“I will do better, said the man,
than the tyrant, who said I will
I swear, do better than
the man I kill.
the man I kill
swore to do better than
his tyrant, and I say I will
do better now than either man.”– “Better Than”, Ater folk song (couplets meant to be repeated)
It would have been a mistake for him to watch the swords.
It was her feet that warned him, when he had any warning at all. Amadeus circled to the side, shield raised and sword low. Hye darted forward, striking high, but he did not bite. Arm tightening, he took the real hit – come by the side, a blindingly quick swing and flick – on the shield and shot into a riposte. She stepped to the side, let it pass her, and turned to swing at the arm. Cursing in silence, he struck out with his shield. He wasn’t quite swift enough to withdraw, her blade slamming into his wrist harshly enough he almost dropped his sword, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The shield slam forced Hye to step back and abandon the killing stroke she’d been setting up.
Amadeus took two steps back, his back drenched with sweat from the hour of sparring now coming to an end. He was slowing, losing his edge. Old age, he supposed, though the now grey-haired man knew he was closer in shape to a man in his forties than this true age. For now, at least.
“You get baited into that riposte too easily,” Hye said. “You got too used to being able to kill people with it when you were Named. You’re slower now, you can’t keep using it.”
“I’m still used to being able to correct midstroke,” he admitted. “I collected too many habits that relied on Name reflexes.”
She snorted, bringing her blades back to the sheaths with a purely unnecessary twirl. Her long hair was kept in a braid today and he’d always loved the look on her – especially when she had a blade in hand. Which she was perfectly aware of, from the sly looks she kept sending him.
“You’re too hard on yourself,” Hye told him. “In terms of swordsmanship, you’re still one of the most impressive opponents I’ve had. In the finest ten, at least. You just have more practical limits to deal with than before.”
“I did have a skilled teacher,” Amadeus smiled.
She smiled back.
“I speak, of course, of my mother,” he casually continued.
He got a clump of dirt tossed at his head for that, ducking away laughing. Since early in theory acquaintance Hye had insisted that there be wagers to their sparring, which had never lost him much coin but ensured he’d cooked most of her meals on the move for decades. Tonight was not to be exception, though he’d been farsighted enough to get the stew going before they began. It was mostly ready by the time he went to check on it, needing only seasoning. Only roasted greens for side dish, as… Amadeus felt his heart clench. He forced himself to finish the thought. As Wekesa was gone and would no longer assembled a makeshift oven to help him make fresh bread.
Hye sat at his side, silent. She knew how to read his moods, and so stayed close but did not impose touch. An invitation. He leaned into her side, enjoying her arm going around his waist as he leaned his head on her shoulder.
“Who?” she asked.
“Wekesa,” he said.
“He went out on his own terms,” Hye said. “For his son. Remember that as well as the rest.”
Amadeus allowed himself to enjoy the comfort a little longer then moved away. Neither of them spoke more of it. Hye was one of the people he’d met who were even more private than him by inclination, she well understood that for some the light of day burned more than it cleaned. They sat with the stew, the old lacquered bowls – whose cracks were filled, oddly enough, with silver – that she’d been using longer than he’d been alive warm in their hands.
“I did miss your stew, and that damned lentil soup,” she laughingly told him. “My pupils were nowhere as fine cooks, even though Cocky at least should have been better by sheer divine mandate.”
“The Concocter?” he asked, cocking a brow.
It was not common for her to talk of her old students, but not uncommon either. She still had much fondness for her years in Refuge, even though she had left that part of her life behind much as she had once parted ways with the Calamities. He’d always admired – envied – that in her, the capacity to walk away. He was not so blessed.
“Feral little thing,” Hye fondly said. “Never seen a Crafter that much bite to them before.”
The Teoteul, her father’s people, called Named whose Role tended to creation ‘Crafters’. In those lands they were held in great respect, she’d told him, often greater than martial Named.
“The way you raised them likely had something to do with that,” Amadeus mildly said.
She cast him a sideways look.
“You can just say it outright,” Hye said, amused.
“You already know my thoughts on the affair,” he replied. “I can understand what you meant to accomplish, but when one’s means involve cruelty to children they are best reconsidered.”
“What I did accomplish,” Ranger calmly said. “They left my tutelage with all they needed to survive and thoroughly discouraged from banding together. I didn’t coddle them like you did your girl, Amadeus, but they came out stronger for it. Named that get tucked in at night get killed in their first decade. I’ve seen it happen to more heroes and villains than you’ve put in the ground.”
“Wealth of experience tends to mean more powerful aspects,” he conceded, “and personalities less brittle. But you only painted in black, Hye.”
I’d been painfully obvious the few times he’d encountered her pupils, never more so than when he’d spoken with young Indrani. The Archer, who’d thought the way to tame the evils of the world was to make herself and her Name into the Ranger’s shade.
“It’s what I know,” she frankly replied. “And it’s what sticks.”
He shrugged, seeing no point in further speaking of it. He’d already told her his thoughts before and she’d disagreed with them then too. She respected his opinions but had never felt bound to heed them in the slightest – which was, he would admit to himself, half the reason he was in love with her in the first place.
“I suppose you think your student-”
“My daughter,” he corrected calmly, evenly.
Pointedly, too. She winced.
“Look, I’ve already apologized for that talk in Arcadia,” Hye said. “I wouldn’t have been so hard on her if I’d known she mattered to you as more than an apprentice.”
An apology which she meant, and he’d accepted, but it would not mend the broken pot. Catherine was now singularly predisposed to seeing Hye as an enemy, which might just end up being a massive headache before this was all over.
“She does,” Amadeus said, “which is why I see little point in comparing the deeds of our former students. She would not have gotten so far without your Indrani at her side.”
Hye’s lips quirked at the mention. Ranger was not a particularly fair woman and she’d never shied away from having favourites. Of her little band of Named, Archer had been the one she most liked. Not out vanity, though one might be forgiven for believing that, but because Indrani had in her belly a rare sort of fire.
“Your little queen might still kill you, before this is said and done,” Hye plainly said. “She won’t like what you’re scheming.”
“Neither do you,” Amadeus teased.
She rolled her eyes and let it go. Eudokia, for all that he loved her dearly, would not have. It was not in her nature to leave details unattended to, to embrace the unnecessary risk. That attitude had saved his lives many a time, over the years, but it should not be taken as the iron law habit had slowly turned it into. They’d gotten old, set in their ways even as their bodies stayed the same preserved statues of wax. Hye, while older than any of them by centuries, never stayed still long enough to rot. There were lessons to learn in that. In embracing impermanence. Amadeus should not have presumed he would stay the same under the face because the face did not change.
Or believe the same of Alaya.
“She brought the last of your pupils east, you know,” he said. “I am not the only one who might face a rough end.”
Hye’s face was serene as a pond, the shadows of their fading fire clawing at her cheeks.
“Have they grown enough for that?” she asked. “I wonder. I will have to see, Amadeus, who it is they have become. One last test for the children of Refuge.”
They went to bed early, for they were to begin moving before the dawn. Northeast of them was an old run-down inn owned by the cousin of a friend, and there letters waited for him. A confirmation from one of his people in Ater that Grem was still alive and writing, growing fat in his house arrest. Alaya did not seem to suspect. Yet it was the other letter, the one from the south, that set him to smiling. Nahiza had corresponded with Wekesa for decades, back when she’d still lived in Kahtan instead of retiring to her tower, and it was only out of courtesy for that she’d accepted his first letter. After that, though, it had been out of curiosity.
The problem he’d put to her was one too fascinating for such a mind to resist, and the possibility of eternal glory a temptation to her pride.
It can be done, she wrote in that terse way of hers. But only with the Tower. No one else has the mages and coin. The formulas she’d sketched out as a proof of concept he could not understand, not even after all his years of trying to understand more than the barest edges of Trismegistan sorcery, but he tucked them away in his doublet anyway. They would have a use. What he’d needed of her had been confirmation that it was possible at all: the rest was only a matter of finding the right place and right time. The last letter he read twice, to commit the words to memory. Nim had ambushed Catherine out of the Wasteland but the Army of Callow had held fast and now all the vultures were drawing in. Good, rather like he’d thought it might go.
The game he’d not seen coming was the release of Akua Sahelian to become the Warlock, but then he’d been consistently blindsided when it came to Catherine’s treatment of Tasia’s girl. That she’d not been publicly and brutally executed years ago remained a source of bemusement.
With the loyalist Legions and those that’d deserted coming ever closer, the moment of truth was drawing near. He’d sown the seeds but done nothing more than that, could not do more than that. As he’d told Layan down south, the last thing Praes needed was another banner raised. When the time came, when the blades were out, what was it that would win – the mud or the orders? Amadeus of the Green Stretch had spent most of his life betting on the mud and he had no intention of ceasing at so late an hour. Leaning forward, he put the letter from Kala to a candle. It burned bright and quick, smoke curling upwards. He caught sight of it disturbing a spider, which crawled to a corner of its webs on long legs. Smiling, he dropped the last smouldering remnants of the letter and stepped on them.
Were he a superstitious man, he might have called that a good omen.
High Lady Takisha Muraqib of Kahtan was to come to Ater, along with most the nobility of the south.
It was an unusual and unforeseen decision, so Malicia investigated. What dearest Takisha had wanted out of gathering the entire Hungering Sands to her court had become plain enough after a little digging: she’d been trying to rally houses to her banner for an attempt at taking back Foramen. She could have made such an attempt without such pageantry, of course, as Malicia was in no position to stop her. Yet Takisha, for all that she was an intelligent woman, was prone to dithering.
It was a learned error. Kahtan had the most vassals out of all the High Seats, which made large scale enterprises for it difficult unless time was spent wrangling support. Takisha had heeded that lesson a little too well, to Malicia’s eye, and come to avoid bold action even when it would best serve.
Yet she was skilled at wrangling, and with the traditional rivals of the Muraqib for prominence in the desert – the Banu of Foramen – dead and gone Malicia had expected her to find a measure of success. That not only she had found none but that she had been driven to take her court north had been a noticeable enough reversal that it must be looked into. Even if this was not the action of a player but instead of an undercurrent of popular feeling, clarity was required. The empress’ plans had arrived at too delicate a stage for interference to be permissible.
Spies came and went, scrying rituals crisscrossed the land. Ime was busying herself chasing Amadeus’ trail, which she had finally caught, but Malicia left the matter to her capable hands. Instead, as she sat in a comfortable salon tea in hand, she poured over lists of names. Those who had petitioned High Lady Takisha to journey to Ater and formally petition the imperial court for intervention in the south. Some of those names she well knew.
Lord Feisal Rahab, whose great silver mines made one of the wealthiest men in Praes. Lady Nawal Morcos, whose kin had skirmished with the Tribes for centuries. Prominent names, at first, but they had met with Takisha late. And more importantly, they had little to gain from the decision made. She sent for earlier reports. The first to speak with the High Lady of Kahtan were less known to her. Lady Layan Kaisha, Lord Habid Tannen, and on it went for a dozen names. Lesser aristocrats, all of them, with few common interests that she could grasp.
She sent for the files the Eyes had on them. Layan Kaisha was one of Amadeus’ veterans, it turned out. So were two of the rest, but most were not. Yet Malicia’s mind itched with intuition. This had been done in accord, she grew convinced as her Name began to swell. There was something to Connect those names even if she did not yet understand it. Her aspect had never failed her before, even though the leaps of intuition it sometimes leant her were the ficklest part of the boons it granted. She set the Eyes to digging deeper at the nobles.
Behind closed doors, alone, Alaya would admit that the aspect’s blooming was a deep relief. After the encounter with Foundling in Wolof, she had feared… Her fingers clung desperately to the cup of tea she forced herself to drink with decorum. Be silent, the Black Queen had ordered, and Alaya’s soul had obeyed. As if to be able to declare silence was the girl’s due Alaya had found that she could no longer Rule. Not in the simulacrum she’d worn, not in her own body, not anywhere. It had taken days for the aspect to return, and even now it was weakened. She could feel it in the people around her, through the connections that Connect allowed her to instinctively understand.
Her authority had thinned.
It would come back into its fullness, she thought, that was the trend. But after how long? Another month, year, decade? She’d been told that the Black Queen was not yet Named and already she could do this. The thought was… frightening. As was the memory of the girl’s mad grin as she was wrestled down by a dozen men, Alaya tasting blood in her mouth as the little monster cackled. There’s always next time, the Black Queen had laughed. Foundling was coming for her head, Malicia now understood. She would settle for nothing less if she were not forced to settle otherwise. Practicality and gains would not be enough to sway her, Malicia had misread that very badly.
Spies came and went, scrying rituals crisscrossed the land and her Black Knight ambushed the Black Queen in the depths of the Wasteland. Akua Sahelian was proving worth the investment.
“All is in place with the deserters?” she asked Ime.
“It is,” her spymistress confirmed. “We’ve prepared the scapegoat.”
Good, that was one worry in hand.
“Sepulchral?” she probed.
“We still don’t know who plans her campaign,” Ime admitted. “Not anyone openly in her service, at least. It’s slickly done, Malicia. It’s possible whoever is doing it isn’t even with her army.”
That seemed… unlikely, from what Malicia understood of military affairs. Perhaps a Named would be able to work through such constraints, but there was none around to provide such guidance.
“Best prepare for a bloody end,” the empress pragmatically said. “She has served her purpose, the time has come to pull the curtain on her rebellion.”
“Troke Snaketooth is on track to win the election as High Lord of the Steppes,” Ime said. “And he’s reiterated to our agents that the terms still stand: if we confirm him in that title he’ll lead the Clans against Nok.”
Which, combined with the destruction of Abreha Mirembe’s field army, would be enough to bury the cause of Sepulchral. The Sahel of Nok and the Mirembe of Aksum would turn on their ruling kin the moment they thought the cause helpless, and Malicia was willing to offer relatively mild terms of surrender for their return to fold. No need for soulboxing, it would be overplaying her hand. Increases on a selection of taxes would hamper their economic recovery for long enough that the empress could smother them out instead of wielding an executioner’s axe. Perhaps an expansion of the Green Stretch at the expense of Aksum, she mused, as pointed lesson.
Treachery was treachery, but no one should swing at the Tower and miss without proper admonishment.
When the in-depth reports on the few nobles she’d asked for came, she finally connected the dots. The lords and ladies that were not veterans were nearly all from border or trade holdings. The kind that would be negatively affected in a direct way by the kind of civil war that’d afflicted the Empire for the last few years. Ah, Malicia thought with a smile. It was a faction she was looking at. A very discreet one, difficult to make out on parchment, but a faction nonetheless. One that was hostile to her rule of the Tower. A rash of assassinations would not be overly difficult to arrange, but Malicia restrained herself. When one got rid of weeds, it was best to burn them out root and stem.
It was too early for blades, and she could make use of this for other purposes.
She had letters from Wasteland lords that expressed concerns about the Clans being on the move, and those concerns were slowing her attempts to put together one of the measures that would keep her head on her shoulders and her crown atop her head. The ritual that might solve the Hellgates that terrified the Grand Alliance had exhaustive resource requirements, the kind that not even the Tower’s vaults could see to. She’d had to rely on drawing on the resources of northern lords for some of the substances. It needed to be ready soon, she knew. The ritual would bind the gates to open only once every decade for seven days and seven nights, an ideal solution, but it needed weeks of preparation before it could be implemented.
“Send word,” Malicia ordered Ime. “We are holding a formal court session in the Tower. As the nobility of the south is coming, so will the nobles of the north.”
The Taghreb play had Amadeus’ signature all over it. He liked to move pieces towards the centre, were they could be more easily dealt with. He’d get his wish, Malicia decided, and more. Much more. Using the gathering of the Clans as a reason for the court session would see even the most reluctant of lords and ladies come, the empress knew, and with them would come an army’s worth of retinues. Another assurance to have in her pocket, should it come to the worst. With the Empire tended to for now, Malicia could turn her attention to further measures that would preserve her life and reign. She needed leverage on the Grand Alliance, not only Callow, and there was only one place left to acquire it.
The Free Cities, where General Basilia’s attempted unification of the League was beginning to worry the cities yet to be conquered. There was potential in that, but none of the rulers involved were willing to engage in talks with the Tower. Between Hasenbach and Foundling, the costs of dealings with Praes had been made to steep for any there to still be willing to pay them. How fortunate, then, that Malicia had replaced the Merchant Prince of Mercantis with a creature of her own.
Alaya was the Dread Empress of Praes. Should weather this storm and emerge from it triumphant, as she had all others.
It ought to be an exciting sort of war, but somehow it was not.
Dear Sargon had offered Akua the use of the Amaranth, a sure indication he was looking to get rid of the Tower’s leash around his neck. The necklace was a splendid thing, a collar and trailing generous expanse of beads in polished gold and onyx. Each bead held a small sliver of power, at the fingertips of whoever wore the necklace. Yet it was the pale purple precious stone set in the hollow of the throat that made the Amaranth such a powerful artefact, for within it lay a Titan’s tear turned to crystal. The purity of the overwhelming grief it emanated allowed a caster to free themselves of all feelings and doubts, leaving one’s will the sharpest it could be. Akua’s ancestors had used the artefact to make even the most middling of their sorcerer-lords seem skilled, in the past, as the Amaranth was enough to turn even a middling fool into a passable battlemage.
Having been a prodigy herself, she had found instead that the Amaranth not only ended the difficulties she’d had in acclimating in her new body but that it had allowed her to surpass some of her old limitations. The swiftness of her recovery had made spawned many a murmur that she was becoming the Warlock in truth, as was only to be expected, but Akua knew it to be otherwise. She had been Named, once, and not forgot the sensation of it – the warmth of unbroken certainty settling on her shoulders like a cloak.
It had not been difficult to prove her value to the Black Knight, though the stern Marshal Nim had treated her as a hissing viper at first. Detailed information on the spellcasting capacity of the Army of Callow and Catherine’s own limitations – which were ever-shrouded, but Akua had deduced to some extent – had bought her a place at the table. From there, it had only been a matter of finding out the Named’s weaknesses and presenting herself as a remedy to them. The auxiliary cavalry that had been assembled from highborn sons and daughters from all over the Empire had been defiant of the ogre’s authority, at first, but Akua had eased the burden. She was of the greatest of lineages herself and rumoured to be Named: within days she had them eating out of her palm.
She took one of them to bed, on a whim. A Taghreb captain with a crooked smile and dangerous manners, whose large rough hands had appealed. Not so after she fucked him. She’d had her due of pleasure, more than once, but it had not sated her. It had… lacked intensity, somehow, though she knew that to be absurd. She’d been a shade for years, the sensations should have been almost overwhelming. Akua was careful not to think of what hands might have better pleased – smaller, knuckles always half-scuffed and, no, she was not this weak. There were better uses of her waking hours than chasing the never-be.
Settling the highborn cavalry had not given her a foothold with Nim, only ensured that she was now being treated as a mildly useful rattlesnake. Organizing the auxiliary mages into proper casting circles, however, would be a step in the right direction. Akua did not even have a rival there, as the only person of Praes who might have contested her – Nahiza Serrif, widely recognized as the greatest mage in the south – had declined service in war due to her age. Dubious, that, but Serrif was famously reluctant to ever leave her mage tower and Malicia had little to gain from throwing stones at the wasp’s nest. After a few brisk duels fought under the pretence of practice, Akua broke the ringleaders of the most important cliques to her service. Most gave way with good grace, as was custom, but some did not.
Kendi Akaze fell to his knees, panting and covered in sweat. The last wisps of his spell faded away, shattered at his feet. Swaths of the ground had burned, but Akua was well-learned in curses and he had not studied them deeply. His blood was slowly boiling.
“Surrender,” Akua ordered.
“Did you even know her name?” Kendi hoarsely asked.
She cocked an eyebrow.
“Of course you didn’t,” he laughed, wetly. “Just another mfuasa. A servant. We don’t even know if she died as your dog or if the Black Queen nailed her to a cross. We weren’t important enough the question was asked.”
Akua studied him for a long moment.
“Your sister?” she quietly asked.
“And two of my cousins,” Kendi snarled. “All for your pride. So you could go on serving the enemy. We’re all just games to you, aren’t we?”
Murmurs of disapproval. It was one thing to bear a grudge for the death of one’s kin, respected even, but for a mfuasa to question their place was… disgraceful. If they had been fit to be more than servants, jino-waza would have ensured that they were.
“Surrender,” Akua repeated.
He spat to the side, struggling to rise on shaking limbs.
“Her name,” he croaked, “was-”
The roar of the flames he formed, not even voicing an incantation, drowned out his own words. There was an irony in that, she thought. A lesson, for those who cared about such things. The spell was at her fingertips in an instant, quicker than even his despair. The flames were smothered in darkness, rot writhing its way up Kendi Akaze’s arm. He howled in pain, dropping unconscious, and Akua knew he had to die. He would try again, otherwise. Some grudges could not be set aside. And still she ended the spell. Ordered him dragged to a tent. They thought she would order him tortured, she saw in the eyes of the watchers. Made an example of.
She had him healed instead. The hatred was not gone in his eyes when he woke.
“This changes nothing,” Kendi hissed. “Nothing.”
“I did not expect it would,” Akua quietly said.
There was a long moment of silence. She looked outside the tent, hearing his steady breath.
She turned, met pale brown eyes with golden ones. Because you are my past made man, she thought. There is no pit in Creation deep enough I could bury you in it. Because I loved a girl as a sister, once. I murdered her, and a thousand other sisters since. Where does it end? If no one kills me, where does it end?
“Why not?” the Doom of Liesse replied.
She dreamt of her father, that night, and woke up with red eyes. Iron sharpens iron, the other mages praised her. She kept to the old ways truly, to have a kept a man who wanted to kill her alive just so she would remain sharp. Bile rose in her throat even as she smiled. This what who she was now, wasn’t it?
She did not regret sparing him.
With the mages in line, she proved her value to the Black Knight. A ritual to bring the Army of Callow forcefully into Creation, to deny retreat through the Twilight Ways. It was an inspired piece of spellcraft, she thought. And she found her hand, moving again and again. Adjusting numbers. It was pointless, Akua thought. Even if the blow was softened she would never be forgiven for it. And still. The hand moved. Some had hated her, in the Army of Callow. Many. Others had been… kind. In their own way. How many of them would she kill with her ritual?
A few less, she thought. If she could.
It worked, and the battles that followed saw her prove herself. Then there was that hard night where the Army of Callow reminded them it was still the same mule that’d kicked in the ribs of half the armies on the continent, slipping behind them. And there would have been battle, but Sepulchral surprised them all. Instead there was a tense, hesitant stalemate and Akua was at last invited to dine in private with Marshal Nim. It was a stiff affair, almost begrudged, and there was no dessert. The marshal proved remarkably forthright, by the time the plates were taken away.
“I can smell it on you, you know,” the Black Knight rumbled. “Ambition.”
Akua smiled easily, drinking of her wine.
“It seems like a singular curse to be able to smell such a thing while living in Praes.”
“You’re only charming to humans, Sahelian,” the Marshal glared. “Malicia saw use in you and she’s been proved right in that, but I still question her judgement to have taken up such a hiltless sword.”
“Do you often?” Akua asked.
The ogre eyed her in silence.
“Question the empress’ judgement, I mean,” the Doom of Liesse idly continued. “Idle curiosity, I assure you.”
“Highborn,” the Black Knight said, tone disgusted. “He was right about you all, B- Amadeus. Even if the sun fell down on us you’d jostle for the nicest place to die. You don’t know what loyalty means.”
Oh my, but what an intriguing mistake she’d almost made. Telling, too. She would not be the only to change the word halfway out of her mouth: the Carrion Lord had, for better or worse, been part of the backbone of the empire for decades. That was not a legacy easily cast out. Did it weaken her Name? It likely did. Enough, perhaps, that Catherine’s little Squire might be able to slay her given the right opening. Something to ponder.
“Interesting, this talk of loyalty,” Akua said. “There are some who would say you’ve broken faith, following the Empress over your predecessor.”
“That’s because you think like a child, Warlock,” the Black Knight scathingly replied. “Like loyalty can only be about people. You want to know what I follow? There’s no need for games, mageling, I’ll tell you. It’s not like I hide it.”
“That would be most helpful of you,” Akua agreeably replied.
“I believe in the empire promised us in the Reforms,” the Black Knight bluntly said. “A Tower that holds to law and order, that does not cater to the whims of the High Lords. A realm that is not a mangy pack of alley cats fighting over scraps.”
“And Malicia offers you this?” she asked, genuinely surprised.
Though the Empress was certainly of a mind to gather the power in Ater, she had never been one to mind a bit of intrigue. It would have been like a prize champion being shy of the arena.
“You’re not listening, Warlock,” the Black Knight bit out. “This isn’t about people. You know what the cornerstone of that dream is? The Legions of Terror. An army that can cow the High Seats, professional and modern and most of all loyal.”
Akua studied the other woman with open fascination.
“This isn’t about the Tower at all,” she said. “This is about the Legions.”
“You think half my officers, half my men, don’t want him on the throne?” Nim said, tone hard. “She’s been good to us, Malicia. Better than most. But she’s not known. She’s the stranger in the Tower.”
“It would kill the Reforms, if you rose to help him climb the Tower,” Akua slowly said.
“We wouldn’t be an institution anymore,” the Black Knight said. “The bedrock of stability. It would make us into just another High Seat to please and defeat the entire purpose. Do you think it’s a coincidence that he’s been skulking about scheming instead of calling on the Legions of Terror? Soldiers would come if he raised a banner.”
“I have read the reports,” Akua delicately said. “That decision might not be one of principle, but driven instead by the Emerald Swords-”
Marshal Nim laughed, leaning over the table. Her breath was unpleasant.
“You think he’s the kind of man who’d flinch at killing elves?” she said mocked. “He’s got Ranger at his side. Don’t be a fool. He knows it too, what it would do to Praes to call. Just like he knows we’ll fight him tooth and nail if he comes for the Tower.”
“You sound like you admire him,” Akua said.
“I do,” the Black Knight said. “I don’t like him, Sahelian. I don’t love him either, and I fear what kind of an emperor he would make. But I do admire him. Even now, he still believes in the same dream that I do.”
The ogre bared her teeth.
“And he’d agree it matters more than any single man.”
And there it was, Akua thought. The Black Knight thought herself a fortress for her principles, unassailable to temptation because her loyalty was to something above the dross of petty ambition. She was wrong, of course. Idealists were no less fragile than anyone else if you knew the lay of their castle.
“Oh dear,” Akua sighed. “You really are going to get yourself killed, aren’t you?”
The Black Knight scoffed.
“Repeat that threat and-”
“It won’t be me, you fool,” Akua sighed. “Warlock. Black Knight. Scribe. Captain. Ranger.”
“The Calamities,” Marshal Nim said, impatient. “What of them?”
“Where are they now, Black Knight?” she asked.
A moment of startled silence.
“Gone,” Akua said. “The Dread Empress of Praes does not long tolerate other Named at her table. Even the band that made her bid for the Tower was broken and sent out in pieces, Nim. How long do you think you’ll last?”
“Captain died abroad,” Marshal Nim flatly replied.
“On whose behalf?” Akua laughed. “Come now, you ought to know better. Did you truly think yourself so different than me in the empress’ eyes? You, too, are a hound raised to run down a particular trouble.”
The golden-eyed mage pleasantly smiled.
“And Dread Empress Malicia is not the kind of woman who keeps a hound at the table when the hunt is finished, Black Knight,” Akua said. “It is a waste, to her. She puts them down.”
The Black Knight laughed mockingly.
“And you’d never, of course,” Marshal Nim said. “So I ought to back you instead, for fear of my life. You’ve only listened to the parts you wanted to hear.”
“I have listened to everything,” Akua sharply said. “It is you who ignores the reality around you. Do you think Malicia cares a whit about your little dream, save in how it helps her maintain control?”
“Wind,” Nim dismissed, “she benefits from-”
“Not enough,” Akua snarled. “Gods, when are you all going to understand? It will not be enough, because when you hold the Tower it can never be enough. There’s always another enemy, another doom, another doubt. She’ll cut open the Legions to make what’s left her creatures. She’ll hobble them so they can’t ever raise a hand against her. Because you have ideals, you fool, and she doesn’t share them. In the back of her mind the whisper is always there: is this the line that makes them turn on me? Is this the order they will refuse? She doesn’t make decisions because they are lawful or fair or they bring stability. Malicia cares about being in control. That’s it. That’s all of it.”
She had risen to her feet, at some point, but she did not recall.
“There’s no place for your dream in that Dread Empire,” Akua said. “And there’s no place for you either, Black Knight. For a Named that will get in the way of making the Legions safe. I have a spell that will kill me, somewhere in this body, but Gods burn me if there is not a sword hanging above your head just the same. We are meant to be temporary measures.”
The armoured ogre watched her in silence, still as a statue.
“I rode that black doom to my end, once,” Akua said. “I know the look of it, Marshal Nim, and the empress is a woman in the deep throes. There was a time where I thought-”
That I spoke words like these so they would trust me, she thought. So they would love me. So that I would have a seat by the fire, until they saw through it and turned on me. Her nails bit into the palm of her hand.
“It doesn’t matter,” Akua got out. “It is all scrapped iron, that’s all. Pointless.”
“You are,” the Black Knight slowly said, “perhaps the finest liar I have ever known.”
“You want truths?” Akua asked. “You want proof? Fine. Ask someone you trust to inquire as to what a pattern of three is, Black Knight. You who fought a Squire and won.”
She smiled mirthlessly.
“Because I know,” the Doom of Liesse said, “and I assure you the Empress does too.”
And she had not, Akua knew bone-deep without even have looked, said a word. And though tomorrow they would return to war, to the bitter fruit risen of the bitter seeds Akua had lain, she knew from the look in the Black Knight’s eyes that she had just cracked the stone with the blow.
And still, curse all the Gods who listened, she was not hearing the damned song.