“you call me villain
cast the word as you
would a stone;
seek to bury under
scorn of herded
multitude, and yet
forget my Name:
I am empress
savage ruler of
yet fiercer race;
did you expect
meekness of me?
you call me villain
speak it a curse
as if Hells were
as if I had knelt.
I am tyrant,
bringer of calamity;
of mine empire
be fearful now
my reach is long
my wrath is great
above or below
and I will be
– Extract from the play “I, Triumphant”, author unknown, banned by decree of the Tower under Terribilis II
Finding Black was easy.
According to my legionaries, he’d not left the rooms he’d claimed on the highest level of an abandoned house since we’d had the meeting with Heiress. He’d had visitors, though, including Warlock and Juniper. I was mildly surprised to find the moon up in the sky when I started the trek to his quarters, but if I’d slept that long there was no denying my body had needed it. I’d used my Name much, drawn deeper from the well than I ever had before save perhaps on the night William had given me the scar across my chest. It was kind of ridiculous that Hakram could be back on his feet after taking even worse punishment than me, but orcs were made of sterner stuff than humans. Bigger and harder bones, thicker skin and even a proportionally larger heart. There was something different about their stomachs too, related to how they ate almost only meat, but I’d never been entirely clear on what acidic humours actually did. I set aside the train of thought, recognizing it for the dissembling it was.
It was strange to find no Blackguards looming silently by the door, watching everything from behind their helmets. My teacher’s personal guard followed him everywhere, but I supposed going through Arcadia might have been a bit much for regular humans. Black had been vague when I’d asked him how he’d managed the trip, though he’d at least confirmed Warlock had not been the one to open the way through the other realm. Likely they’d summoned and coerced one of the Fae, which I’d had no idea was actually possible until now. What they could have threatened it with I did not know, but if there was anyone in the Empire who could put the fear of the Gods in a creature like that it was Black. The stairs were rickety and I paused when I felt something odd about them, frowning as I used my Name sight on the wood. Runes had been traced in some kind of golden sorcery, I saw. Most of the mage tongue was still foreign to me, but I recognized a rune associated with explosions and another with alarms.
I sighed. Of course he’d trapped the place. His manor in Ater was the second most-heavily warded place in the city, and some of the noble families had accumulated protections on theirs for centuries. Most of the work had been done by Warlock, apparently, but he’d also used ward designs coming from as far as the other side of the Tyrian Sea. The Yan Tei were famous for their arrays, whether sealing or protective: when they’d landed their punitive army on Praesi shores, back in Triumphant’s day, they’d trapped at least a dozen demons in scrolls and carried them home after the war. That seemed like a horrible idea to me, now that I had personal experience with demons, but the Yan Tei did things differently from Calernians. No nation on our continent would be able to function with both a hero and a villain sharing the highest level of authority, but they seemed to be doing fine.
Since Black was disinclined to blow up the stairs under me, I finished the trip up the creaking steps. The door to his room was closed so I knocked and waited a few heartbeats before opening it. My teacher was seated at a table that had clearly come from somewhere else – it was much nicer compared to the rest of the furnishings, and too large to make up the stairway – with papers splayed all over the surface and a lit up scrying bowl to his side. Candles were scattered across the room, and the faraway silhouette of the moon shone through the window. As usual, his back was turned to the wall. He signalled for me to come in without turning, listening to the voice coming from the bowl.
“- won’t settle for anything less than double,” Scribe said.
“It’s like negotiating with a dragon,” the dark-haired man muttered peevishly. “Fine, it’ll be a dent in the coffers but we can afford it. But make it clear the payoff is contingent on them following the itinerary we provided.”
“Your will be done,” Scribe replied, a tad drily.
Without either of them bothering with goodbyes, the scrying light winked out. There was a sad excuse for a chair placed across the table so I claimed it without a word as I snuck a look at the papers in front of him. The handwriting in most of them was familiar: Juniper’s calligraphy was as exemplary as ever, a far cry from my own hasty scribbles. How she managed that with fingers twice as thick as mine remained a mystery. After-action reports for Three Hills and Marchford, if I had to guess.
“Bribing someone?” I asked curiously.
“In a manner of speaking,” he said “Scribe is tying up some loose ends for me.”
I hummed. “Where did you find her, anyway? The stories don’t say.”
The plain-faced woman was barely in them at all. That almost amused me, considering how important she was to my teacher’s administration of Callow: I suspected Scribe was the reason why he’d never had to set up shop in a single city while stabilizing the country after the Conquest. The implication of that was that she single-handedly served as both the head of his spy network and a one-woman bureaucracy for a territory about the same size of the Empire. Scribe was not someone to underestimate just because she didn’t go around swinging a sword, I’d known that even before Ime had warned me never to attract her ire.
“The Free Cities,” he said. “It was an interesting encounter in many ways.”
I bet. In the Tower, Scribe had implied she would have preferred for Black to take the throne instead of Malicia – and that Ranger had shared that preference. I’d glimpsed some of the reasons for Ranger’s opinion in my latest dream, but the other woman was still very much a riddle to me. I’d never got the impression that Scribe was all that invested in the Empire itself: Black was the real reason she was here. With Warlock having outright admitted to me he didn’t give a single fuck about Praes as a whole, that made two of the Calamities whose only loyalty was to my teacher. Given that Captain’s very Role was bound to the concept of protecting Black, that painted a dangerous picture. There were five major Named in the Empire, aside from the Empress, and only one of them was a staunch supporter of Malicia: the rest only supported her reign by default, allegiance filtered through the Black Knight and dependent on his position.
My teacher was perfectly positioned for a coup. He’d founded the modern Legions of Terror, personally led most of their generals on the field and crafted their very philosophy. He had the Named on his side and likely most of the army. Any other villain I could think of would have already killed Malicia and taken the throne, so why hadn’t he? That he was Duni must have been part of it: a paleskin on the throne would be met with immediate and bitter rebellion by most of the High Lords. I knew he was close to the Empress so that must have been a factor too, but there must have been more to it. The Black Knight was, ultimately, an icily pragmatic man: I did not believe that even a long-standing friendship would stay his hand if the recipient was in his way. I’d been promised an answer to those questions in a way, and it was time to collect. Phrasing would be important, though. He was a hard man to offend, but just asking by the way, why haven’t you murdered one of your closest friends and taken her stuff would have him get all sardonic on me. Something to avoid: his sarcasm tended to be on the savage side.
“The Empire is not sustainable,” I said instead.
Blurted out, really, but what I was saying wasn’t a surprise to him. He’d left me markers on the path down to that understanding, though he’d refrained from just handing me the knowledge. He’d been right to do that: there would always have been a kernel of doubt, if I’d not put it together myself. As usual, the man surprised me with how well he understood how I thought.
“Finished the books, have you?” he said. “You are essentially correct, as long as the borders of the Empire remain what they were previous to the Conquest.”
“That’s just delaying the problem, though,” I pointed out. “Eventually the population of Praes will get too big for Callow to feed, and honestly that’s something that boggles my mind. Why does the population keep getting bigger if you can’t feed it? Even if Tyrants don’t to anything to address the problem, starvation by itself should keep the whole thing manageable.”
Black leaned back in his seat, reaching for a jug of wine I hadn’t even noticed and pouring himself a glass. With a silently raised eyebrow he asked me if I wanted a cup too and I shrugged. He took it as a yes and placed the full glass in front of me.
“Because we have the misfortune of being very, very rich,” he said. “As long as the trade lanes to the Free Cities remain open, we can import large amounts of grain from Ashur and Procer.”
“Procer,” I repeated dubiously. “I could buy Ashur, since they’re merchants to the bone, but the Principate feeding the Empire? That’s a little dubious.”
“Through intermediaries,” he said. “Most people care little for the philosophical debates of heroes and villains, Catherine. In the end, there is a demand for grain in Praes and a surplus of grain in the Principate. The Free Cities merely provide the necessary fig leaf for that commerce to not rustle too many feathers.”
“So you’re telling me it is sustainable, then,” I frowned.
“No, you were correct in your initial thought. On good years, those imports and the field sacrifices allowed us to keep our head barely above the water. Should there ever be a diplomatic incident down south, though, or even if the crops were average instead of bountiful, hunger spread across the Empire.”
“And Tyrants just allowed that?” I said disbelievingly. “Hells, half of them were mad as… well, an Emperor is the usual comparison actually, and the other half were idiots but none of them were above a spot of massacre. Not a single one of them decided to clear out a few cities to make this simpler, or even just restrict childbirth? You already do it to the Tribes.”
Black sipped at his glass. I left mine untouched.
“Terribilis – the second one – was in a unique position after he reunited Praes,” the dark-haired man said. “His reign was stable, his support in the nobility widespread and the Empire’s military strength was at one of its historical high points. Twenty years of constant war had brought down the numbers to something easy to manage, and he decided to end the issue forever with magical sterilization and strict familial laws. He had, you see, no Callowan ambitions.”
The Knight put down his glass, the sound of it oddly final.
“Within a month of his first decree, he was assassinated,” Black finished.
“And that’s the end of it?” I said. “Just because one failed it’s not worth trying?”
“The second Maleficent came closer,” he replied. “She got the Empire involved in the Free Cities, where we could bleed our surplus on foreign fields. She was too successful: Ashur and Procer allied to drive her out. Maleficent did not survive her defeat. Dread Emperor Vile tried it with a magical plague that would kill two in ten, only to trigger the War of Thirteen Tyrants and One. Sanguinara – not to be confused with the Sanguinias – made any and all law-breaking a capital offense. Overthrown within the year. Bilius the Beast attempted the Dead King’s gambit of turning all Praesi into undead. Poisoned by his Chancellor, before heroes even arrived on the scene.”
“What are you saying, exactly?”
“Every single Tyrant who tried to dam Praesi population growth was rebelled against, disgraced or assassinated,” he spoke calmly.
And Malicia still reigned. The implications of that were horrifying.
“So Praes has been swelling with twenty years of easy food imports. Gods save us all,” I whispered.
“Less than you would think,” Black replied. “We had two major wars before the annexation, which killed a significant portion of people of childbearing age. Legionaries cannot have children while in service, even in logistical posts, unless a permit is granted. Malicia instituted a similar policy for the Imperial bureaucracy, which also had the effect of limiting aristocratic influence in the ranks. And the peasantry only gets fringe benefits from our access to Callowan fields.”
“But it will swell, eventually,” I said. “In ten years or fifty, it makes no difference. And when it does, the Empire will need another war.”
And Calernia would bleed. And Callow would bleed, as the land closest to Procer – for there was no doubt the Principate would intervene, even if they weren’t the target. Procerans fancied themselves the nation that kept Evil at bay, and though they had a nasty tendency to annex their neighbours there was no denying it was them keeping the Chain of Hunger and the Kingdom of the Dead bottled up.
“It will, if it remains the same Empire it currently is,” Black agreed softly.
I closed my eyes, parsing out what he’d meant by that. The problem was twofold, as I saw it. Not enough product and too much demand. Getting more product was just delaying the problem, since the demand would keep growing. Lessening the demand was the only way, but resulted in the toppling of the current regime.
“Why?” I said. “Why has every single Tyrant who tried to control population been overthrown? Many could be a bad string of coincidences, but every single one? That’s… bigger.”
Pride flickered in the man’s eyes.
“Yes,” he said. “The right question. Why? For years I wondered. Was Evil, by nature, inherently self-destructive? The House of Light argues as much. But the House of Light is a Calernian institution, shaped by Calernian struggles. Its perspective is limited. Creation, Catherine, is a thing of patterns and balance.”
“The pattern for Praes is fucking up pretty bad,” I pointed out.
“The pattern for Praes is to grasp,” he corrected. “The pattern for Callow is to be grasped.”
And just like that it clicked. For every aspect of Conquer, there was an aspect of Protect. For every hero there was a villain. Balance, enforced by a pattern. Praes got hungry, and so it invaded Callow. That was their pattern. The Empire failed, but the failure was so catastrophic its population problem was solved for a few decades. Then they got hungry again and the pattern started over.
“If Praes managed to get its population under control, it would no longer have the manpower to invade Callow,” I said. “Balance is broken. Anybody going against that loses, because they’re going against the entire pattern of the Empire.”
“Patterns cannot be broken,” Black smiled. “But they can be… transcended. Names themselves can be transitory.”
“The Empire doesn’t need the manpower to invade Callow, if Callow is part of the Empire,” I breathed. “Truly part of the Empire, not just a conquered territory.”
Black and Malicia – for I could not believe that the Dread Empress was not up in this to her neck – had spent decades adjusting the Empire so that it would match that state. A small, permanent professional army instead of the hordes and mass rituals of old. Praesi ruling Callowan cities, Callowans in Praesi institutions like the Legions of Terror. Focus on common external enemies like the Principate while slowly and quietly smothering the racism in the bureaucracy to pave the way for integration. Gods, I’d been raised in Laure and my first instinct in looking for protection from Governor Mazus had not been heroes, it had been the local Legion garrison. And to bind the marriage, a Callowan girl in an old Praesi Name. Me.
My blood ran cold. This was a plan decades in the making, brilliant and utterly ruthless. My first panicked instinct was to ruin it by any way I could. Could I kill Black, here and now? Did he trust me enough that he wouldn’t see the strike coming? No, that wouldn’t even stop it. Malicia would carry on regardless, and there was no touching her. If I stood against the Empire now, I would do it without any of the resources I’d spent the last year accumulating – the Fifteenth would balk at rebellion when I couldn’t even give them a reason they’d be happy with.
I slowed my heartbeat with a long breath, sharply aware of the pale green eyes studying me. If this worked, what would be the end result? What would happen to Callow? The Imperial Governorship system made permanent, most likely, and spread even further by the lands that would be confiscated as soon as the current rebellion was over. Too many nobles were participating, there’d be only a handful of baronies left west of the Duchy of Daoine. And the Duchy itself, I supposed, but that barely counted as Callow. Even under the Kingdom it had been an independent nation in all but name.
On the other hand, the cycle would be done. Over with. No more invasions, no more fire and brimstone coming from the East to lay waste to Callow. The thought of that was horribly, horribly tempting. But not of it came at the cost of killing everything that made Callow what it was. They need me for this, I realized. I was more than a possible replacement for Black, should he die or be put aside. I was, in truth, the keystone to what they were trying to build. The proof of concept it was possible at all. And that meant I had leverage. I rested against the back of the ramshackle chair, feeling my leg twinge in pain. Forcing my hands to stop shaking, I met Black’s eyes unflinchingly. Hadn’t this been my plan from the beginning? Enter the ranks, and influence the institution from the inside. Praes was seeking to change Callow, but Callow could change Praes as well. Already my mind was spinning with half a dozen ways to steer this the way I wanted it to go. The way I needed it to go.
“I won’t just let the Empire swallow Callow whole,” I told Black, ignoring the voice in the back of my head that told me that sentence preceded my head rolling on the floor.
“Then don’t,” he shrugged. “Preserve what you believe should be preserved. Change what you believe needs to be changed. If you judge it necessary to end the governorship system, do so. If you think tributary status for duchies like with Daoine will be the most stable option, do so. As long as the right banner flies, as long as we look at the same enemies, I have no objections.”
And he really didn’t, I knew. He could have been lying, but there was a weight in my bones that put paid to that notion. This was a pivot, or something close to it. As long as what Black considered his victory condition was met, he genuinely did not care what the state of Callow was.
“I don’t understand you,” I half-cursed, half-admitted. “This isn’t about being a patriot. You don’t really think Praesi are better than anyone else – Hells, most of the time you act like you’d set half the people in the Wasteland on fire given a good pretext. You do these things, like the Reforms or keeping fuckers like Mazus in check, that look like they’re Good – but they’re not, not really. Tools, you call them, but tools are used to make something. What do you want, Black?”
Languidly, the green-eyed man finished the last of his wine.
“Do you know what the most common symbol for the struggle between Good and Evil is? On Calernia, that is,” he specified.
A child could have answered that.
“A shatranj board,” I said. “The so-called Game of the Gods.”
“I’ve always hated that image,” he spoke mildly. “It implies equality. That equivalent forces are arrayed on both sides of the board.”
“Aren’t there?” I frowned. “Balance, you’ve said it yourself.”
“And yet,” he murmured, “Good always wins.”
As if he could feel me about to object, he raised his hand.
“We don’t get real victories, Catherine. Oh, we usurp a throne for a few years. Or win a handful of battles. Once in a while, we even win a war and stay on top long enough for people to believe we are unbeatable.”
His eyes turned hard.
“Then the heroes come.”
I’d seen many sides to this man, since I had first met him. I’d seen him cold and vicious, on the night he’d made a game of Mazus for my edification. I’d seen his face turn into an emotionless clay mask and humanity slide off his face like droplets, on the day he’d Spoken to me. Once I’d even seen him shaken, when the Tower had received a Red Letter. But the look he had on his face now I had only glimpsed once before, when I’d quoted the Book of All Things on the subject of fate. There was an old, implacable anger to his frame. For the first time in my life, I understood why people called becoming angry ‘getting mad’. There was a madness in him now, nearly visible to the eye. That should have scared me but perhaps there was some of it in me too, some orphan slip of a girl who believed she could snatch a nation from the jaws of wolves and make it her own.
“It doesn’t matter how flawless the scheme was, how impregnable the fortress or powerful the magical weapon,” he said. “It always ends with a band of adolescents shouting utter platitudes as they tear it all down. The game is rigged so that we lose, every single time.”
He smiled at me, a dark sardonic thing.
“Half the world, turned into a prop for the glory of the other half.”
The worst of it, I thought, was that I intimately understood where he was coming from. I still had the image burned into my eyelids of the Lone Swordsman effortlessly cutting his way through a full line of my men on his way to me, making a mockery of every skill I’d earned with his and battering down the strength of my Name with the superior might of his own. It had stung, when I’d realized how… easy that had all been for him. That if Warlock hadn’t stepped in I’d be dead, and all my friends with me. It had felt like he’d been chosen to win before the fight had ever started. Even Hunter, who’d failed to be my equal but had simply refused to go down. All the things that had made heroes heroic when I was a child had become infuriating now.
“Ah, you’ve had a taste of it yourself,” he murmured. “How much worse it must be, coming from a culture that still teaches you you can win. We don’t even have that, Catherine. The hope of the happy ending. We get to cackle on the way down the cliff, or maybe curse our killer with our last breath. You’ve read the stories, and stories are the lifeblood of Names.”
“Villains aren’t powerless,” I said.
He laughed. “Oh, if the heroes deserved their victories against us, I would make my peace with it. But they don’t, do they? Your sullen little nemesis gets to swing an angel’s feather, while you make do with steel and wiles. That’s always the way of it. At the last moment they’re taught a secret spell by a dead man, or your mortal weakness is revealed to them or they somehow manage to master a power in a day that would take a villain twenty years to own. Gods, I’ve even heard of Choirs stepping in to settle a losing fight. The sheer fucking arrogance of it.”
The second time I’d ever heard him swear, and it surprised me as much as the last. Teeth bared, he leaned forward.
“None of it is earned. It is handed to them, and this offends me.”
And when a villain disliked an aspect of Creation, they broke it. As simple as that. Of all the things that being a villain entailed I had grasped this one the easiest. What that said about me, I preferred not to think about.
“You asked me what I want,” Black said. “This once, just this once, I want us to win.”
The smile across his face was a cutting, vicious thing.
“To spit in the eyes of the Hashmallim. To trample the pride of all those glorious, righteous princes. To scatter their wizards and make their oracles liars. Just to prove that it can be done.”
There was something his eyes burning like coals and embers.
“So that five hundred years from now, a band of heroes shiver in the dark of night. Because they know that no matter how powerful their sword or righteous their cause, there was once a time it wasn’t enough. That even victories ordained by the Heavens can broken by the will of men.”
A heartbeat passed and then he sagged into his seat, as if the words had drained something. The embers in his eyes cooled. I sat in my rickety chair, and thought. A long moment passed.
“Monster,” I finally said.
A single word, carrying with it the faint memory of fear and a dark alley. Of a black cloak warming my frame on a cold night. It felt like an offered hand.
His lips twitched into something almost a smile. “The very worst kind,” he replied.
A hand clasped. I closed my eyes, and wondered whether I’d just saved my homeland or sold it.
I did not get much sleep that night.