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

Chapter 31: Pursuits

“The man who sleeps with virtue finds the bed has no room for a third.”
– Proceran saying

Fuck,” I said.

Ever eloquent in times of trouble, that was me.

“I thought that might be your reaction,” Masego noted.

I closed my eyes. Was there anything we could do about this? I wasn’t exactly overjoyed at the prospect of the elves getting their paws on the crown of Spring, assuming they hadn’t already. On the other hand, I couldn’t think of anything the Grand Alliance needed less right now than picking a fight with a power as strong as the Golden Bloom. I didn’t know anywhere near enough to be sure what to think about this. What did they want the crown for, how important was it to them? A decision on that scale couldn’t be made without at least a solid guess at the answers to those questions, and it wouldn’t be made by me alone anyway.

“Right,” I said, opening my eyes. “I need you to keep digging into this, Hierophant. It’s higher priority than Quartered Seasons, as least for the next few days.”

The ritual wouldn’t be happening anytime soon anyway: I doubted the First Prince would accept even the slightest unnecessary risk to the countryside of Procer. Not when the timeline to stacking the odds in our favour as much as possible was perfectly acceptable from a strategic view.

“There are limits to what I can accomplish,” Masego said.

“I want you to find out if they already have the Spring crown,” I said. “And at least check on the ritual sites, to guess at how much force they’ve actually deployed out there.”

Likely on Proceran territory, too, not that elves tended to be particularly concerned with any borders save their own. But of I was going to have to break it to Cordelia Hasenbach that the Forever King had sent agents into the Principate, I’d prefer to at least like to have some estimates to offer her about how many of those there were.

“The latter I can assure, if not the former,” Zeze said, pushing back one of his elaborate braids. “They’re likely to resist my probing attempts, however.”

The implied question there was, in essence, about how insistent he was allowed to be in the face of that resistance.

“Don’t harm anyone,” I said. “Try to avoid damage, if you can, and whatever you do avoid starting a fight. Other than that, you’re free to use whatever means you want.”

“It ought to be an interesting intellectual exercise, at least,” Masego mused. “The nature of their defences is unique, which will force a degree of unorthodoxy to my approach.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” I said, meaning every word.

I cleared my throat, after, hesitant to speak what I wanted to say.

“I don’t need to tell you to stay safe, do I?” I eventually asked.

He smiled.

“I’ll take precautions, Catherine, there is no need to worry,” Masego said.

“We might have other ways to get to that information,” I reminded him. “You, on the other hand, can’t be replaced.”

“I am fond of you as well, Cat,” the blind man easily replied. “Now do be off. I’ll not have you hovering about as I work, your presence alone is enough to disturb all my precision instruments.”

Probably true, though that didn’t mean that he wasn’t just itching to get me out of here just so he could get started on the latest challenging task I’d presented him.

“Take care, Zeze,” I quietly said.

To my surprise he placed a hand on my shoulder, if only fleetingly.

“And you as well,” Masego seriously said. “Hakram is wounded but you are not alone. We are here if you need us.”

I breathed out, since I was a grown woman and getting moist eyes over something this simple would be a little shameful. I left before another burst of that disarming earnestness could scrape me even more raw, returning to the cold halls of the Arsenal and the ever-increasing amount of troubles awaiting me.

When I went to relieve Indrani from her watch over Hakram’s bedside it was past Noon Bell, so I returned her earlier kindness and brought a meal with me.

Pork with garlic sauce, a loaf of brown bread and a large saucer of some strange mix of oil, vinegar and olives. They were all Arlesite staples, the mixture in the saucer meant for the bread to be dipped in, and I’d grabbed a pair of apples to round the meal out. Archer was carefully carving an arrow when I entered, eyes on the wood and the knife in her hand carefully precise. Back in Callow this sort of work tended to be done out of logs with an eye to making many and quickly, but Indrani was rather more discerning with her own arrows: she picked the branches herself, when she could, and saw to their carving personally. Considering the rarity of some of the woods she used, that was only to be expected. She tended to treat mass-made arrows with the same disdain Masego reserved for massed Legion sorcery, and for much the same reasons.

“I get to be served by a queen,” Indrani bragged, even as I began unpacking the meal. “How many people can boast that, I wonder?”

Out of petty spite, I left her half of the meal on the table and only arranged mine on a plate. I offered her a pretty smile.

“Not you, for one,” I sweetly said, and sat down with plate.

Huh, I’d been skeptical about the oil and vinegar but it was actually pretty good. Made the brown bread better than butter would have, for sure, and while I wouldn’t trust Procerans to make a halfway decent stew they were admittedly good at roasts like the pork one.

“You’re a terrible friend,” Indrani complained, rising to her feet.

“You taught me well,” I agreed.

She helped herself to her meal with a snort, the two of us settling comfortably in our seats. We were both hungry enough that conversation waited until we’d polished off our meals, though even as I tore into the pork I found my eyes drifting to Hakram’s unconscious body. I missed him even more sharply now that I needed advice. Him and Akua, I was forced to admit, as I’d come to rely on the two of them quite a bit in Hainaut. Bringing Akua Sahelian into the Arsenal would have been ill-advised, though, and not just because it’d strip the Hainaut front of its sole high calibre spellcaster – it’d been as much the number of heroes awaiting here and the rulers I’d be meeting as the strategic considerations that’d guided my decision.

“You look glum again,” Indrani said, licking the garlic sauce off her fingers.

“Quartered Seasons had a major breakthrough,” I admitted. “But it’s also looking very likely that the elves are trying for a fae crown.”

She let out a lot whistle.

“A nasty people, the elves,” Archer opined. “They never came after Ranger while I was in Refuge, but about a decade earlier a few of the Emerald Swords tried to ambush her in Bayeux.”

The Emerald Swords, huh? Hadn’t ever really given those any thought, to be honest. Their strength was quite literally legend, though there were rumoured to be no more than ten. Each was supposed to be worth a small army, the Forever King’s blunt instruments in eradicating what he could not stand. They supposedly rarely left the Golden Bloom, like most elves.

“I don’t know what they want the crown for, but it worries me,” I admitted.

“Also irks you something fierce, I’d wager,” Indrani smiled. “They’re scavenging power they had no hand in laying low.”

I did not answer, looking away. She wasn’t wrong. That the Forever King thought he could sit out the war against the Dead King and use the chaos to go grabbing mantles of power while we were busy fighting for Calernia’s survival was not endearing the man to me. If the elves had played a role in the end of the old Courts of Arcadia I would have kept my mouth shut, but they were just being opportunistic vultures.

“We can’t afford to push the Golden Bloom too far,” I reluctantly said. “They could make keeping what we still hold in Hainaut a nightmare with little effort and if they send out the Emerald Swords we’d have to pull our best fighting Named from the fronts to be able to handle them.”

“I figure the prick out in the Bloom thinks the same, Cat,” Indrani said. “Remember, the Dead King made their king’s son into a Revenant that you put down at Third Liesse. There’s no love there, and the elves have to know that if the screw with the Alliance too much they’re helping along ‘Ol Bones.”

“They’re elves, Indrani,” I said. “Their take on foreign policy is shooting even the birds that come within a mile of their forest. I’m not saying they’re idiots, but I’m honestly not convinced the Forever King wouldn’t be in favour of a few million uppity humans being eaten before the Hidden Horror is driven back.”

“They haven’t brought their lands back into Creation, so maybe you’re right,” Archer said. “Mind you, there’s at least one upside to that.”

My brow rose questioningly. I couldn’t really see one, to be honest. The Grand Alliance had neither the leverage nor the strength to spare to do anything about this, while just letting it happen seemed like a mistake.

“Might be Duchess Kegan won’t be so eager for Daoine to go independent, when she hears about this,” Indrani said. “Elves were bad enough on their own, but elves with a godhead? I don’t care how large the Watch gets, it’ll be like fielding as shield wall of goblins against a pack of ogres.”

I mulled on that a moment, even as I chewed on the bread. The Deoraithe were masters of defensive and irregular warfare, but as a rule they tended to be weaker on the offence. Restraint and their isolationist streak had still earned them an impressive military reputation, but the era where a duchy’s army could stand up to those of the greater powers of Calernia was coming to an end. The Conquest had proved that massed mages and siege engines combined with heavy infantry could crush armies in the mould of the Old Kingdom’s, and the rest of Calernia hadn’t lain asleep in the decades that followed. Procer had fielded large units of priests and mages with its field armies during the Tenth Crusade, a significant departure from their old way of making war, and the years of fighting against Keter were further refining their methods.

Even the Dominion was starting to change its doctrine, using its limited numbers of Lanterns and Binders to crack open enemy lines much in the same way that the Legions of Terror used scorpions and goblin munitions.

That was the death knell of Daoine’s military relevance, whether Duchess Kegan realized it or not. Putting together the Army of Callow had taught me how damned expensive an army of that kind was to raise and keep in fighting fit, and it simply wasn’t a financial burden that the Duchy of Daoine’s revenues was capable of supporting. The Watch were devils on the field, and arguably some of the finest foot on Calernia, but you couldn’t win a war with them. House Iarsmai’s historical military prudence was, at least in part, flowing from that realization. The issue was that, when everybody’s military doctrine was done with its growing pains in twenty years, the Watch wouldn’t even allow Daoine to win battles. Throw in that the enemy whose destruction was at the heart of their culture might raise its ruler to a form of lesser godhood, and Indrani could very well be correct.

The Grand Duchy of Daoine might just find the world outside a lot colder than expected, after leaving the Kingdom of Callow’s protective embrace.

“If we can keep Daoine in the fold I won’t complain,” I said. “Though that should be Vivienne’s situation to handle, in the end.”

If we weren’t all dead, by then I was likely to have abdicated. Besides, if Vivienne could begin her reign with the diplomatic feather in her cap of having kept the Deoraithe part of the kingdom she’d have an easier run of things going forward. I’d taught the last remains of Callowan nobility the dangers of trying to go against a popular queen backed by a powerful royal army.

“She seems to have a handle on things so far,” Indrani shrugged. “And if we win against the Hidden Horror, it’ll be a long time before the shine of that wears off. Hells, we might actually get a few decades of peace.”

I was not nearly so optimistic. Too many parts of Calernia had only heard of the Dead King without ever catching sight of his armies or his monsters. The League of Free Cities hadn’t even bothered to stop warring against itself as thousands of soldiers from an large coalition died to hold the defences to the north, and Praes was knee-deep in a civil war being prosecuted at what I could only call a languid pace. The rulers who’d seen the worst of the war would come out of it reluctant to war against those who’d been their comrades in the face of annihilation, but that’d only go so far. One of my hopes was that the construction of Cardinal would sap interest in resuming old skirmishes, given the many opportunities it represented, and that the city-state’s territory would serve to settle at least some of the people whose lives had been upended by the wars.

“We’ll see,” I replied. “Even the peace years ought to be quite a ride, after a war like this one.”

The afternoon passed slowly, after that, as the two of us sat and talked. Several messengers came to find me over the following bell, as I’d made it clear that the infirmary would be where I stayed, but there was nothing truly urgent to see to. Some concerns about the current tonnage of water that my rank obligated the stewards to inform me about, then a bold request for funding by a Proceran mage that I sent to Roland after skimming and finding the idea worth investigation. The closest thing to a crisis came an hour before Evening Bell, when I was informed that someone had been caught trying to enter one of the restricted zones of the Arsenal. It turned out to be a young couple trying to sneak off for a tryst, and I was informed they were very apologetic when they learned they’d triggered an alarm ward in their attempt to find a dark corner.

Their pays were docked, and in a fit of mercy I spared the two men the necessity of having to explain themselves to me in person. I sent written note warning that a repetition of the mistake would see them suspected of espionage, which should have them thinking twice about where they sneaking off.

“You’re enjoying this,” Indrani accused, afterwards.

My lips twitched treacherous.

“It’s been a long time since I was asked to weigh in on things so…” I trailed off.

“Easy?” she suggested.

“Straightforward,” I corrected. “The lower stakes are a relief.”

The knowledge that the worse I courted if I made a mistake was passing embarrassment instead of the usual lives lost by the hundred. I enjoyed the calm all the more for the knowledge it was soon to come to an end. While the Arsenal might be its own little hermit kingdom, isolated from much that went on beyond its walls, the broader world was coming towards it. Tomorrow would bring the First Prince and the White Knight, and with them a great many troubles that for now still seemed on the horizon. The Painted Knife was nearing, too, and the envoys of the Titanomachy. Any of those visits would have been an event, but all of them in swift succession promised to be more of a circus. While I lost myself in thought, Indrani groaned and rose to her feet.

“Headed somewhere?” I asked.

“Having supper with Masego,” she said. “You’re welcome to come along but I’ll be carving and he’ll be reading.”

“When you put it like that, how could I resist,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Go on, have fun.”

It left a strange taste in my mouth to say that. It wasn’t jealousy, it’d essentially be the same as getting jealous Vivienne was having dinner with Hakram, but it was… odd. The ease she’d said that with, the way she’d not needed to check he’d be there or even just inclined to have dinner with her – all those things spoke of a habit. It wasn’t the first time they were doing it, and they’d been doing it for long enough they considered it a given it’d happen. It was oddly domestic, given who they were. I waved out Indrani, and idly wondered if perhaps I was a little jealous after all. Not of either of them, but perhaps of what they had. It’d been a long time since I’d had that level of intimacy with someone.

Not since Kilian.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted that, and I knew I simply didn’t have the time to afford something like it these days. Yet the easy way that Indrani had displayed a sort of intimacy I’d have not believed her capable of when we first met had me uneasy. My friends were changing and making lives for themselves while I swung my sword at the world trying to make it a little more like I wanted. My eyes moved to Hakram’s, his chest rising and falling in steady rhythm as the spell took care of keeping his lungs going. Sometimes the changes weren’t for the best. A knock on the door – too respectful to be Archer’s – caught my attention and I invited in the messenger. A report from the captain of the garrison, I noted with a raised brow, and one that bore his official seal.

I cracked it open and as I scanned the lines I had to forcefully keep my fingers from clenching. The Mirror Knight had tried to enter the Red Axe’s cell, insisting even when the guards refused to let him in. It’d come close to violence before he walked away. I folded the parchment, ignoring the messenger’s nervous gaze. Someone had informed Christophe de Pavanie that I’d gone to speak with the Red Axe with Prince Frederic, I decided. This was not a coincidence. It also meant the Mirror Knight had friends within these walls that were willing to stretch the bounds of propriety to help him. I put away the parchment and dismissed the messenger without sending an answer to the report. I’d been warned of the incident, and since it’d not come to violence for now there was little I could do.

Not, that wasn’t true. There were more than a few things I could do, but there was nothing I should do. At this point, overreaching would be dangerous. Restraint now could be used later to make the point to the White Knight that I’d tried patience only to find it ever more stringently tested.

Restless at the inaction, I rose to my feet and after patting Hakram’s shoulder took to the halls. I had no precise destination in mind, though that parchment was burning a hole in pocket. I’d not been the only one to go to speak with the Red Axe, I considered. Maybe I should mention this to the Prince of Brus as well. I’d already been headed vaguely in the direction of the Alcazar, anyway. Halfway there I forced myself to admit that I wasn’t going there to tell him about that report, or at least not only that. It’d do me no good to pretend otherwise. There were risks, although it wouldn’t be difficult to weave an illusion around myself that’d ensure I wasn’t seen going there. And if I was going to do this, which the way my teeth were worrying at my lip were telling me I was, then now would be the time. Before Hasenbach got here and the Arsenal was swarmed with guards and watching eyes.

I felt myself reach for the Night, beginning to weave an illusion, and admitted to myself I’d already made my choice.

I made sure to be seen returning to my rooms before backtracking under veil of Night, remembering the way to the Prince of Brus’ quarters well enough from the last time I’d visited. If I’d been a few years younger I might have hesitated before knocking on the door, but in that sense Indrani had been good for me. A few moments passed and I felt a little like a fool. He might not be there at all, given that it was not so late. Perhaps it might be better if I left. Then the door was cracked open and Frederic Goethal curiously looked out, blue eyes slightly widening in surprise as he saw me. His blond locks were slightly dishevelled, and above the belt he wore only a loosely buttoned white cotton shirt that did nothing to hide the kind of muscles that came only from a warrior’s life.

“May I come in?” I asked, doing nothing at all to hide the way I was looking at him.

Frederic of Brus’s eyes darkened with something that I was rather looking forward to seeing unleashed.

“Please do,” he replied.

The door closed hurriedly behind me and I came closer, noting he was just tall enough I had to lean up to kiss him. His hand found my hip, but it was my lips that found his in a soft, tentative kiss as I tiptoed upwards. A brief thing, and I withdrew to find his eyes still closed.

“You’ll do,” I decided, pushing him back against the wall.

There was nothing tentative at all about what followed.

I woke up not long past Midnight Bell, pleasurably spent and sweaty. Frederic, still deliciously naked under the twisted-up sheets, was still asleep at my side. It’d be a mistake to spend the night, given the risk of being seen, so reluctantly I wriggled out of his embrace and sat up on the bed. It was enough to wake him and he stretched out in a way that pleasantly captured my interest for a few moments. Getting my hands on his body had done nothing to damper my appreciation for it. Much the opposite, as it happened.

“Restless or leaving?” he asked, voice still husky from sleep.

“Leaving,” I said. “As soon as I can find my clothes, anyway.”

Where they’d ended up had not been a priority around the time I was taking them off.

“How soon you dispose of me,” Frederic teased. “Did I disappoint?”

“I was vocal enough with my opinion you shouldn’t need to fish for compliments,” I drily said.

“One enjoys hearing those anyway,” he grinned.

It’d been a while since I’d been with a man, but I’d definitely enjoyed returning to that brand of diversion. Thinking of it was enough to stir my interest again.

“Considering you’re Alamans, I expect I won’t have to mention that this is best kept under wraps,” I said.

He looked rather amused.

“This is hardly my first tryst, though it has certainly been a… vividly memorable one,” Frederic said, sitting up in the bed as well. “I understand that some passions are meant to remain discreet. I’ll not moon after you like a green boy either, if that is your worry.”

“I’d tolerate a bit of mooning,” I grinned. “It’d be rather flattering. But only a bit.”

“I’ll see what I can arrange,” he quietly laughed.

It really was shame it’d be genuinely terrible politics for even the suspicion of an affair between us to fall on either, I mused. I’d have thoroughly enjoyed more than one visit to this bed. Safer to cut this after one night, though, I knew. I’d taken risks enough already. On the other hand, I mused as I tossed aside the sheets and pushed him back against the headboard and got on top of him, the night wasn’t quite over yet.

“One more for the road,” I suggested.

The gasp that followed was not one of disagreement.

The following day, the First Prince and her escort arrived several hours before the White Knight and still Hanno set foot in the Arsenal before Cordelia Hasenbach.

With the wards back in order scrying relays to Creation had been established again, so the Procerans had known in advance that we’d had not only a fae incursion but several demons running loose not so long ago. Considering that the First Prince would be a great deal easier to kill than Hanno and the that magnitude of the political crisis that’d followed would be… significant, I’d not been offended when her personal guards had not taken me to my word when I’d told them the Arsenal was secure. A company of mages and soldiers had swept through the attainted areas with a fine comb, though I doubted that any mundane mage out of the Principate would able to catch something that the likes of Masego or Roland hadn’t.

While I debated heading to the Arcadian waystation where the First Prince was awaiting the word to go on ahead from her people, I ultimately decided against it. Hasenbach liked her ceremony, and I might as well ensure I had her in as pleasant a mood as I could before the negotiations started. There was precious little of what I wanted to discuss with her that could be spoken about in such a public place, anyway. To my disappointment I learned that Vivienne would only be arriving tomorrow, having been slowed on the march by sudden rains that’d flooded the roads, but I’d lived without seeing her for several months already. A day more or less wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Besides, I kept busy: while security was an issue for Hasenbach the White Knight breezed right past her after a few greetings and proceeded straight into the Arsenal. I dragged Archer with me to watch my back, leaving as a lookout as I limped my way down a long set of stairs. The White Knight came out of the translocation ritual in the same wide room where the Mirror Knight had nearly drawn on me less than a week ago, a single mage in Arsenal livery at his side. Hanno looked tired, eyes pulled tight, and was leading his horse by the reins. He’d ridden hard, I decided, after hearing about the attack. Even odds he’d even ridden through the night on the last stretch, for him to be visibly tired: it wasn’t something that came easy, in Named of his calibre.

“Black Queen,” he greeted me.

“White Knight,” I replied. “I’m pleased you came quickly.”

“I can only wish I’d been there when the attack happened,” Hanno frankly said. “None of the affairs that kept me from travelling with you were even near important enough, seen in retrospective.”

“Hindsight’s no cure for bad luck,” I shrugged.

A sharp whistle sounded from the heights above, a sign from Archer we were about to have company. Indrani wouldn’t have bothered for guards or diplomats, which meant Named.

“I’d wager that’s my latest headache trudging towards us,” I said. “I tried my hand at handling it and failed, White Knight, so it’ll be yours to deal with.”

Hanno’s brow rose.

“I thank you for your assistance,” he said, turning to offer the mage a smile.

She blushed, much to my amusement, and replied by espousing the virtues of duty before scurrying away. However nicely phrased, it’d very much been a dismissal. I eyed him speculatively. Heroes tended to be popular with women – and men, when so inclined – but I’d never know him to keep company. I didn’t believe him to be like Masego, disinclined towards the act, but neither did I believe him so discreet he would have been able to keep a bedmate quiet.

“I received some interesting missives from the First Prince, when I passed by a scrying relay yesterday,” Hanno said. “Including a subtle but rather firm request that I take Christophe of Pavanie ‘in hand’. I’ve rarely known you to be in such swift accord with Cordelia Hasenbach, Catherine.”

Well now, wasn’t that interesting? Frederic hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d said that the First Prince saw the Mirror Knight as a potential threat because of his closeness – and occasional nakedness – with the House of Langevin. If she was willing to start putting pressure on the White Knight to intervene before he’d even gotten to the Arsenal, then she was serious about curbing dear Christophe. While I’d only extend so much trust to Cordelia over much of anything, I was rather pleased at the notion that for once she might be entirely on my side – if largely for her own reasons.

“He still has the sword, and now he’s making demands,” I grunted.

“I’ve never known him to be prone to overstepping, only clumsy in expressing himself,” the White Knight calmly said. “As for the Severance, while it should be temporarily returned to the Arsenal I can see no better wielder for it.”

I could think of several, including the very man speaking to me. Those two had shared a front in Cleves, I recalled, before the Salian Peace and Callow joining the Grand Alliance. There might be a degree of trust there, the sort earned in battle. It didn’t worry me overmuch, in truth, considering that Hanno was remarkably clear-eyed when it came to most things. Still, a warning was in order.

“Be careful with him,” I said. “I don’t think you’ll find him all that pliable.”

“Pliable is something a lord wants in a vassal,” Hanno said. “I am not one, nor he the other. All I need of him is reason and a willing ear, neither of which he’s ever failed to offer.”

Our little chat was interrupted by armoured boots on stone as the Mirror Knight, in full armour and with the Severance at his hip, briskly began to make his way down the stairs. Looking rather uncomfortable and noticeably unarmed, the Blade of Mercy followed behind him. Christophe de Pavanie’s green gaze was distinctly unfriendly as he took in my presence, though it stopped short of a glare and he began to pointedly ignore my presence. The boy at his side looked away from me when I glanced.

“White Knight,” the Mirror Knight began the moment his boots reached the bottom of the stairs. “Your presence gladdens me.”

A long moment of silence followed when Hanno did not reply. The White Knight eventually cocked his head to the side.

“I had assumed,” Hanno slowly said, “that you were not done in your greetings. Was I incorrect?”

Huh. I threw him an appreciative glance for that even as Christophe’s cheeks reddened.

“Wouldn’t be the first lack of manners from him,” I idly said. “I doubt it’ll be the last. We’ll speak later, White Knight.”

“Until later then, Queen Catherine,” Hanno replied with a slight bow.

I began to limp away, without further ado, and though the Mirror Knight began to say something that might have been a belated greeting I did not turn to hear it or bother to lend an ear. I was almost hoping he tried to pull something of the sort in front of Proceran diplomats, who’d be genuinely appalled at the sight. They were known to be polite to even people they despised, after all. Archer was awaiting at the top of the stairs, leaning against a wall. She’d kept the room below in sight the whole time, taking her duty of watching my back just as seriously in this place as she had in the tunnels of the Everdark. Different dangers here, perhaps, but barely fewer.

“So?” I asked as she pushed off.

“They were hurrying,” Indrani said. “So they weren’t just coming to greet Shiny Boots, I’d bet.”

That soured the pleasant mood the night’s exertions had left me in, even after this little interlude. They’d hurried because they’d heard I myself was there to receive Hanno, then. For them to have been forewarned, it meant they had more friends in the Arsenal than I’d hoped they would have. Not necessarily Named, as the Mirror Knight’s slaying of no less than seven demons had earned him a great deal of admiration with soldiers and mages from the rank and file, but I wouldn’t dismiss the notion outright either.

“With Hasenbach joining us tonight the number of soldiers in here will swell,” I said. “We’ll be able to spare some for more private duties. Reach out to Lieutenant Inger, Archer. I require some eyes.”

With the First Prince’s arrival, I finally had a pretext to meddle with the garrison without raising an eyebrow – given that Hasenbach would have a soldier escort of her own, it’d raise no eyebrows if I arranged one for myself out of garrison troops. I didn’t intend to use mine guarding doors, though. I wanted to know who the Mirror Knight would speak with, and when. It would be imprudent to begin acting on anything before making sure how much support he had, exactly.

“I’ll take care of it,” Indrani said, pushing off the wall. “While you were down there a messenger came by for you, though. I took the message for you.”

She fished out of her coat a small folded parchment, handing it over.

“And what’s inside?” I asked.

Neither of us bothered to pretend she wouldn’t have opened that without the slightest hint of hesitation.

“The First Prince of Procer is inviting you to dinner,” Indrani said, waggling her eyebrows lasciviously.

Considering I could no longer claim to have never slept with Proceran royalty, answering that insinuation with even mock indignation would have, uh, weaker foundation than I might be used to.

“Well,” I said, “I suppose I’m about due to have an exquisite meal spoiled by politics.”

Chapter 30: Quarters

“Admittedly, it was my fault for not specifying the flying fortress had to be able to fly in directions other than up. Oh, it can fly down as well? Splendid. Guards, drag the Lord Warlock beneath my fortress. It’d be a shame not to use it at least once.”
– Dread Emperor Inimical, the Miser

“Walk me through it,” I said, then added, “metaphorically speaking.”

Masego’s mouth snapped shut. His quarters were larger than I’d expected, but I was rather familiar with the way it got filled from our years together. It was unusual, by Wasteland standards. Given how sorcery tended to come with some degree of wealth and influence, at least in Praes, the rooms of most mages I’d seen tended to be tasteful and well-furnished. Many even had a corner set aside to receive guests and a few impressive-looking magical trinkets to impress the uninitiated. Research or actual practice of sorcery would take place not there but in workshops and mage towers, behind heavy wards and away from the prying eyes of rivals. Masego, on the other hand, had never seen sorcery as something he practiced. He was a mage first and foremost, even without his magic, so in his mind there was nothing to separate his living quarters from a workshop. Our surroundings made that exceedingly clear.

Where my own quarters in the Arsenal had a parlour to entertain guests, he instead had a neat and well-organized library whose shelves went from floor to ceiling. A comfortable scribing desk – I’d actually seen cushions like this one’s on Alcazar furniture and the red didn’t match the wood, so Indrani had probably stolen it – with enough leg room for him to sit reading without feeling cramped was the only concession to this being somewhere actually lived in. The same couldn’t be said of the larger room deeper in, where I found the mixture of lazy chaos and almost rigid orderliness to be a nostalgic sight: like his tents out on campaign, or his rooms in Laure.  While dirty clothes, plates with half-eaten meals on them and the blade cleaning kit Hakram had gifted Indrani a few years back had been strewn around without a care, it actually only served to contrast with the parts Zeze did care to keep clean.

Like a long table with half a dozen leather-bound manuscripts, the sole open one revealing Masego’s finicky calligraphy in ink, also boasting several reference books I dimly recognized from my continuing lessons on sorcery with Akua. All were laden with bookmarks, though none more so than the heavy tome titled Metaphysics of Realms from some ancient Warlock by the name of Olowe. Stacked scrolls and carefully folded parchments along with a nice leather armchair told me this was likely where Zeze sat to work, and there was not a single crumb or speck of dust on that table to be found. Another nook looked like a small alchemy lab, another like an enchanting table and yet another was covered in glass domes constraining pulsing luminous mushrooms. Experiments, I rather hoped. Around those islands of order even the wood shavings from the wooden carvings Indrani had carelessly sown around everywhere else seemed reluctant to enter.

I wouldn’t but it above Masego to have warded them.

The large bed in the corner, which evidently neither he nor Indrani had bothered to make, seemed to have been placed there almost like an afterthought – fitted in there after the important stuff had been, half-heartedly wedged in where there was still room. My suspicions that he might have forgot to put actual furniture in there at first were deepened by the way the dressers were on opposite sides of the room and the closet was awkwardly close to a cupboard opening the opposite way. It went from suspicion to standing assumption when I noticed that the small table where they ate meals – by the amount of dirty plates – was clearly Archer’s work by the look of the carvings. Zeze was not particularly fond of tapestries, so I assumed the few hung on the walls were there at Indrani’s addition, but the sheer amount of magelights and candles was all him. Beautiful and elaborate carpets clearly from the Wasteland – no one wove those quite like the Taghreb – added a splash of colour that livened up the room into a place where it might actually be pleasant to live.

Yet it was a small room behind all this where we stood, though, behind a steel door warded tightly so none of the influences from the other parts of his quarters could drift in and contaminate the workings. Here the walls were bare stone and even the tables and chairs polished granite, with only his work on the Quartered Seasons breaking up the stony monotony. Half a dozen copper boxes with glass lids and water held in crystal spheres – an improvement on the traditional scrying bowl, though significantly more fragile – revealed shifting colourful shapes from places beyond Creation, while on the left wall a great slate covered in markings and formulas depicting the secrets that the Hierophant had successfully teased out of the Pattern. I’d been invited so sit on one of the granite chairs but instead elected to stand at his side, looking at the slate.

I gestured for Hierophant to begin, and with sharp nod he moved closer to the slate. He found a corner of it without writing, then paused and turned towards me. With his full body not, just his eyes, which got my attention.

“I will begin by noting that the Hunted Magician’s information was the definitive factor in this success,” Masego said.

My brow rose. I’d suspected that it’d be useful stuff, but this was much stronger praise than I’d anticipated. Hierophant was in no way shy about claiming intellectual successes when he believed himself their author, and to this day still utterly disinterested with politics, so if he was talking up the Magician then every word spoken was true.

“I hear he’s come across some trouble under the Terms?” Masego continued.

“He worked with the Bard, among other things,” I said. “I’m not eager to press for an execution, given his uses, but letting him off with a slap on the wrist isn’t in the cards.”

“I’ve little interest in those matters,” Masego admitted. “But since you told me he gave what he knew as part of an arrangement for leniency, I’ll specify that his information saved me possibly literal years of work. I was looking in entirely the wrong places.”

That’d weigh on the scales, though less than Zeze might expect. The way I saw it, the Hunted Magician couldn’t be allowed to buy his way out of consequences no matter what he offered up. All that he floated us and ended up panning out, though, should be put together as a case for why certain punishments should be sought instead of others.

“I’ll pass that along to his tribunal,” I said. “And I might need you to put it in writing at some point.”

He nodded.

“Duly noted.”

From the look on his face, he was already tossing the entire matter into the pile of things he felt no particular need to remember. To my eye it was still an improvement that he’d bothered to speak to the subject at all instead of simply assuming I’d handle it, so if anything I was rather pleased.

“The crux of the matter is a question that concerns one of the few commendable books on sorcery to come out of the Principate, Madeline de Jolicoeur’s work ‘Essences of the Fey’,” Masego said, charmingly taken by his subject.

He drew a small circle on the slate, his long fingers deft. It was always heartwarming to see him genuinely in his element. I frowned a heartbeat later, though.

“I’m pretty sure I’ve heard that name before,” I told him.

Where? Obviously it was from Proceran history, but my studies of that had been rather skewed. I’d focused on the major wars and turning points, along with Cordelia Hasenbach’s rise and reign. Considering the sheer size of the Principate, even though the state hadn’t even existed for half the time Callow had that still meant a staggering number of things would have slipped through the cracks of my learning.

“I believe she was also known by her contemporaries as the Fey Enchantress,” Masego said.

Ah, her. Leave it to Zeze to primarily remember the villainess that’d taken over most of Cantal and Iserre only to fail at toppling Salia and the Highest Assembly for her apparently impressive magical research.

“Lady Madeline was part fae herself, and familiar with the Courts of Arcadia, which eventually led her to ask the question of what happens when fae are killed,” Masego said. “Her work was the first to suggest that fae cannot truly die, and that the changing of the seasons is the mechanism through which the Courts renew themselves.”

“So fae don’t die,” I said. “You told me that several times in the past, and I’ve seen the proof of it myself. What’s useful about this?”

“When the physical body of a fae is slain, they are not destroyed,” Masego said. “We know their essence continues to exist, as it will be spun anew into another fae come the changing of seasons. Where, then, does that essence go?”

Huh. I’d not considered that, actually. Fairies didn’t have souls, so it wasn’t like they’d pass into beyond and then be resurrected when they were needed by their endless cycle again.

“It could lapse back to the crown of their respective court,” I eventually said. “Some fae are dukes one cycle and princes another, so we know there’s a variance in power to some extent. It might be the ‘crown’ is a system for apportioning that power into different fae.”

Masego turned burning eyes towards me, noticeable even under the eyecloth.

“Akua has been very good for you,” he seriously said.

Words to make half of Callow faint in rage, but I decided to let him finish his thought before settling on a reaction.

“You’ve always been clever,” Zeze continued, “but now your instincts are grounded in knowledge. I am glad she has been tutoring you, even if your closeness makes Vivienne unhappy.”

“More than just Vivienne,” I reminded him, and left it at that.

He shrugged, unconcerned with the broader ramifications. Most days I wished I could be as well, given how much simpler it’d make my life.

“A return to the crown was my first theory as well,” Hierophant told me. “Which led to the creation of the copper eyes. Through a process you are not educated enough to understand even if I explain, I created power that would behave similarly to Spring or Autumn and released it in different places with the aim of tracing it back to the crowns.”

This part I’d known about, though not the reasoning behind it. The ‘copper eyes’, the scrying boxes in the room with us, were meant to follow the power he was releasing into the wilds and so find the location of the crowns. They were linked to measuring devices that’d been put out in different layers of Creation and adjoining realms, with great difficulty, but for all the trouble last I’d heard that avenue had proved to be something of a dead end.

“It didn’t work, though,” I said.

“It worked perfectly,” Masego contradicted. “It simply found nothing. My theory when facing those results was that I was simply not releasing the power in the correct places, which was not improbable given the size of Arcadia alone – much less the full spectrum of the search.”

“So what changed?” I asked.

“To understand that, first consider a more recent theory introduced by my own father,” Masego said, drawing a second circle on the slate. “Namely, that all of Arcadia – even the fae themselves – are of the same fundamental matter, with the differences between a stone and a duchess being essentially cosmetic. Father suggested that fae cannot truly die not because of an effective immortality of essence, but instead because they are not truly alive.”

He spoke of Warlock with a tinge of wistfulness, but the grief had visibly faded. I wasn’t too surprised. When the Dead King wasn’t riding in the back of his head, Masego actually tended deal with his emotions better than most of the Woe. I set that aside and considered his actual words instead, the theory the Sovereign of the Red Skies had put forward. I wasn’t quite sure I bought it, not after some of the things I’d seen.

“If the fae were entirely self-contained in their story cycles, I’d agree with that,” I noted. “But that theory doesn’t explain Larat.”

Who had walked away from kingship Twilight and become something else. If fae were not more thinking than a trebuchet or a water wheel, merely more complex, how could his actions be explained?

“A fascinating contradiction,” Masego warmly agreed. “Are Larat and your former Wild Hunt then the first fae to have ever lived, or by virtue of living do they cease being fae at all?”

“Which links to Quartered Seasons how?” I asked.

“It doesn’t,” Hierophant replied without missing a beat. “I simply find it a gripping mystery.”

I, uh, should have seen that coming. Honestly it was a sign of how engaged he was with this subject that he’d only ended up going down a side path the once.

“Returning to the theoretical framework,” Masego happily said, “if we believe both Lady Madeline and Father we are led to a particular state of affairs. Fae are not destroyed when their body is slain, return cyclically, and are not fundamentally distinguishable from the rest of Arcadia.”

My eyes narrowed.

“A return to the earth,” I said. “That’s what you’re getting at. Like Arcadia itself is a pool of water, and when they ‘die’ the water just returns to the pool.”

Precisely,” Hierophant grinned. “From there I draw not on the work of others but on my own, if you’ll forgive the intellectual vanity.”

“I’ll magnanimously deign to do so,” I replied.

He eyed me sideways, knowing there’d been sarcasm in that sentence but with little interest in deciphering where and why. He still drew a third circle, below and in between the first two.

“My own Quartered Seasons theory was built on the back of the two older theories I’ve introduced you to,” Masego said. “Madeline de Jolicoeur suggested that the changing of seasons was a way for the courts to renew themselves, but I would venture to go further. The existence of the seasons themselves is a mechanism for that very purpose, allowing a set of two seasons to be active while the other two become ambient and begin condensing into their coming shape. Your own vision, Catherine, made it clear that the transitions between seasons were not instantaneous. Given Arcadia’s otherwise loose accord with creational laws, there must be a mechanical reason for this to be so.”

“You’re losing me,” I admitted. “I thought that your theory was about the separation between a court’s ‘crown’ and its ‘power’.”

“It is,” Masego said. “Think of Arcadia as the pool of water you mentioned.”

He drew a large circle in the centre of the space.

“Each Court is, for lack of a better term, a smaller pond that will be filled through a canal at regular intervals.”

His hand moved again, depicting four lines leading out of the large circle and leading into four smaller circles.

“All power is limited,” Hierophant stated, idly filling in the large circle with ‘water’. “I believe that, for reasons of stability and coherence, only two ponds can ever be safely filled from the pool’s water. That leaves two ponds’ worth of power returned to ambient Arcadia, slowly shaping themselves into the coming seasons. If all four ponds are filled…”

“The pool would be empty,” I frowned. “And so Arcadia would grow thin. That seems dangerous.”

“It would be, which is why I believe a deeper mechanism ensures that only two ponds can be full at a time,” Masego said. “The decay in victory of Winter or Summer until they become Spring and Autumn, which you saw in vision, would be the visible part of that mechanism in action.”

“So the water is the power, that I get,” I said. “That still leaves out the crowns.”

He nodded, pleased, and methodically drew little crowns above each of the four smaller circles, the ‘ponds’.

“The crowns are, in effect, simply the shape of the pond the water is poured into,” Masego said. “Given the cosmic scope of these ‘waters’, however, this had still made them godheads in every meaningful sense.”

I watched the slate board, fingers clenching an unclenching. He’d not kept talking, which meant he’d given me the rules of this as he knew them. It also meant that I might be able to figure it out, at least in part. It was a sloppy habit to have all this explained to me all the time, one that might come back to bite me in the future, so I forced myself to think.

“When the King of Winter and the Queen of Summer wed,” I said, “neither of them lost their crown. They didn’t stop being royalty, just became the royalty of something new.”

“Correct,” Masego said.

He drew a line through two of the found crowns. On opposite ends of the pool, as Hierophant was nothing if not precise even in his doodles.

“But I know they didn’t get to keep the power of Winter, because I got my hands on it,” I said. “And then Sve Noc ate it, to stabilize the Night into something that won’t destroy their entire species if it collapses.”

He drew a line through one of ponds already bereft of a crown.

“I am still uncertain whether the lack of corresponding crown to go with the power you inherited is what kept you largely sane or was instead the very reason for your troubles with principle alienation,” Masego admitted. “Regardless, it is undoubtedly why you were only ever able to command but the barest fraction of that power.”

“If your ‘deeper mechanism’ was working right, when the newborn Court of Arcadia Resplendent was formed there would have been two ponds back in the pool,” I slowly said. “The power of Spring and Autumn.”

His lips quirked. I’d underestimated how much and how long he’d been wanting to talk to someone about this, I thought. The secrecy meant neither of us had brought in even the Woe fully, though Hakram knew some things and no doubt Indrani had gone looking through everybody’s papers as was her wont. Masego drew lines through two ponds, the same who still had their crowns.

“Given that in this state their very purpose is to be shaped anew for a coming cycle, it would explain the ease by which this unprecedented Court of Arcadia Resplendent was formed,” Masego agreed. “And we look at two crowns’ worth of control for two ponds’ worth of power, which would lead to a highly stable arrangement explaining why we’ve not heard of collapse in Arcadia since.”

“Winter’s power went into Night,” I said. “Which means it has to be Summer that went into Twilight, it’s the only pond of power that was still free. Except we had no call on that power, Zeze.”

“We did not,” Hierophant agreed. “Yet you struck a bargain with the Prince of Nightfall, who did.”

What I’d promised him was seven mortal crowns and one, though, and while we’d undeniably both been at war with Summer at the time neither of us had held a right to its power. Although hadn’t the imprisoned Princess of High Noon gone spare when I’d told her about the bargain with Larat? She must have seen something looming on the horizon even that far back.

“I can’t see how we got our hands on it, even then,” I admitted.

“Though I cannot be certain, I believe it to have been a matter of blind mechanics having worked to our advantaged,” Masego said. “Larat was fae, and so his ritualized apotheosis called to power of a fae nature. It made the water go down the canal, so speak, and there was only one pond’s worth of water left to flow.”

“And the seven crowns and one?” I asked.

“When trying to force such a powerful mechanism to work, some manner of power must be spent,” Hierophant suggested. “It is telling that the same fae who escaped the foundation of united Arcadia asked for this specific bounty, among all those that could be asked.”

That many crowns would have a weight to them, undeniably. Was that what the Princess of High Noon had seen and panicked about? Not necessarily that Larat would eventually use up the very stuff of Summer, I doubted even fae could be that farsighted, but that he was aiming to make a Court of his own. It fit, I had to admit. If there was a recipe to make a Court, it made sense that royalty on both sides of the fence would be at least vaguely aware of it.

“So that leaves the crowns of Spring and Autumn up for grabs, like we thought,” I said. “Where were they, that the Hunted Magician was able to help you – wait, actually, what about the fae we fought here in the Arsenal?”

My brow knotted. I’d almost forgotten those, but they were a stick in the wheel of what had been explained to me so far.

“They were Autumn,” I said. “There shouldn’t be an Autumn left, Masego, by your theory.”

“The answer to this was obtained by Roland, though unknowingly on his part,” Hierophant said. “He captured alive one of the fae, whose physical body it turns out we’ve destroyed before. The Duke of Green Orchards, who was slain in Dormer, though he now goes by Count of Green Apples.”

So I’d not been wrong, I thought, when I’d noticed an eerie similarity.

“I saw him,” I admitted. “Noticed his face. So you’re saying all those fae that attacked the Arsenal are, what, salvaged corpses?”

“Those entities whose bodies were slain can never be made anew with a new Winter or Summer, as there will never again be either of these,” Masego said. “That leaves them existing, yet purposeless. Some must have bound themselves to the crown of Autumn to acquire that purpose. There will be some of other natures, kept into existence by outside ties like contracts or debts, but I imagine much of the roster will be those killed in the Arcadian Campaign. For all those that anchored themselves to Autumn or Spring, I expect ten times as many went wild and are now partaking of sundry powers on Creation or elsewhere to sustain their existence.”

The Prince of Falling Leaves, then would have continued existing because of the Hunted Magician’s unpaid debt. That had a sharp little irony to it I could not help but find amusing – that man really was prone to shooting himself in the foot, wasn’t he? Actually, now that I was considering this, was my pact for the crowns with the Prince of Nightfall what’d allowed him not to become one of the subject princes of Arcadia in the first place? Larat, I thought with reluctant admiration. You cleverest of foxes.

“So fae fell through the cracks of our mess and now suckle at whatever they can find, including Autumn,” I summarized.

That sounded like it’d be an issue in the long term, fae loose in the world and grown hungry, but right now we had more pressing cats to skin. And it was now occurring to me that if the dead fae from my old campaign were excluded from the newborn Court that’d followed it, then most of Winter and Summer’s royalty had been removed. The very same kind of entities that might be rivals for whoever sat the newborn thrones.

Somewhere, I suspected, the creature that had once been the King of Winter was smiling.

“More or less,” Masego agreed. “And to answer the question you never finished asking, what the Hunted Magician provided was not exactly a location. There is, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, no buried treasure to unearth. That was what he clarified for me, that I could not find a crown because in a very real sense it does not currently exist. What he gave us is a set of circumstances that will coalesce the crown of Autumn into being. More specifically, a ritual to be used in a particular place and alignment.”

“So when you said you found the crown of Autumn,” I leadingly said.

“An artistic flourish,” Masego proudly said. “I have merely confirmed the ritual will function and located an appropriate ritual site and date.”

I let out a noise of appreciation.

“Well done,” I said. “What kind of a timeline are we looking at?”

Considering how much about the fae had to do with seasons, I’d guess somewhere around a year. Maybe the autumn solstice or something else along those lines.

“Thirty-one days,” Hierophant said.

I blinked in surprise, lapsing into a stunned silence.

“I could make the attempt tomorrow,” Masego said, misinterpreting the reason for my quiet, “but to both travel and prepare for the ritual over so small a span would significantly increase the chances of failure.”

“That…” I began, almost at a loss for words. “That changes things. The location, the resources you need, it’s all set?”

“I’ll have to significantly empty the Arsenal reserves of gems and precious metals as well as require of the services of at least two hundred mages – three hundred would be more comfortable, it would allow for replacements and adjustments – but in principle all needed is at hand,” Masego said.

Noticing my surprise, he smiled.

“You have helped create one of the grandest magical sites of learning and magic on Calernia, Catherine,” he said. “Do not then be surprised that it serves that purpose with distinction.”

I coughed, slightly embarrassed.

“The ritual site itself will be familiar to you, as the Princes’ Graveyard was fought near it,” he continued.

“The Mavian prayers on the hill?” I asked.

“Indeed,” Masego said. “There are other locations with perhaps more precise alignments, but this one benefits from being the seat of a permanent Twilight gate. The logistical benefits are obvious.”

I could definitely believe that tumulus would work as a ritual site, at least. I still remembered walking the tall raised stones and feeling the echoes of long-faded might, the call they’d made to the last wisps of fae power in me.

“The ritual could fail,” I said.

“All rituals can fail,” Masego pointed out.

“Allow me to rephrase that,” I said. “If the ritual fails, what are the consequences?”

“The ritual site will be obliterated, a significant portion of the mages involved will die or go mad, the fabric of Creation on a regional scale will be weakened for several centuries,” Hierophant calmly listed.

My fingers clenched. That was not negligible losses.

“The Twilight gate?” I made myself ask.

“Three in five odds of withstanding the damages and keeping full functionality,” Masego said. “No chance of destruction, or that partial functionality will not remain. We did not craft a fragile artefact, Catherine.”

Considering the sheer amount of Night we’d wielded that day and the way he’d come into an aspect halfway through, I was not inclined to doubt him.

“Odds of success?” I pressed.

“Tomorrow, perhaps one in five,” Hierophant mused. “Likely a little less. By my suggested timeline, I’d say somewhere between seven and eight in ten. Closer to eight, by my calculations.”

“If we wait longer can you bump that up?” I asked.

He frowned, staying silent for a long moment.

“With another two months, perhaps a little over eight,” Masego finally said. “With a full contingent of Wasteland mages and a month to teach them we could near nine in ten, though I believe that Dread Empress Malicia might be disinclined to lend us these.”

By the tone of his voice, that was very petty of her. I suppressed a smile. Indeed, how dare international politics and all these wars get in the way of one of the great magical feats of the century?

“I’m currently inclined to wait the three months and get all the sureties we can,” I said. “But I’ll discuss it with our allies, since Quartered Seasons is starting to become a genuine war asset.”

If nothing else, having this kind of a tool in our pocket would greatly strengthen the case of those commanders among the Grand Alliance who favoured the defensive strategy to this war. Princess Rozala and Prince Otto Reitzenberg had been arguing from the start that so long as we held our defensible borders, time would be on our side – either because of the amount of Named we’d accrue, or because the Arsenal would eventually produce a weapon capable of turning around the war on a strategic scale. The crown of Autumn might just qualify, since while it had no real use against field armies it could potentially allow us to deal with Neshamah himself. Not destroy him, mind you, that’d been what the Severance was for, but neutering him as a threat was more important than outright destruction.

“Assuming you successfully coalesce the crown,” I said, “will it be a physical artefact?”

Masego nodded.

“One not unlike the crown of Twilight when it was formed,” he said. “Though the strength of the godhead is in the concept and not the material.”

“And once we have the physical artefact,” I said, “you can begin shaping it.”

“I’ve had the appropriate workshop for the work built in the Arsenal for some time, though it is currently sealed,” Hierophant said. “It is difficult to estimate how long it would take me to shape the godhead, as even the Dead King’s work in Keter bears only passing similarities for me to draw on. It is safe to assume at least several months.”

I hummed. We wouldn’t need the crown to take back Hainaut, anyhow, which in my opinion was a prerequisite to taking a swing at Keter itself. We simply couldn’t afford to thin land defences against his armies the way we’d need to in order to make a serious crack at the Crown of the Dead, the risk of collapse was too high. Pushing Keter back beyond the lakes would allow us to dig in, though, and muster the armies properly for an assault on the Hidden Horror’s capital next spring or summer.

“We can afford that,” I said. “Especially if it wins us the war, which it will if we can make him lose control over the undead.”

That was, after all, what lay at the very heart of Quartered Seasons. Something like the Severance, an offensive artefact, it could be resisted. Which was why we wouldn’t be attacking the Dead King, we’d be giving him the crown – not in a way he could refuse, but still as a gift of godhead. That’d slip right through the overwhelming majority of his defences, by Masego’s reckoning, and Hierophant had spent most of the year with Neshamah riding in the back of his head. He knew the Dead King, understood him in ways most of us could only dimly grasp. The trick was that we wouldn’t just be tossing him the crown of Autumn, Hierophant would be shaping it first. It had to remain powerful, or it’d wiggle out of the groove of being a gift, but we’d get to choose what power was given. And what strictures accompanied it, of course, because the mantle of godhood could hardly come without costs.

I was more than comfortable making the Dead King physically indestructible if that power came at the expense of, say, his ability to command the dead.

I jolted myself out of my thoughts, since there still remained a question I’d forgotten to ask.

“Spring’s crown will still be out there,” I said. “That strikes me as a dangerous thing to leave simply lying around.”

Not the highest priority, but given my personal role in shattering the old order of Arcadia it’d be irresponsible to simply hide my head in the sand when it came to Spring.

“I agree,” Hierophant calmly said. “And since me might not have need of it for the war efforts, I’ve been considering how else it might be used.”

My lips thinned. I knew where that was headed. It wasn’t like Masego had ever made it a secret that he still intended on apotheosis, though he’d set those pursuits aside temporarily in deference to the horrors currently trying to sweep over the continent.

“I’m not sure I have the pull to allow you to get your hands on that,” I admitted. “Not after that mess in Iserre before the peace. I’ve been having trouble with heroes as well, so to be frank your pursuing godhood might end up the proverbial match in the munitions warehouse.”

“I believe that power is even less in your hands that you know, Catherine,” Hierophant said. “I attempted to narrow down possible ritual locations for Spring’s crown, so that I might test them for essence resonance, but out of the five locations I scried three repelled my spell.”

I breathed in sharply. While Masego might not currently have direct access to the Observatory, arguably the finest scrying facility in existence bar none, he was still one of the finest living practitioners of that art and sitting on a treasure trove of resources. There weren’t a lot of people, of defences, that could just repel him.

“The Dead King?” I asked, tone gone grim.

If Neshamah got his hands on a godhead, he’d make anything we might make out of one look like child’s play.

“No,” Masego sad, shaking his head. “On the third attempt I was ready for the opposition and salvaged a glimpse before my scrying sphere was shattered. I’ll show you.”

Walking over to one of the granite tables, as I watched he opened a compartment and took out what appeared to be a small sphere of silver glittering with sorcery. His aspect pulsed and he wrested it out, weaving for my eyes an illusion. The background was unclear, though I thought a tall streak of grey might be stone and the muddled green perhaps a field, but the forefront was crisp. A tall, slender and inhuman shape turned and watched with too-large eyes. It did not move, but the spell broke less that a heartbeat later. Silence held the room for a moment before I let out a long sigh.

That, unfortunately, had been an elf.

Chapter 29: Conviction

“The advantage of fair laws is not inherent but rather in the people’s appreciation of them. It is therefore just as useful to offer only the perception of fair laws, and easier to attain.”
– Extract from the treatise “On Rule”, author unknown (widely believed to be Prince Bastien of Arans)

I’d avoided going to speak with the Red Axe.

I’d actually even gone further than that, avoiding sending anyone I trusted to speak with her in my stead. She was in a heavily warded cell, where she would benefit from the finest care the Arsenal could offer as a full contingent of armed soldiers guarded the door day and night with orders to let no one inside. It wasn’t that I was afraid of speaking with the woman, though I suspected I’d come out of that conversation feeling like the monster that these days I so often was.

It was to prevent accusations, more or less. If she did something… strange during the trial and I’d been alone in a room with her at some point, odds were it’d end up blamed on me. One of the Woe or even just a Named I was on good terms with were likely to end up facing the same sort of accusation if they went in my stead, so I’d been cautious and ensured she was isolated instead. Aside for meals and healing, the Red Axe saw no one.

Of course, the identity of the man now accompanying me meant that I’d be able to afford taking this risk. Frederic Goethal was both one of Above’s and a prince of the blood, both things which would silence the Mirror Knight if he tried to kick up a fuss. If anything, the political inconvenience that was Prince Frederic refusing to ask for the Red Axe’s head on a pike would only lend him greater moral credence should he vouch I’d been up to nothing. Why would the Prince of Brus enable by plot what he might have easily obtained by law and patience?

In truth I could probably have arranged an interrogation earlier, but it would likely have come at the price of Christophe de Pavanie or one of his still sparse following sitting in attendance of the talk. No so great a cost, on the surface, but the opposite on closer look. It’d be implying the that Mirror Knight and his crew had the right to oversee my activities as a high officer of the Truce and Terms.

I had no intention whatsoever of making that concession, not even in so unspoken a manner.

Over the last few days, in between bouts of thinking that some viperous tongues insisted might be brooding, I’d come to wonder if the trial ahead of the Red Axe was not just another avenue for the Intercessor to damage the Truce and Terms. I couldn’t know how closely the heroine was aligned with the Bard, or even what she was truly after, but it did not take knowing either of those things to understand that the Rex Axe would be put in a room with some of the most powerful people in the Grand Alliance and allowed to speak her piece. I knew better than most how dangerous words could be if they were the right ones, spoken into the right ears. On the other hand, what else could I do but let this proceed?

If I’d let the Sinister Physician quietly dispose of her the risk would have been avoided, true, but only at the price of another, arguably worse risk. Gods, but I hated fighting the Bard. It had all the manners of unpleasantness of fighting Kairos and Akua to it, and then some nastiness all her own. I needed more information, in the end, and I now had a good opportunity to get it.

The Prince of Brus had sent for a coat before we headed out in the small nameless section where the prison cells of the Arsenal stood, conversation between us sparse as we moved. The intensity there’d been between us, down there in the sands, had cooled the further we got from them. I was not certain whether or not to be pleased by that, but the conversation I knew lay ahead of me put out any remaining embers there might have been anyway.

I was not unaware that yet another reason I’d had to avoid the Red Axe was that I’d known the necessary would become harder once I had a face and a story to match the Name. It should not be, I knew. I’d killed, both in cold blood and in the heat of battle, and this heroine was nothing to me. No one. But while the orphan girl who’d played in the streets of Laure had grown into someone else, I’d not forgotten her.

Or that she’d taken her first steps down this road slitting open the throat of a rapist, something I was now going to hang another woman for.

“It is my understanding that she travelled with Lady Archer for some time, before coming to the Arsenal,” Prince Frederic quietly said as we walked.

“Archer was the one to find her, or close enough,” I confirmed. “Her intention was to drop her off here at the Arsenal, where her talents could be tested until the White Knight could decide on which front she might best assist the war effort.”

I’d have been consulted as well before decisions were made, at which point the Wicked Enchanter would have come up and we’d have ensured those two would be as physically far from each other as possible. Distance and well-informed officers had served us well in this regard so far, and would have again if the pieces hadn’t ended up aligning in just the precise way to foster a disaster.

“Then you will be aware that there were… circumstances,” the Prince of Brus delicately said.

“I knew what the Wicked Enchanter was when he was brought into the Truce,” I replied. “Disgusting as his actions were, they were granted amnesty.”

Didn’t mean I didn’t have him marked in the back of my head for when the Truce and Terms ended, though. Under the Accords I owed the man nothing, and if heroes wanted to bury him in steel and Light the moment he resumed his old habits I would have raised a damned toast to the kill.

“I do not envy your office under the Terms,” the fair-haired man admitted. “I am glad it is held, as I’ve seen what villains can bring to bear for our side of the war, but I envy it not in the slightest. It seems like a duty that would wear away at one’s soul.”

My lips thinned. That’d cut a little too close to home for comfort.

“That’s the thing about being taught by Praesi,” I blandly said. “You learn that, for all the preaching, souls are just another commodity to bargain with.”

That killed the conversation the rest of the way to the cell.

The Red Axe – I did not know her real name, leaving me only this to refer to her by even in my own mind – was looking rather healthy, for a woman who’d been shot by almost two dozen crossbow bolts. Fired by my legionaries looking to kill, too, not by sloppy amateurs. There were so many bandages wrapped around her torso that even through her dull brown prisoner’s shift I could see them peek out. Though she was hardly in a state to walk around and I’d been told she still spent most of her days asleep, the heroine was not visibly feverish. There was a certain sickly pallor to her otherwise tan skin though, I judged, and her breathing was laboured. A heroic constitution and a swarm of priests had seen to an impressive recovery, though and when we entered her pale brown eyes were wide awake and unclouded.

“I’d get up if I could,” the Red Axe greeted us in accented Chantant, “but my legs will not allow.”

Even if they had, she was still shackled at her ankles. Cleverly done work with a loose enough chain she’d be able to move around some but not walk. A similar set was around her wrists, to be loosened only when she was helped to bathe once a day. She had still had the muscles arms I remembered from seeing her fresh to the infirmary, but they’d grown thinner. Even healing with Light had costs, and she’d needed a great deal of healing to pull through.

“Lady Red,” the Kingfisher Prince greeted her, offering the slightest of bows.

“Prince,” the heroine replied, grimacing.

“If I might introduce-” Prince Frederic began, but she interrupted him with a tired gesture.

“That cloak speaks,” the Red Axe said. “Well met, Black Queen.”

I did not let my frown touch my face. I’d been studying her as she spoke, but when she’d looked at me I’d not found any hostility. Was she a natural talent at obscuring her thoughts? Given that she’d come from the middle of nowhere, it seemed unlikely she would have been taught. Not impossible, though. It seemed unlike the Intercessor to linger around teaching anyone, but then I still knew depressingly little about her methods when out of my sight. There was a simpler explanation, too, but it struck me as unlikely.

“You’re looking healthy,” I said.

“Enough for the noose?” the Red Axe chuckled.

Blunt, but then when you were down in the pit there was rarely a point in pretending otherwise.

“The block’s a lot more likely,” I replied. “But there’s to be a trial first.”

“A trial,” the brown-haired heroine said, her distaste clear. “Just get it over with, would you?”

“You have rights, Lady Red,” the Prince of Brus reminded her.

“I also cut open your neck, Prince,” the Red Axe said, tone calm. “Don’t come in here pretending that’s all forgotten. I won’t have any of that.”

“I have not forgot a moment of it, I assure you,” the Kingfisher Prince replied, tone cool.

I noticed his hand twitch, on the side of his pale neck where the scar could be seen.

“But it does not change that you have rights and protections under Terms,” Prince Frederic said.

Measuredly, the Red Axe turned to me.

“Can I renounce those, Black Queen?” she asked.

“I’m not your representative under the Terms,” I said. “That’s the White Knight, who’ll be here soon enough.”

“I remember the Archer’s speeches,” the heroine dismissed. “You did not answer my question.”

I breathed out, studying her. She did not look angry or afraid, although there was something to her expression… Impatient, I decided. She’s impatient. Yet I found none of the despair and hopelessness I would have expected of someone actively trying to hurry along their own death.

“No,” I said. “Or I suppose it’s more accurate to say that you could, but it’d hardly matter. You agreed to the Terms before coming here and committed breaches while a signatory. What follows will not change whether or not you renounce anything.”

In principle an argument could be made that if I she signed a renunciation of her own free will before witnesses I could follow up by snapping her neck in the moment that followed without breaking the Terms, but in practice that’d just be throwing oil on an already crackling fire.

“The cogs of your bureaucracy are soaked in blood, Black Queen,” the Red Axe said, offering a hard smile.

And in her eyes then, for the first time, I found something like hate. Not for me, which had been the part that tripped me up, but for the rest. I’d done her a disservice, I thought, in thinking that she could not hate the tower without also hating its architect. Something of that must have shown on my face, as the brown-haired prisoner let out a bitter chuckle.

“Sharp,” the heroine said. “Sharp enough to cut yourself, Black Queen. Or everybody else.”

There was pain there, I thought, and hurt. But it didn’t own her, it didn’t drive her. Whatever horror it was her Named had been forged out of, it had made her hate a cold and measured thing.

“You didn’t kill the Wicked Enchanter in a red rage,” I stated. “This was deliberate, and you know exactly what it is you’re doing.”

Thinking of her as a victim or an accomplice had been dead ends from the start, I was beginning to realize. It is all objects in motion, the Intercessor had told me. This wasn’t the plot of an eldritch abomination in a woman’s shape, not really. The Red Axe hadn’t been manipulated into this. She’d wanted this, perhaps before the ever saw the Bard – if she’d ever seen her at all.

“I don’t think you’re a monster, Black Queen,” the Red Axe told me. “A bad woman, maybe, but those aren’t rare. I’ve seen a real monster, the bleakness at the heart of him, and I don’t see it in you. I don’t think the Archer could love you like she does, either, if you were like that.”

“It’s the Terms that are your enemy,” I quietly said.

“I don’t think you’re a monster,” the heroine repeated. “But your Truce and Terms? They’re the most monstrous thing I ever saw. You took in every scrap of filth this world has to offer, knowing what they were, and you’re protecting them.”

“Without the Damned, we would not be alive to have this conversation,” the Prince of Brus said.

I started, having almost forgotten his presence, and saw that same surprise on the prisoner’s face. Frederic Goethal’s silken coat had been pulled close around him as he leaned against the wall, the only overt sign of what I suspected to be discomfort.

“What was done to you…” the prince began, voice trailing off. “There is no excusing that. But the Truce and Terms are not responsible for that evil, and they are responsible for a great many saved lives.”

“What was done to me,” the Red Axe snorted. “Do you know, Black Queen? What it is he’s tiptoeing around?”

“No,” I admitted.

I had suspicions, though. Rape and torture highest among them. What sparse details we’d found of how the Wicked Enchanter had lived on the lawless outskirts of Procer had been a sickening read. The dark-eyed heroine glanced at me.

“Would it change anything, if you did?” the Red Axe asked.

I could have lied. But I was going to see her killed, one way or another, and so part of me felt like I owed her the truth.

“No,” I repeated.

To my surprise, she smiled. As if obscurely proud or pleased.

“You’re a cold hand, aren’t you?” the heroine said. “The kind ones, like Prince here, they go all soft-touched the moment rape’s even hinted at.”

“You are a tragedy, Red Axe,” I honestly said, “but hundreds of those come across my desk every day. Even a bleeding heart eventually bleeds dry.”

And, truth be told, I’d started with a lot less blood in mine than most. The jury was still out on whether or not that’d been for the best, in the greater scheme of things.

“The Wicked Enchanter was a monster,” the heroine said. “The details of it don’t matter, save that what he got he deserved a hundred times over.”

“If you’d decided to kill him the heartbeat the Truce was over, I would have looked away and covered my ears,” I said, meaning every word. “But you didn’t wait, and you took a swing at more than just the Enchanter.”

“I’m not a child, Black Queen,” the Red Axe said. “You don’t need to take me by the hand and lead me down the path to where this is headed. I knew before I ever raised my blade how this was all going to end.”

“This wasn’t justice,” Prince Frederic quietly said. “It was just blood, and many more lives might be lost because of it.”

“You’re guiltier than she is,” the Red Axe said. “She’s not supposed to be better than this, Kingfisher Prince. You are.”

“And you?” the Prince of Brus replied. “Are you not supposed to be better than this as well, Chosen?”

“I give my life for what I believe,” the heroine said. “What more is there left to squeeze out of me? I am not the one baring steel in the defense of the indefensible.”

“It is defensible,” I said. “Just not to you.”

I was not bitter of that. How could I be? No, instead some part of me wondered if this was what the Grey Pilgrim had felt like, that day he’d looked at me and called me the culmination of old sins come back to haunt Calernia. If I was the punishment of the apathy and pettiness of the west when Callow fell, then was this woman not my own for the practical brutality lying behind the ideals of the Truce and Terms? I could not be angry or bitter, no, not when this was richly deserved.

“Don’t-” she began.

“I won’t take you by the hand, like you insisted, so forgive my bluntness,” I calmly interrupted. “If we don’t extend the amnesty part of the Truce to animals like the Wicked Enchanter, we lose Named. Those who have skeletons in their closet, who’ll wonder if maybe their sins will be enough to get them the noose instead of the Truce should they come out of the woodworks. And most of those will be of mine, but there’ll be some of your end of the Book too – those on the fringe, who learned to love striking at evil just a little too much. And even more costly than the lost champions, it’d mean the reliable Named would be up north, fighting the dead, while the radicals would be down south with no one left to handle them.”

I breathed out and began to resist the urge to spit to the side before quelling that reflex and going through with it. It was not a pretty habit, but then nothing about this was pretty. It was blood on cogs, exactly like she’d accused.

“It’s an ugly truth, and bare of morality, but in the end getting you a semblance of justice would have simply cost the war effort too much,” I said. “I’d apologize, but I knew there would be people like you when I began to head down this road. I did it anyway.”

I couldn’t fix the world, in the end. Even if I had the power to shape it as I willed, I knew my own limitations well enough to be aware I’d likely do as much harm as good. Yet the Truce and Terms, for all their occasional dip into brutality, they worked. We’d gathered nearly seventy Named now, heroes and villains and those circumstance could cast as either. Near seventy Named, pointed at the great enemy to the north. Not even the First Crusade, when all of Calernia had risen to topple Triumphant, had fielded so many of our kind. It had not been painless or bloodless and certainly not without sweat, and neither I would not pretend that the system was without flaws, but Merciless Gods it worked. If these were kinder times, I hoped I would have been kinder as well, that what I’d built would not have been so harsh.

But there were not kind times, and I could not be more than I was. It was either the Truce and Terms or rolling the dice on the annihilation of life on Calernia.

“I don’t want an apology,” the Red Axe said. “I want all these swords and oaths to be defending something worth defending. You spawned a monster that cares nothing for the past and looks hungrily at the future, Black Queen. Maybe it was the best you could, for all your famous cleverness.”

She laughed, the sound of it bleak to my ear.

“So think of me as the voice Creation uses to say that this is not good enough,” the prisoner said. “Your Truce and Terms will break, and you’ll either do better or be cast aside.”

Just another hero, lighting a torch and declaring it wasn’t enough without ever offering another way. There was an echo of so many I’d faced in that voice, in that castigation. The Lone Swordsman, willing to make our home a wasteland so land as it was our own banner flying above it. The Grey Pilgrim, willing to choose war over peace because it wasn’t the peace he’d wanted. The Saint of Swords, eyes hard as she decided to risk the death of all Iserre rather than compromise. I’d heard this refrain before, sung by different voices or with different words.

I’d won against this many a time, and I would again.

“We’re not that special, you know,” I said. “Named. In the right place at the right time we’re able to do things that no one else could do, it’s true, but we don’t matter as much as we like to think.”

The Prince of Brus breathed out sharply. He was Alamans, and well-taught, so he grasped my meaning before the other.

“The Truce will hold,” I said. “The Terms will hold. If they were hated, if we were facing anyone else, it might be that enough wounds would kill them. But that’s not the world we live in, Red Axe. They’ll hold, if only because there are simply too many people that want them to.”

And I believed that, I genuinely did. Something fragile, without a proper foundation or results to point at? A mess like the one ahead would break it, sure as dawn, even if everyone was trying to keep things together. But I had bartered away kindness for sturdiness, and so my creation would withstand the storm. Some dangers were born of the same strength that allowed you to beat them back, weren’t they? Creation’s sense of humour had not grown any less vicious as I aged.

“You will try,” the Red Axe said, and the calm certainty in her eyes was troubling. “You will fail.”

I met her eyes, for a moment, and wondered what to say. I would give no apology, for any I might offer would be meaningless.

“It’ll be quick,” I said. “That much, at least, I can promise.”

I left, after, sensing that neither of us had anything left to say.

The Prince of Brus stayed in the cell after my departure and I was not in a mood to wait for him. My leg was starting to pain me again, an unhappy turn, so I ambled off towards the Alcazar and counted on my slow gait being enough to ensure he’d catch up to me if he wanted to. He did so, though after long enough I’d come to believe we would be parting ways. I half-heartedly went through the usual courtesies after he joined me.

“There was little change after your departure,” the Kingfisher Prince told me. “She tired of speaking to me quickly.”

I grunted, noncommittal.

“It is a useful conversation to have had,” I said. “I thank you for the opportunity.”

“I can take pleasure in having provided that, if not the outcome of the journey,” the fair-haired man said. “Have the Red Axe’s words informed your opinion on other matters?”

A very polite way to ask if I was more open to taking Cordelia’s offer of pushing through the Accords in exchange for ceding jurisdiction over this particular Named. Which actually seemed halfway possible, now, considering the Red Axe had tried to renounce any rights she might have under the Terms in front of a credible witness. It was a more than decent excuse to throw her at Procer, were I so inclined, though I suspected Hanno would see it otherwise. Which was why Hasenbach wanted me on her side in the first place, when it came down to it. Officially there were three crowned heads in the Grand Alliance: the First Prince of Procer, the Holy Seljun of Levant and the Queen of Callow. If she got me in on her side, not only was she securing Below’s side of the Terms but also ensuring that whoever ended up speaking for the Dominion in this would be very reluctant to side against two thirds of the alliance.

“It has,” I simply said.

He left it at that, as I’d thought he would. It’d be uncouth to try to press me for a quick answer on so delicate a matter.

“So what part of that was it that you wanted me to see, in specific?” I idly asked.

He did not look surprised, and though he did not deny what I’d said neither did he look abashed.

“It might be argued, given her enmity to the Truce and Terms, that she was never really a signatory,” the Kingfisher Prince simply said.

Ah, clever man. If she’d been an enemy from the start, then she was not under anyone’s protection. Procer would be free to have at her. It was still a relatively shaky excuse, to my eye, but before I’d met with the Red Axe I probably would have dismissed it outright. He’d read that correctly.

“To my knowledge, you never spoke with her in depth,” I said.

I’d sent him to ensure her safety during the assault on the Arsenal but fleeing clandestinely through corridors was not the time for the sort of conversation that would have allowed him a solid read on her. I’d not been made aware of any visit to her since, either, and considering my orders to the guards I would have known within a quarter hour of such an attempt at most.

“I had much time to think, while recuperating,” Prince Frederic said. “If she were Damned, I would have noticed. I have seen enough Named I am certain of this. Yet she was not, and still attacked me. There was a likely reason for that, given what I know of her past.”

Meaning he’d deduced her antipathy was towards the Terms before we ever set foot in that room. Competence was attractive, I reluctantly admitted to myself. Especially so in attractive people. My eyes narrowed as I fit another set of details together.

“That’s why you don’t want to press charges under the Terms,” I slowly said. “You don’t believe she was actually trying to kill you.”

“In a sense,” the prince said. “Regardless of whether my death was meant or not, or perhaps even hers, it was not Frederic Goethal she struck. It might have been a signatory of the Terms or a prince of the blood, but for all that she has she my blood I cannot truly consider her an enemy.”

“All three of those people you mentioned happen to live in the same body,” I drily pointed out. “I suppose they are all of a forgiving temperament.”

“I am not a saint, Queen Catherine,” Prince Frederic quietly said. “I am not pleased to have been attacked by someone I was risking life and limb to save. Yet, knowing what I know of why this came to pass, I cannot in good conscience seek her death for it. I am not blind to the nature of some of those who have been protected by the Truce and Terms, or the injustice matching the expedience of enlisting their service.”

“You’re not an officer of the Terms,” I said. “Or one of their architects. You bear no responsibility there.”

“I have chosen to uphold the Terms, to participate in them, and so bear a personal responsibility,” the prince replied, shaking his head.

It was torturous chain of logic, as far as I was concerned, but not entirely senseless. A little to labyrinthine, though, for the amount of passion he’d been speaking with all this time. I suspected that under all the talk of conscience and responsibility, the truth was that Frederic Goethal’s heroic hindbrain believed the Red Axe was at least a little right bout all this. That would make it an utterly repulsive notion to him to ask for her death, even when it might be convenient. Perhaps even more because it’d be convenient, I mused. Where he’d be standing, it was that sort of liberties taken with justice that would have started this mess in the first place.

“I’ve already given my opinion of this,” I said. “I doubt you’ve forgotten it.”

“It would not dare, Your Majesty,” the blue-eyed man said, a tad ruefully.

We’d gotten into the Alcazar as we talked without my even noticing, nearer to the heart of the section than my rooms but not all that far. That sudden realization had me closing my mouth, eyeing the pretty prince from the side. It wouldn’t even be particularly suspect, I thought, to invite him into my rooms. Which were warded. Private. The kind of place where I’d be able to take my time peeling him out of those clothes and get at the much more interesting body beneath them. I’d not said anything, but the Prince of Brus caught the corner of my gaze and his steps stuttered for the barest fraction of a moment. Without a word being spoken either side, my blood quickened again. It wasn’t a very good idea, I reminded myself

It might turn out to be a thoroughly enjoyable idea, though.

I glanced at his face and found a conflict I suspected might not be too different in nature from mine. There were quite a few temptations I considered myself apt in dealing with, more than most at least, but this sort of thing wasn’t one of them. I saw movement form the corner of my eye, dark robes and a long stride, and to my relief and dismay – more dismay than relief, honesty compelled me to admit – I found Hierophant headed towards us with intent too obvious to be mistaken.

“It appears I have other claims on my time,” I said.

“I can only look forward to our next meeting then, my queen,” Prince Frederic replied.

Without my being entirely sure how it happened, I found my hand being kissed as smoldering blue eyes looked up at me. Fuck, I thought even as he retreated. All right, so I was probably going to end up sleeping with Frederic Goethal. I just needed to be smart in going about it, and maybe not do it too much. I could probably handle that. I wasn’t looking for anything serious and he was headed back to Twilight’s Pass before long anyway, so really you might even say I was being responsible about this.

“Catherine?” Masego said, interrupting my thoughts.

“Zeze?” I replied.

“Is there a particular reason you are looking at this man?”

I pondered that for a moment.

“None you’d enjoy hearing about,” I honestly replied. “I take it you’re looking for me?”

It was only then I took a longer look at him, and noticed how visibly exhausted he was. Physically, anyway. There was a fervour burning in him I’d long learned to recognize as him reaching a particularly interesting stretch if his research.

“I was,” Masego said, then lowered his voice. “I did it, Catherine.”

I cocked an eyebrow.

“Did what?”

“I found the crown of Autumn,” Hierophant grinned.

Chapter 28: Contend

“Diplomacy is not an art of peace or a higher calling, it is the act of nations bartering what they disdain for what they desire.”
– Magister Haides Katopodis the Elder of Stygia

The sword came forward in swift thrust that I let come close, as Prince Frederic’s footing told me it was just a feint.

“My people don’t have a great opinion of royalty west of the Whitecaps, as a rule,” I said.

Or east of the Wasiliti, south of the Hwaerte and north of Daoine. Callowans were less than fond of foreign crowns in general, was the point, though it would be impolitic to belabour it.

“Not without reason,” the Prince of Brus replied.

I limped to the side, baiting an attack with an opening that was seized without hesitation – an opportunist, this one, man after my own heart – and the Kingfisher Prince’s sword came swiftly from the side. I spun, putting my weight on my good leg, and swept him back with a swing he easily avoided but set him up for a longer thrust with the tip of my staff. Leaning backwards and edging his head to the side by half an inch, he narrowly avoided the second blow. It ruffled his blond locks some, and I only partly managed to catch his own blow with the crossguard of my practice sword. He was better than Ishaq with a blade, I decided, but not as physically strong. That last catch with my crossguard would have broken my wrist if I’d tried it with the Barrow Sword. The Kingfisher Prince was quicker on his feet, though, and that was a lot trickier for me to handle given my limp.

“I like to think so,” I said. “Which means when even I say that I have doubts Gaspard Langevin of Cleves, whose lands are on the frontline of a war with Keter, would be enough of a fool to try something? A claim like yours begs an elaboration.”

Of course, he probably hadn’t meant a civil war that’d begin tomorrow. Even princes who despised Cordelia – and there were more of those than I’d once thought – wouldn’t try to start one in the Principate when it was under siege from the Dead King and swarming with foreign armies it currently required to continue existing. But if this was headed where I thought it was headed, then Cordelia Hasenbach’s envoy was going to make her position and intentions clear as spring water. And her offer as well, I thought, because if I knew anything about the First Prince it was that she always had one of those up her sleeves.

“Such a war would yet be on the horizon,” the fair-haired prince agreed. “Yet it looms tall there. Before I elaborate, if you might permit an insolence? It has been suggested by advisers to Her Most Serene Grace that you have become aware of what stirs in Cleves.”

He came in close, this time. Dropped under the swing of my staff, a half-step took him right out of the way of my sword’s sideways swipe and he aimed his own blow perfectly. Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t in the habit of playing fair: fingers abandoning my staff to stand perfectly still, I withdrew my hand and just in front of his face snapped my fingers. Eyes widening, he hastily withdrew with swiftness that was too smooth and sudden to have been entirely natural. I took back my staff, beginning to circle him again as absolutely nothing happened. I’d known for a while that the Pilgrim had given a pretty good accounting of my skills with Night, so I was not surprised in the least that the assessment had made it to the Principate’s sole royal hero.

“A bluff,” the Kingfisher Prince grinned.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged, keeping down a smile, “was it?”

I was, against my better judgement, enjoying myself. I’d always had a weakness for the pretty ones, especially if they could handle themselves.

“The Augur or the Thorns?” I asked.

“The Circle of Thorns,” the Prince of Brus said, “noticed a sudden rise in the antipathy of certain sigils in Cleves towards Cleven forces.”

The strength and weaknesses of the Firstborn in a sentence, that: skilled enough to spy on a hero, sloppy enough people who couldn’t even speak their tongue could read them. The Everdark had forged them into one of those blades of obsidian they so loved: remarkably sharp in some ways, remarkably brittle in others. Neither of us commented on the fact that we’d both been spying on allies, which was for the best considering neither of us had any intention of stopping. Gods, but what I wouldn’t do for spies as good as the Circle of Thorns.

The Jacks were, in truth, better than such a young and haphazard organization had any right to be. That they could operate outside Callow at all was damned impressive, all things considered, much less with the amount of success they’d had. But the Thorns were still several notches above even the best of what the Jacks could do. Imagining the kind of access their long-standing rivals, the Eyes of the Empire, must have back in Callow had caused many a worried night. Even after several purges and Scribe outing part of the network to me as appeasement back in Salia, I doubted we’d flushed all of them out.

Black and Malicia had spent two decades digging them in, it’d likely take just as long to dig them out.

“I got wind of Gaspard’s ambitions to expand the boundaries of the Principate,” I acknowledged. “And of how his daughter’s been spending some of her evenings.”

“The First Prince passes along her appreciation of how measured your response has been,” the blue-eyed man told me.

I went on the offensive, this time. Came in low, sweeping with the sword so he’d have to parry, and then struck with the staff. In an impressive display of skill, at the last moment he angled his parry so that my sword would get in the way of my staff, then without missing a beat tried to trip my bad leg. I managed to pivot on myself, Mantle of Woe fluttering and hiding away my body as he withdrew his blade and tried a downwards cut. I slapped it aside with the staff and gave ground, which he graciously enough allowed.

“Don’t thank me yet,” I said. “Sve Noc were livid, and I have visions to share of the kind of casualties the Empire Ever Dark has taking up north to drive home exactly what kind of an ally your man in Cleves is tempting to walk away.”

“Given the unpopularity of the current levies and taxes with the people, ordering Prince Gaspard’s arrest might result in the current riots turning into uprisings,” the Kingfisher Prince said. “I assure you, it is not apathy to the bad faith on display that has stayed the First Prince’s hand.”

“You know,” I mused, “I even believe that. Mostly. But here’s the deeper issue behind all this, Frederic of Brus.”

I touched my arm with Night and struck out, viper-quick: when the prince parried he found me significantly stronger than before, and in the misaligned surprise of his parry the tip of my staff hit his shoulder once and sharply.

“A Proceran prince is scheming, which threatens the war against Keter,” I flatly said. “Proceran politics prevent anyone from doing anything about it, which threatens the war against Keter.”

I struck out again, even as he gave ground, and when with Name-strength he turned aside my sword and staff I abandoned the latter and spun about. When I snapped my fingers he thought of it as a bluff, at least until dark light bloomed. A closer look at the purely decorative effect gave me the barest of openings to slug him in the stomach, though he rolled with the blow and so it was barely more than a caress to a martial Named like him.

“A Proceran heroine tries to kill Proceran royalty, which threatens the war against Keter,” I continued. “And then another Proceran hero snatches up a unique artefact forged through the efforts of several Named to kill the Dead King and begins making demands, which once again threatens the war against Keter.”

I ceased moving, even as he got back his footing and raised his guard.

“Do you perhaps begin to divine a pattern to our troubles, Prince Frederic?” I bluntly asked.

I wasn’t blind to the fact that the Dominion was having some growing pains of its own when it came to the Truce and Terms. It would have been hard to when I’d been forced to look those very troubles in the eyes through the Barrow Sword. Yet neither Ishaq nor the Blood were allowing their arguments to become a growing international crisis, so the way that Procer kept foisting its internal troubles onto everybody else was really starting to be a trial on my patience.

“That is the price to fighting this war on our lands instead of yours,” the Prince of Brus bluntly replied.

He’d begun to take me halfway seriously, so instead of the almost teasing spar before I got a glimpse of what he looked like on a proper field of war: with dexterity he struck, baiting my parries into overextending and then stinging like a wasp. Even with two weapons I found myself hard-pressed and forced to give ground.

“The Principate is crumbling,” the Kingfisher Prince said as he kept advancing. “What few of our youths are not needed in fields and mines are sent north to die in dwarven armour we went into debt to buy. Royalty are now forced to confiscate the necessary goods they cannot pay for, while no grain has been set aside in two years because massive armies must be fed. Horses in the fields go without horseshoes because the blacksmiths were conscripted; fish is taken from the hands of fishermen as far south as Salamans so it can be salted and put in barrels headed north.”

With a flashy snap of his wrist, he batted aside my parry and cut downwards at my wrist. I didn’t drop my blade, but it was a near thing and I was sure to get a bruise. If the sword had not been dulled, I’d be seeing bone. I chased him away with a swing of my staff, though he retreated at his leisure and without giving openings.

“What you condemn as our fecklessness is in truth the death rattle of a nation of millions,” Prince Frederic said. “And while I confess I know little of your people, Queen Catherine, I doubt they would fare any better under this strangling grasp than we have.”

“I won’t deny that Procer has been taking the harshest losses in a lot of ways, or pretend that our sending coin and soldiers and grain is a true replacement for what was lost,” I said. “But neither can you deny that your royalty has not been a constant thorn in the Grand Alliance’s aside at a time where we can ill afford that sort of foolishness.”

“I do not deny it,” the fair-haired man frankly said, “for it is the truth. Yet you have a reputation as a pragmatic woman, and so I expect you can recognize that regardless of what is deserved having Gaspard Langevin arrested is not a solution. It is a way to precipitate the collapse of the realm standing between Callow and the Dead King.”

That was a solid retort, I had to give him that. And all of it true, if not necessarily answering my grievance.

“I didn’t ask for Prince Gaspard in chains, or in a grave,” I said. “What I am asking for is for the First Prince to get her people in order, before my own hands become tied and I have to act on this.”

“Then the First Prince requests that you add your voice to the Red Axe standing trial before a tribunal of the Principate,” Prince Frederic reluctantly asked. “As it would send a stark warning to the House of Langevin, as well see justice done.”

Ah, and there we were. The reluctance told me this was more Cordelia than him, but nothing I’d heard about the Kingfisher Prince had let me to think he was a spineless lackey: if he was willing to pass along the request, then he at least saw the sense in it.

“So you approach me instead of the White Knight,” I said, “since I’m more likely to be willing to deal.”

It wouldn’t be impossible to sell to my side of the fence that I’d simply traded the Red Axe’s neck to Procer in exchange for concessions, if I could then distribute those concessions. And if she was still executed, then I genuinely shouldn’t get too much trouble over this. Hanno, though? Hanno wouldn’t bend the neck over this. He might be more inclined to consider if Procer goes to him with my signature already on the parchment, though, I thought, which explained with Cordelia Hasenbach was going to Below’s side of the Terms first. Unfortunately, she’d misread me on this. The Truce and Terms were to be the foundation the Liesse Accords were built on, so my bottom line wasn’t anywhere as flexible as she might have imagined.

“The White Knight has not ruled,” the Prince of Brus said. “I admire his principles a great deal, but it does everyone a disservice to pretend that his political judgement is infallible.”

“I don’t disagree with him,” I bluntly replied. “If the Red Axe doesn’t stand trial as a Named but as a criminal under Proceran law, it erodes the foundation of the Terms.”

“If Named are judged only by Named, then are two laws of the land,” Frederic Goethal said.

I took a swift step forward and struck out with the blade, pressing down on his parry when he caught it.

“Oh, don’t give me that shit,” I said. “You’re a prince of the blood, we both know that maybe in principle you get the same justice a peasant does but that’s not how the world actually works.”

“Yes,” the Kingfisher Prince agreed, to my surprise, “which is why I am wary of enshrining near as unfair a distinction into law.”

I was pushed back but slapped away his thrust with the side of my staff, losing no ground as we began circling each other again.

“You can’t regulate Named like you would other people,” I said. “It’s not like making laws about magic or dealing with fae, you’re basically dealing with wild horses – if you make the pen too small, they’ll burst out. That’s why the rules stay limited, not because more wouldn’t be a positive change. The point is to establish a foundation, a baseline that future generations can build on.”

“If Named do not answer to the same laws as even princes, not even in principle,” Prince Frederic said, “then they are by objective measure set above even royalty. That would birth an age of warlords, Queen Catherine. I do not believe Christophe de Pavanie is the kind of man who would use his strength to make himself a crown, but by would other Chosen and Damned not be tempted to seize power if they are above the laws of other men? You would make Named a kind of royalty standing above all the crowns of Calernia.”

“If I’d written that in the Accords, you’d be right,” I said. “But it isn’t there. You can hang heroes and villains alike should they break Proceran laws – so long as the law doesn’t simply outlaw being a villain. It’s the Truce and Terms that extend these protections, and those last only until the Dead King is dealt with.”

A feint with my staff, then I tried to whip at his wrist with the blade much as he’d done with me – instead he caught it with his crossguard and tried to flip my blade out of my fingers, though I withdrew before he could.

“The Terms are the predecessor to the Accords, it is openly known,” the Prince of Brus retorted. “What becomes common practice now is likely to remain regardless of what is put to ink. If Chosen and Damned refuse to enforce the parts of those treaties they mislike, those that go against what they have become used to, how are we to make them obey?”

“Force, if need be,” I said. “Even the most powerful of our kind can’t take on armies alone, much less armies backed by those Named who will respect the Accords as written.”

“What you describe is likely to lead to a civil war that would finish breaking apart Procer even should we defeat the Dead King,” Prince Frederic said. “The schemes of the Tower set our principalities tearing at themselves for decades, and now the weight of the war against Keter teaches us fresh ways to despise each other. We will not survive a third conflict, Queen Catherine, not as a single nation.”

He’d advanced and struck quickly, and at an angle where it was hard to drive him back, but I joined my staff to my sword and that forced him back a step.

“It’s a convincing speech you made,” I said, “but we both know that ultimately half of it is guesswork and predictions. If the Augur had predicted it, you’d have led with that. So we’re left to choose behind the danger I see looming, Named seeing the Terms and later the Accords as a tool for nobles to control them and so walking away, or the one you’ve described. One I can only see as avertable even should it come to pass.”

“Your reluctance is not unforeseen,” the Prince of Brus admitted. “Which is why I was asked to tell you that the First Prince is willing to sign the Liesse Accords as they currently stand should you concede in this.”

I’d been angling towards his side with my sword raised, but at his words I drew back with a start of surprise.

“Lady Dartwick left me under the impression that there were still months of negotiations left to be had,” I cautiously said.

“Yes,” Frederic Goethal said, “and on all currently contested issues, the First Prince will concede.”

Mhm. She couldn’t speak for the Dominion, though, so while this was a significant concession it didn’t end the negotiations outright. It’d still be a massive boon and one that put a lot of pressure on Levant to sign on as the terms were, or at least with minimal quibbling. And even should Hasenbach go to them in private to try to use them as proxy to continue negotiating – which I doubted, it’d be too starkly in bad faith – they were unlikely to champion points that favoured Procer without also helping them. It was damned tempting offer, which was nothing less than I should have expected coming from a diplomat of the First Prince’s skill.

“Something to consider,” I eventually replied.

There could be no serious expectation of my agreeing to this in the middle of spar, much less when I’d not spoken with Vivienne or had a recent look at the articles of the Accords still in dispute. But it was classic Hasenbach to use someone beholden to her yet on good terms with me to present her offer early, preparing the grounds before negotiations truly began – and well in advance of any rivals. Cordelia did like to win before the battles were had, when she could. I did not disapprove. Even her sort of battles could be messy and chancy things when started, no matter how well you might think the situation was in hand.

“A lot of this could be made simpler if you went out and asked for the Red Axe’s head,” I said. “Her attack could stand trial as both a breach of the Terms and Proceran laws, so we’d sidestep at least part of the troubles.”

The fair-haired prince studied me closely.

“The two of you are more similar than either cares to admit,” Prince Frederic said.

Ah. He’d gotten that speech from the other side as well, then. If Hasenbach hadn’t managed to sway him, I very much doubted I’d be the one to manage it instead.

“I’ll choose to that take that as a compliment,” I said.

“It was,” he said. “And other things as well. It is a matter a conscience, Queen Catherine. I will not ask for a death I do not believe deserved.”

His sword rose and I matched it with mine. Circling began again, my eyes lingering on his footing as he tested my defences with quick flicks. Looking for an opening to score a decisive blow and end this, I’d wager.

“That’s an interesting stand to take, considering what you’ve just said about the White Knight,” I said.

A deeper lunge, but I was low on my feet and in a swirl of my cloak obscuring my movements I pivoted and let him pass by me – though I wasn’t quick enough to catch his back as he passed. We were face to face once more before I could even mount a proper attack.

“On matters of politics, I can and will compromise,” the Kingfisher Prince calmly said. “But not on matters of integrity.”

And the thing was, I respected that. Admired it, even. But when principle got in the way of itself, a closer look usually gave away that the whole affair was really about pride. I tested his guard with a flick of my staff, found it slow and pressed on. It’d been a trap, and he tried to slide under my guard in the beat where I began to move and my bad leg slowed me, but I’d been waiting for it. Finesse wasn’t going to get me anywhere, so instead I bludgeoned at him as hard and quick a I could. It took him by surprise, enough that I drew back the staff and began to press him with both arms.

“I’ve lived most my life in the shadow of people that would use that rope to hang you twice over,” I told him, ending the sentence with a flourish of the wrist.

The strike I’d thought would bruise his shoulder was instead caught with the very end of his own blade, Name-strength compensating for the poor angle I’d forced him to parry in.

“That a principle can be used against you does not invalidate it,” Frederic Goethal fiercely said, “and decency is not made worthless for the use the indecent would make of it.”

Even with a touch of Night, the difference in strength allowed him to first force away my sword and then rip it out of my grasp. He did not get to take the opening that give him, though, as I spun around his back and elbowed him harshly. He gave ground just in time to avoid the strike of my staff, and before he could turn on me I’d retreated – bending to snatch my blade up from the sand as I did.

“If the exercise of a virtue is put to the service of evil,” I replied. “It is an accomplice to it, regardless of what else it might be.”

The fair-haired prince had begun to use his Name more liberally, though he was keeping aspects out of this much like I was refraining from using workings of Night, so I’d have to adjust. I wouldn’t be able to force my way through his guard anymore, even using both arms. Bait and flank, I decided. My staff was too long, it’d get in the way, but there were ways around that. Better wait for him to close in on me, though: my leg was beginning to throb so now was not the time to dart about.

“To put evil means in the service of good ends is still putting out evil in the world,” the Kingfisher Prince replied. “We can quibble of lesser or greater evils as we wish, but averting harm is not the same as acting morally.”

I’d turned this on him once or twice, so he came in careful. I took it as a mark of respect, coming from a swordsman of his calibre. A quick half-step forward, baiting out a strike of my staff that I gave him – he flowed into a high parry as he used his backfoot to quickly shoot forward, already trying to turn the first movement of his blade into the beginning of a strike at the side of my neck. I abandoned the staff, spinning to the side, but I’d used that on him twice now and he’d been waiting for it. A sharp strike of his elbow into my flank pushed me aside, putting me back into the trajectory of his swing if he finished the full arc. I dropped low and instead of pivoting anchored myself at a steady angle, ramming by shoulder into his chest even as he barrelled into me. He was light on his feet, though, impossibly so. Like he’d somehow turned into mist as he reversed his momentum, my shoulder hit nothing at all and I was instead forced into a damned awkward parry to cover my neck.

“Not the same at all,” I agreed. “We just disagree on which is more important.”

I saw the muscles in the prince’s arm tightening as he put his back into the clash of blades and knew that in the heartbeat that followed my guard would give. So I gave with it, using the moment where he thought he’d gotten me to finally pivot around him like I’d already tried twice. I deftly flipped my grip and thrust under my armpit, though just before the tip of my practice sword could touch the ridge of his spine I found the edge of his own against my throat, ready to slit it. He must have begun reversing his swing the moment I began moving, to match my timing, and it was with a degree of admiration I realized that meant he’d read my movements without even seeing them.

“Draw?” Prince Frederic lightly offered.

“Draws are for suckers,” I replied, and tried to trip him.

He let out a startled laugh and turned around as I tried to tackle him down into the sand, dropping his sword to try to wrestle mine out of my grasp. We dropped down in a tangle of limbs, and perhaps I did not struggle quite as much as I could have to prevent Frederic Goethal ending up on top of me, holding down one of my wrists. His blond locks were a mess, he smelled lightly of sweat and not even those puffy sleeves were enough to take away from my enjoyment of the muscles under them. It would be bad politics to fuck a prince of the blood, I reminded myself as I looked into very blue eyes, and besides we were on sand.

I couldn’t even be sure that he was interested, besides, although… I wiggled my hips under the thin pretence of struggling and got confirmation I might not be the only one finding our position startingly arousing, swallowing a pleased gasp. That knowledge did nothing to curb the temptation, especially not when I could feel his broad chest against mine and his face was so close I’d barely have to lean up to nip at his lip.

“You could have just declined to put forward charges,” I said.

The tone came out more flirtatious than I’d intended, but I wasn’t exactly biting my nails over it.

“It wouldn’t have been as interesting,” Prince Frederic replied, voice gone slightly husky.

All right, I could at least be honest enough with myself to admit that if we weren’t out in the open – or at least not in sand – I’d be flipping him over and undoing his belt right now. Shit. This, uh, might end up being something of a problem.

“Maybe I’ll take that draw, after all,” I made myself say.

Best to make this about politics again, I decide, since I didn’t usually wonder about how politics would feel between my legs. Although he was a prince, so if I wanted to get technical about it…

“Of course,” the Prince of Brus agreed.

The fair-haired man released my wrist and then the rest of me, rising to his feet and gallantly offering his hand to help me up. I took it, still much too flustered and aroused for my own good.

“I get the feeling you’re no exactly enthusiastic at the First Prince’s method of solving this,” I made myself say.

He offered me my sword by the handle, having picked the blades up while I adjusted my cloak on my shoulders. Nonchalantly, he tugged his shirt back into a semblance of order. It still fit him very nicely, I tried not to notice and promptly failed. I reined in my gaze before it could get me into any more trouble.

“I recognize the dangers she speaks of,” the Prince of Brus admitted. “But while the necessity of staying them might be clear, it does not sit well with me that we have made a woman’s life into a rag doll for half the world to pull at.”

She’s Named, I thought. We’re all rag dolls for Creation to pull at, until enough gives we’re only fit to be thrown away. The lucky ones among us got to accomplish a few things. The rest died remembered only as their killer’s stepping stone.

“So what is it you’d do instead?” I asked.

The man was an idealist, but he wasn’t a fool. He’d know that mouthing regrets at a course without offering another was just wind. The Prince of Brus considered me silently, seemingly sobered by the seriousness of the question I’d asked.

“I would begin,” Frederic Goethal finally said, “by speaking with the Red Axe.”

I clenched my fingers then unclenched them.

Well, I supposed it’d make a change from all this talking about her instead.

Chapter 27: Nigh

“When using tigers you don’t have enough time to gloat, when using rats you risk awkwardly running out of gloat before the end: true equilibrium is found in a pit of humble man-eating tapirs, beasts that have never once failed me.”
– Dread Empress Atrocious, later devoured by man-eating tapirs

I woke up with a stiff back and an aching leg.

I’d courted as much by sleeping in a chair instead of a bed, but I’d not had it in me to retire to my rooms. Groaning as I shook off the last pangs of sleep and felt out the throbbing side of my leg – today wasn’t going to be one of the goods days, I could already sense it – I pulled back my hand to settle my messily loose hair some. The pale glow of the magelights in the healing ward’s private room was hard on the eyes, somehow harsh and cold compared to the way the light of day felt. The Arsenal was not growing on me: the endless bare hallways and the dusty air had me more restless than even the Everdark had back in the day. Below the earth, moving through caves and tunnels, it’d still felt like my feet were on the ground. Here, though, it all felt fake. Unnatural.

Swallowing a yawn and stretching, I finally made myself look at the man lying on the bed by chair. Hakram’s upper body was bare and I could see his hairless and muscled chest rise and fall as he breathed, the steady rhythm ensured by the sorcery woven over his mouth and nose. A ball of spelled air, made thicker and almost translucent by the nature of the spell, was ensuring that he would keep breathing steadily even should his body fail as it already had several times. Gods, my heart still clenched every time I looked at him. I could not see the leg and the chunk of hip – including bone – he’d lost, as they were under the blanket, but there was no hiding his carved-up flank and the stump of his arm. The priests, the mages and even Masego were all in agreement: there could be no healing most of this.

In time flesh would grow back over the bared ribs and the stumps would cease to be purplish scabs, but there could be no question of attaching another limp even if we managed to get another one from an orc or even grow something through sorcery. Wounds inflicted by the Severance could be fully mended by neither sorcery nor Light. I’d already asked Hierophant to begin work on prosthetics, but the cuts through bone at the hip and leg were… Hakram’s fighting days were likely over. After months of bedrest and the finest prosthetics the Arsenal could create, he might be able to walk around without help. Might. But he would no longer be fit for battle, that much couldn’t be denied. I did not realize I was worrying my lip with my teeth as I looked at him until the door was cracked open and I released it.

My lips were dry, and my teeth sharp, so I tasted a fleck of blood against the roof of my mouth as I turned to see who’d intruded.

“Cat?” Archer quietly asked as she poked her face in. “Ah, good, you’re awake.”

She opened the door further with her foot and came in with a wooden tray. The smell from the pastries on it, some sort of Proceran pasties filled with cheese and herbs, wafted in.

“Breakfast,” she announced.

“Thanks,” I wanly smiled, waving her in.

I noticed a steaming mug besides the pastries, filled with something liquid and dark. Indrani crossed the room, letting the door close behind her, and passed me the tray even as she sat down in one of the seats by mine. The moment my hands were occupied supporting it she pre-emptively stole one of the pastries, which had my lips twitching, and I settled the tray on my knees with a nod of thanks. I sniffed at the mug and my brow rose when I recognized the distinct scent of the herbs Masego used to give me for pain back in the day.

“Cocky had a few,” Indrani shrugged in answer when I glanced at her.

How like her, I fondly thought, to mention that in a transparent attempt to draw attention from the gesture of bringing the mug. Or from having remembered this precise recipe even years later. It was rare for her to bother with little things like this, usually when someone brought me a meal it was – the thought soured me, and I breathed out shallowly. I made myself take a bite from one of the remaining pastries, the crust falling apart in my mouth and the warm cheese drowning out the taste of the herbs. It was tasty enough, and filling, so I tore through two before stopping to breathe.

“Thanks,” I told Archer. “Didn’t realize how hungry I’d gotten. What time is it?”

“An hour before Morning Bell,” she replied.

Past dawn, then. This would make it the longest night of sleep from the four I’d had since the culmination of the Bard’s plots in the Arsenal. Indrani had not, I noted, bothered to wipe away the mess of crumbs she’d made eating her own pastry. Hiding a slightly crusty smile at the sight, I sipped at the brew. The taste was as dubious as I remembered, but it’d do wonders for my leg without needing to draw on Night.

“You don’t usually wake me, much less bring me breakfast,” I leadingly said.

“I did in the Everdark, sometimes,” she defended.

“Like we didn’t make Akua cook whenever we could,” I snorted.

Indrani was a much better cook than either Akua or me, in truth, but she was also in no way above taking a nap and letting someone else handle it after a long day of marching.

“Making the only known poisoner among us handle the stew,” Archer dryly said. “Yeah, that sounds about right for our little Everdark walkabout.”

I snorted. That whole affair had been an exercise in recklessness, it was true, for all that in the end it’d turned out mostly well. I did not immediately answer, instead enjoying the silence as I sipped at my mug. She’d probably come for a reason, but I was in no hurry to press her for it.

“Sometimes I wonder how it would have been down there, if he’d come along like he wanted to,” Indrani said, eyes going to our unconscious friend.

Not even Masego could tell us when he’d wake. There wasn’t exactly a known precedent to call on for demonic taint followed by a cut of the Severance.

“We would have been better off,” I said. “And Callow would have fallen to pieces.”

She hummed, not exactly in agreement but not disagreeing either.

“Always thought you were much rougher on Vivienne and the Hellhound than him, for that mess we found in Iserre,” Indrani suddenly said. “He had just as big a hand in it, but his chewing out was had in private.”

“Juniper and Vivienne had titles, he didn’t,” I replied. “I wouldn’t have been quite to brutal with those two if not for their blunders in ‘welcoming’ me, either. Couldn’t afford not to, after those.”

“You also like him most,” Indrani frankly said.

I jolted in genuine surprise, looking askance at her.

“It’s fine,” she waved. “I’m not getting all jealous on you, Cat. And it’s not like you really play favourites in the Woe. Hakram’s been with you from start, the longest of any of us, so you two have always been the closest in some ways.”

I didn’t bother to argue that I didn’t sleep with Hakram, since we both knew that was a different thing. Her nebulous but inarguably existing partnership with Masego involved not a speck of bedplay, as far as I knew, but that in no way took away from the importance of it to both involved.

“Sometimes I think I might be afraid of becoming Black, if we make it all through the next decade,” I admitted.

She didn’t immediately speak, and I appreciated the moment to gather my thoughts as I drank.

“The rest of you wandering off to see to your own lives, the way the Calamities did with him,” I said. “I never had to worry about that with Hakram. I knew he’d stick with me into Cardinal and the Accords.”

It was never something we’d outright discussed, but more than once common plans had been drawn for things that the two of us would be able to do when the city was raised, together. It seemed faraway now, watching him breathe on that bed. I snorted.

“He wants to make cisterns up in the mountains, you know,” I said. “With canals that’d lead the water down to the city since water’s going to be an issue if it gets too large.”

“Wouldn’t that be something to see,” Indrani softly said.

“Nonsense it what it is,” I smilingly said. “We should drain one the lakes up there and gate it down instead, much more practical.”

How many times had we had that debate? Must have been at least a dozen, I knew all the arguments for and against by rote. It’d gotten stale, retreading the same grounds, but I’d still give a queen’s ransom to tread them once more with him right now. I breathed out, looking away.

“You know you’re going to have to leave him behind, don’t you?” Indrani gently said.

I turned so quickly I almost dropped the tray.

“Excuse me?” I flatly said.

“He’s in no state to be transported,” Archer said, not cowed by my glare in the slightest. “And even if he was, the Arsenal is the best place for him to recover. He can be fitted for the prosthetics here as they’re being made, and there’s not a place with more or more kinds of healers on the continent. If you take him with you Cat, it won’t be for his benefit. It’ll be for yours.”

“I can’t just let him rot here,” I hissed.

“Masego will be attending him,” Indrani said.

“Masego will remember to attend him in between more important things,” I bit out.

A moment of silence passed, Archer saying nothing.

“I didn’t mean that,” I finally said.

It was doing a disservice to him. Masego was sometimes forgetful, but never when it came to taking care of one of us.

“I know,” Indrani said. “Like you know you won’t be able to stay here by his bedside forever. There’s still a war on outside, and it needs you.”

“Some days I wonder,” I darkly said. “We managed to chase off the Intercessor, ‘Drani, but what else do we have to show for this? Entire sections of the Arsenal trashed or tainted, a pile of dead soldiers and Named, a fucking knot of politics to entangle that just got even more knotted. The Mirror Knight has the fucking sword, and he’s not going to give that back even if asked nicely.”

“You drove back a creature that gives even the Hidden Horror the shivers,” Archer said. “If there wasn’t a pack of ruins on fire left behind, Cat, I’d be a lot more worried.”

I took my mug in hand and reached to set aside the tray, swallowing a hiss at the way the move pulled at my leg, but Indrani leaned over and set it on the ground instead. I gestured in thanks, which she airily dismissed.

“And Mirror Knight trying to play politics won’t amount to shit,” Archer continued. “Most Dominion people can’t stand him, and it’s not like him having a real cutty sword is going to impress Hasenbach or Malanza. And if both those two tell him to sit down and shut up, I don’t care whose daughter he’s fucking: there’s no one in Procer who’s going to argue.”

“It’s a sword made to kill the Dead King, Indrani,” I said. “And we only have one of those. That gives him clout, whether I like it our not.”

“Balls to that,” Archer said. “I don’t care how many Mirror Knights we throw at Keter, it’s not going to get shit done. You think it’s the first time the Original Abomination got some scrappy hero with powerful aspects and a fancy sword knocking at his gate? He’ll snap that boy over his fucking knee, Cat. The Saint might have pulled it off, ‘cause she was hard and canny and gone feral in the Heavens way, but the Mirror Knight? He’s just some asshole. Not the worst I’ve seen, and sure he tries, but when it comes down to it he’s still just some jackass with a sword.”

“If he was just that, I’d have gotten him under control by now,” I said.

“Way you told it to me, you treated him like Black and the Empress treated you back in the day,” Indrani said. “That wasn’t going to work.”

“It usually does,” I said through gritted teeth.

And Christophe de Pavanie wasn’t an idiot: I’d shown him how I did things, and then explained why they needed to be done that way. I’d even thought it was working, for all that I was wary of him and probably not hiding it entirely. I still had no real idea what had set him off at the end, though there was no denying I’d botched my handling of his little tantrum.

“Yeah, but you’re the Black Queen,” Archer said. “If you’re being nice to him, it’s probably a plot. If you’re being mean to him, it’s probably a plot. If you’re not being anything to him, it’s probably a plot. There’s a reason it’s Shiny Boots in charge of the heroes and not you, Catherine. Most of them still think you’re out to get them.”

She might be right, but I wasn’t convinced.  Still, there was no denying I was in a position where trying to keep forcing the matter would do a lot more harm than good. For now all that I could do was let sleeping dogs lie – and keep an eye on the dogs, just in case.

“Shiny Boots will be coming soon, at least,” I grunted. “By midday tomorrow.”

“The Painted Knife and her band the day after,” Indrani said, “then Vivienne and Hasenbach the day after. It’s going to get lively around here.”

I didn’t answer, resuming sipping at my brew as I watched Hakram from the corner of my eye. Silence stretched out again, almost peaceful.

“I want to be here when he wakes up,” I said. “I can’t help but feel that is the least of the least I could do, ‘Drani.”

“The conference won’t be done in a day,” Archer replied.

But it wouldn’t last forever either, I knew. And if it ended and Hakram had not yet woken up… Gods, how was it a harder decision to leave him behind than to send soldiers into battles where I knew many of them would die?

“Yeah,” I finally said. “It won’t be done in a day.”

It was the coward’s way out, but I still hoped it was a decision I simply wouldn’t have to make. My mug was nearly empty now, so I drank down the last of the bitter brew and set it aside.

“So why is it that you came to wake me, anyway?” I asked.

“Prince Pretty is about and kicking, the Physician finally cut him loose,” Indrani said. “He was looking to speak to you when you have a moment.”

I groaned and began to rise to my feet.

“Might as well,” I said, reaching for my staff. “I feel like I need to stretch my legs a bit.”

“That’s the spirit,” Archer grinned. “I’ll keep watch on Hakram, you go and breathe some slightly more fresh air.”

I washed myself and changed clothes first. With a washbasin and a cloth, not a bath: the Arsenal had no source of water, which meant it had to be brought in from Creation by barrels. The practical limits to doing that meant it was permanently rationed, and though I could have probably flouted the rule I saw no real reason to. I dragged out a leather hunting doublet – which I’d never actually used for hunting – and loose black trousers I could tuck into my boots, pulling my wet hair into a braid and loosening my cloak around my neck. It wasn’t exactly court clothes, or queenly ones, but I had a limited patience for both and the only way I’d ever put on full Proceran royal dress was if they dressed up my corpse. Cordelia somehow managed to make it seem natural, but I had a deep and instinctual distrust for anything involving that many ribbons and knots.

I’d asked attendants to find out where Prince Frederic was before going into my quarters, so by the time I left them the answer was awaiting me. It also had me raising an eyebrow, since I’d expected any conversation between us would be taken care of in a private audience room or either our quarters. Instead the Prince of Brus was currently breaking his fast in the meal hall where I’d found Archer on the day of my arrival. Except she’d used it when it was empty, while around this time there were bound to be more than a few full tables. Well, at least my hair would dry a tad on the way there. I’d somewhat learned my way around the Arsenal, what with all the traipsing about I’d done here, so to get to the hall I needed no guide.

It was a quick enough walk – the architects who’d designed the place had clearly known the Alcazar would be hosting the people who paid them, and so positioned it very conveniently – and I got through it briskly, the herbal brew having finally kicked in enough I could put a bit of a spring to my limp without swallowing a wince every time. The meal hall was a little over half-full, as I’d expected, offering up the sight men and women from their twenties to their dotage in three colours of robes. I would have expected some degree of clannishness but even those who most stuck to their own kind, the white-robed priests, had but a few islands of pale while most were spread out. The mages and the scholars, in red and bronze, were seated seemingly without thought to affiliation.

The closest thing there were to clans were actually the tables with Named, which everyone else avoided. In the back, near the corner, the Blade of Mercy and the Blessed Artificer were quietly speaking as they ate together. Closer to me I saw the Kingfisher Prince laughing at something Roland had said, the Harrowed Witch looking at them warily but also seemingly a little charmed. More than a few gazes turned my way when I limped in, a hush falling over the room. I said nothing, only making my way to Prince Frederic’s table and clapping Roland’s shoulder in thanks when he made some room for me to sit by his side.

“Your Majesty,” the Harrowed Witch greeted me.

“Good morning,” I said, then nodded at the others. “And to the both of you as well.”

“Better yet for the pleasure of your company, Queen Catherine,” Frederic Goethal smiled.

“Yes,” the Rogue Sorcerer drily said. “That.”

My gaze flicked to the side of the Kingfisher Prince’s pale neck, where a thin red line went around with an even neatness that was somehow pleasing to the eye. Hells, if I’d not known better I would have believed it a tattoo. A rather tasteful one, at that.

“This is highly unfair,” I complained. “How does the scar make you prettier? Mine just make me look like I got mauled.”

I got treated to the sight of Frederic Goethal’s eyes going wide in surprise, and the Prince of Brus politely coughed into his fist as Roland loudly choked. I glanced at the Witch, cocking an eyebrow and she reluctantly offered me a nod of agreement. See? It’s not just me.

“I thank you for the compliment, Your Majesty,” the Kingfisher Prince got out.

“Catherine,” Roland muttered, aghast. “You can’t just hit on a prince of the blood in the middle of the meal hall.”

“I’m just stating the truth,” I protested. “Look at Aspasie, she’s not disagreeing is she?”

“I have finished my meal,” the Harrowed Witch hastily said, “and so take my leave, with your permission.”

Before said permission could either be offered or denied, she just as hastily bowed and made her escape. A cannier tactician than I’d expected, that one.

“Look what you did,” Roland reproached.

“War makes beasts of us all,” I solemnly said.

This time it was the Prince of Brus that choked, but in amusement. After mastering himself he poured me a cup of what looked like warm milk – with honey and something else in, maybe cloves going by the smell? – and offered it, which had my eyes sharpening. This was a rather informal setting, but he’d still poured for me. To an Alamans, which this one was for all that he’d spent the last few years being the darling of the Lycaonese, that implied either intimacy or the sort of admission of lower status that a prince of Procer would not, strictly speaking, need to offer me. Over the years First Princes had often tried to pass kingship of Callow was a rank of nobility below their own office, making it equivalent to that of the lesser western royalty instead.

Cordelia Hasenbach had never tried that with me: even back when she’d called me Your Grace instead of Your Majesty, it’d been with the implication that a proper queen of Callow would have warranted the latter appellation.

“Thank you,” I slowly said, cocking my head to the side.

It was a statement, what he’d just done, and he’d chosen to do it in front of more than half a hundred people. Including several Named. The sole Named among Proceran royalty had just implied intimacy and trust in me in a subtle but very public way, which would not be something without consequence. I drank from the cup, and though it was too sweet for my tastes forced myself to swallow. Frederic Goethal had been raised to the Ebb and Flow during an era that Procerans still called the Great War, so I did not doubt he knew exactly what he’d just done. It explained why we were meeting here, even. It also left me feeling somewhat indebted to him, even if I’d not sought out the gesture, which I doubted was a coincidence.

“How is the Adjutant, if I might ask?” Roland quietly said.

I told him, and the conversation drifted towards that and other idle talk about the state of the Arsenal – there would need to be a hard look taken at the tainted parts of it before the First Prince could step foot here – that lasted until my cup and their plates ran empty. The Rogue Sorcerer skillfully took his leave after that, which left me alone with the Prince of Brus.

“I must confess to a degree of restlessness, now that I’ve been allowed to escape the infirmary,” the Kingfisher Prince idly said.

“I can sympathize,” I said.

I’d spent a lot of my early years as the Squire going from one healing ward to another.

“Then perhaps you might care to escort me to that fighting pit in the Frolic, Your Majesty,” Prince Frederic suggested. “If I do not exercise my arm at least a little I might just go mad.”

Mhm. A genuine request, or just an excuse for the two of us to be able to talk in a more private setting? Either way I had little reason to refuse.

“I could use the walk,” I agreed.

It’d been idle but pleasant talk all the way to the Frolic, which was empty at this time of the day.

Mind you it was an amusingly fresh experience to pass by a brothel with a genuine Proceran prince, an establishment he couldn’t possibly have missed even if he was too polite to comment on it. The fighting pit was just as deserted at the rest of this area, rafters empty and sand untouched, although by the looks of the pair of practice swords left at the edge of the stands a servant must have come through at some point. I cocked an eyebrow at the fact that there were two swords there: unless the Kingfisher Prince had ceased using a shield, that meant he expected to be exercising his arm against someone. Unhurried, the fair-haired man went down the stairs and undid the straps keeping the dull swords in place.

“The First Prince will be arriving tomorrow, along with your Lady Dartwick,” Frederic Goethal told me. “Word was sent to me overnight.”

Quicker than we’d thought. They’d get here the same day as the White Knight, then.

“Good to know,” I cautiously replied. “We have much to talk about.”

The pale-skinned man took up one of the swords, testing its weight first by holing the grip and then by a succession of swift swings.

“You and I do as well, Your Majesty,” Frederic Goethal seriously said.

He tossed me the sword, which I’d half expected. It’d been well thrown so I snatched it out of the air easily. The balance was a little off for me – I preferred a heavier pommel and a longer blade – but I was out of practice anyway. It’d hardly make a difference.

“It’s been some time since I used one of those,” I warned him.

“So I’ve heard,” the Prince of Brus said, eyeing me openly, “yet the instincts will still be there, and you have the fitness for it.”

I might not have been entirely opposed to being looked up and down by Frederic Goethal in different circumstances, but it hadn’t been that kind of look: he’d been gauging callouses and muscles, not how well I might fill my clothes.

“Swords and a chat, huh,” I said. “Fair enough. I can work with that.”

I made my way down the stairs, leaning on my staff, and after dulling my bad leg with a quick touch of Night leapt down and landed on the sands in a crouch, Mantle of Woe billowing around me. Prince Frederic’s boots touched the pit floor a moment later with catlike grace. His loose white long-sleeved shirt – with those puffy Alamans sleeves – and silken trousers would have made him seem like some lordling who’d stumbled into the wrong place by accident, if not for the comfortable way he held his dulled blade. Idly I spun my own sword to loosen my wrist, considering how best to approach. He’d weigh more, and be quicker on his feet, but that’d been true of a lot of my opponents over the years. It was hard to decide how best to attack when I still only had vague notions of how skilled he might be.

“So the swords are bare, but what is it we’re meant to be talking about?” I probed.

“We have trouble brewing,” the Prince of Brus said, “of a most inconvenient kind.”

Ever light on his feet he approached, and I tested his guard with a flick of the blade he allowed to touch his but otherwise ignored. The fair-haired man began to circle me rightwards, which I reciprocated in the opposite way.

“You’ll have to elaborate,” I said. “It’s been one of those months.”

The prince darted forward, sword going to the side in what I realized too late to have been a feint, but when he struck at a sharp angle that would have hit my swordholding wrist he found instead that a hard blow of my staff forced him to withdraw.

“How unsporting,” Frederic Goethal boyishly grinned.

“I don’t recall agreeing to swords only,” I nonchalantly replied.

He laughed and we began circling each other again.

“I have decided not to press charges against the Red Axe under the Terms,” the Kingfisher Prince said, and my eyes narrowed, “though I am not unaware that ultimately means little.”

“There was no need for that little piece of theatre in the meal hall, if you meant to throw in with the Mirror Knight,” I noted.

“It is a personal decision, not a political one,” he admitted. “I have known hatred, how it can twist you. The Red Axe was done great wrongs, and the depth of the hatred born of them makes anything I have partaken of a pittance. I do not forgive or forget her attack, but neither would I see her slain on my behalf.”

I slid a step to the side, sweeping low with my staff and baiting the attack I’d expected to follow. He was too quick on his feet to resist such an opening, dancing around my sweep and darting a strike out at my shoulder. Grip shifting, I grabbed the edge of my cloak with my freed fingers and swept the strike into the cloth, nearly ripping the blade out of his grasp. Yet nimbly he went, retreating out of my range before I could try to hem him in. The tricky bastard.

“It won’t change that she killed the Wicked Enchanter,” I said.

“Or that she tried to open my throat, lack of complaint or not,” Frederic of Brus acknowledged. “Unfortunately, the latter of these might turn out to be the most trouble. Though I am of the Chosen, I am also a prince of the blood and the anointed ruler of Brus. The First Prince is of the opinion, and to my regret I cannot disagree, that my attempted killer must stand trial under Proceran law.”

“By any reasonable measure she’ll get the-” I almost said headsman’s axe, but it would have been both ghastly and a pun, “- noose for the Enchanter, which would allow us to sidestep that issue outright.”

It wasn’t that I couldn’t see where Cordelia was coming from, really. One of the heroes had just stuck a sword in the neck of one of her empire’s ruling nobility, if she didn’t act then she was legitimizing the right of heroes to pull shit like this in years to come. On the other hand, coming from the side of the Truce and Terms, we were going to see more than a few desertions if turned out that we were all subject to Proceran laws. People just didn’t trust the Principate that much, and given what the Sisters had shown me of the plotting in Cleves it wasn’t without reason. The unspoken conflict of authority between the officers of the Terms and the crowned heads of the Grand Alliance had been from open conflict so far, with great care, but this seemed like just the kind of mess to make it into a very spoken conflict instead.

“If the situation in the Arsenal had unfolded differently, that might have been an elegant solution,” the Kingfisher Prince aknowledged. “Unfortunately, the Mirror Knight now wields the Severance and he has ties to the Langevins of Cleves. Whose loyalties have waned even as their ambitions waxed.”

The Prince of Brus raised his sword high, blue eyes cool.

“If Chosen striking at royalty is left unpunished,” Prince Frederic gravely said, “we believe that my neck might just have healed from the first blow struck in the Principate’s next civil war.”

Chapter 26: Palaver

“Hold not even the least of the laws of men in contempt, for where their like is absent rule only the laws of beasts.”
– Isocrates the Harsh, Atalante preacher

I’d learned over the years that there were a lot of unspoken rules in Alamans culture.

Many them seemed about social status at first glance, in a way that made every mudfoot Callowan hackle in my body rise, but I’d eventually been forced to admit it was a little more nuanced than that. The Alamans were the most populous of the three Proceran peoples – Vivienne believed that there might be as many as three times more of them than Lycaonese – and I suspected a lot of their culture had been shaped of need to keep that massive amount of people at least halfway orderly. The Ebb and Flow might be a vicious wastrel thing by anyone’s standards but the Wasteland’s, but not every custom should be painted with the same brush. As an example; the typical Alamans reluctance to ever contradict a social superior in public wasn’t from their ways being more set in stone when it came to the aristocracy, but arguably from the opposite.

Proceran royalty worried a lot more about public opinion than I’d ever believed such a rapacious lot would, because to them it could be a lethal thing. The Alamans understanding of authority was fundamentally rooted in a ruler having the graces of the Heavens of the people, so losing either tended to have an ambitious sibling or cousin remove you for the good of the family – when it wasn’t done by another noble family entirely, one which had recently proven competent and popular. That sort of thing was exceedingly rare, in Callow. Back home when rule of holdings passed to another house it was usually because the last one had died to battle or Praesi madness, or the sparse cases where the Albans and Fairfaxes had stripped a house of its titles for some manner of treason. And that last one was damned rare, since some houses had flown the rebel banner and even fought battles against the Fairfaxes while still retaining their titles after their loss.

I’d found it fascinating that while back home it was broadly assumed that Proceran peasants were starvelings constantly robbed by their princes, the common folk of Procer in truth had their rights guaranteed by law: a set of rights known as ‘Salienta’s Graces’, which royals naturally tried to squeeze around but were very leery of outright breaking. The sole lawful check on noble abuses, in Callow, was the crown being petitioned for intervention. Sure, it was an open secret that if some baron began to trouble their people too much they were likely to one day not return from a hunt or mysteriously choke on their supper, but if violence was the only way to end a crime then there was a weakness in the law.  It’d been humbling to realize some of the last remaining Callowan nobles might get outright rebellious if I tried to cram down their throats the legal rights for the commons that Proceran folk took for granted.

Not because they intended to abuse their subjects, no, but simply because the crown would be weakening their authority. Right or wrong didn’t enter the equation, just the balance of power, and that was a hard thing to swallow even for me – whose opinion of Callowan nobles had long been, one might say, uncharitable. It’d also made me reconsider a lot of the conversations I’d had with Cordelia Hasenbach over the years, approaching them with fresh eyes. Her threshold for losing power in Procer had never been outright rebellion, as it could be argued to be for me, but simply growing unpopular enough that there would not be much trouble if someone of good repute toppled her through the Highest Assembly. Hells, hadn’t people tried to overthrow her with only middling backing just because it seemed like her decisions were getting unpopular? A lot of what had seemed to be hemming and hawing for its own sake back then could now be understood differently, if not necessarily be more forgivable for it.

It’d been almost as fascinating to me that lowborn Procerans tended to cling to those unspoken rules even more tightly than the nobles, as if deviating from them would be taint on their character. Christophe of Pavanie was, from what little the Jacks had been able to dig up on him – genuinely obscure origins had, there, been an even finer shield than an empire’s worth of spies – of middling but not outright lowborn birth. His family would have been from the equivalent of a town’s eldermen, in Callowan terms, but not necessarily influential or all that wealthy. Comfortable enough to ensure he’d be able to read and write, though, and evidently have some tutoring in the etiquette of the well-bred. Which was why the Mirror Knight had not spoken a single word about the conversation I’d had with the Hunted Magician, even though he was very clearly itching to.

I was a queen, you see, and a duly recognized high officer of the Grand Alliance. If I wasn’t going around breaking the Truce and Terms myself, making myself into an outlaw and so throwing away all privileges, he might hate it to the bone but he’d not deny that I was his social superior. Mind you, that would only hold so long as we were out in public. And considering we’d long left behind the Workshop and entered the Alcazar, the thin barrier that’d ensured his sullen silence as we walked was soon to be stripped away. My first instinct had been to bring him to the small room where I’d received him earlier, but since it was currently filled with a mess of cards and the Wandering Bard’s latest corpse I’d naturally reconsidered. There was a small private parlour in my quarters here where we ought to be able to talk, though, and it’d do just fine.

The protective working of Night I’d laid on my door had dispersed when I’d been stabbed by the Fallen Monk earlier, so all it took to open my rooms was the use of a key. I gestured for the Mirror Knight to follow me in then closed the door behind us.

“Do you drink?” I asked, unclasping my cloak.

The man looked taken aback by the question, standing awkwardly in his full plate as I tossed the Mantle of Woe atop a dresser. I could hardly mock him for that, since if I’d been wearing proper armour instead of ceremonial dress I wouldn’t have gotten stabbed in the neck by the Monk. Black’s insistence on wearing plate seemingly at all times had never seemed more justified.

“Er, yes,” the Mirror Knight said. “Your Majesty.”

“Good,” I grunted. “Do take you helmet off, and stash that sword somewhere I don’t have to watch it seethe at my continued existence. I’m not going to stab you in my own parlour, I assure you.”

His eyes widened.

“I did not mean to imply faithlessness of you by keeping my arms,” the man hastily assured me, sounding like he very much wanted to wince.

He left the Severance near the door, propping it up against the wall like it was some farmer’s hoe instead of tool for deicide, and after looking around for somewhere to place his helm and failing he simply held it in the crook of his elbow. Uncomfortably, one assumed. Meanwhile I unearthed what looked like some Proceran bottle of red from an overly fancy drink cabinet before liberating two crystal cups – a donation, I hoped, since the thought of Callowan coin going into paying for those had me more than a little displeased – and setting all three of those things on the table.

“That ought to do,” I said, and flicked a glance at the helm. “Put that on a dresser, would you?”

Amusing as it might be to watch him try to juggle holding his war helm and drink at the same time, it’d bode ill to make sport of him before our conversation even began. I uncorked the bottle with a pop and had moved to pour when I caught sight of the appalled look on the hero’s face from the corner of my eye. Ah, yes. I was of higher rank, so pouring was either a breach of etiquette or implied a nonexistent degree of intimacy between us. Smothering a sigh – it’d be hypocritical to benefit from useful Alamans ways then complain of their inconvenience in the same breath – I flipped my grip and offered the bottle to him. With surprising deftness for a man still wearing gauntlets, he poured first for me and then for himself. I nodded thanks and sat, while he followed suit in the latter a heartbeat later.

“You have questions,” I said.

Safer to frame them as that than objections. Someone confused could ask for clarifications without it being a threat, but to object implied a degree of authority I had no intention of allowing him in this conversation. The Mirror Knight’s lips thinned.

“You as good as solicited a bribe from the Hunted Magician and threatened to purposefully fail your responsibilities to him if one was not offered,” Christophe de Pavanie flatly accused. “Worse, when that bribe was offered you took it.”

I hummed.

“If I had simply asked questions of the Hunted Magician,” I said, “what would have happened?”

“He would have lied,” the Mirror Knight curtly said. “But you would not have disgraced yourself and the office you hold. He should have been imprisoned until a truthteller could be brought to the Arsenal.”

I wasn’t sure whether it was basic grounding in reality or a belief in the general perfidy of villains that had him aware that the Magician had no real reason to tell the truth if pressed, but I could work with it either way.

“Assume I had done this,” I allowed, to his visible surprise. “What would have followed?”

“A truthteller-”

“Who?” I pressed.

“The Peregrine,” he said, “or perhaps the Exalted Poet.”

“The Poet was a traitor who openly sided with the fae in battle,” I noted.

And thank you a hundred times over, Indrani, for passing that piece along. The dark-haired man’s face went slack in utter surprise. They’d fought on the same front, as I recalled. They must have known each other. I would have a lot more sympathy for his dismay if that friendship might not have led to the Bard getting her picked truthteller in a key position, had this all happened differently.

“I – are you quite certain?” the Mirror Knight croaked out.

“It has been confirmed by multiple witnesses,” I said. “And that is not the heart of the issue, regardless: every single truthteller in the Grand Alliance is a hero.”

“I do not see the issue,” he replied, sounding entirely honest.

Because that just wasn’t how he saw the world in the end, was it? Heroes – the Chosen – were honourable and good, so even us wicked Damned must recognize these qualities and believe in their word when it was given. It was a shade of the same sentiment I’d so deeply despised in Tariq, that bedrock assumption that only the mad and the lost could ever choose anything but service to the Gods Above. It was a way to see the world that simply did not allow for disagreeing equals.

“The word of heroes isn’t trusted by the Named I have in my charge,” I bluntly said. “Most of them have fought Chosen at some point in their lives-”

“It is not a crime to have stopped crime,” Christophe burst out.

“No, but it is ridiculous to ask villains to believe in the impartiality of heroes when they’ve almost certainly fought with one of their friends or companions in the past,” I patiently said. “You yourself came into the Arsenal all but accusing me of plotting to murder the Red Axe-”

“For which I apologize,” the Mirror Knight said through gritted teeth. “I was given reason to believe such a plot was afoot.”

“And you believed it,” I said.

He began to apologize again but I raised my hand to stop him.

“I’m not here to rake you over the coals for that,” I said. “Mind you, I’ll want to know why you came to believe that, but my point is that you did believe it. Because there is no trust between us.”

I paused to let him digest that, taking up my cup at sipping at it. Some strong-flavoured red. From where in Procer I had no idea, but it was pleasant enough to drink.

“You are saying,” the Mirror Knight slowly said, “that the lack of trust goes both ways.”

I’d led him to that, true enough, but that he’d gotten there at all meant he was likely someone I could deal with. Not like the Saint, whose principles had cut both ways and never bent an inch even when they led her to facing death standing all alone. Ignorance I could mend, zealotry I could not.

“At best, using heroes to settle villain affairs would be seen as weakness on my part,” I bluntly said. “At worse, it would be seen as collusion and plot.”

“Whether that is true or not,” Christophe said, “it remains that you threatened the Hunted Magian with withholding the protections he is due by law.”

“Is he?” I said. “He plotted with the Wandering Bard to help an assault into the Arsenal – this is fact, not supposition, even though my proofs are limited. I would have been well within my rights to cut him loose and offer him up in chains to stand before a military tribunal.”

“Then it is even worse,” the Mirror Knight said, “for that was your duty, and you laid it aside for a bribe.”

I rolled my eyes.

“I laid nothing aside,” I said. “He’ll still stand trial as he should under the Truce and Terms and I have received nothing from him save for words.”

“Just because the bribe was not delivered-”

“I asked him for reasons his coming tribunal might have to refrain from a brisk hanging being the sum whole of the judgement rendered,” I sharply said, growing irritated with the constant accusation of bribery. “Not for any sort of bribe.”

I’d bloodied my hands enough for three villains, but the accusation that I might be corrupt was still enough to infuriate me. I was a cheat and a killer, but I was not godsdamned crook.

“You were promised a fairy crown,” the Mirror Knight unflinchingly replied. “That did not escape me, Black Queen. The purported scheme that brought me here was your attempted seeking of queenship over Named, and this eager pursuit of Autumn’s regalia does nothing to abate my fears.”

I breathed out, gathered my calm.

“I don’t care,” I bluntly said.

He blinked in surprise.

“That entire project is being kept secret for a reason, and it’s been approved by people a lot more important than you,” I said. “If the White Knight wants to bring you into the circle of those aware of its nature I’ll consider agreeing to it, since you’ve already stumbled onto the outskirts, but ultimately that’s not my decision to make.”

That was the pivot, I thought. I was asserting that I had little direct authority over him, which should please him, but it came with the added implication that he was still subordinate to Hanno. Those were the lines drawn by rules and agreement, though, not something immutable. If he decided to push anyway this was going to be trouble.

“Then there should be no trouble with the Hunted Magician being placed under guard until the White Knight can speak of this matter for the Chosen,” the Mirror Knight said.

It wasn’t an unreasonable thing to ask, when it came down to it, and in principle I had nothing to lose by agreeing to it. In principle. Practically speaking, I’d be admitting that Christophe de Pavanie was someone who had a right to ask things of me. If I gave in now, would it just invite him to push for more? On the other hand, digging my heels in over even the slightest bump in the road was a good way to ensure this went to the Hells in a handbasket. I’d have to take the risk, then, and maybe phrase it so that I wasn’t actually making a concession.

“I’ll consider him to be the subject of a complaint under the Terms, then,” I said. “The Rogue Sorcerer can see to it that no unseemliness happens when he’s freed from other duties.”

Roland was not the most trusted of heroes, he was too close to me for that, but he wasn’t outright distrusted by his fellows either. He’d serve as an acceptable compromise candidate since I sure as hells wasn’t putting the Blade of Mercy in charge of anything – much less guarding an experienced villain. I’d even managed to make this happen within the appearance of lawfulness, keeping to the Terms. But it was an illusion, I knew that all too well. Pick at the gold on any crown for long enough and you always found the steel that’d put the gilding on.

It was not a pleasant thing to be the side with the gilding instead of the steel, for once.

“That would be acceptable,” the Mirror Knight said, and my fingers clenched.

I drank from my cup to hide my sudden urge to break his nose. Acceptable. Like he was doing me a favour by deigning to accept. The Magician was one of Below’s, there was precisely no fucking part of this that Above’s crowd had a right to dictate to me over. I breathed out, slowly, and forced calm. I glanced at the green-eyed man, finding him looking faintly embarrassed. Not because of me, I decided, I was not so easy to read these days.

“You look like you want to say something,” I said.

“I yet remain in the dark about much of what went on during the attack,” the Mirror Knight admitted. “And it occurs to me I am unlikely to find anyone more apt to tell the tale.”

I hummed. After that little sentence I was less than inclined to indulge him in anything, but that he was asking at all implied a degree of trust in my word: there was no point in asking an explanation from someone you believed a liar. That belief was worth encouraging, I decided after a moment.

“To my understanding, the Wandering Bard’s plot began with the Wicked Enchanter and the Red Axe,” I said.

“Someone passed as the latter in Revenant form, when attacking the Stacks,” Christophe said.

I watched his eyes tighten, his fingers clench, and remembered the few barbs I’d thrown his way when disguised as the Wicked Enchanter’s corpse. Evidently, they’d stung deeper than I’d believed they would. I could confess to that deception, with or without revealing Indrani had been my companion, but to be frank I saw no real need to. There’d been enough chaos going around the Arsenal that it should comfortably remain a mystery, and even if it were suddenly revealed down the line by a twist of circumstance there was nothing all that damaging to reveal in the first place. Arson and skirmishing were not laudable behaviour, but given the circumstances I doubted my word would be gainsaid if I stated it’d been necessary.

“So I’ve heard,” I said. “The object of the plot was to arrange a deep enmity between a heroine and villain, then ensure that they met where many other Named could see the violence that’d ensue.”

“An attack on the Truce and Terms,” the Mirror Knight nodded. “Clever, given that Damned were certain to ask for her head no matter how justified her actions were.”

I wasn’t going to touch that, considering how ambivalent I was feeling at having to pass down sanctions on behalf of an animal like the Wicked Enchanter. Safer to move on, I decided.

“From there, the Arsenal would become a dry bale of hay awaiting a match,” I said. “The Blessed Artificer and the Repentant Magister were made privy to incomplete but dangerous information about a restricted project, while you and your fellows were summoned to fight a false plot that would still have been weeks away from existing at all when word was sent.”

There I paused in significant silence, inviting him to elaborate on that. Just because I was sharing information didn’t mean I wasn’t going to try to learn any. The Mirror Knight frowned.

“It was a letter,” he admitted. “From one of my friends within these walls, though when I arrived and sought her out she told me she had sent no such thing.”

“And that friend’s name?” I asked.

“You would know her as the Bitter Blacksmith,” he said. “She passed through Cleves on her way to the Arsenal, and the friendship we struck then remains.”

His friend had been sleeping with the Hunted Magician for some time, I immediately thought, which meant he might have been the one to send that false letter using his access to her quarters. Although that hardly fit when I considered it more deeply: the Magician’s relationship with the Intercessor had been transactional, and he was unlikely to have taken a risk like leaving a parchment trail on her behalf. Especially not a letter coming out of the Arsenal, where everything is read through before it’s allowed to leave. No, most likely he or another of the Bard’s helpers had gotten their hands on some writing of the Bitter Blacksmith’s before passing it on. Another traitor would have then forged the letter outside the Arsenal and sent it to the Mirror Knight. Considering that the Concocter had ties with the smuggling ring of this place and bargained with the Bard as well, she seemed a more likely suspect there.

I’d still ask the Grey Pilgrim to confirm the Bitter Blacksmith’s words if he could, just in case.

“A forgery,” I said. “One that ensured you would come here and act aggressively.”

His face soured but he did not argue with my words.

“I suspect we were meant to be at each other’s throats,” I said, delicately skipping over the part where we actually had been. “So that when the Court of Autumn struck we would be divided and unready.”

Back in the Stacks, the Mirror Knight had varied wildly between tales when addressing my impersonation of a Revenant. I’d dismissed that as stupidity, back then, but in retrospect a more charitable interpretation might have been that he’d been utterly confused as to why he was there at all. It wasn’t anyone’s natural leaning, not even mine, to begin by entertaining the notion that you’d been brought in because you were bound to fuck things up somehow. It made sense he would have been grasping at straw instead, desperately trying to figure what was going on around him. Yet the Intercessor had known exactly what she was doing, on the other hand: he’d been picked as much for his… inflexibility as for his potential to take up the Severance. A danger in both the short term and the long one. Gods but I hated fighting the Bard. Even when you won you lost.

At least we’d made it through better than she must have anticipated, my little trick of going directly to the Doddering Sage forcing her to use the Hunted Magician early – which ultimately came back to bite her, since it was one of the things that allowed me to figure out he’d been working with her – and the stroke of inspiration that was sending in Adjutant leading the Mirror Knight straight to my door later, no longer seeing me as an immediate foe. The memory of Hakram’s body on that stretcher came back and I gritted my teeth. Inspiration had its costs.  Yet when the fae had hit the Arsenal, they’d not fallen upon a pack of twitchy Named ready to blame each other but instead faced a few separate bands of five hunting down the Bard’s schemes. What should have been a hard blow instead became a distraction, which I was honestly rather pleased about. If it’d really gone to shit in the Arsenal, the fae likely would have been able to make straight runs for the sword and Quartered Seasons and broken both.

“The fae went for both the Severance and the Hierophant’s research, both of which represent a potential way of killing the Dead King,” I said.

“But why?” the Mirror Knight quietly asked. “Why would anyone, even one of the Damned, try to doom Calernia to an eternity of undeath?”

“The Bard’s been pulling strings for a long time, using a lot of different faces,” I said. “She led the First Prince by the nose towards the creation of a weapon that might kill the Hidden Horror as well – the corpse of an angel of Judgement – but it has since been gleaned that the use of the weapon might have catastrophic consequences for all of Calernia. The idea of using it was laid aside, for now, but if Cordelia Hasenbach is stripped of every other option and annihilation comes to call…”

“Then the First Prince will do as she must, and sacrifice many to save the rest,” the Mirror Knight said, sounding admiring. “How like the Damned, to attempt to make use of virtue as a flaw.”

I didn’t mention that, according to the Dead King’s parting words in Salia, when the Painted Knife arrived we’d be learning the exact magnitude of the mess that would have ensued from Cordelia pulling that trigger. I suspected it was… not negligible, which might go some way in explaining why the Intercessor had struck now of all times. With her secrets about to come out, she urgently needed to cut down on the Grand Alliance’s options or there would be absolutely no reason for the First Prince to even consider using the Bard’s preferred path. It also explained why this had been rather open engagement, by the Intercessor’s standards: if that secret being revealed would burn all the bridges that were currently aflame, she was not losing much in a longer sense. And while trying to shape my Name might have been one of her reasons for coming out, I very much doubted it was the only one: it wasn’t the Intercessor’s way to get only one bird per stone.

“We fought better than the Bard expected,” I said, which was not exactly true but not exactly false, “so she had to tip her hand further. Her traitors within the Arsenal took action – the Hunted Magician, the Exalted Poet, the Maddened Keeper-”

Christophe’s brow rose.

“Was this Maddened Keeper the one responsible for the demons?” he asked. “I did strike down a woman, after taking up the sword.”

“That was most likely her,” I said. “Information is sparse about how she got here or why she did anything, since there’s nothing quite like a demon of Absence to obscure your trail.”

“How grotesque,” the Mirror Knight said, disgusted.

I wouldn’t disagree, there. There wasn’t really much of anything that could ever justify use of demons.

“The Fallen Monk and the Rex Axe are the last two known collaborators,” I continued. “The former attempted to kill me and then the Hierophant, while the latter tried to assassinate the Kingfisher Prince after I sent him to ensure her safety.”

The man started in surprise.

“You tried to ensure the protection of the Red Axe?” he said.

“She’s a prisoner,” I flatly said. “And therefore in our care until she has stood trial. Prince Frederic struck me as the man to see to her safety and I was not wrong in my judgement, though that task ended poorly for him.”

“Antoine tells me he was wounded,” the Mirror Knight tried.

“He’ll live,” I said. “I’d be surprised if it doesn’t leave a scar on his neck, but he’ll still be ridiculously pretty even with it.”

The green-eyed man snorted, though he then tried to disguise it as a cough.

“It is an act of gallantry for a man to receive a scar in the defence of a woman, even if it is in the defence of herself,” Christophe de Pavanie said. “I’m sure he will wear it as the badge of pride it is.”

I had my doubts any sort of a prince would take to a murder attempt so lightly, but you never knew with Procerans. Not that it’d mean a thing, anyway. Whether or not the Kingfisher Prince complained under the Terms, such an egregious and open breach of them would have to be addressed. Not that we could hang her twice, anyway, though some of the Named in my charge were bound to argue for me to at least try.

“Might be,” I said, noncommittal, and sipped from my glass.

The dark-haired man half-smiled and reached for his cup, until now left untouched, fingers closing around the gilded crystal rim before he froze. Slowly he looked up at me, dark green eyes narrowed.

“We wouldn’t have had this conversation,” the Mirror Knight quietly said, “if I’d not taken up the sword, would we?”

I hesitated for just the fraction of a moment and my mind whispered mistake as Christophe de Pavanie’s face closed down. He rose to his feet, curtly bowing.

“If I might take my leave, Black Queen?” he said. “If there any need for further discussion, we can speak again after the Red Axe is released.”

Wait, what? From what part of this conversation had he gotten that?

“And what do you mean by that, exactly?” I mildly asked.

“That once the White Knight comes, it must be recognized that like myself and other Chosen she was made a tool to the Wandering Bard’s schemes,” the Mirror Knight. “The only righteous outcome is to pardon her for her actions.”

“That is not my understanding of the situation,” I coldly said. “And neither do I believe it will be the White Knight’s.”

Christophe de Pavanie, risen to his full height, stared down at me with green eyes.

“I pray you are wrong,” he said, “else I will be forced to ask a question I would rather not.”

“And what would that be?” I replied, thinly smiling.

“What is the Sword of Judgement, without Judgement?” the Mirror Knight asked.

Just a sword, he didn’t say, but I heard it anyway as he left with the Severance and I didn’t stop him.

Just a sword, and he had one of those too.

Chapter 25: Sanitize

“Though it is not poor advice that one should imitate excellence, one who follows this advice alone can only ever aspire to be an imitation of excellence.”
– Extract from the treatise “On Rule”, author unknown (widely believed to be Prince Bastien of Arans)

As the radiance in his armour slowly faded, the Mirror Knight turned towards us.

With the echoes of Light that’d shone within his plate dispersing, the aura of power that’d hung around him should have gone the same way – and it did, some. Christophe of Pavanie no longer seemed like an implacable thing fashioned out silver and light: he looked human again, the raised visor of his barbute revealing dark locks pressed by sweat against his brow. Yet I could see the certainty he was moving with now, that certain something that came from being in your element and knowing it, and grew no less wary of the man. The softly whistling sword in his hand he sheathed without a word, sliding it home in a beautiful and heavy piece of iron, but even his putting away the Saint of Sword’s cutting rectitude made blade was not enough to have my shoulders loosen.

Losing the unearthly touch had simply left behind a man, I thought, with dark green eyes and narrow lips. Flawed, yes, but not unpleasantly so. It made him seem more attainable, the stark opposite of the Exiled Prince’s golden perfection back in the day – which had been beautiful but also somehow unnatural to the eye. This one, though, he looked cloaked in might but no less human for it. It was a dangerous thing, that mix of vulnerability and power. I should know, given how often I’d used it to bind people to me. Soldiers were willing to pay dues to a faraway idol, but real loyalty came from sharing in blood and mud. Christophe de Pavanie, to speak the words that had my fingers clenching in dismay, looked like someone people might rally around.

That was dangerous, when the man being rallied to bore both a sword forged for deicide and a child’s understanding of politics.

The Mirror Knight had carved his way through seven demons and half a Court’s worth of fae in a single evening, so there was no arguing that the man had the might to back anything he chose to say. Much as my mind wanted to argue that providence and another lesser hand had provided in this, that the Severance and Light made him uniquely suited to demonslaying, I knew those whispers for what they were – a tinge of fear and dismay. Behind them was the knowledge that, right now, the one trick I had that might still be able to curb him was beyond my reach: now that the emergency wards had come on, I could no longer try to gate the hero to his demise. The Saint could cut gates, I thought. So would it even be enough if I could still use them?

“Black Queen,” Christophe de Pavanie greeted me. “One of them slipped by ua, a dreadfiend. Did your party catch it?”

Only then did his eyes slide away from me and onto the rest of our company, ignoring the legionaries and barely paying attention to the mages before lingering on Masego and at last offering the Blade of Mercy a slight nod. Even that was enough to have the younger man blooming in pleasure, whatever gilding having been knocked off the Mirror Knight today freshly plastered back on by this victory.

“It’s been destroyed,” I replied, voice even. “There were losses.”

His face fell into dismay, the peace on it whisked away in a heartbeat.

“Lady Eliade?” he hoarsely asked.

“And sixteen of my soldiers,” I replied, tone growing sharp.

I grieved Nephele’s death, but power and a story had not somehow made her life worth more than those others.

“I did not mean to dismiss their deaths,” he stiffly said.

I forced myself to breathe out. It’d been an unkind interpretation of his words, and I’d known it even as I spoke the words.

“My temper is not at its best,” I replied, stopping short of an apology.

The Vagrant Spear, who I’d barely been paying attention to, began to pant noticeably as she suddenly went deathly pale. Earlier upright and dealing in Light, she now began to lean heavily against her spear – and even then she looked about to topple over.

“Sidonia,” the Mirror Knight exclaimed, catching her elbow.

I stepped forward, though he had things seemingly in hand so I did not try to offer my own arm.

“Hierophant can provide healing, if you’re willing,” I offered as I kept limping forward.

Now that I was paying closer attention to her, the ironically eye-catching scorched eye was not the worst of what she’d gone through tonight. There were subtle tells of harsher wounds. For one the flush she’d had while fighting had not abated in the slightest since, and she was sweating badly enough it was making her face paint run. Some tells were less subtle, like blade marks including one puncture that would have gone through her lung by the angle. Nasty stuff, lung wounds, even for Named. Some slender blade had done it, but definitely a sword. The marks weren’t bleeding, though, and even looked to be healed some: scabs had formed, though they looked bloody and crusty. The Concocter’s work, no doubt.

“The second of the peddler’s potions has run out,” the Vagrant Spear admitted. “It was champion’s brew, Black Queen, or close enough. There is little that the Hierophant can do. With a few days of rest, I should be on my feet again.”

“Something can be done about the fever at least, surely,” the Mirror Knight insisted.

“He’s right,” I said. “Consider it an order by an officer of the Truce and Terms. I might still have questions for you, so you can’t disappear into sleep and avoid all the unpleasant work that’ll come after this spectacular mess.”

She let out a weak chuckle.

“As relentless a taskmistress as your reputation promised,” the Vagrant Spear told me, though it almost sounded like a compliment.

Masego had come to stand by me, having already wrested away sorcery from a mage, and by the look on his face I suspected he would have healed Sidonia regardless of her answer. Zeze was not a foe to other people’s pride, usually, but he did tend to draw the line at what he perceived to be willful stupidity.

“Close your eyes,” Hierophant ordered, yellow light coming to wreathe his fingers. “And if you feel muscles spasming, tell me immediately.”

I heard him mutter champion’s brew with a pronounced degree of distaste under his breath, then add something about calling poison what it was.  I clenched my fingers and unclenched them, considering how I was now to deal with the Mirror Knight. From the corner of my eye I could see that the Blade of Mercy was hesitating to approach, likely afraid of interrupting a conversation between two people that were his social superiors, and in a snap decision I gestured for him to approach. It’d buy me a bit of time to think while they chatted, and I took the opportunity to send some regulars doubling back to get mages and priests here in all haste. I wanted every inch of this bloody place scoured clean until even layers of bedrock had gone.

Hells, if we could figure out a way how I was going to dump this entire section of the Arsenal out of here and then find a way to ensure not even a sliver of any kind of taint was able to crawl out of the destruction visited onto it.

I still had one loose end to clean up before I could pass supervision of this to competent officers and crash into a bed, though, and now I had to decide whether I wanted to take the Mirror Knight along with me when I saw to it. The man had no position under the Terms that’d warrant that, of course, and by treating him like he did I might be lending him that authority in fact. If I acted like he was important, a lot of people would follow suit. That was the argument against it. The opposite side of this was that the Terms were an abstract, an ideal: in practice, power mattered. The Mirror Knight had the Severance, he was nigh-unkillable and was also a rather famous Proceran hero – arguably the most famous of them all. The Kingfisher Prince had spent most the war up in Twilight’s Pass, after all.

It was indisputable that Christophe de Pavanie would end up with clout, after tonight, so shouldn’t I begin to bring him into the… fold, for lack of a better term, as soon as possible? Even if it happened that he was intent on being an enemy, it’d be best to find out early. It felt like a mistake, but then it’d be just as much of one to go the other way wouldn’t it? The Intercessor knew her way around a scheme: her works left me only shades of loss to pick from. From the corner of my eye I noticed the conversation between the two Proceran heroes had come to an end, which meant my delaying must come to an end.

“Mirror Knight,” I called out.

I gestured for him to follow me when he glanced my way, stepping away from the closest soldiers for a degree of privacy. I hid a wince when he came close, as the last glints of Light in his armour unsettled the Night within my body – like wind on the surface of a pond. I could understand now why Firstborn would find him deeply unsettling, being so much more deeply dyed in the Night than I could ever hope to be. But it was the sword that had me wariest of all. Even sheathed, I could feel its hostility. You know who I am, I thought, sneaking a look at it. And there’s just enough of Laurence left in you to hold a grudge, isn’t there?

“Black Queen,” Christophe de Pavanie said. “You wanted to talk?”

His eyes were wary, but he did not strike me as spoiling for a fight. I supposed even his stamina must run out eventually, or at least dip downwards.

“This isn’t over yet,” I said.

He slowly nodded.

“Antoine says you have fingered the culprit behind all this,” he said. “The Wandering Bard, yes? More fearsome an enemy than her Name would have one believe.”

“The Bard can’t act directly,” I bluntly said. “Think of her as a devil or a fae: her weapons are deals and persuasion, not blades. And she had helpers in the Arsenal from the start.”

The Mirror Knight’s face went cold.

“Traitors,” he spat. “That will need seeing to.”

“Most are dead, outed by their actions during the crisis,” I said. “But there is one still unaccounted for – the person who unleashed the Concocter’s creations in the Miscellaneous Stacks, likely the same collaborator who tried to arrange for the Kingfisher Prince to fight guards.”

“Then we are still in danger,” the Mirror Knight said, side of the neck twitching as he forced himself not to look to the side.

Where Masego was seeing to wounded Vagrant Spear. Wasn’t the danger to himself that was worrying him, evidently. I was going to have to look into that relationship, wasn’t I? Gossip about Named tended to be a lot more useful than you’d think in figuring them out, at least when it was halfway credible.

“I don’t believe the individual in question to be a current threat,” I noted. “But neither do I believe in letting loose ends linger.”

Dark green eyes narrowed.

“You’ve been vague on purpose about the traitor,” the Mirror Knight said. “Are you afraid I’ll take justice in my own hands?”

That edged on a challenge, and it had my blood quickening. My instinct was to slap him down, to set a tone for the coming days that established very clearly where we stood in the pecking order, but that was a risk. I’d be antagonizing a useful resource and, to be blunt, if the challenge turned to a fight the consequences of a defeat here would be disastrous. I must walk a fine line, remaining convivial without bending my neck – weakness would invite pursuit, not restraint.

“You barely know the third of what went on in the Arsenal this night,” I flatly replied. “Justice is not something you’re even remotely in a position to provide.”

His lip curled in displeasure, but there was nothing there he could argue with.

“You could, however,” I continued in a calm voice, “assist me in my duties under the Terms as witness for your side. Something I brought you aside to invite you to do.”

“If there is still a traitor, this fight has not ended,” Christophe of Pavanie insisted.

“This is not a battle, it is a disciplinary matter,” I said. “If there are sentences to be doled out, then that will be done by the high officers of the Truce and Terms – and after discussion and trial, not by dragging people to the nearest hanging tree.”

Too confrontational, I chided myself, but then what choice did I have? I could not let him believe, not even for a moment, that he had the right or authority to pass judgement over other Named. That’d be the end of the Truce and Terms, an implicit admission that its rules would always favour the side with the biggest stick. Without the perception of fairness, they were nothing but ink and air.

“I do not speak of summary executions, Black Queen,” the Mirror Knight said, sounding appalled.

“Then we have no issue,” I said. “Will you be accompanying me, or will I be reaching out to another Chosen?”

That particular trick I’d learned Akua. The false dilemma was an older lesson, but the little deceit of refraining from specifying something – which hero I would be reaching out to, in this case – while letting the wording do the thinking for the interlocutor. Chosen, I’d said, and there was only one other Proceran hero. The Mirror Knight’s eyes flicked to the Blade of Mercy. Young, exhausted, more than a little shaken by his brush with a demon. And the older man would see the younger as in his charge, too, not exactly a subordinate but at least a responsibility. The question had decided its own answer.

“I accept your invitation to ser- stand as witness,” the Mirror Knight said, hastily changing the sentence halfway through.

“Good,” I said. “See to your affairs here, then prepare yourself to leave. We’ll be going as soon as enough mages and priests have arrived to contain this properly.”

The man nodded and briskly walked away. Fair enough. I checked in on Masego, to see how the healing was doing, but was shooed away. I did manage to slide in that I wanted him to lead containment and purge protocols here, which he agreed to without missing a beat. Our reinforcements were there before long, first a few careful squads of lightly armoured Dominion warriors sneaking in to have a look and then proper companies. Mages and priests aplenty, led by the Harrowed Witch and an earnest-faced man in armour who introduced himself as the Forlorn Paladin. Right, the hero with amnesia – one of Indrani’s band.  Much as their presence was appreciated, it was an old Lycaonese captain I left in charge, with a note that he should follow the recommendation of the specialists regarding containment to the letter.

With that left in good hands and the Mirror Knight having made his goodbyes to the Vagrant Spear and the Blade of Mercy, the two of us left. No escort came with us, though Lieutenant Inger offered, as I did not want to spook our target too soon. The downside of that was that I was left alone with Christophe de Pavanie, who for some godforsaken reason took it upon himself to attempt stilted small talk.

“I heard that you dealt handily with the undead plague in southern Hainaut,” the Mirror Knight said.

I eyed him sideways, and seriously debated simply telling him he didn’t have to do this. Good odds he’d taken as an insult, though, so I supposed we were fated to suffer through this.

“Would that we could have prevented that instead of suppressed it,” I said, then made effort of my own. “I heard through the White Knight that you were part of the band that sunk a turtle-ship near Cleves – a well-done thing.”

I bit my tongue a heartbeat later when I recalled what Hanno had told me of how that’d been achieved: throwing the man to my side through the shell, like some sort of eldritch trebuchet stone. His cheeks reddened and his hand slipped towards the Severance. Not to grasp its handle or threaten to unsheathe it, I thought, but… cautiously. Disbelievingly. As if to reassure himself it was there. Fuck, that might actually be worse. There were ways to handle a swaggering bully with a new toy, but this looked like a deeper thing.

“It was necessary work,” the Mirror Knight said, tone steady. “Perhaps we might discuss where we are headed, and to meet whom?”

Yeah, I wasn’t going to look that particular gift horse in the mouth.

“This is one of the paths to the Workshop,” I said. “And we’re headed towards the persona quarters of the Hunted Magician.”

The dark-haired man jolted in surprise.

“One of the Damned?” he said. “I had thought…”

Wait, this entire time had he thought that I was trying to off one of the heroes and using him as a witness and helper? Had that been why he was so appalled when I mentioned hanging? Neither of those questions were something I could really ask outright, so I swallowed them and pressed on.

“My proof of his dealings with the Wandering Bard is weak,” I said, “but I have enough that I should be able to startle more out of him. Besides, his troubles with Autumn came back to haunt all of us.”

“He has given an oath to the Fair Folk?” the Mirror Knight asked.

“He never paid the debt,” I corrected. “And Autumn came here in part to collect.”

“Then every life taken by the fae is on his head,” Christophe de Pavanie coldly said.

I shook my head.

“He didn’t invite them, and as far as I know his enmity with them is older than his signing onto the Truce and Terms,” I said. “Quite a few Named have old enemies that’d take a swing at them if they could, that’s not a crime.”

“Corpses strewn across the Arsenal speak otherwise,” the Mirror Knight said.

“He was a tool in that, not the culprit,” I flatly said.

That, to my surprise, actually seemed to strike a chord.

“But he is a traitor still,” the Proceran hero said.

That,” I muttered, “I won’t argue with.”

And I suspected I already knew exactly what the Intercessor had bought his cooperation with, which while understandable did not make me want to burn him at the stake any less. When we actually got to the Workshop I had to ask for directions, since I didn’t know where his quarters were, but the Arsenal was crawling with soldiers now so it was easily done. I shot a look at the Mirror Knight when we got to the door, waiting for his nod, and only then knocked. Before it opened I already knew he’d be behind it: the buzz of sorcery against my fingers, the telltale mark of something being warded up to its neck, assured me as much. He’d clearly made his rooms into a place where it would exceedingly difficult for enemies to find him.

The door was cracked open, the Hunted Magician carefully peering through. His eyes widened when he saw me, but he mastered his surprise and opened the door wide. Only then did he notice Christophe de Pavanie looming tall at my side, and the mask of affability he’d halfway put on lapsed into blankness. Whatever he’d believed me to be here for, the Mirror Knight being along did not fit with that belief. I used my staff to gently but firmly finish pushing open the door.

“Hunted Magician,” I mildly said. “You know the Mirror Knight, I take it?”

“I know of him, Your Majesty,” the Proceran mage said, inclining his head in a silent greeting. “What bring me the pleasure of your companies, if I might ask?”

“Not the sort of conversation to have in a hallway, yes?” I smiled.

“It would only be decent to offer seating and refreshments,” the Mirror Knight pointedly said.

The look of pure genuine dislike they traded after that allowed me to take a look inside while they were both busy. Classic Alamans tastes, all cushions and painted wood with the furniture alone being worth as much as some houses back in Laure. We didn’t pay the man nearly enough for that, but there was no telling what wealth he’d squirrelled away or favours he’d called in since.

“Alas, I only have one set of cups fit to witness royal lips,” the Hunted Magician said. “I’m afraid you will have to some servant set I have lying around, Knight.”

“Your hospitality matches your reputation,” the Mirror Knight replied without missing a beat.

Point went to Christophe for that round, I decided.

“Oh, we won’t be here for long,” I said, still smiling. “I only mean to put some misunderstandings to rest, then we’ll be off.”

The Proceran villain glanced at the hero, brow quirking.

“I can just imagine,” he thinly smiled, “what manner of misunderstanding you mean.”

The Mirror Knight shot me a burning look, but if he hadn’t wanted me to use his being an ass to my purposes then he shouldn’t have been in the first place. We were invited to sit, myself on a seat like the Hunted Magician himself while Christophe was made to stay on a padded red footstool by my side.

“You are aware of the troubles that struck the Arsenal, of course?” I asked.

“Indeed,” the Hunted Magician said. “I fought in defence of the Workshop, but found myself alone and so withdrew in the face of the enemy. I did return to help with healing at the Sinister Physician’s infirmary when the immediate peril had passed, though I returned when I grew tired and my services superfluous.”

He probably had done all those things, I mused. He seemed like the thorough type in some ways, so there’d likely be witnesses and everything. Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t digging at the truth – I already had it. What I wanted from him was an admission.

“I did not see you at the Workshop when I fought there,” the Mirror Knight accusingly said.

“There’s more than one room in it, as it happens,” the Hunted Magician drily replied.

“You’re familiar with fae,” I said. “What’s your take on their presence here?”

“I see,” he mused. “As you’ve grown to suspect, Your Majesty, our foe must have used my past dealings with their kind to muster them against the Arsenal – though I was not hunted for long, and so their true reason to have come here must be a deeper game.”

Halfway believable, I thought, but still a little weak. He had to know that, so odds were he was counting on mere suspicion not being enough considering how useful he was to the Grand Alliance as an artificer and enchanter. In most circumstances that would have been a correct read of the situation, to his credit. These were not circumstances, and it was not just anyone he’d bargained with.

“That was also my conclusion,” I mildly said. “And who would you name our foe?”

“It must be the Dead King,” the Hunted Magician gravely assured me.

I drummed my fingers against the side of my staff, thoughtfully.

“Let’s try this again,” I said. “But with you being aware that I slit the Wandering Bard’s throat after extracting every secret I could from her, including her multiple collaborators within these walls.”

The man paled, grey-blue eyes dilating with fear.

“I understand that questions must be asked, Your Majesty, but I have never dealt with a foe of the Grand Alliance,” he assured me, voice impressively calm.

“Liar,” the Mirror Knight coldly said. “You stink of it.”

“Do be silent, péquenaud,” the Hunted Magician snarled. “I must protest at the presence of one of the hounds of the Heavens, Your Majesty, this is most-”

I sighed and slowly I reached for the long dragonbone pipe within my cloak. The eyes of the two of them on me as I slowly opened a packet of wakeleaf – Hanno’s gift, amusingly – and stuffed it before passing my palm over the bowl and letting a flare of back flame light it. I breathed in deep, then leaned back into my seat and crossed one of my legs over the other. I breathed out the smoke slowly, letting it curl up around my face.

“Your Majesty,” the Hunted Magician tried again. “If I may-”

“Who am I, Magician?” I patiently asked him.

“The Black Queen, as all know,” the man replied. “I question not your authority under the Truce and Terms-”

“No,” I said. “You just take me for a fool. Now that with the Bard’s help you were able to have the prince holding your debt killed, you think you can wiggle your way out of this without too much trouble.”

“I have never heard of this woman you accuse me of having made common cause with,” the Hunted Magician said, exasperated.

“It must have seemed like a sweet bargain,” I mused. “Open a few canisters of gas, weave an illusion or two, and just like that the great sword ever hanging over your head would go away forever. Hardly even a breach of the Terms, even if you got caught. There are others under this roof who have done the same or worse.”

I breathed in the smoke. The Mirror Knight was watching me in silence, visibly eager to speak but forcing himself to remain silent anyway.

“I brought worthy concerns to you, Your Majesty,” the man said. “Why would I do such a thing, were I a traitor?”

I breathed out the smoke, then leaned forward.

“Right now,” I said, “the only thing standing between you and a tribunal of heroes, of angry Grand Alliance officers? It’s my word, Magician. So I want you to take a moment to consider, really consider, exactly how much of an imposition on my patience you want to be after the night I’ve had.”

The Hunted Magician fell silent.

“This was a bad bargain,” I told him, tone cool and calculating. “I don’t even need to lift a finger to destroy you, after this: all I need to do is stop extending my protection and they’ll have you gagged and chained before the hour’s out. And even if you escape, where do you go? We’re half the continent, Magician, you’ll be hunted like a criminal everywhere we rule. Even in the League we’re owed favours, and if you somehow make it to Praes the best you can hope for is a gilded cage – though more likely they’ll use you, then murder you so you cannot be used by another. You traded one faraway fairy prince as an enemy for the lasting anger of half fucking Calernia.”

“This is coercion,” the Hunted Magician tightly said. “Is that not an abuse of your authority, Black Queen?”

I spewed out a long stream of smoke.

“Authority,” I repeated, amused. “Are you going to begin listening to me, then? The word goes both ways. You cannot hide under my wing and sink a knife in my flank at the same time – I am not so tolerant a soul as to allow that.”

His appeal to my better nature – which had always been pragmatic enough to know when it was time to go for a walk and let the other one handle things – having failed, he turned to the other way out of this mess.

“What do you want?” the dark-haired mage asked, teeth gritted.

“I want a reason I should go through the effort to keep your head off a pike,” I said. “Because the more you keep wasting my time, Hunted Magician, the more I begin to consider how putting it there instead would solve so very many of my problems.”

The enthusiasm I’d spoken that last sentence with, I thought, was what tipped him over the edge.

“I know you can extract memories with Night,” he suddenly said. “So I can give you the Bard.”

“I have the Bard already,” I said, unimpressed. “Try harder.”

“I know how the Blessed Artificer and the Repentant Magister were tipped off to the existence of Quartered Seasons, and by whom,” the Hunted Magician said.

My pulse slowed. I wanted that. Most the traitors of this night had come from outside the Arsenal, and that meant the Intercessor was likely to still have helpers out there. A way to begin ripping out her influence root and stem was a decent prize to bargain with. Not, though, quite enough to tempt me.

“Better,” I said. “But sweeten the pot a little more.”

First he looked insulted by the cavalier treatment, then hesitant. He licked his lips.

“I know,” the Hunted Magician slowly said, “where to find the ruling crown of Autumn.”

I breathed in smoke so that a triumphant grin would not reveal the truth of my thoughts. And like that, the pieces fell together. If Hierophant could get his hands on it, Quartered Seasons became more than an idle notion.

“That will do,” I said.

The Hunted Magician’s relief was not as well-hidden as he probably believed it to be. I rose to my feet, brushing some ash off my cloak.

“Don’t try to leave the Arsenal,” I said, not bothering to add on a threat. “I’ll send for you when the situation calms, likely with the White Knight and other Alliance representatives sitting in.”

“As you say,” the Hunted Magician said through gritted teeth.

I glanced at the Mirror Knight and saw the face of a man who was moments away from blurting out a great many opinions.

“Escort me back to my rooms, please,” I said.

Christophe de Pavanie stiffly nodded, and even opened the door for me.

I suspected the conversation that was about to follow, though, would be a great deal less civil.