“We have grown to mock Tyrants for they are mad but that is a very dangerous thing. A madman thinks the world other than what it is, and in a mortal that is a harmless thing. Not so in one who moulds Creation to their will, as all Named do.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand
Anaxares had been named a general, at the Tyrant’s orders. Sixty-seven, the diplomat mused. He was now technically committing treason under sixty-seven different articles of Bellerophan law, and starting to wonder if he would reach a hundred before he died. His remains would be on trial for at least a decade, and he did not envy the Defender Against The People who drew the wrong lot and was made to defend his rotting corpse. It seemed to few, to have grown from middling fifty counts of treason to over sixty when made to serve in a foreign army. The law codes were in need of revising. It should have landed him roughly in the eighties. The mere fact that no difference was made between officer grades was a glaring oversight, and if allowed a few moments to make a statement before the kanenas summarily executed him he would jot down a few notes on the matter.
“Pay attention, Bellerophan,” General Basilia barked. “This is important.”
Kairos’ foremost commander was currently attempting to teach him the basics of war, as he would apparently be given command of five thousand men during the assault on the walls of Nicae. When Anaxares had asked the boy why, morbidly curious, he’d been answered only by off-putting giggles. Troubling.
“I will not. I am a diplomat in the service of the Republic,” he said. “Anyone but the officers drawn by lot learning military tactics is illegal.”
The woman glared at him, sceptical.
“Are you telling me your shithole of a city doesn’t have career officers?” she asked.
War Is Of The People, Served By The People And Ordered Only By The People.
“That would be setting apart individuals from the rest,” he said, somewhat offended on behalf of Bellerophon. “This learning can and should only be temporary, removed after it had seen lawful use.”
“Gods, no wonder you fucks have never won a war,” the general said, aghast.
Anaxares narrowed his eyes at the wicked foreign oligarch. It had been determined by the Will Of The People that enough draws counted as a victory, and therefore proof of the superiority of the Republic in all things. That this was factually incorrect by the standards of wider Calernia was irrelevant to the purposes of this conversation.
“Who do you even learn from?” Basilia asked.
“Bellerophon has secured the finest military manual in existence to train its officers,” he replied.
“Manners of War by Tyrant Theodosius?” the general asked. “I suppose the Ars Tactica by the first Terribilis would be close enough.”
“A Hundred Victorious Strategies,” Anaxares said.
Ah, that made sixty-eight. Leaking of military information to The Deceived Servant Of A Grasping Despot. General Basilia’s lips twitched as if she was trying very hard not to weep or laugh.
“Isabella the Mad’s book?” she asked, voice rough.
“She was the only one to ever defeat Theodosius on the field,” the diplomat said.
“That’s, uh, a very generous assessment of the Maddened Fields,” General Basilia said, and tried to pass her convulsive laughter for a cough.
He sighed. Mockery, he thought, was the last refuge of those afraid of the First And Mightiest Of The Free Cities, May She Reign Forever.
“Well, at least you haven’t learned any bad habits,” she said. “You won’t be on the first wave over the walls, anyway, if you listen to your commanders you should be fine.”
“I will not,” Anaxares said.
The woman frowned.
“I will actively attempt to hinder your victory, should I remain in a position of authority,” he informed her serenely.
“I’ll remove you from command,” she threatened.
“Do so,” he said. “Please.”
Was there a lawful difference between having temporarily served in a foreign army and remaining in service? Ah, yes, the third amendment. Unfortunately it only applied after death, with the assumption being that any Bellerophan committing such treason would immediately be killed before trial could take place. Another area in need of clarification to be pointed out to the Republic.
“The Tyrant has his reasons,” Basilia finally said. “He sees further than anyone else.”
“He is drunk with power,” Anaxares told her gently. “And quite possibly mad.”
“They’re all mad, diplomat,” the woman said, smiling. “That’s why they win. Theodosius took on the entire Principate at its peak and walked away the winner. That takes something stranger than courage. Oh, we have the finest army on Calernia don’t get me wrong. We can handle thrice our number in what everyone else has to field. But it’s with a Tyrant on the throne that we shine, and it was the fortune of my life to be born under one.”
Anaxares was not unaware of the blinders the Republic had set around his eyes, though he’d never seen the need to attempt to take them off. It was his first time, however, seeing the same thing on the face of someone not from Bellerophon. How strange, that they too could have faith in something greater. It took the diplomat tipping over a carafe of wine over three maps and wilfully misremembering the names of his commanders before the Helikean gave up in schooling him. Kairos sent for him, but when he entered the tent there was no sign of the Tyrant. Seven people stood stiffly under the silk panes, eyeing the embroidery with cold mistrust. And good reason. It was gold thread, a blatant misuse of wealth that should be in the hands of the people.
“Diplomat Anaxares,” a woman said, tonelessly.
Kanenas. She was not even trying to hide it. The others all had that muted look on their faces that would have betrayed their function as well, had the Bellerophan been traitorous enough to attempt to find such a thing out. Anaxares did not bow, for that was a foreign flourish judiciously disposed of by the Republic. All men were equal, even with those who could kill him with a thought.
“I have committed treason on sixty-eight counts,” he said, and calmly listed them.
The longer he spoke, the more the tension left his shoulders. It was not that Anaxares had ever expected to live through any of this, or even dedicated a great deal of thought to the matter. It was, after all, out of his hands. But it was a relief, that this strange affair finally be closed. That his fate had been left dangling had been a burr in his boots, an irritant. His existence and the contradiction it represented to the truth of Bellerophon should not have been left so long unanswered.
“If the Republic is willing to provide ink and parchment, I have comments to submit to the eyes of the people for after my execution,” he said.
He’d never considered using Helikean tools. No proper Bellerophan would have read anything written with them. The seven kanenas studied him.
“Your pending execution has been suspended by vote,” a man said. “Your services to the people have made you a Person of Value.”
The diplomat watched the seven other people in the tent. They stared back, unblinking. Something rose inside of him as the silence continued, something he had not felt in a very long time. He’d thought the years had scoured it out of him, but perhaps that had been vanity. It was not hope, of course. He had no use for that. It was anger. Harsh, unforgiving fury. How dare they? How dare they turn on what they should be, on everything they should stand for?
“No,” he hissed. “This is unacceptable.”
“This committee has been empowered to record and respond to your words,” the woman who’d spoken earlier replied flatly.
“There is no such thing as Person of Value,” Anaxares snarled. “If the people have decreed this, the people are wrong and in need of purging. We are a Republic of laws. I have broken these laws. I must be executed according to them.”
“To go against the Will of the People is treason,” another woman said.
“Then execute me, by all the Gods,” he shouted. “The people have committed treason against the Republic through this vote. This is how he wins, you fools. By bending what we are. It only needs to happen once and everything we’ve built is stained.”
Eyes hard, he stared them down.
“We are the Republic of Bellerophon,” he said through gritted teeth. “We do not compromise. We do not make exceptions. I will slit my own throat before allowing this.”
“Correct,” the man said.
“Correct,” another man said, and a woman with him.
“Treason,” the woman from earlier replied.
The air in the tent grew thick with sorcery as all seven kanenas went still. Something broke with a sickening crunch behind the face of the three who’d agreed with him. Anaxares did not look as the bodies droppedd. Citizens did not get involved in the debates of the kanenas, or the grisly ends they inevitably came to.
“You are forbidden to commit suicide by law,” the woman said. “And to wilfully take actions that will result in your death as well.”
“You can’t do this,” Anaxares said.
He was genuinely afraid for the first time since boyhood. This… Gods, what was this? It was wrong, all wrong, something had broken and he needed to Mend it.
“We do nothing, diplomat,” a man said. “The People Have Spoken.”
They left him there, shivering in his own sweat. His hands shook and he had to sit for his legs would not longer bear the weight of him. Nightfall was coming, and with it the assault on Nicaw. The armies were gathered, but he cared nothing for it. Yet he would have to lead the soldiers, for if he did not the Tyrant might decide to kill him and he was forbidden by law to chance this. The boy. The boy was behind this, one way or another. Kairos was waiting for him on a throne that overlooked the walls, all grey stone with a dozen gargoyles fanning him and feeding him grapes. He had a cup in hand, though not of wine. Juice of some sort.
“What did you do,” Anaxares demanded. “What did you do?”
The Tyrant of Helike laughed, laughed with his red eye shining and his weak arm clutching at his robes like claws.
“Oh yes,” Kairos Theodosian murmured. “You’ll do nicely.”
“You’ve tainted us,” the diplomat said.
“I gave them what they wanted most, deep down,” the Tyrant said. “Under all the laws and the lies.”
A gargoyle waddled up to him, stone wings folded over its back, and offered a wineskin. The Bellerophan saw it too well. His eyesight should not be this good, all these minute fractures in the bespelled rock should never have been noticeable. That realization brought exhaustion with it that had him half-toppling on the platform the throne was set on. He took the skin and drank deep, drowning and drowned.
“Would you like to hear a story, Anaxares?” the Tyrant asked. “It’s a thing of beauty, this one.”
“This must be unmade,” the diplomat begged.
“Oh, it’s too late for that,” Kairos smiled. “Much, much too late. This story, my dearest friend, is about three people.”
Anaxares’ hands were no longer shaking, his body numb at the horror of what was hapening.
“The first is a monster,” Kairos said. “She’s not like the others monsters, though. She has no face and as many lives as there are stars, and behind those veils only one single burning desire. It’s a thing I can see, you know. What people Wish. And when I look at her, what I see is glorious.”
“The Wandering Bard,” Anaxares croaked.
“Now, this monster she has plans and plans and plans,” the Tyrant sighed admiringly. “So many irons and so many fires. She doesn’t care about any of us, when it comes down to it. All she looks at is the line in the sand that’s just a bit above the reach of high tide, and we can’t have that now can we? She’s not real picky about what she’ll use to wipe it away, practical creature that she is.”
Kairos leaned closer, grinning widely.
“Let me tell you a secret, my friend,” he whispered. “She’s already won. The opposition was watching the wrong fire the whole time, and the intricacy of the trap is exquisite. She made the kill without them ever seeing her.”
“She’s losing,” Anaxares said. “The Calamities killed one of her heroes with your own sorcery.”
“No no no,” the Tyrant said. “You’re looking at it all wrong. Even if my pretty little mages had been untroubled, the Beast would have survived. The Healer should have too, life split in half with her sister. A touching story of sisterly love, if you care for that sort of thing. She didn’t because she was a sacrifice. Her weight was stolen, because there was another use for it. With nothing you can only trade for nothing.”
“Then you are a pawn as well,” the diplomat said. “In the Bard’s game.”
“Funny thing, control,” the boy mused. “Everybody thinks they have it. Because they follow Fate or fight it, because they see the lines or make them. No one is in control, Anaxares. Not even the Gods, otherwise what would be the point of Creation? We’re not the answer, we’re the question. The book even says so.”
The cripple hacked out a laugh, patting himself.
“She thinks I made you to kill me,” Kairos said. “She’s wrong, my dearest bosom companion. I’m not some Praesi of the old breed, oh no. I have more unusual ambitions. But here I am, getting ahead of myself. We have a story, yes? The second person is not a person at all. He is a thing.”
The hate and contempt in the boy’s voice had an almost physical weight to it.
“He thinks he’s a person and that’s the most disgusting part,” the Tyrant smiled. “Cogs and wheels and he started out thinking it was about being right, about being fair, but it hasn’t been like that in a long time. He just wants to win, but it’s a kind of victory that means nothing at all. That poor, blind pile of cogs.”
“He thinks what runs him is reason but that is a conceit,” the Tyrant said gleefully. “That will sting, when the lie is stripped away. He thinks he’s above pride, you see, but that’s about all that’s left of him because he thinks everyone lives by his rules, Anaxares. Even if the ends aren’t the same, he thinks the means are.”
The boy’s good hand rose, fingers walking the arm of the throne like some small nimble creature. The odd-eyed villain snapped his fist shut instead of walking it off.
“Just like that,” he said. “Plot and plan and seize a crown at the end, even if this one isn’t really a crown. More like an agreement, and you know I have a weakness for those. The old Emperors, they got it. That the Empire was the tool, not the aim. But in his little head Praes is the centre of the world, and as long as he thinks like that Aoede is going to whip him again and again, if you’ll forgive my language.”
“She’s going to kill him,” the diplomat said.
“Of course not, my beauteous blooming flower,” the Tyrant tutted. “Nothing so crass. She’s going to hurt him. And when the cold thing turns into a wounded animal, well, that’s when he starts making mistakes.”
“And the third person is you,” Anaxares said. “Pulling all the strings.”
Kairos turned to him then, and the smile on his face was one of pure and childlike joy. The Bellerophan had never seen anything half so terrifying.
“Gotcha,” he said, like a child pulling a prank.
The cripple shivered under the setting sun, his face almost feverish.
“I heard a story about one of the first kings of Helike, once,” he said. “His father had gathered a great menagerie of animals, it goes. Peacocks and great lizards, gazelles and aurochs from all over Calernia and beyond. And one lion as well, brought in as a cub. It lived in a cage all its life, fed choice cuts of meat meant behind bars. So the first thing that king did, when he took the throne, was open all the doors.”
The Tyrant hummed.
“I heard a lot of reasons why he might have done that,” the odd-eyed boy said. “Revenge on a father who cared more for animals than him, getting rid of expensive frivolity and even because he believed caging animals was wrong. I think, though, that I understand him. Just a little.”
Kairos leaned forward.
“I think what he wanted was to see if a lion was still a lion, having lived in a cage all its life,” he confided. “I think he just… wanted to see what would happen.”
“What did?” Anaxares asked, tone rough.
“The lion slaughtered them all,” the Tyrant of Helike grinned, and the red in his eye was an endless sea of blood. “Nature tells, my friend. Nature always tells.
The boy’s grinned widened, long and sharp and pearly white.
“I wonder what your nature is, Hierarch.”
It was a title and a curse, the ruling seat of the League that had only once been filled since the founding.
It was all these things, but most of all it was a Name.