“Here is the truth of our dreadful crown: to claim it a declaration of war on banality, on mediocrity. The banner of the enemy is apathy, the slow grind of the inevitable. Victor or ruin, every Tyrant that ever lived bet their madness against the bridle of the Heavens.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II
I wore plate, a suit of it untouched since it had left the Imperial forges of Ater. My own had been wrecked by combat, both my power and that of my enemies. It would be days before our smiths could make anything of it, and Akua Sahelian’s envoys awaited me now. The goblin steel covered by the red tabard of the Legions had been forged for someone of broader build than I, and so the aketon I wore underneath was bolstered with more padding. The cloak I that streamed down my back had long ceased to be dark, strips of banners sown onto the length by Hakram’s clever hands. I knew them well, those marks. The Silver Spears, the colours of House Talbot and Kendall, and now greater honours still. Cloth of wind for the Duke of Violent Squalls, a red tongue of heatless flame torn from the Princess of High Noon and now a golden ribbon ripped from one of the banners of the Immortals, the Queen of Summer’s own. The black cloth that still looked like feathers in the right light was half-covered, by now, and in time there would be more. The collar of the cloak felt tight against my neck, worn in the Praesi style, but I wore it regardless. It was a statement. All these were mighty, once. Now I bear them on my back. Think twice, before you take a swing.
The envoys Diabolist had sent numbered twelve. Three times that number in Legion mages kept them under ward, but I was unconvinced it would be enough if they truly wanted to get up to something. My mages were hardened veterans, but most they knew of magic had been taught at the War College. They were no match for practitioners who’d inherited legacies old as the Kingdom of Callow, centuries of tricks and trumps that no one outside the Wasteland had more than glimpsed. Into the pavilion that lay at the epicentre of the heavy wards, I took only two people with me. Aisha, whose knowledge of Wasteland currents I may very well need to navigate that conversation, and Hakram. Him I trusted to see what I did not, and to keep me from making mistakes. I parted the cloth flaps and found only two of Diabolist’s people were seated, the rest standing patiently behind them. One Taghreb, one Soninke. Both women I had never seen before, though that meant little. Akua and I drew talent from different pools. I’d inherited ties to the Legions from my teacher and links to Named besides, but my nemesis had the highborn of Praes at her disposal.
I had her beat in Named and armies, as far as I was concerned, but in most everything else we were either matched or she my better.
The two who’d been seated when I entered smoothly rose and bowed. I’d learned a bit since my first public humiliation at Court, in large part because of the very woman at my side, and so I was able to dissect the nuances. The angle was lower than that owed to an Imperial Governor, yet higher than the one a ruling High Lord would expect. As with most things Sahelian, the gestured bordered between compliment and insult.
“Your Grace,” the Soninke said in Lower Miezan. “This humble servant is Deka Wolde, mfuasa to Wolof since the Declaration. At my side stands Samiah of Fatimi, sworn to the Qara.”
My eyes narrowed at the second name, flicking to the Taghreb. Fatimi was the name of the lordship Ratface’s father ruled, the Supply Tribune’s name before he’d taken another at the College having been Hasan Qara. He was, I remembered, a member in decent standing of the Truebloods. Whether he’d since joined with the Moderates I had no idea, but if he’d sent one of his own with Diabolist that seemed doubtful.
“Lady Sahelian sends strange envoys,” Aisha drawled in Taghrebi. “Blood treats, sand shifts.”
I forced myself not to raise an eyebrow. I knew what the saying meant, more or less. Praesi nobles usually only ever negotiated with other nobles, even though ruling lords and ladies rarely met face to face. It was a show of good faith to have a relative sitting at the table. When the Soninke had caller herself mfuasa, it meant she was from one of the so-called ‘servant blood’. Retainer families that, while not highborn, had been in the service of a High Lord’s line for so long they were considered to have higher status than the rest of us peasants. Powerful mage lines usually fell into that, since it was always useful to have a few spares around to breed some talent into the blood. This Deka’s family, if she was to be believed, had been in the service of the Miezans since the founding of the Empire. Still didn’t make her noble, though. A statement could be read in that, considering I was now Lady of Marchford and a Duchess besides: the highest of Praesi servants stand equal to foreign titles. Ah, good ol’ Akua. She never was one to pass a good slight when opportunity knocked.
“This humble servant offers manifold apologies,” Deka said, bowing again. “The Lady Diabolist means no slight. It was understood that Vicequeen Foundling may not take kindly to one of the true blood.”
I almost snorted. So Diabolist was worried if she sent an aristocrat all she’d get back was the head. Yeah, I could buy that.
“Sit,” I said.
Deka bowed again.
“This humble servant dares not gainsay you, but must offer the word of her mistress,” she said. “The Lady Diabolist requests that Lord Hierophant attend this conference.”
“This isn’t a place where Akua Sahelian gets to make requests,” Hakram gravelled.
Another bow. Gods, her back was going to kill her by day’s end. Unless they’d bred her family for the flexible spines, which horrifying enough might actually be the case. You never fucking knew with the Wasteland’s old blood.
“It is as you say, Lord Adjutant,” Deka said.
“Aisha, have them send a runner,” I told my Staff Tribune. “Make sure he knows it’s not a suggestion on my part.”
She nodded and saw to it. If that wasn’t clear enough he might ignore the summons, and that would just be awkward. The envoys might take issue with grabbing a seat before Masego showed up, but I did not in the slightest. I took the seat appropriated from Summer a while back and leaned back against the cushion. I studied the ten standing in silence behind the envoys, now that I had the attention to spare. They were, I saw, what the soldiers of the Legions of Terror had been once upon a time. The true heart of the old hordes that had battered Callow’s gates, not the greenskins tossed used to blunt charges and the levies sent to die storming walls. Soninke and Taghreb, dressed in ornate mail from head to toe that glimmered with sorcery. Their swords would be enchanted as well, every city weaving its preferred spells into the steel as they were forged. Helmets with curtains of mail on the sides and a descending prong of steel covering the nose revealed hard eyes, made to stand out by the colourful scarves tied around their necks. My people had fought men like these for centuries, until Black had replaced them with the legionaries I commanded. They were not to be underestimated, and it was their kind that would make up a great deal of Diabolist’s host in Liesse. They were standing around what looked like a tightly bound rectangular package taller than I was, which brought questions considering the sorcery I could faintly feel coming from it. My men had already investigated and I’d gotten a report saying it was a mirror inside, which might mean scrying with Diabolist herself was in the cards.
There were no refreshments on the table, and I did not offer any. Aisha seated herself at my left, leaving the other side open for Hakram though he stood behind me instead. It was Masego that dropped into the chair, when he finally arrived. He looked irritated, though his brow rose in interest when he laid glass eyes on the two main envoys.
“Mages?” I asked.
“Above average talents,” he said. “The Taghreb in particular. Drake blood, is it? I’d heard some families near the Eyries managed to bring it into the line.”
“The compliment honours me greatly, Lord Hierophant,” Samiah said, bowing even lower than she had for me. “This servant’s ancestors knew fortunate encounters.”
“Your ancestors managed not to turn themselves into scaled abominations when stealing properties from famously unstable lifeblood,” Hierophant noted. “That takes skill as well as fortune. I confess curiosity. Is your blood thicker than that of a baseborn human? Your heart certainly beats slower.”
“Masego, we don’t ask people about their blood thickness at diplomatic conferences,” I sighed. “Sit, you two. What does Akua want? Last I saw her I was one oath away from repeatedly shoving steel in her throat until she stopped twitching.”
The two women bowed as smoothly as they had rise, seating themselves across us.
“An explanation for the mirror would be warranted, before beginning is had,” Aisha said.
She spoke Lower Miezan, but the cadence of the words was all Taghrebi. The way she’d avoided using pronouns was as well. Aisha called it ‘noble dialect’, and every major Praesi language had a form of it. It was the kind of impersonal double-talk highborn used in negotiations with each other, conventions established ages ago that had become unspoken law. Formal diplomatic language that Akua had never bothered to use in her dealings with me before, or any highborn Praesi I’d met for that matter. That I was usually killing or coercing them at the time likely had something to do with it. Still, it was interesting she was dusting off the manners now. Whatever the envoys were after, Diabolist was willing to pretend she was taking me seriously for it. Funny how people suddenly became polite after you murdered a demigod.
“This humble servant brings word from the Lady Diabolist,” Samiah said. “The tool is meant to provide sympathetic link for scrying. Authority to treat in the name of the Lady has not been granted, for the Lady would treat directly.”
“Hierophant?” I prompted.
The dark-skinned mage leaned forward in his seat.
“Wolofite scrying array, the kind the Sahelians kept to themselves,” he said. “A few hidden runes to record sound but-“
Light trickled between Masego’s fingers and a hiss came from the hidden mirror, the acrid smell of smoke filling the pavilion.
“- they has been dealt with,” he finished. “There will be no surprises. Provincial work, whoever carved these. The pathing spells to find double-bind runes have been known for decades.”
If the envoys were miffed Hierophant had just casually marred what was probably an ancient and expensive heirloom belonging to their mistress, they showed no sign of it. Unlike Masego I had a decent read on the Diabolist, and I knew there was no way she’d have missed the fact that with him in the room there would be no sneaking those runes through. Odds were it was an old artefact, and he’d just casually burned a chunk of it because he disliked the quality. Either she’s showing off her wealth and what little she cares of it as a reminder of the resources she has at her disposal, or it was the artefact best suited for this conversation and she simply didn’t care since our talk is important enough to warrant the loss. Either way, Akua, your point has been received
“Proceed,” I waved nonchalantly.
The envoys rose and bowed before delicately undoing the bindings around the cloth covering the mirror, setting it up so that it faced us to the height of a standing person. Fancy. The two women touched a palm to the silver surface they’d revealed, sorcery sinking into the metal before they stepped away and joined the soldiers. There was a ripple across the surface, and then I looked at Diabolist in the flesh. As usual, she’d dressed to make an impression. Red and gold, which I’d come to notice were favourites of hers, made up the silks of her long and perfectly fitted dress. I would have been able to appreciate the sight of that perfect hourglass figure and and smooth long legs if the very sight of her didn’t make me want to reach for my sword. I noticed, after a heartbeat, that she was seated on what appeared to be a throne. Some gaudy thing of gold and jewels, with arms that ended in the grinning faces of devils. I leaned towards Aisha.
“Isn’t it illegal for anyone but the ruling Tyrant to sit on a throne?” I asked.
“Since the Declaration, yes,” she replied faintly.
I snorted, turning my eyes back to Diabolist.
“Well, apparently you’re done fucking around,” I said. “There’s a nice change of pace.”
Akua’s golden eyes studied me emotionlessly.
“Its is unfortunate,” she said, “that someone gave you the impression your mannerisms are charming. Deka?”
“This one feels power comparable in scale to a Prince of Summer,” the Soninke said.
My hand rose and she began choking as her throat filled with ice, clawing at the skin desperately. Aisha stilled at my side. Not a single other person in the pavilion moved.
“Envoys are covered by law,” I said. “Spies aren’t.”
Diabolist watched my actions with detached curiosity. She wrote her off before ever sending her, I realized. Trading a fresh eye on me for a retainer’s life. I lowered my hand.
“Walk out,” I said calmly. “Present yourself to the nearest legionary. You are now a prisoner of war.”
The woman looked to Akua, who inclined her head by the barest fraction.
“This humble servant thanks you for your mercy, Your Grace,” Deka bowed to me.
“You’re trying my patience,” I noted calmly, and gave Hakram a glance.
Understanding passed without need for words. He’d see to it, and led her out.
“It was necessary,” Diabolist said, “to understand who I was treating with before we began in earnest.”
I smiled coldly.
“Where’s all that nice flowery noble tongue gone to, Diabolist?” I asked. “Your people were being so sweet to me before.”
The Soninke smiled like we were old friends. It never reached the eyes.
“This noble one will, of course, be glad to offer such courtesy should it be returned,” she said.
“I’d have to stop cussing if we did, right?” I asked Aisha.
“Carry the fuck on,” I told Diabolist with a winning smile.
I was being ornery mostly because I’d rather eat a bowl of knives than be civil to the monster on the other side of the mirror, but there was another intent behind it. Now and then I managed to get under her skin, and that had a way of tripping her up. I’d never managed it before outside a death match, but there was no loss to me here even if it failed. Flipping the finger to Akua’s noble sensibilities was reward in and of itself.
“You appear to have dealt with the fae invasion, Squire,” Akua said. “I offer you congratulations.”
“I don’t think well deep enough in Creation to throw those down that would convey how little they mean to me,” I cheerfully retorted.
“You have done great service to the Empire,” Diabolist said, unruffled.
I supposed after actually trying to stab her verbal digs felt a little lacking from her side of the equation.
“You’ve abducted one of said Empire’s cities,” I said. “Don’t suppose you’d care to give it back?”
“That could be arranged,” she said. “My use for the city itself is permanent, but the inhabitants could be released.”
“The two of us had a conversation on the Blessed Isle, once,” I said. “You told me you’d put everyone inside my orphanage to the sword, if I didn’t renounce my Name. Do you remember what I replied, that night?”
“That you would make a monument to ruin of me,” Akua Sahelian said, and she sounded almost fond. “You refused me, naturally. Those, however, were forty lives. I hold over a hundred thousand of your countrymen in my palm now.”
“You know that’s not how that works,” I serenely said. “I let one of your pack of vultures pull this on me once then every High Lord will threaten to start summoning demons in Callowan cities for leverage.”
Diabolist cocked her head to the side.
“When we first met, you would have hesitated,” she praised. “I must confess I rather enjoy the woman you’ve become, Catherine. You’ve been scoured of your former impurities.”
“Spoken like someone I’m going to murder before the year is out,” I said. “Is this the part where you tell me we’re not so different, that we could work together? You burned that bridge when you let the demon loose, Akua.”
“A blow meant to cripple you, that you dealt with in a way that demonstrated great aptitude,” Diabolist said. “Had you not been able to weather the likes of it, we would not be speaking.”
“You’ve never actually admitted to that before,” I slowly said.
“There is a certain satisfaction in discarding the pretence,” the dark-skinned beauty mused. “You should be aware by now I’ve never seriously attempted to take your life.”
“You were never aiming to be Black’s apprentice, I know,” I flatly said. “Bit of a jump going from that to us being friendly, considering you did try to cripple me several times and are directly responsible for the death of both soldiers and innocents under my charge.”
“The alternative to the posturing would have been standing against the Empress prematurely,” she said. “We both know the outcome of such a trial. It was never personal, Catherine. While I do find you grating, you are not without redeeming qualities.”
Aisha leaned it.
“She may very well mean what she says,” the officer murmured. “While her actions are those of a foe by the customs of your people, to a Praesi allying with her would not be unthinkable should the rewards be sufficient.”
I watched the Diabolist, that genuinely friendly visage she must have spent years perfecting. I was not looking at a person so much as a collection of cold ambitions that masqueraded as one.
“I’m being told you might mean that,” I said. “But we understand each other, don’t we Akua? You know what I think of your Great Game. You know better than to think I’m going to link hands with the likes of you, no matter what you offer.”
I heard Adjutant silently return to the pavilion, coming to stand behind me.
“You speak so because you believe I am going to lose,” Diabolist said. “That is not an unreasonable position.”
“I know you’re going to lose,” I said. “You have a month before Liesse has to come down, or you have a hundred thousand rioters on your hands. And the moment you’re grounded, I’ll be leading the largest army since the Conquest to take your head.”
“And so we touch upon the reason I requested the presence of the Hierophant,” she said.
I glanced at Masego. He didn’t react. I elbowed him.
“Is it over?” he asked.
“Pay attention,” I chided. “She’s got something she wants to say that concerns you.”
He looked dubious, but his face turned to Akua.
“As the only son of Lord Warlock, I assume you are familiar with what the Calamities refer to as the ‘Dark Day protocol’.”
“I am,” he said. “It’s a classification for workings they use. The best way to describe them would be kingdom-killers. Uncle Amadeus has never lifted restriction on their use that I know of, though study is another matter.”
“Twenty years ago,” Diabolist said, “Lord Warlock comprehensively researched what I believe came to be called the Still Water project.”
It was distressing the way Masego paused at that.
“That is under Imperial seal,” he said. “Everyone involved was killed and their souls bound to prevent necromancy. Uncle said if it ever got out we could do that there would be a Crusade mobilized within the month.”
“A trial was run,” Akua said.
“In a closed pocket,” Hierophant said and his voice shook. “You… You have a ritual that can – no a ritual would have been noticed. You have an artefact that allows you to scry other dimensions. Gods, the advances that could lead to. The Hells could be mapped with this. Arcadia, we could learn the full boundaries of Creation.”
I’d never before seen him look hungry, desire twisting his features.
“It is currently in my possession,” Diabolist said. “And could be made available for your study, should you choose neutrality in the coming conflict.”
Yeah, I wasn’t letting that go.
“It’s yours after we kill her,” I said. “Hierophant, focus. Still Water, what does it mean?”
“Father was trying to discover if necromantic state could be achieved almost entirely through alchemy with sorcery as only a trigger,” Masego said. “After consuming sufficient amounts of a reagent humans can be turned into undead with a minor ritual, with exponential potential for number of affected as relative to expended power.”
“That sounds like an undead plague,” I frowned. “The Empire’s used those on Callow before, they don’t work. The House of Light always ends them in the crib.”
“It is metamorphosis, Catherine, not a magical disease,” he said impatiently. “Miraculous healing has limits. It can heal a sickness but not change the natural state of being of a human – reconnect a cut limb but not regrow it. The power of the priests would kill the undead, not cure them.”
I breathed in sharply. Shit. If there was no cure and all that was needed was for people to imbibe the substance, then the only limit on that was the amount of reagents the Empire could afford – and Praes was very, very rich. If they play it quiet enough, half of the Principate could be a shambling horde before they realize what’s happening. And Akua had implied she knew of this.
“The refugees,” I said. “The people of Liesse. You fed them the substance.”
“Our understanding of the process was incomplete,” Diabolist conceded. “It took me several months instead of the theorized one to reach the ideal concentration. The process was accelerated when I held the only available source of water, of course. As you can see, it is temporary for you to have the largest army on the field. That can be remedied in the span of an hour should I wish it.”
“I’m not sure I have the words to express how dire the consequences of that would be, for you,” I quietly said.
“I would rather not employ these means myself,” Akua easily said. “Yet you now understand I am not in nearly as desperate straits as you believed. Which is now I would now make you an offer.”
My fingers clenched until the knuckles turned white.
“Would you like to rule Callow?” the Diabolist asked. “Truly rule it, I mean. Not whatever ramshackle arrangement the Empress promised you. You would be queen in truth.”
“Under you,” I said.
“Not a dishonourable state of affairs, as the rest of Calernia would be soon to follow,” she said. “I do not care, Catherine, for the petty duties of running this continent so long as it bows to me. I understand, of course, that by the customs of your people I have caused personal offence. I would provide gift to even the balance. I am given to understand one of your companions, the Legate Nauk, was wounded beyond your means to heal. I will return him to fullness of health myself, as a gesture of good will. Truly, so long as you limit your ambitions to the bounds of Callow is there is no reason the two of us cannot find accord. You would find me a most tolerant ruler.”
I closed my eyes, sought calm and found only Winter. A frozen landscape without end, reflecting the ragged edges of my anger in a sprawling hall of mirrors. The air turned cool. The wards around us shivered. How many times am I going to have to betray you, Nauk? But I had not traded him for a boon, and I would not trade him for an empire. Eyes opened, and the envoys ahead flinched.
“Here is my own offer, Akua Sahelian,” I said softly. “Set Liesse down. Abandon everything, flee to Ashur and sell what you must to buy passage across the Tyrian Sea. If you do that, spare me the horror of bringing down everything you’ve ever built on your head, you’ll keep your life. This I call fair bargain, and more than you deserve.”
“I had hoped,” Diabolist said, “that I would not need to break you before we came to an arrangement. If you march against me, terms will not be offered when next we meet. They will be given.”
“I give you oath, Diabolist,” I said and I hardly recognized my voice for it was a thing of ice and iron. “If you do this, there is no place in Creation or beyond that will safeguard you from me. Not Heavens or Hells, not even if every lord in Arcadia swears to you. The doom I promise you will have men trembling in a thousand years when they speak of Akua’s Folly and the woe that came from it.”
The Diabolist smiled tenderly, as if I had confessed my love for her.
“Oh, Catherine,” she murmured. “I almost regret it, that this ends with you kneeling.”
Before she’d finished the last word I had flipped the table and crossed the pavilion, sword in hand and shoved to the hilt through the mirror. Ice spread through it and it broke with a deafening crack, shattering in a hundred pieces of shining silver. I did not bother to look at the remaining envoy or her escort.
“If any of them move,” I told Adjutant, “kill them all. I want them shackled and in a dark hole before a quarter hour’s passed.”
He nodded slowly as I strode out of the tent. Hierophant followed, panting as he tried to catch up.
“Catherine,” he gasped. “Wait.”
I turned to him, forcing calm.
“The array on Liesse,” Masego said. “It’s too large. The power of the entity she bound does not make sense if Still Water is her intent. She could achieve it with something a hundredth the size and a dozen mages.”
“This isn’t it,” I croaked.
Hierophant shook his head.
“She has yet to reveal her weapon,” he said.
A city floating in the sky, a god stolen and bound, a hundred thousand men turned undead. All of this, and it was only the opening of the waltz.
It was time, I thought, for hard measures.