“Tall your tower may be, but what was raised by the hands of men can by those same hands be torn down.”
– Queen Eleanor Fairfax of Callow
The moon had come and gone, chased away by the approach of dawn. I still had the better part of a bell left until the sun rose, but I sat patiently. It would make the fourth time Archer went into the city now, and she’d come close enough the last I could reasonably expect her to succeed on this trip. I’d come to regret not bringing a folding chair for my vigil, but the log I was leaning against was comfortable enough apathy had seen me decline going out to get one. I enjoyed the silence, to be honest. The reprieve from everything. Out here I could allow even my thoughts to go still, though I never let myself to sink into sleep. I still could, I’d found out. Much like eating it was no longer something I needed to do, and when I did it was… less than restful. I always dreamt, and the dreams were not the pleasant kind. Winter devouring a world whole, until all that was left was ice and darkness. My eyes lingered on the ward setting the boundary around Liesse, and I found the same silhouettes from earlier had yet to retreat. Shades of the dead standing a vigil of their own. I could feel their eyes on me, fixed and unblinking.
There was hunger in them, but it was lesser than my own and that had them attracted to my presence like moths to a flame. Had I truly become the Black Queen, I thought, had my teacher not broken that transition as recklessly as he had the city, they would have been mine to rule. To shape and order as I wished, wresting true ownership of the weapon Akua had made from the Empire’s hands. The shape of that was still seductive. It would have been a gamble, it was true, but then so was any other path. And it had been the only outcome presented to me I’d found even slightly acceptable. Peace in my time, huh. The freedom to rebuild Callow as it should be, safe and prosperous. That path led to a place where I was no longer needed, but that might better for all involved. What salvation I’d tried to bring to my people had bled them as starkly as ruin, and would yet unless I found a way out. Keeping the damages to a minimum had failed, that much was obvious. It’d only ever been a mitigating measure anyway, not a plan. One of those was taking shape in my mind, even as I gathered more and more soldiers to my banner, but oh the risk of it.
Gamble was too light a word, but if every other path led to a land of graveyards it was a risk that must be taken.
Archer’s presence was heralded by the retreating of the shades. Even through the translucent wall of the ward I could see her tying a rope atop the rampart and shimmying down smoothly. Some curious shade wandered too close and was immediately carved through in a silver blur, the other woman’s longknife wounding it as if it was a thing of flesh. The others scattered immediately in a chorus of whispers I was careful not to listen too closely to. The sooner Hierophant bound those souls again the better for all involved. Archer tugged down the rope after landing and sheathed her blade, striding towards me unhurriedly. The ward pushed back her hair and clothes when she crossed it, but from the swagger to her step I knew she’d finally managed what I’d asked of her. A cold smile stretched my lips. Good. It was not the kind of thread I could allow to be left hanging.
“So if Zeze told you shit was under control in there, he was gravely mistaken,” Archer told me with a shit-eating grin. “Get it? As in grave-“
“You’ve just ensured we will never sleep together,” I told her frankly. “Your being an ass I can live with, but puns? I do have standards.”
“Spoken like the Ice Queen of legend,” the Named replied cheerfully.
She plopped herself down at my side, sprawling over twice the amount of space I’d occupied and elbowing be out of my comfortable stance. I threw back her hand in her own face and she yelped, more out of outrage than pain.
“Is that any way to treat your beloved minion?” she complained.
“Almost half of that was true,” I noted. “That’s a record for you.”
“Ugh,” she grunted. “You’re such a joyless thing. I thought villains were supposed to be the fun ones.”
“You’ve been part of two wars and several killings that will go into legend since linking up with me,” I pointed out.
“Maybe, but I haven’t gotten laid in like a year,” she whined. “I’m this close to just dragging your pretty officer into a tent for the night.”
I glanced at her. That could mean any number of people, given that her tastes did not discriminate between genders.
“The one with the funny name,” she elaborated.
I raised an eyebrow.
“Ratface?” I tried.
“That’s the one,” she cheered. “Aisha gets real chatty after a drinks, and she had nothing but compliments for-“
“And this part of the conversation just came at an end,” I announced firmly.
“You never gossip with me,” Archer told me, displeased.
“I’ve delegated all gossiping duties to Hakram,” I said, swiftly throwing my closest friend under the chariot. “And if you’re being this much of a pest, you have something for me.”
“Say please,” she grinned.
“Please stop trying my patience,” I sweetly replied.
I was rewarded by Archer rustling through her knapsack and dropping a cylinder of obsidian in my lap. I ran a finger down the length of it, and the soul bound within shivered. Oh, I thought. So you know who I am. That’s an unexpected pleasure.
“Kind of wanted to stab her a few times,” the brown-skinned woman told me in a conversational tone. “You know, for Hunter.”
“I tore out her heart while she was still alive to feel it,” I informed Archer.
The other woman blinked at me, then let out a whistle.
“Well shit,” she said. “That’s a way to get your displeasure across, I guess. Old school of you, Cat.”
“She had a way of bringing that out in me,” I muttered, eyes on the soul container. “I lost my temper when she sent an envoy. Made an oath, even. Not the kind of thing I can back out of nowadays.”
If you do this, there is no place in Creation or beyond that will safeguard you from me, I’d sworn. 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. I could feel what I had spoken binding me as surely as if I’d sworn on the Gods Below.
“I thought about sending her to the Tower,” I admitted. “She’d have a place waiting for her in the Hall of Screams.”
“But that wouldn’t be quite your vengeance then, would it?” Archer knowingly said.
That, and I no longer trusted the Empress with possession of Akua’s soul. Not when I could no longer be certain another city wouldn’t go up in flames for a weapon to be forged. It was one thing to use that weapon after it was already made, another to enable Malicia to commit mass murder if she got desperate enough. Even if it was Praesi who got the axe this time, which I couldn’t be sure of. There was a part of me that was urging me to just destroy the soul. To make sure the possible liability was ended for good. But as reasonable as I knew that action would be, I couldn’t quite bring myself to take it. I wasn’t sure whether it was genuine hatred that had me stay my hand, or if I simply couldn’t break the oath. Both were worrying liabilities.
“I have a cloak,” I finally said.
“The murder cloak, yeah,” Archer mused. “Called thus because you murdered someone for every piece you add to it.”
I forced myself not to sigh. It would only encourage her.
“Haven’t added her banner to it yet,” I said. “I was thinking maybe something more pointed was in order.”
Archer eyed me sideways.
“Shit,” she said. “Her own soul, really?”
“It can be done,” I said. “I’ve heard the Warlock bound someone’s soul to a chamber pot once, Masego should be able to do something similar.”
“I can’t decide whether that’s better or worse than skinning someone and making a cloak out of that,” she mused.
“Past a certain point the nuances don’t matter much, I think,” I said.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Archer said, face turning up to stare at the sky. “They never do. We just tell ourselves otherwise so we can think someone else is worse.”
“Never took you for the philosophical kind of girl,” I said, head leaning back next to hers.
“That’s because it’s pointless to dig to deep,” she shrugged. “How long are we going to live, either of us? Not long enough to see more than the smallest bit of Creation. If that’s my limit, I want to sample as much of that bit as I can instead of just getting miserable about all this Good and Evil twaddle. Ain’t no settling that, no matter how hard you try. If you get involved you just get chewed up like all the others before you, and I don’t owe anybody that.”
“Hate to break it to you,” I said, “but you are involved. What do you think we’ve been doing for the last year?”
“I have no idea,” she admitted, sounding pleased at the notion. “But you’re a pretty shit villain and you gave the Choir of Contrition the finger, so I’m looking forward to finding out.”
I wouldn’t get a better opening than that, I thought, so I might as well speak up now.
“You got a letter,” I said. “From Refuge.”
“Huh,” she grunted. “What’s in it?”
“Are you implying I’d read your personal correspondence?” I said.
“Haven’t you?” she snorted.
“Of course not,” I said, and let a beat pass. “I have people for that.”
“I can’t believe you’re half-assing even your spying on me,” she sighed. “Was it from the Lady?”
I hummed in agreement.
“She says the debt Refuge owed the Tower is settled,” I told her. “That your mandated service as my fae specialist is at an end. Didn’t actually summon you back, though.”
“She wouldn’t,” Archer said. “It’s not how Refuge works. The Lady of the Lake’s not a queen, Cat, she’s just… the woman with the biggest stick, I guess. We learned from her, but we’re not like an army or anything. We do whatever we want.”
I made a noise of understanding, not willing to comment on any of it given my continued sharp dislike for Ranger.
“So what are you going to do?” I asked.
“Don’t be thick, you chump,” she sighed. “I’m staying. You should know that by now. But you should also know I’m going to leave eventually.”
I had known that, deep down. Of all the Woe she was the one least bound to me. Adjutant and Hierophant had attachment to the Empire, and Thief to Callow. But Archer? Archer had come for reasons entirely her own, and would leave when she tired of them.
“To where?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she laughed. “But there’s so much I haven’t seen. The Everdark, the Titanomachy. And you must have been told this entire continent is a nowhere. There’s nations on the other side of the Tyrian Sea that are larger than all of Calernia. Hells, we don’t even know what’s to the west.”
“No one’s ever found anything in the Skiron ocean,” I reminded her. “Except sea snakes that were a tad unfriendly, and not the small kind.”
“Doesn’t mean there’s not,” Archer murmured. “Wouldn’t that be something, Cat? Being the first Calernian to walk an unknown shore?”
“It would be,” I admitted.
I’d be something untainted, too, and there were few of those left in my life.
“Maybe I’ll go with you, Archer,” I said. “Gods, there’s bound to be a day where I’m done. Where I can finally just leave.”
My tone was tired, but it was not kind of tired sleep could cure. Archer stirred.
“Indrani,” she said. “Call me Indrani.”
We stayed there until dawn, laughing and talking of places so very far away.
It was always odd to see Adjutant loaded with parchment instead of weapons, but not a bad sort of odd. It wasn’t unfitting, just different from what I was used to seeing. This time, though, the look I gave the scroll he handed me was harsh. It contained names, thirty-four of them. Mages taken prisoner after the Second Battle of Liesse.
“And they’re currently in containment?” I asked.
“Under ward and guard,” the orc said. “Both our own. The Fifteenth took custody of all prisoners.”
“I’m not recognizing a lot of those names,” I told him. “I expected highborn.”
“They’re all mfuasa,” Hakram informed me. “The Truebloods weren’t willing to gamble on Diabolist with kin, at least not important ones.”
Servant lines, huh. Old retainer families of the High Lords who’d been in their service for so long they were above peasants in the Praesi pecking order. Akua had sent the same to me as expendable envoys when we’d had our little chat before the battle. I shoved the scroll under my arm and unfolded the other one he’d handed me.
“Nearly two thousand,” I said, raising an eyebrow. “I knew you’d grabbed a few, Hakram, but not that many.”
“They’re not all Praesi,” he said. “There’s some Helikean mercenaries and even seven drows.”
“Exiles?” I asked.
“Soldiers don’t go to Mercantis when they’ve still got a home,” he said.
I wiggled my elbow at the scroll he still held in hand.
“And what’s on that?”
“The names of the highborn within the household troops,” he said. “I’ve had Aisha look into them, to add notes regarding their background and what could reasonably be asked for ransom.”
“Ransom,” I repeated softly.
“I know,” he said. “Not what you want. But it’s not a small sum, Catherine. And the moment you start raising armies and rebuilding the country, our coffers are going to bleed like a stuck pig.”
“The Tower is meant to pay reparations,” I said.
“The Tower’s gone silent,” Hakram growled. “That is not a good sign.”
That was too true for me to deny. I’d expected Malicia to begin talks with me the moment the dust settled, and that she’d so far made no attempt was raising my hackles. Something was afoot. I needed the coin, that much was true. And yet. I handed Adutant the mage scroll back, and refused the one with highborn names.
“The closest road,” I said. “It’s between Ankou and Southpool, correct?”
“Closest paved road,” he corrected. “There’s dirt ones all over the region.”
It was half a bell past dawn, and that meant matters were in need of settling. The prisoners first among them, since they were beginning to be a noticeable drain on our supplies. I looked north, where the road we’d spoken of would lay.
“We’ll begin on the outskirts of Ankou,” I said. “One every mile.”
“One what?” the orc asked.
“Do you remember what Black did, after the Liesse Rebellion?” I said.
Adjutant had never been slow to understanding.
“The Countess Marchford and the Marchioness Vale,” he said.
“Nailed to the gates of their own manors,” I mused. “I have a lack of those at hand, so the side of the road will have to do. One every mile, Hakram. Crucified.”
They wanted to make a fucking statement with their rebellion, did they? I could make one as well. You come here and you murder Callowans? This is what happens. This will always be what happens. Let them think of that every time they passed a corpse left to the crows.
“You still have a list in hand,” Adjutant finally said.
“Take care of the other two,” I said. “And throw in the mercenaries. I’ve no mercy left for those. Then you can assemble what’s left.”
“Should I have gallows raised?” he asked.
I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. Necessity and dues. Always the hardest balance to strike.
“Do,” I finally said.
The orc studied me closely.
“Will they be used?” he said.
“That’ll be on them,” I said. “They’re going to get the only thing any of us ever get. A choice.”
I waited in my tent with a bottle of aragh and the latest reports while he saw to it. The Taghreb liquor was already tasteless, and it had a kick. It was one of the few drinks I could still enjoy. By Noon Bell my sappers had raised the gallows and the remaining prisoners were herded out of their camp and onto the plains. Four companies of heavies stood around them, and as many regulars kept them moving in good order. They looked haggard, I saw when I left the tent. Not tortured or beaten, but kept on the least amount of rations possible and in chains even when they slept. A far cry from the resplendent soldiers they’d once been, decked in the Wasteland’s finest arms and armour. Adjutant was at my side when I stood before them, his looming presence a weight additional to my own. I gave him a nod and he barked orders, legionaries using the flat of their blades to silence the quiet talk of the prisoners.
“You know who I am,” I said.
One of the prisoners in the back called out something and there was a splash of laughter.
“Adjutant,” I said.
He went himself. Even those who’d laughed went utterly silent at the sight of the man being dragged to the gallows by his hair, kicking and screaming. The goblins slipped the noose around his neck and the lever was pulled. The sharp snap sounded like the crack of thunder across the eerily quiet assembly. Feet hanging above the deck, the corpse moved with the breeze.
“You know who I am,” I repeated, and this time no one spoke. “I would be within my rights to hang every last one of you. It would, in all honesty, make my day.”
“But I am not a wasteful woman,” I said. “You are dead, make no mistake about that. Tribunals have been convened and a verdict passed.”
I’d stood before soldiers, once and spoken words like this to deserters. I’d come to care for them, in the end, but that had never been what was meant to happen was it? It had been a weakness on my part to get attached. One I was in no danger of repeating with this lot.
“The manner and time of this end is at my discretion,” I said. “I own your deaths. And I would rather spend them than throw them away. The last time I made such an offer, there was the promise of release and amnesty at the end of service.”
My tone went cold.
“You get no such mercy from me,” I said. “You are rebels and murderers, the willing tool of a madwoman who met her deserved end. You will die fighting for this land you butchered, be it tomorrow or in ten years.”
I flicked my wrist and Hakram gestured at an officer, who brought forward a standard and plunged it into dark earth. Gold on red, the cloth was. A golden noose set against crimson, with the words of dead men written beneath. Gallowborne. The best of the worst.
“You can refuse,” I said. “Where that leads you is behind me. Or you can kneel, and make an oath.”
In the end, they knelt.
Thief found me right before Evening Bell, as I was beginning to consider going out to look for her myself. She didn’t bother to sneak in this time, striding straight into my tent and dropping into her seat with a grunt. Vivienne took the bottle of aragh on the table and pulled directly at it without asking, setting it down after with a loud thump.
“It could be worse,” Thief finally said.
“I didn’t expect your report to be pleasure reading,” I said. “Not that you ever bother to write those.”
“Get used to it,” she said “I’m not leaving a parchment trail for the Eyes to get their hands on.”
Fair enough, I conceded. I knew better than to put stock in the delusion there weren’t informants in the Tower’s pay remaining in my own legion, much less all the other ones camped by Liesse.
“Start with the worst,” I said.
“Southpool,” she grimaced. “Eldermen and former nobility are meeting. The whole city’s incensed about their levies being wiped out.”
“Rebellion?” I asked.
“Nothing overt,” Thief said, “but if they want to get their hands on weapons, the nobles are the ones to talk to. It’s not a good sign they’re involved.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose.
“Get the names to Ratface,” I said.
Her face blanked.
“I’m told he has an envoy from the Assassins in his staff,” she said.
The implied question was quiet clear.
“Not unless they force me to,” I said. “They get a warning first. I’ve seen enough dead Callowans for several lifetimes. But if they actually rebel, Vivienne, it’ll be more than a handful of old men who end up killed. That I won’t allow.”
She slowly nodded. Whether or not that had convinced her I couldn’t tell.
“The south is a mess, but uprising’s the last thing on their mind,” she told me. “With Dormer and Holden emptied and Liesse… well, I’m not sure there’s a word for what happened to Liesse. Refugees are trickling back to the other two, but with Liesse gone everything in sight of Hengest Lake is lawless. There’s bandit packs forming to claim what food is left, and village militias aren’t above looting other villages to keep their families fed through winter either.”
“I’ll send a detachment south,” I grimaced. “It’ll take a while to get supplies in place, though. Isn’t the governor in Vale doing anything?”
“He’s driving back any refugees camping in his lands with the last of the city guard,” Vivienne darkly said. “City’s under martial law and he’s started rationing.”
Another mess to deal with. There was always another one waiting around the corner.
“Laure?” I pressed.
“The Governess-General has kept order,” Thief said. “My people had some quiet talks with those who wanted to start riots for a spot of looting. Summerholm and Denier are steady too, word’s still only trickling in. Expect trouble when it’s no longer rumours.”
“Marshal Grem sent in a garrison force,” she said. “Quiet for now, orcs in armour marching through the streets have a way of making people think twice about throwing stones. And before you ask, the north barely even noticed the rest of Callow is on fire. The Baron of Hedges has been heard saying the chaos to the south is a Praesi issue, not his people’s, and he won’t send even a copper down in aid.”
Those isolationist pricks. Even during the Conquest they’d barely sent any men to fight the Empire. As far as the sheep-fuckers were concerned they were a kingdom of their own, whatever the maps said. Southpooleans might be backwards mud-lickers but at least they pulled their godsdamned weight when catastrophe came calling.
“We’ll see about that,” I muttered. “They’ll be sent an invitation to Laure soon enough.”
“A little closer to home, did you know-“
“I know,” I quietly said. “I have him a bell out of courtesy. If he doesn’t come to me after that, I go to him. And I won’t be polite.”
“So long as you know,” Vivienne said.
I leaned back into my chair.
“I need you to do something for me,” I said. “Quietly.”
Blue-grey eyes faced me.
“How quiet are we speaking?” she asked.
“I’ll glamour you a body double and keep her out of sight,” I said.
Thief let out a sharp breath.
I reached for the aragh and filled my cup.
“Not that long ago,” I said, “I was given a choice where none of the outcomes were really a victory. Just a different kind of ugly compromise.”
I knocked back the glass, allowing it to hit the table with a satisfying clang.
“So I had to ask myself – am I really playing the right game?”
I smiled grimly.
“Let’s find out.”
The Blackguards had made their own little camp within the camps. They’d raised palisades, had sentinels posted at all times and allowed no one in. It didn’t matter. I’d had Adjutant send people to keep an eye on them, and the ripple that had gone through the soldiers earlier could only have one reason for it. Black was awake. He was awake and his four hours had run out. By now Scribe would have filled him in on everything going on – that she knew about, at least. That was as far as courtesy would take me. I went directly for the gate, which as little more than a moveable part of the palisade. It opened, but that was as far as I was allowed. A dozen Blackguards blocked the opening behind and one went forward to speak to me. I cocked my head to the side, inhaling the scent of him. I knew this one.
“Lieutenant Abase,” I greeted him.
He pushed up his visor, but his hand never left the pommel of his sword.
“Ma’am,” he said. “It’s actually captain now.”
The Blackguards wore no insignias when on campaign, as my teacher disliked the notion of leaving the enemy the capacity to easily pick out his retinue’s officers.
“Congratulations,” I said. “I know he’s awake. Move your men aside.”
The Soninke grimaced.
“I’m under orders not to let anyone in,” he said.
“His orders?” I asked. “Or Scribe’s?”
“Orders,” he replied. “That’s all that matters.”
My eyes flicked to the men behind him. Fear, I sensed. In him and the others both. I wondered if it should be considered some kind of accolade, to be capable of causing that in soldiers who had fought at the side of the Calamities for decades.
“You were kind to me,” I said quietly. “Whenever you could. So I’m going to give you one chance, to reconsider being the man who’s in my way.”
“Duty has no end,” he said in Mtethwa.
It had the cadence of a saying, I thought.
“My patience does,” I replied in the same.
Winter flared but I did not weave the same kind of brutish applications I’d once used to crush throats or shatter bodies. It was closer to a glamour, really. The man’s eyes went wide and he screamed, clawing at his plate as he felt hungry shadows tear into his flesh. The sound of swords unsheathed was heard ahead and I fixed the soldiers with a measured stare. Little bundles of life and warmth they were, huddled inside their steel shells. So very fragile, and what had they done to earn restraint from me? They were not in my keeping. They were obstacles. My hand rose.
“Enough,” Scribe’s voice rang out.
I looked at her. There was no sign of fear on her, no scent. Impatience at most.
“Clear them,” I said, voice ringing with the cracking of ice.
“Stand down,” the villain ordered.
I watched them sheathe their blades, and only then withdrew the weaving inside Abase. I strode past him without a second look, feeling myself slowly begin to thaw. I’d expected guilt, however slight. It never came.
“He is recovering,” Scribe told me flatly. “You could have waited until tomorrow.”
“That you would presume to dictate that even now,” I said, “is why a decent man was just screaming. I’ve given you a bell. You have no right to expect more of me, not after what happened in Liesse.”
“What happened is that he saved your life, child,” Scribe coldly said. “A sentiment you grow less deserving of by the moment.”
“Loyalty’s a fine thing,” I said. “Until it starts to blind you. Look around you, Scribe. Does it seem to you like anything was saved?”
“You have no notion of the sacrifices that were made for your sake,” the woman said.
“You have no notion of the sacrifices I was forced to make,” I replied. “This entire conversation is unnecessary. If I wanted him dead do you really think you could have stopped me?”
“Careful now,” Scribe softly said. “That sounded like a threat.”
“I assure you,” I said just as softly. “If I ever threaten you, there’ll be no doubt about what I’m doing. Get out of my way or take me to him, I don’t care. But I’m going. Now.”
I was past being scared of her, no matter the ice in her eyes. What I smelled off her in that moment was resentment, and just like that the pieces clicked. I laughed.
“He’s ordered you to let me in, hasn’t he?” I said.
“His judgement is impaired,” she said.
“No,” I said. “It really isn’t. He just knows me a lot better than you.”
I brushed past her and she did not try to block me. She kept pace in silence as I went deeper in, absently noting that the camp’s layout was different from legion doctrine. His tent should have been in the centre but it was further back. I did not need a guide to feel that much. He was seated when I came in, Scribe at my heels. Plain trousers and a loose white shirt, leaning back on his seat before a table. No armour, no weapons save the knife at his hip.
“Catherine,” he greeted me. “That will be all, Eudokia.”
I felt her stiffen without turning.
“I am staying,” she said.
“No,” he gently replied. “You are not.”
“I will not let you kill yourself on some orphan girl’s sword, do you hear me?” she hissed. “We are better than this. You are better than this.”
“I knew the likely consequences before acting,” he said, smiling at her. “Go. Do not mourn me too long, if it comes to that.”
“This is not how we end,” Scribe insisted. “You promised, Amadeus, you-“
“Until the last step,” he murmured. “I remember. We do not always get to choose where it happens, old friend.”
He rose to his feet, slowly, and pulled her close. She did not struggle, and I was uncomfortable watching how closely she moulded herself against him as he embraced her. Black withdrew after a moment and kissed her brow.
“Everything ends,” he whispered gently. “We have always known this.”
He spoke something in a tongue I did not know and she replied in the same. The look she shot me before leaving was a thing of hatred, but she left regardless. I stayed silent and standing as Black seated himself again. After a moment, he unsheathed the knife at his hip and set it down on the table. Slowly, he turned the handle towards me.
“If that is the intent,” he said, “let us not waste time.”
He tugged at his collar, of all things, baring his neck. I sat across from him. I did not take the knife in hand, but neither did I tell him to sheathe it.
“I will ask questions,” I said. “You will answer.”
His lips quirked in amusement, and I felt like breaking his teeth.
“A trial,” he mused. “Fitting, I suppose. Ask.”
“When we planned my fight against Diabolist,” I said. “I mentioned drawing her into Arcadia. You knew what would happen if I did.”
And you didn’t warn me, I left unsaid.
“Of three things you must be watchful, when assaulting the stronghold of a villain,” he said. “A pivot, a trial…”
“And a monster,” I completed. “So that really was your intention from the beginning. Getting me close and bound, so I’d get a clean shot at killing her when she flinched. It’s why you went after her father from the onset.”
“I was not confident in our breaching her defences otherwise,” Black said. “Not without significant sorcerous support it was dubious would be available. Even getting you in that position was difficult.”
“Our,” I repeated. “That’s the first untruth you spoke to me tonight. There was no our. You made a decision, and took a gamble that would have seen me enslaved or worse if it failed.”
“I did,” he admitted, without any frills. “And did so knowing you would see it as a breach of trust. Had you not pieced it together yourself, I would have told you afterwards.”
His heartbeat did not change, but with him that meant less than nothing: he was the one who’d taught me to both use and fool that trick. He was also, I knew, one of the finest liars I had ever met. I’d once put quite a bit of faith in his old promise he would never lie to me, but that faith was running ragged these days. Would he lie, right now? There were ways more pleasing to me to frame his actions, if that was his intention. That he would have revealed his breach of trust to me after didn’t change the fact that it had happened, and he’d know damn well how little of a difference it would mean to me. I was making me furious, having to look for deception in every sentence of a man I’d once been able to trust implicitly. He had robbed us both of that trust.
“You let me believe she took you prisoner,” I said. “You had the means to warn me you weren’t. Why didn’t you?”
“In part because I was not certain you would be able to deceive her,” he said. “In part because of the story you used to become Duchess of Moonless Nights. It was my understanding that if you slew Assassin while believing he was me, it would prevent the eventuality of a… repetition of pattern.”
Patricide, he’d danced around saying. Even now neither of us were comfortable with the implications of the word.
“You shot yourself in the foot,” I said. “No, not just that – you emptied a full godsdamned quiver. If you’d spoken to me about it, we might have found a different way to take care of that. But you didn’t trust me, Black, and so here now we fucking are. The two of us with a knife between, and me having genuine reason to kill you.”
“I believed at the time that it was an elegant solution,” he said. “The arrogance of an old man, in retrospect. Cheating Creation is never quite so simple as one would prefer.”
“There’s a lot I can forgive you for,” I said. “And did, though I shouldn’t have. I even let go of the fact that you Spoke to me in Summerholm the once, after a few years. Made excuses for it, that I was under influence myself and making what could have been a costly mistake. But this… It’s actually worse, you know. Before the battle even began, you were already treating me like a tool. Not an equal, not even an apprentice. A fucking tool.”
“That is who I am,” he told me honestly. “In the face of conflict, that will always be how I act. I will reduce all individuals involved to instruments, and seek what I consider the best outcome. I will not spare myself a distinction, though I do not consider this to improve the principle of the behaviour in the slightest.”
And it didn’t, I thought. It made no difference. I used to think it did, but there was nothing laudable about not particularly valuing your own life long with everyone else’s. That just meant he was one of his own many victims. It was a sort of madness that seemed principled on the surface, until you saw it in action. Saw what it cost everyone around the madman. What admiration I’d once given this had just been fool’s gold, the shine leant by an unbroken line of victories. Now that the break had come, only the ugliness of what it truly was remained. Black was, I could not longer deny, a fundamentally evil man. That he used practical and sometimes beneficial means to pursue his objectives in no way redeemed that. I was ashamed that this disappointed me, deep down, that I had expected more when he had been so honest about what he was from the beginning. Because to me, he had been charming. Kind, even loving in his own way. Yet a monster still. It was an effort not to reach for the knife.
“You disregarded every word I said, before wrecking the array,” I said, tone surprisingly calm. “I made – Gods, you could almost call it a plea. To end the bleeding. To spare my people another war. You didn’t even bother to answer.”
He inclined his head in disagreement.
“I weighed it,” he replied. “It did not tip the balance. I believed then, as I do now, that keeping the weapon was certain to ensure the destruction of the Empire at the hand of heroes. I still believe it a miscalculation on Malicia’s part to assess that having it, even unused, would not lead to a crusade. It would not only ensure it but begin a story that makes victory effectively impossible. She did not account, you see, for the Bard. Without her existence, perhaps a peace would be feasible. With her being given this thread to use, however, I would think it likely we would all die within two years.”
“You didn’t either,” I said. “Account for the Bard. She was there, right before you used your aspect. And she was smiling.”
Of all I had to consider, that was maybe the only mark in his favour. That he was human, and he’d been wounded like a fox being hunted so he could be herded in the right trap at the right time. That he’d run into someone better at this than him, and we were all being made to pay the price for it.
“That,” he said mildly, “is quite worrying. I did not think her capable of operating independently of a heroic band or Name. I have journals that include notes from my time in the Free Cities, as well as several other matters. They will be given to you.”
“No,” I said quietly. “I don’t think so.”
“I assure you,” he said, “the contents are both accurate and useful.”
I pushed back the chair and rose to my feet.
“The most arrogant thing you’ve said tonight, you didn’t even bother to speak,” I told him. “It’s the assumption that I’m still your successor.”
Black was not, for all his flaws, an unintelligent man.
“You are no longer the Squire,” he said.
“There’s not enough of the Name left for me to qualify,” I said.
“Then,” he began, and on his face surprise and fascination warred.
“I don’t know yet,” I smiled. “But I breathe easier knowing it’s not something you anticipated. Because I know you. If I walk out of this room after slitting your throat, it’s still part of your plan. I’d still be playing a part you set out for me.”
Contingencies, I imagined, would see to the death of the Calamites. And I would left in an uneasy partnership with the Empress, preserving the legacy he had sought to build.
“There’s a part of me right now that just wants to let you go,” I said. “To call our slate clean. Debts paid for sparing your life. But that’s now who I am. I’m not you either, tough, and I don’t want to be.”
I snatched the knife and lunged over the table, driving it into his belly. He let out a soft gasp, and then I twisted the blade.
“You’ll live,” I said. “But it’ll scar. And whenever you look at that scar, I want you to remember tonight. The choice I’m giving you. Gods forgive me, but monster that you are I still love you.”
I looked into his eyes, that pale green gaze that was always so unsettling.
“I am,” I said, “going to build a better world. Even if I have to drag everyone into it kicking and screaming. So there’s your choice, Black: either you make yourself into a man that deserves to live in that world, or you’re just another corpse I step over on my way there.”
I left the knife in him, stepped away, and paused by the edge of the tent on my way out.
“This should go without saying,” I said. “But if you’re still in my lands by the moon’s turn, I’ll put your fucking head on a pike.”
A heartbeat passed and I smiled, the burden of years leaving my shoulders.
“Take care. I’ll see you when the war comes.”
I left and did not look back.