“Authority is the lie we all agree on for fear of chaos.”
-Dread Empress Maleficent II
There would be three attempts on her life.
Alaya understood this instinctively, even as she rode through the gates of Wolof. The High Lady Tasia Sahelian had offered her surrender before the Siege of Aksum began, anticipating a defeat there even with the Warlock taking the field to support the Chancellor’s claim. She had been correct in this: Wekesa had buried his old teacher under the weight of his scorn and walked out of the burning wasteland the undisputed bearer of that Name. Terms had been agreed on before the walls of Aksum were ever breached, negotiated through intermediaries in person as they gave instructions to their representatives through scrying links. Neither of the women had trusted the other not to make an assassination attempt through a direct scrying link given the skill of the mages they had at their disposal.
Alaya had extracted concessions and not minor ones. Enough coin to pay for the campaign Amadeus had waged in her name and more, surrender of artefacts and ancient magical texts – and most importantly, the giving of an oath of fealty at the Tower. In person. The public act of submission had lent Alaya the legitimacy she had desperately needed, allowed her to bring minor nobility in line without needing to use swords or gold for it. In exchange Tasia had been confirmed as High Lady of Wolof, her lands and privilege left untouched even if she had been one of the most vocal supporters of the would-be Dread Emperor Baleful. Already she’d had some very pointed conversations with Maddie on the subject. He was of the opinion that Tasia’s head should be on a pike above the gates of Ater, and had not been shy of informing the High Lady of that same opinion. To her face. In front of the entire court.
Her friend – perhaps her only friend, for Wekesa would always love Amadeus more than her – had a brilliant mind, she’d known that since the beginning. Since they had met at her father’s inn. There’d been desire in his eyes when he’d first looked at her, but unlike most men he had listened when she spoke. He had argued and engaged and when he disagreed with her he always presented a cogent and coherent point of view. He did not realize, she thought, how rare a thing that was. The boy he’d been and the man he’d become both had minds sharp as a razor, but they had been shaped by the way they’d ascended to power. By strife against the Heir, the treachery of the Chancellor and the same rebellion that had seen her become Dread Empress Malicia, First of her Name.
Amadeus wanted to hang every noble in the Wasteland and the Devouring Sands, strip their bloodlines all of lands and turn the entire Empire into freeholds answerable only to the Tower. There was an almost seductive simplicity to that thought, of doing away with the vicious aristocrats and the knives they meant for her, but like all simple solutions to complex realities it would do more harm than good. For one it would resume the civil war after having stripped them of their only noble allies, and therefore the coin said allies had provided to keep their armies fed and equipped. And then, of course the cities of the High Lords would have to be taken. Wolof, Okoro, Thalassina, Kahtan. Aksum they still held, and Foramen was under the occupation of the Tribes – another knot she would have to untie, and soon. Those four cities were some of the oldest in Praes, and most of them had been accumulating wards and artefacts since Triumphant’s fall. There would be no surrender if Alaya’s armies came to end the aristocracy, even if she was winning. Especially if she was winning.
Only desperate deals with Below and the menagerie of horrors they unleashed.
It was, she believed, possible to siege and take those strongholds with the armies they had. But the cost of it in lives and resources would ruin Praes for a generation, at the very least. Leave the Empire weak to the incursions of the Order of the White Hand always watching from the Blessed Isle, leave it ripe for another goblin rebellion or the same secession of the Clans that had very nearly happened under the Chancellor’s rule. Alaya would not oversee the collapse of Praes as an empire, not to obtain results she could seek through other means. The disconnect, here, was one of perspective. Amadeus as a Named had fought authority every step of the way, while Alaya had worked within it until she could assert control over the establishment. The Black Knight’s responses to problem were either assimilation or destruction, while the Dread Empress – especially one without a Chancellor – had to take more indirect paths.
Amadeus did not want to have authority in Praes, he wanted fresh clay he could shape as he wished. And he thought that to make that happen, the aristocracy had to be buried. It would not work. Two millennia of history, of entrenched cultural mores, could not be washed away with blood. If they killed all the High Lords, lesser lords would seek to take their places. If they killed them too, richer landholders would seek to become nobility. Ambition to rise was the beating heart of Praesi identity, it was who they were. Much as she hated the thought, it was not something Amadeus could understand: he was Duni, had always been an outsider. Would always be. It was hard to embrace a culture that barely considered you to be a person, that castigated you for sins committed by the long-dead Miezans or destroyed crusaders occupants. Alaya sympathized, but Dread Empress Malicia could not afford such sentimentality.
And so here she was, riding into the stronghold of High Lady Tasia with little escort save for her Sentinels – the same faceless soldiers who had once nailed her father to the floor and dragged her to the Tower – and her spymistress. Ime, once servant to the Heir and now one of her most trusted. Old blood, the kind of lineage that would be accepted as a sitting member of the Imperial council without protest. These things mattered, now that she was no longer the leader of a rebellion. Actions had broader and subtler consequences than they had in those simpler days.
“There’s no archer in range,” Ime said, bringing her horse closer as they began trotting down the avenue. “Or mage.”
“She would never be that crass, darling,” Alaya chided her spymistress. “Besides, she knows full well that if one of her retainers takes my life Black will torch the city and salt the ashes.”
“She’ll try something, Malicia,” the spymistress said. “If she doesn’t she loses too much face with the other High Lords.”
“She already has,” the Empress said mildly.
She never would have seen the blow coming, had she not expected it.
“Halt,” she Spoke.
The two Sentinels froze, one halfway to sinking his knife in her back and the other still clearing his sword from the scabbard. Interesting, that Tasia had found a way to overcome the conditioning and indoctrination all members of the personal guard of Tyrants went through. Wekesa had suggested it would be possible in one of their talks, though likely not without breaking the minds of the individuals involved. But Warlock, however talented, did not have access to a spell repository predating the Miezan occupation. No protection was flawless. Ime’s knife was already in her hand – the other one hidden away to silently cast – but such an intervention would not prove necessary.
“Kill yourselves,” the Dread Empress added calmly.
Without hesitation, the two Sentinels rammed their blades into their own throats.
“We could have interrogated them,” Ime said as they watched the assassins twitch in their death throes.
“And found nothing useful,” Alaya said. “Tasia will have ripped anything relevant out of their minds already – and likely framed one of my allies. You know this, Ime. Compose yourself.”
The dark-skinned woman breathed out once, then became the picture of serenity.
“My apologies for the lack of poise,” the spymistress said, inclining her head.
The Empress patted her hand affectionately. They had shared a bed several times, and she would have to see to it Ime did not become overly attached. It would be too glaring of a weakness in a woman of her position. Fondness and friendship were all well and good, but Alaya had no intention of ever having a consort.
“Already forgotten,” the Empress said, guiding her mare to resume movement down the avenue.
She closed her eyes and smiled. One, Tasia. Do not make me wait overlong for the others, it would be most inelegant.
The solar where the High Lady Tasia received her guests was one of the oldest structures in the Empire. Once the throne room of the petty kings the Sahelians had murdered to rule over Wolof, over the centuries it had become a private reception hall for the rulers of the city. It was, of course, larger than her father’s entire inn had been. The light-coloured wood panelling – hickory, Alaya believed it was called – that covered the walls was from a tree that did not grow within the borders of Praes. It was found almost exclusively in the southern stretches of the Kingdom of Callow, a subtle statement of Sahelian power and influence. The encrusted precious stones and gildings that tastefully adorned everything of importance in the hall were to be expected for a family as old and wealthy as this one, but the way arched ceiling had been enchanted was unique even among Praesi. It was a perfect reproduction of the sky above Ater, the illusion spells crafted to beautifully Alaya could almost have believed she was looking at the true sky.
“It is a wonder, truly,” the Empress said, sparing it an admiring glance.
Tasia smiled, in a way perfectly pitched to carry friendliness without dipping into condescension. The craftsmanship there was as skilful as that of the ceiling. The High Lady of Wolof was beautiful, she thought. Soninke cheekbones, perfect eyebrows and full lips. Her eyes were fully golden instead of the lesser tinge of younger bloodlines, and her long hair was immaculately braided. Alaya’s own beauty would leave this one indifferent: a meditation trick the Sahelians had stolen from the Watch would ensure that much. It was recorded in the Tower that the ruling line of Wolof possessed it, though the exact method was unknown.
“The city has many ancient treasures, Your Most Dreadful Majesty,” the woman said. “They are, of course, at your full disposal.”
“A comforting thought,” Alaya said earnestly.
“It is a regret that will long haunt me, that I stood with the Chancellor,” Tasia said. “I did not understand what I was facing, Your Majesty. I do not think any of us did, until the end.”
“Strife is the face of Praes,” the Empress quoted.
One of Sheherazad the Seer’s more famous verses.
“This is true,” the High Lady acknowledged. “Yet women in our positions must choose our battles carefully. I made a decision in haste, though you have been kind in your chastisement of it.”
Oh, how talented you are at this, Alaya thought admiringly. Since the moment she’d received her, Tasia had been presenting herself as regretful for her actions. Yet also experienced, well-connected and apt at navigating the political currents of the court. Even now, that subtle reminder that they were both women while also vaguely equating their respective levels of authority? Beautifully done. Then she reinforced that she had been made contrite, that Alaya had power over her. Gods, the things I could achieve with a woman like you in my service. Not even a bell into this visit and Tasia had made herself the obvious candidate as Chancellor in all of Praes. A shame, that the High Lady very much wanted her dead.
“Some of my advisors find me too merciful,” she said lightly. “I must admit that after my years in the Tower, I find the prospect of such relentless violence distasteful. There are more civilized ways of doing things, don’t you agree?”
“Your wisdom in this shines brightly,” Tasia said.
For a heartbeat, Alaya saw, her meditation trick had almost broken. You are right to be afraid, my dear, the Empress thought. My predecessors had Named, but I have the Calamities. None of you understand the depth of that meaning yet. Sipping at the exquisite tea brew her host had provided, the Empress decided that she had reached the correct point in the conversation to pull the leash. Earlier would have been uncouth, but later than this would be diffident.
“They will not be joining us, I’m afraid,” she said.
Tasia’s face showed surprise, a flawless act threaded with a bit of truth.
“The assassins,” Alaya elaborated, setting down her cup with a nearly inaudible clink.
“You believe an attempt on your life will be made?” the High Lady said, the picture of outraged bewilderment. “I beg of you, my Empress, give me the names of those you suspect. They will be put to the question immediately.”
“Oh, they’re quite dead,” the woman who had once been a waitress and now ruled an empire said. “Some people have assassins, you see, but I have the Assassin. I must say I am surprised they could penetrate your city’s defences, especially since I believe we were both targets in this clumsy escapade.”
The corpses would never be found. Let Tasia wonder about how that was possible, it should occupy her for a few sleepless nights. These three killers had been meant to kill her and severely wound Tasia. Amadeus would be fed the lie that both of them could have been saved but that the healers had, selfishly, decided to prioritize the life of their patron above that of her own. They thought that would be enough to direct his wrath at the mages instead of Wolof – though afterwards, a trail would be laid to direct him at the High Lady of Nok. That they actually thought Maddie would be taken in by that was highly amusing to her. The commonly-held belief that all Duni were idiot labourers good only for farming was continuing to talk aristocrats into stabbing themselves in the foot even after all these years.
“I am distressed you were truly unaware, High Lady Tasia,” she continued earnestly. “So many at court speak well of your mastery over Wolof that I was taken in by their enthusiasm.”
The other Soninke was too old a hand at this game to let the flare of rage she must have felt at that show in any way. Already she must be realizing that the story would be spread across the nobility of the Empire within days. They would guess the attempt had Tasia’s hand behind and that it had not only been thwarted but turned into a source of humiliation – leading to the implication that the High Lady could not even keep control of her own fief. That makes two, darling. Now give me the third.
“Your Majesty,” the dark-skinned woman said, rising from her seat only to kneel at the Empress’ feet. “With your leave, I will not rest until I have learned who seeks to take our lives. Justice must be meted out, harshly.”
And there it is, Alaya thought. The third knife, the subtle one. You expect to rise my Chancellor, to wait patiently until the time is ripe and take my throne and my servants for your own.
“Oh, Tasia,” she said softly. “You really don’t understand who you’re dealing with, do you?”
“You will not be my Chancellor.”
The calm, finally, shattered.
“My Empress?” she said, face blank.
“It won’t be High Lady Jaheera, as you are so deathly afraid of,” Malicia added. “There won’t be a Chancellor at all.”
“Your Majesty,” she said slowly, “claimants have already begun to emerge.”
“They will die,” Malicia said, as if she was discussing the weather. “And keep dying, until the lesson has been learned.”
There was a flicker of fear in those golden eyes, gone almost too quickly for her to see it. Blasphemy had a way of doing that, in the old bloodlines. To censure a Name entirely was without precedent, as far as the Empress knew.
“Do you know why I chose Malicia as my reigning name?” she asked. “Maleficent the Third was bandied around by many, before the coronation. A dear friend of mine even suggested Trustworthy, so that my enemies would not be able to plot without feeling like fools.”
Tasia remained silent, for this single moment entirely lost.
“I chose Malicia,” the Dread Empress of Praes said, “because it is without precedent. Not a legacy.”
She smiled pleasantly.
“I will not raise flying fortresses, you see. I will not craft plagues or turn armies invisible. We’ve tried that, Tasia, and it failed. The Age of Wonders is over. It died quietly, with a whimper, and the rest of Calernia moved on. It is time we did as well.”
She sipped at her tea again.
“Now do sit down, darling. You must tell me where you obtained this brew, it is exquisite.”