“Still waters are the hungriest.”
– Soninke saying
There were so many defensive wards layered around his tent that even insects trying to crawl through would be instantly fried.
It wasn’t for his personal safety, of course. Amadeus knew better than to rely on magic for that: there were ways to undo sorcery, if you had the right tools at hand. Just the belief that he was ever safe would be a dangerous liability – heroes had a way of slipping through the cracks, especially the grittier types. No, this was purely for the sake of privacy. His contact with the Tower had been infrequent at best, these last two decades: letters took months and could be intercepted, two-way scrying could be detected and even listened on. But now and then, it became a necessity to talk with Alaya face to face. For that purpose Wekesa had crafted the both of them a highly specialized tool, two halves of a mirror linked so deeply it took but a touch to have them connect. The protections weaved into the spells were some of the nastiest he’d ever seen, and as far as he knew no one trying to eavesdrop on a conversation between the Empress and himself had ever survived the attempt.
Unlike most people expecting a meeting with the Dread Empress of Praes, Amadeus had not spent a great deal of effort making himself look presentable. There was no stubble on his jaw, not that there should be: he hadn’t needed to shave since becoming the Black Knight, as he’d never thought of himself as someone who had facial hair. He wore a simple long-sleeved grey cotton shirt with some cleverly hidden metal plates, which combined with his comfortable trousers of the same colouring lent him a fairly casual appearance. His sword was within reaching distance, but that was nothing unusual: he could count the number of times it hadn’t been on one hand, since he’d first become a Squire claimant. A gentle touch of the finger had the mirror rippling, and after a heartbeat the silhouette of Her Most Dreadful Majesty Malicia, First of Her Name, Tyrant of Dominions High and Low, Holder of the Nine Gates and Sovereign of All She Beheld appeared on the surface.
“Maddie,” the ruler of Praes greeted him.
“Allie,” he replied just as dryly.
Most people would have expected Alaya to wear some kind of sheer, mind-bogglingly revealing nightdress at this time of the night. The truth was a little different: the Dread Empress of Praes was adorned in loose woollen pants and a conservative button-up shirt that covered her up to her neck. For all that she played the part of the supremely skilled seductress in public, the dark-skinned woman had never truly left behind her very provincial views on propriety. Being part of the Imperial seraglio under Nefarious – may that hook-nosed wretch forever scream in the deepest Hells – had saddled her with a reputation, though, and she’d elected to take advantage of it. It helped that she was undeniably one of the most beautiful women in the Empire. Weaving a few spells into her dresses allowed her to turn that attraction into fascination, and so put everyone dealing with her at a disadvantage. Men and women alike tended to think with their genitals around her, a dangerous liability when trying to outmanoeuvre someone with a mind as sharp as Alaya’s. That she was widely known to be only interested in women was, amusingly enough, not much of a hindrance when it came to manipulating men. There was no shortage of prancing idiots in the nobility of the Wasteland who believed the magic wand between their legs would be the thing to change the Empress’ preferences.
“You have such an unpleasant smile,” the Empress sighed. “It always looks like it’s at someone else’s expense.”
“It usually is,” Amadeus admitted shamelessly.
She rolled her eyes, drawing a grin out of him. He did enjoy the way she acted when it was only the two of them. The woman she turned into when keeping the pack of jackals that passed for the upper class of Praes in line was sublimely entertaining, but she was also a carefully crafted façade. The Alaya he’d met when they were both so young, the same girl he’d spent so many nights with debating the Empire should be instead of the way it was, she only came out rarely nowadays. It had been ages since Alaya had thrown a tankard at anyone, even, which was definitely a shame. Amadeus was of the opinion that the behaviour of the High Lords would improve considerably if the Empress threw things at them every time they misbehaved. And considering the way some of the Tyrants have acted in the past, that wouldn’t even register as eccentric by Praesi standards.
“And now you’re smirking,” Alaya noted. “Spit it out.”
“Just remembering how terrible a waitress you were,” he informed her.
“At least I never toppled a foreign government drunk,” she replied, arching a perfectly-manicured eyebrow.
“I was tipsy at best,” he protested.
They shared a smile, but after a moment her face turned serious.
“I suppose we should get to business,” she said. “One of Ime’s people intercepted a diplomatic courier from Hasenbach.”
“Finally,” he murmured. “She found a way around the Augur’s abilities?”
“We think she can only foretell it if it’s been planned,” Alaya told him. “We’re moving additional agents into place to create more opportunities.”
He hummed thoughtfully. He’d have to pass the conclusion along to Eudokia. She’d been getting frustrated at her own failures.
“Nothing too surprising,” the Empress grimaced. “She’s sounding out the League for military readiness.”
“We’ve still got three of the seven aligned with us,” Amadeus grunted. “The others won’t move with a majority vote that slim, they’d be leaving their own city-states undefended against our allies.”
“She’s just angling to keep Helike off her back,” Alaya replied. “If she pushes an official truce with the Principate through vote, she’ll have the border secure for a few years.”
“Having the Tyrant take the throne there was an unexpected surprise,” the Knight shrugged. “I won’t complain if it helps, but it was never something we planned to rely on. I’d rather she spent time on the Free Cities than dealing with the Dominion.”
“Levant will fold if she pushes back,” the Empress said. “They’re not looking for an actual war, just being opportunistic.”
It was a shame the Red Snake Wall made the Dominion’s northern border unassailable. Hasenbach was looking for a war abroad to consolidate her position and Levant would have made an easier target than the Empire without it. It wouldn’t even be the first time Procer turned their eyes in that direction: the territory now making up the Dominion had spent two centuries as part of the Principate, before seceding with Ashuran help.
“Regardless,” Alaya continued, “I have other concerns.”
Amadeus raised an eyebrow.
“This rebellion. You could have put this whole matter to rest months ago,” Alaya said. “Peeling a legion off of the Vales to flank them and sending another across the Hwaerte would have crushed the insurrection in its infancy.”
“True,” the Knight admitted.
“I understand the need to groom your apprentice, Maddie, but this is going too far. You’re deliberately stretching out the lifespan of a threat to the Empire so that she can prove herself on the field,” the Empress told him. “This entire affair is an unnecessary risk.”
“It is a risk, I’ll give you that much,” the green-eyed man conceded. “But unnecessary? Quite the opposite.”
Alaya’s eyes narrowed. “You’re up to something.”
He shrugged. “Aren’t I always? In this case, the objective is fairly straightforward: I am putting an end to the rise of heroic Names in Callow.”
“I would argue that’s impossible,” the Empress frowned. “The best we’ve managed is to regulate the frequency they form at.”
Amadeus’ lips quirked into a wry smile. “The key word in that sentence being we.”
“Her managing to kill the Lone Swordsman would buy us a year or two at best,” Alaya scoffed. “We’ve gone over this before. Wekesa putting down the Wizard of the West didn’t stop mage-Names from forming down the line, nemesis or not.”
“You’re still framing this in terms of Catherine being one of us,” Amadeus said, leaning forward. “She isn’t. She is a Callowan using a Praesi Name for purposes that ultimately serve the land of her birth. This is no longer a story about the Empire maintaining dominion over its conquest: it stopped being that the moment she became involved. This narrative is about Callow’s soul, which of two paths it should take in the coming years: the Swordsman’s revolution at all costs or the Squire’s appropriation of the system.”
Alaya drew a sharp breath. “And if she wins-“
“When she wins,” Amadeus corrected.
“Then heroes will stop rising to oppose her, until she succeeds or loses her way,” the Empress finished, face troubled. “Maddie this is… Both of us have walked this line before, but that’s something else. You’re trying to manipulate the forces driving a Role. Calling this playing with fire wouldn’t be doing it justice.”
“I imagine it is mildly blasphemous at best,” Amadeus smiled. “Amusing, if not of any great import.”
“Assuming your gambit is success,” she said. “Which is, for the record, an assumption I am not yet ready to make. In the aftermath, she would have to be allowed to implement some degree of reform. Otherwise she’ll end up having to oppose us as the next obstacle in her way.”
Amadeus blinked. “Well, yes,” he replied slowly.
“That could cost us Callow, in the long term,” the Empress stated. “I do not want to have to put down a Legion-trained native army in thirty years.”
“Our current methods won’t work for much longer, you know this,” the Knight frowned. “Rebellions will keep cropping up and it’s a matter of time until the Principate is able to mount an invasion again. We can’t win a war with them while putting down domestic unrest, both Grem and I have run the scenarios.”
“Procer is being handled,” the Soninke replied.
“You can only start fires in the First Prince’s backyard so many times, Allie,” Amadeus told her frankly. “She’s already managed to cut you out of their internal politics and now she’s making making progress in the Free Cities. As soon as the Dominion backs down she can turn all her attention to us.”
“She won’t be in a position to make a move for at least two years,” the Empress informed him. “As soon as I have additional agents in position I can start funding her opposition regardless of those pesky little laws she put in place.”
It had been a masterful stroke, when Hasenbach had passed the legislation through the Highest Assembly. The origin of loans above a certain sum to the rulers of all principalities now had to be disclosed to the First Prince, which had put an end to the activities of the Pravus Bank on Proceran soil. If Alaya propped up a political opponent of the First Prince, the woman in question would know in a matter of weeks. And if the loan went undeclared, she would have a pretext to move against her enemy as soon as the information surfaced. Which it would, there was no doubt about that: Hasenbach’s spy network was nearly as good as theirs and she had a Named future-teller on her side. There was a reason Assassin hadn’t already taken care of the First Prince – both attempts made had been anticipated and neatly countered before they could get anywhere close to her. Still, there were ways around the laws. Multiple smaller loans through proxies would achieve much the same result, but putting said proxies into place would take time. When everything was finally in position, though, odds were that Hasenbach’s position in Procer would no longer be vulnerable.
“Two years won’t be enough,” he finally said. “Even if we raised another five legions tomorrow Procer would still outnumber us nearly two to one in professional soldiers. We wouldn’t be able to hold the Vales, and it would all be downhill from there.”
“And what’s your alternative, Maddie?” the Empress replied tiredly. “What does your Squire actually intend to do, if she gets her way? I’ve yet to discern an actual plan of action from her. She just strolls from one mess to the next.”
“She’ll want official authority to curtail abuses of Imperial power on Callowan soil, at the very least,” the dark-haired man spoke. “Not, all in all, an unreasonable thing to ask.”
“You want me to give a sixteen year-old Callowan girl power of life and death over Praesi high nobility,” Alaya pointed out. “I know you’ve been staying out of Wasteland politics, but you should be able to guess how well that will go over.”
The Knight smiled coldly. “So let them grumble. Let them rebel, even. There’s a reason half the Legions are still in Praesi territory. The moment they take arms they will be crushed underfoot, as they were when we first took power.”
“We’re not the underdog anymore, Maddie,” the Empress replied in an irritated tone. “There’s more to ruling than hanging whoever disagrees with you. We already took the Empire, now we have to actually run it. Something you’d know, if you hadn’t spent the last twenty years playing soldier abroad.”
He let the comment pass, this once, though sharp replies were on the tip of his tongue. There was nothing to win in allowing this to become a personal argument instead of a political one.
“The Truebloods have been pressuring you,” he guessed instead.
“They closed ranks behind High Lady Tasia,” Alaya explained. “Killing Mazus and his father was too stark a reminder that we’re keeping them on a short leash. I’m going to have to make concessions to keep them under control.”
Heiress’ mother. Not unexpected, thought definitely unwelcome. It was to be expected that the High Lady of Wolof would leverage her child’s rise into becoming the leader of that band of malcontents.
“What do they want?” Amadeus asked. “They should know better than to ask for a lift on the Chancellor ban.”
“If she was that stupid she wouldn’t be a threat,” the Empress replied. “They stayed moderate. Reinstatement of goblin breeding restrictions to pre-Conquest levels, the end of tribute reduction for Clans who provide legionaries. They also want the tributes that went unpaid under Nefarious to be collected retroactively, with interest.”
“Going for the Reforms, then,” the Knight grunted. “They’re not even being original anymore. How will you put them off?”
The Truebloods hadn’t made a push for changes in the War College, which was for the best. He’d have needed to take punitive action if they had, and the current climate was already volatile enough. The nobility’s ongoing struggle to take back the changes made when Malicia had first taken the Tower had been mostly fruitless so far, though they’d managed a handful of victories. Mostly in the way they’d managed to stop any other steps forward: his own attempt to have noble titles granted to Clan chieftains had been tabled for at least the next decade. Met with silence on the Empress’ part, the green-eyed man frowned.
“Alaya?” he said, then felt his blood run cold as the realization sunk in. “You can’t be serious.”
“Valid arguments were made,” the Empress replied flatly. “The Tribes already recovered all the losses they incurred when we took Callow. Allowing them to accumulate more numbers would shift the balance of power in the Empire to our disadvantage.”
“And the tributes?” he asked.
“They broke the law by ignoring their obligations to the Tower, even if Nefarious was unfit to rule,” the Soninke noted. “As for the rest, incentives to enrol are hardly needed given the numbers of orcs we already have under the banner.”
“If you implement both it will cripple enrolment in the Legions,” the Knight said. “The Clans won’t be able to part with even half as much of their people under that kind of a financial burden.”
“Tasia’s very objective, I imagine,” the Empress replied. “Not one I entirely disagree with. Too large a portion of our armies is not human.”
“Humans still make four legionaries out of ten,” the Knight pointed out. “Only orcs come even close to that. The gap will only widen if Callowans start joining in significant numbers.”
“That’s still over half our legionaries born to loyalties other than the Tower,” Alaya retorted.
“The entire point of the Reforms is to give them a stake in the Empire,” Amadeus reminded her. “Keeping them under our thumb is counterproductive when we’re trying to make a fist. Allie, they’re pushing now of all times because it’s working. Catherine’s boy proved as much: an unprecedented Role, bound to the Legions of Terror and in the hands of an orc.”
“Yes,” the Empress said quietly. “To the Legions. Not the Tower.”
Amadeus felt the old calm settle on him. The clarity that came with danger, the perfect awareness that had seen him survive one uphill battle after another.
“We’re better than this, Alaya,” he said. “You’re better than this. If we begin to doubt each other now, all we built will come down on our heads.”
The dark-skinned woman let out a long breath. The controlled façade she’s put on when the conversation had taken an unpleasant turn broke for a moment, allowing a glimpse of very real dismay. Or was it? He’d never been good at reading her. There was a time where that had hardly mattered, but they were no longer the people they’d been when they were young even if their faces had remained the same.
“You think I enjoy this, Maddie?” she murmured. “Gods, you’re the only person I’ve been able to trust since I was seventeen. You may well be the only man in this entire Empire I can call a friend.”
“But,” the Knight spoke quietly.
“But,” she repeated in the same tone, “in the end, there can only be one person sitting on the throne.”
Amadeus closed his eyes. How had it come to this, he wondered? He’d always known that the degree of trust between Alaya and himself was unusual, by villainous standards. But it had needed to be, for what they’d done. By outlawing the Name of Chancellor they’d shifted the balance of the ruling class of the Empire. There was no buffer between the Empress and the nobility, which meant she had to deal with their intrigues herself. In some ways, Alaya had more direct power over Praes than any other Empress or Emperor before her – but that also meant that dealing with internal matters had to take up most of her time. Which, in turn, had meant that she’d had to delegate almost all authority over Callow to him. He’d been King of Callow in fact, if not in name, for the last twenty years. In and of itself that would not have been much of an issue, but the fault line rand deeper than that. Out of the current thirteen marshals and generals of the Empire, ten had started out as officers under his command. Their loyalty went to him over Alaya, a damning fact when the strongest pillar of the Dread Empress’ power over the Empire was the Legions of Terror. Could he really blame her for crafting a power base independent from his own? No. But blame doesn’t matter. Never has, never will. Villains must attend to reality or be swallowed by it. The Black Knight opened his eyes. In the back of his head the machine woke up, a hundred thousand gears starting to turn as his Name stirred awake.
“Forty years I have fought for this Empire,” he spoke. “I made myself into a liar, a cheat and a murderer. I smothered infants in their cribs and engineered the deaths of thousands. I watched the love of my life walk away from me. And not once did I regret it. Do you know why?”
“Because it worked,” he hissed. “Because we took the laughingstock of this continent and turned it into a nation to rival any other. And we did it without cutting deals, without taking shortcuts. We’ve tried their way for a thousand years, Alaya. Built the flying fortresses, bled the sacrifices. And it failed, every godsdamned time.”
He bared his teeth.
“We go back now and we’re no better than those who came before us. Praes is not special. It is not unique. It is not predestined for greatness and neither are we. The moment we forget that, we deserve to lose.”
Malicia’s face was blank of emotion.
“Are you done?”
“Am I?” he asked tiredly. “Gods, how I have wondered. If my Role finally caught up with me, if I’ve become as mad as they say I am. If I turned into just another raving fool with a Name, screaming at the Heavens. But if I’m not… Allie, all I can see down the path you’d take us is failure. Trading short-term gains for long-term disasters. So I implore you, think about this again.”
The Empress’ face softened, after a moment.
“I forget, sometimes, that you are under just as much pressure as I am,” she replied. “I’d say it’s because you so rarely show weakness, but it’s not much of an excuse. I should know better. Get some sleep, Amadeus. End the rebellion. We’ll revisit this when the both of us are in a better state.”
The mirror’s surface dimmed, leaving only his reflection. The Black Knight leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes.
The gears kept turning.