“Morality is a force, not a law. Deviating from it has costs and benefits both – a ruler should weigh those when making a decision, and ignore the delusion of any position being inherently superior.”
– Dread Emperor Benevolent
Two years at most: that was how long Amadeus had to live.
Maybe only a year, if he blundered badly enough. He’d walked away from his meeting with the Tyrant of Helike knowing this, and was still exploring the implications. When no pattern of three had formed with the White Knight after their confrontation in Delos, Black had found several implications. The first was that the scope of that hero’s story was narrower than he’d thought: it extended only to the civil war in the Free Cities, and as an outsider to that narrative Amadeus did not have the weight required to qualify as a rival. That possibility had been a factor in why he’d cautiously called a retreat even though the Calamities had, arguably, been winning. If they were mere side-characters in that conflict, the most likely pattern for them was to be victorious early then brutally crushed after the heroes improved their power. A whetting stone for the blades of the Gods Above, essentially. By removing himself early he would not have allowed the pattern to truly form. And yet, the premise was flawed.
The White Knight, Scribe had informed him, was not of the Free Cities. He was Ashuran, somewhat surprising given his dark skin. A little digging had allowed his spymistress to find out the man’s mother had been a Soninke exile, eventually executed because of one of the labyrinthine laws that governed the citizenship tiers of the Thalassocracy. The White Knight’s reason to be involved, then was not ‘right of birth’. The two sisters that were part of his heroic band were themselves from the Free Cities, but neither the House of Light the Ashen Priestess had served in nor the hidden covenant of wizards her sister had studied under had been harmed by either Praesi forces or those of the Tyrant. ‘Personal connection’ wasn’t the reason either, then. Amadeus had made sure that both those places of origin would remain untouched for the duration of the war: heroes with butchered families, adopted or otherwise, became infinitely more dangerous.
The only motive that fit was ‘ethical opposition’, but if that was the case Amadeus should have ended up the rival to the other Knight. He represented a larger and more active power than the Tyrant of Helike, arguably with a deeper historical connection with Evil. Unless, of course, some deeper unknown connection existed between the White Knight and the Tyrant. That theory had been buried during his conference with the vicious child from Helike: the other villain was not bound by a pattern of any sort.
Amadeus did not consider his own intellect to be superior, in the larger scheme of things. He’d been at the side of Wekesa for decades and early understood that Warlock was perhaps the most brilliant mind to grace Praes in ten generations, however narrow his interests. Only Alaya stood in the same league, a mastermind who’d been able to fill the function of two Named for over forty years with sheer cunning and ruthlessness while facing men and women who were bloody ambitions made flesh. He was not the strongest, either. In matters of brute force, Sabah could snap him in half in the span of a single breath when it came to martial might Hye stood unequalled under the sky. Black wasn’t even the best at killing: Assassin’s body count dwarfed his, for both Named and mortals, and had been collected without ever taking a single wound. As for Scribe, the way she’d effectively become the bureaucracy and spy network of an entire kingdom without ever having a permanent office was far beyond his capacity. Amadeus’ only noteworthy talent, in his opinion, was clarity of sight. The ability to look at a situation if not without biases then with fewer of them than anyone else doing the same.
That same clarity was how he’d understood why he was not currently in a pattern of three. The White Knight was, in fact, supposed to face a Black Knight as a rival. That individual was simply not him.
Midnight bell was nearing, the villain thought as he glanced up as the starry sky. Wekesa was already asleep inside the gaudy tent he’d taken out of his pocket dimension along with most of their supplies. There would be no waking him until dawn. Sabah was napping at his side, buried in blankets up to her neck like some sort of gargantuan cocoon. Sitting on a log, Amadeus stirred the fire ahead of him with the long stick he’d carved out earlier and shaped a plan. Planning with two years in mind, he now had to destroy or neuter every major threat to the Empire before Catherine became the Black Knight. He would make a second series of schemes in the days to come with the notion of him surviving only a year in mind, but first he needed to establish what the optimal results could be. He’d once thought he had a decade left in him still and planned to have his apprentice ready to replace him in half that but the timetable would have to be adjusted. There were four fronts he would have to settle: Callow, Praes, the Free Cities and Procer. In the back of his mind gears of iron turned as his eyes remained on the dancing flames.
Callow and Praes, as it currently stood, were intertwined issues. The former kingdom was, last he’d heard, under attack by several forces. The Courts of Arcadia, the rebel forces of the Diabolist and a potential Deoraithe uprising. Alaya already had plans in the works for the Diabolist, but that was no longer enough. She had to be dead within the next six months, with minimal casualties. This much he could rely on Catherine to accomplish, and solidify her grip on Callow in the process. The Courts had been an unexpected set of pieces in this game. Amadeus had three standing operational plans for the Legions to turn back a fae incursion depending on where they crossed, but none were designed to handle a full-fledged invasion. Winter had been temporarily handled by his apprentice, but that was mitigating the symptoms instead of the root cause. It was necessary to find out what had driven both Courts to leave Arcadia and permanently destroy that incitement. For now, Amadeus lacked the information needed to make a decision. Scribe would need a few months still to find out what he wanted, so he’d have to trust Catherine to hold them at bay until then.
She should be able to, and that calibre of opponent would quicken her growth. Dealing with creatures whose power was massively larger than her own would prepare her for the fights with heroes she would be facing as the Black Knight. The nature of fae being so closely associated with patterns would also sharpen her eye in this regard, enough she would not be caught on the wrong side of a narrative easily. The dark-haired man had originally meant to train that aspect of her against the High Lords through the controlled battleground of rule over Callow, but in this case the substitute was superior to the original. The Deoraithe were a thornier issue, especially since he still did not know what had driven them to act. Alaya and he had originally allowed the Duchy of Daoine to remain untouched after the Conquest because it served as an ideal border state against the Golden Bloom, both because of the Deoraithe’s rabid hatred for the elves and their limited avenues for growth. While powerful, by themselves they would never be powerful enough to be a true threat to the Empire – and their culture essentially ensured they would never seek foreign allies.
Now, though, it had been proved they could be made to move. Unless the motive for their deployment was unique and incapable of being reproduced, the odds of which were low, then it was possible for Daoine to be leveraged into action again. That made them a liability, the kind that could not be allowed to exist with a crusade on the horizon. By the end of the current unrest, Daoine would have to be either bound to Catherine definitively in her capacity as ruler of Callow or broken beyond capacity to act. If it was the second case, the best time to act would be after they’d fought battles in the south: wiping out the Watch in their own territory would be extremely costly. Destroying the army and culling the population of breeding age by four tenths should be enough. Amadeus disliked leaving a wounded enemy still breathing, but logistics dictated exterminating the entire Duchy would require too many resources and take too long. He’d send word to Grem and Ranker to assess the situation and act accordingly, if he was unable to return in time to pass judgement.
That left the more complicated issue of the relationship between Callow and Praes, or more accurately the Dread Empress and the Squire. Catherine was about to seize direct power over her homeland, which was one of the outcomes he’d considered most probable. The moment the Ruling Council had been formed, there were only two ways it could go forward: either Squire would terrify the Praesi establishment into submission or she would wipe it out entirely and become de facto queen. Neither result displeased him, as the Ruling Council had always been meant to be a crutch that would allow his apprentice to learn to rule. Given how long Amadeus had left to live, such a slow-paced process was no longer feasible: Catherine discarding the crutch by herself accelerated the process by a few months. Alaya would be furious at the loss of control, he knew, but she would be aware that Catherine ruling Callow with the backing of the population was an unmitigated victory for the Empire. Squire breaking away entirely from Praes was, after all, impossible.
That was the truth under the surface current, and why he’d never once felt threatened by his apprentice gathering an independent power base. Catherine was, after all, a villain. The Principate would not consider Callow ruled by villainous queen any more acceptable than it being an imperial possession. Strife between Praes and her kingdom reborn would only weaken her in the face of Proceran advances: as long as Catherine Foundling held power in Callow, she needed the Empire to survive. Amadeus had taken more stringent measures as well, of course. Though Callowan soldiers had been part of the Fifteenth since its foundation, he’d made sure to give her mostly criminals in the initial batch. That meant that all her closest collaborators were Praesi: her general and all the senior staff were from the Wasteland. Though being in close proximity to a charismatic Named for several years ensured their strongest loyalty would be to her, their ties to the Empire made them into counter-weights against thoughts of breaking away entirely.
Much like him, personal loyalty mattered a great deal to his apprentice. As long as declaring independence antagonized all the people closest to her, Catherine would seek a middle ground instead. Since a boundary had been set in that direction, the other boundary had to be established on the Praesi side. Alaya should already be working on a way to bind Squire to her, and would be well aware that coercion would result in permanent enmity. He did not have to bother himself with this part of the equation. Instead, what he would have to turn his eyes to was the stability of the Wasteland. Alaya’s magnificent decades-long plan had finally come to fruition and destroyed the Truebloods in full. Three legions would scour Wolof clean as soon as a winner emerged from the succession struggle there, removing a nest of unrest in Praes for at least twenty years. It would not be enough. Every former Trueblood not currently aligned with these so-called ‘Moderates’ would have to be killed and their entire family line ripped out root and stem. Amadeus was not above borrowing the strength of Callow to accomplish this, if other legions balked at the slaughter. The Clans were loyal, and need not be touched, but he would need to have a frank conversation with the foremost Matrons and explain to them that if they made a single questionable move Wekesa would bring down the Grey Eyries on their heads. Ranker would back him in this, he knew. She’d long run out of patience with the more isolationist of the Matrons.
All of this would secure their back within a year, if handled properly, which left exterior threats. The Principate was the foremost among those. Cordelia Hasenbach had roped in both Levant and Ashur, which have her utmost naval supremacy and a quiet southern border. When Procer came knocking, it would be with everything but the northern garrisons. At least a fifty thousand professional soldiers, easily twice than in levies, and that was without counting any armies sent to reinforce by the Dominion. If most of the Legions were at the Red Flower Vales, it was possible to resist that strength as long as there was no unrest inside Imperial territories. That was not enough, he decided. If Procer retreated with enough of its force intact, the problem was only delayed by half a decade at most. The Principate had to be decisively beaten, its alliances sundered and the First Prince killed. She was, frankly speaking, too dangerous to leave alive. That meant campaigning inside Proceran borders in an offensive war, which would most likely lead to defeat given the current balance of forces.
It was time to start using harsh measures, then. Using the Calamities to destroy the capital of the Principate, for a start, should incapacitate its ruling infrastructure. Using a surprise strike to torch and poison the central principalities, the main farmlands of Procer, would lead to widespread starvation come winter. As for the Thalassocracy, if they could not be reasoned with Assassin would need to eliminate their entire two highest citizenship tiers. That would create chaos that could buy the Empire two years at least, and if Procer could be dealt with during that time the chances of Ashur resuming the war alone were low. The Dominion of Levant was too far and too decentralized to cripple in one stroke, but their ties to the alliance were also the weakest. They would not remain committed if victory did not look feasible. There were even harsher moves that could be made, of course – the Tower was still in contact with the ancient abomination that ruled the Kingdom of the Dead. But putting that devil back in that bottle after it was uncorked would be impossible, and in the long term more dangerous to imperial interests than the current Procer.
Amadeus had spent over fifty years carefully making sure not to burn too many bridges, to avoid the very kind of crusade the First Prince was assembling, but the hour of reckoning had come. The Principate needed to be so badly damaged it would not recover for a generation, if possible while leaving most of Levant’s strength intact – the Dominion would not be able to resist the bait of a weakened south if its armies were still strong. Most importantly, Cordelia Hasenbach had to die. Even if another war of succession did not erupt, whoever replaced her would be part of one of the regional power blocs Alaya had made emerge. They would have powerful internal enemies to deal with, and given the nature of the Highest Assembly that meant a Principate divided in fact if not in name. All of this, though, would come next year. There was a more immediate problem at hand, the Free Cities.
The balance of power could not be allowed to swing in the favour of Good down here. At the very least, neutrality had to be forced with the Tyrant remaining in a strong position. The threat of Helike armed to the teeth at her back would force Hasenbach to keep troops in the south to dissuade an attack. Neutrality would be better than an outright victory for the Tyrant, Amadeus thought. If the Tyrant won, Procer had an excuse to wage war in the region and secure it before turning to Praes. If the balance was restored, they had a knife at their back and no diplomatically acceptable excuse to remove it. If Procer started intervening in the affairs of foreign nations, its allies would protest. Hasenbach could not afford to lose them if she wanted a crusade in more than name. And the moment the Tyrant is no longer a threat, the entire Free Cities will start viewing the troops she sent as an invasion force. The desired outcome, then, was a truce in the Free Cities with a guarantee they would not participate in the larger conflict. How could Amadeus accomplish this?
Currently, Atalante was under occupation and Delos out of the war – the removal of the more combative elements of the Secretariat by Assassin had seen to that. The strife he’d begun in Penthes was keeping them busy, though they’d still managed to repulse an attack from the ramshackle army of Bellerophon. The slave armies of Stygia, headed by their Magisters, had joined Helike on the march to the last remaining active opposition in the war: Nicae. Which was filled with mercenaries, Proceran fantassins and its own decently skilled forces. Taking Named out of the story, after marked but not severe casualties Nicae should fall to enemy forces. With a band of heroes backing the city, though, the situation was different. It became ‘the last stronghold, besieged by the hordes of Evil’. Defeat was virtually assured as long as this remained the narrative, and Amadeus did not currently have enough authority with Stygia and Helike to properly influence their decision-making. They would have to be bypassed entirely, then.
The lynchpin of this entire situation, as far as he could tell, was the White Knight. He was the Named keeping the band together. Without him they would either disperse or lose the coherency needed to be a true threat. If the White Knight was dead, Amadeus believed he could turn the victory of the Evil-aligned cities into a bloody draw that would weaken both sides enough they could be forced to negotiate a truce. The Tyrant would be trouble – he’d already begun disrupting Warlock’s scrying, which had cut off the dark-haired man’s conversation with his apprentice – but he was also fickle. As long as he was presented with a more enticing game than his current one, he could be brought to the table. All Amadeus had to worry about was surviving the boy’s inevitable attempts to kill him during the battle for Nicae. Contingencies were already being put in place. The key to this entire situation, then, was eliminating the White Knight. The villain poked at the flames again.
It could be done, with the right preparations. The lack of pattern would not hinder this.
“You look like you’re up to no good,” Sabah said sleepily.
Amadeus smiled. It was an old joke, now more comfortable than funny.
“Did I wake you?” he asked. “I apologize.”
“I sleep lighter than when we were started out,” she said. “We’re getting old, Amadeus.”
The Black Knight chuckled, sliding down the log to sit next to her.
“You’ve still got a few decades in you,” he said. “Enough you’ll see your both your children get grey hair.”
“Amna’s raised them well,” she said wistfully. “I think of them more often than I used to, out on adventures like this.”
Both time she’d given birth she’d left his side for a year afterwards to mother the children, but inevitably Sabah had left Ater to join him – he’d spent most of his time in Callow, the last twenty years. Her husband had done most of the rearing, repeatedly refusing promotions in the Imperial bureaucracy to have enough time for it. Black rather liked the man, though how his old friend had come to fall in love with that diminutive, mild-mannered specimen had long been a subject of wonder.
“I think,” he said, “that our time is drawing to an end.”
The large Taghreb turned amused eyes to him.
“You’re not usually this maudlin,” she said. “We’ve handled worse than the Tyrant. He’s like a crippled take on Heir, only with a sense of humour.”
“He really was a pompous ass, wasn’t he?” Black smiled.
“Catherine’s rival is worse,” Sabah grunted. “I’m looking forward to the kid hacking her in a few pieces.”
“It will be a learning experience for her,” Amadeus murmured. “Killing the Heir was a turning point for me.”
“You were softer before,” Sabah agreed softly. “We all were. I still remember what it felt like back then, looking at his corpse. Like there was a storm ahead.”
“Feels the same now,” she admitted. “Like we’re reaching a pivot.”
I’m going to die soon, he almost told her. But he couldn’t, because if he did she would fight it. Even harder than Warlock would, because Warlock understood that some things were worth dying for. Captain didn’t. She had no great cause, no febrile drive to understand the nature of Creation. Sabah only wanted them to live as long and happily as they could, and if she had to cave in other people’s heads for that so be it. He’d always loved that about her, the purity of the sentiment. He’d never met another Named like her, so unconcerned with their own power. In that sense she was the strangest among them.
“Do you ever regret it?” he asked suddenly. “Coming with Wekesa and I, the morning after we first met you.”
She looked at him, bemused.
“We’ve been at this over forty years, Sabah,” he said. “We’ve killed so many people I can’t remember all the faces. We won, when it mattered, but there were dark days too. Those just don’t make it into the legends.”
The massive Taghreb patted his shoulder gently.
“You’re an idiot,” she told him, not unkindly. “You two are family. You might as well ask me if I regret breathing. Besides, f I hadn’t come along you twerps would have mouthed yourself off into an early grave.”
“And you and Hye would still be pretending you still didn’t desperately want to bone,” she added.
“Sabah,” he protested.
“Oh, she’s just teaching me swordsmanship,” she mocked in a high-pitched voice. “Like that didn’t turn into an excuse for you two to get sweaty and handsy before the first lesson was over.”
“I learned a lot from her,” Black said.
“I know,” she said. “Tents don’t block out noise very well.”
As one of the foremost tacticians of the age, Amadeus recognized that this was not a battle he could win. Retreat was required. Besides, at least he’d never used an entire roasted pig as a courting gift, unlike some other people that would go nameless.
“I need you to do something for me,” he said.
She raised a thick eyebrow.
“Eudokia tells me Procer is still sending grain and silver to Nicae by land convoys,” he said.
The Tyrant, for reasons only known to him, was allowing them to pass untouched.
“We need to turn the screws on the city before it turns into a battle,” he said. “The emptier their coffers and granaries, the better.”
It would be easier to force them to negotiate if they were all but destitute.
“Been a while since I hunted on my own,” Captain said, staring into the flame. “Might do me some good. The Beast gets wilful when I keep it on the leash for too long.”
He nodded silently and left it at that. Eventually she drifted back into sleep, the two of them nestled close to the fire.
“Two years,” he murmured. “It will be enough. I’ll make it enough.”
The Gods could help anyone who got in his way, if they so wished. It would make no difference.