“Invading? Good Gods, of course not. We’re merely manoeuvring.”
-Dread Empress Sinistra II “the Coy”, after being hailed by the garrison of Summerholm
Archer hadn’t changed at all since I last saw her. Fine white chainmail went down from her throat to her knees, splitting in a skirt. Over it she wore a long leather coat that came up in a hood that was currently down. The dark green linen she’d covered her face with last time had not been brought up, leaving open her exotic dark ochre face and hazelnut eyes. Only people across the Tyrian Sea had that skin tone: not the Baalites or the Yan Tei but those from some faraway land whose inhabitants were known only as the tigermen. The pair of longknives at her hips were sheathed and her ridiculously large longbow still strapped to her back, along with a quiver full of arrows closer in size and thickness to javelins than anything else. Even under the armour faint curves could be glimpsed, and there was no denying she was almost as good-looking as she thought she was.
“Lady Archer,” Hakram greeted her respectfully.
She’d pretty much mauled him effortlessly on their first encounter, which tended to leave positive impression on orcs. I brushed off Archer’s arm, frowning at her.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
She ignored me, to my irritation. Huh. I wasn’t used to people doing that anymore. Whether they were my enemies or my friends, everyone paid attention when I glared these days. That had a way of happening when you’d killed as many people as I had.
“Sweetcheeks,” she grinned at Masego. “How are we?”
“Less than pleased by the appellation,” Apprentice replied.
“It’s a compliment,” she assured him.
“Stop verbally molesting my people and answer the question,” I said.
She glanced at me, still grinning.
“What’s the magic word?” she prompted.
For a heartbeat, I seriously debated ordering Masego to cast something on her. Nothing lethal, just unpleasant. Her hair turning into snakes, maybe. Would that be magic enough for her? Ultimately I sighed. This wasn’t worth getting into a pissing match for.
“Please,” I said.
“Well, since you asked nicely,” Archer shrugged. “I was headed for your little city – what’s it called again, Marching, Mossboard? – when I spied with my little eye a bunch of very lost villains.”
She knew what the name was, I thought, meeting her eyes. She knew I knew she knew what the name was. She was just pulling my strings because she could. It was good to know that even if the better part of a year had passed she was still a major pain in my ass.
“You are the poison ivy of people,” I told her. “Why were you headed for Marchford?”
“Your boss called in her marker for the Hunter incident,” Archer replied. “Asked Lady Ranger to send a fae expert.”
I smiled thinly.
“So where are they?” I said.
Hakram snorted. Masego looked like he wanted to inform me Archer was the expert even if he knew I was being sarcastic, but barely managed not to.
“That’s hurtful, it is,” she said, sounding pleased. “My turn to ask the questions then. Why in the all the bloody Hells are you lot this deep in Arcadia?”
“How deep are we, exactly?” Masego asked.
“Not as deep as yo could be, sweetcheeks,” Archer replied without missing a beat, wagging her eyebrows. “But to put it in laymen’s terms, you’re pretty close to Skade.”
“The seat of the Winter Court,” Apprentice said, sounding surprised. “That shouldn’t be possible, we haven’t wandered long enough.”
“This place seems to have a very loose definition of possible,” Hakram grunted.
“The orc gets it,” Archer said.
“There’s rules even in Arcadia,” Masego said flatly.
“The rules in this neck of the woods are whatever the King of Winter says they are,” the woman shrugged.
“The implication being that the King wants us in Skade,” I said quietly. “That’s going to end well.”
“Yeah, I meant to ask,” Archer said. “What did you guys do to piss off the Winter Court? Did you abduct some of their people?”
“We didn’t do anything,” I complained. “They just showed up one day, started invading my city and got really condescending about not telling me why.”
Archer rolled her eyes.
“A few warbands is hardly an invasion,” she said.
“Squire’s not exaggerating,” Hakram said. “They’ve stated their intention is to conquer Marchford.”
The ochre-skinned woman raised an eyebrow.
“That’s… unprecedented, as far as I know,” she said. “Fae mess around with mortals outside Arcadia all the time, but they don’t stay there as a rule. Are you sure you didn’t piss them off somehow?”
“I honestly can’t think of a way I would have,” I replied.
“Huh,” she said. “Well, you’re still lucky in a way. You’re stuck with Winter and they’re shit at fighting. Whatever poor bastard is stuck with Summer is in for a rough ride.”
“The ones I’ve fought so far weren’t pushovers,” I said.
“If you’d been in a scrap with the host of High Noon you’d have a lot more holes in your armour, Squire, and they’d still be smoking,” she said. “Summer’s the season of war. They always win the round against Winter if it gets to a pitched battle.”
Ah, the familiar feeling of being in over my head and yet still glimpsing another peril over the horizon that would be even worse. I was depressing how used to that I’d gotten.
“That’s a nightmare for another night,” I said. “If you were headed for Marchford then you know a way out of here?”
“Sure,” Archer said, and pointed towards the city.
It was still insolently glistening, but at least I had a name for it: Skade. It was also apparently the seat of the Winter Court, so the way my instincts had been screaming trap, trap, this is a trap was once again justified.
“Do you have a way out that doesn’t involve us dying painfully?” I asked.
“I was headed towards a gate before I saw the lot of you,” Archer said, “but that’s meaningless now. This close to Skade we’re going wherever the King wants us to go.”
“So if we walk in the other direction…” Hakram said, trailing off.
“We’ll get back here in a few hours,” she said. “Though if he’s pulling that sort of stuff at least he’d not meddling with time.”
I sighed. Was I ever going to meet some sort of all-powerful creature that wasn’t a real prick about it?
“So to Skade we go,” I grunted.
“Better keep off the road,” she said. “Otherwise they’ll see us coming. Wait until night time and try to sneak through?”
I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.
“We’re taking the road,” I said. “Apprentice, you have parchment and ink?”
“Oh thank the Gods,” Masego muttered, then cleared his throat. “Yes, I do.”
“We’re going to caught pretty early,” Archer pointed out.
“Caught?” I smiled. “Why, we’re not hiding. We were, after all, invited.”
About an hour in we ran into a hunting party. Not in the sense that they were hunting for us, but in the way that Callowan nobles hunted deer and rabbit. There were a dozen fae, all mounted on too-perfect white horses, but among those only four mattered. Two men and two women, colourfully dressed where the others were in drab blue-grey and armour. The nobles – for I was relatively certain that was what they were – immediately took the lead and diverted their party towards us. Of them the first to speak was a man dressed in a tunic of woven shade and starlight which hurt to look at if I did it for too long. My companions spread out warily, but as I’d told them to did not reach for their weapons.
“Well well well,” the noble began. “What have we-“
“Finally,” I interrupted. “You there, the ugly one. Dismount immediately and give me your horse.”
I was careful not to point at any guard in particular, letting them decided among themselves exactly who I’d been speaking to. There was a flicker of surprise across all their faces. This was not, it seemed, going the way they’d thought it would. Good.
“Pardon me,” the man said. “But what did you just say?”
“I ordered your attendant to give me his horse,” I corrected haughtily. “I have to say, the reception so far has been most disappointing. I expected envoys to meet us at the border, not for us to have to walk like peasants.”
“You are mortals,” one of the ladies said, tone bemused.
“I am the Lady of Marchford,” I sneered. “Here at the personal invitation of the King of Winter. Obviously you were sent to welcome us, so surrender horses for myself and my retinue. We’ve wasted enough time.”
There was a heartbeat of silence as they all stared at me. I offered back my best impression of Heiress, silently conveying that to such a hallowed personage as myself their mere presence was almost offensive. One of the ladies smiled, her teeth looking more like a crescent moon than bone.
“We welcome you to Arcadia Resplendent, Lady of Marchford,” she said. “I am the Marchioness of the Northern Wind. Please forgive the manners of my uncouth companions.”
“There is nothing to forgive,” I said, my frown heavily implying that there was.
“It will be our pleasure to escort you, my lady,” the man who’d not spoken added. “Though it pains me to be so direct, may we see the King’s invitation? Since Winter has gone to war, none are allowed to wander without one.”
“Of course,” I replied dismissively. “Servant, show them the invitation.”
I gestured at Archer, who raised a mutinous eyebrow at me.
“Do not tarry, sullen wench,” I said, savouring every syllable. “Or it’s a smart blow to the ear for you.”
She glared at me and grit her teeth but took out the folded sheet of parchment, handing it to a guard. Said guard rode closer to the nobles and presented it. They looked at the parchment, then at us, then to the parchment again. It was fake, of course. I’d known it would be pointless to try to forge something that would pass muster, since we had no idea if invitations like that even existed and what they would look like if they did. So I’d gone the other way and made it a ridiculously obvious fake. It was even signed ‘the King of Winter’, since none of us knew what his actual name was. I could see the nobles wanted to immediately call us out on it, but they hesitated. I smothered a grin. It was just like dealing with Praesi. It was a transparent lie, so naturally there had to be something they were missing. Was it a trap aimed at them, perhaps? A true invitation made to look like a fake so they would offend and give pretext for execution?
“This is a false invitation,” the first fae to have spoken finally said, tone wary.
My companions stirred, preparing for a fight, but I’d bluffed with thoroughly empty hands often enough to know not to react.
“Aleban, don’t be obtuse,” the Marchioness laughed. “Of course it’s true, look at the signature.”
Aleban looked about to protest, then his eyes suddenly narrowed at the Marchioness. The other male fae began to grin nastily and the other woman steered her horse subtly away.
“Since the Marchioness of the Northern Wind states it is true, then it must be,” he said sneeringly. “I am sure His Grace will be pleased when you bring them to him for audience.”
“Oh, I would never dare overstep my station in this manner,” the Marchioness smiled. “The Lady of Cracking Ice is the darling of the Court, surely her hand is best suited for this task.”
Said Lady had been the one edging away and even as her face went thunderous as the sudden swerve in conversation I could not help but notice she was quite stunning. Most fae were subtly wrong, with faces too narrow and eyes too large, but this one was outright ethereal. I was almost reminded of Kilian by the cast of her face, though she had sharper cheekbones and paler skin than my lover.
“I simply could not claim this privilege in the face of so many nobles of superior rank,” the Lady demurred. “The Baron of Blue Lights humbled us all with his singing last night, surely introducing such hallowed guests would be another feather to his cap.”
“You are too kind, my lady,” the fae who’d been grinning replied smoothly. “I am but a paltry courtier compared to the might that is the Duke of Sudden Rime. Would it not be best for him to have this honour?”
Aleban, who was apparently a duke, smiled serenely.
“You are too humble, my good Baron,” he said. “No one but you is a match for this task. Do you not agree, Marchioness?”
“Oh, most definitely,” she said, deploying a fan of pure ivory with a flick of the wrist and hiding her vicious smile.
“It is agreed, then,” the Lady of Cracking Ice murmured.
See, that was my favourite part of dealing with schemers. They always thought too deeply, and when it made them uncertain they immediately began passing the potential backfire to someone else. Fae were supposed to be the trickiest creatures in existence: if there was even a speck of uncertainty they’d make sure none of the fallout could mar the hem of their dress. We weren’t out of the pit yet, of course. Even if they went along with it now that didn’t mean they wouldn’t turn their cloaks the moment we entered Skade and claim they’d been toying with us all along. Got us in the city, though, and that was the first step.
“All of you show me such favour,” the Baron said calmly. “I will not soon forget it, I assure you.”
The guard returned the ‘invitation’ to Archer, who looked like she really wanted to stab someone in the face. I hid my glee behind a dignified façade. Ignore me, would she? My vengeance would be as swift as it was petty. Our escort ordered guards to dismount and I paused a moment when I realized that unlike mortal riders, none of them used spurs or even a saddle. There was just a beautiful silk blanket. Not using the horse for a getaway then, I thought. I was a more than decant rider these days, but I’d never tried it without a saddle. My companions mounted after I did, with varying degrees of success. Hakram was pleased his horse hadn’t begun blindly panicking the moment he approached and Archer was a better rider than me by the looks of it. Masego, on the other hand, was hugging his mount’s flanks and looking pale.
“Apprentice,” I said, bringing my mount to his side.
“This is unnatural,” he muttered back. “Mages walk or fly. This horse business is just asking for a broken neck.”
“Sounds like you’ve got it under control,” I lied.
“Is there an issue, Lady of Marchford?” the Baron asked.
I smiled blandly.
“None at all,” I said. “By all means, my lord baron, take us to Skade.”
“It will be my pleasure,” the fae replied darkly, to the amusement of the other nobles.
We set out down the road, the fairies leading the way, and Archer rode closer to me.
“Sullen wench?” she hissed.
“You’re right,” I replied pensively. “That was a bit much. I take back the sullen.”
I’d seen quite a few beautiful places, in my time.
I’d seen the Silver Lake under moonlight, when it was most deserving of its name. I’d seen the royal palace of Laure, stone and tapestry and centuries of power. I’d walked the halls of the Tower, where opulence was a given and horror lurked behind every drape. Even the Wasteland had been beautiful in its own harsh way, flickering from storm to blinding sun in the span of a bell. None of them held a candle to Skade. Arcadia was not Creation, and so not bound by its rules. The Winter Court had taken this to heart when it had built its seat. Archways carved from snowstorms, streets made of solid glistening water and even auroras turned into lanterns: it was madness, but a madness utterly bewitching. I could see trees made of ice with leaves of stone that shook in the breeze, bridges of mist linking towers that were solid a moment and gone the next. The gate into Skade was an archway of ever-shifting ice, a high relief that changed the stories it depicted with every look. And in front of it, in two unmoving rows, stood Swords of Waning Day. The same soldiers I’d fought in Marchford, made a silent honour guard. Our party rode up a gentle slope, headed for avenues inside.
Then the first soldiers unsheathed their swords.
For a moment I panicked, but kept my face calm. If this came to a fight we weren’t making it out alive: Hakram and I had struggled enough with two, two hundred were far beyond our capacity to handle. Any notion they were taking those out for a salute was dismissed when they turned towards us. No, I noticed after a moment. Not us. Archer. Who did not look particularly surprised.
“Soldiers, what is the meaning of this?” the Duke of Sudden Rime asked.
“This one smells of the Darkest Night,” one replied, pointing his sword at Archer.
The woman cleared her throat, gave me a sideways look.
“The Lady of the Lake has visited Skade in the past,” she said. “She, uh, might have left an impression.”
The deadwood soldiers hissed like angry cats when she mentioned the Ranger’s title. From the corner of my eye I could see the fae nobles exchanging glances. They looked surprised, then cast very wary looks in my direction. Oh, right. I’d called a pupil of the Ranger a sullen wench and threatened to slap her around. They had to be wondering who the Hells I was to be able to get away with that. I smiled prettily in their direction, which seemed to unsettle them even more.
“She’s with me,” I said. “And will not fight unless provoked.”
“Her mistress took the Prince of Nightfall’s eye and set it on a ring,” the soldier barked.
“It makes for very tasteful jewellery, if that’s any consolation,” Archer said.
“So this is what dying stupidly feels like,” Hakram mused.
“I’m sure Lady Ranger will give it back if he asks nicely,” I lied. “Regardless, Archer is part of my retinue. She is not to be touched.”
“Who are you to-“ the soldier began, before a fracture line ran along the length of his body.
His eyes widened, then he fell into a shower of shards.
“I am bored with this interlude,” the Lady of Cracking Ice said. “Shall we proceed?”
We did, and the soldiers gave us a wide berth. I leaned towards Archer.
“And Summer is worse?” I asked.
“Way worse,” she said grimly, then lowered her voice. “So we’re in the city. What’s the plan now?”
“The situation is fluid,” I replied. “We’re keeping our options open.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Hakram cursed.
I smiled winningly at my companions.