“The closest equivalent I’ve found to the Imperial court is the act of shoving your hand in a bag that could be full of jewels but is, most of the time, full of razor blades.”
– Extract from the personal memoirs of Dread Empress Maleficent II
The two-hundredth level of the Tower was surprisingly, well, not horrifying.
Admittedly there were more skull carvings woven into the relief than I was strictly comfortable with, but the boudoir where I’d ended up cooling my heels until Malicia was ready to see me was pretty comfortable. The armchairs had been designed to accommodate people wearing plate armour as I currently was, and a servant had helpfully put out a carafe of what looked like good Liessen wine. It broke my heart that I couldn’t pour myself a cup, but the last time I’d stepped foot in the Tower all the available refreshments had been poisoned and I wasn’t going to risk a repeat performance for a drink. I was getting more than a little restless, sitting alone in the room and waiting on one of the most powerful women in Calernia.
It wasn’t the armour that had me feeling awkward: Hells, it was my default getup these days. Besides, Hakram had seen to it that it got polished even if the thought had never crossed my mind, because my minion was a godsdamned prince among adjutants. I’d even gotten used to the cloak, though it had a way of making everything I did seem overly theatrical. And the sword… well, at least it was goblin steel. I could have done without the goblinfire-green bells my teacher had gotten the pommel sculpted as, but I’d grown familiar with the arming sword. Besides, there was no escaping the Black Knight’s dubious sense of humour.
That particular thought was a great deal fonder than it would have been a few months ago. The problem with Black, I’d found, was that he was a likeable monster. It was hard to remain as guarded as I should be around him when he constantly went out of his way to make things easier for me. The memory of that afternoon in Summerholm when I’d seen his true face remained fresh, but it battled with the evenings like when the two of us had stood out in the rain and he’d been almost… comforting. As comforting as a man like him could be, anyway.
He was manipulating me, of course, but that didn’t mean his actions weren’t genuine. He wouldn’t be half as good a manipulator if they weren’t.
The longer I spent with my teacher the more the way he did things seemed reasonable, and that terrified me more than anything else.
I can like him and still consider him my enemy, I told myself silently. I paced across the room, following the relief of some ancient battle as I did. The Praesi displayed seemed to be on the defensive, for once, but I didn’t recognize the battlefield. The twin bells of the Fairfax dynasty were among the banners of the invaders but there were half a dozen other displays of heraldry I was unfamiliar with.
“The Fourth Crusade,” a voice came from behind me.
My hand immediately dropped to my sword as I swivelled, but the woman facing me was unarmed. Not a servant – she wasn’t wearing the Tower’s livery – but I couldn’t recall seeing her the last time I’d been here. Not that that means much.
“Excuse me?” I replied after a heartbeat.
“It’s a depiction of Dread Emperor Terribilis turning back the Fourth Crusade,” the woman repeated.
Ah. The heraldry I hadn’t recognized must have been from the Crusader Kingdoms that the second Terribilis had spent his lifetime dismantling. I let a moment pass as I took a closer look at the stranger. Dark skin and short plaited hair, she had those typical Soninke high cheekbones and nearly golden eyes. Her tunic was a deep green and high-collared, a fashion I’d noticed before in the streets of Ater. Not that any of this helped me figure out who the Hells I was talking to. I cleared my throat.
“Is it time for me to go in, then?” I asked.
The woman shook her head lightly, reaching for one of the cups by the carafe and pouring herself one.
“The Liesse Rebellion has complicated tax collection in Callow for the year, Malicia will be settling the details for a little while longer,” she replied. “It’s not poisoned, by the way, if you were wondering.”
As if to lend her words credence, she took a small sip from her cup. I raised an eyebrow. My first thought had been that I might be dealing with a heavily disguised version of Malicia trying to pick my brains before we met, but that was becoming more unlikely by the moment. Was she some sort of attendant, then? Might as well play along for the moment. There’s a reason Black taught me the Name trick to burn basic poisons out of my system. I strode across the room and poured myself a cup of my own.
“And who would you be?” I asked after taking a sip and allowing the sweet, musky taste to fill my mouth.
The woman smiled, artfully sitting down in one of the armchairs.
“No one important,” she replied.
“Villain, then,” I grunted. “Only people who ever get that shifty about their job description.”
And yet I wasn’t feeling a Name coming off of her. Oh, that particular trick wasn’t perfect – I’d yet to manage to get anything off Scribe, and Black could blink out of existence for me if he focused – but it wasn’t something just anybody could fool. My level of wariness went up a notch.
“I do not have a Name, so you can stop squinting,” she replied in a drily amused tone.
I coughed to hide my embarrassment.
“Are you really going to make a guessing game out of this?” I asked. “I guess that’s one way to pass the time.”
She folded her hands primly over her lap. “You may consider me Malicia’s equivalent of what Scribe is to Amadeus,” she said.
I frowned. “Secretary?”
“Spymistress,” she corrected. “Let’s not pretend that Scribe doesn’t run one of the largest information networks on the continent.”
“I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to admit that out loud,” I grunted. “I don’t suppose you have a name? ‘No one important’ is a bit of a mouthful.”
She chuckled. “You can call me Ime,” she replied.
I raised an eyebrow. “Patience in Mthethwa,” I noted. “There’s a fake name if I ever heard one.”
“Secrets are my trade,” she said. “It would hardly be proper for me to reveal my actual name on our first meeting.”
I hummed and refused to humour that line of conversation any further. If my last evening at the Tower had taught me anything, it was that if I played courtly games I was going to lose. Badly. Better to stick to battlefields where I had a chance of carrying the day.
“Catherine Foundling,” I introduced myself, well aware that if she really was who she said she was then there was little chance she didn’t already know that.
“Interesting,” Ime murmured.
“How’s that?” I replied warily.
“Most individuals with a Role introduce themselves by their Name,” she noted. “I wonder if that disassociation is related to your origins.”
“I’m sure I’m not the first Callowan villain,” I spoke through gritted teeth.
“Hardly,” Ime acknowledged. “Yet Callowan villains were usually related to a Callowan pattern: overly ambitious uncles, warmongering commanders. For a girl born in Laure to become the Squire – a largely Praesi Name – is unprecedented. In many ways you are setting the standard for any who would follow in your path.”
“I’m sure there’s a point to this,” I replied flatly. “If you’d kindly get to it.”
Ime shrugged. “I’m trying to understand why Amadeus chose you to be his apprentice. Your marks at the orphanage’s education facilities weren’t particularly remarkable – I read your essay on the Licerian Wars and it was rather sloppy.”
Oh Gods, I couldn’t believe that a piece of homework I’d written half-drunk in the backroom of the Rat’s Nest had ended up in the hands of the fucking spymistress of the Empire. I forced my face to remain blank.
“I don’t think he picked me because of my academic record,” I said.
“Mhm, yes,” Ime hummed. “Your ranking in the Pit was more to your credit. Also a warning sign, of course. It was one of the reasons your file was flagged, along with your antisocial tendencies.”
“I’m not antisocial,” I retorted before I could help myself. “I’m just – never mind, not worth arguing over. What does that even mean, my ‘file was flagged’?”
I didn’t even bother to address the fact that everyone and their mother seemed to know I’d been part of an illegal underground fighting ring. Hells, Booker, what kind of a show were you running?
“You were considered a potential heroine,” Ime informed me. “Your stated interest in the War College was a mitigating factor, but agents of the Tower kept an eye on you regardless.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that, but I was spared the effort of figuring it out when a small gong rang in the distance and the spymistress gracefully rose to her feet.
“Malicia seems to be done,” she said. “If you’ll follow me, Lady Squire?”
I bit down on a ‘do I have a choice?’ and fell behind her. The boudoir led to a larger antechamber covered in wood panelling, but our pace was too brisk for me to stop and take in the scenery. The door at the end of the room opened into a larger chamber, this one more classic Praesi architecture. Polished black marble everywhere, with the occasional gold inlay shining in the candlelight. Large tinted glass windows in the back allowed the fading sunlight to filter in, casting shades of red and gold on the long rectangular table that took up the middle of the room. At the head of the room, sitting in an armchair ostentatious enough to qualify as a throne, sat Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name. I bowed my head.
“Your Most Dreadful Majesty,” I greeted her.
Deference, but no kneeling. The urge was there but I remembered standing alone with my teacher, surrounded by our enemies. We do not kneel. The words still sent a shiver up my spine whenever I thought of them. The Empress laughed, the sound as enchanting as I remembered.
“There’s no need for any of that, Catherine,” she spoke gently. “This is a private audience.”
“Technically,” Ime pointed out, “this is a session of the Imperial council. Two members out of five is the necessary quorum.”
Malicia rolled her eyes at the spymistress. “I see you’ve been helping yourself to the wine, darling.”
I allowed the banter to pass me by without commenting, still unsure as to what exactly my position was relating to them. Or even why I was here in the first place. Would it have killed them to have put a mention of that in the summons? I studied the Tyrant in silence, trying to gauge her intentions. Pretty much all I got out of it was that the woman was gorgeous, which I’d already known. She was not, however, as attention-grabbing as she’d been in Court. Part of that must have been that she was wearing a much less flamboyant green dress the exact shade of Ime’s tunic, but that couldn’t be all. It wasn’t that she was any less striking, just that… It’s not as difficult to ignore. My fingers tightened imperceptibly. Name shenanigans, I’d put my hand to flame on it. Ime claimed the chair to the left of Malicia, immediately beginning to drum against the armrest.
“Your Majesty,” I began.
The Empress raised an eyebrow. “Malicia,” she corrected me. “You and I will be working together for a long time, Catherine. I’ve found being overly formal tends to be a hindrance in those cases.”
“Malicia,” I repeated with a grimace. Gods, that felt weird. “I hope I’m not being overly bold, but I have no idea whatsoever as to why I’m here.”
The lovely heart-shaped face remained unreadable for a moment, then she cracked a smile. Shaking her head ruefully, she turned to Ime.
“She might as well be his daughter,” the Empress said.
Ime smirked. “Little off-colour, but the resemblance is there.”
I quietly choked on my tongue.
“Excuse me?” I managed to croak out.
Malicia waved a hand lazily. “There’s nobility in the Empire that would cheerfully murder their firstborn for the opportunity to discuss the weather with me, my dear. It seems Amadeus has rubbed off on you more than I’d thought.”
I bit the inside of my cheek. “My apologies, I meant no-”
“No one’s taking offence, Lady Squire,” Ime interrupted, the intonation she gave the last words almost mocking.
I glared at her. “Forgive me for being a little nervous in the presence of the godsdamned Dread Empress of Praes, Lady Ime.”
I started wincing before the words even finished leaving my lips. My temper is going to get me killed one of these days. Hells, maybe even today. Malicia chuckled exquisitely.
“Lady Patience? A little on the nose, darling,” she said.
Ime looked mildly offended. “I’m the Imperial spymistress. I have a mystique to protect.”
“Save it for the unwashed masses,” the Empress replied. “They might actually be impressed. That said, Catherine, it might not be the wisest course of action to damn a ruler to her face. We do not call on the Gods as casually in Praes as they do in Callow.”
“I’ll, er, remember that,” I muttered, too relieved my outburst hadn’t gotten more of a reaction to muster anything more substantial.
The Empress smiled. “My summons was not a mere social call, as it happens. Our respective duties have kept us both rather busy of late, but I wanted us to have a face-to-face meeting before you left for Callow.”
A good thing she’d not called it ‘the provinces’ this time. My game face wasn’t good enough yet to hide the kind of resentment that would have caused.
“Did you ever wonder why your teacher took you as a pupil?” Malicia asked in a murmur.
And just like that, she had the entire weight of my attention bearing down on her. Oh, I’d wondered all right. More than once that particular question had kept me up at night, along with the worry that I was playing into whatever greater plan he had in the works.
“The question has crossed my mind once or twice,” I replied quietly.
Her expression was friendly, but her eyes were sharp as daggers. Her looks made it so very easy to forget that Dread Empress Malicia was the longest-reigning Tyrant in several hundred years. One did not get to keep the Tower that long without being very, very good at their job.
“Amadeus is, without a doubt, the most talented example of his Name to grace Praes in a dozen generations,” she said matter-of-factly. “Unfortunately, he has also made so many enemies that within twenty years he will be unable to function effectively as my Black Knight.”
My blood went cold. That was… not the conversation I’d expected to be having when I received the summons, to put it lightly. What she was saying had large implications. Empire-shaking implications.
“I was aware he had enemies in the nobility,” I replied cautiously. “I’d not been given to understand that the situation was quite that bad.”
“Part of it is our fault,” Malicia sighed.
“He’s been the hatchet man for this regime since the very beginning, and the cost is starting to show,” Ime contributed mildly.
I’d almost forgotten she was there.
“Every time we had to keep the High Lords in line,” the Empress explained, “Amadeus was the one kicking down the doors, so to speak. The only reason he hasn’t been rewarded for this by a knife in the back is that we’ve already co-opted all the hired killers worth the name.”
“That and Assassin’s been cleaning house like it’s going out of style,” Ime smiled. “Busy little bee, he’s been.”
“You think he means for me to replace him,” I forced out, almost afraid to say the words.
“A Squire must, in time, become a Knight,” Malicia replied softly.
I clenched my fingers and unclenched them.
“Then that means Heiress is another possible successor,” I finally said.
“Sweet Akua’s designs are a little grander than that, I’m afraid,” Ime snickered.
“Ambition is a good thing, in a young girl,” the Empress chided her. “Yet I fear her aspirations will be frustrated. The Age of Wonders is over, Catherine. The days where a single madwoman with a flying fortress could cow a continent are long gone. Creation is a smaller place now, one that rewards base cleverness over glorious enterprise.”
I didn’t see anything glorious in a crazy Tyrant raining down fire on their neighbours, but that was the Praesi for you. Over a millennium of being run by villains had warped their culture to the bone.
“That is the reason you were summoned to the Tower before your departure and she was not,” Malicia continued. “You represent a legacy, Catherine, a different way of doing things. And so I will ask you the same question I asked Amadeus, before he helped me claim the Tower.” The Dread Empress leaned forward. “What do you want?”
I blinked. I’d thought I understood where this conversation was going. A few words of warning, a little more putting on the charm, and then I’d be sent off with a pat on the head. This was… She was taking me seriously, and that wasn’t something I’d come to expect of the nobles of the Wasteland. Hells, what could you even say to the second most powerful woman on a continent asking you what you wanted? I want Callow to be free, in fact if not in name. I want your nobles to stop plundering the land of my birth like it’s their Gods-given right. I want peace, even if it’s under the aegis of the Tower. And the next time one of your dogs steps out of line, I want the power to put their head on a pike. All of those I could have told her, but they revealed too much to this woman I still knew little about and trusted even less.
“That’s a complicated question,” I replied instead, face blank.
“Most worth asking are,” Ime commented.
“Don’t be obnoxious, sweetling,” Malicia sighed. “I understand this is unexpected, Catherine, and I will not press you for an answer today. All I ask is that you think on it.”
The Dread Empress leaned back in her seat, every inch of her turning regal as she eyed me inscrutably.
“This is Praes, Catherine Foundling,” she said. “Our ways are harsh, but they are not without graces. Power earned is yours to do with as you wish. Remember that, when putting down the rebellion you set into motion. Sacrifices are meaningless if they do not lead to an outcome.”
For the second time since I’d stepped into the room, my blood ran cold. She knew. She knew. How could- no it didn’t matter. If she’d wanted me dead for this she wouldn’t have needed proof, and not even Black would have tried to stop her. I let out a shaky breath and bowed my head in acknowledgement of the implied dismissal. Ime pushed back her chair and rose to her feet, casually making her way to me and clapping my shoulder. I resisted the urge to push off her hand.
“I’ll see you out, Lady Squire,” the spymistress said. “The Tower can be rather dangerous, to those who are strangers to it.”
“No argument there,” I muttered, allowing her to steer me out of the chamber.
Her steps slowed as we passed through the antechamber, the door closing soundlessly behind us.
“Your legion will pass through Summerholm,” Ime suddenly said.
I eyed her cautiously. “It’s the only land route, yes.”
“Warlock will be there,” she informed me. “So will his son.”
I blinked in surprise. “His son? I thought he…”
“Married an incubus?” she smiled. “Yes, the rumours are true. Very well-behaved creature, for a personification of lust. They adopted.”
“Huh,” I grunted. “Interesting. Why are you telling me this?”
“The boy recently came into the Name of Apprentice,” she replied. “Their presence in the city is not a coincidence.”
Ah. Power calls to power, my teacher always said. My fingers tightened. A mage with that kind of firepower at his disposal would be quite the trump card, but I’d been in Praes long enough to know that assumptions paved the path to disappointment. Or an early grave.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I replied.
“You’ll have seen all the Calamities save Ranger after that,” Ime mused. “Not many people can claim the same.”
I frowned. “I’ve never met Assassin either,” I pointed out.
She shot me a pitying look. “It would be a mistake to think that means Assassin has never met you,” she replied.
I grimaced. “And to think I was starting to run out of nightmare material.”
Ime hesitated, then allowed me to pass through the doorway to the boudoir first.
“A word of advice, Foundling,” she murmured, leaning close. “When people pick out the most dangerous among Amadeus’ entourage, they think of Ranger or Warlock. They are wrong.”
I kept my face blank and met her eyes.
“Be very careful around Scribe,” she spoke in a whisper. “Do not ever let her believe you are a threat to him. If she does, she won’t call down Hellfire or come swinging a sword. One night, you will simply… disappear, and no body will ever be found.”
“You’re being very helpful,” I replied.
I let the following and why is that? unspoken. The spymistress’ hand came to rest on her throat and her eyes went distant.
“I owe your teacher a debt,” she said. “He chose mercy once, when he had every right to do otherwise. I’ve made a habit of settling that score whenever I can.”
We made our way out of the Tower in silence after that, each lost in our own thoughts.