“Now kneel, fools, and witness my ascension to GODHOOD!”
– Last words of Dread Empress Sinistra IV, the Erroneous
There was a heartbeat of silence before Tamika cocked her head to the side.
“Your plan?” she asked.
“Don’t encourage her,” the Lone Swordsman cursed.
I smiled condescendingly, casting an eye around me to find a more defensible position. If a monologue was going to buy the time I needed, then I was more than willing to chew the scenery for a while.
“I’m glad you asked, Tamika,” I announced. “You see, while it may appear that this is sheer bloody chaos, the whole situation was in fact-”
The scimitar came within an inch of my throat and I back-pedalled in panic, swinging my sword at the now-visible silhouette of Rashid. Right. There’s a reason long-lived villains don’t make speeches. The bastard was still wearing his mask and without a word he stepped back into the smoke, disappearing in the blink of an eye. Ah, wasn’t that going to be fun? With this kind of visibility, he had no practical limit on how many times he could pull his stealth trick. While I’d been busy trying not to get my throat cut, the veiled Soninke and the hero had apparently had a breakdown in negotiations: Tamika’s crossbow was on the ground, abandoned as she tried to fend off the black-haired man with her long dagger. She was, I noted with a degree of satisfaction, failing pretty badly. The strange sword scored a long gash across her face, ripping away the black veil. It sung when it drew blood, letting out a loud keen as the edge of the metal flashed red. I flinched at the sound, at how wrong it sounded. That thing was definitely enchanted, and not in a nice way. The crossbow wielder wasn’t going to fight her way out of this one, I assessed. The long-haired Soninke girl wasn’t half bad with her dagger – no doubt better with it than I’d be – but the Lone Swordsman was in another league entirely. He moved more like a machine than a man, calmly and methodically powering through Tamika’s defence to inflict increasingly dire wounds.
I considered joining the dance, but that seemed like a recipe for death by Rashid. Bringing up my sword, I wiped the sweat off my brow and moved towards the foundry in the front. For all that I’d been villaining my way through this encounter with blatant lies and poor misdirection, I had no intention of letting this devolve into some sort of climactic melee involving all my enemies. I would, for one, probably lose. I was pretty sure I was already tapping in the Learning aspect of my Name – the fact that I’d never needed to read a page twice to remember it flawlessly indicated as much – but it hadn’t helped me much when it came to my swordsmanship. All I had to see me through a fight was those unusually quick reflexes and a history of knowing the taste of blood in my mouth. Not, I decided, the stuff victories were made of. There was another way to deal with this mess, though: I stood less than thirty feet away from a lit furnace and most of my enemies had helpfully bunched up inside a flammable building. So let’s set the place on fire and hide by the exit to stab anyone coming out in the back. Not the most honourable of plans, but honour was for people powerful enough to afford that kind of luxury.
I somehow managed to leave the room without a masked interruption, losing sight of Tamika and her heroic opponent – I had to step over the corpse of my female guide from earlier in the process. Her neck had been hacked halfway through, I saw with mild horror. Rashid’s work, no doubt. That was when my cunning plan hit an obstacle: standing by the furnace, Chider was looking back at me with an unreadable expression on her face.
“So,” I spoke up, moving so that a table occupied my back, “I don’t suppose you’ll be willing to hold to the truce?”
Chider shrugged, her leathery face pulling taut.
“It’s nothing personal, Callow-girl,” she replied in Lower Miezan. “The money was just too good to pass on.”
Money? Who would have-
“Heiress,” I realized. “Heiress bribed you three to take me out.”
“I don’t know if she got to Rashid,” Chider noted, “Though I don’t think she would need to. But she found Tamika and me, yes. Not sure what you did to tick her off, but she’s willing to sink a small fortune into seeing you dead.”
I scowled. I’d yet to meet the girl face to face and I was already starting to hate her guts.
“You understand she’s playing all of you, right?” I said. “She’s going to be rivals with whoever ends up being the Squire, so she’s trying to meddle in the claiming.”
“She probably thinks she is,” Chider agreed, “For some reason she seems to think you’re the most dangerous of the four of us and who knows? She might even be right. But I don’t mind her getting what she wants, as long as I also get what I want.”
“And that’s my corpse?” I grunted, already preparing to duck for cover when the munitions started flying.
“I want to be the Squire,” Chider corrected sharply. “I don’t really care how I get there. There’s never been a goblin Squire, Callow-girl. Or a Black Knight, or an Empress. The tribes have done more for Praes than all of the High Lords put together, but even now all we can aspire to is being followers. If I have to kill a few humans to remedy that situation, so be it.”
I could sympathize with that, I really could. I knew what it was like, being part of a system where the best you could ever manage was being slightly above the bottom of the barrel. But her way apparently involved my being a corpse, and that wasn’t really a point I could compromise on.
“We don’t have to fight, you know,” I told her. “I’m still willing to make truce until the Lone Swordsman is dead.”
Chider grinned, all teeth and malice. “Silly girl, I’m not going to fight you.”
She reached inside the satchel at her hip and brought out a clay ball the size of her fist. I ducked behind an anvil, but the expected sharper never came. I blinked and the glimpse I’d had of the munition drifted to the surface of my mind, clear as spring water. Creepy, that – my memory had never been that good, and there was no way I should have been able to see as many details as I had. Sharpers were clay balls, yes, but usually they had a stick protruding out. This one hadn’t had anything of the sort. It wasn’t a brightstick either. A smoker? I’d never seen a diagram of those, so I wasn’t sure what they looked like. My answer came in the form of a roaring furnace: there was a deafening blast and a burst of green light. I snuck out a look from behind the anvil and saw the whole front of the foundry was burning. Eerie green flames were spreading further with every passing moment, and of Chider there was no sign. The furnace was on fire, I noticed. The metal furnace was on fire. Green flames, burning metal? Oh fuck me.
“Goblinfire,” I gasped into the empty room, backing away with haste.
That clay ball hadn’t been a smoker, it had been godsdamned goblinfire. The most heavily restricted substance in Imperial territory – just possessing some was enough to earn you a hanging – and Chider had just casually tossed a ball of it into an open flame. Nobody except the goblins knew exactly what goblinfire was, but the Conquest had taught Callowans to fear the sight of the green flames: it burned everything, including water and even magic. Seven days and seven nights it would keep burning, impossible to put out until it stopped on its own. There were still parts of Laure where the ground was nothing more than blackened glass, where the substance had been used when the Legions took the city. If any of it touched me, the best I could expect was to be turned into a blackened husk for the rest of my miserable existence. Well, I guess I’m not leaving by the front door, I grimaced. Which meant going back into the very melee I’d tried avoiding. New plan, then: get the Hells out of here before the Royal Foundry got turned into the closest thing to the actual Hells that could be managed on Creation. Possibly stab someone if I got an opening, but no need to take stupid risks. Appearing reckless was useful – being reckless was a death sentence for a girl in my position. Naturally, the moment I’d settled on a fresh course of action was when Rashid chose to make his appearance. Stepping out of the doorway, the masked boy’s robes fluttered as he strode forwards me. His scimitar was coated in blood and chunks of bone, though it looked no less sharp for it.
“I told you we had unfinished business, Callowan,” he hissed in Taghrebi. “I’ve been looking forward to this.”
“Really, Rashid?” I complained. “We’re going to have a duel to the death in the middle of a foundry full of goblinfire? Couldn’t we at least move to the other room?”
“And risk one of the veiled wretches stealing my kill?” he chuckled. “I think not.”
Apparently that was enough banter for him, because he struck without warning. No tricks this time, no attempt to take me by surprise: the curved sword came for my neck, though I slapped it away with my own blade before it could come anywhere close to drawing blood. He’d apparently found a healer in the last two days, because the wound I’d inflicted on the night we first met didn’t seem to be slowing him down.
“Fine,” I ground out through gritted teeth as I pushed back his scimitar. “The hard way it is.”
I made to sweep his leg but he spun around me fluidly, blade flashing out to swipe across my unprotected back. I hissed at the pain and swung my sword to force him away, already feeling the blood welling up in the wound. Shit. I really hope that wasn’t poisoned. He darted away, carefully choosing his distance and stalking around me like a crow circling a corpse. From the corner of my eye I could see the green flames continue to spread, swallowing everything in their way. I brought up my sword in middle-line, flattening my profile so he’d find me harder to hit. All of this would have been much easier with a shield, and I once more cursed that it would have been a dead giveaway to the Sons if I’d come bearing one. His footing shifted minutely, but I had no intention of letting him go on the offensive again: I struck first, point aimed at his sternum.
Not fast enough, though. Half a step back brought him just out of my range, and when my blade retracted he followed it in a single fluid movement. The scimitar flashed again, coming for my sword-arm much faster than I’d believed him to be capable of. Angling my pommel up took the better part of the hit, but the edge still ripped through a chunk of my forearm before he darted away. I swallowed a sob of pain, tightening my lips. What was happening? He hadn’t been anywhere this good last time we fought, and as far as I could tell his technique hadn’t gotten any better. He was just better. Something about this fight is empowering one of his aspects. That wasn’t something I could match, damn me. The only one of mine I’d figured out was Learn, and it appeared my Name didn’t consider duels to the death to be learning opportunities.
“There’s the look I was waiting for,” Rashid purred. “The moment where you finally understand your place in the world.”
For once my life, I was in too much pain to think of a proper response. I struck instead, aiming for the same shoulder I’d wounded last time, but he slapped my point away with contemptuous ease. My hand was shaking, and after being struck twice I’d hesitated too much to properly commit to the strike.
“Maybe I should just leave you in here,” the boy mused through his mask. “Bar the door and let you burn alive. I’m told the green flames are even more excruciatingly painful than regular ones.”
I tried to take a deep breath but ended up inhaling some of the smoke that was growing to permeate the room and started coughing instead. Rashid didn’t even deign to take that opening, preferring to just stand there radiating amusement. I was losing. I was losing, and I was going to die.
The truth of that sunk in and it was like the all the colours in the world where whisked out.
I didn’t have any tricks up my sleeves, and this wasn’t the kind of opponent I could talk my way out of fighting. Rashid had come here tonight to spill my life’s blood on the ground, and would not leave until he’d gotten what he wanted. He was faster than me, more experienced in this kind of fight, and every one of my heartbeats spilled more out my blood on the floor while he remained unwounded. The gap between us could only widen one way, now. I am going to die here, I realized. This was as far as I’d managed to go, for all my grand ambitions – killed in an abandoned foundry by some idiot wearing a mask who just happened to be better with a blade. What a stupid, stupid death. Gods, I was tired. Barely two weeks since I’d left Laure, and it seemed like it had been years. The heat of the spreading flames licked my skin and a part of me wondered if I should just let him run me through. It would be quicker death than letting him take me apart wound by wound as he so clearly wanted.
“I had all these plans, you know,” I spoke into the silence. “To make a different world, a better world.”
“The delusions of a weakling,” Rashid replied with naked contempt. “Cockroaches are for stepping on, that’s all there is to it.”
The sheer scorn in those words felt like a slap in the face.
“You don’t get to say that, you little shit,” I said in a low voice. “Even if you beat me here, you don’t get to say that.”
Something in my belly stirred like old embers, a heat under the surface that needed only the right fuel to burn. It didn’t care if he killed me – more than anything, right now, I wanted that dismissive prick to be wrong. It didn’t matter if I was outclassed, it didn’t matter if he had every advantage and I had less than none. I was going to make him choke on those words, choke until his face turned blue and his eyes popped out.
Even if I bled.
Even if I burned.
Even if the flesh was flayed off my bones.
I would Struggle.
Power flowed through my veins, the beat of it drowning out even the roar of the flames. I raised my sword and stepped forward.
“Oh?” Rashid chuckled. “Are we-”
I rammed my fist into his mask, shattering the clay like the cheap affectation it was. The scimitar came up but I grabbed him by throat and threw him against a table. My Name pulsed under my skin like a living thing, feeding on the fight. The Taghreb snarled and got back on his feet as I continued striding forward, striking almost too fast for the eye to follow. Slow. So slow. How could I ever have thought of him as fast? My sword came down on his wrist and blood sprayed out. His hand fell, fingers still clutching the handle of the blade. I could see his face now, see the fear appearing in those dark eyes.
“I-” he snarled, but I shut him up by punching the tip of my blade through his throat.
Fear turned to disbelief and with a flick of the wrist I tore out my sword. He dropped to the ground.
“Got stepped on,” I finished in a whisper. “Cockroach.”
I watched the life bleed out of the boy, standing above him with my bloodied blade in hand as the flames cast their hellish green light. The moment he took his last gasping breath I felt something click inside of me, like another piece of a puzzle I couldn’t see had snapped into place. The power inside my veins dimmed, then disappeared. The pain I’d stopped noticing slammed back into my senses and I grit my teeth as I swayed on my feet. Tapping into the Name’s power had worn me down, and not just because it’d taken away my tiredness for a moment. And I don’t think that little burst is going to happen again. Not tonight, anyway. With a last look at the boy I’d just murdered, I stepped into the smoke.
My eyes wanted to close and my body wanted to curl up into a ball and sleep until all of this mess had gone away and become someone else’s problem. I allowed myself the luxury of thinking about how much more pleasant my life would be, were I the kind of person who was willing to do that. Then I took a deep breath and walked towards the sound of fighting, sword raised. No rest for the wicked.
The Lone Swordsman had two opponents, but Chider was not one of them. Tamika, blood dripping down her chin where the enchanted sword had sliced her earlier, was reloading her crossbow while she fought the hero with her spear. She was also white-veiled again, and unwounded. I blinked, making sure that my little Name episode earlier hadn’t knocked something loose in my head: there were, in fact, two Tamikas. The one who’d shot at me earlier still bore the wounds I’d seen the Swordsman inflict her, but the other one was still untouched. Rashid had mentioned wretches, earlier, I recalled. I’d thought it was a mistake, at the time, but apparently not.
Whatever Name trickery this involved, they were actually managing to drive the hero back: whenever the dark-haired man managed to get the drop on the one fighting him with the spear, the other one loosed a crossbow bolt at him. Whenever he tried to take out the one with the crossbow, the spear-wielder started pressing him furiously. The tactics they used weren’t particularly sophisticated and the Lone Swordsman didn’t seem to bear any wounds besides a rip in his leather coat revealing the chain mail that covered his forearms, but… Neither was he making progress. Their synchronization was too good, each attack flowing into the next with neither ever missing a single beat. None of the three had noticed me yet. Quietly, I stepped behind the one I was now naming Crossbow Tamika. She wore hardened leather but no helmet – her neck was bare, and I was done playing around with my fellow claimants. I got within three feet of her before Spear Tamika saw me. Her eyes widened, but it was too late: I was already striking and… and now I was ducking when the other one swivelled to face me and shot her bolt into the space where I’d been a heartbeat earlier.
There was no way she could have known, much less taken aim so quickly. Were they sharing each other’s field of vision? Gods, that would be a ridiculously useful trick. Spear Tamika stepped away from the hero before I could close the distance separating me from the other one, coming just close enough to be able to come to her rescue if I tried to intervene as she reloaded her crossbow. Well, that was a problem.
“Lone Swordsman,” I called out. “I have a question for you.”
“No,” he replied instantly.
“You don’t even know what I’m asking,” I complained. “I could have been offering my surrender.”
He squinted at me. “Are you?”
“We can get to that later,” I dismissed. “Evidently you’re the gritty type, but how far up the antihero scale are you?”
“As far as I need to be,” he responded gravely.
I pushed down my urge to make something out of that. Crossbow Tamika had already finished reloading, and the pair of them seemed to be considering their next target. I really wasn’t liking the way Spear Tamika was beginning to angle towards me.
“Are you the kind of gritty that works with enemies?” I probed. “You know, for the greater good and such.”
I’d been paying too much attention to the spear-wielder: meanwhile Crossbow Tamika had calmly lined up her shot and pulled the trigger. I’d been lucky with the bolts so far, but with the last remnants of my Name’s power fading away I didn’t have the kind of speed that let me dodge those at will anymore: she missed my chest but the projectile punched into the flesh of my shoulder with a wet thunk. I let out a cry of pain, nearly dropping my sword in shock.
“Fuck,” I cursed.
I hacked away the shaft of the missile with a trembling hand, but actually taking it out would have to wait: I was pretty sure that kind of bleeding would kill me, after how much of Rashid had already gotten out of me. The Lone Swordsman’s face was inscrutable, but if he didn’t reply in the next few moments I would have to-
“You’re Callowan, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Laure born and raised,” I confirmed.
“… only until they’re dead,” he spoke, distaste clear in his voice. “Not a moment longer.”
“You’re such a charmer,” I gasped, resisting the strange urge I was getting to roll my wounded shoulder.
The bolt was painful enough without wriggling it around in my flesh.
“She came here to kill you,” Crossbow Tamika said suddenly, her voice sounding strangely distant as she addressed the hero.
“He’s your enemy,” the other one told me in the same tone.
“So are you,” I grunted, pushing myself into action.
The spear-wielder was the closest to me, so it was towards her I moved. Without a word she burst into motion, the tip of her spear thrusting forward in the blink of an eye. I sidestepped the strike, though it was a close thing: both my exhaustion and blood loss were beginning to take their toll, Name or not. I forced a spring to my tired limbs and passed the tip of her spear but without missing a beat Tamika whipped the shaft straight into my wounded shoulder. I dropped down on one knee, trying to turn my scream into a curse and only half-succeeding. I grit my teeth and pushed myself up, but the shaft struck me across the face and threw me down sideways. I felt my sword fall out of my grip, handle slick with blood, and as I scrambled desperately to reach it Tamika’s boot came down on my fingers. I felt the phalanges break with a sickening crack. I whimpered and watched as the spear rose, tip headed for my throat, when it suddenly stopped. Without so much as a word of warning, my opponent threw her weapon in the direction of the other duel.
I was weaponless, shit, and – and I wasn’t.
My left hand reached for the knife I’d won by slitting two throats, the sheath hidden in the small of my back. Tamika raised her hand and dark smoke coalesced in it, forming into a spear again, but it wasn’t quite done. With a heaving cry I rose again, feeling the burn of skin getting ripped as I pulled out my hand from under her boot. She stumbled at the sudden pushback and my hand arced, the small knife a silvery blur as I drove it right under her chin. Tamika blinked wordlessly, blood gurgling as she tried to breathe. I twisted the knife and tore it out, blood spraying all over my upper body from the severed artery. The Soninke took a hesitant step back, then another, and her hand came to touch the wound as the now-materialized spear clattered against the ground. From the other side of the room a horrible scream came until it was suddenly snuffed out. I glanced and saw the other Tamika’s head rolling on the floor, the cut so perfect it took a few heartbeats before blood started coming out. I’d fallen back on my knees at some point, I realized, but my sword was within reach. I tried to pick it up with my hand but the broken fingers refused to move.
No pain, though. Was I already beyond that? I dropped the knife and took the sword with my left hand as the Lone Swordsman calmly walked towards me. Behind me I could feel the goblinfire beginning to spread into this room, and with a wet laugh I saw green light beginning to filter out of the other exit. Chider set fire to both ends. Of course she did. The hero seemed unconcerned as he came to stand before me – I stabbed the tip of my sword into the ground to push myself back to my feet. So much for avoiding the climactic melee. The Lone Swordsman frowned, his face still irritatingly handsome despite it. “Not a moment longer,” he reminded me.
The sword blurred and let out that horrifying keen as it spilled my blood on the floor. I could feel a trail of fire across my chest and something hard hit me in the stomach. I stumbled to the ground. My limbs felt cold. Someone was walking away and I knew who, but I couldn’t quite remember the name. Smoke was snaking its way across the ceiling in whimsical patterns and I lay there.
I’m not sure how long I lay there. I could still hear things, but events came disjointed. A flash of blinding light and the sound of wood breaking. Three claps of thunder – or was it five? Beyond the cold that was spreading through me I could feel the most maddening itch, but I didn’t do anything about. It was like a painting almost done, but not quite. Like all it would need was a last brushstroke, and finally everything would fit. I lay there, listening to the green flames devouring the world, and itched.
And then it clicked.
Awareness flooded back into me. I was Catherine Foundling, daughter of no one and nothing. I’d fought people for gold once, but earned only silver. I’d taken lives, and justice had come for me with a sword that cried like a grieving man. I was apprenticed to a monster but dreamed of making a world without them. A traitor to all causes but my own, and my path had brought me to this moment: bleeding out on the floor, surrounded by fire.
The other claimants were all dead, and I was the Squire.
My mind was getting clearer with every breath. It brought no comfort. The Name was roiling under my skin, finally mine, but it brought no healing with it. Evil never does. I wanted to get up, needed to if I didn’t want to celebrate my victory by merrily burning alive, but my body refused to cooperate. I was more than half a corpse, and the endurance I’d always prided myself on was finally failing me. More than half a corpse, huh. The idea took shape in my mind, absurd in all the best ways.
“I’ve seen a corpse raised before,” I cackled to myself, hacking out a horrible laugh.
I reached for the depths of my Name, sinking as deep as I could without a second thought. It was still there, that cool feeling I remembered from the sunny afternoon where I’d made my mount. Like water so deep it’s never seen the sun. I grasped the power, spun it into threads. Slowly, carefully, I tied knots around my limbs. It occurred to me that I was making a puppet of myself and I let out another cackle. Well, better me than someone else. Opening my eyes, I looked at the ceiling and pulled. My left leg yanked itself up – the muscles pulled taut but held, and the right leg came to join it. Mustering the full weight of my concentration, I tugged at the largest string: my abdomen was harshly brought up, and I stood on my feet again.
“And now,” I announced to the empty room, “for my next trick…”
One, two, three, four, five. One after another, my broken fingers snapped back into place. I didn’t feel so much as a twinge of pain from the act, which wasn’t very likely to be a good sign. I balled up my hand and formed a fist before letting the strings go loose: the fingers loosened, still unresponsive to my attempts to get them moving. It would have to do. Like Creation’s most demented puppeteer, I tugged and pulled until I managed to get my sword back at my side and my knife back in its sheath. There was a hole in the wall, I noted. Apparently the Lone Swordsman had solved the dilemma of both ways out being on fire by making his own. Whatever he’d used to break through reeked of magic, but it didn’t seem harmful to me: I walked out into the alley with an indifferent shrug. The street was deserted, though close to the mouth of it I found black goblin’s blood splashed on the pavement stones. Chider’s satchel laid there unattended, spilled open by a sword strike. There were still munitions in it, I saw. Absent-mindedly I picked up a sharper, but the longer I looked at it the more my mind began to wander: I looked ahead instead, leaving the street and heading into a larger avenue.
I was near a stairway leading up to the outer walls, and up there on the ramparts I caught sight of a coat fluttering dramatically.
The Lone Swordsman stood there, brooding away into the night as the wind tousled his dark locks teasingly. I was halfway up before I realized what I was doing, and by then it was too late. Manipulating your own near-corpse apparently didn’t lend itself to stealth very well, because he turned towards me long before I was within stabbing distance. Shame, it would have been kind of a treat to just ram my sword in his back and push him off the wall.
“You,” he scowled before turning pale as he took a closer look. “What have you done to yourself?”
I tried to reply but all that came out was an insolent gurgle. Right, still dying. That was unfortunate. I wasn’t in much of a bantering state, so I chucked the sharper at him instead. I missed and hit behind him, but the blast still knocked him off his feet. Small favours, I supposed. It took me two tries to get my sword out of its sheath – the angle was hard to visualize – but by the time he recovered from the shockwave I was on him. I tugged the strings and my arm came down, blade slamming down into his awkwardly angled parry. Too rough, I noted as I felt the arm’s muscles tear like cheap cloth. The strength behind the strike was monstrous, though I noted with mild surprise that the edge of his blade actually cut into mine. Ultimately that came in useful: when I drew back my arm with another tug, his sword was ripped out of his hand and came away with mine. I shook it off by tugging my arm back and forth, kicking it down into the street when it clanged against the floor. I tried to speak up again but ended up spitting out a fat gob of blood as he looked upon me with horror, backing away. Still, it had the benefit of clearing my throat.
“Told you my plan was working,” I rasped.
“You planned to become a necromantic abomination?” he said, aghast and still stepping away warily.
Not really, but it wasn’t like he could prove that. I circled around him with my sword brought up, forcing him to stand against the edge of the wall. The Hwaerte River’s dark waters ran down below, yet another defence in the arsenal of the Gate of the East.
“You’re Callowan,” he said when the silence got awkward. “We should be fighting side by side, not against each other. Why do you work for them? How can you possibly justify working for these tyrants?”
He hadn’t seemed as eager to make common cause when he’d been the one with the sword, I noted.
“Who else is there to work for?” I managed to get out, my voice so rough I could barely recognize it as my own.
He waved his arm passionately.
“Callow!” he replied. “For the Kingdom and all the people who live in it.”
“There is no Callow,” I rasped. “The Kingdom died twenty years ago. Before either of us were born.”
“If even one person fights under the banner, the Kingdom still lives,” he said, sounding like he’d just imparted some kind of great truth on me. Heroes.
“A kingdom of one,” I spoke into a hacking cough. “All hail King Swordsman, lord of stupid causes.”
Those green eyes turned to steel and I tugged the strings to shift my footing, half-sure he was about to attack.
“There’s nothing stupid about freedom,” he hissed.
“Going to free us, are you?” I laughed. “How? By killing Imperial Governors? Nobody here’s any more free than when you started.”
“So I should kneel and lick the Enemy’s boot, like you do?” he snarled. “Never. I’d rather die.”
I could kill him. Right now, right here, I knew deep in my bones that I could kill him. I might not be able to the next time we met, but this once the story’s flow was in my favour. It was tempting, but at the edge of my mind I could make out a path. It was a dark one, strewn with ruin and the death of innocents, but hadn’t I stopped pretending to be on the side of the Heavens the moment I’d taken the knife?
“Prove it,” I rasped. “If you want your way to beat mine, then come at me again. Properly. Earn your Name, hero. Run and hide and muster your armies in the dark. Make deals you’ll regret until you have nothing left to bargain with. I’ll be waiting for you, on the other side of that battlefield.”
The Swordsman’s face went blank as I let my sword come down.
“But remember this,” I said. “Tonight? I won.”
Faster than the eye could follow, I pushed him off the wall. He yelled something I couldn’t make out and as he fell into the dark waters and I took a step back from the brink. I let what I’d just done sink in, closing my eyes. With a life spared, I’d just killed thousands. I’d just promised cities to fire and ruin, sown the seeds of a rebellion that would rip the land of my birth – the very same land I wanted to save – apart. But I’d also bought the war I needed. Damn me, but I’d bought the war I needed. One after another, the strings holding me up gave. I flopped bonelessly to the ground, at the edge of unconsciousness. It was nice out. Cool and soothing, after all that time in the fire. I heard steps against the stone, calm and unhurried.
“Busy night?” someone murmured.
I opened my eyes and came face to face with eerie green ones.
“I got stabbed,” I mumbled. “A lot.”
“Happens to the best of us, Squire,” the dark-haired man murmured, and I felt his hand on my shoulder before darkness took me.