“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.
“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?”
“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.