“A horse and fall was all it took
For every last to take the hook
Now the kitchen’s full of cooks,
And the pot it is boiling
Crown of this, crown of that
They all chase after the hat
Princess said she has a right
Princess said it’d be a fight
So princesses are all aflight,
And the pot it is boiling
Crown of this, crown of that
They all chase after the hat
The wheel spins us all around
Up and north, south and down
Ebb or flow, we’ll still drown,
And the pot it is boiling
Crown of this, crown of that
All of this for a hat,
While the pot it is boiling.”
-“Too Many Cooks”, a Proceran folk song written and grown popular during the civil war
The wolves were at the gate.
Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer, Prince of Rhenia and Princess of Salia, Warden of the same West that was currently burning to the ground, did not wonder when it had all gone wrong. She was not an unintelligent woman, and so believed she’d already identified the point of failure with accuracy: the moment where she’d assumed Keter would remain quiescent. She hadn’t, though, not truly. Cordelia had believed there might be an increase in raids coming from the Kingdom of the Dead, perhaps a tentative incursion into the Alamans lakelands. That was the very reason she’d forced through the Highest Assembly the very unpopular taxes that had funded the restoration of all major fortresses north of Brabant, that she’d taken only a meager portion of the armies of the lakeside Alamans principalities and her Lycaonese kinsmen. There would be burning, she’d thought, there would be bleeding. But the borders would hold until the grim business of pacifying the east was done and full attention could be turned to the evil that lay behind the walls of Keter. In a word, she had assumed the Hidden Horror was a fool.
There was a young man at her Salian court by the name of Gabriel, a commoner who’d had the benefit of an education in letters by the House of Light. He had, several years ago, penned an interesting treatise called Fulcrums of History. A repudiation of sorts to the looming presence of On Rule over Proceran politics at the highest rung. It argued, rather eloquently, that disaster came to empires by an accumulation of smaller factors that drained the life out of them instead of through failures of will or cleverness, as the author of On Rule had argued. It had been, Cordelia felt, an attempt to explain the resounding brutality of the civil war by a scholar who had been born in its aftermath. It had concluded by arguing that the solution to such degradation was ‘an injection of fresh vitality’, in this case personified by Cordelia herself leading the traditionally aloof Lycaonese south to force an end to the wars. The conclusion was not as well written as the rest, and largely flattery directed at her in hope of an appointment. He had obtained it, though the flattery had not been the reason. Anyone displaying the sharp insight of the earlier chapters could and should be used by her administration.
She thought of that treatise, sometimes. To apply the logic behind it to her current situation, for there had been a clear accumulation of factors over the last few years. Strength and coin spent influencing foreign wars in Callow and the League. Erosion of her authority over the Tenth Crusade, by both Proceran factionalism and the prominent role of the Chosen, followed by the bruising strategic defeats of the Battle of the Camps and the assault on Red Flower Vales. Once the cracks were there, they had only broadened. Tensions within the Great Alliance grew. The Levantines had been less than eager to defend the heartlands of the Principate, even against Wasteland legions. A trail of burnt cities and granaries from Bayeux to Iserre had been the consequence of that, further weakening her standing within the very alliance she had assembled. Further disaster struck at Thalassina, with the Warlock obliterating the better part of the Ashuran war fleets along with the city he’d come to defend. Worse, the Chosen had now decided to buck worldy authority entirely: the Saint of Swords had openly admitted Procer was to be the pyre birthing her better world, and now the Grey Pilgrim had refused her order to immediately slay the Black Knight instead of capturing him.
The heroes could no longer be relied on. They would, from now, oscillate between being useful but uncontrolled battlefield assets and major strategic liabilities. The rulers of Dominion of Levant, her nominal allies and comrades-in-arms, were now attempting to twist her arms for better concessions after a war they were currently losing. Magon Hadast and the Thalassocracy of Ashur, her sole remaining solid ally, had been inflicted two vicious setbacks in a row. The disaster at Thalassina could have been recovered from, but the League of Free Cities had smelled the blood in the air and finally sallied out. The League’s fleet – essentially the Nicaean fleet with what few ships the other seaside cities could spare – had torched the last war ships of Ashur and sacked the city behind them. The Thalassocracy had effectively been evicted from the sea, and in a matter of months the blockade around its island would start causing major food shortages. There was a very real possibility that Ashur would have to capitulate within the year, else it would simply wither on the vine. Worse, the Hierarch had sent out armies as well, the full muster of the League. Still, had even a losing battle been given by her southern army down in Tenerife, the situation would have been salvageable.
Instead her entire net of spies in the League had somehow missed that the entire host had gone into the Waning Woods, only managing to warn her the army had disappeared off the surface of Creation a week before it reappeared on the outskirts of the Principality of Iserre. Cordelia did not consider herself to be faint of heart, yet she almost shivered at the notion of taking an army through that murderous patch of trees. How much of their army had they lost, passing through? A tenth, a quarter? Half? There was not a single creature of flower in the Waning Woods that was not violently hostile to the existence of humans on Creation. Regardless of the… practicalities involved there, however, the southern Principate had now turned into a strategic nightmare. The First Prince was no great general but even she could see as much. The twenty-thousand strong army she’d stationed in Tenerife to avoid this very outcome was now marching north in all haste, but the map splayed in front of Cordelia betrayed a stark situation. Were the Alliance forces not staggered, not dispersed, they would have held the advantage. Instead it was bloody chaos.
The surviving Legions of Terror, bereft of the Carrion Lord but still under the command of the infamous Marshal Grem One-Eye, had fled into northern Iserre. Their supply situation, her generals assured her, would soon turn dangerous: they were marching through lands they’d already thoroughly pillaged on their way south. They were still around eighteen thousand hardened veterans, including a dragon, led by one of the finest military officers of the age. Behind them, split in two staggered armies, eighty thousand Levantines were in hot pursuit. If reunited, Cordelia believed they could crush the Praesi. But they were not, with a few weeks of distance between them and no way to join up without allowing the Legions to slip the noose. Behind the armies of the Dominion, the host of the League followed. Reports on their numbers fluctuated with every message: fifty thousand, forty, more than a hundred. A brave Iserran outrider had come close enough to find out some of the ‘soldiers’ were actually scarecrows held up by gargoyles, which had the reek of the Tyrant’s scheming. Far behind all these, her southern army of twenty thousand was exhausting its soldiers to collapse trying to arrive in time. The situation in the region was not impossible to salvage, but the dangers were obvious.
Cordelia was unwilling to gamble the fate of the Principate on such odds, and so she had taken action: she’d ordered general conscription in Salia. The bottom of the barrel was being scraped raw, but she’d put together twenty thousand levies. Had she further enforced the decree, or even broadened it to neighbouring principalities, she could have easily tripled that amount. There was, unfortunately, no point in doing so. There were no armaments for the conscripts to use, and dwarven representatives had flatly refused any further sale without even bothering to explain why. Giving reasons to humans was, presumably, beneath their dignity. This entire debacle had the ugly reek of Catherine Foundling’s meddling about it. If there was one saving grace to this entire debacle, it was that the Highest Assembly had finally understood how close to the edge the Principate had come: without even need for her prompting, the personal armies of every single royal not already at war had been sent to reinforce her levies. It would still be a month before the last arrived, but her twenty thousand would swell to forty and gain a bevy of princes and princesses along with badly needed professional officers. Strategic considerations now dictated that the moment this army was readied it was so be sent by ship down to the coast of Iserre, where it could reinforce the Levantines against the Praesi and link up with the others field armies before giving battle to the invading League of Free Cities. Cordelia had that very command drafted on parchment and staring back at her from the surface of her bureau, awaiting only her signature. The fair-haired woman watched her inkwell for a long, silent moment. She did not reach for the quill, instead rising to her feet.
The wolves were at the gate, but not only in war-torn Iserre. Woe, Cordelia. Woe to the north and to the south. Agnes’ words were branded into her mind, the constant reminder that if she made even a single mistake the Principate would end. The First Prince of Procer tread softly until she stood by the tall glass panes of her personal solar, a magnificent view of Salia spread out below her. Frost touched the glass, and the city as well. First snow had already come, though it had melted quickly enough under the sun. The next fall would remain a little longer, and so it would continue until a thorough blanket of pale was draped over the capital. Fingers larger than was considered fashionable in a courtier, much less royalty, pressed against the cold glass. A taste of the north, a taste of home. Rhenia would be as much ice as stone, by now, fresh sets of fortifications being made out of a mixture of frost and gravel. The winds at night would be so loud they’d drown out even the howling of the packs roving the mountains. Her lips tightened, her throat closed up. Pressed against her heart, beneath the Rhenian blue dress she wore, was the last letter her kinsman Friedrich Papenheim would ever write her. She’d had to excuse herself, when she first read it. It would not do to weep in front of even her most trusted.
“I should not,” she whispered against the window, her breath blooming in fog.
She did it anyway, once more. Trembling fingers claimed the parchment and she looked upon Friedrich’s rough scrawl of a calligraphy. He’d never thought much of letters, not that many of her people did, and the words were as rough as the man had been.
The dead are coming.
I sent the young south. We will hold as long we can.
I am sorry. I cannot do more.
Dawn is in your hands, Cordelia.
We will meet again come the last summer.
Her eyes burned with tears she did not allow herself to shed. Hannoven had fallen before she ever received the letter, the man who wrote it dead and ash. She’d loved Friedrich, she thought in the same way she still loved her uncle. Trust and comfort and bonds of blood sacred to them both. He could have been the heir to Hannoven, had Uncle Klaus not named her that, and a lesser man would have resented her for it. She still remembered when she’d been fourteen, the announcement fresh, and she’d met him for the first time since. He’d smiled, rough hands pressing a bracelet into her palm. Not a single dark glance, not a single harsh word. Only a slip of leather with ratling teeth affixed, all carved with old Lycaonese blessings. For luck, he’d smiled. In the years since then, Cordelia had bought and been gifted some of the finest jewelry in Procer. On all of Calernia, truly speaking. And still, under the dress at her coronation as First Prince of Procer, ratling teeth had dug into her wrist. Gold, gold could be found everywhere in the world. Freely given affection could not. The First Prince of Procer wiped her eyes, grateful she’d already done away with her cosmetics for the day. The letter was slid back against her heart, weighing more than parchment ever should.
Across the rest of Lycaonese lands, cities and towns and villages would empty. The old and the young would flee into the mountains, and the rest of her people would prepare for war. Ploughshares beat into swords, cutlery melted into spears. Tables would be hacked up for wooden shields and lovingly tended-to mail come down from mantles. The Enemy was coming and her people would march to meet it at the passes, as they had unflinchingly since the days the word Lycaonese first meant something. Cordelia fingers curled angrily against the glass. Impotently. They could not stand alone. They were brave and they were strong and they were more than anyone had the right to ask of them, but they could not stand alone against the endless hordes of the Dead King. They needed reinforcements, they needed the south to raise its banners and come stand with them. And it was her duty to see to that, wasn’t it? There had never been a First Prince of Lycaonese birth before her, and there might never be again. The Dead King had come to wage full war on the Principate of Procer for the first time since its founding, and only now did while a Hasenbach sat the throne. She owed it to her blood, to her home, to her honour to abandon all this southern madness and march north to stand against the horror that would devour all the world.
“And I am going to fail you,” she whispered brokenly.
Because victory south meant taking all that remained of the Grand Alliance to fight the Dead King. Because the Chosen had held Cleves until Princess Malanza’s army arrived to reinforce them and the principality still stood. Because Hainaut’s coast was swarming with the dead, but she had ordered her uncle to take it back instead of returning to fight for his own home. And mine. She’d met the eyes of man who’d been father to her since she was a girl, and told him that if he disobeyed her orders and marched his soldiers home instead she would have to order him seized for treason. There would be no coming back from that, she knew. She’d seen the lay of it in his face. But in the end, all four principalities of her people could be taken by the Enemy without much greater cost than soldiers and mines. If the Kingdom of the Dead broke into the heartlands of Procer, its already ravaged farmlands, the entire realm would starve through winter. Hunger would kill a hundredfold the work of soldiers. Because even alone, you will stand long enough to save the rest of Procer and the Alamans will not. She was abandoning everything she had ever loved for the sake of people who still called her a savage behind her back. Who mere months ago had been plotting to destroy her.
“Because we must,” Cordelia bitterly said.
Using the words of the line whose duty she was failing to justify that very failure. She was damned, just as the hard-eyed warlord in Callow had warned she would be. Let me be damned, then, she thought. The wolves were at the gate, gathering in ravening packs. Summer friends and bitter foes, a procession of the viperous and the apathetic. Heroes who would bring salvation with a torch, villains cloaked in murder and madness. Let them all come, baying for the end of Procer. If she had to war against all the world to save her people, she would. The Warden of the West walked to her desk, dipped the quill and signed the fucking order. Before it even dried she had another scroll unfolded, her feathered quill dancing across. Dredge it out, she wrote. Prepare it. Fire against fire. The Augur had found a path through, narrow as it was, and it began with a corpse that was not a corpse beneath the waters of the lake at the heart of Procer. The Ashurans, it was said, had called on a masked and hallowed presence at the Battle of Thalassina. Cordelia Hasenbach would call on a lot worse if she had to.
Dawn was in her hands, and she would not let it fail.
The Empire was dying a slow, messy death.
Alchemical concoctions had allowed Malicia to resist the call of sleep beyond what even her Name would allow, though she knew there would eventually be a price to pay for that. It was still necessary, for rare was the hour that must not be spent dragging her wayward realm back from the suicide it was so utterly intent on committing. It was grim, thankless work, moreso now than ever before: two blows had come in quick succession, and as a result her authority was thinning. Thalassina had, to her still raw grief, been the first. The woman named Alaya had wept over the loss of her old friend, when she’d heard the news. Wekesa had been dear to her in a way that very few people had ever matched or surpassed – only one, if she was to be honest with herself – and to lose him over what should have been such a simple matter… But while the Dread Empress of Praes could afford most luxuries known to Creation, time to mourn was not one of them. Not when Warlock’s last blaze of vengeful glory had wiped out a city of nearly one hundred and fifty thousand people, along with her realm’s largest and most prosperous sea port.
There were survivors, a meager thirty thousand or so. Whatever Wekesa had used affected them, for within a day of fleeing the city ruins they’d begun to wildly mutate. Eyes and cysts growing over skin, teeth turning to stone, even a case of hair turning into straw. Malicia ordered a quarantine for the refugees, uncertain if the affliction would spread, but it turned out pointless. Every last one of them was dead within a week, seemingly cooked from the inside by the fading remnants of Wekesa’s sorcery left inside them.
As far as her agents had been able to determine, there had been only a single survivor to that catastrophe: the Hierophant. Young Masego had been observed to walk out of the wreckage in ash-covered robes, and her attempts to contact the boy had not gone well. The first messengers she’d sent on foot, and once they came within a hundred yards of him their heads had simply caved in. She’d ordered scrying rituals, after that. Of the ten mages she’d used, only one had survived the backlash. Healers managed to stop the screaming before the vocal chords gave, though there would be no salvaging the eyes that had rotten and fallen out from their sockets. That survivor had babbled about a ‘sea of death’, not coherent enough for a more comprehensive report, and bitten through her tongue before the night was out. Necromancy had revealed the dead woman’s soul to be even more damaged than the corpse, which worried Malicia a great deal. Even Warlock at his peak had resorted to rituals and specialized tools to tinker with souls. His son evidently need not, and was shambling his way back to Callow through unknown means: he would frequently disappear for a few days at a time before her agents caught sight of him again, moving too quickly for it to be purely on foot.
There was going to be a reckoning in that, and the best she could hope for was that it would be Ashur that’d bear the cost of it.
Thalassina alone would have been a crisis. High Lord Idriss had been one of her closest political allies for decades, the wealth of his holdings and his remarkable breadth of indebted of great use in keeping the influence of Tasia Sahelian and the Truebloods at bay. Malicia had never counted the man a friend, but she had respected him and made good use of his ambitions. In the wake of the dissolution of the Truebloods and the marginalization of Wolof, whose latest High Lord she had bound to her too deeply for anything but complete subservience, she’d been preparing to set him up as the natural rival to the Moderates led by High Lady Abreha of Aksum. Competition over court appointments would have neatly neutered both of them and kept them busy while Malicia set to laying the groundwork for what the Empire was to become. Instead Idriss was gone, along with most of Thalassina, and Abreha Mirembe was now the second most powerful individual in Praes. The sack of Nok and the destruction of the only other seaport of the Wasteland had dealt crippling blows to Malicia’s prestige, which had already been steadily eroding under the constant Ashuran coastal raids.
From Wekesa’s death, she had inherited the stuff or rebellion: the Thalassocracy was no longer raiding, which allowed household troops and legions to withdraw, and doubts were now being raised as to her ability to successfully defend Praes. If not for her treaty with the Dead King, there would have been a coup attempt by now. As it was, overwhelming pressure was mounting at court for High Lady Abreha to be named her Chancellor. If she did not swiftly act to suppress dissent, the situation would grow out of control. Her most direct tool in this should have been the Legions of Terror, of course, but as things stood Malicia knew they could not be used. Sitting calmly in her seat at the table where the Dark Council was usually held, the Dread Empress of Praes watched the kneeling Soninke mage before her and idly tapped a finger against the wooden table’s surface. Ime stood at her side, her spymistress a shadow silent and still.
“It is confirmed, Your Most Dreadful Majesty,” the young man said. “Foramen has fallen.”
“Of that much I was aware,” Malicia sharply replied. “Elaborate.”
“As of two days ago, a goblin army of imprecise size – at least ten thousand, less than fifty – attacked the city after sending a vanguard of infiltrators over what we now believe to be at least a month,” the imperial mage hastily said. “They attacked under cover of night, after having slain the watchmen on duty and opening the gates. The city was fully occupied by morning, after which the goblins seized control of the city wards and cut off our ability to scry.”
Not a single bit of news that Ime had not already brought her as of the morning the city was occupied. She truly had been too lax on the contingent of messenger mages directly sworn to the Tower, she thought. While their primary duty was to serve as couriers for orders, they’d also been granted funds to acquire and pass on local information from wherever they were posted. A way to keep a finger on the pulse of the Empire without ever leaving Ater. Yet if the best they could offer her was what half of Praes knew two days after Malicia learned of it, perhaps their funding needed to be reassessed.
“Do you have anything else to report?” the Empress mildly added.
The young mage hesitated.
“Rumours have begun to spread in Okoro and Kahtan that these foreign attacks are being used as a veiled knife by Your Most Dreadful Majesty to eliminate the High Lords entirely,” he finally said. “Our branch officers in these cities believe the whispers are too widespread to be of natural provenance.”
Malicia’s eyes narrowed the slightest bit. That was, in fact, fresh news. Perhaps mere discipline would suffice, then.
“You are dismissed,” she said.
The Imperial mage rose only to bow, and retreated from the room backwards with his eyes fixed on the floor. The Sentinels quietly closed the door behind him, and the Empress leaned back against her seat.
“Abreha prepares for a serious challenge, it seems,” Malicia said after a moment.
Ime finally stirred to movement, sliding into the seat at her left.
“It was inevitable the moment Thalassina happened,” the spymistress said. “Foramen just handed her the opportunity on a silver platter.”
They both knew why the rumours being spread were much more dangerous than they seemed at first glance. Ime’s agents had obtained greater detail of what had taken place in Foramen after it fell. High Lady Amina Banu had been skinned alive along with every other member of her line in the city before being drawn and quartered before the eyes of the entire city. Revenge for Dread Emperor Nihilis fashioning a leather cloak out from the hide of the matrons that refused to surrender when he crushed the Fourth Goblin Rebellion, or so they claimed. As the leaders of every single goblin rebellion in the last six hundred years had committed a variation of the same empty atrocity, Malicia could note that there had been a great deal more revenge taken than injury done. Unfortunately, the Banu of Foramen and the Kebdana of Thalassina had both been effectively ended as a bloodline. Oh, some distant relatives could be rustled up – the Banu in particular had been a tribe before a line, and were famously more a family thicket than tree – but that thorough an extermination would end them as political entities for generations. More than that, for the Kebdana. Foramen could be taken back, but it was dubious that Thalassina could ever be rebuilt given the toxicity of the former city’s emplacement.
Two High Lord lines centuries old destroyed in the span of a year. High Lady Abreha would find many willing ears, when she cast Malicia in the role of one trying to exterminate the highest rung of Wasteland aristocracy.
“She needs to die,” the Empress said. “And quickly.”
“The Eyes are already exploring possible avenues,” Ime replied without missing a beat. “Though she was a viciously paranoid old bat before taking a swing at the Tower, so the odds are not in our favour.”
Malicia closed her eyes, mind unfolding. Angles, angles, there were always angles. The knife that took the killing blow need not be hers.
“Her agents at court,” she said slowly. “Have they been preparing petition?”
“We’ve confirmed four,” Ime said. “I believe the one requesting that she be formally summoned to the Tower to answer for tax irregularities is the one she’ll truly back.”
Casting herself as being attacked by the throne while ensuring she was in Ater to gather support. Not the most inspired of opening moves, but then Abreha had always preferred boldness to elegance.
“Have our people change the text for one of the red herrings just before presentation,” Malicia ordered, opening her eyes. “High Lady Abreha will request a formal mandate and court title, for the sake of stabilizing Praes in the midst of war.”
“Overreach would give us an excuse to swat her around,” the spymistress reluctantly agreed.
“Swat?” Malicia smiled. “Nothing of the sort, Ime. How does one kill a lion without a spear?”
Her spymistress simply raised an eyebrow.
“Throw a cut of meat,” the Dread Empress of Praes said, “halfway between it and a bear.”
She drummer her fingers thoughtfully against the table.
“We will grant this petition, for we have great trust in the loyalty of dearest Abreha,” she lightly continued. “As the Blessed Isle is still formally an Imperial territory, granting governorship over it is my right. Given the unfortunate refugee situation, it is evident there is great need of a stabilizing influence there.”
Ime let out a low whistle.
“That gets her household troops at the Callowan border,” she noted. “And nobody else will want to get tangled up there, so support will cool down. The reaction in Laure is the real danger.”
“Have the regency informed that its protest over Praesi refugee incursions were duly noted, and I have appointed a governor to remedy the situation,” Malicia said. “Of course, High Lady Abreha’s mandate ends at the border. Should she provoke the Kingdom of Callow, it is not on the behalf of the Tower and any punishment doled out by the regency would not be taken as an act of war between our realms.”
“Should such a provocation be arranged?” Ime asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Prepare one,” the Empress said. “I will not pull the trigger unless it is made necessary.”
There was a beat of silence.
“My Empress,” the spymistress finally said.
“You have doubts,” Malicia noted.
“Callow just slapped us across the face,” Ime reminded her. “There was a signed royal decree recognizing the independence of the ‘Confederation of the Grey Eyries’ before the city had even fallen.”
With Catherine’s own signature, which the Empress suspected had by now been used more often by Hakram Deadhand than the woman herself.
“The Matrons must have reached out to them months ago. And it’s only a matter of time until barges carrying munitions and goblin steel start sailing across the Wasaliti to equip the Army of Callow. They’re effectively funding a rebellion against the Tower, though Gods only know how they got a loan from the dwarves.”
“Given Catherine’s continued absence, I imagine an amount of brutal murder was involved,” the Empress drily said. “Though that is ultimately irrelevant. The Legions of Terror will move to blockade Foramen. Neither munitions, steel nor gold will flow. The bargain will remain entirely ink.”
“We’re in no shape to fight against Callow,” Ime quietly said. “We are divided, bloodied and beset with a goblin rebellion.”
“Callow is in no shape to fight against us,” Malicia replied, and raised a hand before her spymistress could object. “Marshal Juniper has raised a significant army, but it cannot move east. If the Black Queen still somehow seeks alignment with the ailing Grand Alliance, it must participate in the campaign against the Dead King. If she seeks to kill Cordelia’s grand design instead, it will fall on Salia instead and decapitate the Principate by surprise. Both offensives would be of great scale, and she has neither the manpower nor the resources to engage in war on two fronts.”
Silence reigned for a moment after the mild tirade, the other woman refraining from contradicting her. Ime – Lindimi Sahelian, once, before she’d cast that name aside – was aging. No amount of potions, rituals or cosmetics could truly hide it anymore. Her skin was wrinkling, her body losing its spryness. Even a branch Sahelian could expect to live a few decades longer than the average Praesi, but time would catch up eventually. Part of Malicia grieved that. Part of Malicia had to begin considering a replacement. She read hesitation, on Ime’s face. No, not hesitation. Reluctance. There were very few subjects where she had not given her spymistress to speak her mind fully and openly. Not even Lindimi’s participation in the slaughter of Amadeus’ kin when still served the Heir was warded subject, though it was one to be approached with care.
“Say it,” Malicia ordered.
Ime’s lips thinned.
“You have not spoken to the Black Queen face to face since Akua’s Folly,” she slowly said. “I do not think you truly grasp the woman we’re dealing with anymore.”
“A crown will not change her nature,” the Empress said.
“What happened in Liesse did,” Ime replied. “She reminds me…”
“… she reminds me of Nefarious,” the spymistress finished quietly. “After the Wizard of the West broke his power. There’s a sickness in her, Malicia, and it has little kinship with reason.”
It had been many years, since Alaya had last thought of Dread Emperor Nefarious. In a way, that’d been a deeper victory than simply killing the wretched man – she had grown beyond him, the wounds and the fear and the pain. She’d not hidden from remembrance of him, she’d simply let him disappear into utter irrelevance.
“Winter can be predicted,” Malicia said. “Rooted as it is in what she once was.”
“She’s unstable,” Ime flatly said. “And I’m afraid of her. We all should be. She threw a bloody lake at the crusaders, and that was her being diplomatic. If that pretence is discarded, what will we be facing? You speak of armies, but I think of a mountain falling from the sky above Ater. Of Okoro drowned by an ocean unleashed. She’s not the Carrion Lord’s apprentice anymore, Malicia. She’d a vicious, angry thing bearing a fairy court’s worth of power and I deeply mislike the risk of us making her feel cornered. She may yet come out with teeth and claw, damning all else.”
Where was this fear a year ago? Yet the Empress knew the answer. It had not yet come to fruit, because a year ago Wekesa had still been alive and poorly inclined towards the Black Queen. How quickly slight wounds had turned to mortal ones, Malicia thought. Procer was being smothered by the armies of the dead, Ashur strangled by the fleets of the League and the hosts of Levant were embroiled in the mess that had been made of Iserre, headed for doom or crippling. All three nations sworn to end her, bleeding out in broad daylight. And yet Praes was dying as well, by wounds of its own making. The Matrons to the south, High Lady Abreha to the north. Legions she held only by the barest of leashes, one that could only be tugged by causing mutinous sentiment in the aftermath, and with the coming of winter the Imperial granaries would have to be opened lest there be food riots. The grain would run out, eventually. And to the far west, someone had taken Amadeus from her.
She was alone. There was no one else that would – that could – avoid disaster.
Left to scheme on their own, when the granaries ebbed low the High Lords would begin musing war on Callow to acquire its own reserves. The goblins would not end the border of their rebellion at Foramen unless they were made to. And the moment collapse seemed inevitable, some clans of orcs would begin eyeing the weakened lands to the south of the steppes for plunder as they had under the reign of her predecessor. Some would stay loyal, but all that would accomplish was civil war among the Clans. She had to avoid reaching the tipping point, whatever the cost. For if she succeeded? If she asserted true control once more? Then she had won this war, and all the wars that would follow. The Grand Alliance would break. The League of Free Cities would either collapse into squabbling or by trying to keep the Thalassocracy contained. And Callow would have a choice: uneasy alliance with the Tower, or standing alone against a Kingdom of the Dead that had just devoured most the west. It always came down to survival, didn’t it? Outlasting what you could not beat.
“I am,” Malicia said, “the ruler of Praes.”
“So you are,” Ime murmured.
“Let us teach them once more,” Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, “precisely what that means.”
The Empire might be dying, but these lands were no stranger the walking dead.
Somewhere in eastern Iserre, under a full moon, a flicker of flame parted the night. It died quick enough, leaving behind only the cherry-red end of a lit pipe. The young woman holding it breathed in deep of smoke before blowing out a shoddy ring. Pearly white teeth were bared under moonlight, afterwards.
“Let’s try this again, shall we?” Catherine Foundling said.
Behind her, streaming out of an ink-black gate, a sea of raised sigils poured out in utter silence. Obsidian and iron, furs and mail, spears and swords and things stranger still.
For the first time in many years, the Empire Ever Dark was at war with something other than itself.