“What say you, Empress of Praes?
Here you lie upon the blood-soaked ruins of your dominion, surrounded by the corpses of the legions that once swarmed over the world. Hundreds of thousands dead for the sake of your wretched ambition, your mad design to bring to heel the kingdoms of man. In all the history of Creation no one woman has been so wicked as you, and I will have my answer.
Why, o Empress of Ruins?”
– Last lines of the “The Fall of Empress Triumphant, First and Only of Her Name”
(Six Months Later) 1324 A.D., 5th of Mawja, Marchford
A year ago, the commander would have given him trouble. Now? William tore the Penitent’s Blade out of the orc’s throat with a casual flick of the wrist. The sword keened mournfully, taking the greenskin’s life with it as it withdrew. The officer had died bravely, as bravely as one of his filthy species could, but with the orc’s blood on the floor the last of the resistance was over. It was to the Countess’ credit that she’d managed to turn a force of mercenaries and peasant levies into a coherent fighting force in less than a month – though it had certainly helped that their first battlefield had been her own fiefdom. If only all the allies he’d gathered were so competent. The Duke of Liesse had yet to set foot in the city, remaining with the baggage train under the impatient protection of the Exiled Prince.
The hero in question had been miffed he wouldn’t get to blood his men on Praesi legionaries today, but Countess Elizabeth had been correct when she’d pointed out that his troops were singularly unsuited to surprise attacks. No doubt the Duke would insist on a triumphant victory parade when the time came for him to enter, and for that the polished lancers of the Silver Spears would serve perfectly. They’d make a stirring enough image, and the story would spread: the Duke of Liesse had returned, to free the Kingdom from the yoke of the Tower.
Putting a complete imbecile on the throne of Callow was something William was going to have to live with, unfortunately. Oh, the Duke did have a sort of low cunning – he’d left Callow before Laure had even fallen, during the Conquest, and taken his treasury with him – but it was the kind of cunning a cockroach would have. He was a master of survival and little else, not to mention hopelessly self-important. That he was the First Prince’s creature walked the fine line between a virtue and a liability: this entire rebellion was being bankrolled by Proceran silver, but William was not so much of a fool as to be unaware the cold-eyed woman had designs on Callow herself. That was fine.
He was already leading a rebellion against the Empire, and he was more than willing to lead one against the Principate if it came down to it.
The Kingdom Under was a much greater worry. That two thousand hardened dwarven veterans had suddenly decided to form a mercenary company in Mercantis just when he’d been buying up every contract he could get his hands on was not a coincidence. The dwarves had a history of sending troublemakers up to the surface to die in other people’s wars, but the Sons of Stone were not your usual malcontents. If the King Under the Mountains was meddling in topside affairs William was going to have to keep a very, very close eye on it. Over two thirds of Calernia stood above dwarven tunnels and cities: no single nation had a military whose size equalled even the tenth of what the dwarves could muster if they felt like it.
It would not matter, in the end.
Only eight months had passed since his defeat at the hands of the Squire, but her words still rang whenever he closed his eyes. Run and hide and muster your armies in the dark. Make deals you’ll regret until you have nothing left to bargain with. I’ll be waiting for you, on the other side of that battlefield. The dismissal had been a lash on his back all the way to Refuge, where he’d knelt at the feet of the Lady of the Lake and asked to be taken as a pupil. She’d denied him, not unkindly. After the defeat at Summerholm, that had almost been enough to break him.
What could you say, when the great swordswoman in Creation told you you weren’t good enough to beat her old pupil? The sword was all he was good for. His Name was a paradox, in a way: heroes were supposed to galvanize others into something greater than themselves, but his Role thrived on being solitary. The Eyes of the Empire had failed to find him because he’d never been part of a band of heroes, eschewing more blatant heroics for quiet work in the dark. He’d found his answer through pure happenstance, that blessed golden luck that smiled on heroes from above.
He’d found the gates to Arcadia Resplendent, and petitioned the Lady for the right to use them. This boon she’d seen fit to grant, and so began his year in the realm of the Fae. A full year he’d spent fighting for his life against the denizens of that eldritch place, hunted for sport by the horrors of the Wild Hunt. But he’d survived, and learned. There was no comparing his power now to what it had been in Summerholm. On the last day of the year, the gates had opened to let him leave and he’d returned to Creation. Barely a month had passed outside of Arcadia: he would crush the Squire when they next met, and they would meet. The pattern had been set, there was no avoiding it. And when the time came, he would cram her words back down her sneering throat before raising the banner of a liberated Kingdom over her corpse.
Sheathing his sword, the Lone Swordsman left the room and stepped down the stairs. Countess Marchford should have set things up by now, assembling her peasantry in the city square. It was a shame the woman was so ambitious, but as far as commanders went she was by far the best the nobility had to offer. She’d stalemated a Marshal for an entire month during the Siege of Summerholm, holding out until the Legions landed a force on the other side of the Hwaerte and finished the encirclement. Had Grem One-Eye not been driving his army into the depths of the Duchy of Daoine at the same time, it would have been long enough for the Deoraithe to come relieve the siege.
And now she wants to be Queen of Callow, as she would have been had the Shining Prince not died at the Fields. Less of a bitter pill to swallow than the Duke having the best claim to the throne, all in all. She would not be any more inclined to trade a Praesi occupation for a Proceran one than William himself. The streets were full of dead legionaries, the fighting having gotten brutal in its last gaps. A full quarter of the Twelfth Legion had spat in the face of offered surrender, eerily singing that damned Legionary’s Song as they made their last stand against thrice their number. In a person that kind of courage would have been worthy of respect, but greenskins were barely more sentient than animals. Just another horror crafted by the Hellgods to plague Creation, an endless horde of foot soldiers carrying the banner of Evil.
His steps took him all the way to the central market, where the citizens of Marchford stood as an uneasy crowd in front of the gallows erected by the Legions. Fifty prisoners, goblins and orcs and humans, already stood on the wooden platform with nooses around their necks. His idea, that: William had not forgotten Summerholm, and neither would those fucking Praesi butchers. He hopped onto the gallows and with a few lazy strides he stood in front of the people, whispers of his Name spreading among the crowd when they recognized his white-gilded armour. There’d been a time where he would have avoided such glaringly heroic garments like the plague, but the time for subtlety was long past. Eyes staring down the masses, the hero took a deep breath.
“Twenty years ago, Praesi boots broke the spine of this nation,” he said, and the words carried perfectly.
Utter silence greeted him.
“They were strong, we told ourselves,” he continued. “Too strong. What could we possibly have done?”
His eyes narrowed.
“Cowardice,” he barked.
The crowd flinched as if he’d lashed them.
“There is no bargaining with Evil,” he thundered. “No truce with the Enemy. That we ever gave in to the Tower is a stain on the history of this Kingdom.”
Slowly, William unsheathed his sword.
“But we are not yet beyond redemption,” he told them. “Shame can be expunged. Today, for the first time in two decades, some of us rose to our feet.”
His Name burned within him, a cold flame that turned his blood to smoke and dust.
“Tell me, Callowans, do you want to spend the rest of your life kneeling?”
He could feel it swelling up. He could see it in their eyes, the light ground out by decades of occupation. His power spread through the air, thick and lingering.
“Do you want to continue licking the Empress’ boot, and let your children inherit that life?” he bellowed.
The whisper first came from the back, twisting and winding and gaining strength as it made its way to the first row and the answer came out as a NO that clapped like thunder.
“Neither do I,” he admitted when silence returned. “Take heart, citizens of Callow. Today the Kingdom is born again, and I make you this oath.”
Green eyes burned.
“CALLOW WILL BE FREE.”
Behind him the legionaries dropped, one after another, the cheer from the crowd drowning their dying struggles out. William closed his eyes, letting the sound wash over him, and smiled. There could be no defeat. The Heavens, after all, were on his side. Why else would they have granted him Triumph as an aspect?
9th of Mawja, Ater, Inner City
Akua had never particularly enjoyed playing shatranj, though she was skilled at it. The only reason she was currently playing Barika was that, traditionally speaking, it was expected of her to play shatranj while discussing the demise of her enemies. The way the Unonti heiress played was too conservative, much like the girl herself. Had she not been so reliably loyal, she would never have made it as high in Akua’s council as she currently stood. That was the problem with many of the Trueblood’s children. The old nobility was too stiff, too set in its ways, and it had transmitted that disease to their inheritors. Thankfully her own mother was much more flexible in her ways, and had raised her as such. The truth was that the Empire was no longer the same as it had been in ages past. The Reforms had granted rights to the greenskins, and there would be no withdrawing those without a civil war – one the nobility might not win, given that the vast majority of the current generations of orcs and goblins were Legion-trained.
The old truth that greenskins were inferiors to the Soninke in every way was no longer valid, and so had to be discarded. The aristocrats who refused to admit this were betraying the guiding rule of all Praesi: truth was mutable, and changed according to one’s purposes. Akua was not above using orcs and goblins as tools, though she found the matter distasteful. More importantly, the old hatreds some Soninke still held against humans had to be set aside. Taghreb inferiority, while a fact, was marginal enough in nature it should be ignored. Even the Duni had proved they could have worth, by spawning the most viciously dangerous Black Knight the Empire had seen in centuries. It was a shame the man had declined to take her a pupil, and she truly regretted that she had come to be at cross-purposes with him. Removing Foundling should neuter that liability cleanly enough, and the Knight was much too pragmatic to hold a grudge over such a trifling matter.
“I do not understand why you let the goblin’s death pass without making an issue of it,” Barika said, moving a legionary forward in an unwise gambit that was going to cost her a priest in three moves.
“I tried to press the issue through Court,” Akua noted. “Before I could, a member of the Blackguard dropped a basket with the head of my proxy in it at the mansion gates.”
The warning had been clear enough, and she’d never particularly expected that particular plot to bear fruit anyway. She’d had four people out for Foundling’s blood in the melee, but the goblin had been the only one to get close enough for an attempt. The scheme had been worth making, and had cost her nothing of worth to implement – much like the entire war games affair. Blackmailing the instructor to change Squire’s beginning position and meddle with the memory magic might have been a more expensive endeavour, had the man in question not been caught trying to escape the city and been crucified for his troubles. A rather mild reaction, by the standards of the Black Knight. The last time he’d caught a noble meddling in College business, he’d had their entire family eaten alive by spiders. Malicia was tightening his leash, as she had been for several years.
“Then it was a failure,” Barika said, barely hiding a wince when she lost her priest and found her chancellor trapped in a corner.
“You’re assuming that the point of this enterprise was to deny Foundling the appointment,” Akua said. “While it would have been the optimal result, it was not my main objective.”
In the long term, there was no real way to ensure that Squire did not get to lead troops. She was, ironically enough, too well-connected for that. At best the process could be delayed, and Akua’s assessment of the cost of keeping her out of the Legions for another year had been too much to stomach. And so she’d planned with the eventuality of failure in mind. By making this a public play through the Court, she’d forced her support in the nobility to be open in their backing. The minor loss of face that ensued from Foundling’s victory had caused her fair-weather friends to immediately withdraw their support, allowing Akua to separate the wheat from the chaff. She’d immediately move on those and made examples of them, of course.
Her position in Court was now stronger than it had ever been.
And while Squire had been tearing out her hair over inconsequential collegial games, she’d prepared to place agents in the Fifteenth Legion. That plot, the one that mattered, had been a success. That one of Foundling’s senior officers had become a spy before they were even appointed to the rank had been a source of great amusement to her over the last few months. It was unfortunate that she’d been unable to find leverage on the officers of the former Rat Company, as they seemed to be Squire’s most trusted. Ratface’s familial situation had seemed promising but the boy had flatly told her intermediary that if the subject was ever broached again blades would come out. Legate Juniper’s open distaste for what she called “human squabbling” made her a lost cause in this regard, and had she not been the daughter of a general Akua would already have her had assassinated. A shame, that such talent would be put to work in her rival’s favour. Barika knocked over her empress in a concession of defeat, letting out a sigh.
“So,” she murmured. “Are you finally going to tell me what was in the letter that came this morning?”
“Every major city in the south of Callow has risen in rebellion,” she replied.
“What?” the other girl replied, openly aghast.
Akua pretended she hadn’t seen the loss of composure, for her childhood companion’s sake.
“The Sixth and the Ninth Legion are to be deployed to put the unrest down,” she informed the other Soninke. “The Fifteenth will be joining them, still at half-strength.”
The purpose behind keeping the numbers of Foundling’s legion at two thousand legionaries only still eluded her, in truth. Part of it must have been the fact that Fourteenth was being raised simultaneously and the recruitment pool was limited, but that answer was too… obvious. There was always more than one angle, when one dealt with the Calamities.
“So that’s why you’ve been recruiting mercenaries,” Barika suddenly breathed.
Akua’s smile broadened, never quite reaching her eyes. Mercenaries were, technically speaking, illegal in Praes. It would have been too obvious of a way for the High Lords to get around the household troops restrictions put into place by Malicia. But the moment southern Callow had risen in rebellion, it had stopped legally being Praesi territory. The roughly four thousand troops she’d hired in Mercantis would be able to operate there without consequence.
“It won’t be enough,” a third voice rasped from the corner of the room.
Akua’s eyes flickered to the mangled goblin. Half of her face was missing, chopped off by a brutal – and lethal sword wound. Various parts of her body had been snapped by falling rubble and even now still remained at unnatural angles, barely functional. Not even the best necromancers on her payroll had been able to restore Chider to something palatable to look at.
“That would be where you come in, Commander Chider,” Heiress replied softly.
The goblin let out a horrible rasp Akua took a moment to recognize as a laugh. Raising a mere enemy of Foundling from the dead would have been a waste of gold, but Heiress had no interest in the greenskin’s skills. It was her nature that was of import. Raising a Claimant from the dead, on the other hand, had been worth every denarii. Picking up her own empress, the Soninke aristocrat felt her Name coil inside of her silently, like a snake preparing to strike. She’d wondered, when she’d first come into her Role, what exactly it meant. It was a question every Heir and Heiress had to answer on their own. Was she the inheritor of the stewardship of the Empire, the return of the forbidden Name of Chancellor? Was she the next warlord of Praes, the successor of its Black Knight? Or was hers to be the hand that cast down Dread Empress Malicia, the woman still hated behind closed doors? Wrong, all wrong. Paltry ambitions of lesser souls.
She was Akua Cisse, and she would inherit all of Creation.
7th of Mawja, Ater, the Tower
Black put down the letter, face expressionless.
The rebellion was not, all in all, unexpected. He’d moved Istrid and Sacker further south to deal with the eventuality, assigning the Eleventh to Summerholm instead. More importantly, Ranker and her Fourth were keeping an eye on the Deoraithe. Scribe’s agents had found out the Duchess had placed an observer with the rebels, but according to the rest of the network that was the only move she’d made. His personal assessment of Kegan had been accurate, then: she would not take action unless the Liesse Rebellion looked like it had decent chances of succeeding. That Afolabi had lost a full thousand at Marchford would be a black mark on the general’s record, but it was a tactical defeat and not a strategic one. No rebel force had yet to dare move north of Vale, and he’d already sent Catherine orders to mobilize her Fifteenth: by dawn tomorrow they’d be moving for the Blessed Isle to join the muster in central Callow.
“So that was your gamble, then,” the dark-haired man murmured into the silence.
He’d wondered about the exact form his Squire’s actions had taken, back in Summerholm. Obviously she’d let the Lone Swordsman go when she could have killed him – the damaged connection to her Name betrayed as much – but it seemed she’d freed the hero for a specific purpose. The boy had shown no inclination to gather large-scale strength before his encounter with the orphan, and such a sudden change in doctrine would have had to be Name-enforced. She branded instructions on his Name as the price for sparing him, then let him disappear into the wilds. Black had not even bothered to try tracking the Swordsman after his run-in with Catherine: the confrontation had initiated a pattern of three, and the hero was therefore beyond his reach. The only person who could feasibly kill him now was Squire, unfortunate as that was.
Still, none of this was beyond the parameters he’d set. The rebellion would have happened anyway, there was no denying that. The numbers did not lie: in the last decade the number of heroes appearing had shot up from once every several years to at least two a year. They were all dead now, of course, but that wasn’t the point. Sooner or later, one of his people would make a mistake. When he’d put down the Unconquered Champion last year, he’d been stuck in a pocket realm for what had ended up being three days in Creation proper. Within that lapse of time he’d been impossible to reach, and the Calamities had… not reacted well. Captain had slaughtered an entire village in a fit of blind rage and Warlock had actually mutilated the soul of an informant in his search for answers. He shuddered to think of what might have happened had Assassin or Ranger gotten involved.
No, the rebellion had always been a given. All it meant was that he had to have measures in place so that the event benefitted the Empire instead of weakened it, and he had managed that much. Barely. Catherine’s intervention had the uprising beginning ahead of schedule, and had he not spent the last twenty years preparing the Dread Empire for war it might have been taken by surprise. As things stood, the rebellion would be crushed before the next harvest and Catherine would blood her troops on real battlefield in the process. The inevitable losses would teach her some valuable lessons and temper her reckless streak as well as strengthen her emotional attachment to her soldiers – and by extension the Empire.
“Not a bad plan at all,” he decided.
Trading a weakened Name for a few months against an opportunity to advance through the ranks in wartime was bold but not overly so. She wouldn’t have known she was damaging her connection to her Role by letting the Lone Swordsman go, of course. He had, after all, carefully kept her in the dark about the way Names functioned. The results of that spoke for themselves. Not even a year into her power and she was already beginning to Speak. She had absolutely no idea how absurd that kind of progress was, no inkling that it had taken Black several years into the same Role before managing it. Ignorance on the subject of what she could and couldn’t do with her Name had allowed her to progress through leaps and bounds instead of a slow grind. It was fortunate that this approach was the best available to him, because Black had no real idea how to teach her.
He’d become the Squire when there was no Black Knight and most of what he knew was either self-taught or derived from Name dreams. He’d had two teachers in his lifetime and both tutelages had been purely related to swordsmanship: first his mother, when he’d been young, and then Ranger later in his career. Deciding how to treat Catherine had been something of a problem for him, in all honesty. He could not treat her as an equal, the way he and Ranger had been, but treating her purely as a subordinate was doomed to failure. In the end he’d settled for moulding her instead of teaching her, carefully exposing her to specific influences so that she would grow through them.
And grown she had, in the eight months he’d known her. The reports from his agent in the orphanage had indicated she had potential, but they’d underestimated how much. It was a good thing he hadn’t had her smothered in her sleep, as the local overseer’s recommendation had originally been. Morals too heroic in nature, the assessment had stated. He’d been ready to tie up that particular loose end should it prove necessary when he’d gone to deal with Mazus, but their unexpected meeting had opened a better alternative.
The dark-haired smiled, rising to his feet and coming to stand by the window. The view offered from the Tower’s one hundredth floor was breath-taking, but he’d become inured to the sight over the years. Black had been amused, when Catherine had mentioned that she felt her Name like a living, breathing beast. The way a Named felt their Role revealed much about them. Warlock said his own was akin to opening floodgates, for he rightfully feared the capricious nature of his power. Malicia compared her own to slipping on a pair of gloves, perfectly fitted to her. And him? Gears. An enormous machine made up of a hundred thousand gears, all of them turning. Slowly. Coldly. Implacably.
The moment his agents had gotten him the news he’d felt his Name react. Lead. Conquer. Destroy. All three of his aspects were awake. He hadn’t felt this alive in decades, and even as the south of the kingdom he’s conquered resumed the war he’d won he felt a strange joy welling up inside of him. Interesting years were ahead. And this once, just this once, he was willing to break a rule of his. Baring his teeth at the Heavens, Black dared them to deny him.
“Just as planned,” he said.