“Threats are useless unless you have previously committed the level of violence your are threatening to use. Make examples of the enemies you cannot control so those that you can will be cowed. This is the foundation of ruling.”
– Extract from the personal memoirs of Dread Emperor Terribilis II
“Do not get between me and my prey, fools,” the masked man growled.
“Are you trying to talk trash after running away from me for, like, half an hour?” I gaped. “I only hit your head the once, your brains can’t possibly be that scrambled.”
The tall girl with the spear smirked. “Now now, it’s not his fault – desert vagrants are born with only half a mind,” she contributed.
I tried not to look too obviously amused. Apparently the Miezan occupation hadn’t done as much to curb the age-old distaste between Soninke and Taghreb as some of my books had implied.
“Humans,” the red goblin sneered. It was an impressive sneer, even compared to the unmourned Governor Mazus’. I bet she’d practiced it in front of a mirror. “You cant get back to your games after we’re done talking.”
“Let’s not be hasty, Chider,” the Soninke replied. “It’s not really murder if she’s doing it to a sand rat.”
Well, that had gone downhill fast. I could sympathize with wanting to mock some of your fellow countrymen – I did know an uncanny amount of jokes about southern Callowans – but she seemed to genuinely believed what she’d just said. Right, Praesi. Not the most morality-oriented people, generally speaking. With a sigh I sheathed my sword, keeping a wary eye on the masked wonder.
“Considering you just threw a brightstick at us – which was pretty rude, for the record – it might be a good idea to move before legionaries come have a look,” I suggested.
Someone using goblin munitions after the same had been used in an attempt to off two generals would lead to all kinds of unpleasant questions, and I was beginning to get curious about what it was the two fresh additions to this little party wanted.
“Assuming jackass over there is willing to talk at all,” I added as an afterthought, noting my ambusher still had his scimitar in hand.
“We claimed a fire pit not far from here,” the goblin – Chider, apparently – mentioned, turning red-rimmed eyes to my now-silent opponent. “I offer you the shelter of my fire, stranger.”
The last words she’d spoken in Taghrebi instead of Lower Miezan, using a phrasing I wasn’t familiar with. My Mthethwa was a lot better, mostly because I’d practiced it more. My ambusher’s mask dipped by a fraction and he slipped his scimitar back in its scabbard.
“Speak the words,” the still-nameless Soninke said sharply. “Guest right goes both ways.”
The man hissed at her, though he went still when the spear left her shoulder to point in his direction. I would have taken a step back to get out of the way even further if I could – I was definitely up for a spot of masked bastard stabbing, but the goblin was still a wild card. She had a haversack slung over her shoulder, and I’d bet piglets to diamonds that there was nastier stuff than brightsticks waiting under the leather.
“Fine,” he spat. “I take shelter in your fire, hearth-keeper.”
“That’s better,” the veiled girl smiled, her teeth barely visible through the sheer fabric.
“Is Praesi cultural fun times over yet?” I asked politely. “Because we really need to get the Hells out of here, if we don’t want to spend the rest of the night in Legion custody.”
“A Callowan that speaks sense,” Chider commented. “Now I’ve seen everything.”
What was it with goblins and insulting me? Did I smell in a way that pissed them off?
“Wow,” I retorted with a hard smile, “a mouthy goblin. Never seen one of those before.”
The Soninke unconvincingly tried to turn her snicker into a cough. Chider shot her a disgusted look and strode away. Not friends, then, just allies of circumstance. Good, it would have been tricky to deal with them if they were intent on sticking together. I had, after all, already stabbed my only other prospective ally. I made to follow the goblin, carefully keeping my distance from the man in question. The tall girl waited for me, offering her arm to clasp when I got close enough.
“Tamika,” she introduced herself as I grasped it.
“Catherine,” I replied. “So what’s all this about, anyway? I thought this whole thing involved a lot more fights to the death and a lot less talking.”
Tamika shrugged. “The goblin wants to have a meeting before we dance the dance, and I see no reason to refuse her.”
She was pretty cordial, for someone who’d just casually mentioned she wanted to kill me. Chider’s fire was easy enough to find, not far around the corner. She was already sitting on a stone besides it, prodding the burning wood with a long branch – our arrival was welcomed by a fresh new rendition of her earlier sneer, though this time she’d didn’t bother to insult me. This was, I guessed, as close to friendly as she was going to get. I claimed a log for myself, taking a moment to have a look at my hand while everybody was settling down. The bleeding had stopped, though I had a feeling that flexing my hand would tear the cut right back open. I’d need to have it looked at, if I didn’t want it to go bad. Unless Names mean you can’t take sick anymore, I mused. I’ve certainly never heard of a hero laid low by fever, not unless the wound was cursed.
“So I hear you’re the one who arranged a get-together,” I addressed Chider when the silence got too heavy. “Why?”
The red-skinned goblin prodded the fire one last time before throwing the branch in.
“There’s a hero in Summerholm,” she said, to the surprise of no one around the pit. “That means we have another way of solving our dispute than killing each other.”
Tamika made the same weird clicking sound with her tongue that Lieutenant Abase sometimes did.
“Hunting a hero is not something undertaken lightly, goblin,” she said. “Besides, there are people in the city with better claim to that life than us.”
“If you mean Black,” I grunted, “then I’m pretty sure he’d approve of us taking care of the problem.”
There was a moment of perfect silence as all three of them turned to stare at me.
“Then it is true,” the masked man said. “You came here with the Carrion Lord.”
Another title? Weeping Heavens, like he doesn’t have enough already. I straightened my back, meeting them stare for stare.
“Rumours move fast around here,” I replied, declining to actually confirm the assumption.
From the way Chider’s eyes narrowed at the words, that particular fact had not escaped her notice.
“Spilling each other’s blood will only weaken the Empire,” the goblin said. “This is a better way.”
“Spilling the blood of the weak can only strengthen the Tower,” the masked man retorted immediately, tone contemptuous.
“That’s a funny thing to say, considering you’re the one who’s bled the most,” I smiled at him.
His hand drifted towards his scimitar, but before he could reach it Tamika cleared her throat.
“Take that out and you won’t live to see morning, Taghreb,” she told him in a very friendly tone.
The man scoffed, but after a moment he backed down. Proud, then, but not completely stupid. Just mostly.
“What’s your name, anyway?” I asked. “The things I want to call you won’t cut it in polite company.”
“Rashid,” he told us, as grudgingly as if I’d asked for his firstborn. “Remember it, for when the devils ask you who sent you to the Other Place.”
“I’m Catherine, in case you hadn’t overheard,” I told Chider, ignoring the man. “So you want us to make a pact, then. A truce until one of us manages to get the hero?”
“Precisely,” the goblin replied. “I do not ask for your cooperation, merely that you stay out of my way.”
“I could agree to that,” I mused. “Seems pointless to have a go at each other when there’s someone out there who wants all of us dead. Tamika?”
The Soninke rolled her spear between the palms of her hands, face expressionless.
“It would be a worthy test of my skills, to measure myself against a hero rather than one of you,” she finally said. “This truce would extend no further than the death of our common enemy, yes?”
I wasn’t exactly happy that the dark-skinned girl was looking for an escape clause before she’d even agreed to the terms, but it was still better than nothing. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been intending to keep a close watch on my back the whole time, anyway.
“Is that a yes, human?” Chider probed her.
Tamika shrugged. “I accept those terms. May the Gods devour whoever breaks them.”
Everyone’s eyes turned to Rashid. It was irritating that the mask prevented me from reading his expression, but I supposed that was rather the point of wearing it in the first place.
“This was a waste of my time,” the man replied with undisguised scorn. “I will hunt this hero, but you are all my enemy.”
He rose to his feet, robes stained red.
“We have unfinished business, Callow girl,” he said in a tone that he probably thought passed for sinister. “We will see each other again, I promise you that.”
I sighed as I watched him stalk away into the night. My fingers clenched around the hilt of my sword as I considered whether or not I should follow him: we were more or less done here and the idea of just letting the bastard go didn’t sit right with me. I’d already killed people for lesser reasons than the one he’d given me, after all, and his wound had to have weakened him. I might not get an occasion like this again. I was about to politely take my leave when I saw the two others were staring me down.
“I know what you’re thinking about,” Tamika smiled pleasantly. “Don’t.”
“You’re not the one he wants to stab in the back,” I replied. “You don’t get a voice in this.”
“He’s still protected by guest-right until dawn comes,” Chider murmured. “Let’s not make this any messier than it has to be.”
The implied consequence of breaking said guest-right was clear, though if they thought whispered threats would be enough to cow me they had another thing coming. What did I care about whatever Praesi thought was honourable? I’d work with the Empire, with every monster and murderer who’d slaughtered their way to power, but that sure as Hells didn’t mean I’d do it following their every custom. What was the point of playing a game by the rules, when it was rigged for you to lose? That said, is getting another shot at the bastard worth alienating these two? I weighed my options carefully. Chider I thought I could handle, if I managed to get up close fast enough. She’d think twice about using munitions if the both of us were in their range. The Soninke was the one who gave me pause – spears weren’t a weapon that saw much use outside of the Free Cities, but the comfortable way Tamika carried hers suggested a degree of familiarity with the weapon that was very, very dangerous. In contrast, I had barely a week of sword lessons under my belt. Pick your fights, Catherine. Letting Rashid go was a pain, but getting into it with the other claimants on ground I hadn’t picked while still wounded was a good way to get myself killed – especially if they worked together, which they very well might.
“Until dawn, then,” I conceded, making a mental note of looking into Taghreb guest-right and all it entailed.
I couldn’t afford to get trapped into situations like this often, and I had a feeling it would only get worse when we got to the Wasteland. With a somber nod I took my leave of the other claimants and begun the long walk back to the Sixth Legion’s camp. I might as well grab some sleep before I got back to work.
By the time I got to the now-closed gates I’d realized I hadn’t thought this whole thing all the way through. Getting out had been easy enough, which not that I took the time to think about it was rather surprising: he’d ordered a lockdown of the camp. Then again, he would have had the time to send a messenger to make sure I’d go through unmolested while I spoke with Scribe. It seemed ungrateful to complain that my teacher had anticipated my needs, but there was something about the whole set up that rankled me. Every move I’d made so far, the Black Knight had anticipated – approved of, even. And that’s the part that bothers me. I didn’t trust the green-eyed man, when it came down to it. I was beginning to like him, much as that thought would have horrified me a month ago, but not enough to forget who and what he was. I was still unclear on what he wanted from me, and the more time passed the more I was beginning to understand how much of a liability that was. There’s no place for a man like him in the kind of Callow I want to make, and he’s too smart not to be aware of that. Which begged the question of why he’d taken me as an apprentice, and why he was still backing me when I’d as good as admitted I wanted to take an axe to Imperial authority in Callow.
There was an angle at play I wasn’t seeing, and until I caught it I had to assume that every action I took he approved of furthered his plans as well as mine.Building a power base of my own would have to be my first step. I’d always known how I would go about that, fortunately: I needed a command in the Legions of Terror, the larger the better. Ideally I’d need to be assigned to one of those garrisoning Callow, where I’d be able to use my soldiers to quietly remove the more troublesome elements of Imperial occupation in my sphere of influence. That plan was why I’d been so interested in claiming a Role in the first place: Names tended to make age issues irrelevant when it came to accumulating authority. History was full of young Named leading armies and ruling cities. Instead of spending two decades steadily climbing through the ranks while accumulating experience, I might be able to get a real command in just a few years. There were two bumps in the road, though.
First, I couldn’t do any of this with Black looking over my shoulder the whole time. The idea that the man who’d masterminded the Conquest would allow me to quietly turn Callow into a semi-independent vassal state was absurd. I’d effectively be undoing half of what he’d accomplished by annexing the Kingdom in the first place. Which means that at some point I’ll either have to kill him or become trusted enough to be given an independent command. I was more inclined to the second, as it happened: the Black Knight was the most famous monster of our age, but he was also a thoroughly rational creature. There was no guarantee that whoever replaced him would be as… even-minded. Besides, managing to kill him in the first place would be tricky. I certainly had a better shot at managing the deed now that I was headed towards a Name of my own, but the heroes he hunted down with alarming regularity had Names too. How did one get the trust of a man like Black, though? I needed to figure that out, and quickly.
My second problem was that the Empire was at peace. Officers still got promoted when their predecessors retired or died of mundane causes, but my best chance at a position of real power was being granted soldiers to deal with a problem. None seemed in the cards right now, which meant that even if I inherited a legion it was unlikely to be loyal to me personally – my authority would flow from Black or the Empress, and if I ever went against them the legionaries would balk. What I need is for Praes to raise a new legion, one that will look to me for orders instead of anyone else. A legion made up mostly of Callowans would be ideal, but the odds of that actually happening were so low as to be insignificant. I needed to learn Praesi ways then, enough that the soldiers would see me as one of their own. And that’s exactly what Black is having me do, which is worrisome in its own right. Was that his angle? Making me swallow Imperial customs one mouthful at a time until I was nothing more than a Praesi with Deoraithe colouring? What better tool to keep Callow in the fold than one of their own, with the power of a Name backing her. It sent a shiver up my spine, the idea that the man could have thought that far ahead.
I put aside the train of thought when the legionaries keeping watch at the gates hailed me. It was clear they’d been told to expect me just from the way they recognized me when they got close enough for their torches to shed light on my features. I was allowed in without any trouble and the sergeant in charge informed me that I had a bed waiting for me in a pavilion next to the barracks where the Blackguards had been settled. It was a quick walk, and now that I wasn’t stuck in a tense stand-off with people who might or might not want to kill me I was beginning to feel tired from the night’s events. Not exhausted – my body moved just as surely as it had when the sun was up – but I could feel my focus wane. The pavilion the sergeant had mentioned stood out from the surrounding tents by sheer size – no cloth for this one, though, only heavy flaps made of leather. There was a light lit inside, and I was about to enter when I felt something pulse in the back of my head. The fourth feeling, the strange one. How had I not noticed earlier? I must have been more tired than I’d thought.
“Thank you for seeing me at this hour, Lord Black,” I heard a girl’s voice say.
“Your request garnered enough curiosity to earn you an audience, Heiress,” I heard my teacher reply.
I peeked through an opening in the leather. Black was leaning back in a chair, the usual glass of wine in hand as he sat across a Soninke girl. She was, I noticed, strikingly beautiful. She couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than me, but her skin was smooth and flawless. I couldn’t see her eyes from where I stood, but I could make out high aristocratic cheekbones and elegantly style eyebrows. The riding leathers she wore were dyed in red and gold, perfectly tailored to fit an hourglass figure I could only envy. With those long legs and eye-catching curves, she was a serious contender for the most stunning girl I’d ever seen. It took a moment for what the green-eyed man had called her to sink in. Heiress. I could feel the capitalized letter on the tip of my tongue, bearing that strange weight spoken Names always did. There was simply no way I was going to interrupt this, not if they hadn’t noticed me. I was in no way above eavesdropping on a potential enemy, which I was pretty sure this Heiress was. The girl in question lounged in her seat with all the elegant laziness of a large predatory cat, her sipping at her own goblet doing little to hide the way she was studying Black.
“I’ve looked into her, this… student of yours,” Heiress said. “She does have potential, true, but you cannot deny I have more.”
Black was smiling, the same always did when at his most dangerous. From the sudden wariness in the Soninke’s body language, she seemed to be just as aware of that as I was.
“Can’t I?” he murmured, tone sardonic.
“I have looked into her, Lord. She’s a nobody. A Laure orphan with a reputation as a brawler and nothing else to her name. There are thousands like her all over Callow,” she replied, a hint a frustration creeping into her voice.
Rude. I was under no delusion that I was unique, but there was a little more to me than a reputation as a brawler.
“I am, inarguably, smarter than her,” Heiress continued. “I know how the Empire works, and I have real combat experience. I led the troops that suppressed -”
“That group of bandits at the edge of your mother’s lands, I’m well aware,” Black interrupted her. “You show promise as a commander, though I note you never attended the College.”
“Neither did you,” Heiress retorted flatly.
She met his eyes squarely and I had to give her points for guts, if nothing else. Now would be a good time to tell her that she’s not actually smarter than me, I silently urged him on, not bothering to repress my scowl. Any moment now.
“Catherine shows promise in other ways,” he said instead, and I made a mental note to take some kind of petty vengeance on him at some point.
Seriously, he could have put a little more enthusiasm in that. I didn’t think it likely he’d give me the boot and take the Heiress under his wing instead – he’d already invested too much in me, whatever his reasons – but this was turning out to be a remarkably one-sided debate.
“Enough to justify passing over all the things I can bring to the table that she cannot?” Heiress challenged.
Black’s smile widened ever so slightly as he leaned forward, the atmosphere in the room shifting instantly.
“They have trained you well,” he murmured, voice smooth as silk. “Just enough insolence to pique my interest, self-confident without stretching into the arrogance I so dislike in you nobles.”
Heiress’ eyes widened for a heartbeat and then her face went perfectly blank.
“Am not nearly as good at this game as you seem to think you are,” Black broke in sharply, and the words rang of steel. “Did you think it was the first time the Truebloods tried this? That they had never before sent one of theirs with a little talent my way?”
The dark-skinned girl went still and my teacher’s smile turned ugly. I let out a shaky breath, feeling the weight of his Role suffocating the tent even from where I stood. Heavens Ascendant. I am never going to get used to that.
“No one rules forever, Lord Black,” Heiress managed through gritted teeth, the white of her eyes showing as she pushed through the terror permeating the room. “And you may have beaten the Heir back when you were the Squire, but she is not you. And I am not him.”
“Go home, girl,” he said. “Weave your plots, marshal your soldiers. And when you do, remind your mother of the last time we crossed paths – that pike over the gates of Ater is still missing a head, and I am ever a patient man.”
She stood, back ramrod straight, and strode away with barely veiled fury. I hurried away from the flaps as quietly as I could, stepping into the shadows a moment before she crossed. Heiress paused just outside the tent, casting a cold look around her. Her gaze passed over the spot where I’d hid without pausing, though, which I took to mean it was too dark for her to see me. A heartbeat later she was on the move again and I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding. I waited for her to be entirely out of sight before entering. Black was still in his chair, looking irritatingly unsurprised to see me enter.
“Let’s skip the part where you reveal you knew I was eavesdropping the whole time,” I grunted. “I’m not in the mood for smugness.”
“As you wish,” he mused. “Clever of you to listen in – very talented girl, Heiress. You’ll need all the advantages you can get.”
“So if you really think she’s all that, why did you pick me to be your Squire?” I asked, claiming the same seat she’d been in.
He poured himself another cup of wine, raising an eyebrow to silently ask if I wanted the same. I shrugged in agreement – the taste was growing on me, thoughtI doubted I’d ever drink it by the barrel the way so many Praesi did. If anyone had told me a month ago I’d have the Black Knight pouring me wine, though, I would have directed them to a healer. After stepping away slowly.
“You’re taking this as a criticism of your abilities,” he noted. “You shouldn’t. Heiress has been tutored in everything from politics to war from the time she could first speak. That she is more competent than you is a reflection of her privilege, not of your own faculties.”
I took a sip from the cup he handed me, wondering whether or not I should press the subject. What the Hells, why not? What do I have to lose?
“It would be easier for you to train someone who’s already been taught those things, though,” I pointed out. “I’ll be playing catch up for a while yet.”
“That she has already been taught is not a point in her favor,” Black replied.
That seemed like a good thing until I put another moment’s thought into it.
“So you’re sticking with me because I’m what – more malleable?” I scowled. “Easier to manipulate?”
“I will address this once, because I doubt you would have brought it up if you had not already been thinking it,” he said. “I will not lie to you, Catherine, or deceive you.”
I was about to butt in but he raised his hand and I paused, frowning at the fact that I had actually paused.
“Not out of a sense of honor or altruism,” he continued, “but simply because it would be foolish in the long term. It’s the way these things go, you see – if I deceived to you, you would inevitably find out I did at the worst possible moment and then avenge yourself in a way that would lead to my downfall. The amount of my predecessors that died because they failed to learn that simple, easy lesson is staggering.”
If he’d tried to sell me that he would never steep so low or that the teacher-student bond was something sacred I wouldn’t have trusted a word of it, but this sort of… enlightened self-interest? Yeah, I could buy that. The more I spoke to Black the more I was beginning to understand that everything he did he thought of in terms of costs and benefits – like a bookkeeper, if bookkeepers invaded neighbouring kingdoms and put people’s heads on pikes. And wore plate. And rode undead horses. Gods, I really hope there aren’t any bookkeepers like that out there. Creation is a scary enough place as it is.
“I’m glad you recognize I’m smart enough for that, at least,” I muttered peevishly, still not willing to let that particular gripe go anytime soon.
He drummed his fingers on the table in response to that, and from the look on his face it looked like I’d actually managed to irritate him. Huh, I’d never managed that before. In a twisted way, it almost felt like a victory.
“Petulance is bad habit,” he said. “She’s had to be smarter than you to survive. The Imperial Court is the most lethal environment on the continent short of an actual battlefield. Last year the High Lordship of Okoro changed hands eight times in the span of three days, all of them through assassination. Her mother is a brilliant woman in her own right, one who managed to survive Malicia’s ascension to power without loss of influence while openly supporting the opposing faction. Her every move, her every word is measured – underestimate her even for a moment and she will have your throat slit without batting an eyelash.”
I would have liked to dispute that, but I couldn’t help but remember the cold look in Heiress’ eyes when she’d left the tent. I’d won enough fights by being underestimated that it wouldn’t do to forget how costly a mistake that could be. Alright, then. Tread carefully around her. People don’t get Names by picking out flower arrangements and hers does have an ominous ring to it. I responded to Black’s sharp gaze by a nod and he seemed satisfied I’d been properly cautioned.
“You still haven’t told me why you picked me,” I finally said.
The dark-haired man gazed at his cup, swirling the wine in it with a slow flick of the wrist.
“I’m told you never made friends with anyone at the orphanage,” he replied. “Why is that?”
“I, uh- what?” I blurted out.
Well, he wasn’t wrong, but to hear it put like that was a little mortifying. It wasn’t like everyone at the orphanage had hated me or anything, though I guess a few of them had, but I’d never made a close friend the way some of the other girls did. I’d always figured I was just a loner, and while that made me a little odd there were others like that in the orphanage so it wasn’t that odd.
“I guess I never really had anything in common with them,” I admitted. “I don’t think they were wrong to want the things they wanted, but I just… didn’t. It was frustrating, the way they didn’t understand why I was like I am, so after a while I stopped trying.”
“And that angered you, didn’t it?” he murmured, “That they just wouldn’t get it, no matter how many times you tried to explain.”
I shrugged with affected nonchalance, trying not to show how close to home he’d hit. And he was right, Gods help me. It still stung, the way they’d looked at me like I was insane when I’d said I wanted to change things. That I wanted to become someone who could make sure no one like Mazus ever got as powerful as the Governor had been. I used to think that I just wasn’t articulate enough, that if I’d found the right words maybe I could have bridged the gap I could feel I had created between us, but as I got older I stopped believing it. Even I knew there were some walls out there I couldn’t ram my way through.
“They never understand,” he murmured. “Even if they love you, they never quite understand.”
He looked almost sad, and for the first time since I’d met him I could believe he was as old as he was supposed to be.
“I chose you,” he mused, “because I remember what it’s like, that feeling in your stomach when you look at the world around you and you know you could do better. That if you had the authority and the power, you wouldn’t make the mistakes you see the people who have it make.”
He took a long drink of wine.
“Is it madness, to get frustrated when they don’t see the things that seem so obvious to you? I truly don’t know. Gods know I’ve been called mad often enough, and I’m sure in time you will be called the same.”
He met my eyes with a sardonic smile.
“The things Heiress knows, you can learn. You will learn. But that indignation you’ve got boiling under your skin? That’s not something that can be taught. And it’s exactly why you’ll beat her, when the time comes.”
He set down his cup.
“Go to sleep, Catherine,” he said, rising to his feet. “Tomorrow promises to be eventful.”