Epilogue

“Your mistake, Queen of Blades, is in thinking that virtue is the province of Good. Every Tyrant who has ever claimed the Tower, every fool and every madman, had the seed of greatness in them. Courage, cleverness, ambition, will. We may lose our way, we may lose ourselves, but every time we get… a little closer. You think I am afraid of death? I am a droplet in the tide that will drown Creation. I take pride in this, even in my hour of failure. Empresses rise, Empresses fall. But the Tower?
Oh, the Tower endures.”

– Last words of Dread Empress Regalia the First

 

“It’s an ugly thing, isn’t it?”

There was truth in that. So may tales had been woven around the throne of Praes that the lies could no longer be told from the truth, but there was no denying the thing was ghastly. Stone and iron welded together brutally by a man without a single artistic speck to his soul. The first Warlock had many talents, it was said in the records, but creation was not one of them. The pile of stone was squat and rough, the back of the seat slightly crooked towards the left and the iron used to keep it together had dripped onto the floor when heated. After Triumphant had brought down the Tower on her killers in a final act of spite, it had been found intact. Not a single loose stone had so much as touched it. The people who’d dug up the room had all gone mad and killed themselves within a week of unearthing it.

The throne of Praes was not for the sight of meek souls.

“It should be,” Amadeus said. “They had a firmer grasp on the truth of what we are, back then.”

An empire cobbled together out of warring tribes and kingdoms who had failed to unite even in the face of the invading Miezans. A lie agreed on by Taghreb and Soninke, by the orcs and the goblins, that the peace forced upon them by the foreigners could survive their leaving. Praes was not a Mtethwa or Taghrebi word – it was Old Miezan, ripped from the hands of the enemy and held aloft as a trophy by the first Dread Empress. Maleficent had known, he believed, all the peoples of the Empire should be remembered the clang of shackles every time they spoke of their nation. That way they would never forget the War of Chains, forget that there had been a time all had been humbled. Once we could not look beyond our own knives and petty disputes, so Creation buried us. Remember.

A hopeful woman, Dread Empress Maleficent. She’d been hopeful all the way until the High Lord of Wolof had stabbed her in the back and stolen her throne, laying bare the truth of her empire: power gained through the spilling of blood will be taken by the spilling of blood. Always. Praes could be held, but it could not be owned. There would be no Dead King to reign forever here, no Tenets of Night all must bow to. The Dread Empire would have a hundred thousand Tyrants, all of them lost and grasping beyond their reach until their doom fell upon them. And the Tyrant would rise anew, with fire in their eyes and unquenchable ambition in their stomach that Creation would deny – but oh, the craving. Wasn’t the craving what it was all about? It was an unusually poetic thought for Amadeus, a man not particularly prone to sentiment outside of some very defined boundaries. He did not linger on it.

A thousand poets had etched their sentences on the soul of the Wasteland, but he was not one of them. The legacy he sought was of a different sort, if no less elusive.

“We all know it’s a lie, Maddie,” Alaya laughed. “Look at all those pretty gildings close around the throne – close, but not touching. Some lines even Praesi won’t cross.”

The hall was empty, would have been for the better part of a bell. Alaya always put up the most vicious wards available to the mistress of the Tower whenever they claimed this place for their drinking. Tonight they had, by informal agreement, chosen to sit by Dread Emperor Malevolent III. ‘The Pithy’, the histories of Praes named him. As far as Amadeus knew, he’d done little in his ten years or reigning save for putting a goblin rebellion and failing spectacularly at making the empire a naval power. The Ashurans had sailed straight into Thalassina and burned the half-built fleet: the only surviving captains had immediately defected, setting themselves up as pirates in the Tideless Isles and becoming a recurring blade in the back on the Empire’s merchant shipping.

There would be, he knew, a little detail about the man he did not know that would surprise a laugh out of him when linked to something Alaya said to him tonight. She’d always delighted in weaving little hidden jests in her words for him to find later when thinking back on them. She’d been like that even the Sentinels had come for her at her father’s inn, before the soft but deadly games of the seraglio had honed that skill into a blade that cut as often as it teased. Many a lord and lady of Praes had woken up in the dead of night weeks after their audience with Malicia, shivering when they realized the full implications of a seemingly innocent sentence. Amadeus took the bottle when the Dread Empress of Praes offered it, tossing back a gulp of terrible wine and grimacing at the taste.

“Gods, I’m not sure why we keep drinking that swill,” he said.

“Nostalgia,” Malicia mused. “Of all the spirits made on Calernia, though, I will concede that the ones made in the Green Stretch are the worst. By far.”

She pulled deeply at the bottle when he passed it back, wiping the smooth back of her hand against her mouth without even the pretence of manners. Times like this, Amadeus could still glimpse the girl he’d known. The one with the laughing eyes and the burning ambition, still unhardened by the dark days ahead of her. And yet, save for a few conversations by moonlight, he’d never known much of that girl. It was the promise of Malicia to come he had truly struck a friendship with. The half-tread path between smiling Alaya and the hard-eyed Dread Empress who would rule over the Wasteland.

“It tastes like dirt and lack of prospects,” he said after taking another drink.

Alaya snorted. If one of her courtiers had ever seen or heard her do something so undignified, they would have thought their senses to be lying before they believed it to be truth. It still warmed him, after all these years, that she trusted him enough to allow that small part of herself that belonged only to her to flicker into life in front of him.

“Truly,” she said, “the taste of home.”

She raised the bottle in a mocking salute to the throne.

“To the Green Stretch,” Amadeus toasted. “And the most glorious mud in all of Creation.”

The tone was sardonic, but the memories ran deeper than that. Back to a time where they had been nobodies in the breadbasket of a failing empire: him thinly clad in a Name he’d put on as a deserter’s cloak, her as the great beauty of a town so small it was not on all maps. They’d rise, hadn’t they? Gone further than they had any right to. Not that right ever mattered much to either of us.

“It actually costs more to have it brought to the Tower than to buy the wine itself,” Alaya admitted, tone amused. “I buy it in crates to satiate my conscience.”

“You have entire crates of this horror somewhere in the Tower?” Black said. “Truly, your arsenal is a fearsome one.”

Thunder crackled outside just after he spoke, lending his words a strangely ironic weight. There was always a storm of sorts around the Tower, raging or preparing to rage. Wekesa had informed him the rapidly shifting weather patterns across the Wasteland were linked to the phenomenon, though Amadeus had not inquired further after making sure that link could not be exploited to control said weather. Pity, that. The desertification of the Wasteland would never be entirely undone, but it could have been mitigated with the right tools. Laying back against the marble pillar, an old friend by his side, Amadeus watched the unfolding history of Praes made mosaic across a floor and said nothing.

“Hasenbach has flipped Ashur,” Alaya finally said, and the amusement was gone.

He did not ask if she was sure. Her agents had penetrated the Thalassocracy deeper than Eudokia’s, and they did not make mistakes.

“We still own his son,” he said.

“He’s just a voice in their committees, until his father dies,” Alaya said.

That was always the problem, with Ashur. They genuinely believed in their tiers, that a higher-ranked citizen was fully deserving of the authority granted to them and that trying to overreach before promotion was worthy of contempt. The Baalite hierarchy had sunk so deeply into their society that even centuries after the Hegemony had become irrelevant to the larger affairs of Creation, eclipsed by younger and greater powers, the tiers were still held as sacrosanct. As long as Magon Hadast lived Ashur would be a friend to Procer. A wary and self-interested friend, but that would be enough if the right promises were made. They would be, of that Amadeus had no doubt.

“That girl becomes more dangerous to us every year,” he said.

“That girl is us,” Alaya said, “forty years ago, looking at the stars from a different land.”

The dark-haired man did not reply immediately, silenced by the accuracy of the thought. They’d always known that there would be a price to pay for what they had done in Procer, for the lives he’d had Assassin take and the wars Malicia had kindled with gold and soft words. The First Prince was finally coming to collect. Did he regret it? No, the thought came immediately. It had been a strategic imperative for the Principate to be paralyzed during the Conquest if it was to succeed. That war had always been going to find their doorstep. All their plots had done was delay the first knock by a few decades.

“Levant, now Ashur. She’s trying to forge an alliance against us,” he said. “Dear Cordelia might get her crusade, after all.”

The tone was light, the implications were not. If Hasenbach managed to forge her broader, continental version of the League of Free Cities she only had to wait until the pretext for a Tenth Crusade fell into her lap. Amadeus held no illusions about the fact that it would.

“The Free Cities are where we can kill this in the egg,” Alaya said. “The more that war spins out of control…”

The more Hasenbach’s allies would be tempted to ignore her overtures of peace and order to get involved and claim their cut of the spoils. The moment two forces belonging to two different of her would-be crusaders met with swords out her entire enterprise would collapse. Alaya had the influence abroad to ensure that much. If it happened. Neither of them trusted anybody currently involved in the war to make this happen, unfortunately. Sending in the Legions of Terror, while tempting, would give Hasenbach a gathering cry for all Good and banner for her damned crusade. Which meant a smaller, more measured intervention.

“Wekesa will meet me by the Wasaliti,” Amadeus said. “We’ll all take a ship down through Mercantis.”

From there, he would see where the weakness in the Good League was. Penthes, most likely, for Praesi influence had gained ground there in recent years. However little of that was currently left, it did not matter: the Calamities had done more with lesser openings.

“Squire will be getting her vote and veto earlier than anticipated,” Alaya said mildly.

“It was always the plan she would get them eventually,” Amadeus said.

“After you schooled her properly in ruling,” Malicia murmured.

And there was the rub, he knew. It was one thing to entrust to a seventeen-year-old Callowan girl – with occasionally more mouth to her than sense – half of the territory in the Empire after he had taught her what he knew of ruling, quite another to do so before. Alaya’s fears were not unwarranted, he thought. For at least the first year, Catherine was likely to butcher and coerce her way through anything she perceived as an obstacle. She would do so mercilessly and without hesitation, too, because there was something utterly ruthless at the core of Catherine Foundling. Callowan defiance, perhaps, but married with something brutally pragmatic. Something that would use what it could not break and break what it could not use. Sabah had once told him that Catherine was what a child of his and Hye’s would be like, and though he’d batted away the notion he had not denied it. It was, he knew, a dangerous sort of attachment.

“The deep end is where she learns best,” he said.

“You sound proud,” Alaya noted.

Amadeus laughed quietly into the great and empty hall.

“Two years, Allie,” he said. “She has been at this for two years, and already two heroes are dead at her hand. Everything they sent against her, she has scattered. Armies, devils, even a demon. Gods Below, a few months ago she all but mugged an angel.”

He reached for the bottle and took a swig.

“Proud?” he said. “Proud does not do it justice.”

Alaya took back the bottle and drank deeply before setting it on the cold floor.

“Affection,” she said fondly, “has always been your weakness. One you turned into a strength of sorts, but still a weakness.”

That was why they’d always functioned so well, they both knew. Because Alaya could see the things he was blind to and take the measures he would not, because he was willing to make the leaps of faith when she had run out of faith years ago. Nefarious had much to answer for. He’d died by Alaya’s hand, and Amadeus had not been willing to step in the way of a hatred so earned and bloody, but if he had… Poison would not have been his weapon. He would have unleashed the reserves of viciousness Wekesa had deep inside of him, made it a death no one would ever forget as long as Creation stood. And Wekesa would have done it, without even needing to be asked, because his oldest friend loved Alaya too in his own way. In a way less trusting and more aware, he thought, but that did not detract from the depths of it. Warlock had wanted her on that throne as much as Black did, after the civil war, wanted to see the hint of the laughter they’d known return to those dark eyes. Wanted to see the fear gone from them.

“Before I go south,” he said. “There is still one matter to attend.”

“Heiress,” she said.

“She has defied Imperial authority twice, Alaya,” he said. “First with the demon, then again at Liesse. She was planning on capturing the Hashmallim, for what purpose I do not know.”

“I do,” Malicia said. “And I trusted your apprentice to unmake that plan.”

“She needs to die,” Amadeus said bluntly. “Loudly, badly, publicly. I don’t understand why she’s still alive at this point. We’ve done worse to people of blood as old for lesser offences.”

The Dread Empress of Praes took the bottle and brought it to her lips. She drank for a long time, and when she leaned back against the pillar her smile was a dark thing.

“It’s not about Heiress, Maddie,” she said. “It never was. It’s about her mother.”

Amadeus’ brow rose, but he did not interrupt.

“Tasia Sahelian,” Alaya spoke, relishing the words. “High Lady of Wolof. A tick, Maddie. A tick I could not get rid of, and who bound others to her schemes. And now I am about to break her.”

A game that broad would have had surface stirrings, Amadeus knew, and calmly his mind revised every major event to have happened in the last five years in the light of what she had just said.

“The gold,” he said after a long moment. “The reparations you levied on her – you knew she’d pay. You never thought it would make her withdraw the orc tribute petition.”

“One move at a time, for the last decade, I have slowly emptied her coffers,” Alaya said, still smiling. “Inconsequential laws she paid the fine to break. Tariffs raised on goods she needed. Bribes offered she needed to match. And down went the treasure of Wolof, one aurelius at a time.”

“She still has coin,” Amadeus said. “Her network of spies has not been reduced and her subversions in the bureaucracy continue.”

“Oh, she has coin,” Dread Empress Malicia murmured. “Silver, to be exact.”

Amadeus’ eyes sharpened. “Procer. I thought you’d cut off the flow.”

“I did not,” Alaya said. “And now she is dependent on it so stay above the waterl. Her overextension will reach a peak when she sinks a fortune into restoring Liesse – whose infrastructure, I am afraid, is about to collapse.”

The dark-skinned woman put down the bottle on the floor, and the cold clink of it was like an executioner’s axe.

“And then the silver will stop.”

That would end her, Amadeus knew. The loss of face when she had to publicly default on the many commitments she’d made would shatter any credibility with the rest of the nobility. Her own family would rise in revolt to remove her. It would go further than that though.

“The Truebloods,” he said.

“Will, within a year, end as a political entity in the Empire,” she said softly.

Because Heiress, emboldened by her continued toeing of the line going unpunished, would make another mistake. Give Malicia another lever to pry apart the Truebloods and deal with them individually. The Reforms could begin again, he thought, but those promised skies were too sunny. In the Wasteland, that was always the prelude to the worst of storms.

“If Tasia is willing to take those risks,” he said, “it means that her end game can be reached within a year.”

“That is my assessment,” she agreed.

He closed his eyes. Liesse, it all came back to Liesse. That had been the prize mother and daughter both had wanted out of the rebellion, and not merely to steal some taxes.

“Heiress,” he said. “She has a different plan. What is it?”

There was a long moment of silence, marred only by the patter of the rain outside.

“Do you trust me?” Alaya said.

A year ago, he thought, you would not have needed to ask. A year ago, though, he would not have pressed for answers in the first place. Four words she had spoken, with so many deeper meanings behind them. After all these years, she was saying, after all the times we have hurt each other without knowing or being allowed to let it stay our hand, do you still believe in this? What we have built, the two of us. All the sacrifices we made, the choices we bloodied ours hands with, do you regret them? Even though the chasm is deep and the way across long, though the darkness is thick and we are both so, so tired – will you make that leap of faith again, if I ask you? Amadeus closed his eyes, and leaned back against the pillar. Gently, he threaded his fingers through Alaya’s.

“Always,” he said.

Because he was the Black Knight and she was the Dread Empress, and together they had twisted the strands of Fate until they snapped. Because he was Amadeus and she was Alaya, and though the children they’d once been were long dead the dreams they’d woven together under starlight were not. She rested her head against his shoulder, and for a long time they did not speak.

“A ‘jolly good time’,” she eventually said.

He snorted. The Tyrant of Helike’s words as he threw the south-east of the continent into sheer bloody chaos.

“One day,” Alaya continued, “we will have foreign allies who are not complete imbeciles. By sheer dint of odds, it has to happen eventually.”

“That’d be the day,” Amadeus said wistfully. “But until then…”

“Even if the heroes come,” she said.

“Even if the angels rage,” he said.

“Even if all of Creation stands against us”

“We’ll win,” they whispered.

In the distance, thunder rumbled.

Neither of them flinched.

Akua Sahelian let the sorcery seep into her body. Old stones from the first foundations of Wolof, having drunk deep of the ancient magic there, surrounded her in an unbroken circle. Turning the power within them to the purposes of healing had been the work of an afternoon, one of the first tricks with high arcana her father had ever taught her. The sorcery came and went in tides a prefect match for her heartbeat, alone in the warded room she’d had prepared in the lower levels of the ducal palace of Liesse. She would have to sit there on her chair of lightning-struck oak for a full bell to finish healing the last of the wounds inflicted on her, so Heiress closed her eyes and thought. Sleep would have been so very restful, but it was no longer the kind of luxury she could afford. Not now, when here plans truly began. Not now, when the enemy prowled around her seat of power in search of weakness.

Foundling has unleashed her twisted little goblin again, the one with the thief’s name. The wretch was officially out on manoeuvres, but he’d really been haunting the roads in and out of Liesse. There’d been no lack of targets: even after her loss of face, Heiress’ allies were legion. They were coming to her city now, flocking to make a darker mirror to the Empress’ court in Ater. Not all of them made it: twice already an entire party had disappeared without trace in the night. Both of them had been headed by members in good standing – if not high authority – of the Truebloods. Aisha Bishara was picking the prey, she knew, surgically removing the most reliable of Akua’s allies before they ever made it to the protection of her walls. It wouldn’t be enough: word has spread and now the Praesi were coming in larger, heavily armed groups. More than a single cohort of goblins, however brutal, could handle.

Not for the first time in the last moon’s turn, Heiress’ thoughts turned to the city she ruled over. To the battle that had taken place there and the infinitely more important events that had unfolded behind it. She could admit it, in the perfect privacy of her own thoughts.

Liesse had been a disaster.

Out of her ten-odd objectives when the Fifteenth had left Marchford, only one had been met. Forcing support for her bid as governess. That was it. As for the others? The Hashmallim, instead of being trapped in a dimension she owned as fuel for the next part of her plan, had been essentially bullied into resurrecting Foundling. Resurrection. The sheer effrontery of that, she reluctantly had to respect. The Squire was still an ignorant thug, but she was an ignorant thug who’d spat in the eye of the Heavens. A little of what it meant to be Praesi had sunk into Catherine Foundling, whether or not the other woman wanted to admit it. The Lone Swordsman was dead, as she had wished, but his death had empowered the Squire in ways she could not yet fully understand. Far from weakening her rival, the killing had added an another blade to her arsenal.

The devils she’d meant to use to thin the population of Liesse – to spill so much blood the grounds would be consecrated to the Gods Below, to flush out the rebels and make room for her coming allies – had been turned on themselves within half a bell of being unleashed. The sheer amount of contracts she’d permanently lost through that was painful to think about. The demon she’d secured as the blunt tool she would occasionally need? Now in the hands of the Apprentice, the same man who’d turned her bindings into a meat grinder as easily as pouring himself a cup of wine. Had she been the kind of woman who shivered in fear, Akua would have at that. The son of Warlock with a demon dating from Triumphant’s – may she never return – day in his hands was not a notion she cherished. Another asset lost. If she could have turned Masego to her purposes the problem would not have been quite as keen, but she had no angle there.

Apprentice had, as far as she could tell, no real vices. He did not drink much, ate often but of peasant fare and socialized but with a few people – all of them either family or members of the Fifteenth. It had been mildly interesting to learn he played shatranj with the Adjutant and talked spellcrafting with the Duni Senior Mage, but there was no lever there. Sex was similarly useless as an approach: as far as she knew Masego had never lain with either a man or a woman, or even shown interest in either. She had agents of both genders do everything but show up in his bedroll naked and the man hadn’t even noticed, most of the time. Frustrating, especially since Apprentice was the only of Foundling’s Named contingent it was even slightly possible to bring to her side. Trying that with the orc was a fool’s errand. Heiress did not sigh, even in this room where no one could hear or see. Apprentice would be building his mage’s tower soon, she knew. Perhaps he could be tempted with exotic materials or test subjects. It could hardly be a worse failure than the seductions, anyway.

Akua knew she should not be focusing on Foundling, not when she had so many more pressing matters to attend, but her thoughts seemed unwilling to abandon the Battle of Liesse. That some of her objectives would not be met, she had expected. It was inevitable. But a failure of such magnitude?

Foundling had ripped her way through one contingency after another, quipping even as a walking corpse. An entire host of devils, neutered then slain. The Lone Swordsman, lured into her path, beaten bloody and then tricked into ending his pattern of three. Her burning of the only way into the church had barely slowed her down, and there was Chider. Chider had been her trump card, her assured victory. Stealing the Name of Squire had been certain to work as long as she was owed a victory against Foundling, and had. And given her an aspect more dangerous than ever before, not to mention restored the fullness of the Name. She hadn’t known, that the demon had crippled the Name. Her spies in the Fifteenth had not reported as much on the walk to Liesse. There would be a reckoning for that failure yet. Chider had always been supposed to die permanently, either at Foundling’s hand or Lord Black’s, but for her to be disposed of faster than you take a bath?

No, that had not been part of the plan.

By dying, Foundling had inserted a flaw into Akua’s plan. The ripping of the Name should have incapacitated her for hours, would have if she’d not been a corpse, and so bought Heiress the time she needed to deal with the Lone Swordsman and imprison the angel. An ironclad victory had been wasted on a matter that had ultimately proved trifling, and there would be no second pattern of three. Creation did not embrace such tedious repetitions. The work of two years had been wasted: provoking Foundling and then fleeing on the Blessed Isle, the messy draw at Marchford… Akua had spent much time to guarantee herself a victory when she needed it most only to find that triumph utterly empty. It was enough to make her blood boil.

And there had been that final conversation, in that dinky little room where her companions had been turned into bargaining chips under her own nose. When Ghassan’s soul had been ripped from his body as Foundling sat quietly next to her, forcing her to watch. And this time there will be no bargaining to save you, Foundling had said. There had been something in Squire’s eyes, when she’d said that… Akua Sahelian had been raised among people who killed for sport and bound the very denizens of Hell to their will, but what she had seen there had made her flinch. She’d asked her mother, once, why her hatred for the Dread Empress ran so deep. Why it was so personal. I met her eyes, when I surrendered, Mother had said. And what I saw there scared me. Heiress understood, now, how that single moment could consume someone. She remembered the calm implacable certainty in the Callowan’s dark eyes and felt her hand tremble, if only for a moment.

She could not concentrate on Foundling. Squire was the brazier she’d lit so everyone would watch the flames and ignore the knife. Killing Foundling had never been her purpose. The results of that would have been disastrous: Akua would have become the slated successor of the Black Knight, the last thing she wanted. Dealing with Lord Black from anything but a position of power would be… dangerous, to say the least. Heiress’ game had always been with greater opponents, and the rivalry with Foundling had served as an apt smokescreen for it. There were only two people in Praes who could stop her: Dread Empress Malicia, First of her Name, and Tasia Sahelian. For all her failures she had, after all, gotten what she needed from the rebellion. The first prize was Liesse. Deep in the south of Callow, where the Empress’ reach was weaker and old sorcery was woven into the walls. There was power there, power that could turn the work of decades into the work of months.

The second prize, the most important, was a story. Heiress uses devils. Heiress uses demons. Binds them, commands them, makes them her own. She was just starting to be known in the Empire, and already her Name was fundamentally intertwined with diabolism in all the stories. That was the deeper plan, the masterpiece she had crafted over the years. The Name of Heiress after all, was in many ways inferior to that of Squire. It strengthened her body and her sorcery, but not as well as her ‘rival’s’ did. The applications of it were perhaps a better fit for her, allowing her to manipulate and deceive with a deftness beyond her years, but when it came to combat it was flatly outmatched. That much had been made clear in Liesse. Both were transitional Names meant to lead into something else, but Squires were bound to become Knights. A Heiress, though? A Heiress could become anything.

Heiress uses devils. Heiress uses demons. The worst of diabolists.

Already she was beginning to transition, and the moment she did she could finally put all the forces in motion. Begin crafting the key to the cage, the way out of the trap she had been bound by since her birth. A year, that was all she needed.

A year and she would change Creation.

The Wandering Bard, lately Almorava of Smyrna, sat on a stone by moonlight and idly strummed her lute.

It made a noise like a chorus of cats drowning. The sound was made all the more jarring by the fact that she had not, until that moment, existed then and there. Or since the Battle of Liesse, really. She’d watched from a distance as William killed the Squire and known what it meant. That the Lone Swordsman had lost, that Liesse was lost, that the rebellion was over. There had been no need to linger, and she’d not had the heart to watch William die. Whether or not he had deserved better was debatable but he had tried. Badly and often in ways that were misguided, but he had been trying to do good. It was a shame, that his story had never been going to end well. William of Greenbury would have been a very different man, in ten years. She knew this because she could feel the shape his story would have taken with her fingertips, if he had somehow managed to pass the hurdle that was Catherine Foundling and all the monsters behind her. It was not to be. Contrition used its heroes until they broke, and in breaking parted the clouds to allow the shine of the sun to triumph.

It was sordid, the Bard felt.

She would write a song for him, one day. One worth singing. But she would not do so tonight. The death was too fresh, rawer than she had thought it would be, and William had never been the sort to sing. He’d been a man of thought and silences. Of impatience and recklessness as well, but in some stories those same traits were called boldness and courage. It was always about what you made of it, and in the Lone Swordsman there had been surprisingly much to make of. Dropping the lute on the mossy green earth, the Bard fished out a bottle of her haversack and popped it open. She sniffed. It smelled like anise. Gods, it was a bottle of that foul fig distillate Ashurans were so fond of, wasn’t it? Of the many sins the Baalite Hegemony had to answer for, bringing this abomination over the Tyrian Sea was undoubtedly one of the worst. She had a drink anyway. It burned on the way down, warmed her and reminded her she was alive. That was always a comfort after she’d had a Wander.

She was currently sitting within a stone’s throw of the walls of Liesse, which told her exactly what was about to happen. How much time had passed she couldn’t be sure, but there was only one plot thread left dangling. They must have taken their time, she frowned, eyeing the now-pristine walls. Heiress must have been governess for at least a moon’s turn. Likely they would be arriving at exactly the right moment to hit the hardest, having followed the instructions there were given to the letter. To the number of heartbeats passed, even. The Bard drank from her disgusting trial of a bottle again. Her teeth were starting to taste like anise and an ever-expanding alcohol problem.

“You might as well come out, boys,” she called out. “You’re not fooling anyone.”

The elves did not appear, because appearing had the implication they had not been previously there. They had been, they’d just decided that Creation would not be able to see them. That was the way with the older elves: they decided what rules applied to them. They could not ignore more than one, but that was usually enough. Besides, she would not put anything past these two: they had been old before they’d ever set foot on Calernian soil. Few people would have called the two Emerald Swords beautiful, she decided. By the standards of humans their faces were too long and angular, their skin so perfect as to seem almost marble and those wide eyes filled with so much contempt it was nearly a physical thing. They were tall and slim and terrible to behold, like a coldly shining star. The one on the left was called Dawn and the other Dusk. They were both men, not that she could have figured it out from looking at them if she had not already known. The Bard let out an obnoxious whistle.

“Two Emerald Swords, huh?” she said. “The Forever King really wants her dead.”

They did not reply with words. Infinitesimal twitches, impossible for anyone but a Named to notice, served as an exchange between the elves. Obstacle, Dawn said. Unforeseen, Dusk added, deeply offended.

“He’s a bargain bin prophet, your man,” the Bard snorted. “He thinks a crown and a few dreams means he can read the weaves? Please.”

Sharp and ugly fury erupted in both of them without changing them in the slightest. Kill, Dusk said. Hero, Dawn reluctantly disagreed.

“Them’s the rules,” the Bard said. “Can’t touch a hair on my head so long as your King doesn’t give permission. And he would have needed to see me coming for that.”

She guzzled down more or that sin against the Heavens, allowing some of it to trickle down her chin. She wiped it off messily. Disgust twitched across their frames. It was almost too easy to toy with them, really.

“You’re going to use words to talk to me,” she said. “If you don’t, I’ll just have to start speaking elvish – or what’s that fancy name you folks give it again? The True Tongue?”

“Your language is carrion,” Dawn said in Lower Miezan, as she’d known he would. “I will need to rip out my tongue after soiling it so.”

However soiling the act of speaking a language not elvish, it would have been nothing to having a mere human speak their precious True Tongue. Even a hero.

“You’re such charmers, you lot,” the Bard drawled. “You know, I had high hopes for your kind when you first arrived.”

She gestured expansively.

“Armada of white ships lands under the Everdark, pretty little elves burn it immediately. You go into the woods and genocide your way through the Deoraithe until you own the land. I told myself ‘old girl, these ones mean business’.”

She grinned sharply.

“But then you stayed in your Golden Bloom, didn’t you? Closed the borders and ignored the rest of the continent. That was a disappointment, let me tell you. You had such potential.”

“The affairs of mortals are of no interest to the elves,” Dawn said.

There was no intonation or inflection to the words. They were just spoken, as if by a being made of stone. The Emerald Sword could be made to speak a human language but not bother with the frills of it.

“Not you elves, anyway,” the Bard said. “It’s why they kicked you out, isn’t it? The others. The ones that breed with humans, whose kingdom is larger than this entire continent. Lots of room there, but not enough to fit your opinions about lesser races.”

“The Kingdom of the Golden Bloom will remain forever unmarred,” Dawn said.

“Oh, sure. Pure, pretty as a painting, all that good stuff.”

The Bard paused, then smiled.

“Shame about that birth rate, though, no? How many kids you popped since coming here again?”

None, they all knew the answer was. That was what happened when you murdered the original owners of a forest and tried to claim it your own. It remembered, and no amount of singing to the trees was ever going to fix that.

“We know who you are, Keeper of Stories,” Dawn said. “She of a Thousand Faces. Speak your piece.”

“I hadn’t heard that one in a long time,” the Bard chuckled. “Keeper of Stories, eh? Just doesn’t sound the same in Lower Miezan. I go by the Wandering Bards, these days.”

They did not reply. They saw no further need to indulge her, she realized with amusement. She gulped down another chunk of her horrible, horrible liquor.

“The Forever Twit sent you to knock off the Heiress,” she said. “Not happening. Fuck off.”

The wooden sword had bit deep into the stone, less than hair’s breadth away from her femoral artery. She’d never even seen Dusk move, and as far as she could tell he was still standing where he’d always been. The only difference was the absence of the spellwood sword at his hip.

“Do not,” Dawn said, “mock Him again.”

“You lot developed a temper in your old age,” the Bard grinned. “It’s almost cute, the way you think violence is something that could scare me.”

She’d accented the word in Lower Miezan the same way it would have been in elvish. It was enough to horrify the both of them.

“You know what she intends,” Dawn said.

“Better than either of you, or the man who holds your leashes,” the Bard said. “But you know what really ruffles my feathers, Dawnie? That he thinks he has a right to meddle.”

Her voice had gone cold. They were both wary now.

“’cause the way I see it,” she continued, “you signed that away long ago. Around the time Triumphant was kicking around. Remember Triumphant? Lass about wee high-“

She waved her bottle around, spilling some on her sleeve.

“- scowled all the time, conquered the continent? Any of that ring a bell? Around the time she took Callow, she turned her eyes to the Golden Bloom. And what did you bunch of rabbit-eared sissies do then?”

She paused.

“Anyone? Seriously, it’s not like you two weren’t around.”

She sighed.

“You bailed out of Creation is what you did,” she said. “You took your pretty little kingdom and fled right into Arcadia. And boy, was she pissed when she realized it. Wiped out two cities in rage.”

The Bard drank again, loosely sprawled on the stone. She knocked down the lute by accident and did not bother to pick it up.

“And now you think you get to cut away the part of the story you don’t like,” she said. “Really, the nerve of some people.”

The Wandering Bard grinned nastily, the white cut of her teeth like a slice of sharp moonlight.

This is my game,” she hissed. “Amateurs are not allowed.”

She leaned forward.

“Crawl back to your forest, Emerald Swords,” she said. “And tell your owner that if he ever tries anything like this again, he will rue the day.”

Neither of the elves moved.

“I will not,” the Bard said softly, “warn you again.”

And just like that they were gone. As if they had never been here at all. The sword was gone, the stone it had cut completely untouched. Almorava of Smyrna sighed, and looked at the stars. She finished her bottle, and she died.

 

The Wandering Bard opened her eyes in a crowded tavern room. People spoke all around her, not a single one of them looking in her direction. She sitting alone at a table in the back. She looked at her hands, surprised not to see any wrinkles. Young twice in a row? That was rare. She was definitely getting laid in this one, it just felt better when you were still young. Her skin was of a pale tan, the appearance of most hailing from the Free Cities. Who was she?

Aoede of Nicae.

It had a ring to it. And she got tits, this time! An improvement. Almorava had been a disappointment in that regard. Hair was a bit long and too curly for her tastes, but she’d made do with worse. Aoede’s leathers still smelled of anise and threats, but that was part of her charm really. She passed by the bar, snatching the bottle of liquor a dark-haired man had in front of him and then stealing a cup to pour herself a drink. The man in question was passed out, and she clucked her tongue disapprovingly. Not only was this a lightweight move, by the looks of the sun it couldn’t be past noon. The man behind the bartop shot her an amused look.

“That stuff will kill you, sister,” he said in tradertalk.

Aoede smiled.

“Son,” she said, “I’ve got more lives than a bag of cats.”

Keeping the bottle, if not the cup, she strode out into the sun. The White Knight was bound to be close, or she wouldn’t be there. Contrition, in the end, had not done the trick.

Maybe Judgement would.

111 thoughts on “Epilogue

  1. And with that, Book II ends.
    Like after the end of Book I, I’ll take a month-long hiatus to get some things in order (and edit the manuscript of the first book with the intent of publication).
    Updates for Book III will start on the 8th of February, and the extra chapter for that month will come out the same day.
    I’ve had recent unexpected schedule changes so the extra chapter for January will either be out around noon tomorrow. It is, for the curious, titled “Regard” and will be from Ranger’s POV.
    EDIT: Done. As usual, here’s the link for people who don’t want to click on that “extra chapters” button https://practicalguidetoevil.wordpress.com/2017/01/04/regard/

    Liked by 5 people

    1. A few Surprises…
      That apprentices possible corruption seems to have come to nothing.
      The same with the elves. Their foreshadowing had been spent to produce more foreshadowing?
      That Squire will not be heading to the Free cities. Will Warlock die and be replaced by Heiress?
      All of the possibilities I pondered for the next arc seem to have been shut down.

      Like

      1. Nairne

        Really doubt Warlock will be replaced by Heiress. She is more likely to get a name associated with demons/devils rather than magic in general (Diabolist Mistress or something – I’m not good at naming :P)

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Riddle

      Welp, I’ve been chewing up phone data and breaks at work reading through this whole thing across the holiday season, and now I catch up just in time for the new chapter. How about that!

      Not sure how I felt about this to begin with, I think it struck me as a little too “Young Adult,” but I’m glad I stuck with it. Catherine and the story as a whole really come into their own once her “Rivals” enter the stage, and I’m very eager to see where it’s all going!

      Enjoy your month off, I’ll definitely be here waiting when you get back.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Thank you, and ignore my question in “regard”.

      This story has been one of the most deeply satisfying reads in a long time. Are you able or interested in more formal means of publication?

      Because I would buy a Kindle version for keeps.

      Like

  2. danh3107

    Wow, great chapter and a great end to book two. Thanks a lot Erratic. But, could you please tell me about the huge elf kingdom that apparently isn’t insanely racist? Because good lord that sounds cool.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. lennymaster

        Could you please make more maps, the one of Calernia is that good, and in the recent chapters geography has become very important to understand some of the reasons behind some characters decisions.
        Amazing book and quite long. Could you give us an estimate word/pagecount?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. There’s a colour map of the continent in the works, with special attention paid to political borders. It should make it easier to figure out who’s were.

        I haven’t done a precise page count for Book II yet, but I’d say at least half again the size of Book I.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. maresther23

        Yes! Maps! Will it include the Dwarf and Gnomes?

        Could we also get a general world map? I know a lot of the other Continents won’t be part of the story, but I am in love with world building.

        Like

  3. Soronel Haetir

    I find it interesting that Bard bodies don’t have a transition period. The bodies change rather than growing into the name as we see with the others.

    Like

    1. haihappen

      The role is not kick-ass, its terrifying! Its like a curse: The conscience of the role is forced to play piece after piece in the theatre of Creation, simply not existing when she is not on the stage, and dying when one piece is over.
      It would be nice to know if the person the role incarnates into exists prior to be taken over. Maybe it takes them over in their moment of death?

      Anyhow, the actions of the Bard in this interlude a far from squeaky clean Good:
      She needs Heiress’ foreshadowed meddling with devils or its fallout as pretext for the crusade. If Heiress would be killed, that story would end there, all threads cut.
      And without a story, the Bard/Keeper may chease to exist, at least for some time.
      Another interesting aspect is that the Good Roles are normally agents of the Heavens, and therefore influenced, guided or straight up controlled by their agenda. The heavens want the crusade. They want bloodshed and war. For them, everything happening there is a game.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. The Heavens want the Crusade not because they want blooshed and war.
        They want the land of Callow to return to the Good.
        They don’t care if it’ll still be Callow afterward or if it will become a part of Procer, they want Praes, and by extension Evil, to lose. Because if nothing happens, then Evil will definitly win this time.
        And it will set a precedent for following stories.

        Obviously, the Bastars Above don’t want that to happen.

        Like

      2. Methinks Bard(s???) are actually neutral, not good, in theory, but in practice lean towards good because the Role of Bard is to maintain the status quo of Creation. Which is why Bard hardly cares about Akua wanting to subsume the Name of Creation, but is actually worried about Black and Cat.

        Which also raises the question of Bard’s powers. I eerily suspect she can literally “rewrite” parts of the Story if need be.

        Like

  4. JackbeThimble

    Huh. I guess even a bards liver gives out eventually.
    Looks like the Kingdom of the Golden Bloom combines the worst traits of the Noldor and the Sindar. And it looks like they are so good-in-name-only that even the Wandering Bard doesn’t have any patience for them. And they’re apparently not invincible.

    Like

  5. “She’d been like that even the Sentinels” > even before the Sentinels ?

    ” she is dependent on it so stay above the waterl.” > To stay above the waterline. ?

    “Not now, when here plans truly began” > her plans ?

    —-

    The “may she never return” all praesi uses still get me, every time 😄
    So, hm, Heiress may become the Diabolist, uh. Or maybe something close.

    Like

      1. Nairne

        A similar thought entered my mind too. She has aspiration to inherit “All of Creation” and Triumphant conquered all of Celernia (or was it “Calernia”?).

        Like

    1. Naeddyr

      > Something that would use what it could not break and break what it could not use

      Maybe this should be Something that would use what it could, not break what it could not use?

      Like

      1. Naeddyr

        Yeah, you’re right. I parsed it just really wonkily because of the line break, which on my screen is

        > Something that would use what it could not break
        and break what it could not use

        and for some reason I got
        “something that would use what it could”
        “not break and break…”

        which is so nonsensical I was sure it had to be a typo, and then I just copypasted it…

        Like

    2. AVR

      It sounds like Heiress is going to make a bid for the name of Warlock? I can see the utility to her side, he’s a large part of the Calamities direct and personal power, but there again – he’s a very clever man with a lot of personal power.

      More typos (IMO)

      Lass about wee high-”
      Lass about yea high-” (usually)

      Wandering Bards,
      Wandering Bard,

      but not bother with
      but not to bother with

      instructions there were
      instructions they were

      socialized
      socialised (assuming UK spellings)

      word has spread
      word had spread

      a prefect match
      a perfect match

      and banner for her
      and a banner for her

      They’d rise, hadn’t they?
      They’d risen, hadn’t they?

      putting a goblin rebellion
      putting down a goblin rebellion

      Like

      1. Bart

        save for putting a goblin rebellion
        Add down after a

        becoming a recurring blade in the back on the Empire’s merchant shipping
        Change on to of

        She’d been like that even the Sentinels had come for her at her father’s inn
        Add when after even

        They’d rise, hadn’t they?
        Change rise to risen

        It wouldn’t be enough: word has spread and now the Praesi were coming in larger, heavily armed groups.
        Change has to had

        having followed the instructions there were given to the letter.
        Change there to they

        She guzzled down more or that sin against the Heavens
        Change or to of

        Great story! 🙂

        Like

  6. JackbeThimble

    Would it be a massive spoiler to clarify what all the Angelic choirs are? I’m under the impression that there’s supposed to be seven but I think we’ve only heard the choirs of Judgement, Contrition, Fortitude, Compassion and Mercy. They seem to be inspired by the seven virtues of medieval catholicism but not directly copied.
    Also (this is driving me nuts) is it supposed to be Compassion that makes it so people can never take a life or was that a typo and it’s actually Mercy? Finally, are all heroes supposed to be aligned with one choir or another or is it just a subset of holy-type heroes?

    Like

      1. Mercy can be cruel. Mercy can kill. Mercy can inflict fates worse than death as a teaching tool.

        All with a sad little smile that tells the victim “look at what you made me do to you for your own good” which broadcasts that the smiler, in all sincerity, has the right to believe this horror. 😛

        Like

    1. There’s a great many of them, so listing them in their entirety would be more confusing than helpful.

      No, that was not a typo.

      Not all heroes are aligned with a Choir, no. Thief is not, for example. It’s usually the “main character” types like the Lone Swordsman who have had direct dealings with angels, but that’s not a rule so much as a tendency.

      Like

  7. JackbeThimble

    Huh, so one possible interpretation of this is that the Wandering Bard is a name so meta that the Name itself knows what it is and retains the same consciousness between hosts, which has interesting implications for the hosts, assuming they aren’t just generated out of thin air.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Riddle

      This is my thinking. It’s not a case of the Pattern just popping a person into existence where there wasn’t before. It’s more like the Name itself has transcended its Role and become self-aware. Instead of a new person becoming the Bard, the Bard is becoming a new person.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Naeddyr

        Hopefully it really isn’t body-hopping, that’s the kind of dick-move Good would pull on poor Bards.

        The functions of Bard’s existence (Wandering being non-existence, mainly) seems to point to generation instead, happily.

        If you’re not Bard.

        I wonder if she’s *Calernia’s* bard, part of some bigger group of regional bards?

        Like

      2. Nairne

        If its possession then it could be really bizarre for the person possessed after the Name jumps into a new body. Imagine Catherine if met Almorava now that she doesn’t have a name.

        Like

  8. Soronel Haetir

    So is the magic bag-of-bad-liquor a Bard thing or was it something Almorava picked up along the way? I somehow suspect the former (it’s a good way to disarm folks to appear to always be on the verge of being drunk).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect it’ll wind up back in Aeode’s fresh pair of hands soon enough. If the Bard has more lives than a cat, it just makes that bottomless bag of dreadful holding the cat the lives of the Bard can’t shake. 😛

      No wonder the Bard drinks. Never knowing if you’re going to exist until you do, remembering a bunch of things your body couldn’t know, doing things because it’s what you are, never getting to choose where/ when/ how you exist, going through three dimentional people you can’t help but know everything about at a rate of knots, only being able to engage with plots and not other people while being in a person-shaped package with a lot of the baggage… I think the poor thing cracked millennia ago, but isn’t allowed to stop ticking even though no death wish could ever come close to true. 😐

      Reasons why being Good sucks: not having a real choice in your existence blows. Now add “not able to forget you’re a Role, not a person” on top. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Letouriste

    Thanks for the chapter! A good way to finish the book:)
    I’m starting to like heiress now,she gain in weight after this defeat/bad victory.

    Like

    1. Nairne

      I have to honestly disagree with that. I see Heiress as the type of villain who while having lots of power and backing at their disposal, they can’t fully comprehend the nature of her opponents and miss the critical pieces of the puzzle just to have their plans fall apart at the worst moment, and possibly lose completely or salvage just scraps. I totally hope she loses and Catherine wrings every ounce of whatever she can wring out of Heiress before being permanently removed from the plot. I’m curious, how did she come into the name Heiress anyway? Was it mentioned somewhere, an Interlude maybe?

      Like

  10. Naeddyr

    Thanks for the chapter.

    Now I’m left wondering if this is going to be White Knight vs. Black Knight instead of White Knight failing to Judge Catherine.

    “Judgment” sounds like it might have to be less hypocritical than what we’ve seen of Good up to now, or at least I hope it is. Going for the full deus-vult package sounds a bit predictable (“hold still while I judge you with this sword”), so might be this time you have to actually *be* guilty for there to be any effect, and Cat, though she has her sins, may be better equipped to face that kind of metaphysical court than some.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nairne

      It would be hilarious to see Catherine turn tables on Judgement.

      “Where were you and your Judgement, O White Knight, when my people were suffering? You have no right to Judge me when I did something about the situation in Callow.”

      Or something along those lines 😛
      Not sure if it would work. As long as the hero is aligned only to Judgement, I doubt he will care about arguments of any kind, because of a reason along the lines of “his word is Justice”.

      Like

    2. Dianna

      Not sure if White knight Kills Black, but there is a sort of rightness for Judgment to come after the call to repentance.
      “Those who fail to Repent will face Justice,” and so on.
      I think Catherine will be the one to put down the White knight, -possibly as a way for her to become the Black Knight should he fall- this is her story now. Black even said that is wasn’t about him anymore.

      Like

  11. nipi

    Oh dear Lord is the Wandering Bard body snatching? Im the OS of this PC now and you are just data in a folder somewhere.

    The “good” side is looking more and more evil.

    Like

      1. Dianna

        I know right? I have been rereading the story since I binge read it, and I can’t help thinking the same thing. Some of the Gods thought they should rule, and the others though their children should be called to higher things. I honestly think “Good” was the one that though “they” meaning themselves, not their creations, should rule.

        This fight seems more and more like it’s about Free Will Vs the Gods.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Shequi

    So, has the Name of Wandering Bard (or Keeper of Stories) transcended certain limitations and started to simply generate the stories of the lives it occupies, or is it outright taking over the individual who gets it?

    Seeing matters from Heiresses viewpoint is interesting, as it shows the exact calamity that Liesse was for her, which Catherine still doesn’t truly know.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Void

    You know, I can’t help but sympathize with the villains in this story. I want them to set fire to the world, and have the Bard and her status quo * themselves.

    The Empress and Black Knight, there’s probably going to be something heartbreaking happening between them, but I hope they stay true and go out in a blaze. Even Heiress, she likely wants to be Warlock (or a Name strong enough) and free her father.

    Of course, the bias is strong in this story, but I’m never one to root for the Status Quo, especially one as ruthlessly self-correcting as this one.

    Like

  14. Cicero

    This was an amazing finish. Proably one of the best interludes so far. I find it quite interesting, that the wandering bard is more then a set piece, but an player in her own self. Also its interesting how similar Heiress is in trying to break out of her story, like some other individuals in the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Poor Akua. I think the key to her cage is actually staring in her face and giving her nightmares. Her problem is that Pragmatic Evil is actually a welding torch, so she can’t see it for the break-out opportunity it is, thanks to it not being traditionally key-shaped. :/

    And, a toast to truely abysmal rotgut and all the people who feel the need to indulge in the horror of it for either coping with hard reality or in remembrance of things lost. *chokes on terribly medicinal Alpine eau de vie which probably includes wormwood, but that’s definitely not all*

    Seriously, if the Name of Wandering Bard itself hits the horrible to cope with its meta existence more often than the Empress or Black choke down the lubrication out of their teenage memories, the Role itself needs a damned hug, a hotwater bottle and a blankie, forget just the poor sods whacked with it. 😐

    Whoever thought creation should work like this deserves a kick in the rear.

    Like

  16. Oddity

    I noticed you used ‘A Heiress’ a few times and I wonder if that’s correct. Technically Heiress does have a consonant in front of it but it’s completely silent when you pronounce it. It just sounds wrong when I say it out loud. Do you know if it’s correct? It wouldn’t surprise me, I just thought it was an interesting question.

    Like

  17. arancaytar

    Maleficent had known, he believed, all the peoples of the Empire should be remembered the clang of shackles every time they spoke of their nation.

    I can’t quite parse this…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Read it as
      “Maleficent had known, he believed, all the peoples of the Empire should remember the clang of shackles every time they spoke of their nation.”

      and it makes more sense.
      Or

      … Empire should be reminded of the clang of…

      Like

      1. stevenneiman

        He’s done that at least once before. I wonder if maybe that’s valid in British English. As an American who has little experience with anything but my native form of the language, I don’t know.

        Like

      2. @stevenneiman
        That use of remember is deprecated or obsolete in American and Queen’s English.
        While EE has certainly done it before, it’s relatively rare — but consistent in certain contexts. Assuming EE gets herself (himself?) an editor, they’ll have some fun arguments about tone for a created world vs. breaking the flow for a reader.

        For the most part, as a reader, I assume it’s the spoken form for the world we are in. I was merely rephrasing because someone asked. 🙂

        Like

      3. Unoriginal

        Remember is archaic?
        Honestly I don’t think it is and reminded is more tone breaking than remember in that context for me.
        Hell I went and checked on my phone’s dictionary and on dictionary.com
        It isn’t listed as archaic on either of them.

        Like

  18. arancaytar

    “If Tasia is willing to take those risks,” he said, “it means that her end game can be reached within a year.”

    Yup. When your plans seem to be going especially well, you should consider the possibility that your enemy is not an idiot, and is letting it happen because they have their own plan, which is further along.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. RandomFan

    Does anyone know if Heiress might be pursuing a name that isn’t Warlock? Have any other diabolist names been mentioned? Because Warlock being replaced by Heiress makes me nervous, but not as nervous as a more dedicated name.

    Like

    1. Naeddyr

      I’ve been trying to think of a way to twist the lyrics of White Wedding into ‘White Wizard’ and include Apprentice there, but the problem is I haven’t really heard the song enough to even remember how it goes.

      Like

    2. George

      I suspect it’s Diabolist. It was used a couple times in the chapter.

      I don’t think the Name ofAdjutant was mentioned before we got one, for instance, so I don’t think it has to be a Name we’ve heard of, of which there are very few.

      Like

  20. M

    >Foundling has unleashed her twisted little goblin again, the one with the thief’s name.

    >thief’s name

    I am not saying Robber being a Name is foreshadowed, but, well…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. KageLupus

      Oh thank goodness, I thought I was going to have to be the person who threw this out there. Between this line, and Robber whistling The Girl Who Climbed The Tower around Squire way back when, I am really hoping that we get a reveal that Robber has been Named the whole time. It fits his disposition and I think it would be quite in keeping with goblin sentiments to have a Name and tell no one about it. They are a very closed mouthed bunch, after all

      Like

      1. M

        He was also the only non-Named (supposedly) in the room when Squire got raised from the dead, which was a major Plot Moment that, I think, only Named should have been able to attend.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. maresther23

        I think that at some point Black insinuated that Goblins have names that can stay hidden for cultural reasons. And the Matriarch from his clan saw something in him.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. KageLupus

        Nipi, when I mentioned goblins being closed-lipped I was mostly thinking about in regards to goblin culture. Goblins will gossip about all kinds of mundane things, but from what we’ve seen in the story they have said almost nothing of any real substance about what life back in the Burrows was really about. If Robber was actually named it would not surprise me if other goblins knew and just never made a big deal about. Seeing how strongly people reacted to and orc gaining a name, it wouldn’t really be that surprising.

        Of course, I could also see it being as likely that Robber is keeping that info all to himself, since what better way to gain the Name of Robber than to take it through violence? And goblins are a particularly violent bunch without that kind of provocation already.

        Like

    2. Soronel Haetir

      And it certainly makes sense that a goblin would be Robber rather than Thief. Robber implies that a certain level of violence accompanies the acquisition.

      I have seen comments several times speculating that Robber is actually Assassin, I just don’t get that feeling. I am pretty sure we have been told Robber’s age and that he is far too young to be one of the Calamities – somewhere between 15 and 20. My guess is Lieutenant Abase but a position in the Blackguards seems like a poor fit for someone who has to be able to move around (meaning that I would think the other Blackguards would wonder “now where did he get off to …”).

      Like

      1. Kilimandaros

        Unless Blackguards know that he is Assassin and since almost noone can tell them apart it makes perfect hiding spot. I think that Robber can’t possibly be Assassin because what would he be doing in the Academy? Not to mention if he was one of Calamities he wouldn’t have self deprecating thoughts about his chances with Pickler (Interlude Greenskins).

        Like

    3. maresther23

      I wonder what Robber’s aspects are (or would be). One of them is Explode, obviously. The other is probably related with his sense of timing and situational awareness (Juniper has noted this). The other should be Stab, Backtalk, or “you horrid pest”.

      Like

    4. Dianna

      Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Robber had a Name, and used it as his real name just to troll everyone. I also wouldn’t put it past a Named Goblin (being’s known for secrecy) to be able to hide their name from even the likes of Apprentice.

      For all we know he has had it for ages and is secretly laughing behind all the big Flashy Named’s back, because even when his name is his Name, they haven’t figured it out.

      I also think it would be fitting for him to actually have the Name Robber, especially since he has a company of others under his command. His Band of Robbers, pillaging, and waylaying travel’s in the dark all for Cursed name of his Dark Mistress.

      Like

  21. wat

    Heiress becoming Hellraiser?

    Also I don’t think the Bard is taking over peoples bodies. I’d say it feels more like she simply starts existing as a new body in reality. Becoming a person that is woven into reality at the moment she comes into possession of the body. Kind of like pushing books apart in a bookcase to slide in another book in there that juuuuusssst fit with a little bit of force. Then again there is still a lack of info there so who knows.

    Like

  22. Kelenas

    Robber being Catherine’s version of Assassin would be interesting. Definitely glad to see that she at least tries to remain proactive about Heiress, what with sending him to bump off her allies.
    I’m still wondering if she’ll get the scouting/intelligence-officer she apparently lacked, though. That area seems to remain her biggest weakness by far, given how much Heiress has infiltrated her ranks, yet she has no agents of her own amongst Heiress’ supporters and the like.

    Like

    1. nipi

      I remember Cat thinking something along the lines of: “If Robber ever came across good manners hed end up stabbing it and staealing its wallet.”

      Foreshadowing for an encounter with a good mannered hero? 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Kilimandaros

      Well, we already have Hakram as Catherine’s version of Captain and Masego as her version of Warlock so more of new generation Calamities are welcomed. And who could be better than Robber? Only him with brand new full-of-violence Aspects.
      On the side of scouting/intelligence officer, Aisha is doing this job currently. And looking from precise attacks at Heiress followers she is doing just fine. Will we see her as a Name? We can only wait and see.

      Like

  23. maresther23

    “After all these years, she was saying, after all the times we have hurt each other without knowing or being allowed to let it stay our hand, do you still believe in this? ”

    I find this line scary after hearing Black comment on how proud he is of Cat. Whatever Akua does will be enough to kindle a brutal civil war, a crusade, or both. And it is obvious that Malicia will use her as a piece in that game, no matter the cost.

    Like

  24. Unmaker

    This is my game,” she hissed. “Amateurs are not allowed.”

    That statement and the serial immortality makes me think she may be a player on par with, or maybe greater than, Good and Evil. After all, when stories control Creation, just how powerful is a storyteller? The best of them create stories after all.

    Liked by 2 people

  25. stevenneiman

    “he’d done little in his ten years or reigning save for putting {down} a goblin rebellion”
    “She’d been like that even {when} the Sentinels had come for her”
    “They’d [rise->risen], hadn’t they?”
    “And now she is dependent on it so stay above the [waterl->water].”
    “he sorcery came and went in tides{,} a [prefect->perfect] match for her heartbeat”
    “it would have been nothing {compared} to having a mere human speak their precious True Tongue.” It might be grammatically valid as-is, but it reads rather confusingly to me
    “Armada of white ships lands [under->above] the Everdark” I’m pretty sure that the Everdark is underground, and thus very hard to land a ship under.

    “Foundling has unleashed her twisted little goblin again, the one with the thief’s name.” So Robber is a Name. I was really wondering. Of course, now I’m wondering if it really is, or if Akua is just continuing to be an idiot.
    “Heiress uses devils. Heiress uses demons. Binds them, commands them, makes them her own.” Only problem for her is, the story actually goes “Heiress uses devils. Heiress uses demons. The Cat beats her up and steals them like lunch money” Seriously, Cat’s done it twice directly and come out looking awesome for having thrashed the legions of the Hells the other time Akua threw them at her, and she just admitted that Cat isn’t going away any time soon. Well, that’s old-school Praesi villains for you. Brilliantly stupid to the bitter end.
    Also, this chapter really made the Bard a lot creepier. She is a supposed hero, and yet she happily uses human bodies until they break and then steals more. And she had the nerve to call it “sordid” when the Choir of Judgement did the same thing with someone who signed up vaguely by choice. I’m now kind of hoping that one of Cat, Black and Malicia’s accomplishments is to kill that abomination for good.

    Like

  26. maresther23

    Some Dread Emperor Malevolent III, the Pithy quotes:

    “The best revenge isn’t living well, it’s living to crucify all your enemies.”
    “Where have all the good men gone? Graveyards, mostly.”

    erraticerrata: There are two Malevolent III, the Dread Emperor the Pithy and the Dread Empress from Chapter 32: Draw. Is this correct?

    Like

  27. Ian

    The role of Bard is terrifying…It’s akin to a big metaphysical issue with teleportation: Are you teleporting, or is a copy being generated at the other end and while the on location “you” is killed?

    It seems clear from this chapter that it’s the latter…the Bard dies when she jaunts to a new place, and that a perfect copy is generated at the new position. It explains her drinking, since every time a new copy is generated it remembers everything, and knows that it’s going to be dead very soon.

    A depressing position to be in, but if true it really makes her one of the bravest characters in the story. (Assuming the Name isn’t controlling when she jumps around?)

    Like

  28. Dragrath

    A bit late but I feel the need to comment and say that this series has been and continues to be amazing.
    The tantalizing hints to the greater events here really are both cruel(for answering questions and and leading to more ones) and amazing I really love fleshed out and developed worlds.

    Bard is really such a tortured role more like a name that knows everything the previous holders had If I’m interpreting it right… No matter what possibilities are there it screams fate worse than death…

    The conversation between Amadeus (i.e. Black) and Alaya/Malicia I suspect the alternating use of her original and dread empress names is foreshadowing something…

    Loved the reason Heiress was left around and given the position she wanted 😄

    Speaking of Heiress comes with some enlightening views towards what she actually intended. I actually have some pity/sympathy for her only intending a feud with Catherine to be a cover but having Cat utterly ruin her plans(Which the true bloods wouldn’t be as fully happy about XD) I will be curious to see how far she can make it as she has been a fun villain for Catherine’s journey.
    Quite curious exactly what role she seeks to claim as is I can’t really see it be Warlock so I will have to suspect Diabolist.
    Enjoy your break you earned it, Thanks for the series I await book III in February 🙂

    Like

  29. Mikasi

    So I just binged this entire story in about the course of a week around my jobs, and I have to say I love the setting, and am wondering if anyone may have figured out how to run an RPG in it because it would lend itself so well to it!

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Kilimandaros

    While I was reading TV Tropes page I stumbled upon ‘Juniper of the Red Shields’, but in my memory it was always ‘Red Moons’. Quick check:
    Book I, Chapter 23: Morok’s Plan – “Istrid’s Red Moons” (Name’s dream about the Battle of Four Defeats);
    Book I, Chapter 27: Callow’s Plan – “Juniper of the Red Moon Clan” (quote at the beginning);
    Book II, Chapter 16: Trust – “Wolves and Red Shields and Waxing Moons ” and “Red Shields for Juniper” (talk with Heiress spy);
    Book II, Chapter 16: Aplomb – “ranks of Red Shields and Grem’s Howling Wolves” (Name’s dream about the Battle of Burning Cliffs);
    Book II, Chapter 38: Juncture – “The Red Moons are from the Northern Steppes” (talk with Aisha, bit about Juniper’s origins);
    Book II, Chapter 49: Triumph (still as ‘Victory’ in ToC) – “Legate Juniper of the Red Moons, step forward.” (promotion to general);
    Extra Chapter: Beast – “Remember Istrid, the chief of the Red Moons?”, “they’d left the territory of the Red Moons behind” and “Istrid of the Red Moons”.
    So what is the real name of the Clan?

    And while we are at it Chapters 17 and 18 (first book) still names sergeant from mages’ line ‘Kilian’ instead of ‘Kamilah’ (other than first mention in Chapter 17). One that died from enormous snake devil in Book I, Chapter 23: Defeat. And we know that Kilian was, at the time of 17 and 18 chapters, lieutenant of said mages’ line.

    Like

  31. Bart

    Ok, what is the strongest, biggest, baddest, most stereotypical evil of the story? The one that, immediately after referencing it, everyone always says, “May she never return”? And who’s also in “Hell” and consorting with demons?

    So, putting that together, who does Heiress really want to inherit from?

    Like

    1. Dianna


      That is a Scary, yet fascinating thought. Gosh I hope we see Catherine fight that.

      Also, have you noticed, that no matter how much she loses, Heiress gain’s some kind of Victory? Or… Triumph? However small?

      Like

  32. So after spending a day reading from start to finish, I want to like this story a lot more than I do.

    The characters are nuanced and interesting, each with their own stories. The world building is utterly fantastic. There are a lot of great twists and turns. The style of writing is quite good.

    That said, while I like the general arc the story is on, I’m conflicted on whether I’ll keep reading.

    My biggest problem is that Evil just isn’t, well, evil enough.

    I don’t see how the Empire is evil, like, at all. I guess if you squint you can make out things like sacrifices for agriculture and stuff like that. Sure they might kill a bunch of sympathizers – but that’s more ruthless than it is “evil.”

    Almost everything they do is “good.” They punish those who commit crimes harshly and fairly. They don’t allow slaves. They don’t take advantage of the populace in occupied lands. They discourage looting/rape after battles. They tax LESS than native kingdoms.

    We’re told that a lot of awful shit went down before the story started, but we never see it. And the actions we do see are almost always for a good reason.

    There are quite a few times in the plot that Cat comes across some moral situation and feels conflicted, but I always feel these conflicts are artificial. The so-called “evil” acts are so incredibly tame, and the highlighted “good” action so incredibly foolish, that it’s a false choice. There’s zero reason for her to feel any moral conflict because it’s so heavily tilted to the “evil” side.

    And yes, I get this is part of the plot. But if the three main villains are considered “evil,” but only perform more ruthless “good” actions, what is the meaning of “evil?” From what I understand “good” characters can be extremely ruthless too. Not being able to identify the two sides renders the premise of the story almost meaningless.

    This is compounded by the fact that the “good” side is filled with incompetents. The Empress and the Calamities (and the protagonist) are built up to be these powerful, unstoppable forces. Good has nothing to compete.

    Not only do they have awful moral reasoning because, again, evil isn’t really evil – they’re not strong either. Sure, some of them are a match for Cat, but they’re nothing against the real forces of the Empire which are the aforementioned calamities. I never, in a single chapter of this story, felt there was remotely a chance of good winning anything significant or permanent. This lessens a great deal of the tension of the story.

    And the main character. Oh man. The entire story is basically building her up to be this badass, which is cool. But the entire time she’s dancing on the strings of the Empress and Black. Willingly. They name her a warlord or a queen, but a warlord doesn’t answer to anyone while she happily does. I can’t see her as a badass because she’s not the one driving the story – those two are. I liked her for most of the story, but that changed after she just decided Callow would be fine as a province rather than an independent power.

    Anyway, I’m sure you have a lot planned, but these are my honest thoughts after spending about 12 hours reading this thing. Just my two cents.

    I’ll probably check back after a few more books are out and see how it panned out. Keep it up!

    Like

  33. “Because Alaya could see the things he was blind to and take the measures he would not, because he was willing to make the leaps of faith when she had run out of faith years ago.”

    Anyone reminded of Apprentice and Squire and the necromantic bomb?
    Also, anyone feel a chill at the idea that Black wouldn’t take measures against Squire due to affection and pride, but Malicia could and would, since she believes that Squire would be terrible at ruling for a couple years still?

    Also with time and space and re-read, I do like and lean toward the idea of Heiress becoming the Second Triumphant, and changing the face of Creation.

    Like

    1. Although, at the end of Book I:

      “Or was hers to be the hand that cast down Dread Empress Malicia, the woman still hated behind closed doors? Wrong, all wrong. Paltry ambitions of lesser souls.
      She was Akua Cisse, and she would inherit all of Creation.”

      Eek. Not Triumphant, then, unless what Triumphant was more than a Dread Empress.

      Like

  34. First: We all need to remember Malicia’s conversation with Catherine. The one where she *stated* (Not implied as a possibility, stated as if it is unalterable fact) that Black will, in the next few years be rendered completely ineffective due to all the enemies he made as the hatchet-man of the Dream Empress-Calamities Coalition. Malicia finished the conversation by reiterating her question to Catherine “What do you want?”

    Next: We know that Black’s part in the emotional dynamic between him and Alaya/Malicia is taking the leaps of faith, because she can’t. That puts Black completely in Malicia’s power every time he leaps like that.

    Further: Names don’t get to retire. They go down in defeat and die, often badly. Almost ALWAYS badly when it comes to Villains. The fear Alaya/Malicia felt when an unwilling part of the previous Tyrant of the Tower’s harem…Black, Warlock and presumably the rest of the Calamities all THINK they understand the depths of the trauma Malicia experienced. I believe it’s that fear, of becoming that powerless and being at the mercy of the merciless that’s been responsible for the rifts we’ve seen spring up between Black and the Empress. Malicia knows that one of them is going to go before the other does…and as much as it would wound her to do so…If Malicia’s choice is Malicia or Black, Malicia is going to choose Malicia. Whereas Black would likely choose Malicia if he came to a similar choice.

    I believe part of the “Do you trust me?” thing Malicia hit Black with when he asked her what was going on with Heiress and her mother Tasia’s schemes is that Malicia intends to use Catherine in ways Black might not be OK with. Remember, Malicia has accepted the inevitability of Catherine becoming the Black Knight. Black seems to have as well, but in a less all-encompassing way than Malicia.

    Catherine is the most likely piece for Malicia to wield to unmake Heiress’s plan. Malicia is planning to take care of Heiress’s mother in an essentially direct way. Malicia had no problem detailing all of that portion of her plans for Black. When it came to what Heiress was planning, and what Malicia intends to do about THAT, however, Malicia hits Black with the “Do you trust me?” and denies him further information.

    Couple that with the fact Black is going to be out of play in Callow/Preas because he’s going to the Free Cities (and presumably into confrontation with the White Knight)…Which doesn’t bode well, because the Bard is speaking of White Knight as if he’s the possible solution to the “problem” of Catherine Foundling.

    Meaning either a) Black and the White Knight don’t actually come into conflict despite the one being in Nicea and the other heading for “the Free Cities” or b) They DO come into conflict, and White Knight walks away the winner.

    The Wandering Bard has yet to be wrong about anything predictive she’s stated. Her entire “Contrition failed to do the job, maybe Judgment would” thing implies White Knight and Catherine are going to come into conflict. If Catherine is still the Squire when that happens, the conflict will be short and bloody.

    The White Knight is Black’s counterpart…and the business about him having been away in the Titanomachy implies he’s been around a few years at the very least. An experienced White Knight versus a Squire whose been at the whole Villaining gig for two years?

    That’s a slaughter waiting to happen. Creation deals in Stories when it comes to the meeting of Heroes and Villains. Catherine getting negligently squashed isn’t much of a story (Nor a viable expectation in a meta sense since she’s the primary Protagonist.

    I think it all adds up to Catherine getting a significant power boost before her and the White Knight clash.

    Like

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