“The true tragedy of Evil is that it is not absolute. That even the worst of men can love their children, be moved to kindness. Damnation is earned piecemeal.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand
Hakram had grown to rely on the sharper perception his Name lent him. Often he used it in fights, to read the strikes of an opponent and brutally capitalize on them, but now and then it had more mundane use. Like telling when Archer was getting restless and about to ‘request’ they spar. At the first sign tonight of it he’d immediately sought out Masego to suggest they play shatranj, giving him an excuse to avoid the solid hour-long beating that would have ensued otherwise. He wasn’t particularly proud of it, but dignity was a worthwhile trade for lack of bruises. The tall orc glanced at the board and moved his chancellor to threaten a mage. The Soninke sitting across him radiated displeasure at the sight. It was somewhat amusing, Adjutant thought, that transitioning into the Hierophant had done absolutely nothing to improve Masego’s skill at the game.
“You’re cheating,” Hierophant accused, sounding deeply offended.
Adjutant offered a mocking hint of fangs, knowing the other man would know exactly what it meant. The mage was familiar with orcs. That Masego was entirely convinced that his superior breadth of knowledge should make him the better player at what was widely considered a game for scholars and strategists was one of the orc’s petty delights. He always took it so personally when he lost.
“You should call it a draw then,” Archer suggested eagerly.
The ochre-skinned woman was messily sprawled across three armless chairs which she had very clearly stolen from Juniper’s command tent. If she’d portrayed boredom any more clearly, it would have qualified as sorcery.
“I’m not going to lose,” Masego said through gritted teeth.
“Of course not,” Hakram said, fangs bared just a little more.
Archer loudly sighed.
“We’re at war,” she complained. “How can this be so horribly dull? All we do is march all day.”
“Isn’t that what war is?” Thief drawled. “Months of tedium, then a day of terror.”
The orc glanced at the fourth person in the tent. He’d been somewhat surprised, when she’d joined them. Since their conversation in Laure, the Thief had made a point of avoiding his presence. Only after Arcadia had she begun to shed the habit, occasionally joining these informal gatherings. She still gave him dark looks, when she thought he wasn’t looking. That was fine. Given enough time, Catherine would pull her into her circle as she had the rest of them. Should this not occur, she would likely turn her blade on him first. As he’d meant to ensure, when putting fear in her. A little discord within their band was worth that additional precaution in case she turned on them. Hierophant moved forward a footman to protect the mage and Hakram snorted, taking another footman with one of his. The chain of captures that would ensure from that would leave Masego down a footman and with a rider unprotected.
“Been in a lot of wars, have you?” Archer challenged.
Conflict, Adjutant had learned, was how the woman related to others. Considering some of the things he’d heard of Refuge and the nature of Lady Ranger’s tutelage, there was sense in it. The Waning Woods saw more monsters than balls. Masego had passed whatever bar Archer set when they’d gone south to stir trouble for the Diabolist, though with how she picked on the mage it could be hard to tell. There’d been difference, though. She acted as a nuisance still, but the barbs were no longer probing. When it came to the orc himself, acceptance had come after the Battle of Marchford. He’d held in the face of the demon, which had gained him esteem. She thought much like an orc, in those matters. It made her easy to like. Thief, however, had never truly fought at their side. Her intervention in Arcadia, while crucial, had not been the kind of contribution Archer recognized. That would be trouble, he’d thought more than once. Thief was not a fighter, or even an assassin. Her talents were more indirect, and that perspective seemed bound to her Name. The Callowan would not change, and neither would Archer. He’d have to finagle a middle-ground for them to meet, before this became a true issue.
“This makes two,” Thief replied easily. “Stuck to the last one longer than you did, the way I hear it.”
On the other side, Hakram thought, but the woman had probably noticed that this kind of distinction didn’t really matter to Archer. People out of Refuge did not seem to care about those lines, much as it was said the Lady of the Lake did not. They were islands unto themselves, bound to others only as long as it suited them. It still impressed the orc that anyone would have the balls to ‘retire’ from the Calamities, considering the kind of monsters that made them up.
“There’s only so much in Callow to fight for,” Archer shrugged.
As good as a concession of the point, for her. The subject change that followed confirmed it.
“What the Hells is Catherine doing, anyway?” she asked.
“Trying not to yell at her generals,” Masego said, superbly tactless.
Archer glanced at Hakram, and his brow rose to invite her to speak her mind.
“Aren’t you usually there for that stuff?” she said.
“Routine reports,” the orc gravelled. “We’ve yet to encounter any fae on our march south. This is more diplomacy than military matter. She grants them time to imply value.”
The woman wrinkled her nose.
“There has to be something at least vaguely interesting happening in those,” she said. “She doesn’t let me come.”
“She’s afraid you’re going to kill someone,” Masego candidly said.
Directed at someone else it might have been taken a slight, but Archer’s pride let these kind of things slide right off and she laughed instead. It was, Hakram suspected, one of the reasons she was so powerful. Will, strength of belief – these were the traits that strengthened Named. He was never so sharp and strong as when he carried out Catherine’s will. She’d told him, once, that Lord Black had taught her it was certainty that set apart Named from mortals. He’d committed this to memory, as there were few in the Empire that understood namelore better than the Carrion Lord. Unshakeable pride was a different path to that peak, it was true, but the results spoke for themselves.
“That commander from the Watch is bound to be pretty though,” Archer mused. “He could probably take a light spar.”
No, Hakram thought. He most definitely cannot. He’d seen members of the Watch in combat, and they were not comparable to Named. They stood head and shoulders above even the strongest orcs he’d met, and were swifter than goblins on foot. But they were not match to even fledgling Named, as individuals, and Archer was no fledgling. Hakram glanced at the board, noting Hierophant seemed smug. Ah, he meant to trade a mage for a tower. The orc deftly moved the tower across the board, threatening the blind man’s tyrant and pulling out the smugness by the roots. Ah, that never got old.
“Duchess Kegan might take offense to that,” Thief said. “She’s famously prickly, even for a Deoraithe.”
Adjutant had never quite managed to nail down where her accent came from, in Callow. The intonation was too faint, as if she’d been trained out of it. That was interesting, in and of itself. It would mean she’d had a tutor, and this meant wealth or status. Now and then Thief slipped and spoke knowledge that was not common, as she just had. The Duchy of Daoine was deeply isolationist, and it was unlikely anyone but nobles or regionally-connected merchants would have heard rumours about the character of its duchess. She was not a well-known figure, in Callow. Archer fluidly rose and came to stand behind Hierophant, leaning her elbows on his shoulders. Her scarf dipped down, covering his nose. It was hard to tell whether the contact or the obstructed vision irritated him more. The Soninke’s hand rose, sorcery flaring around it, but she batted it away.
“Careful with the scarf,” Archer said. “It has sentimental value.”
“So do my shoulders,” Masego muttered. “Yet you paw at them.”
One of these days, Hakram though, he was going to realized she wouldn’t do things like this nearly as often if he didn’t keep being irked by them. Adjutant had no intention of telling him, though. He only had so many sources of entertainment.
“Priest’s threatening your knight,” she said, pointing at the board.
Hakram’s eyes narrowed. He was certain Hierophant would not have noticed otherwise.
“That’s a mage,” Masego said, but he was beaming.
“In Praes, maybe,” Archer replied, rolling her eyes.
Thief moved to stand behind the orc. He did not tense, though this took an exertion of will.
“The scarf,” the short-haired woman said. “Mercantis weave. Not common in Callow. Would fetch gold for sure.”
“Not for sale,” the other woman replied flatly.
Hakram glanced at her, and took a footman while she was too distracted to advise Masego.
“Sentimental value, huh,” Thief drawled. “Is Mercantis where you’re from?”
The orc kept his eyes on the board so he would not betray his interest. He’d never seen anyone with skin the same tone as Archer’s, before meeting her. He doubted there more than a dozen across the entirety of Calernia. Her ancestors, if not her, must have come from across the Tyrian Sea. She was clearly not Yan Tei, so likely one of the Ashuran trade ships. No one but the Baalite Hegemony and the Yan Tei knew the route to safely cross the famously storm-prone sea. Not since the Miezans had been undone by the Licerian Wars, anyway.
“You could say that,” Archer said. “It’s the first thing I ever owned. A gift from the Lady.”
The orc’s fangs ground against each other, they way they always did when one spoke of slavery even in a way so indirect. It was an open secret that people were one of the many commodities that could be obtained in the City of Bought and Sold, though the consortium ruling it did not publicly endorse the practice.
“Steady there, big guy,” Archer said, tone almost fond as she looked at him. “That score has long been settled.”
“There should never have been a score at all,” Hakram gravelled.
“Every nation on Calernia practiced slavery at some point,” Masego absent-mindedly said. “I imagine Praes still would, if it had never come under Miezan occupation. The labour demanded of their subjects by the first Tyrants were essentially that, regardless. Father always said the true mortar of the Tower was hypocrisy.”
The blind man paused.
“It is a metaphor,” he said, just in case anyone had thought otherwise.
Hakram sighed. Behind him, the Thief snorted.
“You’re not very good at people, are you?” she said.
“I know more about anatomy than any of you,” Hierophant replied, mildly offended.
Three half-smiles bloomed, and for a heartbeat it felt like they were more than a set of strangers following Catherine Foundling. Then Thief drummed her fingers on his shoulder, and the orc’s tongue ran against his fangs. Archer caught it, and grinned.
“Oh my,” she said. “Someone’s unsettled. Now there’s a rare treat.”
“It’s like he’s afraid to give me a chance,” the Callowan drawled. “Keep playing, Adjutant. It’s not like I’m going to choke you.”
Hakam’s brow creased, and though he looked at the board his thoughts were elsewhere. She was, evidently, settling their earlier dispute. This seemed directed at him personally, and was being done in a manner Archer had made clear was acceptable within the bounds of their group. Thief was either clever enough to rebel in a way that was within the dotted lines, or she was getting comfortable enough with them to pursue a grudge. The former was a warning sign, but set forward cunningly enough there was little he could do about it. The latter was something to encourage. He somehow got the feeling that she’d been aware of the difficulty this would pose him before she’d even moved. Troublesome. Both Archer and Hierophant were, to put it kindly, less than socially adept. That had made it simple to gently steer them away from conflicts with each other. Thief would not be so straightforward to deal with, it seemed. It would not do to forget she had been part of a group of Named before, and stood one of its few survivors. The orc moved a footman forward. Masego reached for his mage, but Archer clucked her tongue.
“You’re opening a lane for his tower,” she said. “Move your footman instead.”
The orc gave a hint of fangs again to unsettle Hierophant.
“Is she playing, or are you?” he asked.
The Soninke’s brows creased behind his cloth. Then he moved the footman.
“You’re trying to provoke me,” he breathed, surprised. “Archer, are we winning?”
The ochre-skinned woman glanced at the board.
“Kingtip in ten,” she said. “He got sloppy.”
“Where did you even learn to play?” Hakram said.
“Hunter was mad for it,” she said. “Also terrible, and willing to bet taking off clothes.”
“Hunter?” Thief said, sounding surprised. “I don’t meant to speak ill of the dead, but-“
“Yeah, he was pretty fucking awful at it,” Archer snorted. “I had him streak through the woods once. Almost got eaten by basilisk, it was hilarious.”
“You sound like you were friends,” Masego noted. “You’re not angry we tried to kill him?”
“Twice, I believe,” he finished. “I’m not certain if they count as separate attempts.”
“He picked the fight,” Archer shrugged. “His fault if he lost. The Lady’s always been clear that once we leave Refuge we’re on our own. Some of her students have killed each other before, after getting out. She teaches heroes and villains both.”
“Pragmatic of you,” Thief said, and it did not sound like a compliment. “Admittedly the Lone Swordsman’s band was less than harmonious.”
Hakram slid his chancellor across the board. Archer didn’t even bother to ask before reaching over Masego and threatening his tyrant with a tower.
“Never met him,” she said. “But Catherine says he was a real prick.”
“He was not an easy man to like,” Thief conceded. “Whatever forged his Name must have been rather unpleasant, and left marks.”
“I found the Bard the most grating,” Hakram said. “Smug. Like a goblin without the redeeming qualities.”
The fingers withdrew from his shoulder. Interesting. They’d had word that Lord Black was fighting a Wandering Bard in the Free Cities, though she was said to have different appearance. Tension there? They’d never displayed any during their encounters, but as her Name stated the Bard came and went. She’d been noticeably absent at the Battle of Liesse, for one.
“I hear she goes by a different name, these days,” Thief said quietly. “Don’t be fooled by the drinking and the jokes. She’s dangerous. Got into William’s head at the end, and not in a nice way.”
“Father and Uncle Amadeus are fighting her,” Masego said. “She won’t be the first bardic Name they kill.”
“I’m not sure how doable that actually is,” Thief said. “Knew her for the better part of a year, and I never once saw her take a wound she wasn’t directly responsible for.”
That, Hakram thought, was disquieting. No Name could truly make someone untouchable, so there must have been flaws and restrictions, but it was still something of note. Something to plan for. They’d not seen the Bard since the end of the Liesse Rebellion, but that did not mean they never would. There were no true books of namelore, for no Named would everwillingly pen their own limits and weaknesses, but the orc had found legends of some use in this regard. It was difficult to obtain volumes while on campaign, but the war come to an end eventually. His aspect should allow him to Find something worth the perusal, given enough time. Adjutant felt a bundle of power kin to his own approach and turned to watch the tent’s flap be pushed aside in time for Catherine to join them. It was always a surprise to see how short she truly was, though he knew better than to remark on it.
Her skin, always tan, had grown darker during the march through Summer. Her face had been sharp since he’d first lain eyes on her, but it was even sharper now. Had been ever since she’d killed the Duke of Violent Squalls, and he felt the old well of pride whenever he thought of that. A few loose strands of hair swept over her forehead, and though the others would not have noticed he saw she was tired. It lay in the way her eyes were tighter, more guarded. As if she expected someone to take advantage of it. She was also in a foul mood, but that was made rather obvious by the way she glared at him and flipped him a golden aurelius. He caught it smoothly.
“Don’t be smug about it,” the Vicequeen of Callow warned him.
“You froze the table,” he stated.
“I froze the table,” she sighed.
Archer’s snort echoed loudly.
“I had it under control, before Masego did his heart shenanigans,” she complained. “Now it’s like I’m starting from scratch.”
“I deeply apologize for increasing your power tenfold,” Hierophant huffed.
Catherine’s eyes swept around the tent, coming to rest on the chairs Archer had been lounging on earlier.
“So that’s where those went,” she mused. “Archer?”
“It could have been Thief,” the culprit protested.
“If it was they’d be in the bag,” Catherine said. “Although, Thief, if I have to hear Ratface whine about the rate our paring knives are disappearing at one more time I will be cross.”
“I’ve too many anyway,” Thief drawled, retreating from his back. “A pleasant meeting, Squire?”
She grabbed a chair and slumped onto it.
“I swear, it’s like the Gods made a fucking condescension tree and Kegan dropped from the branches fully grown,” she savagely said. “And Ranker’s actually worse, if you can believe it. Not even Robber enjoys being a prick that much.”
From the corner of his eye Hakram saw Thief hide a smile. Catherine had always had a way with words. The way Nauk told it, when they’d first met she’d been so bluntly insulting in Kharsum after he’d provoked her that he’d almost been speechless.
“You should kill one,” Archer suggested. “People always get more respectful after that.”
“Don’t tempt me,” Catherine muttered. “What are we playing? And tell me someone has wine.”
“Shatranj,” Masego said. “I am crushing Hakram.”
The dark-haired woman glanced at the board.
“Are you?” she said. “Can’t tell. Never learned how to play.”
“Would have thought the Carrion Lord would have slipped that in between lessons,” Thief drawled. “Seems up his alley.”
“He actually hates the game,” Catherine mused. “Has a whole speech and everything.”
“We can teach you, then,” Adjutant said, and hastily began to put the pieces back to their starting position.
Archer had been right. Another eight movements and he was done. Hierophant’s immediate protests that he’d been about to win filled the room, though not as loudly as Archer’s laughter. Thief produced a wineskin with a flourish of the wrist, and seemed deeply amused by the fact that no one bothered to ask where she’d obtained it. The Woe, was it? That could wait until the light of day. They were due, he thought, the occasional warm evening.