Interlude: Nemeses

“I’ve been told one can only be betrayed by a friend, which is why I constantly surround myself with enemies.”
– Dread Emperor Traitorous

“This is a problem,” Arzachel said.

Akua stilled her tongue before it could deliver a truly scathing piece of sarcasm. The Proceran was quite good at his work, but he did have an unfortunate tendency to present obvious truths as if they were a revelation from the Gods. The two corpses had not been touched since the picket had brought them into the supply tent, the wounds in their throats and kidneys still bloody if no longer bleeding. The smell was foul, but this was hardly the first time Heiress had ever been in a room with corpses. They’d been a staple of her childhood.

“They hit the sentinels right before dawn, as far as we can tell,” the commander of her mercenaries grunted. “Knifed those two and infiltrated the camp. We don’t know how far in they got.”

Foundling’s foul little goblins at work, of that there was no doubt. Chider had warned her that the one named Robber had a reputation among her kind as half-mad even by their standards. Akua had been sceptical that Squire would let him off the leash in the middle of a campaign but she had been incorrect, evidently. Their last confrontation had radicalized her rival more than expected. The girl took everything so personally, even when she was not meant to: Foundling had committed the Praesi cardinal sin of coming to care for her power base on a personal level. It made controlling escalation particularly tricky, though admittedly it also made manipulating her child’s play.

“Are you certain they’re no longer in the camp?” she asked.

They were two days off Marchford, headed for the very ford the city had been named after. This was the first night some of her men had turned up dead, though there’d been reports of goblins skulking around the edge of her camp before.

“I combed through the camp, but goblins can hide in a bare white room if they need to,” Arzachel said. “We’ll only know for sure when we’re on the march.”

In this kind of situation Akua’s preferred counter would have been to go on the offensive, but the situation did not allow for that kind of manoeuvring. By officially designating her as an auxiliary the Black Knight had ensured she was bound by the regulations of the Legions of Terror. Any incident between her men and the Fifteenth would end up arbitrated by either a military tribunal whose members would be chosen by Foundling or directly by the Squire herself – who’d been granted absolute discretionary authority over the legion by Lord Black. That path ended only with gallows being raised. Even her own personal safety was at stake at the moment, though she already knew how she’d slip out of that particular noose when the time came.

No, until they reached her own objective she’d have to stay on the defensive. Not the optimal stance, but it could have its uses. Allowing Squire to build up her confidence with minor indirect victories would make it easier to blindside her later. Akua could not under any circumstances allow herself to be baited into a direct confrontation: it would be throwing away the last year of work entirely, and it was incredibly unlikely she’d manage to pull wool over the eyes of Lord Black twice in a row. The dark-skinned aristocrat consciously refrained from touching the unmarred skin on her hand where she’d rammed her own knife a few days ago. She suspected the man had been trying to bait her into something unwise, but she’d known better. He did not have enough to kill her and anything short of that could be healed in time.

The fear she still felt at the way he’d smiled at her would go away in time. No one had ever Spoken at her before, and while Lord Black was not in the same league as the Empress – there was a reason any agent who’d been in the same room as Malicia had to be disposed of immediately – he still had brought more to bear than any mere Black Knight should. A consequence of his lacking power in other areas, perhaps.

“Speak with Chider,” she ordered. “She’ll help you prepare for goblin raiding tactics.”

Arzachel nodded, looking away too quickly. He’d been looking at her breasts, most likely. The riding dress she was currently wearing did allow some cleavage to show, and puberty had been kind to her in that regard. Akua was the result of centuries of breeding for looks and magical power, though standards of beauty had admittedly shifted several times over that length of time. That the mercenary desired her was a useful tool of control, though that attraction would have to be carefully managed: spurned men often did childish things to ‘get even’, and she had no intention of ever sharing a bed with the Proceran. She left without a word, mind already moving on to the next situation she had to address before the march west resumed. She had a scrying session scheduled, and the woman she was going to be conversing with was not one she could afford to face while distracted.

Her tent had been prepared for the casting, the twenty-four layers of wards humming against her skin when she entered. Waiting for the Warlock to be gone had been common sense, for not even old Wolofite secrets were guarantee that man would not be able to listen in. He’d systematically broken through Wolofite warding schemes during the civil war, after all, and done so without even resorting to sacrifices. There were still entire cabals of mages in the city who dedicated their days to finding out how he’d accomplished that, though their efforts had not borne fruits in decades. Instead of the bowls of water some mages preferred, the Sehelians of Wolof had always used mirrors. Having them cast from the same ingot ensured a better and more stable connection than most linked items could manage, an advantage that had once ensured her family’s armies could communicate as far as Foramen while their opponents could manage barely half that distance. That Lord Warlock’s introduction of a long-range scrying spell accessible to all had destroyed that comparative advantage still caused some bitter feelings at home.

The round golden mirror, the size of her palm, rested innocently on the table. Akua let out a long breath and felt her mind cool. This was not a Name trick but a meditative one, setting aside distractions and allowing her thoughts to flow without emotional bias. The technique had been tortured out of a member of the Watch a few centuries ago and carefully hoarded ever since, never leaving the confines of the ruling line of Wolof. Heiress touched a finger to the polished gold.

“Show me not my reflection,” she spoke in an ancient Mtethwa dialect, “but the face of your brother.”

Her touch did not leave a fingerprint. There was no ripple, no uncouth glow: the eyes of her mother simply met hers a heartbeat later. High Lady Tasia Sahelian was nearly sixty years old, though she looked barely half of that. It was no glamour: rituals to maintain the physical trappings of youth and the same superior breeding that had led to both their beauty were more than enough. High cheekbones and perfect eyebrows, lovely dark golden eyes and full lips – it was no mystery why the High Lady still had so many admirers even at her age.

“Mother,” Akua said.

The High Lady would not have spoken first if she hadn’t, an unspoken reminder that for all that Heiress had a Name she was still not the dominant partner in their relationship.

“Akua,” her mother replied. “I’m told you’re finally on the march.”

Likely the woman already knew where they were headed, but Heiress answered the unasked question nonetheless.

“To Liesse,” she said. “We’ve been ordered to take the city while Lord Black deals with the rebel host.”

The High Lady has no visible reaction but there was a palpable sense of satisfaction emanating from her nonetheless, even through the mirror. That part of the plan had succeeded flawlessly.

“Foundling must be anxious,” Mother said. “She will be finishing her pattern of three with the hero.”

Not gloating, for High Lady Tasia was better bred than that, but something close to it. Squire had actually not seemed anything of the sort, though she had to be aware that after a victory and a draw she was headed for a defeat against the Lone Swordsman. No doubt her teacher had informed her that it was possible to discharge that mandated defeat without the consequences being fatal – though Akua doubted it would easy, with a Bard on the opposing side. While those types of Names were rarely able to intervene directly, there was nothing stopping them from manipulating the situation from behind the scene.

“Is my support on schedule?” Heiress asked.

She’d sent for her own reinforcements, detachments of household troops contributed by all the ranking members of the Truebloods. Only a thousand overall, since none of the members trusted each other enough to truly deplete their strength, but it would still double her numbers. Her mother paused.

“There have been developments,” she said.

Not a collapse of the Trueblood coalition, Heiress decided calmly. It was currently the most united it had been since Malicia’s ascension of the Tower. An exterior factor, then. The Swordsman? He should have been in Liesse with the Stygian slaves, but heroes could be slippery that way.

“Such as?”

High Lady Tasia allowed her lips to thin in displeasure.

“The ships assembled to cross the Wasaliti were stolen,” she said.

The meditation technique held, muting the sense of surprise. Not sunk, stolen. That phrasing was not happenstance.

“The Thief,” Heiress said.

“She left a note on the shore, informing us they had been ‘borrowed indefinitely’,” Mother said, eyes gone hot with rage. “A small fleet, gone inside an hour without a trace. They’re not on the river and our agents in Mercantis have seen no sign of them.”

Heroes, unmaking a month of preparations as easily as a soldier tossed dice.

“You could charter more,” Akua noted.

Mother shook her head minutely. “The Empress has finally made her move.”

That single sentence brought fresh dread that put anything personal fear inflicted by Lord Black to shame. The man was a threat, but he was ultimately nothing more than an exceedingly talented warlord. Dangerous, but he could be neutered through politics. Her Most Dreadful Majesty Malicia, First of Her Name, had always been the most dangerous of the two. While her Knight settled the provinces the Empress had spent decades fencing with the sharpest minds in Praes, leaving behind her a trail of broken ambitions and exquisitely outplayed corpses.

“She was particularly clever about this one,” the High Lady admitted. “Our request that the Clans be forced to be pay the tributes they refused under Nefarious rests on the legality that, even when not under de facto Imperial control, territories are subject to Imperial law and obligations. Under that understanding, the lands you looted in southern Callow are granted the same legal status.”

Which meant either Wolof had to pay massive reparations for the damages incurred in that territory or withdraw the request made to the Tower. That her mother was currently implying she would not have the funds to assemble another fleet of transports implied she’d already reached a decision on the matter. And we can’t rely on the other Truebloods to foot the bill. Mother is the unofficial head of the coalition, but unmatched monetary contributions would muddy that status. Akua found she agreed with the decision made here, after a moment: wealth would flow back in Sahelian coffers soon enough, while backing down on the orc issue was not something they could ever take back. It was still incredibly inconvenient.

“I’ll manage without them,” Akua said, to her mother’s visible approval.

In some ways having only expendable troops at her disposal opened possibilities. She’d already secured the necessary fuel for her rituals but being able to operate without the limitation of having to preserve any of her forces save her personal followers allowed for a degree of… recklessness borrowed household troops would forbid. Not to mention never having to pay the mercenaries would relieve the family coffers of an additional burden. She could work with this, unplanned as it was.

“Keep me informed as you approach Liesse,” High Lady Tasia ordered.

Akua bowed her head, though the commanding tone rankled. It always did. Without wasting any times on goodbyes, her mother’s profile disappeared from the mirror. Heiress waited, for now came the contact she’d actually been looking forward to. The link between mirrors activated again, responding as if it had been triggered from the other side. It hadn’t been: a spell had been used that fooled the laws of sympathy scrying relied on to make the artefact believe it was connected to its match again. An older Soninke man appeared on the surface, face wrinkled with laugh lines and sleepless nights. Not particularly handsome, but there was an intensity to him that almost made up for it when he focused entirely on something.

“Papa,” Akua smiled.

“Mpanzi,” her father grinned.

Dear one. He’d always refused to use the name Mother had given her. One of the few kinds of rebellion he allowed himself.

“You look tired, Papa,” she frowned. “Have you been working on another project?”

“Oh, nothing important,” he dismissed. “I may have stumbled onto an improvement on the Shahbaz ritual that bears promise. Still a horribly wasteful form of conversion, but it brings foundational flight closer to the sacrificial threshold.”

Heiress found a smile tugging at her lips. Only her father would call modifying a ritual formula dating back to the Declaration ‘nothing important’. On another day she would have asked him to elaborate if only to watch his face light up – not to mention that if he’d genuinely found a way to make flying fortresses less costly it could be very useful – but she had precious little time right now. She loved to talk magic with her father, though, she truly did. He had a real passion for the subject and as a child he’d made it a pleasure to learn. Akua believed that if he’d not been her teacher she would not be half the caster she was today, no matter the potential she’d been born to. And she still believed he would have been a much better Warlock than the current one, if he’d pressed his claim. So many things could have been different, if Papa had answered the call of the Name instead of denied it.

“You have that look on your face again, my child,” the dark-skinned man sighed. “The one that says you’re tugging at doors best left unopened.”

“I wish you were with me,” Akua said.

“I wish you had never gone at all,” he replied sadly.

“You know I had to,” Heiress said.

“I know your mother said that,” he murmured. “You do not have to listen to her.”

You do, Akua almost said, but it would have been unfair. Her father had been born one of the mostly innately talented mages of his generation, to the extent that he’d had a claim on the Name of Warlock after the previous one’s assassination. He had not, however, been born to a powerful family. Minor nobility sworn to the High Lord of Aksum, a deeply paranoid man whose only daughter was already married: if he’d stayed in the village of his birth, he’d have been taken in the dark of night and never seen again. High Lords did not allow strong mages to survive if they were not personal retainers or useful breeding stock. Instead he’d found protection and funding in Wolof, where her mother had required obedience and his help in conceiving a child in exchange. He’d never even been granted official consort status.

Their only contact when she’d been a child had been her tutelage in sorcery, all other interactions strictly forbidden. Not that Papa hadn’t found a way regardless, running circles around High Lady Tasia’s best mages and turning it into a game for his infant daughter. She’d loved him for that and loved him still, for he had never once asked anything of her. All her life she’d been told that the gifts of her birth raised her above others, whether it be in intellect or looks or sorcery, and that girls like her only came once every few hundred years. It had been a heady thing, until she’d realized that those gifts came at a price. She was a product of the oldest blood of Praes and her loyalty to that blood was expected to be absolute. Akua was to return the banner of Evil, real Evil, to its rightful place at the summit of the Tower. Anything less was unacceptable.

And the truth was, she believed in this. She did not know whether or not that was because she had been raised to believe it, but ultimately it didn’t matter. No matter the source the conviction had become her own. Whoring out the soul of the Empire for a few victories the way Malicia had was repulsive to her. The Empress’ path was one that looked back on all of what Praes had ever been and dismissed it as the flailing of children. Every villain who’d ever spit in the eye of the Heavens swept under the carpet like a shameful blemish, a thousand years of tears and blood denied. Akua looked back on the Tyrants of old and felt only pride, for the monsters and the fools both – for even the fools had shaken the world, in their own way. Their legacy was not wrong, it was just incomplete. It had taken years to realize that for all that her mother preached this gospel, the reality of intentions was different.

High Lady Tasia planned for her daughter to be the next Dread Empress and for herself to be the power behind the throne. Whether or not she ended up being Chancellor was irrelevant, so long as Akua enthroned was utterly dependent on Wolofite resources to maintain her reign. What Heiress had thought to be Fate was just another, larger cage. You should not have taught me as well as you have, Mother, if you wanted to succeed.

“I’ll win, Papa,” Akua said. “Believe in me.”

“Always,” he smiled softly. “I’m just getting old, Mpanzi. We old men like to fret.”

“I love you,” Heiress murmured, embarrassed.

“I love you too,” her father replied. “Nothing will ever change that. If you can believe anything, believe in this.”

Her hand remained on the mirror long after his image faded. She wished the spell had been less than perfect, so that the bleed over had warmed the metal for her touch. I’ll win, she promised herself. She’d break the cage, even if she had to break the world with it.

The olive-skinned old man hopped along the chalk lines traced on the ground, fumbling the last to the children’s delight. The gaggle of street kids excitedly started arguing about the kind of penalty Ophon would have to submit to – he’d stood perfectly on his hands earlier, to their amazement. The shaved former slave smiled at a fair-haired girl who tugged at his pants, patting her head and promising in all seriousness that he’d show her how to use a spear later. The child scowled ferociously and told him he’d better. All of the Stygian spears were in a constant state of wonder around children, William had found. They were made magically sterile during their conditioning, for their masters believe that while sex was a useful reward their soldier-slaves should never have their loyalties split by families of their own. The Lone Swordsman snorted as the commander of the Stygian phalanx deftly pushed himself up on a single hand, muscles tensing as he maintained the stance perfectly for a solid sixty heartbeats as the kids counted out loud.

“They seem to be settling in fine,” Almorava said.

Of all the heroes he’d worked with, the Bard was the only one who’d ever managed to sneak up on him. William’s hand dropped from the handle of the Penitent’s Blade and he turned to look at the Ashuran musician. She’d somehow managed to sit at his side without making a single sound or getting the attention of his Name, which they were both perfectly aware should be impossible. With a salacious grin she offered him a pull from the flask of rotgut in her hand. He declined wordlessly, not that it stopped her from polishing off half the stuff inside.

“You’ve been gone a lot, lately,” he said, turning his attention back to the city streets.

Liesse was beautiful this time of the year, just like he remembered. The City of Swans bordered a lake full of the birds it had been named for, the light stone and widespread garlands of flowers hanging from everywhere making it look like it was in a permanent festival. It was far cry from how it’d been when he’d first arrived with Baroness Dormer’s host and the Stygians. Liesse had been left without a garrison by the rebels and descended almost immediately into chaos without even a city guard to keep the peace. There’d been riots and looting until he restored order, and the Duke’s Plaza had been turned into a makeshift gallows where Praesi ‘sympathizers’ were lynched to the jeers of the crowd. Not that they even always waited for that parody of justice: more than a few couples mixing Wastelanders and Callowans had been murdered in their own homes, thought thankfully no one had been stupid enough to start a fire afterwards. Half the city would have gone up in flames if they had.

“Hasn’t been much for me to do,” Almorava replied, wiping her mouth and panting.

She seemed tired and a haggard, William noted. Could use a bath, not that she didn’t often. In this kind of heat liquor took its toll.

“Where do you go, Bard?” he asked. “When you’re not here.”

“You’re going to be getting a message soon,” the Bard said, ignoring his question. “From the First Prince.”

William’s lips curled with distaste. His single meeting with the woman had not left him with much trust or fondness for her. It was said that there were three kinds of Procerans: the hot-blooded Arlesites in the south, the scheming Alamans in the centre and the coldly practical Lycaonese in the north. After meeting the Lycaonese First Prince, he’d had no trouble believing what was said about her people. She used manners and diplomacy like soldiers used sword and shield, cornering her opponents one smile and polite question at a time.

“And what does her Most Serene Highness want from me?” he asked.

“Not her,” the Bard said. “Her cousin, the Augur. She’s seen what’s coming.”

Almorava’s tone had remained light but it raised William’s hackles nonetheless. There’d been an ominous weight to that sentence, for all of the heroine’s nonchalance.

“Squire,” he said.

“And the other one,” the Wandering Bard grinned. “You’re a hit with the ladies, Willy. Must be your body, because I’m sad to inform you it’s not your winning personality.”

“You don’t even sound a little bit sad,” William complained good-naturedly.

Though he’d humoured his friend in her bantering, most of his attention was already on the battle ahead of him. With both the Baroness’ men and his Stygian allies, he’d have both numerical superiority and walls. Against most people that would be enough, but he’d met Catherine Foundling before: uphill battles like this were her specialty. He’d already prepared the city for a siege by bringing in foodstuff from the neighbouring fields the moment the Countess Marchford had ordered him to remain and protect the unofficial rebel capital, but it wouldn’t be enough. Traditional siege tactics wouldn’t be the way his enemy would go at it. He’d have to watch for infiltrators, starting right now, and prepare a counter for the enemy mages. He grimaced: leading armies or even small groups was not his specialty, as Thief had pointed out a few months ago.

“I’m thinking of putting Ophon in charge of the defence,” he told Almorava, gauging her for a reaction.

She hummed approvingly. “Not a bad idea,” she said. “The former slave facing his former owner. It has a shape to it.”

“You really think she’ll let the Heiress participate?” he frowned. “I thought they were rivals.”

“She won’t have a choice,” the Bard said, putting down her half-empty bottle and taking out a deck of cards from her bag ever-full of surprises.

Tarot, he recognized when she flicked a card at him. Six of Cups. There might have been a meaning to that, though he didn’t know it.

“Are you branching out in divination, now?” he teased.

“Divination is just parsing out a story that hasn’t been written yet,” the Bard snorted. “As if I’d need cards to do that. No, I just like throwing those around people who think too much. They waste their time puzzling out the meaning when they should be worried about something else.”

He carefully picked up the card, holding it up. “Illuminate me, then,” he said. “Why does Squire not have a choice in letting her enemy help?”

“By now the Big Guy already assigned Heiress as an auxiliary to the Fifteenth,” the Bard said, “but that’s just a surface detail. Patterns, Willy. It’s always about patterns.”

“It will be the final fight between she and I,” the Lone Swordsman frowned. “You think she’ll be sending in Heiress to avoid a defeat? Using a proxy, so to speak.”

The Ashuran patted him on the back comfortingly, dropping the deck to pick up her flask. The cards scattered all over the floor and William repressed a twitch. He disliked messes, and she was making no move to pick any of it up.

“Close, but you’re missing the point,” the Bard said. “You already have all the information. When referring to Heiress earlier, what did you call her?”

“Enemy,” William said.

“Before that, you sorry human-shaped sack of potatoes.”

“I take offense to that, kind of,” the Swordsman replied mildly. “Rival. They are rivals.”

“Nemeses, even,” the Bard said, smiling nastily.

A heartbeat passed until he caught on. “You mean…”

“Yours is not the only pattern of three Catherine Foundling is bound by,” Almorava said. “One defeat for Heiress, on the shores of the Blessed Isle. One shared draw, in the ruins of Marchford. You know what comes next.”

“A victory in Liesse,” William finished. “Surely she has to be aware of that?”

“Oh, she hasn’t noticed,” Bard said. “As Fate would have it, the Big Guy would have. If he’d arrived in time to hear Heiress speak the word ‘draw’, anyway. But he was detained in Arcadia when getting there. Couldn’t find someone to open a way out.”

“A fortnight ago,” the dark-haired hero spoke slowly, “you appeared covered in snow.”

“Lovely people, the Fae,” Almorava mused. “Live closer to the Story than anybody else. They know better than to ignore the warning of a mysterious cloaked stranger.”

There was a long moment of silence between them as they watched the children play in the distance.

“You’re a very dangerous woman, Almorava,” he finally said.

“I don’t have a speck of power to my Name,” the Bard murmured. “All I am is a grain of sand.”

That can be all it takes, to break a machine, William thought.

“You’d rather Heiress survive than Squire,” he said after a moment.

“Every single time,” the Ashuran agreed vehemently.

“Foundling is trying to change things for the better, at least,” the Swordsman pointed out, though defending the traitor left a foul taste in his mouth.

“You need to stop thinking in terms of individuals, William,” the Bard grunted. “The Squire is a legacy. So is Heiress. One of those legacies is much more dangerous to Creation than the other.”

“She summoned a demon, Bard,” the hero spoke flatly. “I’ll say this for Malicia and her dogs, they’ve shown more restraint than their predecessors.”

“It doesn’t matter if she summons a whole army, though she didn’t do any summoning at all. Heiress loses, in the end. That’s her story. She makes a mess, but in the end she can’t win. These… practical Evil types. They can win, if we let them.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time Evil wins,” the hero said grimly. “Nor will it be the last, if we should be defeated.”

“They don’t win like this, William,” Almorava said quietly. “This monstrosity of a plan the madman and the tyrant have cooked up? It changes things. Opens a door that can’t be closed ever again. They think they’re different but they’re not, not really. Not enough that it matters. Patterns don’t discriminate between shades, you see. They only see black and white.”

“You’ve lost me,” the green-eyed man admitted.

“Don’t worry about it,” the Bard sighed. “Just prepare. That plan you’ve been thinking of? Do it.”

He didn’t bother to ask her how she knew about that. The Lone Swordsman allowed the Wandering Bard to rest against his shoulder for a while. They stayed like that until the sun began to set, the silence strangely comfortable.

“Nowhere, William,” she whispered, bringing the bottle up to her lips. “I go nowhere.”

46 thoughts on “Interlude: Nemeses

  1. So, for those of you who haven’t taken a look at the Patreon for the Guide in a while, I have good news: the first goal has been met and next Wednesday will be the first update of September. There’ll be an extra chapter, set in the interim between Book I and II. The title of it is “Conspiracy” and the three main characters are Robber, Hakram and Aisha. Looking forward to seeing your reactions!

    Liked by 5 people

    1. apperatus27

      Ah, but does she? Seems like just the thing to lie about to keep the story of redemption, the redemption of an entire empire, going.

      Like

      1. The Archdevil

        True, but I try not to think too deeply about some things. It causes headaches, and makes the story less entertaining for me.

        Like

      2. apperatus27

        Eh, after hundreds of sessions as a GM, my brain goes straight for these types of thoughts. Thinking about everyone’s second, third, and seventy-fourth motive and plan is a big reason I enjoy the novel.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Anon

        You’re ignoring the most important bit about Bard: the Bard is a hero.

        This has been stated in the start, of the definitions of good and evil according to this world, and it is something many people miss. Good is defined as acting out the divine plan of the gods, while evil is defined as not. Malicia and Black are the definition of evil according to the gods, Heiress is not. Drawing upon your name is an act of good; acting of your own free will rather than according to your name is not. Squire was punished for acting against her name, because she strayed from the plans of gods and demons; evil has consequences that way. The Empire continually attacks Callow because that is the plan.

        These are all things that are good, according to the story. Bard supports the pattern, the repetition of old mistakes; even if the cost is massacres, she wants the story to continue to be the same. Humans are to remain playthings of the more powerful beings that are called gods. That is the definition of heroic according to the prologue. Malicia and Black on the other hand, are the definition of evil; they see the patterns and they want to break them. They see the hand of gods in the world, and they would have that end.

        The true good vs. evil battle is not Empire vs. Callow, the Lone Swordsman vs. Squire, humanity vs. demons, nor Squire vs. Heiress. It’s now been revealed that it is actually the Bard vs. Malicia. As far as the Bard’s perspective goes, Squire/Malicia/Black, by looking for a change of path for the Empire, are the most abhorrent characters ever (perhaps Ranger too, as she cares about people earning their gains). The Bard may drink because of the stories and their horrifying implications, but her power is all about the surety that stories give.

        If Squire finds a way to win, to break the pattern, create a new story out of the will of a person rather than that of a god, the safety Bard imagines she has is gone. All of the atrocities committed in the name of stories while she was a hero, that blood will be on her hands too because her name makes her complicit. If she, like a hero should, accept that and carry on, then she is the definition of good… and she sees the empire becoming gentler as wrong, as is required of a hero. But somehow, her drinking makes me think that she already has a feeling that she just can’t accept that humans, even so called “evil” ones, can do better. She just isn’t willing to admit that to herself, and drinks to not think about it.

        Liked by 5 people

      4. Shequi

        Alternate Character Interpretation time!

        The Bard is considerably more “grey” than any of her companions – and possibly she herself – know.

        We’ve already had the possibility raised that she deliberately killed the Bumbling Conjurer, and we know that an apparently chance remark from her resulted in the death of the Exiled Prince (and by a chain of consequences, the Page).

        I don’t believe that someone as skilled in Story as Bard is would fail to understand what the consequences of her words to the Exiled Prince were, nor of her actions around the Bumbling Conjurer.

        What the Bard says she wants is by no means the same thing as what the Bard actually wants – nor what the priorities of the Name are.

        Is there such a thing as a Grey Name? Ranger seems like she might be one – neither a Hero nor a Villain. Bard is – in my view – a candidate for being another.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Jakinbandw

        I don’t think so. I think the bard believes the Gods only see in black and white. She is scared of the practical evil because they can win, and while Black believes that if the nations combine they will transcend to a new name, the hard thinks that they will fall under the same curse that the God use on Villians. For example, not enough food, no more heroic names. Evil people like the heiress being given power, etc.

        I would love to see her and black hash it out.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. stevenneiman

        I’m really not sure anymore. Before this I was pretty sure she was on Cat’s side, but what she said here makes a lot of sense too. She’s got a Name tied to stories, which would explain her being interested to hear a new one, but she is still a Hero and Heroes use their Names as weapons to fight against Villains. She might very well choose Heroism over the chance to actually change things.

        Like

    2. Sir

      Bard only does what the “story” demands and that’s bad news for Big Black. It meand that the story both knows what black is trying to do and either wants to stop it or at the very least throw a wrench into the mix.

      Like

  2. Naeddyr

    This was a good, meaty chapter.

    Catherine’s been kind of falling for a while now — will there be a thump?

    Six Million Dollar Foundling…

    Like

  3. DiePrimzahl13

    Wasn’t Liesse where you could bind a Name? Somewhere a few dozen chapters ago, it was mentioned that it was possible to permanently bind, aka destroy, a Name.

    Coincidence? Please. Creation doesn’t DO coincidences.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. nobodi12

    A Bard perespecitve would be bad as it would spoil too much about the end game.

    Hell I want to know what happens to the Bard at the end of the series.

    Like

  5. nick012000

    The pattern of threes: is it loss, draw, win, or is it “one person wins, nobody wins, the other person wins”? Because if it’s the latter, it might be possible for Squire to break the way it’s “supposed” to go by arranging it so that *both* of them win.

    Black has basically given her unlimited power to arrange the political landscape of Callow however she likes, once the war’s over. There’s no reason that she can’t include the Lone Swordsman in that.

    Like

    1. stevenneiman

      I’m pretty sure that William is going to end up joining the side of Evil. He so thoroughly resents everything that he fights in the name of (and the Name of, for that matter), and his start came from an entirely sympathetic act of Evil is killing one well-meaning person to protect the innocent. He’s already acknowledged that Cat is trying to make the world a better place, while thinking that one of the most influential Heroes he has to deal with is utterly intolerable.
      Maybe that’s what the Bard really wants. She’s trying to seem like a heartless fanatic who doesn’t care how many people die so long as Good triumphs over Evil, in the hopes that it will turn William against the side of Good.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. lennymaster

    God I hope that after all Cat had to go through she can finally accomplish a real victory for once, like in the beginning, despite the pattern of three. And the reason for that should be that for all the capabilities of Heiress, Will and the Bard, they ultimately understimated not only Squire but her loyal friends and followers as well. She, THEY, ought to have earned a clear cut victory, but that is kind of the crux of the matter and Blacks hangup, isn’t it?
    On the other hand, two enemies with a pattern of three in their favor, against fortifications and a superior numbers as well as troops in her own ranks she cannot trust, plus a traitor, from which we still only know that he/she is an officer and was not in Rat Company. That sounds like ONE HELL of an uphill battle, and that IS not only HER forte but also the kind of tight spot Names are KNOWN for escaping and/or coming out on top of.
    Because I very much doubt that Black did not know abought Heiress pattern thanks to the so often overlooked Scribe. Seemingly even by Bard, which makes one wonder how powerfull the spy master really is? And I BET he did not tell Cat about Heiress pattern of three to weigh that battle even more against her and force the very pattern of the world, which always favors the Underdog to help the Heroes, on Squires side.
    Which reminds me of something said at the beginning of this chapter, “Chider had warned her that the one n(/N!?)amed Robber had a reputation among her kind as half-mad even by their standards.”. Is that a cue to a possibility of a Name for our dearest pyromaniac? Possibly Cat’s equivalent of Assassin?
    And what about the other potentials? Juniper as the strategist of this very special legion could develop one, especially considering that her mother nearly got one. And the shit Nauk pulled of against the devils might earn him one. Hell even Aisha and Ratface have potential. Possibly by doing the job Scribe does for Black? Especially considering this:”There’ll be an extra chapter, set in the interim between Book I and II. The title of it is “Conspiracy” and the three main characters are Robber, Hakram and Aisha.”.
    And never forget the mains love interest. For good or bad something will definitly happen on that front.
    I do hope that she gets more names on her side, possibly even Archer as her version of Ranger?
    And to those hoping for some kind of redemption theme with Heiress and/or Lone Swordsman, I highly doubt it, Heiress has hurt to many of Cat’s people to be forgiven, and to Will? I could imagine him somehow surviving the war and acknowledge that Cat’s way is better for Callow, but this just does not feel like that kind of story for me.
    The other hand, would it be a way to break the pattern of three?

    Like

    1. stevenneiman

      On the subject of the Lone swordsman, I’m pretty sure he will be redeemed. His defining act was to kill an innocent in the name of protecting more innocents, and he has already shown his discomfort with both the role and the company of a Hero. Heiress I agree 100% won’t ever be redeemed. She comes from an ancient tradition of going to any early grave rather than admit that she made a mistake, and even if she gave that up there wouldn’t be anything worth forgiving left, because that was all she ever was.

      Like

  7. M

    >She’d break the cage, even if she had to break the world with it.

    Well there you go, a motivation Heiress has that could be spun to make her an ally of Squire’s. I am totally calling it, they will become if not friends, then allies at some point.

    >pattern of three bullshit

    In my humble opinion, all this pattern of three stuff can be spun in whichever way either party desires. Say, win-draw-(loss?) of Cat against the LS. Well, did she win in their first fight? She lost most of her power, got Black pissed at her, and her enemy got away. On the other hand Swordsman survived, clearly dominated in the fight and got a lot of allies as a result. So who won here, I ask you?

    And you can even find different patterns here. In their first fight, Cat had no allies , was completely outnumbered and got absolutely wrecked. In their second fight, Cat had a fair number of allies and got away with a few wounds. So, by the Rule Of Three, she should come out of their next fight…unscathed and with an army of allies?

    Basically, I think that Rule Of Three only matters if both parties realise it matters. And Cat doesn’t give a fuck about all this Name bullshit. I even think that Black didn’t tell her about Heiress having a pattern so as to make that pattern less effective.

    Also, 0 Calamities participated in the first fight, 1 participated in the second, (?2?) will participate in this one?

    Like

  8. lucinthius

    I just used that exact description of tarot cards last week! That they are a way of looking at the symbols and timing of the Story, help fill in and bring meaning to the story, both last chapter and next!

    Like

  9. RQ

    Oh shit

    Cat vs demon:
    Round 1: Cat looses, badly.
    Round 2: Cat and demon hit a draw due to outside intervention.

    The upcoming clash with Heiress is likely to provoke a reappearance of the demon if Heiress becomes sufficiently desperate.

    By the rule of three, Cat is due to stomp the crap out of that thing. I’m crossing my fingers, and hoping she kills the Damn Thing herself

    Like

    1. Yup… this is the unspoken thing here: if The Rule of Three is as big a thing as Akua thinks it is and Catherine is the lynchpin for a few converging ones… How do they interact at the intersecting point?

      The Lone Swordsman isn’t going to be a fan of aiding Heiress in her victory, if his actions could feed her; Heiress is not just willing to use the Lone Swordsman’s chain to ensure her own chain ends in victory, but is counting on it…. yet, is unlikely to realise that the demon has one going, too (it’s a tool for her, not a character or plot device). And, demons screw around with rules, but not always in the ways you’d think. It’s what they do. On top of all this is the Wild Card: a certain Angel-feather blade may take an active dislike towards acting in any way that would aid a chain that could see a Demon screw this this rule and may function in unexpected ways to prevent it (if it can, and if it has means)… <_<

      Three Rules of Three? I think reliable predictions are off the table, Bard or not.:/

      Like

    2. nick012000

      I’m pretty sure that it’ll be the Lone Swordsman who kills it. I’m thinking something like “Lone Swordsman has her defeated, he’s standing over her, then Heiress releases the demon to kill them both, causing them to team up to defeat it, and then Squire executes Heiress.”

      Poor Heiress. Her story’s all about going down in flames in a rage against the heavens, and now, that means raging against Black and company. She’s set herself up to fail from the very beginning – if she was raging against the Forces of Good kicking the shit out of them for so long, then she might be able to win against Black and Squire, if only to flame out in another flying doom castle battle or something against the forces of Good, but no, that’s not what her focus is – her focus is on the changing forces of Evil, so that’s what will defeat her in the end.

      Like

  10. ishner

    it should be noted that black INTENTIONALLY did not teach her how things work.
    the rule of three is, in part, self-fulfilling. if you know that you will lose, you will make preparations for surviving defeat instead of preparing to win. this makes it impossible to win.

    foundling does not have a clue, therefore it does not apply to her.

    however, there is also the whole thing about groves in fate. that things fall into the per-established patterns more easily than not. however, this simply means that it will be extra difficult, not impossible.

    the main point is that if she wins here it begins scratching a new groove into fate. each time they break the pattern of “villains loose in the end” on a small scale it becomes easier to break the pattern again. this is the entire point of the plan. if they can carve a new groove in the path of fate then they fundamentally alter the course of the world.

    Like

    1. stevenneiman

      All Cat has to do is not act in a manner consistent with common Villains, and she can break out of the “groove” even before the fight.
      Also, they don’t always affect how characters think, just when they succeed or fail. If she can convince William that its better to change sides than to “win” for the people he seems to increasingly consider bad guys, it can easily turn into a temptation story and from there into a “downer” ending where the Heroes actually meaningfully lose.

      Like

  11. nobody

    “A victory in Liesse,” William finished. “Surely she has to be aware of that?”

    “Oh, she hasn’t noticed,” Bard said. “As Fate would have it, the Big Guy would have. If he’d arrived in time to hear Heiress speak the word ‘draw’, anyway.

    I don’t get it, why was it squire’s lose?

    Like

    1. Bard is basically saying that Black thinks Cat lost to Akua at Marchford, and hence will be preparing with a one win-one lose statistic in mind. If he had heard Akua admit it was a draw, then he would be making plans with a one win-one draw statistic in mind.

      Either way, this is the only point in the entire story that’s bothering me. It either requires Black to be suddenly (and uncharacteristically) obtuse to the Rule of Three thing in this particular case, or it makes Bard seem like she doesn’t really understand or “get” Black.

      Either option is kinda out of character for both characters – Black is the sort of man who will prepare for any eventuality as the Pattern has a nasty habit of abruptly skewing things in favour of Heroes, while Bard is savvy enough to know that that is how Black actually is.

      Or…maybe this is Bard’s weakness. She is insanely genre savvy due to the nature of her Name/Role, she can understand when people are trying to move outside of the Pattern. But, it also locks her understanding to parameters within the Pattern, ie. if anyone were to plot/plan for eventualities or outcomes outside of the Pattern, Bard is simply not able to fathom/discern their motives. Sure, she probably gets that they are trying to break the Pattern, but she doesn’t truly understand the scope of their plot.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. stevenneiman

        Or maybe she doesn’t so much fail to see the scope of their plot as fail to see that it has any chance of working. She is thinking of trying to destroy Fate the same way she would someone trying to steal Callow’s weather, which is just fundamentally the wrong way to think about it when dealing with a canny enough opponent to know when and how he can actually win.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. stevenneiman

    “though Akua doubted it would {be} easy, with a Bard on the opposing side” In other news, Akua might want to be a bit less certain of what this particular Bard is going to do.
    “Malicia, First of Her Name, had always been the [most->more] dangerous of the two” I think the usage is technically correct, but “most” is generally used for the predominant of a larger group.
    “Our request that the Clans be forced to [be] pay” the second “be” shouldn’t be there.
    “She wished the spell had been less than perfect, so that the bleed over [had->would have] warmed the metal for her touch.” Unless I completely misunderstood the sentence.

    I’m seeing a few very interesting places this could go. If Bard is telling the truth right now, that would make her the ultimate antagonist (or at least the meta-antagonist). If she’s trying to just manipulate William into considering her such, she might actually be a benevolent force, making Heiress the real enemy as the symbol of self-defeating victory.
    I think the second one is more likely, since she basically just told a guy who was already on the fence about the value of Good that she didn’t care how pointless everything was or how many innocents died as long as Good remained the ultimate victors. On the other hand it might be a reversed case of Evil Cannot Comprehend Good, in that she doesn’t understand Evil well enough not to encourage William to change sides.

    Like

    1. AVR

      Typos, missing or extra words etc. (IMO)

      Wolofite secrets were guarantee
      Wolofite secrets were a guarantee

      the reality of intentions
      the reality of her intentions

      their masters believe that 
      their masters believed that 

      It was far cry
      It was a far cry

      thought thankfully no one
      though thankfully no one

      She seemed tired and a haggard,
      She seemed tired and haggard,

      gauging her for a reaction.
      gauging her reaction.

      Like

      1. Bart

        from touching the unmarred skin on her hand where she’d rammed her own knife a few days ago
        Change she’d to he’d

        the High Lady has no visible reaction but there was a palpable sense of satisfaction emanating from her
        Change has to had

        Our request that the Clans be forced to be pay the tributes they refused under Nefarious
        Remove the second be

        It was far cry from how it’d been
        Add a after was

        Like

  13. Alegio

    At first I was like “This is gonna be bad! Cath against 2 rival names, and the 2 have a destiny 3rd battle buff!!”

    But then I saw it was an uphill siege battle wich are always won by the underdog, so yeah cats speciallity no problemo.

    Like

  14. Sir

    Also something to point out heiress and her parents use the same magic mirror technique that black and the Dread Empress use shown in that interlude called Coulisse I believe.

    Like

    1. stevenneiman

      I notice that Heiress seems to spend a lot of time feeling proud of herself for holding all the cards when she doesn’t realize they aren’t playing with a normal deck. I think her Name allows her to be very clever so long as she stands no real chance of victory.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. @stevenneiman: I like this more than my own explanation. It explains why Bard can fathom Black’s goal, but is uncharacteristically dismissive of its chance of success. For such a genre savvy person, she should know better than anyone that subverting tropes is also a “good story” with chances for success.

      However, her Role locks her into not being able to accept/digest/process any information that falls outside the scope of The Story that bestowed her with her Name, as her Name is ultimately creates to tell The Story itself.

      Like

  15. Consider the following, Cat has already squared off 3 times with Akua, first at the blessed isles, second at the Tower and third at Marchford, but Bard seems unaware of the middle one. Akua basically defeated Cat at the Tower, and so the pattern of 3 is complete, transcended. Therefore, either Bard is wrong about Cat and Akua, or she’s misleading William.
    There’s also the fact that, as it has been mentioned before, whether the last confrontations between Cat and Akua/William were victories or defeat can be…..muddy. It depends on how you interpret it, and thus the patterns become difficult to analize

    Like

    1. stevenneiman

      I would say the first was Cat’s victory, since she proved that under the right circumstances she held more power than Akua and forced her to back down, but Marchford was a victory for Akua since she accomplished exactly what she wanted and got away with it.

      Like

  16. nipi

    Been thinking about the whole evil never wins thing and what Cats reaction will be. She started this whole ordeal with the mindset of “sacrifice a few Callowans now to save more in the long run”. Now she knows that evil never wins in the long run. Even if Blacks plan succeeds and Callow truly becomes a part of the Empire her people will still be dragged into all the future wars of the Empire and her people will be on the disadvantaged side. No?

    Also its kind of ironic that Black despises the “game” being rigged when he himself advised Cat to cheat.

    Like

    1. It depends. If Black and Malicia see their scheme into fruitio along the lines I think they will, then their long term plan will see Callow get absorbed into the Empire instead of getting conquered.

      And yes, Callow will have to be conquered first, but from Black and Malicia’s perspective, that’s the much easier part and only the beginning. After military conquest, they will need to begin thelong drawn process of culturally conquering Callow. And should that succeed, Callow will not be a disgruntled, subjugated country, but a state of the Empire that wholly embraces its Proceran heritage. Which means at that point, Callow’s future residents will have a VERY vested interest in the Empire’s wars because they will then be fighting for their homeland.

      And it makes sense for Black to tell her to cheat: Creation as a whole let’s Heroes win be cheating every single time. Villains, however, play by Creation’s rules all the time and lose all the time. So if a villain wants to win, they gotta cheat!

      Like

      1. nipi

        Thats all well and true but beside my point. Thats what Black and Malicia want. Catherine wants to protect her people. She was willing to sacrifice some Callowans in the short term to save more in the long run. However the “game” being rigged means that her original plan causes more Callowan casualties in the short term, less in the medium term but again more in the (really) long term.

        I dont think Cats ignorant enough to believe that Callow wont be drawn into the Empires wars. Hell even if the Empire doesnt start something the kingdoms of “good” will and the Dread Empires grainery is a prime target. There have been Crusades before and this time (perhaps from this time onwards) Callow would be on the side thats rigged to loose.

        Catherine is faced with several dilemmas now. She has made the sacrifice (kickstarted the rebellion) but now she has learned that the ultimate outcome will not be quite what she was expecting. Will she choose her poeple or her Praesi friends and subordinates? Is she far gone enough to sacrifice the soul of Callow and do so for what? The question really is what will Catherine do? Obviously she cant outright tell Black off that might be suicide.

        Like

      2. @nipi: Ah, okay. I see your point now.

        In that regard, I don’t think that’s going to weigh on her as much as you think. She knows that, as of now, Black has the upper hand in all matters concerning them. However, it is only a matter of time before Cat becomes just as powerful (if not more so) and she can eliminate him when the time comes. And more crucially, she very clearly despises the current spirit of Callow, especially its ruling aristocracy. She wants to tear it down. Unfortunately, we haven’t been privy to what her plans are for the nation after the dust raised from her little scheme settles, so I can’t really comment on the full scope of her plan (eg. what government will she bring in instead, will she assume to throne herself, etc.). But step one at least is always going to be aligned with Black’s plan, and going along with that will only be beneficial.

        I get the feeling that – IF it came down to an either-or choice – she would pick the Empire. After all, for all its evilness, it is still being administered. Callow, despite being good, was an autocracy that was just as stifling as any other corrupt government system. Given that she was fed up enough to switch from Callow to the Empire when given a chance, I would say she would side with the Empire 9/10.

        But honestly, I get the feeling she’s going to pull a Cat and shoot down the middle. She won’t choose the Empire/Black or Callow, but do her own thing because Cat’s whole shtick is to be a “weird” villain. Even Black and Malicia’s grand plan (if you think about it), still has its roots in traditional villainy (ie. wanting to change the universe/gods work is a standard enough goal for many villains in fiction). What’s different is HOW they want to go about it, and it’s on that point I think their plan isn’t going to succeed. Cat, however, is going to pull something completely new out of the bag (sort of). Or I hope she does, otherwise she’s pretty much doomed.

        And weirdly enough, I can actually see Black shed a tear of joy when that happens, even if he happens to be on the losing side…

        Like

      3. nipi

        So you think she is going to take Callow down the gray path? Then again she doesnt jet know that patterns do not distinguish between shades. Thats assuming that the bard is right but then again she contradicted herself by saying that “these practical evil types can win”.

        I wonder how the Empire that had both a villain and a hero ruling it fits into the rigged patterns. And same for the people sending those red letters. Annihilating entire peoples for researching technology is kind of evil, yet as far as we know they have been going strong for millennia. Then again good and evil are just points of view and we dont know whos views the patterns follow.

        Well Black wants to stick it to the Heroes bad so I dont think he really cares how it happens of what becomes of him as a result. As was recently revealed he is supposed to be a madman. (I guess obsession taken to an extreme can be called madness. Havent seen him do anything Id classify as mad though.)

        Like

    2. stevenneiman

      He complains not of the game being rigged, but slanted. The rules state almost overtly that Good always wins in the long run, which is what Black is so fed up with. What he wants to do is rewrite the rules so that Good can lose, and lose when it counts. In order to do that, he needs to break a new trail while keeping the forces of Good from gaining the upper hand.
      If he succeeds, he won’t just have turned Callow into part of Praes, he will have turned Evil victories into part of the story. That could one day mean genuine world domination.

      Like

  17. Letouriste

    What? There are no pattern between cat and akua😮 i mean=> 1 lose for heiress for the name of squire,1 win in the tower,1 lose for the command of the 15th,1 draw in marchford…that’s make 4! 5 with the battle of liesse coming! Not 3 at all!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s