“It admittedly took me a few years to make my peace with the fact that Lady Foundling’s take on diplomacy is essentially to bring a bottle of cheap wine and a sword to the table, then remind the interlocutor that while the wine might be awful it is still arguably better than being stabbed.”
-Extract from the personal memoirs of Lady Aisha Bishara
“You insignificant insect,” the Duke of Violent Squalls barked.
I smiled pleasantly. So it could work. The Duke was addressing me directly instead of the role of the Princess of High Noon, which I needed him to do badly if my plan was going to succeed. Well, plan might have been a little too ambitious of a word. I was following my instincts, which while usually leading me to breaking someone’s bones also tended to get me out of corners in more or less one piece. I could not win this if I played out their story, I knew. I would be quite literally fated to lose. Time to drive the cart off the road. Chaos had always been where I thrived, and no people were so ill-equipped to deal with it as the fae.
“That hurt my feelings, it did,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “We going stand here trading insults all night, or we going to talk terms?”
“You give me insult in my own home and speak of terms?” the Duke hissed. “I should destroy you where you stand.”
I could feel wind starting up in the ballroom, the hem of my cloak stirring with it. There were probably Names that gave you a precise read on how much power an opponent could throw around, but sadly Squire wasn’t one of them. All I got was that he was a glacier compared to the icicle of the average fae, not that far beneath the Prince of Nightfall himself. Joy. That was, I mused, the first hint that Duke or not he probably had a large role in the story of the Winter Court. Was the Winter King trying to use me as a catspaw to get rid of an enemy he wasn’t allowed to touch? Unlikely, I finally decided. While I was supposed to get into conflict with this one, the dispute was also supposed to be resolved by champions. My hacking his head off wasn’t supposed to be in the cards.
“You won’t, though,” I said. “Because I’m a guest and the lot of you are all about rules. That’s a fairly big one, as I understand it.”
“You will not be my guest forever,” the Duke of Violent Squalls said coldly.
The wind his cuffs were made of turned furious without his visibly doing anything to cause it. I’d need to have a talk with Masego about how having the aristocratic title to something something worked, practically speaking. Might be a way to sever that. Without his magic the fae was just a man in fancy clothes, and I wasn’t above stabbing those when it got me what I wanted.
“Somehow I doubt that getting into a pitched battle in the streets of Skade is going to go over too well with your king,” I said. “I’m his guest too, remember?”
“If you think that makes you untouchable, you are severely mistaken,” the fae said.
“You’ll still get a slap on the wrist,” I smiled. “And I get the feeling that a king’s slap around here tends to… leave marks.”
Around all us, all the faces of the fae I could see were blank. They just stood there in utter silence, not so much as breathing as they watched it all unfold. It was like standing in a hall full of statues.
“I’m a kind soul, though,” I lied. “So I’m offering you a way to seek redress that dodges the issue.”
“A formal duel,” the Duke said, pale lips stretching to reveal teeth of ivory. “Yes, that would be acceptable. Crushing you under my heel will be most satisfying.”
And now I have you, I thought. No champions, just the immortal monster and me in a ring. With a little prodding he’d eagerly left behind the story of the Princess of High Noon becoming captive and walked into entirely uncharted territory. I did not pick that word by mistake: there was no map we were following, here. No story. Which meant, I figured, that I could insert my own. How do you beat someone you can’t beat? I mused, remembering rocky fields in a land that right now felt so very far away. More innocent days, those, when I’d been playing at war instead of waging it. But I had not forgotten the most important lesson I’d learned from the War College: don’t win according to the rules, win despite them.
“So all that’s left is settling on the wager,” I said.
The Duke’s lips stretched even further into an ugly rictus.
“If you lose, you will cede me the soul of everyone under your command,” he said.
“I’m not under her command, for the record,” Archer called out from an upper level.
I gestured rudely in her general direction without bothering to turn.
“Sure,” I agreed. “What I want is-“
“Yes, yes,” the Duke said, waving his hand dismissively. “The Summer fae can have their freedom.”
“Those poor bastards aren’t my problem in the slightest,” I said with a raised eyebrow.
I tapped my third finger, eyeing his own hand. The piece of jewellery responsible for the seal on the invitation I’d received could be glimpsed there, a ring of white wood set with a flat opal positively reeking of magic.
“Your signet ring,” I said. “I want it. I also want to have always had it.”
“That is a heavy price for you to demand,” the Duke sneered.
“You just asked me for a few thousand souls, jackass,” I replied flatly. “Don’t whine about trinkets, it’s unseemly.”
“Your death,” he said, “will not be quick.”
“I’m hearing a yes,” I said. “Anybody else heard a yes?”
“I agree to the terms of this wager,” the Duke spoke through gritted teeth. “Since you are so eager to die, let us proceed. Will the ballroom suffice?”
I grinned and wagged my finger.
“I spent all day travelling,” I said. “A delicate flower such as myself needs rest before strenuous exercise. You wouldn’t be trying to cheat, would you?”
I gasped in mock-surprise.
“I thought better of you, Duke,” I said solemnly.
“Dawn, then, on the Fields of Wend,” the fae replied with a sneer. “My honour will not suffer for a longer delay.”
“You should put it out of its misery, if it’s suffering that much,” I replied, because I had never learned to quit while I was ahead. “Still, I agree to your terms.”
I mentally added to my list the need to find out exactly what those Fields were. Sounded like it might be important.
“A spot of entertainment before Court,” the Duke of Violent Squalls smiled. “How refreshing.”
I would have cast aspersions on a place that counted blood sport as entertainment, but considering I’d made more coin in Laure from the Pit than the Rat’s Nest a saying about stones and glass houses came to mind. Although, frankly, someone who could afford to live in a house made of glass could probably do with a few rocks thrown at them. If anyone got that rich there were bound to be a lot of peasants starving in the background. I had nothing more to gain from continuing the conversation, so I suppressed my urge to get the last word and strolled away. My pipe had gone out, I noticed with a sigh. Typical. Before I made it more than a few feet away all the fae around us started moving again, like a spell had suddenly been lifted. Whispers flared up immediately, but I wasn’t intending to stick around and leanr what they were. I found Hakram hastily making his way down the stairs without needing to look for long, dragging a protesting Masego along as Archer watched on in amusement.
“Well,” Archer said. “That certainly livened up the party.”
“Glad I could be of help,” I replied sardonically.
“You were had,” Adjutant gravelled.
I raised an eyebrow. Masego let out a little noise of understanding.
“Everyone under your command,” Apprentice said. “Given your position on the Ruling Council of Callow, that could be argued to apply to every soul in the former kingdom as well as the Fifteenth. Oh dear.”
I blinked. Shit. Hadn’t thought of that. I’d been more or less at the head of Callow for a year now, but it had never quite sunk in that I wielded the bastard cousin of a queen’s authority. I still thought of myself as Catherine Foundling, the Squire, not anything more.
“He couldn’t really collect on that, could he?” I said.
“With that large of a debt owed him, the Duke could likely be able to come into Creation in the fullness of his power,” Apprentice said. “After that, I have no real notion. It would be unprecedented as far as I know.”
“The Calamities would smoke him before it got to that,” I frowned. “And Ranger can take the Prince of Nightfall even in Arcadia, she could handle him.”
“I’m not sure she would,” Archer said. “Depends on her mood at the time. A duke might not be enough of a challenge for her to bother.”
“She’d just let a few million people get their souls stolen?” I said, appalled.
“You’re the one who just wagered them,” Archer pointed out. “The Lady of the Lake is beholden to no one, Foundling. The suggestion that she is would go… poorly.”
Huh. I’d always like the stories about Ranger best when I was a kid, but that put them in a different perspective. I passed a hand through my hair.
“I’m not going to lose, regardless,” I said. “So it doesn’t matter.”
“You have a plan,” Adjutant said.
“Something like that,” I agreed. “Need some time to set it in stone, hence why I delayed. We need to get back to the Still Courtyard.”
“Already?” Archer complained.
“Actually, I have an assignment for you that doesn’t involve,” I said.
“Sounds serious,” she said.
“Try to find out anything you can about the Duke of Violent Squalls, while you’re drinking yourself to death,” I told her. “And I do mean anything you can. Even small details could be useful.”
“That seems like something that should have been done before you threw a gauntlet at him,” Archer noted. “Though, praise where it’s due, funniest thing that happened all night. And I include Adjutant’s clothes in this.”
“Glad to have you on this team,” I said with a sigh. “Masego, on our way out I need you to have a good look at the Duke. Pay close attention to what he looks like.”
“I’ve seen him in my spectacles,” Apprentice said. “Anything more is unnecessary.”
So those could do more than just see sorcery. That was useful to know.
“Let’s go,” I said, giving the fae a last glance. “We’re wasting daylight – and don’t you godsdamned dare to correct me, Masego, it’s an idiom.”
He scowled all the way back to the carriage.
The moment a ward came down to prevent fae from eavesdropping on what would be said inside the library, I turned to my two companions with a winning smile.
“All right, gentlemen, I have work for you,” I said.
Apprentice took off his spectacles, laid them on the table.
“I imagine my task has something to do with why you asked me to look at the Duke,” he said.
He murmured a few incantations and tapped a finger against the left rim. A wispy image of the the Duke of Violent Squalls formed above the spectacles. With a flick of the wrist, he made it rotate. I leaned forward to have a closer look: I’d stood in front of that very fae, and I couldn’t recall that much detail about the clothes he’d worn. I let out a low whistle.
“That’s something,” I said. “How good are you with illusions?”
“Not my field of specialty, but anything possible with Low Arcana I can achieve,” Masego replied casually, as if he hadn’t just stated he could match the work of over nine tenths of the mages in Calernia in a fairly difficult branch of sorcery.
“I need you to make me a glamour,” I said. “One I can wear.”
“Now does not seem the right time for you to develop a sense of vanity,” Apprentice said.
“I need you to make me look like I’m related to him,” I continued, ignoring the aside.
“I’ll need an anchor to inscribe the Working on,” he said. “Using anything of Arcadia will make it particularly effective, which should improve the quality of the result.”
“Get one of the servants to find you something, then,” I said. “A necklace, if possible, one I could wear under my clothes.”
He nodded absent-mindedly, clearly already thinking of the logistics of what I’d asked him to do. Masego with a puzzle would not pause to ask me why I wanted to look like I was related to the fae I was going to kill, but I could feel Hakram’s eyes on me even as Apprentice rose to his feet and left both the room and the ward behind him.
“The signet ring, that you will ‘always have had’,” he said. “Looking as if you were a daughter of his blood. These are not coincidences.”
“Which leads me to what I want from you. I need you to Find me a story about patricide in one of these books,” I said, gesturing at the stacks around us.
Hakram cocked his head to the side.
“Daughter who never knew her parents kills a duke, only then realizing that the signet ring on her hand matches his livery,” the orc said. “Fate led her to kill her father. A tragedy, but one that sees the daughter a duchess at the end in a hollow victory.”
Ah, Hakram. If I had a hundred people with minds as sharp as his Callow would run itself.
“That’s the idea,” I agreed softly.
“The part I’m missing is why you would want to be a Duchess of Winter,” he said.
“We’ve gotten in a place where think that what we want out of Skade is to leave it alive,” I said, plopping my elbows on the table. “Arcandia, it makes it seem like everything outside is distant. But we entered it for a reason.”
“To shut down Winter’s invasion of Marchford,” Adjutant said.
“Winter can’t invade Marchford if Marchford is part of Winter,” I murmured.
“That’s…” the orc began. “Cat, there’s risks. And there will be consequences. As long as you rule the city, it will have ties to a Court that places in Creation usually don’t. We have no idea what that could mean.”
“We have a fucking portal spewing blizzard where my marketplace should be, Hakram,” I replied tiredly. “That ship has sailed. The fae are there and they’re not going anywhere. If I’m one of their aristocrats, at least I get to make rules in my demesne.”
“The Empress will have some things to say about one of her cities also answering to the King of Winter,” he gravelled.
“She won’t like it,” I agreed. “But I think she’d like a slugging match with Winter even less. Praes can’t afford that right now, not with Procer lurking at the gate. She’s a practical woman, when it comes down to it. You’ve seen the kind of heavyweights Winter can deploy, if they need to. You really think the Legions can handle that?”
“The Legions of Terror can kill anything in Creation or out of it,” Hakram replied without missing a beat.
The ironclad certainty in that voice was a thing to behold. That was something I was only beginning to understand about orcs. I’d once thought that they just separated everything into ally or enemy and that it leant them a certain clarity, but it ran deeper than that. Orcs were slower to come to a belief than humans, but when they did that belief would not waver. Hakram had decided I was worth following, and that certainty had carried him all the way into a Name. Never mind that no orc had held in in over a millennium. Juniper also believed that the Legions of Terror could take on any opponent, and so she’d crushed mercenaries and devils alike with mere cunning and ruthlessness, playing them every step of the way. They were both exceptional individuals, but I could see a trace of what drove them in all the orcs I knew. I thought of what the Clans would have been like, at the height of their power, and almost shivered. A hundred thousand orcs, knowing deep in their bones that their Warlord could not be beaten. No wonder the Soninke had been terrified of them for centuries, that the Deoraithe had raised a giant wall spanning leagues just to keep them out.
“But casualty rates would be high, until we found the proper method,” Adjutant finally conceded.
“Hold on to that thought, Hakram,” I said. “When we get back home, I’m pretty sure we’ll need to clear out the host of Summer.”
“That’ll be a fight to remember, when we’re old and grey,” Adjutant replied, baring his fangs.
In that moment he reminded me acutely of Nauk, and I felt a pang. I missed them, I realized. My little band of misfits. Juniper and Aisha, Ratface and Pickler – and Kilian, most of all. Hells, I missed Black, the man that was so very carefully not-my-father, whose approval I craved as much as I feared it. The sermons at the House of Light had never said Evil would feel like this. Like a family, the only one I’d ever had. Maybe that was how the Gods Below got you, I thought. They made you love people who could do horrible things just enough that you’d forgive them for it.
“Let’s make sure we live that long first,” I finally said. “The Duke is going to plaster me all over the floor if we don’t cheat. Find me my story, Adjutant.”
“And then?” the orc asked.
“And then,” I smiled, “we’re going to bullshit so hard it becomes a prophecy.”