“Truth and silence lie better than the silvermost tongue.”
– Soninke saying
It was a little odd to be half-naked in front of three people, but the only person that was feeling awkward about it was Hakram. The moment I’d begun unbuttoning my shirt he’d cleared his throat and looked away, and had been staring at the ceiling of my tent for a solid half hour by now. Considering I had it on good authority – Robber, ever up for a bit of gossip if it was at someone else’s expense – that he was still sleeping around on the regular his prudery for this was pretty amusing. As for the other two, well, Masego couldn’t have been any less interested in tits if he tried and this wasn’t anything Kilian hadn’t seen before. I shifted on the stool at the memory of some of the instances where she’d done a great deal more than just looking and Hierophant clucked his tongue disapprovingly.
“Don’t move,” he said. “This is delicate work.”
I’d have to take his word on that, since I couldn’t actually see what he was doing. He was prodding around the area of my heart with a long oaken wand covered in runes that was entirely ignoring my flesh, pausing now and then to look at the collection of hovering runes in the air by his side. Kilian was crouched at his side, forming a ball of light over her upturned palm. They’d said it was because they needed a ‘point of comparison’, though they’d been vague about what exactly that meant.
“It’s not grounded in the heart,” the Senior Mage frowned.
“Agreed,” Masego said, and I felt him poke something inside me.
Runes shifted in the air and the redhead inhaled sharply.
“That should kill a human outright,” she said. “It’s enough sorcery to turn all the liquids in her body to ice.”
“Named, Kilian,” the blind Soninke reminded her. “And this ‘moon’ seems to have been purposed to regulate the energies.”
I cleared my throat.
“So you have answers for me, then,” I said.
“We can confidently say that your third aspect is bound to your title of Duchess of Moonless Nights and not the heart replacement the king forced upon you,” Hierophant said. “A fascinating piece of work, that.”
“So when I get my heart back,” I prompted.
“You should keep the aspect, assuming you remain the Duchess,” Kilian said. “Though it will severely limit your abilities.”
I met her eyes, but she turned to look at the runes.
“The moon the King of Winter placed inside you serves two purposes,” Hierophant elaborated. “The first it to mimic the role in your body your heart would. Fascinating, as I said. I did not believe the fae had so keen an understanding of human anatomy.”
“And the second?” I said.
“You might consider it a heart in the magical sense,” Masego said. “All the Winter power that you can bring to bear is siphoned into it, then released for your use natured in a way that lessens the damage to your body.”
“That feels like something that’s going to fuck me over when I get my actual heart back,” I said.
“Without that filter I’m not certain you will be able to use your third aspect,” Kilian said. “I’ve never seen the direct aftermath, but I was given to understand it is a domain?”
“And I definitely know what that is,” I lied. “Pretty sure Hakram doesn’t, though, so to be polite someone should explain.”
“Actually,” the orc began, but I shushed him.
“It’s all right, Hakram,” I said. “We’re your friends. You don’t need to pretend with us.”
“I explained to you what that is mere months ago,” Masego said, sounding surprised as he eyed the orc. “Perhaps you should drink less. It’s beginning to affect your memory.”
Adjutant glared at me helplessly and I grinned.
“I’ll keep an eye on him, I promise,” I told Hierophant.
The dark-skinned mage nodded, then looked up at me through his eye cloth.
“Creation is, in essence, matter with a set of rules imposed by the Gods upon it,” he said. “A domain is when an entity, in this case you, temporarily overlays different matter and rules over it.”
Well, that sounded mildy blasphemous. And incredibly dangerous.
“In your case, ‘Fall’ appears to create a bubble of empty darkness where you may use Winter energies to lower the temperature beneath what should physically be possible,” Masego continued. “Unusually offensive in nature. Most domains provide different territory and a comparative advantage to the entity that creates it.”
“It shouldn’t be possible for a Squire to have a domain at all,” Kilian said frankly. “Transitory Names are not strong enough. Domains usually belong to lesser gods, full-fledged Named late in their career or particularly ancient monsters.”
“It’s a rare ability even among heroes,” Masego noted. “Aside from the Champion lines in Levant and allegedly the Saint of Swords, there shouldn’t be any other living human practitioner.”
“Then how did I get one?” I asked. “I didn’t exactly rub a lamp and make a wish to get this, Hierophant.”
“Djinn were usually bound to urns, not lamps, and did not grant wishes,” Masego replied absent-mindedly. “It does occur naturally in some entities. Every dragon has a domain at their heart of their body, it’s what allows them to breathe fire. And Father has theorized elves essentially become a living domain when they get old enough.”
“You have a pretty good look at my body right now,” I said, raising an eyebrow. “See any scales or pointy ears?”
“No,” Hierophant told me seriously. “And I would be able to see them even if they were invisible.”
I saw Kilian’s lips twitch form the corner of my eye.
“Now,” Masego muttered, “this is not conclusive by any means but I do have a theory.”
“All my ears are listening,” I said.
He stared suspiciously at me but I gave him my most innocent smile. His frown deepened, so maybe I needed to put some work into that.
“I believe this to be a leash,” Hierophant said. “You are given powerful abilities, but to make use of them properly you must give the King of Winter foothold in your soul. Removing that foothold turns what was once an asset into a liability, giving you strong incentive to remain bound to him.”
“There’s more to it than that,” Kilian said quietly, and Masego seemed surprised.
The Senior Mage flicked her fingers and three rows of runes parted from the rest.
“I’ve never had occasion to do a full mapping ritual on my father,” the redhead said, “but this corresponds more or less to how his body reacted to fae sorcery as a halfblood. Higher tolerance, but there’s no actual attempt made to make it harmless. In someone born, that’s only natural. But in an artificial construct?”
“Power limiter,” Hierophant said, glass eyes gleaming under dark cloth.
“Your saying he screwed me,” I said.
“More than previously believed,” I added.
Kilian nodded slowly.
“When you draw deep on the power, you must get backlash,” she said.
“My blood starts to freeze,” I admitted.
“You were crippled,” Hierophant said bluntly. “You have the power of a Duchess to draw on, but if you actually did so it would kill you. It explains why you were at such a disadvantage fighting that Summer duchess in Arcadia, when in theory you should have been on even footing.”
“Countess at most,” Kilian said. “Your domain allows you to fight out of your league but the King made certain you would never be powerful enough to be a threat to him.”
I clenched my fingers. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, even if it did. I’d been so focused on how the threat was my stolen heart that I’d never thought to question the additions to my power I’d discovered. Archer had told me that the Duke of Violent Squalls was supposed to be one of the big names in the Winter Court. Someone who was supposed to turn the story back to war if the fae that ruled Winter was trying to avoid it. There was power to that kind of role, and by taking his title even in a different form I should have swung a great deal harder then the average duke or duchess. I’d thought it was because I wasn’t really fae, but evidently there was more to it than that.
“Can you fix this?” I finally asked.
“If I were still the Apprentice, no,” he said. “But such miracles are now within my purview. I will need preparations and the process will not be gentle, but it can be done.”
“You’ll still get backlash,” Kilian warned. “You’re a mortal bearing a fae title, that much is unavoidable.”
“The proportion of power than can be drawn before backlash could be increased tenfold, at the very least,” Hierophant said. “A Duchess in full. You’ve an unusually tough constitution, you should be able to weather it.”
“Ominous,” I said. “Get this ready. The sooner we get it done the better.”
“It could be ready tomorrow, but three days hence would be easier,” Masego said. “For ritual purposes, the new moon will benefit me.”
The mage got back to his feet, adjusting the black robes over his corpulent frame. Kilian followed suit, brushing back red hair in a gesture I followed with my eyes out of habit. Masego left the tent without bothering to excuse myself, entirely forgetting Hakram was still in here. The redhaired mage lingered for a moment.
“Catherine,” she said.
“Dismissed, Senior Mage,” I replied.
Her face shuttered and she gave a stiff salute before leaving. I began to button up my shirt again, fingers almost shaking. That had taken more determination that I’d expected.
“You decent?” Adjutant asked.
“Never,” I drawled. “Villain, remember?”
“No one’s a villain every hour of the day,” Hakram grunted. “And if you’re being lippy about it, that’s a yes.”
I struck a suggestive pose when he turned, my top two buttons still undone, and he groaned.
“Just too much woman for you, I understand,” I said sympathetically.
“You’re barely half an orc,” he gravelled.
“I’m vicequeen of Callow, you savage,” I grinned. “That could be construed as treason.”
“If you have me arrested, who will handle the paperwork?” he said.
“You have always been my most loyal,” I hastily replied. “Never doubted you a moment.”
The orc snorted and reached for the carafe of wine Masego had refused to let me touch. He poured two glasses and pressed one into my hand. Oh dear. That was the herald to a serious conversation, wasn’t it? The joke about his drinking habits died unspoken on my tongue.
“We haven’t talked about it,” he said.
“The heart?” I said. “It hasn’t been a priority so far, to be honest. It was functional and there’s other fires to put out first.”
“Cat,” he said flatly. “You know that doesn’t work on me.”
My lips thinned. No matter how well it served me, there were times I wished he was just a little less perceptive.
“There is nothing to say,” I grunted.
“It’s a nasty habit you have,” Hakram said. “Thinking admitting something hurt you means you’re weak.”
“Already got that speech from Masego last year,” I sighed. “I cope. We’re in the middle of a godsdamned war, in case you hadn’t noticed. This is so far down the ladder of shit I need to deal with it’s not even worth mentioning.”
Hakram drank from his cup and I did the same.
“You were happier, with her,” he said. “Everyone saw that.”
“Happy doesn’t come into this,” I barked. “I didn’t sign up for happy ever after. The colour of my cloak’s a bit of hint there.”
“Bullshit,” Hakram said, and it was vehement enough I flinched. “That’s an excuse and you know it. Fix this or don’t, but do not pretend that being a villain means you have to be miserable. You know that’s untrue.”
“What the fuck do you want me to say, Hakram?” I hissed. “That I miss her? It’s not exactly fucking riddle when I feel like I put a fresh knife in my ribs every time she’s in the room.”
“That is a start,” the tall orc gravely said.
“She wants to cross a line,” I said tiredly. “I can’t stop her without doing the same. Talking’s not going to change any of it, so this is just salting the wound.”
“I understand she wants to do a ritual,” Hakram said cautiously.
“She wants to slaughter people like animals,” I spat. “To get rid of whatever it is that screws her up when she draws too deep on magic.”
“Human sacrifice,” he said. “How many?”
“I didn’t ask,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. One would be too much.”
I eyed him, saw the lack of expression on his face.
“Gonna take her side, are you?” I bitterly said. “Say I’ve done worse. That it makes me a hypocrite to find even the idea repulsive.”
“You assume much,” Hakram said. “Do you think Callowans fed most the altars in Praes? Wars with the Kingdom came once a reign, Catherine. In peace they looked for fodder in the Steppes.”
That have me pause, because he was right. I had assumed, deep down, that no one born on his side of the Wasaliti would really get where I was coming from. One of the reasons I’d never talked about this with anybody. It had been extremely presumptuous of me.
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly. “I didn’t mean-“
“I know,” he sighed, fangs flashing. “I will not pretend my people are anything but red-handed, Catherine. We have fed upon mankind since the First Dawn. We kept slaves and sacked cities, splattered blood across the writ of Creation. But this, we understand. The Miezans taught the Wasteland to hate chains, and in turn the Wasteland taught us to hate the altars. When Lord Black decreed the Legions would no longer bleed their own for victory, he earned deeper loyalty than he understood.”
I looked away, because I knew that Black hadn’t done that because he thought it was right or just. He’d thought it necessary, that those rituals were a crutch that did more harm than good. He probably knew that already. Most of the orc generals likely did as well, but to greenskins action always mattered more than intent.
“I’ve killed people,” I said. “A lot of them. Because they were my enemies, because they were in my way. Sometimes even to make a point. Guilt, what was actually deserved, I stopped bringing into it somewhere along the way.”
Hakram drank and did not speak.
“I started the Liesse Rebellion,” I admitted suddenly. “I let the Lone Swordsman go after starting him down that path. Because I needed a war to rise.”
The orc set down his cup.
“I suspected,” he gravelled. “It was too personal for you. More than it ever was when you were pruning away the undesirables in Callow.”
“In sparing him, I killed thousands,” I said. “I used them as a tool. And that’s despicable, Hakram. I hate it, that for a moment I stood in the same place the High Lords do when they decided to hike the taxes or murder a few of my people for convenience. I think that’s the line I can’t live with crossing. Being the kind of person that doesn’t see people as people, just objects.”
“The kind of person that would use killing others as fuel for a ritual,” he said.
“I know it’s different for Praesi,” I said. “You read Black’s journal, same as me. There were years where sacrifices for the fields were all that kept famine away, and I won’t cast stones at people doing ugly shit to survive. But there’s no need for that anymore. Not if the grain can come from Callow instead. But it’s still done, and there has to be a point where culture isn’t an excuse anymore, right? Gods, if it was someone’s culture to eat fucking babies does that mean I just have to smile and pretend it’s not vile? Because there’s a lot of that going around, Hakram. The Matrons are our allies, so we have to pretend the things they do every year to boys just like Robber because they’re boys aren’t revolting. Ratface’s own father tried to have him knifed in his bed because he was inconvenient, and I’m supposed to just laugh it off and say ‘that’s the Taghreb for you, there they go murdering again’? Fuck, I’ve done dark things but at least I don’t pretend it’s all right for me to have done them. I don’t encourage it.”
Gods, but it felt good to actually say that out loud. Because I knew who I’d sided with, and now more than ever I knew who I answered to. But there were compromises that rankled. Things I had to pretend I didn’t see because I couldn’t pick every battle that should be picked and still think I’d win. That was the thing, with stories. They never told you that the ogres had kids that would starve without a father or that the valiant knight that helped you was part of a larger institution that might trigger civil war if left unchecked. If you wanted a clean ending, one that didn’t leave a bad taste in the mouth, you had to end the story just after the victory. Otherwise you got to see that you could win loudly once, send Evil skittering back into the dark, but that everywhere across Creation there were lesser evils taking place every hour of every day and there wasn’t much anyone could do about it.
“Ah,” Hakram said softly. “You hadn’t realized.”
I looked at him.
“That Kilian is Praesi,” he said. “With all that entails.”
“She doesn’t need to do this,” I said, almost pleadingly. “She’s not as powerful as she could be, it’s true. But she’s still better than the average Legion mage. If it came down between her dying and the ritual being made, Gods forgive me but I’d do it. Because I’m in love with her, and I’m selfish and I’d rather be a monster than lose her. But it’s not going to kill her, to be who she is. This is just wanting more for herself at the expense of others.”
“She can do it legally,” Hakram said. “Using death row criminals at auction.”
“I know that,” I said through gritted teeth. “And I know that the people who’d bleed wouldn’t be choir children. That they’ll die anyway, probably on another altar in a way that benefits someone else. That even in Praes you don’t get the noose lightly. But if they hang, Hakram, that’s law. That’s the exercise of justice, or the closest the Wasteland can have to it. There’s a difference between hanging someone for a crime and slitting their throat open so your magic comes more smoothly. And it stings that I shared my bed with someone for more than a year who doesn’t get something that basic.”
I drained the rest of my cup.
“Gods, is human sacrifice too low a bar to set?” I said, and I felt exhausted. “Because in my enemies I’ll live with it. Until I can make them stop, and I will. But Kilian’s on my side. Used to be a lot more than that. And I refuse that this should be who we are.”
I looked at the orc.
“What’s the point of any of this, if we’re just the High Lords with a nicer reputation?” I asked. “I’m not better than her even if she does this, Hakram. I’m probably worse, if a count can be kept for things like this. And we both know I’ll do worse things before this is over. But I won’t put on a smile and pretend this is all right. I’m not willing to be that person, not even for Kilian.”
The tall orc finished his cup.
“This is,” he said, “half the conversation you needed to have. Perhaps you should seek the other half.”
He left the tent, left me alone with the words I’d spoken still filling the silence. They were no comfort. Never had been.