“Nothing is half as dangerous to a villain as victory. We raise our own gallows.”
-Dread Empress Maleficent the First
“You’re still a villain,” Heiress said. “You’re still the Squire.”
Maybe, but things were… different now. I’d gotten an aspect much faster than I should have. Take. I could feel the now-shaped bundle of power inside of me, but there were complexities to it. It held the aspect I’d stolen from the Lone Swordsman, his godsdamned healing trick that had seen him survive the most brutal beating I’d ever dealt out. Rise. It was mine, now, but the way it was was hard to explain. I’d stolen the shape, maybe, but not the essence: there would only be so many times I could use it before it faded. When it did, though, I would be able to Take again. Or so I believed. My ignorance on the subject of Names and Roles was starting to be galling, but unfortunately there was no such thing as a how-to book to being a villain – the closest thing to that was my dreams, which tended to focus more on attitudes than practical knowledge. The dreams were, I thought, a teaching tool. A way to learn from the mistakes and victories of your predecessor. I wondered if Akua got them too, memories from the Heir that my teacher had killed.
“And yet, you are alive,” Heiress said quietly. “That should not be possible.”
I smiled cheerfully.
“Angels are sore losers, but rules are rules,” I said.
I could not be dead and win. I had won, so I must be alive. As the true owners of the sword, the Hashmallim had been supposed to see to that. They’d tried to flip it around by making me a heroic Queen of Callow, but I wouldn’t be having any of that. I already had a way and it was finally working: I wasn’t going to turn my cloak this deep in the game. That they’d thought I’d willingly slaughter the Fifteenth as the first step in a kingdom-wide rebellion showed how little angels actually understood human nature. Those legionaries were mine, after all. Bastards to a man and entirely too lippy, but they were my bastards. They flew my banner, fought my battles and sang my songs. I would have been twice the traitor some called me to turn my back on them. I’d been called quite a few things in my life – the majority of them pretty unpleasant, because Creation was out to get me – but contrite had never been one of them. I owned all of me, even the parts that weren’t pretty to look at.
For someone who was about to meet her makers, Akua seemed entirely too at ease. I felt flush with power right now, but that still rang alarm bells. Obviously, she had something up her sleeve. Didn’t she always? Not for the first time, I wondered what Heiress’ aspects actually were. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one entirely dedicated to screwing me over, though how that would be phrased into an imperative I wasn’t sure. Clearly, at some point in this fight I’d stepped into her “clever” web of schemes. I should, I knew, probably spend some thought trying to figure out exactly how I’d done that. On the other hand, I believed it was a safe assumption that my ripping off her arms and beating her to death with them wouldn’t be part of any of her plans. It would also be extremely cathartic for me, which was an added bonus. I frowned. Was it actually possible to beat someone to death with an arm? Well, it couldn’t be too different than doing it with a fish. So probably. Only one way to find out.
“So this has been an oddly civil talk,” I said. “Let’s fix that, shall we?”
“If you insist,” the dark-skinned girl said.
Runes formed in the air around her hand and lit up. Nothing happened. She didn’t hide her dismay quite fast enough for me not to notice it.
“Tried the demon, huh?” I said.
“You did something to prevent my access,” she accused.
“That’d be the redhead, actually,” I said. “And she’s definitely earned a treat for that.”
Akua sighed. “Well, it seems we’ve established killing you is likely beyond me at the moment.”
“You say the nicest things,” I said.
I strode forward with the angel sword in hand. It wasn’t burning me anymore, but I wasn’t feeling power from it either. It was, by all appearances, just a very sharp sword. Probably for the best. I’d been taught some very specific things about magical weapons anyway. There was a reason I didn’t wield any when the Tower held the largest stash of magical artefacts on the continent: the way Black told it, relying on a magic sword – or a magic anything, really – was effectively signing your own death warrant if you were Named. They always failed you at the worst possible moment. Considering I’d just killed the Lone Swordsman with his own fancy angel sword, I was beginning to see his point.
“As it happens,” Heiress said, “you can’t kill me either.”
“They all say that,” I mused. “But you’ll notice I have bits of hero all over my boots. Hopefully it doesn’t stain, Hakram would have a bitch of a time getting that out.”
“I mean, Squire, that should you kill me you’ll not survive the act,” Heiress said flatly. “I’ve bound this dimension to my life. Should I die, it will immediately collapse.”
I squinted at her.
“Are you telling me you just tried to summon a demon of Corruption in a dimension you bound to yourself? That’d be a special brand of crazy even for you.”
I cleared my throat.
“And by crazy I mean stupid. So very, very stupid.”
Akua looked a little insulted at that and I could see her gearing up for scathing rebuttal, but she mastered herself at the last moment. Clearly those years getting under the skin of my opponents in the Pit were still seeing good use even though I’d found other employment.
“I could show you the runes proving this if you weren’t magically illiterate,” she said.
“That’s slander,” I said. “I’m functionally magically illiterate. There’s an important distinction there.”
My absolute refusal to take her sinister revelations seriously was riling her up, by the looks of the colour on her cheeks. I was rather enjoying that, truth be told. Whether she was actually telling the truth was a toss up, in my opinion. A contingency like this was right up her alley, but on the other hand I got the impression I’d already murdered my way through most of her contingencies. It might not matter if she was telling the truth, though. Given enough time, Masego was bound to find a way into this place. The moment he opened a way out, I could just smoke her and bail. Maybe toss a couple of goblinfire balls to make sure no eldritch abomination crawled out.
“I guess we could stand in our respective corners of the church and think that over,” I said.
She smiled condescendingly.
“Apprentice will not find the gate to this place,” she said.
“’cause you’re such a big bad witch?” I said sceptically. “I suppose you might manage to hide it with a spell. On the other hand, it’d be pretty hard to do that without limbs. Which brings us back to the original plan of beating your ass. Progress, eh?”
“This dimension was crafted by Triumphant herself, you cretin,” Akua said. “Not even the Warlock could find it.”
“Harsh words,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Alas, you’ve hurt my feelings. Negotiations are breaking down already.”
“Do you have no self-preservation instinct at all, you fool?” she hissed.
“Akua, my opening gambit for this battle was getting myself killed,” I reminded her patiently. “You’re barking up the wrong tree here. But sure, I’ll take this seriously. If you apologize for your impolite language.”
“It was, I’m sure you’ll agree, beneath the dignity of such an august personage as yourself.”
I hadn’t seen anyone wanting to murder me so badly in a while. Page, maybe, but even her glares hadn’t been quite so venomous. I was morbidly curious about whether or not sheer anger might give Heiress heart palpitations.
“My words were not helpful to this conversation,” she conceded through gritted teeth.
I could have made something of that but there was only so much taunting she’d take before lashing out. She had an offer to make, clearly, and at the moment she was my only way out of this dump. I could always run her through the moment we were back in Creation, though I suspected it wouldn’t be that easy.
“I’ll allow it, in the spirit of good will and cooperation,” I lied. “Now spit out your bargain.”
The Soninke straightened, painting solemn haughtiness on her face. It was actually a good look on her, but then she’d always been gorgeous. Shame about that whole thing where I was going to kill her or die trying, but she shouldn’t have picked this fight if she didn’t want to get stabbed repeatedly.
“In exchange for safe passage, I ask three concessions of you,” she said.
“No,” I said immediately.
Her eyes flashed with anger. “This is not how negotiations are done,” she said.
“It is, if you’re buying contraband painkillers in the alley behind an illegal fighting pit,” I said.
I was being wilfully obstructive here, but not because I felt like being ornery. … Not just because I felt like being ornery. When it came down to it she’d had training in this and I hadn’t. The only way I wasn’t going to get robbed was by making her so furious she got sloppy.
“Three for three, or we’re done,” I said. “We can find out the hard way whether your little Triumphant bubble really can’t be found by Masego. Resourceful man, Apprentice. I’ll take those odds.”
Akua looked like I’d just flipped the negotiation table over hear head and made her clean up the mess, but she swallowed her anger. She didn’t have nearly as much of an upper hand here as she pretending she did, we both knew that.
“Three for three,” she conceded. “In exchange for safe passage for you into Creation, you will refrain from killing me or spilling my blood for three days and three nights.”
Ah, and there it was. The way she’d try to wiggle out of this mess. She’d bail out of Callow and return to the Wasteland, where the only way for me to kill her would be starting a civil war in Praes. That wasn’t nearly as hardy of a shield as she thought it was, but it was still an obstacle. I remained silent, trying to go through my options. I could just tell her to die in a fire and bet everything on Masego pulling through against all odds, but I didn’t like the shape of it. Crawling away from trouble she’d raised was what Heiress excelled at most. I’d already told Black more than once that for the shit she’d pulled her head should be on a pike, but the Empire had given her a suspicious amount of leeway. Either Black and Malicia were idiots, which I knew they weren’t, or there was something else at play. I’d never seen the Heir in one of my Name dreams so I couldn’t be sure, but avoiding blame might be one of the central powers for that Role. I’d already put my own slant on the events that unfolded today, so there would be no screwing my opponents with that story twice. Three days and three nights wasn’t that long, anyway. It wouldn’t get her out of southern Callow even if she managed to get her hands on a horse – which I’d make damned sure she wouldn’t, even if I had to kill every mount in the city. If she was on foot, I could have three cohorts shadow her and wait out the time before they carpeted wherever she stood with munitions.
“Fine,” I finally said. “Second?”
“Your monstrous little goblin seized my associates,” she said, and my heartbeat stilled. “I want them released into my custody and the terms of the first concession applied to them.”
Shit. She’d noticed it, then. Robber had spent the entire battle marauding in the streets with his cohort, capturing her Praesi lordlings. Did she know what I wanted them for? I couldn’t just give them away, not before my gambit played out. I closed my eyes. No killing or spilling of blood, I remembered. Those were the terms. There were ways around that. Not pretty ones, but she’d pushed me a lot further down the ruthless side of the slope than she thought. She’d asked for two things, though, even if she’d tried to phrase it as one. That felt… significant. Usable.
“Pick three,” I said.
She’s had five people in her retinue at the beginning of the battle. Barika, who I’d executed before the battle began properly. Fadila, the mage who’d bailed her out of the first three-way melee with the Lone Swordsman. And then there were the other three. Ghassan something or other, the boy with the sword I’d shamed in front of the court in Ater. Apparently a Taghreb lord in his own right. Then the actual important ones, the heir to the High Lordship of Aksum and the heiress to the High Ladyship of Nok. Akua’s face went blank, her eyes considering. I’d taken her by surprised with that.
“Is Barika still alive?” she asked.
I smiled unpleasantly.
“Going sentimental on me, Heiress? Could be she is. Could be she isn’t.”
“If she is dead,” the Soninke said softly, “there will be a reckoning for it.”
“Oh, there’ll be one of those anyway,” I said with my friendliest expression. “You can count on that.”
Her face smoothing out into an unnaturally calm expression, Heiress composed herself.
“Fasili Mirembe, Hawulti Sahel and Ghassan Enazah,” she said.
The two high nobles and the failed military commander. Picking her minions based on political influence instead of competence, huh. Sloppy habit. It would cost her in the long run, if she lived that long.
“Sold,” I shrugged. “In exchange, you will extend the truce terms given to you to all under my command.”
“Agreed,” she said, sounding slightly miffed.
Yeah, I’d seen that one coming a mile away. If I couldn’t nail her at will, I was allowing a mage able to use High Arcana – whatever the Hells that actually was – to run rampant in a city full of my subordinates. She could have slaughtered her way through my entire high command and I wouldn’t have been able to lift a finger to help.
“Third?” I said.
She was picking her words very carefully, which I took to mean she was about to try to pull a fast one. I was wrong, as it turned out. She was just being ridiculously audacious.
“After the war, I will petition to be granted governorship of Liesse,” she said. “You will support this petition in court.”
I blinked and then almost laughed, but she was being absolutely serious. The “no, Gods no, are you even serious, I didn’t hit you on the head nearly that hard” was halfway to being spoken when I paused. She didn’t know what I’d taken her minions for, I realized. Otherwise she wouldn’t have angled for this. I had actually managed to put together a plan she hadn’t seen coming. I forced my face to be completely blank. It would be suspicious as all Hells, but not as suspicious as my starting to smirk. Heiress as governess of Liesse had… possibilities. For one, she didn’t have to stay the governess. And while she was, she would be stuck in Callow. On my playing field instead of hers, away from all her allies and surrounded by a population that would utterly hate her guts. I clenched my fingers and unclenched them. I would be surrendering the population of Liesse to the very woman who’d set a host of devils on them. But I’ll have a whole arsenal of tools to make sure she behaves. My own support wouldn’t guarantee she got the post, I told myself, but I knew deep down that she wouldn’t have asked for it unless she thought it would tip the balance in her favour. I had thought, perhaps naively, that after starting a war to get in a position of power I’d have sacrificed enough of my people to the altar of necessity. It seemed not. Part of me balked at the notion, but the rest had already decided it would be done. It was just a matter of deciding what I’d get in return.
I could get the names of all the spies in the Fifteenth. That was horribly, horribly tempting. There were problems with that, though. There could be others like Nilin – and my fingers clenched just at the memory of him – who’d been placed in the College by nobles years ago, and not all of them would be known to Akua. I suspected all the Truebloods shared their information with Heiress, but they likely didn’t share their sources. I wouldn’t be cleaning house entirely. And it wouldn’t stop her from placing fresh agents afterwards, anyway. The Fifteenth was going to be recruiting after all this, so it wasn’t like she’d lack opportunity. Could I ask for an unspecified favour? No, she wouldn’t go for that. It would give me too large of an advantage over her. I needed to strip away from her a tool she’d be able to use against me in the future. I tried to figure out a way to cut her off from Trueblood support, but the phrasing would be too tricky. There’d be ways around it. What did she have that I didn’t? Fancy armour. Curves. A magic sword. A demon.
“Agreed,” I said. “You’ll surrender the standard controlling your demon to Apprentice before a bell has passed.”
“With the same demon still bound to it,” I added hastily.
She’d been about to accept the terms when I spoke, and looked irked when I added the last part. Close shave.
“Agreed,” she replied.
The terms were set. Getting actual oaths going proved a little more complicated. Heiress suggested we swear on our Names, but I wasn’t doing anything of the sort when she outstripped me in Name lore by such a wide margin. I proposed we swear on the Gods, but from the way she paled at that an oath to the Gods Below was a lot more dangerous than one to the Gods Above. We ended up compromising with a blood oath. She cut her palm, which was apparently tradition but unlike her I actually used my hands to swing a sword so I nicked my shoulder instead. I refused to mix our blood to seal the pact, citing the fact that her stupidity might be catching. I was actually more worried about her being crazy enough to put poison in her own blood or some sort of magical plague, but I wasn’t about to admit that. It wasn’t paranoia if you were dealing with Praesi. I cut off a bit of the Lone Swordsman’s coat and we both dripped blood on the leather – myself first, just in case – which was apparently enough. I felt something like a manacle form around my hand, though there was nothing visible.
It was a novelty watching Heiress cast a spell that wasn’t actively meant to harm me. She carved out a gate of light out on the shore and stepped through first when I invited her. I followed almost immediately, not willing to remain on that creepy island any longer than I had to. Her transition through was a lot smoother than Masego’s had been, and I found myself on the shores of the Hengest just by the spot where the boat from earlier had finally finished burning. Heiress stood with her hands raised, surrounded by the Gallowborne with all their weapons out. Adjutant was the first to see me cross, and he told Apprentice to stand down.
“Catherine,” Hakram said, looking relieved.
“Just a moment,” I said, and sucker punched Akua in the stomach.
She let out a wheeze: I’d put my Name to work in that strike, and her armour bent under the impact. Sorcery crackled to life around her hand but I punched her in the stomach again and it winked out as she fell to her knees. Calmly, I took her wrist and snapped it.
“You probably thought I forgot to bargain for my own safety,” I said. “I didn’t. I just knew it wouldn’t matter.”
“You can’t hurt me,” she gasped.
“I can’t kill you,” I corrected. “Or spill your blood.
My boot came down and shattered her knee as punctuation. She screamed.
“Did you actually think you’d bargain your way out of this?” I said. “No. Not after what you did.”
I smiled coldly.
“What was it you called me, when you sat down with Black in Summerholm? A nobody, I think. With a reputation as a brawler and nothing else to my name. Here’s the thing, though, about brawlers.”
I broke her other wrist, interrupting her second attempt to cast.
“We know how to hurt people without making them bleed,” I said casually.
Under the gaze of a hundred Callowans and two other Named, I methodically broke every bone in Heiress’ body I could smash without making her bleed. She’d heal all of this, eventually. But she’d be incapable of being a problem for me for at least a month. Her face remained intact – hits there bled too easily – but by the time I was done with her she could no longer move on her own.
“Now let’s find out how well you bargained,” I muttered.
I thought about breaking her bones repeatedly for three days and three nights, keeping her in the city until the truce ran out. The shackle around my hand tightened. Not that, then. I thought about allowing her to leave but having soldiers follow her. The shackle tightened again. The Fifteenth counted as an extension of myself for the purpose of killing, then. Damn. Dropping her in the lake? Also a break of the oath. I couldn’t think of anything else at the moment, but I had a whole cadre of senior officers to run it by. As well as a man who’d been raised by a villain.
“Looks like you get to survive,” I said. “For now, anyway. Captain Farrier?”
“Ma’am?” the Callowan replied, sounding a little awed.
“Have this woman dragged to the Fifteenth’s headquarters in the city. No need to be gentle about it, but make sure she doesn’t bleed.”
He saluted. Letting out a long breath, I turned to Hakram and Masego.
“Come on, boys,” I said. “We can talk as we walk there. The day’s not quite done.”
Juniper had claimed a guild hall as her forward command centre, as she’d done in Marchford. I could see why she’d pick up the habit: they were usually the largest building in a Callowan city that wasn’t a church or a noble’s home. They were usually closer to the main avenues than those two as well, since they saw so much people come and go. After assuring the Hellhound that the angel situation was dealt with and that I’d give her a full report later, I managed to extract myself from that conversation and steal away Aisha from her. I’d need her for the coming conversation. The storage room where Robber had dropped off Heiress’ minions had been cleared out except for four tightly bound rolls of angry Praesi, who started making noise through their gags the moment I strolled in. The Gallowborne propped up Heiress against a wall before I dismissed them, keeping only Apprentice and Aisha at my side. I crouched by two of the captives and took off their gags, ignoring the immediate indignant demands they bellowed.
“Do you even know who I am, you ignorant mudfoot?” the Soninke boy demanded.
I scratched my cheek. “I actually forgot your name,” I admitted. “Aisha?”
The delicate-looking Taghreb looked halfway between despair and amusement.
“Fasili Mirembe,” she provided. “Heir to Aksum.”
“See, I know who you are now Babili,” I told him. “Note how you’re still bound. This is not, in fact, an accident.”
“You can’t kill them,” Heiress croaked out from her corner.
“Look who’s back from the land of dreams,” I said. “And you’re kind of right, I suppose. For three of them anyway. Sorry, Fadila, but you didn’t make the cut. Your boss decided you were too low on the priority list.”
I unsheathed my knife. The dark-skinned mage’s eyes widened in panic.
“Wait,” she said, “I-“
The point of my knife rested against her throat, not quite strongly enough to draw blood.
“Yes?” I said.
“I’ll leave, go to the Free Cities,” she said. “Never return to the Empire.”
The other nobles in the room watched in utter silence, even Aisha.
“I’m sorry,” I said, not unkindly. “But you’re complicit in mass murder and a loose end besides. Exile isn’t an option, here. Not with the kind of games the lot of you have been playing.”
“Catherine,” Apprentice said. “It would be a waste. I’ve told you before, she’s one of the most talented practitioners of her generation.”
“That makes her a very bad loose end, Masego,” I said. “The kind that comes back to bite us in the ass at a critical moment.”
“Grant me custody of her,” he said. “I have projects that could use an additional pair of hands.”
“You’d be responsible for her, and Black might object,” I said.
The bespectacled mage snorted. “Let me handle Uncle Amadeus. As for responsibility, I intend to ask for some very specifically worded oaths.”
I eyed Fadila dubiously.
“How about it?” I said. “Lab assistant or early grave? It’s up to you.”
“Thank you, Lord Apprentice,” she said in a trembling voice, ignoring me and trying to sketch a bow while tied up. “I will not forget this.”
I called the Gallowborne standing guard back into the room and had her dragged out. We could settle the details of that affair later.
“If that little display was meant to intimidate us, you have failed,” the bound Soninke girl said.
I cast a look at Aisha. Hawulti Sahel, she mouthed silently. Heiress to Nok.
“Oh, Sawuti,” I said. “If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention. I can’t kill you or bleed you, sure. But Apprentice could, say, rot off your eyes. He did it to the Bumbling Conjurer’s face in Summerholm. Nasty as all Hells to look at, let me tell you.”
“Good news,” I said. “That’s not what we’ll do. Apprentice, you have the tools?”
The chubby mage unrolled a pack of leather full of what looked like scalpels and pincers as well as a few objects clearly meant to poke holes. They would have looked like a cutter’s kit – or a torturer’s – if not for the runes covering every nook and cranny of them. Hawulti let out a whimper.
“Mage, are you?” I said. “For the benefit of all you fellow ignorant bastards, those are tools used to extract and bind a soul.”
The terror in the room was now palpable.
“See,” I continued, “Heiress made the mistake of bargaining only for the safety of your bodies. I’m not going to touch those. Tricky things, oaths. But if I return empty husks to the Wasteland, well, I’ll technically have respected the terms.”
“You don’t have it in you,” Heiress said from her corner.
“A year ago, you might have been right,” I agreed. “That was before you started fucking around with demons and feeding civilians to devils. You escalated, Akua. We’re not playing around with war games anymore.”
“You’d start a civil war,” Fasili said. “Touch one hair from our heads and half the Wasteland will rebel.”
“You know,” I sighed, “I’m getting rather sick of this whole ‘you can’t touch’ me complex Praesi nobles have. You seem under the impression it gives you free rein to do whatever you please without consequence.”
They genuinely didn’t understand me, I saw. Consequences, for them, was what happened when another noble outmanoeuvred them. Maybe when they fell for one of the Empress’ own schemes. The idea that they might have to answer to a Callowan in dire need of a bath and twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep was completely foreign to their way of thinking. I might as well have been speaking in tongues.
“I’m not going to waste time on the lot of you,” I said. “You’re not who I want to talk to.”
Masego put the scrying bowl on the ground while I put the gag back on Ghassan, and I saw the realization dawn in Heiress’ eyes even through the pain. She’d dropped the ball a few times today, but she wasn’t an idiot. The point had never been to end her minions. It was to blackmail their parents, the ones with the real power. Apprentice claimed a drop of saliva from the two high nobles, mixing it with the water in the implement. He whispered an incantation and it the water turned to steam, hanging in the air like a sheet of parchment. It took a while for the connection to be made, but eventually the steam formed two images: a pair of faces looked back at me, surprised and furious. I glanced at Aisha.
“High Lord Dakarai of Nok,” she said, inclining her head to the left, then to the right. “High Lady Abreha of Aksum.”
The High Lord of Nok was a handsome Soninke in the prime of his life, a thin greenish scar running through an eye and lending him a dangerous edge. The High Lady of Aksum looked to be a hundred, dark skin wrinkled like a goblin’s. She must have been prodigiously old for that to be the case, since Praesi dabbled in rituals to keep their appearance young long past what Creation had intended.
“Good evening,” I said. “I am-“
“The Squire,” the old woman said. “I see you have Fasili in your custody. This should be interesting.”
“You’ll be releasing my daughter immediately,” High Lord Dakarai said. “If you want to survive the coming fortnight, anyway.”
“Father,” said daughter broke in, “she’s gone mad, she-“
“Shut up,” I Spoke.
Her mouth snapped shut. The other prisoner got the message.
“I dislike repeating myself,” High Lord Dakarai said, tone flat.
“We have that in common then,” I said. “This isn’t a courtesy call, as it happens. I’m going to blackmail you.”
There was a moment of silence and I heard Aisha sigh deeply.
“That was refreshingly direct,” High Lady Abreha mused. “I’ll grant you the same courtesy. No. Release my idiot nephew and I won’t have everyone you love crucified.”
“She can’t kill them,” Heiress said from her corner.
The eyes of both high nobles flicked to the side. Those two were old hands at Wasteland games, and so there was not so much as a flicker of emotion on their faces. High Lord Dakarai raised an eyebrow.
“Is that the Heiress?”
“She’s having a bad day,” I said. “It’s about to get worse. She’s correct, though, she bargained for the life of your successors. Unfortunately the bargain didn’t cover their souls. What I’ll do with those I’m not sure yet, but I’ve been meaning to get a girl jewellery and Nauk keeps telling me offering the remains of common enemies is ‘an essential part of all courtships’.”
Masego cleared his throat.
“They’ll survive the extraction with few side effects,” he said. “At least one of them should retain motor control, should the soul ever be returned.”
“Isn’t that Warlock’s boy, trying to step into Father’s shoes,” Dakarai said without a speck of humour. “You should have advised your master better, Apprentice. There will be consequences to your actions today.”
“My nephew is a mediocre bargaining piece, Squire,” the High Lady Abreha said. “I have others. Some of them are even less annoying.”
I didn’t even glance at said nephew, though that must have been a little hard for him to hear.
“He’s you acknowledged heir, though,” I said. “I suppose you could name another one. Say I ripped out his soul, though, and later shoved it in another body. One in Black’s hands. Your nephew would still have a claim, no? And a backer.”
I smiled coldly.
“I imagine that might get a little messy for you.”
That part of it was courtesy of Aisha, since I’d had no idea how Praesi inheritance worked. In short, anybody to ever have been acknowledged as the heir by the ruling lord or lady had a legitimate claim. Dying and rising as undead erased that claim – since those very angry undead High Lords lost a civil war, anyway – but neither of my prisoners would technically die at any point. The idea of an individual with a legitimate claim in the hands of my teacher, Aisha had explained, would have these two treading very carefully. Heiress wasn’t the only one with a political stick to hit people with, and mine was really more of mace. One covered with spikes and with a noted distaste for the nobility.
“Your attempt at scare tactics are decent, if ultimately irrelevant,” High Lord Dakarai said. “The Heiress might be fair game for you, but my daughter is not. Raise a hand to a member of the old blood and the Empire will rise in rebellion. You are trifling with forces beyond your reach, child. Release my daughter.”
I looked him calmly in the eyes, then laughed. Genuinely, honestly laughed. He was too confused to be offended, I thought.
“Gods, the lot of you. You keep saying there’ll be a civil war if I do anything to one of yours, even if they try to kill me or my soldiers. Black and Malicia have gone soft on you, haven’t they? They let you think that you’re actually a threat.”
I grinned nastily.
“Do it. Rebel. You think that would be a defeat, for me? Praesi nobility has been looting my homeland for twenty fucking years. Half of me is rooting for you to tell me to get bent just so I can take the Fifteenth back across the river and bury all of you in a mass grave. The Legions won’t follow you, and the Legions are where the power is. And let’s be honest, half of Callow will be trying to enrol so they can set your palaces on fire as payback for the Conquest.”
“I imagine the Empress will be cross with me, for a while,” I said. “Black, though? Black might actually smile and if that doesn’t scare the shit out of you I don’t know what will.”
I met their eyes, one after the other.
“How did that line go again? Ah, yes. Tremble, oh ye mighty, for a new age is upon you.”
There was a heartbeat of silence.
“I’ll back whatever petition you’re pushing,” High Lady Abreha suddenly said. “I’ll also withdraw my support from the petition on orc tribute, if you take his daughter’s soul anyway.”
“Abreha, you treacherous bitch!” the other noble thundered.
The old woman cackled.
“You were still suckling your ugly mother’s teats when the Calamities came knocking, Dakarai. I was in the room when that line was last spoken. I told Tasia, I told her that Malicia would only tolerate so much. This is her hand, pulling the leash to remind us who rules.”
I glanced at Aisha, but she shook her head.
“We need both, otherwise we don’t have enough backing,” she whispered.
Four of the the High Lords and Ladies, that was our target. There were only seven of them overall, so anything backed by the majority needed to be at least seriously considered by the Empress. The current balance of power in the Empire was skewed against the Empress: three of them were loyal to Malicia but four were part of the Truebloods. It was why they were giving her so much trouble at the moment. I’d been in talks with Black for over a month and he’d been serving as a go-between between myself and the Empress, first to sell the idea of a ruling council over Callow and then to get support from her allies. We’d gotten two out of the three, at the cost of guaranteeing a seat on the council to a member of their family each. Now I needed to get my last two high nobles on board, and if the way to do that was threatening to rip out a few souls I was willing to have that on my conscience.
“I can’t accept that deal at this point in time,” I politely told High Lady Abreha.
She seemed unsurprised. High Lord Dakarai waspishly asked what exactly I wanted him to do and without wasting and more I told them. Another round of threats was exchanged, but with Aisha whispering more diplomacy in my ear I eventually got what I wanted. Oaths were given on both sides, the exact wording already prepared by Masego. When the scrying session ended, I was left feeling drained but thoroughly satisfied. Was that what actually pulling off a plan felt like? I kept expecting Creation to retaliate brutally at any moment, but for now it seemed like I’d gotten away with it. I cut the two high brats loose and informed them they were no longer my problem – the oaths I’d given would see them safely back to their seats of power. Which left Ghassan and Heiress. I looked at my rival and crouched in front of her.
“I have to let you go,” I said. “It physically pains me to admit it, but you took care of that much.”
Masego stood behind me, leaning against the wall.
“Apprentice had to rip out one of my aspects, at Marchford,” I told her, and her eyes widened.
Exactly how much she’d screwed up began to sink in.
“When I planned all of this – and I did – I figured I’d just kill you. If I couldn’t, I figured I’d even the scales the Callowan way. Your three aspects for the one I lost.”
She managed a smirk, which was really an accomplishment considering how many of her bones were still broken.
“But your soul isn’t actually in your body,” Apprentice said. “The ritual you must have completed for that to be the case and your Name still somehow function is, well, the most brilliant piece of sorcery I’ve seen done in my lifetime.”
He sounded genuinely admiring.
“So we can’t touch you,” I said. “You might be feeling a little smug about that, I suppose. Wiggling out again. It occurs to me, though, that the reason you never quite seem to understand that you shouldn’t fuck with me is that you never lose anything, in our confrontations.”
I met her eyes.
“I killed Barika,” I said. “I put a crossbow bolt in her eye and had her body buried in sanctified grounds. She’s not coming back, ever. And now we’re going to sit together, you and I, to watch Apprentice rip out your minion’s soul and bind it to a stone.”
I met her eyes calmly.
“I’m not a monster, Akua. I’ll destroy it when our truce is done, and let him go to the Underworld. But when you crawl away from this mess, when we’re done, you’ll remember this moment. What happens, when you set fire to my homelands for your little plots.”
We sat. We watched. And when it was done, I leaned into her ear.
“If you do manage, somehow, to get the governorship? I’ll be watching you. Waiting. And this time there will no bargaining to save you.”
I got up and looked down on her.
“Now get the Hells out of my kingdom.”