“And so Subira of the Sahelians slew Maleficent and said: ‘Emperor am I now, Sinister of name and deed. Let this be the truth of our empire, that iron ever sharpens iron ‘til the last cut is made.’”
– Extract from the Scroll of Thrones, second of the Secret Histories of Praes
There was a House of Light standing at the heart of the largest Praesi army in a century. The irony had amused me more than it should, and the sharp taste of it on my tongue had driven me to make the temple my headquarters for the night. There’d been no one to contest my decision: the lone sister remaining of the priests who’d once tended to the village now swallowed up by tents and palisades was out. Among the legionaries, I was told, tending to the wounded and the sick. I could admire the dedication, though she’d find few soldiers willing to allow her ministrations save for those of my Fifteenth. Praesi had a deep abiding distrust of anything that claimed it came without strings attached. Misplaced wariness here, but common sense in the Wasteland.
“By the pulpit, please,” I told the legionaries.
A pair of broad-shouldered orcs set down my gloriously comfortable fae seat before the low wooden frame, casting uncomfortable looks at their surrounding. There was hardly anything to look at, this village being too small to even warrant mention on most maps. The House had been built in the style of the central plains anyway, instead of the more ornate Liessen ways. Walls of wood and clay, a single window in the back that was nothing more than a hole bare of glass or shutters. There wasn’t even an adjoining backroom for the priests to sleep in – only a house more hut than cottage huddled up against the wall outside. A third legionary, this one bearing captain stripes on her shoulders, lingered by the pulpit with my writing tools in her hands.
“You can set those down,” I said. “I don’t believe we’ve met before. You’re one of Hune’s, right?”
“My cohort serves under Legate Hune, yes,” she agreed, the thick Summerholm accent making it plain where she was from.
“Ma’am, are you sure you wouldn’t prefer your tent?” she asked.
They know where my tent is, I thought. They’ll be watching it.
“Captain,” I began.
“Abigail, ma’am,” the woman provided.
“That will be all, Captain Abigail,” I said gently. “You may go.”
The Callown sharply saluted, half her face rosy in that way flesh tended to be after protracted mage healing. All the way up to the eye, I noted. She must have fought in the skirmish against Fasili and his wights. The pair of orcs followed her after dismissal, joining the contingent of guards that would be outside, and I let myself fall into the cushioned seat. Out of habit I pushed the inkpot and quill to the right side the way they’d taught me at the orphanage, reaching for a sheath of parchment and unrolling it. The soft calf skin had seen use before, though without Name sight I would never have noticed the hints of words that remained on it – whoever scraped the skin had done thorough work. Calmly, I opened the buttons of my shirt and reached for the three documents I had been keeping on me ever since receiving them. One was from Malicia, though not of her handwriting. The second bore Thief’s hasty scrawl and the third was a hand I knew more than passingly, Ratface’s. All of them bore names. Setting the three ahead of my own parchment I inked my quill and began to write. Two columns, the first for those that were in more than one document and the other for the single mentions. I blew carefully on the ink after finishing, and only then paused. Seven names from the first column were given a mark. Those I let dry on their own, settling into the seat and waiting for Hakram. Adjutant, ever a prince among men, did not make me wait for long.
“Masego says it’s all ready,” the orc told me without bothering with niceties.
I approved. This was not going to be a good night for those.
“And he’s certain it won’t be detected?” I asked.
The tall greenskin snorted.
“He thought you’d ask that,” he said. “Should I give you the answer he prepared?”
“I assume it’s very condescending,” I said.
“Almost poetically so,” Hakram grinned.
The flash of fang he bared was low, close to the lips and paired with eye contact. That, I had learned, usually meant amusement in an orc. Though not all of them, to my irritation. The clans from the Lesser Steppes kept to their own strange customs. He lingered after, and I drummed my fingers against the pulpit.
“Out with it,” I said. “Do you need more men? Because there’s only so many I would count trustworthy, and I don’t want to dip into the Broken Bells for that.”
“Forty is plenty,” he replied. “Truth be told, I want to keep the second line you gave me after the business is over, if it can be done. I have too many irons in the fire these days for the number of hands I can command.”
“I’ll talk to Juniper,” I said. “But Nauk’s command was gutted in Dormer and Senior Tribune Jwahir is low on veterans, so I wouldn’t count on it for a few months.”
I raised an eyebrow after that. Another line under his command was very clearly not what he’d wanted to talk about. My mood turned sour when I remembered another matter I’d recently slid under his purview.
“Wait, is this about Nauk?” I said. “I thought that was going fine.”
He shook his head.
“Hierophant took a look, like you asked,” the orc said. “He’ll be awake in a week, up and about in a month. You can leave that to me, Cat. I’m just worrying about our… timing.”
“It had to be tonight,” I reminded him. “The assault starts come morning. If we’d done this earlier she would have had breathing room.”
“There are officers on that list,” Hakram said, and it was not a question.
“Highest is a tribune,” I replied.
Confirmation from Thief and Malicia. That one had stung more than I’d thought is would, given that he’d enrolled back in Ater.
“I mislike what this’ll do to our chain of command,” he bluntly said. “On the eve of the largest battle we’ve ever fought, no less.”
“You can’t’ seriously be suggesting we just leave them there,” I said, appalled.
“No, not that,” he said. “I just wish we’d done this early enough the replacements would be settled. Before you begin, I understand why we didn’t.”
“The wager’s that we’ll gain more than we lose from this,” I said. “I stand by it.”
The orc looked away, the thoughtful look I caught first eminently strange on a greenskin’s face.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he finally said.
“I wish it was a masterstroke,” I admitted. “It’s why we delayed so much. But even now it’s just spring cleaning, isn’t it? We won’t be getting all of them.”
“I doubt there’s a single army in the world that could boast that,” he ruefully said. “Perfect is foe to functional.”
A saying translated from Kharsum, that, though there was one much like it in Callow. Still, I silently admired the fact he’d managed to put alliteration in there through a language barrier.
“It won’t be pleasant work,” I said.
As close to an apology as I could offer him.
“Pleasant’s herding aurochs back home,” Hakram said. “We chose different lives, you and I.”
I inclined my head.
“Good hunting, Adjutant,” I simply said.
What his lips bared was not a smile so much as a row of knives. He left me to my thoughts, and though my mind was spinning it never lingered on any single thread. There were too many moving parts ahead, though thorough planning should see to the worst of it. It began in truth when Grandmaster Talbot was ushered through the door, an hour before Midnight Bell. The nobleman – as a knight he still qualified as that, even though his family’s ancestral holdings were now my own demesne – was impeccably arranged even this late, dark locks combed and his beard without a single hair out of order. The cloak on his shoulders I nearly raised an eyebrow at, though the black and bronze I saw were the colours of the Order and not of House Talbot. It still looked more decorative than truly useful, but wasn’t that always the way of highborn? He knelt smoothly before the pulpit, and if he’d taken any offense to a villain using holy site for writing desk there’d been no trace of it on his face.
“Your Grace,” he said. “I come as summoned.”
“On your feet, Talbot,” I said. “I’ve never had much fondness for kneeling, mine or otherwise. I have work for you.”
He rose as elegantly as he’d gone on his knees, but now I saw sharp attention in his eyes where before there’d only been curiosity.
“It was my understanding that the assault would begin with Morning Bell,” he said.
“It will,” I said. “That’s not what I want you for. Or the Order, to be more precise.”
“We are ever at your disposal, Your Grace,” Brandon Talbot said.
Noblespeak for having not fucking idea what I was talking about, and I was glad of it. If they saw me coming… I’d kept my preparations light and quiet, but Akua had always been the better hand at this game.
“I have a list of names for you,” I said. “When you return to the Order’s encampment, you will rouse your men and proceed through the Fifteenth to arrest everyone on it.”
The man’s eyes widened.
“You have found traitors in the legion,” he said.
“Most of these I’ve known about for months, if not years,” I said calmly. “I’ve had Adjutant hunting for them since before he even had his Name. The intent was to watch who they came in contact with, but Diabolist has been very careful. In the end I had to rely on other eyes.”
“And now you would purge them before engaging the Wastelander,” Talbot murmured.
It wouldn’t be all of them, of course. She’d have more, carefully hidden under instructions to lay low. But by killing what I hoped was the majority of her agents when she had no time to replace them I’d be either crippling or ending whatever scheme she had prepared. It took more than a handful of spies to carry out a plan, no matter how well-placed. I folded the parchment I’d written on and held out my hand. He hesitated before coming forward and taking it, eyes lingering on my fingers. I smiled discretely. I remembered enough of my etiquette lessons to know nobles weren’t supposed to taken anything directly from the crowned head of Callow, and it was almost charming he kept to that even now. Grandmaster Talbot opened the parchment and read through, expression growing grimmer the longer he did.
“There are more than I would have believed,” he said. “And Callowans among them.”
“I doubt they knew who they were selling the information to,” I noted. “She’ll have used Callowan or Duni intermediaries. The names in the second column gave intelligence, but should not be considered agents. Just treasonous.”
“Tribune Katlego,” he said, eyebrows rising in surprise as he studied the first column closer. “Second in rank among Legate Hune’s officers, I believe.”
“I’m told hostages were taken,” I said.
The Empress had written as much. But he’d folded instead of going to me, and so on the list he went.
“That is the reason there is no mark by his name,” I added after a moment.
“And those have meaning, I take it,” the man said.
“Those seven officers,” I said mildly, “are going to resist arrest. They will, unfortunately, die in the struggle.”
The knight’s face went still and he studied me silently.
“Trial would be inconvenient, even with a military tribunal,” he said.
“They have relatives in the Legion,” I said. “Or connections at court. This will make fewer waves.”
“This is murder,” he said.
There was no condemnation in his voice. It was easy to forget, sometimes that while the nobles of the kingdom had been no High Lords they’d been far from being babes in the woods. Callow was no stranger to knives in the dark. His words had not been question but statement of fact, and I did not deny them.
“So it is,” I agreed. “See it done promptly. Supply Tribune Ratface has a man outsides, awaiting you with details on the location of everyone on the list.”
Brandon Talbot folded the parchment and slid it inside his doublet before putting his palm over his heart and bowing.
“By your leave, my queen,” the Grandmaster said.
I met his eyes, and did not correct him. I had few advantages over my enemies, I thought as I watched him leave, but the Order of Broken Bells was one of them. Callowan loyalists who’d been in hiding until a few months ago, and had hardly left my sight since. They were near certain to be free of infiltration and unlikely to balk at the killing of Praesi. It would not be entirely quiet work, of course. The knights mobilizing after dark would draw attention. I was counting on it, because there were very few mages on that list. Not nearly enough to explain how quickly Akua was made aware of my movements. Which meant there were more hidden, and like good spies they would report the ongoing purge to their mistress. At which point their locations would be caught by Maesgo’s ward, and Adjutant would would take them. A scheme, I had been taught, should always have more than one payoff. I was slow in learning, Akua, but I have learned. The lists I had received from others I put to the flame. I sent for legionaries and had my seat and affairs removed after, though I did not leave the House. I sat on a wooden bench close to the entrance, little more than a carved log, and waited.
As the hours passed I received reports, some more pleasing than others. The Broken Bells had killed twelve, not seven as I had ordered. Whether Talbot had taken this occasion to settle some scores with an excuse or whether those had been genuine accidents, I would have Hakram find out tomorrow. Adjutant caught two mages trying to reach Diabolist, one a lieutenant and Duni as well. We found the sloppy and the scared, I thought. The truly dangerous ones did nothing at all. I had considered, when planning this, snatching the lot of them from the gallows as I had once done with deserters in Summerholm. But I still remembered flames and Summer’s wrath, the soldiers who’d died screaming for me, and found I did not have it in me to do it. Whatever the Gallowborne had begun as, they had been mine in the end. I would not forge them anew out of dross like this. It was near First Bell when the reports trailed off, and in the wake of that end I dismissed my guards. Returning to my tent felt like a chore, and so I simply rested my head against the wall in the corner of the House. I knew, closing my eyes, that Adjutant would have people close by. It was enough.
I closed my eyes, and sleep found me. An eternity later, I woke to a soft hand on my shoulder.
“Dawn approaches, my friend,” a woman’s voice told me. “The Legions have sounded assembly.”
I’d been entirely awake from the moment I was touched, and drew back the hand that had gone for my sword out of habit. There was a woman standing at my side, barely out of girlhood. Her fair hair was kept in a thick braid, and her robes were simple. The sister, I thought. I was surprised they’d let her in at all, with me asleep. From the corner of my eye I glimpsed a legionary sitting in another corner, and while the sister turned away I dismissed him with a nod. One of Hakram’s? Most likely.
“There’s time yet,” I said.
The woman laughed softly.
“I did not think the Legions so lenient,” she said. “You must be an officer.”
She doesn’t know who I am, I realized. I was not wearing armour, and my clothes were well-made but nothing ostentatious. My blade was a longsword, not standard issue, but a priestess might not have noticed that.
“I am,” I replied amusedly. “It’s going to be a long day, regardless. A few moments of respite will not be begrudged.”
“May I sit?” the sister asked.
“It’s your House,” I shrugged.
“Not mine in the slightest,” she said, though she sat at my side regardless. “I was glad to hear the Fifteenth does not forbid worship of the Gods Above. Places such as these should be refuge to all, no matter their oaths.”
“The Empire’s never been heavy-handed with the priests,” I said. “No reason General Juniper should be different.”
“Or the Black Queen, I suppose,” the sister mused. “We do live in interesting times.”
“No denying that,” I said. “Maybe a little less troublesome, after today. With the Diabolist gone the work of fixing this country can begin.”
The priestess smiled to take away from the bite, but shook her head in disagreement.
“Will it?” she asked. “Evil warring on Evil cannot result in Good.”
I laid back against the wall, eyeing the light peering through the hole ahead. I had at least an hour left, long enough to wash and eat before muster.
“I was told never to argue philosophy with the sisters, when I was a kid,” I said. “But that seems too dismissive by half.”
“I care little for arguments,” the sister said. “But discussion is one of the tools the Gods granted us to make the world a little brighter.”
“Shall we discuss then, Sister?” I teased.
Her face grew serious.
“Saving one soul is saving all of Creation,” she said.
From the Book of All Things, that. One of the more sentimental quotes, and not one I put much stock in. Even if Malicia embraced the Heavens tomorrow, the Empire wouldn’t change in the slightest – save maybe with the addition of her blood on the floor.
“Ah,” I mused. “Hard to have a discussion with that premise, isn’t it? I don’t really think we believe Evil to be the same thing, when it comes down to it.”
“Then teach me,” she said. “I would not close my ears to the truth.”
“You know, I was raised on the same stories as you,” I said. “I used to believe that Evil was mostly about a good ol’ rousing round of hangings and sundry blood magic.”
The blond priestess smiled gently.
“But you don’t anymore?”
“You could say I’ve had the benefit of an extensive education on the subject,” I replied. “The way I see it, Sister, Evil is about refusing to play by the rules of the game.”
She frowned. It was a pretty look on her, as I imagined most were. It would have been a lie I didn’t find something attractive about purity, though power had always been what I preferred.
“I’m afraid I don’t quite follow,” she admitted.
“It think starts with asking why,” I said. “Why should I forgive? Why should I not kill? Why should I obey? And eventually you realize that there’s all these rules handed down to you and then you get to the real question – why shouldn’t I just do whatever the Hells I want?”
I chuckled, the sound of it resonating in the near-empty House of Light.
“That’s when you realize the answer’s pretty simple: because someone thinks I shouldn’t, and will stop me if I do.”
I let out a long breath.
“Most people stop there and become a minor league sort of evil. That one jackass in every village that always talks shit, the merchant that short-changes you or another corrupt judge.”
My fingers idly closed around the pommel of my sword, thumb rubbing the leather wrap around the handle.
“But once in a while, you get someone who doesn’t flinch. Who decides it’s not enough, and replies: try me. And then they pick up a sword.”
I met her eyes and offered her a half-smile.
“That’s Evil, I think – walking past the line in the sand and refusing to apologize for it.”
The look on the Sister’s face was unreadable.
“You sound proud.”
“Proud is a strong word,” I said. “But it’s been some time since I was ashamed of it.”
“Strange,” she said softly. “You did not strike me as someone who would embrace fear.”
It was my turn to frown.
“I think you might have missed my point.”
She shook her head.
“The way of thinking you just described assumes that the world around you is your enemy. That is not courage, it is fear.”
“Look around you, Sister. The Diabolist is stealing cities, the Principate is marauding near the borders and just two years ago the south was in open rebellion. The world is full of enemies.”
“Because you treat them like one,” she told me seriously. “If you solve all your problems with swords, swords are the only reply you will ever get.”
“That’s a nice sentiment,” I replied, “but it’ll be cold comfort when the Procerans invade.”
“Ah, borders. I’ve never quite understood why they matter so much to people. You draw imaginary lines on the land and tell people to remain on one side, as if ink and parchment could make you its owner.”
I had quite a few scathing things to reply to that, but since she’d been polite enough to let me speak uninterrupted I supposed I should afford her the same courtesy.
“Do you know why the House of Light does not preach rebellion against the Empire? Because it doesn’t really matter, whether we have a king or an empress. Rulers come and go, but what really matters doesn’t.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“And what would that be, exactly?”
“Trying to be better,” she told me, and passion shone in her eyes. “No one is born Good. It’s something you have to work for every day, and sometimes it can seem like more trouble than it is worth – but what else is there?”
She leaned forward.
“So many of us see life as a race and will do anything to pull ahead, but that is the conceit of a child. If we all cross the same finish line the only thing that matters, the only thing that can matter, is how we get there.”
I grinned, but it was more a show of teeth than mirth.
“Sentiment like that is how they get you every time, Sister. So what if we all cross the same finish line? Down here in the mud is what really matters. What we make of it. And if I only have so much time kicking around Creation, then I’m the one who’s going to decide how it’s spent. Not the Gods, not whoever’s got a crown, me. I own my life, and damn anyone telling me I need to live it abiding rules that are just a key to the other side.”
She met my eyes, unafraid.
“Life is what you share with others,” she said. “Hoard it and you will die all the poorer for it.”
I ran a hand through my hair, frustrated that she just wouldn’t see what I saw.
“You don’t even get to set the rules you live by,” I said. “You’re a leaf spun in the wind deluding itself into thinking as long as it behaves it’ll land somewhere nice.”
She smiled, eyes gentle and sad. The kind of eyes you gave someone who was so far lost they didn’t even remember what the path looked like. Her pity burned me harder than Summer’s flame ever had.
“And you think your way will let you choose where you land?”
My mantle roiled under my skin, the weight of all the choices I had made and would make, the sum of what I was and would be.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Sister,” I told her, “I don’t want to be the leaf – I want to be the storm.”
She laid a gentle hand on my wrist.
“In the end,” she murmured. “I choose to believe that being Good matters more that being strong.”
“In the end,” I replied clearly, “I would rather be wrong than be cowed.”
And what more was there to say, after that? I rose, letting her hand fall away.
“Be safe,” she said. “There are great dangers about.”
I smiled, feeling a sliver of grief for all that this was.
“Oh, Sister,” I said. “All those dangerous people? I’m the one they answer to.”