“And so Maleficent the Second said: ‘If I must burn half the realm to save the rest, then kneel before the empress of ashes.’”– Extract from the Scroll of Restoration, fortieth of the Secret Histories of Praes
The Vogue Archive did not sleep and tonight neither could Cordelia Hasenbach.
Numbly, she walked down the mostly empty hall past the great tables bearing maps of the realm she ruled and the smaller bureaus – where, at hours other than the middle of the night, some of the finest minds in Procer tended to its regions. There were a few mages of the Order of the Red Lion tucked away in corners, having retreated after greeting her and now again simply waiting to be of use, but aside from them the oft-crowded hall was quiet. Fewer than a dozen men and women were within it, sometimes reading through the odd reports that had come in the night but more often tidying up the numerous scrolls and reports that’d poured in during the day.
Cordelia made for the back of the hall, the raised dais where her handpicked analysts were charged with sifting through a sea of ink and parchment so that they might find the catastrophes on the Principate’s horizon in time for them to be averted. The First Prince had chosen five such individuals, but at this hour there was only one awake and present: a woman of an age difficult to parse, rather dowdy in appearance and of generally unremarkable looks. The sole eye-catching part of the Forgetful Librarian’s appearance was her oddly beautiful eyelashes, as if they had been borrowed from a more striking woman and set on this one’s face.
She looked, Cordelia had come to realize, rather like the manifest ideal of someone’s reclusive, scholarly aunt. It was an appearance that would invite dismissal from many, hiding the sharp mind and utter lack of morals of the Damned. The Librarian was an exceptionally talented woman as both a scholar and an advisor, the First Prince had learned, but she was best used as part of a larger council that would temper the ruthless pragmatism of the solutions she tended to propose. The other woman did not rise as Cordelia approached, remaining engrossed in a book as she cradled a steaming cup of chamomile.
It was a small slight the Damned liked to give, one of the little games she seemed unable to stop herself from playing even when there was no conceivable benefit for her to gain, but it had remained an irritant. Usually the First Prince took the time to consider whether a threshold had been reached where the other Proceran needed to be reminded of the hierarchy between them, but not tonight. The disrespect slid off her like water off a duck’s back. It seemed such a small, petty thing to eve spare thought for after the news she had received.
The First Prince of Procer instead slid into one of the seats she’d had brought here, exemplars of comfort given the long hours they would be used for, and leaned back. She closed her eyes, wondering if the Heavens would take pity on her and let her fall asleep instead of remaining like… this. Numb and exhausted, feeling as if she was somehow too tired to sleep. There was a muted clap as the Forgetful Librarian closed her book – though not before placing a bookmark, the parts of Cordelia that never rested noted, which was interesting given that most Chosen and Damned seemed to have enhanced memory – and set it down, sipping with uncouth loudness at her chamomile.
The Librarian was Alamans and of good birth, meaning she was being unpleasant very much on purpose.
“Long night?” the Damned idly asked.
Cordelia did not answer for a very long time, yet she did not hear the book creak open.
“I have been told,” the First Prince finally said, “that no less than three Hellgates were opened across the breadth of Procer.”
And that was not why she grieved, for sorrow was a nation’s due but grief could only ever be personal, but it was an answer of enough gravity that it would obscure what was truly moving her. The Forgetful Librarian breathed in sharply but did not answer. Cordelia opened her eyes, finding herself being closely studied.
“All three were temporarily sealed,” she continued, “though at the cost of the lives of every Gigantes that came to our aid.”
The villainess hesitated, for though she was not a moral woman neither was she the manner of monster that bargained with devils for the lives of thousands.
“And Keter’s Due?” the Librarian asked.
In proper Proceran scholarship the phenomenon was known instead as ‘the desolation’, but since the Arsenal had begun to train wizards the Praesi terminology had seeped through. It could not be denied that Proceran sorcery had a rather religious turn to it, and as Cordelia understood it the ‘desolation’ was considered to be as much theological in nature as it was magical – a punishment by Above for the ruinous overreach of mortals. What disgusting idea, the Lycaonese thought. To punish thousands for the crimes of one, who would not even be moved by the sight of such cruelty regardless. The very definition of pointless suffering. No, Cordelia would take no issue with the use of ‘Keter’s Due’ at all.
“There are reports from both the Hierophant and the Grave Binder that suggest the effects of the Due were purposefully worsened,” the First Prince evenly said. “In each case, most of the surrounding region was blighted.”
The curse had flooded outwards. To the north the losses were acceptable, for Twilight’s Pass had already been bare rock while the swaths of western Hannoven and southern Rhenia that had been lost had been poor farmlands. In the case of Hainaut, where the blight was said to have spread down to a natural fortress named Lauzon’s Hollow, the loss was one still to be felt: those lands had been in the hands of Keter for most of the war. In Cleves, however? The Hellgate had been opened at the fortress of Trifelin, where Rozala Malanza had won a great battle mere weeks before, and the Due slain a few thousand soldiers out in the open where there had been too few wards. That had been the least of the losses there in truth.
The blight had also swallowed most of the fine lands along the length candle road, snuffing out the principality’s breadbasket.
That meant that Cleves would have to be fed by southern principalities, which where already buckling under the strain and rebellious besides. It meant dozens of thousand of refugees forced to flee south into lands grown increasingly hostile to them. It means that Procer would have to either beg for parts of the harvest of the Kingdom of Callow which it could not afford to buy – not with Merchant Prince Mauricius having clearly laid out there would be no more loans until some unacceptable conditions were met – or there would be starvation in the heartlands of the Principate. Hannoven was ash and ruin, ruled by the dead. Of her own Rhenia no lands save the city-fortress itself remained, her own people huddling in the dark beyond those impassable defences while death roamed the countryside. Now Cleves and Hainaut as well were a ruin.
The armies that had been supposed to turn the war around, to push the dead back into the lakes, had delivered instead one of the bloodiest stalemates in the history of Calernia. And Cordelia’s own uncle had died in some ill-fated last charge without the break between them ever having been mended, nothing but harsh words left to part on. She forced herself to breathe slowly and steadily, else she knew she would tear up. There were too many people looking. There were always too many people looking, and she could not afford to show weakness after having forced the hands of the Highest Assembly the way she had.
“Was Hainaut a defeat, then?” the Librarian quietly asked.
Cordelia Hasenbach allowed herself a bitter smile.
“The Black Queen won the field, though the field was but a smoking ruin and many died,” the First Prince replied. “Among them the Grey Pilgrim. The White Knight broke the Dead King’s great bridge in the north, so the campaign can still be settled in our favour.”
She knew better than to name such an outcome a victory, however. Nearly half the Army of Callow was gone, the Lycaonese forces on the front mauled and leaderless and general casualties had been atrocious for everyone save the Levantines. Who had not been spared, either, though in a different way. The Dominion was in uproar, as at least a few hundred of its Blood had died turning to ash without warning on the evening of the Battle of Hainaut. Cordelia’s spies believed that everyone who could have a feasible claim to being an Isbili had died, around the time the Peregrine himself had died and brought down the pilgrim’s star on Hainaut.
With the Holy Seljun dead, no legitimate successor in sight and all remaining major nobles up north fighting Keter the resulting chaos already promised to be crippling. Another nail in the Principate’s overly burdened coffin, she thought, for the Dominion had been one of the last few nations with which Procer could trade to keep afloat: the coming tide of squabbles and ‘honour wars’ would strangle those routes soon enough.
“Trouble in Levant,” the Forgetful Librarian frowned, tracing the rim of her cup with a finger. “I’m not so sure we can afford that – economically speaking, anyway. We will have to lean on Helike and her dependents to compensate.”
“It will not be enough,” Cordelia tiredly replied.
General Basilia, who was now quite openly mulling claiming the title of empress after having so long deferred taking up the queenship of Helike, had made great strides forward with precious little outside help. Cordelia herself had served mostly as a diplomatic broker in the matter of settling hostilities with Stygia, and now that Basilia had most of the western Free Cities under her and a sworn peace with Atalante her rise seemed difficult to stop. Luck was even on her size, as word was that Bellerophon had once more declared war on Penthes, belatedly seizing an opportunity to attack their old rival that the People had failed to recognize. It further tipped the balance in General Basilia’s favour, though given the fluidity of wars in the League there was no certain outcome. Not that Cordelia expected the war to continue much longer.
Delos was too great a fortress to easily fall, but it would not stand alone against three cities and the priests of Atalante had no yearning to break a holy oath freshly sworn. It might not be that Basilia would hold all of the Free Cities, as the Republic of Bellerophon at least would fight to the death over submission, but it seemed likely that a tributary empire centred on Helike would be emerging from the aftermath of that war. Given that Basilia was friendly to the Grand Alliance and hostile to the Tower as well as eager for trade to resume, this seemed like a saving grace for Procer’s ailing coffers. Except, of course, that General Basilia had spent two years ravaging the Free Cities with her wars.
Trading with a broken land not yet recovered from the last civil war that’d ravaged it was not going to be sufficiently profitable in the immediate future, not when the only Free City whose coffers had swelled was Mercantis and it was hoarding the wealth. In a year, perhaps two, this could be the miracle that Cordelia needed should the nascent empire of Basilia not collapse.
The Principate of Procer did not have a year to spare, much less two.
“Shall I send for the others, then?” the Forgetful Librarian asked. “If there was ever a reason to wake them in the night, this would be it. I have refined my proposal for the invasion of Mercantis as a stopgap solution, besides, so it might be the time for Your Highness to genuinely consider it.”
She still believed, it seemed, that there was room to maneuver. That there was still a game afoot.
“One year and twenty-eight days,” Cordelia Hasenbach softly said. “That is how long we have before the seals on the Hellgates break.”
And what could be done in so little time? Queen Catherine had left one of her foremost generals, Abigail the Fox, to handle matters in Hainaut with the returning White Knight and bluntly informed Cordelia that she saw only one solution: she was headed for east, for Praes. She would be taking the Marshal of Callow and the remains of the Second Army with her, as well as the reassembled First. A few Chosen and Damned as well, as she intended on settling the war for the Tower and returning west with mages in large enough numbers the Hellgates could be handled by Praesi magics. The Black Queen had not pretended that anything Cordelia could say might sway her form that decision, but the part that had truly cut had been the seemingly heartfelt condolences about Uncle Klaus.
It had seemed obscene to Cordelia that the Queen of Callow had spoken more to him than she had, this last year. That she… The First Prince mastered herself, evenly breathing. The east was beyond Cordelia’s grasp, it was no longer her trouble. She would see to the west as much as she still could, to her last breath, even though she knew in the deepest of her heart that the outcome was already decided. Procer would fall because it was simply no longer capable of standing. If the war was not won soon it was going to break, and the war would not be won soon. In truth it might be that victory was no longer possible, Cordelia admitted to herself. Or that if it were achieved, the Principate Procer would not live to see that achievement.
And facing that brutal truth was part of her duty, to plan for it. So Cordelia Hasenbach’s mind slowly stirred awake from the numbness, considering how any part of Procer might still be saved from the coming onslaught – how its people might be saved. And there was a darker duty still, one that she despised but must consider anyway. Should the Enemy triumph, should it all come to the worst of all ends…
“Send for the others,” the First Prince of Procer finally said, tone steady. “And for mage of the Red Lions as well, if you please.”
The Forgetful Librarian slowly nodded, then rose to her feet to see it done. Cordelia would need to speak with a man she had hoped she would not see again before the war was at an end. Not out of distaste for him, but because of what she had sent him to guard: the ancient corpse that had once lain in the depths of Lake Artoise, and the weapon that had been made of it. For Cordelia was a Hasenbach, in the end.
If it came to it, she would do what she must: better that some of Calernia survive than none at all.
It was a delicate balance to maintain, to keep a civil war going without ever being at genuine risk of losing it.
Malicia liked to think of it as painting with her own blood, drawing on the famous turn of phrase by Maleficent the Second. Every success in guiding the war according to her design came at the expense of carving away a sliver from the pedestal of her perceived superior position, and should the game be kept going for too long – or defeats not of her own making be inflicted upon her – then she ran the risk of that pedestal truly being toppled. It had not come to pass, of course. The Dread Empress of Praes had begun to prepare for this conflict several months before the first sword was drawn, and she’d had contingencies in place regarding civil war for decades prior.
Agents seeded and left to grow, traitors and assassins and impostors. Bribes and blackmail, debts to call on and more highborn in the palm of her hand than anyone alive might suspect. High Lady Tasia Sahelian had seen through parts of the preparations, in olden days, but now Tasia was dead and Wolof ruled by a young man she had personally seen soulboxed. High Lord Sargon Sahelian was, amusingly enough, one of her most ardent partisans well beyond the influence she could truly exert on him. He had bloodied Wolof taking it from his aunt, so he now craved years under the protection of a greater power to rebuild his domain in peace.
And, for all that Abreha of Aksum – Sepulchral, as she now styled herself – remained breathing, east of the Wasaliti there was no greater power than Dread Empress Malicia. So long as I do not slip, Alaya reminded herself, studying the board before her. She’d always enjoyed shatranj, even when she had still been her father’s daughter and not a prisoner in a golden gaol. It was a game of logic and sequence, of anticipating the movements of your opponent, which had always appealed to her. Wekesa had enjoyed the occasional game with her when he’d visited Ater, the two of them spending more time playing and gossiping over their common companions over wine than attending to the matters of state Alaya had claimed the time for.
These days, though, Malicia played mostly against herself. The Dread Empress of Praes considered the lay of the pieces, the disarray of black and white that signaled the tail end of a match closely fought, and slid her last black mage down a diagonal. Soft footsteps told her that Ime had joined her without the need for the empress to look away from the board. This was not her bedchambers, simply a study, but her spymistress was one of the very few people who had access to the enchanted secret passage whose door opened behind her.
“Speak,” Malicia said.
“Our people in Procer confirmed that Queen Catherine is headed for Praes,” Ime said. “Already orders have been sent to Laure by the Black Queen to prepare the supplies for a campaign in the Wasteland.”
Malicia cocked an eyebrow.
“They cannot afford one,” the empress said.
The intricacies of the internal politics of the Grand Alliance aside, Alaya was speaking to the plain realities of hard coin. Callow was not flush with gold, having already spent most of the coin it had received for brokering a peace between the dwarves and the drow, and Procer was so beggared these days that it was often resorting to paying in goods rather than gold for the Callowan grain and cattle it so desperately needed. In practice, the Kingdom of Callow was simply not wealthy of enough to afford a war on a second front. It did not have the steel, the gold or the manpower to attempt such an enterprise. That had been part and parcel of Malicia’s strategy to contain the Black Queen from the very start: make dealing with the Tower a choice between diplomacy and bankruptcy.
“They’re pulling out the First and Second Army from Procer,” Ime replied. “As for coin, Duchess Kegan was instructed to borrow from the northern barons if need be.”
They’d have wealth tucked aside, Malicia reluctantly admitted in a mental calculation. The lands under the baronies of Harrow and Hedges had been only lightly touched by the Tenth Crusade and their rulers had made a tidy profit selling their goods to a beleaguered south during the reconstruction of Callow after Second Liesse. More than that, they would be willing to lend. The barons were not unaware that their adversarial relationship with Catherine Foundling had barred them from the Callowan halls of power, so they would be eager to get a foot in – particularly if the debt was to be ultimately shouldered by the much more friendly Vivienne Dartwick.
No doubt a few handsome spare sons would be sent along with the coin, bearing hints that a newborn Callowan dynasty could do with an infusion of fresh noble blood. Malicia was not unfamiliar with the tactic, her hand having been sought with varying degrees of aggressiveness over decades. Organising particularly painful deaths for those who dared to insist too much had been one of the few instances in which Malicia had worked closely with the Scribe. Eudokia was no friend of hers, but the other woman had inherited that very Delosi penchant for meticulous punishment of the contemptible.
“Who will hold command?” Malicia asked, eyes still on the board.
She moved a pale knight, venturing deep behind an arrant line of pawns.
“Abigail the Fox has been left in command of the Third Army in Hainaut, so she’d dredging up Marshal Juniper herself,” Ime said, tone wary.
The empress was not so affected.
“She is a skilled tactician,” Malicia calmly said, “and a general to take seriously, but her reputation is exaggerated. Rozala Malanza would have beaten her decisively in Iserre if the Black Queen had not intervened at the last moment. Marshal Nim should be her match, if it comes to that.”
Given a decade perhaps the ‘Hellhound’ would fully grow into her talents, having been seasoned by the Uncivil Wars, but for now the experience of the commanders that had served since the Conquest was difficult to match for such a young woman. It would tell, particularly in treacherous grounds like those of the Wasteland. Still, Malicia did mourn that such a talent had been stolen away from the Empire. It had been a stroke of terrible luck, that General Istrid would die during Second Liesse and so leave her daughter adrift and her old legion easily led astray. Not the greatest misfortune to come out of that battle by any measure, but a misfortune nonetheless.
“She will be coming personally, Your Majesty,” Ime quietly said. “The Black Queen. And she pulled away two of her armies from the war on the dead, against our expectations. She is taking a much harder line than we believed she would.”
Her spymistress was not incorrect, Malicia thought as she moved a black tower near the centre of the board. The Dread Empress did not find it entirely surprising that after what the Callowans had quaintly named the ‘Night of Knives’ their queen would balk at a diplomatic resolution of their disagreements, but she had expected that Cordelia Hasenbach would push for such an initiative. The burdens of the war should have rent Procer asunder by now and forced the First Prince to seek terms, even if behind the Black Queen’s back, but out of Salia there was only silence. Scribe had seized the reins of the remaining eyes in Procer, which meant information trickled east only at a glacial pace. Alaya slid a white mage, taking a pawn.
“She cannot afford a battle with either the Tower or Abreha,” Malicia said. “The ensuing casualties would make impossible an assault on Keter. It is posturing, Ime.”
“She thinks us weak,” Ime said.
“Which will make all the stronger an impression on her when it is revealed otherwise,” Malicia said. “I have no intention of offering onerous terms to turn on the Dead King, the shock and an amenable bargain will see us through.”
The priority would be dismantling the Grand Alliance as continental power. So long as Callow was leveraged to leave it after the war Alaya expected that old rivalries between it and Procer would resume, most likely through competing commercial interests, and it would be child’s play to cause incidents at the border between Procer and the Dominion. Her plans had not all gone perfectly, of course. The matters down south had turned against her and she would admit that the Stygian coup had been a complete surprise, but General Basilia’s victories brought opportunity with them. Sponsoring an eastern alliance within the Free Cities to rival the western Helikean bloc would check Grand Alliance influence in the region.
Already the Secretariat was willing to privately entertain her envoys, worried that Delos would be gobbled up by the victorious marauding general.
“Or she could try to enthrone another in your place,” Ime murmured.
Alaya’s fingers tightened around a black knight. Malicia cocked an amused eyebrow.
“He has no armies, little practical support and fewer allies than I have fingers,” the Dread Empress of Praes said. “Amadeus has not returned to my side, but he has not raised a rebel flag beyond that unfortunate lapse at the Peace of Salia.”
Reconciliation might still be possible, she left implied. And Amadeus was in Praes, that much had been confirmed, but her once Black Knight had not made many visible waves. He had not sought allies within the highborn, reached out to the self-proclaimed Dread Empress Sepulchral or even come out of the woodworks to lead the deserter legions in the Green Stretch. The last in particular was a shame. It would have simplified things a great deal in some ways. Malicia was inclined to believe that Ranger had been an anchor around his neck, this time: for all that she was a fearsome force of violence, at the moment the half-elf was also being hunted by the Emerald Swords.
So long as she remained his companion, Amadeus could not come into the light without having those ten monsters coming for wherever he dwelled. Alaya released the knight, turning to meet her spymistress’ eyes. Ime looked troubled, as she often was these days. She was growing old, for all that rituals still kept the worst ravages of time away, frailer in both body and mind than the bold woman she had been in their youth.
“You have concerns,” Malicia said.
“In understand why we cultivated the perception of our weakness,” Ime said. “So long as we were a genuine military concern for the Grand Alliance, I agree that we ran certain… risks.”
Like Catherine Foundling gating in through the Twilight Ways and beginning to drown cities, driven to hard measures by the fear of the Grand Alliance buckling under a war being fought on two fronts. Much easier for Praes to be beset by civil strife, a threat still but only a distant one. Not urgent, an enemy that outright threatened the survival of Calernia. Not that Malicia herself did not genuinely believe that the Dead King had any real chance of winning, for Evil did not win wars, but then it was not her soldiers dying in droves. She had ensured that the Praesi civil war under her watch was to be largely bloodless, mostly fought through raids and maneuvering.
“Yet that perception may yet come back to haunt us,” Ime continued. “She despises us, Malicia. She might refuse to deal with the Tower even if it’s the safer path, so long as there is another path at all. Another credible candidate.”
Malicia studied her spymistress. It was not assassination being alluded to here, of course. Ime had argued for it in the past but Alaya was still unwilling. Such an attempt would be laughably unlikely to succeed, besides, so long as he had Ranger by his side. Why even consider the option, with that in mind? No, it was a different sort of measure that Ime was arguing for. Alaya looked down at the board and rested a finger atop the black knight she had left behind, thinking for a moment. Sometimes childish dreams had to be let go of, she thought. Even when it was painful. There would be no returning to the way things used to be, and pretending otherwise was embracing the noose.
She tipped over the knight with a flick of her finger, the ebony piece clattering against the board.
“Your advice has merit,” Dread Empress Malicia said. “Send for Marshal Nim.”
Her spymistress watched her carefully.
“You’ll do it, then?”
“Yes,” the Dread Empress of Praes said. “I will recognize her as my Black Knight.”
It was a pleasant night out, especially with a bottle of wine and stolen roasted chicken to gnaw on.
The hinterlands of Aksum seemed perpetually doomed to being set aflame, Amadeus of the Green Stretch mused, since a mere few decades after he’d torched them on his way to besieging the city the High Lord of Wolof was now doing the same. Young Sargon was also abducting people to fill up the city that his aunt had mutilated on her way out, however, which Amadeus found an interesting variation on the usual Praesi civil war. It was important to keep those things fresh, he felt, and Gods knew that the Dread Empire had a great deal of practice bleeding itself. The dark-haired man chewed on his second chicken leg thoughtfully, watching the smoke rising in the distance. Another village burned. They ought to get moving soon, he figured, else they would risk running into raiders.
Amadeus wasn’t exactly afraid of the outcome that would ensue, but it wouldn’t be subtle and that lack was a lot more dangerous than those raiders could ever hope to be.
He wasn’t even halfway through the leg when he first glimpsed Hye coming up the path, noticing the splash of red blood on her sleeves when she got closer. Ah, fruitful talks then. She’d always been such a skilled diplomat, if one with a particularly narrow repertoire. He let himself drink in the sight of her for a moment, the long locks framing the high cheekbones and those clever dark brown eyes. Amadeus had seen her in everything but bare skin and moonlight to mail and cloak caked in filth, and even after all these years the faint note of wonder had yet to fade. The love of his life approached, taking a long look at him and narrowing her eyes.
“You ate both legs, you jackass,” Hye Su, who some knew as the Ranger, noted.
“So I did,” Amadeus, cheerfully replied. “You should have stolen your own chicken, if you wanted the choice cut.”
Though he had once been known as some manner of knight, he’d never bothered with chivilary: to add insult to injury, he also tossed the bones of the first leg he’d eaten at her and watched as she easily dodged. Her lips twitched, though.
“I should leave you hanging for this,” Hye complained.
“You won’t,” Amadeus smiled. “You got to kill something, it always puts you in a chatty mood.”
“I don’t get chatty,” Hye denied, deeply offended.
“Of course you don’t,” Amadeus pleasantly smiled.
He had to duck a chicken bone, but it was a victory in every way that mattered. Though huffing while she did, she dropped at his side and the both of them sat back against the tall milestone that some ancient High Lord of Aksum had raised on the hill near the road. Hye naturally helped herself to the rest of the chicken, producing a knife so she could pop the juicy but cooling pieces into her mouth, and the two of them sat closely together under the night sky.
“So I was talking with this fae,” Hye said.
“As one does,” Amadeus amiably agreed.
“He had this friend that knew a friend,” Ranger mused. “And they’d heard that the Black Queen, out west, she’s headed our way.”
“To clarify,” he said, “was this helpful rumour shared before or after you started stabbing him?”
“Eh,” Hye said. “You know how it is with fairies. There’s stabbing and then there’s stabbing.”
Sadly, Amadeus of the Green Stretch did know how it was with fairies. It was only marginally better than dealing with Wasteland highborn, something that had driven him to some fairly infamous bouts of stabbing over the years.
“Shouldn’t be a long journey through the Ways,” he said. “Two, three months at most.”
“Sooner, if Indrani’s guiding her,” Hye said. “She’s always been a natural at pathfinding.”
Amadeus hummed, amused at the understated pride in her voice. Though Hye did not visibly play favorites among her pupils, she’d always favoured those who used bows slightly over the rest.
“It is time for us to surface, then,” he said. “We need to get the last pieces in place before my own former pupil arrives.”
Hye grinned, all teeth and malice, and he felt his heart skip a beat. Even now, after all these years… well, he was not as young as he’d once been, but she did not seem to mind so what did he care? If anything she seemed to like the grey in his hair, which he had not known he was worried about until he felt relieved she did. It had been some years since Amadeus had last felt insecure, even unknowingly, and he had found it almost refreshing.
“Finally,” Ranger said. “I’ve been enjoying laying low, Amadeus, but sometimes you just need to bite down on something you know?”
“I do,” he replied in a murmur. “And this is long overdue.”
He looked east, where in the distance waited the gargantuan shape of the Tower jutting out from Ater, and he raised his half-empty bottle of wine in a toast. When was he to settle his accounts, if not the end times?
If the song refused to leave him, then he would silence it.