“A ruler must consider all necessary injuries before beginning to inflict them on an enemy, for through repeated opposition they will learn your virtues and your faults. Strike once, thoroughly.”
-Extract from the treatise “On Rule”, author unknown (widely believed to be Prince Bastien of Arans)
Nefarious’ own Dark Council had once held session in this room, though in practice it had been the Chancellor’s council and not the Emperor’s. Amadeus had sat at this table before, when nominally in the service of the Tower, but he much preferred the current circumstances. It was only the two of them here today, as if often was: only Tyrants losing their grip on Praes regularly called full sessions. Those who felt secure in their rule did not bother with the pretence of seeking the opinions of others.
“We can’t keep this up much longer, Maddie,” Alaya said. “The last time taxes ran this high for more than a few years Pernicious lost his throne.”
It would have been easy to engage on the basis of technicalities, Amadeus thought. Dread Emperor Pernicious’s reign had been plagued by constant rebellions for reasons broader in scope than mere tax rates: his attempt to raise a new capital replacing Ater in the heart of the Wasteland, his inability to keep a Chancellor loyal for more than a few months and his failure to take the Blessed Isle back from the Kingdom of Callow despite three sieges. Still, it would have been beneath the both of them to play that particular game. Allie would not have begun the conversation were there not a true threat looming out of sight. Not for the first time, Black wondered how many such messes might have been avoiding by putting the nobility of the Wasteland to the sword after the civil war.
“I understand the burden is most keenly felt by the most influential among them,” he delicately replied. “But the Reforms have produced tangible results, Allie. We’re building an army truly capable of winning the wars to come.”
She leaned back into her seat, and even after all these years that she allowed herself such weaknesses in front of him warmed his heart. She’d come in formal dress, today, but left behind her proper regalia. As in everything she did, there was deeper meaning to be found. Formal attire for matters of state, lack of crown to make it clear this was a discussion between partners.
“I know that,” Alaya said. “You know that. But in court, they can speak of the fortune being sunk into the Legions of Terror without conquest to show for it. The Truebloods are pushing for either immediate war or dismissal of the military taxes.”
“That would be disastrous,” Amadeus bluntly said.
“The amount of professional soldiers we’re fielding is nearly without precedent in Imperial history,” she mildly pointed out.
“It’s not about winning the battles, Allie,” he sighed. “Our core legions under Grem would have been capable of evicting the paladins from the Blessed Isle as early as two years ago. It’s the aftermath that’s the issue.”
“I understand you have worries about heroes,” Alaya frowned. “And I don’t agree in the slightest with the time table suggested by the High Lords. Yet I do have to wonder if your level of caution is actually warranted.”
“We can’t leave them banners to gather around during the occupation,” Amadeus said. “Not the Order of the White Hand, not the Fairfaxes, not even the knightly orders. It’s not a question about the practical power of those entities, it’s what they represent. The Principate had massive city garrisons during its own occupation and they changed nothing. As long as there was a Fairfax loose, Callow still had fight in it. From there it was a question of what would give first: Callowan stubbornness or Procer’s willingness to bleed.”
“One rarely takes the pot when betting against Callowan spite,” Allie conceded, tone darkly amused.
“We’re not just planning the war, Alaya,” Amadeus said. “We’re preparing for the peace afterwards, and moving before the pieces are in place for that is wasting the entire effort.”
“Concessions will have to be made,” Allie said. “I know you have your doubts about the Imperial governorship system-“
“It’s ripe for abuse,” he flatly said. “And abuse unmakes all of this. The rule we bring must be, if not just, then at least fair. I trust not Wasteland lords to know even the shadow of that.”
“Then I’ll wrangle a role as overseer for you,” Alaya told him. “If nothing else, we can use the limits we place to weed out the ambitious when they overstep.”
Amadeus rose to his feet, pushing the chair back.
“This is the moment where I agreed,” Black said, turning towards me. “The first mistake I made after the war, though it would not be the last.”
My feet were on solid ground. Stone, the Tower’s own. I scuffed my boot against it and flinched at the sound. It felt too real. I’d had Name visions before, but this was… different. I’d never had any agency in them before. I glanced back up and found him patiently watching me.
“Black, what is this?” I asked.
“Remonstration,” he said. “Old favours were called in.”
My fingers clenched. I did not like the sound of that in the slightest.
“Unimportant,” he dismissed. “It is your latest campaign that we must speak of, Catherine.”
“You shouldn’t know I’m here,” I frowned.
“I know a lot of things I shouldn’t,” he smiled, but the trace of mirth vanished quick enough. “You head towards a debacle. I am ashamed you cannot see as much, for I must have failed you deeply for that not to be obvious.”
“I came here because everywhere else was a dead end,” I bitterly replied. “Even you, playing your games in Procer. How’d that turn out for you?”
“My flaws are many, but no excuse for yours,” Black chided. “This scheme is flawed. Oaths can be broken, and bereft of that why would any of them obey you?”
“It’s a blinking game,” I told him. “If the Heavens break the oaths, there’s a nation’s worth of drow loose in the middle of their backyard. They can’t afford that.”
“There is no win condition to your plan,” he bluntly said. “Only different ways you can lose or put off those losses. You cannot even claim a purpose for this army you’ll mass beyond the current wars.”
“That’s not true,” I bit back. “I know exactly where I’ll settle them.”
“And where would that be?” he skeptically replied. “Your kingdom would not survive the process.”
I paused. It was an effort to keep my face loose.
“It’s fated,” I said. “I doesn’t need to be me who does the heavy lifting.”
“Fate is a useful tool,” Black said, tone irritated, “but it does not-”
I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth, interrupting him.
“So that’s what this is,” I mused.
His face blanked. He’d always been eerily pale, but as blood-red lips split into a fanged grin I saw he’d become pale as driven snow. Our surroundings broke apart, ripped away by howling winds – entire chunks of not-Tower whisked away by the raging blizzard. The two of us stood ankle-deep in the snow, facing each other. Above us there was only an endless pitch black night, unknowing of moon or stars. There was only one source of light in here: the burning blue eyes set in my teacher’s face.
“And so we resume the lesson,” he said, voice echoing of Winter.
His sword left the sheath with a quiet hiss and he advanced. Around us I felt other silhouettes rise and there we no need to look to know whose they were. It would be the Woe, at first. Then Juniper. Aisha. Ratface. Nauk. Robber. Pickler. Kilian. Everyone I’d ever shared a laugh with, everyone I’d ever given the smallest speck of affection to. Anyone I’d ever loved, no matter the manner of it. This was not an unfamiliar sight. While my armies struggled through the Battle of the Camps, Masego and I had been… otherwise occupied. I’d visited his own fever dream, taken him out of it. Mine though, I’d never spoke about. With good reason. They would come for me, swords high. They’d curse and scream and die and poison everything we’d ever shared with their last words. Then I’d stand alone, for a heartbeat.
And it would start again.
The backlash from our broken gate had entrapped Masego in his own desires. Mine, though, had ground away at me one murder at a time. Winter did enjoy matching its torments to the disposition of the tormented.
“It would be capable of doing this, it’s true,” I spoke out loud.
The raging winds drowned out my words to even my own ears, but that hardly mattered in here.
“But it would also have known about Black,” I calmly continued. “You could only reach old Name dreams, couldn’t you?”
“No, more than that,” I corrected. “I’ve never had one of those with the Dark Council room featuring. You’re riding a vision I could have, if my Name took the fore. You can probably look at most of what I’ve dreamed before as well. But for the personalities, you had the bare bones that gives you with guesswork grafted on.”
The fakes ceased marching towards me and I took a deep breath before raising my hand. Will against will, that was all there was to it. I ripped away the veil and met my enemy’s eyes. Deep and perfect silver on pitch-black skin. The last time the glare of them had blinded me, but we were in my head now. My rules ran deeper than hers.
“I’ve gone rounds with demons and fae, Sve Noc,” I said. “If you want to fuck with my mind, best sharpen your game.”
The drow’s long hair flowed endlessly behind her, turning into gargantuan strands of Night the further they were from the silver light. She did not seem pleased.
Child, she said. Your arrogance beggars belief.
“Mine?” I laughed. “You think you get to win this because I’m close to your domain? I carry mine with me, Priestess. And you stepped in it of your own free will.”
Your doom comes, she said. You will drown in despair, alone and lost.
“And we got off to such a good start,” I drawled. “Whatever happened to ‘I await you in Tvarigu’?”
Sudden rage suffocated me. A wrath beyond understanding, beyond any single person’s capacity. I buckled under the weight of it, but there was something behind. Small, almost like a whimper. Fear, I thought. There was fear.
And wasn’t that interesting?
“That wasn’t you,” I said.
Sve Noc snarled.
All is Night, she proclaimed.
“Which are you, I wonder?” I grinned, slow and mean. “The rider or the horse?”
She did not answer with words. The pressure should have crushed me. Would have, if this was her realm and not mine. But old words echoed and rippled, the whisper of a pair of crows surrounded by a sea of birds of paradise, and it washed over me like rain. It was not my truth, but I had partaken in it.
“Uninspired,” I said, and the dream shattered.
My eyes opened with perfect clarity, lacking the transition between sleep and not.
“That’s a little off-putting, I’ll admit,” Indrani sighed.
I wiggled out from under her arm, already missing the warmth, and sat up. The blanket slid down, baring the upper half of my body, but Archer didn’t even bother to leer. She just snuggled deeper into the covers, to my mild offence.
“Dare I ask?” I said.
“The heartbeat thing,” she elaborated. “I got used to the cool and skin and stopped noticing when it wasn’t there, but it started up the moment you woke up. How does that even work?”
“Fuck if I know,” I admitted, passing a hand through my tangled hair. “Zeze says it has nothing to do with pushing blood anymore, so it might just beat when I remember it should.”
The fire had gone out while we slept but that changed little for me. The sensation between different temperatures still came to me, it just… didn’t matter. It was more like a colour than a feeling. It wasn’t the same for Indrani, though, because my toes informed me she’d put on pants at some point I definitely remembered taking off. Among, uh, other things. I cleared my throat awkwardly. Indrani cranked open a bleary eye.
“You’re not gonna get all skittish about this, are you?” she said. “Considering how enthusiastic you-”
“I remember, yes,” I coughed. “It’d been a while, ‘Drani.”
She laughed musically.
“Yeah, well, it shows you’ve been mostly with women for a few years,” she said. “You’re a lot better than I thought you’d be at giving h-”
“If you keep dishing it out, it’ll burn out the embarrassment,” I tried.
She mulled over that for a moment.
“True,” she said. “I should probably ration it out.”
She finally deigned to rise, pushing herself up and stretching out like a lazy cat. Considering the blanket had completely fallen, that did rather interesting things to a frame I was now intimately familiar with. She caught me staring and grinned.
“Already?” she smugly said.
“Any port in a storm,” I sneered.
“Ouch,” she said, putting a hand over her heart. “That one drew blood, Cat.”
Not really, if her deeply amused tone was any indication. I rested my bare back against the stone and closed my eyes to wallow in this passing moment of peace. Soon enough I would have to arm myself for war and strike the first blow of the Battle of Great Strycht, but just for a little while I could enjoy this. The world outside our nook could remain a faraway abstract a little bit longer. If I’d done this with someone else I might have feared that it would change what lay between us, but not with Indrani. She had a rather cavalier attitude towards bedplay, as a rule, even if she’d largely refrained from indulging since becoming part of the Woe. That’d been a choice on her part, though. She was attractive, a well-known war hero and Named besides: if she’d actually sought out company, she wouldn’t have spent a single night alone since Second Liesse.
“And what great thoughts are we having?” Indrani said, sitting up at my side.
I opened my eyes and found her looking at me with fond amusement.
“I was wondering about the self-inflicted nature of your dry spell,” I admitted.
“Was trying something,” she shrugged. “Still on the fence about it. Besides, you’re one to talk. When we first met you could hardly keep your hands off the redhead.”
Kilian, I thought, but no pang of blurry regret came. It’d been a while since it had ceased to. It’d seemed so much more important when I was in the middle of it. But now my hours were filled bargaining with empires and waging desperate wars, when the stewardship of Callow did not swallow them whole, and the intensity had faded. It seemed such small thing, compared to what was behind me and what still lay ahead.
“It was new for me,” I admitted. “I’d never stuck that long with anyone before. Never wanted to, either.”
“Heartbreaker, were you?” Indrani snorted.
“I knew I was going to leave someday,” I said. “So there was no point.”
“I can’t imagine you married,” she admitted. “Or even settled down.”
“I was kind of proposed to the once,” I mused.
“Now this I’ve got to hear,” Indrani said.
“I used to work at this tavern in Laure, the Rat’s Nest,” I said. “The owner hinted pretty heavily that if I married his son I’d inherit the place after he died.”
“Truly a love story for the ages,” Archer commented gravely.
“He was kind of an ass, and pretty busy ploughing our bard,” I noted. “Harrion didn’t push when I made it clear it wasn’t happening, he was a good sort. Now if Duncan Brech had gotten on his knees, my tender maidenly heart might have skipped a beat. That boy was fit like you wouldn’t believe.”
“And no one else has tried since?” Indrani said, sounding genuinely curious. “I thought popping out heirs was the queenly thing to do.”
“Talbot mentioned it once or twice,” I agreed. “And everyone influential with spare kin paraded a prospect at court. But I’ve no intention of staying on the throne, so why bother? I was only ever a temporary measure.”
The Foundling dynasty would be short-lived, which was probably for the best. If a successor bearing my name got into even half the messes I had, they’d be more curse than king.
“We children of dew and lightning,” Indrani murmured. “Transient and terrible in our passing.”
She did say beautiful things, sometimes, for all her cheerful crassness.
“Where’s it from?” I asked.
“Some poem the Lady taught me when I was kid, from far across the sea,” she said. “Her father loved it.”
“It’s a big world, isn’t it?” I said. “We’ve seen more than most on this continent, the two of us, and it’s still such a small fraction of it.”
“It’s not about how long we last, I don’t think,” Archer said. “Who could possibly live long enough to see it all? We just have to make the most of what we get.”
“We’re probably the first humans to walk the Everdark in a few centuries, if not more,” I offered.
“Oh, we’ll do a little more than just walk,” Indrani said, lips quirking.
The certainty in her voice forged a smile of my own, though it faded after a few moments.
“I dreamt, while I slept,” I said.
“Winter again?” she asked. “Hakram said whatever you’re seeing must be pretty fucking grim, if you’re not even willing to talk to him about it.”
“Yeah, well, Winter doesn’t do nice as a rule,” I muttered. “But it wasn’t that, at least not tonight. I got an important visitor.”
“No shit?” Archer said. “Our old buddy Sve Noc showed up? What did she want?”
“They, I think,” I said. “And I don’t mean it the way it’s usually meant for drow.”
“A two woman show,” she frowned. “Didn’t see that one coming. They tend to watch each other’s back the same way Praesi do – considering where to plunge the knife. Did she drop in for a bit of trash talk? It’s only traditional before villains throw down.”
“She wanted me to believe that real bad, by the end of it,” I said. “But she played tricks early on trying to get me to answer questions.”
“O Mighty Catherine, would you pretty please tell me your battle plans?” Indrani mocked in a high pitched voice.
“That I wouldn’t have minded,” I admitted. “It’d mean she thinks it could go either way. But what she was actually asking was where I intend to take the drow down the line, and I mislike the shape of that. It feels like she’s playing a different game.”
And Captain’s death was proof enough of how costly that sort of disconnect could be.
“We’re the outsiders here,” Archer said. “It was given we’d have to go in blind. But two heads, huh. Wonder how that came about.”
“I’m more interested in how it can be used,” I said. “The first one I spoke with had a fairly different take on this mess than the other.”
“Think there’s an angle there?” she asked.
I breathed out slowly.
“There was a story I used to love when I was a kid,” I said. “The orphanage was an Imperial institution, when it came down to it, and the tavern I worked that was heavy on Legion clientele. Neither was in the habit of peddling Callowan stories to impressionable young minds.”
I half-smiled, thinking of those days where the trifling had loomed so tall.
“But I got my hands on this old book at the Rat’s Nest,” I said. “Called Stirring Tales of Chivalry.”
“Was it all about lances and ladies?” Indrani asked, wiggling her eyebrows.
I rolled my eyes.
“It was water damaged, so most of it was just blurry ink – probably why the family never managed to pawn it,” I mused. “But there were a few stories in it that were readable, and one I must have read a hundred times. It was about this giant ogre, you see, that lived somewhere in the south of Callow. It had two heads and it could do magic, so even though knight after knight tried to slay it all that happened was that it made a house of their bones.”
“They call their city in the Wasteland the Hall of Skulls, right?” Indrani said. “It holds up.”
I imagined General Hune would have some issues with the story if she ever heard it, but then most my high-ranking officers would have problems with Callowan folk tales. They, uh, tended to get killed in them. To popular acclaim.
“So there’s these three knights that head out to slay it,” I said. “One’s strong, one’s quick, the last is clever.”
“Clever survives at the end,” Indrani immediately predicted.
“The last one listed always survives, you’re not impressing anyone,” I grunted. “Anyway, they go up to the ogre one after the other. Yes, bad tactics I know so don’t even start. Strong and quick get fried, because magic is perfidious and all that. Each of the ogre’s heads eats one of the dead.”
“I thought it was using the bones for its house,” Archer said.
“Look, I never said it was high literature,” I said. “Clever knight goes up, and then says ‘I surrender’, flatters them and says they’re invincible.”
“And then it asks which head is going to eat him after he dies,” Indrani said.
“Exactly,” I said. “The heads start arguing, the clever knight makes it worse, and eventually one head clubs the other in anger and they both die.”
“I thought it was a mage ogre,” she said.
“It also had a club,” I sighed.
“This is why people make fun of Callowan literature, Cat,” Indrani said, not unkindly.
“My point,” I said, valiantly pressing on, “is that creatures with two heads can be of two minds.”
There was a pause.
“Was that all?” Archer asked.
“There’s another version of it that I came across later,” I said.
“No doubt it will be as stirring as was promised by the title,” Indrani replied, smothering a smile.
“In that version, the third knight is a young Elizabeth Alban,” I said.
“The Queen of Blades herself,” she said. “She plies a clever trick as well?”
“No,” I said. “She straight up murders the ogre, because that’s what Elizabeth Alban does.”
That surprised a laugh out of her and so I left it at that. We shared a comfortable silence for a little while longer, until I could no longer even slightly justify lingering. Reluctantly I rose up, somewhat pleased she was finally taking the time to ogle my nakedness, and picked up my clothes. I shimmied on my trousers as she reached for her leathers and I was surprised by the muted intimacy of getting dressed together. It wasn’t domestic – the word would never feel anything but forced matched to Indrani – but it was a kind of closeness we’d never shared before. There was, I thought, nothing to regret about last night. Belts tightened, weapons at our hips, we left the dead fire behind us.
There was a war to wage.