“All lessons worth learning are drenched in blood.”
-Dread Empress Triumphant, First and Only of Her Name
We rode for Ater.
I forced myself awake for my sword lessons and kept up my readings, but I hadn’t spoken a word to Black since Summerholm. The Fields stretched in every direction around us, farms and grasslands as far as the eye could see: empty, most of them. The farmer seemed aware an Imperial party was coming through and they avoided the sight of us. I spent my evenings in silence, staring at closed books and thinking about the city I’d just left. I’d made a mistake. There were things about the way I’d reacted on the day of the hangings that bothered me, and I had no real explanation for them. Oh, I was still more disgusted than I could properly put into words. I’d taken lives before, but learning about the sacrifices had been a different matter. I’d killed for justice, when no one else was willing to give it. I’d killed in battle, when my enemies left me no other choice. That three prisoners, no matter how they’d ended up on death row, had been slaughtered like cattle to keep me alive still made me nauseous. They hadn’t died for a greater purpose, they’d died for my sake. Used up for their blood like animals. Their deaths had been unasked for, and they were not my fault, but the were my responsibility nonetheless.
As for the hangings… I could see, now that the heat of the moment had passed, that they’d been doomed to die. The Knight wasn’t wrong that they’d committed treason. Sparing them would have weakened Imperial authority and let a pack of conspirators who’d already been part of the murder of a Governor on the loose. That thought did not, however, extend to the sympathizers who’d died like the rest. How many in the Lost Crown had actually been part of the Sons of Streges? The group had been a small one, and ineffective before the Lone Swordsman had gotten involved. There certainly weren’t fifty of them, and that’s how many got the noose. Were they innocent? No, perhaps not. But they were mainly guilty of hating the Empire, and how could they be blamed for that? If Black hung every sympathizer in Summerholm, there’d be nobody left in the city but the Legions.
It wasn’t enough, though. There was more to it. It hadn’t helped that I’d nearly lost my life the night before and been told of death after death the moment I woke up. My hands still shook when I thought of how close I’d come to dying that night, slowly bleeding out on the floor as the hero walked away. If he’d been even a little more thorough, just a little less sure my wound would kill me… I took a deep breath a steadied my hand. The thought of going into a fight again had dread creeping up my spine, and I hated every moment of it. The whispers from the crowd had pushed me, in a way. For all that I’d pushed through as I walked, even now the memory of them stung. I’d thought I was prepared to be called a traitor by my people, I’d gone into this knowing they’d consider me one, but after actually living through it I knew I’d been anything but. Some part of me had wanted to set myself apart from what was happening, to prove I wasn’t betraying the land I wanted to save.
My conversation with the Swordsman kept plaguing my thoughts. “How can you possibly justify working for these tyrants?” he’d asked. I’d dismissed him as yet another heroic imbecile, back then, but- I frowned. There was no but. There should be no but. Why did a single conversation with a man I held no real respect for shake me so? It wasn’t like he’d made any good arguments. Just platitudes about kingdoms and banners, the kind of sentimental logic someone with no solid reasoning would use. There was something at play here I didn’t understand. I still couldn’t feel my Name, and the last time I had was in the wake of letting the hero go – they were related, in some way. I’d failed some sort of test: my Role had found me wanting in some manner. It burned me that the only person I could have discussed this with was the Black Knight, and I just couldn’t. Putting aside that I’d knowingly tried to push a hero into starting an insurrection in Callow, just the sight of the man was enough to fill me with cold anger.
Three times, his voice had turned strange as he gave orders. Three times I had obeyed, regardless of what I wanted. That he’d casually commandeered my own body wasn’t something I ever intended to forget – and no one held grudges quite like Callowans.
The days passed one after another and I dug into the books. Most of them were history, as it turned out. Praes had been a mess before the Empire was even declared: there’d been no less than four Soninke kingdoms in the north, fighting each other over land, and in the Hungering Sands the desert tribes had slaughtered each other brutally over ever-scarce resources. They only people they’d hated more were each other: the Taghreb had frequently raided into the southernmost Soninke kingdoms, stealing everything they could get their hands on and burning the rest. Back then the goblin tribes in the Grey Eyries had been nothing more than a presence looming in the background, though they’d already been forging iron weaponry when everyone else was still using bronze. In a sense the Clans had been the force to be reckoned with, back in those days: humans tread lightly around them, fearful of the great greenskin hordes in the Steppes that descended like a flood of death every few decades.
It was a feeble distraction, though, and the tension rose with every passing day. It had become nearly intolerable by the time we got to the Blessed Isle. The barren rock in the middle of the Wasaliti River had been the furthest Miezan stronghold on the continent, meant to be the stepping stone for an invasion of ancient Callow before the Licerian Wars put an abrupt end to those prospects. It had changed hands hundreds of times since those days, but the massive stone bridge linking the island to the ground from both sides still stood unbroken as a testament to superior Miezan engineering. The ancient fort had become a massive castle in the wake of Dread Empress Triumphant’s fall, when the Kingdom of Callow had finally claimed it as its own. Before the Conquest it had been the fortress-temple of the Order of the White Hand, the steel-clad paladins who guarded the eastern border of the kingdom. For centuries they’d been a plague on the Empire, raiding beyond even the Green Stretch. There were still songs sung about the time they’d ridden up to the Nine Gates of Ater, leaving the corpse of a Praesi general in sight of the city walls as a warning against designs to the west.
It was a ruin now, the very stone blackened and burned by the largest deployment of goblinfire in Praesi history. The Order of the White Hand had been wiped out root and stem as the opening move of the Conquest, the paladins killed to the last man and woman so that they could never rise again. It had been the moment when Callow started taking the newest Black Knight seriously, though not quite enough: two weeks later the infamous massacre on the Fields of Streges had effectively broken the better part of the Kingdom’s military strength. We rode under the broken arches of the only gate in silence, the wind hurling itself at the ruins sounding eerily like a dirge. It was said that if you listened closely you could still hear the screams of the two thousand who’d burned alive.
The sun was setting and the Blackguards immediately set to making camp under one of the larger towers, putting up the tents and starting a fire. Some of them had left the party to hunt earlier and caught a handful of rabbits they were intent on turning into stew, skinning the beasts and putting them into an iron cooking pot. I left Zombie in what must have once been the outer stables, avoiding the company of Black and Captain who were sitting by the fire. I could have just retired to my tent with a book and a candle, but after a long day’s ride I felt like stretching my legs: I wandered off into the ruins, not quite sure what I expected to find. The fortress had been thoroughly ruined, I found out. Even the inside of most structures was scorched, and not a single roof had survived the taking of the Isle. Here and there skeletons peeked out from under the debris, the bones themselves blackened and warped as a grim reminder of the dangers of goblinfire.
I wasn’t sure why the Empire had never bothered to rebuild and garrison the Blessed Isle, truth be told. As the only way across the river it seemed like a key position to hold, but the Praesi seemed happy enough to leave it a wreck. A warning against defiance, maybe? Maybe even they were unsettled by what had happened here during the Conquest. I let my feet take me wherever they felt, eventually ending up by the southern wall. The view from there was striking. To the west fields swallowed the horizon, tinted red by the light of the setting sun, and to the east the Imperial road stretched beyond what the eye could see. It went all the way to Ater, I knew, one of the larger projects undertaken by the Empire. Dread Emperor Tenebrous, I dredged up. He was the one to get it done. He’d seemed like a promising ruler early in his reign, until he’d made one deal too many with the Underworld and become convinced he was a giant spider stuck in a man’s body. Things had swiftly gone downhill after that.
I got bored with the sights eventually, walking down a half-ruined set of stairs to make my way back to camp. I was getting hungry, and I still had some readings to get done before I went to bed. I crossed into an open courtyard surrounded by a quartet of smaller bastions but stopped dead in my tracks when I realized I was no longer alone. Lounging on a miraculously untouched stone bench, a strikingly beautiful Soninke girl was watching me with a pleasant smile. I reached for my my sword before realizing I’d left it back in camp – I no longer wore it outside of my lessons. All I had was my knife, and even in the dying light I could see that the Heiress had a bared blade resting across her lap.
“Catherine Foundling,” the dark-skinned girl spoke amiably, her sing-song Mthethwa accent caressing the words. “It was past time we met properly.”
“Heiress,” I replied. “Didn’t think you’d be inclined to talk, after what you did in Summerholm.”
The aristocrat shrugged elegantly.
“It was nothing personal, Catherine,” she told me. “I thought you were a threat, back then. This is how the game is played, yes?”
I grit my teeth. She’d set the other three claimants – well, maybe two, Rashid likely had gotten there on his own – on me and it was nothing personal? After a heartbeat I frowned.
“Back then,” I repeated carefully.
Heiress smiled, warm and friendly. “I know better, now. I wasn’t sure, after you let the hero go, but after that display in the Court of Swords there can be no doubt.”
My blood ran cold. There’d been nobody else on the walls, when I’d pushed the Lone Swordsman into the river. How could she- No. She might be guessing. No need to hand her leverage she might not have.
“Not sure what you’re talking about,” I grunted. “The Swordsman got away on his own – heroes do that, you know.”
The beautiful girl laughed. “Of course he did. I withdraw any implication to the contrary. Still, there’s no need for us to be enemies. I’ve come with a peace offering, you see.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I was under the impression that your Role and mine were supposed to be at odds,” I pointed out.
“We would be,” she agreed. “If you were a real Squire.”
My fingers closed against the handle of my knife.
“Would you care to repeat that?” I whispered. “I didn’t quite catch what you said.”
She waved away the threat. “Come now, Foundling – you don’t actually want to be the Squire, do you? If you did, that deplorable scene in Summerholm wouldn’t have happened.”
“I’ve killed for this Name,” I replied coldly. “Careful, Heiress.”
“I’ve killed for good theatre seats, my dear,” the Soninke chuckled. “That’s the way of things, in the Wasteland. That’s why you’re so disgusted with us, isn’t it?”
“If you’re looking for an impassioned defence of the Praesi moral fibre,” I said through gritted teeth, “I’m afraid you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“Oh, I quite agree with you,” Heiress told me feelingly. “You’re different, Catherine. Trying to be one of us can only hurt you. It’s why I’m offering you a way out.”
“You’re feeling trapped, right now,” the other girl told me, “but you don’t have to be. I have a ship waiting, and I can get you back to Laure safely. Or anywhere else you want to go, for that matter. You can start over without all this mess hanging over your head. Tonight. Just say the word.”
My heartbeat stilled. She was saying the truth. I knew it in my guts, she was saying the truth. If I accepted, I’d set out on a ship tonight and leave before anyone could catch me. I couldn’t go back to Laure, obviously, but I could sail down the Wasaliti until Mercantis and make my way into the Free Cities. I’d be beyond the Empire’s reach, there. Safe.
“And if I refuse?” I asked quietly.
“Are you?” Heiress murmured, pleasant smile unwavering. “Refusing?”
It was such a pretty smile she had. Shame about the way it didn’t reach her eyes.
“I think I am,” I said.
She sighed, crossing her legs.
“I’d hoped we could do this without resorting to unpleasantness,” she spoke. “Are you quite sure we can’t come to terms?”
“More sure by the moment,” I replied flatly.
“Well, then,” Heiress said, all pretence of pleasantness melting away. “As we speak, I have men surrounding your orphanage in Laure. If I give the word everyone inside will be dead by morning. The matron, the girls you shared a dormitory with, even the children. Put to the sword, every last one of them, unless you abandon your Name tonight.”
For the second time, my blood ran cold. She’d spoken her threat the way other people talked of the weather – like it was nothing particularly noteworthy, just a way to make conversation. Was she bluffing? Maybe. But she had the resources to arrange this, and she didn’t seem like the kind of person afraid to use every tool at her disposal.
“I’m not asking for your life,” Heiress told me patiently. “Merely that you get out of my way.”
“If you give the word,” I repeated. “That assumes you’re alive to do so.”
She laughed. “I have come in the fullness of my Name, Catherine. You’re powerless and as good as unarmed. And if that’s not enough for you…”
She snapped her fingers and in near-silence four silhouettes stepped out of the spreading shadows. Thick cloaks hid their features, but there was no hiding the crossbows they were pointing at me. They were spread out in the courtyard, their lines of fire overlapping only on me.
“Be reasonable, Catherine,” the Soninke said. “Surrender is the only rational course left to you.”
I closed my eyes. How many girls were there, in the orphanage? At least forty, and a third of them no older than ten. She’d kill them and not lose a wink of sleep over it, if she thought she had to. Gods, I was so sick of this. Not even a month and I was so very tired. I opened my eyes and exhaled, looking up into the sky. The moon was out. I laughed.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I should thank Black too, I suppose,” I continued quietly. “This was a lesson I needed to learn.”
“I don’t follow,” my rival admitted.
“I’ve been thinking about this all wrong, you see. I was raised in Callow, and we see things differently. The shepherd boy picks up the fated sword, slays the dragon and is revealed to have been a prince all along.” I smiled at her. “This was never going to be that kind of story.”
Gods, I’d wanted it to. Deep down, I’d thought that just doing good things under an Evil Role would see me through this. That I could walk that line without every really dirtying my hands in a way I’d regret for the rest of my life.
“Do it,” I said. “ Kill them. If I give in once, you’ll just use it against me over and over again.”
I couldn’t beat the monsters by being better than them. I’d never had that in me. Too much impatience, too much recklessness. That was all right, though. There was another way: be the bigger monster.
“Do you think I’m bluffing?” Heiress asked, voice low and dangerous.
“I know you’re not,” I admitted. “Which is why I’m going to say this: if a single one of them dies, I will make a monument to ruin of you. All that has ever given you joy, I will turn to ashes. Everyone you’ve ever loved, I will break so thoroughly they die cursing your name. I will undo everything you’ve ever accomplished, wipe the slate of your existence so clean there won’t be a person alive that remembers you were ever born. I will take no pleasure in it, but I will do it.”
Eyes cold as ice, I bared my teeth.
“I will do it, so that the next time some smug Praesi prick tells me to surrender I can point to the wasteland that was once your home and watch them flinch.”
“You don’t have it in you,” she replied, face blank.
“Try me,” I hissed.
There was fear lurking under the beautiful mask and I relished it. It was about time those fuckers started taking me seriously.
“I could kill you, here and now,” Heiress said.
“You could try,” I corrected with a breathless laugh. “Here I am, abandoned by my Name with only a knife to defend myself. You’ve got four big men with crossbows and a fancy sword in your lap. Look into my eyes, Heiress – do I look afraid to you? You’ve stacked the odds, but have you stacked them enough?”
She hesitated. I’d never felt more alive than I did in that moment, when that clever little wretch took a look at me standing alone in her trap and faltered. I had nothing to me but my anger, but that was more than enough. I’d fought without a Name, long before I ever met the Calamities. I could do it again.
“Kill her,” Heiress ordered, but I was already moving knife in hand.
Three strings twanged and I felt a bolt come within a hair’s breadth of my throat. Too slow. I was on the first man before he could even drop his crossbow: I slid behind him, letting the last shot bury itself in his stomach. Laying a hand on his shoulder, I slid my knife across his throat and and let him drop to the ground. By the time I was moving again, Heiress was nowhere in sight. Stupid of you, my dear. If you’d stayed you might have won. The second man had his sword out when I got to him, but after fighting real monsters every morning I could have laughed at how sloppy his stance was. He swung too wild and I slipped inside his guard, burying my blade in his eye to the hilt. I snatched his sword before it could drop to the ground, letting the third one come to me as the last henchman finished reloading. I flicked the tip of the blade in his direction and he backed off warily, though I circled to keep him between me and the man with the crossbow.
He seemed reluctant to attack and I grinned when I realized why: he was afraid of me. They both were. I’d just killed the other two like it was a stroll through the market and sent their employer running without even needing to fight her. I pushed forward, letting him catch my sword in a parry – he was too eager to keep me far away, and it cost him when I dropped the sword to catch his wrist. His eyes widened in panic but before he could say a word I punched him in the belly. No armour, only soft flesh, and I pried his fingers loose of his sword before hacking into his neck with it like I was reaping wheat. I turned my eyes to the last one, bloodied blade in hand as the tip of his crossbow shook in his unsteady hands.
“Pray you don’t miss,” I said. “You’ll be dead before you get to reload.”
Steadying his hands, the man took aim carefully. Whether I could have dodged the quarrel or not would remain a mystery: before he could do anything, a hand of shadow slithered its way up his throat and started choking him. The minion pawed at it frantically, but the shadow stayed on his skin. A minute passed before he fell to the ground, blue in the face and eyes bloodshot. I cast an eye around the courtyard and saw Black sitting on top of the wall in the back, legs dangling off the edge. He seemed amused, the mask of indolence he liked to affect once more painted over his face. The dark-haired man remained silent, breaking off a piece of bread and popping it into his mouth. I strode towards the first man I’d killed, wrenching out my knife and wiping the blade on his cloak. I felt my Name stir deep inside of me as I sheathed the knife and smiled a hard smile. Liked that, did you? Good. We’re far from done, you and I. Slowly, I turned to face the Black Knight.
“I’ve missed enough lessons,” I said. “Let’s get to work.”
How can you justify working for these tyrants? the Lone Swordsman had asked. I finally had my answer. Justifications only matter to the just.