“In winning a game one may only grasp lesser victory; only in setting the rules may greater victory be found, for one then transcends the possibility of loss.”
– Extract from “Bought and Sold”, a collection of the teachings of the Merchant Prince Irenos, founder of Mercantis
It wasn’t all that hard to find him, even though my temper refused to allow me to double back and obtain Black’s location from those two. The combined camp of the Army of Callow and the Legions-in-Exile was centred around the barrow where I’d schemed the coming of this day, and the elaborate Mavian prayer atop it. It was half a fortress raised from the plains around the tumulus and half a well-organized city of tents, the latter being what told me where to look. Most of the layouts for camps that my army used were slightly adjusted from Legion standard, which I was long familiar with. By virtue of remembering a bird’s eye view I knew which parts of the camp would have access restricted to them by order of one of my triumvirate of deputies – Juniper, Vivienne, Hakram – and where the restrictions ran high and the wards with them my father would be kept. Not as a prisoner, no. That’d be a blunder, given that within our own camp were the same legions who’d followed Black on his ill-fated campaign into the Proceran heartlands. I had no doubt, not for a moment, that Grem One-Eye would force a battle if we tried to imprison the Black Knight or execute him. None of my little triumvirate would have dared to take so bold a step without my approval, anyhow, not after the way I’d chewed them out harshly for overstepping not so long ago. Especially not when it came to a matter as delicate as Amadeus of the Green Stretch.
It wasn’t long before I found the tent where he’d been recuperating, though somewhat unsurprisingly he’d already left it. Along with, from the lack of papers strewn all over the inside, one of the few fully scribed texts of the Liesse Accords. He was in fit state to move, then, which was good news. From there I did not even bother to ask questions of the legionaries still standing guard around the tent. I knew the man, better than most, and after so long cleaved from his own flesh he’d not be able to tolerate remaining stuck in bed helpless while the world moved around him. Especially not after having been handed an intriguing read by my Adjutant’s hand. No, there was no doubt as to where he’d be holed up if the matter was seriously considered. I began my slow trek up the barrow’s slope, slipping through the three concentric rings of raised stones that from below looked like some eldritch temple’s wall. At the heart of it, seated among the dead riverbed of what had once been an altar to the fae, my father sat in the very seat I’d stolen from Arcadia. The parchments I’d once had Robber hang up on stones, when trying to divine a path through the Iserran chaos that would not break half the world, had long been burned – I would brook no evidence of my schemes to survive them – but I’d come by that method of thought honestly. Put up on worn and ancient stone in little clusters entire sections of the Accords had been put together.
Black did not look up from the parchments he was frowning down at even as I approached, though even Nameless he must have heard my limping gait. I could only make out the side of him, from where I was approaching, for he’d pivoted the seat to ensure that the afternoon sun would shine against his back and onto the sheets. He’d shaved, I saw, stripped away the growing and greying beard his soulless body had kept growing without him. It did not make him look younger – the thickening strands of grey in his hair saw to that, black touched by iron – but he felt more like the man I knew than the sleeping body had been. The cleanliness of him, not some highborn peacock’s perfumed pretence but instead the austere thoroughness of someone who could not tolerate the slovenly, had been restored. Pale green eyes narrowed in thought before he rose to his feet and set down a thick sheath of parchments on the table I’d had put up here days ago.
“How much of it did you read?” I asked.
I limped up to his side slowly as he remained still, gaze still on the parchments ahead of us that traced the bare bones of the manner of world I wanted to make. I stood at his side, noting with old surprise that I was taller than he these days by more than an inch.
“The substance of it,” my father replied. “The legal minutiae are not so interesting as what you seek to achieve through them. Which is…”
His head moved to the side, as if amused. My heart skipped a beat, for though I was no longer his student and his ways were not always mine, the thought that he might be my foe in this was almost too much to bear.
“Ambitious,” Black said, lips quirking. “With iron and ink and oaths, you would bind that which is worst in us and through it call forth a strange new dawn.”
“It’s how we get out of it,” I said, dry-mouthed. “The wheel of misery that rolls over us all, the wound some misbegotten part of us just keeps picking at. I see no other way.”
“It is that,” the green-eyed man quietly said. “And it’s beautiful, Catherine. It truly is.”
My throat choked up. Fingers clenched around the yew haft and my other hand rose, hesitantly. It was one thing to acknowledge the thinning, even crossing, of a boundary to myself but another to presume acting upon it. At our last parting, I’d slid a knife between his ribs and chased him out of my kingdom. Things, thoughts that had seemed certain in the privacy of my own thoughts or even those few I trusted now seemed – arms pulled me close, and I breathed out lingeringly as my nose came to rest on my father’s shoulder. I could be furious with him later, I thought. It was not weakness to choose when an accounting was asked. His fingers held tight to the cloak he’d gifted me long ago, before I’d taken to adorning it with own victories and covered the blackness of its beginnings, and for a while we stood that way. The embrace broke without the embarrassment I’d expected from at least one of us, much left unspoken yet somehow still acknowledged.
“It appears I owe you the salvation of my soul,” Black said, tone the faintest hint of dry.
“If there’s pieces missing, well, it was like that when I found it,” I replied.
His lips twitched, which coming from him was good as a smile.
“Gratitude, nonetheless,” he said. “For the difficulties my defeat brought to you.”
“The parts where you were arguably winning have been much, much worse,” I frankly said.
“Then for that as well,” he said, inclining his head to the side.
It was, I saw, an apology for the inconveniences he’d caused me. Not, even the slightest bit, regret for the dozens if not hundreds of thousands he might have killed through empty stomachs. I’d not truly expected otherwise, truth be told. He’d never been one to flinch in the face of monstrous acts, if he deemed them necessary to victory – or to repent for blood spilled a necessity’s altar.
“You’ve gotten old,” I casually said, statement and question both.
“They found me on Lake Artoise,” Amadeus said. “Their band of heroes, so nobly clad. And before the fist blow was struck, already I was no longer the Black Knight.”
“Below sold you out?” I frowned. “I’m no great admirer, mind you, but that doesn’t sound like them. They prefer their favourites to go out in a blaze.”
“Already I had sensed the thinning of my mantle,” he admitted. “The well was always shallow, and I leaned on it as rarely before, but the signs were there.”
My eyes narrowed. That did to sound like the loss of Name, or more accurately not only that.
“You’re a claimant,” I said. “Shit. To what?”
He hummed a tune, and my blood ran cold for I had heard it before.
“There was once a girl without a name,
There was a tower no one could claim
No one remembers why she has climbed,
Or all those she must have left behind,” he softly sang.
The Girl Who Climbed the Tower, that tune was called. Only those who might one day claim the tower at the heart of Ater had ever been known to hear it.
“You said you’d heard it before,” I said.
“The fullness of it, only once,” he murmured. “When I was yet young and believed there was nothing sufficient steel and cleverness could not cure.”
It was what I wanted from him, wasn’t it? Should he overthrow Malicia and become Dread Emperor, he could make of the Wasteland more than a wild and cornered beast. Carve out the worst of it, by fire and sword, and leave room for something better to grow of the ashes. And yet, hearing the pale-skinned man humming that eerie tune, a shiver had gone up my smile. Dread, perhaps, to match the title that may yet be claimed. Claimed, I mocked myself. What a nice, genteel word that is to describe the murder of one the few people he loves still drawing breath.
“And now?” I softly asked.
“Now I heard the refrain and wonder,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch said, “at the attributes that make an act a mistake.”
I paused, sensing this was somewhere to tread lightly. I was not the only one in his life to have ever commanded affection, and his partnership with Malicia at its height had seen the Empire reach its greatest height since Maleficent the Second. Their ties were decades in the making and keeping, and though cracks had been wrought the temple they’d raised to each other was still tall and many-pillared.
“She’s been making increasingly hardline decisions since you left,” I said.
“She has made increasingly hardline decisions because I left,” Black countered calmly.
Which might be true. I did not think the Empress so sentimental a creature that she’d lash out over the loss of a companion, no matter how dear, but Black was a little more than that. When he’d taken so many of the Legions to the Red Flower Vales and ignored every missive coming from Ater, he’d stripped her of her most feared enforcer as well as put it out in the open that at least half the Legions of Terror would heed orders from him over her. Her position had been crippled, even before the Ashurans started torching the coasts and cities with them. Even before Thalassina went up in smoke, taking the Thalassocracy’s finest fleets but also Warlock with them. Now her power was shrinking, the vultures circling, and she could not afford even the pretence of weakness less she be torn apart. Of course, she’d ordered the Night of Knives before it ever came to that. There were some who might say that by making peace talks with the Grand Alliance and distancing myself from the Empire I’d courted such retaliation. They might not even be wrong.
That did not mean I would either forget or forgive it.
“You’ve read the Accords,” I said. “I can’t see her signing them, for many reasons but most of all that she’d need to abdicate.”
“You underestimate her,” my father noted. “If it became clear that her diplomatic position was untenable, she’d concede rather than fight a war she could not feasibly win.”
“She won’t sign it,” I said, “because the moment she does the High Lords will slit her throat and one of them will claim the Tower over her corpse.”
“Not,” he said, “if I have returned.”
My fingers clenched.
“I’ll be blunt,” I said. “No one would trust her to actually enforce the terms, least of all me. Sure, the throne in the Tower would go empty. A Nameless ruler would be rustled up. And before night’s end the struggle to decide who would be the Secret Emperor or Empress ruling through them would be concluded. Maybe, and I do mean maybe, if you were keeping an eye on the situation those promises could be trusted. But then it would still be you that’s the keystone, not her. She is not an asset to the arrangement.”
I’d had frank, almost brusque talks with my father before. We had disagreed over matters great and small, most notably when we’d last spoken face to face. But never before had we really had such a discussion when I stood in the position of greater power and authority. Oh, even out here in the heartlands of Procer surrounded by enemies Amadeus of the Green Stretch remained one of the most powerful men on Calernia. He commanded the loyalty of a large and capable army, stood at the head of a great net of informants and had ties to powerful Named. There were those who called themselves rulers out there that paled in comparison. Yet now I stood Queen of Callow, First Under the Night and with great names and Named in my debt. I could, in all honesty, say that perhaps the only entity on the continent that could feasibly dictate terms to me was the Dead King – and even then, there would be difficulties. I supposed a lesser man might have felt cheated by that, the way the balance had swung to my side with the passing of the years. I’d seen it in Callowan nobles, the indignation at needing to heed the orders of some young warlord of no great line. At being made to kneel before someone the truths of their world stated should be kneeling to them instead. It ate the insides like poison, and always left a mark. And yet I found no trace of that in the man who’d once been the Black Knight. It should not have surprised me, even if it did.
When had ever begrudged me so much as a step forward, even when it came at his expense?
“Only so much can be spoken of this while neither of us has knowledge of the situation in Praes,” he finally said. “I will have to speak to Scribe. We should still have scrying relays on this side of the Whitecaps.”
“Scrying works now,” I confirmed.
Green eyes narrowed.
“I will have to speak to Scribe,” he said, tone strange.
“Your people are more likely to have fresh word of the Wasteland than mine,” I freely conceded.
His lips thinned.
“Eudokia, this is hardly the time,” he murmured. “Catherine, sharpen your mind against influence.”
My brow rose.
“You think someone’s meddling with my mind?” I said. “I’m not dismissing that out of hand, but there’s other things in there nowadays that’d not take kindly to that.”
“It is not active interference,” he explained. “Consider it more akin to one being so utterly unremarkable that the mind dismisses them.”
That… rang true, somehow. I drew on the Night, feeling the interest if the Sisters directed at me.
“One of my companions is the Scribe.”
Oh. Oh. All this time? I’d just… not thought about her, even when by all rights I should have. Like my mind’s eye had skipped over any hole left by her absence.
“Godsdamnit,” I said through gritted teeth. “All right. I know she was with Marshal Grem for some time after your capture, but I can’t speak to her movements after that. Hells, she could still be hiding in some tent here for all I know.”
“She won’t be,” Black said.
To my irritation, there was an undertone of open fondness.
“If she has left the armies, then it was to prepare for what she saw coming,” he continued. “Considering both defeat and victory would have brought you – and likely myself – to Salia then that is where she will be.”
“You’re telling me your spymistress has been in Procer’s capital for what could be months,” I slowly said. “What for, Black?”
“We’ll have to find another form of address, if Amadeus makes you so uncomfortable,” the green-eyed man said, sounding amused. “That one will never be accurate again, I don’t think.”
I rolled my eyes, though it was true enough. It felt… disrespectful to call him by his given name.
“Pray tell, Lord Amadeus, what has the Webweaver gotten the fuck up to in Salia?” I politely asked.
“I’d expect she has been taking root in the city, Your Majesty,” he replied without missing a beat, lips twitching at my wince. “She often prefers to spread influence for some time before taking action, as a better read on the currents of the local allows for intervention so indirect as to be near traceless.”
“And what is it she’s been trying to set up?” I grimly asked.
“It could be near anything, truth be told,” Amadeus said. “Though in all humility, I expect she will have given priority to reclaiming me. After ensuring she was in a position to do such a thing should opportunity arise, I would venture she began making arrangements for the political collapse of the Great Alliance.”
If someone else had told me that, I might have been skeptical. Cordelia Hasenbach was probably, all things considered, the most skilled diplomat of our age. She’d also run circles around the Highest Assembly for years while simultaneously fending off the Tower’s sabotage of reign. The Thalassocracy of Ashur had never been a great worry for me – they were a naval power first and foremost, what trouble was that to Callow? – but I’d read of them since the Tenth Crusade began. They were a realm arguably older than Praes and who’d largely remained stable for that entire span. As for the Levantines, though their squabbles of honour made them the obvious weak link they also had the Peregrine looking over the shoulder. The Grand Alliance was hardly the most stable of edifices, it was true, but neither was it captained by fools and with the Dead King at the gates there was mortar to keep them together. And still, if Black now told me that Scribe could threaten it, I could only believe him. For if I’d sent Thief or Adjutant or – Gods forbid – Akua in Salia and let them prepare for a few months? Oh, they would wound it badly. And Scribe had been the spymistress to the Calamities for longer than I’d lived.
“But you can tell her to call it off, whatever she has prepared,” I said.
“It is not,” my father said, “quite as simple as that.”
Not the answer I’d been looking for, that.
“Eudokia takes orders from me so long as those orders are sound,” he said. “In the sense that my judgement is unimpaired.”
“Which it is,” I pointed.
“Only if you do not consider sentiment to be an impairment, which she does,” he said.
“I need the Grand Alliance to hold, Black,” I flatly said. “For one, I’m going to be part of it.”
“Indeed,” he said, cocking his head to the side. “You need it. Callow benefits. On the other hand, the Alliance’s continued existence means that the Dread Empire is effectively cut off and at the mercy of its signatories.”
“Which won’t matter if the Empire signs the Accords,” I pointed out. “I’m not trying to end wars – I can’t change human nature with bits of ink. But the moment Praes is no longer the nation of flying fortresses and undead plagues-”
“- which assumes that the Dread Empire of Praes, regardless of who rules it when the matter is broached, will be signing the Liesse Accords,” Black said.
My heart caught in my throat.
“Are you saying you won’t?” I asked, calm forced.
“Asking,” he said, “is not enough. That you are my daughter in all but blood is not enough. We barter now the stuff of empires and the fates of nations. You would set the foundation of the Age that will follow you, and I fear that in some aspects of that seeking you are ill-prepared. I offer you, then, opportunity. If you want any ruler of Praes at all to sign your Accords?”
He met my gaze.
“Convince me,” he demanded.