“Do not make laws you do not intend to enforce. Allowing one law to be broken with impunity undermines them all.”
– Extract from the personal journals of Dread Emperor Terribilis II
Evening Bell had just rung and the room was now lit with candles.
Most of the Southpool eldermen – the ones involved in my little visit, anyway – had extended invitations for me to stay in their own homes, but I had politely declined. Governess Ife would have those under watch, for the first time in years. After the Conquest eldermen assemblies had been made toothless by the near-absolute powers granted to Imperial governors, an abrupt fall for men and women who had once been a power to rival the guilds and the nobility. Their newfound irrelevance had allowed them to survive the discreet purges that had gone through all cities under direct Praesi occupation, which the governors were only now learning had been a mistake. A mistake driven by culture, as it happened. There was no equivalent to eldermen in the Wasteland, where power inside the larger cities was always in the sole hands of the ruling High Lord. Black had apparently been of the opinion that time would smother the institution on its own without any need for blood: Callowans born without having ever known the assemblies would not be inclined to defer to them, particularly when their old powers were in the hands of others.
He’d only been half-right. In Laure – where the guilds and House Fairfax had always been much stronger – the assemblies were already dead and buried before I was born. In Southpool, though, it was a different story. The Counts of Southpool had long been weakened by their proximity to the seat of a beloved monarchy, and the city was not strong enough in trade for the guilds to have a major presence. Governess Ife, now on her third mandate ruling the city, had found the opposition to several of her toll stations and extraordinary taxes to be strong and exceedingly well-organized. There had been riots, and at first she’d backed down after manoeuvring so the manner of it would not make her lose face. Then she’d quietly begun eliminating the most respected of the eldermen, breaking the assembly’s influence one corpse at a time. Like most forms of Callowan resistance after the Conquest, the enterprise had been doomed from the start. The eldermen of Southpool were now a pale shadow of what they’d once been, unable to mount any opposition worth the name.
But oh, they wanted to.
When I’d had Ratface contact them through intermediaries, they’d accepted my offer without even listening to all the terms. They were lucky I wasn’t out to screw them, because it would have been child’s play. I wasn’t exactly a great admirer of eldermen assemblies – the way eldermen were appointed by the vote of other eldermen made them too much like a knock-off nobility for my tastes – but I needed a check on the authority of governors and they were my most palatable option. It was better than letting the guilds have the reins, anyway. Fairfax kings had spent centuries locking the guilds out of direct political power, and in my opinion they’d been right to. Whenever the guildmasters got a scrap of authority they immediately used it to forced every commerce they could under their thumb, which filled their coffers but also broke smaller traders. Harrion, the owner of the tavern I’d once worked at, had always held the guilds in disdain. He’d been one of the few people in Laure I’d actually liked, so I supposed his opinion might have coloured mine.
The tavern I was currently hiding out in reminded me of the Rat’s Nest quite a bit, actually. The wooden walls were just as rickety, the floor creaked like a dying man and the smell of soured wine and vomit was so ingrained it would remain even if the place was put to the torch. I’d preferred dipping in the lake to using the only bathtub they had here, judging I’d come out of that adventure rust-tinged. I hadn’t drawn attention in doing so: like in Laure, most everyone living by the lake used it to bathe. Without armour and with only a knife for weaponry, I’d been able to keep my presence quiet. Deoraithe, even half-bloods, were rare outside of Daoine but in this part of the city people knew better than to ask questions. The only reason I’d gotten a few looks was currently entering my room, closing the door behind him. Hakram had put on a cloak but there was no hiding his height or his fangs: Adjutant was the tallest orc I’d ever met, with only Juniper coming close.
“I have it,” Hakram said, taking out a thick leather-bound book from under his cloak and dropping it on the table.
I put aside The Death of the Age of Wonders, the treatise I was now reading for the second time. Written by Dread Empress Malicia, I’d thought I could glimpse something of how her mind worked through her words. All I’d gotten, though, was that she was a firm believe in checks and balances when it came to the nations of Calernia. That a woman who’d claimed the Tower could believe foreign alliances should be determined by shared interests instead of alignment to Good and Evil was a fascinating departure from the norm, but it taught me little about Malicia as a woman. Dismissing the thought, I cast my eyes on the book Hakram had brought and flipped it open. Columns of numbers and words, scribbled so poorly even my own handwriting was legible in comparison.
“Won’t that make for pleasant reading,” I sighed.
“I already took a look, it’s why I’m late,” the orc said. “Here, let me.”
He moved the pages with a carefulness that was almost comical, given the size and thickness of his fingers. About halfway through he ceased, and laid a finger on a particular number. Three thousand golden aurelii, spent on…
“Furniture repairs,” I snorted. “Maybe she does have a sense of humour.”
“I’ve found the carpenters that supposedly did the work,” Hakram said. “Elderwoman Keyes knew them. I have sworn statements they did no such thing.”
“And we have the ledger from the Guild of Assassins, accounting for the three thousand aurelii,” I said quietly. “That should be enough.”
Barely a fortnight after claiming my fiefdom in Marchford I’d tasked Ratface to get in touch with all the so-called Dark Guilds of Callow, the criminal mirror to the merchant organization. I really shouldn’t have been surprised he was already on speaking terms with all the major ones. The Assassins had been reluctant at the idea of letting me claim a ledger, even if it was to be used against a Praesi. Black had tacitly sanctioned the existence of all the Dark Guilds after the Conquest, preferring limiting them to quotas rather than attempting an eradication that would drive them into the arms of heroes. The Assassins had quibbled until I’d offered them a calm reminder that Tribune Robber could be pulled from his current assignment at any time. The malevolent little shit was starting to have a reputation and I wasn’t above using it for my purposes. Still had cost me a small fortune to buy the ledger off of them, which mattered a lot more now than it would have a year ago. Marchford was haemorrhaging coin with no solution in sight, but that was a problem I’d return to chewing on tomorrow. Tonight I had a governess to deal with.
“She didn’t have time to cook the books?” I said. “Better than this, I mean.”
“She let Heiress’ people take care of the official ones,” Hakram said, amused. “But she didn’t trust Akua with her personal records.”
Ah, Praesi backstabbing. The gift that kept on giving.
“You worked quickly,” I praised.
“I knew what we needed, I just had to Find it,” he said.
I hummed. Adjutant’s second aspect, one I still wasn’t sure what to think about. There was no denying how useful it had turned out to be – Hakram now frequently stumbled onto exactly what we were looking for, as long as it was feasible for him to do so – but relying too much on aspects was a good way to earn a one-way trip to the graveyard. I’d encouraged him to use it sparingly, but the both of us were drowning in responsibilities these days: there was a reason he’d come into the aspect in the first place. I changed the subject to more current concerns.
“The Gallowborne are in the city?” I asked.
“As of an hour ago,” Adjutant said. “They’ll be noticed soon, if they haven’t been already.”
“I don’t mind if word spreads,” I grunted. “It’ll discourage Ife’s household troops from getting any ideas.”
The eldermen had assured me that the city guard would stay out of it, but Ife’s own men were from the Wasteland. The governess was from a family sworn to the High Lords of Nok, with minor but very old holdings – held since since before the Miezans kind of old. That tended to breed unusually strong loyalties in Praesi.
“One last thing,” Hakram said. “Heiress’ envoys, they’re led by an old friend of ours.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Can’t be Hawulti, she hasn’t set foot in Callow since our pleasant chat in Liesse,” I said.
As the heiress to Nok, the Soninke would have been the natural choice for an envoy here.
“Fasili,” the orc said. “Slow learner, that one.”
The heir to Aksum. Apparently his aunt bluntly stating he was expendable in a scryed conversation with me had driven him even deeper into Heiress’ camp. Unfortunate, that. Aksum sat on half a dozen emerald mines, the largest in Calernia, and it had grown rich off of them. Fucking Praesi, rolling in gold and gems when Marchford wasn’t even breaking even.
“Let’s gift him a reminder, then,” I said. “Come along, Adjutant. Let’s have a talk with Governess Ife.”
The ranks of the Gallowborne had swelled in the six months that had passed since the end of the Liesse Rebellion. They were not a single company any longer: they numbered four hundred at the moment, the members still handpicked by the former Captain Farrier – now a full Tribune. Still, after a conversation with Juniper I’d forced his hand when it came to selection: there were Praesi now, if only a few, and orcs. Keeping anybody but my countrymen out of the ranks of my personal guard would have sent the wrong message, on that much I agreed with the Hellhound. About seven out of ten were still Callowan, though, and some of those recruits were fresh off the battlefields of the rebellion.
Not all of them had fought on the Empire’s side.
The first time I’d gotten a report that a former member of the Countess Marchford’s retinue had tried to enrol in the Fifteenth, I’d poured myself a stiff drink. My initial thought that this would be an isolated occurrence was quickly proven wrong, as hardened soldiers who’d been ready to run out the Empire not a year ago kept on flocking to my banner. Juniper had been of the opinion that they should taken in and then dispersed across the legions that garrisoned Callow, never allowed to gather enough they would be an issue if they rebelled again. Aisha had been more nuanced, suggesting that folding some into the Gallowborne first as a sign of goodwill would gain me approval with the people of Marchford. It was Ratface who’d been the dissenting voice. Take them all in, he’d said. Otherwise you’ve a city full of veterans with no one to fight for. Yet. He’d been right. The others hadn’t liked it but I’d put my foot down. The Fifteenth filled its rank to the brim before the first month had passed, which was when the first problem had come. We had our four thousand men and still recruits kept showing up.
Word had spread outside of Marchford, and the retinues of half the lords and ladies who’d fought in the rebellion had come to my city. I could not scry Black to ask him for advice, as he was in the Free Cities at the moment and scrying spells tended to break up over the mountains, but to all our surprise it was Nauk who found a solution. Or rather, failed to see where the problem was. Why do we give a shit if we’re over four thousand? he’d said. Our charter’s incomplete. Every legion, when founded, was granted a charter by the Empress – truthfully the Black Knight, but he did so in her name. It granted the soldiers right to pay, specified right of recruitment and formalized the right to be equipped by the Imperial forges at Foramen. It also specified the size of the legion. The Fifteenth though, unlike any other legion in living memory, had been raised as a half-legion of two thousand legionaries. That part of the charter had been left unspecified as a consequence, which Nauk took to mean there was no hard limit on our numbers.
A reminder that Black always, always played the long game.
The Fifteenth Legion now consisted of a little over six thousand men and was still growing. Juniper had hastily brought in recruits from Praes to balance the composition of the legion, but now over half was made up of Callowans. My general regularly made pointed comments about their conflicting loyalties,and she was right to. I’d realized too late that those men and women had not stopped fighting for their rebellion: they simply thought they’d joined the banner of a quieter, more successful one. In Praes, these days, I was seen as a symbol of the permanence of the Tower’s rule over the former Kingdom. In Callow, though? Countess, they called me, but I knew that some of them really meant Queen. This was trouble, in the same sense that fire was warm or Heiress was a megalomaniac. Regardless, if there was currently an advantage to having recruits pouring in from all over Callow it was that some of my Gallowborne were familiar with Southpool. They knew their way around the palace.
“We’ll have control of the grounds before you get to the hall,” Tribune Farrier said quietly from my side.
The two of us were peering at the silhouette of the former residence of the Counts of Southpool. My personal guard has moved swiftly and professionally to secure the palace, after a relative of the eldermen had unlocked a servant entrance. The Gallowborne would be outnumbered, but it was unlikely it would actually come to a fight tonight. Their presence was largely meant as a deterrent for when desperation struck. And even if it comes to that, they’ve fought harder things than men. After Marchford and Liesse, there was precious little that would make the Gallowborne flinch.
“Try to avoid incidents,” I said. “I’d like this to go as cleanly as possible.”
Or I’d have to answer to the Ruling Council for the mess. While I did own a winning coalition of the votes there, I was not beyond questioning. Baroness Kendal – Anne, as she insisted I call her now – had not lost her principles with her surrender and Sister Abigail abhorred violence of any sort. The two Praesi members had been uncomfortable at the idea of what was going to unfold here tonight, though both were owned by High Lords opposed to the man who owned the governess. That had been enough to make it a unanimous vote, without the appearance of Malicia’s representative. The Dread Empress had sent a messenger to cast her vote anyway, without saying how she’d known what the motion put to the council would be.
“My officers are steady,” Tribune Farrier said calmly. “There’ll be no fuckups, Countess.”
“I’ve come to expect as much, John,” I said, clapping his shoulder.
He blushed. He always did, when I called him by his given name. A part of me was still girlishly delighted I could have that effect on people.
“Forgive me,” he said, “but I still believe you should take a full line.”
“There’s no one in that hall for me to be afraid of,” I said amusedly. “A tenth is more than enough. Besides, Hakram will be there.”
“With all due respect, ma’am,” he said, “Lord Adjutant is a target too. It’s been a month since they tried to knife him, we’re overdue another attempt.”
If you’d told me two years ago that assassination attempts on my closest friend in the world would become a somewhat tiresome routine, I would have been fairly sceptical. And yet, here I was, wondering how far the next hired killer would make it before someone but a crossbow bolt in them. The last one hadn’t even made it past Apprentice’s wards before getting put down. Robber had managed to get a betting pool running without having been in Marchford for months, I assumed through the magical power of being a vicious little bastard. Hopefully the next one would make it past the second line of defence, I had twenty denarii riding on it.
“A tenth will be enough,” I repeated dryly. “Hakram, how are we looking?”
A green cabinet with a cloak slapped on top it, also known as Adjutant, stirred in the distance.
“Like we could use a bath from a place where fish don’t swim,” he said.
“That’s insubordination, it is,” I complained.
“I’ll get away with it,” he shrugged. “My commanding officer’s a soft touch.”
“I’m surrounded by insolence, John,” I solemnly told the tribune. “What did I ever do to deserve this?”
“I’m told you flipped off an angel,” he replied frankly. “That’d probably do it.”
“That’s…” I started. “Well, kind of true I guess. Still.”
I strode away, my escorting tenth falling behind me seamlessly as Hakram came to my side. The tall orc had put on his legionary armour before we set out, making the cloak even more useless a disguise than before. I’d not bothered with plate myself, keeping to a simple cloth tunic dyed in pale blue. The cloak, though, was the one I was becoming known for. The same one Black had given me years ago, now adorned with strips from the standards of the enemies I’d beaten. It swirled dramatically behind me as I kept a quick pace towards the banquet hall of old fortress of the counts of Southpool. I had a sword at my hip, now, as well as the knife I’d taken my first life with. Overconfidence had killed more powerful villains than me. The Gallowborne had cleared the corridors of everyone when they’d seized the palace, so we moved without contest. The hall I was looking for was easy enough to find, as it had once served as the room where audiences were held: it was dead at the centre of the structure. The doors to it were already open, though I whimsically wished they hadn’t been. This reminded me of another night, in Laure, when I had been on the precipice of the changes that would lead me where I now stood. A lifetime ago, it felt like.
By the sound of it, the guests had yet to notice anything was going on. I made a note to compliment Tribune Farrier on the efficiency of his men. I strolled into the room casually, casting a steady look around. Twenty people in attendance, with Governess Ife at the head of the table. Servants stood to the side in silence, in the Praesi way. Most of the guests were Callowan, though I recognized Fasili as the governess’ right side. A Taghreb sat by him, a young woman I did not know. Hard eyes and a scar on her face hinted at a retainer, and one not unfamiliar with violence. Three of the eldermen I’d struck my deal with were in attendance, clustered near the end of the table. Like servants. They were the first to notice our presence, as Hakram pulled down the hood of his cloak and the Gallowborne fanned out behind me. For another few heartbeats the conversation continued, then awareness spread and the hall turned silent as a grave.
“Get out,” I said. “Now.”
When Black had stood in my place, he’d used his Name to spread fear in the crowd. I didn’t bother, though I’d finally managed to learn the trick to it. The Callowans rose in barely-veiled panic, streaming by the blank-faced silhouetted of the Gallowborne as they fled. Fasili and his retainer only rose after he finished his cup of wine.
“Governess,” the heir to Aksum said, slightly bowing his head. “Always a pleasure.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” Ife replied with a gracious smile. “Until next time, Lord Fasili.”
The Soninke moved unhurriedly, pausing before me.
“Lady Squire,” he said icily.
The Taghreb retainer cast a wary eye on me, hand falling to the sword at her hip.
“Fasili,” I said. “Do be careful on the way back. I’m told Liesse has a banditry problem.”
“A temporary state of affairs,” he said.
“More than you know,” I smiled pleasantly.
I turned back to the governess, eyeing her curiously. A middle-aged Soninke, her frame still hinting at the slenderness of her youth but now grown thicker. Her eyes were not quite golden but very close. A sign of old blood, Aisha had told me.
“Lady Squire,” she greeted me. “You honour me with your presence.”
“Governess Ife,” I said, grabbing a seat and dragging it at the end of the table facing hers.
The sound of wood scraping on stone almost made her wince. I plopped myself down, then fished out the dragonbone pipe Masego had gifted me. Calmly, under her befuddled gaze, I stuffed it with wakeleaf from a small packet I got from a pocket sown into my cloak. I produced a pinewood match and struck it on the table, lighting the pipe. I inhaled a mouthful of grey smoke and spat it out, carelessly tossing the match into an abandoned cup of wine. There was a long moment of silence, broken only by Hakram failing to entirely smother a chuckle.
“Should I arrange for the servants to bring you a meal?” the Soninke finally said. “I have some of the finest cooks of the provinces in my employ.”
I inhaled the smoke, then let out a stream of it. The wakeleaf had become a guilty pleasure of mine, in the last few months. Aisha usually sprinkled a handful of leaves in her tea, as they sharpened wit, but Apprentice had informed me they could be smoked as well. They were, unfortunately, quite expensive. Grown only in Ashur, having been brought from the other side of the Tyrian Sea when the Baalites first founded the cities that would become the Thalassocracy. I used them sparingly as a consequence.
“The night I first became the Squire,” I said, “I stood in a hall much like this one.”
There was another long silence.
“The story is well known, in some circles,” she said, face without expression.
“Mazus wanted to be Chancellor,” I mused. “Ambitious, though back then I did not understand exactly how ambitious he truly was. I do not think you suffer from the same flaw, Governess Ife.”
“I do not understand your meaning, Lady Squire,” she said, eyes wary.
“Greed, you see, I can tolerate,” I said. “There’s probably been rulers that didn’t skim off the top, but I imagine they were in the minority. It’s an old sin, that one. As long as it doesn’t get out of hand, I can live with it.”
“An enlightened attitude,” the governess murmured. “If your visit is meant to be a… reminder of the virtues of moderation, your warning has been received.”
Hakram calmly placed the ledger on the table, pushing aside a plate filled with pheasant. I would give this to Governess Ife, the fear only showed in her eyes – and even then, only for a moment. I spewed out another mouthful of smoke, letting the haze wreathe my face like a grey crown.
“A thousand aurelii a head,” I said. “A point in your favour, that you bought Callowan instead of importing specialists from the Wasteland. Even if what you bought is murder.”
“I’ve no idea what you are referring to, my lady,” she said.
“We have the matching ledger from the Guild of Assassins,” I replied.
Ife closed her eyes.
“My term is at an end, then,” she said calmly. “I will be gone by the end of the fortnight. Will the replacement you have chosen require quarters before that?”
“So you don’t have a mage in Laure,” I said, cocking my head to the side. “Not one that can scry, anyway.”
I inhaled from the pipe, letting the wakeleaf quicken my blood. I’d thought, that same night in Laure, that when the time came I would enjoy this. That it would feel like justice. It feels like killing, I thought as I blew the smoke. And less cleanly than if I’d used a sword.
“As of last night, the Ruling Council has determined that acts committed as an Imperial governor fall under the jurisdiction of Callowan authorities,” I said.
She was a clever woman, the governess. She did not need for me to explain it any further.
“It would be a mercy,” she said, “to allow me poison.”
“It would be,” I agreed quietly. “But this is Callow, Governess. We hang murderers here.”
The Gallowborne moved forward.
“String her up,” I ordered.
She did not struggle as my soldiers took her away. I closed my eyes and leaned back in the seat. Eventually my pipe ran out and I emptied the ashes on a cooling plate.
“It was necessary,” Hakram said.
He was standing behind me, close enough to touch. He didn’t though. He knew me better than that, had seen me in this kind of mood before.
“When’s the last time we did the right thing, instead of the necessary one?” I asked tiredly.
“You think this wrong?” he said. “She commissioned murders, even if she did not wield the blade herself. By our laws, she has earned death.”
“I don’t think it was personal for her,” I said, eyes drifting to the ceiling. “She was just consolidating power. Like I’m doing right now, Hakram. If she deserves to hang, don’t I?”
“She was breaking the law,” the orc gravelled. “You are enforcing it.”
“The only reason I don’t break laws anymore is because I make them, now,” I scoffed.
Adjutant laughed softly.
“And that disturbs you?” he asked. “You have toiled to earn that prize since before we ever met.”
“There’s nothing right about this,” I finally said. “I didn’t win tonight because I’m better than her. I’m just more powerful. I have a bigger stick, so I decide how it goes.”
“Humans,” Hakram mocked gently. “You speak that as if it were a tragedy, instead of the first truth of Creation: the strong rule, the weak obey.”
“I thought,” I said quietly, “that we could be better than that.”
“Justifications only matter to the just,” he gravelled.
I half-smiled. My own words, thrown back at me. And yet…
“I burned men alive, at Three Hills,” I said. “Hundreds of them.”
“Your enemies,” he said. “Soldiers.”
I let out a long breath.
“I have done, Hakram, terrible things,” I said. “Ugly things. I’ll do more, before this is over. If it is ever over.”
Once, when we’d talked under moonlight, the orc had compared trying to change the world to pushing a boulder up a mountain. And then watching it roll down the other slope. It doesn’t work that way, though, I thought. There is no summit to the mountain. You just keep pushing until your body gives, and you’re the first thing the stone crushes on the way down. If that was all it could be, though, if all you could ever do was buy some time…
“I made those decisions for a purpose,” I said. “I did not cover this land with corpses just to change the flavour of tyranny that rules it. If I don’t make it better now, when will I?”
I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.
“We hang murderers, in Callow. Even the ones Black struck deals with.”
I slid back the pipe into my cloak.
“Get a message to Ratface,” I said. “He is to prepare for the dismantling of the Guild of Assassins.”