“How many Praesi does it take to change a lantern’s wick?
A legion to conquer all the candlemakers, a High Lord to sell the wicks down south and then we’re taxed for being in the dark.”
– Overheard in a Laure tavern
The punch landed right in my eye, rocking me back.
I cursed and took a few steps back, ignoring the smug smile on my opponent’s face as the crowd went wild. Shit. That’s turning into a black eye for sure. I’d need to shell out some of my winnings to get it fixed if I didn’t want to spend a few hours lectured by the Matron again. And that was assuming I won – if I lost, I was going to be short on funds for a while. The man started circling me like a murder of crows around a rotting carcass, unhurried but intent, and I brought up my fists. The bandages wrapped around my fingers were still flecked with blood from the few hits I’d landed earlier in the fight, but the ridiculously large fighter going by “Fenn” had shrugged those off too easily for comfort. If this turned into an endurance slugging match, I wasn’t going to win: the man had at least fifty pounds on me and he looked like he’d been carved out of a slab of solid muscle. I was faster than him, but he knew that – it was the reason he stayed on the defensive, letting me land hits in exchange for getting in one of his own. And his hurt me a lot more than mine hurt him. “Come on, Foundling,” a woman in the back yelled. “Wreck the bastard!”
I spat out a mouthful of the blood pooling in my mouth and moved forward: the longer this went on, the larger his advantage got. I needed to end it quick if I was going to have even a slight shot at winning. Added a little spring to my step to see if it would make him flinch, but the big bastard was serene as a pond. It was a shame groin shots were illegal, since one of those would have gotten him moving for sure. I flicked a jab at his jaw but Fenn let it pass, pivoting to get a little closer. Got you. My fist buried itself in his stomach viciously, drawing a strangled grasp as I danced away back out of his reach. The part of the crowd that had put money on my victory cheered while from the rest came a cacophony of jeers: I let the sounds wash over me, refusing to pay attention. I’d been too aware of my surroundings when starting out at this and it had cost me some easy victories, but I’d learned from my mistakes. “Saw your last fight, Foundling,” Fenn grunted as he tried to close the distance. “You sure you don’t wanna throw this one too?”
If that was his idea of trash talk, then he was swinging a stick at steel. I feinted a jab to his ribs to keep him on his feet and circled to get a better angle. I had thrown the last fight, as it happened. I’d been winning too much lately, which made for bad odds when betting on myself. After taking a beating from a no-name newcomer, though, the balance had swung the other way: I was going to make a killing if I managed to beat Fenn today. Enough to pay tuition at the College, even after the organizers got their cut and another lump sum was set aside to keep the city guard looking away.
“You afraid of a girl half your size, Fenn?” I smiled back, pushing a sweat-drenched lock of hair out of my field of vision. “You should slip the healers a few coppers so they can fix up your manhood.”
Now that got a reaction. The stocky man’s eyes narrowed and he grit his teeth. It was funny, the way most of the fighters who tried to bait me were so easy to bait themselves. He wasn’t stupid enough to up and charge me – he wouldn’t have the reputation he did if he lost his head this easily – but he went on the offensive the moment I have him an opening. I guess it didn’t matter how predictable you were when you hit like a horse’s kick. Apparently my little comment had gotten a fire going in Fenn, because when he swung at me it was the fastest he’d been so far: I barely managed to slap away his fist at the last moment and he still grazed my jaw. If that had landed, I’d be out cold on the ground. I got in close enough that I could smell the sweat of him and threw a haymaker, but it didn’t even faze him: not enough force behind it. He took the hit and tried to wrestle me down, much to my panic. Getting into a grapple with a man that size would be… bad. Shit shit shit. I landed a desperate uppercut right in his chin and felt a few teeth come loose, which bought me a moment. I got in a kick on the side of his knee and it gave. He dropped into a half-kneel and that was my in.
I’d done this before and it would be brutal but Radiant Heavens I was not going to lose – I rammed my knee into his gut and Fenn dropped. Another kick sent him sprawling to the ground, and now the fight was as good as won: I stomped down on his ankle and it broke with a sickening crack. Fenn let out a hoarse scream and I felt a twinge of guilt but mercy was the kind of thing the Pit beat out of you. I was about to cave in a few ribs with another stomp when he raised his hand and panted out his surrender. For a moment all I heard was the sound of blood pounding in my ears but it passed and the numbness turned into the clamor of the masses going wild. I wiped the blood dripping off the corner of my mouth with the bandages around my hand and made my way out of the earthen pit where I’d just broken a man’s bones for gold. Well, gold in a manner of speaking: they usually paid me in Imperial silver denarii, which somehow made the whole thing feel even more wretched. The fatigue settling into my bones left me disinclined to mingle with the gamblers who’d struck good betting on me, though I forced a smile anyway.
A tall orc pushed his way through the crowd to slap me on the back, the double row of pristine fangs inside his mouth turning what was supposed to be a grin into a horrifying display. It was rare to see orcs at fights like these: the only greenskins in Laure were part of the Legions and they tended to steer clear of the illegal stuff. Not to mention that even two decades after the Conquest legionaries were far from popular in the city – the kind of people that the Pit attracted was the kind that wouldn’t think twice about slipping a knife in a legionary’s back in a dark alley. Good luck with that, I thought as I extricated myself from the greenskin’s enthusiastic congratulations. The orcs were taller and more broadly built than humans, generally speaking, and their thick greenish skin made them damnably hard to put down. Anybody stupid enough to tangle with three hundred pounds of trained killer deserved whatever was coming to them.
Booker was in the back of the warehouse, set up at her usual table. There were no windows in the Pit – glass had gotten even more expensive since the latest tax hitch – and the handful of oil lamps spread over the place cast more shadows than light over the corner of the place she’d claimed as her own. People gave her a wide berth, in part because she had a thoroughly nasty reputation and in part because of the pair of grim-looking bodyguards standing behind her. I’d thought Booker was a Name when I’d first heard it, but it was just an affectation: she couldn’t even do magic, as far as I knew. Her only power was having a large amount of thugs on payroll, which in her line of business was admittedly more useful. She smiled when she saw me coming, light catching on her handful of gold teeth. “Good show today, Foundling,” she said. “Way to make the old country proud.”
I snorted at that. Booker’s skin and hair were as dark as mine: we both had Deoraithe blood running through our veins. Still, I was an orphan and she was Laure born and raised – neither of us had ever set foot in the northern duchy or spoke even a word of the old tongue. Not that I was complaining about the misplaced sense of kinship: fifteen year old girls like me didn’t usually get to compete in the Pit. I’d gotten my foot in by playing on the Deoraithe reputation of being solid in a fight. They held the Wall for five hundred years, before the Conquest. Even now the duchy most of them lived in was the only part of Callow without Imperial governors. I’d read about some kind of deal being cut with the Empress, though I couldn’t remember specifics.
“I try,” I grunted. “You got my winnings?”
Booker chuckled and slid the denarii across the table. I counted them – the only time I’d made the mistake not to she’d short-changed me – and frowned when I realized there were only twenty-one.
“We’re missing four,” I told her flatly. “I’m not going to fall for that twice, Booker.”
Her bodyguards pushed off the wall and started looming in response to the hostility in tone, but the dark-skinned woman grimaced and flicked a hand to dismiss them.
“Mazus upped the prices again,” she explained. “Everybody’s cut is smaller, even mine.”
While I didn’t believe for a moment that Booker’s profits had seen any change, I had no problem at all believing that the Governor had decided to squeeze out a little more gold from the Pit. The Imperial Governor for Laure had begun his third term of service by announcing that all the temporary taxes of his last terms were now permanent, after all, and there wasn’t a single pie in the city where he wasn’t shoving in his fingers. I nodded, disgruntled, and slipped the silvers in the leather bag where I kept my change of clothes. “Zacharis is in the back, if you want to get your eye fixed,” Booker told me. “You know the drill.”
She’d already stopped paying me attention before she finished speaking the sentence, not that I was going to complain. Booker wasn’t exactly the kind of company I cared to keep, not that I kept much to start with. I slipped past the bodyguards without bothering to glance at them, heading through the threshold into the dingy little backroom where the Pit’s mage plied his trade. Zacharis was a man in his twenties, his skin pale and constantly flushed. The half-empty bottle of wine next to the armchair where he was snoring was the reason the man was associated with an illegal fighting ring at all: he was a drinker, and in exchange for the better part of the money he made fixing up fighters Booker let him go through as many bottles as he wanted. He reeked of wine again, I noted as I got close enough to shake him awake, but at least this time there was no stench of vomit lurking behind it. Zacharis blearily opened his eyes, running a fat red tongue against his lips.
“Catherine?” he croaked out. “I thought your fight was tomorrow.”
I resented the fact that he insisted on calling me by my first name instead of Foundling, but not enough to make a scene. I could have gone to the House of Light for healing – and gotten it for free, too – if I had the stomach to wait through the lines but the priests there had this unfortunate tendency to ask questions. Better to suffer through a few minutes of the drunk’s company and his sloppier healing than have a sister showing up at the orphanage to tell the Matron I was getting into fights again. “Tomorrow’s now,” I told him with a sigh. “Are you sober enough to cast?”
He muttered a reply I couldn’t quite hear and rolled up his sleeves, which I took as agreement. His eyes flicked to the bottle but when he risked a glance at me whatever he must have seen on my face was enough to convince him to put the idea aside. He gestured for me to sit down on a wooden stool and pushed himself up. From the way he grimaced at that, he must have had the beginning of a pounding headache on his hands.
“So why is it that priests heal better than mages, anyway?” I asked him, trying to force him to focus on the here and now.
The look he shot me was fairly condescending. Zacharis uttered a few strange syllables and his hand was wreathed in yellow light – he kept it hovering an inch over my black eye, letting the spell sink in.
“Priests cheat, Catherine,” he informed me. “They just pray to the Heavens and power goes through them, fixes whatever’s broke. No real cleverness needed. Mages have to understand what they’re doing – throw magic around someone’s body without a plan and healing’s the last thing you’ll get.”
That was… not as reassuring as I’d thought it would be. Trusting that Zacharis knew what he was doing became something of an uphill battle, after actually meeting the man. Still, if he was a complete screwup Booker wouldn’t keep him around. Gods knew he had to cost her a fortune in liquor, however cheap the swill he drank was.
“There,” he said after a moment, taking away his hand. “As pretty as I can make it. Don’t get punched again, the flesh is more fragile than usual.”
I nodded my thanks, picking out seven coppers from my bag and dropping them into his open palm. He hesitated, then fished out a pair and handed them back to me. I shot him a surprised look.
“You’re getting close to sixteen, right?” Zacharis said. “Can’t have much more than a few months left before the orphanage puts you out. Keep those, every coin will count when you’re on your own.”
That was oddly touching, coming from a man I could barely stomach on the best of days.
“Thanks,” I muttered, abashed at the sudden generosity.
The pale mage smiled bitterly. “Go home, Catherine. Pick up a trade instead of getting mixed up in messes like this. There’s a reason they call it the Pit, you know.”
He reached for the bottle and popped the cork, taking a swallow as he turned his back to me. I fled the room and then the warehouse itself: the less time I spent here the better. Besides, we were getting close to the evening bell and I had a real job to get to.
I was already Lakeside so it was a short walk to the Rat’s Nest.
The quarter looked worse by daylight than it did at night: no darkness to hide the dirt and the misery, I supposed. The streets down here were tight and cramped, unlike the wide paved avenues of Fairway where all the richer sort lived. Even when Laure had been the capital of the Kingdom of Callow instead of just another governorship the Lakeside Quarter had been a dump. Or so I’d been told – the Conquest had happened over two decades ago, a few years before I’d been born, so I had to take it on faith. Still, I had a feeling it was worse than it used to be. The Guilds might have been raking in gold since they’d fallen into Governor Mazus’ pocket but everybody else was feeling the weight of the ever-increasing taxes: once-abandoned warehouses were now filled with people who’d had their homes and shops seized because they couldn’t pay on time, little more than refugees in their own city of birth. If he keeps strangling trade the whole city might end up scrabbling in the dirt down here, I reflected as I tiptoed around a small pool of mud. My boots were old enough as it was, they might not survive being another cleaning in one piece.
Besides, Harrion wouldn’t let me barmaid if I was going to track dirt all over his floor. He already disapproved of my fighting in the Pit, not that he’d ever said anything: he just had a way of sending me home early whenever I showed up with bruises that were too obvious. Hopefully I’d have time to rinse off in the back before he could see the blood still on my lip: the end of the month was never busy at the Rat’s Nest, so he might be napping in the rooms upstairs instead of keeping an eye on the common room. Which means I might have Leyran for only company tonight, I frowned. Harrion’s son was a few years older than me and convinced he was the most charming man since the Shining Prince. Bit of a layabout, and he had a way of spending more time talking with the patrons than actually getting them their drinks – especially whenever by some miracle an attractive woman ended up at the Nest. He was harmless, as far as idiots went, but if he ended up inheriting the tavern he’d likely run it into the ground. I took a shortcut through Tanner Tom’s backyard to shave a few minutes off of my walk, if only so the sweat I was still drenched in didn’t have too much time to settle.
I didn’t have a key to the back door, but it was unlocked. I wiped my boots on the already dirty rug I was pretty sure had been stolen from a merchant down by the harbour and dropped my bag on the dirt floor and headed for the bowl of water by the table in the corner. The background noise filtering in from the door to the common room made it clear there were already a handful of patrons, though the song the minstrel was playing was even louder. I winced when she bawled out a particularly off-key couplet, picking up the rag inside the bowl and wiping my face clean. I used the polished copper plate hung up on the wall to make sure there was no blood showing on my face, cursing under my breath when I realized that the blood clot on my lip wasn’t going anywhere. The dark-skinned girl looking back at me from the surface looked like she’d seen better days, I had to admit.
I’d never been what you would call pretty – chin too strong, cheekbones too angular – but the way my dark locks stuck to the top of my head had me looking like a drenched urchin girl. A few strands of hair had come loose from the ponytail I kept them in so I shook loose the wooden clip that kept it together and shoved it in my pocket. The water had the rag cool and pleasant, so I rubbed it along my neck and collarbones just for the refreshing feeling. The woollen shirt I’d worn in the pit was flecked with blood so I took it off and shoved it back in the bag, slipping on my only good clothes: the dyed cotton blouse was a pleasant blue, the symbol of the Laure House for Tragically Orphaned Girls sown over the heart. I’d have to be careful not to spill any beer on it: laundry day at the orphanage wasn’t for a few days yet and the Matron checked out clothes every morning. Nudging my bag into the corner, I pushed the door and entered the Rat’s Nest proper.
The tavern’s common room was exactly as pretty as the place’s name implied: rickety wooden walls salvaged from wrecked ships and a dirt floor that turned into mud wherever drinks got spilled too often. There was a wide fire pit circled by stones in the middle of it, surrounded by a ring of tables where half a dozen patrons were chatting quietly over drinks. Only two humans, I saw. Three orcs still in legionary armour were sharing a table with a yellow-eyed goblin sporting officer’s stripes on her shoulders. Or at least I thought it was a her: it was hard to tell the gender under all that green wrinkled skin. The sight of the three big orcs standing at least three feet taller than the scrawny goblin yet hanging on her every word drew a small smile out of me, though my attention shifted as soon as our minstrel began a new song.
“Boot goes up and boot goes down:
There goes their callow crown
And no matter how high the walls
We’re all gonna make them fall-”
There was a small cheer from the table full of soldiers. Ellerna had decided to pander to her audience tonight, it seemed. The Legionary Song wasn’t exactly a popular ditty in Callow. Not that it was surprising, considering it referred heavily to the Conquest. There was no sign of Harrion anywhere but Leyran was lounging in one of the corner tables, smirking at Ellerna whenever she glanced in his direction. Ugh. He’d been trying to talk her into sharing one of the upstairs beds since Harrion had first hired her, and while she’d been lukewarm at the prospect at first these days she seemed inclined to give in. Bad call, Ellerna. He’s not looking to marry, no matter what his father wants. The man in question noticed I’d come in a moment after and gestured for me to come closer. I crossed the room, throwing a smile at the pair of women I passed by on my way through. Leyran offered me the closest thing to a roguish smile he could manage, passing a hand through his short-cropped hair as I claimed the seat across from him.
“Catherine,” he greeted me. “Punctual as always.”
How you manage to come in late for work when you live in the same building is beyond me, I refrained from saying.
“Leyran,” I replied instead. “My apron’s still under the counter?”
He shrugged. “Right next to the cudgel. Dad wants to talk to you first, though. He’s in his room upstairs.”
Huh. I grunted in acknowledgement and pushed myself up. It was still a few days early for Harrion to need my help with the accounts, so it couldn’t be that. Might just be he needed me to work some numbers for him – half the reason I’d been hired at the Nest was that I knew my letters and numbers. The benefits of being raised in an Imperial-funded institution, I supposed. The stairs creaked under my feet and led me right to the corridor where four doors stood closed: two for the family, two up for renting. Harrion’s own room was where he kept all of his papers, so I’d been there before. Rapping my knuckles against the door, I waited for a moment before pushing it open. A pair of candles was the only source of light in the cramped room: a bed and dresser were wedged in the left corner, with the bare skeleton of a wooden desk facing them. Harrion himself was seated on a stool at the desk and the old man gestured for me to come in without turning.
“Catherine,” he grunted. “I need you to read something for me.”
The owner of the Rat’s Nest was a skinny man with a balding crown of hair, dressed in plain brown wool – he was looking at a piece of parchment I couldn’t quite make out, glaring at the letters like they’d personally offended him. I’m not sure he’d have been able to make them out even if he could read: his eyes weren’t what they used to be, and he’d always balked at the cost of getting a pair of spectacles made. Used to Harrion’s gruff manners by now, I leaned over his shoulder and took a closer look at the parchment. It was an official document, I saw quickly enough: there was a golden wax seal on it that bore Laure’s coat of arms. I skimmed the first few lines, since they were mostly ceremonial claptrap, and got to the meat of the matter: the Governor’s office was sending an official notice by that the end of next month all establishments serving liquor would need to be affiliated with the proper guild or face additional taxes.
“They want to fold you into the Brewer’s Guild,” I voiced. “Otherwise you get another tax hitch – though they don’t say how large.”
“Fucking Mazus,” Harrion cursed. “Fucking Praesi and fucking Empire,” he added after a moment.
I’d heard a lot worse – and more inventive – serving drinks downstairs, so the language hardly fazed me. I could see where he was coming from, too. I’d been told the Guilds had once been a boon, when Callow had still existed, but since Laure had gotten an Imperial governor they’d become little more than a polite protection racket. They collected membership fees every month and required a certain amount of product to be delivered at the guildhall for “quality control” – in exchange for which they were supposed to protect the interests of their members and regulate the trade. The Governor had flipped the situation around by buying out the Guildmasters he could and arranging accidents for those he couldn’t, making them just another finger in the Imperial hand that was choking out Laure.
“The tax might end less costly than a membership,” I said after a moment, at loss for what else to say.
Harrion let out a derisive snort. “They’re greedy, not dumb,” he replied. “The taxes are going to be savage, girl, you can count on it.”
I threaded my fingers through my hair, letting out a sigh. “You won’t be able to afford keeping me on, will you?”
The balding man had the grace to look embarrassed. “Maybe on the busy nights, but not as often as now,” he admitted.
I would have liked to blame him, but it wouldn’t have been right. It wasn’t his fault, was it? He wasn’t any happier about the situation than I was, and it wasn’t like there was anyone to appeal to. Governors answered directly to the Dread Empress, and I doubted that Malicia gave a shit about the fact that her buddy Mazus was being a robber lord all the way out here. As long as the tributes came on time, what did she care? It’s not fair, but you don’t get fair when you lose wars, I thought. I felt my fist clench, though I forced it to loosen after a moment. Things like this were exactly why I needed to go to the College. If I got high enough in the ranks of the Legion, if I amassed enough power and influence, one day I’d be in a position to fix this. To send fuckers like Mazus to the gallows instead of watching them throw banquet after banquet up in the palace.
“Should I stay until the end of the month, at least?” I asked.
Harrion nodded tiredly. “I’ll try figure something out, Catherine,” he said. “I know you’ve been saving up for something.”
I smiled but we were both aware the words were an empty gesture. I’d been running the Nest’s numbers for a year now, and there was only so much gold flowing through the place. I went back down the stairs, trying to figure out a way out of this mess. I might be able to scrape enough together if I started fighting in the Pits more often, but that carried risks of its own: losing was always a possibility, and the more I won the harder it would get to make good betting on myself. Booker had implied once or twice that she’d be willing to take me on as an enforcer, but that was a slippery slope. I’ll sleep on it, I decided, putting on my apron. I still had a job, for now, and I wasn’t one to shirk honest work when I could get it.
On calm nights like this one I spent as much time cleaning as I did actually getting patrons their drinks. The larder had remained more or less in order since the last time I’d taken the time to arrange it, though, and none of the beer barrels were leaking. I found myself idly passing a rag on the counter for at least a quarter bell before something caught my interest. There were a handful of regulars I was on friendly terms with but my clear favourite among them was Sergeant Ebele – I couldn’t help but smile when she came in. She was tall, taller than most orcs even, and her skin was even darker than mine. In the hotter parts of summer I could almost pass as just particularly tanned, but she was black as charcoal in that way only northern Praesi could be. There was a little scar by the side of her mouth that kept her lips in a perpetual half-smile, which turned into a broad grin when she saw me. I’d already filled her tankard by the time she’d claimed a table, and I wasted no time in bringing it to her.
“You, my sweet,” Ebele said after taking a long pull from her beer, “are a true delight. This place would go to the dogs without you to keep it going.”
A shadow passed on my face at the thought that soon enough that would be the case, but I pushed through.
“Just finished your watch, then?” I asked eagerly.
The sergeant had a friendly disposition that I rather liked, but what I enjoyed the most about her was that after a few drinks she took little prodding to start telling stories about her service with the Legion. She was a veteran of the Conquest, one who’d been on the front lines at the Fields of Streges and the Siege of Summerholm – as well as part of the quick but brutal civil war inside the Empire that had preceded their invasion of Callow. She talked about that part less, though. I got the impression it had been a pretty brutal affair. And if someone who was at the Fields thinks of something as brutal, I’m inclined to take her word for it.
“Oh yes,” Ebele muttered. “Hence why I’m here drinking away my sorrows. If I have to hear Goren snicker one more time, I’ll have to strangle the idiot. Be a dear and get me a pitcher, will you? I don’t intend to be able to walk out of here on my own.”
I snorted and disappeared into the larder, filling a clay pitcher to the brim at the tap. One of the few things that redeemed the Rat’s Nest from all the other hole-in-the-ground taverns was that the Harrion didn’t water the beer. It tasted like dead vermin, sure, but at least it didn’t taste like dead vermin marinated in water. Half of Ebele’s tankard was already gone by the time I returned, which boded well for getting stories out of her – though hopefully she wouldn’t keep going at this rate, because her sing-song accent got harder to decipher when she slurred her words.
“Come sit with me, lovely Catherine,” the sergeant grinned when I set the pitcher down. “This place is as dead as can be.”
A quick glance around confirmed as much. Besides the patrons who’d already been there when I came in – and who were already topped off – there was no one else. Including, I noted wearily, Leyran and Ellerna. I tried not to think too much about that. “It’s still pretty early,” I agreed.
The Nest would get busier the closer we got to the midnight bell, but that wouldn’t be for a while yet. Ebele suddenly leaned forward, taking a closer look at my face.
“You were mage-touched, and recently at that,” she observed, tone surprised.
I blinked. Had Zacharis messed up his spell? There shouldn’t be any visible marks.
“I got into a fight,” I admitted. “How can you tell?”
The dark-haired sergeant’s smile turned rueful. “When you see enough mage-healing you learn to pick up on the signs. Whoever did yours was a little rough around the edges, but it’s good work.”
Huh. Point for Zacharis, I supposed. If he could cast that well hungover, he must have been a fairly good sorcerer when sober. If he was ever sober. Ebele paused, appearing to consider her next words, and I prepared to swallow a sigh. People really needed to stop telling me not to get into fights – now more than ever, considering I wasn’t going to be making much of anything from the Rat’s Nest.
“Did you win?” the scarred woman asked.
I grinned. “Beat his ass into the ground,” I replied.
“Good girl,” Ebele chuckled approvingly. “You should consider the Legions, if you want to get into real scraps.”
“I’m saving up for the College,” I admitted. “Hoping to make it there by next summer.”
The sergeant’s hairless brows rose. “The War College? Ambitious of you, though I suppose it’s less expensive since Lord Black pushed the reforms through.”
I’d been born before the reforms – they preceded the Conquest – so I only had a vague sense of what she was talking about. I’d never gotten any real details out of someone about what the reforms actually were, though everyone agreed that they’d radically changed the Legions of Terror. The name she’d dropped caught my attention, though. Well the Name if you wanted to be accurate: Black Knight. The man who’d led the Calamities in the destruction of the Kingdom of Callow, over twenty years ago. I knew he was still alive and up to no good somewhere in the Empire, but the existence of people with Names had never felt quite real to me. Heroes and their darker counterparts were the kind of people that lived in legends, not in my reality of pit fights and serving drinks.
“You ever meet any of them?” I asked. “The Calamities, I mean.”
Ebele’s half-smile twitched in amusement.
“In person? Only the one,” she said. “Before the Conquest I was part of the Second, when it moved to kick in High Lord Duma’s door.”
The sergeant took a long pull from her tankard.
“My company ran into some of his personal household troops during our push to his demesne – nasty fuckers, with mages and a dug-in position. Could have wasted three hundred people easily to crack that nut, and we couldn’t just leave them sitting on top of our supply lines.”
I leaned forward. Which one of them had it been? Probably not the Black Knight, or she would have mentioned it earlier, and since Captain was famously never far behind him she was probably out too. I doubted Assassin would have stopped for a chat, but maybe Ranger? I hoped it had been Ranger. I’d always liked the stories about her best.
“So we’re starting to set up a palisade around them,” Ebele continued. “Waiting for reinforcements and all that – then out of nowhere, this man strolls up to us. Claps our captain on the back, tells her to get the company ready because they’ll be moving again soon.”
A man? That meant…
“So the captain asks him who the Gods Below he thinks he is, and he gives her this shit-eating grin. ‘Call me Warlock. That scheming bastard sent me to clear you a way,’ and off he goes.”
Warlock. They called him the ‘Sovereign of the Red Skies’, whatever that was supposed to mean – Praesi liked to tack on fancy titles to everything, it was like a cultural compulsion. Came from the centuries of unrepentant villainy, probably.
Ebele’s tone suddenly turned serious, the mirth in her eyes snuffed out and replaced by awe and just the tiniest smidgeon of fear. “We never got close enough to see exactly what he did,” she murmured. “But not even a quarter bell after he disappeared the whole enemy garrison went up in a column of red flames. When we marched through later that night, the whole place was intact. Not a stone or tent out of place, but all the armours were empty. Like the people had just… disappeared.”
I felt a shiver go up my spine. It was one thing for a mage to make fire – it was one of the easiest spells to manage – but what she’d described? That was a different matter entirely. You don’t get a Name like Warlock by learning the nice sort of spells, I guess.
“I’ll say this about the Legions, sweet girl,” the sergeant murmured. “The constant drills are a bitch, but at least you know whenever you step on a battlefield that all the scariest fuckers are on your side.”
I nodded slowly, but before I could say anything a group of patrons walked in. I gave Ebele an apologetic shrug and got back to work.
The walk back to the orphanage was always the worst part of the night.
There were risks to bar tending in the bad part of Laure, I knew, but it wasn’t like taverns in the Merchant Quarter were lining up to hire sixteen year old orphans. I’d tried my luck more than once and been shown the door before deciding that the Rat’s Nest my golden chance. Besides, eavesdropping on drunken veterans reminiscing was more interesting than doing the same on pretentious guild members. Once in a while a patron would get grabby, true enough, but that was why we had a cudgel under the counter. They rarely needed to be told to lay off twice, and those that did limped home with a few broken fingers for their trouble. The matron back at the Laure House for Tragically Orphaned Girls was deeply offended I’d do anything as uncouth as serving drinks to ruffians, but I only had to suffer her lectures for another year before I was free. I was perfectly willing to spend half a bell in the old woman’s office getting upbraided for “consorting with unsavoury elements” if it meant that by the time I was sixteen I’d have enough to cover my tuition. Not that I’d told her that was what I was saving for: if her feathers were ruffled by my serving drinks Lakeside, she’d have a fit at learning I wanted to enrol in the officer’s school for the Legions of Terror. It wasn’t too far past the midnight bell when I finally headed out home, and making my way back to the House after dark wasn’t as dangerous as one would think, anyway: the city guard was hopelessly corrupt and in the Governor’s pocket to boot, but they were well aware that if they failed to keep order in the city then the Legions would step in.
There were a lot of people who wanted that to happen, funnily enough: the Legions were a little heavy on the hangings, they said, but at least when Laure had been under martial law everything ran smoothly. Still, as long as Mazus remained in bed with the Guilds and kept the guards on his payroll there was nothing anyone could do about any of this. Rioting would just mean a lot of spiked heads over the city gates when the legionaries were done clearing the crowd: the Dread Empire of Praes did not brook dissent, much less open one.
That said, there was a reason the Lakeside was known as the rough part of town and I had no intention of lingering in the darkened streets. I wished I had a knife on me, honestly, but the only time I’d tried that the matron had confiscated it when one of the girls in my dormitory ratted me out. I’d never been popular with the others, and they weren’t above getting back at me in petty ways when they could. I was about halfway back when a shriek followed by the sound of struggling drew me out of my thoughts – it was coming from a side-alley, one of the myriad of dead-ends that filled this part of town.
I peeked around the corner and felt my blood rise when I saw the silhouette of a guard pushing a girl down. Her blouse was already ripped open, but she seemed more intent on begging the man to leave her alone than fighting back. Shit. This was the kind of thing a reasonable girl would walk away from, ugly as that reality was.
Why couldn’t I have been born a reasonable girl?
I had no intention of scrapping with a man in armour at least a foot taller than me, but I might be able to get the other girl and run if I played this right. Unlike the guard I didn’t carry a weapon, but if I hit him hard and fast I might knock him out before it ever turned into a struggle. Reckless, maybe, but what was I supposed to do – just cover my ears and go on my merry way? I stepped into the alley as silently as I could, catching sight of a ramshackle crate full of rotting cabbage as I did. My fingers closed against the edge of it and I closed the remaining distance separating me from the guard in a handful of steps, swinging the crate into the back of his head. It broke with a satisfying crunch, putting him down as the girl he’d been pushing himself onto let out a fresh new shriek of terror. I kicked the guard in the chin to make sure he wouldn’t get back up. The girl in the ripped-up blouse was backing away from me, apparently as scared of me as she was of her tormentor. A pointless gesture, that: the alley ended in a wooden wall, there was nowhere to go but through me.
“I’m here to help,” I told her soothingly. “Come with me, we need to get out of here before-”
I never got to finish the sentence, as a vicious hit to the temple sending me tumbling to the ground. The world spun but I tried to push myself up only to come face to face with a bared blade. I looked up into the eyes of a second guard, this one wearing sergeant stripes on his shoulders. His face was grim as he kept the tip of his short sword less than an inch away from my throat.
“Joseph,” he said calmly, “are you all right?”
The man I’d hit with the crate rolled over with a groan, getting back on his feet gingerly.
“The bitch did a number on me,” he spat. “That’s going to leave a bruise for sure.”
“Be glad she wasn’t carrying a knife, you idiot,” he retorted.
“He was trying to rape the girl,” I wheezed. “Why the Hells am I the one getting hit?”
A flash of disgust went through the sergeant’s face, but he refused to meet my eyes.
“You said you’d stop doing shit like this,” he spoke, ignoring me in favour of staring down his colleague. “You promised, Joseph.”
‘Joseph’ waved him off.
“No one would have cared if she hadn’t run into me, Allen,” he replied. “We can just break a few fingers to teach them manners and go home, our patrol is almost done.”
The sergeant – Allen, apparently – sighed.
“Look at her blouse, Joseph. That’s the heraldry for the Imperial orphanage sewed up over her chest. She shows up home with broken fingers and people are going to ask questions,” he said.
The would-be rapist’s eyes widened in fear.
“Fuck,” he cursed again. “What do we do? I can’t go to jail, who’s going to feed my kids? Bessie doesn’t even have a job.”
I snuck a glance towards the girl. She was huddled in a corner, shaking life a leaf and trying to hold her ripped clothes together. There was an absent look in her eyes, like she was there but not really there. No help coming from that direction, then. This… wasn’t looking too good.
“We’ll have to kill them,” the sergeant said flatly. “No blades, that would lead to too many questions. We came across their bodies during patrol, no witnesses and no suspects.”
And the Hells with that. I moved fast, slapping away the hand that held the sword as I tried to hoist myself back up to my feet. It loosened his grip but he rammed the cross guard of the sword into my shoulder – I was already halfway up by then so it staggered me back a step, screwing up my footing. I tried to push down the panic welling up in my chest, but the awareness that I was stuck in a dead-end alley with two armed men larger and stronger than me wasn’t exactly helping. I scratched the sergeant’s face as he tried to wrestle me down, my nails drawing blood on his face and a hiss of pain from his lips. It wasn’t enough: he’d dropped his sword at some point and he slammed me against the wall, forcing down my struggling hands and moving his legs so that I couldn’t get a decent angle to kick him.
“Joseph,” the man said in strained voice. “Get the other one. But first promise me this is the last time. We can’t keep on doing this.”
Joseph licked his lips, nodding nervously.
“Yeah, it’s the last time,” he muttered. “I mean, I didn’t want anyone to get killed over this.”
A moment later the sergeant’s hand settled on my throat and started to squeeze. I tried to punch him and wrestle away his hand, but he was stronger than me and I was trying to breathe but-
“Should never have stepped into the alley, girl,” Allen said. “These aren’t days for playing hero.”
“Always a mistake, gloating before the business is done,” a voice commented mildly.
There was a streak of movement and an enormous silhouette moved out of the dark, slapping down Allen effortlessly and picking up the other man by the scruff of the neck. I gulped in a mouthful of air greedily, coughing a handful of times before I was finally self-possessed enough to look around me. The girl was still cowering in a corner, looking catatonic, and a man was kneeling next to her. He wrapped a thick dark cloak around her shoulders before rising back to his feet, eerie pale green eyes meeting my own. He was pale-skinned and decked in plain steel plate, though he’d moved as if the pounds of metal he was wearing were light as a silk shirt. My eyes flicked to the sword at his side before turning to the other new presence in the alley. It was a woman, or at least vaguely shaped like one: she stood at least three feet taller than I and twice as wide, keeping the struggling Joseph up in their air by the scruff of the neck without any visible strain. I couldn’t see whether she was armed: her cloak covered her body up to her neck. I pushed myself up, forcing down a cough and uncomfortably aware that the green-eyed man was staring at me. Allen looked like he was about to crawl back to his knees, so I kicked him in the chin with a twinge of vicious satisfaction.
“Staying down would be the wiser choice, sergeant” the man said. “You might find the consequences of further resistance unpleasant.”
“Thank you,” I croaked out at the strangers. “I thought I was done for.”
The man dipped his head in acknowledgment.
“Captain,” he spoke up without even looking at the gargantuan woman, “if you would silence our other friend?”
She drove her fist in Joseph’s stomach faster than my eye could follow, getting a gasp out of him that was almost a retch, and then knocked him hard enough on the temple that he slumped. She’d never stopped holding him up during any of this, and still didn’t seem particularly inconvenienced when she slung his unconscious body over her shoulder. Allen let out a strangled noise.
“I know who you are,” he wheezed out. “You’re the Black Knight. Sir, we’re on your side!”
I took half a step back, feeling my stomach twist up in unashamed fear. Hitting a guard from behind had been something, but if the sergeant was right then I was less than ten feet away from the godsdamned boogeyman. Shit, of all the people who could have walked into the alley. The green-eyed man had a body count that would make most butchers retch – there wasn’t a man or woman in Callow that didn’t know the Name. And if that was really the Captain holding up the other guard, then I was all sorts of screwed: the stories said she’d once killed an ogre with a single hammer stroke. Gods, looking at her now she had to be at least eight feet tall.
“No,” the Knight murmured. “You really aren’t.”
An armoured foot whipped out and the sergeant joined his accomplice in the realm of dreams.
“If memory serves we have a safe house a few blocks down, Sabah,” he added after a moment. “Let’s keep them there for the moment.”
Captain raised an eyebrow.
“We’re not taking them to the guard?”
“Mazus would hear of it before the hour was done,” the Knight replied. “No need to give him any advance warning.”
“And the girl?”
They both glanced at the victim, still huddled in her corner and shaking like a leaf under the Black Knight’s cloak.
“Have one of the men bring her home,” he decided. “She’s had quite enough excitement for the night, I think.”
The behemoth of a woman saluted, the would-be rapist still slung over her shoulder, and picked up the sergeant’s foot. She dragged him across the ground none too gently and crossed the corner.
“Are you-” I croaked out, throat still sore from the choking, “are you really him?”
The dark-haired man smiled, though it did not reach his eyes. They were cold as ice, their eerie shade of green sending a shiver down my spine – I knew people with green eyes, but none quite as pale as his. They looked the way I imagined a fey’s would, and there was no denying the touch of strangeness there was to him. He hadn’t even replied but just the weight of his attention made me feel like a rabbit in front of a wolf, like my life could be snatched right out of me in the blink of an eye. I guess some people would be cowed by that, but I’ve always hated feeling afraid. The other girls at the orphanage had never understood why I kept going up to the roof and standing on the edge when everybody knew I was afraid of heights, but they were missing the point. I’d kept going because I was afraid, and I’d refused to stop even when they’d started whispering to each other about how I was going to turn into a gargoyle if I kept standing there glaring at the ground. I wasn’t fool enough to think that fighting through a childish fear of heights and staring down the smiling monster in front of me was the same, but the principle was the same. My fear did not own me – I owned it. I met the Black Knight’s eyes, refusing to flinch even as his smile stretched wider. You might be a wolf, but I am no rabbit.
“Am I the Black Knight?” he murmured. “Yes, among other things.”
The weight I’d been feeling disappeared as swiftly as it had come into existence and I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding. Had he been doing it on purpose, or had all of that just been in my head? The fear hadn’t felt natural, even less now that it wasn’t choking me up. I was wary of giving the man many name but it would have been rude not to, after the way he’d just saved my hide.
“Catherine Foundling, of the Imperial orphanage,” he finished, and my blood ran cold.
How did he know my name? Had I been marked for death for some inscrutable reason? I hadn’t done anything illegal, as far as I knew, or associated with anyone stupid enough to go against Imperial authority. No, I reassured myself, if he wanted me dead he wouldn’t have intervened when the sergeant was choking me. Then how-
“Haven’t you heard, my dear?” he spoke with a sardonic twist of the lips, “I know everything.”
I knew on an intellectual level that what he said was impossible but right now, standing in the dark alley by the unconscious bodies of two men who’d been slapped down effortlessly, I could almost believe it. “You’re not in any trouble, regardless.”
“Gotta say, you’re not selling that impression very well,” I replied before I could help myself.
I winced as soon as I processed the words that had come out of my mouth. Splendid notion, Catherine, let’s mouth off to the guy who could run you through and not even be questioned about it. I need to get punched in the head less often. To my relief, he chuckled.
“You’ll have to take my word for it, I suppose,” he replied.
I wasn’t sure exactly what that was worth, but I wasn’t in a position to argue.
“I’ll require your company for a little while still, I’m afraid,” he continued.
“What for? You told… her,” I said, hesitant to actually use Captain’s Name, “that you weren’t handing them to the city guard yet.”
I couldn’t imagine what use he could have for me aside from a witness, and even then he hardly needed that. If the Empress’ right hand thought some people needed killing, they died. It was as simple as that, and anybody fool enough to protest was likely headed in the same direction. Black smiled, and not for the first time that night a shiver went up my spine.
“I’ve come to believe, over the years, that those who are wronged should have a say in how that wrong is redressed.”
With a last glance towards the girl whose name I had never even learned, who was already being helped up by a silent silhouette in a dark cloak, I followed him out of the alley.
The place was as close as he’d said, not even long enough of a walk for me to start thinking about anything but how nervous I was feeling.There was nothing distinguishing the safe house from any actual house in the neighbourhood, except of course for the dozen of armoured soldiers in heavy plate standing in front of it silently. So much for subtlety, then. Not that I was complaining: not even a full patrol of the city guard would feel up to tangling with those guys. Or girls, maybe? It was hard to tell with the way the helmet’s visor covered their faces and the plate obscured their body shape. I knew who they were, anyway.
They were called the Blackguards, because Praesi had this strange fixation with shoving the word black into everything. They were the Knight’s elite bodyguards and the veterans from the Fields of Streges I’d eavesdropped on said every one was supposed to be the match of ten fighting men. They said that about a lot of people, though. The Conquest had been so overwhelmingly one-sided of a war that I thought one of the ways Callowans dealt with the trauma was by putting the conquerors on a pedestal. He went through the door after affording them a nod and I followed him without a word.
Captain – who was nowhere in sight – or one of the faceless soldiers I’d seen standing outside must have lit the candles inside, because there was a handful of them dispersed around the room. There was a ratty bed in the corner and a table flanked by a pair of chairs, but besides that the furniture was sparse. Nothing worth robbing unless you were truly desperate. The guards had been tied up and gagged, propped up against the wall in the back. Both were awake now, and neither of them was doing all that good of a job at hiding their terror.
The Black Knight ignored them and I followed suit, taking the other chair after he seated himself. The candlelight allowed me my first clear look at the man and I took the opportunity shamelessly. How many occasions to see the man up close was I going to get? He had one of those ageless faces that could put him anywhere from his mid-twenties to his mid-thirties, which was a pretty spry look for him considering word had it he was nearing sixty. Roles did that sometimes, slowed aging or kept you looking the same. I still wasn’t all that clear on what he wanted, but if he wasn’t going to say anything then I had a few questions of my own.
“So, what will happen to them?”
Black drummed his fingers on the table, the shadows cast by the candles on his face twisting about as if they’d come to life.
“They’ll be handed to the city guard for trial and punishment. Since Laure is no longer under the authority of the Legions, Imperial law takes precedence. Attempted rape should fetch them a minimum of five years in a cell – less for the good sergeant, given that he was only an accomplice.”
Five years. That was… They’d tried to rape her, and when I’d stopped them they’d tried to kill me so they’d get away with it.
“That’s it?” I said. “After all they did, they spend five years in a prison eating badly and then they’re back on the streets?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“You underestimate the unpleasantness of Laure’s penitentiaries, but in essence you are correct.”
“It’s not enough, for what they tried to do – for what they would have done, if we hadn’t been lucky enough for you to show up,” I growled.
The pale-skinned man I’d heard so much about growing up eyed me in silence, his face unreadable. The stories simmered in the back of my head, each less believable than the last. He once rode a dragon. His sword feeds on the souls of the innocent and that’s why he never lost a duel. He sees the future and reads the minds of his enemies. He conquered Callow in a month by turning his entire army into werewolves. The orcs worship him like a god and he’s king of the goblins. There’d been a story about how he had the blood of giants running in his veins, but given that he fell way short of six feet tall I felt safe dismissing that one. Hopefully the mind-reading was the same kind of deal, because as far as I was concerned no one belonged inside my head but me.
“There’s another way,” he finally said.
Slowly, carefully, he unsheathed the knife hanging at his belt and put it down on the table. I eyed the blade warily, the edge of it looking wicked sharp even from where I was sitting.
“Do you know what separates people who have a Role from people who don’t, Catherine?” Black asked.
I shook my head.
“Will,” he said. “The belief, deep down, that they know what is right and that they’ll see it done.”
My throat caught. Was he implying what I thought he was?
“So tell me, Catherine Foundling,” he murmured, his voice smooth as velvet. “What do you think is right?”
He spun the knife so that the handle faced me, the touch of his fingertips deft and light.
“How far are you willing to go, to see it done?”
I could feel the eyes of the two gagged guards on me, but I ignored them. I met the Knight’s stare squarely, my heart thundering in my chest. The lives of those two men had just been dropped in the palm of my hand, and if I wanted to snuff out the light in their eyes all I had to do was squeeze. Could I really do that? Did I have the right to take justice into my own hands? It would be murder to kill them, every moment I’d ever spent in the House of Light told me as much. Five years, I remembered. Five years, and then they’ll be out there again.
My fingers closed around the knife.
I rose to my feet and Joseph’s eyes widened in fear when I knelt in front of him. There was nothing in the room, nothing in the world besides the two of us. My palm felt clammy against the knife’s leather wrap, but I tightened my hand and pushed down his gag. If I did this, if I was really going to do this, I had to know. I could feel the Knight’s gaze on me but this wasn’t about him. It was about me, about the decision I had to make. All my life I’d told myself I would somehow manage to get power and that I’d used it to fix things. To make it all better. And now here I was, gifted the power of life and death over two men in the form of a few inches of cold steel.
“You’ve done this before,” I half-asked, half-stated.
He looked ashamed for a moment, but there was something in his eyes that caused disgust to well up in me. Like he didn’t understand how foul what he’d wanted to do was.
“Look,” he said, “I didn’t meant to. It was just, the way she was dressed… I mean, what kind of a decent woman goes about at night-”
I slit his throat.
It wasn’t a conscious decision. For what he said and what he’d done, I’d decided he deserved to die – my hand had done the rest without any need for prompting. Edge parallel to the ground, slicing across the major arteries just like the butcher did it to pigs in the marketplace. Maybe if I’d gone at the House of Light more often I would have let him go to prison, but all I could think was – what would happen, when he got out? The next time he cornered a girl in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t be there. I watched as the blood gurgled out out of his throat and he looked at me like I’d somehow betrayed him. I wondered if I should be feeling anything. Sadness, regret, maybe just nausea at the sight of death unfolding. He probably wouldn’t have made it as quick for her, I thought. The sergeant looked resigned when I turned towards him. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
My cut was cleaner the second time.
I stayed there kneeling for a while, blood dripping off the blade. Funny thing, killing someone. You’d expect there to be more of a fanfare to it, thunder in the distance or the weight of the disapproving Heavens pushing down on your shoulders. All I felt was a little numb. The palm of my hand was a little bruised from the way the knife’s handle had pushed back when slicing through, and there was blood spray on my blouse. So I’m a murderer now. Not how I saw my evening going, I’ll admit. The jest was tasteless but I smiled anyway, because feeling like a heartless bitch was still better than this… apathy that had taken me.
“Is this how it always is?” I asked, eyes still on the cooling corpse of the sergeant and the red smile I’d etched across his throat.
“When you make the decision cold?” I heard the Knight speak from just behind me. “Yes.”
I nodded and a moment later didn’t resist when he helped me get up to my feet.
“They deserved it,” I told the man, looking into his eyes.
He did not disagree.
“They deserved it,” I whispered to myself.
He steered me towards the door and I could have cared less about our destination as long as it got me away from that house. The night air felt cool against my face and I heard one of the Blackguards enter into the house but I refused to pay any attention to it.
“I have a question for you, Lord,” I said after a moment, my voice feeling like it was a stranger’s, coming out of a stranger’s body.
“Call me Black.”
“I have a question for you, Black.”
“You’re a monster, aren’t you?” I spoke softly into the night, looking at him from the corner of my eye.
He smiled. “The very worst kind,” he replied.
I don’t know what it says about me, but for the first time since I’d walked into the alley I felt safe.