“We make the shepherds kings at the end of our stories because they already know how to lead recalcitrant, bleating creatures of limited intellect.”
– Prokopia Lekapene, first and only Hierarch of the Free Cities
Laure had not had an Imperial governor since the unlamented death of Mazus.
The former capital of the Kingdom had been put under martial law while the bastard was still swinging from a noose in the market place, but no replacement had been appointed afterwards – the Empress, as I understood it, had used the possibility of the appointment to effect a little spring cleaning at court. The final body count had been comparable to that of a small battle, with even the Truebloods discreetly clawing at each other through intermediaries as everyone tried to place a relative or dependent at the head of the richest city in Callow. It had come to nothing when the Liesse Rebellion had begun, as there had been no question of ending martial law in Laure while the south was in revolt. The issue of what to do with the city had ultimately become the subject of the very first meeting of the Ruling Council, and it had revealed how the lines would be drawn between its members.
There were, theoretically, seven members. Black was one, the designated head of the council and the only member with the right of veto – which he had given to me along with his vote. Baroness Anne Kendal was another, the first appointment I’dd made. Sister Abigail of the House of Light was the third, a septuagenarian who’d served as a travelling sister for thirty years before settling in an abbey near Ankou in her middle age. She’d been one of the most vocal members of the House to advocate against armed rebellion after the Conquest. She still had, Black had informed me, been put under surveillance by both he and Malicia by sheer virtue of having so many connections across Callow. The House of Light did not have a true hierarchy but some of its members were more influential than others, and Sister Abigail was in the highest tier even among those.
Hakram had also choked the life out of her great-nephew at Three Hills. He’d been the priest who’d prevented us from scrying the Silver Spears, having volunteered to serve with the mercenaries as a liaison for my predecessor in ruling Marchford. The way she seemed to genuinely hold no grudge over the events unsettled me, I had to admit. Priests who’d been under the vows for long enough were always… unearthly but Sister Abigail was in a league of her own. I’d never seen her be anything but the picture of health and Ratface had told me she’d healed a bleeding gut wound in the cathedral without breaking a sweat. There was power behind the doting grandmotherly smile.
The two Praesi with seats were like night and day. Murad Kalbid was sworn to the High Lady of Kahtan, a distant cousin who’d married into a lesser family, and was exactly what Callowans picture when they thought of the Taghreb. Desert-lean and with tanned skin like leather, the middle-aged man had a closely-cropped beard and moustache that made his dark eyes stand out. I’d never seen him without a sword at his hip and he could light candles with nothing but a word. Satang Motherless, as the Soninke was apparently named, was the survivor of a succession dispute in Aksum who’d come into the service of the High Lord of Okoro. She seemed to me a lesser take on Heiress, when it came to appearance, with cheekbones not quite as high and curves not quite as full. Her hair she kept in a series of braid the way Apprentice did, though without the magical trinkets. There was a red mark on her cheek that looked like three lines, and I couldn’t tell if it was a tattoo or some particularly vivid birthmark. Whatever it was there was sorcery in it.
The two foreigners had wasted no time in striking an informal alliance, working together to nudge the Council in directions their patrons would approve of. Early on they’d tried to suggest that properties seized from the nobles who’d fought in the rebellion should be put to auction under Murad’s supervision, supposedly to raise funds for the reconstruction, but I’d stamped the notion down hard with Sister Abigail’s support. Half the treasures would be gone before the first sell was ever made, packed in carts headed for the Wasteland. Aisha was convinced Satang was in communication with Heiress, but I was not so sure. Nothing concrete had been dug up by my people, though admittedly what passed for my spy network was barely out of the cradle. I’d still have to act as if she was, just in case. I knew for a fact Akua kept close eye on the proceedings here in Laure, to prepare for the blows before I could land them on her. So far I’d only tightened the screws by stripping the Liesse governorship of lands and by passing a decree that banned any Callowan official from summoning or dealing with devils, but I wasn’t done. Not until she crawled back to the Wasteland, or preferably straight into the Underworld.
The last and seventh seat was for Malicia’s personal representative, and had gone unfilled. The Empress had sent messengers to cast her vote on occasion, so far only for issues that related to the scope of the Ruling Council’s authority over Callow.
Tonight’s session would be light, in theory, with only my own accounting of the events in Southpool being a topic after we received the monthly report from the magistrates that now ruled Laure. Baroness Kendal had been tasked with overseeing them personally after the appointments were made, but the two Praesi had insisted on a regular report to the council. They weren’t entirely wrong. I doubted a woman like Anne Kendal would try to fill her pockets with bribes but General Orim still garrisoned the city and he’d been openly sceptical about a former rebel being given power over his legionaries. Being able to say there would be oversight by Wastelanders and myself had gone a long way in soothing those ruffled feathers. Compromises, I grimaced. I’d had to make quite a few of those lately, and I didn’t like it. I missed Black, to my dismay, and more than the man I missed his advice.
The room the Ruling Council used for its sessions had once been the private meeting room of the sovereigns of Callow. The Queen of Blades once sat in that same seat I called my own and so had Jehan the Wise. So had the likes of Mazus, later on, but that era was over now. It was tastefully decorated – marble floors with hexagonal tiles and old wood panelling under a beautifully painted ceiling – but I wasted no time on the sights before heading for my seat at the head of the table: the other members were already there. All six of them. So the Empress finally sent her representative, I thought, studying the woman in question. Soninke, dark eyes betraying a common birth and no callouses on her palms. Not a fighter then. Probably a court appointee. Neither of the other Praesi in the room seemed to know her and that clearly made them uncomfortable. As it should. Wastelanders were afraid of Black in the dark of night, I’d found, but they were always afraid of the Empress. She’d given them reason to.
“We’ve a newcomer, I see,” I said, taking off my riding gloves and setting them on the table.
The representative rose from her seat and gracefully bowed.
“An honour to make your acquaintance, Lady Squire,” she said. “I am Lady Naibu, representative for her Most Dreadful Majesty on the council.”
Lady Deputy, in Mtethwa. Ime’s sense of humour still made me wince from across an entire empire. I really shouldn’t have expected any better of a woman who thought calling herself patience would lend her mystique.
“We’re pleased to have you with us,” I half-lied.
Not that convincingly, if the way Sister Abigail discreetly coughed into her sleeve was any indication. Baroness Kendal smiled pleasantly, murmuring courtesies at the newcomer from her neighbouring chair as Naibu sat and I settled into my own seat.
“I didn’t see the magistrates waiting outside when coming in,” I said. “Was their report already given?”
“It was delayed until tomorrow, Lady Squire,” Setang said. “There’s been news of greater import from Dormer.”
I raised an eyebrow. Anne Kendal’s former barony had been one of the first governorships to be filled after the rebellion – she’d suggested one of the town’s eldermen for the first mandate, to smooth the transition when a more long-term appointee was found, and after having him looked into I’d seen no reason to refuse.
“There’s been a Fae incursion,” Sister Abigail said. “A handful of Summer court fairies snuck into the town after finagling an invitation, then forced the people to dance until a priest drove them off.”
I blinked slowly. The Fae? They never left the Waning Woods. Dormer was one of the Callowan holdings closest to the woods, certainly, but it was still a few days of riding away. The only known gate into Arcadia was near Refuge, and- I stopped cold. That was no longer true, was it? Masego had speculated as much months ago and he’d confirmed it since: when the demon of Corruption had lingered in Marchford, it had weakened the borders between Arcadia and Creation. Nothing had come through, so far, but… Shit. I need to talk with Apprentice.
“There were no dead, as I understand it,” Murad said, facing the sister.
“A handful of sprained limbs was the worst of it,” Baroness Kendal replied, drawing his attention.
“Then there should be no need to lower the taxes due,” Setang smiled.
The segue was too smooth for the two of them not to have planned it.
“The priority at the moment should be making sure the Fae don’t come back,” I said sharply. “There’s no legion garrisoning the region, if some of the fairies into the rougher stuff come knocking they’ll be vulnerable.”
“I am told the Fifteenth regularly holds field exercises,” Naibu spoke up, the first time since the conversation had begun. “Perhaps one might be arranged close to the town.”
I eyed her cautiously. I’d been thinking of saying as much, but hearing the words coming from an unknown had me rethinking it. My men would be close to Heiress’ wheelhouse, if they went there, and if she hadn’t cooked up some nasty tricks since we last met I’d eat my godsdamned gloves.
“I’ll speak with General Juniper,” I finally grunted. “It’s placeholder solution, regardless. The Fifteenth is based in Marchford so if this become an unstable border there’ll be a need for a more permanent presence.”
“Reaching out to the Lady of the Lake might yield answers as to why it happened,” Sister Abigail suggested. “She’s said to know Arcadia better than anyone alive.”
I knew the Empire was in diplomatic contact with Refuge, but I honestly had no idea how that contact was maintained. Scrying that close to a gate into Arcadia would basically be sending a written invitation to the Wild Hunt but surely they couldn’t be sending messengers on foot every time? Less than half of them would actually make it to Refuge: those entire woods were even more of a death trap than the Wasteland. I didn’t want to admit to ignorance in front of those people so I smiled knowingly instead, meeting Setang’s eyes until she looked away. When in doubt, pretend it was always part of the plan.
“Measures will be taken,” I said vaguely.
That should keep them guessing. No one else seemed to have anything else to add, so Baroness Kendal suggested we adjourn for the night – my own report on Southpool could wait until tomorrow, when we saw the magistrates. It was a little abrupt considering how little we’d talked but they’d grown to know a little of me in the last six months: whenever proceedings got too tedious or I had other business I tended to end the sessions early. Council members rose one after another, bowing before asking my leave. I gave it absent-mindedly, eyes on Naibu – who was still seated. Well now. That promised to be interesting. Sister Abigail was the last to leave and she closed the door behind her, leaving only silence. I was about to speak up when Malicia’s envoy suddenly twitched. Not just a little, too: her entire body convulsed before stilling suddenly. A heartbeat hadn’t even passed before I was on my feet, sword in hand.
“That won’t be necessary, Catherine,” she said, voice eerily calm.
The Soninke held herself differently now. Straighter in her seat, hands folded primly into her lap. There was command in her bearing.
“Your Most Dreadful Majesty,” I said.
The meat-puppet smiled approvingly.
“Deputy, is it?” I muttered. “Someone had fun with that.”
“This is a flesh simulacrum with a semblance of personality inserted,” Malicia shrugged gracefully. “One of Nefarious’ rare slivers of brilliance. It serves my purposes better than coming to Callow in person.”
I sheathed the sword slowly.
“Are you always in there, or…”
I gestured vaguely.
“Do not ask that question if you want to sleep well tonight,” the Empress smiled. “Suffice it to say, anything my deputy hears will eventually come to my ears. You may consider her opinions to be mine for all practical purposes.”
One of those days, I was going to come across something from the Tower that wasn’t the stuff of nightmares. But not today, evidently.
“I take it there’s things going on I don’t know about,” I said.
There was a safe bet if I’d ever made one.
“You are not incorrect. First, however, I bring news from the south,” Malicia said.
I perked up at that. Black had been in the Free Cities for a few months but word trickled up to Callow slowly. Whatever I heard was always late enough to be largely irrelevant.
“Last I heard he was in Penthes,” I said.
“There are currently twelve claimants to the title of Exarch in the city,” the Empress informed me amusedly. “A little excessive even for him, but they are effectively out of the war until the matter is resolved. At last contact he was headed for Nicae, but with the latest developments I believe he’ll turn to Delos.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“It hasn’t fallen?” I said. “I thought the Tyrant was marching on it.”
It had drawn quite a bit of attention when an unheard-of villain had come out of nowhere and grilled the third of an army on his way to Atalante. Said city-state had been sacked and conquered a few weeks afterwards, its armies dispersed in the field. Apparently half the mercenaries Atalante had bought turned to banditry after the defeat and had then been press-ganged into the Tyrant’s army one band at a time. The Named and his army had moved towards Delos afterwards, which was the last I’d heard.
“The initial assault was repulsed,” Malicia informed me. “The Tyrant is sieging the city with his… usual flair.”
The last part was spoken with distaste.
“The man basically tore through an army on his own,” I said slowly. “And he was slapped down by a place known for its scribes?”
“There are heroes in the city,” the Empress said.
Well, shit. That explained why Black was headed there, too.
“I don’t suppose we know the Names?” I asked.
“The White Knight is one,” she replied. “And a woman I believe you know, though she goes by a different face now: the Wandering Bard.”
I cursed. White Knight sounded ominous like all Hells, but the Bard was a pest I was more familiar with.
“Well, she was bound to turn up eventually,” I said. “That’s going to be a mess.”
“There are at least three others, but on those I’ve yet to acquire anything concrete,” the Empress added.
Five heroes. The usual number, when something was going to go horribly wrong for villains. Was there a specific term for that, I wondered? People used cluster for fish and herd for sheep, there had to be a term for heroes. A murder, I snorted. Or maybe a gaggle, like with cats. So Black was going to be stuck dealing with a full gaggle of heroes. That ought to make his year.
“Procer’s still staying out of it?” I said.
“Dearest Cordelia has been sending her disaffected soldiers to Nicae,” Malicia said. “More than ten thousand already and the number grows by the day. More importantly, she convinced Ashur to lift its restrictions on Nicean commerce – so they can actually afford to feed them. The fulcrum of the war will be the battle that host fights, the current conflicts are merely setting the stage.”
“Keeps her too busy to sniff around Callow, at least,” I muttered. “Small favours.”
The Empress took a hand off her lap and rested her chin on the palm, somehow managing elegance in a body not her own.
“Callow is what brings me here as it happens,” she said. “You’ve been rather busy of late, Catherine.”
That, I reflected, did not seem like the beginning of a pleasant conversation.
“Still learning the ropes,” I said. “There’s so much to do even three of me wouldn’t be on top of things.”
“Delegating to Baroness Kendal was the step in the right direction,” Malicia said. “Continue to find trustworthy individuals and invest them with authority.”
I cocked my head to the side.
“Not a lot of those around,” I admitted.
Most of the people I could rely on were in the Fifteenth, and I couldn’t keep piling civilian duties onto them. Their workload had already expanded massively with the way the legion had swelled.
“Then find leverage on people you do not trust and use them regardless,” the Empress said. “Murad has children in Kahtan and cares for them. A scare there would keep him in line. He has experience commanding a city guard and you need someone to head Laure’s.”
“I’m trying avoid importing leadership from Praes,” I said, trying to keep my tone not accusatory..
“The Empire decapitated Callow’s ruling class two generations in a row,” Malicia noted. “Train replacements, by all means, but you need people filling positions now. Through your actions you’ve begun to centralize authority in Callow without crafting an administration that can wield that power. The result of that can only be anarchy.”
I swallowed. I was, well, out of my depth here. The Empress sighed.
“You are young, younger than ever we were when we seized power,” she said. “I do not expect immediate flawlessness of you. What I can teach you, I will.”
She leaned back into her seat.
“Let us go over your actions in Southpool, as an exercise,” she said. “What do you believe the common perception is of what happened there?”
“A corrupt Praesi governess was removed,” I frowned.
“Forcefully,” Malicia said. “Strung up in front of the fortress gates for all to see.”
“The Empire isn’t exactly shy about making examples, as a rule,” I said.
“In exceptional cases,” the Empress said. “Governess Ife was not one. Removing her was necessary for your purposes, but the manner was incorrect. You should have had her assassinated discreetly and moved in your replacement.”
“If she just disappears then the point doesn’t get made,” I grunted.
That whole matter was still like an itch I couldn’t scratch, and going over it wasn’t exactly my idea of an agreeable evening. I listened anyway: the Empress hadn’t managed to command a pack of wolves like the High Lords for over forty years by looking pretty. If she had advice, it was worth hearing.
“It is made to the people it is meant for,” Malicia disagreed. “More than that, think on what the people of Southpool saw. Wasteland nobility, hung like a common Callowan criminal.”
“She acted like a common Callowan criminal,” I said, temper flaring as I struggled not to raise my voice.
“Every eye on Callow is on you, Catherine,” the Empress said. “You are the person setting their cues. If what you employ is violence, in violence they will follow. Against all available targets.”
I rubbed at the bridge of my nose, then grunted.
“Fair,” I said. “Riots against the legions aren’t what I was going for. Still, I don’t have assassins to use. My closest equivalent is…“
“Currently checking the progress of your opponent,” Malicia completed for me, when I let the sentence trail. “The natural tool for you would be the Guild of Assassins, but you’ve other ideas.”
I grimaced. Of course she knew. No part of that had been a question.
“In the future,” she said, “have your mages use a more advanced version of the scrying spell formula. Apprentice will know several. The one you currently use is exceedingly easy to listen into. Heiress certainly has been, among others.”
That she wasn’t being smug about it actually kind of made it worse.
“Their existence as an entity breaks Tower law,” I said defensively.
“There has never been nor will there ever be a nation without hired killers,” Malicia replied. “You might, at best, disband the organized aspect of it for a few decades. The trade will still be plied as long as someone has a knife and another has coin.”
“So I should just allow a pack of murderers to do as they want because people are assholes?” I retorted. “What’s the point of even having a law against it then?”
“The purpose of law is not to define right and wrong, it is to regulate behaviour,” the Empress said. “You are a ruler now, Catherine. Your only concern should be control.”
She shrugged languidly.
“If you deem it necessary to assert greater control over the Guild of Assassins, do so,” she said. “But attempting to destroy it entirely would set you on a collision course with all of the Dark Guilds. You cannot rule a realm if you are at war with every institution in it.”
“Are you ordering me not to disband them?” I asked through gritted teeth.
Anything short of that wasn’t going to make me back down. The simulacrum the Empress was possessing studied me for a moment.
“No,” she finally said. “If you fail, it will be a learning experience. If you succeed – well, I have been faced with the occasional surprise over the years. I will warn you, however, that you do not currently have the resources to face them.”
I grimaced. Marchford had been one of the richest cities in Callow, before the rebellion. Before a demon had set camp for a few days over the silver mines, filling the streets with disaffected miners and their families. There was a reason enrolling in the Fifteenth was so popular at the moment. With bridge that was the main trade route in and out of the hills only just freshly raised after the Silver Spears had torched it, trade had yet to pick up. And that wasn’t even counting on the gaping hungry maw that was rebuilding the devastated city. I was beginning to regret having told Robber to torch that manor, since I’d been supposed to actually live in it.
“Apprentice told me the mines will be purged of contamination within a few months,” I said. “It’ll be easier after that.”
“Upon you return to Marchford,” Malicia said, “you will be presented with an offer by the Matron of the High Ridge tribe. It could prove a solution to your woes, though you should think long before accepting it.”
I frowned. High Ridge? Pickler’s tribe, that, and the reigning Matron would be her mother. Ominous.
“Make haste back to your holdings, Catherine,” the Empress said. You’ll find greater trouble there than you know – your bastard has been surprisingly competent in suppressing rumours.”
The meat-puppet leaned forward, the Dread Empress of Praes looking through it.
“But above all, do not think for a moment that Heiress being silent means she has forgotten you. You might be a legacy, Catherine Foundling, but then so is she.”
Lady Naibu twitched, then went still. The only sign of life there was the steady rise and fall of her chest.
“It’s going to be one of those years, isn’t it?” I sighed.