“Who reigns up high?
A dead man’s sigh
What sleeps below?
A crown of woe
That is the Tower:
Learn and cower.”
– Extract from ‘And So I Dreamt I Was Awake’, Sherehazad the Seer
I tugged at my cloak’s collar for the twentieth time, ignoring Black’s amused look.
I’d been politely abducted by the Blackguards within a bell of entering Ater, to the dismayed surprise of Nauk and Ratface: they’d known better than to press the matter then and there, but I had a feeling I’d be getting asked some fairly pointed questions the moment I got back to the barracks. Apparently the low profile section of my association with the College had come to an end. I’d been smuggled deeper into the city and changed into what would be my attire for the evening under Scribe’s watchful gaze. The aketon and armour I was familiar with, though it had been cleaned and polished since I’d last worn them. The thick black cloak held tight against my shoulders by a woven golden braid was new, though, and I felt like I was getting strangled every time I took a breath.
There was something odd about the cloth – every now and then, when I moved, the way it caught the light made it look like it was made of pitch black feathers. Sorcery was involved, as far as I could guess, though a purely decorative working seemed… out of character, for Black. There was probably more to it. My teacher was still wearing his usual plain steel plate, though he wore a cloak that was mine writ slightly larger. The implication of our matching clothes was less than subtle. Captain had traded her usual armour for something more ceremonial, her breastplate and greaves decorated with snarling wolf heads. Her cloak was of a brown tone that bordered on red.
“Do you really wear armour every time you come to Court?” I asked as we strolled down a wide – and strangely deserted – avenue.
“Praesi nobility has a regrettable propensity for stabbing,” Black replied.
“And poisoning,” Captain grunted from behind us. “And blood magic. Calling the Tower a snake pit is doing a disservice to snakes: they don’t usually bite unless provoked. Some of the fuckers up there will have you killed for wearing robes that look too much like theirs.”
My fingers closed against the hilt of the sword sheathed at my hip. Since the wrecking of my last blade back in Summerholm, I’d been provided with another goblin-wrought short sword. The grinning goblin’s head the last pommel had been shaped as had been replaced by a stylized version of green flames. My teacher’s sense of humour was ever a twisted thing.
“You think someone’s going to try to kill me?” I asked.
The thought didn’t leave me feeling as worried as it would have a month ago, which in and of itself was worrying. Strange, how quickly one’s standard for normality could change. Black let out a thoughtful hum as we took a right down another empty avenue. Where were all the locals? This was just eerie.
“That depends on how quickly Heiress moved to secure her support,” he finally said. “No doubt she’ll attempt something, but it might not be as crass as outright assassination.”
Crass, of all the adjectives to use. Sometimes the Praesi seemed the same as us, but then they said something and I was struck by how differently they looked at things. Culturally speaking Ater might have been more Soninke than Taghreb, but the capital of the Dread Empire had developed into something that was entirely different from both. Ater was the touchstone of Praes and at Court murder was considered as much of an art as sculpting or painting. Lack of elegance in the death was more of a sin than the killing itself.
“How can the Empire even function, with the nobles poisoning each other at the drop of a hat?” I wondered. “I always thought the stories about the Imperial Court were exaggerated, but if anything things seem to be worse.”
“The Empire functions because the nobles are poisoning each other at the drop of a hat,” Black replied easily. “If they’re fighting each other, they’re not fighting the Tower. Ensuring that state of affairs used to be the province of the Chancellor, but things being what they are Malicia’s had to get her own hands dirty.”
“The Name she had outlawed,” I murmured. “Seems like there’s a story there.”
Pale green eyes flicked to me, then away.
“A long one,” he said. “That will have to be told another day. We’ve arrived.”
I’d thought I’d seen the Tower.
It was impossible to miss even miles away from Ater, that hulking spire of dark stone that jutted out into the perpetual storm clouds. After passing through the Gate of Bones with the other cadets I’d gotten a closer look, glimpsed the tall arches in the stone that served as windows and the hundreds of balconies that sprang from them. The stories did not do it justice. Emperors rise, Emperors fall, the Tower endures. Or so legionaries said, when they got into their cups. Twice it had been cast down – first by Dread Empress Triumphant’s infamous last act of spite and again by a Proceran army during Second Crusade – but twice it had been built back up, even taller. In Callow the symbol that bound us was the ancient bells of Laure, to the extent that even the Fairfax kings and queens had used them in their heraldry. Here in Praes, though, it was the Tower.
I stood before the beating heart of the Dread Empire and felt like an ant.
There was no comprehending how enormous the Tower really was, until you stood at its feet. You could have fit the entire ruins at the Blessed Isle inside its walls, and it was so tall I couldn’t even see the top of it. The stone stairs leading up to the gates were carved into the likeness of weeping men and women, every step taken coming squarely on their backs. Charming. Was there such a thing as an evil architect? The sight before me was an argument in favour. Twin rows of steel-clad soldiers stood in perfect silence on the sides of the steps, faces covered by masks of wrought black iron. No wonder they all go mad. How could you live in that without coming to think of yourself as a god? Black stepped forward and I followed, Captain a close behind us. There was not a sound except for the creaking of our leather boots, and a shiver went up my spine as we came before the gates. They were just as hulking as the rest of this madman’s nightmare, smooth obsidian marred by the thousands of runes and symbols carved into it. I could feel a dull thrum coming from them, age-old sorcery permeating the very air around it.
“I come summoned by the Tyrant,” Black called out into the silence. “Gatekeeper, grant me entrance.”
There was a heartbeat and then the obsidian stirred. Like ripples in a pond the stone came alive, until a face emerged from the surface: two symbols that had me shivering just to look at them made up its eyes, and a rictus formed into a sinister parody of a mouth.
“The prodigal knight returns,” the abomination drawled. “And with an apprentice in tow.”
“Gods, tell me that thing isn’t going to ask us to solve a riddle,” someone said, and in a moment of horror I realized it had been me.
Black’s hand fell around my arm and I could feel it squeeze painfully even through the armour. I really needed to get a handle on the mouthing-off-in-the-face-of-fear thing. The thing in the gate laughed and I regretted every opening my mouth: it sounded like both the wail of a child and the shattering of a hundred swords.
“Even now, you bring me the most interesting strays,” it spoke. “I grant you entrance, Black Knight.”
The face melted back into the obsidian and I heard a series of locks unlatch through the gate, until it slowly swung open. The antechamber was empty, not a soul haunting the riot of dark marble that preceded the deeper Tower. We stepped inside and my teacher turned on me as soon as the gates closed.
“Don’t ever do that again,” he whispered furiously.
“It let us in anyway!” I whispered back, tone defensive.
“The Gatekeeper ate the soul of the last person who spoke out of turn to it,” he hissed. “Not even Warlock could have brought you back if it had taken offence.”
My blood ran cold. Souls couldn’t be destroyed, the House of Light said, not except by-
“That thing was a demon?” I choked.
“From the Twenty-Third Hell,” he said.
His face was calm again, but his eyes were still sharp as a knife.
“Weeping Heavens,” I whispered. “Who uses a demon as a doorman?”
Making deals with devils was one thing – they were exceedingly dangerous, but bound by their nature to honour the letter of any deal they made. Demons, though? They followed no rules. Their very existence was a wound upon Creation. At best they could be contained. At worst? Entire kingdoms had been brought down by a single loose demon. And apparently one of the Dread Emperors had thought it was a splendid idea to use one as his greeter. I felt a fresh flush of panic, but got my breathing under control.
“You’re a long way from Laure, Catherine,” Black murmured. “The evil that dwells here runs deep and old. It took two empires and a continent-wide rebellion to bring down Triumphant, when Praes was at its peak. There are still shadows of that madness lurking.”
Fuck. I took a deep breath and settled my nerves. I could still do this. Whatever horrors prowled inside the Tower didn’t matter: it was the Court I was here for, and they were just people. People I could deal with, no matter how dangerous they were.
“Got it,” I said through gritted teeth. “Let’s move on.”
The antechamber led to a high-ceilinged room of cold black stone, bare of any tapestries. The only thing that wasn’t polished marble around was the series of mosaics on the walls, strangely patterned in a hundred subtle shades of red and grey. I frowned as we got passed one by, slowing to take a closer look. A large hand came to rest on my shoulder almost immediately, gently pushing me forward.
“Don’t,” Captain murmured, her tanned face expressionless. “If you manage to see the eyes, you’ll be speaking in tongues for weeks.”
I jerked back.
“Is this entire place a death trap?” I asked peevishly.
“Yes,” Black agreed blandly.
Well, that kind of took the wind out of my sails. Shame, a good rant would have helped to settle my nerves. Two sets of spiralling stairs rose to the first level, the smooth railing guarding them shaped as the tail of a snake. Yeah, I’m not touching that. Given how the rest of my visit here had gone the thing might be some sort of animated stone snake just waiting to smother anyone touching it. Black paused as we came to the head of the stairs to the upper floor, turning to grant me a glance.
“Steel yourself,” he spoke. “This part is always… unpleasant.”
Without giving me the time to reply, he stepped through the archway to the next room. My determination to be cool and unflappable in the face of whatever was coming lasted exactly three heartbeats. The long corridor awaiting me was filled with human heads. They hung from the ceiling by silk ropes, kept close to the walls so that they formed a curtain of mutilated flesh covering the entire span of the stone. That alone would have been enough to fill my nightmares for the next few months, but the moment we stepped in they all swivelled to face us. A thousand mouths opened and they started moaning and yelling and begging, words spoken in half a dozen different tongues drowning each other out into incoherence until all that could be heard was one deafening scream of despair and hatred. I flinched back and saw the closest ones were laughing at me now, leering and calling out sentences I couldn’t make out. One in particular stood out to me, a pale-skinned man with a a bushy red beard whose entire face was covered in pockmarks and scars. The derision I saw on that face was the last straw.
“Enough,” I screamed.
For the span of a single breath my Name filled the room. The power that surged through my veins winked out of existence as swiftly as it had appeared, but in its wake silence reigned. I felt the weight of a thousand stares on me, but I was too angry to care.
“Interesting,” Black murmured, resuming his walk. “You’ve picked up Speaking after seeing me use it only the once. A decent effort, for a beginner.”
I strode ahead of him, not bothering to reply, and in a matter of moments we were making our way up another flight of stairs.
“What the Hells was that place?” I asked after a long moment.
“The Hall of Screams,” Captain replied. “It’s where people end up, when they try for a Dread Empress’ crown and fail.”
“The necromancy keeping the heads alive goes back to the Declaration,” Black mused. “No one’s been able to reproduce it since, and not for lack of trying.”
“Well isn’t this place just a nice little box full of fucking horrifying surprises,” I growled. “A more specific word of warning would have been nice. Like say ‘Hey, Catherine, there’s a hall full of humans heads just ahead. So you know, heads up!’”
“I was interested in seeing your reaction,” Black admitted shamelessly, and if we hadn’t been in the Tower I would have shown him some of the more insulting gestures I’d learned in the Pit.
“How high up are we going anyway?” I asked, since dwelling on the subject would just have made me angrier.
A little anger would be enough to keep me steady, but if I worked up any more than that I’d lose focus.
“Official Imperial Court functions are held on the twenty-fourth floor,” the green-eyed man replied.
“That doesn’t sound like a coincidence,” I muttered.
“It’s been some time since the numerical value was used to facilitate devil summoning,” Black noted. “The Court still remembers when they came to collect with Nefarious.”
“It doesn’t bother you at all that the godsdamned Imperial Court used to summon hellspawn?” I asked. “I mean, you know things are going downhill when the rulers of a place make literal deals with the devil.”
The dark-haired man shrugged, though the gesture was hard to make out under his cloak.
“Borrowed power always betrays its user, in the end,” he simply said. “It might gain the one making the deal some short-term victories, but it inevitably turns into a death sentence down the line. It’s as good a way as any to weed out the more foolish elements of the aristocracy.”
“They still have to cause a costly amount of damage when they go crazy,” I replied curiously. “Why don’t you just ban it entirely? It would save resources in the long term.”
The way the green-eyed man talked about making deal with devils implied he found the matter distasteful, and Black wasn’t the kind of man who let traditions linger when they were counterproductive. Was I missing something?
“It already disqualifies mages from service in the Legions,” Captain replied from behind us.
The look my teacher sent me made it clear he knew I was mostly pressing the matter to keep my mind off of the coming evening, but for now he seemed inclined to indulge me.
“There’d be no practical way to enforce the ban,” he explained. “Any half-decent warlock can summon something if they get their hands on the right manuscript. Therefore, Catherine, what would be the consequences of Malicia passing such a decree?”
It was almost reassuring to hear him slip into his teaching voice, given our surroundings.
“An erosion of Imperial authority,” I replied after a moment. “If the Empress can’t enforce her own laws, people are going start breaking more than that single one.”
He nodded, looking satisfied.
“The myth of Imperial omnipotence is what keeps Praes together,” he murmured. “We must manage that illusion carefully.”
We stepped foot on the second floor. After the general level of nightmarishness displayed by the last two I’d expected yet another sight I would wake up screaming about in the coming weeks but it was surprisingly mundane. The entire level, much like the one beneath us, had been carved into a single room but unlike the hallway this one occupied the entire space. There were no real walls, just some spaces between large sculpted archways that led straight into oversized circular balconies. For the first time since we’d entered the Tower there were other people around, guards wearing the same armour-and-mask as those outside standing between the archways in the same creepy silence. There were no stairs for us to go up by, I noticed, and shot the Calamities a quizzical look.
“How are we getting to the twenty-fourth?” I asked.
“Getting a lift,” Captain grunted.
Both of them ignored the silent guards and headed straight for one of the archways to the left – I managed to discern a twenty-four in Miezan numerals in the pattern adorning its stone when we got closer. Stepping out onto the balcony, Black whistled sharply as I stared down. No railing here, and wasn’t that just horrible architectural design? It’s like they want someone to slip and fall. I paused for a heartbeat. Hells, they actually might. Strike two for the evil architecture school theory. I was about to ask what we were doing there besides standing and looking like the village idiots when a reptilian shriek resounded from above and a dark shape flew down towards the balcony. A grey-skinned creature with bat wings the size of a small house landed on the edge of the balcony, hissing hatefully at us in a way that displayed its bloody saw-like teeth.
“What is that?” I asked, taking a wary step back. “Some dragon’s inbred cousin?”
“Our ride up,” Black replied amusedly, and I followed his pointed finger to the large saddle placed on the creature’s back.
“You’re a bad man,” I accused. “A bad, bad man.”
“Guilty,” he mused. “Though never charged.”
Against my better judgement, I snorted.
“I’m taking the reins on this one,” Captain spoke up in a tone that brooked no argument. “We’re not having a repeat of last time.”
“I have no idea what you could possibly mean,” Black demurred. “High Lord Nok lingered too long on the landing pad. That accident could have happened to anyone.”
“Everybody heard you telling it to take a bite in the Dark Tongue,” the Taghreb warrior replied, thoroughly unimpressed.
“My pronunciation’s still a little off,” the Knight smiled sardonically. “I was trying to tell it to ‘take a hike’, I assure you.”
So I’m avoiding the High Lord of Nok, then. Good to know. Captain climbed onto the beast first, followed by Black who moved much too gracefully for a man wearing plate armour. I took his offered hand to hoist myself up, keeping myself steady by clasping a pair of helpfully placed leather handles on the saddle. The gargantuan warrior-woman spat out a harsh, guttural word in a language I didn’t recognize – immediately the abomination we were riding let out another screech and jumped off the balcony. For a moment we were free falling and I bit my lip to keep myself from screaming. My old fear of heights was coming back with a vengeance. The thing’s enormous wings started beating and it rose through upwards steadily. I close my eyes and clasped the handles hard enough I was sure my knuckles turned white.
Several eternities later, the creature landed on what I felt to be solid ground. I opened my eyes again and let out a breath of relief when I saw we’d arrived on what looked like a large, gaudier version of the balcony we’d come from. Without waiting for anyone’s permission I jumped down from our ride, dancing out of the way when the creature turned to hiss and snap its teeth at me. The balcony led into a smaller chamber with a handful of wooden benches heavily encrusted with gold and jewels. I eyed a ruby the size of my fist that probably made actually sitting on the bench highly uncomfortable and sighed. There was such a thing as being too rich. Golden hooks jutted from the walls, meant for guests to hang their coats on, but I didn’t have any more time to gawk: my companions had dismounted and Black casually adjusted his cape over his shoulders.
“Here we go,” he murmured, and without further ado pushed the doors open.
My first thought was that there was no way the throne room in display could actually fit inside the Tower. It was way too broad and the ceiling was high enough I half-expected there to be clouds trailing the ceiling. The usual theme of black marble hard returned with a vengeance, but this once there was actually a bit of colour around: drapes of red, green and gold cascaded down everywhere like strange cloth pillars. The floor was one single immense mosaic depicting a hundred different scenes – the part I was in front of showed what I was fairly certain was the latter parts of First Crusade. The large army with its myriad of banners laying siege to a stylized Ater was something of a hint. My attention almost immediately left the decor, though: there must have been at least several hundred people standing in the gallery, and all of them were looking at us.
I’d seen very little of Praesi nobility, back in Laure. Besides Mazus and a handful of his hanger-ons, there wasn’t any in the city. But now I was in their natural habitat, and though I despised them on principle I had to admit they were a stunning sight. Tunics and dresses of every colour and every pattern, every one of them more exotic than the last. Silk and brocade, velour and velvet and half a dozen other cloths I didn’t even know the name for. The hair styles for both men and woman were outrageously elaborate, from braids with emeralds woven into them to a closely-cropped head with ever-changing arcane patterns shaved into it. There were Taghreb and Soninke both, and the overwhelming majority of the people inside were humans. There were but a handful of orcs, and no goblins at all. That I could see, anyway. Given their size they might be hiding behind someone else. Black stepped to my side and his face might as well have been carved out of stone. I schooled my own expression into something more neutral as I followed behind him, hearing the music that had been gently sounding in the background trail off as we did. The crowd parted before us as we strode with purpose, until we came to stand a few dozen meters away from the dais in the back of the room where the throne stood.
I barely looked at the throne itself, though it was a thing of legend, for all my attention was commanded by the woman sitting on it. I’d seen some beautiful women in my handful of years. More than most. The Baroness Dormer had visited Laure, when I’d been a child, and I remembered thinking her hair looked like it was spun out of silver. She’d been pale as the moon and just as lovely. I’d served drinks to Yan Tei missionary once and spent most of the evening sneaking looks at her smooth honey-coloured skin and amber eyes. She’d been lean in the way all their warrior-priests were, with the muscles of a swimmer and the mysterious smile of a sage. Heiress, too, had been gorgeous in a way I could only envy: generations of good breeding culminating in a perfect figure and flawless features that not even a sneer could mar.
Compared to Dread Empress Malicia, they might as well have been pigs.
She was tall, even with her sitting I could see that much, but there was more to it than that. There were statues of ancient warrior-queens in Laure and they’d been… too perfect. Beautiful, but looking at them you knew they were art and not a living thing. The Empress was breathtaking because she was so very alive, like a bonfire compared to everyone else’s candle. It didn’t matter that I didn’t usually find sharp Soninke cheekbones like those on her face attractive, they were part of a whole that went beyond its separate parts. I couldn’t pick out a single feature that made her beautiful, she just was. Her silk dress was a stream of green and gold that suggested the curves of her body without revealing them, leaving bare her long neck and curling down to caress smooth dark calves. Black as sin, the Legionary’s Song called her, and it was impossible not to think of something sinful when looking at her. Fluidly, with the easy grace of a hunting cat, she rose to her feet.
“All kneel for Her Most Dreadful Majesty Malicia, First of Her Name, Tyrant of Dominions High and Low, Holder of the Nine Gates, Sovereign of All She Beholds,” a harsh voice rang out.
As one, the nobles filling the throne room dropped to their knees. After a moment Captain’s armour creaked as she did the same, cloak pooling on the ground around her. Without thinking I was halfway to doing the same when a hand fell upon my shoulder.
“We,” Black said, “do not kneel.”
He’d spoken quietly, but in the hush of the room the words reverberated like the crack of a whip. The sentence was heavy with meaning, a claim and a declaration both. We do not follow the law. We are the law. And if you want me to kneel, come and make me. There we stood, the two of us clad in steel and black like a pair of crows surrounded by birds of paradise. The only two people still on our feet among a sea of kneelers. I felt a shiver go down my spine at the sight. It felt like power. It felt like a beginning, though of what I was not sure. Dread Empress Malicia smiled as she sashayed toward us – just looking at the quirk of her lips made my heart clench.
“Welcome home, Amadeus,” she said. “I see you brought along your Squire.”