Chapter 5: Interests

“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.

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87 thoughts on “Chapter 5: Interests

        1. Matthew

          Ward has the problem of no one wanting to kill and the story twisting itself implausibly to avoid having anyone killed.

          Like the latest arc, they are saying that they can’t kill all of the Fallen. Well, once you kill Mama Mathers and those under compulsion are released, why can’t you kill the remainder? The Fallen as a group are way too dangerous to be left alive.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. ______

            That’s the kind of decision a politician or a military commander could make, but the people whose shoulders it is now on are too well aware that they have no means to stop that conflict once they start it, that the post-Golden-Morning truce is already barely holding, and that holding back because there are bigger threats on the horizon has never been so urgent before.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Matthew

              1. There are no bigger threats than scion and the endbringers and both are gone/inert

              2 . the vast majority of living parahumans hate masters… Almost as if they all have direct experience of being under their sway.

              3. The fallen are militant nihilists and would, by definition, try to sabotage any coalition they were a part of.

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  1. “to fight a war against unbeatable men in a battle where I had to refrain from spilling my enemy’s blood.”
    Did I miss something? Or is this just referring to the two royalty?

    Also, great chapter! It has an amazing insight to the way that Winter is working withing Cat, as well as some nice foreshadowing of what’s to come.

    Like

    1. ______

      She meant the Grey Pilgrim (who is undefeated so far and can’t be killed if she ever wants to make a treaty with Levant) and Saint of Swords (who is more or less Ranger with a domain). She also can’t kill too many soldiers, or Hasenbach wouldn’t treat with her at all.

      Liked by 5 people

    2. Darkening

      She’s also referring tot he fact that she can’t just butcher the enemy army to the last man in a single decisive victory or the Principate will react by digging in their heels and wanting to retaliate, and she won’t be able to push through a treaty.

      Aside from that, holy hell the bit with Winter was something. I really, really, really love this turn to things. Probably not going to lead to good things, but I just love how alien her thought processes and behavior turned. Looking forward to seeing her go all out on some heroes.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Rook

      Cat really is the embodiment of the Praesi ideal that way. Becoming better by learning from her enemies, pulling out the knife that you were stabbed with and making it your own. She’s surrounded by treachery on every side – Cordelia in the front, Malicia in the back, Larat and Akua under her nose, the Goblin Matrons, Praesi nobles, and the other calamities in the background – and for all that they’re grinding her down, she’s trying to use it to sharpen herself. An almost literal case of iron sharpens iron, for all that she disparages the notion of it.

      Liked by 5 people

    1. The author wrote in the summary that the story updates on Monday and Wednesday but now it is also updating on Friday.
      He forgot to change that in the summary.
      Sorry that my comment is misleading

      Like

  2. lpoolfan1

    I just started following recently, and I love this serial a lot!

    If it’s alright with you, erraticerrata, could I possibly incorporate some material from this in a D&D campaign I’m going to start running soon? The concept of Names would really spice up the campaign and let my players really shine. Also, the villains would be spectacular.

    If you’re not ok with that, that’s fine! I get it if you don’t want to just let other people copy you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Joel

    I so do love all the political parts it this (it’s part of what elevates this work so), but I really am itching to get to Catherine running an arrogant Prince or two through.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Rook

        Note that the knife cuts both ways though. They’re not just vulnerable to narratives, but also empowered by them. They’re can be on the level of lesser gods if the story supports them enough, or disposable minions if it doesn’t.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. On the plus-side, she isn’t restricted to as narrow a field of narrative arcs typical of Named. Sure, she’ll operate best in Winter-related areas… But, that covers all kinds of stories. Even ones of cheer-within-harshness, but particularly strongly meta tales.

        Winter is when you hunker down and tell or make up tales to get you through the darkest nights. 🙂

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  4. ______

    Alright, does anyone understand why Catherine didn’t just ask about the location of the demon? Mlaicia has to understand that Cat’s not stupid enough to use it, and at this point not knowing about it hinders everyone for the same reasons.

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    1. Rook

      Malicia already knows more likely than not, and even if her spy network had not given her reason to believe it she’d be able to infer it fairly easily given the situation: Having said that, her assistance in finding it has shown to be noticeably lacking, which when dealing with a schemer of Malicia’s caliber can be taken as a blatant refusal to give that card away

      Asking her for it not only reveals a measure of your thoughts to her – beyond dangerous when your relationship is less allies and more using each other for the moment – but even if she were to acquiesce, it puts Cat in a weaker bargaining position for the future and is a potential weapon in the field of shifting public opinion considering how prevalent Demons were in Marchford and second Liesse.

      So essentially it’s a terrible move because you’re asking for something that isn’t critical, in a way that bares your neck to a potential enemy, while knowing that it’s for the moment a wholly futile endeavour

      Liked by 4 people

      1. d_o_l

        I wonder if Malicia is planning on releasing the demon herself? She’s definitely been sliding more towards old school Evil tactics. She might see an opportunity to hurt two of her enemies at once.

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    2. Jonnnney

      A demon of absence might be exactly the tool Cat needs to slaughter the army without consequences. The Procter can’t be too angry about the death of 50,000 soldiers if no one remembers that they ever existed.

      She can’t ask for the location because she is trying to portray herself as violent, unpredictable, and controlled by her winter urges. Asking for the location is reasonable and suggests that she is acting predictably which allows the Empress many more actions and manipulations.

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  5. Jane

    You know, it occurs to me that, as harshly as she judges herself, the fact that Thief is willing to work for her is a pretty clear sign that she’s actually doing reasonably well; for all that the rest of the world calls Thief a fallen heroine, she’s signaled plenty of times that she’s only in this so long as Callow is better off with Cat as Queen.

    Though, I suppose her judgment DOES have much to do with the fact that she’s comparing herself to Black and Malicia, two of the greatest planners and schemers of the age – that would undermine anyone’s confidence in their competence. Still, just compare her to pretty much any of the other characters we’ve heard about, with the exception of Cordelia – even as half-hearted as her efforts at planning have been, pretty much nobody else seems to have even seriously considered the long-term. Given how she’s been rushing from one disaster to the next, that she was able to accomplish ANYTHING is still remarkable, even if much of it has more to do with recognizing and employing talented individuals than it does setting in motion decade-spanning projects.

    Not that her self-reflection is off – she’s been content to react despite being in a position where she’s been expected to plan, and the costs for that have been dire. But it’s also important to recognize that most others in her position would have lost everything, and that she’s come out of this with a country still able to pose a threat to the Crusade is a remarkable accomplishment. Well, more important for the rest of the world to recognize, I suppose – if SHE were to think that, it would risk leading to dangerous complacency.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Slider

      Cat should just marry Thief and make her queen of Callow. That would solve all her problems with being forced to abdicate for the greater ‘good’ due to being compromised by winter.

      Like

  6. Matthew

    Am I the only one upset by Cat breaking from the Tower?

    Malicia and Black are the best.

    Black especially as his weaponized genre savvy and use of institutions makes him genuinely new and a threat to the existing order. I imagine Black and the Heirarch actually agree about the supremacy of humanity over stupid meddling gods.

    I was always hoping that Black and Malicia could “Ship of Theseus” Praes into a reformed empire which is ‘good,’ because taxes aren’t onerous, everyone is fed, people are treated equally before the law… etc,

    Watching Cat plot to destroy Praes and, by Extension, Black’s goals of using institutions and organization to defy the very gods is sad and anticlimactic.

    Now she’s just another anti hero fighting within a groove that creation wants her to fight in.

    Creation wants this Crusade to go 3 ways.

    1. Best Case: Procer knocks out Cat and Praes
    2. Second Best Case: Procer fails to knock out Cat or Praes, but Cat then knocks out Praes.
    3. Worst case for creation: Cat and Praes cooperate closely and figure out a way to force Procer into a sustainable treaty.

    The story is on #2. I’d much rather read #3.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Voice of Reason

      Cat only said she was going to get rid of Malicia, who said anything about Black? She may be planning to help him depose Malicia and take her place.

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      1. Matthew

        This is a possibility, but unlikely.

        Black broke Malicia’s trust by destroying the array. I don’t think he’d dignify her resulting distrust by actively plotting against her. He’d want a way to remove the dread empress through… “constitutional” means.

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          1. Yup. I remember because one of the chapter quotes mentions that, while usurpation is a valid means of succession, a group of animals which ate a Dread Empress weren’t smart enough to be considered as successors (but were smart enough to be charged with treason in light of the desertion of the tiger army, if you remember that; the quote was from the animals’ trial (not the tigers)).

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    2. I think that is what Malicia and Black wanted to do originally, but that ship has sailed.

      Malicia de facto embraced Stupid Evil by sacrificing a city worth of people of one her allies to get a super weapon and Black no longer believes in half-measures and wants to exterminate the Praesi nobility like the cancer they are.

      So… yeah. Cat’s idea to jump ship makes sense because the Empire is no longer a reliable ally.

      Liked by 4 people

        1. Rook

          They’re a necessary evil contingent on Praesi culture continuing to be self harming to the point of tearing itself apart, is what Cat realized.

          Which is the exact same thing Black wanted to change in his argument with Empess, to break that culture and stop being (paraphrased) ‘a snake choking on its own tail’. Cat essentially came to the same conclusion he did, which still eventually ends with the high nobles ripped out root and stem.

          Liked by 1 person

    3. Ed

      Cat has to break from the Tower, the Tower itself is the ultimate symbol of idiotic evil she said it herself in this chapter. The highborn fight to preserve Praes even when they give no shits because *their* family might be next in the Tower.

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      1. grzecho2222

        Also Miss “One day, we will have foreign allies who are not complete imbeciles. By sheer dint of odds, it has to happen eventually.” jumped the maneating tapir with Hellgate plan and decided to antagonize said allies because Cat stabbed Black.

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    4. d_o_l

      Malicia is pretty clearly going off the deep end. Seems like maybe spending so long at the top of the Tower has started to warp her perceptions a bit. Black was 100% right about the flying fortress gambit being a stupid idea, and now she’s bringing the Dead King into the mix. What’s happening right now is not Cat’s fault.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Albatross

        I’ve been thinking with all the ‘Winter affects my mind’ stuff recently, if the name ‘Dread Emperor/Empress’ doesn’t do the same to the people who hold it. Still I don’t think Malicia’s gonna hang onto that name once Triumphant comes back

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        1. Albatross

          Also I reckon the most likely endgame is more: Callow & Praes become one country, Cat abdicates, Malicia is deposed. Heck maybe if the League can pick up enough power their Exarch can impose hideously ineffective democracy on everyone

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          1. DD

            I love the fact that the utterly democratic nation is aligned with evil. I know that anyone who studied the Ancient Greek city-states knows how terrible and bloody democracy can be, but in modern times it is always depicted as some great good. This is good stuff.

            Liked by 3 people

              1. grzecho2222

                For me they seem more like French revolutionists, Bolsheviks had very organized military (with chariots with machine guns and other staff), also they fought Mensheviks (who dethroned Tsar and who generaly made much more sense) and spent most of their time fighting democratic coutries. Also most people among them didn’t belive in system and spent a LOT of time fighting for power among themselves

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            1. Yeah they’re not democratic. They’re … something else. Some form of lunacy which is only stable and doesn’t immediately get co-opted by some power-hungry (or well-meaning) official on the inside because of mind-reading shenanigans.

              Honestly I don’t feel like they have a good analogue to any real-world political system, other than being what Pure Marxist Communism *would* be if Pure Marxist Communism had actually had some mechanism for enforcing distributed rule rather than just hoping that everybody would pick the cooperate button in their political prisoner’s dilemma (and if someone then dumped a bucket of pure chaos on the whole thing). Which, of course, means it’s nothing like Marx-descended Communism at all because every awful thing that ever happened in the USSR basically begins and ends with: “Marx didn’t actually bother figuring out how to incentivize distributed political unity and just believed really hard that the people would make it would happen”.

              Liked by 2 people

      2. Fern

        God, and I forgot about the fuckin Dead King.

        Wait, is Malicia gonna go for Bonfire?

        I mean, obviously Praes can’t directly go for it, not without the portals. But it’s the same principle, really: keep the bulk of the crusade hemmed in at the Red Flower Vales then let the Dead King completely ruin the country. It’s what I would do, in that situation, especially if Malicia thinks she can get rid of the Dead King afterwards (I mean, that seems pretty unlikely though, what with the whole secret hell wars that everyone forgot about. If it didn’t work then I doubt it could work now, unless they bring Ranger into the fold).

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          1. Fern

            IIRC it got mentioned a while back, in “The Secret Histories of Praes.” There were a few wars fought for control over the hell that the Dead King occupied that ended with a horrible loss for Praes. I don’t remember if they had to use an absence demon or not but i’m 90% sure they did.

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  7. SMHF

    Wow I really love to see The Hunt in action in a Heroic Interlude!

    Idk watching them through Cat’s eyes, while still awesome, seeing as she’s the Queen of The Hunt, would take some of their mystic away…

    Liked by 1 person

        1. grzecho2222

          Hmm, how old was Page? I always she was Cat’s age. Also, I meant 12 -15 years old, like Artemis Fowl, Will Treaty, Percy Jackson, Robin etc…
          Kid – Hero

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  8. Seen like this, the demand of Malicia to keep the two Princes alive can only be seen in a very dark light. After all if the Prince of Iserre and the Princess of Aequitan are captured alive, we must assume their army will be beaten by that point (because they didn’t strike me as front-line commanders) and the heroes will be in disarray or dead.
    With this kind of situation, their influence will be spent and the majority of their elite forces destroyed. The only reason Malicia wants them alive is because the Dead King is going to unleash his armies once the two 50 000+ armies are no longer able to disengage and march north.
    Malicia is certainly going to let Keter invade Procer, kills most of the Princes and Princess. Cordelia Hasenback, unable to repulse the greatest Evil invasion of this era, will be the scapegoat. At the last moment, Praes armies will of course gallantly come to the rescue and put Prince Amadis on the throne, with the Princess of Aequitan as his wife.
    The Tenth Crusade will be dead without the Principate, most heroes will be dead too, and Callow will have been bled in the process. The Dread Empress will have killed most of her opponents, internal and external.
    At least, I consider it a possible scenario. This story has the potential to surprise me at every chapter…though it’s definitely a bad sign when the main character considers she can trust herself anymore with a crown.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ashen Shugar

      I don’t think Malicia expected Cat to capture the Princes, but rather didn’t want them taken out in a decapitation strike to weaken the army as she still wants them around to scheme against Cordelia.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. James, Mostly Harmless

    Does anybody remember why Ime being related to the High Lord of Okoro is significant to Cat and worthy of the Wild Hunt?

    Like

  10. Fern

    so, four people she cannot kill: two by decree of the empress, and two by rationality. Clearly, Cat is going to have to decide what wheelhouse she’s in on the eve of this campaign; is she going to destabilize Procer for long enough that they’re no longer a threat? Or work to ensure that the two Proceran Demigods live to ensure peace. Although – at least to me – it looks like she’s trying to go for both. This would be the best scenario, of course. Save the revered Heroes and let the blame for a failed operation fall on the two snakes, keeping Hasenbach and Malicia content enough to beat each other senseless.

    Obviously, we’ve passed the gold end way forever ago, when Black let his failure in the Free Cities influence his actions. Now, we’re just desperately scrabbling for the best possible outcome for Callow, and perhaps seeing our darling Catherine come out as a major player in Calernian politics.

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  11. Me personally,
    I’d take my army ALL THE WAY to the north end of Procer if I were Cat, much like Move 1 in Bonfire. Then instead of massacring the population, I’d sweep the defenders against the Chain of Hunger off their walls from behind. With Procer completely undefended in the north for the first time in millennia, the Chain would likely rise as it hasn’t in ages.

    Faced with the utter annihilation of her nation, Cordelia could either turn her forces for home, or be crucified by her own troops before they hurried home.

    Simple. Easy peasy. You can’t stab your way to Paradise, but you can always stab your way to better. This diplomatic solution….I don’t have a ton of faith in. Kinda feels like Cat is goin a bit soft due to her (justified) fear of her mantle.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Engineer

        Either Callow or the Dominion. Maybe both.

        That said if they employ that version of bonfire and word ever got out that Catherine was the one indirectly responsible for such a large amount of death, then the reasons she did not want to employ the vanilla bonfire plan will still come to pass.

        That’s not even touching the fact that all the old monster heroes that would undoubtedly survive such an onslaught on their home country would be turning their eyes to Catherine in particular.

        They’d even have the narrative weight to kick her ass.

        So no, if you want a long term, peaceful solution you can’t go for the kill them all (whether directly or indirectly) approach. Because Reality in the guideverse is far from impartial.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. The way I see it, Cat wasn’t ordered not to kill the Princes. She was ordered that they “be spared the sword”, intentionally or unintentionally giving Cat the same out she gave herself in her “listen to instructions”

    On the rest fabulous as always, can’t wait to see what happens next, though I can’t wait to see what type of name she gets, something like “Queen of Woe” would be awesome.
    Also would love to see the hunt in action

    Like

    1. grzecho2222

      Iron Queen:
      -iron sharpens iron
      -wears iron crown
      -rules with iron fist
      -Fae hate iron and if something has selfcontradicting n(N)ame its usually Very Bad Sign

      Liked by 1 person

  13. “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.”

    I feel like this is true for a *lot* of socially Darwinist / competition oriented philosophies.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. ritvik jha

    Mr.David Verburg aka erraticerrata I would like to garner your attention through this comment cause I was not able to find any other means of communication to contact you .
    I am a law student pursuing a BA LLB and have written some articles in local news papers and magazines as a freelancer.
    I have been reading your web fiction a practical guide to evil from quiet some time I just wanted to inform you that i am quiet interested in adding more detail to the lore of your web fictions like i.e the average life of a citizen in pares,life of a noble in callow or details about the administration of Procer.
    This would need your approval as you are the owner of the original work as I might be adding details to the original material or creating some new details in the existing.
    If approved I would like to guarantee you that the details and additional lore would never move away or obstruct the cannon that you produce this might even lead a few short stories i.e like the accounts of a paresi soldier during the doom of lessie and spin offs.
    I am ready to do this free of cost or at a token fee (if u like to give it to me totally upon you) everything I write will be first sent to you for approval first so I will in no way obstruct your work.
    please contact me through the email ritvikjha1@gmail.com.

    Like

  15. Eh,
    I think this Universe has established it doesn’t really punish “Evil at a remove” with bunches of Heroes descending. Malicia spawned mass civil war in Procer with indirect action and fifty Heroes didn’t descend on Praes.

    The “Story” isn’t too smart. It’s highly reactive, certainly. I will allow that without more details as to what the Ratlings are, it’s difficult to say whether unleashing them would screw anything but Procer. It’s possible they might simply infest Procer, requiring everyone adjacent country to wall up and defend. Alternatively, they might go all locust as assumed.

    Still, Cordelia is hunting an Evil knockout for Empire-building purposes. She’s crazier and more power-hungry than Malicia. Therefore even more untrustworthy.

    Like

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