“It is impossible for the Empire to make an appreciable gain so long as this gain is a loss to every other nation on Calernia. To remedy this, we must discard the traditional lines of allying only to Evil polities and make it so that it is in the interest of other powers for us to rise.”
– Extract from ‘The Death of the Age of Wonders’, a treatise by Dread Empress Malicia
“When beginning a scheme, one must first consider the desired outcome,” the Empress said. “All other practicalities are derived from this, and determining whether that outcome is feasible at all is the most important part of the process.”
I’d lit candles, tired of the gloom inside my tent even if I could see through it. Malicia had taken one of my folding chairs and somehow managed to make it feel like a throne just by the way she held herself – through another woman’s body, no less – while I’d dropped into the seat forcefully borrowed from the Count of Old Oak. ‘Looted’ was such an ugly word. I’d used one of the candles to light up my pipe and propped up my feet against a low stool. Black had never insisted on a formal setting for his lectures and the Empress seemed inclined to continue along the same lines. I’d lain off the wine for the night, deciding the wakeleaf would be indulgence enough. At this rate I was going to run out of satchels of the stuff, though now that Ratface had the Smugglers under him getting my hands on more shouldn’t be too troublesome. Still costly, though. Letting out a stream of smoke to the side, I drummed fingers against the ornate chair arm. I knew what I wanted, I was just pondering the right phrasing.
“I want the fae out of Callow and their influence removed,” I said.
Malicia smiled. It wasn’t breath-taking, not the way I knew she was in person, but just looking at it made me feel at ease. Comfortable. Like I was sitting across from an old friend and not one of the most dangerous women alive. It was the smile of someone who had studied the image that best brought out those feelings and crafted a flawless replica to wear. The Empress was made up of smoke and mirrors in arrangements that had been refined for decades, an illusion masterful enough that it remained effective even while I knew what she was doing. She was everything Akua Sahelian wanted to be, and wasn’t that a terrifying thought?
“You are using an absolute, Catherine,” she chided. “Avoid these, for they leave no room for compromise. You should be aware, by now, that there is no such thing as an absolute victory. The Empire conquered Callow through overwhelming military victory, but did this remove the realities of its occupation? Compromise, much as you dislike it, is a necessity. Without something to offer as boon, your enemy has nothing to lose. This ensures from the beginning that your opposition will be entrenched.”
“The Imperial governorships don’t feel like a compromise, from where I stand,” I pointed out.
“Because they were not a compromise with Callow, whose perspective you still espouse in large part,” Malicia replied. “They were the boon granted to the High Lords after they were denied the direct subjection they believed their due.”
I grimaced. Praesi aristocrats ruling over Callowan cities would have been… bad. The way the histories said the Proceran occupation had been, and probably even worse. When Callow had been divided into a handful of principalities under royals that displaced the old aristocracy, the entire kingdom had been in state of constant simmering rebellion. The knightly orders turned bandit against the foreigners, Principate dignitaries were knifed in dark alleys by everyone from thieves to merchants and fields went untilled as farmers disappeared into the countryside rather than toil for the invader. It hadn’t been great battles that saw the Principate withdraw but the constant grind of attrition on every facet of the occupation.
“That would have been disastrous,” I said.
“Very much so,” Malicia agreed. “That is not to say the governorships were not designed to quell unrest, of course. It is not happenstance that Imperial governors were only granted four year mandates, or that Amadeus was given authority to oversee them.”
I drew on my pipe, looking for the meaning in that. Four year mandates. From where I stood, what did they mean? The sweet smoke hung in the air before my eyes for a while, until I dug far enough back in my childhood I could get a handle on what she’d meant.
“Mazus was hated,” I said. “But every four years, there was hope he wouldn’t be given another mandate. That his abuses would come to the attention of the Tower and that he’d be recalled.”
“Impermanence,” the Empress said. “That was the key. The belief that the enemy could be removed, if they were patient. And who did you look to for salvation, in this matter?”
“The Tower,” I said. “Black.”
I kept my breathing steady, but my blood ran cold. Every time I thought I understood the breadth of the plans they’d made to keep Callow part of the Empire, I found another hidden knife. It was deceptively simple, wasn’t it? If the heroes that popped up failed and failed visibly, then relief had to come from another source and the only one available was the Tower. Imperial governors had been allowed relatively minor abuses that filled their pockets and kept their families happy in the Wasteland, while my people were taught to look for deliverance in Ater one mandate at a time.
“To conclude this matter,” Malicia said, “that is why your abolishment of this system is not offensive to me. I no longer need to appease the High Lords, for as an internal threat they are ended for the foreseeable future. The remaining objective is to stabilize Callow as part of the Empire, and you represent a valid alternative in this.”
I dimly realized, in that moment, that this exchange had not occurred naturally. She had, even before first mentioning the occupation, known how I would react to that mention. The Empress had then used what I’d say to lead into what was both a lesson about what I’d come to her for help and a gentle reminder of the political currents I’d have to deal with when getting Callow back on its feet after all this. Gods. It was such a little thing, but such a telling one. That a woman I’d barely spoken to a handful of times could predict me this easily and fold that into a broader intent without missing a step. I cleared my throat.
“No absolutes,” I conceded. “I want the fae physically gone from Callow and any harmful influence removed.”
“Good,” Malicia smiled, and for a fleeting moment I was reminded of sunny days on the docks and the first girl I’d ever kissed.
There’d been seemingly genuine joy on her face and for a heartbeat I’d believed it. She wasn’t using sorcery, I knew that. There was no artefact or Speaking at work. She could spin me around with just words and body language. I wondered if it was more effective because I was Named – I’d not been able to study people so closely or accurately, before becoming the Squire. I’d become more sensitive to details, and that sensitivity would feed straight into her game: I’d grown used to listening to my instincts, and my instincts told me what I saw was true. Gods, if that was true then she’d managed to turn one of the basic advantages every Named took for granted into an edge for her alone without exerting so much as a speck of power. I reached for the bundle of Winter inside me, let the freezing cold flow through my veins. I was careful not to let the bleed affect the temperature, since it would be as good as sending up a written notice of what I was doing. The icy sensation spreading through me brought some much-needed clarity with it. I pulled at my pipe to hide the vapour that would have come out of my mouth amidst the wakeleaf smoke.
“Then let us speak of the entities that would stand in your way, should you seek to achieve this,” the Empress said.
“The Winter Court,” I said. “The Summer Court. Possibly the Diabolist, if she goes full opportunist.”
“These are entities that will actively oppose you,” she said. “Extend your perspective, my dear, to those who do not want you to fail but may withhold assistance for their own interests.”
“The Dark Guilds,” I said. “Some of the upper echelons of the Legions of Terror. I’d say the High Lords, but you seem to have them in hand.”
“Those of them that would invest in seeing you defeated have already done so through the Diabolist,” Malicia said. “You may consider the aristocracy of the Wasteland as no longer in play. Let us begin with the lesser liabilities. How can you clear them away?”
“I have no leverage on the Guild of Assassins,” I admitted. “Haven’t found a real way to affect them aside from threats. The Smugglers have been scared into cooperation. And for the Legions, doing anything there is like throwing a stone in a glass house. They answer to you and Black alone, so meddling never struck me as being in the cards.”
“That is because you still think of yourself as a separate entity from the Empire,” the Empress gently said. “Discard this perception, Catherine. A few scrying sessions making it clear that you speak with my authority end the issue entirely. If I am to rely on you, as you wish me to, learn to rely on me as well.”
I balked, more out of habit than any reason I could express in words. I fiddled with the shaft of dragonbone and forced myself to seriously consider what the Empress had said. Had I ever really considered myself as part of Praes? I already knew the answer to that, deep down. I’d taken my first steps onto this path with the notion that I would join the Legions to gain authority and then use this authority to change things in Callow. The heart of it had always been that I’d be part of the Praesi hierarchy without ever belonging in it. I’d stuck to that, even as the situation changed month by month. I’d relied on Black, sure, but only to teach me and shield me from other Wastelanders. Even when I’d forged the Ruling Council, the motives for its structure had all revolved around limiting Praesi influence in my homeland. There was a reason it had stung back in Laure, when Thief had called me a collaborator. I still saw the Empire as the enemy and for years I’d been dancing from one flourish of rhetoric to another to avoid owning up to that, because almost everyone I loved came from it. Saying I didn’t oppose Praes, just the parts of it I found unacceptable. That I was willing to live with what it could be, if not what it was right now.
But I was running out of excuses to not make use of the parts of the Empire that I’d already said I believed in. I wasn’t above throwing around my weight as the Squire to get my way, because I’d always thought of the Name as mine. But it wasn’t, not really. Praes at large listened to the Squire because she was the apprentice to the Black Knight, the leading villain of the next generation of Calamities. The moment I’d taken Black’s hand I’d chosen a side for everyone to see, and lying to myself about it wouldn’t get me anywhere. I couldn’t have the authority coming from being part of the Tower’s rule without actually being part of the Tower’s rule. It wasn’t a nice thought. It was bitter, and it felt like I was spitting on everything I’d ever dreamed of as a girl. But it would work. And if I kept mouthing off to heroes about how their pride and principles just got in the way of getting the shit that mattered done, then I had better be ready to follow through. Otherwise I should not have lived this long.
“Then please do so, Your Majesty,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Can I assume you have leverage on the Dark Guilds?”
“Malicia,” the Empress reminded me. “Call me Malicia, darling. And I have a few irons in the fire. Scribe was the one to call them to heel after the Conquest but I’ve people in their ranks. Enough that a message can be sent.”
I breathed out. There were only smouldering remnants in my pipe, so I took a last pull from it and set it aside. The smoke drifted lazily in the candlelight, a wall that would do nothing at all to protect me from the woman in front of me.
“That leaves the worst three,” I said.
The Empress shifted slightly in her seat and I side-eyed her. There was something… In some intangible way, I felt like I could trust her more now. Also like I should take my feet off the stool and straighten up. The Winter cold wavered when I realized exactly what she’d done. She’s mimicking Black’s body language, I thought, horrifyingly impressed. If they were closer in height I might never have noticed. There was an amused glint in the puppet’s eyes when I stared at her face. She knew perfectly well that I’d noticed.
“We arrive at the interesting part,” the Empress said. “Before touching upon how these entities can be affected by us, consider their nature as agents and how this informs their actions.”
My brow creased.
“I’m not sure I follow,” I said.
“As an example, let us study Cordelia Hasenbach,” Malicia said.
I leaned forward interestedly. It wasn’t everyday I got to have an assessment of the ruler of the Principate from the mouth of the very same woman who’d been fighting her across the continent for the better part of a decade.
“At first glance, dearest Cordelia is the most powerful individual on the surface of Calernia,” the other woman said. “She commands the largest and wealthiest nation on the continent, her armies are recently blooded and her personal diplomatic reputation is pristine.”
“Procer’s isn’t,” I immediately said. “The reputation, I mean. No one that has a border with the Principate remembers them fondly.”
“Indeed,” Malicia smiled. “The history of the nation she rules does influence what actions she can and cannot take. At a more basic level, consider the limits of her position. Cordelia Hasenbach is Lycaonese, the Prince of Rhenia. Her support base is primarily Lycaonese as well, which means it is poorer and less populous than that of her internal opposition. She can only project military strength temporarily, for the Lycaonese armies are needed at the northern borders. What does this mean for her position in Procer?”
“She has rich, powerful rivals,” I said. “And she needs to keep them in check if she wants to keep her throne.”
“Precisely,” she smiled. “To compound the issue, the civil war that Amadeus initiated and I fed has ravaged large swaths of the Principate, leaving her with large amounts of dispossessed and unemployed soldiery. She is unlikely to face open rebellion, as it would be reputational suicide for any ambitious rival to try to remove her by force after the last decade of war. Yet if she does not deal with this issue, she risks being set aside in favour of a ruler that will.”
“So she needs to keep her soldiers busy and out of her lands while she rebuilds the Principate,” I frowned. “Then why Praes? Why Callow? There’s easier targets. Sure her reputation will take a hit if she scraps with Levant or the Free Cities instead, but it’s kind of expected of Procer they’re going to be real pricks to their neighbours.”
“We now return to your earlier insight about reputation. If Cordelia acted as you said, she would face the same issue that the Empire traditionally does,” Malicia said. “She would stand alone. Make no mistake, Catherine, Procer has been greatly weakened. It cannot afford war on more than one front, which is certain to erupt if the Principate turns expansionist again. The Calernian balance of power would be shattered if she was allowed to make gains.”
I chewed on that. Hasenbach needed a war, but she also needed her other borders quiet. Which meant a target that didn’t worry everybody else, and the way she could accomplish that was…
“A Crusade,” I sighed. “It has to be a Crusade, from her perspective. She can’t not be at war and she can’t take on any of the southern nations without pissing off the others. But if she’s fighting Praes, not only can they not backstab her they might actually have to help.”
“And so we come upon the nature of Cordelia Hasenbach as an entity,” the Empress said. “She must be at war, but cannot be at war with a nation that is Good. These are the rules she has to obey.”
“It’s why she can meddle in the Free Cities but only to back the faction fighting Helike,” I said. “Otherwise her southern borders catch fire. She has to fight against Evil or her alliances all collapse because no one can trust Procer.”
“Have you wondered why I never expressed fears of you attempting an independent Callow, Catherine?” Malicia smiled. “This is the reason. Assuming you achieved that result and even sought to remove the impetus for Imperial invasions by trading us grain, you would still have to face Procer. You are, after all, a villain. An acceptable recipient of dear Cordelia’s wrath from a diplomatic perspective, and from a political one a long-term threat. Procer cannot afford another hostile border, from a purely logistical standpoint. It needs Callow to be Good and at war with Praes, to keep them both in check.”
That made it twice that she’d turned an offhand example into a pointed lesson as to where I had to stand. As I understood it this was unusually straightforward for her, but I wasn’t surprised. She would be tailoring her approach to who she was approaching, and I wasn’t unaware I reacted best to people being direct. The part she’d left unspoken was that if Callow with me at the head was at war with the Principate, it would be without the Legions backing me. That wasn’t ending well for my side, and since Praes wouldn’t be able to tolerate a Proceran protectorate just across the river that meant Callow would once more become the battlefield of the continent when the Tower made its move.
“Point taken,” I said. “Nature, huh. The Summer Court is the easiest to figure out. The Queen has three rules that bind her, I’ve been told: destroy Winter, protect Aine and ‘see the Sun victorious’.”
“All points of pressure you can feasibly reach,” Malicia said.
“I’ve got the sun stashed away, so I can bargain with that,” I said. “Threaten to destroy it, maybe? I get the impression to actually do that in Creation would be a very bad idea, but it wouldn’t be the first time I lied to a god. The other two are a little trickier.”
“As I understand it, my dear, Winter is not a static state,” the Empress said. “It is transient, fated to come and pass. You do not need to think of destruction as requiring force. If what Winter is no longer corresponds to what Summer believes it should be, that may very well qualify as ‘destruction’.”
“You mean force it to pass into Spring or Autumn,” I said, taking a look at the notion. “I’m fairly certain the seasons only shift when either Summer or Winter has lost the war. I’m not sure that’s feasible.”
Malicia smiled warmly.
“It would be a mistake, to believe yourself bound to the traditional fae outcomes,” she said. “This entire affair began by one of the Courts believing these were not impossible to avert.”
A way to make Winter no longer Winter. There might be something to that.
“That leaves Aine, the seat of Summer,” I said. “I can make gates so getting there isn’t impossible, just… really stupid. There’s no winning a fight there, and the fae can cross back into Arcadia much easier than they come into Creation. It won’t be undefended.”
“I’ll need all three, if I’m to force the Queen’s hand about anything,” I said. “She’s not really a thing that gets compromise. Anything less than complete failure, anathema to what she is, and she’ll just keep on slugging.”
“If your strength is insufficient, borrow strength,” Malicia said. “She has enemies as well, does she not? If I understand your plan correctly, this assumption lay at the heart of your taking prisoner the Princess of High Noon. Should Summer fail to secure her return, should they lose too many soldiers, they will afterwards fall in the face of oncoming Winter. This is one of the limitations she must abide.”
I spared a moment to hope my intentions weren’t this fucking transparent to everyone out there. I would have spared another to be intimidated by the fact she’d understood my plan without being involved at any point in the making of it, but I’d grown dull to that breed of surprise by now.
“Winter winning fucks it all up too,” I said frankly. “I’m not sure if worse is the right term, but it will definitely be a similar yet different shade of godawful.”
“Let us speak of Winter, then,” the Empress lightly said. “You have treated with the King of Winter in person. Become bound to his Court, in part, and fought at the side of his greatest captains. What did you glimpse from this?”
“Take two vicious, spitting furious cats and shove them in a bag,” I said. “Then add that it has been there since time literally immemorial. The King’s the cat real desperate about getting out of that bag.”
“A colourful description,” Malicia said, arching an eyebrow. “Yet short on useful specifics.”
I almost laughed, until I remembered how fucking dangerous it would be to actually like this woman.
“He doesn’t have a plan, I think,” I said. “Or his plan was just to drag Callow into this mess and he doesn’t really need to control what comes after that. He wants out, Malicia. I don’t think how he gets out actually matters all that much. And that he thinks that way at all is scaring the other fae. I don’t think he’s supposed to.”
“That,” the Empress said quietly, “is worrying. Wekesa once told me that Arcadia is akin to a first draft of Creation, and mirrors it still. If Winter is meant to he be the reflection of villainy, and yet bound to it, there are… implications.”
I didn’t have to look all that far to find the villains who’d made the largest mark on Calernia in the last century, so her meaning was pretty clear.
“It’s not that clear cut,” I said. “The parallels aren’t so direct. But it’s crossed my mind, yeah.”
“A matter to consult more sorcerously-inclined minds over,” Malicia finally said. “Desperation is a useful tool, Catherine, especially if it can be given outlet. If your read of the creature is correct, it is the easiest of your obstacles to bargain with.”
“He has my heart,” I said bluntly. “And I don’t mean that in a romantic sense. Ripped it out to make a point which, uh, complicates negotiations a bit.”
The Empress smiled, almost fondly.
“I sometimes forget how much Amadeus has left his touch on you,” she said. “Catherine, one cannot always deal from a position of strength. That is mere vanity. And doing so does not mean the negotiations will be at your expense.”
“Fae always screw you on deals,” I reminded her.
I’d always thought that Black’s quirk of lips was terrifying, the blade-smile that always heralded something dark happening to someone he thought deserved it. Looking at the Empress’ face then, the languid and almost lazy amusement, I found something to match it. This had been the closest to a glimpse of the person underneath the crown I’d gotten since I’d first met her, and what I saw there had my fingers itching for a blade.
“Darling, you forget what side you chose,” she drawled. “You stand with the Dread Empire of Praes, Catherine. We have murdered gods and made doorkeepers of demons. We have tricked angels into damnation and made orderly host of the hordes of Hell. Fae?”
She smiled amusedly.
“Fae will be a pleasant reprieve from the High Lords, my dear. Let me show you.”
Fuck, I thought. Now I like her.