“Power is a blanket that never covers quite as much as you need it to.”
– Queen Matilda the Elder of Callow
Vivienne had learned to enjoy prowling the nights of Laure, though Callow’s capital city would never be as dear to her as Southpool. Back home, in the serpentine alleys of fat brick houses where she’d first learned her trade, she could orient herself without a thought. It had come naturally, an instinct birthed out of thrill and theft. Navigating Laure’s cluster of disparate districts, in comparison, had been an acquired taste. Much like ale, and as the drink she’d once thought little more than bitter brew it had artlessly become a part of her life she no longer bothered to question. She liked the Lakeside District most of all, even though years of stifling rule under Governor Mazus were only now beginning to be recovered from. The docks there different from the quiet piers of Southpool that became barred every night: here activity thrummed even after dark. The taverns were part of it, for every drink peddler unable or unwilling to afford guild membership had opened some grimy temple there for sailors and the destitute to frequent. But it was more than that: Laure never truly slept, least of all here. The royal palace might be the heart of the city, but as far as Vivienne was concerned it was Lakeside that held the soul.
Even in the dark barges came to rest against the long rickety docks of the Regalian, officially a customs house said to be built from what part of the remains of a Praesi flying fortress had not been claimed by House Alban. Less officially, it was the spring well of everything in Laure that shied away from the eyes of the law. The place was beautiful, in its own way. Youths from Denier or Southpool coming to trying their luck in the capital disembarked with nothing but the clothes on their backs, smugglers paid their dues to the Guild of Smugglers to avoid having their cargo inspected – unaware that a cut of the coin ended up in Ratface’s treasury regardless – and even fishermen out late to try part of the lake without competition from the guild of their trade and its ancient rights. It was alive in a way that the cleaner parts of the district weren’t. The Colonnade and its worn statues of the seven first Alban rulers had been kept clean and quiet by men with cudgels since the aftermath of the Conquest, when the stone anchorage had been the closed demesne of the Praesi and their favourite Callowan cronies.
The Whitestone District reminded her of that stilted place, Vivienne decided as she moved from rooftop to rooftop in silence. Oh, it was easy on the eyes. Wide sprawling avenues holding noble manors and beautiful guildhalls. Gardens every few intersections, paid for by the contributions of those that owned property in the district. The locals did enjoy being separate from the rest of Laure. They’d had their own watch as well, once upon a time, though Catherine had disbanded it after her coronation with a look in her eyes that was all savage glee. Sometimes Vivienne forgot the Queen of Callow had been a nobody orphan but a few years ago, and one used to being stepped on by foreign and homebred lords alike. She had not forgotten a single slight from those days, the Black Queen. As was their people’s way. Thief slid down a tiled roof onto a warding wall, then leapt across onto a rain gutter and rode it down to someone’s darkened garden.
She did not need to travel this way, not truly. A single flash of the queen’s seal and there was not a gate in the city that would be barred to her, nor a watchman that would dare disobey her orders. But there was a part of Vivienne that would never be comfortable with the power that came from her status. The Woe, she knew, were highborn in a way that highborn themselves could only dream of being. Close companions to the queen, and Named. No land or riches came from holding one of those, but they brought authority in a way that neither could. It was a gilded cage. Though, praise where it was due, none of the Woe had been taken in by it. Hierophant rarely left the still half-built Observatory if he had to, Archer spent more time Lakeside than in the palace and Adjutant spent his hours putting out fires across the kingdom. As for Catherine, well, she had no love for the crown. The frank admission by the Queen of Callow that she’d abdicate in a heartbeat if it didn’t carry the risk of collapsing the country had been a great reassurance to Vivienne. Second Liesse had… changed Catherine in many ways. Made her more cautious, more prone to avoiding confrontation. The weight of a hundred thousand souls lost was still bearing down on her shoulders.
Caution, though, did not mean lethargy. They had been watching. Waiting. Measuring. And now that Lady Valerie Hadley had tipped her hand, Thief had been freed to act. The Valewoman’s mansion was not truly her own, Vivienne had learned. The Hadleys had not been wealthy enough to rank a house in the single most expensive district in the Kingdom of Callow, and even within the Marquisate of Vale had not been considered among the influential houses. Landed knights, kept afloat by the rent of their few fields to farmers. Some connections to the – once-disbanded by the Black Knight but now reinstated by his very pupil – Guild of Smiths had been rumoured, but nothing definite. Lady Hadley had been gifted the low wall Vivienne was currently climbing and the house beyond it by Baron Richard of Holden, two years before the Liesse Rebellion and the subsequent crucifixion of the man when it failed. For services rendered, the deed had said. The Eyes of the Empire had two scrolls on the matter, and she’d been in their sights as a possible rebel element ever since – even though she’d spent the Liesse Rebellion in Laure, never taking arms with the rebels.
Vivienne had wondered, ever since the name came across her desk, whether she was an agent for a foreign power. It would have been an explanation for the quantity of coin she’d begun moving around last month. Yet there was no evidence of collusion with the Principate or the Tower. It had been venturing down the rabbit hole Brandon Talbot had emerged from that shed some light on the mystery. Valerie Hadley had discretely hidden a handful of the knights that came out of the woodworks to found the Broken Bells for half a decade, at her own expense. That the Baron of Holden had seen fit to reward her for it had interesting implications – he must have been part of the conspiracy that kept Callowan chivalry alive under the occupation – though given the death of the man and the end of his line’s rule they were now largely irrelevant. It’d been telling, though. Hadley had kept knights hidden and funded at a time where such a thing would have landed her on a table with Praesi mages dissecting her memories before summary execution if she were caught. She was either patriotic or hard to frighten. Perhaps both, Vivienne had eventually decided. It would explain how this night had come to be.
Midnight Bell had already passed, but there were still lamps lit in the gallery that overlooked the small pond and garden below. Thief was amused by her glimpse of the tall open windows that made up most of the wall. She was fairly certain Governor Mazus has once taxed properties according to the height and length of windows, and given the multitude of those in the mansion perhaps there was an explanation to be found about why Baron Richard had been so willing to cede the deed of his beautiful mansion to a stranger. Thief crept across the grass silently and melded into the shadows at the base of the wall as a household guard passed through the garden. She could have used her aspect to avoid the need entirely, but relying on the arcane was a good way to get sloppy. And sloppy thieves die young, here and everywhere. The climb was easy. Decorative bas-reliefs made for easy footholds and there were plenty vines and shadows to hide in when the next guard passed. Thief’s silhouette stood wreathed in moonlight for a heartbeat when she crouched on the windowsill, but when a breeze set the curtains to moving and Hadley glanced to the side she was already gone.
Lady Valerie, she saw, was alone at the high table with ledgers and household papers. A mostly full carafe of wine sat to the side, alongside a cup. That simplified matters a great deal. Hide, Vivienne thought. Steps barely even a whisper, she stood behind the woman and fished out a little parchment satchel. The pale powder within sunk into the cup of wine without a sound, leaving no trace. Praesi had a way with alchemies of all kinds, it had to be said. Thief poured double the dose, as Hadley did not strike her like a heavy drinker. It was only after the Valewoman drank from the cup that Vivienne pulled out the seat to her left, allowing her aspect to ebb. Valerie Hadley cursed and reached for the knife at her hip, fumbling with the sheath, and Thief dropped into the sinfully comfortable chair with a sigh of pleasure.
“Good evening, Lady Valerie,” she said.
The words stilled the woman, though her eyes were still touched by fear.
“Lady Thief,” she replied, voice thick with that slow Valean drawl. “The queen’s own Left Hand. I suppose I should feel flattered.”
Vivienne smiled. She was, at least, not one of that particularly despicable breed of plotters that flinched and mewled when their schemes were brought to light.
“Feel free, if that is your preference,” she shrugged. “We were overdue a conversation, don’t you think?”
“And they said the queen would be no tyrant,” Hadley said darkly. “That she might have been taught by a monster, but that in the end blood would win out. So much for that. Am I to disappear into a dark cell now, Vivienne Dartwick?”
“No. No, there will be none of that,” Thief softly said. “I am here because I wanted to hear you speak. Look you in the eyes myself. It is a weakness, I suppose, but to be Named is to have your flaws swell along the rest of you.”
“I have done nothing wrong,” Lady Hadley said. “You know this as well as I.”
“If you’d taken Proceran coin, I would hold you in contempt,” Vivienne admitted. “I would outright despise you, if it had been the Tower’s instead. But your little conspiracy was Callowan, from beginning to end, wasn’t it? A handful of lords and ladies gave you coin, but most came from common folk. No conspirators they, only men and women afraid of what this land has become.”
“A kingdom is more than crown and court,” the woman replied. “How many despise the Black Queen’s rule, I wonder? Mere hundreds were enough to pay the price and some, but I suspect could have found thousand more.”
“It’s not Catherine you bought the death of,” Thief said. “It was Hakram. Clever of you, given how deeply he is needed. Even cleverer to avoid the Guild of Assassins and reach out for Praesi killers. The Jacks are near blind in the Wasteland.”
“You found out anyway,” Hadley smiled bitterly.
“The coin is what caught our attention, but that was inevitable,” Vivienne noted. “It would not have been enough to warrant action, as you no doubt believed. Hanging you on such thin grounds would have tarred Catherine’s reputation. But your hired killers paid the Guild of Smugglers to cross the border, the fools, and that allowed us to unravel the whole thread.”
“I did not choose him for being an orc,” Lady Valerie said. “Let that be known. It is a disgrace for one of his kind to hold high office in Callow, but hardly warrants murder. No, I soiled my hands because without him the Black Queen would finally need to rely on us. Her own people. How foul a truth, that it would take so large an absence before she even pondered that.”
“I’ve thought the same, on occasion,” Vivienne admitted. “The Kingdom of Callow is born anew, and yet the highest offices are nearly all held by foreigners. Loyal to Catherine first and foremost, without any genuine love for the land they rule in her name.”
“Then you understand why this is necessary,” the woman said, leaning forward. “This is a farce, Thief. Kendall stacks the court and the officers with merchants and eldermen that will never gainsay her, cowed by her high birth and favour with the queen. The very Queen’s Council has a single Callowan sitting on it and half the south will be parcelled away to legionaries? It is madness. It cannot go on. Better we suffer retaliation for the Deadhand’s death than do nothing. Sacrifices had to be made.”
“It won’t happen,” Vivienne said quietly.
“The Adjutant’s death?” Hadley chuckled without humour. “Obviously.”
“No,” Thief replied. “Liesse being partitioned. It was never going to happen, you see. I leaked a false document to someone I knew the Regals had cultivated.”
Blood drained from the other woman’s face.
“I would have done without even that,” Vivienne noted. “I wanted to falsify the entire accusation and finish it all months ago, but I suppose Catherine needed to be sure. That they really would go that far in their disregard.”
“This is murder,” Lady Valerie said coldly. “Cold-blooded, calculated murder.”
“Is it?” Thief mused. “It relied on the actors involved being willing to cross the line on their own. At no point was coercion involved. That was, to my understanding, the entire point of it. As for you, Hadley, you tried to wield a knife. The moment the hand touches the handle, one must we willing to suffer the consequences.”
“How eager you are to excuse tyranny,” the other woman snarled. “You are the willing servant of this kingdom’s woe. I hope you drown with the rest of us, when all accounts are finally settled.”
“The funny thing is that I’m trying to achieve exactly what you want,” Vivienne said. “Putting Callowans in high office. Kendall is… unreliable, in my eyes. Willing to rebel yes, but also willing to bend with the wind. The Regals are much less prone to that flaw. But you had all these others flaws, you see. They had to be fixed before an argument in your favour could be made.”
“You try to tame us like a pet,” Hadley mocked. “How many will you slaughter, before we bow deep enough for your tastes?”
“Your radicals were already dead,” Thief shrugged. “They were too large a vulnerability. We couldn’t risk the Tower or the First Prince agitating through them when the armies are at the borders. Hakram argued for acquiring leverage instead of a thinning, but there was only so much of that to be found. Better to be sure.”
“Weeping Heavens,” Lady Valerie hoarsely whispered. “You own Julienne. You’ve had her gather every true patriot behind Farron so they can be slain in a single stroke.”
“For months now,” Vivienne agreed quietly. “Of course, we won’t be the ones throwing accusations. There’d be too much doubt. But before the night is over, Grandmaster Brandon Talbot will come across evidence of the conspiracy. There was some argument about whether leaking a matter under seal was enough, but I won that round. The entire faction will be implicated in your assassination plot. We expect Talbot will bring the evidence of it to the palace within the hour. He’ll request a purge himself, and who would doubt the very founder of the Regals if he says there’s rot in the flesh?”
The Valewoman spat to the side.
“You use a good man for ugly purpose,” she hissed.
“We use all sorts, Hadley,” Thief said. “One might argue that is our tell-tale mark. Lady Julienne will sadly be jailed for a time, but eventually manage to squeak away from the fallout with a mere fine due to lack of evidence. And after the remaining Regals gain in prominence, securing the withdrawal of the Liesse proposal, she will stand a lightning rod for any emerging rebellious elements. We learned from the Empire, you see. Best to lead your own opposition if you can.”
“How well you have learned the ways of the Enemy,” Lady Valerie sneered. “You masquerade as its better while using the same means towards the same ends.”
“I’m starting to understand it, just a little bit,” Vivienne murmured. “Why she got so angry when we talked. Because there’s a reason I’m on this side, Hadley, and it’s not because I somehow enjoy killing my own people – no matter how misguided they might be. But the Woe? We’re small fish in a very large pond. And if you can’t even handle us, how could you possibly handle the the Empress and the First Prince? All the while you get all righteous about what we do, but if we actually gave you the rein you’d drop this entire kingdom in the fucking deep end within the month. Sure, we’re the godsdamned Enemy. You get to have that. That doesn’t mean you’re somehow fit to rule.”
Hadley laughed harshly.
“And who are you trying to convince, villain?” she said. “All this talking, yet beneath all I see is blood spilled out of fear. You know you forge your own doom with every action.”
“Doom is our business, Lady Valerie,” Vivienne said. “We know it more intimately than you ever could. And as for blood, well…”
Thief smiled coldly.
“I was told, you see, that sacrifices had to be made. So they have been.”
A heartbeat later, Lady Valerie Hadley slumped down onto the table. It was impressive, that willpower had allowed her to last that long. She wasn’t dead, of course. No, killing one of the foremost Regals in her own home would endanger all of this. But she would sleep like the dead, unable to wake up for at least a day. By which time she would be in a cell, unable to escape and awaiting her trial. Thief snatched the carafe and drank deep. She wiped her mouth, after, knowing her fingers came away stained as if by blood.
“Long live Callow,” Vivienne Dartwick murmured. “And Gods forgive us all.”