Funny, isn’t it? No matter what language they speak, everyone sounds the same when you pull out their fingernails.”
– Dread Emperor Foul III, “the Linguist”
The pile of books slammed on the table.
“The Most Illustrious Histories of the Inimitable Dread Empire of Praes”, volume I to III, made up up the top layer and I lost interest after checking that ones right under were a study of the Licerian Wars. Gods, those bred like lice. I’d had to read seven treatises about the fall of the Miezan Empire already – every two-bit scholar seemed to think that their own take on why the Baalites had won was unique and unprecedented, all while shamelessly stealing from each other’s work.
“I’m assuming you want me those read those and not, say, bludgeon someone to death with the pile?” I asked dryly.
“Very perceptive of you,” Black noted. “We’ll be leaving for Summerholm this afternoon, but before we do we’ll go over the shape of your days for the foreseeable future.”
“And apparently that shape involves…” I peered a little closer at one of the books close to the bottom, “A close look at Praesi agricultural practices? Are you sure I can’t get you to reconsider the bludgeoning thing?”
The Knight frowned. “Dry reading, I will concede, but a necessary one.”
Considering I’d never even seen a farm in my life and I doubted he’d ever done more than ride past one, that was one statement I wasn’t willing to swallow without a fight. I raised an eyebrow.
“Are we going to be doing a lot of farming in the next months, then? Have you ever been on a farm?”
He shot me an amused look. “I was raised on one, as a matter of fact. My father was a freeholder on the Green Stretch.”
It took me a moment to place the name, digging back to the handful of geography lessons I’d breezed through. It was what they called the crescent of fertile land in the Wasteland, right next to the Blessed Isle. I’d heard that it was the only part of Praes where people intermarried with Callowans, which made sense given my teacher’s distinctly pale skin tone. Still, the idea of the leader of the Calamities plowing a field was all sorts of hilarious for many reasons. I’m sure those fields were oppressed like no field before them, I chuckled to myself.
“Freeholder?” I repeated after a moment, mangling the unknown word. “That’s different from a regular sort of farmer, then?”
Black claimed a space on the bench across from the table. The banquet hall was just as deserted as it had been two nights ago – I’d apparently slept through a whole day, and managed to miss Mazus’ hanging for my trouble – though the polished wood had long been cleared of food and plates. I’d already set aside the hearty breakfast the palace kitchens had provided me after wolfing down two servings and half a pot of tea: Name visions apparently worked up quite an appetite. I took the high road and decided not to comment on the fact that the green-eyed man already had a cup of wine in hand before noon bell had even rung.
“Land in Praes is usually owned by the nobility,” he explained, “Namely, the High Lords or their lower counterparts. People who work the land rent it from them, and have no real say over what happens to it. The Green Stretch has no noble domains on it.”
I raised an eyebrow. “That seems unusually enlightened, for the Empire,” I commented.
He snorted. “The Stretch is the breadbasket of Praes – the north of the Wasteland barely produces enough grain to feed itself, much less sell a surplus, and the south is a literal desert. Any noble with significant holdings in the Stretch would be able to starve the Empire at will.”
Ah. That made a little more sense, in a depressing sort of way. “I’m guessing freeholders rent their land directly from the Empress?”
He nodded. “In a sense. There’s a single fee when taking possession that lasts for the lifetime of the freeholder. It has to be paid again if the land is inherited, but the Tower is typically hands-off with the entire region.”
I’d always thought of Praes a single unified entity, but the more I learned of it the more it became apparent it was anything but. How many of the blunders in the way Callow was being run came not from stupidity but the need to appease High Lords, I wondered? And how could a woman with Empress Malicia’s reputation tolerate her hand being forced by idiots?
“Why are there even High Lords anymore?” I finally asked. “I mean, they’re the obvious contenders for the throne – so why hasn’t the Empress killed them all and turned the entire Empire into freeholds? I mean, if the way your conversation with Mazus went is any indication you’d be all for riding that horse.”
Black’s fingers drummed against the table thoughtfully. “After we won the civil war, I advised Malicia as much. If I’d had my way, we’d have nailed the lot of them alive to the gates of their little kingdoms and broken the aristocracy so thoroughly there wouldn’t be a noble in Praes for another thousand years.”
“And yet here they are,” I pointed out quietly.
“She disagreed,” he told me. “Argued that the ensuing chaos would destabilize the Empire for decades. And that since there would always be opposition to her reign, it was better to know who her enemies were – and that she could beat them, if she needed to.”
The way he spoke the words was strange. He wasn’t espousing the position himself, merely parroting someone else’s opinion. The lack of conviction showed.
“You still think it should have been done,” I half-guessed, half-stated.
“Yes,” he agreed. “But she’s always seen more clearly through the politics than I have, so I’m trusting her judgement. I do have a certain tendency to try to… simplify problems.”
Meaning nail said problems alive to the gates of their “little kingdoms”. Weeping Heavens, the very image… He’d mentioned a superior, during his recruitment speech, and the conversation was making it very clear who that person was. Not that there’d ever been any doubt. Legionaries at the Nest spoke of the Black Knight with admiration, but they spoke of the Empress with awe.
“There will be other times to discuss the inner workings of the Empire,” Black said, changing the subject. “Preferably after your readings have acquainted you with the basics of its cultures. Your priority will be these three books.”
He gently tapped the spine of three particularly beat-up looking manuscripts in the middle of the pile. One of them bore script I didn’t recognize – they looked more like those magical glyphs mages sometimes used than letters – but the other two were in something I could read. Two words: the first one read Taghrebi, the other one Mthethwa. Languages, the both of them.
“I thought people in the Empire spoke Lower Miezan?” I asked.
It was the tongue we were using for this conversation, and the only one I spoke. It was the only one I’d ever needed, frankly: I’d had some lessons on Old Miezan, but that was a purely written language now. The Deoraithe in the north still spoke the same tongue they’d spoken since before the birth of the Kingdom and some of the lands in southern Callow still spoke tribal dialects, but everyone understood Lower Miezan. Even people from the Principate, who’d never even traded with the Miezans, usually understood it. Though that was most likely because the tongue they spoke was so hellishly complicated no one else wanted to learn it.
“They do,” Black agreed. “It became the most commonly spoken tongue when we were still a province. But if you are to ever command Praesi soldiers, you’ll have to understand the languages they were raised to – if only so you know what they’re saying when they’re not using Lower Miezan.”
I grunted in irritation. He had a point, not that it made the prospect of learning two entirely new languages any more inviting. It didn’t help that I had a feeling I’d be learning both at the same time.
“What’s the third one?” I asked instead of continuing to bask in my disgruntlement. “Are those glyphs?”
“They’re written Kharsum, though I’d have been surprised if you could recognize them.”
“Kharsum,” I repeated in disbelief. “You want me to learn orcish?”
“Kharsum,” he corrected me sharply. “Remember the proper name. And it is not the only orc tongue, only the most common dialect.”
“Am I learning goblin too, while I’m at it?” I complained.
Black smiled mirthlessly. “I’ve worked with goblins for over fifty years now, and I still don’t know enough of it to hold a conversation. They don’t teach it to outsiders.”
Curiosity pushed aside my indignation for a moment, though it was a close thing.
“So they all what, speak other people’s tongues?”
“Even goblins from the most backwards tribes are bilingual by the time they can walk,” the Knight informed me. “On average, they speak four languages – most Matrons speak seven, including a few who can speak Proceran.”
“That’s insane,” I grunted. “The amount of time that must take…”
“Is less than you’d think, if you start young enough,” he cut in. “Besides, you have an advantage none of them have.”
Huh. That was new. “If you say “a talented teacher” I won’t be held responsible for my actions,” I warned him.
He chuckled. “No, though that is an advantage. Unless I’m mistaken, at least one of your three aspects will make this easier on you.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“You mean that whole “Three Sins” thing is actually true?” I asked.
He blinked in surprise.
“Three Sins?” he repeated, sounding somewhere between puzzled and curious.
“And on all those who take up the banner of Evil, the Heavens will bestow three sins, planting the seed of their downfall in the name of Justice,” I quoted from memory.
Sermons at the House of Light were usually on the boring side, but that one had caught my attention: it was always more fun to hear about what the villains were up to than getting edified on the importance of the seventeen cardinal virtues.
“Your priests always did have a way with words,” he noted amusedly. “Though I notice they don’t mention heroic Roles have their own aspects.”
“So aspects instead of sins,” I mused. “I can buy that. What are they for?”
“They define your Role,” he told me, tone serious now. “They’ll change from one incarnation to the next, to some extent, but some aspects are as good as set in stone. Conquer is a staple of the Role of Black Knight, for example.”
“That means what, exactly?” I replied with a healthy dose of scepticism. “That you’re good at conquering things?”
“The more closely attuned you are to your aspects, the larger the portion of your Role’s power you can access,” he smiled. “So when “conquering things”, as you so aptly put, I become… more of what I am.”
“So why aren’t you always conquering something, then?” I asked. “Wouldn’t you be pretty much invincible?”
“That particular brand of logic has been popular with some of my predecessors,” he agreed. “But in the end there’s only so much power to access, and staying too close to your aspects tends to lead to tunnel vision. Not to mention the other side of the equation.”
“Heroes,” I murmured. “Why do I have a feeling that for every Evil role with Conquer in it, there’s a Good one with Protect?”
“Because I rarely suffer the company of imbeciles?” he suggested.
I gave him a flat look.
“Please, sir, there’s no need to gush – I’ll get embarrassed,” I deadpanned.
He didn’t manage to take a sip quite quickly enough to hide his smile.
“So what are my aspects, then?” I asked.
“Only you can answer that. It will come to you in due time. Learn is a typical one, which is why I believe that throwing off the proverbial cliff when learning languages will yield the best results,” he said.
So he wasn’t being entirely unreasonable about this. Still, orcish. “I didn’t even know orcs had a written language,” I admitted, eyeing the not-glyphs inscribed on the book’s spine.
“It actually predates all other written tongues on this continent,” he commented. “The arrival of the Miezans set them back centuries, in that regard.”
That had always been the problem with the Miezans, as far as I could tell. They’d built amazing structures and done wonders with magic that no one had managed since, but they’d had this nasty tendency to stomp down on subdued cultures to make sure they didn’t rebel. Orc slaves had been a prized commodity of the later Empire, with the way they could handle larger amounts of hard labour – and clans that didn’t like their children being taken away had the screws turned on them, sometimes all the way to extinction. It was a lucky thing the First Licerian War had sparked before they could venture into the maze of petty kingdoms that later became Callow, because otherwise I wasn’t sure what my homeland would look like today.
“At least tell me I’m going to be learning something that’s actually interesting,” I pleaded.
He snorted. “Readings will be done on your own time,” he informed me. “As of tomorrow, you’ll be waking up at dawn for sword lessons with either myself or Captain.”
I grinned. Now that was a little more up my alley. “Much softer sell, this one.”
He shot me an amused look. “I expected as much. After your midday meal you’ll have until the afternoon bell to yourself. Between that and evening bell I’ll be handling the aspects of your education that can’t be learned from books.”
That was also sounding promising. “And that means?”
He hummed. “We’ll be travelling this afternoon, so I suppose now would be the best time to have today’s lesson. Grab your knife, we’ll see about getting you a proper mount.”
Walking around in an aketon was an unusual experience.
The heat I’d gotten used to quick enough – though the accompanying sweat I could have done without – but the sensation of having a thick layer of additional protection covering me from my neck to my knees was a little surreal. Some part of me wanted to throw myself at a wall just to see if I’d bounce, though rationally I knew I wouldn’t. It was my second time making my way through the halls of power of my native city, so I made a point of taking in the scenery as I followed Black through the maze-like corridors. Tapestries of hunts and battles dotted the scenery wherever paintings did not, and I noted with quiet amusement that no one had seen fit to take down the ones depicting victories of Callowan royals over the Empire. There was even one particularly glorious one that depicted Dread Emperor Nefarious getting his ass whipped by the Wizard of the West during his failed invasion, on the very Fields of Streges where Black had inflicted a crushing defeat twenty years later. I somehow doubted Nefarious had actually dropped his crown while fleeing the battle, but the sight of the woven scene warmed my heart anyway. There were warmly-coloured wood panels covering most of the walls, elaborately carved around the edges, though they came less and less often as the Knight led me towards the western wing of the palace.
“So we’re headed to the stables?” I asked.
He didn’t seem particularly inclined towards conversation at the moment, but when had that ever stopped me with anyone?
“We are,” he replied absently. “The Royal Stables no longer provide for the king’s personal retinue of knights so they’re not as well stocked as they used to be, but we should find what we need regardless.”
“I feel like I should point out I’ve never ridden a horse,” I provided helpfully. “I don’t think I’ve even gotten closer than a stone’s throw to one.”
He glanced at me sideways as we passed a threshold through what seemed to be an annex to the kitchens – though a ridiculously spacious one.
“That’s a suspiciously specific unit of measurement,” he said after a moment.
“Wanted it to kick a guard,” I admitted shamelessly. “Poor sap.”
He raised an eyebrow. “The guard?”
“The horse, of course,” I grunted back. “The guard was asking for it.”
A shadow of a smile flitted across his face as we entered a paved courtyard – the sudden transition into sunlight blinded me for a moment. But not, I noted, as long as it would have a week ago. Two heartbeats hadn’t even passed before I’d gotten used to the change of scenery, and the oddity of it sent a shiver up my spine that had nothing to do with sweat. And I’m not even the Squire yet.
“You’ll also see better in the dark,” Black murmured from my side. “Though nowhere as well as goblins do.”
“My quota of creepy realizations for the day is reaching full load,” I informed him.
He hummed. “Perhaps you won’t enjoy the lesson very much, then.”
“Well that’s not ominous at all,” I deadpanned. “Are you going to leave this unaddressed like the funny line about everyone wanting to kill me? Because I’m still waiting for an explanation on that one.”
“All things in due time,” he replied with a serene smile I really wanted to take a hammer to.
I smelled the Royal Stables before I saw them: manure and animals had a distinct stench to them, especially in large concentrations. You’d think that by now a mage would have figured out a spell to get rid of the smell of shit. The stables themselves were made of the same grey granite as the rest of the palace, a long row of stalls where upwards of fifty horses were barred in. There was a groom feeding a stallion some hay in the distance, but he took a single look in our direction and made himself scarce as quickly as humanly possible.
“So, a gelding?” I prompted as we got close enough for me to have a look at the mounts. “I hear they’re easier to ride for beginners.”
The horses I saw in the stalls had little to do with the ones I’d seen in the streets pulling carts: they were bigger and taller, warhorses instead of workhorses. Some of them had distinct enough appearances I was pretty sure they were specific breeds, though for the life of me I couldn’t name one. The Procerans had some kind of mount called destriers, maybe? I knew Callow’s cavalry had been famous, once upon a time, but given how the knights had largely gotten wiped out during the Conquest they weren’t something you saw much anymore.
“The horse’s temperament shouldn’t be much of an issue,” Black replied. “I was informed that one of the Bedlam chargers had taken sick, but – ah, there he is.”
The horse had a dark chestnut coat, though it was matted with sweat. I guessed it must have stood over five feet tall when standing up: it was hard to tell with it lying down. It’s eyes were closed and it was breathing unevenly.
“I’m not going to have to nurse it back to health, am I?” I asked warily. It was a beautiful animal, but I knew nothing about horses and I’d rather not end up killing my first mount through a stupid mistake that someone better acquainted with the species wouldn’t have made.
“The stablemaster gives him one chance in three to last the month,” he told me. “It has a bad case of pigeon fever – abscesses under the skin. Painful way to die.”
I grimaced. Now that I was taking a closer look, I could see it was getting a little thin: I could glimpse the rib bones through its coat, and if I wasn’t mistaken its chest was swelling.
“You want me to heal it?”
I knew some Roles could do that. Bring back people on the brink of death, or even a little beyond the line, but I’d been under the impression that those were the heroic ones like Healer or Priestess. Black shook his head.
“We’re going to kill it.”
I blinked in surprise as the words took a moment to sink in. “We’re going to what?”
“You did not mishear me,” the green-eyed man said calmly.
“Look, if this is some kind of test… I already offed two people this week and seriously considered a third, so I really don’t see the point in-”
“We will then raise it from the dead,” Black continued evenly, as if I hadn’t interrupted.
I was too taken aback to muster a proper glare. “This is seriously fucked,” I finally managed to grit out. “Necromancy? That’s capital E…” I trailed off.
“Evil,” he finished quietly. “Yes, Catherine. That is the side you’re standing on, now. That is the choice you’ve made.”
I tried to muster up a response to that, but my thoughts were too scattered. I wasn’t sure why killing a horse I’d never seen before somehow struck me as more morally dubious than slitting the throat of two actual human beings, but it did. They’d been horrible people, sure, but they’d still been people. The House of Light’s official stance was that animals didn’t have a soul in any meaningful way so killing one wasn’t exactly a sin either, but…
“Fuck. You could have given me a softer learning curve than jumping straight into raising the dead,” I spoke through gritted teeth, hesitant and hating that I was feeling that way. “You know, let me dip my toes in with cackling and monologues before taking the metaphorical leap.”
“Monologues are for amateurs,” Black informed me. “If you have the time to make a speech, you have the time to kill the hero. That said, this is a soft learning curve. You’re not meddling with the horse’s soul, merely animating its body with necromantic energy. Morally speaking, it’s no different from felling a tree to make a cart – you’re making a means of transportation out of something that used to be alive.”
“You’re skipping the part where I’m killing it first,” I grunted.
The dark-haired man shrugged indifferently. “It would die anyhow. If anything you’re saving it from weeks of unnecessary pain by putting it out of its misery now.”
“So why didn’t you just have the Blackguards bring in some dead horse, if any corpse will do?” I asked.
I wasn’t sure whether that would be better or worse, actually. It’d be easier to distance myself from the whole thing if I’d never seen the animal alive, but I’d also feel like an actual necromancer. You know, some sorcerer creep in a run-down tower having his minions bring him bodies to make unholy abominations out of.
“You wouldn’t be able to raise it,” Black said. “You’re too fresh into your Role to manage something of the sort – you’ll need a connection to the corpse. Besides, better quality of corpse will make a better undead.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, my fingers closing around the handle of the knife at my hip. I’d always known I’d need to cross some lines, to get ahead in the Empire. Gods, I’d as good as renounced any chance of getting into the Heavens after I died just by claiming a Name on the wrong side of the fence so this was positively trifling in comparison. Like felling a tree to make a cart, I told myself, the words coming as cold comfort.
“Will it be painful?” I asked, opening my eyes. “For the horse, I mean.”
“It won’t even wake,” Black replied.
I knew people who hadn’t died half that peacefully. “So what do I need to do?” I grunted, letting go of the knife.
“Lay your hand on its coat,” the Knight instructed quietly. “I’ll do most of the work, you just have to get a feel for what’s happening.”
I knelt in front of the horse, awkwardly reaching for the side of its neck. It didn’t even stir. Black crouched next to me and laid a single finger on its forehead, narrowing his eyes almost imperceptibly. There was no crackling of energy or flash of light – this wasn’t magic, I thought, not the way mages used it anyway – but suddenly there was a weight pushing down on my shoulders. The horse went cold, the sensation of it against my fingers giving me goosebumps. The way it felt was… hard to describe. I’d gone swimming in the Silver Lake, last summer, from one of the shallower beaches. The sun had been pounding down all afternoon so the waters close to the surface had been pleasantly warm, but the depths my feet reached to had still been cool. It felt a little like that, if the warm waters were the rest of Creation and all of my body was in the depths. The power didn’t feel twisted or unnatural, the way I would have expected Evil at work to. It was just other, in some fundamental way.
The horse took a last breath, then stilled.
Black’s brows furrowed. “And now for the tricky part.”
The power inside the horse tightened like a rope in response to the Knight’s will and the corpse twitched: my fingers dug into the corpse’s flank as I focused all my attention on what was happening, willing myself to miss not a single moment. There was a sharp pricking sensation on my palm, like I’d been jabbed by a needle, and my awareness of the corpse unfolded like a sixth sense. I could feel the chords that animated the horse and they were mine as much as any of my fingers: I willed it and the charger rose to its feet. I didn’t know how horses were supposed to move, how their limbs were supposed to work, but the corpse did and I drew on what it had been while still alive.
“Well done,” the dark-haired man murmured as he rose to his feet.
I realized with a start I was already up – when had that happened?
“It will need a name,” Black prompted me.
I pondered that for a moment. I could name it something heroic or inspiring but that would have been something of lie of sorts, a denial of what I’d just done. Call a spade a spade.
“His name,” I announced, “is Zombie.”