“Callowans as a people can be summed up by the fact that, before the Uncivil Wars had even come to a close, it’d become a common boast among the populace that the Black Queen had not even spent a sennight in Keter before having several counts of arson and murder to her name.”
– Extract from the personal memoirs of Lady Aisha Bishara
Follow the food. So went Thief’s advice.
That Malicia or a flesh puppet were in the city was a given: Neshamah wouldn’t bother to seriously negotiate with a High Lord. It would have been like a man having to keep a serious face while making a pact with mutton chop, in his eyes. I’d personally been of the opinion that it was a near certainty that the puppet would be the one in Keter, since the Empress leaving the Tower unattended for more than a few weeks was a recipe for usurpation. Akua, however, had made it clear that with the right precautions it was possible for Malicia to be here in person while a puppet held the Tower for her. She was not the kind of Empress that had a strong presence outside Ater: apparently even by imperial standards she didn’t leave her seat of power often. It made sense, in a way. Malicia wasn’t a fighter, and for decades she’d had Black to send after messes sword in hand. Her almost cripplingly-focused talents were in rule and intrigue, and they were most effectively wielded from the Imperial court. Diabolist noted that the court at the Tower wasn’t necessarily the centre of power in a Tyrant’s reign – Terribilis II had barely held one and distributed most its traditional authority to Ater’s bureaucracy. Malicia, however, had inherited a festering snake pit of a court from her predecessor Nefarious and then promptly encouraged the most murderous leanings of the highborn by rewarding the victorious in those struggles with riches and influence.
That, however, had been decades ago. Before the Conquest or my birth. Now that Malicia had spent years removing the aristocrats from the bureaucracy and Black had unceremoniously drummed them out of the Legions, her hold on Ater and the Tower was extremely hard to shake. She could afford to let the High Lords break their teeth on her power base while she placed most her attention on the negotiations in Keter. Akua even speculated that she might be baiting out would-be usurpers in order to have them out in the open when she returned home with a Keteran alliance. That turnaround was likely to see their own families turn on those ambitious few, neatly decapitating any nascent opposition without her having to lift a finger. It certainly sounded like Malicia, I had to admit. A plan with several ancillary benefits unfolding quietly while her enemies swung at mist. Regardless, it’d been a priority to find out whether we were dealing with the actual Empress or a puppet. From a narrow perspective, it didn’t matter which it was if we managed to slaughter them all anyway: the result would still be us with the only bidder at the Dead King’s auction. Looking at it more broadly, though, the difference was major. For one, if I killed Malicia in the flesh I’d be gaining a ‘legitimate’ claim to the Tower.
Kill the Empress, be the Empress: that was the law of the Wasteland. If you managed to scatter all the other carrion birds pecking at the corpse, anyway. Getting involved in the flaming tar pit that was your average Praesi succession was the least of what I needed right now, and pretty high on my list of ‘things I would prefer never to have to deal with’. Malicia would have to go if the Liesse Accords were going to be implemented properly and I couldn’t deny that the longer she had to scheme the more dangerous she became, but as long as the Empress lived there was a lid on the Wasteland jar of crazy. Much like Cordelia Hasenbach, she wasn’t someone I liked facing but she remained very much preferable to whoever would step up if she was removed from power. I wouldn’t put it beyond a High Lord trying to climb the Tower to take a swing at me as their foremost ‘rival’ even while the Empire was being attacked by Ashur. Particularly if their lands were far enough from the sea. There were dozens of examples in the histories to be found of Praesi cheerfully emptying a whole quiver into their foot just like that. On the other hand, taking Malicia prisoner just wasn’t feasible. Not in Keter. And for all that Praesi ambition could end up biting me, there was also a decent chance that instead the Empire would collapse into civil war as every prominent highborn tried to claim the Tower. I couldn’t even dismiss the possibility that the legions in the Wasteland would try to proclaim Black as Dread Emperor and fill mass graves with whoever objected to that.
I didn’t relish the loss of life it would involve, but if Praes was clawing at itself it wasn’t looking at Callow. It might be a risk worth taking.
“So I’ve got a report for you,” Archer announced, strolling through the wards.
She had a bottle in hand, I noted. That was definitely not what I had sent her out for.
“If you blew off reconnaissance to get drunk, there will be consequences,” I mildly said.
“I would never,” Indrani assured me. “I just happened to find a cellar while on my very serious fact-finding mission, and it would have been criminally negligent of me not to investigate.”
“Was it locked?” I sighed.
“Is it really a lock if it breaks?” Archer mused. “That’s a question for the philosophers, Catherine. We’re straying off topic.”
So I’d need to offer Athal an apology, then. Hakram’s suggestion that we just make a scroll template with blank spaces to fill in with the latest thing she’d done was becoming increasingly tempting.
“This is what we call Atalantian baptismal, Cat,” Indrani seriously told me, putting the bottle on the table. “I’ve heard that if an entire glass is drunk in a single sitting, it will outright kill a man.”
“I’m considering killing as well, at the moment,” I informed her.
“That would be a grave miscarriage of justice,” Indrani told me. “Since I found it inside the only other palace that has servants in it.”
My eyes narrowed. I’d asked the Dead King for further time to debate his offer before our next conversation and sent both Archer and Thief out find the tracks of any Imperial presence in the city. Follow the food, Vivienne had said. Malicia’s delegation would need to eat, would be offered all the trapping of hospitality as the honoured guests that they were. That left traces, in a city where the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants were walking corpses. I set aside the pile of scrolls that held our now-irrelevant bargaining position and dragged out the rough sketch of the palaces surrounding the Hall of the Dead I’d asked Masego to make. There were five in whole, forming a circle interrupted by the same number of avenues going into the city-fortress. The Silent Palace, our own, was slightly to the left of the gates into the Hall.
“Which one?” I asked.
Indrani jabbed her finger onto the parchment. Slightly to the right, on the opposite side of the black stone spire.
“The Threefold Reflection,” I said.
Athal had helpfully provided the names of every existing palace when I’d casually asked as much, feigning idle curiosity. The dark-haired man had also revealed there were old sorceries protecting each of them, though he hadn’t gone into detail. Not all that surprising. This whole city was a fortress, not even the guesthouses would be toothless.
“The place is… unsettling,” Archer said, grabbing the seat across from me. “The layout is wrong. Hallways lead where they shouldn’t: I went through the same threshold twice and ended up in different places both times. I’d call it a maze, but you can map out a maze. There’s wizardly bullshit at play here I think might rule that out.”
“Did you find out how many people are in the delegation?” I asked.
“I kept out of sight,” she said, shaking her head. “Got a look at one of them, though. Tall man in steel plate, silent. Black iron mask over his face.”
“I’ve seen those before,” I said. “They’re called Sentinels. The personal guard of whoever holds the Tower, though there’s enough they count more as a personal army. Supposedly spells and potions keep them unconditionally loyal.”
“Might be we have ourselves the real Empress, then,” Indrani said.
“They’re exactly the kind of guards a puppet would bring as well,” I said. “Won’t talk, can’t betray and they probably have triggers inside their body that’ll kill them if someone tries to grab and extract.”
“Would they obey a puppet, though?” Archer asked.
“I have no idea,” I admitted after a moment. “But I know who we can ask.”
I exerted my will and tugged at Akua’s leash, gently. There was resistance. I tugged a second time, and when I did not feel her moving towards me I rolled my eyes and simply dragged her here. The shade poured out of the wall about thirty heartbeats later and only then did I loosen my grip. Diabolist was grimacing.
“That,” she said, “was exceedingly unpleasant. And I barely had time to bid my farewells.”
“Do it again,” Indrani grinned.
I ignored her.
“Would Sentinels obey a flesh simulacrum the Empress occasionally takes over?” I asked.
Akua’s brow rose.
“If instructed to, certainly,” she said. “Authority over them can be even granted by certain court titles, it is not held sorely by the Tyrant.”
“Not a tie breaker, then,” I told Indrani.
“Was that the sum total of your inquiry?” Diabolist asked, sounding a little miffed. “I was having a conversation of some import.”
“Tell me about it,” I invited, repressing a grin.
Occasionally yanking Akua’s chain had lost none of the satisfaction even after the novelty faded.
“We will be expected to meet with the Dead King two days from now, at twilight,” Akua said. “Excuses can be stretched no further.”
I drummed my fingers against the table as Archer cracked open the bottle from – Atalante, was it? Strange, I remembered reading somewhere they were the religious ones in the League. The House of Light tended to frown on drinking to excess. The Callowan one, anyway, for all I knew it was different down there.
“So that’s our window,” I said. “Two days. Hopefully Thief has more to add, because we’re low on information at the moment and I don’t relish the thought of attempting an assassination half blind in Keter of all places.”
Whether or not Vivienne had anything to say remained a mystery for several hours after that. Hakram returned before too long, having exhausted the few points I’d sent him to seek clarification on with the Hosts to keep up the pretence of ongoing debate on our part. I went for a walk after that, in part to clear my mind but mostly so I get away from those fucking wards. I knew why we’d had Masego put it up, but it didn’t make staying under them any more pleasant. I decided to get something useful done while I was out and about, so I moved towards the highest circles of the Silent Palace to get a look at the terrain between us and this Threefold Reflection the Empress allegedly resided in. The layout of this place was all interlocked circles so getting oriented was easy, but I’d failed to grasp the varying heights. The circle furthest out was one of the lowest, the rooftop almost a terrace. From the flat black marble I could get a good look at the broad open space that separated the palaces from the Hall of the Dead, but little else. There were, I noted, patrols now. There’d been a few of those before that I remembered, but nowhere as large or frequent. Was Neshamah tightening his watch? You told me Malicia was here and that she was at odds with me, I thought. Considering that little talk we had the day before about how betrayal is a passing thing, that was as good as an invitation to kill her.
Evidently, that didn’t mean he would make it easy for me. This was a test of sorts, I decided. I doubted that breaching the laws of hospitality would rank in even the worst hundred of the sins to the Dead King’s name, but he’d keep the pretence. He might not actively obstruct me, but unless I remained discreet there would be consequences. That didn’t bode well. The Woe had many talents, but discretion was not usually counted among them – though that was in large part my own fault, it had to be said. I could barely make out the edge of the Threefold Reflection from the side of the Hall of the Dead, but I’d meant to get a good look and this told me less than nothing. Casting a look at the grounds below, freshly-scrubbed paving stones, I shrugged and leapt. I’d gone without armour for the day, so my knees barely bent when I landed. Cloak fluttering around me, I nodded at the approaching patrol as they turned to me. Archer had told me of the breeds of dead there were to be found in the city, but there were no differences to my senses. They all felt like little balls of will working a corpse, and though some might feel stronger it was not a certain thing. For one, the officers were supposed to be the Binds – those with souls and real intelligence – but the presence for some of the officer-armoured dead were almost entirely faded.
I’d have to rely on sight to tell them apart, and sight could be tricked.
“Just going for a walk,” I told them.
A corpse in a lovely sculpted iron breastplate and conical helmet nodded.
“If you require escort, Great Majesty, it can be provided,” he offered.
“Won’t be necessary,” I said. “Though I thank you for the courtesy.”
They resumed their patrol without a word, offering polite nods when they passed me by. How long had that one been dead, I wondered? I could be centuries. I’d glimpsed flesh beneath the helm, but that meant nothing. Necromancy could preserve that near indefinitely. Strolling as casually as a girl could with a sword at her hip and a cloak embroidered with the banners of her defeated foes could – not all that casually, I felt safe in assuming – I passed by the palace separating mine from the Threefold Reflection. It was the largest of those I’d seen, and the Silent Palace dwarfed the one in Laure. The Garden of Crowns, Athal had called it. Wasn’t seeing a lot of those, but the garden part seemed accurate. Instead of a single massive construction, this one was a display of smaller pavilions lost in a beautiful sprawl of stone and greenery. The beauty was somewhat spoiled by the fact that the trees and grass seemed to sprout directly from granite, but that might just have been me. It was empty, or so I thought. Then I caught sight of a silhouette seated under a shaded living oak arbour, looking down at a crystal-clear pond. Man, not a woman. Creation had not seen fit to have me run into Malicia, then. Torn between moving on towards the Threefold Reflection and having a closer look at this oddity, I eventually went for the oddity. The palace wasn’t going anywhere.
I tread softly on the pebble paths that winded through the greenery, keeping an eye on the stranger. Too pale to be Soninke or Taghreb. Either an outside acquisition by the Empress, or entirely unrelated to her. I confirmed the second thought when I came close enough my otherworldly senses picked up on what lied within the man: power. Not a Name, no. That kind of power had a peculiar taste to it, life and weight and something like inevitability. What I felt from him was cousin to that, or perhaps just the remains of it. Like words engraved in stone left unreadable by time and tide you could still barely make out some letters from. Revenant, I thought. Indrani had told me they kept a shade of what they’d once been after their raising. The dead man did not react even when I’d come well within earshot for a mortal, staring silently into the pond. I could make out shapes in the water, fish and water lilies. The way light caught on them allowed me to realize they were not living things but sculpted and painted stone. I put aside the mild discomfort I felt at the sight and studied the man closer. Late forties, or so he’d been before his death. A crown of white hair came in sparse tufts, and the beginnings of beard could be seen on his jaw. His clothes were rich drapery, though the colour had faded with the centuries, and there was a sword on his lap. None of this mattered half as much as the brooch on his chest: a tasteful little twist of silver with two golden ornaments on it.
“There is no need to stand there, child,” the Revenant said. “It is not my pond, nor my ruinous light that shines down upon it.”
“You’re a Fairfax,” I blurted out, and immediately cringed.
Catherine Silvertongue struck again. The Revenant turned to study me, pale brown eyes surprised.
“King Edward of Callow,” he said. “And you are Deoraithe. A daughter of House Iarsmai?”
It had to be an Edward, didn’t it? Callow had those like the Principate had its never-ending gaggle of First Prince Louis – too many to know by rote save for the numbers at the end. Suddenly I was glad I hadn’t worn a crown. It would have felt tasteless in front of a Fairfax of the old blood. When he’d spoken that title it had been with that muted ripple of power, the one that said it hadn’t merely been a title for him.
“Just a foundling,” I replied, shaking my head.
“Named, then,” he sagely said, and with a courtly gesture invited me to sit.
I settled into the stone seat by his own, tongue-tied.
“Would that be Edward the Fifth?” I said, desperately trying to remember which of those had gotten themselves killed while crusading.
“The Seventh,” the king chided. “You will know my daughter Mary, at least. She was but three when I was claimed, she must be the longest-reigning monarch Callow has ever seen.”
Oh shit. He was talking about Mary the Songbird. That entire reign had been a mess: the Marquess of Vale had fought a short but bloody civil war to seize the regency and refused to give it up even after she came of age. He’d kept her imprisoned in the Songbird’s Cage until one of her cousins rebelled and overthrew him. She didn’t survive the assault on Laure, smothered with a pillow by her captor before the palace could be breached. There were at least half a dozen songs and plays about the tragedy. Her cousin took the crown, after, and all House Lerness of Vale hung save for the children.
“I have heard of her,” I diplomatically said. “I’m sorry to tell you that House Fairfax is gone. As far as I know, the last member of it died during a Praesi invasion over twenty years ago.”
The man chuckled.
“It was dead long before that, girl,” he said. “I share not a drop of blood with the famous Eleonor. My forbear merely kept the name to justify her rule after her husband had the poor taste of dying before getting her with child.”
I blinked. Yolanda the Wicked, that. Scholars centuries later still debated or not whether she’d been a villain or just extremely unpopular. Some argued she’d been demonized because of her Proceran origins and that she’d had lawful claim to rule, even though her children did not. The other side tended to point out she’d had the rest of House Fairfax murdered to ensure said children did in fact succeed her. This felt like a history lesson, until I remembered I was sitting next to breathing history. Well, moving anyway.
“Catherine Foundling,” I introduced myself, since girl and child were starting to get on my nerves.
“I would welcome you to these grounds, Catherine Foundling, but there is no welcome to be had in this earthly pit of devils,” King Edward said.
I nodded my thanks, for lack of a better answer.
“If I may ask, Your Majesty,” I said. “You seem…”
“Lucid?” the dead man smile. “The Abomination’s little jest. Most of my fellows are of more taciturn bent. You see, when he came for me I told him that even in the face of eternity I would spit on him and all his works.”
My fingers clenched. Evidently, Neshamah had decided to test the truth of that.
“Do not look so appalled,” the king gently said. “I will yet have the last laugh over that dark creature, even if I must wait until the Last Dusk for it. Though I am bound to serve in this place it is only a passing thing.”
“So you’re the guardian of this,” I probed, hand moving to vaguely encompass our surroundings.
“In a manner of speaking,” King Edward said. “This is the Garden of Crowns, young Foundling. None serve here who were not royalty while they drew breath. The power once bestowed on me by Above has merely earned the role of the sword guarding this palace.”
My eyes narrowed.
“So there’s a former Named guarding all five palaces,” I said.
“Indeed,” he agreed. “Though the Abomination changes the watchers at a whim. The Bloody Sword once kept vigil over the that unpleasant pyramid beyond the Garden, but has since been replaced. Other than I, the only one who has remained for more than a century is the Thief of Stars.”
“Oh?” I said, blood running cold. “And where does he guard?”
“She,” he corrected. “The Silent Palace. It amused the Abomination to bind her there, as she attempted to rob it whilst living.”
So we’d had a heroine with a talent for discretion breathing down our neck the entire time without a single one of us noticing. Lovely. This assassination plot was already getting off to a great start.
“You display great curiosity as to the nature of this pit,” King Edward said calmly. “I will not inquire as to your purpose, as I would be bound to then speak it. But you are born of Callow, are you not?”
“I am,” I warily agreed.
“It has been a very long time,” he said quietly, “since I have spoken to one of my people. And I have worried, over the years. We warred with the Principate mere decades before they came, beggars at my door, asking for our swords to march north for their sake. Yet I know the gratitude of princes is an ephemeral thing. And to the east, the Enemy ever lurks. You spoke of an invasion?”
The snarl in his voice when he spoke of Procer had a warm feeling in my belly, I wouldn’t deny it. I’d run out of patience with them as well, it was reassuring to know I was in good company there. Unfortunately, I had few good tales to tell him.
“We call it the Conquest,” I said. “They won at the Fields of Streges and swept over the Callow. Until recently we were under occupation.”
“That patch of grass has been watered by more armies than rainstorms,” King Edward ruefully said. “It does not matter. The beast swells fat with the meat of us but it ever chokes on our bones. There will be another Eleonor, sooner or later.”
I didn’t know how to tell him that none had come. That if she’d ever been born, the closest thing I had to a father had cut her throat before her name could be known. That I might the closest thing to her we had, and wasn’t that a horrifying thought?
“We’re under siege,” I said. “The Tenth Crusade marches right through us and attempts at peace have failed. The princes of Procer wants to carve us up and I am unsure how far up that desire runs.”
“Procerans are always hungry,” King Edwards said darkly. “And when that hunger leads them to the brink, they weep for others to pay the dues in their stead. Hold the Vales, young Foundling. And watch the Blessed Isle for a Wasteland knife.”
I bleakly laughed. How could I tell him that the ruling Dread Empress was out for my blood, trying to crush me underfoot, and that she was still the closest thing I had to an ally at the moment? The dead man idly brushed his fingers against his brooch, then spoke up hesitatingly.
“It is unseemly to ask, I know,” he said. “Yet, my daughter…”
I thought of pale green eyes, and the kindest lie I’d ever been told. That it wouldn’t get easier.
“She is still,” I said with a smile, “spoken of in song.”
The naked relief on his face only made it worse.
“She would have loved that,” he said with a quirk of the lips. “She had a lovely singing voice, my Mary. And she was good, even as a child. Kind. That is a rare thing in a ruler. There is a place for harshness, but kindness is the mother of prosperity.”
I nodded slowly. I couldn’t stand to stay here any longer, next to the man I’d lied to and his long-dead memories, so slowly I rose to my feet.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty,” I said, bowing.
“Don’t,” he said. “I am not a fool, young Catherine.”
He smiled, like we shared a secret.
“The first Albans were seneschals of Laure long before they were kings,” he told me. “And Eleonor, for all her virtues, was born a mere knightess. There is no shame in one’s birth. We are what we bring into this world, not what brought us into it.”
He rose as well, and touched my wrist.
“Stand tall, Queen Catherine,” King Edward the Seventh told me. “Stand proud. We have been broken before, humbled and rent asunder. We have crawled through the blood of our kin and suffered the yoke of tyrants. It does not matter. We do not yield, we do not bend even when the sky comes tumbling down on our heads. Keep your grudges close, child, and never forget them. We are Callowans, and for every slight there is a price.”
Ours will be long, the song went, and paid twice.
Woe on us all, but if the Gods demanded my home be ashes then the Gods would burn.