“Those who withstood the sword, I laid low with ink.”
– Words carved into the tomb of Dread Emperor Terribilis I, the Lawgiver
I rarely used the council room these days. Under the Fairfaxes the King’s Council had been the greatest organ of power in the realm, closer to the crown than any and wielding influence far beyond that of the titles of the men and women having been appointed to it. I’d retained only parts of it, though, the ones I found useful. I had no need for a Chamberlain to see to the ‘royal household’, when mine was essentially me and whatever part of the Woe happened to be in Laure at the time. And even then I doubted Thief had slept in her chambers more than twice. She preferred prowling the city when she was there. Masego disdained his rooms as well, though for reasons somewhat more worrying. No, broadening the authority of the palace’s seneschal had been quite sufficient. Not that all old roles had been so easily disposed of. With Anne Kendall in the seat of Governess-General, Juniper as my Marshal and Ratface as my Lord Treasurer there’d been only on seat left worth filling: Keeper of the Seals. In the old kingdom, those had been tasked with overseeing courts of law and making sure the decrees of the crown were upheld across Callow. That seemed a glorified clerk’s position, until one remembered the way the kingdom had functioned under the Fairfaxes.
Though laws decreed in Laure held sway across the realm in theory, in practice the hair-raising labyrinth of ancient privileges and prerogatives held by most highborn houses made it a nightmare for any single decree to be uniformly observed. I’d been amused to learn that House Talbot, whose old demesne was now my own, had for several centuries been allowed to trade in lands directly held by the crown without tariffs as part of an old deal that saw a generous loan offered to a king so he could build a summer palace by the Silver Lake. I’d been even more amused to learn that said palace had been wrecked by Praesi within the decade when they attempted to invade the heartlands of Callow through an underwater invasion – orcs with gills, apparently – down the Pening river. One of the Malignants, that’d been, I was pretty sure. A Dread Emperor of the worst mould, incompetent at everything but murderously ensuring his rivals didn’t overthrow him. Regardless of historical curiosities, the Empire had actually allowed me to inherit a significantly more centralized realm in many ways. With Baron Darlington of Hedges and Baroness Morley of Harrow the only two remaining landed nobles in Callow, I didn’t have nearly as many powerful people barking about privileges and prerogatives.
What I did end up having, however, was my court’s first real power struggle. Now that the governors across Callow all answered to the crown through the Governess-General the office of Keeper of the Seals held a lot more direct power than it’d used to, with a lot less pushback to boot. Crown decrees had a lot more teeth, these days, and the Keeper had a great deal of latitude in ensuring they were upheld. Everyone and their sister had gone after the appointment, beginning the charm offensive the moment I was crowned. The only ones who’d stayed out of the fray were the Deoraithe, and I’d almost asked Kegan to send me a competent cousin just for that. Brandon Talbot and his tribe of old aristocrats had been the most ferocious, though the northern baronies had tried to muscle his people out – the fight between the powers in Laure and the distant northern nobles was an old one. A few eldermen in Laure had actually tried to bribe Ratface into putting in a good word for their candidate, banking on the Taghreb reputation for venality, and instead found themselves fined for the exact same sum and unceremoniously drummed out of office.
I picked a southerner, in the end, after tasking Baroness Kendall to find me a suitable one. After the massacre at Second Liesse, what had once been the duchy of the same name and even the region as a whole had been on the brink of collapse. It’d only been the reparations I obtained from the Empress and Hakram’s feverish work that kept the place from eating itself alive, and even now it was the most unstable part of my realm. A major city and over a hundred thousand people were gone form the heart of the south, it wasn’t something that could be healed in a year. Or even a decade. Binding whatever powers remained down there to the crown had been necessary, and my Governess-General managed to dig up a candidate that wouldn’t fuck up the duties that came with the appointment. Edith Westmore had once been a lady in her own right, before her liege lord took up arms in the Liesse Rebellion, and even after had remained a wealthy landowner. She had the reputation and the connections to be a capable Keeper of Seals, and though I wasn’t particularly fond of her as a person neither did she grate my nerves. It was no lifetime appointment, regardless.
Lady Edith was not here in my solar, not this afternoon anyway. I’d had the richly-panelled room furnished more to my tastes – which largely meant removing all the more ostentatious stuff and filling the new liquor cabinet to the brim – and these days I conducted most royal business in here. The comfortable surroundings helped allay the inevitable bouts of tediousness that seemed to accompany the work of making Callow into a halfway-functioning nation. My two companions at the table bathed by afternoon sun were the two members of my council I saw most often: Governess-General Anne Kendall and Lord Treasurer Hasan Qara. Who still insisted on being called Ratface, though he’d come to embrace the sobriquet of Bastard Lord as well. He got a kick of how much it horrified Praesi envoys.
“We’ve another petition from Hedges,” Anne said, shuffling parchments. “On the subject of tariffs in Laure and Southpool.”
The silver-haired woman glanced delicately at my treasurer after speaking. Ratface seemed distinctly unamused, though the irritation was not directed at Kendall.
“They’re trying to flood the markets with wool,” the Taghreb told me. “They have entire warehouses going to waste, the Jacks confirmed it.”
‘The Jacks’ was a very fancy title for my ever-growing web of thieves, smugglers, spies and sundry informants. It was nowhere as unified and well-organized as the appellation implied, with Aisha’s network of kinsmen in Praes, Ratface’s guildsmen and Thief’s friends being different organizations entirely. Adjutant oversaw the whole mess of disparate reports and pieced it together into a coherent picture before bringing it to me. As for the name, well, it was known in some circles that the Guild of Thieves was now in my pay. Mutterings at my court about lowly knaves entering the crown’s service had been frequent in early days, and Vivienne had amused herself by picking a fucking pun she knew I’d despise but still have to use frequently – knave was another name for a jack, in Callowan card decks. Of all my companions, Thief was the one whose sense of humour always ended up screwing me some way or another.
“They would eat at their own profits if they did,” Kendall frowned. “Compared to selling to the crown they would be making a loss.”
“We’re not buying as much anymore,” I noted. “South’s mostly settled, all the notable tent cities are clothed and fed.”
“It’s a farsighted ploy,” Ratface told us. “They’re not after immediate profit here, they’re trying to put the local guilds out of business. After they’ve cornered the market, they can start slowly raising prices. Thalassina tried the same thing with the spice trade under Nefarious, it nearly started a war with Nok.”
“If they spent half as much time seeing to their own as they do thinking up ways to fuck with me, the north would be a godsdamned paradise,” I said through gritted teeth.
Baroness Kendall cleared her throat.
“Though I cannot speak as to the mercantile effects,” she said, “from a diplomatic perspective we have already done much to antagonize Hedges. A concession might be in order.”
“I prevented them from fleecing desperate refugees, Anne,” I flatly replied. “I didn’t exactly piss in their morning porridge.”
“All they see is expected gold never reaching their coffers,” my Governess-General said. “And I must remind you that our grasp on the region is still feeble. Fear will only get us so far.”
Fear was what had gotten us anything at all, I thought. I had no illusions about the loyalty of those two holdout baronies. I doubted they’d truly join the fold within my lifetime. Even confirming nearly all their old privileges – the right to mint their own coin being the largest abolished – and leaving their holdings untouched they still wanted more. Aristocrats. My growing exposure to the lot of them had done nothing to improve my opinion of the breed, save for a few exceptions.
“Quotas,” I finally said. “Enough they can get a foothold, not enough they can eat the whole cake. And make it clear to the right people that I expect positions on having observing Legion officers attached to their armies to… change accordingly.”
Kendall inclined her head, the touch of the sun on her locks rather fetching as she did. For a woman her age she remained strikingly beautiful.
“I’ll have a proposal drafted,” Ratface said. “Now, I know we’ve spoken of this before but…”
I grimaced, fairly sure I knew what was coming.
“There is too much Imperial coinage circulating in Callow, Catherine,” he said. “We need to start buying it up.”
Were I not Named, I might never have noticed the slight crease on the Governess-General’s brow when she heard Ratface refer to me by my given name. She and I had once been more familiar as well, but that had gone up in smoke since my coronation. Anne Kendall was a patriot to the bone: it didn’t matter how I’d gotten my crown, now that I wore it I was to be treated as loftily as any Fairfax.
“You’re my treasurer,” I sighed. “You know damn well we don’t have the funds for that. And the Empress might see it as provocation, which we really can’t afford at the moment.”
A year of regular reports had made it painfully clear to me that while Praesi troops might no longer garrison my cities or Praesi lords rule them, Praesi influence was far from gone. I’d spent so much time paying attentions to borders and armies that I’d never considered the Wasteland would still have a leash in the form of coin and commerce. Trade with Procer had pretty much ended after the Conquest, and trade to Mercantis had been dominated by Imperial governors. The wealth came from the east, these days, and there was precious little I could do about that at the moment. Not when it was the Tower’s gold that had rebuilt an entire third of my realm. I’d had to make concessions to ensure that materialized, too. We’d been keeping Callow afloat for the last year by gouging the High Lords scrabbling for grain through trade permits and set prices, but the Tower had been exempted from both. To an extent, anyway. I’d insisted on keeping large reserves in anticipation of the crusade.
“So long as nearly half the coinage in Callow is from the Imperial Mint, the Tower can break the realm’s coffers at will,” Ratface said. “All the Empress needs to do is devalue her currency and the south goes up in flames. It’s a knife at our throat, Catherine. I understand the Hellhound is riding you about funding for the army, but another thousand men will make no difference if we can’t pay those soldiers.”
“Our own coin is slowly displacing the others,” Baroness Kendall pointed out. “Patience might be the wisest answer.”
The Taghreb shook his head.
“We’re replacing old Callowan coinages,” he said. “We barely touched the Wasteland portion. The Carrion Lord spent decades making certain Callow was dependent on Imperial coin for trade, it is not work that can be undone in a few years’ span. Not unless we plan and invest.”
“There has to be an alternative to just taking the Empress’ gold off the streets by emptying our coffers, Ratface,” I said. “That’d be as good as raising a banner in her eyes. There would be immediate retaliation.”
The handsome man wrinkled his nose, rather unbecomingly.
“Using Mercantis as a third party, perhaps,” he finally said. “It would be slower and costlier, and still have us vulnerable to foreign influence.”
“A proposal, yes,” he finished amusedly. “Ah, the joys of queenship.”
“Don’t you fucking start,” I muttered. “Between this and learning all those godsdamned Proceran languages my eyes are going to fall off.”
Baroness Kendall delicately cleared her throat.
“Not to add undue burden, but there is one last petition,” she said.
“Go on,” I grunted. “As long as it’s not our man in Vale whining about granary distribution again.”
“Officials have presented a formal request that the court return to the use of the Alban calendar,” she told me.
“Yeah, that’s not happening,” I said. “The Legions all use –“
I heard the movement behind the door before the knock sounded. My ears pricked. Man, late thirties, fine health. He smelled of anxiousness, though well short of fear.
“Enter,” I called out before he’d finished knocking.
I felt the gaze of the other two on me. Ah. I really needed to stop doing that. It did tend to make people uncomfortable. It was a servant, who I did not recognize though the livery made it clear he was one of the palace staff.
“Your Majesty,” he greeted me, bowing low before offering shallower bows to the others.
He’d been slightly reluctant when it came to Ratface’s turn, I noted. There’d been a lot of that since the moment I first appointed the Taghreb. I raised an expectant eyebrow at him.
“There is word from, uh, the Observatory,” the man said. “Your presence has been requested. The Lord Hierophant allegedly spoke of a ‘major phenomenon’.”
Translation: Masego had summoned me while, again, forgetting you weren’t actually supposed to summon queens. I didn’t really mind, but his brutal lack of regard for etiquette did seem to unsettle the servants whenever they came in contact with it. I rose to my feet, pushing my seat back.
“We’ll reconvene in an hour to finish this,” I told the other two.
“You speak so queenly, these days,” Ratface grinned. “I haven’t seen you spit on the ground in months.”
“Yeah, well, I own all the carpets now,” I muttered.
We made our courtesies, some more courteously than others, and then I dismissed the servant who seemed intent on accompanying me. I knew the way to the Observatory: I’d paid for the damned thing to be built out of an uninhabited wing of the palace. I wasn’t keeping a mistress, or a husband for that matter, so luxurious rooms reserved for one had been more than a little unnecessary. It wasn’t a long walk, but I lengthened my stride out of impatience. Still took the time to greet the servants and officials I came across, though. Actually learning all the names was a daydream given their sheer number, but if I could get at least half right it’d be a start. Better than Archer, anyway, who just called them whatever she felt like at the time. Getting this damned thing built had been strolling right into a series of rows with most my closest advisors, Juniper and Ratface the worst of them. My former Supply Tribune had been appalled at the costs involved, especially since some materials had to be brought directly from the Wasteland, while the Hellhound had bluntly told me that for the same amount of coin we could arm and armour over a thousand men and that’d be a lot more useful in the long run. It was rare enough for the two of them to agree on anything that I’d seriously reconsidered my commitment.
It’d still been built, in the end, and Masego had proved that his work had value beyond gold or steel. Without the Observatory at least three heroes would have slipped into Callow unseen, and the results of that could have been disastrous.
I felt the outer wards long before I arrived at the end of the corridor. As the only way in or out of the Observatory, it was now the most scrupulously protected part of the palace. The full line of legionaries guarding the corridor saluted as I went by, and I nodded back. Hakram’s people, these. The amount of soldiers and bureaucrats under Adjutant’s direct command had steadily increased along with his responsibilities. My blood was keyed into the outer wards, which were more trap than boundary, and so I got to the bronze gates with only a mild headache to show for it. I rapped my knuckles against the metal, careful to moderate my strength. There was still a dent left from the one time I’d forgotten. The bronze doors opened after a few heartbeats, and behind them stood a dark-skinned woman. She hastily knelt. Fadila Mbafeno had been one of Akua’s minions once, before I spared her at Hierophant’s request. She’d since served as an assistant in his mage’s tower, and now effectively ran the Observatory. On parchment Masego’s word was law here, so long as I did not contradict him, but his utter disinterest in the logistics of the place meant all the responsibilities were in the Soninke mage’s hands.
I disliked her, though not enough to do anything about it, but I would not deny she was extremely competent. Diabolist had always picked the cream of the crop, when it came to minions. Not that it’d ever stopped her from sacrificing them at the drop of a hat.
“Your Majesty,” Fadila said. “I invite you within.”
Nothing changed, visibly at least. There was a subtle current of power beneath her words, but even trying to feel it out would disperse it. I knew better than to think that’d been an empty sentence, though. I still vividly remembered the searing pain that had followed trying to pass the threshold without explicit permission.
“Rise,” I said, and strode by her.
Passing the threshold was not painful, per se. It was more like being squeezed through a very narrow gap, a temporary constriction of my being. Once inside the room proper there was a sense of relief, but I knew from experience it would be short-lasting. A bigger cage was still a cage. The inner Observatory was warded up something fierce, some of those defences specifically against fae. They were deeply unpleasant for me, but I’d deal with the discomfort if it meant Larat couldn’t ever set foot in here. Falida rose as bid, and followed three full steps behind me a little to the left. Wasteland etiquette, I thought sardonically, though in all fairness Callow had its fair share of little quirks as well. What had once been a full wing of the royal palace had been ripped out of even load-bearing walls, discreet arcs instead supporting the weight of the domed ceiling now. It was a single massive room and awake with quiet activity. Circling at the feet of the walls a boardwalk of granite made an outer ring, linked to pebbled paths that made up the spokes of a giant wheel from a bird’s eye view. Within those spaces pools of dark water lay still, save for when mages stirred them to life with whispered spells. Scrying pools, particularly powerful ones.
Getting the mages to keep them manned had been difficult, since the Army of Callow was already short on spellcasters, and ultimately I’d had to draft a few competent officers then draw heavily upon the now-disbanded Guild of Hedges. Getting Masego to teach those middling sorcerers how to scry properly had been a rough conversation, but he’d ultimately conceded than an empty Observatory would rather defeat the point of raising it in the first place. The legal status of the sorcerers had been a thorny matter to handle even after they were trained. They could not part of the Army of Callow or the Legions of Terror, as Juniper was still a general in the Empress’ employ as well as my marshal and that would give Malicia a degree of influence over them. I’d not wanted to give the court any sway over them either, but placing them under my direct authority would meant the moment Hakram and I went on campaign they fell in a legal morass. I had to be careful about things like that, these days. Taking the crown had brought nearly as many complications as it had solutions. As an awkward compromise they’d been made into a guild, approved by my seal, the head of which was Masego. In his absence it was Fadila who ran things as his appointed second, with just enough independence she could do whatever needed to be done while the fact that the Observatory was the crown’s property meant Anne Kendall had enough authority to step in if things got out of hand.
I pushed aside the thoughts as I tread one of the pebbled paths to the centre of the room, where Masego awaited. A second smaller ring of granite had been laid there, but it could hardly be seen. From the dark waters grew a massive alder tree whose roots spread into every pool and whose summit rose to touch the ceiling of painted runes and night sky. There was nothing natural about it, from the overly pale bark to the almost crimson leaves. Growing from the trunk a handful of branches formed a structure halfway between a bed and a seat, and before it a depression in the trunk made room for an item pulsing with power. It didn’t look like much to the naked eye, a wide bowl of baked clay whose supports were shaped like men and devils supporting the rim. It’d taken Archer the better part of a month to find it and get it out of the ruins of Liesse, but I’d never seriously considered leaving the scrying artefact of the Sahelians among the wreck no matter the difficulties. Once Akua’s discreet trump card, it was now the heart of the Observatory. In the wooden seat before it, Masego was laying down and looking half-asleep. I could see his pupils moving beneath the black eyecloth, but aside from that Hierophant was eerily still.
He’d lost weight again, I saw as I got closer. Even now that Fadila was under strict instructions to make sure he ate he still spent most hours of the days and night in that seat and rarely moved unless he was forced to. I almost hesitated to touch him, for he tended to be confused for a bit when wrenched out of his scrying. The decision was made for me, in the end. The branches above rustled, and someone casually tossed a sloppily sculpted wooden duck at his forehead. He wrenched back to Creation with a yelp as Archer emerged from the foliage dangling upside down.
“Evening, Cat,” she grinned. “Congratulations, you’re getting invaded.”
I considered this, then smiled back.
“Evening, Indrani,” I said, and wrenched her down to splash noisily in a pool.
Eyes turning to Masego, who looked only half-here even now, I sighed.
“Tell me everything,” I ordered.