“Most live out their days on an isle of vapid ignorance, shying away from the dark and hungry waters that surround it. To seek power is to brave the tides, but one who does should not expect to see those shores again.”
– Translation of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King
I forced myself back to my feet. This was too close to kneeling for my tastes. The movement came easier than I’d thought, easier than it should have – whatever he had done with the ice, it had strengthened me. For however long it would last. Fae gifts were notoriously fickle things. The King was carving his bauble of ice, ivory knife shaving off one sliver after another another. The sound was almost deafening, in the silence that had grasped this world. I made my way to the edge one step after another, almost slipping as I sat down. My bare hand held onto the ice and I managed to settle by his side without tumbling down into the waters, pushing down a groan of pain. The ruler of Winter casually allowed another sliver of ice to fall down, indifferent to my struggles. I opened my mouth, then closed it. I’d stood before entities as powerful as this one before, but for once I was entirely unsure what to say. Not cowed, perhaps, but so aware of the current frailty of my existence I might as well be.
“You did well with Auster,” the King said.
I could still hear echoes to his voice that had me cringing, but it was not as brutal as it had been easier. I wasn’t seeing things instead of hearing words, at least. Had he restrained himself, or was I getting used to it? The second thought almost had me shiver. Some changes could only come at a price.
“First time killing a Duke,” I croaked. “Wouldn’t recommend it.”
My throat was scraped a little too raw to manage flippancy properly, sadly. My attempt at humour fell flat – looking at the King’s face for too long hurt my eyes, but from what I glimpsed there was no trace of amusement.
“Larat believed you would avoid the tale entirely,” the King said. “But he is a creature of war, mine own Hound of Winter. One does not rely on the Prince of Nightfall to trace the path ahead.”
The lack of depth perception probably didn’t help his case, I thought, and the almost chuckle that escaped me set my lungs aflame. Gods, that was not a pleasant feeling. I needed to get run through less often.
“You backed me in a corner,” I said.
“And this offends you?” the King of Winter said, sounding amused for the first time. “Submission is ever the lot of the weak. If you would rage at anything, rage at your own impotence.”
I hacked out a mocking laugh along with what might just have been a chunk of my lung. The bit of flesh stained my lips red as I spat it out, like rouge paid for in blood.
“I’m not,” I said. “Impotent. Wouldn’t be here if I was. You need something from me.”
“Ah, mortals,” the creature fondly said. “Always you seek to bargain until the very last breath. Your kind is a wonder.”
I’d always believed, deep down, that if I ever met a god it would be about this condescending. I was darkly pleased to be proved right.
“I already took what I need,” I said.
“You took what I allowed,” the King replied. “Do not mistake allowance for triumph.”
Even with the clarity the ice had forced on me, I was exhausted. It had taken every scrap of what I had to get me through the fight with the Duke taking only three lethal wounds – never before had I ever spent that much power so quickly. His power had not made me better, not really: it just felt like I was too tired to sleep. If I’d been having this conversation with Heiress I would have called what was being said posturing, but what need did the fucking King of Winter have to posture with me? He could end me with a thought. He was in a league so far above my own even trying to grasp the difference between us might kill me. And Ranger fights things like this for sport. Merciless Gods, what kind of monsters had Black gathered under his banner?
“I’m too close to the grave to play this game properly,” I said. “I lied my way to a claim. Are you going to deny me?”
He laughed. It sounded like wind against dead branches, like blood freezing inside a still-beating heart. I could feel the bones in my neck creak, feeling so fragile a single snap would break them.
“This is Winter, Catherine Foundling,” he said. “You own what you kill.”
“Then you’ll stop attacking Marchford?” I asked.
“That purpose has already been served,” the King said. “We are now part of the dream you call Callow.”
And that settled that. I’d achieved what I’d set out to achieve, though I knew there’d be a price coming. It left an unpleasant taste in my mouth, the way this had all gone down. I’d been played since the beginning by something so much more dangerous than me that there was no retaliation I could deal out. The leverage I’d thought I had was enough to keep me alive, but nothing more – and pushing it would likely get me killed. I sat there next to a god, and prepared to make a mistake. I’d once thought that Masego’s need to always be exact was because he was the Apprentice, but that wasn’t entirely true. He’d had that tendency before he became the Apprentice, I now believed. Archer had led me to the greater truth: Named, whatever their Name, were more. We were larger in everything, and when we grew our flaws grew as well. Urges that had been ignorable when we were mortal no longer were. Black would always seek victory regardless of the costs, Archer would always indulge in what appealed to her and me? I’d once thought it was my reckless streak that had grown into the flaw that would get me killed, but that wasn’t quite right. It was that the part of me that would have been able to bite its tongue was long buried. My mouth opened, knowing I was about to commit a blunder. Because this wretch of a god had killed some of my people, and I could not let that go unanswered.
“You killed my men,” I said. “When you sent your fae into my city.”
“Your men would have died,” he said. “What does it matter, that it was my doing or that of time?”
“You robbed them of the life they could have lived,” I replied through gritted teeth. “You took from them. A debt is owed.”
“Their existence weighed less than wind,” the King said. “Nothing can be taken from nothing.”
“This is not a bargain, King of Winter, it’s an oath,” I hissed. “One day, we’ll meet again. Not tomorrow, not next month, not for decades. After your game’s played out. After I’ve learned to kill gods. On that day, I’ll come to collect.”
“Will you?” he wondered.
It did not even take a heartbeat. Instantaneous would have been wrong still – it had always been the case that the water in my eyes was frozen. I felt blood running down the side of my face that should not be feeling anything at all. My bad leg, the one that still limped when I tired, twisted and broke with a sound like dead wood snapping. I heard the whistle of wind, more deafening than a hundred thousand horns, and after a flare of pain that dragged me to the edge of unconsciousness I heard nothing at all. I choked on my own tongue as frost spread over my skin, robbing me of the last of my senses.
“If I were a prince,” the King told me, “I would be the Prince of Bleak Solstice. Some of that remains even under the Deadwood Crown.”
I was a prisoner in my own body, the only sensation left to me the feeling of his fingers tipping up my chin.
“I could inflict on you every pain you’ve ever felt and some you cannot even conceive of,” he said idly. “But you are of no use to me broken. One of those flitting around is quite enough.”
His thumb ran its way up my cheek until it rested under my eye, and his other hand came to match it on the other side.
“You are in need of a reminder, Catherine Foundling,” he said, “of the difference between bravery and ignorance.”
The King clucked his tongue.
“No, not the eyes,” he said. “Yours are too dull to make a fitting ornament. Something, perhaps, a little more pointed.”
He withdrew from my face and the relief lasted for barely a moment before I felt his hand tear through my chest. I screamed soundlessly as his fingers closed around my beating heart, ripping it out like he was picking lint from cloth. The sorcery that had blanketed my senses lifted like a veil, leaving me on my feet with the King standing in front of me. I could see my heart in one hand, frozen black and solid. In the other was the bauble he’d been making out of ice, now a perfect carving of the moon. He thrust it where my heart had been, flesh closing around it as he withdrew and it began beating.
“I recognize you as heiress to the Duke of Violent Squalls,” he said. “Made by prophecy, heirloom and the word of a king. Your inheritance, claimed by rite of blood, is confirmed.”
I gasped for air, feeling the blood in my veins cooling further with every passing moment.
“Catherine Foundling,” he said. “I name you Duchess of Moonless Nights. I grant you the seat of Marchford, and on these sacred grounds claim your fealty.”
My surroundings ebbed away, replaced by deep and bottomless darkness. I stood there unmoving, seeing only the dark-skinned king and the blood-red sap dripping onto his brow from his wooden crown.
“I demand no fidelity and offer no respite,” the King of Winter laughed. “I demand no faith and offer no protection. I give you slight and deceit, I receive hatred and betrayal. The Court of Winter receives you as one of its own, ‘till your last desperate breath clawing at the dark.”
Power pulsed in my chest, spreading through my veins. I felt the third part of my soul, the missing aspect I had yet to forge, fill with something old and too large to comprehend.
“I stand by my oath, dead thing,” I rasped. “Before my days are done I will see you unmade.”
“Then you are a Duchess of Winter in truth,” the King grinned, teeth like stolen moonlight. “I charge you with the defeat of Summer, Catherine Foundling. I charge you with the making of peace, exacted from the battlefield.”
He leaned forward.
“You have six times the coming of your title, or your heart is forever mine,” he said.
Hands rose to my face again, to my eyes.
“Now sleep,” he said, “and dream.”
Fingers pulled down my pupils and darkness took me.
Dawn does not exist, then it does.
I see two cities and two lands around them. One is made of plenty, orchards of fruitful trees and fields of green. Juice runs down the chin of children as they bite into peaches, playing under the sun by pale walls. Colours for which there are no names yet fill half the world, proud lords and ladies clustering at the feet of a crowned and faceless silhouette. In its gaze is Summer, the heat that burns and hangs in the air like vapour. The other land is ice and illusion, and there nothing grows. Wind howls and creatures die under knives of obsidian, the warmth of their blood staining lips and chasing away, for a single blessed moment, the cruel bite of the chill. There the games of the children are vicious, for victory can only come from the defeat of others. At the heart of a maze, lords and ladies with smiles treacherous cluster at the feet of a crowned and faceless silhouette. In its gaze is Winter, the cold that that devours and leaves only absence behind.
War does not exist, then it does.
The hungry reach for the bounty of the full and this brings strife, as their taking is not gentle and this offence cannot go unanswered. Clarion calls make the sky shudder, for the host of Summer is a thing of might. They come in silk and steel, red pennants stirring in the wind like the promise of blood to come. Where they go noon follows, relentless and unforgiving as its heralds. Winter is not announced. It creeps like a snake in the dark, a slithering host of shades and clawed things that want, want until it hollows them out. They wear dead things and wield sharpness torn from the ground, eyes covetous under the blanket of night. None are valiant in the dark but all are desperate. Justice, the hooves of white winged horses thunder as they take flight. More, the blue-eyed things on horned horses whisper back, slender lances glinting. There are cries and screams. The moon falls, burnt black, and as it breaks the world Summer triumphs.
Noon spreads across two lands. Nothing is left of the hungry but ashes, trampled contemptuously. Ice melts away, leaving behind bleak black earth. The world is made a festival and Summer prospers, ripening again and again. The proud grow ever prouder, until the first fruit spoils. The sun does not rest and the land buckles under it. Pride turns to arrogance and under red pennants lords and ladies spill blood, turning on each other. Only one can have most, and none have ever tasted defeat. The land is scorched but there is no relief, for Summer advances and does not know retreat. The red haze hangs in the air like sickness as stomachs go from full to bursting like the fruits gone overripe, fire and steel claiming all until only the crowned and faceless silhouette remains. It remains seated on the throne as yellow leaves and roots claim the world, facing the sun until only a seared carcass remains.
This is the truth of Summer: everything burns out.
Green sprouts from bleak black earth, and from this harvest a city grows. Spring has come. In the other land yellow turns to orange and brown, leaves falling to the ground as the land is finally freed from agony. Autumn has come. From those remains grows a city, feeding on what little there is to offer. One land grows to plenty, the other dies a slow death. The sun rises, ice spreads.
The story comes again.
The hungry reach for the bounty of the full and this brings strife, as their taking is not gentle and this offence cannot go unanswered. Clarion calls ring out, but they are silenced. The serpent slithers into the heart of Summer, offering peace and hidden fangs even as its hunger sharpens behind honeyed words. Poison spreads in the blood and champions die, for not even the mighty can overcome the many soft deaths of Winter. When the host of Summer comes it is gaping and limping, fresh to a war that came unannounced. Justice, the hooves of white winged horses thunder as they take flight. The shades laugh as they devour them. More, they whisper back to the dead. The mighty die slow among their red pennants, striking at smoke and mirrors as snow begins to blanket the world. The sun grows ever paler until it falls from the sky, shattering as it breaks the world and Winter triumphs.
Night spreads across two lands. Proud corpses are clawed to bloody bone as the host clad in death and theft spills forth. Juicy peaches are ripped from trees and bitten into as the trees that bore them wither and die. Ice snakes across once-green fields made bare by the hungry. Winter feeds, feeds until it can almost understand fullness. It is not enough. Pale and gloried walls are torn down, pennants drained of colour until all is bare and empty and still the host wants. There is less and less while there are still many so vicious games are made ever more vicious for in the end there will be only one mouthful left, and only one mouth to devour it. The night deepens and desperation does with it, as bleak winds and starvation take what murder and betrayal does not. Not even feeding off each other is enough. Then only the crowned silhouette on the throne remains, unmoving in the cold as it tries to feel something, anything and dies an empty husk.
This is the truth of Winter: we all die alone.
The cold turns on itself and a remnant of a remnant frees itself from the ground, green sprouting from the bleak black earth. From this harvest a city grows, for Spring has come. In the land that was once Summer, the bare bones of what was once plenty are gnawed on. A city of the dying forms around the little turning to nothing, for Autumn shapes itself out of the coming of absence.
The story comes again. In the end, there is no end.
I wasn’t sure exactly when I crossed the boundary from sleep to wakefulness. There was no transition, no burst of awareness. I was not awake, then I was. The thought had me shivering. I was under quilt, in a bed more rough than soft, and wearing clothes I didn’t remember putting on. I rose to a seat and found myself surrounded by bare stone walls that were somewhat familiar. There were sounds coming from outside, but one closer: in a corner of the room, slumped in a chair, Hakram was snoring. Marchford, I realized. I’m back.
I glanced at the door as Adjutant jerked awake at the noise. Masego was at the threshold, looking somewhere in the middle of relieved and worried. I brushed back my hair absently.
“So,” I said, “There’s now a god on my murder list. Someone be a dear get me a drink – it’s going to be a rough few months.”