“Before embarking on a journey of revenge, dig two graves. One for the fool and one for all those pesky relatives.”
– Dread Emperor Vindictive the First
I took me a moment to remember where I was when I woke up.
They’d taken me to the inn they were staying at when I’d said I didn’t want to go back to orphanage, though I couldn’t remember actually saying the words. I was alone in the room, so allowed myself to luxuriate in the feeling of a soft bed twice the size of the one I had in my dormitory. The Praesi hadn’t picked one of the really expensive places to stay in, but they hadn’t picked a bad one either. The sun filtering in through the shutters told me it was late in the afternoon, so I’d slept through most of the day. Who knew that slitting a pair of throats would take that much out of you, I thought. I’d meant for the sentence to be a form of self-reproach but when trying to summon up regret for what I’d done last night, the well came up empty. I sat up in the bed and ran a somehow still-tired hand through my hair. It was a mess, the dark locks having gotten all tangled up overnight.
Now that I had a little bit of distance from the whole affair I was starting to think I’d been steered in the direction of taking those lives. For what reason, though, I couldn’t even begin to imagine. Who knew why villains did what they did? Not that it changes anything. I made the decision, and made it for my own reasons. I wasn’t sure if my actions had been just, but even under the light of day I didn’t think my decision had been wrong. I used the large bowl of water by the bed to splash my face and wiped it off with the towel next to it, the last dregs of sleepiness driven off by the lukewarm water. There was a sheathed knife next to it, one I had no trouble remembering the last time I’d seen. Distantly I recalled trying to give it back the night before and being told it was now mine. Not too sure how I should feel about that.
So. What now?
I was starving, so I might as well see if I could get a meal of this. I didn’t get the feeling that this whole business was done, but what more could the Knight want from me? No, that’s the wrong way to think about this. If he wanted something, he’d get it: I didn’t have the power to stop him. What I needed to think about was what I could manage to get out of this mess. It wasn’t like I was going to run into anyone that high up the Empire’s ranks again anytime soon, so I had to find an angle. I’d bought this opportunity with blood, so I’d be damned if I didn’t make it count. The Black Knight had a lot of pull in War College, I remembered hearing – which made sense, since he more or less commanded the Legions the cadets were being formed to join. Maybe if I played my cards right I could talk him into getting me a place in this year’s classes. At the moment I had almost enough to cover my tuition, but the trip to the Wasteland was another expense, and not a cheap one. I was pretty sure a word from the Empress’ right hand would take care of that swiftly, though. The only other obstacle I could think of was that anyone wanting to go into Praes proper from Callow would need papers, but for once being an orphan would be an advantage: the orphanages were an Imperial institution, so every one of us had been registered at the Governor’s office.
Most Callowans still weren’t registered, since forcing it after the Conquest would have caused the kind of civil unrest that the Empire had aimed to avoid, but it was becoming more common as time passed- there were all kinds of restriction on the kind of offices you could hold if you weren’t. A lot of the older generation muttered under their breath that having your name on Imperial record couldn’t possibly end well, and to be honest I wasn’t sure if they were wrong. I’d served drinks and talked to enough legionaries that I no longer believed that they were always one moment away from malevolently setting fire to the city and dancing in the ashes – they had a better reputation than the city guard, these days – but those records were made for people back in Ater, the Empire’s capital. From what I’d heard of the nobles that dwelled in the City of Black Gates they were not the kind of people you ever wanted to have your name. Even other Praesi spoke of them with distrust.
My blouse was still bloodstained from last night, I saw as I inspected my reflection in the mirror hung up on the wall. There were flecks of dried red on the blue in the shape of the blood spray that had been two men’s lives and I didn’t feel like walking through the streets with that damning mark on my clothes. It looked like they’d thought of everything: there was a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of trousers neatly folded on the dresser. I changed unhurriedly and slipped on my boots before leaving the room, procrastinating out of apprehension. Bad habit, I knew, but given the circumstances I was willing to let it slide.
A short flight of stairs down brought me to the inn’s common room. It was deserted, which was unusual at this time of the day: there should have been travellers from outside the city trickling in and regulars huddled around their usual tables. Laure had been the capital of the Kingdom of Callow, before the Conquest, and even under the Empire it remained one of the wealthiest cities around. Whose pockets that wealth ended up in was another story, but given that we were a major trade centre the good inns should be packed around this time of the year. No trace of the innkeep either, just a lone woman sitting at one of the tables by the hearth. She had a stack of paper around her and was writing on a sheet of parchment, dipping her quill with clockwork regularity. She hadn’t raised her head from her work as I made my way down the stairs, so she must not have heard me.
“Take a seat,” she spoke calmly, eyes still intent on the parchment.
… Or maybe she had. I claimed the chair across from her, not sure where I was supposed to go from here.
“The innkeeper will be along momentarily with breakfast,” the stranger said.
I nodded, then felt foolish when I realized she hadn’t so much as looked at me yet.
“I’m-” I started.
“I know who you are, Catherine Foundling,” she cut in indifferently.
I raised an eyebrow.
“This is starting to be a pattern,” I said. “What should I call you?”
Oh. That wasn’t a name, it was a Name. And that’s you shouldn’t mouth off to strangers. Again. The Conquest was laid at the feet of the five Calamities, in the stories: the Black Knight, Warlock, Captain, Ranger and Assassin. The woman in front of me wasn’t one of them, and she didn’t make it to the fore of the legends the way Ranger and Warlock did. I supposed her Role didn’t exactly lend itself to flashy gestures – but she wasn’t an unknown either. It was said that she followed Black around like a second shadow, tidying up everything behind the victories so that it would run smoothly. Thinking about it, I was a little surprised not to have seen her last night. Her actual level of authority in the Empire was subject to debate, but there were few people stupid enough to disagree that getting on her bad side would be a very bad idea. The innkeeper broken the awkward silence – well awkward on my part anyway, she didn’t seem to notice – that settled between us by striding into the room with a plate full of eggs and sausage, sliding it in front of me with a practiced smile.
“Ma’am,” he greeted me. “Lady Scribe, are you sure I can’t offer you tea or wine?”
“That won’t be necessary,” she replied.
It was reassuring to see I wasn’t the only one she wouldn’t raise her head for. The man slunk back to his kitchen after a respectful bow, leaving me to dig into my first meal of the day. It wasn’t the fanciest of fares, but it was fresh and I was starving: I’d never eaten a better meal in my life. By the time I was polishing off the last of the sausage Scribe finished whatever it was she was doing, signing at the bottom of the parchment with a flourish before resting the tip of her quill against her inkwell.
“Black should be back before the evening bell,” she told me. “He’ll be wanting to speak to you.”
I didn’t reply immediately, partially because I wasn’t sure how I felt about the most famous villain of our age wanting to speak to me again but also because I was studying the woman sitting across from me. She was rather plain-faced in appearance, with ink-stained fingers and a diminutive stature. Though given we’re about the same height, maybe I should have used more flattering phrasing. She lacked the presence Black and Captain had shown yesterday, the way they could fill up a room just by standing in it. I would have been skeptical she even had a Name, if not for the way she’d effortlessly picked out my presence earlier. There was something tightly contained about Scribe, and I reminded myself that a Name didn’t have to involve fighting to be dangerous.
“Any idea what he wants to talk about?” I asked.
“The matron at your orphanage has been notified you’re still alive,” she replied, ignoring the question entirely. “She was getting worried.”
I let out a vaguely thankful noise. I didn’t dislike Matron Nelter, even if her lecturing sometimes got on my nerves. She didn’t approve of my working at the Rat’s Nest, sure – and would have thrown a fit of epic proportions if she’d been aware I fought in the Pit – but then the Laure House for Tragically Orphaned Girls had a history of setting up its wards for work more glamorous than serving drinks. Girls usually left the orphanage with enough education to pick up a trade or serve as tutors for noble children. That she took the time to get on my case meant that she cared, in her own way. Scribe seemed to have decided our conversation was over, because she pulled out a fresh sheet a parchment from the pile and dipped her quill. As it turned out, she was right about the Knight being back soon: I’d finished the sausage and I was halfway through a mug of tea when he strolled into the common room.
“Good evening, Catherine,” he greeted me cheerfully. “Scribe.”
“Black,” the plain-faced woman replied, and I had to give her points for the amount of guts it took to snub the godsdamned Black Knight in favour of a sheet of parchment.
“The numbers confirm it?” he asked, apparently used to her cool indifference.
“Yes. Not that it matters, given the confession. Captain?”
“Having a talk with Orim as of this moment.”
Some of that had gone over my head, but the last name was one I recognized. General Orim – Orim the Grim, his legionnaires called him with a fond smile – was the head of the Fifth Legion, which served as Laure’s garrison. I finished the last of my tea, waiting for my turn.
“Catherine,” Black said after a heartbeat, turning to face me, “you…”
“Look like you have a question?” he finished.
“This is going to sound a little strange,” I prefaced myself. “But I mean, I’ve heard stories and I think it needs to be asked. Could save a lot of trouble down the road and all.”
He raised an eyebrow, remaining silent.
“So, uh, just to be sure,” I said. “You wouldn’t happen to be my long-lost father who put me in an orphanage so I’d be safe from his enemies and is coming to get me now that I’m old enough to take care of myself?”
To my mild horror, I drew a laugh out of the monster sitting across from me. He seemed genuinely amused by the question, so I guessed I was still an orphan. Thank the Heavens for that, I thought. Still, that meant I was now drawing a blank as to why he’d taken an interest in me.
“No,” he replied, “I’m afraid I had no hand in your conception. Besides, one is never quite old enough to deal with the kind of enemies I have.”
“I can imagine,” I said, though I really couldn’t.
Couldn’t think of a lot of people who’d worry the man sitting across from me, truth be told. There was only one Duchess left in Callow and the woman in question was Deoraithe, who didn’t really want anything to do with the rest of the country. The idea of her leading a rebellion against the Empire was pretty laughable, and there were no other nobles left with enough pull. The First Prince of the Principate, maybe? Rumours had it she’d finally put an end to their civil war, so they were probably going to start looking at their neighbours again.
“Speaking of questionable individuals,” he said, “I was hoping we might have a word on the subject of the Governor.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“I’m told most of the words I’d use for him aren’t supposed to be spoken by proper ladies.”
“Are you?” he smiled. “A proper lady, that is?”
I snorted. So he wanted to talk about Governor Mazus, huh. I could do that. He might not like what I had to say, but I could do that.
“He’s probably the most hated man in the Empire,” I told him honestly. “Nobody speaks up because if you do the guards come knocking at your door, but I don’t think there’s a lot of people in Laure who wouldn’t shank him of they thought they could get away with it.”
Black let out a thoughtful noise, sipping at his cup.
“I was under the impression he was on good terms with the Guilds, at least,” he said.
“With the amount of gold he’s been throwing at the guild masters, that’s kind of a given,” I replied. “The few that didn’t want anything to do with him met unfortunate accidents and their replacements were a lot more cooperative.”
“Unfortunate accidents?” he probed.
“He’s not even being subtle about it,” I scowled. “Tara Goldeneye – she was in charge of the Spicer’s Guild and told him she’s rather go broke than take his bribes – drowned in a bathtub that barely had a inch of water in it. And don’t even get me started on the city guard.”
“I take it incidents like yesterday aren’t unheard of?”
“They do what they’re supposed to, mostly,” I conceded. “But it’s an open secret they’re his thugs and they tend to get rough when they collect the extraordinary taxes.”
His lips thinned.
“Ah yes, the famous taxes. He’s been making quite a stir back in Ater with those.”
“Funny the way they’re all temporary but somehow never go away,” I grunted.
The taxes were the main reason Mazus was so hated. Everyone expected whatever Praesi the Empress appointed Governor to try to turn Laure into his personal fiefdom, but after a decade of the Legions running the city people had become used to the people in charge being even-handed. As long as you didn’t make a mess or commit a crime, the legionnaires didn’t really care what Callowans did. Mazus poked his nose in everything, and the nose was usually followed by a hand that grabbing for more gold.
Food prices had been steadily hiking up for the last few years, and I’d heard people complain that merchandise that wasn’t guild-approved was tariffed heavily. And since the guilds took a take of anything they approved – which Mazus got part of, of course – just the cost of joining could put smaller merchants out of business. More than being unfair, the whole thing infuriated me because it was stupid. Laure saw nowhere as much business as it had a decade ago, and these days at least half of the people at the Summer Fair were locals. The man was so focused on squeezing everything he could out of the city that he didn’t realize he was strangling it.
“It’s sheer idiocy,” Black agreed, and I nearly jumped out of my skin.
Could he actually read minds, of had I said any of that out loud?
“Your face said it all,” the green-eyed man told me with an amused smile.
My pulse quickened. I wasn’t entirely sure he was telling me the truth. But he was agreeing with me. Why? Wouldn’t more gold for the Empire be good from his point of view, regardless of how Mazus got it? Even if the situation ended up blowing up in the Governor’s face, the Legion garrison would be enough to put down the riots. I had a dozen questions on the tip of my tongue, but I wasn’t so sure I should ask them. He’d been reasonable so far, almost affable actually, but it wouldn’t do to forget that the man across from me had brought an entire kingdom to its knees.
Maybe another girl would have thought that the way he kept smiling meant he was my friend, but I didn’t have any of those to confuse him with. And yet, I could feel that same old itch under my skin. The need to know why instead of stopping at “this is how it is”, the compulsion to understand the way everything around me worked. And he’d been the one to make this a dialogue, hadn’t he? He could have made it an interrogation – Hells, he could have asked someone better informed than a sixteen year old orphan girl – but for some reason he’d taken pains to prevent this from being one-sided.
“If he’s an idiot,” I spoke up against my better judgement, “then why is he Governor?”
Nothing about the Knight’s face visibly changed, but there was a distinct feeling of… satisfaction to him. The kind people got when they were proved right about something.
“Mazus wasn’t actually expected to make anything of himself here,” he said. “It was a purely political appointment.”
“The Empress wanted to reward him for something,” I guessed, “so she gave him the richest city in Callow to rule.”
“It wasn’t a reward,” Black replied, “it was a bribe. His father is a High Lord and after the Conquest we needed to appease them.”
I blinked in surprise.
“Appease them?” I burst out. “She’s the Empress, why would she need to appease anyone?”
The green-eyed man finished the last of his wine and put the goblet aside.
“You’re thinking of power as an absolute, but that’s a false perception. If the matron of your orphanage put on a crown and proclaimed herself Governess of Laure, would that somehow grant her authority over the city?”
“I’m guessing that’s a rhetorical question,” I replied drily.
He hummed in agreement, warming up to his subject.
“It’s the same with Malicia. Sitting on the throne doesn’t mean all of Praes obeys her every whim. She needs the backing of other people with power or her authority remains little more than a polite fiction.”
His tone of voice wasn’t all that different from the one the better tutors the orphanage hired used when they spoke about their favourite subject, which was just… odd. The image of the middle-aged scholar in charge of our lessons didn’t interpose all that well with that of the villain in front of me.
“So she needs all the High Lords on her side?” I asked.
A sardonic smile quirked his lips.
“That would be quite the achievement, given the way they hate each other almost as much as they hate her,” he murmured. “No, she simply needs enough of them under her thumb that the others think rebellion isn’t feasible.”
“And the best way to get the people she needs on her side is to give them a nice Callowan city to get taxes from,” I frowned. “Even if that means the people who live in it get stuck with a bastard like Mazus.”
“More or less,” he agreed. “The crown receives a certain part of the taxes he collects, which has been a much larger amount of gold than anticipated for the last few years. Questions have been raised, as a consequence.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“The Empress isn’t pleased she’s getting more than she thought she would?”
Black’s eyes turned cold.
“Gold doesn’t grow on trees, Catherine. Concerns have been raised about how well Laure is doing under that kind of a burden.”
I let out a thoughtful noise.
“You’re worried you’re strangling the golden goose,” I mused.
His hand waved dismissively.
“That’s part of it, of course, but ultimately it’s a minor issue. The real problem is that he’s been causing unrest.”
“Not that the idea of the Legion putting down a riot isn’t all kinds of horrifying,” I said, “but aren’t they there exactly to deal with that kind of thing?”
I grimaced at myself, a little worried by how easy it had been to slip into the Imperial mindset. I planned to go into the Legions myself, sure, but I’d made that choice with the idea in mind that when I rose up high enough in the ranks I’d be able to prevent the very kind of thing I was talking about. Black poured himself a fresh cup of wine, silently offering to do the same for me. I shook my head. I wasn’t that I disliked wine – I’d tried it a few times at the Rat’s Nest and found I enjoyed some kinds – but I’d just eaten breakfast and it couldn’t be that late anyway. Praesi started drinking early, though, so I wasn’t exactly surprised he was on his second cup.
“They could suppress riots easily enough,” Black conceded. “But there would be consequences.”
Should I, or shouldn’t I? Hells, wouldn’t even the most insolent thing I’ve said to him yet.
“I didn’t think dead Callowans was something you’d worry about all that much, sir.”
I took pains to keep my tone polite. It was one thing to tug the dragon’s tail, another to stick out your tongue at him at the same time.
“I abhor waste,” the Knight replied, apparently nonplussed I’d just implied he was an unrepentant mass-murderer. I supposed I wasn’t the first to do so. “And all killing the rioters would accomplish is driving the resentment underground.”
He put aside his cup.
“The problem is broader in scope, Catherine. Take two nations, of roughly the same population. One annexes the other, but has no real legitimacy in doing so other than force of arms. How does one keep the annexed nation from rebelling?”
I wasn’t sure why he was keeping the names of Praes and Callow out of his hypothetical exercise given how glaringly obvious it was what we were talking about. Detachment, maybe? I guess it was easier to talk about… unpleasant measures if I wasn’t outright talking about my countrymen. Still, that was a mighty thing fig leaf.
“Use the Legions – I mean, the conquering nation’s armies – to turn the screws on anybody who steps out of line. Hang enough people and nobody’s going to pick a fight with you,” I said after a moment.
In some ways it was a lot easier to rule when you were Evil. Pesky little concepts like justice or not murdering your way out of situations weren’t something you had to worry about.
“Ah, rule through fear,” he mused. “That works, to an extent. It’s a delicate balance to maintain between having people fear you enough they won’t revolt and them being so terrified they think they have nothing to lose. Which is why, when someone does drive the people to that level of terror, it is necessary to step in.”
It clicked into place, like one of those fancy metal puzzles they sold in the marketplace.
“Mazus,” I realized.
“The policy of the Empire is to use Callow, not abuse,” Black said. “The Governor is doing more damage than he knows.”
I kept the mild sense of disgust that caused in me away from my face. Who even says something like that? Yet even of that was still fairly evil, as far as policies went, at least it wasn’t stupid. I’d pick having in charge a competent monster over a vicious idiot any day.
“You really think riots in Laure could spread all over?” I asked.
“The key to the Empire maintaining control over the lands it conquered isn’t fear, my dear, it’s apathy. As long as the common people can go about their business and live their lives mostly untroubled, what do they care who their taxes go to? The Governor is making people care about who rules them again, and that is a very dangerous thing.”
“Huh. That explains a lot, actually,” I admitted.
For one, it finally shed light on why the Legions of Terror – who took their cues from the Black Knight – had been so hands off compared to Mazus’ tenure as ruler of Laure. That the Governor wasn’t exactly an ally of the Empress also accounted for why the legionnaires never let an occasion to stick it to Mazus’ cronies go by. I’d put it down to a mixture of disliking the man as much as we did and basic decency but it made sense there were also politics at work behind the scenes.
“There’s also a subtler danger, and that one is the reason I came here personally,” Black added after a moment.
I raised an eyebrow, curious but deciding I’d pushed enough for the day. I didn’t know how much rope he was willing to give me, but I had a feeling I’d already drawn enough to hang myself with.
“Think of it as a story, if you will,” the green-eyed man murmured. “A city, once the capital of a thriving kingdom, now ruined and oppressed. Its people are crushed under an ever-increasing burden and there is no hope in sight. Enter…”
“The hero,” I finished just as quietly.
Shit. That did have the potential of becoming a nasty situation. Just like if you left dry firewood piled up long enough eventually there’d be a spark that set it on fire, if a city like what he’d just described was left unattended too long eventually a Role would emerge to fill the void. Would the hero beat the Black Knight? I doubted it. The last seven to try hadn’t, after all, and I’d heard the one from five years ago hadn’t even been about for a week before Assassin got him. If he riled up the people in the city enough, though, he could do a lot of damage before being put down. This was on another level, though – the Knight wasn’t even fighting a hero, he was making sure the situation where a hero would be created never came to be.
“Heavens wept,” I said softly. “No wonder you kill them every time. The arrow’s nocked long before you let the sparrow fly.”
Black’s smile turned sharp as a knife.
“Just because I’m winning doesn’t mean I won’t cheat.”
“So why are you telling me all this?” I asked, waving my hand to encompass the whole conversation. “Wouldn’t that make me a liability? You don’t seem like the kind of person that leaves loose ends behind.”
He picked up his cup and sipped.
“Because you remind me of someone,” he replied. “And because after you accompany me to the banquet, I will have an offer for you.”
I scowled at the presumption I’d just go with him. It wasn’t like he wasn’t right – even if he didn’t have the authority to force the matter, I was already curious enough to agree – but rubbing it in my face that I didn’t have much of a choice just made him an ass.
“A banquet?” I grunted. “Sounds fancy. Should I be bringing anything?”
“It’ll be the Governor’s banquet,” he mused. “So if nothing else, I’d bring the knife.”