“Kingdoms don’t die on battlefields. They die in dark, quiet rooms where deals are made between those who should know better.”
– King Edward Alban of Callow, best known for annexing the Kingdom of Liesse
Masego’s mage tower did not even attempt to look like anything else. It was at least a hundred feet tall, for one, which was taller than some keeps I’d come across. But that alone could have been the work of masons. The moat surrounding it was a different story: twenty feet wide and circling the building, it held no water but instead pitch-black darkness. No bottom could be seen, and a few months back I’d dropped a stone to see if it would do anything. As far as I knew, it was still falling. Apprentice had been particularly cagey about telling me exactly where the Hells it led, if anywhere, but that was in part my own fault. I’d flatly forbidden him to proceed with his original notion, which had been to fill a normal moat with giant fire-breathing lizards. Not dragons, he’d been very insistent in telling me. They didn’t have wings, and weren’t nearly as large. But the idea of those things inevitably getting loose and either rampaging across Marchford or making a lair in one of the silver mines had led me to put my foot down.
He’d been very snippy about it.
There was a single stone arch leading across the moat to the dark iron gate in front, wide for two people at a time at most and bare of any railing. There was a reason I picked messengers that weren’t faint of heart when trying to get in contact with him. I tread across carefully. The entire surface of the tower was covered in grey mosaics and leering carvings of obsidian, which he’d assured me were there for purely magical purposes. He’d thrown enough magic babble at me to justify that point that I was pretty sure that he just really liked how it looked. Being raised by a devil and a villain had let my friend to have some fairly specific tastes in architecture, sadly, which could be best described as ‘nightmare trying to seem friendly and failing’. The iron gate was covered in runes, and there was no knocker. In the centre, an iron-cast wolf’s head stood out from the surface and animated when I arrived. There was a devil bound inside, I knew, though Masego had tried to not say as much by referring to it as ‘an entity from a secondary realm of existence’.
“A visitor,” the wolf said. “Only the worthy may gain entrance here. To prove your wit, answer me this riddle-“
“Answer mine first,” I replied flatly. “Who’s going to find out if my punches can dent iron if they don’t open right now?”
The wolf paused.
“That is now how this usually goes,” it complained.
“I get that a lot,” I smiled thinly.
“Your name is on the allowed list,” it said. “You may enter.”
There was a pause, then it added uncouth barbarian in a loud whisper. I flicked its eye out of spite even as a doorway opened on the surface, ignoring its yelp and string of curses. The lowest level of the tower was much like any entrance hall decorated by a Praesi with too much gold to waste, though there was one major difference. Namely, the winged tapir that was fleeing down the stairs with loud shrieks as a dark-skinned woman in robes ran after it. It’d been a while since I’d last seen Fadila Mbafeno. Once one of Akua’s minions, I’d nearly killed her in Liesse before Masego intervened and said she was too talented a practitioner to waste. He’d extracted an oath from her to be safe she wouldn’t turn, in the early days, though she’d since been freed of it. Those kinds of binding magical oaths caused some fairly vicious side-effects if allowed to linger for too long. There was a burst of blue light from the Soninke’s hands and shining chains emerged from her sleeve, wrapping around the shrieking tapir and forcing its wings and feet to stop moving. She grunted in effort when dragging it back to her. I cleared my throat and had to admit I found the look of surprise and panic on her face when she realized I was here delightful.
“Fadila,” I said. “Keeping busy, I see.”
The winged tapir kept shrieking at the top of its lungs until she kicked it, at which point it moaned plaintively.
“Lady Squire,” she said, panting. “Some of the specimens occasionally get… rowdy.”
“First time I met Masego,” I said, “he was catching a fire-breathing pig with wings.”
I squinted at the tapir.
“That doesn’t breathe fire, right?”
“He does not,” Fadila replied, trying for poise. “Which has very interesting implications, considering the amount of sorcery he’s been exposed to.”
“I’m, uh, sure it does,” I lied. “Masego should be expecting me.”
“He’s set up the scrying room on the second level,” the Soninke said.
Oh, good. Then he’d found a way to get in contact with Black like I’d asked him. Apparently it was possible if we took advantage of the relay system the Empress used to receive my teacher’s reports, but he’d told me piggybacking on that without killing some of the mages involved would require some finagling.
“You have fun with this abomination of nature, then,” I said cheerfully, passing her by.
The tapir was licking her feet in what I gauged to be a gesture of appeasement, but she didn’t seem moved by the offering. By the time I was nearing the second level the shrieking had started again. The door to the scrying room was already open, so I wasted no time in going. This wasn’t the kind of place where it was healthy to wander, no matter what Apprentice insisted. The man in question was kneeling in front of a wall covered entirely by polished silver, the work so finely done it worked as a mirror. He muttered something under his breath and the silver shone for a heartbeat before dulling.
“Figured it out?” I asked.
Apprentice rose to his feet, brushing off his shoulder.
“If I shunt off enough of the Due into a dispersal ward, the weight shouldn’t cascade,” he told me.
“An obvious solution,” I said, pretending I knew what any of that meant.
He eyed me sceptically but didn’t bother to call me out.
“I can initiate the connection at any time,” he said.
“Before you do that, we need a little chat,” I said. “I don’t want to keep you in the dark, so I’ll just state it outright: I might have dabbled a bit in treason.”
“Dabbled?” he said, frowning over his glasses.
“You know, dipped a toe in the treason pool,” I said.
“I wish you would have told me beforehand,” he replied. “Now I’ll need to rework Marchford’s ward pattern to be able to face advanced scrying rituals.”
I cocked my head to the side.
“Oh no, treason,” he said in a mockingly high-pitched voice. “No villain has ever done such a thing before. All my extensive interest in Imperial politics is now put in danger.”
“What’s that voice supposed to even represent?” I asked.
“How little I care about any of this,” he replied frankly. “I’m sure you’ll find some compromise with Uncle Amadeus, and the Empress probably knew you were going to do this before the thought ever crossed your mind.”
The bespectacled mage pressed his hand against the mirror-wall, spoke a word in the arcane tongue and idly made for the door.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” he said. “I think one of the tapirs got loose.”
“Stuff like this is why you don’t get to have giant fire-breathing lizards,” I called out.
“You have no standards, Squire,” he complained one last time before closing the door behind him.
The wall had been pulsing this entire time, but with a silvery ring an image came into focus. Pale green eyes met mine as I leaned against a table. Black’s brow rose in surprise.
“Catherine,” he greeted me. “Masego tapped into the relays?”
“The technicalities went over my head, but yes,” I said. “Hello, Black. It’s been a while.”
“It has,” he agreed calmly. “I expect you’ve a reason for this. We’ll have to rebuild the entire network now – this will have sent flares for anyone looking.”
“This morning,” I said, “I founded a chivalric order.”
The pale man did not seem particularly surprised, though it was always hard to tell with him.
“I wondered if they’d get in touch with you,” he said. “I assumed they already would have, if they were ever going to.”
“You knew there were knights in hiding?”
He seemed amused.
“I am not without Eyes, even in the south,” he said. “Though I can’t say this strikes me as a wise decision. Making such a bold move for a few hundred men in cavalry is inviting backlash for limited gain.”
“Two thousand,” I said quietly. “Likely more.”
He wasn’t openly shocked. He had too much control for that. But his face went blank, for a heartbeat, and that was the closest thing he’d ever show.
“I miscalculated,” he said, and I could see his mind working furiously behind the calm. “No centralized organization – ah, relying on local support. Cells with no contact after the initial founding. Whoever came up with the notion is most likely dead by now. What a waste.”
Only Black, I thought, would go within moments from realizing he’d been outsmarted to being saddened at the loss of such talent.
“I thought you’d be angrier,” I said.
“Angry?” he mused. “You’ll have folded them into the Fifteenth, if I’m not mistaken. You’ve obtained half a legions’ worth of the finest heavy cavalry on Calernia for the Empire. Pleased would be closer to the truth, though doing this without Malicia’s sanction will bring trouble.”
“She wouldn’t have given it,” I said.
“Not without exacting concessions in exchange,” he said. “Which you’ll have to make anyway, unless you intend to wage ware on the Empire.”
His eyes narrowed a fraction as he studied me.
“If that is your intent, giving me prior warning was a mistake,” he said.
“I don’t want to fight you,” I confessed. “But I don’t think you’ll like what I’m about to do.”
“You know where I draw the line,” he reminded me.
“I’m not going to oversee the eradication of my own people’s culture, Black,” I said.
“Then don’t,” the dark-haired man frowned. “I take no issue with Callowans having a way of life, only the aspects of it that threaten Imperial control.”
“Imperial control is what got us here in the first place,” I flatly replied.
“An independent Callow is not feasible,” he said carefully. “You know this.”
“I know,” I said. “But if this is going to work, there’s going to be a need for heads on spikes. The rot needs to be cut out or we’ll be here again in five years.”
“You’ve more immediate threats to deal with than the Wasteland,” he said after a moment.
He was not disagreeing with me and it was enough to have me shiver. He’d told me, once, that after the civil war that saw Malicia crowned he’d wanted to get rid of the Wastelands’ nobility. It was the Empress who’d stopped him. I wouldn’t be going that far, but – he was not disagreeing with me.
“I do,” I said. “But after…”
“After,” he agreed softly. “When I return.”
His image on the wall turned and I heard someone speak to him.
“Then block it,” Black said. “Before they can-“
The mirror-wall dulled, my teacher’s profile disappearing without warning and leaving only my face looking back at me. I breathed out slowly. So I wasn’t burning this bridge by doing what I intended to. Relief flooded me as I closed my eyes. I stayed there for a moment, and eventually I thought back to an evening long ago, on a balcony where a storm was gathering. I’d asked Black a question, back then and I could still hear his reply like he’d just spoken it. When they get in your way? Step on them.
Of all the lessons he’d taught me, I thought, I had learned that one best.
“So are you going to tell me why you made sure I wouldn’t be at that meeting?” Kilian asked.
We’d come to share a wineskin by the ruins of had once been Marchford Manor, the blackened remains swept away months ago by Pickler’s sappers. Rain and wind had scattered the ashes, leaving behind only the remains of the garden and the gaggle of statues that had filled it. The two of us were seated on a scorched stone bench, its once-elaborate carvings now hidden by soot. I passed her the wineskin and watched my lover drink from the Vale summer wine. Night had just fallen, the moon slowly climbing to its apex. I hesitated for a moment, then forged on.
“I’ve gone against the Empress,” I said.
The quarter-fae was lovely, in the shade. Her red hair had grown long enough it bordered the limit of what was acceptable by Legions regulation, framing her pale face and hazelnut eyes like a tongue of flame. Kilian set down the wineskin after a moment.
“The noble Juniper put in a cell,” she finally said. “He talked you into something.”
“I’ve been headed there, I think,” I said, “since the moment I learned there was a coup in Laure.”
“There will be consequences to that,” the redhead softly said.
“There would be consequences to doing nothing,” I replied. “I chose the ones I could live with.”
She remained silent for a long time. I could feel her, now, in a way that I previously could not. The bundle of power inside of me sang out when it came closer to the smaller sister-thing inside her. I no longer needed to hear or see her to know when she was in a room.
“You’ve never been very good at compromise,” Kilian said.
“I’ve done almost nothing but for the last two years,” I replied.
“You compromise,” the lovely mage said, “when the other is stronger. And you are no longer powerless.”
“I’m not sure what you’re saying,” I admitted.
She smiled gently at me.
“Why did you not tell me with the others?” she asked.
“I thought I owed it to you for it to be just the two of us,” I said.
She drank another mouthful of wine, then passed me the skin.
“Catherine,” she said. “Don’t lie to me.”
“You didn’t want me in that room,” Kilian said calmly, “because if I left you over this, you didn’t want it to happen in front of the others.”
I very nearly denied that. But instead I took the wineskin and drank.
“The thought might have crossed my mind,” I said.
“I’m not sure whether I should take that as a kindness or an insult,” she murmured, looking up.
It’d been a long time since I’d last felt without so much as a speck of control over a conversation. I hadn’t missed the feeling.
“When we started this,” Kilian said. “I knew I’d always be third in line. Behind Callow, behind the the Fifteenth. On a good day, if duties allowed, I might wiggle up to second. But not often.”
I felt my stomach knot.
“Kilian, I know we haven’t spent a lot of time together lately. I’ve not been able to-“
She leaned into me and pressed a kiss against my shoulder.
“I’m not angry about it, Cat,” she said. “I just told you, I knew that from the start. But you’re leaving me behind. That’s just a fact.”
“I’m not,” I insisted.
“I have fae blood,” she said. “But you took two people into Arcadia, and I wasn’t one of them.”
“Kilian, it was dangerous,” I said. “The kind of things I do in places like that, the kind of risks I take, they’re…”
“Too much for me,” she finished after I hesitated. “Because I’m weak.”
“You’re one of the best mages in the Fifteenth,” I said.
She chuckled wearily.
“And what does that matter, when you have the Apprentice at your side?” she said.
“I don’t share a bed with Masego, for one,” I sharply replied.
“Is that what I’m to be remembered as, then?” Kilian said. “The girl who warmed your bed on your way to power?”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” I said. “I trust you.”
Her eyes met mine.
“Then why wasn’t I in that room?”
I looked away first.
“Just because I was afraid doesn’t mean I don’t trust you,” I said. “I’ve told you things I’ve never told anyone before, Kilian.”
“And I love you for that,” the redhead smiled. “Even though it’s stupid and dangerous and it might just get me killed.”
The rush that came with her saying those words had never dimmed and I gloried in it for a moment. But then the smile went away.
“But now I think of the conversation you had with them, earlier,” she said. “And I know you made a decision. You needed to convince all of them, and there was a risk I could distract from that effort. So you made the call.”
“You know, I think the better part of everyone you love in this world was in that room,” she mused. “And you manipulated them anyway. I don’t believe you had that in you, when we first met.”
You’re wrong, I thought. I’d just never had a reason to use it.
“I’m glad you do now,” she murmured. “We’ll need it to survive the coming months. But I have to think of myself too.”
“I thought you were happy,” I murmured. “With us, with-“
Me, I left unsaid.
“I am,” she said, laying a hand on my cheek. “But you’re leaving me behind, Cat. And the kind of things I would have to do to catch up would end us anyway.”
“I don’t believe that,” I said.
“As long as I don’t control my blood,” she said, “My magic is shackled.”
“Masego could find a way,” I said.
“He already has,” she replied. “It’s an old ritual. It requires sacrifice, and would make me as a full-fledged fae.”
“Kilian, I’d put half of Winter on an altar if it helped you,” I honestly said.
“It would require humans as a stabilizing element,” she added quietly.
My heart skipped a beat.
“You can’t seriously be considering that,” I said.
“It could all be done lawfully,” she said. “It would be costly to buy the death row prisoners, but demand has lessened and I’ve the funds for it.”
“It’s not about the law,” I hissed. “It’s about decency. They’re people, not things.”
The redhead chuckled softly.
“You can take the girl out of Callow,” she said. “But not Callow out of the girl.”
“You’re Duni,” I said.
As good as Callowan, in most Wastelanders’ eyes.
“They make that distinction, not me,” Kilian said, tone hardening as she withdrew her hand. “I am Praesi, Catherine. It’s not any more a crime for me to love my home than you yours.”
“This isn’t about where we’re from,” I replied, aghast. “It’s about human sacrifice.”
“And how many of us will die so you can make what you want out of Callow?” she said tiredly. “I don’t see much of a difference. At least it’s strangers I would be using.”
“There is,” I started, but stopped when she lay a hand on my shoulder.
“I don’t want to have this fight, Cat,” she said. “If I did I would have brought up the notion when I first learned of it. I’ll just say this: if there’s anyone who should be able to understand how hateful it is to have a yoke around your neck, it’s you. To just be… less than you could be.”
“There’s lines you can’t uncross,” I said.
“And how many of those have you left behind?” she replied quietly, rising to her feet.
My stomach dropped.
“That’s it?” I said. “Just like that you’re leaving me?”
Because I won’t condone bleeding people like animals, I bit down on. Kilian’s face was hard to read in the dark, but there was no joy on it.
“No,” she finally said. “But I need to think. About what compromises I’m willing to make to make you happy.”
She passed a hand through her hair.
“I’ll be sleeping in the barracks from now on,” Kilian said. “Take care of yourself, Catherine. It only gets harder from here.”
I watched her walk away in silence, and kept watching long after she was gone. Eventually I looked up at the moon, and wondered if I was even still capable of crying.