Prologue

“The most dangerous opponent for a master is a novice. Therefore, seek to be a novice in all things.”
– Isabella the Mad, only general to ever defeat Theodosius the Unconquered on the field

Anaxares, to his surprise, was still alive.

Perhaps his utter irrelevance in the grand scheme of things had seen him spared, he pondered, but such a thought was too optimistic. More likely the kanenas had all assumed another one of them was going to trigger the stone in his stomach and one would get around to it whenever they remembered. His impending death was such a certainty he no longer spared any time troubling himself over it – what point was there in cursing the river when you were already drowning? At the very least his last days would be interesting, in a truly horrifying manner. The Tyrant of Helike had seemingly adopted him as a pet of sorts, naming him an official advisor to the crown and now dragged him along wherever he went. The villain was amused by his calm. Calling the contraption the two of them were currently on a litter would have been a misnomer: the boy had essentially built a massive dais, slapped a throne on it and now had it carried around by porters everywhere.

A pavilion could be added to cover the surface when weather demanded as much and tables were positioned to allow for the taking of a meal should the Tyrant demand it. The wretched labour involved offended his sensibilities. Foreign Slavers Will Be Known By Their Wicked Works, he added out of habit. May They All Choke On Ashes And Also Snakes. The villain had tried to have a smaller, noticeably cheaper throne put next to his for Anaxares to sit on but the Bellerophan had flatly refused. He’d claimed a wooden stool for the people and discreetly carved the sigil of Bellerophon – three peasants waving pitchforks – on the side. The small act of rebellion had been deeply satisfying, if utterly meaningless. Not, he decided, an inept description of his own existence.

Finally,” the Tyrant said, “we’re getting decent weather.”

Anaxares looked up at the massive storm clouds gathering and cocked an eyebrow. The lands between Helike and Atalante were known for the occasional bouts of week-long rain and storms, blown south from the Waning Woods and the madness that passed for nature over there. The Fae toyed with the winds and the sky the way men did with their clothes, and the farms beneath them paid the price.

“It will be harder for your army to retreat in the mud,” Anaxares said.

He knew next to nothing about strategy –  in Bellerophon the only people allowed to read books on the subject were the citizens who drew army positions, and even they had the knowledge erased from their minds past their term of service lest they Use It In Horrid Rebellion Against The People – but so far the Tyrant’s campaign against Atalante had not impressed him. For one, there’d been no battles. The famous Helikean army had marched east towards Atalante, whose farmers had already emptied their fields, without contest from the enemy. The Atalantians had remained behind their walls as the emptied their treasury buying up all the mercenaries in Mercantis they could afford, only taking the field after they outnumbered the Helikeans two to one. Twenty thousand men had then dutifully marched towards the Tyrant, who had immediately taken his army back through the farmlands he’d just gleefully set fire to.

“Oh, we’re done retreating,” the Tyrant said cheerfully. “I’m bored with it now. Got what I need anyway.”

Anaxares pulled at his third wineskin of the morning, trying to wash down the taste of impending doom. The Tyrant disapproved vocally of his drinking habits, but the man’s servants kept bringing him skins anyway.

“As my advisor,” the boy said, his bad hand visibly shaking, “what would you advise me to do now?”

Just being called that qualified Anaxares for thirty-three different counts of treason by Bellerophan law. Fifty-something, even, if you counted all the articles about foreign collusion separately. His remains would be on trial for years after the initial execution.

“Return to Helike, slit your own throat and let your replacement beg the mercy of the League,” he replied without missing a beat.

“You’re a terrible advisor,” the Tyrant complained. “I should have you hanged.”

Anaxares shrugged.

“If that is your wish.”

Less painful of a way to go than internal organ crushing, he assessed.

“You haven’t gotten tedious yet,” the boy mused. “I guess you can live.”

“I am, of course, relieved and grateful,” the Bellerophan deadpanned.

“You should be,” the Tyrant said cheerfully. “I’m so merciful, it’s why my people love me so much.”

As far as Anaxares could tell, the reason Helikeans ‘loved’ the Tyrant was that they had been told they did by men with swords and grim faces. The army, though, did seem genuinely loyal. Not surprising: whenever a Tyrant took the throne, they started invading everything in sight. The last one to hold the Name had broken the desperate alliance of Stygia, Atalante and Delos before the southern Proceran princes had intervened and put her down. Glorious war had been waged, victories tallied, and within a decade all the borders had returned to what they’d been before the woman had claimed the crown. Named or not, one could not change the face of the Free Cities.

“Admittedly there is no other claimant to the throne, since your nephew’s death,” the diplomat said instead of rehashing the histories.

“Pretty idiot got himself shot by an orc, of all things,” the Tyrant said delightedly, the red in his eye deepening for a heartbeat. “He always talked too much, it’s how he lost the throne in the first place.”

The Bellerophan’s eyes sharpened with interest as he swallowed another mouthful of wine. The Tyrant’s seizing of the throne of Helike had been one of the most unexpected diplomatic development of the last decade, in the Free Cities, but precious little was known about. A boy that had been by all reports a nonentity before the coup had in a single day taken control of the city and the army, killed the king in his own bed and purged his nephew’s supporters brutally. The nephew in question had fled the city with most of the young nobility and his surviving loyalists, becoming the Exiled Prince in the process.

“Talked too much,” Anaxares repeated, leaving the tone questioning.

“See, Dorian’s father was a lot like mine,” the Tyrant said. “Drank too much, dallied with servants, let the nobility and the army run things. Everybody liked that state of affairs. Dorian, though? He was just so pretty and so good.”

The bitter hatred in those words almost fouled the air.

“Now, the old guard didn’t care much for him. But their heirs? The swarmed him like flies a corpse. Hung on to his every word, his promises of reform and a better Helike.”

The Tyrant seemed almost amused at the prospect of the betterment of his city-state, as if such a thing was unimaginable.

“They figured out eventually that when Dorian took the throne, he was going to be an actual ruler,” he snickered. “Their own children would back him in this. Now that angered them quite a bit, Anaxares. If you steal power and keep it for long enough, eventually you start to think you have a right to it.”

He waved his good hand expansively.

“So they looked at the only other child of royal blood,” he said. “Approached me. And I said: why not?”

“They thought they could rule through you,” the diplomat said. “A mistake of some scale.”

“Most of the I fed to dogs,” the Tyrant smiled, that flash of sharp pearly teeth. “The others fell in line.”

“You were twelve years old,” Anaxares said, feeling old. “And already Named.”

“I wasn’t the Tyrant then,” the boy said. “Just Kairos. Can you keep a secret, advisor?”

“No,” the diplomat replied immediately. “I will report everything you say to the kanenas at the first opportunity, before my summary execution.”

The villain grinned.

“Treachery is pleasing to the Gods Below,” he said. “There’s a crypt in Helike, under the palace, where the first foundations of the city were laid. There’s a creature there, lying under a tomb of stone sculpted to look like someone holding a sword. There is a crack in the side just large enough that you can hear the thing inside whisper, if you press your ear to it.”

Anaxares would have shivered, if years of walking with death in his belly had not effectively burned fear out of him. The words were casually spoken but the description felt more vivid than it should have. He could smell the dusty air, feel the unsettling whisper of an abomination against his ear.

“I don’t know what it is. My father said it’s the first king of Helike, still straddling the line between life and death,” the Tyrant said. “The king, though, once said it is the god who once owned the ground the city was built on – tricked into the tomb and forever bound to give us advice.”

“Advice?” the diplomat repeated.

“Prophecies,” the boy said. “All of royal blood can ask one question if it, in our lifetime.”

“And it told you you would rule?” Anaxares guessed.

The Tyrant laughed.

“It told me,” he said, “that I would die when I turned thirteen. That there was nothing I could do to change this.”

The boy smiled.

“It was,” he said, “a great gift.”

Looking down at his shaking hand, the Tyrant seemed lost in memory for a moment before he gathered himself.

“We spend so much of our lives, Anaxares, shackling ourselves. Avoiding doing this and that because others would frown upon it. Because it is wrong and wicked and unworthy. Once I knew there was only death ahead of me, I started doing what I wanted. I ceased censuring what I was to please others.”

“The drow believed the same as you, when they embraced the Tenets of Night,” the Bellerophan said. “And look at them now, Tyrant – packs of savages inhabiting the ruins of an empire. Censure Is Just, Law Is Necessary.”

Glory To Peerless Bellerophon, Whose Laws Are That Of The People, he added silently.

“Your city is the mutilated remains of a people,” the boy said. “That you wielded the knife yourself is the only thing setting you apart from the rest of Creation.”

“We have no rulers, in Bellerophon,” Anaxares said.

This time there was no need for him to speak the words taught to all of them as children, the capitalized praises learned before one could walk. This, he believed for himself. Because the Republic was flawed, deeply flawed, and he could admit this to himself even if he deserved death for it. But what it stood for was… greater than the sum of its faults.

“No crowns. No nobles. No Names. This is not an accident, Helikean, it is a statement. We are all of us free or we are none of us free. There is no middle ground.”

“You’ve lived a heartbeat away from death all your life,” the Tyrant said, “and still you don’t quite get it, do you? You Bellerophans just traded one tyrant for fifty thousand. You don’t get to decide who you are. Others do that for you.”

The boy rose to his feet, stretching out gingerly. He looked almost fragile, thin and sickly under his red silken robes.

“When those nobles and generals came to whisper treason in my ear,” he said, “I did not hesitate. Because I felt like usurping a throne, because I hated Dorian. I was curious to see if it could be done. I was going to die soon, anyway, and what did I care what followed that?”

Anaxares was not a warrior, or a large man. He was thirty and more familiar with wine than a hard day’s work. For all that, looking at the boy, for a moment he was convinced he could snap his neck almost without effort. That the bones would break like a bird’s, shatter like glass. Then he saw the eye, the damnable red eye, and the Tyrant was a looming titan looking down on him.

“So I did it,” the boy hissed. “I crushed them and I stole the crown and I called the would-be puppeteers to heel. And when I turned thirteen, sitting on my throne as the Tyrant of Helike – I did not die. Because Fate isn’t a path we must follow, Anaxares, it’s a tug-of-war between the Gods.”

He leaned closer.

“And sometimes, if you put your hands to the rope, you can tug it your way,” he whispered.

The Named withdrew with unnatural agility, laughing. The intensity there had been to him was gone like mist in the sun. The Tyrant ripped out one of the banners that flew at every corner of his dais – his personal heraldry, a leering skull with a red eye on gold – and leapt down onto the wet grounds. The porters who’d been carrying the dais hastily slowed, not daring to drop the entire thing even as their muscles creaked lest their ruler be splattered with mud.

“Come along, advisor,” the boy said. “We must speak with my general.”

Anaxares followed. The soldiers, hard men and women in scale armour with swords and shield, turned into awed children whenever they saw the Tyrant. Some reached hesitantly for the hem of his silks, which the boy tolerantly allowed. There was no sign of discontent among them even after the pantomime that had been this campaign: in Helike, Tyrants did not fail. Not without betrayal or half the world set against them. They would follow the little madman into the fray without hesitation or doubt. The general they were seeking found them first, riding towards them. A woman, the diplomat saw, then his gaze lingered on her throat. Not that she had always been that.

“Sire,” the general said, dismounting hastily and kneeling.

“General Basilia,” the Tyrant said, patting her armoured shoulder affectionately. “The army is to cease retreating immediately.”

Something feral flashed in the woman’s eyes.

“We are to prepare for battle, then? The enemy is half a day’s march away, we can still set the grounds.”

The Named chuckled.

“There is no need to array our soldiers for a fight,” he said. “Stay in a column. We will be marching on Atalante before nightfall.”

She almost hesitated, Anaxares saw, but did not protest. Loyal, this one. To a boy more than half mad. Gods save them all. He should have brought the wine.

“As you command, sire,” she said. “There is a farm not far from here, should I prepare it to accommodate you?”

“No need,” the Tyrant said. “My advisor and I will be awaiting our friends on the field.”

Without even the semblance of an explication, the boy strode away with the standard resting on his shoulder. The diplomat sighed and made to follow but he was stopped by the general, who put a gauntleted hand on his shoulder. She glared down at him.

“If he dies,” General Basilia said, “you will follow him shortly. Screaming.”

“Nine,” Anaxares replied.

“What?” she said.

“The number of times I’ve been threatened with death today,” the diplomat clarified. “Will we make it to ten before noon? It is an auspicious number, in Bellerophon.”

He strode away after that, while she was still too surprised to protest. He found the Tyrant alone in a sprawling field of grass, gazing ahead. The boy hummed, as he approached.

“And now?” the diplomat asked.

“Now we wait,” the Tyrant said.

It was mid-afternoon when the forces of Atalante arrived.

They were a sorry bunch to look at, compared to the soldiers of Helike. Citizen levies armed with spears and shields and decked in hardened leather, city and caravan guards who’d traded cudgels for swords, unarmoured conscripts with javelins and slings. Only the cavalry looked professional, nobles with long lances and chain mail. The mercenaries looked more fearsome, infantry from all parts of Calernia that dwelled in the mercenary villages surrounding the shores of Mercantis until hired by patrons. There were Ashurans there, he saw, with their curved bows and ornate armours. Levantines with painted faces and hooked swords, even Callowan knights with long banners who must have survived the Praesi purges. Behind him, the army of Helike remained in an orderly column and did not move. The commanders on the other side ordered a halt, but after most of an hour passed without anyone moving orders began being screamed along the Atalantian lines. In good order, the enemy began to advance again.

“They’re not even sending an envoy to talk with me,” the Tyrant complained.

“You murdered the last one,” Anaxares said.

“It’s still very rude,” the boy said, rolling the wooden shaft of the standard between his palms. “They ought to have better manners than that.”

The diplomat watched twenty thousand soldiers marching in his direction and wondered which one would kill him. Hopefully one with a sword. Spear wounds tended to kill slowly, he’d been told, unless something important was pierced.

“Last night, Malicia’s hounds set foot in Penthes,” the Tyrant said conversationally.

“May The Ground Open Up To Swallow The Base Penthesians,” Anaxares replied out of habit.

“The city will be eating itself alive before a fortnight has passed,” he said. “Nicae won’t move until they’ve grown fat with Proceran silver and ‘mercenaries’, Delos will be dealing with the Stygian phalanx moving north. That leaves only our dear Atalantian friends and their escorts.”

“Who you have decided to fight,” the diplomat said. “Without your army.”

“Oh, I could have had General Basilia tear those poor fools alive, if you’ll forgive my language,” the Tyrant said. “It wouldn’t even have been very hard. That’s how the Praesi do things, nowadays. Let tactics and preparation carry the day.”

The frail boy’s lips curled in distaste.

“And to think they were once the greatest among us.”

“The Dread Empire is the most powerful it has been in centuries,” Anaxares frowned.

“And their Empress plays shatranj with the First Prince across an entire continent, winning more often than not,” the Named said. “For all that, they’ve lost their way.”

The Bellerophan raised a sceptical eyebrow.

“It’s not about winning, Anaxares,” the Tyrant said. “It’s about how you win.”

The standard rolled again between the boy’s palms as the enemy host crept ever closer.

“Even now, if I gave General Basilia the order I believe she could win this. It would be a victory, yes, but would it be a victory for Evil?”

“You are a villain,” the Bellerophan said. “A victory for you is a victory for Evil.”

“A mere clash between armies? No,” he said. “It takes more than that. The war I am fighting has little to do with steel: I am soldier for the Gods Below in the game that will settle Creation. A point has to be made, a sense to the story.”

“And what is the point of us standing on this field, watching death arrive?” Anaxares asked.

“Twenty thousand men march to end me,” the Tyrant said. “They will break, because they are in my way. Watch, diplomat, and learn.”

The boy drove the standard into the ground, flying his banner of one in the face of the host that spread across the plain.

“I am Kairos Theodosian,” he laughed. “Tyrant of Helike. And I say that my Rule extends to even the sky. Come, servants of the Heavens. The Age of Wonders is not dead yet. Not while I breathe.”

The cloud above thickened, more black than grey now. For a long moment nothing happened, and then lightning struck the soldiers of Atalante. Thunder clapped, the sky danced to the whims of a madman and Anaxares watched the largest army he had ever seen break apart at the seams. The Tyrant of Helike stood there, smiling.

His hand no longer shook.

Reign

“Authority is the lie we all agree on for fear of chaos.”
-Dread Empress Maleficent II

 

There would be three attempts on her life.

Alaya understood this instinctively, even as she rode through the gates of Wolof. The High Lady Tasia Sahelian had offered her surrender before the Siege of Aksum began, anticipating a defeat there even with the Warlock taking the field to support the Chancellor’s claim. She had been correct in this: Wekesa had buried his old teacher under the weight of his scorn and walked out of the burning wasteland the undisputed bearer of that Name. Terms had been agreed on before the walls of Aksum were ever breached, negotiated through intermediaries in person as they gave instructions to their representatives through scrying links. Neither of the women had trusted the other not to make an assassination attempt through a direct scrying link given the skill of the mages they had at their disposal.

Alaya had extracted concessions and not minor ones. Enough coin to pay for the campaign Amadeus had waged in her name and more, surrender of artefacts and ancient magical texts – and most importantly, the giving of an oath of fealty at the Tower. In person. The public act of submission had lent Alaya the legitimacy she had desperately needed, allowed her to bring minor nobility in line without needing to use swords or gold for it. In exchange Tasia had been confirmed as High Lady of Wolof, her lands and privilege left untouched even if she had been one of the most vocal supporters of the would-be Dread Emperor Baleful. Already she’d had some very pointed conversations with Maddie on the subject. He was of the opinion that Tasia’s head should be on a pike above the gates of Ater, and had not been shy of informing the High Lady of that same opinion. To her face. In front of the entire court.

Her friend – perhaps her only friend, for Wekesa would always love Amadeus more than her – had a brilliant mind, she’d known that since the beginning. Since they had met at her father’s inn. There’d been desire in his eyes when he’d first looked at her, but unlike most men he had listened when she spoke. He had argued and engaged and when he disagreed with her he always presented a cogent and coherent point of view. He did not realize, she thought, how rare a thing that was. The boy he’d been and the man he’d become both had minds sharp as a razor, but they had been shaped by the way they’d ascended to power. By strife against the Heir, the treachery of the Chancellor and the same rebellion that had seen her become Dread Empress Malicia, First of her Name.

Amadeus wanted to hang every noble in the Wasteland and the Devouring Sands, strip their bloodlines all of lands and turn the entire Empire into freeholds answerable only to the Tower. There was an almost seductive simplicity to that thought, of doing away with the vicious aristocrats and the knives they meant for her, but like all simple solutions to complex realities it would do more harm than good. For one it would resume the civil war after having stripped them of their only noble allies, and therefore the coin said allies had provided to keep their armies fed and equipped. And then, of course the cities of the High Lords would have to be taken. Wolof, Okoro, Thalassina, Kahtan. Aksum they still held, and Foramen was under the occupation of the Tribes – another knot she would have to untie, and soon. Those four cities were some of the oldest in Praes, and most of them had been accumulating wards and artefacts since Triumphant’s fall. There would be no surrender if Alaya’s armies came to end the aristocracy, even if she was winning. Especially if she was winning.

Only desperate deals with Below and the menagerie of horrors they unleashed.

It was, she believed, possible to siege and take those strongholds with the armies they had. But the cost of it in lives and resources would ruin Praes for a generation, at the very least. Leave the Empire weak to the incursions of the Order of the White Hand always watching from the Blessed Isle, leave it ripe for another goblin rebellion or the same secession of the Clans that had very nearly happened under the Chancellor’s rule. Alaya would not oversee the collapse of Praes as an empire, not to obtain results she could seek through other means. The disconnect, here, was one of perspective. Amadeus as a Named had fought authority every step of the way, while Alaya had worked within it until she could assert control over the establishment. The Black Knight’s responses to problem were either assimilation or destruction, while the Dread Empress – especially one without a Chancellor – had to take more indirect paths.

Amadeus did not want to have authority in Praes, he wanted fresh clay he could shape as he wished. And he thought that to make that happen, the aristocracy had to be buried. It would not work. Two millennia of history, of entrenched cultural mores, could not be washed away with blood. If they killed all the High Lords, lesser lords would seek to take their places. If they killed them too, richer landholders would seek to become nobility. Ambition to rise was the beating heart of Praesi identity, it was who they were. Much as she hated the thought, it was not something Amadeus could understand: he was Duni, had always been an outsider. Would always be. It was hard to embrace a culture that barely considered you to be a person, that castigated you for sins committed by the long-dead Miezans or destroyed crusaders occupants. Alaya sympathized, but Dread Empress Malicia could not afford such sentimentality.

And so here she was, riding into the stronghold of High Lady Tasia with little escort save for her Sentinels – the same faceless soldiers who had once nailed her father to the floor and dragged her to the Tower – and her spymistress. Ime, once servant to the Heir and now one of her most trusted. Old blood, the kind of lineage that would be accepted as a sitting member of the Imperial council without protest. These things mattered, now that she was no longer the leader of a rebellion. Actions had broader and subtler consequences than they had in those simpler days.

“There’s no archer in range,” Ime said, bringing her horse closer as they began trotting down the avenue. “Or mage.”

“She would never be that crass, darling,” Alaya chided her spymistress. “Besides, she knows full well that if one of her retainers takes my life Black will torch the city and salt the ashes.”

“She’ll try something, Malicia,” the spymistress said. “If she doesn’t she loses too much face with the other High Lords.”

“She already has,” the Empress said mildly.

She never would have seen the blow coming, had she not expected it.

Halt,” she Spoke.

The two Sentinels froze, one halfway to sinking his knife in her back and the other still clearing his sword from the scabbard. Interesting, that Tasia had found a way to overcome the conditioning and indoctrination all members of the personal guard of Tyrants went through. Wekesa had suggested it would be possible in one of their talks, though likely not without breaking the minds of the individuals involved. But Warlock, however talented, did not have access to a spell repository predating the Miezan occupation. No protection was flawless. Ime’s knife was already in her hand – the other one hidden away to silently cast – but such an intervention would not prove necessary.

Kill yourselves,” the Dread Empress added calmly.

Without hesitation, the two Sentinels rammed their blades into their own throats.

“We could have interrogated them,” Ime said as they watched the assassins twitch in their death throes.

“And found nothing useful,” Alaya said. “Tasia will have ripped anything relevant out of their minds already – and likely framed one of my allies. You know this, Ime. Compose yourself.”

The dark-skinned woman breathed out once, then became the picture of serenity.

“My apologies for the lack of poise,” the spymistress said, inclining her head.

The Empress patted her hand affectionately. They had shared a bed several times, and she would have to see to it Ime did not become overly attached. It would be too glaring of a weakness in a woman of her position. Fondness and friendship were all well and good, but Alaya had no intention of ever having a consort.

“Already forgotten,” the Empress said, guiding her mare to resume movement down the avenue.

She closed her eyes and smiled. One, Tasia. Do not make me wait overlong for the others, it would be most inelegant.

The solar where the High Lady Tasia received her guests was one of the oldest structures in the Empire. Once the throne room of the petty kings the Sahelians had murdered to rule over Wolof, over the centuries it had become a private reception hall for the rulers of the city. It was, of course, larger than her father’s entire inn had been. The light-coloured wood panelling – hickory, Alaya believed it was called – that covered the walls was from a tree that did not grow within the borders of Praes. It was found almost exclusively in the southern stretches of the Kingdom of Callow, a subtle statement of Sahelian power and influence. The encrusted precious stones and gildings that tastefully adorned everything of importance in the hall were to be expected for a family as old and wealthy as this one, but the way arched ceiling had been enchanted was unique even among Praesi. It was a perfect reproduction of the sky above Ater, the illusion spells crafted to beautifully Alaya could almost have believed she was looking at the true sky.

“It is a wonder, truly,” the Empress said, sparing it an admiring glance.

Tasia smiled, in a way perfectly pitched to carry friendliness without dipping into condescension. The craftsmanship there was as skilful as that of the ceiling. The High Lady of Wolof was beautiful, she thought. Soninke cheekbones, perfect eyebrows and full lips. Her eyes were fully golden instead of the lesser tinge of younger bloodlines, and her long hair was immaculately braided. Alaya’s own beauty would leave this one indifferent: a meditation trick the Sahelians had stolen from the Watch would ensure that much. It was recorded in the Tower that the ruling line of Wolof possessed it, though the exact method was unknown.

“The city has many ancient treasures, Your Most Dreadful Majesty,” the woman said. “They are, of course, at your full disposal.”

“A comforting thought,” Alaya said earnestly.

“It is a regret that will long haunt me, that I stood with the Chancellor,” Tasia said. “I did not understand what I was facing, Your Majesty. I do not think any of us did, until the end.”

“Strife is the face of Praes,” the Empress quoted.

One of Sheherazad the Seer’s more famous verses.

“This is true,” the High Lady acknowledged. “Yet women in our positions must choose our battles carefully. I made a decision in haste, though you have been kind in your chastisement of it.”

Oh, how talented you are at this, Alaya thought admiringly. Since the moment she’d received her, Tasia had been presenting herself as regretful for her actions. Yet also experienced, well-connected and apt at navigating the political currents of the court. Even now, that subtle reminder that they were both women while also vaguely equating their respective levels of authority? Beautifully done. Then she reinforced that she had been made contrite, that Alaya had power over her. Gods, the things I could achieve with a woman like you in my service. Not even a bell into this visit and Tasia had made herself the obvious candidate as Chancellor in all of Praes. A shame, that the High Lady very much wanted her dead.

“Some of my advisors find me too merciful,” she said lightly. “I must admit that after my years in the Tower, I find the prospect of such relentless violence distasteful. There are more civilized ways of doing things, don’t you agree?”

“Your wisdom in this shines brightly,” Tasia said.

For a heartbeat, Alaya saw, her meditation trick had almost broken. You are right to be afraid, my dear, the Empress thought. My predecessors had Named, but I have the Calamities. None of you understand the depth of that meaning yet. Sipping at the exquisite tea brew her host had provided, the Empress decided that she had reached the correct point in the conversation to pull the leash. Earlier would have been uncouth, but later than this would be diffident.

“They will not be joining us, I’m afraid,” she said.

Tasia’s face showed surprise, a flawless act threaded with a bit of truth.

“Your Majesty?”

“The assassins,” Alaya elaborated, setting down her cup with a nearly inaudible clink.

“You believe an attempt on your life will be made?” the High Lady said, the picture of outraged bewilderment. “I beg of you, my Empress, give me the names of those you suspect. They will be put to the question immediately.”

“Oh, they’re quite dead,” the woman who had once been a waitress and now ruled an empire said. “Some people have assassins, you see, but I have the Assassin. I must say I am surprised they could penetrate your city’s defences, especially since I believe we were both targets in this clumsy escapade.”

The corpses would never be found. Let Tasia wonder about how that was possible, it should occupy her for a few sleepless nights. These three killers had been meant to kill her and severely wound Tasia. Amadeus would be fed the lie that both of them could have been saved but that the healers had, selfishly, decided to prioritize the life of their patron above that of her own. They thought that would be enough to direct his wrath at the mages instead of Wolof – though afterwards, a trail would be laid to direct him at the High Lady of Nok. That they actually thought Maddie would be taken in by that was highly amusing to her. The commonly-held belief that all Duni were idiot labourers good only for farming was continuing to talk aristocrats into stabbing themselves in the foot even after all these years.

“I am distressed you were truly unaware, High Lady Tasia,” she continued earnestly. “So many at court speak well of your mastery over Wolof that I was taken in by their enthusiasm.”

The other Soninke was too old a hand at this game to let the flare of rage she must have felt at that show in any way. Already she must be realizing that the story would be spread across the nobility of the Empire within days. They would guess the attempt had Tasia’s hand behind and that it had not only been thwarted but turned into a source of humiliation – leading to the implication that the High Lady could not even keep control of her own fief. That makes two, darling. Now give me the third.

“Your Majesty,” the dark-skinned woman said, rising from her seat only to kneel at the Empress’ feet. “With your leave, I will not rest until I have learned who seeks to take our lives. Justice must be meted out, harshly.”

And there it is, Alaya thought. The third knife, the subtle one. You expect to rise my Chancellor, to wait patiently until the time is ripe and take my throne and my servants for your own.

“Oh, Tasia,” she said softly. “You really don’t understand who you’re dealing with, do you?”

She chuckled.

“You will not be my Chancellor.”

The calm, finally, shattered.

“My Empress?” she said, face blank.

“It won’t be High Lady Jaheera, as you are so deathly afraid of,” Malicia added. “There won’t be a Chancellor at all.”

“Your Majesty,” she said slowly, “claimants have already begun to emerge.”

“They will die,” Malicia said, as if she was discussing the weather. “And keep dying, until the lesson has been learned.”

There was a flicker of fear in those golden eyes, gone almost too quickly for her to see it. Blasphemy had a way of doing that, in the old bloodlines. To censure a Name entirely was without precedent, as far as the Empress knew.

“Do you know why I chose Malicia as my reigning name?” she asked. “Maleficent the Third was bandied around by many, before the coronation. A dear friend of mine even suggested Trustworthy, so that my enemies would not be able to plot without feeling like fools.”

Tasia remained silent, for this single moment entirely lost.

“I chose Malicia,” the Dread Empress of Praes said, “because it is without precedent. Not a legacy.”

She smiled pleasantly.

“I will not raise flying fortresses, you see. I will not craft plagues or turn armies invisible. We’ve tried that, Tasia, and it failed. The Age of Wonders is over. It died quietly, with a whimper, and the rest of Calernia moved on. It is time we did as well.”

She sipped at her tea again.

“Now do sit down, darling. You must tell me where you obtained this brew, it is exquisite.”

Regard

“Refuge is not a city so much as it is a cluster of vagabonds, held together by awe of the Lady of the Lake. There are no laws here, save for her whims, and those she inflicts only rarely. The Kingdom Under seems to consider Refuge a protectorate, though they have no real presence on the premises, and I should not need to remind you of Lady Ranger’s infamous ties to the Calamities. The Consortium must tread lightly. This is the woman who once hunted the Wild Hunt for sport, and she has not grown meeker with the passing of years.”
– Varrus Ipsimos, agent for the Consortium

She’d had to steal a boat in Cleves, for no one had been willing to sell one to her when they’d guessed her destination.

They were not Lycaonese up there – Alamans, though a far cry from those of the central principalities – but living in the shadow of the Kingdom of the Dead had taught them hard lessons. People who tried to cross the Tomb, that deep dark lake festering with the animated corpses of monsters and men alike, never left its waters. Their hands joined the thousands of others reaching from the waters to drag fishermen under the deep. The crossing had not been uneventful: the Dead King now had eyes watching the path through the rocks she’d used the last time. It had made for an amusing distraction until she reached the shore on the other side of the river that fed into the Tomb. The path after that had been even more treacherous. The air had been poisoned in the Kingdom since the Seventh Crusade, thick lingering green tendrils of something toxic fouling the air, but that part Hye already knew how to deal with. She’d had cloth enchanted that covered the lower part of her face and allowed her to breathe safely, for even if the poison could not kill a Named it could have made her sick.

That would not have been ideal, in a land patrolled night and day by massive shambling armies. And they’d gotten better at finding intruders, too: the Dead King must have implemented her suggestions from the last visit. The bone wyverns had been unexpected enough she’d almost been caught the first time they appeared, and the closer she’d come to Keter the tighter the defences had been. Using the old roads of the kingdom that had existed before this entire land had been turned to undeath wasn’t even worth considering: they were all heavily guarded and in disrepair besides. No, she’d made her way through the broken countryside and kept to the shadows. It had taken her several months to make it to the old capital, the placed they now called the Crown of the Dead. The seat of the Dead King’s power, and where behind tall walls a permanent portal into one of the Hells stood.

Keter had once stood on a plain, but that was no longer true. Centuries on centuries of mining into the deep had made the city an island surrounded by sheer cliffs going so deep only the ever-burning fires at the bottom could be made out in the darkness. How deep that chasm ran, Hye had no idea. She’d heard the dwarves had mined around all of the Kingdom of the Dead, and immediately plugged any tunnel form there into their lands with molten steel. Whether that was true or not, it did not change the fact that there were four roads into Keter: broad ramps of stone stretched over emptiness, tread tirelessly by sentinels long dead. The walls of the city rose so high only one part of Keter could be seen from outside: a great spire of dark stone, jutting out into the sky like an arrow. An orb of hellfire always hovered above its tip, ever-shifting as the demon bound inside cast its searching gaze on the streets inside. This was the fortress that had broken the spine of five crusades. Impossible to breach, they said, by force or by stealth. Not even the most skilled of heroes could do it.

It would be Ranger’s fourth visit.

Now, the Dead King had started nailing undead under the bridges so they could raise alarm after she’d climbed across under it the first time. He’d had dead sorcerers permanently assigned to stirring up sharp winds in the void between Keter and the rest of the plain after she’d rappelled her way across, the second time. He’d hardened the metaphysical borders with Arcadia after she’d slipped through there the third, and she supposed that after this one he would make sure his bone wyverns collapsed when they were captured. The giant bone creature, flapping through the air more by the grace of magic than by its leathery wings, crashed into the walls of Keter with a resounding clap. She leapt off its back and landed on the stone, finding purchase for her hands and immediately beginning to climb. Hye had been noticed, of course, and she still had the better part of a hundred feet before her before reaching the top of the ramparts. The bloody wind sorcerers had crashed her ‘borrowed’ mount before she could get any closer. The gaze of the demon in the orb landed on her and it began screaming, the noise shaking the air.

“Hello, Artie,” she waved.

It kept screaming. The first arrow streaked past her as she was already moving, scuttling up and to the side to present a harder target. There were, in Keter, four kinds of undead. The Bones, as she called them, were the ones currently manning the ramparts as the demon alarm sounded and trying to put arrows in her. They were not particularly clever on their own, no more intelligent than dogs, but the Dead King could seize control of them at any moment. The second kind, the Binds, would actually be dangerous. Those had souls bound in their bodies, and were just as sentient as the living. The third kind, the Revenants, she would not encounter until she was deeper into the city. They were, as a matter of fact, the reason she had come in the first place. As to the fourth, there was no need to name the category. There was only one entity in it, the Dead King himself. Wedging her feet into outcroppings – they really needed to saw those off, it made climbing easier than it had to be – Hye wrenched out her bow and notched an arrow. Knock, draw, release.

The Bind who’d been directing the Bones shooting at her took it right in the skull, the impact of the arrow shattering the bone under the helmet it punched through and releasing the soul inside. That should buy her just long enough to make it to the top, she thought as she slung the longbow over her back.

It did, as it turned out, though by then masses of dead warriors were snaking their way up the stairs leading into the city. Blades in hand, Ranger idly scattered the closest Bone as she considered her options. The Dead King was trying to clog up the way until his heavy hitters could arrive, she decided, or he had this entire part of the walls blasted with sorcery. She’d need to move fast. Sheathing one of her shortswords, Hye caught the wrist of another Bone and wrenched out the arm. This one was wearing old Proceran armour long gone out of style, bust most importantly he’d had a shield as well as the longsword now clattering on the ground. A big tower shield, the same kind the Praesi used in their Legions of Terror. Bronze and iron instead of steel, she noted. That must have been a truly ancient warrior. Idly sheathing her other sword as she danced out of the reach of another Bone, Ranger took the shield and broke into a run. Those stairs had cover on both sides, thick stone borders with a smooth top.

With a shout of glee she leapt down and put the tower shield under her, using it as a slide. The sheer angle of the borders was enough for her to keep gaining momentum, going fast enough that the Bones headed for her were too slow to react to strike at her. There were a few Binds in the line but those she slapped away with her blades, crouched and grinning.

She was about halfway down when she realized that, for once, the Dead King had anticipated her. There were spikes of iron in the stone from halfway up, jutting out at the right angle to catch her. Before the first impact she leapt off the shield and continued into a run, letting her Name strengthen her limbs so she could keep the pace. That round went to the Corpse Lord, then. Having to tap into her Name this early meant she’d have less fuel when things got interesting. She leapt again, ducking under an arrow and landing in a roll.

Hitting the paved streets of Keter, Crown of the Dead, Hye Su eyed the gathering hordes around her. Run? Run.

The problem with undead soldiers, Ranger decided, was that they never got tired.  She’d been awake for three days and night herself, and if not for her mother’s blood running through her veins she would likely be dead in an alley. She’d inherited different things from her parents: in body she was her mother’s daughter, but in mind her father’s. Dada had never been one to let common sense get in the way of an adventure, to her mother’s mild despair. Being a half-elf had few drawbacks, save for the Emerald Swords occasionally trying to purge you from existence, but then Mother had taught her a few tricks to deal with their lot. She had, after all, taught most of them. Not that elf-killing tactics would help her much here, Hye thought. Putting down a handful of extremely powerful individuals was a different kind of fighting than scything your way through a horde of weaker ones.

Ducking into the shadows at the patrol of Binds passed her, Ranger waited until she could no longer her their steps before moving again. This deep into the Hall of the Dead there were no Bones. Calling where she was the basement of the keep would have been inaccurate, for beneath her went so deep inside the earth the furthest levels were flooded with molten stone. She was around the middle, really, and almost where she needed to be. Putting a spring to her step, the Ranger ghosted through the corridors until she reached the wide-open gates of the nameless room where the portal to Hell stood. The hall was broad and long, had once been a throne room, but now it was bare save for the sculpted obsidian arch surrounding the wound in Creation.

That, and the two silhouettes standing by it.

One was a man, pale and clad in silver-lined armour. His face could not be seen under the helmet and the long white cloak did not manage to hide the heater shield and longsword he kept. The other was a woman, tall and massively built. She had no weapons but for the stripes of leather around her knuckles. No armour but a threadbare tunic, and she hadn’t even bothered to wear boots. Promising. Both Revenants stirred when she strode into the room, walking forward at a pace.

“So one of you is one of those fancy monk-types from Levant,” she said. “And the other some kind of knight? Help me out here.”

The man unsheathed his sword.

“I was the White Knight, once,” he said gravely.

Now we’re talking,” Ranger murmured.

“I was,” the woman said, “the Sage of the West.”

Unsheathing a single sword, Hye offered them a swordsman’s salute.

“I am the Ranger,” she said. “I hunt those worth hunting. Rejoice, you qualify.”

Nothing more needed to be said. The fell on her without hesitation, the Knight’s sword coming for her neck and the Sage sweeping her feet. Hye tested a parry against the sword and found the dead hero’s strength not overwhelming – she would not need to dodge every time. The sweep she avoided deftly by leaping, leg wrenching out to land a kick on the Sage’s chin – or would have, had the hero not caught the blow and casually tossed her away. Ranger landed on her feet a dozen feet away, then slowly unsheathed her second sword. This, she reflected, might actually be challenging. She knew from experience that this far in the Dead King would not longer bother trying to drown her in lesser undead, so she could take the time to enjoy herself with these two.

The Ranger stepped forward and let her blades sing.

The Sage was the first to go. She could even now turn her skin harder than steel, the ghost of an aspect to a Name she no longer held, but steel was something she’d learned to cut long ago. A hand lost, then a leg, and from there on no amount of fancy magic hand-to-hand tricks was going to save her. The Knight, though? The former White Knight was the hardest fight she’d had in a long time. A century, at least.

“You have no aspects to tap in,” the Revenant eventually said, batting away a probing blow and attempting to bash her face in with his shield. “Unusual.”

Hye laughed.

“You have it the wrong way, Knight,” she said. “I’m always tapping into my aspects.”

She flicked her sword around his and wrenched upwards, forcing the blade out of his gauntleted hand in the exact same way he’d done to her early in the fight.

“Learn,” she said.

The White Knight effortlessly snatched his blade out of the air and struck, but she’d moved ahead of him. The blade passed through the air, and when he brought it back towards his body her own followed. Like flowing water filling a cup. Her own strike bit deep into his armour, shattering the steel and the the skin and bones underneath.

“Perfect,” she said.

The former hero was beyond pain and wounds meant nothing to him, save for the fact that the broken bone of his shoulder made it harder to swing his sword. He retreated cautiously, shield raised, as he sought a better angle of attack. Hye idly sheathed one of her swords and hummed as she came for him. The moment crystallized for her, the Knight carefully placing his sword stroke and the shield rising as he prepared to charge her. It was timed perfectly. She would be caught by one or the other, because she’d come forward too quickly with an improper guard. A swordsman of the dead hero’s calibre would need only one opening like that to kill her. It would not touch her. She spun around the shield, and if the Knight had still been human enough for such a thing his eyes would have widened. It wasn’t that Hye had become faster, because she hadn’t. Tricks like that could be adjusted to, countered. Just sinking the power of your Name into your limbs was a brute force application. What she did was… different. She simply was not where the enemy’s weapon was. Her single short sword swept like quicksilver, taking the Knight’s head. In a blur of movement, she relieved him of one limb after another and then broke the spine itself. Slowly, the necromancy began seeping out of the dead hero onto the floor.

“Transcend,” she finished calmly.

She was out of breath. Ahead of her, the portal flickered. That was as much of an invitation as she was going to get. Sheathing her blade, Ranger idly passed into Hell. The other side led into a banquet room, for the Dead King owned the gate and the places it led to. A long table with stone benches, covered with plates of still-warm food and quite a few carafes of wine, was headed by a wooden throne. On it sat a dark-haired child, too pale to be alive and too gaunt to even try pretend it was.

“Really?” she said, headed for a roasted chicken. “The creepy child route is what we’re doing? You have to know that’s a horrible cliché.”

She was starving, so she broke off a drumstick and bit into it with relish.

“Stop killing my heroes,” the Dead King said. “I only have so many to spare.”

“I’ll think about it,” Ranger lied.

The ancient abomination sighed.

“The wyvern trick won’t work twice,” he said.

“You should also take care of those footholds on the wall,” she spoke through a full mouth, grabbing a plate and stuffing it with couscous. “The spikes were a nice touch, though.”

The monster kept a surprisingly good table, for a creature that no longer needed to eat. Kingly habit, probably.

“Why do you darken my hall, Ranger?” the Dead King asked.

“Darken your…” she snorted. “That’s rich, it really is. Can’t a girl visit an old friend?”

“We are not friends,” the lich denied.

“That’s a carafe of my favourite wine,” Hye said, pointing towards the receptacle in question.

“Coincidence,” the Dead King said.

Ranger sat on the bench, spitting out a chicken bone before she could choke on it.

“Mama went back across the sea,” she said. “Finally talked a Baalite captain into taking her there to lay my father’s bones to rest.”

“You should also go there,” the monster said. “Far away. Give serious thought to never coming back.”

“I hear what you’re saying,” Ranger said. “I need a hobby.”

“You could leap off a cliff,” the Dead King suggested.

Hye poured herself a cup of wine to wash down the couscous.

“It’s just been so boring, lately,” she said. “The most excitement there’s been is Praes trying to invade Callow again and getting hilariously brutalized on the Fields of Streges.”

“The Tower has not been in worthy hands for centuries,” the Dead King said contemptuously.

“We’re not talking about your weird boner for Triumphant again,” Ranger said. “I really don’t want to know the logistics of how that would have worked.”

She paused. Boner. That was was funny because he was undead so- never mind. She had a little wine.

“Anyway,” she said, “I’m thinking about a hunting trip in Arcadia. The Wild Hunt was very uppity when I met them.”

“If I could lock you in there, I would,” the Dead King said wistfully.

“You don’t mean that,” Ranger dismissed. “Wait – are you trying to distract me while massing devils outside this room?”

There was a long pause.

“No,” the Dead King lied.

“Good talk,” Ranger said, rising to her feet hastily. “I’ll see you in a few years.”

“Please don’t,” the lich said.

Hye made for the door, then paused and backtracked. She stole another chicken leg and a carafe of wine before legging it.

The tavern was nearly empty at this time of the night – people in the Green Stretch were farmers, went to bed early and rose with dawn. She would have noticed the three who entered regardless: they had the feel of Names to them, that knotting in the threads of Fate. They headed straight for her table and Hye sipped at her wine thoughtfully. They made for a strange bunch. Two men: one a tall and almost ridiculously handsome Soninke, the other a pale Duni type with vivid green eyes. Amusingly shorter than his companion. The Taghreb woman dwarfed them both, at least eight feet tall and built like a living battering ram. The Duni must have been the leader, because he was the one to talk. He gestured at the empty chairs around the table.

“May we?”

“You are the size of at least two people,” Ranger said, pointing at the Taghreb.

“Is that why I keep eating them?” she deadpanned.

Hye grinned. Well, at least they had a sense of humour. That was surprisingly rare in in villains.

“By all means,” she said, gesturing at the chairs. “What can I do for you?”

“You would be the Ranger, yes?” the Soninke asked in a voice betraying his education.

No weapons on him. Mage, most likely. Praesi did love their sorcery.

“That’s me,” she said.

The Duni sat across from her and smiled. He was handsome, if not as much as his friend. Not really her type, but she could appreciate eye candy when it was offered.

“I hear,” he said, “that you can get people into Callow.”

Ranger hummed. Well, that should kill a few months at least.

Epilogue

“Your mistake, Queen of Blades, is in thinking that virtue is the province of Good. Every Tyrant who has ever claimed the Tower, every fool and every madman, had the seed of greatness in them. Courage, cleverness, ambition, will. We may lose our way, we may lose ourselves, but every time we get… a little closer. You think I am afraid of death? I am a droplet in the tide that will drown Creation. I take pride in this, even in my hour of failure. Empresses rise, Empresses fall. But the Tower?
Oh, the Tower endures.”

– Last words of Dread Empress Regalia the First

 

“It’s an ugly thing, isn’t it?”

There was truth in that. So may tales had been woven around the throne of Praes that the lies could no longer be told from the truth, but there was no denying the thing was ghastly. Stone and iron welded together brutally by a man without a single artistic speck to his soul. The first Warlock had many talents, it was said in the records, but creation was not one of them. The pile of stone was squat and rough, the back of the seat slightly crooked towards the left and the iron used to keep it together had dripped onto the floor when heated. After Triumphant had brought down the Tower on her killers in a final act of spite, it had been found intact. Not a single loose stone had so much as touched it. The people who’d dug up the room had all gone mad and killed themselves within a week of unearthing it.

The throne of Praes was not for the sight of meek souls.

“It should be,” Amadeus said. “They had a firmer grasp on the truth of what we are, back then.”

An empire cobbled together out of warring tribes and kingdoms who had failed to unite even in the face of the invading Miezans. A lie agreed on by Taghreb and Soninke, by the orcs and the goblins, that the peace forced upon them by the foreigners could survive their leaving. Praes was not a Mtethwa or Taghrebi word – it was Old Miezan, ripped from the hands of the enemy and held aloft as a trophy by the first Dread Empress. Maleficent had known, he believed, all the peoples of the Empire should be remembered the clang of shackles every time they spoke of their nation. That way they would never forget the War of Chains, forget that there had been a time all had been humbled. Once we could not look beyond our own knives and petty disputes, so Creation buried us. Remember.

A hopeful woman, Dread Empress Maleficent. She’d been hopeful all the way until the High Lord of Wolof had stabbed her in the back and stolen her throne, laying bare the truth of her empire: power gained through the spilling of blood will be taken by the spilling of blood. Always. Praes could be held, but it could not be owned. There would be no Dead King to reign forever here, no Tenets of Night all must bow to. The Dread Empire would have a hundred thousand Tyrants, all of them lost and grasping beyond their reach until their doom fell upon them. And the Tyrant would rise anew, with fire in their eyes and unquenchable ambition in their stomach that Creation would deny – but oh, the craving. Wasn’t the craving what it was all about? It was an unusually poetic thought for Amadeus, a man not particularly prone to sentiment outside of some very defined boundaries. He did not linger on it.

A thousand poets had etched their sentences on the soul of the Wasteland, but he was not one of them. The legacy he sought was of a different sort, if no less elusive.

“We all know it’s a lie, Maddie,” Alaya laughed. “Look at all those pretty gildings close around the throne – close, but not touching. Some lines even Praesi won’t cross.”

The hall was empty, would have been for the better part of a bell. Alaya always put up the most vicious wards available to the mistress of the Tower whenever they claimed this place for their drinking. Tonight they had, by informal agreement, chosen to sit by Dread Emperor Malevolent III. ‘The Pithy’, the histories of Praes named him. As far as Amadeus knew, he’d done little in his ten years or reigning save for putting a goblin rebellion and failing spectacularly at making the empire a naval power. The Ashurans had sailed straight into Thalassina and burned the half-built fleet: the only surviving captains had immediately defected, setting themselves up as pirates in the Tideless Isles and becoming a recurring blade in the back on the Empire’s merchant shipping.

There would be, he knew, a little detail about the man he did not know that would surprise a laugh out of him when linked to something Alaya said to him tonight. She’d always delighted in weaving little hidden jests in her words for him to find later when thinking back on them. She’d been like that even the Sentinels had come for her at her father’s inn, before the soft but deadly games of the seraglio had honed that skill into a blade that cut as often as it teased. Many a lord and lady of Praes had woken up in the dead of night weeks after their audience with Malicia, shivering when they realized the full implications of a seemingly innocent sentence. Amadeus took the bottle when the Dread Empress of Praes offered it, tossing back a gulp of terrible wine and grimacing at the taste.

“Gods, I’m not sure why we keep drinking that swill,” he said.

“Nostalgia,” Malicia mused. “Of all the spirits made on Calernia, though, I will concede that the ones made in the Green Stretch are the worst. By far.”

She pulled deeply at the bottle when he passed it back, wiping the smooth back of her hand against her mouth without even the pretence of manners. Times like this, Amadeus could still glimpse the girl he’d known. The one with the laughing eyes and the burning ambition, still unhardened by the dark days ahead of her. And yet, save for a few conversations by moonlight, he’d never known much of that girl. It was the promise of Malicia to come he had truly struck a friendship with. The half-tread path between smiling Alaya and the hard-eyed Dread Empress who would rule over the Wasteland.

“It tastes like dirt and lack of prospects,” he said after taking another drink.

Alaya snorted. If one of her courtiers had ever seen or heard her do something so undignified, they would have thought their senses to be lying before they believed it to be truth. It still warmed him, after all these years, that she trusted him enough to allow that small part of herself that belonged only to her to flicker into life in front of him.

“Truly,” she said, “the taste of home.”

She raised the bottle in a mocking salute to the throne.

“To the Green Stretch,” Amadeus toasted. “And the most glorious mud in all of Creation.”

The tone was sardonic, but the memories ran deeper than that. Back to a time where they had been nobodies in the breadbasket of a failing empire: him thinly clad in a Name he’d put on as a deserter’s cloak, her as the great beauty of a town so small it was not on all maps. They’d rise, hadn’t they? Gone further than they had any right to. Not that right ever mattered much to either of us.

“It actually costs more to have it brought to the Tower than to buy the wine itself,” Alaya admitted, tone amused. “I buy it in crates to satiate my conscience.”

“You have entire crates of this horror somewhere in the Tower?” Black said. “Truly, your arsenal is a fearsome one.”

Thunder crackled outside just after he spoke, lending his words a strangely ironic weight. There was always a storm of sorts around the Tower, raging or preparing to rage. Wekesa had informed him the rapidly shifting weather patterns across the Wasteland were linked to the phenomenon, though Amadeus had not inquired further after making sure that link could not be exploited to control said weather. Pity, that. The desertification of the Wasteland would never be entirely undone, but it could have been mitigated with the right tools. Laying back against the marble pillar, an old friend by his side, Amadeus watched the unfolding history of Praes made mosaic across a floor and said nothing.

“Hasenbach has flipped Ashur,” Alaya finally said, and the amusement was gone.

He did not ask if she was sure. Her agents had penetrated the Thalassocracy deeper than Eudokia’s, and they did not make mistakes.

“We still own his son,” he said.

“He’s just a voice in their committees, until his father dies,” Alaya said.

That was always the problem, with Ashur. They genuinely believed in their tiers, that a higher-ranked citizen was fully deserving of the authority granted to them and that trying to overreach before promotion was worthy of contempt. The Baalite hierarchy had sunk so deeply into their society that even centuries after the Hegemony had become irrelevant to the larger affairs of Creation, eclipsed by younger and greater powers, the tiers were still held as sacrosanct. As long as Magon Hadast lived Ashur would be a friend to Procer. A wary and self-interested friend, but that would be enough if the right promises were made. They would be, of that Amadeus had no doubt.

“That girl becomes more dangerous to us every year,” he said.

“That girl is us,” Alaya said, “forty years ago, looking at the stars from a different land.”

The dark-haired man did not reply immediately, silenced by the accuracy of the thought. They’d always known that there would be a price to pay for what they had done in Procer, for the lives he’d had Assassin take and the wars Malicia had kindled with gold and soft words. The First Prince was finally coming to collect. Did he regret it? No, the thought came immediately. It had been a strategic imperative for the Principate to be paralyzed during the Conquest if it was to succeed. That war had always been going to find their doorstep. All their plots had done was delay the first knock by a few decades.

“Levant, now Ashur. She’s trying to forge an alliance against us,” he said. “Dear Cordelia might get her crusade, after all.”

The tone was light, the implications were not. If Hasenbach managed to forge her broader, continental version of the League of Free Cities she only had to wait until the pretext for a Tenth Crusade fell into her lap. Amadeus held no illusions about the fact that it would.

“The Free Cities are where we can kill this in the egg,” Alaya said. “The more that war spins out of control…”

The more Hasenbach’s allies would be tempted to ignore her overtures of peace and order to get involved and claim their cut of the spoils. The moment two forces belonging to two different of her would-be crusaders met with swords out her entire enterprise would collapse. Alaya had the influence abroad to ensure that much. If it happened. Neither of them trusted anybody currently involved in the war to make this happen, unfortunately. Sending in the Legions of Terror, while tempting, would give Hasenbach a gathering cry for all Good and banner for her damned crusade. Which meant a smaller, more measured intervention.

“Wekesa will meet me by the Wasaliti,” Amadeus said. “We’ll all take a ship down through Mercantis.”

From there, he would see where the weakness in the Good League was. Penthes, most likely, for Praesi influence had gained ground there in recent years. However little of that was currently left, it did not matter: the Calamities had done more with lesser openings.

“Squire will be getting her vote and veto earlier than anticipated,” Alaya said mildly.

“It was always the plan she would get them eventually,” Amadeus said.

“After you schooled her properly in ruling,” Malicia murmured.

And there was the rub, he knew. It was one thing to entrust to a seventeen-year-old Callowan girl – with occasionally more mouth to her than sense – half of the territory in the Empire after he had taught her what he knew of ruling, quite another to do so before. Alaya’s fears were not unwarranted, he thought. For at least the first year, Catherine was likely to butcher and coerce her way through anything she perceived as an obstacle. She would do so mercilessly and without hesitation, too, because there was something utterly ruthless at the core of Catherine Foundling. Callowan defiance, perhaps, but married with something brutally pragmatic. Something that would use what it could not break and break what it could not use. Sabah had once told him that Catherine was what a child of his and Hye’s would be like, and though he’d batted away the notion he had not denied it. It was, he knew, a dangerous sort of attachment.

“The deep end is where she learns best,” he said.

“You sound proud,” Alaya noted.

Amadeus laughed quietly into the great and empty hall.

“Two years, Allie,” he said. “She has been at this for two years, and already two heroes are dead at her hand. Everything they sent against her, she has scattered. Armies, devils, even a demon. Gods Below, a few months ago she all but mugged an angel.”

He reached for the bottle and took a swig.

“Proud?” he said. “Proud does not do it justice.”

Alaya took back the bottle and drank deeply before setting it on the cold floor.

“Affection,” she said fondly, “has always been your weakness. One you turned into a strength of sorts, but still a weakness.”

That was why they’d always functioned so well, they both knew. Because Alaya could see the things he was blind to and take the measures he would not, because he was willing to make the leaps of faith when she had run out of faith years ago. Nefarious had much to answer for. He’d died by Alaya’s hand, and Amadeus had not been willing to step in the way of a hatred so earned and bloody, but if he had… Poison would not have been his weapon. He would have unleashed the reserves of viciousness Wekesa had deep inside of him, made it a death no one would ever forget as long as Creation stood. And Wekesa would have done it, without even needing to be asked, because his oldest friend loved Alaya too in his own way. In a way less trusting and more aware, he thought, but that did not detract from the depths of it. Warlock had wanted her on that throne as much as Black did, after the civil war, wanted to see the hint of the laughter they’d known return to those dark eyes. Wanted to see the fear gone from them.

“Before I go south,” he said. “There is still one matter to attend.”

“Heiress,” she said.

“She has defied Imperial authority twice, Alaya,” he said. “First with the demon, then again at Liesse. She was planning on capturing the Hashmallim, for what purpose I do not know.”

“I do,” Malicia said. “And I trusted your apprentice to unmake that plan.”

“She needs to die,” Amadeus said bluntly. “Loudly, badly, publicly. I don’t understand why she’s still alive at this point. We’ve done worse to people of blood as old for lesser offences.”

The Dread Empress of Praes took the bottle and brought it to her lips. She drank for a long time, and when she leaned back against the pillar her smile was a dark thing.

“It’s not about Heiress, Maddie,” she said. “It never was. It’s about her mother.”

Amadeus’ brow rose, but he did not interrupt.

“Tasia Sahelian,” Alaya spoke, relishing the words. “High Lady of Wolof. A tick, Maddie. A tick I could not get rid of, and who bound others to her schemes. And now I am about to break her.”

A game that broad would have had surface stirrings, Amadeus knew, and calmly his mind revised every major event to have happened in the last five years in the light of what she had just said.

“The gold,” he said after a long moment. “The reparations you levied on her – you knew she’d pay. You never thought it would make her withdraw the orc tribute petition.”

“One move at a time, for the last decade, I have slowly emptied her coffers,” Alaya said, still smiling. “Inconsequential laws she paid the fine to break. Tariffs raised on goods she needed. Bribes offered she needed to match. And down went the treasure of Wolof, one aurelius at a time.”

“She still has coin,” Amadeus said. “Her network of spies has not been reduced and her subversions in the bureaucracy continue.”

“Oh, she has coin,” Dread Empress Malicia murmured. “Silver, to be exact.”

Amadeus’ eyes sharpened. “Procer. I thought you’d cut off the flow.”

“I did not,” Alaya said. “And now she is dependent on it so stay above the waterl. Her overextension will reach a peak when she sinks a fortune into restoring Liesse – whose infrastructure, I am afraid, is about to collapse.”

The dark-skinned woman put down the bottle on the floor, and the cold clink of it was like an executioner’s axe.

“And then the silver will stop.”

That would end her, Amadeus knew. The loss of face when she had to publicly default on the many commitments she’d made would shatter any credibility with the rest of the nobility. Her own family would rise in revolt to remove her. It would go further than that though.

“The Truebloods,” he said.

“Will, within a year, end as a political entity in the Empire,” she said softly.

Because Heiress, emboldened by her continued toeing of the line going unpunished, would make another mistake. Give Malicia another lever to pry apart the Truebloods and deal with them individually. The Reforms could begin again, he thought, but those promised skies were too sunny. In the Wasteland, that was always the prelude to the worst of storms.

“If Tasia is willing to take those risks,” he said, “it means that her end game can be reached within a year.”

“That is my assessment,” she agreed.

He closed his eyes. Liesse, it all came back to Liesse. That had been the prize mother and daughter both had wanted out of the rebellion, and not merely to steal some taxes.

“Heiress,” he said. “She has a different plan. What is it?”

There was a long moment of silence, marred only by the patter of the rain outside.

“Do you trust me?” Alaya said.

A year ago, he thought, you would not have needed to ask. A year ago, though, he would not have pressed for answers in the first place. Four words she had spoken, with so many deeper meanings behind them. After all these years, she was saying, after all the times we have hurt each other without knowing or being allowed to let it stay our hand, do you still believe in this? What we have built, the two of us. All the sacrifices we made, the choices we bloodied ours hands with, do you regret them? Even though the chasm is deep and the way across long, though the darkness is thick and we are both so, so tired – will you make that leap of faith again, if I ask you? Amadeus closed his eyes, and leaned back against the pillar. Gently, he threaded his fingers through Alaya’s.

“Always,” he said.

Because he was the Black Knight and she was the Dread Empress, and together they had twisted the strands of Fate until they snapped. Because he was Amadeus and she was Alaya, and though the children they’d once been were long dead the dreams they’d woven together under starlight were not. She rested her head against his shoulder, and for a long time they did not speak.

“A ‘jolly good time’,” she eventually said.

He snorted. The Tyrant of Helike’s words as he threw the south-east of the continent into sheer bloody chaos.

“One day,” Alaya continued, “we will have foreign allies who are not complete imbeciles. By sheer dint of odds, it has to happen eventually.”

“That’d be the day,” Amadeus said wistfully. “But until then…”

“Even if the heroes come,” she said.

“Even if the angels rage,” he said.

“Even if all of Creation stands against us”

“We’ll win,” they whispered.

In the distance, thunder rumbled.

Neither of them flinched.

Akua Sahelian let the sorcery seep into her body. Old stones from the first foundations of Wolof, having drunk deep of the ancient magic there, surrounded her in an unbroken circle. Turning the power within them to the purposes of healing had been the work of an afternoon, one of the first tricks with high arcana her father had ever taught her. The sorcery came and went in tides a prefect match for her heartbeat, alone in the warded room she’d had prepared in the lower levels of the ducal palace of Liesse. She would have to sit there on her chair of lightning-struck oak for a full bell to finish healing the last of the wounds inflicted on her, so Heiress closed her eyes and thought. Sleep would have been so very restful, but it was no longer the kind of luxury she could afford. Not now, when here plans truly began. Not now, when the enemy prowled around her seat of power in search of weakness.

Foundling has unleashed her twisted little goblin again, the one with the thief’s name. The wretch was officially out on manoeuvres, but he’d really been haunting the roads in and out of Liesse. There’d been no lack of targets: even after her loss of face, Heiress’ allies were legion. They were coming to her city now, flocking to make a darker mirror to the Empress’ court in Ater. Not all of them made it: twice already an entire party had disappeared without trace in the night. Both of them had been headed by members in good standing – if not high authority – of the Truebloods. Aisha Bishara was picking the prey, she knew, surgically removing the most reliable of Akua’s allies before they ever made it to the protection of her walls. It wouldn’t be enough: word has spread and now the Praesi were coming in larger, heavily armed groups. More than a single cohort of goblins, however brutal, could handle.

Not for the first time in the last moon’s turn, Heiress’ thoughts turned to the city she ruled over. To the battle that had taken place there and the infinitely more important events that had unfolded behind it. She could admit it, in the perfect privacy of her own thoughts.

Liesse had been a disaster.

Out of her ten-odd objectives when the Fifteenth had left Marchford, only one had been met. Forcing support for her bid as governess. That was it. As for the others? The Hashmallim, instead of being trapped in a dimension she owned as fuel for the next part of her plan, had been essentially bullied into resurrecting Foundling. Resurrection. The sheer effrontery of that, she reluctantly had to respect. The Squire was still an ignorant thug, but she was an ignorant thug who’d spat in the eye of the Heavens. A little of what it meant to be Praesi had sunk into Catherine Foundling, whether or not the other woman wanted to admit it. The Lone Swordsman was dead, as she had wished, but his death had empowered the Squire in ways she could not yet fully understand. Far from weakening her rival, the killing had added an another blade to her arsenal.

The devils she’d meant to use to thin the population of Liesse – to spill so much blood the grounds would be consecrated to the Gods Below, to flush out the rebels and make room for her coming allies – had been turned on themselves within half a bell of being unleashed. The sheer amount of contracts she’d permanently lost through that was painful to think about. The demon she’d secured as the blunt tool she would occasionally need? Now in the hands of the Apprentice, the same man who’d turned her bindings into a meat grinder as easily as pouring himself a cup of wine. Had she been the kind of woman who shivered in fear, Akua would have at that. The son of Warlock with a demon dating from Triumphant’s – may she never return – day in his hands was not a notion she cherished. Another asset lost. If she could have turned Masego to her purposes the problem would not have been quite as keen, but she had no angle there.

Apprentice had, as far as she could tell, no real vices. He did not drink much, ate often but of peasant fare and socialized but with a few people – all of them either family or members of the Fifteenth. It had been mildly interesting to learn he played shatranj with the Adjutant and talked spellcrafting with the Duni Senior Mage, but there was no lever there. Sex was similarly useless as an approach: as far as she knew Masego had never lain with either a man or a woman, or even shown interest in either. She had agents of both genders do everything but show up in his bedroll naked and the man hadn’t even noticed, most of the time. Frustrating, especially since Apprentice was the only of Foundling’s Named contingent it was even slightly possible to bring to her side. Trying that with the orc was a fool’s errand. Heiress did not sigh, even in this room where no one could hear or see. Apprentice would be building his mage’s tower soon, she knew. Perhaps he could be tempted with exotic materials or test subjects. It could hardly be a worse failure than the seductions, anyway.

Akua knew she should not be focusing on Foundling, not when she had so many more pressing matters to attend, but her thoughts seemed unwilling to abandon the Battle of Liesse. That some of her objectives would not be met, she had expected. It was inevitable. But a failure of such magnitude?

Foundling had ripped her way through one contingency after another, quipping even as a walking corpse. An entire host of devils, neutered then slain. The Lone Swordsman, lured into her path, beaten bloody and then tricked into ending his pattern of three. Her burning of the only way into the church had barely slowed her down, and there was Chider. Chider had been her trump card, her assured victory. Stealing the Name of Squire had been certain to work as long as she was owed a victory against Foundling, and had. And given her an aspect more dangerous than ever before, not to mention restored the fullness of the Name. She hadn’t known, that the demon had crippled the Name. Her spies in the Fifteenth had not reported as much on the walk to Liesse. There would be a reckoning for that failure yet. Chider had always been supposed to die permanently, either at Foundling’s hand or Lord Black’s, but for her to be disposed of faster than you take a bath?

No, that had not been part of the plan.

By dying, Foundling had inserted a flaw into Akua’s plan. The ripping of the Name should have incapacitated her for hours, would have if she’d not been a corpse, and so bought Heiress the time she needed to deal with the Lone Swordsman and imprison the angel. An ironclad victory had been wasted on a matter that had ultimately proved trifling, and there would be no second pattern of three. Creation did not embrace such tedious repetitions. The work of two years had been wasted: provoking Foundling and then fleeing on the Blessed Isle, the messy draw at Marchford… Akua had spent much time to guarantee herself a victory when she needed it most only to find that triumph utterly empty. It was enough to make her blood boil.

And there had been that final conversation, in that dinky little room where her companions had been turned into bargaining chips under her own nose. When Ghassan’s soul had been ripped from his body as Foundling sat quietly next to her, forcing her to watch. And this time there will be no bargaining to save you, Foundling had said. There had been something in Squire’s eyes, when she’d said that… Akua Sahelian had been raised among people who killed for sport and bound the very denizens of Hell to their will, but what she had seen there had made her flinch. She’d asked her mother, once, why her hatred for the Dread Empress ran so deep. Why it was so personal. I met her eyes, when I surrendered, Mother had said. And what I saw there scared me. Heiress understood, now, how that single moment could consume someone. She remembered the calm implacable certainty in the Callowan’s dark eyes and felt her hand tremble, if only for a moment.

She could not concentrate on Foundling. Squire was the brazier she’d lit so everyone would watch the flames and ignore the knife. Killing Foundling had never been her purpose. The results of that would have been disastrous: Akua would have become the slated successor of the Black Knight, the last thing she wanted. Dealing with Lord Black from anything but a position of power would be… dangerous, to say the least. Heiress’ game had always been with greater opponents, and the rivalry with Foundling had served as an apt smokescreen for it. There were only two people in Praes who could stop her: Dread Empress Malicia, First of her Name, and Tasia Sahelian. For all her failures she had, after all, gotten what she needed from the rebellion. The first prize was Liesse. Deep in the south of Callow, where the Empress’ reach was weaker and old sorcery was woven into the walls. There was power there, power that could turn the work of decades into the work of months.

The second prize, the most important, was a story. Heiress uses devils. Heiress uses demons. Binds them, commands them, makes them her own. She was just starting to be known in the Empire, and already her Name was fundamentally intertwined with diabolism in all the stories. That was the deeper plan, the masterpiece she had crafted over the years. The Name of Heiress after all, was in many ways inferior to that of Squire. It strengthened her body and her sorcery, but not as well as her ‘rival’s’ did. The applications of it were perhaps a better fit for her, allowing her to manipulate and deceive with a deftness beyond her years, but when it came to combat it was flatly outmatched. That much had been made clear in Liesse. Both were transitional Names meant to lead into something else, but Squires were bound to become Knights. A Heiress, though? A Heiress could become anything.

Heiress uses devils. Heiress uses demons. The worst of diabolists.

Already she was beginning to transition, and the moment she did she could finally put all the forces in motion. Begin crafting the key to the cage, the way out of the trap she had been bound by since her birth. A year, that was all she needed.

A year and she would change Creation.

The Wandering Bard, lately Almorava of Smyrna, sat on a stone by moonlight and idly strummed her lute.

It made a noise like a chorus of cats drowning. The sound was made all the more jarring by the fact that she had not, until that moment, existed then and there. Or since the Battle of Liesse, really. She’d watched from a distance as William killed the Squire and known what it meant. That the Lone Swordsman had lost, that Liesse was lost, that the rebellion was over. There had been no need to linger, and she’d not had the heart to watch William die. Whether or not he had deserved better was debatable but he had tried. Badly and often in ways that were misguided, but he had been trying to do good. It was a shame, that his story had never been going to end well. William of Greenbury would have been a very different man, in ten years. She knew this because she could feel the shape his story would have taken with her fingertips, if he had somehow managed to pass the hurdle that was Catherine Foundling and all the monsters behind her. It was not to be. Contrition used its heroes until they broke, and in breaking parted the clouds to allow the shine of the sun to triumph.

It was sordid, the Bard felt.

She would write a song for him, one day. One worth singing. But she would not do so tonight. The death was too fresh, rawer than she had thought it would be, and William had never been the sort to sing. He’d been a man of thought and silences. Of impatience and recklessness as well, but in some stories those same traits were called boldness and courage. It was always about what you made of it, and in the Lone Swordsman there had been surprisingly much to make of. Dropping the lute on the mossy green earth, the Bard fished out a bottle of her haversack and popped it open. She sniffed. It smelled like anise. Gods, it was a bottle of that foul fig distillate Ashurans were so fond of, wasn’t it? Of the many sins the Baalite Hegemony had to answer for, bringing this abomination over the Tyrian Sea was undoubtedly one of the worst. She had a drink anyway. It burned on the way down, warmed her and reminded her she was alive. That was always a comfort after she’d had a Wander.

She was currently sitting within a stone’s throw of the walls of Liesse, which told her exactly what was about to happen. How much time had passed she couldn’t be sure, but there was only one plot thread left dangling. They must have taken their time, she frowned, eyeing the now-pristine walls. Heiress must have been governess for at least a moon’s turn. Likely they would be arriving at exactly the right moment to hit the hardest, having followed the instructions there were given to the letter. To the number of heartbeats passed, even. The Bard drank from her disgusting trial of a bottle again. Her teeth were starting to taste like anise and an ever-expanding alcohol problem.

“You might as well come out, boys,” she called out. “You’re not fooling anyone.”

The elves did not appear, because appearing had the implication they had not been previously there. They had been, they’d just decided that Creation would not be able to see them. That was the way with the older elves: they decided what rules applied to them. They could not ignore more than one, but that was usually enough. Besides, she would not put anything past these two: they had been old before they’d ever set foot on Calernian soil. Few people would have called the two Emerald Swords beautiful, she decided. By the standards of humans their faces were too long and angular, their skin so perfect as to seem almost marble and those wide eyes filled with so much contempt it was nearly a physical thing. They were tall and slim and terrible to behold, like a coldly shining star. The one on the left was called Dawn and the other Dusk. They were both men, not that she could have figured it out from looking at them if she had not already known. The Bard let out an obnoxious whistle.

“Two Emerald Swords, huh?” she said. “The Forever King really wants her dead.”

They did not reply with words. Infinitesimal twitches, impossible for anyone but a Named to notice, served as an exchange between the elves. Obstacle, Dawn said. Unforeseen, Dusk added, deeply offended.

“He’s a bargain bin prophet, your man,” the Bard snorted. “He thinks a crown and a few dreams means he can read the weaves? Please.”

Sharp and ugly fury erupted in both of them without changing them in the slightest. Kill, Dusk said. Hero, Dawn reluctantly disagreed.

“Them’s the rules,” the Bard said. “Can’t touch a hair on my head so long as your King doesn’t give permission. And he would have needed to see me coming for that.”

She guzzled down more or that sin against the Heavens, allowing some of it to trickle down her chin. She wiped it off messily. Disgust twitched across their frames. It was almost too easy to toy with them, really.

“You’re going to use words to talk to me,” she said. “If you don’t, I’ll just have to start speaking elvish – or what’s that fancy name you folks give it again? The True Tongue?”

“Your language is carrion,” Dawn said in Lower Miezan, as she’d known he would. “I will need to rip out my tongue after soiling it so.”

However soiling the act of speaking a language not elvish, it would have been nothing to having a mere human speak their precious True Tongue. Even a hero.

“You’re such charmers, you lot,” the Bard drawled. “You know, I had high hopes for your kind when you first arrived.”

She gestured expansively.

“Armada of white ships lands under the Everdark, pretty little elves burn it immediately. You go into the woods and genocide your way through the Deoraithe until you own the land. I told myself ‘old girl, these ones mean business’.”

She grinned sharply.

“But then you stayed in your Golden Bloom, didn’t you? Closed the borders and ignored the rest of the continent. That was a disappointment, let me tell you. You had such potential.”

“The affairs of mortals are of no interest to the elves,” Dawn said.

There was no intonation or inflection to the words. They were just spoken, as if by a being made of stone. The Emerald Sword could be made to speak a human language but not bother with the frills of it.

“Not you elves, anyway,” the Bard said. “It’s why they kicked you out, isn’t it? The others. The ones that breed with humans, whose kingdom is larger than this entire continent. Lots of room there, but not enough to fit your opinions about lesser races.”

“The Kingdom of the Golden Bloom will remain forever unmarred,” Dawn said.

“Oh, sure. Pure, pretty as a painting, all that good stuff.”

The Bard paused, then smiled.

“Shame about that birth rate, though, no? How many kids you popped since coming here again?”

None, they all knew the answer was. That was what happened when you murdered the original owners of a forest and tried to claim it your own. It remembered, and no amount of singing to the trees was ever going to fix that.

“We know who you are, Keeper of Stories,” Dawn said. “She of a Thousand Faces. Speak your piece.”

“I hadn’t heard that one in a long time,” the Bard chuckled. “Keeper of Stories, eh? Just doesn’t sound the same in Lower Miezan. I go by the Wandering Bards, these days.”

They did not reply. They saw no further need to indulge her, she realized with amusement. She gulped down another chunk of her horrible, horrible liquor.

“The Forever Twit sent you to knock off the Heiress,” she said. “Not happening. Fuck off.”

The wooden sword had bit deep into the stone, less than hair’s breadth away from her femoral artery. She’d never even seen Dusk move, and as far as she could tell he was still standing where he’d always been. The only difference was the absence of the spellwood sword at his hip.

“Do not,” Dawn said, “mock Him again.”

“You lot developed a temper in your old age,” the Bard grinned. “It’s almost cute, the way you think violence is something that could scare me.”

She’d accented the word in Lower Miezan the same way it would have been in elvish. It was enough to horrify the both of them.

“You know what she intends,” Dawn said.

“Better than either of you, or the man who holds your leashes,” the Bard said. “But you know what really ruffles my feathers, Dawnie? That he thinks he has a right to meddle.”

Her voice had gone cold. They were both wary now.

“’cause the way I see it,” she continued, “you signed that away long ago. Around the time Triumphant was kicking around. Remember Triumphant? Lass about wee high-“

She waved her bottle around, spilling some on her sleeve.

“- scowled all the time, conquered the continent? Any of that ring a bell? Around the time she took Callow, she turned her eyes to the Golden Bloom. And what did you bunch of rabbit-eared sissies do then?”

She paused.

“Anyone? Seriously, it’s not like you two weren’t around.”

She sighed.

“You bailed out of Creation is what you did,” she said. “You took your pretty little kingdom and fled right into Arcadia. And boy, was she pissed when she realized it. Wiped out two cities in rage.”

The Bard drank again, loosely sprawled on the stone. She knocked down the lute by accident and did not bother to pick it up.

“And now you think you get to cut away the part of the story you don’t like,” she said. “Really, the nerve of some people.”

The Wandering Bard grinned nastily, the white cut of her teeth like a slice of sharp moonlight.

This is my game,” she hissed. “Amateurs are not allowed.”

She leaned forward.

“Crawl back to your forest, Emerald Swords,” she said. “And tell your owner that if he ever tries anything like this again, he will rue the day.”

Neither of the elves moved.

“I will not,” the Bard said softly, “warn you again.”

And just like that they were gone. As if they had never been here at all. The sword was gone, the stone it had cut completely untouched. Almorava of Smyrna sighed, and looked at the stars. She finished her bottle, and she died.

 

The Wandering Bard opened her eyes in a crowded tavern room. People spoke all around her, not a single one of them looking in her direction. She sitting alone at a table in the back. She looked at her hands, surprised not to see any wrinkles. Young twice in a row? That was rare. She was definitely getting laid in this one, it just felt better when you were still young. Her skin was of a pale tan, the appearance of most hailing from the Free Cities. Who was she?

Aoede of Nicae.

It had a ring to it. And she got tits, this time! An improvement. Almorava had been a disappointment in that regard. Hair was a bit long and too curly for her tastes, but she’d made do with worse. Aoede’s leathers still smelled of anise and threats, but that was part of her charm really. She passed by the bar, snatching the bottle of liquor a dark-haired man had in front of him and then stealing a cup to pour herself a drink. The man in question was passed out, and she clucked her tongue disapprovingly. Not only was this a lightweight move, by the looks of the sun it couldn’t be past noon. The man behind the bartop shot her an amused look.

“That stuff will kill you, sister,” he said in tradertalk.

Aoede smiled.

“Son,” she said, “I’ve got more lives than a bag of cats.”

Keeping the bottle, if not the cup, she strode out into the sun. The White Knight was bound to be close, or she wouldn’t be there. Contrition, in the end, had not done the trick.

Maybe Judgement would.

Interlude – Precipitation

“Procerans have always been the villains in our plays, scheming Alamans and grasping Arlesites. Given our history this is understandable, my lord Exarch, but you and I know the truth of of it.  The Principate is the final line of defence between Calernia and Evil. Two millennia they have kept the Dead King on his shore of the northern lakes and even longer have they turned back the ratling plague, without aid or succour from the rest of the continent. When Procer fails, the light of civilization dims and the monsters all get a little closer to our homes.”
– Eleusia Vokor, Nicean ambassador to the Principate

 

The League of Free Cities did not have an official seat, because that would require a hard majority of its constituent to agree on any single subject for any length of time.

Anaxares was of the opinion that this was even more unlikely than usual, these days. Stygia was on the wane, as they’d hit that part of the twenty-year cycle where their old slave soldiers were being discreetly butchered and the fresh ones finished their training, but their northern neighbours were in no shape to take advantage of it. Atalante and Delos were too busy fighting over control of trade routes to Mercantis to turn their attention elsewhere, a situation further inflamed by the murder of an Atalantian logothete at the hands of a frothing Delosi preacher. In Delos, the will of the Heavens and the will of the asekretis of the Secretariat were considered to be the same thing. Woe to anyone who would defy that vicious little pack of scribes. To make everything even more complicated, Helike had spawned one of their godsdamned Tyrants a few years back. The boy had promptly proceeded to piss all over the last fifty years of border treaties, seizing Nicean assets and tickling the chin of the Proceran princess in Tenerife. There was opportunity in that, however, for the Great City of Bellerophon. First and Mightiest of the Free Cities, May She Reign Forever.

Anaxares capitalized the words even in the privacy of his own mind because you never knew when the kanenas were looking into your thoughts. His delegation must have at least two of them out of the ten diplomats who’d accompanied him, not that he’d be able to tell which were part of Bellerophon’s “agents for the protection of the people”. His home was the only true democracy on the continent, a fact its citizens touted at every opportunity, but the will of the people was preserved by the spilling of blood. The kanenas made sure of that, ensuring anyone who looked like they were trying to seize power for themselves disappeared. A system of random lot-drawing made all appointments every three years, which meant the competence of the city’s administration could vary wildly from one year to another. The only part of Bellerophon’s state apparatus was that was not randomly allotted was the diplomatic service, of which Anaxares was unfortunately part of. The small pebble lodged inside his body – and that of all members of his family – was a grim reminder that at any point one of the kanenas could decide that he’d gotten ambitious and kill all of them with a word.

The pebble would return to its original size and break his body from the inside. It was, Anaxares had been told, a particularly gruesome way to die. His predecessor had been splattered all over the insides of a meeting hall in Nicae just for being offered a bribe.

Naturally, the filthy Penthesians had made a game of trying to have the envoys of Mighty Bellerophon executed by their own people in as few words as possible. The kanenas had gotten their hands on one of the sheets they used to tally scores and plastered copies all over the streets. There was a reason Anaxares’ city kept trying to invade theirs, ugly knock-off Mercantis that it was. Did they really think that just because the wealth of Praes flowed through their river they were better than anyone else? They weren’t even Evil. Admittedly Good and Evil in the Free Cities were more like backing a charioteer team than a true affiliation but the principle of the thing made it galling. You’d think the Dread Empress would send her gold to one of the cities on the right side of the metaphysical fence. Not that he’d ever say as much out loud: the Empress’ agents were everywhere in the Free Cities these days, clashing in back alleys with those of the First Prince.

It was Helike’s turn to host the League delegates, which no one had been all that happy about. The city had gone even madder than usual under the Tyrant, whipped into a frenzy at the memory of Theodosius the Unconquered and the legendary victories the man had achieved on the battlefield. Anaxares had been in the city for a mere fortnight and already could no longer stand to look at statues of the man. He was currently drinking from a cup with Theodosius’ face on it and sitting on chair engraved with his work at the Siege of Tenerife, when the Helikeans had crawled through the sewers to avoid the butcher’s bill taking the walls would have cost. The representative for Bellerophon shifted uncomfortably against the wooden frame, ignoring the screaming delegate from Atalante calling the senior Secretariat member from Delos a “quill-waving lunatic”. His eyes flicked to the Tyrant in question, who’d named himself delegate for Helike instead of sending an actual diplomat.

The boy was dark-haired and olive-skinned, with a bloodshot red eye and a hand that seemed to be permanently shaking. He was sixteen, Anaxares knew, and had been sitting on the throne of Helike since he was twelve – when he’d seized power and sent his much older nephew fleeing in exile. Bad seed, the delegate for Bellerophon thought. The Tyrant had been smiling for what seemed to be hours now, and the grin widened when he met Anaxares’ eyes from across the table. That same friendly young man had made swearing a stoning offense in his city and drowned a Nicean delegation in their own wine barrels when they’d protested their seizure. Named. Mad, every single one of them.

“Proper forms were filed by Secretariat members of good standing,” the Delosi delegate said calmly. “The caravan went through our territory without a permit, seizing its merchandise was perfectly legal.”

The woman’s tone never rose, but it could be seen in her eyes she was beginning to get irritated. Fair enough, Anaxares thought. Atalantians got on everyone’s nerves, what with the way they were moved to emotion so easily. The famous warrior Atalante who’d founded their city was said to have wept at the sight of the rising walls, so clearly it was some sort of cultural defect. Public weeping was not allowed in Bellerophon, as it had been deemed Against The Will Of The People.

“Is there a form for murder?” the Atalantian screeched, sounding triumphant like he’d achieved some sort of great victory with the reply.

The Secretariat member blinked.

“Seven,” she said. “Though for five of them, after committing the crime the criminal must present themselves for execution within twelve hours.”

That wasn’t going anywhere, so Anaxares let his attention lapse and considered the other diplomats at the table. The Nicean delegate was listening carefully but the man had been hitting the wine pretty hard so this might actually seem interesting to him. The delegate from Stygia – Magister Zoe, she’d introduced herself as – was openly bored out of her skull and had been scribbling on a sheet of parchment for a while. Anaxares squinted at the lines while trying not to be too obvious about it. There were stanzas, he saw. It looked like a sung version of the argument between the Atalantian and and the Delosi that had been lasting for the better part of an hour. Some liberties had been taken with the plot, unless he’d missed a lot of unspoken sexual tension between those two. The delegate from Penthes was… looking at him already. Smiling. Anaxares resisted the urge to make the sign of of warding, the one that politely asked Evil to look at someone else instead please. That covered all the diplomats seated at the table, though there was another one seated on a bench a little to the side: the envoy from Mercantis.

The City of Bought and Sold was not part of the League proper, but they’d been granted the right to sit in on its meetings because of “aligned interests”. Anaxares suspected a grand amount of bribes had also been involved in making that right part of the League’s charter, though that was the kind of suspicion best left alone. The merchant lords of the Consortium did not have a standing army, or even a city guard, but they had a great deal of gold and enough hired killers to populate a small city. The woman Mercantis had sent was morbidly fat, of course. They always were. It seemed to be considered a prerequisite for rising to the higher tiers of the Consortium, and so anybody who could afford to pack on the weight did so with gusto. The waste that implied offended Anaxares’ Bellerophan sensibilities. The Grain Of The People Should Go To The People, he thought, just in case one of the kanenas was listening in. Down With Foreign Despots, May Glorious Bellerophon Reign Forever.

“You’re wasting everybody’s time,” the Stygian magister said, breaking into the middle of the argument. “Either submit the matter to League arbitrage or shut up.”

Anaxares snorted. No one had ever submitted anything to League arbitrage without being sure what the verdict would be ahead of the submission. If either of the arguing delegates had considered the incident worth the bribes and concessions buying a verdict would cost, they wouldn’t have been bickering about it in the first place. His amusement had been noticed, though.

“Do you find my people’s pain amusing, Bellerophan?” the Atalantian said.

“The Glorious Republic of Bellerophon has no stance on the incident,” he said.

“You’re a person, you should have an opinion,” the man said dramatically.

Anaxares went very still.

“I am a mere vessel for the will of the people,” he babbled hurriedly, “unfit to pass judgement on my own. Long Live The Republic, Peerless Jewel Of Freedom.”

Eyes closed he waited for the pebble to shift and tear through his organs. There was a long moment of silence in the room, but nothing happened.

“Damn,” the Penthesian said. “That would have been a five pointer.”

“Don’t blow up the Bellerophan, this one is less fucking insane than the usual ones,” the Nicean delegate said.

Language, you two,” the Tyrant said. “Please, ladies and gentlemen, let us have some decorum.”

No one felt quite safe enough to roll their eyes at that. Diplomatic immunity only went so far when you were dealing with a Tyrant.

“Delos sees no need to submit the matter to arbitrage,” the Secretariat member said.

The Atalantian looked like he’d just bit into something foul.

“Neither does the city of Atalante,” he said.

“Good,” the Nicean delegate said, after draining his seventh cup of wine. “If that’s over with, the city of Nicae had a motion to submit for League consideration.”

He held out his cup for a servant to fill again. Anaxares raised an eyebrow. He doubted this would be a rehash of the old Nicae demand for the League to declare war on Ashur – no one else cared that the Thalassocracy suppressed Nicean commerce. If they’d wanted to own the Samite Gulf, they should have won at least one of the four wars they’d fought for it. Ashur made sure to line the pockets of all the other cities with fleets anyway, which ensured their predominance at sea would never be seriously challenged. Not that any of this mattered to Anaxares: Bellerophon was landlocked. Ships Are The Work Of Wicked Foreign Oligarchies, he added just to cover his bases.

“The Exarch feels that tensions with the Principate have been escalated unnecessarily,” the Nicean said. “Their civil war is over and the First Prince has the principalities in order: we need to nip this in the bud before they turn in our direction.”

Everybody carefully did not look at the Tyrant, who had both the distinctions of being the boy responsible for those elevated tensions and the ruler who’d be expected to lead the armies of the League if it came to war. That wasn’t a coincidence:  whenever Procer came knocking, Helike always became the first among equals. Their army might not have been as large as Stygia’s, but it had never lost a war to the Stygians either.

“To achieve this,” the Nicean continued, “the Exarch has ordered me to present a motion to open ten-year truce negotiations with the Principate.”

Anaxares’ eyes flicked from one delegate to another. The magister was surprised but no one else seemed to be, not even the Tyrant. Ah. As he’d earlier thought, no one ever bothered to present a motion without knowing what the results of the vote would be. Of the seven Free Cities, four were aligned with Good – Nicae, Atalante, Delos and Penthes. Bellerophon and Stygia openly embraced the Gods Below, while Helike waffled between one side or another depending on whoever ruled them at the time. Even if rivalries between cities usually trumped any greater allegiance to the Gods, when it came to League foreign policy the Good cities tended to stick together. They never pushed too far of course, since forcing their will too often would trigger the collapse of the League, but it looked like this was going to be one of those times where they banded together.

“Atalante votes in favour,” the diplomat said.

“Delos votes in favour,” the woman from the Secretariat said.

“Penthes votes in favour as well,” the filthy Penthesian added.

Well, that carried the vote. Some advantage might be gained in ensuring a Bellerophon presence when the negotiations begun, and the four cities having their way here should give him enough leverage to ensure that. Anaxares signalled a… servant, repulsive as that thought was – People May Be Servants Of The State But Never Of Other People, A Thousand Years Of Damnation On Vile Foreign Autocrats – to fill his cup of wine but the woman drifted away without apparently seeing him gesture.  Irritating.

“We won’t be doing any of that,” the Tyrant said cheerfully. “Procer can go hang and the pox on anyone who says differently, if you’ll forgive my language.”

Magister Zoe raised an eyebrow. They had a talent for condescension, the Stygians. The ones who weren’t slaves anyway.

“I sympathize with the sentiment, but a majority has been reached. Exactly how do you intend to reverse it?”

“Well,” the Tyrant began, bloodshot eye fluttering, but he was interrupted by a dull thump.

The Nicean delegate had hit the table face-first, cup of wine still in hand. The man did not look to be breathing, and Anaxares’ own breath caught. The Delosi slumped in her chair a moment later, the Atalantian had just enough time to scream before choking and the Penthesian simply… stopped moving, between two heartbeats.

“The dosage must have been inaccurate,” the Tyrant mused. “Someone’s getting stoned for that. I had this entire speech planned, I was going to sweep my arm and then-“

The young man made a noise Anaxares assumed was meant to represent death by poison, which was by definition silent.

“This is madness,” the Stygian barked, apparently unshaken by the fresh murder of over half the people in the room.

That was the slavers for you: ice all the way to the soul.

“The poison?” the Tyrant asked, surprised. “It was quite affordable, actually. Bought it from Mercantis.”

The representative from the Consortium had not moved since the deaths and seemed utterly unconcerned. She was openly amused at Magister Zoe’s angry look.

“The Consortium believes in a modern, cost-effective form of murder,” she said. “A wide range of substances is available to any with the means.”

“I believe she was referring to the act of poisoning itself, Lord Tyrant,” Anaxares said, surprised at how steady his voice sounded.

Having carried a death sentence in his stomach since the age of twelve had done wonders for his composure, the delegate from Bellerophon reflected.

“There will be war for this,” the magister barked. “Murdering envoys? It’s-“

“Villainous?” the Tyrant said softly, smiling again.

His bad eye looked redder now. Like it had fed on the deaths. His hand was not shaking for the first time since Anaxares had met him. The Bellerophan was something of a connoisseur in the domain of foreboding, and considered that sign a particularly ominous one.

“That’s the problem with Magisters,” the boy said cheerfully. “It’s all slavery and murder with you, there’s no art to it. No whimsy. When’s the last time any of you did anything just because you could?”

He gestured enthusiastically.

“You’re taking it too seriously. You have all this power and all you ever use it for is making sure you keep it. Do you have any idea how boring that is?”

“Stygia will have no part of this idiot war of yours,” the magister hissed.

“Of course you’ll take part,” the Tyrant grinned. “And you’ll be on my side, too. Because if you’re not I’ll sack your city, tear down you walls and swell my ranks with your slaves.”

“Am I to assume this threat extends to Bellerophon?” Anaxares said calmly.

“Anaxares, was it?” the boy asked. “I have to say, I’m loving the whole serenity thing you have going on. And if your Republic doesn’t back me, I’ll roast your children like poultry and sell them in Praes. Maybe overcharge on transport, they’ve been screwing us on tariffs recently.”

“You’re at war with over half the League and you’re threatening the rest?” Magister Zoe said, sounding appalled.

She had, the Bellerophan thought, yet to grasp exactly what it was they were dealing with here. Magisters were too used to being in control. Anaxares had never been under that delusion: his people were the current carrying him, on any day as likely to dash him on the rocks as they were to carry him safely to shore. Having no real influence over the course of his life was a familiar feeling. If he cared enough to comfort the foreigner, he would have told her it got easier after you stopped thinking of your future too much. Much like drowning, it was much easier on you if you didn’t struggle.

“Four cities or six or half of Creation,” the Tyrant shrugged. “It makes no difference to me. Gods Below, act Evil for once in your life. It’s like it’s a hobby with you people.”

That red eye shone malevolently as the Named stared them down.

“It’s not a hobby, my friends, it’s a side. A side in the war that defines Creation. Did you think you could sit the fence forever? Speak the words without ever paying the price? Naughty, naughty, if you’ll forgive my language.”

The Tyrant grinned and for a moment all Anaxares could see was that horrible red orb and and the curved stretch of pearly white teeth. A devil’s grin on a devil’s face.

“We’re the villains, my friends. We’re the things out there in the night that they’re all afraid of, the reason they bar their doors and shutter their windows. This place is in dire need of being remembered that truth.”

The boy laughed and Anaxares shivered.

“So muster your armies, rustle up your devils and let your monsters out of their cages. Let’s have us a jolly good time, eh?”

The Bellerophan decided to call for another cup of wine and didn’t particularly care if it was poisoned or not.

Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer, put down her correspondence.

Her quarters in Orense were like a warrior past his prime: fair to look at still, but already showing signs of decay. She was not surprised. Prince Rodrigo of Orense’s finances could aptly be described as “dregs”: the commerce that had begun to bloom again had petered out, his fields emptied of farmers who’d died as soldiers and the entire south of the principality had been ransacked by Dominion raiders. The man could no longer afford to live in the style he was accustomed to, and for a prince of Procer there were few blows harder to one’s pride than that. It had turned the older man bitter, as had his repeated bloody defeats in the Proceran civil war. Though he’d never been a claimant himself, the two candidates the prince backed had been crushed by other alliances after he’d sunk his fortune into their causes. And now the Dominion of Levant was pillaging his lands with impunity, or at least had been until Cordelia came south. Gratitude might have been expected, but then the man was an Arlesite.

The army Uncle Klaus had raised was not as full of northerners as the one that had won her the throne, but the core of the host had still been forged on the battlefields of Lange and Aisne. It was there that Lycaonese steel, tempered against the ratling warbands of the Chain of Hunger and the endless harassment of the Kingdom of the Dead, had proved superior to the numbers of southern principalities.  Numbers were still Cordelia’s problem, as it happened. There were only four Lycaonese principalities: Rhenia, Hannoven, Bremen and Neustria. Though neither Bremen nor Neustria were surrounded by mountains as the other two were, their lands were still hard to farm on. The four Lycaonese principalities had the four smallest populations of any principality in Procer, and though unlike southerners the Lycaonese had universal military service the attrition still rankled. She could only afford to lose so many soldiers from her support base before she was too weak to strong-arm the Highest Assembly.

So now she drew from the ranks of her allies, the princes and princesses who’d joined her willingly when it became clear her cause was on the rise. Few principality troops had been made available to her, but her allies had not been stingy with fantassins. Cordelia was somewhat unschooled in matters military, but as her uncle explained it these were men and women who’d served as peasant levies in the the civil war after being disposed by the fighting, making it their trade. Not as good as soldiers who’d trained since infancy, but those were costly and hard to replace. There were tens of thousands of fantassins floating around Procer at the moment, the First Prince knew. People who could only live for violence and now found themselves without anyone willing to pay for them to commit it. She needed a war, and quickly, before they turned on their own people. The first step in mitigating the problem was folding as many of them as she could into the ranks of her own armies, but that wouldn’t be enough. She’d have to accelerate the economic recovery of the south to find them lands to occupy, which she’d been trying to avoid until her position was better secured.

She’d a received a report that morning from Uncle Klaus announcing he’d thrown the last Dominion raiders out of the south of Orense and set up defensive positions a few miles away from the Red Snake Wall, which had been one problem solved. That was not the report she was looking at, though: this one was from an agent of hers in the Free Cities, informing her that two days ago the Tyrant of Helike had murdered four League delegates in broad daylight, then declared war on their cities. Calmly, she placed down the letter on the surface of her gilded desk.

She’d pressured, bribed and otherwise convinced the leaders of the same cities whose envoys had been poisoned to pass a motion to negotiate a ten-year truce with the Principate. It had taken her years and quite a bit of silver, but she’d done it. And when she had, she’d known there would be two ways that League session could end: either the Evil cities accepted the muzzle, or there would be war. Either one would force Helike to cease probing at Tenerife’s borders, binding the princess who was already one of her closest allies to her even closer. And it would secure our south-eastern flank, she thought. The Tyrant of Helike still stood alone, as far as she knew, but the odds were that the other two Evil cities would join him. Could she influence them the other way, to stack the odds towards the outcome she desired? Bellerophon was more or less impossible to affect measurably, since they executed anyone who looked like they might put some order to the mob that ruled the city. Stygia… No. She was weak in that city and the Empire owned the ruling coalition of magisters body and soul. Literally, in some cases. Stygia would lean in the direction Malicia wanted it to.

Who would win the war? Stygia and Helike had the two largest armies, but Nicae had the largest population and Penthes was the richest. Both sides would be emptying Mercantis of mercenaries before the month was done, lining the pockets of the Consortium with their bidding wars. As things currently stood, Cordelia would be inclined to believe that the Good League would beat the Evil League. And yet the Tyrant had triggered this war. The boy had something up his sleeve, something more deadly than a mere Name. More than that, it was a certainty that Praes would intervene. They would not send one of the Legions south, but the First Prince suspected the Calamities would be coming down. A counterweight was needed, Cordelia knew, but she did not need to trouble herself with that. The Heavens had already provided: a fortnight ago a ship had docked in Nicae carrying the White Knight, returned from his years in the Titanomachy. The survivors of the Lone Swordsman’s band of heroes would cluster around the new one, though how many had survived Liesse she did not know.

The Thief was still reportedly alive, but no one had seen the Wandering Bard in weeks. Liesse had been such a mess she was still trying to sort out exactly what had happened there. Devils had been summoned, then disarmed. The Squire had forced the surrender of the Baroness Dormer then spared the woman. She’d killed the Lone Swordsman and apparently returned from the dead, which the House of Light adamantly maintained was impossible. There was already talk in Salia of naming her an abomination in the eyes of the Heavens. The entire Liesse Rebellion had died an ugly death at the hands of this Callowan slip of a girl and her master, killed with a whimper instead of the bang Cordelia had been hoping for. Daoine had never entered the war, and was now on the back foot with the Tower since one of Duchess Kegan’s relatives had been caught helping a hero.

Had her observers not gotten a close look at the Legions of Terror in action, Cordelia would have called the entire affair a detestable waste of silver and lives. Several books’ worth of reports were already being compiled into a combat doctrine that would see use in the crusade, but she’d failed to meet all her other objectives. Praesi hegemony in Callow was stronger than ever and the Empress had killed unrest for good with her masterstroke of a “ruling council”. Considering there would be four Praesi sitting on that council, Malicia had come out of this rebellion with tighter control over her foreign holdings than she’d started with. Trying to hobble the Empress was like cutting off a hydra’s head: every time two more grew, more vicious and cunning than the last. At least the woman’s nobility was giving her trouble. As well they should: Cordelia had been sinking coin into their cause for half a decade using a labyrinthine series of intermediaries. Her payback for the depredations of the Pravus Bank.

Things were unfolding all across of Calernia and Cordelia could not longer afford to grant the Dominion the lion’s share of her attention. It was time to end this. Setting aside her correspondence, the First Prince of Procer took a fresh sheet of parchment and dipped her quill in the ink.

 

“We’re too close to the wall, I don’t like it,” Prince Klaus Hasenbach announced for a third time.

“They need specific conditions to wake the snake,” Cordelia said calmly. “Which we do not meet.”

In a concession to the heat of summer, the First Prince had worn a dress of a much paler blue than was present on the heraldry of Rhenia. It ended conservatively above her collarbone, tailored to hide the way her Hasenbach blood had seen her born with shoulders better fit for a lumberjack than a noble. The cloth of gold bordering the cut suggested the outline of her chest without lingering inappropriately, as the belt of sapphires set in gold that hung loosely on her hip did for that curve. Her long blond tresses had been carefully combed and bound with a brooch that had been in her family since days before the Principate, a beautiful little piece shaped like the spearman that was the emblem of the Hasenbachs. The crown, though, was from Salia. A simple circlet made from white gold, a metal only the First Prince could wear in public by ancient law. It was meant to subtly set the aside the ruler of Procer from all others.

The pavilion Cordelia had ordered raised was not close enough to the Red Snake wall to be in its shadow at this time of day, but in a bell it would be. The structure was impressive, seen from this close. The foundations only stood ten feet tall, limestone painted over red, but the bulk of it was the titanic sculpted red granite snake that stretched from the sea to the beginning of Brocelian Forest. The sheer scale of it was absurd, the largest project ever undertaken by the gigantes outside of the borders of the Titanomachy. That it was enchanted to protect the Dominion of Levant from any who would seek to pass it was arguably even more absurd: enchantment on that scale was almost without precedent. Only the Miezans had ever cast magic on that scale, as far as she knew. It made assailing the Dominion by land impossible, though landing ships far enough down the coast was still an option.

Lady Itima of the Champion’s Blood, ruler of Vaccei, would know this. The other members of the Majilis had already told her she would get no support from the rest of the Dominion in a closed session so she’d had to look for support elsewhere. Her bloodline’s ancient ties to the gigantes weren’t strong enough for them to break their enforced isolationism, which had seen her turn to Ashur instead. The Thalassocracy was the natural choice for an ally, really. The Ashurans had supported the war of independence that had seen Levant form out of former Proceran principalities and it was a central tenet of their foreign policy to ensure Procer never became a sea power. The Thalassocracy’s war fleet dwarfed the Proceran one by a rapport of ten to one, all of them lifelong sailors who could only rise through the citizenship tiers by uninterrupted service. Some of them would even have experience in naval warfare, as two decades ago Nicea’s latest attempt to gain primacy in the Samite Gulf had been bloodily suppressed by their captains. In comparison, the Principate had never fought a single major naval engagement in the nation’s entire history.

As long as Ashur backed Vaccei, it was untouchable.

Itima would know this, and when she came it would be with the swagger of a woman who knew the Principate would beggar itself if its armies camped out in southern Orense until she got bored. She would expect concessions, perhaps even angle for the ceding of territory. This was a negotiation now, though. Cordelia’s uncle had spent his days learning the trade of war and come out of it one of the finest generals on Calernia, but swords had never been the First Prince’s way. She’d learned diplomacy and intrigue, spent years sharpening her mind by fighting the most dangerous woman on Calernia across the continent in a hundred different simultaneous battlefields. Itima of the Champion’s Blood had picked the wrong battlefield to challenge her on. When the ruler in question arrived, her favourite refreshments had already been set up – chilled wine from Alava – and attendants swarmed around her delegation like hummingbirds around nectar. Uncle Klaus has wanted to remain seated when she arrived as a sign of his disdain, but Cordelia had given him a steady look until he conceded the matter. When it came to etiquette, he usually did.

Itima was a middle-aged woman with tanned skin, startling blue eyes and hair cut so closely it might as well have been shaved. Her two sons followed her closely, tall young men with hard faces and the scars of people who had seen battle before. Likely they’d been the ones leading the raids their mother had ordered. Cordelia smiled sweetly at them and the younger of the two gave a startled blush before he blanked his face. Their mother was not so easily charmed and eyed the goblet of wine presented to her with distrust before turning her attention to the First Prince. Who stood there and said nothing. Silence fell across the pavilion, broken only by the murmured of Cordelia’s attendants seating the rest of the delegation and plying them with treats and flattery.

“Your Most Serene Highness,” Itima finally said.

Good. An acknowledgement of Cordelia’s superior rank was the right tone to set for this conversation.

“Lady Itima of the Champion’s Blood,” Cordelia replied, elegantly taking the seat at the head of the table before the woman could slight her before doing it first.

The ruler of Vaccei took the seat facing her, the two sons looming behind the chair in a rather meagre attempt at intimidation tactics.

“If I may introduce Prince Klaus Papenheim of Hannoven,” she said, nodding at her uncle.

Said uncle was drinking from the cider cup she’d arranged for him to get specifically so he wouldn’t talk.

“My sons, Moro and Tarif of the Champion’s Blood,” the blue-eye woman replied, not bothering to specify which was which.

Not that she needed to. Cordelia had extensive files on every member of Itima’s allies and family. Tarif was the younger one who’d blushed, and had a well-documented fondness for blondes. He was quite good in bed, the agent who’d sent the report had assured her. The First Prince found him handsome enough, but a dalliance with someone of his rank might have an expectation of marriage – which she’d made a point of avoiding. It gave her much leverage in Procer.

“Would any of you care for a meal before we begin negotiations?” she offered.

“I’d care for you to stop wasting my time,” Itima said. “We’re here because I’ve got you in a corner and you know it. I have my demands. Most of them are not negotiable.”

Cordelia smiled politely, then gesture for one of the attendants to step forward. The young girl bowed and lightly set a scroll on the table. Lady Itima seemed about to say something scathing until she noticed the seal keeping it closed. A ship with a crown for a sail, seven coins forming a half-circle above it. The official seal of the Thalassocracy of Ashur, used only on formal diplomatic documents.

“What is this?” the Levantine asked.

“A reassessment of our respective positions,” Cordelia said.

Itima broke it open and began reading, skipping the first few paragraphs and the inevitable niceties and title-trading they consisted of. The fair-haired Lycaonese knew the moment Itima first arrived to the actual treaty terms because the tan woman’s face dropped.

“This is a fake,” the Levantine said accusingly.

“You know it is not,” the First Prince said calmly. “The Thalassocracy will remain neutral in the event of a war between you and the Principate, so long as the borders remain unchanged afterwards.”

“I have assurances for half of the third tier citizen’s they’ll sack your entire coast,” Itima barked.

“Yes, and that was cleverly done,” Cordelia conceded. “Yet all of them fall silent when the only second tier citizen speaks.”

Ashur’s citizenship tiers were a maze to outsiders, as there were over twenty of them, but it could be understood that the dozen or so third tier citizens ran the Thalassocracy on a day-to-day basis. The only individual to stand above them was Magon Hadast, a man in his seventies whose ancestor had been the captain of the initial ship of settlers to populate the island. There could only be one second tier citizen for any colony of the Baalite Hegemony – which Ashur still technically was – at any time, and there was no rising any higher than that: first tier citizens could only be born in Tyre, the city to have spawned the entire Hegemony. Magon’s word was law in Ashur, and though he was not a heavy-handed ruler he’d been displeased at the idea of getting in a slugging match with the Principate over the ambitions of a single woman from the Dominion.

“The old man doesn’t speak,” the Levantine said.

“Not to you,” Cordelia said. “You are a skilled diplomat, Lady Itima, and an intelligent woman. I am both those things, but I also happen to have the resources of the greatest surface nation on the continent at my disposal. This defeat does not speak of incompetence but of a mere disparity of means.”

“We’ll hold the beaches against you,” the ruler of Vaccei said, anger glittering in her eyes.

“The first time, perhaps,” the First Prince said. “But the time after that? Or the next? We will land eventually. And we will bury you in numbers until Vaccei falls.”

“The rest of the Majilis will side with me the moment you tread Dominion soil,” she said.

“The rest of the Majilis are already considering which of their relatives should rule Vaccei after the removal of your dynasty,” Cordelia explained gently. “I am not invading Levant, Lady Itima, I am ending a threat to Procer.”

“And you’ll just leave after you take back your old principality, will you?” Moro sneered.

Cordelia met his eyes and smiled kindly.

“I do not want a war, Lord Moro,” she said. “I am not the one who crossed borders and sacked towns. Frankly, the loss of so much life needlessly appals me.”

“There’s a reason we have the wall in the first place, Proceran,” Itima said. “We know your kind.”

There was a truth in that, Cordelia knew. Many a First Prince or Princess had looked south and pondered the fresh conquest of old territory, their hands stayed only by the attention of Ashur and the impossibility of taking the Red Snake Wall.

“The Principate has done foul things in the past, it is true,” she said. “Taking Levant – and then trying to keep it – was one. The occupation of Callow after the Third Crusade was another.”

“The League Wars,” Tarif counted out quietly. “The Humbling of Titans. The Red Flower Massacre.”

And hadn’t they paid grand prices, for all those foreign adventures? Just like Dread Empress Triumphant’s red-handed madness had directly led to the formation of the Principate after her fall, Procer had given birth to its own enemies. The Principate was more distrusted in Callow than any other nation save for the Empire, the gigantes killed Procerans on sight south of Valencis and old Arlesite warmongering was the reason there was a League of Free Cities at all. Cordelia believed the Principate had grown as large as it would ever be. All that further wars would accomplish was set the rest of the continent against them, and they could not afford that. Alamans and Arlesites principalities had the luxury to believe the might of Procer was unchallenged, safe in their southern domains, but Cordelia knew differently. She was Lycaonese, from the tip of her toes to the crown of her head, and all of her people knew one truth as sure as they knew their own breath: Evil is real. It is not a story or a lesson, it is a piece of Creation as true as rain or music. Evil is on the other side of the mountain, of the lake, and when spring comes it will march for your home. And it will never, ever stop unless you make it.
“When I became First Prince,” Cordelia said, “I gained another title. Warden of the West.”

“Aye, your kind have claimed to be ‘wardens’ of our land for a long time,” Itima said with a hard look.

“I do not think that it was that title should mean,” the fair-haired woman said. “Not anymore. Gods, Lady Itima, we were so busy squabbling over a crown that we allowed Praes to conquer an entire kingdom. That is not what the Principate should be.”

“And what is that, exactly?” Moro asked with a thin smile.

We are the wall,” Cordelia said, and she spoke with the ironclad belief of a hundred generations of Hasenbachs before her. “We are the bulwark between the West and the monsters. We have been looking south all those years, and now Evil wakes. Do you think the Tower will stand alone, when their Legions spill out onto the continent? The Dead King will rise from his slumber and drown the world in death. The Everdark will band under a single banner and etch the Tenets of Night in blood across our cities. The Chain of Hunger grows larger and bolder every spring, and when they come it will not be in warbands – their hordes will blot out the horizon.”

She leaned forward.

“So please,” she said, speaking as sincerely as she ever had. “Do not make me fight you, Lady Itima. There will be only one war that matters in my lifetime, and it will not be in the south.”

The tanned woman looked shaken.

“You ask me to ignore centuries of bad blood,” she said hesitatingly.

“I ask you to stand with me,” Cordelia replied quietly. “Not as a subject or a vassal, but as an ally.”

She could see it in the sons’ eyes, that they understood. What was coming, crawling closer to them every day.

“They say there is only one choice we can make that ever really matters,” the First Prince of Procer said. “I beg you, for all our sakes. Make the right one.”

She offered a hand, and after a long moment the ruler of Vaccei took it. The rest of the Dominion would follow, Cordelia knew. It would not be enough. Gods forgive her, but it would not be enough. She’d have to intervene in the Free Cities, to make peace between Ashur and its rivals, to somehow mend bridges with the Titanomachy. Cordelia would have to lie and scheme and strike deals in the dark of night until her desperate, ramshackle alliance stood together.

Because the madmen were coming. The monsters of legend. The ones that cast shadows on the world from their flying fortresses, who broke the very fabric of Creation with their sorceries. They were coming, and while the Principate had bled itself in a hundred wars they had learned. Cordelia had always loved the words of her mother’s family, the quietly dignified Pappenheim boast thrown in the face of the Enemy, but in the end she was a Hasenbach first. It ran in her blood, the old duty no one had given them but they had taken up anyway. Because it was right, because they could, because no one else would.

Because We Must.

Gods Above, let that be enough.

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.”