“I’ve been told one can only be betrayed by a friend, which is why I constantly surround myself with enemies.”
– Dread Emperor Traitorous
“This is a problem,” Arzachel said.
Akua stilled her tongue before it could deliver a truly scathing piece of sarcasm. The Proceran was quite good at his work, but he did have an unfortunate tendency to present obvious truths as if they were a revelation from the Gods. The two corpses had not been touched since the picket had brought them into the supply tent, the wounds in their throats and kidneys still bloody if no longer bleeding. The smell was foul, but this was hardly the first time Heiress had ever been in a room with corpses. They’d been a staple of her childhood.
“They hit the sentinels right before dawn, as far as we can tell,” the commander of her mercenaries grunted. “Knifed those two and infiltrated the camp. We don’t know how far in they got.”
Foundling’s foul little goblins at work, of that there was no doubt. Chider had warned her that the one named Robber had a reputation among her kind as half-mad even by their standards. Akua had been sceptical that Squire would let him off the leash in the middle of a campaign but she had been incorrect, evidently. Their last confrontation had radicalized her rival more than expected. The girl took everything so personally, even when she was not meant to: Foundling had committed the Praesi cardinal sin of coming to care for her power base on a personal level. It made controlling escalation particularly tricky, though admittedly it also made manipulating her child’s play.
“Are you certain they’re no longer in the camp?” she asked.
They were two days off Marchford, headed for the very ford the city had been named after. This was the first night some of her men had turned up dead, though there’d been reports of goblins skulking around the edge of her camp before.
“I combed through the camp, but goblins can hide in a bare white room if they need to,” Arzachel said. “We’ll only know for sure when we’re on the march.”
In this kind of situation Akua’s preferred counter would have been to go on the offensive, but the situation did not allow for that kind of manoeuvring. By officially designating her as an auxiliary the Black Knight had ensured she was bound by the regulations of the Legions of Terror. Any incident between her men and the Fifteenth would end up arbitrated by either a military tribunal whose members would be chosen by Foundling or directly by the Squire herself – who’d been granted absolute discretionary authority over the legion by Lord Black. That path ended only with gallows being raised. Even her own personal safety was at stake at the moment, though she already knew how she’d slip out of that particular noose when the time came.
No, until they reached her own objective she’d have to stay on the defensive. Not the optimal stance, but it could have its uses. Allowing Squire to build up her confidence with minor indirect victories would make it easier to blindside her later. Akua could not under any circumstances allow herself to be baited into a direct confrontation: it would be throwing away the last year of work entirely, and it was incredibly unlikely she’d manage to pull wool over the eyes of Lord Black twice in a row. The dark-skinned aristocrat consciously refrained from touching the unmarred skin on her hand where she’d rammed her own knife a few days ago. She suspected the man had been trying to bait her into something unwise, but she’d known better. He did not have enough to kill her and anything short of that could be healed in time.
The fear she still felt at the way he’d smiled at her would go away in time. No one had ever Spoken at her before, and while Lord Black was not in the same league as the Empress – there was a reason any agent who’d been in the same room as Malicia had to be disposed of immediately – he still had brought more to bear than any mere Black Knight should. A consequence of his lacking power in other areas, perhaps.
“Speak with Chider,” she ordered. “She’ll help you prepare for goblin raiding tactics.”
Arzachel nodded, looking away too quickly. He’d been looking at her breasts, most likely. The riding dress she was currently wearing did allow some cleavage to show, and puberty had been kind to her in that regard. Akua was the result of centuries of breeding for looks and magical power, though standards of beauty had admittedly shifted several times over that length of time. That the mercenary desired her was a useful tool of control, though that attraction would have to be carefully managed: spurned men often did childish things to ‘get even’, and she had no intention of ever sharing a bed with the Proceran. She left without a word, mind already moving on to the next situation she had to address before the march west resumed. She had a scrying session scheduled, and the woman she was going to be conversing with was not one she could afford to face while distracted.
Her tent had been prepared for the casting, the twenty-four layers of wards humming against her skin when she entered. Waiting for the Warlock to be gone had been common sense, for not even old Wolofite secrets were guarantee that man would not be able to listen in. He’d systematically broken through Wolofite warding schemes during the civil war, after all, and done so without even resorting to sacrifices. There were still entire cabals of mages in the city who dedicated their days to finding out how he’d accomplished that, though their efforts had not borne fruits in decades. Instead of the bowls of water some mages preferred, the Sehelians of Wolof had always used mirrors. Having them cast from the same ingot ensured a better and more stable connection than most linked items could manage, an advantage that had once ensured her family’s armies could communicate as far as Foramen while their opponents could manage barely half that distance. That Lord Warlock’s introduction of a long-range scrying spell accessible to all had destroyed that comparative advantage still caused some bitter feelings at home.
The round golden mirror, the size of her palm, rested innocently on the table. Akua let out a long breath and felt her mind cool. This was not a Name trick but a meditative one, setting aside distractions and allowing her thoughts to flow without emotional bias. The technique had been tortured out of a member of the Watch a few centuries ago and carefully hoarded ever since, never leaving the confines of the ruling line of Wolof. Heiress touched a finger to the polished gold.
“Show me not my reflection,” she spoke in an ancient Mtethwa dialect, “but the face of your brother.”
Her touch did not leave a fingerprint. There was no ripple, no uncouth glow: the eyes of her mother simply met hers a heartbeat later. High Lady Tasia Sahelian was nearly sixty years old, though she looked barely half of that. It was no glamour: rituals to maintain the physical trappings of youth and the same superior breeding that had led to both their beauty were more than enough. High cheekbones and perfect eyebrows, lovely dark golden eyes and full lips – it was no mystery why the High Lady still had so many admirers even at her age.
“Mother,” Akua said.
The High Lady would not have spoken first if she hadn’t, an unspoken reminder that for all that Heiress had a Name she was still not the dominant partner in their relationship.
“Akua,” her mother replied. “I’m told you’re finally on the march.”
Likely the woman already knew where they were headed, but Heiress answered the unasked question nonetheless.
“To Liesse,” she said. “We’ve been ordered to take the city while Lord Black deals with the rebel host.”
The High Lady has no visible reaction but there was a palpable sense of satisfaction emanating from her nonetheless, even through the mirror. That part of the plan had succeeded flawlessly.
“Foundling must be anxious,” Mother said. “She will be finishing her pattern of three with the hero.”
Not gloating, for High Lady Tasia was better bred than that, but something close to it. Squire had actually not seemed anything of the sort, though she had to be aware that after a victory and a draw she was headed for a defeat against the Lone Swordsman. No doubt her teacher had informed her that it was possible to discharge that mandated defeat without the consequences being fatal – though Akua doubted it would easy, with a Bard on the opposing side. While those types of Names were rarely able to intervene directly, there was nothing stopping them from manipulating the situation from behind the scene.
“Is my support on schedule?” Heiress asked.
She’d sent for her own reinforcements, detachments of household troops contributed by all the ranking members of the Truebloods. Only a thousand overall, since none of the members trusted each other enough to truly deplete their strength, but it would still double her numbers. Her mother paused.
“There have been developments,” she said.
Not a collapse of the Trueblood coalition, Heiress decided calmly. It was currently the most united it had been since Malicia’s ascension of the Tower. An exterior factor, then. The Swordsman? He should have been in Liesse with the Stygian slaves, but heroes could be slippery that way.
High Lady Tasia allowed her lips to thin in displeasure.
“The ships assembled to cross the Wasaliti were stolen,” she said.
The meditation technique held, muting the sense of surprise. Not sunk, stolen. That phrasing was not happenstance.
“The Thief,” Heiress said.
“She left a note on the shore, informing us they had been ‘borrowed indefinitely’,” Mother said, eyes gone hot with rage. “A small fleet, gone inside an hour without a trace. They’re not on the river and our agents in Mercantis have seen no sign of them.”
Heroes, unmaking a month of preparations as easily as a soldier tossed dice.
“You could charter more,” Akua noted.
Mother shook her head minutely. “The Empress has finally made her move.”
That single sentence brought fresh dread that put anything personal fear inflicted by Lord Black to shame. The man was a threat, but he was ultimately nothing more than an exceedingly talented warlord. Dangerous, but he could be neutered through politics. Her Most Dreadful Majesty Malicia, First of Her Name, had always been the most dangerous of the two. While her Knight settled the provinces the Empress had spent decades fencing with the sharpest minds in Praes, leaving behind her a trail of broken ambitions and exquisitely outplayed corpses.
“She was particularly clever about this one,” the High Lady admitted. “Our request that the Clans be forced to be pay the tributes they refused under Nefarious rests on the legality that, even when not under de facto Imperial control, territories are subject to Imperial law and obligations. Under that understanding, the lands you looted in southern Callow are granted the same legal status.”
Which meant either Wolof had to pay massive reparations for the damages incurred in that territory or withdraw the request made to the Tower. That her mother was currently implying she would not have the funds to assemble another fleet of transports implied she’d already reached a decision on the matter. And we can’t rely on the other Truebloods to foot the bill. Mother is the unofficial head of the coalition, but unmatched monetary contributions would muddy that status. Akua found she agreed with the decision made here, after a moment: wealth would flow back in Sahelian coffers soon enough, while backing down on the orc issue was not something they could ever take back. It was still incredibly inconvenient.
“I’ll manage without them,” Akua said, to her mother’s visible approval.
In some ways having only expendable troops at her disposal opened possibilities. She’d already secured the necessary fuel for her rituals but being able to operate without the limitation of having to preserve any of her forces save her personal followers allowed for a degree of… recklessness borrowed household troops would forbid. Not to mention never having to pay the mercenaries would relieve the family coffers of an additional burden. She could work with this, unplanned as it was.
“Keep me informed as you approach Liesse,” High Lady Tasia ordered.
Akua bowed her head, though the commanding tone rankled. It always did. Without wasting any times on goodbyes, her mother’s profile disappeared from the mirror. Heiress waited, for now came the contact she’d actually been looking forward to. The link between mirrors activated again, responding as if it had been triggered from the other side. It hadn’t been: a spell had been used that fooled the laws of sympathy scrying relied on to make the artefact believe it was connected to its match again. An older Soninke man appeared on the surface, face wrinkled with laugh lines and sleepless nights. Not particularly handsome, but there was an intensity to him that almost made up for it when he focused entirely on something.
“Papa,” Akua smiled.
“Mpanzi,” her father grinned.
Dear one. He’d always refused to use the name Mother had given her. One of the few kinds of rebellion he allowed himself.
“You look tired, Papa,” she frowned. “Have you been working on another project?”
“Oh, nothing important,” he dismissed. “I may have stumbled onto an improvement on the Shahbaz ritual that bears promise. Still a horribly wasteful form of conversion, but it brings foundational flight closer to the sacrificial threshold.”
Heiress found a smile tugging at her lips. Only her father would call modifying a ritual formula dating back to the Declaration ‘nothing important’. On another day she would have asked him to elaborate if only to watch his face light up – not to mention that if he’d genuinely found a way to make flying fortresses less costly it could be very useful – but she had precious little time right now. She loved to talk magic with her father, though, she truly did. He had a real passion for the subject and as a child he’d made it a pleasure to learn. Akua believed that if he’d not been her teacher she would not be half the caster she was today, no matter the potential she’d been born to. And she still believed he would have been a much better Warlock than the current one, if he’d pressed his claim. So many things could have been different, if Papa had answered the call of the Name instead of denied it.
“You have that look on your face again, my child,” the dark-skinned man sighed. “The one that says you’re tugging at doors best left unopened.”
“I wish you were with me,” Akua said.
“I wish you had never gone at all,” he replied sadly.
“You know I had to,” Heiress said.
“I know your mother said that,” he murmured. “You do not have to listen to her.”
You do, Akua almost said, but it would have been unfair. Her father had been born one of the mostly innately talented mages of his generation, to the extent that he’d had a claim on the Name of Warlock after the previous one’s assassination. He had not, however, been born to a powerful family. Minor nobility sworn to the High Lord of Aksum, a deeply paranoid man whose only daughter was already married: if he’d stayed in the village of his birth, he’d have been taken in the dark of night and never seen again. High Lords did not allow strong mages to survive if they were not personal retainers or useful breeding stock. Instead he’d found protection and funding in Wolof, where her mother had required obedience and his help in conceiving a child in exchange. He’d never even been granted official consort status.
Their only contact when she’d been a child had been her tutelage in sorcery, all other interactions strictly forbidden. Not that Papa hadn’t found a way regardless, running circles around High Lady Tasia’s best mages and turning it into a game for his infant daughter. She’d loved him for that and loved him still, for he had never once asked anything of her. All her life she’d been told that the gifts of her birth raised her above others, whether it be in intellect or looks or sorcery, and that girls like her only came once every few hundred years. It had been a heady thing, until she’d realized that those gifts came at a price. She was a product of the oldest blood of Praes and her loyalty to that blood was expected to be absolute. Akua was to return the banner of Evil, real Evil, to its rightful place at the summit of the Tower. Anything less was unacceptable.
And the truth was, she believed in this. She did not know whether or not that was because she had been raised to believe it, but ultimately it didn’t matter. No matter the source the conviction had become her own. Whoring out the soul of the Empire for a few victories the way Malicia had was repulsive to her. The Empress’ path was one that looked back on all of what Praes had ever been and dismissed it as the flailing of children. Every villain who’d ever spit in the eye of the Heavens swept under the carpet like a shameful blemish, a thousand years of tears and blood denied. Akua looked back on the Tyrants of old and felt only pride, for the monsters and the fools both – for even the fools had shaken the world, in their own way. Their legacy was not wrong, it was just incomplete. It had taken years to realize that for all that her mother preached this gospel, the reality of intentions was different.
High Lady Tasia planned for her daughter to be the next Dread Empress and for herself to be the power behind the throne. Whether or not she ended up being Chancellor was irrelevant, so long as Akua enthroned was utterly dependent on Wolofite resources to maintain her reign. What Heiress had thought to be Fate was just another, larger cage. You should not have taught me as well as you have, Mother, if you wanted to succeed.
“I’ll win, Papa,” Akua said. “Believe in me.”
“Always,” he smiled softly. “I’m just getting old, Mpanzi. We old men like to fret.”
“I love you,” Heiress murmured, embarrassed.
“I love you too,” her father replied. “Nothing will ever change that. If you can believe anything, believe in this.”
Her hand remained on the mirror long after his image faded. She wished the spell had been less than perfect, so that the bleed over had warmed the metal for her touch. I’ll win, she promised herself. She’d break the cage, even if she had to break the world with it.
The olive-skinned old man hopped along the chalk lines traced on the ground, fumbling the last to the children’s delight. The gaggle of street kids excitedly started arguing about the kind of penalty Ophon would have to submit to – he’d stood perfectly on his hands earlier, to their amazement. The shaved former slave smiled at a fair-haired girl who tugged at his pants, patting her head and promising in all seriousness that he’d show her how to use a spear later. The child scowled ferociously and told him he’d better. All of the Stygian spears were in a constant state of wonder around children, William had found. They were made magically sterile during their conditioning, for their masters believe that while sex was a useful reward their soldier-slaves should never have their loyalties split by families of their own. The Lone Swordsman snorted as the commander of the Stygian phalanx deftly pushed himself up on a single hand, muscles tensing as he maintained the stance perfectly for a solid sixty heartbeats as the kids counted out loud.
“They seem to be settling in fine,” Almorava said.
Of all the heroes he’d worked with, the Bard was the only one who’d ever managed to sneak up on him. William’s hand dropped from the handle of the Penitent’s Blade and he turned to look at the Ashuran musician. She’d somehow managed to sit at his side without making a single sound or getting the attention of his Name, which they were both perfectly aware should be impossible. With a salacious grin she offered him a pull from the flask of rotgut in her hand. He declined wordlessly, not that it stopped her from polishing off half the stuff inside.
“You’ve been gone a lot, lately,” he said, turning his attention back to the city streets.
Liesse was beautiful this time of the year, just like he remembered. The City of Swans bordered a lake full of the birds it had been named for, the light stone and widespread garlands of flowers hanging from everywhere making it look like it was in a permanent festival. It was far cry from how it’d been when he’d first arrived with Baroness Dormer’s host and the Stygians. Liesse had been left without a garrison by the rebels and descended almost immediately into chaos without even a city guard to keep the peace. There’d been riots and looting until he restored order, and the Duke’s Plaza had been turned into a makeshift gallows where Praesi ‘sympathizers’ were lynched to the jeers of the crowd. Not that they even always waited for that parody of justice: more than a few couples mixing Wastelanders and Callowans had been murdered in their own homes, thought thankfully no one had been stupid enough to start a fire afterwards. Half the city would have gone up in flames if they had.
“Hasn’t been much for me to do,” Almorava replied, wiping her mouth and panting.
She seemed tired and a haggard, William noted. Could use a bath, not that she didn’t often. In this kind of heat liquor took its toll.
“Where do you go, Bard?” he asked. “When you’re not here.”
“You’re going to be getting a message soon,” the Bard said, ignoring his question. “From the First Prince.”
William’s lips curled with distaste. His single meeting with the woman had not left him with much trust or fondness for her. It was said that there were three kinds of Procerans: the hot-blooded Arlesites in the south, the scheming Alamans in the centre and the coldly practical Lycaonese in the north. After meeting the Lycaonese First Prince, he’d had no trouble believing what was said about her people. She used manners and diplomacy like soldiers used sword and shield, cornering her opponents one smile and polite question at a time.
“And what does her Most Serene Highness want from me?” he asked.
“Not her,” the Bard said. “Her cousin, the Augur. She’s seen what’s coming.”
Almorava’s tone had remained light but it raised William’s hackles nonetheless. There’d been an ominous weight to that sentence, for all of the heroine’s nonchalance.
“Squire,” he said.
“And the other one,” the Wandering Bard grinned. “You’re a hit with the ladies, Willy. Must be your body, because I’m sad to inform you it’s not your winning personality.”
“You don’t even sound a little bit sad,” William complained good-naturedly.
Though he’d humoured his friend in her bantering, most of his attention was already on the battle ahead of him. With both the Baroness’ men and his Stygian allies, he’d have both numerical superiority and walls. Against most people that would be enough, but he’d met Catherine Foundling before: uphill battles like this were her specialty. He’d already prepared the city for a siege by bringing in foodstuff from the neighbouring fields the moment the Countess Marchford had ordered him to remain and protect the unofficial rebel capital, but it wouldn’t be enough. Traditional siege tactics wouldn’t be the way his enemy would go at it. He’d have to watch for infiltrators, starting right now, and prepare a counter for the enemy mages. He grimaced: leading armies or even small groups was not his specialty, as Thief had pointed out a few months ago.
“I’m thinking of putting Ophon in charge of the defence,” he told Almorava, gauging her for a reaction.
She hummed approvingly. “Not a bad idea,” she said. “The former slave facing his former owner. It has a shape to it.”
“You really think she’ll let the Heiress participate?” he frowned. “I thought they were rivals.”
“She won’t have a choice,” the Bard said, putting down her half-empty bottle and taking out a deck of cards from her bag ever-full of surprises.
Tarot, he recognized when she flicked a card at him. Six of Cups. There might have been a meaning to that, though he didn’t know it.
“Are you branching out in divination, now?” he teased.
“Divination is just parsing out a story that hasn’t been written yet,” the Bard snorted. “As if I’d need cards to do that. No, I just like throwing those around people who think too much. They waste their time puzzling out the meaning when they should be worried about something else.”
He carefully picked up the card, holding it up. “Illuminate me, then,” he said. “Why does Squire not have a choice in letting her enemy help?”
“By now the Big Guy already assigned Heiress as an auxiliary to the Fifteenth,” the Bard said, “but that’s just a surface detail. Patterns, Willy. It’s always about patterns.”
“It will be the final fight between she and I,” the Lone Swordsman frowned. “You think she’ll be sending in Heiress to avoid a defeat? Using a proxy, so to speak.”
The Ashuran patted him on the back comfortingly, dropping the deck to pick up her flask. The cards scattered all over the floor and William repressed a twitch. He disliked messes, and she was making no move to pick any of it up.
“Close, but you’re missing the point,” the Bard said. “You already have all the information. When referring to Heiress earlier, what did you call her?”
“Enemy,” William said.
“Before that, you sorry human-shaped sack of potatoes.”
“I take offense to that, kind of,” the Swordsman replied mildly. “Rival. They are rivals.”
“Nemeses, even,” the Bard said, smiling nastily.
A heartbeat passed until he caught on. “You mean…”
“Yours is not the only pattern of three Catherine Foundling is bound by,” Almorava said. “One defeat for Heiress, on the shores of the Blessed Isle. One shared draw, in the ruins of Marchford. You know what comes next.”
“A victory in Liesse,” William finished. “Surely she has to be aware of that?”
“Oh, she hasn’t noticed,” Bard said. “As Fate would have it, the Big Guy would have. If he’d arrived in time to hear Heiress speak the word ‘draw’, anyway. But he was detained in Arcadia when getting there. Couldn’t find someone to open a way out.”
“A fortnight ago,” the dark-haired hero spoke slowly, “you appeared covered in snow.”
“Lovely people, the Fae,” Almorava mused. “Live closer to the Story than anybody else. They know better than to ignore the warning of a mysterious cloaked stranger.”
There was a long moment of silence between them as they watched the children play in the distance.
“You’re a very dangerous woman, Almorava,” he finally said.
“I don’t have a speck of power to my Name,” the Bard murmured. “All I am is a grain of sand.”
That can be all it takes, to break a machine, William thought.
“You’d rather Heiress survive than Squire,” he said after a moment.
“Every single time,” the Ashuran agreed vehemently.
“Foundling is trying to change things for the better, at least,” the Swordsman pointed out, though defending the traitor left a foul taste in his mouth.
“You need to stop thinking in terms of individuals, William,” the Bard grunted. “The Squire is a legacy. So is Heiress. One of those legacies is much more dangerous to Creation than the other.”
“She summoned a demon, Bard,” the hero spoke flatly. “I’ll say this for Malicia and her dogs, they’ve shown more restraint than their predecessors.”
“It doesn’t matter if she summons a whole army, though she didn’t do any summoning at all. Heiress loses, in the end. That’s her story. She makes a mess, but in the end she can’t win. These… practical Evil types. They can win, if we let them.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time Evil wins,” the hero said grimly. “Nor will it be the last, if we should be defeated.”
“They don’t win like this, William,” Almorava said quietly. “This monstrosity of a plan the madman and the tyrant have cooked up? It changes things. Opens a door that can’t be closed ever again. They think they’re different but they’re not, not really. Not enough that it matters. Patterns don’t discriminate between shades, you see. They only see black and white.”
“You’ve lost me,” the green-eyed man admitted.
“Don’t worry about it,” the Bard sighed. “Just prepare. That plan you’ve been thinking of? Do it.”
He didn’t bother to ask her how she knew about that. The Lone Swordsman allowed the Wandering Bard to rest against his shoulder for a while. They stayed like that until the sun began to set, the silence strangely comfortable.
“Nowhere, William,” she whispered, bringing the bottle up to her lips. “I go nowhere.”