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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, Wednesday and Friday. First update of every month will be accompanied by an Extra Chapter.

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Chapter 3: Orison

“My son, I offer you the greatest gift a ruler can give another: a widely reviled predecessor.”
– Extract from the infamous ‘Sensible Testament’ of Basilea Chrysanthe of Nicae

I’d used to love winter in Laure, as a child.

Sure, once in a while charcoal and firewood prices went up so the matron had to cut corners but as a rule I’d gotten to enjoy the snow in the streets while having a warm house awaiting me after. It took mere hours for the blanket of pale to turn to mush or soiled mess, but before time ran out there’d been a lot of fun to be had. We’d made a fort in the steps of the broken old hatcher’s house, once, and pitched snowballs at everyone passing for the better part of an afternoon. It’d ended when we’d accidentally caught some Taghreb legion mage instead of a Liessen merchant. Luckily enough the man had been more amused than angered, and instead of chewing us out he’d used sorcery to lift half the damned fort and dump it back on our heads. We’d all fled shrieking into the streets, soaked in snow and red-faced, while he laughed loudly. Gods, how old had I been? Seven, eight? I barely remembered anything from back then, nowadays, but that one memory of the sunny winter afternoon might as well have been seared into my eyes. The matron had remonstrated us pretty roughly for coming back to the orphanage drenched, but I was pretty sure she’d been hiding a smile.

It’d taken me a long time to realized how lucky I’d been, getting a childhood like that. Sure we had lessons and curfews and the occasional lean week, but Callowan orphanages had been funded by the Tower. The coin had kept coming, and we’d been protected in some abstract away. Everyone had known that the orphanages were the Black Knight’s own notion, and the shadow cast by my teacher’s displeasure had been as a giant’s back then. It’d been easier, hadn’t it? When it all seemed so large and simple, and all you had to do to change things was climb to the top. Foe and friend, victory and defeat. I’d picked up the knife that night believing myself clever enough to see through the pretence of black and white, but that’d just been scratching the surface. Sometimes thing happened that were too complicated, too far-reaching, to be called something as clear-cut as a victory or a defeat. Sometimes you could hate the people you most needed to clasp hands with and love those that would be most dangerous to your heart’s desire. My eyes flicked to a tall silhouette in the distance, treading the snow without a trace. She had her back to me, so there would be no glimpse of golden eyes, but there was no mistaking her for anyone else.

Sometimes you could grow fond of someone even if you couldn’t forgive them and never would.

I let out a steamy breath, watching the vapour rise up. That had me itching for my pipe, though I was equally reluctant to take off my gloves and reach under my cloak to indulge in my little vice. It was a cold night out, and it would be hours yet before dawn rose. I could have drawn on the Night to warm my bones, or more accurately chase away the cold, but some part of me twistedly enjoyed feeling the bite. Not so long ago it would have been nothing to be but another faded colour, another not-sensation washing up against the thing passing for my body. The moon above us was shrouded by the clouds, but light filtered through. Enough that I saw the crows streak across the darkness, feathered frames of Night batting their wings in utter silence. I dipped a finger into the power the Sisters had opened to me, sharpening my eyesight for a heartbeat, and caught a glimpse of crimson on the talons the pair. They’d killed tonight, then. If all they require for their altar is the occasional rabbit, I can make my peace with that. Their descent was almost a dive, but they failed to make me stumble when they landed on my shoulders. They’d kept back their talons, and made of Night as they were they weighed near nothing unless they particularly wished to. I tightened my cloak around my shoulders and cast a meaningful glance at the bevy of drow escorting me. The warriors bowed low and scattered across the snowy landscape.

“Rochelant,” Komena said, a strangely human voice leaving her crow’s throat.

“There will be blood,” Andronike said.

Wasn’t there always? Stainless victories were not in my nature.

“As little as possible,” I said. “We come for knowledge, not conquest.”

Crow-Komena’s laughter sounded like cawing, which we both knew she was doing on purpose.

“So speaks the roving catastrophe,” Andronike said.

I could have gone pithy in reply to that, but my mood had gone sour after the conversation in the tavern and the march in the cold had done nothing to improve it. I simply grunted back wordlessly.

“Fickle thing,” Komena chided. “Is this tossing of insults not what you told us to practice? Why do you now shy away?”

“I stand by what I said,” I replied. “You want to stay grounded? Talk with people in a way that isn’t prayer or orders. My friends were my anchor when I was deep in Winter.”

“Friendship,” Andronike said, sounding somewhat skeptical. “A human concept, not of the Firstborn. Kinship in interests is ever passing.”

“Yeah, I’m not exactly holding my breath you two starting to feel all warm and fuzzy inside,” I sighed. “This isn’t about that.”

“Imprecise,” Komena noted. “Elaborate.”

“Banter’s informal,” I said. “It puts you on equal footing with the other person, if only for the duration of that exchange. And for you two it’s even more important, because to be hallway decent at it there’s a lot of things you have to pick up on: the situation, the timing, what lines you can and can’t cross. It forces you to think like a person while you do it.”

“It will not change what we are,” Andronike said.

“None of us can do that,” I replied. “What we can do is make sure you still understand what a mortal is. That you don’t become so utterly removed from reality you march yourself off the cliff.”

There was a long moment of silence broken only by my boots creasing the snow.

“You are being sexually promiscuous with your subordinate, which is humorous for unclear reasons,” Komena tried.

I closed my eyes and counted to five. At least she’s trying, I told myself.

“We’ll, uh, keep working on that,” I muttered.

I flicked a glance at crow-Andronike, but she did not have another drow attempt at humour to throw my way. Well, either that my reaction to her sister had scared her off. The crow-shaped sliver of goddess turned towards me in indignation, much to my amusement. Yes, clearly she was beyond such petty feelings. No, I wasn’t thinking that just to appease her. I muffled my chuckle with my gloves. The slight ebb upwards in my mood disappeared the moment the distraction ended. I was in the dark, in more ways than one. And some of the things hidden from my view mattered more to me than others. I hesitated, fingers clenching and unclenching.

“Ask,” Andronike said.

“Since you ate Winter,” I said. “Your… abilities have grown.”

“Beyond your understanding,” Komena said. “Though that is not a high wall to clear.”

That’d actually been pretty decent, I noted. Insults came much easier to her than humour, which really wasn’t much of a surprise. I cleared my throat.

“Could you find out if someone is dead or not?” I quietly asked.

“Yes,” crow-Andronike said.

Ah, but would they?

“No,” crow-Komena said.

“I know there’d be risks,” I said.

“Of which you warned us yourself,” Andronike said.

“If you start swinging your apotheosis around on the surface, something a lot older and meaner is bound to start swinging back. That story doesn’t end well for you,” Komena said, pitching her voice in an eerily perfect mimicry of mine.

The leather gloves crinkled as I closed them into a fist.

“There are strategic reasons why the information would be important,” I said.

“Not enough to warrant the possibility of provoking an entity our match,” crow-Andronike said. “You know this.”

“Sentiment is unseemly,” crow-Komena said.

“Don’t do that,” I sharply said.

They stilled for a moment. They were not used, I thought, to being spoken to in this way. And we all knew that the part of their power they had sent with me was enough that they could kill me if they so wished – my best defence against it, after all, had been granted to me by their favour. But I would not hold my tongue. That was the whole point of my being named their herald, the First Under the Night: having someone that hadn’t been raised to worship them to argue with them, force them to reconsider what they believed. They might not always agree with me, and frequently did not. But entirely separate from our military alliance and the diplomatic authority they had granted me was the real foundation of our accord. A cat may look at a king, the old Callowan saying went. Though the unfortunate pun had me gritting my teeth, it was a decent way of putting it. It was my damned purpose to disagree with them without sweetening my words.

“There’s nothing wrong with feeling things,” I said. “You take that out and all you view is skewed. They’re not the only thing to take into consideration, often not even the most important, but they do matter. Logic alone leads you to ugly ends because you’re dealing with people, not statues. If you remove that element just to feel clear-sighted and superior, you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot repeatedly.”

“Your tone,” Andronike said.

“Is exactly what it should be,” I replied, unflinching. “If you are right and correct in your own view, make your argument. If all you can quibble about is my phrasing, maybe you should be thinking instead of trying to chide me.”

That didn’t please them, but then it wasn’t supposed to.

“You provided what you promised,” crow-Komena conceded. “Yet the refusal remains. Employ other means.”

I would, the moment I could. There was a storm taking shape in Iserre and I suspected Black would have a better idea than most of what it was really about. He was the only person I trusted who’d ever spoken with both the Hierarch and the Tyrant of Helike, strange as the nature of that trust could be. I trust people to act according to their nature, Malicia had once said. A Wasteland way of thinking, but there was truth to it. I remained alone with the crows-that-were-not-crows on the long march, buried in silence until dawn came.

“It is a dangerous weakness,” Akua said. “Though I suppose inevitable in some ways. Power never comes without a cost.”

The sun had begun passing the horizon, and with the light of morning something like a shiver had passed through fifty thousand drow. Tents had been hastily raised and my host hid away under them before dawn even finished. The sentinels forced to remain out in the sun did so after boiling water to make herbal concoctions that would keep the awake through the sudden wave of tiredness. Dawn, I had learned, was when Sve Noc’s power ebbed lowest. I would have assumed noon to be it, but Akua had offered a complicated explanation as to why that was not the case I’d failed to understand twice before I got her to simplify it into something comprehensible: dawn was the death of the night. As a metaphysical concept, that had more weight than the rest. For some reason that apparently required me to have read a lot of books I definitely had not before it became sound and evident logic. The tent she was keeping me company under was open at the font, but the thick linen walls did cut away at the worst of the wind nicely. It made the wait tolerable, though I was actually debating taking a nap.

“This is an inconvenient one,” I said.

“Surprisingly light,” Diabolist retorted. “They are still physically able, after all. Simple temporarily bereft of their access to the Night.”

“They’ll also be out like a light for a few hours,” I grunted. “That’s a recipe for a morning attack and you know it.”

The transition from night to dawn was taxing on drow bodies in a way that led to exhaustion, and effectively prevented the expeditionary force from being truly fighting fit for at least three to four hours. And they’d be tired for the rest of the day as well as being fragile little mortals if I didn’t leave them sleeping a little longer than that, though at least that I could push later in the day. It wasn’t like other armies didn’t have to sleep, of course. But having a fixed time for that was a liability, and there would be no keeping that under wraps forever. The moment we began operating near other armies, there’d be outriders and scouts on us at all times and much as I liked to insult Proceran royalty they were not above basic pattern recognition.

“Hence why joining forces with the Legions of Terror remains a priority,” Akua said. “Fifty thousand warriors led by Mighty able to operate flawless in the dark are nothing to scoff at, and a fortified camp held by legionaries would allow us to exploit that advantage relentlessly.”

“Until we have allies, it makes occupation of anything concrete difficult,” I reminded her. “Taking something at night will be easy enough. Holding it through the day another story.”

“Fortunate, then, that occupation is not our intent,” Akua serenely replied.

That and I still had a few cards to play if things got bad, though heroic presence would make the whole matter chancy. They tended to do that, as a rule. At least the Dead King should keeping a good chunk of them out of my hair for the foreseeable future. I cast a look back at my bed, which was essentially a pile of covers and inexplicably flat cushions, and finally gave up the notion of a lie-in. Maybe after I worked out some of the tension in my body. I rose with a grunt, curtly refusing Akua offered helping hand, and buckled my sheath back onto my belt.

“Who has the watch again?” I asked the shade.

“Lord Ivah,” she replied.

Ivah, huh. It’d been a while since we’d had a proper chat. Unlike some of the Peerage, who seemed discomforted by how easily they still obeyed me and so made themselves scarce, my old guide had remained at hand. Unfortunately it was also a pathfinder of some talent, and so often sent out ahead of the expeditionary army. Might as well take the occasion today, I didn’t know how long it would be until the next. Though was I was higher than General Rumena in the pecking order of the Empire Ever Dark, it was in charge of leading the expedition. While I could give orders and dismiss its own, the details of the duty rosters remained at its discretion. I could have intervened, but was reluctant to do as much without a better reason than liking having Ivah around. Akua followed me out of the tent and onto the camp wordlessly. After years of commanding legionaries, the sight of the mess around us had me wincing on the inside. The layout of this place was a bloody maze, all haphazard tents with no real thought given to quick deployment and no chance of a bloody palisade being raised. Rumena wasn’t a fool, so it’d been pretty thorough about putting sentinels in place during our vulnerable ours, but it’d admitted to me in private that it could not turn a gaggle of tribal sigils into the kind of army the Empire Ever Dark had once fielded with less than a month before the campaign began.

Assembling a functioning chain of command had been miracle enough, in my opinion, which should count for quite a bit considering I was now the foremost priestess of an entire race.

“Have you considered using a staff?” Akua suddenly asked.

She’d pulled slightly ahead of me, I only then noticed. I could go quicker, in all honesty, but I was in no real hurry and this pace was most comfortable.

“My limp’s not that bad,” I shrugged.

“It pains you,” the shade frowned.

“When it loses its novelty I’ll get herbs for that,” I replied. “That’s what my pipe was for in the first place.”

We turned around a cluster of tents, the smallness of the gap rather irritating to my eyes. She resumed the line of conversation afterwards.

“Unnecessary suffering is exactly that,” Akua said.

“I’m still fighting fit,” I said with irritation. “And if I need a little nimbleness, I’ll call on the Night to make it withdraw for a bit. I got the juice directly from Sve Noc, daylight won’t stop me.”

“It does significantly weaken you,” Diabolist retorted.

I rolled my eyes. So the kind of power I could call on went from terrifying to merely appalling after dawn. It was still more than I’d ever had to work with as the Squire by an almost absurd margin.

“Yet that was not my meaning,” Akua mildly continued. “I worry more about what embracing this implies of your mindset.”

I watched her from the corner of my eye, and she did not meet my gaze. Worry, huh. The words she chose were never an accident.

“Sometimes it’s a good thing,” I said. “To remember what it feels like for the people who don’t make pacts with gods.”

“I had thought you estranged with contrition, dearest,” she said, tone prickly.

“I won’t wallow,” I flatly replied. “But I won’t lose sight of it twice either. A lot of people are going to bleed before this is over, Akua.”

I brought up my fingers to block the sun from my eyes, feeling the shade studying me.

“Now and then it’s worth the sting to feel a part of what you’re going to dole out,” I finished quietly. “It’s be a kinder world, if we were all made to remember that.”

“Kindness,” Diabolist mused.

“Not a Praesi favourite, I know,” I drily said.

Not much grounds left to cover before we reached the edge of the camp. Already we were passing drow so wrapped up in cloth the only seen could be seen was their eyes, though those were sharp and peering at the horizon. Ivah should be somewhere within the small thicket of bare trees I could see ahead, by the feel of the presences in the Night. Even when bereft of the power, they still left an impression. I slowed when I realized Akua had stopped. She was looking at me with narrowed eyes. Ah. Irritated her, had I?

“Is that what you think?” she said.

Not irritation, I thought. Disappointment. Fancy that.

“Are you sure, Akua Sahelian,” I said softly, “that you want to get in an argument with me about the moral fabric of the Wasteland?”

“I had a great-uncle,” she said. “By the name of Thandiwe.”

My eyebrow rose.

“Fascinating,” I said.

“I found him to be, as a child,” Akua casually admitted. “He was, after all, stricken from family records.”

“Maybe he used the wrong fork during the cannibalism ritual,” I suggested.

Much as I disliked to admit, though, she had my attention.

“My mother would not speak of,” she said, “and so naturally I pursued the matter secretly.”

A half-smile quirked her lips.

“He was a sorcerer of great promise,” she said. “As is custom among our line, as a boy he was brought to the deepest part of the Maze of Kilns. There he was made to sacrifice one dear to him, and for months after remained silent.”

So it wasn’t just you, I thought. Had Tasia Sahelian been made to do the same by her own mother, I wondered? How far back did the wounding of their own children go, for it to have earned the name of tradition?

“The lesson was believed to have been taught,” Akua said. “And it was. One the eve of his sixteenth year, Thandiwe Sahelian stole several tomes and artefacts from the family vaults and fled to Mercantis, where he pawned them for a small fortune he used to make a home further south in Nicae.”

I snorted.

“I imagine that went over less than pleasantly in Wolof,” I said.

“Rage is an apt description,” she mused. “Which only worsened when he began to thrive after entering some sort of merchant consortium and became comfortably wealthy even by Praesi standards. Enough to seek the protection of the Basileus, which the Empire sought favourable trade terms with in those days.”

“Clever, then,” I said. “Though I’m wondering as to your point. The man sounds decent enough, but he left Praes.”

Akua inclined her head.

“And yet he was also a Sahelian,” she said, and even now there was an undertone of pride when she spoke the name. “The blood of the original murder, unhallowed from the cradle. I am told that he kept to the Gods Below even on that foreign shore.”

“He grew past his roots,” I said.

And I’m not so sure you have, I thought. She looked up at the morning sun, her silhouette wreathed in light for a heartbeat, and there was something about her smile that unsettled me.

“You have seen the worst of us,” the shade said. “And through that knowing taken our measure. But there is more, Catherine. We are not beyond kindness, not even the highborn. If even a Sahelian can have the taste for peace, there is yet something left to be kindled.”

“If you want to be known by more than the ugliest parts of you,” I said, “perhaps you should show them to the rest of the world. Maybe the capacity is there, Akua, but we don’t judge by capacity. It’s the choices you make that matter.”

“Ah,” she murmured. “And how many of those do we really have, in the end?”

One hundred thousand souls, I thought. That was a choice. It’s the weight on the balance by which you will be judged, and what could possibly even the scales? I cleared my throat, uncomfortable the lingering silence.

“Your great-uncle,” I said. “What happened to him, after?”

Golden eyes met mine.

“The old Basileus died. His successor refused the Empire’s terms outright,” she said. “And so my grandfather, a noted alchemist, took to his workshop. If he is so ashamed of his blood, I am told he said, let us relieve him of it.”

Neither of us blinked.

“Thandiwe Sahelian sweated out every drop of blood in his body within the year,” Akua said.

We finished the rest of the walk in silence.

Chapter 2: Stirrings

“Everything happens for a reason, and this time the reason is that I godsdamned said so.”
– Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow

I let Akua trail behind me as we walked through the half-frozen mud.

Archer hadn’t been wrong, I thought, to call this place a shithole. But where she likely saw it as sloppiness on their part, a refusal to pull up their sleeves and improve their own lot, to me Trousseau reeked of desperation. Too many hard years, too many taxmen more interested in their tallies than what those cost to the people who made up the numbers. I didn’t like it, that she thought that way. I could admit that to myself. There were times where her indifference to the lot of others galled me deeply, because it ran against what I’d been raised to – that when it got dark outside, everyone was in it together. I’d learned, though, to follow that somewhat callous belief to its source. The Ranger. I’d loved the stories about Indrani’s mentor as a child, certainly more than those about the Calamities. After all she’d been absent for most the Conquest, and unlike the others she wasn’t Praesi. The last specks of that childhood fondness had waned when she’d answered an offer a help by nearly murdering me on a whim. What Black saw in her I didn’t know and doubted I would ever understand, but I could make my peace with that. What she’d done to Indrani, though? That was another story.

She’d taught Archer that her fate would only ever be defined by her own hands, and that I could only approve of, but she’d left the lesson half-finished. She’d never told my friend that she was exceptional, that not everybody could be like her. That sometimes people failed and gave up, and that didn’t make them unworthy in some way. Just tired and hurt and without an answer as to why they should keep trying. It was an easier way to live, I supposed. Looking a misery and believing it was the miserable solely responsible for it. Never aching at the sight. But I don’t think it’s a better one, I thought. Maybe it was unfair to blame the Lady of the Lake for passing down beliefs she seemed to genuinely hold to, but I wasn’t inclined to fairness when it came to the Ranger. She had her claws too deep in too many people I loved, and I could only think of the marks she’d left behind as wounds.

“I don’t suppose we have a destination in mind?” Akua mildly said.

She’d caught up to me while I was deep in thought. I could not help but notice from the corner of my eye that her dress of pale and gold was untouched by the mire we were passing through, or that she left no footprints. Not quite alive, not quite dead. As in so many things, Akua Sahelian was straddling the line.

“There’s a knot of drow further down the street,” I replied. “And I could only think of one reason so many would gather in one place.”

The shade kept to silence for a moment.

“She has been getting more rowdy, not less,” Akua finally said.

Even with the wind that had me wishing I’d wheedled a scarf out of the drow before leaving, her voice was perfectly heard. Couldn’t be sure whether that was just an oratory skill she’d picked up in Wolof or some kind of sorcerous trick, not that I cared all that much. Convenient was the word that came to mind more than anything else.

“We all cope in our own ways,” I replied. “It’ll run its course in due time.”

Indrani had come very close to dying, in the battle for Great Strycht. Not because of a Mighty, some glorious duel she would now be laughing about. When the Sisters had eviscerated my hold on Winter they’d flooded their city with frost. Archer had been out on the edges, when it happened, picking her targets and stirring up the pot. But she’d still been caught in the mess, and Winter unleashed was not something you just walked off. I suspected that in way the brush with death wasn’t what had unsettled her. She’d been riding that horse for years now, and enjoyed every moment of it. It had been that when death came knocking, the bow in her hand and the blades at her side couldn’t have done anything to stop it. The realization that sometimes a steady sword-arm wasn’t enough, even if you were clever and brave and burning with the need to leave a mark on the world.

“And if it doesn’t?” Akua said.

“Then we’ll deal with it,” I calmly replied. “All of us, together.”

The shade sighed.

“I don’t suppose that a reminder you’ve not spoken with our informant would be of any use before we get entangled in yet another drinking binge?” she asked.

I glanced at her amusedly.

“Are we pretending you can’t recite every answer they gave you verbatim?” I said.

“I can do the intonations as well,” Akua casually boasted.

“Of course you can,” I said, rolling my eyes.

I didn’t bother to knock when we got to the tavern, or at least what I assumed to be that. It was ratty enough it didn’t have a sign hung outside, though I did remember reading somewhere some parts of Procer had put a tax on that. I’d be in a better position to cast judgement on that if some Fairfax who’d seen drinking liquor as sinful and debasing behaviour hadn’t put up a bewildering array of punitive taxes on everything alcoholic not even a century ago. Still, I thought, eyeing the bare and windowless wall outside. At least the next king dismissed the measures. For all I knew, some prince out there was still lining his pockets with this sheer stupidity. The door was unlatched and the mangled carpet in front of it suffered the attentions of my boots for a moment before I entered. Calling what lay at the centre of the dirt floor a fire pit would have been overly generous, I thought, considering it wasn’t even lined with stone. The place was cramped in some fundamental way, from the narrow walls to the twisty tables. There was a room in the back which I deduced to be the owner’s sleeping place as well as the kitchen, insofar as this place could be said to have one of those.

Akua closed the door behind me, and already Indrani was waving us over. She’d shrugged off her coat and somehow divested herself of her mail, leaving her in dark green tunic and trousers whose tightness were quite flattering to her frame. I glanced back up and saw a smirk touching her lips, so she’d definitely caught that. Well, I admitted to myself, it wouldn’t be the first time. Or likely the last, honesty compelled me to admit. The return to mortality had left me with all sorts of hungers in need of sating, and I probably would have sought her out if she hadn’t done it first. I was only human after all, and even now that thought had a pleasurable ring to it. I shot a look around and found no trace of the tavern-keeper, turning to raise an eyebrow at Indrani.

“It got a little too much for the old man,” Archer languidly shrugged. “Got some of our minions to bring him somewhere for a lie-down.”

“You didn’t do anything, did you?” I asked, frowning even as I took off my gloves.

“Aside from empty a bottle in the short span of time since you’ve found this place,” Akua drily added.

My eyes found the cheap bottle of red she was referring to, along with her four still-full sisters lined up neatly to the side. One was already open. The shade passed me without a sound, sliding herself in a stool across the table Archer had claimed. I unclasped my cloak and followed suit, hesitating for the barest fraction of a moment before sitting on Akua’s side. The stool there struck me as marginally less likely to break if I moved around a bit.

“Just a bit too much agitation for him, I think,” Indrani told me. “What with the drow walking the surface again and the wicked minions of the Black Queen patronizing his humble establishment.”

Akua’s own comment got as a response a gesture that would have seen me spanked by the orphanage matron if I’d ever been caught doing it in public.

“Temporary eviction would have been necessary regardless,” the shade said. “If we are to discuss business on the premises, that is.”

“Aw, shit,” Archer complained, eyeing me balefully. “Really, Cat?”

“I’d rather do it in here with a fire and an open bottle than out there in the cold,” I shrugged.

“Fine,” she waved away. “But I’d like to lodge a formal protest.”

“Pass it along to my secretary,” I drily said. “Triplicate, standard form.”

Indrani turned her gaze to Akua.

“Sadly, as a mere spirit I cannot be handed such forms,” the shade blatantly lied. “They’d go right through me.”

“I liked you better before we taught you to be an ass,” Archer complained.

“No you didn’t,” Akua said, full lips quirking.

Indrani did not contradict her, and neither did I. After what had taken place in Great Strycht it was… difficult to distrust the Diabolist as much as I once had. I wouldn’t be taking my eye off her anytime soon, sure, but it was hard to forget that when we’d all reached the end Akua could have chosen to cut and run, and hadn’t. That meant something. Given that she was perhaps the most skilled liar I’d ever met, figuring out exactly what it meant was the trouble.

“So, someone folded,” I said, steering us towards safer waters. “How out of date is what they had to tell?”

“She has a relative in the monastery to the north she sees regularly,” Akua said. “And the sisters there are part of the general correspondence of the House of Light, regardless of their relative insignificance. The last direct letter is a month old, one could generously assume the news themselves two weeks older than that.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“That quick?” I said. “I thought we were in the middle of nowhere.”

“Two day’s ride away from the minor city of Rochelant, as it happens,” Diabolist corrected. “To the west. In a broader sense, we are skirting the eastern edge of the principality of Iserre.”

I drummed my fingers around the table, idly noting it kinda looked like someone had digested it for a bit before it’d ended up here.

“Closer to Callow than I thought we’d end up,” I said. “That brings up unpleasant questions, in retrospective.”

“Could just be that you traded Winter for crows, Cat,” Indrani said. “You and Zeze were screwing about with the stuff for everything, back when the Observatory was raised.”

“I was not given the opportunity to observe the arrangements in great detail,” Akua conceded pre-emptively. “However, I am intimately familiar with the artefact used at the centre of the array. It should not have been affected by our latest alliance and its…”

She paused, golden eyes taking me in.

“Metaphysical repercussions,” she settled on.

I snorted. How delicately put of her. I wasn’t truly beholden to the Sisters in any way that could be considered vassalage – that would have rather defeated the point of what I was supposed to be to them – but it remained a fact I’d thrown Winter under the horse and been handed a direct tap to what had become of the Night afterwards. The power was a lot more volatile, true, and tended to exhaust me physically in a way my mantle never had. On the other hand I’d stopped going raving mad whenever I reached a little too deep and I could enjoy hot soup again. In a lot of ways, I still believed I’d ended up on the better side of that evening.

“So why aren’t we able to reach Juniper, then?” I said.

“She’s finally succumbed to Hakram’s charms and the bedroom door is locked under pain of death,” Indrani suggested.

“Sabotage is a possibility,” Akua said, more practically. “The Empress will still have agents in Callow, and might prefer your communications crippled. As for why Sve Noc could not reach out directly-”

“I know, you’ve already said,” I waved away. “Masego warded that thing so ridiculously viciously not even they want to risk putting their fingers in it.”

I felt a well of pride at the fact that Hierophant had somehow put up defences around the Observatory so harsh even a pair of living goddesses were wary of attempting to force them, inconvenient as it was at the moment. And he’d done it while remaining within allocated funds, too, which was just another feather in his cap as far as I was concerned.

“Doesn’t seem like Malicia’s style,” I finally said. “If you’d said she was listening in I’d buy it, but breaking it entirely? She prefers appropriation to outright denial when she can swing it.”

“There are other possible culprits,” Akua said. “More with motive than means, but a few with both. The Dead King. The heroic segment of the Tenth Crusade. The royal court of Arcadia. Perhaps even the Wandering Bard.”

“That doesn’t really narrow it down, does it?” I grunted. “Still, I’d tend to scratch off the Bard from the list. Black’s pretty sure she can only meddle through Named, and those we sent back to Laure would know better than to get involved with her.”

“Ugh, you two are yammering on about who could,” Indrani said, pouring herself another cup. “But that’s just means, and we got a lot of nasty surprises assuming we knew all about those. Maybe wonder about who would, instead? Whose kind of play is this?”

I eyed her cup with a raised eyebrow, and with a put-upon sigh she finally bothered to fill mine. And Akua’s, though I was still less than certain if drinking would actually do anything for the shade. I sipped at what turned out to be truly horrid concoction distantly related to wine while actually mulling over what Archer had said. Who would strike like this? The Grey Pilgrim came to mind. He had the brains for it, and the benefits would be obvious. With the Augur still telling Cordelia Hasenbach how the pieces were moving, we’d have lost our eye in the sky while the Tenth Crusade remained largely unaffected. Neshamah had the know-how, but it seemed a little light-handed for him. At the moment he’d have other cats to skin anyway: he should be hip-deep in angry Lycaonese right about now, and that lot didn’t know how to die easy. Assuming the Bard wasn’t involved, though assumptions were particularly dangerous when it came to that thing, that left the fae. And unless someone had fucked up real bad back home, they shouldn’t have a foothold in Creation that’d allow them to pull that kind of thing.

“The main benefit is confusion,” I finally said. “We’ll be moving blind out here, and unable to organize with Juniper.”

“Someone’s putting their bet on riding the chaos better than the rest,” Akua murmured.

A disquieting thought, considering for once it wasn’t me.

“The room’s pretty crowded this time,” Indrani said. “All it takes is a few punches thrown, and…”

She dropped her palm against the table, the clap ringing loudly in the empty tavern.

“In the spirit of that perspective,” Diabolist said, “perhaps one of the rumours I collected needs to be reassessed.”

I cocked an eyebrow invitingly while continuing to subject myself to the disaster Archer had obtained as table wine.

“We appear to be entering an all-out brawl between half the continent,” Akua said. “The legions Lord Black took into the Principate are currently in this very principality, and being pursued.”

My heartbeat quickened. No, I told myself. He’ll have a plan. He always does.

“By who?” Indrani asked, sounding surprised. “These are Conquest officers, you’re telling me Proceran scraps actually think they could win against them?”

“The armies of the Dominion of Levant,” the shade replied. “Though there’s been word of conscription in Salia, so they might not be alone.”

“That’s not half the continent,” I pointed out with a frown.

“The League of Free Cities appears to have joined the fray,” Diabolist said. “With a significant army, though the numbers put to it vary.”

I let out a low whistle.

“Are you telling me Tenerife has fallen?” I asked. “Because that’s not good news for us.”

The First Prince had sent twenty thousand soldiers to hold that border, and if the army had been slaughtered then that was twenty thousand men gone that’d have been rather useful up north. The drow exodus would strike like a hammer at the Dead King’s back when it arrived, but I knew better than to believe the Sisters had any chance of winning that war if the rest of Calernia didn’t get its shit together and move against him too.

“I cannot speak as to what happened to the army garrisoned there,” Akua said. “But I can tell you, however, that the League’s host is said to have emerged out of the Waning Woods without having given battle prior.”

I blinked in disbelief. Indrani, on the other hand, fell into a deep belly laugh. Gods, Vivienne had told me last year that the Tyrant of Helike had been sending agents into the region. Still, I’d assumed it was as way to infiltrate the heartlands of the Principate. Not march an army through the place.

“You’re actually serious, Shadehelian?” Archer got out, chin still quivering. “Someone was mad enough to take a bunch of soldiers through that?”

“Reportedly,” Akua said, unmoved by the hilarity. “One can only wonder at the losses taken. Regardless, the point of interest is that they emerged in Iserre specifically. And they seem intent on giving battle now.”

“That’s going to get messy,” I said, rapping my knuckles against the wood. “Unless Hakram and Vivienne birthed a diplomatic miracle while we were in the Everdark, which I’m not counting on. I really don’t want to start a war with the League.”

“And it ties in to Indrani’s earlier words,” Diabolist said. “There is another who prizes chaos as you do.”

My lips thinned.

“The Tyrant of Helike,” I said.

She nodded slowly.

“While aside from mounting confusion I can ascribe no direct benefit to such a measure being taken-”

“- for an old school madman like him, making everything messier might be benefit enough,” I grimly finished. “Shit. I don’t like having an army on the field without knowing where we stand with them.”

“Kind of the point, isn’t it?” Indrani shrugged.

I glanced at her, noticing we were now on the third bottle even though neither I nor Akua had finished our cups.

“The uncertainty, I mean,” Archer said. “It’s kind of like having a stranger pointing a crossbow at you while you’re in a swordfight. Every time they twitch your hackles go up, and the tension will grow until someone does something real stupid to get out of the situation.”

Akua’s position in her seat shifted by the barest amount. She was, I suspected, actually impressed. Now and then it was good to have a reminder that Indrani was a lot sharper than she liked to let on.

“So whoever’s leading that host is fucking with every other commander on the field just by being there,” I mused. “That does sound like the Tyrant from the reports. We sure the Hierarch is still alive? He seemed a lot more interested in telling me to hold elections than invading anyone.”

“Our informant is simply a relative, and the monastery rather minor,” Akua said. “There was only so much to be learned. I suspect the appointed ruler of Rochelant will be better informed.”

That still meant at least three days – drow moved fast, but not as fast as horses – of walking around Iserre with no godsdamned idea of what was going on around us. I didn’t enjoy the notion, but then I didn’t really have a better path to offer. Asking the Sisters to force the wards on the Observatory, assuming I could even talk them into it, was a lot more likely to result in that place collapsing or someone losing a finger than it was in an elightening conversation.

“Then that’s where we’re headed,” I said. “I’ll hash out the details with General Rumena. Indrani, you good to walk?”

“Am I ever not?” she drawled.

“You’d better be,” I warned. “Because I’m not staying in this town a moment longer than necessary. We all know what happens to the drow at dawn, I’m not losing moonlight I don’t have to.”

Archer smirked.

“Would you like to race me just in case, Cat?” she said.

I snorted.

“Please,” I said. “You’re pretty fast, but you can’t outrun a gate.”

I pushed back the chair and rose to my feet.

“Catherine,” Akua said quietly.

I glanced at her.

“You can come, I suppose,” I said. “Though why you’d want to talk with the crabby old bastard is beyond me.”

“Catherine,” Akua Sahelian gently said. “Sit down.”

My eyes narrowed, and I brushed back a lock of hair that somehow fallen free.

“There’s more,” I said.

“Cat, sit down,” Indrani said. “She wouldn’t ask without a reason.”

I felt a flicker of surprise at Archer’s comment, though maybe I shouldn’t have. I’d told her everything that had happened in Great Strycht, and the barbs she still traded with Akua had a lot less bite to them than they used to. Gingerly I sat back down, keeping the weight off my bad leg.

“Marshal Grem One-Eye is in command of the retreating Legions,” the shade said. “The Black Knight is believed to be dead.”

I picked up my gloves, fingers closing around the leather.

“So?” I said. “All that means is that some part of whatever the Hells he’s after involves people thinking that.”

“Not unless he was willing to sacrifice a full Legion detachment for that purpose,” Akua said.

The leather stared creaking and I looked back at my hands, finding them squeezing the gloves tight.

“Was a body shown?” I asked.

She shook her head.

“Then he’s not dead,” I flatly said. “And someone is about to have a very bad day.”

“Catherine, the possibility has to be entertained,” she slowly said. “It would change the situation significantly.”

“It changes nothing. Because he’s not fucking dead,” I snarled. “I’ll take his damned head off for not warning me he’d pull this, but he’s not going to get killed by some pissant hero in the middle of nowhere.”

The shade opened her mouth again, but Indrani raised a hand.

“Akua,” she said. “Best let that one go.”

She was humouring me, I realized. It stung that Archer of all people, who besides myself and Masego likely knew the most about my teacher, would so casually write him off. Angrily I pulled on my gloves.

“Finish your drinks,” I coldly said. “We’ll begin the march for Rochelant within the hour.”

Chapter 1: Visitation

“Even a devil can be merciful once.”
– Callowan saying

The night was full of shadows and every last one answered to me.

Fairy gates had never been quite as precise an art as I would have liked, particularly when the needle was threaded half-blind, but these days I had more than Masego or Akua adding up the numbers for me. The sisters understood these matters in a way no mortal ever could, and considering it was their – ours, I supposed – army I was taking through Arcadia they’d not balked at charting the path for me. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Komena had complained about being a goddess, not a cartographer. I’d wholeheartedly agreed: after all, a cartographer would have given me an answer instead of petty whining. You’d think finishing apotheosis would have done something for her sense of humor, but instead I’d been given an indignant silent treatment for a few days. Which was fine by me, really. There was only so much croaking I could take from the damned birds they’d sent with me. The night-feathered crow on my left shoulder stirred in displeasure and I snorted.

“Fine, fake birds,” I said. “That better for you?”

Indrani cleared her throat, less dainty scoff and more middle-aged dockworker about to spit.

“Catherine, you’re talking to the crows again,” she said.

I shrugged.

“It’s fine as long as I don’t expect to hear them talk back, I think,” I noted.

“Caw,” the crow on my left shoulder drily said.

The word, not actual cawing, because Andronike had developed a taste for the sardonic since shaving off a sliver of her godhood and sending it if off with me.

“Wind’s real loud tonight,” I said, blithely pretending I hadn’t hear anything.

“Well,” Archer mused, “it is winter.”

And wasn’t it just? The heartlands of Procer were pretty as a painting, under moonlight. Open fields of driven snow, sparse trees trickling down icicles and the occasional game wandering through the frost. It said a lot about the drow, I thought, than an army of fifty thousand of them hadn’t scared off every beast for four miles around it. There’d been some childlike wonderment at first, when the grey-skinned host had first witnessed the world covered in white. Drow centuries old patting at the snow like they couldn’t quite believe their eyes, strangers as they were to a surface winter. I remembered that fondly, the innocence of it. There were some things that even millennia of constant bloodshed could not entirely erase. Tonight, though, there would be no wide-eyed fascination. The warriors I’d sent out had moved out across the snow like ghosts, melting back into the darkness they’d been born to.

Indrani had come to keep me company as I stood, watching the small town in the distance. My friend – we’d shared a bed more than once, by now, but lover ill fit what lay between us – was half a shadow herself, the hooded leather coat she wore over fine mail hiding her face away from the light of the moon. Now and then I could see her hand twitching slightly, the urge to reach for the large bow strapped to her back only barely repressed. Archer had never been one to shy away from a fight, which was the reason I hadn’t sent her out with the drow in the first place: corpses weren’t what I was after. Not tonight anyway. There were a few long years ahead of us, I knew, and there would be blood spilled before they came to a close. Whose, I thought, is the important question, isn’t it?

“What’s the place called again?” Indrani asked.

More out of need to fill the silence than true curiosity, I suspected.

“Trousseau,” I replied anyway.

Finding a hunter out in the plains had been a lucky stroke, and result in a vague notion of where we were in Procer. Somewhere in eastern Iserre, for one, which was what I’d been aiming for. Unfortunately said hunter had never gone all that far from her hometown, and had little news of what was currently taking place in the Principate. No map, either, but that much I’d expected. Those were damned expensive, and even halfway-accurate ones not usually in the hands of commoners.

“Bit of a shithole, to be honest,” Archer said.

Trousseau probably had no more than a thousand souls living in it, most of the time, but these were not that. War and conscription would have thinned the town. I’d decided to charitably attribute how run-down the place was to the removal of so many able hands, though odds were the place was poor enough it looked like this even on a good year. There were as many huts as houses, all huddled around a few streets that were more streaks of cold mud than anything, and what cattle could be seen held in pens around the town was thin and sickly. Though Indrani’s gaze had lingered on the ramshackle and no doubt bitingly cold huts, I’d been more interested in something that wasn’t there. Namely, walls. I honestly couldn’t think of a single town of a thousand in Callow that wouldn’t have at least a palisade up, or tall piles of stones without mortar. For my purpose of the night, however, that defencelessness was not unhelpful.

“If it were worth putting on a map, Black would probably have burnt it on his way south,” I said.

She hummed in agreement, and only spoke again a few heartbeats later.

“You think rumours about what’s happening to will have trickled into here?” Indrani asked, glancing at me.

“Worth a try,” I grimly said.

Archer’s footing shifted almost hesitantly, and I blinked in surprise when she put a comforting hand on my shoulder. I could almost feel the warmth of her through the cloak and doublet, and my heart beat a little faster. Not because of attraction, this time, though that was never far. That I could feel warmth at all was still a feeling I could only luxuriate in.

“We don’t know he’s in trouble,” she said.

“He should be back from Thalassina by now,” I replied. “And still we can’t make contact with the Observatory. Something happened.”

“He could be buried up the neck in some hidden library,” Indrani smiled. “Only to remember the rest of Creation still exists in a few months.”

The smile was slightly forced, I knew her well enough to tell. I wasn’t the only one worried about Masego and the resounding silence from Laure.

“Shouldn’t it be me comforting you, anyway?” I said.

“He can take care of himself,” Archer quietly said, though her eyes flicked east anyway.

I clasped her bare fingers with my gloved ones, squeezing tight, and she shot me an amused look before removing her hand. Where our conversation would have wandered after that would remain a mystery, for I felt a ripple in the Night headed our way. Mighty Rumena – crow-Komena pecked at my shoulder and I rolled my eyes – General Rumena, I mentally corrected, had not ceased in its attempts to sneak up on me even though not a single one had succeeded since I’d become First Under the Night. It was hard to pull a Night-trick on someone who had a finger on the pulse of that very power.

“So, the way you don’t leave footprints in the snow,” I called out. “Is that an illusion, or are you so feeble and delicate you’re light enough not to leave one?”

Grey fingertips appeared out thin air a few feet in front of me, coming down to tear away at a veil of Night and revealing the creased face of the ancient drow. Even stooped the bastard was taller than me, which unfair in so many ways, and ever since it’d been appointed to the command of the southern expedition it’d made a point of looming over me whenever it could.

“Many are the mysteries of the Night,” General Rumena vaguely replied.

I eyed him skeptically.

“So where’d we land on whether or not I have power of expulsion from the faith again?” I finally asked crow-Andronike.

“No,” she replied.

“Maybe,” crow-Komena said at the same time.

The two crow-shaped slivers of Sve Noc turned to glare at each other.

“There can be no-” crow-Andronike began.

“It is necessary that-” her sister interrupted.

I smothered a grin, though not quite well enough. Both turned their glares towards me. That was never going to get old, was it? A heartbeat later I was yelping as a pair of godly crows started flapping around my hair and pecking vengefully at my scalp, though I valiantly managed to shoo them away with only minimal loss of dignity. The two of them flew off, possibly off to torment some poor luckless rabbit. Made of Night as they were they hardly needed to eat, though that certainly hadn’t stopped them from toying with the animals they came across. Amusement bled out of me a moment later and I turned my eyes to Rumena.

“Report,” I ordered.

It did not bow, not that I’d expected it to.

“The town has been seized,” the old drow said.

“Casualties?” I asked.

“Seventeen wounded, no dead,” General Rumena mildly said. “Some stubborn souls insisted on resisting confinement.”

I chewed on my lip. Too much to hope for this to be entirely bloodless, I supposed. I’d tell Akua to have the wounds healed if she could. And if the people were willing to take healing from the likes of us which was less than certain.

“No priests?” I asked.

“None resided within. There is a moan-haste-ree to the north where servants of the Pale Gods hold court, but they only visit infrequently,” the old drow said.

“Monastery,” I corrected absent-mindedly. “Good, that would have complicated things.”

Priests tended to frown upon dark hordes beholden to eldritch horrors of the night strolling into their backyard, and I’d rather not cut one’s throat if I could avoid it.

“Send a sigil up to keep an eye on the monastery road,” I finally said. “No blunders tonight, Rumena.”

“Ah,” the general mildly said. “Will you be absenting yourself, then?”

To my side Indrani shook with a suppressed laugh, the filthy traitor.

“You just wait,” I grunted. “One of these days I’ll talk the damned crows into letting me write your holy book and there’ll be an entire hymn about how much of a prick you are.”

I began the trek towards Trousseau immediately, carefully refraining from hearing Rumena’s skepticism at my ability to rhyme on purpose even as Archer cheerfully waved him goodbye.

As usual, I was surrounded by insubordinate backtalk and wanton treachery.

There were a few houses near the centre of the town made of stone, but this wasn’t one of them. I approved, truth be told. From what I’d read, large towns and cities in the Alamans parts of Procer were usually governed by an official appointed by the ruling royal – quite often some toady or relative that could be counted on to keep the coin flowing towards the principality’s capital. On occasion, some wealthy landowner ended up in charge instead but given that those occasionally got ideas about who should be the local royalty that was rarer. In smaller towns and villages, though, a degree of freedom emerged. Someone needed to be in charge so the lawmen and the tax collectors would have an arm to twist, but the people were left to their own devices as to who should be picked. Trousseau should be small enough for that to apply, and that the town’s mayor was living in a wooden house instead of a stone one implied wealth hadn’t been why he was put in charge. Half a dozen drow bearing the mark of the Soln Sigil were keeping a sharp watch on the premise, and if the ripple I was feeling in the Night was any indication my old friend Lord Soln itself wasn’t far.

It had amused the Sisters to send what little remained of the army I’d once led against them on the southern expedition. I wasn’t complaining: the oaths binding us might have been broken, but they were quicker to obey my orders than most drow. The covenant under Winter had left marks that would not easily be erased. On another night I might have taken the time to flush out Soln from its hiding place and share a few words, but not this one. I had business to finish, and no inclination to delay it. As far as I was concerned, the quicker we moved on from here to undertake our campaign proper the better.

“Want me to come with?” Archer idly said.

I glanced at her, catching a glimpse of her hazelnut eyes under the hood. I read an expectation of boredom there, but still she had offered. I did not fight the flush of affection that brought out in me.

“No need,” I said. “Find something to entertain yourself, I’ll catch up.”

She smirked.

“Bound to be at least one tavern in this dump,” she mused.

“We pay for what we take,” I reminded her.

“Gods,” she muttered under her breath. “Between you and Akua I feel like I’ve joined the most ironic nunnery in Creation.”

I grinned and waved her off.

“Don’t get too drunk without me,” I said.

She grinned back, and promised not a thing. I watched her saunter away for a moment, coat swaying behind her, but before long my gaze had returned the door in front of me and the good mood drained. The two closest drow were looking at me from the corner of their eyes and I offered a nod.

“Restrict interruption to Peerage and my own people,” I spoke in Crepuscular.

“Losara Queen,” one murmured back, though both bowed.

I left it at that, and knocked at the door out of habit. There was a long beat of silence, before a male voice hesitantly bid me to enter. Ah, I thought. The last people to come in would not have been so polite. I pushed open the surprisingly well-oiled door and entered. A man was standing by a brazier, my eyes lingering only long enough to note he looked only in his mid-thirties before they pressed on to take in the rest of the house. One bed, shoddy as it was, but four cots. The table was old but well-maintained, and the roughly-hewn chairs struck me as of recent make. Not much else to see, aside from wooden shelves filled with foodstuffs. When my eyes returned to the man, his face had gone ashen. His hands were still above the flames, but now they were trembling. I wiped my snow-sodden boots on the straw by the door before offering a bland smile.

“I am told your name is Leon,” I said in Chantant. “And that you are mayor of Trousseau.”

The man drew back as if struck. It was almost comical, given that he stood at least two feet taller than me and was built like a sandy-haired ox. Almost.

“You’re the Black Queen,” Leon shakily said.

“And so introductions have been seen to,” I mildly said. “Take a seat.”

Something like anger flickered across the man’s face. Not someone used to be ordered around in his own home, was he? But even as his jaw squared, his eyes came to rest on the sword at my hip. Caution won out, and slowly he drew back a chair and sat down. Wiping my boots one last time, I limped across the floorboards and sat across from him. I could have drawn on the Night to chase away the pain for a time, but I disliked relying on that measure unless blades were out. I leaned back against the chair, the Mantle of Woe bunching up as I did, and calmly took off my leather gloves.

“I have questions to ask of you,” I said.

“I am the mayor of a half-empty town,” Leon replied. “What could I possibly know of import to a queen?”

His gaze was steady, I thought, and his back straight. But he’d not quite managed to hide his hands away from me, and I could see how tightly clenched his fingers were. Afraid, but trying not to show it. I wondered if he expected he’d be dead by the end of this conversation. My reputation in Procer had been less than gentle even before the entire fucking priesthood of the west had declared me Arch-heretic of the East.

“More than you think,” I said. “Peddlers come through, even in a deserted town. And peddlers carry rumours.”

“I put little stock in rumours,” the mayor replied. “And so know little of them.”

I glanced to the side, already knowing what I would find. The bed was large enough for two. Some of the cots were too small for adults. The man had a wife and children. All of which were currently under the guard of my drow in a previously house. When my gaze returned, Leon’s face had grown tight. The steady gaze was gone, replaced by desperate fear.

“No merchant has passed in months,” the Proceran said. “We are not a town with coin to spend. Those few of wealth have already left.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“For where?” I asked.

“Iserre,” he said. “Walls and safety.”

I leaned forward.

“Safety from what?” I pressed.

The man grit his teeth. I could see them war on his face, fear and principle. I was, to be honest, admiring his spine. How many of my countrymen would have it in them to even hesitate answering a question, if a villain of my repute was asking it? I’d not sat in conversation with a human other than Indrani in months, and in some ways this felt fresh to me. I could see the tremor in his arm, the beading sweat on his brow. This was not a drow, I thought. I understood the shape of this one’s thoughts, the milestones by which he saw the world.

“Heavens preserve me from the Enemy,” the mayor of Trousseau shakily said. “Still my tongue and ward my hand, that I may give it no succour nor relief.”

I slowly breathed out, studying him. I might have continued, if not for the knock on the door.

“Enter,” I said.

The door opened to reveal Akua Sahelian’s silhouette, and closed after she fluidly stepped in. I cocked an eyebrow, meeting her golden eyes, and she nodded. Good. She leaned back against the wall without a word and I turned to the mayor.

“Do you see the Heavens in this room, Leon?” I softly asked. “I don’t. There’s just us, and the consequences of our choices.”

“I will not sell out my home, Black Queen,” the large man said. “Not an inch, not a league.”

The fear had not left, I thought. And yet he’d said it anyway.

“I hold your family,” I said.

The tone was casual, as it discussing the weather. I had learned from Black that mildness could be much more disquieting than the most thunderous of wraths. Leon swallowed drily. I had not made threat, and would not need to. My name itself was a threat, these days.

“Even so,” he said, tone thick with grief. “Gods, even so.”

To do right, even if it cost you everything. That, at least, the Houses of Light on both sides of the border taught just the same. I thought of Amadis Milenan, then, and wondered what such a man had ever done to deserve a subject like this. Nothing. But then that was the whole point, wasn’t it? That the underserving so often ruled. That there could be more heroism found in a terrified man sitting across a monster and refusing to answer a question than in an empire’s worth of royal lines, or a legion of heroes.

“It’s a strange thing, fear, isn’t?” I said. “I have known those who rule by it. I have fought those who deny its very existence. And yet I have come no closer to understanding what splits the brave from the mad.”

I met his eyes with equanimity.

“But I do know one thing, Leon of Trousseau,” I said. “That knot in your stomach, right now? That part of you that keeps your back straight when death meets your gaze?”

I did not blink. Neither did he.

“That is the weight of the choice you made,” I said. “Remember it, in the years to come. Learn from it, grow from it. Because one of those days you might find someone else sitting on my side of the table – and unlike me, they might not admire what you chose.”

I pushed back the chair and rose to my feet, picking up my gloves and slipping them on. The mayor hesitated.

“That’s all?” he said.

I smiled, thin and mirthless.

“Do you know why we praise bravery, Leon?” I said.

He did not reply. Did not dare to, I supposed, when it seemed possible he might survive our little chat after all.

“Because it surpasses our baser nature,” Akua spoke from behind me, and I could feel the smile in her voice.

I could see the moment when the man understood, the anger and the sadness and the burning indignation.

“Someone talked,” I gently said. “Someone always talks.”

I limped back into the cold, and left him to sit in his silence.

Prologue

“A horse and fall was all it took
For every last to take the hook
Now the kitchen’s full of cooks,
And the pot it is boiling
 
Crown of this, crown of that
They all chase after the hat
 
Princess said she has a right
Princess said it’d be a fight
So princesses are all aflight,
And the pot it is boiling
 
Crown of this, crown of that
They all chase after the hat
 
The wheel spins us all around
Up and north, south and down
Ebb or flow, we’ll still drown,
And the pot it is boiling
 
Crown of this, crown of that
All of this for a hat,
While the pot it is boiling.”

-“Too Many Cooks”, a Proceran folk song written and grown popular during the civil war

The wolves were at the gate.

Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer, Prince of Rhenia and Princess of Salia, Warden of the same West that was currently burning to the ground, did not wonder when it had all gone wrong. She was not an unintelligent woman, and so believed she’d already identified the point of failure with accuracy: the moment where she’d assumed Keter would remain quiescent. She hadn’t, though, not truly. Cordelia had believed there might be an increase in raids coming from the Kingdom of the Dead, perhaps a tentative incursion into the Alamans lakelands. That was the very reason she’d forced through the Highest Assembly the very unpopular taxes that had funded the restoration of all major fortresses north of Brabant, that she’d taken only a meager portion of the armies of the lakeside Alamans principalities and her Lycaonese kinsmen. There would be burning, she’d thought, there would be bleeding. But the borders would hold until the grim business of pacifying the east was done and full attention could be turned to the evil that lay behind the walls of Keter. In a word, she had assumed the Hidden Horror was a fool.

There was a young man at her Salian court by the name of Gabriel, a commoner who’d had the benefit of an education in letters by the House of Light. He had, several years ago, penned an interesting treatise called Fulcrums of History. A repudiation of sorts to the looming presence of On Rule over Proceran politics at the highest rung. It argued, rather eloquently, that disaster came to empires by an accumulation of smaller factors that drained the life out of them instead of through failures of will or cleverness, as the author of On Rule had argued. It had been, Cordelia felt, an attempt to explain the resounding brutality of the civil war by a scholar who had been born in its aftermath. It had concluded by arguing that the solution to such degradation was ‘an injection of fresh vitality’, in this case personified by Cordelia herself leading the traditionally aloof Lycaonese south to force an end to the wars. The conclusion was not as well written as the rest, and largely flattery directed at her in hope of an appointment. He had obtained it, though the flattery had not been the reason. Anyone displaying the sharp insight of the earlier chapters could and should be used by her administration.

She thought of that treatise, sometimes. To apply the logic behind it to her current situation, for there had been a clear accumulation of factors over the last few years. Strength and coin spent influencing foreign wars in Callow and the League. Erosion of her authority over the Tenth Crusade, by both Proceran factionalism and the prominent role of the Chosen, followed by the bruising strategic defeats of the Battle of the Camps and the assault on Red Flower Vales. Once the cracks were there, they had only broadened. Tensions within the Great Alliance grew. The Levantines had been less than eager to defend the heartlands of the Principate, even against Wasteland legions. A trail of burnt cities and granaries from Bayeux to Iserre had been the consequence of that, further weakening her standing within the very alliance she had assembled. Further disaster struck at Thalassina, with the Warlock obliterating the better part of the Ashuran war fleets along with the city he’d come to defend. Worse, the Chosen had now decided to buck worldy authority entirely: the Saint of Swords had openly admitted Procer was to be the pyre birthing her better world, and now the Grey Pilgrim had refused her order to immediately slay the Black Knight instead of capturing him.

The heroes could no longer be relied on. They would, from now, oscillate between being useful but uncontrolled battlefield assets and major strategic liabilities. The rulers of Dominion of Levant, her nominal allies and comrades-in-arms, were now attempting to twist her arms for better concessions after a war they were currently losing. Magon Hadast and the Thalassocracy of Ashur, her sole remaining solid ally, had been inflicted two vicious setbacks in a row. The disaster at Thalassina could have been recovered from, but the League of Free Cities had smelled the blood in the air and finally sallied out. The League’s fleet – essentially the Nicaean fleet with what few ships the other seaside cities could spare – had torched the last war ships of Ashur and sacked the city behind them. The Thalassocracy had effectively been evicted from the sea, and in a matter of months the blockade around its island would start causing major food shortages. There was a very real possibility that Ashur would have to capitulate within the year, else it would simply wither on the vine. Worse, the Hierarch had sent out armies as well, the full muster of the League. Still, had even a losing battle been given by her southern army down in Tenerife, the situation would have been salvageable.

Instead her entire net of spies in the League had somehow missed that the entire host had gone into the Waning Woods, only managing to warn her the army had disappeared off the surface of Creation a week before it reappeared on the outskirts of the Principality of Iserre. Cordelia did not consider herself to be faint of heart, yet she almost shivered at the notion of taking an army through that murderous patch of trees. How much of their army had they lost, passing through? A tenth, a quarter? Half? There was not a single creature of flower in the Waning Woods that was not violently hostile to the existence of humans on Creation. Regardless of the… practicalities involved there, however, the southern Principate had now turned into a strategic nightmare. The First Prince was no great general but even she could see as much. The twenty-thousand strong army she’d stationed in Tenerife to avoid this very outcome was now marching north in all haste, but the map splayed in front of Cordelia betrayed a stark situation. Were the Alliance forces not staggered, not dispersed, they would have held the advantage. Instead it was bloody chaos.

The surviving Legions of Terror, bereft of the Carrion Lord but still under the command of the infamous Marshal Grem One-Eye, had fled into northern Iserre. Their supply situation, her generals assured her, would soon turn dangerous: they were marching through lands they’d already thoroughly pillaged on their way south. They were still around eighteen thousand hardened veterans, including a dragon, led by one of the finest military officers of the age. Behind them, split in two staggered armies, eighty thousand Levantines were in hot pursuit. If reunited, Cordelia believed they could crush the Praesi. But they were not, with a few weeks of distance between them and no way to join up without allowing the Legions to slip the noose. Behind the armies of the Dominion, the host of the League followed. Reports on their numbers fluctuated with every message: fifty thousand, forty, more than a hundred. A brave Iserran outrider had come close enough to find out some of the ‘soldiers’ were actually scarecrows held up by gargoyles, which had the reek of the Tyrant’s scheming. Far behind all these, her southern army of twenty thousand was exhausting its soldiers to collapse trying to arrive in time. The situation in the region was not impossible to salvage, but the dangers were obvious.

Cordelia was unwilling to gamble the fate of the Principate on such odds, and so she had taken action: she’d ordered general conscription in Salia. The bottom of the barrel was being scraped raw, but she’d put together twenty thousand levies. Had she further enforced the decree, or even broadened it to neighbouring principalities, she could have easily tripled that amount. There was, unfortunately, no point in doing so. There were no armaments for the conscripts to use, and dwarven representatives had flatly refused any further sale without even bothering to explain why. Giving reasons to humans was, presumably, beneath their dignity. This entire debacle had the ugly reek of Catherine Foundling’s meddling about it. If there was one saving grace to this entire debacle, it was that the Highest Assembly had finally understood how close to the edge the Principate had come: without even need for her prompting, the personal armies of every single royal not already at war had been sent to reinforce her levies. It would still be a month before the last arrived, but her twenty thousand would swell to forty and gain a bevy of princes and princesses along with badly needed professional officers. Strategic considerations now dictated that the moment this army was readied it was so be sent by ship down to the coast of Iserre, where it could reinforce the Levantines against the Praesi and link up with the others field armies before giving battle to the invading League of Free Cities. Cordelia had that very command drafted on parchment and staring back at her from the surface of her bureau, awaiting only her signature. The fair-haired woman watched her inkwell for a long, silent moment. She did not reach for the quill, instead rising to her feet.

The wolves were at the gate, but not only in war-torn Iserre. Woe, Cordelia. Woe to the north and to the south. Agnes’ words were branded into her mind, the constant reminder that if she made even a single mistake the Principate would end. The First Prince of Procer tread softly until she stood by the tall glass panes of her personal solar, a magnificent view of Salia spread out below her. Frost touched the glass, and the city as well. First snow had already come, though it had melted quickly enough under the sun. The next fall would remain a little longer, and so it would continue until a thorough blanket of pale was draped over the capital. Fingers larger than was considered fashionable in a courtier, much less royalty, pressed against the cold glass. A taste of the north, a taste of home. Rhenia would be as much ice as stone, by now, fresh sets of fortifications being made out of a mixture of frost and gravel. The winds at night would be so loud they’d drown out even the howling of the packs roving the mountains. Her lips tightened, her throat closed up. Pressed against her heart, beneath the Rhenian blue dress she wore, was the last letter her kinsman Friedrich Papenheim would ever write her. She’d had to excuse herself, when she first read it. It would not do to weep in front of even her most trusted.

“I should not,” she whispered against the window, her breath blooming in fog.

She did it anyway, once more. Trembling fingers claimed the parchment and she looked upon Friedrich’s rough scrawl of a calligraphy. He’d never thought much of letters, not that many of her people did, and the words were as rough as the man had been.

The dead are coming.
I sent the young south. We will hold as long we can.
I am sorry. I cannot do more.
Dawn is in your hands, Cordelia.
We will meet again come the last summer.

Her eyes burned with tears she did not allow herself to shed. Hannoven had fallen before she ever received the letter, the man who wrote it dead and ash. She’d loved Friedrich, she thought in the same way she still loved her uncle. Trust and comfort and bonds of blood sacred to them both. He could have been the heir to Hannoven, had Uncle Klaus not named her that, and a lesser man would have resented her for it. She still remembered when she’d been fourteen, the announcement fresh, and she’d met him for the first time since. He’d smiled, rough hands pressing a bracelet into her palm. Not a single dark glance, not a single harsh word. Only a slip of leather with ratling teeth affixed, all carved with old Lycaonese blessings. For luck, he’d smiled. In the years since then, Cordelia had bought and been gifted some of the finest jewelry in Procer. On all of Calernia, truly speaking. And still, under the dress at her coronation as First Prince of Procer, ratling teeth had dug into her wrist. Gold, gold could be found everywhere in the world. Freely given affection could not. The First Prince of Procer wiped her eyes, grateful she’d already done away with her cosmetics for the day. The letter was slid back against her heart, weighing more than parchment ever should.

Across the rest of Lycaonese lands, cities and towns and villages would empty. The old and the young would flee into the mountains, and the rest of her people would prepare for war. Ploughshares beat into swords, cutlery melted into spears. Tables would be hacked up for wooden shields and lovingly tended-to mail come down from mantles. The Enemy was coming and her people would march to meet it at the passes, as they had unflinchingly since the days the word Lycaonese first meant something. Cordelia fingers curled angrily against the glass. Impotently. They could not stand alone. They were brave and they were strong and they were more than anyone had the right to ask of them, but they could not stand alone against the endless hordes of the Dead King. They needed reinforcements, they needed the south to raise its banners and come stand with them. And it was her duty to see to that, wasn’t it? There had never been a First Prince of Lycaonese birth before her, and there might never be again. The Dead King had come to wage full war on the Principate of Procer for the first time since its founding, and only now did while a Hasenbach sat the throne. She owed it to her blood, to her home, to her honour to abandon all this southern madness and march north to stand against the horror that would devour all the world.

“And I am going to fail you,” she whispered brokenly.

Because victory south meant taking all that remained of the Grand Alliance to fight the Dead King. Because the Chosen had held Cleves until Princess Malanza’s army arrived to reinforce them and the principality still stood. Because Hainaut’s coast was swarming with the dead, but she had ordered her uncle to take it back instead of returning to fight for his own home. And mine. She’d met the eyes of man who’d been father to her since she was a girl, and told him that if he disobeyed her orders and marched his soldiers home instead she would have to order him seized for treason. There would be no coming back from that, she knew. She’d seen the lay of it in his face. But in the end, all four principalities of her people could be taken by the Enemy without much greater cost than soldiers and mines. If the Kingdom of the Dead broke into the heartlands of Procer, its already ravaged farmlands, the entire realm would starve through winter. Hunger would kill a hundredfold the work of soldiers. Because even alone, you will stand long enough to save the rest of Procer and the Alamans will not. She was abandoning everything she had ever loved for the sake of people who still called her a savage behind her back. Who mere months ago had been plotting to destroy her.

“Because we must,” Cordelia bitterly said.

Using the words of the line whose duty she was failing to justify that very failure. She was damned, just as the hard-eyed warlord in Callow had warned she would be. Let me be damned, then, she thought. The wolves were at the gate, gathering in ravening packs. Summer friends and bitter foes, a procession of the viperous and the apathetic. Heroes who would bring salvation with a torch, villains cloaked in murder and madness. Let them all come, baying for the end of Procer. If she had to war against all the world to save her people, she would. The Warden of the West walked to her desk, dipped the quill and signed the fucking order. Before it even dried she had another scroll unfolded, her feathered quill dancing across. Dredge it out, she wrote. Prepare it. Fire against fire. The Augur had found a path through, narrow as it was, and it began with a corpse that was not a corpse beneath the waters of the lake at the heart of Procer. The Ashurans, it was said, had called on a masked and hallowed presence at the Battle of Thalassina. Cordelia Hasenbach would call on a lot worse if she had to.

Dawn was in her hands, and she would not let it fail.

The Empire was dying a slow, messy death.

Alchemical concoctions had allowed Malicia to resist the call of sleep beyond what even her Name would allow, though she knew there would eventually be a price to pay for that. It was still necessary, for rare was the hour that must not be spent dragging her wayward realm back from the suicide it was so utterly intent on committing. It was grim, thankless work, moreso now than ever before: two blows had come in quick succession, and as a result her authority was thinning. Thalassina had, to her still raw grief, been the first. The woman named Alaya had wept over the loss of her old friend, when she’d heard the news. Wekesa had been dear to her in a way that very few people had ever matched or surpassed – only one, if she was to be honest with herself – and to lose him over what should have been such a simple matter… But while the Dread Empress of Praes could afford most luxuries known to Creation, time to mourn was not one of them. Not when Warlock’s last blaze of vengeful glory had wiped out a city of nearly one hundred and fifty thousand people, along with her realm’s largest and most prosperous sea port.

There were survivors, a meager thirty thousand or so. Whatever Wekesa had used affected them, for within a day of fleeing the city ruins they’d begun to wildly mutate. Eyes and cysts growing over skin, teeth turning to stone, even a case of hair turning into straw. Malicia ordered a quarantine for the refugees, uncertain if the affliction would spread, but it turned out pointless. Every last one of them was dead within a week, seemingly cooked from the inside by the fading remnants of Wekesa’s sorcery left inside them.

As far as her agents had been able to determine, there had been only a single survivor to that catastrophe: the Hierophant. Young Masego had been observed to walk out of the wreckage in ash-covered robes, and her attempts to contact the boy had not gone well. The first messengers she’d sent on foot, and once they came within a hundred yards of him their heads had simply caved in. She’d ordered scrying rituals, after that. Of the ten mages she’d used, only one had survived the backlash. Healers managed to stop the screaming before the vocal chords gave, though there would be no salvaging the eyes that had rotten and fallen out from their sockets. That survivor had babbled about a ‘sea of death’, not coherent enough for a more comprehensive report, and bitten through her tongue before the night was out. Necromancy had revealed the dead woman’s soul to be even more damaged than the corpse, which worried Malicia a great deal. Even Warlock at his peak had resorted to rituals and specialized tools to tinker with souls. His son evidently need not, and was shambling his way back to Callow through unknown means: he would frequently disappear for a few days at a time before her agents caught sight of him again, moving too quickly for it to be purely on foot.

There was going to be a reckoning in that, and the best she could hope for was that it would be Ashur that’d bear the cost of it.

Thalassina alone would have been a crisis. High Lord Idriss had been one of her closest political allies for decades, the wealth of his holdings and his remarkable breadth of indebted of great use in keeping the influence of Tasia Sahelian and the Truebloods at bay. Malicia had never counted the man a friend, but she had respected him and made good use of his ambitions. In the wake of the dissolution of the Truebloods and the marginalization of Wolof, whose latest High Lord she had bound to her too deeply for anything but complete subservience, she’d been preparing to set him up as the natural rival to the Moderates led by High Lady Abreha of Aksum. Competition over court appointments would have neatly neutered both of them and kept them busy while Malicia set to laying the groundwork for what the Empire was to become. Instead Idriss was gone, along with most of Thalassina, and Abreha Mirembe was now the second most powerful individual in Praes. The sack of Nok and the destruction of the only other seaport of the Wasteland had dealt crippling blows to Malicia’s prestige, which had already been steadily eroding under the constant Ashuran coastal raids.

From Wekesa’s death, she had inherited the stuff or rebellion: the Thalassocracy was no longer raiding, which allowed household troops and legions to withdraw, and doubts were now being raised as to her ability to successfully defend Praes. If not for her treaty with the Dead King, there would have been a coup attempt by now. As it was, overwhelming pressure was mounting at court for High Lady Abreha to be named her Chancellor. If she did not swiftly act to suppress dissent, the situation would grow out of control. Her most direct tool in this should have been the Legions of Terror, of course, but as things stood Malicia knew they could not be used. Sitting calmly in her seat at the table where the Dark Council was usually held, the Dread Empress of Praes watched the kneeling Soninke mage before her and idly tapped a finger against the wooden table’s surface. Ime stood at her side, her spymistress a shadow silent and still.

“It is confirmed, Your Most Dreadful Majesty,” the young man said. “Foramen has fallen.”

“Of that much I was aware,” Malicia sharply replied. “Elaborate.”

“As of two days ago, a goblin army of imprecise size – at least ten thousand, less than fifty – attacked the city after sending a vanguard of infiltrators over what we now believe to be at least a month,” the imperial mage hastily said. “They attacked under cover of night, after having slain the watchmen on duty and opening the gates. The city was fully occupied by morning, after which the goblins seized control of the city wards and cut off our ability to scry.”

Not a single bit of news that Ime had not already brought her as of the morning the city was occupied. She truly had been too lax on the contingent of messenger mages directly sworn to the Tower, she thought. While their primary duty was to serve as couriers for orders, they’d also been granted funds to acquire and pass on local information from wherever they were posted. A way to keep a finger on the pulse of the Empire without ever leaving Ater. Yet if the best they could offer her was what half of Praes knew two days after Malicia learned of it, perhaps their funding needed to be reassessed.

“Do you have anything else to report?” the Empress mildly added.

The young mage hesitated.

“Rumours have begun to spread in Okoro and Kahtan that these foreign attacks are being used as a veiled knife by Your Most Dreadful Majesty to eliminate the High Lords entirely,” he finally said. “Our branch officers in these cities believe the whispers are too widespread to be of natural provenance.”

Malicia’s eyes narrowed the slightest bit. That was, in fact, fresh news. Perhaps mere discipline would suffice, then.

“You are dismissed,” she said.

The Imperial mage rose only to bow, and retreated from the room backwards with his eyes fixed on the floor. The Sentinels quietly closed the door behind him, and the Empress leaned back against her seat.

“Abreha prepares for a serious challenge, it seems,” Malicia said after a moment.

Ime finally stirred to movement, sliding into the seat at her left.

“It was inevitable the moment Thalassina happened,” the spymistress said. “Foramen just handed her the opportunity on a silver platter.”

They both knew why the rumours being spread were much more dangerous than they seemed at first glance. Ime’s agents had obtained greater detail of what had taken place in Foramen after it fell. High Lady Amina Banu had been skinned alive along with every other member of her line in the city before being drawn and quartered before the eyes of the entire city. Revenge for Dread Emperor Nihilis fashioning a leather cloak out from the hide of the matrons that refused to surrender when he crushed the Fourth Goblin Rebellion, or so they claimed. As the leaders of every single goblin rebellion in the last six hundred years had committed a variation of the same empty atrocity, Malicia could note that there had been a great deal more revenge taken than injury done. Unfortunately, the Banu of Foramen and the Kebdana of Thalassina had both been effectively ended as a bloodline. Oh, some distant relatives could be rustled up – the Banu in particular had been a tribe before a line, and were famously more a family thicket than tree – but that thorough an extermination would end them as political entities for generations. More than that, for the Kebdana. Foramen could be taken back, but it was dubious that Thalassina could ever be rebuilt given the toxicity of the former city’s emplacement.

Two High Lord lines centuries old destroyed in the span of a year. High Lady Abreha would find many willing ears, when she cast Malicia in the role of one trying to exterminate the highest rung of Wasteland aristocracy.

“She needs to die,” the Empress said. “And quickly.”

“The Eyes are already exploring possible avenues,” Ime replied without missing a beat. “Though she was a viciously paranoid old bat before taking a swing at the Tower, so the odds are not in our favour.”

Malicia closed her eyes, mind unfolding. Angles, angles, there were always angles. The knife that took the killing blow need not be hers.

“Her agents at court,” she said slowly. “Have they been preparing petition?”

“We’ve confirmed four,” Ime said. “I believe the one requesting that she be formally summoned to the Tower to answer for tax irregularities is the one she’ll truly back.”

Casting herself as being attacked by the throne while ensuring she was in Ater to gather support. Not the most inspired of opening moves, but then Abreha had always preferred boldness to elegance.

“Have our people change the text for one of the red herrings just before presentation,” Malicia ordered, opening her eyes. “High Lady Abreha will request a formal mandate and court title, for the sake of stabilizing Praes in the midst of war.”

“Overreach would give us an excuse to swat her around,” the spymistress reluctantly agreed.

“Swat?” Malicia smiled. “Nothing of the sort, Ime. How does one kill a lion without a spear?”

Her spymistress simply raised an eyebrow.

“Throw a cut of meat,” the Dread Empress of Praes said, “halfway between it and a bear.”

She drummer her fingers thoughtfully against the table.

“We will grant this petition, for we have great trust in the loyalty of dearest Abreha,” she lightly continued.  “As the Blessed Isle is still formally an Imperial territory, granting governorship over it is my right. Given the unfortunate refugee situation, it is evident there is great need of a stabilizing influence there.”

Ime let out a low whistle.

“That gets her household troops at the Callowan border,” she noted. “And nobody else will want to get tangled up there, so support will cool down. The reaction in Laure is the real danger.”

“Have the regency informed that its protest over Praesi refugee incursions were duly noted, and I have appointed a governor to remedy the situation,” Malicia said. “Of course, High Lady Abreha’s mandate ends at the border. Should she provoke the Kingdom of Callow, it is not on the behalf of the Tower and any punishment doled out by the regency would not be taken as an act of war between our realms.”

“Should such a provocation be arranged?” Ime asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Prepare one,” the Empress said. “I will not pull the trigger unless it is made necessary.”

There was a beat of silence.

“My Empress,” the spymistress finally said.

“You have doubts,” Malicia noted.

“Callow just slapped us across the face,” Ime reminded her. “There was a signed royal decree recognizing the independence of the ‘Confederation of the Grey Eyries’ before the city had even fallen.”

With Catherine’s own signature, which the Empress suspected had by now been used more often by Hakram Deadhand than the woman herself.

“The Matrons must have reached out to them months ago. And it’s only a matter of time until barges carrying munitions and goblin steel start sailing across the Wasaliti to equip the Army of Callow. They’re effectively funding a rebellion against the Tower, though Gods only know how they got a loan from the dwarves.”

“Given Catherine’s continued absence, I imagine an amount of brutal murder was involved,” the Empress drily said. “Though that is ultimately irrelevant. The Legions of Terror will move to blockade Foramen. Neither munitions, steel nor gold will flow. The bargain will remain entirely ink.”

“We’re in no shape to fight against Callow,” Ime quietly said. “We are divided, bloodied and beset with a goblin rebellion.”

“Callow is in no shape to fight against us,” Malicia replied, and raised a hand before her spymistress could object. “Marshal Juniper has raised a significant army, but it cannot move east. If the Black Queen still somehow seeks alignment with the ailing Grand Alliance, it must participate in the campaign against the Dead King. If she seeks to kill Cordelia’s grand design instead, it will fall on Salia instead and decapitate the Principate by surprise. Both offensives would be of great scale, and she has neither the manpower nor the resources to engage in war on two fronts.”

Silence reigned for a moment after the mild tirade, the other woman refraining from contradicting her. Ime – Lindimi Sahelian, once, before she’d cast that name aside – was aging. No amount of potions, rituals or cosmetics could truly hide it anymore. Her skin was wrinkling, her body losing its spryness. Even a branch Sahelian could expect to live a few decades longer than the average Praesi, but time would catch up eventually. Part of Malicia grieved that. Part of Malicia had to begin considering a replacement. She read hesitation, on Ime’s face. No, not hesitation. Reluctance. There were very few subjects where she had not given her spymistress to speak her mind fully and openly. Not even Lindimi’s participation in the slaughter of Amadeus’ kin when still served the Heir was warded subject, though it was one to be approached with care.

“Say it,” Malicia ordered.

Ime’s lips thinned.

“You have not spoken to the Black Queen face to face since Akua’s Folly,” she slowly said. “I do not think you truly grasp the woman we’re dealing with anymore.”

“A crown will not change her nature,” the Empress said.

“What happened in Liesse did,” Ime replied. “She reminds me…”

Reluctance again.

“… she reminds me of Nefarious,” the spymistress finished quietly. “After the Wizard of the West broke his power. There’s a sickness in her, Malicia, and it has little kinship with reason.”

It had been many years, since Alaya had last thought of Dread Emperor Nefarious. In a way, that’d been a deeper victory than simply killing the wretched man – she had grown beyond him, the wounds and the fear and the pain. She’d not hidden from remembrance of him, she’d simply let him disappear into utter irrelevance.

“Winter can be predicted,” Malicia said. “Rooted as it is in what she once was.”

“She’s unstable,” Ime flatly said. “And I’m afraid of her. We all should be. She threw a bloody lake at the crusaders, and that was her being diplomatic. If that pretence is discarded, what will we be facing? You speak of armies, but I think of a mountain falling from the sky above Ater. Of Okoro drowned by an ocean unleashed. She’s not the Carrion Lord’s apprentice anymore, Malicia. She’d a vicious, angry thing bearing a fairy court’s worth of power and I deeply mislike the risk of us making her feel cornered. She may yet come out with teeth and claw, damning all else.”

Where was this fear a year ago? Yet the Empress knew the answer. It had not yet come to fruit, because a year ago Wekesa had still been alive and poorly inclined towards the Black Queen. How quickly slight wounds had turned to mortal ones, Malicia thought. Procer was being smothered by the armies of the dead, Ashur strangled by the fleets of the League and the hosts of Levant were embroiled in the mess that had been made of Iserre, headed for doom or crippling. All three nations sworn to end her, bleeding out in broad daylight. And yet Praes was dying as well, by wounds of its own making. The Matrons to the south, High Lady Abreha to the north. Legions she held only by the barest of leashes, one that could only be tugged by causing mutinous sentiment in the aftermath, and with the coming of winter the Imperial granaries would have to be opened lest there be food riots. The grain would run out, eventually. And to the far west, someone had taken Amadeus from her.

She was alone. There was no one else that would – that could – avoid disaster.

Left to scheme on their own, when the granaries ebbed low the High Lords would begin musing war on Callow to acquire its own reserves. The goblins would not end the border of their rebellion at Foramen unless they were made to. And the moment collapse seemed inevitable, some clans of orcs would begin eyeing the weakened lands to the south of the steppes for plunder as they had under the reign of her predecessor. Some would stay loyal, but all that would accomplish was civil war among the Clans. She had to avoid reaching the tipping point, whatever the cost. For if she succeeded? If she asserted true control once more? Then she had won this war, and all the wars that would follow. The Grand Alliance would break. The League of Free Cities would either collapse into squabbling or by trying to keep the Thalassocracy contained. And Callow would have a choice: uneasy alliance with the Tower, or standing alone against a Kingdom of the Dead that had just devoured most the west. It always came down to survival, didn’t it? Outlasting what you could not beat.

“I am,” Malicia said, “the ruler of Praes.”

“So you are,” Ime murmured.

“Let us teach them once more,” Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, “precisely what that means.”

The Empire might be dying, but these lands were no stranger the walking dead.

Somewhere in eastern Iserre, under a full moon, a flicker of flame parted the night. It died quick enough, leaving behind only the cherry-red end of a lit pipe. The young woman holding it breathed in deep of smoke before blowing out a shoddy ring. Pearly white teeth were bared under moonlight, afterwards.

“Let’s try this again, shall we?” Catherine Foundling said.

Behind her, streaming out of an ink-black gate, a sea of raised sigils poured out in utter silence. Obsidian and iron, furs and mail, spears and swords and things stranger still.

For the first time in many years, the Empire Ever Dark was at war with something other than itself.

Peregrine II

“Peace is not a right, it is the privilege of those who have toiled to break the back of war.”
– King Albert Fairfax of Callow, the Thrice-Invaded

“You were gone for long, this time,” she said.

A few years ago Tariq’s pride might have been mildly stung by the fact that she could return to casual conversation so swiftly after an hour of rather delightful exertion in bed, but these days he knew better. His head fell back against the pillow, though he twisted around after to better be able to run a hand down the bare flank of his lover. She bit her lip at the sensation, to his pleasure, to her gazed turned amused when she caught his eyes lingering on the generous curve of her breasts.

“You will not distract me so easily,” Sintra Marave warned him. “I have learned of your wiles, Tariq of No Import.”

His name she spoke with a teasing lilt, as it had become something of a jest between them. It had become clear rather early on that his attempts at hiding his identity had been seen through near immediately: Sintra, he’d learned, regularly corresponded with his sister. From their first meeting she had suspected him. There were, he supposed, only so many haggard young men named Tariq wandering the countryside of Levant.

“I surrender before your keen insight, then,” Tariq grinned.

He did know better, now. Better than to think this was casual conversation at all, or that its initiation so soon after their pleasure-taking was slight to bedplay itself. Sintra would not still leave her balcony door unlocked whenever he returned to Alava was she displeased with their time together.

“So keen that I discern you travelled to the Free Cities,” the heiress to the Champion’s Blood said.

“Stygia,” he freely admitted. “Never before had I seen such a horrifying pit of human misery, and I walked the streets of Levante during the plague.”

“Famously,” Sintra drily said. “What took you to that nest of slavers?”

She shifted around in their bed – arrogance on his part, to think of it as that, and yet he could not help it – and rested her chin one her palm. While that did interesting things to the parts of her beneath said chin, Tariq valiantly maintained his concentration.

“There was a delegation headed to Arwad by ship,” he said. “One of their slaver ships struck it on the way there – by mistake, I believe, even Stygians are not usually so bold – and took captives before sinking it.”

Sintra’s brow rose.

“Junla Massuf?” she said, surprised. “That was you?”

“I followed the trail back to Stygia,” Tariq said. “Though I did not know anything of the ship save that it was Levantine when I came across it.”

His lover snorted out a laugh, her sweat-soaked and somewhat dishevelled braids swinging as she did.

“Only you,” Sintra fondly said, “would end up rescuing the third in line for Tartessos by accident. You do know she’s publicly broken her betrothal?”

The healer grimaced, rather embarrassed.

“I had heard,” he said, chagrined. “I did not mean to convey interest where there is none.”

Sintra chuckled, and for a moment he admired the ripple of the muscle in her arms. No frail poet, his lover. Warrior to the bone, born for the fight. Unlike the Lady Junla.

“Worried I’ll get jealous?” she teased.

Tariq sighed.

“Could you not be, at least a little?” he half-complained.

She smiled, but it was brittle.

“You know I cannot wed you,” Sintra said. “It would be-”

“- taken as a challenge to Yasa, I know,” he softly finished.

The heiress to Alava, trading promises with a man who’d once been proposed heir to the Tattered Throne? Regardless of the truth it would be seen as a war of succession in the making, the Champion’s Blood attempting to put a puppet of the Pilgrim’s Blood in power. The Dominion would split apart at the seams, lords and ladies taking up steel to place crown their favourite. Their fingers threaded, without him ever needing to think of it, and he glanced down at the sheets. Tariq had not taken another lover since the night she’d first smiled at him and mentioned her balcony wall could easily be scaled. Love was a word they had avoided, though it roared loud in their forced silences.

“You could come with me,” he said, not looking up.

Fingers caressed his cheek, surprisingly gentle for the roughness of the skin.

“You know I cannot,” Sintra repeated.

“You would not be the first Marave to prize adventure over the high seat,” he pointed out, and immediately felt guilty for it.

It was been ill-said, that. To ask her to leave her life, her rights behind her simply to be with him. How easy it was to speak of sacrifice, when you were not the one making it. A comforting hand fell on his shoulder. It was not Sintra’s, or any mortal’s. The fingers on his cheek feel and an apology was halfway out his lips when she tucked up his chin, dark eyes meeting his.

“If you were just a man, we’d be hunting chimeras in the Brocelian and sleeping in brambles under moonlight,” Sintra solemnly said. “Never believe otherwise. But you are not that, love. I called your rescue in Stygia an accident, but we both know it wasn’t that.”

Tariq’s lips tightened.

“I am a healer,” he insisted.

“When the levies broke in Malaga, you held back the sea for near an hour,” Sintra gently said. “There are some who still swear you cradled a star in your hands. A healer, perhaps, but also more than that.”

A Pilgrim, she did not say. The Grey Pilgrim. No matter the colour of the robes Tariq wore, dust always turned them grey. The whispers had told him that denial would change nothing. He might have hated them, had they not always taken him where he could do so much good. It was still bitter brew to swallow that he would have to do it alone. He dropped back onto the pillow, tired in more than body. They remained like that for a long time, the sounds of Alava at night sneaking in through the balcony door they’d been too preoccupied to properly close. He’d come to think of the city more as a home than Levante ever had been. Tariq had been a boy, back in the Old City. It was in Alava he had learned to truly leave that behind. Let them bury me here, when Above calls me home, he thought. In the shade of the pear trees beneath the balcony. A morbid thought, and he chased it away with softer words shared with Sintra. They half-fell asleep, after, but he woke before long. The whispers were back. East, he thought. They wanted him to head east. He clenched his fist and forced his eyes to close, though sleep did not return.

“They’re calling again, aren’t they?” Sintra suddenly whispered.

Her voice was still hoarse with sleep. He turned to kiss her brow.

“They can wait,” he whispered back.

It had been a long five months without seeing her. The Ophanim could hold their tongues until dawn, at least. Sintra rose, the sheets falling off of her torso, and smiled.

“Go,” she said.

“Sintra-” he started.

“Go,” she interrupted. “Honour your Blood, Tariq.”

He clenched his teeth.

“You will have a bed here, when you return,” Sintra said, then caught him by the nape of the neck and brought him into a bruising kiss.

The parted too soon, both panting.

“And you will return,” Sintra ordered. “That much I claim from you, by right of conquest. If the Choir of Mercy takes issue, let them try the might of the Champion’s Blood.”

The Ophanim murmured approvingly, to his mild distress.

“Conquest?” he croaked out.

She grinned.

“Do you truly think you were the pursuer in this, Tariq of No Import?”

Tariq was thirty one years old, when his mother died.

It had been thirteen years since he had last set foot in the city of Levante, and in truth it was unwise for him to return even now. His sister Yasa would not formally ascend to the Tattered Throne until the funerary games of the departed Seljun of Levant were ended, and in a way his presence here could still be taken as a challenge to her rights. He’d been prepared to linger on the outskirts of the region until the games had ended, but Yasa had written – he could almost hear the very mild tone she’d used when they were children and she thought he was being a fool – that she would send the army to drag him into the city tied like a hog if he did not come by himself. She robbed year from us, brother, with her fecklessness. I will not grant her a single day more. And so Tariq slipped back into the city where he’d been raised under cover of night, dark cloak covering the grey robes he had grown weary of fighting against. The city guards did not look twice, for the city was swelling fit to burst with those come to pay their last respects, and after passing the walls he let his feet guide him.

How easy it was to return to the old city, as if more than a decade had not passed. This was not home, had not been a in a long time, but it would have been a lie to say there was no fondness to be found. Tariq came across his first silver breastplate ten blocks away from the entrance to the palace, and nodded with approval at the vigilance. It did little to stop him from entering unseen, though. He’d walked paths more dire than this. Salia, where all of Levant were looked upon with suspicion, Mercantis as a wanted man and even Thalassina, where the slightest sign of Bestowal was a mark of death. He brushed his hands against the old wards the Grim Binder had put into place at the behest of her comrade the first Grey Pilgrim, feeling them part for him almost eagerly. There were few places in Levant who were not friend to what he’d inherited from his distant ancestor. He strode into the depths of the palace fleetfoot and unseen, letting chance guide him. It tended to favour him. Surprised flicked across his face when he found himself by his mother’s old bureau, candelight and magefire shining under the door. Tariq touched his lips, whispered open and touched the lock. Light glimmered over steel, and easy as that it was done.

He entered quietly, finding his only sister sitting at the broad oaken desk and methodically going through correspondence. Half-moon spectacles – of Ashuran make, he noted – rested loosely against her nose as she frowned downwards in thought.  Tariq leaned against the doorway for a moment, taking in the sight of Yasa Isbili for the first time in thirteen years. They had traded letters, whenever they could be snuck in, but anything more would have been too risky. Her face had grown thicker, he thought. It suited her well, he thought, made her long braid seems less like some strange tail sprouting from the back of her head. There were lines on her face where there had once been none, but she seemed… vibrant. Like she’d finally reached where she had always been meant to stand. You have, Yasa, he thought. And they will remember you as the greatest Seljun we’ve had in centuries. Smiling, Tariq cleared his throat. She nearly jumped out of her skin, but her eyed widened when she took him in.

“Tariq,” she said, almost awed. “How did you- no, it doesn’t matter.”

She rose to her feet, pushing back her chair, and their strides met halfway. The siblings held each other close for a very long time, content to simply enjoy the luxury so long denied them. Yasa withdrew first, eyes misty. His were as well, and he clutched her forearm tight.

“Honoured Sister,” he smiled.

“None of that,” she replied, shaking her head. “Not from you, Tariq. Never from you.”

“I must,” the healer reminded her. “And I will kneel as well, come the games.”

“You’re the Grey Pilgrim, you idiot,” she snorted. “You don’t kneel to anyone.”

“To you, yes,” Tariq firmly maintained. “Until the message sinks in.”

She brushed back her braid.

“We can argue about that tomorrow,” she said ruefully. “I’m too glad to see you to muster proper indignation.”

“And up late, I see,” Tariq said. “Preparing still?”

That, at least, is over with,” Yasa grimly replied. “Letters from abroad are a relief, truth be told. News about so far away are more diversion than duty.”

The healer nodded knowingly.

“The Praesi civil war?” he guessed.

“When are they not?” she shrugged. “The committees in Ashur are betting the rebel calling himself Nefarious will win, though it shouldn’t affect trade. They say he has Callowan ambitions.”

“When do they not?” Tariq shrugged, a smile tugging at his lips.

Gods, it was still so easy to speak with her. As if they had never parted. The healer had never put as much stock in the Blood as most his people, but perhaps there was some truth to it. There was something running through his sister’s veins that was kin to him, and it was more than just red water. They sat, after that, together in that bureau they’d both been forbidden to enter as children. They traded stories of his travels for hers of the city and their family, hours passing by until dawn came. Tariq noted the dark circles around Yasa’s eyes with some guilt.

“May I?” he said, offering his hand.

“Yes?” she said, bemused.

The Light wreathed his hand, a small glimmer, and poured into her body. The rings disappeared, chasing away the tiredness, but Tariq’s eyes opened wide.

“Brother?” Yasa asked.

A broad grin split his face.

“You’re pregnant,” he said. “A boy.”

She let out a noise of shock at the sudden announcement, before relief and delight claimed her face. After all these years of trying, finally the Heavens had blessed her. Tariq was going to have a nephew and there was not a single thing in Creation that could spoil this day.

On the last day of the funerary games, the Grey Pilgrim knelt before his sister in front of every lord and lady in the Dominion of Levant.

When whispers began spread, he stared at them cold-eyed until there was not a damned sound in the room.

A fervour swept across the Dominion, after Yasa Isbili sat the Tattered Throne. For the first time since anyone could remember, there was more to the Majilis than bickering and backbiting. The Seljun was still young, the people said, and she had the fire in her belly that had driven the Pilgrim’s Blood to first wrest a nation out of the hands of the Principate. After every journey Tariq undertook, he passed through taverns and inns and let the rumours wash over him with a smile. The levies at Malaga were raised back properly, the people said. About time, and every great Blood put coin to it. To the Brocelian he went, guiding the Lanterns to purge a barrow-curse gone wild. The old rebel road is being paved anew, from Levante to Vaccei, the people said. The Majilis said they’ll raise waystations as well. To Nicae he went, scaring off the Shadow-eater long enough for the Thieftaker to learn his true face. They’re founding a school in Levante, the people said. Ashuran scholars will come teach.

Tariq came and went, and every time he returned his people were thriving a little more. It was as if the savage need for doing better Yasa had felt since they were children had trickled down to every last soul in Levant. Wildlands were being claimed, walls raised around towns and beasts driven away. Fields were tilled, mines dug and for the first time since he could remember he could see pride in the back of those calling themselves Levantines. Not an Ashuran protectorate, not Procer’s rebel principalities – it was as if the entire Dominion had woken up from a long slumber, finally remembering the defiant spirit that had seen it become a nation at all.

“I knew,” he told Sintra, three years after the coronation. “I always knew that she was born for this.”

His lover idly slapped his chest, though from the lack of bite to it she appeared to be amused.

“Are you really going to boast about Yasa being a fine Seljun even while we’re in bed?” she complained.

“My apologies, Lady Sintra,” Tariq grinned.

Her father had passed the high seat onto her last year, after finding the pain in his joints made it hard to hold his axe. The Ophanim had been merciful enough no whispers had come when they Lord of Alava had held his final feast before putting on his finest arms and armour, mounting his horse and riding into Brocelian Forest to kill the largest monster in there or die trying. The Lanterns had brought back word months later that he’d been found in the mouth of a mansion-sized manticore, having allowed it to bit him so he could drive his spear through the roof of its mouth. He’d stayed with her through the grief, though even at the worst she’d been fiercely proud of the last honour he had brought to their Blood. The Pilgrim had expected they would part for the last time, after that, but Sintra had instead baldly announced her younger brother as her heir and that she would only ever wed a man who brought her the head of every prince and princess in Procer. And so the balcony door remained unlocked, home remained home.

It was not the life he had seen for himself, as a child, but Tariq found to his surprise that he was happy. Even the Ophanim, whose presence he had once found unsettling, had become trusted and cherished friends. Partners more farsighted than he, helping him see where he needed to go before he knew he needed to be there. He still passed through Levante whenever he could, to see his sister and play with his young nephew. Izil was a riotous little joy, with all his mother’s cleverness already showing signs of sharing his father’s tall height and broad built. Seven years after her ascension to the Tattered Throne, Yasa Isbili took an arrow through the eye while riding down to harbour to greet Ashuran envoys. She was dead before she touched the ground. The Grey Pilgrim was in Helike, helping a young prince flee his murderous father.

Tariq never would manage to forgive himself for that.

Izil was dry-eyed, when Tariq elbowed aside the guards to enter his nephew’s room. Looking out the window, still as a statue. The long dark locks his mother had so often combed through affectionately were as listless as the boy himself, and those dark Isbili eyes had grown almost dull. The seven year old boy was clutching a toy pilgrim in his hands, the wooden figure’s paint worn thin from use. He did not even turn when Tariq entered the room. One of the guards followed inside, grimacing as he spoke.

“Revered Pilgrim, you cannot-”

“Where is his father?” the Grey Pilgrim calmly asked.

The guard winced.

“As he is under suspicion, Honoured Brother Bakri has order confined him to his quarters,” he said.

Tariq closed his eyes. Yasa had never worried of their younger brother, for all that his martial exploits had earned him repute. He’d never had a mind for the kind of wrangling the Majilis required, or even the more practical aspects of rule. This could be, he thought, Bakri simply making a mistake in his grief. Or it could be something else. Honoured Brother Bakri. As if Yasa’s child was not the rightful successor.

“Bakri Isbili is now confined to his quarters until I order otherwise,” the Grey Pilgrim mildly said. “My sister’s husband is to be freed immediately.”

Tariq opened his eyes and saw naked fear on the guard’s face. Angry, roiling Light had shaped in rings around his wrists, he realized.

“I gave you an order, son,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “See to it.”

The man slowly bowed.

“Revered Pilgrim,” he said. “Your will be done.”

Tariq gave him a nod, then closed the door behind him. The Light winked out and he knelt by his nephew’s side. The boy did not react.

“Izil,” he softly said, laying a hand on the child’s shoulder. “Can you hear me?”

His nephew flinched at the contact, but some semblance of awareness returned to his eyes.

“Uncle?” the boy whispered.

“It’s me,” Tariq whispered, stroking the boy’s hair gently. “Come back to us.”

His little mouth trembled.

“Uncle,” he mumbled. “Mother’s gone. She – they…”

“It’s all right, Izil,” he said, holding him close. “I’m here now. I won’t let anything happen to you, I swear.”

His nephew wept, and when Tariq found who was responsible for this stars would rain until nothing was left but ashes.

No whispers came.

Epilogue

“By hook and crook we will all hang, High Lords, from a noose woven of our many loose ends. But cheer up: none are beyond salvation, not even the likes of us. Let us see, at long last, if we can turn back the tyranny of the sun.”
– Extract from the coronation speech of Dread Emperor Benevolent the First

Anaxares pricked his hand and cursed.

Damn needle. It must have been made in Penthes, as wantonly treacherous as the rest of those Wicked Foreign Oligarchs. He wiped off the droplet of blood and got back to the work of sewing back on the bottom of his shoe. Servants kept offering him increasingly perfidious boots, and he was certain the pair made of solid gold had been the result of what passed for the Tyrant’s sense of humour, but he’d continued pretending blindness long enough they’d eventually desisted. He would have preferred to go without shoes at all, if he could, as he’d not been granted the right to use the foreign product by a proper committee, but three days of bleeding feet had eventually dissuaded him. He’d bought an old pair with the last silvers from his begging bowl, but the march was using them sorely. Anaxares had grown to hate walking a great deal lately. He’d never done so much of it during his years as a diplomat, and never in a locale so insistently hostile. He’d heard a bush had eaten a soldier, last night, swallowed the man whole when he went to relieve himself. There was hardly a piece of the Waning Woods that was not out to kill everything it saw.

The Hierarch of the League of Free Cities finished sowing his shoes back together at the cost of only minor wounds, which sadly he could not even consider had been taken in service to the Republic. The People had cut him off, sent him adrift. Worse yet, their elected representatives sometimes requested his advice. His advice. As if he were not some wretched despot. He’d immediately reported the people involved to the nearest kanenas for treason against the Will Of The People, their horrid attempts to involve a duplicitous Named into the affairs of Glorious Bellerophon marking a dark day. Advice, Gods. A dark day indeed. He slipped on his shoes and began looking for an acceptable spot to dig a hole to sleep in. League dignitaries had alleged there was a tent he was meant to sleep in, but he’d closed his eyes and hummed until they went away. Sadly straying too far from the camp would see him encircled by heavily-armed soldiers keeping a vigil, so he’d have to stay within the bounds even though the very notion made his skin crawl. There was a patch of tepid, mostly dry earth far enough from a fire he wouldn’t be implicitly agreeing with its existence, and there Anaxares knelt and drew back his sleeves. He was out of silvers and so could not trade for a shovel, meaning he’d have to dig by hand.

It shouldn’t take more than a few hours, he thought.

“O Mighty Hierarch, Peerless Ruler of all the League and its people-”

“How dare you,” Anaxares snarled.

The Tyrant of Helike grinned, draped over a Proceran fainting couch held up by a gaggle of chittering gargoyles.

“I come bearing tribute to your greatness, O Sublime One,” Kairos Theodosian said, and ordered one of the gargoyles forward.

It presented Anaxares with a shovel. It was, he could not help but notice, made entirely of rubies. That monster.

“I will report this flagrant attempt of bribery to the proper authorities,” Hierarch said.

“Which are?” Tyrant said, leaning forward with interest.

“The Tyrant of Helike,” Anaxares reluctantly admitted.

“I expect he will he chide me most thoroughly,” the boy mused. “Rumour is he’s a real stickler about these things.”

“Why do you torment me so, Tyrant?” he sighed.

“Mostly habit, at this point,” Kairos confessed. “It’s like picking at a wound, once you start it’s nigh impossible to stop.”

“I will rise above this nonsense,” Hierarch said. “I must see to my bedding.”

“Did you notice that half the Bellerophan army is standing guard every night?” Tyrant cheerfully asked. “I think they mistook the Tolesian term for ten with the one meaning a thousand in their manual and they’ve been standing by the mistranslation ever since.”

Anaxares’ lips thinned, deeply offended at the insinuation that the Republic could ever make such a mistake. Even if they had, which they had not, it would have been a superior interpretation of the original text and inherently better by virtue of having been voted upon by the People. Naturally, as with all matters related to military texts, knowledge of what was voted upon would not have been held by the People as it was illegal for said knowledge to be held by any not having drawn the lot of soldiers. This was only right and proper. But he would not correct the Tyrant’s blatantly false assertions, it would only encourage the boy.

“Huh,” Kairos said. “I thought for sure that would do it. I suppose all that’s left is helping you dig your hole.”

Anaxares frowned.

“That would taint the work,” he gravely said.

Relying upon foreign labour – which was, by definition, the product of tyranny – without official sanction was treason.

“Then I’d pick up the pace then, if I were you,” the Tyrant grinned. “We’re about to hold a war council and at this point nobody still believes they’ll be able to get you into an actual tent.”

The Gods were fickle, and so when the other dignitaries arrived the hole was only ankle-deep. Anaxares sat in in regardless, threadbare cloak pooling around him. The usual despots had crawled out of their ivory towers, it seemed. A two-striped askretis from Delos’ Secretariat, a preached from Atalante laden with beads, the young Basileus of Nicae and his former colleague Magister Zoe of Stygia. The two grasping Exarchs of Penthes – they had not succeeded at assassinating or disgracing the other, and so now uneasily shared the mantle of Wanton Tyranny – and finally the dignified figure of Bellerophon’s senior, and incidentally only, general. Flanked by kanenas ready to execute him at the first sign of treasonous ambition, he noted with approval. The Delosi askretis broke the silence first, sending one of his scribes for ink and parchment.

“The meaning of your metaphor escapes me, Hierarch,” he said, eyeing the barely-visible hole curiously. “Could I trouble you to clarify it for the records?”

“It was not as wet as the ground further out,” Anaxares explained.

“Ah,” the askretis said, sounding enlightened. “And what does the ground stand for? The wetness?”

“Impiety, clearly,” the Atalantian preacher said, clutching her beads. “The Hierarch reminds us of the virtue of humility, chiding us for this vainglorious enterprise.”

“It is a hole,” Magister Zoe mildly said. “That he is going to sleep in. Like he has every other night so far.”

“How like a Stygian to grasp the obvious and only that,” the Delosi dignitary scathingly dismissed.

“And so I do declare this session of the war council of the League of Free Cities to have formally begun,” the Tyrant cheerfully said.

The crazed boy enjoyed these councils so much, Anaxares thought, largely because no one else did. He’d insisted they be held regularly with the full roster of League dignitaries.

“The Glorious Republic of Bellerophon,” the general started, and Hierarch murmured ‘First and Greatest of the Free Cities, May She Reign Forever’ along with him, “would like to formally protest the opening of hostilities in the Samite Gulf.”

“The record will show this,” the askretis promised with religious fervour.

“I’ll start bothering to listen to your people on the subject of fleets when you actually learn how to swim,” the Basileus of Nicae retorted.

Anaxares’ back straightened with indignation. This was calumny. The knowledge of how to swim had not been restricted in decades – has never been restricted or not, he immediately mentally corrected – though with good reason showing too much eagerness in learning the skill was considered suspicious.

“I’ve been led to believe this protest comes too late, regardless,” the Tyrant of Helike said.

The young ruler of Nicae grit his teeth.

“Allies,” he began, “do not spy on each other, Tyrant.”

“Spy?” Kairos said, putting a trembling hand over his heart. “Gods, I would never. We merely helped your messengers carry their messages.”

“Like anyone believes that,” the Basileus sneered.

“Anyhow,” Tyrant said, “as I was saying – my spies in the Nicaean ranks tell me the Ashuran fleet was taken by surprise while docked in Arwad and torched before the city itself was sacked.”

The ruler of Nicae scoffed.

“Our ships withdrew afterwards,” he added. “And are now blockading Smyrna. With the loss of their other fleet in the assault on Thalassina, the Ashurans are now effectively taken out of the war.”

“Would the Republic care to protest the blockade a well?” the Delosi dignitary asked.

“Instructions will be sought from the People,” the Bellerophan general stoutly replied.

And would be received, Anaxares thought, within the next six months after vote was held. Perhaps along with a suggested order of battle, if the message arrived when they’d entered the lands claimed by the Principate.

“That’s all well and good, but the Thalassocracy was never our true worry,” Magister Zoe opined. “Last we heard the armies of Levant were marching up Procer, in pursuit of the Carrion Lord. They’re the ones we’re at risk of encountering.”

“This was a glorious victory,” the Basileus insisted. “Simply because the Magisterium hardly contributed any ships you would-”

“You kicked the Ashurans while they were down, boy,” one of the Penthesian Exarchs said, rolling her eyes. “If the Praesi hadn’t slapped them around first we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“The foul empress Malicia struck a blow at all children of the Heavens, that day,” the Atalantian preacher said. “Let us not celebrate the death of those taken while serving holy purpose.”

“Bead-clutcher,” Magister Zoe mocked. “Where was this ambivalence when we planned the invasion of Procer?”

“There is no invasion,” Hierarch stated.

There was a moment of silence as all their gazes turned to him. Most of them, he realized, had forgotten he was even there.

“As the Principate of Procer is an assembly of grasping despots having forcefully seized land and authority from its inhabitants, legally speaking there can be no such thing as invasion of it,” he clarified.

“Hear hear,” the Tyrant grinned. “We are liberators, my friends. We undertake the gentle – kindly, even – business of liberating all those pretty Proceran cities. Certainly nothing so uncouth as invasion.”

Even true words sounded incorrect coming from the boy’s mouth, Anaxares thought. After that the council descended into the usual squabbles. The Penthesians wanted the armies of the League to march swifter through the Waning Woods, shaving days off the week remaining until they entered Iserre. Most other commanders disagreed on basis of such haste opening the soldiers to ambush by the creatures haunting the woods, though Magister Zoe was in agreement with the Exarchs and offered the slave phalanxes as vanguard. As usual, it came to nothing and the dignitaries retreated stewing in the same irritation they had brought with them. The Tyrant made a production of leaving the ruby shovel behind, but eventually followed suit. Anaxares remained in his hole, eyes closed. The visions came to his eyes and ears on the wind, unbidden and unwanted. He could only Receive them.

A blind boy treading through a dead city, carrying the deaths with him – lash and ladder, into ever deeper darkness. Armies gathering under mountains, a sea of banners snarling like wolves in the wind. The Augur sitting alone in a frosted garden, spoken whispers still echoing in her ears like a coiling snake. Death marching under water, darkening the sky in flocks, spreading like poison in a legion unending. A grinning woman in the dark smoking a pipe and gathering an army, seen only until pale blue eyes forced the vision to end. Bands of green things crawling out of tunnels swords in hands, silent in the night. A one-eyed orc and a woman dappled with ink, leading an army in flight. But most importantly of all, on some barren shore, a knight in white stood with his sword high. A killer who had taken lives, but never at his own behest. Behind him, looking through a coin, something unfathomable loomed. The Seraphim, Anaxares thought. The Choir of Judgement. The angels who had judged and slain people of the League.

The Hierarch smiled.

For that, they would be judged in turn.

Amadeus was bemused.

Upon realizing the depth of his mistake he’d expected swift death to follow, delivered by as many heroes as the opposition could scrape together for a spot of killing on the lake. Part of that had been correct. A band of Named had come after him, girded with Light and wearing the grim rictuses of individuals carrying out a necessary evil – always without the capital, of course, and preferably phrased as the ‘greater good’ instead. To his continued bafflement, however, they had yet to cut his throat. On one of the rare occasions where he was not put under enchantment to remain inert, mainly when it was deemed necessary that he be fed and allowed to relieve himself, he’d politely inquired to his captors about what kind of second-rate outfit they were running. Really, keeping him prisoner? It was asking for this story to be turned on them, considering the amount of loved ones he still had out there. Unless the Saint of Swords was intent on confessing her deep affections for him – unlikely, since she took great relish in punching him unconscious before enchantments were laid – it was likely someone in the opposition had decided to get clever about this.

Hearing out whatever funeral pyre of a plan was behind this ought to be good for a chuckle or two. He was awakened long enough for half-stale bread to be pressed into his hand, and he was left to eat it with the Saint of Swords standing behind him sword unsheathed. Though damnably hungry, Amadeus threw over his shoulder the stickiest crumbs he could find and smilingly excused it as an ancient Wasteland custom he could not eat without. Everyone knew Duni were an ignorant and superstitious lot, after all. Laurence de Montfort replied by clouting him over the ear, which he took as a moral victory. By the looks of their surroundings, they were still keeping to the countryside and avoiding roads and cities. The temperature had significantly cooled, though that could be the result of the turning season just as northwards travel.

“Drink,” the Grey Pilgrim said, pressing the gourd to his lips.

Amadeus did. He’d inhabited this body as Named for so long he’d lost the sense of how long it would take for him to become this thirsty under more natural circumstances, but he suspected at least six hours. After, though, he pursued his curiosity.

“You appear to be carrying me north,” he said. “And have been for… a fortnight, at least, likely more.”

“That is none of your concern,” the Pilgrim said, the Levantine roots subtly affecting his pronunciation of Lower Miezan.

Amadeus raised an eyebrow.

“Are you quite certain,” he said, “that you would not prefer to extol your plan to me in great detail?”

He didn’t even hear the blow coming. The Saint, he mused when they woke him the following day, did not have much of a sense of humour. He told her as much while picking at his daily bread.

“Think you’re funny, do you?” Laurence de Montfort sneered.

He was not, in fact, certain she was sneering. He was facing the wrong way and quite tightly bound, save for his forearms. But given the tone, he would allow himself to presume.

“I have my moments,” Amadeus mused. “I did hear this funny jest, from someone very dear to me. It was about this very arrogant woman who had her belly opened and crawled away holding in her guts.”

He paused.

“The punchline is that you’ll grow old and die, while Hye won’t,” he helpfully added.

He did not get to finish his bread that evening, by dint of being knocked unconscious. To his amusement, the following night it was another hero standing behind him. The Rogue Sorcerer, he thought, if the old reports of the Eyes had any accuracy to them. Likely the author of the enchantment that kept him slumbering as the others journeyed.

“I’ve been instructed to put you under spell of silence if you attempt to engage me in conversation,” the hero quietly told him.

“That seems unnecessary,” Amadeus said. “I am, after all, entirely at your power.”

“Pilgrim’s orders,” the Rogue Sorcerer said.

“That is unfortunate,” the dark-haired man said. “It is not too late to save your parents.”

No reply was given. Amadeus frowned, then yelled as loudly as he could. None of the heroes breaking their fast so much as glanced in his direction. Ah, already under the spell. He had neither heard nor felt the man cast. Interesting. He truly was bereft of even the smallest trace of his Name. He flicked a miffed glance at the ground.

“Before my last stand, truly?” he said. “I could have slain a few on my way down, you cheapskates.”

Four more evenings, and not once did the Grey Pilgrim do him the courtesy of a morality debate by the fireside. He could respect the professionalism involved, but it was really quite irksome. Three more after that, and once: the last awakening, to his surprise, was in the middle of the night. Someone had botched their enchantment, it seemed. Amadeus found himself quite tightly constrained: manacles on his feet, ropes on his legs, another set of manacles keeping his hands behind his back and what looked like an enchanted band of middle around his chest. Well, they wouldn’t take themselves off on their own. He quietly rolled around until his fingers clasped around a somewhat sharp rock, and he considered the manner in which this should be approached. He’d need to dislocate at least one of his arms, and likely a wrist as well. To slip the manacle he’d need blood to ease the way, and that meant cutting open a vein – though he’d need to be careful not to nick an artery, as he was rather troublingly fragile at the moment. Wound first, he decided. It’d be harder to be accurate with the stone if his arm was already dislocated. Shifting his fingers, be began digging the sharp edge into his skin.

“I’m curious,” the Wandering Bard said. “After you slip loose, assuming you can, then what?”

Amadeus sighed.

“Debate is still taking place,” he replied, “as to whether I should attempt to steal a horse or shove this humble stone through a hero’s eye socket.”

“Pretty sure Laurence can outrun a horse,” the Bard mused.

I can’t,” he quite reasonably pointed out. “Small steps… what happens to be your name, at the moment?”

“Marguerite of Baillons,” the Bard replied.

He snorted.

“Alamans, truly?” he said. “Were all the other bodies taken?”

“Hey, if I could pick I’d be a seven foot tall blonde with a miraculous rack and thighs like trees every single time,” the Bard said. “Now that was a spin of the wheel. They don’t make them like that in Levant anymore.”

He moved around, trying to sit, but found himself stuck on the ground. Most unpleasant. The Wandering Bard lent a helping hand, dragging him up, and he found himself looking at the abomination’s latest form. Slender and dark-haired, loose and going down her back. Smiling blue eyes and heart-shaped lips. A convincing facsimile of life, he would concede. The flask in her hand was already open, and her shoddy lute laying further down in the grass.

“Drink?” she offered.

“Most kind of you,” he agreed.

She poured the liquor down his throat until he raised his hand, swallowing a cough.

“Gods,” Amadeus got out. “Is that the horrid fermented cherry extract from Atalante?”

“It’s just the foulest thing, isn’t it?” she grinned. “It’s like it can’t decide whether it wants to be sweets or poison.”

“And to think they call me a monster,” he muttered. “I’ve never fed such torment to prisoners.”

“Another?” Marguerite offered.

“Might as well,” Amadeus said. “I’m not looking forward to opening that vein, this ought to take the edge off.”

Another spot of torture later his belly and throat had warmed, at the mere price of the taste of a violently misused orchard taking over his palate.

“So, you might be wondering why I’m here,” the Bard said.

“I’m rather more curious as to why none of your fellows have awakened,” he said. “Their senses should be sharper than that.”

“If they were going to wake, I wouldn’t be here,” Marguerite shrugged.

“Convenient,” Amadeus said.

“Eh,” she hedged. “I don’t need to tell you how tetchy providence can get. Even with loaded dice you have to roll.”

“I take it this a visit in your official capacity, then,” he said.

“Surprised, are we?” she grinned, revealing slightly crooked teeth.

“It was my theory that you could only work through Named,” Amadeus said. “I find it rather horrifying that you are evidently not so restricted.”

While the dark-haired main currently believed himself to be without power – and would comport himself as such – it remained only a theory. There were likely no greater expert on namelore alive than the Wandering Bard, insofar as she was that, and so her confirmation or denial would hold some weight. No overmuch, of course, as she was still a hostile entity. But it would be a useful entry to this running mental tally.

“Still fishing, huh?” Marguerite smiled. “That’s not Name so much as it is nature, I think. Needing a plan, always a plan, even if you’re screaming inside.”

“You praise me overmuch,” Amadeus said. “You have, after all, defeated –”

“Warlock’s dead,” the Wandering Bard said.

He paused. She might be lying. To hurt him, to cloud his… Amadeus breathed in, breathed out. It was set aside.

“Blew up a fleet going out, but that’s more than a fair trade,” Marguerite said. “Empire’s a real mess at the moment, since he vaporized the better part of Thalassina with his last hurrah. Your little friend up high’s going spare trying to keep it all together.”

“Yet you are here,” Amadeus said. “And not there, stoking the fires.”

“Catherine got herself killed again,” the Bard casually said. “And let me tell you, now that was a show. You don’t often see that calibre of foolishness slugging it out no holds barred.”

His fingers tightened. Breathe in, breathe out. Control. The moment he lost control, the creature would make use of him for whatever purpose she needed. It might be time to consider smashing his head into the ground until he fell unconscious.

“It’s fascinating, watching you take that paternal feeling by the throat and just…” Marguerite snapped her fingers, “There goes the neck. Back into the box it goes.”

The taunts were immaterial. Useful information could still be had. Amadeus put a tremor to his voice.

“She wouldn’t die that easily,” he said, making himself look away.

“Glancing away is the part Malicia taught you, isn’t it?” the Bard mused. “She’s good. Must have guessed the eyes would give up the game, it’s always the hardest part to master.”

The frightful depths of that thing’s perception were not to be underestimated, he mentally conceded. She was, after all, entirely right. Cold green eyes flicked back to study her face.

“You’re headed for Salia, in case you were wondering,” Marguerite said. “They’re keeping you in the countryside because Hasenbach knows they have you. She sent half a hundred companies out with orders to take you into custody.”

“Did she now?” Amadeus said.

“Second order is to cut off your head the moment they have you,” the Bard continued amusedly. “She’s not best pleased you’re not already decorating a pike. Tariq’s going to get an earful.”

He’d known there was a reason he liked the woman. She had a good head on her shoulders, to wish the opposite of him.

“I am to be paraded before the crowds, then,” he said.

“Nah, they’ll get a hero under illusion for that,” Marguerite said. “Saint’s gonna cut out your soul and have it bound to something, she insisted. They want bait, not to risk a rescue.”

Implying that, to the best of the Pilgrim’s knowledge, there were still villains in the East he could be considered bait for. He could not know whether or not Eudokia was still with the legions. If she’d judged it feasible he could be reacquired she would have left without a second thought, but in the absence of that Scribe would remain with Grem. Assassin was still in Ashur, presumably, and impossible to contact. That much had been necessary to ensure the Augur could not interfere. That left Catherine – allegedly dead, though that was admittedly not always enough to stop her – and perhaps Masego. Unless what the Bard has told me is false, he thought. Or what she has shared is true, and the Pilgrim does not know it.

Too many unknowns for a solid strategic assessment, and no real way to acquire the information he needed through reliable sources. If he had the means, if he could lead a message, if. What a bastard word to be curtailed by. Pushing aside the frustration, Amadeus forced himself to consider the conversation through broader perspective. It should not be taking place at all, he thought. He held no Name, commanded no armies and if she had spoken true the Calamities had largely ended as threat. Neither Eudokia nor Assassin could be counted on for independent action, and held highly limited direct martial value besides. His sole remaining worth was as a hostage, and that was not the Wandering Bard’s game.

Why, then, was she here?

“There’s one part of you that I actually like, did you know?” Marguerite said. “It’s also what I hate the most, but it does tend to be that way with villains.”

“I make a very good lentil soup,” Amadeus suggested.

Behind the pithy words he observed her carefully. Now they entered the field of revelations, the most dangerous part of this dangerous conversation.

“You don’t digest defeat,” the Bard said. “It doesn’t fill your belly, weigh you down. You dissect it, read the entrails like an augury, and then ask yourself – if I could do it again, how would I do it better?”

He watched her in silence.

“Even now,” she murmured, “behind the eyes there’s a few cogs turning. What can I do? How should I do it? And they’ll only stop when you die.”

“Which,” Amadeus said, “looks to be rather soon.”

“Nah,” the Wandering Bard. “You don’t get to be a rallying cry. See, you paid your dues.”

His eyes narrowed.

“You’re no favourite son, it’s true,” she mused. “You never played the game the way you’re meant to. But you did kill the opposition and tip the scales. They wouldn’t cut you loose after that, it’s now how they do things.”

“I am,” Amadeus said, “no longer the Black Knight.”

“You don’t fit that groove anymore,” Marguerite said. “Powerless you ain’t, Maddie. You know what you are, deep down, you just think it’s beneath you.”

His fingers tightened under the knuckles were white.

“Claimant,” the Wandering Bard said. “You can have your second shot at it, you’re owed that. But if you really want it?”

She drank deep, then wiped her mouth.

“Well, there’s always a price isn’t there?” she shrugged. “So tell me, Amadeus of the Green Stretch…”

She smiled, crooked and wide under moonlight.

“What do you think is right?” she asked.

She leaned forward.

“How far are you willing to go, to see it done?”

He closed his eyes. She was gone a moment later when he opened them, without so much as a whisper. He was silent and still, for a very long time.

Mistake, he thought.

Interlude: Triptych

“Only one kind of war is ever just, that which is waged on the Enemy.”
– Extract from ‘ The Faith of Crowns’, by Sister Salienta

Harbour duty was the worst, always had been.

Ines had blown three months’ pay on the warmest cloak that could be found at market and still she was shivering like a dying calf. The prince had spread talk through the city that with the Kingdom of the Dead stirring awake those soldiers who guarded the harbour would see better pay, but like most princely promises it had come to nothing. Rumour had it the coin had gone into buying the service of every fantassin company left in the north instead, and much as she hated freezing by the docks Ines had to admit it might have been better investment. The Princess of Hainaut was doing the same, it was said, and the mercenary leanings of the fantassins had turned the whole affair into some sordid bidding war. Still, better to be here at home than to have gone south as some of the prince’s soldiers had. What word had come back from the crusade’s foray into the Kingdom of Callow was the stuff of nightmares. Strange devils riding to slaughter in the night, an endless horde of orcs and heretics that at the corpses of the fallen. Some more fanciful tales as well, of the Black Queen bringing down the sky on the head of the crusaders and making a lake of their blood. Whatever the truth of it, none of those who’d gone south had returned.

For once, she thought, being fresh to the prince’s service had been of some use. It also meant Ines was inevitably handed down the shit duties by her careerist noble officers, but cold fingers were better than the grave. She put a spring to her step after clearing Gertrude’s Tongue, hurrying towards the bonfire that awaited near the customs house. There she took off her leather gloves and pressed her palms close to the bronze bowl holding the flames, sighing at the warmth seeping into her bones. The pike she’d left to lean against her should had never seen use out of the training yard, and if the Heavens smiled on her it never would. Still, the silence of the night unsettled her. The winds that’d turned her earlier round into a ghastly affair had since died, leaving behind only eerie stillness. Cleves Harbour was lethargic on the best of days, the sporadic ship trade with Bremen and Lyonis the affair only of the prince and the very rich, but now even the fishermen had left. That lot had better read on what took place beneath the waters of the Tomb than anyone else, it was said. Those among them that did not learn to listen to the sound of danger were dragged into the depths by the foul creatures that were the only true rulers of the lake.

Some nights, Ines wondered why the prince even bothered to assign guards to the harbour. Empty as it was, even if some dead mean took it that would be no great loss. The royals who’d founded Cleves had been a farsighted lot: the harbour was not connected to the capital proper. The thin stripe of docks and shore was walled with an eye at keeping the enemy inside, not out, an unspoken admission that if the Dead King raided past the lake there would be no holding it against the Hidden Horror’s armies. The slope descending to the shore meant Ines could not even catch a glimpse of Cleves itself from where she now stood, not behind those tall walls, but that part she hardly minded. It would be the hour-long walk back to the barrack of the capital she was not looking forward to, especially since some enterprising noble lad had decided that the length of that trip should no longer be counted as part of guard duty’s duration. Ines’ only comfort was that if the fucking dead actually showed up, that prick was bound to end up on the bad side of an unfortunate crossbow accident. The lad should have worried less about getting commendations from up high and more about the many people in charge of sharp objects he’d made enemies of.

With an aggrieved sigh Ines put her gloves back on. She’d lingered around the fire as much as she could justify, if the next guard came up while she was still here she’d end up with another black mark on her record. Merciful Gods, though, it was a cold night. And not even winter solstice yet, it’d only get worse. She glanced to the side and upwards, at the slender tower overlooking the waters. She didn’t know who Mikhail had paid off to get that particular cushy duty – the guard tower had a bonfire up top, and a seat – but the man could certainly afford it. The Lycaonese immigrant ran a little business on the side, providing hard drink warming the bones to the guards that could afford it. Ines had always disdained the practice, but the thought of the long walk back to the city after her duty had her reconsidering for tonight. Once wasn’t going to hurt anyone, was it?

“You still up here, you filthy Bremen throwback?” she called out.

No answer. He must have been indulging in his own wares, which was bold of him. There were only so many times he could bribe his way out of the trouble that’d come down on his head if he was caught. Taking her pike in hand, Ines decided against taking the lack of answer as a sign from Above. The thought of a warm belly had grown on her with the consideration. She strode to the bottom of the tower, finding the door ajar. Sloppy of him, she frowned, even if he was drunk. The twisting stairs leading up to the top were just a brisk walk, but when she came there a cold seized her that the fire could do nothing about. Sergeant Mikhail was there: throat opened, blood all over his mail. Oh Gods, she thought. We’re under attack. She would have rung the bell the tower had been equipped with for this very reason, but the bloody thing was gone. Ripped off the metal hinges that had held it up. She leaned over the edge, casting her voice.

“Attack,” she screamed. “We’re under attack!”

There was no answer. She wasn’t loud enough, that was why they had the damned bells in the first place. For all she knew, she was the only soldier in the harbour left alive. That would make it her duty to run back to the city, wouldn’t it? So that they were warned. It wasn’t abandoning her fellows, it was doing her duty. Her hands trembled around the shaft of the pike.

“Damn it,” she whispered. “Damn it.”

She ran back down the stairs, heading for the nearest tower. There were ten in the harbour, they couldn’t have castrated all of them unseen. Her old boots slipped against the frost and she fell, but she grit her teeth and picked up her pike before picking herself up with it. Dodderer’s Height wasn’t far, and as the largest of the towers it’d have fielded more than a single sentinel. Old, fat ones one the edge of retiring from service but there was strength in numbers. She made it past the jutting empty warehouse that was the Prince of Cleves’ personal property and cleared the corner before she saw it. Five corpses, tossed down from the tower onto the pavement below. She glanced up, eyes squinting in the dark, but thank the Gods the bell was still there. Whoever’d done this had not yet ripped it out. Whoever had done this was likely still here, she then thought. Gloved fingers tightened around her pike, she grit her teeth and ran once more. Her attention had been on the tower, though. That was why she missed it.

The undead climbed out of the lakewater, glistening wet under starlight. Rivulets dripped down the bare skull under the ancient helm and it advanced without a word. Ines yelled out in fear, but she’d trained. Feet wide but steady, she struck out with her pike. It pierced through the rusty mail, going straight into the body, and for a moment she tasted triumph. Then the dead thing began pushing towards her through, embracing the impalement. She dropped the pike in ear, immediately cursing herself for it. But it was slower than her, she realized, so she ran for the tower instead of fighting. All she needed was to ring the bell. The door was ajar, she saw, and she slowed to avoid slipping on a patch of ice. Just in time to watch a pair of armoured skeletons walk out of the tower, swords in hand. Blocking the entrance.

No,” she hissed.

What could she do? She didn’t even have a – the two undead were smashed to pieces by the same swing of a silvery sword. There was a man, tanned and wearing plate, who casually brought down a steel-clad boot to smash one of the skulls. The undead she’d fled from was tossed back into the lake by some giant shadow moving quick as lightning. For a moment Ines thought she glimpsed fur and fangs, but what wolf could possibly be so large?

“Ring the bell, soldier,” the man in plate said.

His eyes were wreathed with light, she saw as she faced him. No, with Light.

“Chosen,” she croaked out.

“Go,” he said. “Your courage tonight did not go unnoticed.”

“They’re all over the place,” Ines said. “If they’re here-”

“Cleves,” a woman’s voice said, “does not stand alone.”

A face of painted stone over a cloak, long tresses swinging behind. Another favoured child of the Heavens, she would put her hand to fire over it.

“It will be a long night,” the first Chosen said. “A long month after it, until Malanza arrives. But we will hold.”

“Ring the bell, soldier,” the masked Chosen said. “We will guard you. Tonight, the Dead King learns that dawn is not so easily snuffed out.”

Ines straightened her back. She was no proud Lycaonese, to find glory in dying spitting in the Enemy’s eye. Just some fool girl someone had shoved a pike in the hands of. But she’d been born in Cleves. The principality of her birth was a bloody mess, and she thought little of the man who ruled it, but that wasn’t the point. It was her home. This was Procer. They could lose to princes and princesses, they could lose to Arlesites and Lycaonese, but she’d be damned before a fucking undead abomination flew its banner over the city.

She took up a sword from a corpse and climbed to ring the bell.

Balasi was allowed into the tent by the sentinels without so much as a second glance.

It still surprised him, this. Had he tried the same with his lover’s rooms in Nenli he would have been met at sword point and taken to the city square for a public flogging. Here, though, the campaign had made the king’s laws grow lax. He might not be consort in name, but he was in deed and the soldiers acted accordingly. The seeker of deeds had since grown to suspect that this was one of the reason why Sargon had come forward to claim command over the Fourteenth Expansion. Back home their love would always be an illegal mismatch, but so far away from the Kingdom Under the rules had thinned. Sargon was not sleeping, as it happened. The Herald of the Deeps sat still as stone with his eyes closed as he sought council with the spirits bound to his staff. The Souls of Fire were known to hold wisdom, though a kind narrow in scope. Were they too clever the Kings Under the Mountains would have slaughtered them all, not bound them to the great forges. There would be need to dig deep again, after this land was claimed, to feed the fresh forges being raised. Many spirits would still lie asleep in their beds of molten rock, unknown to the kraksun.

“Delein,” Balasi quietly said. “There is need of you.”

Sargon’s eyes fluttered open.

“Balasi,” he murmured. “I was far gone, this time. What ails you?”

“Not me,” he replied. “All of us. And if that vein is true or hollow has yet to be known.”

“Speak,” the Herald of the Deeps frowned.

“Our borrowed knife has returned,” the dwarf said. “And would now speak with you.”

Sargon’s beard twitched in surprise.

“The Gloom still stands,” he said. “She cannot have been victorious. Are we certain it is the human, and not simply a Night-thing wearing her?”

“I laid eyes on her myself,” Balasi said. “She was stripped of power, but it is her. Unmistakeably.”

“And the cold spirit?” Sargon asked, leaning forward.

The seeker of deeds resisted the urge to roll his eyes. His lover had fancied the thing since their first meeting, considering adding it to his staff should the human queen be broken. Sargon had mastered the Greed in most aspects of his life, but not this: any interesting creature he encountered he desired for his staff of office.

“Changed, yet still existing,” he replied. “You can look upon it yourself when speaking with the human.”

“She is not that,” the Herald of the Deeps said. “You know this.”

“Was not, perhaps,” Balasi conceded. “I am no longer certain of that old truth.”

That piqued his lover’s interest, as he’d intended, and Sargon merely put on a coat before they made their way out. Officer had been ordered to settle the human and her spirit until they were ready to be met, and the two dwarves found them awaiting patiently by a low table. Black kasi had been served, and the Queen of Callow was drinking from her cup with a broad grin. Hairless of the face like so many of her kind, some feeble thing grown even feebler since their last meeting. It had not escaped his notice that she sat in a way that took the weight off one of her legs, as if it were wounded. Or that she’d limped visibly when coming to the camp. The spirit stood behind her, dark and silent. Its face had changed, grown more human. Scarlet eyes had become golden, though no less watchful for it. Sargon’s eyes lingered on it with interest, ever eager to get his hands on fresh curiosities.

“Herald,” the human said, inclining her head in shallow respect. “Seeker. Good to see you again.”

Balasi stood as Sargon sat across the table, only then doing the same. A mere seeker of deeds could not be seated at the same time as the Herald of the Deeps, he thought, bitterness so old and worn it was hardly even that anymore.

“You surprise me, Queen Catherine,” Sargon said. “I had not thought we would meet again until our bargain was fulfilled.”

And such an advantageous one it had been, Balasi thought. A paltry quantity of gold and a temporary cessation of arms sales to a few human nations, in exchange for a sword pointed at the heart of the Night. Sargon had struck it most willingly, knowing that even if defeated the human would drag many kraksun down with her.

“That still holds,” the human idly replied. “I’m here to settle some details, as it happens. The Gloom could be gone by the end of this conversation, if it is fruitful.”

The dwarf’s brow twitched. A bold claim, this. Sve Noc still lived, this was known. Was the human claiming she had bound the old monster to her will?

“Details,” Sargon repeated. “Such as?”

“An offer might be more accurate,” the human mused. “Sve Noc is willing to cede her current territory to the Kingdom Under, but concessions will have to be made.”

Balasi smoothly reached for the blade at his side. He’d let down his guard, when sensing the queen had been stripped of her power. Where before she had been an oppressive presence without even moving a finger, she now felt light as a feather. Nothing more than a mortal, he’d thought. So why do you feel more dangerous now than you did before, human?

“You were turned,” he said. “Made into their creature.”

The queen made that strange human sound of derision, all nose and doubt.

“I’m really more of an advisor,” she said. “We came to an arrangement, that’s all. Trust was extended, and part of that is letting me speak for them when it comes to you fine folk.”

“You no longer hold power,” the Herald of the Deeps said.

“I wield it instead,” the human said. “That’s quite enough, as far as I’m concerned.”

“You fed your purpose to them,” Sargon said, openly appalled.

“Purpose was shared,” Queen Catherine corrected. “As I would now share a proposition with you.”

“There can be no truce with the Night,” Balasi said.

“The Night is dead,” the human said. “At least the way you knew it. And I am here to speak diplomacy, not theology.”

“And what terms,” Sargon scoffed, “would Sve Noc speak?”

She took out her pipe, taking her time to fill it with herbs. Snapping her wrist, she produced dark flames from the tip of her fingers to light it. It did not feel like sorcery to Balasi’s senses, and this was worrying. She puffed at the dragonbone – what a waste, he still thought, to make a pipe of that – and blew out a stream of smoke.

“Would you like,” Catherine Foundling cheerfully asked, “to make your two biggest problems go at war with each other?”

There was a moment of silence.

“I am listening,” the Herald of the Deeps said.

Friedrich Papenheim might have been a prince, in another life.

Of those who had both the name and the blood, he was the closest relation to the Iron Prince. He’d served as a trusted lieutenant to Klaus Papenheim for decades as a steward and commander, and few others were as high in the man’s council as he. But Old Klaus had made it known he intended to pass on Hannoven to his niece when he died, to make the principality as one with her own. Friedrich had resented this, on occasion, though always half-heartedly. It was hard to be truly bitter when one lost one’s inheritance to the likes of Cordelia Hasenbach. The first Lycaonese to ever rise as First Prince of Procer, the iron-willed daughter of the ancient lines of Papenheim and Hasenbach who’d made the entire south submit to her rule. No, if he was to be royalty but not prince there was none other he’d rather lose the throne to. It would be in good hands, when the time came. Tonight, though? Tonight Hannoven was in his own hands, and it was burning.

He’d kept to the old ways. As soon as it was known that the Dead King was stirring he’d expelled every southerner from the city and hung those that refused the order. Every village and town in sight of the waters had been emptied, the spring armories had been opened and the war horns sounded. Every man and woman of fighting age in the principality had been called to serve, to uphold the old oaths. The whispers had passed from mouth to ear, spreading across all of Hannoven. The dead are coming. Belt your swords, put on your armour, send your children south. The dead are coming. He’d never been half as proud to be Lycaonese as when he’d watched the full muster of his people spread out like a sea of steel beneath the walls of the city. The watchtowers by the Grave had found the Dead King’s host as it crossed, marching under the dark waters with the inevitability of an arrow in flight, but he was no fool to give the horde battle on open field. There could be no victory when every one of your dead turned to the service of the Enemy.

He’d sent riders to the other principalities, Rhenia and Bremen and Neustria. He trusted no sorcery to carry the word when the Hidden Horror itself strode the field. The allies of Hannoven were of the old blood too, and they’d smelled the death on the wind: they would not be caught with their trousers around their ankles like some goat-fucking Alamans. Their armies would already be assembled, and the moment the message arrived they’d sound their war horns to send for full service. But it would be weeks, months before the first reinforcements arrived. The city of his birth was a fortress like few others, but it would not hold forever. And so he’d made the cold choice, as he had been taught from the cradle. Those unfit to fight had begun the march for Bremen with everything they could carry. With them had gone half the muster of Hannoven. He’d sent the young, the skilled, the promising. The future of his principality. With him Friedrich had kept old soldiers past their prime, the greybeards and whitehairs who did not know whether it was winter cold or ratling fang that would slay them. And with those he had fought for Hannoven.

Fifteen thousand against the legions dark and darkly led. They taught the Dead King what kind of people got to grow old in these lands. The first wall they lost on the first day, and retreated after setting the houses aflame. They held the second wall for a week, until the dead sent a flock of winged drakes aflight. Wall by wall they have ground, but never without making the Enemy pay for it. The longer they held the longer the rest of the Lycaonese had to gather their armies, the longer the people of Hannoven could flee without pursuit. They fought for a month and seven nights, dying in the snow as a sea of dead lapped at the walls. Hundreds of thousands, centuries of corpses marching to bring death to all the world. In the end it came down to the Old Fortress, the solitary mountain that had been turned into a castle jutting out from the plains. The dead never paused in the assault, never tired: day and night they came in silent assault, the banner of the Dead King flying tall behind them. It mattered not, for behind Friedrich the banner of Hannoven flew. A single soldier on the wall, grey on blue. Beneath was writ the words thrown in the Enemy’s teeth since time immemorial: And Yet We Stand.

So they stood, and so they died.

Ground away into nothing by numbers and sorcery their few mages could not match. Dead things that had once been Chosen climbed the walls, the sky grew dark with falling of arrows and behind them drakes stolen from the grave spewed out clouds of poison that burned lungs and skin. Less than a thousand of them left now, and most of them wounded. They’d retreated to the Crown, the very highest point of the fortress that could only be accessed by a few narrow paths filled with murderholes. The dead had been met with streams of burning coals and thrown oil, dwarven engines roaring destruction down passages where there could be had no cover. The Chosen dead pushed through, after the horde withdrew, but they found the passages collapsing beneath them and spiked grids of steel awaiting them when they leapt. Now sorcerers that were little more than grinning skulls pounded away at the defences with foul magics, forcing the defenders to stay behind cover until the next wave of dead was ready for assault. Friedrich passed through the throng of wounded, clasping shoulders and trading grim boasts with what soldiers her had left.

Old men, old women. The last gasps of their generation, dying sword in hand. His eyes grew cloudy with pride. Death came to all, but tonight they would meet it as Lycaonese should. Holding the wall in the face of the Enemy, for the sake of all the world. Friedrich beard was already flecked with blood, and he dipped out of sight when he felt the cough came. It would not do for his soldiers to know he was dying. The wound he’d taken hammering a spike through the head of that last drake had only gotten worse. Poison, he suspected, though it made no difference. None of them would live to see dawn, poisoned or not. He wiped his lips clean of blood and returned to the battlements after the cough had passed. The pounding had stopped, he immediately noticed. The assault was coming. Captain Heiserech sought him out, her worn face seemingly amused.

“Commander,” she saluted. “The skulls want to talk. They sent some kind of giant dead. Think it might be ‘Ol Bones himself come to pay us a visit.”

“Has he now?” Friedrich grinned. “Well, let us see what the Dead King has to say.”

Maybe he’d ask for surrender. His people could certainly use the laugh. He wasn’t sure who started. It could have been anyone, or half a dozen at the same time. Only a few voices, at first, but more joined until the stone shook with sound.

“The moon rose, midnight eye
Serenaded by the owl’s cry
In Hannoven the arrows fly.”

The refrain came as a roar of defiance.

“Hold the wall, lest dawn fail.”

Friedrich Papenheim strode to the very edge of the battlements, where the passages had been broken, and found a horror awaiting on the other side of the drop. It was large as three men, wearing plate of bronze and steel that had been nailed to its frame. Its face could not be glimpsed behind the great helm, but the eyes could. Sunken yellow things, glinting with power. That might be the old bastard himself in the flesh, Friedrich thought. The song echoes from behind him, slipping into the wind.

No southern song for your ear
No pretty lass or merry cheer
For you only night and spear.”

“A Papenheim,” the Dead King mildly said. “I should have known. Your entire line is like a nail that refuses to be hammered.”

Friedrich could not deny the sliver of pride he felt at that. He was dying, but he would stand straight in the face of the Enemy. Even if his lungs throbbed with pain.

“In the name of Her Most Serene Highness Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer and Warden of the West, I bid you to crawl back into the hole that spawned you,” Friedrich said. “And to take your horde of damned with you, old thing.”

“I rather missed this city,” the Dead King said. “You make it harder to take every time, it keeps things interesting.”

“And when we chase you back into the dark, claiming it back, we’ll raise an eight wall,” the Lycaonese replied with bared teeth. “On it will be written: here lie those who broke the back of the Enemy and stand those who will again.”

Come rats and king of dead
Legions dark, and darkly led
What is a grave if not a bed?”

“You fought well,” the Hidden Horror said. “And so were owed the courtesy of this conversation. Should your soldiers wish to take their own lives instead of having them taken, I will allow them the right.”

“So that we may rise whole in your service?” he laughed. “I think not. We’ll burn, and you with us.”

“Once wolves,” the Dead King said, almost fondly, “always wolves. What soldiers you would have made, under my banner. Die proud, then, Papenheim. You were an irritation.”

Quell the tremor in your hand
Keep to no fear of the damned
They came ere, and yet we stand.”

The aging soldier smiled.

“We’ll be waiting for you at the passes, Dead King,” he promised. “With a proper Lycaonese welcome.”

“I would expect no less,” the Hidden Horror said.

He turned his back on the Enemy and returned to stand with the last of his soldiers, the words in the wind guiding him home.

So we’ll hold the wall, 
Lest dawn fail.”

When the light of day found Hannoven, not a single living soul remained.