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Summary

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.

Interlude: A Girl Without A Name

“Fate is a stone made up of your every deed and hung around your neck. If it breaks your back, there is only one soul to blame.”

– Queen Eleanor Fairfax, founder of the Fairfax dynasty

Sitting on the edge of a rooftop, looking down at the long stairs of stone, the Wandering Bard began to tune her lute. This, she knew, was to be the place.

Ater was still as a grave.

Vivienne had last seen a city so injured in the wake of First Liesse, as she ghosted through the fallen city avoiding the Fifteenth’s goblin hunters, but the tone of the streets was different here. In Liesse the people had been happy in a bittersweet way, for though the rebellion named after their city had died within its walls the people had been spared a dark fate at the hands of a horde of devils. Here there was no joy, the Princess thought. Ater was huddling in its houses, averting its eyes even as the last ashes of the Battle of the Spiders began to cool. But underneath that fear, Vivienne thought, there was anger. Furious, desperate anger.

The High Seats had massacred thousands to contain the spiders, and while there were many who’d argued much worse would have happened if they hadn’t the opinion was not popular. Not when everyone had a cousin or a daughter or a husband who’d seen the household troops of the great nobles retreat to their barricades in good order and leave the rest of the city to burn. Reports had come overnight from the Princess’ agents that it was Malicia that was being blamed for the spiders themselves, seen as some kind of desperate attempt to destroy the capital’s current favourite: Lady Akua Sahelian.

The Empress in the City, they called her.

There had been no riots since the end of the battle, no mob had taken to the streets as the Legions moved to clear out the last of the giant spiders and seal the openings, but the anger and fear hung in the air like poison. The stalemate in eastern Ater behind the horde of orcs that’d seized the city and the noble armies that’d entered it illegally kept the people behind closed doors, afraid of another battle erupting, but it wouldn’t last. Like all leashed monsters, it would shake its way loose eventually. Someonewas going to pay for the Battle of the Spiders, but the part worrying Vivienne Dartwick was that she wasn’t sure who.

“Gods,” the Squire muttered. “The city looks empty. Not a stray cat out in the streets.”

“Assuming there are any left, after the spiders,” Vivienne drily said.

It was not yet dusk, but on the horizon the sun was dipping low. They would make good time, she thought, as their party had yet to even be hailed as it passed through the ash-strewn streets of the city. Not that many would dare make demands of the force the Princess was leading into Ater: only twenty knights of the Order of the Stolen Crown rode with her, but a cohort of legionaries from the once-Thirteenth marched behind them. Wind picked up suddenly in the distance, making strands of some sort of iridescent cloth spin under the sunlight, and half her men reached for their swords. They had come invited, but most her soldiers were Callowan: no one here put much stock in the Tower’s word.

Arthur Foundling grimaced at her answer, soft-hearted boy that he still was. Catherine had been adamant that he come with her even though Vivienne would have much preferred Indrani as an escort, but the Princess understood why. The pattern of three between him and the Black Knight was a tool that would be very precisely used so the day could be brought to the right ending.

“The Carrion Lord is a monster,” the Squire cursed.

Vivienne cocked an eyebrow.

“Water is wet,” she answered.

The young man had the grace to look somewhat embarrassed. He had an expressive face, young Arthur. That was for the best. Vivienne preferred knowing where she stood with him: the heroes that were most controlled, like the Pilgrim and the White Knight, tended to be dangerous and unpredictable. That expressive face flickered through hesitation, then the steel of determination.

“Did she know, Your Grace?” the Squire asked.

Vivienne kept her eyes from glancing at the broken districts they had left behind her. Ravaged by devils and demons and monsters of all stripes. Did the Black Queen know her teacher was going do to this? Did she allow him to consign thousands of innocents to death for some mad plan? The Princess met his eyes squarely.

“No.”

The dark-haired squire looked guiltily relieved and Vivienne was again reminded of how young he was. Young enough he’d not thought to ask the right question. Would Catherine have intervened, if she knew? Vivienne was not sure, and the thought worried at her. There had been a time where her friend would have executed someone guilty of something like the Battle of the Spiders without a second thought. Cut their head off where they stood. But that’d been before the Everdark, before the war on Keter and the dark choices it had demanded of them all. Catherine sacrificed people more easily than she once had, and it did not eat away at her so much afterwards.

 It was something she’d had to learn to keep them all alive, Vivienne reminded herself.

And yet the Princess could not shake the thought. This entire campaign, beginning with the attack on Wolof and then moving through the bruising battle at Kala and now this bloody wrestling match over Ater, it felt… different. It was not being waged like older campaigns. Lives were being sacrificed for Named victories, for schemes that used the very currents of Creation, and there’d been a time where Catherine had balked at such things. If the way she’d been going about it had reminded Vivienne of the Black Knight or Tariq Fleetfoot she would have set the worry aside, but it wasn’t either of those men that came to mind sometimes.

Vivienne Dartwick was one of the few people alive to have been in a band of five with the Wandering Bard, and dreaded that sometimes she saw glimpses of one woman in the other.

“Thank the Gods,” Arthur Foundling murmured. “That would have been difficult.”

An understatement. The boy cheered up soon enough, fears alleviated for now. Lucky him.

“So how did was our invitation secured, anyhow?” the Squire asked. “I’d heard that Dread Empress Malicia wanted the Grand Alliance nowhere near her court.”

And there was the counterargument to Vivienne’s fears, brought out by the same young man who’d raised them. She slowed the gait of her horse and flicked a glance behind them. Arthur followed her gaze, both of them taking in the massive shape of the great undead spider that loomed over the eastern walls.

“I asked her why she chose to raise Tenebrous,” the Princess said. “It seemed wasteful and slow, if she only intended to fight Ranger. But it was never about that fight – she was forcing Malicia’s hand.”

Arthur looked surprised.

“The Empress is hiding in the Tower,” he said. “I doubt a simple undead monster is enough to topple that abomination.”

“Malicia herself is out of reach,” Vivienne agreed, “but what about everyone else she invited?”

That’d been the unspoken threat. If the Grand Alliance were not invited, it would have to knock. And maybe the empress could ride out that storm, but all the other guests had assets that mattered to them in the city. Would they stay and humour Malicia at court while their armies and kin were being trampled? And so Catherine had raised a city-sized spider so that she could then refrain from using it, still getting exactly what she’d wanted all along. That was the answer to Vivienne’s every fear, every worry about her friend and queen growing harsher and more ruthless by the years. She was all those things, yes.

And it worked.

The Princess breathed out, spurring her mount into a trot. It would have to be enough. After the war there would be time to learn kindness again. For all of them, not only Catherine. Until then, she would silence her doubts. And continue to carry into the heart of Praes the two deaths she had been charged to bring, one hidden and one due.

“Let’s hurry up,” Vivienne Dartwick said, looking up at the looming shape of the Tower to the east. “It begins at dusk, and it would not do to be late.”

Dusk was coming and with it the end of Alaya’s reign.

The Dread Empress of Praes leaned against the balcony, watching night crawl over her capital. There was no wind here, enchantments prevented it, but high above the perennial storm clouds that haunted the Tower’s heights were roiling. Five years ago she’d been the law of this land: her enemies had been broken, her influence spread to every nook and cranny of the empire. How quickly it had all gone wrong. Now she struggled to find the decision that had begun it all. Letting Akua Sahelian loose to build her weapon instead of having her decapitated head tossed into the Hall of Screams, maybe. Yet the thought was cowardice, the avoidance of a less pleasant truth.

There was no ‘one decision’ to point at because she’d been losing her grasp for years.

Alaya was not yet certain it had been a mistake the doomsday weapon. Had it not been broken during the Folly, had she had more time to lay the foundations abroad… Well, the world would never know. But looking back, it had been foolish of her to go about it the way she had. She should have sat with Wekesa and explained her reasons, asked for his help. She should not have gone behind Amadeus’ back to get it built either, for though it was her right as his empress it had also been a betrayal of their partnership. Too many things between them had been left unsaid over the years, the weight of too many private disappointments coming to crush their backs.

“I became comfortable,” Dread Empress Malicia quietly told the horizon.

And though the Tower could forgive a hundred thousand sins, never once that. No, she had made mistakes. Others had as well, but those were not hers to answer for so what point was there in listing them for the Gods to hear? Ater would need to be rebuilt, and this time Alaya would see it done right. As a capital of a great empire should be, not the horror it had been. Those who had supported her she would reward, those who had betrayed her she would bury, and beyond that there were… affairs to settle. Mistakes had been made on both sides but from them she would salvage what she could.

Though Amadeus’ stroke of madness with the spiders had become a stone around her neck, the city being convinced it was her doing, Alaya held no grudge. Even in the years of their parting, they had never struck direct blows at one another. That hope she cradled still, for all the cold of the night, and though it was not an answer for their years of bitterness it was not nothing either. A foundation, perhaps, for something new. A different understanding of who they were to each other. It would have to be revisited when she reclaimed her throne. If she reclaimed her throne.

This game was now long past certainties.

Ime’s soft footsteps shook her out of her reverie, though she did not turn to look at her spymistress. The other woman came to stand at her side instead, sharing in companiable silence for a moment before the demands of the evening forced an end.

“It is all in place,” Ime said. “They are beginning to arrive.”

Far below, Malicia could make out the distant banners of Takisha Muraqib and her many vassals. Like a river of colourful silk they streamed down the avenue, preparing to enter one of the formal gatehouses that would allow entry into the Tower.

“I might well lose, tonight,” the empress admitted. “It’s been a long time since I was so close to complete defeat, Ime. I cannot help but think it might be one many years in the making.”

A moment of silence.

“It has,” Ime finally said. “You have been making mistakes, Alaya. Embracing schemes more convoluted than they need to be, using the same tactics that put you in a corner to try to get out of it. It got worse after Amadeus left, but the tendency was there even before.”

The spymistress grimaced.

“But you kept winning anyway, so who were we to argue?” she said. “Only the victories became narrower, costlier. And now here we are, at a crossroads where there is so little difference between victory and defeat they might as well be the same thing.”

The words stung, but Alaya did not flinch away from them. She was not in a position to close her eyes.

“There will need to be changes,” Malicia quietly admitted.

Ime nodded.

“It will not be the same, after tonight,” she said. “But I would not have you forget, Alaya of Satus, that you ruled ably for forty years. Longer than any tyrant before you, perhaps longer than any tyrant ever will. Your reign waned, as all crowns do, but that does not lessen the achievement.”

“I’d thought to have eternity, once,” Malicia smiled. “Forty years seems all too few.”

“It has been a worthy reign,” Ime softly replied. “And I am proud of the part I have played in it.”

Alaya’s eyes moved to woman at her side. It had been many years since the two of them had shared a bed, and even when they had there’d been nothing more than attraction behind it. That weighed as much as dust in the wind. But the years themselves, Ime standing at her side, those mattered. More than she had ever spoken out loud, and perhaps that should end. When would she speak the words, if not now?

“You are the one who stayed,” Alaya said. “I will not forget that, Ime. It…”

She hesitated, tongue stumbling over the words.

“I am grateful,” Alaya said. “That you are with me. That you have been for all these years.”

Ime smiled, her face worn with age but her eyes still s bright as they had been in their youth.

“I don’t regret it,” she said. “Even should we lose, I will not regret it.”

Connect bloomed to life as the Dread Empress smiled back at her spymistress, a reassuring pressure against her soul. It was not a lie. Ime would not turn on her, not even now – the loyalty she felt had not lessened. Both of them looked down below, beholding the City of Gates.

“I must go,” Ime finally said. “I’ll see you on the other side, Your Dread Majesty.”

“Gods willing,” Malicia smiled.

And if not? Hang them all. Ime disappeared into the Tower, the sound of her footsteps fading away, and Dread Empress Malicia was left to her thoughts.

Somewhere below her the girl come to take her throne was taking her first steps up the Tower.

Akua Sahelian looked up at the dark clouds above, breathing in the evening air.

The stairs beneath her feet were smooth stone, carved into the likeness of twisted and weeping souls. Every step she took was on their backs. The Sentinels stood on the sides in eerily still rows, garbed in wrought steel as their eyes followed her from beneath the black iron masks covering their faces. Akua had been in the Tower before many a time, but this was the first time she had ever been invited to take the Tyrant’s Gate. The dark-skinned sorcerers breathed out and resumed her climb, Kendi trailing behind her like a shadow. He would not be allowed in at her side, but he would accompany her every step of the way until then. It was reassuring weight to have at her back, his hatred. Like a knife at her throat. There was not a sound to be heard save for their boots against the stone, and under unblinking stares they reached the summit.

Before them stood before an intricate puzzle of obsidian, shifting pieces of it inscribed with runes. The gate was tall as three men and half as wide, thrumming with ancient power. The brother of a woman she’d led to her death at the Folly stood by her, eyes hooded.

“It means nothing,” Kendi quietly said. “That is the secret of this place. It is an altar to Below, and you may think yourself the mistress but all you can ever be is the sacrifice.”

He leaned closer.

“Climb and bleed, Akua Sahelian,” he whispered into her ear.

She did not turn to watch him leave, disappear into the deepening shadows. She would meet him again tonight, but the crossing would be hers alone.

“I come summoned by the Tyrant,” Akua Sahelian called out, voice calm. “Gatekeeper, grant me entrance.”

The obsidian pieces shivered, twisting and turning as if it were living flesh. A terrible face emerged, its great and burning eyes the ancient runes for order, and the ancient demon that Dread Emperor Sinister himself had bound to the gate began to laugh. The sound was like rust swallowing a precious thing, the death rattle of a hundred babes.

“You,” the demon said, “are of the master’s blood.”

“True to it, my mother liked to say,” Akua replied.

The old abomination laughed again. Every instance was a fresh horror.

“I grant you entrance, Akua Sahelian,” the demon said.

She shivered. The face shattered, breaking apart in tiles of obsidian, and locks unseen began to open one after another. The gate slowly opened, revealing a floor of dark marble leading into an antechamber. Akua stepped through the threshold, eyes growing accustomed to the gloom, and as the gate closed behind her she found a lone Sentinel waiting for her. They stood at the edge of the high-ceilinged room beyond the antechamber, not far from mosaics enchanted with curses so hateful that she could almost taste the emotion in the air. Akua approached, cocking an eyebrow at the soldier.

“A lone soul to guide me up the Tower,” she said. “My own personal psychopomp, is it?”

She offered the Sentinel a smile.

“Elegant to the end, Malicia,” she said. “Shall we?”

The Sentinel nodded. Oh? Unusually expressive of it. They led the way thought the large room and up the spiralling stairs, not that Akua found it hard to keep up. She ran her finger against the scaled railings, the sculpted serpents shivering at her touch. The sorcery in the stone was older than Procer, but it purred maliciously at her touch.

“So how did you end up chosen for this, anyway?” Akua idly asked. “Picked the short straw?”

An amusing thought, a pack of eerily Silent sentinels staring at each other through the iron masks while drawing from another’s hands.

“I volunteered.”

The golden-eyed sorcerers almost missed a step. A man’s voice, that. She could make out as much even though the mask. And a very unusual Sentinel indeed.

“Alas, if you intended to seduce me then I must warn you that my heart has already been taken,” she easily said. “It should be somewhere north of Vale, assuming a wight didn’t eat it.”

The Sentinel did not betray amusement, thought it was hard to tell through that armour.

“I will have to live with the disappointment,” the Sentinel replied.

Akua’s fingers clenched. No, that wasn’t a Sentinel at all. The same sorceries that made them so unflinchingly loyal to whoever held the Tower did not allow for anything as delicate as a sense of humour to remain. Her steps stuttered, stopped. She laid a hand on the railing.

“Who are you?” she coldly asked.

His hand went up, reaching for the top of the helmet. There was a little click, then another, and with the deft fingers the man took off the iron mask. Below were pale green eyes she had seen before, though the face around them had aged since she last saw them.

“Akua Sahelian,” the Carrion Lord said. “We are overdue a conversation.”

A flash of rage seized her by the throat, clenched her muscles.

“We have more than that overdue,” she snarled.

Sorcery came to her harsh and eager. The fireball she tossed at his face was cut through – a single smooth movement from draw to strike – but she’d known it would be. It had bought her the moment she needed to sink her hooks into the railing through her hand, part of the stone smoothly coiling around arm as a fanged head emerged behind the Carrion Lord and struck. He parried it somehow, reflexes inhuman even without a Name, but it was a sword against stone. The steel broke, and when he avoided the snakes’ second attack the Duni found that the wall behind him had turned into a nest of snakes. The Tower sought her commands hungrily, like a hound starved of affection.

The snakes in the wall caught the Carrion Lord’s limbs, and as he struggled to rip himself free Akua coldly smiled.

Rip,” she ordered in Mthethwa.

The snake come from the railing hit the side of the armoured man like a scorpion bolt, fangs sinking in and wrenching out an entire armour plate as well as chunk of the aketon beneath. The Carrion Lord’s jaw clenched in pain but that was only a start. Releasing the railing, Akua strode half a step and sunk her knife deep under his ribs. In the stomach. The man gasped and she felt a spurt of satisfaction.

“I could have aimed for the heart or the lungs,” Akua told him, tone even, “but you don’t get to die that quickly.”

She twisted the knife cruelly before ripping it out, enjoying the way his face drew tight.

“Did you think I’d forgotten my father’s death?” she harshly said. “The goblins might have pulled the triggers, but the kill was yours from beginning to end.”

Feeling like she wanted to rip out his throat with her own teeth, she stabbed him in the stomach again and ripped it free in a spray of blood.

“You are no longer under Catherine’s protection, you old fool,” she hissed. “And I am no longer at her side. Did you really think that without her in the way there was anything stopping me from killing you?”

To her utter fury, the man hacked out a wet laugh.

“No,” the Carrion Lord said, lips flecked with red. “But I knew you’d go for the slow death.”

“And what does that give you?” she mocked.

“Until I bleed out,” the green-eyed man replied, “to convince you to heal me.”

Akua blinked at him, silenced by surprise and utter disbelief.

“Mother always said,” she finally replied, “that you were just as mad as your predecessors. Just better at hiding it.”

The Carrion Lord slumped down against the wall, armoured boot slipping against the stone with an ungainly sound. He was, she noted, positioning himself so he would bleed out more slowly. A methodical lunatic to the end.

“This is the Tower,” the Carrion Lord said. “Where are the mad to go, if not here?”

He looked amused. Akua sliced him across the face for it, deep through the nose and both cheekbones.

“I’ve always used torturers instead of my own hands,” the golden-eyed mage said. “But for you, Amadeus of the Green Stretch, I will make an exception.”

And maybe his screams would drown out the sound the bolts had made when the volley had pierced through Papa’s flesh. A thump, she thought. Almost like biting into an apple. She cut him again, stabbing deep into his cheek until she felt bone.

“I imagine you’ll get practice enough,” the Carrion Lord rasped, “as Dread Empress.”

She laughed in his face.

“Is that what this is all for?” Akua said. “You cower at the prospect of my taking the Tower?”

What a stupid way to die, she thought. He chuckled wetly, tongue flicking across his lips but only spreading the red.

“So which was it the Bard pushed you towards?” he asked.

Her eyes narrowed.

“She wants me to take the throne,” Akua said after hesitating a moment. “I think. But as a Dread Empress Benevolent the Second.”

Dread Emperor Benevolent, the first and only hero to have ever reigned over Praes. At war with over half the realm from the moment of his coronation to the last gasp of his very grim end. There were few tyrants who could boast of having beaten Dread Empress Massacre at her namesake, and Benevolent was hallowed even among those. He’d come terrifyingly close enough to winning that he had been purged from every known record, demons of Absence being put to work to tie up loose ends. Only private libraries like those of the Vault still had mentions of him.

“Always a game behind the game with her,” the Carrion Lord said. “We haven’t seen the end of it.”

“You have,” Akua smiled.

His face had grown even paler. The internal bleeding must have been excruciatingly painful, she thought with satisfaction. May at least one of the screams he was swallowing make it to the feet of the Gods Below, so that they might pass it on to Dumisai of Aksum as his daughter’s funerary gift.

“Maybe,” he shrugged, hacking a cough after. “But that matters little. I am an instrument. If purpose is served, the outcome is acceptable. It’s you that concerns me now.”

“Oh?” Akua smiled. “How novel. Won’t you Speak to me, Carrion Lord? Ask me to knife my hand again. See what happens.”

She stuck him in the stomach again, just because she could. He gasped in pain.

“Have you decided I am not fit for the Tower?” she mocked.

He laughed.

“Worse,” the man said. “I put the nobles of the Wasteland to the test, Sahelian. Only one passed.”

Even though the implication was obvious, the sheer absurdity of what he’d said meant it took her a beat to realize. It was unthinkable. His hatred of the nobility was a keystone of his reputation, his legend. It would have been like Catherine staying sober for a month, or Vivienne Dartwick not being a disappointment in every single way she could be. Still, the sentence had her lips quirking into an unpleasant smile.

“My, but that must sting,” Akua purred. “Though if this was meant to silence me, I must say-”

“Do you want to rule Praes?” the Carrion Lord bluntly cut in.

She blinked. Hesitated.

“What is your game, Duni?” Akua finally asked.

“You could,” he said. “Maybe even well. I don’t like it, wouldn’t like what you would do with it. But you could.”

“Are you offering me your support?” she asked, voice thick with disbelief.

At least the blood loss was making him entertaining. Akua did hate a humorless bleeder.

“You remind me of Alaya,” the Carrion Lord noted. “When we were young. The best of her, and some of the worst. And there are rules. So you could claim it.”

“And what would that have to do with you?” Akua scorned.

“Is it worth keeping?”

She paused, studied him through narrowed eyes.

“You are trying to talk me out of taking the throne,” Akua said.

It was the best reason she’d heard to climb the Tower so far.

“Heh,” the man said. “No. I want more than that. But this first. You’ve been out of the cage, now. Seen the world. The Dread Empire of Praes, the way it is, is it worth keeping?”

Akua’s lips tightened. If it were, would she be so horrified at the thought of being forced to rule it?

“What do you want from me, Carrion Lord?”

“Nothing,” the man laughed, his green eyes bloodshot. “I already know your answer. Wouldn’t have passed otherwise. You see it now, don’t you? The sickness.”

“And you think yourself the man to excise it?” she laughed. “Oh, the cold man with the hard hand here to teach us his better ways. Praes is not a young widow looking for excitement, Carrion Lord. There is no appetite for Dread Emperor Amadeus.”

“It’s not about me,” the dying man said. “Or you. Look around, Sahelian. Why is this still standing?”

“There is nothing else,” Akua said.

“Maledicta the Second,” he said.  “After her assassination-”

“Haider’s Reign,” she frowned.

“The Throneless Years,” he retorted.

Both referred to the same two decades after Maledicta II’s death, though his term was the one used by the Tower’s formal chroniclers.

“You want to change Callow for Keter,” she realized.

She was reluctantly impressed by the boldness.

“No,” he coughed. “Not just that. It ended with Vindictive the First. It shouldn’t have.”

Akua breathed in sharply.

“That would not be an empire,” she said.

The man offered a sharp, bloody smile that split his face in two.

“No,” he agreed. “It wouldn’t be.”

“You talk in circles,” Akua said. “What is it you want, Carrion Lord?”

He moved and she almost slashed him against, but he didn’t even have his sword in hand. It was further down the steps. Instead he was pawing at his belt with armoured fingers, and what he presented her he was holding between his thumb and his forefinger. Akua stilled.

“Take it,” he said.

“This is a trap,” she replied.

“The trap is in not giving it to you,” he rasped. “I see that now.”

He coughed out a laugh, red trailing his face, but his eyes were clear.

“I always thought it’d be me,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch confessed. “That it was what I was for. But that was arrogance, Alaya was right. I never loved this place enough to have the right. It has to be you.”

“You despise me,” Akua said.

“Yes,” he smiled. “But it has to be you. Because you passed. Because it’s in your blood. The original murder, Sahelian, isn’t that your family’s favourite boast? You began it all.”

She snatched it out of his fingers, as if expecting to be bit, but there was nothing. No trap, no trick.

“And that’s all it takes?” Akua asked.

“A choice,” the Carrion Lord rasped. “What more could you need? It’s the only true gift the Gods gave us.”

“You don’t know which one I’ll make,” she said.

He grinned, blood-streaked and nasty to the bone.

Mile thaman Sahelian,” the Carrion Lord mocked.

Her fingers clenched.

“Were you not going to convince me to heal you?” she sweetly asked.

He shrugged.

“Win some,” he began, “lose-”

She stuck the knife back in his belly.

“There,” Akua hissed. “You’ll bleed out slower, and that’s the only mercy you’ll ever have of me.”

Let him die here at the bottom of the Tower, forever reaching beyond his grasp. She kicked him away and he fell down a few stairs. She breathed out, looked down at the small thing still in the palm of her hand. She closed the fingers, breathed out and settled herself. She rose, to the distant sound of a dying man whistling the tune to an old song.

It was, Akua realized as her blood ran cold, The Tyranny of the Sun.

Breaking into the Tower had been shockingly easy.

Archer had felt a little cheated, even though it stood that things should be pretty much stacked in their favour. The three of them had Scribe guiding them for one – well, arguably this was about them escorting Scribe but eh – and the great difficulty in accessing the Tower from underground was gone. The giant spiders lurking in the tunnels were, you know, already topside in dead. Which meant the tunnels were moist and stinky but not actually all that dangerous and they’d made it to what Scribe claimed to be the lowest levels of the Tower, the ‘underpinnings’, without much trouble.

“The haven’t been many guards,” Cocky said.

Which was all well and good to say, when she hadn’t been doing any of the killing. That’d been Indrani and Alexis, yeah, as usual doing the grunt work.

“The Tower is as a city within the city,” Scribe replied. “Most parts of it are like small villages that rule themselves with only occasional intervention from the tyrant. I’ve had us skimming the edge of where the latrine men live. They post few guards, and the Sentinels are spread too thin to plug the gaps as they usually would.”

“I’m not complaining,” Alexis grunted. “Hopefully it’ll be just as easy getting to this Ime.”

“We’ve been lucky,” Scribe said. “She’d be much harder to get at if she hadn’t gone to the underpinnings.”

It was nice of the Huntress not to be the kind of heroine who asked too many questions when Catherine sent you to capture, interrogate an execute the leader of the Eyes of the Empire but unfortunate since Indrani did actually have questions about that. Now she was going to have to ask them herself, like an asshole.

“Do we know why she’s down here?” Archer asked.

The corridor ahead of them was empty, as the last two had been. They were large, windy and winding things that snaked towards a distant centre. The grounds above which there was an actual giant tower, presumably. The Tower was kind of like a tree, the ‘roots’ that were the underpinnings actually spreading out much further than the structure stood.

“There has been activity from the Eyes down here over the last two days,” Scribe said. “Presumably Malicia is preparing something for her guests upstairs.”

Which was presumably one of the reasons their buddy Ime was going to be interrogated before the execution. Might be useful to know what Malicia was up to except for going crazy and pissing everyone off. They switched corridors twice before finally running into people, which happened to be a pair unarmed messengers. Alexis was a softie so she knocked hers out, but Indrani wasn’t in the business of letting liabilities get up. Hers wouldn’t. They were close to the centre, Scribe told them, and it checked out: moments later they ran into the first checkpoint manned by Sentinels. Only ten of the, though, so before long the four of them were wiping their blades. and moving on.

Another two checkpoints with Sentinels, but after that it was only Eyes manning the gates and they honestly weren’t much to write home about. Like, even Cocky could handle them up close and in Indrani’s humble opinions there were some trouts in the Hwaerte that would give the Concocter trouble in hand-to-hand.

“It’s unusual,” Scribe noted. “It should be Sentinels handling this, not Eyes. Ime is trying to keep something quiet.”

“Quiet from who?” Indrani frowned. “The Sentinels answer only to the Empress, right? They’re supposed to be all brainwashed to be loyal.”

“Exactly,” Scribe replied, sounding fascinated. “So what is it that she’s trying to hide from Malicia? And more importantly for who?”

There wasn’t time to stop and interrogate a prisoner even if they took one, since if they stopped pushing in there was a decent chance someone would find one of the older corpses and send a warning ahead, so they pressed on urgently. It went pretty smoothly until they hit a real blockade with crossbowmen and a few legionaries – unmarked, so they were likely Eyes too – that made it a proper fight. Alexis took a cut on her face and Indrani had to ask for a healing salve for her hand after she made a mage eat his own fireball. Hilarious, but she wasn’t made of fingers. Unlike that fucking toucan yesterday, there was an image that’d stay with her for a while.

Behind the blockade Scribe had told them there was one of the main water tunnels for the Tower, but the large room the entered past the corpses had a lot more than water in it. It also had what was at least a thousand magically sealed barrels, not a single of which was stacked over an other. There were even little palisades between sections: whoever had put these there had been real careful about it. That smelled of danger to Indrani, but she didn’t get to spend much time thinking on it because there was also an old woman inside the room and Scribe was looking all pleased.

“Just a guess,” Indrani called out, “but would you happen to be Ime?”

The old lady was Soninke and pretty clearly getting long in the tooth, but she was keeping it tight. Probably highborn, they tended to age better than most out in the Wasteland. The older woman glanced at her and then sighed.

“And I take it you three are the Ranger’s pupils,” she said before her eyes moved to the fourth among them. “Scribe, I see you’ve stopped clutching the Black Queen’s skirts long enough to make act of presence. We’re all very grateful, I’m sure.”

“I might clutch them,” Scribe mildly replied, “but at least, unlike some, I can claim never to have been under my patroness’ skirts.”

“Savage,” Indrani appreciatively said.

On the other hand, while Malicia was terrible and kind of evil but she was also ridiculously good looking so, you know, respect.

“I suppose it is harder to get into pants,” Ime smiled pleasantly. “Though certainly not for lack of trying.”

Indrani shared a look with Cocky, who was also smothering a grin. It wasn’t often they got to hear the old guard air their dirty laundry, this was to be savoured. Only, Gods forgive her, Archer was actually kind of in charge here and they had a mission to get done. Once they nabbed Ime and got her singing, they’d finally have an idea of what the Hells was going on here on top of neatly ensuring Malicia wasn’t going to see Vivienne coming. There was a reason they’d brought Scribe here: once the current mistress of the Eyes in Praes had gone to join her agents Below, the old one could step back into the role.

And it some of the officers hesitated, well, that was why they’d brought knives.

“It genuinely breaks my heart to stop this,” Indrani told them, “but we’re going to have to wrap this up. Ime, congratulations, you have been taken prisoner. Please don’t resist, we’re trying to wean Alexis off kicking people and it only encourages her.”

“She’s lying,” Alexis flatly said. “They’re not actually trying.”

“Charming,” Ime drily replied.

Scribe suddenly hummed, stepping back from a barrel.

“These are goblin-made,” she said. “Straight from the Eyries. What is it you’re doing down here, Ime?”

“You don’t know,” the old woman mused. “Interesting. So why are you here, if not to interrupt me?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Scribe said. “It’s finished.”

There was a long moment of silence as the two women stared each other down. Indrani awkwardly cleared her throat to get their attention and was entirely ignored.

“You’re here for me,” Ime quietly said, “because you’re trying to blind us. You smuggled something into the Tower you’re afraid I’ll catch.”

“You’re losing your touch,” Scribe smiled.

“That’s enough of that,” Archer sharply said, baring her blades. “We’re done here. Scribe, shut your mouth and Ime-”

“Assassin,” Ime hissed out. “You brought Assassin in here. You’re trying to kill Malicia.”

Fuck, that wasn’t great. She put a spring to her step even as Ime began to move away, past rows of barrel and close to the large water-filled tunnel flowing behind them.

“I’m sorry about this,” Indrani said, halfway meaning it.

“I’m not,” Ime said, then glanced at Scribe. “Do you think you’re the only one who can bargain with devils?”

Oh boy, that did not sound – Archer ducked, the arrow brushing through her air. On a balcony above, the Ranger nocked a second arrow before leaping down. She landed at Ime’s side, looking amused.

“Devils, are we?” the Lady asked. “Ime, you’re getting rude in your old age.”

“Well, we can’t all be born ageless bitches,” the spymistress flatly replied.

Cocky swallowed a laugh behind her.

“I’m calling in my marker from helping Grem get his letters out,” Ime continued. “I need to get out of here.”

“I needed to be here for the barrels anyway,” Ranger shrugged. “Go ahead.”

“That’s not happening,” Indrani flatly said.

Behind her, Alexis nocked an arrow. Tension rose.

“Hey Scribe,” Ime called out.

The villainess in question stared at the other spymistress.

“Yes?” she reluctantly.

Ime glanced at Ranger, then at the three of them.

“Mine’s bigger,” she said, and broke into a run.

It went downhill from there.

The twenty-fourth level of the Tower was large enough a scream would echo, the Warlord thought.

It was a striking place, as befitting of the hall that hosted the imperial court. Black marble walls rose tall, touched by plume of colours: makeshift pillars of cloth hanging from the ceiling in red, green and gold. The floor beneath their feet was a great mosaic depicting the history of Praes. It went as far back as Subira Sahelian murdering the founder Dread Empress Maleficent in order to become Dread Emperor Sinister and stretched out to events as recent as Wekesa the Warlock immolating Thalassina – the only event of Malicia’s reign depicted at all. Everywhere jewels were set in walls and furniture while gold veins dripped down stone as gilded ornaments.

The two orcs at his side, Oghuz the Lame and Hegvor Allspeak, looked intimated by the luxury. There were benches here set with enough rubies to feed either of their clans for a year. And some of the nobles wore on them more wealth than any of them would spend in a lifetime: enchanted cloths that looked like shadows, rings made entirely of rubies and even a woman in full dragonscale armour.

“There is nothing to be impressed of,” Hakram spoke in Kharsum. “What is there here that was not built on our backs?”

“Ha,” Chief Hegvor snorted. “Well said.”

“Should have taken the court instead of the camps, Deadhand,” Oghuz grinned, baring fangs at noble who’d come a little too close. “More loot here and fewer swords to defend it.”

Few of the nobles had dared approach to talk since they had come, and none since a young lady vassal to Okoro had tried to needle Oghuz and gotten an eye ripped out for it. High Lady Abreha had visited before, courteous for all that she might well be their foe now, but High Lady Wither was keeping to another part of the hall. They’d traded nods but nothing else. Nothing more was needed, in Hakram’s opinion. They were allies, not comrades.

“When is Malicia meant to come out, anyway?” Hegvor asked.

“When everyone’s here,” the Warlord grunted. “She’s taking her time, reminding everyone she’s important.”

“Can’t be many people left,” Oghuz opined. “The Callowan princess was invited into the back just now, and she was one of the last to arrive.”

Vivienne had not stopped to talk, but Hakram hadn’t expected her to. She… would not take the choice he had made up north well, he knew. Perhaps worse than Catherine would, though that might be wishful thinking on his part. Either way he’d known that she’d avoid him beyond the necessary until there was opportunity for them to speak in private. She preferred to vent her anger away from prying eyes.

“Company,” Hegvor said.

The Warlord followed her gaze, finding an old companion at the end of it. Akua Sahelian was dressed simply, for a noble, but that was a statement of power too: she needed nothing more than dress in white and gold to draw the eye. It was easy to forget how powerful a mage she’d been, but now it was impossible to ignore: even from across the room, her power filled the air. Behind her trailed a dark-skinned man with a short beard and golden earrings. Mage too, by the robes. Mfuasa? Might be someone High Lord Sargon had sent to spy on her. The hall did not quiet when Akua came to stand before him, but eyes followed. They were of interest. They were watched.

“Warlord.”

Hakram considered her. The face was a mask, as it always ways, but below that he smelled… unease. Something was unsettling her, and for once it was not him. What kind of trouble had she found, that she might then find him preferable to it?

“And what am I to call you, Akua Sahelian?” he asked.

The mfuasa at her side smiled.

“The name is enough,” the golden-eyed noble said. “It has been some time, Deadhand. We stand on grounds much changed.”

“The trick is to change with them,” he gravelled.

He stepped forward, she to the side. It was almost as if they were to begin a walk together, an illusion of companionship.

“Have you?” she asked.

Hakram studied her a moment. She seemed sincere. Not it was his turn to be unsettled.

“More than I thought I would,” he admitted.

A pause.

“You?”

“I,” Akua Sahelian, “am trying to decide.”

“That was always your trouble, Sahelian,” Hakram gravelled. “Too much red where the thinking should be. Too much thinking where the red should be.”

She grimaced.

“I’ve suffered many a skewering this week,” she said, “but not one of you has had the decency to at least stab me as well to distract from the ignominy.”

His gaze sharpened.

“Visitors?”

“An old friend,” Akua easily said. “The one who talks too much. And another since, whom I left bleeding to death in the stairs.”

Hakram clicked his tongue.

“You know better,” he said. “Unless you take the head…”

She smiled.

“Then I will get to kill him twice,” the sorceress said. “Hardly an imposition.”

The Warlord was more impressed that the Carrion Lord has survived a run-in with that one after killing her father than worried about his accomplice’s survival. Like as not, he’d planned for it. The man was the kind of clever that thought receiving stab wounds was an acceptable step in a plan, which was by far the stupidest kind of clever.

“And what did our old friend want?” he asked.

A long silence.

“I am less sure,” Akua admitted, “the more I think of it.”

That was the curse of facing the Intercessor, wasn’t it? Your reaction to her prodding might well be part of her plan in the first place. It was like facing an oracle out to get you.

“That tends to be the way with her,” the Warlord conceded.

She glanced at him, seemingly amused.

“And if I ventured to ask you for advice, Hakram Deadhand?” Akua said.

He considered that a moment and chose honesty.

“I don’t like you,” the Warlord said.

“It’s actually rather refreshing,” she admitted, “for someone to say to my face.”

“I don’t like you,” Hakram repeated, “but I did respect you, once.”

“No longer?” she asked, sounding more curious than offended.

“When you were the Diabolist, you were terrible,” he said. “But you were truer to yourself than most people ever are. That, if not the deeds of your hands, was worthy of respect.”

She chuckled.

“You’ve always had a knack for surprising me,” Akua said.

He snorted, dismissive. She’d just never learned what to expect from him.

“She only has the power we give her,” the Warlord said. “That’s her trick. Be who you are, Sahelian. Right or wrong, at least it will be true.”

Her face closed, eyes looking away. The silence stretched out.

“I never liked you either,” Akua confessed. “It was the loyalty as much as the lack of ambition. There was never a lever to pull with you, so I could never be comfortable.”

“And yet here were are,” the Warlord said.

“Here we are,” Akua Sahelian softly agreed.

She breathed out shallowly.

“Do you know what the difference is,” she asked, “between a knot and a noose?”

He laughed, to her visible surprise – which in turn surprised him. He’d thought she was making a reference.

“It’s the setup of an old joke in Kharsum,” Hakram told her. “Because the words are the same, only with a suffix added.”

She cocked an eyebrow.

“So what is the difference?” she asked.

“They’re the same thing,” the Warlord told her, “until there’s a corpse.”

Her face was a blank mask, for a moment, until to his utter surprise and that of most the hall she burst out laughing. Long, throaty and loud. She laughed and laughed, until she trailed of into giggled as she held her ribs loosely.

“Until there’s a corpse,” she repeated, grinning and shaking her head.

Unsure what had set her off, he settled for eyeing her warily instead.

“I thank you for the advice, Hakram Deadhand,” Akua said.

“Found what you were looking for?”

She flexed her palm, smiling.

“Close enough. Fare well, Hakram.”

Het met her eyes. Moments passed.

“And you, Akua,” he replied.

She left, still shaking her head and smiling. Her attendant, who she’d never introduced, waved a cheeky goodbye. The Warlord flexed his dead hand, wondering if he’d just made a mistake. Whatever the truth of it, though, it was now too late. Events were in motion, even those that had nothing to do with the sorceress. From the corner of his eye he saw that a warrior with a painted shield had come from below to speak to the chief of the Split Tree Clan in a low tone before being dismissed. The Warlord glanced at his adviser, who came closer. Hegvor leaned his way so she could whisper into his ear with her lips hidden from sight.

“We have word,” she said. “We’ve taken everything we need out.”

Hakram nodded, satisfied. On schedule.

“And our way out?”

“Waiting for the signal,” she said.

Good. Everything was in place, then.

There was nothing left but seeing how the dice fell.

Arthur wasn’t sure what in the Heavens he was doing here. A trophy hero, maybe? No, that thought was unkind to the Princess and she’d done nothing to deserve that. The Woe had their reputation, but he’d never seen Princess Vivienne be anything but roughly decent. Even Grandmaster Talbot spoke well of her, and when wariness was in order it was not tinted with the kind of fear that the Black Queen commanded. No, the Princess earned rue instead. Arthur would not be surprised if the barracks tale of the Thief having stolen every pair of shoe Brandon Talbot owned after he misspoke in court were actually true.

“I’d expected Queen Catherine to attend personally,” Dread Empress Malicia said. “One must wonder what preceding claim there might be on her time.”

The Squire had heard the empress was the most beautiful woman in the world and he supposed she was graceful enough, but it was a kind of put-together that put him ill at ease. Like a man too handsome and well-groomed, it hinted at artifice or vanity. Princess Vivienne had taken it in stride, though, and looked calm as a pond on a windless day.

“She likes to delegate minor affairs to me,” the Princess mildly said. “I’m sure you won’t take offence.”

It wasn’t a question. While those two continued to spar, Arthur let his eyes and attention wander. There were few people in the antechamber where they had been invited by the servants and fewer still who talked. The Princess had been allowed two guard compared to the twenty Sentinels in here, and to match Arthur himself an old foe had been summoned. The Black Knight loomed so tall he had to wonder how she’d even been able to enter the room, her heavy plate dark as pitch and polished like a mirror. The warhammer whose head rested on the ground was almost as tall as a man, and Arthur knew from experience that to take a blow from it without Name strength was to lose whatever limb was struck. She’d plowed through a line of legionaries like they were kindling back in Wolof, never even noticing that they fought back.

While their rulers talked, the two of them stood to the side like ornaments. He’d felt the Black Knight’s gaze on him several times and returned the favour when it moved away. He could not help it. Why is it that Nim Mardottir is your enemy, Squire? The Carrion Lord’s words were like a fly nipping at his neck. The man had been playing a game, pretending they were not at war and the Black Knight not Malicia’s greatest servant, and yet the hesitation remained. Because Arthur had never really questioned that he was going to kill the Black Knight before this all ended, and that admission shook him. It’d just been a given. He was the Squire and she the Black Knight.

What other way could it end?

Only now, without violence between them, he was standing next to her and noticing things. That she seemed as bored with the talk as he, that she liked to drum her fingers against the grip of her warhammer. Small, meaningless things. But it made her less a force of nature, of Evil, and more a woman in black armour. Maybe she was both, Arthur thought. Maybe that made it even worse, that she’d had a choice and still made this one, but the words felt weak. The resolve behind them was fragile and Arthur Foundling had not become a squire so that he would grown into the kind of knight that swung a sword weighed down with doubt.

So he asked.

“Were you in the streets, when the spiders came?”

His voice was quiet, so that the two rulers by them would not be drawn into it, but the Black Knight heard him. her armoured head moved to study him in silence. After a moment, she nodded.

“I looked for you,” the Squire admitted.

“I know,” the Black Knight replied. “Our pattern is not yet finished.”

So she knew, he thought with surprise. He wondered what it must be like, knowing that the very currents of fate had worn into Creation the promise of your death. Looking to the horizon and seeing only darkness ahead. It must feel, Arthur Foundling thought, a little like being alone on a shore and knowing nothing you could do would change anything. That the man you loved would still be dead even if you swung your sword until the Last Dusk. It must have had the bitter taste of futility to it.

“I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” the Squire said and found he meant it. “That it could be… fair.”

“Fair is not what we bargained for, Squire,” the Black Knight said. “We took on the mantle knowing there would be days when we taste blood, when ashes sift through our fingers. My people say that on the day we are born, out death is born as well. We run towards it, it runs towards us, and the most we can take from life is to steal a march on it before we meet.”

She sounded calm. Serene, almost, and Arthur felt a surge of disgust clog his throat. Not for her but for him. Nim Mardottir was the one with the sword hanging above her head, and yet he was the one babbling like a sentimental child. It was shameful.

“I’d thought you would hate me,” Arthur quietly said. “I almost wish you would.”

The Black Knight chuckled.

“Black and white,” she said. “That’s always been the game. Hate it or laud it, nothing changes. So why burden yourself with the hate?”

He swallowed drily. There was an answer in him, but he did not know how to voice it. Could not, and suddenly he realized there was a silence in the hall. For a moment he feared that their talk her interrupted that of their rulers, but when he looked it was not there that their attention laid. Someone had come up stairs in the back of the antechamber and was forcing their way through the Sentinels. It was an old woman, dark-skinned. Princess Vivienne went still.

“Assassin,” the old woman called out. “Assassin is here, Malicia. He’s coming for-”

One of the Sentinels behind the empress moved jerkily, blade coming out as the Callowan guards shouted in alarm and reached for their swords. Only the killer was too fast, too smooth, and even as Malicia’s eyes widened and she began to turn the point of the steel touched her back – only for a great hammer to smash through it, shattering the blade.

“Behind me, Your Dread Majesty,” the Black Knight said, moving the shaken empress.

The Assassin, still faceless and garbed as a Sentinel, immediately began attacking again.

Treachery,” the Princess called out as she drew her own sword. “They’re attacking us. Squire, face the Black Knight.”

Heart in his throat, Arthur drew his sword. Was this it, then? Their ending. The orphan was not a fucking fool. He’d been sent here so that he could kill the Black Knight and clear the way for the assassin his own queen must have sent.

“Why?” he heard the empress ask her champion. “You-”

“I cannot tolerate the way of the world,” the Black Knight answered, sounding as if she was smiling. “So I must change it. I will not compromise who I am.”

It was like a punch in the gut. Why is it that Nim Mardottir is your enemy, Squire? Gods, was that who he was? The kind of knight he was going to be?

“No,” Arthur Foundling answered, biting down on his indignation. “No.”

He moved, Name pulsing, and struck. The blade ripped through the Assassin’s hand as he jerked in surprise. The killer drew back to flee, Sentinels converging on them all as the Princess watched them all with cold eyes. But it was the Black Knight’s gaze he met, finding the silent question it held.

“Not black and white,” the Squire answered. “Right and wrong.”

It was just words, but they burned in him. Scoured his veins clean, cleared his gaze. It felt like he could breathe again, stand straight. It would stay with him, the answer. He would carry it with him wherever he went, sword in hand if he must. Because it wasn’t a game, never had been, and if for just a moment people could believe that the graveyard might stop devouring the world.

“Right and wrong,” the Black Knight quietly repeated.

And as they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the assassin, the Knight Errant finally found he could smile.

The Lady had healed up but so had they.

Scribe disappeared early, which was for the best because she’d only get in the way. Yesterday it’d been half a game, at least until the end, but today there was nothing playful about it. There was no tide of devils to put in between, no spare breath to be squeezed out as the world whirled around them. Down here there was only the stone and the water and barrels around them.

That and the years of poison they’d brought in with them.

“He was still wearing those fucking bells when he died,” the Silver Huntress snarled. “Did you know that? Did you even care enough to ask?”

Her spear skidded along the Lady’s blade, the tip exploding with Light, but she’d already shown that trick before. Creation narrowed to an edge as Ranger cut through the burst of Light with her other sword, flipping her grip to ram the pommel into Alexis’ mouth. Teeth broke and the redhead rocked back, might have gotten her throat cut if Indrani didn’t leap over a barrel to stab at the Lady’s back. Her wrist was caught and Ranger was angling to spin and tossed her into the water when Indrani leaned forward to ram their foreheads together, buying just enough room not to get eviscerated when the Lady’s blade came up towards her belly.

She was still thrown, rolling on the stone until she got to her feet. Alexis has spat out blood and teeth, her spear alight in silver as she circled around a pack of barrels to bring the fight to larger grounds. Good call. Space was better for them than Ranger, especially when Cocky was cooking up surprises behind them. A glance told Indrani she’d opened a barrel with a knife and was studying the contents with wide eyes. Archer cleared her throat, trying to draw her attention so she’d actually toss the concoctions she’d prepared for this fight, but she was ignored.

“John had promise,” the Lady calmly said. “He was sharpening. If he’d stayed a few more years instead of run off to play the hero against my instructions, he would still be alive.”

“Of course he ran off,” Alexis snarled. “You fucking hammered into his head that he wasn’t as good as the rest of us, that he needed to prove himself. If it hadn’t been the Liesse Rebellion, it would have been any other of a dozen wars. And he would have died in all of them.”

Ranger seemed amused.

“If you were so concerned, why did you not accompany Indrani when she went to fetch him?” she asked.

The Huntress’ answer was inarticulate rage, leaping forward over a barrel instead of completing a circle. Indrani cursed under her breath, hurrying up. Alexis had gotten baited and paid for it, Ranger on her before she landed on the stone and catching her by the throat. The Huntress was slammed on the floor, hard enough that her bones cracked, and would have gotten a blade through the eye if Indrani hadn’t thrown one of her longknives at the Lady’s back. Hye Su snatched it out of the air and threw it back without batting an eye, but the heartbeat was long enough for Alexis to wriggle out of the grasp and kick the Lady away. Archer caught her own blade before it could carve through her throat and breathed out in relief, hurrying to the Huntress’ side so she would be able to get up without getting killed.

“You need to stay in control, Alexis,” Indrani harshly said. “If you get angry, get stupid, you’ll die.”

Ranger sighed.

“This is sickening,” she said. “You need to make a decision, Indrani. Are you trying to win, or are you trying to be liked? Because now you’re trying to do both, and you are failing.”

“Yeah, she’s trying,” Alexis growled, spitting blood to the side. “It’s why she’s already better than you. Did you ever find out how Lysander died, Ranger?”

“Disappointingly,” the Lady said.

“Alone,” Alexis said. “He died alone, not even forty feet away from someone who would have fought at his side. That’s what you taught us. That’s your fucking legacy, Ranger. Dying alone, just like you will.”

“The difference between us, child,” the Lady of the Lake replied, “is that I do not fear it. And that’s why you’ll lose.”

And the thing was, Indrani still admired that answer. It made her blood sing, it was everything she’d decided she wanted of the world as a child. But that couldn’t be her, not anymore. Because it’d mean leaving behind Masego, never again curling up by his side to read. Never again talking late into the night. It would mean leaving Cat for good, the laughter and the warmth and the home she’d made herself into. It would mean no more rooftop skulking with Vivienne, no more dicing with Hakram. Hells, she’d even miss Akua and the way they talked trash about everybody else.

Indrani didn’t want to stand alone anymore. And maybe she’d die that way anyway, but she wouldn’t make herself pretend it’d be a good thing.

“You didn’t need to be,” Archer said. “Alone. That was a choice.”

She’d made it. But had any of them had, or had she made it for them too?

“You’ll learn otherwise,” Ranger gently said, then her eyes hardened. “Or you’ll die. One last lesson for the three of you.”

“Here’s one for you too,” Cocky said.

The thrown vial broke against the floor, small puffs of grey smoke taking to the air and then wildly swelling. The grey began to billow in every direction but neither Indrani nor Alexis hesitated to charge in. They knew exactly what this was, and they were in no danger from it. Ranger was better than either of them at fighting sightless, but there was something to even the odds: the moment she took a swing and Archer parried it, the Lady let out a soft noise of surprise and backed away. Yeah, the smoke was eating away at her gear. Figured she’d notice when blades clashed. The Huntress pushed but had to draw back when she almost lost an eye.

Indrani tried to flank, blades high, but Ranger backed away entirely out of the smoke and it dispersed after a few more moments.

“That explains the smell,” the Lady frowned, eyeing her dulled blades and eaten at cape. “You coated all your equipment in a solution to prevent it.”

“I still remember when we first met,” the Concocter said. “Do you recall the first question I ever asked you?”

“Could you have stopped it,” Ranger quoted.

“You didn’t,” Cocky said. “You let them die, because you didn’t care. And that’s all you are, isn’t it? The absence of caring. That’s the sum of you.”

“How far you’ve travelled, Concocter,” Ranger said, “to still be standing by that campfire, looking for someone to save you. Is that all you learned of your years as my pupil?”

A glanced was flicked at Indrani and Alexis.

“Different saviours to beg salvation from,” the Lady of the Lake scorned.

“No,” Cocky snarled. “I learned too much from you, Hye Su. Let it sink into my bone like a fucking disease. But I’ve given you that for too long.”

The Concocter smiled, hard and proud, and looked away from the Lady. At the two of them.

“Constanza,” she said. “My name is Constanza.”

Indrani went still. The Concocter breathed out.

“Let’s finish this,” she said. “All three of us.”

Alexis breathed out, hands shaking.

“Yeah,” the Silver Huntress got out through her broken teeth. “Time to end it. Indrani?”

Archer met the Lady of the Lake’s eyes.

“One last lesson,” Indrani agreed. “For us, and for those we left behind.”

Violence ensued. Steel sang and Cocky – Constanza, she thought with wonder – unleashed all she had prepared. The poison cloud that hurt only elves, the sentient drops of hate that hunted the sole person who’d not drunk an obscuring potion, the fumes that turned to glue and the glue that turned into acid. Ranger came for her, seeing her as the weak link, but none of them minded. It told them where the fight would be. Indrani took the first wound, a slice across the face. Cocky the second, an arrow that went through her shoulder. The Lady went third, losing her cloak and the edge of her eyebrow when Archer setup Alexis to detonate her spear next to Ranger’s head.

There was no elegance to it. It was simple, brutal attempts to kill. And Gods forgive them, but they were losing. Even with all the tricks and the rage, she was just too fucking good. No pass worked on her twice, and every time a sequence did well against her the Ranger learned in the moment that followed and turned it back against them. It was like fighting a mirror, only the reflection was better than them. Archer fell first, to a kick in the stomach as she parried her death away, but Alexis had overextended. She took a slice across her face, across her right eye, and as she drew back in pain the opening was made. Indrani felt a shout rising up her throat as the Lady darted forward past the two of them.

To Constanza, whose fingers were fumbling over a vial. The sword was swung, the arc smooth and perfect about to take the head of a girl Indrani had known since they were both children. Only it was the Lady that fell instead, taking a hit in the side as a cloaked figured stepped out of nowhere to her left. The Emerald Swords, Indrani thought as she rose to her feet. They must have used the same tunnels. Ranger swatted one away but three more materialized in the heartbeat that followed and there was no room to manoeuvre down here. Another appeared by Alexis’s side, striking her knee behind so she’d fall, and Indrani rolled to the side just in time to avoid being skewered by a sixth.

Evidently, the Emerald Swords were done fucking around.

“Cocky,” Archer shouted across the din. “This is done. We need to leave.”

She backed away from the elf pursuing her, the slender sword seemingly made of wood biting into her longknive like it was made of cheap tin. Fuck. Alexis had gotten away from hers and they came back to back, safe enough that Indrani could spare a look away. Cocky hadn’t been targeted, they weren’t seeing her as a threat, which meant there were eight of the fucking Emerald Swords fighting the same woman. And, terrifyingly enough, though Ranger was losing it wasn’t by a large margin. She was being pressed back, not overwhelmed.

“We grab Constanza and go,” Indrani said. “Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Alexis grunted.

They moved in unison, ducking beneath a blow as Alexis lit up her spear and used the flare to blind their opponents for half a heartbeat. Indrani used the delay to leap over a row of barrels, landing in a roll on the other side as a sword cut through where her belly would have been if she’d been standing. Fuck, she hadn’t even heard the elf move. Cocky was, inexplicably, dipping what looked like a long thin stick into the barrel she’d opened earlier instead of fucking running away. Another flare of silver Light, then Alexis was with them. Half her face was covered in blood from the cut Ranger had left her with, and that eye might well be a permanent loss.

“What are you doing?” the Huntress snarled, “we need to-”

Constanza reached into the pouch at her side and took out a red gem, idly throwing it at a barrel to their right. The stone hit and got stuck on the wood, then began to shine.

“Fuck,” Indrani swore, throwing herself down.

The world exploded in green. Goblinfire. Merciless Gods, the place had been loaded with the largest amount of goblinfire Indrani had ever seen. And there were explosion in the distance, like there’d been other stacks out there. She got back to her feet as Cocky smiled smugly. The roar of the flames had surprised everyone, but it looked like the Lady had been the one to pay for it. She’d gotten run through from the back, Indrani said, and another Emerald Sword had just broken her jaw. A third was about to put his blade through her heart when he suddenly backed away, a chandelier writhing with green flames falling where he’d just been.

The goblinfire was spreading everywhere but nowhere more than near where Ranger still was. Lying on the ground and bleeding out, the elves struggling to get close enough to finish her off.

“All three doors are on fire, you fucking idiot,” Alexis said. “How are we supposed to get out of here, Cocky?”

Even the water wasn’t an option. It was on fire too, because goblinfire was a goddamned horror.

“By following me,” Constanza smugly replied.

She still had that slender stick in hand, and when she pulled away she kept it high. What had to be the goblinfire from the barrel followed it, like a strand of glue, which was weird. Goblinfire wasn’t supposed to do that when inert, Indrani was sure of it. She must have done something to the substance while everybody else was looking. They followed her, and as if that stick was a magic wand the Concocter used it to part the flames in front of them. Every time she touched the green fire with the coated end of the stick, it was sucked in up the strand and towards the barrel. Which was not, as far as Indrani could see, burning yet.

“Straight path,” Cocky said. “I can only divert so much before the threshold is passed and my barrel blows too. That… won’t be pretty. Dragon blood is something of an amplifier.”

Oh, that did not sound good at all. Still better than dying in a fire, though, so on Indrani went. And the straight path they were taking through a cage of flames was, inevitably, one that led them straight to the Lady. Still lying down there, bleeding out. There was movement, the Emerald Swords coming, but Cocky was quicker: she flicked her stick, snapping the strand, and a curtain of goblinfire closed behind them. There was a thundering sound inside a heartbeat later, the barrel finally exploding. But that felt another world away, when they were here looking down at Ranger. The three of them shared a long look.

An understanding came, eventually.

“We could leave you to them,” Alexis said, crouching by the Lady’s side. “Toss you back in there to die.”

“It’d be deserved,” Constanza said, crouching on the other. “A long time coming.”

“It’s one way to end this,” Indrani said, meeting her teacher’s eyes. “To make sure you don’t come for us to even the scales for today. That you don’t decide it makes us worth hunting.”

“But I still remember when they sent me into the woods to die,” Alexis said. “The look on the elderman’s face. He thought he was doing right by the village. One girl for all of them. And I never got angry enough to forget that look, Ranger. To remember I swore I’d never be like him.”

“I could let them kill you,” Constanza said. “Like you let those bandits kill my family. But that’s just you winning, isn’t it? Me still living by your rules. And I won’t have that, not anymore. I’m going to be better.”

“There’s dues, though,” Indrani said, knife in hand. “And I have learned a thing or two about long prices. So here’s your ending, Lady of the Lake.”

The hand came down, the knife slicing deep across the nose. She passed it to Alexis, who cut deep down the left cheek. And she passed it to Constanza, who cut the last down the right cheek.

“They’ll scar,” Indrani said, knowing it to be true.

“Every time you look at them, remember that you once had pupils,” Constanza said.

“And that you might have left marks on us,” Alexis grinned through broken teeth, “but we left those on you.”

A strange expression passed in the Lady’s eyes as they rose, one after the other. Indrani did not dare put a word to it. They left her there, lying on the stone as the goblinfire burned behind her. Maybe she’d get up, maybe she wouldn’t. Either way, it was on her alone. The three of them left the same way they’d come.

Together.

The Dread Empress looked troubled.

Akua was not the only one to have noticed, and all who did were troubled in turn. All of the city knew that Malicia had gathered the court here tonight so that her reign could end in dignity, so that she might try to become Chancellor under the new rising power or otherwise seek mercy. Most would be disinclined to grant it, but Akua Sahelian was said rising power and it would be her decision to make. If she sought to become Dread Empress. If she cared to sit the throne that Malicia was going to empty.

Yet here the empress was, looking troubled. Something must have happened in the receiving room out back. Vivienne had left it in a hurry, and looking harried, while the young man who was the Squire these days had looked oddly serene. Power now wafted from him stronger than Akua had ever felt it, which smacked of a transition – as did the even look of respect he had traded with the Black Knight before they parted ways. A Squire no longer, perhaps. For the best. Akua had struggled to pair the Name with anyone who but the last woman who’d worn it.

What had happened in there? Akua considered her curiosity, then set it aside. It was of no great import. Events were precipitating, and after the empress glanced away her face returned as a lovely mask of control. The doubts gone, and the tension went out of the nobles. All was as it should be. The Dread Empress of Praes would present one last play, and the fate of Praes would be decided by the worthies of this great hall as it had been for centuries.

“She schemes your death,” Kendi whispered into her ear. “They all do, or will. One day they will see the truth of you, and all of Praes will recoil.”

She considered that.

“Do you like singing, Kendi?” Akua asked.

“My sister did,” he smiled, without a single speck of warmth.

“Have you ever heard The Tyranny of the Sun?”

He cocked his head to the side, nodded.

“What would you say it’s about?” Akua murmured.

The dark-haired man held his tongue, chose his words.

“This very hall,” Kendi Akaze finally said, “seen from below.”

The Carrion Lord, she thought, really was such a terrible prick. She’d liked that song once, for all that it was maudlin and banned by decree. It had such a pleasant melody. Only now all that she could think of was that it dated back to the Sixty Years war, nearly five hundred years ago, and already the singers sounded… tired. Of all this around her, of the empire writ in dread. Of the dooms sought to the west, a hundred apiece for every ashen victory. A servant came to her, offering a golden goblet, and she almost smiled. Ah, there it was. She took it in hand but did not drink, dismissing the man. Akua waited in silence, even her supporters standing far from her now that Malicia was seated on her throne.

Out of fear, yes, but not of the empress. None wanted to steal from her moment and earn her ire for it.

“Akua Sahelian,” Dread Empress Malicia said.

Silence fell like a blanket over the court. Not a soul dared to move.

“Malicia,” she replied.

The older woman smiled.

“Am I not your empress, Lady Akua?”

Akua gently smiled back.

“Are you the empress of anyone at all, Alaya of Satus?”

A shiver in the air. Sharks smelling blood in the water.

“A bold claim,” the empress said. “Empty, if no one speaks for you.”

And that was the part where her backers were to step forward, speak on her behalf. Make boasts and promises, praise her deeds. It was rare for the throne to be abdicated with a semblance of peace, but hardly unheard of. Some tyrants could grasp that it was over before they found themselves bleeding out on the floor with a knife in the stomach. Some had even spared their predecessor instead of ordering their death as their first decree. All very civilized, an old play put on with fresh colours. And no doubt Malicia had a scheme at work. Malicia always had a scheme, it was her blessing and her curse.

But Akua had not climbed the Tower and walked through the Hall of Screams so that she could dance to the empress’ tune.

“No,” Akua said.

Surprised silence. She swept the hall with her gaze, saw wariness and greed and hate in the eyes of those around her.

“I am tired,” Akua said, and then forced herself to say more, “of this, Malicia. This… play we are to put on. The pretence that you leave this throne willing, that I take it up instead of seize it.”

“All of the empire is a stage, Akua Sahelian,” the Empress replied. “We play our roles.”

“And where did that get you?” Akua asked. “Playing along.”

Malicia’s face, so lovely and so cold, hardened.

“Those graceless in victory,” she said, “are uglier still in defeat. Take care to remember that.”

Only, Akua realized, the empress’ attention was only half on her. How delightfully insulting. Malicia was looking around, scanning the room under the pretence of matching eyes with highborn. She was looking for someone and Akua happened to know exactly who.

“She’s not going to come,” the golden-eyed sorcerers said.

Malicia turned to her. Now she had the full attention.

“All that cleverness,” Akua mused, “turned to waste by a single mistake.”

“You-”

Gods, but she was tired. As if the Tower had eaten the marrow of her bones, left her to walk rattling. Tired and irritated, because what was even the point of this?

“Step down,” Akua cut in, “or be made to.”

The empress looked as if she had been slapped. Akua took a step forward, then two. Malicia looked so utterly at a loss that she almost laughed. The dark amusement running thick through her veins, she raised the golden goblet she’d been handed and tossed it at the Dread Empress of Praes. Who looked like she’d just swallowed a surprised yelp as she ducked out of the way. The goblet clattered against the throne of the Dread Empire, that ancient ghastly thing. The dark liquid dripped down the welded stone and iron, the ancient seat little more than a squat, ugly pile of stones.

Akua advanced, passing by the aghast Malicia without a word. She came to stand by the old thing, trailing a finger down the arm. She turned to offer a smile at the nobles below the dais.

“My ancestor,” she told them, “murdered a woman here. Before this very seat.”

Her hand left the stone.

“She trusted him,” Akua said. “And he plunged a knife in her belly. Left her to bleed out on the floor. And when the life left her eyes, he sat down on the throne and named himself Sinister.”

She had them, she could see it in their eyes. The hunger, the want. To be her, to serve her, to fuck her – to eat her whole, swallow up everything that had made her rise and make it their own. What was this empire, if not a covenant of the hungry?

“My mother used to say that Maleficent made an empire, but that it was Subira Sahelian that made it the Dread Empire,” Akua said. “She was not without wisdom. And that legacy, that blood, it carries with it a duty.”

You have the master’s blood, the demon bound to the Tyrant’s Gate had said. Her line had been there since the first stone was set over another. Masters of dread, makers of horror.

“And so here I stand, where Subira once stood, beholding his work,” Akua idly said. “And I wonder – would he still have plunged the knife, knowing what we’d become?”

The crowd shuffled, uneasy. These were not the words they had come here to hear. That was not her role in the play. They should have listened to her more closely.

“There comes a time where one must look back and ask: what purpose does this serve?” Akua said. “One thousand and three hundred years the Dread Empire has stood. Through triumph and disaster, through the darkest pits and the tyranny of the sun. And now, looking back, I ask you: what purpose do we serve?”

Unease thickened. She was mad, they thought. They had chosen a madwoman to lead them. The dark-skinned beauty laughed.

“I struggled with the question,” she admitted. “But we do find answers in the strangest places.”

What was the difference, between a knot and a noose? Nothing, Hakram Deadhand had told her, until there is a corpse. And that was the balance of it. The Dread Empire of Praes, was it a knot that could be undone or a noose strangling its people?

One need only look out the window to know the answer.

And so Akua Sahelian touched her sleeve, taking out the terrible gift her enemy had given her. Such a small thing, for the power it held. She touched it to the arm of the throne, the rough stone.

“Nothing,” the blood of the original murder told them. “We are not the masters of this place, we are the sacrifice. And so I tell you now: this Dread Empire is at an end.”

Smiling, Akua Sahelian struck the match against the throne. It burned bright and, feeling as if finally she could breathe, she dropped it on the throne. Where the goblet had spilled.

There was a heartbeat of utter stillness, as if the world itself had ceased spinning.

Then the throne burned green.

The world had been shattered under their feet.

Alaya was a fool. The Intercessor had never even been an ally of convenience, the old monster had known from the start that her scheme was fatally flawed and not said a word. All because she had thought she understood Akua Sahelian, that the girl was her mirror in the generation that followed. That she would want the throne, if only to mend it all. How terribly, utterly wrong she had been. Praes was a game that could be won, but Alaya had not won it. She had lost it, along with her throne, and now she was fleeing with the rest of the crowd like a rat leaving a sinking ship.

The orcs had known, she thought. They had been part of it. How else would they have a gate to Arcadia ready, would they know to herd the panicking nobles through it. They left Creation with a shiver, treading the realm of the fae to breathtaking sight. Higher than a mountain, a great tower of stone and bone rose through clouds and sky until it disappeared into the dark. The Tower’s mirror here, seeping malice and madness out of every pore. They all fled from the sight of it, hurrying along a winding path of stone, and at the end awaited a way out.

They returned to Creation as a pack of huddling refugees, eyes drawn high to a sight none of them would forget as long as they lived. The Tower was burning. Like an emerald candle in the night, green flames rose from the bottom to swallow it whole. There was not a soul in the city who would not see it. As far as the Blessed Isle, Alaya thought, they might see the green light searing the sky. Her eyes lowered, finding a silhouette awaiting, and suddenly it fell into place. They were not just below the Tower, they were at the very bottom. At the foot of the sculpted stairs that led to the Tyrant’s Gate, and atop those a man was waiting.

The tunic was a simple grey, its belly covered with bandages stained red. But there was no mistaking the man himself, for all that his hair had greyed and he had grown a salt and pepper beard. He watched them, they’d who’d been brought down below the first step one might take to climb the Tower, and smiled. His eyes were green as the flames behind him, the emerald blaze wreathing his silhouette and casting his shadow down over them all.

It slowly sunk in for everyone, as it had for Alaya, that he’d played them all for fools.

“Praes,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch calmly said, “is a mould that must be broken.”

And now everyone was there, the Wandering Bard smiled as she tested the string one last time. Perfectly tuned. She’d had the place from the start, but now she had the time and the officiant. All she needed was – ah, and there came the last missing guest. Catherine Foundling walked out of the dark, power still clinging to her cloak, and looked up through the gloom. Their eyes met, a moment, and she offered Yara a wink. She winked back, making herself comfortable on the stone, and strummed her lute with a practiced hand.

It was time to kill her and doom the world.

“There was once a girl,” the Wandering Bard sang, “without a name.”

Interlude: Strangest And Most Solemn

“It is true it would be safer, Chancellor, to refrain from gloating. But then why even bother? If I can’t crucify whoever speaks in accidental rhyme or throw heroes to three-headed snakes or feed a baby to another baby, then why should I even want to be Dread Emperor?”

– Dread Emperor Revenant

The Carrion Lord was a greying swordsman without a sword or a Name, trapped in a small room with an armed Named orc almost twice his weight. The warriors outside the door held no loyalty to him and this entire district of Ater was under the rule of the Clans. He was completely at the Warlord’s mercy by almost every way of measuring the situation that the tall orc knew.

Hakram had not felt this wary of someone in years.

“A bargain,” the Warlord repeated.

“Indeed,” the green-eyed man agreeably replied.

There were no windows to the room, only a ragged tapestry of black and white hung on the wall and a faded magelight set in the wall – old enough its glow dimmed for stretches of time before burning bright again, moving shadows across the wall. Back and forth, like fingers clawing at stone. Amadeus of the Green Stretch looked calm, but then that was his legend. The story went that Istrid – not yet Knightsbane – had bit down on his wrist until her fangs tasted blood to see if he’d flinch and he’d not batted an eye. A hand for you would have been a worthwhile trade, the Carrion Lord had claimed. What was there to flinch from?

No wonder the Red Shields still loved him like a fucking lost son.

Hakram’s first instinct was to kill him, here and now. Lunge across the table and smash his soft human skull against the wall, rip out his throat and let the lifeblood spill red on that mangled weave of black and white. But that was the red in him, the part that hated feeling wary of a man in his power and wanted to destroy the source of that discomfort. The Warlord picked the sentiment apart, looked for the sliver of sense at the source of it. It was, he eventually decided, that he did not like or trust the former Black Knight.

In a distant way he recognized that the Carrion Lord was half of the pair that’d done more for his people on half a century than their predecessors in a millennium, but that was not something he could connect to the pale-skinned man in front of him. The deed was too large, too looming, to be tied to someone of flesh and blood. Instead the parts that came to the fore were the human ones, the glimpses he’d had through Catherine over the years. None of these particularly endeared Amadeus of the Green Stretch to Hakram. Yet that dislike was his own, not the Warlord’s, and so he swallowed it.

He would not close the door, listen to the fear. But neither would he pretend to be deaf.

“We have not spoken much over the years, you and I,” Hakram said.

Maybe a dozen conversations when Catherine was not there, none longer than the time to took to boil a cup of tea.

“You were the Adjutant,” the Carrion Lord simply said. “It was not my place to trespass.”

Hakram bared his teeth.

“I always did despise it the most,” he said, “the way that you always give her what she wants, but only ever in ways that benefit you.”

When she’d been a girl still, all swagger and distrust and fear, Catherine had wanted… room to grow. Support but from a distance, the kind of help that would allow her to still believe herself bound to nothing save her own ambitions. And she’d gotten it: her own legion, Masego and Indrani, opportunities to prove herself with no one standing above her. Only the legion had bound her to Praes, the children of the Calamities to their legacy and every victory had advanced the plans of the pale man seated across from him. A hook in every gift, and there had been many.

“That is who I am,” the Carrion Lord replied, neither proud nor ashamed. “I am long past the days of fighting it.”

“It would not be as obscene, if you did not genuinely love her,” Hakram said.

“I did not mean to,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch admitted. “But once I saw the anger that burned like a torch, it was water down the slope. Inexorable.”

“What you did today will rip back open the wounds you left after the Doom,” Hakram gravelled. “How many thousands did you burn today? So much for the coming of the Age of Order.”

Green eyes studied him coolly.

“Are you certain that is a conversation you wish to have, Adjutant?”

The tall orc clicked his fangs. He had not forgotten what Tariq Fleetfoot had told him as Hainaut broke around them, but what had once been a comfort was now a noose around his neck. Not that he would allow himself to be cowed by the other man’s turn of phrase.

“What must be settled between she and I will be,” Hakram said. “Do not pretend understanding of it, any more than I could claim understanding of what lay between you and Scribe. It is… personal. Your madness is not.”

The green-eyed man leaned back in his seat, looking amused. Hakram itched to take an eye for it, just so that he’d be forever half as nonchalant.

“My madness?” the pale man asked.

“You fed thousands of civilians to blood-mad critters,” the Warlord said. “You weakened armies needed against Keter and broke the capital. You sit here as if it makes you a victor, but all I see in you is a Dread Emperor as this land has known by the hundreds. Why should I bargain with the likes of you?”

“Because none of these were accidents,” the Carrion Lord calmly replied.

Hakram paused. Killed the scorn on his tongue, the easy comment that if anything that only worsened his impression of the other man. Perhaps that would still be true later, but first he would think it through. See why a largely intelligent man would think this reasonable to say here and now. That meant looking at the deeds and going back, methodically. What is there to gain by today? Hakram considered the blood, for often that was where the truth of things lay. And from a cold eye this Battle of the Spiders, not quite yet finished, had bled the High Lords and Ladies the most.

Of soldiers, yes, but not so many as that. Of the thirty thousand that had first gathered outside Ater at least twenty thousand should still remain and most the dead would be levies. The household troops had lost but not been crippled. No, the cost had been subtler. The High Seats had ruined their reputation with Ater when they sacrificed almost a quarter of the city to contain the spiders, their devils and wonders killing almost as many as the monsters come from below. If any of them tried to claim the Tower, the city would riot. That would not necessarily stop them from trying, but history taught that a tyrant without Ater’s affection rarely lasted long in the Tower.

Only Ater is half a ruin now, Hakram thought, so that doesn’t matter as much. Love could be bought with food and shelter provided to refugees and the disposed, not that it would be sustainable in the long term. Hakram had experience with matters like this, having once handled the masses of refugees in southern Callow after the Doom and Summer’s depredations. The tent-cities had eventually broken up, leaving smaller towns behind as the people moved away to – Hakram paused. Not an accident, the Carrion Lord had claimed. Not the destruction, not the deaths, not even the gargantuan spider unleashed on the Licosian Gates.

“You are destroying Ater,” the Warlord said. “Emptying it for good.”

“Are you familiar with the Haunted Scholar’s works?” the Carrion Lord asked.

Hakram was and admitted as much with a nod. The man had claimed in his treatises that the instability at the heart of Praes came from the weakness of the Tower relative to the High Seats. Three burdens in particular had been identified. The Legions of Terror, which were dependent on taxes paid by nobles for their upkeep, the asymmetric accretion of power – Dread Emperors were individuals, had to build their power as individuals from scratch when they rose, while the High Seats were dynasties with permanent seats of power – and most importantly of all the capital itself. Ater, the behemoth city that could not feed itself or pay for its own upkeep or close its gates to its enemies.

“I suppose it is a sort of madness,” the Carrion Lord conceded. “But it is a methodical one. Ater must be reduced to a sustainable size if Praes is ever to be free of constant civil strife.”

The Haunted Scholar’s thesis on display. If Ater could not be held without the support of a High Seat then civil war was inevitable because the Tower was certain to be bound in the dynastic disputes of its backer.

“You haven’t solved the other two,” the Warlord said.

“The days is young,” the pale man smiled. “Shall we discuss a bargain, then?”

Hakram wanted to deny him. The Warlord considered it. It was an intricate plan, weakening the High Seats in several ways and attending to a deeper issue with a single stroke. Not the kind that someone lost to the old ways would be capable of conceiving. And that meant, regrettably, that Amadeus of the Green Stretch was still worth hearing out.

“Speak,” the Warlord ordered.

“There are three plans afoot in the capital that are not ours,” the Carrion Lord said. “Your intentions for the Clans cannot cohabit with any of them succeeding.”

“Bold claim,” Hakram growled.

“Malicia intends to stand as Dread Empress when the ashes have cooled,” the pale man calmly said. “To do this, she has driven every High Seat to such hatred of the others that none will tolerate another to rise to claim the Tower. All the while, she sunk a great deal of her remaining resources in ensuring that Akua Sahelian would be crowned empress in her stead. She intends, I imagine, to peacefully abdicate.”

“Even if Sahelian spared her, her supporters wouldn’t tolerate the loose end,” the Warlord pointed out.

“Which doesn’t matter, because Malicia believes that Catherine will kill the Doom of Liesse the moment she dares to claim the throne,” the Carrion Lord said. “Putting the empire in an… interesting situation.”

It took a moment for Hakram to put all the pieces in place properly. Sahelian dead, the High Seats livid at the offence but too deeply feuding to be able to raise one of their own instead. It would leave only one person with enough prominence to fill the seat, wouldn’t it? Malicia herself, not an hour gone form the throne and yet somehow made into the compromise candidate. And Catherine might want to kill her, but would the High Seats stand for it? Killing one empress would have them furious enough, two would be beyond the pale. Subjugation in all but name.

It might cost her the armies she’d come here to claim, the diabolists she needed.

“It won’t work,” the Warlord said.

“No,” the Carrion Lord agreed. “It is an outstanding piece of scheming on Malicia’s part, but it falls apart because she failed to properly grasp the nature of Akua Sahelian.”

“And you have?” Hakram derided.

“No,” the man easily replied, “but I understand Catherine and that is quite enough. She would not tolerate the owner of the Folly to rule Praes, no matter the nature of the deeper game she is playing with Tasia’s daughter. Which brings us to my daughter and her own plan, beginning with the crucial moment where Akua Sahelian will refuse the throne she is offered.”

He’d never heard the man claim Catherine as his daughter so openly. It felt like nails on chalk, for all that Catherine returned the favour from her side regularly. Somehow Hakram doubted either had ever spoken the words face-to-face.

“I know what Catherine plans,” the Warlord said.

He had no need to hear out a plan he’d helped make, though he was certain changes would have been made since he’d left for the Steppes.

“Which is why you are not acting hand-in-hand with her,” the Carrion Lord calmly noted. “You already know that your leverage against the Tower depends on being someone whose support can be courted against her.”

The Warlord did not deny it. If he entered the Tower as Catherine’s ally, he lost all bargaining power. The Clans became a chip on her side of the table, not players in their own right. It lost him the great influence he would be wielding in there as the only person left in the empire with an army on the field that could give the Army of Callow pause. Beyond that, he would lose the influence he would need to bend the Grand Alliance to make the concessions he needed. Much as the pale man irked him, he was not wrong. He could not go along with Catherine tomorrow.

“And the third?” the Warlord grunted.

“The Intercessor wants Catherine dead and Praes a pit of civil war, as far as I can tell,” the other man shrugged. “Her means are still opaque to me, save that she will moving through Named and pivots. Still, I don’t believe that you could ever ally with the Wandering Bard.”

“And so that leaves you,” the Warlord said. “Or so you would like me to believe.”

“Indeed,” the Carrion Lord cheerfully replied.

“Only I could speak with Malicia instead,” the Warlord said. “Or back a High Seat against the others.”

Malicia was the best candidate, save in the sense that Catherine would set fire to the Tower rather than to allow her to rule a latrine pit, much less Praes itself. Hakram was still deciding how heavily that should weight on the scales, given that he might be in a position to strongarm the issue. He was not alone in this. High Lady Wither, his closest ally, had been clear that she would personally prefer Malicia as ruler even if she was open to other candidates. Neither of them were eager to lend a hand to the man seated across the table, even knowing he was likely the most acceptable candidate to the Grand Alliance.

Hakram was able to separate his dislike from the necessities of the situation, so his reluctance was not personal. Amadeus of the Green Stretch, while popular with the Legions and the people of some regions of Praes, would not be uncontested as ruler. He was a Duni and he’d spent most of his career as the Black Knight rabidly at odds with the same nobility whose support he would need to govern, which was far from ideal. The Carrion Lord was an able enough man that Hakram believed he would be able to make the High Seats fall into line, but he also believed that achieving this would take several years and a fairly brutal war.

A war they did not have time to wage and which would draw heavily on the resources of his supporters. Neither Hakram nor Wither were particularly eager to bleed their people for that purpose. Jaheem Niri was likely their best bet, like it or not – they could trade the territorial concessions Hakram wanted and the assurances Wither wanted for their support, which he could not claim the Tower without.

“You could,” the Carrion Lord said. “Only it won’t get you what you want for your people.”

The Warlord bared his fangs.

“And what would you know about that?”

“Enough,” the pale man said. “You were seen to use both the Red Shields and the Split Tree as lieutenants outside the city, which means you’re threading the needle between the clans that want closer ties and those that want to distance themselves. You’re after major concessions from the Tower while aiming to remain part of Praes.”

Hakram’s dead hand clenched. Only a handful of people in all of the empire could have derived the same conclusions from seeing what the man had, he reminded himself. His intentions were not obvious for everyone to see.

“You tread dangerous grounds,” the Warlord warned.

“It’s habit by now,” the Carrion Lord smiled. “My point stands, regardless. Even if you can back someone to seize the Tower and they fulfill the bargain you struck, it won’t get you what you want.”

“And why is that?” the Warlord gravelled.

“Because their successor will have no incentive to keep the bargain,” he replied.

“War against the united Clans-”

“Will be the selling point of breaking faith,” the Carrion Lord coldly cut in. “You know your histories, Warlord. How many tyrants continued the policies of the predecessor they murdered? How many of them immediately threw themselves into a war with Callow or the Free Cities or any enemy at hand because a fight against a common enemy would solidify their grip on the empire?”

It had the sting of truth, but also of the inevitable.

“That is Praes,” the Warlord said.

“That is the Dread Empire,” the Carrion Lord challenged.

Hakram almost laughed.

“What else is there?”

“A bargain to make,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch said.

The Warlord scoffed. Arrogance.

“Why would your successor be better than anyone else’s?”

“Because I do not intend to be Dread Emperor,” the pale man calmly said.

The Warlord paused. Narrowed his eyes.

“So what is it you do want?” Hakram Deadhand asked.

“Your help,” he said, “and a single favour.”

It sounded too good a bargain, the Warlord thought.

“Do not be relieved,” the Carrion Lord mildly said. “The favour, I think, will be for you the heavier of the costs to bear.”

Dead fingers made by a now dead man clenched.

“Tell me,” the Warlord ordered.

Archer feinted to the left, then hastily drew back when the blade came a hair’s breadth away from her neck – she felt the very point scrape her skin – and shifted to the side only to eat a pommel in the stomach. Even through the mail she bent, gasping in pain as the Ranger moved around her so the Silver Huntress blow would go wide.

“Indrani,” Alexis hissed, “get out of-”

She never finished the sentence, the two of them seeing the movement coming from the corner of their eye. The leapt away before the leg tore through the house whose roof they had been fighting on, Tenebrous scattering the stone walls like they were made of parchment and dripping darkness everywhere. Like pools of ink the dark tainted whatever it touched, spreading down slopes and through crevices. Twice now Indrani had seen devils fall through a large patch as if it were a hole. Cocky had said that Tenebrous was living domain, but Archer had her doubts. Althea Maronid’s research in Ashur had decisively proved that a domain must be internal if it belonged to a living creature, else it would cause uncontrolled creational cascades.

More likely Tenebrous’ domain was physically incarnated and static, somewhere far below Ater, and she was trying to bring it up here by spreading around that darkness clinging to her hide. On the bright side, that meant climbing on top of the spider wouldn’t be like stepping over one of the pools: if the domain was external it wouldn’t work on the creature herself.

Looking through the clouds of dust and raining darkness, Archer looked for the Lady’s shape. Alexis had gone the other way, but neither of them were getting – oh, shit, she’d climbed the leg. And ol’ Tenebrous wasn’t liking that at all, by the deafening sounds of her screeching. What few windows in the neighbourhoods hadn’t been broken all exploded, and a few devils actually died. Indrani fought through the pain, then blinked as a large, winged devil with purple veins landed before her in a crouch. Cocky was offering a ride, huh? No point in declining. The devil needed a knife in the side to be guided properly, but even as Light lit up the sky and flew out in an arrow – the Lady had to stop and shoot it down – Indrani flew ahead.

The Lady killed her mount with a second arrow a heartbeat later, but Alexis had bought her long enough: she leapt off the dying devil, landing on Tenebrous’ back. The monster did not like that at all, not only starting to screech and trying to shake her off but doing… something with its body. The thick darkness she’d been stepping through turned from a misty cloud to something thicker, like mud, and the hair beneath her boots hardened like iron into a forest of needles. Fuck, that wasn’t going to be fun to fight on but it wasn’t like she had a choice: in a matter of moments the Lady had finished climbing up the leg and was looking at her from her a hundred feet away.

Now Archer just needed to distract her long enough that Alexis would be able to make it up here without getting shot.

Rolling her shoulders to loosen them, Indrani took calm steps forward. The longknives the same woman she was not fighting had gifted her in hand, the scarf they had taken together in Mercantis around her neck, she began to move quicker. Indrani didn’t like thinking when the blades were out, not more than she needed to, but her mind was ajar. Asking questions like why she was doing this, what there was to win. Alexis wanted to kill the Lady, that was no mystery, and Cocky wanted to… get even somehow. But why was Indrani here, dragged into this? Cat had asked her to find out what Ranger would be up to, and she’d found out: baiting out a huge fucking spider monster near the fortified positions of the High Lady of Kahtan. Job done, not great but still done.

So why was she breaking into a run, measuring the distance between her and her teacher?

The blades sang, steel on steel. Parry, riposte, spin. The footing shifted on them, Tenebrous raging at their presence, but even as the world shifted and great towers crashed around them they kept striking. To miss a beat was to lose, perhaps even to die. Indrani found she was smiling through her scarf. So was the Lady, for a while, but it did not last. Indrani was falling behind. She kept coming in close to make her knives count, to go against the length of Ranger’s swords, but it wasn’t enough. The Lady did not fall for feints, and when Indrani ignored what she had thought to be one she nearly lost an eye. Blood began to pour down the side of her head, kept out of her eye only by her eyebrow.

“You’ve improved,” the Ranger said.

“I don’t know if you have,” Archer admitted.

It might, she thought, be why she was fighting in the first place. To see if she could reach the end of Ranger’s skill. Whether or not she beat the other woman didn’t matter that much to her. It wouldn’t really mean anything, even if it ended in death. But knowing where she stood compared to the only person she had really wanted to measure herself up against? That was worth the blood. The Ranger studied her for a beat, slapping aside a cut from the side and forcing Indrani back with the riposte, then scoffed.

“Your mindset is still lacking,” the Ranger said.

Archer grit her teeth, feinted to the side – ignored – and with the flat of her other blade tried to throw darkness in the Lady’s face. It was cut through, and only a desperate half-step kept Indrani from losing half her face. The cut went deep, from just below her right eye to her jaw. If it’d been any deeper bone would have been scraped.

“Light as a feather,” the Lady of the Lake said.

Indrani licked away the blood pooling against her upper lip and went on the attack again. Aggressive, forcing a lock of blades and when Ranger pushed her back she tried to slide under. It got her a kick on the chin for her trouble, but she’d expected that – Cat did the same, because the Carrion Lord did the same and he’d learned it from the Lady – and she caught it with crossed blades. The Lady was forced back, one leg in the air, and Indrani lunged forward with both blades. Only to take another kick on the side of the head, tumbling against the ground with a grunt of pain.

The Lady stabbed down at her shoulder, chipping the mail and finding flesh beneath before withdrawing so Indrani’s swipe would hit only air.

“Heavy as a mountain,” Ranger finished. “You must be one or the other. Anything in between is wasted time.”

“That one’s an old lesson,” Archer rasped out, rising to her feet.

“Yes,” the Lady coldly said. “You should have learned it by now. I thought going out into the world would temper you, but I seem to have been mistaken. Instead you’ve spent your time fucking Amadeus’ apprentice and playing house with Wekesa’s boy. It’s disappointing.”

Indrani held back a flinch.

“I’ve done more than that,” she bit out.

“You have done things,” the Lady dismissed, “but you have not improved. Your mindset was not refined, your experiences did not broaden your horizons. Do you even have a reason to be fighting me?”

Archer opened her mouth.

“Do not offer me empty words, Indrani,” Hye Su warned. “Those I would take an insult.”

Archer’s mouth closed. It felt childish, while facing those eyes and those blades, to speak of understanding where she stood. Of comparison between them. Like she was a child going around in adult’s clothing.

“I thought as much,” Ranger sighed. “Go on, get out of here. I will see if the others have grown and deal with you later.”

Fuck, Indrani thought. Was the Lady right? It felt like she was. What was Archer even doing here? She’d just let Alexis and Cocky talk her into this because she felt bad about how they’d been back in Refuge, gone along with this stupid idea because of guilt she should have left behind long ago. Baggage like that was best left behind, she’d known that for year. Why was she saddling herself with it now? She’d been with Masego and Catherine too long, gotten too comfortable. She was forgetting what the real world was like.

“I-”

The silver arrow of Light thrummed with power, but it was not so swift that the Lady did not bat it aside. The Silver Huntress was already putting away her bow, short spear in hand with a snarl on her face. Indrani, though, did not move. The image had been seared into her eyes. The Lady of the Lake, knee-deep in darkness and armed with nothing but steel parrying that blinding burst of Light. Casually, as if she had never even considered she wouldn’t be able to do it. No delay, no hesitation, no questioning. Indrani had forgot what it was like, seeing the Lady in her element. Seeing who she was.

Action without doubt.

Archer attacked. She could not leave, even if she struggled to articulate why. To think of it. Blood went down her face, down her neck, but her knives did not slow. It was flashes of movement, of sight. Ranger parrying a spear and blade with a hand each, spinning to carve through Alexis’ skull – hitting hair instead, cutting through, but only narrowly. Strands of red flew as steel shone in the sun, Indrani’s knife finding mail and skidding against it as an elbow snapped back her chin. She fell but Alexis struck, hammering down, and while Ranger caught the spear burning with Light she had to take a steadying step back.

Devils began to land around them, croaking dark calls.

Tenebrous tried to shake them off again, so Indrani caught a glimpse of the blade as it came down. The elf stood behind Ranger, hacking at her neck, but she went low. A jab at the Emerald Sword’s chest as the strike went wide, their silhouette shivering. The blow touched nothing but mist, but as it reformed a step back it lost an eye to a perfectly timed follow-up lunge. The elf retreated, another shimmering into view at their side to cover them, and Ranger let out a laugh.

“Where are the other rest, Noon?” she asked. “It’ll take more than you two to make this interesting.”

“Careful what you ask for.”

A vial hit the ground and there was a small tinkling sound, like a bell being rung, that shivered across the darkness. Above them, riding a scaled devil with great wings, Cocky was glaring harshly. The darkness on Tenebrous’ back began to thicken, then move. Spin and roil, like angry snakes.

“Concocter,” Ranger greeted her. “Still relying on others to do the heavy lifting, I see.”

“Freeze,” Cocky answered.

Nothing was happening, Indrani thought, but a look told her that neither the elves nor Ranger seemed to agree. They were all having to rip out their feet from the darkness, as if it’d suddenly turned solid. The Concocter grinned.

Burn,” she hissed.

The great spiders let out a scream that sounded like a laugh, and darkness billowed up in great columns of smoke. Indrani cursed, since it might not hurt her but the dark sure as Hells broke her line of sight, and broke into a run. She found Alexis, whose Light-wreathed spear was keeping the darkness at bay and they set out in pursuit together. They found an Emerald Sword, entirely by accident: they were looking the other way swung blindly backwards at Indrani’s head when she approached. She parried the blow narrowly, gritting her teeth as she was somehow driven back one-handed from behind, but the moment Alexis stepped in the fight was over.

The elf stared at her with their too-wide eyes, wrinkling their nose in distaste, then vanished into the darkness.

“Right,” Indrani breathed out. “They say they’re Good, so they don’t fight heroes.”

“Doesn’t make them less pricks, but at least they’re fighting Ranger,” Alexis grunted. “What was she talking to you about anyway?”

Indrani hesitated.

“Nothing,” she said.

Alexis frowned, then went for her side and pressed a cloth against her hand.

“Wipe your face,” she said. “The blood’s everywhere.”

Archer’s teeth grit. She knew the gesture was not condescending, that she was not being coddled. And still she curtly threw the cloth back at the Silver Huntress.

“I can handle myself,” she bit out.

Without waiting for an answer she pressed forward. They found Ranger only when then burning darkness began to disperse, already fighting two Emerald Swords. The same, different ones? It was impossible to tell, quick as they moved. Indrani glanced at Alexis, whose face was hard-set, and without a word they attacked. Archer’s hand went for the vial Cocky had given her earlier, staying back as the Silver Huntress joined the melee. It was hard to follow the movements, but Archer steeled herself and waited. When she did strike out, it was a wild blow at Ranger’s back – who parried the blade, frowning, but only too late saw the other blow.

Smashing the vial against the Lady’s neck wouldn’t have worked, so Indrani instead crushed the glass in her hand, ensuring most of the liquid within sprayed on the back of Ranger’s neck. Almost as much soaked her hand and arm, though, and immediately she began to retreat. Already she could feel the world quickening around her, her pulse going wild.

“Cocky,” she screamed. “I need an antidote.”

She felt something burn across her belly, her chain mail giving, but it was all… distant. When she came back to herself the Concocter was feeding her something from a green vial, frowning. Indrani swallowed, throat gone dry.

“Did it work?” she asked.

“Almost,” Cocky sighed. “I took enough that Alexis almost cut off her arm at the shoulder, but then she retreated.”

Archer looked down, realized that she was still standing on Tenebrous’ back. Only it was no longer moving.

“Is it…”

“Not sure if it’s her or the Emerald Swords that killed it,” Cocky said. “Either way it’s dead. I had to lift you off with devils while it trashed, it got ugly.”

“And the Lady?” Indrani asked.

“She cut out the drug from herself,” the Concocter grimaced. “The concept of it. I had no idea she could even do that. Seems to have cost her, though, she’s been slower since.”

“Good,” Archer grunted. “I can head back into the fight, then. Is she handling the elves?”

Cocky shook her head.

“They retreated after she wounded a few,” she replied. “They’ll be back, I’m sure, but it’s supposed to take them a while to make their wounds disappear. My bet is we’ll get all ten when they reappear.”

“Lovely,” Indrani drawled. “Which way?”

“Follow me,” Cocky said. “I just held back to take care of you.”

Indrani bit down on the sharp answer at the tip of her tongue. Cocky hadn’t meant it that way. It was not a difficult trip, now that Tenebrous no longer move. The two of them were righting atop at tower against which a great leg was resting, flashed of Light searing the afternoon sky. Alexis was looking worst for wear, bleeding from her gut and a leg, but the Lady still had a grievous wound on her right arm. That had to slow her down, even if it looked like she could still use it some. Indrani went in straight while Cocky took a long war around, aiming to keep out of sight. Alexis was driven back with a cut on her face while the Ranger cast a look her way, cocking an eyebrow as Indrani arrived.

“Back, I see,” the Lady said.

“Yup,” Indrani shrugged, limbering her wrists.

“And more settled,” Ranger said, eyes narrowing.

“I guess it’s just clicking into place, now that I’ve seen you again,” Archer said.

The dark-haired woman, after a long moment, smiled.

“You have found something,” she said, sounding pleased.

“I used to think I wanted to be like you,” Indrani said. “But that’s not it, not really. I get that now.”

“So what is it you do want?” the Lady of the Lake asked.

“I want to be the Ranger,” Indrani said. “I think I’ve wanted it for a long time, actually. I just couldn’t admit it.”

“It’s not something just anyone can claim,” the Lady of the Lake calmly said.

“That’s fine,” Indrani grinned. “It just means being better than you, and that’s the point in the first place.”

“Indrani, what the Hells are you talking about?” Alexis snarled.

“It’s not wrong, how she raised us,” Archer said, to the Huntress’ visible fury. “It’s not right either, though. And I think I’d do it differently in her place, so I will.”

The Lady laughed, sounding genuinely amused.

“You’ve claimed, Indrani,” the Ranger smiled. “Now follow through.”

It was the storm, after that. They were all bleeding and tired and slowing down, but one would not have known it from the blades. Indrani had never fought more aggressively, not even against the Saint of Swords, but she could feel it. The Flow. It was in her blood, in the pounding of her feet against the tiles. And it came to her as naturally as breathing, so easily she’d not even noticed she was slipping into the aspect. Ranger struggled with that, to the extent that she focused on Alexis in an effort to take her out first. Indrani cushioned the first blow for the Huntress with her own shoulder, letting the mail eat it, but the second was at the wrong angle and… a devil took it instead.

Cocky’s eyes were wild as she stood behind Ranger, hand moving as she threw a red vial at her back, but the Lady must have heard her. The devil had tipped her off. She was swinging backwards, through the vial but Indrani’s Name pulsed. It would be more than that, the angle of it and the strength… Cocky would die. It would go through her skull. But through the kill the Lady was making a mistake – there would be no coming back in time, no last moment parry. If Indrani struck now, struck at the right place, then she could win. Not a kill, maybe, but enough that Ranger would be forced to retreat. And in the heartbeat where that all sunk in, she saw the same realization harden in Hye Su’s eyes. There Indrani saw the expectation of defeat. Would it be enough to claim the Name, to make her the Ranger?

No, she thought. But it would be the first step. The most important one.

Indrani felt like screaming. She wanted this. Wanted it badly enough to fight. So why was Cocky getting in the way? She needed to think, to weigh it up, but there was no time and her body moved on its own. The blow went for the arm, the one that would have carved through the Concocter’s face, and Indrani froze in surprise even as Ranger spun away and threw Alexis at her. They fell in a tangle of limbs, pushing each other off even as Cocky backed away from the Ranger with naked fear on her face. She’d gone pale as snow.

“Disappointing,” Ranger sighed. “All three of you. Anger but no control. Hatred but no discipline. And most disappointing of all, desire with no will behind it. None of you learned a thing.”

Indrani offered her arm, dragging Alexis up, and the two of them moved shoulder to shoulder.

“Cocky, stay behind us,” the Huntress said.

“She’s done playing around,” Archer agreed.

“I am,” the Lady of the Lake agreed. “And if all these years have not made the lessons stick, this time I will have to leave a permanent reminder.”

Well, that didn’t sound great, Indrani thought. Only before anyone began to move, the sun dimmed around them. Something enormous was looming just at the edge of their senses as Indrani heard the distant cawing of crows. Besides them, Tenebrous shivered. Still dead. No longer unmoving. All of them glanced to the side, to the rising gargantuan shape of the creature, and found a woman standing atop it. Looking down at them as she leaned on a staff of dead wood. Her cloak was one of many colours, and Catherine Foundling looked down at the Ranger with a hard smile.

Dodge,” the Black Queen said, and the Lady’s eyes widened.

A heartbeat later half the tower was gone, Tenebrous’ leg gone straight through it, and Indrani found that she couldn’t help laughing.

This wasn’t over but, Hells, at least they’d all live to see tomorrow.

“You know,” the Intercessor said, “I always kind of liked you, Akua.”

Ah, the familiar grounds of being lied to by an eldritch abomination with sinister intentions. If there were comfortable cushions, candied dates and a dozen dead bodies it would be her eighth nameday all over again.

“You once threw sand in my eyes after calling me a self-important megalomaniac,” Akua noted.

“And both of those things were well-deserved,” the Intercessor cheerfully replied. “Isn’t that what friendship is, darling?”

“Sand in my eyes?” the dark-skinned mage drily asked.

“Shit, you actually have a sense of humour now,” the Wandering Bard said, sounding impressed. “Like a functional one, not a ‘hahaha down into the tapir pit you go’ kind. You’re mostly a person these days, it’s kind of fucked up you managed that.”

“Yes, well,” Akua smiled, “have you considered-”

She was still only a thimble of power away from collapsing, but it was all about focus. There was plenty of water in the air and it was child’s play to shape some into a nail that she threw right into the Wandering Bard’s throat. Only the pest didn’t die naturally, gone before the ice even broke skin as Akua fell down to her knees. The wave of nausea had her retching wetly as she leaned a hand against the warm bronze of the reservoir walls. A heartbeat later the Bard was there again, picking up the silver flask she’d dropped fleeing.

“Aw, you made me spill some of the mignolet,” the ageless monster whined. “Do you know how rare it is for me to get the good stuff?”

Akua forced herself back up to her feet, leaning heavily against the wall as her vision swam. Gods, she was close to falling unconscious. Worse, another spell like that and she was at genuine risk of burning out. Overdrawing on one’s magic was a particularly painful way to die even by Praesi standards.

“Yeah, I only came when you’d be in no state to stop me,” the Bard easily said.

Akua managed a glare towards the fair-haired woman. This incarnation was tanned and blue-eyed, and shapely in a lowborn way – the kind that came with the frame one had been born with, not proper meals and comfortable living. The Intercessor seemed uncomfortable with the body, though, she noted. The movements were not as smooth as they had been when the two of them last met, with none of the certainty behind the casual laziness in sight.

“Teehee,” the Intercessor deadpanned, batting her eyes. “What a coincidence.”

“It’s been some time since I’ve last wanted to kill someone this much,” Akua admitted.

“Come on now, love,” the Bard grinned. “That’s not quite true is it? You haven’t been standing on all those ledges ‘cause you like the view.”

Two words in the magetongue and a single runic line, but before the curse of silence could fly out the backlash rang up her arm. First a shiver, then a sensation like every vein was bursting as Akua swallowed a scream. She fell back down to her knees, sweating and trembling. If she’d finished the spell, she thought as her arm pulsed with pain, it would have killed her.

“So,” the Intercessor happily said, “we were talking about Cat, yeah?”

“Fuck you,” Akua hoarsely said.

Not the finest retort she’d ever managed, but her arm felt like its was bleeding acid from the pores and she once again felt like throwing up.

“My heart,” the Intercessor gently said, “if she wasn’t game to get naked, why would you think you’d meet my standards?”

Her fingers clawed at the bronze wall. There was a pause, then a fat chortle.

“That one was a little mean even for me,” the Bard admitted. “But hey, you’re still pretty terrible so I don’t actually feel bad. The important thing, though, is that you’re trying to redeem yourself! Kind of.”

It was difficult to think through the pain, to focus, but she had been trained in this. She gathered herself, got back on her feet.

“You are here because I threaten you and your designs,” Akua said. “The why or how is not particularly important, I imagine. You are trying to sway me from the path I am on, whatever that might be. You will fail in this.”

The fair-haired woman snorted.

“See, this is why I actually do like you,” the Bard said. “You’re a tragedy, Akua. But the thing is, when you watch a tragic play usually you feel kind of bad for the lead. They’re put through some pretty dark shit. But that’s the great thing here! You are – and I think I might have mentioned this before but whatever – actually pretty awful. So I can watch the tragedy and not feel bad, because you kind of have it coming. It’s the best of both worlds for everyone.”

A pause.

“Except for you,” the Bard helpfully clarified. “You definitely get the worst of both worlds. I thought that went without saying, but sometimes you’re a little slow on the uptake to I figured I’d throw it in just to be sure.”

“Considering I also have to put up with… whatever this is, my situation truly is a tragedy,” Akua mildly replied. “Of course, I-”

She lunged forward, but the Bard was already moving. Not quite quickly enough to avoid the sorceress’ hands around her throat, she thought, but then she tripped on something – the lute, the damned lute – and she was on her knees, swallowing a scream as agony shot up her arm. The Bard patted her shoulder amicably, leaning against the wall. Her lips were wet from the flask she kept pulling at, pulling into a condescending smile.

“This is actually for your own good, sort of,” the Intercessor assured her. “See, you’ve been going down this road since you got out of the cloak and it’s coming to a head. And there’s a bunch of interesting ways it could end, which aren’t unique – you’re not that special, darling – but I’ll admit that some are pretty rare. Only someone’s been paving this road for you, so you’re not actually going to the end of the road: you’re going to be yanked away just before getting there, ‘cause our Cat has a plan for you.”

“You are not nearly as interesting as you seem to believe you are,” Akua hoarsely said. “Or clever. Do you think I am unaware that she let me go? She did it because it does not matter whether I am at her side or on the other side of the Tyrian Sea. I carry my cage with me wherever I go.”

“This is the sweet spot,” the Bard enthusiastically said. “First you had to lose. Then you questioned your beliefs. Then you pretended you believed what other people do, until you’d been lying long enough you had a hard time telling if you were lying – that one’s a pattern with you, love, you should really work on that.”

“You know nothing,” Akua hissed.

“Sure, sure,” the old monster insincerely said. “Anyways, now you’ve been freed and cut loose but you’re finding you kind of still buy in those things you insist are lies. And it’s chewing you up, ‘cause you’re horrible and for the first time in your life you actually know that. But this is the fun part! Because you’re failing at dying – also a pattern in your life, have you ever considered not failing at everything of import you’ve ever tried? – so you’re not going to be able to take the easy way out. You’re actually going to have to change. Find a path forward you can live with.”

Ah, so that was her game.

“Are you to be my personal angel, Bard?” Akua mockingly smiled. “My guide to the embrace of redemption?”

“Call me Yara. And of course not,” she solemnly said, face serious as a priest. “I would never dare meddle in the story of another Named, I’m a firm believer in the integrity of…”

The Wandering Bard cracked up, laughing until her breath was choked up.

“Oh man,” the Intercessor wheezed. “Good times. Yeah, I’m here you actually end up somewhere. Anywhere, really, I’m not super picky about what happens to you on account of not really caring about you as a person. Cat’s not interested in you having ending, my sad little friend, which does pisses me off a little. Screwing around with fate like that is my shtick, you smarmy one-eyed drunk. Can’t you go original for once?”

“Your only interest is in using me to kill her,” Akua calmly said.

The Bard grinned nastily.

“Which you don’t want,” she said in sing-song voice, “cause you’re in luuuurv.”

The kissy noises that followed were not even the worst part.

“Oh, Catherine, won’t you find a stool to stand on and kiss me,” the Intercessor continued in a high-pitched voice, then lowered it to a gritty one and closed an eye. “I can’t, Akua, even though I’ve been hinting I want to for years. Staring at your tits is definitely part of a grand master plan, and not just something I enjoy doing.”

The Wandering Bard closed her mouth, then turned to meet her eyes and pointed an accusing finger.

“This is you,” she contemptuously said. “This is what you sound like.”

Akua’s jaw clenched.

“Are you quite finished?” she asked.

“Nah, I mostly did that because kicking you in the belly emotionally is kind of fun,” the Bard easily admitted. “The thing is, Akua, this superbly accurate rendition of your innermost thoughts I just treated you to is actually kind of nonsense. It’s what you like to think is happening, because it’s a comfortable idea that you’re tortured and in love and it’s all very tragic and o Heavens, what could have been if only you weren’t just, kind of appalling!”

The old monster thinly smiled, revealing crooked teeth.

“Only what’s actually happening is that she’s fucked with your head pretty thoroughly because she doesn’t believe she can kill the Dead King so she needs someone powerful to step up and contain him,” the Intercessor said. “Used to be she was going to lean on Masego to make a seal on the Hellgate that you’d be stuck maintaining forever, but she’s gotten a little more ambitious since. She figures she can destroy the undead threat with that little Arsenal project she got Hierophant to cook up and then toss Neshamah himself into the Twilight Ways where you’re going to serve as his prison warden forever.”

Akua stilled.

“Yeah,” the Bard said, smile broadening into a grin. “That’s right. She’s going to offer you Larat’s sloppy seconds of a crown and then drop you in Liesse so you can think about what a bad girl you’ve been until… well, pretty much the end of time really. She’s been priming you to accept that role for years, my heart. I’ve been following the whole thing, not because I need to but because it’s like reading a Proceran romance serial where everyone is terrible and pretentious and you don’t even get to fuck. It’s been great, so thanks for that.”

Part of Akua felt like being angry, like accusing the Intercessor lying and being indignant. But she’d spent the months since she had left the starry cave on the outskirts of Wolof running away, and now she was simply… tired. It was true, because Catherine loved the sort of cutting irony that the punishment described here would carry and because this had all been coming for a while, hadn’t it? Maybe not this specifically, but something like it. A long price for her folly. Nothing she’d done since leaving that camp had mattered, had it?

She’d killed and saved lives, she had fought and bargained and now she was finding that the Tower itself was in her grasp – but she did not want to be here. Not in Ater, not in Praes. Not anywhere, really. Akua knew that the Intercessor had not lied because here and now, on her knees with a broken city around her, going to the Twilight Ways sounded restful. It would be a relief, to leave it all and take on a duty that was grim but also for the greater good of Creation. Not something to even the balance against the evil she had done, but something she could take some satisfaction in nonetheless.

Scratching the edges of the itch, but was that not the best she could hope for?

If that offer had come tomorrow, after the Tower all but fell in her grasp and the great lords of this empire all looked up at her with hopes in their eyes like she could save them, save anything at all, then Akua Sahelian knew deep in her bones that she would have accepted it without a second thought. And this terrified her, not because of how deeply Catherine had come to know her – even now that thought was a thrilling anguish – but because the moment had already come to her. Just now. But soon it would fade. Soon the exhaustion would leave her, and with rest the last of this sudden clarity would be gone to never return.

“You didn’t come here to convince me,” Akua quietly said. “The only reason you’re here is to spoil a piece before it all comes together.”

“Got it in one,” the Wandering Bard smiled. “But since it’s the end times, my sweet, I’ll offer you one on the house. The truth is, you don’t owe shit to Catherine Foundling. What did she lose at the Doom, except for soldiers? It’s the foundation of her reign. No, that day gives her no claim on you. It’s the people you murdered that you’re indebted to, and what the fuck do any of them care about the Black Queen?”

She shrugged.

“You probably don’t have much longer left to live,” the Bard said. “Maybe none of us do, if Nessie gets his way. So for once in your life, Akua Sahelian, won’t you actually make a decision?”

The old monster met her eyes.

“Not do what your mother burned into you,” Yara said, “or Praes or Catherine. Something that you think worth doing.”

Her jaw clenched.

“I will not be your puppet,” Akua said.

“That’s the beauty of it,” the Intercessor smiled, raising her flask in a toast. “I’m the only person in this entire empire of the damned that does not need you on strings.”

She drank deep, looking unspeakably satisfied, but Akua knew the look in her eyes. She saw it, sometimes, in her own looking glass.

“How long have you been doing this, Yara?” she quietly asked.

The Intercessor studied her.

“I remember when the first boat touched the beach,” the other woman said. “The sound their boots made on the wet rocks, the way my little brother kept tugging at my tunic in excitement. It wasn’t called Ashur, would not be for many years. The men were not yet called Aenian.”

“What happened?” she whispered.

“The same thing that always happens,” Yara of Nowhere said, “when men with swords are greeted by songs and gifts.”

“You survived,” Akua said.

Survived,” the other woman smiled. “There’s a word that means nothing. You can keep breathing and have most of you waiting in a grave, Akua. If you learn anything from me, learn that. There’s no worth in just existing. You have to make it count.”

“Don’t you?” Akua asked.

The Intercessor smiled.

“We’ll meet again,” she said, “before this is over.”

She raped a knuckle against the bronze wall, a loud ringing sound, and the moment Akua blinked she was gone. Silence lingered in her wake. Eventually, the golden-eyed noble left the reservoir. Below her vultures were waiting, circling. High Lord Jaheem was the one who handed her the letter with the Tower’s seal. They’d had one of their own as well, he told her. Summons to a formal court tomorrow. Offers to allow in household troops for security.

“It is an abdication in all but name, Lady Akua,” High Lord Jaheem said, tone tight with excitement. “Malicia only seeks to preserver her dignity by being properly defeated before the greats of Praes before she surrenders the throne.”

Akua thumb slid across the smooth writing on the parchment, the words that gave a time and a place and a knife. Malicia chose this, she thought. For herself and for me. And still, looking at the letter was the first step up the stairs of the Tower, Akua wondered. It was rope she held, she recognized.

But was it a knot or a noose?

Interlude: Kiss Of The Knife

“Treason is a distant thing, a matter for the histories. Betrayal is where the bile is: you have to love someone before they can betray you.”

– King Selwyn Fairfax of Callow, the Old

“Why Troke?”

Sigvin was frowning, learning forward so the noonday sun would not fall into her eyes.

“For the same reason I’ve ordered my banner not be raised,” Hakram replied.

All the way south, the place of honour – the Warlord’s place – among the banners had remained empty. The order had seen warriors grumble at the lack of pride, enough that he’d spread among the horde that he would only raise his own banner after Ater was made to kneel. The boast had limited the damage to reputation, and what he’d paid was well worth what he was to get for it now. At his left, Oghuz suddenly let out a loud bark of laughter.

“Look at them, girl,” the chief of the Red Shields said. “How thick is their battle line?”

Hakram’s eyes returned to the field. When he’d sent out his vanguard of five thousand wolf rider towards the camps to the east of Ater, the nobles in them had understandably reacted to the threat. What troops were not already fighting in the city had been mustered and ordered out, but that effort had ceased as soon as the highborn had glimpsed the banners claiming that Troke Snaketooth was the warlord of the Clans. It was, after all, an open secret among the highest rung of the nobility that Troke was an ally of Malicia’s. They were still wary, as the Clans should have gone to sack Nok instead of marched on Ater, but the tension went out of their battle line.

Troke rode forward with a few picked men, champions, and the nobles sent a party of their own. Led by a Niri, by the look of their banners.

Only the vanguard had slowed, not stopped, and the highborn realized it only moments before Troke Snaketooth’s warband smashed into their envoys and the packs of wolf riders howled a charge. Some of the mages with the troops got spells up in time, turning back the attack, but not enough. Most of the enemy soldiers had never faced great wolves up close and it showed: the great mount shattered the shield wall in moments and trampled dozens, terror spreading at the violent howls. Maybe eight thousand Praesi had mustered on the field and less than a tenth of that died under the charge, but their morale broke instantly. The army shattered, entire companies fleeing the monsters and the massive horde they could see approaching in the distance.

“Good,” Hakram gravelled. “Oghuz, take ten thousand shields and secure the camps. Capture all the highborn you can, I want bargaining chips.”

“Warlord,” the old orc replied, hand over heart.

Hakram nodded back, then turned his eye to Sigvin.

“Send word to your grandmother,” he said. “I want the Split Tree to oversee the loot. We distribute only when the blades rest.”

“It will be done,” she replied.

Overseeing the loot was a position of great trust – the old hordes had given it a formal title, one held in great respect – but Hakram meant it as a check as well as a mark of favour. It never made a clan popular for its warriors to be the ones telling other orcs they couldn’t drag away the riches they’d just won in battle. Waiting for Sigvin to finish, the Warlord watched the eastern gates in the distance. Three had been open this morning, he’d been told, but now two were closed. Not that Ater’s defenders were the ones keeping the third one open: the banner hung on the gatehouses was a vulture holding a skull, Askum’s colours.

High Lady Abreha Mirembe was said to have been raised as undead by Catherine at the Battle of Kala and she knew better than to cross her mistress.

Sigvin returned to his side and Hakram sent for Dag Clawtoe, the warrior he’d overtaken as leader of the Howling Wolves and who now led his personal guard. The three of them and two hundred shields set out towards the gate even as the Clans followed, columns of warriors sweeping the highborn camps and approaching the capital. His force was large enough, the Warlord knew, that Abreha would come to greet him personally. Praesi respected force even when it was in the hands of those they considered savages, and the once-Sepulchral was nothing if not pragmatic. Careful, too.

She came out to meet him near the gatehouse with two hundred soldiers of her own, but she had twice that waiting with bows up in the heights. Out of firing range, narrowly, but should Abreha retreat under their cover the ensuing fight would not go well for him. The old witch let out a little noise of amusement when they finally stood face to face.

“No longer Adjutant, I take it?” High Lady Abreha said.

“No longer,” the Warlord agreed. “The city?”

“Out of control,” she replied. “From the Licosian Gates to the western walls is nothing but giant spiders and things called to kill them. Maybe a fifth of the city is lost, either to flame or damages. The Legions are dug in along the Avenue of Claws and Akua Sahelian is rumoured to be mounting a counterattack, but it’s not looking good. “

Hakram snorted.

“Catherine?” he asked.

“Still near the Licosian Gates last I heard, containing the situation with the Hierophant’s help,” High Lady Abreha replied. “The Army of Callow retreated in good order to the western gates – with civilians along, when they could.”

“Quite the mess,” Hakram said.

“It is,” the old witch smiled. “So what is it that you’ve come to add, Deadhand? I must confess, it’s starting to look like we might no longer be on the same side.”

“Oh?”

“Had to fight Dakarai off to keep this gate open,” High Lady Abreha said. “I’ll need assurances before I let you through it.”

Hakram laughed in her face, then let out a sharp whistle. The Aksum household troops tensed, some drawing swords, but his own warriors did not charge. Instead they turned about sharply, beginning to march away. Wary surprise found its way to Abreha’s face.

“It need not be anything onerous,” the High Lady said. “Just oaths and hostages.”

“I won’t bargain with you, Abreha,” Hakram said. “What I wanted from you was news of the battle, and you have given them to me.”

The old woman scoffed.

“So you dragged your horde all the way from the Steppes just to sit out the fall of Ater?” Abreha said. “Try a better lie.”

“You misunderstand me,” Hakram Deadhand said.

In the distance, there was a great grinding sound. One of two western gates that’d been closed was opening again. The High Lady of Askum’s face went blank, hiding her thoughts.

“Why would I cut a deal with you,” the Warlord asked, “when I have already done so with High Lady Wither?”

Indrani breathed out, nocked her arrow and jumped down.

Flashes of bright light below, scarabs the size of fists burrowing into the flesh of spiders and devils only to explode out in green flame. Distractions, all of it. At the heart of the horde, the house-sized green salamander devil was laying on the broken pedestal of some dead empress and watching it all with its jutting eyes – a spider came a little too close, mouth open in a screech, and the devil’s jaw unhinged. Archer smiled. The arrow was in flight before she even knew it, her body moving by itself, and the salamander’s lower jaw was nailed down to the stone. Its spiky tongue jutted out as it screamed, impaling the spider, and Indrani landed on her knees just behind the dying creature.

 She snatched the spike at the end of the tongue before it could retract, to the devil’s hateful screams, and rose to a run. Movement to the left, claws, but she went low and blood splashed on her cloak as a spider died in her stead. A jet of spidersilk brushed against the edge of her shoulder but she was already twisting, leaping – broken stone pillar to the side, base to leap even higher and fuck a devil. The coloured toucan the size of a man and made of ivory and fingers clawed at side, pale claws raking at her chain mail, and she was slammed on the side of a wall. She smacked the devil away with her bow, breaking the string, and fell back even quicker when the salamander devil tried to retract its tongue.

The bow went behind her back, just in time for the toucan devil to come back and get a knife in the belly. She wrapped her limbs around it, ignoring the horrid wiggling of the fingers, and used it as a base to throw herself atop the roof. She landed on her side, the salamander devil below screeching words in the Dark Tongue as its tongue kept extending. Almost there, Archer thought. She rolled to the side as a streak of fire tore through the roof tiles where she’d just been, breaking into a running leap at the next roof – in the distance she saw a flash of Light shine and wink out, the Lady shooting Alexis’ arrow in flight – and landing just near the edge of the last roof. Just in time for spiders to begin climbing up that edge. She couldn’t stop moving, she’d lose the momentum and then she was fucked.

So instead she sped up, and when the fat body full of mandibles went over the edge it was receive her boot in the face as she used it as a base to leap further up. Screeches behind her but she was flying, flying until she hit the wall with a gleeful laugh. The alcove in the tower was just large enough for her to stand in it after the bruising landing, and Indrani wasted no time hammering the tongue spike into it with her bare hand. Once, twice, and in it went. Deep. In the distance the salamander screamed in rage but the spike was stuck in now. Indrani reached for the vial in her bag, smashing it atop the point where the tongue went into the stone. The black good solidified in moments, making sure it’d be stuck there for good.

“Well,” Archer said. “Time to get going.”

She climbed up the tower even as began to shake, reaching the top and the wonderful view of the howling hell Ater had turned into just moments before there was a sinister crack down below. Indrani moved to the eastern edge, sheathing her knife and taking out a fresh string for her bow. Down below, the Lady still stood on that statue of Terribilis as she toyed with the Silver Huntress. Arrows were shot out in flight, Ranger shot her through cover – even when stone – and twice collapsed a building with a very precise missile as Alexis tried to cross them. The arrows wreathed in silver Light that headed back Ranger’s way never made it close. Lexy was too slow to imbue the Light, against reflexes like the Lady’s that was as good as not shooting at all.

Archer nocked an arrow, breathed out and loosed. The Lady caught the movement, swayed slightly to the left and the shot that should have gone through her spine instead caught a devil in the face down below. Ranger cocked an eyebrow at her, as if asking whether that was the best Indrani could do. She had yet to stop standing atop the head of the fucking statue she’d been on all this time. Instead of answering, Archer nocked another arrow and grinned. If she wasn’t wrong, it ought to be around – a few small cracks, then a massive one as the salamander-devil finally pulled the seven-story high tower down. Which was something of a problem for Indrani, who was standing on top of said tower, but more of a problem for the Lady.

Who the tower was falling on.

Whooping in delight, Indrani loosed on the arrow the Lady had just tried to put in her throat and hit the side, deflecting it. Even as she slid down the top of the tower, she nocked and released once more – looking irritated the Lady cut it down, but Alexis had taken the opening. Silver shone bright, clipping the edge of the Lady’s shoulder and singing her cloak. For a moment Ranger looked up, but Indrani realized with a start it wasn’t her being looked at. It was the falling tower. One of the windows, more specifically.

“No fucking way,” Archer cursed. “You can’t possibly be that quick.”

Just before the tower’s roof became a wall, she leapt away and to the side. Even as the building fell onto a mass of spiders and devils she landed through a broken tile roof and into what looked like pack of shelves which were – ow ow, fucking ow – full of bottles. Indrani took a moment to be in pain as the broken shelves and bottles fell on her head, bruised and bloody, and there was a thunderous sound and cloud of dust as the tower finished falling. Taking an experimental sniff the liquid drenching her, Indrani found it appeared to be wine. Ah, but the Gods did provide. She bit off the cork and took a swallow of what tasted like some red from somewhere, polishing off a third of the bottle because those fucking cuts on her face hurt like a bitch. Well, time to see if the Lady had actually pulled it off.

Indrani left the house only to find the Ranger smugly standing atop the fallen tower, next to what had been a window on the western side.

“Oh come on,” Archer complained. “Are you telling me you managed to climb and cross the damn thing before it finished falling?”

“The windows on the second level faced each other,” the Lady said, amused. “You girls picked the wrong tower to drop.”

She paused to slap away a silver arrow.

“Fine,” Indrani sighed. “Next one will be bigger, and without fucking windows. You going to say why you were standing on that statue, at least?”

“So I could literally look down on your efforts,” the Lady of the Lake informed her.

“Ouch,” Indrani said. “In all fairness, you’re pretty hard to kill.”

“Is that what you’re trying?” she smiled. “I thought we were catching up.”

“Sure, but we figured it’d be better to catch you then get caught,” Indrani noted. “What errand is it you’re running for the Carrion Lord, anyway?”

Ranger cocked her head to the side.

“You’re stalling,” she stated. “Why?”

“Wine hasn’t kicked in yet,” Indrani replied, raising her bottle.

She threw it a moment later, but it didn’t work – the Lady ignored it, instead swatting the arrow without Light that the Silver Huntress had just tried to put in the side of her neck.

“Alexis,” Ranger greeted her. “You seem in a mood. Rough day?”

Lexy came out of the house she’d shot through the window of, jaw clenched.

“What is it going to take,” the Silver Huntress bit out, “for you to take this seriously?”

The Ranger considered her.

“For you to get out of the woods I first found you running in,” the Lady said.

Oh boy, Indrani thought. That wasn’t going to end well. At least their plan had worked, though. Archer wasn’t hearing any devils and spiders fighting nearby, so Cocky should be about ready. Alexis took her spear in hand, Light flaring bright.

“I’m going to take that answer out of your fucking hide,” the Silver Huntress said.

“You’re beginning to bore me,” the Ranger noted. “Cocky, won’t you stop skulking around long enough say something? Crawling on your belly is no way to live, girl.”

Cocky did, in fact, come out of hiding. Atop the rooftop, covered in ash and dust but grinning.

“Me,” the Concocter said.

“Pardon?” the Lady said.

“You asked what she was stalling for,” Cocky said. “It was for me.”

She raised her hand, snapping the fingers, and suddenly their surroundings were filled with screams. Every devil and spider that’d been exposed to the charm potions came when called by their new mistress, prepared to kill at her word.

“So that’s your plan?” the Lady asked. “Swarming me.”

“It’s a start,” the Concocter said.

Ranger snorted, then glanced at Indrani – who’d been nocking an arrow, admittedly.

“I did come here for something,” the Lady said. “You were right.”

“And what’s that?” Archer asked.

Below them the ground began to shake. Not, not shake. Something was… hitting it.

“Let her catch my scent,” the Ranger replied.

The paved street in front of them was ripped open, a massive leg tearing through it. Merciless Gods, Indrani thought. No, that couldn’t be. Wasn’t it supposed to be just a story? Another street blew up and slowly, inexorably, a gargantuan shape rose through the foundation of Ater. A spider so large and foul it defied description, shrouded in darkness and venom that dripped like rain. Her scream, when her hundred thousand eyes found the sun, was deafening. She was sniffing at the air, looking for a scent.

“Dread Emperor Tenebrous,” Indrani whispered.

The Lady of Lake smiled at them.

“Now it’s a proper fight,” Hye Su happily said.

Slowly, she unsheathed her second blade.

“What are you waiting for? Take your shot, kids.”

“It won’t work,” High Lady Takisha said, tone frustrated. “My mages say-”

“Yes,” Akua impatiently said, “that the sky is too dry because of the previous rains. Which I have a solution to.”

“That offensive is suicide,” Takisha hissed. “You cannot-”

“My soldiers are at your disposal, Lady Sahelian,” High Lord Jaheem mildly said.

Akua passed a tired hand through her hair. It was telling that no one even seemed to notice it: they were all so exhausted and on edge that the usual games had gone by the wayside.

“I need more than soldiers,” Akua admitted. “I need at least three mage cabals.”

The High Lord of Okoro hesitated.

“I only have two,” he admitted. “One of which is of my retinue.”

Which he would not part with, considering that there had been two attempts to abduct him today.

“One would be a start,” Akua said, glancing at High Lady Takisha.

Who looked away. Akua could not even blame her too much for it. The Kahtan household troops had been so brutalized by the day’s fighting that there was barely a third of left of them. All of the Taghreb soldiery had been badly mauled, in truth, but the Kahtan men had led the vanguard and suffered accordingly – first against the Army of Callow, then those damnable spiders.

“I will go,” High Lord Dakarai said. “I still have nearly sixty mages, a third of which can touch High Arcana. It ought to be enough, I think.”

A moment of surprised silence. He was taking a considerable risk, investing so much of the last strength of his house in such a dangerous undertaking. Nok had been mauled as badly as Kahtan today, losing troops to both Aksum and the spiders. Abreha’s treachery had been eminently predictable, but Dakarai’s apparent change of sides was rather puzzling considering it had cost him much and might still cost him more.

“It is not certain any of us will return,” Akua felt bound to remind him.

“It is not certain any of us will live through the day, if those monsters are not dealt with,” High Lord Dakarai flatly replied. “We have already wrecked entire districts failing to contain them, and that was before…”

“Emperor-claimant Tenebrous?” High Lady Takisha suggested.

All of their gazes moved to the hulking shape of the spider near the Licosian Gates, which had already wrecked three fortified positions in its rampage. The lesser spiders had taken advantage to overwhelm the district, killing hundreds of soldiers in the service of Takisha’s vassals.

“It ought to be empress-claimant, surely,” High Lord Jaheem muttered.

“Regardless of the titles, Ater is on the brink,” High Lord Dakarai said. “You have my cabals, Lady Sahelian.”

They set out as a mixed force, High Lord Jaheem insisting he send his one spare cabal along with soldiers regardless of necessity. It was hard fighting block by block once they passed the fortified positions, swarms spiders attacking from streets and rooftops as the soldiers advanced with tightly locked shields and the mages returned fire. Akua led from the front, trusting Kendi’s sorcery to shield her as she went purely on the offensive with the most destructive curses she’d learned as a girl. Two thousand soldiers had set out, four hundred were dead by the time the expedition made it to the massive structure of bronze that she’d been leading it to. A reservoir, one of the largest in Ater.

It fed some of the aqueducts, hence the bronze – it was the easiest metal to enchant – but many of those were now broken and spilling anyway. At the moment it was nothing but an enormous amount of water doing no good to anyone. As the household troops dug in and established a defensive perimeter under constant harassment, Akua organized the cabals into two ritual sequences. The first was easy, requiring a dozen mages only because of the power requirement. Magic was sunk into the water reservoir, then over three heartbeats turned to searing heat: a massive column of vapour blew upwards, high into the sky, as Akua followed with a measuring spell. It was barely enough water, but it would do. The hail of the last two weeks had filled it to burst, it was the only reason it worked.

The second ritual took every mage left, in hexagonal nodes as power was gathered and sent up into the sky. The clouds began to form after half an hour – almost half the soldiers were dead by then, the spiders attracted by the great bursts of power – but after that it was not long. Dark clouds began crackling with power as Akua sunk deeper into High Arcana than she ever had, finding the runes came to her as if she’d been born with the knowledge. As if she were meant to succeed.

Lightning struck the tide of spiders before the main Legion position. Once, then twice. Then four times at once. Then nine. And then a howling column of lightning descended from the sky, like the glare of some ancient god, incinerating arachnids wherever it went. And Akua moved it, power dancing under a darkened sky as the column of lightning moved along the battle lines like a pencil being dragged. Before long the power began to wane, the array began to fight her and the clouds thinned, but Akua pressed on. A little more. If she kept at it little longer, she could end this. Force the spiders to retreat, to spare Ater.

And as her pores began to sweat blood, she smashed the last of the lightning onto the massive shape of the progenitor spider. It screamed and smoked, but rose from the ground soon enough. Akua dropped to the ground, spent.

“It wasn’t enough,” she panted, falling to her knees.

The last wisps of power slipped through her fingers. Someone approached to help her up, but she waved them away.

“See to those that fell unconscious,” she croaked out. “And prepare for the retreat. We’re done here.”

None gainsaid her. They looked at her with fear in the eyes, she thought, but something like hunger too. It had been a long time since Ater had seen sorcery the likes of which had just been unleashed. Within moments Akua was alone in the warm cradle of bronze, even Kendi having gone. Only the sound of her breath kept her company as her heartbeat slowed. Gods, but she wanted to sleep. To close her eyes and wake up in Hainaut, still damned but without having to look it in the eye.

Goddamn, but she did a number on you.”

Akua’s eyes fluttered open. Before her, leaning against the wall, a woman stood with a silver flask in hand. Hanging off her back was a run-down lute.

“I’ve been around for a while, darling, and I’m still impressed by how thoroughly Cat got into your head,” the Wandering Bard said. “It’s fucking magnificent work, pun intended. Terrible too, but that does tend to be the way with our girl yeah?”

“Go away,” Akua croaked out.

“Nah,” the Bard casually dismissed. “We’re going to have a talk, you and I. Her plan has been working pretty much perfectly, which is why it’s time for me to tell you a few truths and sent that off into the void.”

“I will not-”

“We’re going to have a talk,” the Wandering Bard grinned, “about exactly what it is that Catherine Foundling has planned for you.”

“I couldn’t get my hands on High Lord Jaheem,” High Lady Wither said. “He goes nowhere without a full mage cabal since his daughter was assassinated and my ambush was fought off.”

“We captured two of his children and much of his extended family outside the city,” Hakram replied. “It will have to serve.”

Getting the High Lord of Okoro to cede some of his territory was not going to be easy, but so long as the Tower was kept out of it the Clans had the stronger bargaining position. Hostages would only improve that, though exacting it as ransom from the man himself would have been easiest. Still, disappointing as the failure was it was not surprising: if High Lords were easy to capture, they would not be High Lords. Hakram looked away from Pickler’s mother and down to the city, where the unfolding battle could well be seen from the gatehouse where they stood. The staggering feat of magic that could only have been the work of Akua Sahelian had turned the tide.

The lightning storm had torn through thousands of the spiders and sent many skittering back to their hiding places below. There were still pockets of fighting between soldiers and beasts but much fewer, and already it could be seen that the Legions were going on the offensive to clear out the still-infested districts. Down south was less promising, where the High Lady of Kahtan held command and most highborn armies had gathered. The hulking silhouette of what had to be the progenitor of the infestation beneath Ater was rampaging around the Licosian Gates, swatting away at storm elementals and devils. Giant spiders were gathering to her, as if they were being called.

“It will be time to move soon,” the Warlord said.

“The longer we let Takisha bleed the better,” High Lady Wither smiled.

“Short-sighted,” Hakram said. “We’ll need those armies as fodder when we fight Keter and their nobles to handle the Hellgates. If it’s truly the Carrion Lord behind this insurgency of spiders, he disappoints me: thousands died today that could have been put to better use.”

“It’s him,” Wither quietly said. “And he’s not done, mark my words.”

Hakram did not ask how she knew. It would have been impolite and she would not have told him regardless.

“It does not change the need to act,” he said. “I want the west of the capital firmly under our control by the time the dust settles.”

“Abreha will take the safe passage to outside the city when you offer it,” High Lady Wither mused. “She’s not going to fight us for the gate, not when it already cost her keeping Dakarai away from it. She’ll move her camp to the Army of Callow’s side and stop pretending she ever switched sides. It’s Sargon that’s going to be a problem.”

“On that we agree,” the Warlord growled.

Sargon Sahelian had contributed to the defence of the capital, but most of his troops had stayed near the central districts that surrounded the Tower. Giving him the boot would not be trouble given the size of Hakram’s army, but the Sahelian was sharing those positions with the Sentinels – and Hakram was hesitant to tangle with those at the moment. Whoever first cornered Malicia would be mauled by the Tower’s arsenal, that was a role best passed to another. It was why he’d ordered his chiefs to seize the west of the city but go no further. The wealthy camps outside the city would sate the hunger for plunder for now, enough his warriors would not sack the capital against his orders.

“We’ll test their will to stand their ground with a few skirmishes,” High Lady Wither decided.

“I’m not above burning them out if I have to,” Hakram bluntly said. “We need to hold the avenues and barricade them if we’re going to keep the nobles wedged between us and the Army of Callow.”

Which was the only way he’d get them to bend without outright sacking Ater, he figured. If they had room to maneuver they’d try to run rings around him, decide they could wait out his horde. But so long as they were stuck in the capital between his host and another enemy, stripped of their supplies and at the Tower’s feet, they could be made to bend. It was either that or a massacre, which would weaken his army and taint the concessions he was here to force. Wither was in the same boat as him, which was why she’d been willing to ally: her title had been granted by Malicia, which meant it was worth less than dust the moment Malicia lost her throne. To ensure she was not thrown to the wolves by whoever succeeded the Empress, it been well worth opening a gate into the city.

One hundred thousand orcs were a heavy argument in any negotiation.

Their conversation was interrupted by a messenger, which turned out to be for the both of them. Letters with the Tower’s seal. Already checked for poison and curses. Hakram opened his own, scanning the lines, and let out a bark of laughter. Well, let it not be said that Malicia lacked audacity.

“I assume you got the same as me?” he asked.

“An invitation to a formal session of the imperial court tomorrow,” Wither said, eyes narrowed. “Malicia is playing a game again. She still thinks she can live through this.”

Hakram snorted. Catherine wanted the woman’s head on a pike, and given the situation she was quite likely to get it. There were few people left in Praes who wanted to keep the empress alive – it was more an issue of no one wanting to be the one to kill her. Cornered foxes bit deepest. The two of them left the wall to begin their preparations for the push into the city, but once more he was interrupted. This time by Dag, who quietly told him there was a messenger from the Army of Callow. The Warlord’s hand tightened. It had only been a matter of time, he knew.

Somehow he’d still been hoping to avoid it for a little longer.

The man had been led to a house on the other side of the street and kept under guard. Hakram wasted no time getting there, finding the officer was looking outside the window when he entered. The tall orc frowned. Something was wrong here. These were lieutenant’s stripes, Catherine would have sent someone higher up for an important message. The human turned, unclasping the straps of his helmet and setting it down on the table, revealing greying hair and green eyes.

“Good afternoon, Warlord,” the Carrion Lord said.

Hakram’s dead hand clenched.

“You are not here on Catherine’s behalf,” the Warlord said.

The older man conceded the point with a slight nod.

“So what is it you want, Amadeus of the Green Stretch?” the Warlord asked.

“I come,” the devil said, “to offer you a bargain.”

Interlude: The Hanged All Crooning

“Would-be tyrants always snigger when a hero comes knocking, smirking at each other that if they were in charge surely they would have killed the man when he was still a callow youth. Idiots. Do you have any idea how many callow youths are out to kill me, Chancellor? If I killed them all I could make a second Tower out of the corpse pile. The best you can do is massacre here and there and hope it’s one of the dumb ones that survives all the way to your door.”

– Dread Empress Rancorous

A tide of chitinous vermin poured out of the sewers, disgusting eight-legged creatures the size of horses that screeched under the glare of the sun and spread out like a plague. And they kept coming out: a dozen, a hundred. How long until it was a thousand, or even more than that? Arthur turned a glare on the disguised man that could only be Amadeus of the Green Stretch, the Carrion Lord himself. The older man seemed as indifferent to his fury as he was to the screams sounding in the distance.

“You madman,” the Squire shouted. “You’re releasing them into the city!”

“Well spotted,” the Carrion Lord praised.

Arthur suspected he was not imagining that sardonic undertone.

“People are going to die,” the orphan bit out. “Thousands-”

“An entirely foreseeable consequence of giving battle in a crowded city,” the Carrion Lord noted. “Is it only collateral damage not of your own making that offends?”

Innocents will die,” the Squire seethed. “Innocents are already dying. And you’re playing word games with me?”

“You’re letting the Book do you thinking for you,” the green-eyed man chided. “Think, boy. Where did you see signals being sent up? Where do we stand right now?”

Arthur seized his anger by the neck, slowed it, but did not set it aside. Anger was good, anger was your soul telling you something was unacceptable and you ought to do something about it. But the dark-haired orphan forced himself to think. The flares he’d seen in the sky, they’d been in a broad line going south to north across Ater. A battle line, he thought. The breaches, the place where the spiders were coming through, they were all places where there’d already been fighting. Soldiers.

“You sent them after armies,” the Squire said.

“I did,” the Carrion Lord easily replied. “I’ve known this city for decades, judging where the fighting would take place during the assault was not difficult. Thought that fascinating engine – Masego’s work, yes? – took me by surprise. I had to compensate with some heavy-handedness around the Licosian Gates.”

“You may yet ruin this city and all in it,” Arthur bit out. “Worse yet, what manner of dark bargain did you strike to get power over the spiders?”

The green-eyed man cocked his head to the side, looking amused.

“Arthur Foundling,” he drawled, “are you asking me to tell you my evil plan?”

The Squire paused, slightly embarrassed at being caught out instantly. Still, he must persevere.

“Do you not want to tell anyone of your cunning?” Arthur tried. “Surely a great deal of work went into this.”

Evil always liked to gloat, unless it was the Dead King and his Revenants, but Lady Alexis said those didn’t really count.

“I was going to use you to funnel information to my daughter, but it would be almost unprincipled of me to indulge you after that,” the Carrion Lord noted. “I’d be rewarding an unsavoury habit.”

“The White Knight told me this usually works,” Arthur replied, a tad defensively.

“Well, if the Sword of Judgement said so,” the older man drily said. “We must not make a liar out of Judgement’s favourite meat puppet, I’ll tell you everything.”

Arthur eyed him skeptically. Maybe taking him prisoners would be safer. The Carrion Lord was on the edge of the roof, his sword still in the sheath and he was no longer Named. Just an aging man in light mail. One who was looking at him with calm, cool eyes. The fight would be his to lose, the Squire thought. He’d been training with some of the finest warriors on Calernia. And yet under the weight of those pale green eyes Arthur found he was hesitating. His instincts were telling him it was a bad idea, and though his anger at the horror the old monster had just unleashed on Ater was far from quenched he would not let it bait him into making a mistake.

He must find out how the villain was controlling the horde, what power or artefact, so that the spiders could be forced back below.

“I am not the Tyrant of Helike, child,” the Carrion Lord calmly said. “You are looking for the gimmick, the toy. There is none. I murdered the men and women warding the sewers to keep the creatures out, undid their work sent my associate to stir up the hive. The scent of blood and corpses did the rest.”

The monster’s face was unsmiling.

“There is no undoing this,” he said, and it sounded like a nail hammered into a coffin.

‘’It won’t only be soldiers who die, you fucking animal,” the Squire insisted. “Do you think they won’t spill out beyond the battle lines into the city? It’s only the districts closest to the walls that were evacuated. Civilians are going to die.”

“Yes,” the Carrion Lord nonchalantly said. “Thousands of them. The city will be on the brink of collapse as the horde spreads. The Legions will dig in, the Army of Callow retreat. And meanwhile the High Seats will look at their household troops, their precious private armies so jealously hoarded, see them bleed and die to save people that are nothing to them. Even as we speak they wonder – is this worth it? What am I sacrificing my strength for?”

“You can’t be serious,” Arthur said, appalled. “You’re saying they’ll retreat?”

“They cannot afford that either,” the green-eyed man said. “Praes needs a capital that is not a smoking hovel full of giant spiders. Neither will they be willing to weaken themselves. So they will, instead, revert to… old habits.”

In the distance, the air screamed so loud that even the chittering of the horde was drowned out. Rifts were ripped open, at first only a few then dozens, and it was as if the floodgates had broken. Devils began pouring out of Lesser Breaches and sorceries fouler still: swarms of green and glittering insects, rivers of purple flame and storms in the shape of giants. And among them, things worse than any of the rest slithered. Swam amongst the spiders, turning them to horrors not of Creation.

“Takisha pulled out the storm elementals,” the Carrion Lord noted, sounding surprised. “Didn’t think she’d risk them with the number of demons that were just sent out. Someone’s in a mood.”

“Demons,” Arthur choked out. “As in plural?”

“At least a dozen,” the green-eyed man said. “Catherine will send out Masego to limit the spread, but the damage has already been done.”

“You did this,” the Squire accused.

“I’ve yet to take a life today,” the Carrion Lord replied, amused. “Besides, you miss the altar for the corpse.”

“I see exactly what you’ve done,” Arthur harshly said.

“I am not of any particular importance today,” the man dismissed. “What matters is this: in the heart of Praes, a city packed tight with men and women from all parts of the empire, the High Seats were seen to make a choice. They could have protected the people they claim are theirs, paying in blood and power to fulfill their sworn duty.”

The skyline of the city boiled, wreathed in a hundred different flavours of madness. In stopping the spread of the giant spiders, in trying to break the horde, the fearsome High Lords of Praes were shattering entire swaths of the capital. How many of them had been evacuated? Too few, Arthur thought.

“Or they could do this,” the Carrion Lord said. “Dread and hatred, burning the world so they can warm their fingers against the flames.”

“All this so you could gloat that your enemies are as terrible as you?” Arthur scorned.

The green-eyed man faintly smiled.

“I gave them the chance, Squire,” he said. “To prove me wrong, to show me that there was some truth to the stories we tell ourselves. That they are the logical conclusion of jino-waza, that their rule is more than a thousand years of fangs ripping into flesh. That they deserve the power Praes has given them.”

He looked, Arthur thought in a moment of terrifying clarity, disappointed. As if he would have liked to be wrong.

“Yet here we are,” the Carrion Lord said. “Before the eyes of all Praes, the High Seats have abdicated their right to rule. They have revealed themselves as nothing more than worms in the flesh. Of all that happens today, that is the only part that matters.”

It wasn’t about the armies, Arthur realized. Or not just about. Whatever it was the man was after, it wasn’t a victory on the field. It was… larger. And, the Squire felt in his bones, infinitely more dangerous.

“What is it you’re doing, Carrion Lord?” the Squire quietly asked.

“I am killing the Dread Empire of Praes,” the madman replied, “one story at a time.”

“Well,” Archer mused, “this went to shit in a hurry.”

As if to punctuate the sentence, the rooftop she was running on exploded in a pillar of blue-grey flames that smelled vaguely of saffron. She landed in a roll on the roof of the temple across the street, reaching for an arrow and halfway nocking it even as the flames across the street collapsed as if they were liquid before beginning to form into a spindly, mantis-like shape. Fortunately, Indrani wasn’t going to have to waste any more arrows distracting the construct: silver Light began to glow right behind her.

“I fucking hate those things,” Alexis grunted, loosing her arrow.

The missile screamed out with Light, blinding to look at even as Named, and hit the construct with a disappointing flopping sound, just sinking into the liquid-like flames. A moment later the entire construct popped as the Light’s continuing presence destroyed the animating spell’s framework, making the entire mass of flame drop to the ground in a smoking rain.

“Eh, after that one demon thing that was like a hundred spiders melted together it’s going to take a lot to impress me today,” Indrani said. “It was impressively creepy, and not just because it didn’t really seem to get the difference between eyes and teeth.”

The Silver Huntress snorted, not disagreeing. Alexis had significantly cheered up since they’d started killing things, although it came and went. Whenever they got close to the Lady it trended downwards, which Cocky had called ‘an apt summation of our childhoods’ when Indrani had shared the thought with her. Speaking of the Concocter, Archer glanced further back and saw that the now purple-haired potioneer was moving around the needles on that fancy little tracking artefact Cat had given them.

“Found her,” Cocky called out. “She’s not actually far, just on the other side of the Licosian Gates.”

Well fuck, Indrani thought, sharing a look with Alexis. That place had been the stronghold held by the troops and vassals of the High Lady of Kahtan an hour back, but not it was pretty much Spidertown. Spiderville, maybe, considering it was pretty large and swarming with way too many giant spiders. Last she’d seen a few pockets of troops were surviving holed up in buildings behind wards they’d put up, but the highborn had pretty much written off taking it back the traditional way so instead they’d turned to the Praesi specialty: a bunch of devils and weird magical killer things.

“That place is bad enough I think even the devils would go back to the Hells if they had a choice,” Indrani bluntly said.

“Are you saying we let her lose us?” Cocky challenged.

“No,” the Silver Huntress growled. “Fuck that. You still have a set of those blue ones, right?”

“I do,” the Concocter said. “And a full healing set.”

“We go in with a plan this time, then,” Archer insisted. “You don’t have anything that heals ‘arrow through the eye’ which was Alexis almost got last time we thought we were ambushing her.”

“She won’t get me again,” Alexis replied through clenched teeth.

Indrani felt like slugging them both in the face until either sense or teeth came out, knowing the sight of either would be a relief.

Listen to me,” Indrani said. “We’re not going to beat her like this. She’s better than any of us are.”

“Impressive,” Cocky said, “how you can lick her boot without needing it in front of you.”

Archer was not going to punch her in the throat, no matter how deeply satisfying it would be.

“Cocky,” Alexis warned. “She’s not wrong.”

Indrani glanced at her in surprise, the Huntress refusing to meet her eyes.

“She’s faster and stronger and she has more experience,” Archer said. “If we’re going to get her, it’s by hitting her with something she hasn’t seen yet. That means it’s not me or Alexis who brings this home, Cocky.”

This time it was her that was stared at in surprise.

“She’s taught us most of what we know about fighting,” Indrani elaborated. “She hasn’t taught you shit about brewing. What have you got that would serve as a nasty surprise?”

Cocky hesitated.

“She’s resistant to pretty much all poisons unless it’s ten times the concentration lethal in a human,” the Concocter said. “It’s an elf thing, I think. But that’s for toxins. I’ve seen her smoke wakeleaf, which is a stimulant and nonmagical. Unless she was just puffing at the pipe for the look of it, it means her resistance doesn’t apply to everything.”

“You going somewhere with this?” Alexis bluntly asked.

Cocky scowled at her, but moments later she undid a clasp within her satchel and showed them a small vial with a translucent golden liquid inside.

“This is a purified version of elegy,” the Concocter said.

Indrani’s brow rose.

“The fun times drug?” she asked.

Cocky nodded.

“It won’t harm her, but what makes elegy popular in the first place is that when you take it affects your perception of time,” she said. “I strengthened the elements that cause that and took out the ones that add a sensation of euphoria.”

“She’ll be able to burn it out with her Name,” the Huntress said.

“No quickly,” the Concocter replied with a flash of pearly teeth. “Not with how concentrated it is. There’s enough in there if I dropped in a lake I could see the water as the usual drug.”

Indrani let out a low whistle.

“She’ll need to ingest?” she asked.

“Skin contact would also work, but not nearly as strong,” Cocky said.

“Then we need to cram it in her mouth,” Indrani grimaced. “That’s you and me, Alexis.”

“I’ll take it,” the Huntress immediately said, reaching for the vial.

“It should be me,” Archer said, and when glared at shook her head. “You’re better up close, much as I hate to admit it. You’re more likely to make me an opening than the other way around.”

The admission seemed to mollify the other woman some, and they packed they gear again. Just in time, since one of those damned giant-shaped hurricanes was coming their way again. Indrani had seen what happened to the people and spiders that got sucked in, and she had no intention of being shredded to pieces. They got a move on, avoiding the streets that were entirely aflame and the roving packs of devils in the sky. The Licosian Gates had somehow gotten worse since their last trip thereabouts, which Indrani reluctantly accepted as being pretty impressive. The four massive ancient statues seated on either side of the gates were crawling with spiders trying to puncture the spell bubbles keeping the handful of soldiers atop the gatehouse roof, but that was almost wholesome compared to the rest.

Rival torrents of spiders and dog-shaped devils were ripping into each other in the streets around it, savagely devouring each other’s flesh while still alive, and some sort of ritual had gone awry enough that balls of lightning were careening across the streets, bouncing off wood and stone but searing flesh with strikes wherever they found it. Some sort of giant snake made of ice and bone had gone wild, which would not have been as much of a problem if it apparently didn’t ‘eat’ creatures that came too close to its body and then vomit them back out from the great maw as masses of leech-like bone creatures that liked to burrow inside the spiders and eat them from the inside. And at the heart of the mess, perched atop a tall statue of Terribilis the Second, the Lady of the Lake stood with her bow at the ready.

Looking bored, she let an arrow loose. it straight through a shield spell, taking a mage in the throat. The blue panel flickered out and moments later spiders began to pour in, screams following as the survivors inside were devoured alive.

“Well,” Indrani said. “Good a place as any to fight her, I suppose.”

“She’s not moving,” Cocky frowned. “Baiting us?”

“No, she’s here for a reason,” Alexis said, eyes narrowing. “Look at her face, she’s already gotten bored of this.”

Archer rose to her full height, cracking her neck.

“Well,” she said. “Let’s see if we remedy that.

“Our empire seems like such a fragile thing, at first glance,” the Carrion Lord said. “Always warring with itself, always eating its young. Half the reason we take the sickness abroad is that there is too much of it festering in our guts. And yet, for all its many and monumental failures, the Dread Empire has stood for over thirteen hundred years.”

“You’ve been broken before,” the Squire said. “We brought it down, your Tower.”

Eleanor Fairfax had answered the madness of Triumphant sword in hand, as Catherine Foundling had risen to cast out the chains of the Conquest. Evil could last, but it never prospered for long.

“We have,” the Carrion Lord easily agreed. “And yet once the crisis passed the Empire formed anew. Its constituent parts came together again instead of staying parted, even though most High Seats are enemies and despise the Tower ruling over them besides.  Sowhy?”

“Safety in numbers,” the Squire said. “I’ve seen it out west, the strange alliances peril will forge.”

Even the vilest sorts would come to man the wall if the sky grew dark enough.

“If external pressure was the preeminent cause for unification, once that pressure ceased the unity would begin to collapse,” the Carrion Lord said. “Yet there have been long periods of relative peace with Callow and the Free Cities that saw no such thing happen.”

Arthur frowned. He had never been a great lover of history writ in the large, the wars and treaties and the trades, but that did not sound untrue to him.

“Then because the people of Praes want to be as a single nation,” the Squire said instead.

“Close,” the Carrion Lord praised. “It is because they believe they are a nation.”

“Is there a difference?” the Squire said.

“Belief is what comes after desire,” the Carrion Lord replied. “Belief has foundations. The Dread Empire stands because enough of us believe in the myths of it, the stories of it. So long as those remain, like rivers going to the sea our empire will always remake itself.”

“That’s not what fate is,” the Squire refused. “It’s not some curse that can’t be broken. If you do it clever, if you do it right, you can change things.”

“I believed that, once,” the Carrion Lord mildly said. “Then, in my old age, I looked back and found that all the terrible works of my life had been built on quicksand. It was most galling, to realize that the Tyrant of Helike was not entirely wrong when he scorned me.”

The old monster did not look all that galled, shrugging.

“But we learn or we die,” the Carrion Lord said. “And so once again I picked up a sword and a plan.”

“You want to burn it all,” the Squire accused.

“I want to take off the noose around our necks,” the Carrion Lord said. “There is no kind way to do such a thing.”

“Did you even try?” the Squire harshly asked. “You disappeared for years, and when the Black Queen came east to settle affairs you stayed a ghost. Now you reappear, and to do what?”

He gestured at the capital around them, the hell it had turned into.

“The first story is that Praes is a nation,” the Carrion Lord calmly said. “A single realm, not a pack of squabbling fiefdoms. That one was the hardest to kill, the longest. It took years to choke it out: a fourth of the Empire became a realm of its own, Kahtan rose as a queendom of the Hungering Sands and the edges of our territory broke away.”

“You didn’t do that,” the Squire said. “You caused none of it.”

“I did not need to,” the Carrion Lord said. “All that was required of me was to ensure that the hounds fighting over the carcass would never bite into the same piece of flesh. So that they could all bury their snouts in the corpse and never realize until they stood nose-to-nose.”

He paused, startled, as he realized what had been implied.

“Gods, you helped them do it?” the Squire said.

“I have been a faithful friend to even my enemies,” the Carrion Lord agreed. “The second was faster to kill, but it cost me more. It was… difficult, killing the Legions of Terror.”

“Kala,” the Squire said. “They stood and they bled and they broke.”

“Lesser soldiers would have shattered years before,” the Carrion Lord said, his pride without veil. “It took an ocean of brutal futility to end that story – it was fresher than the rest. A battle where three sisters fought, none believing in their cause or truly hating the other. A battle where weapons of war killed men by the dozens in heartbeats without swords even touching, where entire armies deserted to one side or the other. It ground the pride of the Conquest to dust.”

“And today you burn the High Lords,” the Squire said. “Half the city going with them.”

“More of a quarter, I should think,” the Carrion Lord amusedly replied.

“You could make a river,” the Squire coldly said, “of the blood you’ve spilled today.”

“Child, I have spilled seas,” the Carrion Lord smiled.

The old monster shrugged.

“And what of it? You look at today’s corpses and balk, but even if I’d put every soul in this city to the sword I would still be the lesser evil,” the Carrion Lord said. “What are a few years of my bloody hands, compared to the Tower’s thousand years of screams and darkness? How many more days like this one will you demand Calernia suffer before my cruelty becomes warranted? How more crowned butchers and torturers and madmen, how many more Triumphants?”

The orphan’s fingers tightened around his sword. Evil always had its reasons.

“The excuses of a man who knows nothing except how to destroy,” the Squire said.

“We are what we are,” the Carrion Lord said, eyes smiling. “Someone charged me, once, to become a man who deserves to live in a better world.”

“Only a fool,” the Squire said, “would have believed that you could.”

The monster looked out at the madness swallowing the city.

“You’re not wrong,” the Carrion Lord said. “Old dogs only have so many tricks in them. But I made this mess, you see. It’s mine to clean up. So now I give you a warning, one you are to carry to my daughter.”

“And who are you to warn the Queen of Callow of anything?” the Squire challenged.

“The man who forced three armies to retreat without baring his sword,” the Carrion Lord calmly replied.

Arthur swallowed that, did not deny it.

“This is not yet done,” the Carrion Lord said. “Tread carefully: I will not tolerate Praes to be handed out like a bauble, or its affairs settled as if you had conquered us. You do not rule here.”

“Threats,” the Squire snorted. “What will that do?”

“Draw a line in the sand,” the Carrion Lord said. “And you I leave with a question. You have been, after all, of great use to me.”

“I did nothing for you,” the Squire harshly replied.

“You helped me draw their eye,” the Carrion Lord said, and looked down at the street. “Did you hear me, Gods Below? I paid my dues. Three stories I burned on your altar, the pillars of an empire, and one more still lies ahead. The greatest of them, the oldest and most terrible.”

Arthur shivered, looking to the sides. Nothing had changed, not even the wind or the foul scent of smoke, but the world felt… still. As if it did not dare move.

“I gave an oath,” the Carrion Lord said. “I’ll see it through to the end.”

“The Hellgods will not save you,” the Squire got out.

“That,” the Carrion Lord said, “is rather the point. As for our debt, boy, I ask you this: why do you seek the Black Knight?”

Arthur frowned.

“We have a pattern of three,” the Squire said.

“And this makes her your enemy?” the Carrion Lord asked.

“She’s a villain,” the Squire flatly said.

“So is your queen,” the Carrion Lord said. “Her and many you’ve fought with, never against.”

“She’s the leader of the Legions of Terror,” the Squire said.

“The army defending a realm you are invading,” the Carrion Lord said. “For one of Below’s, that is reason enough. I had thought your lot to require more than that.”

“Don’t muddle it up,” the Squire growled. “She’s tried to kill me too, and I survived. You want me to just let her go now that I hold her to account?”

“I want you to answer a simple question,” the Carrion Lord said. “Why is it that Nim Mardottir is your enemy, Squire?”

Arthur’s mouth was already hallway open when the man raised his hand.

“Do not speak in haste,” the Carrion Lord said. “A squire must, in time, become a knight.”

Green eyes studied him coolly.

“Consider, Arthur Foundling, what manner of a knight you are to be.”

Arthur’s hand stayed tight round his sword.

“You think I’ll just let you leave now?” the Squire said. “That I won’t take you prisoner?”

The old monster looked up at the sky. No to contemplate, Arthur realized as he followed the look, but to look at the height of the sun. The time.

“I think you are about to be needed elsewhere,” the Carrion Lord. “And that-”

The other man’s voice had lowered, so Arthur leaned closer to try to understand even as the green-eyed man turned towards him.

That was when the brightstick went off in his face.

Northeast of Ater, on a low slope overlooking the distant camps of the nobles, a silhouette was cut into sight by the angle of the sun. The orc stroked the back of his mount, a great wolf large as a bull, and glanced back at the other riders behind him.

“Tell the Warlord now is the time,” Chief Troke Snaketooth gravelled. “Ater is ripe for the picking.”

Interlude: Burn Away What You Once Were

“Power isn’t gold or faith or oaths. Power is the moment the tip of the knife punches through. Everything else flows from that source.”

– Dread Empress Massacre

Arthur adjusted his helmet for what had to be the hundredth time, trying to keep dawn’s light out of his eyes. He hated to admit it, as it felt like he was being childish, but he was bored out of his mind. Normally he would have sought sympathy and conversation from Apprentice, but this morning she was… otherwise occupied. Sapan was looking at the new war engine hungrily as its wheels creaked against the stone and it was dragged forward by oxen. The Ashuran had no interest in the military applications of the great machine, he knew: the draw was that it was, in effect if not in principle, a massive magical artefact.

“If that thing were a woman, you would have gotten slapped by now,” Arthur drily said.

Sapan turned somewhat amused brown eyes on him.

“And what would you know about staring at women?” Sapan teased.

Arthur politely coughed. Fair enough.

“I don’t understand what’s so fascinating about it,” the Squire admitted. “It’s a drill, Sapan. A large, fat drill on wheels.”

She rolled her eyes at him, brushing back wild strands of wavy hair that no earthly amount of hairclips seemed able to tame.

“And how do drills work, Arthur?” she challenged.

He cocked an eyebrow.

“Someone moves about with their arms until there’s a hole in something,” he summed up.

She glared at him, very much aware he was actively trying to piss her off. Arthur hid his grin behind the thoughtful, pious expression that he’d honed against brothers and sisters of the House.

“Fine,” Sapan growled. “Who’s going to move about the handle to that fat drill, Squire?”

“There isn’t one,” he noted. “Which does seem like something of a design flaw, but I suspect the sappers might have taken ill to my pointing that out.”

No one made it through more than a few months in the Army of Callow without learning that getting on the wrong side of the sappers was a costly mistake. Not even the Order picked that fight without good reason.

“That’s the magical part,” Apprentice said. “At the end of the drill, that large section in bronze, it’s enchanted.”

“It’s also polished,” Arthur helpfully contributed.

“I think that’s purely decorative,” Sapan admitted. “But never mind that. Lord Hierophant and the Callowan mage cadres enchanted the insides thoroughly, it took them days.”

“Enchanted to do what?” Squire asked, honestly curious.

“It’s directed kinetic force,” she excitedly said. “But entirely self-contained. The excess that the Due should release is instead used in a secondary array that ensures centrifugal force won’t destroy the artefact from the inside.”

“So it makes the drill turn,” Arthur hazarded.

The dark-haired Ashuran eyed him like he was the lowliest sort of cockroach.

“Yes, Arthur,” she disdainfully said, “it makes the drill turn. It’s not at all a staggering triumph of runic and mundane engineering that was believed physically impossible by most scholars until a few years ago.”

She raised her nose.

“You ignorant… horse-rider fuck,” Sapan tried.

Apprentice’s magical talents had been found very early, she’d told him – five years old – and she’d spent her entire life either in mage schools or under the private tutelage of scholarly old mages. That sheltered upbringing had left her with no real experience insulting people, something a few years around soldiers had miraculously failed to change. It really was quite impressive how terrible she was at it.

“You’re also riding a horse,” Arthur mildly pointed out.

She huffed in distaste, looking away, and the Squire smiled. He was slightly less bored now, though it would be hours yet before he saw fighting. Neither of them would be in the first wave into the breach in the eastern walls of Ater, which would be preceded by an escalade to tie up enemy mages and engines anyway. They’d be going in with the second wave, with precise objectives. The Hellhound’s plan was to break through enemy defences quickly and rush to seize defensible grounds deeper in the city before the Praesi could mount a proper counterattack. Grandmaster Talbot had approved of the plan when he’d briefed the Order, much as he tended to approve of Marshal Juniper herself.

Some among the knights had often resented that of the man, especially those of old nobles lines who still resented such a young greenskin holding such high command, but even the worst of the naysayers had been watching their words since Kala. Besides, it’d never been a popular sentiment with the army. The known faces from the early Fifteenth – the Hellhound and the Princekiller, Robber and Pickler, Ratface and Aisha Bishara – were almost as famous as the Woe and nearly as cherished. There was a certain cachet to having served under the Black Queen since the start, the kind that got people buying you drinks and asking for stories even if you’d only been a legionary.

Arthur had raged against his age, in Laure, listening to those stories and feeling like he was letting the era pass him buy. Now he’d caught up to the days, he stood in the thick of it, and it was so very little like he’d thought it would be.

“Look up,” Sapan suddenly said. “It’s starting.”

The Squire’s eyes sought the horizon. Apprentice was right. Atop the walls of Ater in the distance, in the light of rising sun, steel glittered as legionaries manned the walls. Ballistae were dragged into position, mage cabals began gathering power and as the vanguard of the Army of Callow crossed some invisible line all the Hells were unleashed. Rays of light and scores of fireballs, hails of bolts from the engines. Before the storm could hit the regulars in front, the House Insurgent made its presence known through great panels of yellow light that stopped the enemy fire cold.

Great iron ladders were rushed to the front, and the Battle of Ater began.

“They’re being reckless,” the Black Knight frowned. “Priests or not, the walls of Ater are not so easily taken.”

The Army of Callow was abandoning traditional Legion doctrine for this fight, which made Marshal Nim Mardottir uncomfortable. She’d already been had by the Hellhound once and she had no intention of suffering a second reverse when the stakes were so high. The enemy were still at least half an hour away from landing their first ladders on the outer walls, the first of the set encircling the capital, so the Black Knight was taking the time to properly observe their formation. Which was a mess. The enemy legionaries were breaking ranks to move faster, which meant every time something passed through the shields the Callowan mages and priests had put up it was guaranteed a casualty.

“They know the longer it takes them to breakthrough the more force we’ll be able to concentrate here,” Akua Sahelian replied, golden eyes calm. “We’ve barely a third of the Legions on the wall here, their best shot at getting into the city without massive casualties is overwhelming us early.”

There were two women that the city called ‘empress’ in whispers, Nim thought, but there was only one of them here on the wall. It was more complicated than that in truth, she knew, since Malicia would likely lose her life if she strayed too far from the Tower. And yet there was something primal and easy to understand in one being here and the other not. There was a simplicity to that, a clarity. And the Marshal had seen in the eyes of the legionaries here that it was a clarity they embraced. Amadeus had won the love of the Legions as much by fighting in the ranks with them as by the rest, and the Black Queen was no different. It was a simple thing, the Black Knight thought, but not a small one.

“It won’t work,” Nim said. “They’ll make footholds, they’ve got the belly for that, but we’ll take them back as soon as we’re reinforced. Marshal Juniper is no fool, Sahelian. There’s something else afoot.”

“I have eyes on the forces of Aksum and Nok,” Lady Akua replied. “If the expected treachery manifests, it won’t be a knockout blow. Yet they’ve made no preparations for battle or sent troops into the capital as far as I can tell.”

“Might be there will be a strike force of Named,” the Black Knight mused. “I’m surprised the Archer and the Huntress haven’t already begun returning fire against the ballistae.”

It was fucking absurd that the two women could serve as a countermeasure against siege engines by virtue of being able to shoot the crews at similar engagement ranges, but Nim had considered how to compensate for that since her defeat at Kala. Now she had wooden panels to defend and replacement sappers waiting. She wouldn’t be caught unprepared again.

“Catherine won’t depend on Named for such a critical part of the plan,” Lady Akua said, tone firm. “There’s an enemy on the field that could make her pay for such a thing dearly.”

“Then we’re still in the dark about their plans,” Marshal Nim said.

“I imagine that massive drill will have a role to play,” the golden-eyed noble noted. “If Hierophant didn’t enchant that I’ll leap down this wall. Best to assume it will go through the walls like a knife through butter.”

The Black Knight blinked.

“These are the walls of Ater,” she slowly said. “There’s so many wards and enchantments in these walls we can’t even list them all anymore.”

“And he is the Hierophant,” Lady Akua lightly replied. “Miracles are his trade, Marshal. Gods know he’s vivisected enough of them.”

Nim had learned it did not pay to argue with the sorceress when it came to the talents of the Woe, so she kept her skepticism stowed away.

“Best hurry up the evacuation of the districts then,” the Black Knight said. “We don’t want citizens caught in the middle of whatever they’ll unleash.”

“I expect she’ll go out of her way to limit civilian casualties,” Lady Akua said, “but I agree it is better safe than sorry. I’ll send word to High Lady Muraqib that a loan of mages capable of scrying would be appreciated, it should make it easier to coordinate the movements.”

And the fucking idiot would be glad of any way to salvage her reputation, as she ought to be after having botched a coup attempt on the Tower so badly it’d wracked the capital with storms for twelve days. If the ‘empress in the city’ hadn’t stepped in to organize emergency shelter and food convoys moved under mage shields it might have been tens of thousands that died instead of almost three. Meanwhile, to Nim’s disgust, the High Seats had squabbled with each other like children and kicked up dust in the Legions’ eyes while they were at it. That lot wouldn’t be able to lead sailors to a whorehouse even with the fucking Wizard of the West guiding the way.

The Black knight’s general staff agreed that the only reason the Army of Callow hadn’t crushed them while they were busy was that it would have been charging into the storm itself and Catherine Foundling hadn’t wanted to take the risk.

Nim had only barely gotten her orders out when Captain Laughable took her aside, murmuring that there was a situation. A suspicious person had been caught and made prisoner. The Black Knight took a short detour to pick up Lady Akua, who was informing the High Lady of Kahtan with a smile that surely risking her mages was worth the love of the people, and they headed out to the supply depot below the bastion where Laughable was keeping the man. Among the crates, a poorly-shaved Taghreb was bound and sporting a purpling black eye.

“Caught him sniffing about the bastion, ma’am,” Captain Laughable said. “Said he was just waiting for a friend, but we think he might have been counting troops.”

“I take it he resisted arrest?” Nim asked.

“You could say that,” Laughable coldly said. “He knifed Sergeant Kilzi right in the throat and tired to make a run for it. We broke both legs so he’d know better than to try that again.”

Nim’s hand clenched, the steel of her armour creaking.

“Who do you work for?” the Black Knight asked in Taghrebi.

The man only laughed. Lady Akua approached, which had him tensing, but though she took his face in hand it was not to inflict a curse. Instead she studied the side of his head, picking at the sideburns, and snorted before releasing him.

“There is no point in speaking that tongue to him, Lady Black,” Akua Sahelian said. “He is not Taghreb. That man is Levantine. It’s why there are still traces of face paint in the roots of his hair, near the skin.”

“Infiltrators,” Nim growled.

“He won’t be alone,” Lady Akua said. “We should immediately-”

“Too late,” the man grinned with bloodied teeth, speaking accented Lower Miezan. “You found us too late. It’ll be over by now.”

The Black Knight seized his torso and dragged him up, anger roiling.

“What?” she demanded. “What did you do?”

The man only laughed louder, and then in the distance there was a great grinding sound. Old gears pushing against each other, moving a great weight.

“The gates,” Akua Sahelian calmly said. “They opened one of the gates.”

The same enchanted gates that took about half an hour to fully open, that could not be stopped when they began without wrecking the machinery.

The Army of Callow’s vanguard was a quarter hour away from setting foot in the city.

“They’re retreating,” Alexis said, sounding impressed. “Like Marshal Juniper said they would.”

“Our Hellhound’s got a good read on the opposition,” Archer said. “It’s what she’s here for.”

Indrani hadn’t actually paid all that much attention when the plan had been explained to her and Masego had been reading under the table the whole time – he’d cunningly glued a book under with the pages hanging down and he turned the pages with a spell so he wouldn’t be caught – so she had only limited idea of what was happening. She figured the Legions had decided it was a losing fight to try to hold the walls with the gates open and two thirds of their number still on the way, so they were bailing backwards to a defensive position. Made sense, kind of? Not really her problem anyway. The three of them were after a different kind of prey.

“I’m still now sure what I’m here for,” Cocky complained. “In case you hadn’t notice, this is inside Ater.”

“No shit?” Archer mused. “I was wondering why the walls were facing the wrong way.”

Alexis actually looked like she was suppressing a smile. That or she was twitching in anger. Knowing the Silver Huntress, it might actually be the two.

“We could at least get off the rooftops,” the Concocter tiredly said. “It’s only a matter of time until someone looks up.”

That was actually untrue, Indrani thought. Most humans only rarely looked up, when something prompted them to. In her experience, skulking atop rooftops in a city was a pretty decent way to get around unseen if you put a minimum of effort into remaining unseen. She had no intention of actually telling Cocky that, though.

“Yeah, but then I wouldn’t be able to stand on the ledge and let the wind do that neat flappy thing with my cloak,” Archer sagely replied. “And that would be a net loss for Creation.”

Alexis cleared her throat.

“Patrol’s gone,” she said. “We should get a move on.”

Archer straightened her back.

“Let’s go then,” she said. “Found an old tower-shrine to Nihilis last time I came that’ll be the prefect perch.”

Cocky grumbled under her breath, but they set out. Neither of them had lost a step since Refuge when it came to sneaking about – the classic game of better-not-let-that-manticore-see-you truly was the finest of teachers – and they were better equipped now than they’d ever been before. Cat was always good for that, shelling out the coin for what her people needed. They were already past the Legion lines, but that wasn’t what their target anyway. Juniper was confident she could take Nim in a slugfest in the streets, and Archer figured the Hellhound had it right.

 It was the noble armies that Cat and the Hellhound wanted kept out of this mess as long as possible, and that was why the three of them were out here. The imperial shrine was pretty easy to find, a tower of black stone three stories high that was covered with reliefs of Dread Emperor Nihilis’ victories and filled with little alcoves where people could leave offerings. It wasn’t as common a practice as it’d been in older timers, making those, but Indrani saw a few fresh copper coins and fresh flowers that hadn’t been there last time she came. Aterans said it was good for luck.

The alcoves made it easier to climb, at least, and when they all got up on the flat top – covered in bird shit, but they’d all crawled through worse – the sight was worth a whistle. It was easy to see far out into the city, until you hit the taller buildings of the central districts, and that meant Indrani got a good look at the soldiers and banners moving through the streets. Like Juniper had said she would, the Black Knight had called for noble reinforcements.

“Kahtan,” Alexis said, frowning. “Okoro and Nok. Hundreds of smaller lords”

Ol’ Abreha wasn’t taking the field then. Shame. Dakarai of Nok wasn’t as deep in their camp, he might actually intend to fight to defend the city.

“We’ve got our targets, then,” Indrani said. “We kill the bigwigs and the generals, it’ll keep them confused enough they’ll be late to the fight.”

“Archer.”

“I kind of want High Lady Muraqib,” Indrani mused. “You can have High Lord Jaheem, Lexy, unless you-”

Indrani,” Cocky hissed. “Look.”

Archer followed the pointed finger to a rooftop to their west. Someone was standing there on a ledge, looking down into the streets. Her cloak was doing the neat flappy thing in the wind, which Indrani mentally applauded. The Ranger turned, met their stares and winked.

A moment later she leapt down into the streets.

“You wanted to know why Cat sent you with us, Cocky?” Indrani said. “You were just looking at the reason.”

A cleaner story, Catherine had called it, and who was Archer to argue with her? Cat might have died a bunch of times but it’d yet to stick, and that was the kind of crazy she was proud to embrace.

“We don’t know what she’s up to,” the Concocter hesitated.

Alexis’ fingers tightened into fists.

“Does it matter?” the Silver Huntress asked. “She’s our enemy.”

Archer shook her head.

“It matters,” Indrani said. “We do this all three of us or we don’t do it at all.”

The Huntress glanced at her in surprise, then slowly nodded.

“I have permission, if we want to pursue,” Indrani told Cocky.

The other woman hesitated still.

“She won’t hold back,” Cocky said.

“Neither will we,” Indrani said.

Surprise, once more.

“You want to fight her?” Cocky asked.

It was her turn to hesitate.

“I want to know where I stand,” Archer finally said.

The Concocter quietly laughed.

“I don’t care where I stand,” she said, “as long as it’s far from her. But that’s something we’ll have to earn, isn’t it? The right to put her behind us.”

Cocky breathed out, rose to her feet.

“I’m in,” the Concocter said.

A silence passed between them, not quite comfortable but not unpleasant. Determined, Indrani thought, determined might be the right word.

And so the last three students of the Lady of Lake began to hunt her.

A torrent of flame howled down the street, forcing the enemy to huddle behind houses, and even as the roar of the fire drowned out the clamour of the fighting the Black Knight raised her voice higher still.

“Collapse the fucking walls,” Marshal Nim screamed. “We need to slow them down.”

Lady Akua’s spell ended moments later, the fires blinking out, but the reprieve she’d bought them was well-spent: sappers collapsed two houses and a temple with demolition charges, barring the avenue with the falling stones. It wouldn’t keep the Callowans away for long, but it would slow them down enough that the Fourth and Fifth Companies would be able to retreat to the fortifications in the plaza down the street. Legionaries streaming around them, the Black Knight and the Lady Warlock retreated away from the frontline. In the time they’d spent to put out the crisis here, another would have emerged somewhere else.

“How long until the drill starts working again?” the Black Knight asked.

“Half an hour at most,” Lady Akua grimaced. “It’s devilish piece of work.”

The way the sorceress had explained it, the drill actually drained the power of enchantments it touched to harden itself and make some kind of array in its back move faster. Nim had almost doubted her eyes when the fucking thing had taken a mere ninety heartbeats to pierce through some of the finest walls on all of Calernia, stopping only because it had overheated and was at risk of melting. Worse yet was the realization that the Hellhound had never intended the thrust of her attack to be on Legion positions. While Nim had repositioned her forces to contain the disaster spilling out of the open gate, the drill had punched through the wall by another gate and the second wave of the Army had bypassed her defensive set-up entirely.

She’d lost a third of her force in an hour trying to contain that attack, which had forced her to call on reinforcements from the nobility against Malicia’s standing orders. They’d hurried enough that the fighting in the abandoned districts of the southeast had erupted before the Callowans could take the Licosian Gates, one of the chokepoint of the city the Hellhound had clearly been aiming for. It was bloody enough fighting that the Black Queen was there and slinging around Night in amount that wiped out entire companies, but the nobles were still holding. The fear right now was that the Army of Callow would just use the damned drill again to open another breach behind the defensive position of the High Lady of Kahtan to flank it.

Some of the Black Knight’s scouts up on the walls had signaled there were troop movements outside the city, so Nim suspected that unless that fucking drill was broken for good Ater would fall before Noon Bell rang.

“Then we need to hit it,” the Black Knight said. “You and I, leading a company. It’s the only way we can contain them long enough.”

And if they were contained, if they were kept bottled up in a few districts and mage fire could be brought to bear? They would be routed out of the city. Already the enemy’s priests were flagging in strength, and when they were out for the count the magical advantage would fall overwhelmingly in the favour of the defenders.

“Agreed,” Lady Akua said. “Do you, by any chance, happen to have a disreputable company of golden-hearted rogues with a chequered past who have something to prove under your command?”

“A what,” the Black Knight replied.

“It would significantly increase our chances of success,” Lady Akua insisted.

The reply on the tip of Nim’s tongue was set aside when a flare of red light caught her attention. Signals going up in the sky. An attack from behind the Licosian Gates. But the drill had not yet been moved! How? Another flare went up, and another, and another. All in a straight line.

“Gods,” Marshal Nim Mardottir gasped, “what is this?”

Arthur fell down to his knees, panting and out of breath.

“You all right, sir?”

The Squire limply gestured at the sergeant to make it clear he was in no danger. Just exhausted. Running out of that house before it collapsed after the ogres knocked down the walls would have been hard even if he weren’t wearing plate armour. After a few moments to catch his breath, he dragged himself back up. Sergeant Hart slapped his back in a friendly manner.

“Back into the melee, then,” the older man cheerfully said. “For queen and country and combat pay.”

“The Black Knight wasn’t with the ogres,” Arthur said. “We need to find a scrying mage to ask for sightings again.”

Running around blindly was unlikely to let him find the Black Knight, especially if she was actively avoiding him as he believed she was. That the Doom of Liesse had been seen with her only made the prospect of facing down his rival all the more daunting. Hopefully Sapan would be able to – wait, where was Sapan?

“Sergeant, where is the Apprentice?” he asked.

“We lost her when we hit that blaze three blocks back, I think,” Sergeant Hart said. “She could be anywhere by now.”

“Then we start by finding her,” the Squire said. “We need to find an officer.”

“That one looks like a lieutenant,” Sergeant Hart said, pointing upwards. “Light armour, so probably in the scouts.”

Arthur looked up and found a lieutenant standing atop a rooftop, looking into the distance. It was a start, the young man decided, and he asked his companion to stay behind as he climbed up the side of wall. The other man glanced at him before returning to his study of the city.

“Good morning, lieutenant,” Arthur tried.

“Is it?” the officer replied, sounding amused. “You have been in the Army of Callow for too long.”

“Might be,” the Squire politely smiled.

He approached, enough to see that it was an older man he was speaking to: salt-and-pepper beard, greying hair. Likely a veteran. The goblin steel blade at his hip spoke to that.

“I am looking for a companion,” Arthur said.

“The Apprentice, yes,” the man replied. “She was headed west last I saw. I believe there’s a scrying relay there three streets back, it seems her likeliest destination.”

Well, that’d been faster than anticipated.

“Thank you, lieutenant,” the Squire said.

“It was my pleasure,” the officer replied, once more sounding amused.

Arthur began to walk away, but something was itching away his instincts. He paused.

“You never gave me your name,” the Squire said.

“How forgetful of me,” the man said, but did not elaborate.

Arthur’s eyes narrowed.

“What is it you’re looking for, lieutenant?”

“The flares,” the officer replied, pointing to the southeast.

The lights were still in air, though fading. Signals warning of attacks where the Squire knew there should be no troops.

“A bluff,” he said.

“Dismissing the unexpected is a bad habit, Squire,” the man chided.

Arthur’s hand went for his sword.

“You’re not a lieutenant,” he said.

“Did I ever claim to be?” the man replied, smiling.

He made no move to unsheathe his blade, which had Arthur reluctant to bare his own. The stranger had not yet been proved an enemy.

“What is it you’re doing here?” the Squire pressed. “Answer me.”

“Waiting,” he said. “For a little while longer. You can keep me company if you’d like.”

Arthur’s eyes narrowed.

“Why?”

“We are relations of a sort,” the man chuckled. “Besides, what else is there for you to hurry to? You won’t be finding Marshal Nim.”

His sword was in his hand before he even realized he’d bared it.

“Who are you?” the Squire demanded.

The stranger looked away, into the distance, and suddenly let out a quiet laugh.

“Ah, fateful timing,” he said. “It has been some time since I’ve last been on the right side of it.”

There was a ripping sound in the distance, then a furious screech. Arthur stepped back.

“What was that?” Arthur asked.

“So many questions,” the man teased, “but this one I’ll give you for free.”

He turned fully for the first time since they’d been talking, and Arthur Foundling met a pale of eerie green eyes over a bladelike smile.

“That,” the Carrion Lord said, “was several hundred years’ worth of giant spiders joining this battle.”

Interlude: A Tower No One Could Claim

“You ask me why I never sought to claim the Tower. I ask you in turn: what great sin have I wrought, that I would deserve such a punishment as to hold it?”

– Kayode Owusu, Warlock under Dread Emperors Vindictive I and Nihilis

Akua’s shielding spell snapped in place just in time for the stone to bounce off it, rolling on the street as behind her the wall finished collapsing ahead of her. The horses had been spooked by the noise, but she was a skilled enough rider to keep her mount from acting out – some others were not, a few youths even being thrown off. A second look told her that no one seemed to have died, which made this one of the least lethal assassination attempts she’d ever been subjected to. That made it all the more ironic this had been the closest anyone had gotten since she’d come to Ater. The golden-eyed sorceress set aside the thought, shifting in her saddle to welcome the presence of the man riding up to her side.

“That seems a little too unfortunate an accident,” High Lord Jaheem idly said.

“It was no such thing,” Akua replied.

He shot her a considering look.

“You reined in your horse before the wall broke,” he noted.

“For the same reason I know it was not an accident,” Akua said. “I caught the scent of demolition charges.”

And she knew the scent well. There had been a time where Special Tribune Robber had delighted in rubbing just enough powder in parts of her tent that the smell would stick and her subconscious mind wouldn’t allow her to untense. If she’d actually needed to sleep as a shade, it would have driven her to a breakdown in a matter of months. The goblin had been an artist in matters of malignance, for all his generally unpleasant demeanour. High Lord Jaheem was impressed, though he should not have been or at least have hidden it better.

“Her Dread Majesty or Wither herself, then,” Jaheem Niri mused. “A heady compliment.”

Akua smiled, more at his reference to the famous line from ‘Maleficent the Great’ – if a woman is to be known by the quality of her enemies, is it not a heady compliment to be at war with all the world? – than the flattery. The High Lord of Okoro was known as a well-read man, fond of theatre and the classics. He’d continued to attend public theatre even after enemies tried to kill him at such performances twice.

“Wither. This isn’t Malicia’s sort of knife.”

High Lady Takisha Muraqib of Kahtan had cut into the conversation with what some might consider rudeness, but though High Lord Jaheem dislike her he let the affront pass without comment. It was not the first time and he was not the first to do so. Takisha’s face had grown hard and her temper foul since the Assassin had slain her husband. She’d been fond of the man, overly so by the standards of proper nobility.

“It seems the more likely of the two,” Akua conceded.

Sappers had done this, or at least people with sapper training. Trying to kill her with a collapsing wall required delicate timing and knowledge of goblin munitions that few who had not been in the Legions possessed.

“You always see goblin hands behind everything,” High Lord Jaheem scorned. “And no wonder why. If you had your way we’d break our armies in the Hungering Sands so your thirdborn can rule Foramen under you.”

“Matron Wither was part of the rebels that seized the city and exterminated the Banu,” High Lord Takisha flatly replied. “Of course she needs to be deposed, it was a mark of Malicia’s decline that it was ever otherwise. And as for rule, well, who has the blood for such a title now save the Muraqib?”

Akua understood well the nature of this conversation and the hundred others like it she had heard over the last two weeks. Malicia’s fall had been considered set in stone – ah, foolishness – even before two High Seats had defected from Catherine’s cause to Akua’s – highly dubious – so instead of scheming to seize the Tower the highest of the highborn were now fighting over another prize. Namely, who was to be Akua’s own Chancellor when she became Dread Empress. It was considered natural and self-evident that a Sahelian of the old blood would end the absurd decree making it high treason to hold or claim such a Name, regardless of Akua never having made such a promise.

So now the vultures showed off their plumage with little displays like this conversation, pecking at each other’s heads so that one might emerge as the natural candidate to be Akua’s treacherous right hand.

“High Lady Wither can wait,” Akua said, tone a tad short. “We came here for a reason.”

She spurred her horse forward, keeping her irritation away from her face. Such politicking did not make her kind better or worse than any other highborn of Calernia. She knew this. It still stuck in her throat that the High Seats would continue these games without batting an eye when a battle had very nearly been lost to the Army of Callow the day before, thousands of levies been mercilessly mowed down. Some of the lords and ladies on the field had been embarrassed by the way their conscripts had broken, but it was not the farmers and traders in shoddy armour that Akua was embarrassed of.

What worth, what pride was there in dying on a field for someone who would not bat an eye at continuing to scheme before your body had finished cooling?

Yesterday’s wounded had been allowed into the city against the Empress’ orders, though not the rest of the private armies, and considering how undermanned the capital’s defences were it had seemed sensible to both Akua and the Black Knight that empty barracks be turned into makeshift hospitals. She’d had to fight tooth and nail with the same nobles who claimed to support her to organize a rotation of mage healers that would see to everyone instead of simply each lord’s own wounded – if even that – and it was only after Marshal Nim shamed the entire nobility of the Wasteland by sending Legion healers first that finally they gave in.

It would have been a public embarrassment otherwise, and once again Akua’s reputation rose with the nobility for having had the ‘foresight to try to spare them such a thing’. She’d bit her lip in frustration until she could feel blood against her tongue. Every time she thought she had finally found the thread she could pull at to undo the knot, she found instead that she was tightening the noose. How long would it take, before she felt the rope around her neck and there was no choice left save the drop? Her fingers closed around the reins at the prospect. They wanted to make her empress. Dread Empress Magnificent, Akua had once fancied she might be called. She’d had plans, dreams. Now it was all within hand’s reach and she felt only fear for what she might have once acclaimed a triumph.

Her ever-present shadow led his horse to her side, leaning close.

“They would burn this entire city and all in it for power over each other,” Kendi whispered. “It is only a matter of time until instead they burn you.”

Akua looked up at the stormy skies, the clouds roiling high above around the Tower. They were never far. The honest words of a man who hated her, who wanted the worst for her, had become oddly soothing. She could count on Kendi Akaze to be exactly what he claimed to be, and that was a startlingly precious thing of late. Their party made good time to the northern districts, where a token force of legionaries kept an eye on the barracks now filled with the wounded and the dying. Akua had already spent hours there this morning, but it was not for the living she had now come. Instead she rode further still to the great plaza where oil-drenched wood rose in great piles.

Above those waited corpses, thousands of them.

High Lord Dakarai Sahel, who along with Abreha Mirembe had already been there, sought her company.

“It was cleverly done, arranging for the bodies to be brought here,” the High Lord of Nok said. “There are not many occasions aside from court where we would all gather, but who could afford to miss this?”

“It might have been for the best if you did, Dakarai,” High Lady Takisha cut in.

Akua’s brow rose ever so slightly. Others would make allowances for grief, but Takisha was being unusually bold today. Interrupting not one but two conversations with peer nobles? Akua herself might find offence in that, not just the High Lady’s rivals. You have something afoot, the sorceress thought. You are willing to risk my irritation now because you believe your boldness will pay off elsewhere soon and my memory of irritation will be transmuted to appreciation in retrospect.

“Takisha,” the High Lord of Nok gently said. “My condolences.”

The other woman’s face slacked with surprise.

“It must be galling, owing your life to Abreha and I,” he continued.

Surprise turned to fury and mentally Akua tallied a strike on Dakarai’s side of the board. It’d been an elegant bit of cruelty, turning implied condolences for her husband’s death to an open slap in the face. Takisha replied with a weaker barb about the Ashuran sack of Nok before beating a retreat, not because she was cowed but because she was having difficulty controlling her anger. Golden eyes turned to the High Lord of Nok, who was smiling pleasantly.

“I have a question, my lord, if you will,” Akua idly said.

“I have sworn to see you climb the Tower, my lady,” Dakarai replied. “I would deny you nothing, much less a question.”

“That is pleasantly to hear,” she smiled. “You will not mind, then, telling me what Catherine planned when she ordered you to betray her.”

He looked at her with convincing surprise.

“Caution is only to be expected,” High Lord Dakarai regretfully said, “but I will convince you of my sincerity in time. I had hoped that saving your cause on the field yesterday would win me some trust, but perhaps that is premature.”

Akua eyed him for a moment, then let out a few rich chuckles.

“My lord of Nok,” she said, “I once saw her order an unconditional surrender of her armies in the middle of a battle just so that she could win in the exact way she wanted. And Abreha’s claim to have found mages that could free her of the Night is patently absurd, given that I am fairly certain to lesser goddesses intervened directly in her raising as undead.”

She patted his arm fondly.

“Of course she sent you,” Akua said. “Mostly likely ordered you to support me as well. So what is it she’s after – opening gates to her armies or switching sides halfway through the battle?”

Seeing she would not be convinced, the High Lord of Nok changed his angle of approach.

“Even if there had been such a scheme,” Dakarai Sahel said, “would I be bound to it when out of her sight?”

He glanced at the pyres and the gathering crowd around them.

“You would rule well, I think,” the High Lord said. “Better than most. And we will need such a tyrant in the years to come. The world is… not what it used to be. It is larger, and much less patient of our foibles.”

Akua considered the older man, still handsome for all his grey hair.

“I had thought, once, to rise from the fields of Liesse an empress of empresses,” she said. “Triumphant come anew, magnificent in my wrath.”

“Nothing is writ until the book is closed,” Dakarai said. “I have spent over half my life failing, Lady Akua. Failing to shake off Thalassina’s yoke, to become more than a second-rater among the Truebloods, to keep the Ashurans from sacking my city.”

He half-smiled.

“But the book is not yet closed,” he said. “The Doom did not bury you. Why give it power it did not earn?”

Because it did bury me, Akua thought. I thought even failing would be a magnificent act, that my pride would shake the Heavens for an hour and it would be enough, but our stories all end when the tyrant dies. On the last defiant, maddened cry of rage. Instead she had been made to live through her folly. To sift through the ashes of a thousand dead, to see the horror of her doom ripple across the world. She’d been made to look soldiers in the eye, to see under the helmets. And now, returned to her cradle, she could not unsee it. Death was an end, for her and them. But she’d walked the hospitals now, the crying and weeping and the pain. Glimpsed the colossal number of lives, of families, she had ruined for… what?

What would the Heavens hear, a million screams or a single vainglorious shout? It’d been empty from the start. All she had left was the enormity of what she had done, and she was drowning in it.

“I give the Doom nothing,” Akua Sahelian quietly replied.

That had been the lesson of the years that followed it. Even if she saved a hundred thousand lives, it would not even the balance. What she had done to Liesse was not something that could be bought off, bargained over with angels as she had once bargained with devils. Akua gave the Doom nothing because there was nothing she could give. It was not an act that could be redeemed. And in the bleakness of that realization she had come home, for where else could she go, but she hadn’t. Not really. Home was not what she remembered it to be. She had been gone too long, now, forgot the ways of the Wasteland. They were no longer sweet against her tongue.

Now it would be a prison to be Dread Empress. A lifetime of clawing at the walls around her, bloodying her fingers trying to change the nature of stone. Back in the dark, in the cloak, only there would be no way out.

“We will speak again,” she told the High Lord, voice gone hoarse.

She was meant to speak to the assembled nobles and soldiers, to start the pyre personally. It was a good enough excuse to leave. Kendi watched her in silence, eyes smiling. He only kept silent when he knew she had already spoken worse to herself, smelling it out like a bloodhound. Like a petty thief headed for the noose, Akua walked forward. Unthinking, outside herself, as if someone else was moving her body. As if someone else was winning the Tower for her. Already she could be said to have control of all Ater save the Tower and the district around it, the run of the city, and only caution over the Tower’s ancient arsenal had prevented an attempt to seize it by force.

Speaking here today would be the first step of her climb. Her backers were pushing for a formal session of the imperial court, which they wanted to use to force down Malicia and coronate Akua Sahelian as Dread Empress of Praes. All she needed to do was whip these nobles and soldiers into a frenzy, to get them screaming the empress to give answer to her empire. Akua climbed the dais raised for that very purpose, standing tall and hollow, but at her feet there was a scuffle. High Lady Takisha Muraqib’s retinue was pushing aside everyone else, clearing a space for the ruler of Kahtan at Akua’s feet. The Taghreb noble had a hard, blazing look in her eyes as came to stand below the dark-skinned sorceress.

Takisha’s scheme had borne fruit, Akua thought. It was now ready to be revealed.

“My lady Sahelian, I apologize for the disorder but I have news for you that cannot be delayed,” the High Lady called out, voice resounding.

Bespelled so that it could be heard even from the back, Akua noted.

“Speak, then,” she idly ordered.

“As of a half hour ago, my agents seized the weather-controlling artefacts of the Tower in your name,” Takisha said. “Soon the rest of the Tower will follow, and we can-”

Thunder rolled. The clouds around the Tower had turned black and were spreading out, crackling with red lightning. A heartbeat of stillness. A flash of red struck a tall house in the middle of capital, blowing it up in a flash of red flames. The winds began to howl, growing in strength. Hail like black and hardened rocks began to fall in sheets, covering swaths of the city, and in the chaos Akua looked up at the roiling darkness.

“It can be hard, Malicia, can it not?” she murmured. “To tell the difference between a knot and a noose.”

Answer me,” she Spoke.

A year ago, Malicia would not have needed to make a sound. Her power had weakened, grown shallower. Or perhaps I never grasped how strongly I relied on Rule when Speaking, she thought. Unfortunate as it was that she had not been able to map out the weaknesses of her aspect properly, it was not something that could truly be tested. The young Soninke lord before her choked for a moment, but then his tense shoulders loosened and he began to talk.

“She sneaks out to drink with her foster sister every few days,” he said. “They’ve been doing it for years. The guards let it happen so long as they don’t leave the boundary wards.”

Malicia flicked a glance at Ime, whose ageing face was furrowed in thought.

“We’ll have to burn a sleeper to get to her there,” the spymistress finally said. “Dakarai has been very careful with his camp’s defences since changing sides.”

The empress did not even hesitate. Now was not the time to balk at burning assets.

“Arrange it,” Malicia ordered. “You know whom to implicate.”

That will be much easier,” Ime snorted. “Even after Abreha’s purges her camp remains a leaking sieve.”

It had made Sepulchral a manageable threat, in those days where the High Lady of Aksum – illegally now, given her state of undeath – had been an empress-claimant. Malicia would not have risked allowing or stretching out a rebellion against if she had not been certain that she could not kill her would-be usurper whenever she desired. Sanaa Mirembe’s failed coup at Kala had been a stinging blow, given that it might have swung the victory there the other way, but her aunt’s culling of the young girl’s supporters when she returned from the grave had not caught all of the empress’ agents.

Even now, only the very highest secrecy in the Aksum camp remained beyond to Malicia’s eyes and ears.

“I’ll see if I can ease your way a tad more,” Malicia smiled, crouching before the bound man.

Her aspect pulse in her, slowly gaining in power as it fully unfolded. It felt like sliding on gloves, though to Alaya’s anger it was a tighter fit than it’d once been. Yet her Rule had not been toppled, and it was enough. The young lord’s mind felt like clay under her ghostly fingers, but she must be careful. Carelessness would just shatter his mind. Instead Malicia shaped her will, her order, and slid it into his mind like the slenderest of needles. Never to be noticed until it was pressed against. When the Dread Empress opened her eyes, which she did not recall closing, she rose from her crouch slightly out of breath.

“He will signal one of the Eyes the moment he’s aware of the girl sneaking out,” Malicia said. “Focus on preparing the assets.”

Ime nodded, looking pleased, but as Connect flickered to life Malicia saw that this was not entirely true. Her spymistress truly was pleased, but it was a small thing compared to her worry.

“You have concerns,” the Dread Empress said.

Ime did not quite manage to smother the surprise out of her eyes.

“I do, though not about this particular plot,” the spymistress said. “May I speak freely?”

Malicia glanced at the young lord, whose eyes were already focused anew. He would need either full turning or a memory scramble before he was released back to the Okoro camp, but either way it was a needless risk to keep speaking in front of him.

“Outside,” the empress said. “Our friend here still needs attending to.”

Ime nodded, the two of them leaving the comfortable cell in the middle levels of the Tower. The spymistress disappeared long enough to pass to her subordinates the necessary orders before returning to Malicia’s side, the two of them briskly heading to one of the sky rooms. Dread Empress Sanguinia had not indulged in the sort of grandiose building projects that many of her contemporaries had, but she had liked to eat her meal with views of Ater splayed out below her. Only two of sky rooms she’d built for that purpose had survived the fall of the Tower after the First Crusade and they were no longer used for that purpose but the very skilled wardwork keeping them protected had remained largely intact.

It was a good place to speak, even if the view was… temporarily indisposed.

Baiting Takisha to make a play for the Cloud Engines had taken longer than Malicia would have liked, but it had turned out exactly as planned. The High Lady of Kahtan had spent most of her hidden pieces in the Tower and badly failed at achieving her objective. Even worse, the empress had ensured that the few survivors who’d managed to flee would report that it was Takisha’s men who had damaged the Engines during the fighting and so unleashed the brutal storm still ravaging Ater and its surroundings. It had been days since the failed coup, and still the gales and lightning struck with wrath. There had been snow, hail, acidic rains and winds so scorching they burned the skin. Hundreds if not thousands had died in Ater, the entire capital grinding down to a halt.

High Lady Takisha was probably the most despised woman in the city at the moment, and that was just the beginning of her troubles. When Malicia had ordered her mages to ensure the Cloud Engines were unleashed under the pretext of some cosmetic damage, she’d ensured that the red lightning would strike a particular target: the tent of the eldest son of High Lord Jaheem Niri, the man’s wife and their two children. None had survived, and so dearest Akua had spent most of the last few days trying to ensure that two of her most prominent supporters did not begin a war of their own. Had she begun to feel the weight, Malicia wondered? Had it begun to sink in that once you had the support of the High Seats, you then had to keep the High Seats happy?

The dark sky with crackling red light was only the beginning of it all, Malicia thought as she looked through the great enchanted windows.

“I feel like some of the plans we’re going forward with are overly risky,” Ime said the moment the door closed and the wards hummed.

“We can handle the High Seats,” Malicia replied, frowning. “That they have all essentially abandoned our cause frees us to act without many of our old restraints.”

It had been difficult to arrange such a wholesale desertion, but it had worked. Alaya had found it hard to bear to send out the Sentinels to brutally put down the riot she’d set up, but the results spoke for themselves: with most of the city turning against her, the High Seats had followed suit. Amends could be made to Ater after this all came to an end, she told herself. If she was to live to see a new moon, she needed Akua Sahelian put forward as Dread Empress at just the right time.

“Our operations to break relations between the High Seats are calculated risks,” Ime stated. “Some of them are riskier than others – Sargon could react like a cornered rat if he figures out our involvement – but I can live with the risks. It’s the other plan I have issues with.”

“Working with the Intercessor,” Malicia said.

“Devils make contracts,” Ime shrugged. “That is the way of things. We make the bargains we must. Yet what you two have been doing is dangerous to your reign.”

“Delaying until the orcs arrive is necessary,” the empress said. “The Bard insists it must be threefold motif and near every scrap of namelore I have found indicates she is not inventing the requirement. We have already thrown the goblins at her and soon the separatists will make contact. We need the Clans to close the loop.”

“I’m not happy about the separatists either, to be frank,” the spymistress said. “There’s always been sentiment in the Green Stretch, but it’s never been this well organized. Too many deserters settled down there, Malicia. They have former officers and fighting men now, not just farmers. If the Black Queen takes does decide to sponsor the Green Stretch seceding, I’m uncomfortable at the idea that it might stick.”

“The sponsorship of a corpse means nothing,” Malicia said. “And we both know Vivienne Dartwick will not go to war over the Green Stretch.”

“The lack of long-term consequences relies on the assumption of our success,” Ime insisted. “Let’s say both you and the Black Queen live. She backs the secession, and it happens in the months after we’ve thoroughly destroyed relations between most High Seats.”

Malicia’s brow creased.

“You worry there is a risk that more secessions could follow, given that my authority will be weak for the first few years following this,” she finally said.

“It’s a possibility we can’t just dismiss,” Ime said.

And she was right, in the sense that the risk existed, but that did not matter. To avoid taking the lesser long-term risk, a larger short-term risk had to be taken instead. And given that in the first instance trouble would be for the Empire and in the second it was Alaya’s life on the line, the choice made itself.

“Lost provinces can be taken back,” Malicia finally said. “Such setback would not be permanent.”

“We still don’t know where the orcs will fall in all this,” Ime quietly said. “They have a Warlord and we know it’s not Troke, so they’re difficult to predict. We are looking at a very volatile situation that could potentially result in permanent losses for the Dread Empire, Your Majesty. All this to follow the nebulous plan of an entity we cannot trust and have no real leverage over. I urge you to reconsider.”

And Malicia did, for a moment, but the reasons why she had made the decision had not changed. The Intercessor was a snake, but she was a snake who wanted Catherine Foundling dead – and the main thrust of that method of killing was to bury the Black Queen in regional disputes so that it would become the shape of her Role. A shape that could then be exploited to kill her in the moments that followed, though Malicia suspected around then would be when the Bard betrayed her. She had prepared accordingly. Until then, the disputes had to be put forward to the Black Queen and that meant following through regardless of the risks.

To hesitate here meant death.

“I understand your concerns,” Malicia said, “but I stand by the decision.”

Ime slowly nodded, face unreadable. The Dread Empress slid her will into Connect, but the aspect only flickered weakly. All she glimpsed was a vague sense of disappointment, with no real idea of the depth of it. Malicia would have to try this again later to be sure her spymistress’ loyalty remained firm.

“So long as you are aware of my concerns,” Ime said, bowing. “I’ll take my leave, Your Majesty. There is much work to do.”

Malicia nodded her goodbye, remaining before the window as the other woman left the room. The storms still raged under her calm gaze, and it would continue to do so until almost two weeks had passed.  So her mages had promised. Once the Clans were close enough it would pass and the last dance could begin. Two weeks would be all that Dread Empress Malicia would need to gore the ‘alliance’ behind Akua Sahelian. Already Kahtan and Okoro were at odds, but that was only a start. High Lord Dakarai would turn on Abreha when his favourite daughter – Isoba Mirembe’s wife – was assassinated seemingly at Sanaa Mirembe’s order, as it was certain the High Lady of Aksum would not punish her favoured heir for something she had not done.

Then Sargon Sahelian would catch goblin infiltrators selling the ward schematics of his personal sleeping tent to agents of High Lord Jaheem Niri, burning two bridges at once with the spectre of Wither and Jaheem clasping hands to assassinate him. High Lord Dakarai had already begun to try buying the support of some of Kahtan’s more powerful vassals in his quest to become Chancellor, it would be child’s play to have him caught by some of Takisha’s agents – and it would play on the High Lady’s worst fear, that the grand Taghreb coalition behind her was already falling apart.

Meanwhile of them were going to have incidents with the Legions, which would be much easier to arrange now that Akua had gone ‘against Malicia’s will’ to bring private soldiers into the city and into Legion barracks. The Black Knight was wavering, but soon enough the Legions would be reminded of why they had steered clear of the High Seats for so long. And while everyone bit and everyone bled, Dread Empress Malicia would stoke the hunger with the prize she’d put on the table by making her cause seem finished: the position of Chancellor. It was in the nature of Praesi to begin squabbling over the spoils the moment victory was in sight.

So she’d dragged it into sight.

“It will work,” Alaya whispered to the storm. “Hour by hour I will pull at the knots keeping me bound, you will only know I have won when you feel the noose around your neck.”

Chapter 25: Fool

And so Dread Emperor Irritant addressed his Chancellor thus: ‘You have moved me through argument, so I crown you in my stead. May you rule wisely.’ The day after the royal banner of Callow was seen, and soon Ater was under siege.”

– Extract from Volume IX of the official Imperial Chronicles

The first dart came from my left and I caught its glint in the morning light.

I clawed Night across the air, making a shield, but the one thrown a heartbeat later from my right I didn’t see at all until a phalange moved in the way with her shield raised. It didn’t help. Night shattered the first dart, but the second punched through steel like it was paper and then went on halfway through the orc’s skull before stopping. And it wasn’t even, I realized a moment later, the real attempt on my life. I was warned by shouts and the sound of crossbows being fired. Behind me, I thought, and turned to see a small creature leaping towards at my back. Hairy and clawed, like a toad gone wrong, but my staff was in movement and it was not quicker than me.

The side of the length of dead yew caught the creature in its distended belly, but it let out a high-pitched screech and spat out a yellow tongue that looked like a muscle. I saw something like bone at the end of the absurd length and threw myself to the side, but a legionary had come too close and he was in the way. Heavier than me. It was luck that got a fold of the Mantle of the Woe just close enough I was able to pull it closer to my body, covering my side in time for the bonelike stinger to slide off the enchanted cloth. I snarled, as much about the legionary who’d almost just gotten me killed trying to protect me as in anger. Night cascaded down the length of my staff in strings that crisscrossed the creature’s entire body in the span of a heartbeat before turning sharp.

Chunks of flesh and gore splattered the grass and I breathed out, eyes scanning for other threats.

The assassins that’d thrown darts at me had been tackled down but there seemed to be no more of the creature, which – shit, the corpse was dissolving into the ground. Ichor. That thing had been a devil. What the fuck was going on with our wards? I spared a look for the phalange that’d take a dart for me, grimacing as a hand over her mouth told me she was dead.

“Take them alive,” I shouted.

It was no good, though, I saw moments later. The assassins – garbed in regular’s armour – had stopped moving because they were dead. Poison, most likely. I’d be getting no answers out of them save through necromancy, and maybe not even that. There were alchemies that made corpses near-impossible to raise, and though they were expensive I somehow doubted that whoever had arranged this was lacking in funds. I rose back to my feet, closing the orc’s eyes. She’d taken that dart for me without hesitation, and if she hadn’t I would most likely be dead. Fuck, I thought breathing out. This wasn’t the first attempt on my life, but it’d been a while one had come so close to succeeding. If that tongue stinger hadn’t been meant to deliver a particularly nasty poison, I’d eat my shoes.

I got my people moving to cover the security breaches, because there was no way a devil should have been able to cross our wards. Before the hour was out the phalanges had caught most of our traitors alive, two trying to pull a runner towards Ater before being shot in the back. Enough confessed without need for… firm interrogation that I got a picture of what had happened. A few of my soldiers had been turned either by threats to their families or petty bribery, which had allowed a pair of mfuasa mage infiltrators in through our defences. They’d used illusions and murder to let in a summoned devil through the wards and make their attempt before being put down.

“They went for enlisted, not officers,” Vivienne said. “Not all of them Praesi, either. Two of the flipped soldiers were from Summerholm.”

I grimaced.

“This one wasn’t a warning shot,” I said. “They meant business.”

“It won’t be the last either,” the Princess said. “You’ve provoked the High Lords enough a single failure won’t put them off.”

“You don’t think this is Malicia?” I asked.

“It could be the Eyes,” she conceded, “but I have my doubts. They don’t usually use either devils or mfuasa.”

Which might be the point, putting us off the trail, but I wouldn’t argue the point. I’d certainly angered enough of the Wasteland’s aristocracy that they were as likely of an author for this nasty little surprise. I clenched my fingers. Time to make a point of my own, then. I’d need to speak with Scribe, and Archer as soon as she got back. She was a day late, at this point, but I wasn’t worried: I could still feel her star and the way it was moving towards us. She’d be there by noon.

“We’ll retaliate,” I said. “

“I expected as much,” Vivienne said. “And our traitors?”

“We have a punishment for aiding the enemy in our regulations,” I said.

My successor made a face but she did not disagree. It might have been a Legion regulation, originally, but Callowans were not much softer on treachery.

They’d be stoned.

Archer dragged her carcass back into camp an hour past Noon Bell, immediately heading for my tent when she did. She stank of dust and sweat but I still poured her a glass of lemon water when she dropped into a seat with a sigh, sending one of the phalanges to get her warm food. Indrani drank greedily, emptying the whole cup before letting out a sigh.

“Gods, the things you send me to do,” she said.

I dropped into a seat across from her own, lowering myself slowly so my leg wouldn’t ache too much.

“Thought you were all about travelling,” I said.

“Ater was damned interesting,” Indrani admitted. “Wouldn’t have minded staying a little longer to see the sights. There were… complications, though.”

“Ominous,” I praised. “You’ve been working on your pauses, I see.”

She preened.

“I have,” Indrani said. “I keep using them in random sentences, it drives Zeze crazy.”

I swallowed a grin. Amusing as that sounded, I had sent her out on an important errand.

“Report,” I ordered.

She leaned back into her seat, grinning in a way that did not bode well for whatever poor bastard I’d make transcribe this later, and only stashed that insolence away long enough to thank the young man that brought her a plate of greens and stew with slices of rye bread on the side. Archer wasted no time dipping her bread and scarfing down an entire slice, almost choking as she slapped her chest twice.

“Right,” she gasped. “So report. Got into their noble camps no trouble, their security is horrendously bad. The outer parts, anyway. They ward to the Hells and back little sections where the important people sleep, couldn’t get in those. Stayed long enough to learn that our buddy Sargon is here now, with a small escort.”

“Good to know,” I grunted. “We’d figured as much, but it’s good to have it confirmed.”

“It shouldn’t be too hard to get a strike force in Ater the same way I went in,” Archer continued. “Lots of servants and peddlers go back and forth through the gates every day, the Legions don’t actually watch them all that closely. The problems start in the city.”

“Heard through sources that Malicia’s pretty much lost grip,” I said.

“Yeah, she’s not real popular at the moments,” Indrani snorted. “The Sentinels followed up massacring rioters by being just as hard with a few attempts by people to get at imperial granaries, which didn’t win her any admirers.”

Unfortunate timing for her, that. I didn’t disagree with taking a hard line over food reserves with a siege possibly looming, but it was becoming clear that the Sentinels weren’t the kind of tool that could be used for delicate work.

“So who’s rising?” I asked.

“Akua,” Indrani frankly said. “She’s the city’s darling at the moment. They’re convinced she’s the only person that can beat you and she’s been making all the right moves – she’d been healing people, setting up hospitals and shelters and organizing the refugees. Even the gangs like her, Cat, it’s ridiculous. They started patrolling the districts the city guard won’t go in anymore after she asked them.”

I let out a low whistle.

“So she’s making a play for the Tower,” I said.

“Maybe,” Archer said, wiggling her hand. “She hasn’t actually gone there since coming to the city, way I hear it. She’s got this mansion that’s become like a second imperial court. There’s already a song about the ‘empress in the tower and the empress in the city’. Whatever she’s up to, though, she hasn’t actually made any moves to depose Malicia. Most people figure she’s either still working on getting the Legions on board or there’s some sort of clever plan afoot.”

“I don’t see the Black Knight flipping her way even if Malicia’s star is waning,” I said. “They get on terribly, by all a reports, and Nim’s a Legion loyalist. Without the army on her side, Akua will need major noble support before she can make a move. Won’t have enough troops otherwise.”

Support that I intended to deliver right into her hands, but was still in the making. It’d have to wait until Abreha and Jaheem Niri arrived.

“Could be,” Indrani shrugged. “Went to have a look at the defences like you asked, and it’s exactly like Juniper figured. They have a skeleton garrison on the walls facing us and the rest of the troops are at barracks in the nearby districts.”

It was the only sensible way to defend a city the size of Ater with forces as small as the Black Knight’s. She couldn’t really afford to man the entire set of walls facing us, not with solid numbers, so she’d post just enough up there and keep her real numbers near streets that could be used to quickly mobilize. That was she could be sure her soldiers were where the fighting was actually happening when we attacked. Against a less seasoned commander the trick would have been drawing those troops out by an attack on the wall and then sending a smaller force to climb an unprotected stretch while the defenders were busy, but that wouldn’t work on Marshal Nim. She’d keep companies in reserve.

No, like Juniper had said the only real way for us to take the city by force was speed. We needed overwhelm the walls before the Legions could fully mobilize, smash them while they were still separated and take up solid defensive positions before the highborn armies could intervene.

“Good,” I said. “Did you get anywhere close to the Tower?”

“Nah, they’ve locked up those districts tight,” Indrani said. “The Sentinels have been moving wagons around, though, so I’d bet Malicia’s opened up the vaults for a few things. Couldn’t get into the Tower itself, though, not even through Scribe’s underground routes. They’re either closed or swarming with guards.”

“Ime knows her trade,” I sighed. “And my father?”

“That,” Indrani grinned, “is where it gets… complicated.”

“Now you’re just overusing it,” I chided.

“Fuck… you, Your Royality,” Indrani eloquently replied. “So, I went around looking for ye ol’ Carrion Lord like my boss – terrible woman, you know, couldn’t recognize a good dramatic pause even if it bit her in the ass – asked. I was prowling rooftops and alleys like a majestic panther, but then I got shot in the shoulder.”

“You what now?” I replied, alarm.

“Don’t worry about it, shallow wound, all in good fun,” Archer dismissed. “So since the Lady had said hello, I set fire to the house she was standing on to say hi back and we had a good laugh about it. Only that, uh, drew some invited guests.”

“Sentinels?”

“Please,” Indrani snorted, “like I’d worry about those. No, I was asking her why there was some gray in her hair now like an old granny – there wasn’t, always pisses her off when I ask anyway – but then suddenly there was just this guy there.”

“This guy,” I repeated, skeptical.

“Yeah, just standing there,” Indrani agreed. “So I was all like ‘what gives, did you maybe not notice that building is still on fire, you jackass’ and then he turns to me saying ‘Black Queen vassal. You are spared. The debt is paid. Leave.’ You know, like an asshole.”

“Indrani,” I patiently said, “did you pick a fight with the fucking Emerald Swords?”

She blinked at me, surprise.

“No, of course not,” Archer assured me. “Though that was obvious from the context.”

I narrowed my eyes at her.

“I picked a fight with the Emerald Swords and the Lady,” she proudly told me.

I rubbed the bridge of my nose, feeling the headache coming. I wasn’t even in pain yet, I could just sense its looming person like a fucking storm on the horizon.

“He’d told me to leave, see, so I did the only rational thing a woman can do in that position,” Indrani began. “I-”

“-shot him in the eye,” I finished.

“I did,” she said, pleased, then leaned forward. “Twice. And I’ll level with you here, Catherine, he did not enjoy that.”

“Go figure,” I said. “Ranger?”

“Kicked him into the fire when he was distracted and pulled down the house on him,” Indrani said. “Shot her in the shoulder but she caught it and threw it back – almost took my eye out – but then the rest of the Emerald Swords arrived and it got messy.”

“It got messy?” I drily said.

“Right, ‘cause we drew a bit of attention so the Tower dropped a demon on us,” Archer said. “Beast of Hierarchy, I think. Anyways the air started burning like oil and it spread fucking everywhere – no smoke, though, pretty weird right? – so I stabbed this elf in the back, ‘cuz he was basically asking for it, and I maneuvered backwards from the situation.”

She smiled proudly at me, the horrid wrench.

“You know, like a strategist,” Indrani said. “Which I am.”

“Tell me we don’t have a demon-tainted Emerald Sword to deal with now,” I said.

“Nah, everyone made it out,” Indrani said. “Except for the diabolists Ranger shot, I guess, but if I learned anything in our years together it’s that diabolists don’t really count.”

Yeah, and there it was. The goddamned headache.

“Anything else?” I asked, against my better judgement.

She considered that for a moment.

“I’m hungry,” Indrani shared.

I sighed.

“About your… adventure, I mean,” I said.

“Hey,” Archer complained. “If I can’t do the pauses, then you can’t either. And what happened to us, Catherine? You never ask how my day went anymore.”

I cocked an eyebrow at her.

“How did your day go, Indrani?”

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” she smugly grinned, shovelling a large spoonful of stew and greens into her mouth.

“How is that that I’ve met people who’ve literally eaten the souls of the innocent and somehow you’re still the worst person I know?” I asked, reluctantly impressed.

“Natural talent,” she told me through half-chewed greens.

There was nothing like spending time with my closest friends in the world to make me reconsider my position on people not being born terrible. I hid a smile, though, and drummed my fingers against the sculpted tabletop.

“It’s a good thing that you’re back,” I said. “You can rest now.”

“Sleeping in a bed will be nice,” she agreed.

“You’ll have to do it now, though,” I idly said.

She stopped eating, staring at me.

“I’ve got a job for you,” I pleasantly smiled. “You’re going back into Ater.”

“I was just in Ater,” she whined.

“Yeah, but last time was too easy,” I said. “So this time I’m sending you back with about forty handpicked Dominion warriors.”

She wouldn’t stay with them once they were in the city – anything a Named was involved in the Intercessor would know about – but that was all right, I had a different task in mind for her. Ater was no Wolof, after all, for all its formidable defences. It had fallen more times than I could count through the many centuries of imperial history.

Most of the time, from the inside.

It was another six days before High Lady Abreha Mirembe of Aksum – formerly empress-claimant Sepulchral – and High Lord Dakarai Sahel of Nok joined their forces to my own army. Most of their sizeable combine force had marched our way, a solid fourteen thousand. Abreha’s reins on it were nowhere as tight as before though, since the Nok soldiery now had their own liege lord along instead of simple kinsman in command. Within moments of getting them in my tent I saw the tensions between the two of them. High Lord Dakarai, a gracefully aged older man with silvery hair and the most golden eyes I had seen of any Praesi noble, now resented the woman he’d backed for the Tower.

I even knew why. One of the foundations of their alliance had been the marriage between Abreha’s then-heir Isoba and Dakarai’s daughter Hawulti, but from the High Lord of Nok’s perspective he had mismarried his favourite daughter: Isoba’s position as heir to Aksum was now up in the air. Mind you, Dakarai was here instead of talking with High Lady Takisha and the others for a good reason: it was too late for him to move to Malicia’s camp. Even if she accepted his allegiance he’d get nothing out of the switch and he was more than a little likely to get assassinated as an example down the line. Malicia couldn’t accept his return, anyway, not as things stood.

Too many of her ‘loyal’ lords had spent years waging war against Nok in her name, they wouldn’t accept a peaceful return to the Tower’s cause. If the High Seat returned to Malicia, it would be over Dakarai Sahel’s dead body and for obvious reasons that would not be terms acceptable to him.

“Your hospitality remains pleasing, Black Queen, but you asked us here for a reason,” Abreha eventually said.

“The wards against eavesdropping were something of a hint, I imagine,” I snorted. “Fair enough. I want something of you.”

High Lord Dakarai studied me calmly.

“Should you want Nok’s forces to take the vanguard in breaching Ater, there will be a price for it,” he plainly stated.

“Nothing so uncouth,” I said. “On the contrary, I think you’ll actually like this one.”

I explained exactly what I wanted out of them, and they listened with faces like masks.

Afterwards, Dakarai Sahel left my tent in a rage and Abreha Mirembe lingered a little longer before following him out of the camp. I let them go, instead calling my war council together.

We had a battle to prepare for.

I pressed down against Zombie’s back, squinting under the heavy glare of the afternoon sun.

The enemy was moving slower than I’d thought they would, though that was of my own making. Between Assassin, Archer and the Silver Huntress about twenty high-ranking nobles had been killed this morning. Among those we’d even caught two Muraqib and a Niri, the prize of the lot being High Lady Takisha’s husband. Just after that anthill got kicked the Army of Callow had begun marching at a brisk pace, circling Ater to the north and advancing on the camp of the noble private armies. Much as we’d expected it would, though our advance had been almost immediately seen and reported it’d still taken them long to organize. I suspected they’d prepared a makeshift command system in case we did attack them, but the wave of assassinations had upended that arrangement before it could be used. So while the nobles fought over who would lead and who would take the frontlines, the Army of Callow had marched effectively unchallenged.

Juniper didn’t like the plan, but I’d sold her on the necessity of it so she’d put her talents to work making the best of the inevitable risks. While the Army of Callow and the Akusm contingent was moving to the north of the city, about five thousand – all Nok forces – under High Lord Dakarai were circling the city’s belly to the south instead. The route was slightly longer, and I could see from above that the Black Knight had taken the bait. Seeing a smaller force split from our main host, Marshal Nim had ordered one of the southern gates open and sortied against it. The temptation to try to defeat us in detail had been too strong.

Without knowing it, the Black Knight had been courting disaster. The Nok wavemen, the famous archers I’d yet to see prove their worth on the battlefield, were served up exactly the kind of fight they shined most in: flat open fields against slow-moving infantry. Those enchanted bows proved to be brutally effective tools of war at a range at least one time and a half of standard-issue crossbows, arrows touched with magic coming down in a rain that tore through even the testudo formation of the enemy legionaries. Still, there were only a thousand of those elite archers and Nim soon had field scorpions brought out so the slaughter didn’t last forever.

It still cost the Legions a few hundred soldiers for little gain and blunted their sortie. The Nok forces kept moving east towards the nobles with only paltry losses and the Legions did not attempt pursuit. No doubt the Black Knight was wary of getting another mouthful of volleys before Dakarai retreated again and the game began anew.

Up north, the shape of a battle began to fall into place. The enemy commanders were thinking along the same lines as the Black Knight, they too preferring to fight our army split. It’d made them take a gamble: instead of staying in their camp, a decent enough defensive position, the lumbering host of thirty thousand was marching towards the Army of Callow and its auxiliaries. The general facing Juniper had decided to bet that the battle against our main army would be won or lost before High Lord Dakarai finished circling the capital and fell on their backs. From up here I could see another trap, too, this one more subtly laid: at the speed they were advancing, the noble armies would be meeting my own about at the height of one of the northern gates of Ater.

Cheeky, that. They were hoping that Marshal Nim might see an opportunity when the battle had begun to flank us from there. And more than that, I eventually decided. If the Black Knight opened the gates, the nobles could then retreat through it and into the city afterwards. Neither me nor the nobles were interested in fighting to the death while Malicia was watching us from atop the Tower like a waiting vulture. It’d be more sensible to allow whoever got the worst of the fighting to retreat, be it us or they. Even with an army marching towards you, I thought amusedly, you’re more concerned with the Tower than the steel. A shame for them it wouldn’t pan out this way.

An hour before Afternoon Bell the skirmishes began north of the city and I got involved. I made a few passes on Zombie and left trails of blackflame behind, leaving our Levantine skirmishers with a decisive advantage. An hour after that, the skirmishers retreated and battle lines formed. To the south of the city, though, High Lord Dakarai had slowed. It might be taken for resting his men, who had been marching for hours in the sun with enemies nipping at their heels, but it wasn’t. To a practised eye, he was making sure he wouldn’t be there for the battle to the north.

It didn’t matter to the rank and files on both sides, who advanced with shields raised as sorcery and arrows began to fly. Hierophant ripped through enemy rituals – Akua didn’t seem to be out there waiting to match him – so the volleys weren’t too badly against us, and we closed the distance with only slight casualties. That turned into a massacre almost immediately. The nobles had put their levies in front and my legionaries chewed through them like a knife through butter. I was pretty sure the immediacy of that took even the enemy by surprise, because they answered by hammering at where their own lines met mine with rituals and that was hardly standard tactics even for the most wasteful of Wasteland lords.

It was a mistake, anyway. Getting columns of flame and clouds of poisonous smoke tossed at them by their own lords without the protections that my priests afforded the Army of Callow was enough to turn the fear of the levies into terror, which resulted in a small and then general rout. The household troops behind them were made of sterner stuff and tried to keep them in place, but that was like trying to ride a panicked horse: they got kicked for it, and hard. To my dismay, it looked like we were actually going to win this battle. Fuck. I’d badly overestimated the morale of the levies, and so had our enemies. My eyes flicked to the northern gates, waiting for them to open, but while Marshal Nim had reinforced the walls she kept them closed. Malicia’s orders? I could only guess.

It was Abreha Mirembe who salvaged it. She’d been half-heartedly serving on the flank of the Army of Callow, fighting off the Kahtan tribal troops with a suspicious lack of rituals being thrown by both sides, when she saw the rout and ordered a general retreat of the Aksum army. I could see the dismay and fury flicker through the ranks of my men at the sight, High Lady Abreha’s order creating a massive gap that the enemy lines plunged into without hesitation. It was a strange sight, from above: the enemy centre and left were collapsing before the Army of Callow, but my own left had walked off the battlefield just on the eve of victory and so the enemy right was coming hard towards a formation unprepared for it.

I swooped down to stem the tide, carving a wall of blackflame through the Kahtan tribal levies that stopped them cold in their advance. It bought the time for Juniper to do as we’d planned and call a retreat, just as at last the northern gates of Ater began to open. Nim was, unfortunately, too late to the party. The Army of Callow began to pull back, its enemies too far or in no state to pursue, and as Zombie rose back into the sky I breathed out in relief. It might have worked out even better than I’d intended, in the end. Abreha Mirembe had not just turned on me, she’d betrayed me just as I was about to win the battle: it would win her a great deal of esteem. Good. It’d make her betrayal and High Lord Dakarai’s that much more believable.

Neither of them were in a position to go over to Malicia’s side, after all, but it was not to the empress’ banner they had flocked today. Why, they had just announced their support for the cause of Akua Sahelian by saving the entire goddamned capital.

And with that, the fall of Ater could begin.

Chapter 24: Bequeathal

“And so, her tribe burned around her, Matron Creaker stood in the ashes and spoke thus: ‘Do you now think me cowed, Nihilis? I would have burned them myself, to be rid of you.’”

– Extract from Volume VI of the Official Imperial Chronicles

I had goblin troubles.

A third of them I saw coming, in that the Confederation of Grey Eyries had been bound to come scratching at my door so I might win them some concessions at the peace table after Ater fell. They had good reason to think I’d back them when it came down to it. Callow had played a role in the creation of the Confederation from the start: the Matrons had begun sounding me out for support as soon as it came out in the open that Malicia were at odds, even if it’d not come to anything for years. It had been under Vivienne’s regency and with Hakram’s backing that Callow had funnelled the Tribes coin and steel so they might arm themselves for a successful rebellion, then promptly recognize the newly founded nation. I’d maintained the policy since.

We’d not done it for free, of course. After the Night of Knives, weakening Malica without outright starting a war had been one of the leading goals of the Kingdom of Callow and accomplishing it like this had probably been the greatest diplomatic coup of my reign. The more immediate payoff, though, had been stocks of goods that only the Tribes could provide: goblin steel and munitions. The latter, in particular, had been necessary since the Army of Callow was still largely patterned on the Legions of Terror and their doctrine employed goblin munitions. The coin and steel we’d sent them had not been gifts, they’d been loans: the crown of Callow was to be repaid in goods.

It’d worked out more than decently, at first. The rebellion had taken the Tower by surprise and seized Foramen, taking control the imperial forges there and massacring the Banu – the noble line that’d ruled the High Seat. But then Malicia had gotten her affairs in order and sent Marshal Nim south with several legions, penning in the goblins choking out the convoys of goods they’d been sending us. We’d felt the lack of those starkly during the campaigns out west. Though in a decent position and dug-in, the Confederation had then been betrayed from the inside: Matron Wither of the High Ridge tribe, Pickler’s own mother, had allied with other tribes to take the city from the Confederation.

She’d done this so she could return to Malicia’s banner as the High Lady of Foramen, not only the first goblin nobility recognized by the Tower but the first High Seat in the history of the empire not to be human.

The situation down south had been a rough stalemate since. High Lady Wither was dug in behind her heavily warded walls and her initial trouble of riots in the streets had tapered off – due in part to the grain I’d traded her in exchange for goblin munitions at Scribe’s suggestion – but she couldn’t really venture far outside the city. The Confederation outnumbered her ten to one and the Grey Eyries were a hell to assault even for goblins, on top of another High Seat now eyeing up Foramen. High Lady Takisha had been considering reclaiming the city, it was said, to install a cadet branch of the Muraqib at its head. The Confederation was no better off, though.

The Tribes just didn’t have the kind of army that’d be needed to take a High Seat in any way except the brutal surprise strike they’d first taken Foramen through. So instead they’d gone raiding into the hinterlands of Foramen until those were turned into a barren wasteland where no one lived, then settled into a sullen stalemate with High Lady Wither. There were frequent skirmishes over convoys and caravans headed to the city, but neither side was really in a position to score a decisive blow on the other and it’d shown.

Given that the Confederation of the Grey Eyries had been perhaps not an ally but certainly a partner to Callow since its founding, it was a given that they’d reach out to me now that matters were coming to a head in Ater. It wasn’t like the Praesi were going to offer them a seat at the table, and the Matrons were canny old witches besides: from where they stood, the political considerations that’d led Vivienne to back their rebellion had not changed. It was still in Callow’s interests to weaken Praes and I still needed their goods for my armies, so when I received the Confederations’ delegation their leader spoke boldly after I got her into my tent.

“We would like for Foramen to be returned to the Confederation in the final settlement,” Matron Braider said. “Preferably along with Wither’s head in a box.”

Braider was young, my matron standards, which meant she was mostly wrinkled instead of entirely. Her eyes were a sharp orange and unblinking, her needle-like teeth tinted blue from the strange paste she kept chewing. Vivienne, seated by me, looked unimpressed.

“The Confederation has not contributed to this war,” she said, “save through irregular trade. You ask a high price for goods already paid for.”

“We don’t expect you to do it for free,” Matron Braider said. “I’ve been empowered by the Council of Matrons to offer terms. I believe you’ll find supporting us worthwhile.”

The terms she outlined afterwards were, to be honest, pretty tempting. Treaty obligation to provide a certain amount of munitions and goblin steel at a set price every year, right of recruitment in the Eyries for the Army of Callow, a mutual defence pact against Praes and a fixed take of the Confederation’s tax income pledged to building Cardinal until the city was deemed finished by a committee of Grand Alliance members. Vivienne wasn’t anywhere as tempted, but it was pretty obvious that it’d wasn’t her they’d tailored that offer for. Braider stayed long enough to answer questions and specify details before taking her leave, leaving me alone with my successor.

“The mutual defence pact isn’t a real concession,” Vivienne immediately said. “If they get Foramen they need one with us else they risk losing the city to Praes the moment it’s no longer riven by civil war.”

“So we milk them for something else,” I shrugged. “Force them to never sell more munitions to Praes than they sell us, maybe, or exempt Callowan merchants from some tariffs.”

After the wars, if the goblins held Foramen it would become the gateway to the Grey Eyries and all the ores in the mountains. Callow did not usually need to import steel or silver, but we did have a chronic lack of gold mines on top of a few other useful metals we had to get through Mercantis. Foramen would have great need of grain, given its poor lands and newfound hostility with most of Praes, so my subjects stood to make great profits there. Vivienne eyed me with some surprise.

“You’re really willing to make this bargain?” she asked.

“I’m willing to entertain it,” I corrected. “I’m not going to risk the peace I’m after for the fucking Matrons, Vivienne, but they’re good terms. If I have an opportunity I might as well take it.”

“I imagine whoever takes the Tower will have some issues with losing one of the empire’s largest cities,” the Princess pointed out.

“That’ll depend on the strength of their bargaining position, I imagine,” I said. “I’m not going to cram this deal down your throat, Viv – the defence pact would stay your problem long after I abdicate, for one – but we should at least seriously consider it.”

The second third of my goblin problems, though, I expected a great deal less. Within hours of Matron Braider being settled in a corner of our camp, one of the phalanges interrupted me halfway through supper. Our scouts had caught someone claiming to be an envoy and brought them into the camp quietly, but they refused to talk to anyone save me. I went with a chicken leg still in hand, gnawing at the meat even as I sat down across from a young goblin. Thirteen, fourteen at most. A woman, but that was only to be expected if she was an envoy. Couldn’t think of a lot of Matrons that’d entrust anything of importance to a mere male.

I glanced at the legionary behind her and nodded. The cloth over her head was ripped off, leaving a slightly dazed goblin of pale green skin with a frame large enough there was no doubt she was of a Matron line. I let her dark yellow eyes come back into a focus as I tore off all little more chicken. It was unpatriotic of me to admit it, but Praesi poultry was better than my own people’s. Probably because of some terrible blood magic a few hundred years ago, but you couldn’t argue with that tender flesh.

“So who would you be?” I asked.

“Trudger,” she replied. “And you’re the Black Queen.”

“That I am,” I replied, taking another bite. “What brings you to my camp, Trudger?”

“I have been sent as an envoy by my mother, High Lady Wither,” she said.

I blinked in surprise. Wait, this was Pickler’s sister? I didn’t even know – no, of course she had sisters. Most Matrons had a dozen children, so that the weak seeds might be weeded out. It didn’t really mean the same thing for them it would for humans. Few of them would have the same father, not that fatherhood was concept goblins put any stock in. Most of their kind would have found it obscene for a male to have a role in the raising of children, even if he’d sired the child in question.

“Pickler’s never mentioned you,” I noted.

“She wouldn’t, the bitch,” Trudger flatly said. “Why Mother is so fond of her when she took the first opportunity to flee is beyond me, but we’re not here to speak of thin blood. You were approached by the Council of Matrons, yes?”

Not much meat left on the leg, but I bit it off and swallowed.

“I’m always talking the Confederation,” I said. “We’re friendly enough.”

“They’ll have come begging for you to give them Foramen,” Trudger smiled. “I am here to deliver the better offer.”

I cocked an eyebrow at her.

“Had a little talk with your mother not two days ago,” I said. “She didn’t seem so eager to bargain then. What’s changed?”

“Malicia’s cause is dying,” Trudger frankly said. “The Warlock has been popular with the refugees for some time, but since the riots were drowned in blood many Aterans balk at supporting the empress. If she loses the capital, she has nothing left.”

“Which has me curious why you’re talking to me instead of Akua Sahelian,” I said.

Trudger smiled thinly.

“I imagine you think very little of us,” she said. “My mother and the Matrons. That we’re all the same to you, Wasteland highborn made small and green.”

“That’s a leap on your part,” I said.

But the first part, at least, was true. How could I think much of a pack of old women who spent a thousand Robbers like coppers at a fair every year? I couldn’t fix everything in the world, I’d learned my limits, but there had been a time… I had not forgotten who I was clasping hands with, the nature of my ‘friends’.

“We’re hard, Black Queen, because the Eyries are a hard place,” Trudger said. “Because the Dread Empire is a harder place still. But that doesn’t mean we’re blind.”

Something burned in those yellow eyes that had me believing, for this moment at least, that she spoke from the heart.

“We know the difference between someone like the Carrion Lord and Abreha Mirembe,” Trudger said. “You have known tyrants, Black Queen, but how often have your people been subject to them? We have, and that history is a thousand years of blood-curling screams. You want to know why we’d rather not deal with Akua Sahelian?”

Trudger bared pale, sharp teeth.

“You have proved you keep your word,” the envoy said. “You proved, in Wolof, that you know restraint. And if we had half a chance, Black Queen, we’d kill every single Akua Sahelian in this fucking empire.

I hummed, dropping the chicken bones into a stretch of shadow. Zombie liked to break them. I leaned back into my seat, then nodded.

“All right,” I said. “Let’s say you have me convinced you’re dealing in good faith. What does your mother want, and what does she offer?”

“We want to keep Foramen,” Trudger said, “and we want peace.”

It was a little more complicated than that, in practice. High Lady Wither intended on staying part of the Dread Empire of Praes and sitting on her High Seat, she just wanted me to make her problems go away. To broker a peace between her and the Confederation and to extract guarantees from the Tower she wouldn’t be put down the moment the Dread Empire was no longer preoccupied with civil war. I was on the fence as to whether these was harder to get done than what the Matrons had asked me: ceding territory was one thing, but Wither was asking me to end a goblin blood feud and meddle in the Tower’s authority over its own affairs. I pointed out the latter, but Trudger pointed out in reply that I’d already promised Abreha Mirembe to guarantee her title until the war on Keter was over so evidently I was willing to meddle. Which, much as I disliked admitting it, was a fair point.

“All right,” I said. “I know what you want. What makes it worth my while?”

If the Confederations’ offer had been tailored for me, then this one was tailored for Vivienne. Oh, Wither threw me a sop early on in the form of guaranteeing her High Seat would never interrupt the sale of munitions to Callow and would itself sell us goblin steel from the forges, but the rest was very much up her alley. A treaty guaranteeing Foramen would never send provide troops to make war on Callow so long as Wither’s line ruled it, goblin and Taghreb blacksmiths provided to help setting up royal forges in Callow and a secret treaty supporting Jacks operations in the Hungering Sands. The deal was arguably less risky than backing the annexation of a major Praesi city, too, which would appeal to Vivienne.

The last thing she wanted after the last decade was for Callow to be dragged into more wars.

I didn’t give Trudger an answer, nor did she expect me to. Neither did I release her back to her mother, instead stashing her away in my camp as far away as the delegation from the Confederation as I could. I asked Masego to set up wards to keep everyone out of her tent and tripled the guard around her, too, which was bound to be noticed by spies in my camp but couldn’t be helped. The last thing I needed was for Matron Braider or her cohorts to find out Wither’s daughter was my ‘guest’. I stopped by the stables to toss Zombie a few bones, which she crunched with relish, but when I returned to my tent to take care of my correspondence and read through reports I found someone waiting for me.

The last third of my goblin troubles I would not have seen coming in a hundred years, because Pickler had never before shown so much as an iota of interest in the fate of her people.

“Should I even ask how you know?” I said, limping open to my liquor cabinet and taking out a bottle of pear brandy.

I didn’t like the taste much, too sweet, but now and then I enjoyed having a drink of it. It was a way to remember a man I’d respected and detested but who’d died the same way he’d lived: trying to save others.

“I got it out of Masego,” Pickler said. “It was only a guess, but Mother was certain to send someone after the Matrons did.”

I gestured towards the brandy, and to my surprise she nodded. I poured her a cup as well before dropping down in my favourite seat. My Sapper-General drank of her brandy, letting out a happy noise at the taste.

“Better than what you usually drink,” she said.

“An acquired taste,” I said, speaking as much of the man as the liquor.

Pickler didn’t bother to ply me with small talk, which I appreciated. It would have been horrifying unlike her, and honestly made me lose some respect for her character.

“What did they want?” Pickler asked.

“The Matrons want Foramen back,” I said. “Your mother wants to keep Foramen. The rest is gilding.”

She laughed, but it was a barren sound. Without mirth.

“Of course it’s about Foramen,” she said. “Why would they care about anything but the prize?”

I sipped at my drink, swallowing quick to the sweetness would not linger.

“She sent your sister Trudger,” I said.

“Our youngest,” Pickler said, sounding surprised. “She must have killed either Salter or Folder to be trusted with this.”

A pause.

“Didn’t think she had it in her.”

“She didn’t think much of you either,” I noted. “Not exactly close, I take it?”

“I spared Salter when I had her on the ropes,” she replied. “She took that personally since the two are enemies – they were raised by matron-attendants that hate each other.”

“You never told me how you left the Eyries,” I said.

She drank deep, then set down the empty cup with a sigh. She cocked her head at me and I gallantly filled it up again.

“In age, I was the fourth out of nine,” Pickler said, then grimaced. “It’s not that age matters, Catherine – we don’t pick leaders for it – but it lets you make allies for longer. It’s an advantage. I was one of those raised by my mother, since two of my elder sisters had already been given to matron-attendants. She was…”

A moment of hesitation.

“She was proud that I was food at things,” she said. “Saw I had a talent with forces and maths, got three retired sappers to teach me. But she also wanted me to be other things, things I couldn’t be.”

“So you left,” I said.

“The College was a way out,” Pickler said. “They all wanted me to go, my sisters, because I’d have no allies even if I returned. Mother thought differently, said that there was worth in learning there and the allies that could be made. But I wasn’t one of the greenskin slots for the College, Catherine. My tribe paid so I wouldn’t be sworn to service. I was supposed to come back afterwards.”

“I’m glad you didn’t,” I said.

“So am I,” she snorted. “Gobbler, leaving the Legions to go back? Madness. Mother figured out I wouldn’t during my second year, when I stopped answering her letters, but she couldn’t stop paying without losing face. She tried to get people to pressure me, but that’s how I got to know Nauk. He thought I was getting picked on by other companies so he brawled through three of them and the mages they’d bribed to help.”

They’d been in the same company for two years at that point, I thought, but I wasn’t surprised they hadn’t known each other well. There were a hundred people in every company and it was common practice for fresher recruits to be spread out so no tenth would ever be too green.

“He was a romantic,” I smiled. “As much as an orc can be.”

“He was good,” Pickler quietly said, “in a way that few of us are. I still grieve that. I’m glad you spoke for him at Sarcella, Catherine. I just wish we’d let him rest years earlier instead of dragging him back as that… thing.”

I grimaced but did not disagree. Wekesa the Warlock had done what he could, but Summer flame wielded by one of its great nobles was no petty thing. There had not been much left of him to salvage.

“I thought it could be fixed,” I said. “I thought a lot of things could be fixed, back in those days.”

“Some still can be.”

I leaned back into my seat, sipping at the last of my drink.

“I can’t answer unless you ask, Pickler,” I said.

She shook with something that might have been laughter, had there been amusement in it.

“I don’t have anything to offer you, Catherine,” she said. “I am not a High Lady or the Council of Matrons. The gold I have you have paid me, and my allies are your allies. I couldn’t threaten to leave if refused even if I wanted to – where I would I go? The Army of Callow is my home.”

“It doesn’t always have to be hard coin and favours, Pickler,” I quietly told her. “We can talk.”

“Talk doesn’t move the needle with you,” Pickler said, and before I could reply raised her hand. “It’s not scorn I speak. You are a queen, Catherine. You cannot act like other women.”

“And yet,” I said, “I’d like to hear you out anyway.”

She drank of her cup, squared her shoulders.

“They’re plagues,” Pickler of the High Ride tribe said. “Both of them. The Matrons just want a hidden kingdom in the mountains with Foramen as a trade city and no imperial leash. The shit they’ll get up to in the Eyries, Catherine, would make a devil shiver.”

“The way I hear it, it’s already no handful of roses,” I said.

“You don’t get let in on the real secrets unless you’re a Matron,” Pickler said, “but I… know things. The Tribes hold back on projects out of fear the Empire will notice and intervene. Wipe them out, even. Even now there’s a lot of Matrons who think munitions should never have been revealed. And the Council is made up of monsters, but my mother’s worse.”

“She likes knives and backs,” I conceded.

“She’s a Matron,” Pickler shrugged, as if that settled it. “But she thinks differently, Catherine. She wants to be the queen of our kind or ensure one of her daughters will be. It’s why she wants Foramen: it’s the lifeline of the Tribes. The ways my people are rich, ore and goods, they’re not worth anything if they can’t be sold to someone. So long as she has Foramen, she has them in the palm of her hand. And to get her way she wouldn’t mind starving half our people to death from behind the walls of her city.”

“I deal with terrible people all the time,” I admitted. “I even backed Helike to prominence in the Free Cities because it’d put down Malicia’s allies.”

“They are tyrants, Catherine,” Pickler said. “Leeches who drink the lifeblood of goblinkind to maintain their power and influence. And I know it is not like me to speak of them, of all they do, but I…”

She swallowed.

“I owe it,” she said. “To him. Because he was right, when you spoke to us in Marchford. When I balked at your banner rising against the Tower.”

Pickler met my eyes, the pale yellow unblinking.

“They kill us for sport.”

She bared her teeth.

“Robber spoke true when he said they’ve gotten soft,” Pickler said. “Look at them, darkening your doorsteps with deals they would have once sneered at. They’ve spent so many of us they can’t even get their own dirty work done anymore. They ate each other’s tails until there was nothing left but open maws and anger.”

“I can’t topple them, Pickler,” I said. “Not without a war I can’t afford to fight.”

“You don’t need to,” my Sapper-General said. “They did it to themselves. Do you think my people are happy they’re being used like this? The Matrons, my mother, they only own us so long as there’s nowhere else to go. And that’s something you can change.”

I blinked at her in surprise.

“You allowed the Snake Eater tribe into Callow,” Pickler said. “Let more in. Let us build without Matrons to hollow us out, without Preservers to open our throats the moment we reveal of ourselves. And they will come, I promise you that. Already the Legions and the Army are a home to flee to, but if you open Callow? Entire tribes will leave their tyrant behind.”

“If I grant lands to tribes, I’ll have a rebellion on my hand,” I frankly told her.

Don’t,” Pickler fervently said. “Don’t let us forge another closed kingdom within the kingdom. Let us into your cities, your countryside, your wilderness. Let us be part of something that does not want to eat us.”

I flinched away from the intensity of her gaze.

“They’ll hate you for it, the Matrons,” she said. “For showing them they don’t own what it means to be a goblin, that just buried every other way and called it guidance. And I know it’s not what you want, not what Vivienne wants, that you have to think in kingdoms and favours and hard coin.”

She finished her drink, set it down.

“But we’ve stood behind you, Catherine,” Pickler said. “Not them, us. From the start, we’ve been with you. Sappers and soldiers and scouts, we’ve bled for you. And I won’t say it’s owed, because my people don’t believe in debt, but I need you to understand that I loved Robber – more than I thought, more than I knew – but there are fifty thousand like him the Eyries that never managed to flee. That are stuck and lost and will never see the light of day, know what the sun and the stars look like or even feel the wind on their face. Not unless you offer your hand to them.”

She left her chair, stood before me.

“I don’t have anything to offer you,” she said. “Nothing to bargain with. All I can say is please-”

I pushed back my chair, half-risen even as my leg ached, but I was not quick enough to stop her getting on her knees.

“- help us,” Pickler said. “Save us from ourselves, from each other.”

“I-” I choked out, at a loss for words.

“I think you might just be the only powerful person in the world who cares, Catherine,” she quietly said. “And I know you’re a queen, that you can’t afford to bend, but still I ask.”

She smiled, heartbreakingly.

“Please,” Pickler asked. “If not you, then who?”

I closed my eyes, almost short of breath. The stars were there, out in the black, but they felt… distant. Fading.

I had goblin troubles.

Chapter 23: Sung; Singer

“To fear treachery is a mark of inferiority, for fundamentally it is a fear that espouses the lie of safety. Treachery is only despised because it comes from within, from behind the wall. Only a fool believes that there is such a thing as shelter from harm.”

– Dread Emperor Perfidious

I’d not been to Spite Valley since the war games.

Its real name was Koso Valley, but no one who’d been through the War College actually called it that. The old fort that companies were assigned to hold or take during war games stood empty, Malicia’s generals past trying to actually hold the approaches to the capital, but it wasn’t there I was headed. I led Zombie downslope, past the lone watchtower and the woods until the slope began to rise again. Hills and a mess of rocky outcroppings awaited, small footpaths leading up until I found long abandoned fire pits. Rat Company had camped here, I remembered, on that first night I’d met people not yet become some of the most important in my life. Hakram. Robber. Nauk. Pickler. Ratface. Killian, once upon a time.

Nilin, too, who’d died before I found out he was a traitor.

In a way it was a little like coming home, a different one from the narrow streets of Laure but no less dear. In a lot of ways, I’d taken the first steps towards the woman I now was in this quiet valley. The shadows lengthened and night neared, and I left my escorts in the fort. I could make my own fire and Vivienne had brought cuts of meat to roast. We got to it with the practice efficiency of people who’d travelled together for sometimes months at a time, splitting up the tasks. Before long we had roasted pork and freshly picked berries for supper by an open fire as darkness crept over the horizon. In the distance I saw the campfires of my knights, but aside from that we were alone.

“Why here?” Vivienne asked. “You used the Mavian prayers near our camp before the Graveyard. Why travel hours away this time?”

“Worried?” I teased.

“I am,” the Princess baldly admitted. “Half the Dread Empire wants you dead and assassins only need to get lucky once. I don’t like that you’re so far from our wards, much less alone.”

“People would distract,” I shrugged. “And we never actually told anyone where I was headed, so there’s no secret for her spies to dig up.”

“But why here?” Vivienne pressed.

I looked away, dragged my gaze across the jutting rocks around us. They looked like teeth, in the right light, as if we were sitting in some great beast’s maw.

“It began here, my time with the Legions,” I finally said. “And it will end in Ater.”

“Symmetry-”

“Has its uses,” I cut in. “Learn that. Creation likes patterns, Vivienne. Rules of three, seven and one, a hundred little ironic echoes. You either use that or fall victim to it.”

“I’ll not argue namelore with you, Cat,” she replied, raising her palms in surrender. “It just seems out of the way, which is unlike you. You like being at the heart of the hive.”

I sighed.

“I do, sometimes,” I said. “For this the quiet will suit better.”

The Princess frowned.

“You’re worried about the Bard,” she said.

“I’ll be worried about the Bard even when I’m sure I’ve killed her for good,” I said. “The Arsenal is the only time I’ve ever come close to pulling one on her, and I’m still not sure she didn’t get what she wanted out of that mess.”

It’d come close to costing me Hakram, and the more I heard about what was happening out west the more I wondered if I’d really been the focus of what she was after. Tensions between the First Prince and the White Knight were continuing to rise, to my worry, and I’d not forgotten it was the events at the Arsenal that’d started the enmity between those two.

“She’s not a god,” Vivienne said.

“She’s the patron goddess of stories, or close enough,” I snorted. “I actually think it’s like a domain for her, you know? The Augur insisted she could ‘see all stories’ and there’s not a lot of things for Named that give you that much power over a concept s broad.”

“Kairos Theodosian beat her,” the Princess said. “So can we.”

Ah, I thought, but did he? She’d definitely not anticipated Anaxares the Hierarch being such trouble for her, I thought, but Kairos’ scheme against Judgement? That, I was not so sure. It seemed too much of a coincidence, Cordelia fishing out an ealamal that was once a Seraphim just after the Tyrant plotted a way to shut the door on Judgement’s fingers. The Dead King had put us on the path of finding out a terrifying truth about the Intercessor, that she could influence angels and so that using the ealamal was as good as giving her power of life and death over most of Calernia, but we’d found it out after Kairos had ‘saved’ us from that peril.

And in the depths of Liesse thrice-ruined, Kairos Theodosian had been spared execution at my hand because the Intercessor had given him a way out.

I’d never learned why. He’d traded for that, I knew, but what did he have to offer? I did not think that the Intercessor was behind any of these… movements, but that wasn’t the nature of her power. She could see it all and stand where she wanted, when she wanted to be there. The Intercessor threaded the needle, that was her terrible trick, and all she ever needed to do was to follow the… objects in motion. I’d been fighting her for years, often bitterly, and to this day the only thing I was pretty sure of was that she’d tried to make me replace her at the Arsenal. Trap me into taking up her mantle as either a rival or a successor. I found it pretty telling she’d since decided to go about killing me seriously.

Almost like I was of no further use.

“Ater is the first place where it’s decided whether or not we lose the war against the Dead King,” I finally said. “If it goes badly, Vivienne, it could fuck up everything. There’s no room for mistakes.”

She hummed.

“And so you disappear into the night,” she said. “So you can scheme in peace.”

“I’m preparing,” I piously corrected. “And speaking of, did you get the sheets done?”

“I did,” Vivienne agreed, reaching for her saddlebag.

She handed me a neat sheath of scrolls. I wiggled one out, unrolling it, and found a rather good depiction of Dread Empress Malicia looking back at me from the top of the parchment sheet.

“They all this good?” I asked.

“They are,” she said. “Got an officer from the Thirteenth with some talent to draw them.”

I paused.

“Thanks,” I said.

She eyed me skeptically.

“You hate it,” Vivienne stated.

“I didn’t say that,” I protested.

“Oh Gods,” the Princess said, sounding appalled, “you actually think they’re too good, don’t you?”

It just wasn’t the same if the drawings weren’t unspeakably shitty. Last time it was Robber who’d drawn them, and I still had those parchments tucked away in a chest somewhere along with other mementos. Tolerantly amused, Vivienne took out a writing set from her knapsack and stole the scrolls away from me to half-hearted protests. She took out Malicia’s scroll first, slapped it against a stone, and whet the quill. A stick figure with a crown atop it and three strands of hair was made to represent Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name. I cocked an eyebrow.

“Aren’t nobles supposed to get drawing lessons?” I jeered. “She’s supposed to be the most beautiful woman alive.”

“Right you are,” Vivienne amiably agreed.

She wet the quill again and drew two circles over the stick figure’s chest.

“There we are,” the Princess said. “Like looking at a painting of her.”

I snorted.

“All right, hit me with the other ones,” I said.

Amadeus of the Green Stretch got to have a sword and a beard, the Wandering Bard got to hold an attempt in the direction of a lute. Akua Sahelian was drawn on fire, which I suspected to more of a wish on the artist’s part than an accurate representation. They each got their stone, though unlike the Mavii raised stones the outcroppings here were low. I could see the horizon over them, the deep night sky beyond.

“I still think you should have a sheet for the nobles,” Vivienne said. “Sepulchral’s out of the running now that she’s undead, but soon every remaining High Lord and Lady will be in Ater. At least some of them will be plotting to climb the Tower.”

“I’m not planning to control who climbs the Tower,” I said.

She glanced at me skeptically and I grimaced.

“I am,” I conceded, “but only because it’s accessory to what I’m actually after.”

“Which is?”

“Who’s going to dictate what Praes is, going forward,” I said. “I’m not blind, Vivi. I know that my father might not actually want to take the throne. But that doesn’t mean his philosophies can’t rule.”

She drew back, standing by the fire and taking a look at the parchments.

“Malicia has to die,” the Princess said. “She’s done too much to be left alive.”

“I won’t pursue if she crosses the Tyrian Sea,” I agreed. “Anything else gets her a shallow grave.”

“And Akua is not acceptable as Dread Empress,” Vivienne said, a hint of warning in her voice.

I shrugged.

“Which is irrelevant, because she will not accept,” I said.

I wasn’t sure how deep the temptation would run, even now. I had my suspicions – she’d always seemed to think more in terms of legacy than titles, which was telling – but I couldn’t know. Maybe the lure of power would make her blood sing, the idea that she might rule from the Tower at last. But I believed, bone deep, that when the moment came she would turn away. Recognize it as a cage made of everything she had grown to despise. And I was not wrong in this. But if I’m wrong? My fingers clenched. Assassin could not get to Malicia, protected by the Tower as she was, but Akua did not share in that safety. But I’m not wrong.

“Meanwhile the Carrion Lord is nowhere to be found and the Wandering Bard unlikely to be taken as a candidate for ruling the Tower,” Vivienne said. “Why those four, then?”

“Malicia, Akua, Amadeus,” I said. “They’re the stories that Praes can embrace going forward.”

Stasis, reclamation, reform. And each of them had enough sentiment behind them that they were genuine possibilities – Malicia’s cause was plunging downwards at the moment, but that was not because her philosophies were disliked. It was because of chaos and mismanagement. Should she win in Ater and restore order, her reign might well continue for decades yet.

“I don’t care if Sargon Sahelian himself becomes Dread Emperor,” I said, “so long as he’s following a mould I’m comfortable with. Hells, I’d take Marshal Nim if she made a move.”

“You’d prefer the Carrion Lord, though,” Vivienne said.

“Sure, I’d prefer the one man I can trust not to start a stupid war and to butcher anyone threatening the new peace,” I drily said. “But he’s playing his own game, so I’ll not count on it.”

Vivienne grimaced.

“It’s too abstract a cause for soldiers to get behind,” she said.

“Which is why I’ve been taking about deposing Malicia a lot and a little about helping up my father,” I replied. “Easier to grasp.”

She glanced at the last of the four sheets.

“And the Bard?”

“Didn’t have that one, back in Iserre,” I said. “She’s the enemy, Vivienne. There’s not a part of anything I plan that can go without an answer to ‘what if the Intercessor intervenes?’”

“But what is it that she’s after?” Vivienne asked.

“My corpse, for one,” I said. “She’s stated as much and I believe her.”

My heiress looked startled.

“She outright said so?”

“I got a proper declaration of war from her,” I said. “We’re in this to the knife.”

The dark-haired princess stepped away from the light, knelt before the sheet and wrote: kill Catherine Foundling.

“Beyond that I’m less certain,” I said. “But I think she’s here in Praes because she doesn’t want me to get the east in order. She wants Hasenbach desperate, Hanno forced to the forefront.”

“What would she gain from that?” Vivienne asked.

“Right now everyone’s a closed door for her,” I said. “She burned too many bridges, she’s an enemy under the Truce and Terms and no one has an interest in letting her back in. If it everything goes to shit, though?”

“People are forced to consider whether she should not be bargained with again, should the alternative be death by Keter,” the Princess mused. “Yet that won’t work with everyone.”

“Procer’s collapsing,” I said. “A lot of people are going to be willing to do some very stupid things when the defence lines finally break and it sinks in we’re looking at the massacre of half the continent. She’ll get enough tools to make it worth her while. Besides, compared to how she’s a pariah now what does she have to lose?”

Vivienne conceded the point with a nod. Under ‘kill Catherine Foundling’ went ‘prevent alliance’.

“And that’s all?” she asked. “It does not seem so much.”

“Which is why there’s a third line,” I said. “We’re going to call it the hidden knife.”

It went up, neatly written, and she glanced at me in a way that invited elaboration.

“She’s after something else,” I said. “It’s too small a game for her otherwise. Killing me, screwing the Grand Alliance, it’s big but not big enough. She doesn’t work with plots that don’t echo, she’s never only about the immediate win.”

“So the hidden knife,” Vivienne said.

I nodded. She moved to the closest sheet, the one where a terrible drawing of Akua stood aflame.

“And what does she want?” the Princess asked.

I leaned back, going through my saddlebags to bring out a bottle of aragh. I ripped out the cork with my teeth, then spat it to the side.

“Try it,” I invited, then took a drink.

The dark-haired princess stood with her back lit by the flames, milkmaid’s braid crowned with a small circlet of silver. I watched her watch the parchment, glare at it as if it would surrender answers.

“She wants to take it back,” Vivienne finally said. “Or close enough. I figure she’d settle for people just forgetting about it, if it were on the table.”

“Redemption,” I said. “That’s the word you’re looking for.”

Vivienne turned a hard look to me.

“Cat, I know you’re… whatever the Hells you two have been doing, but don’t kid yourself,” the Princess said. “You can’t teach her to be a good person.”

I couldn’t even teach myself that, most the time, so that was hardly unexpected.

“You’re thinking in House terms,” I said instead. “Good and Evil, good people and bad people.”

“If you’re about to tell me there’s no such thing as good and evil, you’re going to need to get me drunker first,” Vivienne said. “I still won’t buy it, but at least I’ll be drunk.”

I snorted.

“Look, we’re not really better than Praesi,” I said. “When it comes down to it, Callowans are not less selfish or wiser or inherently better. That’s probably the most important thing my father ever taught me: most people do shitty things because they’re in shitty situations.”

“In an absolute sense you’re probably right,” Vivienne said. “And I think a lot of what’s wrong with the Dread Empire can be traced back to hunger just as much as the nobility, but that’s not really an excuse. Not for Akua Sahelian.”

“You’re still falling in the trap,” I said, “of thinking about it as opposing ideologies. That’s the thing, though: there’s not really a philosophy of Evil the way the House of Light says there is. Jino-waza’s probably the closest thing in Praes and it’s not inherently bad. It just becomes that when it’s paired with, you know, desperation and a taught disregard for others.”

“Except Akua has been philosophically Evil,” Vivienne objected. “The word is something Wasteland highborn embrace and the damage she did was under that banner. Crushing her rivals, taking the Tower, conquering the world.”

“The Queen of Blades went conquering in all directions and we didn’t call her Evil,” I said. “And when Hasenbach made her rivals drink poison after the Great War, did the House condemn her? Let’s not even talk about the amount of people I killed to become Queen of Callow. We shouldn’t be hypocrites about this. It’s the means that make it something different, Vivienne.”

“And she used those means,” the Princess bluntly replied.

“She did,” I agreed. “There’s no excusing or forgiving that. What I’m saying is that she’s done evil and Evil things, but I don’t believe she’s fundamentally either because there’s no such thing as someone who is.”

Even the Dead King had made choices, known crossroads.

“And what would that change?”

“That she can be taught to understand that people are… people,” I said. “Not just in the abstract but close-up. That’s what it taught her, our campfires and the Army of Callow. That the sum of people existing in the world weren’t Named and those with golden eyes.”

“That’s supposed to make a difference?” Vivienne scorned.

“Imagine you’ve been breaking statuettes of clay all your life,” I said. “Going through them like a spendthrift to get your way. Imagine, one day, waking up to see they were made of flesh and blood.”

Vivienne’s face blanked. It was probably the cruellest thing I’d ever done to anyone, setting Akua on that path. She had begun with a ledger so filled she might drown in the ink.

“Redemption,” I repeated. “That is the word.”

This time Vivienne put it down without argument. She glanced back, silently asking for the rest.

“Reclamation,” I said. “That is where her path led her. She hasn’t renounced nobility, that’s not who she is. She’s grown disgusted with the worst parts of it, the scrapped iron she threw in Kairos’ face. She wants to take the talents of the highborn and put them to better purposes, not to undo their rule.”

It was a difference in the way we’d been raised, I thought. Akua had been brought up to see the aristocracy as the best of Praes, its foundation and virtue. I’d grown up thinking of them as parasites best gotten rid of. Unlike me, she did not consider a world stripped clean of nobles as having been improved.

“And the last?” Vivienne asked.

I smiled.

“Why do you ask?” I said. “It could be only these two.”

She frowned.

“Is it?”

“No,” I agreeably said. “But why are you so sure of that?”

She hesitated.

“It just… felt like there should be three,” she admitted.

“Good,” I said. “Your instincts are sharpening.”

If she was to found a dynasty fated to end up Named as often as the Fairfaxes had, I’d be professionally offended should it not be better than most at namelore. She seemed as irritated as she was pleased by the compliment.

“So, the last?”

“Freedom,” I said.

Vivienne looked at me in surprise, blue-grey eyes blinking.

“She just got loose after years with us,” she said.

“Did she really?” I asked. “First she was bound, and when she was freed she found herself bound still.”

I smiled harshly.

“Now she finds herself poised to take the Tower, and she realizes that the throne would be just another set of chains,” I said. “And these most contemptible of all she has worn.”

She’d be putting those on by herself, after all.

“Akua will be wanting a way out,” I said. “Craving it.”

And how fortunate for her that I already had one to offer. Freedom went up on the parchment, Vivienne applying herself so the letters would come out neat even though the stone beneath was uneven. She rose to her feet afterwards with an expectant look. Instead of answering it, though, I pointed a finger upwards. Vivienne looked up and went still in surprise. The moon was fully out, meaning we’d been at this for a while.

“You need to get moving soon if you want to be back to camp at a decent hour,” I said.

She hesitated.

“This is important,” Vivienne said.

“It is,” I acknowledged. “But is it important to you?”

She looked a little offended at that.

“Of course it is,” she replied. “I wouldn’t let you-”

“That can’t be the way you do things anymore, Viv,” I quietly interrupted. “You know that. There are other things you have to put first.”

Silence.

“I’m the Princess, you know,” Vivienne Dartwick said. “Not the Queen. It doesn’t need to change.”

“You are the Princess,” I replied, smiling, “until you are the Queen. So it’s already changed.”

She had duties now in a way she’d not had them before. Not even when she’d been my regent. A Name was a responsibility that could not be denied, not unless you wanted it to hurt you: Vivienne must act the princess now, else it would turn on her. And that meant not blowing off her duties so she could help with my own, much as the both of us would have liked her to. It was a lonely feeling, but I pushed it down. How long was I going to keep all my friends on a string, never more than a tug away? I might not like the feeling in my stomach, but I liked even less how accustomed I’d become to the people I loved taking everything on my terms. Vivienne sighed.

“We’re getting old, aren’t we?” she asked.

“I guess we are,” I admitted. “We can’t be nineteen and on the road forever. We wanted to change the world, Vivienne. It’s why we fought so had to climb.”

“Only it’s different when you’re on top,” she said.

A pause.

“I wonder if it was like them for them too.”

I followed her gaze, the way it came to rest on the two sheets left untouched. Alaya of Satus and Amadeus of the Green Stretch. The two people who’d reformed Praes into what it now was, led it to its greatest heights since the days of Maleficent the Second before it fell into the pit where it was now stuck. I shivered in a way that had nothing to do with the coolness of the night. Neither of us had an answer, and so after sharing a drink with me Vivienne picked up her bags and saddled her horse. She rode away into the dark, leaving me with a mostly full bottle and more ghosts than I cared to entertain.

It would have been easier if Hakram were here, he would have stayed by my side. There wasn’t really anyone else left, was there? Indrani cared little for this sort of thing, and I’d sent her out on a mission besides. Masego was allergic to scheming or near enough, and neither Juniper nor Pickler were really… fit for this sort of thing. Aisha might have done decently enough, but I wasn’t going to abduct my own marshals’ right hand because I didn’t want to feel as lonely. I wasn’t that pathetic. Even Ivah would have been appreciated if it weren’t up north trying to keep Serolen from further collapsing.

Gods, I realized with startlement, but I even missed John Farrier. How long had it been since I’d thought about the man who had commanded the Gallowborne? The real one, not the one I’d cut up into small companies and spent across a dozen foreign fields. I drank of the bottle again, sitting by the fire, and idly reached for my staff. Without even turning to look I slapped it down, landing on the back of the creature that’d been creeping towards me. It was… a scorpion? No, not just that. It had black fur over the shell and a catlike head. It tried to wriggle away until I flared Night, at which point it dropped ‘dead’.

“How very believable,” I said, amused, and then turned. “Were you going to warn me?”

I glimpsed a blade being tucked back into Scribe’s sleeve as she kept silent. I snorted. Was she pissy because I’d not let her make an entrance by nailing the critter with a knife? I glanced at the cat-scorpion, which had been looking at me warily. It dropped ‘dead’ again the moment it saw me looking.

“I take it there’s news,” I said.

“Sargon Sahelian has arrived,” Scribe said.

I cocked my head to the side and waited. That wouldn’t have been enough for her to come.

“There was a riot in the streets of Ater,” she said. “Citizens clamouring for Malicia to be deposed. It was put down by the Sentinels.”

I let out a low whistle. That was a euphemism if I’d ever heard one.

“My people in the city don’t believe it was a natural occurrence,” Scribe continued. “Someone incited it.”

And there were only so many people with agents in the right place for that. Unfortunately most of them had an interest in seeing Malicia thrown out of the Tower, so that didn’t exactly narrow down the list. I made myself look past the implied massacre to what it would mean.

“It weakens her position,” I said. “In front of all the nobles she’s brought to her gates.”

Scribe nodded, adding nothing. She stayed there as my eyes drifted back to the parchments. I felt Eudokia hesitate, then carefully speak up.

“Survival,” Scribe said.

I glanced at her.

“For Malicia’s list,” she elaborated. “More than anything else, Alaya of Satus wants to survive.”

I hummed.

“So why is she still here instead of on a boat to Tyre?” I asked. “She could take enough priceless things and run that the fortune would last her for five lifetimes and I’d be near impossible to stop her.”

“Because she still believes she can win,” Scribe said. “And it’s personal to her now, a matter of pride.”

I studied her.

“Amadeus?”

“Not only him,” Eudokia said. “All of us. The Calamities helped put her on the throne, so she never entirely felt like it was truly hers. Now she stands with all of them dead or turned against her. If she does not win here, she proves her every doubt right: she never was meant to rule, and it was only the kindness of strangers that saw her climb the Tower.”

I stayed silent for a long moment, considering.

“Write it down,” I finally said.

She did not immediately move, asking a question with her eyes.

“Survival and Pride,” I said. “And you better have brought a cup, Vivienne left with them.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Scribe drily said.

Her handwriting was beautiful, I thought, and impossibly perfect given the angle of her hand and the rough stone the parchment was hung on. A side effect of her aspect?

“The first?” she asked, having left the space empty.

“Stasis,” I said.

Scribe cocked her head thoughtfully.

“That is an interesting interpretation of her reign,” she said.

“You don’t agree?”

“Regardless of our personal enmities, Malicia has been an able ruler and an effective reformist,” Eudokia said. “Not all of her changes were of the Reforms – most weren’t, in fact. The reason you have been able to trample over the High Seats with an army of fewer than twenty thousand is that she has spent decades bleeding them out. There was a time where Kahtan alone would have been able to field a host twice that size.”

“I don’t mean that she’s trying to stop reforms,” I said. “I’m sure she’d be constantly tinkering with the Empire, on the contrary. It’s what at the core of her philosophy that’s in stasis: her.”

“Arguably, her philosophy as a ruler has been centralizing in Praes while using diplomatic means abroad,” Scribe noted. “It was only when Hasenbach edged her out in Ashur even after decades of work that she began resorting to… traditional imperial foreign policy.”

Doomsday fortresses and assassinations, she meant.

“You still misunderstand me,” I said. “Sure she has strategies and policies and ideas. That’s not the point. The point is that Malicia does not have a vision of Praes where she’s not in charge of it.”

I drank of the bottle, let the aragh burn down my throat.

“And I don’t mean for a few decades,” I said. “I mean forever. Malicia’s not making an empire where the power rests with the Tower, she’s making an empire where the power rests with her. She doesn’t ever intend to give up that throne.”

Scribe considered that.

“It would not be so unpopular a vision with most of Praes,” she said. “The empire’s peaks, the moments where it was wealthiest and most powerful, have generally come when an able tyrant held the Tower and concentrated power in their hands.”

“If it were unpopular, it wouldn’t be dangerous,” I said. “And it’s not like the vision is only hers now. High Seats noticed what she was doing, the way she was shaping the empire to make it easier for the Tower to stay in control. Gods Below, Scribe, she had an open rebellion in her heartlands for two years right on the heels of pretty much losing a war and she was still able to collect taxes from most of Praes. Everyone who’s noticed is licking their chops and wondering what they might be able to achieve if they take over her machinery.”

Stasis went up on the sheet. As if gathering courage, Eudokia abandoned the rocks long enough to pour herself a large shot of aragh in what I was pretty sure was an empty inkwell. She drank it down in a single breath, then squared her shoulders.

“Amadeus, then,” she said.

“First one’s easy,” I said.

“Reclamation and stasis,” Scribe mused. “For him, then, reformation?”

I smiled, nodding. We were both familiar with what my father’s story for Praes would be. The High Seats humbled or destroyed, Ater unchallenged and the Legions of Terror the backbone of the empire. The only schools for mages under the Tower’s aegis, local nobility broken and replaced by appointed governors, peace with Callow and assimilation of the forces on the fringes: the Clans and the Tribes. He’d cut out every part of Praesi culture he disliked and replace it with something he preferred. It was a stable and prosperous Praes he promised, but at the price of what was likely a decade of civil war after large swaths of the empire rebelled against his policies.

“Only that’s the story, the ideology,” I said. “In the here and now, he’s up to something as well.”

“Destruction,” Scribe said.

The confidence in her voice caught my attention. I raised the bottle, inviting her to elaborate.

“He’s never been particularly eager to rule,” Eudokia said. “So long as he has free hand to push his reforms, in truth he prefers not to. It’s why Malicia was able to trust him for so long. Even now he does not position himself for the Tower. Which means he is trying to achieve the same ends through different means.”

I grimaced.

“You think he’s going to swing an executioner’s axe at everything he can’t tolerate about Praes,” I said. “Sweep the board clean.”

“He will seek to destroy everything he believes a hindrance to a function Dread Empire,” Scribe said. “That is my belief.”

And she’d sold me on it. It made sense, with the only part tripping me up being that I still had a hard time believing he’d be willing to let the Tower fall into the hands of the people most likely to end up climbing it. Yet he’d made no claim of his own, gathered no armies to his banner. He was no closer to ruling Praes than when I’d last seen him, drunk and maudlin in Salia.

“There’s more,” I said. “Has to be. The methods he’s been using are too odd otherwise. He’s been back in the Wasteland for years while we fought out west, Scribe, he has to have been doing something all that time.”

“He has been unusual in his approach,” Eudokia admitted.

“And that means there’s something else,” I said. “An objective we haven’t figured out yet, the reason he’s been so strange.”

Scribe looked at the parchments in the firelight, falling silent. I looked at her. I still had to fight it, Fade, but it was getting easier. And the more it fought me the more I could feel it. Her Name itself, but also the three candles within it. They felt close enough I could almost reach out. Not, not exactly that. It would be… harsher if I did it. Like an order. A scream, followed by silence. I only shook myself out of the daze when Scribe went still. She was looking at Malicia’s sheet.

“Figured something out?” I asked.

She turned to me without missing a beat, tanned face pleasantly smiling.

“No,” the Scribe lied.

Ah, I thought. And there we are. The first conflict between old loyalties and where you now stand. The victor was not unexpected.

“We leave it empty then,” I said. “For now.”

She rose to her feet, writing ‘destruction’ before withdrawing.

“What follows?” she asked.

“We figure out,” I said, “where we give and where we fight.”

“The Intercessor gives no grounds for compromise,” Scribe noted.

“Which is why we’re fighting her through the other three just as much as we’re fighting them,” I said. “Frankly speaking, my father’s way forward is what I’d prefer but it’d be hard for most of Praes to swallow and he’s still keeping cards close to his chest. We can aim for him, but we can’t start there.”

She eyed me strangely, holding back on a comment, then nodded.

“Akua Sahelian, then,” she said. “Malicia is not acceptable to you.”

“We’re going to have to use Akua to topple Malicia,” I agreed. “Which means getting her noble backing, since the Legions are unlikely to back her.”

Scribe considered that.

“Assassinating some of the High Seats could create such an opportunity for her,” she said.

“It’s also risky,” I said. “So we leave that aside from now. We know we want to use Akua against Malicia, but that doesn’t mean Amadeus is going to stand aside and look. He’s going after something, someone. We need to figure out what’s that before we move.”

“Given that nearly every prominent noble in Praes and most the middling ones are either in Ater or journeying to it, they seem the most likely target,” Scribe said. “It would destroy much of what he disliked of the empire in a single stroke.”

It might. It wasn’t like killing the nobles would end their families, there’d be replacements, but the sheer number of dead nobles would throw their influence into chaos. With the High Seats dead and unable to keep their vassals in line, all the violence held back would flow and in that mess someone with a solid profession army – like, say, the Legions – would be able to decisively break the aristocracy’s power if they moved quickly enough the nobles weren’t able to get their affairs in order. Without gold and land and fortresses, Praesi highborn lost much of their danger.

“So we figure out how he’ll do it,” I said. “He doesn’t have soldiers, just him and Ranger, so it limits the opportunities he can make use of.  We find out what those are and we’ll finally catch his tail.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Scribe said.

“We’ll need people in the city when it comes to that,” I noted. “Otherwise we can’t act on the information. When Indrani comes back tomorrow we’ll see about our options.”

Callowans would stand out like sore thumbs trying to enter Ater discreetly, but I had Praesi officers in my ranks. Maybe not enough to make a strike force of killers, but there was another option to consider. How many people would be able to tell apart a Taghreb and a Levantine if the Levantine kept their mouth shut?

“That is a start,” Scribe said. “But it does not explain how we are to ensure Akua Sahelian has overwhelming support among the nobility.”

I cocked my head to the side. Sometimes it wasn’t about winning, I thought.

“I know how,” I said.

Eudokia turned a questioning gaze to me and I grinned.

“I’m going to lose a battle,” I cheerfully told her, “and get betrayed.”