“A dilemma is no such thing if it is flammable.”
– Dread Empress Sulphurous, the ‘Technically Correct’
Liesse looked like it’d spent a few years rolling around in nightmare juice, but at least the result’s old floor plan still more or less held up. I’d taken this city once before, and though this time I’d come knocking without an army at my back I still knew my way around. The new occupants, though, were something of a problem. For one they were all dead, which was not a desired quality in the inhabitants of what had been one of the most thriving cities in Callow, and the entire place had gone to Hell. Literally. Akua’s idea of a garrison apparently involved a generous helping of devils let loose in the streets. Which, hey, not a problem if I stuck to the rooftops. But the devils with wings were, and the penumbra that hung over Liesse like a veil wasn’t quite enough on its own to hide me. The inevitable long periods spent huddled under whatever was available to hide allowed me to stew in anger that was growing sharper by the moment. It wasn’t enough that Diabolist had slaughtered everyone within these walls, the population of the second largest city in Callow and all the refugees from the south that’d been fleeing the fae. No, she had to wreck the actual city as well.
There would be no salvaging Liesse after this. Setting aside the madwoman’s little helpers currently having the run of the streets, the entire place had been turned into some fucking Praesi ritual tool. There were runes everywhere, wards I could feel buzzing when I came too close and even the lay of the streets had been fucked with. Akua or one of her minions had ordered the already messy sprawl of Liessen streets to be turned into a maze of collapsed dead-ends and barricades. This was no longer a liveable city. It might become one again eventually, but that’d take years of highly dangerous and professional work as well as what I could only qualify as a prodigious amount of money. Which, even if I did have – which I didn’t, because rebuilding a twice war-torn nation and my own ravaged demesne wasn’t exactly cheap work – I wouldn’t be able to spare. Because, once again fuck you Akua, this little murderous tantrum was the call for every godsdamned nation on Calernia that could spare an army to march for the Red Flower Vales. At best I’d be able to put wards around this wreck of a city and forbid entrance by Imperial decree.
Every speck of coin I’d be able to spare would be going to fortifying Callow and ensuring its people didn’t starve through this winter, or the seasons after that. I somehow doubted the Tenth Crusade would be over in a year. It was going to be a long and brutal slugging match between the most powerful nations on the continent, and my people were troublingly unprepared for it.
My advance was slow, but it was still an advance. The deeper I got into the city, sticking to shadows and hiding places, the thicker the patrols became. I’d half-expected Diabolist to send an army of ten thousand wights just outside the tunnel that Black and I entered the city through, but there’d been no one in sight when we did. Just a set of hidden runic arrays that my teacher promptly tore apart with his shadow before we made a run for it. That had me wary. Diabolist was of the old breed but she wasn’t stupid. I kept having to repeat that, these days, but that made it no less true. Just because we’d torn apart her vanguard outside Liesse didn’t mean she was done: if anything, that probably meant the heart of her plan was in here. What that plan actually was, I still couldn’t tell. Sure, she’d opened a Greater Breach in the worst place possible at the worst time possible for our army. She’d followed up that disaster by tossing three demons at us, which meant both Warlock and Hierophant had their hands tied with damage control. But how long did she expect that to last, really? At some point one of those two threats would give, and then the Named that was freed up would turn to cleaning up the remaining wights.
Black and I had come into the city ahead of the rest, but I fully expected that before too long we’d be followed by the Legions. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the Watch had already begun landing at the bottom of the pit. Was that her plan, then? Forcing an engagement in a narrow tunnel that couldn’t really be bypassed? Once more that might work for a while, but we had two sorcerers on par with if not outright superior to her outside and I really doubted her little get-out-of-Creation trick was impervious to the Warlock’s entire bag of tricks. Right now, I couldn’t see a way for her to get out of this alive. She’d last a while, there was no denying that. She’d even cost us a horrible butcher’s bill before it was all said and done. But tonight or in a week, even without Black and I lifting a hand, this path led to her head on a pike. Or the Hall of Screams, if the Empress was feeling vindictive. Which meant I was missing something, because Diabolist only ever planned for defeat when it got her something she wanted and she was too fucking arrogant to care for something that sprang from her death. Akua Sahelian’s cause was herself: everything else was, ultimately, expendable. It wasn’t the kind of thinking that led to a woman martyring herself for some kind of philosophical point.
Not that it would succeed, anyway. Black had already made it clear that the aftermath of Second Liesse was going to be one long thorough purge of everything and everyone even remotely associated to the Truebloods. And she has to know that, I thought. That she gave him the excuse he’d been waiting on for decades. There was a way, in Diabolist’s eyes, where today ended up with her on top and beyond reprisal. I was going to have to find what that way was and shove blades into it until it stopped twitching.
The first step towards that was getting eyes on the Ducal Palace, which was where Diabolist was bound to be holed up. Probably on an overly ornate throne, drinking expensive wine. I just knew her armour would be nicer than mine, too. Shame about all that blood that I was going get all over it. I ended up on a rooftop overlooking the outside of the palace, and grimaced when I took a closer look. I’d grilled Robber after he’d infiltrated the place a few months back then Thief after she did the same a great deal more recently, and they’d not been wrong to call it a fortress. They’d both mentioned that the area in front of the outer walls was open field, with space once occupied by shops and mansions torn down and cleared out to make it even harder to approach unnoticed. That part had changed, I saw. It was now entirely filled with tight ranks of perfectly still wights in full arms and armour. How many did that make? Thousands, at least. This was easily larger than the biggest marketplace in Laure, and it could fit that many people during festivals. Behind the walls I saw runes and stalking devils, and even clusters of mages she’d kept back.
Frontal assault wasn’t looking all that feasible, but there weren’t any obvious backdoors to exploit. It’d been a little too much to hope for that there would be: it wasn’t like Diabolist lacked the manpower to cover ever nook and cranny. A distraction, maybe? Something loud enough she’d send men to quell the mess, making an opening for us to sneak through. But she’ll be expecting that, I thought. She knows we’re in the city. It might be that patience was our only real option. Waiting until the Legions made landfall and she had to shift her forces to hold them back, then going for the head of the snake. And even then, it wouldn’t be a sure thing. I did hate it when my opponents were competent, it complicated everything. I waited under cover for what must have been at least half an hour, watching patrols and unmoving sentinels, but no opening ever emerged. At this rate Black would join me and I’d have no plan to suggest.
The explosion took me by surprise.
Not because there was an explosion at all – that’d pretty much been made a certainty the moment I’d sent Robber’s cohort into the city through the path Thief had found me – but because it sounded wrong. It wasn’t the kind of detonation that came from goblin munitions. It got worse when I quietly shifted rooftops to have a look at where the noise came from: one of the wings of the Ducal Palace was half-collapsed and smoke was trailing into the sky. Shit, I thought. If that was what I thought it was…
“A good plan,” Diabolist said. “Or rather it was, the first time you used it.”
My blade was out before she finished the first word and I twisted around only to find Akua Sahelian in all her glory leaning against the edge of the rooftop, looking down at her assembly of wights. I’d been incorrect in assuming she would put on armour. Instead she had draped over her full curves a complicated robe of red and gold with snow white silk borders. The back of her neck was covered by a low-hanging veil set with patterns of precious stones, and the oblique cut of her skirt revealed legs covered by form-fitting soft leather trousers. Even her boots, I thought, looked like they cost a year’s salary. My first thought was: well, that’s twenty denarii. My second thought was really more of a response, namely forming a spear of shadow and tossing it through her throat. It made a hole in the silhouette that glowed around the edges but almost immediately closed. An illusion. Diabolist raised an eyebrow.
“How uncouth,” she chided. “As I was saying, there was some cleverness to the thought. Sending Thief after the keystone of my ritual while my eyes were on you and the Carrion Lord.”
“Some cleverness,” I replied flatly, keeping eye on the wights below. “How kind of you to concede that.”
They weren’t moving, at least not those I could see. That was little comfort, given where I was currently standing.
“Dearest Catherine,” Diabolist drawled, sounding amused. “You employed this same trick to steal the very sun of Summer. Did you truly think that would go unnoticed? Of course I prepared for the eventuality.”
“It was a trap,” I sighed.
This entire city was, I’d known that going in, but I’d thought that my little contingencies might be snuck past her.
“Just because the keystone needed to be there once does not mean it needed to remain there,” Akua languidly said. “Even if your little burglar survives my precautions, she will find nothing there to steal.”
I frowned at her.
“So is this a back-patting session, Akua?” I asked. “Because I’m kind of busy. You know, working out the logistics of killing you.”
She waved away my words airily. It really was shame I’d only be able to brutally murder her the once. I felt kind of cheated by that fact.
“I am in no hurry,” she said. “You are. After all, your army is losing the battle outside quite spectacularly.”
I went still. She could be lying, of course. Very likely she was. When I’d left two thirds of her mages on the field were dead, Masego had her demons imprisoned and the wights were collapsing on two fronts. Juniper was headed out to contain her Hellgate with the Warlock at her back, and so while I wouldn’t consider that situation under control it should at least not be outright fucking us over for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, I’d thought since the beginning that this was going too well considering the amount of time she’d had to prepare her defences. There was a chance, however slight, she wasn’t lying through her teeth.
“Istrid Knightsbane is dead,” Diabolist said. “General Orim and General Afolabi are as well. Their legions were gutted around them, then rose in my service. The remaining commanders are hanging on by a thread, and that thread is thinning with every heartbeat. Even if they manage to retreat, this cannot be called anything but a defeat.”
My fingers clenched.
“If it’s true, that’s a mess that’s going to cost us badly,” I said. “But it doesn’t really matter, does it? The moment you used your ritual you made this about Named. Even if you wipe out my whole army your side collapses the moment you die.”
“Can you?” Diabolist asked, and she sounded genuinely curious. “Put aside your pride and your hatred, for a moment. Do you truly believe that even if you came to stand before me, you would come out the victor of that confrontation?”
“I’ve killed more terrifying things than you, Akua Sahelian,” I hissed.
She laughed, and gracefully arced her arm to display our surroundings.
“No,” the Soninke smiled. “No you have not. I am not a fettered god you can trick or a petty tool hollowed out by the Heavens. I am heiress crowned by inheritance, in the fullness of her might. That I bother with these ramparts between us is a mere mark of respect – I could break you with a word, Catherine. You have risen too swiftly. It has made you fragile.”
“I think I’m supposed to pity you,” I said. “For being so far gone that you can’t even understand what a repulsive creature you are and how it’s going to get you killed. The worst part of it, Akua, is that you have all these gifts. You’re so fucking capable, and I have bad enough a need for capable people I might actually have ignored what a monster you are if you’d not proven again and again you’re poison to everything you touch. But you just had to cross those lines, the ones that mean I have to put you down whatever the cost.”
“Must you still bother with the pretence of righteousness, even at this late hour?” she said. “It has grown increasingly quite tedious.”
“Is this the part where you trying telling me we’re not so different?” I said. “Fuck you and the flying murder fortress you rode in on, Sahelian. I’ve done some nasty stuff, but you? You don’t have limits. It’s worse than a sickness of the mind, because you chose to be like this. You glorify it.”
She seemed amused, and in that expression I saw a lot I’d rather I hadn’t. I saw the Empress weaving plots that bound me ever tighter to her reign, I saw Black imparting a lesson that was always as brutal as it was practical. We’d both been raised in the shadows of the same monsters. It had left marks on both of us, and the knowledge of that shared brand had bitter taste in my mouth.
“Tell me, old friend,” Akua said fondly. “What are your principles, exactly? I keep hearing of these lines and the way I cross them yet you never elaborate. I have murdered for my ambitions, this is true. But then, so have you. Is it simply the scale of the killing that is your objection?”
“Friend? Gods, when people say your kind gets drunk in power I didn’t think it was quite that literal. You’ve loosed devils on innocents, Akua,” I said coldly. “You summon demons to make use of them in war. You’re racist, backstabbing and utterly amoral. You murdered a hundred thousand of my countrymen in cold blood to make a fucking point.”
“Nearly all these acts have been committed by those you call allies as well,” Diabolist mildly said. “Your own teacher has methodically butchered Callowans for decades to cow them. Perhaps never a hundred thousand at once, this I’ll grant. But between the Conquest and the occupation? My dear, I broke a city. He broke a nation, and kept it so. I daresay the sum of corpses to his name is a few graveyards ahead of mine.”
She stretched lazily.
“You’ve yourself made pacts with entities that are hostile to Creation,” she continued. “And even now bear their mantle, a diabolist in frost instead of brimstone. You’ve consistently put Callowan lives above those of Praesi and greenskins, which indicates a certain… disregard. In matters of treachery, shall we revisit the inception of the Liesse Rebellion?”
She laughed, the sound of it rich and almost enchanting enough the urge to kill her didn’t have my hand tightening into a fist.
“As for the same moral fibre you so often chide me for lacking,” she said, and met my eyes calmly. “Catherine, when have you ever displayed it yourself? I was under the impression that to be righteous one needed to do more than merely commit lesser sins instead of great.”
“The difference,” I replied coldly, “is that killing is something I’m driven to, while it’s your starting point.”
“What difference is truly there,” Diabolist asked, “if we both come to kill? Does hemming and hawing over bloodying your blade somehow exempt you from the nature of your actions?”
“The difference is that at some point I stop, Akua,” I said. “I have an end. You don’t. It’s one massacre after another until someone puts you down. The payoff for all the ugly things done at my hands or my orders is peace. Real, lasting peace. A way out of the loop that’s fucked over both our peoples since the First Dawn. What’s your payoff, Diabolist? Progressively greater atrocities, until you finally run into someone stronger than you?”
“That,” Akua said smilingly, “sounds like a justification.”
I flinched, because it was just true enough to cut.
“Did you ever wonder why all these renowned villains displayed such immediate fondness for you?” Diabolist said. “Or did you merely assumed you were unfathomably charming? You have always been a threat to the very order they’ve spent a lifetime building, even when you set out to serve their purpose.”
“I’m aware I’m being used,” I replied flatly. “I can live with that, so long as I’m using them as well.”
The Soninke clicked her tongue against the roof her mouth disapprovingly.
“Sentiment is a blinder, Catherine,” she said. “Consider the facts. From the moment you’ve become the Squire, Callow has been graced with one bloody reaping after another. Did you ever stop to consider this was no accident but the actual intent?”
She leaned forward.
“Did you ever consider that Callow cannot rebel if it too busy burning?” she said. “That the ashes of a kingdom are easier to subjugate in full than a resurgent nation under your hand?”
“I know exactly what they’re after,” I flatly replied.
“You ‘know’ what two of the most exquisitely manipulative villains alive have told you,” Diabolist corrected. “Is a few scraps of affection all it takes to bind you?”
“Did you think a clever speech would be all that was needed to sway me?” I said. “I know what you are, Akua. It’s what I would be, if I believed in nothing. If I thought I was the only thing that mattered on Creation.”
“You will hate me,” Diabolist said. “That is as it should be. But I know you as well, Catherine Foundling. And there is a truth you have flinched from looking in the eye, for it is distasteful to you: the Empress and the Carrion Lord, though you may be fond of them, have a plan for Callow. Me?”
“Its existence is a matter of indifference to me, so long as tribute is paid,” Akua said. “And so now I ask – is there truly a bridge you will not burn, if it means better outcome for your people?”
Her smile was thin and sharp, a slice of ivory between red lips.
“Let us find out,” she said. “We will begin, I think, by severing the ties holding you back.”
She looked towards the Ducal Palace, the very picture of nonchalance.
“Do hurry, Catherine. I have the Black Knight.”
My blood ran cold, even as the illusion dispersed and the undead below began to move. A reminder, those, that no matter how convincing she could be I was still mere feet away from thousands of my people she had murdered and enslaved. There were some things that could not be painted over by eloquence. The wisps of sorcery that Diabolist had left behind spun again, and even as I prepared to forcefully disrupt them a silhouette formed and my hand was stayed. Exactly one sentence was spoken to me, and then the silhouette was gone before I could so much as open my mouth. Loudly, I swallowed. My fingers clenched and then unclenched as I watched the wights beginning the climb towards me. In the distance mages wove sorcery and devils took flight, the full muster of Diabolist’s madness finally taking the field. I closed my eyes, breathed out and stilled my mind. I opened them to sight of a corpse-like hand grasping the edge of the roof.
“Fall,” I said, and darkness obeyed.