“Never wound a man you do not intend to kill.”
– Extract from the personal journals of Dread Emperor Terribilis II
It was a strange thing, to bury a man. Of the Praesi only the Soninke shared the custom, and even then only the highborn who boasted ancient labyrinth-mausoleums of baked mud to receive their own. Peasants and Taghreb burned their dead instead, save for those who had sold their remains to corpse-raisers while they still lived. There were no ancient mazes in the Green Stretch, and the dues to the dead were different for Duni. It was said that some of Amadeus’ people still kept to the Gods Above in hidden places, conducting rituals even without priests to bless them, but his family had not been so twisted. Mother had proudly served in the Legions, after all, and thought little of the ornate boot-licking westerners called religion. Yet Duni buried their dead like Callowans did, the nature of that half-stolen custom changed by centuries upon centuries of Praesi rule and all that came with it. The Squire’s shovel patted the surface of the freshly turned wet black earth, the last grave he would dig today.
There were four of them. Father, Clarent, Belladona and Valerius. He’d not spoken to any of them since deserting the Legions, and the first time in three years he’d laid eyes on his family had been to see them crucified by the burnt-out husk of the farm. The Heir had not needed to sign his work, for he had already boasted of it. Discipline, he’d called it, for a mudfoot who did not understand his place in the world. The Soninke had not well taken his defeat in Callow, the way Ranger’s knowledge of the lay of the land had allowed Amadeus to lead the paladins to his enemy’s camp instead of his own. Sabah had offered to help him dig, meaning kindness though the offer was ignorant. Wekesa had not, no more learned in Duni customs but instinctively knowing the offer would be crossing a boundary. It was Hye, in her own cold way, who had honoured his family. She’d stood vigil at his side in silence as he dug, a sacrifice of hours freely offered to people she had never met.
Amadeus wedged the shovel into the ground and stood by the unmarked graves he’d dug by the side of Mother’s. Silently, he unsheathed a knife and split open his palm. Passing from grave to grave he trickled droplets of red the way he had been taught even as his companions stood behind him, still and quiet. There would be incomprehension on their faces, he knew. Praesi knew well the power of blood, but were wary of spilling their own. There were many rituals a skilled mage could work, with such a reagent. But there were no consecrated grounds in the Stretch, to prevent corpse-theft, and the Tower did not care to chastise necromancers that kept to the practice if their birth was high enough. The spilling of blood, to Duni, was an oath. ‘They who marked that grave in red will seek redress, should this grave be disturbed.’ He could have spoken the word, but he alone stood pale-skinned on this field. There would have been no meaning in it.
He had wept, taking them down from the crosses, but the tears had dried and left nothing behind. Amadeus did not recognize his own voice when he told the others to leave him to the vigil, to be stood until the moon rose. It was too raw a thing to be his, absent of calm and thought. They deferred, though before long Ranger returned to his side. Hye knew no commands but her own desires.
“We’ll kill him for this,” she whispered, standing at his side.
The green-eyed man smiled.
“The Heir,” he said, “meant to cloud my mind. Fill it with grief and anger. Unusually clever of him, truth be told. I lose much if I lose my distance from it all.”
“It always turns on them, plots like this,” the half-elf said. “They get more than they bargained for.”
Amadeus studied the palm he had cut mere hours ago, finding it perfectly smooth. It would not scar. Wounds on Named rarely did, lest they were dire or meaningful. He wondered what kind of man it made him, that this was not meaningful to him. He wondered if he should grieve that he could not manage to care. Had he been this cold, before he became the Squire? It was hard to remember.
“He made a mistake,” the Duni said. “Not the one you believe this. This is just… insufficient.”
Ranger did not answer. She’d always had a talent for that, knowing when to fill silence and let it stand.
“I believed I loved them,” Amadeus said. “But I killed them, Hye, the moment I claimed my Name. I always knew that. Stories require clean breaks. We cannot have homes to return to, however humble they may be.”
“You absolve him for this act?” the honey-skinned woman asked.
“No, not that,” the man murmured. “Never that. One must stand responsible for one’s actions. But it would be unseemly, to blame solely his hand for this end. If not him, Creation would have seen to the matter otherwise. Paladins venturing deeper into the Stretch, perhaps. Or wisps of a faraway ritual poisoning them in agony. Foe would have been provided, Ranger. Evil ever grows through conflict.”
“You could have fought it,” she said.
“And lost,” he replied. “Creation can be gamed. We have proved this. But it cannot be overturned. There are lessons to be learned from the Tyrants of old. Power is not earned with clean hands. Their mistake was only to think bloodying them anew will always bring gain.”
He saw Ranger’s lips quirk into a rueful smile.
“And now you debate philosophy over fresh graves,” she said. “Your grief lasted as long as the tears.”
“I began grieving them the moment I became the Squire,” Amadeus said. “This will not turn my path, Hye. A loss has been added to the tally, that’s all. There will be many, many more.”
“And love?” she said.
“A sweet thing, to be sure,” the Squire said. “But love is not what I bared my blade for.”
She laughed, quietly.
“You’re not boring at all, are you?” she said. “The blood you spilled, what does it mean?”
“An oath,” Amadeus said. “A warning.”
Ranger’s knife glinted silver in the dark as she cut her palm, joining her blood to his own on the dark earth. He met her eyes and wondered what was watching him back, that hard and blazing thing that had his heart skipping a beat.
“And now what, Squire?” she teased.
“I read a play once,” Amadeus replied. “Forbidden by Imperial decree. There is a part I enjoyed, and it goes like this-”
His voice carried, without ever rising in tone.
“Be fearful now
my reach is long
my wrath is great
above or below.”
Hye’s answering smile was a thing of death and Amadeus looked away, staring up at the stars and letting his grief ebb to the sound of grinding wheels of steel.
I woke to a riot of light. I was naked, I promptly noticed, and on a bed of stone. I did not feel the cold in the slightest, which I did not take to mean much considering I similarly felt nothing of twin clamps and scalpel someone had shoved into my chest. Masego, unsurprisingly sitting at my bedside with his brow creased, idly dismissed a rune that had formed to the side of his head without looking away.
“Don’t move,” he ordered. “This is precision work.”
“Good morning to you too,” I croaked, forcing myself to remain still.
“It’s past Noon Bell,” he noted.
It said a lot about my life these days that I was largely unmoved by the sight of a man sitting by my naked body elbow-deep in my chest without my say-so. His free hand reached for the scalpel, delicately set aside, and the fingers I couldn’t see pivoted something inside my body. There was a click, felt though not heard, and I felt Winter bloom through my veins. The well, I realized with widened eyes, was not gone. The mantle was still laid upon my shoulders. Taking out something that looked like a torturer’s tool out of me, Hierophant clicked his tongue in satisfaction. He prodded with a long rune-covered stick at what should have been my lungs, by the angle, and though my body felt nothing I could feel something pressing against Winter. With a nod, he set aside the stick and removed the clamps.
“It’ll take at least a sennight to settle properly,” he said. “But the working was successful.”
“Now,” I said, “would be a good time to explain what exactly you did.”
I was a little amused that neither of us cared all that much about my nakedness, but set that aside in favour of actually learning what the Hells was going on.
“Neither your soul nor your body could support the title without the metaphysical stabilizer the king replaced your heart by,” the blind man said. “Your power began destroying your body the moment he removed it, and the edges of your soul were fracturing.”
“You predicted as much,” I said. “Didn’t you carve some sort of protection on my ribs when you tinkered with the moon?”
“My calculations were inaccurate,” he said, and he sounded deeply pained. “The runes shattered within the first hour. You are the last titled entity of Winter, Catherine. That had unforeseen consequences.”
I rose to a sitting position, and spied neatly-folded clothes on a chair to my right. Ah, Hakram, you prince among men. I put a shirt on, though I couldn’t be bothered to hop around putting on trousers and underclothes before I got a full explanation out of Masego.
“So things got fucked,” I summarized. “How’d that translate to ‘get elbow-deep inside Catherine without even buying her a bottle first’?”
“I wish you would rephrase that,” he sighed. “I created an artificial framework around your soul to support the power. To anchor it properly into you, there was need for some surgical work.”
“So it’s all good,” I proposed.
“To an extent,” he conceded. “The power is no longer entirely intrinsic.”
“What do entrances have to do with this?” I said, grinning wretchedly and with full awareness if what I was doing.
He visibly twitched, to my delight.
“Intrinsic,” he insisted. “Meaning-“
“We all know what entrances are, Masego,” I interrupted smoothly. “What does that mean, practically speaking?”
“That the framework can be attacked,” he said through gritted teeth. “Through sorcerous means. It can also only withstand the fullness of your power for some time, at least until I’ve put together a stronger array. That may take months, there is no precedent for this I am aware of.”
“So you put scaffolding around my soul,” I mused.
“An uneducated yokel might describe my work in such a manner, yes,” he said.
“And mages can take an axe to the scaffolding if they know what to look for,” I continued. “Which would be bad.”
“Yes, Catherine, someone ripping out a working attached to your very soul would be ‘bad’,” he hissed. “How astutely deduced of you.”
“Are we talking decked in the face by Captain bad, or ‘oh shit I just mouthed off to the Hashmallim’ bad?” I squinted.
“That is not a quantifiable scale,” he began, but rallied valiantly. “Are you familiar with the concept of cascading failures?”
“The Wasaliti doesn’t have falls on it, Masego,” I told him helpfully. “You really should have paid closer attention when you studied geography.”
The dark-skinned man opened his mouth, closed it, then rose to his feet.
“I wash my hands of this,” he announced. “We’ll finish this talk when you’re capable of taking anything seriously.”
“Don’t be like that, Zeze,” I grinned.
I put my hand over my heart in a solemn oath.
“I promise not to yank your chain anymore,” I lied.
He studied me for a long moment.
“You always say that,” he complained. “But you never do.”
He was learning, I would give him that much. He promised to send in Hakram on his way out, after giving me long enough to get dressed so I would not offend Adjutant’s delicate orcish sensibilities. I’d screwed with him mostly because it amused me, but there’d been the shadow of another intent in there. A little time alone to process the Name dream I still remembered with eerie clarity would not go amiss. There was a lot to parse there, aside from a few revelations I could have done without – namely that watching Black turn into the Carrion Lord had got Ranger going and that she probably saw taking out knives as foreplay. I was not overly surprised on either count. My Name had always been heavy-handed with the hints and I knew better than to always follow the vague advice the dreams carried with them, but this one had been particularly direct. My teacher had buried his family, and odds are before the day was done I’d have to light John Farrier’s pyre. A sweet thing, to be sure, but love is not what I bared my blade for. Fresh on the back of my hesitating to ask Nauk’s healing as a boon, that struck particularly close to home.
There were dangers to caring for my men, and considering setting aside a war-winning trump card for a single man to wake again made them stand out starkly. My Name was telling me to grow harsher. That the moment I’d let the Lone Swordsman go I’d begun a path that would be paved with the corpses of foes and friends alike. There was truth in that I could not deny. If what I set out to accomplish was greater than any of the myriad souls that made the whole, I should not flinch in the face of sacrificing any of them. To do otherwise would be crippling myself from the onset. The priests of the House of Light would have called that embarking on the path to damnation, but oh that ship had sailed long ago hadn’t it? I found it hard to reconcile the smiling man I trusted with the man bathed in starlight speaking those quiet words, but they were one and the same. Neither false, perhaps, but if they ever came at odds I knew which would win. I had seen the Black Knight’s face bared of the pretence of civility.
“You’re telling me to let go,” I murmured.
I’d never been particularly good at that. I wasn’t sure I wanted to start. You could win wars, I knew, without thinking like him. Without tallying it all in my mind, staring at Creation through the prism of gain and loss. But I remembered the sight of the burnt skull of a man who’d trusted me, believed in me, and I could not help but wonder if I might have avoided that if… Some Empress or other had once said that the worst sin a villain could commit was hesitate. She’d not been wrong. Every moment I spared to gaze at my hands and ask whether there was too much blood on them or not enough, my enemies were moving. Growing in strength as I stood still. There is a point where continuing to ask a question makes it meaningless, because Creation has already passed you by. Diabolist would not care for my qualms. Neither would the Empress, or the First Prince or whatever greater threat lurked behind them because wasn’t there always something larger? I smiled bitterly. I was, in the end, a practical woman. It mattered more to live than to be someone I could live with.
I slipped on the rest of my clothes in silence, and was fitting my boots when Adjutant rapped his knuckles against the door. I called out for him to enter.
“Cat,” he said, studying me closely. “How are you feeling?”
“Like the war’s not over,” I said bluntly. “Report.”
“You were under for a day and a night,” he said. “The Deoraithe are getting restless, you’ll need to settle the Duchess soon. I’ve had Robber watch them, there’s more to this than just wanting to strike at Diabolist. The Watch are acting oddly.”
“Akua’s making her move,” I grunted. “I suppose I should be thankful she didn’t show up in the middle of the battle to fuck everything up.”
“She is no longer in a position where she can move quietly,” Adjutant noted. “She must be very, very careful. If she slips now, even once, it will be the end of her.”
“Fifteenth?” I asked, steeling myself.
“Casualties were significant,” he grimaced, unknowingly baring fangs. “The fight for the upper ring bled us dry.”
“Give me numbers,” I said.
“Aisha’s still tallying them,” he said.
“You don’t have to coddle me,” I said flatly. “It’s been more than a day. The captains will have handed in their reports.”
“We had another situation to deal with that delayed matters,” Hakram replied. “Diabolist sent envoys. They’re currently awaiting audience with you outside the city.”
I heard the leather rip as my fingers tightened around it. Fuck. One of these days I was going to be able to take a nap without waking to a fire urgently in need of putting out, but evidently it wouldn’t be today.
“Get me another pair of boots,” I sighed.