“Power is mostly a matter of making the right corpses at the right time.”
– Dread Empress Malicia the First
My words echoed in the now-emptied hall, and I had to hold back a wince when I realized how confrontational I’d sounded. Matter-of-fact, maybe, but there’d been a distinctly accusatory undertone to my voice I wished I could take back – not because I hadn’t meant it, but because pressing the green-eyed man standing in front of me seemed…. ill-advised. Too late to put the pot back together, though. Might as well go all out.
“So first you talk me into killing the guards,” I noted. “They had it coming, sure, but would I have made that call if you weren’t egging me on? Not so sure. So now here I am, hands bloodied and not quite sure where to go from there.”
I paused, expecting a falsely-offended denial. Black remained silent, though, and his face was still as a pond on a windless night: anything I’d see on there would be nothing more than a reflection of my own expectations. The Knight glanced at Captain, who was looming by the door, and offered her a half-nod. She left the room without a word, closing the massive doors behind her. The sound of the wooden gates closing shut in her wake was oddly sinister.
“You were getting to a point, I believe,” Black prompted me, reaching for a glass and pouring himself a drink.
I steeled my spine and pushed on. “You might have done all that for the shits and giggles – I mean, I’ve heard weirder about villains – but you took me here tonight. Had me front and centre the whole time you were playing with a man I’d cheerfully stab given half a chance. You’ve got an angle at play, and it involves me agreeing to something.”
The pale-skinned man pulled back a bench and sat astride it with cool elegance, gesturing for me to do the same. I could have circled the room and sat across from him, but that would have been playing his game and I’d done quite enough of that tonight. I kicked back the Governor’s padded seat and plopped myself onto it with the closest thing to nonchalance I could muster with my heart beating in my ears like it currently was. I was all too aware I was playing with fire at the moment, but what else could I do? Some part of me felt backed into a corner, and I’d ever only reacted one way to that: come out swinging, sometimes yelling as loud as I could.
“You’re right, to an extent,” Black acknowledged, shooting me an amused look at my choice of seat. “But also wrong. What you so quaintly call my “pitch” started the moment I came across you in that alley.”
I frowned. Now that I thought of it, what were the odds that he’d run into me just when I was stuck in a losing fight? The guards hadn’t seemed like they’d been sent there on purpose, but how hard could it be to –
“I did not, in fact, arrange your little scuffle,” he interrupted my thoughts, tone flat.
I kept my face blank. “You could be lying.”
“I am a splendid liar,” he agreed pleasantly. “But I don’t bother when the truth serves my purposes just as well. As for happening upon you in that particular moment – well, coincidences are hardly unusual when one has a Role like mine.”
“To take the mantle of a Name is to embrace the strands of Fate,” I quoted quietly. It was rare for the House of Light preachers to have a sermon on the subject of Roles, but compared to their usual fare it was interesting enough that the sentence stuck out easily in my memory. Black’s eyes turned cold.
“Fate is the coward’s way out, Catherine,” he spat out. “It is the denial of personal responsibility. Every decision I have made was my own choice, and all consequences that come from it are on my head.”
“Considering the kind of things you’ve done,” I quietly said, “I’m not sure that’s a selling point.”
The flash of anger I’d seen in him was gone as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by the usual indifferent facade. Did I just see what he actually looks like under the mask, or did I just happen to find a delicate subject? Neither option was particularly comforting.
“I don’t expect you to love the Empire,” he said. “You’ve lived your entire life under its boot, and that is not a comfortable place to be.”
“You don’t get fair when you lose the war,” I replied, echoing my thoughts from yesterday.
He took a sip of wine, making a face at the taste. “I had an interesting conversation with Scribe, on our way to Laure. She believes that the denarii you have stashed at the orphanage are so you can leave the city and start over elsewhere.”
I wish I could say I was surprised he knew about the money, but given that he’d addressed me by my name the first time we’d ever come to face I really wasn’t. He must have had someone in the orphanage – it wouldn’t even be hard to accomplish, the Laure House for Tragically Orphaned Girls was an Imperial institution to start with. Why, though, was a better question. Why would the Black Knight pay any attention to the goings-on in one the city’s orphanages?
“And what was your guess?” I asked instead.
“Scribe’s one of the most intelligent women I’ve ever met,” he mused, “but she’s never had a home, you see. She doesn’t understand what it’s like, to see a place falling to pieces and need to fix it.”
I met his eyes, green to brown, and he smiled.
“You’re saving up for tuition at the War College,” Black spoke into the empty room, his quiet voice somehow managing to fill the emptiness. “You’re nearly done, too – a few more months and you’ll have enough put aside for both the semester and the trip there.”
A shiver went up my spine, and this time there were no Name tricks to blame for it. Two days I’d known the man, and already he’d already pegged what I wanted perfectly. My hand fell down to the dagger at my hip, thumb rubbing the pommel almost without realizing it. The feeling of the wrapped leather against my finger grounded me, a physical sensation to chase the almost eerie atmosphere the scene had taken.
“That’s the plan,” I agreed, managing to keep my voice steady by the grace of the Heavens. “I was under the impression that the Legions take Callowans too, now – or was I wrong?”
“You are correct,” he replied. “Though few ever take the opportunity. So why would you?”
I shrugged. “I have a talent for scrapping. Seems like I’d be a good fit.”
I wasn’t good enough of a liar to get away with an outright lie, but a half-truth might manage to pull through. There were other ways to get higher up in the ranks of the Empire, after all, even for Callowans. I’d chosen the Legions as my path up because, at the end of the day, fighting was my talent I was most confident in. The green-eyed man sighed.
“Catherine, I’ve done you the courtesy of not taking you for an imbecile,” he murmured. “This conversation will go much more smoothly if you afford me the same.”
Ah. So much for that, then. He seemed more irritated than angry at my attempt – I supposed lying wasn’t much of a sin, by Praesi standards.
“Fine,” I grunted. “You want to hear the truth? I think the way the Empire rules over Callow is fucked. At best you’re brutally fair, at worst you get types like Mazus who think it’s their gods-given right to do as much damage as possible. I don’t give a shit whether we pay our taxes to the Tower or not, but someone has to rein in the idiots when they get vicious and the Legion is my best bet to get into that place.”
The man’s lips stretched into that mean little number he’d pulled out on the Governor earlier. Well, I had a good run. I’ll try to give him a scar to remember me by before my body gets dumped in the lake, I decided, fingers tightening around the knife.
“Most people sharing your opinion would try to become a hero,” he said instead of unsheathing his sword.
I snorted. “And what, try to restore the Kingdom? We’re fresh out of royals and even if I managed to dig up some claimant getting him on the throne would be a bloody mess. How many thousands would die, fighting the Empire? More than it’s worth. And let’s not pretend you wouldn’t burn everything to the ground on your way out.” I offered a grim smile to the monster. “I’d just be good sense, for you lot: make us a weaker target from when you invade again, a few years down the line. Since you’re not doing us the favour of crumbling by yourselves, I’d better make peace with the fact that the Empress is in charge – she’s not going anywhere.”
The black-haired killer set down his cup and let out a low, almost lazy laugh. I scowled at the sound: I hadn’t been joking, and this wasn’t exactly a laughing matter.
“I was wrong,” Black said, though he didn’t sound like he was admitting an error. “You never could have become a hero. You lack the mindset for it.”
I bared my teeth. “And to think you gave me all that sweet talk about ‘what separates people who have a Name from people who don’t.’ Way to break my heart.”
“Allow me to make up for it, then,” he replied. “I’d like to offer you a job.”
Ah, and there it was. The end game he’d been driving his cart to all this time.
“I’m a little curious as to what you’re actually going to offer,” I admitted. “Training with the Blackguard? You’re bound to have potential recruits with less baggage.”
“I am,” the Knight murmured, “looking for a Squire.”
He didn’t have to raise his voice to make the capitalized letter clear. A Name. Shit. He was offering me a Name? Could he even do that?
“I thought people with Names picked themselves,” I croaked out, mouth suddenly gone dry.
“They do, to an extent,” he agreed amiably. “But you have the potential, and given the… intertwined natures of that Role and mine, I have a degree of influence over the nomination.”
I didn’t think he was lying, not that I really believed I would have been able to tell if he was. Well, at least it looks like I’m not getting my throat slit. Not immediately, anyway. The evening’s already looking up.
“And what do you want in exchange?” I asked, trying to keep the suspicion out of my voice.
The green-eyed man sighed. “I’m not a trader hawking over merchandise, Catherine,” he replied. “As Squire you would be my apprentice, in a way. My responsibility. I wouldn’t have made the offer if I didn’t believe you would be an asset.”
My mind spun and I closed my eyes, overwhelmed by the possibilities he’d just opened. If I had a Name… I’d bypass the Imperial hierarchy entirely, just by saying yes. Squire wasn’t exactly the most powerful of the Names out there but it would lead to something else and until then I’d be at the side of the second most powerful person in the Empire, learning all I could. All the ins and outs of the court, all the war tricks and connections that I wouldn’t get from books or even the instructors at the War College. I might be in a place to do some good in a decade instead of three. Less, if I somehow distinguish myself.
“You want the answer now,” I said, the tone half-question and half-statement.
“One way or another, I’ll need your decision before you leave this room,” he acknowledged.
Heavens forgive me, but I wanted this. Wanted it so very badly. That was the part that was making me balk, though: I wasn’t this lucky, never had been. There must have been something in it for him I couldn’t see yet, some clause or trap I’d only grasp when it was too late.
“And if I say no?”
One girl found floating by the docks, missing a throat. Wouldn’t be the first time someone dumped a body in the Silver Lake, wouldn’t be the last.
He shrugged. “You return to the orphanage. I’ll see to it that you’re put on the rolls at the College, with the first season’s tuition paid. I’ll look forward to your service in the Legions.”
“And that’s it? After all this, I’d still get to walk away clean?”
The Knight peered at his cup, swirling the dark wine inside with a negligent flick of the wrist.
“Some of my predecessors would have thrown a threat in there to motivate you,” he admitted easily. “Something along the lines of ‘should you refuse me, I will burn alive everyone in the orphanage and make you watch’.” He smiled ruefully. “Most of them were killed by their Squire, as it happens. I will not repeat their mistake: I will not deceive you, Catherine, or force your hand. What would be the point? I already have followers and equals – as well as a superior, if only the one. What I want is an apprentice, and an unwilling one would be nothing more than a burden.”
There’d been a sermon in the House of Light, once, about devils. The sister preaching had told us that the real ones, the dangerous ones, didn’t bluster about stealing innocent souls and breaking their word. They gave you exactly what you wanted and let you find your own way to the Hells with it.
“You realize,” I rasped out, “that it wouldn’t change anything. Even with a Name I’ll still want to change things.”
I hated the way it sounded like I wanted to accept his offer, true as it was.
“Mine is not the side that concerns itself with how people that gain power use it,” Black replied. “By all means, reform the Empire as much as you want – as much as you’re able to, anyway. If you have the ability to accomplish something, it is your right to do so.”
Damn me, damn him, damn this whole night and the one that came before it. It all sounded so reasonable to me, but that was how they always got you wasn’t it? Was it arrogance, to think that if I didn’t step up to fix Callow no one else would do it? Maybe I was just a self-deluded little girl, playing a game whose rule I didn’t yet understand and pretending I knew what it was doing. But it doesn’t matter, does it?The only question was whether I wanted this badly enough to make a deal with the monster sipping at his wine, and I’d known the answer to that before I ever set foot in the palace. This is how it starts, isn’t it? How villains are born. When you decide that something is worth more than being Good. My fingers clenched and unclenched. I took a deep breath and let it out.
“So how does this work? Do I sign a contract in blood and summon a demon?”
Black did not smile, and I was almost grateful about that – if he’d been smug about this, treated it like he’d beaten me, I didn’t know what I would have done.
“Normally,” he said, “a conscious decision is enough to begin the process. By wanting to be the Squire, you reach for the Role and make yourself closer to it.”
“Normally?” I repeated.
“There’s a shortcut, for those so inclined,” he told me.
I met his eyes for the second time that night, unflinching. Even if this was a mistake, I would own it. I owed myself that much.
“What do I need to do?”
He smiled. “Try not to die.”
In the blink of an eye he was on his feet, moving quickly – much too quickly for someone wearing plate – with his sword was in hand. I felt the tip of it punch through my lung before I could so much as scream, and the last thing I saw before the darkness took me was those eerie green eyes looking down on me.
I opened my eyes under water.
My hands scrabbled for something solid to hang on to and sank into thick mud, still managing to push up my torso enough that I wasn’t swallowing what looked murky swamp water. I spat out something green and vaguely leafy, retching at the taste of scum water in my mouth. Before I could try to get on my feet I was compelled to notice that there was still a sword jutting out of my chest.
“He stabbed me,” I wheezed out in disbelief, my breath coming out panicked. “He just fucking stabbed me, out of nowhere. Who even does that?”
“Well,” a woman’s voice drawled lazily. “You know. Villains.”
My eyes spun towards the source of the noise, skimming over a darkened panorama of tall thin trees and greenery-covered waters – it was hard to tell, in the gloom, but I was fairly sure that the girl looking down on me from jutting stump was… well, me. Older, maybe, bearing a long pink scar across the nose and wearing legionary armour but there was no mistaking the face.
“Ugh,” I groaned. “This is going to be some kind of symbolic soul-searching quest, isn’t?”
“That implies your soul is a swamp,” the girl pointed out mildly. “Maybe you should get out more. You know, make some friends. Laugh once every few moons.”
I scowled. “I’m not taking advice about my social life from a dubious Name vision.”
I tried to push myself up to a sitting position – my fingers were sinking deeper into the mud, and the rest of my body slowly following – but the sharp pain I immediately felt served as a reminder that there was still a sword jutting out of my chest.
“Oh, right,” the smug brat mused. “Let me get that for you.”
She jumped down from the stump, wading into ankle-high water to get to me. I was about to ask her to pull it out gently when I saw her look me over and pensively raise a foot.
“Don’t you dare,” I warned her. “Don’t you godsdamned-”
She put down her boot on my breasts and closed her fingers around the hilt of the sword, giving a brutal push with her knee that dunked my head back into the scum water. I pushed myself out into a sitting position a heartbeat later, retching out more of the disgusting green stuff and really wishing I hadn’t been opening my mouth to cuss her out when she’d pushed me under.
“This is a pretty good sword,” she observed. “Goblin steel, better than the standard issue stuff.”
“And that makes getting stabbed with it better why?” I heaved.
“If it were rusty you could have gotten lockjaw,” the doppelganger commented.
Not even a bell into joining up with the Empire and I was sitting half-drowned in a metaphorical swamp, getting sassed by some sort of – probably evil – magical double. I’ll note Black didn’t mention this part in the recruitment speech, I thought, trying to force my soaked hair into some semblance of order.
“Might be wise to get onto the stump,” the other me said. “I’m pretty sure there’s snakes in the water.”
“That just burning figures,” I cursed, hastily getting on my feet and slogging my way out of the danger – the doppelganger offered a hand to help me up, and I warily took it. I couldn’t see a weapon on her, but I didn’t know what the rules of this place were yet. If there are any. Closing my eyes, I tried to think hard about a sunny meadow and waited a moment.
“What are you doing, exactly?” my voice interrupted me.
“Are we still in a swamp?” I asked, keeping my eyes closed.
“Nah, it’s some sort forest now.”
Hope welled up in my chest and I opened my eyes to the smirking rictus of the doppelganger. Did I really look like that when I smirked? Huh. No wonder people in the Pit went for my face so often.
“You lied,” I acknowledged wearily, glaring at the smelly wetlands still surrounding me.
“Shocker,” the double replied dryly.
“Did I draw the short straw when they were assigning spirit guides?” I muttered.
The doppelganger looked kind of offended.
“I’m a great spirit guide,” she contested. “Ask me a question.”
I wiped my face with the back of my hand. “What can I do to end this quickly?”
Her perfectly plucked eyebrows rose. “Ask better questions.”
I snatched the sword back out of her hands with a glower – I didn’t have a scabbard to put it in, so I just rested the point on the stump and awkwardly leaned on it.
“Right, not a guide then,” I grunted. “Are we going to have to fight? Because I’m not really feeling in the mood for anything but a bath right now.”
“I’m just here to point you to the next part, really,” the doppelganger said. “See that hill in the distance?”
I took a look where she was pointing, vaguely making out an upwards slope on what seemed to be solid ground. There was some sort of structure I could glimpse, and I squinted to see it better. That was when she socked me in the jaw. Back into the water I went, landing with a splash and an aching mouth.
“Lied again,” the double told me cheerfully when I resurfaced. “We’re gonna fight.”
“I don’t know what part of me you’re supposed to represent,” I spat out, bringing up the sword I’d somehow managed to remain clutching, “but I’m going to drown you.”
“That’s the spirit,” she grinned, rolling her shoulders. “See what I did there? Spirit. It’s funny because I’m a-”
I took a swipe at her ankles, hoping she’d give me the satisfaction of being a bleeder, but she leapt onto another stump.
“In the interest of full disclosure,” the double continued, “I was also lying about the snakes. I know, I have a problem. You have one too, though, right behind you.”
My first instinct was to snarl that I wasn’t going to fall for that twice, but after a heartbeat instead I stabbed blindly behind me – the blade hacked into flesh and I spun to push more weight into it, eyes widening in surprise. The decomposing corpse that had been about to lay a hand on my shoulder fell into the water still twitching, leathery skin pulled taut around rotting teeth.
“I have a zombie in my soul,” I forced myself to acknowledge, voice sounding faint to my own ears. “Gods, maybe I do need to make some friends.”
“So,” the doppelganger called out from the tall branch she’d managed to hoist herself onto while I wasn’t looking. “Three guesses as to whether that’s the last one and the first two don’t count.”
I glared at her. “The only upside to this is that if you rise from the dead after I’m done with you I’ll get to off you twice,” I replied through gritted teeth.
“Meh,” she shrugged. “You’re all talk. If you weren’t, you would have stabbed Mazus in his wretched throat – we both know the Knight wouldn’t have stopped you.”
“Well,” I mused as I cast a wary eye out for anything else coming out of the waters, “at least now I’m sure you’re not the Good twin.”
“Nah, prissy bitch doesn’t come down here,” the girl replied. “Says she doesn’t like the smell.”
Gods Above, there really were two of them. This just keeps on getting better. Nothing else seemed to be crawling out from under the surface, so I moved back towards the stump to get better footing. I didn’t like the idea of staying in the mulch either: it seemed right up her alley to have been lying about having lied about the snakes. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to follow her into the branches – I wasn’t sure what path up she’d taken, and I’d never been great at climbing. Not like there were a lot of trees in Laure.
“So that’s your trouble with me?” I prompted. “Not enough murdering people at the dinner table?”
She crouched on the branch, grinning down with pearly white teeth.
“My issue is that you’re a bleeding heart, Cathy,” she drawled. “You’ve got all those pretty notions about how things should be, but when the hard choices are gonna come you’ll flinch. You have a chance to get some real change going but you’re going to end up choking on that self-righteousness.” She waved her hand theatrically. “That’s gonna end up with us actually bleeding from the heart, and I just can’t have that.”
“So I should just go around stabbing everyone who does things I don’t agree with?” I replied. “That sounds like a winning plan.”
“If you had a winning plan, I wouldn’t mind,” the doppelganger smiled mirthlessly. “But you’re not trying to win. You’re trying to be right.”
In a single, smooth movement she leapt from the branch and barrelled right into me. I was taken by surprised enough that I couldn’t bring up the sword in time. Shit. We both splashed into the water – which had happened since the beginning of this little jaunt too often for my tastes already – while clawing at each other, trying to make sure we ended up on top. She managed to edge me out, but she left her face open so I knocked her teeth it with the sword’s pommel – she pushed me away, crawling up to her feet as I did the same.
“Now that’s more like it,” she laughed, spitting out a fat gob of blood from the corner of her lip. “Swing that thing like you mean it.”
“You’re insane,” I growled. “There’s no point to this.”
“There’s no point to any of it,” she smiled. She flicked her wrist elegantly, producing a knife from somewhere in her sleeve. I know that knife. I’d owned it for less than two days, and already I would have recognized it anywhere: the first time I’d used it wasn’t something I’d ever forget.
“There’s only one choice in life, Squire,” my doppelganger said with a flash of teeth. “You can be someone who makes things happen, or someone things happen to. Let’s find out which you are, shall we?”
She came at me swinging. There was nothing practiced or elegant about – she was just a girl with a sharp edge trying to claw out my throat. I stepped around her, letting her momentum carry her through as I swiped at her leg with the side of the blade. Too awkwardly placed: it bounced off the steel greaves. I’d never been taught how to use a sword, and it showed.
“Put your back into it, would you?” the double chided me. “Otherwise we’ll be at this all night.”
I ground my teeth, keeping a lid on my temper. I’d taunted people into making stupid mistakes often enough to recognize when someone was trying to do the same to me. The doppelganger leaned it with a quick half-step, blade headed straight from my throat, but the strike was too wild. Too much strength into it, not enough control: she was wasting movements. My fist impacted with her chin and she rocked back, but she slapped away the side of my sword when I tried to bring it to bear. The sharp edge bit into the leather gloves she wore, drawing a thin trickle of blood as she stepped back and started circling around me. “First blood to me,” I spoke quietly.
She laughed. “Last blood’s the only one that matters,” she replied, and rushed forward again.
I was ready for her, this time: I caught her wrist as it came down for my neck, fingers digging painfully into the cold wet mail as I struggled to hold it back. She tried to headbutt me but I lowered my face in time and she rammed her forehead into the top of my head instead. The double was the one who recoiled in pain, and that was the opening I needed – awkwardly, using the sword more like an oversized needle than a weapon, I rammed the point into her jugular. Blood sprayed out and she fell to her knees, gasping. I looked down into her eyes coldly.
“My turn with the speeches,” I ground out. “You lack focus. You lack discipline. You’re just lashing out at everything: all you can do is break things until you end up broken too.”
She gurgled out a laugh, a bloody smile stretching out her lips.
“What are you laughing at?” I asked.
“You didn’t flinch,” she rasped.
She dropped all the way into the water, face-first, and I had to flip her over to wrench out the blade. Threads of red were already appearing in the murk but I took a moment to catch my breath, clutching the sword. My free hand came up to wipe the sweat off my brow, though there was no salvaging the shirt and trousers that had been through the muck thrice. I was not looking forward to the walk to the hill, but at least I wouldn’t be hounded all the way there. The sound of parted waters was heard from up ahead as a silhouette emerged from the water, shambling upright. Then another. Then another.
“Come on,” I complained. “I didn’t even say it out loud!”