Seed II

“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.”

He shrugged.

“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.

44 thoughts on “Seed II

  1. V Kyrius

    So this gets to the origin of their plan to handle Praes over all I do think Malicia is right. For a lot of reasons but I want to note the fact that magic is genetic and Black’s plan would delete pretty much all the real talent with High Arcana Potential. Thereby wasting the knowledge of power that breeding has created in Praes Strongest force in superior mages. His plan works way better if magic wasn’t highly linked to genetics.

    Liked by 12 people

    1. Dainpdf

      Malicia’s thinking ended first with the Doom of Liesse and then with Praes having lost one of its most important cities and Amadeus having to negotiate with Cat so that it wouldn’t be sidelined into irrelevance. The flaw in her plan is it required her to play the game too long. The means became the end.

      Liked by 18 people

      1. stevenneiman

        No, the problem was that she tried to have it both ways, and then she tried to shove a bad idea through as fiat accompli against someone who would choose ruin over compromise. She tried to use a tactical weapon to achieve a diplomatic goal and then tried to use a diplomatic solution which wouldn’t work to patch the narrative problems with her tactical weapon.
        If she’d stuck to conventional means all she would have had to do was figure out a way to make the Grand Alliance fall apart, which would be as simple as stonewalling every Proceran front while turning every allied front into a meat grinder. The the perception would be that Procer was screwing around and leaving its coerced allies to pay the butcher’s bill. Eventually the House Insurgent’s offered fig leaf of declaring the Crusade godless would become attractive, and they would take it, ending the Crusade and threatening the integrity of any later Crusade.
        Then she could have gone back to the game she’d been slowly but reliably winning for four decades already, and which was only growing easier with the passage of time.

        Liked by 18 people

        1. NerfGlastigUaine

          Fair point, but the House Insurgent might not exist without Malicia treating with Keter. And honestly, Malicia was worried that a Crusade, any Crusade, would be too costly to win. The game would collapse if such a catastrophic element was allowed to enter.Turning a front into a meat grinder costs both sides after all. And I mean, look at what it’s done so far. Thalassina destroyed, Foramen sacked, High lords baying for blood. Even with Callow and Black Knight firmly on her side, it’s questionable she’d have survived much less won. It’s a big part of why she treated with Keter. I believe Malicia made a mistake with Liesse, but there was logic behind it.

          IMO the reason this Crusade is such a clusterfuck is b/c no one knew exactly what they were playing with. Shit went sideways b/c the pressure led to ever increasing serial escalation. Procer: Priest shenanigans, potential annexation. Callow: Lake dropping and sacrificial apotheosis Praes: Brings Keter into the war. Ashur: Summons fucking Gods.

          And yes, I ranked Ashur above Praes in that b/c holy fuck, they have massive balls and lunacy to bring even a sliver of the head honchos.

          Liked by 14 people

          1. Shveiran

            My reading is the House Insurgent was mainly a reaction to Procer’s priests declaring Catherine Arch-Heretic, so I’m not sure why you’d think they wouldn’t have split without the Keter deals.

            This is a personal speculation, granted, but I’d argue that if things didn’t quite go this much to hell for Malicia, they wouldn’t have at all.
            I mean, let’s say the Weapon of Doom never happened for a moment: that leaves Praes and Callow united to face the Crusade, without a split and connected lack of coordination between Catherine, Black and Malicia. The goblins don’t have quite as much of an opportunity, as the Empire is not much weaker and is not divided, nor they can count on an ally (“enemy fo my enemy” in Matrontongue) in Callow to divide Malicia’s attention.
            There was a lot arrayed against them, but they did adequately on their own… united, I’d say they would have had a fighting chance.

            But I agree on the escalation, though frankly it boggles the mind how the Crusader could think it wouldn’t happen.
            I mean, yeah, Keter and the Everdark? I can see why no one saw that coming.
            Praes has a history of mad rituals, demon summoning and lost relics being buried in the Tower’s underbelly, though. Considering Praes was not throwing those around, how could anyone think nothing crazy would happen if they came knocking?
            And they did know of Cat’s portals, so… they were banking of the wicked villains’ unwillingness to target civilian cities?
            I don’t know what they were thinking.
            All that “if good gets a win evil gets to swing back” is very metaphysical, so you can’t blame rulers for not taking that into account. “the enemy can summon demons and travel through the space-time continuum so they could actually destroy us without ever winning a battle”, though? Not so much, not so much.

            Liked by 6 people

            1. That dude

              Don’t forget what Procers motivation was.

              The doom of liesse was an excuse to start the grand alliance, not the reason.

              The first prince was worried about her power base.

              Not denying the whole of your argument, just don’t forget that Procer can be as political and as cut throat as the empire.

              There political systems are actually pretty damn similar.

              Liked by 4 people

            2. > My reading is the House Insurgent was mainly a reaction to Procer’s priests declaring Catherine Arch-Heretic, so I’m not sure why you’d think they wouldn’t have split without the Keter deals.

              Because the text stated that the House Insurgent started “when they found out what you [i.e. Catherine] went to Keter to do”. Callow was pissed the fuck off over the Arch-Heretic proclamation, but the House Insurgent per se started up when the (carefully slanted, but eh) story of Cat going to Keter to stop Malicia got put about. I don’t have the exact chapter, but it was when Cat was first linking back up with the Army of Callow – like, sometime around when she was meeting the Empress of Procer.

              > There was a lot arrayed against them, but they did adequately on their own… united, I’d say they would have had a fighting chance.

              That was Amadeus’ take tbf, so I won’t call it implausible even though he clearly has a deep personal investment in believing his Legions would be capable of the task he’s spent his life forging them for. But if I’m recalling the forces cited correctly, the Army of Callow and the Dread Legions combined would muster out at around/under 100,000 soldiers, and some of the Dread Legions would have to garrison the coastal cities against Ashur. And again, if I recall the forces cited correctly then the crusader army under the Iron Prince alone numbered over 100,000. And then there was the army of 40,000 plus that was invading through the Whitecaps. And all of that was just Procer – the 60,000 or whatever Levantines that Cat’s been dealing with inside Procer hadn’t shown up to the war yet. Oh, and the additional 40,000 Procerans that showed up to the party in Iserre hadn’t been raised yet either.

              So all together that’s what, 240,000 soldiers or more for the Grand Alliance without even counting the impact of Ashur’s fleet? I mean yeah, the Legions/AoC can be fairly said to have a qualitative advantage even with their deficit in cavalry. But there’s a reason that Stalin used the line “quantity has a quality all its own”, and there’s a reason that his side is the one that won. And that isn’t even taking into account that trained legionaries are time-consuming and expensive to produce, while peasant levies are cheap as fuck (and literally nobody expected Cat would be locking the crusaders out of cheap dwarven armaments to arm them with) and Procer’s overabundance of fantassins is actually a major part of Cordelia’s motivation for the Crusade – meaning she isn’t just willing to spend their lives in bulk, she’s practically eager to.

              And now, let’s also factor in that the crusaders had an edge in Named that amounted to what, about half an order of magnitude? 10+ against Catherine in the Battle of the Camps and IIRC another 10+ in the Red Flower Vales means the crusaders had at least 20 – Sabah was already dead at the start of the crusade (RIP our big furry murder bae), so the DE/AoC roster of combat Named would be Amadeus, Wekesa, Catherine, Masego, Archer, and Hakram for a total of six. So eh, less than half an order of magnitude but still a MAJOR edge, especially when you consider that heroes typically have a narrative edge to boot. Amadeus and Cat’s story-savvy would even that narrative part out some, but the heroes had Pilgrim and his story-fu is far from weak as well.

              I’m just saying, I don’t agree with Malicia here but I do feel like anyone who’s going “oh I don’t know why she was even so worried, it would have obviously been super feasible to just hold off the Crusade normally” is maybe not paying close enough attention to the specifics of the matter. Malicia effed up, but she wasn’t crazy or stupid to be rattled by what she was looking at – that’s the kind of fight that tends to ruin you as a nation even if you win, and you can see her (understandable) aversion to that kind of scenario right here in this chapter.

              Liked by 7 people

              1. Don’t forget that Procer and Levant would only be able to get to Callow or Praes by land, which basically meant pounding through the Red Flower Vales – an excellent defensive position that’s heavily fortified (and we saw how that went), or trying to do what Kairos did and go through the Waning Woods which is a terrible idea and both mundane leadership and most of the Heroes would balk at.
                Remember, all indications are that Cordelia successfully kept the Stairway a secret.

                A successful defensive stand against the combined forces of Levant and Procer would have been entirely feasible. It would arguably have been feasible to pull some of the Legions from the Vales, replacing them with the Army of Callow, and use those Legions to counter Ashuran coastal raiding.

                Also, Akua’s Folly/the Doom of Liesse was a major factor in Cordelia successfully pulling off the Grand Alliance and Crusade.

                As regards the House Insurgent … they split from the less aggressive members of the Callowan House of Light after Hakram and Viv got back to Callow after Keter. The Callowan House of Light had already more or less declared the Conclave that named Cat Arch-Heretic of the East heretical as of before the Everdark escapades. The Insurgents were the ones who wanted to go even further at that point, but were negotiated with into the compromise.

                As far as the quality vs. Quantity debate goes … given the qualitative differences, you’d need a lot more quantity to work with, and that’s without taking into account the advantages fighting from fixed defenses gives you – and that’s a major force multiplier in its own right.
                As for the differences in Named? Remember, too many Heroes in one place stresses their Narrative advantages and weakens them and their plot armor. Especially when the situation isn’t one that’s closely tied with their Story.

                Liked by 4 people

                1. I think the specific numbers are that goblin munitions and mages make the legions worth twice their number in any other soldiery, and that in practise you need a three-to-one force advantage(terribilis says two-to-one if your magical superiority is at the Praesi level of sufficiency) to have a serious chance of carrying one layer of defensive walls.
                  So with the Legions specializing in siege, and Catherine running resupply, launching sortie forces, and pulling defeated armies out of their defences with portals, I think they could have won.

                  Also this is relevant speculation to me, I’m considering writing a fan fiction where the both Liesse ends differently and the Tenth Crusade has more oopf in how far it gets before having to retarget.

                  Liked by 1 person

            3. >Considering Praes was not throwing those around, how could anyone think nothing crazy would happen if they came knocking?

              Exactly.

              From the outsiders’ point of view, if Praes has those things to swing around, they do. If they aren’t, then they don’t have them.

              This is very wrong. But I’m guessing it’s based on thick&solid historical precedent.

              Liked by 2 people

        2. Dainpdf

          Stonewalling an alliance that large is not that easily done. And, as you know, villains don’t win on the long term.

          In any case, that was my argument: that having been at the game in Ater for so long compromised her thinking.

          Liked by 4 people

    2. Fern

      The problem, as I see it, is that malicia betrayed her own ideals during the doom of liesse. She writes in her treatises that the empire can’t continue to act unrepentantly evil and expect to survive in any form, then she sacrifices a huge chunk of fallows population to gain a weapon of mass destruction. That’s where the disagreement between her and black came: he knows that it’s people and institutions that make a nation, and by sacrificing so many callowans she essentially endured that the empire would be completely unable to liase with callow (and, let’s be honest, every other realm that knows the particulars) unless she had a position of overwhelming strength. She pinned the entire success of her plans on the coup that attaining liessr would have been, and all her backup plans suck fat dick.

      Basically, she’s missing the forest for the trees.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. She has spent a long, long time tending to the trees, while the person looking after the forest kept insisting he was her subordinate and definitely was not a better ruler than she was.

        Her mistakes are her mistakes, but I have a hard time blaming her for being mistaken period =x

        Liked by 3 people

    3. therealgridlock

      The plan as set out by foreshadowing seems to indicate three problems: tower, army, high lords.

      To be able to fix/fight the high lords one must first reform the army to be state controlled and not lord controlled.

      To be able to do that, one must take the tower, fight a war, then reform the army.

      We know they’ve already done those things, so it is my estimation that the destruction of the high lords to a crusade is probably all according to keikaku.

      To fix the tower they need to make it some sort of unified power source that gives the office holder power, instead of the office holder giving power to the office.

      To do that, they have to fix the high lords. The problem is Alaya sees the high lords as necessary checks and balances to a “tyrannical” tower, but basically ignored that tyrants have still done whatever they want so they don’t really serve that purpose.

      She doesnt even really consider the establishment of a replacement body to limit the power of the tower, though she briefly brushes the topic while discussing how to destroy the high lords.

      So, take the tower, reform the army, make high lords irrelevant, then make the tower a government office.

      What do you want to bet that since 3/4 of those circular goals have been accomplished, that the raising of Cat to want to make balanced and working governments is literally the keikaku the whole time, and Black (and possibly Alaya but not Malicia) want to let her do everything she’s done just to reform the tower in the end.

      If so, it’s a brilliant strategy that took 20 years of gardening heroes until you got a Cat worth walking through walls.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cpt. Obvious

        I feel like we’re missing something about these Dread Emperors. The tower has stood for how long? Is it a thousand years or so? Well whatever the case it is old. Over time it’s rulers have been adding their own touches. It now sports magnificent stairs made from the tortured souls of defeated opponents. It has galleries of bound souls only intended to show off. It has a library filled with the most advanced and horrifying knowledge of magic, more than a few of the tomes so filled with madness they’re dangerous to even touch. Some past ruler even thought it would be a good idea to bind a Demon to use as a door.

        Think about that last one, and recall what we know about demons. From what I remember they are forces of Evil more than they are Evil entities. Devils are evil entities that can grow and learn while gaining in power. Demons are pure evil, you could call them elemental evil, and they do not grow or learn. They also infect anyone who they touch or even comes close to with their “element” of evil. As distance increases the taint takes longer to take. And demons are not supposed to be smart. Yet the one bound to the tower enjoys bantering with those who enters. That part scares me. None of the other Demons in the story ever spok as far as I can remember.

        And that’s just some of the horrors that we know makes up the tower.

        Now consider that Alyssa has spent the most part of the last forty years or more in this tower, what’s the odds that she haven’t been tainted by the madness concentrated in it. If I remember correctly Callowan had been under occupation for about forty years when the PGtE started. And before that alyssa and Black spent some years pacifying Praes and reforming the Legions. I might be off by a whole lot of years, but my point is that she’s spent more time at the seat of the tower than most if not all of her predecessors. And didn’t most of those tend to go mad if they didn’t start out that way?

        I think the tower itself is a trap. No matter what your intentions were when you first grabbed power it will over time corrupt you. Question is if it’s Malicia or Alyssa or both who has been corrupted.

        Like

  2. Alaya’s not entirely wrong in there being advantages to a slow approach to getting rid of the High Lords. The problem is that she appears to have lost track of the long term goal she and Amadeus seemed to share here in favor of sustaining net personal part against all others.

    Amadeus is right, though – Praes has structural flaws that need to be excised at any cost for the long term greater good of the Empire. And the regular people thereof.
    Pity, Amadeus didn’t get Mage Academies into being during the Reforms. Warlock didn’t want to teach, and Legion Mage training is narrowly focused.
    He’s getting a second chance at mage academies, though with Cat’s Liesse Accords and Cardinal. No wonder he’s so supportive – it takes his original idea and turns it up.

    Liked by 18 people

    1. His response to the Liesse Accords was just so beautiful. “Clearly this needs my idea specifically, all I need to do is goad Cat a little and she will come up with it independently” “…okay maybe it’s not as obvious as I think it was. FINE I’LL SPELL IT OUT”

      Liked by 7 people

    2. usernamesbco

      The slow approach to getting rid of the High Lords only works if they don’t see it coming. They’re fractious, but they’re not that dumb. Malicia has been playing politics with them for decades while she & Black elevated the bureaucracy, but they have not weakened the High Lords enough that they can’t undo all of the reforms with one regime change. She’s also been so busy putting out fires in her backyard that she’s had no time to make diplomatic connections outside the Empire, and internally the High Lords were already pressuring her to roll back the reforms. Her solution to that power imbalance was a super weapon under her control, which would be a diplomatic nightmare and a story disaster.

      Basically, outside of the very fragile reforms nothing got changed.

      “Duni, he was, his skin the pale shame of old defeats that Praes had deemed filth even in name”

      On a side note, this made me wonder so I looked it up and duni actually means “poor or inferior.”

      Like

  3. Jane

    What Alaya describes here sounds suspiciously similar to my own private theory (which I think I’ve seen others suggest as well in the past, of course) – that Alaya elected to use the Crusade to break the power of the High Seats, ally and foe alike. These “accidents” and “mistakes”, other than the death of her friend, seem to be falling much more heavily on her “allies” than on the Tower’s strength, and for all of the Crusades “victories”, they don’t actually seem to be affecting her powerbase much.

    Of course, weakening the High Seats that are friendly to her might sound like a cost at first, but… She did recently bring the High Seats that were opposed to her to heel, so it’s really just further consolidation, isn’t it? And once she makes up with her oldest friend, she’ll have the legions back in hand again to put down anyone who objects. Just like he’s wanted to do for ages, incidentally.

    Of course, this all presumes they survive the war, but what do you know… With the Dead King come out to play, doesn’t seeing him put down for good sound like a much tidier ending to the Story of this Crusade than conquering a Dread Empire that’s largely played second fiddle thus far?

    Oh, all of this could be completely off-base, of course, but… Based on the High Seats we’ve seen taken heavy losses thus far, there’s not going to be much Wasteland nobility of note left by the end of this, planned or not.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. RandomFan

      If you’re right, she’s playing a game somewhere between ‘very dangerous’ and ‘completely batshit’ . One that depends on losing/winning just right in a lot of places. Being the minor threat might mean you get left alive, or that you get to be a midboss. Not saying “I think you’re wrong” but “If you’re right I think she’s crazy”.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Jane

        It does sound like a preposterous gamble at first, but… At the same time, how much danger is she actually in? Let’s say the High Lords catastrophically lose every battle. That’s… Pretty much what’s happened so far, truthfully. This still leaves the Grand Alliance with no viable approaches to Ater and Callow unable to decisively respond to provocations; I don’t know what might hold the goblins back, granted, but they don’t seem the sort to press a war to its conclusion. This breaks the power of the aristocracy without creating an opening to any true threat – so long as logistics make a pure sea invasion impossible, and politics prevent Catherine from making peace with Procer (or, now, the Dead King).

        Let’s say they decisively win every battle, on the other hand. She’d look pretty passive, but it’s not like she openly sabotaged anyone (that we know of); her “allies” might be a bit put out, but I doubt it’d be enough for anyone to turn on her. Especially given the current balance of power. She wouldn’t get what she wants, but she doesn’t lose anything, and she doesn’t tip her hand.

        The only real gamble here is in whether or not the Crusade continues after the Dead King. But the more passive she remains, the less motivated members of the Grand Alliance are to spend more blood after facing the horrors of Keter – and if the Crusade continues, it’ll come down to breaking out their own ancient horrors anyways, of which the Tower has plenty. Plus, she can probably claim the vaults of the broken aristocracy if pressed.

        It’d have been crazy if she wanted a Crusade to happen, but once one has begun… It’s not a bad opportunity to take advantage of. “Let your enemies fight while you laugh”, as they say.

        Liked by 3 people

  4. IDKWhoitis

    Like a hundred voices screaming in the night, suddenly cutting out, this has some horrifying implications. Amadeus and Alaya have been playing their plot out to the bitter end. Malica has run out of time for her plan, she must have followed through with Amadeus’s original plot, and have started the path to a civil war in Praes. She didn’t know if Amadeus was going to survive his capture, and his mere absence may have destabilized her rein beyond what was recoverable. So given the failure of her old strategy of slowly making the High Born irrelevant, due to lack of time, she must have attempted to finish the job. Otherwise, all that progress, all those 40 years of madness, will have been for nothing. And Alaya, like Amadeus, didn’t seem to be a quitter or someone willing to let all her work come to naught.

    An implosion of Praes is probably on the horizon.Everyone else on Calernia is too busy to interfere significantly. Hell, there’s a 50/50 that Malica baited the Matrons into rebelling while Cat and Crusade were far away.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Shveiran

      I don’t know, man.

      I mean, your theory has a certain bite to it; we know Malicia is crazy good at this scheme and admittedly it is very suspicious she is doing so little while everything burns down around her.

      On the other end… destroying the high lord is a LONG TERM consolidation plan. Short term, what a purge does is reducing the number of resources / fighting-fit combatants in your country. She’d still need a way to deal with the Crusade, unless she’s planning to rely on the DK to kill them all while she hides in her Tower.
      That… doesn’t sound like a good end game, since it makes you basically a small, little neighboor next to the zombie nation.
      The alternative of course is that she was banking on the Liesse Accords instead, but if so… that was a long con that relied a lot on Cat becoming able to strongarm everyone. I don’t see Malicia betting it all on her with odds this bad unless she had SOME way to influence those odds.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. IDKWhoitis

        Magical Nukes (large scale rituals) and Salted Nukes (Demons) make the defense of Praes secured even in a weakened state. Triumphants stockpile was never destroyed, and that’s a lot of madness for the Dead King or anyone really to deal with. Praes has proven time and time again, if they ain’t winning, everyone is losing.

        Also, her purge is likely to impact the High Lords the most, with some but not massive Legion casualties. I think Dead King would have to chew through Callow first before even setting foot in Praes. And as such, any betrayal on part of the Dead King would be seen from months away. And with months of preparation, I think Praes could weather the storm.

        A few backroom deals with some of the Matrons will cause the Foramen rebellion to collapse from the inside (One Matron would absolutely backstab another, given sufficient compensation).

        Technically, Malica wouldn’t have to be the last one standing for her end game to win. All she has to do is savage all the High Lord seats so badly, That only one highlord remains unopposed. Because the moment Malica gets toppled in such a scenario, the next Dread Empress/or inherits a largely scorched but centralized Praes. The Reforms can be implemented again, and if Malica is the one moving the pieces before she dies, they probably will follow through. (Because let’s be honest, if Malica isn’t the one with the crown at the end, she is sure as shit going to Kingmake whoever survives.)

        Liked by 3 people

  5. superkeaton

    My, how interesting. In a perfect world, Alaya would have gotten her quiet purge. But the world is active, and no plan so careful survives outside of a vacuum. An impatient butcher might be a little bloodier than usual, but he still gets the meat, while the careful connoisseur will fail if they try to make the perfect meal while the kitchen is burning down around them.

    Liked by 8 people

  6. Dennis Donoghue

    Tipsy as they were, the Black Knight found that he (WAS) more disposed to poetic language as he might have been otherwise though Alaya hardly seemed to mind.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. mammon

    Anyone else get the slowly dawning realisation that invading Callow and making the next Squire a Callowan after careful grooming and waiting for a proper candidate, dropping the needle at the right time to allow Procer to start another Crusade, inviting the Dead King to play for seemingly nonsensical and Praes falling apart again reasons, and slowly gunning for an endgame that will see nigh all the nations of the continent involved and forced to join Amadeus’s plan for magical schools MIGHT’VE BEEN THE PLAN ALL ALONG?!?! That this (in endgame, not the events because the specifics cannot be predicted or controlled) was all talked out by a much younger Squire and concubine in some deep dank library?

    I’m just saying, we’ve never been told the colour of Traitorous’s eyes or the height of his stature, so we’ve got no way of determining that he’s not clad in all black waiting for that final reveal.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. At this point, Amadeus is the Black Knight.

      Also, Amadeus is not Traitorous. Alaya/Malicia, though …

      No, but seriously, when Traitorous offed himself and framed however many other people for his death, I’m quite certain that the High Lords of the time, and the Chancellor, and any other Named, plus the next Dread Emperor put a whole lot of time and effort into confirming and cross-checking that (a) it really was Traitorous, (b) that he was actually dead and going to stay that way, and (c) it wasn’t a trick to fool them all (again).

      Liked by 3 people

    2. It’s a little weird to me how a lot of people seem to see Alaya’s and Amadeus’s perspectives as open to speculation, when we have had both their POVs and seen them argue about this multiple times.

      Some things are ambiguous, but we know a lot about what was the plan and what wasn’t.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I think, in this chapter, that I’ve finally decided what went wrong between Malicia and Black. I could be wrong about this, this is just what this chapter makes me think.

    Black had a plan which, once embarked upon, could never be swerved from. There were only two endgames, winning or dying. One grace, victory; one sin, defeat.

    Malicia had a plan with a far more subtle way to lose. Her problem was that purging the High Seats through irrelevance is *hard*. More difficult than simply, say, ruling as the Dread Empress. When simply staying alive and in power (and they are one and the same once at the top of the Tower) is so difficult and requires so much energy … well, do you need to curb that High Seat’s ambition right now? Do you really actually *need* to? Couldn’t you give them what they want, gain their aid subverting this other present threat to your rule (to your life) this one time? Would it be *that* much of a setback?

    When you’re on the bottom at the whim of higher, crueler powers, changing the system is an imperative. A necessity, a drive, a burning fire you need to keep inside you to push you from day to day to day. But if you get to the top, and specifically if you get yourself to the top in such a way that your survival is dependent on how well you play the game, then changing the system stops being a drive. It becomes an exhausting task. It becomes hideously, terribly draining. And when you’re playing the Red Queen’s game, running as fast as you can just to stay in place because that’s how fast everyone else is moving … gods below, can you do it?

    Maybe this time you want to take the shortcut. Maybe this time, you tell yourself, your friend’s unyielding principles can be subverted. Maybe that superweapon will give you the breathing room you so desperately need. And you don’t really need to tell him. He’s always been a man of black and white, no shades of gray. He doesn’t understand the world between victory and defeat, where simply maintaining power is victory enough if it lets you cut away at the High Seats tomorrow. Or maybe the day after.

    Once you have the weapon.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Jane

      Though, there’s a flipside to this interpretation; if your only options are winning or dying, and you die, then you’ve accomplished nothing – worse, you become a cautionary tale for the future, in what can happen if someone from outside the High Seats comes to power.

      If you take a gradual path, though, then you’ve still made progress if you get bogged down or replaced – the next Dread Emperor isn’t going to undo the Reforms once they’re the ones benefitting from them, every scrap of power you properly strip from the aristocracy remains stripped, and there’s no more Chancellor sabotaging the Empire at every turn. Even if this Dread Empress doesn’t succeed in centralizing power enough for Praes to stop eating it’s own tail, they’ve come closer to the day were the next competent Emperor can.

      A single state for victory and defeat works out well if you win, but if you’re not certain in that victory, having different shades of victory gives you more room to work with, even if it’s not as thorough as it could be.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Mm. Good analysis on both of your parts.

        They are both smart people. If one of them was obviously wrong and the other obviously right, this wouldn’t have grown into the problem that it had 🙂

        Liked by 4 people

      2. Oh yeah, that’s definitely what Malicia would argue and she’d have a point.

        I’m not saying Black is right, just that I finally see how their differences in points of view brought them so far apart and why Black to some extent seems to have given up on Malicia as his ally in reform.

        (Provided she’s not about to Red Wedding the High Seats.)

        Liked by 3 people

  9. I’ve done it… I’ve caught up!
    This is my first read through of PGtE, and this is the latest chapter available! I feel like I’ve come so far and this is an achievement.

    Now I’m no stranger to massive, ongoing web fictions (I mean, I was into Homestuck in its heyday), but at least this one has an update schedule lmao. Can’t wait for the next chapter!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Andrew Mitchell

      Welcome to the club, that’s a LOT of reading so well done for getting up to date. EE has an incredibly solid record of delivering three chapter each week plus an extra chapter with the first update of each month. If you haven’t noticed the extra chapters, look for the link in the sidebar.

      I find the discussion in the comments of each chapter adds enormously to my appreciation of the text. And discussion is always positive and thoughtful. I hope we see your thoughts here as we close out this book and throughout the next.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Am I the only one, or does Black never clearly stated, exactly what system of goverment he envisions for Praes? Landholds and what I can only asssume are either vicedutchies/viceroyals or appointed governors is clear, but who is on top? Is it still Emperor? How are they chosen then? What limits their power? Is it a constitutional monarchy? He never made it clear, what exactly he envisions as the end results. He kinda just wants “whatever isn’t current Praes” but that is NOT a good objective at all. Like, Bellerophon is a valid alternative in that case. Not that it is a bad thing, a Peerless Jewel Of Freedom is a dream goal of any country, or indeed, even Gods themselves, why else they became the citizens if not to learn from their betters, but it is a glaring hole in his reasoning and it rubs me the wrong way bacause Black is NOT a person with holes in his reasoning.

    Liked by 1 person

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