Chapter 33: Promises

“No matter how good the horse, it can only bear one saddle.”
-Callowan proverb

Our march through Summer had taken a month, from the perspective of Creation. Longer than I would have liked, but still miraculous compared to how long it would have taken me to come down from Denier the old fashioned way. Juniper agreed.

“Hugging,” she sneered. “You’ve gotten soft, Foundling.”

It was awkward embracing an orc with a solid two feet on me and broad as a barn, but I put the effort in. For all that the Hellhound mocked me, her grip was tight as well. We’d not gone this long without seeing each other since the Fifteenth was founded.

“You haven’t,” I said. “Gods, what do you eat? It’s like they carved you out of slab of muscle.”

She tried not to look pleased at that, but I’d been dealing with wilier operators of late. My general was a refreshingly open book. Ratface had apparently gone mad with power since I’d suborned the Smugglers’ Guild to him, but since he’d abused his power to find me a fresh crate of Vale summer wine I was going to let that one go. Pouring myself a full cup of the pale wine, I allowed myself a little sigh of pleasure after sipping the alcohol. The stuff I’d dragged with me through Arcadia just wasn’t the same, mostly cheap red vintages from the south. The two of us claimed the folding chairs in her own tent, not having bothered to gather people in the larger command pavilion. We’d have a proper briefing with the others at some point, but I wanted to talk with her before Marshal Ranker and the Deoraithe were dragged into the conversation.

“You’ll have news for me,” I said.

She grunted in assent, sniffing at her goblet full of aragh before downing it. A sure sign this was to be informal: Juniper never touched anything stronger than watered wine in the usual officer meetings.

“Holden is back into the Imperial fold,” she announced. “General Istrid and her legions annihilated the fae garrison and are now fortifying the grounds.”

It was one of Juniper’s little quirks that she only ever referred to her mother by her rank even in private. As for what she’d told me, I was pleased. I needed to herd the Summer Court through known grounds and allowing them two footholds into Callow would have muddied the waters. Now they’d have to come through Dormer, which made it a great deal easier to plan for them. It was shame three legions and some of the finest battle commanders in the field had to be left where I couldn’t use them, but anything less and I was fairly sure the Summer Court would try to force passage. After our last scrap they’d be wary of picking a fight with the Legions of Terror on a chosen field, though. They might win but their losses would leave them too weak to be able to handle the army I’d assembled. Some days it gave me pause, that I’d become someone who could use twelve thousand veterans of the Conquest as a mere deterrent. I’d come a long way from pit fights and waiting tables.

“Losses?” I asked.

“Light,” the orc noted. “It was only the bare bones of a garrison. You kicked the hornet’s nest when you invaded Summer.”

“Oh, I pissed them off way beyond that,” I grunted. “I’ve got a Princess of Summer in chains, Juniper. They’ll be out for blood.”

“Keeping that prisoner secure is a logistical nightmare, I’ll have you know,” the Hellhound growled. “Kilian and half our mages had to be set aside permanently so we’d never lack practitioners for the rotations.”

“It’ll be worth it,” I said. “Largest bargaining chip I could get my hands on short of taking the seat of the Summer Court itself.”

“You assume the fae can be bargained with,” the Hellhound said.

“They always cut deals, it’s in their nature,” I said. “And if for once I can avoid having to pay the price by scraping myself raw, I’ll have no complaints.”

“Devils and fairies always get more than they give,” the orc warned.

“Then it’s a good thing I stole a lot of their shit,” I replied bluntly. “I don’t mind overpaying as long as I get what I want. I’m not going to get stuck in games with them, Juniper. I’ll get exactly what I need not try for an inch more. Only way I can get away without getting fucked too hard.”

“We’ll get nothing if we’re not winning,” she said. “Don’t lose sight of that.”

That was the Praesi way, wasn’t it? No, maybe not Praesi. The way of the Legions, Black’s way. Compromise could be reached, but only from a position of strength. On their own terms. Our way, I must confess. Kilian hadn’t been wrong when she’d said I had no taste to compromise when I could get things how I wanted them instead.

“Masego’s getting ready for the Queen,” I noted. “Or as much as he can, with an entity like her.”

“The Hierophant now, I hear,” Juniper said. “Fancy Name. Never heard of it before.”

There was hint of doubt there. Older Names, those better known, tended to be more powerful than relative outliers like my friend’s. They’d accumulated more weight over the centuries, greater legends to draw from.

“He’ll pull through,” I said. “Always does. But I’ll admit, for this kind of work I almost wish Diabolist was on our side. There’s a lot of bad to be said about the old school, but they have a peerless record when it comes to things like this.”

“She might pull it off,” the Hellhound said. “But whatever she gained from that victory she’d use to screw us the moment the battle was over.”

“I know,” I sighed. “The competence doesn’t come without the rabid crazy. And speaking of dear old Akua, where the Hells is she?”

“We have no idea,” Juniper grunted. “Scrying doesn’t work, and the last time we had eyes on her was when she took Liesse above the clouds. She could be anywhere by now.”

I frowned.

“She can’t stay up there forever,” I said. “She’s got over a hundred thousand mouths to feed, and if she starts dragging civilians to altars she’ll have riots on her hands.”

I wasn’t sure what a riot would look like a dozen leagues above solid ground, but I’d guess it wouldn’t be pretty. Akua’s mind was like a sack of angry, treacherous badgers but she wasn’t stupid. She had pretty thick blinders on, sure, but I’d never seen one of her schemes collapse on its own. She wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous if they did.

“Ratface says she can manage two months at most,” the Hellhound said. “A guess based on what she reported to your Ruling Council when she was Governess, with the assumption she was lying through her teeth on the numbers.”

I’d trust the Taghreb’s judgement in this. He was a middling tactician at best but when it came to supplies and logistics, there was no better man in the Fifteenth. I’d been lucky to get my hands on him back at the College, and even Juniper occasionally offered praise of his abilities. Never where he could hear, and always tempered with generous criticism about his more underhanded dealings, but that my general said anything at all was telling.

“So now we have to guess at the where she’ll be coming down,” I said.

“We don’t know enough about what she’s after to be remotely accurate,” the Hellhound grunted. “Will she be after supplies? If so, Vale will likely be the target. Is she aiming to cripple the Legions in Callow, to carve a realm from the ruins of the south? If so, she must turn her eyes to Holden.”

“Or she could be after sorcery,” I said.

“Legion mages don’t have the learning to even try to unpack that,” Juniper said. “You’ll need the Hierophant to write a report about possible targets.”

Then I’d need Hakram to go through it and cut out all the unnecessary parts Masego would have added, I noted silently. Odds were Hierophant would write me a damned volume with an annex twice as thick. The Soninke was ridiculously wordy, when given ink and parchment. I drank deep from my cup, mood soured.

“So we have a month before the Queen of Summer can enter Creation, if Masego is to be believed,” I said. “Then another month before Akua drops down from the sky to fuck everything up, as is her sacred and solemn duty.”

“Busy year,” Juniper snorted.

“At least Procer hasn’t invaded,” I said, trying for a bright side. “And no one’s unleashed a demon in a year.”

“High Lady Tasia did, in Wolof,” the orc reminded me.

“I can’t believe I have to lower my standards lower than they already are,” I complained. “Well, nobody’s opened a permanent portal into the Hells. There. I refused to go any lower.”

“Give it time,” Juniper grinned, ivory fangs flaring.

She’d meant it as a jest, but there was too much truth to it for me to laugh.

It would be two days before the armies marched south, beginning the trek to Dormer. We were still waiting on supplies and we had a horde of wounded to deal with. I could have begun to put a dent into the pile of urgent scrolls that no doubt awaited me, but for tonight I decided I’d done enough. My body could go on, but I was exhausted in a deeper way. There were only so many twists and turns I could take before it was too much. I slogged my way back to my tent, painfully aware that no one would be awaiting me inside. I’d passed by Ratface’s quarters beforehand and ignored his many requests for me to look at the books in favour of bullying him to hand me another bottle. Juniper and I had polished off the last one after she’d finished her aragh, talking for a few hours until it got dark. It still amazed me that the two of us had gone from being at each other’s throats to people who could actually enjoy the other’s company, no matter how much she insisted otherwise. It was rare thing for me to seek two bottles in a day, but I had a feeling I’d need another drink if I was going to sleep at all tonight. I could still smell the incinerated corpses of the soldiers I’d failed in Arcadia, the hundreds that had died at the whim of two vicious creatures beyond my understanding.

There were Gallowborne around my tent and I spent a few moments chatting with them before going inside. They’d gotten off light from the last battle in Arcadia, and Tribune Farrier was already recruiting to fill the ranks left empty by the dead. I hoped the volunteers would understand what they were in for. I’d gotten half my retinue killed because I’d been sloppy and arrogant, and while I didn’t intend to ever make that mistake again there were harder fights ahead. I wished Black was there so he could tell me about his own guard. He’d had his for decades, he must have known ways to keep them safe without making them irrelevant. Or maybe he didn’t. My teacher might not share my qualms about people being killed in his name, not even people he knew. I’d gotten harsher in the last few years but I was still a long way from being iron as cold as the Black Knight. There was no candle lit in my tent, but to a Named that made no difference. That was why I saw the silhouette sitting on the edge of my cot, and though for a hopeful moment I thought it was Kilian the notion disappeared when the details sunk in.

It was a woman. Soninke, dark eyes, and while shy of pretty not exactly ugly. I’d seen her before, known her under the name of Lady Naibu. Lady Deputy, in Mtethwa. My hand left the grip of my sword and I inclined my head respectfully.

“Your Most Dreadful Majesty,” I said.

This was Empress Malicia’s own puppet, the soulless flesh simulacrum she could use to be two places at once.

“I’ve already told you there is no need for such formality,” the Empress dismissed, using someone else’s hands.

I glanced at the flaps of the tent but the Gallowborne had yet to move.

“You may consider this a private audience, Catherine,” Malicia smiled.

Fuck. My tent was in the middle of an army over thirty thousand strong. The boundaries of the Fifteenth’s fortified camp were set with wards Masego had designed personally. I had thousands of sharp-eyed goblins running around. And yet there she was, on my own godsdamned bed. This could have been an assassin and no one would ever have known. I wasn’t ashamed to say that it was almost enough to scare me, this reminder about how far the Empress’ reach went. I set the bottle on the table and ripped out the cork.

“A glass as well, if you please,” the Empress said. “It has been ages since I’ve tried anything from Vale.”

And she knew my favourite wine. I wasn’t even surprised, to be honest. Black had already told me he’d had a file about me before I ever became the Squire, and it was pretty much a given the Empress would have one twice as thick somewhere in the Tower. I poured her a goblet as well and handed it to her.

“Thank you,” she said. “I hear you’ve finally met Ranger.”

I blinked.

“This is turning out a lot more civil of a conversation than I expected,” I frankly said.

The meat-puppet chuckled. It would not do forget that was what I was looking at, to be taken in by the charm and the pleasantries. I was dealing with a woman who’d hollowed out a body of its immortal soul for the sake of convenient conversation.

“Did you expect me to come storming in, demanding justifications?” she said. “The Empire is a balancing act, Catherine. I do not introduce weight without careful consideration.”

There was silence after that, until I realized she was still expecting to answer her first sentence. Gods, I was exhausted. And near enough to tipsy.

“She came real close to killing me,” I said. “Just for suggesting I could help her in a fight, if I’m not mistaken. She’s not much like the stories.”

“I am not particularly fond of her myself,” the Empress said. “And not only because she attempted to talk Amadeus into running me through and seizing the throne after the Conquest.”

I grimaced. I’d gotten hints from Scribe there’d been undercurrents of that in the past, but never heard it so bluntly stated before. Or been sure the Empress knew of it.

“She’s a monster,” I said. “Bad as the Diabolist, in her own way. I don’t get why Black likes her so much.”

“Love,” the Empress said. “It is love, my dear. She’s an extraordinary creature, I’ll grant that. Her little philosophy is what drew him in, and eventually what parted them.”

I raised an eyebrow. That the puppet managed to see that in the still-dark tent was another detail I filed away for the future.

“Be all you can be,” Malicia murmured. “Do anything you want. If someone stands in your way, end them. If you cannot, respect that rule until you can end them.”

“That’s just anarchy,” I said. “I won’t lie and say I don’t break laws when it’s useful, but I still recognize there’s a need for them.”

“It is easy to believe your whims are the only law of Creation, when you grow powerful enough,” the Empress replied. “She will kill herself sooner or later, crossing something she could not afford to cross.”

“She got into a death match with the Summer Queen,” I said. “I doubt that’ll do the trick but she won’t walk it off easy.”

I was getting tired of standing up with a goblet in hand, so I downed the wine and grabbed a chair. I set it to face the Empress, sagging against the wooden frame.

“Hye always did overestimate herself,” Malicia shrugged. “A matter of little import, in the end. She’s remained in her little hovel in the woods for decades and shows no sign of greater ambitions.”

I could have told her otherwise. That Archer believed her teacher was the best thing to come along since the Gods had whelped Creation, that I’d lost three hundred soldiers because Ranger couldn’t be fucked to do anything about them. But those words I kept for people I trusted. I respected the Empress, what she’d accomplished and the people she’d crushed to get where she was, but I didn’t trust her in the slightest. So instead I leant over to grab the bottle and filled my goblet. Fishing out a satchel of wakeleaf from my pocket, I grabbed my pipe as well and looked at Malicia.

“Do you mind?” I asked.

“By all means,” she said. “A filthy habit, but one I tolerated in Wekesa for over forty years.”

Good enough. I struck the match and lit the dragonbone pipe, taking a deep breath. Time to get to the meat of this conversation, I believed.

“I created a chivalric order,” I said, and blew out a stream of smoke.

“I am aware,” the puppet replied. “The obtainment of cavalry, I do not begrudge you. We’ve never managed to secure more horses than needed to replenish the ranks of the Thirteenth Legion without risking rebellion. But this is more than cavalry. It is a Callowan institution.”

“You tried to kill it,” I said bluntly. “The both of you. It failed, so I’m making use of it instead.”

Malicia raised an eyebrow.

“Another decade and it would have disappeared painlessly,” she said. “It takes coin to train armed men, Catherine. Their means had to be running low, especially given the numbers you managed to gather.”

That was true enough, and the reason the knights had approached me in the first place. A little more honesty, then. I drank from my cup and chose my words carefully.

“I won’t allow them to disappear,” I said. “They’re a keystone of what Callow should be.”

“There lies the issue, my dear,” the Empress said. “The abolition of the Imperial governorships, I can stomach. You will have to be publically given sanction for it and pay for the gain of authority, but as a tool they have effectively run their course. The forging anew of a Callowan state, however, is a different matter. In large part your people have defined themselves as nation by their resistance to outside invaders. Some of which currently occupy the country.”

I pulled at the pipe, inhaled the bitter smoke and let it out.

“I’ve never called for rebellion against Praes,” I finally said.

“That is irrelevant, and untrue besides,” she replied flatly. “You’ve preached the destruction of the aristocracy of the Wasteland, which cannot feasibly be achieved without warfare. That is rebellion, no matter your semantics. Even if you personally never raise your banner, Catherine, you will not live forever. Your successors will inherit a well-armed and centralized ethnically Callowan state, trained at the expense of Praesi gold in the methods of the Legions. It is a certainty they will seek independence, by force of arms if need be.”

I grimaced. She wasn’t wrong, not entirely. Fifty years for now, if I got myself killed, I could easily see the next Governor-General call on mostly Callowan legions to give Praes the boot. And it was not the outcome I wanted, seductive as the idea of a resurgent Kingdom was sometimes. Even if they managed to win, which I knew better to assume, half the country would be ruined for a generation. And should they succeed, it would just be going back to the old cycle of invasion and death, the plague on my birthplace I’d taken it upon myself to end.

“I tried the Ruling Council,” I said. “It failed, Malicia. Badly.”

“You botched the Ruling Council,” she corrected. “It could have been in the palm of your hand, but you disdained the methods to see this through. All the while chipping at Praesi authority by hanging one governor after another. It was a functional method of rule, Squire. You dislike Wasteland influence, but you seem to forget that we won the Conquest. I’ve already compromised a great deal. Almost more than is reasonable.”

“You also engineered the destruction of an entire culture,” I bit back. “You won, yeah. But I’m not in this seat across from you because of my sunny personality. I’m here because you want Callow to be brought into the fold without having to put down another dozen rebellion and assorted heroes. You had to know there would be costs to that.”

“Then present me with alternatives,” Malicia said. “I could attempt to craft one myself, in truth, but that would be a mistake. If you want to hold the power and authority you do, both granted to you by the Tower, then prove you deserve them. You are not a partner, if I have to salvage your every blunder. You are a burden.”

That was harsh, but I recognized it for what it was. An invitation. An opportunity to actually become a player in Imperial politics. That wasn’t the kind of offer that came twice in a lifetime. I set aside the half-empty cup and breathed out the wakeleaf smoke.

“Name me Vicequeen of Callow,” I said.

“An empty title,” she replied. “Your Governess-General will be doing the governing while you lead your legion.”

“I won’t keep it long,” I said. “A few years at most. And you’ll have set the precedent that the Tower appoints them.”

She did not reply but studied me instead, which I took as prompting to continue.

“They have to be Callowan, that’s what I ask,” I said. “You still get to pick someone that won’t hinder Praesi interests.”

“And the knights?” she said.

“Folded into the Legions,” I said. “Malicia, you and Black have occupied this country but you haven’t really made use of it. You got taxes out of the governorships, but what else? If all you want is to shake a land until gold comes out, there’s easier targets. You can still get your cut from the viceroy, but there’s so much more that could be had. How many Callowans are really in the Legions, aside from the Fifteenth? There should be a portion in every one, even those in the Wasteland. Callow has population on par with Praes, and if you don’t need to use your armies to keep it in check that population goes to fill your armies. You could get cavalry that doesn’t need to eat its full weight in meat every month. Hells, you could start fielding priests with the Legions if you name someone who has pull with the House of Light. But to get all that, you need someone Callowans will actually listen to.”

“And you can accomplish all this?” the Empress said. “Without breaking from the Tower?”

“Yes,” I said hoarsely. “No matter who gets in my way. Whether they be gods or kings or all the armies in Creation.”

On the second evening I’d ever spent with Black, I’d remembered a sermon from the House of Light. One about the really dangerous devils. How they gave you exactly what you wanted, and let you find your own way to the Hells with it.

I took her hand anyway, Gods forgive me.

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68 thoughts on “Chapter 33: Promises

    1. stevenneiman

      Cat’s dealing with someone who is viciously rational, and who has a surprisingly similar list of goals even if they’re prioritized differently and pursued for different reasons.
      Of course, she’s also just been told that this is, if not necessarily her last chance to get things right then close to it. And I’ll eat my keyboard if Malicia didn’t work at least one way to force Cat to do something she doesn’t want to do in there somewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. haihappen

        More Like Malicia is warping Cathrine perception and options so that Cathrine will do what is necessary to achieve what is “right” or “the only way”. Without Malicia ever misleading oder coercing. Malicia and Black operate on from the same book on this one I believe.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. danh3107

    Real apt there at the end, deals with the devil and all that.

    And another week we wai-

    no wait, I’m having flashbacks to before we hit the capstone in patreon. Thanks Patrons, you guys are wonderful.

    Liked by 7 people

      1. Byzantine

        Indeed. This story will almost certainly end with her Empress, or at least having held the title.

        Malicia is making a miscalculation.

        Like

  2. 1shot4living

    It may have gone better than expected from Cat’s perspective, but Malicia still plans for her to be beaten by Diabolist. No matter how that plays out it won’t end well for the agreement she just made.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lavos

      I was under the impression the plan was for Diabolist to make her weapon, use it against Catherine then Malicia walks in and takes it to use as deterrent. Ideally just long enough for Catherine to take the place of it.

      Like

    2. Pipieman

      Don’t forget that Cat told Archer that she doesn’t think that either Black of Malicia are in control. Meaning she probably doesn’t actually plan of continuing to be under the Dread Empire, or at least not under Malicia

      Like

      1. Callow has a well established place in the world order : a shield of Procer against Praesi. This is not a comfortable place. Within Dread Empire Callow has no established place, so Cat can carve out one. And since a great reformation is going to happen anyway, it is much easier than it could be.

        Putting it simply, Callow’s perspective in Dread Empire looks much better than independently or under Procer. This makes any attempts to leave Dread Empire questionably. But playing a political game within Dread Empire is something Cat should look into.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Dylan Tullos

        Evgeny:

        Previously, Callow’s place was as Procer’s shield against the Dread Empire. Now, they serve as the Dread Empire’s shield against Procer. In either case, they will serve as the battlefield in a major war.

        Callow’s position in the Dread Empire has changed drastically. Previously, they were an occupied province that served as a source of food and money for the Wasteland. Now, though they’re still under the Dread Empress, they have their own ruler and army, and they don’t have Praesi governors running their cities. The problem with that kind of change is that it could go either way; even if Malicia keeps her side of the deal, there’s no guarantee that her successor won’t decide to put Callow back under Praesi nobles.

        An independent Callow would have to fight the Dread Empire regularly, but out of seventy invasions, only two have succeeded. Would it be better to fight every generation than to submit and hope that the Dread Empire will continue its current reasonable politics? Fighting can have a high cost, but so can surrendering and hoping for the best.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. @Dylan

        > Now, they serve as the Dread Empire’s shield against Procer.

        Nope. Black said pretty clearly what Dread Empire needs Callow for. Food source. Farming. And to do farming, Callow needs to be relatively safe. One of the reasons Black operates in Free Cities is to make life miserable for Procer, so it couldn’t try anything funny.

        >even if Malicia keeps her side of the deal, there’s no guarantee that her successor won’t decide to put Callow back under Praesi nobles.

        There are several way to deal with this. For example, number of nobles might be greatly decreased and existing Callow nobles need to marry some Praesi nobles, forming stable alliances.

        > Fighting can have a high cost, but so can surrendering and hoping for the best.

        Again, we are talking about feudal society. Even if Malicia tries to build a national state, it is a long way in the future. Feudal states are very loosely bound, and allow huge amount of infighting. Meaning that Callow has plenty of opportunities to carve out a place for itself in the Empire.

        Being a major rich province in an empire definintely beats existence between two large states.

        Like

      4. Dylan Tullos

        Evgeny:

        The stupid website won’t let me reply directly to your message, so I apologize if my response is in the wrong place.

        You make excellent points. There are real advantages to being a member state in an empire that isn’t Stupid Evil, especially when your alternative is fighting that empire every generation. If Praes maintains a loose grip and continues to let Callow have their own ruler and preserve their own customs, that could be a deal that Callowans could live with.

        However, the advantages of the deal don’t remove the underlying problems. As you say, intermarriage between members of the nobility is often a valuable way of creating ties between different parts of an empire. But Callowan nobles wouldn’t last a week in the Wasteland; they’re simply not accustomed to a society that has turned poisoning into an art form. The underlying religious differences also make it difficult, since most Callowans would object to marrying someone who openly worships the Gods Below.

        The greatest danger isn’t the Praesi nobility, though. It’s the real prospect that the next Dread Emperor/ess could simply declare that Malicia’s changes were over. The fundamental problem of autocracy is the whims of the autocrat, and there are plenty of Praesi who would gladly support an end to the current trend of Callowan integration. If that happens, Callow would be in a very bad place, and they wouldn’t have an easy way of getting out.

        Also, there’s no guarantee that Procer will cooperate with Black’s plans to keep Callow safe and use it as a source of food for the Wasteland. Since we have “Uncivil Wars” on the horizon, the Dread Empire might not be in a position to protect Callow from Procer. In a Cold War that could turn hot, there are disadvantages to being in the middle, especially as an ally to one side.

        Like

    3. George

      Ehh, the way I remember it, it’s not so clear cut what she plans, but I’ll have to look back at it I guess. Her main goal there is usurping Diabolist’s weapon, which Cat will certainly be happy to not have in the hands of Diabolist.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Blinks

      It’s a sort of end game fantasy army in most strategy games of that type..
      If you can get your opposites stuff in your armies by hook or crook they tend to be massive force multipliers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. vietnamabc

        That is serious OP stuffs like apocalypse incoming level of cooperation when the end is nigh… Cue Black/Bard going on with some outrageous plan to break the current meta Good/Evil.

        Like

    2. Big Brother

      I follow that principle whenever I play Command & Conquer. Send in a spy to shut down the defenses, followed by an engineer to take over the command center so I can start producing the enemy’s tech. Massive increase to offensive/defensive capabilities with opposite-equal forces working side by side.

      Like

  3. Pipieman

    I’ve wanted to mention this awhile ago, but this is the first Catherine chapter we’ve had in a little bit. I only noticed during her fights in Arcadia, but Cat’s title is the Duchess of Moonless Nights; a moonless night is the darkest night of the months and could thus be called a black/the blackest night. So her title is pretty much Duchess of Black Nights which feel too close to Black Knight to me to be a coincidence.
    What do other people think? Am I just making an over complicated conspiracy theory here?

    (Also like that her last aspect is the antonym of the last aspect of her first main rival. Fall versus the Lone Swordsman’s Rise)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. stevenneiman

      I’m pretty sure the black night/Black Knight thing is a coincidence, but now that you mention it the Fall/Rise thing probably isn’t.

      My guess as to Cat’s final title is that she’ll end up with some kind of synthesis of Callowan and Praesi virtues, possibly even a combination of a Callowan and a Praesi Name, like Grey Knight. She’s always derived strength from the duality of being a Villain with actively benevolent intentions and occasionally heroic methods, so it would fit for her Name to reflect that. Two Woes already have entirely new Names, and there’s implied to be a very good chance that both the Black and White Knight Names will be up for grabs soon.

      Of course, she might just go with a classic and simply become the Black Knight.

      Like

      1. nick012000

        I think it’s more likely that she’ll go straight from Squire to Empress of Praes.

        Part of the national culture of Praes is that anyone can take the Tower, if they’re driven and powerful enough, no matter what their background is. If Callow is to become truly a part of Praes, if Callow is to dream the Praesi dream, a Callowan needs to take the Tower.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. soonnanandnaanssoon

        Grey Knight is, unfortunately ,a Name that is not going to exist. EE stated it in the Comments section in Villainous Interlude:Decorum.

        I agree with the Callowan-Praesi culturally mixed Name theory, but apparently it just isn’t Grey Knight.

        If she becomes the Night Knight I’ll die of laughter.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. If you convert “Moon” and “Black” to numbers, and the divide the latter into the former, take the result and translate to Hebrew letters you get “MAZ”. This was an aMAZing chapter. #TINACBNIEAC

        Liked by 1 person

  4. so kilian is taking care of sulia, two red haired in the same room, nice. but she wants a deal? i hope is related to her heart and her oath to the winter king
    akua is looking for the moon? how can a city fly for two months? that is a lot of energy
    also why is that it looks like the empress is planning more than just a talk with cat, and killing the trueblood is in the list right? what about he name of heir or aprendice? to many questions really
    nice chapter, a little slow but with weight

    Like

    1. stevenneiman

      I think the Truebloods were basically dealt with as of “Closure”. There might still be holdouts, but I don’t think that it would require any particular cleverness of Malicia’s part to deal with them at this point. That ended with the power of Malicia’s greatest rival within the Truebloods dead, and basically everything she worked for dismantled.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. stevenneiman

    Typo thread:

    “It’s like they carved you out of [slab->slabs/a slab] of muscle.”
    “I can’t believe I have to [lower->drop] my standards lower than they already are” Grammatically correct, but two “lower”s that close together reads weirdly.
    “It was {a} rare thing for me”
    “It would not do {to} forget that was what I was looking at”
    “She’s not [mch->much] like the stories”
    “your people have defined themselves as {a} nation”
    “another dozen [rebellion->rebellions]”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Letouriste

      Also,why even field the armies toward liesse if the city is gone? I expected the city to fall back just after the battle.Now the move doesn’t make much tactical sense…or I miss something?

      Like

      1. rangamal thenuwara

        Ah, good point. But it was also mentioned that with Sulia as bait they are going to make a trap for the Summer court. So I think Cat is going to make the trap where Summer first appeared? Maybe also since that area is unpopulated now?

        Like

  6. TideofKhatanga

    So, now we know that Diabolist’s plan involves opening a permanent portals to one of the Hells, and that Cat still doesn’t know how to keep her mouth shut. She probably never will, that may be against the nature of her name at this point.
    The mention of fielding priests of Light and knights with blessed armour in the Legions of Terror makes me think that Cat is going to break something in the setting’s overarching story. Good and Evil characters can ally in some circumstances but, for Good and Evil institutions to work together long-term and on a large scale, there’s some serious reframing of the narrative to be done.
    Also, Malicia has to be aware that her Squire is going for her seat now, even if said Squire doesn’t know it yet. There’s only one person in the setting that has the power to transform Praes and Callow as deeply as Cat plans to, and do so “without breaking from the Tower” and “no matter who stands in [her] way”.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. BumblingBehemoth

    This is more of a question for last chapter but is it possible that Hakrams Name could be transitional like Cats and with the death of Captain he could acquire that Name? Only thinking this because they both serve similar roles to Black and Cat

    Liked by 1 person

    1. soonnanandnaanssoon

      Imo, Nauk feels a closer parallel to Sabah than Hakram. Both suffer(ed) from a berserk-state (Red Rage Vs Cursed), both are deeply loyal to their respective leader figures, both have had experienced suppressing their berserk state via following orders from their leaders (Nauk in book 2 in Marchford after Nilin’s death Vs Sabah as the Cursed), both are heavy-hitters. Add to the fact that the name Captain was sort-of ripped out of an Orc god, the Name sort of comes back full circle if Nauk becomes the new Captain.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. crazedmoth

        On the other hand, Sabah was always incredibly powerful, she had a name before becoming Captain, and she was highly relevant to the then-protagonist, Black. Nauk… hasn’t really been important to Catherine or the story for a very long time.

        Like

  8. ɐ̯ͮͦɥ̩̖͎̳͋̆͑ͤͭ͐ͤs͔͍̣̪̝͐̅ͬ̋̂̚ḯ̬̙͔̻̈́ͬ̀ɹ̞ͫɯ͕̞̤̟ͧͅ ̻͔̱̬̺̥͆̇ͯͩ͌̎̍ɹ̬͇̖͕͋ͧ͂ͭ͆͊̚o͉̲͍ͨo͎̳̤̘̗ͯ̃d

    I wouldn’t expect Malicia to act mad or angry in this conversation because it would be counterproductive to her purpose, but i would expect some clever barb or twofold saying that Cat would realize afterwards and go dayumn grill you scary. And yea i am not counting the implied threath from her being in her tent uninvited, that’s too obvious.

    That’s kinda what we have been told to expect from Malicia so i don’t think that im wrong to expect to expect it. Unless ofcource such a thing exist and im unable to find it same as Cat untill it is revealed which would be awesome but i doubt it. /TipsyRambleOff (Perhaps the author can add such a thing afterwards when she/he is editing this story to publish it)

    Like

    1. ” but i would expect some clever barb or twofold saying that Cat would realize afterwards and go dayumn grill you scary.”

      I wouldn’t because Malicia is a professional political operator and not a hack trying to be clever.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. ɐ̯ͮͦɥ̩̖͎̳͋̆͑ͤͭ͐ͤs͔͍̣̪̝͐̅ͬ̋̂̚ḯ̬̙͔̻̈́ͬ̀ɹ̞ͫɯ͕̞̤̟ͧͅ

        Except that’s exactly what she did. Git rekt.

        Like

  9. werafdsaew

    She told Malicia she’ll give up the Vicequeen title in a few years, but she told thief that she’s not surrendering authority ever again. So she’s lying, but to whom?

    Like

    1. RoflCat

      To be precise, the conversation was
      “By the end of the year, there will be no Praesi governor in Callow,”
      “I’m not talking about the governors,” she said. “I’m talking about the Ruling Council.”
      “It’s done,” I said tiredly. “I tried, it failed. Come sunup the two of them will be dead and I’m not surrendering that authority ever again.”

      I think by this Cat means that no Praesi influence is going to rule Callow, which she does reiterate to Malicia here:
      “They have to be Callowan, that’s what I ask,” I said. “You still get to pick someone that won’t hinder Praesi interests.”)

      Like

  10. Uh oh. I think Squire just fucked up!

    It’s very likely the Malicia already anticipated what Catherine wanted, then put on a song and dance about being annoyed with her. All so she can manipulate Cat into thinking she just convinced the Dread Empress to make a deal. Malicia just turned Catherine and Callow in it’s entirety into her direct puppet to use in her own ambitions as she sees fit, while giving Cat the illusion of being in control.

    It’s important to remember that for all she’s accomplished Cat’s still a kid vs an adult who’s been at this her entire life. At the age Cat was getting into back alley fistfights for money Malicia was pulling off tricks like this in her sleep. All Cat’s hard edged practicality makes her precocious, not a peer.

    Here she basically just doomed her ambitions for a stable Callow under Praes from the start. Praes isn’t going to stand for it in the long run, either New Evil takes and Callow is gradually chipped away, or it fails and whoever takes over from Malicia burns it all to the ground.

    Meanwhile, this deal basically obligates the entirety of Callow’s forces to Malicia’s side in the coming Uncivil Wars. I hope Cat enjoys fighting other people’s battles for them.

    Like

    1. werafdsaew

      Remember her chat with Thief? Praes will burn the land on their way out if Procer succeeds in liberating Callow, and she does not want that, so she’s obligated to fight Procer anyways. I also doubt that Malicia is going to be a part of the Uncivil war; it looks to me that that the Uncivil Wars is going to be about who is going to succeeds Malicia after she’s killed for whatever reason.

      Like

      1. blarg2429

        Agreed. They’re called the Uncivil Wars, after all– an obvious play-on-words in relation to the term “civil war.”

        Like

    2. Dylan Tullos

      reveen:

      I agree that Catherine is way out of her league negotiating with Malicia, but this isn’t a terrible deal. Yes, Catherine is obligated to fight for New Evil in the coming Uncivil Wars, but she was always going to fight Classic Evil. And since she’s going to be on Malicia’s side, the Dread Empress won’t object to her restoring the Knightly Orders or creating a Legion with a majority of Callowans.

      I agree that, in the long term, New Evil is going to be bad for Callow. However, the long, proud Praesi history of backstabbing and civil war suggests that there will come a time when the Wasteland is too busy fighting itself to pay attention to Callow. Once that happens, the reforged Knightly Orders and the new Callowan Legions can drive the Praesi out and restore the Kingdom. Catherine may be drinking the New Evil Kool-Aid, but there’s no guarantee that future Callowans will magically forget their deep and abiding hatred for the Praesi, especially once they have the strength to do something about it.

      The Lone Swordsman’s rebellion was morally flawed because it relied on mind control; it was flawed in practical terms because he didn’t have an army that could fight the Legions. Malicia seems to be willing to let Catherine build that kind of army. Once enough Callowans have served in the Legions, the Praesi won’t enjoy the qualitative advantage that made the Conquest possible. Even if she doesn’t intend to, Catherine may be the person who makes Callowan freedom possible, despite her own defeatism.

      Like

      1. The problem with the deal is that it shines a giant spotlight on Catherine and her actions. Before she had a great deal of freedom to get away with shit because she’s just one piece of the political structure of Callow’s occupation. Now she’s going to be the direct contact between the Tower and Callow’s rulership and expected to make the kingdom toe the party line. Malicia is going to want to grind down Catherine’s idealism and make her more of her servant and Catherine can’t do a thing against it because now if she’s pushes back against the Tower then all of Callow is pushing back against it.

        Catherine was better off trying to make the system work as just a disciple of Black, building up her reputation and slowly infecting the system with her agents until Malicia’s position becomes less stable and Catherine can take power easier. This is too much too fast and I genuinely don’t think it’s occurred to Catherine that her ambitions would need decades and decades to achieve like it did with the Empress herself.

        Also, I suspect that if Malicia survives to fight the Uncivil Wars or the Crusade she’s going to try to use Callow as a bulwark and Catherine as her attack, and in the process grind down Callow’s population, armies, and resources

        Like

    3. I think you mix Callow culture and Callow state. Cat doesn’t give a damn about the second, and rightfully so – states are in a constant state of flux in feudal settings and doubly so in fantasy feudal setting. Callow culture, on the other hand, is something Cat want to preserve, and Malicia doesn’t have much objections against it. In fact, Callow culture, with less emphasis on backstabbing, might be preferable for Malicia.

      Admittedly, Malicia wants Callow culture to change so it better suited Praes political structure. But again, cultures always change, and fitting into Dread Empire is not a bad deal on its own.

      Like

      1. Dylan Tullos

        reveen:

        You’re right, there are big costs associated with being Vicequeen. Catherine won’t have nearly the same freedom of action that she had before. But that’s a natural consequence of acquiring more power.

        As a disciple of Black, Catherine couldn’t abolish the system of Praesi governors. She couldn’t restore Knightly Orders and preserve that vital aspect of Callowan culture. Now that she’s Vicequeen, Malicia is going to demand a price for everything she does, but she has the power to do far more than before.

        Ultimately, this isn’t about Catherine or Malicia. Both of them are going to die sooner or later. What matters most right now for Callow is repairing the damage Praesi occupation has done to Callowan culture and building a military force that can protect Callow’s people. In time, that military force could be turned against the Dread Empire. Without a modernized, capable army, and a people with restored confidence in Callow’s ability to win military victories in the field, no rebellion is possible. With a revived sense of Callowan pride and trained soldiers; well, Catherine may be a dedicated collaborator, but she won’t live forever. Hopefully her successor will have more courage.

        Evgeny:

        However much Malicia may appreciate having subjects who don’t view scheming and backstabbing as the most honorable of professions, she’s rightfully troubled by the fact that most Callowans view her as an unholy abomination in service to the vile Gods Below. Traditional Callowan culture has many things to say about the Dread Empire, none of them good.

        The problem with separating Callowan culture from the Callowan state is that being Callowan requires some form of resistance to the occupation. No proud people could endlessly submit to foreign rule and foreign taxes without losing their pride and identity. By allowing Catherine to replace the Praesi governors, Malicia has agreed to let Callow be ruled by a Callowan, which is a minimum requirement for national self-respect.

        Callowans probably don’t care that much about which dynasty rules them. But there’s a world of difference between disinterest in the internal squabbles of Callow’s nobles, all of whom worship the Gods Above, and being forced to submit to your hated foreign enemies. The Praesi are always waiting their chance to stab Malicia in the back, but the Callowans are much more likely to stab her in the front. There’s no magical way for Malicia to keep the elements of Callowan culture that she likes, such as loyalty and honesty, without also keeping the elements she doesn’t like, such as the proud Callowan tradition of fighting the Dread Empire.

        Like

      2. @Dylan

        >Traditional Callowan culture has many things to say about the Dread Empire, none of them good.

        Traditional Russian culture has many things to say about their government, none of them good. The internal opposition is close to non-existent, the clowns wearing this suit are just that: clowns.

        Same potentially applies here. In feudal society, a peasant only cares about his immediate suzerain.

        As for potential rebellion… The only thing Malicia needs to do is to forge strong economical ties between Callow and Dread Empire. Doing so was the idea anyway. With strong economical ties, noone in power would find a rebellion profitable, ergo, won’t support it. So, Dread Empire would need only to deal with occasional heroes.

        Like

  11. Metrux

    I don’t know, but seems to me that everyone if forgeting something that Malicia sayd, showing her thoughts. You see, we talk about what will happen after Cat… But Malicia herself made her Name crippled, to give Praes to the institutions, instead of to the Tirant. The big thing is: Malicia KNOWS there will be an after her, and maybe both of them knew where Cat will go after Vicequeen… I mean, both sides agreed that the precedent is that THE TOWER chooses the title holder, not Malicia herself. Thus, Cat can not only be aiming for that, knowingly or not, but Malicia probably knows that, and knows, as much as Black does, that to “win” she’ll need her dream to sruvive her. Likely, Cat will succeed both theyr dreams.

    Like

    1. No, Malicia intends to live forever. She want’s long term stability, but that because she intends to be alive to enjoy it. The legacy dream is blacks, not Malicia’s. Though Malicia only gets what she want if Black gets what he wants – as everyone has implied, any ‘true’ visionary could overthrow her – she’s more Chancellor then Dread Empress in a lot of ways, and that isn’t a role of direct power.

      Indirect power in spades, but it requires that everyone else keeps playing your game, rather then flipping the table. People like the Black Knight, they’re the ones who stop the table flippers. Malicia isn’t doing it on her own, though.

      Like

      1. Dylan Tullos

        nehemiahnewell:

        I don’t see much point to Villains having an extended lifespan. I suppose that in theory they can live forever, but in practice most of them don’t last as long as normal people.

        Being Dread Empress and wanting to live forever, or even a really long time, are mutually incompatible goals. There are an extraordinary number of people with the motive and the means to plot the assassination of the Dread Empress, and sooner or later one of them is going to succeed. A truly brilliant Empress might live for a century or two, but the sheer number of enemies and plots ensures that you’ll slip up eventually.

        Actually living for thousands and thousands of years means abandoning power and deliberately isolating yourself from anyone who could hurt you. Black has accepted a shortened lifespan as the logical price of having the opportunity to change the Dread Empire, while Malicia hasn’t yet realized that no amount of brilliance can keep her safe forever.

        Like

  12. Al

    I see the best scenario as making the callowans like the sonninke & taghreb: part of the empire, but with distinct culture.
    the way to seal the deal is to have callow (probs cat) climb the tower, as someone said before.
    if callowans dream of the tower and callow is part of the empire, the story of praes changes.
    pras-callow is food sufficient, since callow is no longer needed to be grasped. the question would be the new story… is it a praes+callow vs procer cold war fought by proxies (both in magical detente thanks to D’s weapon & C’s ladder)?
    or does the p+c pop keep growing and now procer/levant/other needs to be grasped?
    and what about the hierarch!
    good work ee.
    pleasure to read you

    Like

  13. miles

    Holy smokes. A few days of reading, and I’ve burned through the entire story to this point. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to wait for the next chapter, now that waiting has been forced upon me.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Lhomp

    For me it seems obvious that Akua will strike during the fight against the queen of summer.
    That gives her an uber-Fae to power her weapon, or just an occasion to kill her ennemies in one strike.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. arancaytar

    “At least Procer hasn’t invaded,” I said, trying for a bright side.

    Shut up

    “And no one’s unleashed a demon in a year.”

    Shut up

    “Well, nobody’s opened a permanent portal into the Hells.”

    SHUT THE HELLS UP CATHERINE

    Liked by 1 person

  16. The thing about Callowan national identity being tied to the resistance of foreign invaders is that Callowans have NEVER had a palatable alternative to constantly defending themselves from would-be conquerors. A Callow that sees even two or three generations where the entire country doesn’t get wrecked, and instead the professional soldiers keep the country from being wrecked might well be more palatable to the mid-level merchant from the Weaver’s Guild…or even the six hundred bottom-level weavers just interested in their families having enough to eat, and their children having an opportunity at something better than they themselves had.

    Give the people that, and I think you’ll find a cosmopolitan disinterest in which Gods are worshipped by the ruling elite will become the norm for most people.

    Like

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