It was dark inside the Commander’s quarters, the only light coming from the candle on the woman’s desk. He stepped behind her quietly, his Name’s power silencing the sounds of his armour as he raised his blade. The dark-haired woman stilled for the barest fraction of a moment, and Squire knew then that his chances of taking care of her quickly had evaporated into thin air.
“Quiet or not,” the Commander spoke with a voice that bore the soft accent of the Deoraithe, “you reek of blood.”
Squire’s blade came down but the woman spun, hand grasping for the long knife on her desk and batting the killing blow aside at the last moment. The green-eyed man sighed and shifted his footing as she rose to her feet.
“I do hope that was a figure of speech,” he said mildly. “I bathe every few days.”
The Commander bared her teeth in mockery.
“Some things don’t wash off with water, Praesi,” she replied.
His blade flicked forward, tasting the edge of her defence and finding it unfortunately steady. No less than he’d expected, of course – the woman’s name was one that could only be earned through years of hard fighting, and not even Ranger’s tutelage was enough to overcome the disparity between their levels of experience. Even nurtured, talent could only bring you so far.
The long knife was a blur of sharpened steel in her hand and she stepped forward, turning a thrust into a vicious flick of the wrist when he stepped around it, dancing away before he could strike back and leaving behind a shallow cut on his cheek.
“Was it the punitive expedition on the Red Boars ?” she asked.
Squire has ground fluidly, trying to find an angle where his sword’s longer reach would be able to come into play. It was unfortunate that his way into the quarters had meant travelling light because fighting an opponent this dangerous without his shield was quickly becoming more than he’d bargained for.
“No,” Commander mused, “it’s not like we’ve never done that before. Which means someone opened their damned mouth about my plan for the Lesser Steppes .”
“I might have heard a thing or two,” he agreed. “But you seem to operate under a misconception, Commander.”
“Illuminate me, then, assassin,” she replied coldly.
“Not Assassin,” he corrected her. “Squire.”
That was when the bells started ringing. Three rings, a pause and then three rings again: the signal for a fire in the fortress. Apprentice had already started his work, then, which meant it was time to wrap this up: Grem ’s clansmen would be in a position soon. His opponent spat a few words in the Old Tongue. From the intonation, he would venture a guess they were nothing particularly polite.
“So you’re one of the pups who want to be the next Black Knight,” she growled. “You made an error in coming here tonight, boy – it’ll be my pleasure to nip you in the bud before you become a real problem.” Which was, he was forced to concede, a very real possibility. When she moved forward again, it was with the weight of cold anger behind her attacks – again and again, he was forced to give ground, pushed out of her quarters until he was at the head of the stairs. Commander slipped under his guard when he overextended, ignoring the deep cut he carved right above her ear to close the distance and slam her palm into his chest. Had anyone but a Named done that on a full plate they would have broken their wrist for their trouble, but instead, her blow sent him tumbling down the stairs. About halfway down he managed to roll back to his feet, but before he could bring up his sword she nearly sliced through his jugular, forcing him to scramble back desperately. In a matter of moments, she’d driven him all the way out to the inner courtyard, and now they both knew the game was up.
“If you kneel,” she said flatly, “I’ll make it quick.”
“If this were a story,” Squire told her, “this would be the moment where I revealed I was left-handed all along.” “Are you?” the dark-haired woman asked gruffly.
“No,” he replied, sheathing his sword. “I’m a practical man at heart, you see.”
The first arrow took Commander in the side of the throat, punching straight through and coming out the other side. Ranger’s work. The short bow volley from Grem’s clansmen followed a heartbeat later, filling her with so many arrows he could no longer make out her face.
That’s the thing with practical sorts, Commander,” Squire told her gently. “We cheat.”
Book 1, Chapter 23: Morok’s Plan Edit
It was unfortunate those skills were being used against him but expecting fairness of the world was to pave a road towards bitterness. The Taghreb aristocrat had learned the correct lesson from the Burning Cliffs: he’d avoided the narrow passes west of Okoro, taking Chancellor’s army through the flat expanse of Jugomo’s Folly instead. There would be no drowning the superior forces in goblin fire this time, not that he’d expected the trick to work twice. That was fine. Another three clans had been come over to their side in the aftermath of the last victory, bringing them up to a little under four thousand soldiers. Though ‘soldiers’ was a generous term to use for the newly arrived orcs, truth be told. Unlike Grem’s Howling Wolves and Istrid’s Red Shields, there was little discipline to these fresh arrivals. Grem had told him in private they’d been on the losing side of the constant raids between the Clans. By throwing their lot in with Dread Empress Malicia they thought to better their fortunes. They might just accomplish that, should this day not end in crushing defeat.
Wekesa had half a dozen water bowls placed in a loose circle around him, the candles in between casting shaky light on the images that had appeared over the surface of the liquid. Black allowed a sharp smile to flicker across his face. High Lord Mawasi might have been a vigilant man, but his mages were subpar. That would come back to haunt him. Istrid crouched by one of the bowls, ignoring Warlock’s warning look, and squinted at the shapes inside.
“You were right, Grem,” she grunted. “They split in four.”
One-Eye showed no sign of surprise. Black had yet to see the orc’s tactical judgement fail and doubted he ever would.
“Mawasi wants to be able to concentrate his forces easily when they make contact,” he gravelled. “If they manage it, we’ll lose.”
Chancellor had sent twelve thousand killers into the Steppes to end what the nobility had taken to calling the Whore’s Rebellion. Not that Malicia was actually with them: she’d gone to Thalassina to talk the ruling High Lady into supporting them.
“None of the commanders will be willing to commit to a real fight until the others are there,” Ranker murmured, her slight shape stirring in the shadows. Even young as the goblin was, her face was already creased. “The High Lord will have forbidden it.”
Black knuckled an old denarii with Dread Empress Vindictive’s face on it, allowing the silver to spin between his fingers.
“They will,” the green-eyed man said calmly. “Chancellor made a mistake when he put a price on my head.”
Whoever killed the Black Knight would be granted gold enough for a dozen kings as well as a noble title, such was the word out of Ater. The kind of price men would kill for. The kind of price men would die for – and Black fully intended to see this done.
“We start with the eastern division,” he told the others.
One-Eye frowned. “You want to bait them. With what?”
Black finished spinning the coin with a theatrical flick of the wrist, snatching away the silver.
“What they want most, right now,” he replied. “My head.”
He’d found a spot ringed by bushes a little off the road. It must have been used by travellers: there were still ashes from the last time someone had lit a fire. Gathering wood was a little trickier than usual since he had his mother’s sword instead of a hatchet, but he’d managed without cutting off any of his limbs. No bedroll for him, though his cloak was thick enough it would serve just as well – it wouldn’t be his first time sleeping out in the wild. He wasn’t close enough to the Wasteland for the things that roamed the night out there to be an issue, thank the Gods Below. There was a rustle in the bushes ahead and the green-eyed boy’s hand dropped to his sword. Fate was ever fond of its little ironies. Still, bandits this close to Satus? Unusual. He’d heard the freeholder militia kept the land safe, or at least as safe as land could get in the Empire. After a moment a dark-skinned boy around his age emerged from the greens, looking a little harried.
“Good evening,” the stranger said.
His voice was deep and smooth, the kind you could listen to for hours even if the conversation was boring. Amadeus’ fingers relaxed against the hilt of the sword but did not leave it entirely. No point in taking any stupid risks.
“Evening,” he replied cautiously.
“I ask for the shelter of your fire, traveller,” the other boy said, tone ceremonial.
“Granted,” Amadeus answered, keeping his relief off his face.
He was familiar with the Taghreb custom: the stranger had just agreed there would be no violence between them until dawn. The other boy’s skin was too dark for him to be one of the desert-dwellers, but at the moment he wasn’t inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“Oh thank the Gods,” the other traveller said, running a hand through his short black hair. “I was beginning to think I’d have to roll up under a tree for the night.”
Amadeus raised an eyebrow.
“You don’t know how to make a fire?”
The other boy flashed him a grin, white teeth gleaming in the fire’s light.
“Not the sort you use in a camp,” he replied, licks of blue flame wreathing his hand for a moment before dissipating into nothingness.
“Useful trick,” the green-eyed boy said. “Mage?”
The stranger nodded.
“I go by Apprentice. You?”
No campfires tonight – it would give away their location too easily, not that Seneca’s dogs weren’t already on the trail. Ranker’s goblins were proving invaluable in keeping an eye on how closely the High Lord’s household troops were following them, her small warriors made light of foot and hard to find by years of raiding the other tribes. The enemy had somehow managed to block Apprentice’s scrying, something the dark-skinned man told Squire meant they likely had a mage of more than middling talent with them. The green-eyed man had expected as much: Seneca’s pockets ran deep and so far he hadn’t proved shy about shelling out the gold to see this little company of their dead. The High Lord was the Chancellor’s creature to the bone. They were six hundred strong now that Ranker had joined them, the raiders of the Blackfoot tribe coming to swell the ranks of Red Shields and Grem’s Howling Wolves. Not even half a Legion, but it would grow in time. If they survived the night.
“I don’t like the odds on this one, Squire,” Grem grunted from his side.
The one-eyed orc was chewing on what looked like dried meat, sitting on a rocky outcropping.
“We’ve got as many warriors on the field as they do,” Istrid replied with a hard look. “If we run when we’re this close to our backyard, One-Eye, we’ll never live it down.”
“We’ll still be living, at least, which isn’t guaranteed if we give battle,” the scarred chieftain of the Howling Wolves told her. “Numbers might be even, but a third of our number is goblins. That changes things – no offence meant, Ranker.”
“None taken,” the small yellow-eyed Matron replied, her tone flat. “I’m inclined to agree with you if anything. A High Lord’s personal retinue is not something to trifle with.”
“And yet we’re going to crush it,” Squire said, and though his voice was calm there was something about it that gave all of them pause.
The man’s pale skin made him look like a ghost in the moonlight, his armoured silhouette casting shadows against the rocks. He looked up at the stars while he played with the clay ball he’d appropriated earlier, feeling the weight of the gaze of the followers he’d assembled settling on him. Apprentice laughed quietly, a grin that was all malice stretching his full lips.
“You have a plan, of course,” the mage spoke up. “So go on, my friend, amaze us with your latest bout of madness. Are we going to argue with a dragon again? I have to say, that was one of my favourites.”
“Good thing it wasn’t a long conversation,” Cursed tacked on in that matter-of-fact way of hers. “I didn’t like the way it was looking at me.”
Squire scowled. They had nothing to complain about, it had worked out perfectly fine in the end.
“All of you are here because you want to change things,” he told them instead. “The Empire is the culmination of over a millennium of defeats – time after time we try the same plans with new faces, somehow expecting that this once it will be different. That this once, we’ll beat them, bring down the king and scatter the knights and send the wizard packing back to his tower. Aren’t you tired of losing? I know I am, and I’ve just begun.”
He met their eyes one by one, gaze unflinchingly.
“It’s always going to be this way, you know,” he told them. “One uphill battle after another, the odds stacked against us a little worse every time. If we give them a fair fight, we’ll lose – it’s as simple as that.”
The green-eyed man smiled, and it was a wicked thing.
“So let’s cheat,” he said, lazily throwing up the clay ball and catching it. “There’s a new age coming, and we’re going to drag them into it – kicking and screaming, if necessary.”
A handful of grim smiles was his answer, and somewhere in the back of his head, he felt Fate laughing. Let it. He’d be the one to get the last laugh.
“You want a plan, Apprentice?” he said. “We’re going to play with fire.”
The First and the Second were swarming over Aksum, stamping down the last pockets of resistance. Warlock – for Wekesa had claimed the Name now, ripped it out of the corpse of his hated predecessor – had done well in clearing the fort north of the city. It had allowed Grem to steal a march on the enemy and hit the outer walls before they were fully manned. From there it had been a slaughter, with Sabah dealing the last blow by ripping off High Lord Duma’s head with her bare hands. That she was able to manage as much without letting the Beast out was a sign of how far she’d progressed in the mastery of her Name. The dark-haired man sat alone on the hill as the sun went down, watching the plumes of smoke rising from the city.
With High Lord Mawasi dead, Seneca long-buried and the High Lady of Nok having declared for them the war was as good as done. Wolof still stood strong behind High Lady Tasia, but she’d already approached Malicia to cut a deal. The last of the highborn, the High Lady of Thalassina, might have been been a problem if circumstances had not intervened. Corsairs had hit the port and set what passed for the Imperial fleet on fire, looting the city before retreating to the Tideless Isles. Amadeus was going to have to take care of that when matters were settled in the Empire. The pirates had essentially killed commerce with the Free Cities, and those trade lanes were the lifeblood of Praes.
“A great victory,” a woman’s voice noted.
One of these days, he was going to be able to notice Ranger when she snuck upon him. Not today, evidently.
“Was it?” he wondered.
Hye sat down at his side, her boots sliding soundlessly against the yellow grass. The dying sun cast her honey-coloured skin in gold and red, the sight of the lazy half-smile on her sharply angled face killing the breath in his throat. She was beautiful. Always was, of course, but now and then the realization of it scattered all other thoughts away.
“Your enemy is dead,” she told him patiently. “His armies destroyed, his city made yours. If you find a way to be dissatisfied about this, I will be most displeased.”
Considering how often she still made a game of him when they sparred, this was not a threat Amadeus would take lightly.
“Mercy, Lady Ranger,” he implored drily. “Spare my already aching bones. Anyhow, if you damage me too much you’ll have no more use of me.”
They’d taken to sharing a bed on the very night Alaya had crowned herself Dread Empress, and all of this was still new and wondrous to him. He’d never been interested in women before, or men for that matter. Desire had been unknown to him except in an abstract sense but now it flared up in his blood every time he looked at his lover. Sometimes he was puzzled such a change had come over him. He’d not started to be attracted to Hye in that manner until he’d come to trust her as much as he could trust anyone, so perhaps the root of it was there.
“That’d be unfortunate,” the dark-eyed woman admitted shamelessly. “I’ve finally gotten you trained up to my tastes.”
Carelessly she linked their fingers and he allowed their shoulders to lean against one another as they watched the nightfall.
“You’re usually in a better mood after you win,” Hye finally said. “What’s happening in that clever mind of yours, that has you so disappointed?”
He remained silent for a moment.
“This does not feel like a victory,” Amadeus admitted. “We’ve accomplished nothing here.”
“You made sure that scheming freeloader is getting the throne,” Ranger pointed out, tone dipping into distaste when she mentioned Malicia.
It had been too much to hope for these two would actually get along, he supposed. That Alaya had not taken to the field with them had been the last nail in the coffin for Hye – she had no patience for people who did not take what they wanted with their own hands. Malicia being the reason they’d been able to fill their ranks with household troops from Nok had failed to move his lover on the matter, unfortunately.
“There was never any doubt about that,” Black said frankly. “That is was irks me. All this death, all this destruction, just to confirm something I knew would happen two years ago. We’ve not improved the Empire’s situation in any measurable manner, Hye. All we’ve done is clean up the mess.”
Hye smiled languidly, a touch of heat coming to her dark eyes.
“Sometimes you say things like this, and I finally understand why they’re all terrified of you,” she said.
“You’ve reached the threshold, Amadeus,” Ranger murmured. “You have the Empire, you have your Calamities and your armies. You’ve broken the old, now you get to make the new.”
She slid onto his lap, and-
Nefarious’s corpse hadn’t even cooled before they’d dismembered and burned it, scattering the ashes so broadly not even a wraith could be formed from the remains. A lesson the Court learned centuries ago at the knees of the first Dread Empress Sanguinia, whose reign of terror had not ended with the cup of poison she’d drunk. She had, if anything, become even more dangerous after her death. The Chancellor was a thorough man, for all his flaws, and had no intention of giving a sorcerer as accomplished as Nefarious a foot on the land of the living. The hall on the twenty-fourth floor of the Tower had long been used for official court sessions, and that the Chancellor had chosen it as the place for his summons spoke openly to the man’s intentions. He’d been ruling the Empire in all but name for the last decade anyhow, no doubt he saw actually taking the throne as a mere formality. He had the backing of the High Lords, the Legions – this sad, ugly sister of what the Legions of Terror had once been – were in his pocket and he controlled Ater. Ascensions to the throne had been built on a third of that kind of support. And yet…
Amadeus gazed at the sprawling mosaic that made up the entire floor, lost in thought. The centrepiece was arguably the depiction of the First Crusade and Dread Empress Triumphant’s fall, but that wasn’t what interested him. Closer to the bronze and gold doors there was a motif about Dread Empress Maleficent I, the founder of the Empire. It showed her driving out the Miezans – a historical inaccuracy, as there had only been one bare skeleton of a legion left, but the lie was central to the creation myth of Praes – and uniting the Soninke and the Taghreb. She’d been Taghreb herself, governor of Kahtan under the foreign occupation. The more numerous and politically powerful Soninke had her assassinated within the decade and one of their own took the throne, but you’d never guess it from the way the High Lords were smiling at her side. Behind the humans knelt greenskins, orcs and goblins mingling in abject adoration of their superior. Another lie. The Clans had only been cajoled into joining the Declaration by bribery and the Tribes had to be forced into the fold by violence.
So many lies, for a single floor. A pack of gilded ornaments hastily slapped over an inglorious beginning, carefully polished over the millennia since until they became accepted as the truth of history. What would they say of today in a thousand years, the Black Knight wondered? Would they speak of it as the beginning of a golden age or the whimper of a stillborn rebellion? The nobles and sycophants milled about the hall, clumping together in whispering circles. None of them approached him. Some had tried to play him the fool when he’d been younger, thinking a Duni would be easy prey, but the trail of corpses he’d left behind since had dissuaded them of the notion. Still, at least some of them should have been trying to forge an alliance with him to better their fortunes under the new regime. Word of his many disagreements with the presumptive Emperor must have spread. Was this the prelude to an attempt to remove him from the game entirely? He found the thought amused him. Chancellor’s intentions upon taking the throne were still a mystery to him, though he could make some educated guesses.
He was shaken out of his thoughts when the man in question strode through the open doors. The whispers stilled and the crowd parted reverently as the Chancellor walked to the throne. Running a hand on the stone and iron the man stood there for a moment, smiling. Finally, he sat and the crowd let out a single breath. Relief, envy, admiration. Already vultures were gathering behind the curtains of professed loyalty, scheming how they would carve out an advantage from the succession. There would be a need for a new Chancellor, and that Name was ever brimming with claimants. For now, though, they knelt. Like a wave washing up on the floor, the mighty fell to their knees – until the wave reached him. Amadeus stood, leaning against the wall.
“You take liberties, Black Knight, that I have not allowed,” the Chancellor said.
The rebuke resounded like the crack of a whip in the silence of the hall. Black pushed himself off the wall and strolled to the centre of the crowd.
“I,” he said, “do not kneel.”
The Chancellor chuckled.
“I may yet allow you this privilege, should you prove loyal,” he said.
The fury wafting from the nobility, still kneeling, was delightful. Truly, it was making Amadeus’ day. Coming here had been worth it just for that. The older man continued speaking when it became obvious Black did not intend to reply.
“You will hunt down the wretched concubine Alaya, who murdered my predecessor,” the Chancellor said. “You will drag her in chains to this hall, so I may render judgement.”
“This is an order, Black Knight,” the man barked. “As Dread Emperor Baleful the First, I command your obedience.”
“I serve the Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, Tyrant of Dominions High and Low, Holder of the Nine Gates and Sovereign of all She Beholds,” he said. “You have no right to command me, Chancellor. Or to sit on this throne.”
“This is treason,” the man screamed.
“This is an inevitability,” Amadeus replied.
Some of the crowd rose. Swords were unsheathed, incantations whispered. It would be for nought.
“Some of you,” the Black Knight said, “will fight this. Will cling to the old order, futile as it may be. For you, I come bearing the word of the Empress.”
He grinned, wide and sharp and vicious.
“Tremble, o ye mighty, for a new age is upon you.”
The sword tore through flesh and bone with a meaty sound, sending the guard’s head rolling on the ground. A waste – Black would not have pursued him, had he fled. Shaking the blood off his blade with a flick of the wrist, the green-eyed Knight stepped deeper into the Pirate Queen’s sanctum, feet burdened with grim purpose.
“Amateurs,” Ranger said from his side. “They didn’t even have a proper watch.”
“They thought they were safe,” Black replied.
“They won’t after tonight,” Warlock added. “If any of them survive, anyway.”
The chatter was unnecessary, but he’d long become used to Warlock’s cheerfully morbid comments enough that it barely registered. Still, he traded a half-amused, half-exasperated glance with Ranger. They met another corsair on their way to the throne room but this one did not even get to open her mouth before Wekesa turned her upper body into ash: dealing with the pirates was child’s play after a year of back alley dogfights with his rivals and the Order of the White Hand, not to mention the civil war that followed. Not a reason to get sloppy, but overestimating an enemy was just as dangerous as overestimating them. By the time they reached the doors to the Pirate Queen’s own throne room the sounds of the mess outside had started to drift up to their ears. Curses and screams of terrors tore through the night’s quiet, the same reaction Captain always elicited whens [sic] she dared to cut loose. Black pushed open the driftwood doors in front of him without breaking stride, ready to finally put an end to the night’s slaughter.
“They sent the Black Knight and his death squad for little ‘ole me? Guess I should be flattered,” the Queen laughed as she rose from her throne and unsheathed her cutlass. “So which of you feels like dancing with death, children?”
Ranger sighed and shot the Queen in the leg, arrow knocked and flying faster than you could take a breath.
“Is it me or does that never get old?” Warlock mused. “They always get the funniest look on their faces when we won’t play along.”
The Pirate Queen dropped to the floor with a hoarse cry of pain, clutching her leg. Black wasted no time closing the distance and kicked her cutlass out of her hands.
“You are correct,” he said. “I am the Black Knight.”
“Do you have no honour –” she started.
“No,” Black replied, crouching to be of a height with her.
“Drop the knife, Pirate,” Ranger called out. “Otherwise the next one goes through the eye.”
There was the clatter of metal on the ground and the Queen let go of the blade she’d pulled from under her tunic, grimacing.
“Fine, you lot are big and bad,” she snarled. “You made your point. Why am I still alive?”
“Because you set half of Thalassina on fire a few months back,” Black said.
“You going to parade me around Ater ‘cause I’ve been a bad girl?” the pirate asked with an ugly smile. “And to think I’d heard you were dropping the old way bullshit.”
“You misunderstand me,” the Black Knight replied. “It takes talent, to execute an operation of that breadth.”
“You should work on your recruitment pitch, love,” Queen sneered. “I’m feeling a mite uncooperative at the moment.”
Black’s eyes hardened.
“Your prize ship has been sunk. Most of your lieutenants are dead. You are kneeling on the floor of your very seat of power,” he murmured. “Bringing you to this took me four people and a rowboat, Pirate. You asked me what my point was? This is it. Do not make me repeat myself.”
“Fuck it, and fuck you,” the Pirate Queen smiled. “I’m not flying an Imperial flag, and I’m sure as Hells not gonna take orders from the Tower. Do your worst, boy – I’ve laughed in the face of harder men than you.”
Warlock’s eyes became wreathed in fire and the dark-skinned man stepped forward, but Black help up a hand to stop him.
“You call yourself the Pirate Queen, but I’ve noticed your crews sometimes refer to themselves as corsairs,” the Black Knight said.
“You trying to bore me to death, Knight? I’ll give you points for originality,”
“Unlike pirates, corsairs are known to sometimes operate under official sanction,” Black said. “Not as part of a nation’s navy, but as… auxiliaries of a sort.”
The Pirate Queen eyed him dubitatively.
“If we’re not raiding Praes then who?”
“By the end of the week word will spread to the Free Cities that the pirate threat has been dealt with,” Black smiled coldly. “I expect merchant shipping to Thalassina to resume soon after.”
“Well look at the balls on you,” the Queen whistled. “Won’t they just bail again when I start boarding their boats?”
“Not if you confine yourself to a handful of them per month,” Black said. “A risky business, certainly, but there will be enough who think the payoff worth it. The Dread Empire would, of course, collect a cut in exchange for the right to operate in its waters.”
“So you want my ships on a leash, is that it?” the pirate sneered. “What if I say no?”
The green-eyed man laid the flat of his blade on his knees.
“That is your prerogative.”
There was a long moment of silence as the Queen mulled over the offer. Sighing, she finally spat in the palm of her hand and offered it to the man in front of her. Black spat into his own without batting an eye, ignoring her puerile attempt to crush his fingers when they shook on it. He rose.
“A woman named Scribe will come tomorrow to work out the details of the arrangement. A pleasant evening to you, then,” the Knight said as he sheathed his sword. He made for the door, but before he could pass the threshold the Queen called out to him.
“Knight,” she asked. “If I’d said no, what would you have done?”
“Used your head a prop when making the same offer to your second-in-command,” Black replied, not even bothering to turn as he strode out of the Pirate Queen’s throne room.
Book 3, Chapter 46: Denouement Edit
It was a strange thing, to bury a man. Of the Praesi only the Soninke shared the custom, and even then only the highborn who boasted ancient labyrinth-mausoleums of baked mud to receive their own. Peasants and Taghreb burned their dead instead, save for those who had sold their remains to corpse-raisers while they still lived. There were no ancient mazes in the Green Stretch, and the dues to the dead were different for Duni. It was said that some of Amadeus’ people still kept to the Gods Above in hidden places, conducting rituals even without priests to bless them, but his family had not been so twisted. Mother had proudly served in the Legions, after all, and thought little of the ornate boot-licking westerners called religion. Yet Duni buried their dead as Callowans did, the nature of that half-stolen custom changed by centuries upon centuries of Praesi rule and all that came with it. The Squire’s shovel patted the surface of the freshly turned wet black earth, the last grave he would dig today.
There were four of them. Father, Clarent, Belladona and Valerius. He’d not spoken to any of them since deserting the Legions, and the first time in three years he’d laid eyes on his family had been to see them crucified by the burnt-out husk of the farm. The Heir had not needed to sign his work, for he had already boasted of it. Discipline, he’d called it, for a mudfoot who did not understand his place in the world. The Soninke had not well taken his defeat in Callow, the way Ranger’s knowledge of the lay of the land had allowed Amadeus to lead the paladins to his enemy’s camp instead of his own. Sabah had offered to help him dig, meaning kindness though the offer was ignorant. Wekesa had not any more learned in Duni customs but instinctively knowing the offer would be crossing a boundary. It was Hye, in her own cold way, who had honoured his family. She’d stood vigil at his side in silence as he dug, a sacrifice of hours freely offered to people she had never met.
Amadeus wedged the shovel into the ground and stood by the unmarked graves he’d dug by the side of Mother’s. Silently, he unsheathed a knife and split open his palm. Passing from grave to grave he trickled droplets of red the way he had been taught even as his companions stood behind him, still and quiet. There would be incomprehension on their faces, he knew. Praesi knew well the power of blood but were wary of spilling their own. There were many rituals a skilled mage could work, with such a reagent. But there were no consecrated grounds in the Stretch, to prevent corpse-theft, and the Tower did not care to chastise necromancers that kept to the practice if their birth was high enough. The spilling of blood, to Duni, was an oath. ‘They who marked that grave in red will seek redress, should this grave be disturbed.’ He could have spoken the word, but he alone stood pale-skinned on this field. There would have been no meaning in it.
He had wept, taking them down from the crosses, but the tears had dried and left nothing behind. Amadeus did not recognize his own voice when he told the others to leave him to the vigil, to be stood until the moon rose. It was too raw a thing to be his, absent of calm and thought. They deferred, though before long Ranger returned to his side. Hye knew no commands but her own desires.
“We’ll kill him for this,” she whispered, standing at his side.
The green-eyed man smiled.
“The Heir,” he said, “meant to cloud my mind. Fill it with grief and anger. Unusually clever of him, truth be told. I lose much if I lose my distance from it all.”
“It always turns on them, plots like this,” the half-elf said. “They get more than they bargained for.”
Amadeus studied the palm he had cut mere hours ago, finding it perfectly smooth. It would not scar. Wounds on Named rarely did, lest they were dire or meaningful. He wondered what kind of man it made him, that this was not meaningful to him. He wondered if he should grieve that he could not manage to care. Had he been this cold, before he became the Squire? It was hard to remember.
“He made a mistake,” the Duni said. “Not the one you believe this. This is just… insufficient.”
Ranger did not answer. She’d always had a talent for that, knowing when to fill the silence and let it stand.
“I believed I loved them,” Amadeus said. “But I killed them, Hye, the moment I claimed my Name. I always knew that. Stories require clean breaks. We cannot have homes to return to, however humble they may be.”
“You absolve him for this act?” the honey-skinned woman asked.
“No, not that,” the man murmured. “Never that. One must stand responsible for one’s actions. But it would be unseemly, to blame solely his hand for this end. If not him, Creation would have seen to the matter otherwise. Paladins venturing deeper into the Stretch, perhaps. Or wisps of a faraway ritual poisoning them in agony. Foe would have been provided, Ranger. Evil ever grows through conflict.”
“You could have fought it,” she said.
“And lost,” he replied. “Creation can be gamed. We have proved this. But it cannot be overturned. There are lessons to be learned from the tyrants of old. Power is not earned with clean hands. Their mistake was only to think bloodying them anew will always bring gain.”
He saw Ranger’s lips quirk into a rueful smile.
“And now you debate philosophy over fresh graves,” she said. “Your grief lasted as long as the tears.”
“I began grieving them the moment I became the Squire,” Amadeus said. “This will not turn my path, Hye. A loss has been added to the tally, that’s all. There will be many, many more.”
“And love?” she said.
“A sweet thing, to be sure,” the Squire said. “But love is not what I bared my blade for.”
She laughed, quietly.
“You’re not boring at all, are you?” she said. “The blood you spilt, what does it mean?”
“An oath,” Amadeus said. “A warning.”
Ranger’s knife glinted silver in the dark as she cut her palm, joining her blood to his own on the dark earth. He met her eyes and wondered what was watching him back, that hard and blazing thing that had his heart skipping a beat.
“And now what, Squire?” she teased.
“I read a play once,” Amadeus replied. “Forbidden by Imperial decree. There is a part I enjoyed, and it goes like this-”
His voice carried, without ever rising in tone.
“Be fearful now
my reach is long
my wrath is great
above or below.”
Hye’s answering smile was a thing of death and Amadeus looked away, staring up at the stars and letting his grief ebb to the sound of grinding wheels of steel.