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Summary

The Empire stands triumphant.

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

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


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

Updates every Tuesday and Friday as of the latest Patreon goal. First update of every month will be accompanied by an Extra Chapter.

The author can be contacted at erraticerrata@gmail.com

Under no circumstances will Epub, PDF files, audiobooks or translation of the Guide be allowed.

Chapter 42: Journey

“A journey is one of those magical events that are turned into either an eternity or a heartbeat by the quality of one’s companions.”

– Aldred Alban of Callow, the Prince Errant

It was pretty clear that Cordelia had not been on a day-long ride in years, but to her honour even as she became pained she did not let out so much as a single complaint. Masego filled in the gap in whining, having always despised horse riding with a vengeance and not grown to like it in the slightest over the years, but of all people Akua came to the rescue.

“My own body is not yet fully accustomed to riding,” she told him. “As I’ve only had it for a few months.”

“It is very nice,” Masego told her, looking her up and down shamelessly.

There’d been about as much sexual tension in that look as in a visit to a healer’s tent to get your boils treated, not that it stopped Cordelia’s eyes from slightly widening. I sighed.

“He’s talking about the homunculus nature of the body,” I whispered at her.

It was made with magic, which made probably would make this the first pair of tits he’d actually be interested in looking at. In all fairness, if you had to pick one pair in all of Creation you could do much worse than Akua Sahelian.

“How sweet of you,” Akua replied, not batting an eye. “But it still needs breaking in, which is why I have been using a spell to ease my time in the saddle.”

Huh. Hadn’t known that. Hadn’t felt it either, but that was not entirely a surprise: a mage of Akua’s calibre was capable of hiding smaller workings from my senses if they did it on purpose. She offered to teach him the spell and he eagerly agreed, then took pity on Cordelia and offered to cast it for her as well.

“So that you might gauge the difference,” Akua smiling offered.

I saw the Prince of Rhenia seriously consider refusing her out of principle, but saddle-sore was saddle-sore. The spell was applied and we quickened our pace again, riding north through the Twilight Ways. It was hard to tell how good a time we were making: from a distance, the starlit compass was vaguer. I could only tell we were progressing, not at what rate. Not yet anyway.

Though the company we’d assembled was unusual – ‘the Black Queen, the First Prince, the Hierophant and the Doom of Liesse walk into a bar’, there was a premise – the travelling itself was smooth. I sometimes took Zombie on flights ahead, as much to bag some game as to cure her restlessness, and the addition of quail and rabbit to the cookpot was welcome. It was our custom to rotate the chore, which led to occasional bouts of the surreal. Sending the former First Prince of Procer out to gather firewood while the Doom of Liesse made biryani chicken for four felt like some sort of deranged waking dream.

Masego seemed entirely nonplussed, not that I’d expected anything else. I doubted Zeze would bat an eye even if the entire Choir of Judgment made him morning eggs, so long as they weren’t over-salted.

Three days in, as Akua went to gather firewood and Masego went about skinning the pair of rabbits I’d caught with a disturbing amount of skill – much easier than people, he’d told me with a horrifyingly well-meaning smile when I’d commented on it – I found my eyes following Cordelia’s hand. Or, more specifically, the ivory baton they were holding. The command rod for the ealamal. I knew it was real. I’d asked Masego, and there was no fake anyone in her service would have been able to make that’d fool his eye.

“You stare at it whenever it is near my hand,” Cordelia said.

“And that surprises you?” I replied. “It’s a lot of power bound to a pretty small object.”

She settled herself more comfortably against the fallen log, adjusting so it wouldn’t dig into her back.

“Not so much more than you could bring to bear, given time to prepare,” she said.

I snorted.

“Yeah, no,” I told her. “That’s not comparable, Hasenbach. Maybe with the Crows personally guiding my hand I could bring down something vaguely in the same league, but it’d kill me for sure.”

“You veiled the sun itself in Iserre,” Cordelia skeptically replied.

“I mimicked the effect of an eclipse, temporarily, for a small part of Iserre,” I corrected. “And that wasn’t me waving around a staff, it took months of preparations and an artefact that a once-in-a-century mage made.”

I paused.

“And I didn’t even do the deed,” I noted. “I’m the one who put in the power over the months, sure, but it was Akua and Sve Noc who called down the fake eclipse.”

“If you believe that to be reassuring,” Cordelia mildly replied, “you are sadly mistaken.”

I rolled my eye at her, then put up my palms in a gesture of appeasement.

“Look, at the end of the day we can quibble about precedents and equivalents all we want but you’re holding in your hands the control rod to one of the few artefacts in existence that can just kill me,” I said. “No ifs or maybes – I’m in the range of the ealamal when you use that thing, and I’m dead.”

I snapped my fingers.

“Just like that,” I said.

I wasn’t sure what the boundary conditions for not being killed by the wave of Light even though there’d been tests – it looked like maybe the standards on Judgment deciding to kill you were as low as they could get, but that was just informed guesswork by Roland – yet the odds that I wouldn’t be one of those picked off were so low as to be nonexistent: Warden or not, I was still a villain. In some ways I felt like I was a girl again, walking around with the knowledge that my life was only my own so long as no one decided to snatch it.

It’d not missed the feeling, but the years of war against Keter had done wonders for my tolerance to looming doom.

“So you’ll have to forgive me the staring,” I bluntly said. “It’s not going anywhere.”

Blue eyes studied me, maybe assessing how much of the agitation in my tone had been genuine. She decided it had been.

“I meant no offence either,” Cordelia said.

I shrugged, having taken none. I’d certainly encouraged the perception of my being an unstoppable force over the years, it very much had its uses. But it had led to people overestimating what I could actually do – or survive – sometimes.

“I’ll confess to some curiosity as to how you even have it,” I said, trailing off.

I wasn’t going to push if I hit a wall, but I was more than a little interested. I didn’t know Rozala Malanza all that well, but she didn’t seem like the kind of woman who just handed out doomsday weapons to recent political opponents.

“It was part of the negotiated terms for my abdication,” Cordelia admitted.

Huh. It was true that Cordelia had been in a decent bargaining position when she’d negotiated her abdication. Support for Hanno had been growing, but it’d not been support for him to rule all of Procer and it certainly hadn’t been support for Rozala Malanza to do the same instead. After the war would have been a toss-up, there was no telling whether Cordelia would have ended up an untouchable saviour or the woman blamed for the horrors, but at the time of the deal her throne had been solid. She’d lost most of Procer, sure but the parts that had stayed were still largely behind her.

“Didn’t quite trust her with the doomsday weapon, huh,” I said.

Couldn’t entirely blame her. If I’d built something that stupidly dangerous I would want to keep it under my thumb too.

“Trust,” Cordelia replied, “can be a very complicated word.”

“I’m not casting stones,” I shrugged. “If anything I can sympathize.”

Cool blue eyes studied me.

“Can you?” she said.

“I’ve had issues with giving up power even when it was my decision to,” I frankly said. “I like to think of those times as growing pains, but it’s not quite that clear-cut.”

I’d been an ass to Vivienne for some time, when it’d sunk in what my abdication would actually mean. An abdication she’d in no way forced on me, any more than my choice of her as my successor. It wasn’t the same with Hasenbach and Rozala Malanza, but there was enough in common I could feel pangs of sympathy.

“Have you considered,” Cordelia said, “that perhaps the decision was as much about you as Princess Rozala?”

I blinked at her, taken aback.

“How’s that?” I asked.

Her lips quirked mirthlessly.

“You have a history of only listening when the interlocutor also has a knife at your throat, Catherine,” Cordelia Hasenbach said. “I took the precaution when I believed I was to be Warden of the West, but I stand by it.”

I bit the inside of my cheek, trying to decide whether I should be insulted by that or not. Wasn’t sure yet.

“A complicated word, is it?” I mildly said.

“I took oaths,” Cordelia simply said. “To you, I do not deny it, but I yet heed older ones. If we lose, if the Dead King triumphs and the land teeters on the brink of extinction, I will make the hard choice.”

My jaw tightened.

“If we lost in Keter,” I slowly said, “you want to blast the ealamal. As strong as you can.”

“More than nine in ten should survive the Light,” Cordelia quietly said. “Should nothing go wrong.”

“You don’t know that it won’t,” I flatly said. “You’ve never fired that thing at the kind of strength you’re talking about. The furthest you’ve gone is the borders of Salia.”

“I cannot,” Cordelia grimly agreed. “Yet what can I do but make that choice anyhow, if the other choice is death for all? Even should nine in ten die instead, it would be better than annihilation.”

“And if it goes worse than that,” I pressed. “If everyone dies?”

Her lips thinned.

“Then when a ship next crosses the Tyrian Sea, its captain will not find all of Calernia a realm of the dead,” the blue-eyed princess said. “A cold comfort, but then I am Lycaonese: we are winter’s get.”

I leaned back. I recognized the cast to her face, it was the one she always had whenever I’d brought up the angel corpse over the years. She wasn’t going to be moved on this. And I could even see the grim sort of sense in it: like she’d said, even the most horrific of results was a better end than extinction and become soldiers in Keter’s service. On the other hand, she had to know that absolutely no one who had a decent chance of dying should that weapon be used – a number including every villain alive – would find this acceptable or be willing to tolerate her keeping the baton should they find out.

I held no illusions about the people who’d been my charges until recently: if the worst came to pass in Keter, they would be legging it through the Twilight Ways towards the closest port where Baalite ships docked. Learning that instead they were going to get an angel knife in the back might genuinely make a few of them desert and I wasn’t sure I blamed them. It would not be too hard a thing, I thought, to sweep this under my authority as Warden. Odds were Hanno would back me, and Ishaq doubtlessly would. Hells, I could just take the damn thing from her and it wasn’t like she had the strength to stop me.

It’d be a lie to say I was not tempted.

Silence hung between us. It might yet come to force, I thought, meeting those blue eyes. You have to know that. But for all that her holding that ivory length was putting a knife to my throat Cordelia had also extended trust, hadn’t she? She’d told me what she intended without being forced, pretty much admitting that she saw her duty to Calernia as something that came before even the oaths she’d sworn to me as Warden. One step forward and one step back, only it didn’t feel like we’d stayed still.

A noose was just a knot, until you’d killed someone with it.

“A complicated word,” I slowly repeated.

And left it at that.

For now.

The journey was restful in some ways, but in others it was not to be. That much became clear as the days passed.

I’d never particularly enjoyed cooking: it was a lot of tedious little chores followed by equally tedious looking over fires and ending up in a plate that never seemed to be quite as good as when made by others. Still, it would be shabby of me not to pull my weight so I’d learned to be solid with at least few recipes. Of those I liked hunter’s stew the best, since it was about as simple as cooking got, and I’d become a fair hand at it. There would be the usual bickering from the gallery about spices when time came to fill the bowls, I had no doubt, but that was part of the draw by now. Indrani sneering down on Callowan tastes and Vivienne going for her throat in retaliation was always good for a laugh.

Hells, back in the day even Akua got into it once or twice. Like most Praesi, she seemed convinced that any plate without a fistful of goddamned cumin sprinkled over it was unforgivingly bland.

I checked on the pot, finding the stew simmering, and stirred it a few times with the ladle before closing it again. I looked through the smoke as Masego sat across from me, long legs folding as he tried and failed to make himself comfortable perched atop a stone much too small for that. I thought of a praying mantis for a moment, looking at the long limbs, and almost laughed. To think he’d been pudgy when we first met. I could hardly even remember what that was like: he’d melted in the months leading up to the Tenth Crusade and never gained back the weight. Long robes and the black eye cloth, a golden glimmer beneath it, were what I saw in my mind’s eye when I thought of Masego nowadays.

“Won’t be ready for at least another hour,” I told him. “So if you were hoping for an early bowl-”

“I was not,” Zeze calmly replied. “I came to speak with you.”

I narrowed my eye at him. That sounded serious. I wiped the steel ladle on a cloth and set it down.

“I’m listening,” I told him.

He didn’t speak, at first, as if surprised I’d agreed so easily or unsure what he’d wanted to say.

“We have come a long way since the day we first met in Summerholm,” Masego said.

I half-smiled. By some counts, Apprentice could be said to be the first Named to join what was yet to become the Woe. He’d already been a master of his mantle when Hakram had only just begun to come into his.

“You’ve taken to chasing larger creatures than winged pigs,” I drawled.

He quietly laughed.

“Too many still breathe fire,” Zeze replied.

He paused, looking for words, and I gave him the space to think. There was rarely any gain to be had in rushing his mind.

“We have all changed,” Hierophant finally said, gold shining beneath cloth. “You do not seek the same ends you did back then, and you seek them differently.”

“Yeah,” I murmured. “I’ve been seeing that too. We’ve…”

Moved on, I refused to say, because if they were gone from my life what did I have left?

“It is inevitable,” Masego said. “The man who raised me is not the same who stood at Uncle Amadeus’ side during the Conquest. In overcoming circumstance we grow – or are buried, overcome by it.”

“I’d argue they were the same man,” I said. “Just standing in two different places, at two different times.”

Hardship and pleasure bent people in many ways but ultimately they were just colour on the canvas. They did not, could not define what the work was painted on. To my surprise, he smiled.

“I knew you would disagree,” he said. “You still believe in the line in the sand, the difference between right and wrong. I have grown to like that about you, Catherine.”

I cocked an eyebrow at him.

“Have you?” I drily asked.

He nodded.

“You try to make people stay on one side of the line,” Masego said. “And, more often than not, we are better off for it. It doesn’t always work, but I like that you try.”

I cleared my throat, looked away. He’d always been at his most dangerous when he was painfully earnest.

“But you don’t believe in that,” I said.

“I believed that we should try,” Masego honestly said. “You have shown me the value of that. But we’ve had this conversation once before, years ago. In the end-”

“- Creation ends,” I quietly finished. “So it’s not wrong to care about it, but it’s missing the point. We should be looking beyond the bars, not rearranging the inside of the cell.”

He looked pleased.

“So you do remember,” Masego said.

“This,” I said, “is about apotheosis, isn’t it?”

“You have all found purposes,” Hierophant said. “Hakram heals the people he once saw as a lost cause, Vivienne has traded the rooftop for the throne, Indrani has decided that instead of being Ranger she wants to be better than her. And you…”

He mulled over his words.

“You have decided to pull down the curtain on the Age of Wonders and usher what comes after with your own two hands,” Masego finally said.

“Everyone’s changed,” I slowly said, “except you. Is that what you’re saying?”

“I will break the shackles I was born bearing around my wrists,” Hierophant simply said. “I will open my mind to the secret of existence and burn with the truth of the godhead.”

I almost shivered. It was a nice evening out, warm with bright starlight and the merry gurgle of a stream right around the bend of the hill. And still I almost shivered, for though there had been no threat in my friend’s words neither had there been so much as a speck of doubt. Masego had become the Hierophant by peeking at the truths behind the curtain, laws mortals were not meant to understand, and he had been unwavering in his sole ambition ever since: he would become as a god, and then step beyond even that. I studied him, fingers clenching and unclenching.

“I feel,” I finally said, “as though I am being warned.”

“The Dead King awaits in Keter,” Hierophant evenly said. “And when I face him once more, Catherine, I will even the scales between us.”

“You want revenge for your magic,” I said.

“Revenge is not the right word,” he mused. “It is the bargain of an eye for an eye, and that is not a rule I abide by.”

Through the smoke, I saw Masego’s eye burn bright gold through the cloth.

“I will ruin him,” Hierophant said, his calm like that of a deep, dark lake. “I will make of Autumn’s crown a noose around his neck and make him watch as I tear out of him everything of worth.”

The fire crackled. Motes of gold danced on the smoke, as if traced by some luminous finger.

“I will use the sum of his works as a step for my own,” Hierophant told me, “and let him rot like a bloated carcass as I reach horizons he never so much as glimpsed.”

The dark-skinned man leaned forward, long braids sliding off his shoulder.

“That is what I promise Trismegistus King, and only then will I count us even for what passed between us,” Masego said.

I swallowed. These were not idle words, I knew. He wasn’t the kind of man to speak those. Masego genuinely meant to rip out the power of Neshamah and use it as part of his own apotheosis.

“Why tell me this?” I asked. “Why now?”

The glass eye’s light ebbed low, now little more than glimmers again.

“You made room for everyone else in the world you’re building, Catherine,” Masego said, then smiled.

He drew back and just like that there was no trace of the Hierophant left in him, none of the intensity that’d filled the air around likes a physical thing. As if it’d only ever been a trick of the light and the illusion had been broken the moment he moved.

“Remember to make room for me as well,” he asked.

I loved the man like a brother, and he loved me the same, but I knew a warning when I heard one. When the moment came for him to even the scales, if I stood in the way it would not be a small thing. That was what he’d been telling me.

If it came down to choosing between my dream and his own, his choice was already made.

I’d gotten used to my laundering being done for me.

Both the Army of Callow and the Legions had it as an assigned duty, but I’d never served at a rank where I might end up needing to kneel by the river shore and rub the dirt out of my clothes – or other people’s. I wasn’t unfamiliar with the chore, it was one of those we traded around when the Woe travelled together. Usually it was Vivienne who traded for it, she didn’t mind getting her hands bone cold, but she wasn’t along this time. So instead I found myself kneeling in the sand by Akua Sahelian, washing clothes in the stream. It was hard work, and rough on the hands, but there was only so much to wash and when it came to drying afterwards we cheated with magic.

The aftermath found us sitting on flat rocks by the river as we waited on the spell to finish getting the water out of the blankets. Akua had insisted on using a slower one, since apparently it didn’t damage the fabric.

“How do you even know that?” I asked. “If you tell me you’ve ever had to do your own laundry, I’m going to call you’re a liar.”

She rolled her eyes at me, the simple red and yellow robes she wore somehow managing to look tailored instead of plain.

“It is originally a spell meant to rid oneself out of contact poisons,” Akua said. “There’s nothing worse than a botched assassination attempt ruining your favourite dress.”

“Of course,” I drily replied. “How dare I ever think otherwise.”

“It is the common birth, I assume,” Akua kindly informed me. “I have reliably been informed that lowborn children are born with inferior minds.”

I glanced at her.

“Please tell me that’s not actually something one of your ancestors believed,” I pleaded.

Akua smiled beautifully.

“Not at all, dearest,” she said.

A pause.

“It was his Mirembe wife,” she told me. “There was a most fascinating treatise on the subject in the family library. Did you know that Callowans are also born naturally subservient? While I’ll admit I’ve yet to encounter such a specimen, very convincing experiments were executed to prove this.”

“I’m going to strangle you,” I cheerfully told her.

“Irrational anger in the face of one’s divinely ordained superior,” Akua noted. “I was warned it might happen.”

I tossed a stone in her direction, though she got a shield and a smug look up in time. My lips were quirking, though, and so were hers.

“So what’s your take on our guest?” I asked her.

She slid me a glance.

“Catherine Foundling,” Akua said, “are you soliciting me for gossip?”

“Indrani’s not there,” I complained. “And Masego doesn’t get the point. He always tries to be nice.”

She was grinning, now.

“She snores like a bear, did you notice?” the golden-eyed sorceress said.

“It was horrifying,” I admitted. “I couldn’t believe it was her at first, she’s always so dainty about everything. I’m impressed at how good she is with a bow, though.”

Cordelia had bagged us a pair of rabbits a few days back, which had been a pleasant addition to the cooking pot as well as a surprise.

“Lycaonese nobles are expected to hunt, I believe,” Akua said. “Not unlike Praesi, though presumably with fewer assassinations attached.”

“In my experience, that’s always a safe assumption when Praes is involved,” I said.

She snorted at me. It was light talk, nothing of politics or Keter or the many dooms ahead, and it made knots in my shoulders loosen. It was so rare, these days, that I could afford to just sit with someone by a river and talk. We must have spoken for an hour, far longer than the spell needed to finish, but I sensed she was as reluctant as I to acknowledge that and put an end to it. Eventually, though, it became harder to ignore that we would be awaited in camp. I sighed. Her expression immediately went blank, the highborn mask falling down over the lovely face. What had I done? I hesitated, but dimly I could sense that prodding at her now I was likely to lose a finger.

I kept to the silence instead, until humanity bled back into her face and she broke it herself.

“It would be easy,” Akua said, “to simply fall into your orbit again. I forget that, every time we are parted.”

She smiled at me, fondly but without amusement.

“Somehow I always forget that that it is not some subtle manipulation that you entrapped me with,” Akua said. “That you truly enjoy my company, and that is what makes it so very easy for you to win.”

“That’s not what I’m trying to do,” I said.

“It’s always what you’re trying to do, Catherine,” she replied with a strange gentleness. “It’s in your bone, the disease you inherited from the father you chose.”

My fingers clenched into a fist. That wound was still fresh. I wasn’t convinced it could ever be any other way.

“I’m not sure what it is you’re saying,” I said.

“I have had enough of cages,” Akua told me. “And choices being made for me.”

“You’re talking in circles,” I replied.

“If I choose to serve as the jailor of the King of Death,” she said, “it will not be at anyone else’s behest.”

“I’ve asked nothing,” I replied.

It had taken years for me to make it so I wouldn’t have to. It had gone wrong in Ater, all the small steps I’d taken. The moment they should have led up to never came to pass. There’d been too much going, and the Bard had put her fingers to the scale. Had the pivot passed, had I failed? Looking at her, seeing her looking at me, I had to consider the possibility that I had.

“Nor should you,” Akua said, gracefully rising to her feet. “Of all the debts I owe, the one I owe you is far from the heaviest.”

She began to gather the clothes, a clear sign the conversation was finished. And it left me wondering a question I would rather not have to entertain at all.

If I had failed, what then?

On our thirteenth night on the road we found the guide Sve Noc had sent us for the latter half of our journey to Serolen, waiting seated by a shallow river. The colours of my sigil painted on its face, Ivah of the Losara offered me a smile as it rose to its feet.

“First Under the Night,” Ivah said, bowing low, “it has been too long.”

Chapter 41: Passing

“Forty-four: never refuse a companion come to join your journey at the last moment. Whether true or traitor, they represent a necessary opportunity.”

– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown

The heroes had come together in one of their little councils and a verdict emerged: when all marched on Keter, the Mirror Knight would wield the Severance.

I’d hoped it would be Hanno instead, but I would make my peace with the decision. It wasn’t like he’d be keeping the sword after the war anyway – it had been made in the Arsenal, so by treaty it would be going into a vault under Cardinal as soon as one was built. It would see the light of day again if a Warden saw a threat emerge that it should be wielded against, but I had my doubts there would be another of those in my lifetime. Vivienne had the Jacks keep an eye on Christophe de Pavanie afterwards and they noted he did not seem to feel particularly happy about the choice.

Rumour had it he’d argued against his own candidature, though even my friends among the heroes remained tight-lipped. Knowing their kind, trying to refuse the charge had probably swayed a few more in favour of him taking up the sword. Still, important as the decision had been as the days passed it felt like little more than an afterthought. A much greater test was looming just ahead, after all: word had been sent to the Herald, and we were now prepared for the final talks with the envoy of the Kingdom Under. Even the most eminent of swords was a small thing, compared to the conversation that would make or break our attack on Keter.

We took Cordelia’s suggested line, at least superficially. The Barrow Sword would sit in as the representative for Below and the First Prince had reached out to the Kingdom Under through the dwarven gate to find an interlocutor should the talks with the Herald fail. We’d kept it deniable and strictly Proceran so far, talking about the trade the gate being dug up might represent while Cordelia’s envoys sought to get in touch with an isolationist dignitary. It wasn’t that subtle, of course, and wasn’t meant to be – our best shot at getting in touch with such a person was them finding us, not the other way around, so rumours were to our advantage.

And if this blew back on us, then the Grand Alliance could say it’d all been the Principate and that Cordelia Hasenbach would abdicate because of this debacle, because she totally hadn’t been planning on doing that anyway.

We got tentative feelers back from a dwarf whose title was something like ‘home-lord’ in dwarven, but she got frustrated when our envoys got noncommittal and that boded well. Knowing our time was running out, we rushed the meeting a day early. The Herald of the Deeps and Seeker Balasi were once again the whole sum of the Kingdom Under’s delegation, which in retrospect looked a little suspicious. Arrogant as dwarves were, they had to know that sending fewer people than the number of fucking cities you were asking for was a bit much – this was the Herald’s choice, I figured, cutting other people out of the room so word couldn’t get out to his opponents back home.

It boded well for our bargaining position that he couldn’t even be sure of everyone in his delegation.

“You have been given sufficient time to grasp the terms,” Balasi bluntly said. “Have you deliberated your answer?”

They didn’t waste time on courtesies and this time Cordelia didn’t pull out the perfect hostess routine, which I felt was rather more honest a way to do this. Hanno might be inclined to see the best in the Herald, but I had yet to find any reason to.

“A sort of answer, certainly: it has come to our attention that you have not been negotiating in good faith,” Cordelia Hasenbach coldly replied.

I reached for my wakeleaf and began stuffing my pipe, letting the hero and the diplomat have at it. I was here to look imposing and wave my Night stick, not pull strings they were my better at pulling.

“This is an insult,” the Herald calmly said. “Withdraw it and apologize or these negotiations are at an end.”

Mistake, I thought. The green-eyed dwarf wasn’t a diplomat and it showed. Never give that kind of an ultimatum unless you were sure you wouldn’t be called on it or you were willing to go through with the threat. The First Prince matched his gaze, unblinking.

“The door is behind you.”

Balasi rose to his feet.

“Salia will be sunk into the ground for this,” the deed-seeker hissed. “You insult envoys of the King Under-”

Silence,” I Spoke.

His mouth closed shut and he stared at me as if I’d gone mad.

He might think so, but it had been a tactical choice. It meant the Herald would have to speak for himself at all times and I was looking for something else besides. Still, I cocked my head to the side. That’d resonated more strongly than it should have. It was like I’d thought in Praes, the aspect was so close to emerging it would only need a single halfway solid pivot to solidify. As I considered that I kept my dead eye on the Herald, who under the calm façade was furious. Personally so. But is it him you’re in love with, or is this just a close friendship? I could not tell, I wasn’t good enough at this yet.

 There were a lot of revenge stories around the Herald that began by Balasi dying, but that didn’t precisely confirm it either. The death of family or a childhood friend was just as common a catalyst as a lover’s to begin a journey of revenge.

“Now,” Cordelia said, leaning forward, “do you intend to leave?”

I knew her well enough to tell that the glint in her eye was a vicious little twist of satisfaction. Couldn’t blame her, given how these two had tried to use the threat of extinction at the hand of a common foe to extort us out of three cities.

“It appears there has been a misunderstanding,” the Herald evenly said. “We will depart once it has been resolved and you have understood the depth of your mistake.”

“Your intentions were understood,” Hanno said. “You are attempting to create realms on the surface where you can change the ways of your people.”

It was calculated that he would be the one to speak. If it turned out we’d been wrong in our conclusions, then he could take a step back after Cordelia ‘chided’ him and remain silent like Ishaq – who was looking faintly amused as he beheld all this and was not inclined in the slightest to get involved. He was a man who knew his limitations, the Barrow Sword. He was still a few years away from having earned a seat at this sort of table in his own right.

“You assume much, angel-child,” the Herald replied.

“It is a laudable undertaking,” Hanno continued, “but your means are wrong. You cannot build the foundations of a better world by setting the stones on the back of those who live in it.”

The Named dwarf’s face tightened, the first sign of anger obvious enough I was able to catch it.

“You know nothing, White Knight,” the Herald of Deeps said. “Of what is needful or needed. The weight of your ignorance is crushing.”

The air in the room thickened, but I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth.

“None of that, now,” I lazily said. “Else I’m going to start doing it too, and you won’t like where that leads.”

“Threats and insults,” the Herald scorned. “All of you will pay for this insolence.”

He stopped massing power, but only because he rose to his feet as well. He strode out of the room, Balasi following after throwing me a glare I rolled my eye at. They two of them left silence in their wake until the Barrow Sword broke it.

“I take it negotiations with these fine fellows are at an end,” Ishaq said, stroking his beard.

I cast a look at Cordelia, who looked thoughtful, and then Hanno.

“No,” the Sword of Judgment said.

“No,” the First Prince agreed. “They will be back.”

Two bells later, they were proved right.

Dusk was approaching when the two of them returned. They were ushered back into the same room after being made to wait while we gathered up again. This time there were no theatrics: they knew that while they still had a blade at our throat now we had one at theirs. Not the Kingdom Under’s, that was a lost cause, but them specifically. Cordelia’s fondness for cards as a chosen metaphor for diplomacy was proving accurate: we’d played the opponents instead of the cards, and now we were getting results. Interestingly, I noticed that while my command had faded in Basali there was a lingering echo. If I gave the same order, it would come down much more harshly the second time – and my instinct was that three might lead to permanence.

That might prove more than a little useful, if the aspect was meant for what I thought it was.

Hanno took the lead this time, as Cordelia had already pulled the rug out from under them. It was about the soft glove now, not the steel underneath.

“You accused me ignorance,” he said. “Help rid me of it.”

It shouldn’t have worked, I thought. But I knew it would. Because underneath the calm I could see that the Named was just itching to talk. To lay it all out to someone who’d understand, who’d agree. It was the same reason villains gloated, only instead of getting them friends it got them killed.

“The Kingdom Under,” the Herald of the Deeps began, “has grown calcified.”

He spun us a tale, after that. Reading through the lines and navigating an unfortunate number of words in dwarven that I had no idea how to pronounce, it looked like the heartlands of the Kingdom Under had grown into pretty much a caste system. People lived and died in their little bubbles according to tortured rules, only the rungs on the caste ladder were quite literal here: the commons lived crammed in the deepest pits, the respectable in the nicer cities that had been emptied as the expansions continued.

The Herald was from one of the wealthiest families in the great city that was broadly below Orne, a place called Maradar, but he had seen the evils in the way the commons were used because… there he gave a look to Balasi that put to rest any notion it was just friendship between them. Deed-seekers, as I recalled, were dwarves who sought to commit great deeds to their status would be raised in dwarven society. The pieces fit rather neatly together.

“After I became the Herald,” he said, “I attempted reforms. It… did not go well.”

“There was war,” Balasi frankly said. “He was accused of stepping beyond his Burden.”

“So you compromised by heading the Fourteenth Expansion,” Hanno said.

Only that too had failed. While the largely bloodless victory I’d delivered to them over the Firstborn had seen the Herald lauded, it had also made the pioneering safe. His opponents from back home, seeing massive gains to be made at little risk, had immediately begun getting their hands all over the colonies. To get him out of the way they’d tossed him leadership of the Fifteenth Expansion, an unprecedented honour, but those first waves would be mostly soldiers and those had other loyalties. If he wanted to make a haven for the trod upon, then he would need somewhere else to bring them.

So, as we’d surmised, he’d cut a deal with the same people who had been chasing him off after every victory.

“Securing cities for support would have been so resounding a victory we would have been untouchable for at least a century,” the Herald said. “Time to grow, to make alliances.”

“A fair turn given to an ugly act,” Cordelia said, unimpressed.

“You would already have gone beyond us if you did not want to cut a deal,” Balasi replied. “So offer your terms, First Prince.”

“Keter,” she replied.

“A wasteland infested with the dead,” the Herald frowned.

“A great city among once-rich lands,” Hanno replied. “An outpost with roads to the Kingdom Under, a natural capital to the Fifteenth Expansion.”

“Even if all the dead are broken,” Balasi slowly said, “there would be no trade, or humans to work under us.”

“Are you seeking change,” the Sword of Judgment quietly replied, “or just to add a rung below you on the ladder?”

Both dwarves flinched. There was talk back and forth after that, about boundaries of land and trade concessions and the massive sum of gold that they both wanted – I now suspected to make a garden out of Keter, if they were stuck there – but I could tell that it was Hanno’s retort that had done it. Every time it looked like they were getting angry, they felt the bite of the bladelike sentence slide below a rib.

“It is not the bargain I was expected to make,” the Herald told us when the negotiations wound down. “I may not have the support to make it law.”

“I am willing for Procer to take the debt immediately if supplies for the siege of Keter are promised,” Cordelia told him.

“I cannot promise them,” the green-eyed dwarf admitted. “I do not have the authority to move such quantities by my word alone. The land-kings will have their say.”

“But you can help,” Hanno pressed.

“I have struck a bargain with Sve Noc through an envoy before,” the Herald said, glancing at me. “This power none can deny me, so these talks do not worry me. All I can offer for the land-kings is an oath on my staff that I will fight for these terms with all my might.”

So not a sure thing, I thought with a grimace. It wasn’t the agreement we’d wanted, and the Sisters had yet to agree to the terms – which involved them ceding a great deal of territory theoretically theirs – but it was something. And if we tried to go pas them, reach out to their opponents in the Kingdom Under, we ran risks too. The talks might be killed entirely, or the terms grow worse. And even if it worked out just fine, it would take time. What would better terms matter, if they were accepted when we were all dead? No all the decisions we could make carried risks. The real question was which of them was the best risk to take.

 My gut said this was the one.

Hanno had gotten to Herald, I’d seen it, and that would work for us. It was a better bet than a complete unknown. I met Cordelia’s eyes and nodded my assent.

“Then speak to the land-kings, Herald,” the First Prince said. “This is the bargain we seek.”

Drinks were brought in, we emptied them and the Herald of the Deeps swore his oath. I saw Creation eddy from the strength of it. It will not be broken without consequence, I thought. That night, as I lay in bed I found that sleep eluded me. The assault on Keter had always been going to be a gamble, a roll of the dice that would lead to either victory or extinction, but it was even more so now. We had enough supplies for the march and a few weeks once we set camp around the Crown of the Dead – a little under two months, barring a disaster, but even two months wouldn’t be enough to crack open Keter.

If the Herald failed, we failed with him.

I was not surprised that I slept little, and fitfully.

It was actually quite hard to take anyone by surprise through the Twilight Ways, at least when you got to the scale of armies. A cavalry contingent of a handful of Named could be slipped in to devastating effect, that was true, but an entire army? Getting it through the gates could take more than a day sometimes, not unlike marching a host through a narrow mountain pass, and it was even worse when you were leading a coalition force – half a dozen languages, people yelling about who was in charge and too many different baggage trains. Having led such a force on the Hainaut front for almost two years, I figured I had my finger on the pulse of the kind of troubles it entailed.

As always, though, the League of Free Cities found a way to surprise me. After a day and a half they had most of the Helikean army through and that was pretty much it. Everyone else had landed small forces, squabbling over who should go through, and apparently Bellerophon’s citizen militia was debating just staying in the Twilight Ways the whole time.

There would, I was informed, be a vote.

Still, by the afternoon of the second day there was no longer any delaying the official ‘arrival’ of the League: people had seen the troops crossing into Creation, word was reaching Salia and there might be a panic if the situation was left unattended. The people of Procer’s capital had gotten much twitchier about armies since the shine off the myth of the Principate’s invincibility had worn off. For that and diplomatic reasons, theatre was made of the whole affair. It suited all parties, since the League cities wanted to salvage their reputation after sitting out most of the war while Procer was in desperate need of good news to trumpet about.

All of the cities picked two hundred of their shiniest soldiers – Bellerophon drew the names by lot instead – and a parade was welcomed into the city to raucous cheers. Cordelia cracked open the foodstuff reserves to throw street banquets and newly minted Empress Basilia sent out crates of salted fish, dried mutton and dates as an elegant gesture of goodwill. If she made sure that the generosity was traced back to her by having her own officers distribute what was technically League stores, well, that was just how those games were played. She’d not gotten her hat by missing opportunities.

The city’s spirits were lifted, the doom just beyond the horizon forgotten for a night, and why wouldn’t the people cheer? Not even the First Crusade had boasted an array of soldiers from so many parts of Calernia: this time all the nations of the continent stood on the right side of horror.

I did not take long for Basilia Katopodis to seek me out after the formalities were done. She came alone, keeping the pretence of a visit between old friends instead of state affairs, but we both knew better. I received her in the same bar I’d received Nestor Ikaroi in when he came on her behalf, standing behind the counter. The Protector of the League had good taste in drinks:  she asked for a Wasteland mule, which was a finger of aragh in pale beer. It was an old Legion favourite I remembered from the War College, beloved of students for being a cheaper drunk than either beer or aragh and of innkeepers for being really easy to cut with water without affecting the taste.

“I wondered if Ikaroi was boasting,” Basilia amusedly said as I handed her the mug, “but it seems not.”

“It’s a little nostalgic,” I admitted.

“I wonder if there are any boys in Laure who now boasts of having had their ale poured by a queen,” she mused.

I snorted.

“There’s a few who could boast of getting more than that, if they put the details together,” I told her, wagging my eyebrows suggestively.

She choked on her drink, spraying mist on Cordelia’s nice carpets as she coughed. Ah, the costs of diplomacy. The Empress of Aenia, a realm that covered almost half the territory of the League, was a tall brown-haired woman with a rather plain face and the build of someone who’d spent most of their life on horseback wearing heavy armour. No one would call her pretty, but she was fit and fierce – interesting to the eye the same way a tiger would be. She’d once been believed a man, I’d heard, but I would not have guessed at a glance.

“There are tales about Callowan serving girls,” the Empress admitted, grinning.

“All lies, except for the ones that are true,” I drawled.

She’d not come for idle talk, of course, but I saw worth in keeping the loosely friendly relationship we’d had so far. I had been Basilia’s informal patron during her rise in power, providing support from afar while she fought Malicia’s allies in the League. I’d even tugged at Cordelia’s sleeve once or twice to get her to toss the then-general a bone. We both knew she’d risen far beyond what I had ever intended and that a relation that’d once had a clear superior had grown rather more muddled, but that was not enough to warrant hostility. She was still the closest thing I had to a reliable friend in the League.

I just had to tread more carefully when asking things of her and expect to be asked the odd favour in return.

“That’s always the trouble with tales,” Basilia said. “It can be hard to pick out the true ones, especially when it comes to Named.”

It was my turn to send her an amused glance. There was no need to go fishing when I was ready to just toss her the fish.

“That one’s true,” I said. “I stand as the Warden now. The office will be written into the Accords, with all accordant powers and responsibilities. There is no longer a need for the League to worry about infighting within the Grand Alliance – all our efforts are turned against Keter.”

She let out a low whistle.

“You do keep landing on your feet, don’t you?” Basilia said.

“Coming from you, Empress,” I smiled, “that’s a little rich.”

We traded toothy, savage smiles.

“The message I sent through Ikaroi still stands,” she told me. “The League can’t sign onto the Accords unless we get back the Hierarch.”

“He did not strike me as a man who would sign them if you did get him back,” I frankly replied.

She shrugged.

“Regardless, there’s way around it,” she said. “The cities have already adopted laws that follow along the same lines, so the holdout is you.”

Meaning the office of Warden, which could not be expected to have authority over the Named of the Free Cities when the League had not signed onto the Accords.

“And you have an offer?” I asked.

“What falls under the authority of a Protector of the League is vague,” she told me. “Largely on purpose. So Named could be swept under that aegis, if the bone is gnawed at some.”

I almost smiled at the audacity.

“You want a deal between the office of Warden and the hereditary title of Protector,” I mused. “Your authority over the League’s Named recognized in exchange for enforcing the Accords on them.”

She wanted for her and her descendants to be the natural and legal lieutenants of the Wardens in the Free Cities. More power gathered to her title in exchange for me getting my way past the labyrinth complexities of negotiating any treaty with the League.

“I could stomach that arrangement,” I said, “so long as it’s contingent to the League not having signed onto the Accords yet. Once it does, it will be no different from any other signatory.”

I might not be in a position to take a hard line at the moment – we needed the Free Cities if we were going to take Keter – I had no intention of sundering the Warden’s authority by allowing private Named fiefdoms under the office. Basilia narrowed her eyes at me, recognizing my answer for what it was: a concession that I could accept this temporarily, but that I’d be putting my full weight behind getting the League into the Accords properly the moment we were done with Keter. It wasn’t what she’d wanted to hear, but like me she knew that pushing too far would bite her in the ass.

So, as I had expected, she went after another concession.

“They made for interesting reading, your Accords,” the Empress said. “Particularly the parts about Cardinal and this school you intend to build there.”

I’d originally meant it for Named, but in practice it would likely see only a few of these attending – young and transitional types, before they headed out into the world. The guild I intended to raise there for villains, and perhaps even heroes if Hanno was so inclined, would draw more interest than the halls of learning. But the school itself would draw mages and nobles from all over Calernia, especially if a few Named mages could be talked into teaching. There would be a lot of influence to be traded there, so I cocked the eyebrow over my dead eye at the empress.

“What about it?” I idly asked.

“The League would be late to join that effort, and our divisions may lead others to edge us out,” Basilia evenly said. “A pledge might allay those fears.”

I got what she practically wanted out of her before long: guaranteed seats. For students, but also for teachers. And there was the clever part: those were not to be promised to the League itself, since indeed that would be illegal and infringing on the authority of a Hierarch. They were to belong to the Protectors of the League, so that the Empress and her successors could use them for bribes and influence. Well, she didn’t lack for audacity. I bargained her down to one teacher and ten students, which I suspected was actually what she’d been after from the start, and with that little concession I got the Empress of Aenia in line.

She’d still fight me tooth and nail to keep the League out of the Accords so she could maintain her authority over Named, but this way she wouldn’t actually go to war over the matter. Good luck with that, I thought, smiling prettily at her. The eastern half of the League’s terrified of you gobbling them up and it’s Cordelia fucking Hasenbach I’ll be sending to talk them into signing. She smiled back just as prettily, no doubt already planning half a dozen ways to brutally smash any fingers that dared creep anywhere near her backyard.

“To alliances,” I toasted, raising my cup.

“Long may they last,” Basilia Katopodis replied.

And to the sound of metal against metal, the League of Free Cities entered the war.

The day before Masego was set to arrive in Salia, the people of the capital filled the streets. Rumours had been swirling around the city for days, no small amount of them seeded by Cordelia’s spies, so it was with expectation more than glee that the people gathered. I was not to stand in the crowd but instead in a great raised gallery by the side of the platform where a First Prince would abdicate and another be elected. I’d had forewarning, of course. From the Procerans themselves, but also through the Jacks: the two princesses had gone through every legality they could given the circumstances, and that meant a vote in the Highest Assembly.

There was no way to hide that from Vivienne’s people, who might not be the Eyes or the Circle but were nothing to be underestimated.

It was without an invitation that I went to see Rozala Malanza, but these days my name was invitation enough. The guards, swarming the place like vigilant hornets, let me through and an attendant guided me to a small room up two sets of stairs. There the Princess of Aequitan was having a cup of sweet cider as she looked through a great window at the crowd still gathering below. Louis Rohanon, her husband and secretary who’d abdicated rule of Creusens at the Graveyard, was fussing over her as she allowed his attentions with a fond gaze. I was almost reluctant to clear my throat.

Louis stepped back immediately, looking mildly embarrassed.

“Your Excellency,” he said. “A pleasant surprise.”

“Louis Rohanon,” I said. “Or should that be prince consort?”

He smiled ruefully.

“Simply consort,” the dark-haired man replied. “After consultation with the Rogue Sorcerer, it was decided it would be best for me to be removed from anything princely.”

I hummed in approval. The ‘crown’ he’d surrendered in Iserre had been more than a chunk of metal, it had been the story of his right to rule. It was perhaps not necessary for him to have refused a largely ceremonial title, but the prudence spoke well of him. Rozala was not without taste.

“And to what do we owe the visit, Warden?” the Princess of Aequitan asked.

I flicked a glance at her husband, who took the hint with good grace and made his excuses. As he left the room I took in the sight of Rozala Malanza as she had chosen to dress for her coronation: a warrior-princess. Over a red dress with a yellow stripe down the centre – her heraldry’s colours inverted – she wore a polished breastplate, vambraces on her arms and greaves over soft leather boots. The thick belt at her waist, touched with gold, bore a sheathed sword. The princess’ dark curls had been pulled back, freeing bangs as a loose braid went down her back, and she had been made into the very ideal of an Arlesite princess of war.

It suited her, I thought. It was not without reason I considered Rozala the toughest Proceran general I’d faced: if we’d fought the Camps to the finish instead of making a truce, it would have been an army-shattering hour for both sides.

“Now that my husband was chased off and you’ve looked your fill,” Rozala drily said, “will you deign to speak freely?

I took the time to pick my words carefully.

“Yours is an election come out of the war,” I said, “but Gods willing, it will last long past it.”

“Ah,” the dark-eyed princess smiled. “I had wondered if I would warrant such a visit.”

There wasn’t a lot of joy in that quirk of the lips.

“You have spent much coin and effort keeping Procer from failing,” she said. “So you look for assurances that our gratitude will not be short-lived.”

“You took an oath after the Graveyard,” I said, “when you put that sword in the ground. I don’t believe you the kind of woman to go back on it.”

“But,” Rozala replied.

“We will have business, you and I, when I sit in Cardinal and you in Salia,” I said.

And I did not have the kind of rapport with Rozala Malanza that I did with Cordelia Hasenbach – who, for all that we had faced off for years, had become someone I trusted in our own way. Considering that Procer would be pivotal to the survival of the Accords one way or another, it meant I needed to have a second look at the dark-haired beauty before me: not as Cordelia’s general and rival, but instead as a First Princess in her own right. Rozala narrowed her eyes at me.

“Let me speak plainly, then,” the princess said. “We will never be friends, Catherine Foundling.”

Her jaw clenched.

“I believe you cruel and cavalier with lives as well as deeply conceited,” Rozala Malanza harshly said. “That the Gods have seen fit to reward you for this is the misfortune of our age.”

 I did not blink, waiting for her to finish.

“But you keep your word,” the Princess of Aequitan reluctantly added. “And treaties made with you can be trusted. Procer will stand behind the Accords, even if arms must be twisted.”

“I have heard promises before,” I warned, “and they died stillborn on the floor of the Assembly.”

Rozala’s face hardened.

“Procer,” she said, “will not be what it was. It cannot be.”

She rested a hand on her belly.

“I will not bring my daughter into the world I knew as a girl,” Rozala Malanza swore. “The chaos, the petty wars and the knives. Hasenbach had the right of that: there is rot in the Principate and it must be burned out.”

My eye narrowed.

“And what will you do about it?” I asked.

“Open your ears,” Rozala said, “after the crown is set on my brow.”

I left, as she’d tacitly told me to, and an hour later found myself leaning against the gallery railing while the people of Salia shouted themselves hoarse. After the criers and resonance spells had made known Cordelia’s abdication there had been cries of dismay, for though her reign had not been without troubles and riots she was a comfortingly steady hand. They had turned to cheers soon enough, though, when Rozala’s election was announced. She was a popular woman, her victories in the north well known while the black marks on her record were long forgotten.

Cordelia Hasenbach herself set the crown of white gold on her successor’s head, the two of them matching gazes as she did.

When the First Princess of Procer stepped forward afterwards, to the edge of the platform, I felt spells bloom all around us. Scrying mirrors, I realized after catching sight of one of them from the glint of the sun reflected, though where they led I could not be sure. Rozala had a good speaking voice and the promises she gave out were the kind a beleaguered people could cheer at: driving out the dead, restoring order and peace to Procer. After that, though, things took a turn and I found myself leaning forward in interest.

“- and so as we begin our march on Keter I ask: where are the princes and princesses of the south?”

Murmurs, unease.

“Again and again,” Rozala Malanza called out, “we have sown the seeds of our own defeat. Schemes and grasping hands, betrayals and cowardice Shame at every turn.. Even as the Hidden Horror closes his grip on Procer, these parasites hide in their palaces and leave the rest of us to burn.”

A shiver went through the crowd. Like she’d touched a finger to the pulse of the fury just under the surface.

“No longer,” the First Princess said. “I give you this oath now: those who call themselves princes and do not march to save Procer are princes no longer. All their families I attaint, all their holdings I declare forfeit. When the moon turns, all who will not hold a sword to save the Principate will be cast out of it until Last Dusk.”

The city went wild, the clamour of shouts and stamping feet shaking the walls. And now I knew where those scrying mirrors went: the First Princess had, on the day of her coronation, thrown a gauntlet to every crown in Procer.

Pick it up, Rozala Malanza had said, or I will drag you off your thrones by the hair.

“Yeah,” I murmured, smiling down at her from the gallery. “You’ll do.”

Hierophant arrived in Salia early, late on the night of the coronation instead of early in the morning. I offered to delay our departure so he could have a night’s sleep in a proper bed, but he would have none of it.

“It makes no difference to me,” Masego told me. “And time is of the essence, you have been telling me.”

“You just want to get your grubby fingers on the godhead of the Crows as quickly as possible,” I accused.

“That too,” he shamelessly agreed.

He did want to spend a few hours with Indrani before leaving, though, as she wouldn’t be coming with us despite her protests to the contrary. I wanted her keeping an eye on the Barrow Sword, whose seat as representative was still too fresh to be anywhere near secure. I encouraged him to, as much because I loved them both as because I needed some time to get the last of my affairs in order. I sent word that I would be leaving tonight instead of tomorrow to all those who needed to know, then talked Vivienne into a late supper with me. Hakram was out of the city, settling a dispute between two clans out east, so a message would have to do.

After my pack and goodbyes were done, I went to find the third companion that would come north with me. Akua was not far, having been amusing herself over the last few days by turning the flying tower where I’d become the Warden into what she called ‘a proper throne’ in between going into the slums of Salia to offer healing against the diseases that kept sprouting up in the crowded hovels. Some of them could not be wiped out entirely by Light.

“Did you know, darling, that most villains only ever encounter a single godhead in their lives?” she told me. “You are something of an overachiever in that regard.”

“It’s the Crows again, so it doesn’t count as a new one,” I argued.

Though it was novel for her to actually need supplies now – as well as clothes, since she could no longer a shade who could change her wardrobe with a thought – she’d had most of them set aside already. If anything, she had seemed eager to head out to Serolen. When I asked, she turned thoughtful.

“I’ve always felt the business to be unfinished,” Akua said. “It is good to settle all of one’s affairs properly.”

Yeah, I felt it too. It was time to bring to a close the journey that’d begun in the outskirts of the Everdark. We were nearly ready to leave, horses saddled – well, Zombie for me – and our route out of the capital picked out when there was a commotion just out the palace. I looked through the Night, one of my hundred dead eyes, and cocked an eyebrow. Moments later, Cordelia Hasenbach rode in atop one of those sturdy horses the Lycaonese favoured. She had saddlebags and she was dressed to travel.

“Going somewhere?” I idly asked.

“I believe she means to come with us, Catherine,” Masego told me.

He sounded a little surprised I hadn’t caught on to that. Mercifully, Cordelia was not one of the Woe so she did not take the golden opportunity to mock me as one of them would have.

“I thought it best to make my offer for Keter directly to Sve Noc,” the Lycaonese princess said.

She was still Prince of Rhenia and Princess of Hannoven, at least for now. The papers to pass on the crowns to Otto Redcrown and turn him into the sole ruler of the Lycaonese were already ready and signed, I’d been told. They were only waiting so it wouldn’t look like Rozala was stripping her predecessor of the titles.

“That could be done by scrying mirror,” I replied, unimpressed. “The First Princess wants you out of the capital, I take it.”

“We are in agreement that my looking over her shoulder as she begins her reign would benefit neither of us,” Cordelia replied.

“And how does that lead to your riding with us?” I pressed.

“I thought you might be in favour of my presence,” the princess mildly said, “since it will allow you to keep an eye on this.”

Reaching inside her cloak, she presented a baton of sculpted ivory. It was beautifully made, but aside from that there was – no, not quite right. There was something at the heart of it, I thought, dead eye seeing a glimpse of something like Light. I shot her an inquisitive look.

“It is,” Cordelia Hasenbach told me, “the device that triggers the ealamal.”

I smothered a grimace. Yeah, she had me there. I wasn’t letting that out of my sight if I could help it. I’d already figured there must be an artefact serving the purpose but the Jacks had not unearthed anything when they looked into it.

“I don’t suppose I could talk you into breaking that,” I said.

“No,” she pleasantly replied.

“Welcome to our little band, then,” I sighed.

“It is,” Cordelia victoriously smiled, “my great pleasure.”

Chapter 40: Resolutions

“An empire is a barrel with a hole:  you must never cease filling it, lest it spill out at your feet.”

– Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow

I’d expected to wake up aching, but it was the opposite: it was like I’d had my best night of sleep in years. Maybe in all my life, I thought as my eyes fluttered open. It was like every ounce of me was sated with rest, a start from a blank state. But, as I found out moving under my covers, there were limits to the magic of that. My bad leg still throbbed like it was going to burst. A look around told me two things: I’d been brought to my rooms in the guest palace, and someone had been keeping watch on my sleep from the other side of the bed.

Seated in a chair wide enough it must have been brought just for him, Hakram met my gaze.

“You look tired,” I said, the words escaping my mouth before I could think about it twice.

The tall orc shifted in his seat, the steel of his prosthetic hand brushing loudly against the cushions.

“I am,” the Warlord replied. “Long days and short nights. You know how it is.”

“Always too few hours in the day,” I agreed, then hesitated.

We had been apart for long, but he could still read me better than anyone.

“You’ve been asleep for three days,” Hakram gravelled. “They brought you to Archer in the tower, saying that eating the Book made you fall unconscious.”

“It wasn’t the Book, I don’t think,” I muttered. “More the transition itself.”

He studied me carefully.

“I can believe that,” the Warlord said. “I could feel the pull of your Name from outside the room even when you were unconscious and it is stronger now. More focused.”

He wasn’t joking, I saw. And the more my gaze lingered the more I saw. Not from my good eye but from the one the Hawk had taken, the hollow socket. I could… It was like the stars I had seen in the void as Warden of the East, but the perception had been refined. His Name was like a translucent fire raging over him, when I focused, and I could make out beating hearts. Only one had solidified. He has only one aspect, I thought. And it went further than that. The more I watched the silhouette, the secret fire, the more I saw that it was connected. Chords spun out, stories I felt I might be able to follow by running my finger along the connection.

I should be able to see more, some bone-deep instinct told me, but I was being hobbled. The Warlord was a villain, and half of my eye was still in my enemy’s hands.

“I became the Warden,” I said.

His brow creased in surprise.

“Not of something,” Hakram slowly said. “Just Warden.”

“I suppose there’s no need to specify,” I replied, “if I’m Warden of everything.”

The air shivered in the room. He felt it too. And yet I was still a villain, I thought. Night still came when I called. Transitioning had not changed who or what I was, only amplified it. It would be the same after me: a hero could hold this Name as well. The Role of standing above Named, at the top of the Accords, it did not belong to either Above or Below. It would be what we made of it, because it was us who’d made the Liesse Accords. For good or ill, it was in our hands.

Hakram was still watching me, face unreadable.

“All of the Woe have gone through two Names,” he said, “save you. It took you three to settle.”

I hummed, pensive. That was one way to see it.

“There’s always a cost,” I said.

I’d given up much to come into this Name, at least in the way that I had. Would I have been a simpler sort of villain, if I’d taken the Book by force instead of taking it with the blessing of the two claimants to the West? My gut said yes. Still a Warden, maybe, but more a Warden of the East bloated for having devoured the other side’s strength than the more… balanced mantle I now wore.

Hakram suddenly grimaced, looking away.

“I was not fair, when we spoke in the thicket,” he said.

I frowned.

“What’s bringing this on?”

“Until I found Archer, I did not know whether you were dead or alive,” Hakram said. “I trusted, Catherine, but I could not be sure. And so I thought of our last conversation again, that it might be the last words we ever spoke.”

“Lancing a wound is never pretty,” I said.

“Aye,” Hakram said, “but while it was not only you I was angry with, you still received both helpings of blame.”

I made to speak, not sure what I should, but he raised a hand to ask me to let him speak. My teeth clicked shut. Fine.

“Did I ever tell you,” he asked, “what the Tyrant saw when he used his perception aspect on me?”

I shook my head. I’d always assumed that Hakram was even keeled enough Kairos had simply seen nothing to use against him.

“Nothing,” Hakram quietly said.

My breath caught. That was, well… I took a moment to digest that. What it meant, that he’d had so little in his life except for me and the Woe.

“I used to think it was a virtue,” the Warlord said. “That I could step away and see clearly because of it. But that was fear, looking back. It was easier to want the things you did, dream your dreams, than have my own. And maybe if things had gone differently, I would have spent a life satisfied with that.”

I breathed in sharply. I could see where this was going.

“But then you saw Scribe,” I said.

“I saw too much of myself in her,” Hakram said. “And did not like what I saw.”

I sighed.

“And what does that mean, Hakram?” I pushed back. “I get it – you thought I might one day do to you what my father did to her. Cut her adrift after a lifetime. But why are you telling me this?”

We’d already tread those grounds, revisiting them would do no good.

“I stand behind much of what I said that day,” he said, “but you did not deserve all the anger you received. For that I owe apology.”

He paused, reluctant.

“And you were right about one thing.”

His jaw clenched.

“I could have come to you with it,” Hakram gravelled. “I did not. I do not regret becoming the Warlord, Catherine, but I mislike the thought that part of what drove me was fear – that deep down I thought it easier to return bearing the Name than to speak to you as the Adjutant.”

I studied his face for a long time, the craggy green leather of it, and found only calm there. Slowly, I gave a nod. But I did not speak after, because the conversation was not over and it was not for me to finish it. We’d parted on my words, last time. If there was to be an ending it would be of his own ushering, whatever it might be. The silence lengthened.

“You told me it was all in my hands, last time,” Hakram finally said.

“And meant it.”

He did not hurry to words, which I was not sure whether to curse or appreciate. If it was to be the knife, then let him be quick with it. I’d need the time to lick my wounds.

“I never thought you would ever turn a knife on me,” the tall orc admitted. “Leave me behind, maybe, but never steel.”

His clenched his fingers of bone into a fist.

“I saw it in your eyes that night,” Hakram said. “But I don’t think I believed it until you spoke the words out loud.”

Part of me felt the urge to apologize, to bury the hatchet at any cost, but I took it by the neck and squeezed. I was who I was. Maybe I still had some change left in me, but not so much as that: in the end, if the stakes were high enough I had run out of lines I wasn’t willing to cross to win. Suddenly, he snorted.

“It is a crooked thing,” he said, “but in a way it reassures me. You didn’t just see the Adjutant that night, you saw me.”

“I saw you,” I evenly replied, “and raised a knife.”

He shook his head.

“I came as the Warlord,” Hakram said, “and stood against you. I cannot leave your shadow and in the same breath demand its protection.”

I studied him quietly.

“And now?”

“I don’t know,” he quietly laughed. “It is new ground for me as well.”

I bit my lip.

“It can’t be the way it was before,” I said.

“I don’t want it to be,” Hakram honestly said. “Do you?”

Yes, part of me whispered. But could I really ask that when I now knew what’d it cost him?

“No,” I replied, and found I largely meant it. “But now I’m at a loss. I’ve never-”

Lost someone I love to anything but the grave, I thought. I don’t even understand how I got your friendship the first time, how could I possibly know what to do now?

“- I’ve never,” I weakly finished.

He laughed at me, the prick.

“Eloquent,” he teased, smiling at my rude gesture.

The mirth passed, though never quite entirely left.

“We start from the beginning,” Hakram said, leaning forward and offering his arm.

When we’d first met in the valley all those years ago, I remembered, I’d been the one to offer. Lips quirking, I clasped the arm in a legionary’s salute. It was steel I felt under my fingers now, and his own found the cloth that these days I wore more often than mail, but it was better this way. We weren’t the same kids we’d been in Spite Valley, playing war games in the Tower’s shadow. It wasn’t the same two people meeting. We parted after a moment and he drew back, rising to his feet.

“There may not be much time, in the coming days,” he said.

To meet, he meant. To try to forge the scraps of what we used to be into something else.

“So we’ll have to make it,” I firmly replied.

He nodded, hesitation coming to his face.

“In Keter,” Hakram said, “there will come a time beyond armies. When Named will venture ahead.”

I nodded. We both knew the Dead King wouldn’t die to anything as mundane as armies.

“When that time comes,” he quietly said, “I would like to fight with the Woe.”

My heart clenched. To that, at least, I had an answer.

“If the Woe are fighting,” I simply replied, “where else would you be?”

I saw a weight leave his shoulders, and some part of me wanted to weep. When had it come to this? Lancing a wound is never pretty, I reminded myself. But it was necessary, if the limb was to heal instead of fester. Hakram stiffly nodded at me, and a heartbeat later he was gone. Out the door and into the palace, leaving behind him an absence that felt almost physical. I leaned back into my pillows. Soon enough someone else would enter the room and Creation would come calling, responsibilities dragging me back, but for now I just closed my eyes and listened to the sound of my own breathing. It was a faint thing, barely more than a wisp, but I remembered what hope felt like.

And for the first time in months, I held hope that the pieces of who we’d been might not stop the people we’d become from finding a way to fit together.

Proceran palaces grew salons like caves grew mushroom, but one of the upsides of that cultural sickness was that you could send for a drink anywhere. I was not surprised in the slightest that Cordelia’s personal steward not only knew that I drank an herbal concoction for pain but the exact mix as well. Aisha ought to be flattered that her old family recipe had become subject to foreign espionage, I figured, and it really was quite convenient. I finished the mug – served at the perfect temperature to drink, because of course it was – and set it down on a pretty little glass table, trying to tell the Sword of Judgment through my eyes that his hovering was getting on my nerves.

“Another day of rest might be forgiven, given the circumstances,” Hanno said.

Evidently, I needed to work on my glares.

“Time’s the one thing we can’t spare,” I replied. “Besides, I’m fine.”

I was not, in fact, fine. I was still a little slow on my feet and… unsteady. Sometimes it felt like I didn’t fit in my own skin anymore, that I was moving with limbs there weren’t my body’s. From the steady look the dark-skinned man fixed me with, he was well aware of the lie and debating whether or not he should call me out it. Fortunately, I had a secret weapon.

“I will not venture an opinion as to Her Excellency’s health,” Cordelia Hasenbach mildly said, “but she does seem fit for light duties such as discussion.”

That Excellency business was going to get old fast, I could already feel it. And it was probably half the reason she was sticking so closely to the title, because underneath all that courtesy Cordelia did have a streak of bitingly polite pettiness.

“See,” I smiled, “we’re just talking. And we’ve got a lot of grounds to cover, so let’s be about it.”

Hanno dared to roll his eyes at me as he took a seat, the absolute ass, and I was not sure whether to be pleased or insulted. It’d taken only moments in the same room to realize that in the aftermath of our little tiff in Arcadia he’d considerably warmed to me. Being willing to take a step back and meet them halfway had not quite restored our relationship to the easy friendship of the early days, but it was a damn sight better than the cool distance that’d followed the Arsenal. I’d had a few looks at him through my dead eye, the one that saw much, and found him covered in burning pale flames. He did not quite have a Name, but it was not far.

I tried to have a look ahead, see what he was moving towards, but it was too tricky when I had to maintain a conversation at the same time.

“There are urgent matters,” Cordelia agreed. “Negotiations with the Kingdom Under must be carried out to a finish before we march on Keter, which I consider the priority of the Grand Alliance’s foreign diplomacy, but there are internal matters to settle.”

She, on the other hand, did not have so much as a fleck of power gathering around her. Cordelia Hasenbach had fallen on the side of being true to the woman she had been on the floor of the Chamber of Assembly: mortal to the bitter end.

“The compromise between the Blood and the Bestowed,” I said.

“To begin,” Cordelia agreed. “Though on grounds more esoteric, I believe there is question in need of an answer as well.”

She slid a look at Hanno when she said ‘esoteric’, getting a nod out of him.

“The Severance needs a wielder,” he plainly said. “The decision must be made before we set out north.”

I hummed, leaning back into the plushy seat.

“All of that starts second place,” I finally said. “Before anything else, we need to properly enforce the arrangement we made in Arcadia.”

Cordelia’s eyes narrowed slightly.

“Settling the representatives under the Truce and Terms,” she said. “You mean to step down immediately.”

“From that position,” I agreed. “I’ll still be Queen of Callow until we finish things in Keter, at least in principle. In practice I’ll begin passing authority to Vivienne as of today.”

I didn’t even foresee friction there for the rest of the war. Viv wasn’t much of a general and knew it, while I’d made a career off of handing off the ruling parts to someone else why I went about the business of being a warlord. It was only fitting that my last war would end my reign with it.

“I am glad,” Hanno said. “Princess Vivienne is respected, but your legions would not fight for another queen as they do for you.”

I waved that away, though I was a little flattered. It was true, I knew that regardless of him, but hearing it from someone like Hanno added a certain something.

“We’ve been through a lot of mud together,” I said. “But back to the selection: the first thing to settle is whether or not you’ll be standing to represent the heroes.”

If he did not it would be a race, I figured, but as I saw it there was little chance of anyone else filling the shoes if he wanted to keep them on.

“That is my wish,” Hanno said. “Until the fall of Keter I would keep the office, setting it aside when I swear myself to enforce the Accords.”

I had no trouble with that, to be honest. I would have accepted it even before our relations thawed, so my approval was only growing. There was one potential source of objections, though, sitting pretty in her seat as she delicately sipped at lemon water. Cordelia noticed my inquisitive glance, which I hadn’t tried to make subtle in the slightest.

“It is not my place to argue for or against,” the First Prince evenly said. “When we struck a bargain, Your Excellency, I accepted your authority over certain matters. I will not go back on my word.”

I cocked an eyebrow.

“And if were to ask for your opinion?” I pressed.

She did not look pleased, but neither did she fight me.

“It is the natural choice,” Cordelia admitted. “And it will ease the tradition from the Truce and Terms into the Liesse Accords.”

She still didn’t like him much, I thought. The esteem they’d once had for each other had been eroded down by years of speaking past each other and it would just as many years for it to be restored. If it ever was. But she was willing to work with him and not the kind of woman to blind herself to someone’s virtues because of a personal animosity.

“I’ll look forward to you taking your seat again, then,” I said, nodding at Hanno.

Then I sighed.

“The selection on my side of the fence is going to be a little more complicated, unfortunately,” I admitted.

Of the Woe, both Archer and Hierophant had the strength to be able to claim the seat as well as strong ties to me that’d help them keep it. The trouble was that neither of them would want to get anywhere near that seat given a choice and this wasn’t the kind of position to take half-heartedly. Not even just until the end of the war. Keter was going to be vice tightening around Named and we’d need steady hands at the helm if we were going to keep all these very dangerous people from cracking under the pressure.

“You have been grooming the Barrow Sword as a captain for almost two years now,” Hanno noted. “Do you not think him fit?”

“There’s going to be a brawl,” I frankly said. “And I’m not sure he can take the Red Knight, who will absolutely throw her hat into the ring.”

And she was strong enough she’d be able to chew through most Named in a fight, but she’d be a fucking disaster as a representative. For one, at least nine tenths of everyone who ever met her couldn’t stand her. If she were just awful as a person it’d be one thing, but from the reports I’d read she was unfit to command even a band of five.  Hanno grimaced.

“Even Christophe is wary of her,” he said. “And he is not a man to scare easily.”

It was her aspects that made her a threat. By simple ability she was a very skilled fighter but hardly impossible to handle. When you threw in Devour, though, she became a headache to handle. If there was anything that aspect couldn’t take a bite out of, we’d yet to encounter it.

“I believe you once sent the Archer to discipline her, after a brawl with other villains,” Cordelia noted.

“I’d bet on Indrani over her,” I agreed. “But Indrani won’t want anything to do with those responsibilities.”

She’d made it very clear to me that command of a roving warband was the most she was interested in taking up.

“You misunderstand me,” the First Prince said. “I mean to point out that you, the appointed representative for Below, saw it fit to use her as your champion.”

Ah, I thought. Clever. Archer wouldn’t want the seat, but she would absolutely be willing to fight as Ishaq’s champion should he be challenged – and I’d set precedents for that over my own tenure to no objection from my charges. Trust Cordelia Hasenbach to find the loophole no matter the game.

“That might work,” I acknowledged. “I’ll need to speak with the both of them first.”

Hanno politely cleared his throat.

“Have you considered,” he asked, “the possibility of the Warlord laying his own claim?”

“He won’t,” I said, certain. “He’s got too much on his plate already, herding the Clans and hammering out the aftermath of the peace in Praes.”

I’d had to juggle the duties of a queen and a representative before and I’d found the amount of work crushing even with the likes of Hakram and Scribe supporting me. And that was ruling Callow, leading professional armies. The Clans would need much more personal a touch than my people ever had.

“But if he does?” Hanno pressed.

“Then I won’t stand against or for it,” I replied.

He’d left me to stand on his own two feet. I would not disrespect that by propping him up should he reach for more. That settled the talk of selection, at least for a moment, so I let Cordelia gently guide the conversation back to other matters.

“The talks with the Blood can be ended promptly,” she said, “and it would set a good tone to act swiftly. For a Warden to settle what was before a matter of debate will begin to prove the worth of the office.”

Going unsaid was that a lot of heroes would find it hard to swallow no matter what the Sword of Judgment said, even when they felt the pull of my Name against them. Being decisive from the start would do a lot to convince people it was worth ceding authority to me. It occurred to me, after a moment, that I’d never told either of them what my Name now was. And yet the both of them had been referring to it freely since we met. I almost shivered.

Sometimes fate’s hand was less discreet than others.

“You’re not going to like what I have to say,” I bluntly told her. “The entire point of having a Warden is to have someone who can settle disputes involving Named. Sometimes that will mean having power over signatory nations even if you don’t like it. A very narrow sort of power, relating only to Named, but it’ll still be there.”

She visibly did not like what I had to say.

“You have already heard my arguments,” the First Prince said. “I believe it a poor precedent to set that a decision of Levant’s ruling council might be overturned by Named on account of Named.”

She paused, mastering herself.

“Yet that is not my decision to make,” Cordelia conceded. “That is the bargain I struck with you. And the existence of a single office instead of rival ones does put to rest certain fears of partisanship I had previously held.”

I considered her for a moment, honestly a little doubtful she’d given in so easily. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, I eventually thought. She’d been the First Prince, not a queen, and that wasn’t the same thing. Especially not the kind of queen that I’d been, inheriting a culled nobility and direct authority over most of the largest cities in Callow as well as the only standing army. I had a lot more power than most Fairfaxes ever did. Cordelia Hasenbach, though, had been wrestling with the Highest Assembly all her reign. She’d had to give ground before, I thought, suffer defeats on matters she very much cared about.

She would exercise the power she could to the letter of the law and no further, taking the defeats when they came and living to fight the battle another day. That was her way.

“Good,” I muttered, flicking a glance at Hanno. “And you?”

“I have no more objections now than I did before,” the dark-skinned hero shrugged.

Fair enough.

“Then it’s settled,” I said. “I’ll sit down with the Blood tonight and get the terms put to ink.”

With that out of the way, Hanno himself brought up the next decision in need of being made.

“Have you given thought to the Severance?” he asked.

I clenched my fingers, unclenched them. Give and take, that was what’d brought us here. I had not come out ahead by listening to the tyrant’s whisper in the back of my head.

“Only a hero can wield it,” I said, “so that takes it out of my hand. Should you be chosen as representative for Above again, I’ll leave the decision in your hands.”

My gut said either him or the Mirror Knight, but it was hard to be sure. Hanno watched me with those calm, patient eyes.

“You will want the final word,” he stated.

I did want that. Very much. My instincts demanded it, a precaution in case the heroes fucked up again and some unfit idiot ended up wielding the single most important artefact of this war. But it couldn’t be that way.

“This only works if I trust your judgement,” I made myself say. “So I’ll trust your judgement, Hanno.”

The translucent flames around him I could see, if I concentrated hard enough, only had a single solid heart within them – and it tasted of memory. Recall, had to be. He’d lost the aspect he had once called on every time he flipped that coin of his, likely forever. It was Hanno of Arwad’s judgement I was betting on, not the Tribunal’s, and trust didn’t mean anything if it was offered on the cheap. He did not hide his surprise, or the strange emotion that flickered through his eyes after.

“Thank you,” he finally said. “I will keep you informed.”

I nodded, uncomfortable, and was dimly grateful when Cordelia nudged the conversation towards what she most cared about. Hanno went along just as easily, which was only natural considering he’d also put quite a bit of his back into dealing with the dwarves.

“A united front when meeting them again would improve our position,” Cordelia said. “The three of us, certainly, and perhaps the representative for Below as well.”

“Sure,” I said, “but that’s posturing, not substance. We need something to come at them with. I don’t suppose you’d care to share what it is you’ve been digging up in the Salian archives all this time?”

“Ah,” the First Prince faintly smiled, “then it was you.”

I cocked an eyebrow, admitting nothing.

“Or Princess Vivienne perhaps,” Cordelia said. “Thieves of her skill are passingly rare.”

“She’s a princess now, you know,” I chided. “She doesn’t steal anymore.

I let a beat pass.

“When a princess steals from foreigners, it’s called diplomacy.”

The only born royal out of the three of us was less than amused, but I caught Hanno’s lips twitching. Yeah, of course that one would agree. I doubted the fucker had paid taxes to anyone since age sixteen, ascetic vagrant that he was.

“So?” I pressed.

“It occurred to me after our talks with the Herald of the Deeps that we were missing the forest for the trees,” Cordelia said. “We thought of the cities and why he wanted them, but did not consider how they would be held.”

“Strength, presumably,” I said. “Assuming they get to cram their terms down our throats.”

“Strength would involve dwarven arms,” the First Prince pointed out.

Well, yes. It wasn’t like they were lacking in either manpower or armaments. They’d just seeded colonies across the northern third of Calernia while simultaneously providing arms for large armies across several fronts.

“I don’t see your point,” I admitted.

“It would mean dwarves on the surface,” Hanno said. “Thousands for every city, come to live under the sun permanently.”

I blinked. Shit, they were right. I was so used to thinking in terms of the Kingdom Under just being another empire to deal with that I’d forgotten this demand was breaking a long-term policy of isolation from the surface. The most dwarves Calernians usually saw were mercenaries hired through Mercantis.

“That’s a lot of people away from their usual centres of power,” I muttered. “At a time where their population’s being spread out up north.”

Was there even a precedent for dwarves ever sharing a city with someone? I couldn’t recall one offhand.

“I imagine the Kingdom Under sees it as installing an armed ruling caste,” Cordelia said. “They chose cities instead of empty land for a reason. But in practice, the Herald is achieving something else entirely.”

“Three city-states sitting atop massively profitable trade routes to the underground,” I finished, “and little to no real oversight. Outrageously wealthy pocket kingdoms for him to rule over.”

The First Prince nodded.

“I attempted to discern the worth of the trade involved and acquire an idea of the Kingdom Under’s wealth,” she said. “While you were asleep, I finished the work as much as it will ever be.”

I cocked my head to the side.

“And?”

“For at least the next two centuries, the cities would represent more wealth than the entire Fourteenth and Fifteenth Expansion put together,” Cordelia said, “while involving less of a tenth of the people involved in these.”

So small, rich kingdoms living under the protection of the prominent military power of Calernia.

“Sounds like a golden retirement to me,” I frankly said. “With just enough challenges to tackle he won’t ever get bored.”

“My thoughts exactly,” the First Prince coldly smiled.

“You’re wrong.”

I’d almost forgotten Hanno was there. I turned an eye to him, skeptical.

“There’s speculation,” I conceded, “but the foundations are solid.”

“You are also taking the most uncharitable interpretation as fact,” he pointed out. “Not unreasonably, given the Herald’s behaviour, but it blinds you to a truth.”

“And what would that be?” Cordelia asked, tone cutting.

“I do not know what the Role of a Herald of the Deeps is,” Hanno said, “but if he was seeking to leave that life behind his Name would be weakening.”

He met my gaze.

“Having been in the same room as him, did you sense such a thing?”

I chewed my lip.

“No,” I admitted. “And if it’d been there, I would have sensed it.”

My sense of Names had become unusually keen after I became Warden of the East. The dwarven Name had felt odd to my senses, but in no way broken or fading. Which meant Hanno was right.

“So he’s trying to fulfill his Role still,” I noted. “That’s interesting. How would pocket kingdoms help the Kingdom Under?”

“A queen’s perspective,” Hanno admonished.

I narrowed my eye, mentally taking a step back and looking at it another way.

“He’s a hero, so he’s trying to help part of the kingdom,” I corrected. “The downtrodden. Not the whole realm, and certainly not in a ruling sense. The gains their empire make through this are just how he sells it back home. The city-states are what he’s actually after, not the profits.”

“They would earn him the support of the expansionist faction,” Cordelia said. “Which he had suspected to be his backers within the Kingdom Under.”

Fuck, I thought, that actually made a great deal of sense. Even if the expansionist were assholes, the ones who wanted to make gains at the expense of the people of the surface, the Herald would have nowhere else to go. I could see the pattern now: two leading philosophies underground, one of isolation and one of expansion. Even if there was a dusting of evil or even Evil in the expansionists, the Herald would make common cause with them. He had to, because he wanted to reform his people and the only other game in town saw dwarven society as a closed circle.

“It fits with where I first met him,” I admitted. “Leading the Fourteenth Expansion, on the very outskirts of dwarven territory. He’s trying to get out from under the thumb of people in power by going into the wilds.”

The First Prince considered that, then slowly nodded.

“Form the perspective of attempting to reform custom, the city-states described would be an ideal garden,” Cordelia said. “Small populations of like-minded dwarves, large wealth based on trade instead of labour and more numerous foreign peoples around them to erode the old ways. It is a well-crafted plan.”

One that the Herald had rushed the encirclement of the Dead King to sell to his people, immediately knocking at our door afterwards. The details really did fit, Crows. I could sympathize with the intention if it was really this, even admire it a bit, but none of it changed that all those pretty things would literally be built on our backs. That the Herald was willing to let thousands and thousands die, gamble with the fate of Calernia and blackmail desperate nations to get his reforms. That was… Fuck me, I thought. Yeah, not exactly an unfamiliar situation. Just not the way I was used to it.

So this was what it felt like, facing me across a table.

“So we know what he’s after,” I said. “Now we’re in a position to fight back.”

“It has been brought to my attention that a dwarven gate was recently unearthed,” Cordelia said, the look she flicked Hanno’s way rather cool. “We can make use of it to reach out to the isolationists and out his plot.”

“Must we?”

I frowned at Hanno. He trusted heroes more than I thought wise, even now, but he wasn’t a fool. He wouldn’t argue for the cession of three cities – one of which was part of the League, not even the Grand Alliance! – to the Herald because he was trying to accomplish something Good through dubious means. I suspected that, if anything, ye ol’ Sword of Judgment would think worse of the Herald’s methods than we did. Unlike Cordelia and I, he expected better of heroes.

“What the Herald seeks it not evil or harmful to the rest of Calernia,” Hanno elaborated. “It is his approach that is objectionable. If he can get his way without it being at our expense, would it not be better to attempt that bargain?”

“Is there a way for him to get his way save at our expense?” Cordelia skeptically replied.

“If it is a city and the riches of a land the Herald seeks,” Hanno said, “there is one we can offer.”

It took me a moment to realize what he was getting at.

“Keter,” I disbelievingly said. “You mean the Crown of the Dead.”

“It is a great city, surrounded by lands that were once rich,” he said. “And unlike the cities demanded it will stand empty once the war ends.”

“Keter is part of the land that was promised to the Firstborn for their participation in this war,” I said. “How many homes are the dwarves going to steal from them?”

“Would the drow truly want the city?” he honestly asked. “I was given to understand they made their own in the Duskwood.”

“That’s twice now powers have tried to go back on that bargain,” I coldly warned. “Alliances have been broken over less.”

He shook his head.

“I do not mean for a treaty to be breached,” Hanno said. “Let them trade the claim, by all means. There must something in the Herald’s hands worth more than a claim over a city they might never inhabit.”

I hummed. That was, well, more acceptable. Given the losses the Firstborn had taken in the war with Keter, I honestly wasn’t sure they could colonize all of the lands that were now the Kingdom of the Dead. They might genuinely be amenable to a trade, if the dwarves offered up something worth the exchange. The problem with that, though, was…

“Nearly all of what makes the demanded cities attractive to both the Herald and the expansionists is absent in Keter,” Cordelia said. “It is far from trade and there are no humans within that might be used for labour. They will not accept that bargain.”

Yeah, that.

“His backers would not,” Hanno said, “but the Herald himself might. We are trying to work past him when we should be working with him.”

We were going around the bastard because he was willing let a third of Procer be blighted to get his way, not because we just felt like being poor sports, but I forced myself to consider his words anyway. Hanno, for all his flaws, understood heroes better than I did – the way they thought, the way they moved. I closed my eye and opened the other. Not looking at Hanno himself but beyond, fingers running down the strings of story. Was he right, was there a path?

Was there a lever to move the Herald of the Deeps?

I felt myself drift, following the chords until I found something at the other end. A force, a will, a Name. An entity that I could only dimly make out, this far from it, but I could see something. Three hearts, all solid, but there was something… deeper. A glimpse at the strings that would move him, the way they tasted. Love, I saw. The Herald was driven by love. Made greater, projected to many, but at its source intensely personal. And personal was a creature that could be moved by more than just stick and carrot. I breathed out deeply, closing one eye and opening another.

Both of them were staring at me.

“Catherine?” Hanno cautiously said.

“I was having a look at our friend,” I replied, tone steady. “I saw enough to think your method has merit.”

Cordelia looked rather skeptical.

“He’s doing this out of love,” I told her. “That much I’m certain of. Romantic and personal, everything else grows from there.”

“Love,” the First Prince of Procer said, “is not a sound political strategy.”

Hanno looked about to disagree and I wanted no part of that debate so I cut in.

“I agree,” I said. “But we lose nothing by attempting to move him first. Prepare the appeal to the opposition in the Kingdom Under, and if the talks with the Herald fail we can proceed with that plan immediately.”

“It would be best to negotiate entirely in good faith,” Hanno protested.

“So far he hasn’t,” I pointed out. “I see no need to reward that with trust he has done nothing to earn.”

He did not look pleased and neither did the First Prince, but neither of them stormed out of the room. That was something.

“Another compromise,” Cordelia said. “You seem to have acquired a taste for those.”

“If I have on redeeming quality, Your Highness, it’s that I never hesitate to steal the methods other people beat me through,” I smiled.

I did not get a laugh, which was only sensible since I’d not truly been joking. With an agreement in principle, we hammered out a few more of the details and split off to see to our parts. It would all have to wait until the representatives were chosen, anyhow, so there was still time.

Too little of it, but wasn’t that always the way?

I had the talks with the Blood settled by nightfall and a treaty after dinner. By tomorrow the rest of the Grand Alliance would be informed, as even though it was an internal matter of Levant it involved the Liesse Accords. That part, as the First Prince had predicted, benefitted from decisive action. It was the other talks of the two following days that had me itching. The most frustrating part about the representatives being chosen was that I couldn’t be directly involved. As the Warden I stood apart, so I would not even have a seat in the council of villains past explaining why it was now needed.

All I could do was stack the deck behind closed doors and hope.

Hanno was chosen on the morning of second day, by a wide margin. It took until Midnight Bell for the villains to finish and the Pilfering Dicer almost died – accused by the Red Knight of having interfered in her duel with Archer. But we got our way, in the end. The Barrow Sword was chosen as the representative, narrowly, after Indrani managed an equally narrow draw against the Red Knight. His position was still weak, but Ishaq was no fool: he’d move to consolidate, aware he had my blessing to take everything in hand.

I doubted Below’s lot would be as firmly in hand as when my reputation had been making people think twice, but it would serve. Gods, it would have to. Soon the League and the second wave of Praesi troops would be arriving, and when they did the march north would begin shortly after. There were only a few matters left to settle.

Hierophant had told me he needed five days to prove whether the Rogue Sorcerer’s theory had been right, and he was punctual to a fault: at noon on the fifth day, I sat before a mirror through which we faced each other.

“Roland was correct,” Masego told me. “We were looking for a source of power that might shatter the Intercessor’s grip on stories, and we have found one.”

I was too early to be relieved, I warned myself.

“So what is it, exactly?” I asked.

“Night,” Hierophant replied.

I blinked. Was it really going to be that easy?

“More precisely, Night as it was first granted to Sve Noc by the Gods Below,” Hierophant specified.

Ah, and there was the pinch.

“I shouldn’t need to tell you that pretty much all Night has passed from some Firstborn body at some point,” I pointed out.

The drow had been very ardent proponents for centuries of murdering each other for that power.

“Some, yes, but not all,” Masego said. “The Sisters have administered the resource since the beginning, Catherine. They still hold the power they used to create their shared godhead, which was bestowed directly by Below.”

“So the Crows could do it,” I said.

“They could be used to channel Night against the Intercessor, whom you’ve informed me had a hand in granting it to them in the first place,” Hierophant corrected. “They could not do it themselves, by my estimation. At the very least you – or someone of equivalent strength in Night – and myself would need to guide the ritual.”

I grimaced.

“You want me to head north just as the armies begin to march on Keter,” I said. “That’s not a small ask, Masego.”

“Nor is breaking the hold of the goddess of stories on her domain,” Hierophant bluntly replied. “You asked me for a solution and you have it. There is nothing more I can do.”

I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.

“Can we really spare you?” I asked. “The crown of Autumn-”

“Has been carved into what we sought,” Masego interrupted. “It will be the cursed gift to the Dead King that we planned. And while I would prefer to be there when it is used, should the necessity strike my presence is not required. Roland and the Blessed Artificer would both be capable of using it without me.”

And both would be with the armies. I rubbed the bridge of my nose. I didn’t like it, to be honest, and it went against the grain for me to leave all the preparations behind. But it couldn’t be denied that if we didn’t get back Evil’s stories, the Dead King would snap us over his knee. Much as I’d like to pretend otherwise, I didn’t really have a choice.

“Well then, pack up and join me in Salia,” I said. “Look like we’re headed to Serolen.”

I had a week until he was there, so I had better spend it well: after that, there would be no going back.

Hunt

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Chapter 39: Name (Redux)

“Carry with you my blessing and my curse: may you ever get what you deserve.”

– Extract from the ‘Tenets Under Night’, Firstborn religious text

The fabric of Arcadia cracked around me and I grinned. I was so very, very close.

The Book of Some Things struggled furiously against the relentless onslaught of Night, but it had begun a slow descent into loss from the moment the first tendril slithered through a fracture. The artefact’s power was constrained in a way that was literally inhuman, the precision impossible by mortal hands, but no matter how hard the nut if you hammered at it long enough you’d get something to show for it. Brute force all the way through would have take days, maybe even an entire week, but that’d never been the plan. All the Night I could channel into relentless pressure without needing to guide the ritual had just been meant to create those fractures.

The precision work came after, widening the cracks and pulling apart the defences around the Book shard by shard. I could dip out for a bit and let brute force fall down again, but I’d been embellishing the truth when I’d told people that the ritual could end without me. It was technically true, but if I wanted it finished tonight then I’d need to be personally involved. It why I’d rustled up my band of valiant villainous defenders in the first place: one I got my licks in with Hanno and Cordelia, I’d need people to cover for me while I did the labour of smothering the divine Light of hope. You know, metaphorically speaking.

… probably. It would have taken more power than this if I was literally killing hope, I reassured myself.

And the thing was that, deep down, I’d not actually expected this to work. I went against everything I’d been taught: I had cackled atop a flying tower, begun a massive ungainly ritual to destroy something Good while there were heroes in riding distance and just generally monologued at people who might be construed as my rivals should you squint a bit. I had, in other words, behaved in a way that would have made my father roll in his graves if he’d not been given to a pyre. Only now I was standing alone in a room so deeply drenched in shadows it might as well be the night sky, prying apart the shell of the Book as it shone like a furious star, and I was winning.

The Book burned, for a moment washing away even the slightest of shadows, but I snorted.

“Shouldn’t have done that,” I informed it. “Sure, as far as I can tell your source of power is pretty much inexhaustible, but your outflow…”

The burning Light suddenly flickered, and in the moment of weakness Night swallowed all it had lost and more. The Book struggled, burning bright twice more, but every time it burned shorter and ceded more ground afterwards.

“Like I thought, you have a fixed outflow,” I told the Book. “Like veins, yeah? So when you come at me with all that fire, trying to chase me out of the room, you’re cramming a lot more blood in those veins than there’s supposed to be. Making them burst.”

The Book pulsed, shadows shivering around it.

“You damaged yourself,” I tutted disapprovingly.

And it opened the veins wider for me to slither through, not that I’d give it warning over that. I was still unsure exactly how intelligent the artefact was. Not sentient, as far as I could tell, but it was far from inert. There was a will in there, dumb and blind as it might be.

Leaning forward, I pulled at the Night. Picking through later after layer would have taken too long, especially the tighter shell nearer to the Book itself, but I’d been going deep instead of wide: I only needed to get to the artefact to finish this, not strip it naked. My flesh eye was half-closed, blinded by the Light, but under my eyecloth Night roiled and let me see through a hundred more. It was easier that way to pick my angle, slide between two jagged shards – invisible even to my weaves, only outlined by the press of Night against them – and slip into a crack. Not deep enough I thought, but I had a way around that.

“Hooks,” I ordered, frowning.

Like a thousand little mandibles the Night slipped into the crack bit into the shard, anchoring itself to the power. Like a fishing line I spun out chords of Night from it and hung them behind me, into the great currents of darkness, before rolling a shoulder. Now I just had to put my back into it. All my eyes closed, I breathed out shallowly and emptied my mind. Distractions fell away one after another, swallowed up by the dark, until all that was left was a simple thought: pull. I sunk into it, made it fill me up to the brim for what must have been a hundred years.

A loud crack jolted me out of the state, the sound rippling across the fabric of Arcadia. A long, thin shard broke away and flew up from the massive pressure, disappearing into the currents of Night. I could feel the tapestry of Arcadia wane around me, like a tapestry used as a cutting board. Creation would have been more solid, but I’d chosen Arcadia because rules were looser here in the first place. It’d last long enough anyway, I thought as I learned forward even further. Now there was only a small, smooth shell no broader than my thumb keeping me from getting to the Book.

One more good hit and I was in. I sent out my will, Night rippling around me, and found Archer.

“Report,” I ordered.

“Band of heroes coming from the hills,” Indrani said. “Captured the Royal Conjurer, by the looks of it, but they’re having a hard time with horses on the hill paths. The rest of our guests are contained.”

There were only so many bands of five I had it in me to swat away tonight, so it’d be best to finish this as soon as possible. I’d given the would-be wardens every chance I had to spare. If they couldn’t pull through now, it was on them.

“Do what you can to slow them down,” I said.

There was beat.

“Cat, what’s wrong?” Indrani asked.

“Nothing,” I lied, and cut the tie.

Looking down, I saw that my hands were trembling. From the exertion, I told myself. Not from what I was about to do: attempt to steal Above’s power and devour it whole. I clenched my hands.

“It’s the best of the bad solutions,” I told the Book. “My foundations will be weak, sure, but I’ll have the power to take on the Dead King.”

Just not, I thought, the power to survive him. When two peerless monsters entered the ring, only ruin ensued. I wasn’t sure, couldn’t be, but that was my gut said and these days it was so rarely wrong. I’d be fragile strength I took into the fight and the Hidden Horror would make me pay for that. Maybe I’d make it out anyway, merely crawl out broken, but the odds would be leaning the other way. I stared down my hands until they stopped shaking.

I was a few graveyards past a happy ending.

“So let’s take a swing,” I murmured, “and see where it gets me.”

The power came easy: Night loved a winning battle. The Book’s power felt smooth as an eggshell, without flaw, but I had broken through that before. The battering ram came down, the mangled globe creaking under the weight as I wielded the power in the most simple, brutal way it could be wielded. I waited and watched through a hundred eyes and one, following the shape of the power as it distended under the pressure. And, eventually, fissured. A small break, more along the curve of the last shell than inside it, but there was a slight indent.

I flexed my will, turning pressure to liquid as Night poured down through the slight opening before it could close. It would do. It was weak leverage, but when you had enough strength to wield that could be enough. I wove hook after hook, tightened the weave and raised my arm. I took the deep currents in hand, closed my eyes and pulled. Was I in the dark, or was I the dark? It was hard to tell where the border was. My own heartbeat felt distant, as if I’d been submerged, but I had a lifeline. The chords of Night in my hand, pulling at me as I had pulled at them.

I came back to the world to a splintering sound that echoed of a scream, the shell cracking and breaking as I breathed out and Night tendrils pulled and picked and ripped it all apart. All that effort, I thought as my eyes opened, to expose no more than a thumb’s worth of the Book of Some Things. But exposed it was, and I reached out for the leather-bound book with my hand. Light burned, a sun howling in indignation that I dare to darken it, but I had veiled greater suns than this.

“Fall,” I ordered, and Night obeyed.

The Light did not give an inch even as I drowned it in darkness, but the dark was patient. Like a candle starved of air I watched it burn and burn and burn until there was nothing left to consume but itself, and then that pride ate itself hollow. Until there was but a speck left, an ember, and the light dimmed. I had won.

Damn me, I had won.

My fingertips found the leather cold to the touch. Blindly angry, I ripped out the ember from the book and watched it wilt. I held the speck of Light in the palm of my hand and looked through the Night, to the threshold of my tower in this realm and another. The moonlight was blinding, a curtain of pale, but through it cut two stark silhouettes. The First Prince and the Sword of Judgement, crossing the threshold together.

“Good,” I said. “Good. Now we end this.”

They climbed the stairs unhindered, I saw to that.

The dark parted for them, like a tide receding, and I heard the sound of their steps on the stone long before they passed through the gate into the tower’s heart. Neither of them hurried, neither of them slow: it was a pace like the beat of a drum. It had the taste of the inexorable to it. And when they came at last, entering a sea of Night broken only by the glow of the ember in my palm, the play of shadows cut the figure of them to the bone. As if only the crux of them was being shined upon, the rest of it claimed by the dark.

Hanno of Arwad, the tall knight with a workman’s calloused hands. The sword at his side was little more than a line, his eyes a single streak of calm. Cordelia Hasenbach, the princess with the arrow-straight back. A raised chin and blue eyes burning cold.

Neither of them flinched away from the dark.

“You’re late,” I said.

My voice echoed across the Night, the only thing it did not swallow. No, instead the words reverberated across the room until the very last note faded, somehow faintly sounding of the cawing of crows. I felt talons digging into my shoulders, the presence of Sve Noc a tangible weight. I had the attention of my patronesses.

“But not too late,” he replied.

His movement drew shape from light, the cut of his jaw and the length of the sword still in the sheath.

“Not so sure about that,” I said. “Though at least the both of you made it here.”

“Bears in the pit,” she evenly said. “We saw. There is blinkered and there is blind.”

A slash of pale gold across her brow, the whisper of long skirts against the stone.

“And what is it you see?” I scoffed.

“The lady of long strings, pulling at them still,” he said. “Poisoning the chalice we are all to drink from.”

Lips firmly set, the dull shine of a belt buckle.

“Too little,” I said. “And much, much too late. If all you hold is what I hand you…”

My fingers closed around the ember of light, shadows like ribs cast on my face. I did not finish, crush it entirely and eat it whole, but the warning was plain. Better tyranny than a lackluster opposite. That mistake, at least, most of Calernia would live through.

“And what would closing that grip make you, I wonder?” she asked.

Curls like a river going down brocade, a tooth digging into skin to the very edge of piercing.

“The necessary evil,” I smiled, all teeth under the hood. “You ought to be used to it by now.”

“You are,” he replied, blunt. “It is why you reach even when you should not.”

Hair cut short I could make out the skin under, cloth hanging loose on his arm.

“What else is there?” I challenged. “I gave you warning. I bet you might live up to the boasts of your Gods, share a victory, but I see none of that before me.”

“You see nothing,” she said. “Because you are still in the pit.”

A cheekbone like a crossguard, a blue sleeve hiding a hand. I almost laughed in Cordelia’s face. Of course I was still in the pit. I’d started there, bleeding for silver, and odds were I’d die in there as well. Just because the pit got bigger and the toughs tougher didn’t mean anything had changed.

“You’ve failed,” I said, the regret in my voice honest. “Neither of you will stand. There is only one way left now.”

Through, I thought.

“That is true,” he acknowledged. “If you act alone.”

The entire relief of him, for the briefest moment as he passed between two ribs: bruised but not beaten. A bearing of a fragile certainty. They were not yet done. I narrowed my eye at them, staring them down from all sides, but they were half shadows themselves in the depths of the dark.

“So I ask again,” I said. “What else is there?”

“Bargain, Warden of the East,” she said. “Do you not have the West before you?”

Half of her stood in the light, like she had been split in half: gold and winter and blue, for a heartbeat shone upon.

“Bargain instead of taking.”

And she was gone, dress trailing a flutter behind her as she returned to the dark. My fingers, the ones still holding the Night, clenched. Knots formed around them. She was serious, I thought, and Hanno was not contradicting her. They were mad.

“Half the world?” I mused. “That will have a hefty price.”

“Is that an excuse for stealing instead?” he asked.

The good hand on the Good sword, a shoulder pulling tight.

“I’ll bite,” I languidly shrugged. “What is it that you want for your half?”

“Give up power,” Cordelia Hasenbach challenged. “Your hands should only hold so much: another must lead the Damned.”

A glimpse of light, but all I saw was the eyes: cold and blue and hard as the iron her people had once named kings for. You want me to step away, I thought. To become the sole keeper of the Accords and bind my hands with my own rules. There would be captains for Above and Below but I would not be one of them, instead an arbiter between. My fingers clenched even further. Did she even begin to understand how much power she was asking me to throw away? Already I was abdicating my throne, was I to burn every last scrap of influence I held along with it? What she described, it would leave me no authority save through the Accords. While they kept their followings intact, giving up empty claims in exchange for the root of my own power.

“And while I cut my own legs the two of you will keep your seats, of course,” I replied.

I shook my head, darkly amused.

“You people can never really lose, can you?” I said, smiling my father’s smile.

“Can you?” Hanno of Arwad retorted.

All I saw in the light was his hand, the fingers cut to the phalange. Hanno’s own bargain.

“On the cusp of your oldest trick, another ruin of a victory,” he said, “do you have it in you to compromise anyway, Catherine Foundling?”

Night roiled with my anger. Another hero coming out of the cold asking me to meet them halfway after having stepped an inch to my mile. Another fairweather friend demanding my cloak. My fingers closed further around the ember, the shadow ribs pulling closer.

“Compromise takes from both sides,” I bit out. “What is it that you’re giving up?”

The two of them stood at the edge of the light, little more than silhouettes. The three of us around the heart of the Book, like three strangers huddled around a fire.

“I will abdicate all power in Procer,” Cordelia said. “And spend the rest of my life in Cardinal serving the Accords.”

“Their laws will have to be enforced on Named,” Hanno said. “I will pledge my sword to the duty, under your authority.”

I took half a step back. Lose everything, they’d demanded of me. And now they were offering everything in return. A simple solution, but the intricacies spun out along with my thoughts. She’d build Cardinal as a city and the skeleton of the Accords applied, the schools and the bureaucracy. And he’d make himself into the enforcer of the laws all Named must abide, the one sent into the breach when horror got loose. The both of them would grant legitimacy that I simply did not have, warlord that I was. And they would also be a noose around my neck: I could not ask dark deeds of that enforcer, I could not plot conquest past that chancellor.

Wings and an anchor at the same time. An elegant, balanced solution.

It just required me to be willing to give up every speck of authority I held beyond treaties that were still nothing more than ink on parchment. To let slip from my grasp every single thing I’d fought for since the night I had almost been strangled to death in an alley. Talons dug into my shoulders. My goddesses were watching, waiting. Wanting to hear my answer. I looked at the two silhouettes in the waning light, feeling the weight of their gazes and silence, wondering.  Had the Sisters had felt like this that night in the Everdark, when I had offered Winter and asked for salvation in return?

I got no answer from them but expected nothing else. After all, it was my turn on their side of the altar.

“Crabs in the bucket,” I murmured. “It always comes back to that in the end, doesn’t it?”

Having to trust that the others wanted to leave the bucket too, that they didn’t just want to drag you back down. The leap of faith. And I still remembered what it was like, kneeling before silver eyes and asking the only thing you really could. Help me. Please.

“It might fail,” I told them.

They waited, silent. I clenched my fingers and unclenched them.

“But that’s we always say, isn’t it?”

My father had never understood, to the end, that sometimes it wasn’t about winning. It’d gotten him killed. And maybe, I thought, this would get me killed too.

But it was the only way out of the pit, and what else could I do but try?

I released the Night, the knots around my hand unmaking themselves. The sea withdrawing around all three of us until the last ember of the Book shone like a firefly cradled in my hand.

“Half the world,” I quietly said. “Bargain struck.”

Cordelia stepped forward first, reaching out and gently unclasping my fingers. The ember burned against my palm, free. Hanno met my eye, leaning forward over the altar and smiling.

He blew out the Light.

Darkness swallowed whole the room, then it swallowed me too.

I woke up standing on ashes.

In the distance the wind howled, kicking up great clouds of ash and dust, and my leg was throbbing. My sword was at my hip, my staff in my hand. Both were cold to the touch. I pulled my cloak tight around me, shivering, and looked ahead. There was a great stone ramp there, leading to a broken city. It had been built in a tall plateau, which lay shattered as ash rained down from the sky and the wind whipped at hollowed out husks. I’d been here before, I knew. I’d fought to defend this city and lost.

“Hainaut,” I murmured.

The wind gave no answer. The sky above was an endless stretch of storm clouds, red lightning crackling above and making itself known through the flashes of light. The whole world seemed coated in bleak grey light. I sighed,

“At least it isn’t Liesse,” I muttered. “We have haunted each other long enough.”

Around us was a vast plain of as, so there was only one way to go: forward, into the city. My leg felt like nails were being driven into it, but I pulled my hood down and limped towards the ramp. With every excruciating step, I could not help but think I had been here before. Not Hainaut, but the rest. This plain of ash. But I could not tell when or how, no more than I remembered how I had come here. All I knew was that my answers lay ahead.

The journey was long. The sky began to darken as the hours passed, shadows lengthening around me. But I reached the bottom of the slope, and there at last it all fell into place. Half-buried in the ash, revealed by a careless twist of wind, I found a corpse. A legionary, one of mine. Just some boy who couldn’t have been older than eighteen, his skull split open and his eyes unseeing.

Come to a foreign field to die for strangers.

“Name dream,” I said, then shook my head scornfully.

I glanced up at the sky.

“Death did not shake me when I was barely more than a girl,” I told it, “and I’ve waded through oceans of it since. What did you expect?”

“For you to learn.”

It had been many years since I’d last dreamt one of these dreams, but the woman who’d called out to me still felt like I’d seen her yesterday. Why shouldn’t she, when she was wearing my face? Older than me, her hair cut short and her robes pure white, but we were still twins. At her hip a long and slender sword hung from her belt, pure silver, but that wasn’t what drew my attention. She was holding some sort of case with a cloth draped over it.

“Added to your arsenal, I see,” I amiably replied.

The doppelganger glared at me.

“And you still avoid the reproaches to which you have no answer,” my twin said.

“I’ve learned a lot of things,” I told her, half-smiling. “Just not the sort you like.”

“Not the sort anyone should like,” my twin said. “How many cities’ worth of dead now trail in our wake, Catherine? Enough of them it might make up a kingdom. Your very own graveyard crown.”

“Better my graveyard than the Dead King’s,” I flatly replied. “Mine, at least, will sleep in peace.”

“They should have drowned us at birth,” she said. “Evil as the act would have been, it would still have been better than the plague of a woman we turned into. Again and again you were given the choice to turn away, to do better, and where did that lead you?”

She gestured up at broken Hainaut.

“Ruin heaped on ruin,” my twin said. “You are the worst of what we were as a girl, honed to a fine edge.”

“You never learned how to compromise either, did you?” I asked. “You still think it’s better to accomplish nothing than to do bad things.”

“Look around you, Catherine,” she gently said. “What is you’ve accomplished?

My fingers clenched around my staff.

“You were wrong then,” I replied, “and you’re wrong now. Doing nothing is worse than being Evil. It’s just going along with everything that’s wrong with the world.”

“And is it a better world you’ve made?” she asked me.

I breathed out, looking up at the sky. I could have been flippant, have made a joke of it, but it would have felt wrong. This is the last time I’m ever going to see you, isn’t it? If I was to face my doubts manifest, I would face them honestly.

“Ask me when the war’s over,” I finally said. “When I’m no longer holding my sword.”

Face unreadable, she slowly nodded.

“What now?” I asked her.

“I guide you into the city,” my twin replied.

She pulled away the cloth, dropping it into the ash and revealing the wooden lantern below. There was no flame inside, I saw. It was an ember of Light, the same I’d seen Hanno blow out. Around us, night fell over the world.

“Follow me closely,” she said. “The way is treacherous.”

She was not lying. The streets were cracked, houses and towers falling apart as the wind mournfully twisted past them. The rain of ash blinded the view of the sky, the rare lightning and distant starlight crowning the clouds. Hainaut had been turned into a monument to ruin and death, corpses dangling from every edge and crammed in every nook and cranny. Under the lantern’s light I glimpsed faces I had known, soldiers I’d once laughed with or ridden by. Once I thought I saw Nauk’s face, scarred with Summer fire, but it was too far to be sure.

I made certain never to look too closely at any goblin’s face.

“Usually I meet the other one first,” I said, following her into the deeper city.

“Evil has always come easier to your hand,” my twin curtly replied.

“But not tonight?” I asked.

“It was not it that bought you entry,” she said.

Her tone made it clear the conversation was over and she ignored my other attempts to talk. I followed her in silence through the tomb of a maze, recognizing where we were headed: the heart of the city, where there had once been a reservoir of water. It’d been broken during the battle, the plateau split by sorcery and the wrath of the Firstborn. We found the other one there, sitting on a broken pillar by the edge of the drop as she ran a whetting stone along the edge of her blade. The clouds parted as we padded across the dust-covered stone, moonlight peeking through and wreathing her silhouette.

The other twin still had that pink scar across her nose, her long hair kept in a braid reaching down to her coat of mail. Regular’s armour. She had a mangled look about her, worn down from war, but for once I was more worn than her. She wore a blood-specked tabard over the mail and a knife at her hip that I recognized even sheathed.

I would not soon forget the knife I’d used to kill my father.

“Ah, Cat,” the Evil twin grinned. “Welcome back, my girl.”

“’evening,” I drawled. “You look in a fine mood.”

The Good twin stepped to the side, silent and glaring.

“Shit, why wouldn’t I be?” the scarred twin laughed. “It’s been a long few years, Catherine, but look at us now.”

She waved around the sword, enthused.

“We’re basically Queen Bitch of Calernia,” the Evil twin said. “Sure, it took a damned lot of killing to get there but that’s why we’ve got a Hell of a throne to lounge on.”

Ugh, a pun. There was a reason I’d killed her half the times we’d met. She leaned forward.

“And just between you and me, my girl?” she said. “It makes our legs look good.”

“I don’t do a lot of lounging these days,” I noted. “It’s actually pretty painful on the leg.”

She rolled her eyes at me.

“Yeah, that’s the one part I’ve some issues with,” she said. “You need to cut that out. Fix your leg, put on your big girl pants and properly take this continent in hand.”

“Should we now,” I flatly said.

“You know we could,” the Evil twin grinned. “It wouldn’t even be that hard. A few clever choices while we pull down Keter on Neshamah’s head and there’ll be no one left who could stop us. Besides, we both know they’re all going to be so pathetically grateful once we pull them out of the fire again.”

“So the bargain I just made,” I said, “I ought to discard it.”

She smiled at me.

“Do you why I sit here?” she asked.

I shrugged.

“The view?” I guessed.

“That’s one word for it,” she said. “Come closer.”

I limped forward, the lantern’s light burning behind me and the moon above, until I stood at the edge of the drop. The plateau had been shattered, I knew, but down there I saw not a single loose stone. There might be some at the bottom, but how could I tell when a kingdom’s worth of mangles corpses had been piled over it? I’d seen a lot of death, since I became the Squire and in the years since, but that sight still gave me pause. How many thousands were down there?

“Who are they?” I quietly asked.

“The city’s the people who got us here,” the twin said. “Those, they’re the people we’ve killed. With wars, with choices, because it would have cost too much to save them.”

My fingers clenched. They should have drowned us at birth, the other spirit had said.

“And that’s the view you chose?”

“It’s what we are, Cat,” the spirit smiled. “The girl who did that. I just want you to stop fucking around and own it.”

I looked down at the dead, unblinking.

“You never learned to lose,” I finally said. “That’s your mistake.”

The spirit eyed me, unimpressed.

“Why would I want to?”

“Because when you look at these you see victories,” I said. “It’s the only way you know how to live: going from one fight to another, hoping that one more battle will fix it all.”

I shook my head.

“It’s prayer,” I said. “Below’s favourite kind. All in every time, until inevitably you lose it all.”

“We haven’t lost yet,” the twin said. “I’ll take those odds.”

“They’ll take you,” I replied. “It’s a rigged game. It’s how they’ve always gotten us.”

I looked back at the other spirit, who stood watching us with her lantern in hand. I stepped away from the edge.

“The first time I met you two,” I said, “I killed you both.”

“Good times,” Evil twin grinned.

“The second time,” I continued, “I left you behind.”

“And the demon broke you,” the other spirit replied.

Mistakes, I thought. Both times it’d been mistakes. And I’d never seen them with the Beast.

“It’s the end of the road, you know,” I quietly said. “There won’t be another one after this.”

Neither of them answered. Their gazes were on me.

“It’s the third time,” I said. “Let’s make it count.”

I breathed out, looking up at the moon through the parted clouds, and let myself loosen. Stopped trying to trick my way out of this, to win it, to use it as a tool. It was a journey, nothing more and nothing less. A hand gripped my right shoulder.

“Do better,” she whispered into my ear. “Remember the girl who wanted to save her home. She was always the best of you.”

A hand gripped my left shoulder.

“Don’t flinch,” she whispered into my ear. “Remember the girl who wanted to be the storm. She’s the one who got you here.”

We stood the three of us under the moon, in the heart of broken Hainaut, as below us the corpses began moved. Not as a horde but as one, a behemoth of a creature rising from the cradle of death made of a hundred thousand corpses. It stood tall and terrible, blotting out the sky, watching me through a sea of dead faces.

“Hello, old friend,” I softly greeted the Beast.

It opened a gaping maw, baring fangs made of broken swords and spears and banners. It was a beast, I thought, fit to swallow the world whole. West and East, what did it matter? It would devour it all.

“I once told you I wasn’t afraid of you,” I smiled. “But it was a lie. Did you know?”

It laughed, the sound a thing of horror.

“Let me tell you again, then,” I said. “I’m not afraid of you.”

The behemoth of corpses climbed out of the pit, standing over me. An entire world of death enveloped me on all sides. I cocked my head to the side.

“Is it a lie now?” I asked it.

Its massive head lowered and it watched me, suddenly snapping out. I did not flinch.

“You know what we are now,” I told it. “Who we are.”

I looked up into its eyes.

“The Warden,” I claimed, and the world shivered with the truth of it.

The Beast roared in approval. Time to wake up, I thought, and the great maw of death opened wide.

I never felt it close around me.

Interlude: Occidental V

“Adversity tempers, power tests.”

– Helikean saying

It was as if all the world had been cut down to three sights: the night sky above, the pale plains below and the tall tower bridging them. The dark was quiet, and there was not another soul to be found for miles around them.

“We are returned to Creation,” Hanno said, offering his hand to the prone princess.

Cordelia Hasenbach looked at it as it were a snake, then something like contempt flickered across her face. Jaw squared, she took the hand and he helped her rise from the grass. Her legs were unsteady but the First Prince was a stubborn woman: she toughed it out until her stance firmed.

“Do you know how much time has passed?” the princess asked.

“Since you were taken? I can only guess,” he replied. “But between my arrival here and yours, barely time enough for a kettle of water to boil. Arcadia makes sport of any who would measure its time.”

Had it been hours for those in the realm of the fae, moments? More the former than the latter, he guessed, but guesses were all he had to give. Hanno waited as Hasenbach gathered her bearings, taking in the utter emptiness of the plain around them before her gaze moved to the tower. The gate that Christophe had smashed open still lay sagging on its hinges, almost an invitation.

“I suspect,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, “that passing the threshold unprepared would be a costly mistake.”

“It ends soon,” Hanno quietly agreed. “Have your instincts grown enough to feel it?”

Cool blue eyes considered him. No answer came.

“It is in the air,” Hanno told her. “The roads grow short for the lack of ground left to tread.”

It was like a shortness of breath or unease in the limbs. The sensation that the story would soon reach its conclusion and that he was not ready. Here and now, the two of them alone under the sky, was the last chance to turn it around.

“Like an edge,” the princess finally said. “It feels like the moment before defeat, when the wheels and cogs are already moving but just before they snap into place.”

Hanno nodded. It was impressive, he thought, that even as a claimant she would have so sharp an impression. But then the First Prince had always been an impressive woman, hadn’t she? That had never been the trouble with her.

“The threshold is the point of no return,” the dark-skinned man pensively said. “But we have time before that, all the room that can be found in the boundary between Arcadia and Creation.”

That was what the world whispered to him, the current his crippled hand could almost feel. Time was undefined now, made… malleable by the gap between the two realms. But the story would lock into place the moment they crossed the threshold, leaving only the closure.

“Of course we do,” the First Prince said, sounding disgusted. “How many steps ahead did she plan this?”

Hanno’s lips thinned.

“Too many,” he said.

Blues eyes left the tower, returning to him.

“Then this conversation,” Cordelia Hasenbach calmly said, “is what determines victory and defeat.”

Victory and defeat, huh. Loaded words, on a night like this one: whose meaning for them was to be taken as gospel? His, the First Prince’s, Catherine’s? Or maybe that was the point of it all, he thought. Choosing whose lines in the sand determined the nature of the game.

“I am beginning to believe,” Hanno said, “that thinking in those terms is the first mistake. In a fight, someone must lose.”

“And what would you call this instead?” the First Prince of Procer said, gesturing around them.

Grass painted pale by moonlight, the depthless dark above and in between the tower that belonged to neither. Like stairs joining the heavens and the dirt. Going up or going down? Not something you could know, Hanno thought, before your foot first touched the stone.

“A journey, perhaps,” the Sword of Judgement finally replied.

Something with a beginning and an end, but not a battle. Not without struggle, for so few things were, but not something defined by struggle.

“A journey,” Cordelia Hasenbach repeated, tone musing.

The princess’s hand rose, fingers extended, as below them both the grass shivered from the breeze. Like she was trying to catch the wind.

“Maybe,” the fair-haired woman said. “But I am not so certain you and I are on the same one, Hanno of Arwad.”

A reply came to mind silver-quick, from the old law-riddles of Arishot’s Ruminations. Can strangers ever be on the same journey? He’d loved those scrolls as a young court scribe in Arwad, the way they forced you to think. Arishot had not written to make laws but instead lawmakers, asking questions that bent one’s understanding until flaws were revealed. That riddle warned against common blame, Hanno had thought, against faulting a rower and a captain the same way for a crime. But which of us is the rower, Cordelia Hasenbach, and the captain?

“I had thought,” Hanno admitted, “that this would end by the ascription of fault.”

The First Prince studied him, gaze composed.

“But no longer?”

Hanno snorted, suddenly tired in a way that had nothing to do with the hour.

“What does it matter,” he said, “if the pool one of us drowns in is a few feet deeper than the other’s?”

Hasenbach looked away as if burned by the sight of him.

“She took you to task as well,” the First Prince said.

“With method and great enthusiasm,” Hanno replied.

Some of that he knew she must have sat on for years. Too much of that had felt like a valve being opened, a sac of venom being drained.

“I as well,” the First Prince said, then hesitated.

Hanno patiently waited.

 “She is convincing, I know,” the princess said. “That does not mean she is right.”

“I spent most of my time on the grass,” he admitted, “finishing the argument in my mind. Speaking the retorts I could not place, that escaped me in the moment.”

He could see now, looking back, that she had angered him on purpose. He would have spoken better calm, seen more clearly. He could have pointed it out it was absurd to pretend that the Saint or the Pilgrim to killing innocents in the pursuit of ending an evil was equivalent to a villain simply killing for evil. That her sacrifices, the weight they had given her Name, did not make her worthy. Just strong. That Hanno himself had made mistakes, but that if those disqualified him from wardenship then her own would make her the last woman allowed anywhere her title.

Like a fencing match, he had played it again and again in his mind. Every time swatting away more of her points, scoring more of his own. But one had never budged no matter what he cast against it.

“Did it change anything?” Hasenbach asked.

He breathed out slowly.

“Nothing that matters,” he admitted.

That was the difference between a fencing match and a duel, when it came down to it. One was won on points, the other ended when the opponent was killed. A thousand small cuts mattered nothing in the face of that single blow going through the heart. Do you think claimants grow on trees, Hanno? And no matter how much he turned around the words in his palm, looking for the fault, he had found none. Cool blue eyes were studying him again, looking for something in the cast of his face.

“What is it that she said that shook you so?” the First Prince asked.

An unpleasant truth, the dark-skinned hero thought. That I never stopped to consider that you might be right and I might be wrong. That your claim could be the equal to mine instead of an obstacle to overcome.

“That I should have asked you a question years ago,” Hanno replied. “W-

“-hat is it that you want, Cordelia Hasenbach?”

His tone was as serious as it was earnest, and still Cordelia almost laughed. She looked away so he might not notice, eyes finding the vast stretch of the plains. The sea of grass where strands of shadow and light interwove, under the starlit ink of the endless sky above them. Two seeming eternities pressing down on the stark silhouette of the tower, a stubborn nail refusing to be hammered in. But nothing could fight forever, Cordelia knew. Instead you were used up grain by grain until not a speck was left, the defeat so quiet and creeping you did not know of it before it embraced you.

What did she want?

For her uncle to be alive, her family with him. That the realm she had spent half her life healing had not become a wasteland ruin, that she could have kept everyone alive. That she had won more and lost less, that she had been the kind of woman who could have saved Procer instead of being the custodian of its death throes. That Calernia might know one long and lasting summer, a golden peace and time of plenty. That she was not carrying with her so many ugly choices, so many bitter compromises. And maybe, beneath it all, that she was still the same woman than before all the sacrifices she had made.

But that was looking back, and not even the Gods could return the arrow of time to the quiver. So instead Cordelia looked forward and sought her answer, shaving away the dross one cut at a time until there was only the bone of it left. It was even simpler than she had thought.

“I want my successor to be able to hang the Peregrine,” the princess said, then frowned.

That was not quite it. The arrow missed by a thumb.

“No, I speak untrue.”

She breathed out, groping at the truth, and finally the words came to her,

“I want a world where it is a given the Peregrine will hang,” Cordelia Hasenbach said. “Where there is no doubt that someone, anyone, who murders an entire town of innocents will die for it. That there will be no excuse, no protection, no talk of a Choir giving absolution or a greater good hiding behind the mountain of corpses.”

Catherine had talked about so many heroes, about that night in the Chamber of Assembly and the crossroads of the Arsenal, but these were not the source from which it all flowed. It was that brutal campaign through the heartlands, the Black Knight burning granaries and villages to kill thousands in starvation. It was the Grey Pilgrim condemning hundreds of innocents to a painful death to catch his foe, only to then keep him alive. It had been the seed of the realization that rules, laws, did not really apply to them. That only Named were entitled to dole out justice to Named, that whatever the first colour of the cloak it always ended up red.

The Sword of Judgement took a step back, turning to face her instead of standing side by side, and Cordelia knew it had begun.

“Princes can destroy towns as well,” the Sword of Judgement said, tone even. “Many have. How many were brought to justice by law?”

I fought the Great War as girl, Cordelia thought. Do you truly think you have anything at all to teach me about the cruelties of princes? She had not led her people south as an army because peace somehow did not occur to her. No one raised in the shadow of the Crown and the Plague could be ignorant of the costs of wars, even the most necessary ones.

“How many were brought to justice by heroes?” Cordelia replied.

Before the man could reply she pushed on.

“And I do not mean in the last decade,” the blue-eyed princess said. “That is the scale of the immediate, the short precedent. It is not an honest examination of the past. Since the Principate was founded, Hanno of Arwad, how many princes and princesses have deservedly been slain by heroes?”

The brown-eyed man frowned.

“Given a few hours I would be able to give you a precise answer,” Hanno said, “but at the moment I cannot.”

Cordelia waved that away. She was not trying to ambush him, pretend that lacking an exact number would mean she somehow won the argument.

“Imprecise would be enough,” she replied. “Thirty, forty, a hundred?”

He mulled that, eyes going distant for a few heartbeats. The air pulsed faintly with power. Aspect, she thought.

“Less than eighty,” he finally said. “More than thirty.”

And more than she had expected, but not enough to prove her wrong.

“It is a drop in the bucket,” Cordelia told him. “There have been thousands of princes since the founding of Procer. Hundreds of them must have been genuinely vile and malicious. Some lived out their lives keeping their throne, I have no doubt, but most of them did not.”

A crown was not power absolute and uncontested. Chosen struggled with understanding that when it came to doing Good, but even more when it came to the other side of the coin: no royalty on Calernia would be able to be truly, genuinely evil without consequence even if there were not a single hero in existence. People did not enjoy being ruled by tyrants, even skillful ones. And in the end, a ruler only had power so long as people followed them.

“Some were tried before the Highest Assembly, but I would wager not so many more than heroes have slain,” she continued. “It is not a common procedure. Most were removed by their families, by the outrage of the people, by blades or poison.”

Hanno shook his head.

“You think of heroes as wandering forces,” he said, “but that is true of very few.”

Cordelia hid her irritation. That was not at all what they had been discussing.

“For every Pilgrim and Saint there are dozens who became Named seeking to end an injustice and would then not stray far from that mandate,” he said. “When finished they will beat the sword back into a ploughshare, return the enchanted ring to the old woman in the woods.”

“We stray from the topic,” she told him.

“We do not,” Hanno calmly replied. “Named are not born out of the Gods waving a hand: those that killed princes were, in all likeliness, brutalized by those same princes. All those means to unseat tyrants you lay out failed for so long and in the face of so great a cruelty that a champion was empowered by Above to end that evil.”

The blonde princess paused, genuinely taken aback. It had not occurred to her, truly, that most of the Chosen who had killed Procerans princes would be Procerans as well. In the back of her mind she had always thought of it as a foreign intervention. An outside force meddling. It was jarring to realize there was no solid reason to believe that was true.

“That such heroes existed at all,” Hanno of Arwad continued, “is the mark of the utter failure of the means you defend.”

He shook his head.

“You even defend the poison and blades of others while condemning the same tools in a hero’s hands,” he said. “I will not force on you my belief that becoming a hero means one seeks to do Good, but are you truly going to argue that it makes people less worthy?”

He was not wrong, Cordelia thought, to chide her for having let her gaze shy away from part of the truth. But that did not mean he was right. His blinders were no smaller than her own.

“It does not,” the tall princess replied, “but neither does becoming Named take someone beyond laws. It is true, I cannot deny, that you have spoken the truth: the Highest Assembly, the natural means, they fail. Have failed and will fail again.”

This was not a revelation for her. Cordelia had spent years convincing, arm-twisting and sometimes outright bribing the Assembly into backing what she believed to be necessary reforms. She had no illusions about the average character of royalty.

“Yet that does not mean decisions about the lives of thousands – sometimes even millions! – should be blindly entrusted to whoever first arbitrarily received power from Above,” she retorted. “Good intentions are not enough: principle will not make up for a bad tax policy or lopsided trade rights.”

Christophe de Pavanie was the man she thought of then. Well-meaning in so many ways, but even now still of narrow perspective and limited in judgement. Paired with power as a Named that could make him rise among the most influential of an empire, it was a recipe for disaster. At best he would be a puppet, at worse a stone around the neck of the people he had taken upon himself to rule.

“Ruling, making the decisions of a ruler, is a skill,” Cordelia said. “One that requires a lifetime of training and that very few Chosen have cultivated. A bad decision by a good man will inflict a great deal more suffering than a good decision by a bad man.”

A deep breath, steadying herself after the long tirade.

“You are right, the… order of things is imperfect,” the princess said. “But that does not mean heroes should be allowed to do as they wish, it means the order must be fixed.”

“Then fix it,” the Sword of Judgement bluntly replied. “Why would any of us oppose the world being bettered?”

“You do not have to oppose it,” Cordelia harshly said. “You make it unnecessary by being who you are. Why should there be significant reform to anything at all, when no matter how dire the situation becomes a hero will emerge to save the day?”

“You are arguing in the favour of disaster,” Hanno slowly said, incredulous. “That lives should not have been saved?”

“I am arguing,” she said, “that heroes have been killing villains and wicked princes since the founding of the Principate and it has fixed nothing. That Chosen excise tumours but do not, cannot heal the sickness that causes them.”

And because of that, Cordelia realized in a moment of clarity, she had come to think of them as being part of the trouble. One of the reasons for it. But that was unfair of her. A suspicion born of the souring experiences she had had with Chosen. Blaming them for existing was like blaming a man for not allowing his throat to be cut. About that much the Sword of Judgement was right and she had been wrong.

“And that does not mean they should not exist,” Cordelia said, “but it means that so long as Chosen remain the final arbiters of what is good, we cannot grow. So long as we leave the decision of what can be allowed and what must be refused in the hands of a handful smiled on by the Gods Above, nothing can change.”

And that was what the Liesse Accords were, deep down, the reason that the Lycaonese princess had fought tooth and nail over provisions and sections but never once doubted she would sign it when the negotiations ended. It was a treaty that let mortals dictate rules to Named.

“That world cannot be built so long as laws do not apply to everyone,” Cordelia said. “Until it is Calernia, not the Chosen few, that decide what the lines in the sand are.”

The dark-haired man had gone still as stone, looking at her as if he had never seen her before.

“They gave us a choice, Hanno of Arwad, the only one that really matters,” she quietly said. “Let us make it.”

The irony, Hanno thought, was that in many ways Cordelia Hasenbach was like the very people she distrusted. The ironclad conviction that made up her spine, that he had not grasped was at the heart of all she did, was the very trait that led people to become Named. It was something Creation reacted to, embraced. And though Hasenbach might despise him for the comparison, as she spoke she had reminded him of no one so much as Tariq Isbili. The Pilgrim’s own iron law had been different – the alleviation of suffering, no matter the cost – but looking at the First Prince of Procer he saw in her the same alloy of idealism and brutal pragmatism that had been the Peregrine’s signature.

It was an unsettling thought.

“The changes you speak of,” Hanno said, “the world would be better off for them.”

The princess’s lips quirked into a smile that did not reach her eyes.

“But,” Cordelia Hasenbach said.

“So long as the first step to them is making heroes obey corrupt authorities,” he told her, “there is no chance of them ever coming to pass.”

If the foundation of her reform was to make Named bow to the very evil they had risen to defeat, then the ideal was nothing but fool’s gold.

“Then let them obey something else,” she said. “Rules that crowns had a hand in making but do not belong to the crowns.”

He was not a fool, to need every word spelled out to him.

“The Liesse Accords,” Hanno said.

Catherine Foundling’s dream, the justification for her every atrocity: a muzzle on every atrocity that would come after her. As was so often the way of the Warden of the East, it was the finest of intentions raised atop a mountain of corpses. Hanno believed in their worth, but not that way that Catherine did. The rules would do good for Calernia, curb excesses, but in time they would become a tool for oppression as well. He had no illusions about their permanence, that their ability to better the world would be more than temporary.

“They can accomplish what queens and princesses cannot,” the First Prince said. “A set of rules all will abide by. A first step heroes will accept.”

“And for that you would become Warden of the West,” Hanno thoughtfully said. “To ensure that heroes follow the rules.”

The blonde princess looked faintly embarrassed as she nodded.

“I am not unaware of my weaknesses as a claimant,” Cordelia said. “I lack knowledge of namelore and have not cultivated many close relationships with heroes.”

Hanno hummed.

“But for what you envision the Warden of the West to be, even with those weaknesses you remain the better candidate,” he plainly stated.

What she described might be best described as the heroes of Calernia being made into a guild and Cordelia Hasenbach as the head of that guild. It was not a position that would require skill at arms or even a great deal of personal power: her function would be that of an administrator and a diplomat, not a captain. It was also a position that would require her to abdicate all power in Procer, Hanno knew, a sacrifice that would earn her some respect. That she was willing to make that sacrifice did not surprise him as much as it would have an hour ago.

Tariq had never taken the Tattered Throne.

“I was expecting more of an argument from you,” the First Prince delicately said.

“I do not agree with your vision,” Hanno clarified. “But I do understand that from your perspective pressing your claim is the most sensible answer.”

“Yet you disagree,” the princess said.

“Not with your intentions,” he replied. “There have been enough misunderstandings between us, so I will speak plainly: you do not need to be Warden of the West to achieve this.”

It would help her, certainly, but it was not necessary. And it was turning the Role to a direction that it did not need to be turned – or should, considering that a guildmistress would not be what Above’s champions would need in the wake of the war on Keter. Coolness returned to the blue eyes considering him.

“Indeed?”

“Cardinal will be the seat of the Accords,” Hanno said. “And your interest lies in them more than in Named themselves. Taking up a position there as a high officer and a diplomat will place you in a position to shape laws and curb abuses exactly as you wish.”

And it would not force her into the position of leader of the heroes, a position she would not enjoy or be particularly skilled at.

“If your worry is lack of influence over Named, then change the Accords to reflect what you believe is necessary,” he told her. “I would support this. And as Warden, I would have no difficulty working with you.”

She studied him for a long moment, then slowly nodded.

“To my own surprise,” the blue-eye princess said, “I find myself believing you would try.”

Hanno grimaced.

“But,” he echoed.

“The question has been long in coming from my side as well,” Cordelia said. “What is it that you want, Hanno of Arwad?”

For all the gravity of the situation, Hanno thought, it felt as if they were children declaiming a play at each other. Taking turns, trading tirades. They were, in a way. Fate was heavy around them, like the air before a storm, and so far in the journey every word mattered. They had run out of room to maneuver. So Hanno considered his answer carefully even though the words came easy, looking for the heart of it. It was too late for grievances to matter, for might-have-beens to be worth bringing up. Instead he looked for the source, the kernel moment of why he had come to stand here.

It was not the Arsenal, he realized to his faint surprise. The disappointments of that fortnight had been long in the coming, more flower than root.

“I want a world,” Hanno said, “where you could not have called the Tenth Crusade.”

The First Prince flinched. She had reason to. It all went back to that first mistake, didn’t it? The moment where the woman in front of him had decided to raise Above’s banner without understanding what that decision meant. Where she had put the lives of tens of thousands, of most heroes on the continent, on the line because of terribly mundane reasons. Because Procer had been plagued by disaffected mercenaries, because it had been wary of a resurgent and hostile Callow on its flank. The real reasons for the Tenth Crusade had nothing to do with the Black Queen or the Doom of Liesse: the groundwork for it being called had begun being laid years before.

“I do not believe heroes should rule,” Hanno said. “We are forged for a reason, to combat an evil, and that defines what we should be: exceptional power granted to fight an exceptional evil. Come and gone in a few moons, like fireflies.”

How many Grey Pilgrims and Saints of Swords were there, really? Sometimes not even a single one in a generation. Hanno believed that a dozen heroes fighting under the Grand Alliance would no longer be Named by now if they had not been drafted into the war against Keter. Their foe and mandate had been clear, stretched into the present only by the great threat looming over all the living.

“But we no longer live in a world where that is possible,” he told her. “Calernia is not the same place it was even a century ago: the kingdoms are more powerful, the cities larger, the borders push ever further into the wilds. It is no longer a place where someone can simply disappear.”

A century ago, the thought of something like the Truce and Terms would have been laughable. Named were too hard to find, too spread out, and who could even enforce these rules even should they be set down? Now half the younger heroes took them for granted and even the older ones expected that when a great Evil next came to Calernia the same bargain would be struck with villains.

“It is no longer possible to take up the sword and retire into obscurity after having hung it back above the mantle,” Hanno said. “Heroes are sought, followed, drawn out by mortal powers. And then they are used for purposes beyond what they were meant for. From that, evil flows.”

Like Christophe, whose power and candour had driven the House of Langevin to try to entrap him into some plot. The Mirror Knight should have never so much as spoken to a Langevin: he had come into his Name to protect the Elfin Dames, to face the Wicked Enchantress that would come to destroy them. If not for the Dead King’s march, he might never have left the lakeside town of his birth. Hanno had not been offended to learn that the Langevins had sunk hooks into him. Why would he be, when the plain truth of the matter was that unscrupulous souls had taken advantage of the vulnerability a good man had risk to save every living being on Calernia?

And it would keep happening again and again, the corrupt and powerful twisting power meant to do Good, so long as there was no one standing between heroes and earthly crowns. Someone who could free their hands to do Good and steer them away from being used.

“There is some truth in that,” the fair-haired princess finally said. “I did not understand what I was unleashing, when I called the Tenth Crusade. I erred and many paid for it.”

He slowly nodded. It was only the shallowest layer of what he had said, but it was the beginning of an understanding.

“But your words are not entirely true, are they?” the First Prince said. “Heroes seek crowns as well, ‘Prince White’.”

The disdain for the title was palpable but Hanno was not offended. How could he be when he agreed?

“Yes,” he enthused. “Exactly. I should not be holding the authority that I took up.”

For the first time since he had met her, he saw the First Prince of Procer visibly taken aback.

“I have had to because Named and kingdoms have become so intertwined as to be indistinguishable,” Hanno said, “which is not a state of affairs that should exist.”

It was not as if he had wanted to seize the reins. But what other choice had there been, when failing to do so might doom all of Calernia? If Hanno did not become the Warden of the West, did not lead Good’s forces against the walls of Keter, he foresaw no victory. The First Prince was fit to rule, but for all that it needed a foundation of authority the Name was not about ruling.

“I have not deluded myself into thinking I am a fit ruler, Cordelia Hasenbach,” Hanno told her. “I have to bear a crown, let it be a firefly’s crown: gone in a few moons, when the darkness abates. And after the need has passed-”

“You would set it down and stand as Warden of the West,” the First Prince calmly said. “Spending your days ensuring that heroes stay true to their purpose by keeping them apart from earthly powers, stand as the intercessor between them.”

“It is not that the world is corrupt and heroes without fault,” he said. “Above’s blessing does not make Named more than men, beyond pettiness or cruelty. But that power comes in recognition of a need to do Good, to make the world a little better.”

And maybe the princess was right and one day the world would have no need for heroes, but that day had not come. Perhaps Calernia had changed, but heroes could as well: they could meet the Age of Order on their feet instead of being overtaken by it.

“All the world needs to do is let them,” Hanno pleaded.

The night air had stillness to it in the wake of his words, the First Prince’s face a bland mask as she studied him in silence.

“I can see it now, I think,” Cordelia Hasenbach finally said, tone eerily calm. “The trap.”

Hanno frowned.

“The Warden’s?” he asked.

“The Intercessor’s,” the First Prince replied, shaking her head. “Because whoever wins, Hanno, whichever of us steps forward, something breaks.”

“Something is lost when a claimant wins over another,” Hanno slowly said. “That is only natural.”

The blue-eyed princess half-smiled but did not explain.

“You do not need to be Warden of the West to achieve what you spoke of,” she said instead.

“It is perhaps the only way to achieve it,” Hanno replied, shaking his head.

“It was pointed out to me tonight on several occasions,” the princess said, “that what Named do not follow laws or titles but the individual. It is power personal, not institutional, and that is the very thing you seek to preserve. Your successors, Hanno will not command the same respect.”

“That can be trained,” he replied.

“Can it?” she said, tone doubtful. “Even if that is the case, it will not change the bone of the matter: the respect will come again from the individual, not the Name. In other words, the Name does not matter.”

Hanno stilled. Looked for a reply, a rejoinder, a way to disagree.

“You can do all of this as the White Knight,” the First Prince said. “You were already the shield of the heroes, Hanno, and you have little interest in the Accords themselves or the ministry of kingdoms. So why do you need to be the Warden of the West to do all this?”

He groped for his answer, feeling lost in a way he had not since the Light returned to him. And he found that he did not have one. That all the thoughts he had put together, building back the wall broken by the silence of the Tribunal, were built on a foundation that did not exist. It was true, all of it, but it was built on thin air. As if from the very moment he had heard- his stomach clenched. And there it was. The root of the mistake.

“Because,” Hanno quietly said, “there is a Warden of the East.”

Clarity, Cordelia thought, could be such a cruel thing.

“We are not claimants,” she said. “We are the bears in the pit.”

And no matter who won, the bears always lost. The hero’s face drew tight but, tellingly, he did not disagree.

“You believe the Intercessor is behind this,” Hanno said. “How?”

“Gods, who knows?” the blonde princess tiredly said. “Perhaps she pulled strings at the Arsenal, or on the night we faced each other in Salia. It could be a hundred other little moments where a push or a pull made a difference and we would never know.”

Her smile was bitter.

“Has anyone aside from the Black Queen ever been able to untangle her plots?”

The hero jerked back as if he had been slapped. That was answer enough, Cordelia thought.

“And so we damage Good, whoever becomes Warden,” Hanno of Arwad said, sounding appalled.

“We already have,” Cordelia said. “To add weight to my claim, I promised by abdication as First Prince to Rozala Malanza and her allies in exchange for their support. There is no going back.”

“And I have let myself be crowned prince in all but name,” Hanno quietly replied. “The divisions will no go away no matter who becomes Warden of the West.”

It was worse than that, she thought. Thinking in the scale of the immediate it was a danger, but there was something else awaiting just beyond the horizon.

“Neither of us would have all of Good behind us,” Cordelia said. “Neither of us would be her equal. And on that hobbled leg-”

“-we would venture out to fight the Hidden Horror,” Hanno finished through gritted teeth. “That is…”

Cordelia’s understanding of namelore was still a shallow thing, but even she could see that it would be a catastrophe for two Wardens to face the Dead King without the full weight of what they claimed to stand for behind them. It would be going to war with a gap in your chainmail.

“Why would the Intercessor ever want this?” the Sword of Judgement asked. “She the Dead King’s enemy as much as our own.”

“She wants us to lose I think,” the princess said. “So that when the darkest hour comes she can save us. Entirely on her terms.”

The Wandering Bard had burned too many bridges to get her way otherwise. She could only dictate terms now if the only choice left was between her and annihilation.

“So she poisons the chalice long before we can think to drink,” Hanno grimaced. “That fits her unpleasantly well. Foresight is two thirds of what makes her fearsome.”

And Catherine Foundling was the one who had caught her out. Again.

“We would have torn each other to pieces until only one was left standing, if she had not done all this,” Cordelia admitted.

If she had not come after their every preconception with a knife and dropped them here in the grass, like misbehaving children in need of making up. The dark-skinned hero peered at her closely.

“We have been wrong,” Hanno of Arwad conceded. “That does not make her right.”

“Bears in the pit, Hanno,” Cordelia softly said. “You saw it before I did.”

A long moment passed, silence hanging between them. The breeze caressed the grass.

“Journeys, not a battle,” the Sword of Judgement murmured. “Yours. Mine. Hers.”

Blue eyes met brown, an understanding. They could still end this right.

She did not know who took the first step, but they passed the threshold together.

Interlude: Occidental IV

“It is not enough to win. If you do not destroy the very foundation on which your enemy stood, all you have done is change the face of the man who will kill you.”

– Dread Emperor Benevolent

Cordelia woke up looking at the moon.

The sky spread out above her, a river of darkness with glistening jewels for stars and brightest among them the crown jewel of night. The midnight eye, she thought. She was not manacled, the fair-haired princess found, but she was chained. Someone had set her down on a throne of stone from which twisting chords of Night slithered out, forming into shackles around her hands and feet. Trying to rise up, Cordelia found her legs wobbly and half-fell back into the seat. She groaned as she bruised the back of her knees against the stone, forcing aside the pain to look around. She must be atop the tower, she thought. The view could come from nowhere else.

 And there was only one person who could have brought her here.

“I do not believe,” Cordelia said, “that you would abduct me only to then ignore my presence. Shall we dispense with the theatrics, Catherine?”

A long moment passed and she wondered if she had not just made a fool of herself, but from behind her came the sound of a match being struck. Though she felt the urge to twist around on the seat and look back, Cordelia forced herself not to. Appearances mattered even more when you were at a disadvantage. Instead the acrid smell of wakeleaf drifted to her, lazily carried by the breeze, and she heard that familiar limp drag itself across the stone. A soft step and then the sharp rap of the staff on stone, all a fabricated display of weakness. The Warden of the East could still move as swiftly and gracefully as a cat when she needed to.

Catherine Foundling limped into sight from her left, moonlight lapping at her back like the tide at the shore. Even the jarring colours of the Mantle of Woe were drowned in strands of Night, as if she wore a cloak woven from it, and only the cherry-red burn of the pipe allowed Cordelia to see anything at all under the dark of the hood. One piercing brown eye set in a face carved by hatchet, all sharp angles and severity. It was only those ever-expressive lips that broke from the blade edges: always smiling and smirking, grinning and baring teeth.

The Warden drew back the pipe to blow a long stream of smoke, veiling her face in darkness for a moment, and Cordelia was left without a window to gaze through. When the red burn returned, it was to an amused little quirk of the lips. Like she knew a joke no one else did.

“Hanno would have seen the trap coming,” the Warden of the East lightly said. “You do know that, right?”

Cordelia let the barb pass through her. This was a negotiation, diplomacy. Allowing the woman on the other side of the table to irritate her was handing her further advantage when she already had many.

“It is decent manners to offer refreshments when entertaining a guest,” Cordelia calmly replied. “I believe a tart red is the traditional kind vintage for stargazing. A bottle from lakeside Aequitan if you have one.”

Unlike the rest of the principality the large cities near the coast had never truly become Arlesite even after the Aquitanii were conquered, so the ancient tart grapes were still used in the vineyards. Aequitan reds from the south were unpleasantly sweet, Cordelia had found, best drunk with small game or not at all.

“How fortunate, then, that you are not a guest,” the Warden drawled. “If you insist on wine, Hasenbach, there should be a bottle by the seat. You can pour for yourself.”

Cordelia did grope around, finding to her relief that her legs were steadying, and hid her dismay when she saw that it was half-empty bottle of Vale summer wine that rested on a low table. She could have used a drink that did not taste like it had been mixed with cider to settle her nerves. The Queen of Callow’s hopelessly provincial taste in wine had been speculated by some to be a clever way to display Callowan pride, given the famously poor reputation of those vintages, but Cordelia had sadly learned better. She took a deep drink of the glass she’d poured, much more than was polite.

Awful.

“You’ll be able to stand before long, if that’s what you were trying to do,” Catherine idly said. “The binding was just a little rougher than I meant it to be.”

She had little practice with bindings, Cordelia thought, because she so rarely took prisoners. Had the sideways reminder been on purpose?

“Duly noted,” she replied. “As we have now both found a vice to nurse, given the circumstances I believe it would be forgivable to do way with the usual courtesies.”

The face disappeared into the dark, a cloud of smoke flowing out.

“Indeed?” the Warden amusedly said.

“Indeed,” Cordelia confirmed. “I imagine that your plans for the Book of Some Things are nearing their end, which invites urgency in our talks.

For a moment she thought she saw the other woman wince at the mention of the artefact, but it might have been a trick of the light. A single fleck of red cast just as many shadows as it did their opposite.

“We’ll be ending this soon,” Catherine Foundling casually agreed. “The attack on the tower is going south in a hurry and-”

She suddenly paused, then sighed and snapped her fingers. There was a flare of Night and a curse from someone else’s mouth. Cordelia rose to her feet just in time to see a shape being tossed over the edge of the tower. The one-eyed queen limped there, then cast an irritated look downwards.

“I can see in the dark, Kallia,” the Warden peevishly called out, “and I’ve traded the one eye for a hundred. Try that again when you’re actually invisible, not just quiet.”

There was a loud thump and a snap, then a hoarse shout.

“Crows,” Catherine Foundling muttered, shaking her head. “If she doesn’t stay down with the second leg broken I’m going to need to have a talk with that girl. There’s a difference between determined and goddamn stubborn.”

Cordelia glanced down at her glass, allowed herself a grimace and then polished off a third in a single swallow. It seemed that there would be no rescuers coming to free her, which was unfortunate. Buying time for them to come had been in the back of her mind, but she would have to negotiate without that card up her sleeve. Adjusting her angle accordingly, the blonde princess discarded any thought of a bargain from even relative strength. The only way she would pass through this victorious was by discovering what it was that Catherine Foundling truly wanted and how it could be leveraged into a compromise.

Cordelia took a few steps around the stone seat, finding that her Night chains followed without restraining her, and laid her elbows against the back of the throne. She felt Catherine’s eye back on her even as the wink of red was taken away, replaced by a plume of smoke that drifted up to the cloudless sky.

“I was given to understand that the Book of Some Things is a manifestation of Good stories,” Cordelia calmly said. “Though I do not believe there is precedent for such an act, one might assume that destroying such an artefact would have dire consequences.”

The Warden of the East smiled.

“Assume,” she repeated. “That’s been a problem lately hasn’t it, Cordelia? How often you’re forced to assume.”

The wrong approach, the princess acknowledged without missing a beat. That had not been a personal attack made because the one-eyed queen was feeling defensive, it had been a barb made out of derision. I misread signs and was mocked for it. She did not mind. That, too, was actionable information. The Book was not the keystone then, either destroying or ingesting it. There was another motive underlying all this chaos. What? If she found this, she found the key to it all.

“Then disabuse me, Catherine, by all means,” she pleasantly said. “If I have made an error let us resolve it.”

Even from a change of subject she should be able to glean a hint. The Warden’s smiled turned sharp and Cordelia’s heart sunk. She had mistepped again.  I will lose every time until I learn what game it is we are playing, she darkly thought.

“Have you ever wondered why it is that you’re held in high esteem by so many rulers,” Catherine Foundling nonchalantly said, “but when heroes look at you, deep down most of them believe you’re a failure?”

Cordelia straightened, elbows leaving the back of the throne as she set down her cup on it.

“Only a handful of Named alive have ever ruled,” she replied. “Or even held high office. Few understand what those responsibilities entail or what the limitations of a crown are.”

Heroes, in particular, grew strong through uncompromising conviction. It encouraged the belief that simple solutions would suffice no matter the situation, which was wildly untrue. Strength grew into ever more complicated a word the higher you came to stand.

“That’s true,” the Warden amiably replied. “It’s not what most of them are built for, even if they don’t want to admit it. But then they’re hardly alone in that, since you’re only looking at the half of the truth that you like.”

An idle step forward, even as Cordelia warily took her cup in hand.

“They see you as a failure,” the Warden of the East said, “because you did fail.”

The tall princess’s eyes narrowed imperceptibly, the first genuine stirring of anger of this conversation rearing up its ugly head until she smoothed it away.

“That’s the gap in perspective, Cordelia, that you’re not seeing,” the one-eyed queen continued. “A lady, a king, they look at what you did and applaud. It was an impossible task but you moved mountains and held up the sky, compliments galore. But heroes?”

The Damned shrugged.

“What they see is that Cordelia Hasenbach took up an impossible task and then she failed,” the Warden said, “when victory against impossible odds is the very foundation of what a hero is.”

It was a moment of cold, cutting clarity that followed the words. The pieces fit, suddenly and cruelly. The sneers she had found buried deep in the gaze of so many Chosen, that simple marrow-deep disbelief that she had not been able to fix everything and prevent the inevitable. The ugly assumption not so much as whispered but ever present that somehow, she had chosen Procer should fall.

Impossible was not a word any of them genuinely believed in.

“Bearing a Name would not have made keeping the Principate together easier,” Cordelia evenly said. “Given the Truce and Terms, it would have instead significantly complicated my efforts.”

She would have been both above and under the White Knight in authority, the boundaries of jurisdiction so blurred as to be useless. Cordelia entertained the thought, briefly, but could only see a disaster in the making.

“And that would matter if Procer was your wheelhouse,” Catherine said, rapping her staff against the side of the throne.

The sound almost made her flinch. It was like rattling the cage of a songbird that’d sung out of tune.

“But that’s not the duty you’re after, is it?” she continued. “You’ve thrown your hat in the ring to be Warden of the West and that’s a very different creature.”

And there, Cordelia thought, her line of argument collapsed. She drank from the cup, the too-rich taste filling her palate, and set down it down again on the stone to a neat little note.

“You speak as if not having been Named is a mistake crippling my ambition, that I cannot see the world the way many heroes do,” the blue-eyed princess said, “but you are wrong.”

She stepped back, chains following so lightly she would have thought them made of feathers if not for the shackles.

“That distance, Catherine, that estrangement? They are the very foundation of my claim,” Cordelia said. “I have seen heroes as someone who is not one of them. Witnessed their flaws as only someone who stood outside of their circle can. I can learn namelore, aspects and tricks. All Named do.”

All heroes had to learn their nature, the unseen rules of their trade, and not all received the help of a mentor. There was no shame in this, or in her remaining lack. She was a quick study.

“What cannot be learned is the understanding of where heroes falter,” she told the Warden, meeting the dark eye lit in red. “Where they step beyond the bounds of duty and do more harm than good.”

She never would have sought to be Warden of the West without it, so the princess thought it almost absurd to count it a weakness. It was not unlike chastising a bird for having wings.

“Our gap in perspective can and will be bridged,” Cordelia plainly told her. “I am not unaware of its costs. But I count it a worthwhile trade for having removed the scales from my eyes.”

“You’re not listening,” Catherine said. “What is it that you’ve used to push your claim, Cordelia?”

The other woman limped around the throne, leaning her back against it. It was not a restful stance, for all that it was motionless. Cordelia took in the silhouette and could only think of a snake drawing back to strike.

“Armies,” the Warden of the East said, enunciating every syllable. “Nobles. Treaties. Everything except people you’d actually be leading. A First Prince in everything but Name.”

The princess’s lips thinned.

“I do not yet have the sup-”

You’re not listening,” Catherine Foundling interrupted in a hiss. “Your claim is a test, and you are failing it.”

She pushed off cloak of shadows sweeping behind her as she limped forward and Cordelia stepped back.

“You can learn namelore,” the Warden said. “Of course you can. Just like he can learn politics. But that’s not what a Name is, what a Role is. It’s not asking you if you’re going to be the right person in five years, it’s asking if you are right now. Are you?”

Cordelia’s eyes hardened. No more steps back. Any fruit grew beyond reach if you raised the branch high enough and kept raising it as soon as the hand neared.

“And wereyou a perfect fit, Catherine, when you became the Squire?” she challenged. “Was Tariq Isbili, when he became the Grey Pilgrim? I imagine most Named were not, and so it seems to me that the requirements to wardenship rise every time you are at risk of having an equal.”

The last touch had been a barb and an investigation both, trying to find what lay behind this tirade, but the princess immediately knew she had not drawn blood. The words washed over the other woman like water over a duck’s back.

“That’s the thing, Cordelia,” the Warden smiled. “You’re not my equal. And if that’s hard to swallow, you only have yourself to blame: you had months, years to learn namelore on your own.”

Cordelia scoffed. Quite the simplification.

“Would you have taught me, Catherine, if I had asked?” she mocked. “Are tutors in the art so easy to find? For some skills time is the only teacher.”

It was not as if she had not sought instruction. But namelore was not committed to books, its rules were often obscure and there was only so far reading stories would get Cordelia when she had to deal with heroes from all over Calernia. The few heroes she had been in a position to interrogate were usually new and shallow in learning: even Frederic, perhaps the most seasoned hero on her side, freely admitted that he still had much to learn.

“I’m a villain, there would have been no point,” the Warden dismissed. “Which you might have known if you’d asked me. Or if you’d asked any hero but those few you trust – that is, those who already obey you.”

“Is having allies a black mark as well, now?” Cordelia said. “An interesting development.”

The insinuation that she only trusted through control was particularly rich, coming from the Black Queen. The same woman who had put a knife to the throat of every living being on Calernia to force her enshrinement into the Grand Alliance.

“Not a large one,” Catherine scorned. “How many heroes would even back you in an election, First Prince of the Chosen?”

A pregnant pause.

“Ten, fifteen?” she ventured.

The number was roughly accurate, in all likeliness. That the vast majority of these were Proceran was another bitter pill to swallow. It was a weakness, but one she had not had great opportunity to mend. Nearly all Chosen had been on the fronts, far from Salia, and private correspondence with any would justly have been seen by the Highest Assembly as a political act. In a cut of irony, now that the heroes were nearly all in Salia it was even more complicated to approach any of them in private.

The perception that she intended to become Warden through a coup would have… grave consequences, she had grasped.

“Not even a third of the heroes, the very people you’re supposed to lead,” the Warden of the East said, shaking her head.

“I have not yet made my case to them,” Cordelia said, maintaining an even tone. “I would prefer to make it from a stronger position, it is true, but do not mistake timing for inability.”

“So confident they’ll bend your away after a speech,” the Warden chuckled. “How the Hells would you know if that’ll work, Cordelia? You’ve spent years seething about heroes do wrong, but have you actually ever learned what makes them tick? Why do they act the way they do?”

A litany of variations on ‘I believed it was right’ and ‘I followed instinct’ had been her answer when she asked, usually.

“The reason is not as important as the result,” Cordelia replied instead.

The Warden squinted at her.

“Is that you, Tariq?” she said, grinning nastily. “You’re looking good, for a dead man.”

The blue-eyed princess kept the twitch of fury the barb had caused away from her face, instead dismissing the rejoinder with a curt gesture.

“That the Grey Pilgrim committed atrocities does not mean his every act and word was wrong,” Cordelia said, heat bleeding into her tone. “Only that he committed atrocities and was the kind of man who would.”

Calm, she must be calm as the surface of a pond. Catherine thrived in chaos, in the heat of argument. Cordelia would win by keeping her head and grasping why this conversation seemed to have no end point.

“And that is my very point, Warden,” she pressed. “Why Tariq Fleetfoot murdered a town full of innocents does not matter. His reasons, his reasoning, they do not matter: only that he did. I do not need to understand his every thought to condemn his actions.”

Centering herself, smoothing away the last of the anger, she leaned into the opening.

“Besides, for all your harping on about understanding heroes how many of them agree on anything of note?” Cordelia continued. “You pretend there is some sort of common heroic mindset, but half of them would be at each other’s throats without a greater threat looming over them. You reproach me the lack of something that, by and large, does not exist.”

That rejoinder bought her a moment to think. There is no gain for you through this conversation, Cordelia thought. Berating me into dropping my claim is a waste of time when you have half a dozen more direct tools to ensure I lose. And she’d had the impression that Catherine favoured her claim, besides. Was this a favour, then, an attempt to help Cordelia sharpen her claim? It seemed unlikely. So what is it that you are attempting to accomplish, Catherine?

The Warden scoffed.

“Now you’re being naïve,” Catherine said. “Do you think Hanno is popular with heroes because he’s pleasant and good with a sword? He understands what they want, knows what lines they’ll fight him over, and navigates that terrain. You, on the other hand?”

Even in the faint red glow, the outline of a sneer could be seen.

“You’re a diplomat who never learned the language of the other side of the table. You can get by, sure, but in every conversation how much do you miss?”

Which was not untrue in principle, she thought, but stood an empty objection in practice.

“Hypotheticals,” Cordelia calmly replied, circling the throne as she spoke. “Generalities. You stick to those because there are no true examples to draw in, Catherine. Those that you could, you agreed with my answer. Sometimes even supported it.”

The Warden of the East stood behind the throne, the princess before it, and she took back the cup she had left on the stone. The wine was still terrible, but to a parched throat it would be better than nothing.

“You have no practicals, Cordelia,” Catherine harshly said. “That’s the entire fucking point of what I’m saying: your record with heroes is line after line of nothings. It’s not enough to avoid most mistakes. It’s not something that lands in your lap if you’re the least wrong, you have to win it.”

She snorted, face disappearing as a stream of smoke spewed out.

“But here’s a practical, since you like them so much,” the Warden of the East said. “You want to be a leader of heroes, Cordelia, when you know so little of them it would barely fill a thimble and most of them wouldn’t trust you to empty a chamber pot.”

Trust could be won. It was not an auspicious beginning, she would concede, but beginnings were what you made of them.

“But bad as that is,” Catherine continued, “worse is that you never considered making the sacrifices that would have made up for your lack. You know who might have filled you in on namelore, done it eagerly even?”

The smiled turned sharp.

“Hanno of Arwad.”

“A rival claimant,” Cordelia replied. “This is nonsense.”

“Would he be your rival right now, if you’d asked him a year ago?” Catherine retorted. “If you’d reached out after the Arsenal, tried to understand the heroes instead of sitting on your anger and pride?”

Yes, Cordelia’s mind whispered, but she was not as certain as she would have liked. She was not without faults. If she were, the last words she had spoken to her uncle would not have been in anger.

“Much can be changed if one shuffles around the past,” Cordelia said. “And regrets are easily found. Or are you still proud of your journey to Keter?”

“It was a fruitful disaster,” the Warden easily replied.

Unashamed even now.

“You have known many of those,” she mildly said. “From the Liesse Rebellion to the bloody end of the Dread Empire. Are you so certain you want to revisit old mistakes?”

She drank from the cup, more to wet her lips and win breathing room than to drink. You are going to shrug it off again, Cordelia thought. Because this is not a match in your eyes, is it? You do not win by getting the better part of the argument.

“We’d be here all night, but I’m game,” the Warden laughed. “It’s not my time that’s running out.”

The Lycaonese princess stilled in surprise.

“Now now, Cordelia,” Catherine chided. “Surely you didn’t think keeping me talking would delay the ritual, did you? It can keep going without my hand guiding it.”

It made no sense, she angrily thought. If all that Catherine wanted was to consume the Book of Some Things, then there was no need for all this theatre. Cordelia was a valuable hostage, she could have been kept in a cell and left to rot. Instead she was here, circling an empty throne and talking with the person whose time was most valuable in all this affair. The Warden was getting something out of this conversation, otherwise she would not be having it, but Cordelia simply could not tell what.

“What happened to the Sword of Judgement when he came to the tower?” Cordelia asked.

“We had a pleasant talk,” Catherine easily replied. “And he was tossed back out.”

You cannot beat us through this, Cordelia thought. No, that was untrue. In every way that matters you have already beaten us, so why is it that you are still playing? Even if some feline impulse of cruelty had taken her, the Warden did not have the time to torment the defeated. It made no sense. Why would she keep playing a game she had already won? The princess drank the last of the wine, washed it down. And as she set it down hastily, almost dropping it, she froze. Remembered another time she had stood across a very dangerous woman and heard a cup topple down.

You kept playing a game, Cordelia thought, when you had not yet won. And simply because she was defeated, because Hanno of Arwad was defeated, did not mean Catherine Foundling had won. She found the Warden of the East’s dark eye, glimmering red. It was never us you were playing against, was it? Her pulse thrummed, she straightened her back. She had found the thread, now she only needed to follow it down to the end.

“And how many sins did you hang around dear Hanno’s neck?” Cordelia too lightly asked.

“Enough,” she laughed. “You know, I actually think that all this enmity between you two goes back to a single moment.”

“Do you now?”

The Warden breathed in deep, face veiled by the dark, and answered through a wreath of smoke.

“The first time you saw each other,” Catherine said. “When he entered that Chamber, spun that coin and you caught it. You each thought you understood the other, for a moment. And you’ve paid the price for that ever since.”

She ran a hand atop the back of the throne, as if amused.

“He thought he was looking at someone who was Good enough to be heroine,” the Warden told her, “and so your every compromise since has been a disappointment. You, on the other hand?”

“By all means,” Cordelia pleasantly smiled, “do deign to inform me of what I believe.”

The one-eyed queen wagged a finger at her.

“You, Cordelia, saw that he respected your stepping in,” the Warden of the East said. “And you thought that meant he respected law, respected how Procer is run. That made him the good hero, the trustworthy one.”

Cordelia’s belly clenched, for that had the faintest ring of truth to it.

“Only he didn’t actually care for either of those things,” Catherine said. “He accepted it as a courtesy, from Named to Named. Because the way you saw it, you might not have the power but you have the conviction – and that’s the part that matters, anyway.”

“You revisit the past so often one might believe you would rather live there,” Cordelia sharply replied.

“It’s an interesting night, that’s all,” the one-eyed queen said, elbow against the throne and chin on her hand. “Plenty there to ponder about. Like the way that you turned down a Name that night, Cordelia.”

“It would not have made anything better,” the princess replied, and meant every word.

“I don’t entirely disagree,” Catherine said. “It was a wise decision in some ways, but it also speaks to the one sin I’ll hang around your neck that outweighs all of Hanno’s: you don’t actually want to be Named.”

A sliver of incredulous laughter escaped her lips before she could smother it.

“Then pray tell, what exactly has all this been in the service of?” Cordelia said, gesturing at the night around them.

“Not wanting it,” the Warden smiled. “You’re doing it because you think it’s your responsibility, your duty, but fight all you like under that flaking coat of paint I still see the same woman that was on the floor of the Highest Assembly that night.”

Cordelia took a step back, jaw clenching.

“The one who snatched Judgement’s verdict out of the air and swore mortal laws for mortal men.”

“It is not that simple,” she bit out.

“It never is,” the Warden said. “And I think you’re right about a lot of things, Cordelia. Heroes should have someone calling them to account. But it’s not enough to be right. To be clever or to be wise. You also have to win it. Because know who else believes that just being right is enough?

She saw the end of that sentence before it came, but that did nothing to dull the sting.

“The same lot you say you’re going to make toe the line.”

“It is not the same thing,” Cordelia snarled.

The calm, the calm failed her. How dare she?

“A Name isn’t a crown,” the Warden of the East said. “You don’t just get to have it because it fits your head, Cordelia. And the way I see it, you’re not Good enough to be anointed or strong enough to be a tyrant so what’s left? Inheritance?”

The one-eyed queen leaned closer, as if to whisper a confidence.

“Whose death is going to give you your power this time, Cordelia?” she gently asked. “Even if you spend the Augur down to the last inch, you’ll run out of kin long before you stand my equal.”

And as the words slid between her ribs like a knife, the cruelty of it opened her eye. It was not an accident, so barbed a phrase. And yet it won nothing. So the cruelty is the point. The Warden of the East had come for her certainties, her belief, with methodical brutality. One after another, sparing nothing. And that is the point. That is what you gain.

Inflicting that before she was tossed out of the tower to land at Hanno’s side in the grass.

“Are you truly so eager,” Cordelia Hasenbach quietly said, “to make yourself the villain?”

“It’s habit by now,” Catherine Foundling confessed, sounding just a touch too grieved to be lying. “But there’s power in it, always has been. So ask yourself, Cordelia, before you make yourself into a heroine” what is that you want that power for?”

She rose as she spoke, hand knocking over the cup that had been left there, and as Cordelia saw it tumbling down she felt a whisper.

Darkness.

She woke up in the grass, a man standing over her. Cordelia Hasenbach met Hanno of Arwad’s eyes and a long moment passed.

“Rough night?” the Sword of Judgement drily asked.

Interlude: Occidental III

“In the Free Cities a general has more to fear from victory than defeat.”

– Aretha the Raven, Nicaean general

Cordelia was not certain which part struck her as more absurd: that house-sized herons dwelled in Arcadia or that the Valiant Champion had apparently tamed one.

“Is mine now,” the Champion insisted.  “Called Wizard.”

“Having inspected it, I can tell you thatshe is in fact female,” the Forsworn Healer note, his faint Atalante accent thickening the drawl. “Perhaps Witch would be more fitting.”

How? she wondered. Is part of your Name to have magical bird taming powers? Is it an aspect? You cannot have been in the presence of that heron for more than an hour. The same heron that must weigh as much as a company of infantry and was nipping at the Levantine’s shoulder lovingly.

“Wizard is genderless noun,” the Valiant Champion smugly said. “You ignorant.”

Cordelia’s brow slightly creased before she remembered to smooth it away. The heroine put up a good front, but when she’d spoken the words there had been a glint in her eyes. Sadness, Cordelia decided, or perhaps regret. The Lycaonese princess had long wondered how much of that cheerful brutishness was a mask. Rafaella of Alava often acted like a lout, but it had not made Cordelia forget that she was both one of the longest-serving heroes and a survivor of several disastrous engagements. The Healer narrowed his eyes at the Levantine heroine, visibly irritated, and the princess stepped in before bickering could ensue.

“We need to get moving,” Cordelia cut in. “I understand that five is the preferred number for a band of -Named and now we have five heroes gathered here. The tower awaits.”

The Kingfisher Prince, the Valiant Champion, the Forsworn Healer, the Painted Knife and the Mirror Knight. It would have to do. Hopefully Cordelia had changed Chosen for Named quickly enough that no one had noticed the stumbling of her tongue. Though her people’s terms of Chosen and Damned were not wrong, in her opinion, they were used solely by her countrymen. There was no need to remind foreign heroes that she was a ruling princess of Procer, a fact that already did much to damage her standing among them.

“There is no leader to our band,” the Mirror Knight said. “It won’t work.”

She saw him wince a moment later, both at the implied insult to her rank – which she suspected he cared more about than any other Chosen here – and the blunt dismissal of her opinion. He tacked on a mortified ‘Your Highness’ afterwards, trying to make up for it. She smiled gently at him to show no offence had been taken, patiently setting aside her irritation, but the damage had already been done. The door to objections had been opened and half of authority was people not knowing they could disagree.

“Agreed,” the Forsworn Healer said. “We should gather the others, aim for overwhelming might instead. I saw Apprentice land in an orchard to the southwest, I think.”

“I sent Helmgard east to join up with Sidonia and the Astrologer,” the Mirror Knight said. “That’s three of us, so perhaps we should start there.”

“The First Prince is right,” the Painted Knife flatly disagreed. “The tower is what matters. The mightiest army in the world will still lose the battle if it does not show up to fight.”

Frederic glanced at Cordelia sideways, as if hesitating, then joined his voice when her face remained without expression.

“The Warden of the East laid down a gauntlet through her tower,” the Kingfisher Prince agreed. “Refusing to pick it up can only end in our loss.”

She would have to take him aside and remind him not to balk this way again, she thought. In this company he did not owe her the deference the Prince of Brus would owe the First Prince of Procer. They were here as Chosen and claimant. On the contrary, it would be to their common disadvantage should he obey her without reason: it would create the appearance of Cordelia trying to merge together the office of First Prince and the Name of Warden of the West.  The fair-haired woman knew well that the backlash to even the semblance of this would be harsh and swift.

“So both of you go with her,” the Healer suggested. “Meanwhile Christophe and I can head east into the hills. The Vagrant Spear and I can use Light to mark our positions.”

The priest from Atalante kept a dark eye on her as he spoke. Watching for her reactions. He has been trained, Cordelia decided. The man was said to have earned his Name by swearing away a great fortune and position in the city-state to become a wandering healer, which would explain it. Was he a foe? It was too early to tell.

“Separating would be a mistake,” Cordelia said.

A few surprised looks went her way. Not, she thought, at her opinion so much as the fact she was voicing one at all. As if she had no right to. Named business, she thought scornfully, and so only Named should decide it. In their eyes her claim mattered less than her title as First Prince. She hid the sharp spike of anger.

“Lord Christophe tells me that the Myrmidon and the Blood Sword fell into a lake,” she continued. “The only one we have seen is far out west, so they are unlikely to join us in time. I have already sent riders with spare horses to make the attempt, but there is little more to do.”

The Painted Knife let out a hum, face considering.

“The Warden could have sent any of us that far out instead,” Kallia of Levante said. “If she chose those two, it was for a reason.”

“Akatha and Gernot strong but no quick,” the Valiant Champion said, petting her giant heron’s head. “Swim slows them. Out of battle, like First Prince said.”

Though what she’d said was true, Cordelia thought, that had not been the Painted Knife’s train of thought. She was asking why Catherine Foundling had chosen these two Named of all those that could be sent furthest. And in her eyes, there was one obvious common thread between the two.

“Both are warriors,” Cordelia pointed out. “She might lack fighters of her own and so seek to limit the length our shield wall.”

“There are plenty of Bestowed in her service than can match us in a brawl,” the Painted Knife skeptically said, then snuck a sideways look at the Mirror Knight. “Most of us anyway.”

Cordelia hid a smile. The heroine had not refused her turn of phrase. ‘Our shield wall’. One stone after another, she would lay her foundation.

“You’ve never had to share a front with them, Kallia, wandering around as you have,” the Forsworn Healer said. “I’d bet the First Prince is right. If the Warden wants to keep this conflict amicable few of them would be fit for it. I cannot imagine the Red Knight or the Headhunter showing restraint in a duel.”

The Painted Knife frowned, then conceded with a sharp nod.

“Her strength must be indirect,” Cordelia said. “Mages and tricksters.”

Which meant a swift, direct assault might just yield success.

“She will have handpicked those with a fight in mind,” Frederic cautioned. “It would be dangerous to assume weakness.”

It would be even more dangerous to linger, in her mind. Christophe de Pavanie turned to her, mien serious.

“He’s right, Your Highness,” the Mirror Knight said. “The tower itself will be hard to breach regardless of defenders. We were baited in last time but now the Warden will truly defend it. I won’t claim we need every Chosen we brought, but we should at least find Adanna.”

The Blessed Artificer’s name, a woman whose mastery of Light would admittedly be a boon when facing Night. It was a fair point.

“Do we know where the Artificer is?” Cordelia asked.

No one had seen her since the drop, but Lady Kallia had a guess.

“One of the mountains beyond the hills collapsed,” the Painted Knife said. “I saw it happen from atop the lighthouse. If it wasn’t the Mirror Knight responsible, it can only be her.”

The man looked embarrassed but did not deny the conclusion.

“Then this will take time,” the Forsworn Healer said. “Perhaps we should split up, at least temporarily. I am told you have a knack for finding those in need of aid, Kingfisher Prince?”

His eye was on her again. A foe, then, Cordelia thought. He was not simply attempting to read her, he had intentions she was being measured for.

“You might say that,” Frederic smiled, brushing back his curls.

The Painted Knife stared at him, manifestly distracted by the sight. Cordelia sympathized. Frederic Goethal had long mastered the art of artless distraction and his disinclination to marry had been the despair of many a highborn lady over the years. Frederic did not elaborate and no one pressed. Cordelia had learned that inquiring in detail about another’s aspects was considered exceedingly rude.

“Then you should ride out to find Adanna,” the Healer suggested. “Kallia is a tracker of great skill, she can follow you into the hills and find the Vagrant Spear while there.”

Cordelia’s eyes imperceptibly narrowed. She knew the look in the man’s eyes, the too-casual tone. She had dealt with the likes of it before. Frederic was a strong supporter and the Painted Knife had agreed with her on every broad stroke so far. She was also respected among Chosen, a captain of their kind. The Forsworn Healer was trying to send away individuals who shared her opinions. This is a trap, the princess considered. The man had offered himself undertaking that same task earlier in a manner that would be quicker. But it would split him from the group, which he would not want.

So unless he was a fool, this was a trap. Cordelia, unfortunately, could not grasp the nature of said snare. She still knew too little of namelore. Then I must flush you out, she thought.

“Your earlier suggestion of using Light as a beacon would be even faster than tracking,” Cordelia idly said.

Triumph, not as well hid as he thought. She had read him correctly.

“I might be needed to heal comrades rejoining us,” the dark-haired hero said. “But you are right that Light might be quicker, Your Highness. Christophe, can you still flare your plate bright enough to be seen from far away?”

“I can,” the Mirror Knight said, almost eager as he looked at her. “It would be my pleasure, Your Highness.”

He was after Christophe from the start, Cordelia thought. Aiming to send away to the two Proceran heroes present. It was a crude ploy but not senseless. Yet it was too small a prize for the effort he had put into the intrigue, she decided. What patterns of namelore did she know? Numbers, mostly. He means to send three Chosen in the hills and mountains, where three more await. Therefore not a ‘band of five’, which had been her guess. She was yet missing a detail.Cordeliadid not know enough about the Chosen, what they could or could not do. She’d read reports and even spoken with some, but always as the First Prince of Procer.

She did not know them, had never been one of them. That was Hanno’s strength and her weakness.

“No good to fight tower then,” the Valiant Champion bluntly spoke up. “Archer there. Will fuck us up the bootocks if Mirror Knight not there to take arrows.”

There was a general air at dismay at the prospect of fighting Indrani the Archer, even from the Levantines. Catherine Foundling’s s lieutenant had earned the wary respect of everyone who’d ever seen her fight.

“Perhaps the time would be better spent fetching the Apprentice, then,” the Forsworn Healer mildly said. “Kallia, the First Prince and I could ride out to get her. Perhaps even the Bloody Sword and the Myrmidon, as we ought to be close by then. The five of us can serve as another wedge of attack when they return.”

So that had been the angle, Cordelia thought. The man did not think they would return from the trip in time and that was the entire point. He was trying to keep her out of the fight, away from the tower. He is buying time for the Sword of Judgement. His game was plainly revealed: he was a loyalist, backing his preferred candidate as best he could. The Painted Knife immediately disagreed with the proposal, arguing she was the only here capable of scaling the tower if need be, and when others jumped in every inch of progress that had been made towards a decision since the conversation began soon collapsed. The Healer did not look displeased by the turn, not that Cordelia had expected him to.

The hero believed that Hanno would win, given long enough, and so preventing a decision from being reached here was already a victory. Unfortunately for the Forsworn Healer, however, she was not a wet-behind-the-ear debutante. She would not fall apart after the first setback, and he had handed her the very key to outplaying him.

“Lady Kallia, you mentioned that a mountain collapsed,” Cordelia said, cutting into the chaos. “Is this not true?”

“It is,” the Painted Knife frowned.

“Then the Blessed Artificer might be in danger as we speak,” the blonde princess seriously said. “For all her power, she is hardly immune to falling rocks. She could be in dire need of a healer.”

The Atalantian priest stiffened.

“Is true,” the Valiant Champion frowned.  “Douka, you need to help.”

So that was the Forsworn Healer’s name? Interesting. Now for the further nail.

“And therefore is no need to further split our numbers,” Cordelia smiled. “Our friend the Healer can signal the Vagrant Spear and the Astrologer as he sets out for the mountains.”

“Five Bestowed,” the Painted Knife appreciatively said. “A knife held back should we falter. A fine plan.”

Cordelia received a respectful nod, which she returned. The Healer’s calm soured.

“Arcadia can be dangerous,” he said. “Perhaps an escort would be in order when I set out.”

“It will not be more dangerous than trying the Black Queen’s lair,” the Mirror Knight frankly said. “And your going alone weakens us least.”

Christophe stiffened.

“Not that I would call you weak,” the Knight hastily tacked on. “But this way only one of us goes.”

The Champion was still on the fence, Cordelia saw. In need of a nudge to tip her over the edge.

“If you have worries, I can lend you an escort of riders,” she kindly offered. “Twenty should be enough, I would think.”

It was a done thing after that. The Forsworn Healer glared at her darkly, cornered and unable to extricate himself from the snare he’d laid. His opposition to her did not come from malice. Cordelia reminded herself of that, every time she felt her stomach clench in irritation. Yet while power had swelled in the distance, the great tower of darkness pulsing as Named bickered in circles, Cordelia had not been able to help but think that this was everything she despised about heroes. The disorder, the aimlessness, the arrogance. The Forsworn Healer was perfectly willing to risk the darkness to the north getting its way simply because he believed that the Sword of Judgement would win.

Because he would not consider otherwise. Try as she might, Cordelia was seeing no thought given to making a contingency should Hanno of Arwad fail. The priest had simply decided to bet it all on the Sword of Judgement’s success. Showing no hesitation in making alone a decision that might affect the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

Catherine Foundling did not play for anything but keeps.

“Let us set out promptly,” Cordelia said. “The tower still awaits.”

The Painted Knife was the first to approach her as they rode. The younger woman was not a comfortable rider, another reminder that though Kallia of Levante was nobility in name in practice she was no such thing. Coming into a Name had raised her to the higher echelons of Levant’s hierarchy, but that ascension was largely decorative. All her power was personal.

“You have heard of the gathering that was to take place in Carrouges,” the Painted Knife said.

It was not a question.

“I have,” Cordelia replied.

She had enough eyes on the heroes and around them that there had been no question of hiding it from her. She did not believe the Sword of Judgement had even tried. Frantically setting aside the research that might yet save Calernia to prepare for such an assembly had left a bitter taste in her mouth. She’d thought to circumvent the matter entirely by going to Catherine directly, but the Warden of the East had proved reluctant. It had been frustrating, but Cordelia understood the reasons for the tacit refusal. Respected them, even.

But it had left her with only desperate measures to take, until Catherine Foundling’s eye-catching entrance had rendered them all unnecessary.

“I was there when the tower parted the sky and the talks ended before they could begin,” Kallia of Levante said. “And I will say this: in that swamp lay a dug-up dwarven gate.”

Cordelia’s breath stilled. Of course, she darkly thought. How had she dared to hope that the soldier would deign to live diplomacy to the trained diplomats? He was Prince White, beloved of people and Chosen, surely that was enough to give him the right to speak for the Grand Alliance and succeed where those who had practised diplomacy their entire lives had been stymied. The Sword of Judgement had not only summoned the heroes to crown himself Warden of the West, he’d been seeking their support to open talks with the Kingdom Under behind the back of the Grand Alliance.

Surprise had turned to cold, deep fury but Cordelia smoothed out her emotions.

“Knowledge most welcome,” the fair-haired princess replied. “Though I wonder as to why you brought it to me.”

The Painted Knife glanced in front of them, where the Valiant Champion rode to the side of the Mirror Knight.

“The Blood takes no side,” Kallia of Levante said. “One of us stands by the Sword of Judgement’s side, so balances must be struck even.”

Hedging their bets, Cordelia thought, as well as keeping to a tortured line of honour. She thanked the other woman with a nod and the heroine peeled away, leaving the princess to her thoughts. Would Hanno of Arwad truly do this, Cordelia wondered? Risk everything and everyone so recklessly? She was not unaware that her growing dislike for the man was tainting her opinion, but even careful consideration led to the same conclusion: he would.

He would do it because it was right, Cordelia thought. Because he was following his principles. Because in the eyes of so many heroes, doing right was enough to give you the right. And that was the conceit that Cordelia could not stomach, because even the highest of Procer did not dare claim so high a perch. She came from a land where even royalty could be put on trial. Not easily and often not as fairly as it should be, but even the mightiest of princes could be put to trial. But who was it that called the Chosen to account, when they abused the powers the Gods had granted them?

Nobody.

When the second Levantine of their party came to ride by her side, Cordelia was not surprised. Rafaella of Alava was very much a partisan of the Sword of Judgement, one of his oldest comrades. It had only been a matter of time until one of those approached her on his behalf. Better her than the Witch of the Woods, whose importance to the defences of Salia made complicated to deal with.

“First Prince.”

“Valiant Champion.”

The heroine’s long braid swung back and forth across her back, freed by the snarling badger helmet she held in her hands.

“I be blunt,” the Champion said. “Will not work. You can-not be Warden of the West.”

“A bold claim to make to a claimant,” Cordelia mildly replied.

“You sneaky,” the Champion said. “And clever, like fox. But you have no steel. So you can-not be Warden of the West.”

“There is more to victory than swords,” she evenly replied.

“Maybe,” the Valiant Champion said, then flicked a look at the tower in the distance. “But Warden of the East is clever and has sword. Against her, you lose.”

“Even if that were true,” Cordelia said, “what makes your man better?”

“Hanno can learn sneaky,” the Champion said. “You cannot learn sword. Not perfect man, but best there is. Peregrine would have been better.”

“I disagree,” Cordelia replied, tone cooling even further.

“Ashen Gods agree, is what matters,” Rafaella shrugged. “Can’t fight the sea, is why we make boats.”

The princess’s eyes narrowed. That was a Levantine proverb paraphrased: ‘if you cannot fight the sea, build a boat’. It meant that one should make accommodations with the inevitable, make the best of what could not be changed.

“You want me to strike a deal with him,” she said. “To exact terms in exchange for withdrawing my claim.”

The other woman sharply nodded.

“No one is happy, everyone gets something,” the Valiant Champion said. “Is politics.”

“And if I were disciplined from striking such a bargain?” Cordelia calmly asked

“Should,” the Champion said. “Mistake not to. Even if you clever way to Warden, won’t work. Some refuse to obey after.”

The dark-haired heroine eyed her frankly.

“I may be one,” Rafaella of Alava told her. “So make your boat, First Prince.”

Neither of them bothered with the pretence of a courteous goodbye. It was as if the world was hammering the nails in one after another, Cordelia thought. First the arrogance, and now the other side of the coin: heroes did not believe in rules. Even villains bent easier to law! After all, for most it had been a given all their lives that should they behave heinously there would be someone punishing them: the heroes. The servants of the Hellgods were often cruel and almost always selfish, but they were also governable. They were used to be governed, however indirectly, used to there being an authority above them – even if that authority was simple force.

Heroes were not. They followed their belief to the end, bolstered by the accolades that were Light and Name. Why should they doubt, when the Gods Above themselves gave them what they saw as a tacit nod of approval?

But you are not better, Cordelia sharply thought. Not really. You make mistakes too. She ought to know, having spent the last few years cleaning them up. It had been when Prince Gaspard’s plot came out that she saw the heart of the trouble. The Prince of Cleves had tried to make the Mirror Knight into his puppet son-in-law, to use the hero’s fame and power as fuel for his ambitions. In the wake of the affair being outed Cordelia had mended the break as best she could, and still the Firstborn had marched out of Cleves. Gaspard was forced to abdicate the moment she had the influence to see it done, but there lay the problem: while she handled the prince, the Mirror Knight was neither taught nor punished.

He was just… left to keep on going as he would.

The White Knight was meant to lead the heroes, had claimed that duty before Gods and men when he became a high officer of the Grand Alliance, but he had never taken them in hand. Cordelia could punish princes who schemed with heroes all she wished, had done so several times, but what was the point when no one punished the heroes who schemed with earthly powers? Again and again, a hundred small justices – proud, personal principles – had eaten away at the laws of the Grand Alliance from the inside as the White Knight simply watched.

The Red Axe had tried to unravel the Truce and Terms, to murder a prince of the blood, and some of the Chosen had actually agreed with her actions. The Mirror Knight had – him again! – mutilated a high officer of the Grand Alliance and was then let off with a slap on the wrist. The Peregrine had murdered an entire village of Procerans in his hunt of the Black Knight, and he had been influential enough that Cordelia had never been able to so much as chide him for it. Hanging the old monster, as he deserved to be, would have started a war. And the Saint of Swords, the first madwoman of the lot, had been the worst of them.

She’d been willing for all of Procer to burn, if the pyre might take the Dead King with it.

Cordelia had bled herself dry trying to keep the wall that stood behind Calernia and annihilation from breaking while the White Knight let his charges rip out stones without saying a word. Heroes hid behind their Light by claiming that holy duty set them apart from mortal laws and then, after rubbing elbows with those same mundane powers to disastrous effect, retreated behind that protection when consequences came knocking. One law for them, one for everyone else. And Hanno of Arwad did not believe that heroes could be called to account by anyone but the Gods, he had proven that much through his actions,

Cordelia had had enough. If no one else discharged the duty properly, then she would. And if the likes of the Forsworn Healer and the Valiant Champion insisted on getting in her way, she would sweep them aside. The was no compromise to be had with duty. Emerging from the boiling thoughts with her mind clear, sharpened, Cordelia’s gaze found the tower had neared. They were close, nearly there.

“And now,” the blue-eyed princess murmured, “violence.”

They slowed when standing in the tower’s shade, below the dark monolith whose darkness stood out even in the dark of night.

Cordelia knew better than to try to direct a fight between Named. Not yet. Instead it was Frederic who took the lead, sending the Painted Knife up the walls and assaulting the bottom of the tower. Even steel-barded wood could not long resist the strength of the Mirror Knight, and so after a shattering blow the three Chosen stepped into the dark. Cordelia would follow but not immediately. In the thick of the fight she would only be a hindrance, a potential hostage. She would be of use when it came to talking, not while the blades were out. Until then she would wait out in the plains, the moon high above and the roiling shadows all around her. It was a beautiful night, she thought, for such a dangerous one.

The noise of combat came from the inside, but curses and shouts and the sound of steel clashing, but as time passed it came from further and further away. The tower swallowed noise just as it swallowed light, Cordelia thought. The very nature of Night was taking, and more of that dark power had been gathered here than the princess had ever seen before. It hinted at the scope of the Warden of the East’s ambitions. It has to be the Book of Some Things, she thought. It was the threat guaranteed to get the two claimants to the wardenship of the West knocking at her door and no small prize should it be taken, devoured? She was not sure of the method that would be employed, but the Black Queen of Callow was infamous for her skill at stealing the power of others and making it her own. Even her fearsome armies had first been taken from the Legions of Terror.

“Yet you do not believe in forcing choices where you can lose,” Cordelia murmured, looking at the tower. “So what is that you gain here, should you not eat the Book?”

She would have a reason for beginning all this. Catherine was reckless, but it was a calculated sort of recklessness: leashed to her purposes, not allowed to run loose. Cordelia had first thought this was an exercise to make herself and the Sword of Judgement allies of fortune, but the longer she stood here the more she doubted it. Something was coming to an end tonight, she could feel it in her bones. Lost in her thoughts as she was, she did not notice it at first. The movement. And even when the tall grass moved, she thought it to be the wind.

It was only when the first rider fell and his horse panicked that Cordelia realized they were under attack. The riders spread out as swords were bared, two of her retinue immediately covering her sides with shields, but there was nothing around for them to fight. Only strands of shadow, of Night, rearing up from the grass to take men by their limbs and tie them to the ground. They could not win.

“Inside,” Cordelia yelled out. “Send word that the Warden is attacking from the back.”

Two riders tried, but the shadows caught them. Tripped the horses and bound the men. One by one her escort was disappearing into the grass, as if swallowed whole by coffins of green.

“Your Highness,” her captain said with forced calm, “we need to leave. Now.”

He was right. Fleeing was better than allowing herself to be taken prisoner. She nodded her agreement and pulled at her reins. East, they must head east. There were allies there. A heartbeat later a tendril of Night covered the captain’s mouth, silencing the scream as he was ripped off his horse. There were so few of them left, Cordelia saw, only a handful.

“Retreat,” the First Prince shouted. “East, get the other Chos-”

Darkness.

Interlude: Occidental II

“Intelligence, Chancellor, is understanding that alligator moats never work against heroes. Cleverness is paying an alchemist for water-coloured acid instead.”

– Dread Emperor Venal

The world was upside down.

Hanno could not recall ever waking up hanging from his feet before, at least not in his own body. It would have been disorienting even if the strands of solid shadow binding his feet weren’t slowly turning, spinning his body with them. His wrists were behind his back and, he found out after flexing his muscles, tightly secured. Two layers of steel manacles and one of Night, if he was feeling it right. How characteristically thorough of Catherine. He was also, to his mild discomfort, naked from the belt up.

The room was chillier than he would like.

“Hey, look who’s up,” Archer’s voice cheerfully called out.

Now that the spinning was allowing to see more than a screen of Night and glimpses of the stone floor, Hanno found to his mild bemusement that he was being held in what looked like a dungeon. Like spider legs on glass, he felt an instinct skitter across his mind. A wrongness. Hanno cocked his head to the side.

“Is that an iron maiden?” he asked, genuinely curious.

Archer shrugged, seated on top of the open iron cabinet full of spikes. Her legs were wrapped around the head of a screaming ghost, keeping her in place.

“Came with the tower,” she told him. “You know Praesi.”

Hanno did not, save through memories not truly his own. Perhaps he was lucky, considering what he was looking at. A dozen torture racks, manacles to hang people up against the wall at twisted angles and some sort of… wheel with ropes? He spent a moment trying to work out where the person would go on the device, coming away with the conclusion that no matter where that was the exercise would be deeply painful. He pulled at his bindings again, but the steel did not give in the slightest. He then reached for Light, but while he could sense it Hanno could not seem to move it.

It was as if a deep and dark pit lay between his will and the gift of Above, not forbidding contact so much as keeping out of reach. It was, he thought, a much harder restraint to break than a simple forbidding would have been. Focusing, he tried to seize the smallest possible sliver of Light.

“I have been healed,” Hanno said, as silence would make his work obvious.

The absence of pain on his cheek and back had been noticeable enough, though he could not look to see if the wounds were closed.

“Some,” Archer said, wagging a finger in direction. “Mostly we kept it from getting worse, so don’t you go getting ideas.”

It worked. Hanno felt a well of satisfaction as a mote of Light moved just as he’d willed it. The binding is not perfect, he thought. At a guess, there was a lower bound to the quantity of Light he could be prevented from seizing. It was a common enough weakness in workings, given that most human minds had difficulty grasping the level of precision that was the given of the divine. Carefully, Hanno moved his mote slightly to the side before releasing it. It did not move.

The turning hid his pleased smile, and it was gone by the time he was facing his captor again.

“It is traditional for one to escape when held in a torture dungeon,” he reminded Archer.

“I could hamstring you if you want,” she offered with a sharp smile. “It’d take care of those pesky traditions for you.”

It was difficult, careful work. Hanno’s forehead beaded with sweat as, one mote at a time, he wove the Light into a chord. One that was stretching out, slowly but surely, towards him.

“You haven’t, though,” he mused. “Why, Archer? If the Warden truly intends to devour the Book of Some Things, as you said, why would she not take all possible measures to ensure I could not get in her way?”

Catherine Foundling was giving him, Hanno thought, a shot at stopping her. A pause. No, he thought, perhaps not him alone: he would be surprised if the First Prince were not already on her way to the tower. She had the spies to learn of this and Frederic would no doubt help her.

“Do I strike you as the woman with the plan, Shiny Boots?” Archer drawled. “I’m just obeying orders.”

He doubted that, but there was no point in pushing for answers she would not give. The chord lengthened and lengthened, his back shining with sweat from the work. It had been some time since he’d had to maintain so minute a focus for so long. These days his manipulations of Light tended for the large, not the small. A lesson to be learned, Hanno considered. Growing in power had caused him to lean towards the ram instead of the key when presented with a closed gate, but that might be a mistake.

A lesson, Hanno considered, brow creasing as he rotated away from his captor. Was that the entire purpose of this theatrical tantrum? To teach them a lesson? Spider legs pattered across the glass, the wrongness still crawling all over his mind. He was missing something.

“It won’t work,” he said. “Giving us a common enemy. Forcing us to work together.”

“Shit,” Indrani sighed. “You twat, I had ten silvers riding on you not figuring it out until Cordy showed up.”

It should have been beneath Hanno to derive even a crumb of satisfaction from having made the smug villainess lose something, but he was only human.

“Unfortunate,” Hanno lied, moving on immediately. “This is short-sighted of her, Archer. My differences with Hasenbach are not going to be ended by an evening of making common cause. We already have a common cause.”

The Grand Alliance, and beyond that Good. Cordelia Hasenbach, however, intended to suborn heroes to laws and crowns after having spent the last few years repeatedly demonstrating that both failed to serve their stated purpose even when the stakes were the highest possible ones. Hanno simply could not understand how someone could look at the behaviour of the Highest Assembly during and before the war then conclude that the likes of them should be given more power over heroes. There needed to be changes, that was true, but what was truly needed was an intermediary between Above’s champions and earthly powers.

Someone who could steer away from conflicts between them, not serve as some crown-appointed governor of heroes. It simply would not work, and it should not: heroes often found their Names fighting against corrupt authority, it was absurd that an entire system should be built around punishing them should they do this. Absurd and doomed to failure. Named would not bend to those laws, it would run against their nature. All it would accomplish was make heroes into outlaws so that another pack of vultures could feel a little safer plotting in their palaces.

The chord was stretching ever close to him, to his will, providence’s nudge making the efforts just a little easier. He must be approaching the close of his conversation with Archer, which would end with his breaking out of his bindings.

“I do not believe she is evil, Archer,” Hanno said. “But we disagree fundamentally on how the world should be. That is not something over which there can be compromise and it cannot be papered over by an evening of fighting side by side.”

“Well, you got us right pegged,” Archer mourned. “Guess we’ll just lose then.”

The chord connected even as she finished the last word, Light flooding through Hanno’s veins, and in the instant that followed the illusion shattered. Like a pane of glass being smashed.

Hanno was not in a dungeon and Archer was not sitting atop an iron maiden.

She was perched on a raised stone covered by runes and glyphs, an arrow loosely nocked to the bow on her knee, but it was not her the illusion had been meant to veil. It was their surroundings. They were in the great room that was the heart of the tower, the nexus where all the power converged, and here shadow dwelled like a living thing. Currents of Night flowed from channels in the walls and floor, rivers crossing the air, and everywhere copper gutters sprawled in esoteric patterns that stung his eyes. Glyphs covered every inch of stone, pulsing with something unseen that moved the tendrils of Night streaming down as if some great beast was breathing in and out.

Now that he was no longer blinded by the illusion, Hanno found the sheer amount of power flowing through the room suffocating. How was Archer unaffected? The darkness swirled lazily around her like smoke, almost playfully, and she gave no sign of feeling ill. His eyes moved past her, following the gutters inevitably leading towards the centre of the room. There lay a raised dais, on which a pedestal had been raised. And on that pedestal a simple leather book had been set down, one that would have seemed a simple manuscript if not for the way Hanno’s soul sang whenever he gazed at it. And in front of the artefact stood the third person in the tower heart.

The Warden of the East, leaning against her staff on the dais  and wreathed in so much Night she seemed entirely made of it, cast a disgruntled glance in his direction and snapped her fingers. The darkness he’d woven the Light chord through deepened, grew longer, and the chord shattered in a thousand small motes. Utter surprise stilled him. That should not have been possible, Hanno knew. Night always broke when matched with Light. He’d thought his memory of it being devoured when he was captured was mistaken, that there’d been a misunderstanding on his part – an artefact had been used, perhaps.

“The fucking Sisters made that Light trap,” Catherine Foundling said, sounding both admiring and disgusted. “And you figured a way through in, what, eighty heartbeats at most? While hanging upside down and talking the whole time.”

She shook her head, muttering something that sounded like fucking heroes under her breath.

“We were at the good part,” Archer smiled at him. “Go on, Shiny Boots, tell us more about how you’ve figured all this out.”

He was still frozen, dripping with sweat and struggling with the surprise. Was it a trick, another illusion? It should not have been possible for Night to do this.

“What have you done, Warden?” Hanno harshly asked. “What is this?”

It was more than simply his own Light being suppressed, he realized. The Book he now saw, was fighting darkness encroaching from all sides. He’d not seen it at first because of the gloom, but there were thin strands of Night coming down from the ceiling and walls and trying to touch the holy artefact. They were being kept back by a presence that came in the form of an invisible globe – six, seven inches wide – but Hanno could feel the pressure against it. It was as if the entire tower and all its Night was bearing down on the Book through the tendrils, its weight slowly crushing the artefact. Snuffing out the Light within.

Night, he thought once more, should not have been able to do that. It should have dispersed, vanished, given ground.

“Are you,” Catherine Foundling idly asked, “asking me to tell you all about my Evil plan?”

It would not be a deal with a devil, she saw those as beneath her. Had Below itself blessed her with strength? Hanno’s stomach clenched. It was unlike the Hellgods to act so blatantly, but these were the end times. Rules grew weaker in the eyes of men and gods alike.

“How many patrons can a single lifetime fit, Catherine?” Hanno asked, hoping pricking her pride would loosen her tongue. “After this one, how many more do you have waiting in the wings?”

He got an amused glance back.

“That would absolutely have worked on me when I was seventeen,” the Warden admitted.

Archer loudly cleared her throat.

“Fine,” she corrected. “Maybe for a little while after too.”

He was not learning anything, but even a delay was worth buying. Soon the First Prince and others would – Hanno’s stomach clenched. Even as she had been speaking with him, he realized she had kept the ritual going. How? He found that sole eye watching him, amused. His thoughts must have been plain on his face.

“The first thing I did when this began,” the Warden of the East told him, “was figure out a ritual that I’d be able to walk away from before it ends. Made this whole affair longer than it had to be, all bludgeon and no finesse, but that way it accounted for you crashing the party. A worthwhile trade-off, yeah?”

Good, if he could get her talking…

“If you knew I would act stop you,” Hanno said, “then, on some level, you know this shouldn’t be done. You can still stop, Catherine. There have been no deaths and-”

“And I’m not breaking any laws,” she replied, tone mild. “Landing the tower was impolite, I suppose, but that’s not why you’re really here. What claim do you realistically have on the Book of Some Things, Hanno? You didn’t make it and it was ripped out of the Bard, not one of your charges. It has nothing to do with you.”

It was not happenstance, that Catherine Foundling had ensured she was both the Queen of Callow and the Warden of the East. It was her favourite tactic to use one title as cover for actions she took as the other: shaking Callowan swords and Grand Alliance laws at him now even as this room held more Night than he’d ever seen gathered in a single place. Bandying words with her would be pointless, Hanno thought, she could talk in circles until the Last Dusk. Directness was the only way through, stripping the fig leaf.

“It belongs,” he plainly said, “to the Warden of the West. Good’s stories in Good hands.”

The light of the room dimmed, shadows roiling as the invisible globe around the Book groaned.

“That’s nice,” the Warden of the East praised. “Good turn of phrase, very heroic.”

She leaned forward, the movement casting her sharp cheekbones even more harshly. One eye under a cloth as dark as Night, the other eerily knowing. Shadows melded into the long dark hair, threaded themselves around the forlorn staff of dead yew. There was not a man or woman of Calernia that would have seen her in that moment and not known her to be Below’s favourite daughter.

“Now tell me, Hanno of Arwad,” Catherine curiously asked, “what exactly is it that compels me to obey you?”

He blinked, honestly taken aback.

“You would destroy the Accords by denying this,” he slowly said. “Accords that you have-”

“No,” the Warden cut in. “They’ll still all sign, the nations, and they’re the part that matters. Even if the heroes balk – and a lot of them won’t – then most of what I want will be achieved. Try again.”

Gods Above, what was this?

“You would play these games when we prepare to march on the Crown of the Dead?” he asked, incredulous.

It might be that some would sign the Liesse Accords nonetheless, as she’d said, but they could not truly succeed without the support of the heroes. If too many refused the rules, they meant nothing. What was the point of this petty posturing when Calernia teetered on the brink of annihilation? The Dead King was loose.

“Yeah, we are about to do that aren’t we?” Archer drawled. “Cat, you must have forgot.”

Hanno himself had forgot she was there. Archer was someone who called attention to herself, but she was a candle to Catherine Foundling’s bonfire.

“Got distracted, I guess. Maybe it was all the concerned diplomats knocking at my door,” the Warden sharply smiled. “You know, so they could tell me their worries about the pissing match between Prince White and the First Prince sinking the Grand Alliance before it even began to march.”

Archer let out an overdone noise of understanding, all the while smiling like a cat playing with a crippled bird.

“Sorry, Shiny Boots, I interrupted,” Archer solicitously said. “You were saying something about games, the siege of Keter coming up?”

His jaw tightened. Catherine could have been lying about the diplomats, but he doubted it. It was usually her preference to use the truth as her knife. The implied reproach was not without merit if his rivalry with the First Prince was shaking the confidence of allies to such an extent.

“How many?” Hanno asked.

“Even if it had been only one,” the Warden of the East said, “it would have been too many.”

That was, he considered, true. He had not been wrong to step forward and act, but he had not tended to the situation as well as he should have. Authority was trust made action, and he had been wasting trust. All involved lost from this.

“I have been at fault,” Hanno frankly replied. “My error must me mended and will be.”

He then flicked a hard look around him.

“But my faults, whatever they might be, excuse none of this.”

“Excuse?” the Warden of the East laughed. “You seem to be misunderstanding something, Hanno. I have no need to excuse anything.”

The Night in the room billowed, like cloth in the wind, as if answering its mistress’s harsh laughter.

“Who is it that’s going to call me to account tomorrow?” she asked. “You?”

She looked him up and down, dismissive.

“How’s that working out?”

Then she gestured dismissively at the distance.

“Cordelia?” she continued. “She’s so badly in my debt she’d break an entire wagon of shovels digging her way back to daylight. Besides, neither of you actually commands a damned thing.”

Yet another reason the First Prince could not be the Warden of the West. She was too tightly bound to Procer and the debts of gratitude it would Callow – and that kingdom’s Black Queen, even after her abdication. The one-eyed priestess shrugged.

“You’ve split up Procer with your Prince White business,” the Warden said. “And she’s got her own loyalists in the heroes. You’re coming to me with threats and warnings, Hanno, while your fucking house is on fire.”

A fire that would be put out the moment he became Warden of the West. The First Prince would know better than to try to exploit heroes for political gains the way she had when he had been the White Knight. A Warden, unlike a Knight, would be able to refuse her when she next tried to mutilate a young girl’s corpse to appease the unappeasable. Besides, the dark-skinned hero was still a high officer of the Grand Alliance. She could not capture him like this without breaking the treaties she had signed.

“Unless you intend to keep me imprisoned until the end of this war,” Hanno flatly replied, “there will be consequences to this.”

It was only his own inclination to end this peacefully that would keep her from being scraped raw for this, and he was steadily losing it.

“No,” she bluntly said, “there won’t be.”

He stared at her in disbelief. Did she think herself invincible because Below’s stories had been silenced?

“You both need me too badly to pick that fight,” the Warden said. “See, if you actually do go after me it’s not going to be kept quiet. It’s going to come out, word’s going to spread. And what exactly do you think’s going to happen when people learn you’re coming after me to steal an artefact that was already in my possession?”

Hanno’s blood ran cold as he genuinely considered it. Even if he was the Warden by then, the amount of damage that conflict would cause just as they prepared to march on Keter…  

“You would kill this entire continent for your pride?” he challenged.

“See, now we get to it,” Catherine Foundling mused. “You’re holding Calernia hostage, pretending you can’t bend but I should. She does the same, in her own way. And that’s the part that actually pisses me off, you know? That you’re both taking charity from me, depending on my goodwill, and then I for some godforsaken reason I have to pretend one of you is my equal.”

There was a cold, burning indignation in that dark eye that Hanno knew was too blistering to be feigned.

“You have not earned it,” Catherine Foundling said, smiling thin and sharp, “and this offends me.”

A blade-like smile, he thought. He’d seen it before on another face and liked it no better then.

“This is not,” Hanno slowly said, “posturing, is it?”

He’d seen from the start that Catherine was playing a game, that she was enforcing rules and preventing deaths. He had thought it to mean that she was not serious, but it was beginning to sink in that he’d been wrong.

It might be a game she was playing, but the Warden was deadly serious.

“I’ve played nice with you fine folk,” Catherine nonchalantly said. “But it looks like you need the same wake up call Tariq did.”

Night surged, swelled, the shapes of thousands of crows flapping their wings filling every surface. Cruel beaks and talons reached out for flesh to slice.

“My help is a decision,” the Warden of the East said. “It is not a right or a given. And the moment you begin to delude yourself otherwise, I will bury you in a shallow fucking grave.”

Hanno breathed out, sought his calm. The situation had deteriorated far beyond what he’d thought possible, but all was not lost. She was still talking and he was still alive. This was not yet over.

“Yet you have not,” he said. “So this is still a negotiation.”

Her haze hardened, and immediately he knew he had made a mistake.

“You’re not learning the lesson, Hanno,” Catherine Foundling mildly said. “See, for one you still think that you got me to monologue. That I was trying to hide any of this.”

The Book of Some Things screamed, pinpricks of Night beginning to slither through cracks in the globe. Tendrils of darkness were stretching out towards the artefact, hungry and foul. It was like hearing a child be beaten, a painting get ripped: ugly and impossible to take back.

“I didn’t need to bargain to eat the Book,” the one-eyed priestess said. “Or to shackle you. The difference between you and I, Hanno of Arwad, is that I’m the Warden of the East.”

She raised a hand, strands of Night coalescing around it as if they were eager.

“I murdered my own father for that Name,” the Warden said. “I’ve mutilated people I love, scarred my own flesh. That’s what I wield every time I call on Night, that’s the foundation of my authority.”

Darkness pulsed across the room, the breath of some gargantuan beast.

“And you think that your half-assed claim is equal to that?” she scorned. “What is it you’ve given up, Hanno, that you’ve sacrificed?”

“You have known tragedies,” Hanno acknowledged. “But how many of them were of your own making, Catherine?”

He met her eye.

“You think they are something to boast of?”

As pain raised one above others, made them worthy. It was the philosophy of the whip, both the master’s and the flagellant’s. Nothing more. Being hurt didn’t make you better. It just made you hurt.

“They’re something,” the Warden said. “They’re weight. Was it you put up against them, Hanno, what’s your foundation?”

She snorted.

“No longer having your hand held by angels,” she said. “Giving up the pretense you’re above petty mortal disputes. You’re standing where everyone else started and calling it a journey.”

Hanno’s fists clenched. How small his doubts and troubles seemed, made into a single turn of phrase. The globe cracked, groaned.

“You’ve never believed in anything but your right to climb,” Hanno harshly said. “I am not surprised you cannot grasp what faith means or what it costs but talk of it coming from you is like a fish speaking of flight.”

She smiled unpleasantly.

“Hey, maybe you’re right,” the Warden said. “Let’s find out. Which is stronger, between Light and Night?”

He stilled. Glimpsing what she was about to say before she said it.

“Light, huh,” the Warden said. “I wonder why I can shackle you then.”

Her eye burned cold.

“Between my authority and yours, Hanno of Arwad, there is no contest. Talk about faith all you want: it will keep ringing hollow as long as you hang up there.”

It fell into place. It was not some fresh power that had let her do this but the mantle she had claimed in the East. His mind spun, considering the enormity of that, but soon he realized she was not so strong as she pretended. There was a reason the Warden had chosen to ride a tower, to draw him into it: here, they were under her roof. A place under her authority, her power. And under that roof the Warden of the East could bend the rules her way, decree that Night would triumph over Light. He found his calm, the quiet place at the heart of him.

It was further away than he remembered, and smaller.

“You embraced your mantle first, that is all it means,” Hanno said. “Anything more is wishful paint over your regrets.”

“And Gods know I have a great many of those,” the Warden of the East said. “An army’s worth of ghosts. I have learned my failures, if only because they so lovingly haunt me. You, though?”

She shrugged casually, cuttingly.

“Hells, Hanno,” the Warden said, “now you’re telling me you want the Warden to guide to heroes the way you did as the White Knight. Can you even hear yourself talking? We’ve been down this road before.”

The one-eyed priestess raised her free hand, wiggling it mockingly.

“How many fingers is the next Mirror Knight going to cost you?” she said.

“Fingers for a life are not a trade I regret,” Hanno evenly replied. “Or ever will.”

“Then you’ll run out of those long before I run out of eyes,” the Warden replied. “Of course, it’ll all implode far quicker than that. Your house of cards comes down the moment you run into another Red Axe.”

His jaw clenched.

“Should I dig her up so she can be cut a third time?” Hanno bit out. “Maybe you can use the spectacle to buy back a deserter prince for a moon’s turn. And why stop there? We can dig up a whole graveyard of heroes to shame the full Highest Assembly into showing up the once. They can vote to leave and return to their palaces.”

The words were acid on his tongue, acid in his belly, but out they came anyway. He felt no cleaner for it, not relieved in the slightest. Spite lessened both the speaker and listener.

“There it is,” the Warden of the East smiled. “They’re heroes so they’re Good, and that means even their mistakes are always well intended. They shouldn’t be strangled with petty mortal laws, just helped out of their messes and allowed to waddle on into the next one. That’s the take you bring to the table, isn’t it? Or at least what it comes down to, when all the pretty words are stripped off.”

“It is one of your worst habits,” Hanno evenly replied, “to poison every well you do not own.”

He forced himself to be calm, to be steady. To not lean into the anger that burned in his belly.

“You pretend that villains and heroes are the same, that their difference is a simple matter of… abstract philosophy,” he said, “but it is not. Even the most vicious of us are trying to end evil, not spread it. You stand instead for rapists, cannibals and callous murderers. Our exceptions are your rule. You are indignant that I would free heroes to act because it would harm villains – but villains are only harmed by those actions because they choose to do evil.”

It was almost a relief to simply say it out loud. To do away with the pretence that there was something laudable about protecting Evil, that it was anything more than a compromise to allow it.

“The second chances you scorn are given, Catherine, because there is a difference between recklessness and malice,” Hanno said. “Heroes are not always right, always good. But they all can be, if they’re given help.”

The claps he received were openly mocking.

“Pretty speech,” the Warden of the East said. “Heroes would love it, I’m sure.”

A pause.

“But how about everybody else?”

He started in surprise.

“You cann-”

“What do you think the difference is for someone between getting killed by a cannibal murderer or the Saint of Swords?” the one-eyed priestess interrupted. “Nothing, Hanno. They’re still dead. And that’s the part you refuse to understand. They’re sick of my side, and right to be. But they’re sick of your side too.”

She leaned forward, eye cold.

“Do you think claimants grow on trees, Hanno?” she said. “That Cordelia just lucked into having a shot at being the Warden of the West? It’s almost like not everyone agrees with that little speech. The fucking arrogance of it, from you who’s never ruled so much as a village or had to do anything in a war but fight. The choices don’t stay nice and clean when you have to think about more than a hundred people at a time. How very convenient that you’ve limited how many you need to care about to that number.”

He barely heard the latter half of the tirade. She was right, Hanno thought with muted dismay. Not about what she thought, but she was right. In some way, he’d thought that Cordelia Hasenbach had become a claimant because she was the First Prince. Because she was powerful and prominent and one of the titles adorning her crown was ‘Warden of the West’. It had been a comfortable thought, one that fit with his opinion of the woman. It was also not how Names worked. That silent realization stilled his tongue. He could not speak until he’d swallowed it, as if it’d filled his throat.

“Ah,” the Warden smiled. “There we are. Catching up at last.”

“I-” Hanno started, then hesitated.

“You want the Book but you don’t have the law on your side,” Catherine Foundling said. “You don’t have the story either, and if you’re going to try to take it anyway what does that leave?”

A hard, cold smile.

“Just violence,” the Warden of the East said. “And I’m better at it than you.”

She looked him up and down, then shook her head.

“Throw him out of the tower, Archer,” she said.

“Cat?” Archer said, sounding surprised.

The Warden of the East met his eyes with her own.

“There’s nothing left to beat,” Catherine Foundling calmly said. “We’re done here.”

The words stung more than being tossed out into the grass, though Archer tried her best. Hanno was not surprised.

They had the ring of truth to them.

Interlude: Occidental I

“Seventy-five: you should never be too friendly or too hostile to a rival. Too friendly means you cannot put aside your rivalry to defeat a common foe; too hostile may drive them to join that very foe.”

-“Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown

Hanno had already learned better than to receive that blade with a full parry: he had no intention of allowing a second notch onto the edge of his sword. Instead he nudged the blow aside, quickening his movement with Light, and stepped in close as he pivoted. His armoured elbow caught the enemy’s helmeted cheek from the left, but the villain took the blow without batting an eye. Hanno danced back before a bronze-clad boot could smash into his knee, leaning back an inch to let that wicked blade pass just before his eyes. The dark-skinned hero withdrew even further, making space as his brow furrowed.

The fight was lasting longer than he’d wanted, in no small part because the Barrow Sword was proving significantly harder to handle than he’d expected. Not that the villain had announced himself, or even talked since that debacle with the riddles.

But the hellish landscape that Night had made of this tower had not been enough to obscure the identity of the man facing him, and neither had been the black paint half-heartedly slapped over a very distinct set of bronze armour. Still, Hanno would admit that the shadows were… disquieting. The way they moved just at the corner of your eye, hinting at faces and fanged maws, flapping wings and unblinking eyes. Looking at them too long was disorienting, the movements invited belief into depth and angles that did not exist – rooms seemed smaller or lager, crooked where they should be straight or flat when they were sloped.

And through the dark the Warden of the East watched them all, her intentions still inscrutable. Hanno flexed the stumps of his crippled hands, watching his opponent’s loose stance. The Barrow Sword was not aiming to win, he decided, but to delay.

“This does not have to end in violence,” Hanno said. “Take me to her, Barrow Sword. I will go with my sword sheathed, not to fight but to treat in good faith.”

The other man watched him through the slits of the bronze helm, face impassive for a long moment until it split into a broad grin. The kind some might have called nasty.

“What if we want to fight, hero?”

The voice was distorted, laced with sorcery. It made the air shiver, though focus let him ignore the pull at his mind.

“I do not believe you do,” Hanno evenly said. “So far your side has acted with restr-”

It was only instinct that led him to take a step to the side instead of backwards, which made the difference between life and death. The thrust of that eerie bronze sword – it felt Ligurian to his senses, but deeper somehow – cut the edge of his cheek, drawing blood from a thin wound. If he’d moved too slowly, or backwards, it would have punctured his throat.

“Your side keeps talking,” the Barrow Sword snorted. “Speeches and schemes, like all that strutting about isn’t what made you a load in the first place. Even now you’re trying to get one over the Rhenian, like this is the world’s saddest pissing match.”

The villain flicked his wrist, blood slapping down against cool stone.

 “Well, congratulations,” the Barrow Sword grinned. “You kept at it long enough the Warden lost her temper. Get in line, Ashuran, or get stepped on.”

Hanno’s eyes narrowed. Light pulsed under his skin. Perhaps this was more serious a situation that he’d thought. He needed to finish this fight quickly, so he should set out bait.

“There are limits to what I will tolerate,” he warned, “no matter the intentions.”

The man laughed in his face, loudly and scathingly.

“Tolerate?” the Barrow Sword mocked. “You can’t even get past me. What claim have you got on higher honour?”

That ought to do it, Hanno thought. Light flared as his back foot hit the floor, lending him an explosive start. Three steps in the blink of an eye, the villain belatedly raising his sword to strike. Parrying would be a mistake, so he did not. He bent low instead, caught the kick aimed to sweep him to the side and sent it back. The Barrow Sword’s footing stumbled and Hanno smoothly rose, catching the arm holding the sword before it could properly swing back and pivoting sharply. The throw he’d learned through one of the Sages of the West flowed smoothly, the villain’s armoured back slamming against the stone. Best to break the wrist of his sword arm, Hanno decided. He’d be less of a threat without the enchanted blade.

His knee was already rising when he felt magic flare behind him. It was an awkward moment, leaving him little room to maneuver. The mark of a skilled opponent. The dark-haired hero threw himself to the side, but he was too slow by a hair: the ice spike caught the side of his leg, in the weakness of the armour, and he felt sorcery spreading through his blood. A curse. Breathing out sharply, Hanno ran Light through his veins. It was an unpleasant sensation, like skin stayed close to an open flame too long, but he would not take a risk with curses. Landing in a pained crouch, he swept through the spike with a sword stroke and parried a second as he turned to watch his fresh opponent.

A man in rich dark robes, his face obscured by a spell. Too tall to be the Royal Conjurer, though too short to be the Hierophant. Hunted Magician, Hanno thought. That meant old magic, heavy on curses and enchantments, with some fae learning. Behind him the Barrow Sword was getting back up.

“I will ask the same of you as I asked of him,” Hanno said to the Magician. “Take me to the Warden of the East and this can still end peacefully.”

“It can end right now, that is true,” the Magician easily agreed. “All that’s required is your surrender.”

Hanno almost sighed. Was he truly going to have to fight his way to the summit of the tower before he could speak with the Warden, as if this were a Dread Empress’ lair being cracked open? He opened his mouth to reply with one last offer of diplomacy but the words never came out: the air had just shivered. Great power was being used above him, a staggering amount of Night. And it was being used to smother something, he found, eyes narrowing. Forcefully put out a light. Instinct tugged at him urgently, insistently. Whatever it was Catherine Foundling had just begun, it could not be allowed to finish. Hanno slowly raised his sword.

“Change of plans,” the Sword of Judgement told the villains. “I can no longer afford to hold back.”

“Tough talk,” the Barrow Sword scoffed, “but-”

Hanno moved, and there was no longer time for anyone to talk.

The Kingfisher Prince laid a hand on the Mirror Knight’s shoulder, face taut with concentration. A moment passed and then Cordelia dimly felt it: a ripple on the pond. A murmur of water against her hand. Mere months ago, she thought, she would have felt nothing at all. Even being a claimant, she had found, was as if a veil had been lifted on some part of Creation. Like she’d been allowed to peek behind the stage and see the pierced bucket used to make the rain, the mage on a ladder making lightning. Withdrawing his hand, Frederic Goethal smiled.

“He’s coming back,” the Prince of Brus said. “Any moment now.”

Cordelia slowly nodded.

“An aspect was used,” the First Prince said. “Aid, you called it?”

The fair-haired man nodded.

“Most of the time it is little more than an instinct taking me where I most need to be,” Prince Frederic said, “but it has some other minor uses.”

More than just that, Cordelia thought. Not once since Frederic had become Chosen had soldiers he fought alongside with been routed. His mere presence seemed to be enough to turn even the greenest of levies into stubborn, tenacious veterans. Otto, in his letters, had described it as his friend being ‘a nail keeping our line in place wherever he stands’. The Prince of Bremen, ever plain in speech, had a way of turning almost poetic when it came to the Prince of Brus. The close friendship between those two had been one of the few lights brought about by this war, in Cordelia’s opinion.

Were Frederic a woman, she suspected they would already be wed.

She set aside the idle thoughts as the Mirror Knight came to, his blank eyes focusing on his surroundings as he took in the sight of the riders and the starlit plain.

“Hallowed,” Christophe de Pavanie cursed. “I was bespelled, wasn’t I?”

“We believe so,” Cordelia calmly said, her voice immediately commanding his attention. “Though we did not find the caster responsible for it.”

The green-eyed Chosen grimaced.

“These are the Black Queen’s picked grounds, Your Highness,” he said. “We won’t fight anything she doesn’t want us to find. I thank you for freeing me nonetheless.”

“It was my pleasure,” Prince Frederic dismissed.

Christophe de Pavanie quite willingly gave out every detail of how he had gotten where he stood and why, including the number of Chosen that the Sword of Judgement had led into this mess. He did not, however, speak of what she most wanted to know. Accordingly, she took the matter in hand.

“As you can see,” Cordelia said, “we come late to the evening. Can you tell us what happened to rouse the Warden of the East to such anger?”

Though it would make a great many things easier if it were a blunder by Hanno of Arwad responsible, she did not truly hope for that to be the case. The consequences of a strong falling out there would send fracture lines through the Grand Alliance. She has too many allies, too many followers, the Lycaonese princess thought. The Blood had already expressed in private their doubts that the war could be won without her, and if the Circle of Thorns was to be believed the League of Free Cities was treating her as the main negotiating partner in the Grand Alliance.

A great many things would fall apart in a matter of days, Cordelia well knew, if the unstinting support from the most dreaded figure of their age came to an end.

“She’s not angry,” the Mirror Knight replied.

Cordelia hid her doubt behind a smile.

“Have you grasped something, Lord Christophe?” she asked.

The man looked frustrated, fiddling with the dark locks that his helmet kept pressed against his forehead.

“I understand I’m no friend of hers,” the Mirror Knight said, “and that my judgement is held in poor esteem.”

Cordelia’s eyes narrowed the slightest bit. That was more awareness than she’d expected of a man of his reputation. Had his time under the Grey Pilgrim truly tempered him? When the punishment had been doled out she’d thought it nonsense, just another example of the White Knight letting off his charges with a slap on the wrist after they behaved atrociously – Christophe de Pavanie had accused the Queen of Callow of cooperating with the Dead King before mutilating a high officer of the Grand Alliance – but perhaps there had been some use to it.

“But,” Cordelia prompted.

“If she really were angry, Your Highness,” the younger man said, “that fortress would have landed on us.”

She blinked in surprise.

“And while we were broken and dying,” the Mirror Knight bluntly said, “she’d have sailed it back up in the clouds, where we can’t reach it.”

“We’d have found a way to reach up there,” Frederic said, tone calm and utterly certain. “There’s always a way.”

“Maybe,” the Mirror Knight replied, “but we haven’t had to, Kingfisher. Because she landed the tower in the middle of a plain where everyone can see it, bold as you please.”

“You believe this is a challenge,” Cordelia stated.

His head bobbed up and down.

“If it’s not a war,” Christophe de Pavanie said, “it’s a spar.”

A look at Frederic, who was frowning thoughtfully and not disagreeing, told her he was coming around to the thought. Cordelia’s gaze moved to the tall tower in the distance, the writhing streak of darkness jutting out of the starlit grass. What is Catherine meant to accomplish with all this? And there would be a purpose, she thought. Under the thuggish swagger and the affected drawl lay a clever, calculating mind. You forced a fight, Cordelia thought. With him, and perhaps with me as well. Was it as simple as forcing them to stand together against her?

No, it would not be. There had to be a victor, that much could not be worked around. Cordelia had combed through every historical archive she could reach when looking for possible compromises, and the only recorded instances of a Name being shared were siblings. Even the Bitter Blacksmiths, while one Chosen and the other Damned, were brother and sister. There could only be one Warden of the West, which meant that any cooperation between them – even against a common foe – could only be temporary. There must be a deeper purpose, one Cordelia could not yet suss out.

“We will not learn the answer standing here,” she finally said. “We must ride to the tower.”

“There’s no telling what will be waiting for us there, Your Highness,” the Mirror Knight said. “It would be safer for you to stay behind with your soldiers. The Kingfisher Prince and I-”

“Will be escorting me to the tower,” Cordelia pleasantly smiled.

The green-eyed hero turned to object, but then he caught her gaze and slowly closed his mouth. A moment passed as she watched him, unblinking, and thought of how very tired she was of having to herd Chosen instead of the man who should have been doing it all this time. His mouth stayed closed.

“Let us proceed, then,” the blonde princess amicably said. “One of my retinue will cede a horse to you, Lord Christophe.”

He hesitantly nodded. Her gaze turned to Frederic.

“You mentioned,” Cordelia said, “that your aspect tells you where you are most needed.”

The Kingfisher Prince, looking faintly amused, nodded.

“It is not always clear-cut, especially in complicated situations, but it does grant me such a sense,” the Prince of Brus said.

“And where does it tell you to be now?” she asked.

He cocked his head to the side.

“South,” the Kingfisher Prince said after a moment. “North to the tower pulls at well, but not as strongly.”

“I saw lights south before I was bespelled,” the Mirror Knight offered. “Sorcery. There might be a fight.”

Cordelia took a step back from the immediate, trying to understand the broader pattern. The Chosen had been split up by Catherine as they crossed into Arcadia, likely because they were too strong a threat together. Which implied her defences were inferior to the force of heroes gathered. So what she wants is not something that can be obtained by force. If it were, she would have gathered more force. Should Cordelia then ignore the obvious step of gathering the separated Chosen to march on the tower together? If force was not to be the deciding factor, it would be a waste of time to…

No, that was a flawed approach. Though Catherine did not seem intent on using force to achieve her end, she had acted to prevent force being used against her. Which meant that Cordelia could obtain leverage by gathering the Chosen. It would come at the cost of time, ever the scarcest of resources in a time of crisis, but the blonde princess was likely being bought time at this very moment: no one had caught sight of Hanno of Arwad, which meant the odds were good he had already reached the tower. She planned for that, Cordelia thought. She believes she can drive back or capture the Sword of Judgement.

Yet, for all that Cordelia Hasenbach deeply disliked the man, she would not deny he was an exception fighter. Handling him would take time. Time enough, perhaps, for her to gather the Chosen and prepare her own attempt to resolve the situation. Eyes still on the distant tower, Cordelia breathed out shallowly. This was not so different, she thought, from the schemes of the Highest Assembly. The rules and the pieces were different, but Cordelia had not been born knowing the rules of the Ebb and Flow. She had learned them, as she would learn the rules of Named.

“Then let us ride south,” Cordelia Hasenbach smiled, “and lend our comrades a hand.”

The stairs were hungry.

Or at least the Night slithering atop them. Something was coiled and ready to strike at his back just out of his sight, a sense of hostility like an itch between his shoulder blades. Hanno rose carefully, sword in hand and eyes ever moving. He had defeated the gatekeepers, which meant even deeper peril now awaited him. Either the Warden’s own right hand or some kind of bound creature. Most likely the former, as Catherine Foundling had never known to use any monster save the ones she rode. Either the Hierophant or the Archer, Hanno believed. Vivienne Dartwick was not a villain or the kind of woman to lend her hand to this, and would be a lesser threat even she were.

The Princess was not as skilled a combatant as the rest of the Woe, and likely never would be. If that sort of confrontation had been in her nature, she would never have become the Thief. Besides, she was to be Queen of Callow one day. Catherine would not use her as sorely as she had used the two downstairs. They would live, Hanno knew. The Barrow Sword’s leg could be reattached with a spell before he bled out, and the Hunted Magician would be able to cast when he finished swallowing his teeth. Hanno had broken his fingers, not his wrists, it should be enough for the man to be capable of basic healing.

Hanno’s boots scuffed the stone as he passed the threshold to the second level, finding it to be a single large hall. Ornate reliefs of stone depicting devils slaying each other dripped with liquid shadow, though he saw that the shadow dripped up as well as down. There was an open gate on the other side of the hall and not a sign of anything here aside from the Night. The dark-skinned hero paused.

“This is a trap,” Hanno plainly said.

“Trap,” a voice behind him agreed, just as the arrow went through his back.

Biting down on a hiss of pain, he turned even as he considered the angle the arrow had punched through the plate at. Not just behind, but – Archer’s boots hit his face as she finished leaping down from above the gate he’d entered through, sending him tumbling in a pained tangle of limbs. A detonation of Light against his side slowed the spin, allowing him to land in a controlled skid, but it also pushed the arrow deeper. Archer landed gracefully, coat fluttering as she nocked and loosed another arrow in the span of a single breath. His body was already moving, but he corrected in time with another burst of Light. Not a single arrow but too, the second fired just as he began to move to swat away the first.

He angled himself so the first would miss and he could parry the second, narrowly. Archer sighed.

“You’re too quick in a small room,” she said. “A bow won’t work.”

“If I had not adjusted,” Hanno evenly said, “that second shot would have gone through my eye.”

“I aimed for the one opposite Cat’s,” Archer cheerfully informed him. “You know, to fit the whole opposite Wardens thing.”

A short pause, a brazen grin.

“You’re welcome.”

Of all the Woe, Hanno had always disliked the Archer the most. Even the Adjutant, for all his moral void and bland antipathy, was no match for the casual cruelty Archer delighted in. That she could be charming when she wished to be only made it worse, as it drew the eye away from the viciousness of her words and deeds. People, even those who should know better, forgave much of a witty woman in good humour. Hanno would not have made that mistake even if he did not have an arrow jutting out of his back. It went through plate like butter and made not a sound. Dangerous. He broke the arrow’s shaft but left the head in the flesh. He could fight through the pain, it was better to wait for proper healing.

“This has gone on for long enough,” Hanno curtly said. “Whatever grievance the Warden of the East has, there were better ways to handle it. If this does not end now, it will have consequences.”

The Archer casually tossed away her bow and loosed her quiver’s strap. There was something wrong, something off. His eyes followed her, trying to find a match for what his instincts screamed.

“Consequences, huh,” the Archer said. “You know, Shiny Boots, I argued you’d make the finer Warden but the more you talk the more I think this was the right idea.”

“This is sheer stupidity,” he harshly retorted. “The-”

“Nah, this is just a slap across the face,” the Archer cut in, amused. “You’re not meant to like it. Sheer stupidity, now, that’d be trying to dig up a dwarven gate on the sly.”

He went still in surprise.

“Of course we know, Hanno,” Archer smiled. “We’re the fucking Woe. Always assume we know.”

They’d been seen through, then, despite their best efforts. Did the First Prince know as well? It had been her he meant to fool.

“So that’s why,” Hanno said, almost relieved. “Then this is a misunderstanding. I never int-”

“Eh,” Archer shrugged, unsheathing her longknives and idly spinning them. “I don’t really care.”

His jaw tightened. She was baiting him.

“Then there is no more point in speaking to you,” Hanno said. “This is my last warning, Archer: get out of my way.”

 “Shiny Boots,” she patiently said, “you must be confused. Do I look like someone who gives a shit about-”

Evil’s stories might be silenced, but a gloater was a gloater. He burst into movement while she was jeering, but he saw from the lack of surprise in her eyes that he’d not taken her aback. Unfortunate. He wouldn’t be able to end this quickly. He struck first, high and to the side, not committing to the blow. She gave ground lightly, circling him, and continued to give it the more he pressed forward. Hanno took a step towards the gate, testing her, but she did not get in the way. She wouldn’t force herself to engage on his terms even if he feigned the intention of going up without first putting her down. Archer was the most seasoned villain he’d fought since the Black Knight, and promised to be just as much of a headache.

Fine. He’d strike properly, then. His boot hit the floor and Light flared as he shot forward, feinting low and to the side to draw her blades. One did sweep down, lazily, but as he moved into his true blow – a deep thrust at belly height – she darted towards him. One moment her stance had been entirely loose, the heartbeat after her entire body was moving. Sensing the danger he hastily moved to the side, a razor-sharp blade harmless skidding against the side of his plate instead of plunging through his armpit, and shifted his footing so he could swing at her back. He’d expected her to dodge by rolling forward, using her momentum, but instead she dropped down.

The edge of his sword whispered just above her hair as she tried to sweep his legs. She was strong and the angle bade for him, so he took a step back just in time for her to rise into a blow at his throat. An opening, she’d overcommitted: he slammed his pommel onto her hand, forcing her to drop the longknife and was about to break her jaw on the second blow when he saw the glint of steel from the corner of his eye. He leaned back, the blade slicing through his cheek and lip, and before he could kick her in the stomach she darted back. But not, he saw, without first snatching up her dropped knife. Hanno’s hand came up to touch the side of his face, coming away red.

He could feel the blood going down his cheek, dripping down onto his armour. Over the white cloak.

“Those reflexes are a little much, Shiny Boots,” Archer complained. “That little mistake should have cost you an eye.”

She was a skilled combatant, Hanno thought, but not this skilled. She’d exploited his propensity to close distance so he could use Light to quickly end a fight to very nearly land a crippling blow two exchanges into their fight. That had not been improvised.

“You’ve trained to kill me,” Hanno calmly said.

“Figured I might have to, one of these days,” she casually shrugged. “If you ever got ideas about Cat being more trouble than she’s worth.”

Even that, though, should not be enough. She was good, but those instincts were- Hanno’s eyes narrowed as he studied her once more. The ease she handled those two longknives with, the way they just seemed to fit. Those instincts were not an Archer’s instincts.

“You’re becoming the Ranger,” Hanno said.

“Claimant,” Archer grinned, “but it’s early days yet. But enough yapping, yeah? We gonna do this or-”

It did not take him by surprise when she darted forward, any more than it had taken her. He knew better than to lower his guard against Indrani the Archer. Four steps forward, quick as an arrow, and when he raised his sword she smiled. Footing switching, she suddenly drew back and if Hanno had been striking her it would have gone wide. But he was not. Instead he was taking a step forward, closing the distance, and her weight was headed the wrong way. She kept drawing away, to make distance, and it was true that by simple physical ability she was slightly faster than him. Hanno, though, did not rely on his body alone.

A burst of Light behind his left foot pushed him forward, lengthening his stride, and though it shot his footing he adjusted with another burst of Light just under his right shoulder blade. The thrust ripped through her coat at shoulder height and broke chain mail, but delivered nothing more than bruises. Archer had reacted quickly, dropping down towards the floor, but Hanno was not finished. His steel-clad boot caught her in stomach, slamming her against the stone with a pained gasp. He heard one of the lower ribs break. She wore no gauntlets, the Sword of Judgement thought as his sword rose. Cutting through both wrists should end this.

Instead he had to duck back, a longknife spinning through where his face had been a heartbeat earlier, and she rolled back into a crouch. He pressed a step forward, ignoring the knife still in the air, but she darted back before he could close the distance. Her eyes weren’t even on his sword, he noticed, but on his footing. She’s watching for the Light. The acceleration trick would not take her by surprise twice. Still, the exchange had cost her a broken rib and half her longknives – which he heard clatter against the stone behind him. This was not going to end quickly, as he had feared, so he’d used Light to melt the knife she had thrown. It should tip the balance in his favour.

It would be close, Hanno thought, but he would get to the Warden of the East in time. He could feel it in his – a wet, red gasp passed through his lips. Pain in his back. He’d been struck through his armour? No, the arrow. Something used the opening. Gritting his teeth, he flared Light at his back only for it to be swallowed. Devoured. Blood turning cold, Hanno turned even as he felt the spike impaling his back beginning to raise him off the ground.

Catherine Foundling, one-eyed and smiling, met his gaze.

“Did you really think you’d just get to fight your way up to me one brawl at a time?” she said. “Really, Hanno, I’m insulted.”

There was a swell of power, of Night, and after a wave of pain all Hanno knew was darkness.