“Men make swords, Heavens the sheath.”
– Callowan saying
The moon was out in full, and though part of me still grew irritated at the sight of the pale orb I’d learned to ignore it. I’d wondered once or twice at why the Winter King had granted me the title of Duchess of Moonless Nights, when his court had such a close association with the same celestial sphere. I still remembered the dream that had followed the usurpation, doubted I would ever forget even a single detail of it, and in it it’d been Summer that wanted to break the moon. Was that the intent from the beginning? To have it in my very mantle that I would seek to destroy you? Now and then I had to wonder who had really played who, when I’d tangled with the Deadwood Crown. If my every desperate gambit had been foreseen by the immortal thing that now ruled the whole of Arcadia, turned to his purposes. I could have lingered on that line of thought, and wanted to, but the feel of Kilian’s arm under mine was a reminder of why I’d begun this walk. I would not suffer cowardice from myself, not even in this.
Southern Callow took well to autumn, even at night. Though the shades of orange and gold some godly brush had painted across fields and trees could not be glimpsed after dark, there was an undercurrent of serenity to the country. Of peace, more than anywhere else in my homeland, for these parts had seen less of war than any of the rest. The last two years had been eager in attempting to make up that disparity, though even the worst of Summer was no match for centuries of Praesi invasion. I caught myself sidestepping the heart of this again, and clenched my fingers. The two of us moved in silence, away from the bonfire and closer to a small pond bordering wheat fields. The muddy banks were covered with footsteps from the soldiers who’d come here to fill canteens and barrels, but at this time of the night we were entirely alone. Except for the frogs, I thought, sharp ears catching echo of their song. We found a pair of carved stones by the shore, polished by what must have been decades of wind and rain, and sat there without a word.
The wind brushed the reeds ahead of us, and as I watched them I realized I had no idea what to say. A glance at Kilian told me her face was hesitant as well, though the reasons for it were her own. Some part of me thought there should be a physical weight to this, given how serious it all felt, but I found none on my shoulders. Something like a quiet laugh escaped my lips. Look at us, grim-faced as if the fate of the world rests in the balance of this conversation. Like this isn’t two girls of not even twenty summers settling a dispute of absolutely no import to Creation.
“Would you care to share the jest?” Kilian asked.
For a heartbeat I’d expected her to take my laugh as mockery, but that had been doing her disservice. She was not offended, merely curious. She’d never been the prickly one between us.
“I was considering matters of perspective,” I said.
I finally gave in to the urge I’d avoided all night and looked at her properly. She’d trimmed her hair. Last time we’d spoken it had been at the edge of what regulations allowed, but now it was in a clean pixie cut like when we’d first met. She was still, I thought, heartbreakingly lovely. Porcelain and flame framed hazelnut eyes, and the body I knew so intimately radiated a warmth I knew was completely imagined. Winter had seen to that. The mantle had done a great deal more, though. I’d been months since I needed to look at her to know she was there, ever aware of the measure of fae blood she carried in her veins, but as my power had grown so had that awareness. I was a Duchess, and she unsworn to any of the lords of the fae. There was a whisper in the back of my mind that spoke of mastery, of needing only to reach out and will it for her to kneel at my feet. The disgust that welled up in me at that spoiled what enjoyment I’d had of the peace and quiet.
“Great things,” Kilian said, “are made up of myriad smaller ones. I do not think import and magnitude necessarily walk hand in hand.”
A few sentences traded, and what I saw was our relationship made plain. I stepped away from it, making mixture of retreat and reason, while she stepped forward to bridge the gap at the cost of making herself the vulnerable one. There was, perhaps, expectation I would follow suit. But never demand. Time and distance had allowed me to see the boundaries we’d set more clearly, and the shred of shame I felt over them was well-deserved. There had never been anything equal about this, in what was given or received. The question that had hung in the air for the last few months was whether or not something that had never been balanced could be made so. Speaking with Hakram had broadened my outlook, but little else. I bared the blade first because in the end that was my nature, wasn’t it?
“Were you happy?” I asked. “Before.”
The redhead smiled, somewhat ruefully.
“You have a trick to tell when people lie, don’t you?” she said. “That does seem a mite unfair, going into this conversation.”
I looked away, gazing at the pond and the small ripple I could see a fish making as it swam.
“Of all the things that are unfair in this,” I said, “I would consider that a lesser measure.”
“The point of this,” she said, “was never for you to take lash to your back like an Ashuran supplicant. What has blame ever done to mend the world?”
“Ignoring fault is how tyrants are made,” I said.
“You are hardly that, Catherine,” she said, and without looking I felt her hand rise.
It hesitated, then went down again. I was uncertain whether or not to be glad.
“I was,” Kilian finally said. “Sometimes. Others not. We had our conversation because I feared one side would grow at the expense of the other.”
It had been kind of her to phrase it so delicately but the meaning was clear enough. Whatever had been good about it, for her, had been giving way to the bad. And I’d hardly noticed, my mind on a hundred other matters. The thing was, I did not have it in me to apologize for that. I wasn’t even sure she wanted me to. At the end of the day, my life didn’t come first. Neither did the people I shared it with. The lines I was willing to cross to ensure both of those were preserved had only grown in number, but that part of the matter remained unchanged. Because there’s a difference between important and important to me.
“You did most the talking, last time,” I said. “So I’ll get the wheel moving tonight.”
I itched to pick up a stone and toss it into the pond, anything to break the damned stillness that smothered the air around us, but I’d done quite enough running for the night.
“It was hypocritical of me to hold you up to standards that I break myself,” I admitted. “Standards I don’t even hold up everyone close to me to.”
Kilian brushed back her bangs, face wearing an expression I could not quite read.
“You thought well of me,” she said. “And so you thought I kept to the same principles as you. That’s not a crime, Catherine. It was just…”
“Presumptuous?” I suggested, a mirthless smile stretching my lips. “I placed expectations on you, then grew angry when you didn’t meet them. That’s on my head and no one else’s.”
Ferreting out exactly why I’d had those in the first place had been more delicate, the kind of introspection I was always reluctant to delve in. It hadn’t been that I cared for her, or at least not just that, because I cared for other people too. If Masego had spoken of a ritual fuelled by human sacrifice, would I have been angry? Yes, absolutely. But it would not have felt like a betrayal, the way it had with Kilian.
“I used you,” I said, tongue stumbling on the ugly word, “as a refuge. From all the dark shit that goes on in my life. And that meant I wanted you to keep your hands clean regardless of what you actually want. Or need.”
I felt her eyes lingering on me but did not meet them.
“I hadn’t thought you would actually admit that,” she said.
The faint surprise in her voice was probably the deepest cut she could have made, because she hadn’t meant it to be one at all.
“You once told me one of my virtues is recognizing when I’m wrong,” I said. “It’s fallen a bit to the wayside, lately, but it’s not gone.”
I’d made a lot mistakes, in the last two years. Won great victories too, but one did not excuse the other. I’d make more, because I had talents but also flaws and no matter what Warlock said in the end I was only human. But at least I could stop making them out of wilful ignorance. It wasn’t as much as I wished it could be. But it was what I could do. Power alone was never enough.
“I was not blameless, if we have to speak of it that way,” she said. “We did not have a conversation, last time. I’d made the decision before we ever spoke, and that was unfair to you.”
I nodded slowly. Silence followed, until I pushed forward.
“So what do you want, Kilian?” I asked quietly.
A lot could have been avoided, I thought, by asking that question a few years ago.
“Catherine, look at me,” she hissed.
Her emotions were roiling. I could feel that with my sense that wasn’t quite a sense. But it was in her voice I read the anger, and it surprised me enough I obeyed. She was, I realized, genuinely furious.
“Don’t do you fucking do this,” she said.
Irritation flared up.
“Do what?” I bit out, exasperated. “Amends? Gods, Kilian, I’m trying. What more do you want?”
Her cheeks were flushed red, and for a moment I felt like kissing her. It passed.
“You’re not trying,” she said. “You’re treating me like someone you have to bind to you. I’m not Hakram, Cat. Or Aisha. I know you. And this is what you do when you bring someone into the fold. You’re acting like I’m the enemy, not the girl who shared your godsdamned bed for two years.”
“I know a lot less about that girl than I thought I did,” I flatly replied. “I’m-“
I bit down on my tongue, took a deep breath.
“No,” Kilian said, eyes hard. “We’re not doing it like this. Like I’m a horse you have to soothe or a hound you have to feed. I’m not interested in the Squire, Cat. She has no place in this conversation.”
“I don’t know what you want from me, Kilian” I hissed. “I just tried asking and you bit my fucking head off.”
She met my gaze, the demand that I not look away laying bare.
“Do you really need that badly to be in control, even for this?” she asked. “Gods Below, Cat, there’s no one else here. Would it cost you that much to allow yourself to be a person for an hour?”
“Yes,” I said, and I was surprised by the fury in my own voice. “Because people break. People have limits. I can’t have that anymore, Kilian, not when I’m making pacts with the Empress and planning wars with Black. Legends don’t blink, and if I’m anything less than that we are fucked. Because they’re stronger and they have decades on me and Weeping Heavens, this entire Empire is a house of cards and everybody’s tugging at it. I am in over my head, I always was, and it is this close to catching up with me and everyone I’ve dragged into this.”
The only sound in the silence that followed was my panting breath, paired with the unpleasant realization I’d begun to speak furious and ended up pleading. I passed a hand through my hair, exhausted in a way my body no longer allowed me to be.
“I can’t do this, Kilian,” I whispered. “There are no good choices anymore, just a spread with different shades of horror that I’m forced to pick from. Every time I think it’s coming together another thing drops and I have to become a little worse to deal with it. By the time I finish what I set out to do, I’ll be more poisonous than what I wanted to break. And I can’t back out because the alternative is every single one of you dead. And you know what’s the part that actually grieves me? I did this. I got us here in this mess, and I would do it again. Because this is bigger than me or you or the others, and if that’s not ritual sacrifice by another name then I don’t know what is.”
All hail the Black Queen, I thought bitterly. I’d already put thousands to the sword to get here, what were a few thousand more for the pile? Blood was the grease in the wheels of Creation, and whose it was they cared not. Kilian reached over and slid her fingers through mine. I let her, though I knew I’d regret it.
“You are not alone,” she said.
Of course I was. Because at the end of the day I have the power, I have the authority, and no amount of love can fit two people on a single throne. I parted our hands and rose to my feet, brushing off my knees.
“Your ritual,” I said.
“Tonight doesn’t have to be about that,” Kilian said.
“It already is,” I replied steadily. “I have no grounds, as either the Squire or the Vicequeen of Callow, to tell you not to do it.”
The redhead frowned.
“And yet you still find the very notion repulsive,” she said.
“This isn’t about me,” I said. “That was the mistake from the start, thinking that it was. I will, one day, grind that practice into nonexistence. Because it offends me, because it is a blight on Creation and the way of thinking it spawns is my enemy. But until then, it is against no law or regulation. Do what you deem best.”
Her face went blank.
“That sounds,” she said, “like goodbye.”
“I love you,” I said. “I’ve never said it before, not like this, but I do. It didn’t really sink in until I saw the amount of principles I was willing to break to keep you.”
A shiver went through her frame.
“Is that supposed to make this better?” she said, voice raw.
“It was due, regardless,” I said. “You were always the one that reached out. But this was about being equals, wasn’t it? I don’t think that means power, or titles, or authority. It’s about neither of us being expected to bend our knees to the other’s beliefs.”
My hand rose, going for her cheek, but she shook her head.
“Don’t,” Kilian said. “Not if you’re going to excise me out of your life. It would be crueller than just walking away.”
“I’ll still care for you,” I said quietly. “That’s not going away. We are friends.”
The redhead smiled bitterly.
“You bloody fool,” she said. “Do you really think friends is what I want from you? Getting just a part of someone after having had all of them can’t be counted anything but a loss.”
I almost took it back, right there and then. I could still do it, I thought. Salvage something out of this mess. But I didn’t. I felt like weeping for what I was giving up on, but it’d been a long time since I’d been in tears and I wasn’t sure I still could. My mantle and my Name woke, intertwined beyond separation, and I could have shunted all this… tangle off into them. Let the cold clear it all away. But I was not yet so far gone, and so my hand came down instead. I did not say goodbye. It was too cheap and end for this. Instead I bowed my head, and left. Grace had never been my strength, and there’d been precious little of that on display tonight. I found my feet taking me back to camp instead of the bonfire, where I knew Hakram would be. I had no taste for the conversation that awaited there, would not for a long time. Instead I found a tent, still lit with magelight even at this hour, and let the wards wash over me as I entered. Black was seated on one of his rickety stools, his thin shirt for only armour as he poured over papers arrayed before him. He took one look at me, then let out a breath that was almost a sigh.
He leant back to claim a cup from his bedside and filled it with the wine at his table, pressing it into my hands. I could have sat across from him, but instead I went on his bed. I folded my knees against my chest and cradled the cup. I barely remembered what it had felt like, to be a child, but it must have been something like this. He did not speak, but neither did his eyes return to the papers.
“I met Ranger,” I heard myself say. “She almost killed me, in Arcadia.”
“So I’ve heard,” Black said. “She is… difficult at the best of times.”
It was not an apology, nor had I expected one. The Black Knight did not apologize for himself, much less others.
“But you love her,” I said.
He inclined his head in agreement.
“I have, on occasion, thought of it as a singular obsession,” he said. “But perhaps that is merely as close to love as I can manage, given what I am. It is enough for the both of us.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why do you love her?”
He smiled faintly.
“I have wondered the same for many years,” he said. “I have loved – still love – others, but never quite in that manner. In the end, I think it is because she does not need me.”
I drank from the cup, a bitter Wasteland red that lingered on the tongue. I was glad of it, in no mood for sweetness.
“Does it get easier?” I asked. “Carving away pieces?”
Pale green eyes met mine.
“Yes,” he said.
It was a lie. We both knew that. But I loved him a little, for saying it anyway.
The last part I remembered of that night was my father’s hands putting a blanket over me.