The Empire stands triumphant.

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

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

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

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

Chapter 71: Verge

“I am told awe is made half of reverence and half of fear. Let us find out, knights of the Callow, if terror alone will be enough to teach it to the likes of you.”
– Dread Emperor Nihilis I, the Tanner

The last of them arrived half an hour before dawn’s start.

Since I’d been granted my first command in the Legions I’d gotten used to the way that large-scale ritual magic tended to require more people than you’d think, at least when it needed to be done quick and dirty – as was usually the way, when on campaign. It was often a question of needing to pool power so no one died or burned out feeding the ritual though I’d lucked out more than I’d realized when Masego, in those days still the Apprentice, had joined the Fifteenth. There was a reason that Black had preferred massed spells to the old standard of ritual cadres when he’d rebuilt the Legions of Terror from the ground up after the Praesi civil war: it standardized the arsenal of a legion’s casters. It’d become increasingly clear over the years that the way it was mostly Wasteland highborn that used cadres of ritual mages along with their personal armies wasn’t a coincidence. The heart of the matter was that for a circle of sorcerers to be able to use a ritual together without significant preparations it required for them to be highly skilled, familiar with each other and learned in that particular ritual. That meant keeping mage cadres together, for the Legions, which Black would very much try to avoid since by simple odds it’d mean a lot of Soninke and Taghreb officers of noble birth forming cliques with disproportionated influence inside a legion.

One set of rules for the aristocrats and another one for the soldiers was something my teacher had spent decades trying to dismantle, he wouldn’t tacitly endorse its resurrection in the very institution he’d spent so many years shaping. The Fifteenth, and later the Army of Callow, had avoided much of these issues by simple virtue of having Masego along. I’d not understood the importance of the role he played in large-scale battlefield sorceries until our last campaigns, where his absence had effectively made disappear half our ritual arsenal into thin air and robbed me of the High Arcana savant I’d turn towards for answers whenever some strange phenomenon appeared. Oh, Zeze had taught my mages some rough and relatively simple rituals to use on battlefields: his Lightning Strikes and the Spears of Fire remained a staple of the Army of Callow, who unlike the Legions simply didn’t have enough mages to be able to afford massed spells as a tactic. But even with those, without his presence there was significant drop in range, power and rate of fire. It wasn’t just that he’d used to have rather impressive reserves, but rather that having Masego standing among a ritual was like having someone to conduct a choir. He made up for the imprecisions of others, guided through the stumbles and kept precise the manipulations in the way that someone who wasn’t him just… couldn’t.

Akua had once compared it to having one of the finest swordsmen on the continent running recruits through formation drills, and she wasn’t entirely wrong. Still, with the Dead King’s cut those days had seemingly come at an end and the crowd that’d gathered was not a throng of half-awed young mages taking Masego’s every word for sorcerous gospel. With the mere arrival of Hierophant and Archer, our company had grown to the sort of dawn tales were made of. Two black-winged goddesses, silently looming atop raised stones in the shape of great and terrible crows. The Doom of Liesse, veiled and silent but not grown much the lesser from her hour of folly. Hierophant, stripped of sorcery but still vivisector of miracles and the kind of man whose insights even gods flinched from. Archer and myself were perhaps lesser figures, for what mattered. All that was required from me in this thinning darkness was a steady hand and the wielding of Night, while she was here as the hand propping up Masego as well as one who had more than once tread the demimonde between Creation and the Twilight Ways without needing any guidance. Should the Pilgrim demur from coming, it would be Archer whose intuitions would be relied on when the burn was made. Yet Tariq did come, in the end, though not alone: bleary-looking and huddling inside a thick cloak of fur, the Rogue Sorcerer was with him. And with those last two there were none left to await, so I drew first blood against the silence.

“Morning,” I said. “Or close enough.”

Only Masego, I noted, was kind-hearted enough to reply with a full return of the courtesy. Roland shivered inside his cloak, and the Peregrine merely nodded. His face bore the manner of calmness that one wore around a foe, I thought, and though I’d known provoking a return to that was necessary to tie the Intercessor’s hands I still regretted it. It would have been pleasant, to be on decent terms with the unspoken doyen of Above’s champions.

“Dawn’s just around the corner and it’ll make everything more difficult when it comes, so I’ll spare us all the small talk,” I said. “Most of my advisors in matters eldritch say this is where making a stable gate into Twilight will be most straightforward.”

“You’ll need an anchor for the other side,” the Sorcerer said.

“If the aspiration was a clean cut followed by material shoring up, perhaps,” Masego dismissed. “Night is not so precise, from what I’ve observed, and none of the appropriate ritual substances have been gathered here.”

I glanced at Roland, who unlike most people subjected to Zeze’s mild puzzlement at their ‘ignorance’ did not seem to have taken offence in the slightest. If anything, he rather looked like he wanted to have ink and parchment on hand. That ought to take care of itself without my intervention, then. Good. The Rogue Sorcerer was by a significant margin the friendliest hero I’d encountered, and I had no intention of letting academic rivalry get in the way of that.

“The Hierophant is right,” I said. “What I’ll need, though, is… a sense of where to aim for. Which I don’t have, unlike some of you. Archer might be able to help, but the person atop this barrow with the deepest tie to Twilight should need no introduction.”

Namely the man who had once borne the Twilight Crown, for however short a span. Bearing a mantle like that left marks, I’d know that better than most. It was no coincidence that I’d been able to feel this very place’s affinity with Arcadia long after having divested myself of the last of Winter within me. The Grey Pilgrim eyed me warily, though he did not outright decline. As expected of the man, he could already tell where this was headed and was less than enthused.

“Oh,” Roland said, shivering from the cold. “Resonance, to shape the depth at which the damage will be inflicted. Yes, that would work. A brute force solution, though.”

Archer could serve that purpose as well, but her ties were nowhere as deep. She’d tread the grounds of Twilight for longer than any of us, journeyed through its nook and crannies and even stood open-eyed while the transition from stolen shard of Arcadia to a realm took place. None of these were small things. But the Grey Pilgrim had given the last crown and borne the burden of giving the Twilight Ways their face and shape. The difference was extensive and would likely make a difference in my being knocked out for a day or a week. Figuratively speaking, one hoped, though my advisory triumvirate had not been willing to commit to it.

“Fine tools come from refinement over years and decades,” Akua said. “This is work without precedent, Sorcerer.”

The last word she spoke with the faintest hint of dubiousness. Had I been worried about the wrong Soninke, then? Shit. She was usually better about this stuff than Zeze, but then this one was a hero as well as a practitioner.

“He is correct,” Masego noted. “This is not unlike making a gate by melting stone and shaping it into a threshold.”

“And we’ve so many people observing to establish if there’s a better way to do it, next time we must,” I said, cutting in before pride could get anything started.

Mages, huh. And I thought it was the brawlers like Indrani and myself that had troubles with surfeit of swaggering.

“And how is this resonance to be acquired, Black Queen?” the Grey Pilgrim asked.

I suppressed a grimace.

“A close look at the traces Twilight left on you,” I said.

“Soul-gazing,” Tariq flatly said.

Little thick, coming from a man I was pretty sure had an aspect essentially dedicated to that and constantly used it on everyone, but I’d cut him so slack considering who’d be doing that gazing. Namely the Sisters, who for all my occasional appreciation for them were not the kindest or best-inclined of entities on Creation.

“An intermediary will be provided, should you so wish,” I said, inclining my head towards Akua.

Wouldn’t be as precise a reading, as for all her talents the shade did not benefit from the indescribable senses and perceptions that sprang from apotheosis, but she was talented. What she did pass along to me would be more than enough, and as she was not sworn to serve the Sisters the scrutiny might be more acceptable. Maybe. I wasn’t sure where Mercy would fall on that, much less Tariq himself.

“And who would you be?” the Pilgrim openly asked, eyeing Akua cautiously. “We have met before, that much is undeniable. And yet I now see you standing as a bound spirit before me.”

They’d met? I frowned, raking my memories and finding no instance. Even during the Princes’ Graveyard there should have been no acquaintance. The Battle of the Camps, I realized. Akua had run around wearing my body while I’d been stranded in an endless Winter nightmare and she’d even fought an assembled band of heroes. The Pilgrim would have had a look at her then, and though she had body of her own now I supposed the substance of what she was had not changed too much.

“I am one in the service of the Black Queen of Callow,” Akua smilingly said. “Naught else is of import here.”

“You chose this appearance,” Tariq frowned. “But are not bound to it. What are you, spirit? I have never seen the likes of you, not even in the olden-most barrows of the Brocelian.”

“Dawn’s coming, Peregrine,” I flatly said. “She’s bound to me and can wield Night without being in the service of Sve Noc. There will be no more offhand a manner to see this done, if you’ll accede to it at all.”

“Presumably the Ophanim would slay all here, if attempt was made to wound your soul,” Roland pointed out in an aside.

“That is a presumption, yes,” Masego calmly agreed.

Archer smothered a smile, and to be honest so did I. It was hardly the time, but the earnestness he’d spoken what would be a boast in another man’s mouth made it amusingly endearing. The Pilgrim’s eyes were closed, no doubt conferring with the Ophanim, and glimmered still with Light when they finally opened anew.

“So be it,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Trespass not, spirit, lest you find more than you bargained for.”

“Worry not, Peregrine,” Akua amicably said. “I’ve always held angels in high esteem.”

It was an effort not to choke. I supposed she technically wasn’t lying, considering she’d wanted to use one of the Hashmallim as fuel for her doomsday fortress. After all the posturing I’d expected some degree of ceremony, but what unfolded instead was the shade striding forward and silently asking for permission before laying her hand on the Pilgrim’s shoulder. He acceded with a nod, and closed his eyes once more as hers remained wide open. After a long moment she let out a long breath and jerkily nodded towards me. I hobbled forward and raised my hand, which she caught by the wrist: the sliver of Night she’d called on seeped into my own. I’d expected this process to be far beyond my ability to fathom, but to my surprise found it rather familiar. It was not unlike the sensation of opening a fairy gate, the sense of the needle going through the fabric and being… fated, for a lack of better term, to leave the cloth again in another place. What Akua had sensed from the Pilgrim and passed to me was not so sharp and narrow, but it was kin to that. A way to put it, I thought, would be that fairy gates under Winter had been the act of needling while what the shade had shared was having touched the cloth. I already knew from experience that trying to grasp the knowledge perfectly would result mostly into a searing headache, so I let it linger half-known and instead breathed out.

“For I have seen crowns broken and forged anew, snatched a star from the starlit sky and traded a season for half the world,” I whispered in Crepuscular. “Now that dawn crawls forward unbid, o Sve Noc, grant me might to wield and the conceit to wield it fearlessly. Where there is rampart let my hand make a road, and Creation deny not my will.”

The crows cawed, a resounding cry like the crack of a whip against the night sky, and Night flooded my veins thick and pure. I almost lost my foot but at my side Akua held me up by my elbow, having left Tariq to stand alone, and I gasped as I forced my staff of yew to rise.

Deny not my will,” I hissed once more.

Night struck out, like a wave and a strike of thunder, like a flood raging down a riverbed long gone dry. And where it found resistance, I clenched my fingers against the long haft of few and burned Creation. Scarred it, so that the blackened and bleeding scabs would stand at the threshold and mark the path to be taken. It was like riding a tide, every moment a struggle, and I swallowed a scream as I felt my strength ebbing. I would not break, not before the work was done. Not even when the coolness of Night lazed like smoke in my veins, tainting my every sense, and in the far distance I felt the distant glare of light marching like a harsh vanguard.

“Catherine,” Akua whispered against my ear. “Catherine, you have to stop.”

Was she holding me? When had she? Some pried off the hand that’d gone around my waist and it was put around a shoulder at least. Someone taller than I. I grit my teeth, for all the distractions had loosened my grip on the Night – the work had slowed, suffered. Long and delicate fingers joined mine on the staff, and like a miracle the veil on my eyes lifted. Ironclad will became intertwined with my own and I shared a feral, savage grin with Hierophant without either of us ever looking away from the howling darkness before us.

“You can still wield,” I whispered.

Ashkaran, I dimly realized.

“A god rode my mind, Catherine, for many months,” Hierophant whispered back. “I have learned things.”

Power billowed out, and I was no longer a fool of a girl clinging to a tiger: we were Woe, standing side by side, and though we were battered things no creature in this world or any other had ever earned submission of us. We painted in Night with bold strokes, feeling those around us flee backwards for the storm in the making. Komena laughed in the back of my mind, and it was eagerly that she opened the floodgates between us. Andronike hesitated, until a splash of Night boiled stone like water and we shaped it like clay without ever glancing – after that there was a well of hunger, and Gods Below but the power they granted us. Raised stones melted away into liquid strings like festival banners, spinning into roiling winds of Night. With four hands we sculpted the stone prayer to long-dead gods of Arcadia and usurped the old sacraments like thieving masons in the garments of priests. Two tall pillars, covered with words that were a godless prayer in a dead tongue, were molded and carved. And atop them dropped down the closing of the threshold, a stone like door being slammed shut. Woven from the scabs and burns, sealed in rock where the nature of it could be obscured. Power would fade in time, we knew. But the hurt, the scar? Some transgressions had weight by virtue of being what they were. This would hold for a very, very long time.

After an eternity we half-fell to the ground, Masego’s fingers clumsily leaving my staff as I used it to steers us away from tumbling down like drunks. We still crouched, exhausted and exhilarated, as the sense robbed from us by the scale of what we’d wielded and built slowly began to trickle back into our minds. We’d felt something like this once before, in Dormer. There’d been more of us, though, Adjutant and Archer as well. We’d marched forward into the heart of the enemy, bearing the story of the Woe like a banner. This had been a smaller thing, I thought, the Queen of Lost and Found and the Hierophant crafting a miracle out of power and pride. But, Gods… it’d been like a drink of the sweetest of wines, like honey on the soul, and some part of me almost wept that it’d ended.

“Look, Cat,” Masego croaked out. “Look.”

I followed his trembling finger and beheld the gate of stone we had raised. The runes inscribed on the two great pillars that I knew, just knew, were twenty feet tall and twenty apart were no as gibberish to my eye where before I had known them as if they were my native tongue. But the thrum of them, the crawling flow of power going up them through the barrow like they were rooted there, it sang to me. Of the Twilight just beyond, a mere smear of blood on stone away. And all that power was kept bound, kept locked, by the rough and massive stone pressing down – and the scars it held within, like a secret under seal.

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

And it was, in its own terrible way. We stayed there in the snow for a long time, at the heart of a circle of raised stones we’d unmade and forged anew, a barren barrow-top caressed by the winds. We stayed there until dawn crested in the distance, the faraway lights that’d be the final touch on our work.

“’lo and behold,” I murmured.

The first rays of the sun struck the stone and, as if reflecting from the spiralling runes and stretches of ancient symbols, spun like a dust whirl between the tall pillars. Just long enough a glimpse could be had of the realm beyond, of the endless starlit sky and the shady hills that could be journeyed to any journey’s end.

“There’s always something more, isn’t there?” Masego whispered. “Another horizon, another wonder. Another threshold to cross into deeper unknowns.”

It was his own truth he spoke, I thought, but in I heard the echo of Indrani’s as well. But what was restlessness in her, wanderlust, in him was instead awe.

“We’re not done yet, Masego,” I said. “We’ve bled to get where we stand, and when we come out on the other side we’ll not be the same people who began the journey. But we are so very far from done.”

He nodded, slowly

“Tomorrow will be ours,” the Hierophant agreed, tone tranquil the way old and dark waters were tranquil. “And if there are any who would deny us that, we will Wrest it from them with bloody hands.”

The word sang, and the world with it, as my old friend found the truth of third aspect and we sat silent in the warm light of dawn.

Chapter 70: Dawning

“For light blinds just as surely as the dark, and hatred binds just as surely as love.”
– Sherehazad the Seer, Taghreb poet

I woke up to the feeling of bony elbows digging into my ribs. It surprised me not because I’d forgotten that Indrani and I had ended up in bed – I still felt pleasurably sore from those exertions, so it’d have been a shame to – but because she was still here. In my bed, though for once she was only mildly hogging the covers. The gift of awareness Sve Noc had granted me, I sometimes suspected without strictly meaning to, had me mindful that dawn was a little more than an hour away. It’d not been a long night of sleep and to be honest I still felt a little drunk, but worse come to worse I’d take a nap come the afternoon. I might need to whatever my intentions, if raising a gate into Twilight was as exhausting as I suspected it would be. My mind recoiled at the thought of it, for I would need the guidance of the Sisters to see it done and that was rarely pleasant or gentle thing. I stretched and yawned to keep my thoughts moving instead of lingering on the coming unpleasantness, sliding out of the blanket and sitting on the edge of the bed. Indrani began to stir awake and I smoothed away a puzzled frown. I’d wondered if our arrangement would be set aside until she’d resolved whatever she was going to resolve with Masego, but truth be told I’d not been entirely surprised we’d ended up in bed after the rough few days we’d had.

Honesty compelled me to admit I’d not needed much convincing when she’d offered, either.

That she’d stay afterwards, though, that had me wondering. Not at whether or not this was blooming into something more romantic in nature – for all that Akua had once claimed I had difficulty separating bedplay from attachment, Indrani and I had always been very clear that neither of us was likely to ever fall in love with the other – but at the nature of whatever accord she was trying to reach with Zeze. I doubted a man raised by the Warlock and an incubus would be all that inclined to give a single thought to what people might or might not consider proper, but I disliked not knowing what I was involved in. Even if only peripherally. That was on a personal note, anyway. As the nominal leader of the Woe, there were concerns about what all this fumbling might mean for our little band. Though in all fairness, I grimly thought, if it’s such a great concern I probably shouldn’t be sleeping with Archer. I bet Black would never have – huh, no, he most definitely had. With Ranger, of all women. I cast a speculative look at Indrani as she opened her eyes. Comparisons between the Woe and the Calamities had begun before the Queen of Summer had even granted us the name, so if I was to be my generations equivalent of Black and Indrani of Ranger? Ugh. That did feel a little sordid.

Indrani took my lingering gaze for something else entirely, and just so happened to stretch in a way that pushed back the covers and arched up her breasts.  Pure coincidence, no doubt. Well. It would have been rude not to appreciate the sights, really, if you thought about it. Best not to mention that earlier thought about equivalences, I decided. Archer was not, as a rule, all that opposed to sordidness. She did like to rub my nose in it, though, so no need to hand her a full quiver.

“Don’t suppose I could convince you to stay in bed a little longer,” Indrani said, voice still husky from sleep.

And perhaps something else as well, though that might just be my continuing look at the smooth expanse of brown skin laid out before me.

“Any more of that and we’ll break the cot,” I smiled. “Wasn’t made for two people, much less that sort of… exercise.”

“Wouldn’t be as an issue if I tied your wrists again,” Indrani airily said.

Now that was just unfair. And surely I could spare a bit of time before leaving the tent. Or perhaps half my time. Unfortunately, my awareness of looming dawn made it clear that was not the case despite my body’s insistence otherwise.

“I’ll need time to prepare the grounds for the ritual,” I reluctantly said.

She sighed, though from the sly look in her eye I’d say my hesitation had been the prize she’d been after from the start. Indrani always turned pixie, after a shared night, as if the shedding of clothes brought out her vainest sort of guiles.

“Boring,” she said, waving a hand in dismissal. “Still, I’m already up. No point in going back to bed alone.”

I snorted. Yeah, she hadn’t been expecting me to accept then. It was still night out, and so it was not all that difficult to spin black flames around the stone basin to the side of my bed until the water within it was warm. I took the cloth to the side of it and began by washing my face, though I ceased when I felt Indrani looking at me.

“Not happening,” I said.

I swept my unbound hair back over my shoulder as I spoke, aware from how frequently Indrani liked to grip it that she had something of a fascination there. I didn’t have curves to display, unlike my friend, but I was hardly unattractive to her. It was my arms, though, that she was looking at.

“You’re getting wiry,” Archer said, sounding fascinated. “Haven’t seen your body change that much since the Folly.”

Had I gained muscles? Strange, since I wasn’t walking around in plate or sparring regularly anymore. Some of my surprise must have shown on my face, as she continued to speak.

“You were bulkier when we first met,” Indrani said. “Warrior-framed. You look more like a hunter now, made for the long stride instead of the shield wall.”

“You’re feeling rather poetic this morning,” I drily said.

“Been a while since slept in the same bed,” she smiled. “Don’t get used to it.”

I wet the cloth again, for the wetness had cooled, and wiped the lower half of my face to hide my hesitation. Ah, well. If I waited for either Indrani or Masego to tell me what was going on, I’d still be waiting on my deathbed.

“Should,” I delicately began, “I get used to this?”

I flicked a few fingers at the messy bed we’d been sharing. Her expression was difficult to parse, and not for the lack of light in the tent: a sliver of Night had seen to that.

“Not sure yet,” she said. “But I did tell you, back in Great Lotow – that is that, and this is this.”

For you, maybe, I thought. I wasn’t sure exactly what she was trying to have with Masego, but any manner of pairing would rather imply he could have an opinion as well. It wasn’t that I expected Zeze to suddenly make like an Alamans priest and condemn the pleasures of the flesh as wayward. Mores aside, he was not above those himself: me might not have any interest in bedplay, but I’d seen him dig into fresh apple tarts like a starving orc would a pig. He’d not been overweight when we first met without reason. Still, I honestly had no idea of what he’d want of a relationship – any relationship – that wasn’t friendship or family. Didn’t help that I’d never heard him express a desire for one. His fathers had been married and a closed circle, as far as I knew, and among the rest of the band of Named who’d raised him Sabah had been happily wed and mother while Black had his… rapport with the Lady of the Lake, though I’d been made to understand that they only met every few years for a short span. Gods, none of us had been raised in a traditional family, had we? Orphan, diabolist and incubus, Ranger. Vivienne’s mother had been assassinated by the Empire, after all. Although, now that I thought about it, Hakram’s childhood had not been all that unusual by orc standards. He’d simply been an ill-fit for his clan, and later the College.

Hells, that might actually go some way in explaining why he tended to be the most stable of us.

“Still, I’ll not be offended if our company lapses until you have your house in order,” I told her.

She ought to know already, but sometimes it was best to have those things stated outright.

“And who will you work out your tensions with, then?” she grinned. “I suppose our shady friend might be up to scratching that itch, but you’ll have to train her up to snuff first.”

I frowned.

“That’s thrice now that people have commented on that,” I said.

Hakram had asked me directly, and though last night Aisha’s question had been a great deal more circumspect it’d been of the same vein.

“Come off it,” Archer said. “It’s hardly the first time I’ve jested about the Mighty Shadow Lass’ neckline plunging whenever she thinks you’re looking. No need to be troubled over it, Cat: she’s a looker, and invites the looking. It’s hardly a sin to accept the invitation now and then.”

On occasion it felt otherwise, though that voice was the same that reminded me there could be no just reason for allowing the Doom of Liesse to breathe free air. That a hundred thousand souls demanded, if not lasting torment, at least as painful an execution as I could carry out. I could not entirely articulate why it was worse that I found her attractive added to the rest, but it’d always had that taste against my tongue. That I’d grown to like, and in some ways even trust, Akua Sahelian was worse still. The fate I meant for her was just in the ways that mattered, I truly did believe, but I suspected many would disagree. And so the wheel spun, the endless loop of wondering if I being swayed or played or if the whispers were black and brutal vengeance indignant at being denied. I’d wondered these wonderings before, and no truth had come of the spinning. Which had me glancing thoughtfully at Archer, curious if that’d all been a skillful to steer the conversation away from a subject she was not yet ready to speak of. Given her enduring reluctance to simply state as much – for which I blamed Ranger, who’d beaten into her head while young that admitting anything of the sort was naked weakness – I wouldn’t put it past her. Best let those sleeping dogs lie for now, then.

“You can’t lecture me about sin, you wench. Who’s the priestess here?” I lightly replied.

That devolved into petty bickering, not that there’d been any doubt, and we washed up and dressed in quick order after that. Hakram was sleeping, for once, but we still found a fire going outside my tent and a pair of legionaries awaiting by it with breakfast. We chatted over the porridge as cuts from last night’s meal – horse, by the smell of it – were put over flame. The two were lieutenants, one from General Istrid’s old legion and the other one of mine since Marchford though she’d first seen combat when Winter struck at my demesne. The lieutenant from the Sixth was an old Soninke and quite obviously a bastard from some noble line by the cultured, highborn manner of speaking. They were both respectful but neither gazed at me with the near-awe I got from so many young legionaries these days. It was both a great deal more comfortable and made conversation easier. Archer left early after stealing half my horse meat, alleging she was going to have a look at Masego.

“Bring him, if he’s awake,” I said.

Pilgrim might not like it, but I was less than charitably inclined towards the man right now. As for the Sisters, unless they wanted to be present at every gate-crafting then the knowledge of how to craft it would have to be passed and I could think of none more fitting than Hierophant to hold it. Their last talk had, uh, not been all that civil but no grudge should be kept over that. They’d acted like carrion and so been treated as such, and it was doubtful Masego would keep a grudge on his side. I felt Sve Noc’s attention, brought by the thought pertaining to them, and their silence was implicit agreement. They gained nothing from being at odds with Hierophant, though I doubted it was writ in their fates they’d be bosom friends anytime soon. I finished breaking my fast, thanked the officers and claimed a steaming cup of the herbal concoction Adjutant had arranged to be waiting for me before I began my trek back up the slope of the barrow. My fondness for the place had grown with the use I’d made of it, but Sve Noc and Akua were all adamant: the heart of the old Mavian prayers was where the boundaries were thinnest. It’d be significantly easier to make a passage there, though sentimentality aside I’d had more practical objections.

The raised stones would make it more difficult for large amounts of people to pass through, and this gate into the Twilight Ways was meant for my armies to use. The footpaths up the slope were difficult, which meant there were no roads for supply carts and siege engines to feasibly employ. Besides, unless we knocked down the stones it’d be effectively impossible to take them through. My advisory triumvirate of assorted crows and shade had uncertain when I’d asked them whether after the passage was made it’d unmake it to bring down the stones. Akua insisted that it was a ‘boundary echo’ that made the place appropriate, and so it wouldn’t matter, but Andronike had disagreed. Something about an indent having a particular shape, and not existing without that shape. I was a decade of schooling in sorcery short to understand Akua’s opinion and short an apotheosis to properly understand Andronike’s. Still, even if the entire thing proved unworkable without the stones then at least we’d have a working pathway into Twilight for small groups and schematics for the second one to be made. The wards and workings around the tumulus had been removed, so there was nothing keeping the cold bite of the night wind away as I limped up the hill. I drew on Night to chase away the cold, though it was more an illusion cast on myself than true warmth.

I’d been able to feel her through the Night even before calling on it, so my face betrayed no surprise when after passing between the circle stones I found Akua Sahelian waiting atop the barrow. She’d eschewed dresses for a heavy yet elegant cloak line with fox fur, its deep red tones perfectly married to the heavy velour robes she wore below. She did not turn as I limped forward, nor when I came to stand by her side and sipped at the herbal brew in my hands.

“Deep thoughts?” I said. “I’ve a copper or two to spare for them.”

She did not immediately reply. Unlike with the drow, I could not taste of Akua’s emotions through the Night. The Sisters had told me it was because she partook of their bounty only through me, and the nature of that tie was older than the touch of the Night itself. It’d been inherited through the Mantle of Woe and Winter’s last gasps, which made things rather more complicated. Amusingly enough, in some ways my patron goddesses were as much in the dark as I: there was no precedent to any of this, and no understanding of sorcery or power was so comprehensive that this extraordinary an unfolding would be perfectly grasped. A reminder, perhaps, of the unbridgeable gap between gods and Gods. The shade’s eyes were not on me or even the dry riverbed of what had once been a place halfway to Arcadia: she was, instead, gazing at the now empty firepit that’d been dug yesterday.

“Do you remember Barika Unonti?” Akua suddenly asked.

Truth be told, for all their high birth and purported importance most of the then-Heiress’ helpers had half-faded from my memory. Sneers and tittering and arrogance could only have so many flavours without my keeping them in my remembrance only as some Wasteland brat who’d insisted on crossing me until death ensued. Barika, though? Her I remembered. The way I’d broken her finger, the first time I attended court in the Tower, and been punished for that mistake. More for the way she’d died. Convinced she was untouchable, even after helping Akua open a Lesser Breach straight into Liesse. I’d put a crossbow bolt in her eye as she knelt, and she’d died before she could even be surprised. And that death I’d made into salt to rub into Akua’s wounds that day, when I’d ordered her buried in consecrated grounds so that nothing of her could ever be brought back from the afterlife.

“I do,” I said. “She taught me a valuable lesson.”

“Looking back now,” Akua said, “I suspect she might have been my friend. Or as close to that as our understanding of the sentiment allowed.”

And still, I thought, the young Heiress had left her behind as an illusory decoy knowing I might very kill her for what was about to be unleashed. Part of me scorned her for that, though another wondered of the cold choices I’d made sending some of those I loved into battle and wondered if the difference there was not shallower than I’d wish. I did not answer. In part for my role in how Barika Unonti had died, no matter how worthy of that death she had been, but also in a moment of wonder. I’d suspected, even back then, that of all her followers Unonti was likely the only one she had any degree of real fondness for beyond that which usefulness garnered. It’d been years since I killed the girl, much less thought of her, but her mistress remembered her still. It was a small thing, and fragile. And it tasted like triumph to my tongue, for the fate I had promised Akua Sahelian was beginning to take shape.

“I used to think you lacked the knack for cruelty, did you know?” the shade smiled. “Oh, you’ve a way with the striking: to evoke fear or loyalty with an act and turn of phrase. Yet I always found your ways to be… clear. Lacking that touch of malice my people drink along with mother’s milk.”

A moment passed, wind stirring both our long cloaks.

“But not anymore,” I said.

“Last night,” Akua pensively said, “might be the single most cruel act I was ever subjected to.”

I did not protest. Because it was true. Because this was the sound of bile being bled out of tainted veins.

“I cannot even muster rancor, Catherine,” she said. “For it was a misery entirely of my own making, and exquisitely brought besides.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” I said.

She laughed, bleakly.

“Doesn’t it?” Akua said. “For I was allowed, for just a moment, the taste of something I might have had. And oh it was a heady thing, my queen. A place by your hearth, partaking of the warmth and belonging that radiates from it. And though they love you and have long despised me, your favour alone was enough for me to be made welcome. For them to…”

She turned to me with burning golden eyes.

“Do you not understand that the laughs should have been empty?” she hissed. “That it should have been artifice, at show put on for purpose. I am a better liar than any of them, Catherine Foundling, than any of you. I know the face of truth. After years of enmity all it took for them to make room for me by the fire was a word from you. I could have had all of this years ago.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “you could have.”

“The closest I have to match to last night is a girl I sent to die,” Akua bitterly said. “You’ve devised a poison so sweet I will crave the taste of it.”

I looked at her, in the dark before the dawn, and knew that in that moment either I had been made of fool or I had won. Once more I chose silence, knowing that the slightest hint of what might be taken as gloat would send the entire delicate edifice tumbling down.

We were silent still, when the others arrived.

Chapter 69: Repute

“Assertion that the end justifies the means in in truth embrace of the Heavens, for it is they who will decide the Last Dusk and so all justice then derives from them.”
– Hektor the Ecclesiast, Atalante preacher

It was a little unsettling to see that even without the Name my teacher could still shed the face of Amadeus of the Green Stretch and become the Black Knight. A single sentence and humanity slid down his face like morning dew, leaving behind a cold-eyed thing weighing the necessity of harsh violences to visit. The Grey Pilgrim, on the other hand, did not look surprised. Troubled, the lines on his face deepening with weariness, but not surprised at all. The blue-eyed old man cast a glance at Black, fingers tightening with something like concern at what he saw, but the faint weight that was the attention of the Choir of Mercy scrutinizing him was batted away like overbold fingers. Perched atop the same stone where the Intercessor had sat, two great and shadow-feathered crows gazing down with merciless eyes. They had no claim on my father, I knew, and he was the kind of man who would rather die straight-backed than accept patronage. The extended warding had been offered as a courtesy to me, their thoughts whispered against mine, though all three of us knew they’d have mourned losing out on an opportunity to take a swipe at a Choir without starting a celestial war.

I breathed in smoke, disconcerted by the way it was warm and barely touched when it felt like that pipe had been lit for so long. Masego had told me, once, that there was no such thing as time: only the perception of it, and entropy’s ruining touch. I couldn’t quite grasp that, truth be told, for even entropy’s encroachment must be measured by something. Yet the disparity between the acrid smoke against my tongue, the weight of the dragonbone pipe still mostly-full, and the span of the conversation I’d had with the Wandering Bard? They’d lent me a glimpse, perhaps, at what he meant. Had I still been Winter’s Queen, such a sliver of understanding would have been turned into peril and artifice without batting an eye. As the priestess to dark goddesses, instead I hoarded it away the way I did so many other half-espied revelations and the secrets they led to. I had little wisdom of my own to offer, but I was not above passing through that which had been bestowed upon me by wiser souls.

“That is an accusation not without gravity,” the Peregrine said.

He flicked a glance at Sve Noc, as if he’d felt their intervention, though what he saw there had him recoil from the unpleasantness. The cold night went colder still, and as the stars above grew more radiant from the wroth of the Ophanim the Sisters cawed out in mockery – though their touch against my mind was agitated, as the attention of an irate Choir of Mercy felt like a burn on their godhead. To my eye, there were times and places where Sve Noc would cow the Ophanim should it come to a contest of might. After they’d taken a petty shot at Mercy’s own favourite son was not one of them, though. I cleared my throat, intent on distracting the angels by distracting their champion.

“You don’t look all that surprised, though,” I mused. “Something you’d like to say, Tariq?”

The white-haired hero turned his attention to me, and as expected the weight of Sve Noc’s chiding began to wane with the turn. You’re welcome, I uncharitably thought. Now please cease screwing with the hero I’m trying to convince, if you would. Komena cawed in irritation at my gall, though Andronike signified amusement. I forced myself to ignore the distracting dance of their thoughts against mine, for this was too important a talk to attend to it only half-listening.

“That though you’ve been known to have… broad an understanding of what constitutes as such an attempt, I have no difficulty believing there was dispute,” the Peregrine said. “Younger Bestowed might defer to my decision to take a chance on you out of respect, even if disagreeing, but the Bard is both my elder and greater in the service of the Heavens. She would not feel bound to yield to my decisions.”

I breathed out and did not clench my fingers, for it would have been an obvious tell of my sharply risen anger. A broad fucking understanding, was it? Coming from a man who’d tried to send me to my death or shackling down the spine of a redemption story, that was a little rich. He could try to pretend he’d kept his hands clean all he wanted, in the hands of a Named a story was no less murderous a tool than a knife.

“You admit to the likeliness of an ally’s attack and in the same breath castigate her for having a dainty disposition,” Black mildly said. “Come now, Pilgrim, if you’re in the business of betrayal at least have the decency to display some skill at it.”

He looked like a person again, and not a monster with a mask of clay, but beneath the calm affability he’d painted over his face I could see the blades were still bare. I’d seen him smile just as pleasantly before he Spoke and ordered Akua to nail her own hand to a table.

“I scheme no treachery, Carrion Lord,” the old hero bit back. “And jeering at me will not serve whatever purpose you seek from it.”

“And he’s going to stop anyway, isn’t he?” I sharply said.

Wondering, beneath the sharpness, if he was being so acerbic with the Pilgrim for the very purpose of my reining him in or if he was simply enjoying mocking a hero. Knowing Black, I grimly thought, it was likely to be both.

“If I must,” he nonchalantly shrugged. “Shall we then return to the Peregrine simultaneously absolving himself of responsibility for the actions of his ally while also refusing to denounce her? ‘Twas a charming bit of rhetoric. Add a few insincere protestations of friendship and it’ll be like I never left Praes.”

Ouch. That one had to sting a bit, especially when taken by someone whose understanding of the Wasteland would be through the latest horrors mighty enough to leave Praes and become a peril for everyone else.

“I do not condone attack, if attack was had,” the Grey Pilgrim sharply replied. “Do not speak for me, much less with viper claims. Yet neither will I pretend that all servants of Above will follow me in making bargain with the Black Queen. As for the Wandering Bard, her Bestowal forbids as much as it allows. Behaving with grace will ensure she neither wants nor can act against any of you.”

“She’s not a heroine, Pilgrim,” I said. “I’ve seen her make pacts on behalf of Below. If you don’t believe me, I’ll even ask the Sisters to let your little winged friends have a look at me to ascertain the veracity of what I saw.”

That either the Ophanim or Tariq Fleetfoot himself would feel entitled to have a look at my bloody soul simply so that my words would be given due weight was infuriating, but that was the nature of the game. Trust was ever in short supply, in matters such as this. Especially when accusations were being thrown around.

“So have I,” the Grey Pilgrim calmly said.

I went still with utter surprise. What?

“I suspect I am a great deal more learned in what the duties of the Wandering Bard entail than you, Queen Catherine,” the old man continued. “An envoy does not decide the substance of the offer they carry, and some of the bargains the Bard was sent to offer were dark indeed.”

“You know she has a greater game, then,” I pressed.

“I know that across the faces she has worn she has warred against Keter wherever there was war to be had, and ever done good over evil whenever the choice was given to her,” Tariq said. “That the Gods Above do not have sole claim on her works does not mean she is not a heroine.”

“The moment before this conversation began, she dragged me out for an aside,” I flatly said. “And she-”

“It does not matter what was said, Queen Catherine,” the Pilgrim told me. “For you were being tested, as I have seen others Bestowed be and once was myself. By choosing rectitude over baseness, you emerged unharmed and proved you were not a menace that must be seen to.”

“So you’re agreeing, then, that the Wandering Bard just took a swing at me,” I slowly said.

He frowned.

“She would have if you were less than you are,” he said, as if it was evident. “You were not, and so this was merely confirmation.”

Black laughed, softly, the sound of it like cool silk.

“See, Catherine, there was nothing to it,” he smiled, sharp and cold. “The ordeal would only have stung were you a heretic, which makes wanton use of it perfectly permissible. Indeed, how dare any of us question the Wandering Bard’s right to pursue our demise whenever the whim takes her? How very impious.”

“He’s being a bit of a shit right now,” I said, “so it rather pains me to agree with him, Tariq. Even if you trust in the Bard – and Gods, I’d like to know what you have on her for that to be the case – then how the Hells does that translate to her getting the right to pull things like this? Nobody here is your fucking vassal, Pilgrim, much less Above’s. This wasn’t a test, it was a fucking act of war. And you’re defending her right to have done it.”

“I trust in a woman I have seen dedicated a lifetime to carrying out good deeds wherever and whenever she could,” the Pilgrim said. “I have known her to do this since before either of you were born, and in her deeds she has not spared heroes when they courted disaster. I do not know what she intended by acting as she did tonight, nor do I blindly presume it was righteous. Nor will I, just as blindly, accept your belief that she is… by your words, some manner of sinister immortal schemer?”

“You’ve seen part of her work,” I flatly said. “I’ve seen others, and they’re hardly pleasant. Her enmity with the Dead King is more or less the only thing I take as a given with her. She was part of the Lone Swordsman’ band, before he called down Contrition on Liesse. She was in the Free Cities before it all went to shit there, and she had a hand in Akua’s Folly as well – though the exact nature of what she did remains unclear.”

“And so she fought the occupation of Callow through every means at her disposal, when the rest of the servants of the Heavens forsook their duty to the fallen kingdom,” Tariq kindly said. “I’ve no doubt her actions were harmful to you or others beloved of you, but that does not make her sinister – only a foe you never evened your scores with.”

This wasn’t going to work, I thought. And it was why the Bard had been so utterly unworried about my talking with Tariq: she’d known she had decades if not half a century of a solid record with the man that’d weight against whatever I said. And the more I made this about the places where I’d fought her, the more this became a personal grudge between myself and his old friend. Bringing in Black’s run-ins with her would make it even worse, given that the Pilgrim would wholeheartedly endorse the decimation of the Calamities and the break-up of the partnerships that’d kept Malicia’s reign so strong. My teacher had mentioned she’d openly admitted to allowing a heroine to die so that Sabah’s death would be set in stone by a story, but she’d also likely been fucking with his head at the time so that his break with myself and Malicia burned all involved. And even if he believed us… well, Captain had killed more than a dozen heroes over the span of her career. From a practical Good perspective, trading a young heroine for the death of an old monster and the first crack in the Calamities would be worth it. I’d been counting on the shock of the Intercessor having acted on Below’s behalf to create the Night to jar him into re-examining their history, but there’d been no surprise. Which left me only with a second-hand memory in which the Bard had still outright advised annihilation over taking the bargain.

Shit. She’d covered all her angles there, hadn’t she? It made sense. The Grey Pilgrim had been Above’s foremost agent in the west of Calernia for at least half a century now, by sheer dint of the stories he’d have been involved in they would have encountered each other quite a bit. Plenty of time to work on him, which once more made sense considering how influential a man he’d been headed towards being for a very long time. No, it would have been absurd for the Intercessor not to foster strong ties with him: she was too old and too fair a hand at weaving to have left such an obvious loose end unattended. And to have attended to it in a manner that I couldn’t feasibly shake right now, I grimly thought. I had interests in common with the Peregrine, maybe even some shared principles, but also a red history that’d turned amicable only very recently. Hells, I’d killed the woman that’d probably been the closest thing he had to a friend without wings not even a week ago. Truce and my begetting the Liesse Accords was not enough to have him cut ties with the Bard. It’d be like going at an iron chain with a butter knife: how long had she spent to ensure the strength of those ties? How much time had been… Oh, oh. No, I’d been thinking about this all wrong, hadn’t I? I’d learned a few tricks in the art of bargains and how to wag my tongue instead of my sword-hand, but in the end I was not more silver-tongued than the silvertongue.

It’d been laughable of me to even try, because once more I was letting the Bard pick the face of our struggle.

The Intercessor had invested time and effort and trustworthiness in her relationship with the Grey Pilgrim, but while he trusted her he did not seem to defer to her outright. When he defended her actions, it was as an act of trust. Trust she’d earned over decades, and I’d tried to fight with respect mere days old. I’d been so fixated on removing the Wandering Bard from this entirely I’d missed the obvious: that the ties went both ways. That if she was relying on relationships she’d forged in the past to have a finger in every pie, then she had to live up to the terms she had set to those relationships. And considering the high esteem in which the Grey Pilgrim apparently held her, the standards she’d set could not be low. So if I made a reasonable request born out of reasonable – if, in the Pilgrim’s eyes, still unwarranted – fears then unless she had a damned good reason then she couldn’t go against it. No, wouldn’t be enough, I thought as I parsed out what doors it closed for her in truth. Relying on the decades of trust she’d be able to make apologetic noises but get away with it by simple virtue of producing one of various skeleton keys: it was necessary to beat the Dead King, allowing it would have caused suffering in years to come, had to prevent the rise of a great Evil. The Pilgrim would be angry, maybe, but the expectation would still be there that as long as the damage wasn’t too bad for the greater good I’d have to grin and fucking bear it. On the other hand, was I good? They couldn’t both treat me like Triumphant incipient and expect me to be their own personal Choir of Endurance. I’d surprised heroes pleasantly over the last few years because their expectations of me were low.

Well, they were certainly the easiest kind to live up to. Feigning indignation here would be risky, for though Tariq’s inability to understand that one could be good without being Good had left him strikingly naïve in some ways he was frighteningly perceptive in others. Thankfully, I wouldn’t have to. My jaw clenched and I did not have to look far for the anger. I’d stowed away the wroth, chosen the benefits of a clear head over it, but it had not disappeared. How many times was I supposed to let the whip crack against my back because my betters were not willing to see to their own? How many times was I supposed to let it go, that to kill me or mine was a virtue but that daring to crawl out of the ash alive – much less fight back – was a sin? I blew out the wakeleaf smoke, and the bitterness that lingered against my tongue was not only from the herb. There were parts of my father’s madness that I would never make my own, but some that’d always rung true: in the end, in their eyes we were not equal. And we’d never be people until we followed their rules and spoke their prayers, until we’d admitted that their way was right and ours was wrong.

“For small slights,” I hissed, “long prices.”

The Pilgrim’s blue eyes widened in startlement, and he raised his hands in appeasement.

“Your Majesty-” he began.

“Yes,” I coldly said. “That is who I am, Peregrine. The Black Queen. The Arch-heretic of the East. It seems you have forgot how we came to stand here on this night. Shall I help you remember?”

“There is no need for threats,” the Pilgrim evenly said.

And yet I could see it in his eyes, the rising awareness of who it was he was dealing with. Remember, you arrogant old priest, I thought. Remember that you did not take me for Triumphant come again without reason and then curb your fucking priestly tongue.

“You sing the praises of she who strikes at me and declare her worthy of passing judgement upon my works,” I mocked. “You, Tariq Fleetfoot? By what right?”

I grinned, sharp and vicious.

“You are not victor here on this field,” I said. “You are the defeated, breathing only by the grace of the aspect I ripped out of you with my own hand. Your plots I shattered, your armies I routed and your own Choir stepped aside when faced with the glare of my purpose. And now you strut about like a green boy, arrogating the rights to lecture me when it is only my mercy that spared your throat my boot.”

“This is not the talk of an ally,” the Grey Pilgrim warningly said.

“You do not behave like one,” I snarled. “And if you can only conceive of amity as vassalage, then this truce is at an end.”

“You have sacrificed much to deliver it,” the Peregrine reminded me flatly. “And through such savage actions you would end any chance of the Accords being signed.”

I laughed, full-throated and cold.

“You think I’d give you a choice?” I smiled. “You think I chose peace because I fear the other path? I’ll not fight the Grand Alliance, Pilgrim. I’ll leave and let you die like whimpering dogs, alone in the dark.”

I took a step forward, limping, and he drew back.

“I’ll return only when I have the full might of the East behind me in array of war, and when I come back wherever the veil of night falls all will have a choice,” I snarled. “You can take up a sword and join my war against Keter, or you can do it as a walking corpse. If treaties and alliances fail, I’ll take steel and fire to the Dead King as Dread Empress, Victorious.”

His eyes went cold.

“You will find me waiting at the end of that road,” the Grey Pilgrim said.

“At the end?” I grinned. “You’ll be the first damned thing I step on, Peregrine.”

He looked at me searchingly, looking for lie or weakness, and found none. Harsh as my words had been, Gods but the truth of them simmered in my belly. I had chosen peace, but I was not beholden to it. And if the only way through was crowned in dread, then so be it.

“What do you want, Black Queen?” the old man finally asked.

“WANDERING BARD,” I screamed out into the night. “INTERCESSOR.”

I waited a beat, to see if she would appear. She did not. No matter, it would be enough to attract her gaze.

“You spoke for that faceless thing, Peregrine,” I said. “And so now you answer for her as well. If you shelter and safeguard her, then you are responsible for her actions: if she schemes against me or mine, if she moves against truce or Accords, then I will take it as betrayal from both of you.”

My jaw clenched.

“That will not be without consequence.”

And I would tell every soul willing to listen. I’d tell the First Prince, I’d tell Princess Rozala, I’d tell the Blood and every hero willing to hear me shout from behind a blood wall. But most of all, I’d just told the Pilgrim himself. From now on, if she acted against me she was knowingly fucking over the Accords and the truce that was the only thing keeping Procer standing in the war on Keter. If she pulled something, she now had to justify it to Tariq as something more important than the death of several million people. Silvertongue or not, there wasn’t much that would even those scales. This was, I ruefully thought, the principles of the Accords used once more: the practical realities of Creation being used to restrain its stories. Ties went both ways, didn’t they? Sure, if the prize was worth it the Bard would make her move anyway. But she’d lose the Pilgrim, and when she did strike I fully intended on being ready for her. If you’re without ties, you have no strings to pull, I thought. If you keep them, though, then a strong enough tug on the strings makes it a thin line between puppet and puppeteer. Tariq looked tired and grieved, but I was out of pity to spare.

“At dawn I’ll begin work on the gates into the Twilight Ways for the armies,” I said. “Be there or not, as you wish.”

I began hiking my way back up before he answered, intent on returning to the soothing warmth of fire and booze and good company. And before the end of the night, I thought, there would be a need to speak with Masego. He’d get whatever he needed to test his Quartered Seasons theory, even if I ended up cutting corners elsewhere for the allocated resources.

Deicide, sadly, was unlikely to come on the cheap.

Chapter 68: Apropos

“A good liar finds every lie a fetter.”
– Arlesite saying

It shouldn’t be possible, I thought. How did this somehow not qualify as direct intervention? I was looking at myself standing between the Peregrine and the Carrion Lord, smoke coming up from my pipe hanging still in the air like it’d been frozen stiff. The Bard had what, stolen my soul out of my body under the nose of Sve Noc and slowed the flow of time to a crawl? Considering anything sorcerous touching upon time was known to be requiring the kind of power that’d break a kingdom to steal away a mere heartbeat this had to be a Name thing, but even if that proved true this was… My fingers clenched. No, Cat, you damned fool, I grimly thought. You’re looking for a heavy-handed miracle when this one’s the reigning queen of smoke and mirrors. I’d stood here before, though I’d been brought into such a folded moment by another old monster’s will. The difference was that the Dead King preferred titanic scenes – an old crusade assaulting the walls of Keter, the chaotic field some had already taken to calling the Princes’ Graveyard – while the Intercessor had subtler tastes. A lighter touch that hinted at powers she likely did not possess, but who could know for sure? Some sardonic jest at my expense, or an attempt to rattle me?

“Going in circles, are we?” the Bard drawled. “That’s fine. We got time, Cat.”

This was an illusion, I thought, or perhaps a memory made into something both more and less. Yet it was exquisitely woven, I’d admit, for the silhouette of the Intercessor perched atop the old stone was flawlessly touched by the cast of starlight that could not truly exist. The shoddy lute on her lap, more driftwood than instrument, was as much one of her signatures as the shining silver flask in her hand. This thing of many faces and a hundredfold in years, there were some who might call it a god. One that sat astride the boundary between the Gods and Creation, like some fickle high priestess of inscrutable designs. And for all that Kairos Theodosian had whispered in my ear secrets of her nature, there was still much more that remained unknown to me.

“So it seems,” I finally said. “What name do you happen to go by these days, Almorava?”

“Marguerite of Baillons, at your service,” the Bard said, bowing foppishly.

“Does it not get tedious?” I curiously asked. “Trading names and faces so often?”

“You’d be surprised what people can get used to,” the Intercessor said, then looked me up and down. “Or maybe not. You’ve had an interesting few years, haven’t you?”

“Same as you,” I calmly replied. “Heard you a little spot of trouble down south. Tyrant’s a tricky one, eh?”

“You get a particularly sharp one every few centuries,” Marguerite nonchalantly admitted. “Mind you, that boy’s not making it to thirty.”

I don’t think he’s trying all that hard to, I thought. I did not voice it, though, for though Kairos Theodosian was my foe and had betrayed me many a time – and would again, given occasion – I would still choose him over the Intercessor every time.

“Is this a warning, then?” I mildly asked. “That I need to fall in line if I want to make it to that age?”

She laughed, dark-haired and blue-eyed and looking frightfully young for what I knew her to be. Barely out of girlhood, and on such an ancient creature that was almost obscene.

“Shit, Cat, you think this is what – some kind of intimidation racket?” she grinned. “Behave now, young girl. No more slaughtering your enemies or I’ll slap your buttocks with a wooden branch.”

Her tone was gently mocking, though her face turned serious quickly enough.

“This is a favour I’m doing you, Catherine,” the Wandering Bard said. “Because you’re trying real hard to do some good and it might even work. If you stop getting in your own way, just the once.”

Ah. So we were starting with the friendly, smiling face then. Like I’d swallow that.

“I do make it a point of always believing ambiguous immortal creatures without question, when they assure me they’re doing me a favour,” I prettily smiled. “So, do I need to sign something before you take my soul or will a spoken bargain be enough?”

I winked exaggeratedly.

“For the first of my three wishes-” I began.

“You really are a terrible asshole,” the Intercessor said, almost admiring. “Hells, I bet even Nessie gets a little vexed at times and he’s gotten pretty hard to ruffle over the millennia.”

I was never going to get those wishes, was I? The disappointment only grew with the passing of years.

“You would know,” I smiled.

A heartbeat passed as she studied me.

“Spinning this out won’t allow the sisters to take you out of here,” Marguerite sighed. “You can stop trying to delay now.”

Shit. And I’d been trying to hard not to actually think about it just in case she could pick up on things like that.

“Fine,” I said. “You want to talk, Bard, let’s talk. What do you want?”

“I’d like for you to not help Nessie wiggle out of this, is what I’d like,” the Intercessor said. “I don’t mind your Accords, Catherine. I think they might even do some good for a century or two, before they become a noose around the neck of Calernia. If you get them signed, well, congratulations. But you’re about to scrap most your efforts before the year is out, and while that’s mostly on your head and I’d usually abstain from the mess what does matter to me is that you’re endangering more important endeavours.”

Even if we’d been under the noon sun instead of under the veil of night, I thought, I would not have been able to read the woman perched atop the stone. She’d been a weaver of words for longer than Callow had stood and though the Wandering Bard was hardly unbeatable or infallible she was not someone I’d ever have a solid grasp on. Still, even knowing she might be spinning a web of lies tailored exactly for me I had to keep her talking. When else was I ever going to have the opportunity of stealing a glimpse of what she intended?

“And what would those endeavours be?” I pressed.

“Killing the Dead King,” the Intercessor said. “For good. Not a soul-shard or an inhabited corpse, not his endless legion of expendable intermediaries. Neshamah King, he who once reigned over Sephirah and so doomed it.”

“I’ve no quarrel with that end,” I shrugged.

Which was nothing but the truth. Creation would be better off without the Dead King, there was no denying that. I fully intended on seeing it done, too, if the price for it was not ruinously steep. That did not mean, though, that whatever the Bard had planned was to be blindly welcomed. Assuming she was speaking the truth, which I would not. And now, I thought, comes the demand. Oh it’d be disguised, but the tricks being plied on me were not unfamiliar. A common enemy, a common striving, had first been established. Then it’d been hinted that she would not oppose my own heart’s desire, seeing the Liesse Accords signed, so long as I did not begin a feud with her. Now she’d make her demand, reasonable and modest, and she might even go a step further by throwing in a bribe. Some secret that’d be of use to me, or a light nudge that’d help me along the way. So, I wondered, what was it to be? Was I to bite my tongue when it came to sharing with the Pilgrim what I knew of her? Or perhaps it’d be something subtler, a particular secret that need be kept.

“Good,” Marguerite smiled. “Then when he offers you a truce – and he will, that much is certain – do not put your weight behind accepting it.”

I pushed down my surprise, keeping my face a bland mask. What? I’d considered the offers Neshamah had half-extended while in Liesse, since the end of the battle, the truces of ten or a hundred years. Tempting as they were, in retrospect the former more than the latter, I’d been growing increasingly inclined to refuse them outright. The long game was his more than ours, in the end, and the Dead King would never had made the offer if he did not gain from it more than we. Yet this was not what I’d expected of the Bard. I’d taken this little aside of ours, much as she pretended otherwise, as a tacit admission that my speaking against her to the Pilgrim might do damage. That she must prevent it. Yet she now spoke as if her great concern was war on Keter and nothing else, which was raising my hackles. I’d seen her act in the name of Below as well as Above, which meant she was not the heroine she oft presented herself as, but what she truly wanted did remain a mystery to me. The destruction of the Dead King was a believable striving for this entity, along with the admittedly chilling notion that there was little she was not willing to sacrifice to see it done, but it was… too clean. The two scheming immortals, plotting and scheming across the span of history with Calernia as their pawns?

It had the shape of a story to it and that was what had me wary. The Bard’s trade was the peddling of stories, and I could not help but think I was being sold one right now.

“And why shouldn’t I?” I said. “A reprieve would allow us to gather stronger forces before marching on Keter.”

Was I playing into her hand, I thought, by keeping her talking no matter my true intent? I could not know, but ignorance was cure to nothing at all even lies taught something of what was.

“You’d be clinging to the wrong story,” the Bard calmly explained. “In truce he will ‘hold’ the territories he seized in Procer. And after the truce runs out, you’ll take them back from him. Drive him back to Keter. And that’ll be your victory.”

She paused.

“And so nothing will change,” she said. “Oh, I burned a shard of him when he got greedy in Arcadia. That’s a loss for him, it is, but it’s a drop in the ocean. I did not wait centuries to let him slip away now, Catherine Foundling, not when he could be destroyed instead.”

“You’re implying that if the war is unbroken by truce, our victory will be in Keter instead,” I slowly said.

That by cutting a deal, we’d dilute the substance of the triumph that could be had. Which, while sounding to me of a repugnant repudiation of the practical for nebulous ‘principles’, sounded quite a lot like some of the hero-talk I’d heard over the years. No truce with the Enemy and all that. And coming out of the Intercessor’s mouth it was a lot harder to dismiss, I thought, for though I still doubted the virtue of such a stance I wouldn’t deny that as a story-knife it might just hold up. The more complicated a tale the less strongly it bound, in my experience, and I doubted anything short of steel fetters would keep the Dead King dead. Besides, this entire affair assumed we’d be able to win the war in the first place. Which was far from certain, in my opinion.

“He needs Keter, you know,” Marguerite idly said. “Everything else he can spare, but Keter? Without it he’s no longer the King of Death, he’s simply Evil in a box – and that, my dear, delivers him into my hands sure as dawn. So he’ll fight for the city tooth and nail, and that’s how he ends.”

“If that’s true,” I said, “why would he ever wage war? Why not simply close the borders of his kingdom and avoid the risk entirely?”

After a grisly demonstration of power or two, harsh enough they were seared into the Principate’s cultural memory, it was unlikely Procer would try his lands again. Few rulers would be fool enough to seek war with the peace of death to the north when there were better lands south and east to annex instead.

“Because I haven’t given him a choice,” the Bard candidly said. “If not regularly bled of strength by a war he’ll gather enough to try something genuinely dangerous, like conquering another Hell or ingesting another kingdom into the Serenity. So I’ve arranged for the war to be taken to him, again and again.”

“Not this time, though,” I said. “He’s the one who wanted to sally out, and he’s taking risks. Why?”

She laughed, fiendishly pleased.

“Because he’s been cornered, Catherine,” the Bard said, “by the passing of time. The Kingdom Under will have taken the entire continent underground soon. And on the surface cities are getting larger. Sorcery and learning keeping crawling forward. Larger, more stable alliances are forming. By the time there is a Twentieth Crusade, it’ll be able to win.”

“So he needs to do something now,” I said. “A sweeping change of some kind.”

“Oh, he caught onto that some time ago,” Marguerite said. “There’s a reason Procer is such a bloody mess. Ever wonder why the dead strike so often at the Lycaonese while the Alamans by the lakes are an afterthought?”

Because there are much fewer Lycaonese, and they lack allies in the broader Principate, I’d thought. It was much more feasible to slowly eradicate the northerners and their smaller population than it was with the lakeside Alamans, whose principalities tended to be more populated further from the coasts regardless.

“You’re implying he’s been sabotaging the Principate,” I said.

“He’s been sowing hate between those tribes since before there was a Principate, Catherine,” she replied. “Keeping them estranged, shaping their stories one incursion at a time so that when the black days come they’ll be too far gone to band together.”

“If you’ve known for so long then why did it come to this?” I flatly said.

“First Prince isn’t a Name,” the Intercessor sighed. “That’s what I work with, like your teacher told you. Names. I can’t touch the Nameless outside of some very narrow boundaries. And what a funny coincidence it is, that the Principate took the shape it bears to this day after Nessie and his friend in the Tower ran roughshod over it. You following me yet, Foundling? Kairos isn’t the only one who’s ever pulled a fast one over me. The entire bloody nation has been a fire in my lap since its founding.”

It was, I thought, believable enough. Though there was one detail more than the rest I focused on.

“Narrow boundaries,” I repeated, hinting at a question.

She looked amused.

“You spoke of me,” the Bard said. “It was enough, given who you are.”

And wasn’t that just the loveliest of ambiguous sentences? Who I was. It might even be true, given that I’d avoided speaking of her as much as I could. The last time I could recall, in truth, had been with the Tyrant of Helike and we’d been hiding behind the madness of the Hierarch unleashed on that night. She would not have known anything that was spoken in that carefully forged blind spot, Kairos having no doubt made it largely to check her. And that, more than anything else, was what had me convinced she was lying. Because it was a pretty story she was selling me, but she did in fact have a way to get to the First Prince: the Augur, her cousin and most trusted of advisors. She’d had that way in for years now, and still the Tenth Crusade had headed east instead of north. There was, I thought, a greater game afoot than she would have me believe. Oh, if I pressed no doubt she’d have an answer for me. A reasonable one, too, as for why it had all unfolded the way it had. But my instincts were screaming I was being had, somehow, for some reason. Why would you tell me any of this? Why are we having this conversation at all? You’d have me believe this is your first true opportunity, but since when would you see this as an opportunity at all? A sculptor does not owe a chisel an explanation.

Gods Below and Everburning, what was her fucking game?

“What are you, really?” I quietly asked, looking into eyes that were not the first she’d ever worn. “You’re Named, but like none I’ve ever seen. And for all your pretences you’re not a heroine.”

“I’m what was made so that no one ever eats the world,” the Intercessor said. “I am herald before the ruin; envoy when it waxes beyond restraint. What I am has no name in any tongue still known to the living or the dead, and many have gone mad seeking it. I’ve had as many faces as there are graves and never once did I taste true death.”

The old thing smiled.

“I am not an arbiter,” she said. “When the hour is kind, I am granted kind purpose. When the hour is wicked, I do what I must. And when the hour is mine, I seek the story that will free Creation. Until I have found it, you grasping thing, I see to the monsters that slip through the cracks. So crawl through the muck and do the passing things you can, but do not once presume to meddle in the greater works beyond your understanding – I will not tolerate the meddling of amateurs.”

She had given me, I thought, I reasonable enough answers. Not justifications, and only barely would I call them explanations, but it… held up. More or less. Enough that I could glimpse the shape a tale that’d make sense of it all. And that was why I doubted it, but I did have to wonder – had I sunk too deep into lunacy, that a plausible tale was enough to have me disbelieve? Had I become like Kairos, baring knives at the faintest hint of weakness? Or is this kind of hesitation exactly what she wants from me by doing this? The trouble here was that I had so very little to bring out as argument if I wanted to qualify the Intercessor an enemy in the eyes of the Pilgrim. She’d pulled strings for the death of Captain, it was true, but Sabah had spent a lifetime as an enforcer for my teacher and through him the Tower. She’d had a hand in the sundering between Black and Malicia being so deep and bitter, but again what sin would that be in the Pilgrim’s eyes? I had the words of Kairos Theodosian, which to Tariq would be less than nothing, and the memories of the Sisters when they had sought out Below and encountered the Bard as an envoy. Which, while less than sunny a cast for the Intercessor, was not utterly damning. What else could I bring up, save the words of the very Dead King we were not gathering against? Even I could not that deny that for all the hints of more sinister intent I’d seen her put the finger on the scales for Good rather more often than the other way around.

I had little to say, which begged the question of whether or not I was truly looking at an enemy. Oh, she’d sought my death once or twice – but then I’d been a rising villain attempting to claim Callow and considering the amount of deaths I’d personally brought down on Creation since I couldn’t fault her on principle either. In strategy, perhaps, but then given the scale she worked on it would have been painfully arrogant of me to pretend I knew everything she did. I kept my fingers from clenching, for it was too obvious a tell. Was that the answer, then? That I was to kneel and trust in the benevolence of some eldritch creature’s designs, to step only where she deigned to let me step and babble out thanks for the privilege? No, I thought. Even if all she’d spoke was true, she no more owned the right to shape the Creation than any of us. She was my enemy, come what may. But not one I could face tonight, with preparations so feeble. If she caught even a hint that I was coming for her… I’d only be able to act in surprise once, and I doubted there would ever be a second chance. I clenched my fingers and unclenched them, allowing the conflict I genuinely felt to touch my face.

“You’ll back the Accords?” I asked.

“I’ll let them stand on their own merits,” the Intercessor said. “Neither more nor less.”

I spat to the side.

“Then we’re done here, Bard,” I said.

She peered at me, seemingly amused.

“That we are,” she agreed.

I blinked, tasting the warmth of smoke in my mouth, and Tariq Fleetfoot’s face creased.

“Why must we speak of her?” the old hero asked, tone wary.

And this was the moment, I thought, where I hinted arrangement had been made and began to bide my time until I could strike. Plotted behind bling spots with the Hierophant and learned from the sharp madness of the Hierarch. Like a clever little villain attempting to snuff out a great light. It was a story, I realized in a moment of cold dread. I’d been sold yet another story, on the sly, and come so very close to embracing it wholeheartedly. I’d not bit the bait when she’d approached me as a smiling offeror of advice and bargains, so she’d changed the story. The immortals warring over the world I’d again refused, silently as I had, and in doing so tumbled down the most dangerous of the three stories she’d woven. Believing it was my own notion every step of the way.

“I do believe she just tried to kill me,” I thoughtfully said. “So let’s drag out into the light every dirty little secret I know about her.”

Back in the old days, if I’d gone down the hill to meet the Exiled Prince in an honourable duel he would have made sport of me. I would have been, after all, fighting him on his own terms. Why would I offer the Intercessor the courtesy I’d refused him, even if clothed differently? I would not fight a weaver of stories the way she wanted to be fought, damn her.

Elegant had never been my strength, so time to drag us both into the mud.

Chapter 67: Starlight

“Without enemy, without backbone.”
– Callowan saying

I didn’t even have to say anything.

Black had been watching me discreetly ever since midnight’s threshold, and a simple nod of acknowledgement did the trick. Unlike me the green-eyed man had no connection to the wards that surrounded the tumulus, but by using me as a tripwire he’d effectively learned of the Peregrine’s arrival mere heartbeats after I did. Just because the man had lost his name hardly meant he’d ceased being perceptive – or dangerous. I slowly rose to my feet, hand reach for my yew staff, and watched from the corner of my eye as the former Black Knight drew away from the circle that’d gathered to listen to an old campaign story of Grem One-Eye’s. Hakram’s eyes found me, silently questioning in the dark, but I shook my head. The fewer people there for those talks the better, for though I trusted Adjutant as I would trust my own hand the Grey Pilgrim had no reason to do the same.  I’d not further muddle the waters of what might already be troublesome talks simply for the base comfort of having Hakram at my side. I slipped away, not unseen of my friends but at least unquestioned, and tread between the dark silhouettes of the stones raised by the ancient Mavii. Far above stars hung in the night sky, pale constellations set in ink. Leather boots creaking against the snow I advanced, the edges of the cloak on my back skimming against smooth stone.

Tariq Fleetfoot stood a few feet further down the slope, upright and steady for such an old man. Robes of faded grey fell loosely down his frame, so used as to be halfway to raggedness, and the last wisps of white hair on his head stood out starkly as he gazed up at the stars. He did not have a staff, the gnarled old thing he’d snapped over his knee as the finishing touch to the Twilight Crown. In the days since that he could have easily found another, I knew, yet he had not. It tasted to me of a loss, something surrendered that would never be had again. None who’d given away their crown would ever find a way to fill that void and the lack of a walking stick was the least of it. Black drifted out of the stones a heartbeat after I did, tread quietly as the long coat he wore trailed behind him. Tariq’s jaw shifted, as I looked, a tensing so slight I might have missed it were I not already studying him. Wariness, I thought. The Pilgrim recognized Black’s footsteps, near silent as they were, and he was wary of the man they belonged to. I knew not what had passed between those two when my teacher was held prisoner, before his soul was mutilated, but the cold spite in the Carrion Lord’s eyes and the strain in Tariq’s shoulders did not speak to anything pleasant. Still, they were both pragmatic men in their own way. Like it or not they were in the same boat, and neither would be inclined to behave in a way that might just tip it over for all of us.

“Your Majesty,” the Pilgrim calmly said. “A beautiful night, isn’t it?”

“Iserre has its beauties,” I acknowledged.

The old hero half-smiled, then turned to dip his head respectfully.

“I invited myself to an evening of comradery, and for that I apologize,” Tariq said.

“You should,” Black noted. “I brought liquor, at least. Is your presence meant to be the gift?”

There was a slight pause, then he muttered heroes in a scathing tone. I sent him a warning look, but he was visibly unmoved. A consequence, I grimly thought, of having me try on those when I’d been a great deal less dangerous than I now was.

“Apologies twofold then, Black Queen,” the Pilgrim lightly replied. “Yet I believed it wiser to have this conversation away from prying eyes, and before too long had passed.”

An opportunity he’d not have again soon, I understood even if he did not spell it out. I was not all that surprised that the Peregrine had somehow slipped past a dozen layers of wards, patrols and watchmen to arrive unseen in the very heart of my camp. He was, after all the, the Grey Pilgrim: appearing sudden and unexpected was his wont, as much a part of his Name as the ashen-coloured robes. But he’d pulled this off because I was apart from the rest of my army, and my watchful patrons. If he’d tried to pull this on the tent where I slept, the Sisters might just have taken offence and good luck trying to keep that quiet.

“You were not unforeseen,” I said. “I require no apology.”

“Your kindness is appreciated,” the old man said. “I received the papers sent by the Lord Adjutant, Queen Catherine. They were… an interesting read.”

Well, it wasn’t like I’d expected the man to gush, slap me on the back and ask where he had to sign. Had I hoped for that, just a little bit? O Night, yes. I was in no way above easy victories when I could have them, which was tragically infrequent. Fingers tight on the dead yew in my grip, I carefully stepped down the slope until I was standing at the hero’s left. Black, never one to allow subtle theatrics to pass him by when they cost nothing, nonchalantly cut through behind me and came to stand at my left. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, knowing it’d only further entertain him.

“I expect you have questions,” I said.

Objections, too, but best get the clarifications out of the way first.

“Those were not the full text,” the Pilgrim said.

“The simplified manuscript,” I said. “Though no tricks were plied, Peregrine. I did not hide anything I thought might be contentious, only removed the many inkwells’ worth of minutiae that the full treaty will need to properly function.”

“Function,” Tariq repeated, blue eyes crinkling. “Yes, that is the word I was seeking.”

He breathed out, mist rising up easily on such a windless night.

“I have issue, as you must have anticipated, with some of the laws you would set,” the old man said. “Yet that is not so great a thing, for even if your terms were accepted without amendment I would wager the Liesse Accords being harbinger of more good than not.”

The Pilgrim’s already-crease face, wrinkled by long years of saving lives and taking them, grew serious.

“And so I must ask, Your Majesty,” he said, “what it is you intend as the function of your Accords? Their purpose, for I have glimpsed the lay of your work and it is neither salvation nor abolition.”

Oh, that was an ornate way to put it but no less true for that. I’d known from the very moment the thought of the Accords had begun to haunt me that there was only so much I could accomplish through them. It’d be a pretty thing, a treaty that promised a hundred or a thousand years of peace between all who signed it, but that was a fool’s dream. Old Terribilis the Second, the canniest of the Old Tyrants in so many ways, had once said that armies were like water: they took the path of least resistance. The line had stuck with me, even more than the rest of the Commentaries, and I’d seen since that the wisdom of it ran deeper than Terribilis had claimed. People, more often than not, took the path of least resistance. Because it was easier, because it was encouraged, because no one liked to struggle or get hurt. If I raised a dam in the way of our own nature – and, like it or not, people had been waging war one each other since the First Dawn – then perhaps it might hold for a time but it would inevitably break. And perhaps wreak greater destruction than before for the containment attempted. I could not change what lay at the heart of mankind, or orcs, or goblins or even the drow for that matter. I was not even sure the Gods could, and even at my most arrogant I’d never claimed to reach those heights. What I could do, though, was create a set of rules. Not too limiting, lest they be bucked, but limiting enough that never again would a city be broken by the strife of Named.

“I told you the first time we ever spoke,” I said. “What I cannot break-”

“You will regulate,” Tariq softly finished. “I remember. You spoke of your teacher too, that day.”

Black looked mildly curious, eyeing us both.

“He cannot conceive of a word where he does not win, you said,” the Peregrine reminded me.

And this is not a victory, he left unspoken. I’d known that was going to be one of the harder parts to navigate, though, for some time. That the Accords required trust in more than just me on the side of Below’s champions, lest trust in them die when I did. Part of me wondered if my teacher would take as an insult a remark I’d never intended to make it to his ears, though I stood by it still, and I flicked a glance to the side. He did not seem aggrieved, though only a fool would take what could be seen on Amadeus of the Green Stretch’s face as the sum of his thoughts.

“Yet I have lost,” Black said. “Undeniably so.”

I stilled. I’d not expected for him to speak in answer, save perhaps to send the occasional measured barb towards the Peregrine. Indecision warred in my mind, for though the Accords were my creation and I was circumspect of letting my teacher speak to or for them I could not hold them in my arms like some babe in need of soothing. They would grow larger than me, I knew, from the moment they were signed. They must, for if they did not this was no more than some Old Tyrant’s madness: though I would have chosen law and treaties rather than an invisible army or fortresses aflight, the doom of it would be just as certain. And so, though if felt like control of this was slipping through my fingers, I kept my mouth shut.

“Have you?” Tariq mildly asked. “You stand free once more, a leader of armies. Aligned with one of the rising stars of our age, shielded from judgement and assured seat and voice when the lay of this war and what will follow is writ. Have you lost, Amadeus of the Green Stretch?”

Part of me was almost offended on my teacher’s behalf, for I had seen victories of his making and they had little in common with the stuff of these days. Yet there was another quieter voice in the back of my mind that, while not agreeing with the Pilgrim had said, found it was not senseless. For someone who’d been a severed soul mere days ago, Black had returned to a degree of prominence with almost blinding swiftness.  The itch was there to speak up, to intervene, because there was too much riding on this talk and this night for me to feel content in silence. I mastered it with some difficulty, knowing stepping in now might end up disastrous. My teacher had turned to look at the Pilgrim, pale green eyes considering, until he suddenly let out a biting sting of laughter.

“A victory, Peregrine?” he scorned. “This night, this moon, this year? The span of my days I have spent in the service of that searing, fleeting thing that’d even the scales for the smallest of instants and you would claim this to be it?”

The dark-haired man, though those locks now knew white as well, laughed once more. It was a sound like a bag being peremptorily emptied, a cup drunk to the last drop. More will than instinct.

“Those few I love are dropping like flies,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch harshly said. “My kindred atop the Tower spirals ever deeper into old follies and the order I have worked my hand to the bone raising has burst like an overripe fruit. The manner of things that have been lost…”

He shook his head, then smiled. Thin and wide and much too sharp, the blade-smile I’d come to know so well.

“These have been calamitous years, Peregrine,” the Carrion Lord said. “What gains were had always came at too high a price, and while I will not partake of regret neither will I shy from the truth that not a single of those games proved worth the candle.”

“You bleed,” Tariq acknowledged. “You rage, frozen and bitter as that poison is. But you are not cowed. You have ruled, but what do you know of rules? Am I to believe you will now put a yoke around your neck out of sentiment?”

The old hero eyed the aging villain with disdain.

“There is only so much of that in you,” the Pilgrim said. “And it never bore more than a feather’s weight on the scales, Lord of Carrion. I have seen the laws that would be the fabric of the Accords, and I see good in them for even if the children of Above will find their hands bound in some ways it is but a pittance to what it will cost Below’s favoured monsters. You will be stripped of manners of terror and brutality in myriad, forced to measure your wickedness and moderate your cruelties. You will be bound by fetters and told at the edge of the blade that ambitions cannot be without restraint. I see nothing, have seen nothing, in you that would take any of this as more than wasted ink.”

“It must be a pleasant world to live in, where any that stand opposite of you must be either grasping or grasped,” Black smiled. “Either the creature of the Gods Below or their apostle in wickedness – either way, what sin can there be in breaking us?”

He chuckled.

“Well, if I must be wicked to hold regard then wicked I shall be,” the Carrion Lord said, eyes coldly glinting. “I’ll speak for the crooked and cruel, pilgrim of grey, and give you the answer you deman.”

Under starlight the dark-haired man took a dramatic bow, and I could see in the cast if his face that he was relishing this. The chance to speak without measuring every word, considering the consequence on the balance of his Role and Name. To… cut loose, after a lifetime of ironclad control. Praesi, I thought, not entirely without fondness.

“The first conspiracy will bloom,” the Carrion Lord said, “before the ink is dry.”

My fingers tightened. That was not what I had expected of him. Or wanted. He grinned, a slice of pale bone cutting through the dark.

“We will twist around the spirit of every rule while obeying the letter,” the green-eyed man said. “We will lie and cheat and hide our sins, while dragging into light those of our foes and rivals. We will seek to twist the laws as a tool for our ambitions and a sword to slay our enemies. We will hide behind every protection afforded and make red art of the details that save or slay. We will defend our advantages and seek to unmake yours, never once faltering in our callous greed.”

The grin went wider still, a madman’s grin. A challenge.

“And yet we will uphold the Liesse Accords, you broken old thing, and wage war on any that would unmake them,” the Carrion Lord said. “Merciless Gods, you think they tip the scale in your favour? Your entire breed are servants of stillness, shaped from the clay of recoil. You came out victors of the Age of Wonders, but this… Age of Order will be ours body and soul.”

“You are mad,” the Grey Pilgrim said, tone hushed.

“That may well be,” the Carrion Lord laughed, “but am I lying?”

Tariq’s face tightened.

“Peace will smother your kind out of existence,” the old hero said. “This I know and have seen many a time. Under law you will reach too high and pay the price of vainglory.”

“Why now, Tariq Fleetfoot,” the Carrion Lord replied with languid amusement, “that rather sounds like a wager.”

The Levantine’s fingers clenched.

“This could have been a beautiful thing,” he said. “The principles of Good made into law, however slightly. You soil this by your very existence.”

“I have only ever recognized one sin and one grace,” the green-eyed villain replied. “Your whimpering sense of virtue is as dust to me, Peregrine. Choke on it and perish, as you should have decades ago.”

Well, this was just lovely. Still it rung close enough to an accord from both sides that I wouldn’t be interceding for everybody if I stepped in now. You know, before two of the most powerful people on the fucking face of Calernia started pulling each other’s pigtails and calling their Gods a lie. Charming stuff all around, though I’d give it to Black that while he might have been a vicious shit about this he’d at least more or less gotten results.

“Glad to see we’re all friends now,” I said, perfectly willing to keep repeating the sentence louder and louder until objections died out.

Neither of them contradicted me. Well, would you look at that. Maybe they were clever after all.

“I am in agreement with the principle of the Liesse Accords,” Tariq tightly said. “Though when talks are had in Salia, I will argue against the articles I believe to be unsound.”

“I expected no less,” I said.

It was an effort to keep my voice steady, to keep the sheer fucking triumph out of it. Because if Tariq was in agreement with even just the principles of the Accords, then I was pretty sure a majority of living heroes would fall in line. There were probably heroes out there more powerful, but there were none more respected or influential. Getting Below’s side of the fence in order would be trickier, but if Black held the Tower and the Tyrant’s head ended up on a spike? It could be done. The fucking shape was there, now. It could be done. My excitement ebbed, though, when I remembered this conversation was not yet over. And that what we had to speak about might shake the foundations of the rest, if it went poorly. I hesitated on how to bring it up at all, and to hide the indecision reached for my pipe once more. Black gave me a mildly disapproving look.

“Wakeleaf is an ungainly vice,” he said. “One of the few things I ever agreed with Tikoloshe about.”

“I’ve tried that wine you keep bottles of,” I replied, stuffing my pipe, “and I’m not getting a lecture on ungainly vices from a man who regularly drinks something that tastes like rat poison. Muddy rat poison.”

“The mud makes all the difference,” my teacher pleasantly agreed.

I passed my palm over the pipe, black flame bloom amongst the stuffing, and breathed in sharply. Well, indirect talk had never been my strong suit so it was doubtful trying my hand at it now would somehow yield success with the godsdamned Grey Pilgrim of all people. Direct it was, then. I breathed out, let the smoke rise up towards the night sky and took the plunge.

“Pilgrim,” I said, “we need to talk about the Wandering Bard.”

Except I didn’t.

I was, instead, standing to the side of the three people – the Grey Pilgrim, the Black Queen and the Carrion Lord – standing in the starlight and snow as they spoke. I could even see the smoke wafting up from both my mouth and pipe. Shit, I thought.

“Catherine, Catherine, Catherine,” a woman’s voice said, sounding almost pained. “You were so close but now you’re fucking it all up.”

I looked at where the voice had come from – to the side, perched atop one of the raised stones, the Wandering Bard was seated. Slender and dark-haired, with blue eyes and a rather attractive face. The accent, though, I had recognized. Alamans.

“Really,” I said, “Alamans? What, where there no other bodies left?”

The Bard cocked her head to the side, looking surprised and more than a little amused.

“That is uncanny,” she muttered.

Raising a silver flask I’d not seen her grab, she shrugged and took a swallow.

“Right,” the Intercessor grinned after wiping her mouth. “So I’d say it’s about time we had a little chat, you and I.”

Chapter 66: Silvered

“Trust given is a gift, costing only the giver. Trust earned is in balance, worth as much to earner as granter.”
– King Edward Alban of Callow, best known for annexing the Kingdom of Liesse

The urge was there to laugh in disbelief, though I didn’t. Aisha was deadly serious in her question, and she was one the better-informed officers at the highest rung of the Army of Callow. She had Juniper’s ear, working relationships or personal connections with most the Woe and the rest of my closest collaborators. She was, as it happened, one of the few people who knew of the Liesse Accords even if that knowledge was modest. If she could believe that, then others would.

“I do not,” I said.

The Staff Tribune nodded in graceful acknowledgement, lovely heart-shaped face touched by the firelight.

“Then this is a mistake,” she murmured, discretely glancing at Akua without turning.

I kept any hint of displeasure from showing on my face. Of all my old College companions I’d always had one of the more complex relationships with Aisha Bishara. Her high birth in an old Wasteland line had made it difficult to trust her, at first, and back in the days where Juniper and I had been more frequently at odds her open siding with her friend as made her one of the Hellhounds and not one of ‘mine’, so to speak. We’d gotten past that, over the months and years, but I’d never hidden my belief that quite a few Wasteland highborn belonged dangling from a rope and that’d always lain between us. Aisha was more careful not to offend, ever stepping lightly around matters she thought our very different origins would make contentious. Frowning now or thinning my lips would have her shuttering immediately, and that was the opposite of what I wanted. I gazed where the Taghreb had flicked the glance, finding Akua effortlessly drawing Masego into what had become a debate over the poetries of the east by mentioning the ‘riddling-sorcerers of the Nameless City’. The blind mage let out an amused huff and a began declaiming something in a dialect of Mtethwa I could barely make out a few words from.

“There are lines in Praes that are older than the Sahelians,” Aisha Bishara murmured. “Others who have more often climbed the Tower, or through whose veins greater gifts flow. Yet one of that shade’s kin ruled Wolof, when the Empire was first founded, and where every other great line of that days has withered and died the Sahelians still thrive.”

I rolled my cup against the flat of my palm, eyes hooded as I listened to Aisha in pensive silence.

“That woman right there is of the blood of the original murder, Catherine Foundling,” she whispered. “The first iron-sharp treachery. All under the sun have known this since the Tower was first raised, and yet again and again the Sahelians have betrayed through surprise. Because they are charming, my queen. They are beautiful and fascinating and so very useful that certainly it couldn’t hurt to bring them into the fold just the once.”

Aisha bared the fainted hint of teeth at me, almost like an orc would have.

“They are like ink, that lot,” she said. “It only takes one drop in a cup water, and no matter how much you pour from that day on it will never be entirely pure again. And now you have let one of the finest makings of that line into your hearth, Catherine.”

Her fingers clenched, her gloves crinkling.

“She’ll have half of them charmed by the end of the night,” the Staff Tribune clinically said. “The rest uncertain. I expect she could ever turn Juniper’s opinion of her around, given long enough.”

“You maker her sound like a force of nature,” I said.

We watched the laughter and warmth unfolding before us, separate from it as if a transparent wall of dread had been slammed down between us.

“She was Named,” Aisha simply said. “And she rose high during years were the iron was sharp like rarely before.”

An elegantly backhanded compliment sent my way, that. There was a reason I’d more than once mulled stealing the Staff Tribune away from the army and making her my foremost diplomat.

“She remains impressive, even as a shade,” I admitted. “And you’re not without reason to worry.”

“And yet,” Aisha said.

“And yet,” I agreed.

A heartbeat passed.

“This is indiscreet, and perhaps insolent to ask,” Aisha delicately said, “but are you-”

I waved the notion away before she could even finish.

“I am,” I said, “Callowan.”

I’d come to learn that just as the Wasteland’s worst excesses needed to be excised from its flesh, so did Callow’s own spiteful inclinations. But in the end, I was more than mind and principle, more than thought. I was flesh, too, and like so many of my people my bones were made of grudge. There were some trespasses that could not be forgiven or forgot. One hundred thousand souls. Some follies were beyond forgiveness even were it wished. Sometimes, tough, forgiveness was not the heart of a story.

“I will have long a price as I can conceive, in due time,” I murmured. “Worry not of that.”

“You have lingering eyes,” Aisha hesitantly said.

“They’ve lingered on you as well,” I amusedly replied. “Shall I make you empress instead, Lady Bishara?”

Her cheeks reddened the slightest bit, which was unexpectedly charming. Ah, if it didn’t have terrible idea written all over it… The embarrassment passed, swiftly mastered.

“Rarely has there ever been more poisoned a chalice than the Tower,” the dark-eyed woman somberly said. “I would not dare drink of that cup. Yet someone must hold it, and that person cannot be Malicia.”

Something hard and cold passed in the cast of her face, at that, whisked away by the noblewoman’s mask but not quite quickly enough.

“Agreed,” I replied. “And Aisha, about Ratface-”

She curtly shook her head.

“I thank you, Catherine, but I will grieve Hasan in my own way,” she said.

Aisha was the only person I’d ever known to call him Hasan instead or Ratface regularly. They’d been lovers, back at the College. A strange pairing, given Ratface’s deep hatred of the nobility and Aisha’s open pride in her own heritage, but they’d both been incredibly lovely and the intensity of a passion could make up for a lot of differences. They’d parted ways before I met either of them, though Ratface had remained… inclined in the years after. I’d thought Aisha less attached, but now I wondered. Faded affections could find fresh life in other forms, and remain sweet at heart for the good times once shared. I nodded in deference to her grief, for it was greater than mine and it had older claim on the shade of the man who’d died in my service at Malicia’s order. Damn her for that, and so many other things.

“It’ll be Black, if I have my way,” I said.

A moment passed as Aisha mulled over what I’d just said.

“You usually do,” she finally said, tone faintly rueful. “It will be a bloodletting that makes the War of Thirteen Tyrants and One pale, if he rises.”

“Change will come,” I said. “If fought, it will not come gently.”

“They’ll fight,” Aisha tiredly said. “That is our nature, for good or ill.”

“It can’t be like it was before,” I told her. “You know that. Nor should it. We’ve come too far for that.”

“And her?” the lovely tribune said, glancing at Akua. “Where does she stand, in this new world of yours?”

“Nowhere gentle,” I said. “Though that will be a choice of her own making.”

“Will it?” Aisha said. “I imagine many have thought themselves her captain, in days past. I see none still drawing breath.”

“If I were trying to conquer her, I’d fail,” I softly said. “I’ve known that from the start. She has ever been my better at those games.”

“And yet,” Aisha repeated, the echo almost chiding.

“Always she’s had a knack for masks,” I said. “More than wearing them she became them, you know. It was why she wielded her Name so well.”

“Masks are shed, eventually,” Aisha warned.

“What if you didn’t want to shed it?” I said. “What if wearing that mask you got all these things that some part of you, deep down, had been craving? Because Sahelians are still humans, Aisha. There are some things you can’t train yourself out of no matter how hard you try.”

“There are things she will crave deeper still,” she said. “For that too was taught. And when the opportunity comes, the same choice that has always been made will be made.”

I smiled, and remembered a winding talk had some time ago under morning sun. You have seen the worst of us, she’d said. And through that knowing taken our measure. But there is more, Catherine. She’d seemingly been speaking of her own kind, of the High Lords and Ladies. But there’d been the slightest chink in the mask when she’d spoken of her great-uncle who’d fled to Nicae. If even a Sahelian can have the taste for peace, there is yet something left to be kindled. A little too sharp, a little too brittle. The first hint of the bile she’d vented on Kairos Theodosian the same dawn that’s seen the birth of the Ways. And I knew, of course, that she was not beyond such exquisite deception. That she might have been weaving that intricate web around me since the moment she saved my life in the Everdark. But it wouldn’t matter, I thought, watching Akua Sahelian letting out a snort of laughter at some pointed comment Indrani had made. It wouldn’t matter because she’d want it to be true.

“Be watchful, Aisha,” I said. “I will be as well. But that arrow has already been loosed, and I will not gainsay it now.”

“May the Gods avert their eyes from it all,” she murmured. “You’ve always had an uncanny way for seeing what others do not, Catherine. I will trust in it once more.”

“With open eyes,” I smiled.

“Is that not the finest manner of trust?” Aisha smiled back.

She drifted away just as easily as she’d come when there was a lull in the conversation for her to slide into, adding her thread to the weave of it with practiced grace. Sometimes I envied how easily it seemed to come to the highborn around me, the social graces I still struggled with even when I genuinely meant to use them. There was something to be said for training from one’s youth, even if the other aspects of nobility held little worth in my eyes. The hours passed smoothly, after that, eased by the wine and food and warmth. Twice more Robber tried to needle Akua into anger and struck only at smoke, until even Pickler looked discomfited on his behalf. He did not try a third time. With the greenskins swiftly moving for second portions of meat and the cask of ale being opened conversation bloomed in every direction, sometimes coming together for virulent debates but just as often staying a chaotic multitude. A warmth had seeped in me that had little to do with the fire or the drink, though I’d partaken of both generously. Still I sensed it immediately when two people passed through the outer wards surrounding the tumulus maybe half a bell before midnight. I wove Night to have a look, and to my surprise found two familiar faces walking up the hill.

Marshal Grem One-Eye, the grizzled old orc who was still thought by many the finest general alive, was carrying two bottles of aragh and from the sounds of it complaining that my father hadn’t even offered to carry one – to which Black piously informed him that as a recovering hostage he could not trust himself to carry out such strenuous labour. A few of my people heard the steps before the two came in sight, but there was a beat of surprise when they were fully seen in the firelight.

“Black, Marshal Grem,” I greeted them. “Have a seat, it’s not like we’re lacking room.”

The orc Marshal – Black’s, not mine – sniffed the air with a bemused look on his craggy face.

“Is that horse I’m smelling?” Grem One-Eye said. “Haven’t had a skewer of that in decades. Last time was…”

“Fleeing after that raid on the Wall,” Black said, lips twitching. “When those Iarsmai riders went after us.”

“Wait, I think I had a Name dream about that back in the day,” I said. “When you lot went after the Commander of the Watch?”

“Oh man, I heard about that,” Archer enthused. “I mean, no lie, the Lady is terrible at telling stories-”

“No lie indeed,” Black said, lips quirking outright.

“- but this one she actually made pretty entertaining,” Indrani finished.

“Did she mention the part where the Commander beat Black like a rented mule?” I said. “It was almost embarrassing to see.”

“That detail certainly never made it to Court,” Akua slyly added.

“A grave exaggeration,” Black said, eyeing me from the side. “I was maneuvering her into a killing blow.”

“While she was manoeuvring you down a set of stairs, head first,” I drily replied.

He slid into a seat not far from me while Grem passed the bottles to a – oh Gods, that was just wrong – blushing Juniper. I’d forgotten she had this uh, intense sort of admiration for Black. She half-glared at me for having the gall to mention that the legendary Carrion Lord had once been thrown down a set of stairs. Gods, I should find a way to pass along that one dream I had where he and Ranger were getting all… bright-eyed at each other. That ought to cure her from this right quick.

“We must have been fleeing on foot for half a day before they caught up,” the Marshal of Praes said. “Flat grounds, maybe a bell from the marches proper. Twenty of them, with this big man in mail the ranking officer.”

“The cousin to Duchess Kegan’s husband, we later learned,” Black said.

The old orc grinned.

“The Watch is coming, he said,” Marshal Grem recounted. “Soon you will be in longbow range. You cannot escape our sight. Surrender now, or-”

Indrani made a whistling sound, like an arrow loosed, then a fleshy hit.

“So Hye shot him, naturally,” Black said. “Right in the throat.”

“And Wekesa, still drenched in sweat from the running and looking like a rumpled cat, he leans forward and he says all cool as ice,” Grem One-Eye began.

“Guess he didn’t see that coming,” the two old killers guffawed together.

They chuckled with the ease of two old friends sharing a worn and beloved joke, now thrown around as much for the fondness of the tale as for whatever waning humour it might have once held. I shared a look of secondhand embarrassment with Masego and Indrani. Calamities, huh. They were a great deal less dignified once you’d had a close look at them. Those left, anyway, I thought with a grimace. Sabah I’d mourn for she was worth mourning, but the Warlock I grieved more for how his death had pained and would pain Masego more than anything else. Little about the man had endeared him to me.

“Here, Marshal,” Juniper said, passing him a skewer of juicy horse meat.

“Thank you, Marshal,” Grem replied, openly amused.

“Sisters take me, let’s be done with the titles for the night,” I grunted.

“Your Majestic Highreachingness, I must protest,” Indrani gravely said. “It would be most improper of your loyal subjects to behave in such a manner. And also us.”

“Reaching high shelves is her only weakness, as it happens,” Robber drawled.

“Really,” I flatly said. “The goblin is going to make height jokes.”

“I am a veritable titan, by my people’s standards,” the Special Tribune shamelessly lied.

“I’ve seen piles of apples taller than you,” I scathingly replied.

“Ah,” Robber replied without missing a beat, “but did you see over them?”

That cut a little too close to home so I replied with a gesture more than mildly obscene and a few curses in Taghrebi that had Aisha tittering in amusement before her face suddenly went blank. Ah, I sadly thought, my own memory prompted by the sight. It’d been the same man who’d taught them to the both of us, then.

“I have a question, Marshal Grem, about your assault on the Wall during the Conquest,” Pickler said. “If you don’t mind.”

“Grem will do, around a fire,” the old orc gravelled. “You’re Old Wither’s daughter, I hear?”

Pickler’s face tightened with discomfort as the mention of her mother, the Matron of the High Ridge tribe.

“I am,” she said.

“She tried to have my liver ripped out, once,” Grem said. “Not even because she disliked me, mind you, she was just trying to insult Ranker by eating an ally’s flesh.”

“I am,” Pickler slowly said, “sorry?”

The grizzled orc quietly laughed.

“Not much like that old horror, are you?” he said, baring teeth. “Ask your question, girl.”

Even as Pickler began a long question about the order of battle for siege when attacking the fortresses of the Wall I tuned out the taking and leaned closer to Black.

“You actually here for the company, or the other thing?” I quietly asked.

“I expect the Pilgrim will arrive come midnight,” he replied just as quietly. “And if you are to speak of the Wandering Bard, as I expect you will, one whose veracity might be ascertained might be of some use to you.”

I felt a sliver of gratefulness at that, though I knew he would bring as many complications as he did uses by being there. Tariq could no longer see through me unless Sve Noc let him, these days, and even if they did let him it would be considered suspect. Black, on the other hands, was no longer even Named. The Peregrine should be able to use his trick without any complications, though I doubted someone like the Grey Pilgrim would find much to approve of in my father. My brow raised, when I caught a detail. I’d never actually told him that the Sisters could ward of the attentions of the Choir of Mercy – and likely an aspect, as I doubted angels would so frequently lend a helping hand even to their apparent favourite.

“Come now,” Black smiled, before I could say anything. “Pacts with lesser gods are not so rare as to be unheard of. Wekesa spent many a year trying to mimic through ritual the benefits one gains through such patronage without the drawbacks, though to only middling success.”

“It’s not quite as clear-cut as that,” I said. “We have give and take.”

“No doubt,” the green-eyed man said. “Besides, considering the trials you’ve put your soul through over the last few years I doubt there are many takers left.”

I gasped.

“Are you making fun of the state of my immortal soul, you perfidious heretic?” I said.

“I suppose I must be a heretic indeed, if the Arch-heretic of the East deems me so,” he mused.

Gods but I’d missed insulting the man. There were still so many things left unsaid between us, recriminations still simmering and hard arguments yet to be had, but what had been so deeply wounded in the aftermath of Akua’s Folly felt… lighter tonight. Not healed, and perhaps it never would be, but not quite so raw. It helped, I thought, that I had been allowed to feel for my own path so far from him that it was impossible for any part of it to have been his notion. Whatever the reasons the two older men had come, they certainly kept the conversation going. Black eventually went to sit by Masego’s side, the two of them conversing quietly, and that I did not approach. The grief they shared went back to long before I’d entered either’s life, and I would be an unwelcome interloper if I attempted to be part of it. Vivienne had yet to come, which had me frowning. She would not snub an evening like this out of anger at Akua being here, so it likely meant the Jacks were finding something of us. I’d like for her to be there, regardless, but I couldn’t deny that finally getting even a bare bones report about whatever it was the First Prince was dredging out of Lake Artoise would be a relief.  As it turned out, though, like so often Black was right.

Mere heartbeats before midnight, the wards shivered as the Grey Pilgrim passed through.

Chapter 65: Convivial

“Note: while the assertion that one’s friends ‘are an anchor’ held up to examination, said individuals (either dead or alive) seem no more effective in that purpose than a stone anchor of the same weight. The popularity of the saying remains baffling.”
– Extract from the journal of Dread Emperor Malignant II

With seven expectant gazes remaining peeled on me, I was starting to feel a mite cornered. Just a mite, mind you. I’d gotten out of tighter corners than this through cunning use of diplomacy.

“I was,” I began, “perhaps less than correct.”

Without missing a beat the crowd began to boo me, and that vicious little wretch Robber even threw something at me over the fire. I didn’t quite manage to catch it but it slid into a fold of my cloak and I picked it up there. I blinked, finding a rather fancy glass eye looking back at me. Where had he even – no, I didn’t want to know. It had to be someone of stature, though, part of it was painted but there was also coloured glass and that’d expensive as all… No, if I asked then he won. I’d get Hakram to find out later. Still, I pocketed the eye without any qualms. He could make a tidy little sum from selling that, if he got around to it, so we’d just call this a… pre-emptive fine. Hells, maybe I could get General Abigail to believe I’d had one of those on the whole time.

“Do the apology, at least,” Aisha called out, too well-bred to grin but with suspiciously twitching lips.

I sighed.

“Archer,” I began, ignoring Indrani’s enthusiastic affirmation of ‘that’s me, you know’, “you peerless beauty whose approval I secretly crave, and that’s why I’m so mean to you-”

“That sounds about right,” Hakram gravely agreed.

The filthy traitor. I was surrounded by treachery of the worst tonight.

“- I retract any implication that you are incapable of abstract mathematics,” I valiantly soldiered on. “There. Finished.”

There was a heartbeat of silence. Masego, swaddled in a rather unnecessary amount of blankets, leaned towards Adjutant.

“Is it on purpose that she did not apologize at any point in that sentence?” Zeze asked.

Godsdamnit, now even Masego was getting in on it. The little shit absolutely did know that I’d done it on purpose, I pulled this on him all the – ah, and suddenly his sordid betrayal made a little more sense.

“Ask to be made a countess,” Juniper suggested to Indrani. “Even odds she’d take that over actually saying the word ‘apologize’.”

That was a lie. I wouldn’t go any further up the ladder than baroness to get out of this. Honorary, mind you, not landed. I shuddered to think of what Archer might get up to with regular tax revenue.

“I apologize all the time,” I protested.

I got a few skeptical looks in return.

“Here’s one for the road, then,” I sneered. “I’m sorry you’re all so thin-skinned you need apologies in the first place.”

Alas, the resuming of the loud booing was the herald of diplomacy’s failure. Sometimes, I sadly reflected, the other side simply wasn’t willing to take the very generous and reasonable terms you offered them. That was not on you, it was on them, I reminded myself. Robber once more tossed something at me, though this time I caught it – it was, to my surprise, another glass eye. Just as prettily made, although the heft was lighter and oh Night the iris was brown on this one instead of blue. And angled in the opposite direction, implying my Special Tribune might have murdered not one but two foreign highborn officers just so he could use their glass eye as toy. For once the actual specifics of something he’d done had managed to surprise me, though the spirit of the affair I was painfully familiar with. I pocketed it too, because the little bastard would have hit me with it on the chin if I hadn’t caught it. It was decided by a tribunal of the people that I would have last pick of a cut from the pig that was nearly done roasting, my threats to have them all tried for treason leaving the unruly mob indifferent. Truly, they had gone mad with power.

Juniper insisted on making the cuts herself when shed judged the meat properly roasted, ignoring Indrani’s protests that it should have another quarter hour of being turned with spices sprinkled on the searing fat. I sided with the Hellhound, half out of spite for Indrani knowing all about Stygian abstracts when she’d been raised in the middle of the damned woods and half because I rather did miss the taste of a pig roasted in the College way: mostly unseasoned, and still juicy the way orcs preferred meat to be if it couldn’t be bleeding outright. Adjutant squatted by the fire with plates while Robber was charged with bringing the communal plate of biryani. Aisha was, to my mild amusement, the first to receive a plate and by sheer coincidence got some of the choicest cuts. Masego requested belly meat and the Marshal of Callow allowed him a fat slice, which Robber claimed to be blatant favoritism, and as bickering exploded I reached for my pipe with a smothered smile. Indrani sidled up to me casually, leaning on my shoulder like a pest as I stuffed and lit a packet of wakeleaf.

“We’re missing some people,” Archer said.

Her tone wasn’t quiet, not exactly, but it was pitched not to carry.

“Vivienne will come when she’s done with the Jacks,” I said. “Whenever that happens to be.”

“Not who I meant,” she replied.

I craned back my neck just to glance at her. Indrani looked down at me, eyes serious, though face to face like this I felt the urge to kiss her. I set aside the impulse.

“Akua can’t really be here if Vivienne is,” I murmured. “And if she’s allowed to sit with us just until Vivienne arrives that’s worse than not being invited, I’d wager.”

Not the last because it made plain the tensions between my appointed successor and the monster I’d absurdly enough come to like – and more importantly, rely on. I could expect Akua to take such a situation with a degree of elegance, if not necessarily enthusiasm under the mask, but I doubted Vivienne would be so agreeable.

“I think they’d both surprise you,” Indrani said. “It’s personal, between them, but our little thief also knows a thing or two about sitting around a fire with people you were trying to kill not so long ago. Still, once more not who I was speaking of.”

Ah. Her. I lowered my head and breathed in through the shaft of my pipe, the acrid smoke filling my throat and my lungs. I let the taste and warmth of it stick with me, and only then breathed out a long stream. I should learn to do tricks, I decided. With the smoke.

“I bet Hakram’s been tiptoeing around it all careful-like,” she drawled. “Like he doesn’t want to needle tender skin. But you’re made of rougher stuff than that, aren’t you?”

Tiptoeing wasn’t the right way to put it. A perch had been offered, on occasion, and my refusal to grasp it had seen the matter implicitly closed without it ever being outright put into words.

“You’d know,” I murmured, not wagging my eyebrows but conveying the sentiment by voice. “Although it’s been a while, so maybe you forgot.”

“Godsdamn,” Archer whistled, sounding impressed. “You never get that racy where people might hear. You really don’t want to talk about it, do you?”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” I stiffly said. “She declined twice, I don’t see the need to keep inviting her.”

I wasn’t a bloody widower in desperate need of a second wife, in so dire a bind I’d buy a white stallion and learn to recite Valencian poetry just to impress. Cordial disregard suited me just fine, and to be honest it was probably safer for her. Enemies wouldn’t bother going after a love affair gone cold if trying to get to me, not when there were deeper and more obvious bindings in my life.

“You won’t even say her name,” Indrani grunted, undertone amused. “Yeah, you’re totally over how that went down. How dare I suggest otherwise.”

“Senior Mage Kilian can be fetched, if you require it so deeply,” I replied in a clipped tone. “If she declines, shall I have dragged in chains? She doesn’t fucking want to be here, Indrani.”

“It’s a bad habit, that thing you do,” Archer seriously said. “When if it’s not a blade at your throat, you let relationships stay ambiguous by doing nothing. Bet she might have changer her tune, if you’d let a few more months pass before asking again.”

“It’s been quite a bit longer than that,” I coldly said. “I won’t open up a casket just so you can sate your curiosity, ‘Drani.”

“Oh, that one’s probably cracked beyond mending,” she casually replied. “But it doesn’t have to be that way all around. Send for Akua. And make her stay, even when Vivienne joins.”

My eyes narrowed.

“You don’t give a shit about Kilian, do you?” I said. “You just wanted me to feel raw enough I’d agree to this.”

The ochre-skinned woman grinned, sharp and pale.

“Sure,” Indrani admitted. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

We should have gotten her started on the liquor earlier, I darkly thought. Might have spared me all this. I turned to meet her gaze, unflinching, until our silence was interrupted by Hakram sliding a plate full of pork and biryani on my lap. He glanced at us, dark eyes missing nothing.

“Juniper cracked open a bottle of aragh,” Adjutant said. “Or do you two need to take a walk?”

“Nah,” Indrani smiled. “Aragh sounds good. We’re done here.”

She broke our stare first, strolling away nonchalantly, and Hakram cocked a hairless brow at me in her wake. Underestimating them both, was I? I doubted it, but beyond that assertion I saw a truth she’d not mentioned. If there was going to be strife, when would we next have so relatively safe a moment to handle it? Certainly not in Salia, or up north fighting the dead. Fuck. I really hated it when Indrani pulled the whole incisive insight thing on me, but now that I knew I was taking a greater risk by not handling this now I couldn’t really justify not doing it. Knowing Archer had manoeuvred me didn’t make it any less effective.

“Invite Akua up,” I sighed.

He cocked his head to the side.

“Ought to make for an interesting evening,” he simply said.

Adjutant moved away, boots crinkling against the icing snow, to tread downslope until he’d cross the wards and send one of the legionaries to pass the message along. Ah well, it wasn’t even guaranteed she’d come. I glanced down at my plate and frowned.

“Tenderloin?” I called out at Juniper. “Really, the tenderloin? I should have you hanged.”

I saw Indrani pout and flip Robber a silver as Aisha hid a smile behind her hand.

“Let me go halfsies with Aisha’s cuts,” I wheedled.

Robber cursed in Taghrebi and flipped back the silver to Indrani, who took an overly showy bow. No one seemed particularly inclined to consider my suggestion, the bastards.

“None of you are ever becoming a countess, mark my words,” I bitterly said, and dug into my pork.

Pickler passed me the bottle of aragh, though, so maybe at least one of them would make it to baroness.

My wakeleaf was half-finished by the time Akua glided her way through the raised stones of the Mavian prayer. She’d chosen a rather conservative appearance, by her standards: a high-waisted dress with a long ruffled skirt, in red and yellow touched by eldritch patterns of gold brocade. Given that it was long-sleeved and went up to the beginning of her neck, it was one of the tamer things I’d seen her wear. Still, it was well-fitted and on a woman who looked like Akua Sahelian did that was enough to draw a lingering second look. I puffed out a mouthful of smoke as she approached the fire, bowing slightly towards me as she came to warm hands that needed no warmth against the roaring fire. I nodded back, and both of us pretended not to notice every conversation had died the moment she arrived. I took a moment to study reactions – Indrani was pleased, Hakram pleasant and Masego… staring with fascination at her torso? Must have been an arcane pattern that interested him. Those I’d anticipated rather well, though, so it was the others that got me curious. Robber was grinning, one of those needle-filled offerings that meant amusement so sharp it might as well have been spite. Pickler was indifferent, though the way she’d shuffled on the bench implied surprise and maybe a little curiosity. Aisha had put on the highborn face, a mask of pleasantry so perfect if might as well have been made of marble. Her I wouldn’t get much out of unless I asked. Juniper’s face was disgruntled, and without any hint of the respect I’d expected an orc to bear for someone who’d faced more than half the armies of Praes and Callow on the field without flinching.

Robber would test her, then, which I wasn’t all that worried about. Juniper, though? Contempt might be more dangerous there than antipathy and I suspected that was the way she was leaning.

“Spooky Saddie, sit your ass down,” Archer called out. “You’re not fooling anyone with the warming hands thing, you’re a damned ghost.”

“How have you not run out of those by now?” I said, reluctantly impressed. “Also, shade. Shade is the word you were looking for.”

“What can I say,” Indrani mused, blitherly ignoring my correction, “I’m just a giver at heart.”

“She has a list,” Akua slyly said. “She keeps it in her arrow-bag and her next one is Revenant Rags.”

Archer spluttered out it was lie, Robber cackled loudly before swearing to steal it and just like that the spell of silence was broken. Conversations resumed. Wasteland highborn, huh. I suspected she’d be on decent terms with half the people here before the night was out. She had a knack for charming others, even those who should know better. I let the warm chatter wash over me as I leaned back into my seat and smoked my pipe, following the threads of two different conversations at the same time. Juniper and Pickler had dragged a highly amused Indrani into a debate about whether or not her bow, due to its ridiculous size and the way her arrows were closer to javelins, was still a bow or in fact an exotic siege weapon. Pickler’s insistence that it was a derivative of a ballista by any reasonable set of principles ran into Juniper’s flat reminder that ‘she draws the string, with her arm, because it’s a bow’, while Archer’s insistence that while she was a trebuchet in the sack she was also handy with a string did absolutely nothing to help.

Robber was spinning an elaborate yarn about smuggling an ass – a donkey, not the other kind – in a cadet-captain’s room back his War College days for the benefit of a seemingly amused Akua, with the occasional dry correction by Hakram. Masego and Aisha, significantly more sober than most people around this fire, were discussing whether the old Alamans legends about the morions, barrow and underground-dwelling creatures that had a rapacious hunger for gold, silver and jewels, were an extinct people or simply dwarf-sightings made legend by the passing of time. It seemed the subject was of particular interest to Aisha, because I was bestowed the rare sight of Hierophant knowing visibly less about a subject than his interlocutor. As the one of the few people here who’d actually seen and spoken with dwarves I contributed a few details, though mostly I enjoyed the sensation of closest thing to home I’d felt in a very long time. Still, I was not so much at ease I’d not kept an eye and ear on where the first knife would come from. And as expected, two yarns later Robber turned a sharp grin and sharper words on Akua.

“Mind you, the fun didn’t end when we left Ater,” he drawled. “There was this one time – this was when you were still Governess in Laure, before we murdered your every ally and broke everything you ever strove for – when the Boss sent me south to kill your buddies as they moved west. Would have kept it up for even longer, except I was torturing this guy named Mulin who claimed to be under your protection and-”

Akua’s brow rose.

“Mulin,” she said. “Would you happen to mean Mulade Humin, by any chance?”

“Friend of yours?” Robber grinned.

“No, but the Lady of Salizan sent a cart’s worth of gold ingots with him,” Akua mused. “Never did get these. He was the heir to the holdings, so his mother was rather cross, but I did wonder what had happened to him.”

“Borer slit his throat,” the goblin said. “And I’m not saying we ate him, but Hells we were low on rations and if it’s Wasteland highborn anything goes, right?”

He was, I thought, looking to shock her. To get a reaction out of her. But then Robber had known little of the Empire’s high nobility, save when standing against them on a battlefield. As a student in the War College, he would have been considered under the protection of my father back in the day – who was known to brutally murder any highborn meddling with the College, and quite publicly at that. He believedt he knew what Akua Sahelian would be like, I thought, but he rather didn’t.

“Was he a screamer?” she asked.

Robber blinked.

“When you tortured him,” Akua clarified, “was he a screamer? Because there’s been these persistent rumours about the Humin-”

“Oh, come off it,” Aisha interrupted. “Even if spice birds did exist, which no one has ever proved-”

“There’s Miezan records, Bishara,” Akua solemnly said.

“By Calavia,” the Taghreb replied, sounding deeply offended. “The same hack who wrote about giant crabs living in the Wasaliti and insisted the Blessed Isle was a nest for crocodiles that spoke riddles in High Tyrian. She wrote to entertain patricians in Mieza, not as true historian.”

“I can’t comment on Calavia’s accuracy in all things,” Akua said, “yet I once shared a table with Mulade Humin when we were nine, and by the noises he made when I ate the last spice cookies you’d think I ate his firstborn using only forks.”

“Is it me, or is it kind of titillating when those two argue about things?” Indrani pensively asked.

Godsdamnit, Archer. If you’re going to say things like that, at least say something I don’t kind of agree with deep down. So both of them were rather good looking, and them getting heated over debate was a good look. It wasn’t my fault I had eyes! Still, best not to say that. Akua hardly needed the encouragement and trying to get Aisha into bed had terrible idea written all over for all sorts of reasons. I set aside the distracting though but focusing on more practical matters. The more the two of them spoke, I saw, the more out of his depth Robber looked. I sympathized, but then trying to take the shade on in courtly games like this was not the wisest choice he’d ever made. I’d seen few people outright chew through Akua when it came to this, Vivienne most vividly coming to mind. Even Black’s attempt to humiliate and terrorize her into doing something unwise by making her nail her own hand to a table had not borne the fruit he’d wanted it to, back in the day, and Akua in those years had been nowhere as smooth as she now was. Without having ever drawn blood as he meant to Robber was turned aside, and the conversations moved on. When lively debate over the kind of riddles in High Tyrian a talking crocodile might have feasibly asked – Archer, the filthy show off, started quoting riddles from ‘Tyrant and the Fool’ in the play’s original tradertalk, a tongue that had common Baalite roots – I found Aisha elegantly sitting at my side.

“My queen,” Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara said.

“I thought I’d trained you out of that,” I sighed.

‘’It’s been some time,” she smiled. “And this is a serious enough affair.”

My brow rose, and I decided to pass the last of the aragh to a distracted Hakram instead of drinking it.

“I’m listening,” I said.

Aisha’s lips thinned, then she leaned forward and lowered her voice.

“Do you mean,” she softly asked, “for Akua Sahelian to be Dread Empress of Praes?”