“Gentlemen, there is no need to worry: our plan is flawless. The Emperor will never see it coming.”
– Grandmaster Ouroboros of the Order of Unholy Obsidian, later revealed to have been Dread Emperor Traitorous all along
A few years ago I would have been able to enjoy the beautiful madness that was Skade as we rode through it, but being apprenticed to Black had ruined me. Now I was wondering how a city with a population of a several thousand could manage to feed itself when all the fields around it were covered in snow. Or who cleaned the streets for them to remain this pristine. Were there fae street sweepers? If so, were they available for hire? Marchford didn’t look nearly as nice. And that was without even getting into the logistics of running a monetary system when everyone and their sister could make illusionary coin. Unless all coin was illusionary? This entire race was giving me a headache just to think about. The rest of my companions seemed more concerned with getting their bearings, which I already knew would be pointless. I’d looked back after we turned a corner twice now and found an entirely different street behind us, the second time even on a different floor. The seat of the Winter Court was nearing Tower-levels of mindfuckery, though at least it wasn’t also full of death-traps and demons. I hoped.
Archer’s casual assessment of the Winter King as “pretty much a god” wasn’t a significantly better alternative, but I’d take what I could get.
If I was getting out of this with most my organs on the inside, it would be by picking a story and sticking to it. The fact that’d I somehow wiggled my way into being the heroine when facing the Rider of the Host likely meant Arcadia didn’t care for my being Evil so long as I acted heroic. That broadened my options a great deal. There were at least half a dozen tales about some clear-sighted commoner with a Good heart walking into the court of Callow and unmasking the schemes of wicked courtiers trying to trap them, though my introducing myself as the Lady of Marchford might have killed that in the crib. Trickster stories, then? Trying to outwit fae at the game they’d allegedly invented struck me as asking for an invitation to a feast that lasted a century, but with the story on my side I might pull through. Sadly, I hadn’t been abducted by a fairy queen with designs on my virtue so professing my pure-hearted affections for Kilian would be of no use. To be honest I wasn’t great with temptation anyway. Wouldn’t be sleeping with one of my senior officers if I was.
“Catherine,” Hakram said in a rasping whisper. “Watch.”
I glanced at the tall orc, then around us. We were riding through a marketplace of sorts, filled to the brim with hundreds of fae. Stalls that were riots of silk and pale wood offered an array of wonders for perusal. Some one-eyed old man with skin dark as a Soninke’s was offering a bottled wish, moonlight made silver and the heart of a once-good woman, all set on an elegant quilt of woven winds. Fares just as absurd stretched as far as the eye could see, the entire plaza much too large for the width the surrounding walls suggested. I saw Masego eyeing what a peddler promised to a drop of the blood of the Forever King with sharp interest, so I kicked his foot. He jumped in surprise and then coughed in embarrassment.
“You start buying things here and you’ll leave with a dozen different fae owning a slice of your soul,” I hissed.
He looked mulish.
“It’s not like I’m using all of it,” he whispered back.
That was the single most Praesi thing I’d ever heard him say and rubbed the bridge of my nose in despair. You’d never find a Callowan selling their soul like that, I thought irritably. Well, except that one time I’d become a villain. So maybe sometimes you found Callowans selling their souls like that, but in most cases I felt like my opinion held up. I glared at Masego anyway, until he gave up with a huff.
“Don’t you pout at me, you’re a grown man,” I muttered.
When had I become the voice of reason? People were supposed to talk me out of things, not the other way around. Still, this felt dealt with so I turned my attention back to the marketplace. Hakram wouldn’t have been interested in the wares here, I was sure. The orc take on having an economy was raising cattle, looting other clans and the occasional bit of barter. Aside from books and booze there wasn’t much in Adjutant’s tent and I would know: I riffled through his stuff at least once a month when I got bored. So what had he been trying to point out to me? I began paying closer to attention to the fae themselves instead of what they haggled over, but how they were dressed wasn’t what caught my attention. It was how they behaved.
Two fae bargained over a silver chain almost perfunctorily, going smoothly back and forth until it became clear the man – who looked like a noble fallen on hard times, his robes threadbare and his hands without rings – could not afford the chain. At which point he publicly bemoaned his lack of wealth, going on twice as long as he had while bargaining. There was something wrong here, like they were acting instead of truly talking. Further away I saw a gorgeous but common woman hacking off her beautiful golden locks and offering them in exchange for a precious stone, and that was when it finally clicked. On the other side of the market place I found an earnest-looking man pawning off an heirloom ring missing its jewel in exchange for a pretty ivory comb. It was an old tale, one children in Callow grew up hearing about as a warning about blind good intentions. They’re going through stories, I realized. All of them. There wasn’t a single outcome here in the hundreds of conversations taking place that wasn’t already set in stone.
It was enough to make me shiver. They might almost look like us, but the fae were other. Something apart, obeying completely different rules. An entire people of actors going through the motions since before Creation even existed. How many times had they gone through their stories, I wondered? If Roles were grooves worn into Creation by repetition, accumulating power by repetition, then these were an entire race of Named. Everyone from the chimney sweeps to the king himself, following along the paths set for them. And now I’d just walked into the midst of that with a lie on my lips, throwing myself headfirst into a maze of interwoven tales that went back unbroken since the dawn of existence. Gods Below, this was more dangerous than I could have ever dreamed of. I forced a smile on my face and sat ramrod straight on my horse as we passed through the market. I met Hakram’s eyes and saw fear there to mirror mine. We’re in over our head. More so than usual.
“This must me where we part, Lady of Marchford,” the Duke of Sudden Rime announced.
I could see interest and fascination in his too-blue eyes as he watched us, having long chased away his initial distaste at our presence. For all that he was more than willing to pawn off responsibility for us to the Baron. Was this a story as well, I wondered? There might not have been an exact precedent for my actions today, but if another tale was close enough they might have moved towards it. Or perhaps not. Their arguing over who’d be responsible for us had felt too organic, not at all like the haggling fae behind us. It had felt like they’d been genuinely unsure of the outcome, no matter how smoothly the conversation had gone. Still, how much could I rely on that impression? Fae were some of the greatest liars to ever exist. There were too many unknowns at play here for me to get a good read on the situation.
“I am most certain we will meet again,” the Marchioness of the Northern Wind said, flashing hungry teeth. “I look forward to it eagerly.”
“I’m sure our dearest Baron will take great care of you,” the Lady of Cracking Ice added, smiling at the fae in question.
“Your reception has been most graceful,” I replied, careful to avoid even the implication of debt.
The nobles tittered and rode past a house of stone too white to be anything of Creation, disappearing the moment they turned the corner. The Baron turned to us, face expressionless.
“As I’ve not been given instruction by His Majesty to bring you under his roof, it seems you will be settling in the guest palace,” he said.
“That will not be necessary, my lord baron,” a voice intervened.
The fae nobles we’d encountered so far had been sharp-faced with even sharper tongues, but none of them had struck me as made for strife. Intrigue yes, and cruelty absolutely but fighting? None of them had the silent assurance of someone used to taking lives. This one, though, looked liked he’d been made for war. His mount was ebony, and I did not mean that in a poetic sense: the horse was sculpted out of dark wood, polished so perfectly it could have been black marble. The man himself was wearing a sober long-sleeved tunic with buttons of shade, the sword at his hip slender and without a sheath. I could feel the power in it, and not mere sorcery: it felt like sharpness made object, a principle made into thing. His skin was pale and his cheeks freshly shaved, thin red lips forming a permanent scowl. A black silken blindfold covered one of his eyes, silvery writing sprawled across it. I’d never seen someone who fit the turn of phrase of being raven-haired better before: just looking at the dark locks I could almost hear the flap of wings.
“My Prince of Nightfall,” the Baron of Blue Lights replied, bowing low.
“That ought to end well,” I muttered.
The prince’s eye flicked in my direction at the words, meeting my stare. I matched his gaze and found myself peering into darkness, a night so dark no stars would ever grace it. I began to drift from my body until I reached for an older memory, one branded into my soul. I felt my back snapping again, my bones grinding to dust as the weight above spoke a single word: Repent. I’ve stared down Hashmallim, fairy, a little dark isn’t going to cow me. Night is when villains rule. I found myself on the horse again, the Prince of Nightfall smiling amusedly.
“His Majesty sends his regards, and grants these awaited guests the use of the Still Courtyard until they can be properly received,” the one-eyed creature spoke.
“A great honour,” I said, which for all I knew could be true.
Well. Fuck. I’d never seriously hoped the Winter King wouldn’t know we were in the city, but him sending what looked like his Court’s equivalent of one of the Calamities had not been the plan. Not that I had a plan, per se, but this definitely wasn’t it. Having Aisha along right about now would have been great, since my companions might all be Named but between the lot of us all we knew about plotting would barely fill a page. Written large. There might even be illustrations.
“I look forward to your attendance of Court on the morrow, Baron,” the prince said, the implied dismissal clear.
The Baron of Blue Lights bowed gracefully a second time, eyes lingering on us before he left. Confusion and fear were plain in his gaze. I feel for you, my friend, I thought. There’s probably someone out there who knows what’s going on, but it’s sure as Hells not either of us. I nodded politely at him and Hakram elbowed Masego so he’d do the same with the rest of us. There was a long moment of silence with only the five of us in the street. The Prince of Nightfall smiled at Archer, somehow conveying a few centuries of hatred in a mere quirk of the lips.
“Did you know, girl, that I once swore if your mistress had a child I would feed it to her?” he idly said.
“The Lady of the Lake isn’t one for children,” Archer replied with a friendly smile of her own. “She much prefers jewellery.”
While I admired the guts behind mouthing off to the immortal creature that had night for eyes, I kind of wanted to throttle her right now. We don’t taunt the monster, Archer. Not when it’s already out to get us. Oh Gods, was this what it felt like being in charge of me? The balance of appalled and impressed was miraculously even. How had Black not had me killed off by now?
“While I’m sure you and the Lady of the Lake have a colourful history,” Adjutant said, “we are all here under the banner of the Lady of Marchford.”
It was a sad day when the orc in a group was the closest thing you had to a diplomat. I yawned in an almost offensively fake manner to change where this was headed.
“Alas, I am but a feeble delicate young girl and travel has tired me,” I said. “Is the Courtyard far, Your Royal Highness?”
“Ah, I forget myself Lady Foundling,” the Prince said. “You are well known for your… frailty, after all. It was untoward of me to delay.”
There was enough sarcasm injected in that single word to poison a well. I was reluctantly impressed.
“All is forgiven,” I drily replied.
“If you and your retainers would follow me, I will lead you to the Courtyard,” the one-eyed fae said, his horse moving into a trot without prompting.
We trailed after him and I gestured for Archer to come closer. She leaned in.
“I thought the whole changing-seasons motif meant fae are reborn when their Court comes around again,” I said quietly. “Like a cheap cousin to reincarnation.”
“It does,” she agreed.
“Then he’s missing an eye even now because…”
“Every time?” I whispered.
“She likes the ring,” Archer shrugged.
Whoever had first said that Named became crazier the older they lived clearly had something of a point. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the Still Courtyard, though my guess was that it wasn’t because it was all that close. More that everything in Skade was close, if you were high up enough the fairy food chain. The Prince of Nightfall was royalty, if the title was any indication, but what exactly that meant I was unsure. Was he related to the king? I wasn’t sure whether fae could even have children if they didn’t have them with mortals. The Still Courtyard was a low-hanging square building with a front of ornate greenwood pillars and bare stone steps. Through the arched entrance I could see the courtyard it was named after, a pristine garden of untouched freshly-fallen snow. A dozen blue-attired servants were already kneeling outside when we arrived, none of them daring to look up. They didn’t even register in the prince’s eyes, as far as I could see.
“I hope your rest will be peaceful,” the raven-haired fae said.
Ah, implied threats thrown our way by someone who could kill me with relative ease. He was making this feel like home. The Prince cast a look at Archer, then moved on.
“I will see you all in Court on the morrow,” he added. “Until then, Lady of Marchford.”
“Looking forward to it, Your Royal Highness,” I replied with insincere enthusiasm.
The Prince of Nightfall rode away without glancing back, leaving us and the servants alone. They were still kneeling, so I cleared my throat.
“So,” I said. “About those rooms.”
They rose, and as I peered at them I saw they were… hesitant. Not afraid, I decided, but unsure of what they were supposed to do. They’re not used to having guests, I thought, or maybe just not mortal ones.
“I am the steward for this courtyard, Hallowed Ones,” a female fae said, bowing before us. “We are honoured by your presence and have arranged chambers for your leisure.”
I thought about asking for her name but held myself back. No, it wouldn’t do to get too involved: I might be stepping into a story by accident. I looked down at my armour, which was sadly full of holes where people had taken it upon themselves to stab me, then at Hakram’s similarly scarred set of plate.
“I could use a nap and a bath,” I said. “How about you lot?”
Apprentice leaned forward on his horse.
“Does this courtyard have a library?” he asked.
Well, good to see he still had his priorities on order. I swore on all the Hells, if Masego landed at the bottom of the sea the first thing he’d ask the mermans was if there were any books around.
“It does, Hallowed One,” the steward said. “Maeve can take you to it, if you so desire.”
Maeve was, from the look of it, a very pretty servant with a low neckline who was now smiling invitingly at Apprentice. Another servant looked at her, then Masego and his face turned thunderous. Well, I mused. If there was anyone among my companions I could feel pretty safe wouldn’t get involved in some deadly fae love triangle, it was Apprentice. Masego gingerly got down from his horse and immediately headed inside, gesturing for the servant to follow him.
“See you later,” I called out, then sighed. “Someone stable that horse. We’re only borrowing it.”
“I could do with a nap,” Hakram admitted. “Feels like I’ve been awake for days.”
Odds were decent we had been.
“You should also take a bath,” I encouraged.
The orc wrinkled his nose.
“I washed myself in the river when we were returning to Marchford,” he said.
“He smells like blood and sweat,” Archer commented. “It’s quite nice, actually.”
“See, Archer likes how you smell,” I told him.
He grunted in displeasure but silently conceded the point, dismounting as the Named in question turned to look at me.
“What was that supposed to mean?” she said.
“You live in the woods and I’ve only ever seen you wear one outfit,” I replied frankly.
“You could see me out of it, if you asked nicely,” she winked.
“We’ve been over this before,” I said, dismounting and handing off the reins to a servant.
“Sadly,” Archer sighed, doing the same.
We made our way inside, pausing as we passed the threshold. There was no sound. In a city there was always noise in the background, people talking or working or the hundreds of different that kept it all going. Even out on the field, you heard animals or wind or the gurgle of water. Here there was only silence so absolute the sound of my breath felt like someone screaming. The Still Courtyard, huh. That would take some getting used to. Ahead of us the footsteps of the servant leading us to our chambers were soundless, and the entire thing made me uncomfortable enough I felt the need to keep talking.
“So what’s with your ‘hitting on everything that moves’ habit,” I said. “You realize that even if you showed up naked in Masego’s bed he’d be more likely to ask how you got your scars than anything else, right?”
“Nah, I just like fucking with him,” she admitted with a grin. “He gets so confused and offended.”
“I don’t,” I said, “and you keep offering.”
“Twice isn’t exactly a lot,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Still, let me put it this way. How long do you think you’ll live, Squire?”
“I’m a villain,” I said. “So theoretically forever.”
“I didn’t ask for the Evil manifesto,” she said. “We’ve had villains in Refuge, I know the speeches. What do you think.”
“If I make it through the next few years, maybe another twenty after that?” I guessed. “Depends on the opposition I end up getting.”
“We never have a guarantee we’ll make it through the first story,” Archer said quietly looking ahead. “Named have more of everything – power most of all, but also danger. I could die tomorrow or in ten years, but sooner or later I get an ending. And when I do, I want to have lived as much as I could.”
I could see where she was coming from, honestly. There were a lot of perks that came from being Named, even if I hadn’t partaken in most of them. Got that as much from my own sober inclinations than Black’s outright austere example, I figured. You only needed to crack open a history book to see a lot of Black Knights and Warlocks had sown their wild oats with enthusiasm. Hells, Masego’s father was married to an incubus. Dread Emperors and Empresses outright had a seraglio, even if Aisha kept assuring me sex wasn’t a large part of that. As for heroes, well, good-looking and righteous was a pretty common type for a lot of people on Calernia. If anything heroes were more likely to end up in bed with another hero than villains were with other villains. I was hardly chaste myself, but sleeping around had never appealed to me past my initial fumbling attempts to learn what I liked. What I had with Kilian mattered to me as more because I could trust her than because she was delightful in bed. Trust was a lot more precious to me than sex these days.
“You’re actually quite prudish for a Callowan,” Archer said. “Your people are a lot more salt-of-the-earth as a rule.”
“I wouldn’t use Hunter as a measure for Callowan mores,” I snorted. “That outfit was a little bare by anyone’s standards.”
“Those leather pants, though,” Archer sighed fondly. “He had an ass like you wouldn’t believe.”
I wasn’t exactly eager to discuss the merits of the buttocks of a man whose hand I had hacked off after beating him savagely, so I wisely decided to go into my rooms when the servant showed them to me. The ochre-skinned girl took the hint, following another servant to her own. My guide was the steward from earlier, and before I could even take a look around she knelt at my feet.
“Hallowed One,” she said, looking down. “An invitation awaited you when you arrived at the Courtyard. May I give it to you?”
I was genuinely tempted to say no and see what came of that, but kicking the hornets’ nest could wait until I’d had a bath.
“Sure,” I said. “It was sent specifically for me?”
“An invitation is always sent to the Courtyard, Hallowed One,” the steward said hesitantly. “It’s simply that usually we… do not receive guests, in this part of the season.”
And just like that today’s game of this does not feel like a coincidence in the slightest had found a winner. Eyes still on the ground, the fae offered me a scroll with a seal of frost on it. It would have looked natural if not for the emblem that could be glimpsed in the ice. What the emblem actually depicted I had a hard time understanding, the image blurring under my eyes and the words Duke of Violent Squalls coming to the front of my mind whatever I did. Fancy.
“There’s a bath adjoining the room?” I asked.
“Whatever you require will be found,” the steward said.
Close enough to a yes, I figured.
“That’ll be all, then,” I said.
Time for a bit of light reading, I supposed.