Heroic Interlude: Riposte

“Thirty-one: use a sword fit for your height and built, not the largest chunk of metal you can find. It will both improve your life expectancy and save you a great many jokes about overcompensation.”
-“Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, unknown author

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Klaus spoke as he contemplated the map.

Regardless of her uncle’s assurances, Cordelia was not enthused by the way the Liesse Rebellion was currently proceeding. The insurrectionists had avoided any majors defeat so far and managed to strike a few blows at the Legions, but it could not be said they were winning. Vale was in rebel hands and the Countess Marchford had been gathering troops from all over the south of Callow beneath the walls, but her own informants in Liesse’s staff had sent word that she was likely to evacuate the city rather than give battle to the Sixth and Ninth Legions.

“Why would she retreat?” Cordelia asked. “She has nigh twenty thousand soldiers now, including a core of dwarven infantry. The Empire has only sent two legions to subdue her: eight thousand soldiers, at most.”

The Prince of Hannoven thanked the servant handing him a bowl of soup and slipped him a few coins. Cordelia refrained from rolling her eyes, as it would have been a breach of decorum. Servants were usually paid less in the central part of Procer than they were in the Lycaonese principalities, true, but they were hardly beggars. Her uncle’s habit of slipping silver to the hired help was as much a dig at the local nobility as it was genuine charity. The grey-haired man broke off a chunk of bread and dipped it into that foul onion broth he was inexplicably fond of, scattering a few crumbs over his previously pristine doublet.

“She’s in a tricky position,” Klaus finally replied. “Most of her men are peasant levies and those are likely to scatter if they get bloodied bad enough. There’s the Black Knight to take into consideration, too. Half their boys will shit their breeches and run the moment he charges.”

The First Prince did not wrinkle her nose in distaste, though she dearly wished that etiquette would allow her to properly express her disgust at the crudity just displayed. Uncle Klaus might have been a prince, but whenever speaking of war he reverted to a soldier’s vocabulary. Instead she discreetly gestured for the servant to take away his soup when he wasn’t looking. There were many ways to get her feelings across without needing to dip into impropriety.

“Then she could hide behind the walls of Vale,” Cordelia pointed out. “She has seen to it that the surrounding lands were burned, denying the Empire opportunity to forage. If the levies have nowhere to run they will be forced to fight.”

The prince of Hannoven snorted, then frowned when he realized his meal had disappeared. He shot her an irritated look but she simply arched her eyebrow until he gave in with ill-grace. She had trained him well.

“You don’t ever want to get into a siege with the Praesi,” Klaus told her seriously.

“They have managed to take Summerholm only twice in over a millennium of trying,” the First Prince noted. “How good at it can they really be?”

“We’re not dealing with the Legions of a millennium ago,” Klaus reminded her. “Or even fifty years ago. Praes is the only nation on Calernia that has a permanent corps dedicated to siege warfare, Cordelia. We use imported dwarven designs like everybody else but they make their own, and they’ll only have gotten sharper since the Conquest. If they’re given time to make their machines, it’ll turn into a massacre.”

Ah. There was a cultural divide at play here, she grasped. Procerans rarely took cities when they waged war on each other: princes disliked the idea of having sweaty, dirty soldiers ransacking their famously rich family seats. Wars between principalities were decided on the field, as peasant conscripts could be expected to breed themselves back to their former numbers in a decade or so. Lost battles were followed by trade and territorial concessions, impermanent setbacks in the Ebb and Flow. Praesi, it seemed, played for keeps: whatever they took they intended to remain theirs as long as they could defend it.

“I do not understand how retreating will change the situation for the Countess,” the First Prince admitted.

“She’ll burn the ground as she moves further south,” Klaus predicted. “When the Legions pursue they’ll be exhausted and half-starved by the time they get to the battlefield.”

“They do have a supply train, Uncle,” Cordelia reminded him. “They can keep themselves fed.”

“That’s the whole point of having the Silver Spears based in Marchford,” the prince of Hannoven explained, tapping said city on the map with a wrinkled finger. “The moment the Sixth and the Ninth move south, he’ll hit the supply trains and harass their rear.”

“That strikes me as a particularly dangerous enterprise,” the fair-haired woman commented.

Unfortunate, that. It would be for the best if the Exiled Prince survived the rebellion. The hero was the nephew of the current Tyrant of Helike, and by right the lawful ruler of the city-state. If he managed to become famous enough it might be possible to leverage that acclaim into putting him on the throne – which would neatly solve one of her two most immediate foreign policy problems. A friendly king in Helike would secure the lower western flank of the Principate and take the pressure off of one of her steadiest allies in the Assembly.

“He’s not a green boy,” the older man replied, rubbing the grey stubble covering his jaw. “He’s fought in border skirmishes against Stygia and he’s been on a few heroic adventures since his exile. I’m not worried about him pulling off his part of the plan.”

“This newly-raised Fifteenth will be moving to meet him on the field,” Cordelia said.

“A sloppy half-legion led by a Squire with no notable accomplishments to her Name,” Klaus snorted.  “They’ll slow the Prince down some, which I assume is what the Black Knight wanted, but there’s no real threat there.”

“She drove back the Swordsman when he assaulted Summerholm,” the First Prince pointed out.

Her uncle scoffed. “The Warlock did that. She was just on the scene when it happened. Besides, it’s a good thing the Swordsman was slapped around a bit. Now he’ll stop hunting Calamities and go after opponents he can actually kill. The Baroness Dormer has the troops to drive this Heiress character out of her demesne, but she’s been reluctant to engage without a Named on her side.”

The contempt in the grizzled veteran’s voice was thick. Unlike most other Calernian states, Proceran rulers did not develop a Name when they acceded to the throne – as a result, the armies of the Principate were rarely led by men and women bearing the mandate of Heaven. The score of military victories they’d accumulated nonetheless had left the Proceran military with a distaste for those who expected heroes to win their wars for them. Easy for us to say, the fair-haired woman thought, when we so rarely find villains leading hosts into our land. She still had a few other questions, mainly regarding why the Empire had yet to peel off Legions from the Red Flower Vales to reinforce their offensive, but they were interrupted by a maid who hurriedly curtsied.

“Your Highnesses,” the woman spoke. “My deepest apologies for interrupting, but the Lady Augur request your presence.”

Cordelia did not allow her surprise to show. It was rare for Agnes to send for her: ever since she’d come into her Role she’d become an even more solitary creature than usual. A prediction, then, she decided. She glanced at Klaus and he grimaced before rising to his feet, wincing at the cracking sounds his back made. A lifetime of wearing armour had not done wonders for his body, and he was no longer a young man. The First Prince dismissed the maid wordlessly and strode towards the garden her cousin haunted during daytime, her uncle following closely. Midday had barely passed and it was pleasant spring afternoon out, especially here among the hedges and flowers carefully cultivated by Proceran royalty over centuries.

Agnes was sitting alone on a wrought iron chair, her simple blue dress showing more of her legs than was strictly acceptable in polite society. Had she still been a mere branch member of the Hasenbach family Cordelia would have chided her for it, but Named got to live by their own standards. If she wanted to go around naked and covered in blood, there was not a man or woman in Procer who would dare to even comment on it. Agnes’ skin was impossibly pale for the amount of time she spent outside and her Hasenbach-blond hair was cut in a short bob that had not grown an inch since she’d become the Augur. It was tame, considering the kind of appearance changes Names sometimes led to, but it still made the First Prince uncomfortable to look at it. It was the touch of the divine at work, no matter how mundane the detail.

“Cordelia, Uncle,” the Augur spoke without turning.

She was looking at the sky, unconcerned by the glare of the sun.

“Agnes,” the First Prince replied. “You sent your maid?”

There was a long pause. “A flock of turtledoves flew east this morning, as the bells rung,” the Augur mentioned.

Cordelia did not sigh, though not for lack of desire.

“You will have to explain this to me,” she reminded her cousin, who blinked in surprise.

“Ah, yes. I forget, sometimes,” she explained. “One of your diplomatic couriers was intercepted.”

“I thought you could warn us before that happened,” Klaus broke in, frowning.

“It wasn’t planned,” Agnes replied sleepily. “Just an opportunity taken.”

“Is the Stairway still secure?” Cordelia asked urgently.

Her cousin nodded absent-mindedly. “They don’t know about that. I don’t see them finding out before it’s used.”

The fair-haired ruler allowed her shoulders to loosen. Good. If the Dread Empress had found out, the results would have been… disastrous, to say the least.

“There’s more,” Agnes spoke, finally turning to look at them.

For once she looked like her attention was entirely on the there and then, eyes sharp with worry.

“There are elves in Callow. Two of them,” she continued.

Cordelia closed her eyes and, for the first time in a year, allowed herself to swear. Burning Heavens. No, it would not do to jump to conclusions. There were precedents for elves leaving their forest temporarily, though admittedly very few.  This did not have to be the prelude to military action. Gods, she hoped it was not. The only place the Forever King could turn his eyes to was south, and that was straight into Daoine. And the moment an elf sets foot in the duchy, they will go on war footing. The Deoraithe hated the elves like poison, over some ancient grudge about being the original inhabitants of the Golden Bloom. And if Duchess Kegan is focusing on the elves, she will refuse to get involved in the rebellion.

“Do you know why they left the forest?” she asked, more calmly than she felt.

“It’s unclear,” Agnes admitted, her earlier focus already disappeared as she looked away. “They’re looking for something. Or fetching something. It will come to a head in Liesse, it’s where all the knots are. Elves are… strange. It’s like trying to map the stars from a lake’s reflection.”

Two elves, headed for Liesse. The damage even two of those could do… No elf over a thousand years old would ever deign to set foot outside the Golden Bloom but that meant nothing: a dozen elven foot soldiers could wipe out a company of soldiers without losing a single man, if they felt the inclination. A single Emerald Sword could do the same without even paying attention. The elves were Good, in the broadest sense of the term, but that didn’t change the fact that they saw everyone but heroes and other elves as insolent vermin. That everyone coming within half a mile of the Golden Bloom died without warning had made that feeling very clear. Cordelia forced her mind to stay on track as her cousin drifted away into her own world.

“We no longer have time to dawdle, Uncle,” she finally said. “Assemble a host. The Dominion needs to be brought to heel by winter.”

“By your will, First Prince,” the prince of Hannoven bowed.

It was not a coincidence they’d run into the Silver Spears on their flight south.

Fate was a word William knew better than to throw around lightly, but to be Named was to be bound to the concept. Power calls to power. Finding the Helikean mercenaries camped by the village they needed to resupply at must have been necessary, for some reason the Swordsman did not yet grasp. There was always a reason. He needed to believe as much now more than ever. The Conjurer was dead. The Hunter was a prisoner, if not a corpse, and Breagach likely strapped to a table in some dungeon until she could be dissected. The Thief had disappeared without a word one night, and the betrayal left a foul taste in his mouth. Almorava said she’d be back before too long but William has his doubts. And can I really blame her? I led them straight into a slaughterhouse. The room they’d claimed at the only inn of the village was too small for all four of the present heroes to be truly comfortable, though none of the Helikean ones had yet to complain. Neither would the Bard, if the amount of bottles she’d gone through since claiming a chair was any indication.

The Lone Swordsman knew he was a handsome man – he’d attracted plenty of attention even before becoming a hero – but compared to the Exiled Prince he might as well have been a goblin. The man was tall and looked like he’d been carved out of single piece of marble, all perfect skin and long flowing curls that looked more golden than blonde. He must have been exceptionally vain before claiming his Name, to look this supernaturally flawless. His follower, the Page, looked more like an actual person. Short haired and slim, she was androgynous looking-enough that he had not been sure she was a woman before he heard her voice. She was also quite obviously in love with the Prince, to the extent that it was almost embarrassing to watch.

“We had her cornered, until she dropper her hammer,” the Exiled Prince said, recounting his raid on the Ninth and the way it had turned sour upon the Captain’s appearance. There was a touch of disbelief to his voice, like he still couldn’t quite believe what had happened. “Then she turned into this… creature.”

“We already knew she’s a werewolf,” William reminded him. “I briefed you personally on what we know of the Calamities.”

“I’ve seen werewolves before, Swordsman,” the Prince replied through gritted teeth. “I’ve killed werewolves before. That abomination was something else entirely. She was tall as an ogre and she moved so fast I could barely see her. My men might as well have been lambs, for all the difference it made.”

Page squeezed his shoulder comfortingly, but the Prince barely noticed. William resisted the urge to cringe. How could he not have cottoned on to the fact that his closest supporter had feelings for him? Or was he merely pretending not to? Heroes did tend to attract a lot of attention from the opposite sex, and even the same. The Swordsman had always preferred to air out the fact that he had no intention of getting romantically involved with anyone whenever he was in similar situations, but he wasn’t unfamiliar with the concept of ignoring an uncomfortable truth to avoid breaking someone’s heart. Or he could just be an imbecile, William thought uncharitably.

“She bit the head off of my second-in-command before we could do anything,” the Exiled Prince continued. “The Order of the Righteous Spear drove her back but we had to retreat anyway. She bought just enough time for the Sixth to get their ranks in order.”

There was no need to belabour the explanation any further. It was one thing to hit Praesi legionaries in the flank with the element of surprise on your side, quite another to lead a charge into the Ironsides when they were expecting you. The flower of Callow’s chivalry had been taught that lesson on the Fields and never recovered from the near-total losses it cost them to learn. For all his theatrics, the Free Cities hero was a talented commander. He wouldn’t throw his men at the enemy recklessly, not when his Silver Spears represented a solid half of the total cavalry the rebellion had at its disposal.

“It was still the largest victory we’ve managed against the Empire so far,” William replied. “And you can believe they’ve taken note of it. They’re sending the Fifteenth after you, last I heard.”

The man laughed, his long golden curls shaking as he did. The Swordsman was morbidly curious about how the other hero was able to keep them looking this pristine in the middle of a campaign, but decided not to ask. Name perk, most likely.

“A rookie villain and her understrength crew of miscreants?” the Prince mocked. “The Empire thinks too much of themselves.”

And now that wasn’t something he could just let go. You couldn’t underestimate the Squire, that was the kind of stupidity she fed on.

“Wipe that smile off your face,” William replied flatly. “If you take Squire lightly for even a single fucking moment, she will flay your hide and make a standard out of it.”

The Prince looked dubious. “I understand that she is your nemesis and that in some ways she must be your match, but she’s never led an army into battle before. As far as I know, you’re the only hero she’s ever fought. She is ill-equipped to deal with the likes of the Silver Spears.”

“The first time I met Catherine Foundling,” the Callowan spoke quietly, “she arranged the death of her four rivals in the span of a single night and then threw me into a river after I literally split open her torso. She doesn’t go down, Prince. Corner most villains and after a brutal fight it’s done, but short of decapitating her you’re not going to make her stop. She’s not that powerful, but in a way that makes it worse: she knows that, so she became tricky and ruthless instead. Not to mention I’m fairly sure her second-in-command is coming into a Name, because he scrapped with Thief and walked away without any major wounds.”

“I’m confident Page will be able to handle the orc,” the Prince replied drily, failing to notice the adoring smile the woman in question sent his way at the endorsement.

He really had to be doing that on purpose, William thought. He couldn’t possibly be that dense, could he?

“Single combat.”

Everybody turned to look at the Wandering Bard, who’d somehow managed to shake herself out of her drunken stupor.

“Welcome back,” the Swordsman greeted her. “Are you finally done drinking? That’d be a first.”

“That’s her weakness,” the heroine elaborated, ignoring him after an amused look. “Squire is a transitional Name, it can’t match the kind of raw power a fully realized hero can throw around. Get her in a one-on-one fight and you should be able to kill her.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” the Prince replied thoughtfully.

“The orc shouldn’t be much of a problem,” William grunted. “You can only expect so much out of a monster.”

The two Helikeans traded uncomfortable looks. On most days the Swordsman would have let it go, but today? No, he was done playing nice. Not with that foreigner and his cushy little life, who’d gone from heir to a throne to one of the wealthiest exiles on the continent.

“You think I’m prejudiced,” the green-eyed man stated.

“I find your comments distasteful,” the Exile Prince replied flatly. “And unworthy of a hero.”

“And I think now’s a good time for everyone to retire,” the Bard broke in, but they were far past that.

“You know what I find distasteful?” William asked with a pleasant smile. “When a rich brat from the Free Cities comes and tells me greenskins aren’t fucking monsters.”

The Lone Swordsman leaned forward.

“You’ve had an easy living down south,” he said. “All you Free Cities folk, fighting your little land wars against each other. But this is Callow, princeling. Our enemies don’t make treaties when they win, they don’t use trade embargos or petty intrigues. You know what orcs do when they come here? They rape, murder and pillage. They even eat our dead, like we’re godsdamned cattle.”

“Legion regulations forbid both rape and pillage,” the Page interrupted hotly. “And who do you think you are, you Callowan hick? Just a half-rate hero from a backwater-“

“I’m what’s left of this Kingdom after the rest of Calernia abandoned us to the Empire,” he snarled. “Two thousand years, the greenskins have been setting this land on fire at every occasion, and you think you get to lecture me about what they are? Orcs don’t make cities. They don’t trade or farm. All they do is kill, and teach their whelps the same. They contribute as much to Creation as the godsdamned plague. You think they changed as a species because of rules not even fifty years old? You can put a leash on a wolf and it’s still a vicious predator. You see that’s what they are, when it comes down to it: wolves on two legs, just itching to sink their teeth into something.”

William laughed.

“So go on, tell me it’s disgraceful the way I talk about them,” he said. “Let’s see how long you keep saying that, when they start eating your friends.”

The Lone Swordsman rose to his feet, pushing away the table.

“We’re done here,” he spoke. “Good luck with the Fifteenth, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

The rage had left him by the time he ended up on the roof, leaving him feeling cold and alone. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last: both his temperament and the nature of his Name tended to put him in the position. He stayed there until night fell, drifting in and out of sleep. There’d been little enough time for that evading the Empire’s patrols. Eventually he heard someone scrabbling across the tiled roof: the Wandering Bard, he knew without looking. She plopped herself down next to him. For a long time, they remained silent.

“Did you notice?” he asked suddenly. “The villagers are avoiding us. Not just the Silver Spears – which I’d understand since they’re foreign mercenaries – but us too. At first I thought they were afraid of Praesi retaliation when we leave, but there’s more to it than that. They were glaring at us, Almorava. Like we’re an occupying army.”

“Not all of them,” the Bard said. “Some were even trying to enrol in the Spears.”

“The older men and women,” William replied quietly. “The ones who actually lived under the Kingdom – they were the angriest. It’s… not what I expected.”

“Thought it would be the other way around, did you?” Almorava guessed.

“I know taxes are lower under the Empire,” he admitted. “And the Legions have clamped down on bandits. Imperial Governors are better organized than the nobles used to be, when they’re not corrupt.”

“So they can squeeze as much gold out of their term as they can,” the Bard noted. “Not out of a taste for good governance.”

“Does that really matter to most people?” William asked tiredly. “As long as it’s easier to feed their children, what do they care if the Praesi line their pockets?”

The Bard pulled from her flask, dangling her legs off the edge. She liked to do that, he’d noticed. He’d never seen the attraction himself: he’d become wary of heights since Squire had thrown him off Summerholm’s ramparts.

“Just because they’re stronger or better organized doesn’t mean they’re right, William,” she said.

“Doesn’t it?” he wondered. “You know, when I first met Squire, she said something to me. Nobody here’s any more free than when you started.

He leaned back against the stone.

“She’s not wrong. If we lose, what have I accomplished except filling a few graveyards?”

“First,” Almorava spoke, “I’d argue that those deaths were all well-deserved. They’re an occupying force, Willy. They don’t get to annex another country and then whine when it fights back, even if it’s twenty years later. Second, you’re looking at this wrong.”

He half-turned to look at her, but unsurprisingly she was drinking again. She held up a finger to tell him to wait while she finished off the rest of her flask.

“Gods, that stuff is horrible,” she muttered, wiping her lips. “I can’t believe even the Lycaonese would enjoy it. But, as I was saying, you’re thinking about this the wrong way. Sure, by starting the rebellion you endangered a lot of people’s lives. Sure, for most of Callow living conditions under the Empire are better than they were under the Kingdom.”

“If you’re attempting to disagree with me,” the Swordsman frowned, “I’m sorry to say you’re not doing very well.”

“Here’s the rub, darling,” she replied, putting a finger on his lips and drunkenly shushing him. “The way things are right now? That’s not Praes. That’s Empress Malicia and her Black Knight.”

“I don’t follow,” he admitted. “Those two are Praes, in every way that matters.”

“They’re Praes right now,” the Bard corrected him. “So what happens when one of them croaks it, or both? They’ve been in charge of the Empire for forty-odd years. That’s long, by Imperial standards. Sooner or later one of them is going to make a mistake, then the opposition will pounce – that’s how Evil works.”

“You don’t think their policies will survive them,” William realized.

That was… well, pretty likely actually. The sort of calculated, patient Evil he was fighting against was the exception and not the norm. And while villainous Roles essentially allowed their Named to live forever, in practice villainous rulers usually lasted shorter than heroic ones – whose lifespan was about the same as that of a human untouched by the divine.

“You’re not at war with Malicia, William,” Almorava reminded him. “You’re at war with the Dread Empire. Eventually some madman is going to end up climbing the Tower, and the same people glaring at you now are the ones who’d be yelling the loudest for someone to save them.”

He looked up to the sky. Full moon tonight, the Eye of Heaven out in all its splendour. How long had it been, since he’d last sat down and looked at the land he was trying to save?

“It seems unfair,” he finally admitted. “That the people I’m trying to free are complaining about it not being easy. Then again, who am I to complain?”

He closed his eyes.

“You know what it means, right?” he asked. “That I’m sworn to the Choir of Contrition?”

The Bard’s voice was quiet, almost gentle.

“That you did something unforgivable. Something you could spend your whole life atoning for and still fall short.”

He laughed bitterly. “A poetic way to put a very ugly story. I used to live in one of the villages part of the Liesse governorship, you see. My parents were cobblers. My mother’s father was a knight under King Robert so I got the sword, but to be honest we weren’t all that different from anyone else. I only started practicing with it to impress girls, though I kept it up when I saw I had some talent. It wasn’t a wealthy life, but we were better off than most – I was going to inherit the trade, since my sister didn’t care for it.”

It was good that she didn’t interrupt, ask anything. He wasn’t sure he would have been able to continue if she had.

“She was engaged to man from Liesse, the third son of some minor noble. Never liked him. He lorded his education over other people, used words he knew they wouldn’t know. Mary was clever though, liked books, so she got it.”

William let out a shaky breath. He had, in a way, never felt so naked in his life. There was not another living soul who knew that story, and he still wasn’t sure why tonight he’d finally felt the need to unburden himself. Because she was a Bard, maybe. Because before the year was done he might be dead and someone, anyone should know the truth of it.

“He was the wrong kind of clever,” William whispered. “Joined a resistance group, talked at dinner about how the people would rise one day and throw out the Legions. Was all talk at first, but one day they decided to kill one of the governor’s men. Collaborators should all die, they said. Idiots.”

He smiled mirthlessly.

“Must have been at least five spies in their group. I’m pretty sure the Eyes started it in the first place. Eventually he told my sister what they planned and she jumped right in. Walls were thin. I overheard.”

He paused, then stopped. Just thinking about what followed made him want to puke. He felt something cold against his arm and opened his eyes in surprise. A bottle of Liesse apple brandy, the stuff they made out of hard cider. He snorted and took a swallow of the suspiciously already-open bottle. Steadied his hands, which he hadn’t noticed were trembling.

“Confronted her the night before,” he confessed. “Told her it was mad. Wouldn’t change anything, and didn’t she know what the Praesi did to rebels? The whole family hangs, if it’s treason. But Mary? She was on a crusade. She was going to free Callow. The man was just a beginning, a first step. She wasn’t going to get caught and she wasn’t going to stop.”

He took a long, deep pull from the bottle. Gods, it would be so much easier doing this drunk. It would dull the feeling of it.

“I’d like to say I was thinking of my parents when I did it, but I wasn’t,” William whispered. “I was thinking of the tanner’s daughter I had a thing for, and how we might get married when I got the shop. I was thinking about how selfish my sister was, throwing me away for people we didn’t even know. For a principle, just a make-believe wish.”

Another swallow but his mouth was dry.

“I stabbed her with a table knife, right in the neck. She was dead in moments. Now here’s the part where it really becomes unforgivable. My parents weren’t home, still at the shop I assumed. I thought maybe nobody would know. But I couldn’t just leave her there, or get out the door with a corpse. People would notice.”

He laughed, because what else was there to do? Gods, every day he put on white it felt like a lie. It should be red, red like the blood he still saw on his hands whenever he prayed and the Hashmallim listened. They wouldn’t let him forget, let that night become a memory instead of a lash. They were right to.

“Broke the knife against her collarbone, so I fetched a butcher’s piece from the kitchen. Half a bell I must have spent chopping up my sister in little pieces. I was about to start putting the meat in bags when the legionaries showed up.”

The laughter froze in his throat. Would that he could choke on it, but he’d left merciful ends like that behind him long ago.

“The idiots got caught. They’d already arrested my parents and all the other families. But me? They put me in a separate cell. Then the morning after some Soninke came to me. Dragged me up, clapped my shoulder. Said I wouldn’t hang, he just wouldn’t hear of it. I’d done my duty to the Empire, I was an example to all Callowans. Told me there’d be no trouble inheriting the shop and sent me on my way.”

William let out a long, shaky breath then drowned it in some more brandy.

“This is why I can do what I do, Bard. You think I didn’t see the look of disgust on your faces when I carved up those officers? It’s fine, you should be disgusted. It was a foul, horrible thing I did. And I’ll do it again, and again, and again until Callow is free.”

He smiled, and this time it was almost genuine.

“I went a little mad, afterwards. Went into the wilds, almost starved. But then I saw an angel, and it said it would never forgive me.”

He glanced at Almorava and she looked like she wanted to weep but had forgotten how. He handed her back the bottle.

“Contrition is not forgiveness, Bard. Can never be forgiveness. It’s not in their nature. They already told me where I’m going after I die, and it’s not the nice place. So I’ll get my hands dirty for the rest of you, because that’s what I’m meant for now.”

He let out a tired sigh.

“Besides, they made me a promise,” he murmured. “Before I go Below, I’ll get to see Mary one last time. Apologize. Doesn’t matter if she accepts or not, you know. She deserves to hear me beg, for what I did. Won’t even it out, but what else can I do?”

He heard her finish the bottle, then drop it down. A long moment of silence, then the sound of glass breaking. He almost laughed – the brandy was starting to take effect.

“Oh, you poor Contrition fools,” the Bard murmured. “You break my heart every time.”

34 thoughts on “Heroic Interlude: Riposte

    1. Arkeus

      It’s super important in order to destroy Callow, sure. It’s… not that important when it comes to keeping up the current style of the regime, unless you mean “Catherine can save the Black Knight/Malicia and be a good pawn”.

      After all, Malicia/Black Knight aren’t going to age as Villains, so there is no need to look for “heirs”, just for pawns when it comes to keeping up the regime.

      Like

      1. Jackercrack s

        Their deaths are still going to happen, eventually. That it’s a dagger that does for them rather than old age doesn’t change the fact that they’ll run out of time at some point. So they do still need heirs, if they care about the country at all once they’re gone. Black obviously cares, but Malicia? Who knows.

        Like

      2. Shikome Kido Mi

        Basically what Jackercrack s said. Sooner or later, the Black Knight will die, to a hero or betrayal from his own side. But Foundling is his plan for dealing with that.

        Malicia on the other hand, may take the improvements to the Empire with her when she goes.

        Like

  1. Cyborg Cnidarian

    Bard admits that the current stability and better-than-average state of affairs for the peasant class is due to an outlier, Malicia, and not the collective side of evil itself. But what does she expect will happen if Good takes over? The side is less ruthless overall, but still treats common people like livestock for the nobles’ war-mongering. It sounds like she’s hedging her bets that over very long periods of time, centuries even, Good is a better bet for more people than Evil, so she resigns herself to fight for that side.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Daemion

      By Bard’s logic it would be better to support the current ruler of the Dread Empire, to cement her policies into tradition, to keep this trend going until insane rulers are the outliers and not the norm. Which is exactly what Catherine is doing.

      Like

      1. Arkeus

        Not really- By Bard’s logic she should try for an Outlier of Good. After all, average of Good is still better than this outlier of Evil given even this one is pretty damn bad for most people and is barely better for specific places where it focus on efficiently.

        Current Ruler of Dread Empire is still very far away from actually being decent to its own people you know, much less to Callow ones, while the Callow Kingdom was very good at being decent to its own people.

        Keep in mind: it’s the young ones who don’t know what it was under Callow who are not seeing things. Black Knight is not looking to make the people happy, he is trying to make them Apathetic.

        Like

      2. Cyborg Cnidarian

        That’s really the only way to win, isn’t it? Amass enough power, and hold it for long enough that it becomes tradition and identity to enough people. The sides themselves feel a lot likes names, in the sense that their power and character have been shaped over over centuries like ruts in a road. It takes a lot of work to go against those traditions, and a deviated side can easily lapse into it’s old tropes. Hakram might end up being very important. His blazing of his Name might herald the blazing of a completely new side. Hakram for prez! Make Praes great again!

        Like

      3. stevenneiman

        Frankly, I feel that Evil is overall more benevolent than Good. Good is about serving the generally malevolent Gods whatever they desire, while Evil is about doing anything in your power to get what you want, and most people are still overall kind and empathic beings. Good seems to also be more likely to believe in social and economic stratification, while Evil has to at least pay lip service to the idea of upward mobility.

        Like

      4. Arkeus

        That’s because the MC is Evil, so obviously she almost thinks so as it excuses her and it’s easy to think so too.

        But the facts are that everything we actually see points to even the best-run Evil places is not actually better than the worse place run by Good people, while the opposite is not true.

        Like

    2. Arkeus

      Good doesn’t treat people like livestock though? It’s actually, you know, pretty good for the people. It’s just not GREAT in its less good times.

      On one side, you have the rulers randomly deciding to torture and kill half the population every few decades in the bad times, and in the decent times you are being oppressed in an efficient fashion.

      On the other side, you are being led in an inefficient fashion at worst, or being helped at best.

      It’s… not the same thing.

      Like

      1. thorbjorn42gbf

        Yeah they treat their people like livestock. Tje following qoute is a quite good example of that: “Wars between principalities were decided on the field, as peasant conscripts could be expected to breed themselves back to their former numbers in a decade or so.” Heros does less so but the good kingdoms is basically just as horrible as normal empires was in the real world.

        Liked by 1 person

    3. I started writing the Guide in large part because I wanted to deconstruct or avert modern fantasy tropes, and the Principate is a large part of that. It is, undeniably, the largest force for Good on the continent. It’s kept both the Kingdom of the Dead and the Chain of Hunger at bay for centuries when otherwise they would have rampaged through most of Calernia. Living conditions in Procer, even for the peasantry, are better than pretty much everywhere else. Its rulers obey the dictates of the House of Light to the letter, if not always in spirit.

      None of this changes the fact that they are a feudal empire, with all the nastiness that implies.
      They still war on each other for petty reasons, see the people they rule mainly as a source of income or manpower and the Principate has tried to invade almost every other nation on Calernia at some point in its history. Heroes die young, villains crash and burn. At the end of the day, most people actually running things are just /people/. Getting a set of rules from the Heavens doesn’t magically make everyone that takes up a crown a decent person.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cyborg Cnidarian

        And this is why I read your updates every week😀. I look forward to seeing what the Kingdom of the Dead is. Knowing your writing so far, it’s probably some crazy double subversion of what it’s name implies (Like a nation of undead that crusades to “free” the accursed living from pain-ridden life, and un-living conditions appear good, but then we find that its like North Korea and it’s all a front and most people labor in salt mines or something)

        Like

      1. 1shot4living

        Thank you, I wasn’t thinking about Learn due to it seeming to be a more passive effect, but in the same way as Struggle, certain conditions need to be met for it to trigger.

        Like

  2. x

    Typos:
    sword fit for your height and built
    build

    avoided any majors defeat
    major defeats

    the Lady Augur request your presence
    requests

    it was pleasant spring afternoon out
    +a pleasant

    but William has his doubts
    had

    though none of the Helikean ones had yet to complain
    “none had yet to” means all had; from the context it seems this should be the opposite

    Like

    1. stevenneiman

      Good is defined by alliance with the Gods that want humanity to serve them. Actual benevolence is on a separate axis from Good and Evil.

      Like

      1. Arkeus

        That has never been implied at all- both Evil and Good seems to want to have their followers believe in them. See how Evil almost always turn to demon summoning/etc. It’s just less a religion for Evil and more “sell your soul and sacrifice other’s soul to me”.

        E.G, it doesn’t try to instill people with belief but instead take souls directly.

        Like

      2. On a purely technical level, the largest difference between the worship of Good and Evil is that Good is almost always community-oriented (hence the existence of churches like the House of Light) while Evil works on strictly personal relationships between worshipper and deity. There are no priests of Evil, though it can be argued that /everyone/ is a priest of Evil: all prayers can be granted, for the right price.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. stevenneiman

    “We had he cornered until she [dropper->dropped] her hammer”

    “peasant conscripts could be expected to breed themselves back to their former numbers in a decade or so” As if we needed more proof that Good is not more likely to be actually good. At least now we know that racism isn’t a requirement of anyone Good. So far we’ve met one and a half Heroes who even might be decent people. On the other side, I feel like every Villain shown onscreen except the Heiress is actually trying to make the world a better place.

    Like

  4. AVR

    A couple of typos

    one of the villages part of the
    one of the villages which are part of the

    “She was engaged to man from Liesse,
    “She was engaged to a man from Liesse,

    Like

  5. Unmaker

    Typos:

    any majors defeat
    any major defeats

    bloodied bad enough
    bloodied badly enough
    (character speech, may be written as intended)

    (others I found were already documented)

    Reactions:

    The power-race dynamics here are interesting. Humans appear to rule most of the continent, but the elves are incredibly dangerous and competent when they choose to appear, the dwarven kingdoms’ power is well over that of the surface lands, and the gnomes are ~!@#$%^&*()_+ terrifying. The only ‘weak’ nonhuman races are those clearly allied with Evil: the orcs and the goblins.

    “Is the Stairway still secure?”
    Tease, tease, Checkov’s gun. This will clearly become obvious and important later. I wonder if has something to do with the pending Crusade?

    “We had her cornered, until she dropper her hammer”
    Cool, more information on Captain. Sounds like a ridiculous badass.

    “Not to mention I’m fairly sure her second-in-command is coming into a Name, because he scrapped with Thief and walked away without any major wounds.”
    That secret didn’t last long. Names are due to popular tales and ideas – I wonder if there is a feedback effect here, that information on nascent Names spreads faster than normal because of how their power is tied to publicity.

    Willy? Please let that nickname get around so that Catherine can use it.

    “You’re at war with the Dread Empire. Eventually some madman is going to end up climbing the Tower, and the same people glaring at you now are the ones who’d be yelling the loudest for someone to save them.”
    Well damn, that’s actually a really solid reason to fight the otherwise practical and moderate current rulers. Of course, that sort of thinking may destabilize the practical and moderate current rulers and thereby make things worse…

    “Oh, you poor Contrition fools,” the Bard murmured. “You break my heart every time.”
    He knows he is already going to Hell, so he feels that he can do anything and it doesn’t matter. I suspect, partially based on the Wandering Bard’s comment, that he is wrong about that.

    Like

  6. Random thought: could the Lone Swordsman switch paths? I can’t help but think throwing up his hands and saying “screw this: I’m damned, I get it… at least I can do something more constructive for crowds of people with it while I live than constantly get whipped for what I did” could allow him to change towards… a fallen knight: Black.

    Like

    1. If Catherine can be “redeemed” in their story, then there’s an implication that the Swordsman can be “corrupted”. Patterns in the Guideverse are all about symmetry. As for him becoming a Black Knight, that’s be much trickier. The current one would have to be dead or stripped of his Name, for one, and even then the odds are incredibly low. It’s a Praesi Role and William is about as Callowan as it gets.

      Like

      1. Precedent: I know of at least one other Callow-born national with a Praesi name…😉

        And, yeah: I wasn’t suggesting a quick, overnight conversion from Swordsman to Knight. For starters, William is going to have to confront that outright xenophobia/racism of his, first. I think our current, ever-beloved Black has plenty of time on the clock if William goes that route.🙂

        Like

  7. arancaytar

    “I know taxes are lower under the Empire,” he admitted. “And the Legions have clamped down on bandits. Imperial Governors are better organized than the nobles used to be, when they’re not corrupt.”

    But aside from lowering taxes, clamping down on bandits, and making our government more efficient, what have the Praesi ever done for us?

    Like

  8. So I read this while listening to Katatonia and I damn near teared up. I can understand Willy’s point of view somewhat better now – doesn’t change that he’s still wrong, but I can’t deny that I would maybe do the same in his situation. Contrition indeed.
    Thing is, when looking at how the Principate considers all non-nobles to be literal livestock, I can’t help thinking he Empire is still the better alternative; they’re brutal, yes, but at least they’re equally brutal to everyone and at least they’re not being so hypocritical about it. Pretty sure it’s the holier-than-thou attitude I can’t stand. That, and I identify way more with the ‘everyone is sort of a priest’ mindset than with community-driven shit because look at our own history. It sucks. It sucks donkey balls.

    Like

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