Chapter 35: Questions

“To bargain with devils is to paint with your own blood: the greater the work, the harsher the price.”
– Dread Empress Maleficent II

I shivered in discomfort when I crossed the boundary into the prison. It felt wrong in a fundamental way, and if I’d not already gotten enough hints that becoming the Duchess of Moonless Nights had changed my nature in some eldtritch way this would have done the trick. There were worrying aspects to that. I’d already made sure that cold iron didn’t really hurt me more than any other kind, but Masego was of the opinion that spells crafted to affect entities not of Creation would sting a great deal more than they used to. Given that diabolism as a sorcerous discipline dealt with exactly that, I was going to have to take a few precautions before dealing with Akua. Who was now Diabolist. If she could be sure she could grab a godsdamned Hashmallim before even coming into the Name, she could deal with my bastardized fae title: those two things weren’t even close to being in the same league. I shook away the thought. The place where I now stood wasn’t another dimension, not exactly. The way Hierophant told it, if he was to keep the Princess of High Noon contained he very much needed for her to be in Creation.

Her power was lesser here, a large part of it surrendered to cross a threshold she did not belong on this side of. If she was in a pocket dimension, however, then all bets were off. Even after being robbed of the sun, Princess Sulia was absurdly powerful and she might just rip her ay through the wards with her bare hands if she needed to. So the prison my mages maintained was on Creation, a complicated array that had me reaching for a drink just to look at the plans of. I’d forced Masego to use progressively smaller splurges of magic babble until he found the right metaphor: the whole thing was a drain, more or less. A bunch of escapements had been attached to her that bled out power as quick as she regained it, dispersing it into Creation. The results weren’t pretty: the grounds around the prison were alarming to look at, a circle of land that grew, got overripe and died in the span of a dozen heartbeats. And then again, and again, and again.

Ratface had poked his nose in and asked whether the phenomenon could be used to accelerate crops, and gotten the reply that it could. But the crops would be, essentially, plant-shaped dust. And possibly poisonous as well, because why wouldn’t the fae make this as horrifying as possible? I’d left the quartermaster plotting with Pickler about possible uses for it, catching something about ‘targeting farmland’ but also ‘spoiling rations’. Should have expected that, really. It was the Praesi way to look at things best left not meddled with and ask ‘can we make a weapon out of this?’. That’s how you lot got the Wasteland, Ratface. They were still a step short of cackling and attempting to steal another country’s weather on the villain ladder, but I’d remind Hakram to keep an eye on those two anyway. The last thing I needed was a bunch of Summer-birthed plant monsters running amok in Callow when we finally gave the Courts the boot.

The Princess of High Noon was still hovering in the air, runic shackles on both her wrists and ankles. She was awake now though. Her hair was fire, much like Kilian’s when she drew too deep on sorcery, but that was where the resemblance ended. My… Senior Mage looked human, though more delicate in her bones than the average Duni. There was nothing mortal about the looks of Princess Sulia, though: she was power made flesh, a blind sculptor’s dream of what people would look like.

“My warden visits,” the Princess of High Noon said.

“That’d be Hierophant,” I replied easily. “Though I suppose the responsibility ultimately lies with me.”

“Have you come merely to equivocate, Duchess?” the fae said. “If so, spare me your presence. Better silence than your ramblings.”

“I came to talk,” I said. “I happen to have a few questions for you.”

“And I will indulge you in this?” the princess mocked.

“Could be I’ll have you tortured if you don’t,” I noted.

The mocking smile did not wane in the slightest.

“I have been under the knives of Winter across many, many lives,” she said. “Anything mortals could muster would be childish imitation.”

“Speaking as someone who’s been on Masego’s operating table, you are very much mistaken,” I said. “And that was when he was helping. But you’re right. I won’t have you tortured. I don’t really condone the practice, as a rule.”

“Then the King of Winter has left traces of who you once were inside this misshapen carcass you wear,” Princess Sulia said. “Rejoice, Duchess. You are less an abomination than you could be.”

“Again with he abomination talk,” I said, rolling my eyes. “That’s no way to treat someone come to bargain with you, Sulia.”

She actually laughed at that. It didn’t sound like a person’s laugh, more like exhaustion and heat and the clash of steel against steel.

“You have already struck bargains, mortal,” she sneered. “Two that my eyes can see. I wonder what you promised Larat, to have him risk my wrath on the field.”

That was the Prince of Nightfall’s name, I was pretty sure. The Winter King had mentioned it once, but the whole getting my heart ripped out afterwards adventure had ensured it didn’t have a place of honour in my memory.

“I’ll trade that secret, for questions answered truly,” I said.

Her eyes turned to me, and if had not stolen a mantle of power I suspected it would have physically hurt me to meet her gaze. Even as it was, it pricked behind my eyes to match her stare for stare.

“I do not often bargain with your kind,” she said.

“I imagine the while incinerating them on sight thing limits your options in that regard,” I replied drily.

“There is little of worth to be found amongst mortals,” she shrugged, or tried to.

Her bindings didn’t allow a lot of room for movement. Normally she wouldn’t even be able to speak, but Hierophant had released that binding before I came in.

“Nine questions,” I said. “And I will give you the terms of my bargain with the Prince of Nightfall. You are to answer them to my satisfaction, or they will not count.”

“You seek to rob me, child,” she sneered.

“I already have,” I replied with my most unpleasant smile. “Yoink, remember?”

Her face boiled with anger and I cursed myself mentally. I really need to learn to shut my mouth when treating with monsters. If I’d managed to not fucking declare war on the King of Winter halfway through our conversation, in the middle of his very seat of power no less, I’d still have an actual heart instead of whatever he’d shoved into my chest.

“Enjoy that transient victory, Duchess,” she said. “Summer comes for you now, and there is no escape.”

I sighed.

“You know, I don’t actually want to fight you people,” I said, using ‘people’ in the loosest sense of the word. “You invaded my home without provocation and started butchering everyone that didn’t kneel to a queen from another realm. I’m not Ranger, Sulia. I don’t get into death matches with demigods for the bragging rights.”

“You think we want to stride this godforsaken wasteland?” she burst out. “Creation is madness. The disorder is like an itch none of us can scratch, and the people –“

She bit her tongue, glaring at me like I’d forced her to speak up.

“Nine questions,” I repeated. “For the terms the Prince of Nightfall gave me.”

I paused and hastily continued.

“With the previous stipulations added,” I finished.

I still had the pact the King of Winter had forced on me to barter with if that wasn’t enough, though I’d rather avoid handing a potential weakness like that hand wrapped to one of my most dangerous enemies. The Princess of High Noon was supposedly terrible at scheming, but the rest of Summer was bound to have some noble that was a fair hand at it. The fae grit her teeth, but after a long silence calmed herself.

“I accept this bargain, as the terms were stated,” she said.

Gods, finally. I’d been after answers since the moment the damned Winter Court had popped up in Marchford and so far had gotten only cryptic comments for my troubles. I’d thought about getting my hands on a Winter noble for interrogation more than once, but I wouldn’t be able to trust answers from someone too low in the pecking order – and a Count was probably as high as I could aim to grab, even now. The Princess of High Noon was second only to the queen, in the Summer Court, and probably the least tricky operator I could hope for at that hallowed height.

“Why did the Summer Court invade Callow?” I immediately asked.

Eight questions left.

“It was an obligation,” Sulia replied. “As Winter was waging war upon Creation, so must we. Her Majesty chose Callow as our enemy, and I know not her reasons.”

That explained, to an extent, why the Courts could be both be fighting me when Masego had said they shouldn’t be able to attack the same target. If Winter was fighting Praes and Summer was fighting Callow, the difference should be enough to appease whatever arcane rules they obeyed to. It also confirmed that the Summer Queen was up to something: she hadn’t been forced to pick Callow, and I doubted she’d made that decision without a reason. That meant there were two fae rulers trying to get something out of my homeland, and in both cases I had no real notion of what that was.

“When the queen lives as a princess, what is her title?” I asked.

Seven questions left. This one came at Hierophant’s request. He’d told me he would have a better idea of how to counter the queen if he knew what form her powers usually took.

“Princess of the Morning Star,” the fae replied through gritted teeth.

Hadn’t liked that one, huh. She clearly knew why I’d asked. I’d wonder about exactly what the implications of the answer were when I had mages with me to make sense of it.

“What forces remained to the Diabolist when you left the field at Liesse?” I asked.

Six questions left. This one she took better than the last. Akua had not made a friend there, looked like. She usually didn’t.

“One greater devil,” the Princess of High Noon said. “No more than six thousand mortals. Twice this in undead and lesser devils.”

Good. This wasn’t anything I couldn’t deal with, considering the armies I had at my disposal. I’d have to be a raging imbecile to think this was all Diabolist had at her disposal, but it should make up the bulk of her strength on the ground. I mine could beat hers, all that was left was the battle between trump cards. That one would be harder, given how long she’d had to prepare, but I had four other Named on my side. My bag of tricks went a lot deeper than hers, these days, and if that failed I had the right kind of people to smash my way into a victory.

“What is your plan to escape this prison?” I asked.

Five questions left, and she looked furious. Had she really thought I wasn’t going to ask that? I’d been dealing with the Ruling Council and the High Lords for over a year. Green I might be, but I wasn’t that green. She really was terrible at this. Or simply not used to bargaining from a position of weakness, I thought. What were the odds she’d been in a story that went like this before? I very much doubted she’d ever played a question game with Winter, if the talk of torture was any indication. There was a very real chance she was flailing because she’d never stood on grounds like these before. You and me both, Sulia. I was just better than the fae at keeping my head above the water.

“I am transmuting the flesh of my left arm into power not siphoned by your array,” the princess said. “It will allow me to break through the wards eventually.”

“Answer’s incomplete. When will you be done?” I pressed.

“In a month,” she grunted.

It figured. She would probably have broken out in the middle of our tangle with Summer and wrecked our armies from the inside. Hierophant was going to have to take care of this somehow. Now, for Juniper’s question.

“There are golden fae in your host,” I said. “What are their weaknesses?”

Four questions left. When they’d fought against the legionaries under Nauk, they’d ripped straight through the men until Masego and I had dropped a pair of surprises into their formation to take their pressure off. They seemed to be the equivalent to the Sword of Waning day that Winter fielded, though a great deal more dangerous. Unlike the deadwood soldiers they fought in a real formation.

“The Immortals are bound to the Queen of Summer,” she said. “Should she die they will perish as well.”

Hardly a weakness, that. There had to be more to it.

“And?” I prompted.

“They weaken away from Summer,” she grudgingly added. “They carry banners with shards of the sun, but should these be destroyed they will lose much of their power.”

And now my mages had a target. Progress. I’d covered everything I’d been asked to find out by others so far, which left me four questions to try to ferret out what I personally wanted to know that didn’t qualify as an ‘immediate concern’. By the standards of my officers, anyway. I was of the opinion that the answers that would win us this war weren’t numbers or weaknesses.

“What does the Summer Court mean to do with Callow, if they take it?” I asked.

Three questions.

“The taken territories are to be made part of Arcadia and Summer itself,” the princess said. “Along with all those who live in them.”

I closed my eyes, mind spinning. The Winter Court had tried to do something similar, I was pretty sure. During the attack that I’d gone into Arcadia to end, the fae had brought a shard of Arcadia into Creation. That had failed, but the Winter King had taken me as a vassal afterwards, binding Marchford to him through me. If Summer was after the same ends, then that lay at the heart of the plays on both their parts. If Summer grew larger, then the balance between it and Winter swung in their direction. It might even introduce fresh stories to the Court’s advantage, and would explain why the Summer fae had been forcing Callowans to swear fealty to the Queen of Summer in my reports. I was still missing something, though. If grabbing land had been the objective, why had Winter struck one of the most fortified targets in Callow? The Fifteenth had been at Marchford for months before they began their attacks. Sure it would have been easier to cross there, but Summer had proved it wasn’t impossible to do so in other places. If Winter had opened a gate into, say, Vale? They might have grabbed the entire central plains of Callow before the Legions could react. Sulia had already stated that Winter had been the ones to begin this dance, which brought forward even more questions. He hadn’t been the one reacting, meaning it had been a deliberate choice.

“Why did the King of Winter target Marchford, specifically?” I asked.

Two questions.

“I cannot know for certain,” the princess said.

“Your best guesses,” I grunted.

“The boundaries were thinner there, making an invasion possible,” the fae replied. “Or he needed a Named in his service to act in Creation without crossing himself.”

Shit, hadn’t given her an actual number of guesses. Just plural, so she got away with two. It wasn’t worth using another question to ask for what would be more speculation on her part. I might have misread the situation, I frowned. When Summer had crossed, they’d had the weight of symmetry on their side: Winter was at war on Creation, so they must be as well. That might have made it easier for them to leave Arcadia, and they’d certainty been better at it. They’d spread a lot quicker and in several places compared to Winter’s one failed beachhead. Since the Winter Court had been the ones to begin the pattern, and an unprecedented one at that, they might not have had another choice than to go for the lowest-hanging fruit that was Marchford.

Then again, if I put myself in the King’s boots, what better target than Callow was there? On Calernia, at least. There was no other territory so divided and recently weakened by war. If he’d pulled this shit in the Principate, he would have been in a great deal of trouble. The Free Cities, maybe, but there were far more players there and a larger amount of Named. All he’d have to deal with here was a Squire with her crew and the Diabolist down south. My people were untested, many recently come to their Names and Akua had ‘going to rebel real soon’ good as stamped onto her forehead. It occurred to me, at that moment, that I might be the cause of all this. That I might have ensured the Winter Court would invade my homeland and force Summer to do the same by allowing the Liesse Rebellion to happen in the first place. I’d put blood in the water and the monsters had tasted it, taken it as invitation to come out and play.

“Merciless Gods,” I whispered.

Thousands had died, in the rebellion, but how many more to the fae? All of southern Callow had been occupied. My own legion had come under assault. Hells, I’d created the perfect conditions for the Diabolist to try her crowning scheme and there was no avoiding the truth that putting that madness would be bloody work. I’d let a hero go, once, and spoken words to him. Years later and Callow was still paying the price of that decision one corpse at a time. I took hold of myself. I could not afford to show weakness in front of a Princess of Summer, even one my prisoner. I met her eyes and saw she had missed nothing. She did not delight in my horror, but neither did she shy away from it. I need to know, I thought. To get at the bottom of this, before it was too late. This was larger than fae plying their usual tricks. Both Courts were playing for larger stakes than I’d thought.

“If either Court keeps part of Callow,” I asked hoarsely. “What happens in Arcadia?”

One question left. The Princess of High Noon smiled, slowly and broadly.

“I do not know,” she laughed. “Nothing, my queen says, for it will pass. Everything, your king says, for that clay has never been shaped.”

I felt like I’d been handed the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, the one that made the shape of the whole clear. The Winter King didn’t actually care all that much if I could force out Summer. He’d prefer it, because then any advantages that would come into being would be entirely on his side. But even if I failed, as long as I lived he still had Marchford and a Named he could influence. He would have an even deeper connection to my city than Summer would manage with their stolen territories, if he kept my heart. It dawned upon me that, as far as he was concerned, he had already won. It was just the degree of victory that remained to be determined. The Prince of Nightfall had compared the fae of Winter to foxes chewing through their own keg to escape a trap, back in Skade. Willing to destroy something part of them to escape a greater doom. And I’d seen, when I’d become the Duchess of Moonless Nights, the unending circle that was the lives and deaths of the Courts. The outcomes were always fixed from the start, but that was because in that circle there were only known quantities.

If I became part of that, if Callow did? In Arcadia, the Summer Queen had said the ‘story would correct itself’. She thought this attempt would fail and everything would return to the way it used to be when the wheel turned again. She was just playing out her role as assigned to her, Summer Ascendant destroying everything in its path. But the King of Winter thought he could escape the wheel, and was gambling with the lives of everyone in Callow for his roll of the dice. It didn’t matter so much that he beat Summer so long as an outcome without precedent lay at the end of the road. Even if he lost, he could be born to a different story when the wheel turned. If the wheel turned, which would no longer be a given. I’d been looking for a master plan in the Praesi tradition this whole time, but there’d never been one. It was just a desperate man throwing stones in a pond so the same old reflection would stop staring back at him. If a single thread of fae influence remained in Callow by the time this was over, it might be enough to drag then entire country into the mess. I had just become the greatest living liability to peace in my homeland.

I had to break them both, the royals on each side. Destroy everything that they were. The consequences otherwise were beyond what I could easily understand. I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. The Summer Queen. She would be the lynchpin of this, as the only one of the two I could reach.

“Sulia,” I said. “What is the role at the heart of the Queen of Summer?”

My last question. My most important.

“Threefold are the duties of the Laurel Crown,” she said. “To destroy Winter. To protect Aine. To see the Sun victorious.”

Three, always three. And I would need them all in my palm, if I was to bend a god to my will.

“Now complete your end of the bargain, abomination,” she hissed. “You’ve had your fill of me.”

“I will take the crown of seven mortals rulers and one, to lay them at the feet of the Prince of Nightfall,” I said.

Her face went still. A glimmer of something like fear passed through those shining eyes, and shit that wasn’t good at all.

“You know not what you have promised,” she said. “This must not come to pass.”

“Then tell me why,” I said.

Silence, silence and hatred.

“I thought as much,” I murmured. “Sweet dreams, Princess of High Noon.”

I left. I didn’t look for my friends, though I felt the urge. Right now I felt too disgusted with myself, with them, with everything I had wrought since I first became the Squire. I loved them, and I should. I’d paid an ugly price for them. How many lives I claimed I wanted to save had I traded away to have them at my side? I sought someone else instead, someone who would not pick at the loathing. I needed advice, and I had the puppet of one of the greatest living rulers in Calernia within my reach. I found the woman waiting in my tent and sat down in front of the body Malicia was looking through from far, far away.

“You said you would teach me, once,” I told the Empress. “So teach me now. I need to outwit a god in the flesh, before a moon has passed.”

Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, Tyrant of Dominions High and Low, Holder of the Nine Gates and Sovereign of All She Beheld, watched me for a long moment.

Then she smiled.

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73 thoughts on “Chapter 35: Questions

  1. Darkening

    Well, that’s ominous as hell. Wonder how ‘ruler’ is defined. I mean, the principate is overflowing with princes, but maybe it has to be true overlords? Hm. Probably not, she’d have to hit… what, every kingdom on Calernia for that? There’s not *that* many nations around. I can’t even guess what giving Nightfall a bunch of crowns would do… Make him the Winter King forever? Perhaps with him as king winter tends to win and Sulla doesn’t want that? Mm, he’s a bit too martial for that if Winter’s success tends to rely on their superior scheming. Also, holy hell does Ranger come for his eye when he’s the king? I mean, Archer did say every time……

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    1. stevenneiman

      I think that giving him the crowns would mean that he would claim the power of them for Winter, which would shift the balance of power permanently in Winter’s favor. What I think the Winter King is actually hoping for is to push the situation into something where the stories will destroy him utterly, rather than just killing him until Winter comes again and he returns as a Prince.
      Alternatively, he might be hoping to merely grant the Prince of Nightfall enough power to ensure that he becomes King every time and that disrupting the pattern that much might destroy him (the current Winter King that is). He doesn’t want to win, he wants the cycle to end, or at least to leave him out of it.

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      1. Yeah, Cat’s thought, that she can ‘fix’ this by killing the Winter King and reclaiming her heart, seems hopelessly naive. Treachery is the nature of Winter, and I don’t think ‘survival’ is important to the King at this point. If she’s of winter, and she takes back her heart, Winter still has her heart through her, and there’s a symmetry to her becoming Queen of Winter and Queen of Callow at the same time, and then setting both aside at the same time.

        It would be the perfect gamble that screwed her over – she needs to keep the vice-queenship for several years to get her ducks in order, but she can’t hold it without tying Callow to Winter through herself. Not to mention she’s having problems, if mostly subtle ones, with how much ‘fae’ she holds now. More and she would have to desprately devest herself of it, even if it cost. Fae is as limiting as Undead, in it’s own way, and we have the Warlocks thoughts on that subject.

        I doubt the King is the only one to feel that way either. I suspect whatever Nightfall is attempting is equally hubristic, and equally unconcerned with his own survival. What’s getting the Black Knight into trouble is his assumptions that other people have long term priorities like he does. It only fitting Cat gets into the same kind of trouble with the same kind of assumptions.

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  2. narcoduck

    So who actually started first? In Chapter 7 elaboration, Rider says “If Summer is at war, so must be Winter” but now Sulia says “As Winter was waging war upon Creation, so must we”

    Also, Princess of the Morning Star? Ominous

    Liked by 1 person

    1. rangamal thenuwara

      The Winter King and Prince of Nightfall conspired to fool their own army into invading the creation first to change the story?

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    2. at first i thought the forever king had a hand in this but until now we know nothing unless the queen had fallen for him and that is her reason, we have to wait for the queen to answer that
      and for morning star, if i recall correctly it’s the simbol of lucifer, fallen angel, demon king so if you ask me she is the perfect sacrifice for akua to open a portal to hell

      Liked by 2 people

      1. callmesteve

        Yeah, we already can guess that’s one of Diabolist’s goals. After all that babble on the rules of conversion and how it was so difficult to open a portal, the fact that she’s building a massive ritual (and the flight one was lesser!), and the fact that Foundling stated that at least no one has opened a permanent hellgate…

        There will be at least an attempt.

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    3. Dragrath

      Well The morning star at least irl is Venus which has long been associated with beauty. Or at least until we actually visited the place and realized it is a literal depiction of hell only worse… That and the name does have a connection to the devil’s name before his fall so yeah lots of ominous grounds but with the added perks of divinity based around beauty…
      So I am quite curious how the name will play out in a story all about names and roles.

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  3. pyrohawk21

    That is NEVER a good sign. And dear gods am I scared to find out just what giving the Prince of Nightfall the crowns of 8 mortal rulers will do to, and probably through, him…

    Liked by 2 people

      1. callmesteve

        Yes, seven mortal rulers, *and one*. That sounds like an important distinction even beyond the usual “year and a DAY” counting used in that sort of thing. Normally these big bargains have that, but here it seems even more.

        I suspect that it’s some sort of story or rule of ascendance, where he gains power over all creation (pun intended, and maybe it’s that way on purpose), or at least can stop the battles going on. It might also be sacrificial, since I somehow suspect that sort of power would be tied to/countered by an impermanence in the form of his death, but all heck is likely to break loose.

        It is likely a symbol of fealty to him, or in proving that he (well, his champion) can defeat the others, making him the ultimate ruler.

        I keep hoping that she finds a way to take out both sides in truth, but it’s going to be tough. Some of the shenanigans she has pulled are epic, but taking out Arcadia (is it possible to do that for good)? That is really one for the record books. Still, the fae are not as fun to read about as some of the games that she has played against mortal opponents. Those at least are both more unpredictable and less impossible to defeat. The fae and elves have the deck stacked too far in their favor, though I suppose that’s also a reason to take them down.

        My guess is she manages to do it, but then Diabolist uses the distraction to open the gate and the fourth book will be in one of the hells.

        I also hope that she can repair her friendship with Killian. That was rather sad. There weren’t really any good options for that battle.

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      1. rangamal thenuwara

        Yeah, most brute-force/straightforward way to solve her dilemma would be to betray Winter and with the support of Summer defeat Winter and force Winter King to release Cat and then back stab Summer. I guess that’s where the teachings of Malicia will come in handy? Or maybe that plan requires too many things to go right – making it just wishful thinking?

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      2. callmesteve

        That both sounds more fun (read as controlled chaos) and more likely, considering how she fights. First a big crazy mess and on-the-fly planning, and then a drag-out fight where she refuses to give up. That sounds more like it will lead to the aforementioned event.

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    1. RoflCat

      Destroy Winter – technically Cat’s goal is now to destroy BOTH Summer and Winter, to ensure neither have a lasting hold in Creation as well as sorta fulfill Winter King’s desire of breaking the loop.

      Protect Aine – never going to invade that anyway, no problem here

      Sun victorious – I think Cat might use Sulia’s sun on Akua, to ‘defeat’ her thus making it a victory for the Sun. (I feel like Icarus story would work, with the sun burning away whatever sorceries Akua used to keep the city afloat)
      Though in order to do this and makes it fulfill the Queen’s role, Cat might have to make Sulia the Queen instead.

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      1. nipi

        There are a lot of Callowans in that city. Cats not going to be all that keen on dropping it from the sky. Well not before an evacuation through a portal or something an even then its her city. Those are expensive to build.

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    1. callmesteve

      Somehow I don’t think that would happen. She seems like a hero in that still. She’ll break down what needs to be, but once done she’ll likely pass the role to someone else. She is mainly really good at fighting and accidentally good at politics (sorta), but she really hates the latter, and ruling in general. The former is also frustrating to her because she is always outnumbered and hates losing both the sacrifices she must make and the losses in war, ESPECIALLY against people like Heiress who don’t care about casualties so long as it gets them what they want.

      So, since she uses the Gordian Knot approach, I suspect that once she gets all the (other?) insane murdering astardsbay out of the picture, she will toss it back, maybe even to Malicia, if she can really be trusted to continue to break the cycle of win/loss AND be nice to Callow while at it.
      If not, I suspect she will stay loosely affiliated with a similar goal, and try to break the whole story for good.

      At that point, it sounds to me like the only possible successful outcome is to break all magic and make everyone normal, without villains or heroes, but that seems like there should still be a better outcome than I am thinking of. I really hate “The Magic Fades” as a theme, and it’s overplayed. It is also too predictable an ending to be worthy of this work so far. So, it almost can’t happen because PG2E won’t play anything that we expect, unless this really is what we don’t expect since we expect it and know that it won’t be used for that reason… but that way doth madness lie.
      I’ll say that, meanwhile, expecting the unexpected is not truly expecting, since it is still unexpected even if it’s expected, or else you’d know what it is. So, hopefully, that part won’t change.

      This awe-inspiring twist of always winning in a way no one expects seems to be the true subtext of this work so far: Gambit Rouletting into a seemingly normal ending, but before it happens, twisting it into a new and awesome one.
      The win at the battle of four armies, or whatever it’s called, where she beat Akua that first time: She played them all and then took a draw, but she got a really good commander and her own army out of that against all the odds and Akua’s cheating.
      The win against the Lone Swordsman: She wrested control of that ritual from both him and Heiress, shutting his plan down hard and getting herself resurrected by ripping off an angel, the torturing the ever-living crap out of those responsible.

      So, I can hope that the ending to this will be similar, where the cycle of fighting can die out, AND Names stay. Perhaps they can get new ones that are also suited to peaceful use. The argument between the gods is also interesting; the dark ones want man to learn, not follow. This may mean that if evil wins or breaks the game, that there might be something more after.

      I hope that the next arc ending is similar to the others. I /like/ the serious-but-mostly-nonlethal approach so far, and really hope that Foundling does not suffer a major loss in the process of delivering a good arse-kicking. I don’t know how that will go: Around this time, there’s usually a dark-before-the-dawn moment when people close to them are hurt, but that is tricky. On one hand, it seems like it has to be played to remind her of the stakes and give resolve (and remind the reader that it’s not all sweetness and light), but she has that already, it’s horribly sad and upsetting to the readers too, and there does still seem to be a noticeable lack of sweetness or light (hellooo, this is about a villain…), and she just had a bunch of her army TPK’d by the fae queen. Maybe that counts? Also, that trope is used in near-literally every book of this genre, so perhaps the genre-breaking will come in again? Crappy stuff is bad, but crappy stuff that we can partially guess feels worse. I dislike when the plot suddenly gets all dark because everything else has already happened and the stage has to be set for the real big bad. The plot might be some shade of grey because of all the stuff Heiress has done and what bargains Foundling has to make, but PLEASE don’t take that next step. The previous (4th) paragraph highlights why I like this. It’s tough, and not always all shiny; but she always has an epic win. Changing this would break *this* story for me.

      Another note is that this normally applies to heroes. What does an antivillain get? Do they get similar treatment since nothing goes well for them, or does it not apply because it’s hero-only? Would it imply that she is still somewhat heroic? She is already enough disadvantaged without losing someone.

      Oh, dear, it’s going to be Killian, isn’t it… No Name, currently distanced, currently no purpose save as a mage, emotional attachment AND no way to make it up after she’s dead…
      ohcrap. I really hope that this does not happen to anyone…

      Like

  4. TheCount

    hehe….heheHEHEHEE*maniacal laugh*
    ahem

    even if by symbol only, giving him the crowns would make him the ruler of the kingdoms they are from, as he can appoint the new rulers, who would (most likely) need to swear fealty not to the king of winter, but to the one who is the prince of nightfalls…. giving him easy acces to creation….. or the ovnership of most of calernia….

    but thats just my opinion, would you like some tea?

    Like

  5. Sean

    It feels like Malicia and Black have fulfilled one of their greatest ambitions. They’ve crafted a weapon with which to break the story in one of the most fundamental ways that could be imagined. Her name is Cat, and she’s about to commit theocide.

    Like

    1. callmesteve

      I do suspect that was the goal, yes. I think even Malicia could not have done it, and may try to stop her in the end, but ouch. She’s a villain/hero hybrid, and I suspect that those circumstances are going to be innately important to whatever she ends up. It’s also dangerous to her sanity, and the safety of, well, everyone. Fear the _decent_ person, for there is not limit to what they can do if they feel they must…

      Hopefully it does not result in Black’s death, though. He’s been expecting it, but what if there was no chain of three because Foundling will get White first? That mentor role does tend to lead to death for them, but if Foundling CAN get a new name that isn’t Black Knight, perhaps it will be short-circuited. Masego got Hierophant, a power upgrade that still leaves Warlock alive. If there are any parallels, she’ll get a new (in both senses of the word) Name that leaves Black alive. It would also be funny if Black can be proven wrong or outmaneuvered in this.

      Again, Black’s death seems unnecessary (he thinks it is, but Cat’s MO is to get new endings that work out better than expected) and it would be an expected event. It would break more precedents (both in and out of the story world) if he survives, the new breed of villain is attempting to be one where they work as a team and don’t try to kill each other off (Not quite the same, but I view replacement as similar; they actually are friends and not like Sith lords), and it would both give her more supporters and be a happier event. That assumes that the story does not want to make a turn for the dark. I always worry about that.

      Like

  6. stevenneiman

    As everyone else has already said, that is ominous. I’d love to find out what exactly will happen when the Prince of Nightfall gets his seven crowns and one, but I doubt it will be good (or Good) for anyone involved.

    Onto my usual business, the typo thread.
    “she might just rip her [ay->way] through the wards”
    “Again with [he->the] abomination talk”
    “I imagine the [while->whole] incinerating them on sight thing limits your options”
    “[I mine could beat hers,->if mine could beat hers,/Mine could beat hers;] all that was left was the battle between trump cards” depending on whether it’s a conditional statement or two assertions.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. great, cat had go from “only taken what i need” to “i need to kill all royals”
    and about her been part of winter, it should end if she change to other name so for the next arc she should be a full fleged knight

    Like

    1. Dragrath

      That assumes she will ever be a true knight as I feel she has broken so far from the mold that any name she gains may be unpredictable after all she has been raised to break stories not to carry their mantle forward.

      Like

      1. RoflCat

        If anything, she already paved a path for her to become a ruler Name with the Sword in Stone before.

        So far I’ve seen 4 ruling names that Cat has had contact with in some form.
        Queen – the time the Harshmallim attempted to convert her to Good.
        Empress – the tower song
        Warlord – At least Hakram and Juniper already call her that.
        Matron – Ranker

        But if she’s going to break the mold, I get a feeling whatever her name ends up as there’ll be a massive twist to it.

        Like if she does become a Knight, it’d be something like Rogue Knight.
        Dread Queen (not Empress)
        etc.

        Like

      2. callmesteve

        I call Warlord, Knight, or Foundling. It really would be a great twist if those pre-chapter blurbs don’t just refer to her by name, but Name… I should check. How do they refer to other Named?

        Warlord could be fun since it fits well and only orcs could get those before. She gets along well with them, and orc names are actually back again, and the only-for-orcs bit simply makes it more likely because of how she tends to break things like that. It would be a great warning to the others, too, since they’d have to take notice that a human got a terrifying ORC Name.

        Knight would be neat since she trained as a squire and combines elements of both good and bad — thus she can’t truly be either black or white. This way she avoids becoming the indoctrinated Good or replacing her mentor Black. It would imply that she actually broke this role too. (Perhaps a better name would be Grey Knight — she sees the world in shades of it already (Good is not good, and Evil can be), and it’s quite a powerful role. Lots of authority and some measure of autonomy, since she would be solely bound by her own ethics.)

        Foundling would also be an interesting one. I have no idea what it might actually do, but she’s been fairly well foreshadowed to get it. It is interesting in its own right since it implies that she has formed a new Role that no one has ever used before by dint of her… unique… methodology and ethics, and it implies her heroic origins (what else does an orphan become?). It also means that she has moved so many people by what she has done that it warped her name and status into a Name. Better yet, she can squash those annoying people bugging her about heraldry and so forth (I imagine that if she gets a full name, the people bleating about marrying her off will disappear in fear of an… accident). If she gets THAT as her Name, she gains enough power she can ignore them, yet it is also a permanent uncomfortable reminder of who she really is: The peasant-hero who broke (will break?) the nobility. She even has a pipe for them to smoke it in.

        Like

  8. H.

    Seven mortal crowns, and one.

    Seven mortal. And one more *who isn’t *.

    Cat just vowed to defeat the Dead King, he who Ranger invades for fun.
    And she didn’t even notice! Really, *really* not a good oath to have sworn.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. callmesteve

      I almost suspect she’ll fail, but steal her heart back later and kick the crap out of them for it too.
      She’s allied with Thief as well… Does she need to do it personally?

      Like

  9. Phantom

    The mention of the the Princes’ Graveyard, in the top quotes before might gave a hint to what had happened to Cat trying to acquire the crowns.

    Like

  10. nipi

    1) Throw an existing kingdom into chaos.
    2) Induce it to fracture into smaller kingdoms.
    3) Take the crowns of the rulers of said kingdoms. Dont necessarily even have to kill them. All that was asked for were the crowns.

    Like

      1. Unoriginal

        Won’t work like that, this is the kind of story there is a villain smart-ass who makes an enemy of the hero to be that way, by for example saying (the villain) saying that he would let the heroes family go before promptly dropping them off a cliff. This isn’t an exact comparison but its the general way stories flow and what might work in stories for heroes doesn’t always for villains even in Arcadia.

        Anyways, while the Fae might have to accept such a technicality it’s not a good idea to borrow trouble, much less from the Fae.

        Like

      2. Unoriginal

        Wrote that really fast and didn’t spell check until after I posted so here are some corrections for my other comment.

        Won’t work like that > It doesn’t work that way

        This is the kind of story there is… to be that way > This is the kind of story where the villain is a smart ass who makes an enemy of the hero by for example telling the hero he would let his family go before promptly dropping the family off the cliff.

        Like

      3. Even symbolically giving the Fae a crown might be a problem, given how they run on stories. We’ve seen the characters make things happen by doing things that *look* like stories even if they really aren’t. Cat managed to make herself a Duchess by taking the Duke’s signet ring. And she got her victory in Liesse by declaring herself heir to the throne of Callow and pulling a sword from a stone, even though the kingdom is long dead and the sword wasn’t set up for that purpose.

        Like

  11. ForgottenToupee

    So the thing that sticks out to me the most is that Sulia won’t tell Cat why the Prince of Nightfall must not get those crowns. Unless it’s a magically significant thing that Maesgo will explain, I kinda think it’s something Cat also has the power use since she is Winter and Named. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a problem with telling Cat, right?

    Liked by 2 people

  12. DocTao

    Q this chapter
    “Threefold are the duties of the Laurel Crown,” she said. “To destroy Winter. To protect Aine. To see the Sun victorious.”
    …..
    “I will take the crown of seven mortals rulers and one, to lay them at the feet of the Prince of Nightfall,” I said.
    /Q

    Most obvious ‘plus one’ crown, but not certain. The Laurel Crown belonging to the former Princess of the Morning Star.

    Impications of that name are unclear to me, as a Lucifer link (angel and demon both, Diabolist?) seems too far-reaching and planet Venus unlikely.

    Q ch 13
    “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 charge you with the defeat of Summer, Catherine Foundling. I charge you with the making of peace, exacted from the battlefield.”

    The other the Deadwood Crown belonging to the former Prince of Bleak Solstice.

    Wiki. “”The Solstice occurs twice each year (around June 21 and December 21) as the Sun reaches its most northerly or southerly excursion relative to the celestial equator on the celestial sphere…..the term solstice can also be used in a broader sense, as the day when this occurs. The day of the solstice has either the most sunlight of the year (summer solstice) or the least sunlight of the year (winter solstice) for any place other than the equator.””

    Do we know the in story season/date? And in a month?

    Also, in the first book there was something of a Lost Crown (bar?), which i suppose referred to the Crown of Callow?

    Like

  13. Dainpdf

    ” It was the Praesi way to look at things best left not meddled with and ask ‘can we make a weapon out of this?’.”
    Things such as Akua…
    …Malicia.
    ” I had just become the greatest living liability to peace in my homeland.”
    Bet you Akua felt that sick burn all the way up there.

    Like

  14. Big Brother

    I feel like the Seven Mortal’s Crowns and One are a way for the Prince of Nightfall to become the Winter King AND let him step into Creation with his full power.
    But, what happens if the crowns are laid at the feet of, say, a quarter Fae from Summer. There’s quite a bit of weight to a Duchess from Winter offering what is essentially a Champion’s Tribute to a member of Summer. Because a Champion conquers the lands and hands the rights to their liege.

    Like

  15. Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, Tyrant of Dominions High and Low, Holder of the Nine Gates and Sovereign of All She Beheld, watched me for a long moment.

    Then she smiled.

    that is going to be fun, really. Malicia teachings are something way beyond any league
    ps.( it should be behold no beheld)

    Like

    1. TideofKhatanga

      Especially since Thief has one herself.
      I wonder how precisely defined is “crown” there. There’s probably seven countries on Calernia that use crowns as their currency.

      Like

  16. Misterspokes

    The promise is for the Crowns of Seven Mortal*s* rulers and one. Why can’t it refer to the choirs of angels whom Lord over Creation in Control of the Narrative? The and one could be any of the semimortals we’ve met, including the king of the dead, winter king, summer queen or even someone like Malica to represent Evil…

    Like

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