“And on the first day of the year four hundred and ninety-three after the Declaration did a stranger slay High Lord Baraka Sahelian in the streets of Wolof, and she did not flee. Instead she challenged the Sahelians in such a manner: ‘Come now, you who believe you might triumph over me, that I might teach you the error of your ways.’”
– Extract from the Scroll of Dominion, twenty-fourth of the Secret Histories of Praes
Inch by painful inch, Malicia had dragged the Dread Empire of Praes out of the pit and herself along with it.
She allowed herself to feel a sliver of pride over that, though only for a passing moment. To grow conceited over victories would signal the beginning of a swift descent. Yet victories she had won, slowly and carefully laying the foundation for them until they could be brought to bear against her enemies. The throne that had been crumbling under her had been forged anew by the fresh blood she’d spilled abroad: watching the Imperial Court through the enchanted wall that said to be the work of Dread Emperor Sorcerous himself, Malicia read the lips of the highborn gathered before her. Rumours had swelled of the developments in Salia and the Free Cities. The sudden reverses against the Grand Alliance only echoed more loudly for the way it had before seemed on the rise to pre-eminence, restoring the prestige eroded by Ashuran depredations and the losses in Thalassina and Foramen. Malicia did not rejoice of this, for she knew every speck of that clout would be needed for what was yet to come. Though in dark days the High Seats and lesser nobles were more easily convinced of great changes, there were many who would balk at the mere setting of a precedent.
The crop before her, however, looked ripe for harvest. High Lady Abreha Mirembe’s absence, for Alaya had refused to relieve her from her duties as Governess of the Blessed Isle, had naturally prompted protest from Aksum and the Mirembe. In attempt to make her influence keenly felt Abreha had ordered the lords and ladies sworn to Askum to refrain from attending court until she was summoned back to Ater, but to Malicia’s eye this had backfired. Lord Kosu’s lion-like mane of hair could be picked out from the crowd, as could Lady Sesay’s famous enchanted dress of pure gold. Those two ranked among the most powerful vassals to Aksum, and another half dozen lesser nobility sworn to Abreha had ignored her edict and attended regardless. None whose holdings were close to the city of Aksum, for Abreha Mirembe’s wrath would run hot at the defiance, but enough that the High Lady of Aksum’s position was revealed for the worsening drought that it was. A year ago, Abreha had been but a few manoeuvres of having herself proclaimed Chancellor regardless of Malicia’s opinion of the matter. Now the vultures were beginning to circle her, her defeats at the hands of General Sacker when she’d attempted to intervene in Callow having soured her position.
In the wake of the recall of the inaptly named Legions-in-Exile, the highborn of Praes had come to believe the entire affair a long-reaching scheme of hers and General Sacker one of her agents in humbling High Lady Abreha. Perhaps if Sacker’s soldiers had not so neatly slaughtered the Askum forward parties and driven the refugees back to the Blessed Isle – where they must now be fed at the expense of Abreha – her influence could have been salvaged, but the defeats had been both swift and utter. The Governess of the Blessed Isle was then left with the dilemma of either pursuing a punitive campaign into Callow and risking starting a war with Laure or admitting herself to have been almost contemptuously swatted down. Abreha had attempted to sidestep the issue by accusing General Sacker of treason, which the goblin general had answered in kind, which had been trouble at the time. Amadeus was a rebel in all but name and conceding to the shadow of his influence would have been a grave mistake. By stretching out giving answer, however, Malicia had been able to feign control of the situation and leave the High Lady of Aksum’s support to wither on the vine.
With the currents within Praes mastered, it had been time turn her full efforts outwards. The League of Free Cities had been the easiest grounds to make gains in, and so where she had first concentrated her efforts. It had swiftly become clear that Penthes could be bought, courtesy of Amadeus sowing crippling chaos across the nobility during his last visit and Kairos Theodosian then pouring oil on the fire. Reaching an accord with the Tyrant of Helike had proved necessary, for through the Hierarch he wielded great influence over the rest of the League. They’d agreed on the Exarch-claimants that should be spared, and in binding them irremediably through participation in a darker scheme: the deployment of Still Water against the fleets of Nicae. From there, it was only a matter of ensuring that her position in the Free Cities was strong enough Kairos Theodosia’s coming treachery could inflict only minor damage. The Magisterium was approached and promised protection from invasion until it had finished its cycle of replenishment for the Spears of Stygia. The deal had to be further sweetened with magical tomes, but in principle Malicia had no objection to an empowered Magisterium tying down the resources of neighbouring city-states.
Antagonizing Atalante had been as simple as inciting the Tyrant and other greats of the League to constantly and publicly slight some of their most beloved preachers, culminating in their delegation being forced to carry a nailed manuscript of the Book of All Things as a formal member during the conference in Salia. The utter humiliation and the rest of the League’s acquiescence to it had made them walk away from the situation the moment they were no longer bound by law to be involved. The Secretariat’s longs-standing tendency to state neutrality when its interests were not being threatened – as well as the dire state of its coffers after maintaining so many mercenaries in its service for so long – meant that so long as they were not provoked they could be counted on to be neutral as well. All that was required then to utterly isolate the Tyrant of Helike had been to sever or turn Nicae from the rest, which Theodosian might have assumed to be difficult given their shared treachery against the city and its young Basileus. And it had been a thorny problem for Malicia, she’d admit, at least until Catherine had returned to the surface and begun reminding the rest of Calernia of the looming threat she represented.
It’d only been a question of aiming at Basileus Leo Trakas in particular, from there, and he was not all that complicated a man.
The deceased Strategos whose authority he’d usurped had been a close ally of Cordelia Hasenbach, and now so was Catherine Foundling. A foundation for mistrust. She’d also had dealings with the Tyrant, at the best of times his enemy as well as his ally, and made the leading heroic lights of the Grand Alliance defer to her will several times. Best of all she had the soul of Akua Sahelian, the sole known user of Still Water, bound to her service. It’d not been all that difficult to tip wariness into fear and then fear into the making of mistakes. Not that her victory there had been as complete as it could have been, Malicia silently conceded. Kairos Theodosian had risen from the grave to spit on her plans one last time, a poisonous snake even in death. The Eyes had confirmed that one of his two foremost generals had sworn herself to the war against Keter while the other, General Basilia, had openly declared war on Penthes. A weakened Helike might be able to maul the even more desolate Nicae, should it support Penthes, but it would not find Penthes itself so easy a prey. The distance between the city-states was significant and marching there would involve making pacts with the states between them, which Malicia fully intended to sabotage.
Still, where the League of Cities might have informally been an ally to the Dread Empire instead it was likely to spiral into another civil war that tied it down for the foreseeable future. In the longer lay of things, the Empress would see what might be arranged. If the war went badly for General Basilia and her Helikeans, the Magisterium might yet be convinced to step in for easy spoils. And if it went well? Then the Magisterium it might yet be convinced to step in lest victory allow Helike to resume pre-eminence among the League. The Tyrant might have allowed his people to reach tall heights while he lived but in his death he had left them stranded and surrounded by potential enemies. There would be some pleasure in teaching Helike the consequences of its actions, Malicia would confess. Kairos Theodosian had been an atrocious little prick, convinced he was amusing and that his sneering smugness was somehow endearing. It’d been draining to deal with him even when he was genuinely trying to cooperate with her, and passing the duties to Ime had not been possible: the moment the little shit had sniffed out how abhorrent she found him, he’d insisted their bargaining be done only between rulers.
Steps coming from the deeper reach of the hidden corridor the Empress still stood in, studying her court as she awaited the proper time to enter, shook her out of her thoughts. Ime’s pace was brisk, befitting urgent news. Malicia did not turn, eyes on the overly lingering courtesies Lady Nazar and the younger brother of Lord Salee – affair or scheme? The Salee and Nazar lands bordered one another, lending potential weight to either. It would not be the first time Lady Nazar allowed a foe’s younger sibling into her bed as well as her plans.
“Speak,” Malicia said, eyes moving to catch yet another of the thousand little details that might allow her to keep the court under her thumb.
“Duchess Kegan had our envoys drawn and quartered,” Ime said. “In front of cheering crowds.”
Unpleasant, but not unexpected. The Deoraithe were not an expansionist people by nature and with Kegan’s appointment to Governess-General of Callow they’d begun accruing honours in the kingdom as the duchess appointed kin and allies to offices. Competent ones, sadly, which only added to the faction’s influence. It meant that the Black Queen’s promise to the Deoraithe of independence-in-all-but-name along with a tight military alliance was a very difficult bribe to better.
“The Legions?” Malicia asked.
“The Okoro mages cadres were made welcome by Marshal Nim, and construction of the ritual grounds is progressing at a steady pace,” Ime replied.
Good, the Empress thought. When the time came and signal was sent by the Exile Legions mages, the ritual could be initiated and the armies forced back into Creation from these ‘Twilight Ways’. Returnign exactly at the centre of fortified killing ground, manned by her more loyal armies. High officers of dubious loyalty would be taken hostage and kept at the Tower, the unsalvageable purged and more trustworthy men forced in place. Heavy-handed but necessary. The Legions of Terror needed to be unshakeably hers before Amadeus returned. It meant more blunt action than she would have preferred employing, but in these times such bluntness could serve as a reminder of her strength as well.
“And?” Malicia asked.
There would be more. Neither of those reports had been time sensitive.
“Lord Amadeus has gone missing,” Ime hesitantly said. “Neither our people in Salia nor in the Army of Callow know where he is. We believe Queen Catherine herself is unaware.”
“You are certain?” she said.
“It is like he vanished into thin air,” Ime said.
He was not dead, Alaya decided. She would have… felt it, somehow. She would have. And though the Empress had been harsh in demonstrating to him the futility of defying her, it was no more than he had earned. He’d know that, understand how measured the answer had been considering the gravity of his mistakes. Had she not held her hand until he claimed a right to her very throne? Even allowing for what had no doubt been poisonous whispers by Scribe – who, it was now clear, after decades was finally done pretending to be anything but an enemy – there was no light under which those actions could be seen that was anything but a betrayal. It was, Malicia knew, better this way. Now there was no longer anything let wondered and unspoken, no question of what would happen if he turned against her. He had, and he had lost. Swiftly, utterly, without ever landing a blow in return. And with that question finally laid to rest, they could forge a fresh understanding of who and what they were. Amadeus would not have taken his own life over such a thing, for sober admissions of his blunders were at the heart of who he was. He was still alive, which meant he was coming home. One way or another.
“It is likely he went into the Twilight Ways,” the Empress said.
“Agreed,” Ime said, standing by her side. “And though I know it displeases you to even consider this, Your Dread Majesty-”
“He could be returning as a foe,” Malicia said. “I am aware.”
Amadeus yet commanded loyalty with much of the Legions and had many sympathizers among the Empire’s bureaucracy. Scribe had seen to that. Some of the High Seats might be using to use him as a stalking horse for their own bid for the Tower, too, High Lady Abreha most of all. There might even be some lesser nobles that would genuinely rally to his banner, should he raise it. Though despised by most highborn, his tenure as her Black Knight had also seen him become widely feared. For some that meant respect, especially with families who had martial inclinations by tradition. His Duni birth meant most would not even consider him a possible claimant, true, but there would be some with greater interest in deeds than skin. More worrying were his ties to the Clans and the currently rebelling Tribes, though Malicia had already begun to check those potential threats with measures of her own.
“I would win,” the Dread Empress of Praes said.
“You would,” Ime agreed. “And so I caution you of assassination.”
Malicia glanced at her spymistress, almost amused.
“You believe he’d run me through in open court?” she asked.
“At this point?” Ime said. “Yes. Or, at least, I’m unsure enough of the answer I have to consider the possibility.”
“Without his Name, I could have him frozen with a word,” Malicia noted.
“That is no reason to expose yourself unduly,” Ime said.
“I do not intend to,” Malicia flatly said. “I am not a debutante thankfully accepting an ally’s antidote, Ime. Regardless of his reasons he has failed and betrayed me. It will be years before I can even begin to trust him as I once did.”
“But I will not rob myself of what could be restored out of petty fear,” Alaya said. “He will have a place in my court, should he return.”
What was there left to fear, after all? In Praes, her vise was tightening around all who might yet oppose her. In the Free Cities, she stood queenmaker and holder of strings as the crows gathered above. In the far west she had sown chaos and confusion, stranded for months the Army of Callow, and last of all she stood the sole ally of Keter on Calernia. The Dead King needed her, lest the entire continent band against him as the sole crucible of darkness. Lest every hero turn north, the sum of every Hell and Heaven march against him. Malicia would betray him, in the end. That much had never been in doubt. She would betray him the moment the armies of the Grand Alliance were savaged beyond ability to harm her, and in the uneasy peace that followed the Dread Empire of Praes would stand without peer. Hers to mold into what it should be, as she reigned untouchable from atop the Tower.
The storm had come for Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, and she had beaten it. She had survived the crucible thrust upon her by Below, and now she would claim her dues from Creation.
“It is time,” the Empress said, eyes on the court. “Have them readied.”
“By your will,” Ime said, bowing low.
Malicia was left to stand alone, watching her court. Where she would soon enter and introduce before the lords and ladies of Praes the beginning of a new age. From the Northern Steppes, chieftains had come. Blackspear, Graven Bone and Stag-Crowned. Large, powerful clans of the southern stretches. Their chieftains had come to be proclaimed Lords of the Steppes, empowered to collect tribute in the name of the Tower from the other clans while themselves standing exempt of it. There were some among the court who would despise this, and what would follow yet more. For there was one more awaiting, hidden. She would be presented as the very first of her kind: High Lady Wither of Foramen, having renounced her former title of Matron as she returned Foramen to the Praesi fold. The Great Game, it always changed.
The only thing that didn’t was that Alaya of Satus always, always won.
Tariq listened in wonder to the roars of the crowd. Mere days ago the people of Salia had been angrily rioting, boiling out onto the streets, and yet now the same mob was cheering Cordelia Hasenbach so vociferously it seemed as if the very sky above might collapse from the ruckus. Merovins Square was considered one of the great works of Procer, the great Salian gathering place built over generations of the rule of the family of the same name. In the upper reaches of the part of the city men called the Joinery, massive arches of pale stone formed a perfect circle above great open avenues. Statues and monuments of every stripe dotted the square, some so worn by ages that the faces had been eaten through by rain and sleet while others were but a few years old. The tall, slender monument to the dead of what Procerans called the ‘Great War’, for example. The twisted marble, showing a ring of men and women both dragging each other up and pushing each other down, had chilled him when he’d first glimpsed it. The sculptor has shown great skill in making the faces move from triumph to agony and grief under the vagaries of the ‘Ebb and the Flow’. A fitting monument to a bloody civil war.
And now a young father was hoisting up his daughter so that she could peek over the weeping face of a marble woman and have a better look at the First Prince addressing the people of Salia. Merovins Squared had filled with thousands upon thousands, like a sea of people split by elegant islands of stone and metal. From where Tariq stood, under the shade of a great roofed terrace overlooking the magnificent wooden pulpit from which Cordelia Hasenbach was addressing the crowd, he could only barely make out the words the First Prince was speaking. Yet there was no mistaking their thundering approval, the way it echoed through the sunny afternoon air. He was not the only one who had been invited to wait here, far from it. The Grand Alliance’s shine must be burnished, for the people to put their hope in it, and so the great names had all been brought. Young Razin and Aquiline, pretending to be speaking politics over wine when they were truly flirting in that heady, hesitant way of those still unsure of the affection of the other. Tall and serious Yannu Marave, in the cast of whose face Tariq could not help but seeing Sintra. Itima Ifriqui, the sole of the Blood could still remember him having a full head of hair, though their long acquaintance had yielded little fondness. Respect, yes, but the Peregrine had always held in distaste the fondness for bloody vengeance of the Brigand’s Blood.
Others too, the seconds of their realms: Princess Rozala Malanza and Lady Vivienne Dartwick, seated in the shade and speaking in low tones of granaries and treasuries. Tariq’s opinion had already been sought over the matter of a temporary common treasury for the Grand Alliance, though he’d demurred from giving an opinion. It was a sound notion, as far as he was concerned, but he must wean the Blood from the habit of seeking his council. The chances he would survive the coming war were slim, and the surrender of his crown had only made him warier of speaking on matters of rule. Yet it was the last here on the terrace that his eyes lingered over. Hanno of Arwad, once the Sword of Judgement and perhaps one day once more, was leaning against the balustrade and look down at the crowd. At his side the Black Queen of Callow, hair loose down her back and a light smile on her face, was looking down with him and speaking without reserve. The easy cordiality that held between the two, natural as a sparrow’s flight, had surprised him. Perhaps it should not have been, for those two had never fought before and for a hero sworn to the Seraphim the White Knight could be said to be… unusual.
Tariq approached, as much out of curiosity as desire to converse.
“- wait, so if you recall someone that understood High Arcana, wouldn’t you-”
“Only so long as I am within the memories,” the White Knight replied. “Which makes you correct, but the knowledge itself impossible to use.”
“You still get to learn languages by the fucking basketful, so I wouldn’t complain,” Catherine Foundling drily said. “Even back when I still had Learn, it took me months to learn what I knew. Even had to learn Chantant the hard way.”
“I find Tolesian significantly easier,” Tariq admitted, coming to stand at Hanno’s side. “Though that might be because of the tradertongue and Lunara loan words.”
“Everyone should just speak Lower Miezan,” the Black Queen suggested.
“Chantant is the single most spoken language on Calernia, I believe,” the White Knight said. “Should it not be the chosen tongue, by virtue of this?”
“It’s got more exceptions than a Wasteland loyalty pledge,” Catherine Foundling snorted. “Over my dead body.”
The Grey Pilgrim’s brow almost rose, for though the Black Queen was known as something of a wit and prone to bantering, there seemed to be a genuine rapport between the two he’d not expected. They were both young and attractive, Tariq thought, so perhaps… No, he decided, flicking them a long and considering glance. The Black Queen had a roving eye, a fact he’d heard had been the subject of great interest among Proceran royalty, but the White Knight had no reputation for dalliances. And seemingly little interest in them, which the Grey Pilgrim could only approve of considering the days they lived in. Below them, the crowd roared again,
“The First Prince is in fine form today,” Tariq said.
“She is a gifted speaker,” Hanno noted. “As one would expect of a woman bearing her title.”
“She’s offering them hope,” the Black Queen said. “She could be stumbling over half those sentences and still they’d cheer fit to shake the earth.”
“The Grand Alliance has lost a founding member, with Ashur,” Tariq cautioned.
“The League of Free Cities retreats, or joins our ranks,” the White Knight said. “And the dreaded Black Queen has been tamed and added to our ranks. There is reason to rejoice.”
Young Catherine replied with what he believed to be fairly obscene language in Kharsum, to Hanno’s apparent amusement, but Tariq was grimacing. Precious little of the League had joined, no matter the posturing, and Tariq mistrusted those that had. General Pallas and her ten thousand, the appallingly named Tyrant’s Own, might not have the stomach to truly see through the war to the north. It remained to be seen, and soldiers were not to be turned away, but these were not to be relied on.
“Best for all of us that Cordelia has her day,” the Black Queen said. “If parading us all before the crowd puts some spine back in Procer, I’ll even smile and say pretty things.”
“Your generosity is remarkable,” Tariq said, only half teasing.
Most of her allies had, after all, until recently been at war with her. The Peregrine cast a discreet look at young Razin and Aquiline once more, heart clenching. Blood, both of them, and that would matter in the days to come. But Aquiline Osena had not so long ago tried to kill the man she now courted and yet now the smiled softly at one another. Razin Tanja, defeated and orphaned, had not been embittered or broken but instead risen past what he had been taught. Tariq had heard of his words, of the renunciation of the honour killings. Of the harsh words he’d spoken at what Levant had become. And Gods, but Tariq was feeling his years. His soul had been wounded, and his body was nearing the end of its days. There was a future for the Dominion, but it lay not in Yannu Marave, who embodied at once the best and the worst of Levant, or in Itima Ifriqui’s borderlands savagery. Yet those two, the seed of what they might yet become, it would need to be nurtured. Protected. And he might not live long enough to see this through.
“I would, Queen Catherine, ask of you a favour,” Tariq said.
Dark eyes studied him, amusement sliding off her face.
“Funny, that,” the Black Queen said. “I’ve been meaning to ask one of you as well.”
“A trade might be arranged, then,” the old hero said, pleased. “When the Grand Alliance marches north, you are to be among the great warleaders of it.”
“Seems likely,” the young priestess acknowledged.
“There are two of mine I would have you take under your wing,” Tariq said. “Under your protection.”
She followed his gaze to Aquiline and Razin.
“You’ve got plans for them,” the Black Queen said.
“It is a new world you would make,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “I will not have Levant left behind.”
Slowly, she nodded.
“I am told you might be one of the few people alive capable of removing a compulsion from someone’s mind,” Queen Catherine said.
“I have some experience with this,” Tariq acknowledged.
Sorceries to that effect were more easily disrupted, but even alchemies and Speaking could be purged if one knew the way. The Peregrine had greatly benefitted from the tutelage of the Ophanim in this.
“I believe Dread Empress Malicia to have planted commands among several officers of the Army of Callow,” the Black Queen said. “I’d request your assistance in removing them without harming the officers in question, which I’m told could be… difficult.”
“This I would offer free of recompense,” Tariq frankly said. “I will not begrudge you my hand’s work when it is to be used to aid your soldiers in fighting for the preservation of mankind.”
She seemed surprised, which had him pushing down a grimaced. It had not been unfounded a conclusion, but Tariq was attempting to bridge the gap and vexed to see how deep he had helped dig this one. The Grey Pilgrim was not unaware that there was only so long one could keep treating someone as an enemy before they became one in truth.
“I’ll keep the favour, then,” the Black Queen said, eyes watchful as she studied him.
Below the crowd roared anew at some fresh turn of phrase of the First Prince. White, Grey and Black, the three of them looked at the lone silhouette of Cordelia Hasenbach. The stubborn soul that would not allow the Principate to fall to its knees, no matter the coming doom.
“The Tower stirs,” Tariq quietly said. “The Ophanim whisper of it.”
“I suspect,” the Black Queen quietly said, “that the Tower is about to have a great deal of trouble on its hands.”
Suspect. Was it true, then, that she did now know where the Carrion Lord had gone?
“And if Praes sallies forth?” the White Knight asked.
“Then I will get the east in order the hard way,” Catherine Foundling replied, tone steady as stone.
It was a small, almost imperceptible thing. Tariq Fleetfoot saw it anyway, as did Hanno of Arwad. A flicker, a spark. When the Queen of Callow had spoken the words and meant them, something had begun to take shape.
A Name, Gods help them all.
It was a beautiful realm, Amadeus thought.
A summer night unending, starry and warm. The kind of realm that made for a pleasant journey even when the sum of your earthly possessions was a horse, bundled armour and a fortnight’s worth of rations. Bridle in hand, sleeves rolled up on his tunic as the sword at his hip moved with his leg, he wandered down the road snaking forward through the Twilight Ways.
Amadeus no longer had his armies, not even his personal guard – he had left them in Catherine’s hands, requesting she safeguard them through the strife to come.
Amadeus no longer had spies, or wealth or even the power of a Name. He had sent away Scribe, failed Captain and lost Warlock. Assassin was gone, if not from Creation then at least from his service.
Alaya would see him kneeling, or forever gone from her sight.
Tabula rasa, a blank slate. After so many decades, the thought of it should have angered him. Should have brought in him despair and bitterness, for all he had built went up in smoke. Instead he felt relieved. Like a weight had been lifted from his shoulder. It was just him, now. Him and a sword and a plan against all the world. He looked up at the starry sky and laughed.
“Evening, stranger,” a voice drawled. “Where might you be headed, that it has you in such a merry mood?”
Leaning back against a tree, shrouded in darkness, Hye Su was gazing at him with mild interest. It’d been years since they last saw each other, and she’d hardly changed at all – save for the burns on the side of her face, a mark of Summer challenged but not beaten.
“East, I would think,” Amadeus mused.
“Whatever for?” Ranger asked, tone nonchalant.
Voice high and clear, he sang.
“The last is strangest, she said to them
The easiest and the most solemn
For when the tower is yours to claim
You will have forgotten why you came.”
There was a moment of silence, and then the Lady of the Lake pushed herself off the tree.
“Might be I’ll walk with you a while, then,” Hye Su said.
“I thought you might,” Amadeus smiled.
And into the starry night they went, side by side.