“Patience is the art through which rivers shatter mountains.”
– Solon of Many Decrees, founder of the Secretariat
Deep beneath the beating heart of the Wasteland, in a repository of secrets ancient and terrible, two accomplices debated the truth of empire.
Alaya of Satus had been born to the Green Stretch, but her roots were not of the mud. Soninke of no great line was she yet Soninke still, and though some of the ways she kept to had sprung from the shores of the Wasaliti her years in Ater had seen her embrace the Wasteland’s rites. A caged bird in the Dread Empire’s most gilded cage, she had learned the songs of power from the carrion circling the carcass of Nefarious’ reign. With watchful eye and steady hand she’d taught herself to kill without ever baring a blade and to sow ruin with but whisper, the trade and tongue of those born high. Patient and smiling, she had learned the mistakes and the triumphs of those who called themselves her betters, and behind the smile taken the measure of the ailing empire falling apart around her. Like a chirurgeon and a sculptor, her hand had marked the cut. And so Alaya of Satus asserted this: Praes is a game that can be won.
Amadeus of the Green Stretch was the son of corpses now buried, born of a land tread by soldiers under different banners with every season. Duni, he was, his skin the pale shame of old defeats that Praes had deemed filth even in name, and never did he forget it. It was not the Tower’s promises that whispered in his sleep but the footsteps of his youth, the wheel of unending defeats seen from the side with cold eyes. In indignation he had become squire, and so sharp a blade found it that it slew his rivals and knighted him in black. To the banner he’d raised the disgraces of the Wasteland had flocked, be they green of skin and red of hand, Named hunted from above or every sharp mind and soul of steel that knew contempt but no captain. His was a company of the hungry and the lost, sworn to bleed for those unworthy of that blood. And so Amadeus of the Green Stretch asserted this: Praes is a mould that must be broken.
An emptying bottle of wine stayed on the table, and as arguing the fate of a realm was thirsty work it was not long before a second was opened – just as awful as the first, though to Amadeus the smile it brought in his friend was sweeter prize than the finest vintage would have been in its stead. Tipsy as they were, the Black Knight found that he more disposed to poetic language as he might have been otherwise though Alaya hardly seemed to mind.
“If a mill only makes poor flour,” Amadeus said, “one must first look at the wheat that is brought to it. Yet if, no matter what is fed to the millstone, the flour remains poor? Then the trouble is not with the wheat, it is with the mill.”
“You argue then, that Praesi are not of poor make,” Alaya said. “That the Empire is as a broken mill and so will only ever make broken things out of us.”
“Soninke, Taghreb, Duni,” Black replied. “Goblins and orcs and even ogres. There is no inherent blemish in any of these people, yet the Dread Empire spits out madmen and monsters with historical consistency. If the people are not the weakness, Alaya, it can only be the empire itself that is the flaw. And no amount of clever schemes can ever change that, because cleverness is the virtue of an individual and it is the structure itself that is faulty.”
Dark-eyed and lounging, long hair unbound, the imperial concubine – oh, how it had something at the heart if him clench in hatred every time he heard the title – sipped at the cup in her hand before raising an eyebrow.
“Yet this mill has ground out more than what you castigate, Amadeus,” Alaya pointed out. “It has whelped derelicts and disasters, true, but not only these: Maleficent first and second, Terribilis of the same. Sorcerous and Maledicta. Some of these were greater than others, but all were potent rulers.”
“Ah,” Black smiled, “but what circumstances were these? The Praes that Maleficent founded, that Maledicta and the first Terribilis ruled, is estranged from ours by more than thousand years. And the others you name all inherited debacles, an empire falling apart: Maleficent the Second came after the Secret Wars, Terribilis the Second after the Forty Years of Shame and Sorcerous’ predecessor broke three armies in three years on the walls of Summerholm.”
“All three of these reigned over days where the order of things was fraying. And so I argue that our skilled rulers rose despite the lay of the Empire, not because of it,” Amadeus said.
“There we disagree,” Alaya frankly said. “Maleficent the Second was of middling birth and only a general in title. Sorcerous rose to prominence as the Warlock, not by ancient blood. Terribilis the Second was of a great line, true, yet never ruled as High Lord. In any other realm they would have been the shining star of a few years, then doomed to disappear when the adversity that raised them passed.”
The dark-skinned beauty elegantly pointed a finger towards the ceiling, and so the Tower above it.
“The Tower and all that comes with it ensured they were able to rule, not merely serve,” she said. “Praes does not merely follow the line of succession of an old blood, as the Callowans do, and hope greatness will come of that roll of the dice. We seek out greatness.”
“And do not find it,” Amadeus frankly replied. “Or at least not sufficiently often to balance the lunacy and incompetence that is much more frequently obtained. More often than not the Tower is claimed through murder, which ensures that the crowned tyrant is a skilled murderer but guarantees none of the traits desirable in a ruler. As a method of seeking greatness, it is ineffective.”
Alaya’s brow rose.
“And so what is to be the cure to this ailment you have pronounced?” she asked. “To shatter the Tower and to establish instead a royal line?”
“A monarchy in the western manner would not take,” Amadeus said, agreeing with what she had not said. “And to collapse the Tower would be more symbolic a gesture than practical.”
“And yet you sound pleased,” she said.
“You have led to the exact point I wanted to make,” Black said. “The reason a broken Tower or a proclaimed royal house would both be futile gestures is the same.”
“The High Seats,” Alaya said.
“The reason no madman or madwoman’s folly has been enough to break the Dread Empire is that, functionally speaking, more power lies with the High Lords and Ladies than the Tower.”
It was a bold claim to make, though be believed it the truth, so it was not without expectation of contest that he’d spoken.
“You are not the first to make that claim,” Alaya said. “Always the Haunted Scholar’s old work stands at the heart of it, the same three reasons given different wording: Ater, the Legions and accretion.”
Ater, City of Gates, the great capital of Praes and seat of the Tower. At more than half a million souls, it was the largest city and most populous city in the Dread Empire: the queen of the Wasteland. Within its walls the greatest works of a hundred tyrants stood, among them sown secrets and wealth beyond one’s wildest dreams. The Empire could not be ruled without holding Ater, for without it the bureaucracy was masterless and near every instrument of rule save for military strength mde beyond reach. It was also a city that could not feed itself, could not pay for its own upkeep and must keep its gates agape to even enemies for the Imperial Court to be worth holding. Anyone holding Ater must either rely for food on the ever-vulnerable Green Stretch, on the practice of bloody mass field rituals, or on a highborn ally who’d then gain great power and influence from that alliance – if not outright become Chancellor.
The Legions of Terror, in principle, balanced the scales of power as the largest and strongest standing army in the Empire. In practice, without the backing of the High Seats the Legions would always begin to decline. It was taxes and tributes that funded their ranks, and a tyrant attempting to assert authority over the lords and ladies of the Wasteland would see the flow of gold and steel dry up. War on the wayward nobility was one way to force the matter, and often nobles would flock to the Tower’s banner in those conflicts – but with the expectation of reward, always. Besides, the gains were temporary and civil war typically opened the Empire to Callowan raiding as well as extortion over trade by Ashur and the Free Cities. Greenskins, the Clans and the Tribes, might serve as loyal and effective soldiers if trained but fear of the strength they might gain from such meant they were allowed to serve only as expendable auxiliaries. The Legions were a noose, but one not always tightened around the neck of the ruling tyrant’s foes.
The last of the three, accretion, had first become known to Black as Sanaa’s Ruse. An old Soninke story about a young girl outwitting her uncle in claiming her mother’s inheritance. The eponymous Sanaa proposed that to avoid strife within kin a contest be used to choose who’d inherit, the rolling of a great stone over a set distance. The uncle was reluctant until Sanaa told him he would only have to roll the stone for a mile while hers would be for three, in deference to his age and power. And so he did not disagree, when Sanaa decreed that to ensure there was no cheating the stones could only be rolled in daylight. And only then did the uncle learn that his mile was up a steep hill’s slope, while Sanaas’ three were on flat grounds. And though he was a strong man one day’s span was not enough to finish the trial, and when night fell he could no longer lay hand on his stone. So it rolled back down the slope.
In a way it was the same with whoever claimed the Tower, for the tyrant usually became the enemy of near every High Seat simply by rising to the throne. And all those hallowed and ancient lines had at their fingertips centuries of accumulated power, influence and wealth. They ruled from cities impregnable by most means, and though no ancient bloodline was without its murderous squabbles the kinsmen banded together when the family itself was threatened. A Dread Emperor, on the other hand, rarely inherited the allies and influence of their predecessor. A decade of consolidation of authority in Ater, enforced by wars and a river’s worth of gold, could evaporate into thin air the very moment the slide of a knife decided succession. A Dread Empress must undertake the great game with only what she had brought to the Tower, while the High Seats had behind them the weight of all their line. It was not that the tyrants were powerless, for they were not: Ater was the key to ruling the Wasteland, the Tower a beacon gathering Named and with the throne came the treasury as well as the Legions. It was possible for a tyrant to rule largely as they wished, and indeed this was regularly the case. But not without the support of some the High Seats, and struggle against others.
With every fresh reign the Tower’s stone went back down the slope, while the great lines slowly but surely rolled their own forward.
“It is a well-written treatise,” Black said.
“It is the tedious lament of disgraced second-stringer,” Alaya mildly replied. “One who fundamentally misunderstands the reason the Tower stands at all.”
Amadeus inclined his head to the side, inviting her to elaborate.
“No tyrant is meant to rule absolutely save if they triumph at the same games you now condemn,” she said. “That is by design. From inception, the Tower has been a way to keep Praes as a single nation through what the first tyrants knew to be inevitable civil wars. It is the greater prize that prevents the Wasteland from splintering. The rise of the bureaucracy in Ater under Terribilis concentrated power there, which was dangerous to the fabric of Praes. A succession of Sahelian tyrants wielding such authority, for example, would have seen Aksum attempt secession within decades. And so resistance from the High Lords became entrenched, the difficulty in wielding greater authority increasing.”
She flicked a finger at the side of her glass.
“This is not an accident or a flaw, Amadeus, it is the very intent,” Alaya said. “No tyrant may wield absolute authority without being exceptional in a way that no contemporary High Seat can dispute. The middling and the lucky are removed when they overstep, leaving only the splendid to undertake great works.”
“Your argument, then, is that the Empire’s difficulty in regularly producing effective rulers is not a shortcoming because it is on purpose,” the Black Knight calmly replied. “Which is absurd, Alaya, even if it is true. A government is meant to function, if it does not there is no compelling reason for it to keep existing.”
“It does function,” she said. “It does exactly what it was meant to do, which is keep the Dread Empire together and serve as means to power for the individuals of excellence who do claim the Tower.”
“The for all our pretence of being an empire we are in truth a pack of tribes, requiring a charismatic warlord to move us to accomplish anything of scale or ambition,” Black said. “We both describe as disastrous method of rule, Alaya. The only difference is that in your understanding the disaster is a deliberate one.”
“No,” she disagreed. “That reform is required I don’t deny in the slightest, so do not imply otherwise. Where our opinions differ is that you ascribe the Empire’s failures to institutional blindness and idiocy, where I believe them to be the consequence of an initially sound structure having survived beyond its relevance.”
“Let us compromise, then,” Amadeus drily said, “and say it was blindness and idiocy that kept the structure standing past its time.”
That earned him the flash of a smile, seen and gone in the heartbeat’s span.
“Reform is long overdue,” Alaya said. “On that we agree. Yet I suspect the manner of it required will see us differ again.”
“Reform is perhaps too mild a word,” Amadeus conceded. “Though rebellion has an implication of haphazardness I find rather insulting.”
While Black saw no particular issue with slitting the throat of unfit authority, he had no use for sloppy tools like riots and secession. Such matters were best settled with swift, steady-handed precision: the scalpel and not the torch.
“It would need to be comprehensive,” he said.
“Seizing the Tower, and then?” Alaya murmured.
“Dismantling the underpinnings of the power of the High Seats,” Amadeus said. “I would begin by arranging for mage academies under the Tower’s direct authority and outlawing those of the nobles.”
“And already we have civil war,” she smiled.
He was no fool, and so had suspected that might very well be the case. Though household troops represented the foundational military strength of any Wasteland highborn, it was through mages that most lines rose or fell. A talented practitioner, helped by a cadre of skilled mages and using a potent ritual, could turn around a campaign or make all manners of obstacles disappear. All the great lines had sunk fortunes into finding, teaching and binding all those born with a strong Gift in their holdings – though some such policies were better implemented than others, with Wolof and Kahtan’s traditionally the finest in Praes.
“There will be civil war regardless,” Black bluntly replied. “That is inevitable. Resistance by the High Lords can then be used as a pretext to begin purges of the aristocracy.”
“To weaken the lines?” she asked. “It would cow them, for a time.”
“It would be convenient to pretend as much at first,” Amadeus noted. “Though the intention is the extinction of every High Seat and significant landholding line in Praes.”
Alaya went still, then after a moment studied him very closely.
“You do not jest,” she stated.
“I am aware a significant amount of mages would be lost by doing so,” the Black Knight noted. “Yet if the cities of the Empire are to be purged of demons, their wards and walls pulled down and their private armies folded into the Legions then no highborn of influence can be allowed to live. I suppose children younger than six could be spared but offering any further mercy would be guaranteeing an insurrection some years down the line. It would be best to exterminate the aristocracy entirely, to my eye, but Wekesa is certain that would represent a catastrophic drop in mage births in the following generation. Minor lines can be folded into the bureaucracy instead, with the old High Seats turned into provinces in the Miezan manner – with appointed, non-hereditary governors of limited terms.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“Maddie, they would fight you to the death over this,” she said.
“That is,” the Black Knight smiled, thin and bladelike, “the idea.”
“The civil war, assuming you can even win it and –” she raised a hand to silence his interruption, “and I know you believe you would, given time to prepare, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation but Amadeus you’ve not even begun to see what they can do when feeling truly desperate – yet even assuming you do win it, it would take decades and it would ruin Praes as thoroughly as Triumphant’s conquests. And we would never entirely recover from the losses, not after the purges you describe.”
“Amputating a diseased limb is not weakening yourself,” Amadeus calmly replied. “It is salvaging one’s body whilst it can still be done. We would be lessened in some ways, perhaps. But from that position, we would then be capable of genuine growth. It is an acceptable loss.”
“It is a brute force solution,” Alaya retorted. “A chirurgeon’s garb with a butcher’s blade. The violence itself is not inherently unfit a means, but the impatience you would wield it with spoils the broth.”
Black’s brow rose, but he did not interrupt.
“Slaughtering an empire’s worthy of influential, wealthy and well-armed highborn sorcerers through war is impractical,” she told him. “First a more traditional reign need be established, to carefully oust them from the bureaucracy and the Legions. Then one must constrain their wealth, lead them to spend their soldiery outwards, and only then would they be ripe for the taking.”
“It would still come to violence,” Amadeus said. “The last step will be blade in hand.”
“The last step will be unnecessary,” Alaya smiled. “Irrelevance serves the essentially the same purpose as extermination, without the massive losses your method would entail. War to the knife is a messy affair, Maddie. Best the fade away instead: slowly, quietly, inexorably.”
“What you describe can’t be done,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch said, “without first seizing the Tower.”
“No,” Alaya of Satus softly agreed, “it cannot.”
The Black Knight sighed and reached for his cup, draining the last of the wine. Had he the choice, he’d prefer this conversation to continue for hours yet – there was still so much to say, to debate and plot. Yet what had been said here was already enough to see them both killed, if reported to the wrong ears. And if the Chancellor learned he was boon companion to a member of the Emperor’s seraglio, then the very kindest outcome would be the both of them leashed through that secret being held back. No, it was time to see to the loose ends. His hand came to rest on the pommel sword, and as librarians hid in the shadows they thought him blind to he set down the empty wine cup.
“You always end up having to get your hands bloody for the both of us, don’t you?” Alaya said, watching him with hooded eyes. “I think I might grow to despise that, one day.”
Black’s sword cleared the scabbard, and dimly he heard a few of the more cautious librarians begin to flee. As if that’d help.
“But not today,” he said.
“But not today,” she softly agreed.
He went out into the dark, sword in hand, and screams followed.