“Only if it’s ‘being executed’.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis I, upon being asked for a last request by a hero
There were hundred of fae inside, each more glittering than the last. I’d seen the court of Praes and the opulence of its nobles, but this was a Court. That capitalized letter mattered. These immortal creatures had been at this game since the Empire was nothing but a madwoman’s dream and the difference showed. We’d gone through the duke’s antechamber and entered what must be the reception hall, keeping together as we did. Hakram being at my left had a reassuring weight, like having a shield. Our entrance had made a stir but we weren’t immediately approached: all we got was a myriad of discreet looks as fae murmured over their drinks. Archer took wine from a tray of silver cups, ignoring my disapproving look as she tasted the glittering liquid and hummed in approbation.
“Good stuff,” she said.
“Don’t get drunk,” I warned.
“You know the poison trick works for flushing out liquor, right?” she said.
“And if this was wine from Creation I would have kept my mouth shut,” I said. “It isn’t.”
“Eh,” she shrugged.
And on that bit of stunning eloquence we silently agreed to let the matter go for now. Given that I’d seen her guzzling down hard liquor instead of tea for breakfast last year, I was willing to bet on Archer being able to hold her drink better than most. Anyway, I had more pressing cats to skin than trying to make a sober woman out of this one. The reception hall had half a dozen interwoven stories of the same wind-material this entire place was made of, all centred around the ballroom floor in the middle of the ground level. Which was, for now, empty. Or almost – I’d finally found where the music came from. There were seven fae on a podium against the wall, most of them playing instrument but a single one singing the words I still couldn’t make out even this close. Magical shenanigans, I assumed. The melody was sad and I could hazard a good guess as to why: all of them were clapped in silvery chains and looked like they’d gone a few rounds with an Imperial interrogator. And not one of the nice ones.
“Those aren’t Winter fae,” Hakram said, watching the same people.
They were most definitely not, I grimly thought. Their clothes were in tones that matched the décor but they themselves stood out. There was a warmth to their being that all the other fae around them lacked, a softness to their silhouettes: to my senses they felt like candlelight while the guests felt like ice. Summer Court prisoners. I was beginning to glimpse a shape here. I was in the shoes of a Summer princess, likely part of a diplomatic mission of some sort. After coming to a masquerade thrown by a duke, I would then run into some of my fellow Summer fairies who’d been forced into servitude and cruelly beaten. Someone was trying to goad me – the role I was in – into doing something unwise. Interesting that the princess would be expected to save them, though. Summer wasn’t as prone to tormenting mortals in the stories as Winter, but they weren’t exactly paragons of kindness either.
“That’s where we’re expected to go,” I murmured. “So let’s go elsewhere. Any of you know anything about mingling with aristocrats?”
“Smile and pretend you’re listening,” Masego said absent-mindedly. “If there’s a lull in the conversation say how interesting with a mysterious look.”
“So that’s a no,” Archer said amusedly.
Well, she wasn’t wrong. I took the lead and went to the left. The others followed. Entering one of the side galleries seemed to have been an unspoken signal that we were fair game for conversation: all the guests who’d been keeping their distance began approaching. I wasn’t the only target, it swiftly became clear. Or even the first one. Some green-haired woman with eyes that looked like jewels struck up a conversation with Masego about magic and I gave it up as a lost cause the moment the words “partitioned stable matrix” were spoken. As far as temptations went that was one was mostly harmless, so I left him to it. Archer was approached by tall grinning dark-haired twins – of different genders, I thought, but it was hard to tell which was which – bearing bottles of liquor that looked harder than wine. They’re tailoring themselves to what we want, I thought.
“Lord Hakram, I believe?” an older fae coughed out. “You have the looks of an orc from the Howling Wolves, if I may be so bold.”
Adjutant raised an eyebrow.
“I am,” he gravelled.
“How nostalgic,” the noble smiled gently. “It has been ages since I’ve encountered one of your kind. I had the pleasure to visit the Antlered Field when the one called Kharsum became Warlord.”
The tall orc leaned forward unconsciously.
“You saw the election of the Unifier?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” the fae said. “Always a lively affair, orc statecraft. I’ve watched battlefields littered with fewer dead.”
I’d been wondering what take they would use with Hakram. Orc history made sense. His people had lost so much knowledge since the War of Chains and the occupation that followed. Every bit of lore from back then was worth more than gold to his people, another piece of stone to add to a mosaic that was still more bare than filled. He glanced at me and I nodded. Sticking together wasn’t making us any gains at the moment, we’d have to wait and see what the flow of the story was. I was rather curious what angle they’d assail me with, truth be told. Unless they could find me a practical way to turn the Imperial governorship system into a functioning nation-state, they didn’t have much to distract me with. The answer came in the form of the Baron of Blue Lights – one of the nobles who’d escorted me into the city – strolling casually in my direction. When we’d last met he’d been wary but interested. Now he looked at me with open hatred.
“Antagonist, are you?” I said with a smile before he could get a word in.
He blinked, face going entirely blank for a moment. Like his entire being had shut down. You lot don’t like it when I don’t speak my lines, do you? I’d found my first lever to pull. Wouldn’t get me through this mess, but it was something I could use.
“Do you enjoy the singing, my lady?” he said after a moment, defaulting back to sneering.
I’d seen Heiress pull better sneers than that, I thought with amusement. He wasn’t even silently finding the very concept of my existence distasteful. Second-rate performance.
“Not one much for music,” I said. “Also beating the performers seems in poor taste, but that’s just a personal preference.”
“Captives have no rights,” he said.
“I mean you guys haven’t signed any of the Calernian treaties about prisoner treatment, so I guess you’re factually correct,” I mused. “Not that the Empire has either, mind you. The whole blood sacrifice thing would be a breach of terms I imagine.”
The Baron seemed completely at a loss as to where to go from there.
“They will all be whipped if one misses a note,” he tried.
“That’s nice,” I said. “Does everyone take a turn, or is it just the one torturer? Never whipped anyone before so I don’t want to make a fool of myself in public.”
I wondered what it said about me that I was beginning to enjoy myself. Obviously there’d been an assumption here that on moral grounds I would object to the Summer fairies being chained up and tormented. Swing and a miss, that. Not only were those musicians essentially immortal creatures that would come around again next time Summer happened, but they were also not mine to protect. Now if it had been members of the Fifteenth or Callowans on that stage, he’d be choking on steel right now. My motivation to save fae from fae, though, was effectively nil. I’d been taught the hard way, after all, that if you tried to save everyone you only ended up getting more people killed. I wasn’t unfamiliar with hard choices and this… simply did not qualify. I wasn’t risking my life or the life of my friends for ultimately meaningless fairy schemes. Villain, Baron, not hero. I get to pick my fights.
I patted the Baron of Blue Lights on the shoulder and left him blank-faced behind me. I idly wondered whether my refusing to bite I had killed the trap entirely, or if I’d merely survived the first volley. Probably the second one: my luck was the stuff weeping despair was made of. And just to confirm that shining sliver of pessimism, lounging by a pillar I saw the Prince of Nightfall eyeing me wryly. I grimaced. This one wouldn’t be as easy to fuck with.
“Enjoying the masquerade, Lady of Marchford?” he said.
Predictably, the man’s mask was a raven. I got the less than reassuring feeling that it was watching me independently of the wearer’s eyes. I leaned against the railing by his side, watching the empty ballroom below.
“It’s been enlightening,” I replied. “Pretty obvious trap, for entities supposedly cunning made flesh.”
“A well-laid trap does not rely on surprise but on the opponent’s nature,” he said.
A servant with a plate approached us. There were two pipes on it, both already lit: one smelled sweet and musky, and the Prince grabbed it. Ground poppy, if I was not mistaken. The other had the distinct sharp tang of wakeleaf, a personal vice of mine.
“Is it poisoned?” I asked the dark-haired fae.
“If I ever decide I want your life,” the Prince said, “poison will play no part in your death.”
“That’s not a no,” I noted.
“It is not poisoned,” he sighed.
I took the pipe. Would be a shame to waste the stuff, especially when I could so rarely afford it these days. Ashur had raised all its prices on the merchandise imported by Praes after war blew up in the Free Cities, and the island was the only pace where it was grown. I inhaled with a little sigh of pleasure and blew out the grey smoke.
“Your King picked wrong when he baited me into coming here,” I said. “Whatever it is you’re after, you’re not going to get it.”
“That’s the beauty of it, Lady Foundling,” he smiled, face framed by a cloud of poppy. “What we want is what you want. Our victories are one and the same.”
So the Prince was in on whatever his boss was up to. Good to know. I wasn’t deluded enough to think my idle talk had been enough to trick the man into revealing that, so the implication was that the Prince believed it didn’t matter if I knew.
“Where’s Princess Sulia, right now?” I asked suddenly.
“Setting fire to the south of your little kingdom,” he said. “Even for one of us, the Princess of High Noon has a beautifully simplistic view of things.”
I inhaled again, let the wakeleaf warm my blood and sharpen my wits. The idea of an entity with the same kind of power I could feel emanating from the Prince being loose in Callow was horrifying beyond words, but I could not flinch now. I might never get another occasion half as good to gather information.
“Now I get that you think you can mess with me,” I said. “I’m just a wet-behind the ears Named with a single aspect.”
The Prince of Nightfall blew a ring of smoke, raising an eyebrow.
“While my role has little to do with intrigue, that is an exceedingly poor lie,” he said.
I kept my face calm. Could he really tell? Masego would know, but he also knew better than to say anything. I’d learned from the fights of the Liesse Rebellion that aspects were trump cards to be used sparingly and best kept hidden – the Lone Swordsman had known about Struggle before our second fight and used it against me, which he wouldn’t have been able to if I’d kept it quiet. I’d taken in the lesson and kept what I’d gotten in the aftermath of the Battle of Liesse close to my chest, the edge hidden until I could use it to crush Heiress.
“No idea what you’re talking about,” I lied. “Anyway, like I was saying, messing with me is one thing. Invading Imperial territory like the Courts have been doing, though? That’s another. There’s bigger fish in that sea, and you’re pissing them off.”
“Your Calamities are away,” he said. “And even if they were not, their finely crafted defences were not meant for us.”
Two things I could take from that, I thought. Either they’d struck Callow now because the Empire’s most dangerous villains were all abroad save for the Empress – who had to stay in Ater – and they expected whatever they were after to be achieved before the Calamities came back. That or they genuinely believed they could take on Praes on its traditional battlefield and win. Of that, I wasn’t convinced. When push came to shove there weren’t a lot of drastic measures the Dread Empire was above taking to get a win. While in Arcadia the Legions would get wrecked, but on Creation the fae were weaker. And if there was a Calernian nation with the magical know-how to make real trouble for the Courts, it was definitely Praes – or the Kingdom of the Dead, I supposed, but you’d have to be a special kind of stupid to take a crack at that. Entire Crusades had been annihilated without even reaching Keter.
“It’s still a bad fight to pick,” I said.
Another servant with a plate of pipes came by and the Prince traded his for a fresh one. I glanced at the second hit of wakeleaf.
“Is it poisoned?” I asked again.
“No pipe you will be offered tonight will be poisoned,” the dark-haired fae said irritably.
I took the second one. There was a still a bit left at the bottom of my current pipe and the waste broke my heart, but I couldn’t know if I’d get another offer.
“The first time I ever stepped into Creation,” the Prince of Nightfall told me, pulling at his pipe, “I found it a brutish, ugly thing. A pale imitation of Arcadia painted with lesser pigments. While my fellows rejoiced across the fresh playground, I began to withdraw.”
The longer he spoke, the colder I felt. Not the sharp bite of winter, I decided, but more like the cool air that spread after sundown. I tugged my cloak closer around my dress.
“I paused after coming across a fox,” he continued with a smile. “It had fallen into a trap laid by one of your ancestors, you see. A snare that caught its foot. It knew it would die, if it remained there.”
“It chewed off its foot,” I guessed. “The smart ones do that sometimes.”
“Yes,” the Prince of Nightfall agreed. “And it escaped. An insignificant animal, yet it could do something that would never have occurred to any of us.”
Oh Gods did I not like the sound of that.
“You’re chewing off your foot right now,” I said.
The dark-haired fae blew out a thick stream of smoke ahead of him. He leaned forward suddenly, and right in front of my face clacked his teeth mockingly.
“Our teeth are a great deal sharper than a fox’s, Lady of Marchford,” he said. “Beware you don’t get chewed.”
Dropping his pipe onto a servant-held plate that hadn’t been there a moment earlier, the Prince of Nightfall sauntered off. I let out a long breath and stilled the trembling in my hands. I took another pull of wakeleaf and closed my eyes. Hello fear, my old friend. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I spewed out the smoke and opened my eyes to find another fae leaning by my side. Tall, like most of them, and so pale he might as well have been made of snow. He was closer than was strictly proper and his hare mask did not hide the affection in his eyes. I’d seen the first of my antagonists, I thought. Looked like it was time to meet an ally.
“My lady, this is a trap,” he murmured softly.
“No kidding,” I said.
“The Duke of Violent Squalls means to entrap you,” he said. “Soon he’ll make a scene to trick you into a wager. You must not rise to his provocations.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
His face went blank. I was supposed to know him, then. Which meant the Princess of High Noon had friends in Winter. I glanced at how close he was standing to me. Maybe more than a friend, even. Wasn’t that the stirrings of a proper tragedy? Woe was them, love from across opposite sides. Gods Below, even William had known better than that.
“I am Prospin, the Count of the Last Gasp,” he said stiffly. “As you well know.”
“Tell me about this wager, Prospin,” I said.
“My lady, you can’t,” he implored, reaching for my hands. “It would destroy me to lose you.”
Oh yeah definitely more than a friend. I took away my hands before he could touch them.
“I’m sure you’ll survive,” I replied drily. “Now tell me about the godsdamned wager.”
“How you toy with my affections,” he lamented.
The Princess of High Noon liked them clingy, apparently. Took all kinds.
“In exchange for the freedom of the musicians, the Duke will ask that you wager your voluntary captivity,” he said.
“How’s the wager settled?” I asked.
“Duels, for you are a creature of war,” Prospin said. “He has three champions ready.”
Creature of war, huh. I guess we did have that in common, the princess and I.
“Terms of the duel?” I prompted.
“Death or surrender,” the Count whispered.
I clenched my fingers and unclenched them. I could work with that.
“My lady, they are ready for you,” he said. “I beg of you, do not give them what they want.”
And there was the truth, wasn’t there? They’d been ready for me since the beginning. Every move I’d made since the first attack on Marchford had gotten me deeper into their plan. It was an infuriating feeling, and I got quite enough of that from Black already. Except my teacher wasn’t here: there was no safety net under me, no monster looking over my shoulder and smiling at my enemy. If I fell here I’d break more than bones. The thought only refreshed the fear from earlier and that was unacceptable. I would not be cowed. I would not be made their puppet in this eldritch game they were playing. They wanted to push me around? Fine. Now it was my turn, and I was going to push back. I’d been drawn into their tempo for too long, and that was how you lost fights. At best I’d manage to crawl away to survive, and that just wasn’t enough. Not when I’d have dead soldiers to buried when I returned. They were owed better. If I couldn’t solve a problem, well, I could always make it their problem.
“Which one is the Duke of Violent Squalls?” I asked.
“My lady-“ the Count began, but I had no patience for it.
“Prospin,” I said. “You can either tell me, or you can go over this railing before I ask someone else.”
The fae’s face went blank.
“He’s the man by the ballroom floor,” he said after a moment. “At the centre of the cluster of nobles.”
I glanced down and saw the group he was talking about. The Duke wore a grey doublet with cuffs of wind, same as his palace, and his mask was shaped like a wolf. His cronies were tittering at something he said.
“Thank you,” I told the Count absent-mindedly.
I walked away without bothering with any further talk. On my way down I passed by another face I recognized, the Lady of Cracking Ice, and she offered me a nod. I looked at the beautiful white gloves she was wearing and smiled a feral smile as I came closer. By her side was a distinguished-looking man in armour, the sight of whom had me adjusting my thought.
“I need to borrow something for a moment,” I told the man, reaching for his gauntlet.
I got it off his hand before he could properly react – it was largely ornamental, held there only by clasps – and got moving before he could protest, throwing a ‘thanks’ over my shoulder. The Duke of Violent Squalls and his cronies hadn’t moved, the man in question with his back turned to me as he replied to another noble’s question. I was maybe three feet away from him and he couldn’t be bothered to pay attention. Well, that was just asking for it.
I judged the gauntlet’s weight, then tossed the chunk of metal as hard as I could into the back of the duke’s head.
It hit with a beautiful thunk. The fae yelped and I could feel the gaze of every single person at the masquerade going to us as he turned to face me with rage in his eyes.
“Evening,” I said, puffing at the pipe. “Don’t think we’ve been introduced. My name is Catherine Foundling, and I hear you want to throw down. Let’s get this going, shall we?”
I blew the acrid smoke in his face for that extra touch and decided, why the Hells not?
“Bitch,” I added.
The entire hall was silent as a grave, save for the sound of Archer’s belly laugh.