“The most important part of any summary execution is to remember to have fun and be yourself.”
– Dread Empress Malevolent II
The last time Alaya had come to Wolof was decades ago, when the ashes of the civil war were still warm. She’d gone to humble a rival and assert control on a stage all the High Lords would be avidly watching, and found victory. She’d not returned until now. The more years passed, the more desperate High Lady Tasia had become. Even when she’d thought she was winning, she had felt the noose beginning to tighten. Now the Dread Empress of Praes had returned to the oldest city in the Empire, one that boasted it alone had suffered no foreign occupation since the Miezans. Even the crusaders under Eleanor Fairfax had shied from those high walls and the horrors kept leashed behind them. A statement that had resounded lightly, coming from a host that had pulled down the Tower itself on the head of the most powerful madwoman to ever rule Praes. Alaya did not share Amadeus’ contempt for Dread Empress Triumphant, as it happened. Oh, she did not deny his reasons.
Triumphant had spent a generation of the Wasteland’s youth on foreign fields, forged the Principate through her massacres and managed to drive to war two empires separated from the Empire by an entire sea. It could not be denied that she had broken Praes so thoroughly that four decades had passed before war could be taken to the crusader kings that had carved realms out of the Wasteland’s meat. For all that, Triumphant had understood the nature of the Empire better than any Tyrant before or since. Under her rule there had been no betrayals, no scheming Chancellor or rebellious High Lords. All had been united in terror of the monster of monsters. It was not a sustainable method of rule, of course, as the swift collapse of Triumphant’s conquests has proved. Yet there were lessons to be learned from her successes, not to be dismissed for her penultimate failure.
For the Empire to function as a single, smoothly running entity, there could be no snake held close. Triumphant had achieved this through overwhelming might, Alaya had by censuring the Name out of existence. There could be no High Lords in a position to pose a threat, either. Instead of crucifying half of them and binding devils to the rest, she had achieved this by slowly and carefully destroying the influence of the Court in the ruling structure of the Empire. The only conflict among the highborn now was between the Moderates and her own followers, warring for her favour and backing. Having achieved both these conditions, what Dread Empress Malicia needed was terror. The ability to inflict large-scale destruction at will, to give pause to anyone who would threaten her position. A deterrent beyond argument. She’d once thought Amadeus could be this, but her dear friend was a scalpel and what she needed was an earthquake. Catherine might become this, given her affinity for destruction, but she was difficult to control and would need years to grow.
Alaya had sought alternatives and found one that suited, a keystone for the monument she had spent her entire life crafting. It would require sacrifice to be birthed, but if Malicia had to bleed it would be by her own design and no one else’s. Quietly amused at the thought, the Empress watched the legionaries pour through the gates of Wolof.
Taking the city by force, even with the three legions assembled here under Marshal Nim, would have been horrifically difficult. Wolof was the heart of sorcery in Praes, its ritual sites millennia old and its vaults of monsters deep and terrible. But the city had not stood united behind High Lady Tasia. It had been eating itself alive as Tasia’s nephew attempted to usurp her seat, all those powerful mages and hardened soldiers slaughtering each other in the streets. Sargon Sahelian had unleashed all the devils held by ancient pacts only to corner dearest Tasia into calling on a demon of Madness. Half the city had violently butchered itself merely from suffering its presence, until desperate rituals managed to banish it. And then Marshal Nim’s legions had calmly marched through the gate, wading through the sea of corpses. Fifty thousand dead, by the most conservative estimates. The contracts of at least a hundred devils had been twisted beyond control by the demon and the creatures were still loose in Wolof, Legion mages sweeping through to bind and banish them wherever they could be found.
Many would escape into the Wasteland, roaming for years before they were finally caught. No matter. It would occupy the days of new High Lord of Wolof long enough he would not realize his power was being curtailed until it was too late for Wolof’s influence to recover in this lifetime. Sargon was still among the living; this much had been confirmed. He was under Legion protection and would remain there until he swore allegiance to Alaya. The Dread Empress set her mount to a trot, the silent Sentinels surrounding her scaring even legionaries enough that they gave the procession a wide berth. The ancient fortress at the heart of the city had been breached this morning, its wards shattered and the few remaining loyal household troops put to the sword by the newly-raised Fourteenth Legion. They’d been in need of tempering, Marshal Nim had told her over a cup of wine. Forcing a dug-in position with heavy mage presence would bloody them enough they would be ready for the inevitable war with Procer. It was not as inevitable as the ogre thought, but that was a hand best kept in the dark until the very last moment.
High Lady Tasia had been captured by noon, after much struggle. Two full cohorts had died in the struggle before mages managed to break her power. She’d drained the life of hundreds to replenish her vitality when wounded and almost managed to collapse the fortress on the soldiers of the Fourteenth with some sort of ancient artefact. It was an undeniable confirmation that Alaya had been correct to accept her surrender decades ago, no matter how Amadeus had chafed. If she could do this much when spent, how much blood would it have taken to break her in the fullness of her power? Now the proud aristocrat that schemed to destroy Alaya for so many years was bound and shackled, unable to call on even a speck of sorcery. The Empress could have ordered her executed, and would, but a conversation was owed before. An old enemy was dear as an old friend, in some ways, and some courtesies were due. Tasia had almost as much of a hand in what the Wasteland had been shaped to become as Alaya herself, after all.
No unnecessary risks were taken. Additional runic shackles of different patterns were added to ensure Tasia would not be able to use a last moment surprise, every inch of her body inspected for weapons and artefacts. The room where they would speak would be in the city, not her fortress, and heavily warded against dimensional interference. No hidden space would be emptied to destroy them both. The Sentinels spread out around the beautiful stone manse the Empress had chosen for this matter, some following her inside but remaining at the door of the salon she entered. Tea had already been served when Alaya entered – her own brew, a precautions perhaps unnecessary but taken regardless – though the fragrantly steaming porcelain pot remained full. With her hands bound, Tasia had been unable to pour herself a cup. The High Lady of Wolof was bruised and not even her poise could hide her exhaustion, but she had not been touched since her capture. Torture of an old enemy was very much gauche, after all, beneath women such as them. Even in this state, Tasia was beautiful. She did not seem a day older than thirty, her smooth dark skin and golden eyes something even a young girl would envy.
“Your Dread Majesty,” the High Lady of Wolof greeted her.
“Dearest Tasia,” Malicia smiled, taking the teapot in hand and pouring two cups deftly.
She waited for an invitation before seating herself across the elegant table for two. Hands still shackled, the other Soninke sipped at her cup before chuckling languidly
“My favourite,” she complimented. “You always did play the Game beautifully.”
“Iron sharpens iron,” Malicia replied in a backhanded compliment.
Tasia leaned back against the cushioned back of her seat, a minor breach of decorum her old enemy would never have allowed herself if she’d thought she would survive the day.
“It was the irony of it I could not resist,” Tasia said. “All that gold you poured into Procer, turned to silver and sent to my coffers. You might as well have been funding me yourself.”
“It was a long game,” Malicia said. “And an expensive one. Truly, ruining you cost more than the Conquest itself.”
“You knew since the beginning, then,” the High Lady sighed, almost admiring. “Nigh forty years of preparation for a single blow. I am in awe, Malicia. We’ve not seen the likes of you in centuries.”
You have never seen the likes of me, Alaya thought. And never will. That was your mistake from the beginning, measuring me through names long dead. It would have been tawdry to gloat, and so the thought remained unspoken.
“I truly do regret that you will not see the coming years,” the Empress said, genuinely saddened. “That you must leave us at all. A mind like yours, Tasia, the wonders I could have crafted with it.”
“It was always going to be this way,” Tasia said gently. “You are smothering the soul of Praes one exquisite scheme at a time. I honour the method, but despise the intent.”
Alaya conceded the point silently. A waste, but perhaps an inevitable one. Tasia had been one of the few highborn in the Wasteland to grasp her intent. It was her tragedy that she’d lacked the ability to do anything about it.
“Would you like to tell me your plan?” Malicia offered.
The High Lady sipped her tea, considering the matter.
“Yes,” she decided. “You must have grasped the shape of it, by now.”
“Your daughter to replace me,” the Empress said. “Yourself holding the strings.”
“She chafed at the notion,” Tasia confessed. “But as long as I held her father, she would have submitted.”
“He fled the city not long before she betrayed you, I believe,” Malicia said.
“He must have been in contact with her for years under my nose,” she sighed. “Such a talented man. He would have made a fitting consort, had he any ambition at all.”
“Callow?” Malicia asked.
“Cowed through diabolism,” Tasia smiled. “I’d gathered a great many contracts, before my nephew usurped them. As for your Duni hound, he could be leashed through his attachment to that Callowan girl. With him under our thumb the rest of the Calamities would have fallen in line.”
It never ceased to amaze Alaya how, even after decades of Amadeus crushing them in every conflict, the High Lords never quite managed to understand exactly what they were dealing with. They would all have been dead within the year, even if their fall broke Praes for generations.
“You believed your agents in the Legion would bring enough to your side, then,” Malicia said.
“Ah,” Tasia breathed. “You found them?”
“I have hooks in the minds of every officer of legate or above in the Wasteland,” the Empress said. “Your attempts to turn them were doomed from inception.”
The other woman smiled.
“A precaution to check me or the Carrion Lord, I wonder?” she said.
Amadeus was not aware that she’d surpassed the limitations of Speaking, that much was true. By feeding her aspect of Rule into the act she could plant commands without ever saying them out loud, something not even Wekesa could reproduce. Maddie would be furious if he knew, but there were risks Alaya was not willing to take and twelve thousand men in Praes she did not control directly was one of them. As for Tasia’s insinuation, it was only that. Amadeus would never turn on her, not even if it killed him. If there was one person she could trust in Creation it was him, even if in the dark of night the fear came to her. Alaya would not be ruled by old wounds, and chose to match faith for faith.
“I take it you have no true notion of what Akua is doing in Liesse?” Malicia said.
“I’d believed it to be wards, to keep the Squire at bay,” Tasia said. “Evidently I was wrong. She must have infiltrated my spies.”
“Mine as well,” Malicia laughed. “Though not as well as she thinks.”
“You’ve been watching her since the beginning, then?” the High Lady asked.
“Oh yes,” the Empress murmured. “I went to a great deal of trouble to get her the materials she needed without her catching on.”
The golden-eyed woman hid her surprise, but not quite well enough. Alaya pretended not to notice – Tasia was quite weary, some allowances must be made.
“You don’t intend to destroy her work,” she said.
“No,” Malicia said, savouring the fragrant tea. “She’s truly brilliant, your daughter. She would be a match for Warlock, were he thirty years younger. I must compliment you on the education you afforded her.”
“Talent must be fostered,” Tasia waved away, managing to inject grace to the gesture even shackled. “A weapon, is it?”
“The likes of which have not been seen since the birth of the Kingdom of the Dead,” Malicia said.
“Yet you do not intend to make use it, after taking it from her,” the High Lady of Wolof said.
“I imagine she will unleash it at least once, when dear Catherine comes for her,” the Empress replied. “It will be demonstration enough. A deterrent, Tasia. It will be the deterrent we have always needed. A weapon even Cordelia Hasenbach fears.”
“A lesser ambition, this,” the other woman chided.
“I would rather rule the Empire forever than the continent for a year, darling,” Malicia replied. “A mere difference in intent.”
They remained silent for a moment after that, the comfortable quiet between two women who had for so long tried to ruin the other.
“She may yet triumph,” Tasia finally said. “She has the best of me and of her father as well. If what we are could ever beat you, it will be through her.”
“She will try,” Malicia said sadly. “They always do.”
Finishing her tea, the High Lady of Wolof met her enemy’s eyes.
“The cup,” she said. “Coated with poison before I was taken here?”
“Sweetsleep,” the Empress agreed.
“What a soft touch you are,” Tasia teased. “It could have gone either way, couldn’t it?”
“Yes,” the Dread Empress of Praes lied.
“Liar,” the High Lady of Wolof smiled fondly, and her eyes closed.
She took no breath after that.
“Goodbye, Tasia,” Alaya murmured. “I think I will miss you, if only a little.”