Chapter 34: Talks

“Tonight we must speak of Callow, that stubborn graveyard of empires. Princes and princesses of Procer, we must now admit this truth: we have lost an entire kingdom to peasants and bandits.”
– Beginning of First Princess Éloïse of Aequitan’s speech to the Highest Assembly, on the subject of withdrawal from occupied Callow

“HAIL!”

Three thousand swords rose in salute, bare steel shining under the sun. I’d read about this, in what few records of the knightly orders still remained. A steel avenue, they called it. An old tradition born under Elizabeth Alban when the Queen of Blades had annexed almost a fourth of what was now Procer in a series of lightning-quick campaigns. It had only ever been used to honour ruling kings and queens of Callow, and now I was being greeted with one. The bluntness of that defiance was almost refreshing, since they had no idea I’d just been granted vicequeenship of the Callow. I’d talked a good game to the Empress, but I wasn’t unaware that by founding the Order of Broken Bells I’d saddled a hungry tiger. Now I had to ride it, or be dragged down and devoured. I wondered if rulers ever truly managed to be in control, sometimes. Malicia and Black certainly gave off the impression they were, but how much of that was a front? The more authority I gained the less I felt like I held the reins.

Brandon Talbot looked better than he had last time I’d seen him, a filthy prisoner in the underground gaols of Marchford. His dark beard was cropped closely, his hair combed with care and he now stood with his back straight. Proudly. I had no trouble believing a woman like the Countess Marchford had thought he would make a worthy successor to her title. His plate was of Callowan make, of lesser steel than what the Imperial forges could make but covered in hymns of the House of Light. Old, it was easy to tell, but recently polished and very well-maintained. There was no telling it had been used in battle a mere few days ago, much less against the likes of the Summer Court. I strode down the steel avenue and he fell in at my side.

“I hear congratulations are in order,” I said.

The man inclined his head.

“I will only remain as Grandmaster of the order for a few years, Your Grace,” he replied. “Until a younger candidate can be raised to take the title.”

He’d been elected by acclaim, as I understood it, in large part because he’d been the one mad enough to walk into Marchford unarmed back when Juniper was running it. That kind of risk-taking always earned some respect from soldiers, in my experience, especially with the kind of stakes he’d been playing for. Another hail sounded when we passed the end of the twin rows, headed for open pavilion that was the command tent for the Order of Broken Bells. A pair of tall banners trailed the wind to the sides, showing a pair of cracked bronze bells set on black.

“We would have flown your banner as well, Your Grace, but your quartermaster informed us you have none,” he said.

I kinda wished I’d been there for that conversation, Ratface of all people trying to explain to a highborn that I might have a demesne but I’d not actually bothered to get any of the symbols a proper noble considered their due.

“Never got around to it,” I said, entering the pavilion.

Robber had put a goat skull on a pike and tried to pass it for my heraldry, but Hakram had him assigned to latrine duty for a week in reprisal. Ah, Adjutant. He’d taken to my petty kind of justice like a wolf to a limping lamb.

“House Talbot has been dissolved, but it would be an honour for you to claim our sigil,” the man suggested.

An arched silver bridge set on blue, if I remembered correctly. There was worst heraldry to be had – the rulers of Hedges had sheep as theirs, which boggled my mind – but it wasn’t mine.

“That won’t be necessary,” I said politely.

No wine at the table in here. Right. Callowans didn’t usually start drinking until the evening, and and it wasn’t even noon yet. Even if the knights had been dispersed in the countryside for over two decades, I couldn’t help but notice their chairs were nicer than mine. Except the one I’d looted from Summer, anyway. That one was sinfully comfortable and I actually slept better in it than my own cot. I took the seat at the head at the table and Grandmaster Talbot seated himself at my right. I slapped down a sheath of leather on the table and took out the parchments within, Aisha’s beautiful Lower Miezan cursive filling it.

“You’ve officially been granted the rank of commander in the Fifteenth Legion, Grandmaster Talbot,” I said. “You’ve got more three times the men under you a commander usually does but you don’t qualify for legate rank, much less general.”

“Because I am Callowan,” he smiled thinly.

“Because you never went through the War College,” I corrected. “You don’t know shit about Legion tactics. You’ll still counted as a member of the general staff, though, so you’ll be in the high-level briefings as the commander of our cavalry contingent.”

Aisha had bitterly complained about the bureaucratic nightmare that was getting a mere commander that kind of clearance, but she’d gotten it done anyway. I could have just waved around my seal and gotten it done on my personal authority as the Squire, but I didn’t want to go that far unless I was forced to. Juniper already gave me enough lectures about how far we’d strayed from traditional Legion structure, and it would look better to the rest of the generals out there if I at least pretended I cared about the proper way things were done. The noble read through the papers, then glanced up.

“This states I have been given leave to organize the Order’s command hierarchy as I wish,” he said.

“The Empire doesn’t have a precedent for a cavalry contingent this large,” I said. “Even the Thirteenth Legion only has a thousand riders.”

He nodded slowly.

“Knightly orders were limited to a thousand full-fledged knights, under House Fairfax,” Grandmaster Talbot said. “One of the reasons there was such a wide variety.”

I was a little amused he was tiptoeing around the reason for that. Under the Alban dynasty the orders had been much larger, but there’d been a bunch of small-scale conflicts between them and nobles, both sides arguing the other was overreaching their authority. Triumphant had razed the whole squabble to the ground, but when it had begun to pop up under Eleanor Fairfax’s grandson he’d stripped the orders of their fortress holdings and severely limited their size. A dozen of small orders was a lot less dangerous to the nobility than three or four large ones, and easier to fold under the command of the crown when invaders came knocking. Traditionally it was the crown prince or princess who’d held command, a tradition that ended when Juniper’s mother had shattered the charges of the Shining Prince at the Fields of Streges right before a goblin slit his throat.

“Banners of a thousand,” Brandon finally said. “Under my ultimate command. We still have many squires in our ranks, and a single battle was not enough to season them.”

“Get it written properly,” I ordered. “And get the parchments to Staff Tribune Bishara before nightfall. She’ll be expecting them.”

“A very talented woman,” Talbot said approvingly.

There was a look in the man’s eyes I wasn’t unfamiliar with. Well, Aisha was exceedingly pretty. I doubted she’d be interested in a Callowan twice her age, but him looking wouldn’t hurt anyone as long as he kept it mannerly.

“A detachment of five hundred could be arranged to serve as your personal guard,” he said, putting away the parchments.

“I already have a retinue,” I said, raising an eyebrow. “Red shields, golden noose on them? They’re hard to miss.”

“The ‘Gallowborne’, yes,” he said. “Criminals and Praesi.”

“I’ve trained a lot of them myself,” I said calmly. “On foot, I’d put any of them against three of yours. I doubt there’s any company on Calernia that’s been through rougher fights.”

“They’re sharp men, I’m sure,” the Grandmaster said. “But a match for five hundred knights of Callow?”

I drummed my fingers against the table.

“The Gallowborne,” I said, forcing the calm to stay even as the temperature in the pavilion descended sharply, “are my retinue. They’ve been mine since I snatched them from the gallows, Talbot. They’ve bled for me. They’ve died for me. And they will remain at my side until they can no longer serve.”

I was uncomfortable with how possessive that had sounded, and the bearded man did not speak of the matter any further.  Eager for a change of subject, I cleared my throat.

“You told Adjutant you needed to speak with me,” I said.

There was a reason it wasn’t Hakram handing him the paperwork, and it wasn’t because I’d been looking for a sword salute. Though I wasn’t complaining I’d gotten one, either.

“There are matters it has been brought to my attention you left unfinished, Your Grace,” he said. “I understand we are at war, but they still need to be dealt with in haste.”

I leaned against the back of my chair.

“I’m listening,” I allowed.

“House Foundling,” he said, and grimaced. “Forgive me, but that it an orphan’s name. It is not fit for the ruling dynasty of Callow.”

“What a funny coincidence,” I drawled. “I am an orphan.”

“You share that name with thousands of others,” he said. “Your Grace, you must consider the difficulties this will cause. Taking a reigning name is in order.”

I drummed my fingers against the table, again. A sliver of my opinion of this whole bullshit must have shown on my face, because the knight had to repress a flinch.

“As of last night, I am the Vicequeen of Callow by official sanction of Her Dread Majesty Malicia, First of Her Name,” I said. “Not queen, though. My successor to the title will be chosen by the Tower, when I see fit to surrender that position. There’s no need for a fancy dynastic name.”

“Your Grace-“ he began.

“The title will remain in Callowan hands,” I interrupted flatly. “Compromise was reached. Leave it at that. To be frank, Talbot, you’re not really qualified to weigh in about the shit that goes on that high up. I’ve survived dealing with the High Lords by stabbing them repeatedly and publicly until they got cautious. They would swallow you whole and spit out your bones.”

He seemed a little offended by the brusqueness of that, but he’d have to make his peace with it. What I’d said was very much true. If I put this poor bastard in a room with Akua Sahelian she’d have him on permanent puppet strings before a quarter hour had passed.

“Your line will still rule Marchford in perpetuity,” he said. “The name matters, Your Grace.”

I rubbed the bridge of my nose.

“I became Named as Catherine Foundling,” I said flatly. “I will die with that name as well.”

“There must be records of your birth parents,” he tried desperately. “A Deoraithe name will not be as well received, but it is still something.”

“As far as I’m concerned, the closest thing I’ll ever have to a father is down south killing fools,” I replied coldly. “And he doesn’t have a last name. Born a farmer, you see. As for the people who birthed me, they are strangers. I owe them nothing and will take nothing from them.”

The man bit his tongue, but it was clear he wanted to argue.

“I am not a noble, Talbot,” I said. “I don’t really like them, as a rule. No offence meant to you in particular. I’ve bled for every inch of power I have, and the notion of anybody just… inheriting theirs has grown repulsive to me. There will be no restoration of highborn power in Callow.”

“You will still reign, Your Grace,” he said. “You must realize that certain measures have to be taken to cement your legitimacy.”

I peered at him closely, and read the deeper hesitation there.

“Oh Gods,” I said. “You want me to get married.”

“The baron of Hedges has a son your age,” he pressed on. “All the branches of House Fairfax were exterminated after the Conquest, but there are remains of other ancient lines. Duchess Kegan is the foremost remaining Callowan noble, and a direct marriage alliance with the House of Iarsmai through a cousin would yield great benefits.”

“You can’t be serious,” I said, mildly horrified.

“I am given to understand you might prefer the company of women,” he said delicately. “There are certain miracles known to the House of Light that could make such an arrangement feasible.”

“I go both ways,” I replied faintly. “But that’s not the issue here. I have a – I’m not looking for anyone, Talbot.”

“I have heard that you keep company with a Duni, yes,” he hinted. “You would not be the first ruler of Callow to keep a paramour, if you’ll forgive my crassness.”

Merciless Gods. I was eighteen, so I supposed in the eyes of the remaining nobles I was fair game in the marriage alliance market. Callowans got married a lot later than Praesi, since unlike the Wastelanders we didn’t actually breed bloodlines, but nobles did tend to be ahead of the curve in that regard.

“That’s not happening,” I said flatly. “And this conversation is over.”

I wasn’t getting saddled with a lordling or a child anytime soon, no matter what people might want. I honestly wasn’t sure I wanted to ever have kids, and even if I did make that decision down the line it wouldn’t be to pat some fucking aristocrats on the back. There were a lot of things I was willing to bargain with, but who shared my bed wasn’t one of them. Brandon Talbot’s lips thinned, but he did not argue.

“I’ll get heraldry done,” I sighed, throwing him a bone as I rose to my feet. “Get the paperwork to Aisha, Grandmaster. We’ll speak again at the staff meeting.”

I could not get out of that pavilion quickly enough.

I’d chosen to hold this meeting under the stars, since I felt most comfortable at night these days. The bonfire crackled, flames high and occasionally licking at the roots of the tall oak that oversaw our little quiet corner of Creation. Masego had slapped down some complicated-looking wards the moment he’d arrived, not even bothering to vocalize an incantation. His new Name came with some perks apparently. I took a moment to let this all settle in. It was the first time all five of us were in the same place, in Creation at least.

Archer was seated on a wide branch above us, because she never wasted an occasion to literally look down on everyone else, and with a knife in hand she was carving what looked like like a sphere out of dark wood. Her ochre skin looked ever darker at night, and though she’d left her longcoat and silver mail behind in favour of a woollen brown tunic and trousers, she’d kept the dark green scarf that she usually covered her lower face with around her neck. I had a much better look at the curves on her, without the armour on, and she winked when she saw me looking. I turned away. Because it was in Archer’s nature to be a bloody pest at all times, she made a point out of dropping the wood shavings on Masego’s head until he got tired of asking her to stop and put up a translucent pane of sorcery over his head.

Hierophant himself looked… strange. Familiar yet different. He wore a black cloth blindfold over his glass eyes, but sometimes bits of red and yellow light could be glimpsed through it. His hair was still long and braided but the shining trinkets he’d once worn in them had been replaced by dull bars of iron carved with runes. His  usually colourful robes had been traded a black tunic that made him look like a chubby crow when he was sitting, but actually lent him something of a presence when he was on his feet. The Legion-issue boots were an amusing last touch to the ensemble, worn down as they were. His fingers kept twitching, as if to reach out for something no one else could see.

Hakram sat at his side, his heavy plate made something else entirely by the ravages of the battles we’d been through. The goblin steel had been darkened by Summer flame, twisted by heat not of Creation, and though it still fit with padding under the metal the appearance reminded me of the steps leading to the Tower. The obsidian that had been warped by sorcery, shaped into silhouettes of weeping men and women one must tread on to rise. Adjutant had gone through the crucible of fire and become stronger for it. His Name pulsed steady to my senses, firm yet oddly serene. His hand of bones was eerily still, reeking of dark sorcery anchored into his very Name. His eyes were dark and still as ponds, the fangs glinting in firelight still bloody from his supper.

Thief sat across the fire from me. I’d never been in her presence long enough to notice before, but she didn’t hold herself like a commoner. I’d had etiquette lessons at the orphanage and I recognized the same marks on her, in the way she kept her wrists straight and her back as if leaning against a high chair. Her leathers were loose, but I could tell we shared a body shape. She was taller than me, since it was basically divine mandate that everyone but goblins be, but not by as much as the other. Dark hair and blue-grey eyes that were always moving, always looking for movement. Pale fingers were toying with a carving knife that was clearly sapper issue: she has wandering hands, this one, and a habit of picking up knickknacks. Must have been part of her Name, because it seemed too compulsive for a mere habit.

Five Named were sitting around the fire. That was, I knew, no small thing. Even more now that Ranger had tossed us a name, turning the curse of the Queen of Summer into something more. The Woe, she’d called us. It had felt like a pivot then and still did now, the beginning of something larger. What it would be, I was almost scared to find out. Hakram tossed up a wineskin at Archer, which was enough to distract her from pissing off Masego for a bit. I took that as my cue to begin.

“So, on our first outing together we robbed Summer of what appears to be its literal sun, before capturing a princess of the blood,” I said. “I’m not one for omens, but it strikes me as a good note to begin on.”

“Lies and violence,” Archer cheered, dropping the wineskin on Masego’s shield.

The Soninke mage snatched it, taking a gulp and coughing when it went down the wrong pipe. Apparently a fresh Name didn’t mean he could handle drink any better. Good to know. I felt Thief glance at me, raising any eyebrow at what Archer had said.

“Archer is a horrid wench, and whatever she says about mottos is not to be trusted,” I stated.

“Well, it’s still better than sullen,” the Named in question mused.

There was a heartbeat of silence.

“I expected something more… professional,” the Thief finally said.

I raised an eyebrow.

“Did the Lone Swordsman run that kind of crew?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“No,” the heroine conceded, “but your band was a step ahead of us the whole time. I always thought it would be rather business-like, on your side.”

“You thought we were a step ahead?” Masego croaked, wiping his mouth.

Hakram snorted.

“We strolled from one disaster to another, trying to keep the fires from spreading,” the orc said, sounding amused. “Mostly fires not of our making, I’ll add.”

“Haven’t been in this outfit for long,” Archer said, “but it hasn’t struck me as overburdened with plans.”

“That’s going a little far,” I intervened, mildly offended.

“We got into Skade by writing on a scrap of parchment that we could, Catherine,” she pointed out. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m on board with our whole ‘that’s stupid enough they’ll never see it coming’ way of going at it. But masterful schemers we are not.”

“You had us dead to rights at Summerholm,” Thief frowned.

“We only understood what was happening after the city was on fire,” Masego said.

“And we got blamed for that, after,” Hakram added.

“Everything in Liesse unfolded according to your plan,” Thief tried.

“Arguably. Though she did get killed,” Adjutant said.

Archer’s eyes swerved to me.

“Wait, you died? Have you been undead this while time?” she asked. “You don’t look it.”

“Resurrected,” I replied.

She looked even more dubious.

“You’re a villain, Cat,” she said. “That’s not exactly in your wheelhouse.”

“Yeah, the Hashmallim weren’t real pleased about it either,” I grunted. “They threw a fucking fit.”

“Is that how that happened?” Thief frowned. “I did wonder. You talked a Choir into breathing second life into you?”

“Talked is a strong word,” I mused.

“We;ve settled on ‘bullied’,” Hierophant contributed helpfully.

“You bullied,” the Thief said slowly, “the entire Choir of Contrition. Into resurrecting a villain actively trying to oppose them.”

“Not even the Lady of the Lake fucks around with angels,” Archer said approvingly. “That’s actually impressive.”

“Don’t bring Ranger into this,” I grunted. “She came a heartbeat away from slicing my throat open the only time we met.”

“Oh, she’s always like that,” the other woman dismissed. “Don’t take it personally. She once threw Tinkles out a window for hitting on a trader girl instead of practicing his stances.”

“I’m glad he was sloppy, then,” I admitted. “Hunter was hard enough to put down as he was.”

Thief blinked, then looked up at the woman on the branch.

“I forgot,” she said. “You are an apprentice of the Ranger as well. You must have known him well.”

“He was only around for a few years before joining up with your little rebellion,” Archer shrugged. “Of the Lady’s five pupils he was always the odd one out. Not surprised he ran off, though it was still monumentally stupid.”

“He was,” Thief began, looking for a diplomatic word, “different.”

“Half-naked,” I said. “Half-naked is the term you’re looking for.”

“I never minded the sights, Catherine,” Archer grinned. “The man had a body worth a stare. The bells, though, and the tattoos? Gods, it was like he was trying to ruin his looks.”

“The tattoos weren’t a Refuge tradition?” Thief asked, looking surprised.

“Is that what he said?” Archer snorted. “No, they aren’t.”

Masego cleared his throat politely.

“This conversation is both baffling and horribly tedious to me,” he informed us. “I believe you were addressing us, Catherine?”

“Right,” I said, and immediately delegated. “Hakram.”

The tall orc straightened, putting aside the wineskin he’d been hogging this whole time. Thief had thawed a bit when we talked, but her guard went right back up when she turned to him. There was story there, I thought. Adjutant must have had one of his little talks with her at some point. I trusted him, so I wouldn’t meddle, but I’d have some questions to ask my second.

“We currently have two threats that must be dealt with,” Hakram gravelled. “The first is Summer Court and its queen. The second is Akua Sahelian, lately the Diabolist.”

“The villain that let the devils loose on Liesse,” Thief said, eyes gone cold.

“That’s the one,” I said. “And believe me, devils are some of the milder stuff she’s thrown at us in the past. You’ve gone to the city yourself, I hear. You saw what she’s up to.”

“Some sort of ritual,” the skinny Callowan said. “It involves Deoraithe that are part of the Watch, and that’s about all I know.”

I glanced at Masego, who somehow picked up on it. That was going to keep being creepy for a while.

“While I’ve not conducted such experiments myself, I’ve read the notes my father has on the Watch,” the mage said. “They are connected to a deity of unknown nature, and gain their supernatural abilities by binding themselves to it through rituals they call Oaths.”

“Our best guess at the moment is that the Diabolist is trying to get at the deity through them,” I said.

“Considering the massive size of the array she created in the city,” Masego said, “she will need at least a lesser god to empower it. The scale of the effect might be comparable to that of the creation of the Kingdom of the Dead.”

“Liesse is also currently flying,” Hakram said. “Which will make it difficult to assault. That aside, the city’s current location is a mystery.”

I met Thief’s eyes.

“I’ll have my people look into it,” she said.

I nodded.

“Much as I hate giving Akua a reprieve, she’s not the most pressing threat at the moment,” I said. “Summer’s out for blood, and its Queen will be crossing into Creation about a month from now. What we can do about her is not inspiring. Masego?”

The dark-skinned mage smiled thinly.

“Given at least three days of preparation, I can buy us a quarter bell before she breaks through my wards and massacres every single one of us,” he said.

“That’s reassuring,” Thief said cuttingly.

“Not great, I’ll admit, but we still have two cards in hand,” I said. “First we have the Princess of High Noon, which she really needs if she doesn’t want to get knifed by Winter after we’re all dead. And we have the sun, courtesy of your kleptomania.”

Thief looked faintly amused, but did not reply.

“So,” I smiled. “We’ve got the whole night, and wine I really doubt was legally acquired. Let’s see if we can think of something to avoid dying horrible, horrible deaths. The floor’s open, my friends.”

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93 thoughts on “Chapter 34: Talks

    1. sheer_falacy

      I think that’s going to be nontrivial, since Assassin isn’t exactly around them a lot. Or is in disguise for it, which is equivalent for us.

      Like

    2. stevenneiman

      In Ranger’s first interlude, all of the Calamities except possibly Assassin were in one room together. However, I have no idea if Assassin was there, and I don’t think Scribe was. There was also the Name dream where Black first met Wekesa before he was the Warlock, but I don’t think that any of the others were there.

      Like

  1. Adarsh

    I wonder how Ranger stacks up against her mother.

    And honestly the fact that he is confident about holding off a god for any period of time tells me his power has increased quite a bit.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. stevenneiman

      I think he’s at his strongest against anything that vaguely resembles a god, capital or lower case g. Besides, that’s with preparation, and he hadn’t even HAD the Name long enough to prepare anything with it when he first went up against the Queen of Summer.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. JK

    Hearing it in their words, the way Cat and friends have managed to pull things together seems suspiciously like the divine providence that we keep hearing about and keeps heroes working. Plus the resurrection… there might be something more afoot than just being skilled.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We already know that this is Cat’s Story, because we’re reading it. It’s a Story about Stories being pitted against one another to fit an atypical Story. There has to be the overarching Guidelines to the story, but the Story itself takes a new shape. So, you take the parts that are normally in a Story, and fit them into the Structure in a strange way to build yourself a new one. We have the team build now, and there has to be some plot armor, because this is Cat’s show.

      Liked by 6 people

    2. Gunslinger

      Stories aren’t limited to heroes alone though the heavens do cheat quite a bit. If you remember the formation of the Calamities had a lot of providence in it. Essentially I guess if you’re role has narrative weight then you can twist fate around to augment it

      Liked by 1 person

    3. sheer_falacy

      They’re being kind of self deprecating about it. Yes, there’s a lot of improvisation, but they absolutely do make plans and put effort into them. They got into Skade with a handwritten note because they thought about how the Fae would respond to a handwritten note, not because they randomly tried it.

      There is some amount of “this is Cat’s story” at work, but a lot of it manifests in the form of competent people putting effort into winning. The fact that they banter is not mutually exclusive with it.

      Also, Lies and Violence can be a pretty effective strategy.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Dana

        They’re the protagonists of the story… and they’re getting the kind of breaks that protagonists get. Heroes typically also have to make plans and put effort into them to win, despite the whining.

        The meta-irony is on point.

        Liked by 1 person

    4. amc

      is that an intentional impression? (I mean, yes, it’s accurate; but are the Woe being explicit about it to gain “rag-tag-band-of-….” status?)

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  3. Mmmmm… tasty, tasty. Vicequeen, Lady of House Foundling…-happysigh- Thank you for the chapter.

    A few notes:
    …Juniper already gave me enough lectures about how fare ((far)) we’d strayed from traditional Legion structure, and it would look better to the rest of the generals out there if I at least pretended I cared about the proper way things were done…

    Simple typo.

    …There will be no restauration ((restoration)) of highborn power in Callow.”…

    Ditto, unless highborn power resides in their high class restaurants? -g-

    …But masterful schemers were ((, we)) are not…

    Lost comma and a typo. -tease- So many unneeded oxford commas all over the place and you could not spare one for where it was necessary? -g-

    …One ((Out of)) the Lady’s five pupils ((,)) he was always the odd one out…

    Awkward phrasing, it feels like you meant to phrase it one way but changed midztram. I put another mid-dialogue comma in there, as both grammar and the pause heard when speaking it naturally agreed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. stevenneiman

      “the fangs [glinting->that glinted] in firelight still bloody from his supper” As it stood, the sentence was saying that the firelight was bloody, not his fangs
      “The first is {the} Summer Court and its queen”

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    2. Dana

      Interesting: Cat is way more deferential to the Juniper & “Legion way of doing things” than she is to Calloway’s. Probably because it doesn’t cost her anything.

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      1. stevenneiman

        Juniper’s telling her that she’s a soldier and should act like it. Even if that’s inconvenient it’s also reasonable. Talbot was telling her that because she’s sort of a noblewoman she needs to prioritize her people’s dumbest expectations above her own happiness.

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    3. AVR

      A few more typos

      There was worst heraldry
      There was worse heraldry

      You’ll still counted
      You’re still counted

      A dozen of small orders
      A dozen small orders (or ‘A dozen of these small orders’)

      raising any eyebrow
      raising an eyebrow

      There was story there,
      There was history there,

      the Princess of High Noon, which
      the Princess of High Noon, who

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  4. Big Brother

    Thief and Archer are the best additions to the story since Masego was introduced. And to have them working together with Cat now, openly, is so great. The thought of the Chaos to come has kept me smiling for the better part of a week.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Nafram

      Personally, I would’ve liked to see Robber as a Named and part of The Woe, but I suppose this may be for the best. I just hope that the rest of Cat’s High Command don’t get shoved into obscurity. They deserve a fair share of the spotlight too

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Big Brother

        Well, we know Juniper survives the upcoming Uncivil Wars, and probably has an important place at Cat’s side as her strategist.
        Robber is probably the Cat version of Marshal Ranker. An impossibly old goblin leading an extremely dangerous Legion. All goblin sappers, knowing Robber, each almost as crazy as him.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. stevenneiman

        I think Robber will be the Woes’ sixth ranger, same as Eudokia is to the Calamities. Whether he’ll take on a secret goblin Name, develop a new Name like several of the Woes have, or just remain a badass without one is yet to be seen.

        Like

  5. Gunslinger

    Haha Thief’s induction was great to read. Also I’m curious to know what the “miracle” that Talbot suggested was.

    By the way in Thief’s dialogue it says Choir of Compassion. I think it should be Contrition.

    Like

    1. I’m betting that miracle is just supposed to make sure that Catherine would be able to _actually_ impregnate a lady. Keeping the bloodline alive if she wasn’t willing to compromise to a purely political marriage with a male.

      And of course, if she would actually care for that.

      Liked by 5 people

  6. This is completely unrelated to this chapter (haven’t read it yet, even), but can someone please point me to the chapters or storyline where Catherine and Aisha had their falling out? I missed that somehow and it’s messing up my reading.

    Like

    1. Jonnnney

      They didn’t have a falling out. Catherine is Catherine and it is Aisha’s job to manage the Praesi political side of the 15th and that is a stressful damn job.

      Like

    2. stevenneiman

      Cat had a falling out with Kilian over the issue of using human sacrifices to power a spell that would fix her fae problems (By either turning her all human or all fae, I forget which), and to my recollection she’s still on good terms with Aisha.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Nafram

    It’s going to be tough for Talbot to adapt, but he’ll come around, I believe. After all, he was the one who dared offer the Knights to Cat.
    Of more import is that plans, beautiful plans are being crafted and preparations are underway. I’m looking forward to see the Woe in action

    Like

  8. This isn’t the first time you made me laugh. Not chuckle or grin, but laugh. But this is the first time you had me sit down to read & laugh instead of dropping my tablet and ROFLOL. Damn fine writing.

    Like

  9. Letouriste

    Honestly when we have been presented to thief in summerhold(must be there that the queen will appear,just for the irony) I didn’t thought much of her.now I think you managed to make her a good character:) she is interesting,really interesting

    Like

  10. James, Mostly Harmless

    Now that Cat’s army has escaped from Summer and has a respite from marching and battle, I hope that we get to see recent events from Duchess Kegan’s and Marshal Ranker’s perspectives. Kegan already thought that Cat was a monster, and that was before she defeated a Summer Princess and stared down Summer’s Queen!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shequi

      If I were designing Catherine’s Heraldry (and I am…), I’d use the (undead) Horse and Goat as the Supporters, not as a Charge.

      The themes you would want to bring out on such a shield would be the associations with (Goblin)fire and the (moonless) night. Something like:

      “Divided per Fess Flamme, Sable et Vert, the division inferior by one fifth. In Chief an Annulet Argent Luna in Eclipse flanked by two Mullet Argent”

      In simple terms, a Shield, divided horizontally into Black (upper) and Green (lower), the dividing line being 2/5ths of the way up the shield and stylised as flames. In the upper half the moon in an eclipse flanked by two stars.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jonnnney

        I think you would need to have the broken remains of Angel, Demon, Faerie, Hero and Villain involved in some way. In needs to be something that evokes the sentiment, “Whether they be gods or kings or all the armies in creation.”

        Liked by 2 people

  11. Jworks

    Do we know how many of the 5 have transitional Names? Obviously Catherine and Masego (previously), but what about archer, adjutant, and thief?

    Like

    1. RandomFan

      I believe, though I may be mistaken, that all the listed party members do not have truly transitional names. Then again, Heiress was a far more active threat when she had a transitional name, outright setting what is the second most dangerous monster on a city. I’m probably subconciously judging by power manifest, which is wrong.

      I don’t know what they’d transition to, though.

      Like

      1. RandomFan

        I feel that Archer is transitional towards Ranger, but only in the same way that Black Knight, Chancellor, presumably Warlock, and Diabolist all can transition into Emperor/Empress. I might be over-estimating Archer here, or over-estimating the inherent power of Ranger’s name, (that while most Rangers are not Ranger, they have their own things to offer) but those are my thoughts on the matter.

        The same applies to the others at the campfire- there are transitions available, but the names themselves aren’t designed to grow into something more. Thief could steal a crown, Adjutant could become Commander, and so on- but all of that is optional, and the names are at mature power levels already- except for Adjutant, as a new name, and possibly Hierophant, as an obscure name. Both might need more time to build fame to be a fair match for things like Diabolist or Tyrant on power alone.

        That’s just my interpretation though, I may be wrong.

        Like

    2. stevenneiman

      I’m pretty sure that everyone except Cat has permanent Names now. All of the transitional Names we’ve seen so far have been clearly transitional just from what they’re called. A Squire is an attendant to be mentored by the Knight and presumably someday become a Knight him/herself. A Heiress is someone in line to claim a title, and an Apprentice is of course someone who learns from a master to do the same thing they did.
      Now that Masego has made the transition from Apprentice to Heirophant, I’m pretty sure that the Squire is the only one who’s still got a transitional Name. Adjutant, Thief, and Archer all seem like things that someone could be their entire life after they’ve become them, and if anything Heirophant seems like an old hero or villain’s Name, which fits the way that Masego will grow into it. I actually suspect that Heirophant is the most dangerous of the Woes in the long run, since I’m pretty sure he has either Learn or an Aspect that has the same potential like Dissect or Analyze, and while it might be harder for him to find appropriate test subjects, I expect him to make up for it in the sheer power that they provide him.

      Like

  12. Jabes

    So, while I have been reading the comments a lot, one stray thought has occurred to me that I have not seen mentioned at all… what would happen to an emperor or empress with a trustworthy chancellor? Namely, the chancellor is supposed to rule, think about who has been ruling this entire time… and we know his time as the black knight is limited, but maybe not his time alive, even freeing the name for his apprentice…?
    Other than that, I have enjoyed the series the entire time, but this past book has been amazing! Thank you!

    Like

    1. RandomFan

      I bet that Amadeus would rather die than become Chancellor- but he’s okay with making a sacrifice to achieve his ambitions, so it’s not inconceivable.

      Like

      1. Morgenstern

        Far as I remember it was stated somewhere that Black is acting as the actual *Emperor* and Malicia is the one who would fit the role of Chancellor, even though she is the Empress by Name…

        Like

      2. Morgenstern

        Which would fit to the Bard lately calling him out on it, saying he should “just kill this little friend of yours” and sit on the throne himself, at home, until someone stabs him in the back, aka ‘end the charade’ because ‘you’re not as good at this [storytelling /-twisting] as you thought’…

        Like

      3. Jabes

        Why would he rather die? He has been ruling already, he has been doing a lot of “meta” work (by which I mean he has worked to reform bureaucracy, the military, laws, and even taxes), and it would allow him to really reign in the power of the nobles. He has not personally led the legions except in very specific cases since Malicia was confirmed as the Dread Empress, even, so it would be more like what he is now, other than the hero hunting. It would even be a great way to hand things off to Cat.

        Like

      4. RandomFan

        Because Amadeus has a distinct disdain for politics with nobles, the very bread and blood of the Chancelor role, and while he has the gifts for it, it’s probably a very distasteful option. The thing is, he wants to do something that is incredibly out of character for a Chancelor, I’m pretty sure just from listening to it: Nuke all the nobility.

        I mean, he wouldn’t be bad at it, but it has a lot of the things that make him angry in its very core, even if it is an option.

        Like

    2. stevenneiman

      The problem, though, is that Black and Malicia basically killed the Name, and made it a crowning achievement having done so. Besides, I’m pretty sure that the Role of Chancellor is to stab the Tyrant in the back, and while Black might be able to get away with setting up a coup so that the story will stumble because it expects him to follow through, i don’t think he could pull it off it he did take the Name of Chancellor.

      Like

  13. nipi

    I fear Cat is on the path of committing the mistake of many great rulers – not leaving a competent heir/successor.

    If Malicia ever chooses the next viscount then the prosperity of Callow and its identity will not be high in her list of requirements.

    Like

    1. nipi

      @The Warren Peace NFL Report
      Happy yes. Callowan no.

      I doubt its in Malicias long term interests that callowans maintain a separate identity from the rest of her empire. Cat was opposed to having callowans turned into praesi.

      Like

      1. Shequi

        And yet Catherine is taking the route that the Empire already takes. The Soninke, Taghreb and Duni don’t think of themselves as less than Imperial citizens, but they are all distinct human ethnicities within the Empire.

        Cat’s method, applied properly, will have Imperial Callowans in short order; a distinctly Callowan grouping, but without any desire for independence.

        Like

    2. Fern

      You’re looking at it the wrong way. See, Cat is taking Black’s approach to politicking: namely, building institutions that hold up on their own without being babysitted by one Named man or woman. Cat’s trying to set it up to where even if Malicia picks the slimiest fuckboy in Callow she can find, Callow/Praes will still survive as an institution.

      Good nations survive because of good leadership. Great nations survive in spite of any leadership, good or bad.

      Liked by 5 people

    3. jonnnney

      Cat’s has a greater concern than appointing an Heir. She needs to fundamentally change the story of Praes and Callow. If she can create a story about Callow becoming a strong and fundamental part of the Empire and she can have an entire generation of Callowans who believe in such a story. Then a successor will occur naturally from the narrative just like the name of Adjutant appeared due to the reforms.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. Ben

    I get that you plan for the worst, but Catherine doesn’t seem to consider Ranger killing the Summer Queen a possibility. I wonder why that is. I get that there is a big step up from prince of Winter to the queen of summer, but the fact that Ranger can mine for jewelry from a winter prince’s eye socket should give Catherine some hope.

    Like

    1. ereshkigala

      Yeah, no. The Princes and Princesses were a major threat to Cat and friends, but one that could be fought and defeated. The Queen OTOH comes in and casually annihilates everything not shielded by Ranger without even trying.

      That’s an order of magnitude more power.

      Like

    2. RandomFan

      It probably does. The fact that *all Ranger took* was an eyeball should remove some of that hope. The queen would need to make Ranger kill her, or Ranger would need to want to, or the queen would need to be dangerous enough that fighting to maim wasn’t an option.

      Like

  15. I gave this some substantial thought before commenting,
    The miracle Talbot was suggesting can’t be something intended to target Cat directly. Talbot’s a Knight, and his training probably leaves him at least as aware as Cat that (using the example Cat herself used in Arcadia, when thinking about how nice it’d be to have a set of magic-countering armor like the knights have would like just leave her with charred skin from the House of Light prayers etched into said armor to give it its power) that Villain + House of Light miracle = Bad thing happening to the Villain.

    Talbot was also still recommending Cat marry a guy, despite thinking her being a lesbian would be the impediment to the production of an heir.

    There’s also the fact that Talbot didn’t suggest Cat marry a highborn woman. Propagating a bastard with a woman she isn’t married to wouldn’t really help the legitimacy thing.

    Wild as it may sound, I think Talbot was suggesting some (temporary) sort of gender-bending shenanigans. I can still think of stumbling blocks for that theory, but Talbot mentioning marriage to a highborn male that he doesn’t think Cat would bed as a lesbian for the purpose of cementing at least her bloodline for Marchford seems at cross-purposes.

    Like

    1. Fern

      seems pretty cut-and-dry here: this story’s world is much more lassez faire about same sex relationship, and nobles seek power through any means. To the young Talbot man, using a miracle to become a woman would be worth it if it meant s/he could marry the new ruling Queen of Callow.

      Like

      1. Or it could be a miracle that allows a lesbian couple to produce offspring, as discussed higher up in the comments. Becoming female wouldn’t really make Cat like you, I think; she’d consider it both an insult to her intelligence as well as a blatant attempt at manipulating her through her sexuality.

        Like

  16. Soronel Haetir

    The chapter I would love to see is Masego with Wekesa and Tikoloshe after the transition to Hierophant. Although with Wekesa off in the Free Cities and that campaign not looking so great for the Calamities I’m not sure that will actually come about.

    Like

    1. stevenneiman

      I expect that multiple of the Calamities will die, but I really do hope that if Wekesa is going to die he at least gets to have his proud father moment first.

      Like

  17. Al

    I get Cat protecting the Gallowborne but… she coulda folded 100 knights or so.
    Crop of the crop
    Call ’em “Gallowriders” or sth…
    Just my $0.02

    Love the Woe interaction, looking forward to meet their 6th ranger!

    Like

    1. jonnnney

      She is already on thin ice by creating the knightly order. If she puts them in her retinue then it will look that much more like a full on rebellion.

      Like

  18. Fern

    I like how Cat’s toolbox is a variation on Black’s, even though both are focused on having a wide toolbox. Black is more focused on removing obstacles and conquering/destroying objectives, so he gets the Calamaties (destruction) and Scribe (occupation). Cat is focused less on power and more about adaptability. Her whole group is geared towards projecting hard and soft power through improvisation and causing as much chaos (mostly by repurposing other people’s plans) as possible. That one of her first aspects was Take is telling, I honestly think Masego got Heirophant more as a result of Cat than anything else.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. RandomFan

      I might be able to agree, but he’s always had an interest in the otherworldly, so he also deserved it on his own merits. He was raised by an inhabitant of the hells, he’s been studying a demon, he’s probably been involved in dissecting at least one god- fae might be icing on the cake, and he might be more qualified and interested for having joined Cat, but he doubtless could have earned the title on his own merits, given time.

      If he was supposed to be with Diabolist in a “heroic cat” timeline, between the hells, the demons, the god and the fae, he’d probably wind up with it anyways, since he’d be seeing all the same stuff.

      Besides, Diabolist is taken, and he doesn’t seem like the sort for patricide.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Soronel Haetir

        Agreed that Masego’s not the sort for patricide, for one thing there is nothing that action would bring him that he wants that he could not obtain just as easily in some other way. And it would bring all sorts of trouble (even with graduating toHeirophant I believe he is still using his fathers and uncle Amadeus as a shield).

        Masego is simply far too much a bookworm to desire power for its own sake.

        Like

    2. jonnnney

      I think Masego was always on the path to get the Name Hierophant. He simply obtained the name much faster since he is allied with Catherine. Not only was he able to experience things that he would not have in his lab, the Queen of the Fae, The library of Winter, A demon of corruption, the corpse of an angel, etc. But he also gained the backing of a story. A different kind of Villainous group needs a different kind of Caster backing them up.

      Like

    3. stevenneiman

      Personally, I think it was kind of inevitable, considering his parentage. Wekesa didn’t really fit as the Warlock, he just took it because it was the most powerful magic-based Name available. He’d always been much more about the research and learning that the Name allowed him to do than the red skies that are his actual job as Warlock. Close enough for a guy who didn’t have anything better, but once Cat started spawning entirely new Names around her there was no way that Masego wasn’t getting in on the action, especially since he didn’t even have the chance to be a Warlock since his father was alive and well.

      Like

  19. I can’t help but shake my head at Catherine’s stubbornness here.

    I can understand being uncomfortable with a marriage, but accepting a dynastic name would be at least a little something to fulfill the cultural and political expectations of being a queen. Her ambitions for Callow to be a client state of Praes and not just a nation under foreign occupation are best served by working within the cultural and political context of Callow. This isn’t just stupid random bullshit, these are important cultural touchstones of the country that will help cement her rule on a psychological and cultural level.

    If she can’t swallow her pride and put down a few of her Legion trappings she should have had Kendal made Vicequeen with herself as governor. But instead she wants to accept the high profile symbolic title for herself without wanting to change herself to best make use of it.

    If she can’t start using soft power and keeps using violence for her solution to everything all she’s going to build in Callow are graveyards.

    Like

    1. Cicero

      Isn’t what Cat’s story is partly about? Doing things differently? Look at it from her perspective? She has seen only noble houses as mostly horrible way of governance, so the idea of building her own must disgust her. It would change her story from a nobody to a noble.

      Like

      1. Her deal is wanting to work within the existing Praesi system to make things better, and there’s no real reason not to apply that same thinking to Callow’s traditional political system. Or she could just try to brute force Callow into her own little despotism, but that’s not going to be the stable system she wants.

        And the entire point of joining Evil is doing things that she finds distasteful to achieve her goals. It’s kind of hypocritical to stop the buck here at having her own noble house when she’s already stepped over piles of corpses to get where she is.

        Like

    2. amc

      But, you forget that she’s trying to keep Malicia and the Tower friendly. It’s a different story if the ruling Empress names a martially-talented orphan as her governer-general (and then vice-queen), than if the Empress names a noble. ‘There is power in stories’, etc.

      Like

    3. OldSchoolVillain

      You realize that Cat took the title of Vice Queen because she was the only one Malicia would accept in the position, right? To put it in Story terms Cat is the Empress of Callow while Kendall is the Chancellor. Kendall runs the country while Cat sets out long-term sweeping policy, such as becoming a true piece of Praes. She doesn’t NEED to swallow her pride and become the perfect noblewoman because A) she has Asha to deal with them for her, and B) because she ISN’T trying to lay down a dynasty. Worst case scenario she goes to the nearest imperial orphanage and picks out a next-generation version of herself.
      That . . . actually might be interesting. A line of Foundling Squires and Black Knights in MarchFord, rather than a bloodline.

      Like

    4. Metrux

      It seems to me you’re quite the extremist. She isn’t. She isn’t even working towards having a line of succession, she just took the position to create a precedent, that both Callow is ruled by callowans, and the ruler is choosen by Praes, thus making them both conected while still maintaining Callowans culture. She DOESN’T wish to stay in this position for long, and neither to become a noble herself, so why bother with noble costumes?

      Like

  20. Honestly, the solution is easy. Get over her outrageous level of hypocrisy about Killian wanting to do the *exact same thing Cat’s done, REPEATEDLY* (Killing people to further her goals), and then reconcile with Killian. As Vicequeen, she can grant Killian a title, and marry her. THEN the House of Light could work their mojo on Killian.

    If all Cat wanted was to get sweaty, Archer would oblige her. So would many of the other human females in the 15th (few as they may be). Cat may not be a great beauty, but for women from Praes power is quite the aphrodisiac.

    Cat doesn’t seem heavy into the casual bed-buddy thing though. The numerous times she notes she’ll be going to bed alone, that her tent is empty, or that no one is waiting for her add up to her missing Killian IMHO.

    I think Killian wants Cat to prove she wants to be with her enough to bend on the use of sacrificed murderers and rapists. IMO, Killian is far more aware of the inherent double-standard Cat’s been applying. Cat’s outrage at the idea of humans sacrifice might’ve held more weight with Killian if the Squire hadn’t started a very bloody rebellion for use as a stepping stone.

    Like

    1. amc

      besides, i could have sworn that it was mentioned somewhere early on, that Cat is bisexual (not necessarily gay). I guess, the fact that the cast has only ever seen her with Killian, just gives the impression.

      Like

  21. The tragedy is that, at least as far as titles are concerned, Talbrot has a pretty solid point. The kind of chaos Callow has undergone, a few nods to tradition like that could be a much-needed stabilising factor. Inherited titles might be ripe for abuse, but they do at least tend to cause less rampant upheaval than “whatever you can claim by might is yours by right,” something I suspect Callow would appreciate.

    Like

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