Chapter 49: Triumph

“There’s a degree of argument among scholars as to whether the Liesse Rebellion was the underlying cause of the Uncivil Wars or the first of them. I was there, though, and I can tell you this: the seeds that were sown in Liesse are what we reaped in the years that followed.”
– Extract from the personal memoirs of Lady Aisha Bishara

I’d have thought they would do this in Whitestone, with all the sprawling avenues and gardens there to use, but I’d severely underestimated how many people would be there for the ceremony. Half the city must have been packed around Fairfax plaza, filling every nook and cranny Marketside. Merchants were selling chilled wine and ale as well as something that smelled like those spicy sausages from Hedges. I was more interested in the grilled fish on sticks from the lake, though watching some man obviously devoid of taste scarfing down one macerated in the Southpool way instead nearly put me off my appetite. Ratface had told me that in Praes the designated idiots in all the jokes were the people from Nok, but here in Callow it was the Southpooleans. Too much mud in their part of the Silver Lake, it clogged the brains. The old rumour that their people mated with giant carps was a fond a well-polished assertion in the rest of the country.

The Fifth Legion was out in force, today. They’d opened a cordon from the Green Gate to the plaza and kept it open by liberal use of clubs when the crowd got too enthusiastic. Which it had, much to my surprise. I’d been at the heart of the force that had ended the Liesse Rebellion in fire and steel, but by the way people were cheering as I rode through the streets you’d think I’d restored the Kingdom. Some people actually threw flowers: bell lilies, the same blooms Eleonor Fairfax had once worn a crown of. A symbol of victory old as the Kingdom, now used to praise the girl who’d made sure that same Kingdom would not rise in her lifetime. The irony of that was cloying, and I would have told Hakram as much were he not three steps behind me to my left. Apprentice, to my right, had somehow gotten his hands on a chariot pulled by two pale silver winged horses.

I’d seen Warlock use a similar one back in Summerholm, running over the Lone Swordsman as his way of joining the fray. The horses were likely a pretty picture for the celebrants – they’d bring in mind the old tales about unicorns, now gone from Callow and into the Waning Woods – but from where I sat I could see the melded at the base of the wings. Clearly, those horses hadn’t been born with wings. I supposed that I should count myself lucky they didn’t breathe fire, like the flying pig had. Masego clearly had no idea how to actually guide a chariot, much to my amusement, but there seemed to be spells on the reins that did the work for him. Still, now and then his hand jerked out of his control and he tried very hard to pretend he’d meant to do that all along.

Behind us the Fifteenth filtered through the streets, the Gallowborne in front. The name had been officially sanctioned, and the paint on their shields depicting a golden noose was still fresh. The same emblem was on the banner Captain Farrier carried, gold on red with the embroidered motto they’d picked themselves: best of the worst. Robber already had several limerick couplets unflatteringly relating the words to their abilities in bed, which inevitably had spread like wildfire in my legion. Behind my personal guard, Juniper and her general staff were at the head of the column. The orc was looking unusually cheerful today, which more or less meant she wasn’t actively scowling at anyone. I even knew why, since Black had passed one that bit before official word could come in: she was, today, to be made the youngest general since Reforms. Before those didn’t count, in my opinion, since there’d been quite a few High Lords and Ladies barely into their teens granted that authority for political purposes. Marshal Grem One-Eye had only been granted the position officially in his twenties, though he’d ascended to the office of Marshal the same year. Still, she might yet beat that record too. There was always another war around the corner, and the old guard was beginning to be more old than guard.

I caught a handkerchief floating through the air, thrown from a balcony. The pretty blond girl who’d tossed it flushed deeply when I looked in her direction. Nice dress, I noted, and quite revealing. It was satin, so she was likely from lesser nobility or wealthy merchant class. I tucked it into one of the pockets sown inside my cloak. It was still the same pitch-black garment Black had gifted me last year, but it had undergone… modifications. There were three strips of cloth bordering the bottom of it now. Taken from three banners: the Silver Spears’, Marchford’s and Liesse’s. Hakram had procured and sown them himself on the march to Laure, since he was apparently a deft hand with a needle. I liked the effect, and it did not escape my attention he’d left room for many more stripes.

The procession was slow, but eventually we arrived to the plaza. I dismounted from Zombie the Second, who for now remained a living creature, and let a sigh of pleasure out at finally standing on my feet again. Adjutant and Apprentice flanked me as we waited for Juniper to join us, her perfectly polished armour reflecting the glare the noonday sun. The four of us stepped towards the platform ahead of us. There might have been wood under it, but it was out of sight: the entire structure was covered with a red woven carpet, the style of it Callowan if not the colour. The Empress had likely ordered it from Laure weavers to reinforce ties there. Malicia herself was seated on a throne, an ornate thing made almost entirely out of gold. The arms of it were shaped as lions holding bells in their mouth, a rather bold statement. Lions were a symbol associated with the throne of Praes, while bells had been the symbol of the Fairfax dynasty the Empress had overthrown.

Apparently the lions were a recent change, as it had been previously been tigers who’d served as the emblematic animal. They’d gone out of style after the sentient tiger army fiasco, Aisha had told me.

The Dread Empress was still absurdly beautiful, and I privately decided that having gotten a good look at her was half the reason the people of the city were cheering. The crown on her head was ivory inlaid with lapis-lazuli with a perfectly spherical sapphire as the centrepiece. Her dress was white bordered in thick braids of gold, revealing the beginning of her breasts and her bare shoulders. Splendid gold armbands with scenes of the Imperial civil war held from her upper arms and a heavy necklace shaped a dozen Towers linked circled her neck. None of it held a candle to Dread Empress Malicia in the fullness of her glory, sitting in the shade of her red pavilion. The four of us came to stand half a dozen steps down from her throne and stopped. She smiled, and the world felt like it had gone bright. Just a quirk of the lips, and I knew men would have killed their own siblings to get another one. They probably had.

Even Hakram was blushing, and I knew for a fact he found humans unattractive. Masego seemed a little surprised at himself for being affected at all, which made sense to me. I’d never seen him display any interest in anyone from either gender, and wasn’t sure he had that in him at all. The Empress rose, and for the first time I noticed that Black was standing to the right of her throne. He looked shabby, compared to Malicia. His plate was without ornament, his sword undecorated and his cloak looked almost threadbare. Until it caught the light, anyway, and then suddenly it looked like it was made entirely of crow feathers. It wasn’t enough to make him look like anything but a sworn sword guarding his ruler. At my side Masego and the two orcs knelt as Malicia took a step forward.

I remained standing.

“Rise,” the Empress ordered, and they obeyed.

Malicia’s words reverberated across the entire plaza without her ever raising her voice and the silence that ensued was so absolute you could have heard a pin drop.

“Order has been restored to Callow,” she said. “Procer’s attempt to place a puppet on the throne has been thwarted, the misguided rebels of the south shown the errors of their ways.”

Or a grave, for those who hadn’t been nailed to a cross. So that was the angle she was going to take on this whole thing. Poor Callowans had been tricked by the wicked Procerans, made to bite the hand that fed them by bribery and coercion. The Empire would, of course, be merciful. But no so merciful as to spare the nobles who’d masterminded the rebellion.

“Laure remained loyal,” Malicia said, her voice caressing the city’s name in a way that almost gave me a shiver. “As did so many of our subjects. For this, there will be reward.”

The anticipation in the plaza was palpable.

“All taxes in cities that remained loyal with be halved for a year,” she announced. “And in this greatest of Callowan cities, I declare a week-long festival to honour our victory.”

The crowd went wild. Halved taxes, huh. Good call. Trade had slowed when the blades came out and this would get it started again. As for flattering the ego of Laureans, it was hard to go wrong with that. I was honest enough to admit that the people of the city I’d been born in thought of themselves as the only part of Callow that really mattered. Apprentice looked bored out of his skull, but Hakram and Juniper were listening with sharp eyes. The Hellhound had already pressed me privately on the subject of what the Fifteenth would be doing in peace time, and the Empress’ current focus on Callow was revealing. I knew my legion would be on assigned duty to a city, I just didn’t know which one. Black had been even vaguer than usual, implying there were plans being hatched higher up in the ranks.

“Though I reward loyalty, I must also reward service,” Malicia continued when the cheers died out. “Legate Juniper of the Red Moons, step forward.”

The Hellhound did, and knelt when the Empress elegantly gesture for her to do so.

“For your resounding victories at Three Hills, Marchford and Liesse, I name you a general of the Empire. As of this moment, the Fifteenth Legion is granted full status as a Legion of Terror and the ensuing right of recruitment.”

The cheers at that were more sporadic, though I got the impression the crowd would vocally approve of pretty much anything Malicia would say today. Greenskins still weren’t popular in Callow, though in cities that was beginning to change as they spent time in garrison duty. Juniper remained kneeling.

“Lord Apprentice,” the Empress said, after Masego also knelt. “For your distinguished service in the pursuit of peace, I grant you Imperial sanction to raise a mage’s tower anywhere in the territories of the Empire.”

The history behind that was a little more complicated. A mages’ tower was essentially a fortified laboratory warded so heavily it would make a fortress flinch, and after having to put down a dozen rebellions springing from those the Tower had restricted their raising. The only person currently sanctioned to have one was Warlock, who had linked the three dozen laboratories he actually had through a pocket dimension to get around the technical restriction of one. Now Masego could raise one as well, and I knew where he would: Marchford. He’d already told me that after the ceremony he would be leaving the Fifteenth to go study the thinning of the borders between Arcadia and Creation where we’d fought the demon. He’d be missed, but I knew if I really needed him he’d come. We were friends. How odd, that I actually had those now.

“Hakram of the Howling Wolves,” Malicia said. “I welcome you as the embodiment of the ties between the Clans and the Tower, the living proof that our people are united as they never have been before. You have served well and faithfully, proving the worth of your Name. For this I grant you all the attending the dignities of a lord of Praes.”

But not, I noticed, the actual legal title. Black had been trying to push the recognition of clan chieftains as nobles in their own right for decades to no avail. The reasons for that involved the Clans not technically owning the steppes they lived in and the justifications behind the whole tribute system, which had apparently been even more of a clusterfuck before the Empress had reformed it. Still, this was not a meaningless gesture. Hakram could now own land, raise a retinue and would be tried in the noble courts of Praes should he ever commit a crime. That last part was admittedly largely irrelevant as long as he served in the Legions, since he answered only to military tribunals while in service, but should he break the law as a civilian he might be the first greenskin ever taken to trial in the noble courts. He could technically style himself Lord Adjutant in public, now.

“And lastly, Catherine Foundling.”

The Empress dark eyes were on me, her red lips quirking fondly. It was a lie, that fondness. I’d done little to earn personal affection from the ruler of the Empire. And yet, looking at her smile, I almost wanted to believe in the lie. Some people could be dangerous without ever holding a blade. I barely noticed the crowd going quiet again behind me.

“Our Squire was born in this very city,” the Empress said, and there was a rumble of approval. “In Callow’s hour of need, she led soldiers from all parts of the Empire and scattered the forces of disorder.”

Only true if I counted as a Deoraithe, but it painted a pretty picture.

“For her valour, she now stands before me as the Lady of Marchford.”

For a moment I thought I’d gone deaf. The clamour from the crowd filled the sky, as they stomped the ground and screamed themselves hoarse. I met Malicia’s eyes and inclined my head, hiding my surprise. My mind was already spinning. What the people had heard was a no-name orphan becoming a noble, granted the rule over one of the oldest and richest holdings in Callow. A promise that the old nobility was dead, and under the rule of the Tower anyone could rise. What I’d heard, though, was different. The Empress had granted me a Praesi title, ruling over Callowan land. It was a statement. We’re here to stay. No rebellion will ever sweep us out. I closed my eyes and let the crowd’s approval wash over me. I’d have to think on this, on what it meant, before the day was out. But just for a moment, I allowed myself to enjoy it.

The suite in the Royal Palace was the same one I’d been given after becoming the Squire, though this time I was conscious when moving in. There would be festivities tonight and I’d need to change for them, so I took a bath in that same Miezan wonder I’d already sampled once. When I emerged scoured clean and smelling like lavender I dried myself, tying a towel around myself. I felt something more than heard it, and reached for the knife I’d left by the bath.

“That won’t be necessary,” Black’s amused voice informed me.

I sighed. One of these days, the two of us were going to sit down and have a nice talk about the wonders of knocking. I returned to the room to catch the familiar sight of my teacher lounging in a chair by a Proceran bureau. He was idly thumbing through a book of Kilian’s, a treatise on fine elemental manipulation by Dread Emperor Sorcerous. I’d tried to read through it a few weeks back and emerged from the attempt more confused about how magic worked than when I’d started. Whatever the transitional phasing of energy was, it was fiendishly complicated. And also possibly not real? How something could simultaneously not exist and be considered a basis for spellcrafting was beyond me. I ignored my teacher and stepped behind a cloth screen to change into comfortable breeches and shirt. It wasn’t that I was shy about my body, more that it felt… wrong to be naked around Black. Like pissing in a church. It had been bad enough seeing him make out with Ranger in a Name dream.

“So you’ve got bad news for me,” I said as I emerged. “You’re getting sadly predictable in your old age.”

“I’m not even eighty yet,” Black replied with a twitch of the lips.

Not that he looked a day older than twenty-five, unless you paid very close attention.

“You’re correct, though,” he said. “Sit down.”

I leaned against the pillars of my enormously oversized bed instead.

“As the last appointment of the sort done directly by the Tower, Akua Sahelian was granted the governorship of Liesse,” he said.

I blinked, started to speak then closed my mouth. I pushed myself off the wooden pillar and, very calmly, punched it so hard it splintered.

“That is insane,” I said. “Is this because I sent the letter? I put all my recommendations that she get the post in quotes, Black. The only way I could have been clearer was to add a sentence afterwards going ‘by the way, this is sarcasm, the only thing Heiress deserves is a summary execution’.”

“Her bid had other backing,” he said.

“Gods, if Malicia had waited another week the appointment would be put of her hands. The whole point of the ruling council is controlling the governorship system,” I snarled. “I don’t know what she’s up to, Black, but people are going to be butchered.”

“I am aware,” he said quietly.

“This will cause unrest, mark my words,” I said. “It’s open knowledge she’s the one who set the devils on the city. Gods Above, you’re putting in charge of Liesse the same woman who saw over two thousand of its citizens fed to literal hellspawn.”

The butcher’s bill after the siege had been heavier than I’d thought it would be. The evacuation of civilians deeper into the city had not been complete, some people refusing to leave their homes even with an army knocking at the gate. Black did not reply. I stared at him until the fury began to wane. All I’d just said he already knew.

“This isn’t your doing at all,” I said.

“It is not.”

My eyes sharpened.

“Malicia?”

He grimaced, and that was all the answer I needed.

“Why? She must have reasons,” I said.

“I would assume so,” he replied.

I sat down on the bed, my limbs feeling heavy. What he’d just said… Shit. That had implications. Black and Malicia had been thick as thieves since I’d first met them, and though I’d known there were some fractures there they’d always presented a united front. Disagreements were settled behind closed doors, where no one would hear – not even me. That my teacher was even willing to admit this was entirely the Empress’ game meant he disagreed with the decision so much he was not willing to put up that façade for the conversation.

“Is she cutting you out?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“I will be getting answers on the subject when we return to Ater,” he said. “She doesn’t trust any defensive measures but the Tower’s for this conversation.”

There were only so many people who would have the guts to eavesdrop on a conversation between these two.

“The Truebloods are up to something,” I guessed.

“You kicked a hornet’s nest when you forced them to back your petition,” Black said.

“You were along for the ride the whole time,” I reminded him.

“I was not criticizing you,” my teacher said, lips twitching. “Quite the contrary.”

I might still have to kill you, one day, I thought as my cheeks warmed. The longer I knew the man, the more complicated my relationship with him grew. I’d thought, when I first became the Squire, that I would have to fight him tooth and nail for every scrap of power. Instead he’d had my back every step of the way, battering down doors I couldn’t open on my own. I loved him a little bit for that. For seeing something in me I’d always believed was there, but that no one else had ever acknowledged. I also hated him for it, because I could no longer think of him as the enemy. Warlock had said that one day I would have to make a choice, and I believed him. And when that day came, when the knife was in my hand, I knew that if I killed him I’d miss him. As a teacher, as a mentor, as perhaps the closest thing to a father figure I’d ever had.

He was the Black Knight, and I was the Squire.

“I’m your successor,” I finally said.

“You are,” he agreed.

“I’ve wondered why you have one of those at all,” I said. “The Empress has a theory but I don’t think it fits anymore. If it ever did.”

Black rested his chin on the top of his hand, draped over his chair.

“I have been doing this for a very long time,” he said.

“Villains live until they die,” I said.

“Yes,” he said softly. “Until they die. Over the length of my career, I have myself killed twenty-three heroes and heroines. I’ve orchestrated or otherwise ordered the death of easily thrice that.”

He shrugged indifferently.

“I’ll meet someone better, eventually. Or they’ll get lucky: it only needs to happen once. It might be today, it might be next month, it might be decades from now – but they’ll get me.”

“So I’m your contingency?” I said.

“You’ve heard it, haven’t you?” he asked instead of replying. “The song.”

My heartbeat stilled.

“The first step is hardest, they said to her

You will have to walk through fire-“

“It will burn away what you once were,

And always devour whole a liar,” I finished.

He smiled, and it was sharp as a knife.

“They will learn to fear you, Catherine. I hope I live long enough to see it.”

A shiver went through me as he rose to his feet. He knew the song.  Gods Below, he knew the song. Two years that question of where I knew it from had plagued me.

“You’ve heard it before?” I asked.

“Once, when I was young,” he said. “It was not for me.”

“Where is it from?”

“It’s not from anywhere,” he said.

I frowned.

“What’s it called, then?”

The Girl Who Climbed The Tower,” he told me, and left.

Masego’s rooms weren’t far from mine. I’d expected to find him alone there, but was pleased to discover he was talking with Kilian. They both rose when I came into the room.

“Cat,” Apprentice greeted me.

“My Lady of Marchford,” the redhead teased, curtsying.

I strode forward and swept her into my arms, dipping her into a long and deeply satisfying kiss. Gods, I’d missed spending time with Kilian. Eventually Masego cleared his throat and I released her. She was flushed and her eyes a little wide.

“Already taking advantage of the servants,” my lover sighed. “Typical noble.”

“Don’t bother returning to the legion quarters tonight,” I said. “I don’t think you’ll be using those much.”

“Your bed is much nicer than mine,” she conceded.

I threaded my fingers through hers.

“Somewhere in this godforsaken palace there must be a dress that fits me,” I said. “It might even be in a colour other than black, one hopes. We’ll go dancing tonight, at the festival.”

“Dancing was not one of the Fae talents I inherited,” Kilian said.

“Wear thick shoes,” I recommended. “It’s not one of mine either.”

She smiled, cheeks dimpling as she brushed back a strand of hair behind my ear.

“I’ll leave you two to it, then,” she said. “Always a pleasure, Lord Apprentice.”

Masego grimaced. “Gods, don’t call me that. It makes me sound like I should know what’s going on at court.”

She waved us goodbye with a last smile and the door closed behind her. Masego’s room were smaller than mine, I noticed amusedly, and already filled with a dozen pile of books. I could see what looked like a dead pig cut open in his bathtub, which was just so typically Apprentice I couldn’t help but snort.

“We’ll have to discuss where I’ll build my tower,” Masego said. “Sit?”

I sat on what appeared to be the sordid Proceran invention known as a pouf. It was particularly frilly, and couldn’t decide whether it was a stool or a sofa. Praesi had it right with the cushions, I thought.

“We’ll settle that when we get there, I think,” I said. “Obviously I’d prefer if it wasn’t in the middle of the city.”

“The hills would be best,” he said. “Where the demon was first contained.”

And that was why I was here, wasn’t it? Apprentice had claimed an actual chair and looked rather curious as to why I was here at all.

“Masego,” I said. “Could you hand me the trinket I gave you? The one made of bone.”

He frowned, then cocked his head to the side.

“Why? You’ve had no definitive proof I’m not corrupted.”

I blinked. “Wait, you knew?”

He looked rather offended.

“You thought I didn’t?” he said. “Catherine, it smells like goblin munitions. It has a piece of your Name in it.”

“And you wore it anyway?” I said disbelievingly.

“Well, yes,” he said slowly. “After being exposed to a demon it was necessary for me to have a kill switch in case Father’s diagnostic spell has failed.”

I was, honestly, at a loss for words.

“That’s, uh, very enlightened of you,” I said.

“It was a reasonable precaution,” he said. “Arrangements like it aren’t uncommon among villains. I know Uncle Amadeus has a way to kill Father should he ever be corrupted, and he himself has an arrangement with Assassin to be executed should he ever become a threat to the Empire.”

He shrugged.

“Your method was crude and relatively obvious, but it would have been effective.”

“I kind of feel bad, now,” I mused. “I mean, I already did. But now I feel bad in a different, novel way.”

“You should,” Apprentice muttered. “Honestly, thinking I wouldn’t notice. You might as well have written ‘magical bomb’ on the surface.”

“I’m… sorry?” I ventured.

“I’ll expect a more elegant method of disposal before we get to Marchford,” he said. “As well as a written essay on the subject of why trying to deceive a man with my superb intellect is a fool’s errand.”

“I’m a villain now, I shouldn’t have to do homework,” I whined.

Both of us were smothering grins. Apparently I could do something right, once in a while. Not for lack of trying in the other direction.

This particular annex to the Royal Palace, called the Songbird’s Cage, had been built by Eleanor Fairfax’s grandson to house his mistress away from the prying eyes of his queen. He’d had the doors and windows barred and locked when said queen had started visiting the mistress more often than he did, spawning half a dozen songs running on the theme of caged doves, all of them involving puns about ‘locks and keys’ that thought themselves very clever. In later years, it had become where Callowan royalty held prisoners that weren’t officially prisoners. Several rebellious Dukes of Liesse had cooled their heels there until talk of secession died down, as had Fairfax uncles with a little too much ambition. It was fitting that the Baroness Dormer would be held there. A line of Gallowborne led by Captain Farrier trailed behind me as we tread the corridors, waving away the legionaries from the Fifth that guarded the unlocked door. My guards took position around the entrance – I’d expected a bit of friction there, but the two orcs from the Fifth began asking questions about Marchford instead.

Few of my legionaries had to pay for their own drinks, these days.

I knocked politely and waited until I was bid to enter from inside. I could have just strolled in, but it cost me nothing to be polite. If I ever ended up in her position, I hoped I would be extended the courtesy. Somehow, it was doubtful I would. Villains didn’t get taken prisoner, as I understood it. We turned our cloak or died, there was no middle ground. I had a nice cloak now, though. Turning might damage it. I supposed I’d have to stick with the whole villain thing for now. Anne Kendal, the Baroness Dormer, was still stunningly beautiful even in the subdued garments of a prisoner. She’d been allowed to keep her personal wardrobe, by my order, save for armour and weapons. Sitting in the solar of her suite, by the window, she’d been reading a book in candlelight. It wasn’t dark out yet but the windows were facing the wrong way to let the sun in properly.

“Lady Squire,” she said. “I did not expect a visit for some days.”

“There’s been some new developments,” I said. “May I sit?”

“By all means.”

I took the comfortable armchair facing hers, then lightly slapped two scrolls on the table. One held the seal of the Legions of Terror, the other the Tower’s.

“My trial is over,” Baroness Kendal immediately grasped. “I wasn’t even asked to stand in front of the judges.”

Her smile turned bitter.

“So much for a fair trial.”

“There would have been no point in you being there,” I said flatly. “I stacked the tribunal.”

Surprise and confusion flickered across the Baroness’ face. She’d been taken prisoner by the Fifteenth when the city of Liesse was under martial law – it was in my power to decide she should be tried under a military tribunal. I’d quietly sit down with the officers involved and told them what the verdict was going to be. There had been no debate.

“Open it,” I said, pushing forward the scroll with the seal of the Legions.

She broke it open and her brow rose as she scanned the lines.

“I am not to be executed,” she said.

“You’ve been stripped of your holdings,” I said. “That much was a given. You may still call yourself a baroness, but not the Baroness Dormer. Doing so would qualify as unlawful claim to Imperial property, under Praesi law. I think the punishment for that is lashes? I skimmed the reading, to be honest.”

“This,” she said, “does not seem like the work of Praesi law.”

“Things are changing,” I said. “There’s a reason I fought this war. Open the other one.”

Steeling herself, the noblewoman broke the Tower’s seal. Her eyes widened.

“What is this?” she asked.

“Before the week is over, the Empress will announce the creation of a ruling council over Callow,” I said. “This is your appointment to a seat on it.”

Seven members, there would be. Black had one, as the official head of the council – and also held the sole right of veto over any motion passed. One seat for the Empress’ representative, two in the hands of the high nobles who’d backed me willingly. One for me, and two appointments left for me to choose. It would work through majority vote, and I’d own that. Black had already told me privately he’d only attend the first few sessions before officially passing his vote and right of veto into my hands. With two seats in Callowan hands, my own vote and my teacher’s, I’d be effectively capable of passing any motion I wished. I’d agreed to Black being head of the council without any quibbling: I was not, at the moment, capable of ruling Callow. Especially not if I now had the rebuilding of Marchford to worry about as well. The council was a temporary measure meant to ease me into the trade ruling until I made a decision about the reorganization of Callowan territories.

“I’m a rebel,” Baroness Kendal said.

“You were a rebel,” I said. “Now you have a seat and vote in the institution that will pick the Imperial governors for all the holdings that were confiscated in the rebellion – including your own. Congratulations, Baroness.”

“Who else will be in this… institution?” she asked faintly.

“Three Praesi yet to be determined, Black, myself and someone I’ve yet too choose. I’m considering picking someone from the House of Light, but I’ll need a priest that’s not a zealot. I was hoping for your help in finding one, actually.”

“So Praes still holds the leash,” she said. “Majority vote, is it?”

I hold the leash,” I corrected. “There’s governors needed for Vale, Dormer and Holden. We’ll be choosing them. I don’t know about you, but I figure it’s time at least some Callowan land is governed by Callowans.”

“Not Liesse,” she said, clever eyes searching mine.

“Liesse is my problem to handle,” I said. “We’ll have authority to set laws and taxes for all of Callow – except maybe Daoine. The Duchess is already sending envoys to argue that since her duchy is a tributary state it doesn’t fall under the council’s authority.”

“Kegan was born grumpy and only got worse with the passing of years,” the silver-haired woman murmured. “Am I to understand that this council will have authority over all Imperial governors?”

I smiled coldly.

“That is correct,” I said. “It is within the scope of our mandate to remove governors and governesses should they prove unworthy of the authority they wield.”

Oh, there were quite a few laws specific to governors I was going to pass. First among them a rule forbidding any Callowan official from summoning or dealing with devils. Then another one limiting the amount of city guards allowed, as well as the founding of a group investigating corruption in the collection of taxes. Heiress might have her appointment for now, but she sure as Hells wasn’t going to keep it.

“The Empress has forged anew the crown of Callow,” the Baroness said. “No, she’s gone even further. The Fairfaxes could not dismiss nobles who displeased them at will. The powers you described are unheard of outside of the Free Cities.”

“Things are changing,” I repeated quietly. “You could refuse the appointment, of course. Head into exile.”

Black had told me that if she made that choice Assassin would dispose of her before she ever crossed the border.

“No,” she said. “I rebelled because I saw a better path for Callow. What kind of a hypocrite would I be, if I left now?”

A dead one, I did not say. I rose to my feet, inclining my head respectfully before heading for the door.

“Lady Foundling?”

I paused, then turned to match her stare.

“Why me?” she asked.

“Because there was more to the Liesse Rebellion than the Lone Swordsman and Proceran gold,” I said. “Because you weren’t wrong, really. Just not strong enough to win.”

Because I know I can bend you to my will if I need to, my mind whispered. I left the room and the noblewoman with it. The Gallowborne immediately broke out of conversation, falling behind me. Captain Farrier stood at my side as we strode away. We left the Songbird’s Cage, and I strolled through a pleasant garden. Sunset was beginning. The birds in the trees already sang their songs, the silver fountain in front of me gurgling quietly. I stopped a moment to enjoy the quiet.

“Where to now, Countess?” Farrier asked.

I looked at him, at the calm blue eyes and the angular face. Not for the first time, I reflected he had the most Callowan face I’d ever seen. Malicia had made a statement, in front of the crowd. Named me Lady of Marchford. And now, in this quiet garden, John Farrier was making another one. Countess, he’d called me. Not Lady. One of us or one of them. I looked up to the reddening sky, my fingers clenching and then slowly unclenching.

I did not correct him.

Chapter 48: Threes

“Nothing is half as dangerous to a villain as victory. We raise our own gallows.”
-Dread Empress Maleficent the First

“You’re still a villain,” Heiress said. “You’re still the Squire.”

Maybe, but things were… different now. I’d gotten an aspect much faster than I should have. Take. I could feel the now-shaped bundle of power inside of me, but there were complexities to it. It held the aspect I’d stolen from the Lone Swordsman, his godsdamned healing trick that had seen him survive the most brutal beating I’d ever dealt out. Rise. It was mine, now, but the way it was was hard to explain. I’d stolen the shape, maybe, but not the essence: there would only be so many times I could use it before it faded. When it did, though, I would be able to Take again. Or so I believed. My ignorance on the subject of Names and Roles was starting to be galling, but unfortunately there was no such thing as a how-to book to being a villain – the closest thing to that was my dreams, which tended to focus more on attitudes than practical knowledge. The dreams were, I thought, a teaching tool. A way to learn from the mistakes and victories of your predecessor. I wondered if Akua got them too, memories from the Heir that my teacher had killed.

“And yet, you are alive,” Heiress said quietly. “That should not be possible.”

I smiled cheerfully.

“Angels are sore losers, but rules are rules,” I said.

I could not be dead and win. I had won, so I must be alive. As the true owners of the sword, the Hashmallim had been supposed to see to that. They’d tried to flip it around by making me a heroic Queen of Callow, but I wouldn’t be having any of that. I already had a way and it was finally working: I wasn’t going to turn my cloak this deep in the game. That they’d thought I’d willingly slaughter the Fifteenth as the first step in a kingdom-wide rebellion showed how little angels actually understood human nature. Those legionaries were mine, after all. Bastards to a man and entirely too lippy, but they were my bastards. They flew my banner, fought my battles and sang my songs. I would have been twice the traitor some called me to turn my back on them. I’d been called quite a few things in my life – the majority of them pretty unpleasant, because Creation was out to get me – but contrite had never been one of them. I owned all of me, even the parts that weren’t pretty to look at.

For someone who was about to meet her makers, Akua seemed entirely too at ease. I felt flush with power right now, but that still rang alarm bells. Obviously, she had something up her sleeve. Didn’t she always? Not for the first time, I wondered what Heiress’ aspects actually were. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one entirely dedicated to screwing  me over, though how that would be phrased into an imperative I wasn’t sure. Clearly, at some point in this fight I’d stepped into her “clever” web of schemes. I should, I knew, probably spend some thought trying to figure out exactly how I’d done that. On the other hand, I believed it was a safe assumption that my ripping off her arms and beating her to death with them wouldn’t be part of any of her plans. It would also be extremely cathartic for me, which was an added bonus.  I frowned. Was it actually possible to beat someone to death with an arm? Well, it couldn’t be too different than doing it with a fish. So probably. Only one way to find out.

“So this has been an oddly civil talk,” I said. “Let’s fix that, shall we?”

“If you insist,” the dark-skinned girl said.

Runes formed in the air around her hand and lit up. Nothing happened. She didn’t hide her dismay quite fast enough for me not to notice it.

“Tried the demon, huh?” I said.

“You did something to prevent my access,” she accused.

“That’d be the redhead, actually,” I said. “And she’s definitely earned a treat for that.”

Akua sighed. “Well, it seems we’ve established killing you is likely beyond me at the moment.”

“You say the nicest things,” I said.

I strode forward with the angel sword in hand. It wasn’t burning me anymore, but I wasn’t feeling power from it either. It was, by all appearances, just a very sharp sword. Probably for the best. I’d been taught some very specific things about magical weapons anyway. There was a reason I didn’t wield any when the Tower held the largest stash of magical artefacts on the continent: the way Black told it, relying on a magic sword – or a magic anything, really – was effectively signing your own death warrant if you were Named. They always failed you at the worst possible moment. Considering I’d just killed the Lone Swordsman with his own fancy angel sword, I was beginning to see his point.

“As it happens,” Heiress said, “you can’t kill me either.”

“They all say that,” I mused. “But you’ll notice I have bits of hero all over my boots. Hopefully it doesn’t stain, Hakram would have a bitch of a time getting that out.”

“I mean, Squire, that should you kill me you’ll not survive the act,” Heiress said flatly. “I’ve bound this dimension to my life. Should I die, it will immediately collapse.”

I squinted at her.

“Are you telling me you just tried to summon a demon of Corruption in a dimension you bound to yourself? That’d be a special brand of crazy even for you.”

I cleared my throat.

“And by crazy I mean stupid. So very, very stupid.”

Akua looked a little insulted at that and I could see her gearing up for scathing rebuttal, but she mastered herself at the last moment. Clearly those years getting under the skin of my opponents in the Pit were still seeing good use even though I’d found other employment.

“I could show you the runes proving this if you weren’t magically illiterate,” she said.

“That’s slander,” I said. “I’m functionally magically illiterate. There’s an important distinction there.”

My absolute refusal to take her sinister revelations seriously was riling her up, by the looks of the colour on her cheeks. I was rather enjoying that, truth be told. Whether she was actually telling the truth was a toss up, in my opinion. A contingency like this was right up her alley, but on the other hand I got the impression I’d already murdered my way through most of her contingencies. It might not matter if she was telling the truth, though. Given enough time, Masego was bound to find a way into this place. The moment he opened a way out, I could just smoke her and bail. Maybe toss a couple of goblinfire balls to make sure no eldritch abomination crawled out.

“I guess we could stand in our respective corners of the church and think that over,” I said.

She smiled condescendingly.

“Apprentice will not find the gate to this place,” she said.

“’cause you’re such a big bad witch?” I said sceptically. “I suppose you might manage to hide it with a spell. On the other hand, it’d be pretty hard to do that without limbs. Which brings us back to the original plan of beating your ass. Progress, eh?”

“This dimension was crafted by Triumphant herself, you cretin,” Akua said. “Not even the Warlock could find it.”

“Harsh words,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Alas, you’ve hurt my feelings. Negotiations are breaking down already.”

“Do you have no self-preservation instinct at all, you fool?” she hissed.

I snorted.

“Akua, my opening gambit for this battle was getting myself killed,” I reminded her patiently. “You’re barking up the wrong tree here. But sure, I’ll take this seriously. If you apologize for your impolite language.”

I grinned.

“It was, I’m sure you’ll agree, beneath the dignity of such an august personage as yourself.”

I hadn’t seen anyone wanting to murder me so badly in a while. Page, maybe, but even her glares hadn’t been quite so venomous. I was morbidly curious about whether or not sheer anger might give Heiress heart palpitations.

“My words were not helpful to this conversation,” she conceded through gritted teeth.

I could have made something of that but there was only so much taunting she’d take before lashing out. She had an offer to make, clearly, and at the moment she was my only way out of this dump. I could always run her through the moment we were back in Creation, though I suspected it wouldn’t be that easy.

“I’ll allow it, in the spirit of good will and cooperation,” I lied. “Now spit out your bargain.”

The Soninke straightened, painting solemn haughtiness on her face. It was actually a good look on her, but then she’d always been gorgeous. Shame about that whole thing where I was going to kill her or die trying, but she shouldn’t have picked this fight if she didn’t want to get stabbed repeatedly.

“In exchange for safe passage, I ask three concessions of you,” she said.

“No,” I said immediately.

Her eyes flashed with anger. “This is not how negotiations are done,” she said.

“It is, if you’re buying contraband painkillers in the alley behind an illegal fighting pit,” I said.

I was being wilfully obstructive here, but not because I felt like being ornery. … Not just because I felt like being ornery. When it came down to it she’d had training in this and I hadn’t. The only way I wasn’t going to get robbed was by making her so furious she got sloppy.

“Three for three, or we’re done,” I said. “We can find out the hard way whether your little Triumphant bubble really can’t be found by Masego. Resourceful man, Apprentice. I’ll take those odds.”

Akua looked like I’d just flipped the negotiation table over hear head and made her clean up the mess, but she swallowed her anger. She didn’t have nearly as much of an upper hand here as she pretending she did, we both knew that.

“Three for three,” she conceded. “In exchange for safe passage for you into Creation, you will refrain from killing me or spilling my blood for three days and three nights.”

Ah, and there it was. The way she’d try to wiggle out of this mess. She’d bail out of Callow and return to the Wasteland, where the only way for me to kill her would be starting a civil war in Praes. That wasn’t nearly as hardy of a shield as she thought it was, but it was still an obstacle. I remained silent, trying to go through my options. I could just tell her to die in a fire and bet everything on Masego pulling through against all odds, but I didn’t like the shape of it. Crawling away from trouble she’d raised was what Heiress excelled at most. I’d already told Black more than once that for the shit she’d pulled her head should be on a pike, but the Empire had given her a suspicious amount of leeway. Either Black and Malicia were idiots, which I knew they weren’t, or there was something else at play. I’d never seen the Heir in one of my Name dreams so I couldn’t be sure, but avoiding blame might be one of the central powers for that Role. I’d already put my own slant on the events that unfolded today, so there would be no screwing my opponents with that story twice. Three days and three nights wasn’t that long, anyway. It wouldn’t get her out of southern Callow even if she managed to get her hands on a horse – which I’d make damned sure she wouldn’t, even if I had to kill every mount in the city. If she was on foot, I could have three cohorts shadow her and wait out the time before they carpeted wherever she stood with munitions.

“Fine,” I finally said. “Second?”

“Your monstrous little goblin seized my associates,” she said, and my heartbeat stilled. “I want them released into my custody and the terms of the first concession applied to them.”

Shit. She’d noticed it, then. Robber had spent the entire battle marauding in the streets with his cohort, capturing her Praesi lordlings. Did she know what I wanted them for? I couldn’t just give them away, not before my gambit played out. I closed my eyes. No killing or spilling of blood, I remembered. Those were the terms. There were ways around that. Not pretty ones, but she’d pushed me a lot further down the ruthless side of the slope than she thought. She’d asked for two things, though, even if she’d tried to phrase it as one. That felt… significant. Usable.

“Pick three,” I said.

She’s had five people in her retinue at the beginning of the battle. Barika, who I’d executed before the battle began properly. Fadila, the mage who’d bailed her out of the first three-way melee with the Lone Swordsman. And then there were the other three. Ghassan something or other, the boy with the sword I’d shamed in front of the court in Ater. Apparently a Taghreb lord in his own right. Then the actual important ones, the heir to the High Lordship of Aksum and the heiress to the High Ladyship of Nok. Akua’s face went blank, her eyes considering. I’d taken her by surprised with that.

“Is Barika still alive?” she asked.

I smiled unpleasantly.

“Going sentimental on me, Heiress? Could be she is. Could be she isn’t.”

“If she is dead,” the Soninke said softly, “there will be a reckoning for it.”

“Oh, there’ll be one of those anyway,” I said with my friendliest expression. “You can count on that.”

Her face smoothing out into an unnaturally calm expression, Heiress composed herself.

“Fasili Mirembe, Hawulti Sahel and Ghassan Enazah,” she said.

The two high nobles and the failed military commander. Picking her minions based on political influence instead of competence, huh. Sloppy habit. It would cost her in the long run, if she lived that long.

“Sold,” I shrugged. “In exchange, you will extend the truce terms given to you to all under my command.”

“Agreed,” she said, sounding slightly miffed.

Yeah, I’d seen that one coming a mile away. If I couldn’t nail her at will, I was allowing a mage able to use High Arcana – whatever the Hells that actually was – to run rampant in a city full of my subordinates. She could have slaughtered her way through my entire high command and I wouldn’t have been able to lift a finger to help.

“Third?” I said.

She was picking her words very carefully, which I took to mean she was about to try to pull a fast one. I was wrong, as it turned out. She was just being ridiculously audacious.

“After the war, I will petition to be granted governorship of Liesse,” she said. “You will support this petition in court.”

I blinked and then almost laughed, but she was being absolutely serious. The “no, Gods no, are you even serious, I didn’t hit you on the head nearly that hard” was halfway to being spoken when I paused. She didn’t know what I’d taken her minions for, I realized. Otherwise she wouldn’t have angled for this. I had actually managed to put together a plan she hadn’t seen coming. I forced my face to be completely blank. It would be suspicious as all Hells, but not as suspicious as my starting to smirk. Heiress as governess of Liesse had… possibilities. For one, she didn’t have to stay the governess. And while she was, she would be stuck in Callow. On my playing field instead of hers, away from all her allies and surrounded by a population that would utterly hate her guts. I clenched my fingers and unclenched them. I would be surrendering the population of Liesse to the very woman who’d set a host of devils on them. But I’ll have a whole arsenal of tools to make sure she behaves. My own support wouldn’t guarantee she got the post, I told myself, but I knew deep down that she wouldn’t have asked for it unless she thought it would tip the balance in her favour. I had thought, perhaps naively, that after starting a war to get in a position of power I’d have sacrificed enough of my people to the altar of necessity. It seemed not. Part of me balked at the notion, but the rest had already decided it would be done. It was just a matter of deciding what I’d get in return.

I could get the names of all the spies in the Fifteenth. That was horribly, horribly tempting. There were problems with that, though. There could be others like Nilin – and my fingers clenched just at the memory of him – who’d been placed in the College by nobles years ago, and not all of them would be known to Akua. I suspected all the Truebloods shared their information with Heiress, but they likely didn’t share their sources. I wouldn’t be cleaning house entirely. And it wouldn’t stop her from placing fresh agents afterwards, anyway. The Fifteenth was going to be recruiting after all this, so it wasn’t like she’d lack opportunity. Could I ask for an unspecified favour? No, she wouldn’t go for that. It would give me too large of an advantage over her. I needed to strip away from her a tool she’d be able to use against me in the future. I tried to figure out a way to cut her off from Trueblood support, but the phrasing would be too tricky. There’d be ways around it. What did she have that I didn’t? Fancy armour. Curves. A magic sword. A demon.

“Agreed,” I said. “You’ll surrender the standard controlling your demon to Apprentice before a bell has passed.”

I paused.

“With the same demon still bound to it,” I added hastily.

She’d been about to accept the terms when I spoke, and looked irked when I added the last part. Close shave.

“Agreed,” she replied.

The terms were set. Getting actual oaths going proved a little more complicated. Heiress suggested we swear on our Names, but I wasn’t doing anything of the sort when she outstripped me in Name lore by such a wide margin. I proposed we swear on the Gods, but from the way she paled at that an oath to the Gods Below was a lot more dangerous than one to the Gods Above. We ended up compromising with a blood oath. She cut her palm, which was apparently tradition but unlike her I actually used my hands to swing a sword so I nicked my shoulder instead. I refused to mix our blood to seal the pact, citing the fact that her stupidity might be catching. I was actually more worried about her being crazy enough to put poison in her own blood or some sort of magical plague, but I wasn’t about to admit that. It wasn’t paranoia if you were dealing with Praesi. I cut off a bit of the Lone Swordsman’s coat and we both dripped blood on the leather – myself first, just in case – which was apparently enough. I felt something like a manacle form around my hand, though there was nothing visible.

It was a novelty watching Heiress cast a spell that wasn’t actively meant to harm me. She carved out a gate of light out on the shore and stepped through first when I invited her. I followed almost immediately, not willing to remain on that creepy island any longer than I had to. Her transition through was a lot smoother than Masego’s had been, and I found myself on the shores of the Hengest just by the spot where the boat from earlier had finally finished burning. Heiress stood with her hands raised, surrounded by the Gallowborne with all their weapons out. Adjutant was the first to see me cross, and he told Apprentice to stand down.

“Catherine,” Hakram said, looking relieved.

“Just a moment,” I said, and sucker punched Akua in the stomach.

She let out a wheeze: I’d put my Name to work in that strike, and her armour bent under the impact. Sorcery crackled to life around her hand but I punched her in the stomach again and it winked out as she fell to her knees. Calmly, I took her wrist and snapped it.

“You probably thought I forgot to bargain for my own safety,” I said. “I didn’t. I just knew it wouldn’t matter.”

“You can’t hurt me,” she gasped.

“I can’t kill you,” I corrected. “Or spill your blood.

My boot came down and shattered her knee as punctuation. She screamed.

“Did you actually think you’d bargain your way out of this?” I said. “No. Not after what you did.”

I smiled coldly.

“What was it you called me, when you sat down with Black in Summerholm? A nobody, I think. With a reputation as a brawler and nothing else to my name. Here’s the thing, though, about brawlers.”

I broke her other wrist, interrupting her second attempt to cast.

“We know how to hurt people without making them bleed,” I said casually.

Under the gaze of a hundred Callowans and two other Named, I methodically broke every bone in Heiress’ body I could smash without making her bleed. She’d heal all of this, eventually. But she’d be incapable of being a problem for me for at least a month. Her face remained intact – hits there bled too easily – but by the time I was done with her she could no longer move on her own.

“Now let’s find out how well you bargained,” I muttered.

I thought about breaking her bones repeatedly for three days and three nights, keeping her in the city until the truce ran out.  The shackle around my hand tightened. Not that, then. I thought about allowing her to leave but having soldiers follow her. The shackle tightened again. The Fifteenth counted as an extension of myself for the purpose of killing, then. Damn. Dropping her in the lake? Also a break of the oath. I couldn’t think of anything else at the moment, but I had a whole cadre of senior officers to run it by. As well as a man who’d been raised by a villain.

“Looks like you get to survive,” I said. “For now, anyway. Captain Farrier?”

“Ma’am?” the Callowan replied, sounding a little awed.

“Have this woman dragged to the Fifteenth’s headquarters in the city. No need to be gentle about it, but make sure she doesn’t bleed.”

He saluted. Letting out a long breath, I turned to Hakram and Masego.

“Come on, boys,” I said. “We can talk as we walk there. The day’s not quite done.”

Juniper had claimed a guild hall as her forward command centre, as she’d done in Marchford. I could see why she’d pick up the habit: they were usually the largest building in a Callowan city that wasn’t a church or a noble’s home. They were usually closer to the main avenues than those two as well, since they saw so much people come and go. After assuring the Hellhound that the angel situation was dealt with and that I’d give her a full report later, I managed to extract myself from that conversation and steal away Aisha from her. I’d need her for the coming conversation. The storage room where Robber had dropped off Heiress’ minions had been cleared out except for four tightly bound rolls of angry Praesi, who started making noise through their gags the moment I strolled in. The Gallowborne propped up Heiress against a wall before I dismissed them, keeping only Apprentice and Aisha at my side. I crouched by two of the captives and took off their gags, ignoring the immediate indignant demands they bellowed.

“Do you even know who I am, you ignorant mudfoot?” the Soninke boy demanded.

I scratched my cheek. “I actually forgot your name,” I admitted. “Aisha?”

The delicate-looking Taghreb looked halfway between despair and amusement.

“Fasili Mirembe,” she provided. “Heir to Aksum.”

“See, I know who you are now Babili,” I told him. “Note how you’re still bound. This is not, in fact, an accident.”

“You can’t kill them,” Heiress croaked out from her corner.

“Look who’s back from the land of dreams,” I said. “And you’re kind of right, I suppose. For three of them anyway. Sorry, Fadila, but you didn’t make the cut. Your boss decided you were too low on the priority list.”

I unsheathed my knife. The dark-skinned mage’s eyes widened in panic.

“Wait,” she said, “I-“

The point of my knife rested against her throat, not quite strongly enough to draw blood.

“Yes?” I said.

“I’ll leave, go to the Free Cities,” she said. “Never return to the Empire.”

The other nobles in the room watched in utter silence, even Aisha.

“I’m sorry,” I said, not unkindly. “But you’re complicit in mass murder and a loose end besides. Exile isn’t an option, here. Not with the kind of games the lot of you have been playing.”

“Catherine,” Apprentice said. “It would be a waste. I’ve told you before, she’s one of the most talented practitioners of her generation.”

“That makes her a very bad loose end, Masego,” I said. “The kind that comes back to bite us in the ass at a critical moment.”

“Grant me custody of her,” he said. “I have projects that could use an additional pair of hands.”

I frowned.

“You’d be responsible for her, and Black might object,” I said.

The bespectacled mage snorted. “Let me handle Uncle Amadeus. As for responsibility, I intend to ask for some very specifically worded oaths.”

I eyed Fadila dubiously.

“How about it?” I said. “Lab assistant or early grave? It’s up to you.”

“Thank you, Lord Apprentice,” she said in a trembling voice, ignoring me and trying to sketch a bow while tied up. “I will not forget this.”

I called the Gallowborne standing guard back into the room and had her dragged out. We could settle the details of that affair later.

“If that little display was meant to intimidate us, you have failed,” the bound Soninke girl said.

I cast a look at Aisha. Hawulti Sahel, she mouthed silently. Heiress to Nok.

“Oh, Sawuti,” I said. “If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention. I can’t kill you or bleed you, sure. But Apprentice could, say, rot off your eyes. He did it to the Bumbling Conjurer’s face in Summerholm. Nasty as all Hells to look at, let me tell you.”

They stiffened.

“Good news,” I said. “That’s not what we’ll do. Apprentice, you have the tools?”

The chubby mage unrolled a pack of leather full of what looked like scalpels and pincers as well as a few objects clearly meant to poke holes. They would have looked like a cutter’s kit – or a torturer’s – if not for the runes covering every nook and cranny of them. Hawulti let out a whimper.

“Mage, are you?” I said. “For the benefit of all you fellow ignorant bastards, those are tools used to extract and bind a soul.”

The terror in the room was now palpable.

“See,” I continued, “Heiress made the mistake of bargaining only for the safety of your bodies. I’m not going to touch those. Tricky things, oaths. But if I return empty husks to the Wasteland, well, I’ll technically have respected the terms.”

“You don’t have it in you,” Heiress said from her corner.

“A year ago, you might have been right,” I agreed. “That was before you started fucking around with demons and feeding civilians to devils. You escalated, Akua. We’re not playing around with war games anymore.”

“You’d start a civil war,” Fasili said. “Touch one hair from our heads and half the Wasteland will rebel.”

“You know,” I sighed, “I’m getting rather sick of this whole ‘you can’t touch’ me complex Praesi nobles have. You seem under the impression it gives you free rein to do whatever you please without consequence.”

They genuinely didn’t understand me, I saw. Consequences, for them, was what happened when another noble outmanoeuvred them. Maybe when they fell for one of the Empress’ own schemes. The idea that they might have to answer to a Callowan in dire need of a bath and twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep was completely foreign to their way of thinking. I might as well have been speaking in tongues.

“I’m not going to waste time on the lot of you,” I said. “You’re not who I want to talk to.”

Masego put the scrying bowl on the ground while I put the gag back on Ghassan, and I saw the realization dawn in Heiress’ eyes even through the pain. She’d dropped the ball a few times today, but she wasn’t an idiot. The point had never been to end her minions. It was to blackmail their parents, the ones with the real power. Apprentice claimed a drop of saliva from the two high nobles, mixing it with the water in the implement. He whispered an incantation and it the water turned to steam, hanging in the air like a sheet of parchment. It took a while for the connection to be made, but eventually the steam formed two images: a pair of faces looked back at me, surprised and furious. I glanced at Aisha.

“High Lord Dakarai of Nok,” she said, inclining her head to the left, then to the right. “High Lady Abreha of Aksum.”

The High Lord of Nok was a handsome Soninke in the prime of his life, a thin greenish scar running through an eye and lending him a dangerous edge. The High Lady of Aksum looked to be a hundred, dark skin wrinkled like a goblin’s. She must have been prodigiously old for that to be the case, since Praesi dabbled in rituals to keep their appearance young long past what Creation had intended.

“Good evening,” I said. “I am-“

“The Squire,” the old woman said. “I see you have Fasili in your custody. This should be interesting.”

“You’ll be releasing my daughter immediately,” High Lord Dakarai said. “If you want to survive the coming fortnight, anyway.”

“Father,” said daughter broke in, “she’s gone mad, she-“

Shut up,” I Spoke.

Her mouth snapped shut. The other prisoner got the message.

“I dislike repeating myself,” High Lord Dakarai said, tone flat.

“We have that in common then,” I said. “This isn’t a courtesy call, as it happens. I’m going to blackmail you.”

There was a moment of silence and I heard Aisha sigh deeply.

“That was refreshingly direct,” High Lady Abreha mused. “I’ll grant you the same courtesy. No. Release my idiot nephew and I won’t have everyone you love crucified.”

“She can’t kill them,” Heiress said from her corner.

The eyes of both high nobles flicked to the side. Those two were old hands at Wasteland games, and so there was not so much as a flicker of emotion on their faces. High Lord Dakarai raised an eyebrow.

“Is that the Heiress?”

“She’s having a bad day,” I said. “It’s about to get worse. She’s correct, though, she bargained for the life of your successors. Unfortunately the bargain didn’t cover their souls. What I’ll do with those I’m not sure yet, but I’ve been meaning to get a girl jewellery and Nauk keeps telling me offering the remains of common enemies is ‘an essential part of all courtships’.”

Masego cleared his throat.

“They’ll survive the extraction with few side effects,” he said. “At least one of them should retain motor control, should the soul ever be returned.”

“Isn’t that Warlock’s boy, trying to step into Father’s shoes,” Dakarai said without a speck of humour. “You should have advised your master better, Apprentice. There will be consequences to your actions today.”

“My nephew is a mediocre bargaining piece, Squire,” the High Lady Abreha said. “I have others. Some of them are even less annoying.”

I didn’t even glance at said nephew, though that must have been a little hard for him to hear.

“He’s you acknowledged heir, though,” I said. “I suppose you could name another one. Say I ripped out his soul, though, and later shoved it in another body. One in Black’s hands. Your nephew would still have a claim, no? And a backer.”

I smiled coldly.

“I imagine that might get a little messy for you.”

That part of it was courtesy of Aisha, since I’d had no idea how Praesi inheritance worked. In short, anybody to ever have been acknowledged as the heir by the ruling lord or lady had a legitimate claim. Dying and rising as undead erased that claim –  since those very angry undead High Lords lost a civil war, anyway – but neither of my prisoners would technically die at any point. The idea of an individual with a legitimate claim in the hands of my teacher, Aisha  had explained, would have these two treading very carefully. Heiress wasn’t the only one with a political stick to hit people with, and mine was really more of mace. One covered with spikes and with a noted distaste for the nobility.

“Your attempt at scare tactics are decent, if ultimately irrelevant,” High Lord Dakarai said. “The Heiress might be fair game for you, but my daughter is not. Raise a hand to a member of the old blood and the Empire will rise in rebellion. You are trifling with forces beyond your reach, child. Release my daughter.”

I looked him calmly in the eyes, then laughed. Genuinely, honestly laughed. He was too confused to be offended, I thought.

“Gods, the lot of you. You keep saying there’ll be a civil war if I do anything to one of yours, even if they try to kill me or my soldiers. Black and Malicia have gone soft on you, haven’t they? They let you think that you’re actually a threat.”

I grinned nastily.

“Do it. Rebel. You think that would be a defeat, for me? Praesi nobility has been looting my homeland for twenty fucking years. Half of me is rooting for you to tell me to get bent just so I can take the Fifteenth back across the river and bury all of you in a mass grave. The Legions won’t follow you, and the Legions are where the power is. And let’s be honest, half of Callow will be trying to enrol so they can set your palaces on fire as payback for the Conquest.”

I shrugged.

“I imagine the Empress will be cross with me, for a while,” I said. “Black, though? Black might actually smile and if that doesn’t scare the shit out of you I don’t know what will.”

I met their eyes, one after the other.

“How did that line go again? Ah, yes. Tremble, oh ye mighty, for a new age is upon you.”

There was a heartbeat of silence.

“I’ll back whatever petition you’re pushing,” High Lady Abreha suddenly said. “I’ll also withdraw my support from the petition on orc tribute, if you take his daughter’s soul anyway.”

Abreha, you treacherous bitch!” the other noble thundered.

The old woman cackled.

“You were still suckling your ugly mother’s teats when the Calamities came knocking, Dakarai. I was in the room when that line was last spoken. I told Tasia, I told her that Malicia would only tolerate so much. This is her hand, pulling the leash to remind us who rules.”

I glanced at Aisha, but she shook her head.

“We need both, otherwise we don’t have enough backing,” she whispered.

Four of the the High Lords and Ladies, that was our target.  There were only seven of them overall, so anything backed by the majority needed to be at least seriously considered by the Empress. The current balance of power in the Empire was skewed against the Empress: three of them were loyal to Malicia but four were part of the Truebloods. It was why they were giving her so much trouble at the moment. I’d been in talks with Black for over a month and he’d been serving as a go-between between myself and the Empress, first to sell the idea of a ruling council over Callow and then to get support from her allies. We’d gotten two out of the three, at the cost of guaranteeing a seat on the council to a member of their family each. Now I needed to get my last two high nobles on board, and if the way to do that was threatening to rip out a few souls I was willing to have that on my conscience.

“I can’t accept that deal at this point in time,” I politely told High Lady Abreha.

She seemed unsurprised. High Lord Dakarai waspishly asked what exactly I wanted him to do and without wasting and more I told them. Another round of threats was exchanged, but with Aisha whispering more diplomacy in my ear I eventually got what I wanted. Oaths were given on both sides, the exact wording already prepared by Masego. When the scrying session ended, I was left feeling drained but thoroughly satisfied. Was that what actually pulling off a plan felt like? I kept expecting Creation to retaliate brutally at any moment, but for now it seemed like I’d gotten away with it. I cut the two high brats loose and informed them they were no longer my problem – the oaths I’d given would see them safely back to their seats of power. Which left Ghassan and Heiress. I looked at my rival and crouched in front of her.

“I have to let you go,” I said. “It physically pains me to admit it, but you took care of that much.”

Masego stood behind me, leaning against the wall.

“Apprentice had to rip out one of my aspects, at Marchford,” I told her, and her eyes widened.

Exactly how much she’d screwed up began to sink in.

“When I planned all of this – and I did – I figured I’d just kill you. If I couldn’t, I figured I’d even the scales the Callowan way. Your three aspects for the one I lost.”

She managed a smirk, which was really an accomplishment considering how many of her bones were still broken.

“But your soul isn’t actually in your body,” Apprentice said. “The ritual you must have completed for that to be the case and your Name still somehow function is, well, the most brilliant piece of sorcery I’ve seen done in my lifetime.”

He sounded genuinely admiring.

“So we can’t touch you,” I said. “You might be feeling a little smug about that, I suppose. Wiggling out again. It occurs to me, though, that the reason you never quite seem to understand that you shouldn’t fuck with me is that you never lose anything, in our confrontations.”

I met her eyes.

“I killed Barika,” I said. “I put a crossbow bolt in her eye and had her body buried in sanctified grounds. She’s not coming back, ever. And now we’re going to sit together, you and I, to watch Apprentice rip out your minion’s soul and bind it to a stone.”

I met her eyes calmly.

“I’m not a monster, Akua. I’ll destroy it when our truce is done, and let him go to the Underworld. But when you crawl away from this mess, when we’re done, you’ll remember this moment. What happens, when you set fire to my homelands for your little plots.”

We sat. We watched. And when it was done, I leaned into her ear.

“If you do manage, somehow, to get the governorship? I’ll be watching you. Waiting. And this time there will no bargaining to save you.”

I got up and looked down on her.

“Now get the Hells out of my kingdom.”

Chapter 47: And Justice For All

“The question of who the most vindictive people of Calernia are has long been debated. Some say it is the Arlesites, who will duel to the death over the use of the wrong adjective in a verse. Others say it is those of the Free Cities, where the moving of a border by half a mile will spawn a war lasting three generations. Others yet say it is the Praesi, who indulge in political assassination the way other nations enjoy a cup of good wine. I would humbly put forward, however, that the answer is the people of Callow. Steal an apple from a farmer of the Kingdom and fifty years later his grandson will find yours on the other side of the continent, sock him in the eye and take three apples back.”
– Extract from “Horrors and Wonders”, famed travelogue of Anabas the Ashuran

I landed in sand.

Hastily I got up and brushed away the mess, taking an assessing look around. I was on an island, looked like, a perfect circle with some kind of shoddy chapel built in the middle. The water surrounding it went on for a dozen feet before stopping abruptly into darkness that looked much like the one that had surrounded Masego’s bridge. I eyed the dark, deciding to be very careful about falling in there. I wasn’t sure what the rules were here, but I doubted that anything pleasant would come out of tripping into the endless void. In unsheathed my sword, ears prickling at the sound of struggle inside the structure. I moved quietly towards the open doors, only pausing when I glimpsed runes on the side of the chapel. Heiress’ work, or had they always been there? Without knowing that I couldn’t risk messing them up. For all I knew, scraping a line through one of those would have the Hashmallim knocking at the door in a matter of moments. I’d rather not fight an angel if I could avoid it, really. I’d been in some pretty rough fights over the last year but I doubted I’d walk away from that one. Before I could cross the gate there was a loud bang and someone was thrown out. William landed on his feet, sword raised, and snarled. I pressed against the side of the wall just out of his sight.

“I begin to sympathize with the Miezan extermination of your kind,” the hero said.

That didn’t really narrow down the possibilities as to what he was scrapping with. The Miezans had been pretty liberal with extermination policies. A tall silhouette of smokeless fire strode out into the sands, its face without features.

“There’s no need to be rude about this,” it said in a calm, cultured voice.

It raised a hand towards William, spawning a stream of fire from the palm. The hero blocked it with his sword, light flaring as he forced back the sorcery. Well, I wished them fun with that. The Lone Swordsman was going to get a good stabbing before this was over, but I had nothing against letting whatever Heiress had summoned soften him up first. Might even make him a tad less impossible to kill. I waited for their fight to take them around the island and slipped inside. For an angel’s corpse, this place was pretty dingy. Two rows of stone benches – seven on each side, which didn’t feel like a coincidence – led up to an altar with a sword in it. A sword in a stone. That… had a shape to it. A story. Something I might be able to use, if I played this right. I recognized the sword in the stone, as it happened. It was the same bitch of a blade William had used in most of our fights. An angels’ feather, used to summon another angel. There were candles behind the stone, seven of them. Most of them had melted, with only two remaining.

There was someone by the altar, looking down on it as she tinkered with runes hanging in the air. Heiress, and would you look at that her back was to me. I crept forward silently, hugging the wall. As my practical decision of the day, I’d come to the conclusion that a sword in the back was a victory I could live with. It would be almost poetic, considering how often she’d slid the metaphorical knife into mine. From the corner of my eye I saw something blur in the air on the opposite side of the chapel, near a pillar. Someone dropped quietly to the ground, looking harried, and Masego looked about ready to retch. The blur disappeared and Apprentice took a look around, eyes finding me after a moment. He opened his mouth to talk, then thought better about it. I gestured towards Heiress and he nodded. Taking a long breath, I reached for the depths of my Name and formed a spear of shadows. Flying faster than an arrow, it tore through Masego’s head, dissipating the illusion.

“Well,” Heiress said. “It was worth a try.”

I noticed the silhouette by the altar wasn’t where the sound came from. I couldn’t quite pin down where it did.

“He already told me I was on my own in here,” I said. “For now, anyway. They’ll find another way through eventually.”

The fake Heiress dropped to all fours, a sight that would have amused me if it didn’t imply there was actually something under that particular illusion.

“You know, if I remember correctly you actually have a sword,” I said. “Yet you never seem to use it. Afraid of a little tussle, Akua? I promise I’ll be gentle.”

I closed my eyes and expanded my senses. Whatever the fake-Heiress was, she didn’t seem to breathe. I couldn’t hear the actual Heiress do that either, though, so it was worth taking with a grain of salt. The illusion ran towards me and I immediately got away from the wall to make some space. The creature leapt over a bench but my senses told me otherwise: I swung my sword to the side and hit flesh, a bald creature of rotted flesh and fangs blinking into existence as it screamed and scampered back. The fake-Heiress passed harmlessly through me as the creature disappeared again.

“Is that a ghoul?” I asked. “Scraping the bottom of the barrel there.”

There was an airy chuckle.

“Seen your little redhead mage, lately?”

I took a sharp breath. No, it couldn’t be Kilian. She was safe with the mages of the Fifteenth, surrounded by hundreds of legionaries. Akua has spies in the ranks, my mind provided. She could have abducted her. And then killed her and turned her into a ghoul, just for the sake of messing with me? No. She’d not planned for me to make it this far. Chider had been her trump card to get me out of the game, make me unable to interfere with whatever she was up to. If I hadn’t been dead already, getting my Name ripped out would probably have made me unconscious – if not killed me outright. She was just playing mind games.

“You’d probably be a better liar if you weren’t so smug,” I said.

The patter of feet against stone was heard behind me, but it wasn’t what I was watching for. When Heiress spoke, the words resounded in every part of the chapel – except one. The corner to the left of the door. I allowed the invisible ghoul to come close, then ducked when it leapt for my chest – my sword came up, ripping through the creature’s stomach as it passed over me. The screaming, wriggling shape blocked the sight of my free hand for a moment and I formed a burst of shadows, pivoting to fire it at the too-silent corner. It hit a shield that flared blue, revealing the silhouette of a frowning Akua underneath.

“Found you,” I said.

“Chider failed, I see,” she said.

“Oh, she did exactly what you intended,” I smiled. “You’re just not as smart as you seem to think you are.”

“Coming from you,” she said, “that is truly insulting.”

The ghoul came for the third time and I waited for it to rush – then snatched a limb out of the air. I swung the creature like an improvised flail, smashing her against the bench. Really, a ghoul. And she had the gall to say I was being insulting. Keeping a hand on the struggling creature, I hacked through her head calmly and returned my attention to Heiress. Who was smiling. Oh dear. The undead creature exploded a moment later, and as I was thrown against the wall all I could think was that undead bombs was my godsdamned gambit. Leaving the protection of her shield, Akua slowly unsheathed her sword. It was an ornate piece, gilded and the length of it covered in runes. Why did everyone else get to have a fancy magic sword? I shrugged off the impact and rose to my feet, my own sword still in hand.

“Do you know what irritates me the most about you, Catherine Foundling?” she smiled.

“I have better hair,” I replied and burst forward.

She raised her blade in a classic guard, which almost made me grin. I’d fought plenty of people using that before. They were all dead. I batted her sword away and got in close, swiping for her eyes. She danced away, making distance between us. Her free hand came up, crackling with energy, but I ducked under the bolt of lightning and hit her stomach with the pommel of my sword, bending the lamellar steel with the impact. She let out a grunt of pain that was music to my ears before forcing me back with an attempt to slice through my neck.

“Please, continue to pontificate,” I said. “Where’s my monologue, Akua? You’re turning into a disappointment of a rival.”

“You wretch,” she snarled, and brought up her hand to cast again.

I laughed and smashed her wrist with my blade – steel ground against steel, failing to cut through but forcing it down. The ball of flame that erupted hit the ground at her feet, blowing her away as the heat licked at my face.

“You know,” I said as I walked towards her prone form, “I always assumed that even behind the scheming you’d be able to give me a good fight. But you can’t, can you?”

I smiled coldly.

“I might be a little heavy on the brute force, Akua, but even thugs have their day.”

I raised my sword above her and… froze. The fear on the dark-skinned girl’s face melted away as she rose to her feet calmly. My body began rising in the air, hovering a foot above the floor.

“You are not Evil,” she said. “That it what irritates me most about you, Catherine. You just ape the methods, reassuring yourself your intentions are still Good. You act like your Name is a weapon and ignore that it has a meaning.

She slid her fingers down the length of her blade, the runes shining at the touch.

“Your master is the same. Lord Black, fear of the continent,” she mocked. “He is a rat hiding at the center of maze of traps he spent decades building. Dangerous, perhaps, but behind all the tricks he is weak.”

She chuckled.

“No matter how clever the traps, they will not save him from a boot. You shy away from what you are, Foundling, and Creation abhors such spineless dithering. I know what I am. I embrace it, because that is what a villain is. That is why I have power…”

Her sword rose.

“Monologues,” I said, “Not even once.”

The Lone Swordsman hit her with a burst of light before I even finished talking. I dropped back to the ground with a pleased hum: his little Name trick messed with sorcery as well as my own Name shenanigans, it seemed. William, covered in soot, eyed me with horror.

“All according to plan,” I lied.

“You’re dead,” the Lone Swordsman said. “I cut your head off.”

“Eh,” I shrugged. “I got over it.”

I paused.

“Also, you were supposed to reply –“

I had to backpedal away hurriedly when Heiress threw some sort of orb of shadows where we were standing. Her armour was smoking, and for once she actually looked frazzled. Her hair was messed up, I noted with amusement. First time I’d ever seen her look anything but pristine. Heiress was next to the altar, though she steered clear of the sword. Good, now everyone was here. I could actually begin using my bastard cousin of a plan, though… I frowned, looking at the candles behind the altar. Another one had melted entirely, leaving only the last. I thought they represented seven hours each, I thought.

“William,” I said.

“No,” he said immediately.

I ignored that part for the sake of convenience.

“When you were last here, did time pass normally?”

His eyes flicked to the candles, and his face turned white.

“That’s impossible,” he said.

I knew time passed differently in Arcadia – it was the basis of the trick Black had used to get to Marchford in a fraction of the time it would have taken him on a horse. And Arcadia worked that way because it wasn’t in Creation proper. Which meant…

“You moved the entire island elsewhere,” I said. “That’s what the runes on the chapel are for. “

“You mean to trap the Hashmallim,” the hero said.

Heiress stood tall against the glare directed at her by the Lone Swordsman, almost preening.

“This is my house now,” she said. “And the only rules here are mine.”

Shit. Couldn’t let that go unchallenged, not if I wanted my plan to actually work.

“This is Callowan ground, wherever it may be,” I said. “Back me up on this, William.”

Akua scoffed. “The truth cannot be-“

“Shut the Hells up, Praesi,” the hero barked. “These grounds are of the Kingdom as long as I live.”

Good ol’ Willy. You could always count on him to screw over at least one person in the room at any time.

“You’re right,” I said. “She is an invader here. The enemy.”

“You’re one too,” William said with disgust.

“She’s not one of us, you halfwit,” Akua sneered. “She doesn’t have the will or the blood.”

It was refreshing to be in a situation where my opponents actually hated each other more than they hated me. Heiress was in the full swing of her gloat and the Lone Swordsman has his heroic shackles all raised, especially now that it was out in the open that Akua had screwed with an angel’s corpse. Which he finally seemed to remember then and there. Keeping a wary eye on me, William moved towards Heiress. Who was too busy watching me from the corner of her eye to to really do anything about it. I grinned. The Lone Swordsman raised his sword and Heiress backed away, preparing to cast.

What did you do?” Akua said suddenly, looking at me.

“I have three things,” I said. “A kingdom, an enemy and a claim.”

William snorted.

“A claim?” he said. “You-“

“I am the heiress to the King of Callow,” I interrupted calmly.

“There is no King of Callow,” the Lone Swordsman said.

“Yet a man rules it, and I am his chosen successor,” I said.

Akua flinched, then looked at the sword. Too late now: she’d already given me what I needed. Of her own free will, too. That had to sting. William took the opening to dart for the blade, wrapping his fingers around the hilt and tugging it out. It did not move. His eyes turned to me, scared for the first time since I’d met him.

“It isn’t yours anymore,” I said.

“It was granted to me by the Hashmallim,” he said.

“It’s a sword in a stone. You did that yourself, with no one forcing you,” I smiled. “It’s a symbol, now, in a story about Callow.”

“She’s an orphan,” Heiress said quietly, aghast as the situation sunk in. “She’s the Squire.”

“Would you kindly get your hands off my sword, William?” I said.

They didn’t even need to share a glance before they both turned on me. Wasn’t that going to be a fun ride? The Lone Swordsman was so fast on the move he almost blurred to my Name sight, even damnably faster than when we’d gone for our last round. This time, though, he wasn’t predestined to win. That made a difference. I stepped around his blow but ate Heiress’ spell right in the face: some kind of dark shroud that stuck around my eyes. I flared my Name, clearing it up some, but it was hard to make out William’s sword as he swung again. I took the hit to the shoulder, at this point utterly indifferent to the fact that it bit through steel and into my flesh.

“Still dead,” I reminded him, forming a burst of darkness around my hand and slamming it into his chest.

He went flying and I ran for the sword. The floor under my feet turned liquid but I leapt and landed in a roll just in time to get hit by a bolt of lightning. I was getting really sick of that spell, I thought as my muscles twitched uncontrollably. Was I smoking? I couldn’t really smell anymore, so it was hard to tell. William’s boot hit my back and I was sent sprawling but he’d made a mistake: I fell forward, and Heiress’ next spell hit him instead. He yelled in dismay as a swarm of something sounding like bees gathered around him and I took my fraction of an opening, falling belly first right in front of the altar. Heiress cursed, then actually tried to curse me, but I grinned in triumph and my fingers closed around the hilt of that fucking sword epople kept trying to kill me with. Gods, it burned even through the gauntlets. There was aheartbeat of pure pain and then it felt like I’d just gotten a brightstick to the face. There was warmth, and everything went white.

I was standing alone in a featureless plain. Not, not alone. Something was looking at me. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it – the weight of its stare. I looked down at my hands, noticing I was without armour. My clothes from the orphanage, huh. They looked less rumpled than usual, too. Apparently the Heavens did not approve of my sloppy laundry habits. I put a finger on my bare wrist and frowned when I felt no pulse.

“I beat you fair and square, your presumptuous fucks,” I called out. “Cough up my resurrection.”

The weight turned from noticeable to crushing in a heartbeat, forcing me to the ground. I could feel my bones grind into dust as my back snapped. They were looking at me. There was… where my Name should be, there was only fire. Something scouring me from the inside.

Repent. Repent. Repent.

The images passed through my mind as if I was still standing there. Black, offering me a knife in a dark room. Two men against the wall, bound and with terror on their eyes. Blood on the floor.

Repent. Repent. Repent.

The empty banquet hall in Laure, where Mazus’ death was dispensed with a single sentence. The monster offering me a deal with smiling eyes. Agreement, followed by a sword through my chest.

Repent. Repent. Repent.

So many things. Sparing William, sacrificing thousands for my ambition. The innkeeper’s daughter, swinging on the gallows. Breaking a man for supplies in Ater. Ordering those men dead in the cells at Summerholm, on suspicion alone. Leashing the Gallowborne with the threat of destruction. The dead, oh so many dead. Three Hills. Nilin, the traitor, my friend. All those I’d failed against the devils in the night. Marchford. Hunter, who’d fought and died for strangers. The people of Liesse, at the mercy of devils because I hadn’t seen the betrayal coming. The light going out of Baroness Dormer’s eyes as she surrendered.

Repent. You will not be forgiven. Repent.

I saw things that had not happened, now. Yet. Rising alive from the altar, a crown of light on my brow. Heiress dead at my feet. The Swordsman, kneeling. My red right hand. Liesse rebelling, weapons taken out of hidden cellars, exhumed from hidden stashes. A host sweeping across the south, ranks swelling as cities revolted one after another. Taking back the Blessed Isle, burnt-out towers remade in marble. Breaking the nine gates of Ater and pulling down the Tower on my enemies.

Repent, Queen of Callow. 

I gurgled out a wretched laugh. You can’t ever lose, can you? Even when you’re beaten I have to become one of yours. I forced myself to remember something else. They tried to struggle but it was just as much a part of me as the rest had been. You don’t get to pick and choose what I am. Two silhouettes cloaked in black, standing alone in front of the throne.

We do not kneel.

It wasn’t enough. Those were not my words. I had borrowed them, and in borrowing lessened them. They demanded contrition. They demanded justification, for all my many sins. I had none. I clawed desperately into the depths of myself. Looking for something, anything. What I found… was a starry sky, in ruins that moaned in the wind. A dark-skinned girl, tempting me with a way out. Four dead on the floor as she fled. A lesson learned, a question answered.

Justification only matters to the just.

They flinched.

“I swore it,” I croaked. “Whether they be gods or kings or all the armies in Creation.”

I no longer saw a crown on my brow. They hadn’t liked that at all, had they? So much for being Queen. The fires withdrew, leaving me empty. Still dead. Unlike their trap of a Name, this I took umbrage to.

“You can’t cheat me,” I laughed. “You’re not the Gods. You’re part of the story too. You have to follow the rules.”

I opened my eyes, looking up into the perfect blankness.

“And if you won’t give me my due,” I said. “I’ll Take it.”

They shrieked but the power flowed into me. I felt my body spasm. My heart beat. My blood flow. The plain blurred, collapsed into me as I laughed.

I was standing in the chapel again, the Lone Swordsman’s sword through my belly. William’s green eyes stared into mine, my hand on his shoulder as I used him to stay up. It was a strangely intimate pose.

“What is this, Squire?” he whispered.

I ripped out the thing inside of him, took it for my own. His skin turned paler, his face bloodless.

Rise,” I replied.

Shadow spread across my body in thick chords. Healing me, pushing his blade out of my flesh. I could feel my heart beat and it was glorious. All the little things I hadn’t realized were gone, now returned to me. The sword was still in my hand, the blade that has once been his. I rammed it into his neck, biting deep as he fell twitching to the ground. My boot rose once, twice, thrice. The skull gave the third time, breaking like an overripe fruit. My gaze swept across the room, finally falling on Heiress.

“I believe,” I said, “that we were having a conversation about power. By all means, finish your thought.”

Beast

“I stared into the abyss and found what stared back… wanting.”
– Translation of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King

The flesh parted under her teeth and she drank deeply of the warm blood before tossing away the little man’s corpse. The cattle were screaming, trying to flee, but tonight the streets belonged to her. The Cursed fell back on four feet, shaking her fur with a howl of glee. Already she was matted with red, the smell of it all over her gloriously intoxicating. One of the things thought itself brave and stood against her, sword raised. It smelled of fear. She pounced, claws ripping through armour like parchment and that little toothpick falling uselessly to the ground with the arm that held it. They were so small, so weak. Her fangs tore off its face, leaving only bone and ripped muscle as she swallowed the flesh greedily. There had been fifty of them when she’d… she couldn’t remember. There had been fifty, and now only thirty were left. The Cursed was still hungry, and so she prowled the cobblestones of Ater.

Bolts thudded into her back, some punching through the armour still hanging off her frame, but they were as the bites of insects. Claws sinking into stone, she leapt onto the wall of the house they were hiding on top of and pulled herself up on the roof. They tried to flee but it was much, much too late. Red in tooth and claw she fed on their fear and flesh, slaughtering the dozen like the panicked animals they were. Too soon she was the only living thing on that rooftop, fur glistening in the moonlight. She sniffed the air, finding the trail of the others. They thought that scattering would save them. As if anything could hide them from her. Leaping back into the street, she went on the hunt again.

Behind walls they huddled, but she burst through the stone to partake of the feast inside. Into the maze of streets they ran, but she could hear their heartbeats like the thunder of drums. She found, and fed. In the dark they hid, thinking themselves beyond her sight, but the darkness was an old friend. Their screams rose up to the sky, and neither desperation nor the courage of men proved shield against her wrath. She grew. Claws sharpened, her bones cracked as her limbs lengthened and the hide under the fur became harder than iron. She was larger than the armour, even with those clever straps, could handle. The plates fell to the ground as the Cursed licked her chops, tearing out the last man’s innards to slurp the noisily. There were no more. Corpses, but no feed. She sniffed the air. This district was empty, but others were not.

She was hungry again.

She ran west like the wind, stone cracking beneath her weight. The Cursed slowed as the she came to the boundary, smelling magic-trap-forbidden. There were two cattle-dangerous standing there. She knew them. Tall, thin, two swords. Ranger. Amused, beard, magic. Apprentice. They were in her way.

“Gods, she ate all of them didn’t she?” Ranger sighed.

“Is that sympathy I hear, my dear?” Apprentice said. “Anyone stupid enough to provoke her enough for… this is clearly too stupid to live in the first place.”

Two-swords looked at her. The Cursed pounced but there was a wall-not-wall. The light hurt. She howled.

“Is the ward going to hold her?” Ranger asked.

Apprentice laughed.

“She’s been a this for almost hour and ate, what – two full patrols? Last time she got in this deep she ripped her way through a full company of devils, courtesy of my old teacher. If the boundary lasts for half an hour I’ll count myself lucky.”

“Never seen a werewolf get this big before,” Ranger said, cocking her head to the side. “I mean, she’s taller than the houses.”

“She’s not a lycanthrope,” Apprentice said. “As far as I can tell, a Warlock put a curse on her bloodline a few centuries back. And this, kids, is why you put an escapement when you cast a blood ritual.”

Praesi,” Ranger said, shaking her head. “How long until Amadeus gets here?”

“Depends on when the messenger finds him,” Apprentice replied. “The Tower is beyond my ability to scry.”

The Cursed pounded at the wall-not-wall, ignoring the pain. The cattle was not fleeing. Insolence.

“Talking to Alaya again, is he?” Ranger said, disgruntled.

“Gods, am I ever not getting involved in that mess,” Apprentice said, smirking at two-swords.

“I’m not jealous,” Ranger denied immediately. “And your ward’s breaking, you smug Wasteland throwback.”

“I’ll add another layer,” Apprentice frowned.

“Don’t bother,” Ranger said. “Make me a gate. I’ll keep her busy until he gets here.”

Two-swords smiled at the Cursed.

“Come on, big girl,” she said. “Let’s go for a round.”

She howled as she broke through the wall, landing on her side. Her back was broken but it reset itself with a snap and she got back on her feet, fangs bared. Ranger followed her inside the house calmly, one sword in hand. Sheathed. The predator-dangerous swung in her direction, too fast, and the wind almost sent her flying. The Cursed sank her claws into the stone and held on.

“So you can still learn even when you’re like this,” Ranger said. “Interesting.”

She stood on two feet and hunched, reaching for the wall behind her. She tore out it out with a grunt and threw it at two-swords, but it was too slow. Boot hit her in the stomach and sent her flying through the house on the street behind. She fell back on all fours, eyed predator-dangerous.

“I’ve broken stone golems hitting half that hard,” Ranger informed her. “You are ridiculously hard to hurt, sweetheart.”

“She ramps up the longer she’s like this,” a new voice said. “Another hour and even you would have trouble with her.”

Another person passed through the broken house. All steel, dark cloak. Sword but no shield. He took off his helmet: white skin, dark hair. Familiar.

“Finally,” Ranger said. “You took your time.”

“I was delayed,” Black replied. “The Chancellor’s work.”

“I can probably knock her out without hurting her too much, if she’s too far gone,” two-swords offered, standing close to the other.

Black’s hand touched Ranger’s shoulder.

“She won’t attack me,” he said.

The Cursed growled. Insolence.  All-steel walked to her slowly. He didn’t smell like fear at all.

“Sabah,” he said. “Look into my eyes.”

She howled.

Look into my eyes,” he Spoke.

The head of the Cursed snapped up, obeying the command.

“What do you see?” he asked gently.

Pale green. Gears slowly turning, a house of steel that would grind Creation to dust. Death was looking at her through chips of jade. The Cursed shivered.

“Wake up,” Black ordered.

The Cursed twitched. Bones snapped and she convulsed on the stone, feeding back into herself. The hunger was ebbing away, the warmth leaving her. Sabah woke up naked and shivering, promptly throwing up on the ground. The taste of blood and bile mixed in her mouth. Someone wrapped a cloak around her, way too small to cover her properly from the cold.

“Gods,” she rasped. “I lost it again.”

Amadeus knelt at her side, putting an arm over her shoulder in comfort.

“You were meant to,” he said.

Sabah folded onto herself, huddling under the cloak. She could smell Wekesa coming closer with linen in his arms. The acute senses wouldn’t leave her for at least another bell.

“You think someone made her change on purpose?” Ranger said, kneeling on her left and gently patting her side.

“She was meant to rampage through an occupied district,” Black said. “Kill someone important, to give the Chancellor leverage over us.”

“I would have, if they hadn’t stopped me,” Sabah said, throat still raw. “Thank you, Hye. Things got…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ranger said.  “I’ve been itching for a good spar anyway.”

Sabah tried to laugh but it came out half a sob.

“It’s getting harder to keep it under control,” she admitted.

“I know,” Black said quietly. “But I may have a solution. Remember Istrid, the chief of the Red Moons?

“The one who wrestled you?” Sabah vaguely recalled.

Amadeua nodded.

“She told me about a place in the Steppes,” he said. “Where those who can’t control the Red Rage go to learn how.”

“The Chancellor told you to go to Stygia,” Sabah said.

“The Chancellor can go fuck himself,” Black replied frankly. “We leave tomorrow.”

It was an old saying among the orcs that hard lands bred a hard people. The Northern Steppes proved the truth of that, particularly in winters. Snow and ice as far as the eye could see, burying the unprepared in vicious and unexpected storms. Wolves the size of a horse stalked the cold, taught over centuries that travellers made for an easier meal than the well-protected orc cattle herds. It had been the better parts of a month since they’d left the territory of the Red Moons behind, following the directions Istrid had given them. Apprentice had gotten progressively more passive-aggressive about their destination as the days stretched, irked by the cold and the lack of decent wine. He’d tried to steal Ranger’s tea this morning and gotten a knife through the hand for his trouble, to everyone else’s amusement.

“It will be where it will be,” Wekesa mocked for the hundredth time. “They should have called it the City of Vagueness.”

“I’m sure the Clans will rename it, after such a heartfelt plea,” Black said.

“Don’t you get snippy at me, farmboy,” the dark-skinned mage said. “I’m not the one who decided to find a place that’s not on any maps and technically doesn’t exist.”

Farmboy?” the Black Knight said amusedly. “I was a soldier, after I left the freehold. You could go with that at least.”

“You were a soldier for less than a year and deserted after the only battle you were involved in,” Apprentice said flatly.

“I still got paid once,” Amadeus mused. “It should count.”

Ranger raised an eyebrow. Sabah hid a smile: the half-elf had been ignoring the banter between those two for most of the trip, but she always paid attention whenever anything about Amadeus’ past was brought up. Usually by Wekesa – Black rarely spoke about himself, even among people he trusted.

“You were in the Legions?” she said.

“I enrolled before the Fields of Streges,” he said. “In my mother’s old company.”

“They misspelled his name on the rolls,” Sabah contributed with a grin.

“No doubt the Legions are on the lookout for the wicked deserter Amadous,” Wekesa said dramatically.

Ranger hummed. “I was in Procer at the time, but I heard the Fields were pretty bad for Praes.”

A shadow passed over Black’s face.

“An understatement if there ever was one,” he said. “If there was a stronger word than rout I would use it.”

Sabah had only ever heard rumours about what had happened there, but they all ran along the same lines. The Wizard of the West had apparently whipped Dread Emperor Nefarious so badly the man had taken flight without even getting on a horse. Hadn’t left the Tower since his return to Ater, either. Still, some good had come of the defeat. If the Black Knight hadn’t died on the field Amadeus’ eventual claiming of the Name would have been a lot more complicated. Murdering Black Knights was a tricky business, as they’d spent the last year teaching to half the Wasteland. Eyeing up ahead, Sabah blinked as she found a hut that hadn’t been there a moment ago. Smoke was rising from it through an opening, which they definitely would have seen from a distance. The tall Taghreb cleared her throat, claiming everyone’s attention. She pointed ahead without saying a word.

“Distinct lack of bones, for a place they call the Land of Bones,” Wekesa said.

“They might have wine in there,” Black mildly replied.

Apprentice cheerfully took the lead without any more need for convincing. Sabah had been worried they wouldn’t all fit inside – she was taller than the hut by a full foot – but that worry proved unfounded. The structure was much larger on the inside than it looked from the outside, which apparently was enough to distract Apprentice from his quest to get sauced for a moment as he prodded at the walls curiously. There was someone inside, behind a fire pit. It was hard to make out too much under the pile of blankets and furs smothering the silhouette, but it looked like an orc. A woman, and an old one. Pulling at a dragonbone pipe, the stranger watched them in silence. A hint of fangs and wrinkled green skin could be made out, under sunken yellow eyes.

“You’re not one of mine,” the orc finally said in Lower Miezan when they were all seated.

Wekesa had been about to reply when Ranger discreetly elbowed him.

“I’ve been told this is where orcs come, when they want to learn how to control the Red Rage,” Sabah said.

The creature’s attention fell entirely on her at that. She had an unsettling gaze, and now Sabah wasn’t sure it was an orc at all seated in front of her.

“I see the curse in you, girl,” the stranger said. “It is not the Blessing.”

“And yet,” Sabah said quietly, “here I am.”

“You are not of the Clans,” the creature said. “How do you know of the Land of Bones?”

Sabah glanced at Black and he nodded.

“Istrid of the Red Moons told us the way,” she said.

The stranger scoffed. “She knows not what she has done. Do you know what this place is, southern devil? It is the graveyard of our greatness. These are the holy grounds of the Broken Antler Horde. Destroyed, by the same people whose language you ape.”

The Miezans. In Praes the histories spoke of the War of Chains, when the Soninke and the Taghreb had been brought to heel, but little of the war that had come after to force the submission of the orcs. They’d been one of the most powerful nations on Calernia at the time, she knew. They’d ransacked the Soninke kingdoms with impunity and returned to the Steppes with gold and human slaves.  Even the elves had tread lightly around them.

“I am not Miezan,” Sabah said. “I come from the same people who rebelled to drive them back into the sea.”

The creature pulled at her pipe, blowing out a stream of red-coloured smoke. The smell of it was heavy, almost like incense.

“There is a truth in that,” she conceded. “Before there was the Tower, Maleficent was Amina – and Amina was a friend to my people. It was not her who broke the promises of the Declaration.”

She cast a look of thinly-veiled hatred at Wekesa, who was the only Soninke in the hut. It was an old story, this one. Maleficent had founded the Empire but ruled it for less than a decade before the High Lord of Wolof had murdered her and stolen the throne. The Soninke nobles would not brook a Taghreb ruler when they were so much more numerous and powerful than the people of the desert.

“For this, you may enter. You and no one else,” the stranger said, then suddenly cackled. “Though you may not find what you think you will.”

“Well, that’s helpful,” Wekesa said. “Clearly coming here was the right notion all along.”

“You can wait in the cold, boy,” the creature said. “As for you, Sabah the Cursed, you must pass behind me.”

There was a flap there in the leather. It hadn’t been there before she’d mentioned it. Why was every otherworldly entity they ran into so bloody dramatic? Sabah looked at the others. Black met her eyes and spoke for the first time since they’d entered the tent.

“Whatever is there,” he said. “Win. Come back to us.”

Nothing more needed to be said. Sabah crawled through the opening. She’d been expecting the cold to hit her in the face but the weather out there was dry. Rising to her feet, the Taghreb took a calm look around. She was in a broad plain of burnt out huts, the ground as far as she could see covered in a layer of ashes. Something crunched under her feet and she glanced down. Bones. Orc, by the thickness of them. They were everywhere, buried in the ashes. In the distance she could see a throne of stone, and something sitting on it. Well. It wouldn’t get any closer if she didn’t start walking. Sabah began the trek across the plain, the remains of dead warriors breaking under her stride. She wasn’t tuned to magic, not the way Black and Apprentice were, but even she could feel something heavy at work here.

She was no longer so sure she was in Creation.

She felt the movement more than heard it, warhammer in hand faster than the blink of an eye. The heavy steel head impacted the skeleton and scattered the bones. The bronze axe it was carrying sunk into the ashes and the Taghreb sighed. It was going to be one of those days, wasn’t it? All around her she heard warriors rise from the ashes, and even more rose in the distance. Hundreds of them. Thousands, even. Gods Below, how many orcs had died here? A swing of the hammer scattered another skeleton when it got close, but this was a losing battle. There would be no fighting her way through this mess with a weapon in hand. Already the Beast was licking its chops inside of her, miffed at the lack of flesh but eager for a fight. Anger brought it out against her wishes, but Sabah had surrendered to the curse of her own will before. Those times were always the worst: when she opened the door herself, it was always harder to close it. There’d be no Amadeus to bring her back here.

“But there’s no one here I care about either,” she told the skeletons. “You’ll regret that, before we’re done.”

Sabah closed her eyes and let out a long breath. The Beast grinned, and the world went red.

The Cursed shook off the spear buried in her back, scattering the dead things with a wild swing. Time had passed. Long. The sun had come and gone several times. Her thoughts were becoming sharp again, now. The dead things still came like a horde without end. Bone-things, and others made of cold flesh and teeth that tore. Nothing she could eat. Someone was ahead of her, on a thing made of stone, but now matter how much she ran she could not get close to it. All there was was the fight. The Cursed roared and tore through the bone-things, breaking them and sinking her claws into warped flesh. Iron was no bane to her and neither was bronze. A sword cleaved the back of her leg and she slumped, slapping away the dead and wildly turning to keep the others away. So many destroyed, and still they came. She was mighty and tall, larger than a tower, but the insects were swarming her. They bit and sliced and held on, trying to bury her with their numbers.

Her leg healed but it was slow. The well was running out. She was getting tired, as she never had before. It was unpleasant, not what the Cursed was meant to be. She growled at the bone-things but they were not afraid, could not be afraid. She stepped on the enemy, breaking them with weight, but another spear was driven into her back. Too many. They were not tired. Letting out a pained noise, the Cursed broke through the mass of dead and again tried to reach the stone-thing and what sat on it. More rose in her path, swifter than she could break them. She stopped even trying, just forcing herself to continue forward as the sharp things tore at her fur and hide. The stone… throne, that was the word. She was getting closer to it now. It was not fleeing her anymore. The Cursed took a spear to the side but leapt forward. More were massing, a flood trying to turn her back.

She howled, but the wall of spears broke her stride. She slowed. Skeletons cut through the back of her legs and they did not heal. She crawled forward, dragging herself through the ash with her front feet. The presence was a greenskin. Larger than any the Cursed had seen before. It was wearing stone and bronze, with eyes like flame and fists like hammers. It looked at her in silence. The dead were hounding her but still she crawled, and reached the steps before the stone. Her claws rose, to tear at the other, but the spears of the dead finally forced her down. She breathed shallowly. There was no more healing. The other looked down on her, face beyond description. The Cursed heaved one last time and folded back into herself, leaving Sabah naked in the ash. Slowly bleeding out from a hundred wounds. Gods, the pain. The pain was blinding. For the first time in her life the curse had failed, leaving only the woman beyond it.

“Do you understand, now?” the other said.

Sabah made a wordless noise.

“There is no winning,” it said. “You cannot beat the Rage. The Beast. You have no control. It was a lie to believe you ever did.”

“I’m still alive,” Sabah managed.

“Yes,” the other said. “You have proved worthy. Rise.”

The pain receded and Sabah managed to push herself up. She rose to her feet unsteadily.

“You are not of the Clans. No matter. We will do great things, you and I.”

Sabah looked into the flames that served as its eyes.

“Great things?” she said.

“You will lead others, assemble the Blessed. And together you will rip out the heart of this wretched Empire,” the other said.

Visions passed through her mind. Herself, bedecked in bronze. Leading a host of humans and orcs, breaking cities and leaving behind only the grass of the steppes. A perfect horizon without end of blue sky without anything to mar it. Glory eternal, a throne of bones raised on the grounds where the Tower once stood.

“Kneel to me, child,” the other said. “I will bestow upon you the control you crave. I will grant you a fate without rival.”

Sabah looked into the flames, and remembered a night years ago. A green-eyed boy in a dark barn, who looked a monster in the eyes and smiled. The dark-skinned boy at his side, more fascinated than afraid. You’re not a monster at all, are you?

“Are you a god?” Sabah asked.

“I am war,” the other said. “I am blood and bronze and glory. I am the horde that was and will be.”

The Taghreb chuckled quietly.

“I already have a fate,” she said. “I know who it’s bound to. I made that choice years ago.”

“You have a greater purpose now,” the other said.

“Greater? They’re going to be legends, you know. My boys,” she smiled. “And I’ll be standing at their side. It’s all right if my Role is a quiet one. I don’t have as much to prove.”

You will kneel,” the god hissed.

“I take orders from only one person, and he ordered me to win,” she said. “I will Obey.”

She felt the Beast inside of her grin, and this time when the red came she embraced it. Sabah’s body distorted and the god would have stepped back if it could.

“You have something I need,” she spoke through her growing fangs. “Give it to me.”

There were screams this time, but they were not hers.

She parted the flap. The thing in the blankets shrieked at her the moment she came in.

“What have you done?”

The Tahghreb dropped the corpse she’d been dragging by the hair onto the floor. Its ribcage had been ripped open, missing the heart that still stained her lips red.

“You’re going to need another god,” she told the creature. “I broke this one.”

Amadeus was looking at her with a searching gaze. Wekesa was eyeing the god’s corpse like he was debating if he could get away with stealing it.

“Sabah?” Amadeus said.

“Captain,” she replied. “Call me Captain.”

Chapter 46: Squire (Redux)

“Note: only offer the hero the chance to replace my right-hand man when my right-hand man is no longer in the room.
Additional note:  find out estimated rebuilding cost for the summer palace.”
-Extract from the journal of Dread Emperor Malignant II

Two things happened in quick succession.

First, I snarled something very unkind about Chider’s mother and a he-goat. Second, I snatched the sharper out of the air and threw it back up. Unlike during my first run-in with the goblin, I was now familiar with goblin munitions. I knew how long they took to blow – the standard issue stuff anyway. The sharper exploded halfway up, giving me a gentle hint the mixture had been tinkered with. What was it with all my enemies getting their hands on goblin munitions? The Legions really needed to keep a closer eye on their stocks: they were supposed to be the only organisation with access to munitions. I’d have a talk with Black about it, I was starting to get pretty irritated with how people kept throwing those at me.

“Yeah, I won’t be calling you that,” I said, dragging myself up to my feet.

I’d expected to feel aftershocks of what I was pretty sure had been my Name getting ripped out of me, but there were none. My limbs moved surely and smoothly. The pain must have been in my soul, horrifying as that thought was. I could still feel an itch in the back of my neck, though, almost like I was missing a limb. Chider replied to my polite announcement by dropping a brightstick, this prepared to blow up directly in my face. One of these days, the Gods were going to have to grant me dumber enemies. There had to be a finite number of clever ones, and I was starting to murder my way through that list. I ignored the falling cylinder and wedged my foot into a crevasse. The flash of light and the deafening noise might have been a problem if I were still alive, but at the moment I was past worrying about burst eardrums. They’d make no real difference.

Jumping while in full plate would have been hard even when I’d still had my Name, but I was just about done playing around. Ripping a few muscles to get the job done wasn’t something I was going to balk at. My first leap got me halfway up and I forced my limbs into making me jump again when I hit the side of the pit, landing in a sprawl back on top. I heard Chider scuttling away from me, hiding in the rocks. The novelty of having an enemy shorter and physically weaker than myself was quite refreshing. Well, weaker for now. She’d be settling into the Name any moment now, and it was all downhill from there.

“I should have seen this coming, really,” I said. “Warlock mentioned the only place in Callow to ‘bind or usurp a Name’ was in Liesse. Figured I was safe with no other claimant around, but that was evidently incorrect. Breaking the laws of nature to screw me over – classic Heiress.”

I heard the snap of a crossbow being shot and turned in time to see the bolt coming for my chest. My hand snapped up, following my will, and snatched the projectile out of the air. One out of two, I mused, breaking the haft and dropping it on the ground. I’d had better success rates, but also much worse.

“The part of this that puzzles me,” I continued, “is you. You’re smarter than this, Chider. I’m on my way to fighting my two rivals and you’re a middling threat standing between us. There’s only one way this can go for you.”

The undead goblin slipped out of the rocks to my side, jamming a knife in my knee joint. Frowning, I slapped her across the face. I hadn’t held back even a little bit and it showed: her neck twisted sharply with an unpleasant sound. She picked herself up from the rock the hit had thrown her against, idly snapping her neck back in place. No full resurrection for her either, then. Weren’t we quite the pair, jolly undead abominations brawling in the middle of place that had been freshly forced into existence? I took the knife out of my knee, gauging the weight of it. Good goblin steel. It would do.

“That would be true,” Chider said as she rose to her feet, “if you were still the Squire. You’re free meat now, Callow-girl.”

I sighed.

“I’m serious,” I said. “What’s the end game for you here? Say you manage to somehow destroy my body. Heiress manages whatever the Hells she’s up to with your help. What do you do after?”

“I change things,” Chider replied, pulling out another knife.

Gods, was that what I sounded like to other people? No wonder I got stabbed so often. Never assume a goblin is out of knives, I thought, watching her twirl the blade between her fingers. Robber carried so many that by all rights he should clink whenever he walked around.

“As the Squire?” I said. “The moment Black meets you, he’ll hack you to pieces to put the Name back in play. If he’s in a bad mood, he’ll give what’s left of you to Warlock. Do you still dream, Chider? Because that’s the stuff of very real nightmares.”

“I have friends of my own,” the goblin said.

“No, what you have is an owner,” I said. “And she’s not gentle with her tools – today should have shown you that clearly enough. Chider, you’re about to get thrown under the carriage. You really think Heiress is going to stick her head out for you? Gods, you think the Truebloods will? They don’t hide what they think about greenskins.”

Snarling, the goblin attacked. Rude. She could have at least informed me we were done talking. What was it with telling people they were wrong about everything that made them so aggressive? Already Chider was faster, quick enough she was hard to follow with the naked eye. I felt the blade scrape my chest plate but it failed to go through and I kicked her before she could stick it into my neck. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what she thought that would do at this point. Make me bleed out? My heart wasn’t beating anymore, and the stuff inside my veins was basically red water giving me a little more mass. I caught her wrist when she came for me again, initially forcing it back before something dark flared in her leering eyes. She begun turning the struggle around. Name strength, I decided, was a lot less pleasant from the other side. I spun around her and helpfully handed her back her knife, sticking it into her neck. Didn’t seem to have much effect, but my boot on her back did: she was sent sailing again.

“You think I don’t know all of this?” Chider spat, landing in a crouch, “I’m not drowning in options, Foundling, unlike you. I’ll survive today, then tomorrow and then the day after that. That’s what goblins do. We survive, even when Creation is out for our blood.”

I unsheathed my own knife.

“You know,” I said thoughtfully, “I think that a year ago I would have tried to help you. To compromise. But I’ve lost too many friends since, Chider. Crossed too many lines to turn back.”

That burned face split into a horrifying grin.

“If you think I’ll lay down and die for your little narcissism trip,” she said, “you’re in for a rude awakening.”

Fair enough. I strolled forward, pace unhurried. She darted in my direction but I feinted for her hand. Unnaturally quick, she brought up her knife to block – and I swiped mine across her face, ripping through her teeth. She backpedalled hurriedly, free hand coming up to touch the ruined fangs.

“I’ve been doing all this talking,” I said. “You probably thought it was a blunder. She’s been Named too long, she got cocky. What I was actually doing, though, was giving them time to settle in.”

She leapt for me with a howl but that was mere savagery. I’d fought more dangerous things than an angry undead goblin in the past, even a Named one. Hells, I’d fought more dangerous things today. I calmly stepped aside, left her to slide on the rock and feinted for her eyes. The knife came up again, faster than a blink, but I’d already redirected the strike and was ripping through the shoulder muscles on the right. She’d likely thought she was being clever when she’d traded chain mail for leather, banking on speed over taking hits. Her limp right arm now taught her differently.

“The reflexes, I mean,” I said as I circled around her. “They take a while to get used to, don’t they? I remember how odd it was when I first came into the Name, getting a set of reactions that weren’t entirely mine.”

I brought up the tip of my knife and this time she reacted properly, not falling for the probe – which didn’t help her when my other hand unsheathed my sword and hacked through her bad arm. The limb fell to the ground. I intended for this to be theme for the evening, as it happened.

“You can ignore them, of course,” I said. “But that costs you a moment, while you push them down. A lot can happen in a moment. Still, I imagine that given a fortnight you’d get used to it.”

My eyes turned cold.

“Unfortunately for you, you don’t have a fortnight.”

Chider spat out teeth, bringing up her knife.

“Fuck you, Callow-girl,” she said. “No matter what you do, I will Surv-

I rammed my sword through her mouth, tip coming out on the other side. There would be no aspect comeback for this one. I jammed my knife into the soft side of her elbow, cleaving the muscle. Her fingers convulsed around her weapon but there’d be no more swinging at me. Holding her upright, I ripped out the clasps holding the upper part of her leather armour together. The flesh under was scarred with burns, barely even flesh at all.

“I warned you,” I said, “Now give me back my Name.”

I struck her as hard as I could, my armoured fingers ripping into her flesh. I dug through the necrotized organs, finding the snake-like length of her spine after jostling around a bit. Hand inside the goblin up to my elbow, I grit my teeth and tore out her spine. It snapped halfway through her abdomen and Chider fell limp. Dropping her to the ground after withdrawing my smeared gauntlet, I wrenched out my sword and beheaded her for good measure. I stood there, eyes closed. I would have let out a breath if there’d been any air in my lungs. I did not have to wait for long before awareness flooded into me for the second time in my life. It felt like coming home.

I was Catherine Foundling, daughter of no one and nothing. I’d broken armies, snatched victory from the jaws of my enemy. I’d spent lives like coin and bought the fate of a kingdom, cheated death and spat in the face of Corruption. On the night I’d first claimed this Name, I’d branded my path on the soul of a hero. And on the night where I claimed it again, that path was coming to an end. I was, once more, the Squire.

My senses sharpened and I waited for the beast that rode my shoulders to make itself known, already smiling. I’d almost grown fond of it. The expression faded when it made no appearance. I frowned and sunk in the depths of my Name. They felt shallower now. Not weaker, but as if the depths had not yet been… earned. My blood ran cold when I realized I had not claimed back my Name – I’d just claimed it, period. I was starting at the beginning again, and I couldn’t feel a single one of my aspects. Just the potential for them, those bundles of shapeless power. My eyes opened in sheer surprise. Those three bundles of shapeless power.

“Oh, Heiress,” I said gleefully. “You fucked up.”

Chider had been her work, of that there was no doubt, but why would Akua have done this at all if she knew it would give me back strength? I might not have my aspects anymore, but my Name was effectively restored to the strength it had possessed before my run-in with the demon. I had the well of power to effectively use the tricks Black had taught me once more. Why would Heiress make me stronger? She’d made a habit out of sabotaging me at every turn. Even if she was planning on using me against William, this made no sense. Unless she didn’t know she was doing that, I thought. Only two people knew there had been more to my crippling than the leg: Masego and Hakram. And Black, though that hardly counted.

I’d not told another living soul, and as far as I knew neither had they. And it wasn’t like Heiress could just take a look at my aspects whenever she pleased: Apprentice had needed to set up an entire room full of hellishly complicated wards to operate on my soul. Akua had never been allowed into the Fifteenth’s camp without heavy guard, and any use of magic on her part would have been met with immediate force. She hadn’t known, I realized. She hadn’t known I’d robbed myself of an aspect. She’d thought that by using Chider as a receptacle for my Name she could weaken me for months, maybe even kill me when she ripped it out – if she was lucky. That was the thing with luck, wasn’t it? It never landed quite where you’d thought it would.

“And instead you put me back on the horse, you scheming bitch you,” I murmured.

Gods Below, it was about time one of her little plots backfired. Now I just needed to cram her next one down her throat and make her choke on it. I knelt by Chider’s twice-dead corpse, wiping my sword on her before sheathing it. I did the same with my knife after wrenching it out. If I’d had anything to set her on fire just to be sure I would have, but for now this would have to be enough. I didn’t have any munitions on me, much less goblinfire – not that using a substance that burned magic in a dimension made by a mage wouldn’t have been a horrible idea anyway. I peered in the distance and saw the gate of light was still there. For how long that would remain the case I wasn’t sure, but I thought it best to hurry.

Feeling the mantle of my Name on my shoulders after that distressing period where I hadn’t made a tedious procession more tolerable. I could no longer remember what I’d felt like before I’d become the Squire. Being entirely human was just a… hazy concept. I was beyond sickness now, beyond the old limitations of my body like heat and cold or not being able to tinker with my own senses. After tasting true power, there was nothing more horrifying than being powerless. The honesty of that thought made me uncomfortable.

It was hard to gauge lengths of time in a place without a real sky, but I felt like I’d kept a good pace. The gate of light I’d glimpsed at a distance was even taller than I’d thought, thrice my height – so more or less twice anyone else’s – and almost as broad. I couldn’t make out anything beyond it. Apprentice had said there would be a way into the ritual site, but I found it odd he hadn’t said anything about a gate. For that matter, if he could make a gate why hadn’t he crafted one for me to enter here in the first place? I frowned, then picked up a stone from the ground and threw it. For a moment it looked like it would pass through, but then there was a flash of light and a loud bang.

“You’re getting predictable, Akua,” I said.

Stepping around the gate, I found the exit Masego had actually made after looking for a few moments. Like the portal that had allowed me through, it was transparent and hard to make out in the lack of proper lighting. Akua’s false gate was just close enough to make it hard through wiggle through, because why make it just a death trap when you could also make it an inconvenience? I took a deep breath I didn’t strictly need, finding the familiarity of it reassuring.

“Final round, winner takes all,” I muttered before passing through.

Chapter 45: Corpses

“It probably doesn’t count as cannibalism if you’re already dead.”
– Dread Empress Sanguinia I, the Gourmet

Nefarious’s corpse hadn’t even cooled before they’d dismembered and burned it, scattering the ashes so broadly not even a wraith could be formed from the remains. A lesson the Court learned centuries ago at the knees of the first Dread Empress Sanguinia, whose reign of terror had not ended with the cup of poison she’d drank. She had, if anything, become even more dangerous after her death. The Chancellor was a thorough man, for all his flaws, and had no intention of giving a sorcerer as accomplished as Nefarious a foot on the land of the living. The hall on the twenty-fourth floor of the Tower had long been used for official court sessions, and that the Chancellor had chosen it as the place for his summons spoke openly to the man’s intentions. He’d been ruling the Empire in all but name for the last decade anyhow, no doubt he saw actually taking the throne as a mere formality. He had the backing of the High Lords, the Legions – this sad, ugly sister of what the Legions of Terror had once been – were in his pocket and he controlled Ater. Ascensions to the throne had been built on a third of that kind of support. And yet…

Amadeus gazed at the sprawling mosaic that made up the entire floor, lost in thought. The centrepiece was arguably the depiction of the First Crusade and Dread Empress Triumphant’s fall, but that wasn’t what interested him. Closer to the bronze and gold doors there was a motif about Dread Empress Maleficent I, the founder of the Empire. It showed her driving out the Miezans – a historical inaccuracy, as there had only been one bare skeleton of a legion left, but the lie was central to the creation myth of Praes – and uniting the Soninke and the Taghreb. She’d been Taghreb herself, governor of Kahtan under the foreign occupation. The more numerous and politically powerful Soninke had her assassinated within the decade and one of their own took the throne, but you’d never guess it from the way the High Lords were smiling at her side. Behind the humans knelt greenskins, orcs and goblins mingling in abject adoration of their superior. Another lie. The Clans had only been cajoled into joining the Declaration by bribery and the Tribes had to be forced into the fold by violence.

So many lies, for a single floor. A pack of gilded ornaments hastily slapped over an inglorious beginning, carefully polished over the millennia since until they became accepted as the truth of history. What would they say of today in a thousand years, the Black Knight wondered? Would they speak of it as the beginning of a golden age or the whimper of a stillborn rebellion? The nobles and sycophants milled about the hall, clumping together in whispering circles. None of them approached him. Some had tried to play him the fool when he’d been younger, thinking a Duni would be easy prey, but the trail of corpses he’d left behind since had dissuaded them of the notion. Still, at least some of them should have been trying to forge an alliance with him to better their fortunes under the new regime. Word of his many disagreements with the presumptive Emperor must have spread. Was this the prelude to an attempt to remove him form the game entirely? He found the thought amused him. Chancellor’s intentions upon taking the throne were still a mystery to him, though he could make some educated guesses.

He was shaken out of his thoughts when the man in question strode through the open doors. The whispers stilled and the crowd parted reverently as the Chancellor walked to the throne. Running a hand on the stone and iron the man stood there for a moment, smiling. Finally, he sat and the crowd let out a single breath. Relief, envy, admiration. Already vultures were gathering behind the curtains of professed loyalty, scheming how they would carve out an advantage from the succession. There would be need for a new Chancellor, and that Name was ever brimming with claimants. For now, though, they knelt. Like a wave washing upon the floor, the mighty fell to their knees – until the wave reached him. Amadeus stood, leaning against the wall.

“You take liberties, Black Knight, that I have not allowed,” the Chancellor said.

The rebuke resounded like the crack of a whip in the silence of the hall. Black pushed himself off the wall and strolled to the centre of the crowd.

“I,” he said, “do not kneel.”

The Chancellor chuckled.

“I may yet allow you this privilege, should you prove loyal,” he said.

The fury wafting from the nobility, still kneeling, was delightful. Truly, it was making Amadeus’ day. Coming here had been worth it just for that. The older man continued speaking when it became obvious Black did not intend to reply.

“You will hunt down the wretched concubine Alaya, who murdered my predecessor,” the Chancellor said. “You will drag her in chains to this hall, so I may render judgement.”

Amadeus smiled.

“No.”

“This is an order Black Knight,” the man barked. “As Dread Emperor Baleful the First, I command your obedience.”

“I serve the Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, Tyrant of Dominions High and Low, Holder of the Nine Gates and Sovereign of all She Beholds,” he said. “You have no right to command me, Chancellor. Or to sit on this throne.”

“This is treason,” the man screamed.

“This is inevitability,” Amadeus replied.

Some of the crowd rose. Swords were unsheathed, incantations whispered. It would be for naught.

“Some of you,” the Black Knight said, “will fight this. Will cling to the old order, futile as it may be. For you I come bearing the word of the Empress.”

He grinned, wide and sharp and vicious.

“Tremble, o ye mighty, for a new age is upon you.”

I woke up.

I did not gasp for air, or blink in surprise. I was just… awake. The dream I’d just had I remembered with perfect clarity, my teacher’s last words echoing in my head. They felt like a warning. They felt like a promise. I pushed myself up into a sitting position only then noticing that someone’s hand was on my shoulder, helping me up. Dark skin, slender fingers. Apprentice. I did not feel his touch at all. There were bound to be a few downsides to being an undead abomination, I supposed.

“Catherine,” Masego said, studying me carefully through his spectacles. “Do you understand me?”

“In general?” I said. “Like, maybe half the time. The rest I just nod and pretend it’s obvious.”

“You just got sassed by a corpse, warlock’s get,” a voice said. “That’s gotta sting.”

I glanced in that direction and saw Robber crouched on a crate, expression unreadable. We were inside a house, I realized. Where I couldn’t be sure. My throat itched and I ran a finger on it, feeling stitches. So I could feel some things, then. It was just muted, like I interacted with Creation through a veil.

“He cut my head off, didn’t he?” I said.

“And one of your ankles, before we drove him off,” Hakram said.

Him I’d known was in the room without needing to turn. I felt his Name pulse and mine answering to it. There was a connection there, one I did not yet understand. So much about Name lore still remained hidden to me. Was it the same, for Black and Captain? Hakram was, I supposed, my equivalent of the gargantuan Taghreb. With perhaps a little of Scribe thrown in for good measure.

“I guess he learned from the last time,” I said, looking at my similarly stitched-up right leg. Damn, I’d run out of usable limbs at this rate. Of all the habits I could have picked up, why was getting crippled the one to stick? “Doesn’t seem to be hindering me any.”

“You shouldn’t be able to feel pain anymore,” Masego said. “Or pleasure, for that matter. You’re essentially a cadaver with limited sensory abilities.”

“You sweet talker you,” I said, getting up. “How long was I dead?”

Even with the amulet I was wearing under my armour – a receptacle to catch my soul after I died, the way Apprentice had put it – his most conservative estimates had been that it would take him a little over a bell to raise me from the dead. Well, “raise” me was a bit of a misnomer. I was still dead, just walking about. With my soul stuck in a piece of amber hanging off my neck. I’d had better weeks.

“About an hour,” Hakram said.

I blinked in surprise, or would have if my body still worked that way. My eyelids didn’t move until I consciously made them do it. Gods, that was going to be weird.

“Masego?” I prompted.

Robber tossed me by sword belt, which had been taken off me at some point. I buckled deftly, noticing my men had even brought a replacement greave for the one I’d lost to goblinfire. It didn’t match the rest of the gear, but unlike Heiress I didn’t have half a dozen spare suits of armour to draw from.

“A force was helping me along,” the bespectacled mage said. “Your Name, and… something else. It was like Creation did not want you to be dead.”

“Ominous,” I said, tightening the strap on the greave Hakram had handed me.

“Says the undead abomination,” Robber pointed out cheerfully.

“At least I don’t own a jar full of eyeballs,” I said absent-mindedly. “Speaking of dodgy business, Tribune, how’s your progress? Shouldn’t you be out in the field?”

The goblin preened. “No need. We’ve got two out of three already and the third one’s been found. Just a matter of time. Your little trick with the devils made it much easier to get around the city.”

“Don’t posture, it makes you look like the bastard child of an inexplicably green gargoyle and a pigeon,” I said. “Still, good work. I want all three behind our lines the moment you can manage it. No fuckups, there’s a lot riding on this.”

“So I’ve heard,” the goblin said, grinning malevolently. “Up to no good, Boss?”

“Good cut my head off not an hour ago,” I muttered peevishly. “We’re not exactly on speaking terms at the moment.”

I turned towards the more productive members of my posse.

“Where are we, exactly?”

It looked like a house, but too small to be one from the street where I’d gotten stabbed to death. That was still a thing that had happened. I’d call this the worst week of my life, but that would just be taunting fate.

“Past the first barricade,” Adjutant said. “In the forward beachhead of the Fifteenth. When it became clear the devils weren’t going to be a problem Hune marched deeper into the city and smashed through their first line of defence. There’s fighting at the second ring of barricades but we haven’t made another push yet.”

I raised an eyebrow, having to gauge approximately how high it was supposed to go. Gods, this undeath business was a pain. It was a good thing I didn’t intend to stay like this for long.

“Nauk’s kabili has been sent further east to assault through there. Juniper thinks if we hit them on two points they’ll collapse and fall back to the Ducal Palace,” Hakram said.

“If the Swordsman shows up, dividing our forces is gonna be… costly,” I said.

“There’s been no sign of Tall, Dark and Very Stabbable,” Robber said. “Or Queen Smug. I’d put good money on them tangling as we speak.”

“He barely managed to limp away after the beating you gave him,” Adjutant said. “She’ll have the advantage.”

“That’s not good,” I said with a grimace. “She’ll be wanting to meddle with the ritual.”

And I need it, I didn’t say. Only Masego and Hakram were fully in the loop as to the end game of the gambit I’d run by getting myself killed by William. Apprentice had made it clear from the beginning that while he could raise me from the dead, he couldn’t actually resurrect me. True resurrection was the province of Good. That was the underlying pattern: Evil was handed the means to avoid death, Good to reach past it. Staying undead wasn’t an option, as far as I was concerned. Masego could currently puppet me if he so wished, since he held the leash on the spells that had me walking around, but in theory someone could wrest that leash away from him. Warlock definitely could, and given Heiress’ talent with sorcery given enough time I was pretty sure she’d be able to work out something too. There were advantages to my current state but way too many liabilities came with it. Not to mention the whole being a moving corpse aspect. That would put a hamper on quite a few parts of my life, I thought, a certain redhead coming to mind.

I clenched my fingers experimentally. That part seemed to be working fine, and being able to take ridiculous amounts of punishment would come in useful. I reached for my Name and found it weaker than it had been before my death. No, not weaker. Looser. If before it had been a mantle draped comfortably on my shoulders, now it was hanging by a thread. Squires weren’t supposed to die, I supposed. That I was still a Squire at all was something of a disappointment, to be honest.

“You’re frowning,” Adjutant said.

“I was hoping getting myself offed would serve as a shortcut in some ways,” I said. “Maybe lead into another Name.”

Masego chuckled. “You’ve the wrong Role for that,” he said. “You are meant to be the successor to a Knight, whether Black or White. Unless one of them dies you’re quite out of luck.”

“Figures it wouldn’t be that easy,” I said. “Well, aside from a few issues it looks like my little jaunt on the other side filled up the reserves. Next time I scrape with Willy things will go differently.”

“I’m not saying you should mutilate his corpse,” Robber said. “But, you know, if you happen to stumble onto a few eyes I know this guy who has a collection.”

“You don’t even eat them,” Adjutant complained. “It’s a waste, is what that is.”

“I’m going to pretend I never heard that,” I confided in Masego. “When those words I’m definitely not hearing stop, tell Hakram to find his shield. The three of us are going for yet another horrifying magical adventure.”

It was up to debate whether we had good or bad timing, because Hune was about done preparing for her push when we arrived. The ogre was looking at a map held up against a ruined wall by two legionaries, still coming up taller than it even crouched. She saluted crisply when the three of us arrived.

“Lady Squire, Lord Apprentice,” she said, then paused. “Deadhand.”

Deadhand and Dead Girl, I thought, running around foiling Good. There was a song in there.

“What’s the situation, Commander?” I asked.

“Commander Nauk has begun his offensive,” the ogre said. “Already the rebels have started stripping their defences here to reinforce the east. Legate Juniper intends for us to hit them when the troops are beyond the two points, overwhelming them in detail.”

Good ol’ Hellhound, baiting the enemy into a mistake and then slitting their throat over it.

“Any sign of the heroes?” I said.

“None at the moment,” the gargantuan woman said. “Though we have sapper lines ready should they make an appearance. I take it you’re here to join the assault, my lady?”

“We won’t be sticking around,” I said. “We’ll be using it as cover to head for a target deeper into the city.”

The ogre nodded slowly, the clever eyes set in that brutish face studying me patiently.

“The place where the ritual is,” she said. “You believe the Lady Heiress intends further mischief.”

“Something like that,” I said.

The ogre’s buckler-sized hands tightened into fists. There seemed to be genuine anger in him, perhaps the first display of open emotion I’d ever seen from her.

“That woman is in dire need of killing,” Hune rumbled. “Treason against the Tower cannot be tolerated.”

“Preaching to the choir there,” I said. “Who’s at the tip of your offensive?”

“Tribune Ubaid,” Hune said.

Ah, an old friend then. No doubt the former captain would find this scrap a pleasant stroll after our fun little evening with the devils near Marchford. Interesting choice to put regulars in front, but I supposed that with all the fresh recruits in the Fifteenth Hune was looking to blood some of her legionaries.

“I’ll get out of your hair, Hune,” I said.

“Good hunting, Lady Squire. One sin,” the ogre said hammering a hand against her breastplate.

“One grace,” I replied, doing the same.

Finding Ubaid was easy enough. His legionaries were already formed up, the rest of the kabili falling in line behind them. The Soninke was inspecting the gear of his first line, handing out praise and criticism freely. His cohort of two hundred milled with excitement as we approached, smelling the blood to come. The man himself snapped a sharp salute.

“Lady Squire.”

“Ubaid,” I said warmly. “We’ll be joining you for the assault.”

“An argument could be made they’ll be joining us,” Masego said.

“Don’t mind Apprentice,” I said, “he always gets crabby right before the swords come out.”

“I do not-”

“You’re making her point for her, Masego,” Hakram whispered loudly.

The mage closed his mouth with a snap, looking disgruntled. Ubaid looked like he badly wanted to be somewhere else but was too polite to flee. It would be strange going into battle without the Gallowborne at my back, but I’d elected to leave them behind since I wouldn’t be taking them with me to the ritual site anyway. Currently they were with Juniper at the central command node, charged with guarding the trump cards I’d tasked Robber with finding me. I took the lead as we began the march, the other two at my side. Hune had chosen one of the main arteries as her angle of attack, though I could glimpse legionaries spread out over the two adjoining streets as well. Tribune Ubaid’s cohort remained concentrated on the avenue we were using, as per Legion doctrine. It was a short walk to the second ring of barricades, and when we got there I saw there were already sappers in place. A company at most, but they were keeping the rebels busy by taking crossbow shots whenever a Callowan peeked out from behind the barricades.

I was reluctantly impressed by what the defenders had managed to build as their rampart. Unlike the upended carts and sacks of sand and grain of the first barricades, these ones had foundations of stone pulled from Gods knew where. There was narrow path through the rampart leading straight into a smaller barricade, which would force my legionaries to split between two sides when trying to overwhelm it. I couldn’t see what the defenders were standing on from where I was, but some sort of scaffolding must have been built behind the wall: a handful of men were watching us, crouching down behind the walls whenever one of the sappers took aim at them. Taking this promised to be costly, I assessed, and the numbers were on the side of the defenders. As far as I could figure Hune was going to collapse the barricades with munitions and charge through the wreck as soon as the defenders were positioned to stop Ubaid’s cohort, catching them flatfooted. It should work. The prospect of the losses displeased me, though. On both sides.

What point was there in continuing to kill the rebels when the battle was as good as done? Without William around to stiffen their spines, I might actually be able to talk them into a surrender. It was worth a try instead of jumping straight into the slaughter, anyway. I signalled for Ubaid’s cohort to slow and went for the wall, sword still sheathed. From the corner of my eye I saw one of the archers knocking an arrow and waited – the shaft was released and I tapped into my Name, watching it come closer. Snatching the arrowhead out of the air was what I was intending to do, but it ended up being more along the line of catching it with my palm. There was, I reflected, no real way to play that off as if it had been my intention all along. I didn’t feel any pain from the wound, so simply sighed and broke off the shaft before wiggling the rest out. There was a gasp of horror from the barricade and I heard someone say the word Squire. Good, there’d be no need for introductions. Some of the sappers were about to answer the shot in kind so I immediately spoke up.

“Hold,” I said. “You, behind the walls. I’m Catherine Foundling, ranking commander of the Fifteenth. Who’s in charge here?”

There was a round of hushed conversation behind cover until a confident voice quieted it. A few heartbeats later a woman rose to the top of the barricade, dressed in good plate. Even under the helmet I recognized those silvery strands of hair and that pale, strikingly beautiful face: it appeared I was in front of the Baroness Dormer herself. I’d seen her exactly once before, when I’d been a child. She’d visited Laure to settle a trade dispute and I’d managed to be part of the crowd watching her ride into the city. I’d skipped lessons for it, if I remembered well, because I’d wanted to see the noble so many people said was the loveliest woman in Callow with my own eyes. I cleared my throat, absurdly amused to be standing in front of the same woman who’d made me realize I was attracted to both genders in such a different situation.

“That would be me,” the Baroness said. “You’ll forgive for not bowing, Lady Foundling. I no longer recognize the authority of the Tower.”

“So I’ve heard,” I said drily.

“I was also under the impression you were dead,” the woman continued.

“Not nearly as much of a problem as you’d think,” I mused.

“Impressive, but we planned to defend the city against you regardless,” the Baroness said. “I have no intention of surrendering my men so they can be butchered in Malicia’s name.”

“That’s about to happen if you don’t surrender, Baroness,” I said. “I’m willing to give you fairly lenient terms to end this without further bloodshed. Prisoners will be treated fairly.”

The silver-haired woman’s eyes narrowed.

“The Tower has only one way of dealing with rebellion.”

“You’ve been out of the loop for too long,” I said. “Black granted amnesty to the vast majority of the Countess Marchford’s host. Nobody wants to drown the south in blood, least of all me.”

“The vast majority,” she repeated. “And what of the Countess herself?”

“Executed,” I admitted. “That, however, was Black. He’s not here, I am. Liesse is mine to deal with as I see fit, by Imperial mandate. I you surrender I promise amnesty for your men and a fair trial for you.”

She seemed almost amused by that.

“That I committed treason by the Tower’s reckoning isn’t exactly in dispute,” she said.

“No, it isn’t,” I said. “But all I’ve heard of you leads me to believe you got involved in this because you believed Callow would be better off for the rebellion. That rebellion is over, Baroness Dormer. But you can still spare the people who fought for you.”

She hesitated.

“We could hold you off behind the barricades,” she said.

“Apprentice could level those with three words and a wave of his hand,” I said matter-of-factly.

“Five and really more of a flick,” the overweight mage corrected.

“Not the time, Masego,” I said under my breath, watching the noblewoman on the wall.

“The Lone Swordsman said you were treacherous and silver-tongue,” she admitted ruefully.

“I’m sure he’s said a lot of things. You should be more worried about the things he hasn’t said, though. I’m betting he didn’t inform you that the ritual going on is to bring an angel of Contrition to the city,” I said.

She paled, and just like that I knew I had her. William, you didn’t think this through. They’re not heroes, they’re just people. No one signed up for your personal Crusade. It’s one thing to be ready to die for Callow, it’s another to be conscripted by the Heavens.

“You’re lying,” the Baroness said.

“Noticed how he stopped carrying that sword of his around? That was a Hashmallim’s feather, I’m told. Three guesses what it’s being used for, and the first two are also summoning an angel,” I said.

“How can you be so pithy about this?” she asked, sounding horrified.

“Because I’m going to cut his throat – for the second time today, mind you – and put an end to all of this,” I said. “This is what I do, Baroness. I clean up the messes made by the fools. I did it at Three Hills, I did it at Marchford and I’ll do it again here. Gods as my witness, I’ll keep on going until there’s peace from Daoine to the shores of the Hengest.”

I met her eyes calmly.

“I could threaten you now,” I said. “Point out that I punched a devil the size of a fortress so hard it died or that I basically walked off getting decapitated not an hour ago. But I don’t really need to, do I? You know who I am. What I’m going to tell you instead is that I’ve had a very long day – and that I won’t be making this offer twice.”

I clenched my fingers and unclenched them.

Choose.”

She folded. She dithered a while still, but she folded. I wished it actually felt like a victory, and not like I’d just broken my homeland’s spine over my knee. I didn’t stick around to oversee the rest of the surrender. I handed it off to Hune after getting in contact with Nauk’s kabili with a scrying spell. The orc commander had already broken through his section of the barricade but my orders were enough to restrain him even after he’d gotten his blood up. The Baroness managed to get most of the remaining soldiers to surrender, but some refused and tried to retreat. There was only one way that was going to end, but I didn’t have the time to spare pity for the last gasps of this rebellion. We headed north again, towards the lake.

“The site won’t actually be in Creation,” Apprentice said. “Well, technically yes, but depending on whether or not you adhere to orthodox Trismegistan theory it-”

“Masego,” I said sharply.

The dark-skinned man cleared his throat.

“I’m saying getting there won’t be as simple as taking a rowboat and rowing to an island that doesn’t, precisely speaking, exist.”

“If you were trying to make this simpler,” Hakram said gravely, “you have failed.”

Apprentice looked frustrated, passing a hand through his sweaty mess of braids. We’d taken a brisk pace, and military life had yet to get him in better shape.

“Look,” he said. “This place is an angel’s corpse, more or less. Angels are of Creation, but not in Creation.”

I ignored the “depending on what school of thought you believe is correct as to the nature of Spheres and Laws” he added in a mutter afterwards. I didn’t know if it was possible to have a headache while undead and wasn’t particularly eager to find out.

“Practically speaking,” I said, “what does that mean?”

“The site is effectively on Creation without being part of it,” Masego said. “Like a pebble on a larger rock. There are… rules though. There has to be a way in, for something like that to be able to exist. A connecting point, where the pebble touches the rock.”

“So we use that,” Hakram said.

“That would be ideal,” Apprentice said. “If it’s still there.”

I glanced at the bespectacled mage. “You think Heiress blocked the way?”

“Or the Lone Swordsman,” he said. “If he knows how.”

William had never struck as being particularly knowledgeable about stuff like this, but he didn’t have to be. Not with the Wandering Bard on his team. And isn’t your absence starting to make me a little nervous, Almorava? What are you up to? Guided by Apprentice, we eventually happened upon the shore of the Hengest lake. There were actual docks further east but that wasn’t what Masego had been looking for, apparently. I was pretty sure what he had was right in front of us: a small, thin rowboat without oars. It was pale and the prow was swan-shaped. It was also on fire, which was much less promising. Almost nothing but the prow remained, the rest sinking into the water.

“I’m thinking Heiress,” I said.

“It does bear her tender and delicate touch,” Adjutant said. “Apprentice, I hope you have another way to get us in.”

“No,” the Soninke said then remained silent for a moment. “Not us, anyway.”

“You made that unnecessarily tense,” I told him gently.

He blinked in confusion and I decided there were more pressing matters at hand.

“Explain,” I said.

“Pebble, larger rock,” he said.

“Many syllables,” I said, “Catherine confused.”

“And so they all died, because the Squire couldn’t ever miss an opportunity to be sarcastic,” Hakram said gravely.

I cleared my throat, or at least tried. The sound that came out was more like I was choking on my own lungs. Dying was proving increasingly troublesome.

“Look,” Apprentice said. “The rule is, there must be a connection. There’s none available, so Creation will work with me if I try to make one. I’m creating a second, smaller pebble that touches both the larger pebble and the rock.”

“Honestly, you could have just said you’re creating a pocket dimension that touches both the site and Creation,” I said.

“Gods, why am I even on your side?” Masego complained, throwing up his hands in the air.

“You like us, though Hells if I know why,” I said, patting him on the back. “Now about that metaphorical smaller pebble. You went all exacting in a way I’m guessing means not all of us can go.”

“I’ll be casting,” Apprentice said. “And I need an anchor, temporary as it will be.”

“Does it have to be Hakram?” I asked.

“That depends,” he replied. “Do you want the pocket realm to collapse on you while I get non-Named smear on my boots?”

“No,” Adjutant interrupted before I could reply. “No she does not.”

I shot the orc a look. I’d been going to say as much. Eventually.

“So just me, then,” I said. “This doesn’t feel even remotely like a coincidence.”

“Three Named want this city,” Hakram said. “Three Named fight for it. The pattern comes to a head.”

“This is about more than just Liesse,” I said. “This is about all of Callow.”

I started to pass a hand through my hair but remembered halfway through the gesture I was still wearing my helmet. Awkwardly I brought the arm down, hoping neither of them had noticed. I cleared my throat again, this time with a little more success.

“Do your thing, Apprentice.”

Apparently Masego couldn’t just wave his arm and rewrite the fabric of Creation, which was very inconvenient of him. I almost told him as much but Hakram gave me a look of his own. I almost tried to pout at Adjutant, but refrained when I forced myself to visualize how horrifying it would actually look. It took too long for Apprentice to prepare his spell for my tastes, but before an hour had passed he was ready.

“The entrance will only be open for a handful of heartbeats,” he warned me. “Be quick. And remember, you’ll have to find your own way back.”

He put a hand on Hakram’s shoulder and spoke urgently in the mage tongue, palm pointed in front of him. I almost didn’t see the portal when it appeared. It was transparent and oval – and shorter than me. Adjutant likely wouldn’t have been able to fit through even if he hadn’t been needed as an anchor. Gritting my teeth, I took a running start and threw myself into the pocket dimension.

I landed in a roll on the other side, managing to stay on my feet for a moment before the disorientation hit and I fell in a sprawl. I hastily got up, warily casting a look around. I was apparently on a wide strip of rock that stood over an inky black void. Charming. I didn’t get close enough to the edge to have a look down. I did not want to be the first undead to ever throw up. I’d never been great with heights, even if the crippling aspect of that fear was long behind me. The terrain ahead of me was broken, full of spires and pitfalls. I made my face grimace out of sheer distaste for the work ahead of me, then got moving. Climbing higher allowed me to peer in the distance, where I saw a gate of light. At least that part was visible. I got halfway through before I slipped and fell at the bottom of well of spires, cursing loudly on my way down. Plate armour wasn’t exactly climbing gear, even when you no longer felt its weight. I wedged my boot in an opening and clasped my fingers around an outcropping that should allow me to pull myself out when my arm started trashing about.

The spells animating me? No. I felt heat for the first time since I’d woken up, searing and bloody. Worse than even getting hit with William’s light had felt. I fell back down, screaming in pain as my limbs shook uncontrollably. How long that lasted I couldn’t tell, but eventually my limbs stilled. I felt… empty. Like some part of me was missing.

“Funny,” a voice said. “That should have killed you.”

I looked up and saw a face peering down at me over the rocky ridge. Half of one, anyway. Horrific burns and sword wound had taken most of the left half. The rest was of a red nearly orange. I’d only ever met one goblin that colour.

“Chider,” I rasped.

“Please, Catherine,” the dead goblin said, “Call me Squire.”

Smiling pleasantly, she dropped a lit sharper on my head.

Chapter 44: Victory

“Does not show traditional heroic talent for forging strong friendships but considered a leader by her peers. Responds aggressively to threats. Displays continued recklessness and an aptitude for thinking on her feet. This agent recommends disposal before she can turn into a legitimate threat to the peace of the realm.”
– Report ‘for the eyes of Lord Black only’, concerning the Imperial ward Catherine Foundling

“GALLOWBORNE, TIGHTEN RANKS!”

My personal guard dragged the wounded behind their shield wall and began retreating in good order under the bellowed instructions of Captain Farrier. They’d held up surprisingly well against the assault of the devils, I saw. Less than a line of casualties. Some of that could be attributed to the fact that they’d fought defensively and not been the focus of the hellspawn to start with, but there was more to it than that. They’d held the line against devils before, at Marchford. They’d been through the crucible already, and all the soldiers who would have flinched in front of the howling horde were already dead. To borrow one of the more brutal sayings of the Queen of Blades, war had separated the wheat from the chaff. I fell back behind the protection of the shield wall, Adjutant swatting down anything that came even remotely close to us. Masego, I saw, had already done the same. My Callowan soldiers gave him as wide a berth as they could: Apprentice had shown enough of what he could do that my rank and file stepped lightly around him.

Getting back to my personal guard had been a matter of running more than fighting. The Gallowborne were now at the back end of the avenue where most of the fight had taken place, backs against a stone guildhouse to limit how many angles they’d have to defend. I took a look back to where I’d done most of my fighting today and grimaced: it was packed with devils, milling around and beginning to mass for an offensive against my men. No sign of William, though there was no doubt the bastard was still alive. It would take more than devils to do in the Lone Swordsman, even if he didn’t have his creepy sword. I bit my lip and considered my options. Heiress had either run off on a horse northwards or tried to fake me out again by continuing on foot to the east. I was inclined to believe she’d been on the horse: she wouldn’t be as sanguine disposing of her Praesi minions as her hired ones, and Fadila had followed her on the ride. Could be how she’s selling this, though. I resisted the urge to spit and set the matter aside. Wasting time to speculate on her tricks was playing right into her hand.

North or west? North of us there was the ritual site the Lone Swordsman was using to bring the angel into Creation, which my gut told me was her target. Whatever she was intending to do to that ritual, it couldn’t be allowed to come to pass. She was dangerous enough without having stolen an angel’s power or worse, corrupted it. There were precedents for that, though they were legend and not recorded history. Not that the existing Praesi records were all that reliable, considering Tyrants were the ones who decided what got written. Even worse, with Callowan histories largely put to the torch or confiscated after the Conquest there were no other record to cross-examine them with. North, I decided. It would have to be north. Trying to force our way through the devils was a recipe for a rout, even with three Named on our side, so we’d have to swing around. What was it Heiress had said, when she’d fucked us over? Two hundred paces. How much ground would that actually cover? Was it centred around her? It made most sense as a circle, but even if that was the case that didn’t tell me whether those two hundred paces were the radius or the diameter. That’s why we bring specialists, Catherine.

“Masego,” I said, jolting the mage out of his thoughts. “What Heiress did, with the devils. How does it work?”

The dark-skinned mage pushed up his glasses.

“I layman’s terms, she put down a metaphysical banner where she stood that formed a ward. Inside that ward, the eight binding for devils she’s summoned is lifted.”

In the distance a crossbow bolt caught a jackalhead in the chest. The devil yelped and retreated, but they were beginning to test our defences. We couldn’t linger here much longer.

“What’s the shape of the ward?”

“Circle,” he immediately replied. “Cast this hastily, it can only be that.”

“And the two hundred paces…”

“Diameter,” he frowned. “I’m assuming, considering the amount of sorcery she used to create it.”

Good news. Five streets to the right should be enough, maybe seven if they were too narrow. We’d lose time going around but that couldn’t be helped. I closed my eyes, visualizing what Heiress had done. Wait, Masego had said a ward. A fixed point, then, that she wouldn’t be able to control after she’d made it unless she was on hand.

“Apprentice,” I said slowly. “That ward, can you affect it?”

He blinked. “Given enough time I could break it, if that’s what you’re asking. Would there be a point to that? They can’t misbehave outside its boundaries, and what she did to lift the binding seems to be attracting them.”

Yes, I’d noticed that last part. I almost smiled, showing my teeth. Hakram let out a bark of laughter and Masgeo looked confused.

“Apprentice, when she lifted a binding she made a hole right?”

“You want me to lay a binding of my own,” the mage immediately understood.

It was always a pleasure to work with clever people.

“Right now every devil in Liesse is drawn to this ward like it’s a beacon,” I said. “Let them. When they get here, though? Make them fight.”

Modifying the ward was much faster than dismantling it, though not without problems. Heiress had laid traps into its structure, because of course she had. Masego took the precaution of creating a small levitating orb of light that sucked in the torrent of black flames that spewed out the moment he accessed the ward structure. He also had to take apart a set of fake runes he assured me would have rotted my eyes in their sockets if I’d looked at them. Still, before the devils mounted a proper attack he finished the job. What I saw afterwards was a sight I would take to my grave. I’d witnessed great and terrible things, since leaving Laure. Walked the grounds of the Tower and passed through the Hall of Screams. I’d watched a battlefield turn into a hellish wasteland of green flames at Three Hills, fought a fully incarnated demon in the ruins of Marchford. None of those held a candle to seeing a thousand devils rip each other apart gleefully in a massive melee, rending each other’s bodies apart with tooth and claw. I felt a shudder go through the Gallowborne as they watched, awed by the sight of the monsters turning on each other mercilessly. We didn’t stick around to see the fight play out, turning west to swing around the ward.

There was no banter, not after the mess we’d just left behind. My soldiers were in a subdued mood, and as I rode Zombie I kept an eye out on our surroundings. Twice I glimpsed goblins on rooftops, nodding back to their salutes before they scampered into the shadows. Robber’s cohort had been given a very specific task and it was pleasing to see they were on top of things. This particularly plan I’d hatched with Aisha’s help, and though events had conspired to complicate its completion I’d also been handed a golden pretext to use it. By the time we’d begun marching north again we’d gotten deep enough inside the city I was surprised we weren’t running into rebel soldiers. They must have retreated past the second ring of defences, though who had actually given that order was anyone’s guess. William must have been in overall command by sheer virtue of being a hero, but he wasn’t a battlefield commander. My money was on the Baroness Dormer, which wasn’t a bad thing for the Fifteenth. As far as I knew she hadn’t fought in the Conquest and had no real military experience. She was the kind of opponent Juniper would eat for breakfast.

The narrowness of the street we were in had forced the Gallowborne into a column instead of a stronger formation, which made me uncomfortable. These would not be good fighting grounds if we ran into the enemy. I was considering moving us to a broader avenue when I saw a single silhouette ahead of us, walking calmly towards my men. Trouble, I thought, calling a halt.

“There has to be another way,” Adjutant said quietly.

“We’ve discussed this before,” Apprentice replied flatly.

We had, and it was too late to back out now. I’d try talking first, but my history with talking sense into people was a littlecheckered. Still, who knew? There were a lot of ways for the third encounter between a hero and a villain to go. Few of those to my advantage, but sometimes you had to roll the dice even if the game was rigged. William paused four city blocks away from my forces, casually sweeping his sword along the ground. The brute strength and speed of the sweep created swirls of wind in front of him, scattering dust. The message was clear: the Gallowborne were not to advance any further. I dismounted Zombie, idly checking my weapons. My throwing knives were safely secured, and the satchel on the back of my belt held tight. Passing the shield wall, I strode forward to meet the Lone Swordsman on the field. His scrap with the devils had cost him no wounds, I saw. His long coat was torn in several places, but somehow that just made him look rugged. The chain mail under was still pristine and his dark hair stylishly tousled.

I was drenched in sweat under my plate, my bad leg ached and my hair had knotted against the edge of my open-faced helmet in a way that itched. Fucking heroes. He probably smelled liked flowers, I thought bitterly, while I smelled like horse and blood and being in over my head for at least the tenth time this year.

“And so we meet again,” William said, green eyes cold.

“That’s usually what happens when you go looking for people,” I spoke drily.

“As Heiress is no within my reach at the moment, I must call our truce at an end,” the Lone Swordsman said.

“Who would have seen that coming,” I spoke in a monotone. “Alas, you’ve taken me by surprise. Curse your unexpected betrayal.”

Apparently the hero hadn’t foreseen quite this much mockery when he’d prepared for this conversation in his head, because he did a piss poor job of hiding how irritated he was. Honestly, that was on him. I’d never shown him any respect before, why would I start now?

“Die,” he said. “And not nicely.”

“Villains have limited retirement options, William,” I said gently. “This isn’t exactly a revelation to me. What I’m curious about, though, is what happens after. Say you manage to kill me. What then?”

“Then your legion loses its leader,” he said. “I rally the army of Callow and we drive your butchers out of Liesse.”

“I’m not giving out any orders at the moment,” I pointed out. “My legate is. And as for you driving the Fifteenth out of this city…  Well, the last time it fought a battle against a proper army, it spanked a force twice its size of professional soldiers. Half of which was mounted. You think levies and a bit of southern retinue is going to stand up to veterans like them? William, my soldiers brutalized devils when they were just a bare skeleton of a legion. They’re led by a woman so clever she sometimes scares me, and we’re on the same fucking side.”

“Are you quite done boasting?” the Lone Swordsman asked with disdain.

I ground my teeth, pushing down my flaring temper. Gods, it was like talking to a stone wall that was just sentient enough to be an obstinate jackass.

“What I’m telling is that this battle is over,” I said. “We’re in the city. There’s no walls to hide behind and your barricades are just going give my sappers a good laugh. There’s no winning this for you anymore, William. My death makes no real difference. If anything it just makes it easier for Apprentice or Adjutant to kill you afterwards – no more Rule of Three keeping you alive.”

“All those pretty sentences covering for one word: surrender,” he mocked. “That’s always been your answer, hasn’t it Catherine? Licking the Tower’s boot and hoping your foreign paymasters take pity on us.”

“For once in your life,” I growled, “try to think beyond your pride. What are you accomplishing here? The rebellion is over, William.  The Duke of Liesse is dead. Black dispersed the Countess’ army without even giving battle. Procer has its own troubles in the south and it can’t afford to open up another front. There are no reinforcements coming for you. You are alone.

“Yes,” he smiled strangely. “Alone. It was, I think, always supposed to end like this. It is… fitting.”

“This isn’t a story, William,” I said tiredly. “Thousands of people are going to die. It won’t be glorious, it won’t be heroic. It’ll just be piles of corpses littering the streets getting picked at by the crows. All those lives snuffed out for no good reason.”

“You know, I once told Almorava the very same thing,” the hero said. “About it not being a story. I was wrong. This is a story, Catherine. It always was. Even this conversation is part of it: my last temptation before the end. I made a choice, Squire, and I stand by it. Some things are worth dying for.”

“And the people of Liesse, are you choosing for them too? Because when Contrition comes calling, it won’t ask them nicely to enrol. You’re robbing them of free will so you can play the leading role in your little tragedy.”

“You know little of the Hashmallim,” he said. “All they do is show you the truth of what you are. Of what Creation is. They don’t force anyone’s hand, Catherine. They don’t have to, once you understand. There is only one path forward.”

“All you’re doing is letting some creature from another realm into the heads of hundreds of thousands to tinker with their will,” I snarled. “Gods save us all from principled men. You’re really the same as he is, when it comes down to it. You have a point to make and you don’t care what it costs to everyone else. Because you want to be right, even if half the continent burns for it. At least villains own what they are.”

William laughed.

“And what do you stand for, Catherine Foundling?” he challenged. “Over a year we’ve fought, you and I, and I’ve yet to see you take a stance. You claim your way is the one that works, but what have you actually accomplished? You don’t have morals, Squire. You don’t have beliefs. Like a reed, you bend however the wind blows.”

“I want peace,” I said. “I want order. I want good crops and fair taxes. I want Callow to prosper, and I don’t care who rules it as long as it does. If I have to strike deals with monsters to see that done, I will. Kingdoms, empires, they’re just lies we all agree on so our lives have a frame. What matters is the people, not the deceit. The Kingdom of Callow is no longer a lie that serves its people, and so it needs to die.”

“A kingdom is more than the sum of its people,” William said. “It has a higher meaning, a higher purpose. I am a citizen of the Kingdom of Callow, and so I am free. And I will fight so that one day all other Callowans can claim the same.”

“I should have killed you, that first night,” I said. “I didn’t understand what I was unleashing. I thought I did, Gods forgive me, but I could not have been more wrong.”

“Too late,” the Lone Swordsman said, sword rising. “Let us end this, Squire. This time, there is no Warlock to save you.”

I unsheathed my sword calmly.

“If I’m going to beat a truth into you today, William, it’s this one: I’m the person people need saving from.”

He moved like lightning. The longsword carved through the space where my head had been a heartbeat earlier, but I’d ducked under the swing and rammed my fist into his stomach. It didn’t do much – I doubted he’d even bruise – but I wove my Name into a trick and a quick burst of shadowy energy pushed him back. I pressed the advantage, feinting for his arm but turning it into a lunge that would take him through the throat. His blade came up to slap mine away as he twirled gracefully and I smiled. With his old sword, he might have managed to cut through my blade with his own. Now, though? Now we both fought with steel. The fight was a little more even. I moved sideways, circling him slowly, and he moved to match me. I’d meant to continue doing that until the afternoon sun was in his eyes – unlike me he had no helmet to shield his sight – but the bastard knew his way around a sword fight. Right before he would have stepped where I wanted him to, he ran a finger along the length of his sword. There was a flash of blinding light but I was prepared for it: he’d pulled a similar trick in our last duel and I’d been thinking of counters even since.

Sharpening my senses with my Name was one of the first tricks I’d learned, but it had taken me a while to realize I could also do the opposite. For less than a heartbeat, I blinded myself. When my sight came back I caught his wrist as he brought his sword down to cave my head in, my own sword swiping at his lower leg. I drew blood through the thick leather boots and spun away from him, hastily giving grounds. Gods Below, pushing back his swing even for a moment had nearly broken my arm. He was stronger than the last time we’d fought, and I didn’t mean that in an abstract sense: he was physically stronger. And faster too, I was pretty sure. How he’d managed that without putting on muscles mass I couldn’t know, but it felt like Name shenanigans at work. I spat to the side in dismay. My own Name had never been gracious enough to give me anything physical but better reflexes, which apparently all Named got anyway. Fucking heroes. I’d deal with it anyway. If I’d learned anything from our last duel it was that I wasn’t going to beat him with a sword. Brute force had never been my thing, when it came down to it: trickery and cheating had been my bread and butter since the first time I’d stepped into the Pit.

“You’ve gotten better,” the Swordsman noted.

“Your Name is bullshit and so are you,” I said.

I probed his defences with the tip of my sword but he was not so easily baited. I feigned a strike to his side but had to hastily retreat when his blade came within an inch of my throat. He turned the strike into a blow at my shoulder, pushing forward, but I spun around him. For a heartbeat we were back to back and I slipped my free hand inside the satchel at my belt, snatching a sharper. As we pivoted again to face each other I pushed a trickle of power into my hand, energy crackling around my fingers. Savouring the look of surprise on his face, I punched him in the stomach with the clay ball. It detonated loudly, tossing him like a rag doll. It also broke three of my fingers, but that was just the price of doing business. Focusing for a heartbeat, I wove threads of necromancy and snapped the bones back in place as I rushed after him. He tried to get up but my armoured boot slammed into his chest, knocking him back down. I had to step back to avoid a strike that would have slipped in the weak point of my greaves but I took out a throwing knife and flicked it at his sword hand, relying on my Name’s reflexes to guide the throw. It nailed him right in the wrist and he hissed in pain.

Apparently I’d hit a nerve – or an artery – because there was a flicker of power before a burst of light emanated from his frame. I deftly stepped out of range, but William took the occasion to get back to his feet. The light had pushed the knife out of his wrist, I saw, and the wound was already closing. Well, that’s new. Taking him apart piece by piece wasn’t an option, then. His wrist was still bloodied, I noticed, so I supposed bleeding him out was still possible. There was a lot of blood in a human being, though. Odds were I’d run out of throwing knives before he ran out of red to bleed. More than that, I couldn’t count on him running out of power anytime soon. He’d flatly outclassed me in that regard even before Masego had carved out a third of my Name. You might say I was out of my depth.  Engaged in an uphill battle. It was, most definitely, a Struggle. Something dark rose in the back of my mind at the thought, howling in rage at the Heavens as my Name finally woke up. My veins warmed with power and I grinned.

“Let’s try that again,” I said.

I dashed forward, the pain in my leg gone as the pavement stone gave under the pressure of my charge. I lowered my head under the Swordsman’s swing and unsheathed my knife, ripping through his sleeve as I passed him. The chain mail under held, but I felt the rings get carved. Goblin steel had few equals on the continent. He pivoted to hack at my shoulder but I parried the blow with my knife, forcing him to step around the arc of a sword strike that would have cleaved through his neck. Clasping my wrist with his free hand he forced it down, the sheer strength of his grip denting plate armour, but I rammed my knee his stomach. He staggered back, releasing my wrist, and I slammed the pommel of my sword on the crown of his head. He let out a curse and backed away, bleeding where I’d struck. I wasn’t about to let him recover: in a matter of moments I was on him again, swinging as my Name laughed in delight. Evidently he didn’t use his head much, because the hit hadn’t slowed him down: with a deft twirl of his sword he ripped my knife out of my hand, allowing the chain mail on his arm to catch my sword at an angle that made the blow impotent. I stepped back, abandoning the knife, and he tried to make distance so he could take back the flow of the engagement from me. Screw that, I thought, and reached for my satchel again. I tossed a brightstick at him and he looked insultingly sceptical until I aimed my hand at it and shot a small burst of shadow and caught the spinning munitions in the air.

The brightstick exploded inches away from his faces with a burst of light and deafening sound. I’d closed my eyes even as I moved forward. It was too much to hope that he’d be permanently blinded and have his eardrums burst the way a normal man would, but a moment was all I needed. Somehow, even blinded, he managed to catch my first strike with his sword. I let him pass, spinning my wrist to turn the attack into an arcing blow that caught his shoulder. I’d reached into my Name as I struck, drawing on its strength, and I felt the mail give. My blade came away red. Once again I felt his power rise but I grit my teeth and reached for my own, striking at his chest with the heaviest spear of shadows I could muster. The rest of his duster was torn blown through, his power scattered and the mail smoked. I was winning. Gods, I was actually winning. He’d fallen to his knees, but his eyes were working now. Snarling, he hacked at my flank. I let the armour take it, half-stepping to blunt the impact. My hand reached for my satchel a third time, taking out a sharper.

His eyes widened and I could see the thought process going through his mind, clear as day. I’d finish moving before he could reposition his sword to stop me. His mouth opened, to say what I did not know. His power flickered a third time but with a snarl of triumph I shoved the sharper into his open mouth. Before the light could fully manifest I’d shot a burst of shadow at the sharper and it blew.

The Lone Swordsman’s body skidded across the stones, his precious light doing nothing to help him. When the momentum stopped carrying him he did not manage get up, limbs twitching weakly. I could already feel the power I’d gotten from my aspect leaving me more with every heartbeat – I’d been liberal with its use, which had made it end even faster than usual. I knew the moment it was gone I’d be exhausted and my leg would be a very real problem, so I had to end this quickly. Trap, I thought as I moved forward. This feels like a godsdamned trap. A downed hero who just got the beating of his life, unable to move? This was the part where I made my monologue and he begun his comeback. I couldn’t just leave him there, though. He’d already shown he could heal himself to an extent and if he came back from this I was in deep, deep trouble. I’d give it better than half odds I’d be flat out of juice the moment my aspect tapped out. And if it comes to a contest of skill between us, I’m going to die a very ugly death. Well, I did have one last surprise in my satchel. Very carefully, I took out my last clay ball. I had to sheathe my sword to strike a pinewood match and light the fuse on the goblinfire. Heart beating fast, I tossed the projectile at the hero.

I knew, before the ball was even halfway there, that I’d made a mistake. The Lone Swordsman’s arm rose weakly, brandishing his sword. He rasped out one word.

Swing.”

His wrist flicked and a gale blew as if he’d cleaved the world in half.  The goblinfire exploded in the air, spreading in droplets that landed everywhere. That was, I decided, bad. A heartbeat later the last of my aspect-granted power winked out. I wasn’t entirely out, but I wouldn’t be able to make a spear even if my life depended on it. Which it very well might. That was, I decided, very bad.

Rise,” the Lone Swordsman rasped.

Light spread around his body in thick cords, healing his wounds and hoisting him up. He looked in bad shape, but he was definitely moving.

“Very, very bad,” I muttered.

Apparently we were past the banter stage because William was on me before the chords of light were even gone. My arm moved sluggishly but I parried the first blow, free hand reaching for another throwing knife. Fingers closed around my wrist.

“No,” the Lone Swordsman growled.

“Yes?” I hazarded, the word drowned out by the plate covering my wrist breaking apart completely under his grip.

I slugged him in the face with the pommel of my sword but he took it unflinchingly, pushing me back.

“I’d settle for a maybe,” I said.

My cutting sarcasm, unfortunately, failed to draw blood. Weeping Heavens, I was pretty sure he’d sprained my wrist under the steel. That limited my options pretty sharply. He advanced on me again, eyes ringed with a sort of luminous clarity that gave me a headache just to look at. I backpedalled blow after blow, giving ground. I was running out of tricks to turn this around. Slapping away my blade, he hammered down on my only good wrist left with his own pommel – the impact forced me to drop my sword. Well, I still had knives. The hero’s blade sliced through the belt keeping those up, though I managed to snatch one before they fell to the ground. I’d had knives, I corrected mentally. The Lone Swordsman had unfortunately brought a longsword to a knife fight, which admittedly gave him a bit of an advantage. I stepped around a hew and got in close but he swept my legs. I hit the stone with a dull thud and he stood above me with his sword raised.

“And now,” he said solemnly, “I Triumph.”

“Do you know what the difference is, between a Squire and a Swordsman?” I croaked out.

He blinked in surprise.

“I have a horse,” I announced.

A moment later Zombie hit his back. I closed my eyes and reached for the heart of the necromantic construct, where Robber had cleverly reproduced the same device he’d made for the brooch in Masego’s hair. The bits of bone scraped together as I used the very last dregs of my power, producing a single spark. The demolition charges stashed inside my mount blew up instantly and the world turned white, heat licking at my face.

A heartbeat later I opened my eyes, though I didn’t remember closing them. I tried to move but my everything was broken and I wasn’t laying down where I’d been. Shit, I blacked out. My right arm looked like I’d tried to make a knot out of it, which wasn’t promising. My leg was also apparently on fire. Goblinfire. Repressing a horrible scream of pain, I managed to sit up and hastily unclasped the greave with green flames on it, feebly tossing it away. My left hand blindly groped around for support, the wrist pulsing in pain, but instead I found something metallic. My knife, I realized. The one Black had given me what seemed like years ago. My thoughts felt slow and disjointed. I found William laying unconscious a few feet away from me and dragged myself along the ground, knife still clasped in my fingers. The moment I got close enough, I wildly stabbed into his exposed neck. Steel sunk into flesh and I let out a hiss of triumph. The hero’s eyes opened and he gurgled out a word.

Rise.”

“Oh, come on,” I croaked.

The already-closing wound was pushing out my knife. The chords of light weren’t as thick as last time, but there were still working. I got my knife out and stabbed him again. Or would have, if he didn’t catch my wrist. His other hand came up and I glimpsed his sword, shining like a lake under moonlight. It passed through my plate like it was parchment, plunging straight into my heart. The hero pushed himself up to a crouch.

“And so it ends,” he said.

I could feel my Name running through my veins, not to save me but for some… deeper purpose. It was true, then. We curse our killer with our last breath, Black had said.

“You will die before the day is done,” I rasped.

“And yet,” the Lone Swordsman smiled, “I win.”

My vision was blackening. I could feel life leaving my body. Serenely, I smiled.

Gotcha, I thought, and died.