“And so Maleficent said: ‘Though you be god I am Empress, crowned of dread, and by my hand comes your doom. Rage in vain, for from your bones will rise a great tower whose shadow will be cast upon all the world.’”
– Extract from the Scroll of Chains, first of the Secret Histories of Praes
The fortress that lay at the heart of Dormer jutted out incongruously, great jaws of granite gaping down at a city that had known only peace for centuries. The seat of power of the barony had been built in tiers, an elegant ring of grey stone making the first. The was power here, and not young. Though no moat had been dug into the hill, the empty circle around the castle would been a shooting gallery to bleed an investing host were the walls manned at all. But there was not a soul in sight, the faint night breeze lazily winding through deserted bastions. No contest of our advance had been made as we approached, only flames in the distance betraying the truth that Summer had yet to surrender. The pace had been irritatingly slow due to Thief’s hobbling, but I had mastered my anger before it could lash out. There were more deserving targets for my wrath than those who had fought and burned for me.
The gate was the sole concession the Barons of Dormer had made to concord, sculpted columns of marble and ivory built over the ancient rough gate and portcullis hidden away by the younger arch displaying the words and heraldry of House Kendall: Honour Lies Immortal, written along the curve of the wreath of ivy. I strode past the pale marble steps, the faces of the ancient rulers of the city staring back at me from the shadowed reliefs. Scenes of glory one and all, from the founding of Dormer to the first oaths sworn to House Alban when Callow was made a single kingdom. There were lies unspoken in this, victories made false by denial of failure. Winter pulsed in my veins, itching to take blade to the unsightliness. I breathed out mist and crushed the impulse. You serve me, I whispered at the cold. Never the other way around. The urges were more insidious than those my Name still caused, my own thoughts painted with a Winter brush.
The portcullis was closed, bands of steel tightly wedged into granite, and perhaps before I would have sought one of the servant entrances. But what did mere steel mean to me now? My gauntleted hands clasped around two bars, and the metal screamed as I ripped open a path. No more difficult than snapping a branch, and Winter murmured in delight at the destruction.
“That’s one way to do it, I suppose,” Archer said.
The first words spoken since we’d left the field where so many of my men lay dead. I did not glance back as I stepped into the courtyard. To the side I could see the smouldering ashes of what had once been stables built around the wall, but I had no interest in sightseeing. In the distance, at the heart of the fortress, I could feel a gate in the making. Not at all like mine, where my will was a knife used to cut through the boundary between Creation and Arcadia. Someone had built a canal on the other side, and was now carefully prying open the lock. The river would pour through unimpeded, when the time came, and sweep away everything that stood in its way. A Queen is a god in the flesh, I thought. No creature so powerful can lightly cross boundaries.
“There is a ward ahead,” Hierophant said, studying a handful of shining runes. “Barring the inner reaches of the fortress.”
“It will break,” I said.
The hall we strode through was old as the walls, the raw stone made to look luxurious by tapestries and and hanging drapes in the green of Kendall heraldry. The Proceran carpets under our boots had already been singed by the fae who’d once held the fortress, the edges of blackened and twisted. Stairs rose ahead into a balustrade, sculpted ivy leaves shaping the railing. We had not succeeding in getting our hands on plans of the fortress, before the battle, but I could feel the gate-to-be like the north of a compass. Further in, where the great hall where the Baroness of Dormer had once held justice and audience before the Tower stripped her of right and title both for her rebellion. How long had this castle stood, I wondered? There might be nothing left of it but rubble, when dawn came. I guided us through the corridors, the power wafting from me eagerly scattering the last wisps of Summer’s presence in little tufts of hissing steam. The air grew cool and crisp wherever we passed, and more than once I felt Hierophant shiver.
We found the ward as we emerged from the corridor that would lead us to the great hall, its copper gates laying wide open behind it. A wall, though one of woven sunlight and shivering golden Summer flame. I could feel it spread beyond my sight, a great cage of power crafted to protect the arrival of the Queen of Summer.
“How long will it take you to open a way, Hierophant?” Adjutant asked.
My sword left its sheath with a quiet hiss before the blind man could reply. I struck out, boots leaving trails of ice behind as my blade rammed against the light. The walls shook around us, but the ward stood strong.
“Knocking at the door might take a while,” Archer noted, sounding amused.
“I can walk through,” Thief rasped. “If Hierophant tells me how to unmake it from the inside-“
“Break,” I hissed.
I opened the floodgates in full, let Winter pour through my veins and seep into the most destructive of my aspects. My blood was cold, I only now noticed. It had been for some time. Yet I felt no weaker for it, the frost instead lending a sharp clarity that it had once taken effort to reach. Duchess, I thought. My will found easier purchase when bending Creation to its will. Shade and ice flared along the edge of my sword as it struck the ward and for a heartbeat it felt like I was trading blows with the Duke of Green Orchards again. Then the ward broke, as I’d ordered it to. Stone around us shattered as well, the walls anchoring the sorcery torn through as the ward desperately scrabbled to remain coherent. There was a sliver of life in it, a will to guide it. Had they sacrificed a fae to forge this? No matter. Ice smothered that wisp of thought, blanketing the corridor. I resumed marching through the ruins surrounding us, the wide doors of copper held up only by a thin arc of granite as I passed through them. Adjutant caught up to me first, leaning close.
“Catherine,” he murmured, though we both knew the others would be able to hear anyway. “Calm yourself, before you begin making mistakes.”
“I am calm,” I replied, and I was. “What I am is out of patience. If it gets in my way, it dies. We’re past half-measures, Adjutant.”
The orc looked as if he wanted to argue, but I was disinclined to allow it. The great hall lay spread out before us, a shabby thing compared to those I had walked in the Tower. Long tables on both sides flanked a supplicant’s path leading to stone platform set against the back wall and the tall glass windows over it, the dying moon cloaking the simple bench of whitewood on it in a halo of light. There, I thought. The crossing would take place there. Let it not be said the Queen of Summer would ever settle for less than a throne, in any world she strode. Hierophant came to stand by my side as the others milled around the hall.
“Still the better part of an hour before dawn, by my calculations,” the mage said.
“There’s no need to wait that long,” I said. “Implement the contingency.”
Eyes of glass shifted to me under black cloth, a brow rising.
“You know my study of the sun is incomplete,” Hierophant said. “Should I be forced to loose the arrow the Due would be comparable to that of the very event that named the concept. There will be no city left, no armies, and it is unlikely anything will grow of these grounds before Creation is unmade.”
“One does not call a god to heel without risking calamity,” I said.
“I want to work a pathing spell on your mind,” he said. “This is reckless even by your standards.”
“Winter has nothing to do with this,” I said. “But if it will make you feel better, by all means.”
His touch against my forehead was surprisingly warm, as was the sorcery that seeped into my mind. I could feel it curling like smoke along my thoughts, until finally he withdrew.
“It is influencing you,” he said.
“But,” I said.
“No more than the mantle of your Name,” he admitted. “Your mind is still your own.”
I heard Archer let out a baited breath, behind me. Hierophant no longer quibbled after that. It was a wonder, watching him work. I’d seen him weave sorcery before, even High Arcana, but this went a step beyond. Eyes closed, heartbeat almost still, the blind man crafted me a miracle. It was not runes that he threaded together but echoes of things he had seen, flickers of great feats he had witnessed. I saw his father’s silhouette standing before a tower that built itself turning into the Princess of High Noon with her hands raised, a pyramid of blood-streaked mud lying at the heart of a maze melding with a glimpse of a city rising into the sky. Pillars of translucent, shimmering power struck the ground in a perfect circle around him and I felt their reach rise through the ceiling into the night sky above. Eventually, he opened his eyes.
“Thief,” he said. “Release the sun.”
The burns on the heroine’s face had peeled off, replaced by red and tender skin through healing magic, and so I read the hesitation on her face plainly.
“There is no need to be afraid,” I said.
No, not us. Not today. She nodded slowly, and fingers found the pouch at her side.
“Here it goes,” she said, and opened it.
The glare was blinding, for a heartbeat. Hierophant’s unearthly ward caught it whole, drawing it to the pillars as even the coldness coming from my frame was swept away by the raging heat. And then it dimmed, as suddenly as it had come. The mage grunted in effort. It hurt my eyes to look at it, but I did not look away: I might never see such a sight again. The ceiling above us was not torn through so much as it evaporated, the fortress around us melting like butter in the heat. The sun of Summer rose into the sky, chasing night away, and with it came dawn. I turned my eyes to the dais as the lock gave and the Queen of Summer came, granted entry by our will. There was no gate. Between two moments, absence was filled a young girl. Golden curls streaming down her white robe, she still looked half a child and every inch a farmer’s daughter. There was nothing unearthly about her tan and her dimples, or those brown eyes that could have belonged to any mortal. The left side of her body was touched with red, bandages peeking through the collar of her robe. Ranger had wounded her, at least.
“Oh, children,” she sadly said. “You know not what you do.”
It would have thought her mortal, if not for the hint of pressure behind her. Like she was the seal on a boundless ocean that could sweep over Creation at any time. Winter coiled inside me, frozen furious hatred that wanted to rip her small frame apart no matter the cost to me or anyone else. I ignored it.
“You have been summoned,” I said, “to discuss terms of surrender.”
“Come to me, my armies,” the Queen said.
I did not need to look to know every fae in Dormer had taken to the sky, the words touching their minds. The city emptied in moments as wings flared and the tide of soldiers flowed towards us. Hierophant staggered as if hit in the guts, blood whetting his lips. The Princess of High Noon, I thought, had just been freed from her prison. Over the molten ruins of the fortress surrounding us ranks upon ranks of soldiers and pennants stood perched in silence, more arriving every heartbeat, and only then did the Queen turn her eyes to me.
“So many dead,” she mourned. “You have earned him victory with your blood, Duchess. Yet Summer does not surrender. You know this. You have seen it with your own eyes.”
“You have three duties,” I said.
“She’s trying for the sun,” Hierophant said, tone alarmed.
“Destroy it, Masego,” I said.
It was with vicious satisfaction that I saw surprise twist the Queen’s face.
“A desperate lie,” she said, but I felt her power still. “You would destroy us all. Break this land beyond mending.”
It wasn’t fear I saw in those eyes, not exactly. I wasn’t sure she really could be afraid. But there was uncertainty. Hesitation. Three words, and I had stayed the hand of a god. My lips twitched, and strange joy bubble up in my chest. I laughed, loudly, and allowed a hard grin to split my face.
“If I can’t win, you misbegotten thing, then we will all lose,” I hissed. “Look into my eyes. Tell me again I’m lying.”
I would have rocked back, had I not gone through the crucible of standing judgement before the Hashmallim. An entity infinitely greater than I enveloped everything that I was, will beyond comprehension taking sight of everything that I was and had been. The Beast coiled at my side and whispered back. Whether they be gods or kings or all the armies in Creation. The Queen of Summer flinched.
“Madness,” she said, appalled.
“I am a villain,” I laughed. “I stand before you the pupil of a madman, heiress to a thousand years of darkness and terror. Test me again and I will make this a wasteland to have even the Gods shudder.”
“Summer does not retreat,” the Queen said, and it rang like a thunderclap.
“Summer has lost,” I replied unblinkingly. “As we speak the Prince of Nightfall breaches the walls of Aine, the city you are sworn to protect. Around you stands the butchered remnants of your host, awaiting doom at Winter’s hand. And in my palm lies your Sun, three words away from destruction. The Laurel Crown has three duties, and in those three duties you have failed.”
There was a moment of silence, before the Queen sighed.
“And so comes the dying of the light,” she murmured. “The wheel spins, Catherine Foundling. To end is to begin. We will not go with a whimper.”
My heart would have thundered, if I still had one.
“Or,” I said. “I could give you exactly what you want. Aine safeguarded. Winter unmade. The Sun returned to your sky.”
“You promise beyond your ability,” she said.
“All I require from you is a word, and you will get your wish,” I smiled. “And I ask a boon granted, for what I deliver to you.”
She studied me again, tasted the truth of my words.
“This,” she said, “has never happened before.”
“And never will again,” I said.
“I will hear the terms of the bargain offered,” the Queen of Summer said.
It was no coincidence it happened the moment she spoke the words. The grooves carved into Creation would have ensured as much, smoothly turning truth to story. Coincidence that was anything but. At my side power coalesced, stealing the efforts of Summer to allow its ruler to cross as a path of its own. A circle left open closed, as with a sharp smile the King of Winter came into Creation to face his created opposite. Sleek and dark-skinned and crowned in dead wood seeping red, the fae breathed in the air of Creation with relish.
“Oh, what a beautiful morning,” he said.
“Treachery,” the Queen of Summer said, words ringing of steel and the death of men.
“Ever a favoured diversion,” the King agreed. “Though I come for something… stranger.”
He turned his eyes on me, the gaze of a teacher pleasantly surprised by a pupil. I itched to carve them out of his skull, and not using something sharp.
“With your permission, Duchess?” he said.
“According to the terms offered by Her Dread Majesty,” I replied.
“You will have your boon, greedy one,” he said. “Ah, but what a daughter of Winter you make. Is she not delightful, Ista?”
I grit my teeth to get through the pain of hearing the name of the Summer Queen spoken, feeling Masego go rigid as a board as he did the same. Coat of black sweeping behind him, the man walked to his enemy and with a flourish he knelt.
“Ista of the Morning Star,” he said. “Bearer of the Laurel Crown, Queen of Summer Triumphant. I ask your hand in marriage, to rule Arcadia an equal by my side.”
He extended his own smoothly. One word, I’d told the Queen. She could still have it all, if she only said yes. The armies of Winter would end the assault of Aine, I would return the Sun and Winter would be undone. I watched the kneeling fae with cold, cold smile. I’d made an oath, once that I would unmake him. And I just had, with him having to thank me for it. There will be no more Winter, I thought. Only a single court ruling Arcadia, neither and both. The Empress had been right. The pivot was always going to be the Winter King, because he was the only entity that would see my preferred outcome as a victory. It had all hinged on him agreeing, because he was the oddity and he could make decisions that led outside the stories he despised. Summer would have to be forced, I’d known from the start, and I’d done exactly that. The Queen would agree, because she could not do otherwise. She was bound to seek to discharge her duties, and I’d put her in a corner with acceptance as the only way out. To refuse here would mean actively going against what she was, and she could not physically do that. Black had told me once that I’d kill Akua, one of these days, not because of my own power but because her nature would force her to make mistakes I would not. I wondered if he would proud, that I had used his lesson to destroy two gods without lifting a finger against either of them.
“I accept your offer,” the Summer Queen said, taking his hand, and I could see the horror on her face.
She was fighting it, trying to take back the words. But she couldn’t, just like the Rider of the Host I’d once forced to monologue by playing the hero. The change that followed the words was hard to describe. It wasn’t something I saw or felt. Neither of them metamorphosed into something different. But it was no longer two separate entities that were before me. I’d heard a riddle once, in Laure. When is a stone not as stone – when it is a wall. Nothing changed, yet it was not the same. The king rose to his feet, and pressed a tender kiss on the cheek of the livid queen.
“And so the war comes to a close,” the King of Arcadia said. “A realm cannot be at war with itself.”
A shiver went through the host of fae around us, as is something had been torn out of them.
“The matter of boons remains,” the Queen of Arcadia said, and the eyes she turned on me were burning. “Promises must be kept.”
I stood before two gods and did not kneel. I would not, in this moment, pretend this was anything but my win. That I’d bled thousands on the field, caused the death of men dear to me for anything less but utter victory.
“Upon the granting, you will have discharged your duty to me,” the King said. “And so will have earned the return of your heart. What do you request of us, Duchess of Moonless Nights?”
“Of you, I request release from vassalage forevermore,” I told the fae.
“I am most saddened to grant this,” the dark-skinned king said.
He did not seem surprised. I turned my eyes to the queen. I would have to tread carefully, here. If I fumbled the phrasing, she’d do her best to fuck me over. The temptations lay in the back of my mind, beckoning sweetly. To go back on my deal with the Empress and request that the whole of Arcadia come together to kill Diabolist. But she’s not wrong. They’ll wreck the entire central plains to do it, and we’d be risking some fae influence remaining. And there was another, young but no less demanding for it. I could ask them to heal Nauk. It would be a trifle, to them. But there might be other means to save my legate. And I would never get this chance again. A heroine, I thought, would have made the right choice. The only justifiable one. But I was not a heroine, and justifications only mattered to the just.
I spoke, and betrayed a man I called my friend.
“Of you I ask permanent right of passage through Arcadia for me and all I command, uncontested and unhindered,” I said, voice hollow.
“I grant you this,” the Queen replied curtly.
“And so peace is upon us,” the King said. “Steel yourself, Catherine Foundling.”
I felt the hand tear through my chest before I could even open my lips, and the world went dark.