“No one ever won a war by being shy.”
– Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow
The door didn’t make a sound as it closed. I was in a pretty little antechamber decorates in shades of wood, leading into a large bedroom. I eyed the featherbed with untoward intentions, noting it was twice as large as my own in Marchford. Silk covers and enough pillows for three people: this was exactly the kind of staggering decadence I’d been promised when I’d hitched my wagon to the Evil horse. Instead I had to deal with goblins who couldn’t keep their knives in their pants, half the Empire out for my blood and a demesne whose ledger ran so red it looked like it was bleeding. All of which I had to handle while sleeping in woollen sheets, to add insult to injury. There had to be someone I could lodge a complaint with. Hells, maybe that could be the first thing I ever prayed to the Gods Below about – how about some grapes and oiled up manservants, you stingy fucks?
With a snort I unbuckled my belt and sheath, tossed them on the covers. Normally getting out of my plate was a job best fit for two, but I’d been stabbed enough today it had gotten a great deal easier. I got rid of the greaves first, then the gauntlets and then fiddled with the breastplate and pauldrons for a while. By the end of it I had a lovely little pile of goblin steel full of murder holes on the ground, and with a sigh of pleasure I got rid of my armoured boots. The smell was ripe, so I tossed them as far away as I could. Being Named got me out of many of the little ugly details of life – didn’t get sick anymore, tired much slower and I hadn’t had my monthlies in about two years – but it did nothing for sweat. Or what the inside of a boot smelled like after a hard day of fighting.
The aketon I placed on the bed, leaving me in only a pair of heavy cloth trousers and able to breathe comfortably for the first time in what felt like forever. I passed a hand through my hair, tugging off the leather ring keeping it in a ponytail. I grimaced at the sensation of sweat long gone cold, then forced myself to get up instead of just dropping on the silk to lie there like some sort of moaning spineless mollusc. There was an archway into a side room to the left, so I picked up the invitation scroll and padded that way. Strange how even this far into a land of ice I barely felt the cold: I was fairly sure that wasn’t my Name at work. Who knew, maybe even fairies got gold. To my pleasure I found a low bath set in a quaint little square of stone, already drawn. The water was limpid, almost impossibly so.
It also did not seem to be warm.
I got closer and dipped a toe inside, flinching at the wintry temperature. Yet after the moment the cold started to feel refreshing. Purifying, almost. Huh. Well, it wasn’t like I had alternatives. I placed the scroll by the edge and got rid of my trousers, gritting my teeth before sliding into the bath all at once. The sudden cold was overwhelming for the first few heartbeats but when I got used to it the sensation from earlier returned. It was rather calming, really. I ducked under the surface to rinse my face and hair, shaking underneath before coming back up close to the side. Carefully I broke the seal on the scroll having shaking my hands off the worst of the droplets, watching the frost dissipate. Inside was an invitation, like the steward had stated. Not directed at me specifically, I noted, but at whoever was in the Still Courtyard.
Whoever that usually was, they were pretty far up the food chain. The language was both elaborate and ingratiatingly polite – and given that it was the Duke of Violent Squalls who’d sent this, that probably meant this was for royalty. Or not, I frowned, reading the lines again. No mention of royal title was made, but some of the phrasing implied the receiver was foreign. Regardless, it was an invitation to a ball held in the Duke’s palace in the city, after nightfall. A masquerade to boot, because evidently I’d stepped into a shady Proceran romance. At least Hakram would be at home, I thought with a grin. He had like three of those stashed under his bunk. The one I’d thumbed through involved a lot of corsets being manfully ripped off and longing sighs all around. It was a sign of my deep love for the orc that I hadn’t told Robber about my find.
I set the scroll aside and leaned against the side of the bath, closing my eyes with a sigh. The Winter King, I decided, would have more than one place to stash guests until he could receive them. It was not a coincidence we’d been sent to the one where there would be a vaguely addressed invitation waiting for us. We – I – had been meant to get this. More than that, the way I’d lied through my teeth to get us into Skade had either been expected or was something the quasi-god ruling this place intended to use. For his advantage, probably. That was usually the way it went. What in all the Hells the ruler of half of faekind would want with a Squire from the Dread Empire was where I was drawing a blank. The Winter Court had staked a claim on Marchford, sure, but I was beginning to grasp it was more complicated than that. For one, if a noble of the calibre of the Lady of Cracking Ice had stepped into my city there would be corpses from wall to wall.
Instead we’d gotten a few of their soldiers, a single group of riders and a bunch of aristocrats that must have been hilariously low down the pecking order for them to be taken out by mere legionaries. I didn’t mean to sell the Fifteenth short: there weren’t a lot of forces in the Empire or out of it I wouldn’t pit them against. They were highly skilled professional soldiers led by the most talented tactician I’d ever met, with the core of their troops blooded against devils and heavy cavalry. They were not, however, equipped to stand against a host of demigods who could warp the landscape with an idle thought. No, if the Winter King had been serious about getting a foothold in Marchford right now he’d have one. Actually taking the city, then, had not been his objective. If you know the means and the results, you can grasp your enemy’s intent, Black had taught me.
The attacks had been the means. The results were that I’d sallied out to fight the fae, by necessity stepping into Arcadia to shut down the door on their fingers. There was a distinct possibility, then, that getting me here – whether that was Arcadia in general or Skade I could only guess – had been the entire point of that affair. I took a moment to master my rage at the thought. I had no way of knowing how many casualties we’d taken on the second attack, but the number would not be small. My soldiers, killed just to get my attention. I breathed in and out until I could think beyond murdering my way through everyone responsible for that. All right. We’d been pushed towards Skade by the Winter King, and after getting there had been directed to the Still Courtyard. I was willing, for now, to assume that had been the plan. I’d been neatly guided to the city, every step thinking I was bluffing my way out.
At the Courtyard we’d found an invitation waiting for us, meant for someone of high rank but perhaps not of the Winter Court. I was pretty sure mortals didn’t usually come this deep into Arcadia unless they were as ragingly insane as the Lady of the Lake, so odds were this invitation was for another fae. That meant the Summer Court, and wasn’t that just another kettle of equally murderous fish? The Courts were meant to be at war, I knew, but somehow they were not. Summer was out there making someone regret their decisions and Winter was puttering about in my backyard – yet even with that difference from the norm, the stories were unfolding. Like they had in the marketplace, everyone going through the motions and always leading to the same outcome.
“He wants us to play someone else’s role,” I spoke into the empty room.
We’d been summoned to fill the shoes of some Summer fae, inserted into a story we didn’t know the plot of. Why? And that was the question, wasn’t it? Two people out there were playing shatranj on a board I didn’t know about, and once more I was a pawn. I wouldn’t be finding any answers in a bath, though, so it was time to go. I hoisted myself out, reaching for the cloth set aside on a bench to dry myself. I raised an eyebrow when I saw my trousers had disappeared, setting the cloth on my shoulder and heading for the bedroom. My armour was gone as well, I saw, as was everything but my sword belt and cape. Neatly placed on the bed was a dress of green brocade with accents of gold thread, along with an ornate fox mask of gold with green accents.
I tried on the dress as much out of curiosity as because I wouldn’t be going out naked in the corridors to ask for my plate back. It fit perfectly: sleeveless, high-collared and going down to my ankles, it was the single most comfortable thing I’d ever worn. A looking glass made of ice to the side told me the cut was hinting at my having cleavage in a way that was slightly less than honest. I could move easily in it, though bending over was tricky – still, no more than it would have been with armour on.
“Well, it wouldn’t do to show up at a masquerade in plate,” I murmured.
I buckled my belt around my hip, adjusting so my sword would be easy to draw. Looking for something to replace my boots I found exquisite crystal slippers. Not happening, I snorted. Those would be impossible to fight in. The pair of supple leather boots by them was more to my taste, as were the green silk thigh-high stockings inside them. Hadn’t worn anything this nice since I’d gone dancing with Kilian in Laure, I thought, and decided I was definitely stealing all of that when I bailed out of Arcadia. The cloak settled comfortably around my shoulder, Hakram’s handiwork of striped banners flourishing behind me as I turned to pick up the mask. I left the room to look for the others, blinking when I saw out the window that night had already fallen. How long had I been in that bath? Stupid question, Catherine. Like time means anything here: Could have been in there just long enough to dip your toe and it’d still be dark out.
Archer’s rooms had been just further down the hall so I checked there first, but the door was open and no one was in. I wandered a bit before running into a servant, who after the obligatory kneeling and abject submission guided to me to the library – I was apparently the last out and all the others had gone to Masego. Library, as I found out, was something of a misnomer. Though the walls were covered with stacks filled with volumes, the amount of plush chairs and tables made it clear this was meant to be a room where people were received. Small orbs of fairy flame floating like chandeliers lit up the place with a subtle blue tint. Apprentice was easily found: he was alone on his chair, an orb floating right above his head as he paged through a manuscript. Two piles of volumes flanked him and he paid no attention whatsoever to the others.
This was the first time I’d ever gotten a good look at Archer, so I paid close attention. My guess that she was stacked underneath the layers seemed to have been right on the nose: her grey vest and white shirt curved noticeably. Over it she wore a long woollen coat of darker grey, embroidered with gold patterns along the border that matched the exact shade of the gold on my dress. Long grey trousers ending in soft leather shoes, her neck covered by a carelessly arranged silk scarf matching the coat. I could see the handle of her longknives peeking out, but of the bow there was no trace. She had a thinner face than I would have thought, and a remarkably slender nose. Hazelnut eyes met mine, going up and down my dress with a grin. Yeah, I’d seen that one coming.
I almost laughed when I saw Hakram. He wore a dark velour doublet and matching trousers that made it clear exactly how broad his shoulders were, but the amusing part was the cape: black fur with pure white bordering, it made him look like Creation’s fanciest warlord. The axe – not his own, it had been broken earlier this one was too silvery to be his after repair – hanging off a leather ring at his belt lent him a slightly more martial appearance, as did the thick leather boots. The skeletal fingers that had seen him called Deadhand by his own peeked over the edge of his sleeve, unnaturally still.
“There were golden earrings and white war paint,” he said in an aggrieved tone. “War paint, Cat. What is this, the War of Chains? No one’s used that in centuries.”
“I’m sure you’d make for a very costly hour at a brothel,” I reassured him.
He groaned and covered his eyes.
“I always did wonder if orcs have the same… machinery down there as we do,” Archer said with a shit-eating grin.
“We’re not having the ‘what do orc genitals look like’ talk,” Hakram replied firmly.
“I have a book, I’ll loan it to you,” I told Archer.
She raised a perfect eyebrow.
“Got curious,” I shrugged. “And he gets all irritable when asked about it.”
“Masego never changed,” Adjutant said, desperately changing the subject.
We all turned towards Apprentice, who was still reading.
“I think he’s under a silencing ward,” I said with a frown.
I took out the the invitation scroll and tossed it at the darks-skinned mage’s head. It hit him right in the glasses and he nearly jumped out of his skin, dropping the book and hastily dispersing the spell around him.
“Oh, is it time to leave yet?” he asked.
“My guess is that will be whenever we decide to go,” I said, “but we’ve got places to be. Go get ready.”
That got some attention from the others.
“The invitation?” Archer asked.
“We’re going to a masquerade,” I said. “To find out exactly who we’re supposed to be.”
“That seems counterproductive,” Masego pointed out. “We’d be wearing masks.”
I wasn’t sure if I was just terrible at the vague-but-meaningful announcements or Apprentice was that much of a pain, but clearly my technique needed work.
“Did you notice how we’re all wearing different clothes, Masego?” I said.
He paused, pushed up his spectacles.
“Yes,” he lied.
Archer coughed into her hand, failing to disguise her laughter.
“I’m guessing there’s a fancy outfit in your rooms,” I patiently told Apprentice. “Go put it on.”
“My robes are clean, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he said. “There’s a self-cleaning enchantment on them.”
So that was why he never used the Fifteenth’s laundry chains. I’d always assumed he had some poor – literal – devil handling it.
“We also have masks,” I said, bringing up my own.
I glanced at the others, who didn’t seem to have their own, and Hakram gestured a table in the back. Theirs were there: a black obsidian bear for Adjutant, and a gold-and-grey falcon for Archer. Apprentice snapped his wrist, whispering a word in the mage tongue, and a thin blank carnival mask of ice formed over his face. It accommodated his spectacles perfectly, at least.
“Fine,” I said, “have it your way. But don’t come complaining to me if the fae make fun of you.”
“Do I have to talk with them?” he asked very seriously. “I’m not even close to finished with these.”
He rapped his knuckle atop the pile of books to his left to clarify. I bet the Lone Swordsman never had to deal with shit like this, I thought irritably. Killing him had been an act of justice just for that.
“You can bring one,” I said. “And only read when someone’s not verbally trying to entrap us into something lethal.”
He muttered under his breath. His fathers had spoiled him, I thought. I didn’t want to make assumptions here, but I was betting on the incubus for the worst of it. He was probably a soft touch when it came to discipline. The matron at the orphanage always spanked us if we made noise after lights out, now that was a firm hand. I took back the invitation and adjusted my cloak.
“All right, you sad excuse for a band of minions,” I said. “Gird your loins, we’re going on a magical adventure.”
Archer clapped, painfully slowly.
“I’m guessing the speeches aren’t why they put you in charge,” she said.
“Last time we went on an adventure I ripped out someone’s soul,” Apprentice said. “Do I get to keep it this time if we do it again?”
“Hakram?” I asked despairingly.
“Have you seen how tight those trousers are?” he grunted. “Doesn’t get more girded than that.”
If we all got killed, I better go last. I felt like I’d earned it.
There’d been a carriage waiting for us outside the Courtyard. Four white horses and a coachman who’d bowed to us as we claimed the seats inside. I’d gotten Hakram on my side, making the tactical decision to sacrifice Masego behind if Archer got grabby. I peered out the window, watching Skade in the light of ever-present fairy lights. I didn’t recognize any of the streets we went through from earlier, though that didn’t mean much. The night sky above us was just as confusing: now and then I got a glimpse of the stars they way they looked above Callow, but most of the time they were entirely foreign constellations. The way they kept changing between every look probably didn’t help. We were quiet on the way to the duke’s palace, only stirring when we began to hear music in the distance.
A beautiful voice was singing, though I couldn’t make out the words yet, accompanied by what seemed like a set of string instruments. The carriage eventually slowed and I waited patiently until servants came to open the doors for us. I stepped down onto a woven blue carpet leading to a set of stairs, moving aside to make room for the others as I stared at the Duke of Violent Squalls’ palace. Gods Below, it was made of wind. Walls and stairs and columns, sculpted out of every stirring wind that looked like a physical thing. Boreal lights shone like lamps and I could see more of them inside, in a grand hall. A servant attempted to take my cloak and I waved him off as the others caught up to me.
“Stable and self-sustaining,” Apprentice murmured. “Interesting. I don’t think it could be reproduced outside Arcadia, but the underlying principles…”
“Think about that after we’ve made it through the night,” Adjutant said.
Archer finished adjusting her falcon mask over her face and gallantly offered me her arm. I rolled my eyes and strode forward. Servants parted for us, bowing low, until we reached the summit of the steps. There a man with spectacles was holding an unrolled scroll in his arms, discreetly peering at us through the glass. An announcer. So much for the masks hiding identities. I slowed in front of him and he began to speak, then closed his mouth. He looked panicked for a few heartbeats before clearing his throat.
“Lady Catherine Foundling of Marchford, the Squire,” he announced.
I looked at him, the suddenly ripped the scroll out of his hands. I ignored his protests and scanned through the list of names until I found where he’d been looking at. Four names, the most important of which was the first: Princess Sulia of High Noon, envoy for the Summer Court. I gave him back his list.
“Fuck,” I said feelingly.
Archer was announced as ‘Lady Archer of Refuge, first pupil of the Darkest Night’, before catching up to me.
“What do you know about how wars start between Winter and Summer?” I asked her.
“They have several reasons, never use the same twice,” she replied.
Behind us Hakram was announced as ‘Lord Adjutant of the Fifteenth, the Deadhand’.
“Is one of them some princess called Sulia getting her ass killed at truce talks?” I asked.
The other Named frowned.
“That rings a bell,” she said. “But I think she gets captured. Trap?”
“Isn’t it always?” I grunted.
Masego joined us after his introduction of ‘Lord Apprentice of the Wasteland, Son of the Red Skies’. We all clustered at the threshold of the entrance hall for a moment.
“Problem?” Hakram said.
“We’ve taken the place of diplomatic envoys from Summer in a story,” I whispered.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Apprentice said. “I suppose it’s a good thing we have you along.”
I glanced at him.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re very good at murdering our opposition,” he said, genuinely believing he was giving me a compliment.
I occasionally forgot Masego had been raised by villains. For him that probably counted as praise.
“You don’t know for sure I’m going to kill someone,” I said.
“Not gonna lie, I’ll be disappointed if we don’t,” Archer noted.
“I’ve done diplomacy before,” I continued.
“I don’t think extorting the High Lords counts,” Apprentice said.
“Or looting that angel,” Hakram added.
“I think bullied might be more accurate,” Masego said.
“If you guys keep this up I can guarantee you someone’s getting killed,” I said.
“That’s the spirit,” Apprentice said, patting my shoulders. “Now let’s move along, Catherine, we’re blocking the way. You really need to pay more attention to your surroundings.”
He strode into the hall before I could come up with a reply, still gaping. The others followed, Archer turning back only long enough to give me a mocking grin.