“Obviously you can’t kill me now: your enmity is with the Dread Emperor of Praes, and I’ve already abdicated. I am now but a humble shoemaker, and what kind of hero slays a shoemaker?”
– Dread Emperor Irritant, the Oddly Successful. Later noted to have made surprisingly nice shoes during his three abdications.
“So is there, like, a branch of sorcery all about lakes?” I mused. “Because if I’m going to keep using variations on the same trick it feels like there should be.”
Akua’s brow arched, expressing a monologue’s worth of disdain without her speaking a single word.
“Lakeomancy,” I suggested. “Catherine Foundling, foremost lakeomancer of her age. I could get a stele done like the old emperors – you know, basically a whole monument’s worth of bragging.”
“It would be lacusomancy,” Diabolist sighed. “And there is no such thing. Even hydromancy is not a true discipline, properly speaking. Like most physical effects it falls under the broader aegis of manifestation.”
“That just means we’re pioneers, Akua,” I grinned. “Look at us, bravely exploring the many ways you can steal, drop or otherwise move lakes.”
“Stolen is something of a misnomer,” the shade noted, looking down. “We’ve only borrowed it, practically speaking.”
Well, she wasn’t wrong. Great Strycht had proved as much of a wonder as Great Lotow, in its own way. It was, well, the easiest way to put it was that it’d been a port. Not unlike Mercantis the city had been raised on a large island, though instead of a river it’d been a lake that surrounded it. A lake that was about as large as half of Daoine, which was rather impressive. Useful, too. It hadn’t been this large originally: the basin had been artificially deepened and broadened before tributary rivers were dug into the stone to feed it. Tunnels and waterfalls, some coming from underground sources but others from the surface peaks of the Everdark. Lake Strycht was the freshwater source for an entire third of the inner ring, feeding a complex array of canals and sluice gates that were constantly fought over by sigils. The city itself was a bloody mess – scraps between sigils had sunk entire chunks of what’d once been a single island, leaving some sort of demented urban archipelago instead – but it was full of old sigils and would have been horridly difficult to assault. Drow ships were pretty much either rafts or small woven reed boats relying on oars. We’d seized a few, but it would have taken weeks of constant back and forth to get even a small army across.
Besides, the good people of Strycht had made it clear that we were not only unwelcome but currently at the top of their ‘murder and harvest’ list. I’d sent a few of my lords – the Peerage, Akua had taken to calling them, and the name had kept – to make polite inquiries about holding a council to discuss the dwarven threat and the cabal founded to answer it. They’d, uh, not taken well to that. Long story short, Soln and its fellows had harvested a few Mighty in a spurt of traditional drow diplomacy before making a tactical retreat back. They’d made enough of an impression that all seven cabals dedicated to maintaining control of the waterways had been called upon. Strycht was going to be swimming in old monsters before the month was out, and until then they’d taken to raiding my sigil’s camps on the shore. The damage had been limited and we’d mostly come out on top due to sheer numbers and Winter fuckery, but after the initial probes they’d identified the weaknesses in our defences and begun concentrating on those. My sigil had taken the Hylian ways out of Lotow after stripping it clean of everything remotely food-adjacent and absorbed another six sigils on its way to Strycht, but while it’d massively swelled it was still a far cry from a real army. It was a confederation of tribes, if anything, bound to me by oaths and fear. Not exactly the kind of troops used to maintaining proper watch rosters and fielding patrols. So with the situation steadily worsening and the opposition refusing to talk, I’d decided a rebuttal was in order.
So I’d confiscated Lake Strycht.
It’d taken about two days to empty most of the basin even with two gates as large as we could make them. Taking every last drop had proved impossible: the tributaries kept feeding it and the basin wasn’t even so there’d been pockets of water remaining. Still, in my estimating about nine tenths of the initial lake had been shunted off into Arcadia. What had once been water was now a stinking marsh of mud clogged with drying weeds and fish. It was a good thing we’d never attempted a crossing, because when the lake ebbed low some creatures were revealed that even Praesi would flinch at. Some kind of massive oily octopi with barbed tentacles, blind pale lizards the size of houses and long eels with an inexplicable amount of teeth. Most the monsters had gone through the gates, those that didn’t either settling in the larger puddles or going wild as they died stripped of water. It’d been a display of power meant for the recalcitrant inside the city, now perched atop hills or small plateaus surrounded by mud, but it’d also been a form of diplomatic pressure. I’d just killed half a dozen rivers crucial to keeping an entire chunk of the inner ring from going thirsty and done a great deal more damage to Strycht itself.
That lake had been their granary. They lived off the creatures swimming in it, of the weeds and plants now dying for lack of irrigation. The city’s drow had wells and cisterns, but the population here was easily triple of Great Lotow. They’d beginning running out soon, and after that they’d be forced to sally out for puddle water with my Peerage waiting in ambush. The Mighty would be able to stick it out until reinforcements arrived, sure, but what about the rest? Nine tenths of their people were going start withering on the vine. Even if the cabals proved victorious against me in a few weeks, sigil-holders would lose most their sigils to thirst. And they had to know that even if they got my head on a pike, there’d been no guarantee of getting the lake back. How many years would it be until the tributaries filled back even half of Lake Strycht? So I’d sent a handful of my Peerage forward again, to revisit the subject of a council. I’d instructed Ivah to make it clear that if they really pushed me they might just get the lake back directly on top their heads, which ought to make at least a few of them reconsider. Once we had a foothold in the city, well, if the rest dug their heels in I wasn’t above ordering an assault. I’d glimpsed what my Peerage was capable of, during our passage through the ways.
I was glad of the oaths, because I wasn’t sure I could win the fight if it ever came to that.
“I don’t know about borrowed,” I said. “I’m considering keeping the lake, or at least a portion of it.”
The slight shift in Akua’s stance indicated surprise, though I knew better than to think she hadn’t allowed it consciously.
“There is no lack of usable geographic features in Arcadia,” Diabolist said. “Archer has brought forward the interesting notion of-”
“Yes, Indrani wants me to start dropping mountains,” I sighed. “I’m well aware.”
“There are also volcanoes in what was once Summer,” the shade reminded me. “Actually triggering an eruption when we need it would be significantly more difficult, but not outright impossible.”
“There’s basically everything in Arcadia, if you look long enough,” I grunted. “That’s not why I’m thinking of redeploying the lake.”
“Decoration?” Akua drily suggested. “I suppose it’s never too late to acquire taste, though I must warn you ‘monster-infested underground lake’ is rather passé. Very sixth century.”
Ugh, and she probably thought she was actually funny.
“Well,” I brightly replied, “as the foremost lakeomancer of my generation-”
“There is no such thing,” Diabolist insisted.
“- it occurs to me I’ve been mostly, um, dropping large bodies of water on people,” I said. “For tactical purposes.”
“As one does,” Akua agreed.
“It seems like a very narrow use of the ability,” I said. “When I have an entire region of Callow that, between you and Summer, was effectively ravaged.”
Scarlet eyes narrowed.
“You want to move the lake to Callow,” she said.
“I’d have to consult governors and landowners,” I noted. “And someone familiar with farming practices. But it occurs to me that Summer-torched land might benefit from fresh irrigation. Hells, there might even be enough fish left for actual fishing.”
“And you want to use a lake born of Creation. because moving an Arcadian body of water might very well have… unforeseen consequences,” Akua murmured. “Wise.”
I passed a hand through my hair.
“Look, there’s so many problems I can’t solve with killing,” I said. “So it might be time to consider other solutions. One of the reasons Praes has been such a murderous shitshow play of correspondingly shitty and murderous thespians is that the Wasteland is exactly as termed. If I take a lake from somewhere else and sell it to whoever’s holding the Tower, it could tip the balance the other way. The Empire wouldn’t start starving its way into an invasion every other decade.”
Horrifyingly enough, Diabolist was beaming.
“You want to steal pieces of Creation and auction them off to nations,” she said. “Dearest, this might be the first of your designs I can say I wholeheartedly endorse.”
“It’s not stealing,” I protested. “You can’t own a lake. I mean, legally yes and nobody better take mine, but when you think about it in a religious sense-”
“You are preaching to the choir, my heart,” Akua intervened. “Admittedly the choir is made of damned souls, but let us not pretend talented singers are usually headed for the Heavens.”
“Why am I talking to you about this?” I muttered. “Of course you’d be on board, this is basically Dread Empress Sinistra’s plan only with riches instead of hero-delivered death at the end.”
“It could be useful to mark some mountain peaks rich in ore, when we return to the surface,” Diabolist suggested. “Mercantis would pay a fortune for access to mines where there can be no dwarven claim. And Callow itself is famously poor in precious metals: acquiring a source of mintage would be quite useful.”
The worse part was that it wasn’t actually a bad idea. Gods knew my kingdom could use the coin and the mines both. What I hated most about Akua was how useful she could be when she put her mind to it, which was always.
“Something to consider in the future,” I said.
She studied me carefully.
“There is more,” she noted.
“Someone broke one of my cities last year,” I frostily replied.
“And so you have hordes of refugees in need of shelter,” Diabolist said, delicately avoiding the subject. “As well a myriad of standing structures about to be permanently vacated.”
Not to mention a treasury that’d effectively be a glorified war chest and granary until the Tenth Crusade ended, which meant no funds for the kind of reconstruction that southern Callow badly needed. Hakram had produced miracles in keeping the tent cities clothed and fed, but come winter things were going to get ugly. The Waning Woods were too far, and absurdly dangerous to take lumber from if you went any deeper than the very outskirts. I’d seen it coming, of course, and we’d set aside wood and coal for fires, but it wouldn’t last all the way through the cold season. And Great Strycht was now a pack of very nice stone districts set atop hills and plateaus, many of which would fit inside a gate. It’d be tricky to get them through without wrecking them, of course, but not impossible. And even ruins would make great building materials, if worse came to worse. There’d be more cities ahead, too. I’d be leading the drow to the surface and until I could settle them where I wanted them to be there’d be a need for something to host them, but it didn’t all have to be used for that.
It was a little ironic that I’d waited until Thief was gone to start thinking about stealing cities.
“There is merit to the notion,” Akua said. “And though you now seem intent on civilian use, there is another side to the coin. If you can take a fortress…”
I could just leave it in Arcadia for later, then plop it out as field fortifications while on campaign. Near instantly. Juniper might just forget to hate Diabolist to the bone for a few heartbeats, if she heard about this.
“They’re not heavy on fortifications so far,” I said. “I wouldn’t get my hopes up.”
“We’ve not yet penetrated deep into the inner ring,” she replied. “There may yet be opportunity.”
I didn’t disagree. If I could get my hands on even just a fort, it’d be a nasty surprise to pull on my foes down the line. Field battles against the Dead King would be a chancy gamble even if the entire Grand Alliance was mobilized, this kind of sudden upset might be able to turn the tide. The first time it was used, at least. Neshamah wasn’t the kind of enemy that’d fall for the same trick twice. We stood there for some time in silence, the mood shifting as the conversation ebbed. The sight of the cavern before us wasn’t something a few days could get me used to, I silently admitted. The sheer size of it was staggering. It had the length and breadth of a province, the walls so distant even my eyes found them hard to discern, but the ceiling was what awe me every time. It was uneven, betraying that this was no singular cave but hundreds of them carved into a single place by what must have been decades of hard labour. I’d never seen anything taller save for the Tower itself, and the Tower was millennia of Praesi madness made into edifice. What kind of people had the ancient drow been, to make this?
What had broken them so deeply they’d become a pack of rats scavenging their own ruins?
“Not even Keter is match for it in scope,” Akua softly said, gaze following mine. “Fitting, I suppose. The Crown of the Dead is a mere gate to the Dead King’s true realm, impressive as it is. This must have been one of the beating hearts of their empire.”
“Don’t you have a bureaucracy to run?” I said.
“Subordinates must be assessed,” she replied. “At my behest you granted Centon much power. If it proves incapable of discharging its duties without my constant supervision, replacement must be found.”
And by that we both knew she meant Centon would be harvested and another drow raised in its place. Not killed, I’d set down rules about that, but Night could be taken without killing. The disgrace would probably cut deeper than death, though. Ivah certainly hated speaking of how it’d come to have that name in the first place. It was cold-blooded of Diabolist, but then I expected nothing less from her. Your average Wasteland aristocrat made lizards look warm in comparison, and Akua Sahelian had remained on top of that pack for years.
“Sometimes I wonder what it takes to make someone like you,” I said. “But then I remember all I heard about your mother, and I stop wondering.”
Her lips quirked.
“And what exactly did you hear, dearest?” she asked.
“Black called her brilliant,” I said. “Said that she’d managed to survive Malicia’s rise while supporting her enemies with little loss of influence. He was wary of her.”
“High praise, coming from the Carrion Lord,” Akua noted. “Mother was a creature of nuances.”
“You must have hated her,” I said. “That story you told me about your friend. No child should have to live through that. Not even you.”
“I suppose I did,” the shade murmured. “But not in the way you mean. You – your people – marry personal hatreds with your actions in a way we are taught not to.”
“Praesi keep grudges too, Akua,” I said. “Take revenge. There’s an entire hall of screaming heads in the Tower speaking to the truth of that.”
“I do no explain myself well, I think,” Diabolist said. “I was raised to treat Akua Sahelian and the heiress to Wolof as different persons. I could hate, and take revenge, as the first. The second must be a creature suborned only to ambition. Those among my people who do not learn to separate one face from the other die young.”
“That’s absurd to me,” I admitted. “I can understand necessity dictating your actions. I leapt down that slope years ago. But you can’t just pretend it’s two different people, Akua. It’s still you. Your actions. I didn’t somehow fight the Diabolist and spare you. It’s all on your head, like it’s all on mine.”
“Perhaps in Callow that is true,” she mused. “But in the Wasteland? We must clasp hands with those who’ve slain our kin, stabbed our predecessors in the back, stolen riches and appointments. It is a necessary distinction, Catherine. We can make sport of each other, so long as it is that. We would all lose for the stripping of that veil.”
“Then shouldn’t you?” I said. “Lose, I mean. Your entire philosophy is that conflict breeds strength, yet I can’t call what you describe anything but fragile.”
She quietly laughed.
“How harsh a judgement you cast on my people,” she said. “Will you hold all others to the same standard? The severe Ashurans, strangling their own kind with a rope of rules and tiers. The quarrelsome Procerans, who war with all under the sun out of hungry ambition. And even your own, Catherine. How many teeth-clenching grudges has Callow followed to dark endings?”
“None of the others wound Creation bartering for power,” I said. “Or bleed thousands upon thousands in rituals. I have axes to grind with my enemies, Akua, but I know what they are. Where their limits lie.”
“Then the issue is of means, not philosophy,” Diabolist said. “And so for the greatest monster of all, you need look no further than your teacher. What limits does the Carrion Lord have?”
“And he, too, will be held to account,” I quietly said. “For what he has done and may yet do.”
“Ah,” Akua smiled. “And are these the words of Catherine Foundling or the Black Queen?”
“That’s my entire point,” I said. “They’re the same person. That’s what responsibility means.”
“And mine is that your decisions will always be a choice,” Diabolist said. “Between what the woman wants and what the queen requires.”
I waved a hand dismissively, tired of the argument. Her logic only held up because it was a closed circle.
“But since you asked,” Akua said, looking at the distant city. “I despised my mother. For what she did. For what she wanted from me. But it was Tasia Sahelian that was my enemy, and her I admired until the day she lost.”
“Because she was brilliant,” I said.
“Because she was everything I was taught to want,” she mused. “Powerful and cunning and every bit the match of our Empress.”
“Until she lost,” I said.
“I severed our relations before I could be dragged down with her,” Akua said. “But I would not call that revenge. It was not a matter between us but between the Diabolist and the High Lady of Wolof.”
“And do you regret it?” I asked. “Leaving her behind.”
I wasn’t sure, I thought, what I was looking for. Humanity, maybe. Some speck of a person who had more to her than Wasteland iron and villainy. But what would I even do with it, if it was found? There was no saving someone like Akua, and I did not want to try. A hundred thousand souls demanded otherwise. The shade’s face was distant, lost in her thoughts.
“I do,” Diabolist finally said. “What a strange thing that is.”
“She was a lot of things,” I said. “But your mother was one of them.”
“She was,” Akua Sahelian agreed.
Her lips quirked.
“I should have killed her myself, mother to daughter.”