“It is easiest to win a game when no one else knows you’re playing.”
– Dread Empress Maleficent II
I was no longer capable of staying in a fully warded tent for more than a few moments before I got this itch. It always began on my palms, small pricks that I would have thought were drying sweat if I still sweated. Then it was the bottom of my feet, and from there it was only a matter of time before I felt like scratching out my own skin. I had, the first time, and hadn’t realized what I was doing until there were long gouges in my arm scored by my own nails. They’d bled, and when Masego had seen to the wound his face had creased in surprise. It was not inexact, he’d said, to call what ran through my veins blood. But it was more than just that, now. It was as useful a reagent as fae blood, he mused, and perhaps more in some ways. That it was no longer warm was something of a hint in that regard, but his current theory was that the liquid in my body was Winter. I dimly remembered my veins freezing solid, when I’d ripped apart his work. That had not been a metaphor, or a passing thing. He’d insisted on a full study of my body after that, not that I’d protested much. Even naked I no longer felt the cold, save as some sort of strange perception – warmth and frost were like… colours, more than anything else. That my skin could feel colours should have worried me, but the worry never really came.
It had been dimmed. This entire fucking world felt dim, and I had to force myself to work up anger at that.
The results of his exploratory spells had been illuminating in all the worst of ways. My bones were no longer bone. They had shattered, he told me, then been made anew in ivory. I’d been under the impression that ivory was a sort of bone, but I’d take Masego’s word on the contrary. He’d muttered something about pores and marrow before telling me he’d need several months of invasive regular procedures to get a clear idea of how my body now functioned. He’d then absent-mindedly added that my while my heart still beat that seemed to have nothing to do with moving around blood, which was just the latest horrific episode in the shit I’d been putting my body through since becoming the Squire. I’d naturally told him that his proposed studies weren’t really feasible, and we’d settled on him having a look whenever the both us had the time to spare – which was, admittedly, pretty rare. The two three-hour sessions we’d done since had seen him grow more and more interested, which usually when a boy was looking at my naked body had different connotations.
Two facts I would have almost preferred not to know came out. First, he told me my body should no longer actually be considered a body. It was, objectively speaking, a ‘construct’. I’d pretended I knew what that meant and gone through the usual dance of inviting him to elaborate to I could figure it out from context. There is nothing natural about a construct, was the part that struck me hardest. It is made, not born, and so does not function as truly living thing would. He’d refused to outright state it, since he was still lacking proof, but I’d gotten out of him that the ‘flesh ‘and ‘blood’ I now wore had precious little to do with what had been those same things before Liesse. I had been born anew, in a way. Not a pleasant one. It was also why my limp was back even though the Hashmallim had healed it. Beyond what he told me, I glimpsed something that managed to bring back the taste of fear to my mouth even if only faintly. Fae were known for illusions most of all. Was I just wearing a trick of light, a deception of Creation? Could I be dismissed, the way fairies and devils could be? That wards were now anathema to me might be a hint in that direction.
The second fact had been shrouded in inscrutable magetalk babble when he started expounding about it, as he told me about something called ‘Principle Alienation’. One of the limits of sorcery, apparently, and also the reason diabolism was such a popular branch of it. I got him to talk in actual Lower Miezan after a while, and the basics of it were this: any mortal individual trying to use power was shackled by the limited mortal understanding of Creation and its many layers. A mage could not use the powers of a demon, at least in part, because they could not perceive the fabric of the world the way a demon did. Hence why Praesi were so fond of binding otherworldy creatures into their service, gaining access to powers they themselves would not be able to use. I was no summoner, and told him as much, but his reply ran along different lines than expected. I was wielding powers a mortal could not, so it followed that whenever I used them I became less mortal.
I’d not felt all that different, after coming back from Liesse, and some part of me had kept to the wild hope that the consequences would not be as dire as I had foreseen. His verdict finally disabused me of the notion. The moment I began calling on Winter my mind would move along similar lines as a fae’s. My thoughts, my perceptions, my desires: everything I considered to be me would become a pale mirror of themselves. I’d not cheated my way out of the ramifications of being fae, I’d just made myself a… different breed of the species. The deeper I drew on Winter the more I would become some creature wearing my own face, and though that creature would keep all that I was it would not truly believe in them. My beliefs would just become duties enshrined in ice, as binding and unmoving as those that had doomed the Queen of Summer. I could be fluid and powerless, or unbending and powerful. I spent the rest of that night in my tent getting as drunk as I could and negelecting a dozen urgent duties, wishing my hands could still shake at the terror I felt. I’d always treated my body as a tool, a vessel to get me where I needed to be. Now that it had become exactly that I was realizing the deep divide between saying something and living it.
Yet I had no time to spare for my own troubles, not with the catastrophes laying just beyond the horizon. And so after I sobered up, the following morning I sent for Duchess Kegan of House Ismail. Hierophant as well, and him before the other. He had an axe to grin I wanted settled before going into the other conversation. I poured myself a cup of wine as Masego sat himself at my left, whetting my lips on the Vale summer wine and finding the taste of it almost sour. Some part of me wondered if it was a consequence of the changes I’d gone though or just another cost for the mantle I had claimed in full. Winter took everything. Maybe even the smallest of pleasures. I offered the blind mage a cup but he shook his head.
“Its barely past Morning Bell,” he said. “Did you even break your fast?”
I had not. Eating, while still pleasurable in some ways, did not seem to be something I needed any longer. The hungers I still felt had nothing to do with food.
“Ranker,” I said, deciding to change the line of inquiry.
“Ah,” Masego said, glass eyes shifting under his cloth to look at me. “Is it finally time for sanctions? I would have thought she would be in the tent for this.”
“I’ve had Hakram look into your complaint,” I said.
His brow rose.
“Three mage lines attempted to stick me inside a ward in broad daylight before the better part of a hundred thousand soldiers,” he said. “How much investigation can possibly have been needed?”
If the situation in the camps wasn’t such a mess, the fact that he’d actually lodged a formal complain with the Legions would have carried a lot of weight. Especially given who his father was. But the lines of command were shaky at the moment. Ranker was both the senior commander here and the subject of the complaint, and while I outranked her as both Named and Vicequeen of Callow that authority was half a fiction. Her legion would stick with her whatever happened, and likely General Sacker’s as well. I couldn’t just bury this, of course. Not only did I owe Masego better than that, she had turned on an ally in the middle of a fucking battle. The problem was that she’d had reasons for that, and not bad ones.
“As I understand it, the ward wasn’t actually meant to harm you,” I said.
“It would have left me bereft of sorcery in the midst of men attempting to kill me, had it succeeded,” he said. “Murder with a borrowed knife.”
I didn’t disagree, but the old Matron had been careful to cover her back before acting. She had, before witnesses, scried Duchess Kegan to order that Hierophant not be harmed. Which practically speaking would have done nothing – entire parts of Kegan’s host had just seen dozens of their own incinerated without warning, they would have attacked whatever she said – but it did give Ranker plausible deniability. Combined with officially stated worries about Hierophant being corrupted by demons, she’d not technically done anything I could punishher for. And pushing the matter regardless when the situation was so volatile was a recipe for a fight breaking out.
“I can’t actually punish a marshal, Masego,” I admitted. “With the Empress being silent and Black unconscious in theory I’m the supreme authority here, but I don’t have the support in the Legions to force the matter. What I can offer is a compromise.”
“An attempt was made on my life, Catherine,” Hierophant said, cocking his head to the side. “Support is irrelevant. Give me two lines of mages and I will turn her camp into a crater with a bare half day of preparation.”
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid,” I said. “You’re right to be angry. Furious, even. But you can’t wipe out a few thousand people for one woman’s decision.”
“I can,” Masego disagreed, “if they shield her from retribution.”
“I’m not asking you to just let this go,” I said. “Hakram’s been in talks. The mage lines involved will be punished.”
It was a good thing Adjutant needed so little sleep, because since my return I had been running him ragged. This was arguably the most delicate negotiation I’d sent him on yet, given what could come of a failure. I felt Hierophant’s stare on me though neither his eyes nor his body moved, the subtle weight if his attention.
“Executed?” he asked, and his voice was hard to read.
“Demoted back to the ranks,” I said. “All pending transfer to another legion, pay docked for a year’s worth.”
“A slap on the wrist,” he said. “This is not even symbolic. No, rather it is symbolic of them getting away with it.”
I’d thought he would say that. I’d not blamed Adjutant when he’d come back with those terms, though I’d been less than pleased. Marshal Ranker was not the kind of goblin easily talked into bending the neck, much less when she believed herself to be in the right. The days where I had considered the Legions my teacher’s domain and therefore sacrosanct were over, though. And the Praesi were not the only ones with hired killers at their disposal.
“I had Adjutant push for the Legions they transfer to being posted in the Wasteland,” I said.
“Out of sight is not evening of the scale,” Masego said.
“No,” I agreed. “But Ratface’s staff now has a representative from the Guild of Assassins attached. Those mages will be heading back to Praes through cities I control.”
Masego frowned for a moment, then his expression brightened.
“Ah,” he said, beaming. “You’re implying you’ll have them killed before they reach the Wasteland.”
I could have done without it being stated that bluntly but yes, that was exactly what I was implying. It was a waste of no doubt competent mages, but Ranker should have fucking thought twice before taking a swing at one of mine.
“You need me to be ‘satisfied justice had been done’ in front of everyone else,” Masego continued, sounding pleased even as tried to wink before remembering halfway through he no longer had eyelids.
The sight of that was a little distressing, but I’d cope.
“Pretty much, yeah,” I said. “No need to rub elbows with the goblin that tried to take you out, but try no longer to be publicly out for blood.”
“I never get to scheme,” Hierophant mused, appearing rather chuffed. “It’s rather pleasant to be involved in your plots.”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” I said.
“Good,” I grimly said. “Because you’re not going to enjoy our talk with Kegan nearly this much.”
His expression soured, but before he could begin to speak I raised my own voice and ordered the legionaries outside to let in the Duchess. I’d hear her arrive a little while back, but this needed to be wrapped up before she got involved. Masego would be easier to talk into things after being mollified. Some part of me wondered what kind of person it made me to be manipulating one of my closest friends without hesitation, but the voice wasn’t as loud as it used to be. Or nearly as persuasive. The Duchess of Daoine parted the flaps of the tent with her hand and sketched half a bow in my direction. The stare she gave Hierophant was distinctly less than friendly.
“Your Grace,” she greeted me. “I am pleased your strenuous duties have finally allowed time for audience.”
Yeah, I’d kind of deserved that. Even at the kingdom’s peak there been nobody but the royal family higher in rank than the head of the House of Ismail – she likely wasn’t used to being given a brush-off, much less one as blatant as one I’d repeatedly given her.
“Take a seat, Duchess,” I said. “I’m told you have grievances to bring forward.”
“An understatement if there ever was one,” Kegan sneered, and pointedly sat herself across the table from the both of us. “My men were murdered, and the very murderer sits at your side. Not an auspicious beginning.”
Hierophant opened his mouth, but I raised my hand.
“Let her lay it out first,” I said. “You can give answer afterwards. Duchess, the floor is yours.”
“Seventy-three dead, without even ashes to bury,” Kegan said. “Thirty-nine wounded permanently. Do I need to call witnesses forward? This entire host saw the killings.”
“Your men attempted to kill Hierophant as well,” I said, and her face turned dark with fury.
“Is the defences of one’s life now a crime in the eyes of the Empire?” she barked.
“The Empress isn’t here,” I said calmly. “I am. And I am not condemning their actions, only establishing the full facts. Do you have anything to add?”
“Murder of Deoraithe is a breach of our treaty with the Tower,” Kegan coldly said. “And I believe that under the regulations of your own legions, the wanton killing of allied soldiers qualifies as treason.”
“So it does,” I agreed, and was more than a little glad I sat down with Aisha before this. “’Wanton killing’ being defined as ‘killing without just pretext’ under the same regulations.”
“Are you implying there was anything just about this?” the Deoraithe said, and her tone could have frozen oil.
“I think this was a tragedy,” I said. “But also a largely accidental one. Masego, if you would explain yourself?”
His glass eyes were fixing the duchess with a stare as unfriendly as her own.
“I was not aware I needed to explain my actions to aristocrats,” Hierophant said, the disdain he put into the word ironically reminding me of the same highborn he was looking down on.
“I’m asking you to clarify why you did what you did,” I said. “Lest your actions be interpreted inaccurately.”
That, more than anything else, jolted him into talking. Throwing around rank here would have been completely useless.
“Upon returning from the dimensional fold in which I battled the three demons,” Masego said, “My sudden juxtaposition to Creation brought back with it a large quantity of demonic essence. That essence having corrupted soldiers, I purged the location before it could further contaminate. Any further killing was made in my own defence.”
“The killing of corrupted individuals regardless of Praesi citizenship is legal under purge protocols,” I clarified for Kegan. “Which the Black Knight declared the moment the rebels called forward their demons. Hierophant hasn’t broken Tower law by doing this, and killing men that were attacking him is similarly legal.”
“I could have killed twice as many,” Hierophant flatly said. “You should be thanking me for my restraint.”
I almost winced. I really, really wished he hadn’t said that. Reading a room had never been one of Masego’s talent, but even by his standards this was a blunder. Predictably, Kegan’s face a was a mask of bitter and poisonous fury.
“You feed my people to demons, murder them and then those trying to protect them,” she hissed. “And you require thanks for it?”
“The Lord Hierophant misspoke in an attempt to hide his deep regret at the tragic necessity of his actions,” I lied. “Please forgive his lack of manners.”
“I am the Duchess of Daoine,” Kegan of House Ismail softly replied. “I do not forget. I do not forgive.”
It was rather sad this wasn’t even the worst I’d anticipated this conversation could go. Masego looked about to speak again but the look I sent him smothered that in the crib.
“Deep regret,” I stressed.
“I did not mean to harm them,” Hierophant sighed, sounding his age for once.
It was rare for him to have to face consequences for the collateral damage that followed in our wake. Most the time, it was our foes that got the worst of it. That sentence was probably as good as I could hope for, though Kegan understandably seemed less than appeased.
“Before you speak again,” I interrupted. “He could not know your men would be where he reappeared.”
I didn’t know if that was true and frankly didn’t care what the truth was. She would be in no position to gainsay me anyway: the mages could understand what Hierophant had pulled on the field in the whole of Calernia could probably be counted on one hand.
“And he was not the one who ordered your soldiers forward,” I continued. “That would be Marshal Ranker.”
It was unfair of me to throw her under the chariot here, to be honest. It was Masego who hadn’t kept anyone in the loop when he’d done… whatever it was he’d actually done. I knew how he got when he had a puzzle in front of him, everything else fell by the wayside. It was something I would have to change in him, the going off without a word. Trying to fix the moral compass of a man raised by a monster and also an incubus was far beyond my ability, but I could at least fashion a facsimile of one through practicality. As long as he understood discussions like this would keep happening if he didn’t change his ways, he should be willing to adjust in order to avoid the tediousness. That aside, Ranker had given orders according to what she believed to be the lay of the battlefield and her mistake had ultimately been understandable. By my reading of the reports she’d believed the entire army would collapse if the centre wasn’t reinforced, so she’d merely taken what she saw as the lesser risk. But Kegan hated Ranker deeply, had for decades. And the marshal wasn’t one of mine, quite the opposite. If doing her disservice was what kept the peace, she could go hang.
“Regardless of orders, there is fault,” the Deoraithe said, but there’d been a noticeable thaw in the poison. “My men were killed at the Lord Hierophant’s hand.”
Ah, Black. Even now your lessons are useful. People always preferred blaming an old enemy if you gave them the chance.
“And for that there will be redress,” I said. “Though there was no ill-intent, the deaths cannot be ignored. To start, Hierophant will help your mages reform the gestalt in Liesse.”
Masego turned to me, displeasure visible on his face, but that was the least of the concessions I could and would make. Kegan set aside her anger for a moment, more interested in the prize I’d put on the table: confirmation that no one would contest the souls of her people. Keeping her wizards at bay had, in an unexpected way, made what must have once seem as a given feel like it was now a concession. I’d count my blessings in that.
“Full access to the city will be granted?” she pressed.
“Under supervision,” I said, and before she could argue I raised a hand. “Not out of distrust, Duchess. That city is a nightmare made stone and my people are the ones who’ve been keeping an eye on it. I do this to avoid you losing a few of your practitioners in the bargain.”
“It would not be necessary if access had been granted since the beginning,” Kegan said, but did not disagree any further.
“Hierophant,” I continued, “will also put his considerable prowess in sorcery at your disposal in order to help your practitioners ensure the gestalt cannot be stolen like this again. After which he will never speak a word of those measures to anyone, by royal decree.”
“Catherine-“ he began.
“We fuck up, we pay up,” I bluntly told him. “This isn’t Praes, Masego. We don’t get a pass because we’re Named or powerful. If the laws protect you, they protect them too.”
He turned sullen at that, and that was the very reason I’d not warned him of this in advance. Look at me, Kegan, I thought. I’m going against one of my closest and most powerful supporters to set things right with you. Keep that in mind before deciding I’m an enemy. I knew the blind man’s irritation would pass after he dug into the thick of the sorcery that was involved in what had been promised. There was a reason I’d chosen that out of all the possible avenues of making reparations. The Duchess would see one of the foremost Named in the Empire put to the service of her people, while Hierophant would forget this was a punishment at all after the first month. And if this required going to Daoine for a while, it just so happened that would keep Masego out of the reach of the Empress and the Calamities for while. That also had its uses. But I’d have to give more, for what I wanted out of Daoine. Masego had no part of that, though, and it would be better if he wasn’t there at all.
“Hierophant’s actions took place while he was under my command,” I told Kegan. “Therefore the responsibility is mine in part. In my function as Vicequeen of Callow I’ll offer further reparations, but I believe my comrade’s part in this is done.”
Masego mostly looked pleased he wouldn’t have to keep being involved in this, but it wasn’t him I was watching out for. It was the Duchess. In her eyes I could see the struggle: make a play for further punishment and risk whatever other indemnities I would offer, or show goodwill she didn’t think he deserved and bank on that adding to the honeypot? Greed won, as I thought it would. The Duchess was about to have some lean years, if my suspicions about the costs of replacing the Watch’s casualties were true. She’d want to hit me up for coin more than try and likely fail to have Hierophant further punished.
“That part of the grievance is considered settled,” she conceded.
Good. Masego didn’t bother with courtesies when he left the tent as quickly as he could, but the two of us had cats to skin of greater import.
“A moment,” I said, and my heartbeat stilled.
The air in the tent cooled. Once that would have seen every surface in sight frost over, but I’d gained more than just power when I’d claimed my full mantle. Winter hung thickly in the air, a barely visible pale mist. No one would be able to scry through that, and my perceptions were extended far enough no one would be able to come and listen in without my knowing it. I felt the legionaries outside shuffle at the sudden drop, the two as visible to me as if I was standing before them, and I raised my voice to send the pair away. When I turned my eyes back to Kegan she had gone pale. Fear, I noted. It wafted off her like a scent. I breathed it in and smiled. It would be easy to get what I wanted from her. All that was needed was to weave myself into mind like a quiet whisper, slithering into her brains until terror ruled her and my words were her only relief. She would beg me to serve. If I twisted her just right, set a sliver of darkness and ice deep inside, I could have her plagued with nightmares that would keep her on my leash forever. My fingers clenched. Callowan, I told myself. She is Callowan. The urge lessened. It still lurked, but the power was no longer waiting to lash out.
“Gods,” the Duchess said. “Your eyes, they… It is true, then. You are no longer human.”
My eyes? I raised an eyebrow and a light tap of the finger on the table had it frost. I looked upon my reflection and found nothing amiss, fixing the Deoraithe with a quizzical look.
“Like frozen ponds,” she whispered.
Useful, I thought, if they were truly this disquieting. The part of me that should be finching was utterly silent.
“We will not be overheard,” I said. “Would you be entirely opposed to some honesty between us, Duchess? It should limit the tediousness.”
She shivered at my voice, or perhaps the cold.
“I am not disagreeable,” she managed with laudable composure.
“There is a war coming,” I said. “I would like the know where Daoine will stand, and before it reaches our doorstep.”
“The terms of our treaty with the Tower require a host of no less than ten thousand soldiers be provided in case of foreign invasion,” she said cautiously.
“If I was here on behalf of the Empress, this tent would be warmer,” I said.
She stared at me for a long time.
“You speak of rebellion,” she said.
“Nothing quite so… turbulent,” I replied.
“Then what, exactly?” she pressed.
I smiled, broad and sharp.
“Do you play shatranj, Duchess?” I asked, voice echoing strangely.
This I time I knew why she shivered.
“I do,” she said.
“To have a game , you see, you need an unspoken assumption,” I murmured. “That all the pieces will obey.”
She stayed. She listened.
And after, she made a deal.