“Ruling is not unlike gardening, if all the weeds were heavily armed and plotting your demise.”
– Dread Empress Prudence the First, the ‘Frequently Vanquished’
After Thief was gone, I lingered in my solar and waited for the scrying I knew would come. Over the silent hours that followed, I found only my thoughts for company and the downwards spiral they so often took of late.
The thing with bad habits was that you rarely realized you had them until they came back to bite you in the ass. I’d had months since Second Liesse to try to map out where and why I’d failed, and as far as I could tell a lot of failures ran from the same source: I tended to react more than prevent. I could even see where that fracture line had been born, the moment I’d effectively been first among equals in Callow yet still went at everything thinking like the Squire. Looking back at that entire year, the picture wasn’t pretty. I’d recognized Diabolist as a threat, but taken only half-measures against her and badly underestimated the kind of damage she could cause if left alive. The moment I’d realized she was preparing a ritual, I should have taken the Fifteenth down south in full strength and crushed her without mercy. I hadn’t seen the fae coming at all, but neither had anyone else so on that particular mark I’d withhold the blame. When it had become clear I was dealing with an Arcadian invasion, though, I’d botched the affair again. I’d pulled it off, in the end, but only with Malicia’s help and after leaving the south in the hands of Summer for months.
I’d gone after armies, the visible threats, but I hadn’t aimed at the roots of the debacle tree until much too late in the campaign. There was an old saying in Callow about failure being the most apt of teachers. Considering how monumental my failures had been, I should have learned quite a bit.
Some conclusions had been evident. The coup by the Praesi elements of the Ruling Council still felt like a footnote in a much larger affair, but it’d brought one truth to the light of day: if I ruled, if I put on a crown, I gained ties I couldn’t neglect. The situation in Laure had only come to a head because I wasn’t there to scare them into line, but that was the problem wasn’t it? That I had to scare them into line. The Empire worked like that, but the Empire tore itself to pieces with depressing regularity and had antagonized the rest of Calernia badly enough that they’d had four crusades sent their way. Worse, the climbing of the Tower encouraged a sort of pervasive ugly thinking that bloodletting was healthy. A way of thought that Black and Malicia were wrestling with to this day. The thing was, the whole iron sharpens iron philosophy did not actually deliver on what it promised: that the most competent, dangerous and ambitious person would end up claiming the Tower. Praesi history made that much blatantly clear. A lot of the Dread Emperors and Empresses who were now remembered as little more than punchlines had actually been very good at a single thing: killing their rivals frequently and brutally enough that no one overthrew them. For a while, anyway.
It was a skill set, I had to concede that much. But it wasn’t one that necessarily translated to competent rule, even before you factored in the kind of infernal pacts those same Tyrants often made to come out on top and their later consequences. No, the more I read the more I was coming to the conclusion that there were two reasons Praes hadn’t collapsed onto itself: the High Lords and the other villains. The same families who’d formed the Truebloods under Malicia and caused so much trouble were the same that regularly overthrew Emperors, but they were also families who poured a lot of wealth and influence into keeping Praes together. None of them wanted to rule only part of the Empire, the next time one of their kinsmen claimed the crown. That their way to keep it all together usually involved copious amounts of killing, an assault on Callow or general tightening of the screws on greenskins was horrid from where I stood, but in their closed little circle made perfect sense. It wasn’t like anyone in Praes who wasn’t highborn mattered, in their eyes. And then there were the villains. Chancellor, Black Knight, Warlock. Those were the most frequent, but every century seemed to bring its own batch of ancillary Named like Captain, Assassin and Scribe. None of them had been, if the histories were to be believed, particularly pleasant people. But as long as black-tempered demigods – for the old breed of villains had been that, for all their many flaws – were watching the Empire, anyone trying to splinter Praes was running the risk of taking their attention from their own petty feuds and turning it to the nail currently standing out. That tended to end poorly for the nail in question.
Callow had none of these structures. The House of Fairfax and the the aristocrats had been the backbone of the kingdom’s rule before the Conquest, and they were now either thoroughly exterminated or gutted by a series of brutal wars and the purges that followed. At the moment the Kingdom of Callow had one thing keeping it together: me. And that was a really bad idea, as the Laure coup had made clear. Because if it was all on my shoulders, the moment I went out on campaign or was taken out of the field by a Named scrap for a while, it all began to crumble. I’d spent long nights with Hakram putting together a way to rule this country that would weather my absence without outright turning every office over to the Regals or the Queen’s Men. We’d done better than I could reasonably expect. Folding the old Praesi-built bureaucracy into the royal court had centralized power, yes, but more around Laure than myself. Most of it could function without me there to oversee it. And Ratface, Gods bless his cantankerous soul, had worked miracles where he could.
The Royal Mint in Marchford had put enough coin out there that the Tower no longer essentially decided the amount of currency we had to spare. Ratface was alarmed about he fact that the Empress still sat over massive reserves of precious metals accrued over two decades of peace and looting Callow, and that if she ever cut them loose the overflow of gold and silver would break the south and damage the rest of the kingdom. I couldn’t dismiss that worry out of hand, but Malicia was at war. I knew better than most the Empress wasn’t above putting an arrow in her foot if she thought it would lead to a long-term gain, but as long as she needed Callow functional enough to get in the crusade’s way I couldn’t see her pulling the trigger. It was still an awkward position: I could not and would not remain under the Tower’s thumb, but if I ever got too out of line Malicia would have to react and coin was one of the better ways she had of hurting me. And there were risks, of course, to an unstable and war-torn country starting to mint its own coin. It’d been patriotic sentiment more than trust that saw people embracing the new currency, and sentiment was a dangerous thing to use as foundation.
I was popular enough in Callow that at the moment there was no real chance of uprising, but I would have to be very careful to keep it that way. Thief had made it clear that up north I was considered to have picked up the worst of the Fairfaxes overreaches and the most grating Praesi methods, then made both them my reign’s central tenets. I had strong grip in central Callow, where a lot of people still saw me as the woman who’d given the boot to the most hated aspects of Praesi rule and taken the field repeatedly to keep the kingdom safe. In the south, though, it was a mixed bag. Hakram had overseen the feeding and settling of the refugees and that’d raised my reputation by extension, but Laure still loomed tall in everyone’s memories. It didn’t help that southerners tended to be more religious, as a rule, and that for all that my coronation had been at a Sister’s hands I was still very much a villain. Down there, I was backed only so long as every other alternative was measurably worse. At least Procer’s known involvement in the Liesse Rebellion had them almost as hated as Praes: the backlash in sentiment had only grown starker when rumours trickled in that the Tenth Crusade would be going through Callow. Conspiracies were being peddled that the First Prince had arranged it all to weaken the country enough it wouldn’t be able to fight back, and the way they were not waning but growing in popularity had the Empress’ signature all over it.
Her Dread Majesty had been quiet, of late, but it would be a blunder to believe that meant she wasn’t setting up the board for her later moves.
I’d begun to work on Callow too late, I knew. Less than a year of seeing to the country, when I had to both double the size of the army and rebuild a third of the realm? That Ratface had managed to find the coin for any of this was a testament to how ridiculously resourceful my former Supply Tribune was. I’d had to resign myself, in the end, to the truth that this was as much good as I could do before the swords came out. And there never really had been a doubt that the swords would come out, which was why I’d poured so much coin into the Jacks even when Juniper was howling in outrage. If I started to fight this war only when the armies began marching, I’d lose. It was as simple as that. Black had once told me that if I didn’t start acting instead of reacting I would rack up greater and greater disasters, and I cursed myself still for not having listened to him then. I would not make that mistake again, and that meant going in with both a plan and a notion of what my opponents were up to. I had my plan. It’d taken me months and more people brought in to put it together than I was truly comfortable with, but I had the the skeleton of the Liesse Accords on parchment. Now I just had to make sure everyone else in this mess was ready to sign them, and that was a different beast.
Malicia, I knew, never would agree. That meant Malicia had to go, sooner or later, and that put a particular tone to the fact that her spymistress was contacting me on the eve of my departure for the northern campaign.
The scrying basin lit up and I leaned over, watching my interlocutor closely. Ime looked older than when I’d last seen her. The lines on her face were deeper, and though her hair remained dark I suspected there was dye behind the absence of white locks. She was warier speaking to me than she’d once been, as she should be. Aisha’s kinsmen had dug up a few things about her when I asked. She’d been one of the Heir’s closest supporters, when Black had still been the Squire, and the only one to survive my teacher’s unsurprisingly thorough retribution as he rose to prominence. She’d been inserted at court under Dread Emperor Nefarious as a hidden ally for the then-concubine Malicia, and later served as the Empress’ most precious informant in Ater during the civil war. Anyone who could deceive a Chancellor and a panoply of Praesi highborn could not be taken lightly, so I was about as wary as she herself was looking.
“Your Majesty,” the spymistress greeted me.
Her face was small, on the stone basin I used for official scrying with the Tower, but remarkably detailed. Masego had done good work with the instrument.
“Lady Ime,” I replied, inclining my head.
“I bear word from Her Most Dreadful Majesty,” she said. “It has come to the Tower’s attention that you will be leaving for campaign with dawn.”
“As agreed, the defence of Callow is part of my responsibilities as tributary state of Praes,” I said. “Though reinforcing Black at the Vales is no longer feasible, I will be meeting Prince Milenan’s army in battle.”
“The prompt discharging of your obligation does you honour,” Ime said, though we both knew that to be empty words. I wasn’t doing any of this for the Empress’ sake. “The Tower has, however, instructions in the specifics of that discharge.”
Ah, and there we went. I know what you’re after this time, you old spider. I was about to be told, I suspected, that Amadis Milenan was to survive his little jaunt through the Whitecaps.
“It will be my pleasure, of course, to listen to such instructions,” I mildly replied.
I’d learned to choose my words more carefully, and not just because I had a fancy hat. Ime understood perfectly well the backdoor I’d allowed myself in this, but I’d not given her grounds enough to harden her language. We were still at the part of the game were my deep love and loyalty for the Empress was fantasy we both pretended to be fact.
“It has been decreed in the Tower’s interests that certain royals within the crusader host be spared the sword,” Ime said.
“Fascinating,” I smiled, wide and mirthless. “Shall I guess the names?”
“In deference to the current state of war, that will not be necessary,” the spymistress blandly replied. “There are only two: Prince Amadis Milenan of Iserre and Princess Rozala Malanza of Aequitan.”
The schemer and the general. Essentially the only two people that mattered in that army, aside from the heroes. I allowed the empty smile to lapse.
“And this… decree,” I said. “Does it bear the Tower’s seal? Or is it simply an instruction from Her Dread Majesty?”
How far are you willing to push this? Are you going to make it treason to disobey? That, at the moment, was the most important bit to find out. The line the Empress took on this would tell me quite a bit. Like, for example, if ignoring her would be followed by immediate reprisal. The last news from Aisha’s relatives had the Ashuran war fleet in the Tideless Isles, an obvious prelude to attacking Praesi shores, so I doubted any of the Legions would be marching west. I had a garrison in place at Summerholm to stop them cold if they did, anyway. But the kind of pressure she was willing to bring down would give me a glimpse of her timetable: when was she going to stop thinking of me as a disposable asset and instead consider me a threat to deal with? She only had two armies in place to ward off Procer, and Black wasn’t going anywhere now that Prince Papenheim was on the move. So tell me, Malicia, when is your play inside Procer going to make me irrelevant to the defence of your borders?
“A mere instruction,” Ime smiled charmingly. “Her Dread Majesty recognizes the realities of battle may prevent you from carrying out her intent.”
At least until the passage is secure, then, I thought. Now show me the knife, Tyrant.
“Of course, failing to achieve this may cast doubts about your ability amongst certain circles,” Ime continued. “As we are currently mustering for the defence of the coast, I regret to inform you that Her Dread Majesty lacks the men to enforce the safety of trade routes with Callow.”
So, the moneybag. Not unexpected. She wouldn’t do anything too overt, no. Wouldn’t even let her people be involved. She just needed to whisper in the ears of the right High Lords and the wolves would start going after my granaries and my traders while my army was on the wrong side of Callow to stop them. How typically Praesi that even when I was marching against an army that wanted her head on a pike she’d still threaten to shove sticks in my wheels. My fingers clenched. As always, the Empress toed the line skilfully. Escalation, but not enough it would cripple me or force heavy-handed retaliation on my part. I’d had a tutor in Praesi politics lately, though. One I despised, but Akua Sahelian knew the ways of the Wasteland the way only a monster born to its highest reaches could. Time to put what I’d learned to work. I’d spent months scrabbling for every way I knew to check Winter’s influence on my thoughts, well aware of how much of a liability it made me when I swam in the deeper waters, and one of the side-effects of that had been learning exactly how that influence rose when I reached for the mantle. Fear, I instructed myself. Fear but nothing else. I smiled, and let Winter coil through my veins.
Frost tinged the sides of the stone basin as Ime’s face went blank.
“Sabra Niri,” I said, tone caressing the words, and she shivered. “I was surprised, to learn of your kinship to the High Lord of Okoro.”
Her name had been learned, not given, and this made difference. It was still a foothold. Fear spread in her mind like a drop of ink in water. Thinned, yes, but contaminating every part of her. I could taste it, even through this thin link of sympathetic sorcery. I savoured it. I watched the curve of her neck, and considered snapping it. A little reminder to Malicia that threats were not inconsequential. Perhaps too brutal, I mused. Taking simply her sight would be sufficient. I could whisper through this working and shatter those pretty little orbs with a single word. Make bauble of them, perhaps. A bracelet for her to wear as a reminder of the costs of slighting me. Fear. Fear but nothing else. A weak, indecisive design. I balked at it. We would see.
“Have you ever heard the Wild Hunt ride, Sabra Niri?” I asked quietly.
It was a pretty mask of calm she wore, but it was a very thin and feeble one. It would be delightful to rip it off.
“I am not certain what you imply, Queen Catherine,” Ime said.
“It comes slowly, triptych unfolding,” I told her. “First you hear the horns. Distant, like-“
My voice was halfway other, the crack of glaciers and the stillness of fallen snow.
“- a promise, almost a whisper,” I said. “Then you hear the hooves, and that is when you know yourself hunted.”
She began to speak, but I clicked my tongue. Her lips closed and she swallowed loudly.
“The last thing you hear, Sabra Niri, is the laughter,” I murmured. “It is sport to them, you see. Like a deer that can scream and oh, how they enjoy the screams.”
“The Hunt is under your command,” Ime said. “To send them after citizens of the Empire would be rebellion.”
“Citizens?” I mused. “No. Animals. Animals are what they would pursue.”
I turned my gaze on her.
“Wherever they might be,” I softly spoke. “Whoever might shield them. They would… disappear. As if by the hand of a god.”
I smiled and showed my teeth, knew them sharper than a human’s should be. Hunger made fangs wherever it spread.
“Shall we speak of gods, Sabra Niri?” I asked.
“The Wasteland is not without learning in this matter,” she replied.
“Then perhaps it should it should pay heed to these old lessons,” I said. “I wish you sweet dreams, Sabra Niri. And a kindness, for the one you once offered – running never helps, but it is still better than being caught.”
I cut the strings of the the spell, before I could talk myself into claiming her tongue for the arrogance of having threatened me. The sheer gall of that insect – I breathed in and out, slowly. Fear. Fear and nothing else. I’d stayed within the bounds. I spent half an hour alone and unmoving in the solar afterwards, letting the influence of Winter ebb. It was worse than the chats with Hasenbach, because this time I’d leaned in willingly. That made a difference. When I embraced it of my own free will it was always slower to recede. Gods, I wanted a drink. But the way my hand refused to move told me the oath considered me on campaign already. It’d been playing with munitions, letting Winter out, but that was the entire point. So long as Malicia believed me unstable, willing to escalate starkly at the first offence, she would be wary of starting her usual games. Except it’s not pretending if I really am that volatile, is it? I clenched my fingers. I couldn’t stay queen, not in the long term. Not when I had that lurking thing in the back of my soul and no real solution to leash it. But the only person I could feasibly abdicate to was Anne Kendall, and Thief was sure she didn’t currently have the backing to stay on the throne if I put her there. Which I couldn’t do, anyway, not without starting a war with the Tower and likely Black as well. For now, I had to stay. Under all the checks I could manage without crippling the kingdom’s rebuilding. Fuck, I missed Hakram. It was always easier when he was around, and once more I regretted sending anyone else to Vale would have slowed necessary work by months.
Dawn found me looking through glass panels, an open manuscript on my knees. We’d be moving out soon, to fight a war against unbeatable men in a battle where I had to refrain from spilling my enemy’s blood. Whether they be gods or kings or all the armies in Creation.
Well, the Heavens were certainly attempting to deliver.