“The cruelty of a dilemma is not only in the choice itself; it lies also in the truth it reveals to you about yourself through the making of that choice.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand
Akua Sahelian and Masego the Hierophant were, undeniably, two of the finest mages ever produced by the Wasteland. One had been taught the old sorceries of Wolof since she could remember and taken to them with dreadful skill, the other had been apprenticed since he could speak to a warlock who’d dissected the corpses of gods. Their deeds were many and renowned, and their reputations were such as to make men shiver in the dark of night. They’d also used a godsdamned bathtub as the vessel of water for their scrying ritual. I’d excuse Masego in this, since he was usually more concerned with practicalities than appearance, but Akua would earn no such mercy from me. The same woman who’d campaigned with multiple enchanted ceremonial armours was now trying to pretend it’d never occurred to him there might be some slight indignity to this, an innocent look on her face. Yeah, I wasn’t buying that. I spared some of my glare for Hakram, the filthy traitor who must have been willingly complicit in this, and at least he had the good grace to look abashed.
I didn’t have nearly as much time to spend on designing petty vengeances as I used to, but they weren’t getting away with this unpunished. And I wasn’t above delegating my pettiness these days, anyway. A council consisting of Robber, Indrani and Vivienne ought to be capable of coming up with a suitably vindictive reprisal.
I limped up to the side of the copper bathtub, discretely surrounded by carved and inscribed wardstones stabilizing it against the strenuous effects of long-distance scrying, and the faint amusement I’d felt at the absurdity of having to speak with my officers through a bathing implement died. On the surface of the waters I saw Juniper, and what I read there was not promising. She looked exhausted, the thick skin around her eyes touched with muted grey, and beyond that she looked angry. The kind of low festering anger that stayed in your belly, kept simmering there by your own impotence to do anything about its cause.
“Juniper,” I said. “I’d say it’s a pleasure to see you, but it seems that would be premature. Report, Marshal.”
“Warlord,” she gravely replied, dipping her head to the side.
It bared her neck, if only slightly, which implied much greater deference by orc standards than inclining your head in agreement. I’d noticed Juniper tended to fall back into orc mannerisms when she was unsettled, abandoning the more human affectations that she’d picked up in the War College. That was not a promising sign, not that any part of this had been hinting at my night getting any better.
“Time is difficult to gauge accurately in the Twilight Ways,” she began, “but around what we believe to be fifteen hours ago the Legions-in-Exile under Marshal Grem abandoned the march towards Arans and changed direction.”
Fifteen hours, I considered with a frown. Aligning the timelines, and allowing for a degree of imprecision, that around the time the conference’s first formal session had been held. Hakram stirred, having approached my side without my realizing. Consciously, anyway. It wasn’t like he’d been silent, more that his presence at my side hardly warranted particular notice. I glanced at him and nodded, tacitly allowing him to ask the question he wanted to.
“And was reason given for that decision, or even the destination itself?” Adjutant asked.
“That is complicated to answer,” she admitted. “Both the Army and the Legions were breaking camp, when it happened, and it was not immediately clear what was happening. The messengers I sent were given the answer that this changed march was at the order of the Carrion Lord, which I did not believe.”
My eyes narrowed. All other things aside, Black shouldn’t have a way to contact his people while they were out in the Ways: I’d not put Akua and Masego on the ritual so they could reminisce together about the bad old days. Here in Salia he shouldn’t have the calibre of mages to accomplish something like that, much less without the Observatory to use. Which meant he would have had to give secret orders before coming with me to Salia, which was… dubious. I wasn’t going to blindly trust the man, even if I loved him, but it would be ludicrous for him to turn on me at this juncture. The moment I ceased extending my protection to him the Procerans would slip a noose around his neck, if they were feeling kind, and while maybe I could see him taking calculated risks if he were still partnered with Malicia he’d just burned that bridge in front of the rulers of most the continent. No, Juniper had been right to be skeptical.
“I sough to speak personally with Marshal Grem,” Juniper gravelled, “but was turned away. The rank and file of the exiles were taken by surprise, my queen, but not worried. Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara approached officers she worked closely with during the campaigns and learned that the Legions were returning to Praes.”
Fuck, I thought. That wouldn’t be a secret order from Black, he had to know that his soldiers were exhausted and undersupplied. Beginning a campaign to take Praes before rest and refit would be madness, the Legions-in-Exile had been out in enemy territory for almost a year now.
“Someone got to One-Eye,” I said. “Either he’s dead and being impersonated, or someone has hooks in him.”
“Marshal Grem has a great deal of prestige among the troops,” Hakram quietly said, “but not so much that such a decision would be uncontested. Marshal Ranker might be dead, but there are still Conquest generals. General Mok for the Fifth and Yawa Foehammer for the Twelfth.”
Both were decorated veterans of the invasion of Callow, from what I knew, though General Yawa had been a lesser officer then – she’d been raised to general after Afolabi Magoro died at the Doom and rebuilt the Twelfth from the wreckage of that legions. Neither were anywhere as famous or beloved as the One-Eye, but among their own soldiers their word would carry a lot of weight. If both accused the Marshal of being compromised, people would listen. Juniper grunted in agreement.
“That was my thought as well, and so I pushed again for a face-to-face meeting,” the orc said. “Which is when it was made clear to me that the entire upper echelon of the exiles knew of this order.”
My brow rose.
“All of them?” Hakram slowly said.
“Marshal Grem, all generals and most the legates,” Juniper said. “There was no arguing with that, my queen. The only way I could feasibly prevent them from leaving was putting the top officers of the exiles under arrest.”
“That would have led to a pitched battle,” I grimly said.
While bonds were tight between Black’s army and mine, given the common wars fought and the common descendance from the Reforms and the College, the Legions-in-Exile were not mine. They’d not sworn to me, nor ever intended to. My marshal ordering their highest commanders all imprisoned would have been seen as an attempt to bring them into the fold by force, which would have gone… poorly, to say the least. The Army of Callow would probably have won that fight, between superior numbers and whatever was affecting the Legion officers, but it would have been a bloody business all around and there was no guarantee my barebones mage lines would have been able to fix whatever had been done to the generals afterwards. Juniper wouldn’t have had much of a choice, when it came down to it.
“It was the right call to let them leave,” I said.
“Thank you,” Juniper said, dipping her head forward.
Been worried about my reaction to that, then. Fair enough.
“Hellhounds, remind me,” Adjutant said. “General Birne, Ranker’s replacement. He’s got a golden stripe, doesn’t he?”
The honour granted those who’d fought with distinction at the Fields of Streges, as I recalled.
“And a silver cord from the Siege of Summerholm,” Juniper said, tone approving. “You caught on quick. It wasn’t me that noticed, Deadhand. General Bagram’s got a stripe too, and they’re old friends.”
My eyes flicked between the two of them questioningly, for clearly I’d missed something along the way.
“The golden stripes are considered the highest of the personal honours granted during the Conquest,” Hakram said. “Because only forty-three were granted, and-“
“All by Dread Empress Malicia’s own hand,” Akua finished from behind us.
I glanced at her, and the implication sunk in. She’d once told me that her family considered any spy left alone with the Empress to be compromised. Yet Malicia had outmanoeuvred High Lady Tasia Sahelian, in the end, destroyed her completely. Even that stark a warning might have been underestimating what the Empress was capable of.
“Marshal Grem is certain to have spoken with the Empress in person at least once,” I said. “And I imagine the same would hold true for any general and quite a few of the high-ranking officers that participated in the Conquest.”
And whatever it was she’d done, it was possible for it to affect every single one of those individuals. Shit. That was a fucking disaster. There was no such thing as flawless mind control, especially not from a distance, but even simple planted orders could do a lot of damage. Especially if they were sown generously across the entire old guard of the Legions, which tended to be both the finest commanders we had and my father’s most ardent supporters. I’d believe it too, if I was a legionary and the One-Eye told me his orders came from Black, I thought. After all those years of friendship and loyalty, why doubt it?
“Within an hour of realizing this, I removed the army from the Twilight Ways,” Juniper said. “And ordered every officer who has ever set foot in the Tower or been in the presence of the Empress to be placed under arrest.”
And Gods, both of those decisions had been the right call once more but looking at the scope of the mess I felt like smashing the fucking bathtub in front of me. Not all our College-taught officers would fall under those conditions, but most our Praesi highborn and distinguished veterans would. Which meant all my best and seasoned commanders. We wouldn’t be without officers, since so much of the army was Callowan now, but essentially all the veteran officers we’d taken from the legions cannibalized after the Folly and kicked up the ranks would have to be removed from the chain of command. Without knowing exactly what it was the Empress had done, how it worked and what it could do, we just couldn’t take the risk of leaving them in place. Including Juniper herself, for all that she was still the one giving me a report. Everything she’d just told me would have to be confirmed second-hand by someone not in doubt, for a start, and it’d be a mess to manage that considering most of her general staff was likely to be on the compromised list as well.
Dread Empress Malicia had not so much as swung as sword and she’d effectively crippled the Army of Callow. That, more than anything else, told me I was not wrong to believe this to be her work. How many people alive would be capable of a blow that vicious?
“Who’s in command, at the moment?” I asked.
“Grandmaster Talbot has legate-equivalent rank and technical seniority,” Juniper said. “Yet most Praesi soldiery balks at his command. Legate Tendai is the other candidate, but while she has years under her belt as a frontline officer she is fresh to higher command. For now the two are keeping the peace in accord but tensions are rising.”
Thank the Gods for the Reforms, I feelingly thought. How many other armies on the continent would be able to weather so much of the upper ranks being put under arrest this well? That measures meant to prevent decapitation of leadership by heroes were working almost as well against a villain’s work was a nice touch of irony.
“Has there been any sign of enthrallment in any of our people?” I asked.
“None that I know of,” Juniper said. “Though I am no longer being kept informed, my queen.”
“There won’t be,” Akua said.
I turned to face her, sharply gesturing for elaboration.
“Unlike with the Legions-in-Exile, the Empress cannot suborn the Army of Callow outright,” the shade elaborated. “Which means the greatest gain she can derive of any enthrallment sown in your ranks is delay, keeping your soldiers out of action for as long as she can.”
“Making a third of my officer corps commit suicide would achieve that,” I pointed out.
“It would cripple your army, it is true, but also flush out her hidden hands,” Akua said, shaking her head. “Better to leave the ship infested, and you aware of that. Then either you must send valuable assets to investigate the trouble or go yourself. Either way, a great deal of your might is tied down for weeks. Possibly even months. And should it look like you have a solution, well, it is not too late then to order the killings you described.”
My lips thinned. Yeah, that sounded about right. Either I went myself with Sve Noc at my back, which given the distance and what needed to be done in Salia still would complicate everything, or I sent both Akua and Masego together to be safe – which lost me a great deal of knowledge and power at hand I might need for other tasks. And the moment it looked like I might turn things around, I had no doubt that just like Akua had said the Empress would twist the knife once more. If not earlier, the moment she learned through her spies that whoever went had entered the Twilight Ways. Fuck.
“Thank you for your report, Marshal,” I crisply said, then grimaced. “You acted correctly in every regard, Juniper. This isn’t on you, we were just had by the Empress. We’ll dig our way back to daylight.”
“We always do, Catherine,” the Hellhound said, but she sounded so very tired.
I gestured for Masego to end the ritual, not willing to look at her in this state any longer, then breathed out as Juniper’s image on the water vanished.
“Akua,” I said. “How high are the odds that the Empress can just snap her fingers and have them all commit suicide?”
“I am not certain,” she admitted. “This is not mere sorcery, dearest. A Name is involved, and so there are deeper considerations. In principle, such mastery of others can either be fine or numerous – as it is with Speaking, where one may have an entire crowd kneel once or enchant an individual intricately.”
“Even at the peak of my Name, I wouldn’t have been able to order that many people to kill themselves,” I said. “Maybe two, three at most? For simpler stuff fear and thunder carries it through, but…”
“If we could Speak entire hosts to death, what need would we have of hosts at all?” Akua smiled. “Yes. In truth you were only the Squire, while Malicia is Dread Empress and a great one besides, but I took doubt that even should this be borne of an aspect she could so easily take lives. Especially if the commands were seeded. Having such a decree lying in one’s mind for years would lead to severe disorders of the mind, besides.”
“Unless that mind is prepared for that particular purpose, and accordingly conditioned with enchantments and alchemy,” Masego cut in. “As the Sentinels are said to be.”
Akua conceded with a nod.
“Without a story at her back, I do not believe it is within the power of the Empress to order deaths,” she said. “Though lesser beguilements would be well within her grasp, and in their own way just as dangerous. I am greatly surprised by the skill displayed in the manipulation of the commanders of the Legions-in-Exile, I confess.”
“I’m not,” Vivienne said. “Not considering what you said about stories. It was around fifteen hours ago this all started, the Hellhound said. Give or take a bit, that’s when the Carrion Lord declared rebellion against the Tower.”
I closed my eyes and let out a soft curse.
“And that makes an empress calling her subjects to heel,” I said. “Considering most who climb the Tower have an aspect related to authority, she would have had the wind at her back when she pulled that trigger.”
“It would be more complex a matter when it comes to those among the Army of Callow,” Akua noted. “Though some of them were once sworn to her, they are now sworn to you instead.”
“Creation likes clarity,” I agreed. “But that’ll serve to weaken, not protect or prevent.”
Neither of which I was all that sure I could do, when it came down to it. Distance was the element of dismay here, the more I thought about it. Those under my charge that needed help were far, and there was no guarantee that by the time they were reached they would still be in a state to be helped. Possibly I could leave behind someone under an illusion to impersonate me and hope that Malicia didn’t catch on, but given the way it’d be impossible to keep that deception going for too long it’d be rolling the dice to try that. Assuming them Empress didn’t catch on immediately, which give how deeply the Eyes had apparently infiltrated Salia I could hardly be sure of. Sending Masego and Akua would hardly be any subtler, even if I made an effort to suppress knowledge of it, and at the end of the day I had to admit that whatever my decision was there was nothing I could do. Save perhaps doing nothing, which I expected was exactly what the Empress would prefer of me: days passing in indecision, paralyzed by the risks in committing to anything.
For the first time since I’d returned from the Everdark I’d been caught entirely flatfooted, and the impotent anger I’d earlier glimpsed in Juniper was finding a mirror in me. I’d forgotten how much I hated this. How much I hated her. There were reasons to kill the Empress that were personal to me, like the death of people I had cared for, and practical ones as well. And then there was this, the ugly sinking feeling in my stomach and how much I despised that she could do that to me. Still even now, after all I had learned and wrought. Because she was patient and cold-blooded and everything I was not. Gods, the Dead King could still scare me in a way few things could but the only foe who had ever made feel like an arrogant child was the Dread Empress of Praes. The woman atop the tower who had, again and again, made me bleed without my ever landing a blow on her in return.
“Fuck,” I cursed. “All right. I’ll see if I can find a way out of this mess. Meanwhile, Hakram, speak with Talbot and this Legate Tendai. I want Juniper’s report confirmed point by point, and word of everything that’s happened since.”
“As you say,” Adjutant replied. “The Army will still need a commanding officer, Catherine. The Hellhound made it clear the current situation is untenable.”
I’d be able to take care of it, if I went, but if I wasn’t sure I could afford to leave Vivienne here to finish the negotiations without me. She had the judgement to see it through, sure, but cleverness was not what had brought the opposition to the table. They’d taken a seat because they were desperate and scared of me, and though the former still held they simply would not be afraid of Vivs the way they were of me. Which would mean squabbles I wouldn’t have to deal with, heroes not being as leery of meddling and a hundred other little messes we could ill-afford. On the other hand, if it was not I who went then there was only one high-ranking officer who could fill the shoes.
“It will have to be General Abigail,” I said. “At least until the hooks can be dug out of our people’s heads. I’ll speak to her myself. Vivienne, I need you to prepare an escort for her when she’s sent out. At least two full cohorts. I’ll need to consult with-”
Black, I realized in this moment still likely knew nothing of this. Shit. I was not looking forward to that conversation at all.
“- with Black,” I grimaced. “And soon. Akua, Zeze, can the scrying ritual be done again without the both of you?”
“It can be done by our mage lines, Catherine,” Masego reminded me. “They are on Creation again, all this ritual commotion was unnecessary.”
“Right,” I said, mildly embarrassed at having forgot. “Good, then I have jobs for you. Hierophant, I need options to purge the mind of my officers from the Empress’ influence.”
He opened his mouth, but I raised a hand to interrupt.
“I have a dozen things I need to be doing right now, and I’d not remember all the details if you simply told me anyway,” I said. “Write it down for me, Zeze. Prepare all you can, so I can put it to council when everyone is there.”
“I suppose I have nothing more pressing at the moment,” he said.
“Thanks,” I honestly replied. “I appreciate it.”
“And I, my heart?” Akua smiled.
“You’re with me,” I said. “Black will get snippy about you being there, but when it comes to Praesi politics you’re my expert. We’ll head there now, I don’t doubt that with the agitation in our camp Scribe already woke him up.”
I clapped Hakram’s shoulder, nodded at Masego and managed to take exactly one step towards the door before it was thrown open.
“There you are,” Archer said, face serious. “We have a situation, Cat. Chunks of the League’s people are moving.”
“Moving where?” I frowned.
“By the looks of it? Here,” she flatly said.
It was a good thing I knew my way around more than a few languages, these days, because loudly cursing in only one would not have been nearly enough.