“Mercy might be the mark of a great man, but then so’s a tombstone.”
– Extract from the personal memoirs of Dread Emperor Terribilis II
It was dark inside the Commander’s quarters, the only light coming from the candle on the woman’s desk. He stepped behind her quietly, his Name’s power silencing the sounds of his armour as he raised his blade. The dark-haired woman stilled for the barest fraction of a moment, and Squire knew then that his chances of taking care of her quickly had evaporated into thin air.
“Quiet or not,” the Commander spoke with a voice that bore the soft accent of the Deoraithe,“you reek of blood.”
Squire’s blade came down but the woman spun, hand grasping for the longknife on her desk and batting the killing blow aside at the last moment. The green-eyed man sighed and shifted his footing as she rose to her feet.
“I do hope that was a figure of speech,” he said mildly. “I bathe every few days.”
The Commander bared her teeth in mockery.
“Some things don’t wash off with water, Praesi,” she replied.
His blade flicked forward, tasting the edge of her defence and finding it unfortunately steady. No less than he’d expected, of course – the woman’s Name was one that could only be earned through years of hard fighting, and not even Ranger’s tutelage was enough to overcome the disparity between their levels of experience. Even nurtured, talent could only bring you so far.
“So tell me, assassin,” Commander jeered, “what was it that finally pushed the Chancellor to send a killer after me?”
The longknife was a blur of sharpened steel in her hand and she stepped forward, turning a thrust into a vicious flick of the wrist when he stepped around it, dancing away before he could strike back and leaving behind a shallow cut on his cheek.
“Was it the punitive expedition on the Red Boars?” she asked.
Squire have ground fluidly, trying to find an angle where his sword’s longer reach would be able to come into play. It was unfortunate that his way into the quarters had meant travelling light, because fighting an opponent this dangerous without his shield was quickly becoming more than he’d bargained for.
“No,” Commander mused, “it’s not like we’ve never done that before. Which means someone opened their damned mouth about my plan for the Lesser Steppes.”
“I might have heard a thing or two,” he agreed. “But you seem to operate under a misconception, Commander.”
“Illuminate me, then, assassin,” she replied coldly.
“Not Assassin,” he corrected her. “Squire.”
That was when the bells started ringing. Three rings, a pause and then three rings again: the signal for a fire in the fortress. Apprentice had already started his work, then, which meant it was time to wrap this up: Grem’s clansmen would be in position soon. His opponent spat a few words in the Old Tongue. From the intonation, he would venture a guess they were nothing particularly polite.
“So you’re one of the pups who wants to be the next Black Knight,” she growled. “You made an error in coming here tonight, boy – it’ll be my pleasure to nip you in the bud before you become a real problem.”
Which was, he was forced to concede, a very real possibility. When she moved forward again, it was with the weight of cold anger behind her attacks – again and again he was forced to give ground, pushed out of her quarters until he was at the head of the stairs. Commander slipped under his guard when he overextended, ignoring the deep cut he carved right above her ear to close the distance and slam her palm into his chest. Had anyone but a Named done that on full plate they would have broken their wrist for their trouble, but instead her blow sent him tumbling down the stairs. About halfway down he managed to roll back to his feet, but before he could bring up his sword she nearly sliced through his jugular, forcing him to scramble back desperately. In a matter of moments she’d driven him all the way out to the inner courtyard, and now they both knew the game was up.
“If you kneel,” she said flatly, “I’ll make it quick.”
“If this were a story,” Squire told her, “this would be the moment where I revealed I was left-handed all along.”
“Are you?” the dark-haired woman asked gruffly.
“No,” he replied, sheathing his sword. “I’m a practical man at heart, you see.”
The first arrow took Commander in the side of the throat, punching straight through and coming out the other side. Ranger’s work. The short bow volley from Grem’s clansmen followed a heartbeat later, filling her with so many arrows he could no longer make out her face.
That’s the thing with practical sorts, Commander,” Squire told her gently. “We cheat.”
I woke up in a room I didn’t recognize.
I could still feel the cold of the northern night on my skin, cheek still stinging where the Commander’s longknife had drawn blood. That particular sensation paled in comparison to the rest of my pains: my entire body was a raw wound, the worst of it centred around the long gash that snaked across my entire torso. I pushed myself up against the cushions, wincing as a flash of agony went through me. Tossing the blanket covering me aside, I took a closer look at the bandage-covered cut the Lone Swordsman had gifted me with: it was an angry red and would scar rather gruesomely, but at least it wasn’t bleeding. The rest of my body bore no marks, which sent a shiver of unease down my spine: I’d been healed by Zacharias enough to know that magic couldn’t heal this well without dipping a toe in unsavoury waters. I was alone in the room, I saw as I took a look around: sparsely furnished in the Callowan style, no windows and I couldn’t hear so much as a hint of noise from the outside. Everything in here smelled of blood, I noticed with a jolt of surprise. I hadn’t noticed because I’d smelled the same thing in the dream, and wasn’t that a creepy thought?
I forced myself into a sitting position at the edge of the bed, pushing down a pained groan. The identity of the Squire in my dream wasn’t exactly hard to deduce: Black still looked more or less the same, if a little older, and there was no way I could confuse those eerie green eyes with anyone else’s. There’d been too many details to the vision for it to be just a fantasy cooked up by my mind while I slept, though: even now, closing my eyes, I could still hear the low voice of the Commander and the shriek of those arrows as they fell form above. A Name dream, then. My mind still felt too fuzzy to puzzle out exactly what was going on here, but I knew that there was bound to be a reason for it. When Black had shoved a sword through my chest, I’d ended up confronting two versions of me that could have been. So the dream shows me the previous Squire killing a hero when I just let one go. A little heavy-handed, as far as hints went, but I was not a subtle girl by nature: it made sense that my Name would be equally as blunt. I passed a hand through my tangled locks with a grimace. Gods, I smelled awful. I needed a bath, or at least a change a clothes.
The door creaked open and Captain came in, ducking her head under the threshold. The sight drew a smile out of me: very few things must be Captain-sized, outside of wherever the Hells ogres lived.
Good,” the warrior grunted. “You’re awake.”
Barely,” I agreed. “How long was I out?”
It’s been two days since your little stunt,” she said. “You came damned close to never waking up.”
I’d suspected as much, but it still sent a shiver down my spine to hear it said out loud.
Should I sent a thank you note to the Legion healers, then?”
You tore your body up way past what they can handle,” she informed me. “Luckily we had a blood mage from the Swiftfoot tribe in camp – still took three bleedings to get you back to something manageable.”
Bleedings. Gods Above, I hoped she wasn’t saying what I thought she did.
You mean they bled me, right?”
The olive-skinned woman graced me with a quelling look.
Don’t be obtuse, girl,” she grunted. “You had little enough of the stuff left in your veins. Black had them spill the lifeblood of three. Rough stuff, but it usually works.”
I felt my stomach sink and let out a ragged breath. Three people dead just to heal me, and Captain didn’t even seem to think of it as particularly notable.
Who were they?” I croaked out. “The people that died to save me.”
She shrugged. “Death row prisoners,” she told me. “Never learned their names, but Scribe would probably know. Had to file some papers to requisition them.”
Requisition them, like a resource. Same as if they’d asked for a new set of armour or some sewing equipment. Like they were things, not people. Oh, they weren’t likely to have been very nice sorts – they wouldn’t have gotten a death sentence otherwise – but at the end of the day what I saw was a Praesi spending Callowan lives like currency. Three stranger’s lives spent to preserve mine, without a second thought. Would I have agreed to it if I’d been awake, I wondered? It disgusted me that I was no longer as certain of my answer as I would have been a month ago. Captain’s presence suddenly felt intolerable, a blight to everything I was trying to accomplish. Just another cog in the Empire’s machine, grinding down the lives of the people they’d conquered.
And yet, what could I do? For all that I itched to lash out, I was all too aware that even at my best I’d never manage to do more than scratch her armour. She was a woman who’d faced entire battalions of knights and slaughtered them effortlessly. They’d been kind, Captain and Black, so easy-going and helpful I’d ended up forgetting I was dealing with monsters. Calamities, the monsters even other monsters fear. And the worst of it was that we were on the same side. I’d chosen, willingly, to align myself with people who saw human sacrifice as just another tool in their arsenal. The taste of bile in my mouth drowned out the smell of blood, and I suddenly felt like throwing up. It was one thing to make the decision to sacrifice lives in the abstract, but now that I was faced with the reality of it… How could I have ever thought good would come of this? Look upon the foundations of your better world, Catherine Foundling. Another three corpses for the pile, and they will not be the last. I retched, vomiting all over the bed. The concern on Captain’s face was the most hateful sort of kindness I’d ever seen. My stomach settled after a moment and I wiped my mouth against the blanket.
I’ll talk to Scribe, then,” I muttered, shivering.
I’d remember the names, carve them deep enough I could never forget. Find out if they had families, people who’d depended on them: an insipid way of repaying a debt that ran so deep, but what else could I do? I still had my savings from the Pit and would not use so much as single speck of Imperial gold for this. My debt, my penance. Gods have mercy on my soul.
You can do that later,” Captain grunted. “Put a tunic on, Black wants you outside.”
I felt too drained to tell her that all of them could go fuck themselves, as far as I was concerned.There was no dresser, but someone had neatly folded some clothes on top of the chair in the corner. I forced myself to my feet, rebuffing Captain’s helping hand when I swayed. I was in no mood to take help from Praesi. Changing my underclothes with someone else in the room was almost nostalgic, a reminder of the days where’d I shared a dormitory with the other orphanage girls. Nobody set out clothes for me then, though. It bothered me that I’d stopped noticing luxuries like that: they crept up on you, the trappings of power. One inch at a time, until you forgot you’d ever lived without them. My lips twisted in distaste when I saw the woollen tunic I was expected to wear was dyed black. It felt like a claim was being made on me, and I’d always balked at those. I buttoned up the collar anyway and smoothed my face out of emotions. I’d get clothes of my own as soon as I got the occasion.
What does he need me for?” I asked Captain as I finished slipping on my boots.
Just needs you to be seen out and about,” the gargantuan Taghreb replied. “Rumours are you’re dead, and people want a face to put to the fire.”
I blinked. Shit, the goblinfire.
That’s still burning?” I asked.
They managed to cordon it off,” Captain said, “but almost half the quarter went up in flames. Istrid had her legionaries evacuate the people in time, at least.”
A small relief, that I wouldn’t have to add more lives to my tally so soon after the last ones. I tightened my belt and made sure my knife’s sheath was properly placed. No sword, but that was to be expected after the Lone Swordsman’s blade cut into it.
Let’s go and get this over with,” I muttered, more exhausted than even my wounds warranted.
The inn we were apparently in was deserted except for a handful of Blackguards covering the entrance. I ignored them and followed the brown-eyed warrior into the streets. I heard the crowd way before we got to the Court of Swords. The large paved plaza had once been where the counts of Summerholm held justice, though the Imperial governess had preferred the fortress for that purpose. The name came from the way Count Harlay the Grim had taken the arms of a slaughtered Praesi army and piled them up to offer the king of the time instead of the taxes owed that year. What must have been the better part of Summerholm’s population had gathered in the Court and the sound of all those thousands whispering among themselves was almost deafening. Gallows had been erected in the centre, surrounded by a square of legionaries six men deep. Black sat astride his mount in front of the structure, Scribe standing next to him still as a statue. For once, she didn’t seem to be paying attention to anything but what was happening in front of her.
The people parted in front of Captain like a receding tide, falling silent at the sight of the tall Named striding across the stone. From the corner of my eye I could see people pointing at me when they thought I couldn’t see. Squire, I heard whispered. Traitor came up nearly as often, and the epithet wouldn’t have stung as much had there not been a grain of truth to it. I kept my eyes fixed straight ahead and matched Captain’s stride as best I could. Black was in full armour, I noticed as soon as we drew close – he wore a helmet, for once, a heavy piece ornamented to look like a grinning devil.
Squire,” he greeted me, still looking towards the gallows.
Black,” I replied. “What the Hells is this?”
The restoration of order,” he said.
The gallows were no more than thirty feet away, so I could see who was on them now. There must have been fifty people standing in two lines behind the nooses, and I recognized every single one of them. Patrons from the Lost Crown, a handful I’d glimpsed in the Royal Foundry who must have survived the night.
You can’t do this,” I said urgently. “Not all of them were members of the Sons. Some just had sympathies and -”
And so were party to the assassination of an Imperial governess,” he interrupted me flatly. “High treason, which fetches the noose.”
You already knew who the members were,” I spoke pleadingly. “You could have hung them then, no need to do it now.”
Green eyes stared me down through the holes in his helmet.
They were tolerable, so long as they were harmless,” he stated. “They are no longer harmless.”
This is butchery,” I hissed. “You’ll be hated for this.”
I am already hated in this city,” he noted. “An acceptable loss, if I am also feared.”
I reached for the power of my Name but there was nothing. Not a drop of the power I’d used to crush my enemies, even as I reached as I deep as I could.
You bound my Name,” I accused him.
Your powerlessness is of your own doing,” Black replied. “You took action that ran against your Name’s nature, and so damaged your access to it. Something related to your confrontation with the hero, I assume. No body was found.”
So you’re punishing me by killing Callowans?” I snarled.
I am hanging traitors who took up arms against the Tower,” he corrected sharply. “I am not in the habit of wasting lives over petty lessons.”
I’d never hated anybody more than I hated the man in that moment. Sitting there on his horse, looking down on me from above. He stood for every fucking sneering Praesi I’d come across, eyeing me like I was just cattle in their herd. Pretending the laws he upheld were anything else than rules the Wasteland used to fix the game so they’d win every time.
I will have no part in this,” I spoke, voice so cold and furious I could hardly believe it was my own.
My fingers closed against the handle of my knife. His stare never wavered and I realized how absurd I must have seemed to him, the girl who couldn’t even use her Name and was still threatening to pull a knife on the Black Knight. There were two Calamities standing within ten feet of me, and even through the haze of rage that fact managed to sink in. I loosened my fingers.
I will have no part in this,” I repeated, more calmly.
I might not be able to stop this, but I didn’t have to pretend I endorsed it in any way. I turned to leave, to go anywhere but here-
I thought I knew fear. I’d felt it the night we first met, when the Knight’s power had choked the very air of the alleyway. I was wrong. Oh so very wrong. My limbs froze and my heart spasmed. Dark things lurked just out of my sight, thirsting for my death.
I did. I couldn’t even think about not obeying. The monster studied me without a speck of emotion in his eyes, the almost indolent amusement he always displayed sliding off his face like water off a clay mask. There was no humanity in the thing I was facing, and finally I could say I’d met the Black Knight. The real one.
Did you think this was a game, Catherine? That actions would not have consequences?” the green-eyed man murmured. “Power cuts both ways. Authority comes with responsibility. Ambitions such as your demand sacrifice, so stand here and watch.”
My body did. Even as I screamed inside, my body did. A hush went over the crowd as General Sacker scuttled up onto the gallows, giving her legionaries a sharp gesture to get on with it. Levers were pulled, the ground opened beneath the prisoners and twenty-five Callowans died of a broken neck. Thousands stood in the Court, and you could have heard a pin drop. Legionaries untied the corpses as soon as the last one stopped twitching, letting them fall down the hatches as they pushed the second row of prisoners forward. I read their faces one after another, too dazed to be properly horrified. In the middle of the line stood a slender blond girl with grey eyes. Elise.Our eyes met and recognition flickered across her face, followed by pleading. Gods, forgive me. I didn’t know. You have to believe me, I didn’t know. A heartbeat passed and the beautiful face turned to disgust. She spat on the ground as the noose was settled around her neck.
General Sacker gestured again and she died.
The crowd let out a long breath, and just like that it was over. Tens of thousands stood in the Court of Swords, surrounding less than two hundred legionaries, but as the last corpse dropped under the gallows they started to disperse. Cowed, just like me.
We leave with the noon bell,” Black spoke calmly. “Get back to the barracks by then.”
Without another word he rode away, his steel-clad horse obeying the unspoken commands of his Name. I staggered away numbly, my legs taking me away from the Court. It didn’t matter where, as long as it wasn’t here. Anywhere but here. How long I wandered I couldn’t say, but I ended up at the bottom of a dead-end alley. No one else was in sight. I leaned against a wall, forehead coming to rest against the roughly hewn stone. Slowly I fell to my knees, welcoming the burn of my wound as my body stretched. I was so very, very tired. Over two hundred miles stood between me and home, and suddenly I was aware of how alone I really was. Surrounded by people who hated me, people I’d willingly set aside for the company the monsters killing them. And now here I was, without even the protection of the Name I’d bartered my soul away for.
A dry sob wracked my throat and I rocked myself slowly, closing my eyes. I’d done this to myself, feeling clever and in control every step of the way. It had felt like a dream, really. One colourful absurdity after another, Names and visions and claims. The stuff legends were made of. Maybe that was why it had come so easily to me – I couldn’t quite believe it was real, so I treated it like a story. I’d bantered with villains who’d soaked the pages of history books in blood like I was an equal instead of an ant they could step on without a second thought. Just the memory of the way I’d mouthed off on the first night was enough to chill my blood now, now that I knew I’d been speaking to the green-eyed creature I’d met in the Court instead of the lackadaisical villain I’d thought I was facing. There was no believing this was dream now. Not when I can still hear the sound of Callowan necks snapping under the rope. Tear fell down my cheeks and I let them.
If this wasn’t worth crying about, what was?