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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 Wednesday.

Chapter 11: Swerve

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

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

“Good stuff,” she said.

“Don’t get drunk,” I warned.

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

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

“Eh,” she shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adjutant raised an eyebrow.

“I am,” he gravelled.

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

The tall orc leaned forward unconsciously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captives have no rights,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not a no,” I noted.

“It is not poisoned,” he sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

He chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it poisoned?” I asked again.

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned.

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

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

Oh Gods did I not like the sound of that.

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

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

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

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

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

“No kidding,” I said.

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

I sighed.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s the wager settled?” I asked.

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

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

“Terms of the duel?” I prompted.

“Death or surrender,” the Count whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fae’s face went blank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bitch,” I added.

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

Chapter 10: Entrance

“No one ever won a war by being shy.”
– Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow

The door didn’t make a sound as it closed. I was in a pretty little antechamber decorates in shades of wood, leading into a large bedroom. I eyed the featherbed with untoward intentions, noting it was twice as large as my own in Marchford. Silk covers and enough pillows for three people: this was exactly the kind of staggering decadence I’d been promised when I’d hitched my wagon to the Evil horse. Instead I had to deal with goblins who couldn’t keep their knives in their pants, half the Empire out for my blood and a demesne whose ledger ran so red it looked like it was bleeding. All of which I had to handle while sleeping in woollen sheets, to add insult to injury. There had to be someone I could lodge a complaint with. Hells, maybe that could be the first thing I ever prayed to the Gods Below about – how about some grapes and oiled up manservants, you stingy fucks?

With a snort I unbuckled my belt and sheath, tossed them on the covers. Normally getting out of my plate was a job best fit for two, but I’d been stabbed enough today it had gotten a great deal easier. I got rid of the greaves first, then the gauntlets and then fiddled with the breastplate and pauldrons for a while. By the end of it I had a lovely little pile of goblin steel full of murder holes on the ground, and with a sigh of pleasure I got rid of my armoured boots. The smell was ripe, so I tossed them as far away as I could. Being Named got me out of many of the little ugly details of life – didn’t get sick anymore, tired much slower and I hadn’t had my monthlies in about two years – but it did nothing for sweat. Or what the inside of a boot smelled like after a hard day of fighting.

The aketon I placed on the bed, leaving me in only a pair of heavy cloth trousers and able to breathe comfortably for the first time in what felt like forever. I passed a hand through my hair, tugging off the leather ring keeping it in a ponytail. I grimaced at the sensation of sweat long gone cold, then forced myself to get up instead of just dropping on the silk to lie there like some sort of moaning spineless mollusc. There was an archway into a side room to the left, so I picked up the invitation scroll and padded that way. Strange how even this far into a land of ice I barely felt the cold: I was fairly sure that wasn’t my Name at work. Who knew, maybe even fairies got gold. To my pleasure I found a low bath set in a quaint little square of stone, already drawn. The water was limpid, almost impossibly so.

It also did not seem to be warm.

I got closer and dipped a toe inside, flinching at the wintry temperature. Yet after the moment the cold started to feel refreshing. Purifying, almost. Huh. Well, it wasn’t like I had alternatives. I placed the scroll by the edge and got rid of my trousers, gritting my teeth before sliding into the bath all at once. The sudden cold was overwhelming for the first few heartbeats but when I got used to it the sensation from earlier returned. It was rather calming, really. I ducked under the surface to rinse my face and hair, shaking underneath before coming back up close to the side. Carefully I broke the seal on the scroll having shaking my hands off the worst of the droplets, watching the frost dissipate. Inside was an invitation, like the steward had stated. Not directed at me specifically, I noted, but at whoever was in the Still Courtyard.

Whoever that usually was, they were pretty far up the food chain. The language was both elaborate and ingratiatingly polite – and given that it was the Duke of Violent Squalls who’d sent this, that probably meant this was for royalty. Or not, I frowned, reading the lines again. No mention of royal title was made, but some of the phrasing implied the receiver was foreign. Regardless, it was an invitation to a ball held in the Duke’s palace in the city, after nightfall. A masquerade to boot, because evidently I’d stepped into a shady Proceran romance. At least Hakram would be at home, I thought with a grin. He had like three of those stashed under his bunk. The one I’d thumbed through involved a lot of corsets being manfully ripped off and longing sighs all around. It was a sign of my deep love for the orc that I hadn’t told Robber about my find.

I set the scroll aside and leaned against the side of the bath, closing my eyes with a sigh. The Winter King, I decided, would have more than one place to stash guests until he could receive them. It was not a coincidence we’d been sent to the one where there would be a vaguely addressed invitation waiting for us. We – I – had been meant to get this. More than that, the way I’d lied through my teeth to get us into Skade had either been expected or was something the quasi-god ruling this place intended to use. For his advantage, probably. That was usually the way it went. What in all the Hells the ruler of half of faekind would want with a Squire from the Dread Empire was where I was drawing a blank. The Winter Court had staked a claim on Marchford, sure, but I was beginning to grasp it was more complicated than that. For one, if a noble of the calibre of the Lady of Cracking Ice had stepped into my city there would be corpses from wall to wall.

Instead we’d gotten a few of their soldiers, a single group of riders and a bunch of aristocrats that must have been hilariously low down the pecking order for them to be taken out by mere legionaries. I didn’t mean to sell the Fifteenth short: there weren’t a lot of forces in the Empire or out of it I wouldn’t pit them against. They were highly skilled professional soldiers led by the most talented tactician I’d ever met, with the core of their troops blooded against devils and heavy cavalry. They were not, however, equipped to stand against a host of demigods who could warp the landscape with an idle thought. No, if the Winter King had been serious about getting a foothold in Marchford right now he’d have one. Actually taking the city, then, had not been his objective. If you know the means and the results, you can grasp your enemy’s intent, Black had taught me.

The attacks had been the means. The results were that I’d sallied out to fight the fae, by necessity stepping into Arcadia to shut down the door on their fingers. There was a distinct possibility, then, that getting me here – whether that was Arcadia in general or Skade I could only guess – had been the entire point of that affair. I took a moment to master my rage at the thought. I had no way of knowing how many casualties we’d taken on the second attack, but the number would not be small. My soldiers, killed just to get my attention. I breathed in and out until I could think beyond murdering my way through everyone responsible for that. All right. We’d been pushed towards Skade by the Winter King, and after getting there had been directed to the Still Courtyard. I was willing, for now, to assume that had been the plan. I’d been neatly guided to the city, every step thinking I was bluffing my way out.

At the Courtyard we’d found an invitation waiting for us, meant for someone of high rank but perhaps not of the Winter Court. I was pretty sure mortals didn’t usually come this deep into Arcadia unless they were as ragingly insane as the Lady of the Lake, so odds were this invitation was for another fae. That meant the Summer Court, and wasn’t that just another kettle of equally murderous fish? The Courts were meant to be at war, I knew, but somehow they were not. Summer was out there making someone regret their decisions and Winter was puttering about in my backyard – yet even with that difference from the norm, the stories were unfolding. Like they had in the marketplace, everyone going through the motions and always leading to the same outcome.

“He wants us to play someone else’s role,” I spoke into the empty room.

We’d been summoned to fill the shoes of some Summer fae, inserted into a story we didn’t know the plot of. Why? And that was the question, wasn’t it? Two people out there were playing shatranj on a board I didn’t know about, and once more I was a pawn. I wouldn’t be finding any answers in a bath, though, so it was time to go. I hoisted myself out, reaching for the cloth set aside on a bench to dry myself. I raised an eyebrow when I saw my trousers had disappeared, setting the cloth on my shoulder and heading for the bedroom. My armour was gone as well, I saw, as was everything but my sword belt and cape. Neatly placed on the bed was a dress of green brocade with accents of gold thread, along with an ornate fox mask of gold with green accents.

I tried on the dress as much out of curiosity as because I wouldn’t be going out naked in the corridors to ask for my plate back. It fit perfectly: sleeveless, high-collared and going down to my ankles, it was the single most comfortable thing I’d ever worn. A looking glass made of ice to the side told me the cut was hinting at my having cleavage in a way that was slightly less than honest. I could move easily in it, though bending over was tricky – still, no more than it would have been with armour on.

“Well, it wouldn’t do to show up at a masquerade in plate,” I murmured.

I buckled my belt around my hip, adjusting so my sword would be easy to draw. Looking for something to replace my boots I found exquisite crystal slippers. Not happening, I snorted. Those would be impossible to fight in. The pair of supple leather boots by them was more to my taste, as were the green silk thigh-high stockings inside them. Hadn’t worn anything this nice since I’d gone dancing with Kilian in Laure, I thought, and decided I was definitely stealing all of that when I bailed out of Arcadia. The cloak settled comfortably around my shoulder, Hakram’s handiwork of striped banners flourishing behind me as I turned to pick up the mask. I left the room to look for the others, blinking when I saw out the window that night had already fallen. How long had I been in that bath? Stupid question, Catherine. Like time means anything here: Could have been in there just long enough to dip your toe and it’d still be dark out.

Archer’s rooms had been just further down the hall so I checked there first, but the door was open and no one was in. I wandered a bit before running into a servant, who after the obligatory kneeling and abject submission guided to me to the library – I was apparently the last out and all the others had gone to Masego. Library, as I found out, was something of a misnomer. Though the walls were covered with stacks filled with volumes, the amount of plush chairs and tables made it clear this was meant to be a room where people were received. Small orbs of fairy flame floating like chandeliers lit up the place with a subtle blue tint. Apprentice was easily found: he was alone on his chair, an orb floating right above his head as he paged through a manuscript. Two piles of volumes flanked him and he paid no attention whatsoever to the others.

This was the first time I’d ever gotten a good look at Archer, so I paid close attention. My guess that she was stacked underneath the layers seemed to have been right on the nose: her grey vest and white shirt curved noticeably. Over it she wore a long woollen coat of darker grey, embroidered with gold patterns along the border that matched the exact shade of the gold on my dress. Long grey trousers ending in soft leather shoes, her neck covered by a carelessly arranged silk scarf matching the coat. I could see the handle of her longknives peeking out, but of the bow there was no trace. She had a thinner face than I would have thought, and a remarkably slender nose. Hazelnut eyes met mine, going up and down my dress with a grin. Yeah, I’d seen that one coming.

I almost laughed when I saw Hakram. He wore a dark velour doublet and matching trousers that made it clear exactly how broad his shoulders were, but the amusing part was the cape: black fur with pure white bordering, it made him look like Creation’s fanciest warlord. The axe – not his own, it had been broken earlier this one was too silvery to be his after repair – hanging off a leather ring at his belt lent him a slightly more martial appearance, as did the thick leather boots. The skeletal fingers that had seen him called Deadhand by his own peeked over the edge of his sleeve, unnaturally still.

“There were golden earrings and white war paint,” he said in an aggrieved tone. “War paint, Cat. What is this, the War of Chains? No one’s used that in centuries.”

“I’m sure you’d make for a very costly hour at a brothel,” I reassured him.

He groaned and covered his eyes.

“I always did wonder if orcs have the same… machinery down there as we do,” Archer said with a shit-eating grin.

“We’re not having the ‘what do orc genitals look like’ talk,” Hakram replied firmly.

“I have a book, I’ll loan it to you,” I told Archer.

She raised a perfect eyebrow.

“Got curious,” I shrugged. “And he gets all irritable when asked about it.”

“Masego never changed,” Adjutant said, desperately changing the subject.

We all turned towards Apprentice, who was still reading.

“I think he’s under a silencing ward,” I said with a frown.

I took out the the invitation scroll and tossed it at the darks-skinned mage’s head. It hit him right in the glasses and he nearly jumped out of his skin, dropping the book and hastily dispersing the spell around him.

“Oh, is it time to leave yet?” he asked.

“My guess is that will be whenever we decide to go,” I said, “but we’ve got places to be. Go get ready.”

That got some attention from the others.

“The invitation?” Archer asked.

“We’re going to a masquerade,” I said. “To find out exactly who we’re supposed to be.”

“That seems counterproductive,” Masego pointed out. “We’d be wearing masks.”

I wasn’t sure if I was just terrible at the vague-but-meaningful announcements or Apprentice was that much of a pain, but clearly my technique needed work.

“Did you notice how we’re all wearing different clothes, Masego?” I said.

He paused, pushed up his spectacles.

“Yes,” he lied.

Archer coughed into her hand, failing to disguise her laughter.

“I’m guessing there’s a fancy outfit in your rooms,” I patiently told Apprentice. “Go put it on.”

“My robes are clean, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he said. “There’s a self-cleaning enchantment on them.”

So that was why he never used the Fifteenth’s laundry chains. I’d always assumed he had some poor – literal – devil handling it.

“We also have masks,” I said, bringing up my own.

I glanced at the others, who didn’t seem to have their own, and Hakram gestured a table in the back. Theirs were there: a black obsidian bear for Adjutant, and a gold-and-grey falcon for Archer. Apprentice snapped his wrist, whispering a word in the mage tongue, and a thin blank carnival mask of ice formed over his face. It accommodated his spectacles perfectly, at least.

“Fine,” I said, “have it your way. But don’t come complaining to me if the fae make fun of you.”

“Do I have to talk with them?” he asked very seriously. “I’m not even close to finished with these.”

He rapped his knuckle atop the pile of books to his left to clarify. I bet the Lone Swordsman never had to deal with shit like this, I thought irritably. Killing him had been an act of justice just for that.

“You can bring one,” I said. “And only read when someone’s not verbally trying to entrap us into something lethal.”

He muttered under his breath. His fathers had spoiled him, I thought. I didn’t want to make assumptions here, but I was betting on the incubus for the worst of it. He was probably a soft touch when it came to discipline. The matron at the orphanage always spanked us if we made noise after lights out, now that was a firm hand. I took back the invitation and adjusted my cloak.

“All right, you sad excuse for a band of minions,” I said. “Gird your loins, we’re going on a magical adventure.”

Archer clapped, painfully slowly.

“I’m guessing the speeches aren’t why they put you in charge,” she said.

“Last time we went on an adventure I ripped out someone’s soul,” Apprentice said. “Do I get to keep it this time if we do it again?”

“Hakram?” I asked despairingly.

“Have you seen how tight those trousers are?” he grunted. “Doesn’t get more girded than that.”

If we all got killed, I better go last. I felt like I’d earned it.

There’d been a carriage waiting for us outside the Courtyard. Four white horses and a coachman who’d bowed to us as we claimed the seats inside. I’d gotten Hakram on my side, making the tactical decision to sacrifice Masego behind if Archer got grabby. I peered out the window, watching Skade in the light of ever-present fairy lights. I didn’t recognize any of the streets we went through from earlier, though that didn’t mean much. The night sky above us was just as confusing: now and then I got a glimpse of the stars they way they looked above Callow, but most of the time they were entirely foreign constellations. The way they kept changing between every look probably didn’t help. We were quiet on the way to the duke’s palace, only stirring when we began to hear music in the distance.

A beautiful voice was singing, though I couldn’t make out the words yet, accompanied by what seemed like a set of string instruments. The carriage eventually slowed and I waited patiently until servants came to open the doors for us. I stepped down onto a woven blue carpet leading to a set of stairs, moving aside to make room for the others as I stared at the Duke of Violent Squalls’ palace. Gods Below, it was made of wind. Walls and stairs and columns, sculpted out of every stirring wind that looked like a physical thing. Boreal lights shone like lamps and I could see more of them inside, in a grand hall. A servant attempted to take my cloak and I waved him off as the others caught up to me.

“Stable and self-sustaining,” Apprentice murmured. “Interesting. I don’t think it could be reproduced outside Arcadia, but the underlying principles…”

“Think about that after we’ve made it through the night,” Adjutant said.

Archer finished adjusting her falcon mask over her face and gallantly offered me her arm. I rolled my eyes and strode forward. Servants parted for us, bowing low, until we reached the summit of the steps. There a man with spectacles was holding an unrolled scroll in his arms, discreetly peering at us through the glass. An announcer. So much for the masks hiding identities. I slowed in front of him and he began to speak, then closed his mouth. He looked panicked for a few heartbeats before clearing his throat.

“Lady Catherine Foundling of Marchford, the Squire,” he announced.

I looked at him, the suddenly ripped the scroll out of his hands. I ignored his protests and scanned through the list of names until I found where he’d been looking at. Four names, the most important of which was the first: Princess Sulia of High Noon, envoy for the Summer Court. I gave him back his list.

“Fuck,” I said feelingly.

Archer was announced as ‘Lady Archer of Refuge, first pupil of the Darkest Night’, before catching up to me.

“What do you know about how wars start between Winter and Summer?” I asked her.

“They have several reasons, never use the same twice,” she replied.

Behind us Hakram was announced as ‘Lord Adjutant of the Fifteenth, the Deadhand’.

“Is one of them some princess called Sulia getting her ass killed at truce talks?” I asked.

The other Named frowned.

“That rings a bell,” she said. “But I think she gets captured. Trap?”

“Isn’t it always?” I grunted.

Masego joined us after his introduction of ‘Lord Apprentice of the Wasteland, Son of the Red Skies’. We all clustered at the threshold of the entrance hall for a moment.

“Problem?” Hakram said.

“We’ve taken the place of diplomatic envoys from Summer in a story,” I whispered.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Apprentice said. “I suppose it’s a good thing we have you along.”

I glanced at him.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re very good at murdering our opposition,” he said, genuinely believing he was giving me a compliment.

I occasionally forgot Masego had been raised by villains. For him that probably counted as praise.

“You don’t know for sure I’m going to kill someone,” I said.

“Not gonna lie, I’ll be disappointed if we don’t,” Archer noted.

“I’ve done diplomacy before,” I continued.

“I don’t think extorting the High Lords counts,” Apprentice said.

“Or looting that angel,” Hakram added.

“I think bullied might be more accurate,” Masego said.

“If you guys keep this up I can guarantee you someone’s getting killed,” I said.

“That’s the spirit,” Apprentice said, patting my shoulders. “Now let’s move along, Catherine, we’re blocking the way. You really need to pay more attention to your surroundings.”

He strode into the hall before I could come up with a reply, still gaping. The others followed, Archer turning back only long enough to give me a mocking grin.

Chapter 9: More Lies

“Gentlemen, there is no need to worry: our plan is flawless. The Emperor will never see it coming.”
– Grandmaster Ouroboros of the Order of Unholy Obsidian, later revealed to have been Dread Emperor Traitorous all along

A few years ago I would have been able to enjoy the beautiful madness that was Skade as we rode through it, but being apprenticed to Black had ruined me. Now I was wondering how a city with a population of a several thousand could manage to feed itself when all the fields around it were covered in snow. Or who cleaned the streets for them to remain this pristine. Were there fae street sweepers? If so, were they available for hire? Marchford didn’t look nearly as nice. And that was without even getting into the logistics of running a monetary system when everyone and their sister could make illusionary coin. Unless all coin was illusionary? This entire race was giving me a headache just to think about. The rest of my companions seemed more concerned with getting their bearings, which I already knew would be pointless. I’d looked back after we turned a corner twice now and found an entirely different street behind us, the second time even on a different floor. The seat of the Winter Court was nearing Tower-levels of mindfuckery, though at least it wasn’t also full of death-traps and demons. I hoped.

Archer’s casual assessment of the Winter King as “pretty much a god” wasn’t a significantly better alternative, but I’d take what I could get.

If I was getting out of this with most my organs on the inside, it would be by picking a story and sticking to it. The fact that’d I somehow wiggled my way into being the heroine when facing the Rider of the Host likely meant Arcadia didn’t care for my being Evil so long as I acted heroic. That broadened my options a great deal. There were at least half a dozen tales about some clear-sighted commoner with a Good heart walking into the court of Callow and unmasking the schemes of wicked courtiers trying to trap them, though my introducing myself as the Lady of Marchford might have killed that in the crib. Trickster stories, then? Trying to outwit fae at the game they’d allegedly invented struck me as asking for an invitation to a feast that lasted a century, but with the story on my side I might pull through. Sadly, I hadn’t been abducted by a fairy queen with designs on my virtue so professing my pure-hearted affections for Kilian would be of no use. To be honest I wasn’t great with temptation anyway. Wouldn’t be sleeping with one of my senior officers if I was.

“Catherine,” Hakram said in a rasping whisper. “Watch.”

I glanced at the tall orc, then around us. We were riding through a marketplace of sorts, filled to the brim with hundreds of fae. Stalls that were riots of silk and pale wood offered an array of wonders for perusal. Some one-eyed old man with skin dark as a Soninke’s was offering a bottled wish, moonlight made silver and the heart of a once-good woman, all set on an elegant quilt of woven winds. Fares just as absurd stretched as far as the eye could see, the entire plaza much too large for the width the surrounding walls suggested. I saw Masego eyeing what a peddler promised to a drop of the blood of the Forever King with sharp interest, so I kicked his foot. He jumped in surprise and then coughed in embarrassment.

“You start buying things here and you’ll leave with a dozen different fae owning a slice of your soul,” I hissed.

He looked mulish.

“It’s not like I’m using all of it,” he whispered back.

That was the single most Praesi thing I’d ever heard him say and rubbed the bridge of my nose in despair. You’d never find a Callowan selling their soul like that, I thought irritably. Well, except that one time I’d become a villain. So maybe sometimes you found Callowans selling their souls like that, but in most cases I felt like my opinion held up. I glared at Masego anyway, until he gave up with a huff.

“Don’t you pout at me, you’re a grown man,” I muttered.

When had I become the voice of reason? People were supposed to talk me out of things, not the other way around. Still, this felt dealt with so I turned my attention back to the marketplace. Hakram wouldn’t have been interested in the wares here, I was sure. The orc take on having an economy was raising cattle, looting other clans and the occasional bit of barter. Aside from books and booze there wasn’t much in Adjutant’s tent and I would know: I riffled through his stuff at least once a month when I got bored. So what had he been trying to point out to me? I began paying closer to attention to the fae themselves instead of what they haggled over, but how they were dressed wasn’t what caught my attention. It was how they behaved.

Two fae bargained over a silver chain almost perfunctorily, going smoothly back and forth until it became clear the man – who looked like a noble fallen on hard times, his robes threadbare and his hands without rings – could not afford the chain. At which point he publicly bemoaned his lack of wealth, going on twice as long as he had while bargaining. There was something wrong here, like they were acting instead of truly talking. Further away I saw a gorgeous but common woman hacking off her beautiful golden locks and offering them in exchange for a precious stone, and that was when it finally clicked. On the other side of the market place I found an earnest-looking man pawning off an heirloom ring missing its jewel in exchange for a pretty ivory comb. It was an old tale, one children in Callow grew up hearing about as a warning about blind good intentions. They’re going through stories, I realized. All of them. There wasn’t a single outcome here in the hundreds of conversations taking place that wasn’t already set in stone.

It was enough to make me shiver. They might almost look like us, but the fae were other. Something apart, obeying completely different rules. An entire people of actors going through the motions since before Creation even existed. How many times had they gone through their stories, I wondered? If Roles were grooves worn into Creation by repetition, accumulating power by repetition, then these were an entire race of Named. Everyone from the chimney sweeps to the king himself, following along the paths set for them. And now I’d just walked into the midst of that with a lie on my lips, throwing myself headfirst into a maze of interwoven tales that went back unbroken since the dawn of existence. Gods Below, this was more dangerous than I could have ever dreamed of. I forced a smile on my face and sat ramrod straight on my horse as we passed through the market. I met Hakram’s eyes and saw fear there to mirror mine. We’re in over our head. More so than usual.

“This must me where we part, Lady of Marchford,” the Duke of Sudden Rime announced.

I could see interest and fascination in his too-blue eyes as he watched us, having long chased away his initial distaste at our presence. For all that he was more than willing to pawn off responsibility for us to the Baron. Was this a story as well, I wondered? There might not have been an exact precedent for my actions today, but if another tale was close enough they might have moved towards it. Or perhaps not. Their arguing over who’d be responsible for us had felt too organic, not at all like the haggling fae behind us. It had felt like they’d been genuinely unsure of the outcome, no matter how smoothly the conversation had gone.  Still, how much could I rely on that impression? Fae were some of the greatest liars to ever exist. There were too many unknowns at play here for me to get a good read on the situation.

“I am most certain we will meet again,” the Marchioness of the Northern Wind said, flashing hungry teeth. “I look forward to it eagerly.”

“I’m sure our dearest Baron will take great care of you,” the Lady of Cracking Ice added, smiling at the fae in question.

“Your reception has been most graceful,” I replied, careful to avoid even the implication of debt.

The nobles tittered and rode past a house of stone too white to be anything of Creation, disappearing the moment they turned the corner. The Baron turned to us, face expressionless.

“As I’ve not been given instruction by His Majesty to bring you under his roof, it seems you will be settling in the guest palace,” he said.

“That will not be necessary, my lord baron,” a voice intervened.

The fae nobles we’d encountered so far had been sharp-faced with even sharper tongues, but none of them had struck me as made for strife. Intrigue yes, and cruelty absolutely but fighting? None of them had the silent assurance of someone used to taking lives. This one, though, looked liked he’d been made for war. His mount was ebony, and I did not mean that in a poetic sense: the horse was sculpted out of dark wood, polished so perfectly it could have been black marble. The man himself was wearing a sober long-sleeved tunic with buttons of shade, the sword at his hip slender and without a sheath. I could feel the power in it, and not mere sorcery: it felt like sharpness made object, a principle made into thing. His skin was pale and his cheeks freshly shaved, thin red lips forming a permanent scowl. A black silken blindfold covered one of his eyes, silvery writing sprawled across it. I’d never seen someone who fit the turn of phrase of being raven-haired better before: just looking at the dark locks I could almost hear the flap of wings.

“My Prince of Nightfall,” the Baron of Blue Lights replied, bowing low.

“That ought to end well,” I muttered.

The prince’s eye flicked in my direction at the words, meeting my stare. I matched his gaze and found myself peering into darkness, a night so dark no stars would ever grace it. I began to drift from my body until I reached for an older memory, one branded into my soul. I felt my back snapping again, my bones grinding to dust as the weight above spoke a single word: Repent. I’ve stared down Hashmallim, fairy, a little dark isn’t going to cow me. Night is when villains rule. I found myself on the horse again, the Prince of Nightfall smiling amusedly.

“His Majesty sends his regards, and grants these awaited guests the use of the Still Courtyard until they can be properly received,” the one-eyed creature spoke.

“A great honour,” I said, which for all I knew could be true.

Well. Fuck. I’d never seriously hoped the Winter King wouldn’t know we were in the city, but him sending what looked like his Court’s equivalent of one of the Calamities had not been the plan. Not that I had a plan, per se, but this definitely wasn’t it. Having Aisha along right about now would have been great, since my companions might all be Named but between the lot of us all we knew about plotting would barely fill a page. Written large. There might even be illustrations.

“I look forward to your attendance of Court on the morrow, Baron,” the prince said, the implied dismissal clear.

The Baron of Blue Lights bowed gracefully a second time, eyes lingering on us before he left. Confusion and fear were plain in his gaze. I feel for you, my friend, I thought. There’s probably someone out there who knows what’s going on, but it’s sure as Hells not either of us. I nodded politely at him and Hakram elbowed Masego so he’d do the same with the rest of us. There was a long moment of silence with only the five of us in the street. The Prince of Nightfall smiled at Archer, somehow conveying a few centuries of hatred in a mere quirk of the lips.

“Did you know, girl, that I once swore if your mistress had a child I would feed it to her?” he idly said.

“The Lady of the Lake isn’t one for children,” Archer replied with a friendly smile of her own. “She much prefers jewellery.”

While I admired the guts behind mouthing off to the immortal creature that had night for eyes, I kind of wanted to throttle her right now. We don’t taunt the monster, Archer. Not when it’s already out to get us. Oh Gods, was this what it felt like being in charge of me? The balance of appalled and impressed was miraculously even. How had Black not had me killed off by now?

“While I’m sure you and the Lady of the Lake have a colourful history,” Adjutant said, “we are all here under the banner of the Lady of Marchford.”

It was a sad day when the orc in a group was the closest thing you had to a diplomat. I yawned in an almost offensively fake manner to change where this was headed.

“Alas, I am but a feeble delicate young girl and travel has tired me,” I said. “Is the Courtyard far, Your Royal Highness?”

“Ah, I forget myself Lady Foundling,” the Prince said. “You are well known for your… frailty, after all. It was untoward of me to delay.”

There was enough sarcasm injected in that single word to poison a well. I was reluctantly impressed.

“All is forgiven,” I drily replied.

“If you and your retainers would follow me, I will lead you to the Courtyard,” the one-eyed fae said, his horse moving into a trot without prompting.

We trailed after him and I gestured for Archer to come closer. She leaned in.

“I thought the whole changing-seasons motif meant fae are reborn when their Court comes around again,” I said quietly. “Like a cheap cousin to reincarnation.”

“It does,” she agreed.

“Then he’s missing an eye even now because…”

She nodded.

Every time?” I whispered.

“She likes the ring,” Archer shrugged.

Whoever had first said that Named became crazier the older they lived clearly had something of a point. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the Still Courtyard, though my guess was that it wasn’t because it was all that close. More that everything in Skade was close, if you were high up enough the fairy food chain. The Prince of Nightfall was royalty, if the title was any indication, but what exactly that meant I was unsure. Was he related to the king? I wasn’t sure whether fae could even have children if they didn’t have them with mortals. The Still Courtyard was a low-hanging square building with a front of ornate greenwood pillars and bare stone steps. Through the arched entrance I could see the courtyard it was named after, a pristine garden of untouched freshly-fallen snow. A dozen blue-attired servants were already kneeling outside when we arrived, none of them daring to look up. They didn’t even register in the prince’s eyes, as far as I could see.

“I hope your rest will be peaceful,” the raven-haired fae said.

Ah, implied threats thrown our way by someone who could kill me with relative ease. He was making this feel like home. The Prince cast a look at Archer, then moved on.

“I will see you all in Court on the morrow,” he added. “Until then, Lady of Marchford.”

“Looking forward to it, Your Royal Highness,” I replied with insincere enthusiasm.

The Prince of Nightfall rode away without glancing back, leaving us and the servants alone. They were still kneeling, so I cleared my throat.

“So,” I said. “About those rooms.”

They rose, and as I peered at them I saw they were… hesitant. Not afraid, I decided, but unsure of what they were supposed to do. They’re not used to having guests, I thought, or maybe just not mortal ones.

“I am the steward for this courtyard, Hallowed Ones,” a female fae said, bowing before us. “We are honoured by your presence and have arranged chambers for your leisure.”

I thought about asking for her name but held myself back. No, it wouldn’t do to get too involved: I might be stepping into a story by accident. I looked down at my armour, which was sadly full of holes where people had taken it upon themselves to stab me, then at Hakram’s similarly scarred set of plate.

“I could use a nap and a bath,” I said. “How about you lot?”

Apprentice leaned forward on his horse.

“Does this courtyard have a library?” he asked.

Well, good to see he still had his priorities on order. I swore on all the Hells, if Masego landed at the bottom of the sea the first thing he’d ask the mermans was if there were any books around.

“It does, Hallowed One,” the steward said. “Maeve can take you to it, if you so desire.”

Maeve was, from the look of it, a very pretty servant with a low neckline who was now smiling invitingly at Apprentice. Another servant looked at her, then Masego and his face turned thunderous. Well, I mused. If there was anyone among my companions I could feel pretty safe wouldn’t get involved in some deadly fae love triangle, it was Apprentice. Masego gingerly got down from his horse and immediately headed inside, gesturing for the servant to follow him.

“See you later,” I called out, then sighed. “Someone stable that horse. We’re only borrowing it.”

“I could do with a nap,” Hakram admitted. “Feels like I’ve been awake for days.”

Odds were decent we had been.

“You should also take a bath,” I encouraged.

The orc wrinkled his nose.

“I washed myself in the river when we were returning to Marchford,” he said.

“He smells like blood and sweat,” Archer commented. “It’s quite nice, actually.”

“See, Archer likes how you smell,” I told him.

He grunted in displeasure but silently conceded the point, dismounting as the Named in question turned to look at me.

“What was that supposed to mean?” she said.

“You live in the woods and I’ve only ever seen you wear one outfit,” I replied frankly.

“You could see me out of it, if you asked nicely,” she winked.

“We’ve been over this before,” I said, dismounting and handing off the reins to a servant.

“Sadly,” Archer sighed, doing the same.

We made our way inside, pausing as we passed the threshold. There was no sound. In a city there was always noise in the background, people talking or working or the hundreds of different that kept it all going. Even out on the field, you heard animals or wind or the gurgle of water. Here there was only silence so absolute the sound of my breath felt like someone screaming. The Still Courtyard, huh. That would take some getting used to. Ahead of us the footsteps of the servant leading us to our chambers were soundless, and the entire thing made me uncomfortable enough I felt the need to keep talking.

“So what’s with your ‘hitting on everything that moves’ habit,” I said. “You realize that even if you showed up naked in Masego’s bed he’d be more likely to ask how you got your scars than anything else, right?”

“Nah, I just like fucking with him,” she admitted with a grin. “He gets so confused and offended.”

“I don’t,” I said, “and you keep offering.”

“Twice isn’t exactly a lot,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Still, let me put it this way. How long do you think you’ll live, Squire?”

“I’m a villain,” I said. “So theoretically forever.”

“I didn’t ask for the Evil manifesto,” she said. “We’ve had villains in Refuge, I know the speeches. What do you think.”

I shrugged.

“If I make it through the next few years, maybe another twenty after that?” I guessed. “Depends on the opposition I end up getting.”

“We never have a guarantee we’ll make it through the first story,” Archer said quietly looking ahead. “Named have more of everything – power most of all, but also danger. I could die tomorrow or in ten years, but sooner or later I get an ending. And when I do, I want to have lived as much as I could.”

I could see where she was coming from, honestly. There were a lot of perks that came from being Named, even if I hadn’t partaken in most of them. Got that as much from my own sober inclinations than Black’s outright austere example, I figured. You only needed to crack open a history book to see a lot of Black Knights and Warlocks had sown their wild oats with enthusiasm. Hells, Masego’s father was married to an incubus. Dread Emperors and Empresses outright had a seraglio, even if Aisha kept assuring me sex wasn’t a large part of that. As for heroes, well, good-looking and righteous was a pretty common type for a lot of people on Calernia. If anything heroes were more likely to end up in bed with another hero than villains were with other villains. I was hardly chaste myself, but sleeping around had never appealed to me past my initial fumbling attempts to learn what I liked. What I had with Kilian mattered to me as more because I could trust her than because she was delightful in bed. Trust was a lot more precious to me than sex these days.

“You’re actually quite prudish for a Callowan,” Archer said. “Your people are a lot more salt-of-the-earth as a rule.”

“I wouldn’t use Hunter as a measure for Callowan mores,” I snorted. “That outfit was a little bare by anyone’s standards.”

“Those leather pants, though,” Archer sighed fondly. “He had an ass like you wouldn’t believe.”

I wasn’t exactly eager to discuss the merits of the buttocks of a man whose hand I had hacked off after beating him savagely, so I wisely decided to go into my rooms when the servant showed them to me. The ochre-skinned girl took the hint, following another servant to her own. My guide was the steward from earlier, and before I could even take a look around she knelt at my feet.

“Hallowed One,” she said, looking down. “An invitation awaited you when you arrived at the Courtyard. May I give it to you?”

I was genuinely tempted to say no and see what came of that, but kicking the hornets’ nest could wait until I’d had a bath.

“Sure,” I said. “It was sent specifically for me?”

“An invitation is always sent to the Courtyard, Hallowed One,” the steward said hesitantly. “It’s simply that usually we… do not receive guests, in this part of the season.”

And just like that today’s game of this does not feel like a coincidence in the slightest had found a winner. Eyes still on the ground, the fae offered me a scroll with a seal of frost on it. It would have looked natural if not for the emblem that could be glimpsed in the ice. What the emblem actually depicted I had a hard time understanding, the image blurring under my eyes and the words Duke of Violent Squalls coming to the front of my mind whatever I did. Fancy.

“There’s a bath adjoining the room?” I asked.

“Whatever you require will be found,” the steward said.

Close enough to a yes, I figured.

“That’ll be all, then,” I said.

Time for a bit of light reading, I supposed.

Warden I

“May you become the weakest link in the Chain of Hunger.”
– Ancient Lycaonese curse

Amadeus lightly tapped the mark on the map spread across the table.

“Aisne,” he said. “That’s where it’ll take place.”

The room where the Dark Council usually held session was empty save for him and Alaya, their most accurate map of the Principate spread across the table and cluttered with small figurines representing the armies being deployed. The largest concentration was around the city of Aisne, seat of the principality of the same name. The largest current alliance in Procer was mustering there to meet Cordelia Hasenbach’s forces in a pitched battle on the flatlands to northwest. Said battle, in his estimation, would take place within the month. The Lycaonese under Hasenbach didn’t have the supplies for a long campaign and the longer the war stretched the more vulnerable their borders.

“Princess Constance had to make that concession for Brabant to swing to her side,” he added. “Their prince doesn’t want whatever army loses to turn to banditry on his lands afterwards. There’s too many fantassins floating around at the moment for anyone to control after the battle.”

“The Princess of Aisne has three times Hasenbach’s numbers,” Alaya noted, sipping a cup of terrible wine in her seat. “Common military doctrine would say she’s assured a victory unless she makes a major blunder.”

It always amused Amadeus to hear her speak of ‘common military doctrine’. It wasn’t that the Empress wouldn’t make a good field commander – she had the right instincts, though she’d need seasoning – but rather that Alaya had always left the military matters to him. Most of what she knew about war she knew from books, and Praesi ones at that. The dark-haired man was of the opinion that over half the books on war written in the Empire were worthless when applied to a proper war machine. The Legions of Terror as they currently were had little to do with the unruly hordes that had been the staple of Praes military enterprises for centuries.

“She has the advantage,” he conceded. “But not by as large a margin as you’d think. About two thirds of what Aisne and her allies field are levies and fantassins, not professional soldiers.”

“Hasenbach has a much smaller population to draw from,” Alaya said. “She might have more professionals proportionally, but when it comes to hard numbers her edge is only a few thousands.”

“True,” Amadeus said calmly. “But she has three factors on her side. First, most of her soldiers are Lycaonese.”

“And so they’ve seen battle before,” Alaya frowned.

“It’s more than that,” the green-eyed man said. “The force that presses at their borders is the Chain of Hunger. Ratlings are weaker than humans on average, unless they’ve had a few decades to grow, and they’ve no true siege weaponry save for the Ancient Ones. What they do have, however, is numbers.”

It was a very rare thing for him to have to spell out anything to Alaya, and this was no exception.

“They’re used to being outnumbered,” the Soninke said.

“And in the fights the get in, retreat is not an option,” Amadeus said. “They won’t flinch when the casualties rise. Princess Constance’s soldiers will. Wars in the south of Procer just aren’t fought the way they are up north.”

The Empress sipped at her drink, mulling it over.

“The second advantage would be the Augur,” she said.

Amadeus nodded.

“Hasenbach’s army will know where and when the enemy will move. She showed against Lange exactly how dangerous that can be,” he said.

By the time the Lycaonese had moved to siege the city, Prince Dagobert effectively had no army. His troops had suffered three ambushes in a row, then a series of brutal night raids that butchered his best soldiers before they could fight. The Prince of Lyonis turned on him immediately and the Princess of Segovia was entertaining envoys from Hasenbach in her tent even as the city gates were being breached, her army watching passively. With Brus having capitulated within a month of the Lycaonese offensive beginning, that had brought four southern principalities to Hasenbach’s banner and turned that unknown young girl from the north into the foremost candidate for the title of First Prince. The other rulers of Procer had begun plotting against her before the dust from the last battle had settled, of course. The Princess of Aequitan, who still had backing from most southern principalities even after her repeated defeats, had temporarily joined hands with her hated enemy in Aisne. Between the two of them the coalition spanned a massive eleven principalities and covered almost as much territory as Praes and Callow combined.

“Which leads me to the third factor,” Amadeus said. “Klaus Papenheim.”

“The Prince of Hannoven,” Alaya murmured. “Her uncle.”

“Without contest the best general in Procer,” the green-eyed man said. “In terms of skill I’d rank him below Grem, but he’s the most experienced living commander on Calernia.”

A distinction always worth making, considering the existence of the Dead King.

“Hasenbach winning is the worst outcome for us, Maddie,” Alaya said. “She’s purged most of our agents out of her sphere of influence, but more importantly she’s fighting the right kind of war. She kills princes but spares commoners, her armies don’t pillage or burn fields. Wherever she goes, she knits Procer back together.”

While if the coalition led by the Princesses Constance and Aenor won, it would immediately collapse into infighting as soon as the larger threat was dealt with. Maybe even before. The women detested each other personally as well as politically, and with Dagobert of Lange out of the running they were itching to have a go at each other with their other borders secure.

“I give her better than half chances of winning at Aisne, as it stands,” Amadeus said. “I take it you’ve infiltrated the coalition?”

“I’ve applied pressure to keep it together,” Alaya agreed. “And I’ve been working on Hasenbach’s southern allies. Not all of them are steady.”

“If one of her flanks turns on her in the middle of the battle she’s done,” Amadeus noted. “Not even Papenheim could turn that around when outnumbered by this much.”

Alaya set aside her cup and rose to her feet, running a finger along the border between Callow and Procer.

“As long as the Principate is united, the Empire is threatened,” Malicia said. “Let’s make sure it doesn’t come to that.”

 

 

 

Mornings this far south were indolent things, in Klaus’ opinion.

In Hannoven there would be mist and biting cold keeping his men awake, but down here the lazy heat of summer was trying to drag them all back to sleep. No wonder the Alamans had no stomach for real war. Their land was soft and had made them soft in turn. So they’d turned to drinking and scheming instead of doing their duty, once more making a fucking mess of Procer until the Lycaonese came south to clean up their godsdamned mess. It made his blood boil, that this band of shit-eating buffoons had somehow managed to wage war for over a decade without one of their fat arses somehow managing to claim the throne. Made him want to thin the herd a bit so that the next generation would remember that if they kept pissing the bed until Klaus’ people had to step in there would be a price to pay. Cordelia had told him not to, though. Said they’d need the Alamans and the Arlesites in years to come and that filling a few mass graves with the arrogant twats would burn those bridges. Klaus had informed her that the day he needed an Alamans to defend the walls of Hannoven was the day he began a hike to Keter, but she’d talked him around. Somehow.

That was the thing with his niece: you start a conversation with her knowing the sky was blue and an hour later come out of that room willing to start a war over the fact it was green, never able to pinpoint exactly when she’d convinced you. It just… happened. At least it worked on other people too. The Prince of Brus had gone from being invaded to putting a rapier through a man’s belly for implying she was not the rightful First Prince in the span of a single month. The boy who now ruled Lange was eating out of her palm even after watching his own uncle sent to the headsman’s block at her orders. Klaus had always known Margaret’s child was meant for greater things. His sister had been a cast-iron bitch that scared the shit out of even the ratlings, but she’d always been meant for a soldier’s life. She’d died spitting in the eye of the Plague, as the line of Papenheim had since times immemorial, but she would not have been able to lead the Lycaonese the way her daughter did.

There’d been some who looked down on his niece when she’d been a young girl, because she wasn’t much of a fighter. Because she cared for etiquette, because she corresponded with Alamans princes and dressed in skirts instead of mail. All of those were eating their words now, watching Cordelia spin the heads of the southerners and beat them at their own game. His niece had learned their ways and she was not turning them against the arrogant princelings with a cold ruthlessness that would have made her mother proud. Not all their allies were so impressed, though. Cordelia had two princes firmly in hand, but Luisa of Segovia was a wily old fox who’d switch sides the moment she got a better offer. Segovians, he thought with distaste. They had such a hard on for coin they might as well be Ashurans. As for the Prince of Lyonis, he knew so little about loyalty he probably wouldn’t know how to spell the word. That was the one they had to watch for betrayal, when the time came.

Klaus broke off a piece of bread and thoughtfully chewed it, watching the field. He was never all that hungry before the killing began, as it happened. He broke off another piece and fed it to his horse, who licked his palm in appreciation. Ratbiter was getting a little old as well, he thought. The days where the destrier dutifully trampled whoever was in his way would soon be over. Tossing away the rest of the bread and washing away the taste with water, Klaus affectionately slapped the animal’s neck.

“We’ve still got another few in us, don’t we old boy?” the greying general said.

The horse whinnied and the prince smiled grimly. The alliance opposing them was getting ready around Lange, but he had no intention of waiting until they were ready to strike. Princess Constance was still moving in supplies to feed her horde of fuckups and the Augur had told him where and when to strike. The general adjusted his helm and unsheathed his sword, silently watching the column of horse-drawn carriages lumbering north to Aisne. They wouldn’t have expected him to move through Salia with his cavalry, he knew. Salia, as the future seat of the First Prince, had remained neutral so far. Until Cordelia had negotiated passage for him. The rest of his army was still crossing the south of Brabant, loud and visible and drawing attention. Klaus turned to his ranks of horsemen and offered them a wolf’s grin.

“All right, boys and girls,” he called out. “It seems fucking Dagobert up the arse didn’t get our message across. Those two sweet princesses are going to need a repeat performance before it sinks in, my darlings. So make sure that smoke can be seen all the way from Aisne, you hear me?”

Their call back was deafening. Feeling twenty years younger, Klaus Hasenbach brought up his shield and charged.

 

 

“He’ll win,” the Augur said. “On all paths, he wins.”

Cordelia mandated court dress for all her attendants, even the Lycaonese, but her distant cousin Agnes was something of an exception. Named, after all, lived according to their own rules. Heroes were rare in Procer, at best a once in a generation appearance, and they were treated with distant awe. By most, at least. Soldiers tended to be sceptical of them, given that the Principate had face both heroes and a handful of villains in battle and come off the better without any Named of its own. There was an institutional contempt for nations like Callow who relied on heroes to fight the enemy, and when Praes had successfully invaded the country there’d been many who’d shaken their heads and said it was an inevitable outcome for a kingdom who relied on the Heavens for protection. Which was absurd, in her opinion, since Callow had to deal with all-powerful madmen who could burn cities with a single spell while the Principate dealt mostly with mundane armies. Regardless, a Named like the Augur commanded respect from even seasoned generals.

It had been illuminating, seeing the change in how people treated her cousin. Agnes had been a lonely child and then a lonely girl, thought odd by most for her awkwardness and endless enthusiasm for bird watching. While never bullied – she was a Hasenbach, however distant from the main line – she’d been avoided. Cordelia herself had been one of the few people to make a point of spending time with her, though they never had much in common. They were blood regardless, and so she’d always made time for her cousin when her duties allowed. And then one day Agnes had casually predicted a ratling raid at dinner, absent-mindedly referring to herself as the Augur. Overnight people began bowing to her and seeking her advice, to her confusion. She’d shied away to the attention and been extremely grateful when Cordelia set aside one of the few ornamental gardens in Rhenia for her, spending her days sitting in her chair and watching the sky. Always distant, Agnes had become almost otherworldly: the cares of Creation passed her by, and even when speaking with people she seemed distracted.

The gifts of the Heavens always came at a cost, Cordelia knew.

“Does he come back safely?” the blonde asked.

Agnes nodded.

“Hawks to the east, flocking,” she said.

Cordelia patted her cousin’s hand gently.

“I do not know what that means, Agnes,” she said.

“Oh,” the Augur blinked owlishly. “The Empress waits. She has knives for you.”

As expected. Malicia still had a hand to play. That she would be backing Aisne and Aequitan was a given, but the Dread Empress of Praes always had more than a single scheme at play. She’d be targeting the weak points of Cordelia’s own alliance, Segovia and Lyonis. The Prince of Lyonis was the most openly treacherous of the two, never having forgotten that he’d been a contender for the throne when he’d had his relatives in Cleves and Hainaut behind him. Princess Luisa, though, was where Cordelia thought the betrayal would come from. She had too many merchant interests, too many ways for the Empire to reward her changing sides. She’d already prepared for the eventuality, placed safeguards to remove her from play if she acted. It would have been a relief, she thought, if Procerans were all she had to deal with. But that would be a naïve expectation: all of Calernia had a vested interest in the outcome of this civil war. Praes most of all, for they had engineered it, but the other vultures were circling.

It was only a matter of time until the Dominion of Levant began eyeing the exhausted and impoverished principalities of the south. And when they began to move, everyone else would. Helike was quiet for now, its king kept occupied by gifts of gold and dancers from the Princess of Tenerife, but that would not last forever. The Free City had declined in influence too much of late, and those were the tell-tale signs of a Tyrant rising. The Chain of Hunger had not troubled Lycaonese borders overmuch, but eventually the ratlings smell weakness on the walls and assault in force. Cordelia had stripped the strength of her people bare for the war in the south, knowing the risks it entailed. She could not afford a long war, two years at most of which she had already spent half. She had to end things in Aisne so her people could return north as soon as possible, for if the princesses of Aequitan and Aisne survived this blow the fighting could stretch on for years.

A gamble, then. Cordelia had always disliked those. It felt like making light of the lives she was responsible for to risk them imprudently, but what else could she do? If she did nothing Procer would collapse. If any of the rulers aiming for the throne had any vision at all she could have supported them instead of struck out on her own, but as things stood? She’d warned them all of who stood behind the Pravus Banks, and still they took the gold. Because if they didn’t, their rivals might and they’d lose an advantage.

“Do you think it had to be this way, Agnes?” she asked quietly.

Her cousin glanced at her, then smiled.

“There’s a lot of people who ask me things, Cordelia,” she said. “Do you know why you’re the only one I always answer?”

The Prince of Rhenia shook her head.

“Because you do what you think you need to do, not what you want,” the Augur said. “That’s why you’re worth helping, even if it’s tedious.”

Cordelia sat next to her cousin in the morning sun, looking at the sky for a long time. Eventually she closed her eyes. She had planned all she could, she knew. All she could hope now was that she had, this once, planned better than the woman trying to destroy Procer.

Chapter 8: Lies

“Invading? Good Gods, of course not. We’re merely manoeuvring.”
-Dread Empress Sinistra II “the Coy”, after being hailed by the garrison of Summerholm

Archer hadn’t changed at all since I last saw her. Fine white chainmail went down from her throat to her knees, splitting in a skirt. Over it she wore a long leather coat that came up in a hood that was currently down. The dark green linen she’d covered her face with last time had not been brought up, leaving open her exotic dark ochre face and hazelnut eyes. Only people across the Tyrian Sea had that skin tone: not the Baalites or the Yan Tei but those from some faraway land whose inhabitants were known only as the tigermen. The pair of longknives at her hips were sheathed and her ridiculously large longbow still strapped to her back, along with a quiver full of arrows closer in size and thickness to javelins than anything else. Even under the armour faint curves could be glimpsed, and there was no denying she was almost as good-looking as she thought she was.

“Lady Archer,” Hakram greeted her respectfully.

She’d pretty much mauled him effortlessly on their first encounter, which tended to leave positive impression on orcs. I brushed off Archer’s arm, frowning at her.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

She ignored me, to my irritation. Huh. I wasn’t used to people doing that anymore. Whether they were my enemies or my friends, everyone paid attention when I glared these days. That had a way of happening when you’d killed as many people as I had.

“Sweetcheeks,” she grinned at Masego. “How are we?”

“Less than pleased by the appellation,” Apprentice replied.

“It’s a compliment,” she assured him.

“Stop verbally molesting my people and answer the question,” I said.

She glanced at me, still grinning.

“What’s the magic word?” she prompted.

For a heartbeat, I seriously debated ordering Masego to cast something on her. Nothing lethal, just unpleasant. Her hair turning into snakes, maybe. Would that be magic enough for her? Ultimately I sighed. This wasn’t worth getting into a pissing match for.

“Please,” I said.

“Well, since you asked nicely,” Archer shrugged. “I was headed for your little city – what’s it called again, Marching, Mossboard? – when I spied with my little eye a bunch of very lost villains.”

She knew what the name was, I thought, meeting her eyes. She knew I knew she knew what the name was. She was just pulling my strings because she could. It was good to know that even if the better part of a year had passed she was still a major pain in my ass.

“You are the poison ivy of people,” I told her. “Why were you headed for Marchford?”

“Your boss called in her marker for the Hunter incident,” Archer replied. “Asked Lady Ranger to send a fae expert.”

I smiled thinly.

“So where are they?” I said.

Hakram snorted. Masego looked like he wanted to inform me Archer was the expert even if he knew I was being sarcastic, but barely managed not to.

“That’s hurtful, it is,” she said, sounding pleased. “My turn to ask the questions then. Why in the all the bloody Hells are you lot this deep in Arcadia?”

I blinked.

“How deep are we, exactly?” Masego asked.

“Not as deep as yo could be, sweetcheeks,” Archer replied without missing a beat, wagging her eyebrows. “But to put it in laymen’s terms, you’re pretty close to Skade.”

“The seat of the Winter Court,” Apprentice said, sounding surprised. “That shouldn’t be possible, we haven’t wandered long enough.”

“This place seems to have a very loose definition of possible,” Hakram grunted.

“The orc gets it,” Archer said.

“There’s rules even in Arcadia,” Masego said flatly.

“The rules in this neck of the woods are whatever the King of Winter says they are,” the woman shrugged.

“The implication being that the King wants us in Skade,” I said quietly. “That’s going to end well.”

“Yeah, I meant to ask,” Archer said. “What did you guys do to piss off the Winter Court? Did you abduct some of their people?”

“We didn’t do anything,” I complained. “They just showed up one day, started invading my city and got really condescending about not telling me why.”

Archer rolled her eyes.

“A few warbands is hardly an invasion,” she said.

“Squire’s not exaggerating,” Hakram said. “They’ve stated their intention is to conquer Marchford.”

The ochre-skinned woman raised an eyebrow.

“That’s… unprecedented, as far as I know,” she said. “Fae mess around with mortals outside Arcadia all the time, but they don’t stay there as a rule. Are you sure you didn’t piss them off somehow?”

“I honestly can’t think of a way I would have,” I replied.

“Huh,” she said. “Well, you’re still lucky in a way. You’re stuck with Winter and they’re shit at fighting. Whatever poor bastard is stuck with Summer is in for a rough ride.”

“The ones I’ve fought so far weren’t pushovers,” I said.

“If you’d been in a scrap with the host of High Noon you’d have a lot more holes in your armour, Squire, and they’d still be smoking,” she said. “Summer’s the season of war. They always win the round against Winter if it gets to a pitched battle.”

Ah, the familiar feeling of being in over my head and yet still glimpsing another peril over the horizon that would be even worse. I was depressing how used to that I’d gotten.

“That’s a nightmare for another night,” I said. “If you were headed for Marchford then you know a way out of here?”

“Sure,” Archer said, and pointed towards the city.

It was still insolently glistening, but at least I had a name for it: Skade. It was also apparently the seat of the Winter Court, so the way my instincts had been screaming trap, trap, this is a trap was once again justified.

“Do you have a way out that doesn’t involve us dying painfully?” I asked.

“I was headed towards a gate before I saw the lot of you,” Archer said, “but that’s meaningless now. This close to Skade we’re going wherever the King wants us to go.”

“So if we walk in the other direction…” Hakram said, trailing off.

“We’ll get back here in a few hours,” she said. “Though if he’s pulling that sort of stuff at least he’d not meddling with time.”

I sighed.  Was I ever going to meet some sort of all-powerful creature that wasn’t a real prick about it?

“So to Skade we go,” I grunted.

Archer nodded.

“Better keep off the road,” she said. “Otherwise they’ll see us coming. Wait until night time and try to sneak through?”

I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.

“We’re taking the road,” I said. “Apprentice, you have parchment and ink?”

“Oh thank the Gods,” Masego muttered, then cleared his throat. “Yes, I do.”

“We’re going to caught pretty early,” Archer pointed out.

“Caught?” I smiled. “Why, we’re not hiding. We were, after all, invited.”

About an hour in we ran into a hunting party. Not in the sense that they were hunting for us, but in the way that Callowan nobles hunted deer and rabbit. There were a dozen fae, all mounted on too-perfect white horses, but among those only four mattered. Two men and two women, colourfully dressed where the others were in drab blue-grey and armour. The nobles – for I was relatively certain that was what they were – immediately took the lead and diverted their party towards us. Of them the first to speak was a man dressed in a tunic of woven shade and starlight which hurt to look at if I did it for too long. My companions spread out warily, but as I’d told them to did not reach for their weapons.

“Well well well,” the noble began. “What have we-“

Finally,” I interrupted. “You there, the ugly one. Dismount immediately and give me your horse.”

I was careful not to point at any guard in particular, letting them decided among themselves exactly who I’d been speaking to. There was a flicker of surprise across all their faces. This was not, it seemed, going the way they’d thought it would. Good.

“Pardon me,” the man said. “But what did you just say?”

“I ordered your attendant to give me his horse,” I corrected haughtily. “I have to say, the reception so far has been most disappointing. I expected envoys to meet us at the border, not for us to have to walk like peasants.”

“You are mortals,” one of the ladies said, tone bemused.

“I am the Lady of Marchford,” I sneered. “Here at the personal invitation of the King of Winter. Obviously you were sent to welcome us, so surrender horses for myself and my retinue. We’ve wasted enough time.”

There was a heartbeat of silence as they all stared at me. I offered back my best impression of Heiress, silently conveying that to such a hallowed personage as myself their mere presence was almost offensive. One of the ladies smiled, her teeth looking more like a crescent moon than bone.

“We welcome you to Arcadia Resplendent, Lady of Marchford,” she said. “I am the Marchioness of the Northern Wind. Please forgive the manners of my uncouth companions.”

“There is nothing to forgive,” I said, my frown heavily implying that there was.

“It will be our pleasure to escort you, my lady,” the man who’d not spoken added. “Though it pains me to be so direct, may we see the King’s invitation? Since Winter has gone to war, none are allowed to wander without one.”

“Of course,” I replied dismissively. “Servant, show them the invitation.”

I gestured at Archer, who raised a mutinous eyebrow at me.

“Do not tarry, sullen wench,” I said, savouring every syllable. “Or it’s a smart blow to the ear for you.”

She glared at me and grit her teeth but took out the folded sheet of parchment, handing it to a guard. Said guard rode closer to the nobles and presented it. They looked at the parchment, then at us, then to the parchment again. It was fake, of course. I’d known it would be pointless to try to forge something that would pass muster, since we had no idea if invitations like that even existed and what they would look like if they did. So I’d gone the other way and made it a ridiculously obvious fake. It was even signed ‘the King of Winter’, since none of us knew what his actual name was. I could see the nobles wanted to immediately call us out on it, but they hesitated. I smothered a grin. It was just like dealing with Praesi. It was a transparent lie, so naturally there had to be something they were missing. Was it a trap aimed at them, perhaps? A true invitation made to look like a fake so they would offend and give pretext for execution?

“This is a false invitation,” the first fae to have spoken finally said, tone wary.

My companions stirred, preparing for a fight, but I’d bluffed with thoroughly empty hands often enough to know not to react.

“Aleban, don’t be obtuse,” the Marchioness laughed. “Of course it’s true, look at the signature.”

Aleban looked about to protest, then his eyes suddenly narrowed at the Marchioness. The other male fae began to grin nastily and the other woman steered her horse subtly away.

“Since the Marchioness of the Northern Wind states it is true, then it must be,” he said sneeringly. “I am sure His Grace will be pleased when you bring them to him for audience.”

“Oh, I would never dare overstep my station in this manner,” the Marchioness smiled. “The Lady of Cracking Ice is the darling of the Court, surely her hand is best suited for this task.”

Said Lady had been the one edging away and even as her face went thunderous as the sudden swerve in conversation I could not help but notice she was quite stunning. Most fae were subtly wrong, with faces too narrow and eyes too large, but this one was outright ethereal. I was almost reminded of Kilian by the cast of her face, though she had sharper cheekbones and paler skin than my lover.

“I simply could not claim this privilege in the face of so many nobles of superior rank,” the Lady demurred. “The Baron of Blue Lights humbled us all with his singing last night, surely introducing such hallowed guests would be another feather to his cap.”

“You are too kind, my lady,” the fae who’d been grinning replied smoothly. “I am but a paltry courtier compared to the might that is the Duke of Sudden Rime. Would it not be best for him to have this honour?”

Aleban, who was apparently a duke, smiled serenely.

“You are too humble, my good Baron,” he said. “No one but you is a match for this task. Do you not agree, Marchioness?”

“Oh, most definitely,” she said, deploying a fan of pure ivory with a flick of the wrist and hiding her vicious smile.

“It is agreed, then,” the Lady of Cracking Ice murmured.

See, that was my favourite part of dealing with schemers. They always thought too deeply, and when it made them uncertain they immediately began passing the potential backfire to someone else. Fae were supposed to be the trickiest creatures in existence: if there was even a speck of uncertainty they’d make sure none of the fallout could mar the hem of their dress. We weren’t out of the pit yet, of course. Even if they went along with it now that didn’t mean they wouldn’t turn their cloaks the moment we entered Skade and claim they’d been toying with us all along. Got us in the city, though, and that was the first step.

“All of you show me such favour,” the Baron said calmly. “I will not soon forget it, I assure you.”

The guard returned the ‘invitation’ to Archer, who looked like she really wanted to stab someone in the face. I hid my glee behind a dignified façade. Ignore me, would she? My vengeance would be as swift as it was petty. Our escort ordered guards to dismount and I paused a moment when I realized that unlike mortal riders, none of them used spurs or even a saddle. There was just a beautiful silk blanket. Not using the horse for a getaway then, I thought. I was a more than decant rider these days, but I’d never tried it without a saddle. My companions mounted after I did, with varying degrees of success. Hakram was pleased his horse hadn’t begun blindly panicking the moment he approached and Archer was a better rider than me by the looks of it. Masego, on the other hand, was hugging his mount’s flanks and looking pale.

“Apprentice,” I said, bringing my mount to his side.

“This is unnatural,” he muttered back. “Mages walk or fly. This horse business is just asking for a broken neck.”

“Sounds like you’ve got it under control,” I lied.

“Is there an issue, Lady of Marchford?” the Baron asked.

I smiled blandly.

“None at all,” I said. “By all means, my lord baron, take us to Skade.”

“It will be my pleasure,” the fae replied darkly, to the amusement of the other nobles.

We set out down the road, the fairies leading the way, and Archer rode closer to me.

Sullen wench?” she hissed.

“You’re right,” I replied pensively. “That was a bit much. I take back the sullen.”

I’d seen quite a few beautiful places, in my time.

I’d seen the Silver Lake under moonlight, when it was most deserving of its name. I’d seen the royal palace of Laure, stone and tapestry and centuries of power. I’d walked the halls of the Tower, where opulence was a given and horror lurked behind every drape. Even the Wasteland had been beautiful in its own harsh way, flickering from storm to blinding sun in the span of a bell. None of them held a candle to Skade. Arcadia was not Creation, and so not bound by its rules. The Winter Court had taken this to heart when it had built its seat. Archways carved from snowstorms, streets made of solid glistening water and even auroras turned into lanterns: it was madness, but a madness utterly bewitching. I could see trees made of ice with leaves of stone that shook in the breeze, bridges of mist linking towers that were solid a moment and gone the next. The gate into Skade was an archway of ever-shifting ice, a high relief that changed the stories it depicted with every look. And in front of it, in two unmoving rows, stood Swords of Waning Day. The same soldiers I’d fought in Marchford, made a silent honour guard. Our party rode up a gentle slope, headed for avenues inside.

Then the first soldiers unsheathed their swords.

For a moment I panicked, but kept my face calm. If this came to a fight we weren’t making it out alive: Hakram and I had struggled enough with two, two hundred were far beyond our capacity to handle. Any notion they were taking those out for a salute was dismissed when they turned towards us. No, I noticed after a moment. Not us. Archer. Who did not look particularly surprised.

“Soldiers, what is the meaning of this?” the Duke of Sudden Rime asked.

“This one smells of the Darkest Night,” one replied, pointing his sword at Archer.

The woman cleared her throat, gave me a sideways look.

“The Lady of the Lake has visited Skade in the past,” she said. “She, uh, might have left an impression.”

The deadwood soldiers hissed like angry cats when she mentioned the Ranger’s title. From the corner of my eye I could see the fae nobles exchanging glances. They looked surprised, then cast very wary looks in my direction. Oh, right. I’d called a pupil of the Ranger a sullen wench and threatened to slap her around. They had to be wondering who the Hells I was to be able to get away with that. I smiled prettily in their direction, which seemed to unsettle them even more.

“She’s with me,” I said. “And will not fight unless provoked.”

“Her mistress took the Prince of Nightfall’s eye and set it on a ring,” the soldier barked.

“It makes for very tasteful jewellery, if that’s any consolation,” Archer said.

“So this is what dying stupidly feels like,” Hakram mused.

“I’m sure Lady Ranger will give it back if he asks nicely,” I lied. “Regardless, Archer is part of my retinue. She is not to be touched.”

“Who are you to-“ the soldier began, before a fracture line ran along the length of his body.

His eyes widened, then he fell into a shower of shards.

“I am bored with this interlude,” the Lady of Cracking Ice said. “Shall we proceed?”

We did, and the soldiers gave us a wide berth. I leaned towards Archer.

“And Summer is worse?” I asked.

“Way worse,” she said grimly, then lowered her voice. “So we’re in the city. What’s the plan now?”

“The situation is fluid,” I replied. “We’re keeping our options open.”

“I was afraid you’d say that,” Hakram cursed.

I smiled winningly at my companions.

Heroic Interlude: Appellant

“One hundred and twelve: always be kind to any monster held in a cage by your nemesis. When it inevitably gets loose, it will remember the kindness and attempt to destroy the villain instead.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown

A series of explosions rocked the machine and the enormous drill ceased spinning.

Though the Lowest Plaza still had a massive gaping hole in its centre, Helikean soldiers were no longer pouring out of the tunnel: when the Tyrant had fled, swearing ‘eternal and unholy revenge’, they’d begun retreating in good order. Hanno let out a sigh of relief. He’d not needed to tap into any of his aspects to turn back the breach, but after unleashing his Name so many times he was starting to tire. Ash was already making her way through the Delosi soldiers, curing anything short of death with a touch and that semi-permanent frown. The Ashen Priestess was admittedly one of the more combative healing Names: it should perhaps be expected that her bedside manner was rougher than that of the average priest. The White Knight wasn’t exactly displeased. His memories told him that the all-loving types often had difficulty dealing with the realities of war, especially those sworn to Compassion. Their inability to reconcile the way Creation was and the way it should be could lead to some very ugly breakdowns.

The Champion was currently collecting “trophies”, hacking off the tip of swords so she could make rings out of them to add to her necklace. There were already enough of those that the thing could be considered an additional layer of mail around her neck. A somewhat grisly ritual by heroic standards, but that was always the way with Levantines. The heroes that had founded their nation had been rebels fighting the Proceran occupation, after all, and they’d been much more willing to bloody their hands than the average Named on the side of Good. Hanno sheathed his sword and took off his helmet to wipe his brow. Hedge crawled out of the wreckage of the machine moments later, covered in soot from head to toe. She’d gone in there to blow the runic array powering the drill while he held the line, and one again gotten off essentially untouched. Hanno wasn’t surprised: there was a reason he kept sending her on the riskiest ventures.

As long as the Hedge Wizard and the Champion kept bickering ‘amusingly’, they were essentially untouchable. Their heroic band would be much too grim if they died, too dark for the amount of absurdity the Tyrant kept injecting into this siege. The White Knight eyed the giant drilling machine belching smoke and sighed again. Well, the flying towers had been a wash so he supposed it made sense for the Tyrant to try underground afterwards. Usually even villains hesitated before trying that route, since there was always the risk of running into a dwarven tunnel, but this particular monster was a reckless one. Almost too reckless, he’d begun thinking of late. Every assault that had been made on Delos so far did have a decent chance of succeeding, but they were also all half-baked enterprises. It was like victory and defeat didn’t particularly matter to the man planning the operations, which was somewhat worrying. If taking Delos wasn’t the way the Tyrant got what he wanted, what was?

Delosi officers began arranging crews to drag away the broken machine and cordoning off the hole in the ground until it could be properly filled. The Secretariat’s armed forces were not particularly strong, in his opinion, but they were well-organized and had superb morale. Delosi believed that the decrees of their Secretariat were the will of the Heavens, so whenever they were deployed they would not break regardless of casualty rates. It had not been unusual for half a battalion to be wiped out on their first deployment, in the first skirmishes of the war, and yet the same men and women who’d been through that grinder did not hesitate going back to it the following day. He could respect that, the act of putting your faith in something larger than yourself. In this case it was somewhat misplaced, of course. The Secretariat was an institution made my men, and so held the flaws of those men. To find infallible judgement, one had to look higher. Hedge made her way to him, patting away the soot with a lack of method that spread the unsightliness more than got rid of it.

“That should be it for a fortnight, at least,” she said. “Unless he thinks up another machine.”

“He’s tried above and below,” Hanno noted. “We should expect a dimensional shortcut next.”

The Hedge Wizard snorted, her mismatched eyes shining with anticipation.

“If he’s going to meddle in Arcadia that problem might just fix itself,” she said. “The Courts are on war footing; they’ll be shooting everything that moves.”

“The first step always works, Hedge,” he reminded her. “It may backfire later but it’s a virtual certainty he’ll make it into the city.”

The dark-haired woman grimaced.

“That sounds like you’re asking me to do ward work,” she said. “Breaking those I can manage, White, but making them? That stuff is hellishly complicated and it blows up if you get even one number wrong.”

Hanno had been about to suggest a mere alarm measure instead of something more taxing when he saw Delosi troops coming down from the upper levels. The White Knight felt curiosity rise when the officers among them ignored the efforts of the other soldiers and headed straight for him. The highest-ranked among them, a weedy woman with a commander’s insignia branded on her breastplate, came forward and saluted sharply.

“Lord White,” she greeted him. “There’s been an accident.”

“A large one, for a commander to come inform me personally,” he said.

“There was a fire in the House of Ink and Parchment,” the commander said. “An entire wing collapsed. Casualties involve several members of the Secretariat.”

Hanno’s eyes sharpened.

“Which ones?” he asked.

The commander didn’t know since she was not high-ranking enough to be cleared for the information, as it turned out, but she’d been provided with a list. For once Delos’ obsession with records was saving time instead of costing it. The olive-skinned hero scanned the scroll, skipping the names of anyone not ranked Secretary – anyone below that had no real influence in the city. Secretary Colchis, Secretary Mante, Secretary Theolian. Secretary of War Euphemia. Every single high-ranked member of the Secretariat who’d at any point spoken in favour of Delos continuing to intervene in the war past the siege.

“That fire was not an accident,” he said quietly. “It was enemy action.”

Hedge looked at him grimly.

“You think the Tyrant used the assault as a distraction?” she asked.

“Wasn’t our Kairos who did this,” Aoede said.

Hanno released the handle of his sword. The Bard had not been there a moment ago, but in between a single blink of his eyelids she had… filled the space. Arm slung over Hedge’s shoulder, the Wandering Bard for once wasn’t smiling.

“You should have some memories about this,” Aoede told him. “This is-“

She never got to finish. Of the twenty-odd officers that surrounded them, over half had weapons in hand: the Bard vanished before a knife could take her in the belly, wielded by the very commander who’d brought him news.

Stand down,” Hanno barked, blade in hand.

In the span of a single heartbeat the hero noticed three things. First, all the officers with their weapons out looked horrified. Second, there was the faintest trickle of power inside them. And third, they were now turning their weapons on themselves. The White Knight dropped his sword and wrestled down the commander before she could slit her own throat, but Hedge was not so quick. The others dropped to the ground, dying or dead, before anything else could be done. The commander stopped fighting back after a moment and he only just managed to keep her from biting off her tongue. Name pulsing, Hanno focused on the power he’d glimpsed. He managed to feel five layers of something before it was gone, washed away before he even tried to make it disappear.

“Commander,” he said calmly, releasing her mouth. “Are you with me?”

The woman blinked.

“Lord White?” she croaked. “Why am I on the ground?”

Hanno got back to his feet, helped her up.

“Can you remember anything unusual that happened to you today?” he said.

The officer paled.

“No,” she admitted.

“She wouldn’t,” Hedge said quietly. “Someone Spoke to her.”

The Ashuran glanced at his companion.

“You’ve seen this before?” he asked.

“I know the theory,” the Wizard replied. “Five orders. One to wipe the memory, one trigger, one act and two contingencies.”

This… he’d seen this before. Fought this before. The White Knight closed his eyes, breathed in and out until his heartbeat slowed and then ceased entirely. In that moment, his mind filled. A thousand lifetimes he had lived yet not lived, spread across centuries. Hanno focused, filtered through two points: compromised officers, high-tier leadership crippled. Seventh Crusade, White Knight. No, opponent was the Dead King. First Proceran War, Good King. No, this wasn’t bribery. The Paladin, fall of the Blessed Isle. Conquest. Commander of the vanguard and the western flank assassinated, had to be replaced by officers less seasoned. Every outpost off the Isle gone dark. Sentries made unable to see the placement of goblinfire at the base of the walls. His heartbeat returned.

“Calamities,” Hanno spoke. “We’re fighting the Calamities, and they’re about to attack.”

There was a sensation in the back of his head, like a lever being pulled, and a ward covering the Lower Plaza awoke.

A faint smell hit his nostrils and soldiers began dropping like flies.

Alkmene wasted a good two heartbeats looking at Hanno like he’d just murdered her puppy. The Calamities, as in those scary Praesi fuckers up north with a graveyard full of heroes behind their lair? Shit. Shit. Words stronger than shit, which were not coming at the moment because oh Gods they were all about to die. Productive panic, Hedge, she reminded herself. Productive panic is how we survive. They were now inside a ward, which had been remotely triggered and until now had been hidden behind the much larger magical emanations coming from that godsdamned drill from the Hells. Alkmene tested the strength of said ward with her mind and found she might as well be trying to bring down a wall by pelting it with pastries. Modify it? And now the back of her eye was itching, just from a light probe. Whoever had designed that pattern was a vicious bastard and a half. All that was left was alleviating the effects, then. Her teachers had always taught that that a Gifted faced with a ward could only do three things: break, modify or alleviate. By the looks of it, this one was a straight translocation ward that was bringing in some kind of gas at a fixed rate.

Hedge pulled up a scarf from under her robes and covered her mouth. Most poisons could be outright ignored by Named and the rest could be burned out with a trick, but quantity ingested did influence how well that worked. From the way all the Delosi were stiffening and falling to the ground so quickly, this was not a weak brew. Not magical in nature though. That made things easier. Muttering a word of power, Alkmene created a ball of air in the middle of the plaza. The translucent sphere began spinning, sucking in the gas as fast as it could. She kept murmuring and it kept expanding, devouring more and more. Wouldn’t save many of the soldiers, but it would at least make sure their band didn’t go into the fight with enough paralysis poison in their lungs to kill a dozen oxen. Ash, in the middle of the incapacitated men, slammed her staff against the paving stones. There was a pulse of power and the people on the ground began breathing again, turning this from a massacre to a crippling blow. On the other hand, by doing that she’d… Hanno was running towards her sister faster than anyone in plate should be able to, but he wouldn’t get there in time.

A red wedge immediately opened up in the sky above Irene and a burning rock the size of a house fell through.

Alkmene cursed, flicked her wrist and sent the ball of air straight at the projectile. For a heartbeat it seemed like it would push it back, but then with a pop the spell gave. It was just enough of a delay that her sister was able to prepare herself, thank the Gods. Before the pocket meteorite could smash her into paste Irene was swallowed by a cloud of ash that swirled around her before spearing upwards. The rock itself turned into ash when it made contact, hitting the ground and obscuring the entire plaza in a thick cloud. Alkmene sharpened her eyes just before visibility went and winced at what she saw. Irene’s eyes were already grey, which was a bad sign. She’d already used too much power. The Hedge Wizard set that aside the moment she began to feel another spell being crafted, and looked upwards. There was a ball of opaque blue light hovering in the sky above the city, a stable shielding ward. The Warlock, she realized with a dry swallow. She was going to have to fight that. What had her teachers called getting into a mage’s duel with Praesi again? Death by stupidity, she remembered. But godsdamnit, she’d have to anyway. If the Warlock was busy with her he wasn’t smashing everything down here to bloody chunks. Alkmene cursed again and fished out three tiles from her pockets.

She threw them ahead of her, watched them form three steps hovering in the air.

“You don’t have to win, Hedge,” she encouraged herself. “Just, you know, not get horribly killed. It’s all about the standards.”

Nervously laughing, she began the climb up.

Even as the ash billowed past him, Hanno replayed the sequence of events of the last sixty heartbeats in his mind. Nonlethal but dangerous ward that affected mundane soldiers, triggered as the opening move. Their spellcaster moved to mitigate the damage, taking herself out of the equation. Their healer then attempted to heal the affected, leaving herself wide open for retaliation while the other two fighters in their band were too far away to intervene.

Had the Ashen Priestess been a common healing Named, that projectile would have killed her instantly.

They’d almost lost a fourth of their fighting strength before the first exchange was over, and that realization sent a shiver up his spine. These were not military tactics, they were hero-killing tactics. Targeting people in their charge to make them expend effort, then immediately striking their weak point with overwhelming force. Their opponents were not only used to fighting heroes, they were used to fighting bands of heroes. The White Knight calmed his mind. There would be three of them. The Warlock was in the sky, and Hedge was moving to distract him. Now he needed to find the Captain and the Black Knight before they could take one of his companions out.

“Ash,” he called out. “Champion.”

“We here,” the Champion yelled back.

“One, five,” a man’s voice calmly said. “Brazier.”

Magic flared in the distance and the place where the Champion’s voice had come from burst into flames. The light was enough for Hanno to make out a lone silhouette to his left. A man. Short, in plate with a heater shield and a longsword. The White Knight, without making a sound, headed in that direction. With a burst of speed he emerged behind the man and rammed his blade in this back – only to pierce through shadows that collapsed into a pool before snaking away along the ground. There was a faint whistle and he ducked under a crossbow bolt, almost missing the second one aimed at his knee. He managed to parry that one at the last moment, though it marked his armour. The hero could still feel the presences of Ash and the Champion, dimmed. They were still alive, though the fire had hurt. Gritting his teeth, he made his choice and followed the shadows.

They were swift, but not swift enough to outpace a hero on foot. After a few moments it became glaringly obvious he was being led away from the plaza, towards the second level of the city. The sound of fighting erupted behind him, the Champion hooting in joy, but he’d have to trust they could handle themselves. Leaving the Black Knight unattended with an ash cloud as cover was just asking for one of them to die. Hanno found steps under his feet, a sure sign he was leaving the plaza, and shortly afterwards fell the pressure over his shoulders vanish: he’d left the bounds of the ward. The ash cloud behind him, the hero looked for his opponent and found him almost instantly. In the middle of the avenue stood a man, in a bare suit of plate that had the marks of frequent use. His shield had no heraldry painted on it, his sword went without decoration. The only splash of colour was those unsettlingly pale green eyes that could be seen through the slits of the helm.

“You’re a long way from home, Black Knight,” Hanno said.

The man did not reply. He moved forward, shield raised. The White Knight felt the Light flood his veins, scouring his insides, and with hard eyes met the enemy.

The enemy had made a mistake when they’d chosen poison as their means of attack. The method had been clever enough, Irene would concede, as the sheer quantity of poison had made it hard to counteract. Now that she had this much ash to work with, however, it was child’s play to neutralize the effects. After absorbing the airborne toxin with it she’d directly targeted the enemy ward with her power, since Alkmene was apparently incapable of doing as much. Hammering blindly at sorcery with miracles tended to lead to unpredictable side effects, so instead of destroying the ward she’d erased the part that was bringing in the gas. Or at least she’d begun doing that, before nine feet of plate and muscle with a giant hammer had come for her head. How they’d not seen or heard the behemoth approach, given that the ash cloud had settled on the ground by then, was beyond her. Likely the woman’s Name was involved. Regardless, the Champion had stepped in before her earthly body could be made an earthly corpse.

“You not just big girl,” said heroine enthused, narrowly avoiding a swing. “You biggest girl.”

“I’m flattered,” the Captain replied politely. “But also thrice your age and married.”

The Ashen Priestess had never thought much of fighting banter. If you had breath for it, you weren’t trying to kill your opponent hard enough. The Champion was more or less holding the enemy at bay for now, so she focused on the ward again. She could see why her sister had found the structure troublesome: there were little patterns that would make even looking at it dangerous for a mage. Doing so through the lens of a miracle, however, meant it could not touch her. Irene began sharpening her power into a chisel again, breaking one rune after another. Her soul was only loosely attached to her body by a chord, high in the sky as she continued chipping away at the ward. The Priestess smiled as she wiped another cluster, then felt the chord being tugged. Looking downwards she saw the Champion’s shield getting caved in by a hammer blow, quickly followed by the heroine getting punched in the face. Both hits she had gotten by standing between the villain and Priestess’ immobile body. Irene had seen the Champion laugh off a horse’s kick, but after that punch she spat blood before forcing the Captain back. She then unkindly slapped Irene’s body in the face a second time, the chord forcefully dragging the heroine back inside at the impact.

“Ashy,” Champion grunted as the Priestess blearily opened her eyes. “Get your miera joint. This no stroll in park.”

Irene eyed her companion in confusion before she caught the meaning. Get your shit together, Rafaella had meant.

“The ward’s out of play,” she said. “I’m back.”

“Good,” the Champion said. “Two-time big girl now.”

Said ‘girl’ was not currently attacking them, Priestess could not help but notice. The Captain was not wearing a helmet so the studded earring in her left ear was quite visible. And currently glinting with sorcery.

“Confirmed,” the Captain said. “Going full tilt.”

“I no like sound of this,” the Champion admitted, throwing away her crumpled shield and hoisting her axe.

“It’s nothing personal,” the villain said. “I was given an order, and now I Obey.”

The moment she spoke the word, her presence in Creation became heavier. Aspect. Well, that was going to be troublesome. The Ashen Priestess reached for her miracles as the Captain blurred into motion.

Hanno’s sword slid off the shield and he backpedalled to avoid the blades that would have scythed through his knees. At least now he knew how the villain had shot two crossbows at him earlier: the Black Knight’s shadow extended into two tendrils behind his back, the two of them wielding swords simultaneously to the villain’s own movements. The sheer amount of fine control that had to go in that was staggering, not that the hero had time to stop and stare: even with the Light sharpening his reflexes beyond human capacity he was having trouble coming close without taking a hit. The first time the villain had revealed the tendrils he’d waited until their blades were locked before plunging two blades straight into the White Knight’s neck: they’d gone through the gorget and would have gone on to his spine under it if he hadn’t detonated the Light beneath his skin to blow them back. The burns from that were painful, and unlike other wounds wouldn’t start healing given enough time.

Hanno breathed out, having a little space, and timed his advance. The first shadow-wielded sword skimmed his shoulder as he shot forward, trailing sparks. The second came down in a swing but he rolled forward, landing on his feet just in time to parry a lunge that would have gone straight through his eye. The White Knight slapped away the shield, flicked his wrist, and with wide eyes saw the fuse on a clay ball reaching the bottom. It exploded in his face, throwing him back. Before he even landed on the ground the Black Knight was behind him, shadow tendrils swinging swords at the height of his neck and torso. Gritting his teeth, Hanno detonated the Light on his side to stop his momentum – it blew straight through his plate. He took a shield bash to the face, blinding him, and then felt a blade go straight through the elbow joint of his sword arm. Biting down on a scream, he reached for his Name and let out a pulse of blinding light. By the time he was steady again, the Black Knight was twenty feet away and the shadow limbs were aiming crossbows at him.

The hero moved his blade to the hand with a functioning elbow behind it. He wasn’t as good with his left as his right, but it was a near thing. At the moment he could only see two shadow tendrils, but Hanno wasn’t falling for that again. He’d seen a third one hiding those goblin munitions behind the shield, after knocking it aside. The crossbows drew back, however, when both Named heard the sound of marching troops coming down the avenue leading up to the third level. Reinforcements, the Ashuran thought. Alone against the villain they would be wheat waiting for the sickle, but with him too? No matter how many limbs the Black Knight had, he only had one torso. The Delosians spread across the length of the avenue in a shield wall, bowmen setting up behind them. The villain’s limbs retracted and he patiently waited for the soldiers to approach. What was he… No.

“Retreat,” the White Knight bellowed.

“Two, five through eight,” the green-eyed man spoke calmly. “Half.”

Hanno felt magic flare in the distance and saw the villain flatten himself against the ground. He followed suit, and a heartbeat late felt the warmth of a spell pass above him. He got back on his feet as soon as his senses told him the danger was past, jaw tightening when he saw the aftermath of the sorcery. Every soldier in the avenue had been cut through at the waist as if by a giant blade. Blood and viscera stained the stone even as the men twitched away the last of their lives.

“Warlock, you have bleed,” the Black Knight said. “Walls were damaged. Recalibrate.”

Some of the houses had been sliced through as well, Hanno saw, but he was far past caring. He’d just seen two hundred men butchered like animals quicker than you could fill a glass. The White Knight breathed out, mastering his fury. I do not judge. To take justice in his own hands was surrendering his blade to chaos. Only the judgement of the Heavens was not limited by the shackles of mortal perspective.

Ride,” Hanno hissed, running.

Light howled into existence, sharping itself into a steed that the White Knight mounted without missing a beat. His sword returned to its sheath as he devoured the distance, a blinding lance of light forming in his extended hand. The Black Knight cocked his head to the side and the shadow tendrils extended from his back. Hanno waited for the swords, but instead they extended even further and pushed the villain off the ground like giant spider legs, tossing him towards a rooftop to the left. By the time the Ashuran got to where the villain had stood there was nothing left to charge. The mount disappeared a heartbeat later and the lance with it, Hanno landing on his feet. His gaze turned to the rooftop, where the Black Knight was studying him.

“Two, six,” the man said. “Pitch.”

Everything went dark just as the tiredness from using the aspect hit him.

“Oh, come on,” Hedge yelled as she started falling.

It had been bad enough when little dots of red light that burned straight through everything began pursuing her, but now this? There was no way using giant snakes made of flames as a mobile semi-sentient defence could be considered reasonable. Mages used those as a fancy knockout-punch, not decoration.  She only had two tiles left – that little dot surprise had punched straight through one before she learned what they did – which meant she wasn’t so much ascending as leaping from one stair to another. While at least a league up in the sky, pursued by killer lights and very insistent giant fire snakes. Normally the absolute sheer terror knotting up her guts would have been crippling, but having come within an inch of death seven times within the last few moments she’d punched straight through that ceiling of fear into another realm of fresh and previously unexplored horror. She was never going use a staircase again, and anyone who tried to make her was going to spend the rest of their life as the ugliest frog she could manage.

The Hedge Wizard summoned the two tiles back to her, shoving one under her feet hastily so she’d stop freefalling. The dots were slow enough they’d take a bit to catch up, but she was now officially back in snake trouble territory. The odd-eyed woman winced as she saw the spell construct’s jaw unhinge. Just before it closed on her she muttered a word of power and both she and everything she touched turned into flame, just long enough for the snake to pass through her. She came out of it wearing fuming robes and knowing she was running out of tricks to survive that. Her Name allowed her to use and understand sorceries so wide in scope and different in nature that it was effectively impossible for anyone else to know them all, but it did have one glaring flaw: she could never use the same trick twice the same day. Her bag wasn’t running low, at the moment, but it was certainly running low with things she could use to avoid giant flaming snake death. This was, she reflected, a bit of a problem.

She wouldn’t be able to keep this up much longer, while the Warlock did not even seem to be running his actual defences. Could he even, from inside that bubble ward? He’d been casting area-wide magic sporadically, but she wasn’t actually getting any spikes in magic from in there when he did. There was actually a non-negligible chance he was just triggering distant wards while overseeing the battlefield. The most direct action he’d taken so far was the pocket meteor, and that was before she’d found him in the sky. So if I break that bubble, I might be disrupting their entire plan. That was the kind of risk she had to take, horrifying as that notion was. Alkmene did not think they were going to pull through this otherwise, not with how dim she could feel the others getting. Hanno was getting the worst of it, she sensed, but whoever Champion was scrapping with was delivering a hell of a beating. Hedge gingerly rolled her shoulders, watching the swarm of light dots approaching.

The wizard summoned her free tile to her hand and tapped the one she was standing on three times. It broke her heart to destroy an artefact she’d made so recently – because of their equally recent flying tower fiasco, as it happened – but it was marginally better than getting destroyed herself. The tile began lengthening and she ran down the length, feeling it becoming more and more brittle the longer it spread. Halfway to the bubble it shattered under her feet. She managed to get the second on in place before beginning to fall, angling it so it served as a sloped ramp. Immediately she began sliding off but another word of power had her soles sticking to the surface, allowing her to start running upwards. Not, unfortunately, fast enough to lose the dots. Hedge muttered under breath and flicked her wrist: a ghost image of her, reproducing her magical signature, began running away across thin air. The dots weren’t sentient at all, unlike the snakes, so it would be enough to fool them.

One of said snakes managed to loop back to her right before she got to the bubble, though, leaving her only an instant to make her decision. She went with the risk, since her last tile was already beginning to break. She leapt on top of the bubble and pressed herself against the ward, hoping to all the Gods the snakes had been designed not to collide with the bubble. The fire construct veered away at the last moment and she clenched her fist in triumph. Not dying, her favourite kind of victory. Immediately she began tinkering with the ward beneath her. Unlike the first one they’d been hit with, this one had been designed to weather a beating instead of being hard to modify. Small favours. No doubt the Warlock already knew she was there, so her window would be very, very small. Huh, this was actually massively strong. She could have unloaded her entire arsenal at this and barely scratched it. Were the villains under the impression she was a slugger kind of mage?

With a smile of triumph, she switched the last two runes, preparing the fae flame even as a circular hole in the bubble opened.

There was no Warlock inside.

There was, however, an unstable elemental matrix that had only been kept from exploding by the containment ward.

“You utter asshole,” she managed to say before it blew up.

The warhammer came down and shattered Champion’s shoulder, then spun to turn her left kneecap into powder. The Captain did not even attempt to kill the downed heroine this time, going directly for Irene. She’d learned from that initial mistake.

Heal,” the Ashen Priestess murmured.

The shoulder snapped back into place, the knee yanked itself up and the Levantine woman got back on her feet. Irene had been tapping into her aspect for over half the fight and it was starting to take a toll. The wounds healed themselves more slowly now, and not as fully. Given how absurdly tough the Champion was she was able to walk it off anyway, but it was a game of diminishing returns. In more ways than one: the Captain’s hammer came down on the box of light surrounding the Priestess three times before Rafaella was able to engage her again. After the third blow the box thinned, and Irene was certain if the villain had time for a fourth it would outright break. If it did, she gave it half and half odds she survived the experience. Unfortunately the Champion now got back into the fight a little slower every time while Captain showed no sign of tiring. Whatever aspect she’d used earlier wasn’t empowering her by much, but it wasn’t running out. This had effectively become an endurance match, which villains weren’t supposed to be able to win. They would this time, though, because the Calamities had hit when their band was fresh from turning back an enemy assault.

That did not feel like a coincidence.

“Champion,” Irene called out.

“Small busy right now,” the Levantine replied, ducking under a hammer blow.

The mere force of the swing was enough to kick up a cloud of ash behind them.

“I need you to buy me sixty heartbeats,” she said.

“Also want moon and stars?” Champion complained.

“It’s that or we die,” the Priestess frankly replied.

Rafaella smashed her battle axe into the behemoth’s plate, driving her back a step and cracking the metal.

“Dying not good,” the Levantine conceded.

The Captain leapt back.

“I need Burden in, um,” she said. “Big square in the middle.”

There was a pause.

“I’m not Black, Wekesa,” she retorted irritably. “I don’t keep track of where everyone goes all the time.”

Thirty heartbeats left. She could make it. Her aspect continued ebbing as she pushed another one to the surface. That was the limitation on Heal – she could keep it going, but making it stop took time. There was a flare of magic in the distance and suddenly the box flared into existence above her head. A moment later it broke and massive pressure forced her to her knees. Champion was still on her feet even if she was buckling, she saw, but Captain seemed almost unaffected. The hammer rose and she blurred again.

Oppose,” the Champion laughed.

There was a sound like a crack made in the weave of Creation and the pressure lifted. Rafaella’s axe smashed into the head of the hammer that would have split open the Priestess’ head, the impacts perfectly matched. Both weapons flew back and Captain warily stepped away.

Ignite,” Irene croaked out.

All over the field, the ashes began smouldering. She could feel them pulse in harmony with heartbeat, as much a part of her as any limb. The heat rose and the ashes began rising into the air, forming into spears. The Captain took a look around, then cracked her neck.

“Been a while,” she said. “It won’t be gentle.”

The villain’s eyes turned blood red, her body convulsed and she began shifting. They were, it seemed, not yet out of the woods. Worse, the woods were starting to look rather hungry.

This was not working, Hanno thought as the blade sheared through his cheek. The wound began to heal almost immediately, but his Name didn’t replace blood. Of which he had lost too much already. The White Knight’s eyes narrowed when he saw his opponent giving ground. He was hearing something. Was the villain ordering another strike? Hanno sharpened his hearing, catching only the last words.

“Listen closely.”

Then the munitions detonated. The hero hissed, involuntarily clasping his free hand to an ear. The man had used the elongated sticks that made light and noise earlier, but this was different – it made only noise, but was horribly loud. In that moment where pain filled Hanno’s thoughts, the Black Knight made his move. The olive-skinned hero brought up his sword in time to parry the first strike and sidestep the tendril-moved blade that would have sunk straight in his carotid. But he took the shield bash to the face, and then the other shadow-wielded blade went through the slight space between his breastplate and the lower parts of his armour that only mail covered. The sword chipped on the rings, but it tore through his guts anyway. The sword in the villain’s hand drew back, and in that movement Hanno read his death. It would take him in the eye, killing him in a way no Name could prevent. The world slowed. It wasn’t about power, the White Knight knew. He’d gauged how much both their names could throw around, and he trumped his opponent handily. It was the disparity in skill and experience. Hanno did not have any tricks his opponents had never seen before, and he had not seen most of his opponent’s.

That had always been going to be the way, he’d known from the start. He would have to go against villains who’d been around for decades longer than he, who’d been accumulating power and skill long before he’d even been born. It was why he’d left for the Titanomachy instead of going north to die like the others. I am not enough, but I am more than me. The Light flooded his veins again where it had started to ebb and he silently spoke the word he needed to.

Recall.

They flooded through his mind until he sorted them by height and build. Knight Errant. Hanno’s body moved by itself, the reflexes of his Name replacing his own. He leaned backwards, the tip of the villain’s sword passing just above his nose, and his hand closed around the grip of the sword in his gut. Ignoring the struggling shadow tendril, he hit the Black Knight in the chest with the pommel. The impact bought him a moment he flawlessly used to spin around his opponent. The very instant they were back to back he slapped away the tendril-moved sword that would have taken the back of his knee and with two swords in hand stepped away from his opponent. The villain did not miss a beat, stepping into a lunge that Hanno turned into a parry that knocked the sword out of the man’s hand. It did not stop him: a tendril caught the sword and swung for this throat as the other one slapped another blade into the palm of his armoured hand. No, this wouldn’t work either.

He touched the flood again. Righteous Spear. Tossing away the villain’s weapon, Hanno felt the sword in his hand flare with light and turn into the spear he needed. A parting gift from the Gigantes, a weapon that could be whatever his Name required. The barbed tip of his spear flicked towards the villain’s throat but bounced off the shield. The Black Knight immediately closed the distance and Hanno spun with the man’s swing, shaft of the spear coming to knock down the side of the shield before he spun back to – to have the shaft be caught by a shadow tendril. Weapon forced out of his hand, Hanno touched the flood again. Sage of the West. His armoured gauntlet expertly caught the side of the shield and he leveraged his weight to slam it into the villain’s own helm. The man was caught off guard long enough for Hanno to slide under his guard and flip him over his back. He pivoted smoothly to hammer his heel into the villain’s helmet but the side of his greaves was caught.

Destroy,” the Black Knight said.

The life he’d been tapping into… disappeared. Like smoke. He was the White Knight again, standing awkwardly with his foot in his opponent’s grasp. The villain grunted and smashed him into the ground like rag doll. Tendrils of shadows with two dozen of the clay balls from earlier wrapped around him, all lit. Hanno touched the flood again. Thief of Stars. He slid out of the bindings, though the edge of the explosions caught him. He was tossed to the ground, landing in an ungainly sprawl. It wasn’t enough. He’d have to… The coin appeared in one hand as his weapon reformed in a burst of light in the other.

“Burn,” an indifferent voice ordered.

The stream of flame caught him in the chest. His plate was of the finest steel that could be found in the Free Cities and still it boiled in the blink of an eye. The force behind the flames was brutal, driving him into the pavement as the stone scorched and cracked around him. Mercifully, it ceased. The time to worry about the state of his body after the fight was past, Hanno acknowledged. He breathed out and let the Light fill him. He’d lost hold of the Thief, now the White Knight once more, and his body hoisted itself back to its feet. Flesh a tapestry of red and black, he stood to face his enemies. There were two, now. The Black Knight and his sorcerous accomplice. A tall black man in burgundy robes, currently eyeing him with distaste.

“Wekesa,” the Black Knight said. “The Wizard?”

“Survived the blast,” the Warlock replied. “Currently chasing my second fake.”

“Then why are you here?” the other villain asked.

“The Tyrant is retreating.”

There was a heartbeat of silence.

“You’re certain?” the Black Knight said.

The sorcerer rolled his eyes.

“No, I confused them with the other besieging army that’s leaving,” he deadpanned.

“A backstab I expected, but a retreat?” the Knight murmured, then shook his head. “Are any of them on their third aspect?”

“Sabah’s got her two on their second, the Wizard hasn’t even used one,” the dark-skinned man said.

The Black Knight sighed, then sheathed his sword.

“We can no longer win this,” he said. “Full retreat.”

“They’re on the ropes, Black,” the Warlock said.

“Yes,” the other villain agreed darkly. “We have them cornered, with all their trump cards left. That is not a story that ends well for us.”

“You’re not getting away,” Hanno and the Light said.

The Warlock glanced at him then smiled unpleasantly.

“Well, you say that, but…”

Everything went dark again.

It was night out when Irene finally hit her limit.

Hanno would survive, which was what mattered. The magical burns had been nothing she hadn’t seen before, if never quite so severe, but there’d been some things she could not fix. There were two patches of skin gone almost stone-like on the side of his neck and a few others on his side that seemed able to simply ignore her miracles. It was like the Heavens saw nothing there that needed to be healed. She’d have to ask him about it, when he woke up. Her sister was sprawled across a chair behind her, looking exhausted, and the Champion was snoring away loudly on the only other bed in the room. She didn’t begrudge the Levantine that in the slightest: she’d had most bones in her body broken at least three times, and Irene had not had the power left to both soothe away the lingering pains and deal with the White Knight’s wounds. Washing away the last of the peeled-off skin with the wet cloth, Irene dropped the resulting mess in the water bowl by her side.

“He’s rather plain for a hero, isn’t he?” Alkmene said quietly, studying their leader.

“That speaks well of him,” Irene replied, dragging herself up. “Means he’s not vain.”

She brought a short stool next to her sister’s seat and with a sigh dropped her head on Alkmene’s arm. The odd-eyed woman stroked her hair affectionately.

“You know what I mean,” her sister said. “Look, we didn’t change much when we became Named but there were some changes. I’m a little thinner. You’re taller than me by at least an inch more than before.”

“That’s because he’s a Judgement boy,” the Bard said.

Both sisters flinched at the interruption. Aoede was sitting by Hanno’s bedside, pulling at a bottle of rum.

“Where have you been all day?” Irene asked flatly.

“Nowhere,” the Bard grimaced. “They’ve figured out a few things.”

It would have been impolite for either of them to pursue this any further, unfortunately. One did not simply ask another Named how their Name affected them. The answers tended to be intensely personal, and sometimes forcing an answer could have grave consequences for everyone involved. The olive-skinned woman brushed back her curls, waving her bottle.

“But like I said, it’s because he’s a Judgement boy,” she continued. “The Seraphim don’t have a lot of tolerance for self-delusion. You’re taller ‘cause in your head you were that much taller than your sister. Irene is thinner ‘cause she never thought of herself as going to keep those pounds.”

“That’s fascinating,” her sister said blandly, reaching for a pitcher of wine and pouring herself a cup. “And you didn’t warn us the fucking Calamities were coming to town because?”

“Here’s a warning, since you want one. Don’t drink that,” the Bard replied easily

Irene frowned and her sister pulled away her hand from the cup like she’d been burned.

“Why?” the Priestess asked.

“There’s five Calamities,” Aoede said. “You’ve met three. One’s retired. And the last one is…”

“Assassin,” Irene whispered, eyeing the cup like it was snake. “It’s poisoned?”

“And just when the both of you are flat out of power to burn,” the Bard said admiringly. “None of us ever saw a whisk of him, and he’s still come closest to killing a hero today.”

Priestess found her hands were shaking.

“They’ve learned to work around me some,” Aoede said quietly. “There’s rules. I knew they were coming but not when.”

Irene waved away the unspoken recriminations they’d been offering. The Bard was not the enemy.

“Merciful Gods,” Alkmene muttered. “This has not been our day.”

“We’ve got some time before Hanno is back on his feet,” Priestess said. “We can rest a bit.”

“Seven days and seven nights before he wakes,” the Bard said. “Only one thing to do until then.”

“And what’s that?” Irene asked, raising an eyebrow.

The bottle of rum landed in her lap.

“For once,” the Ashen Priestess said, bringing the bottle to her lips, “I think you might actually be right.”

Villainous Interlude: Chiaroscuro

“It is a shallow soul who fights to the cry of ‘might makes right’. The truth is more concise: might makes.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis I, the Lawgiver

When young mages were taught the limits of sorcery, one of the first principle they were introduced to was that of Keter’s Due.

The largest sorcerous event ever to take place on Calernia was the creation of the Kingdom of the Dead by the king known to history as Trismegistus: a single man had, within the span of ten hours, cursed to undeath the entire population of an area comparable in size to the Wasteland. Though of course details were sparse, given that this had transpired before most of the continent was literate, through the higher order of mathematics introduced by the Miezans it was possible to piece together the broad lines of what had unfolded. Though High Arcana essentially bypassed the need for direct conversion and sympathetic links that limited lower sorceries, even those mysteries could ultimately be understood through numbers. A recent understanding, that. Early magic had been limited by capacity to channel power of individuals, the mental and physical exhaustion they could take before the continued manipulation of the laws of Creation burned them out.

The Taghreb had attempted to go beyond those limits by breeding with supernatural creatures more apt at using sorcery, most notably the djin. Limited success was attained: to this day, mages born to the southerners were on average more powerful than those born in the rest of the Empire. The Soninke solution had been less… carnal, and ultimately more successful: behind the walls of Wolof, the first ritual magic of Praes had been born. Those early rituals were brusque and inexact, relying heavily on human sacrifice to make up for deficiencies in what was not yet know as spell formulas. It was still a massive improvement over individual forms of sorcery, though this superiority was ultimately the reason further progress stalled: already having an edge in spellcasting, the ancient Soninke kingdoms sought to lessen weaknesses instead of improving a strength. A mistake that cost them in the War of Chains.

As in most things magical, the Miezan occupation changed everything. The foreigners from across the Tyrian Sea brought across with them Miezan numerals and the Petronian theory of magic. Though in many ways inferior to the Trismegistan theory later adopted by the Empire under Dread Emperor Sorcerous, the Petronian theory turned the ramshackle artistic ritual efforts of the Soninke mages into a proper method. The energies released by human sacrifice or other means of fuel began to be quantified and measured, matched to the requirements in scale and effect of what the mages set out to achieve. Which ultimately led to the discovery one of the great limits of sorcery: in the span between the release of energy and its conversion into a spell effect, whether it be ritual or individual, some of that energy was lost. Worse, that quantity of energy was not fixed but proportional to the total sum of energy released.

What was actually wasted varied from a tenth to fourth when it came to individual casting, but could go up to seven parts out of ten when it came to rituals. Though advances in spellcrafting and the theft of the entirely different Baalite spell formulas inherited by Ashur managed to lower that proportion, no spellcaster had ever managed to get the waste under a tenth in any form of sorcery. That tenth was colloquially known Keter’s Due. To turn an entire kingdom into undead, the Dead King in his capital of Keter was forced to open a stable and permanent portal into one of the Hells. And while nine tenths of that energy was properly channelled in ritual, the remaining portion turned the city of Keter into a warped ruin of anomalous magical phenomenon. The problem of Keter’s Due was that it limited what could be accomplished by ritual magic if you were in any way invested in where it took place. The larger and more powerful the ritual, the more dangerous the waste of power released.

Akua’s intentions were of titanic scale, which meant this was a titanic problem.

Turning Liesse into a ritual array had been achievable, especially after the widespread sabotage of all major infrastructure that had followed her taking stewardship of the city. Who exactly was responsible for that, she was still unsure. It had been too subtly wrought to be Foundling’s doing, and too moderate a retaliation to be the Lord Black’s. That left the Empress, but there was no way the woman would have allowed her control of the city if she actually knew what Akua intended. Her best guess was that she had not been the target at all, which was somewhat amusing if an irritation. Even with that interlude, Akua had been satisfied with the gain she’d made in the rebellion. Liesse’s wall ran with old and powerful wards, and the city had been built by the corpse of an angel. Tying both those assets into her own project had been a highly stimulating magical puzzle, one she’d been working on since the age of thirteen. And she had done it.

Akua was genuinely regretful that there was no one should could trust enough to boast of the achievement. It might be the single greatest accomplishment of her life. It was, though, somewhat of a comfort that eventually every living soul in Calernia would tremble at the mention of it. Powering the array had been the first issue, and one she’d come very close to solving at the Battle of Liesse: imprisoning a Hashmallim would have given her everything she needed and more. Unfortunately, Foundling had turned the Lone Swordsman’s blunder to her own purposes. Akua was not a debutante trying to pull off her first poisoning, so of course she’d had alternatives prepared. Fuelling anything of this size with demons was asking for trouble, considering the Due, so she’d had to look into gods. Securing the entity that dwelled in the heart of the Greywood had proved unfeasible, but her second target had panned out. Mostly.

The seventeen conduits she’d had her agents acquire – to the cost of many, mnay lives – were kept under enchanted sleep in chambers below the Ducal Palace. The seeking rituals she’d done had revealed that the entity they were bound to was artificial, not a natural force, but that made no real difference. According to her calculations it was even more powerful than the Hashmallim had been, which was a boon as well as a curse. When a stable binding was established and she triggered the array, Keter’s Due would effectively wipe Liesse and its immediate surroundings off the map. That was not an acceptable result, since she would be on the premises and fully intended on staying human. That was arguably the brilliant part of what she’d achieved with her array. She had found a way to still use the waste energy, what could be construed as a pre-conversion escapement that effectively negated the downsides of such a large ritual. Given the scale of the entity she’d found, however, she’d had to revise her schematics and broaden the size of the array’s escapement.

That meant more stone needed, more time and an ever-growing list of liabilities.

Secrecy was paramount: the moment the Named of the Empire became aware of what she was making they would immediately move to destroy her. Though she’d prepared Liesse for assault, Akua was not ready to face the full might of the Legions of Terror. Her infiltration and co-option of both the Scribe’s and the Empress’ spy networks in Liesse was a temporary state of affairs. The longer she had to falsify the information coming out of the city, the higher the chances her agents would be caught and purged. Already Malicia had flushed out the first level of her infiltration, and even if she was abroad Scribe would catch up eventually. The Webweaver was a tool, not a player, but she was a very effective tool.  There were, of course, more pressing threats. The worst of which had been unleashed by Foundling, who seemed to have a bottomless bag of talented lunatics to throw at Akua’s plans.

The heiress to Wolof was about due another of her backers coming to a grisly end, so her mood was already cautious when she allowed Fasili into her solar. There was no point in shuffling the parchments on her desk – she knew better than to keep anything compromising where there weren’t two dozen highly lethal wards forbidding entry to anyone but her. There were only seven safekeeping this room, a mere warning by Praesi standards. The Soninke bowed after entering, lower than he should to anyone not the Empress. Fasili was a fair hand at flattery, a skill helped along by the stunning good looks bred into all highborn Praesi.

“Lady Akua,” he greeted her. “Gods turn a blind eye to your schemes.”

“Lord Fasili,” she replied, affecting warmth.

She didn’t particularly care for him, though he was useful. Having the heir to the High Lordship of Aksum on her side opened doors and brought resources, even if he was semi-openly feuding with the woman who actually ruled that region. If she’d not been Named he would have been sizing her up for a dagger in the back to afterwards usurp control of her own faction, but as it was she was untouchable. That didn’t make him trustworthy in the slightest, but it did mean he was not a rival. He was a danger mostly to her other supporters, squabbling for the position as her right hand. For now, there was no need to deny him the perception that he was.

“I bring unfortunate tidings,” the man spoke in Mtethwa. “Another patrol has been destroyed.”

Surprising, the Named thought. After Foundling’s goblin had begun killing off her patrols she’d ceased using Praesi and had instead conscripted Callowans, knowing Squire would be reluctant to kill her countrymen. Maybe enough to recall her tool to Marchford, if he killed a few.

“She has gained in ruthlessness,” Akua said.

There was an undertone of approval to her voice. She’d learned the hard way not to underestimate the other woman, and seeing Squire adopt the more enlightened attitudes of the Praesi did not entirely displease her. It did not benefit her, of course, but Akua having strong enemies meant that Evil itself was strong. A skilled enemy was often more useful than an inept ally.

“Though you are no doubt correct,” Fasili said, “in this instance the deaths lack the marks of the other’s agents.”

Akua’s lips quirked the slightest bit at the word the man had used. Other. Nyengana, in Lower Miezan. The connotations did not carry across the languages. It meant not us, therefore inferior. Not other tongue on Calernia offered such a broad selection of terms to convey contempt as that of her people. The amusement was, however, fleeting.

“But it does bear marks,” she prompted.

“A survivor was left,” Fasili said. “He claims their patrol fell prey to a hunting party of fae from the Summer court.”

Akua’s face remained the picture of serenity.

“Not unexpected,” she smoothly lied. “Though ahead of my predictions.”

The fae? What in the name of the Dark Gods were they doing so far out of the Waning Woods? She’d been aware that Foundling was having trouble with the Winter court since the very first incident – the bastard Taghreb with the odious name Squire had running her spy network, though a talented amateur, was still an amateur – but she’d chalked that up to unforeseen side effects of using a demon of Corruption. Even Triumphant, may she never return, had only used those sparingly. Within a decade the thinning of borders would have fixed itself without any need for intervention, and if it kept Squire busy until then all the better. This, though? This was not a coincidence. If both courts were making a move on… Well, what they were attacking was the crux of the issue here, wasn’t it? It was unlikely to be the Empire, which left the unfortunate possibility it could be Callow itself. That could be problematic, given that almost the entire extent of her resources was tied up in the former kingdom.

The heiress to Wolof delicately grasped her decanter of Praesi wine and poured herself a cup, then one for Fasili as well. The other Soninke bowed his head in appreciation and took a seat when she wordlessly invited him to. He discreetly passed his palm over the cup before taking it in hand, skilled enough that the alchemical pellet of lesser antidotes made no sound when it sunk into the wine. For all that High Lady Abreha seemed to think little of her heir, Akua had found him to be everything a noble of Praes should be: ruthless, patient and subtle. He’d already arranged the disgrace of two possible rivals for his position since he’d returned to her court, in both cases through a dizzying series of catspaws and intermediaries. If she’d not had two devils discreetly tailing his every move, she might even have missed some of the intricacies of his plots. As it was, Fasili was in the palm of her hand. She knew who he was sleeping with, who his enemies were and where his coin was kept. It would be the work of a slow afternoon to destroy him, if the mood ever struck her.

She wouldn’t, of course. The other Soninke was a talented commander of men – though not as talented as Ghassan had been, before Foundling had ripped out his soul – and his schemes occupied enough of the players in her court that they had no occasion to dig too deep into her own activities. He’d made one attempt to investigate that himself, but the man he’d bribed to transcribe her architectural plans had been made to disappear the same day, along with the entire chain of intermediaries used. The message had been duly received and no further attempt ever made. Akua did like to deal with intelligent men: she never had to repeat herself. Sipping at her wine – her own pellet had already been at the bottom of the cup when she’d poured – the Soninke allowed herself to enjoy the taste of home. This particular one was from the outskirts of Nok, the grapes grown there tinkered with over centuries so they would pair well with the taste of antidote.

It was something of a faux pas among the nobility to serve wine where one could taste one’s precautions.

“We’ll narrow our patrol routes and double the numbers deployed with each,” Akua said.

Fasili inclined his head, allowing the faint trace of a smile to touch his full lips. He would be amused, Akua thought. Like most war-inclined aristocrats in the Wasteland, the man knew the deployment doctrines of the Legions of Terror inside out even if he’d never stepped foot inside the War College. This particular measure was straight out of the treatises penned by Marshal Grem One-Eye, as they both knew.  Most Wastelanders never bothered to read those, preferring to settle for what had been written by the Black Knight who, even if Duni, was still Praesi. Neither Akua nor Fasili, however, had been inclined to pass on the insights of the greatest military mind of their age simply because it had been born inside a greenskin body. Though Malicia’s dismissal of everything the Empire stood for was a mistake, it would be just as much of a mistake not to learn from the successes she had gained from a degree of practicality. Talent must be used wherever it was found. That much the Dread Empress had divined correctly.

“I’ve been given to understand that the Moderates are gaining ground,” Fasili said, tone casual. “Rumours imply that High Lady Amina might formally withdraw from the Truebloods.”

Which would mean Foramen and the Imperial Forges were not longer aligned with Akua’s mother, cutting off another means of influence for the Truebloods. High Lady Amina was owed half a tenth of any profits made by the Imperial Forges, making her one of the single wealthiest individuals in Praes. Losing those coffers – as well as the knowledge of the quantity and location of any armament made in the forges filling them – would be a major blow. The Named sipped calmly at her wine, then arched an eyebrow.

“Inconsequential,” she finally said.

Fasili managed to hide his surprise well enough that the only detail to betray it was the slight widening of his eyes. Akua watched the gears grind behind that handsome face, almost amused. If she was not bothered by the Truebloods falling apart, it meant that she was no longer dependant on them for backing. The implication there being she’d either struck deals with individual members of the faction that made their affiliation irrelevant – which she had – or that she intended to strike out on her own. Which she did, in a manner of speaking. She would not turn away the allies Foundling’s reckless accumulation of troops was gaining her, but the days where her efforts had been an extension of her mother’s designs were coming to an end. It would be strange, to stand without the protection the woman had afforded her all these years even if she hated her. Strange and exhilarating. The cage was finally breaking.

“Do you ever get tired, Lord Fasili?” Akua asked suddenly.

The man blinked.

“Of?”

“This,” she said, tone whimsical. “Of what we are. Of what we do.”

There was wariness in those eyes now. He was wondering if she was trying to entrap him in some way, to make him misstep so that she could bind him closer to her will. Akua could have told herself she didn’t know why she was speaking with this man, someone she could use but not trust, but that would have been lying to herself. Because Barika is dead. The pang of loss there surprised her, as it always did. Praesi did not have friends and confidantes, she’d always been told. They were too obvious a target, too large a liability. And yet on most days she still turned to her left to share a thought, only after realizing that the girl she would speak to was long dead. Barika was not the costliest loss she’d incurred at Liesse, but it was the one she felt the most often.

“Never,” Fasili replied. “My line is that of kings and Empresses. It would be a disgrace to reach for lesser prizes.”

In most cultures, Akua mused, one of her closest allies admitting to wanting a throne he believed she herself coveted would have been cause for a rift. For Praesi, though, it was duly expected. Ambition was bred into them before they were even born. Each High Lord and Lady saw to it their inheritors were more beautiful, more intelligent, more powerful than their predecessors. Some families had eschewed the Gift in their ruling line, for necromancy and diabolism often complicated the succession, but those that hadn’t always brought in the most powerful mage they could secure. Praesi aristocrats were expected to always look forward. If they could not claim the Tower or a Name, they were to strengthen the family and prepare the grounds for their successors to surpass them. For any trueborn Praesi to not attempt to reach the heights their ancestors had touched, to never try to go even further, was… blasphemy. Turning your back on everything that had come before you, all that set you apart from those beneath you.

Fasili Mirembe has assessed he could not currently claim the Tower or become an independent force through a Name, so he had aligned himself with Akua. Through this he sought to better his position, gain material advantages and favours that would allow him to either further the interests of Aksum or his own. Most likely he intended on being her Chancellor, if she became Dread Empress, and bide his time until he could knife her and become the Emperor himself. None of this offended her. Ambitions like these were what kept her people sharp, what set apart Praesi from the rest of Calernia. Akua’s people never settled for what they had been born with, never allowed themselves to stagnate. The Dread Empire had gone through hundreds of different faces and iterations before it had conquered Callow, but in the end it had. Because the Kingdom of Callow had been the same since its foundation, while Praes shifted with every Tyrant. And now Dread Empress Malicia wanted to kill the very soul of their nation.

Borders set in stone, never to advance again. The wonders of sorcery that were the envy of the continent, suppressed or abandoned. The High Lords, the very whip that drove Praes to improve, neutered into irrelevance in a fate more insulting than mere extermination. Centuries of toil to make the orcs a warrior caste incapable of functioning without the Tower thrown to the wayside by granting them authority. The goblins, who would always answer to their Matrons above anyone else, allowed to sink their claws in the Legions of Terror. Oh, Akua knew what was being done. Malicia and her Knight were making Praes a nation where the power was in the hands of institutions, not Named. An Empire that was no longer malleable for every Tyrant to make into whatever tool they needed to overcome the forces of Good. A fixed monolith, bound together by a philosophy that was nore more than the absence of philosophy. A nation that did not stand for anything but standing.

“Do you know why the Truebloods are losing, Fasili?” she asked.

“My great-aunt has splintered the opposition,” he replied immediately. “Without a united front, Malicia cannot be overcome.”

Akua smiled, the open display of emotion making him uncomfortable.

“They were never going to win,” she said. “After the civil war, when she set aside Black’s cold hate and refrained from a war of extermination against the nobility, we came to believe the Empress was one of us. That she played the Great Game.”

“Iron sharpens iron,” the other Soninke murmured.

And the sharpest iron takes the throne, she finished silently. Praes would always be strong, for only the strongest could claim the Tower. Every child that mattered was taught this from the cradle.

“But she doesn’t, Fasili,” Akua said. “This whole time we’ve been trying to win the same way we did with the Maleficents of the Terribilises of olden days. Acknowledging she has touched greatness but knowing that to grow again the Empire needs a fresh Tyrant. One still hungry.”

“The Empress has achieved more than almost any before her,” Fasili conceded reluctantly. “It is then her due to keep power longer than almost any before her. This changes nothing. In time she will lose her way and be overthrown.”

“She won’t be,” Akua said. “Because while we schemed for advancement, to be her successors, she has waged a war of destruction on us. And a few months ago, she won.”

The dark-skinned woman brushed hear hair back, though it was perfectly styled.

“She barred the office of Chancellor, the most important ward against reigns that linger,” Akua began to enumerate. “She opened the highest ranks of the Legions and the bureaucracy to lowborn and greenskins, smothering our influence there. With Callowan grain she has made field rituals irrelevant, severing the bond that kept the lesser nobility dependant on us. Trade with Callow has established sources of wealth we do not control, ending our ability to win through coin. All we have left is the court, where we claw at each other for ever-lessening gains and she smiles down at the corpses.”

Fasili had gone very, very quiet. He eyed her with barely-veiled horror.

“She’s not trying to win the Game,” she said. “That wouldn’t matter. No one can win forever. She’d trying to end the Game.”

“Then we must rebel,” he said. “Now, while we still can. If you bring this to the attention of the High Lords, they will back you. To do otherwise would be folly.”

Akua drank daintily from her cup.

“They already know, Fasili,” she said. “The hard truth of it is that if we wage war, we will lose. We cannot beat the Legions, and the Legions are loyal. Lord Black will not turn on his mistress and the Warlock bound the soul of the last envoy to a chamber pot. The Truebloods attempted to win through guile, and they have failed. My mother clings to her crumbling plans and grows desperate, while the weak-willed among them seek to surrender.”

She met his eyes calmly.

“For that is what the Moderates are: a surrender. Do not think otherwise for a moment,” Akua said. “In exchange for survival and scraps of influence, they turn themselves into coffers and spell repositories for Malicia to plunder as she wills.”

“I will not allow my blood, a line that goes back to the War of Chains, to be used as a fucking court ornament,” Fasili barked, eyes burning. “Evil does not surrender. Evil does not bow to inevitability. We spit in the eye of the Heavens and steal our triumphs.”

Akua allowed the unsightly display of emotion to pass without comment. It was not unwarranted, when one learned one’s entire way of life was teetering on the edge of destruction.

“I never believed in the Trueblood cause,” Akua admitted idly. “At the heart of their movement there was a sliver of hypocrisy. They believed their ways are superior, and therefore they should lead Praes. But if their ways were truly superior, would they not already be ruling?”

Their ways,” Fasili repeated, eyes narrowed. “You speak as if they are not yours as well.”

“You’ve read the treatises of Grem One-Eye,” she replied. “So have I. Would your parents have? I know my mother did not, and many consider her mind as sharp as the Empress’.”

“There is a difference between reading the words of the foremost general in the Empire and discarding everything we are,” the other Soninke flatly retorted.

“The duty of our predecessors was to make us more than they were,” Akua said. “They have succeeded in this: that is why we see a brilliant tactician instead of mouthy greenskin brute. For ages we’ve sought to forge better bodies, better sorceries, better minds – and yet we fight the same ways we’ve done since Maleficent first took a dagger in the back. We improve capacity without ever addressing perspective.”

“If that were true,” Fasili replied, “we would not be having this conversation.”

“We’re not having this conversation because of our families,” the dark-skinned woman said. “The Empress is the one who forced our eyes open.”

“The Empress would see us eradicated,” the heir to Aksum hissed. “And she is succeeding.”

“And for that,” Akua replied quietly, “We owe her much. Fasili, when was the last time that we were truly in danger? Not of losing the throne to another of the great families or of failing another invasion. When was the last time the High Lords and Ladies faced extinction?”

The man bit his tongue, then actually thought.

“The Second Crusade,” he said. “When the first revolt against the crusader kingdoms failed.”

“And from those ruins rose Dread Emperor Terribilis II,” Akua said. “One of our greatest, and a Soninke highborn. He did things differently from his predecessors and turned back two Crusades.”

“And so we should surrender to our superior on the throne?” Fasili said bitterly.

“You miss my point,” she said. “We flirted with destruction and we became better. Seven hundred years have passed since then, Fasili, without ever being in such a situation. We’ve become soft since then, narrow-minded. Arrogant.”

She smiled thinly.

“And so the Hellgods put us through the crucible again,” she said. “Adapt or perish. Are we relics to be discarded, or the beating heart of what it means to be Praesi?”

“We’re not done,” he said. “We’re never done.”

“My mother,” Akua said, “would have me be the swan song of Praesi villainy. The last stand, raging against the dying of the night. But our parents succeeded, Fasili. They made us better than them. We can learn.”

“Take what made them successful,” the man said slowly. “Make it ours.”

“Praes is a story,” she said. “A Tyrant to lead us. A Black Knight to break heroes. A Warlock to craft wonders. A Chancellor to rule behind them. And an Empire like clay, to shape into the tool they need: an entire nation built to empower the ambitions of a single villain.”

“Our Empress rules,” he murmured. “Our Black Knight leads. Our Warlock crafts nothing and our Chancellor is nothing. All the while the Empire calcifies into institutions, impossible to move.”

Yes. Finally, he was beginning to understand. None of them were acting as they should, not in the way that mattered. Malicia was more Chancellor than Empress, Lord Black had reigned as king in all but name for twenty years and the Warlock learned without ever building. They were trying to change the story but oh, they had not thought that entirely through had they? Because once the changes began, they were no longer in control. Anyone with the right power could shape the story too. Akua looked at them, and she did not see rulers. She saw stewards. They had made themselves to be administrators, and in Praes those ever only had one function: to enable the designs of the villain above them.

“Foundling came closest to understanding,” Akua said. “It’s how she beat me, at Liesse. It wasn’t her Name she used.”

Akua drained the last of her cup, gently put it down on the desk.

“It’s never been about the Names, you see,” the Diabolist smiled. “It’s always about the Roles.”