“I see I’ll have to take drastic measures to ensure intelligent conversation around here.”
– Dread Empress Maledicta II, before having the tongues of the entire Imperial court ripped out
“So, aren’t we a little underdressed for a palace visit?” I asked.
I was still wearing the shirt and trousers they’d had laid out for me in my room – and I was uncomfortably aware of exactly how well it fit. Did I want to know how they’d gotten my size? Probably not, I grimaced. I’d had enough shocks over the last few days as it was. Still, the dark grey cotton was more comfortable than anything I’d worn in a while. Hopefully I’d get to keep it after tonight, regardless of what the man’s “proposition” was.
“Armour goes with everything,” Black replied dryly.
He was still wearing the same plate set as last night. Now that I could get a good look in sunlight I was sure it was, well, regular steel plate. It could have been enchanted, of course – probably was – but it wasn’t the dark obsidian or whatnot you’d have expected a man in his position to wear. His belt buckle didn’t even have a skull on it! That had to break some kind of Imperial regulation.
“I guess it does, if you’re out to stab people,” I muttered, eyes watching his face closely to see if that got a reaction out of him.
Nothing. Not all that surprising: I was pretty good at picking up on tells in fights – I’d had to learn, to make it as far in the Pit as I had – but the social stuff had never been my strong suit. A regrettable lack of awareness and natural predisposition for insolence, our etiquette tutor had called it. I’d called him quite a few less polite things behind his back after that lesson, not that it made what he’d said any less true. We were drawing attention, I saw from the corner of my eye. People ducked into their houses and locked their doors when they saw two dozen soldiers escorting a pair of strangers – Scribe had stayed behind – if you were Lakeside or even Marketside, but we’d left both of those behind a while back for the sprawling avenues of Whitestone. This whole part of Laure was noble properties and guildhalls, all built in the pale sandstone that was the place’s signature.
It hadn’t expanded in the last few hundred years, mostly because nobles had passed a tricky little bit of law to keep everyone else out: every addition to the quarter had to be built with the stone from the original quarry that had made up the other buildings and, what did you know, that quarry had gone dry over a century back. Whoever had come up with that probably thought they were clever – I mostly thought they were an asshole. Wasn’t that always the way with nobles, though? You got a title and a little land, then all these funny ideas started creeping in. Ideas like having a separate watch just for the Whitestone, and these were the very men and women staring at us right now. They kept their distance, of course, but there were more and more of them gathering every time we passed by a cluster of chainmail-decked cronies.
“They gonna give us trouble?” I grunted as we passed what must have been at least twenty nervous-looking watchmen.
Black cocked his head to the side.
“That seems unlikely,” he murmured. “At best they’ll try to send warning to their owners in the palace, but as it happens the entrance to it has already been secured.”
I felt my brows raise.
“There’s gotta be at least one of those with a sweetheart that works as a cook or a chambermaid,” I told him flatly. “They’ll know where the servant entrances are.”
The pale-skinned man granted me an amused look.
“And legionaries should be barring those gates as well, Catherine.”
Ah. Of course he’d have thought of that. Renowned evil strategist and all. I looked away so he couldn’t see my cheeks flush.
“And here’s Sabah,” he mused out loud. “Everything is going as planned, it seems.”
The latter sentence he said with an odd tone, like he was making a joke. I didn’t quite get what the humorous part was so I just shot him a quizzical glance. I didn’t think I’d met a Sabah before, but the silhouette that popped around the corner of Peony boulevard was easily recognizable. The olive-skinned woman better known as Captain still disdained wearing a helmet, but today she wasn’t sporting a cloak – it was painfully easy to see exactly how tall and broad she was. Definitely over eight feet, and with more muscles to her frame than any orc I’d seen, and orcs were built big. Just the sight of her was enough to scatter the few watchmen still sticking around, though she ignored them and headed straight for us.
“Black,” she greeted him. “Miss Foundling.”
Her voice was deep, though the sing-song Praesi accent was still recognizable under it. I nodded back, taking the occasion to get a closer look at her. Strong nose and deep-set blue eyes with delicate eyelashes that seemed almost out of place on a face that, well, brutish. She looked more like an overgrown caricature of a person than someone real, and the enormous hammer hanging off her back did little to dispel that appearance.
“Orim has his legionaries in place?” the Knight asked mildly.
“He was unusually eager to lock down the palace,” she noted. “Mazus managed to get on his bad side.”
That certainly explained why the legionaries I served drinks too rarely had anything good to say about the Governor. That kind of dislike tended to trickle down the ranks, and I’d gotten the impression that General Orim was a fairly popular leader. So they covered all the ways in and out of the palace. Now the real question was, what for? That strange little talk I’d had with the Black Knight back at the inn had left me with the impression that Mazus was on the outs with the Empress. She was bound to have other means to discipline the man than sending her right hand to do the job, though. A pointed letter with the Imperial seal on it would have done it just as well, and without involving all the cloak-and-dagger business that was going on right now. Is he getting his governorship revoked?That would be pretty ideal, as far as I was concerned. Laure would go back under martial law until the next Praesi bookend from the Wasteland arrived, and with a little luck the next idiot up in the palace would be more competent than this one. They wouldn’t have gone through all that trouble if that was all they’d planned, though, I decided. Not unless they expected trouble.
“Now don’t you just look like you’re planning murder,” a voice mused, breaking me out of my thoughts.
Both Black and Captain were looking at me, split somewhere between curious and entertained.
“That’s a bit rich coming from you, sir,” I replied, my mouth forming the words before my mind could intervene. Captain snorted, and hopefully that meant I wouldn’t get murdered in broad daylight.
“The girl’s not wrong,” she gravelled. “I’ve never seen you looking like you’re not up to something sinister.”
The Knight wrinkles his nose in distaste. “’Sinister’? Wekesa’s a bad influence on you. And to think you were so respectful when we first met.”
The gargantuan woman rolled her eyes and I clenched my jaw so my disbelief wouldn’t show. I’d never seriously imagined I’d end up meeting any of the Calamities, but the few times I’d thought about it there’d been a lot less… ribbing involved. Banter was something people did, not whatever they were. Besides, weren’t heroes supposed to be the witty ones? The best villains got was monologues, in the stories, or maybe a disbelieving line about how absorbing power from the eldritch abomination bound in stone couldn’t possibly have gone wrong. I pinched myself discreetly, just in case Zacharis had messed up my healing big time and I was having a particularly realistic fever dream. Captain took a look at the sky and frowned.
“We need to get a move on, to get here before the little shit’s guests are drunk,” she grunted.
Had she just called the Imperial Governor of Laure a little shit?
“I think you might be my favourite villain,” I told the woman very honestly.
The Praesi’s lips twitched.
“We should keep her,” she gravelled at Black. “Everybody’s been too afraid of you to mouth off since the Fields.”
“Someone forgot to inform Warlock, clearly” the Knight muttered. “But you’re right – we might have to kill a few to get them in the proper state of mind if they’re too sloshed.”
And just like that, it felt like someone had poured cold water down my back. The casual way the green-eyed man had just referred to murder had jarred me back into reality. Villains. Funny and almost likeable, but still villains. I’d seen beggar cripples Lakeside with missing limbs or a body entirely covered in burns gotten during the Conquest, through the handiwork of those two nonchalant people standing next to me. Just because they hate the same people as me doesn’t mean we’re on the same side. It wouldn’t do to forget that. I was joining the Legions to exploit the system the Empire had built, not became another component of it. I kept my discomfort away from my face and followed the two of them when they started strolling towards the palace, the Blackguards doing the same without a word.
It was a little eerie how silent they were, actually. I couldn’t recall a single one of them saying anything, or seeing one of their faces under the helmets.
There were rumours that all servants and bodyguards to the Imperial nobility had their tongues ripped out, but I had a hard time believing that. People peddling those stories were the same kind that said the reason the Dread Empress was so beautiful was that she bathed in the blood of the innocent. Which is all kinds of stupid. First off, there was bound to be a limited supply of innocents in Ater. Second, a bathtub-full of blood was a lot. Unless they had some sort of special spell to drain blood from people – which I wouldn’t put past Praesi, on second thought – that meant killing at least three adults every time, and unless the Empress wanted to go through the rest of her day caked in dry blood she’d have to take another bath after. Seemed like a lot of trouble for a dubious reason, especially since beauty wasn’t exactly a requirement for ruling. Emperor Nefarious, who’d been on the throne before Malicia, was said to have been a particularly ugly old man with a hook nose.
“I hear you fight in one of the rings,” Captain gravelled suddenly.
I eyed the tall warrior in surprise. Hadn’t expected the woman to try to get a conversation going again, but I supposed that even after my unpleasant realization from earlier chit chat was still better than walking all the way to the palace in silence.
“I, er, do,” I agreed. “Though I wasn’t aware you guys knew about those.”
“Why wouldn’t we?” she asked, glancing at Black.
“Fighting rings are illegal under Callowan law,” he told her.
“Huh,” the warrior grunted. “Barbaric.”
I held back a scowl. Not sure I want to hear that from a woman whose homeland practices human sacrifice. Still, it had come out of the blue that the Imps were aware of the Pit. The reason the fighting rings were underground was because they were illegal, after all. Booker wouldn’t have bothered to pay off the guards otherwise. Clearly Mazus must have known there were some, since he got a cut, but there was a difference between knowing about the Pit and knowing about the fight lineup.
“So Booker pays you off too?” I asked.
“In a manner of speaking,” Black replied. “You could say we own her.”
“Wait, if you guys run her then why is she paying off Mazus? Wouldn’t that cut into your profits?”
“You’re assuming that our people and the Governor’s are the same.”
Huh. I was reluctantly amused that Booker was getting fucked over by the Praesi on two fronts, truth be told. She’d always seemed so in control: it was a pleasant surprise she was being handled the way she handled just about everyone else.
“Anything else you guys are running on the down low?” I asked.
The Knight smiled but kept silent. I frowned.
“You wouldn’t bother with small-time stuff like a fighting ring if you didn’t have the bigger dogs on a leash,” I realized. “Shit. How much of the underworld do you actually own?”
Black’s smile broadened and he turned to Captain. “Told you she was sharp,” he said.
The armoured woman nodded, studying me with a strange look on her face, but the compliment did little to stymie my curiosity.
“The Thieve’s Guild, for sure,” I muttered. “The Smugglers too?”
The green-eyed villain shrugged. “We have a working relationship with all of the so-called “Dark Guilds”,” he admitted. “Though I could do without the melodramatic titles they grant themselves.”
That was more than a little ironic, coming from a man who’d named his personal bodyguards the Blackguards and dressed them up according to a colour theme.
“That doesn’t really make sense to me,” I grunted after a moment. “The Empire’s the law, why would they work with you?”
“You’re thinking in terms of legal and illegal,” Black simply replied. “You should be thinking in terms of Good and Evil.”
Oh. Put like that it made a little more sense. I supposed the kind of people who ran Laure’s less savoury parts would see people like the Calamities as natural allies. And yet, this was still Imperial territory. Why would they allow anyone to run thieves and thugs on their ground, even if they got a cut? “Merchants they rob still have that much less to pay taxes with,” I pointed out.
Captain seemed to have lost interest in the conversation, eyes wandering as she surveyed the streets. Couldn’t really blame her: we’d kind of wandered away from me fighting in the Pit.
“When Laure was ruled by King Robert,” Black said, “the Thieve’s Guild still existed. Correct?”
I nodded. That was common enough knowledge – word had it the Thieves had been in business since the the first house in Laure had been built. Likely that was just a band of criminals giving themselves a mystique, but there was no denying they’d been around for ages.
“And yet, like all his predecessors, he aggressively pursued it’s dismantlement,” the Knight continued. “The reality of it is that there is no city in the world where such activities don’t take place. Trying to eradicate them would simply drive a band of individuals highly proficient at sneaking about in the arms of the first hero to show up.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. The way the man thought was starting to give me a headache.
“So you make a deal with them,” I guessed. “They don’t steal from the Empire and you look the other way?”
“There are quotas,” Black replied. “And all killings of public figures had to be vetted beforehand.”
There was a sort of pragmatic sense to it, but it still raised my hackles. The Empire wasn’t even observing it’s own laws. The Praesi weren’t so much keeping order as they were making what already existed more orderly. What’s the point of having all that power if you don’t use it to fix the parts of the world that need fixing? Thankfully, I was spared any more small talk by the fact that we’d finally arrived at the palace.
The Royal Palace was all arcs and windows, built in dark grey granite instead of the sandstone that infested the rest of this part of the city. There was no stone of that kind in Callow itself – word had it it had been built from the remnants of the flying fortress of a Dread Empress when it had crashed over the old palace. It was an impressive mass, and I couldn’t help but stare as we passed by the large ponds that dotted the front of it in arcane patterns. There was a low wall circling the entire thing with a large gate in the middle, but the people keeping watch at the entrance were not city guard: a dozen legionnaires were standing at attention in front, decked out in full kit.
“I guess now’s as good a time as any to ask why you brought me along,” I said as our group headed towards them.
Black hummed. “We’re going to ask a few pointed questions to the Governor,” he replied.
I raised an eyebrow. “So I just stand there in silence and observe?”
“On the contrary,” the Knight murmured. “You’re welcome to interrupt as much as you like.”
Well, wasn’t that ominous. “You’re testing me,” I grunted,
“Life is a test,” the green-eyed man replied easily.
I rolled my eyes. “I hope you didn’t have to meditate under a waterfall to come up with that one.”
Captain snorted, though the conversation was cut short as we passed the legionaries. They saluted in silence as we strolled by, taking a paved avenue to the palace proper. The entire place was deserted: I’d have expected servants to be milling about every which way while the Governor was receiving guests, but we were entirely alone. There was light and the sound of chatter trickling out through the open windows, gone as soon as we entered the torch-lit corridors of the inside. Black had come to the head of the party, taking one turn after another without hesitation: this wasn’t his first time here, I guessed. Spent most of my time eyeing the painting and sculptures that covered every open space, noting that more than a few of them were in the Free Cities style – painted marble, usually of naked people in twisted-up poses.
“Ah, here we are,” the Knight mused out loud as we arrived to a pair of closed wooden doors.
The noise of chatter and laughter coming from behind it made it clear we’d arrived at the banquet hall. Yet another staple of the Kingdom that was now just another trophy in the Governor’s hands. “Captain, if you would do the honours?”
The gargantuan woman stepped forward, laying the palms of her hands against the wood and pushing. The massive doors swung open briskly, hitting the walls with a booming crack. There must have been at least fifty people inside, servants aside. Men and women dressed in colourful imported silks, drowning in jewel-incrusted gold: most of them over forty, though I could see a handful of younger ones. There were three long tables forming a U, the man of the hour having taken residence at the head of the crowd: his dark-skinned stood out starkly across the pale Callowans in attendance. Idly I rubbed my thumb on the pommel of the knife strapped at my side – I wasn’t sure whether Black’s mention of bringing it had been a joke or not, but I certainly felt safer standing this close to the pack of cronies with a weapon at my hip.
The noise was snuffed out of the room the moment we walked in, the eyes of every single guest in attendance glued to the Knight’s face. A few glanced at Captain and fewer at me – it was a little irritating to be dismissed so blatantly, but I had a feeling I’d be the one getting the last laugh tonight.
“Out,” Black simply said. “All of you.”
I’d never seen a room clear so quickly before. I could feel the same strange weight I’d felt last night when he’d stared me down in the alley, but this time it wasn’t directed at me. It was like swimming just outside of a current: the pull was there, but it wasn’t dragging me in. All those peacocks dressed in silk and carrying enough gold in rings and necklaces to feed a family for a decade were hurrying out without even bothering to pretend they weren’t terrified. There was something darkly satisfying about seeing the rich and powerful of Laure jostling each other in their haste to get out the door as fast as they physically could. I didn’t hide my smile. I’m not here to make friends, and even if I was there’s no one here I’d want to count as one.
“So it’s a Name thing, the way you mess with people’s heads,” I mused. “Seems like a useful trick.”
The green-eyed man shot me an amused look.
“A fairly basic use of my power,” he replied, looking over the fleeing throng, “but I won’t deny it can be entertaining on occasion.”
It couldn’t have been more than thirty heartbeats when the only people left in the once-crowded banquet hall were Black, Captain, the Governor and myself. I took the occasion to have a closer look at the ruler of Laure, now that I was actually in the same room as the damned man. Governor Mazus was a tall man in his late thirties, dark-skinned like so many of the Praesi were. His hair was cut short and his beard cropped close, framed by the long gold earrings dangling from his ears. His robes were a riot of green and gold silk, and I was willing to bet diamonds to piglets that some of the stitches on them were actual gold thread. There was polished quality to the Governor, like every detail of his outfit and appearance had been attended to carefully. He can certainly afford the servants to do it.
“Amadeus,” the Governor said, outwardly unaffected by the interruption as he leaned back on his chair while loosely holding a sculpted silver goblet. “An unexpected pleasure. I would have prepared a more fitting reception, if you’d sent word ahead of your visit.”
The ice in Black’s eyes could have frozen boiling water.
“There are very few people who get to call me by that name, Mazus,” he replied very quietly, “and you were never one of them.”
There was no hiding the flinch that went through him at that, though the aristocrat’s face went blank immediately after as if to pretend it had never happened. I took notes: one of these days I was going to manage to get a flinch out of assholes without raising my voice too.
“Ah, of course,” the Governor said. “I’ve had a little too much wine, it seems. To what do I owe the privilege of your presence, Lord Black?”
“The taxes you owe the Tower are late, Governor.”
Mazus let out a regretful sigh.
“As I already informed Her Most Dreadful Majesty, the convoy was waylaid by bandits. I’ve already drafted extraordinary taxes to remedy to that, but the burned Callowans are being obstructive. Borders on treason, really.”
Not that it matters, given the confession, Scribe had said back at the inn. The pieces were starting to come together, and what I was beginning to think was going to happen to Mazus was enough to smother the cold rage that flared up when he called it treasonous that the people of Laure didn’t want their children to starve. I could have let the smarminess go, but really why bother? Black had already as good as said he wanted me to interrupt whenever I felt like it.
“Really?” I said. “Bandits attacking an Imperial tax convoy? He’s supposed to buy that? They’re outlaws, not idiots. They’d be swimming neck-deep in legionnaires before the month was done.”
The aristocrat narrowed his eyes at me, apparently unused at that kind of insolence coming from one of the people he ruled over.
“I care little if you pick up stray dogs off the streets, Lord Black, but perhaps you should muzzle this one before she gets her tongue ripped out.”
Oh, he did not just say that.
“Call me a dog again and I’m going to strangle you with your own intestines, you filthy Praesi prick,” I promised, meaning every word of it.
“Callowan?” I interrupted. “A girl? Nobody important? All true. But if I were you, the thing I’d worry about is carrying a knife.”
“I’d take that warning seriously if I were you, Mazus,” Black mused from my side. “I’ve known her for a day and she already has a body count.”
“Raising a hand to an Imperial Governor will get you drawn and quartered, girl. Your bravado does you little credit.”
“Unless, of course,” Black murmured, “said Governor has committed high treason.”
“That’s a serious accusation,” he replied after a moment. “Making it without proof would have consequences.”
“Oh, we’re still talking in hypotheticals,” the Knight demurred. “But if say, a hypothetical governor were to report his due to the Tower had been robbed, it would be possible that the Empress would get curious and send people to look into the matter.”
“Sounds like she’d be a little ticked off,” I contributed with a hard smile. “Hypothetically.”
“The Empress has little patience for those who cross her, much less those doing it so gauchely,” the green-eyed man agreed. “Now, imagine that these bandits were found, and that when… properly motivated, they had a story to tell. Would you care to guess what that story is, Catherine?”
“Someone paid them to rob the convoy,” I grunted, the words flowing out easily. “Someone who’d then get a cut of the gold and buy their silence with the rest of it.”
Black smiled, lean and mean.
“A little too clever to be a dog, don’t you think?”
I stepped closer to the tables, grabbing an empty goblet and a pitcher of wine before pouring myself drink. I wasn’t going to lie to myself and pretend I wasn’t enjoying every moment of this – it was payback for every time we’d had half-portions at the orphanage because food prices had hiked up, retribution for every time I’d seen the city guard rough up a shopkeeper late paying his taxes.
“People will say anything under torture,” Mazus finally said. “I look forward to your trying to convince a court it’s enough to have me put away.”
I frowned, but took a sip of wine – fruity and strong, probably not from Callow. Figured the bastard would be drinking imported stuff. Black wasn’t an idiot: he wouldn’t have strolled in here so confidently if Mazus was going to get away with it all, and I was more than willing to wait another few moments to see that veneer of confidence stripped away from the man’s face.
“The Empress had taken a personal interest,” the Knight said coldly. “There is no need for a trial when the sentence has already been determined.”
The Governor sneered. “This will be the ruin of her, you imbecile. My father will whip up the Truebloods in a frenzy when word gets out.”
“Really?” I choked out with a laugh. “That’s your defence – wait ’til my dad hears about this?”
“He has something of a point, Catherine,” Black said. “Or he would, if High Lord Igwe wasn’t already under arrest himself.”
It was the second time that night I saw Mazus blanch, and it was every bit as delightful as the first.
“You’re mad,” the Governor whispered.
“Ever a subject of debate, I’m assured,” the dark-haired man replied with a bland smile. “Truthfully, Mazus, I’m suprised. You’ve always been a little slow but this? How did you think it was going to end?”
“With me Chancellor,” the other Praesi snarled. “It’s just a matter of time until one of us claims the Role, you filthy upstart. You can’t destroy a Name.”
“You can’t buy one either,” the Knight replied. “Though that hardly matters now. Tell me, Catherine, how should a ruler deal with treason?”
I shrugged, feeling the weight of the Governor’s gaze on me.
“I’m told Imperial policy about that involves heads and pikes,” I mused. “Though that always struck me as a little tacky. It’s not like you can tell whose head it was, a few weeks in. The crows tend to take care of that.”
Mazus slowly forced his spine to straighten and his hands to stop shaking.
“Fine,” he sneered. “I was caught. So be it. Unlike peasants, my breed knows how to go when the game is up. Have the mahogany chest in my rooms fetched, I’ll drink the deathleaf extract with my wine.”
Black laughed and unlike the few laughs I’d heard from him before this one was a wintry, sharp thing.
“You don’t seem to understand your situation, Mazus,” he smiled. “You belong to us, now. Your life, your death – all ours. And you’re not dying a dignified death sitting on your throne. It’s the gallows for you, Governor of Laure.”
The Blackguards fanned into the room at Captain’s order. Mazus tried to get up, eyes white and wild, but by the time he’d pushed back his chair there was a pair of plate-wearing soldiers grabbing his shoulders.
“No,” he screamed. “Black, you can’t – you wouldn’t dare-”
They dragged him out of the room, his screams of protests echoing even as he disappeared into the corridor. I put down my goblet of wine, leaving it half-full. I felt a little guilty at the waste, but considering the banquet tables were full of food I was hardly the worst offender tonight.
“So,” I said calmly. “Now is when you make your pitch, I’m guessing?”