“Your mistake, Queen of Blades, is in thinking that virtue is the province of Good. Every Tyrant who has ever claimed the Tower, every fool and every madman, had the seed of greatness in them. Courage, cleverness, ambition, will. We may lose our way, we may lose ourselves, but every time we get… a little closer. You think I am afraid of death? I am a droplet in the tide that will drown Creation. I take pride in this, even in my hour of failure. Empresses rise, Empresses fall. But the Tower?
Oh, the Tower endures.”
– Last words of Dread Empress Regalia the First
“It’s an ugly thing, isn’t it?”
There was truth in that. So may tales had been woven around the throne of Praes that the lies could no longer be told from the truth, but there was no denying the thing was ghastly. Stone and iron welded together brutally by a man without a single artistic speck to his soul. The first Warlock had many talents, it was said in the records, but creation was not one of them. The pile of stone was squat and rough, the back of the seat slightly crooked towards the left and the iron used to keep it together had dripped onto the floor when heated. After Triumphant had brought down the Tower on her killers in a final act of spite, it had been found intact. Not a single loose stone had so much as touched it. The people who’d dug up the room had all gone mad and killed themselves within a week of unearthing it.
The throne of Praes was not for the sight of meek souls.
“It should be,” Amadeus said. “They had a firmer grasp on the truth of what we are, back then.”
An empire cobbled together out of warring tribes and kingdoms who had failed to unite even in the face of the invading Miezans. A lie agreed on by Taghreb and Soninke, by the orcs and the goblins, that the peace forced upon them by the foreigners could survive their leaving. Praes was not a Mtethwa or Taghrebi word – it was Old Miezan, ripped from the hands of the enemy and held aloft as a trophy by the first Dread Empress. Maleficent had known, he believed, all the peoples of the Empire should be remembered the clang of shackles every time they spoke of their nation. That way they would never forget the War of Chains, forget that there had been a time all had been humbled. Once we could not look beyond our own knives and petty disputes, so Creation buried us. Remember.
A hopeful woman, Dread Empress Maleficent. She’d been hopeful all the way until the High Lord of Wolof had stabbed her in the back and stolen her throne, laying bare the truth of her empire: power gained through the spilling of blood will be taken by the spilling of blood. Always. Praes could be held, but it could not be owned. There would be no Dead King to reign forever here, no Tenets of Night all must bow to. The Dread Empire would have a hundred thousand Tyrants, all of them lost and grasping beyond their reach until their doom fell upon them. And the Tyrant would rise anew, with fire in their eyes and unquenchable ambition in their stomach that Creation would deny – but oh, the craving. Wasn’t the craving what it was all about? It was an unusually poetic thought for Amadeus, a man not particularly prone to sentiment outside of some very defined boundaries. He did not linger on it.
A thousand poets had etched their sentences on the soul of the Wasteland, but he was not one of them. The legacy he sought was of a different sort, if no less elusive.
“We all know it’s a lie, Maddie,” Alaya laughed. “Look at all those pretty gildings close around the throne – close, but not touching. Some lines even Praesi won’t cross.”
The hall was empty, would have been for the better part of a bell. Alaya always put up the most vicious wards available to the mistress of the Tower whenever they claimed this place for their drinking. Tonight they had, by informal agreement, chosen to sit by Dread Emperor Malevolent III. ‘The Pithy’, the histories of Praes named him. As far as Amadeus knew, he’d done little in his ten years or reigning save for putting a goblin rebellion and failing spectacularly at making the empire a naval power. The Ashurans had sailed straight into Thalassina and burned the half-built fleet: the only surviving captains had immediately defected, setting themselves up as pirates in the Tideless Isles and becoming a recurring blade in the back on the Empire’s merchant shipping.
There would be, he knew, a little detail about the man he did not know that would surprise a laugh out of him when linked to something Alaya said to him tonight. She’d always delighted in weaving little hidden jests in her words for him to find later when thinking back on them. She’d been like that even the Sentinels had come for her at her father’s inn, before the soft but deadly games of the seraglio had honed that skill into a blade that cut as often as it teased. Many a lord and lady of Praes had woken up in the dead of night weeks after their audience with Malicia, shivering when they realized the full implications of a seemingly innocent sentence. Amadeus took the bottle when the Dread Empress of Praes offered it, tossing back a gulp of terrible wine and grimacing at the taste.
“Gods, I’m not sure why we keep drinking that swill,” he said.
“Nostalgia,” Malicia mused. “Of all the spirits made on Calernia, though, I will concede that the ones made in the Green Stretch are the worst. By far.”
She pulled deeply at the bottle when he passed it back, wiping the smooth back of her hand against her mouth without even the pretence of manners. Times like this, Amadeus could still glimpse the girl he’d known. The one with the laughing eyes and the burning ambition, still unhardened by the dark days ahead of her. And yet, save for a few conversations by moonlight, he’d never known much of that girl. It was the promise of Malicia to come he had truly struck a friendship with. The half-tread path between smiling Alaya and the hard-eyed Dread Empress who would rule over the Wasteland.
“It tastes like dirt and lack of prospects,” he said after taking another drink.
Alaya snorted. If one of her courtiers had ever seen or heard her do something so undignified, they would have thought their senses to be lying before they believed it to be truth. It still warmed him, after all these years, that she trusted him enough to allow that small part of herself that belonged only to her to flicker into life in front of him.
“Truly,” she said, “the taste of home.”
She raised the bottle in a mocking salute to the throne.
“To the Green Stretch,” Amadeus toasted. “And the most glorious mud in all of Creation.”
The tone was sardonic, but the memories ran deeper than that. Back to a time where they had been nobodies in the breadbasket of a failing empire: him thinly clad in a Name he’d put on as a deserter’s cloak, her as the great beauty of a town so small it was not on all maps. They’d rise, hadn’t they? Gone further than they had any right to. Not that right ever mattered much to either of us.
“It actually costs more to have it brought to the Tower than to buy the wine itself,” Alaya admitted, tone amused. “I buy it in crates to satiate my conscience.”
“You have entire crates of this horror somewhere in the Tower?” Black said. “Truly, your arsenal is a fearsome one.”
Thunder crackled outside just after he spoke, lending his words a strangely ironic weight. There was always a storm of sorts around the Tower, raging or preparing to rage. Wekesa had informed him the rapidly shifting weather patterns across the Wasteland were linked to the phenomenon, though Amadeus had not inquired further after making sure that link could not be exploited to control said weather. Pity, that. The desertification of the Wasteland would never be entirely undone, but it could have been mitigated with the right tools. Laying back against the marble pillar, an old friend by his side, Amadeus watched the unfolding history of Praes made mosaic across a floor and said nothing.
“Hasenbach has flipped Ashur,” Alaya finally said, and the amusement was gone.
He did not ask if she was sure. Her agents had penetrated the Thalassocracy deeper than Eudokia’s, and they did not make mistakes.
“We still own his son,” he said.
“He’s just a voice in their committees, until his father dies,” Alaya said.
That was always the problem, with Ashur. They genuinely believed in their tiers, that a higher-ranked citizen was fully deserving of the authority granted to them and that trying to overreach before promotion was worthy of contempt. The Baalite hierarchy had sunk so deeply into their society that even centuries after the Hegemony had become irrelevant to the larger affairs of Creation, eclipsed by younger and greater powers, the tiers were still held as sacrosanct. As long as Magon Hadast lived Ashur would be a friend to Procer. A wary and self-interested friend, but that would be enough if the right promises were made. They would be, of that Amadeus had no doubt.
“That girl becomes more dangerous to us every year,” he said.
“That girl is us,” Alaya said, “forty years ago, looking at the stars from a different land.”
The dark-haired man did not reply immediately, silenced by the accuracy of the thought. They’d always known that there would be a price to pay for what they had done in Procer, for the lives he’d had Assassin take and the wars Malicia had kindled with gold and soft words. The First Prince was finally coming to collect. Did he regret it? No, the thought came immediately. It had been a strategic imperative for the Principate to be paralyzed during the Conquest if it was to succeed. That war had always been going to find their doorstep. All their plots had done was delay the first knock by a few decades.
“Levant, now Ashur. She’s trying to forge an alliance against us,” he said. “Dear Cordelia might get her crusade, after all.”
The tone was light, the implications were not. If Hasenbach managed to forge her broader, continental version of the League of Free Cities she only had to wait until the pretext for a Tenth Crusade fell into her lap. Amadeus held no illusions about the fact that it would.
“The Free Cities are where we can kill this in the egg,” Alaya said. “The more that war spins out of control…”
The more Hasenbach’s allies would be tempted to ignore her overtures of peace and order to get involved and claim their cut of the spoils. The moment two forces belonging to two different of her would-be crusaders met with swords out her entire enterprise would collapse. Alaya had the influence abroad to ensure that much. If it happened. Neither of them trusted anybody currently involved in the war to make this happen, unfortunately. Sending in the Legions of Terror, while tempting, would give Hasenbach a gathering cry for all Good and banner for her damned crusade. Which meant a smaller, more measured intervention.
“Wekesa will meet me by the Wasaliti,” Amadeus said. “We’ll all take a ship down through Mercantis.”
From there, he would see where the weakness in the Good League was. Penthes, most likely, for Praesi influence had gained ground there in recent years. However little of that was currently left, it did not matter: the Calamities had done more with lesser openings.
“Squire will be getting her vote and veto earlier than anticipated,” Alaya said mildly.
“It was always the plan she would get them eventually,” Amadeus said.
“After you schooled her properly in ruling,” Malicia murmured.
And there was the rub, he knew. It was one thing to entrust to a seventeen-year-old Callowan girl – with occasionally more mouth to her than sense – half of the territory in the Empire after he had taught her what he knew of ruling, quite another to do so before. Alaya’s fears were not unwarranted, he thought. For at least the first year, Catherine was likely to butcher and coerce her way through anything she perceived as an obstacle. She would do so mercilessly and without hesitation, too, because there was something utterly ruthless at the core of Catherine Foundling. Callowan defiance, perhaps, but married with something brutally pragmatic. Something that would use what it could not break and break what it could not use. Sabah had once told him that Catherine was what a child of his and Hye’s would be like, and though he’d batted away the notion he had not denied it. It was, he knew, a dangerous sort of attachment.
“The deep end is where she learns best,” he said.
“You sound proud,” Alaya noted.
Amadeus laughed quietly into the great and empty hall.
“Two years, Allie,” he said. “She has been at this for two years, and already two heroes are dead at her hand. Everything they sent against her, she has scattered. Armies, devils, even a demon. Gods Below, a few months ago she all but mugged an angel.”
He reached for the bottle and took a swig.
“Proud?” he said. “Proud does not do it justice.”
Alaya took back the bottle and drank deeply before setting it on the cold floor.
“Affection,” she said fondly, “has always been your weakness. One you turned into a strength of sorts, but still a weakness.”
That was why they’d always functioned so well, they both knew. Because Alaya could see the things he was blind to and take the measures he would not, because he was willing to make the leaps of faith when she had run out of faith years ago. Nefarious had much to answer for. He’d died by Alaya’s hand, and Amadeus had not been willing to step in the way of a hatred so earned and bloody, but if he had… Poison would not have been his weapon. He would have unleashed the reserves of viciousness Wekesa had deep inside of him, made it a death no one would ever forget as long as Creation stood. And Wekesa would have done it, without even needing to be asked, because his oldest friend loved Alaya too in his own way. In a way less trusting and more aware, he thought, but that did not detract from the depths of it. Warlock had wanted her on that throne as much as Black did, after the civil war, wanted to see the hint of the laughter they’d known return to those dark eyes. Wanted to see the fear gone from them.
“Before I go south,” he said. “There is still one matter to attend.”
“Heiress,” she said.
“She has defied Imperial authority twice, Alaya,” he said. “First with the demon, then again at Liesse. She was planning on capturing the Hashmallim, for what purpose I do not know.”
“I do,” Malicia said. “And I trusted your apprentice to unmake that plan.”
“She needs to die,” Amadeus said bluntly. “Loudly, badly, publicly. I don’t understand why she’s still alive at this point. We’ve done worse to people of blood as old for lesser offences.”
The Dread Empress of Praes took the bottle and brought it to her lips. She drank for a long time, and when she leaned back against the pillar her smile was a dark thing.
“It’s not about Heiress, Maddie,” she said. “It never was. It’s about her mother.”
Amadeus’ brow rose, but he did not interrupt.
“Tasia Sahelian,” Alaya spoke, relishing the words. “High Lady of Wolof. A tick, Maddie. A tick I could not get rid of, and who bound others to her schemes. And now I am about to break her.”
A game that broad would have had surface stirrings, Amadeus knew, and calmly his mind revised every major event to have happened in the last five years in the light of what she had just said.
“The gold,” he said after a long moment. “The reparations you levied on her – you knew she’d pay. You never thought it would make her withdraw the orc tribute petition.”
“One move at a time, for the last decade, I have slowly emptied her coffers,” Alaya said, still smiling. “Inconsequential laws she paid the fine to break. Tariffs raised on goods she needed. Bribes offered she needed to match. And down went the treasure of Wolof, one aurelius at a time.”
“She still has coin,” Amadeus said. “Her network of spies has not been reduced and her subversions in the bureaucracy continue.”
“Oh, she has coin,” Dread Empress Malicia murmured. “Silver, to be exact.”
Amadeus’ eyes sharpened. “Procer. I thought you’d cut off the flow.”
“I did not,” Alaya said. “And now she is dependent on it so stay above the waterl. Her overextension will reach a peak when she sinks a fortune into restoring Liesse – whose infrastructure, I am afraid, is about to collapse.”
The dark-skinned woman put down the bottle on the floor, and the cold clink of it was like an executioner’s axe.
“And then the silver will stop.”
That would end her, Amadeus knew. The loss of face when she had to publicly default on the many commitments she’d made would shatter any credibility with the rest of the nobility. Her own family would rise in revolt to remove her. It would go further than that though.
“The Truebloods,” he said.
“Will, within a year, end as a political entity in the Empire,” she said softly.
Because Heiress, emboldened by her continued toeing of the line going unpunished, would make another mistake. Give Malicia another lever to pry apart the Truebloods and deal with them individually. The Reforms could begin again, he thought, but those promised skies were too sunny. In the Wasteland, that was always the prelude to the worst of storms.
“If Tasia is willing to take those risks,” he said, “it means that her end game can be reached within a year.”
“That is my assessment,” she agreed.
He closed his eyes. Liesse, it all came back to Liesse. That had been the prize mother and daughter both had wanted out of the rebellion, and not merely to steal some taxes.
“Heiress,” he said. “She has a different plan. What is it?”
There was a long moment of silence, marred only by the patter of the rain outside.
“Do you trust me?” Alaya said.
A year ago, he thought, you would not have needed to ask. A year ago, though, he would not have pressed for answers in the first place. Four words she had spoken, with so many deeper meanings behind them. After all these years, she was saying, after all the times we have hurt each other without knowing or being allowed to let it stay our hand, do you still believe in this? What we have built, the two of us. All the sacrifices we made, the choices we bloodied ours hands with, do you regret them? Even though the chasm is deep and the way across long, though the darkness is thick and we are both so, so tired – will you make that leap of faith again, if I ask you? Amadeus closed his eyes, and leaned back against the pillar. Gently, he threaded his fingers through Alaya’s.
“Always,” he said.
Because he was the Black Knight and she was the Dread Empress, and together they had twisted the strands of Fate until they snapped. Because he was Amadeus and she was Alaya, and though the children they’d once been were long dead the dreams they’d woven together under starlight were not. She rested her head against his shoulder, and for a long time they did not speak.
“A ‘jolly good time’,” she eventually said.
He snorted. The Tyrant of Helike’s words as he threw the south-east of the continent into sheer bloody chaos.
“One day,” Alaya continued, “we will have foreign allies who are not complete imbeciles. By sheer dint of odds, it has to happen eventually.”
“That’d be the day,” Amadeus said wistfully. “But until then…”
“Even if the heroes come,” she said.
“Even if the angels rage,” he said.
“Even if all of Creation stands against us”
“We’ll win,” they whispered.
In the distance, thunder rumbled.
Neither of them flinched.
Akua Sahelian let the sorcery seep into her body. Old stones from the first foundations of Wolof, having drunk deep of the ancient magic there, surrounded her in an unbroken circle. Turning the power within them to the purposes of healing had been the work of an afternoon, one of the first tricks with high arcana her father had ever taught her. The sorcery came and went in tides a prefect match for her heartbeat, alone in the warded room she’d had prepared in the lower levels of the ducal palace of Liesse. She would have to sit there on her chair of lightning-struck oak for a full bell to finish healing the last of the wounds inflicted on her, so Heiress closed her eyes and thought. Sleep would have been so very restful, but it was no longer the kind of luxury she could afford. Not now, when here plans truly began. Not now, when the enemy prowled around her seat of power in search of weakness.
Foundling has unleashed her twisted little goblin again, the one with the thief’s name. The wretch was officially out on manoeuvres, but he’d really been haunting the roads in and out of Liesse. There’d been no lack of targets: even after her loss of face, Heiress’ allies were legion. They were coming to her city now, flocking to make a darker mirror to the Empress’ court in Ater. Not all of them made it: twice already an entire party had disappeared without trace in the night. Both of them had been headed by members in good standing – if not high authority – of the Truebloods. Aisha Bishara was picking the prey, she knew, surgically removing the most reliable of Akua’s allies before they ever made it to the protection of her walls. It wouldn’t be enough: word has spread and now the Praesi were coming in larger, heavily armed groups. More than a single cohort of goblins, however brutal, could handle.
Not for the first time in the last moon’s turn, Heiress’ thoughts turned to the city she ruled over. To the battle that had taken place there and the infinitely more important events that had unfolded behind it. She could admit it, in the perfect privacy of her own thoughts.
Liesse had been a disaster.
Out of her ten-odd objectives when the Fifteenth had left Marchford, only one had been met. Forcing support for her bid as governess. That was it. As for the others? The Hashmallim, instead of being trapped in a dimension she owned as fuel for the next part of her plan, had been essentially bullied into resurrecting Foundling. Resurrection. The sheer effrontery of that, she reluctantly had to respect. The Squire was still an ignorant thug, but she was an ignorant thug who’d spat in the eye of the Heavens. A little of what it meant to be Praesi had sunk into Catherine Foundling, whether or not the other woman wanted to admit it. The Lone Swordsman was dead, as she had wished, but his death had empowered the Squire in ways she could not yet fully understand. Far from weakening her rival, the killing had added an another blade to her arsenal.
The devils she’d meant to use to thin the population of Liesse – to spill so much blood the grounds would be consecrated to the Gods Below, to flush out the rebels and make room for her coming allies – had been turned on themselves within half a bell of being unleashed. The sheer amount of contracts she’d permanently lost through that was painful to think about. The demon she’d secured as the blunt tool she would occasionally need? Now in the hands of the Apprentice, the same man who’d turned her bindings into a meat grinder as easily as pouring himself a cup of wine. Had she been the kind of woman who shivered in fear, Akua would have at that. The son of Warlock with a demon dating from Triumphant’s – may she never return – day in his hands was not a notion she cherished. Another asset lost. If she could have turned Masego to her purposes the problem would not have been quite as keen, but she had no angle there.
Apprentice had, as far as she could tell, no real vices. He did not drink much, ate often but of peasant fare and socialized but with a few people – all of them either family or members of the Fifteenth. It had been mildly interesting to learn he played shatranj with the Adjutant and talked spellcrafting with the Duni Senior Mage, but there was no lever there. Sex was similarly useless as an approach: as far as she knew Masego had never lain with either a man or a woman, or even shown interest in either. She had agents of both genders do everything but show up in his bedroll naked and the man hadn’t even noticed, most of the time. Frustrating, especially since Apprentice was the only of Foundling’s Named contingent it was even slightly possible to bring to her side. Trying that with the orc was a fool’s errand. Heiress did not sigh, even in this room where no one could hear or see. Apprentice would be building his mage’s tower soon, she knew. Perhaps he could be tempted with exotic materials or test subjects. It could hardly be a worse failure than the seductions, anyway.
Akua knew she should not be focusing on Foundling, not when she had so many more pressing matters to attend, but her thoughts seemed unwilling to abandon the Battle of Liesse. That some of her objectives would not be met, she had expected. It was inevitable. But a failure of such magnitude?
Foundling had ripped her way through one contingency after another, quipping even as a walking corpse. An entire host of devils, neutered then slain. The Lone Swordsman, lured into her path, beaten bloody and then tricked into ending his pattern of three. Her burning of the only way into the church had barely slowed her down, and there was Chider. Chider had been her trump card, her assured victory. Stealing the Name of Squire had been certain to work as long as she was owed a victory against Foundling, and had. And given her an aspect more dangerous than ever before, not to mention restored the fullness of the Name. She hadn’t known, that the demon had crippled the Name. Her spies in the Fifteenth had not reported as much on the walk to Liesse. There would be a reckoning for that failure yet. Chider had always been supposed to die permanently, either at Foundling’s hand or Lord Black’s, but for her to be disposed of faster than you take a bath?
No, that had not been part of the plan.
By dying, Foundling had inserted a flaw into Akua’s plan. The ripping of the Name should have incapacitated her for hours, would have if she’d not been a corpse, and so bought Heiress the time she needed to deal with the Lone Swordsman and imprison the angel. An ironclad victory had been wasted on a matter that had ultimately proved trifling, and there would be no second pattern of three. Creation did not embrace such tedious repetitions. The work of two years had been wasted: provoking Foundling and then fleeing on the Blessed Isle, the messy draw at Marchford… Akua had spent much time to guarantee herself a victory when she needed it most only to find that triumph utterly empty. It was enough to make her blood boil.
And there had been that final conversation, in that dinky little room where her companions had been turned into bargaining chips under her own nose. When Ghassan’s soul had been ripped from his body as Foundling sat quietly next to her, forcing her to watch. And this time there will be no bargaining to save you, Foundling had said. There had been something in Squire’s eyes, when she’d said that… Akua Sahelian had been raised among people who killed for sport and bound the very denizens of Hell to their will, but what she had seen there had made her flinch. She’d asked her mother, once, why her hatred for the Dread Empress ran so deep. Why it was so personal. I met her eyes, when I surrendered, Mother had said. And what I saw there scared me. Heiress understood, now, how that single moment could consume someone. She remembered the calm implacable certainty in the Callowan’s dark eyes and felt her hand tremble, if only for a moment.
She could not concentrate on Foundling. Squire was the brazier she’d lit so everyone would watch the flames and ignore the knife. Killing Foundling had never been her purpose. The results of that would have been disastrous: Akua would have become the slated successor of the Black Knight, the last thing she wanted. Dealing with Lord Black from anything but a position of power would be… dangerous, to say the least. Heiress’ game had always been with greater opponents, and the rivalry with Foundling had served as an apt smokescreen for it. There were only two people in Praes who could stop her: Dread Empress Malicia, First of her Name, and Tasia Sahelian. For all her failures she had, after all, gotten what she needed from the rebellion. The first prize was Liesse. Deep in the south of Callow, where the Empress’ reach was weaker and old sorcery was woven into the walls. There was power there, power that could turn the work of decades into the work of months.
The second prize, the most important, was a story. Heiress uses devils. Heiress uses demons. Binds them, commands them, makes them her own. She was just starting to be known in the Empire, and already her Name was fundamentally intertwined with diabolism in all the stories. That was the deeper plan, the masterpiece she had crafted over the years. The Name of Heiress after all, was in many ways inferior to that of Squire. It strengthened her body and her sorcery, but not as well as her ‘rival’s’ did. The applications of it were perhaps a better fit for her, allowing her to manipulate and deceive with a deftness beyond her years, but when it came to combat it was flatly outmatched. That much had been made clear in Liesse. Both were transitional Names meant to lead into something else, but Squires were bound to become Knights. A Heiress, though? A Heiress could become anything.
Heiress uses devils. Heiress uses demons. The worst of diabolists.
Already she was beginning to transition, and the moment she did she could finally put all the forces in motion. Begin crafting the key to the cage, the way out of the trap she had been bound by since her birth. A year, that was all she needed.
A year and she would change Creation.
The Wandering Bard, lately Almorava of Smyrna, sat on a stone by moonlight and idly strummed her lute.
It made a noise like a chorus of cats drowning. The sound was made all the more jarring by the fact that she had not, until that moment, existed then and there. Or since the Battle of Liesse, really. She’d watched from a distance as William killed the Squire and known what it meant. That the Lone Swordsman had lost, that Liesse was lost, that the rebellion was over. There had been no need to linger, and she’d not had the heart to watch William die. Whether or not he had deserved better was debatable but he had tried. Badly and often in ways that were misguided, but he had been trying to do good. It was a shame, that his story had never been going to end well. William of Greenbury would have been a very different man, in ten years. She knew this because she could feel the shape his story would have taken with her fingertips, if he had somehow managed to pass the hurdle that was Catherine Foundling and all the monsters behind her. It was not to be. Contrition used its heroes until they broke, and in breaking parted the clouds to allow the shine of the sun to triumph.
It was sordid, the Bard felt.
She would write a song for him, one day. One worth singing. But she would not do so tonight. The death was too fresh, rawer than she had thought it would be, and William had never been the sort to sing. He’d been a man of thought and silences. Of impatience and recklessness as well, but in some stories those same traits were called boldness and courage. It was always about what you made of it, and in the Lone Swordsman there had been surprisingly much to make of. Dropping the lute on the mossy green earth, the Bard fished out a bottle of her haversack and popped it open. She sniffed. It smelled like anise. Gods, it was a bottle of that foul fig distillate Ashurans were so fond of, wasn’t it? Of the many sins the Baalite Hegemony had to answer for, bringing this abomination over the Tyrian Sea was undoubtedly one of the worst. She had a drink anyway. It burned on the way down, warmed her and reminded her she was alive. That was always a comfort after she’d had a Wander.
She was currently sitting within a stone’s throw of the walls of Liesse, which told her exactly what was about to happen. How much time had passed she couldn’t be sure, but there was only one plot thread left dangling. They must have taken their time, she frowned, eyeing the now-pristine walls. Heiress must have been governess for at least a moon’s turn. Likely they would be arriving at exactly the right moment to hit the hardest, having followed the instructions there were given to the letter. To the number of heartbeats passed, even. The Bard drank from her disgusting trial of a bottle again. Her teeth were starting to taste like anise and an ever-expanding alcohol problem.
“You might as well come out, boys,” she called out. “You’re not fooling anyone.”
The elves did not appear, because appearing had the implication they had not been previously there. They had been, they’d just decided that Creation would not be able to see them. That was the way with the older elves: they decided what rules applied to them. They could not ignore more than one, but that was usually enough. Besides, she would not put anything past these two: they had been old before they’d ever set foot on Calernian soil. Few people would have called the two Emerald Swords beautiful, she decided. By the standards of humans their faces were too long and angular, their skin so perfect as to seem almost marble and those wide eyes filled with so much contempt it was nearly a physical thing. They were tall and slim and terrible to behold, like a coldly shining star. The one on the left was called Dawn and the other Dusk. They were both men, not that she could have figured it out from looking at them if she had not already known. The Bard let out an obnoxious whistle.
“Two Emerald Swords, huh?” she said. “The Forever King really wants her dead.”
They did not reply with words. Infinitesimal twitches, impossible for anyone but a Named to notice, served as an exchange between the elves. Obstacle, Dawn said. Unforeseen, Dusk added, deeply offended.
“He’s a bargain bin prophet, your man,” the Bard snorted. “He thinks a crown and a few dreams means he can read the weaves? Please.”
Sharp and ugly fury erupted in both of them without changing them in the slightest. Kill, Dusk said. Hero, Dawn reluctantly disagreed.
“Them’s the rules,” the Bard said. “Can’t touch a hair on my head so long as your King doesn’t give permission. And he would have needed to see me coming for that.”
She guzzled down more or that sin against the Heavens, allowing some of it to trickle down her chin. She wiped it off messily. Disgust twitched across their frames. It was almost too easy to toy with them, really.
“You’re going to use words to talk to me,” she said. “If you don’t, I’ll just have to start speaking elvish – or what’s that fancy name you folks give it again? The True Tongue?”
“Your language is carrion,” Dawn said in Lower Miezan, as she’d known he would. “I will need to rip out my tongue after soiling it so.”
However soiling the act of speaking a language not elvish, it would have been nothing to having a mere human speak their precious True Tongue. Even a hero.
“You’re such charmers, you lot,” the Bard drawled. “You know, I had high hopes for your kind when you first arrived.”
She gestured expansively.
“Armada of white ships lands under the Everdark, pretty little elves burn it immediately. You go into the woods and genocide your way through the Deoraithe until you own the land. I told myself ‘old girl, these ones mean business’.”
She grinned sharply.
“But then you stayed in your Golden Bloom, didn’t you? Closed the borders and ignored the rest of the continent. That was a disappointment, let me tell you. You had such potential.”
“The affairs of mortals are of no interest to the elves,” Dawn said.
There was no intonation or inflection to the words. They were just spoken, as if by a being made of stone. The Emerald Sword could be made to speak a human language but not bother with the frills of it.
“Not you elves, anyway,” the Bard said. “It’s why they kicked you out, isn’t it? The others. The ones that breed with humans, whose kingdom is larger than this entire continent. Lots of room there, but not enough to fit your opinions about lesser races.”
“The Kingdom of the Golden Bloom will remain forever unmarred,” Dawn said.
“Oh, sure. Pure, pretty as a painting, all that good stuff.”
The Bard paused, then smiled.
“Shame about that birth rate, though, no? How many kids you popped since coming here again?”
None, they all knew the answer was. That was what happened when you murdered the original owners of a forest and tried to claim it your own. It remembered, and no amount of singing to the trees was ever going to fix that.
“We know who you are, Keeper of Stories,” Dawn said. “She of a Thousand Faces. Speak your piece.”
“I hadn’t heard that one in a long time,” the Bard chuckled. “Keeper of Stories, eh? Just doesn’t sound the same in Lower Miezan. I go by the Wandering Bards, these days.”
They did not reply. They saw no further need to indulge her, she realized with amusement. She gulped down another chunk of her horrible, horrible liquor.
“The Forever Twit sent you to knock off the Heiress,” she said. “Not happening. Fuck off.”
The wooden sword had bit deep into the stone, less than hair’s breadth away from her femoral artery. She’d never even seen Dusk move, and as far as she could tell he was still standing where he’d always been. The only difference was the absence of the spellwood sword at his hip.
“Do not,” Dawn said, “mock Him again.”
“You lot developed a temper in your old age,” the Bard grinned. “It’s almost cute, the way you think violence is something that could scare me.”
She’d accented the word in Lower Miezan the same way it would have been in elvish. It was enough to horrify the both of them.
“You know what she intends,” Dawn said.
“Better than either of you, or the man who holds your leashes,” the Bard said. “But you know what really ruffles my feathers, Dawnie? That he thinks he has a right to meddle.”
Her voice had gone cold. They were both wary now.
“’cause the way I see it,” she continued, “you signed that away long ago. Around the time Triumphant was kicking around. Remember Triumphant? Lass about wee high-“
She waved her bottle around, spilling some on her sleeve.
“- scowled all the time, conquered the continent? Any of that ring a bell? Around the time she took Callow, she turned her eyes to the Golden Bloom. And what did you bunch of rabbit-eared sissies do then?”
“Anyone? Seriously, it’s not like you two weren’t around.”
“You bailed out of Creation is what you did,” she said. “You took your pretty little kingdom and fled right into Arcadia. And boy, was she pissed when she realized it. Wiped out two cities in rage.”
The Bard drank again, loosely sprawled on the stone. She knocked down the lute by accident and did not bother to pick it up.
“And now you think you get to cut away the part of the story you don’t like,” she said. “Really, the nerve of some people.”
The Wandering Bard grinned nastily, the white cut of her teeth like a slice of sharp moonlight.
“This is my game,” she hissed. “Amateurs are not allowed.”
She leaned forward.
“Crawl back to your forest, Emerald Swords,” she said. “And tell your owner that if he ever tries anything like this again, he will rue the day.”
Neither of the elves moved.
“I will not,” the Bard said softly, “warn you again.”
And just like that they were gone. As if they had never been here at all. The sword was gone, the stone it had cut completely untouched. Almorava of Smyrna sighed, and looked at the stars. She finished her bottle, and she died.
The Wandering Bard opened her eyes in a crowded tavern room. People spoke all around her, not a single one of them looking in her direction. She sitting alone at a table in the back. She looked at her hands, surprised not to see any wrinkles. Young twice in a row? That was rare. She was definitely getting laid in this one, it just felt better when you were still young. Her skin was of a pale tan, the appearance of most hailing from the Free Cities. Who was she?
Aoede of Nicae.
It had a ring to it. And she got tits, this time! An improvement. Almorava had been a disappointment in that regard. Hair was a bit long and too curly for her tastes, but she’d made do with worse. Aoede’s leathers still smelled of anise and threats, but that was part of her charm really. She passed by the bar, snatching the bottle of liquor a dark-haired man had in front of him and then stealing a cup to pour herself a drink. The man in question was passed out, and she clucked her tongue disapprovingly. Not only was this a lightweight move, by the looks of the sun it couldn’t be past noon. The man behind the bartop shot her an amused look.
“That stuff will kill you, sister,” he said in tradertalk.
“Son,” she said, “I’ve got more lives than a bag of cats.”
Keeping the bottle, if not the cup, she strode out into the sun. The White Knight was bound to be close, or she wouldn’t be there. Contrition, in the end, had not done the trick.
Maybe Judgement would.