“The Praesi take on negotiations is to slam a severed head on the table and smile at your interlocutor until they reconsider their position.”
-Prokopia Lakene, first Hierarch of the League of Free Cities
Heiress was daintily picking at eggs and sausage, cutting off small slices with a knife. How she’d even arranged for a meal to be served in the guildhall was beyond me, since I’d given standing instructions for any of my officers to tell her to fuck off if she asked for anything. Either she’d bullied a Callowan to get it done – in which case I was going to break her fingers – or she’d brought servants on a military campaign. The second seemed most likely: my life would be a lot easier if she were someone stupid enough to push me when my teacher was in the city. Speaking of the man, Black would be joining us soon enough. For now he was still busy overseeing Warlock’s work in clearing my legionaries. Until then, though, I refused to sit at the same table as the wretch in front of me. Just being in the same room had me itching to run her through, an urge it was getting harder to keep under control with every passing moment.
“You’re quiet this morning,” the Soninke aristocrat mused. “Couldn’t get a good night’s sleep?”
My fingers tightened until the knuckles turned white but I refused to fall for a provocation that obvious.
“One of these days,” I replied softly, “I am going to find something precious to you and I am going to break it.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt you’ll try,” she replied with a friendly smile that never reached her eyes.
Absurdly enough, it looked like Akua had brought several suits of armour with her. The polished silver-enamelled breastplate in the Miezan style she wore wasn’t one I’d seen before, and neither was the quilted colourful aketon she had underneath. It reminded me of the eye-catching robes and dresses I’d seen nobles wear when I’d first gone to the Tower. Was that how Praesi armies had looked like, before the Reforms? Like a flock of tropical birds girded in steel, as beautiful as they were poisonous? It was hard to imagine after a lifetime of seeing the Legions if Terror decked in the sober, practical gear they now used.
I sometimes forgot that, for all the misery its lower classes often lived in, the Dread Empire was one of the richest nations on Calernia. The Hungering Sands were full of precious metals and the Wasteland was pregnant with gemstones, both of those too close to the surface to have been claimed by the dwarves. The Free Cities had famously grown rich as the middle-man between Praes and nations that wouldn’t be caught dead trading directly with the Tower. And yet Wasteland aristocrats were still wealthier than anyone else on the surface, save perhaps Proceran princes – and even then those without silver in their principalities would have to rely heavily on trade to bridge the gap. I was shaken out of my thoughts by Black’s arrival, which was probably for the best. Another round of verbal sparring with Akua wouldn’t get me anything but the need to grind my teeth.
Black had ditched his cloak at some point, leaving him in the plain suit of plate he always wore. I could count the number of times I’d seen my teacher out of it on my fingers, but having since learned the breadth of enemies he truly had I couldn’t fault him for the precaution. It wasn’t paranoia if the people out to get you had a shelf full of devil-summoning books. Even being out on the field hadn’t managed to get his pale skin to tan, a trait I’d come to suspect was Name related, but even then he still looked… healthy. There was a vitality to him that had been missing when I’d first stumbled into him in Laure, or perhaps just been hidden under layers of amused indolence. It made for an unsettling sight.
“Catherine,” he greeted me.
“Black,” I replied, rolling my eyes at the formality of it.
“Lord Black,” Heiress said, making to rise, “It’s a pleasure to-“
Pale green eyes flicked to Akua.
“Ram it into your hand,” he Spoke.
My rival’s hand slowly rose, shaking as she tried to fight it, and she nailed her other one to the table with the same knife she’d been using to break her fast. Heiress didn’t cry out, though her lips thinned. Unlike my leg, mage healing would fix that wound. That said, it would have been a lie to say I didn’t derive a great deal of satisfaction from what was unfolding in front of me.
“I suspect you were insufficiently disciplined as a child,” Black noted. “For the rest of this conversation, you will speak only when addressed to.”
“My lord, this is-” she began.
She ground the knife into her own hand, and this time let out a small hiss of pain.
“Do you understand me, Heiress?” Black asked patiently.
“Good,” he smiled affably. “Now thank me, for the valuable lesson you were just taught.”
There was a heartbeat of silence.
“Thank you, lord,” she replied through gritted teeth.
The dark-haired man claimed the seat at the head of the table and gestured for me to take the one to his right. None of this was quite as viscerally satisfying as if I’d been the one to knife her myself, but for now I’d take it. Our accounts were still far from settled.
“I’ll begin with the obvious, even though I have a feeling I won’t get my way,” I started. “She let out a fucking demon in the middle of a military campaign. Honestly I feel like just letting one of those things loose at all should be enough to be buried in a shallow grave so I’d like her head on a pike, pretty please.”
I resisted the urge to bat my eyelashes for effect. Black raised an eyebrow, then turned to Heiress.
“Rebuttal?” he prompted.
“I take no responsibility for this,” she replied, face gone pale with the pain and bleeding. “The wards holding the demon were overrun by foreigners. Given Squire’s pointless pursuit of the Silver Spears after her victory, it seems obvious who is at fault.”
Not a single word of that was an actual lie, I was certain. Not that anyone in the room was fooled. The only question was whether or not her connections to the Truebloods would be enough to get her off with a slap on the wrist regardless of guilt. I had a nasty feeling they would be.
“No solid proof of your interference has been provided,” Black told Heiress. “Because of that, Her Most Dreadful Majesty has declined to give me permission to execute you.”
If she’d ever been worried it had not shown on her face, and neither did relief now. The dark-skinned aristocrat inclined her head, murmuring a platitude about Malicia’s wisdom and foresight.
“That said, I would like you to keep something in mind,” the green-eyed man continued.
He leaned forward.
“Your behaviour during this campaign has been a hindrance to Imperial interests in Callow, Akua Sahelian. Should it ever become a threat, I will send your mutilated corpse back to your mother piece by piece.”
He did not raise his voice, or change his tone in any way. He might as well have been discussing what he’d have for dinner. He’d snatch the life out of her just as casually, I knew, and though he’d not used his terror trick I felt a shiver of fear go up my spine. The way Black was looking at her but he wasn’t seeing a person: all his eyes saw were a possible liability, and he’d been leaving corpses of those behind him for decades. Akua’s face remained blank but I could feel the terror beneath the mask, the realization that she’d come very close to crossing what may very well be the most dangerous man in the Empire. At the end of the day our Names were both transitional ones, the stepping stone to something greater. The monsters out there in the world were at the top of the pyramid for a very good reason: they’d killed all their competition. Ambition did not equate power, as my life seemed ever intent on reminding me. We still had years ahead of us before we’d be a match for any of the Calamities.
“You’ve been very careful to toe the line of the law,” Black said. “It seems you believe this affords you a degree of protection.”
His eyes turned cold.
“I am a villain, child,” he hissed. “The appearance of the rule of law is useful to me, so I have allowed it. Do not mistake this for true fettering. Should you ever inconvenience me again, I will Speak three words and you will slit your own throat.”
The intensity vanished out of him as swiftly as it had appeared, replaced by a pleasant smile.
“In happier news, you and your mercenaries have been attached to the Fifteenth as auxiliaries for the next part of this campaign,” he informed her. “Congratulations, you’ve been granted the equivalent of a commander’s commission.”
“Thank you, lord,” Heiress murmured.
Black drummed his fingers against the table and there was a long moment of silence.
“Well?” he asked. “What are you still doing here?”
Lack of understanding flickered across the aristocrat’s face, immediately blanked out.
“A mere commander is not cleared for this kind of meeting,” Black explained patiently. “You are dismissed.”
I swallowed a snort. Oh, now that was just precious. That was probably the worst insult he’d given her today, given how self-important the other villain was. Akua rose to her feet after getting the knife out of her hand, blood dripping all over the table. There was the smallest flare of magic and the bleeding stemmed. With a stiff bow, my rival made to leave.
“One last thing, Heiress,” Black said, not bothering to turn to look at her. “You’ve made a mess all over Catherine’s table. I expect you to be back with a rag and bucket to clean it up within the hour.”
I’d been wrong, evidently. That was definitely the harshest humiliation he’d doled out in quite some time, and I took a moment to savour it as I watched Heiress close the door behind her. I leaned back in my seat, allowing myself a small break before the conversation resumed. I found Black’s eyes had drifted to my bad leg, the faintest trace of a frown on his face.
“Masego said it can’t be fixed,” I said.
“Inaccurate,” he replied. “If we amputate the leg entirely you can be grafted a fully functional replacement.”
“But?” I prompted.
If it were that simple, he wouldn’t be frowning.
“Limb grafts made by magic can be unmade by the same,” he replied. “It would be a liability against any sorcerous Named.”
“Pass, then,” I grunted.
Just because the Bumbling Conjurer was dead didn’t meant I’d never have to deal with a Named mage in the future. Mundane casters could probably manage the same kind of spellwork too, if in sufficient numbers. I cleared my throat.
“I do appreciate you turning the screws on Heiress a bit,” I said, “but this is… unusual, for you. You don’t usually intervene in these kinds of confrontations.”
“None of it was meant for your benefit,” he replied easily. “I was attempting to frighten her enough that she’d let out the demon.”
I blinked. “That… does not strike me as a good idea.”
“Wekesa began to set a binding array around this building the moment she entered,” Black patiently explained. “If I’d witnessed her bringing forth a demon responsible for the death of Legion personnel, I would have had valid reason to execute her.”
I frowned. “Can’t Warlock just find the standard she’s using?”
“He has not been able to,” Black admitted.
My brows rose. “She can’t possibly be that good of a mage,” I said.
“It wouldn’t be her own spellwork,” my teacher noted. “Wolof has been the centre of sorcerous learning in Praes since the days before the Miezan occupation. No other city has ever produced as many Warlocks. Odds are she’s using a dimensional bubble one of them created a century ago that has long been forgotten by everyone else.”
Well, fuck. How many other surprises like this would Akua have up her sleeve? Hells, before last night I hadn’t even known she was a mage. I realized the frown had yet to leave my teacher’s face, which I didn’t like the looks of.
“You look like you want to say something,” I hazarded.
“If I believed in corporal punishment, you’d be cradling your cheek right now,” he spoke flatly.
“Furious,” he agreed calmly. “You did a damned foolish thing, Catherine. Fighting a demon inside your Name, when you’ve yet to even fully grow into it? Recklessness is only an asset if you understand when to use it properly.”
“I was in a desperate position,” I defended myself.
“You put yourself in a desperate position,” he corrected. “The Fifteenth did not have to engage the enemy, you made that choice.”
“And what was the alternative?” I barked. “Run away and leave tens of thousands to die? I refuse to believe that was a better way.”
“And that’s why Heiress just beat you,” Black replied, eyes shadowed. “As long as you allow people a lever that obvious to dictate your behaviour, they will.”
“She set it up so she’d get something she wanted whatever choice I made,” I replied tiredly.
On a battlefield, I was pretty sure I’d beat Heiress nine times out of ten. She didn’t go for battles, though. Most of the damage she’d done me was while she was out of sight, working through proxies and spies. Black sighed.
“I’m not telling you to stop taking these kinds of stands, Catherine,” he said. “But if you want to continue doing this, you need to turn the Fifteenth into the kind of force that can crush your opponents underfoot. Not next year, not when the war is over, now. If you cannot cut through her manipulations, you need to make them irrelevant.”
“I don’t have the men for that, right now,” I admitted.
“I scraped together all the recruits in Callowan camps before you fought your battle at Marchford,” he replied. “Within three weeks you’ll have another two thousand legionaries camped across the western branch of the Hwaerte.”
“Green recruits,” I pointed out.
“You have a core of veterans now,” Black murmured. “Men who’ve been through battles the equal of any waged during the Conquest. Officers who’ve held the line against devils and some of the finest cavalry on the continent. The legionaries who fought against the Kingdom are getting old: you might very well have the sharpest fighting force in the Empire under your command, at the moment.”
That… was a very good point, actually. The Conquest had been over twenty years ago: most goblins who’d been alive back then were dead and the older human and orc soldiers from that war were either retired or permanently behind desks.
“I don’t mean to dismiss your accomplishments, Catherine,” my teacher said softly. “You’ve made mistakes, but you’ve also won repeated victories against horrendous odds. What you did for Marchford, the story you’ve created with your actions, is something that will ripple across Callow in the years to come. You’ve taken the first step forward in the path you set for yourself. That is something to be proud of.”
For a moment I allowed myself to bask in the praise of a man I’d come to admire, for all that I despised some of the things he’d done. Only for a moment, though.
“I get why you’re angry,” I admitted. “I lost an aspect. That’s not something that you can just walk off.”
Black snorted. “A minor loss, that. The risk you took in the attempt is the infuriating part.”
I blinked. “I permanently damaged my Name, Black,” I spoke carefully. “Crippled the amount of power I can use by at least a third until I come into another Name.”
The dark-haired man rested his chin on his palm, looking amused.
“You’ve seen me used my shadow before, yes?”
“That is the most useful fighting trick I get out of my Name. My predecessor as the Black Knight, on the other hand, could bring down a tower with a flick of his wrist. And yet on the first Fields of Streges he was killed by a footsoldier. Not a hero, not a knight or a wizard. A young woman rammed a sword in his eye, and no amount of power could allow him to shrug that off,” he told me. “He died after tearing through a hundred soldiers, because he was tired and surrounded and he’d chosen his ground poorly.”
He smiled darkly.
“Villains like Heiress think of power as something they can rain down on their enemies, but that’s a false perception. She could set an entire field aflame and still die from an arrow in the throat. And unlike you, she will get in that situation. You make mistakes because of who you are, Catherine, not because of what your Name drives you to do. You can learn. You can adjust.”
His fingers tapped against the wood, the rhythm that of an old Callowan funerary march.
“So pick your ground,” Black spoke quietly, inexorably. “Surround her. Tire her out. And then let her do the rest.”