“Here, have a butter knife. Let it not be said I do not tend to the needs of my beloved subjects.”
– Dread Emperor Revenant, having dinner with an enemy
It was a pretty room, for an abattoir. As usual, Diabolist had indulged in a décor that was halfway between an overly ornate brothel and a cult’s secret altar. The walls were pure bas-relief of pale grey marble, and even as my body obeyed instructions not my own I caught glimpses of what they displayed. Hells, twenty-one layers of them forming progressively smaller circles centred around the pedestal in the centre of I tall. Braziers of blood-red flame cast flickering shadows that seemed to make the reliefs of the devils move just out of sight, but my attention rested squarely on the man hanging in the air. Above a raised pedestal Black was held up by golden bindings on his wrists and ankles that had him spread-eagle and incapable of moving anything but his neck, which he craned at an angle to watch us coming in.
“You’re late,” he told me, bluntly ignoring Akua.
Diabolist tittered amusedly. She was like a cat playing with a mouse, savouring the struggle before the inevitable kill.
“You may speak, Catherine,” she said, flicking her wrist.
I licked my lips, a rush of pleasure at getting back control of even just a part of my face spoiled only by the knowledge that she could take it back at a whim.
“She bound my Name,” I said. “I don’t control my body.”
Black had lost his helmet, at some point, and his face was bruised. His armour had been stripped as well, and that sight was foreign to me. Beyond the cuts and scrapes I knew mattered nothing to a villain as old and set in his self-image as my teacher – they would be gone soon enough, leaving not even scars – it was seeing him without the shell of steel that discomforted me. It made him look vulnerable. But his eyes were sharp as ever, and his pale green gaze turned to study Diabolist with disdain.
“Temporary enslavement, truly?” he said. “I expected better of Tasia Sahelian’s daughter.”
That drew blood, I saw with a smirk. There was a heartbeat of frozen fury in Akua’s eyes before she schooled herself into a blank mask.
“You killed barely a tenth of the soldiers I assigned to your capture, Lord Black,” Diabolist replied. “Today is a day for disappointments, it seems.”
Black seemed amused, and utterly unconcerned about the fact that he was trussed up like a pig for me to slaughter. That would have given me hope if I didn’t know for a fact he would behave exactly like this even if he had no last card up his sleeve.
“Arcadia was a mistake,” he told me, returning to ignoring Akua. “You won a greater comparative advantage in capacity, but in Arcadia narrative matters most of all. You lacked the necessary weight to win, Catherine. In the future, consult further than Hierophant. His lack of interest in stories is a glaring weakness.”
If I could frown at that, I would have. He knew for a sure I’d consulted others when planning this out: he’d been one of them.
“This is almost touching,” Diabolist drawled. “Fatherly Amadeus, advising his pupil to the end. Mother made you out to be much less sentimental.”
My teacher raised an eyebrow.
“Adults are talking,” he told her. “We can return to your wasteful little tantrum afterwards.”
“Perhaps a reminder of your current situation is in order,” Akua mildly said.
Her wrist flicked and the bindings stretched out. A series of sharp pops signalled his joints had given under the pressure.
“I’ve had worse sparring with Sabah,” he noted, face betraying not so much as a flicker of discomfort.
“It’s already a cloudy day, Black,” I said. “Strop trying to make it rain.”
Green eyes turned to me.
“There is wisdom in moderation,” he conceded.
Shit, there went my sudden hope. He’d given the correct answer to our identity key. Cloudy and rain were an inquiry, wisdom and moderation a confirmation. There shouldn’t be anyone else who knew the key. I tried to look at Diabolist but found I could not, my movement restricted. As good as an assurance she’d been looking at me.
“Why so quiet, Akua?” Black said. “Come now, if there is moment to gloat now is it.”
Diabolist slowly crossed the room until she stood by his side, her face remaining in a pleasant façade.
“This is not personal, Carrion Lord,” she said.
“Of course it is,” the pale-skinned man smiled. “You’ve sold your people the lie this is about the old ways and the new, but we both know otherwise. You’re not a mere reactionary. I stand for the order that has been keeping you contained for decades, and through my death you gain clear skies.”
“You have served Praes well,” Diabolist said. “And in this final act will serve it still. You may leave the stage knowing your labour will not go to waste.”
“You,” Black said, “are the incarnation of waste. Of every destructive instinct that must be carved out or repurposed lest we ever reach old ends through old means. Your accolades are as worthless as every single thing you’ve ever said and done. They will pass, and be forgotten. We will all be better for it.”
“Empty defiance,” Akua said. “A lesser end than you deserve, but that choice was not mine to make. Ill-done nonetheless. I will spare you further disgrace.”
My hand moved and unsheathed my sword, the sound of steel bared ringing too loudly in the room.
“Do you still believe it,” I asked suddenly. “That it’s cowardice?”
His gaze moved back to me, and what I saw there had my blood pounding against my ears. There was no fight in him.
“Proceed, child,” he told Diabolist. “Play out this farce to the end.”
She hesitated, in that moment. With her attention flagging I got the opportunity to watch her, and what I saw had my lips quirking. She was hesitating because she could not believe, deep down, that anyone would be unafraid of death. Because you are, I thought. So very, very afraid. Some ancient Alban king had once said that a man only began to live when he had something worthy dying for. I’d never really believed that, myself. If you really believed in something, you owed that belief that it be seen through to the bitter end. But Akua? Akua believed only in herself. She could not conceive of any victory that did not involve her breathing at the end, and applying that belief to Black she was being shaken by his indifference. Wondering if he had some last trick to save his own hide. The hesitation passed after she looked at the walls around us, at the runes hidden in the bas-relief, and reminded herself of the strength of her defences.
“Farewell, Carrion Lord,” Akua said. “Die knowing that the torch you now pass will cast a shadow on all of Creation.”
“Uninspired,” Black judged.
The sword went through his stomach. I’d not guided the blow, and it seemed his words had irked Diabolist enough she’d chosen to give him a slow death instead of a quick one. He gurgled and twitched as the dark-skinned woman stalked at my side. Laying a hand on my shoulder she leaned close to my ear.
“How does it feel,” she asked in a murmur, “to reach the dawn of what you were meant to be?”
I wasn’t the one to answer. A laugh came ripping out of a throat that was patched together from half a dozen voices, hoarse and soft but all whispering.
“Akua Sahelian,” the thing kept in bindings said, “Diabolist.”
Even as it bled out, slowly crawling to death, its skin was flaking off. Beneath the appearance of my teacher was a middle-aged Soninke of the same build. Then it was a young Taghreb woman. Every blink had a different face to it, and the longer I watched the less I could remember about any of them. Akua stepped away from me like she’d been burned.
“Assassin,” she said. “No, a fake. You are in Procer, I know it. The Prince of Orne died choking on his own correspondence.”
Ah, I thought as an old detail finally clicked into place. It’d always niggled at me, that Black’s favourite executioner would have a signature. His little ironic deaths. Wasn’t half the point of having a skilled assassin that the enemy never knew you’d killed one of their own at all? The point of a signature, I grasped, was that people recognized it. Watched out for it. It’s like the Eyes of the Empire, I thought. The deadly hidden in the obvious. How many people has Assassin killed over the years that had perfectly natural accidents no one ever thought to question? Then it sunk in that the fucking Assassin knew the identity key I shared with Black, and my blood ran cold. Even knowing it had been a measured risk on his part, the fact that at any time in the last year I might have been talking with this monster instead of mine and never known it was sobering.
“You die nonetheless,” Diabolist sneered.
“A hundred times before,” Assassin said in that voice was not a voice. “A hundred times more.”
Akua’s hand whipped up, a spear of black flames formed and tearing through the other’s villains guts in moments.
“Where is your father, child?” the Assassin said. “The Carrion Lord sends his regards.”
And then it laughed, laughed until there was too little left of it for even that. Ashes fell in clumps on the ground until the hellflame devoured even that. Diabolist was shaken, I saw. That I could see it at all was telling, because I could now move my neck. And wiggled the fingers of my free hand, however slightly. The binding was not perfect.
“Did you know?” she hissed, wheeling on me.
I rasped out a laugh.
“All according to plan,” I lied.
Or perhaps not. Just not my plan. Diabolist mastered her anger but there was more than that I saw in her eyes. Fear, fear spreading with every pump of her heart. The realization that she was no longer in control. I relished it, fed on it. She strode to the wall and slapped down her palm on it, the reliefs shifting to leave a smoothly polished circle as she spoke in the mage tongue. The cadence I recognized, if not the words. She was scrying. The surface of the stone rippled and lights swam into focus until an image was formed, and at the heart of the circle pale green eyes met Akua’s gaze.
“Good evening, Diabolist,” the Black Knight said, and cut off her father’s ear.
I’d never seen the man before, though I knew his name from intelligence reports. Dumisai of Aksum. He’d apparently abandoned her mother’s side to join her shortly after she became governess of Liesse. The scrying stone shifted, revealing a windowless room filled with hacked corpses and my teacher standing in the middle of it with Dumisai kneeling at his feet. Hands bound, his body a collection of swelling bruises. He screamed when Black’s sword cut through his ear, shaking as blood spewed. Akua let out a raw sound, before she went cold.
“A hostage,” Diabolist said. “You should know better.”
Black, not bothering to reply, flicked his wrist and cut off the remaining ear. The man screamed again, louder.
“Mpanzi,” he hoarsely said. “Do not flinch, this is-“
Akua’s breath was steady, her face still as a pond when she interrupted. She looked at Black.
“You intend to negotiate, evidently,” she stated.
“Still alive, Catherine?” my teacher asked.
“Feeling cautiously optimistic about it too,” I replied. “No thanks to you.”
“He is bleeding, Black Knight,” Akua said coldly. “He is of no use to you dead. Your trick won you a small victory, but do not overplay your hand.”
The pale man’s lips quirked ever so slightly.
“I cannot claim that trick to be mine,” he demurred. “The Wandering Bard taught me a hard lesson in Nicae, about weight and the shifting of it. I expect she will rue that, before my days are done.”
“Your demands?” Diabolist asked.
“Three questions, answered truly,” Black said. “If this is done, I will spare your father. At even the suspicion of a lie, I will kill him immediately.”
I had to force myself not to glare. Questions? Really? Now of all times?
“And what guarantee do I have you will hold up your part of the bargain?” Akua said.
“You’ll have no oath from me, child,” he said. “I give you my word. Take it or leave it.”
My hands rose and I felt the cold touch of steel against my neck.
“I could kill your apprentice with a single word,” Diabolist said.
“That has been attempted before,” Black said. “To the woe of all involved. By all means, see where it takes you. It’s been a long day, I could use a laugh.”
Though I appreciated the pat on the back, I was currently lacking a fucking angel to swindle so I really wished he hadn’t just said that. Akua felt desperate, at the edge of the precipice. That was a dangerous place for her kind of villain to be.
“Three questions,” Diabolist said. “Answered truly.”
My hand came down and the blade with it, but that meant nothing. She could do the same without lifting a finger at any time.
“You acquired a great many ritual objects to build this device,” Black said. “Were any bought through the Closed Circle in Mercantis?”
Diabolist looked at him for a long time.
“Yes,” she said.
For a second my teacher looked very, very old. Exhausted down to his bones. But it was gone as quick as it had come, leaving me to wonder if I’d imagined the whole thing.
“What contact have you had with the Wandering Bard, envoys thereof or affiliates bearing messages for her?” Black asked.
That got my attention. I’d been under the impression that the Bard had been meddling down south, too busy to put her hand to the chaos in Callow. That he would even ask this implied he was not so certain as that as I’d believed.
“We had a single conversation in the hills beyond Marchford,” Akua said. “That was our only point of contact, to my knowledge.”
If anything, that reply seem to had him get warier. Shit. Another thing to watch out for, though. I couldn’t see an angle for her to play in this mess, but that was always what fucked you wasn’t it? The knife you didn’t see coming.
“The cylinder around your throat has a soul bound within,” Black said. “Whose is it?”
Diabolist’s lips thinned and she hesitated. Cold steel tightened against the back of her father’s neck. I felt it on my back, between my shoulder blades. Discretely I made a thumbs down, and tapped the side of my leg once. Then a thumb up, and tapped the side of my leg twice. It was gone. Then it came back once, twice. Another piece fell into place. Soon, now.
“A newborn child’s,” she finally said.
He turned to me.
“Her contingency, Catherine,” he told me. “A blank slate with her mind woven in, meant to eventually possess that same child’s body if she dies. You will have to destroy it.”
“I’m a little tied up at the moment, Black,” I said irritated, then winced at the accidental pun.
“Your questions were answered,” Diabolist said. “You gave you word.”
“So I did,” Black agreed, and the blade left the man’s neck. “Move along, Dumisai.”
It swung down but no blood was spilled: the bindings on the mages’s hands were cut instead. There was a flicker of surprise in the eyes of both father and daughter, and in that moment of surprise the binding slackened further. Patience, Cat, I cautioned myself. The mage trembling got to his feet and my teacher sheathed his sword.
“Do you know why grand designs like yours always fail?” he asked Akua.
“You have lost your leverage, Carrion Lord,” she coldly replied. “Your life will soon follow.”
“Because they’re loud,” he continued. “You light a beacon that no one can miss. The lasting victories are always the quiet ones. Farewell, Akua Sahelian. You were warned.”
Dumisai of Aksum opened a door, and the moment freedom was open to him a volley of crossbow bolts thudded into his face. Black’s word had been kept, to the letter. He’d spared the man. No promise had been made about any sappers that might be waiting outside. I felt the blow ripple through her, through the binding, and finally I tapped the side of my leg twice.
“You,” Diabolist screamed, the hatred in her eyes was poison but she was looking in the wrong direction and she had been made to play the wrong game since she first scried.
It was going to cost her.
“Surprise,” Thief rasped, and stole the binding.
She came into sight, wounded and burned but gloriously still alive, and the world slowed as the sequence I’d been awaiting began. Diabolist turned and barked in the mage tongue in the same movement. Vivienne recoiled as if she’d been slapped, gritting her teeth. I closed my eyes, part of me knowing exactly what was about to unfold. Akua would wrest the binding back from her and seek to shackle me again, to kill Thief and then Black. Even as I ran my finger down that line the rest of me turned inwards, to the scaffolding Hierophant had fashioned around my soul. It was meant to prevent from collapsing on myself because of the power I’d stolen from Winter, I knew. The best effort of a once-in-a-century brilliant mind to keep me alive and whole. That’d been the mistake. It was, as he’d warned me, the leash Diabolist used to bind me. But the error ran deeper, because for all the horrors at his fingertips Masego was a fundamentally kind boy. He’d tried to keep me unbroken. Shield me from pain, from hunger, from the many prices the decisions I’d made had laid at my feet but had since gone unpaid. There it was, I thought. My pivot. I’d awaited some dilemma that would have my conscience or my heart bleeding, but oh that wasn’t the kind of story I’d made was it?
No. For all that I’d lashed myself with guilt when the mood took me, it had always been others paying the price. My people, my soldiers, my friends. My teachers. Again and again they bled so that I would not, and the arrogance of that had seeped into my bones as over that sea of corpses I set my throne. It had made me believe I was owed victory, deep down. Perhaps even that I deserved it. And now Creation was forcing my eyes open and making me watch what I had wrought, whispering that I had a choice. I could roll the dice once more, with a laugh in my throat and a sneer on my lips, throw my challenge and my pride in the face of Diabolist and bet on a victory that heaped yet another ruin to the pile. There was a chance of triumph, glinting at the end of that path. I had Thief and years of treading the knife’s edge, hatred enough to surpass Akua’s own. If I risked it all in the moment before she bound me again, I could avoid the reckoning once more. Or I could give answer. I had stood before a tribunal of merciless angels once, but this judgement was a deeper thing. It was a settling of accounts in full, the surrender of all the safeties I’d been given without earning them. Just my choices and their consequences, whatever those might be. It would not be pretty. It would not be as easily set aside as a doubt in the dark of night or a death snatched back by trickery. All I had to do was to… lean in.
A single heartbeat passed. Thief lost the binding, and I made my choice. In matters of self-mutilation, I had few rivals. In my mind’s eye I looked up the scaffolding Hierophant had built and I ripped it off.
Diabolist’s binding found me but there was no purchase, because Winter was no longer a thing tamed. It ran wild through my veins, through my Name, and a scream ripped its way out of me. My blood was red ice, my bones snapped and beyond it all my heart beat once – and ceased. There was a world within that I owned, and it was bereft of stars and moon because in the depths of that darkness even those had been smothered by frost. It did not kill me. No, in a way that would have been a mercy and my mantle knew no such thing. What I had of life was a last gasp, the desperate clawing of death’s rattle as the whole world was buried around me. Bleak. That was the word, and now I understood the meaning of it in full. Winter had taken it all and left nothing behind that would warm me, no refuge to reassure me that I was still Catherine Foundling. Even my Name was stripped bare, its power dimmed and dull. I had no aspect left but one, and that one was gone far beyond what an aspect should be. Squire, I thought, but the name rang hollow. Tied to me only by the barest thread. Transition loomed ahead, patiently awaiting the right fulcrum.
“Oh fuck,” Thief whispered.
I turned to watch Diabolist, feeling the warmth and fear wafting off her fragile frame. So very mortal, for all her arrogance.
“Your trial I have cheated,” I said. “And suffered defeat for that crooked passing.”
“Call,” Akua Sahelian said.
A bundle of power inside her unfolded under my patient eye and I flicked my wrist. Ice spread through it, cracks spreading as she flinched. Ah, I thought. Devoured but not gone. The corpse of her aspect I took for my own, let the winds and the snow bury it. It would await my purposes there.
“Vivienne,” I said, and when I spoke her name she shivered.
I did not, though the sheer act of voicing it had felt like I was stroking her cheek. A true name, freely given. There was power in this.
“Stand aside,” I said. “It is time for me to end this.”
She mutely nodded, backing away as Diabolist wreathed herself in Summer flame. Cold crept across the room, the air going still and the stone growing cool. I did not need to will it. It happened.
“The pivot I snatched from your grasp,” I told Akua. “And so you no longer have hold over me.”
I felt her will scrabbling against my own, trying to seize the threads of Winter, but all she could touch was the summit of the glacier. It was beyond her ability to move.
“What are you?” Akua Sahelian gasped.
“The monster,” I said. “The one you should have bound tighter.”
I limped slightly as I advanced, an old wound once erased but now made anew. The Gods did enjoy their little ironies. I read it in the way she moved, that shifted. How she was going to wield the fire. It only took the slightest of adjustments to let it pass me. Was this how it felt, to have the weight of Creation behind you? How novel. Diabolist backed a way but I touched her chest over her heart, ever so slightly, and there was a quiet snap. Her expression went still, and I buried my arm through her chest up to the elbow.
“I’ll be seeing you soon,” I told her as she died. “I still have an oath to keep.”