“Truth is a lie grown old and beloved.”
– Soninke saying
The woman sitting in my tent I had fully expected, but the fragrant pot of tea set on the table I had not. Not for the first time I wondered how deep the rabbit hole went: how deeply had the Empress infiltrated the Fifteenth, that she could see water boiled and a tea set put down in my own godsdamned tent? As for Malicia herself, I offered her a nod before plopping down in the seat across from hers. The meat-puppet of the woman who ruled about a quarter of the continent poured me a cup of pale steaming tea, adding two blots of sugar and a silver spoon to the saucer before handing it to me. I was long past being surprised at her knowing details about me, but that she’d taken the time to learn how I took my tea was a nice touch.
“How was your day, darling?” Her Dread Majesty Malicia, First of Her Name, asked me with a sweet smile.
I winced, well aware that she was putting forward that very domestic image purely to screw with me for her own entertainment. As long as she didn’t start massaging the back of my neck I’d cope.
“Well, this afternoon I pretty much scared the Duchess of Daoine into telling me a secret older than the Kingdom of Callow,” I said. “I put it under the seal by your authority too. No one but Masego and I are ever going to know the details.”
I stirred the tea before putting down the spoon on the table – which even with my botched etiquette lessons I knew was quite unmannerly – and took a sip. Huh, tasted different than the Ashuran stuff. Closer to Aisha’s brews, though the taste was clearer. The Empress smiled.
“Ah, hedging your bets,” she said. “You do not want the knowledge in the Tower’s records, lest it be misused decades from now.”
Pretty much, yeah, though I refrained from agreeing out loud. I wasn’t sure I’d trust Black with the knowledge that there was that kind of juicy leverage on Daoine up for grabs, much less whatever murderous clown might be succeeding the lot of us whenever our work inevitably caught up to us. Masego would keep quiet, I knew. He’d been raised to respect symbols like the Tower’s seal and he wasn’t exactly the gossiping type to start with. I doubted Kegan would trust the son of the Warlock to do anything at all, but she’d just have to deal with it. I’d needed Hierophant in the loop to have a chance of this not ending in the ruination of Callow. Which, in all fairness, it still might. One on one I’d bet on myself against Akua, but she’d had a long while to prepare. For a mage, especially one as powerful as her, that made a difference. Liesse was going to be the greatest slaughterhouse of my young but bloody tenure as the Squire.
“So,” I said. “Not going to ask me what terms Diabolist offered?”
The Empress sipped at her own cup, taken plain.
“Shall I guess?” she said, amused. “The queenship of Callow, naturally. Anyone trying to turn you would begin with this. It would have to be paired with a threat that promises to either destroy this land or ruin it, lest you dismiss her from the onset.”
Elegantly, Malicia tapped a finger against the table.
“She will have been serious in her attempt,” the Empress assessed. “A personal touch as well, then. A full ritual to unshackle your former paramour, perhaps, or healing for your recently wounded legate. Her spies should be capable of sending word of that in time for the offer being made.”
I drank deeper from the cup. She’d been right on the nose for all of it, not that I’d expected any less. Dread Empress Malicia had been doing what Akua was trying to for over forty years, better and against more dangerous opponents.
“She went for Nauk,” I said. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you know all about Kilian.”
“Did you really think you would be able to wield so much power in my name without your weaknesses being thoroughly investigated first, my dear?” the Empress chided. “If there were means available to remedy her state that did not break your principles, I would have seen it done already – if only to remove a way to pressure you.”
So, confirmation even someone with Malicia’s resources and frankly ludicrous sorcerous archives couldn’t find a way to help Kilian without ritual sacrifice. I’d been considering asking a favour there to sidestep the issue entirely, and was almost relieved it wouldn’t be possible. Owing a favour to the likes of the Empress was not something to undertake lightly. It left Warlock, maybe, but that wasn’t much better. And if I must make bargain with the Sovereign of the Red Skies, Nauk comes first.
“I did not come to speak of the Diabolist, though I expect we shall,” Malicia said. “I have news from the south.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Is Black finally done murdering his way to a settlement?” I asked. “The situation in Callow could use his special touch, I’ll admit.”
The Empress paused, and my eyes sharpened. I’d never seen her visibly choose her words before, but I was near certain that was happening before my eyes. Shit. What went wrong?
“Amadeus was defeated,” Malicia said. “Though Procer has not spread its influence to the League, that achievement was not his doing. A Hierarch was elected even as Nicae fell to the Tyrant of Helike’s armies.”
“He lost to the White Knight?” I said. “Fucking Hells, I thought he was green. How did he manage that?”
“I am given to understand there was betrayal on Helike’s part, but that the foremost architect was an old acquaintance of yours,” the Empress said. “The Wandering Bard, under a different name.”
“She was a pest,” I said. “And dangerous, I won’t say otherwise, but definitely not in the league you’re describing. A second-stringer like the Bumbling Conjurer, with a sharp grasp on her powers and limitations.”
“As of Amadeus’ last report, ‘Aoede of Nicae’ has made it on the Red List,” the Empress murmured. “You have not been introduced to it yet, I believe. It is a list of names circulated among the Eyes of the Empire, of individuals that must be assassinated whatever the cost should opportunity be presented. She shares the distinction only with Cordelia Hasenbach and Klaus Pappenheim, at the moment.”
My tea was cooling, so I gulped down a mouthful as I marshalled my thoughts. Black had been sent to the Free Cities to make sure nothing happening there gave Procer and excuse to start a Crusade, and it looked like that had been accomplished even if not by his hands. It was, unfortunately, made moot by the fact that Diabolist had a bucket of red in hand and was determined to paint a big target all over the Empire’s face.
“He’s all right, though,” I stated, almost a question.
I refused to believe the Empress would have been so casual about this if my teacher was dead. I had only a vague grasp on the relationship between those two, but there was a great deal of trust and affection there. Frankly, I would have believed they were a couple if Malicia wasn’t strictly interested in tits and Black pretty much indifferent to anyone not called Ranger.
“He was severely beaten, but not wounded,” the meat-puppet said. “I would not call him ‘all right’, regardless. Captain was killed fighting a heroine.”
I let out a sharp breath. Fuck. I’d always liked Sabah. She’d been the most reasonable of the Calamities in a lot of ways, and ever since the day I’d met her she’d acted like some sort of giant warrior aunt to me. And I knew her for two years and change. The Calamities were together for over four decades. I’d only rarely seen them together, but they’d been a family. They’d be grieving her for years.
“He must be wretched,” I said.
“And coming north as quickly as he can as of a month ago, along with Warlock and Scribe,” Malicia said. “Be warned, Catherine.”
My fingers clenched.
“Don’t you fucking try that,” I snarled. “He wouldn’t hurt me. Not even at his worst.”
The Empress looked at me, and for a heartbeat I forgot this was a body she possessed. The woman I’d seen on the throne that night had come again, cold empire made flesh.
“I love that man,” Malicia said, and the calm of her voice could be called anything but savage, “in a way I doubt you will ever love anyone, Catherine Foundling. He has been part of my soul since we were children looking at the stars. Do not ever believe that whatever paltry affection you lay at his feet is but a pale shadow of mine.”
“I have never seen him like this,” the Empress said. “Whatever the Wandering Bard did, it wounded what is at the core of him. This goes deeper than pride or what he felt for Sabah – he is as a raw, bare nerve.”
“So he’ll go cold,” I said. “I’ve seen him like that before. It’s terrifying, but not dangerous to either of us.”
“Think, Catherine,” the Empress coldly said. “For all that he arms himself in logic, underneath still lives the sixteen-year-old boy who watched Nefarious flee and felt only disgust. If he’d never been at the Fields…”
She shook her head.
“It doesn’t matter,” she dismissed. “Every Named is crystallized from a single moment and that was his. What you should worry of is that his judgement has been impaired. He will serve the sword to anything in Callow that he deems to threaten Praesi hegemony.”
“All that’s left is Diabolist,” I said. “And he’s welcome to wield a sword there, if he gets to her first.”
“Be warned,” Malicia repeated quietly.
The tone was solemn, and had me doubting. I actually hated her a little bit in that moment, because no matter if this was true or not it remained that she had the ability to make me doubt one of the pillars my life relied on. That alone was enough to harden distrust, made worse by the awareness that I needed her. Her support and her help, so that what I meant for Callow was anything but failure.
“So there’s a Hierarch,” I said, bluntly changing the subject. “Is that going to be a problem?”
“The man bears it as a Name,” the Empress said. “As did his sole predecessor. He is a career diplomat for Bellerophon, called Anaxares.”
“Bellerophon’s the easternmost city, right?” I frowned. “The one that elects its rulers.”
Democracy, it was called. There was a part of that that appealed to me – letting people choose their own way – but I’d never really bought into the notion. People were dumb, broadly speaking, and mobs even dumber. For all that I’d acquired a distaste of nobility, filling a hall with drunk tradesmen and asking the lot of them to make laws was no way to rule a country. Someone had to hold the reins, or all you got was bickering and indecision. Just because I believe that place shouldn’t be inherited didn’t meant is should be carved up and handed off to a hundred thousand strangers out in the streets.
“The Hierarch was prisoner to the Tyrant of Helike since the beginning of the war in the south, and the Tyrant seems to have been instrumental in arranging his election,” Malicia said. “We’ve yet to acquire a full profile on him, since infiltrating Bellerophon has always been… difficult. What little we’ve seen of him is puzzling. He seems aggressively opposed to taking any action at all in his function as head of the League.”
“He wouldn’t participate in a Crusade, then,” I said.
“It seems unlikely,” the Empress said. “I would not commit to an answer without deeper study.”
“Good,” I grunted. “If we don’t have to worry about an army sailing up the Hwaerte, then I just need to put down Diabolist quickly and lock down the Vales hard enough Procer thinks twice about invading.”
If the First Prince managed to rope in the Thalassocracy it was possible they’d try to land armies in Praes, but I actually rather hoped they did. That land was death on invaders. Between the Wasteland and the Hungering Sands it was more or less impossible for an army to live off the land there, and every major Praesi city was filled to the brim with nasty surprises for anyone meaning to try their walls. Even at the peak of the crusader kingdoms, the authority of the kings had not held further than a few miles away from the cities they ruled. And even then they’d not conquered the whole of Praes. Wolof had badly broken the army trying to take it, and neither the Northern Steppes nor the Grey Eyries had ever come under crusader rule. If Cordelia Hasenbach tried to take Praes from the coast, she’d find the region a bottomless hole swallowing her men and coin. Crusades always ended when they got too costly, half a dozen failed runs at the Kingdom of the Dead had taught Calernia as much.
“And so we return to Akua Sahelian,” the Empress said.
“She got her hands on something called the Still Water project,” I said. “I’m guessing you know what that is. I’ll have a hard time ever forgetting.”
Malicia sighed. It was, for her, an unusually human gesture.
“I told Wekesa the trials were a liability,” she said. “But he was adamant. Argued it would revolutionize understanding of rituals.”
“Did it?” I asked.
“In a manner of speaking,” she conceded. “After I decreed the matter to be under seal, he largely abandoned the avenue of research. What he learned before that would allow us a fighting chance against the Dead King, should he ever wage war upon us.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“And that’s considered likely?”
“The Empire has been in conflict with the Kingdom of the Dead in past centuries,” the Empress said.
“I’m pretty sure I’d remember that,” I said. “That kind of mess would be worth a page in the history books.”
“You will find almost no record of them,” Malicia said ruefully. “An attentive historian can find a period of twenty-five years between the reigns of Dread Emperor Pernicious and Dread Empress Maleficent the Second that is unaccounted four. The three Secret Wars were waged through the Hells, a vanity project that was an attempt to seize the Dead King’s infernal dominion. An invasion through a hellgate in Ater was so imminent after the third that the woman who would become Maleficent II called on a pair of demons to erase most of a Hell and the previous two decades with it.”
I let out a low whistle. I disapproved of fucking with the fabric of Creation on a general basis, even the parts that smelled of brimstone, but I had to admit that Maleficent had gone above and beyond in getting rid of the mess on her hands.
“Setting aside a revelation that will be haunting my nightmares in months to come,” I said. “I have to ask – how many of those other continent-shaking horrors do you have locked up in the Tower? Because, without being arrogant, I think I can put the fear of the Gods in the Principate. But if the shoes keep dropping, they won’t care about how many people I’ve stabbed. They’ll be in for a death match.”
“Four,” Malicia said. “None of which are in danger of being revealed, as they never made it past the theoretical stage. Two inherited, two of Wekesa’s making and dependant on him being alive.”
Well, fuck me. There’d been a lot of nights lately where I had that sliver of doubt about whether I’d made the right choice in working within the Empire instead of against it. Wondering if by choosing to be a villain I’d ensured all the ruin that had come to Callow since. That put most of the doubts to rest, because I knew better than to believe Black would not have pulled the trigger if he was facing a victorious rebellion with foreign backing. My teacher had picked a soft embrace for Callow because he’d thought it to be the way to bring it into the Empire that would lead to the least resistance. I was not fool enough to delude myself into believing he would not turn to harsher means should it fail.
“I’ll admit to some disquiet over that,” I said. “It’s not that Emperors as a rule are murderous pricks that would use those given half an excuse, but yes it is in fact exactly that.”
“The resources involved are significant,” the Empress said. “None of them are minor projects, and we both know how large developments such as these tend to end.”
I didn’t really consider ‘don’t worry about it, a hero would probably take care of that if it came down to it’ to be a valid response, but I wasn’t exactly in a position to pursue the subject at the moment. It might be worth bringing it with Black later. He had a bone-deep hatred of those kinds of weapons that might get my foot in the door as far as he was concerned, but that pragmatic streak cut both ways. He might want to keep those in the vault for a rainy day.
“There’s going to be massive casualties,” I told her after a moment. “She implied she can pull Still Water on the entirety of the people inside Liesse. That’s at least a hundred thousand undead, and a battle won’t clean all of those up. There’ll be spill in the countryside.”
“The Legions of Terror are versed in peacekeeping operations,” the Empress noted. “And a visible common enemy has uses.”
The Legions of Terror are versed in peacekeeping operations. Gods, there was a sentence to give a farmer the shivers.
“This is going to end up blamed on Praesi, Malicia,” I bluntly said. “The Legions cleaning up afterwards won’t win a lot of love when it comes from the massacre of a hundred thousand civilians at the hands of the Wasteland’s favourite daughter.”
“Public sentiment is already being prepared,” the Empress said. “Your visibility of late is not without impact.”
Ah. They were going to point at me and say here’s the good girl, she beat the bad girl and would you look at that she’s wearing our colours. Aren’t you all glad the Tower’s in charge? Lowered taxes for everyone. I’m not sure that’ll be enough, but if Procer comes knocking at the gate Callowans might just pick the devil they know. Especially if the devil just named one of their own vicequeen, with pretty knights riding at her back. I was getting rather tired of the feeling my interlocutor had been three steps ahead of me the whole time, but I doubted it would end anytime soon.
“I have a hypothetical to speak of,” I said.
“I am listening,” Malicia said.
“Now, let’s say there’s this girl and she’s not all that good at scheming,” I said. “Hasn’t got the knack for it. But she learned to read forces in movement, so to speak, and looking at the last year she noticed a few things.”
The Empress studied me openly, and did not speak.
“The girl’s been hacking away at moving targets this whole time and until recently never had time to breathe,” I said. “But she does now, and trying to look at the year from a different seat she saw a few oddities.”
I waved my wrist lazily to elaborate.
“Like Akua being able to amass the reagents for Still Water without calling down Hells on her head,” I said. “Or importing so many little trinkets through southern Callow unimpeded. Now, this girl’s people are green. No surprise they missed those things. But there’s two people who should have been keeping an eye on the situation. One gets a pass, since he was away. The other, though? The other’s absence of movement is intriguing.”
“I am curious,” Malicia said. “What do you believe this other would have to gain, by allowing the breadbasket of her empire to be devastated?”
“See, that’s the part that got the girl at first,” I said. “Then she thought, you know what’s the problem with Callow? It’s got all this farmland, but it’s full of stubborn Callowans. It’d be much easier if a chunk of them were gone. You could have Praesi farm there instead.”
The Empress said nothing.
“But then the girl thought that was too heavy-handed,” I mused. “Measures like that could have been taken long ago and weren’t. So what was to be gained, yeah? It occurred to her, then, that she was still thinking in the present. The wrong sort of game. Now, looking ahead, you know what might be useful for this other? Callow strong enough to fight the Principate, but too weak to make waves. And there’s this image, too. Of the girl putting steel into Akua Sahelian’s throat until she chokes on her blood, and how that’ll make her popular with some people.”
My eyes hardened.
“Puzzled her at first, since the other would lose a few feathers from the whole affair, but it makes a twisted sort of sense,” I murmured. “If Callow’s behind the girl and the girl is behind the Tower, well, all sort of troubles go away.”
“And in this hypothetical, what would the girl say to the other?” Malicia asked.
“That now’s not the time to bare knives,” I said. “But that if anything like that was pulled again there would consequences, and that lately she’d gotten quite good at killing.”
The Empress idly turned her cup.
“I believe this girl you speak misunderstands a few things of the other’s methods,” she said. “You see, unlike her fellow she does not believe a war with Procer is winnable. It is one of the few points on which they dissent, and she has gone to great lengths to delay and even attempt to prevent such a war from occurring.”
I wouldn’t enable Diabolist if what she was cooking up brought a Crusade on our heads, I took that to mean. Believable, though months of growing doubts weren’t going to be quieted by a few offhand sentences spoken by one of the most skilful liars in Creation.
“That’s a little worrying,” I said. “Considering that war is around the corner.”
“The man you spoke of spent a lifetime preparing for it,” Malicia said. “It is, in his eyes, the culmination of everything he has ever done. To win it would validate all that he has fought for. One might say he is unable to envision this war cannot be won, for it would contrary to who he is.”
“And she thinks he’s been blinded by that,” I said. “I’m not sure it matters, at this point. The war’s coming regardless.”
“It’s an interesting puzzle, isn’t it?” she mused. “How does one win a war that one is fated to lose?”
“And there’s an answer?” I asked.
Dread Empress Malicia smiled beautifully.
“Why, you never fight it at all.”