“Victory, most fickle of friends.”
Gods, even her voice was gorgeous. How was that fair in any way? I knew taking a Name could change your appearance, over time, but somehow I got the feeling that wasn’t the case with Malicia. I suppose once in a while someone does get born that outrageously good-looking. With an effort, I forced myself to look away – I certainly wasn’t going to get my head back in the game as long as I was gawping at the Empress like a dumbstruck fool.
“It’s good to be home, Malicia,” Black replied mildly. “If I may introduce Catherine Foundling, formerly of Laure.”
The direct mention was enough to jolt me back into a semblance of attention. I kept my face as blank as I could manage and inclined my head as the Dread Empress’ dark eyes turned to me.
“My dear Knight has long been delaying the taking of an apprentice,” she mused. “I look forward to finding out how you changed his mind. I must confess I have great hopes for you, Squire.”
Smiling in that heartbreaking manner of hers, she cast a warmly fond look at the Court.
“We all have great hopes for you,” she asserted, and the nobles effortlessly painted polite agreement over their faces.
I imagine they would have done much the same, if she’d opened me from crotch to throat with a sacrificial knife. One did not openly disagree with the ruler of Praes without consequence – and who would even want to, while she was smiling at them like that?
“I will try to live up to them, Your Majesty,” I replied, and had to force down a cringe when I heard how hesitant my voice sounded.
I might as well have been throwing a barrel of blood in a pond full of sharks. Malicia’s expression was kindly, but I was beginning to have a handle on how striking she was. I was, nominally at least, on Black’s side. That more or less meant I was on hers considering that Black was her staunchest supporter, but I’d been given to understand that there were nuances at play. My teacher had made it clear from the beginning that while he deferred to the Empress he didn’t agree with her every decision. Already I was beginning to regret I hadn’t spent more time asking questions about the current state of Imperial factions at Court – this was a battlefield like any other, but I had no idea who my enemies actually were. Malicia lightly tread around us, forcing us to turn as the kneeling nobles rose to their feet. They were still silent, though, so I got the feeling that the show wasn’t over yet.
“How go the provinces, Black Knight?” the Empress asked, voice carrying clearly across the enormous throne room.
Provinces. My face turned properly expressionless for the first time since I’d stepped into this mess. That was how they thought of Callow here, wasn’t it? Uncivilized provinces good only for shaking until gold and other useful materials came out.
“Settled,” my teacher replied calmly. “For now.”
Malicia cast a soulful look at the nobles.
“It is,” she spoke with genteel regret, “a great shame that Governor Mazus forced our hand in such a way. I do dislike ending old bloodlines.”
The Tyrant was the very picture of an aggrieved young woman. Black turned to face the crowd too, and there was no such regret on his face. A hint of the… thing I’d glimpsed in Summerholm was peering out through those unsettling green eyes, offering the aristocrats a smile that bared too many teeth to be anything of the sort.
“That is the ever the way, with those who overreach,” he told them. “It should be remembered that unsightly ambition so often lead to an unsightly end.”
He ran a pale thumb across his throat in a seemingly casual gesture and I saw several silhouettes go still as stone. The casual reminder that in the end Mazus had been robbed of the easy death all those colourfully plumaged vultures thought was their birthright was unsettling them. None of this is spontaneous, I instinctively grasped. The easy repartee between the two most powerful individuals in the Empire was too fluid to have been rehearsed, perhaps, but there was still something almost practiced about it. Like they’d been in their respective roles for so long that they no longer needed to plan out the dance, only be who they were supposed to be and let the music lead them.
So that’s how it is, I frowned. Malicia was gentle and soft and regretful, respected the importance of the old families and their place in the halls of power – and all the while my teacher stood there reminding them with a smile that if he had his way all of their heads would be in the Hall of Screams. The Empress smiled and casually laid a hand on Black’s arm, four hundred eyes following the gesture. Look at my monster, she seemed to be saying. Isn’t he dangerous? Remember, I’m the only thing standing between you and him. So why don’t you all behave, my darlings? Leashes are such slippery things.
“Now that the inevitable politics are out of the way,” Malicia announced cheerfully, “we can get back to the part of the evening you’re all actually here for.”
Chuckles and smiles ripped through the crowd, though she hadn’t been being particularly funny. The Empress idly clapped her hands, and immediately the music started playing again. In a heartbeat the court split into a hundred smaller clusters, conversing among themselves and calling over servants carrying trays full of cups. With a last smile at us, the Empress trailed away to mingle.
“You did passably well, for you first time at Court,” Black assessed quietly. “They’ll think you weaker than you are, but that can be useful.”
“I really need some etiquette classes,” I grunted back. “The stuff I learned at the orphanage is useless here.”
“I’ll work it into your schedule,” the dark-haired man murmured. “But don’t forget you have a Name, Catherine. Rudeness is one of the many privileges that affords you.”
I raised an eyebrow. “If I’m gonna be rude to one of them, I want to be on purpose,” I retorted.
He conceded the point with a mild inclination of the head. “You’ll have to mingle on your own,” he said. “Captain will be keeping an eye on you, but she’ll be remaining at a distance.”
“Got an assignment of your own, have you?” I guessed.
Black smiled thinly.
“The High Lady of Kahtan has been making noises about revising the legal number of household troops,” he replied. “She seems to need a reminder as to why she inherited her seat so young.”
“You have fun with that,” I snorted. “Anybody in particular I should talk to?”
“There might we some well-connected cadets from the College in attendance,” Black murmured. “Allies are a useful thing.”
I acknowledged the hint with a nod and turned to face the crowd as he strode away. Where to start? Gods, I’d never been all that good at the social butterfly thing. All right, let’s get a drink first. Should make the rest of this easier. I gestured for one of the drinks-carrying servants to come closer and snatched a golden goblet with wine in it. Something fruity, from the smell of it.
“Don’t drink that,” Scribe murmured.
I nearly dropped the cup, cursing under my breath. The plain-faced woman was standing at my side like she’d always been there – and for all I know she’d been. There was a ring of empty space around me for at least twenty feet, which made it all the more ridiculous I hadn’t seen or heard her coming.
“You really need to stop doing that,” I complained.
A flicker of amusement went through her eyes, gone in a heartbeat.
“Haven’t seen you since the Blackguards picked me up,” I observed after composing myself. “Where did you go?”
“I had other duties,” she replied, and didn’t elaborate even after I raised an eyebrow.
I sighed and eye the cup of wine wistfully.
“It’s poisoned, isn’t it?” I said with resignation.
“All the drinks are,” she said. “A mild poison, with embarrassing side-effects. Attendees find out what antidote they’ll need in advance: not drinking is seen as a sign of incompetence.”
“Fucking Praesi,” I grunted under my breath. “No offence, Scribe.”
“None taken. I was not born in Praes,” she replied without inflection.
That was the first bit of personal information I’d ever learned about Black’s shadow, and I filed it away for mulling over later. Very little was known about Scribe, given how rarely she made it into the stories. The Empress passed at the edge of my field of vision, laughing throatily at a richly dressed young boy’s jest. From the poleaxed look on his face, he seemed as unable to deal with her as I’d been not too long ago. The Named woman followed my gaze, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth.
“Be careful with her,” Scribe said.
I kept my surprise off of my face. She wasn’t usually one to bother with warnings, and to be honest I was a little surprised we were still talking at all: this might very well be the longest conversation the two of us had had since the first time we’d met. I’d never gotten the feeling that Scribe disliked me, per se, she just didn’t seem particularly invested in my general existence.
“I know she’d dangerous,” I replied quietly. “It’ll take more than few smiles to make me forget that.”
“You don’t understand how dangerous she is,” the plain-faced woman murmured. “Not even Black does, and he’s known her the longest.”
“They knew each other before she took the throne?” I asked, openly surprised.
I’d heard next to nothing about Dread Empress Malicia before she claimed the Tower. Even how she’d managed that was rather vague: I knew she’d been opposed and a civil war had ensued where Black had served has her general, but details were scarce in the books I’d been provided.
“They met before he claimed his first Name in full,” Scribe said. “When she was still a waitress at her father’s inn in Satus.”
I blinked. “A waitress?” I hissed out in disbelief. “The Dread Empress of Praes used to be a waitress?”
The other Named folded her ink-stained fingers into her sleeves.
“What do you know about Dread Emperor Nefarious?” she finally asked.
I frowned. “He ruled before Malicia. Went a little cuckoo in the head after he failed to invade Callow and got whipped by the Wizard of the West.”
Scribe’s face was unreadable. “The nature of his fall was less charming than your expression might imply. Nefarious never again left the Tower after he returned, leaving matters of ruling to the Chancellor. He spent his time expanding the ranks of his seraglio.”
Just the word made my skin crawl. I’d known that some of the Dread Emperors – and Empresses – had kept consorts, but from the way Scribe was talking about it Nefarious hadn’t been looking for volunteers.
“Her beauty has little to do with her Name,” she murmured. “The Emperor had his Sentinels scouring the breadth of Praes for beauties and word of her looks had spread beyond the town. Her father protested, so they nailed him to the floor of his own inn.”
I grimaced. I sometimes forgot that the bastards that held the Tower were just as brutal towards their own people as they were towards the other kingdoms.
“So they met when she was taken to Nefarious?” I guessed.
Scribe shook her head. “A few days beforehand. He and Wekesa were still claimants to Squire and Apprentice, back then. They met again when he became the Black Knight and Chancellor summoned him to the Tower.”
“From concubine to Empress,” I muttered. “Weeping Heavens, how did she manage that?”
“Patience,” Scribe said. “Patience, poison and making the right promises.”
That certainly got my attention. “And what did she promise him?”
“What she needed to,” Scribe replied flatly. “Not as much as she should have. They are, after all, friends.”
Her face had remained impassive, but there was no hiding the thick distaste in the way she pronounced the last word.
“You don’t sound very fond of the Empress,” I said very, very quietly.
“Amadeus is a loyal man, in his own way,” Scribe replied. “It’s why we follow him – he’d break the world, for one of us. In some ways he already has. But the blade bites from both sides.”
I cast a shifty look around us, which probably made us look twice as guilty.
“We are not being overheard,” the plain-faced woman said, and the utter certitude in her voice gave me pause. Something related to her Name? “Ranger and I disagreed on many matters, Catherine, but there was one thing we always agreed on.”
“And what’s that?”
Scribe leaned closer.
“We should have an Emperor, not an Empress,” she whispered into my ear.
Without another word, she stepped into the crowd. A drunken noble passed in front of her, tittering with a companion whose hair was shaped like a roaring dragon, and by the time they cleared my field of vision there was no sign of Scribe. She might as well have vanished into thing air, and if I hadn’t know how hilariously disproportionate the amount of magic needed for even the smallest transportation spells was I would have thought she’d teleported. Well, wasn’t that the most ominous conversation I’ve had all week. If you don’t count the fucking demon doorman, anyways. It wasn’t every day I got spoken treason to, and there was no way this was anything but treason. Coming from the Named who worked closest with my teacher, to boot.
Scribe’s mention of Ranger had come as something of a surprise, considering the woman in question had left the Empire early into the Conquest – if the stories were true, anyway. So there were Praesi who’d wanted Black to claim the Tower. That wasn’t all that surprising, considering he’d been the face of the Empire’s latest victories. But he doesn’t seem to want the Tower. And I’m not sure he could actually take it, considering he’s pale-skinned. There were three ethnicities, in the Wasteland. The two largest were the Soninke and the Taghreb, often overshadowing the less-known Duni. Most dark and olive-skinned people who lived in the Green Stretch still considered themselves of the associated culture, but the pale-skinned people who’d trickled into the Stretch from Callow as well as those who had much more ancient Miezan roots were branded with the name of Duni.
The Soninke had some kind of religious grounds for despising them, I’d read – it was associated with the same reason they thought of the Taghreb as a lesser people – but the Taghreb simply hated them for being a visible reminder of the Miezan occupation. Over a thousand years later no living Taghreb had been actually seen a Miezan and the blood of the original settlers who’d remained in Stretch was so diluted as to have nothing in common with their ancestors, but the hatred remained. There had been Black Knights of Duni blood before my teacher and a few Chancellors. But no Warlock, and no one of those roots had ever held the Tower. The very idea was anathema to the beliefs of most of the old nobility.
I wasn’t sure what Black actually wanted, when it came down to it. I’d grown to know the person he presented himself at and even looked the monster he could be in the eye, but his intentions were still a mystery to me. With every passing day I felt more like the only dancer in the ballroom who didn’t know the tune or the steps, and there was only so long I was willing to allow that. I could still hear rope creak and necks break whenever I closed my eyes: those were the consequences, when I took a swing in the dark instead of planning out my actions carefully. Gods, I really wish I could have a bloody cup of wine at the moment. There seemed to be food displayed on a table by one of the cloth pillars, and I made my way towards it. Odds were it was just as poisoned as the wine, but I figured I’d at least look whether some people helped themselves to it before writing it off. There was already someone there sniffing around pork cutlets, as it happened. I recognized the silhouette even from a distance: I didn’t know a lot of orcs as tall as Juniper, aside from Hakram.
“Hellhound,” I greeted her, pleasantly surprised. “Didn’t think you’d go for this sort of thing.”
Juniper turned to eye me and then stabbed a cutlet with a fork, dropping it on an ornate gold plate.
“Someone from the family needs to show up at the important stuff,” she grunted. “Mom’s in Summerholm and Dad is taking care of my sisters up north so I got stuck doing it.”
I eyed the cutlet enviously as she took a bite.
“I don’t suppose those are safe?” I asked hopefully.
“Bishara told me what the antidote for tonight was,” Juniper replied with a smirk, flashing her fangs. “Only brought enough for one, I’m afraid. Should have planned this one better, Squire.”
“A common failure of hers, I’ve found,” a female voice casually butted in from behind me.
“The density of smugness in this room has suddenly intensified,” I announced without turning. “I wonder why that is?”
I turned towards the source of the comment and saw a pretty dark-skinned girl smiling at me in a way that never quite reached her eyes.
“Oh, Heiress,” I added cheerfully. “Hadn’t seen you there. Did you say something?”
“It’s rather astonishing what passes as a sense of humour in the provinces,” someone else commented.
My eyes flicked to the pair of girls and the single boy my nemesis – one of them, anyway, and Gods when had I gotten to a point in my life where I’d need to look up the plural for the word nemesis? – had decided to bring along with her. The girls were Soninke, the boy Taghreb. Richly dressed, all of them, in shades of red and gold. Heiress’ long red dress brought a pang of envy from me, if only because of the way it fit around her curves perfectly. I’d yet to grow in any of those to speak of myself, much to my dismay. At least I don’t have to bind my breasts too hard under plate. Must be Hells on her, when she does. After a heartbeat to take them in, I addressed Heiress.
“You brought bookends,” I said amusedly. “I didn’t think that was something people actually did. Did you train them to say snappy phrases whenever you signal them? Go on, tug at your earlobe. I’m hoping it’ll make one of them strike a pose.”
“I suppose allowances need to be made for poor breeding,” one of the Soninke girls sighed. “I am Barika Unonti, heiress to the Ladyship of Unonti. You may kiss my hand, Wallerspawn.”
She extended a slender dark-skinned arm, palm facing downward. I eye her dubiously and she sneered. I sighed and my hand snapped out, closing around her little finger. Her eyes widened and she had to bite down a scream when I twisted sharply, breaking the bone without much effort. Soft hands, this one. I let go and smiled pleasantly at the lot of them.
“That’s your first warning,” I said. “You say another thing about breeding of any kind, or reference the fact I’m Callowan, and I’ll take something more drastic. An eye, maybe, since you little shits don’t see to be using them to recognize I am not somebody to fuck with.”
Unonti eyed me like I’d turned into a raving madwoman and something arcane in nature flickered around the other girl’s fingers – it felt like lightning, but she did not strike out. The boy’s hand dipped to the bastard sword at his hip and I made eye contact with him, still smiling.
“Draw it,” I said softly. “See where that gets you.”
His hand returned to his side, his face flushed with anger. I returned my attention to Heiress and something I couldn’t quite identify passed through her eyes.
“Barbarity,” she spoke calmly, “is all you are good for. I’m told you couldn’t even manage a win at the College without using your Name.”
“She used all the tools at her disposal,” a gravelly voice interjected. Juniper was onto a second cutlet, eyeing us with mild amusement. “That’s the purpose of the games: training for war. She’d have been an idiot not to use it.”
Well now, an unexpected display of support from the Hellhound. Hadn’t seen that coming.
“Is defeat all it takes to cow one of the Knightsbane’s blood?” Heiress spoke softly.
Juniper’s eyes turned hard and she bared her teeth, pushing herself up to her full height.
“The likes of you don’t get to say shit about my blood, Soninke. We still remember the Night of Red Winds,” she snarled. She rounded up on me immediately afterwards. “And you, don’t you look so pleased. I’m not taking sides in your little pissing contest – I just want you both to to leave your fucking politics out of my Legions. There’s more to this Empire than humans bickering over who gets to be in charge.”
And with that she dropped her plate on the table, walking away with a growl. Heiress smiled and met my eyes. Ah, she did that on purpose. Burned the bridge for me. But that means…
“You have now slighted me twice, Catherine Foundling,” the Soninke called out, and her voice carried.
It got the attention of people around us, and they watched with interest – a loose circle of watchers formed.
“Well,” I replied blandly, “you do take things so personally.”
“You have assaulted a guest under my protection,” Heiress announced. “Do you deny this?”
Mhm, how to qualify the feeling in my bones at that moment? Like a rabbit seeing the noose tighten around its throat. I could hardly deny breaking Unonti’s finger when it was still, in fact, broken. Besides Heiress had witnesses. Had I been baited? It was starting to look like I had been. Now time to see for what.
“Sometimes I see something particularly breakable and I just can’t help myself,” I shrugged, noting the girl in question was still cradling her finger and glaring at me.
“Talk like that will cost you your tongue, uchaffe,” the boy snarled.
It meant filth, in Mthethwa. I ignored him anyway. He was just Heiress’ mouthpiece, allowing him to distract me would just let her gain more ground.
“You comport yourself like a thug and still expect to rack up honours and commands,” my rival spoke, gracefully circling around me in a stalk. “You have not proved worthy of the promotion you are being given.”
“And what promotion would that be?” I replied flatly. “The one where my company in the College named me captain by acclaim?”
Heiress dismissed that with a contemptuous flick of the wrist.
“I speak, of course, of the request made for your commission as the head of the Fifteenth Legion,” she said.
I kept my face carefully blank. That was the first I was hearing about that. As far as I knew, there was no Fifteenth Legion existing at the moment, or even a Fourteenth. More than that, there was only one person I knew who could have made that request. I resisted the urge to scan the crowd for Black.
“Think you’re the one who deserves it, do you?” I mocked.
Heiress’ smile widened.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” she purred. “What have you done, to deserve such an appointment?”
I felt the crowd move more than I saw it, the sea of aristocrats parting for the bigger fish. Dread Empress Malicia sauntered into the scene, elegance personified.
“My, my,” she murmured. “Such spirited youths we have in attendance tonight. What seems to be the problem, my dears?”
Heiress knelt, and for a heartbeat I almost regretted I couldn’t – wouldn’t – do the same. The display of deference might have been useful, and I could only envy how my rival was turning a mark of lower status into a useful tool.
“Your Majesty,” the Soninke girl spoke before rising back to her feet. “I was merely questioning the fitness of this… Callowan to command Praesi legionaries.”
There was a murmur of approval among the nobles. She really was going to milk my origins for all they was worth, wasn’t she? I’d never been more painfully aware that I had no friends in that crowd.
“The Callowan actually attends the War College, unlike you,” I noted flatly.
“An attendance that has not been marked by successes justifying such a rise in authority,” Heiress retorted smoothly.
“The contrary, if anything,” her Taghreb from earlier contributed with a sneer.
The voice came from far behind me, to my left, but even at that distance Black’s voice was pitched perfectly to carry across the room.
“Lord?” Captain replied.
“If the boy interrupts again, snap his neck.”
The boy went pale as a ghost, taking a half-step back. Times like these were when I was glad to have the Black Knight in my corner, cryptic jackass or not. Malicia laughed, and the entire world held its breath at the sight of it – it defused the tension that had risen in the crowd easy as snapping your fingers.
“You have a solution in mind, Heiress,” the Empress smiled. “I can see it in your eyes.”
“I do,” my rival agreed. “To keep things interesting, I would propose a wager.”
The Empress cast her an interested look. “You have my attention.”
“Another war game,” Heiress announced. “The College once held grand five-way melees, in older times. Better times. If Squire is to command, I would have her prove her worth. Isn’t that the way of our Legions, Your Majesty?”
My rival’s smile turned sardonic.
“One sin, one grace,” she quoted softly.
I felt my fingers clench around the pommel of my sword.
“And should, Gods forbid,” the Empress prompted, “our Squire lose?”
“I would ask that for the slights she has given me, Catherine Foundling’s appointment be made mine,” she replied, and triumph glinted in her eyes.
Oh, that bitch. She knows Rat Company is ranked last. And if Summerholm was any indication, she wouldn’t be above bribing my opponents to make sure I failed.
“That does sound interesting,” Malicia mused, tapping her chin with a slender finger as her eyes raked the crowd.
I could see the intellect behind the beautiful face weighing the advantages and disadvantages, what the throne could gain and lose by allowing this to proceed. A moment later, she returned her attention to us.
“It will be so,” the Empress spoke, and this time there was iron in her voice. “In two days hence, with the outlined stakes.”
“I thank Your Majesty for her wisdom, as always,” my rival said with a low bow.
And just like that, it was done. Malicia drifted away and I felt the eyes of the entire wretched flock on me, mocking. A few splatters of laughter came from different corners of the room. Heiress passed me by, pausing to lean into my ear.
“And all it cost me was a broken finger,” she murmured.
The grip on my sword strengthened until my knuckles were white, my face flushed with humiliation. She’d played me like a fiddle, and everybody in the room knew it. Some of them weren’t even bothering to be subtle about it, eyeing me like I was wearing a fool’s motley. I suppose I might as well have been, falling for it so easily. I strode out of the crowd, heading for the closest door I could see. It led straight into an antechamber much like the one I’d come in through, though night had fallen in the lapse of time since I’d first come in. The beginnings of a storm were whipping at the stone with ropes of water. I tightened my cloak around my shoulders and stepped into the rain.
I stood and let the water run down my face, unsure of why I’d thought it would make me feel better. Lightning struck in the distance, streaking the night sky for the barest fraction of a moment. I didn’t feel soothed by the beat of the rain on my head: just wet and cold and still so very humiliated. Ater was sprawled out in the distance around me, the labyrinth of stone dotted by torches all the way to those enormous walls and the famous nine black gates the City of Gates had been named for. I’m not sure how I knew Black had joined me up out on the balcony, but I knew it as sure as I knew my own breath. My Name, probably – the more I learned how to use it the more it changed me, broadened my perceptions in some indescribable way. My teacher came to stand by my side on the edge, standing still and silent like he hadn’t even noticed we were in the middle of a storm.
“They’re always going to get in my way, aren’t they?” I spoke into the silence. “Because I’m from Callow, because I’m a commoner, because I’m not one of them. They’re going to fight me on everything just because they can. Because every time I win when they think I should lose, it insults them.”
Black was silent for a long time.
“Yes,” he agreed, and there was a world of weariness in that single word.
“She beat me,” I said, knowing it to be the truth. “Without lifting a finger. A handful of sentences and she managed to make my every success meaningless in less time than it takes to boil a cup of tea.”
He didn’t move and lay his hand on my shoulder the way I’d seen some fathers do with their daughters. It had never been this way with the two of us, and it never would be. He would not prop me up when I fell, but I’d never expected that from him. I was the Squire and he was the Black Knight, and so instead of comforting me he stood by my side in the pouring rain, waiting for me to rise back up on my own the way I always had. I closed my eyes and raised my head, letting the water flow against my cheeks as I let out a shaky laugh. Lightning struck again and I screamed at the night sky, screamed until my throat was sore and my stomach hurt.
“How do I do it,” I panted afterwards, “how do I beat them?”
And I didn’t mean the other companies. I meant all those dagger-eyed nobles inside, just waiting for me to step wrong so I could be buried in a shallow grave. Black turned towards me and smiled the same wicked smile he had what seemed so long ago, when he’d walked into the palace in Laure and turned a man’s death sentence into a lesson for me. Lighting struck again, casting his pale face in a madman’s light.
“How does a villain deal with enemies? It’s the simplest thing in the world, Catherine. When they get in your way… step on them.”