“The heart of succession is always murder. The new cannot grow where the old remains.”
– Theodore Langman, Wizard of the West
Four Calamities had gone south, and Scribe with them, but only two awaited on the other side of the fairy gate. I’d not expected to see Assassin, but looking at Warlock and Black standing side by side my heart broke a little. It was the way they stood: slightly apart, as if they expected a larger person to be behind and leaning over their shoulders. Captain had left a gaping hole behind her in more ways than one. Out in the open our greetings were polite, friendly even, but distant for all that. None of us were inclined to emotional theatrics in front of so many watching eyes. Warlock made himself scarce without bothering to explain, hard eyes lingering on me even as his handsome face smiled without a speck of sincerity, and my teacher silently led me to a tent in the heart of the Fifteenth’s camp. Before I even came in sight of it I could feel the wards pulsing, a least two dozen woven tigether that reeked of coiled and contained violence. Not Masego’s work, this. There was a depth and sophistication to it Hierophant had yet to reach.
It was where my teacher had been sleeping, I saw with a start. The inside was sparse and austere, functional Legion furnishings surrounding a standard issue cot. A handful of scrying tools could be glimpsed in a corner, glinting softly in magelight, and the short folding table that stood to the side was flanked by two rickety stools. The second most powerful person in the Empire slept here, and I could have bought everything in the tent with a mere month’s salary. I’d never been too inclined to luxuries myself, but Black took it a step further. The tent’s flap closed behind us with a quiet swish, leaving the two of us standing in the soft sorcerous glow. I was taller than him now, I realized. By a little more than an inch. How long had it been, since we’d last seen each other? A year, or close. He was still pale in that way that was more corpselike than Callowan, all the life in him gathered into those eerie green eyes. Named did not get tired the way normal men did, did not feel that burden as acutely, but in the lines of his face I read something like exhaustion.
The silence stretched on for a long time, me looking at him and him looking at me. If we were different people, I thought, he would be embracing me. But that wasn’t who we were, so instead his fingers fleetingly touched my shoulder, using the excuse of brushing off lint that did not exist, and I forced myself not to lean into the touch. Those were the lines we lived between, even now.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, “about Sabah.”
For what couldn’t even have been the full span of a heartbeat something like raw anguish flickered across the man’s face, before it was whisked away into the void.
“So am I,” he said, and there was something almost tired in his voice. “So am I.”
I couldn’t remember moving but found myself on a stool as Black claimed his own, watching as he broke the clay seal over a roughly-hewn bottle. He poured himself a cup of the red liquor within, and looked askance at me. I nodded and was handed cup of my own.
“Those who leave are met again,” he said quietly, the words cadenced and formulaic. “Be it Above or Below.”
Our cups clinked dimly and we downed the drinks. It tasted like wine, I thought, if someone had dumped half a bottle of hard liquor in a bad red vintage. I kept myself from grimacing.
“What happened?” I asked. “Last I heard the situation south was under control.”
He poured himself another cup.
“I have grown arrogant,” he said, and it was not a recrimination so much as a statement of fact. “I was caught up in my own cleverness, convinced I understood the nature of the opposition. So blind a nascent Name escaped my attention, that I failed to realize I was facing perhaps the most dangerous opponent of my long career.”
“The Wandering Bard,” I said.
Almorava of Smyrna, though now she went by a different name and face. I’d thought her a nuisance and not a threat, when I’d fought against her, a meddler that could help along defeat but never cause it. It appeared I’d been very, very wrong about that.
“You will face her too, in time,” Black said. “Do not make the same mistakes I did. No matter how powerful the heroes she will align herself with, she is the greatest threat among the opposition. If she is not contained, she will make you rue that failing.”
I studied him silently. The Empress had called him a raw, bare nerve. I’d hoped that she was wrong, but there was a shadow in the man across from me that gave me pause. It wasn’t the dark spiral of doubt and recriminations I knew best, but something… colder. As if he’d cut away the human parts of him, deemed them useless and to be set aside until the current messes could were fixed.
“It’s all right to grieve her,” I said. “I do, and I never knew her the way you did.”
The dark-haired man’s smile was mirthless.
“I will grieve her properly when affairs here allow it,” he said. “There will be a funeral in Ater, in a few months. I expect you to be there.”
I nodded slowly. He drank from his cup, fingers steady yet somehow fragile.
“I will have to tell her family,” he said softly. “I haven’t yet. It feels like less than her due to scry her husband for that conversation.”
He closed his eyes, finished his drink and the sliver of vulnerability there’d been on his face was gone when the green stare returned.
“I’ve been spending the last few days reading reports,” he said. “You’ve done well here, Catherine. There are few people that could have so deftly handled the fae.”
“The Empress helped me clean up the mess,” I replied honestly. “Couldn’t have done it without her.”
“Another pleasant development,” he noted. “I was glad to hear of your cooperation. You will need to rely on her in the future, and she on you.”
“You talk,” I said, “like you’re going to die.”
He laughed cuttingly, but the edge did not feel like it was directed at me. Or at him. It was the laugh of a man who looked up at the Heavens with only contempt.
“Oh there’s still a few years left in this hide, if I avoid the right mistakes,” he said. “There will be dangers in facing Diabolist, to be sure, but I am aware of the stories I must sidestep.”
Gods but I was glad to hear that. Because there was a picture that could be painted in Liesse, one that involved my mentor and my rival and the bloody succession that had been the way of villains since the First Dawn. I wasn’t… Fuck, I knew Black was a risk. That as long as he lived there would always be limits to how far I could push things with the Tower. But I wasn’t ready for him to die. I wasn’t sure that I would ever be. It wasn’t even just that I felt safer with him, the hazy memory of a warm cloak around my shoulders threaded with the bone-deep certainty there was not a line he wouldn’t cross to keep me alive. I worried my lip. It’d been easy to tell Grandmaster Talbot that the monster in front of me was the closest thing I’d ever have to a father, when he was so very far away. It was harder to do it now that he was here with me. It would have been breaking a pane of glass we’d always been careful to keep there, even if sometimes our hands pressed against that divide close enough to feel the other’s warmth. The hard girl with a distant father figure, I thought mockingly. When did I become such a hackneyed banality?
“Be careful,” I said, voice rough. “You’re still useful to me.”
Something like a smile quirked his lips and he nodded. I poured myself another cup to avoid looking at him even if the liquor had tasted like bad decisions, and felt a sliver of gratitude when he changed the subject.
“Diabolist must be dealt with before summer’s end,” he said. “We had a conversation, you and I, while I was in the Free Cities. About changes that must be had in the Empire.”
“I’m not sure the Empress will agree to the kind of changes I want,” I said. “I’ve made promises, Black. I thought I had it under control, but…”
“In Dread Crowned,” he said, lips curving around the name of the song my legionaries and thousands more had sung. “A lovely tune. Almost lovely enough one cannot hear the clamour for war under the words.”
“I made a deal with her for the vicequeenship of Callow, like you said I should,” I told him. “But the Wasteland is sick, Black. There’s centuries of rot set in. We can’t build anything that’ll last without clearing it away first.”
Because, much as I’d come to like Malicia, I could not help to think that our deal would not survive her. That all it took was a knife in the back by some ambitious High Lord and the armies would march, because the Empress was a creature of pragmatic reason but she was the exception and not the rule. If we were to really, truly make this work then the cabals of scheming highborn had to go. Or it was just a matter of time until another version of the coup in Laure took place, and we’d come too far now for that to lead to anything but rebellion. I hadn’t forgotten it wasn’t the Truebloods that’d made a grab for power in the capital, when I’d disappeared for a few months. It had been the Empress’ own allies, supposedly mine as well. To trust men like them was like throwing tea in the sea and expecting it to turn brown.
“And so, summer’s end,” Black said calmly. “Procer will not begin their campaign in autumn, not if it means taking the risk of fighting through the winter in foreign lands. We will have until the first pangs of spring to do what must be done.”
The tone had been serene, measured. Cold as the Winter running through my veins, and I was not ashamed to admit it scared me.
“And what exactly is that?” I asked.
“Praes,” he said mildly, “will be purged. From Court to gutter. I will not allow knives to be bared at our back as we prepare for the greatest war the Empire has seen in half a millennium.”
I looked into those pale green eyes and glimpsed the house of steel behind them, grinding wheels of steel that knew no pity or pause. There had been weight to those words.
“The Empress has already broken the Truebloods,” I said. “Most of them call themselves the Moderates now, and the rest is on the run.”
“Twenty years, I have kept my tongue as Alaya ruled Praes her way,” Black said. “She has done much with that time. Won a civil war without ever mustering a single army, and so much more I could never have done in her place. But it is not enough.”
His fingers clenched.
“I look west and I see the chosen daughter of the old ways, sitting atop a throne of death and sorcery in naked challenge to the Tower,” he hissed. “I look east and I see the remains of the same fools that fought us decades ago, defeated but not yet defanged. Those that kneel may be spared, Catherine. There is still use for them. The rest will burn, and from those ashes we will fashion an Empire that can turn back Hasenbach’s crusade.”
Strange, how fear could make a moment grow crystal-clear.
“That means going against the Empress,” I said. “Is that your intention? Rebellion?”
The cold intensity that had wrought the man’s frame went out like a smothered candle and he passed a hand through his hair. It was, I thought, one of the most human gestures I’d ever seen him make. More than his power or his words, the complete control Black held himself with had always been what made him feel unearthly. That made it thrice I’d seen the control slip tonight. It had my stomach clenching.
“No,” Black said. “Never that. Alaya rules. But she must understand that the time for long games is past. Praes now faces an existential threat. Compromise is no longer an option.”
“And what happens to Callow, in that path of no compromise?” I asked.
“You have a crown,” my teacher said. “Let us dispense with the bastard fig leaf that is putting vice in front of your title. Your people already call you the Black Queen, Catherine. Take Callow in hand. Deal out justice and authority as you see fit, so long as the kingdom is ready for war.”
My blood thrummed. I’d heard that title whispered, by legionaries and sundry soldiers. I’d been very careful not to claim it though. There were implications to it that would undo some very delicate balances that had been struck. But if Black was going to break those anyway… I did not look forward to it, what it would mean to be queen. The tedious matters of statecraft, the never-ending petitions and burdens on my hours. But who else would I trust to take the throne? I would leave the ruling in hands better fit for it than mine. But I would wear the crown and command the armies. And when peace was finally bought by enough death, I would put down my sword and make ploughshare of it. Find a successor that had the talents of peace I so damnably lacked.
“They won’t go quietly,” I warned him. “The last of the old breed. There will be blood.”
“They should have been put down like rabid dogs forty years ago,” Black said coldly. “Their mages conscripted into the ranks, the rebel holdings confiscated and their treasuries used to raise additional legions. For centuries they have hoarded secrets and rituals to use as knives in their bids to power. Let those be used on our enemies instead: the days were dissent could be tolerated are over. All of Praes will fight for the Empire.”
And whatever parts of it refuse will be destroyed, he did not say. He did not need to.
“You want to turn the Empire into a great war machine,” I said. “And it’s a tempting thing, I’ll admit. Legions boots over ever smug highborn throat. But what happens to it, after the war? If you make a Praes that is all forges and army camps, then it’s not going to put down the swords after we win. It’ll start looking for another conquest.”
I did not mention the possibility that, even after all that, we might still lose. There was no point in having that conversation at all. Except I’ll have to take precautions, I thought. Prepare Callow for the possibility, so that it would survive the defeat. I missed Hakram like a godsdamned limb.
“I imagine I will be dead, by then,” Black said. “But Alaya will rule, and you will have learned to do the same. The two of you can make the Empire what it should be. In this I have no regrets.”
“Cut out that fucking talk,” I sharply said. “You’re not dying so easily. If you’re helping me make this mess, you’re helping me clean it afterwards. There’s too much I don’t know, Black. Too many gaps in need of filling.”
He smiled, suddenly, and for the first time I’d seen him today he felt as young as he looked. His hand hesitantly extended over the table and patted my own before withdrawing. It felt awkward. I wished he’d kept it there longer.
“Do not try to become me,” he said. “I was a tool that served a purpose, and that purpose is coming to an end. This Empire will outgrow me and so will you. To linger beyond that would be to become a crutch, and do disservice to us all.”
“You don’t get to quit halfway through,” I said through gritted teeth.
I hated that my voice broke just a little.
“Oh, child,” he said, almost tenderly, and took my hand in his. “Do not grieve this. You will surpass me, Catherine. I saw that in you the moment we first met, that glint in your eyes that was the best of me without the worst.”
“This isn’t about surpassing anyone,” I hoarsely said.
“It always is,” he whispered. “I will gracefully leave the stage, when the time comes, and leave it proud of what will come after me. I knew this to be the outcome the moment I began.”
I squeezed his fingers and closed my eyes. No, I thought. This is just a story, Black.
And I’d already proved I could break those, if I was willing to pay the price.