“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.