“The covenant of the hungry lasts as long as the meal.”
– Taghreb saying
Anaxares was having a tea party with monsters.
A civil one, he had to admit. The ridiculously large and opulent table – it was Ashuran pearwood, he was fairly sure, which meant it was worth a small castle – had been set on a platform in the morning, long before the Black Knight had actually arrived. There were jewels set into the surface of it that glinted the same no matter what light fell on them that he believed would be able to shoot out beams of energy if the Tyrant spoke the right incantation. At least the whole thing wasn’t floating. The boy had suggested all of this should be happening with the platform a hundred feet up in the air, but Anaxares had flatly informed him he wasn’t setting foot on anything that wasn’t touching solid ground. After the usual round of inventive death threats, the Tyrant had conceded the point and instead had gargoyles place over all four corners. At least one of them was badly failing to pretend it was still inanimate. Anaxares had thrown a biscuit at it earlier, just to see what it would do.
Glare at his back when it thought he wasn’t looking, apparently. Foolish creature, all Bellerophans knew you should always assume someone was looking at you. The Kanenas See All, For Their Eyes Are The Eyes Of The Law And The Law Is Omniscient, he added dutifully. Kairos had put on a version of the Helikean infantry armour that was made of pure gold, with pauldrons he suspected were actual real skulls. All three people at the table were politely pretending they could not hear the hissing angry ghosts bound inside said skulls. The Tyrant had tried to dress him up in silks but Anaxares had ignored the servants and instead continued to wear his old diplomat’s robes, which he made a point of washing himself. They were beginning to look rather frayed, but accepting clothes from the boy would count as Taking A Bribe From A Foreign Despot. Him aside, the two villains sitting across each other were a study in contrasts. Studying Named as openly as he was always a dangerous business, but Anaxares was already a dead man. What was left to fear?
He’d expected the Black Knight to be some tall muscled Soninke, but the villain was short – shorter than the Tyrant, if not by much – and pale like a Callowan. He’d not believed that particular rumour to be true. Weren’t the farmers on the side of Good? It was hard to tell what his build was under the plain plate he wore, but it was obvious that though he was no slab of muscle he was an athletic man. In opposition Kairos Theodosian was so thin he looked almost sickly. Like most people of the Free Cities the Tyrant was tan and dark of hair, that last part one of the few things the villains had in common. It was the eyes, though, that set them apart the most. The murderous red eye of the Tyrant looked upon everything with warm poison while the pale green gaze of the Black Knight was cold, unmoving detachment. They were two different takes on an old breed, these villains, and though their faces were pleasant and smiling Anaxares could smell the violence wafting in the air like summer heat. The Praesi set down his cup on the saucer, Nicean porcelain clinking softly.
“That was the purest arsenic I’ve ever drunk,” the Knight said. “My compliments to your alchemists.”
There was a reason Anaxares had left his own cup untouched. Unlike these two he couldn’t be expected to walk off a mouthful of poison.
“That’s very kind of you,” the Tyrant beamed. “We tortured the secrets of substance refinement out of a Taghreb exile a few decades back, so really it’s all thanks to the Empire.”
The two of them were still smiling. Anaxares would have shivered, if terror had any point to it.
“I see you’ve set your table with fire rubies,” the Black Knight noted. “A nice touch. I might lose an eye if you triggered those without warning.”
“Burn,” the Tyrant suddenly barked, leaning forward.
A heartbeat of silence passed and nothing happened.
“You could have flinched, at least,” the boy pouted.
The Black Knight smiled serenely, drinking another sip of poison.
“Shame the rest of the Calamities couldn’t come,” Kairos said, whimsically changing the subject.
“It would have been most impolite of me to enter your camp without some precautions,” the green-eyed man said.
“Are you implying I would murder an ally in broad daylight for no good reason?” the Tyrant said, aghast.
“You would,” Anaxares said.
“I could state it outright, if you’d prefer,” the Black Knight kindly offered.
The crippled boy tried to drum his fingers on the table casually, but his hand was shaking so badly it looked more like he was thumping it. The ghosts bound to his armour screamed angrily, the sound strangely muted. The diplomat was beginning to find it soothing, to be honest. He felt too weary to scream in horror himself but having someone else express the sentiment was gratifying.
“Don’t,” Kairos finally decided. “My most trusted advisor took the fun out of it.”
Green eyes turned to study said advisor almost curiously, to the man’s dismay.
“You are Bellerophan, correct?” the Knight asked.
“You already know the answer to that,” Anaxares replied, picking up a biscuit.
He’d been assured those weren’t poisoned, so he broke off a piece and scarfed it down.
“It’s been a subject of debate as to why you are still alive,” the pale-skinned man said, not denying it.
His eyes flicked at the Tyrant, who shrugged.
“Haven’t done a thing,” Kairos said.
It was actually hard to tell when the Tyrant was lying, in Anaxares’ opinion. He did so frequently and about matters both mundane and important without rhyme or reason, which meant establishing a baseline for truth and lies was difficult.
“Thinking too much about why is the curse of unenlightened peoples,” the diplomat asserted. “Peerless Bellerophon Is Always Correct For The People Cannot Be Wrong, May They Reign Forever.”
“I love it when he does that,” the Tyrant said. “It’s like they’re whispering sweet propaganda straight into my ear.”
“Bellerophon does have a surprisingly effective indoctrination apparatus,” the Knight agreed.
Spoken like an Enemy Of The People, Anaxares thought with a frown.
“So why are you haunting my doorstep, Black Knight?” Kairos suddenly said.
There’d been no transition from pleasantries to business, no hint or warning. The Bellerophan had seen him do this many a time now, with almost everyone he spoke to. He was not sure whether the quicksilver change was meant to unsettle whoever he dealt with and gain him an advantage or if the Tyrant was genuinely that unstable. It might, he suspected, be both.
“We meant to speak with you in Delos, but events conspired against it,” the other villain replied.
As a career diplomat, Anaxares could admire how well-crafted that sentence had been. The use of the word conspiracy would imply fault, while on surface absolving responsibility – a counterpart already on the defensive would feel bound to offer explanation. A shame that tactics like those were worthless against the Tyrant. The boy, after all, was mad.
“Your play there spoiled my amusement,” Kairos complained. “I was a sennight away from making a dragon from the bones of their fallen. I was going to crash it into the citadel and demand their surrender.”
“You would have been repulsed,” the Knight said, and it was spoken like a fact.
Considering every assault by Helike on Delos had met that exact fate, Anaxares believed him to be entirely correct.
“That’s the problem with Praesi, these days,” the Tyrant replied with an unpleasant smile. “You worry too much about things like victory and defeat.”
“No worry would have been necessary on your part,” the pale man said. “Victory would have been yours if your host had assaulted the walls instead of retreating.”
“And how boring that would have been,” Kairos said. “I take no hand outs from the Tower, Carrion Lord.”
“We have enemies in common,” the Knight calmly pointed out. “Dismissing the possibility of common striving against them is counterproductive.”
“You don’t have a pattern of three against the White Knight, do you?” he said.
The Praesi’s face was blank, a wax mask without expression. Then, slowly, his brow creased.
“Neither do you,” he said.
“Someone’s hourglass is running out,” the Tyrant grinned, sing-songing the words as his red eye pulsed. “Regretting taking that apprentice, are we?”
“My decision has never been more justified,” the man disagreed serenely.
“Spineless,” Kairos stated with thick contempt. “You lack rage, Black Knight. If you were any more resigned to your fate you’d be licking the boots of the Heavens.”
The Knight did not seem particularly offended by the insults. He did not seem, Anaxares, as the kind of man who could easily be offended. It would have been most unpleasant to negotiate with him.
“There is a difference between acknowledging the possibility of failure and embracing the outcome,” the Praesi said.
“That you even accept the chance of defeat is disgusting, if you’ll forgive my language, much less that you plan for it,” the Tyrant hissed. “You are a villain. We do not go gently into the night.”
“There are graveyards full of men who thought the same,” the Knight replied. “They died having accomplished nothing.”
“You’re scribbling on sand and calling it a legacy,” Kairos mocked. “Nothing that happens before or after you matters – only the decisions you make now. And those I see you make? I find lacking.”
“Means are irrelevant,” the Black Knight coldly said. “Results dictate all else.”
“I despise you and everything you stand for from the bottom of my heart,” the Tyrant enthused. “Shall we work together?”
Anaxares quietly choked on the biscuit he’d been nibbling at, entirely ignored by the other two.
“That would be best,” the green-eyed man acknowledged. “The Empire is not interested in direct intervention. Resolution by local actors is preferable in Her Dread Majesty’s eyes.”
“What you actually want is for Procer to lose their pretext to go a’crusading,” Kairos laughed. “So what’s the plan, my dearest friend? Peace with Nicae?”
“Cessations of hostilities between League constituents would allow you to turn your attention elsewhere,” the Black Knight replied. “There are no real gains left for you to make.”
“And just by coincidence, that ‘elsewhere’ happens to be eyeing your borders,” the Tyrant mused.
“Aligned interests are not the same as subordination,” the other villain said.
“Not all that far, though,” Kairos said. “Regardless, Nicae’s not interested in peace right now. They’re growing too fat on Proceran silver and soldiers.”
“Stripping them of that fat would make them reconsider their position,” the Knight said.
“One last battle, eh?” the Tyrant laughed. “That could be interesting. But they’ve so many heroes, my dear friend. I’m terrified of what those could do to me. I’m only one boy, after all.”
Kairos had not even attempted a token effort to make that lie sound plausible, the diplomat noted.
“We intend to engage the White Knight and his companions again,” the pale man said.
“I feel safer already,” the Tyrant grinned toothily. “It’s so nice, having friends.”
The Black Knight nodded, unmoved.
“Scribe will be in contact with you shortly,” he said, rising to his feet.
The boy waved away the notion, unconcerned. He waited until the Praesi was at the edge of the platform.
“Black?” he called out.
The man glanced back.
“I’m going to betray you, you know,” the Tyrant promised.
The thing that looked back at the boy then was not a person Named or not. Humanity had slid off that face like water off a clay mask, leaving behind absolutely nothing – the thing behind those eyes was coldly taking their measure, calculating the span of their usefulness and the death that would follow it. Carrion Lord, they called him, and the diplomat finally understood why. Why this… thing could cow the third of a continent.
“You will try,” the Black Knight replied. “They always do.”
The diplomat had expected them to leave after the other villain exited the camp, but they remained at the table. Kairos was still drinking his tea, exaggeratedly holding up his little finger so it never touched the cup.
“What are we waiting for?” Anaxares finally asked.
It was the crown of noon, and staying in the sun this long always gave him a headache.
“The counteroffer,” the Tyrant said.
The sound of the teapot’s lid being raised drew his attention a moment later. There was a woman leaning over it, from the Free Cities by the looks of her. Long and curly dark hair, curvy under her leathers that he could smell reeked of spirits even from where he was seated. The stranger had a silvery flask in hand and was pouring what looked like Proceran brandy inside the teapot – she didn’t stop until it started spilling over, only then pouring herself a cup of ‘tea’. Nine tenths of that had to be liquor, he thought. And it was probably still lethal to drink, not that it stopped her from gulping down her her cup and messily wiping her lips with her sleeve.
“I don’t know where you get your arsenic, Kairos, but it’s the good stuff,” she said. “You can really taste the almonds.”
“Anaxares, this is Aoede the Wandering Bard,” the Tyrant smiled fondly. “She’s here to manipulate me like she did near Delos.”
“You’re a heroine,” the diplomat said, face creasing in surprise.
“I’m starving is what I am,” the Bard complained. “Hand me a biscuit, would you?”
Anaxares did, too baffled to object.
“Did you have fun with the Big Guy?” Aoede asked with her mouth full.
“You were right,” Kairos said. “I want to kill him so very much.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t really play your kind of game,” the Bard said. “Who’s this charming fellow, by the way?”
She was pointing the remnant of his biscuit at him like a wand, hand wavering as she poured herself another cup of of tea-flavoured liquor.
“This is Anaxares, my most trusted advisor,” Kairos grinned. “I abducted him. He’s not very happy about it.”
The dark-haired woman squinted at him, slurping her cup loudly. For a moment Anaxares could have sworn she was entirely sober and studying him with a piercing gaze, but then she choked on the liquor and the moment was gone. She thumped her own chest until she stopped coughing, spilling biscuit crumbs everywhere.
“You’re a class act, Tyrant,” she said admiringly, still breathless. “Haven’t seen anything that brazen since Traitorous.”
“Flatterer,” Kairos replied. “Now, speak treachery to me Aoede. Treachery most foul.”
“Right,” the Bard said, putting her cup down and leaning against the table. “So obviously I’m trying to trick you to your death here.”
“As is only right and proper,” the Tyrant agreed.
“So here’s something for you to consider,” she continued. “You should off a Calamity.”
“Or not,” Anaxares suggested mildly. “We could, in fact, not do this.”
“Tell me more,” Kairos ordered.
“So your grand plan, it’s not really a plan,” the Bard said. “It’s a juggler’s philosophy.”
“I’ve no idea what you could possibly mean,” the Tyrant smiled.
“First step always works, so always have a first step going,” Aoede said. “Now, a lesser soul would say all that will accomplish is destroy more and and more of Creation until it all collapses on your head because you missed a beat.”
“The part that matters is the dance,” Kairos smiled. “Not the bow at the end.”
“And I applaud that, I really do. Here’s the thing, though,” the Bard said. “You’re running out of enemies, Kairos Theodosian.”
“I can make more,” the Tyrant pointed out.
“Lesser ones,” Aoede shrugged. “Not a lot of heroes running around at the moment and you’ve already slapped around most of the League. You need to expand your roster, my friend.”
She added an exaggerated wink after calling him that, to the Tyrant’s visible delight.
“So I backstab Praes, if you’ll forgive my language,” he mused. “Alas, killing a Calamity also helps the horse you have in this race.”
“You don’t need to wield the knife yourself,” the Bard said. “Use my heroes against them, just blatantly enough the Big Guy knows what you did.”
“It is lesser treachery that you peddle, then,” Kairos replied, tone disappointed.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” the dark-haired woman slurred. “Point isn’t to make the Calamity die, it’s to make an enemy of Black. He loves them like family, you know. You need to hurt him at least that deep if you want him not to let go of the grudge. Anything less and the moment he’s back in Praes you drop off the stage.”
“This plan involves making an enemy of one of the most dangerous men on this continent for no tangible gain,” Anaxares said. “It is not a good plan.”
“Don’t be foolish, advisor,” Kairos said. “Making an enemy of one of the most dangerous men on this continent is the point of the plan, not a side-effect.”
“And to think you said I was bringing lesser treachery to the table,” the Bard said shaking her head. “I’m wounded, Kairos.”
“I’m deeply sorry,” the Tyrant said. “As an apology, let me offer you this: nocere.”
The jewels on the table immediately lit up and shot half a dozen beams of scorching red light at the Wandering Bard, who disappeared into thin air before a single one of them made contact. There was a long moment of silence.
“She’s playing you,” Anaxares pointed out, aware it was blindingly obvious but believing the boy could use a reminder.
“Oh yes,” the Tyrant smiled, and his eye pulsed red. “Just imagine the kind of enemy she’ll make, when I betray her too.”