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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 and Wednesday.

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Villainous Interlude: Crescendo

“Then let us be wicked,
Let us be reddest ruin
Rent, broken, crooked
Black hearted and cruel

Then let us be doom,
To both friend and foe
Fly banner of gloom
We lowest of the low

Rise, rise all ye villains
You rogues and madmen
Proudly claim the stage,
Of this wondrous age

We are not kind or just
Deserving of any victory
We are a thing of dust
Promised only misery

So smile, Tyrants,
And let us be wicked”

– Final monologue of “The Many Deaths of Traitorous”, a play on the reign of the Dread Emperor Traitorous

In the depths of the city of Liesse, beyond layers upon layers of wards and traps, there was a room. For more than a year it had been slowly crafted to perfection, and for years before that had Akua Sahelian spent days and nights refining its design. Removing impurities and inefficiencies, balancing ease of use and breadth of effect so that only a single soul in all of Creation could use it as it was meant to be used. Should she live for a hundred thousand years she would never make anything half so great, for it was the culmination of everything that she was. All that she loved and hated, all that had made and fought her. There had been a child, once, who looked upon pyramids of mud and blood and felt awe. At the skill, at the scope, at the power that still dwelled within – and though Tasia Sahelian had toiled greatly to make a hollow husk of that girl, a mere receptacle for her ambitions, that spark of wonder had never been snuffed out. It had grown into flame, and that sacred burn coursed through her veins today. And it whispered of triumph.

Diabolist felt the city pulse like a living creature, arrays of sorcery spread across it like arteries all leading back to the heart that was her. In this moment, she knew, she was half a god. How easy it would have been to grow drunk on that might, had she been of a lesser line. But she was a Sahelian, the blood of the original murder. The killers of the first empress, who’d writ the truth of Praes in blood and treachery. Her forbears had been kings and queens, and Tyrants more than once. Rule, the ownership of power however fleeting it may be, was nothing less than her birth right. Walls of carved stone around her were as a pond, and on those reflective facades she saw the Legions of Terror standing with a man before them. The Black Knight, she thought, spoke well. Yet it was wrong, for him to be the speaker. It should have been Catherine Foundling, her match and mirror. Her red right hand in the making. Once she had thought too little of the Squire, believed her to be nothing more than tool and obstacle, but how she had learned since. Fasili had once remarked it was a shame Foundling was not born Praesi, for she had the seeds of greatness in her, but Akua knew better.

It had to be this way. It was the fire, the righteous indignation that made Squire who she was – a burn no lesser than Diabolist’s own. If she’d never been crushed underfoot, she would never have risen from it fangs bared. The Soninke closed her eyes and smiled. She could glimpse the ending of their story already, grasp the edges of its shape with her fingers. Akua would break Catherine Foundling, shatter her beyond repair, and the creature of jagged edges and hatred that remained after would kneel at her feet. And what a fearsome monster she would be, upon emerging from that crucible. She would sweep through Diabolist’s foes with fire and sword, a woe on all she faced worthy of the name bestowed upon her. It made Akua shiver in pleasure just to think of it. The Diabolist opened her eyes and let the words of the Carrion Lord burrow into her ears. The only distraction was her father’s shuffling at her side, for there was only one seat in this room and it would not tolerate the sitting of any but her.

“He’s not wrong, Mpanzi,” Dumisai of Aksum said. “They say nowadays that the legions won that civil war, the orcs and the goblins, but I remember it still. The Calamities owned it body and soul: it defined them as much as their Names. Better not to fight them at all.”

Spoken, she thought, as a man who could have been the Warlock but chose obscurity over the uncertainty of struggle. The odds, she knew, would not have been in her father’s favour. The Sovereign of the Red Skies had begun to earn his title when he was still the Apprentice, and though claimants gained powers when embracing their claim Lord Wekesa would have had the full might of his old Name behind him. Yet it was never a certainty, that an Apprentice would become the Warlock. Praesi Names were never easily won. Akua loved her father, but she would not deny that in the face of offered greatness he had flinched.

“I do not hate them,” Diabolist said. “Nor the Empress. For all their flaws, they sought to make our people rise. I am not Mother, Papa – I do not despise what they are. It is a mistake made in good faith, and killing them was never the point of this. I am surpassing them. If that must involve taking their lives, then so be it.”

And how long had she dreamed of this, of escaping the shackles? The Carrion Lord had been right, in part. They could not win the war by repeating the same defeat with a hundred different fresh faces. But the pair that ruled Praes had abandoned everything that the peoples of the Wasteland were to avoid another disgrace, and that was a betrayal greater than mere failure. They could win and still be Praesi, Akua knew. Go to your grave gladly, Black Knight, having learned the truth of that – you were, for all your weaknesses, a patriot. She would not deny the fearsome depth of that loyalty, however twisted it was. The man’s words ended in the tired adage of the Legions, screamed back by the soldiers, and Diabolist rose to her feet.

“Go,” she told her father. “And stay safe. You are worth more to me than petty victories.”

His arms wrapped around her and for a heartbeat she was a child again, his chin nestled atop her head.

“Live,” he whispered. “Whatever the cost, whatever the consequences. Live. Nothing else matters.”

“Believe in me,” she asked.

“’til my last breath and beyond,” he promised.

No empty words, coming from a sorcerer who knew the mysteries he did. He left after that, the passing warmth of him lingering behind. Diabolist stood before the rune-inscribed walls and laid a single finger on them. They lit up like a starry sky, reaching for a hundred different arrays spread across houses and bastions and pits. The Carrion Lord had spoken for the ruling order, for the woman who held the Tower. She would speak, then, for the Wasteland. For the Empire that was and would be, for the greatness that was not yet forgot. Akua Sahelia stood proud, for there was more to her than mere ambition.

“We are,” she said quietly, “the last of the Praesi.”

They would hear her, her words carried by sorcery worn and ancient. They would hear her and know they might be wicked but they were not wrong.

“The Tower,” Akua said, “is in the hands of a woman who would rule us forever. Before us stand her legions of dupes, led by her most loyal hound. Your heard them speak of dues, and so know they deny the oldest truth of our empire: there are no equals.”

It was like drinking spring water, to speak words she truly meant instead of whatever must be said to gain. Relief, that after years of scuttling in the dark she could raise her true banner.

“There are the rulers and the ruled,” she said. “The greater and the lesser. To deny this is to deny the Gods themselves, for that is how they made us. And now our Empress bows and scrapes to a conquered people, ignoring the reality that saw them conquered.”

She let silence ring loudly.

Power,” she hissed.

There were others in foreign lands that would call this ugly truth, but she spoke to Praesi: the people of altars and pacts, of naked ruthless ambition. What she offered them now was the song of their ancestors, sung anew with fresh promise.

“Twenty years ago, we were more powerful than the people of Callow,” she continued. “Twenty years ago we were better than them, for beyond all the lies and stories that is the bare truth of Creation: the powerful own the world.”

A laugh escaped her lips, sharply mocking.

“They call themselves a different breed, these hypocrites, but what is arrayed before you? Mere force of arms.”

And her people knew steel, that old friend of ambition. How many of their ancestors had claimed the Tower wielding it?

“In the end, all they are is another movement in the Great Game. The enemy might be powerful, but that should bring you no fear.”

She leaned forward, hard-eyed.

“Iron sharpens iron, and when we emerge victorious we will be so sharp a blade as to make the world tremble.”

Akua smiled, a display that should have been beneath her but at this last pivot of her life was not.

“Glory in this day, sons and daughters of Praes,” she said. “The Age of Wonders is upon you, and though it is great and terrible to behold, let Creation remember this – so are we.”

And in the wake of her words, as the Legions advanced and flanking forces sallied, sorcery bloomed. No wild cheers, from the people of the Wasteland. Acclaim came in the form of death unleashed. A thousand mages stirred to action, and when they struck it was with the wrath of a people cheated their destiny. How long had it been, since Calernia last saw the finest of Praes moved to war? Too long. With every streak of lighting and storm of flame that balance was redressed, and in the face of steel a rolling wave of power was sent forth. It would have swept the legionaries aside like kindling, had it touched them.

It did not, because the Sovereign of the Red Skies had taken the field.

High above a star was born, and it came into the world with a keening cry. It pulled the sorcery like a withdrawing tide, swept it upwards until it was filled and a ring of raging sorcery detonated across the sky with a sound like thunder. The mage lines of the Legions, these half-mages minted and spent like cheap copper, gave answer. A dozen rituals burned and massive lances of flame were sent at Akua’s bastions, but what did she care? These were but pale imitations, and the original stood arrayed against them. Half the lances dispersed within a heartbeat of being thrown, the formulas torn apart like the half-baked jokes they were, and the rest were turned against their own side. The fires changed from lances to beasts, lions and snakes and tigers, and with dull roars they attacked the advancing legionaries. Dozens died incinerated within moments, before the Carrion Lord lent the weight of his aspects to the men and led them through the inferno. Lead, Akua thought. Conquer. Not tools for the killing of heroes but for the leading of armies, and as the Black Knight’s mantled came upon them the legionaries became more. Swifter, stronger, indifferent to the raging flames.

The Diabolist did not strike as the Fourth Legion followed the Carrion Lord in his sweeping advance, turning her eyes to the sky instead. There a single silhouette rode a winged steed stolen from Arcadia, cloak of many colours streaming behind her. An artefact in the making, gathering weight with every fallen army stitched onto the rest. Already Akua suspected sorcery would slide over like like water off a duck’s back, and it was still nascent to its true form. Squire would strike at the heart of the enemy, for that was her nature. Not through aspects, it was too early for that, but Catherine Foundling had another signature. The winged steed passed over the ranks of dead manning the entrenched palisades, deftly avoiding spellfire from the bastions as a simple knife cut down what appeared to be sacks tied to the sides of the mount. When the first arrow took flight from impossibly far, flames coating it, Diabolist almost laughed. There it was. One, two, three – eight in whole. Every single sack of goblinfire was ignited while still dropping, and fell like green rain over the wights. Some reached the bastions filled with mages and engines, but there were panes of force awaiting. The goblinfire burned into them, but they were thrown aside and her sorcerers left untouched. Her general’s careful experimentation with the most dangerous tools of the Legions had paid fruit.

Diabolist returned to her seat, settling against the wooden frame as her eyes remained fixed on the unfolding battle. Soon. She would have preferred to let the Legions overcommit, but the Warlock would soon go on the offensive and he was not to be taken lightly. The Fifteenth, she saw, was not part of the assault. A reserve, likely kept for when the walls were breached. It would serve other purpose, but Akua was not displeased. They would be tied up regardless, removed from the equation. That was how her enemies would lose, in the end. Dispersed to deal with half a dozen threats, they would fall one by one. The Fourth Legion reached the outer field of traps, and Akua’s mages triggered their arrays. Within three heartbeats what had been an empty field was filled with howling lesser devils.

And then they died.

Diabolist froze, blood going cold. Every single devil summoned by the arrays had turned into red dust before so much as striking a blow. The Warlock’s doing, it could only be him, but how had he known? He’d have needed to begin casting before the triggers, which meant…  Someone has studied the lay of our defences, she realized. And done so with a great deal of precision. Akua’s fingers tightened around the arms of her chair. It might be assumed that the devils in the secondary arrays would meet the same fate, and without them serving as a slowing mechanism for the advance of the Legions then soon her palisades would be under assault. And with the goblinfire already thinning the ranks of the dead, they would break. Now. It had to be now.

The Diabolist breathed out and her mind stilled. It’d been seven years now, since she had separated her soul from her earthly flesh. It had spared her ugly end in this very city, once, and from that it was likely her foes had come to assume it was a measure meant for her preservation. To ensure that even if her body was destroyed, she could invest another and continue her plans. As it happened, that had merely been a fortunate consequence. Akua had removed her soul in preparation for something… greater. In the depths of the Ducal Palace, where the anchor of her great working awaited, a small cylinder of pure obsidian covered in runes lit up. Inside it was bound her soul, but it was no mere phylactery. It was a key. Her soul touched the untold millions of dead Deoraithe she had caged, connecting to the greater weave. All over Liesse runes burned bright, the glare alone melting stone and shattering wood around them as the greatest ritual Praes had seen since the days of Triumphant began.

Runic letters formed in front of her, a contract written, and then she gave the sorcery shape.

On the plains to the flank of the encroaching legions, a dot of yellow flame formed. In it the contract she had written shone, and the flame grew. An empty circle was forged, the diameter half a mile wide, and the yellow flame solidified. Creation screamed, screamed in protest as it was ripped apart forcefully and the Hellgate opened. Not a Lesser Breach, but a Greater. The first since the fall of Keter, and unlike the Dead King she would not be forbidden a second. The souls of the Deoraithe were not spent, merely thinned, and would coalesce again in a matter of days. It would take her even longer to stabilize her own, but the true terror of her work was the scale. Distance meant nothing, to sufficient power. She could open a gate in the heartlands of the Principate without moving ,if she so wished. Akua Sahelian’s army was the entirety of all the Hells, and as the first devil crossed her gate, the binding she had written in the flame leashing it to her will, she laughed. The host at her disposal was without end, and she had crafted this ritual so it could only ever answer to her. The array was part of her, as much as any limb or drop of blood.

Waves of wasted power coursed into the escapements she had designed so very carefully, empowering wards that would have taken hundreds of mages to use and just like that Liesse… disappeared. Forced half a step out of Creation. There had been a reason that she had chosen the southern city out of all the governorships she could have secured. The corpse of the angel, though left behind, had ensured that Liesse was always slightly askew from Creation. Easier to move, and given clear boundary by the ancient wards surrounding it. And so now the city was out of reach, save for one entrance she had crafted herself. It lay at the heart of her fortifications on the plains, and the enemy would bleed themselves dry trying to take it. All that planning from the clever generals on the other side yet here they stood now, the forces meant to assault the walls on the sides utterly useless and the exposed flank of the army facing endless onslaught.

Hell began pouring out of the Breach, and the Diabolist smiled the smile of a woman who was going to conquer the world.

Chapter 59: Anacrusis

“Peace is a fine thing, but war is the crucible of crowns.”
– Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow

There was something oddly intimate about being dressed, even if it was with steel instead of skirts. It began with the grieves, Hakram kneeling at my feet to tighten the straps. He was tall enough there was need of stool to put my foot on, since even kneeling he still reached near my chin. He had clever fingers, belying their size, and though he was not gentle he was quite meticulous. Then the pua, the long thigh and lower leg piece with an articulation at the knee. Over my aketon I put on a shirt of mail in the legion style, six interlocked rings spreading into a thick cover, and as he reached out for the vambraces I set the breastplate over the mail myself. The straps were hardened leather, reinforced with iron, and they creaked as I tightened them. I held out my arms for him to fit with the vambraces, watching his face crease with concentration. Pauldrons followed, marked only with the Miezan numerals of the Fifteenth instead of the heraldry and titles that were gathering to me like flies to honey. Armguards were adjusted to my comfort and articulated gauntlets finished the portrait. The fingerbends looked like fins, I’d always thought. There were usually stained red by the end of a fight, with either my blood or my opponent’s. The gorget clasped tight around my throat, and though uncomfortable I knew better than to whine. I’d killed enough people through the throat to know leaving it open was sheer stupidity.

I’d expected to be presented with my old open-faced helmet as the last of steel to bear, but what I was offered was different. This one was not of Legion make, with hinged cheeks and a flat noseguard in front. It had a long tail to cover the back of my neck, true, but there was a flap in the back through which my ponytail was meant to go. The cheeks were fully covered, going into a long angled mouthguard crafted so it would rest against my gorget. The strip of steel that served as noseguard was shorter than I was used to, and above it was a ridge of steel meant to prevent blades sliding down into my exposed face. What had been forged above the ridge was what had me frowning: it was crown. Black iron set into the helmet, not jutting, but a crown nonetheless. My eyes flicked to Adjutant.

“You know I do not wear ornate armour,” I said.

“I know your teacher does not,” the orc said, and pressed my palm against the steel. “It is not him we follow.”

This isn’t a squire’s armour, I thought. It is a queen’s, and her crown is black. For all that I had avoided the regalia of my rising rank, it seemed it had finally caught up to me.

“Vicequeen,” I reminded the orc.

“For how long?” he asked quietly.

I winced. Months, perhaps a year. But Black was not one to go back on his word, and he’d given it. A crown for me, so long as I readied Callow for war. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was time to get rid of the fig leaf. Past a certain point reticence was more arrogance than humility. Or, even more to my distaste, a form of fear. I lowered my head and let Hakram set it down on my brow. The cold touch of steel was no burden, but the promise it bore was different story.

“It is fitting, I think,” I murmured, and Hakram’s eyes met mine. “That you would be the one to crown me.”

His face twitched at that, a flinch only half-swallowed. My gauntleted hand reach for his arm and squeeze him comfortingly.

“I have relied on you for so many things, since you were my sergeant,” I said.

“I did what I could,” Adjutant replied gruffly.

He looked away, and were he anyone else I would have thought him abashed.

“We made a deal once, under moonlight,” I said.

“That was no deal, Catherine,” the orc said. “That was an oath and I stand by it. I called you Warlord then, and I don’t regret it. I don’t keep to the old ways, not like Nauk, but it is no empty word. I haven’t used it since because it-“

He scowled, unsure of himself for once.

“It’s not the right title, not for the two of us,” he finally said. “Too shallow in the wrong places. We are more than war.”

It was times like these I understood how peculiar Hakram truly was, compared to others of his kind. It wasn’t his temperament, or his way with people. There was an underlying threat to the way orcs like Nauk and Juniper and every other orc I’d met saw the world, and in Adjutant it was absent. I thought much of the Hellhound, but never would I imagine her saying we are more than war. It would go against her nature. To my general peace was the wait between campaigns, rule a necessary evil best left to the hands of others. Since he’d come in my service, Hakram had acted in myriad ways: diplomat, steward, tactician and warrior. A confidant, too, and how many times would my temper have led my astray if not for his calming influence? It’d been my Name that gathered the Woe, but it was Adjutant who was keeping them together. That much was becoming undeniable as the weeks passed. It would have been easy to dismiss this as part of his Name, becoming whatever I needed him to be, but Names did not come from nothing. There had to be will behind them, an intent to fill the gaps I left without ever realizing it. There were a great many victories to my name, nowadays, but few of them would have been possible without the tall orc quietly going behind me and doing the labour I never even considered needed to be done.

I wondered if this was what Scribe felt like to Black: a limb whose absence left you a cripple in all the worst of ways. I’d made much of my feelings for Kilian, lately, and the ever-complicated knot that was my relationship with my teacher, but if I had to name the person I loved most in the world it was the orc standing in front of me. Because he’d chosen to trust me when he had nothing to gain, long before a Name came into it. Because he was a decent man and he still believed in what we did – and as long as I had that, that shining truth tucked away in the back of my mind, it did not matter what horrors I hitched my course to. Hakram was perhaps my closest friend in the world, but more than that he was compass. Without him I would be lost in more ways than one.

“Oaths bind both ways,” I said. “The part that is mine to uphold, do you judge it upheld?”

He laughed quietly.

“You’ve always kept your eyes on the horizon,” he said. “On the next task, the next enemy, the next war. Look down, Catherine Foundling. See where you are.”

In his deep-set eyes there was something feverish, the fire he always kept under lock and key let loose for my sake.

“We’re winning,” he said. “Just by standing here, we’re winning. Because they only rule us only as long as we let them, and the moment that truth bleeds it dies. They can kill every last one of us and it won’t matter, because as long as the banner’s been raised once someone will rise to carry it again.”

Baring fangs, he met my eyes.

“They wouldn’t let us have a seat at the table, so we broke it,” Hakram said, and there was a savage satisfaction to him. “That will not go quietly into the night, no matter what happens today.”

“It’s going to get worse,” I said quietly. “After Diabolist. We know her kind, what it can do: rise tall and fall just as hard. It’s the people behind her we need to end, and they’ve owned the Wasteland since before it had that name.”

How tall the spears, and great the host,” he spoke in Kharsum, cadenced and low,” This empire’s bier, of graven ghosts.”

His smile grew sharp, and there was not a thimble of mercy to be found in it.

“They say the last of the Warlords spoke that verse, after the Miezans destroyed the holy grounds of the Broken Antlers,” Hakram said. “We were great, in those days, great as any power birthed since.”

The Beast stirred under my skin, coiling lazily as it tasted the stench of death in the air – death past, and death yet to come.

“That’s the thing with eras, Catherine,” Adjutant said, hard-eyed and proud. “They come to an end. So let’s bury it together, the two of us – this fucking Age of Wonders they built on our backs.”

I clasped the arm he offered, and it felt like an oath.

Liesse looked like the gates of some godforsaken hell. The walls of sun-kissed stone had covered in great runes and the pale blocks had withered like fruit on the vine. Atop them stood unmoving thousands facing us, and though this was a fortified city and not a fortress they were tall ramparts and well-built. Behind them the labyrinth of alleys and shops would be crawling with wards and undead: we’d bleed for every street. I’d taken this city once before, fought my way through the Lone Swordsman and his army, but this was a different kind of threat. This was Akua Sahelian, and though I bore her no small hatred I would not deny she was cunning, ruthless and powerful. The Diabolist had called the last of the Truebloods to her side, gathered sorcerers and warlocks and every breed of practitioner the Wasteland could boast. The elements unleashed was the least of what I could expect. There would be devils, and perhaps even demons. She’d gone too far to flinch at the notions of what might come if she failed. What made Akua dangerous beyond all that, though, was displayed before the city.

Thirty thousand undead stood, but not in simple ranks. As I marshalled armies from every corner of Callow, Diabolist had prepared her grounds to receive me. A ditch had been dug and palisade raised behind it, wights with spears massed behind. Three bastions of rough stone had been raised behind, filled with mages and what few siege engines she had. No great fortifications, these, but our own trebuchets and scorpions would be lower on the ground and would have to be brought into range as hers awaited. To the sides of the ditch stakes had been hammered into the ground with broad depths, a clear deterrent for my knights. The nature of my forces was not unknown to her, and she knew that between the two of us it was me who was pressed for time. There’d been talk of assaulting the other walls, since this front was so deeply fortified, but though there would be such an attempt the main thrust would have to be through this direction. It was where the gates were, the weak point in the defensive wards. The fortifications facing Procer were the newest, since that side had once been facing Lake Hengest and had lacked any fortifications, but since then she’d raised walls atop a sharp slope of beaten earth and anchored wards in them. The stretch between those walls and the Ducal Palace had been made into a killing field worthy of Summerholm.

It was the most direct way to the heart of her ritual, but the casualties we’d taken forcing our way through there would be… staggering. That knowledge, about the anchor of her ritual, had come without any need for spying. Above Liesse, Akua Sahelian’s madness was laid bare for all of Creation to witness. Pillars of darkness rose from the roof of the palace half a dozen leagues into the sky, where their true nature was revealed: a cage. Like claws the darkness clasped a gargantuan orb of roiling smoke, ever-moving and testing the confine. Only a handful of people on the field knew the true nature of it for sure, though I suspected the Warlock would divine it after a closer look. He’d helped design the containment wards about to be activated around the city, after all. The souls of the Deoraithe cast a heavy shadow on the morning sky, becoming more a stormy dusk the closer one came to the city. Millions upon millions, accumulated since before Praes stood a single nation or the Miezan so much as caught sight of Calernia’s shores. It was, I thought, almost as deep a desecration as Akua’s casual slaughter of a hundred thousand innocents. Almost.

“Not impressed,” Archer volunteered. “Now if she’d set the sky on fire that would be something, but this is just decorative.”

“Shut your fucking mouth,” Juniper spat. “Lord Black is about to speak, and if I miss a single word because you’re whining you’ll regret it.”

The Fifteenth, for once, would not take the vanguard of the fight. That would be the duty of the veteran legions, with my men serving as a mobile reserve to be deployed when the city was breached. The field outside was not ours to take. I’d gathered most my people regardless, since the Woe would have duties before it came to the fighting in the streets. Thief was the most glaring absence, come to camp only for a few hours when we’d first arrived and then disappearing into Liesse again. She’d given me priceless information, though, and though she would not be fighting there was one last task ahead of her. Hierophant was clearly bored out of his skull, impatient with anything that did not involve toying with the wards he’d spent several weeks designing, and Archer was even worse. She’d gotten restless the moment she saw the armies arranged, spoiling for a fight. Juniper’s general staff stood with her and as usual Hakram was the lone isle of serenity to be had. As for Robber and his cohort, they were my knife in the night. What I had in mind for them did not involve being out in the open.

“Archer, don’t assault my general,” I said absent-mindedly. “I don’t have a spare.”

Juniper sneered in my direction, but did not comment. She’d been telling everyone to be silent for a half hour now, long before Black was even close to making an appearance. He was out now, though. Atop his dead horse barded in steel, in bare plate from head to toe and black cloak streaming behind him. He’d offered me the right to make the address, but I’d declined. Speeches had never been my strength – I worked best with small numbers. I would have to learn the skill, eventually, but this was too important a battle for fumbling. Horse passing before the armoured ranks of the Legions, my teacher slowed his mount and came to rest. When he spoke, it was with sorcery behind his voice: there was not a soul in our host that would not hear him.

“We have fought this war before,” he said, and his words washed over us like a wave.

There was pause, but not long enough for stillness to set in. I could admire the skill of it – his fame as an orator was not unearned.

“Forty years ago, we fought it from the Steppes to the Hungering Sands,” he said. “Twenty years before that it was fought as well, and again and again all the way back to the days of the Declaration. A thousand battles spanning a thousand years.”

The Black Knight’s power filled the air like a haze, and even where I stood I could feel it whispering to me.

Legionaries,” he called, a bone-deep shiver giving answer. “Look atop those walls and know you face a millennium of blood and arrogance staring down at you. You know that banner. Your fathers and mothers fought under it, against it. Under that standard Callow was bled a hundred times. Under that standard, Praes tore itself apart at the whims of the mad and the vicious. Are you not tired? I am.”

He laughed, a thing of dark and bitter anger.

“I have fought this war since I was a boy,” he said. “And so have you, in every shop and field and pit there is to be found in this empire. There is no peace with this foe, only struggle from dawn to dusk.”

His voice rose.

“Legionaries,” he called. “You of Praes and Callow, of Steppes and Eyries, you have fought this war before and won it. Forty years ago, we broke the spine of the High Lords. Yet here they stand before us, fangs bared. Will you let this challenge go unanswered?”

It was the orcs that begun. Feet stamped the ground, swords were hammered against shields. It came and went like a summer storm, deafening in sudden fury and sudden absence.

“I will not tell you our cause is just, for justice does not win wars,” he said. “I will not tell you victory is deserved or assured, for Creation owes nothing. If the world refuses you your due, then declare war upon all the world.”

His sword cleared the scabbard, the sound of sharpness and steel a call to war.

“On this field, on this day, two truths rule,” he said. “There is only one sin.”

“DEFEAT,” sixty thousand voices screamed back.

“There is only one grace.”

“VICTORY.”

Shields rose, swords unsheathed, horns sounded and with that last word filling the air the Second Battle of Liesse began.

Chapter 58: Hard Measures

“And so Subira of the Sahelians slew Maleficent and said: ‘Emperor am I now, Sinister of name and deed. Let this be the truth of our empire, that iron ever sharpens iron ‘til the last cut is made.’”
– Extract from the Scroll of Thrones, second of the Secret Histories of Praes

There was a House of Light standing at the heart of the largest Praesi army in a century. The irony had amused me more than it should, and the sharp taste of it on my tongue had driven me to make the temple my headquarters for the night. There’d been no one to contest my decision: the lone sister remaining of the priests who’d once tended to the village now swallowed up by tents and palisades was out. Among the legionaries, I was told, tending to the wounded and the sick. I could admire the dedication, though she’d find few soldiers willing to allow her ministrations save for those of my Fifteenth. Praesi had a deep abiding distrust of anything that claimed it came without strings attached. Misplaced wariness here, but common sense in the Wasteland.

“By the pulpit, please,” I told the legionaries.

A pair of broad-shouldered orcs set down my gloriously comfortable fae seat before the low wooden frame, casting uncomfortable looks at their surrounding. There was hardly anything to look at, this village being too small to even warrant mention on most maps. The House had been built in the style of the central plains anyway, instead of the more ornate Liessen ways. Walls of wood and clay, a single window in the back that was nothing more than a hole bare of glass or shutters. There wasn’t even an adjoining backroom for the priests to sleep in – only a house more hut than cottage huddled up against the wall outside. A third legionary, this one bearing captain stripes on her shoulders, lingered by the pulpit with my writing tools in her hands.

“You can set those down,” I said. “I don’t believe we’ve met before. You’re one of Hune’s, right?”

“My cohort serves under Legate Hune, yes,” she agreed, the thick Summerholm accent making it plain where she was from.

She grimaced.

“Ma’am, are you sure you wouldn’t prefer your tent?” she asked.

They know where my tent is, I thought. They’ll be watching it.

“Captain,” I began.

“Abigail, ma’am,” the woman provided.

“That will be all, Captain Abigail,” I said gently. “You may go.”

The Callown sharply saluted, half her face rosy in that way flesh tended to be after protracted mage healing. All the way up to the eye, I noted. She must have fought in the skirmish against Fasili and his wights. The pair of orcs followed her after dismissal, joining the contingent of guards that would be outside, and I let myself fall into the cushioned seat. Out of habit I pushed the inkpot and quill to the right side the way they’d taught me at the orphanage, reaching for a sheath of parchment and unrolling it. The soft calf skin had seen use before, though without Name sight I would never have noticed the hints of words that remained on it – whoever scraped the skin had done thorough work. Calmly, I opened the buttons of my shirt and reached for the three documents I had been keeping on me ever since receiving them. One was from Malicia, though not of her handwriting. The second bore Thief’s hasty scrawl and the third was a hand I knew more than passingly, Ratface’s. All of them bore names. Setting the three ahead of my own parchment I inked my quill and began to write. Two columns, the first for those that were in more than one document and the other for the single mentions. I blew carefully on the ink after finishing, and only then paused. Seven names from the first column were given a mark. Those I let dry on their own, settling into the seat and waiting for Hakram. Adjutant, ever a prince among men, did not make me wait for long.

“Masego says it’s all ready,” the orc told me without bothering with niceties.

I approved. This was not going to be a good night for those.

“And he’s certain it won’t be detected?” I asked.

The tall greenskin snorted.

“He thought you’d ask that,” he said. “Should I give you the answer he prepared?”

“I assume it’s very condescending,” I said.

“Almost poetically so,” Hakram grinned.

The flash of fang he bared was low, close to the lips and paired with eye contact. That, I had learned, usually meant amusement in an orc. Though not all of them, to my irritation. The clans from the Lesser Steppes kept to their own strange customs. He lingered after, and I drummed my fingers against the pulpit.

“Out with it,” I said. “Do you need more men? Because there’s only so many I would count trustworthy, and I don’t want to dip into the Broken Bells for that.”

“Forty is plenty,” he replied. “Truth be told, I want to keep the second line you gave me after the business is over, if it can be done. I have too many irons in the fire these days for the number of hands I can command.”

“I’ll talk to Juniper,” I said. “But Nauk’s command was gutted in Dormer and Senior Tribune Jwahir is low on veterans, so I wouldn’t count on it for a few months.”

I raised an eyebrow after that. Another line under his command was very clearly not what he’d wanted to talk about. My mood turned sour when I remembered another matter I’d recently slid under his purview.

“Wait, is this about Nauk?” I said. “I thought that was going fine.”

He shook his head.

“Hierophant took a look, like you asked,” the orc said. “He’ll be awake in a week, up and about in a month. You can leave that to me, Cat. I’m just worrying about our… timing.”

“It had to be tonight,” I reminded him. “The assault starts come morning. If we’d done this earlier she would have had breathing room.”

“There are officers on that list,” Hakram said, and it was not a question.

“Highest is a tribune,” I replied.

Confirmation from Thief and Malicia. That one had stung more than I’d thought is would, given that he’d enrolled back in Ater.

“I mislike what this’ll do to our chain of command,” he bluntly said. “On the eve of the largest battle we’ve ever fought, no less.”

“You can’t’ seriously be suggesting we just leave them there,” I said, appalled.

He sighed.

“No, not that,” he said. “I just wish we’d done this early enough the replacements would be settled. Before you begin, I understand why we didn’t.”

“The wager’s that we’ll gain more than we lose from this,” I said. “I stand by it.”

The orc looked away, the thoughtful look I caught first eminently strange on a greenskin’s face.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he finally said.

“I wish it was a masterstroke,” I admitted. “It’s why we delayed so much. But even now it’s just spring cleaning, isn’t it? We won’t be getting all of them.”

“I doubt there’s a single army in the world that could boast that,” he ruefully said. “Perfect is foe to functional.”

A saying translated from Kharsum, that, though there was one much like it in Callow. Still, I silently admired the fact he’d managed to put alliteration in there through a language barrier.

“It won’t be pleasant work,” I said.

As close to an apology as I could offer him.

“Pleasant’s herding aurochs back home,” Hakram said. “We chose different lives, you and I.”

I inclined my head.

“Good hunting, Adjutant,” I  simply said.

What his lips bared was not a smile so much as a row of knives. He left me to my thoughts, and though my mind was spinning it never lingered on any single thread. There were too many moving parts ahead, though thorough planning should see to the worst of it. It began in truth when Grandmaster Talbot was ushered through the door, an hour before Midnight Bell. The nobleman – as a knight he still qualified as that, even though his family’s ancestral holdings were now my own demesne – was impeccably arranged even this late, dark locks combed and his beard without a single hair out of order. The cloak on his shoulders I nearly raised an eyebrow at, though the black and bronze I saw were the colours of the Order and not of House Talbot. It still looked more decorative than truly useful, but wasn’t that always the way of highborn? He knelt smoothly before the pulpit, and if he’d taken any offense to a villain using holy site for writing desk there’d been no trace of it on his face.

“Your Grace,” he said. “I come as summoned.”

“On your feet, Talbot,” I said. “I’ve never had much fondness for kneeling, mine or otherwise. I have work for you.”

He rose as elegantly as he’d gone on his knees, but now I saw sharp attention in his eyes where before there’d only been curiosity.

“It was my understanding that the assault would begin with Morning Bell,” he said.

“It will,” I said. “That’s not what I want you for. Or the Order, to be more precise.”

“We are ever at your disposal, Your Grace,” Brandon Talbot said.

Noblespeak for having not fucking idea what I was talking about, and I was glad of it. If they saw me coming… I’d kept my preparations light and quiet, but Akua had always been the better hand at this game.

“I have a list of names for you,” I said. “When you return to the Order’s encampment, you will rouse your men and proceed through the Fifteenth to arrest everyone on it.”

The man’s eyes widened.

“You have found traitors in the legion,” he said.

“Most of these I’ve known about for months, if not years,” I said calmly. “I’ve had Adjutant hunting for them since before he even had his Name. The intent was to watch who they came in contact with, but Diabolist has been very careful. In the end I had to rely on other eyes.”

“And now you would purge them before engaging the Wastelander,” Talbot murmured.

It wouldn’t be all of them, of course. She’d have more, carefully hidden under instructions to lay low. But by killing what I hoped was the majority of her agents when she had no time to replace them I’d be either crippling or ending whatever scheme she had prepared. It took more than a handful of spies to carry out a plan, no matter how well-placed. I folded the parchment I’d written on and held out my hand. He hesitated before coming forward and taking it, eyes lingering on my fingers. I smiled discretely. I remembered enough of my etiquette lessons to know nobles weren’t supposed to taken anything directly from the crowned head of Callow, and it was almost charming he kept to that even now. Grandmaster Talbot opened the parchment and read through, expression growing grimmer the longer he did.

“There are more than I would have believed,” he said. “And Callowans among them.”

“I doubt they knew who they were selling the information to,” I noted. “She’ll have used Callowan or Duni intermediaries. The names in the second column gave intelligence, but should not be considered agents. Just treasonous.”

“Tribune Katlego,” he said, eyebrows rising in surprise as he studied the first column closer. “Second in rank among Legate Hune’s officers, I believe.”

“I’m told hostages were taken,” I said.

The Empress had written as much. But he’d folded instead of going to me, and so on the list he went.

“That is the reason there is no mark by his name,” I added after a moment.

“And those have meaning, I take it,” the man said.

“Those seven officers,” I said mildly, “are going to resist arrest. They will, unfortunately, die in the struggle.”

The knight’s face went still and he studied me silently.

“Trial would be inconvenient, even with a military tribunal,” he said.

“They have relatives in the Legion,” I said. “Or connections at court. This will make fewer waves.”

“This is murder,” he said.

There was no condemnation in his voice. It was easy to forget, sometimes that while the nobles of the kingdom had been no High Lords they’d been far from being babes in the woods. Callow was no stranger to knives in the dark. His words had not been question but statement of fact, and I did not deny them.

“So it is,” I agreed. “See it done promptly. Supply Tribune Ratface has a man outsides, awaiting you with details on the location of everyone on the list.”

Brandon Talbot folded the parchment and slid it inside his doublet before putting his palm over his heart and bowing.

“By your leave, my queen,” the Grandmaster said.

I met his eyes, and did not correct him. I had few advantages over my enemies, I thought as I watched him leave, but the Order of Broken Bells was one of them. Callowan loyalists who’d been in hiding until a few months ago, and had hardly left my sight since. They were near certain to be free of infiltration and unlikely to balk at the killing of Praesi. It would not be entirely quiet work, of course. The knights mobilizing after dark would draw attention. I was counting on it, because there were very few mages on that list. Not nearly enough to explain how quickly Akua was made aware of my movements. Which meant there were more hidden, and like good spies they would report the ongoing purge to their mistress. At which point their locations would be caught by Maesgo’s ward, and Adjutant would would take them. A scheme, I had been taught, should always have more than one payoff.  I was slow in learning, Akua, but I have learned. The lists I had received from others I put to the flame. I sent for legionaries and had my seat and affairs removed after, though I did not leave the House. I sat on a wooden bench close to the entrance, little more than a carved log, and waited.

As the hours passed I received reports, some more pleasing than others. The Broken Bells had killed twelve, not seven as I had ordered. Whether Talbot had taken this occasion to settle some scores with an excuse or whether those had been genuine accidents, I would have Hakram find out tomorrow. Adjutant caught two mages trying to reach Diabolist, one a lieutenant and Duni as well. We found the sloppy and the scared, I thought. The truly dangerous ones did nothing at all. I had considered, when planning this, snatching the lot of them from the gallows as I had once done with deserters in Summerholm. But I still remembered flames and Summer’s wrath, the soldiers who’d died screaming for me, and found I did not have it in me to do it. Whatever the Gallowborne had begun as, they had been mine in the end. I would not forge them anew out of dross like this. It was near First Bell when the reports trailed off, and in the wake of that end I dismissed my guards. Returning to my tent felt like a chore, and so I simply rested my head against the wall in the corner of the House. I knew, closing my eyes, that Adjutant would have people close by. It was enough.

I closed my eyes, and sleep found me. An eternity later, I woke to a soft hand on my shoulder.

“Dawn approaches, my friend,” a woman’s voice told me. “The Legions have sounded assembly.”

I’d been entirely awake from the moment I was touched, and drew back the hand that had gone for my sword out of habit. There was a woman standing at my side, barely out of girlhood. Her fair hair was kept in a thick braid, and her robes were simple. The sister, I thought. I was surprised they’d let her in at all, with me asleep. From the corner of my eye I glimpsed a legionary sitting in another corner, and while the sister turned away I dismissed him with a nod. One of Hakram’s? Most likely.

“There’s time yet,” I said.

The woman laughed softly.

“I did not think the Legions so lenient,” she said. “You must be an officer.”

She doesn’t know who I am, I realized. I was not wearing armour, and my clothes were well-made but nothing ostentatious. My blade was a longsword, not standard issue, but a priestess might not have noticed that.

“I am,” I replied amusedly. “It’s going to be a long day, regardless. A few moments of respite will not be begrudged.”

“May I sit?” the sister asked.

“It’s your House,” I shrugged.

“Not mine in the slightest,” she said, though she sat at my side regardless. “I was glad to hear the Fifteenth does not forbid worship of the Gods Above. Places such as these should be refuge to all, no matter their oaths.”

“The Empire’s never been heavy-handed with the priests,” I said. “No reason General Juniper should be different.”

“Or the Black Queen, I suppose,” the sister mused. “We do live in interesting times.”

I snorted.

“No denying that,” I said. “Maybe a little less troublesome, after today. With the Diabolist gone the work of fixing this country can begin.”

The priestess smiled to take away from the bite, but shook her head in disagreement.

“Will it?” she asked. “Evil warring on Evil cannot result in Good.”

I laid back against the wall, eyeing the light peering through the hole ahead. I had at least an hour left, long enough to wash and eat before muster.

“I was told never to argue philosophy with the sisters, when I was a kid,” I said. “But that seems too dismissive by half.”

“I care little for arguments,” the sister said. “But discussion is one of the tools the Gods granted us to make the world a little brighter.”

“Shall we discuss then, Sister?” I teased.

Her face grew serious.

“Saving one soul is saving all of Creation,” she said.

From the Book of All Things, that. One of the more sentimental quotes, and not one I put much stock in. Even if Malicia embraced the Heavens tomorrow, the Empire wouldn’t change in the slightest – save maybe with the addition of her blood on the floor.

“Ah,” I mused. “Hard to have a discussion with that premise, isn’t it? I don’t really think we believe Evil to be the same thing, when it comes down to it.”

“Then teach me,” she said. “I would not close my ears to the truth.”

“You know, I was raised on the same stories as you,” I said. “I used to believe that Evil was mostly about a good ol’ rousing round of hangings and sundry blood magic.”

The blond priestess smiled gently.

“But you don’t anymore?”

“You could say I’ve had the benefit of an extensive education on the subject,” I replied. “The way I see it, Sister, Evil is about refusing to play by the rules of the game.”

She frowned. It was a pretty look on her, as I imagined most were. It would have been a lie I didn’t find something attractive about purity, though power had always been what I preferred.

“I’m afraid I don’t quite follow,” she admitted.

“It think starts with asking why,” I said. “Why should I forgive? Why should I not kill? Why should I obey? And eventually you realize that there’s all these rules handed down to you and then you get to the real question – why shouldn’t I just do whatever the Hells I want?”

I chuckled, the sound of it resonating in the near-empty House of Light.

“That’s when you realize the answer’s pretty simple: because someone thinks I shouldn’t, and will stop me if I do.”

I let out a long breath.

“Most people stop there and become a minor league sort of evil. That one jackass in every village that always talks shit, the merchant that short-changes you or another corrupt judge.”

My fingers idly closed around the pommel of my sword, thumb rubbing the leather wrap around the handle.

“But once in a while, you get someone who doesn’t flinch. Who decides it’s not enough, and replies: try me. And then they pick up a sword.”

I met her eyes and offered her a half-smile.

“That’s Evil, I think – walking past the line in the sand and refusing to apologize for it.”

The look on the Sister’s face was unreadable.

“You sound proud.”

I shrugged.

“Proud is a strong word,” I said. “But it’s been some time since I was ashamed of it.”

“Strange,” she said softly. “You did not strike me as someone who would embrace fear.”

It was my turn to frown.

“I think you might have missed my point.”

She shook her head.

“The way of thinking you just described assumes that the world around you is your enemy. That is not courage, it is fear.”

I laughed.

“Look around you, Sister. The Diabolist is stealing cities, the Principate is marauding near the borders and just two years ago the south was in open rebellion. The world is full of enemies.”

“Because you treat them like one,” she told me seriously. “If you solve all your problems with swords, swords are the only reply you will ever get.”

“That’s a nice sentiment,” I replied, “but it’ll be cold comfort when the Procerans invade.”

She sighed.

“Ah, borders. I’ve never quite understood why they matter so much to people. You draw imaginary lines on the land and tell people to remain on one side, as if ink and parchment could make you its owner.”

I had quite a few scathing things to reply to that, but since she’d been polite enough to let me speak uninterrupted I supposed I should afford her the same courtesy.

“Do you know why the House of Light does not preach rebellion against the Empire? Because it doesn’t really matter, whether we have a king or an empress. Rulers come and go, but what really matters doesn’t.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“And what would that be, exactly?”

“Trying to be better,” she told me, and passion shone in her eyes. “No one is born Good. It’s something you have to work for every day, and sometimes it can seem like more trouble than it is worth – but what else is there?”

She leaned forward.

“So many of us see life as a race and will do anything to pull ahead, but that is the conceit of a child. If we all cross the same finish line the only thing that matters, the only thing that can matter, is how we get there.”

I grinned, but it was more a show of teeth than mirth.

“Sentiment like that is how they get you every time, Sister. So what if we all cross the same finish line? Down here in the mud is what really matters. What we make of it. And if I only have so much time kicking around Creation, then I’m the one who’s going to decide how it’s spent. Not the Gods, not whoever’s got a crown, me. I own my life, and damn anyone telling me I need to live it abiding rules that are just a key to the other side.”

She met my eyes, unafraid.

“Life is what you share with others,” she said. “Hoard it and you will die all the poorer for it.”

I ran a hand through my hair, frustrated that she just wouldn’t see what I saw.

“You don’t even get to set the rules you live by,” I said. “You’re a leaf spun in the wind deluding itself into thinking as long as it behaves it’ll land somewhere nice.”

She smiled, eyes gentle and sad. The kind of eyes you gave someone who was so far lost they didn’t even remember what the path looked like. Her pity burned me harder than Summer’s flame ever had.

“And you think your way will let you choose where you land?”

My mantle roiled under my skin, the weight of all the choices I had made and would make, the sum of what I was and would be.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Sister,” I told her, “I don’t want to be the leaf – I want to be the storm.”

She laid a gentle hand on my wrist.

“In the end,” she murmured. “I choose to believe that being Good matters more that being strong.”

“In the end,” I replied clearly, “I would rather be wrong than be cowed.”

And what more was there to say, after that? I rose, letting her hand fall away.

“Be safe,” she said. “There are great dangers about.”

I smiled, feeling a sliver of grief for all that this was.

“Oh, Sister,” I said. “All those dangerous people? I’m the one they answer to.”

Chapter 57: Revolve

“Men make swords, Heavens the sheath.”
– Callowan saying

The moon was out in full, and though part of me still grew irritated at the sight of the pale orb I’d learned to ignore it. I’d wondered once or twice at why the Winter King had granted me the title of Duchess of Moonless Nights, when his court had such a close association with the same celestial sphere. I still remembered the dream that had followed the usurpation, doubted I would ever forget even a single detail of it, and in it it’d been Summer that wanted to break the moon. Was that the intent from the beginning? To have it in my very mantle that I would seek to destroy you? Now and then I had to wonder who had really played who, when I’d tangled with the Deadwood Crown. If my every desperate gambit had been foreseen by the immortal thing that now ruled the whole of Arcadia, turned to his purposes. I could have lingered on that line of thought, and wanted to, but the feel of Kilian’s arm under mine was a reminder of why I’d begun this walk. I would not suffer cowardice from myself, not even in this.

Southern Callow took well to autumn, even at night. Though the shades of orange and gold some godly brush had painted across fields and trees could not be glimpsed after dark, there was an undercurrent of serenity to the country. Of peace, more than anywhere else in my homeland, for these parts had seen less of war than any of the rest. The last two years had been eager in attempting to make up that disparity, though even the worst of Summer was no match for centuries of Praesi invasion. I caught myself sidestepping the heart of this again, and clenched my fingers. The two of us moved in silence, away from the bonfire and closer to a small pond bordering wheat fields. The muddy banks were covered with footsteps from the soldiers who’d come here to fill canteens and barrels, but at this time of the night we were entirely alone. Except for the frogs, I thought, sharp ears catching echo of their song. We found a pair of carved stones by the shore, polished by what must have been decades of wind and rain, and sat there without a word.

The wind brushed the reeds ahead of us, and as I watched them I realized I had no idea what to say. A glance at Kilian told me her face was hesitant as well, though the reasons for it were her own. Some part of me thought there should be a physical weight to this, given how serious it all felt, but I found none on my shoulders. Something like a quiet laugh escaped my lips. Look at us, grim-faced as if the fate of the world rests in the balance of this conversation. Like this isn’t two girls of not even twenty summers settling a dispute of absolutely no import to Creation.

“Would you care to share the jest?” Kilian asked.

For a heartbeat I’d expected her to take my laugh as mockery, but that had been doing her disservice. She was not offended, merely curious. She’d never been the prickly one between us.

“I was considering matters of perspective,” I said.

I finally gave in to the urge I’d avoided all night and looked at her properly. She’d trimmed her hair. Last time we’d spoken it had been at the edge of what regulations allowed, but now it was in a clean pixie cut like when we’d first met. She was still, I thought, heartbreakingly lovely. Porcelain and flame framed hazelnut eyes, and the body I knew so intimately radiated a warmth I knew was completely imagined. Winter had seen to that. The mantle had done a great deal more, though. I’d been months since I needed to look at her to know she was there, ever aware of the measure of fae blood she carried in her veins, but as my power had grown so had that awareness. I was a Duchess, and she unsworn to any of the lords of the fae. There was a whisper in the back of my mind that spoke of mastery, of needing only to reach out and will it for her to kneel at my feet. The disgust that welled up in me at that spoiled what enjoyment I’d had of the peace and quiet.

“Great things,” Kilian said, “are made up of myriad smaller ones. I do not think import and magnitude necessarily walk hand in hand.”

A few sentences traded, and what I saw was our relationship made plain. I stepped away from it, making mixture of retreat and reason, while she stepped forward to bridge the gap at the cost of making herself the vulnerable one. There was, perhaps, expectation I would follow suit. But never demand. Time and distance had allowed me to see the boundaries we’d set more clearly, and the shred of shame I felt over them was well-deserved. There had never been anything equal about this, in what was given or received. The question that had hung in the air for the last few months was whether or not something that had never been balanced could be made so. Speaking with Hakram had broadened my outlook, but little else. I bared the blade first because in the end that was my nature, wasn’t it?

“Were you happy?” I asked. “Before.”

The redhead smiled, somewhat ruefully.

“You have a trick to tell when people lie, don’t you?” she said. “That does seem a mite unfair, going into this conversation.”

I looked away, gazing at the pond and the small ripple I could see a fish making as it swam.

“Of all the things that are unfair in this,” I said, “I would consider that a lesser measure.”

She sighed.

“The point of this,” she said, “was never for you to take lash to your back like an Ashuran supplicant. What has blame ever done to mend the world?”

“Ignoring fault is how tyrants are made,” I said.

“You are hardly that, Catherine,” she said, and without looking I felt her hand rise.

It hesitated, then went down again. I was uncertain whether or not to be glad.

“I was,” Kilian finally said. “Sometimes. Others not. We had our conversation because I feared one side would grow at the expense of the other.”

It had been kind of her to phrase it so delicately but the meaning was clear enough. Whatever had been good about it, for her, had been giving way to the bad. And I’d hardly noticed, my mind on a hundred other matters. The thing was, I did not have it in me to apologize for that. I wasn’t even sure she wanted me to. At the end of the day, my life didn’t come first. Neither did the people I shared it with. The lines I was willing to cross to ensure both of those were preserved had only grown in number, but that part of the matter remained unchanged. Because there’s a difference between important and important to me.

“You did most the talking, last time,” I said. “So I’ll get the wheel moving tonight.”

I itched to pick up a stone and toss it into the pond, anything to break the damned stillness that smothered the air around us, but I’d done quite enough running for the night.

“It was hypocritical of me to hold you up to standards that I break myself,” I admitted. “Standards I don’t even hold up everyone close to me to.”

Kilian brushed back her bangs, face wearing an expression I could not quite read.

“You thought well of me,” she said. “And so you thought I kept to the same principles as you. That’s not a crime, Catherine. It was just…”

“Presumptuous?” I suggested, a mirthless smile stretching my lips. “I placed expectations on you, then grew angry when you didn’t meet them. That’s on my head and no one else’s.”

Ferreting out exactly why I’d had those in the first place had been more delicate, the kind of introspection I was always reluctant to delve in. It hadn’t been that I cared for her, or at least not just that, because I cared for other people too. If Masego had spoken of a ritual fuelled by human sacrifice, would I have been angry? Yes, absolutely. But it would not have felt like a betrayal, the way it had with Kilian.

“I used you,” I said, tongue stumbling on the ugly word, “as a refuge. From all the dark shit that goes on in my life. And that meant I wanted you to keep your hands clean regardless of what you actually want. Or need.”

I felt her eyes lingering on me but did not meet them.

“I hadn’t thought you would actually admit that,” she said.

The faint surprise in her voice was probably the deepest cut she could have made, because she hadn’t meant it to be one at all.

“You once told me one of my virtues is recognizing when I’m wrong,” I said. “It’s fallen a bit to the wayside, lately, but it’s not gone.”

I’d made a lot mistakes, in the last two years. Won great victories too, but one did not excuse the other. I’d make more, because I had talents but also flaws and no matter what Warlock said in the end I was only human. But at least I could stop making them out of wilful ignorance. It wasn’t as much as I wished it could be. But it was what I could do. Power alone was never enough.

“I was not blameless, if we have to speak of it that way,” she said. “We did not have a conversation, last time. I’d made the decision before we ever spoke, and that was unfair to you.”

I nodded slowly. Silence followed, until I pushed forward.

“So what do you want, Kilian?” I asked quietly.

A lot could have been avoided, I thought, by asking that question a few years ago.

“Catherine, look at me,” she hissed.

Her emotions were roiling. I could feel that with my sense that wasn’t quite a sense. But it was in her voice I read the anger, and it surprised me enough I obeyed. She was, I realized, genuinely furious.

“Don’t do you fucking do this,” she said.

Irritation flared up.

“Do what?” I bit out, exasperated. “Amends? Gods, Kilian, I’m trying. What more do you want?”

Her cheeks were flushed red, and for a moment I felt like kissing her. It passed.

“You’re not trying,” she said. “You’re treating me like someone you have to bind to you. I’m not Hakram, Cat. Or Aisha. I know you. And this is what you do when you bring someone into the fold. You’re acting like I’m the enemy, not the girl who shared your godsdamned bed for two years.”

“I know a lot less about that girl than I thought I did,” I flatly replied. “I’m-“

I bit down on my tongue, took a deep breath.

“No,” Kilian said, eyes hard. “We’re not doing it like this. Like I’m a horse you have to soothe or a hound you have to feed. I’m not interested in the Squire, Cat. She has no place in this conversation.”

“I don’t know what you want from me, Kilian” I hissed. “I just tried asking and you bit my fucking head off.”

She met my gaze, the demand that I not look away laying bare.

“Do you really need that badly to be in control, even for this?” she asked. “Gods Below, Cat, there’s no one else here. Would it cost you that much to allow yourself to be a person for an hour?”

“Yes,” I said, and I was surprised by the fury in my own voice. “Because people break. People have limits. I can’t have that anymore, Kilian, not when I’m making pacts with the Empress and planning wars with Black. Legends don’t blink, and if I’m anything less than that we are fucked. Because they’re stronger and they have decades on me and Weeping Heavens, this entire Empire is a house of cards and everybody’s tugging at it. I am in over my head, I always was, and it is this close to catching up with me and everyone I’ve dragged into this.”

The only sound in the silence that followed was my panting breath, paired with the unpleasant realization I’d begun to speak furious and ended up pleading. I passed a hand through my hair, exhausted in a way my body no longer allowed me to be.

“I can’t do this, Kilian,” I whispered. “There are no good choices anymore, just a spread with different shades of horror that I’m forced to pick from. Every time I think it’s coming together another thing drops and I have to become a little worse to deal with it. By the time I finish what I set out to do, I’ll be more poisonous than what I wanted to break. And I can’t back out because the alternative is every single one of you dead. And you know what’s the part that actually grieves me? I did this. I got us here in this mess, and I would do it again. Because this is bigger than me or you or the others, and if that’s not ritual sacrifice by another name then I don’t know what is.”

All hail the Black Queen, I thought bitterly. I’d already put thousands to the sword to get here, what were a few thousand more for the pile? Blood was the grease in the wheels of Creation, and whose it was they cared not. Kilian reached over and slid her fingers through mine. I let her, though I knew I’d regret it.

“You are not alone,” she said.

Of course I was. Because at the end of the day I have the power, I have the authority, and no amount of love can fit two people on a single throne. I parted our hands and rose to my feet, brushing off my knees.

“Your ritual,” I said.

“Tonight doesn’t have to be about that,” Kilian said.

“It already is,” I replied steadily. “I have no grounds, as either the Squire or the Vicequeen of Callow, to tell you not to do it.”

The redhead frowned.

“And yet you still find the very notion repulsive,” she said.

“This isn’t about me,” I said. “That was the mistake from the start, thinking that it was. I will, one day, grind that practice into nonexistence. Because it offends me, because it is a blight on Creation and the way of thinking it spawns is my enemy. But until then, it is against no law or regulation. Do what you deem best.”

Her face went blank.

“That sounds,” she said, “like goodbye.”

“I love you,” I said. “I’ve never said it before, not like this, but I do. It didn’t really sink in until I saw the amount of principles I was willing to break to keep you.”

A shiver went through her frame.

“Is that supposed to make this better?” she said, voice raw.

“It was due, regardless,” I said. “You were always the one that reached out. But this was about being equals, wasn’t it? I don’t think that means power, or titles, or authority. It’s about neither of us being expected to bend our knees to the other’s beliefs.”

My hand rose, going for her cheek, but she shook her head.

“Don’t,” Kilian said. “Not if you’re going to excise me out of your life. It would be crueller than just walking away.”

“I’ll still care for you,” I said quietly. “That’s not going away. We are friends.”

The redhead smiled bitterly.

“You bloody fool,” she said. “Do you really think friends is what I want from you? Getting just a part of someone after having had all of them can’t be counted anything but a loss.”

I almost took it back, right there and then. I could still do it, I thought. Salvage something out of this mess. But I didn’t. I felt like weeping for what I was giving up on, but it’d been a long time since I’d been in tears and I wasn’t sure I still could. My mantle and my Name woke, intertwined beyond separation, and I could have shunted all this… tangle off into them. Let the cold clear it all away. But I was not yet so far gone, and so my hand came down instead. I did not say goodbye. It was too cheap and end for this. Instead I bowed my head, and left. Grace had never been my strength, and there’d been precious little of that on display tonight. I found my feet taking me back to camp instead of the bonfire, where I knew Hakram would be. I had no taste for the conversation that awaited there, would not for a long time. Instead I found a tent, still lit with magelight even at this hour, and let the wards wash over me as I entered. Black was seated on one of his rickety stools, his thin shirt for only armour as he poured over papers arrayed before him. He took one look at me, then let out a breath that was almost a sigh.

He leant back to claim a cup from his bedside and filled it with the wine at his table, pressing it into my hands. I could have sat across from him, but instead I went on his bed. I folded my knees against my chest and cradled the cup. I barely remembered what it had felt like, to be a child, but it must have been something like this. He did not speak, but neither did his eyes return to the papers.

“I met Ranger,” I heard myself say. “She almost killed me, in Arcadia.”

“So I’ve heard,” Black said. “She is… difficult at the best of times.”

It was not an apology, nor had I expected one. The Black Knight did not apologize for himself, much less others.

“But you love her,” I said.

He inclined his head in agreement.

“I have, on occasion, thought of it as a singular obsession,” he said. “But perhaps that is merely as close to love as I can manage, given what I am. It is enough for the both of us.”

“Why?” I asked. “Why do you love her?”

He smiled faintly.

“I have wondered the same for many years,” he said. “I have loved – still love – others, but never quite in that manner. In the end, I think it is because she does not need me.”

I drank from the cup, a bitter Wasteland red that lingered on the tongue. I was glad of it, in no mood for sweetness.

“Does it get easier?” I asked. “Carving away pieces?”

Pale green eyes met mine.

“Yes,” he said.

It was a lie. We both knew that. But I loved him a little, for saying it anyway.

The last part I remembered of that night was my father’s hands putting a blanket over me.

Chapter 56: Recess

“And on your grave we shall have inscribed: he was witty all the way into the tiger pit.”
– Dread Emperor Vindictive

Nauk had a whole tent to himself, unlike the rest of our wounded remaining with the host. Unconscious or not he kept his rank. His Senior Tribune had been temporarily granted full legate authority, but no one had ever dared to talk of actual promotion in front of me. All those that could speak of the matter knew me better than that. There was no lit candle inside, but that hadn’t made a difference to me in years. I dragged the lone stool in the corner across the dirt and sat on it, eyes stuck on the orc’s inanimate form. His breath still rose and fell faintly and the wounds had begun to heal, but there was nothing pretty about it. His left eye was gone, taken by Summer flame along with ear and cheek and a chunk of his dark hair. It looked like a bonfire had devoured half his face, and though the burns were no longer a horror of charred skin they had scabbed green and peeling. This, I knew, he would be able to live with. That kind of scarring was almost a point of honour to orcs. My eyes shifted to the side and lingered on the stump that ended at his shoulder. The loss of his fighting arm would be harder blow.

Prosthetics could be made, I knew. The Warlock had made a hand for Hakram, after Summerholm, and I did not doubt Masego would be able to make something even more functional now that he had transitioned into Hierophant. But Nauk would forever be a cripple in the eyes of his own, without a Name to make up for his defect. There was much to love in orcs, be it the bone-deep loyalty or the fierceness in the face of peril, but the Clans were not known to be kind to failures – and that was what they would call him for this, I had no doubt.

“I never should have taken you into that fight,” I murmured, brushing back an errant strand of hair. “Neither you nor the Gallowborne. It was arrogant, to think I was powerful to keep you alive.”

I was, in the end, a villain. My power was not meant to be a shield for those I loved. All I can do is kill the enemy before they kill you, I thought. But that too would fail in time, like Black had failed Captain. Death could only be cheated for so long no matter how cunning and ruthless and strong you thought you were.

“I’ve been told Pickler visits you every night, after her hours are done,” I told the orc. “The others came too, even Robber. You haven’t been forgotten.”

There were no wards around the tent but there were guards, and when I heard them give way without comment my mind ran down the list of the few people with that authority. Wouldn’t be Juniper or any of the general staff – most of them had ordered a bonfire made away from prying eyes and begun showing up with bottles when Evening Bell rang. I meant to join them, eventually, but I’d come to visit my mistake first. Not Black, either. He’d been scrying generals and court officials all day, and likely would continue until we left for Liesse. That left only three. Hakram, but the approaching steps were too light. Archer wouldn’t have come here at all. And that meant…

“Lord Warlock,” I said calmly, hand withdrawing from Nauk’s forehead.

The Sovereign of the Red Skies was no more bothered by the darkness than me. He strolled casually to my legate’s side, leaving the body between us, and frowned at the unconscious orc. I studied the villain in silence, eyes tracing the sculpted face and fit form that was made plain by his tailored tunic. There’d always been traces of silver in the man’s short hair, and salt as well as pepper in his beard, but I fancied I saw a little more of both now. He was still, I thought, perhaps one of the most handsome men I’d ever seen. An older man, certainly, but that only added to the allure: there was nothing boyish about him at all. The admission was set aside earlier than it used to be, the way I could dismiss Akua’s looks. Some part of me considered the Warlock an enemy, and enemies were not to be blushed over. He did not reply to my greeting, or call on sorcery. All he did was stand there and look.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “About Sabah.”

Dark eyes finally turned to me.

“Your sympathy is a shallow thing of little meaning, Squire,” he replied. “You knew her for scarcely three years, perhaps a month in all of shared presence. Your grief is pale imitation of ours.”

“And yet I still grieve her,” I said.

His face twitched, sorrow and hatred mingled. In my veins Winter flowed, the darkness in the room thickening. My mantle craved the strife like a parched man craved water.

“She was always the best of us,” Warlock said. “All she wanted was for us to be alive and happy. It made her so very easy to love.”

I did not reply. Tread lightly here, Catherine. Winter had caught the scent of war, and in this it is so very rarely wrong. The tall man continued to watch me, the silence growing tenser every heartbeat.

“I am trying,” the Sovereign of the Red Skies said, “to think of a reason not to kill you right here and now.”

“You might not find that so easily achieved,” I calmly replied.

I’d come too far to flinch in the face of even a man like this. A slow smirk split the Soninke’s face.

“You speak to me of trouble when your soul is one spell away from turning on itself,” he said. “Proud little Squire, having learned all the wrong lessons. Did you really think a mantle was so easily claimed? That there would not be consequences to usurping a demigod?”

My eyes flicked to Nauk’s silent form.

“I am sharply aware of my limitations,” I said.

“You are an altar raised to your own ambition, child, and the foundations are shaking,” he jeered. “You have lied and murdered your way through affairs beyond your understanding. Can you even still suffer the touch of cold iron?”

He laughed sharply, teeth like ivory showing in the dark.

“Perhaps it is too early for that still,” he said. “But thresholds must already be growing difficult, yes? Wards stand stone where they were once parchment, your power mercurial where it was once firmly grasped. You are not more than human, Catherine Foundling, merely other.”

My fingers twitched, hidden under Nauk’s cot by the angle. I felt like reaching for my sword even as the words winded their way into my head. There was an unfortunate stench of truth about them. The edges being turned on me did not cut deep, but my patience was running thin in the face of a berating I had not earned. Or, at the very least, not from him.

“You once warned me about lines I shouldn’t cross,” I coldly said. “I’ve kept to those terms. And yet here you are, knife on your fucking tongue. Act like even half the man you pretend to be, Warlock.”

Power flooded the tent. Not as a spell or an attack – the Sovereign of the Red Skies had simply ceased hiding the sorcery always roiling inside him. Just by standing there, just by being, he was a storm made flesh. My Name’s hackles rose in answer, frost touching my shoulders and my shadow deepening into an endless pit. I stood in front of Hashmallim unbowed, Wastelander. You will not scare me into lowering my head with cheap theatrics.

“Lines,” the Warlock hissed. “You dare speak to me of lines when just by existing you bring death to Amadeus? You stand before me reeking of bargain incomplete, a thing stitched together by blood and ignorance, and pretend you are safe for even a single soul in this wretched world?”

Something bubbled up inside me, and against my will a laugh escaped my lips.

“You blustering fucking hypocrite,” I said. “Who are you to cast stones, Sovereign? You’re more abattoir than man. Have you ever accomplished a single damned thing by means other than cutting up men? All I can put to your name is death and horror. I have been civil because Masego is family and for some godforsaken reason Black forgives what you are, but do not mistake that for fear, not for a single moment. You think your record cows me? I’ve bled for it, Warlock, but I have beaten gods. All you are is an aging bag of curses.”

The cloth of the tent around us withered until it was threadbare and blackened, Winter baring its fangs through my open snarl. The Warlock’s eyes dilated, red bleeding into them as the smell of brimstone spread through cold air.

“Hye should have killed you when she had the chance,” he said. “He would have forgiven her, eventually. Damn her for having looked only at the hunt.”

My fingers clasped around the hilt of my sword.

“Talk is meaningless,” I said. “Either act or shut the Hells up.”

The Soninke’s shoulders twitched and for a moment a I thought it would come to violence, my sword already halfway out the scabbard, but in the end the monster stayed his hand.

“My son asked for the life of this tin soldier of yours,” he said, tone emotionless. “Have it back, and count the debt of protecting Masego through his transition paid. Watch your step, Squire. If slaying you keeps him alive, you will not live to see winter.”

I forced myself to leave, because if I stayed there would be blood. Terror was writ plain on the faces of the two legionaries standing guard outsides, and any notion they hadn’t heard the argument was dead the moment I glimpsed it. My sword slid back fully into the sheath and I took a deep breath, wrestling down fury I knew to be not entirely my own. My temper was worsening. Like all the rest, I thought darkly.

“Everything you heard here is under the Tower’s seal,” I told the guards.

I lingered long enough to receive stammering assurances from them, then left. Part of me wanted nothing with the bonfire and comrades awaiting, but disappearing into my tent to stew over this wasn’t going to improve anything about my night. Even if the mood was gone, I would show up. Other, the Warlock had called me. Other than human. Maybe I needed all the company I could get.

“You’re having another,” Hakram bluntly ordered. “It’s a little early for morning dew, so I can hazard a guess why you have wet shoulders.”

I grimaced but offered up my cup to the orc.

“Could we at least drink something that doesn’t taste of burnt orange?” I complained.

I got a few smiles for that, though no laughter. No one was quite drunk enough yet to have reached that place where everything was funny.

“Dhahab is an acquired taste,” Aisha conceded.

Acquired is the right word,” Ratface drawled. “That bottle is worth twice its weight in gold.”

There were ten of us around the crackling flames, and though some of the faces had changed it had reminded me so much of evenings in the War College that I’d ached. Simpler times, though back then they’d felt anything but. These days whatever didn’t involve half a river’s worth of blood felt innocent.

“They served this at receptions in Ater,” Masego noted. “Though it tasted different then.”

“Milkweed extract,” Aisha explained, her cheeks rosy. “It’s the traditional paired poison.”

My Taghreb staff tribune had begun hitting the bottle early tonight and already abandoned the flat stone that had been her seat in favour of lying against the large trunk we were using as a bench. Having traded a cotton shirt and slender trousers for her usual uniform, I got a good glimpse of why Ratface had been stuck on her for so long every time she stretched. The toned curves were hard to notice under the aketon, but now they were in full display. I didn’t allow my eyes to linger, though, and the reason why spoke up right after.

“We’re roughing it like proper peasants, then,” Kilian smiled, cheeks dimpling. “How appropriate.”

I expected Archer to make something out of that, but when I looked she was busy trying to discreetly tie Masego’s braids in a knot. He kept slapping away her hands, so evidently not a great success.

“Frosted another table talking with Kegan?” Juniper asked, seizing Aisha’s cup and watering down her liquor even as she pouted.

“I wish,” I grunted. “Got into an argument with the Warlock.”

“Were you asking about his s-“ Robber started, but Pickler pushed him off his seat with the ease of long practice.

It did not escape my notice he half-leaned into the touch before allowing himself to be toppled. That infatuation had yet to disappear, then.

“Really?” Masego said, coil of lightning forming around his finger just in time for him to shock away Archer from her latest attempt with a flick. “Father doesn’t lose his temper often. As far as I know, the last argument he got into was before I was born.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Huh,” I eloquently said, nursing the liquor. “Who with?”

I wasn’t actually all that curious, but steering the talk away from the fact that I’d drawn steel on one of the Calamities in the middle of my own war camp seemed a solid notion. Even if he’d been fucking asking for it.

“Uncle Amadeus,” Masego said. “Uncle wanted him to open an academy for mages, after the Conquest.”

“There already is,” Ratface pointed out. “There’s a track for mages at the College.”

Hierophant rolled his glass eyes under the cloth.

“A real academy,” he said. “He refused, of course. Father had no interest in teaching squalling Wasteland brats.”

“The War College has a limited curriculum, it’s true,” Pickler said, and I noticed a subtle slur to her words. “The Eyries have entire volumes on engineering and alchemy that will never see light of day.”

“The spell scrolls at the College are very narrow in scope,” Kilian agreed. “And all the more sophisticated treatises are theory, not practical.”

“Praesi hoard spells like dragons do gold,” Juniper said. “That’s always been the way.”

I downed the rest of dhahab and reached for an open bottle of wine before Hakram could fill my cup with that sin against tastebuds a third time. I poured too quick, red spilling over the rim, and unthinkingly licked my fingers clean. Feeling eyes on me I turned, and found Kilian watching. I cleared my throat, in a hurry for a distraction.

“That may change,” I said. “I’ve had a talk with Black.”

There was a heartbeat of silence, my teacher’s name falling like a shroud on the previously light mood.

“Lord Black,” Juniper insisted, breaking the silence.

I snorted into my cup and saw a few smiles bloom. I hesitated to call anything about the Hellhound girlish, but the way she got so coquettishly proper about Black came pretty close.

“I call him sir about once a year, that should be enough formality to meet the quota,” I said. “Regardless, there’s going to be changes in the Wasteland after we clean up the Sahelian mess.”

Stillness hung in the air like fog, the fire crackling loudly around us. The quiet was pregnant with words none of us dared say.

“That sounds like murder talk,” Archer cheerfully said. “Doesn’t that sound like murder talk?”

“It does,” Robber said, grinning hungrily in the dark. “And with official sanction, no less. That is going to be a ride.”

Hakram cleared his throat.

“Enough blade-talk for he night,” Adjutant announced. “War will still be looming tomorrow, but then we’ll have to be sober.”

“Cheers to that,” I said, raising my cup.

“A toast,” Ratface shouted. “To liquor, obtained by entirely legal means!”

“To victory, fickle bitch that she is,” Aisha added just as loudly.

She handed her cup to Juniper long enough to pass the bottle to Pickler, never noticing that the orc poured half of it to the ground.

“To stabbing Diabolist in the face,” Archer said. “Like, at least twice.”

“To claiming her personal possessions afterwards,” Masego contributed.

“If you keep that up, warlock’s get, I’ll have to adopt you into my tribe,” Robber said, placing his hand over his heart.

“That’s illegal, they’ll have you killed,” Pickler noted.

“Then I’ll make my own tribe,” Robber said.

“Also illegal, will also get you killed,” Pickler replied without missing a beat.

“Boss,” Robber said, turning to me, “you need to make your own tribe so I can abuse that power most sorely.”

My brows rose.

“Congratulations, Special Tribune Robber,” I ceremoniously said. “You are the first and only member of the Lesser Lesser Footrest Tribe, by my authority as Vicefuckingqueen of Callow.”

“You said I’d go back to just lesser if I behaved,” the goblin whined.

“Which you did not,” Pickler said, sounding amused.

Goblins,” Juniper sighed, then raised her cup. “To the Fifteenth.”

“Boring,” Archer catcalled from the side, obnoxiously drawing out the word.

“To making it this far,” Kilian said, bringing up her cup before a squabble could erupt.

“To us,” Hakram said, and with that sentimental finish we all drank.

The drinks kept flowing after that, and as the hours passed the stillness returned bearing sted tiredness instead of nervous anticipation. We did not speak of plans or war or the deaths to come, however close they may be. We talked like the friends I’d wished to have, back at the orphanage, and that I had found in this strange place along that winding path my life had taken. That the path also took me to dark and ugly places, I could not deny, but once in a while it led to golden nights like this as well – and they almost made up for the rest. When talk finally died down half my friends were asleep, Aisha draped over Juniper’s side and softly snoring as the general fondly looked down at her. Hierophant was having a quiet conversation with Pickler as Robber interjected less than helpfully, Archer passed out over the mage’s lap. For all that they bickered constantly, it had become plain for anyone to see how close the two of them were. He’d tightened her cloak around her shoulders, earlier, gentle in a way I’d never Masego be with anything but books. I was gazing at the scene, something between happiness and contentment having found me, when Hakram nudged my rib. He inclined his head to the side and I followed the direction, finding Kilian worrying her lip. She rose when she noticed my gaze and I closed my eyes. An overdue conversation, this. I rose to my feet as well, clapping Adjutant on the shoulder, and offered the redhead my arm.

“Let’s go for a walk,” I whispered.

Chapter 55: Reunion

“The heart of succession is always murder. The new cannot grow where the old remains.”
– Theodore Langman, Wizard of the West

Four Calamities had gone south, and Scribe with them, but only two awaited on the other side of the fairy gate. I’d not expected to see Assassin, but looking at Warlock and Black standing side by side my heart broke a little. It was the way they stood: slightly apart, as if they expected a larger person to be behind and leaning over their shoulders. Captain had left a gaping hole behind her in more ways than one. Out in the open our greetings were polite, friendly even, but distant for all that. None of us were inclined to emotional theatrics in front of so many watching eyes. Warlock made himself scarce without bothering to explain, hard eyes lingering on me even as his handsome face smiled without a speck of sincerity, and my teacher silently led me to a tent in the heart of the Fifteenth’s camp. Before I even came in sight of it I could feel the wards pulsing, a least two dozen woven tigether that reeked of coiled and contained violence. Not Masego’s work, this. There was a depth and sophistication to it Hierophant had yet to reach.

It was where my teacher had been sleeping, I saw with a start. The inside was sparse and austere, functional Legion furnishings surrounding a standard issue cot. A handful of scrying tools could be glimpsed in a corner, glinting softly in magelight, and the short folding table that stood to the side was flanked by two rickety stools. The second most powerful person in the Empire slept here, and I could have bought everything in the tent with a mere month’s salary. I’d never been too inclined to luxuries myself, but Black took it a step further. The tent’s flap closed behind us with a quiet swish, leaving the two of us standing in the soft sorcerous glow. I was taller than him now, I realized. By a little more than an inch. How long had it been, since we’d last seen each other? A year, or close. He was still pale in that way that was more corpselike than Callowan, all the life in him gathered into those eerie green eyes. Named did not get tired the way normal men did, did not feel that burden as acutely, but in the lines of his face I read something like exhaustion.

The silence stretched on for a long time, me looking at him and him looking at me. If we were different people, I thought, he would be embracing me. But that wasn’t who we were, so instead his fingers fleetingly touched my shoulder, using the excuse of brushing off lint that did not exist, and I forced myself not to lean into the touch. Those were the lines we lived between, even now.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, “about Sabah.”

For what couldn’t even have been the full span of a heartbeat something like raw anguish flickered across the man’s face, before it was whisked away into the void.

“So am I,” he said, and there was something almost tired in his voice. “So am I.”

I couldn’t remember moving but found myself on a stool as Black claimed his own, watching as he broke the clay seal over a roughly-hewn bottle. He poured himself a cup of the red liquor within, and looked askance at me. I nodded and was handed cup of my own.

“Those who leave are met again,” he said quietly, the words cadenced and formulaic. “Be it Above or Below.”

Our cups clinked dimly and we downed the drinks. It tasted like wine, I thought, if someone had dumped half a bottle of hard liquor in a bad red vintage. I kept myself from grimacing.

“What happened?” I asked. “Last I heard the situation south was under control.”

He poured himself another cup.

“I have grown arrogant,” he said, and it was not a recrimination so much as a statement of fact. “I was caught up in my own cleverness, convinced I understood the nature of the opposition. So blind a nascent Name escaped my attention, that I failed to realize I was facing perhaps the most dangerous opponent of my long career.”

“The Wandering Bard,” I said.

Almorava of Smyrna, though now she went by a different name and face. I’d thought her a nuisance and not a threat, when I’d fought against her, a meddler that could help along defeat but never cause it. It appeared I’d been very, very wrong about that.

“You will face her too, in time,” Black said. “Do not make the same mistakes I did. No matter how powerful the heroes she will align herself with, she is the greatest threat among the opposition. If she is not contained, she will make you rue that failing.”

I studied him silently. The Empress had called him a raw, bare nerve. I’d hoped that she was wrong, but there was a shadow in the man across from me that gave me pause. It wasn’t the dark spiral of doubt and recriminations I knew best, but something… colder. As if he’d cut away the human parts of him, deemed them useless and to be set aside until the current messes could were fixed.

“It’s all right to grieve her,” I said. “I do, and I never knew her the way you did.”

The dark-haired man’s smile was mirthless.

“I will grieve her properly when affairs here allow it,” he said. “There will be a funeral in Ater, in a few months. I expect you to be there.”

I nodded slowly. He drank from his cup, fingers steady yet somehow fragile.

“I will have to tell her family,” he said softly. “I haven’t yet. It feels like less than her due to scry her husband for that conversation.”

He closed his eyes, finished his drink and the sliver of vulnerability there’d been on his face was gone when the green stare returned.

“I’ve been spending the last few days reading reports,” he said. “You’ve done well here, Catherine. There are few people that could have so deftly handled the fae.”

“The Empress helped me clean up the mess,” I replied honestly. “Couldn’t have done it without her.”

“Another pleasant development,” he noted. “I was glad to hear of your cooperation. You will need to rely on her in the future, and she on you.”

“You talk,” I said, “like you’re going to die.”

He laughed cuttingly, but the edge did not feel like it was directed at me. Or at him. It was the laugh of a man who looked up at the Heavens with only contempt.

“Oh there’s still a few years left in this hide, if I avoid the right mistakes,” he said. “There will be dangers in facing Diabolist, to be sure, but I am aware of the stories I must sidestep.”

Gods but I was glad to hear that. Because there was a picture that could be painted in Liesse, one that involved my mentor and my rival and the bloody succession that had been the way of villains since the First Dawn. I wasn’t… Fuck, I knew Black was a risk. That as long as he lived there would always be limits to how far I could push things with the Tower. But I wasn’t ready for him to die. I wasn’t sure that I would ever be. It wasn’t even just that I felt safer with him, the hazy memory of a warm cloak around my shoulders threaded with the bone-deep certainty there was not a line he wouldn’t cross to keep me alive. I worried my lip. It’d been easy to tell Grandmaster Talbot that the monster in front of me was the closest thing I’d ever have to a father, when he was so very far away. It was harder to do it now that he was here with me. It would have been breaking a pane of glass we’d always been careful to keep there, even if sometimes our hands pressed against that divide close enough to feel the other’s warmth. The hard girl with a distant father figure, I thought mockingly. When did I become such a hackneyed banality?

“Be careful,” I said, voice rough. “You’re still useful to me.”

Something like a smile quirked his lips and he nodded. I poured myself another cup to avoid looking at him even if the liquor had tasted like bad decisions, and felt a sliver of gratitude when he changed the subject.

“Diabolist must be dealt with before summer’s end,” he said. “We had a conversation, you and I, while I was in the Free Cities. About changes that must be had in the Empire.”

“I’m not sure the Empress will agree to the kind of changes I want,” I said. “I’ve made promises, Black. I thought I had it under control, but…”

“In Dread Crowned,” he said, lips curving around the name of the song my legionaries and thousands more had sung. “A lovely tune. Almost lovely enough one cannot hear the clamour for war under the words.”

“I made a deal with her for the vicequeenship of Callow, like you said I should,” I told him. “But the Wasteland is sick, Black. There’s centuries of rot set in. We can’t build anything that’ll last without clearing it away first.”

Because, much as I’d come to like Malicia, I could not help to think that our deal would not survive her. That all it took was a knife in the back by some ambitious High Lord and the armies would march, because the Empress was a creature of pragmatic reason but she was the exception and not the rule. If we were to really, truly make this work then the cabals of scheming highborn had to go. Or it was just a matter of time until another version of the coup in Laure took place, and we’d come too far now for that to lead to anything but rebellion. I hadn’t forgotten it wasn’t the Truebloods that’d made a grab for power in the capital, when I’d disappeared for a few months. It had been the Empress’ own allies, supposedly mine as well. To trust men like them was like throwing tea in the sea and expecting it to turn brown.

“And so, summer’s end,” Black said calmly. “Procer will not begin their campaign in autumn, not if it means taking the risk of fighting through the winter in foreign lands. We will have until the first pangs of spring to do what must be done.”

The tone had been serene, measured. Cold as the Winter running through my veins, and I was not ashamed to admit it scared me.

“And what exactly is that?” I asked.

“Praes,” he said mildly, “will be purged. From Court to gutter. I will not allow knives to be bared at our back as we prepare for the greatest war the Empire has seen in half a millennium.”

I looked into those pale green eyes and glimpsed the house of steel behind them, grinding wheels of steel that knew no pity or pause. There had been weight to those words.

“The Empress has already broken the Truebloods,” I said. “Most of them call themselves the Moderates now, and the rest is on the run.”

“Twenty years, I have kept my tongue as Alaya ruled Praes her way,” Black said. “She has done much with that time. Won a civil war without ever mustering a single army, and so much more I could never have done in her place. But it is not enough.”

His fingers clenched.

“I look west and I see the chosen daughter of the old ways, sitting atop a throne of death and sorcery in naked challenge to the Tower,” he hissed. “I look east and I see the remains of the same fools that fought us decades ago, defeated but not yet defanged. Those that kneel may be spared, Catherine. There is still use for them. The rest will burn, and from those ashes we will fashion an Empire that can turn back Hasenbach’s crusade.”

Strange, how fear could make a moment grow crystal-clear.

“That means going against the Empress,” I said. “Is that your intention? Rebellion?”

The cold intensity that had wrought the man’s frame went out like a smothered candle and he passed a hand through his hair. It was, I thought, one of the most human gestures I’d ever seen him make. More than his power or his words, the complete control Black held himself with had always been what made him feel unearthly. That made it thrice I’d seen the control slip tonight. It had my stomach clenching.

“No,” Black said. “Never that. Alaya rules. But she must understand that the time for long games is past. Praes now faces an existential threat. Compromise is no longer an option.”

“And what happens to Callow, in that path of no compromise?” I asked.

“You have a crown,” my teacher said. “Let us dispense with the bastard fig leaf that is putting vice in front of your title. Your people already call you the Black Queen, Catherine. Take Callow in hand. Deal out justice and authority as you see fit, so long as the kingdom is ready for war.”

My blood thrummed. I’d heard that title whispered, by legionaries and sundry soldiers. I’d been very careful not to claim it though. There were implications to it that would undo some very delicate balances that had been struck. But if Black was going to break those anyway… I did not look forward to it, what it would mean to be queen. The tedious matters of statecraft, the never-ending petitions and burdens on my hours. But who else would I trust to take the throne? I would leave the ruling in hands better fit for it than mine. But I would wear the crown and command the armies. And when peace was finally bought by enough death, I would put down my sword and make ploughshare of it. Find a successor that had the talents of peace I so damnably lacked.

“They won’t go quietly,” I warned him. “The last of the old breed. There will be blood.”

“They should have been put down like rabid dogs forty years ago,” Black said coldly. “Their mages conscripted into the ranks, the rebel holdings confiscated and their treasuries used to raise additional legions. For centuries they have hoarded secrets and rituals to use as knives in their bids to power. Let those be used on our enemies instead: the days were dissent could be tolerated are over. All of Praes will fight for the Empire.”

And whatever parts of it refuse will be destroyed, he did not say. He did not need to.

“You want to turn the Empire into a great war machine,” I said. “And it’s a tempting thing, I’ll admit. Legions boots over ever smug highborn throat. But what happens to it, after the war? If you make a Praes that is all forges and army camps, then it’s not going to put down the swords after we win. It’ll start looking for another conquest.”

I did not mention the possibility that, even after all that, we might still lose. There was no point in having that conversation at all. Except I’ll have to take precautions, I thought. Prepare Callow for the possibility, so that it would survive the defeat. I missed Hakram like a godsdamned limb.

“I imagine I will be dead, by then,” Black said. “But Alaya will rule, and you will have learned to do the same. The two of you can make the Empire what it should be. In this I have no regrets.”

“Cut out that fucking talk,” I sharply said. “You’re not dying so easily. If you’re helping me make this mess, you’re helping me clean it afterwards. There’s too much I don’t know, Black. Too many gaps in need of filling.”

He smiled, suddenly, and for the first time I’d seen him today he felt as young as he looked. His hand hesitantly extended over the table and patted my own before withdrawing. It felt awkward. I wished he’d kept it there longer.

“Do not try to become me,” he said. “I was a tool that served a purpose, and that purpose is coming to an end. This Empire will outgrow me and so will you. To linger beyond that would be to become a crutch, and do disservice to us all.”

“You don’t get to quit halfway through,” I said through gritted teeth.

I hated that my voice broke just a little.

“Oh, child,” he said, almost tenderly, and took my hand in his. “Do not grieve this. You will surpass me, Catherine. I saw that in you the moment we first met, that glint in your eyes that was the best of me without the worst.”

“This isn’t about surpassing anyone,” I hoarsely said.

“It always is,” he whispered. “I will gracefully leave the stage, when the time comes, and leave it proud of what will come after me. I knew this to be the outcome the moment I began.”

I squeezed his fingers and closed my eyes. No, I thought. This is just a story, Black.

And I’d already proved I could break those, if I was willing to pay the price.

Prodigy

“No man in Creation is so dangerous as a well-meaning fool.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II

When he’d been nine years old, Masego had seen the end of the world. He thought of that, sometimes, at gatherings like this one. When making meaningless small talk with strangers, wondering if they had any idea about how fragile everything around them truly was. That the world was nothing but the whim of greater beings, apt to be snuffed out the moment they learned what they wanted. But all he saw in the eyes of the highborn was hunger and ambition, and could there ever be anything more boring than that? The silhouettes melded into each other, a hundred boys and girls cut from the same dull cloth. Even those with a measure of the Gift were blind, like they were just refusing to see what was around them. They might as well be animals or statues of clay, but still he had to stand and smile and pretend he’d remember their names if he ever met them again. He usually didn’t. Papa chided him over that, said connections were always useful, but Father just laughed. Still made him come, though, even if it was only a few times a year.

“- a pureblood Liessen charger,” the girl said, and Masego only now noticed she’d been talking this whole time. “Getting her across the Wasaliti was difficult, of course, but my family is not without friends.”

The boy squinted through his glasses.

“I thought there was a decree about the Thirteenth Legion getting first pick of mounts out of the provinces,” he said.

Father had arranged for a tutor to teach him about these things, which had only succeeded in motivating him to learn how to craft illusions. If he slept through the lessons it was easier to stay up late working on his own projects. Uncle Amadeus had called him worse than his father when he’d learned, but it had sounded like a compliment. His uncle did that a lot, say things he didn’t mean while smiling. It had taken Masego a while to understand how that worked, and even now he found the man’s face hard to read sometimes. It was like he was trying to make things confusing. The girl, whose name he didn’t even try to remember because he was pretty sure he hadn’t been paying attention when she’d introduced herself in the first place, laughed like he’d said something funny and put her hand on his arm. She had warm fingers, he noted, but he didn’t enjoy strangers touching him. Well, she was Soninke and highborn so she was probably clean at least. Still, since he’d turned twelve people kept pawing at him at these receptions. He really wished they’d stop, or at least tell him why.

“What do such trifles mean to people like us, Masego?” she smiled, cheeks dimpling.

He forced himself not to squint again. It sounded like she broke the law a lot, which was kind of stupid. Yeah, Father had told him that those didn’t really apply to him until Uncle Amadeus said they did, but that was just him. This girl would probably get hanged if people knew, so why was she telling him?

“Horses are nice,” he tried.

The girl blinked in confusion and withdrew her hand. That was his chance, he decided. If you didn’t retreat early when people got grabby they’d follow you all night.

“I think I hear someone calling me,” he hastily said, and fled before she could reply.

He was pretty sure this was the city home of the High Lord of Thalassina – though why someone who lived by the sea would want a house in Ater he had no idea – so hopefully he hadn’t just been rude to a relative of… whoever the High Lord was. There was an S in there, he was pretty sure, maybe more than one. The whole place was pointlessly large and dripping with gold, jewels and weird wood Papa told him was worth more than either, but worse of all it was filled with people. So many people. More than two hundred, though there were a lot of servants and supposedly those didn’t count. Masego declined to take one of the bits of meat pastry from a plate, since he’d been told those were poisoned, and discretely tried to find either his fathers. They weren’t anywhere in sight, but there were three floors and a rooftop garden so that didn’t mean much. Before he could embark on that journey of discovery, he found himself cornered by another girl and what looked like a pack of minions. Another Soninke. He squinted, pretty sure he’d seen this one before. Three months ago, when High Lady Tasia Something had the party with the magic lightshow? That had been very interesting, though people kept trying to talk to him during. Which, rude. And they said he had bad manners.

“Lord Masego,” the girl smiled. “A pleasure to see you again. You so rarely come to these little evenings.”

Shit, he was supposed to know who she was.

“Oh hello,” he said, and after a moment found a clever ruse. “…You.”

Flawless. He was going to get away with this cleanly.

“A very familiar way to refer to Lady Akua,” one of the minions said.

The boy frowned.

“I thought minions weren’t supposed to talk when important people do,” he pointed out. “Father says they used to execute people for that.”

The minion who’d spoken, some Taghreb, went pale at that. Damn it, Masego hadn’t meant to make him feel bad about his manners. Now he felt like an ass.

“It’s all right,” the boy reassured the stranger. “It’s just an old custom. Those aren’t very important.”

The Akua girl’s smile didn’t change, but he got the impression he’d said something wrong. Was it because she was pretty? Pretty girls always had these expectations about things he should be saying but no one had ever written those down, as far as he knew, and why would people not do that? It was just bad scholarship, honestly.

“A shame you believe so, my lord,” she said.

Masego frowned.

“Why?” he asked. “Do you want him to get killed? That’s a little rude to say right in front of him.”

The Soninke girl looked bemused, and also a little pained, but before she could say anything Masego felt a giant palm settle over his head and relief wash over him.

“Aunt Sabah,” he breathed. “Wait, careful with the hair.”

The big woman grinned and ruffled his braids even as he squirmed.

“Making friends, Masego?” she teased.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “I think I insulted them but I don’t know how.”

He leaned closer to his aunt and whispered.

“They must have very thin skin,” he gravely told her.

He offered the girl and her minions a smile after that, but some of them looked angry for some reason.

“Lady Captain,” the girl said, and bowed.

“Sahelian,” Aunt Sabah replied. “Growing into a proper little lady, aren’t we?”

“I am ever my mother’s daughter,” the girl smiled.

Oh, Masego thought, they must be friends. Now he felt kind of bad he hadn’t remembered her name. Aunt Sabah took her hand off his tresses and patted him.

“One of High Lord Idriss’ mages prepares to make a demonstration in the gardens,” she said. “Your father sent me to get you.”

The moment magic was mentioned he forgot all about the other people, perking up.

“Skill display or a formula reveal?” he asked. “Because they’re not usually very good at the displays.”

“Formula,” the big woman said. “Come on, we don’t want to miss it.”

Masego wasn’t a savage, so he remembered to wave at the girl and the minions before he followed his aunt to the stairs.

“You don’t have any idea who that was, do you?” she asked.

The boy glared.

“Of course I do,” he said. “It was…”

Shit, he’d forgotten her name again. Come on, Masego, she just told you.

“Lady Ubua,” he said, pretending he was sure.

Aunt Sabah’s shoulders shook like she was holding something in. She must have eaten too much.

“Yes,” she said, voice tight. “That is exactly correct, and you should always call her that.”

Masego let out a sigh of relief when she was looking away. Ubua, Ubua, Ubua, he said in his head. He couldn’t forget, just in case Papa asked him later. They slowed when they got to the second floor, and his aunt steered him to the side. He was a little confused as to why, at first, but then he saw Uncle Amadeus talking with some important-looking Taghreb. His uncle was very pale, though Father had told him it was because he was a Duni – which wasn’t a disease, even if it sounded like it – and he usually looked sinister but tonight he was smiling and standing real close to the other man. They must have been old friends, he thought. The Taghreb was smiling very widely and his hands were shaking with excitement.

“Brat,” his uncle lazily said, turning to him. “Heading up for the reveal?”

Masego nodded.

“Do you think people will try to talk to me?” he asked. “Because they did last time, and it was very tedious.”

Uncle Amadeus’ lips quirked.

“Stay close to me and I’ll serve as your guard,” he suggested.

Masego beamed. His uncle turned to the Taghreb.

“Think on it, Lord Baneg,” he said. “It would be my pleasure to arrange it.”

The Taghreb said his courtesies very quickly, bowed and left.

“What were you talking about?” the boy asked.

“Giant spiders,” his uncle said. “Lord Baneg seems to have an interest in seeing them up close.”

Masego hummed in approval. As a provably repeated phenomenon of unclear sorcerous origin that displayed manifestations going outside the bounds of the classical table of elements, the giant spiders under Ater were a fascinating study subject.

“Is he a mage, then?” he asked.

Uncle Amadeus patted his shoulder.

“No,” he smiled coldly. “No he is not.”

“He must be a great scholar,” Masego mused.

It wasn’t people’s fault, that they weren’t born with the Gift. Yes, it made them kind of useless and ignorant but it wasn’t like they could help it. Just like he couldn’t help but finish the tray of lemon tarts when Dada made them, no matter what his other father said. It was, like, Fate. Delicious lemony Fate. The three of them were given a wide berth as they headed for the stairs, which tended to happen whenever Uncle Amadeus was around. He didn’t have a lot of friends, which was why Masego had been glad to see him getting along with the lord earlier.

“Our little Masego was making friends when I found him,” Aunt Sabah said.

“Was he?” his uncle said, eyebrow quirking.

“Oh yes,” his aunt said, voice tight again. “With Lady Ubua. You know, Tasia’s daughter.”

His uncle’s face blanked, which meant he was sad. Or angry. Or happy. Ugh, people were complicated. There should be a guide.

“Auntie’s lying,” Masego said. “I think I made them angry. Somehow. I don’t know why they thought I was the rude one when she said she wanted to kill her own minion, but maybe she’s just not that bright.”

“It’s not good to insult people, Masego,” Amadeus said. “You should send a letter to Lady Ubua to apologize.”

“Do I have to?” he whined.

“I’ll help you write it, don’t worry,” his uncle said, a tremor going through his shoulders.

Aunt Sabah was grinning, which made people around them back away even further. Masego sighed, but figured he might as well.  Father always said he was only supposed to hurt other people’s feelings on purpose. They passed through the third floor and the boy tugged at his aunt’s hand.

“There,” he said, pointing ahead. “Papa’s talking with people.”

There was a cluster of at least a dozen highborn in a circle around his father, most of them women. Papa said something that had them laughing and drank from his cup, nibbling at cut of meat. Some of the ladies were looking a little red in the face, but people did that a lot around his fathers. Papa saw him from the corner of his eye and smiled, saying goodbye to his friends and sauntering up to them.

“Tikoloshe,” Uncle Amadeus said, inclining his head.

“Amadeus,” Papa smiled. “Always such a pleasure. And Sabah, dearest. A shame you did not bring your children.”

“Bad enough I have to come, I’m not going to torture them with this kind of company,” Aunt Sabah snorted.

“Do give my regards to your husband,” Papa said.

His aunt laughed.

“’Loshe, I’m not going to help you flirt with him,” she said. “Give it up.”

“But he always gets so flustered,” Masego’s father said, smiling over the rim of his cup.

Uncle Amadeus’ face was blank again. It was like that a lot, around Papa. Father said they didn’t get along very well but when Masego had asked why he’d just said it was ‘complicated’. The boy tugged at his father’s tunic.

“There’s going to be a formula reveal upstairs,” he said. “I don’t want to miss it.”

His father’s brow rose.

“Have you earned it?” he said. “How many people did you talk with tonight?”

“Ten,” Masego said, having honestly no idea whether he was lying or not.

Papa studied him closely.

“Zego, are you lying to me?” he asked.

“It’s not a lie if you don’t get caught,” Masego replied cheerfully.

The Empress had said so, once, so it must be true. Papa sighed.

“We will mingle after the demonstration, you and I,” he announced. “And I will have no backtalk.”

The boy grimaced but didn’t argue. That way lay Callowan apples instead of pastries for dessert, which was basically torture and probably illegal. The adults talked while they made their way up to the garden, mostly about Aunt Sabah’s children and how quick they were growing. She said they were going to be bureaucrats like their father, which sounded horrid but he supposed someone had to do it. The rooftop garden, he decided after they went up, was actually very nice. It wasn’t just plants, there was also obsidian sculpted to look like flowers and trees and in little nooks he could see runes had been carved. Much of this, he realized, was actually illusions. He drifted away from the adults and elbowed aside a bush of large green leaves, kneeling at the foot of an obsidian tree and tracing the runes hidden in the roots with his fingers. The work was simplistic, he thought. The harmonics in the sound production could be significantly improved if they took out the array stabilizer and separated the core into two different workings. Yeah it’d be a little trickier to power but then you could have illusionary wind moving the leaves and also-

“Look at you,” Father sighed. “They lose you for ten heartbeats and you get dirt all over your robes.”

Masego looked up at his father, then down at his knees. Huh, it was true. He’d been kneeling in soil this whole time and pushing aside the dirt covering some runes had gotten some all over him.

“This is very unprofessional work,” the boy said gravely. “They used a cascade pattern to keep the sorcery flowing, Father, it’s like they’re not even trying.”

The dark-skinned man crouched at his side, the edge of his tunic brushing the soil.

“What is the Third Law of Artifice, Masego?” he asked.

“Sorcery anchored in the material will only work perfectly for the sorcerer who created it, because every caster leaves a different mark,” the boy dutifully recited.

“And the corollary?”

“The more complicated anchored sorcery is, the more prone to failure it becomes over time,” he said. “Simplicity is pow- oh. They made it shoddy on purpose, so that anybody could use it.”

“The mage who first built the Stoneglass Garden was very talented,” Father said. “But he knew his successors might not be as skilled, so he kept the system simple.”

“That’s stupid,” Masego said bluntly. “If they’re not good enough, they don’t deserve to use it.”

“This is a showpiece, Masego,” his father said. “It’s meant to be used as often as possible.”

“All they’re showing is that they’re shit at spellcrafting,” the boy muttered under his breath.

Father looked amused as he rose again, offering a hand to help him up.

“Come,” he said. “Let’s have a look at that formula. I’m told the demonstrator has improved significantly on an old Thalassinian spell.”

Masego followed eagerly, excited again. There was a place in the middle of the garden where a large round platform of stone was left in the open, seats of pale wood set all around it. His uncle was already seated but Aunt Sabah wasn’t, which made sense. She’d probably break the chair if she tried, she was really heavy. His fathers had him sit between them, Papa fussing with the tresses his aunt had messed up and shooting her a dark look. Silence washed over the garden when some Taghreb woman got onto the platform, bowing and talking a lot about how some High Lord was great and blah blah blah, honour and old blood and Gods when were they going to get to the magic already? Eventually she raised her hands and began tracing red runes in the air. Oh, so she used Miezan tracing. That was rare, it was a lot more rigid than the techniques developed under Dread Emperor Sorcerous. A triad of runes formed a triangle as she continued murmuring, then a thin needle of blue fire erupted from the centre of it. She guided it into shapes, but Masego’s eyes narrowed as she watched. The initial quantity of fire had not changed: she was just thinning the intensity so it looked like there was more. It was inefficient. It was slow. It was inaccurate.

“No,” he said, and rose to his feet.

There was a ripple of murmurs around but he didn’t care, going onto the platform.

“You’re doing it wrong,” he insisted. “Look, look closer until you can have a Glimpse of what you should be doing.”

His fingers danced across the air, using her lame Miezan tracing instead of proper High Imperial. He slowed when he made the initial runes, making sure she’d be able to see where he differed – adding a draw pattern to her initial burst, then followed along the same lines of her spell but actually making more blue fire because the working was still drawing on his sorcery instead of diluting the power like hers had. It fit, but already his mind was running through ways to improve the spell. Refine it, cut away at the impurities. Masego felt clarity descend on him like morning dew, fresh and limpid on his tongue. A sigh came from all the lords and ladies like they were a single person, and Father came up to steer him away from the platform. Some old man that was too light to be Soninke but too dark to be Taghreb came up to them, all smiles.

“My congratulations, Lord Warlock,” he said. “A Name at his age is an achievement that will sound across the Empire.”

Masego squinted at the stranger, then leaned close to his father.

“Father, who is that?” he whispered.

The only thing that broke the silence that followed was Uncle Amadeus’ convulsive laughter.