchards. We found several wells on the way, though, which was good news. Too many of our water barrels had broken during the fall.

The gates were closed when we got there, an iron-barded set tall as a man but too cramped for most carts. No great traders, then. The walls weren’t anything I’d have a hard time smashing with Night if I put my back into it: six to eight uneven feet of stacked stone and mud with wooden spikes on top. Over the gates, an old dark-skinned woman in faded robes was waiting for us. Spread out further atop the walls were maybe a dozen archers and an unarmed pair of middle-aged siblings that must have been the town mages. They weren’t the ones in charge, though, as was made clear when we reined in our horses at the edge of bow range and got called out by the old woman.

“State your business,” she demanded. “Are you with the army to the north?”

I blinked. My knights carried the royal banner with them, which usually got recognized and took care of most questions before the talking began. Not so this time, evidently. Seeing no point in subtlety out in the middle of nowhere, I went with straightforward instead.

“I am Queen Catherine of Callow,” I called back. “I only want to talk and buy goods.”

There was some consternation atop the wall, several others coming close to the old woman before she angrily waved them away.

“There’s nothing worth burning here,” the old woman yelled out at me. “Go away.”

I sighed. Why was it never the useful parts of my reputation that preceded me? Deciding to make a point, I murmured a prayer to the Crows and let the Night sluggishly wake to my words. I went for something loud and dangerous looking over actually dangerous, blasting a chunk of the countryside in a whirl of black flames. I let silence follow in that sights’s wake as it sunk in that I could wield the same power against their wall to fairly predictable results. I then politely requested to be let in so we could talk and I could arrange the buying of goods, which after some arguing between the ‘warriors’ was granted.

The gates swung open and we were ushered through deserted dirt streets to a hall of stone. There the old woman from earlier received us by a great fire and extended hospitality in the name of the town, Ogarin. We refrained from accepting food or drink anyway. She introduced herself as Anan, the current haku to the town. Bailiff was probably the closest equivalent to the title we had back home, from what I understood, as a haku’s authority was centred around arranging the collection of communal taxes and work levies in the name of the local lord. The town was part of the territory of a Lord Abara, she informed us, who ruled from a fortress called Kala further to the southeast and situated at the bottom of the eponymous Kala Hills.

“I’ll bargain so the town does not get sacked, Your Majesty,” Anan said, “but we don’t have much to trade. We already sent our crop tax south to the fortress. There’s been a food levy across the Wasteland.”

I frowned.

“Who does Lord Abara swear to?” I asked.

She snorted.

“His uncle swore to Wolof, but that was in High Lady Tasia’s day,” she said. “Now he’s sworn to no one. It was the Tower that came to collect.”

So Malicia – more likely the Black Knight through her – had been emptying the Wasteland of food, to feed Marshal Nim army and make sure my own wouldn’t be able to add to its supplies from the local stores. Not without starving towns and villages, anyway, which aside from being deeply distasteful to me was likely to mean resistance to my troops from locals. No one liked having the table robbed by a foreign invader, as my childhood in Laure had intimately taught me. We got a little more out of Anan about the region we’d ended up in with some wheedling. Ogarin was at the northwestern edge of Lord Abara’s lands but linked by a dirt path to a better road that Anan called the ‘half-road’. I asked, naturally. It was a name that pretty much demanded it.

“We’re between imperial highways,” Anan said. “One of the old Abara – in my great, great grandmother’s day – swore himself to Aksum, and to make it stick he planned to connect Kala to the highway between Ater and Aksum. It was going to make us rich, he claimed. Only he died before it was done. His daughter instead went back to the Tower’s protection and pocketed the gold, leaving the job half done.”

The half-road wasn’t properly paved, she explained, just made of stone. While usable for carts it tended to be rough on the axles. It went towards the southeast, eventually coming close to the Moule Hills. Those were a bunch of steep slopes, so in practice the road was nestled in a valley between the Moule Hills to the south and Kala Hills to the north. North of said Kala Hills, she continued, was the small Nioqe Lake and the other town sworn to Lord Abara, Risas. Further north than that was the southern edge of the large Jini Plateau: all cliffs there, nothing we could travel through.

The way I figured, the sooner we got on the half-road and began moving south the better. I’d suggest a detachment head out to Nioqe Lake to see to our water situation, but there simply weren’t enough water sources in the region to sustain the presence of an army as large as mine for long.

As for trading, strictly speaking it was treason for the town to bargain with us while we were at war. I allowed the shadow of a possible sack to loom over the negotiations, though, which motivated the town to do it anyway. It wasn’t my intention to go through with it, but if my reputation was black in these parts then I had no qualms in using that. There wasn’t much food and Anan was reluctant to part with was left, but tools and wood were on the table – armies chewed through those like hounds through meat – and I promised to restrain my soldiers from robbing farms or entering the town. I even paid a generous fee for use of their wells, which Anan did not need to know was from the Wolof treasury.

When we were done talking I stretched, groaning, and offered her a friendly smile. We’d been at this for over an hour now, and I was ready to leave. There was still one little detail to take care of first, though,

“So,” I said, “how likely is it that some of your dimmer boys and girls are outside and planning something unwise?”

Her creased face tightened.

“Not unlikely,” Anan finally said.

“I still remember what it’s like, wanting to put down monster to make a name,” I said. “So I’ll let that go.”

I met her rheumy eyes with mine.

“If it ends now.”

She swallowed. Anan preceded us outside, and while there was some shouting and a small scuffle it ended without corpses on the ground.

Three cheers for diplomacy, I thought, and got back on my borrowed horse.

We got some trouble with the locals the first night after we crashed, but not the two-legged kind. Our palisade, which had been hastily raised, was hit just after Midnight Bell by what we first believed to be enemy soldiers but turned out to be a coordinated attack by a pack of tigers. The unreasonably astute animals actually hit another spot in the palisade as a distraction while the rest dug their way under, attacking horses and cattle. Archer and the Huntress got themselves a few pelts for the trouble, but of the dozen tigers that came six still survived and ran away with full bellies. It was only to be the beginning of our troubles, I found out to my dismay.

A colony of head-sized scorpions took offence to our presence the following day and began attacking legionaries whenever they stepped outside the vermin wards, which thankfully held them back. It only stopped when I set out with a mage line and torched their underground lair, to a disquieting amount of chittering screams. A decision was made not to openly prevent my sappers from going into the charred ruin and stealing some eggs, considering scorpion fights tended to be good for the morale of the little bastards.

Then the soldiers that went to fill up water barrels at Nioque Lake – under the wary eyes of the townsfolk of Risas, whose homes were on the opposite shore – were ambushed by some sort of shrieking freshwater squid that dragged two men under before the Squire and the Apprentice killed it. Its flesh was apparently considered a delicacy in the Wasteland, Aisha informed me, because everyone in this bloody place was completely mad. I refused to have a bite out of principle, though Masego assured me with guileless malice it was delicious.

Archer was having the time of her life, at least, and came dragging back the carcass of what looked like a cow-sized lion with bat wings and a stinger-tipped tail the following afternoon. Masego was delighted enough when she offered him the venom glands that he enthusiastically kissed her cheeks, which had her in a terrifyingly good mood the rest of the day. I was only glad she’d killed the damned thing while out hunting and not after it’d flown into the camp and eaten a few of my soldiers. Not that our short turn in luck stopped a flock of blood-drinking bats that spat out paralytic venom – charmingly called something that translated ‘night kissers’ by Soninke, Aisha said – from attacking one of our night patrols.

The entire Wasteland was a fucking death trap.

It looked like we were going to be ready to march by Noon Bell on the third day, though, so I sat with Juniper to put together a vanguard. Two thousand light foot from Levant would do, we decided, with Archer and I accompanying them. Razin Tanja, whose forces were chosen to march, was pleased to be given the front as Levantines always were when awarded the possibility of being the first to be shot by arrows. Took all sorts. The Dominion warriors had taken well to the Wasteland, to my amused horror, Lady Aquiline even admitted it made her a little homesick. Fewer trees here than the Brocelian, she said, but the animals had a lot in common.

No wonder Levantines raided so much, I unkindly thought. I’d get out of the house as much as possible if my home was full of godsdamned bloodsucking bats, and fight for the privilege too.

We set out in passably good order just after Noon Bell, largely as we’d planned and to the palpable relief of many Callowan legionaries. I rode out with Razin and Archer for company, to a surprising chill under the afternoon sun. A cold wind was blowing in from the northeast, over the Jini Plateau. An hour got us to the half-road and from there we quickened the pace going southeast, until we came in distance of the Moule Hills and I was forced to call a halt. Not because three hours of marching had tired us out, but something entirely worse. On the steep northern slopes of those hills a fortified camp had been raised, wooden walls bristling with scorpions and catapults as six banners flew above them in the wind.

One for each of the five legions under Marshal Nim, one for the Tower.

Chapter 12: String

“There are three decisions that can only be mistakes: trusting a peace in the Free Cities, intervening in an Alamans succession and campaigning in the Wasteland.”

Queen Matilda the Elder of Callow

It was General Sacker I’d wanted to talk to, as her informal patroness, but instead I found all three of the leaders of the Rebel Legions sitting on the other side of the scrying bowl.

That made an amusingly odd trio to look at, I must admit. Sacker was still the same old sack of wrinkles that looked deceptively half asleep, but General Mok was even larger than Hune had been on top of having half his face severely burned with spellfire. The difference in size between them somehow made the last of three stand out even more: General Jaiyana Seket of the Second Legion, a dark-haired and grey-eyed Taghreb in her late fifties. She’d been the only general already in the Wasteland to desert Malicia after the empress pulled her mind control trick a few years back. Only a little over half her legion had followed her, though, the rest sticking with the Tower.

That made the junior of the three generals in their informal hierarchy, considering that Sacker had filled her legion’s depleted ranks from deserters and the Jacks had reported that Mok’s own Third Legion now fielded six thousand soldiers instead of the standard four. Being the one with the relationship with Callow – and therefore its forges and foodstuffs – had put Sacker more or less on equal footing with Mok, however, so it wasn’t quite as straightforward a balance of power as one might think. General Seket tended to be the kingmaker in contested decisions, after all, which was a form of influence as well. It’d all worked out as being surprisingly communal for a military hierarchy, no one making a push for primacy.

Which unfortunately meant that I wasn’t negotiating with one person but three.

“I understand that the Grand Alliance has interests in Praes,” General Mok said, voice rumbling, “but it doesn’t get to impose terms here. Who rules in Ater is not to be determined in Salia or Laure.”

I wasn’t sure whether not mentioning Levante – the Dominion’s capital – reflected good intel about the fate of the Pilgrim’s Blood or simple dismissal of Levant, but either way he wasn’t wrong. These days the Blood wasn’t agreeing on much of anything, except fighting the war to the end.

“That ship sailed the moment Malicia began actively warring on us through proxies and attacking our diplomatic efforts,” I curtly replied. “She is, even now, the ally of the Dead King. Sovereignty’s all well and good, but it doesn’t buy you the rest of the world pretending nothing’s happened when you piss on the common table.”

General Seket looked amused at the turn of phrase – not a noble flower, this one, but a former bandit who’d chosen the Legions over the noose – and Sacker continued looking at me through those half-lidded eyes. Mok was getting angrier, though. I got the impression that out of them he most believed in the Dread Empire that’d been sold to the Legions after the Reforms: a place of order and rough fairness, where peoples that’d once been left out in the cold were slowly brought into the fold instead. It’d been the mind control he objected to on a fundamental level, not necessarily Malicia calling the Rebel Legions to heel. Sacker stepped in before Mok could speak again, perhaps sensing my irritation with the ogre was rising. I had little patience for people who let their ideals get in the way of looking at what was actually happening around them.

“No one is denying that you have a right to retaliate for attacks on the Grand Alliance,” Sacker said. “Our concern is that it seems few of the decisions relating to the empire’s future will be made by Praesi.”

“That Malicia has to go isn’t even something even worth arguing about,” I bluntly replied. “I will cheerfully massacre anything and anyone who gets in the way of that. If your issues are with the details of Malicia’s succession, however, then we have a lot more room for compromise.”

“We did not leave the empress’ service to now defend her,” General Seket said. “The matter my colleagues are tiptoeing around is different: to be frank, none of us want to raise a sword to win Dread Empress Foundling the Tower.”

I almost laughed in their faces, fighting that down to a snort with great effort.

“If that’s you worry, then we have no issue,” I said. “I have no interest whatsoever in climbing the Tower.”

“Akua Sahelian would not be a more acceptable candidate,” General Mok plainly said.

Huh. First Sargon had guessed that, now the Rebel Legions. The High Lord of Wolof I could forgive, but some of these people had served in Callow over the years. Did none of them realize that if I were known to have backed the Doom of Liesse for rule over the Wasteland I’d get strung up in the streets by my own people? It wasn’t like the Folly was some old wound barely remembered. Almost everyone in Callow had lost at least a distant relative when a city the size of Liesse got murdered.

“I’ve no interest in backing her claim either, assuming she makes one,” I replied just as plainly. “If I am to support anyone’s claim, it will be that of Amadeus of the Green Stretch.”

“You have been talking with Sepulchral for years,” Sacker pointed out.

“And we already discussed all this years ago,” I waspishly replied. “Why are we revisiting these grounds now?”

“Years ago you were not leading an army invading Praes,” General Mok replied. “We require different assurances now that battle is on the horizon.”

A little rich to say that, considering that they were at least three weeks behind Sepulchral’s army on the march and she was herself at least a week behind Marshal Nim. Maybe closer to two.

“I’m not interested in putting Abreha Mirembe on the throne,” I explicitly spelled out. “I see no need to make war on her, however, and she was a convenient ally against Malicia. Should she surrender to whoever claims the Tower peacefully I’ll even argue for leniency on her behalf.”

I actually believe she might take that deal, and so did Scribe. Sepulchral had rebelled because Malicia had cornered her, not because she’d intended to make a play for the Tower. That attack from Malicia had come because High Lady Abreha had been muscling in on the empress in the first place, of course, but that was Praesi politics for you. It was Malicia that Sepulchral couldn’t afford to surrender to, she wouldn’t be so constrained if someone else held the Tower. And someone who hadn’t been rebelled against could afford to offer her amnesty without taking a major hit to their reputation with the nobility. Looking closely at the three, I could see that General Seket was leaning the way of taking the bargain I’d offered: joining our armies to defeat the Loyalist Legions together, guaranteeing them a seat at the table in the aftermath. Mok was still very much against, and Sacker hard to read as she’d ever been.

“I cannot agree to putting imperial forces under the authority of a foreign nation,” General Mok finally said. “Not even in this manner.”

Sacker did not contradict him, a silence that rang loudly. I eyed the three of them coolly.

“Then it’s my turn to ask questions,” I said. “If not to reinforce my expedition, why is your army marching north?”

“You are not owed an answer,” the ogre general flatly replied.

“You weren’t owed food and steel,” I sharply said. “You still got it. Careful about what bridges you burn, Mok. There are no second chances at this game.”

“No offence was meant, I’m sure,” General Seket intervened. “We set out to march, Queen Catherine, because if we do not the civil war will end without our having ever raised a sword.”

I eyed her, distinctly unimpressed.

“So you’re either foolish enough to march an army without a campaign plan or baldly opportunistic enough to want to sit out the fight and leverage your numbers for concessions afterwards,” I said. “Which is it?”

“You put a hard slant on trying to avoid fratricide, Black Queen,” Sacker curtly replied. “You blame us for not being eager to fight legions still filled with friends and kin, comrades we have fought with for decades. With the situation on the knife’s edge, we will first attempt diplomacy.”

My fingers clenched, then unclenched. I did not like the sound of that.

“Elaborate,” I said.

“We will speak directly with the Black Knight,” General Mok said. “And offer simple terms: should Dread Empress Malicia abdicate, we will return to the fold and crush Sepulchral together.”

“Malicia will never take that deal,” I replied without batting an eye. “Or if she does, it’ll be as a trick to get you to dispose of her enemy before getting around to you.”

“It’s not her we’re offering the deal to,” General Seket said. “Nim is as good as her word. If the last legions turn on the Tower, Malicia will have to abdicate. All she has left in Ater are the First and the Fourth, which went skeletal from desertions.”

“And should the Black Knight refuse you?” I asked.

“She won’t,” Mok confidently said.

Ah, so that was it. Sacker genuinely had been on the fence, I just hadn’t offered enough to convince her. Mok had been against our armies joining from the start, though, because he’d already had a plan that was more palatable to him: cutting a deal with Marshal Nim.

“But if she does?” I pressed.

“Then you get your way, Black Queen,” General Sacker said, showing pale needle-like teeth. “Long live Dread Emperor Amadeus. In the defence of his cause, we will seek friendship with the same Grand Alliance that recognized him in Salia.”

I drummed my fingers on the table. The tremor had the water rippling, their faces rippling with it. And with that easy questions settled there was only one left to ask.

“And if the Black Knight does takes your deal,” I asked, “where would that leave us?”

“The Legions of Terror are the sword and shield of Praes,” General Seket said, tone conciliating, “but it doesn’t need to come to blows between us.”

“What it means is that there’ll be no more talk of you dictating anything, Queen of Callow,” General Mok rumbled.

Huh, I thought. This might just be the first time I’d been the hand that fed instead of the biter.

I wasn’t enjoying the change of pace.

There was need of a fresh war council after that. Yet I found that, in practice, learning that there was a chance the Rebel Legions might turn on us did not affect our plans much.

“Being generous,” Juniper said, “the rebels are a month behind the battle unless either we or Marshal Nim start wasting time. It’ll be settled by the time they get there.”

“If they can take the Twilight Ways they could cut ahead of Sepulchral, at least,” I pointed out.

Dread Empress Sepulchral’s army could not practically use the Ways, according to our spies. Some of its mages could access them, but they couldn’t yet make stable portals. The Rebel Legions were another story. I glanced at Vivienne questioningly, getting an uncertain palm wiggle.

“The Jacks aren’t sure either way,” she said. “They have enough mages in the ranks for it to be possible, but it’s not knowledge that grows on trees. I’d tend to err on the side of caution and assume they have some capacity with the Ways but not enough for their entire army.”

“That could still be trouble,” Grandmaster Talbot said. “Should we defeat the Black Knight in battle only for her to retreat in good order, a sudden swell of reinforcements could tip the balance against us. How large are their numbers, now that they’re finally marching?”

“Thirteen thousand legionaries,” I said. “They should have little to no goblin munitions, at least, unlike the Loyalist Legions.”

For the same reason the Army of Callow had finally filled its own stocks: I’d bought theirs.

“I do not understand this hesitation on your parts,” Lady Aquiline admitted. “We are yet sixteen thousand, or close, and the Black Knight commands only twenty-three thousand soldiers. I have seen the Army of Callow triumph against steeper odds than this.”

“You haven’t,” Juniper bluntly informed her. “You’ve seen us beat inferior or borderline peer armies, Lady Aquiline. You have never seen us fight a force that is at least our equal and possibly our superior.”

She wasn’t wrong, even if she was being pessimistic. We did have some advantages going for us. There were five legions marching with the Black Knight – the Eight, the Eleventh, the Thirteen, the Fourteenth and Nim’s own Seventh – but the Legions of Terror didn’t typically field cavalry. The Thirteenth did, having been raised from Callowan bandits and rebels, but only six hundred horsemen or so. The vast majority of Nim’s three thousand and change cavalry was auxiliaries. Taghreb and Soninke light horse sent by nobles, which my Order of the Broken Bells could shred if they engaged in melee. My entire army was made up of veterans, while the Legions would have fresher recruits, and we also had a decisive Named advantage.

On the other hand, the officer corps of the Legions would be flatly better than ours and we’d be down on mage firepower as well as general numbers. It was still very much a winnable battle, in my opinion, but there would be no repeat of the Third at Sarcella or the ridiculous odds against undead my soldiers had frequently taken on. We were facing the same army that’d held the Vales against the greater strength of Procer, and I had no reason to believe it’d lost a step since then. Throwing another thirteen thousand veteran infantry down on the Black Knight’s side of the scale would make for… hard odds, to say the least. At a minimum, it’d take field battles off the table.

To minimize the risks, we had to finish it before the Rebel Legions got there.

“Perhaps we should seek allies,” Lord Razin suggested. “Would Dread Empress Sepulchral not be amenable to helping us against her rival?”

“It was my instinct as well,” I told him, “but she’s broken off talks with us. At our best guess, she’s hoping we’ll clash with the Black Knight before she gets there and she can pick off the weakened Loyalist Legions.”

It would have been damned useful to string Abreha Mirembe along, but the trouble when dealing with people who’d survived at the top of the Wasteland for decades was that they tended to be rather hard to fool. Sepulchral had correctly assessed I wasn’t going to help put her on the throne, so she’d decided to use me to weaken her enemy and finish climbing the Tower on her own. Odds were she figured I wouldn’t actually fight a war to keep her off the throne, especially if I’d first taken losses casting Malicia down from it. To my distaste, she was fairly accurate in that judgement. I didn’t want to march west again until my father held the Tower, but if Sepulchral dug in and offered good terms I might not have a choice.

How large a portion of Procer was I willing to sacrifice to get my chosen candidate on the throne? Abreha wasn’t just a cutthroat snake: she was an old cutthroat snake. In Praes those were rare for a reason. She knew how to survive when the storms came calling.

“That’s another twenty thousand we have no certainties about,” Aisha noted. “We need to have a good grasp on the pace those force march at at before engaging, else we will be taking risks.”

“Half of Sepulchral’s army is levies that’ll break under steady munitions fire,” Juniper grunted. “But the other half is dangerous enough, I’ll grant.”

Like my Marshal of Callow, I could admit that I wasn’t worried about fighting Sepulchral’s army on the field. She had a little over six thousand household troops, which would be tough customers as that breed always was, but we had twice her horse in better quality. The thousand wavemen her allies in Nok had sent might be some trouble, true. They were supposed to be the finest archers in Praes, using great horn bows and honing their trade defending the ships of the House of Sahel. We were fighting the former High Lady of Aksum so naturally there’d be monsters too. It was what the city was famous for. But after having faced the Hidden Horror’s own menagerie of nightmares, I did not expect Aksum’s to impress me much.

“Unless the enemy tempo changes, it looks like our best shot at solving this cleanly remains a decisive victory against Marshal Nim,” I finally said.

If we forced the Black Knight’s army to surrender, the Rebel Legions would sink back into irrelevance. And Sepulchral couldn’t take a swing at us lightly: it’d put her at war against the Grand Alliance. Much more likely she’d march straight on Ater instead, and I had no real issue with that. I was skeptical she’d be able to take the City of Gates, but more than willing for her to soften up the capital some before the Army of Callow took a crack at it.

“Agreed,” the Hellhound replied. “I’ll want reports from the Jacks about the pace of every army to ensure we give battle with the best margin possible, but in around three weeks seems to be that window of opportunity.”

I nodded in agreement.

“Well,” I said, “council’s done, it seems. Get your affairs in order, ladies and gentlemen, because come dawn we begin our march south.”

Even in Hakram’s absence his phalanges were functioning like a well-oiled machine.

That left me in the odd position of, well, not actually having anything to do. It would be a week at least before I next spoke to Cordelia Hasenbach, Indrani was spending the evening with Masego and Vivienne was busy twisting arms are making promises through the Observatory to secure names for a plan she’d come up with that might kneecap the Black Knight in the field. Feeling restless, I took to the night and the dirt streets of our camp. Whenever I stopped moving it felt like I was losing ground: even when I stayed still, the world kept moving around me. The first act of my Praesi campaign had been an unequivocal victory, for all that Malicia and her Black Knight had scored blood of their own, but from now on things would get… complicated.

The number of moving pieces had increased and this wouldn’t be the Graveyard all over again. I wouldn’t be able to predict the whole array of leadership I was fighting the way I’d been able to read the Tyrant, Pilgrim and First Prince. Too many people, not enough of them Named. Legions rebel and loyalist, Sepulchral’s would-be army of conquest and hidden behind them all whatever my father’s scheme for this fight would be. I knew better than to believe he wouldn’t be putting a finger on the scale of the battle that would determine the fate of Praes for the coming decades. That he had yet to truly come out of the woodworks worried me more than I cared to admit. He wasn’t proud, as a man, at least not in ways that got in the way of him achieving his goals.

So if he’d not reached out to me, made common cause, it was because some of our objectives were at odds. I was not so arrogant as to pretend that the prospect of the fighting the man who’d taught me did not inspire in me a… healthy amount of caution.

The sound of steel on steel drew my attention as I drifted close to drilling grounds. There shouldn’t be any legionaries out at this hour, and a few steps confirmed there weren’t. The two people moving swiftly back and forth across the dusty ground weren’t my soldiers. The Silver Huntress deftly flicked her spear, barbed tip tickling at the Squire’s shield, and as Arthur Foundling took a cautious step back she circled around him to probe his flank. I approached quietly, laying my staff against the side of the fence before resting my elbows atop it. The Squire was being careful, keeping his shield up and only venturing out of his shell to try to rush her and leverage his advantage close up, but on open grounds like this the tactic was a mistake.

I winced as I saw him try a charge, banking on the Huntress being slow to retreat her spear after a feint, only to find out that Alexis was quite light-footed of maintaining their distance. She feinted his leg, then darted back up to slap the side of his helm hard when he lowered his shield to cover himself. The boy winced at the pain but did not complain. As well he shouldn’t: if that blow had come from someone out to kill him, it would have gone right through his throat instead. If Arthur was to ever to score a blow, I thought, he needed to pressure her from the start. Push forward steadily, learn to tell apart the feints from the real attacks and close the distance while she was committed to striking him.

I watched in silence as the two continued to move across the dust, the Mantle of Woe’s hood warm over my head, and to my pleased surprise I saw that the Squire was learning. No more bull rushing out of him, though he wasted a lot of time trying to figure out how to parry a spear with a sword. You couldn’t, really, not reliably. From Named to not, sure, but not between peer opponents. The Huntress worked him through a pretty straightforward sequence – shield edges the spear to the side, sword lunge for the throat as you dart forward – and he began trying it out. He took to it quickly. Unnaturally quickly, really, I decided as my brow rose.

His reflexes weren’t getting sharper or his footing more flexible, but with every try he moved a little faster through the sequence. A little smoother. By the eighth attempt his execution was impressive enough I would have thought he’d spent months drilling it. Name, I thought. Has to be. The spar ended after Arthur finally scored a blow on the Silver Huntress’ breastplate, though I suspected she’d actually allow him to land it. He was a quick lad, but Alexis the Argent wasIndrani’s superior in close combat. The two of them seemed surprised when they noticed I was there. Night was a friend to me in all sorts of ways. I clapped politely, to the older heroine’s amusement, but Arthur looked embarrassed.

They had water and cloths on a stone near the fence, so when they came to quench their thirst and get ride of the worst of the sweat it was only natural that we chat a bit.

“I’m rather ashamed you saw that, Your Majesty,” Arthur said. “I have been meaning to expand my experience fighting Named, but it is slow going.”

“In terms of pure swordsmanship you’re actually better than I was at your age,” I noted. “Not as good as the Lone Swordsman was, maybe, but there’s a reason I relied on tricks to kill the man.”

“It’s empty whining on his part,” the Huntress scoffed. “He improves daily. The Lady’s the only person I’ve ever seen pick up drills that fast.”

“The Ranger?” Arthur breathed out. “That’s… I’ve always admired what I heard of her in stories, truth be told.”

Oh dear. I shared a look with Alexis, the two of us silently agreeing it would be for the best if he never met the woman in question. The Silver Huntress had a much harsher opinion of the Lady of the Lake than Archer. I’d learned as much because she was not shy in expressing it even to strangers. It’d made for pleasant common ground over the months of campaigning. Still, I couldn’t let myself get distracted by this little detour. I’d had a nugget of information I wanted to dig for.

“Were you always this quick to catch on?” I casually asked. “It seems like the sort of thing the Order would have reported on.”

He ruefully smiled.

“No,” Arthur admitted. “It was after the fight with the puppet of the Black Knight, Your Majesty. The way it handled Sapan and I, then the way you stepped in and took care of it…”

His gauntlets clenched tight around his sword.

“I had believed myself a fine blade, but after that I couldn’t deny I stillhave so much to Learn,” the Squire said.

Ah, an old friend had returned. Was he leaning on that to improve his fighting? I’d not been able to do the same, back when I had the same aspect. Fighting had been the one thing it didn’t help me with.

“Aspect,” I noted, seeing no point in further subtlety. “Have you seen the same kind of leap forward in your studies?”

He looked baffled.

“No,” he said. “Should I have?”

I hummed, shaking my head.

“It’s somewhat reassuring that you did not,” I said. “There’s a balance to these things, Squire.”

The Silver Huntress grunted in agreement.

“No power comes without a hook,” Alexis the Argent said. “Beware of anything that pretends otherwise.”

Still, the Gods Above liked their nasty surprises, didn’t they? The Squire had gotten a flavour of the aspect attuned to martial pursuits after a defeat against the Black Knight, while being guaranteed weeks if not months of a relatively safe environment filled with veteran Named to train with. By the time Nim encountered the boy again for the continuation of their pattern, he was going to be a regular fucking monster. In an abstract sense my sympathies lay with Marshal Nim, because this all felt very much like the Heavens hooking an Evil fish and reeling her in, but in a practical sense our little Squire had my backing to the hilt. I’d put Indrani on training him too, maybe see if the Barrow Sword was amenable to pitching in.

“I know to be wary of shortcuts,” Arthur promised, then sent me an almost shy look. “Perhaps we may spar one day, Your Majesty? Many consider you among the finest swords in Callow.”

“My tricks are best kept up my sleeve,” I drily said. “We’ll see about getting you a few sessions with Archer, though. She tends to be my better close up.”

The boy did not quite manage to hide his disappointment but I quashed the pang I felt at the sight. I already walked the line perhaps a little too finely when it came to teaching Arthur Foundling. An occasional distant instructor tossing a few lessons his way shouldn’t be too prone to ending up story fodder, I figured, but considering he had a draw with the Black Knight coming up the last thing I wanted was stepping into a formal teacher’s role. That was a good way to stumble into buying his draw with my death. The Squire retired after chatting a little longer, but to my surprise the Silver Huntress did not. Had I offended her by mentioning Indrani training someone she was already training?

No, I decided, looking at her tense face. That wasn’t the tension of someone keeping a lid on their anger but the gritted teeth of someone forcing themselves to venture into uncomfortable grounds.

“I want to talk,” Alexis the Argent said, then bit her cheek. “Please.”

My hand found the staff of dead yew never too far from my hand, closing around the rough wood. I’d gotten used to the contrast between the Huntress’ startlingly girlish high-pitched voice and her rough appearance – broken nose and plain face, the messy bun of red hair and calloused hands – but I’d noticed she tended to speak slowly and curtly to take the edge off it. No doubt she’d been mercilessly mocked for the contrast as a child: it was the kind of thing even my fellow orphanage girls would have narrowed in on, much less children as skilled at cruelty as the Refuge kids had been. This time, though, the curtness was not an affection on her part. She was fighting the words as they came out.

I couldn’t think of many things I had a hand in that’d get this much emotion out of her.

“I’m listening,” I said.

Her lips pressed tight, like she was trying to clench them.

“The Lady’s in Praes,” she said. “With the Carrion Lord. Your spies said so.”

I nodded.

“You think we’re going to fight her?” the Huntress asked.

“I’d prefer not to,” I admitted. “But I don’t think she’s going to give us a choice.”

At some point, my father and I would clash. His continued silence spoke to that. And when that moment came, I did not believe it would be armies that marched. It would be a war of knives, not battalions, and the Ranger was the finest knife at his disposal. On my end of things, it was not a coincidence that all the surviving children of Refuge were with my host. I had planned for this eventuality in my own way.

“She won’t,” Alexis roughly said. “That’s not how she…”

She hesitated, stumbling over words before abandoning the sentence entirely.

“I hate her,” the Silver Huntress candidly admitted. “I honestly do. But I won’t lie. She didn’t think she was being cruel when she worked us. She thought she was toughening us up for the real world, so we could live like she does.”

“But you don’t buy that,” I murmured.

“We came out of Refuge fine killers, Black Queen,” Alexis said. “For that I’m thankful. But she was also trying to make us all into these…  she has this idea, this ideal, of ‘full’ persons that need no one else. That bind with others only because they want to, not because they ever need to.”

She spat to the side.

“And that fucked us,” the Huntress bluntly said. “Cocky still hasn’t told a living soul her name. John got himself killed because he thought he thought he needed to prove he was our equal. Lysander once spent most a year learning how to make shoes, when we were kids, because he thought just buying them would mean he was weak.”

I watched her silently, waiting for the last two names. Named. The last of the band of five that had never formed.

“I fight when I shouldn’t,” Alexis the Argent reluctantly admitted. “Because it feels like backing down if I don’t. But Indrani’s the worst off, because of all of us she’s the one that bought into it.”

“I think the woman you knew,” I gently said, “only shares so much with the woman I know.”

She didn’t like that.

“I know,” the Huntress bit out angrily, slamming a fist on the groaning fence. “I know, fuck.”

I let it go, this once, but my eye narrowed. It did not go unnoticed.

“She’s not the same as she was when she left to pick up John,” Alexis forced out. “She tries. I can see it, Black Queen, that sometimes the urge is there but she fucking bites down on it.”

“You don’t have to forgive her,” I quietly said. “She’s not owed that.”

The Silver Huntress faintly smiled.

“Sometimes I still wonder if Lysander got killed because Indrani went soft from her years with the Woe,” she confessed. “Whether it’d have gone down different, if she’d not turned into the kind of person who tries.”

Sometimes, looking at what Ranger had left in the children she’d raised, I wondered what it was Amadeus of the Green Stretch had left in me. What curse, what scar. That there would be one I had no doubt: one did not learn from a madman without learning some manner of madness with it.

“She got to us deep, the Lady,” Alexis tiredly said. “Even where we think she didn’t. But maybe that’s what we have – scars from the same fang. That’s for us to handle, anyway. It’s not what I came to you for.”

“Then what did you come for?” I asked.

“When Ranger comes for us, and she will,” Alexis the Argent said, voice eerily calm, “she’ll strike at every weakness. As hard as she can. She’ll try to break us.”

My fingers clenched.

“It’s how she believes love works, I think,” the Huntress quietly said. “To make someone stronger, even if it hurts them. So she will come for us, Catherine Foundling, with loving cruelty. To crown us, welcome us as women. Peers.”

Peers, the way she’d treated the Calamities in my Name dreams as the Squire. The way she treated those, I thought, that had not needed her hand to come into strength. There were people, I thought, that Ranger might be lovely to. My father was one of them, because there were things about him she admired. It excused none of it, as far as I was concerned.

“She is not my peer,” I coldly said. “And I’ll teach her why, should she come for any of you.”

“I can take care of myself,” Alexis brusquely dismissed. “But Indrani…”

The Silver Huntress bit her lip.

“That’s what I want from you, Black Queen,” she finally said. “Don’t let the Lady turn her back into who she used to be. That’s all I ask.”

A moment, as she choked on the word.


The moon glared down at us, a full circle wreathing us both in pale.

“I won’t,” I swore.

Interlude: East I

“As a rule, principles are trouble. If you have them, unprincipled men will despise you. If you do not have them, principled men will despise you. My advice, my son, is therefore to choose terribly mediocre principles but keep to them religiously.”

Extract from the infamous ‘Sensible Testament’ of Basilea Chrysanthe of Nicae

“And the nature of her alliance with the First Prince?”

Akua Sahelian had found that betrayal was not unlike putting on an old dress. The cut did not quite fit as it would have once did, but there was a certain comfort in the… familiarity of the object. Sargon had been dear enough to grant her use of the family’s finest scrying mirrors – ancient artefacts, tall as a man and twice as broad – so the illusion that she was seated at a table in the same council room as the Dread Empress of Praes was rather convincing. The clarity of the spell allowed for the game to be played as if they were in person, Malicia reading her face as she read Malicia’s. It was rather invigorating to fence this way with a woman of the empress’ calibre.

“Largely a result of common interests,” Akua said. “There is a surprising degree of trust there, but that is not unexpected after Catherine’s restraint during the Peace of Salia.”

Callow had been well positioned to extort Procer when the time had come for bargaining. There was not much the First Prince could have afforded to do but bend, given the imminent collapse of her realm if she did not, but Catherine had instead chosen to court goodwill. Given how important the trust between the two greatest rulers of the Great Alliance had become, and the veiled frustration on Malicia’s face when she spoke of Procer, Akua was inclined to believe it had been the right decision to make.

“There has been some method to her recklessness,” Malicia conceded. “Your opinion, then, on her relationship with Yannu Marave and Itima Ifriqui?”

Oh my, she truly was frustrated. Mentioning those two names – the two heads of the great lines of the Blood that were not Catherine’s informal pupils – was a tacit admission that Malicia was trying to get a peace here in Praes by getting the broader Grand Alliance to twist Callow’s arm into accepting it. No doubt she’d already tried Cordelia Hasenbach and been rebuffed, so she was now looking for other angles of approach. Unfortunately for the empress, the Dominion was dead grounds in this regard.

“She is highly respected, due to her role in the Grey Pilgrim’s resurrection after the Princes’ Graveyard,” Akua said. “I don’t believe she has spoken much with the Lady of Vaccei at all, but she has a solid accord with Lord Yannu.”

Akua decided to keep it up her sleeve that not a single one of the Blood would dare to cross Catherine at the moment. Not while she had the Barrow Sword at her side and they very much wanted to avoid her protection of him extending beyond the confines of the war. If she kept meddling in the politics of Levant that might change, but for now having both fear and respect at her back meant that Malicia would find no purchase with the Levantines. It might be amusing to see her fail in the attempt, however, so Akua offered her empress a pleasant smile instead of potentially useful information.

“Her talent for ingratiating herself to key individuals is proving to be an obstacle,” Malicia deplored.

And perhaps Akua would have agreed, as a girl, when she could only think of strength through the Empire’s conception of it. An outlook that would claim Catherine was ahead because of a superior quality. In this case, Malicia seemed to have decided it was talent for making alliances at the highest rungs of power. To triumph over her the Dread Empress would have to bring her own superior qualities to bear and decisively beat her opponent. Yet the old certitudes no longer rang so true. Praes is so deeply despised out west nowadays that Hasenbach could not agree to a bargain even if it were advantageous, Akua thought. That is not of Catherine’s making.

The Dread Empress had won too many battles, ceasing to question if they needed to be fought at all. Victory was a heady brew, Akua knew better than most, but she was surprised that Malicia would fall prey to such a mistake. The empress had always struck her as being an exquisitely self-controlled woman. Then again, the Carrion Lord was involved. It was always harder to see clearly when the cut was so close to the heart.

Akua knew that too, and learned the lesson roughly enough it still left the edges of her raw.

“The Dead King has forced together strange alliances,” she simply said.

Malicia looked amused, understanding the sentence for the veiled reference that it was.

“How have you found the body?” the empress asked.

Akua closed the fingers of her right hand into a fist, enjoying the sensation of skin on skin. It had been almost overwhelming at first: her time as a shade had blurred the memory of what sensations actually felt like. Returning to the real thing after the pale shadow she’d lived with had needed some adjustment. There was an even greater boon attached, of course. Akua murmured a single word in the mage tongue, opening her hand into a flat palm, and a dot of hellfire bloomed above it.

“More than satisfactory,” she said. “A princely gift, Your Dread Majesty.”

“I reward loyalty, Warlock,” Malicia smiled. “And sometimes even the anticipation of it.”

The Named being spoken aloud earned a small shiver from Akua every time. She was not a claimant for it, not yet, but Creation was recognizing the… possibility. That the potential was there. Neither of them mentioned the spells Malicia’s mages had hidden that would allow the empress to kill her with a word, though they both knew they were somewhere in the flesh. As always, the Dread Empress’ words had two meanings: if loyalty earned reward, then disloyalty earned punishment. The mere anticipation of it would too, as Malicia had subtly warned.

“I’ve no doubt ours will be a close relationship, Your Dread Majesty,” Akua lied.

“Oh, I agree,” Malicia lied back.

The empress deigned to take a sip from her cup, some dark liquor cut with water.

“My decision to place trust in you is why I have decided to assign you to the Black Knight’s command for the coming battle,” Malicia continued. “Your unique insights into the adversary will be of great use, I am sure, but I most look forward to seeing your magic on display once more.”

A transparent enough ploy, but that was on purpose: the empress was asserting control. As the first measure of that control, she wanted Akua to kill enough of the Army of Callow with sorcery that the bridge back to that side would be forever burned. There was not a ruler worth their salt on the continent that did not know Catherine Foundling loved her soldiers just as fiercely as they loved her.

“Of course,” Akua replied, not batting an eye. “In that spirit, I would seek your permission to obtain artefacts from my cousin. The Sahelian arsenal is best put to your service, not left to gather dust.”

“If he is amenable, I don’t see why not,” Malicia smiled.

A lie, Akua decided. The answer had been too smooth, too unthinking. Sargon must have already been given strict instructions about the calibre of what he was allowed to lend her. The empress feared she might be able to slip the leash too early, then. Interesting.

“My thanks,” she said, bowing her head.

“Think nothing of it,” the empress dismissed. “Are you confident, with such aid, of being able to match the Hierophant on the field?”

“It would depend on the amount of magic he first ingests with Devour,” Akua said, feigning reluctance. “I have not seen his upper limit as a thaumatophage. Placing mage circles under my command or moving me to Marshal Nim’s side early so that I might begin preparing rituals would increase my chances.”

She liked Masego. He was a fascinating conversationalist and Akua had something of an inherited fondness for tactless mages. It had been marrying convenience to her own preference to lie about his abilities. With the Tower under the impression that he could simply suck dry entire battalion of mages if they were in sight, he’d be treated as an entity to be avoided instead of a Named that could be fought. And if Malicia’s most sensible answer to this was placing greater power in the hands of another special asset – like an incipient Warlock, just for example – then was it not the best of both worlds? The Dread Empress studied her for a moment, then conceded with the slightest movement of the head.

“I will speak with my Black Knight,” Malicia said, committing to nothing. “Expect to depart soon.”

A moment passed.

“Great gifts bring the expectation of great results, Warlock,” the empress added.

Meaning that should she be granted her request failure to match the Hierophant would have… consequences. Ah, how very old-fashioned of her. Akua found it rather charming.

“That is only natural,” Akua easily replied.

The empress chuckled. It was a languorous sound, and though it had little effect on her Akua could appreciate the artistry as a fellow seductress. Dread Empress Malicia was almost inhumanly beautiful, of course, but in truth that ran rather somewhat contrary to Akua’s tastes. She had spent many years surrounded by the perfect and the splendid, eventually growing tired of the fare. She preferred character nowadays, the interestingly imperfect. The empress was simply too exquisite to qualify. Besides, women were rarely of interest to her. She could count on one hand the number she’d been attracted to. She caught the scent of smoke.

Looking down Akua saw her hand had closed into a fist, smothering the hellflame. She’d not even realized she’d done it. The growing pains of a new body, she told herself.

“I do enjoy conversing with you, Akua,” Malicia lightly said. “They are always interesting, our little talks.”

“I aim to please,” she replied.

The empress smiled and Akua could feel the conversation was now to end. They had reached the end of their business for the day. And it was a whim, to ask, but she did not kill it when it rose. She had wondered from the moment she’d realized that work on the body awaiting her in the depths of the Empyrean Palace would have begun months before she ever set foot in Praes.

“How did you know?” Akua asked.

The Dread Empress of Praes studied her with dark eyes. Not a speck of gold in them. Blood as muddy as the land she’d been born of, running through the veins of the longest-reigning tyrant in the history of Praes.

“That I would turn on them,” she said. “I did not, until the very end. How did you know?”

Dread Empress Malicia’s smile was sad, she thought, and perhaps the sole genuine emotion she had shown this entire conversation.

“You came too late,” the empress said. “Even if some loved you, and I expect they did. You came to them too late, Akua. They were never going to forgive you for what they might have forgiven each other. There was no becoming one of the five.”

Her face went blank, like she was some kind of tipsy debutante. It was still better than the spasm of pain that would have shown on her face otherwise.

“In the end, darling, you were always going to come back,” Malicia gently said. “This is the only home you have.”

Sorcery rippled across the mirror, turning it back to simple polished silver, and Akua was left to wonder whether it had been kindness or an assertion of power to end the spell on that sentence. Perhaps a little of both, she decided. Though the dark-skinned woman knew she could have risen to her feet and distracted herself with movement, with pouring herself a cup of wine from the carafe or biting into a pear – the sheer pleasure of proper taste, after all this time – she did not. Instead she sat there and closed her eyes, thinking while it was all still fresh.

She had just fooled the empress successfully for the first time, after days of being interrogated for every scrap of knowledge on the Army of Callow and the Grand Alliance that she cared to divulge, but it did not feel like much a victory. She would admit it had been enjoyable, sparring with the empress. Sharpening iron with iron, the two of them knowing a single misstep would be enough for the other to pounce. Yet now that it was over, looking at what had been done, it felt… childish. Gaudy. No, neither of those were exactly right. More like she’d been indulging in something particularly-

“Wasteful,” Akua Sahelian murmured.

Scrapping iron for no real purpose save vanity. What had been gained from it all, really? They had circled each other like crocodiles snapping at each other’s tails, a triumph only of showing teeth. If instead they had sat and spoken plainly for even an hour, understood where they differed and where they might concur, would it not have – ah, she thought. And there it was. That old Sahelian greed, whispering again in her ear: she had left the fire for the dark, but she wanted all the pleasures of both. Akua rose to her feet at last, drawing back the chair and gliding past the wine carafe. It was the long window at the back of the room she sought, great panes of glass that could be pushed open to pair a lazy evening breeze with the view. She leaned against the windowsill, enjoying to the touch of the wind on her face, and lost herself looking at the distant silhouettes of Zaman Ango. The ancient maze, the sloping pyramids of mud.

Malicia had been right, she thought. This was home. The warmth of the fire had lulled her into indolence, but she’d snapped out of it at last. She would not forget that moment in the cave, where it had at last sunk in that nothing would make a change. That Akua could turn on her family, on her people, on everything she believed in and had ever loved since she was a child, and still it would not be enough. Because her folly had been the doom of a city, of a hundred thousand souls, and while the Gods knew of forgiveness Catherine Foundling did not. Had that been the revenge, she’d wondered then? Making her… and then ripping away the curtain, leaving her to look a merciless truth in the eye.

Maybe it was. Dartwick had wounded more shallowly when she’d made her rip out the eye instead.

And the worst of it was that, even now, part of her ached to leave. To return. It would not go without comment, her absence, and yet Akua thought she might be able to talk her way out of the worst of it. And she’d still have the evenings spent designing wards with Masego, the drinks and lurid gossip with Indrani. Even those cautious, almost Praesi talks with Adjutant – who wanted to learn all she had to tell of the highborn of the Wasteland while giving back as little as he could for it. And another, of course, the one she’d left behind most of all.

Akua had thought to kill Catherine Foundling, once. To slay her and claim all she had built, perhaps even wearing her face. When she had still been a prisoner of the Mantle of Woe, sent back to the maddening boredom of nothingness in between brief tastes of Creation. Ah, but what interesting tastes they had been. Grandiose plans of war against half the continent, diplomacy with the most powerful people on Calernia. Then even more terrible sights, on the way to Keter. And even as she was dragged from wonder to wonder, there was the once-Squire in the middle of it all. Now a Black Queen, turned into everything Akua had thought she might become.

Fascination had been the doom of many a Sahelian.

“But it doesn’t matter, does it?” Akua said to the wind.

There was no joy to chase at the end of that path. No long-awaited delight, nothing to suffer for. She would not be forgiven, and even a lifetime of saving strangers and helping fools would not see her redeemed in anyone’s eyes. She had been chasing ghosts the entire time. So why stay? Why not come back to the home she had sold for nothing, to the destiny that had been taken from her? Warlock, yes, for that was Malicia’s offer. But why stop there? Sargon wanted her to free him of the soulbox, and so she could use him to free this body from Malicia’s yoke. Beyond the walls of Wolof, Praes was a cauldron about to tip over and in such chaos a clever woman could rise far. If she was to have a foot in the Tower, why not climb all the way to the top?

If none of it mattered, why should Akua Sahelian not get everything she deserved?

A voice she was learning to hate whispered that perhaps she already had. She ignored it. It was the voice of weakness, of the lion gone tame. She could see it in her mind’s eye, the path up the stairs. It began with the Black Knight, Marshal Nim. The key to the Legions, not that Malicia seemed to have grasped that. Her only Black Knight before Nim had the loyalty of the Legions for having reformed them, but the bond ran deeper than that. Black Knights were the champions of the Tower, commander of armies and killers of heroes. There was a Role: Malicia had done more than simply name a new champion when she had recognized the ogre’s claim. Should Marshal Nim prove less than utterly loyal, why, it might just be that the armies of Praes would split between following the old Black Knight and the new.

Did that not simply reek of opportunity? Yes, she decided, it was the beginning of a plan. One that would allow her to sit on the sole throne in all of Praes, before all was said and done.

So why, Akua Sahelian wondered, was she not hearing the song?

Amadeus had always enjoyed looking at the Hungering Sands as night fell.

It was a pleasure to the eye, the way the sky turned to vivid purples and yellows with not a cloud in sight. The way the shadows lengthened among the dunes like slithering snakes. Even the coolness was pleasant, when wearing a cloak. That much had been a necessity, given that it was only feasible to meet the woman he’d come to see under some cover of darkness. He’d not seen her in at least fifteen years, by Amadeus’ reckoning, but neither of them would forget the other. Lady Layan Kaishi had once been Commander Layan of the Third Legion, before she came to rule a prosperous little town at the outskirts of the Hungering Sands.

She’d lost an arm at the siege of Laure, and not in a manner where it might be replaced, but the Legions had not abandoned her. When she’d sought a discharge and returned home to settle accounts with her family, ‘volunteer legionaries on leave’ had accompanied her. Lord Kaisha had fallen down some stairs, as had his young wife – Layan’s own age, he’d heard – whose luck in birthing a son possessing the Gift had first seen Layan given the choice of the Legions or the grave. Some of those legionaries had even returned after their terms were over, stayed on as household guards, and though the holdings of Lady Layan were not large or rich they were known to be orderly. It’d drawn people to her town, as safety always did in troubled times.

Layan had not forgotten whose help it was that’d seen her made a lady: when Amadeus had contacted her, she’d agreed to lend a hand without hesitation. It had not been an onerous favour he asked for, anyway, simply the use of one of her family mages for a scrying ritual. Sometimes the dark-haired man wondered if anyone aside from Eudokia really grasped the sheer number of veterans he’d settled across the breadth of Praes. Most of them were not lords or ladies, of course – a campaign to stack the nobility with his veterans would have caused rebellion – but he’d seen to their livelihoods. Appointments in the local bureaucracies, free land leases in the Green Stretch, cushy posts in city guards or advantageous trade permits.

The Legions of Terror had bled for him across a dozen fields. Amadeus would not let their legionaries tumble into destitution after they left the ranks. And now, in his own time on need, he had found many doors still open to him. It was not the same as when he had been able to call on the Eyes, when Eudokia and Ime had left no stone unturned and council unheard, but he’d learned he still had friends in many places. Not a net of them, but it was better that way. Ime would have been able to infiltrate an organized apparatus, but she could not track entire decades of friendships and loyalties forged through two wars. So long as Amadeus remained quick and careful, so long as he kept moving, the Eyes would stay one step behind. It’d be enough.

In most fights, one step’s worth of distance was all that he needed.

Layan had aged gracefully, hair threaded with silver and skin wrinkled but staying fit in form.  She’d come to him out in the sands with her mage, as the odds were good that there was at least one traitor in her keep, but when they met she had hesitated before clasping the arm he offered. Amadeus’s lips quirked in amusement. She had not been the first of his veterans to react this way.

“The beard?” he teased.

“And the grey,” Layan admitted. “Never thought I’d see you with either, sir. No offence.”

“None taken,” he said. “You’d be surprised how many reacted the same.”

She snorted.

“With all due respect, sir, no I wouldn’t,” Layan said.

For all the levity, her eyes had sharpened when he’d mentioned others. She hesitated, then spoke again.

“Is it true?” Layan asked. “That out west you made a claim on the Tower?”

“Rumours fly far and swift, I see,” Amadeus noted.

“Rashan up north was a captain in the Fifth,” Lady Layan said. “His kid and one of mine are married. Lady Salah’s husband, out in Jubar, he’s the brother of the Second’s last quartermaster. We talk, sir. And not just us. There’s a lot who came home after the wars who’re still around. And a lot of us who have kin in the Legions and the Army.”

It still filled Amadeus with a rueful sort of pride, every time he heard the army raised by Istrid’s daughter and his own spoken of as a peer to the Legions he’d given so many years of his life to.

“I spoke words at the Peace of Salia,” Amadeus said. “I stand by them still.”

Layan Kaishi nodded, eyes hooded in the unfolding dark of the evening.

“There’s a lot of us who’ll come, if you call,” she quietly said. “More than you know. Not just veterans and our families.”

She hesitated.

“It can’t go on like this, sir,” Layan said. “This chaos. Ashur burns our coasts and now we play parlour games pretending they’re allies?”

She spat to the side, into the sand.

“Fuck that,” Layan cursed. “And whatever the Hells is happening with Sepulchral up north should have been stamped out years ago, not left to burn for whatever scheme this is. The empress is getting lost in her plots, sir. Doesn’t matter she keeps winning, we’re just tired of the games.”

And in a way, Amadeus thought, those few sentences he’d just heard were the most damning a verdict passed on Alaya’s reign he’d yet to hear. Because when the Tower was losing people like Layan, who was neither rebellious nor ambitious by nature, who most wanted out of a ruler competence and order, something had gone wrong. Were you always like this, Alaya, and I simply never wanted to see it? No, he did not believe that. They had lost perspective, over the years. He as much as she. They’d spent too long sitting on high seats, forgot what the view from the mud was like. Like all empires, like all rulers, they had reached their zenith and begun to decay. Old mistakes were yet in need of mending, and Amadeus of the Green Stretch would not relent until he had laid them all to rest.

That much he owed, to all and to himself.

“I am already a rebel, Layan,” he faintly smiled.

“We can be too, if you want,” his veteran boldly offered. “And there’s enough of us we can get High Lady Takisha behind you if you toss her a few bones. It’s not just us old hands who want an end to the messes. We’ve got support.”

The High Lady of Kahtan would turn on him the very moment she felt she was in a position to claim the Tower for herself, of course. They both knew that without Layan needing to speak the words.

“Another banner raised won’t end this,” Amadeus gently declined. “But beyond your help tonight, there is something that can be done.”

Layan Kaisha was almost seventy. She’d not been in the Legions of Terror for over twenty years. And still, the moment he finished that sentence, she snapped at attention like a cadet fresh off the College rolls. Some things just stay with us, don’t they? he fondly thought. Amadeus understood. He, too, had never quite shaken the stray dog out of his bones. He still found it easier to bite than kneel.

“High Lady Takisha has gathered the nobles of the south to her court,” he said. “Do not let them disperse. Take them north: Ater is where this all comes to a close.”

Layan slowly nodded.

“So long as the Grey Eyries are rebelling and Old Wither’s holed up in Foramen, many will balk at leaving the Sands,” she said.

“The Tribes won’t move,” Amadeus said.

It was not a prediction or a promise. It was a statement of fact. Her eyes widened in surprise.

“Are they- no, best you don’t answer that,” she decided. “They can’t get out of me what I don’t know.”

It was rather heartwarming to see that the safety protocols Ranker had designed were still being kept to. Her contributions to the Reforms had been more discreet than his or Grem’s, but no less crucial for it.

“I’ll spread the word, sir,” Layan said. “We should have enough pull for it.”

And Alaya would want the nobles close, even if she lost the battle taking shape in the depths of the Wasteland. The starker her disarray, the closer she would want them to the Tower: troublesome as they would be in its shadow, it was nothing to the trouble they would make out of her reach. So even if the Eyes learned he had a hand in this, and they would, Alaya would allow it. She would trust in her mastery of the Court to triumph against whatever scheme he might have arranged.

“There’ll be a battle, before it ends,” Amadeus said, offering his arm to clasp.

“Then we’ll meet again, sir,” Layan smiled, taking it. “I still fit in my armour.”

She cast a look around, glossing over the young mage she’d brought as he requested – he had long prepared the ritual, needing only a word to begin – and casting about for another shadow in the gloom.

“I’d heard the Lady was with you,” she said, a question in her tone.

“Ranger’s out and about,” he smiled. “Checking to see if there are any rats.”

“I pity them if there are,” Layan muttered.

With one last glance they parted ways, Amadeus sliding down the side of the hill to speak to the mageling in neat robes awaiting by a simple scrying bowl laid atop a rock.

“I can begin at your pleasure, my lord,” the young man said. “Though the key you gave me is utter nonsense, so it ought to do nothing at all.”

“Then it will do nothing,” Amadeus serenely replied. “The spell, now.”

Though somewhat put out, the young sorcerer duly spoke the incantation and the spell shivered across the air. When the water’s surface rippled the mageling gaped in surprise. Amadeus’ cool stare shook him out of it, making the dismissal clear. He bowed, then ran off after his aunt into the sands. The green-eyed man passed a hand through his hair, which he decided was getting a little too long, and waited for the ripples to cease. It took nearly a quarter hour for it to happen, and only then did a face appear in the water. Deep-set yellow eyes and wrinkled skin that looked like brown-green leather swam into focus.

High Lady Wither of Foramen, formerly Matron of the High Ridge Tribe, looked highly irritated until she realized who it was she was looking at. Then her face went blank, mouth closing shut with a snap.

“Good evening, Wither,” Amadeus smiled, showing only the faintest slice of teeth. “It’s been some time, hasn’t it?”

The old goblin hissed in displeasure through her teeth, almost like a whistle. Obtaining the key to her private scrying bowl had not endeared him to her, evidently.

“Never long enough, Carrion Lord,” she said. “Come to threaten me into changing sides?”

“I usually threaten only people I intend to later kill regardless,” Amadeus noted. “Fear is a poor incentive for alliance. I suppose I could bluster a bit, if it will make you feel better about what is to follow.”

“And what’s that?” Wither mocked, flashing her teeth mockingly.

“I am going to tell you a story,” Amadeus amiably said, “and you will then give me what I politely ask for.”

“You’re getting thick in your old age, Carrion Lord,” Wither said. “My defences are fine enough Ranger didn’t even try for my life when you two passed through Foramen. You have nothing to threaten me with, and any offer you make the Tower will double without batting an eye.”

Ah, Wither. For all that she was the first Matron to truly enter the highest reach of Praesi politics, she’d yet to learn to think beyond the goblin conception of conflict. Amadeus had never attempted to lay a hand on the High Lady of Foramen because what he’d come for had been of much greater value than anything an assassination might bring about. The green-eyed man had promised his old acquaintance a story, however, and so he would tell it.

“After the fall of Summerholm, during the Conquest,” Amadeus said, “it took less than six hours for the first rebel group to form.”

Garrison soldiers and a hedge wizard that’d escaped the Fields of Streges, planning to go to ground until most of the Legions left the city and then strike out at the invasion’s supply lines while the siege of Laure began. It had been a reasoned and practical plan, in Amadeus’ opinion. He’d appreciated the professionalism of it. Unfortunately Wekesa had spared the mage on purpose at the Fields, marking him with a discreet tracking spell, so they’d all been executed after interrogation.

“Three more emerged the following day,” he continued. “Even with Scribe personally overseeing the Eyes in the city, it quickly became clear that the situation was not tenable. Sooner or later we’d miss the cabals and the push against Laure would be endangered. Something needed to be done.”

Some had suggested mass executions of former soldiers, but Amadeus had found that ill-advised. It would simply replace known possible insurgents with military training for thrice their number in grieving relatives inclined to methods of insurgency that were harder to put down. If not worse. Callowans had long proven that they were perfectly willing to torch their own towns and cities while invaders were in them, should they be pushed far enough.

“The grey’s brought rambling with it,” Wither snorted. “You’re turning into a joke, Amadeus.”

The dark-haired man’s friendly smile did not waver.

“It occurred to me, then, that fighting the inevitable was pointless,” he said. “There would be rebel cabals. This was not an issue, however, so long as they were manageable rebel cabals.”

“So you started making your own rebel groups,” Wither dismissed. “Where spies were in the ranks from the start. I know the tale, Carrion Lord. It’s an old one – have you run out of cleverness, to be boasting of tricks decades old?”

“Ah,” the Carrion Lord said. “So you do remember.”

He cocked his head to the side.

“Why, then, did you old witches believe I wouldn’t catch you out using the same trick?”

Wither’s face went blank.

“Come now,” Amadeus murmured. “Alaya never bothered to understand your people beyond the levers that could be used to move them, Wither, but I made a study of you. Did you really think I wouldn’t figure out the Tribes have been making their own traitors for centuries?”

On the surface, the goblin custom of constant backstabbing and treachery was remarkably similar to broader Praesi philosophies: iron sharpening iron, echoes of jino-waza. But that was a surface resemblance only. Goblins always preferred taking from outsiders than each other. Competition was brutal within units – within a family, a tribe, within the Tribes – but unlike the governing philosophies of Praes the Tribes did have a concept of the ‘common good’ of their kind. They could and did sacrifice, if not for each other, then for the sake of their race. When the Goblin Rebellions became losing proposition, the Matrons always made the same decision: one or more turned traitor, the rest were butchered to appease the Tower.

There must always be someone in the Grey Eyries that Ater could deal with, else the talk might turn to annihilation instead of vassalage.

“You are grasping at straws,” Wither dismissed, “your position has become des-”

“It was cleverly done,” Amadeus honestly praised. “Whoever wins the war, wherever the balance of power lies, the Tribes will gain. Either Alaya keeps the Tower and you are confirmed the first High Lady of your kind, or the Grand Alliance prevails and the Confederation of the Grey Eyries is recognized as a sovereign nation by more than half the continent.”

It had been, in that classically goblin way, a viciously executed gambit. Because whether it was Wither that was the face of goblinkind going forward or the Confederation, the ‘loser’ would have to be drowned in blood. The deception risked being found out otherwise, the truth that the Matrons had planned this entire civil war of theirs from the start and that Wither was still very much one of them.

“You have nothing,” Wither said. “Not a thimble of proof to back this, because it is complete lunacy.”

“You played it too straight, Wither,” Amadeus told her, not unkindly. “That is what gave you away. We came to Foramen and there was not a single secret line of communication between you and the Matrons.”

He saw the realization sink into her, the way her large eyes narrowed in dismay. They had overcorrected in cutting off ties entirely. The Matrons should have been secretly negotiating with Wither if this was a genuine civil war. They’d wholly cut ties because they did not want the Eyes to catch them talking and figure out the entire affair was a ploy, which had been the very detail to confirm for Amadeus that it was all a ploy. Alaya would understand it too, if it was brought to her. Wither knew that.

And so she knew that Amadeus now had his fingers around a throat: hers and all the Tribes’.

“You sat on that for more than a year,” Wither finally said. “You’ve not simply been wandering around drinking and fucking the Lady of the Lake.”

Well, he’d not done just that.

“In the spirit of our understanding,” Amadeus amiably said, “I would like to make polite requests of you.”

“What is it you want, Carrion Lord?” Wither hissed. “You’ve turned the knife enough for a night.”

“I would like you to refrain from sallies outside your territory.”

“Fine,” Wither said, with ill grace.

“I would like use of your smuggling routes into Ater.”

She began to speak, but Amadeus raised a hand to interrupt her.

“I know the Matrons’ own were closed, but also Alaya left you your own as a reward,” he said. “Don’t bother.”

Wither grunted.

“Anything else?” she mocked.

“Oh, just one last thing,” Amadeus nonchalantly said.

The friendly smile turned thin and blade-like.

“I would like every last drop of goblinfire in possession of the Tribes.”

Interlude: West I

“Terror is the hand that rips away the masks. What stays when it has stripped away all the civilized lies we tell ourselves is our truest face, ugly as it is.”

Alrich Fenne, first of the Iron Kings

Life was full of ironies, Prince Frederic Goethal had found.

Death too, he supposed, though circumstance dictated that one’s enjoyment of such humour would be severely curtailed. For this jest, however, the Gods Above were yet smiling down on them. The endless armies of the Hidden Horror had smashed themselves against the walls of the Morgentor again and again, hordes beyond counting and horrors beggaring nightmares. The last fortress of Twilight’s Pass had held back the madness, as Lycaonese grimly had for centuries, but all the world had known that it was only a matter of time until the Morgentor fell.

There were simply too many of the dead and too few soldiers to stop them, no matter how sharp the courage and tall the walls. All of Procer, perhaps even all of Calernia, had turned its eye to fortress in the frozen north where horror was yet dammed. Like a face cringing away from a blow yet struck.

Yet they had done it. Against the odds, against the night and the fear and the endless cruelty of Evil, the Morgentor had held. Towers had fallen, even the fortress itself for a time, but always the armies under Otto and Frederic had taken it back. Even now, as the morn’s light fell on the stony grounds below, Prince Frederic stood atop the tower known as the Westenhaupt and knew the living to be the masters of the field. The dead were scattered and burning, the miraculous engines known as Pickler’s Nails – picklernagel – pounding away at their retreating mass.

Balls of pitch hit the ground, tossed by spindly catapults, spilling blackness where they landed and spreading the flames everywhere. The changes goblin engineering had made here… The Dead King’s commanders had grown wary of committing beorns to the first wave of the assault, after the fourth time they died without even touching a wall. Wary! The absurdity of that old monster’s generals being wary of anything at all had been as fine wine.

It had been night and day. Even after the Hidden Horror plied fresh tricks and opened a gate into the very Hells, the lines had buckled yet stubbornly refused to break. With valour and fire, the armies of the west had held back the tide even as all the world expected them to fall. But life was full of delightful, cruel ironies and so it had not mattered. To the southeast the Hocheben Heights had fallen: the dead were now pouring into Bremen like an unstoppable tide, burning and killing as they went.

The Morgentor had not fallen but it was going to have to be abandoned, lest the dead march north and surround it entirely.

The Kingfisher Prince looked down at the fleeing dead, sword in hand and fingers tight on the grip. Two years he’d fought here. Bled here, with the hard-faced soldiers at his side. The Morgentor was hundreds of miles from the borders of Brus, but he fancied he now knew the fortress as well as if he had been born here. It was not his home, but Frederic had well thought it might be his grave before it all ended. It was… frustrating to abandon it like this. The prince knew well the strategic necessity – already it would be a hard campaign to push south through the enemy invading Bremen, to be enveloped here was death – yet what the mind knew the heart disavowed. It tasted like defeat, leaving.

It was in the soldiers around him too, he could feel it. Aid fluttered in him like butterfly wings, urging him to help but not quite knowing how. Westenhaupt was heavy on Neustrians, whose home was south of Bremen was now next to fall, but that stern lot was no more inclined to leave than the rest. Garbed in steel and iron the soldiers milled about the rampart, talking in terse Reitz and keeping an eye on the wyrms in the distance. Even Frederic’s own retinue was in a dark mood. Such a small thing, pride, but was it not the smallest of axles on which the world rested? Small wounds could kill an army if left to fester.

Yet what could he do?

“It is finished for the day, my prince. The curs will not return until they have greater numbers than this to field.”

Frederic glanced at his captain – a distant cousin of his, he’d been given to understand – who’d addressed him and nodded agreement.

“They’ll be back under cover of darkness,” the Prince of Brus said.

Even with goblin spotters, night had the living at a disadvantage. The span they’d just bought, however, would be the opportunity of their departure. The armies had been ready to decamp and march south for days, it was only the constant assaults of the Enemy that’d kept them still. A fighting retreat all the way to Bremen would be… difficult, even for veterans like these. The soldiers around them had been listening without even the pretence otherwise and a familiar officer stepped forward, Captain Fredda of the Neustrian royal army.

“It is done, then,” she said. “We will flee south?”

The question was blunt, but more importantly reflected on the faces of most around them. Aid fluttered in him still, insistent. The Kingfisher Prince looked away, down at the fleeing throng of corpses. What could he claim?

“We will be back,” Frederic said. “And so will they.”

Grim nods, but the arrow had missed. The Kingfisher Prince thought, for a moment, of what Otto would say in his place. Something stern, do doubt. They were a stern and unflinching lot, the Reitzenberg. The Prince of Bremen was called Otto Redcrown by men for the proof of that, the same stubborn charge that’d killed his father and two elder sisters before the crown passed to him and he carried it to its end. And like that, Frederic found his answer.

“It begins now, our war,” the Prince of Brus said.

That claimed their attention.

“We will march south,” Frederic Goethal said. “Through Bremen and Neustria, through my own Brus in time, but though battles await us on that path it cannot be called a campaign.”

He smiled.

“It is a muster,” the prince said. “The last muster we have in us, the last gasp of Procer. And you all know where we will strike, once the strength of the east and the west is gathered.”

The Kingfisher Prince raised his sword, pointed it east. Where, beyond mountains and lakes and clouds of poison, lay the Crown of the Dead. Keter, the Hidden Horror’s seat of power.

“You call it fleeing,” the Kingfisher Prince laughed, “but you should know better, Fredda. Today, at long last, we begin our march on Keter.”

And inside of him the wings ceased fluttering at last, a smile from Above, as all around him backs straightened and stares hardened. Frederic had not lied, after all. The dead would chase them south relentlessly, until the time came for the last battle of this war. Frederic Goethal watched the corpses fleeing below one last time, fingers tight around his sword. Doom had come for the Principate of Procer, doom as no realm of man had ever known before.

They would meet that end, the Kingfisher Prince swore, straight-backed and proud.

The blow had split open her helm.

A shallow cut, she’d been lucky, but head wounds always bled ugly. Rozala Malanza, Princess of Aequitan, ripped off the straps of her helmet and tossed it away. It was useless now anyway and shaking free her sweaty hair was a small pleasure. Irritated at the delay, she glared at the priest laying his hands on her back.

“Hurry up, would you?” the dark-haired princess bit out.

A cleared throat followed and she glanced guiltily at Louis Rohanon, the former prince of Creusens who was now her formal secretary. And something rather more thrilling, in private, though that was best kept quiet.

“It would be easier if you dismounted,” Louis mildly said.

“I’m not sure I’ll be able to get back on my horse if I do,” Rozala admitted.

Russet eyes narrowed, but he knew better than to argue against her getting back into the thick of the fight. The Princess of Aequitan was not the kind of general that shied away from the melee: it was why men followed her into the dark. She asked them to brave no peril she was not willing to risk at their side. Louis simply nodded, even though he disapproved, and she felt a sudden swell of affection. He was a wonderful lover, but she had often thought he could be more should politics allow. Perhaps even if not. She had come to suspect there might be… other considerations. The dark-haired princess laid a hand on her belly. It was still too early to tell, but there were signs.

“The Levantines are still holding strong out west,” Louis told her. “But the Red Knight sent word that the Hawk has been nipping at them all afternoon. Lord Yannu took an arrow but he still lives.”

Rozala grimaced, the Light wielded by the priest at her side finally reaching her scalp. The wound began to mend.

“Someone really needs to kill that thing for good,” Rozala cursed. “And the eastern flank?”

“Still harassed by skirmishers, but the Cleven horse is scattering them,” Louis said. “If we can push through to the south, we have our path to Peroulet.”

Where the last line of defence for the principality of Cleves would stand. How quicky the wind had turned against them, Rozala thought. But a few months ago she had triumphed at the Battle of Trifelin then resisted the siege that followed in the victory’s wake. Even the opening of the Hellgate had not been enough to dislodge her. Yet the Hidden Horror, while losing battles, had found ways to win the war. As he had done to the Lycaonese up north, he had done to her here in Cleves: when the neck did not bend, he had struck the ribs. Rozala had lost the western coast while pinned in Trifelin so and seen herself at risk of being surrounded should the city of Atandor fall.

Cordelia Hasenbach had sent the order to retreat south to Peroulet before she could even consider a stratagem to turn this around. And though part of her had wanted to fight the First Prince’s command to retreat, Rozala had known it to be the right decision. Cleves was good as lost and there would be no reinforcements coming until it was far, far too late. It had been good that she’d not dallied out of pique, for Atandor had fallen earlier than anticipated and the army that’d taken it had swung north to attack her from behind as she already led her armies into a fighting retreat. For three days now her forces had been fighting the dead in heavy skirmishes, the Hidden Horror trying to mire her out here in the open instead of behind the walls of Peroulet.

She would not give the old monster his wish.

“Find me a helmet,” Princess Rozala asked her lover. “And a fresh lance. We must pierce through, else half of us will be corpses come morning.”

“Both are already on their way,” Louis replied, ruefully smiling.

Rozala almost leaned down to kiss him, holding herself back at the very last moment. His lips quirked anyway. Rising her saddle, caressing her charger’s neck, she turned her gaze to the field in the distance. They would make it to Peroulet, that much she would swear to any Gods that cared enough to listen. After, however… That fortress would be the last holdout before the hordes of the Dead King broke into the plains to the south. And if they do then Principate is dead, Rozala thought. It was a harsh thing, to realize that she had already given all the ground that she could afford to give. The moment she raised her banner over Peroulet, Rozala Malanza’s back would be to the wall. And the terrible truth was that, beneath all the oaths and speeches, the Princess of Aequitan was not sure she could hold the city.

No, that was a lie. She knew she would lose those walls. It was only a question of how long she could eke out before she did.

Breathing out, Princess Rozala Malanza accepted the helmet her lover pressed into her hand, setting it atop the crown of her head. A lance filled her hand, familiar weight, and she looked up at the sunny afternoon sky. They must first survive today, she reminded herself, before being troubled by tomorrow.

“One miracle at a time,” Rozala murmured into the wind, and rode back to war.

The First Prince thought it would look much like this, if an empire could see the headsman’s axe coming down on its neck.

The Morgentor had fallen. Rhenia had fallen. Bremen was halfway into the grave. The sole major military force left in northern Procer, under the command of the princes of Brus and Bremen, was fighting through the horde so it could make it to the temporary safety of Neustria. Cordelia had done all she could to evacuate her people further south, into Segovia, but many had stayed. Too many. Lycaonese, she should have remembered, were a stubborn lot. They were not retreating, not leaving. They would fight the dead fiercely for every league of stone, every river, every hill and forest and muddy road. It was the old fight, the old duty. The walls must hold, lest dawn fail.

That pride might yet kill them all, and with every passing day Cordelia Hasenbach could do less to ward away that fate.

Cleves was holding better, but barely. A ring of forts had been raised along the line drawn by Peroulet, after Cordelia drew from the refugee camps for labour. Food and places on carts headed south for the families of those who accepted had earned her enough volunteers that pits could be dug, palisades raised and stones stacked fast enough it could almost be called a miracle. The First Prince knew better. If there was one thing the Principate still had plenty of, it was hands that could be put to work. The entire effort had felt much like raising a sandcastle to stop the tide, but the fair-haired princess had gritted her teeth and seen it done regardless. Despair was not worth a whistle. If Cordelia failed, it would be after she had moved Heavens and earth trying.

Even from Hainaut the news was grim. General Abigail had been dislodged from the Cigelin Sisters by an enemy offensive, though she’d retreated in good order to Lauzon’s Hollow after covering her retreat with swaths of goblinfire. The White Knight’s crushing victory at Juvelun had secured the eastern passage, for now at least, but all of Cordelia’s generals agreed it was now only a matter of time until the Army of Callow was pushed back to the old defence lines at Neustal. And once that was the case, once all that stood between Procer and annihilation was forts from the hills of western Cleves to eastern Hainaut, then it would be the beginning of the end. The Dead King would hold the shores of the lakes and be able to cross unimpeded.

Looking at the grey stealing inch after inch of the exquisite map at the heart of the Vogue Archive, Cordelia Hasenbach could almost hear the whistling sound the axe was making as it came down on the neck of the Principate of Procer.

Though tastefully clothed and as rested as she could afford to be, Cordelia could not help but feeling worn to the bone. It showed, too, in some ineffable part of her. She’d glimpsed it in her looking glass, that subtle quality that came from a tool being worked ‘til it was near breaking. Yet the fire in her belly would not let her close her eyes, not when every missed opportunity was a few hundred more of the people in her care sent to the grave. The First Prince heard the Forgetful Librarian approach, recognizing the footsteps, and afforded the other woman a questioning glance.

“Word from the Dominion just came,” the Damned said. “It worked.”

Cordelia did not hide her surprise quite quickly enough.

“They agreed to the oaths?” she pressed.

“Every major line of the Blood swore oaths that the seneschal of Levante is to hold the city until the end of the war, when the Majilis will convene to settle the succession of the Isbili,” the Librarian confirmed. “The peace-oaths were not as widespread, but the rumours the Circle seeded seem to have moved public opinion where you wanted.”

This time it was a smile she hid. Cordelia had ordered that word be spread the Grey Pilgrim had died wishing for peace between Levantines before his sacrifice at the Battle of Hainaut, which would have meant little in Procer but carried a great deal of weight in the Dominion. He had been revered as half a god, in those parts. There would still be bandits and raiders that took advantage of the chaos, but the spectre of the Peregrine’s disapproval would stay many a hand. Perhaps, if she were lucky, enough that the Dominion of Levant did not collapse into utter anarchy. Methodical anarchy, at least, she would be able to prop up for a little longer still.

Long enough that if she no longer could, it was because Cordelia could do nothing at all.

“We can turn our attention to the League, then,” the First Prince said. “Have our envoys to Bellerophon sent word back yet?”

“Yes,” the Librarian grimaced. “That they have yet to be received by the expedition’s generals.”

The Republic of Bellerophon had, to almost universal surprised, succeeded at assembling an army and sweeping over the last holdings of Penthes. Unfortunately, the victorious citizen-soldiers had then begun a siege of the city-state that they were very unlikely to be able to carry out successfully. Cordelia would have had little issue with this, had General Basilia not been leading a coalition army east with the intention of besieging that very same city only to find that there was already an army camped beneath its walls. Given that Basilia had bought dwarven engines so that she would at least be able to breach the walls of Penthes and put an end to the war she’d begun, this was a… frustrating situation.

The Secretariat of Delos had invited her to mediate a peace between the parties involved, but while Helike and its vassals were amenable the Republic was proving to be rather more obstinate. The People had voted that Anaxares the Diplomat yet lived, and so was still Hierarch of the League of Free Cities. As a consequence, it was illegal for them to receive foreign envoys. The situation in the south had therefore turned into a farce of standoff under the walls of Penthes, General Basilia having refused to give battle and instead sent war parties to pillage the Penthesian countryside. She was, Cordelia suspected, trying to earn back what she had spent on those dwarven war engines.

“Then we lean on Atalante,” the First Prince said. “If they consent, Delos could at last call a formal session of the League of Free Cities.”

The end of hostilities that entailed could be used to force Bellerophon back to its territory, given that the republic still claimed to be loyal to its lost Hierarch. If General Basilia could steal a march on Bellerophon when hostilities resumed after, she could claim the siege first and finally bring the civil war to an end. Beginning to consider how the ruling priests might be convinced to end their self-imposed isolation, Cordelia ceased when she saw a messenger come for her. She glanced at the Librarian, who snorted before taking the offered scroll for her. It was given unto her afterwards, however, and she frowned. The head of the Circle of Thorns, Louis de Sartrons, claimed he had urgent news.

And to think she had almost begun to find a silver lining to the cloud.

Cordelia wasted no time in heading towards the salon where her spymaster would be waiting. The conversation would trouble her carefully arranged schedule if it ran for too long, and she had an obligation that could not be put off later that evening, but she would have to adapt. Louis de Sartrons was not the kind of man to call anything urgent without good reason. Within moment of sitting across from him and taking a polite sip at the served tea, the skeletally thin older man spoke a sentence that chilled her blood.

“The Dead King is looking for the ealamal.”

Cordelia carefully set down the cup, painted porcelain of exquisite delicacy. She did not ask whether or not her spymaster was certain, as it would be an insult to the both of them.

“Has he found it?” she asked instead, forcing calm.

“I believe not,” Louis de Sartrons replied. “A Revenant was caught in southern Lyonis and another was seen in Lange, but the facility in Brabant has not been breached.”

It would not be catastrophic even if it were, Cordelia reminded herself. Brabant had been judged too close to the enemy, and so the weapon had been moved into southeastern Aisne.

“Destroy it,” Cordelia ordered. “We must be sure the Enemy learns as little as he can.”

“I will see it done,” her spymaster agreed, then thinly smiled. “It may very well be only a matter of time until it is found regardless of any measure, Your Highness. Unless we let Chosen see to the defences-”

“We will not,” the First Prince sharply interrupted.

She would not let the White Knight usurp control of the weapon. It had been made of the corpse of an angel of Judgement, there could be no pretence of Hanno of Arwad not becoming its master as soon as he laid hands on it – and he would, if any of the Chosen took up guarding the ealamal. The loyalty of the heroes went first to their champion, and the White Knight had already proved himself untrustworthy in the Arsenal. Cordelia would not make the same mistake twice.

“Then the best we can deliver is delay, Your Highness,” Louis de Sartrons blandly said. “And I would consider Sister Alberte’s proposal that a limited test be attempted. Otherwise we know too little of the weapon for it to be considered usable, in my opinion.”

The First Prince hesitated, staying silent. It had been the question that plagued them all ever since the Salian Peace. What would a weapon made of a fallen angel of Judgement do, if Judgement was kept silent by a madman? The Hidden Horror himself had claimed that the Tyrant of Helike had spared them all a great doom by arranging for the Hierarch to do this, and the secrets unearthed in Levant last year had borne this true in part. If the Intercessor truly could influence angels, using the ealamal would have been a mistake. It would have given that enigmatic monster power of life and death over half of Calernia. Yet with the Hierarch staying true to his course of obstruction, the situation had changed again.

If the ealamal could be used without the Intercessor’s meddling, then Cordelia still had a way to prevent the fall of Calernia. If. Only none could tell her what the weapon might do without the guidance of angels behind it, and there was no known precedent to draw on. What way but a test was there to gain an answer? A small use, limited in scope, but still a use. The First Prince was inclined to agree with her spymaster of the necessity, but it was not so simple as that. There was another crowned head whose assent must be gained before that, lest in chasing ghosts Cordelia make an enemy of the living. Catherine Foundling had not been shy in voicing her disapproval of the entire affair, and absurdly enough the Black Queen was now Cordelia’s closest and most important ally.

“I am to speak with the Black Queen tonight,” she finally said. “The subject will be broached.”

“That is all I can ask, Your Highness,” Louis de Sartrons said, bowing his head.

The parlour had been refurbished from floor to ceiling when it was first dedicated to a new purpose, that of serving as the scrying room the First Prince of Procer would use to speak with the Queen of Callow. An entire wall had been covered by a beautiful silver mirror while the plush sofas had been replaced by a beautiful yet severe set of Lycaonese armchairs and tables. Bureaus had been filled with papers which might be of use in discussion, the latest reports and predictions, while the walls were covered with maps and tapestries. Every detail had been tailored according to what her agents believed to be the preferences of Catherine Foundling.

Though Cordelia doubted their common amiability could be traced back to these changes, it had to be said that at least the change of furniture had ensured that the Black Queen would no longer eye the more elaborate Alamans furnishings with barely veiled disdain. The First Prince was in some ways rather amused by the other royal’s disdain for luxuries, considering that for all her severe inclinations she was likely one of the wealthiest women in all of Calernia these days.

The First Prince of Procer poured herself a cup of mead and set the pitcher down on the table before slipping into the armchair – discreetly made more comfortable with cushions – and allowed herself to take a sip. Unlike the Black Queen, who usually guzzled wine as if it were water while they talked, she moderated herself. It made it all the more frustrating that the drink usually came to redden her cheeks before it did the other ruler’s, to be frank. Before she had even set down the cup, the surface of the mirror before her rippled. It took a moment for the wizards of the Observatory in Laure to bind her to the Hierophant’s spell in Praes, but hardly more than a few breaths.

On the other side of the mirror the Black Queen, looking as tired as Cordelia herself felt, offered her a lopsided grin.

“Your Highness,” Queen Catherine of Callow said.

“Your Majesty,” First Prince Cordelia of Procer replied.

Catherine Foundling could be striking on a good day, but this did not seem to be one of them. Her clothes were ruffled, her expression drawn and there was no sign of the ruinous charisma that had drawn so many to her causes – fair and foul. The cloth covering the eye she’d lost in Hainaut was slightly askew, which made her shark cheekbones stand out more than usual. Cordelia almost wished she had not taken the time to put on a fine dress in Rhenian blue herself, but only almost. Even if Foundling noticed the difference between them, which a slight frown told Cordelia she had, the queen was was always easier to deal with when the Lycaonese princess was dressed becomingly.

The Black Queen’s wandering eye was well-know, and Cordelia had not gotten where she was by refusing to use the arrows in her quiver.

“A trying day?” the First Prince asked.

The tanned woman – even darker of skin, now that she campaigned under the Wasteland sun – barked out a laugh.

“In a way,” the Black Queen said. “I have what I came for: High Lord Sargon’s granary and his treasury are secured and ready to be moved. I can begin heading south for a decisive battle.”

“A great victory,” Cordelia said, meaning every word.

The city of Wolof was famous even in her native Rhenia, known as a great fortress that’d broken the same armies that had taken Ater and brought down the Tower. That Foundling had beggared it without even having to storm the walls or losing more than a handful of men was the kind of feat a reputation could be made of, were the Black Queen’s own not far beyond such tales nowadays.

“So they tell me,” Catherine Foundling tiredly said. “Akua Sahelian left my camp two days ago. Our spies in Wolof tell me she has entered the Empyrean Palace.”

Cordelia, knowing the Doom of Liesse to be a thorny matter, took a sip from her mead as she chose her words.

“Her desertion is as you predicted,” the First Prince said. “And planned for.”

The other woman winced.

“If I might give you a word of advice?”

Cordelia cocked a brow but nodded.

“I wouldn’t ever say anything that could be construed as a variation on ‘just as planned’,” the Black Queen said, and she seemed completely serious. “That never ends well.”

The blonde princess leaned back into her seat. It was absurd enough advice, on the surface, but it was no fool giving it.

“One of the obscure rules of… Named, I take it,” Cordelia said, deciding using Chosen or Damned would be undiplomatic.

“More for villains than heroes,” the Black Queen said, “but it’s best steered clear of across the board. Sharp irony tends to ensure.”

“I will keep it in mind when dealing with Named,” Cordelia replied.

It was useful information and there was no denying that in these matters Catherine Foundling was a great deal more learned than Frederic Goethal, who Cordelia had attempted to learn from only to find his knowledge of the affairs of Chosen to be rather shallow. The likes of the Peregrine and the Black Queen seemed, unfortunately, to be quite rare.

“Might be useful for you to keep in mind period,” the queen drawled.

“While I appreciate the implicit compliment, I am not Chosen,” Cordelia flatly said.

The other woman leaned back into her seat, inside that campaign tent of hers. She took up a goblet of what looked like that truly horrid orcish liquor – aragh – and knocked it back, offering a toothy smile afterwards.

“Maybe not right now,” the Black Queen said. “But I wouldn’t bet on that staying true forever. Vivienne tells me you’ve gotten Levant back into a semblance of order.”

The heiress to Callow would have read the report earlier. It seemed an odd change of subject, but likely wasn’t. These little detours were a staple of conversation with Catherine Foundling, she had learned.

“Lady Itima’s contributions were key,” Cordelia said. “But I will agree that the Dominion has somewhat stabilized.”

“Yeah,” the Queen of Callow drawled, rolling her eye. “I’m sure Itima Ifriqui was the one who came up with that oath and propaganda plan. Seems right up her alley, that play.”

Cordelia’s lips thinned.

“You have a point, I imagine?”

“You got Levant in order,” the Black Queen said. “You’re keeping Procer from falling apart and taking the lead in the fight against the Dead King. There’s a title for someone who does that, Hasenbach.”

Ah, were they now dispensing with titles? Foundling usually on began that a few drinks in.

“Is there?” the First Prince replied, skeptical.

“Sure,” Foundling shrugged. “Warden of the West. What a fun coincidence that you happen to already bear it.”

“That door lay open before me once,” Cordelia coldly said. “I did not step through the threshold. It is not a choice I regret.”

“You didn’t take the Name, maybe,” the Black Queen said. “But the Role, you made it yours anyway. There’s not a pie west of the Whitecaps you don’t have your finger in. Might take a year, might take twenty, but Creation will answer to the truth of that.”

She smiled, looking fearsome and sympathetic both.

“You can swim against the river all you like, Cordelia Hasenbach,” she said. “It won’t get tired before you do.”

The genuine sympathy in the other woman’s voice made it a harder blow than if she’d been cruel. It sounded like something she truly did believe. And though this talk of Name and Role was… esoteric, there seemed to be some manner of logic to it. However tortured. And though you are a madwoman, Catherine Foundling, Cordelia thought, you might just be the cleverest madwoman alive. This was not an assertion to be lightly dismissed.

“I will heed your warning,” the First Prince said, politely calling the subject to a close.

Foundling nodded, looking almost nonchalant. She was… loose tonight, Cordelia decided. Less controlled than usual. And for all her drinking and seeming carelessness, the Black Queen usually kept close mastery of herself. This, though, seemed unguarded.

“Does Sahelian’s betrayal truly trouble you so?” the fair-haired princess quietly asked. “You told me of its coming months ago.”

“It stings,” Catherine Foundling artlessly confessed. “I didn’t think it would. Wasn’t sure it would, maybe.”

“And still you went forward with this scheme,” Cordelia said. “Why? There are less convoluted ways to take revenge, Foundling. And I did not question your plans, for this is an affair of Named and Callowan besides, but I will admit I find what I know of this to be baffling.”

The one-eyed queen’s lips quirked. That had, somehow, pleased her to hear. She truly took as compliments the strangest of things.

“It’s not just about revenge,” the Black Queen said. “It’s… hard to articulate.”

Cordelia was not so sure. She thought it might instead be that it was the simplest thing to articulate in the world, but that the queen across the mirror would resist speaking those words to the bitter end. It was a shocking thought, that Catherine Foundling might have affections for the woman that’d destroyed Liesse, but in a way fascinating as well. Cordelia was not certain whether it was the tint of tragedy to the whole affair or simply that she had never before met someone with such spectacularly terrible taste in women before, but the perhaps the truth lay somewhere in the middle.

“A strange revenge indeed, to return her home and to the Tower’s service after having been one of your inner circle,” Cordelia mildly said. “Unless you have sabotaged her prospects?”

The Black Queen grinned, a vicious slice of ivory.

“Oh, not at all,” Catherine Foundling said. “She is going to get everything that she ever wanted.”

The queen poured herself another cupful of liquor.

“But that’s the thing with Praes, see,” she continued. “You get whatever you want, but never the way you want it.”

“It is your campaign to lead,” Cordelia finally said. “And I cannot gainsay your results so far.”

“It’ll be a battle next,” Foundling opined. “A convergence. The fate of Praes going forward is going to be wrestled over. And after that…”

“Ater,” the First Prince completed.

“It ends there,” the Black Queen said. “I’ll get it done, Cordelia. I know the stakes. I’ll muster the East and we’ll come with its full array of war.”

And the truth was that the First Prince believed her. Because the two of them had grown beyond enmity, even as enemies, and though they were not friends – would never be – a trust had grown between them. You could only share the burden of the world on your back with someone for so long before you took to them, even a little.

“We don’t have long left,” Cordelia quietly admitted. “We are giving ground on all fronts now. And the southern principalities are beginning to buck my authority, slowly but surely. I expect there will be defections before you return.”

There was only so long people were willing to have the lifeblood squeezed out of them to support a war they’d never seen with their own eyes. And though Cordelia had pushed through the Highest Assembly measures that would buy the realm a few more months, the hard measures she’d relied on to see it done had made her enemies.

“You’re keeping up the sky with your back, Hasenbach,” the Black Queen replied, tone oddly gentle. “I don’t expect the impossible of you. If it were anyone else in your seat, this war would already be lost.”

“We might lose it anyway,” Cordelia said, and hesitated.

It was now, she thought or never.

“The ealamal,” the First Prince said. “I want to find out what it does with Judgement silenced. In case…”

In case they lost the war, she left unsaid. The Black Queen grimaced.

“You want a test,” she said.

Cordelia nodded. Added nothing more.

“Fuck,” Catherine Foundling cursed, leaning back into her seat.

There was a long moment of silence.

“Crows take me. Do it.”

Chapter 11: Descent

“Loyalty is not opposite of betrayal, but in truth adjacent: to truly place a person or principle above all others is to promise injury to a thousand others.”

– Extract from the prisoner’s memoirs of Princess Eliza of Salamans

My soldiers cheered as I rode back into camp.

I’d had a party waiting for me shortly outside the gates, led by Vivienne herself. She’d pulled me in tight for a hug, to my surprise and pleasure, before we took the saddle and headed away from the prying eyes atop the walls of Wolof. I’d expected there to be something of a strange mood in camp after I’d spent a sennight in captivity, but if anything my sudden return seemed to have been expected. Like I’d been a given that I would pull a trick, find a way out of the pit. It was as once oddly touching and brute burden. Sooner or later, I thought, I would lead them to a doom there would be no bearding. The thought of the look on their faces then had my stomach dropping.

It wouldn’t do to return grim-faced, though, so I smiled and laughed and stopped to speak with men and women I recognized. There were more than I’d expected. The First Army had pulled heavily from rank and file of the Fifteenth, back when it’d been first raised, and in some ways it had seen less action than other parts of the Army of Callow. There were fewer holes in the ranks here than there would have been in the Third or the Fourth.

When I first got to my tent it was to a warming sight: all of my closest companions had gathered there. Gods, even Pickler had come and it was even more of a chore to pull her away from her work since Robber had died. Akua kept to the back, tactfully keeping away from Vivienne, but I found her eyes and inclined my head. I’d speak no more of it for now, but I’d not forgot whose scheming it would be that got me out of that cell. Scribe was keeping her company, anyway, another whose presence surprised me. Wine was poured, though little of it – it was before Noon Bell – and I was asked about my time imprisoned. There was a great deal of outrage when I explained I’d pretty much lived in the lap of luxury, with good wine and interesting books.

“It figures even in a cell you’d stumble into a better bed than us,” Indrani complained.

“Even got to maul Malicia twice,” I cheerfully added.

I had a thousand questions to ask them, but before getting to it I wanted a wash and a change of clothes. Pretty as mine were, I wasn’t going to keep wearing what my foes had given me. Masego insisted on inspecting me for illness or enchantments, which I agreed to once I was clean from the dust of the road, and most of them took the hint that I wanted to wash immediately. Hakram lingered, no doubt to brief me on all that I’d missed, but to my surprise so did another.

“A private word, if you please?”

I eyed Scribe with surprise. Over the length of our association she’d made it a point to avoid getting Adjutant out of the room whenever she reported to me, as if to make it perfectly clear that she was not trying to usurp his position at my side. I doubted she would have broken that custom without reason, so I slowly nodded before glancing at Hakram.

“We’ll talk before the evening council,” I said. “I need to be caught up.”

“And more,” Hakram gravelled. “The envoys.”

Ah, that. Yeah, it made sense the orcs wouldn’t begin the journey back to the Steppes until I was out of Wolof. Not only had we been meant to speak again but there would be no point in making a deal with me if I were to stay Malicia’s prisoner.

“Bring in Vivienne for that, then,” I said.

“I’ll see what can be done,” the orc drily replied.

He gave Scribe a nod before taking his leave, limping away on his iron leg. That left me alone with the Webweaver in my tent, for the first time in what must have been ages. I poured myself a cup of water with lemon slices in it, asking if she wanted one with a cocked eyebrow. She declined, standing rigidly before my desk. I still couldn’t see her face in more than small glimpsed, always half-faded, but from the way she held herself I would have thought her nervous – or at least as close to it as a woman like Eudokia ever came.

“Now you’ve got me curious,” I admitted. “This isn’t professional, is it?”

“Not entirely,” Scribe admitted. “I would like to make a request of you.”

My brow climbed up. That would be a first. I’d sometimes wondered if there was still a woman under the Name or if she’d died when the Calamities had split.

“What about?” I asked.

I wouldn’t accept or decline without knowing more, but I didn’t actually believe that’d been what she was baiting with her lack of elaboration. She was, I was growing certain, genuinely uncomfortable having this conversation. Was it about Black? No, we’d talked of that before. Of loyalties. It wouldn’t make her like… this.

“You still have in your possession the corpse of the soldier that Marshal Nim possessed,” Scribe said.

“Marshal Nim can’t possess shit, Scribe,” I amiably said. “The Black Knight did that.”

Neither of us were particularly comfortable matching that Name to anyone but Amadeus of the Green Stretch, but best we got used it. I did not think it likely he would ever resume his old Name, which meant that even if Marshal Nim survived the tussle over the fate of Praes someone else would step in and fill those shoes. Scribe conceded the point with a nod.

“I would like for it to be passed into my custody,” Eudokia the Scribe said.

I blinked. That, uh, hadn’t been what I was expecting. I wasn’t sure what I actually had been expecting, but it was emphatically Not That.

“Masego’s studying it,” I finally pointed out.

Or at least he’d been doing so when I’d been captured. It’d been too much to hope he would be able to give me the aspect that’d done this, but I wanted at least an understanding of the mechanics involved.

“He believes he has already learned all he can,” Scribe said. “I believe he would be amenable to closing the matter, should you ask him.”

Huh. She wouldn’t even have needed to spy on him for that, I reminded myself. Zeze considered her like an aunt of sorts, he would have simply told her if asked.

“So I feasibly could give you the body,” I acknowledged. “And we’re going to walk right past why I should – for now anyway – to ask instead why you’d want that corpse in the first place. What are you going to use it for?”

She had to know I’d ask, I thought. I was not exactly known for my policy of handing over dead bodies to Named without asking questions. She had to have known, and still she hesitated before answering. That was fascinating to me, given who I was dealing with.

“I want to Inscribe it,” the Scribe said.

I swallowed a grin. Oh my, that’d definitely been an aspect. I was finally getting a peek at the juicy secrets of the Calamities, was I?

“And what does that do, exactly?” I asked.

“When I first began to us the method,” Scribe quietly said, “it was little more than a trick. I could make my words… weigh more than those of others. Make them linger where they were written.”

But tricks improve, I thought, and this one she’d refined until it became an aspect.

“By the time I met Amadeus,” Scribe said, “I could make eyes and ears of vermin. Sometimes I could even Inscribe instructions onto others that they would be beholden to obey.”

I calmly set down my cup on the desk. Living people, living creatures. Yet she was now asking for a corpse.

“You can make corpse-puppets,” I said. “And the higher quality the corpse, the better the results.”

“The first one I made was a puppet,” Scribe said, and I glimpsed a faint smile. “Little better than undead. Yet when I was destroyed, I retrieved the corpse and found that what I had inscribed could be retrieved. That there was more. The inscription had changed. I used the changes, and so the second was… something more.”

I breathed out a soft, incredulous laugh as it all fell into place.

“Gods Below,” I said. “You madwoman. You actually made a Named, didn’t you? By fucking accident.”

“We began calling him Assassin after the fourteenth iteration,” Scribe told me. “Wekesa helped me with the inscriptions that made it coherent enough for sapience, based on the contract Tikoloshe was bound by. Quickly enough we realized that the primary limitation was the quality of the base material. Most bodies could only carry part of the inscription before they began to wither. “

“So you used dead Named,” I said.

Assassin had died over the years, I thought. Dozens and perhaps even hundreds of times. And every time the Scribe had retrieved the corpse, ripped out the inscription and shoved a refine version into another dead hero’s corpse. Gods, had that been what my father did with all the Callowan heroes he’d nipped in the bud? Dropped them in some crypt, stashed away until Eudokia needed more materials? I was as appalled by the desecration as I was impressed by the brutal pragmatism.

“This one was possessed by a Black Knight,” Scribe said. “I will only be able to Inscribe seven parts in ten, at most, and there will be need for extensive… surgery so the resulting entity has a human silhouette. But he would be a match for the Assassin we were using in the decade prior to the Conquest, by my estimation.”

I could think of a way or two to use such an asset, I thought, but I still far from sold. It would, for one, not be my asset.

“How much control on the entity do you have, after you Inscribe him?” I asked.

“It cannot refuse a command from me,” Scribe said, then grimaced. “I fear you do not fully understand, Queen Catherine. I do not simply write words on dead flesh when I do this. I give of myself. It is the wholeness of the aspect. He cannot act against what I make of him, because there is nothing else to the entity.”

When I had fought Akua in the depths of Liesse, when I had passed through the Fourfold Crossing she laid out before me, I had glimpse of a life in which I had kill the Assassin. Goblinfire had done it, masses of it. It’s not a metaphor when she says she invests her aspect, I realized. It’s physically in the corpse. Practically speaking, it was probably why the construct could mimic Named abilities to some degree. The ‘Assassin’ wouldn’t have aspects of its own, but it wasn’t just flesh and power either. Not exactly. So if the body’s destroyed with goblinfire or demons it probably ruins her aspect too, I decided.

“Does Malicia know?” I asked. “Ranger?”

“Ranger does,” Eudokia said. “Malicia does not. She is aware that Assassin has ‘died’ in the past, but believes him to be a manner of wraith possessing bodies.”

Which wasn’t even entirely wrong, as tended to be the case with the best lies. Huh. That would be a trump card up our sleeve dealing with the empress. Which was probably why Scribe figured I might agree to let her make it. And it wouldn’t be a real Named, I thought. That had implications, considering the other opponent I was facing here in Praes. An entity with some of the abilities of Named but who could not be manipulated or predicted the way they could? That was a rather more tempting offer than just another knife to pull on the Dread Empress of Praes. The trouble remained, of course, that in the end it wouldn’t be my sleeve that card was up in. It’d be Scribe’s tool, and Scribe’s loyalty to me was not on solid foundation.

Her enmity with Malicia was very real, though, I judged. It was what she’d broken with my father over. And she despised the Intercessor as the architect of Sabah’s death. Could I trust her, though, to use this almost-Assassin to match those threats instead of pursuing her own goals? I took my cup, sipped at it for a bit as I felt her study me.

“And what do you want to us the thing for?” I asked.

“I would like to assassinate Malicia,” Scribe frankly said, “but I recognize that there are political realities and that the Tower is likely too well-defended for an incomplete Assassin. Instead I would commit him under your command to offensive operations against her cause.”

That was believable enough, but why would a lie from the Webweaver’s mouth would be anything else? Best to be blunt, I decided, and avoid misunderstandings.

“I’m not comfortable with giving you that kind of power when you have no personal loyalty to me,” I honestly said. “Especially when we’re in Praes. And while I don’t doubt you could grant me partial control, I don’t have the time to handle that on top of my other responsibilities.”

To my mild surprise, she nodded without seeming particularly offended.

“I understand,” she said. “In other circumstances I would have offered that Adjutant be placed in stewardship over the entity, but given his coming departure I would venture that Vivienne Dartwick is now the best candidate.”

First my right hand and now my successor. She’d picked the names well, couldn’t deny that.

“And you’d surrender part of the control without argument?” I said, somewhat skeptical.

“I recognize the investment in trust and resources you are making,” Scribe calmly said. “I will not pretend offence, though I will remind you I can do significantly more damage to the Grand Alliance with a few letters bearing your fake signature than a dozen Assassins.”

I was not unaware of that, but ‘I didn’t cut your throat with this knife’ wasn’t much an argument for giving someone a sword either.

“So what is it you do want?” I pressed.

“The right to brief Princess Vivienne on operational opportunities and present targets of my own,” Scribe immediately said.

Ah, there it was. Even after she’d been evicted from leadership of the Eyes here in the Dread Empire by Malicia’s own spymistress, the Webweaver still had more spies here than Callow did. That meant she’d be able to indirectly guide what we used Assassin for by simple dint of often having better information than we did. I hummed. She could also simply go back on her word and use the entity for whatever the Hells she felt like doing, of course, but that wouldn’t be like her. And though you might yet betray me, I thought, even if you do it will be to Black. I simply couldn’t believe he’d order her to use something like the Assassin on anyone dear to me.

“Hierophant will supervise,” I finally said.

As much because I wanted someone I trusted in that room as because if I robbed him of the opportunity of witnessing that he’d sulk at me for months. Even through the aspect I saw a surprisingly girlish smile light up Eudokia’s face, as she eagerly agreed and began to thank.

I could only hope, I thought, that I had not just made a grave mistake.

The gold and grain began reaching us half past Noon Bell, after I’d washed and Masego had declared be to be in the fullness of health.

It was only good sense to check the merchandise when you bargained with Praesi, so I unleashed Zeze and Akua on the goods while I got caught up with my informal council. There’d been next to no skirmishing in my absence, as it turned out, and Juniper believed what few blows had been traded to have been accidental. Patrols running into each other by happenstance, nothing intentional. As I’d expected it had been Akua – with Vivienne along for formal authority – who’d conducted the negotiations that’d pressured Sargon into my release. High Lady Takisha had been most eager to get her hands on the Sahelian library.

Akua had even tied up the affair neatly by ensuring the three tomes she’d sent south as proof that we did have the library were precious enough the High Lady of Kahtan wouldn’t be too miffed by our ending the negotiations. It was a nice touch, and I told her as much.

Sepulchral had been handled more by Vivienne, though, and there the talks had been rockier. Not for any misstep on my heiress’ part, but because Abreha Mirembe had wanted more than simply the arsenal the Sahelians kept in their vaults: she’d wanted a formal alliance between us, as well as the backing of the Grand Alliance. Vivienne had put her off by saying we couldn’t agree to that without the First Prince’s permission and the backing of all four remaining great lines of the Blood, which Sepulchral had recognized for the putting off it was.

“She warned us that the time for sitting the fence is coming to an end,” Vivienne told me. “That the civil war will be coming to a close soon, one way or another.”

“Or another yet,” I mildly said.

High Lord Sargon hadn’t been wrong, when he’d implied that Sepulchral was about as trustworthy as a hungry tiger. I’d been happy to throw her the occasional bone so far because she was a thorn in Malicia’s side, but I was not enthused as the notion of Abreha Mirembe holding the Tower. She’d probably hold off on backstabbing us until the end of the war on Keter, I figured, but she’d be trouble in the years that followed. Dread Empress Sepulchral would have no real interest in reforming the empire into something less poisonous to everything it touched, and I honestly suspected that she’d pull out of the Liesse Accords at the first opportunity.

That was not acceptable to me.

“We will need to take inventory of the coin and grain as they come, Catherine, but I believe in both cases our expectations were lower than the reality,” Aisha told me. “Wolof’s treasury, in particular, appears to have been fuller than we thought.”

“My cousin has been sacking the hinterlands of Askum rather relentlessly,” Akua noted. “It would not be surprising that he aimed to steal wealth along population.”

That or Malicia had been propping up his reign with gold. As had been pointed out to me last year, given that she still drew taxes from most of Praes, half her army was gone and most foreign markets were closed to her the empress was actually sitting on a lot of gold she didn’t have that many uses for. Solidifying the position of the High Lord she’d soulboxed would have been a good investment for her.

“How much are we talking, Aisha?” I asked.

“If the wagons are all carrying the same amount of coin, we would be looking at around a million aurelii,” the Staff Tribune replied.

I let out a low whistle. In the year after Second Liesse, when the shock of the second largest city in all of Callow and the crisis that’d followed was still hitting us the hardest, my tax revenue for the entire Kingdom of Callow hadn’t actually been much higher than that. I let that sink in for a moment.

“Well,” I finally said, “I suppose that makes up for the ransom money being stolen back.”

That got some smiles, the good mood infectious. It’d been a long while since out treasury had been quite so full.

“We’ll give a cut of the loot to Razin and Aquiline,” I decided. “As they helped us take it.”

Maybe a tenth? Much like my own countrymen Levantines tended to get pissy about anything they saw as charity – the pride of our fellow poors, I amusedly thought – so I might have to end up calling it an early wedding gift. The gold ought to help them strengthen their position in Levant after the war, too, assuming we all made it there.  I would repay my debt to Tariq Fleetfoot in full, one bite at a time.

“So who was it that tried to rescue me, by the way?” I asked.

“Indrani led the attempt,” Vivienne said. “But Masego, the Silver Huntress and the Barrow Sword went as well.”

I let out a small whistle. Not a bad lineup, for a jaunt like this. I’d have to ask Archer how far she’d made it, for Sargon to find it worth filling my cell with guards.

“I suppose I ought to encourage that,” I drawled. “And since we’re rich, we ought to throw a feast before all the gold’s gone. Tonight.”

“A fire?” Juniper asked, leaning forward.

“It’s been too long,” I agreed.

My soldiers would get rewards of their own, extra rations and ale casks being broken out to celebrate our successful ‘siege’ of Wolof, but tonight I’d share a fire with my friends.

We did it proper.

Akua found us a good place, slightly away from the camp but not too far. Indrani and Hakram dug the pit, Vivienne got the benches and Pickler started the fire. I went with Aisha to obtain a few drinks – some of them smuggled, but we knew those tricks – while Juniper began to roast the pig. Masego rustled up a few wards, just in case, and we got old Legion cooks to make us a pot’s worth of the old staples from the War College. By the time the sun came down, we’d claimed our hilltop and seats as Juniper began cutting into the pork and the usual haggling began.

“I am a princess, nowadays,” Vivienne attempted. “Of Callow, too. Arguably-”

The rib chops were dropped unceremoniously into her plate as I cackled along with Indrani.

“This is borderline treasonous,” Vivi whined. “What do I have to do to get a shoulder cut?”

“Be named Aisha Bishara,” Hakram drily noted.

“It’s a little sad when being royalty doesn’t even get you on the right side of nepotism anymore,” I said, but then I caught Juniper’s hard stare being turned on me, “-is what I would say if I shared her opinion, which is obviously wrong.”

I got a satisfied nod for that, letting out a breath for that. I’d gotten used to juicy tenderloin cuts, I wasn’t going to let pride get me demoted back to chops. After we’d gotten our plates filled according to the arcane and mysterious system Juniper had developed over our years of companionship – Zeze got downgraded to leg for having suggested using a magical fire while Indrani got bumped up to fillet for having actually listened during briefings for a whole week – the bottles got opened the drink flowed freely. Aragh and ale, mostly, but some wine too. Nok pale for Akua, to Aisha’s profuse mockery, and Vale summer wine from my personal stock.

It was a reality that invitation to these little fires had come to be seen as a prize, a mark of favour from the Black Queen and her inner circle, so while I wasn’t going to spoil the whole thing I’d made some concessions to the inevitable. People came by, staying for a time before leaving. Razin and Aquiline were first, curious to try pork cooked in the orc way, and though they wanted to hear of my captivity at first the ended up spellbound by a tale Aisha told about ancient Taghreb legends that claimed her people had some kinship with those of Levant, that they’d been brought west on great ships by strange and cruel gods. It was why Taghreb disliked ships to this day, she told them.

I thought it more likely that the whole living in a desert thing had inspired a healthy dislike for seafaring, but what did I know?

The older Named came by, after that, and with them both Grandmaster Brandon Talbot and General Zola. The Refuge crowd, Silver Huntress and the Concocter, kept close to Archer. Akua caught the latter’s interest by speaking about some of the potions her family had accrued over the years and they ended up in an animated discussion in what I believed to be tradertalk, but Alexis the Argent and Indrani mostly spoke to each other in stilted, stiff tones. They didn’t argue, I saw, but it was hardly a triumph of diplomacy. They’re trying, though, I thought. Or at least Indrani is.

Juniper and I got into it with General Zola, who’d fought at the Doom of Liesse under General Afolabi. She’d been a supply tribune, then, but their legion had gotten into enough a mess during the battle that it’d been all hands on deck. Pickler actually seemed to be enjoying a talk with Brandon Talbot, to my surprise, though what little I overheard told me why. Marchford had been his home long before it was my personal fiefdom, and it was Pickler I’d once ordered to rebuild the defences there. The walls had been pulled down after the Conquest, but I’d had no intention of leaving my holdings so vulnerable.

Hakram and Ishaq were quietly talking on the other side of the fire, which I considered to be a situation well in hand. The Barrow Sword saw Adjutant as a peer of sorts, and that meant Hakram could work him I ways I could not. I wanted him disposed to pitching in for the peace in Levant after the war, so preparing him for it early was important.

The last to visit were the kids, well after the others, and though I’d expected Sapan to stick to Masego’s side as a barnacle the way she usually I instead found that she and Arthur Foundling wanted to hear from me. Like the lordlings my captivity was of interest to them, but more than that they were rather excited by the way High Lord Sargon had been forced to release me even as I lay in his power.

“Look,” I said, “there’s nothing wrong with a good sword. Stabbing the right people can get a lot done, don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise, but if you want a win that lasts longer than a season you’ve got to use other levers. The stuff that actually makes the world go round.”

“Was it not your use of the Night that forced him to surrender?” Sapan skeptically asked.

“I could have stolen his treasury with Night and it wouldn’t have done a thing,” I shrugged. “The man who taught me, he was a stark believer in the victory of cleverness over power. I’m not as much of a purist – Gods know I use artefacts much more than he’d be comfortable with – but he was right that power doesn’t mean much unless you know how and where to apply it.”

“Because it was politics that forced the High Lord to bend,” Arthur Foundling frowned. “Not power.”

I nodded.

“Night let me take his library, clean out his vaults,” I said. “But I knew what to take because I knew what was important to him. The power wouldn’t have meant much without the second part.”

“The Carrion Lord taught you this?” Sapan asked, a little hurriedly.

As if she’d been going through with it before she could think better, I decided with a grain of amusement.

“He did,” I replied. “I’d say it’s a shame he’s mostly remembered for the number of Named he’s killed, but that would be ignoring the fact he probably cultivated that reputation very much on purpose.”

“He conquered Callow, ma’am,” Arthur quietly said. “They say it was the governors that did most the ugly deeds, afterwards, but he’s the one who handed it all to the Empire.”

“He’s a monster,” I calmly agreed. “But he’s also one of the cleverest men I’ve ever met, and ironically enough perhaps the best chance we have for peace between Callow and Praes in the coming decades.”

It was why I meant to see him climb the Tower, even now. I could trust my father with the Dread Empire, to curb its worst instincts and tangle it so deeply into the bonds of peace with Callow that it would not be able to free itself of them without breaking. Neither Malicia nor Sepulchral were acceptable alternatives. The trouble was that I was not so sure the man in question wanted to claim the Tower. Maybe at the Salian Peace he had, but it’d been over a year since. And the way he’d left…

The conversation strayed to lighter subjects after that and eventually we sent the kids to bed. That left only us, as it was meant to be, and a second round of bottles was opened. I clenched, suddenly, when I felt Robber’s absence like a gut punch. How many ghosts were out there, just beyond the light of our fire? Nauk. Ratface. Hune. I pulled at aragh to chase the thought away and had succeeded in claiming a pleasant degree of inebriation when I caught sight of one of the phalanges approaching Hakram to whisper in his ear. Seeing he had my attention, he gestured for us to move away from the fire and dragged in Vivienne as well. Once we were slightly away from the others, he wasted no time.

“Word from Scribe and the Jacks,” Adjutant said. “Armies are moving towards us.”

My eyes narrowed. He wouldn’t be meaning the forces under Marshal Nim, which had already been headed our way for some time.

“Sepulchral?” Vivienne asked.

He nodded.

“But more,” Hakram said. “The deserters as well. They’ve decamped from the Green Stretched and they’re in close pursuit behind the loyalists and the rebels.”

Well, it looked like I was overdue a talk with General Sacker. Half the point of becoming her patron was being warned of things like this in advance. I breathed out, trying to parse it out in my mind’s eye. The armies of the empresses would reach us weeks before the deserters were in sight, if not months, but they wouldn’t have begun to march without a reason. They wanted a piece of this too, in some way or another.

“Northeast of Askum, northwest of Ater,” I finally said. “That looks to be our battlefield.”

Deep in the Wasteland, which was bloody campaigning grounds for all involved. I wasn’t looking forward to that.

“Agreed,” Adjutant said. “And it means I can no longer delay my departure. Come morning, we must speak with the envoys and I will leave with them come noon.”

I grimaced. I wanted to refuse. I’d just come back and already he was leaving, but I knew it was not a sensible answer. There could be no replacement for Hakram, no one who would mean what he did to his people or who would know my mind as well.

“Tomorrow,” I reluctantly agreed.

He must have caught my displeasure, for he squeezed my arm comfortingly with his skeletal hand.

“We still have tonight,” Hakram said. “Let’s not spoil it yet.”

I silently nodded, and after a moment he moved away. Vivienne lingered. I looked up at the night sky, the stars spread out as far as the eye could see and the moon glaring down as a pale eye. At least these days I did not feel irrational hatred at the sight of it.

“Beautiful night,” Vivienne quietly said, looking up as well. “Moon’s almost full.”

“It is,” I murmured. “It’ll turn soon.”

Tonight or tomorrow, but no later.

Well past Midnight Bell we began winding down, the drink and heavy meal taking their toll.

Usually we would have slept there, and some of us had fallen asleep, but we were outside the camp and in enemy territory still. Wards or not, it would be a risk. So instead everyone was roused and we began making our way back to the palisades, Hakram carrying a half-asleep Vivienne on his back to Indrani’s vocal amusement. I hung back with Masego to make sure nothing had been left behind, and after he took down the wards I torched the entire hilltop with blackflame. We were mere miles away from Wolof, the beating heart of sorcery in Praes, so I wasn’t going to be taking risks. I was mostly sober by now, having tapered off drinking near the end, so I did not feel vulnerable enough to rush back. I’d intended to walk back with Zeze after he took his last look, but when he did I found that someone else had stayed behind. Atop the burned hill, a golden-eyed shade was standing among the ash. My heart clenched.

Tonight, then. I’d almost hoped it would be tomorrow.

“You go on ahead,” I told Masego.

He frowned at me.

“Are your certain?” he asked.

He could see her as well, of course. But it wasn’t Masego’s way to meddle in what he saw as the personal affairs of his friends. I breathed out.

“I am,” I told him.

And he did not ask again. Hesitantly he brushed a hand against my arm and I smiled at him. Nodding and wishing me a good night, he began trodding back to camp. I murmured it back then turned to the hilltop. I limped my way back up through the ash, falling in at Akua’s side as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The two of us stood there for a moment, looking up at the night sky. She was the one to break the silence.

“There is a place I would like to show you,” she said. “Not far from here.”

“Cityside or waterside?” I asked.

“Closer to Sinka,” she said, and her eyes asked the question again.

I nodded. It had, I thought, the weight of the inevitable to it. We made our way through the darkness, sure-footed on small and winding paths. It was beautiful, out here. The sight of the orchards touched by moonlight, dappling the ground, the lights of Wolof in the distance as we went downhill towards the Wasaliti. There was little wind but the night was cool, and the thin breeze was enough to lazily stir leaves. We’d not broken the silence as we moved, her leading and I following, but as we crossed a cove of palm trees she began to talk.

“I did not find it myself,” Akua said. “It was shown to me, when I was a girl of thirteen.”

“Who by?” I asked.

She laughed, the amusement lighting up golden eyes as I caught a flash of pearly teeth.

“Some boy who thought he might become my consort,” she said. “Alas, his hopes were greater than his charms.”

“And I bet you were just the sweetest girl,” I drily replied.

“I was not so terrible, back then,” she smiled. “Not so artless as to be taken in, yet hardly the sharpest of irons.”

She would have spoken the last part of that sentence with a touch of reverence, once. No longer. It was, if anything, disdain. But then Akua Sahelian was, in her own way, one of the finest liars I had ever seen. She had made a game out of charming my inner circle, and largely succeeded even when some of them had spent years despising her. As Aisha had once warned me, that was the famous peril of the Sahelians: they were so charming and so useful that even the cleverest let them in. And then they turned on you. So how much of it was Akua’s truly held beliefs and how much of it the face she wore when around us? There was, in the end, only one way to tell.

The crucible. Trial by fire.

“I barely remember what I was like at thirteen,” I admitted. “Feels like a world away.”

“Much like you were at seventeen, I imagine,” Akua mused. “Swagger covering vigilance, looking every gift horse in the mouth twice. And, in your own way, dangerously insightful.”

I coughed to hide my embarrassment. That was the closest she’d come to giving me a genuine compliment – one not wrapped in anything else, honest praise – perhaps since we had first met.

“And terribly easy to embarrass, of course,” she teased.

“I wouldn’t have been that easy to fluster,” I snorted. “For one, unlike you I was the one taking the boys to dark corners.”

Girls, too, but not as many. I’d tended towards boys when I’d been younger.

“And yet I’m told the redheaded mage you took as a lover had to be the one to seduce you,” Akua said.

I’d noticed that she usually avoided using Killian’s name. Or talking about her at all, really. Not that it was hard, considering most of my closest friends tended to avoid the subject. Even Juniper, who was not known for shyness or tact, had not hazarded to venture an opinion on that whole debacle.

“It’s different when it’s someone under your authority,” I replied. “I thought there was something there, but I didn’t want to…”

“Overstep?” Akua suggested.

I hummed, not disagreeing. In a way. From the moment I’d held command of the Fifteenth I had been both a villain and the apprentice of the Black Knight, both positions that in many ways made me untouchable. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to abuse my position if I cared to, and arguably I had. I’d been very much against Legion regulations to sleep with my own Senior Mage, for one, but rules applied to Named in Praes more or less only when people higher up the ladder said they did. And in my case, Black had been more supportive than anything.

“I’m also not great at taking hints sometimes,” I admitted.

“Truly?” Akua said, tone drier than a desert.

I rolled my eye at her. We swerved to the north well before reaching the shore, to my surprise, still we into the cultivate parts of Wolof’s surroundings. The side of the hill where she led me, though, was cracked. Old scorch marks still blackened the stone, from some ancient battle, and she guided me through the broken grounds until we reached a tall flat stone covered with moss. Akua passed a hand against it affectionately.

“You’ll have to help me move it,” she said.

Interest piqued, I put my back into it and we toppled the stone to the side. It revealed a narrow, uneven passage going deeper into the hill. Akua glanced up at the sky, as if checking on the height of the moon, and nodded.

“Now is the best time,” she said. “Come.”

It was uncomfortable squeezing through the passage and the stone tore at my clothes some, but aside from the burn of my bad leg there was little to hinder me. To my relief the passage led to some sort of broader room, pitch dark – not that the darkness was trouble for me, blessed by the Sisters as I was. Here I could stand to my full height, and Akua almost, but it was still small. She showed a low fold in the stone to our left, though, and after crawling for a foot or so I followed her into a small cavern. I stopped almost immediately after rising, stunned.

It was not a large cavern, perhaps twenty feet wide, and most of the ground was covered by water. The sides had been scarred by spells, like the outside, but here the heat of the spell used has turned entire swaths of stone into something like smooth glass. And what brought it all together was the long opening in the ceiling that looked up straight at the night sky: the moon and stars were reflected perfectly on the water and the walls, as if we had crawled through the earth only to somehow stumble onto a slice of firmament. Akua leaned against wall, water lapping at the stone not far from her feet, and offered me a gentle smile.

She did not say anything, or need to.

I came to stand at her side, enjoying the coolness of the stone. There was no warmth from her, either, though we were almost close enough to touch. She was yet a shade, and a shadow had no warmth to share. We stood there for a long moment, silent and unmoving, as the stars and moon ghosted on stone and water. Eventually I felt her moving closer to me, and said nothing. My stomach tightened.

“Until tonight,” Akua quietly said, “I was the only person in all of Creation to know of this place.”

I did not ask what had happened to the boy. It was Praes. I knew well what had happened to the boy who had once wanted to be consort to a Sahelian. And I knew, too, what it meant that she had brought me here. Shared a wonder and a secret with me, asking for nothing. But, perhaps, hoping. We had toed the line closer and closer, as the years passed, but the line had always been there. Tonight she had not even touched me, and still somehow it felt as if it had been crossed. I turned enough to look at her but not to invite more. She’d always been gorgeous. I’d thought as much from the first time I’d glimpsed her in that tent.

Often, though, she made a spectacle of it. Magnificent dresses and jewelry, seductive smiles and teasing words. Right now, though, I found not a trace of it on her face. I could barely even make out what she wore, save that it was a dress, and there was nothing seductive about the look on her face. It was, I thought, longing and perhaps something like hunger. There was nothing veiled about it, and the nakedness of that realization had my stomach clench with desire and something else. I did not move, either closer or further away. A moment passed, heavy, and my arm tensed as she slowly began to lean closer – eyes on mine, asking. And I answered the question by turning away, looking down at that field of stars she had stared with me. I did not see her expression. Did not let myself see it, else I hesitate.

I must carry it out to the end, even if it stung. Especially if it stung.

“Even now?” Akua quietly asked, voice ailing.

“Even now,” I got out.

“I had thought it would be different,” she whispered. “There is… I chose you over my family, Catherine. My home. Everything I’ve loved since I was a girl, save for my father – and even his death I set aside, refusing vengeance on your own for it.”

“I know,” I said, wretchedly.

But her folly had been the death of Liesse. One hundred thousand lives, every single one of them in my care. My care. Even if the Gods Above and Below had demanded of me forgiveness of Akua’s folly, it would have been the same answer. I was who I was, and in the end that was a creature of long prices.

“It’s not something you can win,” I murmured. “That’s not how this works.”

Because that was the last thing that needed to be stripped away from her so she could truly enter the crucible: the thought that if she was kind, if she was good, if she fought for the cause the two of us might have a future together. It tasted like ash in my mouth to rip that out of the unspoken between us, but it must be done. The silence stretched out.

“There is no end to it, is there?” Akua finally said. “The shadow cast by that day. No sun that will chase it out.”

I smiled mirthlessly.

“We all live in it still,” I replied.

And always would. I still avoided looking at her, oddly ashamed, and so it was in utter surprise that I felt soft, cool lips press against the corner of my mouth.

“So we do,” she said, moving away.

Her golden eyes shone. Could a shade cry? I did not know.

“I would like you to leave, please,” Akua Sahelian said.

I didn’t argue. All I could wonder was if this was the way Hanno had felt, back in the day, when he flipped his coin and it spun in the air. Before it had landed.

By morning she had not come back, as I had known she would not.

Chapter 10: Parley

“Diplomacy is as sailing, catching the way the wind blows.”

– Ashuran saying

There was something deeply disorienting about waking up after having been knocked out. It wasn’t like falling asleep, there was this sense of… confusion, when where you were didn’t match what you last recalled. So when my eyes opened, I made myself breathe in and out slowly as I forced myself to be calm. I did not know this bed, or these sheets – silk – or this room around me, lit with magelights and open windows giving a beautiful view of Wolof spread out below.

I rose from the cushions I’d been leaning on, soft and plump and exquisitely embroidered, and to my surprise my limbs did not pain me. I could feel my left arm was tender, the skin pulled taut in that way it was after mage healing was used on flesh, but even the ever-present dull ache in my bad leg had been made quiet. My clothes were not the ones I had last worn, loose yellow cotton trousers and a matching robe patterned in green, but they were a comfortable fit. I padded onto the stone floor barefoot, finding that a beautifully carved cane of red mahogany awaited my hand. I tried it out and it fit perfectly, the spread wings of the ravens sculpted on the handle comfortably matching my grip. Leaning on the cane, I cast a more elaborate look around.

It was a square room, and though the floor beneath my feet was covered in tiles and my surroundings were panelled in wood I caught it was all stone beneath it. Ignoring the slippers – was that lion’s fur? – that’d been laid out for me, I ignored the rich furnishings of what was no doubt an elaborate prison cell and limped my way to the windows. Three large glass panels, open just slightly but enough that I could feel the faintest breeze coming through. I flicked fingers at them and was not surprised in the least when the illusion flickered and a flat panel of bronze covered by a book’s worth of runes was revealed for a heartbeat. The illusion resumed the moment my fingers ceased contact with the bronze, returning the false but beautiful view of Wolof under afternoon’s light.

I reached for the Night knowing what awaited, and I’d been right: I could not quite grasp it, layers and layers of wards preventing me from drawing it close. The Sisters reached out towards me as well, and though our metaphysical fingers failed to connect their presence was a manner of comfort.

“Is my mind intact?” I asked them in a murmur.

Andronike sent a sense of reassurance, and from Komena I felt only cold anger at the thought that mere mortals might have tried to meddle with their First Under the Night. I let out a soft breath of relief. My thoughts and memories were still my own, then. I remembered fighting in that secret passage, keeping close to the wall to prevent the mages from getting a clean shot at me, but after the first few lives I’d taken it was… something of a blur. I’d been knocked unconscious at some point, presumably, and brought here. I drummed fingers against my cane, letting out a small hum. Had I held long enough for Akua and Indrani to escape? Yes, I decided after a moment. I should have gotten them enough of a head start if the guards had needed to dig me out with swords.

The goddesses in me withdrew, as if coming close had been an effort, and I offered the illusion of Wolof a wan smile. I’d not planned for this little venture to end in my being a prisoner, but I could deal with the change of plans. If Akua had grasped what I’d meant with those few words, near the end, then my sappers were already digging at the foundation of my captivity. Why, I just needed to bet it all on the strength of the understanding of myself between a woman I hated as much as I loved – and who would, before the moon’s turn, betray me sure as the coming of the Last Dusk. Until then, though? My gaze swept the room again. My captivity came with a small rack of wine bottles at least, I found, not to mention bowls of assorted nuts and fruits.

I found a pair of books, too, atop a pretty cabinet. One was a book by a Mistress Adad titled ‘Great Works’, which a quick thumbing revealed was about ancient Soninke architecture. The other, to my reluctant amusement, was a Praesi highborn etiquette guide. Fair. Following the teaching of my Callowan forbears, I picked the book about architecture out of contrary spirit and limped to the table. Huh, was that a fully-stocked writing desk too? Nice. I picked up a bottle of wine on my way, refusing to take one of the gold-rimmed crystal glasses by principle, and wrenched open a bottle of what looked like a Nok red before dropping into a seat and cracking open the book.

It ought to tide me over before Sargon came to talk, I figured.

The time of the day displayed by the illusion did not match what my sixth sense told me of the passage of time. It would have been a clever trick to disorient me, otherwise. Before I saw either hide or hair of High Lord Sargon or Malicia – who would be coming sooner or later, I knew – I first encountered servants. Veiled and silent they came thrice a day to bring out delicious four-course meals, fill my wine rack, empty the enchanted water cabinet in the corner. Heated water for washing was in the morning, after breakfast, and not once did any of them even twitch at anything I said. I even shouted at the top of my lungs once, to see if I’d at least get a reaction, but nothing. They might have been deaf, I thought, or at least bespelled for deafness.

I found had little to do but eat, read and drink for a whole day. Though I got restless before the first bell had passed, in a way this was also… relaxing. There was only so much I could do from in here, and how long had it been since I’d had so few demands on my time? Still, I wouldn’t simply resign myself to it either. I inspected my cell but found no opening to it save for the hidden door the servants used, which led to a stone passage I only ever saw lead to a closed steel gate. I wasn’t going to be popping that open with a cane, I knew, though it might be worth checking if I could touch Night while in the passage. Somehow I doubted it, but why leave the question unasked?

On the second day of my captivity, before I could find a good opportunity to try the passage, a servant in Sahelian livery came. No veil on this one, and unlike the others he was feeling chatty.

“This one bears the words of High Lord Sargon Sahelian, Queen of Callow,” the man said.

“I’m listening,” I replied, cocking an eyebrow.

Sargon was asking whether I’d agree to have my midday meal with him, as it turned out. I was tempted to decline just to see what would happen, but I held back. I wasn’t sure if he’d left me to stew in the room for a day just to make sure I’d be inclined to talk, but if so I had to admit it’d worked. I took him up on the offer and was promptly afforded the services of a tailor, which I bemusedly agreed to. The clothes I’d been provided were comfortable enough, tunics in green or yellow with a Callowan cut, but I wouldn’t turn down free clothes. Deciding to indulge a whim I ended up wearing a soft yellow sundress, paired with a short frock in pale green and comfortable shoes. Alas, Sargon was warned well in advance so I did not get to see a look of surprise on his face but the momentary blankness was enough to have smiling as he sat across the table in my cell. He was not so ornately dressed as when we’d last met either, his white and red tunic rich and well-cut but otherwise unremarkable.

He was dressed in that way that those whose family had been rich for generations got dressed, when there was no longer a need to trumpet about the wealth.

“We will be having fey fowl as the main plate,” the High Lord of Wolof amiably told me. “One was caught last month a few miles to the south.”

“I’m going to assume we’re not eating an actual fae,” I replied, cocking an eyebrow.

He chuckled.

“We are not. The birds are descended from experiments of Dread Emperor Sorcerous’ that his successor loosed into the wilds,” Sargon said. “It is said he was attempting to infuse birds with the powers of Arcadia, but only ever succeeded with the basest of their kind. The first specimens were highly toxic, but not so their progeniture.”

“Huh,” I said. “They taste any good?”

“Delicious when braised and served with zaze sauce,” Sargon smiled. “I don’t believe you’ve ever had it before.”

The man kept a damn good table, I’d give him that much. The first two plates were warm herbal bread served with sauces and a spicy but refreshing broth, followed by the fowl-on-rice with the zaze sauce that proved exactly as good as he’d boasted it would be. It ended with a creamy, sweet pastry that tasted of eggs and cinnamon I found paired well with my wine. And none of it was poisoned, an additional point in its favour. The conversation had been enjoyable but light, the two of us pretending I wasn’t a prisoner in Wolof and discussing what I’d read in ‘Great Works’ – I suspected his enthusiasm there was not feigned in the slightest – and a few anecdotes about the city itself. All of it very tame.

When a servant brought me a pipe stuffed with wakeleaf and refilled my wine, though, I knew the real conversation was about to start. Sargon gallantly struck the match for me and lit it, himself indulging instead in a small cup of an amber liquor that smelled strongly of peaches.

“This morning I threatened to have you executed should your army not retreat,” Sargon conversationally said, “but your marshal declined rather rudely.”

“Juniper knows an empty bluff when she hears one,” I shrugged, pulling at my pipe.

Praes couldn’t afford to kill me right now. Much like I was pulling my punches fighting them, as I wanted the Empire’s martial strength mustered against Keter, they too had to pull theirs. If Malicia killed me, there was a very real risk that the western fronts would outright collapse – and much as she liked to pretend otherwise, the empress didn’t actually want the Dead King to want any more than we did.

“Sadly,” Sargon sighed.

I breathed in deep of my wakeleaf as he sipped at his drink.

“I have been advised to torture you publicly in order to force compliance, naturally,” he conversationally added.

I blew out a small ring of smoke, shaping it by making my lips pop. I did not answer. He chuckled, revealing that slightly crooked smile again.

“I know better than to attempt such a thing, of course,” High Lord Sargon said, “though you do not seem worried in the slightest.”

“I had my soul eviscerated by lesser gods once,” I idly replied. “Came out of it mostly sane. Not a lot of torture than can beat that, even if you get inventive.”

And neither Juniper nor Vivienne would fold at the sight anyway. They both knew I’d tan their hides if they did. All it’d win Sargon was my genuine enmity, which he was taking pains to avoid earning.

“I would not dare claim that I can imagine,” the golden-eyed man amiably replied. “You will understand, naturally, that holding the head of a host besieging my holdings prisoner is something of complicated situation.”

Meaning some of his people wanted me dead or at least with fewer things, and that refusing them while my army was camped outside the gates did him no favours. Amusingly enough, it could be argued that in several ways his position had been worsened by capturing me.

“Must be frustrating, having Malicia dictate to you in a way that goes against your interests,” I said.

He thinly smiled.

“Not executing you is in my interests as well, Your Majesty,” Sargon replied. “Greater implications as to the fate of Calernia aside, should I murder the most distinguished Queen of Callow in two centuries I will have heroes coming for my head every spring until I die.”

He sipped at his liquor, sighing.

“I expect several of my more short-sighted cousins are pushing for your execution in the very hope that the Woe will murder me in turn,” he admitted. “Yet I would argue that my greater frustration in all this affair is that I would much prefer to be at peace with you, Queen Catherine.”

“That’s easy enough,” I frankly replied. “Turn on Malicia. You’re only in my way so long as you’re one of the pillars propping her reign up.”

The dark-skinned man laughed, the merriment of it lighting up his eyes. Akua’s cousin, yet so little like her. Even at her most carefree she held something of herself back but Sargon Sahelian was… less restrained. He allowed himself to feel more genuinely, I decided. Would she had been like that too, if she’d not been raised to be the monster of monsters among this most terrible of families?

“I will be honest with you, Queen Catherine,” Sargon grinned, “as every report my spies have brought me insist that it is the approach you best respond to.”

The worst part of it, I thought, was that even knowing what he was doing I still found my lips twitching. Sargon Sahelian might be a monster, but he was a charming one.

“I find it saves times,” I shrugged. “By all means, my lord of Wolof, lay it on me.”

“I am not a good man, Queen Catherine,” Sargon indifferently shrugged. “So long as my city is left to me, so long as my domain is unmolested? I do not much care what happens to Praes, or even Calernia at large.”

Much as I would have liked to damn him for petty apathy while the world was falling apart a mere two nations west, I held my tongue. How much worse was he than Proceran princelings, in truth, or even the squabbling League of Free Cities? I doubted he was any better than them either, but I would not pretend that the careless disregard on display here was some unrivalled pit of evil.

“My support of Dread Empress Malicia rests on two pillars,” Sargon continued. “The first is that, for all her flaws, she remains the individual in Praes best able to deliver a resumption of order.”

She was at least half the reason order needed resuming in the first place, as far as I was concerned, but that was why he’d begun this by making his indifference clear. What did Sargon care that much of this was on Malicia’s hands, if she were still the woman best placed to ensure it wouldn’t spill over anywhere that mattered to him? I puffed at my pipe, blowing out a stream of smoke to the side.

“And the second is that she has your soul in a box,” I finished.

“Indeed,” he politely agreed. “I am loyal to her in the sense that a noble of the Wasteland is loyal to anything or anyone – that is, only so long as the balance of consequence and convenience is not greatly moved in disfavour of continued loyalty.”

The unspoken part was that an army outside his gates, on top of the messes that my presence kept heaping on his lap, was pushing on that balance noticeably.

“Which leaves one important question before this conversation proceeds,” Sargon Sahelian said. “Can your patronesses free my soul, Black Queen?”

I’d known that was coming. It was an obvious bribe to approach him with, a good way to flip a High Lord against the Tower without much military power needing to be exerted. Which had been why I’d first asked Sve Noc as much months ago. It’d not been a coincidence that I’d not made the offer.

“Not from here,” I said, “and not without a price.”

The Crows were sure his soul was being held in the Tower, and they weren’t going anywhere near that place if they could help it. I honestly wasn’t sure even a Choir would be able to bring the seat of Praesi power down – it’d taken the armies of two thirds of Calernia and entire battalions of heroes to get it done, last time.

“Unfortunate,” the High Lord of Wolof murmured. “It would have simplified this all a great deal. I am, alas, not eager to trade a single mortal mistress for a pair of immortal ones.”

“You’d find the payment much more agreeable than expected, I’m sure,” I easily replied. “But that is your right. We will speak again should an opportunity arise.”

“Of course,” Sargon said, inclining his head. “And so while we remain so refreshingly bound to honesty, I am compelled to ask-”

He leaned slightly forward, drink in hand.

“- what is it that you want, exactly?”

I snorted.

“There’s a broad question,” I said. “Right now? Vale summer wine. Or maybe the journal of the warlock your ancestors placed at the side Theodosius the Unconquered.”

“I can have the latter brought easily enough,” Sargon waved away. “And as you no doubt grasped, I mean to ask what is it that this entire Wasteland campaign of yours is trying to achieve. You’ve not the strength or inclination to occupy Praes, that much is plain, so what is it you do want?”

I set down my pipe, amused at the boldness, and smiled at him over the rim of my glass before taking a sip.

“Arguably, as one of Malicia’s backers you’re one of the last people I should tell,” I pointed out.

“On the contrary,” Sargon said, shaking his head. “Unless you intend to purge the empress’ supporters among the nobility, I am one of the individuals you most need to convince. Even if you kill the woman in question, Queen Catherine, what she represents does not disappear.”

“And what does Malicia represent, exactly?” I asked.

“A strong Tower with no taste for foreign adventures. Power being concentrated in Ater through the Imperial Court and the bureaucracy,” Sargon replied without hesitation. “It comes at the price of curtailing many of the old privileges and ennobling greenskins, but many still consider it an acceptable trade.”

“Nok was sacked,” I flatly said. “Thalassina is dust. Foramen is held by High Lady Whither, the Grey Eyries outright seceded, the Steppes are in civil war and two of the High Seats are openly backing another Dread Empress. Half the army that’s supposed to serve her deserted. You call this a strong Tower?”

“The Dread Empire of Praes turned back the Tenth Crusade with Thalassina as its sole permanent loss,” Sargon countered. “Foramen was brought back into the fold bloodlessly. Sepulchral’s rebellion has stalled and the only reason it ever gained grounds was that the Carrion Lord’s attempted coup – which failed, half the Legions staying loyal to the Tower even after decades of other loyalties being cultivated among their officers.”

My eye narrowed. They were blaming the messes on Black. Of course they would, I thought. He’s Duni, the nobles despise him and they’re not wrong about him having added to the chaos in the first place. I wondered how much of this was decades of hatred between my father and the aristocrats given voice and how much of it was opinions Malicia had seeded herself. It would hardly be the first time she blamed the unpopular parts of her reign on Black and the tactic tended to be a successful one.

“As for the Clans, Queen Catherine,” he continued, “that they would war on each other is only to be expected when some among them were raised above others. Strong Lords of the Steppes will emerge from the violence, able to ably discharge the duties that were passed onto them.”

I hummed. There was no point in arguing this with him. I wasn’t even sure he believed in the first place, anyway.

“Let’s say I buy that, for the sake of argument,” I shrugged. “She still needs to go. She’s been an aggressive ally to the Dead King while the rest of Calernia has been fighting for survival. She fucked us in the League and in Procer, and even before she antagonized every single other ruler on the continent the grab she made for the doomsday fortress that was made of Liesse made it clear she can’t be trusted to remain in power. Nobody wants the Tower with a weapon that makes Hellgates, Sargon. Nobody.”

“Considering all the nations so antagonized have been at war with the Empire for years,” he drily said, “one might argue she was in fact rather rest-”

“You’re being obtuse,” I flatly interrupted. “Even if there weren’t a hundred reasons to put her head on a pike, and you know there are, at the end of the day she had to die because we can’t allow the precedent. If the Grand Alliance doesn’t cut her head off then we’re telling the world that we can be backstabbed while fighting existential threats without there being consequences. And there’s not a single signatory that’s willing to swallow that, Sargon.”

“This is a compelling argument,” Sargon Sahelian mildly said, “largely for people who are not Praesi.”

I sipped at my wine to hide my expression. That was a decent point, actually. We didn’t actually have a lot to offer people who weren’t already rebelling against Malicia. The truth was that the people currently backing her reign would lose out when she got deposed. They wouldn’t gain from what I wanted to achiever here in Praes. One the other hand, the fact that those same people couldn’t give less of a shit that Malicia’s plots abroad had caused thousands of deaths and risked the annihilation of Calernia didn’t particularly endear them to me. They didn’t get to pretend they were being unfairly victimized after turning a blind eye to that. If you threw stones at bears for long enough, you got mauled.

There was no deep lesson behind that except that you shouldn’t fucking throw stones at bears.

“We’re a few knives in the back past lectures from your side, Sargon,” I flatly replied.

“Praes would be a silent place, if that were the case,” the High Lord laughed. “Though you have me curious now, I’ll admit. Who is it that you mean to replace Her Most Dreadful Majesty?”

I cocked an eyebrow.

“The Carrion Lord?” Sargon tried. “He is disappeared, if not dead. And Sepulchral is unlikely to remain a steady ally to your Grand Alliance for long, for all that she now courts your friendship.”

Abreha Mirembe being a snake was hardly news to me, but the first half of that was rather amusing.

“It never ceases to fascinate me,” I said, “how large of a blind spot you highborn have when it comes to Amadeus of the Green Stretch. It’s like we’re talking about different men.”

“Half the High Seats would rebel at the mere idea of Duni ruling over them,” Sargon said, eyes narrowed as he studied me. “Yet you know this, I think. And so I wonder if you do not play a longer game than any of us had considered.”

I leaned back into my seat.

“Oh?” I said. “What game would that be?”

The dark-skinned man raised his glass, the last wisps of amber liquor swirling.

“Mile thaman, Sahelian,” the High Lord of Wolof toasted.

I smiled and spoke not a word. If he wanted to believe I had come east to raise Akua Sahelian as empress, let him. He drained the cup.

“It would be an interesting time to live in, if you got your way,” Sargon admitted. “It is almost a shame you will not.”

“I’ve heard that before,” I said.

He looked faintly amused.

“I’ve a great deal of respect for your abilities, Queen Catherine, but this once luck was not on your side,” the golden-eyed man said. “There is little you can do from captivity.”

I met his eyes with mine, baring my teeth in a malicious smile.

“Before the week’s end,” I said, “I am going to walk out of the front gates of Wolof with everything I want. And the both of you are going to let me.”

So ended my first meal with Sargon Sahelian.

He sent the journal, as he’d said it would. Made for interesting reading, with a surprising amount of steamy bits between the battles and commentaries. Kojo Sahelian had gotten around and not been shy in writing about it. I sat and read and waited, knowing this was only beginning.

When Malicia came she did not bother with charm.

She knew better than to believe relations between us could be mended, I supposed. It was the following morning, shorty after breakfast, that she was announced by a servant in livery. I didn’t bother to study the last meat puppet she’d decided to wear in any great detail – what would be the point? She wore a woman’s form, Soninke and tall, and besides that I did not bother to take her in. I stayed standing as she stepped in, cane in hand as I leaned against the wall. The illusion of Wolof behind me showed an early afternoon, so the light came through at my back. It’d make it hard to look at me properly. The Dread Empress of Praes sat gracefully at the table, not waiting for my invitation, and set a single parchment scroll on the table. She said nothing, waiting. After a bit I snorted.

“You know, I figure I could play that game,” I mused. “Ignore you or insult you, the works. But it just sounds tiring.”

I pushed off the wall.

“Say your piece,” I simply said, “and get the fuck out.”

“Your manners have not improved,” Malicia calmly replied.

“Could I beat you to death with my bare hands before they came in to restrain me?” I asked. “I’m not sure. If you test my patience, though, we’ll find out.”

I’d lied, of course. If I was to kill her puppet, I’d definitely use the cane.

“It would avail you nothing,” Malicia said. “You were captured, Catherine. This particular game you have lost.”

“It’s Queen Catherine to you,” I smiled, all pretty and friendly and utterly false.

“If I gave you the courtesy, would you return it?” Malicia said. “I think not. Yet I will overlook your many and varied insults, as I have for some time, for you have once again made yourself into an important enough piece you cannot simply be ignored.”

Implying that I should treat her the same way. Good luck with that, I drily thought.

“I’m still waiting to hear what you want,” I said. “To be honest, this is being something of a bore.”

“We had a conversation, some years ago, that I believe you must have forgot,” Malicia said. “Not so long before Akua’s Folly. You asked me about Still Water for the first time.”

I did recall that, more or less. I’d warned her that if she’d been behind all of it then she had best watch her step from now on or there would be blood. We’d discussed politics abroad, too, but what did any of it have to do with this? It’d been the Hierarch and the Tyrant that’d been the thick of the talk, and one was pissing off an entire Choir while the other was years dead.

“I told you why Wekesa insisted on trials, that he believed they would revolutionize our understanding of rituals,” she prompted.

I frowned, scrounging through my memories. I had pretty good recall, but it’d been years and my Name memories weren’t as crisp since the Sisters had brought me back from the brink.

“I asked if it really had,” I slowly said, “and you replied…”

“That what he learned would allow us a fighting chance against the Dead King, should he ever wage war upon us,” Malicia calmly replied.

Ah, I thought. And there it was. The way she believed she could barter herself out of the grave she’d dug. She had a weapon, maybe even more than one, that she thought could win us the war. Cordelia and I might despise her, but we were pragmatic women at heart: we’d choose survival over hatred. But that went with the assumption that we needed Malicia herself to have those weapons. That my father becoming Dread Emperor wouldn’t get us all of it anyway without all that it would cost us to let an empress who’d knifed us at every opportunity walk away with a slap on the wrist. Malicia was no fool, I thought, and so she would have seen the flaw in that plan.

“So what did you do?” I asked. “What poisonous little precaution did you take so you could threaten us with it?”

She’d already done it before, after all, when she’d spread word that by the terms of her treaty with the Dead King so long as she lived the dead could not invade Callow. Taking her own life as hostage was a favourite trick of hers, the kind of signature that Name tended to take on after years of settling into their Role.

“There was no need for anything too elaborate,” the Dread Empress said. “My death would result in all the necessary knowledge burning green, that is all.”

Which just meant she had to be taken alive. Had she prepared contingencies for that too? Probably, but I figured there simply wasn’t a lot anyone could plan against having Sve Noc peel open your mind before rummaging about for the useful stuff. We’d just have to be quick and careful.

“It’s all on the scroll, I take it?” I asked.

“Indeed,” Malicia smiled. “Along with a possible solution to the Hellgates issue as suggested by a mage in my service.”

“Good,” I said, “good.”

I moved quickly enough that the cane caught her on the side of the mouth before she saw it coming, but though she fell it didn’t make her bleed. Ugh, she’d come decked out in artefacts. I tried to strangle her, but soldiers poured in and wrestled me down before I could get it done. She was ushered out, breathing hard, and I waved mockingly.

“There’s always next time,” I cackled right before the door closed behind her.

I read the scroll that very afternoon.

It was in Malicia’s interest ton exaggerate what her weapon could do, but she also had to know that Masego would be able to see through anything to egregious in a matter of moments. To my distaste, this might actually work. Wekesa the Warlock had been a brilliant man, and Still Waters had only been used in its most straightforward of applications so far. He’d believed that his creation would be able to turn the tide in two ways.

The first had been that soldiers fighting the Dead King would be made to ingest the alchemical compound and then prepped with the right spell so that when they died they would immediately rise as undead in the service of the Dread Empire. He’d believed that with the right dosages and sorcery it was possible to keep those soldiers largely the same as before their death, nothing like the mindless wights I’d fought at the Doom of Liesse. It would make armies that, even when slain, would rise against just as tireless as their foe and significantly better trained.

The second was more of a gamble. By modifying the alchemical compound so it could enter through the skin, Warlock had believed that necromancers could potentially usurp control of corpses from the Dead King. The strength of Still Water was that it wasn’t really a ritual, that the active magic was simply an ignition while the alchemy did all the heavy lifting. Which meant if it worked as Warlock had thought it might, we might be able to steal entire armies in moments. I doubted it would go that smoothly, but the prospect of finally having a way to turn the Hidden Horror’s endless numbers against him was deeply attractive.

And given that we were well past the days where anything but a direct strike on Keter could win us this war, what was written on this scroll could be an edge that made the difference between the life and death of nations. Malicia was not one to come to a bargaining table poorly armed.

What I read of the proposed solution for Hellgates was largely gibberish to me, and so likely meant for someone better schooled in magic to read over. The only part that was understandable was the one that talked about raising fortresses over the gates after the first rituals were done, to make sure they wouldn’t open again. That and the estimates for the number of mages that would be required, which was around two hundred per gate. There simply wasn’t anyone but Praes left who could field that many well-trained practitioners, especially since there would need to be some able to use High Arcana.

Another pointed reminder by Malicia that we needed her.

On the third day, mages sworn to Wolof came into my cell.

It was all done very properly and politely, but I was still bound while a dozen men and women inspected every inch of me with spells and tried to access the Night. One got bold and tried to see into my mind, but the Sisters took offence to that and melted his eyes. I complained about the smell after they dragged him out, mostly to fuck with them, but several of the mfuasa actually smiled and one cast a spell to clear the air. They left after a few hours, carrying back to Sargon Sahelian the answer he’d been hoping they would not give him.

They had not found a way to access the Night through me.

I decided that, since I had so much time to spare, I might have a crack at writing my memoirs.

You know, for posterity. Sadly after a single page about my years at the orphanage I got horribly bored and started sketching out the troop movements for the Battle of Three Hills instead. It was pretty hard stuff, memoirs, I was impressed Aisha had gotten so far in hers. In the end I dropped the subject entirely and instead wrote a scathing critique about the defences of the Vaults, with a particular eye about how easily heroes could have gotten through some of those. I doubted it’d ever amount to anything, but it did make me feel oddly satisfied.

It also allowed me to sharpen a quill until a weapon could be made of it and secrete it away.

On the fourth day, I had supper with High Lord Sargon Sahelian. The meal was delicious, he was a delight to talk to and he’d somehow gotten his hands on a bottle of Vale summer wine. Once more wakeleaf was brought to me and I duly indulged, leaning back against the very comfortable seat.

“I offered Princess Vivienne to ransom you back,” High Lord Sargon said. “She declined.”

“Yes, she would have,” I faintly smiled.

“You do not seem displeased,” he said, sounding wary.

My smile broadened.

“What is it you asked for – the artefacts or the books?”

A moment of silence.

“The artefacts,” he finally said.

Ah, it’d been Malicia’s idea then. The books would have been more important to him.

“When I named Vivienne Dartwick my successor,” I said, “I didn’t pick her name out a hat.”

And that was all I said on that. His polite sideways inquiries about my accepting my own ransoming for his library back were just as politely ignored.

One the fifth day there was something of an incident.

Or at least so I assumed, as around noon forty armed guards crammed themselves tight in my cell and wards were put up to prevent anyone coming in or out. I finished my meal and, because I was never one to miss an opportunity to be a wretch when it was on the table, I took up Kojo Sahelian’s journals and began reading them aloud with great enjoyment – especially the explicit bits, which by the looks of it made more than a few of these nice soldiers uncomfortable. An hour and a half later they left, but the guard remained doubled and from now on even the veiled servant came in flanked by an armed pair.

Idly I wondered who it was that’d tried to rescue me, and how close they’d gotten. It was only going to get worse for Sargon from now on. That was the trouble when you couldn’t kill your prisoner: people would keep trying to free them, knowing there couldn’t really be any consequences for it.

One the sixth day they were desperate, which I knew the moment Malicia’s puppet walked in.

Why else would she be here again? Four soldiers came with the empress, faces hidden by helmet, and they had shackles that I was expected to put on nicely. I had last time, when the mages had come to poke and prod looking for a way into the Night. I knew why the Dread Empress was here, though, and I wasn’t going to be anywhere as nice. I pretended to cooperate, at first then the quill I’d sharpened days ago went into the slight gap between helmet and armour and got the first man in the throat. Another I broke the neck of, smashing him into the table, but Malicia ran out before I could get my hands on her.

My cell, and for all the gilding it had never for a moment been anything else and never had I fucking forgot that, my cell was flooded with guards and mages. They got me after I nearly smashed the last of my table legs on scale mail and broke my hand on a helmet. The got the shackles on me and did not heal me. Again there were only four when Malicia came back, face a blank mask.

“Well,” I smiled at her through bloodied teeth, “there’s always next time.”

She went still for half a beat but it was enough. I might be the one bleeding, but I wasn’t the one afraid.

“This brings me no pleasure,” Malicia said, looking down on me. “It is of your own making.”

She did not speak a word, not with her lips anyway. The world pulsed with the echo of it anyway. Aspect, my instincts whispered. And in the instant that followed a power seized me by the throat. I gasped out, writhing in my shackles, as a will tried to wrest mine into submission. I was being ordered to do something. Deep inside me the Sisters stirred, their anger a cold and burning thing. They were jealous goddesses, my Crows. But it was not them that calmed me. My fingers clutched at thin air, but still they caught something. Fur, deep and matted and warm. I laughed, dragging myself up by pulling at nothing. Malicia took a step back, eyes wide.

I felt a great maw open by my head, fangs being bared. My Name had not taken kindly to being given an order. No, more than that. It was not one that recognized the rule of another over me.

Mistake,” I hissed at her in Mthethwa.

The guards were moving, but they didn’t get it. They moved to restrain my limbs, to push me down, when they should have gone for my mouth. My eye found Malicia’s and I grinned red even as she opened her mouth.

Be silent,” I Spoke.

Her mouth closed. The guards forced me down, but I laughed.

“You overstepped,” I told her. “I wonder, does it work only on this body or your real one too? How long are you going to be fighting-”

Finally one of them covered my mouth, shortly before I was gagged, but no matter. The damage had already been done.

It was almost over now.

The first time I’d heard about soulboxing, that evening I’d wondered why Dread Emperors did not force it on every High Seat at their coronation. There was, of course, an answer.

On the seventh day, after I had breakfast the veiled servants came and laid out different clothes for me. Black trousers, a black tunic, a black cape and a black eyecloth: all exquisite and embroidered with silver thread. And with them came a circlet of silver, an elegant crown displaying flying crows. Matching silver shackles too, little more than bracelets, but still a symbol of my captivity. I was helped into the clothes by attendants after being informed that I was to be give audience in the Empyrean Hall, and before long I was leaning on my cane and limping down the halls of the palace where I had been held all this time.

Forty soldiers armed to the teeth escorted me, in plate and capes. Ten mages kept an eye on me, amber stares unwavering and their magic so close to them I could taste it in the air. Limping across marble tiles I breathed in the air, stretching under my cape, and I felt Sve Noc reach out for me greedily. I let the Night billow out of me even as shouts echoed across the hall. Swords left their sheaths as the soldiers spun into a circle, runes of light filling their air as incantations reverberated. I closed my eye, smiling, and struck the ground with my cane once.

Shadows spun close, threading themselves through my clothes until it was not mere dark cloth I wore but darkness itself. My foes had thought to dress me, to measure me, but my patronesses had willed it otherwise. I opened my eye, studying my escorts. They were still as stone, but there was a scent in the air I was most familiar with. Fear.

“Ah,” I smiled. “Much better. Take me to your lord, now.”

And they did, wary but obedient. I’d thought the halls I’d run through at night had shown me the splendour of the enchanted ceiling for which the palace was named, but I had been wrong. The Sahelians had kept the heart of the wonder for where they received guests and supplicants, a great hall that was as another world. I stepped across the span of the noonday sky, clouds beneath my feet as my cane cracked against the enchanted stone. The Sahelians had aptly named their hall: I stood here as if I was striding the very Heavens, the sun above and the world below.

On the sides, hidden behind veils, people stood. Sargon’s court. Golden-eyed nobles even more beautiful than their clothes, lesser nobles of military turn and even those who wore their sorcery as their signature. Guards, too, and war mages whose eyes missed nothing. I advanced with my escort around me, all leading to the man at the end of the sky. It was against the laws of Praes for any but the Tyrant in the Tower to sit a throne, and so the Sahelians had followed the letter of the law: though Sargon sat a great seat of stone atop a dais, roughly hewn into the shape of roaring lions, further steps still led to a great ornate seat of gold where none sat.

That one was the throne, of course, which meant Sargon’s was a mere seat.

No sign of Malicia, I thought. Was she hidden, or had it struck even deeper than I thought when I Spoke? I looked forward to finding out. My escort led me to the feet of the thrones before spreading out, thin invisible barriers that could only be wards separating me from Sargon Sahelian. I stood alone in the silent court until a woman with a beautiful speaking voice broke the stillness.

“Her Majesty Catherine Foundling, Queen of Callow, First Under the Night.”

Sargon’s face was as a clay mask, all thought and emotion smoothed away. I hummed the first few notes of Two Dozen Snakes A Knot Do Make, casting an unimpressed look around. How many of the watching snakes were Sahelians, I wondered? Had to be at least a couple dozen. All of them hungry, waiting for the man on the lion throne to falter.

“Quaint,” I drawled out.

Oh, they didn’t like that at all. But that didn’t matter, because even as they murmured their disapproval and glared I kept close to me the answer to a question. Why didn’t Dread Emperors soulbox all their high nobles the moment they climbed the Tower? Sure they’d be hated for it, and it was certainly tyrannical, but what would most of those madmen have cared? They’d know that the greatest threat to them was the High Seats, that it was well worth the hatred of a few who would likely seek to kill them regardless. The answer was around me, watching the High Lord of Wolof rather than the queenly captive brought before him. The two dozen snakes that made a knot. The Sahelians were a family, not a man.

And none of them would tolerate Wolof being made a tool for the sake a single man, one whose seat they craved like a drowning man craved the shore.

“You are summoned to speak terms of trade, Queen Catherine,” High Lord Sargon said.

See, for all their many flaws the Wasteland high nobles they loved their family. Not their actual kin, the institution of the family. The High Seat of Wolof, here, and the power that came with it. They were willing to sacrifice a lot to preserve the power of their family, its importance. For all that the great bloodlines of Praes constantly murdered each other for power, they’d also keep a breeding program going for centuries – they knew how to think long term in a way that few actual royal dynasties could. It was bred in them, taught to them. They were Sahelians, and only the power of the Sahelians mattered. Nothing else.

I hummed, cane clacking against the floor as I moved and the guards moved with me – like minnows around a shark.

“What need is there for that, High Lord Sargon?” I replied. “If you seek terms, I already gave them when last we parleyed.”

“They were frivolously given,” Sargon said, voice thundering.

I laughed in his face. Just because he was charming, did he think I’d forgot he was my enemy? That I would safeguard his reputation anymore than I would some other leech’s?

“Then let me repeat them, since you have been slow in learning this lesson,” I drawled. “I want your treasury. I want your granary. And I want to walk out the open gates of Wolof.”

Now the thing was, Sargon didn’t want to take this deal. At the start, he’d not actually been worried about what I had stolen and put away in the Night. Sure it was missing right now, but he held me captive and he could wait out the conflict. When I was forced to make a treaty with Malicia, she’d bargain on his behalf for all of it to be given back. Except that they hadn’t counted on Akua. Beautiful, clever Akua who had heard me ramble a few sentences and understood everything I meant. See, we weren’t threatening to torch the library and the artefacts. That would have been bad enough, but it wouldn’t have lit a fire under them like this did.

Akua had reached out to High Lady Takisha Muraqib of Kahtan and offered to sell her the entire private library of the Sahelians. Because High Lady Takisha was a supporter of Malicia and the last Taghreb high noble in all of Praes, if we actually did sell those books to her Malicia wouldn’t actually be able to get them back later. It would be a guaranteed rebellion of the entire south of her realm. The Taghreb noblewoman would not doubt have been skeptical, but I was guessing that the Crows had gotten out a book or two for Akua and they’d been sent as a token of goodwill.

The step just past that had, naturally, been to make this known to Wolof.

I could see the layout of it in my mind, clear as if it were ink on parchment. On the third day of my captivity, I thought, Malicia had learned of the offer. It was why the mages had come to look at me, try to get at Night. On the fourth, Sargon had. It was why he’d tried to ransom me to Vivienne and probed my interest in such a deal. On the fifth day, the Woe had tried to free me. It had put the pressure on them, made it clear that sooner or later my people would get me out and they’d be even worse off. On the sixth day, I thought, word of the offer had spread through Wolof widely enough that Sargon’s situation had become dangerous. And so he’d gotten desperate, agreed that Malicia should try to force me to spit out my loot with an aspect. But that’d failed, badly, and so now here we were. The High Lord of Wolof, the man who’d usurped Tasia Sahelian, looked down at me with burning eyes.

And I knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth, because if he didn’t he was going to die.

“Your schemes ran deep, Black Queen,” High Lord Sargon Sahelian snarled. “We will bargain. Arrangement can be had, should you sign the proper pact.”

“My word isn’t enough?” I grinned, badly faking surprise. “Oh dear. I suppose I could sign a pact, if you insist.”

The only bone I’d throw him, just enough that he could do this without entirely losing face. Humiliating him entirely would just serve to corner him enough he might do something stupid. He was already going to have a rough few months ahead of him. See, the reason that Dread Emperors didn’t soulbox all the High Seats was that no family strong enough to be one of those would ever tolerate being led by a pawn. The moment the High Lord went against their family’s interests, they got their throat slit. And what I’d stolen? It was the foundation of Sahelian power. The secrets that kept them one step ahead of everyone, that kept the finest mages of Praes in their service.

And instead of burning them, I’d threatened to sell them to the High Seat that was the second best at magic in the empire.

The artefacts that kept their rivals wary, their enemies from picking fights? Akua had offered to sell them to Dread Empress Sepulchral, demons and all. Even Malicia had to have found that an unpleasant surprise. No matter how many spies she had in that camp, three boxes holding demons and enough materials to make a dozen more artefacts was going to be trouble.

And so the Sahelians were looking at Sargon looking at me, because not a single one of those golden-eyed monsters was willing to ruin the power of their centuries-old family to keep High Lord Sargon in his seat. He could accept my terms, or he could have his throat slit before one of his cousins accepted them in his stead. And Malicia would bend here, not just because otherwise the other woman claiming to be Dread Empress would buy a terrifying arsenal but because if she didn’t bend then Sargon would die. And she would not have the soul of the next High Lord of Wolof in a box.

“One day, Black Queen, this day will come back to haunt you,” High Lord Sargon coldly said.

I eyed him up and down, then snorted.

“I beat Akua Sahelian,” I said. “Should I now tremble at the shadow of her shadow?”

On the seventh day, I walked out of the gates of Wolof with everything I wanted and they let me.

Chapter 9: Vault

“Eighty-seven: the secret passage your nemesis will use to escape the fortress can be used to enter that same fortress. They never consider that, for some reason.”

– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown

I kept my arms open wide and my hands flat, as if I were holding open a bag, but all that lay in between my fingers was shadow.

Akua stood slightly ahead of me, dropping one book after another into the dark. Without a sound they disappeared into the hungry maws of my patronesses, the two of us clearing out row after row as quickly as we could. We’d gone for the restricted sections, the forbidden ones: there was no point in my taking books that’d be in every other great Praesi library. Those sections were all trapped and warded, but I was being guided by someone who knew those traps and wards intimately.  We’d been at it less than half an hour, as Archer hunted for anyone we might have missed out in the stacks, but already I’d sent hundreds and hundreds of tomes into the embrace of Sve Noc. Akua almost reverently dropped into the dark what looked like the handwritten notes of someone called Olowe, emptying the last of the shelf, and we stopped.

I looked back at rows and rows of empty shelves behind us, what had once been a section on dimensional mechanics and the technicalities of making a Breach. Not a book left, same as we’d done with necromancy, curses, High Arcana conjuration, three sections on diabolism and a dozen more branches of sorcery. It would have been missing the point to say we’d taken a fortune in books, because what we’d stolen was essentially priceless. There was no replacing any of this for the Sahelians.

“That is the last of the sections I would consider essential,” Akua noted. “Unless you want to acquire more common tomes, we are finished.”

“That was it?” I asked, skeptical.

“My family has a personal library, naturally,” she dismissed. “And the most dangerous volumes will be down in the hidden vaults. Yet for the library, I would consider nothing else here irreplaceable.”

I supposed it would have been greedy to ask for a thousand priceless books instead of just a few hundred, I mused, not that it was stopping me. I folded my arms, left over right, and brought them to my chest as I slowly eased my grip on the Night and the darkness faded. The working hadn’t been all that strenuous to maintain, but it had taken concentration: I was glad it was done.

“I’ll take you word on it,” I replied.

If we’d had more time I would have considered emptying the entire place just to make a point, but we didn’t. I was, to be frank, surprised the Eyes hadn’t betrayed us yet. My bet was on there being another game at play here, one I hadn’t quite figured out yet. That tended to be a safe bet when the Intercessor was around. Regardless, we needed to get a move on if we wanted to clear out the artefact vaults as well before this all came down on our heads. We took the stairs down and I cursed every few steps the absence of my staff and the apparently deep and abiding hatred Praesi architects had for handrails. Seriously, would it kill whoever kept building these ridiculous places to throw up a few of those? Take out two of the fucking egg-sized rubies encrusted into one of the wall frescoes and you could pay for those to be done for the entire damned palace. Some of my thoughts came out as grumbling under my breath, I figured, since Akua looked highly amused and offered me her arm for the last few steps. I took it with ill-grace, looking away. I got cackled at for that immediately, Archer popping out from behind stacks with a grin.

“Aw, isn’t that cute,” Indrani grinned. “If we get to robbing the Tower, is it going to make you hold hands?”

She smelled faintly of blood, I noticed. I cocked an eyebrow at her and she threw me a sheathed short sword about my size.

“Lots of stragglers?” I asked, ignoring the jibe.

I drew the blade, testing the weight, and found it good enough. Not as good as something fitted for me, but it’d do. As I fitted the sheath at my belt, Indrani passed a blade at Akua who nodded thanks in return and got a smile for it.

“Five,” Archer replied, “but one of them was a mage. I had to get tricky.”

The edge of one of her sleeves was slightly singed, I found with closer study.

“Good work,” I simply said. “We’re hitting the hidden vaults now. You good to fight?”

“I was promised horrors, Foundling,” Indrani grinned. “Hells, why do you think I’m even here?”

Ugh, I bet that pun was even intentional. I truly did have terrible taste in women.

“I’d assumed because you were dared while drunk,” Akua drily replied.

“Hey,” Indrani replied, offended. “That only works like, a third of a time.”

I loudly coughed.

“Fine, maybe closer to half,” Archer conceded.

Immediately after she turned to Akua with a scowl, jabbing a finger at her.

“And don’t you dare cough too, Petty Poltergeist,” she growled. “Half is all I’ll go up to.”

“I would never dare,” Akua lied, smiling prettily.

It was in a better mood that the three of us moved out towards the back of the great library, where the returned once-heiress to Wolof told us that the easiest path into the hidden vaults lay. I’d expected some sort of archway full of damned souls or a corridor swarming with enchantment, but what our quick march there revealed was actually just a set of tall golden doors. Nicely sculpted, if a little heavy on the Wolof-and-particulary-the-Sahelians-are-the-best-look-at-all-these-fools-we-crushed slant. To my admitted bewilderment, Akua then simply grabbed one of the large iron rings on the doors and pulled one open. It revealed a short hallway of bare stone, leading to a steel grate.

“Wait, is that it?” Indrani asked.

She sounded a little cheated.

“That’s got to be a trap, right?” I asked, cocking my head to the side.

“Oh, it is,” Akua flatly agreed. “There is a secret entrance thirty feet to our left that would allow us to avoid the first two killing rooms, but it would require us to pass through the terror room – and without the proper protective amulets, that would be… unwise.”

“Terror room, you say?” Archer idly repeated, sounding dangerous interested.

Of course she would be.

“Magical terror,” Akua specified. “As close to the demonic emanation as my forebears could manage. Most people die of a stalling heart within the first ten heartbeats. No, the front path is best suited to our needs.”

I considered the stone hall for a moment, humming.

“Floor trap?” I guessed.

“Hand me a book,” Akua asked.

Snorting, I grabbed what looked like a primer on the classical elements – could have used you a few years back, buddy, I thought – and began to pass it to her before pausing and glancing at Archer.

“Don’t tell Zeze,” I said.

“I’d be counted as an accessory,” Indrani solemnly replied.

The book went to Akua’s hand as she rolled her eyes, tossing it carelessly into the hallway. I glimpsed iron spikes emerging from the walls before the golden door shut. Huh. Akua, looking somewhat aggravated, wrenched open the door again and I stood there to watch as the spiked walls slowly closed in on the middle of the room. Door probably couldn’t be opened from the inside, I decided. We stood for a while longer, waiting. Sometimes the walls quickly lurched forward for an inch or two, but most of the time they just… slowly advanced.

“Now that’s just asking for a hero to find a way out,” I sadly said.

“The mechanisms that make the walls move are deep in the stone,” Akua said, sounding a tad defensive. “They can’t be changed without load-bearing walls being knocked down.”

“How do we get through?” Indrani asked, more pragmatically.

The shade stepped into the hall fearlessly when the walls were near through, slipping around the edge of the right one and disappearing. A few heartbeats later there was a metallic wrenching sound, maybe a lever being pulled, and the walls stopped. They stayed extended, leaving a path maybe a foot wide between the iron spikes that led straight to the door in the back. You could have at least pushed the door to the left so it’d be covered when the wall advanced, you hacks, I silently thought. Akua slipped back around the edge of the wall, reappearing with a smile as she dusted herself off.

“And to cross that?” I asked, pointing at the steel grate.

“The Archer key,” the shade gracefully replied.

The Archer in question snorted, stepping forward – Akua flowed around her – and pushing to the end of our little narrow passage. One, two, three, four. On the fourth Name-assisted kick the steel grate toppled down, ripped right off the hinges. I cocked an eyebrow at Akua.

“It is enchanted against blades and lockpicks, not mules,” she shrugged.

I heard that,” Indrani called out.

Swallowing a grin, I shimmied through and followed the shade over the fallen grate. It brought us to another stone hall, this one rather more ornate than the last. The walls were covered with mosaics in the Sahelians colours whose patterns felt… oddly fascinating – I wrenched away my eyes forcefully – and whose floor was checkered marble in black and white. At the end I saw an open stone doorway and what looked like curving stairs going down. The three of us were huddled in a small antechamber between the halls, and out of curiosity I looked up. Yeah, as I’d figured the stone archway here had small depression in the rocks.

“Stone door falls down here and over there,” I mused. “I’m calling… pit trap?”

“Oh,” Indrani gurgled. “That’s an old one. Is it the black or white tiles that make it work?”

“There are triggers under both,” Akua sighed. “And the floor itself is not trapped. Once the doors close, the mosaic shifts in some places and begins releasing alchemical gas.”

“What’s it do?” Archer asked,

“It was a forgetfulness mixture, when I left,” Akua noted. “Prevented memory recall longer than five heartbeats. It could be anything now, of course.”

“And we beat this how?” I asked.

It was too long for us to jump our way across, although maybe if I used Night…

“The stone doors open again once the monitoring enchantment senses that there is no longer gas in the air,” she said. “I know where the openings are, so Catherine and I simply need to block them until the trap begins to reset. We’ll have a window of four heartbeats to cross.”

“That’s very unsporting,” I approved.

She pointed out where in the mosaics – near what looked like a swirl of pale eyes – we’d need to act and then we moved out. The doors immediately fell down from the ceiling, blocking the paths out, but what followed what almost absurdly mundane. I did not use Night or a Name trick, simply jamming my thumb into the opening and then waiting for a while as the doors began to rise again. We ran, Indrani snickering the whole time, and made it to the stairs before the trap activated again. We went down slowly, catching our breath, and I cast a consternated look behind us.

“I don’t understand why your ancestors didn’t just layer a hundred wards,” I admitted. “This stuff can be beaten, a hundred different layers of protection changed every few years can’t.”

“We are in the Vaults, my darling,” Akua replied. “It is presumed that anyone who made it this far into the Empyrean Palace has the help of traitors within our own. Wards can be crossed in the snap of a finger, with the right helper. This? This cannot.”

I was about to object some more when she silenced me with a finger.

“These were the easiest of rooms, my heart,” she said. “Now that we are below, tricks such as I used will find little bite.”

Straight from the start we were faced with a crossroads, the paths going to the left and right. The left side, Akua explained, was where the other entrance above would have led to directly. The terror room.

“And where we’re headed?” I asked.

The hallway here had mosaics much like those above, dangerous to look at for too long, which I figured was actually pretty clever on the part of the builders. You couldn’t see the traps coming if you couldn’t risk looking at your surroundings for long. Wouldn’t want to be one of the poor fuckers in charge of cleaning this place, though. Maybe they had wards in place to prevent it getting dusty?

“Straight into the illusion room and the duelling room, then we may access the first vault,” Akua replied, leading us to another steel grate.

It required Archer’s tender attentions once more, but when forced off the hinges it did not fall into the room beyond it. Anchored by enchantments, our guide noted, and so we ‘opened’ the broken thing as if we’d used a key. Beyond was a hall that was entirely mosaic, that confounding little number we’d been walking through. Here it covered the floor and ceiling too, though, and led to another steel grate. I risked small glimpsed at the floor, finding pale eyes there like those that’d covered the gas exits above us, but I bit my lip. Something was wrong here, itching at me. I felt the presence of the Sisters fill me like cold water, Komena nudging my chin to look right instead of- the illusion broke and I let out a gasp.

“Fuck me,” I murmured. “The spell here makes you twist left and right for up and down.”

“Yes,” Akua said, sounding pleased. “And so draw the eye away from this…”

She shimmied in front of me, dipping her foot into what my mind still insisted was the right wall, and the mosaic vanished. Under it was a sharp drop and even sharper steel spikes. Ah, lovely.

“There’s a safe way through?” I asked.

“Indeed,” Akua replied. “Archer?”

I turned to look at Indrani, who had her eyes closed and was muttering under her breath. She opened her eyes once, quickly glancing at the floor and then closing them again. Twice more she did that, looking angrier and angrier, until on the third she drew back her sleeve and bit her forearm hard enough blood came out. She looked again, eyes hard, and only then offered me a wild grin.

“It’s fine, ladies,” Archer said. “I can See it now. Mind couldn’t get around trying to believe two things at the same time.”

It was useful now and then to be reminded of how fucking dangerous Indrani actually was. Akua had been raised here and I had goddesses helping me see through this. Her? It was Name and grit that got her through. And somehow, now that she’d seen through the spell, I suspected that no other one like it would ever fool her again. We crossed the floor like children holding hands in dark woods, moving across the complex back and forth pattern that Akua unerringly led us through until we’d reached the door on the other side. Solid copper, this one, and our guide opened it by ghosting a hand through the lock and picking it with her own ‘fingers’. It popped open, revealing another short antechamber leading into another hall.

This one, which she’d called the duelling room earlier, was little more than bare stone and mosaic walls save for the five longswords that’d been sheathed in stands of copper. It was a thick steel door that awaited us at the end of the hall, with no visible lock or pull.

“So we draw a sword and fight an opponent for each one we draw?” Indrani guessed.

“Not at all,” Akua laughed. “Pulling swords only makes parts of the floor fall away into spikes when the monster is unleashed. It is the touch of flesh on the door that begins the duel.”

“And how does the door open?” I asked.

“An enchanted key, which we do not have,” Akua said.

I glanced at the steel door in the back and Archer did the same.

“I’m not sure I can force my way through that with brute strength,” she admitted.

“We will not need to,” the shade said. “The swords are, naturally, all cursed.”

“Naturally,” I drily echoed.

“The second blade from the right should have a particularly nasty rotting curse on it that I believe will damage the door enough to reveal the lock, if pressed in the right place,” Akua said. “I should be able to pick said lock from there.”

“And you have no flesh to rot,” I mused. “All right, that’ll work. That leaves Indrani and I to handle whatever creature comes out. You have any notion of what it’ll be?”

“It used to be giant scorpion, but it should have died by now,” Akua noted. “It shouldn’t be too difficult an opponent, given the breakdown of relations with Aksum. That is where all the most… difficult creatures tend to come from.”

I nodded.

“Can we use the other blades against the beastie?” Indrani asked.

“Alas, it is always bespelled to be protected when put away here,” Akua said.

It was typical of Praesi highborn, I thought, that though a great many of them were utterly and irremediably mad their madness somehow turned out to be in some ways sensible and organized. It was a through sort of lunacy, and all the more dangerous for the thoroughness being married to the absence of sense in most other ways. I unsheathed the blade at my hip, rolling my wrist to limber it and stretching my limbs carefully. Archer gave me an amused look but did the same, Akua patiently waiting for us to be done.

“Where’s it going to come from?” I asked.

The shade simply pointed upwards. Of course it was, I sighed. I looked at Archer, who nodded in approval.

“Get us started, Akua,” I said.

Smoothly she walked up the swords and pulled out her chosen one from the copper stand, darting away afterwards. There was no visible sign of the curse she’d mentioned on the sword, but I could smell the scent of power in the air. She’d not lied when she called the enchantment on that nasty. Three heartbeats passed before a floor panel of about nine feet by three shattered into neat pieces and revealed a spiked pit below even as the ceiling shifted above us. There were three birdlike screeches as a massive form – Gods, large as two oxen as least – dropped down from above between Indrani and I. Two thoughts came to me about at the same time. First off, Akua had been rather optimistic when she’d assumed that the giant scorpion had died of old age.

Second, this was not a noise a scorpion should be able to make.

“Why does this thing have faces on its back?” I asked.

“Better question,” Archer mused, “why are they all screaming?”

I ducked away from a lightning-quick strike of a stinger the size of my head, the massive scorpion trying to trample Indrani as it kept me away. She slid under it, laughing in glee as something in its belly began spitting out acid that she only narrowly avoided, and I chopped away at one of its bony legs to distract it. Bony was the right term for it, I found out, the bloody carapace was hard as bone. And that was just the leg, the body would be worse. That left the eyes to strike at or, urgh, the… faces. Which were still screaming, looking like damned souls sown into chitin and singing out their eternal torment. Hells, they actually might be. It turned its attention to me as Archer put distance between her and the tail, pincers twitching. I kept close to the wall, throwing myself to the side at the last moment when it struck and smiling at the screeches of pain it let out when the pincer hit solid stone.

“I am working the lock,” Akua calmly called out.

“Archer, let’s not fight the damn thing,” I screamed.

“Boo,” Indrani screamed back.

Her shout drew back its attention and it stabbed away at her repeatedly with the stinger, growing angrier as she kept dodging at the last moment, and I darted close to its face to make sure it had to keep its attention divided. The pincers came at me from both sides, but the anglers were predictable. Anger was making it sloppy. It grew even angrier a moment later, when Indrani finally baited it into a stinger strike at the angle for her to cut off the entire thing after she dodged. Even as it screeched I took the opportunity to land a few hacks at its eyes, black fluid dripping everywhere, and retreated as it began to attack blindly.

“Around the spikes,” I yelled at Indrani.

There was a narrow strip between the walls and the floor that’d dropped, and with the scorpion partly blinded now was the time to make us of it. I began to cross towards the latter half the hall, where Akua was kneeling before the door, and Archer did the same a moment later. With any luck the bloody thing would try to follow us and fall to its death. Halfway through I turned to have a glance and had a moment of triumph when I saw the monster was following us, but it was short-lived. The scorpion’s legs unfolded further with a wet wrenching side, and hoisted him up by pushing against both walls. Oh fuck me, I thought as it began to walk on the walls to catch up to us.

“Akua,” I screamed.

“I am nearly done,” she replied.

The tail Archer had cut was leaking black blood everywhere, but it could still serve as a whip. As I discovered when it snapped after me, forcing me to hop forward on my bad leg and nearly fall to my death.

Akua,” I screamed.

“And done,” she replied.

I heard the door open with a click and threw myself on solid ground, landing in a painful. Archer was already there and she helped me up, dragging me as we broke into a run towards the open door. The monster was behind us, pincers lashing out as it landed on the solid stone with a clattering sound, but Indrani threw me through the doorway and I heard her stumbled through as I flopped on my belly. Akua slammed closed the door, not quite quickly enough to silence the screeches of rage from the monstrous scorpion. All three of us dropped to the floor for a while after that, catching our breath.

“So the scorpion might still be alive,” I solemnly told Akua.

There was a moment of silence, then all three of us began laughing in spasms. The merriment passed, but it’d done us some good. Even better was that we were now going to get into our first vault of the night. The room we opened did not look like the fabulous gold-and-gem-laden treasury my imagination had conjured up. Disappointingly enough, the large vault looked more like an orderly storage house than anything else. The goods were interesting, at least.  A dozen enchanted swords and twice as many armours, a bow made of dragonbone – which Indrani pawed lustfully at – and several banners whose cloth was woven with spells that inspired either valour or fear. There was also a saddle made of what I suspected to be human skin, which I almost hesitated to take. Well, the Sisters probably wouldn’t mind even if it was. It was minor artefacts aside from that, mostly enchanted jewelry and amulets.

“Prestige pieces,” Akua told me. “All were crafted by famous practitioners. It is a traditional way to reward a subordinate without overly empowering them.”

“Well,” I shrugged, “into the Night they go.”

It didn’t take long to clear it all out, Archer reluctantly parting with the bow when it was pointed out to her that she did not have arrows to go with it.

“Left now,” Akua said. “It will bring us to three adjoining vaults.”

Huh, that did sound rather tempting.

“What’s in the way?” I asked, and before she could answer I got my response.

It was, uh, remarkably straightforward.

“This is an acid pool,” Archer said, looking down at, well, that.

“So it is,” Akua cheerfully replied.

It was maybe three feet below the threshold we stood at, and there was no way to tell how deep it ran. The length of the hallway was at least thirty feet, which made it a laughable notion to try jumping.

“How do people usually get through it?” I asked.

“They bring a specially crafted silver bridge,” Akua smiled.

“With a mage around you could make a bridge across out of shields,” Indrani noted.

A heartbeat later, there was a little shiver across the room as a pulse of… something went through the air. I cocked an eyebrow at Akua.

“Raw magic,” she said. “It would disrupt any ongoing spell formula. Anyone trying to cross on a shield panel would…”

She glanced meaningfully at the gently simmering acid. Lovely.

“I’m pretty sure Night won’t be disrupted,” I frowned.

“My ancestors did not, in fact, plan for the human herald of drow goddesses to infiltrate their vaults and then use a largely unheard of and poorly understood power to make a bridge across their acid pool,” Akua confirmed, her tone holding the faintest note of sarcasm. “How short-sighted of them indeed.”

I coughed in embarrassment, then got to work. The wards over the palace were still making it hard to call on Night even though we were well past nightfall, and I found the magic pulse harder to deal with than I’d thought it would be. Had to do double layers to avoid a thinning, which made it take longer than I would have liked. It was with sweat beading the back of my neck that I brought us to the other side, where Archer promptly kicked her way through the steel grid. How had the godsdamned acid pool been the trickiest of these so far? It was a good thing the wards hadn’t been updated here in a while, I thought, because a few more layers of whatever made it hard to shape the Night might have managed to lock me out from using it in practice.

Akua stopped us before we could enter the traditional antechamber, dragging an ethereal foot over the floor. Headsman’s blades came out from both sides, cutting into nothing but thin air, and they began to withdraw. Well, that’d been bracing. They’d been building up the impression that the antechambers were safe this whole time, hadn’t they? Tricky fuckers. The hallway beyond was unlike any we’d seen before, which I did not take as a good sign. Every part of the walls, floor and ceiling was covered with angled mirrors, giving the impression that we were standing on the inside of a gem. The uncovered parts were the doors in and out, and somehow I suspected that was only a temporary state of affairs.

“Enchanted mirrors?” I asked.

“They induce nightmare-filled sleep if stared at,” Akua said, “but it is the doors to watch out for. They will shoot out burning rays of light, which then…”

“Reflect every which way,” Indrani finished, sounding a little impressed.

“The enchantments in the mirrors amplify the heat,” Akua said. “There is an upper limit, of course, but after seven reflections it would be enough to incinerate an ogre on contact.”

Given the kind of people these defences belonged to, I suspected it was not a figure of speech she’d used there.

“Night’s not great against fire,” I admitted. “So that’s a problem. How do we get through the door on the other end?”

It was a copper one and Akua had picked one of those earlier but I didn’t want to assume.

“I can get us through the lock there,” she said. “But not before at least a dozen spells have been shot out.”

“These rays, do they reflect off anything or just the mirrors?” Archer suddenly asked.

I breathed out in understanding and so did our guide.

“The side of a sword should work,” she replied.

Indrani shot me a smile, which I forced myself to return. I was getting closer to my Name, but the reflexes weren’t quite there yet. I began to draw Night into myself, murmuring prayers in Crepuscular. At the very least quickening my limbs ought to help. Our swords were bared a moment later and as I grimaced we darted forward. Before we’d even made it a foot forward mirrors moved to cover the entrance we’d left and three spells shot out from the polished copper door. Whooping with glee, Indrani casually batted one away while Akua and I instead prudently moved to the sides. She went straight for the door, even as it began spewing out a second volley, and I took up a position guarding her back.

I narrowly caught a ray that would have hit my chest, reflecting it upwards and then into a wildly careening trajectory. The trouble with all those fucking angled mirrors was that it was hard to guess what path the spell would take when it came back. Archer was still in the middle of the room, moving with a dancer’s grace as she reflected spells in what was too measured a way for it to be random. Eyes narrowed I tried to follow what she was doing, but only figured it out after the third volley of spells came out and two of the rays hit each other in midair, bursting into a ball of flame and smoke. Fucking Hells, was she actually making them hit each other? I could barely keep up with the ones actually coming for me.

That moment of inattention cost me, even my quickened limbs not quite quick enough when a ray I avoided was reflected right back into my shoulder from behind before I could blink. I managed to get it to clip the shoulder instead of bite into the muscle, at least, but I swallowed a scream as a parchment’s depth of my shoulder just turned to ash and the livery over it vanished. Fuck, that hurt. Akua came through for us moments later, the copper door opening, and I was quick to retreat behind it. Archer took her time joining us, twice more slapping away spells before slipping behind the door as I slammed it closed. Her eyes dipped to my shoulder, but like Akua she said nothing. I called on Night to kill the pain and we moved on to the vaults awaiting us.

The first vault looked very mundane, until you had a closer look. The neat piles of wood were all atrociously expensive sorts from the Waning Woods or beyond, the blocks of rock and the gems all gave off the scent of magic without being enchanted – which meant inherent sorcery – and the sealed copper boxes here were all filled with living plants I did not recognize. There was a single potion rack, with maybe sixty vials in whole, but my jaw dropped when I saw a whole half-dozen of them were as red and faintly glowing water.

“Are those actual healing potions?” I croaked.

“They are,” Akua said. “And not even the most precious of the lot. The bottom row is the elixir of long life. Drinking it adds at the very least forty years to one’s lifespan.”

I’d keep one of those for Vivienne, then. I shook my head, still in shock that I was looking at the little red potions that were said to be the closest thing to a panacea that alchemists had ever achieved. They were also said to require the blood of a dragon taken while it still lived to be brewed, which had seen them placed squarely in the realm of legends. The last Callowan ruler said to have drunk one was Elizabeth Alban. It was with petty glee that I cleared out the room into the Night, being careful not to break anything. We wasted no time hitting the second vault, which was significantly less worth smiling about.

Rooms full of demons tended to get that reaction out of me.

I saw the same three Weeping Snares the High Lord of Wolof had stood me off with and promptly stashed them away, to the reluctant acceptance of the Sisters, but they had significantly less qualms taking in the rows and rows of grimoires that Akua told me were contracts with devils. Two silver jigsaw puzzles that supposedly could give a glimpse into how to make a Great Breach when completed went into the Night as well, as well as a dozen more of what Akua called ‘insight’ artefacts, but when we came to a simple copper crown on a pedestal the Crows sent me a wave of wariness.

“Insipientia,” Akua reverently said.

My Old Miezan was rusty, but not that rusty.

“It’s a bound demon of Madness,” I said. “The same one your mother unleashed?”

“Yes,” she replied. “My family has held other demons, over the years, but never was there a binding quite so thorough or a demon quite so mastered as Insipientia has been. Centuries of foes have tried to free and turn it against us, ever to no avail.”

I reached out for it, but the Crows balked. There was something about the crown that spooked them, and I wasn’t one to gainsay the instincts of my patronesses when it came to demonic taint.

“It stays,” I said. “Vault’s clear, what’s in the third one?”

“Nothing, presumably,” Akua shrugged. “It is almost never used. It is the guest vault, and my family has rarely granted the honour of its use to anyone.”

“Hey, worth a look anyway,” Indrani drawled. “Maybe there’ll be loose change there we can toss into the Night.”

I rolled my eye but did not disagree. I wanted to be as through as possible when clearing the vaults. Akua informed us there were only two more left after this, and the paths began to grow complicated- we’d have to double back over the acid pool – when we forced open the warded door, revealing a sight that gave paused to all of us. In the bare stone room there was an altar and a sleeping body on it, but that wasn’t the part that gave us pause. It was the fact that we were looking at a perfect reproduction of Akua Sahelian when she’d died. A shift modestly covered the body, but I’d seen enough of Akua over the years to know that this was looking at a twin. One that was breathing. The shade, face unreadable, took a few hesitant steps and laid a hand on the body. After a moment she gasped.

“What is it?” I quietly asked.

“She has magic,” Akua said. “No mind or memories that I can feel, but the Gift is there.”

Ah, I thought, and the pieces fell into place. The guest vault, huh. So this was the work of the sole person in Praes who might feasibly make this request of Sargon: Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name. There’d never been any need for me to lay out bait, I now understood. Malicia had always intended to take it. She was in need of a Warlock and of someone who had a good handle of me and my plans, so she intended to secure both in a single stroke. And there was the deeper game here, the one I was beginning to glimpse. The Intercessor, who had outed us in the fortress but not gotten us captured. The Bard had made sure that Sargon would cover the treasury and the granaries, figuring out one step of me that it would leave me only one place to go.

That the Intercessor too had wanted Akua to be in this room, at this moment, sent a shiver of dread up my spine. Did she know something I did not? Had I made a mistake? Or did I, for once, better understand the nature of the woman we were dealing with than either my opponents? My fingers clenched, then unclenched. None of us would know the answer to that until the very last moment, I suspected. Besides, now that we had seen what we were meant to the Eyes – the dull throb of magic filled the air, a ward being tripped. There you go, I thought, as troubles as I was vindicated. And still I couldn’t shake the impression that I was missing something. That I was still underestimating my opponents somehow.

“We need to get out,” I said. “They know we’re here.”

“Fuck,” Indrani cursed. “Think we should grab the…”

She hesitated. I glanced at Akua.

“No,” she decisively said. “It will be a trap of some sort.”

I nodded.

“We’re still using the way out in the Empyrean Hall,” I said. “Can you lead us there quick?”

“Very much so,” Akua replied. “There is a hall that leads there directly.”

I didn’t bother closing the door behind us as we filed out. We took a left at the end of the hall where the vaults were, which brought us to another large hallway where aside from the mosaics the sole decoration was a tomb of stone.

“That doesn’t look good,” Archer muttered.

“There is no need to worry,” Akua snorted. “For this, I will require neither of you.”

Taking her at her word we followed her in, and predictably enough the tomb’s lid began to open. A strikingly good-looking man in bronze armour began to rise out, smiling eagerly, but the shade met his eyes and straightened her back.

“I am Akua Sahelian,” she said.

The man froze. His eyes were blank, I noticed only then. And I had yet to see him breathe. Undead of some sort? I glimpsed a slender sword in the tomb with him, already half-drawn.

“No,” the man hissed in Mthethwa. “Not after-”

“I am of the blood of Subira,” Akua said, tone flat. “By the ancient compact, I bid you to return to your sleep and grant us passage.”

“Insolent child,” the man bit out, “how dare you-”

And yet, for all his complaining, his limbs were moving. He lay back down into the tomb, and even as he cursed Akua profusely he closed the lid over himself. There was a moment of silence, then Archer cleared her throat.

“So, uh, what was that exactly?”

“Dread Emperor Revenant was not the first Soninke to attempt to rule forever,” Akua replied with a smile. “Merely the most successful. And some of my ancestors had an… interesting sense of humour.”

Well, didn’t that sound ominous. Still, I counted our blessings and followed our guide as we left. The door wasn’t even locked from outside, meant to keep people out instead of in, and we hurried through only occasionally trapped sets of stairs until we emerged above in what looked like a large marble hallway. Above us I caught sight of something staggeringly beautiful: the night sky in all its glory. It wasn’t like the lesser version of the Vaults, this was the real one – the very wonder this palace was named after. I could almost feel the wind looking at the ceiling here, see the clouds move and even the occasional bird fly. It was one of the most magnificent works of magic I’d ever seen.

“We are close to the passage,” Akua said, breaking me out of my thoughts. “Let us hurry.”

Yet even with her navigating for us, this part of the palace had been on high alert. It was mere moments before we came across a servant, who screamed out in alarm at the sight of our swords, and soldiers were on our heels in moments. Arrows and spells streaked behind us as we ran, clattering against tall marble columns and setting tapestries aflame. How many were there? At least sixty, I thought. Archer took an arrow in the arm but she ripped it away without batting an eye, cursing as she did, and twice streaks of flame went through Akua. She came back… weaker each time she reformed afterwards. Tired in away I’d never before seen her be as a shade.

We remained narrowly ahead of our opponents, until we reached the statue of Subira Sahelian that was the mark of one of the eleven secret passages into Wolof. Akua pushed the crown the man held in his hand and the statue began to move, revealing a narrow set of stairs, and we wasted no time heading down. The soldiers were close. The statue moved back behind us, though, which ought to slow them down some. The oppressive weight of a new set of wards washed over me the moment I got onto the stairs but I grit my teeth and quickened my pace. We’d planned to leave through here from the start, though initially it would have been after we robbed the treasury instead of the vaults. See, like all of the eleven secret passages into Wolof this one was a trap.

The narrow stairs flared out into a larger platform where we all paused, and hastily I took out our last two water breathing potions. Indrani idly took two steps down the platform as I did, to trigger what we all knew was coming: moments after her foot touched the lower stairs water began pouring from the ceiling. It was a flood corridor, see. Either the pressure of the flood or drowning would take care of anyone who came through here. Except, of course, if they had prepared potions for this very eventuality. It’d never been an option to come back by the aqueduct again: we would have needed to swim uphill and against the current, and break through the enchanted barriers there again without the evanescent powder to do the work for us.

“Bottoms up,” Indrani said as I gave her a vial.

We toasted and knocked down the drinks. I breathed in, limbering my shoulders for the coming swim. Sooner or later the guards would come down the stairs and try to snatch us with spells even if proper pursuit was impossible, we needed to get a head start. We waited a few heartbeats. And then, hideously, nothing happened at all. The potion did nothing.

“Cat,” Indrani slowly said, but I did not answer.

Instead I closed my eyes. And there it was, the missing piece. Malicia had wanted Akua to see that body down in the Vaults, it was why the Eyes – who had no doubt reported to her body in the city the moment they’d been sure I could no longer kill them for it – had waited so long to pull the alarm. But it’d not made sense to me that she would then simply… let us go. Much as I despised the empress, she was one of the cleverest people I’d ever met. Malicia had been fine letting us go, I now realized, because she’d known we weren’t going anywhere. The return vials of water breathing potion had been sabotaged before we ever left.

Had she gotten to the Concocter? No, I thought, she shouldn’t have the leverage for that. Mostly likely just spies that’d had access to the vials at someone point before they got to my hands. A few foreign reagents would have been enough to fuck up a brew this complicated. And it didn’t matter how it’d been done, I forced myself to acknowledge, just that it had. The Intercessor knew from the start, I put together as my stomach dropped. It was Malicia’s plan, and Malicia is Named. So the old monster had just come in at the right time and the right place to nudge us so her favoured outcome came about. My fingers clenched.

Figuring out my enemies was useful, but what I needed right now was a way out.

“Akua,” I said. “When we came out the reservoirs, you dried us. Do you think you could keep a bubble of air around our heads as we swim?”

There was a long moment of silence, then she shook her head.

“I do not think I am strong enough for two,” the shade admitted. “Not after the spells I was struck by, and perhaps not even at my best. Around one of you, if I meld closely, and even then it will be difficult.”

So Akua and one of us could still make it out. Not quickly, though, I thought. Which meant the person staying behind would have to keep the soldiers off their back for a while. Could I work around this with Night, steal air to bring with me? I murmured a prayer, reaching for the power, but though I felt the Crows reach out to me our fingers… missed. The wards were too heavy here, I realized. Night wouldn’t get me out of this.

“You can’t use Night, can you?” Indrani said, eyes sharp.

I shook my head.

“That settles it,” Archer said. “It’s got to be me. Your Name’s not there yet. I’ll keep them off long enough and you can trade back for me later.”

I breathed out, looking for calm. Forcing it.

“Yeah,” I said.

She slowly nodded, then turned to ask Akua something, and without missing a beat I struck the side of her head. She was quick, and strong, but I was both too and she’d not been expecting it. I caught her in my arms before she could collapse, golden eyes following me all the while.

“They can’t kill me,” I said. “Malicia knows she’d be risking handing the Dead King a victory if she did.”

There was simply no one else that could keep the Firstborn bound to the Grand Alliance and Callow in the war the way I could. Vivienne could maybe talk our soldiers around, but the drow? No, Malicia wasn’t after my life here. She wanted me in her grasp.

I intended to make her rue that notion to her dying day.

Above us the statue began moving, and I handed Archer to Akua. The shade took our friend, coming so close to me for a moment it would have been the easiest thing in the world to steal a kiss from my lips, but she refrained. Shouts from above. There was no more time, and if I was going to make it out of captivity I needed… something. A plan, a workaround. And it came to me, in a flash, as above the first arrow was fired loosely in our direction.

“Takisha Muraqib,” I hissed. “Make the offer for it. And the rest Sepulchral.”

Her hand touched mine, impossibly warm, and she nodded.

“I will,” Akua Sahelian swore.

Moments later she was in the water, bringing Archer with her, as spells began to light up the hall and I turned towards the enemy. Well, Night or not I had a sword and a long history of stabbing people with those.

Time to see how long I could buy them.

Chapter 8: Access

“Note: Cousin Onoko’s assertion that ‘blood is thicker than water’ was in fact correct, despite my initial assumption otherwise. Add in the silence that followed the experiment, and it can be considered an unequivocal success.”

– Extract from the journal of Dread Emperor Malignant II

The ruling seat of the Sahelians was called the Empyrean Palace. Pretentious fucking name really, even if it was probably as fancy as it sounded, but no one had asked me. Not that it’d ever stopped me from sharing my thoughts before, or in this particular case. Strangely enough, Akua disagreed with me. The palace’s foundations were the oldest in the city, and though it’d begun small over the centuries it had turned into a real behemoth of a place. That was an advantage in the sense that it was difficult to entirely prevent entry into it, as there were simply too many entrances and too many people using them, but the rulers of Wolof had seen to their defences with characteristic thoroughness. Akua drew at knifepoint in the dirt of our quarters’ floor, first outlining three squares in a loose but noticeable curve.

“The Empyrean Palace is divided into seven different wings,” she said. “These three are the outer section, the easiest to access. The central wing contains greeting halls, but the rest is places of little importance – servant quarters and stables, courtyards and gardens.”

“We’d planned to go through the eastern wing, right?” Archer asked, crouched over the drawing.

With her unstrung bow kept on top of her knees, she looked like she was crouching by a campfire instead of a loose plan.

“We did,” I agreed. “And odds are we still will. It’s heavy on gardens, so it’ll be easier to sneak through.”

“The difficulty begins when we are inside the western wing,” Akua said.

She drew small lines connecting the three squares, standing for open paths and halls.

“Getting into any of these wings from the outside is achievable, but movement between the wings is strictly limited,” Akua elaborated. “Each of them has its own largely independent staff, largely to prevent infiltrations like ours – unknown faces are simply not allowed through. Which leaves us only one direction to go in.”

She drew a rectangle vertically, nestled against the squares like a hammer’s handle, and the deftly connected the three squares to it by single strokes.

“This is the Grand Gallery,” the golden-eyed woman said. “It is the sift through which sneaks and agents are removed before they can reach the vital sections of the palace. It bears the great hall where formal banquet are held. Adjoining it are both the public kitchens and a set of private parlours. No guard or servant can enter the Gallery without holding an enchanted token, given out by the steward of another wing. Being caught without one means arrest if you are lucky, but most often summary execution.”

I went fishing through the bag where the last two vials of the water breathing potion were and produced three small copper amulets. Detailed engravings were around the rim, and at the centre a single pearl bore a small enchantment. I set them down besides the plan.

“Scribe obtained these tokens for us,” I said. “They’re imitations, but very good ones. Eyes of the Empire have used them with success in the past.”

The enchantments usually changed every few months, I’d been told, and Sargon had kept to that pattern. In the wake of his chaotic ascension to power, however, the Eyes had been able to subvert people in a few key mage cadres. The fakes were current, as even though Scribe had lost control of the spy network in Praes to Lady Ime she still had… contacts. Favours for call in that she’d kept for a rain day.

“That gets us into the Gallery,” Akua agreed. “But not forward. To leave the Grand Gallery and move deeper into the palace, one must pass through one of the three threshold-gates. Each is warded, and there is no enchanted ward key: the only way not to be affected is to be keyed in with blood at the appropriate ward stone well beyond the corresponding gate.”

She drew three small arcing slices above the rectangle, then a square facing each. The moment she finished, she cut through the left square with a decisive stroke.

“Issa’s Garden has served as the personal quarters to the ruling Sahelian and their direct family for the last century and a half, but it was where my mother made her death-grounds,” Akua calmly said. “Even after years of ritual purging, there are still motes of taint and so the ruins remain unused.”

She drew a stroke through the centre square.

“The Empyrean Hall is the heart of the palace,” she continued. “It holds many of the wonders my kin have accumulated over the years, including the enchanted ceiling for which the palace is named. Sargon will be using the old formal living quarters that were raised there and it is also where the treasury vault.”

“We had an in there,” I said. “I have a bottle of blood from a servant who is keyed into the wards, and I’ve learned a Night-trick that could exploit that to sneak us in with a little help from my patronesses. The trouble is that right now that place will be fucking packed to the gills. Forget the wards, it’s the guards that would be a problem.”

Akua withdrew her dagger, smoothly rising to her feet. As if to distance herself from the entire mess, she even took a step back to lean against the wall and arc an eyebrow at me.

“So you want us to hit the last wing,” Archer nodded, looking at me.

“The Vaults,” I said. “It’s partially a mage village, partially a large library and underneath are all the artefacts the Sahelians believe too precious to see the light of day.”

“Or too dangerous,” Akua pointedly said. “If Sargon succeeded at binding Insipientia again, its artefact-prison will be there. The Weeping Snares he used when he came to parley are kept in a vault there, and so are over a dozen other makings in the same league.”

“So we what, release all these beasties into the library?” Indrani asked, frowning. “I guess it’d be a kick in the guts – Hells, if they get loose it’ll bring the city to its knees – but it doesn’t sound like your usual plans. Gonna be a lot of dead servants to go with the dead soldiers and the dead mages.”

A lot worse than that, should a demon be loosed in the city once more.

“No,” I said. “We’re going to steal the library, Indrani. All of it. And then, to make it clear I’m in a foul mood, we’re going to rob the artefact vaults too.”

Indrani laughed, openly delighted, but this was a more calculated move than she might think. I’d be holding two knives at High Lord Sargon’s throat by clearing those out, though he wouldn’t realize quite how bad it was until we sat at the negotiating table again. Akua cleared her throat.

“I have no opposition to such a plan in principle,” she said. “But in practice, I have a question: how are we going to get past the ward?”

She pointed at the threshold-gate leading into the Vaults. You know, that gate we didn’t have a handy blood vial for that’d maybe allow us to trick the wards. Servants never got keyed into two wardstones, presumably in case of this very sort of situation.

“I don’t have a way to get us past the ward,” I bluntly said.

The admission took them both aback.

“But,” I continued, “I know some people who can get past them.”

The Eyes of the Empire had people in the mage cadres that enchanted the tokens for the outer palace, and those mage cadres lived in the Vaults. Meaning that the Eyes had an in. And, as it happened, we knew where their safehouses in Wolof were – it paid to have the woman who’d first set them up in your service.

“And how are you going to get them to help us?” Akua skeptically asked.

“I am going to use,” I toothily grinned, “tact and diplomacy.”

Night sunk deep into the wood, spreading out in wavy cracks, and a heartbeat later the floor shattered.

We dropped down in a rain of shards and broken floorboards, landing in the middle of what looked more like some tavern’s common room than the spy hideout it was. I landed on the table, swallowing a moan of pain – Gods but I wished I could have brought my staff into Wolof – while Archer threw herself on a surprised man and knocked him down. Akua already had a knife at the throat of a second when I checked, which left me the two seated at the table on which I now stood. Wait, no, only one. The woman in the dress had been knocked unconscious by a falling floorboard. That left only the bearded man in front of me, who was currently gaping and bleeding from the face where a wood shard had flown into his cheek.

“Good evening, Eyes of the Empire,” I cheerfully said. “Who’s in charge here?”

The young woman – barely more than a teenager – that Akua had a knife on began tearing up. She was shaking, obviously terrified.

“Please don’t hurt us,” she hurried out. “We’ll be Eyes if you want us to, I’m sure you’re right.”

I curse you to be silent,” I spoke in Crepuscular, and Night flared.

Her mouth kept moving, but not a sound followed. The flash of horror in her eyes then was significantly more genuine than the previous theatrics. The man at my feet had his hand on the handle of a knife, but he stopped short of unsheathing it when he saw I’d caught him.

“So not her,” I said, cocking an eyebrow. “Did she seriously think that would work?”

It wasn’t like we’d picked this place out of a hat.

“She is young,” the bearded man sighed. “Good evening, Your Majesty. For the sake of this conversation, you may consider me to be in charge.”

Meaning he likely wasn’t. I glanced at the unconscious woman to his left and then at the poor bastard that Archer had in an absent-minded stranglehold, then decided there was no point in pushing for someone else to speak.

“Name?” I asked.

“I am Ekon, Your Majesty,” he said.

I met his eyes with mine.

“If I have you a choice between doing me a favour and having your soul fed to Sve Noc, Ekon,” I said. “Which would you end up leaning, d’you think?”

He swallowed drily, but his face remained admirably calm. He must have been his forties, I thought, but his age was not wearing hard on him. Spying must pay well.

“All things considered, Your Majesty,” he said, “I would be inclined to the favour.”

“Good man,” I smiled, and moved to easy myself down the table.

I dropped down the floor by the unconscious woman, studying her in passing just to be sure she wasn’t faking. No, it looked quite genuine: her head was swelling where she’d been struck, which would be very difficult to fake, and her hand was not clutching a knife but a… pipe? I leaned in close and sniffed. Well, I’d be damned. For the what, probably the third time now? Still, Below was smiling on me tonight. I snatched up the pipe, which was already filled with wakeleaf, and offered my good friend Ekon a smile.

“Don’t worry about it, I’m not asking you to turn on Malicia,” I said. “Nothing quite so troublesome.”

“I am glad to hear it,” the man cautiously ventured.

I passed a hand over the pipe, fire flickering in its wake, and grinned around the mouth of my pipe as I breathed in deep of my vice. Ah, that hit the spot.

“Now,” I said, “let’s talk about how you’re going to get us into the Vaults.”

Huh, I’d never seen a spy freeze in horror before. That was probably a good sign, right?

Ekon had been most helpful, for a man who was going to betray us before this was over.

Under cover of dusk we crept through the gardens, weaving through pools and flowerbeds laid out intricately under the shade of old, twisting trees. Stretches of lilies in pink and pale, delicate orchids in beds whose every rock was sculpted, hibiscus and hyacinth and candelabra flowers. Among them were more… exotic breeds, flowers whose petals slowly changed colours or who moved without need for the breeze. Some even had veins of light, or sweated droplet of mist-like purple instead of dew. We steered clear of the menagerie, for it was well-guarded and there were creatures within that even we should stay wary of, and past a curving pool whose waters were full of nenuphars we took a servant’s entrance into the western wing.

The pair of guards by the door studied us as we came in but said nothing. We wore servant’s livery, after all. I had discarded my eyecloth in favour of a painted stone replacement from the bazaar for my missing eye, knowing it might get me recognized otherwise, and a touch of cosmetics had seen Indrani and I pass as vaguely Taghreb. The days out in the sun had tanned my skin deeper than usual, it was more the cheekbones than the colour that gave me away as being of Deoraithe extraction.

Once we were inside the western wing proper, not the outside part, we hugged the length of the servant quarters as we headed deeper in. At this time of the evening they were mostly empty, save for the children and the kinsmen raising them, so simply looking like we had a purpose was enough for the few servants we encountered to steer clear of us. Twice we encountered patrols, a handful of soldiers in Sahelian livery who lost interest in us immediately the moment Akua showed them a fake token. I was too on my guard to truly allow my gaze to drift around, but I did get glimpses of our surroundings. Tapestries were common and colourful, with complicated patterns whose motif changed from corridor to corridor. Painted wood was used as a sort of gilding along walls, and we had yet to encounter a single torch: it was all magelights.

It was almost bafflingly easy to make it into the Grand Gallery. We showed our tokens to the guards manning the hallway leading to it, faked smiles when a young man tried a joke about our ‘coming here often’ – he was eyeing Indrani pretty hard, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of inspection we should be worried about – and were sent in. Within half an hour of having set foot in the Empyrean Palace, we we’d reached the Gallery. Akua had only described it in passing as having statues of her ancestors, but she’d undersold it significantly. The Grand Gallery was at least half a mile long and maybe half that in length? More than that, the ‘statues’ were in full armour and almost eerily lifelike. They were on tall pedestals, and a quick glance at the names under them told me what I was looking at: former High Lords and Ladies of Wolof.

I didn’t dare linger, moving across the white and pink marble floor as quickly as I could without drawing attention. There were more people here, but the Gallery itself wasn’t really bustling: it was the side parlours and the kitchens that were alive, swarming with people. I leaned closer to Akua, eyeing one of the statues wearing colourful scale and a short sword that looked like a decent fit for me.

“Think we could grab from those before we head into the Vaults?” I murmured.

We’d had to leave behind arms and armour, which had me feeling very naked at the moment. The servant livery was pretty nice, red and white cloth with black accents, but it wouldn’t stop so much as a kitchen knife – much less good steel.

“It is all cursed,” Akua replied in a murmur of her own. “Every single piece. It is a rite of passage for any Sahelian capable of magic to devise a curse of their own and replace one of the fading ones when they are fifteen.”

Of course it was all fucking cursed, I sighed. Mildly curious, I cast a look around.

“So who’d you curse up?” I asked.

“One of my namesakes,” she smiled. “The third of that name, and most distinguished – she held Wolof against foreign armies in the wake of First Crusade.”

“So what’d you put in?” Indrani asked, looking enthused. “Is it rot? It’s always rot with you Praesi types.”

“Partial bone liquefaction,” Akua replied, sounding proud. “And I tweaked the curse so that the most common counter-spells would work, but then trigger a second curse that liquefies the skin instead.”

I wrinkled my nose even as Archer let out an impressed noise. Nasty stuff. Definitely a no on nabbing weapons. We got stopped five times. The first was a simple token check, the second a warning by a pair of guards to avoid the Green Parlour – noble guests were using it – but the third almost outed us. Not because of an interrogation, but because an older servant ordered us to help him and another man carry a large wooden table into a parlour. The weight on my bad leg was atrocious, and though I kept the pain from my face the older man complained of our slow place several times. Akua begged us off as needing to report to the Master of Ceremonies as soon as she could and we made a getaway.

Twice more we were asked to show tokens, and I noticed we were being asked more frequently than the people coming and going. I pointed out as much to Akua, who nodded.

“Our guards are trained to ask the token the moment they do not recognize a face,” she explained.

Made sense, and so far the deception had held. We could only hope it’d continue to. It was near the end of the corridor, by the statue of High Lord Nassor, that we waited. Archer asked, and so we learned that the man was Akua’s great grand uncle, whose daughter had been assassinated and usurped by Akua’s own grandfather. Amusingly enough, Sargon was related to the man through his own mother and so it could be considered that their branch had somewhat returned to power. Sahelian family politics were like a rolling wheel of murder, it sounded like. I caught sight of someone passing through the threshold-gate to the Vaults from the corner of my eye and stiffened.

“That’s her,” I said. “Green stone necklace and grey robes, like our friend said.”

Taiwo Bauna was a stout and respectable-looking woman into her middle age, with pale brown eyes that often saw her taken as more highborn than she actually was. By all reports, she was a fairly skilled enchanter with a good position among the enchanting cadres of the Sahelian vassal mages. She also liked losing a dice games and racking up debt doing it, apparently, which had been how the Eyes got to her. There were two guards by the door, and neither spoke a word as she passed them. She found us without difficulty, having been told of where we would be waiting. Her face was blank as she took us in, not bothering with greetings.

“You’ll be bringing treats the kitchen I ordered,” she said. “Honeybread, which they don’t make in our own. Follow and be silent. I can only buzz the wards for three heartbeats before it triggers one of the deeper alarms, so you’ll have to cross quickly.”

“Understood,” I simply replied.

It must not have been the first time she did this, I thought, for the wrapped and warm honeybread was waiting for us when we arrived in the kitchen. My leg complained of having to double back halfway through the Grand Gallery, but I kept myself under control. We were close, now was not the time to whine. She led the way as we returned to the threshold-gate, where we slowed. Moments before she crossed the gate, colourful lights began to swirl in the open air. The guards glanced at each other, then her. Taiwo sighed.

“I’ll talk to Lord Luba,” she told them. “It’s been happening too often for it to be happenstance, the anchor patch must have been flawed.”

“Please do,” a tall man said, voice smooth. “I apologize for the delay, but you will have to wait until the lights fade before crossing.”

None of us argued, and moments after the last splash of colour faded we followed Taiwo past the threshold. There was no smell of ozone, no movement of power, not a damned thing. We were in. We walked quickly, hurrying down an ornate hallway until we’d reached a great antechamber that Akua had described as the beginning of the Vaults. Taiwo turned towards us, snatching the wrapped honeybread out of Archer’s hands.

“Tell Alazi that this settles the debt,” she said. “And if she hasn’t arranged someone to take the fall, I’ll be selling you all out before I’m even thrown in a cell.”

“Of course,” I replied. “She’ll be in touch.”

“She better not,” Taiwo Bauna darkly said, and walked away.

Well, I thought, it was a good thing we already had someone who knew her way around here. I unwrapped the honeybread, biting into the warm loaf and feeling it crunch under my teeth pleasantly. I grimaced a heartbeat later, though: way too much cinnamon and honey. Too sweet for me. I passed it to Archer, who took a bite of her own and let out a little moan of pleasure. We hadn’t had time to eat, so I really wished Taiwo had picked up bowls of stew or something instead.

“Let’s get moving,” I said. “Akua, you know the way to the library?”

“In my sleep,” she drily replied.

Not exactly a surprise. Much like Masego she was a natural talent in matters of magic, but talent wasn’t enough – to become as good as she had been, when she’d still had magic, you needed to work. We followed her. Archer ate the entire honeybread, purely to avoid question being asked she assured us, and I let my gaze wander through the empty halls of the Vaults. Most of the mages would be eating around now, or out on duty: it was some time before we encountered another soul, and even then it was another servant.

There were no tapestries here, the walls adorned instead with mosaics and steles in a style I did not recognize – it wasn’t from the Free Cities, there was no paint, but it was strikingly vivid anyway – while the ceiling above us arced gently into what appeared to be the night sky. It was a lesser form of the enchantment covering the ceiling of the Empyrean Hall, Akua told us, one that changed only between night and day. It was used by younger mages as a practice before they were allowed to work on the real masterwork. How long was it before we reached the library? I wasn’t quite sure, I was tense enough time was hard to parse without focusing. Whatever the truth, we eventually came to stand before great iron gates. Twice as tall and tall as a man, they were sculpted with the figures of twisting devils offering knowledge to men and later being made to kneel to them. I remained at a wary distance, remembering how I’d once nearly gotten myself killed by mouthing off at the Tower’s front door.

“And our way in?” Indrani asked. “I’m not seeing knockers or a lock.”

“It requires a spell,” Akua said. “A variation on a formula taught to all who have the right to enter this hall, and which changes twice a day. Fortunately, there is a trick to it.”

She laid a ghostly hand against the iron door, near a grinning devil’s face, and closed her eyes. Her arm became as dark fog, flowing gently along the iron. The fog narrowed into small tendrils that went along certain lines of the sculpture – a face there, a staff or horns or a tower – and after a long time she breathed out.

“There,” Akua Sahelian said, smirking a moment before a small click was heard at the gates unlatched.

I breathed out, rolled my shoulder.

“All right,” I said. “Archer, you know what your job is.”

“Clean-up,” she grinned.

That was one way to put it.

“Akua, with me,” I said. “I can’t hold the entire thing in the Night, and there’d be no point. It’s not the common works we’re after, it’s those that aren’t in anyone else’s library.”

“I know the sections,” she agreed.

And their defences too, which would be important. There was simply no way that the gates were the entire set of protections on something as essential to the Sahelians as this library. I’d bet they even encouraged young mages to sneak it past this door to sharpen them up a bit. The good stuff, though, would be kept away from where people could easily get at it.

“Then let’s go,” I ordered.

Archer took the lead, opening the door just enough we were able to slip through. I wasted half a heartbeat to the wonder of what I was looking at – this was large as a cathedral, and most of it books! – before focusing on the immediate. Which was a handful of white-robed scholars congregating around a great table near the entrance and paying us no attention, while a squadron of twenty guards kept watch from a raised platform to our right. Those did notice us, but the initial alarm at the sight of us somewhat faded at the sight of Akua following us in: she had changed her appearance to be matching the white robes of the scholars here. We still got a pair of guards coming down our way, frowning.

Akua and I moved towards the scholars and Indrani towards the pair, pace brisk. I scanned the room around us, taking in the tower stacks in the middle of the great hall and the upwards layers on the walls – almost like the inside of a ship – but I found no one looking at us from there. So far our only witnesses were the people I’d seen. Four scholars, I saw, and as we approached one of them turned to us with a cocked eyebrow. He was looking at Akua, trying to place her face and failing. I was, meanwhile, looking at the table. Not the books but the rest. I found something suitable, a paring knife for quills next to an inkwell. Less than a dozen feet between us and the scholars now. From the corner of my eye I saw Indrani pass behind tall stacks, the guards catching up to her there. There wasn’t a sound, but a few heartbeats later she moved out quickly and with a sword in hand. The guards above hadn’t noticed a thing, and likely wouldn’t until it was too late. Only a few feet away from the scholars now, and another one was looking at us with similar confusion.

“My apologies,” the first man said, “but why did you bring a servant here? You ought to know they are not allowed, save with a Sahelian. What is your name?”

Ah, the poor fucker. He’d handed her a line and not even known it. Akua met his eyes and smiled, that pretty little number she liked to pull out when she was about to ruin someone’s day.

“Akua,” she said, hand coming to rest on the neck of a scholar with her back to us, “Sahelian.”

Fear flooded the man’s face, even as the shade idly snapped the scholar’s neck. Calmly, I snatched the paring knife and flicked my wrist after taking a heartbeat to aim – it went right into the man’s eye, and he fell down twitching. Well, at least it’d spare him the embarrassment of admitting that Akua had technically been allowed to bring us here. Talk about awkward. One of the survivors squawked in terror, the other one tipping as he backed away from the table hastily, but we were already moving. Akua flowed over the table smoothly, dropping down on the one who’d tripped, while I claimed a silver inkwell and smashed it into the side of the squawker’s head.

He tried to ward me off with raised hands, but a jab in the stomach had him dropping his guard and I finished the job with another blow on the temple. He was unconscious, not dead, so I went to get the paring knife and finished the man off with it while Akua strangled the last one. I allowed myself one breath of relief after it was done, only then turning to look at the platform above. There’d been no alarm raised while we killed the scholars, which was a good sign. As if prompted, Archer appeared at the edge of the platform with a sword in hand – and going through a guard’s stomach. The man slumped and tumbled over the railing, falling below with a dull metallic bang. I winced at the noise.

“Go hunting,” I said. “We can’t afford being caught too early.”

I was not yelling, but she was Named: she’d be able to hear me anyway. She nodded, vanishing behind stacks.

“Can you hide the bodies?” I asked Akua.

“I suppose,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “I’ve never had to dispose of my own kills before, dearest, much less someone else’s.”

I rolled my eye at her.

“I’m sure you’ll manage somehow,” I said.

“And people wonder why we build tiger pits,” Akua muttered.

I hid my amusement, instead closing my eyes and finding my calm. I began murmuring prayer in Crepuscular, Night flowing freely through my veins. I could feel the attention of the Sisters, their eagerness and their hunger. Good.

Now it was time to rob this place blind.

Chapter 7: Expatriate

“A journey ends with two strangers: time changes the hearth no less than the traveller.”

– King Richard the Elder of Callow

What else could I do but run?

I shot out of the reservoir room, sword in hand, and into the hallway beyond. A dozen strides had me at the crossroads I’d spied on the fortress plans, where I slowed for a heartbeat as my cloak swirled around me. A squad of armed guards – good mail and helmets, longswords, the calm part of me assessed – was hurrying towards me from the right side, blades bare. I was already pivoting towards the left, though, down another hall that ought to be bring me to the bastion that was our way out. The door to it was open and it looked empty, not a single rack of spears disturbed or table toppled. Archer’s head popped out with a wary look on it a heartbeat later, which at least told me the two of them had won their scrap inside.

“Bard’s here,” I hissed, rushing through the doorway.

Three corpses, cleanly killed, waited for me inside along my two companions. Archer began stringing her shortbow, a grim look on her face. Akua was leaning over the edge of a bare stone window overlooking the courtyard, the rope end of a fastened grappling hook in hand. She withdrew, cocking a questioning eyebrow at me.

“Bard,” I simply repeated. “Courtyard?”

“Unfortunate,” she said. “Seven guards. There were more but the alarm ward drew them in.”

That was a sort of silver lining, I supposed. I hesitated for a beat. Keeping the corpses in my shadow was now meaningless, since the defenders already knew there’d been intruders. Discretion was out. This could still be salvaged if we got into the streets and hit the ground running, though. Wolof was a big city and Sargon’s people couldn’t be everywhere. Besides, our arranged distraction should be starting any moment now.

“We punch through,” I ordered. “Leave the bodies.”

Akua nodded.

“Two mages,” she said, glancing at Archer.

“Got it,” Indrani easily replied.

She took the rope Akua offered her and hoisted herself atop the windowsill before dropping down.

“I’ll go after,” I said, idly closing the door into the bastion behind me. “Bring the rope when you follow, would you?”

“How very frugal of you,” she replied, eyes amused.

I toppled a table, shoving it in the way of the door, and rolled my eye at her. What, did she think this stuff grew on trees? Good rope was expensive. I sheathed my sword, hearing the sound of hurrying soldiers catching up, and headed to the window. I got to the edge just in time to see Archer leap out of a smooth slide down the rope, an arrow nocked and loosed before anyone could notice. By the time I’d begun climbing down she’d landed smoothly on the ground, having loosed a second and killed twice. There was shouting from the rest of the guards. Without the mages in the way, though, Akua could move freely. I let myself go into a controlled slide that burned at the palms of my hand, hearing the door burst open when I was barely halfway through.

Swearing, I looked up and saw Akua flow over the edge of the window. She dislodged the hook, narrowly dodging a sword blow, and I swore even louder as my slide turned into a freefall. I pulled at motes of Night, whispering a curt prayer – grant me at least a beggar’s miracle, you stingy carrion sisters – and dragging the slightest bit to me. I shaped a thin downwards panel of darkness and angled my fall, tumbling down atop it into a disastrous roll that scraped my trouser against stone. It’d shaken and almost broken: the fortress wards were disrupting it, making it unstable. I rose to my feet, bad leg burning, and even as the Night-working evaporated behind me I was forced to hurriedly unsheathe my sword.

I caught the blow at a weak angle, the side of my own blade almost biting into my shoulder, but I spun as I took a small step to the side. The pressure from the taller and larger dark-skinned soldier trying to hack at me was turned against him, making him stumble, and I finished it with a manoeuvre I must have practiced a thousand times. As he stumbled forward I finished my spin and withdrew my sword, so that when the soldier steadied his footing and began to turn I was already hacking into the exposed side of his neck. It was a quick blow, and quite lethal. Without batting an eye I moved on. Archer had killed two more before a survivor got close enough to make her drop her bow and unsheathed her longknives, I saw, and the last one was coming for me.

Brave of him not to run, I thought, but not particularly wise.

Akua landed behind me, the soft noise of it entirely on purpose, and in the moment that drew his attention I struck. He was a big man, muscled, but clearly used to fighting with a shield he didn’t currently have. When I feigned at his left he overcommitted, hacking at a blow that didn’t come, and instead I quickly stepped into his guard and slammed the side of his chin two-handed with the pommel of my sword. He dropped, stunned but still conscious. From the corner of my eye I saw movement at the window above, but the arrow that was fire was knocked off-course by the one Archer loose in answer. Too quick to even be able to tell who they’d been aiming at. Time to go.

I glanced down at the soldier below, saw the fear in his eyes and hardened my heart. No witnesses: the guards above hadn’t seen us up close and we wore cloaks, but this one would have descriptions. My arm rose, but a soft hand laid against it. I looked at Akua with surprise.

“There would be no point,” she spoke in Kharsum. “Sargon will have the corpses upstairs raised to interrogate them.”

I hid my startlement. It was not so rare a thing for her to preach mercy, not compared to the way she’d been when we were younger, but I’d not expected it here and now. I looked at the soldier, lowering my arm.

“Looks like it’s your lucky day,” I said in Mthethwa.

He grimaced, mouth bloody form my blow.

“I traded for this shift,” he replied. “So not that lucky.”

I grinned, brushing past him, and overheard him whispering something to Akua as he inclined his head.  Miyetham Sahelian, or something close to it. No idea what it meant, aside the fact it looked like he’d guessed Akua’s identity even through her disguise appearance. People spoke Mthethwa differently here than they did in Ater and among the Legions, I sometimes had trouble with their pronunciation. She did not answer and we wasted no time fleeing into the street before the archer up in the bastion could start shooting at us again. The street outside the bastion was board, almost an avenue, but mostly empty of people. The two young girls carrying urns of water made themselves scarce when we came out, Akua wordlessly taking the lead.

We’d barely run ten feet when lights began pulsing in the sky above the fortress. I almost grinned. The timing was a little off, but it looked like our distraction was finally happening. Hierophant would be hammering at the city through a ritual using the waters of the aqueduct as a battering ram to smash the inside of the fortress, even as troops began emerging from the Ways in a position to capitalize on the breach should it happen. The plan was for the Wolofites to repulse the assault and blame any damage on the aqueduct grids we’d nipped coming in on Masego’s assault, but we’d strayed off path some. Still, the threat of an outright attack ought to bump us down Sargon’s priority list a bit.

At the very least we’d have fewer pursuers, since the commander there would want to avoid thinning their garrison.

Pursuit still poured out of the same gate we’d used before we’d even turned the corner. I wasn’t much of a runner these days, but I grit my teeth and pushed through the pain as we followed Akua into the neat labyrinth that was the streets of Wolof. Our enemies weren’t any slower than we were, but we could take shortcuts they couldn’t – three brave souls followed even when Archer took me by the waist and leapt atop a wall, climbing as quick as they could, but we lost them three streets down when we got to a rooftop. It was one of those gardens I’d seen from afar, a lovely little shaded enclave where flowers and cabbage grew, and the three people in it when we intruded froze.

The oldest among them, a white-haired old man, deliberately looked away from us and began to speak of the weather with the younger pair. I snorted, taking it as the tacit invitation to move on that it was. The old man ignored Archer’s friendly wave, stubbornly looking away, and Akua guided us southwards through rooftops and streets until we found a deserted corner. We paused there, catching our breaths and allowing our heartbeats to slow.

“We are near a bazaar, unless Sargon change the trade-rights for this district,” Akua said. “The two of you will be able to change clothes there.”

“You could go buy them for us,” I suggested. “It’d draw less attention.”

She shook her head.

“There are city guards at the bazaar,” she said, “and it is only a matter of time before the fortress garrison sends warning to all companies, if they haven’t already. There are scrying posts at regular intervals in the city, all with runners at hand. They will begin looking around soon, and this is not a true hiding place.”

I felt a sliver of envy at the system described. Laure was nowhere as well-organized. It wasn’t that we didn’t have the ability, at least not in principle – we had the people and the magic. Callow just didn’t have the coin to spare for something that sophisticated, not when there were a hundred other things being neglected that were arguably more important.

“I’m not keen on splitting up,” Archer said, “but in that little description you did mention that there were guards at that bazaar you want us headed to.”

“Only entrances and exits, most likely,” I noted. “She thinks it’ll be easy to disappear into the crowd and come out less conspicuously dressed.” 

“My very thoughts,” Akua smiled.

It always startled me how easy it was to understand her, to think along the same lines. Hakram probably knew me better, but sometimes I wondered if I didn’t understand her better than I did him. It made him a better right hand, of course – his ability to think differently than I did, to see what I didn’t, was a priceless asset – but the ease with which I could follow Akua Sahelian’s thoughts felt oddly intimate. It made it dangerously easy to feel close to her.

“It’s boring when you two agree,” Indrani complained, then turned serious. “Let me have a look at that entrance, at least. I want to be sure they’re not already looking for us.”

“Good idea,” I admitted.

Akua offered no objection, and after she gave a brisk description of the easiest path to the bazaar Archer was gone. I leaned against a rough brick wall, earning a raised eyebrow for it. Even when it wasn’t her face it was still her mannerisms, which made it a little uncanny to look at.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Just curious,” I grunted. “The guard we spared, what was it he said? In don’t know what ‘miyetham’ means.”

“It is an archaic form of the words,” Akua said. “What he said was ‘mile thaman’.”

My brow creased.

“Always good?” I hazarded.

“Ever worthy,” she corrected, then hesitated. “It is a turn of phrase here in Wolof. It is… praise for my family, in a way.”

Ever worthy, Sahelian, I mentally completed. That was what the man had said. Considering she’d likely saved his life I wasn’t inclined to argue.

“I sometimes forget your High Seats are actually liked by the people here,” I admitted. “I’m so used to seeing them as the enemy that it’s hard to conceive of anyone looking up to them as protectors.”

“We know better than to be devils to our own, Catherine,” Akua smiled, almost ruefully. “It is why we do best with enemies. That we may pour the venom outwards, while the wonders we bring back to our homes.”

“Dragons risible

Our claws, swords

Stealing miracles

To better hoard,” I quoted, the Taghrebi stiff on my tongue for lack of practice.

Something like delight flicked across her face, gone in a wink.

“One of Sherehazad’s,” she said, approving. “Not without reason was she titled the Seer.”

A moment of comfortable silence passed.

“You ever miss it, this place?” I asked, half on a whim.

Her expression was hard to read, and not for the shade of the alley.

“Sometimes,” Akua quietly said. “Parts of it. Others I am not so sure I could suffer now that I have known the world beyond the Sererian Walls.”

I slowly nodded.

“And you?” she smiled. “Do you miss Laure?”

I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.

“No,” I admitted. “Laure’s just a different fight to me, now. It’s the court and trying to keep Callow whole. I miss the parts I loved when I was a kid, but the city? No.”

It hadn’t been home in a long time, though it galled me to admit it even in the privacy of my own mind. I’d never felt as more than a guest in the old palace of the Fairfaxes, a child putting on adult’s clothing, and these days what I loved most in the world was condensed into the shape of a few people. I was still fond of the city, it had been my home once, but I would not weep to leave it after the war ended. The conversation ended with Archer’s sudden return, but to me it felt only half-done. Like we’d left bits of it still hanging in the air. Now was not the time, though, so when Indrani informed us that the handful of guards at the bazaar entrance looked too bored to have been warned I went with the flow.

We were waved through nonchalantly by the pair of guards standing in the shadow of the arch leading into the marketplace, neither bothering to look if we were armed. Akua noticed my surprise as we entered the bazaar and leaned close for an explanation.

“Our clothes are of fine make,” she explained. “It is expected of us to bear weapons.”

“They thought we were highborn?” I asked.

“Not that fine a make,” she laughed. “They believed us mfuasa, likely. Some lord’s retainers.”

I nodded and follower her, letting the noises of the bazaar wash over me. I’d thought it would be a strange and exotic place, somewhere out of a dream, but I found the reality of it rather more sedate. The stands were a great deal more colourful than back home, and often made with only bare bones of wood while walls and roofs were dyed cloth, but aside from that it was mostly the goods sold that made a difference. There was no food to be bought here, as sale of such goods was strictly regulated in Wolof and contained to specific markets in every district, but there were enough spices on display to make a Callowan merchant weep for the wealth.

Jewelry was terrifyingly common too, copper and silver most of all but some gold and precious stones as well. Everyone seemed able to afford it. Clothes and cloth hung everywhere, small glassworks and the kind of petty trinkets that every market in the world must sell. The other great surprise was the sale of enchanted goods, and I wasn’t talking about magic swords. For every glinting dagger there were a dozen ever-sharp kitchen knives. I saw stone coldboxes engraved with runes, prettily sculpted magelights and even alchemical brews. They were bartered over like cabbage in swift-spoken Mthethwa, like it was the most natural thing in the world to have a cure for the cold bottled in a bazaar stand. Maybe it was, I thought. There were no priests here – where else were people meant to go, when they were sick or wounded? It was still surreal, to see magic taken as something so… common. Nine in ten of those people wouldn’t be mages either, it was just that magic was utterly mundane to them.

Perhaps the bazaar was a strange place after all, under that veneer of familiarity.

Akua took the initiative to buy us clothes and cloak and I was disinclined to argue. Or particularly surprised she did not even need to press clothes against me to know whether or not they’d fit. We paid in Imperial coinage, silver denarii that Malicia herself had pushed into Callow some years past in a bid to bind us more closely to the Tower, and Akua got us bags for our old clothing too. I left in a burnished yellow cloak and matching tunic, keeping only my boots and trousers, while Indrani ended up in a nice pale green. I got the impression from some of the looks the merchant gave us that he believed us to be, uh, consorts that that a young noblewoman was dressing more to her tastes. We picked up a few tricks to hide our appearance too, cosmetics that were quickly applied.

We slipped out of the market through another entrance and took to the streets, the two of them already knowing where we needed to go without my saying: we’d come to steal two things, after all, and one would be easier to get at than the other.


Within moments of having a good look at the granaries, it was plain we weren’t getting into them today.

The Sahelians had their own private reserves near the palaces, according to Akua, but the ‘city’ granaries were a set of seven large interlocking warehouses surrounded by a low stone wall. There were three large avenues leading out, each large enough for two wagons to pass on them simultaneously, and a handful of smaller doors. The whole place was warded up to its neck, though it wasn’t all about keeping people out. A lot of it was mundane utility: wards against vermin, or to keep the warehouses dry and cool. The thresholds weren’t too strong, considering wagons had to be able to come in and out easily for distribution, but the walls were anchors for some pretty nasty stuff even by Praesi standards.

Still, we’d planned for this. The granary was one of the few places that’d been kept entirely intact during the mess that saw Sargon replace High Lady Tasia, so the wards there hadn’t changed in the slightest since Akua had last seen them. We’d schemed a way in a weakness, as with use of the right magical trinket we believed we could trigger the ward in very specific manner and cross before it reset, and even prepared an escape plan. It was all useless now. The entire district was on high alert, even a fool could have seen it. Hundreds of household guards had come to reinforce the garrison and what must be a staggering amount of mages with them: there were balls of light hovering ten feet above the wall, at least a hundred of them, and the spell was one known to Akua.

“The colour will change if there is movement where the light extends,” she said. “It should last for at least an hour, and if they’ve any sense they will have staggered putting the spells up so that they can be smoothly replaced.”

High Lord Sargon had been distastefully competent so far, so I’d go ahead and assume they had. I still sent out Archer to have a closer look. Even if I had my doubts she’d find a blind spot, learning more about the defences in place couldn’t hurt. There was no way to tell how long Sargon would keep the reinforcements there and we could only risk staying in the city for so long. Our foes were looking for us, and eventually our luck would run out. Archer came back after half an hour, looking displeased.

“The place is sealed up tighter than a tomb,” Indrani reported. “They’ve actually closed up all the small access doors, the only way’s in through the big gates now.”

“That’s a problem,” I admitted.

We simply did not have the strength to smash our way through here.

“Did you get close enough to eavesdrop?” Akua asked.

Archer nodded.

“Nothing too exciting, the usual whining and a bit of fear at the notion of facing us,” Indrani said. “I think I’ve figured out why the bazaar guards hadn’t been warned yet: a lot of them complained about being yanked away from other assignments in the city and sent here in a hurry. I’m thinking Sargon put his scrying stations to work sending people to this place instead of looking for us.”

My lips thinned. I did hate fighting clever opponents, they were always such a pain. Akua’s cousin was proving to be one of that breed, having correctly deduced what we’d come here for and that it was a better bet to protect it than comb through half the city looking for us.

“We’re not going to make it in there,” I finally said. “And I’m betting he’s going to be willing to keep his people here as long as it takes while he’s looking for us.”

If we were threatening an assault on his walls it might force him to pull away people, but we both knew the Army of Callow wasn’t going to try anything of the sort. He could afford to keep his mages here instead of manning the ramparts, the tricky fucker.

“He will have the treasury vaults under reinforced guard as well,” Akua quietly said. “This is something of a setback.”

It was. We’d come here for grain and gold, and now it was looking like we were going to have to leave without either. Considering Marshal Nim had torched a third of our supplies, coming out of here empty-handed was going to be a blow. Not necessarily the end of our campaign, but it’d stiffen odds that were already against us. Even aside from simple logistics, running away from Wolof with our tail tucked after we’d swaggered wasn’t going to be a good luck when we were courting allies. Some of the Clans might reconsider raiding, if it looked like Malicia was winning this war, and I needed the orcs south for more reasons than I’d admitted. I bit my lip, mind spinning in circles. I couldn’t see another way, much as retreat would be a bitter pill to swallow.

“We shouldn’t stay here,” Archer said. “Let’s find a place to settle for the day, yeah? We can figure out our next move then.”

I nodded, silent, and followed them deeper into the city. There had to be a way, right? I tried to put together another plan, another trick, yet all I could think of was the sound of an old monster tuning a lute.

The search was spreading out.

There were parties on the streets now, squads of twenty with two mages. The caster regularly stopped and cast a spell with no visible manifestation save a spinning circle of golden light, and it was magic none of us knew. Archer wandered close once or twice as we headed towards the southwest of the city, but she got nothing out of idle chatter.

“I’d wager the circle is a focus mark, not unlike a rune,” Akua mused. “The purpose remains rather more elusive.”

“It’s got to be a detection spell of some sort,” I said. “Sargon has to know finding us in a city this large will be Hells otherwise, especially when we have you guiding us around.”

“What it might detect is the question, then,” Akua said.

We had no answer, so steering clear was the best move. We were nearly at our destination anyhow. When I’d first been told that Wolof did not have slums, I’d naturally been pretty skeptical. All cities had slums, even walled ones, it was just a matter of how large they got. Wolof wasn’t as much of an exception as Akua believed it to be, but she’d not been entirely wrong either – even Scribe had agreed. The Sahelians had a pair of districts called the Yumban in the southeast of the city, where people who’d usually end up on the streets or in slums were assigned to live. Accommodations were provided, if very basic ones, and food from the city granaries regularly doled out. It all sounded very charitable, which naturally meant it wasn’t the whole story.

Any people who lived there were essentially at the mercy of the Sahelians. By law they could not refuse military service if called on, or a servant’s station, and they could even be traded to other lords so long as work was guaranteed by the receiving lord. People regularly made it out of the Yumban into higher station – mages in particular – and Wolofites were proud of such success stories, but the truth was most people didn’t. By design, presumably, so that if the Sahelians ever had an urgent need of manpower they had a source at hand that drawing on would not cause unrest. Conscription in the city would be taken badly, but who would object to the Yumban being emptied? It was clever, in a heinous sort of way, which I was coming to learn was the mark of the must successful nobles of Praes.

Most of the people in the Yumban now weren’t actually from Wolof, though. I caught the difference as we crossed into the edge of the districts. They favoured greens and dark oranges over the yellows and reds I’d seen earlier, the cadence and wording in Mthethwa was different – easier to understand for me, it was closer to the Ater-and-Legion standard I’d learned – and there were almost no weapons anywhere. Sargon had taken to raiding the northern hinterlands of Aksum on Malicia’s behalf as part of his support in the civil war, and I was looking at part of the loot he’d carried back with him: people. It wasn’t just Aksumites, of course, that was a riot waiting to happen. But I’d wager that we were looking a the ‘prizes’ who’d not had a trade he could offer them a shop for

Day labourers, farmhands, those whose trade was not lacking in Wolof.

They were not mistreated and I saw little resentment, not the kind you saw back home when a town despised their lord, but I could almost feel it from the air that Sargon Sahelian’s authority ran thinner here. Perhaps not much hatred, but not much love either. Their abductor had not delivered them unto a paradise. There was a lot of room, at least, since entire streets of the Yumban were still empty. The city had not entirely required from the brutalities of Tasia’s fall. Akua guided us carefully, keeping out of sight where we could as she explained what she was looking for.

“We’ll pick a place near a kufuna,” she said.

I knew the word, though I’d never seen one myself. Black had mentioned that sometimes people from them had trouble adapting at the War College, where the ways were rather different.

“Those are the noble-backed schools, right?” I asked.

The Tower had ‘free’ schools of its own, where people could be attend in exchange for sworn years of service – it was how Tyrants could recruit mages without asking them of High Lords or drawing on Ater – but kufuna belonged to noble houses, without anyone else having a say in their running or what they taught.

“It is more nuanced than that,” Akua murmured. “But you are not incorrect. People in those streets will be used to strangers coming and going, less likely to pay it attention.”

“Never did get to see one of those,” Archer mused. “We should have a look.”

She demurred, but I was curious myself. We settled on studying one from a distance, but it turned out to be even easier than that. Such a ‘school’ was in session on large paved open grounds between two sets of houses and we found good lodgings in a second-story place that had a window looking down over the lesson. It was little more than a large room meant for eating and two adjoining smaller nooks for people to sleep in, but the narrow stairs to the rooftops had us sold. Building were smaller in the Yumban than in the districts around it – I felt, impossibly that the rest of the city was somehow looking down on us – but within the districts themselves it’d be a good way to get around. After dark, anyway.

We dropped our packs and settled in, quickly figuring out why both stories of the building were still empty even though the convenience of closeness to the kufuna must have made it in demand: one of the nooks had been fouled by an animal pretty disgustingly. That could have been cleaned, even if it hadn’t been, but the way the light pit in the middle of the combined house had a wooden cover that moved in the wind and slammed with a bam-bam-bam sound out of nowhere sometimes would have been trickier to handle. I could already tell it was going to get on my nerves. I went into the clean nook, which had the overlooking window, and cast a curious look.

It wasn’t that large a window, so when Indrani and Akua came too we had to squeeze pretty tight.

They were doing mathematics, the poor fuckers. Maybe thirty ‘students’ whose ages looked to vary between eight-ish to fourteen were sitting on the ground, using nice writing slates and chalk. The teacher was an old woman at least into her sixties, who leaned on a cane – lucky her, hadn’t been able to bring my staff – and had cataracts in her eyes but looked pretty spry otherwise. She guided her students through the end of a lesson on multiplication, and it was when students were called on to answer questions that the difference to what I was used to came in.

“The only a kid handling with the black stone can answer,” I muttered. “Why?”

It wasn’t always the same, either. Sometimes children answered two questions in a row before passing to another, sometimes it was immediate but never once did the teacher actually order it passed.

“It is because of jino-waza,” Akua said. “I am not surprised the rules are unclear to you.”

I frowned. It was familiar, the words. I’d read them before, if only in passing.

“The clear-eyes,” Indrani snorted. “The Lady talked about it. It’s a little like the way we did thing in Refuge.”

“I can’t see them keeping score over anything,” I said. “What’s it do?”

“It is not a game, not exactly,” Akua hesitated. “It is philosophy, at least in part. To display your skills, your knowledge. To assess where you stand in regard to your peers. The stone and questions are just a tool to ease this.”

I studied the students, eyes narrowed.

“They’re all eager to answer,” I said.

Which was not my experience with studies. The tutors the orphanage made us sit in front of were used to squirming pupils wanting to be elsewhere, and they used questions as a way to keep us in line. Listen, learn, or you’ll look like an idiot in front of the others.

“So they win something by doing it,” I said. “Esteem, maybe? They can’t trade that for something useful, though, and it’s a little abstract for kids.”

“It is training for the world beyond the lessons,” Akua said. “The teacher, she will remember the one who distinguish themselves. What they are good at. And when my family – or someone with a trade and no children – sends someone, wanting a candidate for a scribe’s apprentice or kitchen attendant, she will give those names. She holds opportunities.”

I chewed my lip.

“So the stone, it’s part of the test too,” I finally said. “Jino-waza. Sure, a clever kid could keep it for a long while – but then you hog the opportunity, and no one will ever pass you the stone. They’re trading it like adults would trade favours.”

“Exactly,” Akua grinned. “A student who oversteps might even find themselves sabotaged, as it often is with those who act in such ways in higher stations. It teaches balance, to take opportunity without making enemies.”

“Teaches who’s worth making allies with, too,” Archer quietly said. “Not everyone’s good at the same things, you can scratch each other’s back in a way that everyone wins.”

She had a strange, almost fragile look on her face as she looked at the kids. Was she thinking of Refuge? I spoke up to move the conversation along, even knowing that Akua was unlikely to ever be so uncouth as to comment on the look that’d seized our friend’s face.

“Everyone you’re allied with, at least,” I scoffed. “It’s not without sense, but it’s a very Praesi way of doing things.”

“I have seen the schools of your people, dearest, what few you have,” Akua reminded me. “They are as menageries. Kufuna are a better way. Your nobles have their tutors, as we do, but learning is simply not prized west the Wasaliti the way that it should be.”

“I came out of my schooling just fine,” I replied, a tad defensive. “And orphanages gave educations even before Black stepped in, he just ensured they were good ones.”

He’d also raised the number of them tenfold, but that was another discussion entirely. It wouldn’t do to forget that my father had made a lot of Callowan orphans along with those orphanages.

“Come off it, Cat,” Indrani snorted. “How much of what you came out having learned you learned in classes? You’re like a truffle pig, you just dig into books about the stuff that you want to learn about and ignore the rest. You barely even had help when you learned Chantant.”

“Thank you for the description, woman I will never sleep with again,” I drily replied as she stuck out her tongue at me. “And I could have gotten more out of those classes if I’d cared about them. It was my choice not to gain, because I thought it was pointless – it’d be the War College that was make or break for me.”

“Failure to motivate your student to learn is very much failure,” Akua replied. “Jino-waza ensures that every student knows the worth of their lessons.”

“It also teaches your kids to always compete with each other,” I flatly said. “That they’ll need to squabble with each other to gain the attention of the highborn, that it’s the only way up. It sets in the bone that you swing at the people around you, not upwards. It teaches skills, too, I won’t pretend otherwise. But I’m not exactly surprised those schools are backed by nobles.”

“You do not understand,” Akua gently said. “Jino-waza goes beyond the schools. It is everywhere, applies to everything. The lack of a stone does meant it ceases, the stone is a teaching tool. It is how a family knows which of them should benefit if a favour is called in, whose marriage should have the most coin spent on to arrange, who gets to eat the most when the months are lean.”

Parents do this?” I replied, aghast.

“Well, yeah,” Indrani said, brow creased. “Makes sense, I’m not sure why you’re so offended. If you get a windfall, you don’t waste it on someone who won’t do shit with it. Even parents can tell who’s going places, Cat.”

“You’re not supposed to play favorites,” I bit out. “Everyone gets a fair shot, that’s how people who aren’t obviously good at things get their chance to shine.”

Did they not realize that what they were describing, it only ever benefitted the slightest bit of the people involved? Talented people would band together and help each other up while having all the incentive to kick everyone else down. And above those games you had the highborn, playing an even more lethal take on it with each other – and the ingrained notion that they should never, ever let anyone below them come up. It could only be at their own expense.

“That’s nonsense,” Indrani bluntly replied.

“She is Callowan, Indrani,” Akua said, and when I turned on her a thunderous scowl she raised a hand in appeasement. “I mean no insult. I am only saying that it is because you come from a land of plenty that think this way, dearest.”

I blinked at her. A land of plenty? Had she seen what they sold in the bazaar. Not even the enchanted stuff, just the spices and dyes would – I stopped, elbowing aside the sharp irritation and forced myself to look at it from the Wasteland’s eyes. Food, I got almost immediately. She meant food.

“It wasn’t your nobles that made this,” I finally said. “It’s a survival teaching.”

“When is the last time Callow had a major famine?” Akua asked. “It is different here. We kill to eat, to drink – the Taghreb fight wars to steal clouds from each other and make them into water! You come from a place that has the luxury of fairness, but Wolof does not. Few parts of Praes do.”

“That’s not the way to do it, though,” I said. “You don’t claw at each other, there’s no winning that when it starts. You sit and figure it out together. Ration, share. Something like a famine, you’re all in it together.”

Splashing the mud on the others so they were deeper in wouldn’t actually get you out of the pit.

“It a pleasant sentiment,” Akua replied, “but it does not help to choose which belly should be filled by the rice bowl. Jino-waza does. It lets you make the decision with clear eyes – and they will have to make it in their lifetime, Catherine. Everyone in this city older than forty, before Callowan grain was brought in, has known hunger.”

“Not the nobles,” I sharply smiled.

“Not my kin, the Sahelians are too wealthy for it,” she agreed. “But lesser lords, ruling over poorer lands? It is not as uncommon as you think. The fields feed everyone, Catherine, and no granary lasts forever. We make many wonders, but not even we can make wheat sprout out of rock.”

It would have been a better use of their skills in magic to learn that rather than fucking diabolism, I thought, but that was unfair. Destructive magic was easier. You needed to know a lot less to toss a fireball than, say, heal a broken bone. I could see it writ in the long of history, how it would have gone: the people and places inclined to the peaceful solution, to make wheat sprout from rock, they wouldn’t last. Not when a less scrupulous rival could come in, throw a few fireballs and take everything. It wasn’t as easy as raising castle walls with this. Magic was expensive, and Praesi were rich but not with bottomless purses.

So you got better at the magics that could protect you and destroy your rivals, and then maybe if you rose high enough that you were beyond most threats you could afford to go looking for wonders. Answers beyond eating the other crabs in the bucket. It was not happenstance, I thought, that the Sahelians had the finest field rituals in Praes. But by the time you got safe enough to look for those wonders, were you still the same people who’d wanted them in the first place? I felt an unpleasant shiver of sympathy at the thought. I was not an unfamiliar tale I was spinning there.

“It doesn’t need to stay like this,” I said. “Older than forty, you said. We had two decades of peace and trade, and that changed things.”

“It did,” Akua murmured. “Mother used to think it softened us, made us lose our edge, but I disagree. It freed us to pursue different things. To consider beyond the immediate.”

I cast a long look at the kids below, fingers tight against the windowsill. The teacher had move on from mathematics, she was speaking of early Praesi history – the campaigns that brought the Grey Eyries into Praes not so long after its founding – as she regularly stopped for questions and jino-waza considered to unfold before my eyes. I couldn’t have fixed this place even if I thought it was my duty to do it, I admitted to myself. There was so much of Praes that was still unknown to me. Parts of I knew like the back of my hand, the Legions and the lore and bloody embrace with my own home, but it wasn’t enough. Akua had thought I might be Dread Empress once, climb the Tower, but it would have been madness.

I was glad I had not heard the song in years.

No, what I was meant to do out east was not put on some saviour’s cloak and pretend I had the answers. I was here to bind the Dread Empire to the Liesse Accords, to the war against Keter, and to topple the empress who’d been such a thorn in our sides. Beyond that, I must remember restraint. It was not my land here, and in some ways I just… thought differently. And did not quite understand how they did. There was more to the differences between Callow and Praes than weather and colours. I shook my head, shaking off the thoughts.

“We should plan out our next move,” I finally said, pushing away from the window. “We’ll want to move under cover of dark.”

“A shame I cannot use the family library,” Akua said. “Half an hour there and I would know the nature of the spell the patrols are using to hunt us.”

Indrani snorted.

“Yeah well, if we were in there we could just stroll up to the gold and take it,” she said.

I smiled, only half-listening.

“The library is in an entirely different wing than the treasury vaults,” Akua chided. “It is much too-”

I turned to look at her so quickly my neck almost cracked.

“Wait,” I interrupted. “The library, you told me it was over the vaults.”

“The artefact vaults, yes,” the shade said. “The treasury is nowhere near these. It is not the cleverest of notions to keep demons near one’s coinage.”

Oh, I thought. Oh. Sargon thought we were going for the grain and the treasury, so that was the parts he was protecting. But he had to be stretched tight with people, going all out on the defence of those two places and looking for us in the streets with yet more mages. He couldn’t cover everything, so he’d focused on guarding what we were after. That meant thinning the defences elsewhere. And though we could get to neither the granaries nor the treasury, what was more important than either of those things to the enduring power of the Sahelians? I met their gazes with my eye, grinning wide.

“I have a plan,” I said.

Well, I could have done without the groaning.