Chapter 15: Council

“If you can’t play to your strengths, play to your enemy’s weaknesses.”
-Marshal Grem One-Eye

I could feel the eyes of the crowd on us as we strode towards the tent Black had told me about.

Legionaries from the Ninth with the traditional red streak of paint across their throat watched us pass, letting whispers bloom in our wake. The men and women from the Sixth were friendlier, orcs most of all. Tall greenskins with the scrawled iron-grey rib on their armour that served as the unofficial symbol of the Ironsides saluted and waved, though most of that friendliness was directed towards Juniper. That she was General Istrid’s daughter had been a mostly well-kept secret back at the College, but out here? My teacher had mentioned once that Knightsbane tended to boast about her prodigious daughters when she got into her cups, and the evidence of that was all around us. Hakram formed the third member of our little clique, accompanying us more because of his Name than his position. Masego had been extended the same invitation, but he’d decline without missing a beat. Something about preferring counting ants to inflicting a session of military planning on himself, since at least there was some sort of scholarly value to the former. I didn’t particularly mind: he’d be joining me for dinner with Black and Captain anyway, so if anything urgent came up I could brief him then.

The murmurs of “Deadhand” and “Adjutant” that usually greeted Hakram’s appearance in front of legionaries were notably absent, which I took to mean Black had clamped down on the rumours here.  Unfortunate that it in no way meant that word wouldn’t reach Heiress, if it hadn’t already. A problem for another day, that. The last I’d heard of the prettier of my archnemeses – was that the word? I found it hard to believe that I was the first villain to have multiple sworn enemies, there was bound to be a specific term – she’d landed a mercenary force in southern Callow and taken the city of Dormer. That had been two months ago, though, and I knew better than to think she’d have remained idle that long. Undoubtedly she would soon make an attempt to fuck me over in some unexpected way. It was a shame there were no real assassin guilds left in the Empire, because with the way my general’s pay had been stacking up I might actually be able to afford putting a price on her head. There was bound to be something possible to arrange from Mercantis, but I had no contacts in the City of Bought and Sold.

Entering the tent first, I pushed aside the cloth and found we were the last to arrive.

General Istrid was already hitting the wine, if the cup in her hand was any indication. She still looked like someone had carved an orc out of old leather, and that striking scar on her face pulled up her mouth in a permanent mocking grin. General Sacker, on the other hand, was seated on a high stool. I would have thought the sight of the small wrinkled goblin perched on the top of the wooden frame comical, if not for those yellow half-lidded eyes that missed nothing. Black was leaning over the table, looking over a map, and didn’t bother to glance up as I came in. My orc bookends followed a heartbeat later and Istrid’s face lit up at the sight of her daughter.

“Squire,” she greeted me almost absent-mindedly, clapping my shoulder as she passed me by and fell upon her daughter like a particularly affectionate pack of wolves.

“June,” she gravelled. “Look at you, all grown up in the kit. It feels like yesterday you were playing knights and legionaries with sticks.”

Mother,” my legate barked, looking mortified.

I bit my lip and glimpsed the ghost of a smile on my teacher’s face. Hakram gave the whole thing a wide berth, but from the glint in his eyes I knew every Rat Company officer was going to have heard the story before morning.

“Yes, yes, you’re a legate now,” Istrid grunted, smoothing the hair on her daughter’s head gently. “Very serious. Have you been eating enough? Your cheeks look hollow.”

They did not, in fact, look hollow in any way. I decided to take pity on the Hellhound and cleared my throat.

“General Istrid,” I said. “A pleasure to see you again.”

I turned to look at Knightsbane’s goblin counterpart.

“General Sacker,” I added.

“Foundling,” the general of the Ninth replied drily. “Istrid, stop fussing over your spawn. You’re embarrassing yourself.”

The scarred orc withdrew, throwing her colleague a dark look.

“I was doing no such thing,” she denied.

The goblin rolled her eyes. “Legate Juniper, Adjutant, welcome.”

“General Sacker,” Juniper replied, gathering her verbal footing.

A wicked glimmer appeared in the goblin’s eyes.

“Whatever happened to “Auntie Sacks”?” she asked.

I was four years old! It was a hard word to pronounce!” Juniper keened in dismay.

Gods, I hadn’t even known she could blush that green. Hakram leaned in close to me.

“This is the mother lode of blackmail material,” he whispered, grin splitting his face. “I will never have to suffer a speech about gear cleanliness again.”

Black cleared his throat, and everyone fell silent.

“Entertaining as this is, we do have a briefing to attend to,” he said.

Juniper’s blush deepened, if anything, and she gave him the bastard cousin of a curtsey. I goggled at the sight. A curtsey? From the Hellhound?

“Lord Black,” she murmured.

My teacher nodded a greeting at Hakram, smiled at me and bid us closer. I took a look at the map – it covered the whole of Callow, though the word itself was nowhere in sight.  A bronze figure of a knight had been placed over Vale, another one where the eastern side of the Hengest lake met the Waning Woods and a third on the crossing linking the county of Marchford to central Callow. The Silver Spears, unless I was wrong. A silver legionary figurine had been placed over Dormer and a pair of the same over the rough location of the village we currently stood on, north-east of Vale.

“We’ve been in contact with the mercenary bands under the employ of the Heiress,” Black announced and I forced down a scowl. “They intend to move on Baroness Dormer’s host before the week is done.”

Reaching for a second victory when I had yet to win my first one. Fucking Heiress. Juniper eyed the map pensively.

“Do we know how many soldiers she’s fielding?” my legate asked.

“Roughly four thousand,” General Sacker spoke in that quiet way of hers. “No cavalry. About half is light infantry, Proceran exiles from their southern principalities.”

“And the rest?” Hakram gravelled.

“A full Stygian phalanx,” Black replied.

“She’s using slaves?” I spat out. “That’s illegal under Tower law.”

Sacker’s face was inscrutable, but I could see vicious anger lurking in the face of all orcs present. Soninke and Taghreb had suffered under the Miezan occupation, but they’d never had entire clans clapped in chains the way orcs had. When Dread Empress Maleficent had founded the Dread Empire, the outlawing of slavery had been one of the things she’d used to bring the Clans into the fold – and even over a thousand years later orcs hated slavery with an almost frightening intensity.

“Technically the territory held by the rebels is not Imperial ground, on a legal basis,” Black noted. “Regardless, she has “freed” them.”

The disdain he put in the word rang loud and clear. Nominally granting the Stygian war-slaves their freedom meant absolutely nothing, when they’d been indoctrinated from birth to obey their orders of their owners without fail.  I resisted the urge to spit on the ground.

“At least it has to be putting a dent in her coffers,” I said. “Even if she only pays half of them, keeping two thousand mercenaries on payroll has to be draining no matter how rich you are.”

“It would,” Sacker croaked out, “if they were paid entirely in wages.”

“She’s allowing them to pillage,” Juniper cursed. “Burning fucking Hells. That whole corner of Callow will despise the Empire for generations.”

“She can’t be doing any of this under an Imperial banner,” Hakram pointed out. “She’s acting as a private citizen in this.”

“Yeah, like that’ll change anything,” I grunted. “All the locals will remember is that a Soninke was giving the orders. Black, why hasn’t the Empress reined her in?”

The green-eyed man’s face went blank. “The political situation back in Ater complicates the matter. Malicia has given authorization to discipline them if they act out when under shared command, but as long as she’s on her own her hands are free.”

Istrid spat to the side, much to my amusement.

“Politics should stay out of wars,” she growled.

So that was where Juniper got it from.

“Regardless of her undesirable behaviour,” General Sacker spoke, “she’s tactically useful, at the moment. Dormer’s army can’t link up with Countess Marchford as long as she’s threatening their flank. That keeps them to a manageable number.”

“Twenty thousand, right?” I frowned. “At least most of them are levies.”

“Marchford has only two forces that could match a legion on even grounds,” Black said. “The core of two thousand dwarven heavy infantry in her main force and the Silver Spears.”

“Never read anything about dwarven troops,” I grunted. “Juniper?”

“The last known skirmish involving the Kingdom Under was when the principality of Iserre diverted a river into one of their mining operations,” Juniper spoke in a baritone. “Contemporary reports are unreliable, but they seem to have been more than a match for the prince’s standing army.”

Oh, I’d heard about that. The dwarves had retaliated by sinking the Old Iserre underground and wiping out the surviving population. It was the reason most Calernian nations had laws forbidding provocation of the Kingdom Under.

“That was what, seven hundred years ago?” Hakram gravelled. “Nobody’s scrapped with them since? That information has to be outdated.”

“The drow in the Everdark have clashed with them on occasion, but any information coming out of that rathole is unreliable at best,” Black said. “Regardless, we should expect their armour, weapons and training to be at least a notch above our own.”

Not to mention they’d be even more physically robust than orcs and at least partially resistant to magic. Tough customers.

“Keeping them paid, on the other hand, must be costing the Principate a fortune,” the Knight smiled viciously. “Not to mention their… creative notions regarding private property.”

Everybody shared a grin at that. Dwarves were of the belief that only dwarves could actually own things – which meant, in essence, that taking said things from other people wasn’t thievery or in any way morally reprehensible. There’d been a famous incident in Callow where a Duke of Liesse’s family jewels had been taken by a visiting dignitary and the Kingdom Under had refused to just give them back. The poor bastard had to buy them, emptying half his duchy’s coffers in the process. If they were camped in the middle of Marchford’s army, I hoped for her sake she’d locked away the silverware and nailed down anything she wanted to keep. Otherwise it was likely to disappear underground forever.

“The dwarves are our problem,” General Istrid grunted. “You girls – and you, Deadhand – are going to have to mop up the Silver Spears.”

Black’s fingers drummed against the table’s surface.

“The defensive part of this campaign is over,” he announced. “We’re going on the offensive on all fronts. While Heiress catches their attention we’ll move on Vale, though I fully expect the Countess to retreat when we do. That makes it a priority for you to either wipe out or box in the Silver Spears. If the rebels continue their scorched earth tactics as they retreat south, our supply train must be secure. We court disaster otherwise.”

“Yes sir,” I murmured, starting when I realized Juniper had done the same.

“Our last sighting has them in the vicinity of the old ford the city of Marchford was named for. They destroyed the bridge a few days after declaring their rebellion, so you’ll have to secure it to cross,” General Sacker spoke mildly.

“Have we confirmed their numbers?” I asked.

“Their run-in with Captain cost them some officers, but their effective strength remains the same as the last report I gave you,” Black replied. “Scribe suspects they have more than one hero in the ranks, and our failure to scry them so far suggests they have a priest of some talent along. Considering the close ties of the Helikean royal family with the House of Light, that is almost a certitude.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I muttered, mind already racing.

“I want the Fifteenth to occupy Marchford itself, afterwards,” Black continued. “Having a legion pay a visit to her demesne will turn up the pressure on the Countess. She’s been careful to avoid meeting us on the field so far.”

“You intend for us to remain and garrison the city?” Juniper asked.

Black shook his head. “After re-establishing Imperial control I want you to march back to us as fast as you can. Afolabi will send troops after you’re gone. Ideally I’d like the Fifteenth to be present when we engage the Countess.”

“Sounds like plan,” I grunted.

It wouldn’t be that easy, of course. I’d learn to expect complications by now. But it was the outline of a course of action, and for now that would have to do.

Dinner was pleasant, but most of us had duties that prevented us from lingering. Still, when Black invited me up to his rooms for a conversation, I did not decline. We had several conversations long overdue, and it would be a while before we were in the same place again. There was a fireplace and two armchairs, the one I claimed usually occupied by Captain if the size of it was any indication. He poured me a cup of wine after doing the same for himself, cool touch of the metal contrasting the heat coming off of the fireplace.

“On the subject of your paramour,” Black said, settling into his seat.

I snorted. “I think the word you’re looking for is “girlfriend”,” I told him.

The dark-haired man wrinkled his nose. “No, I’m quite sure it wasn’t. Regardless of semantics, I’m sure you suspect I had people dig into the lives of all the people you work closest with.”

“I thought that was pretty much a given, yeah,” I admitted.

There’d been a time where the concept of my teacher invading the privacy of my friends would have irked me, but I’d left that kind of naiveté behind. My enemies had deep pockets and they were out for blood: having someone like Black watching out for liabilities was almost reassuring. While we’d never had a conversation on the subject before, none of my officers had suddenly disappeared into the night. I took that to mean they were reliable, or at least without open motive to betray me.

“Your cadre of senior officers has an unusually high loyalty index,” he noted. “Juniper’s family ties make her a given. Senior Sapper Pickler is the daughter of the matron for the High Ridge tribe but they are estranged. Hasan Qara, who you know as Ratface, is openly feuding with his father – a member in good standing of the Truebloods. Aisha Bishara is fifth in line for a lordship sworn to Kahtan but she’s had no real contact with dangerous elements. We have little hard knowledge on Commander Hune, but ogres typically stay out of politics. Still, someone to watch. Commander Nauk has made several… enthusiastic public statements in your support, though about half were made when inebriated. He’s also wanted for murder in Thalassina.”

I blinked. “Murder? Shit. What happened?”

It wasn’t like he could be arrested anymore – enrolment in the Legions wiped your criminal record clean, even allowed you to change your name like Ratface had – but it distressed me I hadn’t even suspected.

“An altercation with a Taghreb merchant,” Black replied. “The man struck him and your own went into the Red Rage.”

I grimaced. “He must have been young. He doesn’t lost control like that anymore.”

The green-eyed villain hummed in disagreement. “Emotional states are more likely to trigger an episode than physical pain. It’s one of the reasons berserkers can force themselves into the state. That flaw makes him unreliable as an officer. You’ll have to be careful how you deploy him on the field.”

I grunted, not quite willing to agree out loud even if he was probably right. Nauk had been in my corner since the beginning, in one way or another, so thinking of him that way rankled. As for the murder… I’d been on the receiving end of some of the more racist leanings of Wastelanders, so I while I was unwilling to excuse the act I could understand where he was coming from. That he’d had no real control over himself after going into the Rage was an objective fact, and that the merchant had apparently resorted to physical violence first blurred the lines a bit. And yet. Murderer, huh. Most of the time I got along with orcs better than humans: the way they looked at Creation wasn’t simpler, not exactly, but it was clearer. Less cluttered. It was all too easy to forget it was also brutal. All in all, it might not be a bad thing to have my teacher hand me a reminder of that.

“Hakram?” I probed.

“An oddity, that one,” Black replied. “Howling Wolves clan, one of the students sent to the College on Imperial scholarship. Average grades except in Old Miezan, where he failed repeatedly – and yet some of the best marks on record when it comes to practical exercises. Noted by his teachers to have exceptional organisational abilities.”

“All stuff I already knew,” I pointed out.

Or had suspected, anyway. His record since the creation of the Fifteenth spoke for itself. Black waved a hand in irritation.

“No real political affiliations to speak of, not even in his clan. He did spend a lot of time in the College socializing with officers from other companies, which should come in useful for you down the road.”

I’d been aware since the beginning that one of the War College’s functions was to forge connections in the people meant to become the next generation of the Empire’s military leaders, but I’d never found it in me to play that game. Oh, I’d drawn most of Rat Company into the fold and managed to establish an understanding with Juniper’s crowd but the bulk of the cadets had still been strangers to me by the time I’d stopped attending. Part of me regretted the lost opportunity, but I’d had bigger fish to fry. None of them would be in a position to be useful to my purposes for a few years anyhow, though Hakram having made contacts was a pleasant surprise. They might not have authority, but even as junior officers they’ll have access to information.

“Keeping the best for last?” I prompted.

“Kilian of Mashamba. Her grandmother rode with the Wild Hunt until encountering her grandfather. Specifics are sparse on how she died, but the fae rarely last when too far from Arcadia. Joined the College on the Imperial ticket after qualifying at the local school. In the top twenty students for the mage track, though her lacking endurance disqualified her from more advanced spellcasting classes.”

I frowned. “The wing thing, you mean. That’s not entirely fair. She can’t shove as much magic into her spells but she’s got much better control than any other mage I’ve seen.”

Black raised an eyebrow. “That was not a criticism of her abilities. It simply means she has a ceiling she cannot overcome when it comes to heavier spellcasting: she’ll never be able to change the course of a battle like Wekesa or Masego can.”

Not entirely accurate – if she could call down a lightning bolt on an enemy general that would certainly affect the course of a fight – but I grasped his meaning. Kilian wasn’t the kind of mage who’d ever be able to wipe out an enemy battalion with a single spell.

“So there’s no red flags in her background?” I insisted.

“Her family is poor,” Black noted. “She’s arranged for half her pay to be sent to them on a permanent basis. There’s possible leverage there, though there has been no sudden uptick in their financial situation: if she’s been bribed, she’s been careful about it. Her parents have been subject to less discrimination by local authorities recently, but that might simply be a result of having sent a child to the War College. It’s being looked into regardless.”

“That’s a no, then,” I replied.

“Nothing as of now,” the dark-haired man conceded.

He poured himself a second cup of wine, offering me the same when he saw mine was mostly empty. I nodded – I didn’t have anything else planned for the night, nothing wrong with having another few. He took a sip of the sour red, humming in appreciation at the taste.

“Your involvement puts her in a great deal of danger,” he finally said. “Any villain or more pragmatically-inclined hero will make a point of targeting her to get to you.

“I know,” I sighed. “But at this point pretty much everyone I’m close to is on someone’s kill list. Let’s not pretend Heiress wouldn’t see all my senior officers dead in a heartbeat if she could manage it.”

“Allowing your enemy to dictate how you live your life is unwise,” Black agreed. “Yet awareness of the danger is not enough. If you don’t take concrete steps to mitigate the threat awareness means nothing.”

“I’ve had people watching over Hakram,” I told him. “I’m thinking of making that guard permanent. Extending that to Kilian shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Forming your own personal guard so that they can handle security details should be a priority,” the green-eyed man said. “But that is a purely reactive way of thinking.”

“We’re in the middle of a war,” I replied flatly. “I can’t just take back the Fifteenth to Praes and start kicking down Trueblood doors.”

“It’s a pattern broader in scope than just this particular situation,” Black said. “Look at your tactics dealing with the heroes in Summerholm. While I will not gainsay your results, from the outset you ceded the initiative to the enemy.”

“They were already set up for an ambush when I arrived,” I pointed out.

“Interrupting the plans of your opponents is almost always better than letting them interfere with yours,” the Knight spoke. “I understand that making quick, improvised decisions is one of your strengths and that the unpredictability it lends you has come in useful, but in the long term that will not be enough. You need to start anticipating problems instead of merely solving them.”

I grunted. “I get what you’re saying, sir, but I’m not like you. I’m not a… mastermind, or whatever you want to call it. I see things that need to be done and I do them.”

“Learn to be,” Black replied bluntly. “If you ever want to rise high enough to accomplish what you intend, you’ll need better than you currently are. A ruler must be more than someone who stamps down flames wherever they flare up.”

He sipped at his cup.

“If you keep concerning yourself with symptoms instead of causes, eventually an opponent will land an unexpected blow – and you’ll lose someone dear to you to grasp the same point I am trying to get across.”

The green-eyed man smiled thinly.

“I learned that lesson the hard way,” he told me. “I would prefer that you did not have to.”

Sentences like that were why it was so hard to dislike Black. When the priests in the House of Light had spoken of how seductive the Dark could be, I’d always thought they meant ambition and greed. Lust, even, given how good-looking villains could be. Maybe the honest affection that sometimes showed behind my teacher’s words would have failed to take in a better person, but at the end of the day I was not that girl. I’d gone my whole life without and father or mother figures and while Black certainly didn’t fit the bill for either, I’d underestimated how easy it would be to become attached to a mentor. Someone who looked out for me, who genuinely wanted me to live up to my potential. Oh, what he wanted for me was a terrible thing. There was no denying that truth. But it also had the glint of greatness to it, and there was something horribly tempting about that.

“You ever been in love, Black?” I asked suddenly.

“I hope you’re not implying your infatuation with the mage is anything of the sort,” he replied with a raised eyebrow.

“You’re not going to give a “love is weakness” speech, are you?” I frowned.

“I am not in the habit of preaching things I do not believe,” he said.

I leaned back in my seat, enjoying the warmth of the fire.

“I know I’m not in love with Kilian,” I admitted. “I don’t think I’ve ever been with anyone. Not the kind of love the songs speak about, anyway. That’s the problem, I guess. It feels selfish to put her in danger for something this… shallow.”

“She’s a grown woman,” Black said. “She can make her own decisions.”

“You’re the one who just told me a ruler needs to be more,” I replied. “I know she’s not coming into this blind, but there’s a part of me that feels like I should make the decision for her own good anyway.”

He chuckled and I turned to glare at him but found his finger pointing at me. He poked my forehead gently.

“Human,” he reminded me. “Villain, but still human. It’s all right to want things for yourself, Catherine.”

“Even if it hurts other people?” I asked.

“Everyone hurts,” he replied. “That is the nature of human condition. Thousands die all over Creation with every breath we take, and nothing either you or I can do will change that. All we are is what we do with that truth.”

“I don’t want to be the kind of person who hurts others for her own sake,” I admitted quietly.

“There’s nothing righteous about martyrdom,” Black spoke, tone thick with distaste. “How gloriously they die on their pyres, those blessed few who think themselves above all of… this. And yet what do they really accomplish? Refusing to accept reality for what it is instead of what you think it should be is not being high-minded, it is cowardice. I take no guidance from someone whose crowning achievement is their own death. Sacrifice solves nothing on its own. It is no substitute for the labour needed to change things, just an easy way out.”

I’d never seen Black like this before. There wasn’t a trace of the easy-going, sardonic mask he liked to affect, but the cold monster of logic I’d glimpsed in Summerholm was nowhere in sight either. There was a quiet intensity to him, the weight of genuine belief. And some parts of what he’d said resonated with me. Wasn’t that the core of my disagreement with the Lone Swordsman? He believed that people should be willing to die for a kingdom, where I believed a kingdom should be willing to die for its people. But there was something missing here. The string that would keep all that barren cynicism together.

“There is such a thing as the greater good,” I replied. “It’s an ugly ideal, I’ll grant you that. Means there is such a thing as accepting lesser evils for a purpose that goes beyond them, and I’ve always found that a bitter pill to swallow. But there are things worth sacrifice – yours and other people’s both. Heroes are wrong, I think. I’m worth just as much as everybody else. My losses matter just as much as anybody else’s. But villains aren’t right – we don’t matter more, just because of who we are.”

Black smiled strangely, still staring into the fire.

“I am the wrong person to debate matters of morality, I think,” he replied. “The truth of it is that I am the most selfish man you’ll ever meet, and I’ve yet to lose so much as a night’s sleep over it. But you asked me a question.”

He let out a long breath.

“Yes. Once.”

“How did it end?” I asked softly.

“It has yet to,” he smiled. “She is… an exceptional woman, in many ways. I wish I could see her more often.”

I hummed. “And you’ve never been worried your enemies would try to get to you through her?”

He bared his teeth in a jackal’s grin.

“I pity anyone fool enough to try.”

I polished off the rest of my cup, letting the taste linger in my mouth. Silence stayed between us for some time as we simply let the heat of the fire wash over us. I opened my mouth, then closed it. What I wanted to say wasn’t wise, exactly. But my instincts were telling me I should, and they’d seen me through all the messes in my life so far.

“I had a talk with Warlock, in Summerholm.”

“Not a pleasant one, I suspect,” he murmured.

I snorted, though the amusement was short-lived.

“The Empress summoned me to the Tower before I left Ater.”

“And?”

He seemed rather unconcerned by the prospect, which shouldn’t have surprised me. He and Malicia were supposed to be thick as thieves, and though I’d started to notice fractures in that relationship there were still decades of trust to back it.

“It occurs to me,” I finally said, “that I don’t actually know what you want.”

He smiled mirthlessly.

“That,” he said, “is a complicated question.”

Wry amusement quirked my lips. I’d replied the same thing to Malicia, when she’d asked me the same question. Maybe there was something to those supposed similarities everyone kept yammering about. He rose to his feet and I frowned.

“Going somewhere?”

He shook his head, heading for the trunk next to his bed and popping it open. He dug around the inside for a moment before fishing out a pair of books. Not, not books – journals, I saw. Neither of them had a title on the spine, but they were well-worn. He handed them to me.

“I don’t think the answer is something you could understand, right now,” he told me.

It would have sounded condescending if not for the fact that he seemed to genuinely believe what he said.

“And those are?” I asked, raising the journals.

“Information I compiled when I was three years older than you are now, shortly after I became the Black Knight and gained access to the Imperial archives,” he replied.

“Everybody with permission from the bureaucrats can access those,” I frowned.

“The real archives,” he specified.  “The ones in the underground levels of the Tower.”

Of course there were secret archives. I rubbed the bridge of my nose in exasperation. I really should have seen that coming. I thumbed one open, seeing columns of numbers and names stretching down the page. Census population numbers, crossed with reigning Tyrants and some other measure I didn’t recognize. The other one seemed to be a children’s book, transcribed in my teacher’s handwriting. There were notes in the margins, though I didn’t bother to look at them right now. I’d take my time doing it later, a cursory reading wouldn’t give me much. Still, I had to ask.

“Children’s tales?” I questioned.

“The most important part of any culture’s literature,” Black murmured. “The lessons you are taught when you are young are those you carry with you the rest of your life.”

He leaned against the back of his armchair, eyes drawn to the flame again.

“You should get back to the Fifteenth, Catherine,” he said. “Dawn always comes sooner than we think.”

24 thoughts on “Chapter 15: Council

  1. Ziggo

    “if not for those yellow half-lidded eyes that missed nothing.” I was under the impression Sacker lost an eye in summerholm, is this a typo or just very competent healing?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. arancaytar

      It’s been implied that their healers are pretty effective – even Hakram’s wound is only permanent because of a special magical weapon. Plus, I can’t remember for sure but I got the impression that goblins had some kind of natural regeneration going on as well.

      Like

  2. ArtNJ

    Typo: has come in useful – should either be “been useful” or “come in handy”

    Loving the story so far, but this update did feel somewhat slow.

    Like

  3. Unmaker

    All this talk of motivations and history for those close to her leads me to the conclusion that we (the readers) are being set up to see a betrayal.

    Like

    1. Daemion

      It could also be a response by the author to our discussion of this in an earlier chapter’s comments. I think I brought up the issue of Black doing background checks because that’s what I would do in his place.

      Like

  4. Soronel Haetir

    I do see the byplay between Juniper and her mother somewhat putting the lie to Juniper’s claim that orcs are not just green skinned humans with better teeth. That whole interaction is very human in its feel.

    Like

    1. stevenneiman

      I have gotten a definite feel from the whole story that the various races are distinguished only by appearance and culture. And to be certain, there are some parts of orc culture that are very different from mainstream Praesi culture, but apparently the tradition of embarrassing one’s children in front of their friends is universal.

      Like

  5. x

    Typos:
    Masego had been extended the same invitation, but he’d decline without missing a beat.
    declined

    obey their orders of their owners
    the orders

    I’d learn to expect complications by now.
    learned

    There’d been a time where
    when

    He doesn’t lost control
    lose

    will make a point of targeting her to get to you.
    missing end quote

    I’d gone my whole life without and father or mother figures
    without any

    Like

  6. eduardo

    Sending Killian away to protect her will 1 – Infuriate Killian and 2 – Guarantee her death.
    I hope that our villain can see this.

    Like

  7. Akim

    Wow … Blacks speech about martyrs had my laughing out loud several times. Words I would like to yell in a Church just once …

    Or nail it to the foreheads of some creationists ..

    Like

  8. Alegio

    The super evil empire abolished slavery, has almost none racism (to orcs, goblins, etc..) and actually treats its citizens pretty good? Damn I want to live in that kind of evil society.

    And poor Juniper, even high military comanders get bullied by their mothers in front of their friends😄

    Like

    1. Miaow

      No, it actually has a lot of racism, that’s even pointed out in this chapter (when discussing why Nauk killed that merchant in Thalassina). Given how being “discriminated” against is canonically daily life for Kilian’s family, I wouldn’t say it treats its citizens pretty good, at least not by modern standards. It doesn’t seem worse than the realistic feudalism of the Good side though.

      There’s enough villainy in the background of the Empire, Black on the other hand comes across more as a cynical anti-hero than a villain.

      Like

      1. stevenneiman

        Evil allows people individual freedom including the freedom to hate each other. Good is less tolerant of hatred within a given nation, but perfectly happy if its citizens add “consorts with orc scum” to the list of reasons to hate their enemies.

        As a result, Evil is more prone to racism between the component races. However, Good counterbalances that by the fact that it has more stratification and less upward mobility. Evil outright admits that ambition is acceptable and that the strong maintain their position only by being strong, while Good backs its authority through force of arms with simulated moral authority, meaning that the downtrodden think that it is fair for them to be that way rather than dreaming of deposing the leaders and becoming powerful or affecting change.

        This means that Good has more stable leadership and power, but Evil is less predictable and has harsher selection pressures forcing their leadership to stay strong.

        Like

  9. stevenneiman

    “Masego had been extended the same invitation, but he’d decline{d} without missing a beat”
    “He doesn’t [lost->lose] control like that anymore.”
    “I’d gone my whole life without [and] father or mother figures”
    “That is the nature of {the} human condition.” line from a character, so it could be justified, but Black is generally very precise about these things.

    I am getting a very definite feeling that Black has benevolent intentions and pragmatic methods. Especially given that I have already figured out a possible plan for how he intends to fundamentally change the balance of power in a way that is only of use to the most benevolent of Evil factions. Only time will tell for sure.

    I’m thinking about starting a Wikia for PGTE. Any thoughts from anyone on a good name for it? My current idea is something like “Excerpts from a Practical Guide to Evil”, but that seems a bit long.

    Like

    1. Soronel Haetir

      Sorry, my favorite is still chapter 3 from the first book and by a wide margin. The typo issue (while still present) has gotten quite a lot better but in terms of story-telling the walk to the palace and then confronting Mazus is pure gold.

      Like

      1. stevenneiman

        He was clearly there for the joy of seeing him killed, but that didn’t make the scene it happened in any less satisfying.

        Like

  10. Unmaker

    Typos:

    Hengest lake
    (if it is a proper name for the lake, then)
    Hengest Lake

    there’s no red flags
    there are no red flags
    (character speech, may be written as intended)

    Reactions:

    “But villains aren’t right – we don’t matter more, just because of who we are.”
    Nearly exactly the same sentiment that Black had when talking to Malicia. Black should be proud.

    This seems like an important chapter, but more as a bridge to other events than a chapter where major things happen.

    Like

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