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Summary

The Empire stands triumphant.

For twenty years the Dread Empress has ruled over the lands that were once the Kingdom of Callow, but behind the scenes of this dawning golden age threats to the crown are rising. The nobles of the Wasteland, denied the power they crave, weave their plots behind pleasant smiles. In the north the Forever King eyes the ever-expanding borders of the Empire and ponders war. The greatest danger lies to the west, where the First Prince of Procer has finally claimed her throne: her people sundered, she wonders if a crusade might not be the way to secure her reign. Yet none of this matters, for in the heart of the conquered lands the most dangerous man alive sat across an orphan girl and offered her a knife.

Her name is Catherine Foundling, and she has a plan.


A Practical Guide to Evil is a YA fantasy novel about a young girl named Catherine Foundling making her way through the world – though, in a departure from the norm, not on the side of the heroes. Is there such a thing as doing bad things for good reasons, or is she just rationalizing her desire for control? Good and Evil are tricky concepts, and the more power you get the blurrier the lines between them become.

Updates every Monday and Wednesday.

Villainous Interlude: Proscenium

“We should never forget that for a great evil to be defeated, a lesser evil must first become great.”
– Queen Eleanor Fairfax, founder of the Fairfax dynasty

Liesse was under siege, though forces had yet to deign test her walls. With the Summer Court having seized both Dormer and Holden, the two Callowan cities closest to the Waning Woods, the Empire had abandoned the south and begun mustering north of Vale instead. With fae hunting parties scouring the land coming from the west and the east, Akua had been forced to rely on her own wiles to keep her territory safe. Summer was holding court at Dormer and the true threats had yet to take the field, but even lesser nobles of Arcadia were dangerous enough. Unlike those of Winter, they would not control and subjugate the population: all those who did not immediately bow to the Queen of Summer were destroyed a riot of flame. Which was rather unfortunate, since Diabolist still needed southern labour to finish her work in Liesse. The fae were not being accommodating of her timetable.

Gathering a force of her own to field had proven tiresome, though she’d been granted an unexpected boon. Since she’d publically sacrificed the last mercenary force she’d hired in Mercantis – not that the merchants had particularly minded, after she’d paid up her very expensive penalty fees – hiring fresh blood had been difficult. The war in the Free Cities had ensured the most reputable companies were already all being employed by one side or the other, anyway, leaving behind only the dregs. Levantine raiders too savage for that already savage nation, a company of unreliable drow exiles and, amusingly enough, Helikean soldiers who’d been enemies of both the Exiled Prince and the ruling Tyrant. The last of those three were the steadiest, but they numbered only a thousand.

The boon, she had engineered herself with the gracious help of Mother and Dread Empress Malicia. Even as the south of Callow went up in flames, the Wasteland had gone to war with itself. After High Lady Tasia of Wolof had defaulted on several payments owed the Tower for granted privileges, Akua’s cousin Sargon had immediately attempted a coup. Normally he would not have dared: it was one thing for Cousin Sargon to set himself against Mother, another to attempt the theft of the due of a Named. But the Diabolist had sent him a discreet message, conceding to his claim in exchange for several concessions involving gold and sundry favours. Armed rebellion exploded in Wolof before the day was out. Sargon had won the initial skirmish after deploying a dozen powerful devils, at which point Mother had responded by unleashing a demon on his men. The mess that ensued escalated in brutality.

Dread Empress Malicia sent in all the Legions garrisoning Praesi territory to restore order even as what remained of the Truebloods watched the greatest among them being cornered like an animal. Akua had, naturally, reached out to the most prominent members left. Gold, men and mages had flowed to her territory as Holden fell to the Summer Court and she became flanked on both sides. Including her mercenaries, Akua now had slightly over ten thousand soldiers under her command. Of them almost a tenth were mages, though only a handful of those could touch High Arcana. Still, it had been an effort to keep the delight off her face: oh, the kind of things she could make with this many spellcasters at her disposal.

And she would have to make them, of this there was no doubt. No reinforcements were coming for the foreseeable future. The legions of the Wasteland were busy keeping Wolof contained, and would not be able to march anywhere for months. There’d been talk of some of the legions guarding the Red Flower Vales under Marshal Grem One-Eye coming south as the orc himself took operational command, but Proceran movement on the other side of the border had smothered that notion in the crib. Cordelia Hasenbach might rule over a mongrel nation, but Akua had to give her this: she was a fair hand at the Great Game. With One-Eye and his men remaining to prevent an invasion by the Principate, command had fallen to Marshal Ranker in Denier – who’d also had to decline, as the Duchy of Daoine had declared full mobilization of the Watch and refused to give any explanation.

That left General Istrid with seniority, and she’d stripped Summerholm of its garrison before marching south to muster all she could north of Vale. As a crowning irony the single largest army in Callow, the Fifteenth under General Juniper, was forced in a defensive position at Marchford and unable to participate. The gate into Arcadia could not be left undefended: the Winter Court might just decide to establish a beachhead of their own, and not even Praes could withstand the pressure of two Courts running rampant. Until Foundling reappeared, her people were paralyzed. It had been most amusing to see everything Squire had built over the last year collapse the moment she was gone, Diabolist had to admit. Upon hearing word of Squire’s disappearance into Arcadia the Praesi among the Ruling Council had swiftly struck a deal with the Guild of Assassins and seized power in Liesse before declaring martial law across Callow – a move greeted with widespread rioting in the cities.

Best of all, when the usurpers had first accessed the treasury they’d found absolutely nothing: the Guild of Thieves had already emptied it in full, and to add insult to injury taken a tithe of a tenth from every Imperial Governor’s own funds. Callow had descended into utter anarchy and in the chaos Akua’s own hands were freer than ever before. She held the only remaining stronghold in the south, her workforce had swelled with refugees and until Summer was dealt with she was essentially untouchable no matter what she did. The Empire could not afford for her to rise in rebellion, not with this many wolves at the gate. The situation, Diabolist thought, had fallen into her lap like a gift from the Gods Below. The dark-skinned woman strode the smouldering battlefield where her forces had prevailed not an hour past, Fasili trailing her dutifully. He’d been in command for the engagement, the largest one her army had waged so far.

“Fewer than two hundred casualties, Lady Diabolist,” the other aristocrat said. “The revolving wards were a success: all their heavyweights focused on breaking them rather than firing mass magic at our troops.”

The conversation would be a very different one if the new wards had failed, Akua thought. There’d been a Count among the catches of the day, and if one of those had decided to decimate her ranks she’d have lost at least a fifth of her soldiers. What the fae of Summer lacked in subtlety, they more than made up in destructive power. The very reason that her mages had been instructed to capture instead of kill, at it happened.

“I want their corpses raised by nightfall,” she ordered. “Form a separate unit from the unded, under a cadre of necromancers. I expect their ranks will swell before this is over.”

“It will be as you say,” the other Soninke nodded.

“As for the wards, I’ve been told one of them was fractured,” the Diabolist said. “We’ll need to refine the concept.”

“Your First Mage is already designing improvements,” Fasili replied. “We won a great victory today, my lady. Fae with titles of this magnitude are hard to kill, much less subdue.”

The Diabolist’s lips quirked the slightest bit at the words. Fasili would take it as approval of his flattery, but the truth was different: it had been a very long time since any Praesi had a First Mage. The title had fallen out of favour when the Name of Warlock emerged: being the most powerful of a High Lord’s spellcasters had been judged to be meaningless when there was the greater accolade of a Name to be claimed. Her revival of the title had been for largely personal reasons, though she did approve of the tribute to ancient custom.

“The Count of Golden Harvest,” she said slowly, savouring the title.

“And two Baronesses,” Fasili added with a vicious smile.

Fewer than a hundred fae without court titles had also been caught, though they paled in importance compared to the other three. They would be useful fodder, true enough, but for some rituals quality was required over quantity. Leaving behind the sea of tents her soldiers were setting up for he night, the two of them made their way to the wide flat plain to the side of where the battle had taken place. There were four massive wards in place there, her mages milling around them like busy little bees. The largest held all the lower-ranked fae, shackled in iron and badly beaten. Though much weaker than the titled fae, their number alone was enough to make them dangerous: a hundred and fifty mages maintained the ward in rotating shifts to ensure no concerted attempt could be made to break the glowing sigils hanging in the air that kept them prisoner. The other three wards were not so heavily manned: they held one of the high-ranked nobles individually each of them under three times three bindings, all interlocked and reinforcing each other.

It was around the wards imprisoning the Count of Golden Harvest that a greying Soninke with a closely-cropped beard was kneeling, fingers dancing nimbly across a set of runes floating in the air. Akua studied them curiously: High Arcana, all of them, yet she did not recognize all of them. She was not surprised. Brilliant she might be, but she was still young and Dumisai of Aksum had spent a lifetime plumbing the depths of sorcery. A moment later the runes rearranged themselves before disappearing as a hum of power came form the ward surrounding the Count. The fae grunted in pain, drawing interest from the mage close to him.

“Is it physically painful to have more than nine tenths of your power restrained?” he asked in Mtethwa.

“I will see you made ash for this insolence, sorcerer,” the Count of Golden Harvest hissed.

“Your threats are of no academic value, creature,” the man noted. “This is most unproductive.”

“First Mage,” Fasili interrupted, his head dipping in respect.

The sorcerer jerked in surprise, only then realizing he had company behind him. He smiled at Akua’s right hand man hesitantly.

“Good evening,” he began, then trailed off. “… You.”

“Lord Fasili Mirembe,” Akua provided, too well-practiced to be openly amused..

“Yes,” he said. “That.”

“Papa,” the Diabolist greeted warmly as her father rose to his feet.

“Mpanzi,” the older man smiled. “Lord Warlock’s research appears to be accurate. From what I’ve seen fae are made of the same matter than Arcadia itself – there is no difference at a fundamental level between one of them and, say, a stone taken from there.”

“How dare you,” the Count said angrily.

Her father absent-mindedly waved a hand and a gag of blue runes appeared in the fae’s mouth, stuffing it shut.

“Your ritual is prepared, before I forget,” he said. “Very good materials you’ve secured. Conversion rates for fae will be much higher than with human sacrifices.”

“That will be all, Lord Fasili,” Akua said, half-turning towards him.

“By your leave, Lady Diabolist,” the other Soninke bowed.

He cast an irritated glance at Papa before leaving, but there was no true heat there. Her father’s absolute lack of ambition in matters of authority made him the opposite of a rival and her known fondness for him meant he was too costly to retaliate against for a slight as minor as the one he’d been handed. No doubt an officer would be on the receiving end of Fasili’s irritation before the night was over. One of the drow, most likely. They found it difficult to take orders from a man, even if that man had given his allegiance to a woman, and Praesi highborn did not have much tolerance for insoburdination.

“He seems a very reliable young man,” Papa said, watching him walk away.

He would have you dead within an hour if given leave, Akua thought. Her father had spent his entire adult life under the distant, if vicious, protection of Mother: he’d never had to develop the kind of nose for enmity that most powerful Praesi mages needed to survive. His judgement in these matters was… lacking. In most people Akua would have considered this a crippling flaw, but in truth she preferred him like this. Unaware of the dangers lurking around him, able to do what he loved without worry. She could keep him safe from the scavengers. Diabolist had made it very clear to her subjects that Dumisai of Aksum was not to be touched: feeding a scheming minor noble to a swarm of imps in full view of her court had made that point very thoroughly.

“He has his uses,” Akua conceded.

Papa nodded, already visibly bored with the avenue of conversation.

“With today’s lot you’ve almost two hundred of the lesser fae,” he said. “That should be enough for a Lesser Breach.”

The term was fairly technical, and few aside from Praesi mages would have known its meaning. Diabolism was, at its heart, a branch of magic concerned with the summoning, binding and contracting of devils. And demons, of course, though resorting lightly to such creatures was the path to fates worse than death. Her people had practiced this kind of sorcery since days predating the Miezan occupation and while it had originally been a means for a single practitioner to gain power or knowledge, under the Empire it had become developed as a tool of war. Dread Empress Triumphant – may she never return – was widely held as the greatest diabolist to ever live, above even the Dead King. She’d summoned and bound entire legions of devils, put demons at their head and her bindings had been so well-crafted they had held for centuries after her demise. To raise an entire hosts of devils, as she had, means other than summoning them one at a time had to be used: the amount of wasted time and power would otherwise be massive.

The method to get around this was called a Breach: a portal into one of the Hells would be opened, with a mass binding woven into it. Any devil crossing into Creation would be subject to said binding, allowing for a degree of control – though a much looser one than if the binding had been designed for a specific entity instead. Convention divided Breaches between the Lesser and the Greater. Akua herself had used a Lesser Breach at Liesse when deploying her army of devils until the mages of the Fifteenth shut it down, fuelling it with the lives of the Stygian slaves. A Lesser Breach was temporary and unstable by nature, impossible to maintain for long. A Greater Breach was a different matter entirely, and only one had occurred in all of Calernian history: the Dead King’s ritual in Keter, which had opened a permanent and stable portal into one of the Hells. Little progress had been made since then in understanding exactly how the Greater Breach had been made, though Diabolist had come to understand some part of it.

“More fuel would be preferable, but I don’t have the time to spare,” Akua said. “I’ll have to do with limited numbers and make second Breach when we’ve the fae for it.”

“You’d get more meat for the expense if you went lower than the Thirtieth Hell,” Papa pointed out. “As it is a seventh of that power goes into the Due.”

“Foundling made it very clear during the Rebellion that a well-trained army will tear through anything lower than the Thirtieth, given time to prepare,” Diabolist replied. “The Summer Court is in a league above what her forces were back then. If I want the devils to survive the first engagement, I can’t use chumaili or kichabwa.”

Her father hummed, mulling it over.

“Well, you won’t get many walin-falme but you can be sure they won’t die easy,” he said.

The term meant imperial guard, in an archaic dialect of Mtethwa. The devils were old favourites of Tyrants seeking to invade Callow, preferred to more bestial breeds for their above average intelligence and ability to use forged armaments. They were also noted for their resistance to fire, though it was difficult to model how effective it would be against fae flame. Their leathery skin and deformed bat wings had many mages speculating Dread Emperor Sorcerous had used them as breeding stock to create the much larger winged monsters that were used to access higher levels of the Tower, and would allow them to answer fae flight on the battlefield. It was a shame, truly, that she would not get more than four hundred of them from the Lesser Breach. Their inaptitude for tactical thinking was perhaps their greatest weakness, and the reason they usually served under the command of the Black Knight of the era. Akua lacked such a commander however, which was why it had been so important to capture the high-ranked fae. The Lesser Breach could wait until the prisoners had been brought back to Liesse, but Diabolist intended to summon her officers tonight.

“The Count first,” she said.

“For the best,” Papa agreed. “He’ll be the most exhausting.”

The two of them strode into the ward keeping the Count of Golden Harvest contained, the thick and heavy magic washing over their skin. Her father flicked his wrist and the gag in the fae aristocrat’s mouth dissolved.

“You court your doom, mortals,” he said harshly. “My Queen will have vengeance for what happened today.”

“There is a theory by a very clever man,” Papa said, entirely ignoring the threat,, “that fae can die in truth.”

“Your ignorance rivals only your arrogance, sorcerer,” the Count sneered.

“Slitting your throat returns you to Arcadia, to be born again,” her father continued. “But, ah, fae are made of power are they not?”

“We are Summer incarnate,” the creature smiled. “You will all burn under the sun.”

“Yes, power incarnate,” the greying man said admiringly. “What happens, then, if this power is used up?”

“No mere insect can undo the workings of the Gods,” the fae said.

“I do not believe,” Diabolist said, “that we have been introduced.”

The Count glanced at her with contempt.

“I know what you are, cursed one,” he spat. “Defeat is carved into the bones of your kind.”

“My name,” she said, “is Akua Sahelian. I am a villain.”

“The pale imitation of an ancient enemy,” the fae mocked.

“Oh yes,” Diabolist agreed softly. “That is exactly what I am. The Enemy, they call us in the West. I am the last of a line unbroken since time immemorial. My kind has usurped the mantle of gods, stolen secrets from beyond Creation and turned kingdoms into sea. I am Praesi of the old blood, fae. You should kneel in awe.”

“You are the dying ember of a fire long gone,” the Count sneered. “Soon to be put out by the might of Summer.”

“You think you know might?” Akua laughed. “I will turn your blood to smoke. I will feed the horrors that crush your bones with the sound of your screams. The hearts of your children will raise my fortresses to the sky and make my ships sail on solid ground. You may have been godlings in your wretched home, but you’ve stepped down from that pedestal – and down here, we bleed the likes of you over altars. Your poor, misbegotten creature. You actually believe you have a chance.”

Her Name pulsed beneath her skin even as her eyes turned cold.

“But you’re in Creation now, Count. Here be monsters.”

The Count smirked.

“Do you seek to frighten me, child? Summer does not know fear.”

Akua slowly unsheathed her knife, resting the wickedly sharp edge on the side of the fae’s throat. He looked into her eyes, undaunted. Diabolist smiled.

“No, not yet,” she murmured. “But I will teach you.”

Chapter 15: Bestowal

“Most live out their days on an isle of vapid ignorance, shying away from the dark and hungry waters that surround it. To seek power is to brave the tides, but one who does should not expect to see those shores again.”
– Translation of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King

I forced myself back to my feet. This was too close to kneeling for my tastes. The movement came easier than I’d thought, easier than it should have – whatever he had done with the ice, it had strengthened me. For however long it would last. Fae gifts were notoriously fickle things. The King was carving his bauble of ice, ivory knife shaving off one sliver after another another. The sound was almost deafening, in the silence that had grasped this world. I made my way to the edge one step after another, almost slipping as I sat down. My bare hand held onto the ice and I managed to settle by his side without tumbling down into the waters, pushing down a groan of pain. The ruler of Winter casually allowed another sliver of ice to fall down, indifferent to my struggles. I opened my mouth, then closed it. I’d stood before entities as powerful as this one before, but for once I was entirely unsure what to say. Not cowed, perhaps, but so aware of the current frailty of my existence I might as well be.

“You did well with Auster,” the King said.

I could still hear echoes to his voice that had me cringing, but it was not as brutal as it had been easier. I wasn’t seeing things instead of hearing words, at least. Had he restrained himself, or was I getting used to it? The second thought almost had me shiver. Some changes could only come at a price.

“First time killing a Duke,” I croaked. “Wouldn’t recommend it.”

My throat was scraped a little too raw to manage flippancy properly, sadly. My attempt at humour fell flat – looking at the King’s face for too long hurt my eyes, but from what I glimpsed there was no trace of amusement.

“Larat believed you would avoid the tale entirely,” the King said. “But he is a creature of war, mine own Hound of Winter. One does not rely on the Prince of Nightfall to trace the path ahead.”

The lack of depth perception probably didn’t help his case, I thought, and the almost chuckle that escaped me set my lungs aflame. Gods, that was not a pleasant feeling. I needed to get run through less often.

“You backed me in a corner,” I said.

“And this offends you?” the King of Winter said, sounding amused for the first time. “Submission is ever the lot of the weak. If you would rage at anything, rage at your own impotence.”

I hacked out a mocking laugh along with what might just have been a chunk of my lung. The bit of flesh stained my lips red as I spat it out, like rouge paid for in blood.

“I’m not,” I said. “Impotent. Wouldn’t be here if I was. You need something from me.”

“Ah, mortals,” the creature fondly said. “Always you seek to bargain until the very last breath. Your kind is a wonder.”

I’d always believed, deep down, that if I ever met a god it would be about this condescending. I was darkly pleased to be proved right.

“I already took what I need,” I said.

“You took what I allowed,” the King replied. “Do not mistake allowance for triumph.”

Even with the clarity the ice had forced on me, I was exhausted. It had taken every scrap of what I had to get me through the fight with the Duke taking only three lethal wounds – never before had I ever spent that much power so quickly. His power had not made me better, not really: it just felt like I was too tired to sleep. If I’d been having this conversation with Heiress I would have called what was being said posturing, but what need did the fucking King of Winter have to posture with me? He could end me with a thought. He was in a league so far above my own even trying to grasp the difference between us might kill me. And Ranger fights things like this for sport. Merciless Gods, what kind of monsters had Black gathered under his banner?

“I’m too close to the grave to play this game properly,” I said. “I lied my way to a claim. Are you going to deny me?”

He laughed. It sounded like wind against dead branches, like blood freezing inside a still-beating heart. I could feel the bones in my neck creak, feeling so fragile a single snap would break them.

“This is Winter, Catherine Foundling,” he said. “You own what you kill.”

“Then you’ll stop attacking Marchford?” I asked.

“That purpose has already been served,” the King said. “We are now part of the dream you call Callow.”

And that settled that. I’d achieved what I’d set out to achieve, though I knew there’d be a price coming. It left an unpleasant taste in my mouth, the way this had all gone down. I’d been played since the beginning by something so much more dangerous than me that there was no retaliation I could deal out. The leverage I’d thought I had was enough to keep me alive, but nothing more – and pushing it would likely get me killed. I sat there next to a god, and prepared to make a mistake. I’d once thought that Masego’s need to always be exact was because he was the Apprentice, but that wasn’t entirely true. He’d had that tendency before he became the Apprentice, I now believed. Archer had led me to the greater truth: Named, whatever their Name, were more. We were larger in everything, and when we grew our flaws grew as well. Urges that had been ignorable when we were mortal no longer were. Black would always seek victory regardless of the costs, Archer would always indulge in what appealed to her and me? I’d once thought it was my reckless streak that had grown into the flaw that would get me killed, but that wasn’t quite right. It was that the part of me that would have been able to bite its tongue was long buried. My mouth opened, knowing I was about to commit a blunder. Because this wretch of a god had killed some of my people, and I could not let that go unanswered.

“You killed my men,” I said. “When you sent your fae into my city.”

“Your men would have died,” he said. “What does it matter, that it was my doing or that of time?”

“You robbed them of the life they could have lived,” I replied through gritted teeth. “You took from them. A debt is owed.”

“Their existence weighed less than wind,” the King said. “Nothing can be taken from nothing.”

“This is not a bargain, King of Winter, it’s an oath,” I hissed. “One day, we’ll meet again. Not tomorrow, not next month, not for decades. After your game’s played out. After I’ve learned to kill gods. On that day, I’ll come to collect.”

“Will you?” he wondered.

It did not even take a heartbeat. Instantaneous would have been wrong still – it had always been the case that the water in my eyes was frozen. I felt blood running down the side of my face that should not be feeling anything at all. My bad leg, the one that still limped when I tired, twisted and broke with a sound like dead wood snapping. I heard the whistle of wind, more deafening than a hundred thousand horns, and after a flare of pain that dragged me to the edge of unconsciousness I heard nothing at all. I choked on my own tongue as frost spread over my skin, robbing me of the last of my senses.

“If I were a prince,” the King told me, “I would be the Prince of Bleak Solstice. Some of that remains even under the Deadwood Crown.”

I was a prisoner in my own body, the only sensation left to me the feeling of his fingers tipping up my chin.

“I could inflict on you every pain you’ve ever felt and some you cannot even conceive of,” he said idly. “But you are of no use to me broken. One of those flitting around is quite enough.”

His thumb ran its way up my cheek until it rested under my eye, and his other hand came to match it on the other side.

“You are in need of a reminder, Catherine Foundling,” he said, “of the difference between bravery and ignorance.”

The King clucked his tongue.

“No, not the eyes,” he said. “Yours are too dull to make a fitting ornament. Something, perhaps, a little more pointed.”

He withdrew from my face and the relief lasted for barely a moment before I felt his hand tear through my chest. I screamed soundlessly as his fingers closed around my beating heart, ripping it out like he was picking lint from cloth. The sorcery that had blanketed my senses lifted like a veil, leaving me on my feet with the King standing in front of me. I could see my heart in one hand, frozen black and solid. In the other was the bauble he’d been making out of ice, now a perfect carving of the moon. He thrust it where my heart had been, flesh closing around it as he withdrew and it began beating.

“I recognize you as heiress to the Duke of Violent Squalls,” he said. “Made by prophecy, heirloom and the word of a king. Your inheritance, claimed by rite of blood, is confirmed.”

I gasped for air, feeling the blood in my veins cooling further with every passing moment.

“Catherine Foundling,” he said. “I name you Duchess of Moonless Nights. I grant you the seat of Marchford, and on these sacred grounds claim your fealty.”

My surroundings ebbed away, replaced by deep and bottomless darkness. I stood there unmoving, seeing only the dark-skinned king and the blood-red sap dripping onto his brow from his wooden crown.

“I demand no fidelity and offer no respite,” the King of Winter laughed. “I demand no faith and offer no protection. I give you slight and deceit, I receive hatred and betrayal. The Court of Winter receives you as one of its own, ‘till your last desperate breath clawing at the dark.”

Power pulsed in my chest, spreading through my veins. I felt the third part of my soul, the missing aspect I had yet to forge, fill with something old and too large to comprehend.

“I stand by my oath, dead thing,” I rasped. “Before my days are done I will see you unmade.”

“Then you are a Duchess of Winter in truth,” the King grinned, teeth like stolen moonlight. “I charge you with the defeat of Summer, Catherine Foundling. I charge you with the making of peace, exacted from the battlefield.”

He leaned forward.

“You have six times the coming of your title, or your heart is forever mine,” he said.

Hands rose to my face again, to my eyes.

“Now sleep,” he said, “and dream.”

Fingers pulled down my pupils and darkness took me.

Dawn does not exist, then it does.

I see two cities and two lands around them. One is made of plenty, orchards of fruitful trees and fields of green. Juice runs down the chin of children as they bite into peaches, playing under the sun by pale walls. Colours for which there are no names yet fill half the world, proud lords and ladies clustering at the feet of a crowned and faceless silhouette. In its gaze is Summer, the heat that burns and hangs in the air like vapour. The other land is ice and illusion, and there nothing grows. Wind howls and creatures die under knives of obsidian, the warmth of their blood staining lips and chasing away, for a single blessed moment, the cruel bite of the chill. There the games of the children are vicious, for victory can only come from the defeat of others. At the heart of a maze, lords and ladies with smiles treacherous cluster at the feet of a crowned and faceless silhouette. In its gaze is Winter, the cold that that devours and leaves only absence behind.

War does not exist, then it does.

The hungry reach for the bounty of the full and this brings strife, as their taking is not gentle and this offence cannot go unanswered. Clarion calls make the sky shudder, for the host of Summer is a thing of might. They come in silk and steel, red pennants stirring in the wind like the promise of blood to come. Where they go noon follows, relentless and unforgiving as its heralds. Winter is not announced. It creeps like a snake in the dark, a slithering host of shades and clawed things that want, want until it hollows them out. They wear dead things and wield sharpness torn from the ground, eyes covetous under the blanket of night. None are valiant in the dark but all are desperate. Justice, the hooves of white winged horses thunder as they take flight. More, the blue-eyed things on horned horses whisper back, slender lances glinting. There are cries and screams. The moon falls, burnt black, and as it breaks the world Summer triumphs.

Noon spreads across two lands. Nothing is left of the hungry but ashes, trampled contemptuously. Ice melts away, leaving behind bleak black earth. The world is made a festival and Summer prospers, ripening again and again. The proud grow ever prouder, until the first fruit spoils. The sun does not rest and the land buckles under it. Pride turns to arrogance and under red pennants lords and ladies spill blood, turning on each other. Only one can have most, and none have ever tasted defeat. The land is scorched but there is no relief, for Summer advances and does not know retreat. The red haze hangs in the air like sickness as stomachs go from full to bursting like the fruits gone overripe, fire and steel claiming all until only the crowned and faceless silhouette remains. It remains seated on the throne as yellow leaves and roots claim the world, facing the sun until only a seared carcass remains.

This is the truth of Summer: everything burns out.

Green sprouts from bleak black earth, and from this harvest a city grows. Spring has come. In the other land yellow turns to orange and brown, leaves falling to the ground as the land is finally freed from agony. Autumn has come. From those remains grows a city, feeding on what little there is to offer. One land grows to plenty, the other dies a slow death. The sun rises, ice spreads.

The story comes again.

The hungry reach for the bounty of the full and this brings strife, as their taking is not gentle and this offence cannot go unanswered. Clarion calls ring out, but they are silenced. The serpent slithers into the heart of Summer, offering peace and hidden fangs even as its hunger sharpens behind honeyed words. Poison spreads in the blood and champions die, for not even the mighty can overcome the many soft deaths of Winter. When the host of Summer comes it is gaping and limping, fresh to a war that came unannounced. Justice, the hooves of white winged horses thunder as they take flight. The shades laugh as they devour them. More, they whisper back to the dead. The mighty die slow among their red pennants, striking at smoke and mirrors as snow begins to blanket the world. The sun grows ever paler until it falls from the sky, shattering as it breaks the world and Winter triumphs.

Night spreads across two lands. Proud corpses are clawed to bloody bone as the host clad in death and theft spills forth. Juicy peaches are ripped from trees and bitten into as the trees that bore them wither and die. Ice snakes across once-green fields made bare by the hungry. Winter feeds, feeds until it can almost understand fullness. It is not enough. Pale and gloried walls are torn down, pennants drained of colour until all is bare and empty and still the host wants. There is less and less while there are still many so vicious games are made ever more vicious for in the end there will be only one mouthful left, and only one mouth to devour it. The night deepens and desperation does with it, as bleak winds and starvation take what murder and betrayal does not. Not even feeding off each other is enough. Then only the crowned silhouette on the throne remains, unmoving in the cold as it tries to feel something, anything and dies an empty husk.

This is the truth of Winter: we all die alone.

The cold turns on itself and a remnant of a remnant frees itself from the ground, green sprouting from the bleak black earth. From this harvest a city grows, for Spring has come. In the land that was once Summer, the bare bones of what was once plenty are gnawed on. A city of the dying forms around the little turning to nothing, for Autumn shapes itself out of the coming of absence.

The story comes again. In the end, there is no end.

I wasn’t sure exactly when I crossed the boundary from sleep to wakefulness. There was no transition, no burst of awareness. I was not awake, then I was. The thought had me shivering. I was under quilt, in a bed more rough than soft, and wearing clothes I didn’t remember putting on. I rose to a seat and found myself surrounded by bare stone walls that were somewhat familiar. There were sounds coming from outside, but one closer: in a corner of the room, slumped in a chair, Hakram was snoring. Marchford, I realized. I’m back.

“Catherine?”

I glanced at the door as Adjutant jerked awake at the noise. Masego was at the threshold, looking somewhere in the middle of relieved and worried. I brushed back my hair absently.

“So,” I said, “There’s now a god on my murder list. Someone be a dear get me a drink – it’s going to be a rough few months.”

Chapter 14: Trick

“I can’t beat your band of heroes, true, but what if there were another eight bands also out for my blood? Ha! What are you going to do, form a line?”
– Dread Emperor Irritant, the Oddly Successful

I took one look at the Fields of Wend and started cursing in Mthethwa. Lower Miezan just didn’t have that register of pure spite the Soninke tongue did. A mile of glaciers lay at my feet, their differing heights and shifting movements filling the air with the sound of fracas every few heartbeats. Named or not, if I got stuck between two of those I’d be a woman-shaped pile of broken bones. I was really hoping the prophecy of lies was going to work out, because if it didn’t it was going to take Hakram most of a day to find all the bloody pieces of what was left of my body.

“You got fucked on the arena,” Archer noted cheerfully. “And not even in the fun way.”

“I’d noticed, thank you,” I replied crabbily.

The only saving grace of the Fields was that the uneven relief would make it easier to take cover when the Duke of Violent Squalls started throwing a storm and a half at my head. I was very, very glad I’d decided not to wear armour. I wasn’t so good a swimmer I’d avoid sinking to the bottom if I slipped. My plate had been repaired by the servants and set out for me, but I’d chosen something lighter instead. Grey trousers went down into the same pair of good boots I’d taken to the masquerade, over them a thick gambeson that went down to my knees. After my last few scraps with the fae I’d learned that my plate served only to slow me down. The sword at my belt rested comfortably, the handle veiled by my usual cloak. I’d gotten little use out of the garment and its supposedly spell-resistant abilities since Black had gifted it to me, but today seemed a good day to bring in an additional precaution.

The four of us had taken the carriage to the duelling grounds and found quite a crowd waiting for us there. More fae were in attendance than there had been at the masquerade, though by the looks of it they were still all aristocrats. Before being a pain in my ass, Archer had taken the time to discreetly point out the handful of fae she’d bombarded with prophecy the night before. At least one of them had the scroll on his person, idly toying with it as he watched us. Would it be enough? I had no idea. Masego’s glamour amulet was nestled safely under the gambeson, and I’d been met by a sea of blanks faces when I’d arrived, until they all resumed normality. I couldn’t know whether that meant they’d bought it, but it was too late to back out now anyway. The crowd parted for us effortlessly until we came to stand by the Duke himself. I eyed him carefully. The bastard was in armour, unlike me. Plate of what seemed like actual silver – though I wasn’t enough of a fool to hope the metal would be as soft as it should be – and a cape of blue silk dotted with pale hellebores. He had a falchion at his side, ornately jewelled, but no shield. Mage, I thought. Free hand needed for spellcasting.

That was good news of a sort: it meant that he couldn’t simply command the winds with a thought. Possibly. Relying on that assumption might just get me killed, so I’d have to fight as if he could until proven otherwise. A fae I’d met before, the Lady of Cracking Ice, smoothly stepped between myself and the Duke.

“Since we’ve all arrived,” she smiled, “we can begin the proceedings. At the invitation of the Duke of Violent Squalls, I will be serving as the officiant witness. Does the Lady of Marchford have any objections?”

“None,” I said.

“This is pleasing,” she said. “As is custom, I must ask you if the grievance between the two of you can be resolved by any other manner.”

“No,” the Duke of Violent Squalls spoke carelessely.

“He could kneel at my feet and beg for mercy, then I’ll consider it,” I suggested.

Wind picked up sharply around us as the fae aristocrat glared hatefully at my face.

“Didn’t like that, did you?” I mused. “That’d be a no, then.”

“Very well,” the Lady of Cracking Ice said, sounding amused. “The terms set by the offended party were death or surrender.”

“I withdraw the outcome of surrender,” the Duke spat.

“This is quite irregular,” the Lady said with a frown.

“I’ll allow it,” I shrugged. “Didn’t intend to let him surrender anyway.”

“Since both parties are in agreement, it will be so,” the Lady conceded. “Participants are to make their way to the Wending Heart and stand at their respective edge. The duel will begin when the blue light above your heads shatters.”

I glanced at the Fields. What she’d called the Heart was easy enough to find: it was the tallest of the glaciers, topped by a perfectly round platform of maybe forty feet in diameter. There was already a shining blue orb hovering over it. I watched the glaciers around, getting a read for the movements: staying on flat ground with someone who controlled the wind was a death sentence. Ranged combat was no specialty of mine, but if I wanted to live long enough to make it to close quarters I’d need some form of cover. Hakram clapped me on the shoulder.

“Wade in their blood, Cat,” he said.

“That’s the plan,” I replied.

I cast a look at the other two.

“If you have to die,” Archer said, “die loud.”

I would have settled for a ‘good luck’ but that wasn’t really her style, was it?

“Get it done quickly,” Masego told me. “I’ve experiments that should not be left unattended for too long.”

“Love you too,” I mouthed back.

Rolling my shoulder to limber it up, I began my trek to the Wending Heart. Time to find out whether the magical power of lies could kill a man.

There was enough snow on the glaciers that the way wasn’t too slippery. I was more sure-footed than a mortal had any business being, regardless. Couldn’t remember when I’d last tripped or slipped on anything, though even before becoming the Squire I’d not been prone to clumsiness. Probably because I was short, it saddened me to admit. No need to adapt to growing limbs if they stayed the same length.

“It will be most amusing to make a plaything out of an entire kingdom,” the Duke spoke as we moved. “No fae has ever possessed such a bounty of souls.”

He walked so lightly he didn’t leave footprints, I’d noted. It was doubtful I’d be quicker than him, armoured or not.

“You know, I keep hearing about you Winter fae being great at mind games,” I said. “But so far? Not impressed. I’ve had better quality trash talk from orcs and I’m pretty sure that Heiress could make you cry, given half a bell.”

We both made the leap to the Heart, his landing admittedly more graceful than mine.

“Why bother with such games?” he said. “You are outmatched beyond your understanding.”

“Not the first time I’ve heard that line,” I laughed. “Usually the person speaking it is dead before sundown.”

I took the northern edge as he strolled to the southern one. Behind me a lower platform of ice was idly drifting, maybe fifteen feet below. There were a few spires on it that would do nicely as a shield until I could find a good angle to approach. I unsheathed my longsword as he did the same with his falchion, sneering, and with a loud crack the blue orb above us broke. Before I could so much as blink wind howled, and I was casually tossed off the Heart. For a heartbeat I watched the distant ground under me and, with cold detachment, considered that this wasn’t exactly a great start. Even as I began falling I saw a large globe of air forming around me and made the decision that I wasn’t sticking around to find out what that would do when completed. My Name flared and I formed a circular pane of shadow under my feet, leaping off it towards another glacier.

I landed rolling in the snow, arrows of wind hitting the ground behind me and spraying ice everywhere. Archer might have undersold the whole wind magic thing a bit, I thought. I cast a look backwards the moment I got back on my feet and saw the Duke was standing at the edge of the Heart where I’d begun the duel. And he was lazily pointing a finger in my direction. Great. I made a run for it. Two glaciers to pick from: what looked like a barren peak of ice or another flat platform below. I picked the platform – better line of sight – but when jumping down found myself hurtling towards a wall of perfectly still air. Ugh. Wind magic was good at restricting movement, Apprentice had said. The understatement trend continued. I hated fighting mages, it was all tricks and no slugging and slugging was what I was best at. I forced myself to twist in the air and landed feet first on the apparently-solid wall, allowing a trickle of power to go down my legs so I could throw myself at the ice peak instead of falling into the waters below.

I hit the ice with a grunt and plunged my sword into it so I wouldn’t just start slipping, hanging by a single hand. Another trickle of power into my arms and I spun on myself, tearing out the sword and landing more or less on my feet at the top of the peak – just in time to duck under a sharp-looking sickle of wind. The Duke of Violent Squalls was no longer standing at the edge of the Heart, I saw. That was a mixed bag. On one hand, he no longer had high ground and a good field of vision. On the other, I had no godsdamned idea where he was now. I got an answer when the peak under me exploded in a shower of ice and I caught the glint of a moving blade in the spray. Below, and behind. The falchion sliced through my cheek, missing a deeper wound only because my footing had quite literally been shattered. I bit down on the hiss of pain and swung blindly at the silhouette of the fae – but he was gone before I could get even vaguely close.

I landed on what remained of the peak with my cloak over my head to shield from the falling ice, managing to vault to another glacier before a wind spear the size of a ballista’s bolt tore through the ice under me and collapse the whole thing. Shit. If I got hit by that, I wasn’t walking away from it. I kept moving even if I didn’t have a precise destination in mind: so far every time I’d slowed for more than a moment I’d been hammered by magic. All right, so this was like fighting an extremely mobile armoured mage without any need for incantations, who could very likely fly as well and would be unaffected by the terrain. I’d, uh, had better days. Here’s a rule for not dying stupidly, I remembered Captain telling me. Never give a mage room to set up. The longer they have, the more dangerous they get. The few spars I’d had with Masego had only reinforced the notion. If I wanted to avoid further nasty surprises I needed to know where the Duke was.

“Gods Below, this is going to hurt,” I muttered.

I climbed to higher ground and crouched, waiting for my enemy to catch up. The first strike I saw coming. A cylinder of wind with ice shards inside formed ahead of me and began spinning ever faster, shooting out a volley of glinting ice spears that tore through the spot I’d been in a moment earlier. The second, though, I did not. The entire glacier I was standing on broke in half and even as I moved to the left side the Duke of Violent Squalls came out of the waters below, like an arrow adorned with translucent blue wings. He was carving his way up with his falchion, now wreathed in a wind version of the weapon that was three times the size of the original. I let the reflexes of my Name take over, stepping back: If I’d been a heartbeat slower, I would have lost an arm. As it was he ripped his way up the side of my body and straight through the clavicle. The wind weapon blew up a moment later, tossing me onto another glacier before I could strike back. I managed to land on my feet, sliding back and blood flowing down the mangled gambeson.

“Rise,” I said, the aspect coming to the surface.

I’d gotten what I wanted, but the pain wiped away any notion of smiling at that victory. I’d touched the edge of his cape while he was carving me up, slid a thread of my Name’s power into it. A variation on the trick I used with the bone contraptions crafted to trigger goblin munitions, though this had been much more delicate. If I focused I could get a vague sense of where that bit of power was, since it was as much a part of me while away as it had been before. And right now, it was circling around my left. The flesh knitted itself back together as the aspect I’d Taken from the Lone Swordsman did its work, though it pained me that I’d had to use that card this early in the fight. It would be diminishing returns, from now on, and I could only use it another two times. My feet padded against the snow as I focused to keep a read on where the Duke was, astonished by how quickly he was getting around. Just ahead was an ice spire, and in about three heartbeats by my estimation he’d be behind it. I blew out a steamy breath and called on my Name, fashioning a spear of shadows that shattered the spire in a heartbeat.

Let’s see how he dealt with being on the other side of that. I’d been moving before the spear had even left my fingertips, so I came out of the mist just as the Duke was turning in my direction. I swung with a grunt of exertion, tip of the blade managing to cut through the tip of his nose as he smoothly leaned back. With a flick of the wrist I reversed the strike, hacking through the edge of his right eye just before our bodies impacted. He screamed in anger as we rolled on the ground. Unlike the fae, I knew how handle myself to come out on top when we slowed. Not much of a scrapper, this one. I slugged him in his bleeding face as I drew back my sword, the sound of my fist crushing the bones of his nose the sweetest of melodies. A burst of wind threw me off him but I managed to have it put me back on my feet, immediately going back on the offense. He swung his falchion without even trying to hit me, the displacement of air caused by the strike magnified until it became a squall that knocked me off my trajectory.

I adjusted my angle without flinching and hacked down at his shoulder. I grimaced before the strike hit: I’d misjudged my strength, that was going to hit plate instead of neck. To my surprise, my blade cut straight into the silver-like metal. I felt flesh give underneath, if not deeply. My sword, unfortunately, was now stuck. His free hand pointed towards my chest and the spear of wind that impacted me a moment later blew me straight off my feet. Along with breaking half my ribs and puncturing a lung, by the feel of it. I managed to keep enough of a grip on my sword that it came with me while my body hit a wall of ice behind me with a dull thud. I coughed out blood, feeling the lung he’d struck beginning to fill already. Hells, that magic hit like a horse.

“Rise,” I rasped out.

Slowly, almost reluctantly, I felt the wound beginning to heal. It felt like getting stabbed all over again, Merciless Gods. I managed to push myself back to my feet anyway. The Duke’s hand was on his armour, looking appalled. And scared, I saw, for the first time since the duel had begun.

“What madness is this?” he barked. “You do not have the power to even begin to touch my armaments.”

I wiped the blood off my lips and grinned red.

“Guess it was just meant to be,” I said.

Strike one for the power of lies. It wasn’t handing me the victory in a handbasket – the fake prophecy hadn’t been well-crafted enough for that – but I’d touched the story just enough I could twist it. That there was a chance for me to win. The hole in my lung closed, though my ribs still felt like a clan of orcs had been stomping on them. With only one good eye left and a broken, blood nose the Duke had come out ahead but he no longer looked so pristine. With a snarl of rage, he flicked his hand upwards and I took that as my cue to make a tactical retreat. I jumped atop the wall behind me and legged it to another platform. Good instinct, I saw a moment later. Winds roiled in a circle enveloping the entire width of the glacier then came down like the hand of an angry god – the entire mass broke like glass and sunk under the water, sending waves in every direction that had the glaciers rocking like ships in a storm. The Duke of Violent Squall had not moved, wings keeping him aloft in the air as his eyes searched for me. Deciding that running the Hells away was the better part of valour, I ducked behind an ice spire and continued my escape.

The sliver of power in his cape told me he was on the move a heartbeat later, when I concentrated. Going under the water again, I thought. Running out of tricks, was he? Or perhaps fae weren’t allowed to be too creative. If they could make too many decisions, their stories might not unfold as they should. I gauged where he came out of the deep and moved to flank him. I felt the Duke pause and smiled. I’d done enough damage the creature was wary now. He seemed to be hiding beneath a glacier’s cliff, so I crept quietly atop and only allowed a trickle of power into my legs when it came time to leap, teeth bared and sword high. Another eye, I thought. If I could take its vision away this would become a great deal easier.

I realized I’d fucked up about halfway to the ground.

The Duke of Violent Squalls was not under me, waiting to get stabbed. His cape, however, was. Trap, and I’d literally leapt at the occasion of falling into itA globe of air, the same magic he’d used early in the fight, formed around me. A heartbeat away from my feet touching the ground the air solidified, trapping me like a fly in amber. I stayed there hanging, barely able to breathe, as a spire of ice shimmered and revealed itself to have been the Duke. The snow-pale fae smiled and idly waved his hand, the globe shrinking closet to my body before rising higher in the air, taking me with it.

“Sooner or later,” he said, “vermin gets caught. Shall we give them a spectacle worthy of my name, Lady Foundling?”

His wings beat and he took me back to the Heart still in his globe, landing fluidly on the ground as I hung in the air above him. I could feel the fae on the shore watching us, though I couldn’t see them. The Duke has positioned me as if I was still about to fall on him, a mocking smile on his face. Four spears of ice rose were carved out from the ground by roiling wind, rising to align with my shoulders and knees.

“Did you think resembling my form would make me hesitate?” he asked amusedly. “Let me disabuse you of the notion.”

In that moment I watched his eyes and saw his entire concentration had gone into manipulating the spears.  That was the thing with magic: no matter how old and bad you were, it was impossible to cast more than one spell at a time. He was invested, and withdrawing from that would take a few moments. The Beast laughed, standing behind my shoulder and baring its fangs. I could feel its warm breath on my cheek, feel my Name pulsing with it. For a moment I almost forced myself to speak, to ram a cheeky reply down his throat, but I pushed down the urge. Monologues are for amateurs. The spears began moving, slow to my eye, and I reached for the second bundle of power inside of me. Heat flowed through my veins and in the back of my head I heard a snapping sound, the very same the Penitent’s Blade had made when I’d broken it over my knee. I’d thought about keeping it, after Liesse. When it was just a very sharp sword. But then the day after it had become light as a feather, for angels were not prone to metaphor, and I had seen my death writ on its edge. So I’d broken it, into a hundred pieces I’d had scattered over rivers and lakes so it would never be forged again.

It had not been an act without consequence.

Break,” I croaked.

For an instant all I felt was my will pushing against something infinitely larger. If the Duke had fought me, I grasped,  I would have been swept away by the tide effortlessly. But he wasn’t fighting me. Magic was will, and his will was in the spears. The globe shattered, the Beast howling in approval. I’d been caught with my sword raised to strike and though the momentum had been blunted that was again how I began descending. Panic went through the fae’s eye and a hastily-redirected spear caught me in the shoulder – but it was the wrong one, I laughed – then another tore through my side and finally my arm came down even as the ice tore through flesh and bone. The tip of the blade punched through the silver armour and straight through the heart.

“You,” he gasped.

“Me,” I replied, taking all that was left of my Name and pouring it into the blow as I scythed down through his body, cleaving it in half.

Icy red water poured out of the gaping wound and I ignored the pain from my shoulder long enough to raise my blade one last time, meeting the Duke’s eyes as I struck. The head flew. I let out a groan of pain and exhaustion as I dropped to my knees. Shit. I’d been spending power like coppers throughout the entire fight just to survive, and now the well had run dry. Couldn’t even muster my last use of Rise, it was slipping through my fingers. I groped blindly for my hand and found a signet ring there, gurgling out a triumphant laugh. With an ugly gasp I broke the spear that had bit deep in my shoulder, leaving the ice inside and haltingly getting to my feet before trying the same with the one in my flank. My fingers were too weak – I botched the job and cried out when the ice dug deeper into my flesh. I saw the fae on the shore, vision swimming, and almost wept at the idea of having to make my way back there. Worse, the Heart was still rocking from the massive blow the Duke has struck earlier with his magic, though it was almost unnoticeable now. I paused. Entirely unnoticeable. The hair on my arm rose. Something was wrong. I looked down at my blade and dropped it in surprise. The red droplets falling from it were staying in the air, frozen. And now that I’d dropped it, it was staying still as well.

The Duke? Was this a variation on the globe from earlier? If the Duke wasn’t dead – no, he had to be. Otherwise I wouldn’t have the signet. There was a sharp snip from behind me and I turned. There was someone sitting at the edge of the Heart, a piece of ice and a knife in hand. He – it was a man, slender and dark-skinned – was carving the ice. His hair was long and dark, coming down in waves over his shoulders. On his brow I glimpsed a crown, fashioned in grey dead wood and weeping blood-red sap. He turned to me and a single glance was enough to have me fall to my knees. The ice in my shoulder burned, until the pain left and a strange and terrible clarity replaced it.

“Catherine Foundling,” the King of Winter spoke.

The words were not words. They were mountains old as dawn ground to nothingness one season at a time, they were ice so deep in the heart of the world it had never seen the light of day. My ears were bleeding.

“Come, sit,” he ordered. “It’s time we had a little chat, don’t you think?”

Chapter 13: Forgery

“The heart of warfare is deception. Therefore, the general who can deceive even themself is invincible.”
– Isabella the Mad, Proceran general

Researching the old fashioned way would have taken much more than the single night we had. Much, much more: after a while I noticed that every time we took a book from the stacks and looked away, another one appeared in its place. Hopefully Masego hadn’t noticed that, or I’d never be able to convince him to leave. Already telling him that we couldn’t loot the library on the way out was going to be a bloody chore, I wasn’t eager to fight that battle twice. In the end, we relied on Hakram’s aspect to get our results: Find. There was no denying how useful that trick had proved to be since he’d come into it, but I remained wary. That was always the trap, with Names: they gave you an advantage that would enable you to crush all your enemies, if you just… kept leaning into it. And it was always so very tempting to, wasn’t it? The more you used it the more effective it became, the stronger the advantage got.

I’d become so used to relying on Learn to, well, learn things that when I’d lost the aspect after Liesse I’d found myself almost crippled. I’d been teaching myself the Old Tongue, the Deoraithe language, before the dust-up with Heiress. When I’d gone back to the books afterwards I’d found to my dismay that I was going to have to start almost from the beginning. The information in my head was incomplete, like I had learned vocabulary lists by rote instead of actually figuring out the language. Almost a year later, I wasn’t even even fluent. Back when I’d had Learn, I would have spoken like a native in six months while barely putting any effort into it. Black had been right, as he often was: people who depended on their Names for results fell apart when robbed of those powers. If you use your Name instead of skill, you never develop the skill. There was a reason my teacher had taught me swordsmanship the hard way.

That was the axe I had to grind with Find. When Adjutant used it, he found in a matter of hours answers that would normally have taken us weeks. It handed us solutions, and if we ever started to rely on that we’d be screwed the first time we ran into a hero that could shut it down. We’d played with the aspect nonetheless, to figure out how it worked, and found it wasn’t without limits: the information he looked for had to be at hand and the need for it clear. As far as I could tell, he wasn’t warping Creation to get us what we needed. He was using a weaker version of Providence, the golden luck that always had the very thing they needed land in the lap of the heroes at the best possible moment. Masego had theorized that what the aspect actually did was tinker with the odds, essentially making something that could possibly happen much more likely to actually happen. Adjutant wouldn’t ever be able to point a spot on a map and have that location be full of ancient magical weapons, but he could crack open a book at the exact page he needed to read.

I’d worried that the library might not have the story we needed, but the refilling stacks effectively killed the fear. Here in Arcadia, an aspect so subjective in nature was massively more powerful than it would have been in Creation: reality was more fluid in the realm of the fae.

His first attempt found us a story about a shepherd from Summer killing a Duke of Winter in single combat with a sling, winning the battle for Summer. It had a familiar ring to it. It was an old and popular tale in Callow that we’d first gained the Red Flower Vales by a shepherdess killing a Proceran prince with the same weapon when the prince tried to steal her flock. Dead princes always made for fireside favourites, in my experience. Callow had not forgotten the the Proceran betrayal after the Third Crusade. The story was not, however, what we needed. Hakram narrowed his search on the second attempt and found something more to my liking. A boy from Winter becoming a soldier to escape a prophecy he’d kill his own father, only learning too late his mother had had an affair with a Lord of Summer after killing the very same man on the battlefield. That had a shape we could use. It lacked the inheritance, but it stacked the odds in the favour of the long-lost child.

He tried again and found something even closer. A prince of Winter abandoning his own daughter in the wilds for she was fated to kill her father, only for her to be found by a childless prince of Summer and be raised as his own. Killing her birth father on the field, she became a Princess of Winter only to find the horrible fate still dogged her: she was sent as as the champion of Winter to settle a duel, only to find the man who’d raised her to be her opponent. This evidently being a tragedy, she won again and destroyed everything she’d ever loved. Grim, but I could work with that. Stealing bits from both parricidal stories to craft it into a fresh one should do the trick. I leaned back into my seat with a servant-provided cup of wine, Hakram frowning at the pages as he read the third story once more.

“Prophecy’s the important part,” I said.

“We don’t have one,” he pointed out.

“So we make one,” I replied.

“I don’t think scribbling ‘Catherine murders a duke, gets a duchy’ on a parchment will get us anywhere,” the tall orc grunted.

“When I fought the Rider of the Host,” I said, “he trapped himself into a role. Had to reveal things to me because of it. I think that has long as the fae recognize it’s a story, they’re bound by it – no matter how obvious a lie it is.”

“So we need the fairies to know there’s a prophecy, one just good enough to pass as true,” he said. “That’s… problematic. We’d need that knowledge spread before the fight.”

“Apprentice would be able to make a scroll look old and magical,” I said. “There’s no reason we couldn’t make a dozen fake scrolls and throw them through the windows of high-ranking members of the Court tonight. The Duke himself doesn’t have to be warned – ignorance is part of the tragedy.”

“Still feels thin,” Hakram gravelled. “You can make yourself look like his long-lost daughter and it’ll help, but we need more.”

“A tragic element,” I said, thinking out loud. “It doesn’t have the right weight if I genuinely don’t care I just stabbed my ‘father’ to death.”

I sipped at the wine again, wondering at how it tasted exactly the way Vale summer wine did at the peak of summer when served cold, the heavy heat making it the sweetest thing you ever drank. No wonder Archer had kept hitting the bottle.

“I could have Apprentice put the belief in my head that the Duke is actually my father,” I reluctantly said.

Hakram grimaced.

“I like Masego, Cat, and I doubt there’s a better mage in the Empire save for Lord Warlock – but messing with memories is always bad business,” he said. “You weren’t conscious when he operated on your soul. It… wasn’t pretty.”

Mostly I remembered searing pain and a lot of screaming, so I’d take his word for it. Masego had saved my life, that day, but the process had been less than pleasant.

“We’ll shelve that, then,” I said. “What else do we have?”

I was an orphan. That was a prerequisite for any of this to be able to work, I thought, but I couldn’t make more of it. I was the Squire. That had been my trump card in Liesse, given the roots the Role had in both Praes and Callow, but in Skade there was no ground to gain from it.

“The Winter King brought us here,” Adjutant suddenly said.

I raised an eyebrow.

“So he did,” I agreed.

“Set aside the story for a moment,” the orc said. “We’re here because he wants something from you.”

“We don’t know what that is, though,” I said.

“A hungry warrior will trade his sword for meat,” he quoted in Kharsum.

If you need something bad enough, you’ll take even a terrible deal. In other words, we had some kind of leverage on the King. The Prince of Nightfall had compared the Court to a fox gnawing off its own leg – there was desperation in that image, not just viciousness. Pretending we had an immortal winter god’s backing when getting into a fight with an immortal winter lesser god felt like fool’s gamble, admittedly, but hesitation was the province of the slow and the dead. Fuck it: I’d already faked the king’s signature to get into Skade in the first place, after all. If he’d wanted to turn the screws on us for that, we’d already be screaming.

“I have three things,” I murmured. “A prophecy, an heirloom and the word of a king. Now that has the right weight to it, don’t you think?”

Hakram shivered and I smiled.

“You look the way bad decisions feel,” Archer told me.

It was past midnight when the ochre-skinned girl swaggered into the library, reeking of liquor and throwing herself onto the table in an ungainly sprawl. Masego, who’d been finishing up the eighth fake scroll until she’d put her hand over it, sighed and moved his work to another table. I picked up a book and dropped it on her face as my reply, though even drunk she had the reflexes to snatch it out of the air. Archer wasn’t wrong, exactly. After Apprentice had given me the silver chain enchanted with the glamour I’d had a look in the mirror and winced. Kilian pulled off the fae blood, but it could be kindly said that I did not. My features were already sharp and constant fighting had put muscle to my frame, so the exaggeration of both traits with a few fae features thrown in made me look like a pile of harsh angles forced into a person’s shape. I did, however, look like I could be related to the Duke of Violent Squalls. That was the part that mattered.

“I’m hoping you have more than insults to give me,” I said.

Archer rose to a sitting position with a tired moan, dangling her legs off the edge of the table.

“You picked a fight with a bigwig,” she said.

“He’s a duke,” I said. “That was given.”

“He’s the duke, Foundling,” she said. “Look, you know it’s not the same king or queen in charge of Winter every time the season comes, right?”

“I’d gathered,” I said.

“The role can go to all the fae that are right now princes and princesses,” Archer said. “They have different natures, so the story of Summer and Winter can unfold differently according to who has the crown on both sides. That’s why sometimes one Court wins and sometimes the other. Outcome’s decided the moment the story starts.”

“He’s not a prince, though,” I pointed out.

“He’s just as bad,” the other Named said. “Whenever you have a Winter ruler trying to avoid the war, he’s the one that fucks it up. He’s the cornerstone for the war happening anyway.”

“So if he threw his masquerade…” Hakram said, trailing off.

“Then the current King is trying to avoid a war,” I finished. “The Duke’s important.”

On the bright side, the odds of my getting away with pretending the King of Winter was backing me had just significantly improved: I’d be ridding him of a nuisance.

“So even for a duke he’s going to be a bastard and a half to kill,” I said.

“That’s the word,” Archer agreed. “Things I have also learned: man’s not married, he’s got a bunch of minions on his side and he uses what wind sorcery would be if it was actually useful in a fight.”

“Wind sorcery is very useful,” Masego disagreed without ever looking away from the scroll. “It lacks the offensive abilities of some other elemental spells, but it has few equals when it comes to dictating and restricting enemy movement.”

“It feels like you’re to disagree with me,” Archer said, “but your words prove my point.”

“It’s the basis for scrying, you ignorant thug,” Apprentice snapped.

“Ooh, scrying,” the woman replied, rolling her eyes. “That’ll tip the balance in a fight with a Named.”

Gods, I missed Juniper. Nobody squabbled this much when she was around to glare. People without strong opinions didn’t become Named, I knew, which was why you could never have a band of them in a room without it coming to some arguing. It didn’t help, though, that Archer’s mission in life was to be the piece of gravel in everyone’s boot and that Apprentice was exceedingly easy to rub the wrong way.

“This conversation’s postponed until we’re back in Creation,” I ordered. “Archer, I know you have a fascination with asses but you don’t need to be so much of one. Apprentice, you know if you let her irritate you she’s going to keep pulling your pigtails.”

“But she was wrong,” Masego muttered mulishly.

Archer hid a grin behind her hand and I moved to change the subject before they could start again.

“Heard anything about the Fields of Wend?” I asked her.

“There’s a lake outside the city,” she replied. “With shifting glaciers in it. They use it to throw balls sometimes.”

Not, I thought, a good battlefield to fight against someone who has a knack for using winds. Not that any place in Winter was, to be honest. Still better than a closed space like the inside of the palace had been, especially since the damned place had been built from the Duke’s power.

“Well, that ought to be interesting,” I said.

“So now we wait for dawn?” Archer asked. “I might actually die of boredom, Squire.”

I glanced at Apprentice.

“How long until you’re done with the scrolls, Masego?”

“Give me an hour,” he replied absent-mindedly.

“Stay awake, Archer,” I said. “I have something for you to do after this.”

“Tell me it doesn’t involved paying attention to what people are saying again,” she implored.

“I want to to break people’s windows by throwing lies at them,” I replied.

She grinned.

“Sometimes, Foundling, you say the sweetest things.”

I managed to grab a few hours of sleep afterwards. Enough that I was fresh, anyway. I could have slept longer but my mind was awake so instead I found myself trudging to the courtyard this place was named after. Servants popped up out nowhere, not unexpectedly, and I sat by the edge of the snow with a steaming cup of tea and a pair of sweet apple turnovers. I’d say this for the fae, they cooked better pastries than anything I’d tried back in Creation. By my estimate there was still about a bell left before dawn, so I took my time eating. I heard footsteps behind me, a sure sign one of my companions was also awake: the fae didn’t make noise. Archer plopped herself down, leaning back against a wooden pillar. She had a plate of cold cuts and yet another bottle of wine, I noted with dark amusement. I wasn’t sure it was possible to empty the cellars of Winter, but she was certainly giving it a gallant effort.

“Did you even sleep?” I asked.

“Couldn’t,” she replied. “I’m too curious about what’s coming.”

I hummed. If all went well she wouldn’t need to fight anyway. Besides, even if she’d been up all night she didn’t seem tired in the slightest. I wasn’t actually in the mood for conversation, so I let silence reign as I drank my tea and nibbled at the pastries. Couldn’t muster much of an appetite – never could before a fight, though during I always ended up feeling hungry.

“So what’s your deal, exactly?” Archer said suddenly.

I eyed her sceptically.

“My deal?” I repeated.

She scarfed down a piece of meat before replying.

“Every Named has one,” she said. “Lady Ranger wants to break anything that thinks it’s stronger than her. Your mage wants to open up Creation to see what the gears look like. The orc wants to murder everything in your way.”

“And you?” I deflected.

“You already know what my thing is, Foundling,” she smiled. “I want to live large, so I can die without regrets. You, though? I can’t seem to get a read on you.”

Funny thing, this. I was more used to being on the other side of the conversation. I’d had one just like this with Hakram, what felt like years ago. Then another with Masego, when I got a glimpse at the detached mania that lay at the centre of him.

“People don’t usually ask me that,” I said. “Don’t need to. I’m pretty straightforward, when it comes down to it. All I want is to dig Callow out of the pit it’s in.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Aren’t you the Tower’s lieutenant there, nowadays? Seems like a done deal.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” I grunted. “I have the reins, within limits. I won. Pit’s still there, kingdom’s still in it.”

Archer eyed me, expression unreadable.

“So that’s really all you’re after?” she said. “Picking up a half-crown for the land you were born to?”

I smiled mirthlessly.

“Disappointed, are you?” I said.

“You’re the heiress to people who changed the face of Calernia,” she said, not denying it. “And I don’t mean conquering a kingdom – who gives a fuck about where borders are drawn? That comes and goes. When the Lady of the Lake was with the Calamities, they broke a story old as dawn. Just picking up a lesser piece of that is… small.”

The word was spoken with distaste.

“Last year,” I said, “I crushed the skull of a man who thought he was a visionary. He wanted to save Callow, he insisted. Thing is, I don’t really believe you can save people anymore. I tried that and it doesn’t ever quite seem to work right. I think it’s because it doesn’t matter, if they worship at the House of Light or sacrifice at some dark altar – most days they’re just people, and those are the same everywhere. They till the same fields, pay the same taxes, marry their neighbours and die fat if they’re lucky enough.”

“Named are more,” Archer said. “We’re the brighter flame: the people who can actually change things.”

“Are we?” I smiled. “The part of the Conquest you pay attention to is the Calamities sweeping all opposition aside. You think that’s because they were mighty, but that’s not the part that matters. They were figureheads, enablers. Praes won because it had grown as a nation while Callow had not.”

“The Empire grew because villains made it grow,” she replied flatly.

“And don’t you think it’s telling the most successful villains since Triumphant put their efforts into reforming institutions rather than building a bunch of flying fortresses?” I asked. “People won that war, not Named. Malicia and Black, they’re brilliant – but there’s been a lot of brilliant Named over the centuries, on both sides. What makes those two different is that they know change comes from the bottom, not the top.”

“That’s…” she hesitated.

Heresy, she wanted to say. That it went against everything we knew. History was forged by the hands of those that stood out and crowned themselves with power, those precious few even the Gods recognized as apart from the masses. Except that’s a lie. A thousand Dread Emperors and a thousand Kings, but nothing ever changed – until what lay behind them did. It’s not the tip of the blade that kills, it’s the force that drove it into your belly. That was, I was beginning to grasp, what I’d done wrong in Callow. I’d fought to put all the authority in my hands with the vague notion that I could fix it all afterwards, but how was that any different from what the Lone Swordsman had been doing? There were people all over the Empire who could make things better, if they were allowed to. And if there were forces trying to stand in the way? Well, I was a villain. The parts of Creation I did not like, I would break.

“Right now I have an enemy in Liesse who thinks by sheer will and ruthlessness she’ll drag Praes back to a golden age that never existed,” I said. “I’m not worried about her, deep down, because even if she claims I’m the one going against the grain she’s the one fighting the tide.”

I broke off a piece of turnover and popped it into my mouth.

“Last spring, a little boy gave an orc a crown of flowers. There’s something beyond any of us happening in the Empire, right now,” I said. “Malicia and Black think they control it, but I don’t think they do. They’re watching the story when what’s important is the people telling it. They want me to part of the machine they’re built, but I don’t think that’s my role.”

“Then what is?” Archer asked quietly.

“When heroes and villains come knocking in the name of fate,” I spoke, tone calm and measured. “When they try to drag us back to where we were by force with a Choir behind them or the host of some howling Hell – I’ll kill them all. Every last one of them.”

Softly, Archer laughed.

“Ah, Foundling,” she murmured. “I was wrong about you – you’re not boring at all. You’re just as mad as the rest of us.”

I looked up at the sky. Night was dying.

“Drink up, Archer,” I said. “Dawn’s coming and we have a god to rob blind.”

Warden II

“There’s only a thousand of them, I don’t care if they’re on a hill. This will be over by midday, Black Knight, mark my words.”
– Dread Empress Sulphurous, the Technically Correct

As midnight neared, two women on opposite sides of the same continent found themselves looking up at the sky at the same time by Fate or coincidence.

Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, tugged her modest cotton nightgown closer together and watched the crescent moon from her rooms above the clouds, near the summit of the Tower. Soninke called it Sorcerous’ Grin, for the eldritch rituals the Emperor had concocted in its light had not been seen since the days of the Miezans. Some said a sliver of the man was still up there, scheming his escape from death.

Cordelia Hasenbach, claimant to the throne of Procer, had been looking through one of the few windows in Rhenia’s main hall for hours. She’d seen the moon rise, and thought it fitting. Lycaonese soldiers called it the Ratbane: the crescent in the sky heralded the beginning of the fight to crush the ratling warbands that crossed the northern rivers every month. There would be blood, soon. The fate of Procer demanded it.

Neither of them would find sleep that night. Malicia quietly poured herself a cup of truly terrible wine, the taste of it bittersweet. Cordelia stirred the embers in the fireplace with an iron poker and eyed the dancing red motes, her mind faraway.

In Aisne, the game began.

This would haunt her until the day she died, Therese knew. The foulness of what she had to do would be a lash on her back for the rest of her life. But what choice did she have? They had her wife. They had her children. The Lycaonese woman crept softly to Klaus Papenheim’s tent, where a single candle still burned. Twenty years, she’d fought for the prince. She’d followed him unflinchingly when he’d charged two hundred cataphracts into the meat of a ratling army of thousands,  backwhen the Longtooth Lord had tried to breach the walls of Hannoven. She’d pulled him out of the mouth of an Ancient One when the tower-sized monstrous rat had been about to bite clean through his plate, the year after. She’d gone through a hundred battles and skirmishes at his side, fighting for a duty no one south of Neustria would ever understand.

And now she was going to murder him her prince in cold blood. The tent’s flap parted silently under her hand and she reached for her knife with a knot in her throat, the knowledge of what she was about to do like ashes in her mouth. There was a single lit candle at the table, Therese saw with a blink of surprise, but no sign of Prince Klaus himself. Not at the table, and not in his bed. The first stroke of the sword took her in the back of the knee and she fell with a grunt of pain. Looking up she saw two old comrades, soldiers she’d bled with, looking down at her with grief. One kicked the knife out of her hands and she did not attempt to get up.

“I’m sorry, Therese,” one said.

“So am I,” she said, and closed her eyes.

She had failed. Would they kill her family anyway? Maybe not, if she died for this. She heard the blade come down, and she almost smiled. The Enemy had worked through her but found House Hasenbach ready for them. There was satisfaction in that.

“And Yet We Stand,” she whispered, a heartbeat before the sword took her life.

He would not be remembered as a hero, Louis knew. By taking one life tonight he would save tens of thousands tomorrow, but he would win no praise for it. His name would be a byword for treachery for decades, the servant who had turned on his mistress at the behest of her enemy. He knew this, but still he carried the dagger under his clothes. He had no wife, no children, but he did have a sister. Barely more than a child, the sweetest little girl. And he’d known, when the First Prince’s man had come to him, what kind of Procer he wanted her to grow up in. Not one where anyone old enough to bear a weapon was handed a pike and sent to the grinder. Not one where armies roamed the land, burning everything as they passed while their rulers spent lives they should be guarding like coppers. He could make a better world, and he would. Not matter the cost.

Princess Constance of Aisne would be deep in slumber: the wine she’d indulged in would make sure she did not stir. Louis slipped in through the servant entrance and stepped quietly into his ruler’s chambers. The tall glass doors leading to the balcony were open, pale drapes fluttering in the wind as the moon’s light coated everything in a soft glow. The princess’ body was wrapped in her covers, her lover of the month pressed close. Both still asleep. Taking out the knife, Louis let out a soft breath. He could do this. He had to. He was already nervous and froze when he glimpsed two silhouettes from the corner of his eye, though he relaxed when they did not move. They were… two other servants. Dead, their throats slit and blood dripping onto their clothes. One corpse’s hands had been angled to cover his eyes, the other’s her eyes. What?

The last thing Louis ever felt was a blade opening his throat in perfect silence.

Jacques was set for life, after this. A single night’s work and he would live like a prince for the rest of his days. He supposed what he’d been told to do was treason, but what the fuck did he care? Treason was for crowned heads to debate. Fantassins like him were just meant to die obediently while the owners of Procer traded a few acres of land still covered in blood, keeping it for maybe a decade. Then the call came again, sons dying for the exact same godsdamned acres their fathers had: no one won at this game save for the princes, and he was fucking sick of it. He’d been offered a way out, a real future, and he was going to take it. They weren’t asking anything he wasn’t glad to do, anyway. The Prince of Brus might be suckling at the Hasenbach tit, nowadays, but some of Jacques’ friends had died keeping the savages out of their land. He had not forgotten that, unlike their cockless wonder of a prince.

A few free drinks had been enough for him to learn when the patrols would go by, and any idiot could get his hands on a torch. The Lycaonese restricted use of fire on campaign, but their writ ran no further than their own camps. The presumptuous bastards were outnumbered by Alamans already, and after tomorrow the gap would widen further. Good riddance. Let them crawl back to their barren wasteland of a home and resume mating with ratlings. The torch in his hand was dripping oil, so it had been a good notion to wrap his hand with a cloth first. The fantassin didn’t bother to try to break padlock on the granary, instead taking a step back and pressing his torch against the wooden wall until it caught fire. He did the same on the three others before tossing away his torch and making his exit. Screams of alarm spread eventually, but far too late. The grain would burn. Let the fucking Lycaonese dine on the ashes.

Jacques whistled as he returned to his tent, already thinking of the nice little shop he was going to open in Brus when all this mess settled down.

Annette’s hands were shaking. She hated doing this, she really did. The horses hadn’t done anything to anyone. They were innocent, and no matter what the House of Light said she wasn’t convinced they didn’t have souls. They were such wonderful creatures, so gentle and affectionate if you had a way with them. Annette did, as her father before her, though unlike him she’d not become the stablemaster for the Princess of Aequitan. The others respected her know how, though. She was the one they went to, when one of the horses got sick and no one knew why. Even mages listened when she spoke. They’d be waking her up before dawn, she thought, to ask her to treat the very wrong she was about to commit. If only there was another way! But there wasn’t, and she must. For love.

She still couldn’t believe a man like Antoine had fallen for her. He was a servant too, of course, but part of the household of the Prince of Cantal. Not a muckabout like her. You could see it just by the way he talked, the way he dressed so cleanly and wore his elegantly styled beard. They’d been together for two months now, and after the war they would get married. He’d promised, and he wouldn’t have gotten her those white roses if he didn’t mean it. But now some wicked person was threatening his life unless he did an equally wicked thing, and doing it so unreasonably. There was no way Antoine could have gotten to the Princess of Aequitan’s horses, her guards beat anyone who even got close. But Annette could.

Her shaking hands poured the exact number of drops she was supposed to into the trough before moving on to the next one, the translucent liquid disappearing without a trace in the water.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the horses. “But they’ll kill him if I don’t.”

Lucien Hauteville, chief cook for the army of the Princess of Segovia, was not in fact called this at all. He’d been born Jacob of Satus, though he’d left both the name and the faint Praesi accent behind when he’d joined the Eyes of the Empire. He wasn’t technically one of those anymore, having long ago graduated from skulking in taverns with a compromising tattoo on his arm while the real agents did the work. Having survived his infiltration of a resistance group in Denier, he’d been raised from the ranks at the order of Webweaver herself and sent to Procer. That had been decades ago, when the Conquest was still fresh. He’d dug deep roots in Segovia since, married and become a respectable member of the Princess’ household. And never had he ceased sliding a monthly detailed report between two loose stones outside the palace for another agent to pick up.

One did not cross the likes of the Lady Scribe, no matter how comfortable abroad one became. Unlike the Carrion Lord, the Webweaver would not crucify you: you’d just suddenly… disappear, along with everyone you ever cared about. Besides, if he was careful he could maintain his cover and return to Segovia after this. It’d been a while since he’d carved up anyone, though he’d once had a talent for it, so it was for the best that the task he’d been given was slightly more indirect. Princess Luisa’s highest-ranked commanders had a habit of unofficially gathering for drinks and wakeleaf on pleasant evenings, and had not broken the pattern even on this campaign. That was the kind of target of opportunity an Eye would never outgrow sinking their teeth into.

Jacob silently barred the door of peasant house the officers had commandeered, smiling at the sound of raucous laughter coming from inside. He splashed oil over the wood, then selected another five places around the house to help the fire get started. Humming under his breath, he struck a pinewood match and set the first point ablaze. They didn’t notice until he was getting started on the fourth – too drunk, he thought – and by then they were as good as dead. Ignoring the panicked screaming and the desperate attempts to hack through the door, Jacob finished his work and melted into the darkness. The smell of cooking flesh on the wind brought fond memories, but also ideas. Pork for supper tomorrow, perhaps? He’d recently learned to make Levantine sauce, with the little peppers. He’d ask Princess Luisa.

When dawn came, two women on opposite sides of the same continent broke their fast with parchment laid out in front of them. Reports, one set received through messenger pigeons and the other through an elaborate scrying relay.

Dread Empress Malicia allowed herself a smile, as she was alone in the dining room. Princess Constance of Aisne was still alive and the coalition held. A victory, mitigated only by the horses of the Princess of Aequitan’s entire cataphract contingent being poisoned. Assassinating Klaus Papenheim would have been a coup, but she had never thought the attempt likely to succeed. And with a third of their supplies gone, Hasenbach’s armies would be forced to give battle soon. With one of their flanks shaky, as the senior staff of the Princess of Segovia had quite literally gone up in smoke.

Prince Cordelia Hasenbach frowned at the letters in front of her, delicately eating a spoonful of broth as her attendants stood silent. Aequitan had been significantly weakened, but aside from that she’d failed to make an effect. Her most important victories had been defensive in nature, protecting her forces instead of weakening her enemy’s. The loss of the granaries was not a major setback, she decided, as Uncle Klaus had intended on giving battle soon, but it meant retreat was no longer a feasible option even if necessary. This round, she silently conceded, went to the Empress.

In Aisne, the game continued.

By Klaus’ reckoning, the Battle of Aisne begun when the enemy caught sight of his outriders on the plains to the northwest of the city. His boys had immediately retreated when the coalition had sent out a larger cavalry force after them, but by then the horns had been sounded. The massive armies of the two reluctantly allied princesses begun their lumbering march to the battlefield, even as the Prince of Hannoven’s own soldiers spread into formation. It was nearing noon when the enemy arrived, and by then Klaus had arranged his forces in a broad forward triangle.  To the surprise of the coalition, the centre of his formation was not made out of Lycaonese infantry but of the armies of Lyonis and Segovia, themselves bordered by Brus and Lange while his northerners formed the wings on both sides. From atop his horse, the Prince of Hannoven watched mockery erupt among the staff of the Princess of Aisne.

They probably thought that he’d positioned the troops that way because he believed that Lyonis and Segovia would run at the first opportunity if not flanked by more loyal armies. He would have believed the same, in their place. Messengers immediately began going back and forth between the armies of the princesses of Aisne and Aequitan, and he knew exactly what they’d be talking about. Instead of a thick battering ram, the commanders in both armies would be arguing in favour of spreading out coalition lines so that they could envelop Klaus’ smaller army. It was the best way to make their superior numbers count. Now we see if you were right, Cordelia. Another hour passed and then the coalition army began moving forward as they’d been, to the grey-haired man’s dark amusement. His niece had read the opposition like a book.

Neither princess, in the end, was willing to allow the other one’s armies too far from her sight. There was always the risk that the other ruler would delay the attack on their flank just long enough that the other racked up the most casualties, only striking after Klau’s formation was already broken. They already thought victory was in the bag, he realized, so they were planning for the aftermath. There was a devent chance that a second pitched battle would erupt the moment his army was scattered, between the two ‘allied’ princesses. An old Alamans proverb that came to mind: victors should not offer their back to the door. Just after your enemy had won was the best time to slide in the knife. Even if spreading out would have been better tactics, politics were making them stupid. And the wretches wondered why there was a need for a Lycaonese on the throne.

The Prince of Hannoven watched the enemy infantry advance for some time, then glanced north. Both Klaus and the coalition had massed their cavalry into a single force and sent it to the side, as had been the norm in Proceran warfare since the days of Isabella the Mad. The coalition cavalry, trusting in their larger numbers – though that advantage had shrunk somewhat with Aequitan’s horses being poisoned, something that still had the old soldier grinning – moved forward first. The two masses met in furious charge to the side the main armies, and for the first time that day the difference between Lycaonese and southern warfare was made clear.  In Alamans and Arlesites wars, cataphracts either fought other cataphracts or ran down infantry out of formation. Mobility was key, and so light armour was favoured. Lycaonese cataphracts, on the other hand, fought against ratlings. The barbed arrows and spears used by the Chain of Hunger, which were often poisoned as well, meant that plate armour had become the standard.

When the cavalries impacted it was a massacre. His Lycaonese horsemen tore straight through the tip of the enemy wedge before beginning to slow, and in close quarters the gap between plate and chain mail took its toll. The melee lasted for the better part of an hour until the coalition cavalry broke and fled, having lost perhaps a third of their number. Klaus doubted they would be seen again for the rest of the engagement, though he’d keep eyes on them just in case.

The sight must have been a shock to the princesses of Aisne and Aequitan, he decided, but now it would not be enough to give them pause. The two princesses were smelling a victory right now. When the ranks of infantry had met the sound of shield walls colliding was like thunder, but after an initial valiant effort by the centre of Klaus’ formation the sheer mass of the coalition army began to push the soldiers of Lyonis and Segovia back. That impact reverberated until it turned into an actual retreat, the arranged triangle of his formation slowly caving inwards. All that, he had planned for. He kept a close on on the centre since they were the most important part of his strategy. The Segovians, he noted, were fighting like devils. They were making the coalition bleed for every inch as they retreated.

He owed Princess Luisa an apology, it seemed. The old fox was keeping her part of the bargain and more. Slowly his outwards triangle was turning into an arc of the opposite curvature, the Lycaonese he’d placed at the two back wings of the triangle now turning into the tips of the arc as the coalition pushed deeper and deeper. Then the soldiers under the Prince of Lyonis turned their slow retreat into something more like a rout, leaving a hole in the formation, and Klaus cursed loudly.

“Fabien, you weaselling fuck,” he said through gritted teeth. “I hope they spit roast you in the Furthest Hell for that.”

Prince Fabien of Lyonis pressed his horse forward, his troops keeping pace as well as they could. No doubt the old brute from Hannoven was pissing his pants about now. Without Lyonis holding the centre with the Segovians, there was a gaping hole in the centre of Papenheim’s formation. Now the coalition would flow into the room, splitting their enemies into two smaller forces and overwhelming them individually. The decision to turn his cloak had been quite easy, as it happened. While his cousins in Cleves and Hainaut were no longer willing or able to support his bid for the throne, his correspondence in Arans had begun yielding results of late. The moment Hasenbach retreated to the mountains with her tail between her legs he could seize Brus and strongarm the boy in Lange into backing him, putting Fabien back at the head of an alliance to rival any of the others.

Both Constance of Aisne and Aenor of Aequitan had offered to pay him for the privilege of becoming their rival, amusingly enough, and securing another loan from the Pravus Bank had been child’s play. Whether it was the Praesi furnishing that gold or not ultimately mattered little to him: after he became First Prince he could default on the debt and what would they be able to do about it? Invade the Principate to collect? Laughable. It could be argued by that emptying the Empire’s coffers he was doing the work of the Heavens, he’d decided. Besides, if he didn’t take the coin his enemies would. That kind of an advantage could be enough to bury him even if he was careful. All that was left, he thought, was to decide was whether or not the army of Lyonis would strike the soldiers of Lange on its way out of the killing field. He was inclined to do so. If he could grab the boy prince, that entire principality was as good as his.

“Brother,” he heard from the side.

Ah, Sophie. Still playing the soldier, he saw, with her plate armour and pretty white horse. The youngest of his sisters always did have a fancy for the military life.

“An auspicious day, Sophie,” he smiled. “We’ve just won the Battle of Aisne.”

“So I see,” the dark-haired girl replied. “Are you sure turning on Hasenbach is wise?”

As their horses pulled side by side, Fabien snorted contemptuously.

“She’s a decent hand at the Ebb and Flow, for a Lycaonese,” he conceded. “But she’s a long way from home. The girl must learn her place.”

“I happen to have a notion of where that is,” Lady Sophie agreed.

Before he could blink her sword was out of her scabbard and buried in his throat.

“On the throne,” his sister said calmly. “The First Prince sends her regards, brother.”

Sagging on his horse, the last thing the Prince of Lyonis ever heard was his sister taking command of the army and ordering it back into formation.

Prince Etienne of Brabant watched the army of Lyonis fall back into line, and in that moment made his decision. He still believed that Princess Constance would make for a good First Princess, and not just because she’d promised to wed her son to his eldest daughter. She had the connections, the experience and the vision to bring the Principate into a golden age. But he’d been ruminating Hasenbach’s letter for months now, and come to the conclusion that the girl was right. It was no longer important who took the throne: Procer could not afford to go without a supreme leader anymore. The divides were beginning to run too deep. If he kept supporting the Princess of Aisne, the end of the civil war was nowhere in sight. Aenor of Aequitan had comparable backing and would never bow to a woman she despised so much – but she had no personal enmity with Hasenbach. None of them did.

That was, he supposed, the best reason he could think of for putting the Lycaonese girl on the throne. She would not be an effective First Prince, he thought: she didn’t haven enough allies among the Alamans and the Arlesites to keep the Highest Assembly in line. But she had just enough backers to be crowned, and with her as a figurehead the healing could begin. Hasenbach was unmarried and had shown no interest in remedying that, so her dynasty need not last longer than a generation. An Alamans could reclaim the throne in a few decades and Procer could move on from these ruinous days. All Etienne had to do for this to come true was betray an ally. Ah, well, he thought. The waters ebb and flow, but the tide is eternal. There was no changing the nature of this game, harsh as it could be at times. He gestured for his page to sound the clarion.

Coming late to Princess Constance’s cause had meant she’d sweetened his alignment with quite a few perks, including the forces of Brabant being positioned to the back of the coalition army. No doubt she’d come to regret that decision now. His army paused, realigned at the exhortations of the serjeants and then charged into the back of the coalition forces. It was only then that he noticed it: in the distance, the Princess of Orne was doing the very same thing. In the span of a few heartbeats, the situation of the two princesses leading the coalition had turned from the eve of victory to the better part of an encirclement. Just enough of a way out was left that the coalition soldiers would have a path to flee instead of fight to the death, he noted. The Prince of Hannoven’s experience at work.

Slowly, Papenheim’s cataphracts wheeled behind the coalition and formed a wedge, preparing for a charge into the exposed back. Weeping Heavens, he thought, all the pieces coming together. This is going to be a massacre. Perhaps Hasenbach did have it in her to be more than a figurehead, if she could be this ruthless.

Klaus Papenheim had more than a few battles under his belt. The campaign into Lange had seen precious few pitched engagements – ambushes and raids had been the way he’d picked, making use of the Augur’s powers to find vulnerable moments – but he’d fought ratlings by the shores of Lake Netzach many a time to prevent them from putting enough warbands together to threaten Hannoven. This, though? This was something else. The ranks of the coalition began shrinking until the entire force… crumpled. After sending his cataphracts charging into their backs twice he had to hold the riders back or risk them being swept away by the human torrent of fleeing soldiers. They had orders to make sure neither the princesses of Aisne or Aequitan managed to flee the field, and the veteran knew that before nightfall he’d have both women as prisoners in his camp. The Augur’s foretelling of where they’d go had made sure of that.

He might have just ended the Proceran civil war today.

Some principalities would refuse to bend their knees still, but there would be enough rulers backing Cordelia that she could be elected First Prince legally. He’d never really doubted that his niece could do it, could lead them to victory, but there’d always been a sense that the victory was a distant thing. Years ahead, after long and hard struggles. Instead he’d campaigned for a little over a year and the entire south of Procer had burst open like an overripe fruit. The grey-haired man almost shivered. He knew that the Lycaonese armies were not, in the end, overwhelmingly stronger than those of the Alamans and Arlesites. They had advantages, but so did the southerners. For the first time he truly realized what Cordelia meant, when she’d said that the Empress was in the process of destroying Procer. She was making us brittle, beyond repair, and no one had even noticed.

Prince Klaus Papenheim found his gaze turning to the east, where in the distance the shape of the tall mountains separating the Principate from Callow could almost be glimpsed. This wasn’t over. Not even close to it.

When nightfall came, two women on opposite sides of the continent found themselves looking down at hastily-brought reports.

Cordelia Hasenbach, now First Prince of Procer in all but name, put the sheaf of parchment down and allowed herself to savour the feeling for a moment. She’d won. By the skin of her teeth, but she had won. She’d proved that a mere mortal could take on the all-seeing monster in the Tower and come out ahead. The Principate was not dead and Calernia would not sink into anarchy. Then the moment passed, and the Prince of Rhenia composed herself. There was work to do. There would always be work to do, and more now than ever before.

Dread Empress Malicia’s face remained serene even as she put aside the letter and rose to her feet. Contingencies would have to be implemented. The throne could not be denied to Hasenbach, but it could be weakened. The dark-skinned woman came to stand by an old shatranj board, her Name glimpsing the shivering souls that Dread Emperor Sorcerous had bound to the pieces.

“This one goes to you, darling,” she murmured. “Shall we play another?”

Without waiting for a reply, she nudged forward a pawn.

Chapter 12: Double Down

“It admittedly took me a few years to make my peace with the fact that Lady Foundling’s take on diplomacy is essentially to bring a bottle of cheap wine and a sword to the table, then remind the interlocutor that while the wine might be awful it is still arguably better than being stabbed.”
-Extract from the personal memoirs of Lady Aisha Bishara

“You insignificant insect,” the Duke of Violent Squalls barked.

I smiled pleasantly. So it could work. The Duke was addressing me directly instead of the role of the Princess of High Noon, which I needed him to do badly if my plan was going to succeed. Well, plan might have been a little too ambitious of a word. I was following my instincts, which while usually leading me to breaking someone’s bones also tended to get me out of corners in more or less one piece. I could not win this if I played out their story, I knew. I would be quite literally fated to lose. Time to drive the cart off the road. Chaos had always been where I thrived, and no people were so ill-equipped to deal with it as the fae.

“That hurt my feelings, it did,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “We going stand here trading insults all night, or we going to talk terms?”

“You give me insult in my own home and speak of terms?” the Duke hissed. “I should destroy you where you stand.”

I could feel wind starting up in the ballroom, the hem of my cloak stirring with it. There were probably Names that gave you a precise read on how much power an opponent could throw around, but sadly Squire wasn’t one of them. All I got was that he was a glacier compared to the icicle of the average fae, not that far beneath the Prince of Nightfall himself. Joy. That was, I mused, the first hint that Duke or not he probably had a large role in the story of the Winter Court. Was the Winter King trying to use me as a catspaw to get rid of an enemy he wasn’t allowed to touch? Unlikely, I finally decided. While I was supposed to get into conflict with this one, the dispute was also supposed to be resolved by champions. My hacking his head off wasn’t supposed to be in the cards.

“You won’t, though,” I said. “Because I’m a guest and the lot of you are all about rules. That’s a fairly big one, as I understand it.”

“You will not be my guest forever,” the Duke of Violent Squalls said coldly.

The wind his cuffs were made of turned furious without his visibly doing anything to cause it. I’d need to have a talk with Masego about how having the aristocratic title to something something worked, practically speaking. Might be a way to sever that. Without his magic the fae was just a man in fancy clothes, and I wasn’t above stabbing those when it got me what I wanted.

“Somehow I doubt that getting into a pitched battle in the streets of Skade is going to go over too well with your king,” I said. “I’m his guest too, remember?”

“If you think that makes you untouchable, you are severely mistaken,” the fae said.

“You’ll still get a slap on the wrist,” I smiled. “And I get the feeling that a king’s slap around here tends to… leave marks.”

Around all us, all the faces of the fae I could see were blank. They just stood there in utter silence, not so much as breathing as they watched it all unfold. It was like standing in a hall full of statues.

“I’m a kind soul, though,” I lied. “So I’m offering you a way to seek redress that dodges the issue.”

“A formal duel,” the Duke said, pale lips stretching to reveal teeth of ivory. “Yes, that would be acceptable. Crushing you under my heel will be most satisfying.”

And now I have you, I thought. No champions, just the immortal monster and me in a ring. With a little prodding he’d eagerly left behind the story of the Princess of High Noon becoming captive and walked into entirely uncharted territory. I did not pick that word by mistake: there was no map we were following, here. No story. Which meant, I figured, that I could insert my own. How do you beat someone you can’t beat? I mused, remembering rocky fields in a land that right now felt so very far away. More innocent days, those, when I’d been playing at war instead of waging it. But I had not forgotten the most important lesson I’d learned from the War College: don’t win according to the rules, win despite them.

“So all that’s left is settling on the wager,” I said.

The Duke’s lips stretched even further into an ugly rictus.

“If you lose, you will cede me the soul of everyone under your command,” he said.

“I’m not under her command, for the record,” Archer called out from an upper level.

I gestured rudely in her general direction without bothering to turn.

“Sure,” I agreed. “What I want is-“

“Yes, yes,” the Duke said, waving his hand dismissively. “The Summer fae can have their freedom.”

“Those poor bastards aren’t my problem in the slightest,” I said with a raised eyebrow.

I tapped my third finger, eyeing his own hand. The piece of jewellery responsible for the seal on the invitation I’d received could be glimpsed there, a ring of white wood set with a flat opal positively reeking of magic.

“Your signet ring,” I said. “I want it. I also want to have always had it.”

“That is a heavy price for you to demand,” the Duke sneered.

“You just asked me for a few thousand souls, jackass,” I replied flatly. “Don’t whine about trinkets, it’s unseemly.”

“Your death,” he said, “will not be quick.”

“I’m hearing a yes,” I said. “Anybody else heard a yes?”

“I agree to the terms of this wager,” the Duke spoke through gritted teeth. “Since you are so eager to die, let us proceed. Will the ballroom suffice?”

I grinned and wagged my finger.

“I spent all day travelling,” I said. “A delicate flower such as myself needs rest before strenuous exercise. You wouldn’t be trying to cheat, would you?”

I gasped in mock-surprise.

“I thought better of you, Duke,” I said solemnly.

“Dawn, then, on the Fields of Wend,” the fae replied with a sneer. “My honour will not suffer for a longer delay.”

“You should put it out of its misery, if it’s suffering that much,” I replied, because I had never learned to quit while I was ahead. “Still, I agree to your terms.”

I mentally added to my list the need to find out exactly what those Fields were. Sounded like it might be important.

“A spot of entertainment before Court,” the Duke of Violent Squalls smiled. “How refreshing.”

I would have cast aspersions on a place that counted blood sport as entertainment, but considering I’d made more coin in Laure from the Pit than the Rat’s Nest a saying about stones and glass houses came to mind. Although, frankly, someone who could afford to live in a house made of glass could probably do with a few rocks thrown at them. If anyone got that rich there were bound to be a lot of peasants starving in the background. I had nothing more to gain from continuing the conversation, so I suppressed my urge to get the last word and strolled away. My pipe had gone out, I noticed with a sigh. Typical. Before I made it more than a few feet away all the fae around us started moving again, like a spell had suddenly been lifted. Whispers flared up immediately, but I wasn’t intending to stick around and leanr what they were. I found Hakram hastily making his way down the stairs without needing to look for long, dragging a protesting Masego along as Archer watched on in amusement.

“Well,” Archer said. “That certainly livened up the party.”

“Glad I could be of help,” I replied sardonically.

“You were had,” Adjutant gravelled.

I raised an eyebrow. Masego let out a little noise of understanding.

“Everyone under your command,” Apprentice said. “Given your position on the Ruling Council of Callow, that could be argued to apply to every soul in the former kingdom as well as the Fifteenth. Oh dear.”

I blinked. Shit. Hadn’t thought of that. I’d been more or less at the head of Callow for a year now, but it had never quite sunk in that I wielded the bastard cousin of a queen’s authority. I still thought of myself as Catherine Foundling, the Squire, not anything more.

“He couldn’t really collect on that, could he?” I said.

“With that large of a debt owed him, the Duke could likely be able to come into Creation in the fullness of his power,” Apprentice said. “After that, I have no real notion. It would be unprecedented as far as I know.”

“The Calamities would smoke him before it got to that,” I frowned. “And Ranger can take the Prince of Nightfall even in Arcadia, she could handle him.”

“I’m not sure she would,” Archer said. “Depends on her mood at the time. A duke might not be enough of a challenge for her to bother.”

“She’d just let a few million people get their souls stolen?” I said, appalled.

“You’re the one who just wagered them,” Archer pointed out. “The Lady of the Lake is beholden to no one, Foundling. The suggestion that she is would go… poorly.”

Huh. I’d always like the stories about Ranger best when I was a kid, but that put them in a different perspective. I passed a hand through my hair.

“I’m not going to lose, regardless,” I said. “So it doesn’t matter.”

“You have a plan,” Adjutant said.

“Something like that,” I agreed. “Need some time to set it in stone, hence why I delayed. We need to get back to the Still Courtyard.”

“Already?” Archer complained.

“Actually, I have an assignment for you that doesn’t involve,” I said.

“Sounds serious,” she said.

“Try to find out anything you can about the Duke of Violent Squalls, while you’re drinking yourself to death,” I told her. “And I do mean anything you can. Even small details could be useful.”

“That seems like something that should have been done before you threw a gauntlet at him,” Archer noted. “Though, praise where it’s due, funniest thing that happened all night. And I include Adjutant’s clothes in this.”

“Glad to have you on this team,” I said with a sigh. “Masego, on our way out I need you to have a good look at the Duke. Pay close attention to what he looks like.”

“I’ve seen him in my spectacles,” Apprentice said. “Anything more is unnecessary.”

So those could do more than just see sorcery. That was useful to know.

“Let’s go,” I said, giving the fae a last glance. “We’re wasting daylight – and don’t you godsdamned dare to correct me, Masego, it’s an idiom.”

He scowled all the way back to the carriage.

The moment a ward came down to prevent fae from eavesdropping on what would be said inside the library, I turned to my two companions with a winning smile.

“All right, gentlemen, I have work for you,” I said.

Apprentice took off his spectacles, laid them on the table.

“I imagine my task has something to do with why you asked me to look at the Duke,” he said.

He murmured a few incantations and tapped a finger against the left rim. A wispy image of the the Duke of Violent Squalls formed above the spectacles. With a flick of the wrist, he made it rotate. I leaned forward to have a closer look: I’d stood in front of that very fae, and I couldn’t recall that much detail about the clothes he’d worn. I let out a low whistle.

“That’s something,” I said. “How good are you with illusions?”

“Not my field of specialty, but anything possible with Low Arcana I can achieve,” Masego replied casually, as if he hadn’t just stated he could match the work of over nine tenths of the mages in Calernia in a fairly difficult branch of sorcery.

“I need you to make me a glamour,” I said. “One I can wear.”

“Now does not seem the right time for you to develop a sense of vanity,” Apprentice said.

“I need you to make me look like I’m related to him,” I continued, ignoring the aside.

He hummed.

“I’ll need an anchor to inscribe the Working on,” he said. “Using anything of Arcadia will make it particularly effective, which should improve the quality of the result.”

“Get one of the servants to find you something, then,” I said. “A necklace, if possible, one I could wear under my clothes.”

He nodded absent-mindedly, clearly already thinking of the logistics of what I’d asked him to do. Masego with a puzzle would not pause to ask me why I wanted to look like I was related to the fae I was going to kill, but I could feel Hakram’s eyes on me even as Apprentice rose to his feet and left both the room and the ward behind him.

“The signet ring, that you will ‘always have had’,” he said. “Looking as if you were a daughter of his blood. These are not coincidences.”

“Which leads me to what I want from you. I need you to Find me a story about patricide in one of these books,” I said, gesturing at the stacks around us.

Hakram cocked his head to the side.

“Daughter who never knew her parents kills a duke, only then realizing that the signet ring on her hand matches his livery,” the orc said. “Fate led her to kill her father. A tragedy, but one that sees the daughter a duchess at the end in a hollow victory.”

Ah, Hakram. If I had a hundred people with minds as sharp as his Callow would run itself.

“That’s the idea,” I agreed softly.

“The part I’m missing is why you would want to be a Duchess of Winter,” he said.

“We’ve gotten in a place where think that what we want out of Skade is to leave it alive,” I said, plopping my elbows on the table. “Arcandia, it makes it seem like everything outside is distant. But we entered it for a reason.”

“To shut down Winter’s invasion of Marchford,” Adjutant said.

“Winter can’t invade Marchford if Marchford is part of Winter,” I murmured.

“That’s…” the orc began. “Cat, there’s risks. And there will be consequences. As long as you rule the city, it will have ties to a Court that places in Creation usually don’t. We have no idea what that could mean.”

“We have a fucking portal spewing blizzard where my marketplace should be, Hakram,” I replied tiredly. “That ship has sailed. The fae are there and they’re not going anywhere. If I’m one of their aristocrats, at least I get to make rules in my demesne.”

“The Empress will have some things to say about one of her cities also answering to the King of Winter,” he gravelled.

“She won’t like it,” I agreed. “But I think she’d like a slugging match with Winter even less. Praes can’t afford that right now, not with Procer lurking at the gate. She’s a practical woman, when it comes down to it. You’ve seen the kind of heavyweights Winter can deploy, if they need to. You really think the Legions can handle that?”

“The Legions of Terror can kill anything in Creation or out of it,” Hakram replied without missing a beat.

The ironclad certainty in that voice was a thing to behold. That was something I was only beginning to understand about orcs. I’d once thought that they just separated everything into ally or enemy and that it leant them a certain clarity, but it ran deeper than that. Orcs were slower to come to a belief than humans, but when they did that belief would not waver. Hakram had decided I was worth following, and that certainty had carried him all the way into a Name. Never mind that no orc had held in in over a millennium. Juniper also believed that the Legions of Terror could take on any opponent, and so she’d crushed mercenaries and devils alike with mere cunning and ruthlessness, playing them every step of the way. They were both exceptional individuals, but I could see a trace of what drove them in all the orcs I knew. I thought of what the Clans would have been like, at the height of their power, and almost shivered. A hundred thousand orcs, knowing deep in their bones that their Warlord could not be beaten. No wonder the Soninke had been terrified of them for centuries, that the Deoraithe had raised a giant wall spanning leagues just to keep them out.

“But casualty rates would be high, until we found the proper method,” Adjutant finally conceded.

“Hold on to that thought, Hakram,” I said. “When we get back home, I’m pretty sure we’ll need to clear out the host of Summer.”

“That’ll be a fight to remember, when we’re old and grey,” Adjutant replied, baring his fangs.

In that moment he reminded me acutely of Nauk, and I felt a pang. I missed them, I realized. My little band of misfits. Juniper and Aisha, Ratface and Pickler – and Kilian, most of all. Hells, I missed Black, the man that was so very carefully not-my-father, whose approval I craved as much as I feared it. The sermons at the House of Light had never said Evil would feel like this. Like a family, the only one I’d ever had. Maybe that was how the Gods Below got you, I thought. They made you love people who could do horrible things just enough that you’d forgive them for it.

“Let’s make sure we live that long first,” I finally said. “The Duke is going to plaster me all over the floor if we don’t cheat. Find me my story, Adjutant.”

“And then?” the orc asked.

“And then,” I smiled, “we’re going to bullshit so hard it becomes a prophecy.”

Chapter 11: Swerve

“Only if it’s ‘being executed’.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis I, upon being asked for a last request by a hero

There were hundred of fae inside, each more glittering than the last. I’d seen the court of Praes and the opulence of its nobles, but this was a Court. That capitalized letter mattered. These immortal creatures had been at this game since the Empire was nothing but a madwoman’s dream and the difference showed. We’d gone through the duke’s antechamber and entered what must be the reception hall, keeping together as we did. Hakram being at my left had a reassuring weight, like having a shield. Our entrance had made a stir but we weren’t immediately approached: all we got was a myriad of discreet looks as fae murmured over their drinks. Archer took wine from a tray of silver cups, ignoring my disapproving look as she tasted the glittering liquid and hummed in approbation.

“Good stuff,” she said.

“Don’t get drunk,” I warned.

“You know the poison trick works for flushing out liquor, right?” she said.

“And if this was wine from Creation I would have kept my mouth shut,” I said. “It isn’t.”

“Eh,” she shrugged.

And on that bit of stunning eloquence we silently agreed to let the matter go for now. Given that I’d seen her guzzling down hard liquor instead of tea for breakfast last year, I was willing to bet on Archer being able to hold her drink better than most. Anyway, I had more pressing cats to skin than trying to make a sober woman out of this one. The reception hall had half a dozen interwoven stories of the same wind-material this entire place was made of, all centred around the ballroom floor in the middle of the ground level. Which was, for now, empty. Or almost – I’d finally found where the music came from. There were seven fae on a podium against the wall, most of them playing instrument but a single one singing the words I still couldn’t make out even this close. Magical shenanigans, I assumed. The melody was sad and I could hazard a good guess as to why: all of them were clapped in silvery chains and looked like they’d gone a few rounds with an Imperial interrogator. And not one of the nice ones.

“Those aren’t Winter fae,” Hakram said, watching the same people.

They were most definitely not, I grimly thought. Their clothes were in tones that matched the décor but they themselves stood out. There was a warmth to their being that all the other fae around them lacked, a softness to their silhouettes: to my senses they felt like candlelight while the guests felt like ice. Summer Court prisoners. I was beginning to glimpse a shape here. I was in the shoes of a Summer princess, likely part of a diplomatic mission of some sort. After coming to a masquerade thrown by a duke, I would then run into some of my fellow Summer fairies who’d been forced into servitude and cruelly beaten. Someone was trying to goad me – the role I was in – into doing something unwise. Interesting that the princess would be expected to save them, though. Summer wasn’t as prone to tormenting mortals in the stories as Winter, but they weren’t exactly paragons of kindness either.

“That’s where we’re expected to go,” I murmured. “So let’s go elsewhere. Any of you know anything about mingling with aristocrats?”

“Smile and pretend you’re listening,” Masego said absent-mindedly. “If there’s a lull in the conversation say how interesting with a mysterious look.”

“So that’s a no,” Archer said amusedly.

Well, she wasn’t wrong. I took the lead and went to the left. The others followed. Entering one of the side galleries seemed to have been an unspoken signal that we were fair game for conversation: all the guests who’d been keeping their distance began approaching. I wasn’t the only target, it swiftly became clear. Or even the first one. Some green-haired woman with eyes that looked like jewels struck up a conversation with Masego about magic and I gave it up as a lost cause the moment the words “partitioned stable matrix” were spoken. As far as temptations went that was one was mostly harmless, so I left him to it. Archer was approached by tall grinning dark-haired twins – of different genders, I thought, but it was hard to tell which was which – bearing bottles of liquor that looked harder than wine. They’re tailoring themselves to what we want, I thought.

“Lord Hakram, I believe?” an older fae coughed out. “You have the looks of an orc from the Howling Wolves, if I may be so bold.”

Adjutant raised an eyebrow.

“I am,” he gravelled.

“How nostalgic,” the noble smiled gently. “It has been ages since I’ve encountered one of your kind. I had the pleasure to visit the Antlered Field when the one called Kharsum became Warlord.”

The tall orc leaned forward unconsciously.

“You saw the election of the Unifier?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” the fae said. “Always a lively affair, orc statecraft. I’ve watched battlefields littered with fewer dead.”

I’d been wondering what take they would use with Hakram. Orc history made sense. His people had lost so much knowledge since the War of Chains and the occupation that followed. Every bit of lore from back then was worth more than gold to his people, another piece of stone to add to a mosaic that was still more bare than filled. He glanced at me and I nodded. Sticking together wasn’t making us any gains at the moment, we’d have to wait and see what the flow of the story was. I was rather curious what angle they’d assail me with, truth be told. Unless they could find me a practical way to turn the Imperial governorship system into a functioning nation-state, they didn’t have much to distract me with. The answer came in the form of the Baron of Blue Lights – one of the nobles who’d escorted me into the city – strolling casually in my direction. When we’d last met he’d been wary but interested. Now he looked at me with open hatred.

“Antagonist, are you?” I said with a smile before he could get a word in.

He blinked, face going entirely blank for a moment. Like his entire being had shut down. You lot don’t like it when I don’t speak my lines, do you? I’d found my first lever to pull. Wouldn’t get me through this mess, but it was something I could use.

“Do you enjoy the singing, my lady?” he said after a moment, defaulting back to sneering.

I’d seen Heiress pull better sneers than that, I thought with amusement. He wasn’t even silently finding the very concept of my existence distasteful. Second-rate performance.

“Not one much for music,” I said. “Also beating the performers seems in poor taste, but that’s just a personal preference.”

“Captives have no rights,” he said.

“I mean you guys haven’t signed any of the Calernian treaties about prisoner treatment, so I guess you’re factually correct,” I mused. “Not that the Empire has either, mind you. The whole blood sacrifice thing would be a breach of terms I imagine.”

The Baron seemed completely at a loss as to where to go from there.

“They will all be whipped if one misses a note,” he tried.

“That’s nice,” I said. “Does everyone take a turn, or is it just the one torturer? Never whipped anyone before so I don’t want to make a fool of myself in public.”

I wondered what it said about me that I was beginning to enjoy myself. Obviously there’d been an assumption here that on moral grounds I would object to the Summer fairies being chained up and tormented. Swing and a miss, that. Not only were those musicians essentially immortal creatures that would come around again next time Summer happened, but they were also not mine to protect. Now if it had been members of the Fifteenth or Callowans on that stage, he’d be choking on steel right now. My motivation to save fae from fae, though, was effectively nil. I’d been taught the hard way, after all, that if you tried to save everyone you only ended up getting more people killed. I wasn’t unfamiliar with hard choices and this… simply did not qualify. I wasn’t risking my life or the life of my friends for ultimately meaningless fairy schemes. Villain, Baron, not hero. I get to pick my fights.

I patted the Baron of Blue Lights on the shoulder and left him blank-faced behind me. I idly wondered whether my refusing to bite I had killed the trap entirely, or if I’d merely survived the first volley. Probably the second one: my luck was the stuff weeping despair was made of. And just to confirm that shining sliver of pessimism, lounging by a pillar I saw the Prince of Nightfall eyeing me wryly. I grimaced. This one wouldn’t be as easy to fuck with.

“Enjoying the masquerade, Lady of Marchford?” he said.

Predictably, the man’s mask was a raven. I got the less than reassuring feeling that it was watching me independently of the wearer’s eyes. I leaned against the railing by his side, watching the empty ballroom below.

“It’s been enlightening,” I replied. “Pretty obvious trap, for entities supposedly cunning made flesh.”

“A well-laid trap does not rely on surprise but on the opponent’s nature,” he said.

A servant with a plate approached us. There were two pipes on it, both already lit: one smelled sweet and musky, and the Prince grabbed it. Ground poppy, if I was not mistaken. The other had the distinct sharp tang of wakeleaf, a personal vice of mine.

“Is it poisoned?” I asked the dark-haired fae.

“If I ever decide I want your life,” the Prince said, “poison will play no part in your death.”

“That’s not a no,” I noted.

“It is not poisoned,” he sighed.

I took the pipe. Would be a shame to waste the stuff, especially when I could so rarely afford it these days. Ashur had raised all its prices on the merchandise imported by Praes after war blew up in the Free Cities, and the island was the only pace where it was grown. I inhaled with a little sigh of pleasure and blew out the grey smoke.

“Your King picked wrong when he baited me into coming here,” I said. “Whatever it is you’re after, you’re not going to get it.”

“That’s the beauty of it, Lady Foundling,” he smiled, face framed by a cloud of poppy. “What we want is what you want. Our victories are one and the same.”

So the Prince was in on whatever his boss was up to. Good to know. I wasn’t deluded enough to think my idle talk had been enough to trick the man into revealing that, so the implication was that the Prince believed it didn’t matter if I knew.

“Where’s Princess Sulia, right now?” I asked suddenly.

He chuckled.

“Setting fire to the south of your little kingdom,” he said. “Even for one of us, the Princess of High Noon has a beautifully simplistic view of things.”

I inhaled again, let the wakeleaf warm my blood and sharpen my wits. The idea of an entity with the same kind of power I could feel emanating from the Prince being loose in Callow was horrifying beyond words, but I could not flinch now. I might never get another occasion half as good to gather information.

“Now I get that you think you can mess with me,” I said. “I’m just a wet-behind the ears Named with a single aspect.”

The Prince of Nightfall blew a ring of smoke, raising an eyebrow.

“While my role has little to do with intrigue, that is an exceedingly poor lie,” he said.

I kept my face calm. Could he really tell? Masego would know, but he also knew better than to say anything. I’d learned from the fights of the Liesse Rebellion that aspects were trump cards to be used sparingly and best kept hidden – the Lone Swordsman had known about Struggle before our second fight and used it against me, which he wouldn’t have been able to if I’d kept it quiet. I’d taken in the lesson and kept what I’d gotten in the aftermath of the Battle of Liesse close to my chest, the edge hidden until I could use it to crush Heiress.

“No idea what you’re talking about,” I lied. “Anyway, like I was saying, messing with me is one thing. Invading Imperial territory like the Courts have been doing, though? That’s another. There’s bigger fish in that sea, and you’re pissing them off.”

“Your Calamities are away,” he said. “And even if they were not, their finely crafted defences were not meant for us.”

Two things I could take from that, I thought. Either they’d struck Callow now because the Empire’s most dangerous villains were all abroad save for the Empress – who had to stay in Ater – and they expected whatever they were after to be achieved before the Calamities came back. That or they genuinely believed they could take on Praes on its traditional battlefield and win. Of that, I wasn’t convinced. When push came to shove there weren’t a lot of drastic measures the Dread Empire was above taking to get a win. While in Arcadia the Legions would get wrecked, but on Creation the fae were weaker. And if there was a Calernian nation with the magical know-how to make real trouble for the Courts, it was definitely Praes – or the Kingdom of the Dead, I supposed, but you’d have to be a special kind of stupid to take a crack at that. Entire Crusades had been annihilated without even reaching Keter.

“It’s still a bad fight to pick,” I said.

Another servant with a plate of pipes came by and the Prince traded his for a fresh one. I glanced at the second hit of wakeleaf.

“Is it poisoned?” I asked again.

“No pipe you will be offered tonight will be poisoned,” the dark-haired fae said irritably.

I took the second one. There was a still a bit left at the bottom of my current pipe and the waste broke my heart, but I couldn’t know if I’d get another offer.

“The first time I ever stepped into Creation,” the Prince of Nightfall told me, pulling at his pipe, “I found it a brutish, ugly thing. A pale imitation of Arcadia painted with lesser pigments. While my fellows rejoiced across the fresh playground, I began to withdraw.”

The longer he spoke, the colder I felt. Not the sharp bite of winter, I decided, but more like the cool air that spread after sundown. I tugged my cloak closer around my dress.

“I paused after coming across a fox,” he continued with a smile. “It had fallen into a trap laid by one of your ancestors, you see. A snare that caught its foot. It knew it would die, if it remained there.”

I frowned.

“It chewed off its foot,” I guessed. “The smart ones do that sometimes.”

“Yes,” the Prince of Nightfall agreed. “And it escaped. An insignificant animal, yet it could do something that would never have occurred to any of us.”

Oh Gods did I not like the sound of that.

“You’re chewing off your foot right now,” I said.

The dark-haired fae blew out a thick stream of smoke ahead of him. He leaned forward suddenly, and right in front of my face clacked his teeth mockingly.

“Our teeth are a great deal sharper than a fox’s, Lady of Marchford,” he said. “Beware you don’t get chewed.”

Dropping his pipe onto a servant-held plate that hadn’t been there a moment earlier, the Prince of Nightfall sauntered off. I let out a long breath and stilled the trembling in my hands. I took another pull of wakeleaf and closed my eyes. Hello fear, my old friend. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I spewed out the smoke and opened my eyes to find another fae leaning by my side. Tall, like most of them, and so pale he might as well have been made of snow. He was closer than was strictly proper and his hare mask did not hide the affection in his eyes. I’d seen the first of my antagonists, I thought. Looked like it was time to meet an ally.

“My lady, this is a trap,” he murmured softly.

“No kidding,” I said.

“The Duke of Violent Squalls means to entrap you,” he said. “Soon he’ll make a scene to trick you into a wager. You must not rise to his provocations.”

I sighed.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

His face went blank. I was supposed to know him, then. Which meant the Princess of High Noon had friends in Winter. I glanced at how close he was standing to me. Maybe more than a friend, even. Wasn’t that the stirrings of a proper tragedy? Woe was them, love from across opposite sides. Gods Below, even William had known better than that.

“I am Prospin, the Count of the Last Gasp,” he said stiffly. “As you well know.”

“Tell me about this wager, Prospin,” I said.

“My lady, you can’t,” he implored, reaching for my hands. “It would destroy me to lose you.”

Oh yeah definitely more than a friend. I took away my hands before he could touch them.

“I’m sure you’ll survive,” I replied drily. “Now tell me about the godsdamned wager.”

“How you toy with my affections,” he lamented.

The Princess of High Noon liked them clingy, apparently. Took all kinds.

“In exchange for the freedom of the musicians, the Duke will ask that you wager your voluntary captivity,” he said.

“How’s the wager settled?” I asked.

“Duels, for you are a creature of war,” Prospin said. “He has three champions ready.”

Creature of war, huh. I guess we did have that in common, the princess and I.

“Terms of the duel?” I prompted.

“Death or surrender,” the Count whispered.

I clenched my fingers and unclenched them. I could work with that.

“My lady, they are ready for you,” he said. “I beg of you, do not give them what they want.”

And there was the truth, wasn’t there? They’d been ready for me since the beginning. Every move I’d made since the first attack on Marchford had gotten me deeper into their plan. It was an infuriating feeling, and I got quite enough of that from Black already. Except my teacher wasn’t here: there was no safety net under me, no monster looking over my shoulder and smiling at my enemy. If I fell here I’d break more than bones. The thought only refreshed the fear from earlier and that was unacceptable. I would not be cowed. I would not be made their puppet in this eldritch game they were playing. They wanted to push me around? Fine. Now it was my turn, and I was going to push back. I’d been drawn into their tempo for too long, and that was how you lost fights. At best I’d manage to crawl away to survive, and that just wasn’t enough. Not when I’d have dead soldiers to buried when I returned. They were owed better. If I couldn’t solve a problem, well, I could always make it their problem.

“Which one is the Duke of Violent Squalls?” I asked.

“My lady-“ the Count began, but I had no patience for it.

“Prospin,” I said. “You can either tell me, or you can go over this railing before I ask someone else.”

The fae’s face went blank.

“He’s the man by the ballroom floor,” he said after a moment. “At the centre of the cluster of nobles.”

I glanced down and saw the group he was talking about. The Duke wore a grey doublet with cuffs of wind, same as his palace, and his mask was shaped like a wolf. His cronies were tittering at something he said.

“Thank you,” I told the Count absent-mindedly.

I walked away without bothering with any further talk. On my way down I passed by another face I recognized, the Lady of Cracking Ice, and she offered me a nod. I looked at the beautiful white gloves she was wearing and smiled a feral smile as I came closer. By her side was a distinguished-looking man in armour, the sight of whom had me adjusting my thought.

“I need to borrow something for a moment,” I told the man, reaching for his gauntlet.

I got it off his hand before he could properly react – it was largely ornamental, held there only by clasps – and got moving before he could protest, throwing a ‘thanks’ over my shoulder. The Duke of Violent Squalls and his cronies hadn’t moved, the man in question with his back turned to me as he replied to another noble’s question. I was maybe three feet away from him and he couldn’t be bothered to pay attention. Well, that was just asking for it.

I judged the gauntlet’s weight, then tossed the chunk of metal as hard as I could into the back of the duke’s head.

It hit with a beautiful thunk. The fae yelped and I could feel the gaze of every single person at the masquerade going to us as he turned to face me with rage in his eyes.

“Evening,” I said, puffing at the pipe. “Don’t think we’ve been introduced. My name is Catherine Foundling, and I hear you want to throw down. Let’s get this going, shall we?”

I blew the acrid smoke in his face for that extra touch and decided, why the Hells not?

“Bitch,” I added.

The entire hall was silent as a grave, save for the sound of Archer’s belly laugh.