“The heart of warfare is deception. Therefore, the general who can deceive even themself is invincible.”
– Isabella the Mad, Proceran general
Researching the old fashioned way would have taken much more than the single night we had. Much, much more: after a while I noticed that every time we took a book from the stacks and looked away, another one appeared in its place. Hopefully Masego hadn’t noticed that, or I’d never be able to convince him to leave. Already telling him that we couldn’t loot the library on the way out was going to be a bloody chore, I wasn’t eager to fight that battle twice. In the end, we relied on Hakram’s aspect to get our results: Find. There was no denying how useful that trick had proved to be since he’d come into it, but I remained wary. That was always the trap, with Names: they gave you an advantage that would enable you to crush all your enemies, if you just… kept leaning into it. And it was always so very tempting to, wasn’t it? The more you used it the more effective it became, the stronger the advantage got.
I’d become so used to relying on Learn to, well, learn things that when I’d lost the aspect after Liesse I’d found myself almost crippled. I’d been teaching myself the Old Tongue, the Deoraithe language, before the dust-up with Heiress. When I’d gone back to the books afterwards I’d found to my dismay that I was going to have to start almost from the beginning. The information in my head was incomplete, like I had learned vocabulary lists by rote instead of actually figuring out the language. Almost a year later, I wasn’t even even fluent. Back when I’d had Learn, I would have spoken like a native in six months while barely putting any effort into it. Black had been right, as he often was: people who depended on their Names for results fell apart when robbed of those powers. If you use your Name instead of skill, you never develop the skill. There was a reason my teacher had taught me swordsmanship the hard way.
That was the axe I had to grind with Find. When Adjutant used it, he found in a matter of hours answers that would normally have taken us weeks. It handed us solutions, and if we ever started to rely on that we’d be screwed the first time we ran into a hero that could shut it down. We’d played with the aspect nonetheless, to figure out how it worked, and found it wasn’t without limits: the information he looked for had to be at hand and the need for it clear. As far as I could tell, he wasn’t warping Creation to get us what we needed. He was using a weaker version of Providence, the golden luck that always had the very thing they needed land in the lap of the heroes at the best possible moment. Masego had theorized that what the aspect actually did was tinker with the odds, essentially making something that could possibly happen much more likely to actually happen. Adjutant wouldn’t ever be able to point a spot on a map and have that location be full of ancient magical weapons, but he could crack open a book at the exact page he needed to read.
I’d worried that the library might not have the story we needed, but the refilling stacks effectively killed the fear. Here in Arcadia, an aspect so subjective in nature was massively more powerful than it would have been in Creation: reality was more fluid in the realm of the fae.
His first attempt found us a story about a shepherd from Summer killing a Duke of Winter in single combat with a sling, winning the battle for Summer. It had a familiar ring to it. It was an old and popular tale in Callow that we’d first gained the Red Flower Vales by a shepherdess killing a Proceran prince with the same weapon when the prince tried to steal her flock. Dead princes always made for fireside favourites, in my experience. Callow had not forgotten the the Proceran betrayal after the Third Crusade. The story was not, however, what we needed. Hakram narrowed his search on the second attempt and found something more to my liking. A boy from Winter becoming a soldier to escape a prophecy he’d kill his own father, only learning too late his mother had had an affair with a Lord of Summer after killing the very same man on the battlefield. That had a shape we could use. It lacked the inheritance, but it stacked the odds in the favour of the long-lost child.
He tried again and found something even closer. A prince of Winter abandoning his own daughter in the wilds for she was fated to kill her father, only for her to be found by a childless prince of Summer and be raised as his own. Killing her birth father on the field, she became a Princess of Winter only to find the horrible fate still dogged her: she was sent as as the champion of Winter to settle a duel, only to find the man who’d raised her to be her opponent. This evidently being a tragedy, she won again and destroyed everything she’d ever loved. Grim, but I could work with that. Stealing bits from both parricidal stories to craft it into a fresh one should do the trick. I leaned back into my seat with a servant-provided cup of wine, Hakram frowning at the pages as he read the third story once more.
“Prophecy’s the important part,” I said.
“We don’t have one,” he pointed out.
“So we make one,” I replied.
“I don’t think scribbling ‘Catherine murders a duke, gets a duchy’ on a parchment will get us anywhere,” the tall orc grunted.
“When I fought the Rider of the Host,” I said, “he trapped himself into a role. Had to reveal things to me because of it. I think that has long as the fae recognize it’s a story, they’re bound by it – no matter how obvious a lie it is.”
“So we need the fairies to know there’s a prophecy, one just good enough to pass as true,” he said. “That’s… problematic. We’d need that knowledge spread before the fight.”
“Apprentice would be able to make a scroll look old and magical,” I said. “There’s no reason we couldn’t make a dozen fake scrolls and throw them through the windows of high-ranking members of the Court tonight. The Duke himself doesn’t have to be warned – ignorance is part of the tragedy.”
“Still feels thin,” Hakram gravelled. “You can make yourself look like his long-lost daughter and it’ll help, but we need more.”
“A tragic element,” I said, thinking out loud. “It doesn’t have the right weight if I genuinely don’t care I just stabbed my ‘father’ to death.”
I sipped at the wine again, wondering at how it tasted exactly the way Vale summer wine did at the peak of summer when served cold, the heavy heat making it the sweetest thing you ever drank. No wonder Archer had kept hitting the bottle.
“I could have Apprentice put the belief in my head that the Duke is actually my father,” I reluctantly said.
“I like Masego, Cat, and I doubt there’s a better mage in the Empire save for Lord Warlock – but messing with memories is always bad business,” he said. “You weren’t conscious when he operated on your soul. It… wasn’t pretty.”
Mostly I remembered searing pain and a lot of screaming, so I’d take his word for it. Masego had saved my life, that day, but the process had been less than pleasant.
“We’ll shelve that, then,” I said. “What else do we have?”
I was an orphan. That was a prerequisite for any of this to be able to work, I thought, but I couldn’t make more of it. I was the Squire. That had been my trump card in Liesse, given the roots the Role had in both Praes and Callow, but in Skade there was no ground to gain from it.
“The Winter King brought us here,” Adjutant suddenly said.
I raised an eyebrow.
“So he did,” I agreed.
“Set aside the story for a moment,” the orc said. “We’re here because he wants something from you.”
“We don’t know what that is, though,” I said.
“A hungry warrior will trade his sword for meat,” he quoted in Kharsum.
If you need something bad enough, you’ll take even a terrible deal. In other words, we had some kind of leverage on the King. The Prince of Nightfall had compared the Court to a fox gnawing off its own leg – there was desperation in that image, not just viciousness. Pretending we had an immortal winter god’s backing when getting into a fight with an immortal winter lesser god felt like fool’s gamble, admittedly, but hesitation was the province of the slow and the dead. Fuck it: I’d already faked the king’s signature to get into Skade in the first place, after all. If he’d wanted to turn the screws on us for that, we’d already be screaming.
“I have three things,” I murmured. “A prophecy, an heirloom and the word of a king. Now that has the right weight to it, don’t you think?”
Hakram shivered and I smiled.
“You look the way bad decisions feel,” Archer told me.
It was past midnight when the ochre-skinned girl swaggered into the library, reeking of liquor and throwing herself onto the table in an ungainly sprawl. Masego, who’d been finishing up the eighth fake scroll until she’d put her hand over it, sighed and moved his work to another table. I picked up a book and dropped it on her face as my reply, though even drunk she had the reflexes to snatch it out of the air. Archer wasn’t wrong, exactly. After Apprentice had given me the silver chain enchanted with the glamour I’d had a look in the mirror and winced. Kilian pulled off the fae blood, but it could be kindly said that I did not. My features were already sharp and constant fighting had put muscle to my frame, so the exaggeration of both traits with a few fae features thrown in made me look like a pile of harsh angles forced into a person’s shape. I did, however, look like I could be related to the Duke of Violent Squalls. That was the part that mattered.
“I’m hoping you have more than insults to give me,” I said.
Archer rose to a sitting position with a tired moan, dangling her legs off the edge of the table.
“You picked a fight with a bigwig,” she said.
“He’s a duke,” I said. “That was given.”
“He’s the duke, Foundling,” she said. “Look, you know it’s not the same king or queen in charge of Winter every time the season comes, right?”
“I’d gathered,” I said.
“The role can go to all the fae that are right now princes and princesses,” Archer said. “They have different natures, so the story of Summer and Winter can unfold differently according to who has the crown on both sides. That’s why sometimes one Court wins and sometimes the other. Outcome’s decided the moment the story starts.”
“He’s not a prince, though,” I pointed out.
“He’s just as bad,” the other Named said. “Whenever you have a Winter ruler trying to avoid the war, he’s the one that fucks it up. He’s the cornerstone for the war happening anyway.”
“So if he threw his masquerade…” Hakram said, trailing off.
“Then the current King is trying to avoid a war,” I finished. “The Duke’s important.”
On the bright side, the odds of my getting away with pretending the King of Winter was backing me had just significantly improved: I’d be ridding him of a nuisance.
“So even for a duke he’s going to be a bastard and a half to kill,” I said.
“That’s the word,” Archer agreed. “Things I have also learned: man’s not married, he’s got a bunch of minions on his side and he uses what wind sorcery would be if it was actually useful in a fight.”
“Wind sorcery is very useful,” Masego disagreed without ever looking away from the scroll. “It lacks the offensive abilities of some other elemental spells, but it has few equals when it comes to dictating and restricting enemy movement.”
“It feels like you’re to disagree with me,” Archer said, “but your words prove my point.”
“It’s the basis for scrying, you ignorant thug,” Apprentice snapped.
“Ooh, scrying,” the woman replied, rolling her eyes. “That’ll tip the balance in a fight with a Named.”
Gods, I missed Juniper. Nobody squabbled this much when she was around to glare. People without strong opinions didn’t become Named, I knew, which was why you could never have a band of them in a room without it coming to some arguing. It didn’t help, though, that Archer’s mission in life was to be the piece of gravel in everyone’s boot and that Apprentice was exceedingly easy to rub the wrong way.
“This conversation’s postponed until we’re back in Creation,” I ordered. “Archer, I know you have a fascination with asses but you don’t need to be so much of one. Apprentice, you know if you let her irritate you she’s going to keep pulling your pigtails.”
“But she was wrong,” Masego muttered mulishly.
Archer hid a grin behind her hand and I moved to change the subject before they could start again.
“Heard anything about the Fields of Wend?” I asked her.
“There’s a lake outside the city,” she replied. “With shifting glaciers in it. They use it to throw balls sometimes.”
Not, I thought, a good battlefield to fight against someone who has a knack for using winds. Not that any place in Winter was, to be honest. Still better than a closed space like the inside of the palace had been, especially since the damned place had been built from the Duke’s power.
“Well, that ought to be interesting,” I said.
“So now we wait for dawn?” Archer asked. “I might actually die of boredom, Squire.”
I glanced at Apprentice.
“How long until you’re done with the scrolls, Masego?”
“Give me an hour,” he replied absent-mindedly.
“Stay awake, Archer,” I said. “I have something for you to do after this.”
“Tell me it doesn’t involved paying attention to what people are saying again,” she implored.
“I want to to break people’s windows by throwing lies at them,” I replied.
“Sometimes, Foundling, you say the sweetest things.”
I managed to grab a few hours of sleep afterwards. Enough that I was fresh, anyway. I could have slept longer but my mind was awake so instead I found myself trudging to the courtyard this place was named after. Servants popped up out nowhere, not unexpectedly, and I sat by the edge of the snow with a steaming cup of tea and a pair of sweet apple turnovers. I’d say this for the fae, they cooked better pastries than anything I’d tried back in Creation. By my estimate there was still about a bell left before dawn, so I took my time eating. I heard footsteps behind me, a sure sign one of my companions was also awake: the fae didn’t make noise. Archer plopped herself down, leaning back against a wooden pillar. She had a plate of cold cuts and yet another bottle of wine, I noted with dark amusement. I wasn’t sure it was possible to empty the cellars of Winter, but she was certainly giving it a gallant effort.
“Did you even sleep?” I asked.
“Couldn’t,” she replied. “I’m too curious about what’s coming.”
I hummed. If all went well she wouldn’t need to fight anyway. Besides, even if she’d been up all night she didn’t seem tired in the slightest. I wasn’t actually in the mood for conversation, so I let silence reign as I drank my tea and nibbled at the pastries. Couldn’t muster much of an appetite – never could before a fight, though during I always ended up feeling hungry.
“So what’s your deal, exactly?” Archer said suddenly.
I eyed her sceptically.
“My deal?” I repeated.
She scarfed down a piece of meat before replying.
“Every Named has one,” she said. “Lady Ranger wants to break anything that thinks it’s stronger than her. Your mage wants to open up Creation to see what the gears look like. The orc wants to murder everything in your way.”
“And you?” I deflected.
“You already know what my thing is, Foundling,” she smiled. “I want to live large, so I can die without regrets. You, though? I can’t seem to get a read on you.”
Funny thing, this. I was more used to being on the other side of the conversation. I’d had one just like this with Hakram, what felt like years ago. Then another with Masego, when I got a glimpse at the detached mania that lay at the centre of him.
“People don’t usually ask me that,” I said. “Don’t need to. I’m pretty straightforward, when it comes down to it. All I want is to dig Callow out of the pit it’s in.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Aren’t you the Tower’s lieutenant there, nowadays? Seems like a done deal.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” I grunted. “I have the reins, within limits. I won. Pit’s still there, kingdom’s still in it.”
Archer eyed me, expression unreadable.
“So that’s really all you’re after?” she said. “Picking up a half-crown for the land you were born to?”
I smiled mirthlessly.
“Disappointed, are you?” I said.
“You’re the heiress to people who changed the face of Calernia,” she said, not denying it. “And I don’t mean conquering a kingdom – who gives a fuck about where borders are drawn? That comes and goes. When the Lady of the Lake was with the Calamities, they broke a story old as dawn. Just picking up a lesser piece of that is… small.”
The word was spoken with distaste.
“Last year,” I said, “I crushed the skull of a man who thought he was a visionary. He wanted to save Callow, he insisted. Thing is, I don’t really believe you can save people anymore. I tried that and it doesn’t ever quite seem to work right. I think it’s because it doesn’t matter, if they worship at the House of Light or sacrifice at some dark altar – most days they’re just people, and those are the same everywhere. They till the same fields, pay the same taxes, marry their neighbours and die fat if they’re lucky enough.”
“Named are more,” Archer said. “We’re the brighter flame: the people who can actually change things.”
“Are we?” I smiled. “The part of the Conquest you pay attention to is the Calamities sweeping all opposition aside. You think that’s because they were mighty, but that’s not the part that matters. They were figureheads, enablers. Praes won because it had grown as a nation while Callow had not.”
“The Empire grew because villains made it grow,” she replied flatly.
“And don’t you think it’s telling the most successful villains since Triumphant put their efforts into reforming institutions rather than building a bunch of flying fortresses?” I asked. “People won that war, not Named. Malicia and Black, they’re brilliant – but there’s been a lot of brilliant Named over the centuries, on both sides. What makes those two different is that they know change comes from the bottom, not the top.”
“That’s…” she hesitated.
Heresy, she wanted to say. That it went against everything we knew. History was forged by the hands of those that stood out and crowned themselves with power, those precious few even the Gods recognized as apart from the masses. Except that’s a lie. A thousand Dread Emperors and a thousand Kings, but nothing ever changed – until what lay behind them did. It’s not the tip of the blade that kills, it’s the force that drove it into your belly. That was, I was beginning to grasp, what I’d done wrong in Callow. I’d fought to put all the authority in my hands with the vague notion that I could fix it all afterwards, but how was that any different from what the Lone Swordsman had been doing? There were people all over the Empire who could make things better, if they were allowed to. And if there were forces trying to stand in the way? Well, I was a villain. The parts of Creation I did not like, I would break.
“Right now I have an enemy in Liesse who thinks by sheer will and ruthlessness she’ll drag Praes back to a golden age that never existed,” I said. “I’m not worried about her, deep down, because even if she claims I’m the one going against the grain she’s the one fighting the tide.”
I broke off a piece of turnover and popped it into my mouth.
“Last spring, a little boy gave an orc a crown of flowers. There’s something beyond any of us happening in the Empire, right now,” I said. “Malicia and Black think they control it, but I don’t think they do. They’re watching the story when what’s important is the people telling it. They want me to part of the machine they’re built, but I don’t think that’s my role.”
“Then what is?” Archer asked quietly.
“When heroes and villains come knocking in the name of fate,” I spoke, tone calm and measured. “When they try to drag us back to where we were by force with a Choir behind them or the host of some howling Hell – I’ll kill them all. Every last one of them.”
Softly, Archer laughed.
“Ah, Foundling,” she murmured. “I was wrong about you – you’re not boring at all. You’re just as mad as the rest of us.”
I looked up at the sky. Night was dying.
“Drink up, Archer,” I said. “Dawn’s coming and we have a god to rob blind.”