“An empire is a barrel with a hole: you must never cease filling it, lest it spill out at your feet.”
– Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow
I’d expected to wake up aching, but it was the opposite: it was like I’d had my best night of sleep in years. Maybe in all my life, I thought as my eyes fluttered open. It was like every ounce of me was sated with rest, a start from a blank state. But, as I found out moving under my covers, there were limits to the magic of that. My bad leg still throbbed like it was going to burst. A look around told me two things: I’d been brought to my rooms in the guest palace, and someone had been keeping watch on my sleep from the other side of the bed.
Seated in a chair wide enough it must have been brought just for him, Hakram met my gaze.
“You look tired,” I said, the words escaping my mouth before I could think about it twice.
The tall orc shifted in his seat, the steel of his prosthetic hand brushing loudly against the cushions.
“I am,” the Warlord replied. “Long days and short nights. You know how it is.”
“Always too few hours in the day,” I agreed, then hesitated.
We had been apart for long, but he could still read me better than anyone.
“You’ve been asleep for three days,” Hakram gravelled. “They brought you to Archer in the tower, saying that eating the Book made you fall unconscious.”
“It wasn’t the Book, I don’t think,” I muttered. “More the transition itself.”
He studied me carefully.
“I can believe that,” the Warlord said. “I could feel the pull of your Name from outside the room even when you were unconscious and it is stronger now. More focused.”
He wasn’t joking, I saw. And the more my gaze lingered the more I saw. Not from my good eye but from the one the Hawk had taken, the hollow socket. I could… It was like the stars I had seen in the void as Warden of the East, but the perception had been refined. His Name was like a translucent fire raging over him, when I focused, and I could make out beating hearts. Only one had solidified. He has only one aspect, I thought. And it went further than that. The more I watched the silhouette, the secret fire, the more I saw that it was connected. Chords spun out, stories I felt I might be able to follow by running my finger along the connection.
I should be able to see more, some bone-deep instinct told me, but I was being hobbled. The Warlord was a villain, and half of my eye was still in my enemy’s hands.
“I became the Warden,” I said.
His brow creased in surprise.
“Not of something,” Hakram slowly said. “Just Warden.”
“I suppose there’s no need to specify,” I replied, “if I’m Warden of everything.”
The air shivered in the room. He felt it too. And yet I was still a villain, I thought. Night still came when I called. Transitioning had not changed who or what I was, only amplified it. It would be the same after me: a hero could hold this Name as well. The Role of standing above Named, at the top of the Accords, it did not belong to either Above or Below. It would be what we made of it, because it was us who’d made the Liesse Accords. For good or ill, it was in our hands.
Hakram was still watching me, face unreadable.
“All of the Woe have gone through two Names,” he said, “save you. It took you three to settle.”
I hummed, pensive. That was one way to see it.
“There’s always a cost,” I said.
I’d given up much to come into this Name, at least in the way that I had. Would I have been a simpler sort of villain, if I’d taken the Book by force instead of taking it with the blessing of the two claimants to the West? My gut said yes. Still a Warden, maybe, but more a Warden of the East bloated for having devoured the other side’s strength than the more… balanced mantle I now wore.
Hakram suddenly grimaced, looking away.
“I was not fair, when we spoke in the thicket,” he said.
“What’s bringing this on?”
“Until I found Archer, I did not know whether you were dead or alive,” Hakram said. “I trusted, Catherine, but I could not be sure. And so I thought of our last conversation again, that it might be the last words we ever spoke.”
“Lancing a wound is never pretty,” I said.
“Aye,” Hakram said, “but while it was not only you I was angry with, you still received both helpings of blame.”
I made to speak, not sure what I should, but he raised a hand to ask me to let him speak. My teeth clicked shut. Fine.
“Did I ever tell you,” he asked, “what the Tyrant saw when he used his perception aspect on me?”
I shook my head. I’d always assumed that Hakram was even keeled enough Kairos had simply seen nothing to use against him.
“Nothing,” Hakram quietly said.
My breath caught. That was, well… I took a moment to digest that. What it meant, that he’d had so little in his life except for me and the Woe.
“I used to think it was a virtue,” the Warlord said. “That I could step away and see clearly because of it. But that was fear, looking back. It was easier to want the things you did, dream your dreams, than have my own. And maybe if things had gone differently, I would have spent a life satisfied with that.”
I breathed in sharply. I could see where this was going.
“But then you saw Scribe,” I said.
“I saw too much of myself in her,” Hakram said. “And did not like what I saw.”
“And what does that mean, Hakram?” I pushed back. “I get it – you thought I might one day do to you what my father did to her. Cut her adrift after a lifetime. But why are you telling me this?”
We’d already tread those grounds, revisiting them would do no good.
“I stand behind much of what I said that day,” he said, “but you did not deserve all the anger you received. For that I owe apology.”
He paused, reluctant.
“And you were right about one thing.”
His jaw clenched.
“I could have come to you with it,” Hakram gravelled. “I did not. I do not regret becoming the Warlord, Catherine, but I mislike the thought that part of what drove me was fear – that deep down I thought it easier to return bearing the Name than to speak to you as the Adjutant.”
I studied his face for a long time, the craggy green leather of it, and found only calm there. Slowly, I gave a nod. But I did not speak after, because the conversation was not over and it was not for me to finish it. We’d parted on my words, last time. If there was to be an ending it would be of his own ushering, whatever it might be. The silence lengthened.
“You told me it was all in my hands, last time,” Hakram finally said.
“And meant it.”
He did not hurry to words, which I was not sure whether to curse or appreciate. If it was to be the knife, then let him be quick with it. I’d need the time to lick my wounds.
“I never thought you would ever turn a knife on me,” the tall orc admitted. “Leave me behind, maybe, but never steel.”
His clenched his fingers of bone into a fist.
“I saw it in your eyes that night,” Hakram said. “But I don’t think I believed it until you spoke the words out loud.”
Part of me felt the urge to apologize, to bury the hatchet at any cost, but I took it by the neck and squeezed. I was who I was. Maybe I still had some change left in me, but not so much as that: in the end, if the stakes were high enough I had run out of lines I wasn’t willing to cross to win. Suddenly, he snorted.
“It is a crooked thing,” he said, “but in a way it reassures me. You didn’t just see the Adjutant that night, you saw me.”
“I saw you,” I evenly replied, “and raised a knife.”
He shook his head.
“I came as the Warlord,” Hakram said, “and stood against you. I cannot leave your shadow and in the same breath demand its protection.”
I studied him quietly.
“I don’t know,” he quietly laughed. “It is new ground for me as well.”
I bit my lip.
“It can’t be the way it was before,” I said.
“I don’t want it to be,” Hakram honestly said. “Do you?”
Yes, part of me whispered. But could I really ask that when I now knew what’d it cost him?
“No,” I replied, and found I largely meant it. “But now I’m at a loss. I’ve never-”
Lost someone I love to anything but the grave, I thought. I don’t even understand how I got your friendship the first time, how could I possibly know what to do now?
“- I’ve never,” I weakly finished.
He laughed at me, the prick.
“Eloquent,” he teased, smiling at my rude gesture.
The mirth passed, though never quite entirely left.
“We start from the beginning,” Hakram said, leaning forward and offering his arm.
When we’d first met in the valley all those years ago, I remembered, I’d been the one to offer. Lips quirking, I clasped the arm in a legionary’s salute. It was steel I felt under my fingers now, and his own found the cloth that these days I wore more often than mail, but it was better this way. We weren’t the same kids we’d been in Spite Valley, playing war games in the Tower’s shadow. It wasn’t the same two people meeting. We parted after a moment and he drew back, rising to his feet.
“There may not be much time, in the coming days,” he said.
To meet, he meant. To try to forge the scraps of what we used to be into something else.
“So we’ll have to make it,” I firmly replied.
He nodded, hesitation coming to his face.
“In Keter,” Hakram said, “there will come a time beyond armies. When Named will venture ahead.”
I nodded. We both knew the Dead King wouldn’t die to anything as mundane as armies.
“When that time comes,” he quietly said, “I would like to fight with the Woe.”
My heart clenched. To that, at least, I had an answer.
“If the Woe are fighting,” I simply replied, “where else would you be?”
I saw a weight leave his shoulders, and some part of me wanted to weep. When had it come to this? Lancing a wound is never pretty, I reminded myself. But it was necessary, if the limb was to heal instead of fester. Hakram stiffly nodded at me, and a heartbeat later he was gone. Out the door and into the palace, leaving behind him an absence that felt almost physical. I leaned back into my pillows. Soon enough someone else would enter the room and Creation would come calling, responsibilities dragging me back, but for now I just closed my eyes and listened to the sound of my own breathing. It was a faint thing, barely more than a wisp, but I remembered what hope felt like.
And for the first time in months, I held hope that the pieces of who we’d been might not stop the people we’d become from finding a way to fit together.
Proceran palaces grew salons like caves grew mushroom, but one of the upsides of that cultural sickness was that you could send for a drink anywhere. I was not surprised in the slightest that Cordelia’s personal steward not only knew that I drank an herbal concoction for pain but the exact mix as well. Aisha ought to be flattered that her old family recipe had become subject to foreign espionage, I figured, and it really was quite convenient. I finished the mug – served at the perfect temperature to drink, because of course it was – and set it down on a pretty little glass table, trying to tell the Sword of Judgment through my eyes that his hovering was getting on my nerves.
“Another day of rest might be forgiven, given the circumstances,” Hanno said.
Evidently, I needed to work on my glares.
“Time’s the one thing we can’t spare,” I replied. “Besides, I’m fine.”
I was not, in fact, fine. I was still a little slow on my feet and… unsteady. Sometimes it felt like I didn’t fit in my own skin anymore, that I was moving with limbs there weren’t my body’s. From the steady look the dark-skinned man fixed me with, he was well aware of the lie and debating whether or not he should call me out it. Fortunately, I had a secret weapon.
“I will not venture an opinion as to Her Excellency’s health,” Cordelia Hasenbach mildly said, “but she does seem fit for light duties such as discussion.”
That Excellency business was going to get old fast, I could already feel it. And it was probably half the reason she was sticking so closely to the title, because underneath all that courtesy Cordelia did have a streak of bitingly polite pettiness.
“See,” I smiled, “we’re just talking. And we’ve got a lot of grounds to cover, so let’s be about it.”
Hanno dared to roll his eyes at me as he took a seat, the absolute ass, and I was not sure whether to be pleased or insulted. It’d taken only moments in the same room to realize that in the aftermath of our little tiff in Arcadia he’d considerably warmed to me. Being willing to take a step back and meet them halfway had not quite restored our relationship to the easy friendship of the early days, but it was a damn sight better than the cool distance that’d followed the Arsenal. I’d had a few looks at him through my dead eye, the one that saw much, and found him covered in burning pale flames. He did not quite have a Name, but it was not far.
I tried to have a look ahead, see what he was moving towards, but it was too tricky when I had to maintain a conversation at the same time.
“There are urgent matters,” Cordelia agreed. “Negotiations with the Kingdom Under must be carried out to a finish before we march on Keter, which I consider the priority of the Grand Alliance’s foreign diplomacy, but there are internal matters to settle.”
She, on the other hand, did not have so much as a fleck of power gathering around her. Cordelia Hasenbach had fallen on the side of being true to the woman she had been on the floor of the Chamber of Assembly: mortal to the bitter end.
“The compromise between the Blood and the Bestowed,” I said.
“To begin,” Cordelia agreed. “Though on grounds more esoteric, I believe there is question in need of an answer as well.”
She slid a look at Hanno when she said ‘esoteric’, getting a nod out of him.
“The Severance needs a wielder,” he plainly said. “The decision must be made before we set out north.”
I hummed, leaning back into the plushy seat.
“All of that starts second place,” I finally said. “Before anything else, we need to properly enforce the arrangement we made in Arcadia.”
Cordelia’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“Settling the representatives under the Truce and Terms,” she said. “You mean to step down immediately.”
“From that position,” I agreed. “I’ll still be Queen of Callow until we finish things in Keter, at least in principle. In practice I’ll begin passing authority to Vivienne as of today.”
I didn’t even foresee friction there for the rest of the war. Viv wasn’t much of a general and knew it, while I’d made a career off of handing off the ruling parts to someone else why I went about the business of being a warlord. It was only fitting that my last war would end my reign with it.
“I am glad,” Hanno said. “Princess Vivienne is respected, but your legions would not fight for another queen as they do for you.”
I waved that away, though I was a little flattered. It was true, I knew that regardless of him, but hearing it from someone like Hanno added a certain something.
“We’ve been through a lot of mud together,” I said. “But back to the selection: the first thing to settle is whether or not you’ll be standing to represent the heroes.”
If he did not it would be a race, I figured, but as I saw it there was little chance of anyone else filling the shoes if he wanted to keep them on.
“That is my wish,” Hanno said. “Until the fall of Keter I would keep the office, setting it aside when I swear myself to enforce the Accords.”
I had no trouble with that, to be honest. I would have accepted it even before our relations thawed, so my approval was only growing. There was one potential source of objections, though, sitting pretty in her seat as she delicately sipped at lemon water. Cordelia noticed my inquisitive glance, which I hadn’t tried to make subtle in the slightest.
“It is not my place to argue for or against,” the First Prince evenly said. “When we struck a bargain, Your Excellency, I accepted your authority over certain matters. I will not go back on my word.”
I cocked an eyebrow.
“And if were to ask for your opinion?” I pressed.
She did not look pleased, but neither did she fight me.
“It is the natural choice,” Cordelia admitted. “And it will ease the tradition from the Truce and Terms into the Liesse Accords.”
She still didn’t like him much, I thought. The esteem they’d once had for each other had been eroded down by years of speaking past each other and it would just as many years for it to be restored. If it ever was. But she was willing to work with him and not the kind of woman to blind herself to someone’s virtues because of a personal animosity.
“I’ll look forward to you taking your seat again, then,” I said, nodding at Hanno.
Then I sighed.
“The selection on my side of the fence is going to be a little more complicated, unfortunately,” I admitted.
Of the Woe, both Archer and Hierophant had the strength to be able to claim the seat as well as strong ties to me that’d help them keep it. The trouble was that neither of them would want to get anywhere near that seat given a choice and this wasn’t the kind of position to take half-heartedly. Not even just until the end of the war. Keter was going to be vice tightening around Named and we’d need steady hands at the helm if we were going to keep all these very dangerous people from cracking under the pressure.
“You have been grooming the Barrow Sword as a captain for almost two years now,” Hanno noted. “Do you not think him fit?”
“There’s going to be a brawl,” I frankly said. “And I’m not sure he can take the Red Knight, who will absolutely throw her hat into the ring.”
And she was strong enough she’d be able to chew through most Named in a fight, but she’d be a fucking disaster as a representative. For one, at least nine tenths of everyone who ever met her couldn’t stand her. If she were just awful as a person it’d be one thing, but from the reports I’d read she was unfit to command even a band of five. Hanno grimaced.
“Even Christophe is wary of her,” he said. “And he is not a man to scare easily.”
It was her aspects that made her a threat. By simple ability she was a very skilled fighter but hardly impossible to handle. When you threw in Devour, though, she became a headache to handle. If there was anything that aspect couldn’t take a bite out of, we’d yet to encounter it.
“I believe you once sent the Archer to discipline her, after a brawl with other villains,” Cordelia noted.
“I’d bet on Indrani over her,” I agreed. “But Indrani won’t want anything to do with those responsibilities.”
She’d made it very clear to me that command of a roving warband was the most she was interested in taking up.
“You misunderstand me,” the First Prince said. “I mean to point out that you, the appointed representative for Below, saw it fit to use her as your champion.”
Ah, I thought. Clever. Archer wouldn’t want the seat, but she would absolutely be willing to fight as Ishaq’s champion should he be challenged – and I’d set precedents for that over my own tenure to no objection from my charges. Trust Cordelia Hasenbach to find the loophole no matter the game.
“That might work,” I acknowledged. “I’ll need to speak with the both of them first.”
Hanno politely cleared his throat.
“Have you considered,” he asked, “the possibility of the Warlord laying his own claim?”
“He won’t,” I said, certain. “He’s got too much on his plate already, herding the Clans and hammering out the aftermath of the peace in Praes.”
I’d had to juggle the duties of a queen and a representative before and I’d found the amount of work crushing even with the likes of Hakram and Scribe supporting me. And that was ruling Callow, leading professional armies. The Clans would need much more personal a touch than my people ever had.
“But if he does?” Hanno pressed.
“Then I won’t stand against or for it,” I replied.
He’d left me to stand on his own two feet. I would not disrespect that by propping him up should he reach for more. That settled the talk of selection, at least for a moment, so I let Cordelia gently guide the conversation back to other matters.
“The talks with the Blood can be ended promptly,” she said, “and it would set a good tone to act swiftly. For a Warden to settle what was before a matter of debate will begin to prove the worth of the office.”
Going unsaid was that a lot of heroes would find it hard to swallow no matter what the Sword of Judgment said, even when they felt the pull of my Name against them. Being decisive from the start would do a lot to convince people it was worth ceding authority to me. It occurred to me, after a moment, that I’d never told either of them what my Name now was. And yet the both of them had been referring to it freely since we met. I almost shivered.
Sometimes fate’s hand was less discreet than others.
“You’re not going to like what I have to say,” I bluntly told her. “The entire point of having a Warden is to have someone who can settle disputes involving Named. Sometimes that will mean having power over signatory nations even if you don’t like it. A very narrow sort of power, relating only to Named, but it’ll still be there.”
She visibly did not like what I had to say.
“You have already heard my arguments,” the First Prince said. “I believe it a poor precedent to set that a decision of Levant’s ruling council might be overturned by Named on account of Named.”
She paused, mastering herself.
“Yet that is not my decision to make,” Cordelia conceded. “That is the bargain I struck with you. And the existence of a single office instead of rival ones does put to rest certain fears of partisanship I had previously held.”
I considered her for a moment, honestly a little doubtful she’d given in so easily. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, I eventually thought. She’d been the First Prince, not a queen, and that wasn’t the same thing. Especially not the kind of queen that I’d been, inheriting a culled nobility and direct authority over most of the largest cities in Callow as well as the only standing army. I had a lot more power than most Fairfaxes ever did. Cordelia Hasenbach, though, had been wrestling with the Highest Assembly all her reign. She’d had to give ground before, I thought, suffer defeats on matters she very much cared about.
She would exercise the power she could to the letter of the law and no further, taking the defeats when they came and living to fight the battle another day. That was her way.
“Good,” I muttered, flicking a glance at Hanno. “And you?”
“I have no more objections now than I did before,” the dark-skinned hero shrugged.
“Then it’s settled,” I said. “I’ll sit down with the Blood tonight and get the terms put to ink.”
With that out of the way, Hanno himself brought up the next decision in need of being made.
“Have you given thought to the Severance?” he asked.
I clenched my fingers, unclenched them. Give and take, that was what’d brought us here. I had not come out ahead by listening to the tyrant’s whisper in the back of my head.
“Only a hero can wield it,” I said, “so that takes it out of my hand. Should you be chosen as representative for Above again, I’ll leave the decision in your hands.”
My gut said either him or the Mirror Knight, but it was hard to be sure. Hanno watched me with those calm, patient eyes.
“You will want the final word,” he stated.
I did want that. Very much. My instincts demanded it, a precaution in case the heroes fucked up again and some unfit idiot ended up wielding the single most important artefact of this war. But it couldn’t be that way.
“This only works if I trust your judgement,” I made myself say. “So I’ll trust your judgement, Hanno.”
The translucent flames around him I could see, if I concentrated hard enough, only had a single solid heart within them – and it tasted of memory. Recall, had to be. He’d lost the aspect he had once called on every time he flipped that coin of his, likely forever. It was Hanno of Arwad’s judgement I was betting on, not the Tribunal’s, and trust didn’t mean anything if it was offered on the cheap. He did not hide his surprise, or the strange emotion that flickered through his eyes after.
“Thank you,” he finally said. “I will keep you informed.”
I nodded, uncomfortable, and was dimly grateful when Cordelia nudged the conversation towards what she most cared about. Hanno went along just as easily, which was only natural considering he’d also put quite a bit of his back into dealing with the dwarves.
“A united front when meeting them again would improve our position,” Cordelia said. “The three of us, certainly, and perhaps the representative for Below as well.”
“Sure,” I said, “but that’s posturing, not substance. We need something to come at them with. I don’t suppose you’d care to share what it is you’ve been digging up in the Salian archives all this time?”
“Ah,” the First Prince faintly smiled, “then it was you.”
I cocked an eyebrow, admitting nothing.
“Or Princess Vivienne perhaps,” Cordelia said. “Thieves of her skill are passingly rare.”
“She’s a princess now, you know,” I chided. “She doesn’t steal anymore.
I let a beat pass.
“When a princess steals from foreigners, it’s called diplomacy.”
The only born royal out of the three of us was less than amused, but I caught Hanno’s lips twitching. Yeah, of course that one would agree. I doubted the fucker had paid taxes to anyone since age sixteen, ascetic vagrant that he was.
“So?” I pressed.
“It occurred to me after our talks with the Herald of the Deeps that we were missing the forest for the trees,” Cordelia said. “We thought of the cities and why he wanted them, but did not consider how they would be held.”
“Strength, presumably,” I said. “Assuming they get to cram their terms down our throats.”
“Strength would involve dwarven arms,” the First Prince pointed out.
Well, yes. It wasn’t like they were lacking in either manpower or armaments. They’d just seeded colonies across the northern third of Calernia while simultaneously providing arms for large armies across several fronts.
“I don’t see your point,” I admitted.
“It would mean dwarves on the surface,” Hanno said. “Thousands for every city, come to live under the sun permanently.”
I blinked. Shit, they were right. I was so used to thinking in terms of the Kingdom Under just being another empire to deal with that I’d forgotten this demand was breaking a long-term policy of isolation from the surface. The most dwarves Calernians usually saw were mercenaries hired through Mercantis.
“That’s a lot of people away from their usual centres of power,” I muttered. “At a time where their population’s being spread out up north.”
Was there even a precedent for dwarves ever sharing a city with someone? I couldn’t recall one offhand.
“I imagine the Kingdom Under sees it as installing an armed ruling caste,” Cordelia said. “They chose cities instead of empty land for a reason. But in practice, the Herald is achieving something else entirely.”
“Three city-states sitting atop massively profitable trade routes to the underground,” I finished, “and little to no real oversight. Outrageously wealthy pocket kingdoms for him to rule over.”
The First Prince nodded.
“I attempted to discern the worth of the trade involved and acquire an idea of the Kingdom Under’s wealth,” she said. “While you were asleep, I finished the work as much as it will ever be.”
I cocked my head to the side.
“For at least the next two centuries, the cities would represent more wealth than the entire Fourteenth and Fifteenth Expansion put together,” Cordelia said, “while involving less of a tenth of the people involved in these.”
So small, rich kingdoms living under the protection of the prominent military power of Calernia.
“Sounds like a golden retirement to me,” I frankly said. “With just enough challenges to tackle he won’t ever get bored.”
“My thoughts exactly,” the First Prince coldly smiled.
I’d almost forgotten Hanno was there. I turned an eye to him, skeptical.
“There’s speculation,” I conceded, “but the foundations are solid.”
“You are also taking the most uncharitable interpretation as fact,” he pointed out. “Not unreasonably, given the Herald’s behaviour, but it blinds you to a truth.”
“And what would that be?” Cordelia asked, tone cutting.
“I do not know what the Role of a Herald of the Deeps is,” Hanno said, “but if he was seeking to leave that life behind his Name would be weakening.”
He met my gaze.
“Having been in the same room as him, did you sense such a thing?”
I chewed my lip.
“No,” I admitted. “And if it’d been there, I would have sensed it.”
My sense of Names had become unusually keen after I became Warden of the East. The dwarven Name had felt odd to my senses, but in no way broken or fading. Which meant Hanno was right.
“So he’s trying to fulfill his Role still,” I noted. “That’s interesting. How would pocket kingdoms help the Kingdom Under?”
“A queen’s perspective,” Hanno admonished.
I narrowed my eye, mentally taking a step back and looking at it another way.
“He’s a hero, so he’s trying to help part of the kingdom,” I corrected. “The downtrodden. Not the whole realm, and certainly not in a ruling sense. The gains their empire make through this are just how he sells it back home. The city-states are what he’s actually after, not the profits.”
“They would earn him the support of the expansionist faction,” Cordelia said. “Which he had suspected to be his backers within the Kingdom Under.”
Fuck, I thought, that actually made a great deal of sense. Even if the expansionist were assholes, the ones who wanted to make gains at the expense of the people of the surface, the Herald would have nowhere else to go. I could see the pattern now: two leading philosophies underground, one of isolation and one of expansion. Even if there was a dusting of evil or even Evil in the expansionists, the Herald would make common cause with them. He had to, because he wanted to reform his people and the only other game in town saw dwarven society as a closed circle.
“It fits with where I first met him,” I admitted. “Leading the Fourteenth Expansion, on the very outskirts of dwarven territory. He’s trying to get out from under the thumb of people in power by going into the wilds.”
The First Prince considered that, then slowly nodded.
“Form the perspective of attempting to reform custom, the city-states described would be an ideal garden,” Cordelia said. “Small populations of like-minded dwarves, large wealth based on trade instead of labour and more numerous foreign peoples around them to erode the old ways. It is a well-crafted plan.”
One that the Herald had rushed the encirclement of the Dead King to sell to his people, immediately knocking at our door afterwards. The details really did fit, Crows. I could sympathize with the intention if it was really this, even admire it a bit, but none of it changed that all those pretty things would literally be built on our backs. That the Herald was willing to let thousands and thousands die, gamble with the fate of Calernia and blackmail desperate nations to get his reforms. That was… Fuck me, I thought. Yeah, not exactly an unfamiliar situation. Just not the way I was used to it.
So this was what it felt like, facing me across a table.
“So we know what he’s after,” I said. “Now we’re in a position to fight back.”
“It has been brought to my attention that a dwarven gate was recently unearthed,” Cordelia said, the look she flicked Hanno’s way rather cool. “We can make use of it to reach out to the isolationists and out his plot.”
I frowned at Hanno. He trusted heroes more than I thought wise, even now, but he wasn’t a fool. He wouldn’t argue for the cession of three cities – one of which was part of the League, not even the Grand Alliance! – to the Herald because he was trying to accomplish something Good through dubious means. I suspected that, if anything, ye ol’ Sword of Judgment would think worse of the Herald’s methods than we did. Unlike Cordelia and I, he expected better of heroes.
“What the Herald seeks it not evil or harmful to the rest of Calernia,” Hanno elaborated. “It is his approach that is objectionable. If he can get his way without it being at our expense, would it not be better to attempt that bargain?”
“Is there a way for him to get his way save at our expense?” Cordelia skeptically replied.
“If it is a city and the riches of a land the Herald seeks,” Hanno said, “there is one we can offer.”
It took me a moment to realize what he was getting at.
“Keter,” I disbelievingly said. “You mean the Crown of the Dead.”
“It is a great city, surrounded by lands that were once rich,” he said. “And unlike the cities demanded it will stand empty once the war ends.”
“Keter is part of the land that was promised to the Firstborn for their participation in this war,” I said. “How many homes are the dwarves going to steal from them?”
“Would the drow truly want the city?” he honestly asked. “I was given to understand they made their own in the Duskwood.”
“That’s twice now powers have tried to go back on that bargain,” I coldly warned. “Alliances have been broken over less.”
He shook his head.
“I do not mean for a treaty to be breached,” Hanno said. “Let them trade the claim, by all means. There must something in the Herald’s hands worth more than a claim over a city they might never inhabit.”
I hummed. That was, well, more acceptable. Given the losses the Firstborn had taken in the war with Keter, I honestly wasn’t sure they could colonize all of the lands that were now the Kingdom of the Dead. They might genuinely be amenable to a trade, if the dwarves offered up something worth the exchange. The problem with that, though, was…
“Nearly all of what makes the demanded cities attractive to both the Herald and the expansionists is absent in Keter,” Cordelia said. “It is far from trade and there are no humans within that might be used for labour. They will not accept that bargain.”
“His backers would not,” Hanno said, “but the Herald himself might. We are trying to work past him when we should be working with him.”
We were going around the bastard because he was willing let a third of Procer be blighted to get his way, not because we just felt like being poor sports, but I forced myself to consider his words anyway. Hanno, for all his flaws, understood heroes better than I did – the way they thought, the way they moved. I closed my eye and opened the other. Not looking at Hanno himself but beyond, fingers running down the strings of story. Was he right, was there a path?
Was there a lever to move the Herald of the Deeps?
I felt myself drift, following the chords until I found something at the other end. A force, a will, a Name. An entity that I could only dimly make out, this far from it, but I could see something. Three hearts, all solid, but there was something… deeper. A glimpse at the strings that would move him, the way they tasted. Love, I saw. The Herald was driven by love. Made greater, projected to many, but at its source intensely personal. And personal was a creature that could be moved by more than just stick and carrot. I breathed out deeply, closing one eye and opening another.
Both of them were staring at me.
“Catherine?” Hanno cautiously said.
“I was having a look at our friend,” I replied, tone steady. “I saw enough to think your method has merit.”
Cordelia looked rather skeptical.
“He’s doing this out of love,” I told her. “That much I’m certain of. Romantic and personal, everything else grows from there.”
“Love,” the First Prince of Procer said, “is not a sound political strategy.”
Hanno looked about to disagree and I wanted no part of that debate so I cut in.
“I agree,” I said. “But we lose nothing by attempting to move him first. Prepare the appeal to the opposition in the Kingdom Under, and if the talks with the Herald fail we can proceed with that plan immediately.”
“It would be best to negotiate entirely in good faith,” Hanno protested.
“So far he hasn’t,” I pointed out. “I see no need to reward that with trust he has done nothing to earn.”
He did not look pleased and neither did the First Prince, but neither of them stormed out of the room. That was something.
“Another compromise,” Cordelia said. “You seem to have acquired a taste for those.”
“If I have on redeeming quality, Your Highness, it’s that I never hesitate to steal the methods other people beat me through,” I smiled.
I did not get a laugh, which was only sensible since I’d not truly been joking. With an agreement in principle, we hammered out a few more of the details and split off to see to our parts. It would all have to wait until the representatives were chosen, anyhow, so there was still time.
Too little of it, but wasn’t that always the way?
I had the talks with the Blood settled by nightfall and a treaty after dinner. By tomorrow the rest of the Grand Alliance would be informed, as even though it was an internal matter of Levant it involved the Liesse Accords. That part, as the First Prince had predicted, benefitted from decisive action. It was the other talks of the two following days that had me itching. The most frustrating part about the representatives being chosen was that I couldn’t be directly involved. As the Warden I stood apart, so I would not even have a seat in the council of villains past explaining why it was now needed.
All I could do was stack the deck behind closed doors and hope.
Hanno was chosen on the morning of second day, by a wide margin. It took until Midnight Bell for the villains to finish and the Pilfering Dicer almost died – accused by the Red Knight of having interfered in her duel with Archer. But we got our way, in the end. The Barrow Sword was chosen as the representative, narrowly, after Indrani managed an equally narrow draw against the Red Knight. His position was still weak, but Ishaq was no fool: he’d move to consolidate, aware he had my blessing to take everything in hand.
I doubted Below’s lot would be as firmly in hand as when my reputation had been making people think twice, but it would serve. Gods, it would have to. Soon the League and the second wave of Praesi troops would be arriving, and when they did the march north would begin shortly after. There were only a few matters left to settle.
Hierophant had told me he needed five days to prove whether the Rogue Sorcerer’s theory had been right, and he was punctual to a fault: at noon on the fifth day, I sat before a mirror through which we faced each other.
“Roland was correct,” Masego told me. “We were looking for a source of power that might shatter the Intercessor’s grip on stories, and we have found one.”
I was too early to be relieved, I warned myself.
“So what is it, exactly?” I asked.
“Night,” Hierophant replied.
I blinked. Was it really going to be that easy?
“More precisely, Night as it was first granted to Sve Noc by the Gods Below,” Hierophant specified.
Ah, and there was the pinch.
“I shouldn’t need to tell you that pretty much all Night has passed from some Firstborn body at some point,” I pointed out.
The drow had been very ardent proponents for centuries of murdering each other for that power.
“Some, yes, but not all,” Masego said. “The Sisters have administered the resource since the beginning, Catherine. They still hold the power they used to create their shared godhead, which was bestowed directly by Below.”
“So the Crows could do it,” I said.
“They could be used to channel Night against the Intercessor, whom you’ve informed me had a hand in granting it to them in the first place,” Hierophant corrected. “They could not do it themselves, by my estimation. At the very least you – or someone of equivalent strength in Night – and myself would need to guide the ritual.”
“You want me to head north just as the armies begin to march on Keter,” I said. “That’s not a small ask, Masego.”
“Nor is breaking the hold of the goddess of stories on her domain,” Hierophant bluntly replied. “You asked me for a solution and you have it. There is nothing more I can do.”
I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.
“Can we really spare you?” I asked. “The crown of Autumn-”
“Has been carved into what we sought,” Masego interrupted. “It will be the cursed gift to the Dead King that we planned. And while I would prefer to be there when it is used, should the necessity strike my presence is not required. Roland and the Blessed Artificer would both be capable of using it without me.”
And both would be with the armies. I rubbed the bridge of my nose. I didn’t like it, to be honest, and it went against the grain for me to leave all the preparations behind. But it couldn’t be denied that if we didn’t get back Evil’s stories, the Dead King would snap us over his knee. Much as I’d like to pretend otherwise, I didn’t really have a choice.
“Well then, pack up and join me in Salia,” I said. “Look like we’re headed to Serolen.”
I had a week until he was there, so I had better spend it well: after that, there would be no going back.