“And so Sinistra said: ‘What we cannot grow we will take by dread, and damnation on all who deny this.'”
– Extract from the Scroll of Misfortunes, thirteenth of the Secret Histories of Praes
The Windless Salon was an indulgence.
Not hers, originally, but that of Dread Emperor Sorcerous. The infamous warlock-emperor had been fond of ambitious experiments demonstrating the superiority of Praesi sorcery over all others. His in particular, and he’d never been shy about denting the treasury for his latest fancy. The Salon was one of his earlier projects: an entire floor of the Tower, well above the clouds, made into a single room. The stones of the walls and ceiling were enchanted to make it seem as if it were entirely outdoors, revealing a staggeringly beautiful view in every direction. Nefarious had despised it, for he’d spent the better part of a decade trying to puzzle out its secrets with only failures to show for it. In truth, few save for Sorcerous himself had ever used the Windless Salon. Alaya and her predecessors misliked allowing the lords and ladies of Praes access this far up the Tower, and there was no lack of other wonders within the walls to strike a particular tone when receiving guests. The Empress had, instead, turned Sorcerous’ costly vanity into an office of sorts.
The seats and sofas had been removed, saved for her own luxurious cushioned armchair, and the ornate banquet tables had been replaced by two bureaus and a writing desk. Access here was restricted to those she’d given token to, and with good reason. The transparent walls of the Windless Salon had been adorned with a maze of secrets and faces. Painted mosaics representing every Praesi noble of import hung over apparent air, tiles written over in chalk noting their latest schemes and objectives and alliances. Lines had been drawn to connect conspirators and foes, weaving a tapestry of treacheries and interests that spanned the whole of her empire. It was not all exact, of course. Believing this to be untouchable sanctum merely because she had the minds of everyone with access searched at random intervals would have been arrogance. The tiles were incomplete, sometimes incorrect information added to fool a would-be spy. The only complete and truthful version was in Alaya’s own mind.
Years of practice meant she had only to close her eyes to see the whole of it, but there was something oddly soothing about seeing the Wasteland’s plotting laid bare against the backdrop of Ater’s sky. In the last few years, a fresh section had been birthed. A small cluster of names under a chalk-drawn crown. Such a small representation for a handful of people who’d shaken the foundations of Calernia. A half-full cup of wine in hand, Dread Empress Malicia allowed her gaze to linger on the foremost individuals of the Kingdom of Callow. Some names were followed by only sparse writing. Hakram of the Howling Wolves, the Adjutant, remained opaque in intent and motivation despite her best efforts. It was tempting to study the Woe through the lens of what she knew the Calamities to be, but it would be an overly simplistic view. Oh, most of them had ties to the old guard: Masego was Wekesa’s own son, the Archer had been the favourite pupil of that rabid dog in Refuge and Catherine had been the only apprentice Amadeus ever took. The Adjutant himself was often dismissed as Captain’s legacy in green, which had always amused Malicia greatly.
The boy had more in common with Scribe than he’d ever had with still-mourned Sabah, and even that was overly simplified. His Name, as far as she could tell, had been shaped since inception to serve as shield and empowerment to Catherine Foundling’s own role. The Woe were not their predecessors, and that was a shame: Alaya had spent decades learning how best to work with and around the Calamities. Dealing with a younger and cruder version of them would have been mercifully easy. No, instead she’d been forced to learn to navigate an entirely different river of desires and drives. Changeable things, these, especially in individuals so young. The girl who was now called the Black Queen had little in common with the child who’d chased Black’s shadow as his Squire. Still, she’d begun to understand the lay of them. Where pressure could be applied for the correct effect. Vivienne Dartwick was the weakest link. Archer had been the obvious guess, but much like Hye the girl was simply too apathetic to be influenced. It was hard to leverage someone who cared about nothing save a few earthly pleasures that essentially any major city on the surface of Calernia could provide.
Thief, however? She was a Callowan nationalist, the kind that kingdom bred by the thousands. That was an old foe to Praesi, one made almost predictable – though no less dangerous for it. People like Vivienne Dartwick had broken Wasteland invasions for a millennium and a half with only two major failures to show for their toil. Patriotism was a set of blinders, Malicia would not speak otherwise, but however narrow the perspective it had proven exceedingly skilled at frustrating Praesi efforts. Fortunately, central tenets of it ran contrary to the kind of nation Catherine was trying to build. The Black Queen had failed to realize, she often thought, how deeply she’d taken after Praesi culture. Callowans tended to think of their own ethnic group and their nation at the same thing, unlike Praesi. The Dread Empire had, since the Declaration, been made up of disparate and often opposed forces. Guiding the refugees from the sack of Nok into Callowan territory had been killing two birds with one stone, in that light.
It eased the pressure of Malicia’s own granaries by displacing individuals who would have turned to banditry or rioting if left unfed while simultaneously forcing onto Callow a problem that could not be solved with a sword. Well, she conceded, that was untrue. If Thief and Adjutant had sent in soldiers to slaughter every refugee crossing into the kingdom’s territory the flow would have abruptly stopped and there was precious little the Empress could have done about it without loosening her leash on the High Lords – which would be ill-advised, at this juncture. On the other hand, if the Woe were truly that ruthless this would be an entirely different situation. As things stood, Vivienne Dartwick must be chewing on the fundamental conflict between doing something good, namely not slaughtering desperate peasants, and seeing the immediate costs that good action imposed on her countrymen. It would fester, Alaya thought. In her and in the farmers displaced at Catherine’s orders. The Black Queen might think of her land as more than the territory of tribes-made-kingdom, but few in even her closest circle shared that view.
The seed had been sown and conflict would grow from it. Enough, Alaya had judged, that it would weaken the fabric of the kingdom without collapsing it. At some point a compromise would be forged that pleased no one, slowly dragging back Catherine Foundling to the position Malicia preferred her in: that of an unpopular but unopposed necessary evil. If that strife could be carried to the heart of the Woe, so much the better. That band of children had already proved they could unmake the designs of empires, if allowed to run rampant. It was a private delight of the Empress that the results of her offensive must have Cordelia Hasenbach a throbbing ulcer.
“And yet,” Dread Empress Malicia said, eyeing the walls that were not there.
She sipped at her wine. Beneath Catherine Foundling’s own face, a blank space had been made. It was not that the girl’s designs were unknown: Malicia was thoroughly well-informed of what was unfolding in the kingdom, despite Amadeus’ best efforts. But there was a question, she thought, that must weigh heavy on the mind of every ruler on this continent.
Where the Hells was the Black Queen?
Callow might be somewhat stable, but it was one bad winter away from effective collapse. If Alaya ordered most royal granaries torched, starvation would afflict half the realm after the snows came. And yet, fresh off her failure in Keter, Catherine had disappeared into thin air. The Adjutant and the Thief had been sent back to Laure to settle affairs, but neither had the legitimacy to truly keep things under control. Was it mere negligence? Alaya was self-aware enough to acknowledge she disliked the girl on a personal level, and so was inclined to match perceived mistakes with personality flaws. Yet the Black Queen had proved surprisingly adept at the diplomatic game. Blackmailing the northern crusaders into leaving under treaty instead of risking extermination had been inspired, as had been the request to join the Grand Alliance. Had the First Prince’s grasp on Procer been stronger when the offer was made, Hasenbach might actually have gone for it. Not without losing a few feathers in the process, but the First Prince had already proved capable of cold pragmatism when the situation demanded it.
It wouldn’t have mattered, in the end. The Dead King would have upended the board regardless. Yet the skill was there, however raw, and it meant the girl had learned. If she was capable of shaping a military campaign so it would lead to the kind of peace she desired, she should be able to recognize Callow without her was a house of cards. Something had forced her to seek another path, and the only true contender for that was what had taken place in Keter. The Black Queen was, at heart, still a soldier. In times of trouble, she would reach out for military force. It was the solution she was best versed in. Her options, however, would be few. The League would refuse out of hand, as the Hierarch was the mad puppet of the Tyrant of Helike – who’d sent her a lovely letter professing eternal friendship but was a man made from a mould rather familiar to Praesi. The Everdark was a mess of primitive warring tribes, effectively impossible to mobilize quickly and highly unpalatable allies regardless, which left only two real options: the Kingdom Under and the fae. Malicia had been made aware that the dwarves were in yet another expansion phase, meaning they would refuse to get involved with surface affairs.
That left the sole remaining Court of Arcadia, to which the Black Queen already had ties.
There was a very real chance, Alaya admitted to herself, that within the next six months a horde of fae would come pouring out of gates after Catherine struck bargain with them. It was madness, of course. Giving their kind stronger foothold on Creation was a blunder all living souls would pay for. But fighting fire with fire was Catherine’s signature, and the Dead King’s entrance in the melee might very well have been enough to quiet her doubts. Of all the nations currently involved in the Tenth Crusade it was the Empire that would find it easiest to defend against such an incursion, given its heavily warded cities and high number of skilled mages, but Praes was already under assault by the Ashurans. Deep raids into the Wasteland that left the forces of the High Lords untouched could become a catastrophe, and there was no doubt the Black Queen’s advisors were learned enough of Praesi affairs to know this even if she herself might not be fully aware. Thalassina, then, had become the crucible on which her reign would be decided. If Ashur could be removed from the equation, an attack on the Empire became a very different affair. Wekesa and his son’s preparations were of the highest import.
It might be necessary to arrange a failure to protect Hierophant from vengeful nobles after it took place, even if the consequences would be dire. She’d mull on it. She was fond of the young man, personally, and had found him a breath of fresh air on the few occasions they’d met. He was also, unfortunately, one of the most dangerous war assets of the Kingdom of Callow. A compromise might be possible through Warlock, she thought, who’d certainly prefer his only son be imprisoned for a few years rather than involved in a brutal knife-fight between the Woe and the Empire where death was a real possibility. Wekesa had made it clear he was willing to break a few pots if it meant return to normality would follow. Like her, he knew that disposing of contentious elements would lead to recriminations in the short-term and reconciliation after the storm had passed. It would be the ugliest disagreement they’d had, and one that would taint their relationship for decades, but Alaya was nothing if not patient.
There was no knock on the door. Anyone requiring such announcement would have died to the wards in the hallway. The sound of the steps, though, could allow Malicia to discern the identity of her visitor. The four servants allowed access here had different strides, as did the sole other person with a token.
“Ime,” the Empress said, greeting her guest without turning. “An unexpected pleasure.”
He spymistress observed the niceties, coming before her to kneel before rising. Not quite as fluidly as she used to, Alaya noticed with grief that half-surprised her. Ime had grown old, though her body’s appearance did not betray it. Yet rituals could only accomplish so much, and eventually a cloth stretched too far would snap. It might be twenty years yet before that happened, but it was as inevitable as the sun rising.
“My Empress,” Ime said.
She remained standing. There was no other seat here, entirely by design. None save her should be encouraged to linger.
“I take it there has been a fresh report from the Eyes,” Malicia said, brow quirking.
Her little retreats into the Windless Salon were, while not exactly forbidden from interruption, not to be lightly trespassed on.
“Our agents in the Principate managed to get urgent news through the scrying relays,” the spymistress said, then hesitated. “Lord Black’s legions are in full retreat through lands they’ve already pillaged. The Dominion’s armies are in pursuit.”
Alaya hid her surprise. She’d believed she’d grasped Maddie’s intent when she’d seen what principalities he was targeting – namely, the loudest opposition to Hasenbach in the Highest Assembly. But he should have been heading south or across the lakes, not doubling back. It was the hesitation that gave it away.
“Ime,” Alaya said quietly. “Tell me.”
“We’re not sure what happened,” the spymistress admitted. “But there’s a town full of corpses where he allegedly stole the Proceran fleet and there’s been orders out of Salia to reclaim the barges.”
Her mouth, she found, had gone dry.
“He won’t have stolen a fleet alone,” Alaya said. “The legionaries with him?”
“The orders from Salia did not mention opposition,” Ime grimaced.
Her stomach clenched.
“I don’t believe he’s dead, Malicia,” her spymistress softly said. “I know it’s not much, but Hasenbach has sent people to speak with the shopkeepers on the central avenue of Salia.”
Alaya’s lips tightened. Her teeth clenched to tightly it felt like they would shatter.
“A parade for the heroes,” she forced out. “Celebrating his death.”
“A triumph,” Ime countered. “As the Miezans once held. Displaying a foe taken prisoner. He would make for a very useful hostage. He has influence with every single force on their eastern front.”
“Do not,” Malicia quietly said, “coddle me.”
“This is my professional opinion,” her spymistress assured her. “They have to know that outright killing him would get the Ranger to come out swinging.”
She grit her teeth. Unpleasant as it was to her, it was not untrue. The question was if they’d care, given the number of heroes on the field. Hye was dangerous but she was not invincible and her draw with the Queen of Summer had caused her heavy wounds she’d yet to recuperate from.
“Mobilize the Eyes in strength,” Alaya said. “I want answers.”
Ime’s lips thinned.
“My Empress, moving so openly would-”
“I don’t care if we have to out every agent in that misbegotten fucking hole they call a country,” Alaya hissed. “Find out if he’s alive.”
Ime nodded slowly and the Empress forced her hands into her lap, where her fingers could not be seen to tremble.
“And pass this along to Wekesa,” she added tiredly.
Ime hesitated once more. Alaya’s fury spiked, though she mastered it.
“He might leave Thalassina,” she said.
“If Maddie’s…” she began, then faltered. “Warlock would know. They have arrangements. And he’d know I kept it from him. Besides, whether it is revenge or rescue he will not act until Scribe contacts him. Keep an eye on that, she may know something we don’t.”
“I will,” Ime said.
A heartbeat passed.
“And yet here you stand,” Malicia said.
“We must prepare,” Ime said, “for all eventualities. If he is truly dead, the balance with Callow has shifted. If he has been captured, perhaps some matters should be considered with a fresh eye.”
Calm, she thought. A pond without a single ripple, so they only ever see their own reflection.
“The Callowan situation has changed already, simply with what you’ve told me,” Malicia said. “Get in touch with our envoy in Laure. The full terms of my pact with Keter are to be revealed.”
“The initial plan,” her spymistress carefully said, “was to wait until the Black Queen’s return.”
“It also relied on him being a restraining influence against the notion of war on the Empire,” Malicia said. “That can no longer be counted on. We need a new guarantee that she won’t gate in and burn a few miles of farmland to the ground every time she’s provoked.”
“I know you might be reluctant to explore the full spread of options, if he has been captured,” she said. “But it is my duty to speak.”
“Then do so,” Malicia flatly said.
“If he’s jailed in Salia, it might be best to simply leave him there,” Ime said. “Temporarily, at least. It would be an opportunity to bring his legions back into the fold, and he can be freed after the situation in the Wasteland is made less volatile.”
Malicia forced herself to consider it with cold eyes. While the legions who’d followed Amadeus to the borders and turned back the invasion at the Vales were not exactly in rebellion, it was undeniable they’d acted against her intent. She’d long known that if there ever came a day when call was made on the loyalties of the old guard, it would not be her most of them chose. The urge had always been there to dismiss the issue as a mere theoretical, but a Dread Empress of Praes could not afford that kind of hopeful thinking. She’d had measures in place for decades, telling herself it would no matter if she never used them. She still had not, and would not unless she had no other choice. Yet much could be accomplished by the more mundane leverage was speaking of – presented with a fait accompli after his release, Black would likely be forced to abandoned his most recent designs. Dangerous as he could be, without an army he was just a man.
“No,” Alaya said.
“I will not repeat myself,” she said. “The risks are too high he’ll be executed if he’s allowed to remain in their grasp for long. He is to be freed at first opportunity.”
“You are not thinking about this clearly, Malicia,” Ime softly said. “I know you feel like you owe him. I do as well. But there comes a time when debts have to be weighed. A life spared – or saved – is not a life owed.”
The laughter that ripped out of her throat was not kind.
“Is that what you think this is?” Alaya mockingly said. “He spared your life after you helped butcher his kin with the Heir’s, and because he withheld the blade you understand us.”
The spymistress grew stiff in her stance, but did not disagree.
“I wish this were about something as petty as debt,” Alaya murmured, knowing it a lie. “How easy that would be.”
How could she tell this familiar stranger that they had been one for so long some days she could hardly tell where she began and he ended? Maybe debt could have been the sum of them, if after the civil war he had treated her a figurehead – as was well within his power. If he’d proved himself yet another cage, this one gentler than the last but no less a prison for it. But he’d understood, that it was not comfort or a furious avenger she craved. Kindness, consolation, all the sweets words their tongue could offer. Those things she could have measured and paid back in full. But instead she’d been offered something priceless: a world of endless paths, and someone to walk them with her. Debt? She might as well try to weigh the worth the breath in her lungs, the blood in her veins. She was not Catherine Foundling, to carve out pieces of her own soul at a whim.
“I have you orders, Lady Ime,” Malicia spoke into the silence that followed. “See to them.”
Her spymistress was not so gauche as to show even the slightest hint of disapproval after being dismissed, though there was no doubt it was there. It did not matter. She had been taught better than to overreach.
“Your Most Dreadful Majesty,” Ime said, bowing low.
Her steps whispered out of the room, leaving the Dread Empress of Praes alone with her thoughts. Her carefully woven surroundings seemed mockery now, a reminder that no matter how orderly she made her world chaos would always crawl in through the cracks.
“I warned you,” Alaya spoke into the empty salon. “Gods, I warned you. That it was not sustainable, that one day you would make a mistake and that’d be all it took.”
And yet she had not acted on it. Because he’d been so sure, because it would have killed the heart of him to be made to sit at her feet. Caged. And he’d won, hadn’t he? Again and again and again. As so she’d not spoken the words. She should have. Better to wound him than to sit on the other side of the continent, wondering if his corpse was floating face down in some foreign lake. Mistake, she thought. It was too bitter a word to be called rueful.
“We will survive,” said Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name. “You and me and the others. This empire we raised. We will survive this, as we have all other dooms.”
But if Cordelia Hasenbach and her pack of pale-clad killers had done it? Oh, she was not seventeen anymore. She was not bleeding from the mouth, incapable of rising as the Sentinels nailed her father to the floor.
If they’d killed him, Alaya would give him an empire for a pyre.