“There’s a degree of argument among scholars as to whether the Liesse Rebellion was the underlying cause of the Uncivil Wars or the first of them. I was there, though, and I can tell you this: the seeds that were sown in Liesse are what we reaped in the years that followed.”
– Extract from the personal memoirs of Lady Aisha Bishara
I’d have thought they would do this in Whitestone, with all the sprawling avenues and gardens there to use, but I’d severely underestimated how many people would be there for the ceremony. Half the city must have been packed around Fairfax plaza, filling every nook and cranny Marketside. Merchants were selling chilled wine and ale as well as something that smelled like those spicy sausages from Hedges. I was more interested in the grilled fish on sticks from the lake, though watching some man obviously devoid of taste scarfing down one macerated in the Southpool way instead nearly put me off my appetite. Ratface had told me that in Praes the designated idiots in all the jokes were the people from Nok, but here in Callow it was the Southpooleans. Too much mud in their part of the Silver Lake, it clogged the brains. The old rumour that their people mated with giant carps was a fond a well-polished assertion in the rest of the country.
The Fifth Legion was out in force, today. They’d opened a cordon from the Green Gate to the plaza and kept it open by liberal use of clubs when the crowd got too enthusiastic. Which it had, much to my surprise. I’d been at the heart of the force that had ended the Liesse Rebellion in fire and steel, but by the way people were cheering as I rode through the streets you’d think I’d restored the Kingdom. Some people actually threw flowers: bell lilies, the same blooms Eleanor Fairfax had once worn a crown of. A symbol of victory old as the Kingdom, now used to praise the girl who’d made sure that same Kingdom would not rise in her lifetime. The irony of that was cloying, and I would have told Hakram as much were he not three steps behind me to my left. Apprentice, to my right, had somehow gotten his hands on a chariot pulled by two pale silver winged horses.
I’d seen Warlock use a similar one back in Summerholm, running over the Lone Swordsman as his way of joining the fray. The horses were likely a pretty picture for the celebrants – they’d bring in mind the old tales about unicorns, now gone from Callow and into the Waning Woods – but from where I sat I could see the melded at the base of the wings. Clearly, those horses hadn’t been born with wings. I supposed that I should count myself lucky they didn’t breathe fire, like the flying pig had. Masego clearly had no idea how to actually guide a chariot, much to my amusement, but there seemed to be spells on the reins that did the work for him. Still, now and then his hand jerked out of his control and he tried very hard to pretend he’d meant to do that all along.
Behind us the Fifteenth filtered through the streets, the Gallowborne in front. The name had been officially sanctioned, and the paint on their shields depicting a golden noose was still fresh. The same emblem was on the banner Captain Farrier carried, gold on red with the embroidered motto they’d picked themselves: best of the worst. Robber already had several limerick couplets unflatteringly relating the words to their abilities in bed, which inevitably had spread like wildfire in my legion. Behind my personal guard, Juniper and her general staff were at the head of the column. The orc was looking unusually cheerful today, which more or less meant she wasn’t actively scowling at anyone. I even knew why, since Black had passed one that bit before official word could come in: she was, today, to be made the youngest general since Reforms. Before those didn’t count, in my opinion, since there’d been quite a few High Lords and Ladies barely into their teens granted that authority for political purposes. Marshal Grem One-Eye had only been granted the position officially in his twenties, though he’d ascended to the office of Marshal the same year. Still, she might yet beat that record too. There was always another war around the corner, and the old guard was beginning to be more old than guard.
I caught a handkerchief floating through the air, thrown from a balcony. The pretty blond girl who’d tossed it flushed deeply when I looked in her direction. Nice dress, I noted, and quite revealing. It was satin, so she was likely from lesser nobility or wealthy merchant class. I tucked it into one of the pockets sown inside my cloak. It was still the same pitch-black garment Black had gifted me last year, but it had undergone… modifications. There were three strips of cloth bordering the bottom of it now. Taken from three banners: the Silver Spears’, Marchford’s and Liesse’s. Hakram had procured and sown them himself on the march to Laure, since he was apparently a deft hand with a needle. I liked the effect, and it did not escape my attention he’d left room for many more stripes.
The procession was slow, but eventually we arrived to the plaza. I dismounted from Zombie the Second, who for now remained a living creature, and let a sigh of pleasure out at finally standing on my feet again. Adjutant and Apprentice flanked me as we waited for Juniper to join us, her perfectly polished armour reflecting the glare the noonday sun. The four of us stepped towards the platform ahead of us. There might have been wood under it, but it was out of sight: the entire structure was covered with a red woven carpet, the style of it Callowan if not the colour. The Empress had likely ordered it from Laure weavers to reinforce ties there. Malicia herself was seated on a throne, an ornate thing made almost entirely out of gold. The arms of it were shaped as lions holding bells in their mouth, a rather bold statement. Lions were a symbol associated with the throne of Praes, while bells had been the symbol of the Fairfax dynasty the Empress had overthrown.
Apparently the lions were a recent change, as it had been previously been tigers who’d served as the emblematic animal. They’d gone out of style after the sentient tiger army fiasco, Aisha had told me.
The Dread Empress was still absurdly beautiful, and I privately decided that having gotten a good look at her was half the reason the people of the city were cheering. The crown on her head was ivory inlaid with lapis-lazuli with a perfectly spherical sapphire as the centrepiece. Her dress was white bordered in thick braids of gold, revealing the beginning of her breasts and her bare shoulders. Splendid gold armbands with scenes of the Imperial civil war held from her upper arms and a heavy necklace shaped a dozen Towers linked circled her neck. None of it held a candle to Dread Empress Malicia in the fullness of her glory, sitting in the shade of her red pavilion. The four of us came to stand half a dozen steps down from her throne and stopped. She smiled, and the world felt like it had gone bright. Just a quirk of the lips, and I knew men would have killed their own siblings to get another one. They probably had.
Even Hakram was blushing, and I knew for a fact he found humans unattractive. Masego seemed a little surprised at himself for being affected at all, which made sense to me. I’d never seen him display any interest in anyone from either gender, and wasn’t sure he had that in him at all. The Empress rose, and for the first time I noticed that Black was standing to the right of her throne. He looked shabby, compared to Malicia. His plate was without ornament, his sword undecorated and his cloak looked almost threadbare. Until it caught the light, anyway, and then suddenly it looked like it was made entirely of crow feathers. It wasn’t enough to make him look like anything but a sworn sword guarding his ruler. At my side Masego and the two orcs knelt as Malicia took a step forward.
I remained standing.
“Rise,” the Empress ordered, and they obeyed.
Malicia’s words reverberated across the entire plaza without her ever raising her voice and the silence that ensued was so absolute you could have heard a pin drop.
“Order has been restored to Callow,” she said. “Procer’s attempt to place a puppet on the throne has been thwarted, the misguided rebels of the south shown the errors of their ways.”
Or a grave, for those who hadn’t been nailed to a cross. So that was the angle she was going to take on this whole thing. Poor Callowans had been tricked by the wicked Procerans, made to bite the hand that fed them by bribery and coercion. The Empire would, of course, be merciful. But no so merciful as to spare the nobles who’d masterminded the rebellion.
“Laure remained loyal,” Malicia said, her voice caressing the city’s name in a way that almost gave me a shiver. “As did so many of our subjects. For this, there will be reward.”
The anticipation in the plaza was palpable.
“All taxes in cities that remained loyal with be halved for a year,” she announced. “And in this greatest of Callowan cities, I declare a week-long festival to honour our victory.”
The crowd went wild. Halved taxes, huh. Good call. Trade had slowed when the blades came out and this would get it started again. As for flattering the ego of Laureans, it was hard to go wrong with that. I was honest enough to admit that the people of the city I’d been born in thought of themselves as the only part of Callow that really mattered. Apprentice looked bored out of his skull, but Hakram and Juniper were listening with sharp eyes. The Hellhound had already pressed me privately on the subject of what the Fifteenth would be doing in peace time, and the Empress’ current focus on Callow was revealing. I knew my legion would be on assigned duty to a city, I just didn’t know which one. Black had been even vaguer than usual, implying there were plans being hatched higher up in the ranks.
“Though I reward loyalty, I must also reward service,” Malicia continued when the cheers died out. “Legate Juniper of the Red Moons, step forward.”
The Hellhound did, and knelt when the Empress elegantly gesture for her to do so.
“For your resounding victories at Three Hills, Marchford and Liesse, I name you a general of the Empire. As of this moment, the Fifteenth Legion is granted full status as a Legion of Terror and the ensuing right of recruitment.”
The cheers at that were more sporadic, though I got the impression the crowd would vocally approve of pretty much anything Malicia would say today. Greenskins still weren’t popular in Callow, though in cities that was beginning to change as they spent time in garrison duty. Juniper remained kneeling.
“Lord Apprentice,” the Empress said, after Masego also knelt. “For your distinguished service in the pursuit of peace, I grant you Imperial sanction to raise a mage’s tower anywhere in the territories of the Empire.”
The history behind that was a little more complicated. A mages’ tower was essentially a fortified laboratory warded so heavily it would make a fortress flinch, and after having to put down a dozen rebellions springing from those the Tower had restricted their raising. The only person currently sanctioned to have one was Warlock, who had linked the three dozen laboratories he actually had through a pocket dimension to get around the technical restriction of one. Now Masego could raise one as well, and I knew where he would: Marchford. He’d already told me that after the ceremony he would be leaving the Fifteenth to go study the thinning of the borders between Arcadia and Creation where we’d fought the demon. He’d be missed, but I knew if I really needed him he’d come. We were friends. How odd, that I actually had those now.
“Hakram of the Howling Wolves,” Malicia said. “I welcome you as the embodiment of the ties between the Clans and the Tower, the living proof that our people are united as they never have been before. You have served well and faithfully, proving the worth of your Name. For this I grant you all the attending the dignities of a lord of Praes.”
But not, I noticed, the actual legal title. Black had been trying to push the recognition of clan chieftains as nobles in their own right for decades to no avail. The reasons for that involved the Clans not technically owning the steppes they lived in and the justifications behind the whole tribute system, which had apparently been even more of a clusterfuck before the Empress had reformed it. Still, this was not a meaningless gesture. Hakram could now own land, raise a retinue and would be tried in the noble courts of Praes should he ever commit a crime. That last part was admittedly largely irrelevant as long as he served in the Legions, since he answered only to military tribunals while in service, but should he break the law as a civilian he might be the first greenskin ever taken to trial in the noble courts. He could technically style himself Lord Adjutant in public, now.
“And lastly, Catherine Foundling.”
The Empress dark eyes were on me, her red lips quirking fondly. It was a lie, that fondness. I’d done little to earn personal affection from the ruler of the Empire. And yet, looking at her smile, I almost wanted to believe in the lie. Some people could be dangerous without ever holding a blade. I barely noticed the crowd going quiet again behind me.
“Our Squire was born in this very city,” the Empress said, and there was a rumble of approval. “In Callow’s hour of need, she led soldiers from all parts of the Empire and scattered the forces of disorder.”
Only true if I counted as a Deoraithe, but it painted a pretty picture.
“For her valour, she now stands before me as the Lady of Marchford.”
For a moment I thought I’d gone deaf. The clamour from the crowd filled the sky, as they stomped the ground and screamed themselves hoarse. I met Malicia’s eyes and inclined my head, hiding my surprise. My mind was already spinning. What the people had heard was a no-name orphan becoming a noble, granted the rule over one of the oldest and richest holdings in Callow. A promise that the old nobility was dead, and under the rule of the Tower anyone could rise. What I’d heard, though, was different. The Empress had granted me a Praesi title, ruling over Callowan land. It was a statement. We’re here to stay. No rebellion will ever sweep us out. I closed my eyes and let the crowd’s approval wash over me. I’d have to think on this, on what it meant, before the day was out. But just for a moment, I allowed myself to enjoy it.
The suite in the Royal Palace was the same one I’d been given after becoming the Squire, though this time I was conscious when moving in. There would be festivities tonight and I’d need to change for them, so I took a bath in that same Miezan wonder I’d already sampled once. When I emerged scoured clean and smelling like lavender I dried myself, tying a towel around myself. I felt something more than heard it, and reached for the knife I’d left by the bath.
“That won’t be necessary,” Black’s amused voice informed me.
I sighed. One of these days, the two of us were going to sit down and have a nice talk about the wonders of knocking. I returned to the room to catch the familiar sight of my teacher lounging in a chair by a Proceran bureau. He was idly thumbing through a book of Kilian’s, a treatise on fine elemental manipulation by Dread Emperor Sorcerous. I’d tried to read through it a few weeks back and emerged from the attempt more confused about how magic worked than when I’d started. Whatever the transitional phasing of energy was, it was fiendishly complicated. And also possibly not real? How something could simultaneously not exist and be considered a basis for spellcrafting was beyond me. I ignored my teacher and stepped behind a cloth screen to change into comfortable breeches and shirt. It wasn’t that I was shy about my body, more that it felt… wrong to be naked around Black. Like pissing in a church. It had been bad enough seeing him make out with Ranger in a Name dream.
“So you’ve got bad news for me,” I said as I emerged. “You’re getting sadly predictable in your old age.”
“I’m not even eighty yet,” Black replied with a twitch of the lips.
Not that he looked a day older than twenty-five, unless you paid very close attention.
“You’re correct, though,” he said. “Sit down.”
I leaned against the pillars of my enormously oversized bed instead.
“As the last appointment of the sort done directly by the Tower, Akua Sahelian was granted the governorship of Liesse,” he said.
I blinked, started to speak then closed my mouth. I pushed myself off the wooden pillar and, very calmly, punched it so hard it splintered.
“That is insane,” I said. “Is this because I sent the letter? I put all my recommendations that she get the post in quotes, Black. The only way I could have been clearer was to add a sentence afterwards going ‘by the way, this is sarcasm, the only thing Heiress deserves is a summary execution’.”
“Her bid had other backing,” he said.
“Gods, if Malicia had waited another week the appointment would be put of her hands. The whole point of the ruling council is controlling the governorship system,” I snarled. “I don’t know what she’s up to, Black, but people are going to be butchered.”
“I am aware,” he said quietly.
“This will cause unrest, mark my words,” I said. “It’s open knowledge she’s the one who set the devils on the city. Gods Above, you’re putting in charge of Liesse the same woman who saw over two thousand of its citizens fed to literal hellspawn.”
The butcher’s bill after the siege had been heavier than I’d thought it would be. The evacuation of civilians deeper into the city had not been complete, some people refusing to leave their homes even with an army knocking at the gate. Black did not reply. I stared at him until the fury began to wane. All I’d just said he already knew.
“This isn’t your doing at all,” I said.
“It is not.”
My eyes sharpened.
He grimaced, and that was all the answer I needed.
“Why? She must have reasons,” I said.
“I would assume so,” he replied.
I sat down on the bed, my limbs feeling heavy. What he’d just said… Shit. That had implications. Black and Malicia had been thick as thieves since I’d first met them, and though I’d known there were some fractures there they’d always presented a united front. Disagreements were settled behind closed doors, where no one would hear – not even me. That my teacher was even willing to admit this was entirely the Empress’ game meant he disagreed with the decision so much he was not willing to put up that façade for the conversation.
“Is she cutting you out?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“I will be getting answers on the subject when we return to Ater,” he said. “She doesn’t trust any defensive measures but the Tower’s for this conversation.”
There were only so many people who would have the guts to eavesdrop on a conversation between these two.
“The Truebloods are up to something,” I guessed.
“You kicked a hornet’s nest when you forced them to back your petition,” Black said.
“You were along for the ride the whole time,” I reminded him.
“I was not criticizing you,” my teacher said, lips twitching. “Quite the contrary.”
I might still have to kill you, one day, I thought as my cheeks warmed. The longer I knew the man, the more complicated my relationship with him grew. I’d thought, when I first became the Squire, that I would have to fight him tooth and nail for every scrap of power. Instead he’d had my back every step of the way, battering down doors I couldn’t open on my own. I loved him a little bit for that. For seeing something in me I’d always believed was there, but that no one else had ever acknowledged. I also hated him for it, because I could no longer think of him as the enemy. Warlock had said that one day I would have to make a choice, and I believed him. And when that day came, when the knife was in my hand, I knew that if I killed him I’d miss him. As a teacher, as a mentor, as perhaps the closest thing to a father figure I’d ever had.
He was the Black Knight, and I was the Squire.
“I’m your successor,” I finally said.
“You are,” he agreed.
“I’ve wondered why you have one of those at all,” I said. “The Empress has a theory but I don’t think it fits anymore. If it ever did.”
Black rested his chin on the top of his hand, draped over his chair.
“I have been doing this for a very long time,” he said.
“Villains live until they die,” I said.
“Yes,” he said softly. “Until they die. Over the length of my career, I have myself killed twenty-three heroes and heroines. I’ve orchestrated or otherwise ordered the death of easily thrice that.”
He shrugged indifferently.
“I’ll meet someone better, eventually. Or they’ll get lucky: it only needs to happen once. It might be today, it might be next month, it might be decades from now – but they’ll get me.”
“So I’m your contingency?” I said.
“You’ve heard it, haven’t you?” he asked instead of replying. “The song.”
My heartbeat stilled.
“The first step is hardest, they said to her
You will have to walk through fire-“
“It will burn away what you once were,
And always devour whole a liar,” I finished.
He smiled, and it was sharp as a knife.
“They will learn to fear you, Catherine. I hope I live long enough to see it.”
A shiver went through me as he rose to his feet. He knew the song. Gods Below, he knew the song. Two years that question of where I knew it from had plagued me.
“You’ve heard it before?” I asked.
“Once, when I was young,” he said. “It was not for me.”
“Where is it from?”
“It’s not from anywhere,” he said.
“What’s it called, then?”
“The Girl Who Climbed The Tower,” he told me, and left.
Masego’s rooms weren’t far from mine. I’d expected to find him alone there, but was pleased to discover he was talking with Kilian. They both rose when I came into the room.
“Cat,” Apprentice greeted me.
“My Lady of Marchford,” the redhead teased, curtsying.
I strode forward and swept her into my arms, dipping her into a long and deeply satisfying kiss. Gods, I’d missed spending time with Kilian. Eventually Masego cleared his throat and I released her. She was flushed and her eyes a little wide.
“Already taking advantage of the servants,” my lover sighed. “Typical noble.”
“Don’t bother returning to the legion quarters tonight,” I said. “I don’t think you’ll be using those much.”
“Your bed is much nicer than mine,” she conceded.
I threaded my fingers through hers.
“Somewhere in this godforsaken palace there must be a dress that fits me,” I said. “It might even be in a colour other than black, one hopes. We’ll go dancing tonight, at the festival.”
“Dancing was not one of the Fae talents I inherited,” Kilian said.
“Wear thick shoes,” I recommended. “It’s not one of mine either.”
She smiled, cheeks dimpling as she brushed back a strand of hair behind my ear.
“I’ll leave you two to it, then,” she said. “Always a pleasure, Lord Apprentice.”
Masego grimaced. “Gods, don’t call me that. It makes me sound like I should know what’s going on at court.”
She waved us goodbye with a last smile and the door closed behind her. Masego’s room were smaller than mine, I noticed amusedly, and already filled with a dozen pile of books. I could see what looked like a dead pig cut open in his bathtub, which was just so typically Apprentice I couldn’t help but snort.
“We’ll have to discuss where I’ll build my tower,” Masego said. “Sit?”
I sat on what appeared to be the sordid Proceran invention known as a pouf. It was particularly frilly, and couldn’t decide whether it was a stool or a sofa. Praesi had it right with the cushions, I thought.
“We’ll settle that when we get there, I think,” I said. “Obviously I’d prefer if it wasn’t in the middle of the city.”
“The hills would be best,” he said. “Where the demon was first contained.”
And that was why I was here, wasn’t it? Apprentice had claimed an actual chair and looked rather curious as to why I was here at all.
“Masego,” I said. “Could you hand me the trinket I gave you? The one made of bone.”
He frowned, then cocked his head to the side.
“Why? You’ve had no definitive proof I’m not corrupted.”
I blinked. “Wait, you knew?”
He looked rather offended.
“You thought I didn’t?” he said. “Catherine, it smells like goblin munitions. It has a piece of your Name in it.”
“And you wore it anyway?” I said disbelievingly.
“Well, yes,” he said slowly. “After being exposed to a demon it was necessary for me to have a kill switch in case Father’s diagnostic spell has failed.”
I was, honestly, at a loss for words.
“That’s, uh, very enlightened of you,” I said.
“It was a reasonable precaution,” he said. “Arrangements like it aren’t uncommon among villains. I know Uncle Amadeus has a way to kill Father should he ever be corrupted, and he himself has an arrangement with Assassin to be executed should he ever become a threat to the Empire.”
“Your method was crude and relatively obvious, but it would have been effective.”
“I kind of feel bad, now,” I mused. “I mean, I already did. But now I feel bad in a different, novel way.”
“You should,” Apprentice muttered. “Honestly, thinking I wouldn’t notice. You might as well have written ‘magical bomb’ on the surface.”
“I’m… sorry?” I ventured.
“I’ll expect a more elegant method of disposal before we get to Marchford,” he said. “As well as a written essay on the subject of why trying to deceive a man with my superb intellect is a fool’s errand.”
“I’m a villain now, I shouldn’t have to do homework,” I whined.
Both of us were smothering grins. Apparently I could do something right, once in a while. Not for lack of trying in the other direction.
This particular annex to the Royal Palace, called the Songbird’s Cage, had been built by Eleanor Fairfax’s grandson to house his mistress away from the prying eyes of his queen. He’d had the doors and windows barred and locked when said queen had started visiting the mistress more often than he did, spawning half a dozen songs running on the theme of caged doves, all of them involving puns about ‘locks and keys’ that thought themselves very clever. In later years, it had become where Callowan royalty held prisoners that weren’t officially prisoners. Several rebellious Dukes of Liesse had cooled their heels there until talk of secession died down, as had Fairfax uncles with a little too much ambition. It was fitting that the Baroness Dormer would be held there. A line of Gallowborne led by Captain Farrier trailed behind me as we tread the corridors, waving away the legionaries from the Fifth that guarded the unlocked door. My guards took position around the entrance – I’d expected a bit of friction there, but the two orcs from the Fifth began asking questions about Marchford instead.
Few of my legionaries had to pay for their own drinks, these days.
I knocked politely and waited until I was bid to enter from inside. I could have just strolled in, but it cost me nothing to be polite. If I ever ended up in her position, I hoped I would be extended the courtesy. Somehow, it was doubtful I would. Villains didn’t get taken prisoner, as I understood it. We turned our cloak or died, there was no middle ground. I had a nice cloak now, though. Turning might damage it. I supposed I’d have to stick with the whole villain thing for now. Anne Kendal, the Baroness Dormer, was still stunningly beautiful even in the subdued garments of a prisoner. She’d been allowed to keep her personal wardrobe, by my order, save for armour and weapons. Sitting in the solar of her suite, by the window, she’d been reading a book in candlelight. It wasn’t dark out yet but the windows were facing the wrong way to let the sun in properly.
“Lady Squire,” she said. “I did not expect a visit for some days.”
“There’s been some new developments,” I said. “May I sit?”
“By all means.”
I took the comfortable armchair facing hers, then lightly slapped two scrolls on the table. One held the seal of the Legions of Terror, the other the Tower’s.
“My trial is over,” Baroness Kendal immediately grasped. “I wasn’t even asked to stand in front of the judges.”
Her smile turned bitter.
“So much for a fair trial.”
“There would have been no point in you being there,” I said flatly. “I stacked the tribunal.”
Surprise and confusion flickered across the Baroness’ face. She’d been taken prisoner by the Fifteenth when the city of Liesse was under martial law – it was in my power to decide she should be tried under a military tribunal. I’d quietly sit down with the officers involved and told them what the verdict was going to be. There had been no debate.
“Open it,” I said, pushing forward the scroll with the seal of the Legions.
She broke it open and her brow rose as she scanned the lines.
“I am not to be executed,” she said.
“You’ve been stripped of your holdings,” I said. “That much was a given. You may still call yourself a baroness, but not the Baroness Dormer. Doing so would qualify as unlawful claim to Imperial property, under Praesi law. I think the punishment for that is lashes? I skimmed the reading, to be honest.”
“This,” she said, “does not seem like the work of Praesi law.”
“Things are changing,” I said. “There’s a reason I fought this war. Open the other one.”
Steeling herself, the noblewoman broke the Tower’s seal. Her eyes widened.
“What is this?” she asked.
“Before the week is over, the Empress will announce the creation of a ruling council over Callow,” I said. “This is your appointment to a seat on it.”
Seven members, there would be. Black had one, as the official head of the council – and also held the sole right of veto over any motion passed. One seat for the Empress’ representative, two in the hands of the high nobles who’d backed me willingly. One for me, and two appointments left for me to choose. It would work through majority vote, and I’d own that. Black had already told me privately he’d only attend the first few sessions before officially passing his vote and right of veto into my hands. With two seats in Callowan hands, my own vote and my teacher’s, I’d be effectively capable of passing any motion I wished. I’d agreed to Black being head of the council without any quibbling: I was not, at the moment, capable of ruling Callow. Especially not if I now had the rebuilding of Marchford to worry about as well. The council was a temporary measure meant to ease me into the trade ruling until I made a decision about the reorganization of Callowan territories.
“I’m a rebel,” Baroness Kendal said.
“You were a rebel,” I said. “Now you have a seat and vote in the institution that will pick the Imperial governors for all the holdings that were confiscated in the rebellion – including your own. Congratulations, Baroness.”
“Who else will be in this… institution?” she asked faintly.
“Three Praesi yet to be determined, Black, myself and someone I’ve yet too choose. I’m considering picking someone from the House of Light, but I’ll need a priest that’s not a zealot. I was hoping for your help in finding one, actually.”
“So Praes still holds the leash,” she said. “Majority vote, is it?”
“I hold the leash,” I corrected. “There’s governors needed for Vale, Dormer and Holden. We’ll be choosing them. I don’t know about you, but I figure it’s time at least some Callowan land is governed by Callowans.”
“Not Liesse,” she said, clever eyes searching mine.
“Liesse is my problem to handle,” I said. “We’ll have authority to set laws and taxes for all of Callow – except maybe Daoine. The Duchess is already sending envoys to argue that since her duchy is a tributary state it doesn’t fall under the council’s authority.”
“Kegan was born grumpy and only got worse with the passing of years,” the silver-haired woman murmured. “Am I to understand that this council will have authority over all Imperial governors?”
I smiled coldly.
“That is correct,” I said. “It is within the scope of our mandate to remove governors and governesses should they prove unworthy of the authority they wield.”
Oh, there were quite a few laws specific to governors I was going to pass. First among them a rule forbidding any Callowan official from summoning or dealing with devils. Then another one limiting the amount of city guards allowed, as well as the founding of a group investigating corruption in the collection of taxes. Heiress might have her appointment for now, but she sure as Hells wasn’t going to keep it.
“The Empress has forged anew the crown of Callow,” the Baroness said. “No, she’s gone even further. The Fairfaxes could not dismiss nobles who displeased them at will. The powers you described are unheard of outside of the Free Cities.”
“Things are changing,” I repeated quietly. “You could refuse the appointment, of course. Head into exile.”
Black had told me that if she made that choice Assassin would dispose of her before she ever crossed the border.
“No,” she said. “I rebelled because I saw a better path for Callow. What kind of a hypocrite would I be, if I left now?”
A dead one, I did not say. I rose to my feet, inclining my head respectfully before heading for the door.
I paused, then turned to match her stare.
“Why me?” she asked.
“Because there was more to the Liesse Rebellion than the Lone Swordsman and Proceran gold,” I said. “Because you weren’t wrong, really. Just not strong enough to win.”
Because I know I can bend you to my will if I need to, my mind whispered. I left the room and the noblewoman with it. The Gallowborne immediately broke out of conversation, falling behind me. Captain Farrier stood at my side as we strode away. We left the Songbird’s Cage, and I strolled through a pleasant garden. Sunset was beginning. The birds in the trees already sang their songs, the silver fountain in front of me gurgling quietly. I stopped a moment to enjoy the quiet.
“Where to now, Countess?” Farrier asked.
I looked at him, at the calm blue eyes and the angular face. Not for the first time, I reflected he had the most Callowan face I’d ever seen. Malicia had made a statement, in front of the crowd. Named me Lady of Marchford. And now, in this quiet garden, John Farrier was making another one. Countess, he’d called me. Not Lady. One of us or one of them. I looked up to the reddening sky, my fingers clenching and then slowly unclenching.
I did not correct him.