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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 Monday, Wednesday and Friday. First update of every month will be accompanied by an Extra Chapter.

Epilogue

“And on the first day of the year four hundred and ninety-three after the Declaration did a stranger slay High Lord Baraka Sahelian in the streets of Wolof, and she did not flee. Instead she challenged the Sahelians in such a manner: ‘Come now, you who believe you might triumph over me, that I might teach you the error of your ways.’”
– Extract from the Scroll of Dominion, twenty-fourth of the Secret Histories of Praes

Inch by painful inch, Malicia had dragged the Dread Empire of Praes out of the pit and herself along with it.

She allowed herself to feel a sliver of pride over that, though only for a passing moment. To grow conceited over victories would signal the beginning of a swift descent. Yet victories she had won, slowly and carefully laying the foundation for them until they could be brought to bear against her enemies. The throne that had been crumbling under her had been forged anew by the fresh blood she’d spilled abroad: watching the Imperial Court through the enchanted wall that said to be the work of Dread Emperor Sorcerous himself, Malicia read the lips of the highborn gathered before her. Rumours had swelled of the developments in Salia and the Free Cities. The sudden reverses against the Grand Alliance only echoed more loudly for the way it had before seemed on the rise to pre-eminence, restoring the prestige eroded by Ashuran depredations and the losses in Thalassina and Foramen. Malicia did not rejoice of this, for she knew every speck of that clout would be needed for what was yet to come. Though in dark days the High Seats and lesser nobles were more easily convinced of great changes, there were many who would balk at the mere setting of a precedent.

The crop before her, however, looked ripe for harvest. High Lady Abreha Mirembe’s absence, for Alaya had refused to relieve her from her duties as Governess of the Blessed Isle, had naturally prompted protest from Aksum and the Mirembe. In attempt to make her influence keenly felt Abreha had ordered the lords and ladies sworn to Askum to refrain from attending court until she was summoned back to Ater, but to Malicia’s eye this had backfired. Lord Kosu’s lion-like mane of hair could be picked out from the crowd, as could Lady Sesay’s famous enchanted dress of pure gold. Those two ranked among the most powerful vassals to Aksum, and another half dozen lesser nobility sworn to Abreha had ignored her edict and attended regardless. None whose holdings were close to the city of Aksum, for Abreha Mirembe’s wrath would run hot at the defiance, but enough that the High Lady of Aksum’s position was revealed for the worsening drought that it was. A year ago, Abreha had been but a few manoeuvres of having herself proclaimed Chancellor regardless of Malicia’s opinion of the matter. Now the vultures were beginning to circle her, her defeats at the hands of General Sacker when she’d attempted to intervene in Callow having soured her position.

In the wake of the recall of the inaptly named Legions-in-Exile, the highborn of Praes had come to believe the entire affair a long-reaching scheme of hers and General Sacker one of her agents in humbling High Lady Abreha. Perhaps if Sacker’s soldiers had not so neatly slaughtered the Askum forward parties and driven the refugees back to the Blessed Isle – where they must now be fed at the expense of Abreha – her influence could have been salvaged, but the defeats had been both swift and utter. The Governess of the Blessed Isle was then left with the dilemma of either pursuing a punitive campaign into Callow and risking starting a war with Laure or admitting herself to have been almost contemptuously swatted down. Abreha had attempted to sidestep the issue by accusing General Sacker of treason, which the goblin general had answered in kind, which had been trouble at the time. Amadeus was a rebel in all but name and conceding to the shadow of his influence would have been a grave mistake. By stretching out giving answer, however, Malicia had been able to feign control of the situation and leave the High Lady of Aksum’s support to wither on the vine.

With the currents within Praes mastered, it had been time turn her full efforts outwards. The League of Free Cities had been the easiest grounds to make gains in, and so where she had first concentrated her efforts. It had swiftly become clear that Penthes could be bought, courtesy of Amadeus sowing crippling chaos across the nobility during his last visit and Kairos Theodosian then pouring oil on the fire. Reaching an accord with the Tyrant of Helike had proved necessary, for through the Hierarch he wielded great influence over the rest of the League. They’d agreed on the Exarch-claimants that should be spared, and in binding them irremediably through participation in a darker scheme: the deployment of Still Water against the fleets of Nicae. From there, it was only a matter of ensuring that her position in the Free Cities was strong enough Kairos Theodosia’s coming treachery could inflict only minor damage. The Magisterium was approached and promised protection from invasion until it had finished its cycle of replenishment for the Spears of Stygia. The deal had to be further sweetened with magical tomes, but in principle Malicia had no objection to an empowered Magisterium tying down the resources of neighbouring city-states.

Antagonizing Atalante had been as simple as inciting the Tyrant and other greats of the League to constantly and publicly slight some of their most beloved preachers, culminating in their delegation being forced to carry a nailed manuscript of the Book of All Things as a formal member during the conference in Salia. The utter humiliation and the rest of the League’s acquiescence to it had made them walk away from the situation the moment they were no longer bound by law to be involved. The Secretariat’s longs-standing tendency to state neutrality when its interests were not being threatened – as well as the dire state of its coffers after maintaining so many mercenaries in its service for so long – meant that so long as they were not provoked they could be counted on to be neutral as well. All that was required then to utterly isolate the Tyrant of Helike had been to sever or turn Nicae from the rest, which Theodosian might have assumed to be difficult given their shared treachery against the city and its young Basileus. And it had been a thorny problem for Malicia, she’d admit, at least until Catherine had returned to the surface and begun reminding the rest of Calernia of the looming threat she represented.

It’d only been a question of aiming at Basileus Leo Trakas in particular, from there, and he was not all that complicated a man.

The deceased Strategos whose authority he’d usurped had been a close ally of Cordelia Hasenbach, and now so was Catherine Foundling. A foundation for mistrust. She’d also had dealings with the Tyrant, at the best of times his enemy as well as his ally, and made the leading heroic lights of the Grand Alliance defer to her will several times. Best of all she had the soul of Akua Sahelian, the sole known user of Still Water, bound to her service. It’d not been all that difficult to tip wariness into fear and then fear into the making of mistakes. Not that her victory there had been as complete as it could have been, Malicia silently conceded. Kairos Theodosian had risen from the grave to spit on her plans one last time, a poisonous snake even in death. The Eyes had confirmed that one of his two foremost generals had sworn herself to the war against Keter while the other, General Basilia, had openly declared war on Penthes. A weakened Helike might be able to maul the even more desolate Nicae, should it support Penthes, but it would not find Penthes itself so easy a prey. The distance between the city-states was significant and marching there would involve making pacts with the states between them, which Malicia fully intended to sabotage.

Still, where the League of Cities might have informally been an ally to the Dread Empire instead it was likely to spiral into another civil war that tied it down for the foreseeable future. In the longer lay of things, the Empress would see what might be arranged. If the war went badly for General Basilia and her Helikeans, the Magisterium might yet be convinced to step in for easy spoils. And if it went well? Then the Magisterium it might yet be convinced to step in lest victory allow Helike to resume pre-eminence among the League. The Tyrant might have allowed his people to reach tall heights while he lived but in his death he had left them stranded and surrounded by potential enemies. There would be some pleasure in teaching Helike the consequences of its actions, Malicia would confess. Kairos Theodosian had been an atrocious little prick, convinced he was amusing and that his sneering smugness was somehow endearing. It’d been draining to deal with him even when he was genuinely trying to cooperate with her, and passing the duties to Ime had not been possible: the moment the little shit had sniffed out how abhorrent she found him, he’d insisted their bargaining be done only between rulers.

Steps coming from the deeper reach of the hidden corridor the Empress still stood in, studying her court as she awaited the proper time to enter, shook her out of her thoughts. Ime’s pace was brisk, befitting urgent news. Malicia did not turn, eyes on the overly lingering courtesies Lady Nazar and the younger brother of Lord Salee – affair or scheme? The Salee and Nazar lands bordered one another, lending potential weight to either. It would not be the first time Lady Nazar allowed a foe’s younger sibling into her bed as well as her plans.

“Speak,” Malicia said, eyes moving to catch yet another of the thousand little details that might allow her to keep the court under her thumb.

“Duchess Kegan had our envoys drawn and quartered,” Ime said. “In front of cheering crowds.”

Unpleasant, but not unexpected. The Deoraithe were not an expansionist people by nature and with Kegan’s appointment to Governess-General of Callow they’d begun accruing honours in the kingdom as the duchess appointed kin and allies to offices. Competent ones, sadly, which only added to the faction’s influence. It meant that the Black Queen’s promise to the Deoraithe of independence-in-all-but-name along with a tight military alliance was a very difficult bribe to better.

“The Legions?” Malicia asked.

“The Okoro mages cadres were made welcome by Marshal Nim, and construction of the ritual grounds is progressing at a steady pace,” Ime replied.

Good, the Empress thought. When the time came and signal was sent by the Exile Legions mages, the ritual could be initiated and the armies forced back into Creation from these ‘Twilight Ways’. Returnign exactly at the centre of fortified killing ground, manned by her more loyal armies. High officers of dubious loyalty would be taken hostage and kept at the Tower, the unsalvageable purged and more trustworthy men forced in place. Heavy-handed but necessary. The Legions of Terror needed to be unshakeably hers before Amadeus returned. It meant more blunt action than she would have preferred employing, but in these times such bluntness could serve as a reminder of her strength as well.

“And?” Malicia asked.

There would be more. Neither of those reports had been time sensitive.

“Lord Amadeus has gone missing,” Ime hesitantly said. “Neither our people in Salia nor in the Army of Callow know where he is. We believe Queen Catherine herself is unaware.”

Alaya stilled.

“You are certain?” she said.

“It is like he vanished into thin air,” Ime said.

He was not dead, Alaya decided. She would have… felt it, somehow. She would have. And though the Empress had been harsh in demonstrating to him the futility of defying her, it was no more than he had earned. He’d know that, understand how measured the answer had been considering the gravity of his mistakes. Had she not held her hand until he claimed a right to her very throne? Even allowing for what had no doubt been poisonous whispers by Scribe – who, it was now clear, after decades was finally done pretending to be anything but an enemy – there was no light under which those actions could be seen that was anything but a betrayal. It was, Malicia knew, better this way. Now there was no longer anything let wondered and unspoken, no question of what would happen if he turned against her. He had, and he had lost. Swiftly, utterly, without ever landing a blow in return. And with that question finally laid to rest, they could forge a fresh understanding of who and what they were. Amadeus would not have taken his own life over such a thing, for sober admissions of his blunders were at the heart of who he was. He was still alive, which meant he was coming home. One way or another.

“It is likely he went into the Twilight Ways,” the Empress said.

“Agreed,” Ime said, standing by her side. “And though I know it displeases you to even consider this, Your Dread Majesty-”

“He could be returning as a foe,” Malicia said. “I am aware.”

Amadeus yet commanded loyalty with much of the Legions and had many sympathizers among the Empire’s bureaucracy. Scribe had seen to that. Some of the High Seats might be using to use him as a stalking horse for their own bid for the Tower, too, High Lady Abreha most of all. There might even be some lesser nobles that would genuinely rally to his banner, should he raise it. Though despised by most highborn, his tenure as her Black Knight had also seen him become widely feared. For some that meant respect, especially with families who had martial inclinations by tradition. His Duni birth meant most would not even consider him a possible claimant, true, but there would be some with greater interest in deeds than skin. More worrying were his ties to the Clans and the currently rebelling Tribes, though Malicia had already begun to check those potential threats with measures of her own.

“I would win,” the Dread Empress of Praes said.

“You would,” Ime agreed. “And so I caution you of assassination.”

Malicia glanced at her spymistress, almost amused.

“You believe he’d run me through in open court?” she asked.

“At this point?” Ime said. “Yes. Or, at least, I’m unsure enough of the answer I have to consider the possibility.”

“Without his Name, I could have him frozen with a word,” Malicia noted.

“That is no reason to expose yourself unduly,” Ime said.

“I do not intend to,” Malicia flatly said. “I am not a debutante thankfully accepting an ally’s antidote, Ime. Regardless of his reasons he has failed and betrayed me. It will be years before I can even begin to trust him as I once did.”

She paused.

“But I will not rob myself of what could be restored out of petty fear,” Alaya said. “He will have a place in my court, should he return.”

What was there left to fear, after all? In Praes, her vise was tightening around all who might yet oppose her. In the Free Cities, she stood queenmaker and holder of strings as the crows gathered above. In the far west she had sown chaos and confusion, stranded for months the Army of Callow, and last of all she stood the sole ally of Keter on Calernia. The Dead King needed her, lest the entire continent band against him as the sole crucible of darkness. Lest every hero turn north, the sum of every Hell and Heaven march against him. Malicia would betray him, in the end. That much had never been in doubt. She would betray him the moment the armies of the Grand Alliance were savaged beyond ability to harm her, and in the uneasy peace that followed the Dread Empire of Praes would stand without peer. Hers to mold into what it should be, as she reigned untouchable from atop the Tower.

The storm had come for Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, and she had beaten it. She had survived the crucible thrust upon her by Below, and now she would claim her dues from Creation.

“It is time,” the Empress said, eyes on the court. “Have them readied.”

“By your will,” Ime said, bowing low.

Malicia was left to stand alone, watching her court. Where she would soon enter and introduce before the lords and ladies of Praes the beginning of a new age. From the Northern Steppes, chieftains had come. Blackspear, Graven Bone and Stag-Crowned. Large, powerful clans of the southern stretches. Their chieftains had come to be proclaimed Lords of the Steppes, empowered to collect tribute in the name of the Tower from the other clans while themselves standing exempt of it. There were some among the court who would despise this, and what would follow yet more. For there was one more awaiting, hidden. She would be presented as the very first of her kind: High Lady Wither of Foramen, having renounced her former title of Matron as she returned Foramen to the Praesi fold. The Great Game, it always changed.

The only thing that didn’t was that Alaya of Satus always, always won.

Tariq listened in wonder to the roars of the crowd. Mere days ago the people of Salia had been angrily rioting, boiling out onto the streets, and yet now the same mob was cheering Cordelia Hasenbach so vociferously it seemed as if the very sky above might collapse from the ruckus. Merovins Square was considered one of the great works of Procer, the great Salian gathering place built over generations of the rule of the family of the same name. In the upper reaches of the part of the city men called the Joinery, massive arches of pale stone formed a perfect circle above great open avenues. Statues and monuments of every stripe dotted the square, some so worn by ages that the faces had been eaten through by rain and sleet while others were but a few years old. The tall, slender monument to the dead of what Procerans called the ‘Great War’, for example. The twisted marble, showing a ring of men and women both dragging each other up and pushing each other down, had chilled him when he’d first glimpsed it. The sculptor has shown great skill in making the faces move from triumph to agony and grief under the vagaries of the ‘Ebb and the Flow’. A fitting monument to a bloody civil war.

And now a young father was hoisting up his daughter so that she could peek over the weeping face of a marble woman and have a better look at the First Prince addressing the people of Salia. Merovins Squared had filled with thousands upon thousands, like a sea of people split by elegant islands of stone and metal. From where Tariq stood, under the shade of a great roofed terrace overlooking the magnificent wooden pulpit from which Cordelia Hasenbach was addressing the crowd, he could only barely make out the words the First Prince was speaking. Yet there was no mistaking their thundering approval, the way it echoed through the sunny afternoon air. He was not the only one who had been invited to wait here, far from it. The Grand Alliance’s shine must be burnished, for the people to put their hope in it, and so the great names had all been brought. Young Razin and Aquiline, pretending to be speaking politics over wine when they were truly flirting in that heady, hesitant way of those still unsure of the affection of the other. Tall and serious Yannu Marave, in the cast of whose face Tariq could not help but seeing Sintra. Itima Ifriqui, the sole of the Blood could still remember him having a full head of hair, though their long acquaintance had yielded little fondness. Respect, yes, but the Peregrine had always held in distaste the fondness for bloody vengeance of the Brigand’s Blood.

Others too, the seconds of their realms: Princess Rozala Malanza and Lady Vivienne Dartwick, seated in the shade and speaking in low tones of granaries and treasuries. Tariq’s opinion had already been sought over the matter of a temporary common treasury for the Grand Alliance, though he’d demurred from giving an opinion. It was a sound notion, as far as he was concerned, but he must wean the Blood from the habit of seeking his council. The chances he would survive the coming war were slim, and the surrender of his crown had only made him warier of speaking on matters of rule. Yet it was the last here on the terrace that his eyes lingered over. Hanno of Arwad, once the Sword of Judgement and perhaps one day once more, was leaning against the balustrade and look down at the crowd. At his side the Black Queen of Callow, hair loose down her back and a light smile on her face, was looking down with him and speaking without reserve. The easy cordiality that held between the two, natural as a sparrow’s flight, had surprised him. Perhaps it should not have been, for those two had never fought before and for a hero sworn to the Seraphim the White Knight could be said to be… unusual.

Tariq approached, as much out of curiosity as desire to converse.

“- wait, so if you recall someone that understood High Arcana, wouldn’t you-”

“Only so long as I am within the memories,” the White Knight replied. “Which makes you correct, but the knowledge itself impossible to use.”

“You still get to learn languages by the fucking basketful, so I wouldn’t complain,” Catherine Foundling drily said. “Even back when I still had Learn, it took me months to learn what I knew. Even had to learn Chantant the hard way.”

“I find Tolesian significantly easier,” Tariq admitted, coming to stand at Hanno’s side. “Though that might be because of the tradertongue and Lunara loan words.”

“Everyone should just speak Lower Miezan,” the Black Queen suggested.

“Chantant is the single most spoken language on Calernia, I believe,” the White Knight said. “Should it not be the chosen tongue, by virtue of this?”

“It’s got more exceptions than a Wasteland loyalty pledge,” Catherine Foundling snorted. “Over my dead body.”

The Grey Pilgrim’s brow almost rose, for though the Black Queen was known as something of a wit and prone to bantering, there seemed to be a genuine rapport between the two he’d not expected. They were both young and attractive, Tariq thought, so perhaps… No, he decided, flicking them a long and considering glance. The Black Queen had a roving eye, a fact he’d heard had been the subject of great interest among Proceran royalty, but the White Knight had no reputation for dalliances. And seemingly little interest in them, which the Grey Pilgrim could only approve of considering the days they lived in. Below them, the crowd roared again,

“The First Prince is in fine form today,” Tariq said.

“She is a gifted speaker,” Hanno noted. “As one would expect of a woman bearing her title.”

“She’s offering them hope,” the Black Queen said. “She could be stumbling over half those sentences and still they’d cheer fit to shake the earth.”

“The Grand Alliance has lost a founding member, with Ashur,” Tariq cautioned.

“The League of Free Cities retreats, or joins our ranks,” the White Knight said. “And the dreaded Black Queen has been tamed and added to our ranks. There is reason to rejoice.”

Young Catherine replied with what he believed to be fairly obscene language in Kharsum, to Hanno’s apparent amusement, but Tariq was grimacing.  Precious little of the League had joined, no matter the posturing, and Tariq mistrusted those that had. General Pallas and her ten thousand, the appallingly named Tyrant’s Own, might not have the stomach to truly see through the war to the north. It remained to be seen, and soldiers were not to be turned away, but these were not to be relied on.

“Best for all of us that Cordelia has her day,” the Black Queen said. “If parading us all before the crowd puts some spine back in Procer, I’ll even smile and say pretty things.”

“Your generosity is remarkable,” Tariq said, only half teasing.

Most of her allies had, after all, until recently been at war with her. The Peregrine cast a discreet look at young Razin and Aquiline once more, heart clenching. Blood, both of them, and that would matter in the days to come. But Aquiline Osena had not so long ago tried to kill the man she now courted and yet now the smiled softly at one another. Razin Tanja, defeated and orphaned, had not been embittered or broken but instead risen past what he had been taught. Tariq had heard of his words, of the renunciation of the honour killings. Of the harsh words he’d spoken at what Levant had become. And Gods, but Tariq was feeling his years. His soul had been wounded, and his body was nearing the end of its days. There was a future for the Dominion, but it lay not in Yannu Marave, who embodied at once the best and the worst of Levant, or in Itima Ifriqui’s borderlands savagery. Yet those two, the seed of what they might yet become, it would need to be nurtured. Protected. And he might not live long enough to see this through.

“I would, Queen Catherine, ask of you a favour,” Tariq said.

Dark eyes studied him, amusement sliding off her face.

“Funny, that,” the Black Queen said. “I’ve been meaning to ask one of you as well.”

“A trade might be arranged, then,” the old hero said, pleased. “When the Grand Alliance marches north, you are to be among the great warleaders of it.”

“Seems likely,” the young priestess acknowledged.

“There are two of mine I would have you take under your wing,” Tariq said. “Under your protection.”

She followed his gaze to Aquiline and Razin.

“You’ve got plans for them,” the Black Queen said.

“It is a new world you would make,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “I will not have Levant left behind.”

Slowly, she nodded.

“I am told you might be one of the few people alive capable of removing a compulsion from someone’s mind,” Queen Catherine said.

“I have some experience with this,” Tariq acknowledged.

Sorceries to that effect were more easily disrupted, but even alchemies and Speaking could be purged if one knew the way. The Peregrine had greatly benefitted from the tutelage of the Ophanim in this.

“I believe Dread Empress Malicia to have planted commands among several officers of the Army of Callow,” the Black Queen said. “I’d request your assistance in removing them without harming the officers in question, which I’m told could be… difficult.”

“This I would offer free of recompense,” Tariq frankly said. “I will not begrudge you my hand’s work when it is to be used to aid your soldiers in fighting for the preservation of mankind.”

She seemed surprised, which had him pushing down a grimaced. It had not been unfounded a conclusion, but Tariq was attempting to bridge the gap and vexed to see how deep he had helped dig this one. The Grey Pilgrim was not unaware that there was only so long one could keep treating someone as an enemy before they became one in truth.

“I’ll keep the favour, then,” the Black Queen said, eyes watchful as she studied him.

Below the crowd roared anew at some fresh turn of phrase of the First Prince. White, Grey and Black, the three of them looked at the lone silhouette of Cordelia Hasenbach. The stubborn soul that would not allow the Principate to fall to its knees, no matter the coming doom.

“The Tower stirs,” Tariq quietly said. “The Ophanim whisper of it.”

“I suspect,” the Black Queen quietly said, “that the Tower is about to have a great deal of trouble on its hands.”

Suspect. Was it true, then, that she did now know where the Carrion Lord had gone?

“And if Praes sallies forth?” the White Knight asked.

“Then I will get the east in order the hard way,” Catherine Foundling replied, tone steady as stone.

It was a small, almost imperceptible thing. Tariq Fleetfoot saw it anyway, as did Hanno of Arwad. A flicker, a spark. When the Queen of Callow had spoken the words and meant them, something had begun to take shape.

A Name, Gods help them all.

It was a beautiful realm, Amadeus thought.

A summer night unending, starry and warm. The kind of realm that made for a pleasant journey even when the sum of your earthly possessions was a horse, bundled armour and a fortnight’s worth of rations. Bridle in hand, sleeves rolled up on his tunic as the sword at his hip moved with his leg, he wandered down the road snaking forward through the Twilight Ways.

Amadeus no longer had his armies, not even his personal guard – he had left them in Catherine’s hands, requesting she safeguard them through the strife to come.

Amadeus no longer had spies, or wealth or even the power of a Name. He had sent away Scribe, failed Captain and lost Warlock. Assassin was gone, if not from Creation then at least from his service.

Alaya would see him kneeling, or forever gone from her sight.

Tabula rasa, a blank slate. After so many decades, the thought of it should have angered him. Should have brought in him despair and bitterness, for all he had built went up in smoke. Instead he felt relieved. Like a weight had been lifted from his shoulder. It was just him, now. Him and a sword and a plan against all the world. He looked up at the starry sky and laughed.

“Evening, stranger,” a voice drawled. “Where might you be headed, that it has you in such a merry mood?”

Leaning back against a tree, shrouded in darkness, Hye Su was gazing at him with mild interest. It’d been years since they last saw each other, and she’d hardly changed at all – save for the burns on the side of her face, a mark of Summer challenged but not beaten.

“East, I would think,” Amadeus mused.

“Whatever for?” Ranger asked, tone nonchalant.

Voice high and clear, he sang.

“The last is strangest, she said to them
The easiest and the most solemn
For when the tower is yours to claim
You will have forgotten why you came.”

There was a moment of silence, and then the Lady of the Lake pushed herself off the tree.

“Might be I’ll walk with you a while, then,” Hye Su said.

“I thought you might,” Amadeus smiled.

And into the starry night they went, side by side.

Winter III

“Good Gods, man, you can’t simply fire arrows at them. You have to let them finish the monologue first, otherwise it’s simply unsporting.”
– Aldred Alban of Callow, the Prince Errant

The White Knight did not enjoy fighting beasts.

It was not something particular to Hanno’s Name, his study of his predecessors had made that much evident. Those of his titular forbears born to Callow, in particular, had often taken such fights as their specialty. There was sense to it, as traditionally rivalry with the Black Knights of Praes belonged to Shining Princes or Princesses. Many a flying fortress or ritually spawned monster had died to the blade of a White Knight, even as the Legions of Terror were scattered by radiant royalty. Yet west of the Whitecaps, White Knights had long been known as first and foremost killers of villains. In time of crusade they rose to higher prominence still, but that was rarer affair and in the greater scheme of things one late to the history of Calernia. Indeed, most of the White Knight memories Hanno had recalled centred around strife against agents of Below. Hanno himself considered his aspects and training to have suited him to a great variety of works, but most deeply so to fighting Named. His dislike came not from a difficulty in fight beasts, even so.

But, he reflected even as he smashed  a table’s foot and let the momentum flip it up as a manner of greatshield – just in time for torrent of greasy liquid to splash against it and start eating through with noxious fumes – more that whenever he found himself doing so collateral damage became inevitable. The more removed from the plans fate had for them a hero acted, the more stiff and resisting Creation became. Hanno kicked down the warping table before it could get in his way, glancing up in time to see the Dead King’s monstrous winged vanguard further tearing through the roof.  The greasy liquid it had spewed was likely poisonous as well as acidic, but that was not the most inconvenient aspect. The Dead King was fond of using such creations as transports for lesser dead, and this one was no exception: even as the greasy wetness ate at the floor, the dozen fleshy abominations that’d been vomited out with the liquid began to shape themselves into legged creatures with wet squelches. Most people would have been struck with deep fear and disgust as such a sight, but this hall was filled with veterans of the war against Keter.

They’d all seen worse, and like as not those sights still haunted dreams. So instead before five heartbeats had passed every royal in the hall had a blade in hand, Princess Rozala Malanza called out for a shield wall and the retinues formed up with finely-honed discipline. There was a reason that even in the heart of Cleves, behind tall walls and sturdy gates and thousands of guards, every single person here had worn armour. The Enemy’s reach was long, clever and ever-changing. They had all been taught that lesson the hard way.

“Archers, ready a volley,” Princess Rozala said, tone even.

Even before the arrows flew Hanno knew they would have little effect, the following beats proved him right. Steel pierced into the shifting flesh, but there was no blood to spill nor organs to break and so the projectiles had little practical purpose.

“Your Graces,” the White Knight said, “I would invite you to withdraw to the Low Keep.”

Which was close, and halfway underground. The remains of a fortress that predated Alamans presence this far north, he’d been given to understand, and one very stoutly built. The beast would not find that structure as easy to rip into. Pride and fear warred within the royalty he’d addressed, for though they liked not the notion of retreating they were not unaware that from this hall they could do nothing. With siege engines from the city, yes, and by bringing every priest in the city to bear against this great monster. But arrows shot from here would not even merit attention, and their lives were likely to be why the beast had come to this hall at all. It was the Princes of Cleves within who the war was most decisively fought, and it was pride that won.

“Lord White, we will not abandon you to face that creature alone,” Prince Gaspard thundered back. “I yet rule this city and-”

With a groan the ceiling the great hall came off entirely, the roar of the beast above them all drowning out the words of the Prince of Cleves. When it passed, Hanno spoke again.

“Withdraw, Your Grace,” the White Knight simply said. “And do not worry of my fighting alone.”

Providence punctuated his sentence by a massive streak of lightning screaming down from cloudy skies, Antigone’s working ripping straight through the back of the beast and all the way out its belly. More of the poisonous liquid spilled out, and animated corpses with it. A heartbeat later, falling from the sky in the wake of the blinding light, an armoured silhouette wielding a great trident landed on the beast’s back. The Myrmidon was in good form today, Hanno noted. The White Knight took a measured step forward, sword rising as he watched the fleshy creatures take what seemed to be their war-shape: a tall, bent humanoid silhouette with strangely gleaming claws on the ‘hands’ and feet. Thin, he saw, and so suspected they’d be agile as well as blindly quick. Assassins, these, not warriors. The Dead King sought fresh crowns added to his tally. The arrows earlier shot into them were on the ground, now, like they’d been spit out by the shifting bodies.

“Well?” Hanno politely asked them. “Shall we proceed?”

In ghostly silence the creatures moved, and he moved to meet them. Behind him he finally heard the Procerans withdrawing as he had requested, shield wall tightening to block the back of the hall. It would not be enough, not against ritual-made killers like this. Of the dozen foes, a mere four were heading towards him, falling forward on four legs and they ran like terrible hounds. The rest made to scatter around him, moving so swiftly they found no difficulty in treading tables and walls like they were the ground. Breathing out, the White Knight let Light flood his veins. Control, patience, and timing. This he had learned from his defeats, that with skill little was needed to accomplish much. Light glinting on the edge of his sword, Hanno took a single step forward and a sudden extension of his arm had the tip of his blade piercing the leading abomination’s belly. His Name’s power pulsed and then the creature was burning away like a leaf lit aflame, for the necromancy that moved it was no proof to disturbance by Light.

With a step to the side his stance shifted, and he took a second through the knee. It shed its own limb, flesh boiling as it surrendered a limb before the burn of Light could swallow it all, but the backswing carved it through the torso. Hanno smoothly finished his pivot, facing the opposite of where he’d begun, and with a step towards there thrust through the back of a third creature. He tamped down on the power he’d slid along his sword, adjusting it to what he gauged to be strictly necessary to the effect. He did not know how long this battle would last, and power wasted was power he might lack when wielding it might have saved lives. The last of the four that’d come towards him opened a mouth where there should have been a stomach and spat out a mouthful of foul black liquid at him. A flicker of Light down to his back leg, using that to push himself forward at speed – a favourite trick of the Flawless Fencer, which he has carefully learned to reproduce without drawing on her memories – the angle he craned his torso forward at carefully measured so the gob would pass over his shoulder. Hanno’s blade carved right through, the Light on the edge of it making the process closer to a warm knife through butter than steel through flesh. The remaining eight had passed him, as he’d anticipated. Four on each side, all heading towards the still-open door at the back of the hall the princes and princesses had retreated through.

Numbers needed to be brought down, lest at least one succeed at squeezing through.

Ride,” the White Knight said.

He’d been refining his use of the aspect for months now, ever since the battle at the Red Flower Vales. Hanno leapt forward even as he spoke, Light roiling violently beneath him and forming into a horse already at a gallop – the trick had been learning to make it come from his legs, so that he would already be astride the horse and not need additional movement. The lance of Light formed around his free hand and in the blink of an eye he’d crossed the hall on horseback, the tip of the lance tearing through an abomination crawling up against the wall and breaking as it killed it. That part of the sequence still frustrated him, for the ephemeral had made it impossible to make the weapon more durable even if he’d since figured out how to make it other armaments than a lance. Dismissing the aspect, he did not allow it to simply disperse as he once had: the Light he claimed, for it was own, drew it back to him and then precisely released it.

Grey Pilgrims used prayers and hymns, when drawing on Shine to similar purpose, though Tariq was skilled enough to sometimes dispense with this. The Peregrine still lived however, so it had been by digging through a dozen past Pilgrim lives, three Preachers Militant of Atalante and an ancient Sage of the West that Hanno had crafted a method that was manipulation of extant Light without spoken word, though at the expense of delicate control. The broken mount of Light pulsed, once, and split into three thick javelins that flew out. They tore through tables and glasses and seats as they went, unerringly finding and tearing into the other three abominations on his side. A heartbeat later, all that remained was cinder. The last four abominations, swift-footed and still silent, reached the Proceran shield wall a heartbeat later. Bodies rising above the rim of the shields, flesh swallowing the swung swords without harm, two of the creatures leaned over the shields and quickly punctured the heads of the Proceran soldiers before them. Another simply ignored the soldiery by continuing to run against the wall as it went around them, and the last impossibly leapt above the soldiers and straight to the gates.

It flew back a moment later, missing half its body, and the Valiant Champion entered the fray.

“Gloryful day,” Raphaella cheerfully bellowed. “Axe for all!”

The Champion would be able to prevent the last three from going any further, Hanno knew, and the greater threat here was admittedly the beast above. Yet she was not so quick she would be able to put down the last three without more soldiers from the hall dying. Leaving her to the fighting now would mean the certainty of dead soldiers for purposes uncertain, and so he would have to trust Antigone and the Myrmidon to handle the situation a while longer.

“Take the wall-crawler,” the White Knight ordered.

She did not answer, nor did she need to. They had fought at each other’s side long enough that he trusted her implicit. The two who’d already kill soldiers had followed their assault by crouching down again and slithering through the now open ranks of soldiers, raking claws and spitting venom as they did. A flicker of Light down his back leg, knowledge of that trick courtesy of a woman long dead, and the White Knight was moving again. Boots whispering across the floor, he barreled through the soldiers in his way without so much a speck of the sinuous, unnatural fluidity of the foes he pursed. Better bruises than death, he believed. A flicker of movement caught his eye, the abomination closest having pressed all the way down against the ground as it tried to pass through and, striking out suddenly, he nailed it to the floor with a downward thrust. His instincts screamed and he ducked, a gleaming claw ripping through where he had been standing. Having missed its opening the creature tried to retreat, but only revealed its position in doing so.

Tossing aside the young soldier in his way like he was made of feathers, the White Knight grunted in effort as he threw himself forward. Wreathing his gauntleted hand in Light, Hanno dug into the squirming abomination’s torso and let the blinding touch of the Heavens sunder the sorcery animating it. Returning to his feet a heartbeat after, he rose to learn that the Valiant Champion had meanwhile, found another weakness to these creatures: repeated partition would cause them to collapse like the touch of the Light. Hanno offered his hand to the soldier he’d tackled down, helping the young man back up, and patted his shoulder.

“Thank you, lord,” the man said.

“It is everyone’s war,” the White Knight calmly replied. “We are in it together. Champion?”

“Is me,” Raphaella volunteered.

“Best we get at that beast soon,” Hanno said. “The kind of sorcery the Witch would use to destroy it would destroy large swaths of the city as well.”

And though the Valiant Champion did not much concern herself with details like this, or Antigone for that matter, Hanno was well aware that the treasuries of Procer were like leaking sieves these days. The Principate was beggaring itself simply trying to keep afloat, and the foremost city-stronghold of the Cleves front being half a smoking ruin would only quicken the trouble. Not to mention smoking ruins were hard to defend against assault, and the Dead were not yet expelled from Cleves.

“Is dragon,” Raphaella firmly told him.

He flicked a long glance at the monster. It was massive and winged, this was true, and bearing great claws. Yet it did not seem capable of breathing fire, and its scales were not those of a lizard as those of dragons were. To his eye they were instead closer to the chitinous shine of an insect’s carapace, and much too large to be a dragon’s since every scale was no smaller than a heater shield. Likely they would be easier to break as well, though the flesh beneath could not truly be wounded like a dragon’s would be. Undeath was limiting in some ways, but the Enemy was clever in employing its few advantages to great effect.

“It has some distant similarities,” Hanno said.

“Is dragon,” the Valiant Champion cheerfully said, “and I going to slay it.”

Ah. Well, that did explain the insistence. Heroes of the Dominion had a distinct taste for the kind of deeds that’d been the staple of heroics at the peak of the Age of Wonders, he’d noticed. Such customs had poorly aged, in a Calernia where there were so few dark or savage corners left. Yet he would not argue against the truth that Raphaella had a way of eagerly brutalizing monsters that would make even other heroes hesitate. In some ways, Hanno considered the Named of the Dominion to have best taken to the war against Keter. How long that would last, however, he was uncertain. For though Levant’s sons and daughters were known for their bravery, they were not known for their stomach for long, gruelling wars. The old heroics took the shape of a splash of glory and an elegant exit, while the struggle against Keter instead promised to be a brutal, protracted grind.

“We can debate that later,” Hanno said. “First we need to get to-”

Through the open ceiling the beast’s massive head came down, struck by an unseen force, and even as a deafening roar sounded and a gaping maw filled with great fangs opened to reveal advancing armoured undead, the White Knight reflected that on occasion providence could have a truly rotten sense of humour.

“As planned I,” the Valiant Champion smugly said.

“Just as planned,” he absent-mindedly corrected.

“No, you just,” Raphaella patiently said. “I valiant. This not difficult, Hanno.”

The White Knight opened his mouth to argue, then closed it. He’d known for some time that the Champion greatly enjoyed making sport of others, particularly those she considered friends, but to this day he was uncertain exactly how much of her attitude was a pretence. Besides, the dead were beginning to march out of the monster’s gullet. Dripping in the greasy liquid that should by all rights eat right through them and their armaments, for the Dead King was nothing if not a thorough enemy. The two of them limbered wrists and shoulders as they began to advance towards the enemy.

“I have idea,” the Valiant Champion said.

“You can’t keep getting eaten by creatures to kill them from the inside,” the White Knight sternly replied.

Hanno honestly suspected that the acid in this one’s stomach was the result of Dead King’s rising irritation at how successful Raphaella had found that tactic to be. Not to mention Christophe, whose unrivalled ability to take punishment had seen Antigone adopting the tactic of forcefully cramming him down such monsters several times now. The way Dominion heroes kept referring to this as ‘Proceran stuffing’ only added insult to injury for the Mirror Knight, though after soldiers had seen him walk out of the smoking remains of a thirty-feet tall undead ape creature without a scratch his reputation had reached new heights.

“Is from Book of All Things,” the Champion assured him.

“I asked the Peregrine about these alleged differences of text in the Levant, did you know?” he casually asked.

“Oh no, enemy close,” the Valiant Champion hurriedly said. “Talk later.”

She hastened forward, barreling into the first group of emerging undead with her shield and greataxe raised. Though the acidic grease was eating at the edge of her axe, it hardly mattered with undead. Shattering them was often more practical an approach anyway, and the sheer weight of what the Champion wielded paired with her strength ensured any blow would at least knock the foe down. The great winged beast tried to rise again from its prone position, screaming in anger, but whatever great working Antigone had used on it was keeping it pinned to the ground. He was pleased to see she’d listened to the talks he’d made all heroes in Cleves sit down for on the subject of fighting within fortresses and cities: pinning down great monsters instead of batting them around not only limited damage, it also allowed their own side to put their own advantage to work. With every moment more priests and mages from the garrison would be gathering, more siege weapons and soldiers with oil or pitch.

Still, the Dead King had ensured that wherever this abomination landed its maw could serve as a beachhead. With Raphaella and himself facing the open maw serving as the gate, it then fell to them to hold the line while the rest of Cleves gathered the might to unmake this beast. Yet before Hanno could step forward and lend his blade to the toil of wiping out the remaining dead, an armoured shape leapt down into the group the Champion was swatting around. The Myrmidon wasted no movements in sweeping away the last few dead, her trident glinting with Light. She offered a muted salute with her weapon as he approached, quite unnecessary to the proceedings. Until the undead began to pour out in earnest, anyway. This band of a mere twenty seemed to have been a mere vanguard, by the lack of follow-up.

“Myrmidon,” Hanno greeted the heroine, and she nodded back. “How fares the rest of the city?”

“This is the sole beast,” she told him. “Other undead were spilled out when its belly was opened, but the Vagrant Spear and the Mirror Knight have them contained.”

Only one beast? Though the White Knight suspected that creating such a construct must have been horrendously difficult and expensive, he had still expected it would be one among a flock or at least a pair. Perhaps the vanguard of a greater assault, for mighty as the creature was it was no match for the number of heroes currently in Cleves. The garrison of the city alone would have been enough to repel it, in his opinion, though significant casualties would be incurred. If this was plain to him, it ought to be the same to the Dead King. That had implications.

“This is a distraction,” Hanno said. “Keter sent something after the royals while this drew our attention, as it sent ghouls after those in Hainaut.”

“The Repentant Magister went to attend to them,” the Myrmidon told him. “Alone.”

It should be enough to slow down whatever had been sent, but he must hurry.

“Raphaella-” he began.

“- I stay on dragon,” the Champion interrupted. “Go.”

He nodded his thanks, extending a similar courtesy to the Myrmidon, and set out as fast as his feet could carry him.

It would end in the Low Keep, one way or another.

Chapter 89: Sing We Of Ruin

“Fifty-five: if your powers are lost, they will nearly always return greater than before so long as the appropriate moral lesson is learned. With kindness and humility comes overwhelming martial might.”
-“Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown

It was over.

The League’s soldiers withdrew, the hostility between the different forces open but reason prevailing just enough for battle not to erupt less than a day’s march from the capital of Procer. Considering the people involved, I’d not considered that a given. Secretary Nestor and his attending scribes withdrew for the night but requested permission to send an embassy under daylight. The clear intention was to request the presence of Secretariat scribes and chroniclers up north, and I accepted tonight as I fully intended to accept tomorrow. There’d be restrictions and conditions, but in principle I had not objection to their work. If I got lucky, maybe a report making its was south would even stir some Delosi to shed neutrality long enough to cease recording the end times and actively try to turn them back. A girl could dream. General Pallas and her kataphraktoi swore oaths and sent back half their number to claim their equipment and supplies still in the League camp, the rest returning with me.

Adjutant had finished speaking with Talbot and the remaining senior legate when I arrived – Tendai, wasn’t it? Sounded Soninke – though he opened his report by passing a dry comment on my ‘dragging yet another army home’. Like it was a bad thing, the wretch. As it turned out Juniper’s report had been essentially confirmed, with the sole fresh developments a few accusations of ‘Praesi treachery’ and ‘Callowan purges’ tossed around by soldiers that’d ended in brawls. One dead, from an unlucky broken neck, and both Tendai and Talbot had come together to hang those involved as per Callowan regulations. Adjutant argued for the growing urgency of intervention there, even if risking dire consequences to the compelled, but I had no order to give him. I hesitated still to speak when those words might just kill Juniper and Aisha, among others. I presented General Pallas to him instead and dropped onto his ‘drily humorous’ lap the work of getting the cataphracts settled.

There’d be talk later of how many soldiers Pallas was proposing to bring north, though it shouldn’t be more than ten thousand. Less, probably, though there likely to be the most finely drilled and commanded troops among the coalition’s armies. At least one good thing had come out of this otherwise ruinous night.

Archer wandered off, likely to check in on Masego though given the work I’d asked of him he was like as not to ignore her presence beyond what basic courtesy required. If even that much. Vivienne was speaking with General Abigail’s staff tribune to pick out what soldiers would be sent out as her escort, and I made a mental note of having the general formally granted the authority of a Marshal of Callow until Juniper could be declared fit to resume it. I’d no intention of promoting her to the rank, not for many years yet if ever, but to get affairs in order with the Army she’d need to have the weight of that authority behind her. Both the inherited structure of the Legions of Terror and the Hellhound’s preference for strict lines of command had resulted in formal authority being needed to get anything moving in the Army of Callow. Akua remained with me, a shadow shadowing mine, and though I could guess she wanted to address the fact that she’d been outed I did not approach the subject. It’d be out and about before long, I knew. If Malicia felt comfortable enough handing out that information to the likes of Prodocius and Honorion, it meant she was comfortable putting it out there.

I was still uncertain how my people would take it, on the Callowan side at least. If Akua had still been stuck in my collar save when I let her out I suspected it would have been taken as a long price, but ‘Advisor Kivule’ was not a prisoner or entirely unknown to the men. Like as not it’d cost me a few feathers in the eyes of the heroes in the Grand Alliance, too, though I’d not hesitate to call Cordelia a damned hypocrite if she spoke so much as a word in condemnation. She didn’t get to play that card when she had people lugging a Seraphim’s corpse around Procer. Truth be told, given the hour I probably ought to head to bed. The immediate necessities were seen to, and the rest was probably best approached with a well-rested mind and a clear head. Black was awake, there could be now that about that, because Scribe would have missed little of what had unfolded or left him to sleep during it. I was still not looking forward to that conversation, and arguably waiting until daylight for it would not be a bad idea. It’d allow Scribe’s people in the Eyes to learn more, and that when we held council we’d both have a clear idea of what was happening before decisions were made.

It was over, the succession of twists and turns that’d swallowed up my night. Or at least it ought to be over. If it was, though, why would my shoulders not loosen? Like I was awaiting a blow I was clenching onto myself, my instincts screaming there was something yet to come. And there were not, I thought, a thousand directions from which further trouble could come. So grimly I sent Akua away for the night and, cloak trailing behind me, limped towards empty smithy the Carrion Lord had claimed as his home for the duration of the conference. There were no legionaries at the door, or near either of the two windows, which was… unusual. Black had been the one to teach me that a Name was a useful thing but that it was no substitute for people watching your back. His Blackguards might not have been able to do much against a Named assassin, but there weren’t a lot of those and there were lot of the regular kind. Especially when you crossed Praesi nobles. The heavy wooden door was not locked and did not resist when I pushed it open. The burning glare of the lit furnace within blinded me for a half a beat, flames roaring tall and proud.

The shadows they cast on the walls of the smithy, which had been stripped bare of much it would contain during warmer seasons, were long and shivering. Amadeus of the Green Stretch sat alone by a blackened iron anvil, his drab grey tunic and worn boots making him look like an aging shopkeeper instead of the Black Knight of Praes. On the anvil was a bottle, and not of wine. An empty one had been set on the ground by the anvil.

“Catherine,” the green-eyed man greeted me. “An eventful night for you, I am told.”

It was so genuinely taken aback by the slight slur to his voice I didn’t manage to entire hide my surprise. I could not remember, in all the time I’d known him, seeing my teacher even half as drunk as he clearly was right now. Not even once.

“You too, looks like,” I said, flicking a glance at the bottle.

“Salian brandy,” Black replied, tone amiable. “It struck me as fitting.”

Shit. I wasn’t familiar with the Salian kind in particular, but brandy was hard liquor. Not necessarily the hardest-hitting stuff, but if he’d really drunk more than a bottle of the stuff I could only be reluctantly impressed he wasn’t falling down his Legion-issue folding chair. This isn’t like you, I almost said, but bit down on it. I’d never seen him like this before, true, but then when I’d been young he’d still had the Calamities with him. People he could unwind with, as I myself did with the Woe. Who was left of that for him now, save for Scribe? So instead I snatched a cup from his table and braced my staff against the side of it, freeing my other hand to claim the other folding chair. I bit down on a hiss of pain as I limped forward to the other side of the anvil, dropping my seat there as pale green eyes followed me. I let out a sigh when I sat down, glad for the rest, and set down my cup atop the iron by the side of his. Without a word he filled it with brandy, and his own again.

“What are we drinking to?” I asked.

“Epiphany,” my teacher said. “Harsh mistress that she is.”

That was not a promising start, I thought, and drank deep of my cup. The brandy burned on the way down and if I’d had swallow of that at sixteen I suspected my eyes would have watered. It was smooth on the tongue, so clearly good stuff, but it couldn’t be called anything but heavy.

“It’s been a day,” I agreed. “And a night, even.”

“Yes, it has,” he mildly said. “Eventful enough I’ll confess the tumult blinded me, at first. Time to think set that weakness to rest.”

“Kairos took us all for a ride,” I said. “Our enemies a little more than us, which is the saving grace of this, but everyone took a few bruises. It’ll be months if not years before we can really glimpse the scale of what he wrought.”

“Kairos Theodosian’s schemes are of only passing interest to me,” Black said, pausing to knock back a quarter of his cup without batting an eye. “No, it is the moments that led to his swan song I have been dissecting.”

The conference. Malicia. It won’t matter, Scribe had warned me. He always forgives. I might not love the woman, or even like her, but I that did not mean she had been wrong in this.

“Scribe told you about the Legions-in-Exile,” I guessed.

“I knew within an hour of your knowing,” Black agreed. “And now I ponder how it all came to be.”

“It must have been a contingency the Empress had in place for years,” I said.

Another quarter of his cup went down his throat. The breathy slip of laughter he let out after that had my fingers clenching in dismay. It was… unpleasant, seeing him like this. So close to losing control, when control had always been at the heart of him.

“Decades,” my teacher corrected. “The sheer breadth of possibly compromised individuals is simply staggering, viewed in retrospective. I assume it is the consequence an aspect. Wekesa would have noticed such a contingency were it sorcerous in nature and told me of it.”

Most likely, I silently agreed. Masego had rubbed elbows with Juniper for years while holding an aspect related to sight and then eyes forged of Summer flame without noticing a damned thing, so I was not overly surprised that the Warlock had caught nothing. Named power could imitate sorcery, but it should never be mistaken for it – it answered to different rules, took different shapes.

“Or he might not have,” Black then genially said. “It appears that the many warnings I received of sentiment being more blinding that I believed were accurate.”

“The writing was on the wall after Akua’s Folly,” I reluctantly said.

Not for reluctance to speak the truth, but knowing how deeply painful it was to him.

“Oh no, not when it comes to Alaya,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch softly said. “It is Eudokia I gravely misread.”

Fuck, I thought, and kept my face blank. I’d waited too long. All this time I’d been agonizing over whether I should tell him or not, if the likely fallout was worth the honesty, and somehow it’d never occurred to me he might just figure it out on his own. How much did he know, though? I’d gotten a confession and explanation, while he must have simply pieced together details on his own.

“It is a bad habit, forcing lack of expression,” Black chided. “You still do it sometimes, when taken aback. It reveals that you know something, by consequence of revealing you have something to hide.”

I grimaced. He drank again.

“Not that confirmation was truly needed,” he noted. “Your request with a private conversation with Scribe stood out even at the time.”

“I did not know whether I should tell you,” I admitted.

I might have, I thought. I liked to think I would have. But I would not lie to him and pretend it had been a sure thing.

“It would be ill-done of me to rebuke you for behaviour I instilled in you myself, largely through example,” Black said, sounding darkly amused. “Though it is a fresh novelty to be treated in so high-handed a manner by anyone save Malicia.”

“Scribe, she believed, believes she was saving your life, you know,” I said, then hesitated before continuing, “and I’m not sure I disagree with her.”

“Would you like to know how I inferred what happened?” the green-eyed man idly said, filling his cup anew.

I’d yet to finish mine, or him his, but down the bottle went. I slowly nodded, though I was not sure I actually did. He drank from his cup and I matched him, the brandy’s burn a pleasant distraction from the roaring heat of the furnace and this miserable conversation.

“In the moment it bled me, that Alaya stood in that hall and saw me only as a hindrance,” Black said. “That she had not, beforehand, even attempted to speak to me so it might be made into a game of silk and steel. That she’d considered a decision that so wounded me to make as inexorable, a betrayal assured – so assured there was no need to even attempt conversation.”

He paused.

“Then I made myself cease to think of her as Alaya and began to think of her as Dread Empress Malicia,” he mildly said. “And I still saw an unexplainable mistake from a woman whose judgement I yet hold in some esteem.”

“You figured she knew something you didn’t,” I said.

“The moment Eudokia intrigued to pass the blame onto her for the botched Salian coup, everything that followed was set in stone,” he mused. “Either I had ordered this, and now stood her foe. Or I had been deceived, and anything spoken to me could aid Scribe in furthering her attacks. Or potentially reveal how they had been anticipated and answered. Either way, even a secret missive would have been a foolhardy risk.”

I drank again, deep, since what I had to say was like as not to be unpleasant to get through.

“That doesn’t excuse anything,” I said. “She’s still the ally of the Dead King. She still spent decades seeding commands in the minds of people. No one forced her to order the Night of Knives, Black. Hers might have been choices with reasons to them, but that does not excuse a single fucking thing. You’ve been preaching personal responsibility to me since the day we met – why would she, alone of all the people in Creation, get a pass?”

He held up his cup to the light of the furnace and it cast a streak of shade over his eyes.

I trust people to act according to their nature,” he quoted. “Anything more is sentimentality. She said this not long after her formal claiming of the Tower, when there was still talk of who might be her Chancellor. It was the talk of Ater for weeks and remains her words most often quoted in Praes. I never thought much of the saying, for it presumes much, but it speaks to the woman who spoke it.”

The cup went down, and the green gaze was pensive.

“Malicia seeded commands preparing for a betrayal, and that betrayal came,” he said. “I blame her for this no more than I blame you for the terrible habits your learned at my side, though I would chastise another for them.”

“Brandy makes you chatty,” I said. “You’re muddling cause and consequence, Black. Fucking with the minds of your subjects is something that deserves answer. It’s not a betrayal to recognize that. You’re just being…”

I bit my tongue.

“Sentimental?” he finished, slightly slurring. “So I am. Eudokia said the same, when we spoke.”

I went still.

“And what else did she say?” I slowly asked.

“That she regretted her actions,” Black said, tone dry. “And would not repeat them. That she understood it had been a mistake. I thanked her for this, naturally, for it was a needed lesson to us both.”

And yet she was not here, drinking with him.

“So where is she?” I pressed.

“I wouldn’t know,” the green-eyed man said. “Neither does it matter, for she is no longer in my service.”

My fingers clenched.

“You’re drunk,” I flatly said, “you’re regret this after-”

“I made that decision without having had a drop,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch said, tone eerily calm.

“Then you’re grieving, not in your right mind,” I hissed. “There’s nothing practical about-”

“No longer extending trust to someone who deftly manipulated me into rebellion and undertaking a road that ends in the murder of someone dear to me?” Black said. “An interesting premise. I offered no rancor and held no grudge. It is a parting of ways, nothing more and nothing less.”

“You can’t afford to lose Scribe,” I bluntly said. “If you do you lose the Eyes, and if you no longer have the Eyes the Empire will eat you alive.”

“I considered this, but then decided it to be irrelevant,” he amiably said.

He drained the rest of his cup then, with clumsy fingers for one usually so sure-footed, produced a small strip of parchment from a pocket within his tunic. He put it down on the anvil, without a word. It was in Mtethwa, two words: Come home. I knew not the handwriting, but then unlike him I’d not spent decades corresponding with the Empress.

“You can’t be serious,” I quietly said.

“All of this might genuinely have untied the knot, you see,” Black said, sounding highly amused. “I did betray her, in the end. As she always believed I would, deep down. And after that betrayal failed and she triumphed over me so utterly she can now, at last, feel at ease.”

He poured his cup full again as I did absolutely nothing to hide the horror I felt.

“Of course, I will never question her again,” he said. “I will have lost that right, alongside any notion that this is partnership instead of vassalage. But the doors of Ater will be open to me and, as far as she is concerned, kneeling before the throne as every lord and lady of Praes watches will be my great penance.”

“It can still be turned around,” I said. “I know it’s a blow, the Exile Legions leaving and Scribe having manipulated you, but this isn’t your only choice. You have allies, Black.”

The green-eyed man tipped back his cup, taking another swallow.

“You misunderstand,” he said after. “I could no more do this than I could pretend I still put my trust in Eudokia. It is best to look what you are in the eye, as a villain. Lying to yourself is ever a dangerous business.”

“And what is it you are?” I quietly asked.

“Not yet content,” he said, smiling as if he was having a private jest at my expense.

I wasn’t helping him, I realized. Sitting here with Black and finishing that bottle would not make him feel any better. This breakdown had been a long time coming, maybe as far as Captain’s death, but letting him drink and entangle himself in his thoughts would solve nothing. Gingerly, I rose to my feet.

“Sleep it off, Black,” I sighed. “Scribe won’t have gone far, and that woman would forgive you nearly anything. She’ll forgive you this. We can make plans after dawn, when we’re all sober and rested.”

He looked at me for a long moment, then set down the cup. For a moment he looked about to say something, but instead he smiled crookedly.

“Good night, Catherine,” my father said.

I left, limping, and left the blazing heat of the smithy in favour of the cold. The coolness outside leant a refreshing touch the sweat on my brow and neck, but the exhaustion I’d expected never came. Even now, after all this, restlessness lingered in the marrow of my bones. High up above, under the stars and moon, to great crows feathered in darkness drifted across the sky. Their thoughts touched mine, gently, and shared a sight they were glimpsing in the distance. One man, leaving Salia. Well now, that was earlier than anticipated. I saddled Zombie and rode out, declining escort, and the journey on her back was swifter than it had been on foot. The small farm had not changed at all since my last visit, though perhaps that should not have surprised me: it might feel like an age ago, but I’d last stood here two nights back. The cattle wall, I saw, had been built anew. And stones had rolled down, as I’d warned the White Knight they would. By the eyes of the Crows I would not have company for some time yet, so after tying Zombie to the side of the farm I was spared a few breaths to consider how to comfortably wait.

Inside would be most reasonable, I thought. But the cold was pleasant, and I was reluctant to part from it. Instead I propped up my staff against the sidewall and, after soothing my leg with Night, hoisted myself up the side of the farm. The roof was as sturdy as it looked, good tiles and well set. Grimacing in pain even through the Night trick, I crawled atop it until I was resting my back against a chimney stump. Tightening my cloak against me comfortably, I let myself drift into the mixture of warmth around my belly and coolness against my face. It was soothing, and I almost fell asleep. I was not sure how long I’d been there when I finally heard approaching footsteps in the snow. I heard the White Knight chuckle as he figured out where I was, then deftly climb up the side. As Hanno dragged himself up on the roof, I finished stuffing my pipe and went looking for a match to light it. Finding one of my last sapper pinewoods I struck it against my sleeve but it failed to light. Sighing, I discreetly tapped a finger and seeded with black flame before hastily lighting my pipe with it.

The White Knight rose to his feet and strode to the edge of the roof, the two of us watching the nearing dawn begin to light up the sky.

“Back so soon?” I said, blowing out a stream of wakeleaf smoke.

“Within an hour of Tariq waking, he drew me out of my own slumber,” Hanno said.

All else about the man aside, there were Named out there with the word ‘healer’ in the Name who weren’t half as good at the art as Tariq Isbili was. Hells, for a time he’d even been able to cure death.

“And now you’re here,” I said.

An invitation to elaborate, but he did not take it.

“You were Queen of Winter for a time, were you not?” Hanno asked instead.

I hummed, pulling at my pipe.

“Close enough,” I said. “If only by virtue of being the sole scavenger with a road to it.”

“And you are no longer,” the White Knight said.

“Took a leap of faith,” I acknowledged. “All things considered, I don’t regret it.”

“And when Winter left you, Black Queen,” he softly said. “Did it feel like an absence?”

Oh, I thought, and was surprised to find I yet had pity in me.

“It felt like flying out of a pit into the blue sky,” I gently said. “It felt like the first drink of water after a long day in the sun. But I never loved that power, White Knight, nor did it love me.”

Not as he so obviously loved the Choir of Judgement, strange as that sentiment was to me. He stood there for a long moment, looking at the lightening horizon.

“They have all been asking me,” the White Knight said, “what befell of Judgement. Would you like to know, Catherine Foundling?”

I had half a dozen flippant replies on the tip of my tongue, but I was not feeling so callous right now as to offer them up to a decent man so obviously grieving.

“Tell me,” I said instead.

He flicked his wrist, and in the dawning light I caught the shine of silver. A coin, flipping, for a moment I almost struck out with the Night. But Sve Noc was silent, and I remained still. The White Knight caught the coin and did not even look at what had turned up. To him, and so to me, it’d just been a flip of the coin. There had been nothing more to it.

“Silence,” Hanno of Arwad said. “Only silence.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding.

“The Hierarch still fights them, then,” I quietly said.

“You warned me,” the dark-skinned man admitted. “I did not listen, for never before has the strength of Judgement failed before my eye. You warned me, and now there is silence.”

And silence stayed there, hanging in the air.

“And now what?” I asked.

“I am blind,” Hanno of Arwad said. “Yet even a blind man can see that war must be waged on Keter.”

“I have pledged myself to this,” I said. “And do not take such oaths lightly.”

He turned towards me, his broad silhouette ringed by morning’s light, and met my eyes.

“Then we are allies,” the White Knight said, and offered his hand.

I took it.

And so we went to war, against the King of Death.

Chapter 88: Testament

“Reputation is as rope: it can be either a lifeline or a noose.”
– Eudokia the Oft-Abducted, Basilea of Nicae

Asking Archer why the Hells she’d just killed that soldier that would have implied in front of all those people I had at best partial control over her actions. Which, while true, wasn’t something I wanted to remind the League of right now. So instead of looking surprised or angry I allowed my face to slip into a cool mask, flicking a seemingly disinterested glance at the dying man. Indrani, eyes cold, left the blade in his neck and plucked at the hand still holding the parchments: a long, thin needle was brought into the moonlight by careful fingers.

“See,” Exarch Prodocius frothed, “her thugs murder our attendants without-”

The Nicaean soldier that’d been dragging him back slugged him in the belly. He wheezed out in pain, looking like he was about to vomit.

“Poisoned,” Archer idly said, sniffing at the needle’s tip.

She casually ripped her longknife clean of the soldier’s neck, snuffing out his life with the casual flick of the wrist.

“Merciful Gods,” Basileus Leo Trakas croaked. “Queen Catherine, I swear on the Heavens that I had nothing to do with this. I would never-”

I looked at the young man in fair pristine armour, his hair perfectly coiffed and his eyebrows impeccably plucked. What I saw beneath the façade was fear. The ugly kind that clawed desperately at your insides trying to get out. It’d been there before we ever began speaking, I thought, perhaps even before he’d set out with this procession. But where it had been mastered before, now it had slipped the leash. No, that one did not have the stomach to try to kill me.

“A personal guard of the Basileus of Nicae just attempted to murder the Queen of Callow,” Akua calmly replied. “Your guilt can be debated, Leo Trakas, but your responsibility is beyond doubt.”

Would the needle have pricked me, if Archer hadn’t intervened? Possibly. I wasn’t sure it would have killed me, though. I was hardly immune to poison, but Akua ought to have been able to keep me alive long enough for Sve Noc to come to my side and purge the blight. Was this Malicia’s doing? It was a sloppy attempt by Wasteland standards, though I’d been cavalier enough it’d nearly succeeded anyway. If there was someone who’d notice I had a habit of going ahead to negotiate with others with only slight escort, though it would be the Empress. If it’d been Masego and Vivienne with me instead, would the needle have broken my skin?

It sent a shiver up my spine I could not be certain as to the answer.

“No doubt this was the work of one of your many enemies,” Exarch Honorion dismissed, cutting through my musings. “Pay reparations, Trakas, and let us return to the matter at hand.”

The smug look on the man’s face had me itching for a blade in my hand. Someone had just tried to kill me and he thought throwing a few coins at me like I was a beggar with a bowl would end the matter? My fingers clenched. If he could not curb his tongue, perhaps a curse that silenced it would remind him of – no, no I could not. I breathed out, tamping down on the heat in my blood. I was being provoked and it was not an accident. Prodocius might be terrified, but this one was not. Did he know something the other Exarch-claimant did not, as the likely favourite of Malicia among the pair? Black had been scathing in his opinion of the man’s intellect, it might just be foolishness and arrogance.

“Secretary Nestor,” I said, tone calm. “The weapon that was used, does the Secretariat have record of precedents for its use?”

The white-haired man, who’d been looking at the work of one of his scribes over the young woman’s shoulder, turned his gaze to me and dipped it before turning to Indrani.

“Lady Archer,” the askretis said, “has the tip of the needle been dipped in a substance that is green and viscous, yet dry as leather?”

“That’s about right,” Archer frowned, then sniffed again. “Smells like rotten meat, too, but with something flowery mixed in.”

Her senses had rivalled some of mine even when I’d been Sovereign of Moonless Nights, nowadays even with Night lending me the occasional edge it wasn’t even a contest.

“Wyvern venom made into a paste with periwinkle blossoms,” Nestor Ikaroi said. “Known as the ‘Taste of Redress’, brought to our records by the Magisterium’s profligate use of it during the latter years of the Stygian Spring.”

“A wild assertion, this, and without proof,” Magister Zoe said. “It is known, however that, a substance like the one you describe can be readily obtained through Mercantis. It would have no current ties to Stygia even should it truly have roots there.”

“The Secretariat’s records are without fault,” Secretary Nestor coldly retorted. “And the use of the Taste and needle is the signature of the Manifold Laments. Killers for hire alleged to be based in the League.”

“My own grandfather was slain by the Laments, Queen Catherine,” Basileus Leo told me. “I would never bargain with them.”

“You spineless cowards,” Exarch Prodocius snarled. “How can you even know this wasn’t her doing from the start? How eager you all are to lick Callowan boots.”

“Catherine,” Akua murmured, low enough only Archer and I might hear. “This is a noose. I know not how or why, but this is a noose. A situation like this does not fall into place by happenstance.”

Yeah, I was starting to agree. Something was wrong here. Leo Trakas still didn’t know about his fleets being broken and stolen, yet he was strangely desperate to get Penthes on his side. I understood he needed allies, but why would he need them badly enough to risk provoking me? He could hardly afford any more enemies, much less one that was a member of the Grand Alliance. And the two Exarch-claimants had to know they were playing with fire by coming after me this hard. Especially in the wake of an attempt on my life, when it’d be damnably easy to accuse them of having a hand in it. I was missing something.

“Mind your tongue, Prodocius,” Magister Zoe Ixioni warned. “It is the mark of a weak stomach, to grow drunk from the scant power you wield.”

The Helikean generals, still mounted, watched all this unfold in stony silence. Unconcerned or indifferent, not that it made much of a difference. I could see, stepping out of myself for a moment, how this was going to unfold. The young Basileus had too many enemies, and just given me slight, so though it was plain to all that Penthes was a stone around his neck he’d have no choice but to try to salvage the Exarchs. If he lost a metaphorical finger bringing them out of this untouched, they’d owe him badly enough they should be halfway-reliable allies. Especially if they were without other allies of their own and antagonizing most everyone else in the League. Bellerophon was a beast most prone to devour itself, and likely to fall into that old habit in the wake of this mess. Atalante had quite literally walked away from this coalition and Delos was positioning itself as aloof. Helike was, well, it was hard to tell what Helike was at the moment.

Exarch Honorion had earlier accused General Basilia of being an usurper of some sort, but then he was hardly the most trustworthy of sources. On the other hand, if Kairos Theodosian had truly massacred most his kin and there was no true claimant left to the throne of Helike it would not be surprising that whoever consolidated control over the army became the ruling authority of the city-state. Theodosius had risen to kingship in such a manner himself, and if I recalled correctly General Basilia was highborn. Either way, for now it looked like she was the one speaking for Helike and she seemed utterly disinclined to step in and stabilize the situation. If Basileus Leo was trying to emerge as the saviour and leading light of the League in the face of chaos, then Helike would be at best uninvolved and at worst likely to spike any of his efforts simply to ensure Nicae didn’t emerge as the preeminent power among the League. Stygia, I thought. I’d not accounted for Stygia.

Magister Zoe was here for the Magisterium. Given that yesterday she’d made assurances to Hakram that even if Stygia made treaties of assistance with the Tower it had no intention of ever lending military support, I’d bet they were planning to use Malicia’s ‘protection’ as a deterrent against the rest of the League while offering only token compensation for it. For that protection to be worth anything, though, they’ll have to make it public, I thought, then hesitated. Had they already? Bellerophon and Atalante holing up, Helike looming and Nicae’s old Stygian foes promised assistance by the Tower. Leo Trakas was seeing the League fall apart around him after his fleets had ravaged Ashur, and realizing that in the wake of the glories promised by the Tyrant he’d been left out in the cold. Penthes alone was offering a hand, and though there were fools they were fools with coin, a largely intact army. The kind of ally that would give an adventurous Stygia or Helike pause. I stepped out of myself and looked at the world the way Leo Trakas would.

Retribution was coming, that could not be denied. Ashur would neither forget nor forgive, had deep ties to the Grand Alliance even after withdrawing from it, and the ancient shield that was the League of the Free Cities was falling apart. The League’s treaties to resist outsiders together must be shored up and the foundations of the arrangement made firm again after the debacles abroad – all under the leadership of Nicae, preferably, since no one else seemed willing to take up the mantle. If this could not be done, though? Then Basileus Leo was in desperate need of allies that would keep the wolves away from his door while he figured out a way to avoid losing his throne to a Strategos and keep retaliation from laying waste to Nicae when the balance swung back the other way. Either way, to him, Penthes was the key. And Penthes was owned by Malicia, who had carefully been setting her schemes in place even as I fought my way through Iserre. Now she was bringing them to bear one by one. So how do you want to use them to hurt me, Malicia?

“Though Exarch Honorion misspoke, he is yet a leader of his people,” Leo Trakas intervened. “Threats help none of us, Magister Ixioni.”

“The Magisterium seeks no help from Nicae,” Magister Zoe disdainfully said.

“Already found yourself a backer, have you?” Archer said.

Indrani was, with her usual nonchalance, putting her foot in a dispute that might have been best left to the League itself. Without knowing what Malicia had planned, any step taken here might be a blunder.

“What right does a vagrant from Refuge have to ask questions of of us?” Exarch Prodocius scornfully laughed. “Still your wagging tongue, girl.”

Merciless Gods, I thought, half-awed. She was going to kill him.

“Archer,” I got out.

Halfway through drawing her blade, Indrani reluctantly stilled.

“Your choice of allies speaks poorly of you, Basileus,” Akua said.

A swing in the dark from her, as it seemed she’d come to the same conclusions as me through reasonings of her own. Both of us were watching the younger man, and both of us saw the same thing: the twitch of a repressed grimaced, followed by a resounding absence of denial. So he’s pursuing these idiot accusations because Penthes – meaning Malicia – put him up to it, I thought. They’re backing him so long as he pushes me tonight, most likely.

“Another chattering peon for the Black Queen,” Exarch Prodocius snorted. “Are you to threaten violence as well, when reminded of your place?”

Here I had no worries. Archer, for all her keen perceptiveness, was not meant for affairs like this. I’d not hesitate before sending her along with heroes for something, or soldiers, but restraint in the face of provocation was simply not the way she’d been raised. If someone slighted the Lady of the Lake, she killed them. If someone took offence to that, she killed them too. Indrani might not have the age or reputation to be able to get away with that the way the Ranger did, but she’d been raised to think that way regardless. Akua, though? Prodocius could spend all day tossing the worst insults he could think of at her and she’d hardly blink. Akua Sahelian had been playing more dangerous games with more dangerous men since before she’d had her first moon’s blood. Still, the way Prodocius and Honorion were constantly antagonizing my two obviously dangerous companions was genuinely surprising me. Prodocius in particular, as the terrified white of his eyes still showed.

“Gods Below,” I slowly said. “What can the Empress possibly have on you that’d put you this deep in her grasp?”

Akua, at my side, went still.

“And now you accuse us of being in the service of your foes,” Exarch Honorion mocked. “As if you were not merely seeking an excuse to-”

“Still Water,” Akua spoke in Kharsum. “The Tyrant helped Malicia, you said, but Helike does not border the Empire. Where did the alchemical compounds come through? It would not have been small quantities, Catherine. The Empress would have needed assistance to keep it quiet.”

And it fell into place. Penthes, who had grown rich from trade with the Empire. Penthes who controlled one of the branches of the Wasaliti river. Penthes, whose last Exarch-claimants were two venal and corrupt men who’d been chosen to survive from all the many there once were by two people: the Tyrant and the Empress. They’d been accomplices to Still Water being used on the Nicean fleets, I realized. And now, too late, they were realizing that with Kairos dead and Malicia untouchable in the Tower they might end up taking the blame for that. For murdering thousands of Nicaeans, yes, and breaking that city’s naval power. Worse yet, for betraying a member of the League to a foreign power while the Free Cities were at war and under the rule of a Hierarch. If it came out, they’d have no allies. Even if Penthes itself did not turn on them most the League would end up coming after them.

If Malicia said nothing, she owned them. If Malicia said something she still owned them, because who else could possibly protect them? Mind control was not needed when you had that kind of leverage on people. It would be redundant.

“Why is she having them come after me so hard, though?” I replied in the same. “It makes no sense, Akua. She gains nothing out of those two getting on my bad side, by virtue of being her creatures they were already there. I might as well not-”

I swallowed my tongue. I might as well not be there. Because it wasn’t about me, not really. None of this had been from the start. I’d been thinking of these people as the tool Malicia was using against me, when in fact I was the tool Malicia was using against them. A Nicaean soldier had just tried to kill me not because the Empress had believed it would work – although I doubted she would have complained if it had – but because it burned a bridge between Callow and Nicae. And the Penthesians were going after me because the Basileus needed them, and the more he defended them the more at odds he and I became. Fuck me, she was trying to flip the League wasn’t she? Leo Trakas would go home and find his fleets were gone and his reign going to the dogs, and so to avoid losing his throne and possibly his head he’d need to rely on his friends. His Penthesian friends, who unlike Stygia had not openly declared for Praes. The Tower had seeded the sickness, then offered the remedy.

Penthes, Stygia, Nicae. Bellerophon and Atalante were removing themselves from the flow, Delos wouldn’t got at it alone and how difficult could it possibly be for Malicia to spark a civil war in Helike if the Tyrant had left no clear successor? She’d run the southeast of Calernia, more or less, and with the fleet that’d been broken by Still Water she’d have leverage over Ashur as well. And all she needed to get this all started was for a Catherine Foundling, a woman with a known temper, to get angry after someone tried to murder her in the middle of diplomatic talks. Gods, but I hated dealing with Malicia. Even now I couldn’t even fucking be sure there wasn’t another layer to this plan that I’d missed. And I still wasn’t sure how to step back from the ledge even now that I might have caught the scheme. Walking away was giving her the win, but my word alone wouldn’t convince the Basileus that his Exarch allies were playing him.

It was exactly the kind of thing I would say if I was trying to collapse the League so it couldn’t be a sword at my back anymore.

“If I may be so bold, Your Majesty,” Secretary Nestor said, “might I ask for a summary of the words that were shared with your advisor? None of the attending scribes speak the language.”

I flicked a glance at the old scrivener with the tattooed cheeks. It was a genuine request, not a hint of any sort, but it still had me thinking. Could it be that simple? I’d spent all this time trying match Malicia at her chosen field and gotten dirt in my face for it again and again. But that was fighting this war the way she wanted it to be fought. Hanno had warned me, hadn’t he, that I was still thinking like I was a villain needing to threaten and fight everyone into doing what needed to be done. The latter part of that, where he’d said the might of Judgement would carry the day, had been wrong. But he was right that in some ways I still thought, first and foremost, like a warlord under siege from all directions. But I wasn’t that anymore, was I?

“It is called Still Water,” I said. “It is a sort of alchemical poison developed by the Wekesa the Warlock that lingers in the body of those who imbibe it and, afterwards, requires only a ritual trigger to kill and turn into undead all those poisoned. Those undead in fact resist healing by Light, though they remain mindlessly violent without guiding by necromancers.”

“The First Prince of Procer sent word of such a weapon, before the Tenth Crusade was declared,” Nestor Ikaroi acknowledged. “Do you then confirm its existence?”

“I do,” I flatly said. “It was used on the city of Liesse by the Diabolist. And once more since by Dread Empress Malicia on the war fleets of Nicae.”

In the wake of that there was only silence, and the scratching of Secretariat quills. My gaze found the two silent generals of Helike, who were both unsurprised and watching me closely. Had the known? I couldn’t be sure, but General Basilia was said to have been Kairos’ favourite. And if nothing else, his will might have contained such secrets. So now I had a choice to make. Either I dragged Helike into this by revealing the Tyrant had a in this, or I kept my silence on that. The Exarchs might try to drag Helike into this anyway, but who’d believed them at that point? Might be enough to stir Helike to war if they tried, too, which was not ideal but still better than Malicia sinking her claws deep into the southeast. It would not be just, to spare them the consequences of helping such a great and traitorous massacre. But if kept the Dead King from devouring Calernia, I could live with having abetted that injustice.

“That is the leash the Tower has on these two,” I said. “They helped smuggle the alchemical brews into the League’s territory. Advisor Kivule was reminding me, Secretary Nestor, that the Empress would have needed local collaborators, individuals of authority hiding her tracks to achieve such a thing. It allowed for an explanation for the continued hostility of these ‘Exarchs’ to Callow, for it is no secret that their mistress is my enemy.”

“Advisor Kivule, is it? She would know of Still Water, no doubt,” Exarch Honorion sneered. “I had not intended to speak to this, but this filthy mudfoot intriguer leaves me no choice. Prodocius and I entertained envoys from the Tower, is true. I’ll not deny it. For Dread Empress Malicia meant to warn us of a plot to destroy the League and incite war with Praes: this advisor that masquerade before us is no fae nor drow, she is the Diabolist herself. Akua Sahelian, the Doom of Liesse.”

Malicia had caught on? No, of course she’d caught on. Black had too, it would have been fairly obvious for anyone in the know as those two were. And from there it was information that could be passed to her agents, like those two. But why did she think it would – oh, fuck.

“It is not the Empire that struck at the fleets of Nicae, Basileus Leo,” Exarch Honorion said. “It was the Black Queen using the foul alchemies of the foe she enslaved. What a neat scheme she planned, is it not? The League sundered and at war with the Empire, her enemies clawing at each other even as she bent Ashur to her will.”

Malicia, I seethed. Hellgods, I had not wanted to kill someone that much in a very long time. Could I deny Akua? No, that’d be a mistake. Too many people knew, or at least suspected, and when it came out she truly was Akua Sahelian it’d lead people to believe I was lying about not being behind Still Water’s second deployment as well.

“Are you seriously accusing Catherine Foundling of using something like Still Water?” Archer said, sounding somewhere between amused and offended. “She fought a war over the last use.”

Mistake, I grimly thought.

“You would have us believe it was the Dread Empress who has possessed such means for decades and never once used them?” Exarch Prodocius said. “We’ve all read the reports from the Battle of the Camps. Thousands dead from reckless sorceries! All of Iserre was almost destroyed because of a weapon that once lay in Callow, and we are to believe the Black Queen would balk as such a ploy?”

Leo Trakas was the key to this, I decided. Delos was unlikely to lift a finger either way, and Stygia would back the winning horse. And the Basileus did not look like he knew who or what to believe, right now.

“You then make the accusation that Callow was able to brew such alchemies, then seed them unseen in the fleets of Nicae?” Akua said. “How mighty you believe us to be, Exarch.”

She knew he’d have an answer to that, he wouldn’t have risked this otherwise – and his words were likely Malicia’s, anyway, who would not make this elementary a mistake. Akua was baiting out the last part of their tale, so that we might see if there were holes to poke in it.

“An animal like you has no place in this conversation,” Prodocius harshly replied.

The Basileus of Nicae raised a hand to end this before it could escalate.

“As part of the evidence for the accusations laid against the Black Queen was the secret meeting she had with King Kairos in the city of Rochelant,” Basileus Leo said, tone cool.

He was start to lean towards believing Penthes, I realized. Because he wanted to, because it’d be easier, because Malicia was brilliant woman and it was a skillful lie.

“And to hide evidence of your malice, you then sold the Tyrant of Helike to his enemies among the Grand Alliance,” Exarch Honorion said. “I will not pretend the man was anything but a bad seed, but your treacheries are worthy of contempt.”

Gods, but she was good. It did not make me hate her any less, but she was good at this. Even through as feeble a tool as those Exarchs, Malicia was still hitting all the right notes for the Basileus. I could see it in his eyes. I breathed out. I was not only a warlord, now. I had allies.

“Are you willing to repeat your accusations before a truthteller?” I flatly said. “The most skillful of our age is in Salia. I am more than willing to do the same.”

Akua almost began to move before she ceased, and in the Night I read her uneasiness. I had made a mistake of my own, it seemed.

“A transparent attempt,” Exarch Prodocius sneered. “You’ve sunk your hooks in the Grand Alliance, corrupted even rulers as respected as the First Prince. The Grey Pilgrim will say whatever you want him to say, lest you turn on Procer.”

I almost laughed at the notion that I could force Tariq to do anything, much less bend the rest of the Grand Alliance to my will, until I caught the look on their faces. Not Akua or Indrani, but the delegates of the League. Over half a hundred people were here, some of the most influential people in the League, and after the lunacy Prodocius had just spoken not a single one of their faces expressed disbelief. Fear and hesitation, anger and doubt, but none of them believed it to be absurd. Because they weren’t looking uphill and seeing me, I realized as my stomach sunk. They were looking at the victor of the Camps and the Graveyard, who’d strung along heroes and villains and dealt death to thousands. My reputation, these days, was enough to cow thousands of charging horsemen. I knew this, I’d relied on it.

Malicia was relying on it too.

My grip tightened around the yew staff. I’d fought wars, struck deals with the Everdark and the Kingdom Under, compromised and warned and did everything I could to keep this continent from falling apart. And still the Empress, who hadn’t left the Tower in a year, was strangling me with my own fucking achievements. Malicia, though, would be Malicia – a praise and insult both. What had my blood boiling was how eager these people were to be manipulated. To believe the worse of me and in the same breath decide that the Dread Empress of Praes was looking out for them. And they had their reasons, and it was one of the finest liars alive who was making a game of them, but still it… stung. That I always had to be patient and careful and let things go, while the rest of them could just fucking blunder along and let the rest of us pick up the pieces.

I could kill them, I knew.

The Night was but a thought away. They had mages, but I had Archer and Akua Sahelian at my side. It wouldn’t even be difficult or need to be a slaughter. Honorion and Prodocius were owned by the Tower, but Penthes itself wasn’t – the Empress would have influence, but hardly rule. I could snuff them out like candles and there went this ploy. Gods, there was so much I could do if I simply took off the gloves. All these soldiers heading south, all this insistence on backstabbing and bickering when the Dead King was seeking to kill us all, it could end. It’d be as simple as telling the people here, over the smoking corpses of Malicia’s tools, that they could march north to fight Keter either living or as corpses in my service. If their armies objected? They had no Named left to match me. I’d open portal over a battalion aligned with a large lake or a sea, then repeat the process every half-hour until I got an unconditional surrender. The Grand Alliance would whine, but the whining would end when I ensured our back was secure and brought a fresh army to the table.

Gods, it would be so satisfying. To order something instead of barter and beg, to just order something and see it get done. And even if Malicia had laid some kind of clever trap behind it all, well, cleverness only got you so far in the face of overwhelming strength. What exactly could she do, if it was Praes and Keter against the rest of Calernia? And all I needed to do was just… reach out. Sve Noc would approve, if anything. And the thing was, hadn’t I done it all the right way? I’d let the heroes take their swings, taken the whipping without complaint. I’d helped the same Procerans who had meant to carve up my home for a meal, sacrificed and bargained to keep the Dead King from killing hundreds of thousands. I’d done it all right, and at the end of the day Malicia could still just upend it all with a snap of her fingers. And if it was this… weak, this fragile to do things the right way, then what was the point? If it didn’t work better than being a bloody-handed tyrant, if it was objectively worse, then why was I putting myself through all this? I was not going to let Calernia die because I needed to clutch to the delusion that I was a decent woman. I would not.

I took a step forward, Night coiling, and my leg throbbed with pain. Do not forget, it whispered. That this was never a game. That you make mistakes. And most of all, and my fingers clenched white to hear it, the pain whispered one last thing: do not forget, that there must be more than ruin. I paled, leaning against my staff. Gods, the pain was agonizing.

“Cat,” Archer whispered, looking at me with worry.

I gestured harshly. Do not forget, my leg throbbed.

“You’d really do it, wouldn’t you?” I said.

The two men that would be Exarch of Penthes milled about uncertainly.

“Let thousands of your own people die,” I said. “Birth civil war in the League. Gods, you’d gamble with the fate of Calernia itself – all because you were foolish and greedy and you’re afraid to die.”

I looked at the two of them and saw something that it was not in my power to mend. In anyone’s power to mend.

“Go,” I said. “Leave. I have nothing left to say to you.”

It emboldened them, I saw. The resignation in my voice. They’d poured poison into the ear of anyone who would listen and not been chastised for it.

“How petulant you are when unmasked,” Exarch Honorion mocked.

“We’ll survive without you,” I said, gaze sweeping across the entire lot of them. “Despite you, if we must. So let your records state this, Nestor Ikaroi: when Death came for Calernia, men and women rose to meet it. From the Blessed Isle to Segovia, from Levante to Rhenia, they came when the call sounded.”

I spat into the snow.

“Death came for Calernia, and when steel was bared to turn it back the League of Free Cities was nowhere in sight,” I said.

Quills moved against parchment, the scribes of the Secretariat recording the words spoken. Cloak of Woe tight on my shoulder, I let out a misty breath and looked at the sky. I was done here, wasn’t I? If diplomacy could mend any of this, let Cordelia Hasenbach take care of it.

“And?” General Basilia said.

The other Helikean, pale-eyed and straight-backed, let out a hissing breath.

“Yes,” General Pallas. “Yes. The blood quickened.”

“Then we part ways here,” General Basilia said, saddened.

I would have left, had Archer not put a hand on my shoulder. Indrani was smiling.

“Will you not flee back to your barracks, Helikeans?” Exarch Prodocius called out. “Your little intrigues are of no import to us, and the cripple no longer-”

General Basilia unsheathed her sword, which had the man flinching.

“I speak now the will and testament of King Kairos Theodosian, Lord Tyrant of Helike, the Unbroken,” General Basilia said, voice echoing across the plains.

Prodocius flicked a glance at the sword and swallowed whatever he’d been about to say.

“With me dies the line of Theodosius, at last conquered by death. I name no successor and offer no legacy, save for the following words,” General Basilia said, and her eyes were wetly shining, “Ye of Helike, do as you will.”

“Oh, would you shut up with the-” Exarch Honorion began.

He did not finish, for General Basilia rammed her sword through his throat. Half the soldiers on the hill had swords in hand before a heartbeat has passed, but the dark-eyed woman only laughed. She ripped the sword out and flicked blood onto the snow. Penthesian soldiers crowded around the other Exarch protectively, shields raised.

Murderer,” Exarch Prodocius screamed, voice gone shrill with fear. “How dare you, you-”

“Tyrant?” General Basilia said. “I suppose we shall see. You may consider this a declaration of war, Prodocius. Penthes can hang you as a traitor to the League and servant of the Empress, or it can burn. It makes no difference to me.”

“Are you mad?” Basileus Leo yelled. “Do you not understand the consequences of-”

“Tell me, you pathetic worm,” Basilia nonchalantly said. “What will you do, if I ignore your petty threats? What have you ever done that I should fear you?”

“I’ll not allow you to run rampant, Helikean,” the young man snarled.

“Then beat me, Nicaean,” General Basilia grinned.

And she had, I thought, so very little in common with Kairos in body. She was well-formed and made like a soldier, not striking save perhaps those sharp cheekbones but not in the least ungainly to look at. Yet when she grinned that grin, all pearly white teeth and daring, for a moment I would have thought… She reined in her mount, offered us a salute of her sword, and rode back to her soldiers. The young Basileus let out a shout of anger but did not pursue. He barked out orders in tradertongue and his soldiers clustered with the Penthesians once more, beginning a quick march back to the rest of his force. He offered no farewells, and I had said all I intended to say. Secretary Nestor Ikaroi, however, remained. Along with his scribes. They stood in silence, watching. Waiting. General Pallas dismounted. Under the pale moonlight she came to stand before me, tanned and grey-eyed and inscrutable.

“My name,” she said, “is Pallas Messene. I am a general of Helike, raised to the rank by the Tyrant himself, for a score I have been a soldier and leader of soldiers.”

“You know,” I replied, “how I am.”

“I have seen it,” General Pallas agreed. “I tonight I saw it again. Once you called me and those under my command a worm in the flesh, Black Queen. You deemed us servants of Keter, and stripped us of all the strappings of kataphraktoi.”

“And of a bone as well,” I calmly said, “for the lives in my service you took.”

“Bones mend,” General Pallas said. “Armaments, horses, they can be had again. Pride is not to easily bartered back.”

“That is not in my power to return,” I said.

‘’It is,” the grey-eyed woman disagreed. “In keeping to my oath, I spilled blood to the benefit of the King of Death. I weep not for this, for I swore to a Theodosian and there can be no higher calling. And yet I would even the balance, with oath given anew.”

She knelt, dark-haired and stone-faced, in the snow.

“Every wound I dealt, I deal anew,” Pallas Messene spoke. “Every battle I fought, I fight anew. Let spears shatter and swords break, for my oath will not. Let there be no rest nor relief until the war is won, and should death take me let me rise in indignation, for I am a daughter of Helike and we were borne unconquered. I swear to this, Black Queen of Callow: until the King of Death knows oblivion or I do, my sword is pledged to your war.”

Behind her, three hundred cataphracts dismounted under moonlight.

“How many?” I asked.

“Half,” she said.

“Half the kataphraktoi?” I said, surprised.

That was near two thousand soldiers.

“We do as we will, now,” General Pallas smiled, looking up at the night sky. “He gifted us this.”

After a long moment, she met my gaze.

“Half the army of Helike, Black Queen,” she said. “If Death comes, let it learn the same lesson as every other army under the sun: there is Helike, and there is the rest.”

Chapter 87: Connive

“An enemy will remember you long after your dearest friends forget your face. Consider this, when you choose yours.”
– Argea Theodosian, Sacker of Cities, Tyrant of Helike

Under the moon’s light the outskirts of Salia were still a pale field of snow, but I almost started in surprise at the warmth of the breeze. Winter was dying, at last. At my right, Archer nonchalantly strolled forward as she strung her overlarge bow. I spared a moment to admire the deftness of her fingers as she did, and the strength of the arms hidden by mail and coat. At my left it was Akua Sahelian that tread the snow without leaving footsteps, so ethereally graceful she might as well have been gliding. Under the guise of Advisor Kivule she wore long black veils hiding her face, though the splendid black velour ballroom dress she’d decided to wear for out little walk provided insisted reminders she was one of the most attractive people I’d ever seen.

“It’s called a Segovian cut,” Indrani idly provided.

I tore away my gaze from the small slits in the dress’ skirts that’d allowed glimpse of the smooth legs beneath. I did not reply, knowing from long experience that if I engaged it would be the verbal equivalent of leaping headfirst into quicksand. Akua had several veils over her face, and yet somehow I could still feel her smirking.

“They wear those for dances they have, where the women spin and-”

“We’ll need to pass by my rooms so I can take my cloak,” I interrupted, pretending I had no interest in her finishing that story.

Segovian cut, was it? I’d have someone look into that, there might be one that’d fit Indrani lying around Salia. Although, I couldn’t ask it of Adjutant. That would be… uh. No, definitely not Hakram. And Hells, now that I thought about it, if I sent for anything like there’d be a report about it on the desk of the First Prince, the Empress and Gods forbid maybe even my father before the day was out. That made the whole notion a lot less enticing, although there might be other ways. Still, if it ended up that I had to call on the smugglers among the Jacks to get Indrani into a revealing dress without half the crowns on Calernia knowing of it I was going to find a tall cliff to leap down it. Even as Archer continued to heckle me I began to hobble towards my quarters, but quiet undercurrents in the Night warned me company was coming.

My Lord of Silent Steps emerged of the darkness between two crowded houses, the purple and silver paint of the Losara Sigil so intrinsically part of Ivah nowadays that I could hardly recall what it looked like without. Ivah’s presence was ever welcome, and once more it was bringing to me what I required before I even thought to ask. Arm extended, it offered me the Cloak of Woe.

“Losara Queen,” it greeted me.

“Lord Ivah,” I replied. “My thanks.”

I wrapped it around me, fingers rising to fasten the broach binding it closed under my throat, and the familiar weight of old mistakes and victories on my back was a reassuring thing. My hand had been filled by a sword, once. First of goblin steel, then of ice and shade, and after that of obsidian only once unsheathed. The dead yew staff that felt cool against my palm, somehow fitting it perfectly, was still a fresh choice: not one I had not fully embraced, for the consequences of it were not all known. The mantle on my back, though? It was like an old friend, and even just wearing it made me feel sharper in thought and deed.

“Should I rouse the Mighty to war, First Under the Night?” Ivah asked. “Steel-clad soldiers march on your camp.”

“No,” I easily replied. “It will not come to that. The Mighty will have may wars to wage, in the coming nights. This need not be one of them.”

Or even a war at all, if I could finagle that. I wasn’t sure why the League of Free Cities would choose to lash out against me of all the rulers in Salia – even if Malicia was the one pulling the strings, it hardly seemed a winning venture for her – but I had no intention of allowing what was coming to develop into yet another front for Callow to fight a war on. I did not invite Ivah to accompany us out in the snows, and it did not presume to invite itself. The League’s people were much further out than we were, since they’d left long before I even began to set out, but as I reached for the Night and let it empower my sight I saw they were hardly a single unified band. Out of the four thousand soldiers that the League of Free Cities had been allowed to bring, maybe two thousand were on the march. One thousand yet remained in their camp, across the distant field, and the rest was marching away. South, although they were split into two groups and one must have left recently to still be so close to the League’s town-camp.

“Archer,” I said. “You followed their movements from the start, yes?”

“You’re wondering about the stagger,” she said, sounding amused.

“The two packs of deserters, yeah,” I frowned. “If the second wave was deserters who hesitated I’d not think of it twice, but they’re moving in an orderly manner. Ranks, supply wagons.”

“First group to walk out was Atalante,” Indrani told me. “Packed up their affairs, assembled their soldiers and diplomats and left without looking back.”

Which was not entirely surprising, I thought. Atalante had no real allies in the League, at the moment. It’d been at odds with Delos before the Tyrant upended the apple cart and started a round of civil war, and from what I understood the closest city it’d had to an ally, Penthes, had only been interested in using the chaos to grab some of the eastern Delosi holdings. Now that there was no Hierarch to compel the city to war against the Grand Alliance, they were likely to head home to lick their wounds instead of linger on foreign fields. If I had to guess, I’d put coin on the second band being the Bellerophon soldiery, and the old-fashioned tight formations I could glimpse in the distance held up to that perspective. It made no sense they’d waited for so long to leave, though.

“What happened with the Bellerophon delegation?” I asked.

“Mind you, I only saw from a distance,” Indrani cautioned.

“You can put an arrow in a wasp from a mile away, Indrani,” Akua amusedly said.

“Sure, but I could exactly hear what they were saying,” Archer reminded us. “Still, as far as I could tell the kanenas tried to execute the general.”

I saw no point in asking why, given that Bellerophon’s laws had been written not even by a single raving lunatic but by a whole assembly of them, many of them violently opposed to each other in their ravings but every single one rabidly incensed by even the hint of foreign meddling in their common lunatic affairs. For all I knew, they’d wanted to executed him because he’d combed his hair the wrong way on the third day of the month. Tried, though, was something worth asking about.

“They defied the authority of their mage-inquisitor?” I said. “I’d never heard about one of them doing that before.”

“The kanenas dropped dead all of a sudden,” Archer replied, shaking her head. “And then they spent a while arguing about that.”

I shiver went up my spine, and against my will I glanced up at the night sky. At what might lay behind it, waiting. What had become of the Hierarch was not yet clear, I thought, but surely all that he was must be tied up in his struggle against Judgement? The mere notion of Anaxares the Diplomat having become some sort of watchful angel to the Republic of Bellerophon was enough to make me sick in the stomach. I shook my head and focused anew.

“That doesn’t explain why they’re so far beyond Atalante,” I finally said. “Unless they argue for nearly ten hours.”

“Funny story,” Indrani grinned, mouth half-hidden by her scarf, “they actually headed north first. Then they saw a road marker that said they were headed towards Salia and argued for an hour before turning south.”

“And what’s so funny about that?” I said, brow rising.

It was incompetence, but honestly a fairly mild one in nature. It wasn’t unheard of for professional armies to need to catch their bearings, that this particular half-trained mob would have to as well wasn’t anything unusual. Especially since we’d all come here through the Twilight Ways, which would be highly disorienting for those unfamiliar with Arcadian journeys. An embarrassing mistake, maybe, but nothing worth a grin.

“Well, the general,” Indrani said. “You know, the one that didn’t die? I think he must have been the one who chose the directions, because-”

“They executed him,” I sighed.

She chuckled at that, and to my utter lack of surprise even Akua’s body language hinted a smile under the veils. Yeah, well, between Wolof’s golden child and the favourite pupil of the Lady of the Lake I supposed the general sense of humour for this company tended towards the dark.

“Bellerophon and Atalante flee the field, then,” Akua calmly said. “We face numbers diminished and disunited. Who was it that lingered in the League’s lodgings?”

“The people in the camp are mostly Mercantis mercenaries and the Delosi,” Indrani said. “Everyone else is headed here, but not together.”

“Should I guess?” I grunted. “Stygia and Penthes together. Nicae will have made room for a few members of the Secretariat with their own people, their Basileus needs all the friends he can make right now. Helike will come alone.”

“Penthes came with Nicae,” Archer corrected, “though you’re right about the Secretariat. Stygia and Helike march without allies, even each other.”

I worried my lip.

“Penthes is Malicia’s hook in the League,” I said. “And Malicia just broke Nicae’s naval power in a single stroke, so why is Basileus Leo Trakas tolerating them at his side?”

“There were only two cities among the League that might feasibly be able to scry on par with Procer, much less Callow or Praes,” Akua pointed out. “Stygia and Helike, and even the latter held true mostly on the back of the many deals made by Kairos Theodosian. Neither of these have an interest in passing such news along to Leo Trakas.”

“Hakram assessed he still didn’t know during the conference, but even now?” I frowned.

It’d been at least two days since the disaster, by my reckoning.

“Dearest heart,” Akua said, sounding amused, “not all realms are so blessed as yours, to have inherited the scrying rituals of Praes and then been graced with the work of one of the most brilliant practitioners in living memory, the Observatory of Laure. Though your nets are not as wide and your spies nowhere as deeply planted as the Empire’s, Callowan long-distance scrying is likely the most swift and reliable on the continent.”

I grimaced as I considered that. It was true that even when I’d begun as the Squire I’d had access to the reports and assessments of the Eyes of the Empire as well as Legion scrying, and then spent near every campaign that followed with Masego at hand. My standards for the swiftness information was transmitted at were probably askew from most people’s, as Akua was so gently implying. Besides, scrying was largely Trismegistan as far as rituals went – though the Principate’s Order of the Red Lion used a formula Masego had noted as being raw, ‘primitive’ and influenced by Jaquinite methods – and the Free Cities weren’t exactly practitioners of that. There were some local magics, from what I remembered reading, but no dominant school or unified tradition. The Stygian Magisterium were the finest sorcerers in the region, but they weren’t sharing their secrets and it was a point of pride for them they’d been practicing sorcery for longer than the Praesi. Which the Praesi denied, of course, but that sort of historical pride pissing match tended to continue because no one could really be sure either way.

“All right,” I said. “So Basileus Leo sees the League is falling apart. Stygia’s the traditional rival of his city among the League as well unpalatable for the slavery besides, and Helike’s the power he’s trying to dislodge from the place of first among equals. Everyone knew Bellerophon couldn’t be kept in the fold from the start, I’m guessing, so doubtless they didn’t even try.”

“That Atalante walked away implies he is failing to consolidate the League,” Akua noted. “He would have attempted to keep the preachers from walking, if only for their coffers and healers.”

Indrani laughed.

“So in Leo’s hour of need, his buddies from Penthes come to offer support,” she said. “And he’s got no idea’s that Malicia’s hand is up the ass of the Exarchs, moving the lips so they’ll say all the right things.”

Colourfully put, but not inaccurate.

“You think she wants to prop up Leo Trakas and make a puppet of him?” I guessed. “I don’t see how it can hold all that long.  As soon as he hears about Still Water being used on his fleets, he turns on them in fury. He has to, his own people will stone him in the streets if he doesn’t.”

“Agreed,” Akua said. “I would wager his usefulness is purely temporary, and the man himself disposable.”

“Yeah, Sahelian’s got that one pegged. He’s an arrow loosed, not a lasting catspaw,” Indrani said. “Ain’t like the Tower’s ever been shy about using people and then tossing them away.”

“We are in agreement this is a ploy of the Empress, then?” I said.

“It seems likely,” Akua agreed.

“We’d already be hip-deep in corpses if this was the Dead King’s work,” Archer frankly replied.

“Good,” I grunted, eyes fixed on the shapes approaching in the distance. “Then we tread carefully. I’m not willing to hand her yet another fucking victory tonight.”

We slowed and stopped without ever needing to speak a word, my limp carrying me atop a slight hill on the plains and the two of them coming to stand by my side as we waited for the League to walk the last stretch separating us. We could have met them halfway and gotten to speaking more quickly, but that would have been sending the wrong message: it was them coming to me, not us meeting as equals. The Tyrant had not made granted the same quantity of soldiers to all members of the League when making the delegation, that much was made clear by those advancing towards us. The two Exarch-claimants of Penthes had maybe three hundred foot with them, with the looks of professional soldiers about them: long mail shirts of good quality, crested helms with full cheek guards and oval shields. Their spears were unlike the long beasts the Stygians used in their phalanx, only about the height of a man, and they bore not swords but long-shafted axes at their hips.

The forces of Nicae, themselves numbering closer to five hundred, steady sword and board men in chainmail and cuirasses though they used small round steel shields and straight-edged sabers instead what I’d equip a shield wall in in their place. They had about a hundred riders as well, though it was only light horse. Long lances and javelins as well as what looked like armour of leather and cloth had me almost rolling my eyes. Aside from riding down conscripts, I hardly saw what good that kind of cavalry could ever do in a proper battle. They’d shatter under Legion crossbows in a hurry, and Gods wouldn’t that be a horrible waste of good warhorses? The Stygians had brought a mere two hundred, their Spears of Stygian with their long spears raised high advancing at brisk pace as the few mounted people ahead I assumed to be magisters keeping an eye on the slave-soldiers. Kairos Theodosian had not been a man afraid to stack the deck in his favour, so it was the Helikean force of nearly nine hundred that was by far the largest of the approaching contingents.

Men-at-arms with their scale armour and sharp blades, the steady foot that was the foundation of Helikean warfare, counted six hundred. They moved in formation and good order. The last three hundred, however, were a sight that half-surprised me: kataphraktoi. I’d confiscated the equipment of the four thousand cataphracts that’d warred on my army in Iserre and sent them back to Kairos with a broken finger each, but it seemed at least part of that force had been raised anew. The broken finger I’d not expected to keep them down for too long, not with so many priests among the League army, but the horses and armaments were surprise. Mind you, I was looking at three hundred when my soldiers had once fought four thousand. I doubted even the deeper schemer like the Tyrant had anticipated needing to rearm all four thousand of the most elite force in his army. The last presence from the League was the Delosi Secretariat, and it evidently had not brought soldiers at all. A handful of askretis were walking with Nicaeans, carrying small scribing desks for what I assumed to be a senior member of the Secretariat.

“This is pretty nostalgic,” Archer said, silver flask in hand. “The three of us, more enemies than we practically know what to do with.”

“They’re not necessarily enemies,” I said.

“Cat insisting we’re not necessarily going to kill them,” Archer airily continued. “All we need is caves full of corpses and it’ll be like we never left the Everdark.”

“Any moment now, we’ll declare war on an entire civilization,” Akua suggested.

“We did pretty well last time,” Indrani mused. “I’d say we rank at least a draw, don’t you?”

She passed the flask to the shade, who drank a deep sip.

“Generous, that,” Akua said afterwards. “Although, for an invasion force three women strong I’ll concede there was a surprising amount of invading achieved.”

“I need a better quality of minions,” I complained. “Mine are too mouthy. I bet the White Knight never has to deal with anything like this.”

Heroes must be all sweetness and light, to the Sword of Judgement. All I got were crows that got mouthy about giving me directions and underlings who couldn’t ever let anything go. Akua handed me the flask and I took a sip myself – then spat it out, coughing.

“Indrani, you horrid wench,” I gasped out. “This is senna.”

Drow liquor, made from mushrooms and tasting like godsdamned mud. It’d been tolerable underground, where there was little else even remotely drinkable, but up here? After months of wine? It was like licking a muddy lake shore.

“You slipped me a flask when I left before the Graveyard,” Indrani beatifically smiled. “How does the saying go again? For small slights, long prices. Wench.”

I glanced at Akua who had brazenly betrayed me by pretending this was halfway decent liquor when she’d drunk of it herself, and she languidly shrugged.

“How could I stand in the way of righteous revenge, my heart?” the shade said. “It would have been most uncharitable of me.”

“This is why Hakram is my favourite,” I muttered under my breath.

At the very least, the indignation had me less tense as the soldiers approached.

“And now,” Indrani narrated, “as foes stream forward like a mighty river, atop the hill stand a peerless beauty, a regal queen, a mysterious seductress – and also you two, I guess.”

I could not flip off Archer in front of the League, I reminded myself. No matter how much she deserved it. Indrani shifted slightly to the side, eyes narrowing, and her tone went serious without warning.

“Mages with the Basileus,” she warned. “At least three.”

I followed her gaze and found Leo Trakas atop his white stallion, as well as the two Exarch-claimants, but the mages took me a while longer to figure out. Some of Basileus Leo’s escorting horseman wore ill-fitting armour, I realized. The sleeves were too long, as if made for larger and taller men, and they seemed uncomfortable with the weapons they were carrying.

“You sure?” I quietly said.

“Their horses move like they’ve been drugged,” Archer murmured. “Those are war horses, willful, and they’re not good riders. Either those mounts were spelled to be docile, or they were fed something.”

“Akua?” I said.

“Enchanted,” she said. “Though sloppily. I’d wager they are either Nicaean mages – no great wonders, those – or hired practitioners from Mercantis.”

“Lovely,” I growled.

If Leos Trakas had tight reins on his ‘allies’ I’d call this a precaution and let it go, but given that Penthes was likely playing him at Malicia’s behalf there were risks involved. The larger party, consisting of the Penthesians, Nicaeans and the Secretariat observers, halted its march maybe a hundred feet ahead of our hill. A smaller party advanced, though it wasn’t that small: the Exarchs brought thirty men, Leo Trakas thirty men of his own – including the mages, now dismounted – and with four scribes and the Secretariat official it was sixty eight people who strode towards the three of us. In the distance, the forces of Helike and Stygia halted on either side of the large force. Two riders peeled out of the band for Helike, one for Stygia. Bundled up in furs, Basileus Leo was at the head of the delegation and it was him that addressed us first.

“Hail, Black Queen,” the young man said.

“Hail, Basileus,” I calmly replied. “Your visit is an unexpected pleasure.”

“Is it a visit to walk Proceran soil, now?” one of the Exarchs mocked. “How quickly your dominion extends, Queen of Callow.”

I glanced at Akua.

“Advisor,” I said. “Do remind me – is that one Prodocius or Honorion?”

“Prodocius, my queen,” Akua replied.

I glanced at the dark-haired man, his cheeks gone red from anger as much as the cold, and my eyebrows rose.

“Did you know that the Eyes of the Empire have you officially marked as ‘having the wits of a well-bred trout’?” I asked.

The man snarled.

“You coat your insults in lies, you-”

“I assure you,” I amicably smiled, “it is a verbatim quote.”

“Prodocius,” Basileus Leo sharply said. “We did not come to trade barbs.”

“That is pleasing to know,” I said.

“So why did you come?” Archer drawled. “I’m assuming it’s not to visit the nice Proceran countryside. Snow’s not measurably any nice close to our camp.”

Knowing her, she might actually have checked.

“Accusations were made against you, Queen Catherine,” an old man spoke in lightly accented Lower Miezan.

Long hair white as snow and bound in a ponytail, the man who’d spoken was wrinkled like old leather and nearly as dark of skin. This was, if I remembered my briefings correctly, Nestor Ikaroi of the Secretariat. On each of his cheeks could be found a blue stripe and a black one, tattooed. The marks of someone who had climbed the ranks of their bureaucracy until there was nothing left to climb.

“Secretary Ikaroi, isn’t it?” I said.

The old man, to my surprise, gallantly bowed.

“It is a great pleasure to formally meet you, Your Majesty,” he said.

“And I you,” I replied, dipping my head in thanks. “I’ve long had an interest in the ways of the Secretariat.”

Which was true enough, since back in the first days of my reign I’d been desperate to find a working bureaucratic model that wasn’t an imitation of the Praesi one. There’d never really be time or resources to spend on a venture in the Free Cities though, not with Procer mobilizing.

“Then perhaps in the days to come you might be willing to speak with formal chroniclers,” Nestor Ikaroi offered. “We have a troubling lack of direct sources concerning the beginning of the Uncivil Wars.”

I blinked, taken aback at the continued civility. Usually people were only this polite after they’d lost a few battles or I’d put a blade at their neck.

“Time allowing, I’ve not objection,” I slowly said. “The Marshal of Callow is already writing a history of her own, and I would not object to your speaking with her either.”

“It pleases us all you are willing to interact peacefully with the League, Your Majesty,” Basileus Leo said, reclaiming the lead on the League side. “Yet it would benefit us all if you would answer the accusations that were posed.”

“It is interesting that the Basileus of Nicae considers himself to have authority over the Queen of Callow,” Akua mildly said. “I wonder which precedent is so in use.”

The younger man looked like he’d swallowed a lemon.

“Should I take this as refusal to speak with the League?” he asked me.

“Do you speak for the League now?” Indrani drily said. “You seem to be missing parts, ‘Hierarch’.”

I raised a hand.

“We have further guests, Archer,” I said. “Let us not jump to hasty conclusions.”

The riders from Helike and Stygia had finally arrived. The Stygian was no surprise: Magister Zoe Ixiani had been the voice of the Magisterium through the League civil war and the Proceran campaign, and it seemed she was still to be the same tonight. The fact that she was a slaver rather spoiled her good looks, sadly. As for the two Helikeans, I was familiar with both. General Basilia, who had I once met in Rochelant and later learned was the Tyrant’s favourite general, rode well and high in the saddle. Dark-eyed and dark-haired, she had sharp cheekbones and the well-built shoulders of a warrior. The other I knew almost intimately: the pale eyes straddling the line of blue and grey, the surprisingly young tanned face I had once seen kneeling before me. General Pallas, who had led the kataphractoi who killed my men.

“Generals,” I said. “Magister Ixioni.”

The two commanders offered brisk salutes.

“Magister Zoe would suffice,” the sorceress smiled.

I did not smile back and flicked a glance at the Helikeans.

“Quite the gathering,” I said. “Dare I ask why?”

“We are here as observers,” General Basilia said.

“You are here as an usurper, general,” the other Exarch-claimant said.

That one wasn’t Prodocius, which made him Honorion. Plump where the other was thin, he was middle-aged and his curly hair luxuriant. From what Black had told me, he was prodigiously wealthy and had no particular talent aside form this. Considering a great source of wealth for Penthes was trade with the Empire, I’d wager he was even more Malicia’s creature than the other one.

“I will uphold the last will of the Tyrant of Helike, Penthesian swine,” General Basilia coldly said. “Steel in hand, if I must.”

I was detecting the slightest hint of tension there.

“Accusations, you said,” I mused. “Am I to hear them, or will they remain a mystery?”

“Are you willing to submit to the judgement of the League?” Basileus Leo eagerly said.

I met his eyes, unamused.

“Look at my back, Leo Trakas,” I said. “What do you see there?”

The young man’s lips thinned.

“The Mantle of Woe, it is called,” he said.

“It’s a list of people who asked me to submit to things,” I said. “I would not be so eager to be number among them, were I you.”

“Then we are at an impasse,” Basileus Leo said.

“Secretary Nestor,” Akua said. “What does the record indicate the accusations are?”

Leo Trakas paled, either in anger or fear.

“Claimant to the title of Exarch Prodocius Lesor alleges that Queen Catherine Foundling murdered the Tyrant of Helike,” Nestor Ikaroi calmly said. “Claimant to the title of Exarch Honorion Kapenos alleges that Queen Catherine Foundling was accessory to the murder of Anaxares of Bellerophon, Hierarch of the Free Cities.”

A heartbeat of silence passed, then Archer burst out laughing. It was not, I decided, the most diplomatic we’d ever been. I glanced at the Helikean generals, who seemed untroubled.

“And what does Helike say of this?” I asked.

“We cast no such accusation,” General Pallas bluntly said.

“Our sire would have disdained such a measure, even were the accusation true,” General Basilia added with open contempt.

I glanced at Basileus Leo, wondering in what possible world he might have thought that my ‘submission’ to ‘League judgement’ might have resulted in anything the wholesale slaughter of everyone trying to execute me on such thin pretence. Gods Below, I’d sent running larger forces than the entire League escort, much less his little coalition. No, he was young but he wasn’t an idiot – he wouldn’t have been able to prevent a Strategos from being chosen in Nicae if that were the case. Ah. Had he been presenting himself as the speaker for the League so that he could then declare me innocent in that capacity, avoiding a fight with me while binding Penthes to him? On parchment that was a halfway decent plan, but he had to realize I had no damned incentive to indulge him and the precedent of the League having authority over a Queen of Callow was unacceptable. If he is not stupid, which I know him not to be, I thought, then he must be desperate.

“Gods, do you have a semblance of evidence at least?” I asked. “Tell me you didn’t march near two thousand soldiers for… this.”

The Basileus flushed and gestured towards his attendants. Archer, I saw, was carefully watching the mages. Good. One of the soldiers came forward with two sheaths of parchment, but Exarch Prodocius sneered and elbowed him, snatching the scrolls. He strolled up the hill, staring me down with surprising aplomb for a man who as far as I could tell had no power and no military training – he wasn’t even in particularly good shape. Except, I realized as he approached, he wasn’t staring me down. His eyes were wide and showing white, like a terrified horse’s. He was, I grasped as he hurried towards me, frightened nearly out of his wits. And still he threw the parchments towards my face. Akua slapped them down, even as Exarch Prodocius stepped up to me with a rictus of bared teeth that straddled fury and terror.

“There,” Prodocius snarled, “you murdering tyrant, you-”

At the Basileus’ barked order two Nicaean soldiers stepped forward, one grabbing him by the shoulder and dragging him back and the other offering me an apologetic bow before picking up the parchments – they’d fallen short, as open scrolls were want to do – and bowed again before pressing them into my hand.

Or at least tried to, before Archer caught his wrist and rammed a blade through the side of his neck.

Chapter 86: It Pours

“The cruelty of a dilemma is not only in the choice itself; it lies also in the truth it reveals to you about yourself through the making of that choice.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand

Akua Sahelian and Masego the Hierophant were, undeniably, two of the finest mages ever produced by the Wasteland. One had been taught the old sorceries of Wolof since she could remember and taken to them with dreadful skill, the other had been apprenticed since he could speak to a warlock who’d dissected the corpses of gods. Their deeds were many and renowned, and their reputations were such as to make men shiver in the dark of night. They’d also used a godsdamned bathtub as the vessel of water for their scrying ritual. I’d excuse Masego in this, since he was usually more concerned with practicalities than appearance, but Akua would earn no such mercy from me. The same woman who’d campaigned with multiple enchanted ceremonial armours was now trying to pretend it’d never occurred to him there might be some slight indignity to this, an innocent look on her face. Yeah, I wasn’t buying that. I spared some of my glare for Hakram, the filthy traitor who must have been willingly complicit in this, and at least he had the good grace to look abashed.

I didn’t have nearly as much time to spend on designing petty vengeances as I used to, but they weren’t getting away with this unpunished. And I wasn’t above delegating my pettiness these days, anyway. A council consisting of Robber, Indrani and Vivienne ought to be capable of coming up with a suitably vindictive reprisal.

I limped up to the side of the copper bathtub, discretely surrounded by carved and inscribed wardstones stabilizing it against the strenuous effects of long-distance scrying, and the faint amusement I’d felt at the absurdity of having to speak with my officers through a bathing implement died. On the surface of the waters I saw Juniper, and what I read there was not promising. She looked exhausted, the thick skin around her eyes touched with muted grey, and beyond that she looked angry. The kind of low festering anger that stayed in your belly, kept simmering there by your own impotence to do anything about its cause.

“Juniper,” I said. “I’d say it’s a pleasure to see you, but it seems that would be premature. Report, Marshal.”

“Warlord,” she gravely replied, dipping her head to the side.

It bared her neck, if only slightly, which implied much greater deference by orc standards than inclining your head in agreement. I’d noticed Juniper tended to fall back into orc mannerisms when she was unsettled, abandoning the more human affectations that she’d picked up in the War College. That was not a promising sign, not that any part of this had been hinting at my night getting any better.

“Time is difficult to gauge accurately in the Twilight Ways,” she began, “but around what we believe to be fifteen hours ago the Legions-in-Exile under Marshal Grem abandoned the march towards Arans and changed direction.”

Fifteen hours, I considered with a frown. Aligning the timelines, and allowing for a degree of imprecision, that around the time the conference’s first formal session had been held. Hakram stirred, having approached my side without my realizing. Consciously, anyway. It wasn’t like he’d been silent, more that his presence at my side hardly warranted particular notice. I glanced at him and nodded, tacitly allowing him to ask the question he wanted to.

“And was reason given for that decision, or even the destination itself?” Adjutant asked.

Juniper grimaced.

“That is complicated to answer,” she admitted. “Both the Army and the Legions were breaking camp, when it happened, and it was not immediately clear what was happening. The messengers I sent were given the answer that this changed march was at the order of the Carrion Lord, which I did not believe.”

My eyes narrowed. All other things aside, Black shouldn’t have a way to contact his people while they were out in the Ways: I’d not put Akua and Masego on the ritual so they could reminisce together about the bad old days. Here in Salia he shouldn’t have the calibre of mages to accomplish something like that, much less without the Observatory to use. Which meant he would have had to give secret orders before coming with me to Salia, which was… dubious. I wasn’t going to blindly trust the man, even if I loved him, but it would be ludicrous for him to turn on me at this juncture. The moment I ceased extending my protection to him the Procerans would slip a noose around his neck, if they were feeling kind, and while maybe I could see him taking calculated risks if he were still partnered with Malicia he’d just burned that bridge in front of the rulers of most the continent. No, Juniper had been right to be skeptical.

“I sough to speak personally with Marshal Grem,” Juniper gravelled, “but was turned away. The rank and file of the exiles were taken by surprise, my queen, but not worried. Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara approached officers she worked closely with during the campaigns and learned that the Legions were returning to Praes.”

Fuck, I thought. That wouldn’t be a secret order from Black, he had to know that his soldiers were exhausted and undersupplied. Beginning a campaign to take Praes before rest and refit would be madness, the Legions-in-Exile had been out in enemy territory for almost a year now.

“Someone got to One-Eye,” I said. “Either he’s dead and being impersonated, or someone has hooks in him.”

“Marshal Grem has a great deal of prestige among the troops,” Hakram quietly said, “but not so much that such a decision would be uncontested. Marshal Ranker might be dead, but there are still Conquest generals. General Mok for the Fifth and Yawa Foehammer for the Twelfth.”

Both were decorated veterans of the invasion of Callow, from what I knew, though General Yawa had been a lesser officer then – she’d been raised to general after Afolabi Magoro died at the Doom and rebuilt the Twelfth from the wreckage of that legions. Neither were anywhere as famous or beloved as the One-Eye, but among their own soldiers their word would carry a lot of weight. If both accused the Marshal of being compromised, people would listen. Juniper grunted in agreement.

“That was my thought as well, and so I pushed again for a face-to-face meeting,” the orc said. “Which is when it was made clear to me that the entire upper echelon of the exiles knew of this order.”

My brow rose.

“All of them?” Hakram slowly said.

“Marshal Grem, all generals and most the legates,” Juniper said. “There was no arguing with that, my queen. The only way I could feasibly prevent them from leaving was putting the top officers of the exiles under arrest.”

“That would have led to a pitched battle,” I grimly said.

While bonds were tight between Black’s army and mine, given the common wars fought and the common descendance from the Reforms and the College, the Legions-in-Exile were not mine. They’d not sworn to me, nor ever intended to. My marshal ordering their highest commanders all imprisoned would have been seen as an attempt to bring them into the fold by force, which would have gone… poorly, to say the least. The Army of Callow would probably have won that fight, between superior numbers and whatever was affecting the Legion officers, but it would have been a bloody business all around and there was no guarantee my barebones mage lines would have been able to fix whatever had been done to the generals afterwards. Juniper wouldn’t have had much of a choice, when it came down to it.

“It was the right call to let them leave,” I said.

“Thank you,” Juniper said, dipping her head forward.

Been worried about my reaction to that, then. Fair enough.

“Hellhounds, remind me,” Adjutant said. “General Birne, Ranker’s replacement. He’s got a golden stripe, doesn’t he?”

The honour granted those who’d fought with distinction at the Fields of Streges, as I recalled.

“And a silver cord from the Siege of Summerholm,” Juniper said, tone approving. “You caught on quick. It wasn’t me that noticed, Deadhand. General Bagram’s got a stripe too, and they’re old friends.”

My eyes flicked between the two of them questioningly, for clearly I’d missed something along the way.

“The golden stripes are considered the highest of the personal honours granted during the Conquest,” Hakram said. “Because only forty-three were granted, and-“

“All by Dread Empress Malicia’s own hand,” Akua finished from behind us.

I glanced at her, and the implication sunk in. She’d once told me that her family considered any spy left alone with the Empress to be compromised. Yet Malicia had outmanoeuvred High Lady Tasia Sahelian, in the end, destroyed her completely. Even that stark a warning might have been underestimating what the Empress was capable of.

“Marshal Grem is certain to have spoken with the Empress in person at least once,” I said. “And I imagine the same would hold true for any general and quite a few of the high-ranking officers that participated in the Conquest.”

And whatever it was she’d done, it was possible for it to affect every single one of those individuals. Shit. That was a fucking disaster. There was no such thing as flawless mind control, especially not from a distance, but even simple planted orders could do a lot of damage. Especially if they were sown generously across the entire old guard of the Legions, which tended to be both the finest commanders we had and my father’s most ardent supporters. I’d believe it too, if I was a legionary and the One-Eye told me his orders came from Black, I thought. After all those years of friendship and loyalty, why doubt it?

“Within an hour of realizing this, I removed the army from the Twilight Ways,” Juniper said. “And ordered every officer who has ever set foot in the Tower or been in the presence of the Empress to be placed under arrest.”

And Gods, both of those decisions had been the right call once more but looking at the scope of the mess I felt like smashing the fucking bathtub in front of me. Not all our College-taught officers would fall under those conditions, but most our Praesi highborn and distinguished veterans would. Which meant all my best and seasoned commanders. We wouldn’t be without officers, since so much of the army was Callowan now, but essentially all the veteran officers we’d taken from the legions cannibalized after the Folly and kicked up the ranks would have to be removed from the chain of command. Without knowing exactly what it was the Empress had done, how it worked and what it could do, we just couldn’t take the risk of leaving them in place. Including Juniper herself, for all that she was still the one giving me a report. Everything she’d just told me would have to be confirmed second-hand by someone not in doubt, for a start, and it’d be a mess to manage that considering most of her general staff was likely to be on the compromised list as well.

Dread Empress Malicia had not so much as swung as sword and she’d effectively crippled the Army of Callow. That, more than anything else, told me I was not wrong to believe this to be her work. How many people alive would be capable of a blow that vicious?

“Who’s in command, at the moment?” I asked.

“Grandmaster Talbot has legate-equivalent rank and technical seniority,” Juniper said. “Yet most Praesi soldiery balks at his command. Legate Tendai is the other candidate, but while she has years under her belt as a frontline officer she is fresh to higher command. For now the two are keeping the peace in accord but tensions are rising.”

Thank the Gods for the Reforms, I feelingly thought. How many other armies on the continent would be able to weather so much of the upper ranks being put under arrest this well? That measures meant to prevent decapitation of leadership by heroes were working almost as well against a villain’s work was a nice touch of irony.

“Has there been any sign of enthrallment in any of our people?” I asked.

“None that I know of,” Juniper said. “Though I am no longer being kept informed, my queen.”

“There won’t be,” Akua said.

I turned to face her, sharply gesturing for elaboration.

“Unlike with the Legions-in-Exile, the Empress cannot suborn the Army of Callow outright,” the shade elaborated. “Which means the greatest gain she can derive of any enthrallment sown in your ranks is delay, keeping your soldiers out of action for as long as she can.”

“Making a third of my officer corps commit suicide would achieve that,” I pointed out.

“It would cripple your army, it is true, but also flush out her hidden hands,” Akua said, shaking her head. “Better to leave the ship infested, and you aware of that. Then either you must send valuable assets to investigate the trouble or go yourself. Either way, a great deal of your might is tied down for weeks. Possibly even months. And should it look like you have a solution, well, it is not too late then to order the killings you described.”

My lips thinned. Yeah, that sounded about right. Either I went myself with Sve Noc at my back, which given the distance and what needed to be done in Salia still would complicate everything, or I sent both Akua and Masego together to be safe – which lost me a great deal of knowledge and power at hand I might need for other tasks. And the moment it looked like I might turn things around, I had no doubt that just like Akua had said the Empress would twist the knife once more. If not earlier, the moment she learned through her spies that whoever went had entered the Twilight Ways. Fuck.

“Thank you for your report, Marshal,” I crisply said, then grimaced. “You acted correctly in every regard, Juniper. This isn’t on you, we were just had by the Empress. We’ll dig our way back to daylight.”

“We always do, Catherine,” the Hellhound said, but she sounded so very tired.

I gestured for Masego to end the ritual, not willing to look at her in this state any longer, then breathed out as Juniper’s image on the water vanished.

“Akua,” I said. “How high are the odds that the Empress can just snap her fingers and have them all commit suicide?”

“I am not certain,” she admitted. “This is not mere sorcery, dearest. A Name is involved, and so there are deeper considerations. In principle, such mastery of others can either be fine or numerous – as it is with Speaking, where one may have an entire crowd kneel once or enchant an individual intricately.”

“Even at the peak of my Name, I wouldn’t have been able to order that many people to kill themselves,” I said. “Maybe two, three at most? For simpler stuff fear and thunder carries it through, but…”

“If we could Speak entire hosts to death, what need would we have of hosts at all?” Akua smiled. “Yes. In truth you were only the Squire, while Malicia is Dread Empress and a great one besides, but I took doubt that even should this be borne of an aspect she could so easily take lives. Especially if the commands were seeded. Having such a decree lying in one’s mind for years would lead to severe disorders of the mind, besides.”

“Unless that mind is prepared for that particular purpose, and accordingly conditioned with enchantments and alchemy,” Masego cut in. “As the Sentinels are said to be.”

Akua conceded with a nod.

“Without a story at her back, I do not believe it is within the power of the Empress to order deaths,” she said. “Though lesser beguilements would be well within her grasp, and in their own way just as dangerous. I am greatly surprised by the skill displayed in the manipulation of the commanders of the Legions-in-Exile, I confess.”

“I’m not,” Vivienne said. “Not considering what you said about stories. It was around fifteen hours ago this all started, the Hellhound said. Give or take a bit, that’s when the Carrion Lord declared rebellion against the Tower.”

I closed my eyes and let out a soft curse.

“And that makes an empress calling her subjects to heel,” I said. “Considering most who climb the Tower have an aspect related to authority, she would have had the wind at her back when she pulled that trigger.”

“It would be more complex a matter when it comes to those among the Army of Callow,” Akua noted. “Though some of them were once sworn to her, they are now sworn to you instead.”

“Creation likes clarity,” I agreed. “But that’ll serve to weaken, not protect or prevent.”

Neither of which I was all that sure I could do, when it came down to it. Distance was the element of dismay here, the more I thought about it. Those under my charge that needed help were far, and there was no guarantee that by the time they were reached they would still be in a state to be helped. Possibly I could leave behind someone under an illusion to impersonate me and hope that Malicia didn’t catch on, but given the way it’d be impossible to keep that deception going for too long it’d be rolling the dice to try that. Assuming them Empress didn’t catch on immediately, which give how deeply the Eyes had apparently infiltrated Salia I could hardly be sure of. Sending Masego and Akua would hardly be any subtler, even if I made an effort to suppress knowledge of it, and at the end of the day I had to admit that whatever my decision was there was nothing I could do. Save perhaps doing nothing, which I expected was exactly what the Empress would prefer of me: days passing in indecision, paralyzed by the risks in committing to anything.

For the first time since I’d returned from the Everdark I’d been caught entirely flatfooted, and the impotent anger I’d earlier glimpsed in Juniper was finding a mirror in me. I’d forgotten how much I hated this. How much I hated her. There were reasons to kill the Empress that were personal to me, like the death of people I had cared for, and practical ones as well. And then there was this, the ugly sinking feeling in my stomach and how much I despised that she could do that to me. Still even now, after all I had learned and wrought. Because she was patient and cold-blooded and everything I was not. Gods, the Dead King could still scare me in a way few things could but the only foe who had ever made feel like an arrogant child was the Dread Empress of Praes. The woman atop the tower who had, again and again, made me bleed without my ever landing a blow on her in return.

“Fuck,” I cursed. “All right. I’ll see if I can find a way out of this mess. Meanwhile, Hakram, speak with Talbot and this Legate Tendai. I want Juniper’s report confirmed point by point, and word of everything that’s happened since.”

“As you say,” Adjutant replied. “The Army will still need a commanding officer, Catherine. The Hellhound made it clear the current situation is untenable.”

I’d be able to take care of it, if I went, but if I wasn’t sure I could afford to leave Vivienne here to finish the negotiations without me. She had the judgement to see it through, sure, but cleverness was not what had brought the opposition to the table. They’d taken a seat because they were desperate and scared of me, and though the former still held they simply would not be afraid of Vivs the way they were of me. Which would mean squabbles I wouldn’t have to deal with, heroes not being as leery of meddling and a hundred other little messes we could ill-afford. On the other hand, if it was not I who went then there was only one high-ranking officer who could fill the shoes.

“It will have to be General Abigail,” I said. “At least until the hooks can be dug out of our people’s heads. I’ll speak to her myself. Vivienne, I need you to prepare an escort for her when she’s sent out. At least two full cohorts. I’ll need to consult with-”

Black, I realized in this moment still likely knew nothing of this. Shit. I was not looking forward to that conversation at all.

“- with Black,” I grimaced. “And soon. Akua, Zeze, can the scrying ritual be done again without the both of you?”

“It can be done by our mage lines, Catherine,” Masego reminded me. “They are on Creation again, all this ritual commotion was unnecessary.”

“Right,” I said, mildly embarrassed at having forgot. “Good, then I have jobs for you. Hierophant, I need options to purge the mind of my officers from the Empress’ influence.”

He opened his mouth, but I raised a hand to interrupt.

“I have a dozen things I need to be doing right now, and I’d not remember all the details if you simply told me anyway,” I said. “Write it down for me, Zeze. Prepare all you can, so I can put it to council when everyone is there.”

“I suppose I have nothing more pressing at the moment,” he said.

“Thanks,” I honestly replied. “I appreciate it.”

“And I, my heart?” Akua smiled.

“You’re with me,” I said. “Black will get snippy about you being there, but when it comes to Praesi politics you’re my expert. We’ll head there now, I don’t doubt that with the agitation in our camp Scribe already woke him up.”

I clapped Hakram’s shoulder, nodded at Masego and managed to take exactly one step towards the door before it was thrown open.

“There you are,” Archer said, face serious. “We have a situation, Cat. Chunks of the League’s people are moving.”

“Moving where?” I frowned.

“By the looks of it? Here,” she flatly said.

It was a good thing I knew my way around more than a few languages, these days, because loudly cursing in only one would not have been nearly enough.

Chapter 85: When It Rains

“Kill an enemy,
Make another
How dreadfully
We do usher!
Killed; enemy
To another.”
-Extract from ‘And So I Dreamt I Was Awake’ by Sherehazad the Seer, Taghreb poet

“You’re certain?” I asked.

“As can be,” Vivienne replied. “Our own people have intercepted reports and the Scribe’s agents confirm it.”

“Then send for Pickler,” I said. “We’ll need someone navigate the implications of that.”

I paused, and the other Callowan caught my eye with understanding.

“Robber as well, then,” the dark-haired woman said.

She dipped out of the room long enough to send out messengers and returned as I poured us cups of wine. She took it when offered, and we both sipped in silence. Lost in our thoughts. It’d be better with the two of them, and I was glad she’d realized it. While it could not be denied that Senior Sapper Pickler’s upbringing as the daughter of a Matron leant her insights into the ways of goblinkind that a nobody like Robber wouldn’t have, neither should it be ignored that she was, well… horribly unsociable. Even with other goblins. Special Tribune Robber, on the other hand? He somehow seemed to know every other greenskin we came across, and though goblins were clannish in the extreme amongst themselves they gossiped with relish. Robber would have his finger on the pulse of things in a way Pickler would not. Gods, and to think I’d believed it would be quiet after the disaster in Lyonceau. Showed what I knew.

Midnight had come and passed, though it would be more than a bell still until dawn came, and no part of that span had been calm. I’d not returned to Salia, after the Dead King’s chilling farewell, for it would have been unwise. Riots were beginning again, though this time not as a tool of conspiracy: word had spread that the war against Keter was resuming, and in terror and impotent anger the people had taken to the streets. Given that there’d been killing of foreigners last time, it’d been judged cautious for the delegations not to return to the capital at least until the day after. If not longer. The First Prince had admitted that she’d rather not soldiers – even solely her own – to put down the turbulence but that she might not have a choice. Should it come to that, though, no other member of the Grand Alliance could be seen intervening even if only to help. It would feed the rumours from the coup attempt that’d not entirely died down, that the First Prince was in league with foreign powers that wanted to destroy Procer.

As Salia roiled and the rest of us kept to our camps, surrounded by soldiers, the last stretch of day into the night had been filled with fervent activity. For one, the two Named that’d been effectively keeping the League of Free Cities together were gone. The Hierarch perhaps not yet dead, as Masego had insisted, but undeniably he was in no place to rule. Not that he’d ever done that even when he was actually meant to. There’d been accusations of assassination from some cities, Penthes leading the charge, but it was hard to argue with a town covered in ash and two heroes stuck in bedrest. The League delegations had hastily withdrawn to their camp under a heavy escort of Proceran soldiers, howling mobs of Salians tossing everything they could get their hands on at them. I had Archer out and keeping an eye on them, though with strict instructions not the kick the hornet’s nest. That Penthes had been so aggressive earlier was a good indication that Hakram was right about Malicia having sunk in her hooks there, but there was no telling where much of the League would fall. Helike, in particular, promised to be a mess. Kairos Theodosian had no formal successor, and rumour was he’d pruned minor branches of the Theodosians quite enthusiastically after usurping his nephew. It was not impossible that the royal house of Helike was dead, and there was no telling if some other nobles would make a play for the throne or some distant relation was about to be produced so they could ‘rule’.

And now, like we didn’t have our plates full enough with the south, north and west trouble was coming from the east as well. The affairs of the Confederation of the Grey Eyries, the fledgling goblin state that’d risen in rebellion against the Tower and declared independence before going a step further and taking Foramen, had always been opaque to outsiders. The Council of Matrons had ruled the goblin tribes under the Empire and it still did under the Confederation, but to my understanding the alliance between the tribes was a loose thing even at the best of times. The Matrons were nominally an ally to Callow, for Hakram and Vivienne had backed their bid for independence with dwarven gold and foodstuffs, to be repaid in goods we needed: goblin steel and munitions. A blockade of the Hungering Sands by the loyalist Legions of Terror had made deliveries of these highly sporadic, though they’d not entirely ceased, but the Matrons were making visible efforts to keep their word.

I’d believed that to be a promising sign, and though the goblins were said to have committed atrocities against Taghrebi nobility when they took Foramen, the loss of the Imperial Forges and yet another great city of Praes had been a hard blow to Malicia. The Confederation was riddled with practices I despised, and the Matrons were generally speaking about as trustworthy as a nest of vipers, but as a counterweight to the Tower in the southeast they’d been an invaluable asset. Just the fact that they’d tied up the loyalist legions down south had been worth its weight in gold, since it meant I didn’t have to worry about those same troops securing the Empire for Malicia – or marching on Summerholm, for that matter. There was the promise of a long-term partnership there as well, with the Snake Eater Tribe having settled in my lands near Marchford. It’d allowed Juniper to recruit goblins to fill the ranks of the Army of Callow’s sappers and scouts, and more abstract benefits as well. The relative harmony with the locals had been both a proof that Callow might be able to handle greenskin settlers and a tie to the Council of Matrons themselves.

The generous income that rent of their tribal lands brought didn’t hurt either, given the until recently dreadful state of my coffers.

Some parts of it in particular: Pickler’s mother, Matron Wither of the High Ridge Tribe. Who’d been trying to push Pickler into retiring and becoming Matron of the Snake Eater Tribe since the moment it was settled on Callowan grounds. I’d been more amused than anything when I’d first heard, for trying to get Pickler interested in anything that wasn’t engineering was like pulling teeth, but given the fractious nature of goblin politics I’d found it shockingly impressive that Matron Wither has succeeded at ensuring no other matron was appointed in the wake of her daughter’s refusal to retire and take up matronship of the tribe. Guards knocked on the door and jolted me out of my thoughts, Vivienne calling out to allow entry as I took a sip from my now near-empty cup. The two goblins came in together, for a moment allowing a glimpse of the difference between them – Pickler was, I realized, growing significantly larger than Robber. Half a head more now, and where the male’s skin was beginning to wrinkle in some places as he approached his kind’s middle age her own was the same as when I’d first met her. Matron lines, it was said, were as a breed apart from the rest of their kind.

That did not strike me as the kind of thing that came about naturally.

“Boss, Princess,” Robber greeted us, scuttling in and sliding into a seat.

My brow rose as I glanced at Vivienne.

“Since I was designated your heiress,” she admitted. “It’s exactly as annoying as you’d think.”

Oh, Vivienne, why would you ever admit that out loud? There was no way he was ever going to stop, now.

“Catherine, Dartwick,” Pickler greeted us, slightly more deferentially.

She waited for me to invite her with a gesture before taking a seat, at least.

“I’ve need of your insights into the Confederation,” I admitted. “There’s been news.”

Amber eyes wary, Pickler watched me without blinking.

“I’m not corresponding with my mother, Catherine,” she said. “And even if I was, she would not share secrets with me. Nor I with her, if that is your-”

“Not in the slightest,” I interrupted. “But you were raised about as high as can be, by my understanding, and you know your mother better than anybody else we’ve got.”

“And I am here to speak for the common goblin, I assume,” Robber grinned, pearly needle-like teeth gleaming. “Allow me then to present our demands: first, we would like larger cookpots. The ones we have can’t fit a full Proceran child. Second-”

“Robber’s here because he hears gossip even Hakram doesn’t,” I said, pretending to have heard none of that.

“His ears are too high up,” Robber agreed without missing a beat, “it’s like someone carved an ugly mug onto a tree, Boss.”

“Matron Wither has seized control of the city of Foramen and, along with what seems to be another few tribes, evicted the Confederation from the region,” Vivienne calmly said.

It was like someone had dropped a sheet of ice-cold water on the two goblins. Genuine surprise, from the two of them.

“Was blood spilled?” Robber sharply asked.

Vivienne handed me the scroll carrying the latest summary report and I tossed it across the table. He caught it and passed it to Pickler without hesitating, eyes remaining on me.

“As far as we can tell, all forces within the city that didn’t belong to the High Ridge or their allies were taken by surprised and killed,” I said. “There were a series of skirmishes afterwards that droved back Confederation warriors into the Grey Eyries. Maybe four to five thousand dead, all in all.”

“The Legions haven’t moved,” Pickler slowly said.

“They have not,” I grimly said. “Even our allies in the Eyes are certain. I’m not all that familiar with Marshal Nim, but I’m told she’s the most aggressive commander among the marshals. She would not miss an opportunity like that without a good reason, I think.”

“The Tribes have always turned on each other when rebellions turn sour,” Robber said, “but this is… wrong. Too early. They’re winning, too.”

He did not, I thought, sound even slightly disapproving of the goblin tribes beginning to sell each other out to the Tower at the first hint of defeat. There was something in me that was disgusted by the notion – Gods, what kind of Callowan would sell out their own just because the going got rough? – but I forcefully reminded myself that goblins did not see the world as most humans did.

“No rebellion against the Tower ever lasted more than five years,” Pickler quietly said. “My mother told me this, once, when I was a child.”

“The Long War did,” Robber argued. “It took fifteen years for them to put down Matron Trifler up in her hidden fortress.”

“Trifler led one tribe and the castoffs of the rest,” Pickler said. “After three years the rest of the Council had submitted to Sulphurous, and for the twelve years that follow it was a war of raiders against raiders.”

Much as the Wasteland’s history could be interesting – and I was pretty sure Dread Empress Sulphurous had actually died to the first known Shining Prince after cornering him out in the Fields of Streges – and the parts of it involving the goblin rebellions as bloody as they were fascinating, I’d not brought them here to speak of it.

“Why bring this up, Pickler?” I said. “The Grey Eyries haven’t fallen.”

Nor were they likely to, in my opinion. The reports of the Eyes made it clear that Matron Wither and her allies comprised less than a third of the tribes of the Confederation and that surprise had been the deciding element in her victory against her former allies. She might even be able to hold Foramen, given the wards and walls on the city, but if she tried to take the Eyries she was in for the same bloody slog Praesi armies went through every time they put down rebellion there. And unlike the Empire, she didn’t have the numbers to simply take the casualties inflicted by constant vicious ambushes and keep advancing. Her people would know the grounds, sure, but so would the enemy.

“Because I do not believe my mother intends to go back to the Grey Eyries,” Pickler said.

“She doesn’t have the strength to fend off both the Confederation and the Empire,” I slowly said. “To be honest, I’m not sure she has the strength to fend off either if they put their back into it.”

“Malicia cannot tolerate losing the forges of her war machine to an independent power, from a practical perspective,” Vivienne noted. “Not even one at war with her enemies. And it would see her overthrown by the High Lords, besides.”

“Which she’s gathering in Ater,” I pointed out. “Where she has the Sentinels, the one force of soldiers that she can be assured the loyalty of.”

They were hardly an army, mind you, and more like the personal guard of the reigning tyrant. But within Ater they were undeniably the largest stick around, even if I wouldn’t bet on them against the household troops of most High Seats beyond those walls.

“It seems highly unlikely for her to attempt so risky a purge,” my successor said. “Especially when the aristocracy is bound to come down firmly in her favour when the Carrion Lord comes for the Tower.”

“You’re missing the point, Boss,” Robber quietly said. “Pickler’s saying her mother doesn’t think this can be won. So all she did was get her hands on goods to bargain with.”

I blinked in surprise. This was, on the surface, madness. The Dread Empire was largely without allies at the moment. Sure, the Empress had probably made pacts in the eastern Free Cities, but none of them would be willing to march to war for her. And the Dead King had most the continent arrayed against him. Crusades with lesser forces than those gathered in Salia had driven him back into Keter, so why would Wither choose now to change sides? The Matrons were a cautious bunch: they’d waited until Thalassina was dust, half the legions were in effective exile and Callowan support was secured before finally striking. Why would Wither not wait a few more months before making her decision, at least to see how the Grand Alliance did against Keter?

“And what might she trade the return of Foramen for?” Vivienne asked.

“Rule over the rest of the Tribes,” Robber suggested.

“That wouldn’t hold,” I said. “It solidifies goblins around a single ruler, even if it’s a hated one.”

And once the Tribes began to unify, a thousand years of Praesi work would begin to unravel. A coalition of tribes nudged into constant feuding by breeding restrictions and strictly limited trade was something the Tower could comfortably believe itself to be able to put down if it rose in rebellion, even with the difficulties inherent in campaigning in the Grey Eyries. An effective goblin queendom, though? That was a whole other kettle of fish. Even if the throne changed dynasties with every season, a common army and the ability to mobilize workforce from all tribes would make even a fledgling goblin state an utter nightmare to put down should it rebel. It would be much unlike Malicia to trade a short-term gain for a long-term disaster, considering she likely intended to reign until the long term came to pass. Especially when she could simply have waited until the goblin armies had bloodied each other then forcefully taken Foramen from whoever came out the victor.

I wished Akua was here, for her insights into Praes would have been welcome, but she had duties just as pressing. Someone needed to get in touch with our armies before they came out of the Twilight Ways, and though Masego still had the know-how he no longer had the sorcery. I’d told him to double down on exploring his theory, besides, with the help of the Rogue Sorcerer whenever he could be spared. If the Dead King was truly about to start flinging around a few millennia’s worth of accumulated nastiness, we needed anything that might truly be able to make a difference.

“Agreed,” Pickler said. “Nor is my mother a fool. If such an offer was made she would not have trusted it.”

“Then what did she bargain for?” Vivienne asked. “The current situation is untenable, Senior Sapper. Her seizure of Foramen has been the death knell of our supply routes for steel and munitions. We’ve enough in Callow to fill the Army’s stocks once more, but after that the well is dry.”

And that was without even speaking of the Legions-in-Exile, who after a year of campaigning had expended the vast majority of their own stocks. Marshals Juniper and Grem had combined their stores while they were fighting together in Iserre, but fought they had. There wasn’t much left in those common stores, now. Much of the Army of Callow’s war doctrine came from the Legions of Terror, straight from the Reforms, and that meant the sappers had a major role as both combat units and siege engineers. Losing one of those for lack of munitions to furnish them with would be a blow, and an ill-timed one if we were to fight Keter in the coming months. Against the hordes of the dead, goblin munitions would make a massive difference. One we badly needed if we were to have a prayer of holding the northern fronts.

“Poison Tooth,” Pickler said, quoting the scroll I’d handed her. “Bitter Stride, Clay Sun, every single tribe listed here – they are all face-tribes.”

Pickler,” Robber hissed.

“That is not preserved knowledge, Robber,” she dismissed. “The Taghreb figured out that much centuries ago. And even if it was, what would the Preservers do?”

“The Preservers,” I slowly said.

“There are some among our kind that are tasked with the preservation of secrecy,” Pickler said.

Robber, never one to miss an occasion to be grisly, slit his throat with a finger.

“Loose tongues lead to open throats,” Robber said. “Even a child knows that.”

“And the Legions allow this?” I frowned.

“Not openly,” Pickler conceded. “Yet Marshal Ranker did not join her entire tribe to the Carrion Lord’s cause without requiring concessions, in the days before the Conquest. As for the days before the Reforms, well…”

What did your average Dread Emperor care for goblins killing each other, she meant. Not a lot, most likely, and they’d have to know that trying too hard to get at goblin secrets would mean a rebellion. I doubted that the common assertions that only goblins spoke the goblin tongues was true, but then Black had taught me they regularly changed their spoken language so that it could not ever truly be grasped.

“I made no such concessions,” I flatly said.

“They would have sought them form you, in time,” Pickler said, hissing through her teeth. “Made sale of steel and munitions contingent on them.”

“Allow me to be perfectly clear,” I said, tone clipped. “In choosing to serve in the Army of Callow, you have become citizens of Callow. With all rights and protections so afforded.”

“We do not make exceptions to this,” Vivienne said, voice as offended as I felt. “And if the old crones think they can twist our arms over such a matter with trade, then they will be taught otherwise harshly.”

Robber looked, to my deep unease, almost helpless.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “It is… you, we… We just don’t spill secrets, Boss. It’s not what we do. It’s not what a goblin does.”

“Matrons talk,” Pickler said, tone embittered. “All else hold their tongue. That is our way.”

We had, it seemed, tumbled into a deeper pit than I’d thought. It would not be bridged tonight, I thought, and there were prior callings. Best move on.

“Face-tribes,” I said. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Tribes who represent us with outsiders,” Pickler said. “The High Ridge learn and speak with the Taghreb, by custom, but under my mother the Banu of Foramen were the humans cultivated. No doubt the secrets she stole and traded helped the Confederation take the city from the Banu and helped her take it from the Confederation.”

“And all the other tribes she allied with have similar purposes?” I pressed.

“The Bitter Strides are a dark hand by custom – they hurt in concert with another tribe that speaks sweetly – but they too know well the peoples of the Hungering Sands,” Pickler said.

Suddenly Pickler’s assertion that her mother did not intend to return to the Grey Eyries sounded more believable. Matron Wither had assembled allies that could navigate the Wasteland and only that kind, which implied those were the people she had a use for.

“Fuck,” I said. “She’s trying for nobility, isn’t she? With so many nobles dead the Empress can find her a holding somewhere, and she’ll take in her allied tribes as retainers.”

“Thalassina was obliterated with sorcery, but it has a strategic location and great prestige as a holding,” Vivienne said. “A worthy reward, perhaps, for one returning Foramen to the Tower.”

The knock on the door saw my irritation rise sharply, but I mastered it. A young Callowan soldier – fair-haired, likely southern of birth – entered, face anxious. He was bringing, he said, word from Lord Hierophant and Royal Advisor Kivule as well Lord Adjutant. Contact had been made with the Army of Callow. My brow rose, since Akua had told me it was unlikely to work until we were much closer to dawn. Hierophant’s presence must have helped more than anticipated.

“Noted,” I said. “You may leave.”

He looked like he wanted to twist his hands anxiously, but he spoke up again.

“Your Majesty,” he said, “your presence has been required.”

I frowned.

“I left Lord Adjutant with them to see to anything that might require my presence in the first place,” I said.

“And it is he that sent me to you, Your Majesty,” the boy said. “I am to tell you that the Army of Callow has left the Twilight Ways, and is now encamped in northern Bayeux.”

It took me a moment to place the principality in my mind – it was south of Arans, where my army was meant to march, and had commanded one of the two paths into the Red Flower Vales before the passes were collapsed. Well short of where they should be.

“Are the Legions-in-Exile with them?” Vivienne asked.

The boy shook his head.

“My lady, they left,” he got out. “And Marshal Juniper has placed herself under arrest, along with almost third of the officers in the army.”