Epilogue

“You who pass this gate, know yourself beyond hope.”  
– Written above the gates of Keter, earthly seat of the Dead King

He would not speak to her until he was no longer in a vulnerable position. Alaya had known this because she knew the man, how his mind functioned. Amadeus did not treat from position of weakness. Her Black Knight arrived a few days earlier than anticipated at the Red Flower Vales, taking refuge with the loyal legions that garrisoned it in the face of Procer. The empress had found a degree of dark amusement in the way that Catherine Foundling’s armies now lay between the armed forces most loyal to the two most powerful villains of Praes. Almost like a matron breaking up a childish squabble between her wards. As always, the girl thought the worst of them. A civil war would not have been an acceptable outcome even if had a crusade not been in the making. The coming struggle would be steep enough without wasting soldiers in settling a matter best addressed privately. The current assessment of the younger villain’s loyalties was growing clearer with every movement she made in the absence of instructions from the Tower, and the picture painted was not promising.

The remains of two legions had been suborned to the insolently named Army of Callow, followed by the announcement of large-scale recruitment across the kingdom. The girl’s return to Laure had been followed by an energetic centralization of power around the yet-unbestowed crown, though it seemed she had learned from her previous blunder. A bureaucracy was forcefully being assembled by drafting any remotely competent Callowan and withdrawing talents from the Fifteenth. Given the girl’s propensity for charging at the first battlefield in sight, the power would effectively be wielded by Baroness Anne Kendal over the next few years. A former rebel with close ties to the House of Light and the last remnants of Callowan aristocracy. In the optic of consolidation of power within the kingdom, it was not a blunder. From the greater understanding of Callow within the Empire, it was a warning sign. A cohesive power bloc capable of ruling was being formed in Laure, one with bone-deep enmity towards the East.

That the Duchy of Daoine seemed to have turned into one of the crown’s backers was also worth a second look. It was a well-positioned source of manpower with hard borders and a history of resisting Praesi rule. The girl would need to squeeze the northern baronies for coin, however, or risk leaving the upset south in the lurch. An angle to use, if necessary. If it came to rebellion, further partition of Callow was now a feasible solution. When the south had been bound together by noble rule and marriage alliances it would have been a misstep, the seed of a rebellious Kingdom of Liesse being sown, but now that the city was wrecked and the aristocracy decapitated matters had changed. A southern vassal state dependent on Tower subsidies to recover would remain largely tranquil. It was what had once been the calm centre of Callow that was now trouble, the cities built by the shores of the Silver Lake. Large urban populations, strategic trade location and now a fledgling bureaucracy indebted to the crown made them the beating heart of Catherine’s power within Callow. Alaya had stayed her hand, for the moment. Killing the girl would ignite country-wide rebellion and besides she had yet to overstep the tentative terms reached in Liesse. Pressure could be applied through the promised reparations and the precarious western border.

Which was not in the empress’s hand at the moment, strictly speaking, but in those of her Black Knight. One of several matters in need of settling. Alaya thought of the raised hand, the word spoken that had unmade over a decade of careful planning, and grew cold. Dread Empress Malicia set the unnecessary emotional spasm aside. A mistake had been made, in placing blind trust. The extent that leaning should ever be indulged was in trusting individuals to act according to their nature. Anything more than that was asinine sentiment, a weakness on her part. When the mirror flickered with life, she was awaiting it. Dressed blood red, a sprawling dress with long sleeves and a neckline that was more suggestive than revealing. The golden circlet on her brow was almost an unnecessary touch – the dress alone would be enough for Amadeus to understand that it was the Dread Empress of Praes that had given audience, not Alaya. The silver mirror revealed the sight of a man unarmoured. A loose white shirt did not quite cover the sight of bandages covering his abdomen, but the pale green eyes were as sharp as she had ever seen them. Alaya felt a surge of fury. It was the Empress that had given audience, but it was Amadeus that had come.

“You are wounded,” she said, smoothing away the emotion.

“So I am,” the man agreed, tone almost amused. “It has been a year of sharp lessons, and this one sharper than most.”

“The girl,” Malicia said, and it was not a question.

Even now, after it all, the fury returned. Not directed at him but at the arrogant child who dared believe she had even the shadow of a claim on her Black Knight’s life. In this, she had overstepped. Catherine Foundling had never been properly taught the precarity of her position.

“A point,” Black said, “on the nature of trust. How that blade cuts both ways.”

“She has earned no trust,” Malicia coldly said. “The ability to kill is the grace of a killer, not a qualification to rule. Whatever measures she now takes are no erasure of past failures.”

“Yet I wonder,” the man mused. “Regardless, she is not the reason for this audience. The matter is best set aside for now.”

“Is it?” the Empress said, voice smooth as silk. “Your wayward apprentice raises armies and appoints officials loyal to only her. The matter is not to be dismissed as a mere detail. It is a pressing reality, and a liability in the making.”

“I had hoped,” Black said, “to avoid the losing game that is the attribution of fault. That line of conversation would ensure otherwise.”

The unspoken read thus: her loyalties were shaken by the Diabolist’s massacre, and it was your inaction that allowed this to unfold.

“I have always known fault to be as much a matter of nature as opportunity,” Malicia replied.

The unspoken read thus: you gifted great power to a nobody and never bothered to instil loyalty more than skin deep, this was inevitable.

Black sighed.

“Do you not find it tiresome?” he said. “To leave so much within the margins?”

Malicia’s face was a frozen mask of disdain.

“You have lost the right to make that request,” Alaya said.

“Shall we speak of trust, then, my Empress?” Black softly replied. “I am not without words to offer on that subject.”

Guilt never came. She would not apologize for taking measures preventing him from throwing away his life in a hopeless war, however slighted he felt by the truth that he had become a foe to his own survival. That was on his own head. Not even love would make her neck if she was in the right.

“Warlock agrees that the weapon should have been kept untouched,” Malicia said, and there was a part of her that enjoyed the flicker of dismay on Black’s face.

“Wekesa would eat every child in Callow if it allowed him to research without interruptions,” he replied. “That endorsement rings empty.”

It was also first blood. He was not, she knew, plotting to seize the Tower from her. But the knowledge that if he had the Warlock would not have stood at his side was a crack in the certainty that lay at the heart of him. What she need break to salvage even shards of what they had once been.

“And who whispers agreement in your ear, Black?” the Empress asked. “Scribe? If you slit her own throat she would assume you had reason. She has made a virtue of being a tool.”

It was not a mistake to have spoken that, though Alaya regretted the sharpness of the words. But Malicia knew that the cruelty was necessary to lower the worth of the unconditional support in his eyes. The Duni’s face grew cold, the first stirrings of anger.

“You speak of matters you understand precious little,” he said. “There is no part of you that does not come with condition.”

Malicia met his eyes with equanimity. Alaya flinched at the old whisper spoken aloud. Black tiredly passed a hand through his air.

“I should not have said that,” he said, the threshold of an apology.

“You rarely speak without meaning,” the Empress said, refusing the crossing.

Something passed in the man’s eyes she could not put a word to, and that was a rare thing.

“We were better than this, once,” Amadeus said.

“Were we?” Malicia wondered. “Forty years, and never once did we cease dancing around that single truth.”

Her eyes went hooded.

“There is only one throne in this empire,” the Empress said. “You are not sitting on it. There is a reason for that.”

“Empresses who thought crown meant right have often reigned, in Praes,” the Black Knight said. “Rarely, I remember, for long. A mould unbroken ever only makes one thing.”

“Don’t you speak to me of making,” Alaya hissed. “Twenty years you made Callow your playground, only ever returning to take lives and let me clean up the messes while you gallivanted back. You only ever remember the necessities of rule when they get in the way of your games. You make plans without ever bothering with the actual people, writing them off as liabilities to dispose of if they do not immediately obey. Praes is not an essay. You cannot unmake everything of it because it strikes you as inconvenient.”

“It is worse than inconvenient,” Black said. “It is flawed. The Wasteland has made a religion out of mutilating itself. We speak of it with pride. Gods, iron sharpens iron? We have grown so enamoured with bleeding our own we have sayings about it. Centuries ago, field sacrifices were a way to fend off starvation. Now they are a staple of our way of life, so deeply ingrained we cling to them given alternative. Alaya, we consistently blunder so badly we need to rely on demons to stay off destruction. We would rather irreparably damage the fabric of Creation than admit we can be wrong. There is nothing holy about our culture, it needs to be ripped out root and stem as matter of bare survival. Forty years I have been trying to prove success can be achieved without utter raving madness, and what comes at the end?”

His tone grew harsh.

“The only person I ever thought actually understood this put her seal to the destruction of two decades of gruelling work to acquire a fucking magic fortress,” he hissed. “Some godsdamned throwback from the Age of Wonders that will go down in flames and take the Empire with it.”

“Your way,” Malicia coldly said, “is insufficient.”

Now that he’d opened his wound, she could bare her own.

“The Legions will fail,” she said. “The Calamities will fail. Your ramshackle effort at successors will fail. Did you think that just because you were clever, just because it was hard, it would be enough? We took Callow, Black. We put chalk to the slate. The Heavens will throw crusade after crusade at us until the mark made is erased, because we are not allowed to win that fight. The only way to survive is not to fight at all, and for that I needed a tool.”

Malicia stood ramrod straight.

“A hundred thousand dead?” she said. “I would bleed thrice that number without batting an eye, because without the tool we lose. We break, we end, we come at an end. I warned you off Akua Sahelian because she provided what I needed: a strong enough deterrent to keep the wolves at bay. And I did this behind your back, because if I did not you would have gotten in my way. Because you have fallen in love with your own legend. The Black Knight, undefeated. How far is that from invincible, Amadeus? Shall we talk history on that subject?”

“This makes us a leech,” Black replied coldly. “And that is exactly how we lose. If we are a net drain, we are removed. That is a fact. There is no keeping Callow if by the sheer act of keeping it we foster constant rebellion. And if we lose Callow, it all comes down on our heads.”

“We have already lost Callow,” Malicia replied harshly, “and three legions with it, all thrown into the lap of some fucking orphan girl because you thought you could be cleverer than Fate. Do you truly not realize that the terms of the occupation both failed to pacify Callowans and fostered unrest in the Wasteland? One does not conquer an entire kingdom to grant it effective independence twenty years down the line, Black. We were meant to profit from it.”

“They were meant to profit from it, were they?” he said. “After fighting tooth and nail against every measure that made is possible, they still deserve spoils because – what, they were born to that privilege? That they were even spared was a concession. But they were allowed to grow fat off a conquest they actively hindered. I held my tongue because you used their rapaciousness for your own purposes, but oh what a mistake that was. The point isn’t to make Callow a pack of plundered provinces, it has never been that. It’s to ensure we never again destroy ourselves invading that country. Are we so enamoured with that kingdom’s crown we cannot allow anyone else to wear it? We win by slipping the noose, not moving the border. By breaking the pattern that has whipped us ever since Maleficent made an empire out of Praes. It is irrelevant who actually rules Callow so long as we no longer need to invade to avoid starving. From that moment on, we start to grow. To change. To be anything but a snake cursed to eat its own tail and choke. Anything less than that is defeat. Anything more than that is expendable.”

He was panting, after. A sac of venom decades in the swelling finally emptied.

“There have been bad nights, since I took the throne,” Alaya said. “Nights where I wondered if it would not have been better had you become Emperor and I your Chancellor. You have laid those fear to rest. This, this is why you cannot rule. Because you’re not interested in ruling Praes, only in securing a war camp for your pissing match with the Heavens. You cannot butcher your way into having a different homeland, Black. It’s a pretty plan you laid out. But you are not the only living man in Praes, and so it fails. Because the Empire is not an instrument, it is a nation and that nation wants things. It will not docilely wait until your point is made.”

“Enough,” Black said. “Gods, enough. There comes a time where the wound is no lanced, just bled.”

“Agreed,” Malicia said. “There will be no further argument. You have made a mess, and as always I will clean it up. You remain in command as my Black Knight. You will hold the border as best you can, and rein in your apprentice as necessary. As for me, I will take the measures necessary for survival. You will not approve of them. I no longer care.”

The Empress would have ended it there, but Alaya could not.

“We will survive,” she said. “And when the danger has passed, as much as it ever can, you will come home. I will not throw you away, Maddie. We are not beyond mending.”

He smiled, ruefully.

“Can you feel it, Allie?” he asked.

The Empress frowned.

“It’s quiet,” he said. “Subtle. I suppose it always starts out that way, when one loses control.”

“The Tower will not fall,” Malicia said.

“It may not,” he said. “I genuinely don’t know. For the first time in decades, Alaya, I don’t know.”

He laughed.

“It’s strangely invigorating,” he said. “To have every plan you ever made ripped apart. Do you remember what it was like, when we were young? When we still felt wonder?”

“Black, you are worrying me,” she said.

“Your terms are accepted,” Amadeus said. “Not that there was any doubt. I will come home, in the end.”’

He looked away, and strangely smiled.

“I wonder what it would look like,” he murmured. “A better world.”

The mirror darkened. Alaya went still, something like grief but deeper than the word could ever mean taking hold of her. Dread Empress Malicia rose to her feet.

There was no rest, the old saying went, for the wicked.

Brandon Talbot had only stood in the throne room once before as a child, when King Robert still ruled and his aunt had introduced him to the royal court. He’d been so young he barely remembered any of it, and in those days he had been of precious little import. Aunt Elizabeth was to be engaged to the Shining Prince, so he’d warranted an official introduction but nothing else. In those days there had been no talk of him ever becoming Count of Marchford. The union of Elizabeth Talbot and King Robert’s eldest son had been expected to be fruitful, leaving him only the head of a cadet branch meant for knighthood and little else. How strangely the world spun, that he now stood at the side of the Queen of Callow instead of kneeling with the guests. Those he had to share that distinction with were, admittedly, something of a mixed bag. None could deny that Baroness Anne Kendall was a patriot and a woman of great wisdom, and though her surrender in the wake of the Liesse Rebellion had lowered her esteem in the eyes of some he did not share those misgivings. The Governess-General, he knew, was nearly as influential as the queen in some parts. If not more. Chancellor in all but Name, men whispered. Queen Catherine’s open fondness for the baroness had been taken by many a sign she was not determined to wage war to he bitter end on the aristocracy.

At the baroness’ side stood the argument for the opposite belief, the newly-appointed Marshal of Callow. The title left him a strange taste in the mouth. There had never been any man or woman titled such in the history of the kingdom, as supreme command of the hosts was always held by the royal family or the paladins of the White Hand. It was a Praesi title and not even an old one, created during the Reforms. That a greenskin not even twenty-five was now second only to the queen in the command of Callow’s armies had been oft commented upon, and openly mocked in the north. Popular sentiment, though, had not been incensed. The ‘Hellhound’ had no small place in the legends already being peddled of the Arcadian War and Akua’s Folly. The orc was seen as the second coming of the still-feared Grem One-Eye, and one that had proved it would protect the innocent even in the face of the hordes of Hell. Brandon was no fool, and so had never tried to speak against the appointment. The heart of the Army of Callow was still the Fifteeenth, and it would be months before any of his countrymen rose to true positions of influence in those massively expanded ranks.

To the queen’s right was the same man as always, that tower of burnt steel and fangs that was Hakram Deadhand. The Adjutant. Even when the old crowd spoke of the unseemly predominance of orcs in Queen Catherine’s court over cups of brandy, there were few who dared slight this one. The skeletal hand of the Named was said to snatch the life out of fae and mortals alike, the steel of his axe gone stark red for all the blood he’d spilled with it. Grandmaster Talbot had spoken with him occasionally while on campaign and more often now that precarious peace was restored, and found him both personable and polite. More dangerously, he was also very attentive to details the queen was known to have little patience for – though in truth Brandon had judged her not nearly as disinterested as the rumours implied. The Deadhand had taken to building the kingdom’s court with the same savage enthusiasm his forebears had displayed raiding Callowan farmland: the new offices overseeing the nation’s granaries and treasury had been highly unpopular with the aristocracy at first, but their undeniable efficiency in mending the south had done much to quiet the grumbling. The Grandmaster was one of the few of his people high enough in rank to understand what was being built, though. A war machine unlike any he had ever seen. Callow was being put on war footing long before the first blade left the sheath.

There was a reason the Order of the Broken Bell had been charged with recruiting every youth in the kingdom that could swing a blade and ride a horse.

The last man to share the queen’s side was the only he could muster true dislike for. Hasan Qara, who for some godforsaken reason insisted on being called Ratface, had been named Lord Treasurer of Callow after resigning his commission from the Fifteenth Legion. The Taghreb was said to be some Wasteland lordling’s bastard, though bastardy was considered a lesser taint in the East. He was also, as far as Grandmaster Talbot was concerned, a crook and a criminal. His lordly title remained a pure courtesy one, at least, without any lands attached. It was still a bloody disgrace that a Peer of the Realm would meet with the likes of smugglers and hedges mages in broad daylight. The Bastard Lord, as some already called him, had begun what he termed a ‘much-needed reform of the hellish nightmare that is Callowan tax collection’. That governors no longer paid taxes directly to the Tower or even the short-lived Ruling Council had thrown the old system into disarray, every governor and noble trying to short-change the crown whenever they could. Lord Qara’s taxmen and their Legion escorts were already a dreaded sight, and the complicated maze of exemptions and tariffs he’d had the queen put her seal to always seemed to have her allies come out wealthier and her enemies poorer. He was clever, Brandon disdainfully thought, but in the way Taghreb usurers so often were.

As the admittedly tedious ceremony chugged on towards the moment of proper coronation, Brandon turned his eyes to the crowd that stood witness. Baron Darlington of Hedges and Baroness Morley of Harrow were of the highest rank among those, surrounded by kin and lickspittles. Both, he’d been told, had declined the queen’s invitation to her coronation by telling her envoys their health would not allow them the journey. The second envoys she had sent came with a minstrel, and as the tune of of the Lord’s Lament played in their halls the nobles had reconsidered their refusal. The pointed reminder that Queen Catherine was not above having even royalty shot when it suited her had struck true. The last landed nobles of Callow had faces to solemn to be truly pleased of being in attendance, but rumours of the crown’s young reforms had seen them hurry south so they would not be made to feel the sting of disobedience through their coffers. As far as nobility went, the only others worth the note were the envoys of Duchess Kegan of Daoine.

That the ruler of the last duchy in Callow had sent her own eldest son and high-ranking officer of the Watch to attend had rightly been seen by many as endorsement of the queen’s reign by the Deoraithe. Ties had been made there, Grandmaster Talbot thought, that he knew little about. Inquiries were in order. The queen had yet to appoint a Chamberlain for her household or a Keeper of the Seals to have her decrees upheld and her courts of law put to order, after all. It was no certainty that Queen Catherine the First would keep all the seats of the old King’s Council, but if she did Brandon intended on seeing the remaining seats filled with proper Callowans, not Daoine interlopers. Neither did it escape his notice that Kegan’s son was a handsome lad, not much older than the still-unmarried queen. Another matter to ensure never came to fruition, though he could hardly blame her for trying. He had himself ensured that his representatives at court were well-bred young men and women of comely appearance, merely to have that avenue… open, should it take the queen’s fancy.

The rest of the guests in attendance were the representatives of governors and guilds, as well as every elderman in Laure. Brandon had expected trouble when their ancient prerogatives inside the city began being taken over by the crown, but the Deadhand was a clever sort. They’d been offered appointments in the new offices, and with enough accepting their influence came to benefit the reforms instead of being plied against them. The stood there with awe befitting commoners being allowed to witness the birth of a dynasty, however fragile its line of succession. As the sister sent by the House of Light finally ended her droning and recitation of old phrases, Queen Catherine bent her head to accept her crown – though, in all honesty, given her height she had not strictly speaking needed to do so. Eyes flicking to the crown, Brandon grimly smiled. No gold or jewels in this one. It was a jagged circlet of iron that sat heavy on her brow. A warlike crown for a warlike queen. The old regalia of House Fairfax would not see use again, the cloak of black and patchwork that Queen Catherine wore a dark replacement for the old ermine-bordered mantle of the Fairfaxes. Rumours had spread that Akua Sahelian’s own soul had been added to the banners of the defeated, that the Wastelander witch could be heard screaming in torment if one listened closely enough.

A saying was born of it that had Grandmaster Talbot shivering every time he heard the words: crowned by dread and cloaked by woe.

“Before you stands the ordained Queen of Callow,” the sister said. “Kneel.”

One after another, they did. Only standing by the throne like him were spared that, as Catherine Foundling slowly sat the ancient throne of the kingdom. Brandon was not the first to notice – he first saw when he followed the queen’s gaze, the raised eyebrow on her cold face. It was difficult to tell how many there were. A few dozens? Less than a hundred, surely. Brandon had fought their like before, but their garments were no longer the same. On unearthly steeds of every shade the fae rode through the hall, the Fair Folk as terrible and beautiful as they’d always been. Brandon found he could not look away from the fae at their head. Riding a horse of ebony, the man was soberly dressed for his kind. A simple tunic, though the buttons seemed made of shade, and over a pale and narrow face a black silken blindfold covered an eye. There was a sword at his hip, without a sheath, and even looking at it hurt the knight’s eyes. It was that one the queen addresses.

“The Prince of Nightfall,” she drawled. “An unexpected… well, pleasure’s a strong word.”

The procession of fae ended when the prince reined in his mount before the queen, inclining his head in respectful greeting.

“Prince no longer,” the fae smiled. “I have abdicated my title, as have all with me. The Hunt claims no lord amongst its hunters.”

Brandon’s breath hitched. The Hunt. Was he speaking of the Wild Hunt? The rapacious fairies that made sport of mortals fools enough to wander into the Waning Woods, or walk ancient mounds under pale moonlight.

“Should I call you Larat, then?” the Queen mused, and her voice echoed with something eldritch when she spoke the name. “Why do you darken my hall, Nightfall?”

“Do we not stand before a queen, forged of Winter?” the fae asked.

“I paid the price for that, thrice over,” Catherine Foundling said. “If you think the mantle can be taken back, we’re about to have a conversation on the subject of fatal mistakes.”

The fae laughed, and it was like the tinkle of silver bells.

“You mistake me,” he said, and his sword rose.

It clattered against the stone, laid at the feet of the queen. One after another the fae passed and threw their own blade, a pile of death rising. Brandon Talbot was living a fever dream, witness to a scene ripped straight from legend. It was all too vivid to be real.

“We swear to your service, Queen of the Hunt,” the fae said. “Queen of Air and Darkness, Sovereign of Moonless Nights. We swear ‘til the day of last ruin, ‘til all debts are paid. We would ride beneath your banner, in this world and every other.”

The Queen of Callow rose to her feet, as bright and terrible as any of them, and softly laughed.

“What clever foxes you are,” she said. “Your oaths I accept, in the spirit they were given.”

Her sword hissed as it left the sheath, and she stood before the fae.

“Kneel, and rise in my service.”

The Hunt knelt, the Hunt rose, and Brandon Talbot knew he would never forget the sight of this so long as he lived.

A crusade, Cordelia Hasenbach thought, should be decided in a manner grander than this. There would be speeches in the coming months, every herald in Procer and beyond speaking the writ of the Mandate of Heaven handed down to the children of the Gods. Spreading the call to the Tenth Crusade wherever there were ears to hear it. The First Prince herself would address the Highest Assembly on the morrow’s eve, giving an oration she had first prepared years ago. The motion would not warrant a vote from the Assembly, though she knew it would pass should it presented. By tradition only the highest office in the Principate could call for a crusade, though it would be an empty thing if no other nation joined their voice to it. Procer had fought crusades alone before, but every one a disaster. She would not repeat that mistake. The young woman had dedicated the span of her life to ensuring it would never be made again. For all the pageantry that was to come, the Tenth Crusade was born in one of the lesser halls of the palace in Salia, with barely a dozen people seated at the table.

For Procer, only she and Uncle Klaus were present. The Prince of Hannoven had not been granted seat as a prince but as the future commander of Procer’s armies in the campaign to come. The grizzled old soldiers had spent more time drinking mead than speaking, so far, save when matters military were raised. Assurances had been needed that the Principate’s armies were readied for war, no matter how righteous the cause or urgent the need. The Thalassocracy of Ashur had sent three representatives only, members in good standing of their foremost War Committee. Citizens of the Fourth tier one and all, most of which would take command of Ashur’s fleets when the hostilities began. Their very presence had been leverage for Cordelia to use, a gift from Magon Hadast. The only citizen of the Second tier in all of Ashur had not sent diplomats but soldiers, the agreement to join the crusade implicit to that decision. The envoys, after all, would not have leave to negotiate diplomatic matters. Only those pertaining to war.

The Dominion of Levant had sent the most envoys, in her judgement a consequence of its ever-fractious people. The current Seljun, the figurehead ruler of the Dominion, had officially deferred the decision of whether or not to join the Tenth Crusade to the Majilis. Though literature often drew comparison between the Highest Assembly and the Majilis, for they were both councils composed of the highest nobility in their respective nations, Cordelia had never found much similarity beyond the surface trappings. The Levantine council was a toothless and ineffectual beast, with every lord and lady among it having right of veto and every interest in ensuring power was never centralized within the Dominion lest their own privileges be curbed. Princess Eliza of Salamans had fought two wars and died an attainted traitor to ensure the Highest Assembly would never be such a plague on Procer, or the First Prince relegated to being little more than a first among equals. As it was, the entire Majilis had come to Salia to treat with her. The five lords and ladies of Levant, all descended from heroes. Cordelia’s agents suspected every one of them had applied veto if a smaller delegation did not involve them personally, and she was inclined to believe it.

They only ever ceased their squabbles when they perceived her to be high-handed, the old and well-deserved hatred of her people the true mortar that kept their nation together. They had been the most difficult to speak with, ever looking for slight or arrogance in every sentence of hers. It was for the best Uncle Klaus had spoken little, given his mild contempt for a nation he liked to say existed only because the Thalassocracy willed it so. This was, to an extent, true. Some of Cordelia’s predecessors would have waged war upon war to claim the lands, had Ashuran fleets not made seaborne invasion of Procer’s old principalities a fool’s errand to attempt. It was still less than courteous to say as much, and the Levantines had easily ruffled feathers when the hands involved were Proceran. Invitations had been sent to the Titanomachy through the Dominion, as the Gigantes killed on sight even diplomats of Procer, but the giants had declined to send even an observer. Their borders would remain closed, it seemed, no matter how dire the threats to the east. Cordelia had ruled for too long to be disappointed by the confirmation of her fatalism. That bridge had been burned too thoroughly to be rebuilt, even several centuries after the betrayal known as the Humbling of Titans.

The Gigantes had long memories.

The elves of the Golden Bloom greeted visitors with arrows if they were not heroes, and were said to have removed their domain from Creation besides. Even were it otherwise, Cordelia would not have sought them out. They had never joined their number to any of the crusades, and their inclusion in the Tenth would have had stark diplomatic consequences when it came to dealing with the Duchy of Daoine. Entrenching opposition in Callow would be needlessly costly for what the Hasenbach desired to be a war fought mostly in Praes itself. Popular sentiment in Callow was rather difficult to read, these days, but they were a people of long grudges who had never quite forgiven their occupation by the Principate. Should foreign soldiers fight over their fields for too long, there was no telling if the Callowans would turn on the crusaders.

Still, it was the League of Free Cities that troubled Cordelia. She’d come so very close to securing a truce and south-eastern border with it, until the Tyrant of Helike began his war. Even that had been an acceptable outcome, if she was to be honest. After the initial victory of Helikean forces over Atalante and the brutally effective Praesi intervention that took Penthes out of the war, heroes had created a deadlock over the siege of Delos without easy resolution. Though the loss of life involved was regrettable, it had given Cordelia opportunity to exhaust the strength of a dangerous element outside her borders by funding and arming Nicae. She’d even lightened the burden of restless soldiery within her realm by sending a few thousand into the war. She had believed Helike triumphant and ruling the League to be the worst possible outcome, and so when the forces of the Tyrant and the Magisterium moved against Nicae she had considered direct intervention. That a Hierarch would be elected in the wake of the city’s fall had been beyond her predictions, and more worryingly the Augur’s as well. Now no ruler in the region would treat with her, even privately, as usurping the Hierarch’s prerogative might see the rest of the League turn on them.

Attempts to begin diplomatic correspondence with the man himself had been utterly ineffective. That her agents reported Anaxares of Bellerophon to be a long-serving diplomat, even if one in the service of an Evil polity, had been a promising beginning. Yet the man had put every missive she sent to the flame, and had reportedly been personally offended when her envoys tried to speak with him in person. Whether or not the Hierarch was the puppet of the ruler of Helike had yet to be determined, but the head of the League seemed disinclined to rein his member-states. Or even speak of the matter. Perhaps the only redemption of the situation there was to be had was that the Hierarch had not spoken in the favour of war, and his absence of a grip on the cities meant it was unlikely a unified League would march against her. It was still a liability. Her uncle had made it plain that at least twenty thousand men would have to be left south to discourage incursions from the Free Cities while the crusade was being fought. A loss, she would admit, but not a crippling one. Ashur and Levant would both contribute much larger hosts to the war when they gathered their strength.

“Late spring at the earliest,” Lady Itima of Vaccei announced. “But we will march, First Prince. All of us. There can be no other choice.”

Set on the table before all the representatives were two reports form her agents in Callow, speaking of the same city. Liesse, though it had been ripped from its ancient grounds and dragged across the kingdom. The first report detailed what sparse information she had been able to gather about these strange undead the Diabolist had been able to make. Wights, the Praesi called them. One had even been obtained and smuggled across the border, and examinations by wizards had established the alchemical nature of the transition into undeath. The Empire had unveiled two weapons through their civil war, and though this was the subtlest of the two it was perhaps also the most terrifying. If all the Empire needed to sow undeath was access to a city’s cisterns, none of them were safe. The Empress’ reputation for having a large and extremely effective web of spies had cost her dearly in this. A less demonstrably far-reaching ruler would not have seemed so immediate a threat. The other report held mostly technical notes, but it was the sheet of parchment with the drawing that had truly stuck a blow. The sight of the city of Liesse with a mass of dead above it, and the Greater Breach the weapon had opened on a Callowan field.

A Hellgate, and not a passing one. Gods, Cordelia had known there was great madness waiting in the east but even she had underestimated the depth. No crusade had ever managed to land even a glancing blow on the Hellgate that lay within the depths of Keter. It alone had been enough to maintain the terrible grip of the Dead King for untold centuries even with entire battalions of heroes failing to end him. The thought of the Tower with the ability to create Hellgates at will was enough to put a shiver up anyone’s spine. She’d been open about the weapon being either damaged or destroyed during the civil war, the truth of that was still uncertain, but she’d not even had to raise the notion of it being possible to repair herself. The Levantines had done so without prompting, and pressed for a dismantling of the Empire to ensure it would never be capable of making the likes of it again.

“As for the charter you proposed, we are in agreement as well,” the lord of Tartessos said. “It will require the signature of the Seljun to be binding, but the Majilis can provisionally ratify it. Your… appreciation of our concerns has been noted, and does you honour.”

Cordelia was very careful not to let the triumph show in her eyes. This was the true victory she had won today, the founding of her Grand Alliance. Though it had been presented as a council of nations participating in the Tenth Crusade that could adjudicate internal disputes, there was no clause forcing the alliance to end after Praes was laid low. Years of diplomacy had finally borne fruit. The treaties would prevent Procer from attempting to expand into the Dominion again long after she died, and with this foundation she could forge ever closer ties over the length of her reign. With the three great powers of the west so aligned, the Principate’s attention could be turned to the true enemies. The Chain of Hunger. The Kingdom of the Dead. The Everdark. The treaties were not even a pale shadow of those that bound together the League of Free Cities, but they could be built on. They would be.

Cordelia knew she would not see the continent know true peace in her lifetime, but she could lay the foundations for those that would come after her.

The envoys were entertained for refreshments after the negotiations closed, yet the First Prince did not linger overlong. She had spoken to the Augur, last night, and been given prophecy. Fortune comes to you unnanounced, her cousin had whispered. You may yet grasp it. Some of the White Knight’s band had survived the struggle against the Calamities in the Free Cities, and were said to be heading for Salia with the man himself. Crusades, Cordelia knew, were a call few heroes let pass them by. Though no formal declaration had yet been made, the ways of Named were not easily understood. The Heavens may have whispered secrets in their ears, as they did the Augur. The flaxen-haired prince dismissed her attendants after retiring to her rooms, unweaving her braid herself. She was not unaware that it softened her features when unbound, and though she knew she was no great beauty she could sometimes pass as one with the right ministrations. She did not hear the window open, and was frowning at letter from the Princess of Tenerife when someone cleared their throat.

Cordelia froze. It was a woman. Short of hair, pale of skin with blue-grey eyes. Her leathers were loose over a slender frame. Callowan, the First Prince thought. She has the look.

“Would you like a drink?” Cordelia Hasenbach asked.

The woman snorted.

“I wish,” she said. “But getting into this place was hard enough sober. Have you ever tripped into a moat? It’s honestly the worst.”

The First Prince smiled pleasantly.

“I will take your word on it,” she said. “I would be remiss if I did not ask who you are, of course.”

The stranger plopped down onto a seat across from her.

“I am a halfway decent thief,” the woman said. “A patriot, when I can afford to be. But, most importantly-“

She sharply smiled.

“- I am an envoy from the Queen of Callow.”

“Are you now?” Cordelia said. “I believe I will be having that drink, myself. We have much to talk about.”

The Hierarch saw many things, close and faraway. Deals being struck behind closed doors in this very city, armies mustered and betrayals paid for. In a cold room of black stone, he watched the most beautiful woman he’d ever glimpsed wipe away a tear and clench her teeth. By the crackling hearth of an inn he saw a knight and a champion clasp arms with older heroes, whispering of Heaven’s Mandate. He saw a young girl on an ill-fitting throne, lost but unwilling to retreat. He saw the fields of a Hell tilled and strewn with villages, its people never having known a blue sky. He saw knives bared beneath the earth, north and south, skins of black and green ghosting through tunnels. He saw a green-eyed man grinning in the face of havoc, alone with well-worn maps. He saw… a silent young girl, her skin pale as porcelain. Her blue dress was light and her hair cut in a short bob. Her eyes met his, impossibly.

“Curious,” the Augur said. “You were not within the sparrows.”

“The People have decreed omens to be ignorant superstition,” Anaxares told her.

“Ah,” Agnes Hasenbach murmured “You too. No star left uncharted.”

Hierarch woke in a dirty alley, huddled under a threadbare blanket. It had been the clink of coppers being dropped in his begging bowl that woke him. Anaxares was not alone. At his side, leaning back against the husk of a wall, a woman sat with her knees gathered to her chest. She smelled of liquor and sweat, though the black curls he could see framing her face were pristine. The stranger drank loudly from a silver flask before turning to him, and when he saw her face he recognized her. Aoede of Nicae. The Wandering Bard. The heroine offered him the flask, wiggling it in a farce of temptation.

“It’s the good stuff, for once,” the Bard grinned. “Don’t skip, doesn’t happen often.”

The Hierarch of the League of Free Cities, anointed temporal ruler of a hundreds of thousands of souls, tightened his blanket around his frame. He looked aside and pretended the woman did not exist. He had gained much practice in this skill of late, with envoys from the Free Cities and beyond.

“You know, when the second wave of Baalite settles came to Ashur they brought animals from home with them,” the woman said. “One of them was a large flightless bird, called an ostrich. Odd creatures. Liked to bury their heads in the ground, a feeling I can empathize with. When the first famine came, though, the big fat ostriches were slaughtered like poultry. Even though their heads were in the sand.”

Anaxares stared ahead, silent.

“Tough crowd, huh,” the Bard mused. “It’s too late to stay out of it, Hierarch. You’re Named, now. Means you’re fair game.”

“I did not choose this,” Anaxares said.

“So I’ve heard,” the Bard said. “Kairos has that thing villains often do, where they confuse symmetry with humour. Probably got a giggle out of waving an old mistake in my face.”

The diplomat eyed the woman, who was drinking again. After so long not being able to afford wine, the sight of the liquor being guzzled had his body feeling pangs.

“None of this was meant for you,” he finally said.

“Oh, that touch was probably just a drop of arsenic in the wine,” Aoede shrugged. “But I made your Name, sweetcakes. Back in the days before I knew better.”

“Prokopia Lakene was rightfully elected,” the Hierarch frowned.

“Right’s a pretty broad word, when it comes down to it,” the Bard said. “She was silvertongued like you wouldn’t believe, true, but that’s where I went wrong. The moment the tongue was gone, so was the Name.”

“The League survived her,” he said.

“The League’s skin deep,” the Bard said. “None of the forces behind moved any differently after it was formed.”

The heroine offered the flask again, and this time Anaxares took it. The liquor within was sweet and tangy, tasting of apples. Much stronger than wine, or anything he’d ever drank before.

“Or it was, anyway,” Aoede said. “But now here you are. And you’ve got a lot of – well, people is a bit of stretch but you get my drift – puzzled. Both upstairs and down. So here I am too, welcoming you to the neighbourhood. Instead of fresh bread and a bottle of wine, you get overly personal questions and maybe a dollop of sinister threats. Depending on how it all pans out. Have another pull, diplomat. It’s the sweetest thing either of us will taste for a while.”

Anaxares did, before handing it back.

“I abstain,” he said.

The woman sighed.

“That’s not how it works,” she told him, as if he were a witless child. “Right now you’re sucking at the teat but you’re not swallowing. There’s always a side picked, Anaxares. Always.”

The Bard waved her flask enthusiastically.

“See, that’s where you’re raising questions,” she said. “’cause Kairos forged you, and Kairos is in deep with the folks Below. But you let the White Knight and the Champion go, sparing me a deal that would have been… costly. Your people like a bit of sulphur on the altar, it’s true, but their idea of worship does little more than keep those in a fresh coat of red. And I’m sorry to say, but you’re what we call a mumbler. You speak the words when the right stars are out but there’s no real meat to the faith, you get me?”

The Bard leaned closer.

“It’s fine if you want to fuck around like a raft on the tide for a while, Hierarch, but keep in mind sooner or later you’re going to hit shore,” she said.

That, Anaxares thought, or drown.

“What,” he asked patiently, “do you want from me?”

“I want you to stop taking a nap in the middle of the board,” the Wandering Bard said. “Stepping around you is already getting tedious, and Kairos is better at it. I don’t mind having a few layabouts around, sweetcakes, but only when I put them there. You’re no work of mine.”

Anaxares studied the woman for a long moment then shook his head.

“I do not answer to your Gods,” he said. “They drew no lots and hold no appointment.”

Something like surprise flickered across the woman’s face.

“You’re Named,” she reminded him.

“I am citizen of the Republic of Bellerophon,” he replied.

“You were created with purpose,” the Bard said flatly. “Fulfil it.”

“This purpose was not voted upon by the People,” Anaxares said. “I do not recognize it. Forcing it upon me is unlawful.”

“Look, the puppet show in your backwater dump is good for the occasional laugh,” Aoede patiently said. “But you’ve been sent up a rung, Hierarch. That’s not the game you’re playing anymore.”

The Hierarch smiled.

“I know you,” he said.

“We’ve met before,” the Wandering Bard agreed warily. “Had tea and everything.”

“No,” Anaxares said. “I know you, old thing. You are the sound of the lash, the deal in the dark. You are the servant of stillness. I deny all you peddle.”

“You are mad,” the Bard said. “And putting a knife to your own throat. They will take you apart.”

“If the Heavens seek to impose their will, they will be made to stand before a tribunal of the People,” the Hierarch serenely said.

“Your own fucking Gods will bleed you like a pig,” the Wandering Bard hissed.

“Then they, too, will be hanged,” Anaxares noted. “As honorary citizens of the Republic, they are subject to its laws.”

“You-“

“Aoede of Nicae, I charge you with treason,” he said, rising to his feet. “Collaboration with foreign oligarchs and agitation in the name of wretched tyrants.”

“You can’t be serious,” the Bard said.

“Should you fail to be present at your trial,” the Hierarch continued calmly, inexorably, “you will be tried and convicted in absentia. As per League law, you may petition the Basileus of Nicae to request amnesty on your behalf.”

He looked down at the woman.

“It will be denied,” he told her. “But to petition is your right.”

Eyes wide, the Wandering Bard opened her mouth to reply but between two heartbeats’ span she… disappeared. As if she had never been there at all.

“This,” the Hierarch of the Free Cities said, “will be added to the record as an indication of guilt.”

He left the alley, the quarter, the city until he found the boy awaiting him. Kairos Theodosian took one look at him and laughed, his red eye burning.

“Now there,” the Tyrant grinned, “is the madman I was waiting for. We are going to have such fun, you and I.”

In the depths of a Hell that had long lost its name and number, a monster opened his eyes. In Keter, a stone that was an old and treasured gift shone red. It had not done this since the days of Dread Empress Triumphant. The Dead King laughed.

Finally.”

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288 thoughts on “Epilogue

    1. Rook

      It is actually ridiculously clever what Nightfall just did in reality though. They just swore to a Queen of Winter that holds her court in Creation instead of Arcadia. If we know anything about Fae, the only things that matters is the story. They basically are living stories. Now that they’re sworn to Cat? She’s literally the the last of Winter, and her Winter Court is based in Creation. Not Arcadia. Bending the knee means they’re part of her court in Creation now, it’s a foothold that lets them truly and permanently escape the confines of Arcadia.

      Both Cat and Nightfall know this perfectly well and they both know Cat would say yes. She has to say yes, it’s an unbelievably strong power base loyal only to her, bound by nature and by story to a mantle only she has any realistic claim to. Even their titles match. Nightfall making night fall on opposing lands, for the Queen of Moonless Nights to rule. It’s about the best sword-of-the-Queen type minion she could’ve ever hoped for.

      The implications of just accepting their oath might be the biggest thing in the chapter. Nightfall basically made her a deal so sweet she couldn’t refuse, and in return she essentially handed the Fair Folk a way to freely invade creation under her banner. It’s even a potential way to use Triumphant’s old legend to her advantage. A newly crowned Queen of a fledgling empire that’s using Outsiders bound soley to her to conquer. If this becomes a trend and she gathers more Fae to really mirror the story, the fact that she almost is Fae might as well make her completely unstoppable.

      Liked by 18 people

      1. Miles

        I think she technically just established a fae court as well. A new sort-of court of winter, and if the sort-of court of summer sends an envoy to try & convince Nightfall et al. to come back It’s basically a restart of the same story.

        With Cat already showing signs of losing control against the fae compulsions whenever she uses her Name powers, this is going to get bloody.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Thenre

      If Cat takes the Name “Queen of the Hunt” and has the dude that always gets his eye stolen by Ranger it’s going to be interesting to see that interaction. I like that name too though, as it sounds like a “grey” (not good or evil) Name and that seems to be more the direction of the story.

      Like

  1. Reveen

    Cordelia knew she would not see the continent know true peace in her lifetime, but she could lay the foundations for those that would come after her.

    Sounds good to me! I don’t know about you, but I’d vote for Cordelia for class president way before I vote for Cat or Black.

    In fact, to me this seems like the foundation for a New Good as a counterpart to New Evil. Good united and maintained by treaties and diplomacy and run by mundane rulers nad politicians instead of basically just centered on and buttressed on a couple of mortal, temporary heroes.

    They’ve got a lot of nasties to kill before they even get close, but this is a good start.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dylan Tullos

      Reveen:

      Practical Evil got its act together because they were sick of losing to Good. It’s only natural for Good to adapt and grow in turn.

      Callow kept the Dread Empire contained for so long that the other Good nations were free to fight among themselves. Now that they don’t have the Kingdom, they have to put in their own work.

      I like Cordelia too. I can’t cheer for either Practical Evil or the Heavens, but I am on Team Mortals for the win. Go unNamed!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rook

        Team Cordelia is basically the new team Practical Good to the Lone Swordsman type Stupid Good. Realistically I can actually see the whole Cat-Cordelia alliance working out eventually, she’s the most practical one so far, even compared to team Practical Evil. Malicia is still too reliant on some of the old ways, Black has the right idea in unnamed institutions but he’s too proud to really cede control without a knife to the stomach.

        Cordelia? Cordelia kind of understands that the long term permanent changes are going to be generations of hard work by an entire people, there are no magical fortress shortcuts and it’s not something you can necessarily do all in one lifetime. She’s just there to get the ball rolling in the right direction as far as she can. Cat is less experienced but still starting to understand how fragile reliance on a few people or Named really is after her last run in with Akua. What happens to new Callow if something happens to the current Queen? Falls down like a house of cards.

        For all their differences, I can see them coming to a compromise based on this if nothing else. It’s not like Cat really gives much of a shit about Praes or the whole Evil vs Good thing in general anyway, they’re not as fundamentally opposed as it initially looks.

        Liked by 7 people

      2. The Principante is one of the most repressive governments in Creation.
        Their evil isn’t flashy like Praes but its mundanity doesn’t make it better. Good as a rule loves rigid enforced hierarchies.
        Shes outright stated in her thoughts she considers the peasants under her rule little better than animals. “Breed themselves back up to useful numbers” or something like that.

        Liked by 4 people

    2. stevenneiman

      Did you miss the part where she noted that the new Praesi improvements to the quality of life in Callow were a threat that needed to be addressed? Malicia might have been willing to take serious risks and make major sacrifices to bring peace, but her goal was peace with the forces of Good. Cordelia’s goal is conquest, and she just regards solid alliances as being a better weapon than flying fortresses.

      Of course the real problem is a lot of people who see the problems of conflict but think they’re the one who can win meaningfully enough to end them. Basically this
      https://xkcd.com/927/
      except with leadership instead of standards.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Reveen

        Good. Praes should be conquered in such a way that it will never rise again.

        And Malicia’s peace wasn’t. Between the flying fortress and their undeath superweapon any peace bought with deterrence without equal deterrence coming from the other side is just a prelude to inevitable conquest or genocide one either Malicia or one of her successors sees fit to do so. Attacking Praes before it can hold a sword of damocles over everyone’s heads is just pre-emptive self defense.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Mr. Nobody

    I’m honestly at a loss. Is her new Name “Queen of the Hunt”? Or is it just “Queen of Callow”? Quite a few titles, it could be one of them too, I don’t know.

    And well… How do you expect a mortal like me to survive so many cliffhangers in a single chapter?
    I’ve just finished reading this chapter and I’m already starving again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. B

      As I understand it, she doesn’t really have a Name at the moment. She outgrew Squire when she took down Akua and it remains tied to her by the thinnest of threads. She *should* have transitioned at the array but Black destroying it halted the transition.

      Lacking any further fulcrum, she remains in her transitional state, neither Squire nor anything further.

      While she may have been able to do something with the souls when Black destroyed the array and become something else with them, she simply blacked out so that was a path denied. While the Coronation would normally be a fulcrum, Cat was already the Queen. It was simply pomp confirming what everyone already knew and believed so it lacked the weight to be a transition. Similarly, the oath taking of the Fae wasn’t enough because she was already a Queen crowned in Winter. Winter Fae swearing themselves to her is a matter of course.

      I imagine Cat’s transition will be a matter addressed in the first third or so of the next book, probably as an event to turn the tide of an unfavorable battle.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. nick012000

        The coronation ceremony is almost certainly the fulcrum she’d need to transition into a different Name. The question now is what that Name is.

        Like

      2. Sean

        I don’t know. I feel Queen of the Hunt has a good shot at being her new name. For one, it’s a new Name for a mortal to have (insofar as I know) which seems fitting for Cat and mirroring Adjutant and Hierophant. Secondly, we knew she would end up in charge of Callow, likely as its queen. While technically she was the highest noble left in Winter, there was little weight behind it, this chapter gives her both a fae-derived title of Queen and actual fae vassals.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Fairly sure she will transition straight into Dread Empress next book.

        She’s no longer a Squire so she doesn’t need to become a Knight. She already has Black Knight working for her and with Baroness Anne Kendall being whispered about as Chancellor she’s already acting as the Empress. Plus, with The Girl Who Climbed The Tower foreshadowing it seems like the most likely option.

        Liked by 4 people

      4. Amoonymous

        @Miles

        The whole point of Black talking about how he was no longer certain about the future, starting to feel a sense of wonder again, and pondering what a “better world” would look like are all things showing that he is pivoting towards Cat’s side.

        Cat didn’t say she was done with him period – she said he had to become a better man to have a place in her world. And his returning sense of wonder could be taken to mean that he is becoming a person again; more than just the cold machine and another expendable chess piece (if the reward is worth the cost).

        Malicia seeing things she couldnt recognize in his eyes and shedding a tear (Hierarch’s PoV) are showing that Malicia is aware that Black is changing, and likely going to stand against her.

        Black saying he will return to her can be taken at face value, but seems to be very implied combined with the previous that it will be a return in force to purge the Wasteland of rot.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Oo
      You are right, good job seeing this!
      There is a discrepancy with the one week delay not being mentioned in the White Knight story, but there is a good potential for story here. Or it could be a very good red herring =)

      Like

  3. Berder

    I have to side with Black here. Empress isn’t setting her sights high enough. She acknowledges her efforts are destined to be wiped away, but proceeds regardless. Black is the only one trying to change the story.

    I wonder what technology the gnomes have, that makes upset about the potential of goblin innovation but silent on Hellgates. Do the gnomes have technology greater than the Gods? Are they capable of closing Hellgates through technological means such as folding space? Or perhaps the gnomes simply weren’t prepared for the Hellgate generator and aren’t as all-powerful as thought.

    It seems that we’re going to see a crusade on the Tower, regarding which Callow and Cat will be as neutral as they can get away with. This is a good setup for a civil war in which Callow tries to break free of the Tower, which in turn is a good setup for a Cat vs Black fight.

    Of course, since Empress does have spies everywhere, why not make Procer’s worst fears come true, and just zombify a few enemy cities? That, and the threat she could do more, could stop the crusade in its tracks. Still Water is already a sufficient superweapon to deter an invasion, she doesn’t need Hellgates.

    Like

    1. So far, the little we have seen of the gnomes show that they only intervene against technological advances. They seem to not care about sorcery, magic or anything supernatural in general, even alchemy seem fine (which probably mean it’s not chemistry).

      As for their reasons for doing this, we can only guess for now. They may be trying to prevent the creation of nukes to protect the environment (but then I don’t see why things like demons are not included, they literally eat the essence of the world), trying to keep a monopole on technology by preventing others to advance too much, or obey to some strange rules of they have. All the species different from humans have shown great deviations in their societies, and even among humans you have extremes like Belerophon…

      Or they may be a way for the gods to maintain medieval stasis on Creation (or for the author to explain it, but it’s the same thing).

      Liked by 4 people

      1. My suspicion is that the gnomes care primarily about technological progress rather than magic is that magic is always limited to a small portion of the population who have the talent for it, whatever that actually means. Technology on the other hand can be used by everyone, which makes it really rather transformative and scary. Mundane technological advancements are also almost impossible to undo if an advance gets spread around, so the gnomes have to really keep on top of it to keep the rest of the world ignorant and that necessitated the over the top threat of total destruction if governments didn’t oppress their own people for the gnomes.

        Like

      2. I think they are trying to prevent industrialization. That’s all they care about because it transforms how society functions and therefore the stories those societies create.
        Creation is heavily based upon stories after all.
        Biggest clue is their hate of farming equipment.

        Like

    2. jonnnney

      The empress still thinks she can stop a crusade. The first wave is coming, but she believes she could get it to either end or shift its focus. Turning cities into the undead will lead to a crusade that is far more than the First Prince looking to consolidate power. If she starts using such weapons the Kingdom Under, the Baalites, or other world powers might decide to intervene. Plus, Augur would likely be able to foresee any attempt to use Still Water to turn a few cities. Anyways, we saw in the last paragraph of the epilogue that the empress has already played the card of one super weapon.

      I think the gnomes’s issue with gunpowder or other technological advancements is the ease at which they can be shared or stolen. A super weapon doesn’t bother them because it is one super weapon. A single threat can be dealt with if the need should arise, but if knowledge of advanced technology spreads then the whole world will change.

      Like

      1. Wait, what? BLACK thinks he can fight the crusade, MALICIA doesn’t, so she was trying to prevent it altogether. This was pretty explicitly stated as recently as a week ago, remember Malicia chiding Black for being unable to conceive he could lose? How did you end up with the opposite idea?

        Like

    3. Arbitary screaming

      I think the Gnomes are simply stopping agricultural revolution and the population boom that would result from it. The Gnomes were probably the first to both develop pre modern agricultural techniques and they rose above the struggle of Good vs Evil because there wasnt any significant conflict. Theyre probably trying to stop similar countries or races from making the same steps and threatening their monopoly on stability. They dont care about Hellgate superweapons or flying cities because even though theres the possibility the weapon might harm them their population will just restore itself. A fertilizer or an automated plow on the otherhand would threaten them and force a reaction. Thats just my thoughts anyway :p

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Unorginal

        To add to that, what happens when the gods above or below win the wager? maybe the gnomes don’t want anyone to win and want the question to still remain relevant and ergo they block any attempt to advance tech-base to where the fight between good and evil stops being a focal point.

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    4. The gnomes are a story device. They’re there so that when intelligent people can’t break the story with things like, “Why doesn’t Cat bind a few zombies to turning cranks to generate electricity to provide power to all the land, lights in homes, trains to rush things to and fro over the continent, tesla machines to zap everything that doesn’t match a specific magical key…”

      This is a “fantasy war” story, it’s not a “technological revolution” story. So the gnomes are the deus ex machina to keep it that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dawn

    This was awesome seeing the Bard get outplayed! I really don’t like her at all, even more dislike than Akua.

    And damn Cat crowned in Dread and Woe and Winter. It was good seeing it from an outside viewpoint as well. So where are the Fae Hunt going to hang out then? They just gonna lounge around Creation or what?

    I’m curious however as to why Malicia still sees Cat as a child playing with grownups. Why is she still underestimating her? She seems to have misread something big time, by not reaching out to Cat after what happened in Liesse. It’s just making the distrust grow on Cat’s part and now she’s gone straight to the First Prince herself. Not good.

    This story is so awesome. Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Matthew

    I also am on Team Black.

    Honestly, Team Black is the heart of this story. Black’s idea of replacing story tropes with institutions and bureaucracy is what drew me in. If you look at actual human history, the creation of powerful institutions and bureaucracy is what allowed winning powers to win. I thought this story, which is disguised as a high fantasy, was a great vehicle to show how it’s actually institutions that matter much more.

    If it devolves into … EVIL GIRL v.s. EVIL EMPRESS v.s. GOOD PRINCE…

    That’s disappointing.

    I came here to watch Black and Cat break the game. We know he was succeeding because the Bard pulled out all of the stops.

    I wish I could remember which chapter it was where Black gives his speech about finally winning as an evil character.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hvitserkr

      >I wish I could remember which chapter it was where Black gives his speech about finally winning as an evil character.

      Book 2, Chapter 36: Madman maybe?

      Like

    2. stevenneiman

      History has always been influenced by a combination of the will of the people, grand institutions and powerful people. Black’s weakness is that he only sees any value in one of those three. For that matter, Kairos and Akua both have the exact same weakness, but they focus on a different one than Black does.
      Institutions might be important, but there’s a reason why we talk about eras by the president in America rather than what new government agencies appeared in that time.

      Like

      1. Matthew

        He sees the will of the people as well.

        Why did Colonialism win? (even when it didn’t)

        Because the Europeans always came back, because they had the institutions and will of the people to make them do so. You could defeat the British or the Dutch or whomever as a powerful native tribe… YAY, but the Europeans could come back and because they weren’t dependent on the anointed son of the chief blessed by Harbusam to build an army via blood oaths among the tribal chiefs.

        How many kings of England were mad or ineffectual? A ton. But the British bureaucracy and self sustaining institutions like the East India company made the will of the king, …. not required.

        With good institutions, the “Great Men” go from being the main meal to just condiments. Nice to have, but not required.

        Like

  6. BroadAxe

    So, lots of comments about foundlings name, and about how she is fae now, if she will be reborn every winter and so on and on.
    Then it hit me, remember her comment about the fae not realling having names, because they were their name so through and through? Or something like that? Maybe she wont get a name at all, maybe she is just fae, and in that way stays neutral. Or whatever the fae are?

    Like

    1. BroadAxe

      There is also the comment about queens and kings of the fae being gods, or at least demi gods. So assuming that is correct then cat is now a god? Of sorts at least. But she is based in creation instead of arcadia, so maybe instead of a name, she will be a god, under which others will be named, a new side in the war. We already have hakram, and masego, both with new, untested names, and the first orc name ever.
      Foundling, the neutral god? 😛

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Here are some interesting tidbits and comparisons:

        1. Elizabeth Alban, The Queen of Blades never lost a battle same as Cat.
        2. Elizabeth Alban had to put down a rebellion at Liesse same as Cat.
        3. Elizabeth Alban defeated Procer by attacking them. In the opening to Interlude: Commanders there is this glimpse into the future: “the Princes’ Graveyard” as a battle Cat wins. Where do you find multiple Princes at this point? In Procer.
        4. Elizabeth Alban defeated Dread Empress Regalia the First. Now if Cat is really the girl that climbs the Tower she will have to defeat a Dread Empress.

        Like

  7. “No nation on our continent would be able to function with both a hero and a villain sharing the highest level of authority, but they seemed to be doing fine.”

    (Book 2, Chapter 36)

    The Black Knight (and the rest of the Calamities) might shift allegiance to Callow for a better world, and the White Knight (and the rest of his band) might shift allegiance to Callow for great justice. And the Name of Chancellor is still floating around loose.

    A Neutral nation run by Named would be interesting to see.

    Like

    1. Nairne .01

      Very unlikely. The calamities left hate Cat, and they move only for personal reasons. The only two Calamities that have shown any concern for Cat are Black and the late Captain (may she rest in peace).

      Like

  8. Unmaker

    The Hierarch developed style. Or just visionary madness. Good for him.
    On the other hand, Bard came to motivate him, and he is now motivated. Was that a win or a loss for Bard?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Zoolimar

      She did motivate him. But she pushed the wrong buttons. She said to him to choose the side and he did it. Problem for her is she meant Above or Below as sides and he instead chose People and Law of Men over them. Anaraxes said himself – everyone will be judged by the laws of the people be they mortals or gods.

      Before that speech to him Wandering Bard had an unmoving object in the middle of her board, as she so put, now she could very well have made an unstoppable force.

      Liked by 4 people

    1. stevenneiman

      Nah, Anaxares isn’t funny by himself. What’s hilarious about him is the ways he plays such a perfect straightman to the crafty craziness of the likes of Kairos and the Bard. He’s also got a peculiar interplay of strangeness and relatability and an interesting character arc around the idea that his very existence is an insult to his own philosophy but he’s been ordered to preserve his own life.

      Like

  9. Type

    You know what after giving it some thought I think that the Gem of the Dead king is not signaling that he is being contacted by the tower or that Triumphant is returning but rather that the Wandering Bard has been banished for a long period of time. The last time evil was truly ascendend in Calderon was with Triumphant. Every other time it has been held back in one way on another always failing or being driven back, it has been shown that Black believes that the Bard is the heroic opposition to the Dead King and that she is incredibly powerful and basically immortal. It has also shown that villains are defeated by storie conventions (the strength of bards) time and time again. Perhaps this time with the Heirarch seemingly condemning the bard to death by treason she has died in a way outside of her control or choice and so is currently out of the picture for the foreseeable future. Her evil opposite the dead king would be extremely interested in monetering her status and with her being temporally defeated perhaps now is his time to strike.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. That’s an interesting idea, and it would explain how meek the Dead King has been for the last centuries. I always thought that for the the most ancient and powerful evil on the continent, his attempts to invade Procer seemed too half assed.

      Like

    2. stevenneiman

      Honestly, I regard the Dead King as being almost the opposite of the Bard. Triumphant was too. The Bard has no direct power but she makes up for it by ensuring that the story always supports her own existence and what she considers to be a victory. Meanwhile Triumphant and the Dead King are both more or less power incarnate, but they were more elements in the story than co-authors. I suspect that both exist to lend tension to other stories of villains being defeated by heroes. They aren’t really active players anymore (though the Dead King might be about to become one again), but they both mean that the audience has to wonder every time they watch a hero fight to stop a villain if that villain would become the next villain to actually succeed. The fact that neither of them has been a relevant threat for at least hundreds of years is irrelevant, since they both rather horrifyingly proved that when the villains win it’s scary.
      In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bard helped both of them get where they did, since she seems like someone who would rather throw a few games than worry that someone might play something else.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Actually the only sample-size we have of what happens when a nation gets 3 Red Letters and ignores the warning/prohibitions of the Gnomes is the island nation that was developing a bunch of forbidden sorcery. The nobility of said country laughed off the Red Letters, resulting in the Gnomish Dirigible Fleet of Absolute Invulnerability and Godlike Power being launched to make sure said island nation no longer existed even in a grographic sense. All their supposedly badass magics slid off the gnomish craft like water.

    I agree that technology will invariably draw the attention of the Gnomes more often. Simply because there are far more potential innovators than truly powerful magic-users. (The Red Letter against the Matrons in the Eyries almost certainly had to do with the matrons hitting upon, or being in close innovative proximity to smokeless gunpowder. That, or sulfa drugs would trigger a reaction)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. stevenneiman

      I suspect that their real fear might be interactions of magic and tech, or possibly the permanence of new technology. Far from inhibiting it, I suspect that among the Gnomes magic and Names help them advance their craft further, since they can marry magic and technology as well as cultivating Names like Tinker and Mad Scientist that allow them to create new technological advances which can be shared across gnomish society. Warlock mentioned that it’s very difficult for one mage to use another’s works to their advantage, especially if those works are very powerful and sophisticated. On the other hand, new technology is comparatively easy to train someone to use. Give someone a few weeks training with a machine gun and they’ll be more dangerous than a Legion mage by an order of magnitude.
      I think the gnomes’ greatest (and possibly only) fear from non-technological societies is that they will either advance to the gnomes’ level or else advance far enough to be able to reverse-engineer gnomish tech. Fortunately, there’s a short-term option that seems more convenient than new technology, so all the gnomes had to do was make tech even more clearly unviable and their work was done. Mages now create great works that only they understand, then either die or ossify like the Dead King, in either case ceasing to become a threat to the gnomes.
      I kinda wonder whether they have to deal with any threats that aren’t so easy to manage as the people of medieval fantasy-land who just have to be kept that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I might have figured out why the Dead King is so happy about getting a call from the Tower.

    Remember how, in Regard, he was waiting for Ranger on the *other* side of the portal, and she remarked that he could change the place it led to because he owned the entire hell? Ever since one of Akua’s interludes mentioned that she had to circumvent the issue of Keter’s Due to stay human, I’ve been thinking that this was the reason Trismegistus transitioned into the Name of the Dead King, but now I think that wasn’t the only consequence.

    For a villain, undeath is a net loss. Sure, you can make phylacteries and other stuff incompatible with life, but the core purpose of it, escaping the inevitable death by old age, is already achieved by being a villain. As Warlock remarked, undeath makes one less able to change, which is damning in the long run, which makes me wonder: if subjugating a hell had him becoming nonhuman enough to suffer fae-like setbacks in his capacity to learn, just how close is he bound to it?

    See, the little detail that made me remind you all that was this little passage from the end of the epilogue:

    > In the depths of a Hell that had long lost its name and number, a monster opened his eyes. In Keter, a stone that was an old and treasured gift shone red. It had not done this since the days of Dread Empress Triumphant.

    Now, if Akua’s dimension-scrying artifact and Hierarch’s Receive are any indication, there’s nothing fundamentally impossible for magic and Names in connecting directly to the other dimensions. But why would the lich and the stone be separated if it were a simple communication device? Surely someone as acquainted with the Hells as Triumphant could make a device that could allow direct calls? More importantly, is there any significance in the fact that both times we’ve seen the Dead King he was in his hell? He’s undead, it’s not like the poisoned air and the undead armies in Keter would hinder him.

    My theory is that claiming a hell and making it lose its name and number bound Trismegistus to it. It’s why he needs all those intermediaries in the varying states of decay and sentience: he can’t set the foot in the Creation himself. Triumphant, on the other hand, had made her armies out of denizens of Hells; she also probably made some deal with the lich, given how fond he is of her and how nobody mentioned conquering the Kingdom of the Dead as her greatest achievement. What if this deal included *summoning* him?

    Like

    1. d_o_l

      I’ve been thinking along similar lines. I don’t know what the exact mechanics will be, but I’m 90% sure that if Malicia calls on the Dead King for aid out of desperation, he’s not just going quietly back to his little lair after the crusade is defeated.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Alivaril

    I honestly feel like Nightfall is going to backstab Cat, and I sincerely hope she realizes this. One massively pyrrhic victory is enough for this series, IMO, even if it does look like the Winter gloominess was somewhat toned down after the first chapter.

    (“We swear to your service, Queen of the Hunt,” the fae said. “Queen of Air and Darkness, Sovereign of Moonless Nights. We swear ‘til the day of last ruin, ‘til all debts are paid. We would ride beneath your banner, in this world and every other.”)

    I think Cat is still in debt to Nightfall, and considering the whole “NIGHTFALL” part, “Day of Last Ruin” sounds suspiciously prophetic. I think they’ll be released from their oaths once she lays the crowns at his feet. Of course, I could be wrong, but that little prophecy has been bothering me since the initial Princess freakout.

    Like

    1. d_o_l

      I doubt it. She’s his meal ticket for breaking free of the Fae realm. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some serious shenanigans planned, but probably not outright betrayal.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Nightfall is, above all, smart and cautious. He won’t move against Cat without incredibly compelling reason, coupled with (what he at least considers to be) an absolutely bullet-proof plan. Getting out of Arcadia and being able to ditch the King of Swinter’s shadow is Nightfall’s wet dream. To go for Cat’s throat, he’d have to gain enough to justify losing his and his posse’s Creation-anchor.

    Like

    1. Hvitserkr

      I don’t think so. Malicia mentioned she has a hotline to the Dead King, and with her flying fortress gone she might as well enable the Dead King to attack Procer.

      Like

  14. Morgan

    I’ve been playing over this scenario in my head for a while, and I have to ask; why don’t the “evil” nations ever band together in a dark crusade against the forces of “good”? It seems like Black’s ambitions are kind of passive and lackluster when you consider that his stated goal is Victory for Villains and a dark crusade would be much more effective than trying to fight off a coalition of armies dedicated to the Empire’s total destruction. I get that Villains rarely work together and the Calamities are kind of an exception but when most Villains want to “spit in the eye of the Heavens” you’d imagine that the possibility of making the Heavens bleed would be enough enticement to prevent betrayal at least for a little while anyway.

    Like

    1. Parker

      Because most Villains are insane sociopaths. You either have ego maniacs like Akua or insane (but fun) people like the Tyrant, Black and the Empress are the only ones sane enough to plan long term.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Well dang. This was a hell of a place to catch up with the updates. Whew. I’m actually kind of glad you’re taking a month before resuming updates because hooooooo I could use a breather after that ride. I haven’t gotten so thoroughly swept along by a story in ages.

    Like

  16. Also just … I’m so glad this story exists. I mean as a story unto itself it’s wonderful. But I’m also glad for what it is and what it represents, as a fantasy story in which diverse sexualities, identities, and people exist without being touched by the shadow of our world’s bigotry.

    I lost touched with the fantasy stories which defined my youth as I grew up and discovered my sexuality, and found that the stories which existed weren’t written for people like me. Were, in many cases, written with disdain for people like me. As I was driven away from those stories I also discovered the myriad ways in which they spat upon or ignored people who weren’t like me, and I found myself ashamed to have only critiqued such stories once I realized I was the subject of their disdain. The rare stories which included me were still invariably derisive of others, in a way I could no longer abide.

    In a genre defined by classics and old names, I stopped being able to enjoy what I read. The fantasy which defined my childhood was no longer a place for me and in a way I was ashamed it ever had been. As time went on I found some stories with fantastical elements which didn’t offend my new principles, and some rare fantasy stories which broke the mould in many ways. But I never found an *epic* fantasy, of the sort that was so important to me as a child, which didn’t twist the knife in me as I read it. Even those which tried to be kind, which offered an inclusive hand, which I could tolerate to read, it was clear that they … just weren’t meant for someone like me.

    But this is. This is everything that defined my childhood and more. So much more. And it’s a story I feel like I have a place in. A story which doesn’t reject anyone from having a place in it. And that means the world to me.

    Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. stevenneiman

      I get a definite sense that the sexual tolerance in Creation is a deliberately justified trope. With the nature of Names, any group which gets mistreated is going to have the potential to gain an advantage because they’ll end up gaining a greater number of adversity-forged Named, who will in turn try to deal with whatever problems led to them being marginalized. The only exceptions seem to be places which run to the opposite extreme (like goblin society) where the Namescape fundamentally excludes certain people.
      Which is not to say that it isn’t really cool that the Guide does acknowledge that kind of diversity, just that it does have perhaps more reason to include it than most fiction.

      Like

  17. Draconius Sinister

    This is perhaps a strange request, EE, but could we get a breakdown of how the Legions are structured, and the ordering of ranks? By and large it’s fairly clear, but I’m having some trouble distinguishing small things, such as whether Special and Supply Tribunes are ranked above, below, or level with standard Tribunes, and how many troops each level of commander commands, such as whether Legates have direct command or one or two thousand. Additionally, it would be cool to see the direct differences to a standard Legion.

    Like

  18. grzecho2222

    I wonder how Cat will react to fact that Good (Cordelia) is building their own flying fortress (Staircase). Also, it’s name sound like it is some kind of version of Rainbow Brigde to summon an army of angels and dead heroes from heaven.

    Like

    1. grzecho2222

      Also, how high is chance that Hierarch will get aspect of “Free” to counter all ruler Names and other power that take someone free will?

      Like

  19. Darth.

    So I just caught up with this. Tore through books 1 and 2 in just four days and my god is this amazing. Mind = blown. I’m of the firm opinion that this is better than Worm. I can’t wait for book 3 and speaking of which, when is it releasing?

    Like

      1. Whoops! Yes I meant that I can’t wait for Book 4. I was using the “Next Chapter” button so didn’t really realize how many books were there lol. I tore my way through all 3 books in 4 days. What is the author’s update schedule like and when is the next book expected to come out?

        Like

  20. @Sengachi:
    Sadly, people whose inclinations on-ramp into what the mainstream refers to as “alternative lifestyles” are going to feel as you do for quite some time to come in the genre of fantasy. Not as a defense for bigotry, but as an aside however, it bears mention that not ALL homophobic/otherwise bigoted themes in various works of fantasy are the result of *genuine* bigotry on the part of their creator. Many authors fall into the “historical trap.” Essentially believing that, since differences like homosexuality were enough to get one burnt at the stake in Earth’s Dark Ages, a “proper” context for any fantasy work set in a similar period must perforce include the same sort of small-mindedness and intolerance that actual history did.

    When you combine that with the ongoing conflicts of image between the mainstream and those it excludes, things get ugly sadly. For example: In the minds of many, a character like Conan the Barbarian can only be “virile” and “manly” if he’s a heterosexual borderline misogynist who treats all women except his Sainted Madonna true-love like whores at best, outright sex-dolls the remainder of the time.

    The trick, I find, it to winnow the ACTUAL bigotry and intended exclusion from simple copy-pasting of theme-usage that’s been in play for centuries. In other words, if someone isn’t actively TRYING to exclude you, the power as to whether or not you end up excluded defaults to you. It might FEEL moral to boycott the work of the misguided…but remember, every bit of market-share the misguided lose is snapped up by ACTUALLY intolerant people. There are still too many of them for that to be otherwise. I realize this would not be so in an enlightened society…but humanity hasn’t even come close to figuring out how to engineer one of those (Something I definitely don’t need to tell you.)

    There are also relatively new authors who accept a great deal of feedback from their fans during their initial rise at the very least. An excellent place to make one’s voice heard, if you ask me.

    Like

  21. Bell Towers

    Is it terrible that I kinda ship Nightfall and Cat? Like right from the get go. It would probably be absolutely awful in reality but I can’t help but think that Larat “hound of war” or whatever and Cat “stab the problem until it stops being a problem” would have real fun interactions.

    Like

  22. Paul Goodman

    Looks like I caught up at a pretty convenient time.

    On the one hand, the fact that my biggest gripe with this story is the number of typos is pretty high praise. On the other hand, there are a LOT of typos. Maybe add an extra proofreading pass through the archives as a donation goal or something?

    That aside, it’s a great story and I’ve really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing it with us!

    Like

  23. grzecho2222

    I think that Tyrant already failed by killing Captain. Because there is Story type: Great warrior (Sabah) marries non-warrior and rises their children to also be non-warriors only to be killed in battle. Their children wanting revange become warriors, kill the killer (Champion) only to discover that someone else was also responsible (Kairos) and kill them too.
    Fact that Cat is going to Sabah’s funeral, where she most likely meet her children where they will appear seems to support this

    Like

  24. “We swear to your service, Queen of the Hunt,” the fae said. “Queen of Air and Darkness, Sovereign of Moonless Nights. We swear ‘til the day of last ruin, ‘til all debts are paid. We would ride beneath your banner, in this world and every other.”

    Fugging hells this passage gave me actual chills.

    Hail Catherine Foundling! Hail the Queen of the Hunt, Queen of Air and Darkness, Sovereign of Moonless Nights, Last Sovereign of Winter! Hail the Squire! HAIL THE QUEEN OF CALLOW REBORN!

    *ahem*

    So I had a absolute *ton* of fun reading this entire series and one thing that has struck me very strongly is Catherine’s emphasis on “If I can’t do it, don’t ask another” along with “I will do what is needed”. The second is of course very common. But the first, Hmm, well it’s really sticking with me because I think the very very first instance of this was in the *first* book, towards the end and while I can’t remember it exactly it’s still *here*. There is this thread of self sacrifice which travels through the *entire* narrative.

    Cat seems to in a lot of cases, want to take everything upon herself through a combination of wanting to spare and protect her friends due to the miles wide Mama Bear streak she has and also I think a lack of trust in the competence of others. She expects her enemies to be competent, and trusts her friends to a point(Hakram being unquestioned and then going down from there) but her protective instincts prevent her from *not* taking burdens for them from what I’ve seen.

    Another very very interesting, if sad, thing is her occasional thoughts about removing *herself* from the equation if she determines she is too much of a threat to Callow. They haven’t happened often, but I think I remember one from right after she beat Diabolist.

    This has me thinking, and I’ve thought it for a while ever since I heard of the possible Black Queen Name, that since Cat is no longer on the path to that Name due to Black’s actions that her new Names may be either The Martyr or The Woe.

    The Martyr is because of the two above thoughts and ways of acting. It has a flavor of a tragic character taking all the world’s evils in hand in order to change the story from one of good triumphing over evil, or evil triumphing over good to a story of slaying false meddlers with power stolen from those meddlers. Breaking Fate, so that free will can shine. She’s also pretty self destructive so I think that’s another point saying that in her personality, it *could* happen.

    The Woe, is mostly because of how she utterly *breaks* things. She was not powerful for a long time, but through genre saviness trounced the dealers of this game to get a resurrection and has cheated her way out of a double Pattern of Three. Then when she got more power via the Winter escapade she started chewing through the opposition even faster. The actual name comes from her group and what Ranger said obviously.

    She certainly seems to be escalating into something far more powerful than her teacher, and most other villains I can think of off hand except the Tyrant.

    As an aside another very *very* interesting parallel is how *similar* she and Cordelia are in one very important belief which is that the *people* in their respective countries are what is actually important. Cat even has some of this expanding to the Praesi, which you can see in her remarks about not wanting the Praesi commoners to suffer while she rips out the High Lords. That particular bit is somewhere in the end of this book I think, but the main point is that she is also developing basic protective instincts for Praesi from my interpretations of what I have read. They also both want *true* peace. Which is making me grin here. So much possible *interesting* things!

    One thing I am curious about is if perhaps she has been influenced again since that one time in Summerholm. It certainly seems possible to me, and another reason to re-read the series.

    Like

    1. grzecho2222

      The Woe and Woe? And if I remember correctly Black already gave general opinion on martyrs.
      I think that it will some thing along the lines of The Nameless Queen, because if you think about it nobody knows Cat’s birth name. And she refuses to look into it. And we have seen bloodline ritual that played kind of small role compered to fact that it took a lot of chapter.

      Like

      1. Yeah, she *was* going to be the Black Queen until Black destroyed the Hellgate Array and the Squire Name was fraying away from her and transitioning to Black Queen. There’s a direct reference in her conversation with Black:

        “You are no longer the Squire,” he said.

        “There’s not enough of the Name left for me to qualify,” I said.

        She is currently Nameless, but still incredibly powerful since she has the entirety of Winter’s remains within her. Akua had some of Summer, but Akua is *dead*. Consumed entirely by Cat’s Winter, both the original and the backup. Though, Cat may have set up her own downfall by keeping a fraction of Akua bound to her cloak.

        Sounds like a story for Akua to re-emerge.

        Like

        1. Well, for at least a thousand years people are going to be speaking of Akua’s Folly. After that, perhaps Akua could be reborn. But I don’t think Cat is going to be around for a thousand years.

          Like

  25. Jabbertalky

    Honestly myself I’m looking forward to seeing how long she can go without getting Named.. doesn’t it feel like that will build dramatic tension?

    Also, while Names are definitely powerful, they also seem to be the exact mechanism that binds people to the narrative.

    She may be less powerful without a name, but she is also far less predictable in my mind… To the gears of the story at least.

    Besides, she’s not exactly short on power at the moment. My vote/hope is that she become something new.. monstrous, untamed, and New.

    Like

      1. That’s certainly true in Faerie, but it’s been mentioned that in Creation fae have considerably more latitude. Although apparently they do have certain other problems, like with thresholds.

        Like

  26. Yeah, BUT:
    The unrestrained Winter power leans toward making Cat exactly the kind of dark and grasping thing she would consider a severe threat to Callow. She tore down the scaffolding Masego put in largely out of necessity, but also because it was a governor she felt she hadn’t earned.

    There needs to eventually be something else counterbalancing all that Winter mojo, or she’ll end up forgetting what it was ever like to be remotely human. That way lies badness.

    Like

  27. Hate to Double Post,
    Yet I just saw something someone else wrote that reminded me of something important.
    Threes seem to play no little part in this world. Black has promised Catherine a purge of the Wasteland Aristocracy precisely three times now. NOW he’s telling Malicia all about how pretty much ALL of Praesi culture “Needs to be ripped out, root and stem, as a matter of BARE SURVIVAL.”

    Whoever said Black’s return to the Wasteland will likely feature many noble heads on pikes, or entire nobles on crosses, I salute your assessment.

    Like

  28. letouriste

    rereading the First Prince meeting with Thief, i doubt procer is behind the assassination of the praesi generals.
    Just a feeling though…

    yeah, i guess that was malicia behind these backstab..exect that don’t perfectly work out too because she still thought black would be on her side in the aftermath:/

    i feel really lost on the issue^^ second time that happen in this novel (first was the identity of Assassin)

    Like

  29. Jonnnnz

    “No,” Anaxares said. “I know you, old thing. You are the sound of the lash, the deal in the dark. You are the servant of stillness. I deny all you peddle.”

    That’s… not wrong. Bard wants a return to old-school villainy vs heroes, a place where the only stories that matter are about the few special. She literally sacrificed hundreds of thousands to increase the chances of a return to that. His ideology, just like that of Catherine’s, is anathema to this. And in view of that, they having power is a blasphemy to the Gods Above, and possibly to those below as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. grzecho2222

      Below seem kinda “We gonna punch Our children until they are strong enough to punch back” so they might be happy with what is happening. Both Cat and Anaxares being creepy strong seem less and less like accident and more like ” test run of new type of villians (Calamities) complited going full practical”

      Like

  30. raimn

    Question for the Author first: You really like the histroy of ancient roman and greek and their myths, right?
    The story is full of references to myths or cultural bits. Really nice work.
    The quote below has been bugging me for a month now. In part due to the rather extrem reaction the Wandering Bards shows towards it.

    “Aoede of Nicae, I charge you with treason,” he said, rising to his feet. “Collaboration with foreign oligarchs and agitation in the name of wretched tyrants.”

    Today I finally got why: (Minor Spoiler warning)

    “damnatio memoriae” a practise also known as “abolitio nominis” in the ancient times, is the act of striking the name of a person from history and/or destroying his/her legacy.
    Now the important bit: In ancient greece some of the city-states had laws against collaboration with oligarchs and tyrants and the sentence for the convicted was the above mentioned “abolitio nominis”.
    Depending of how the story progresses for now on, this could be used to destroy the Name of the Wandering Bard itself, which should be equivalent to her ceasing to exist altogether.

    One thing I still wonder about is, whether the Name of Squire is free for the taking now or not and if it is, who will it be? A goblin sharping her knife in the dark, a wasteland noble wanting revenge against the empress or a hero to be, awakening in the wake of the crusade.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. grzecho2222

      Not only anciet (Callow is kinda Cental-Eastern Europa remixed), but I also have a question that bothered me since I started reading fantasy books. Why it’s almost exclusively the same armies that are being used? UK (knights, spearmen, longbowmen), Roman Legions, Alexander’s phalanks? Why is no one using Tabors (they destroyed FIVE crusades send against them), Ethiopian infanry (look at size of Ethiopia and size of Arabic countries), Janissaries (only interversion by Sobieski stoped them from taking over Europa, Armored Banners of Republic (all mercenary companies of time had point in contracts that no matter the payment they are not fighting against them) or any other?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. raimn

        You mean fantasy books/storys in general?

        Simple Answer: easily identifiable stereotyps and the time period in which the story takes place.

        Longer Answer below:
        the knight in shining armor, the rows of legionaries standing in front of their tribun, etc. etc. just by reading this a picture pops up in your head, right? the language and cultural heritage of the author plays a huge roll as well when he/she chooses and/or uses these stereotyps. another thing would be recognizability.
        most fantasy story take place in the early to high medival age with elements drawn from earlier periods (romen imperial time, migration period). so the author has to account for that (can’t use something from the renaissance in a setting from early medival period imho).

        As for your examples: the tabors should be the hussit forts constructed from wagons and wood, correct? well, they are a kind of field fortification(some instances of them are mentioned in this story) so they could serve as stereotyps but to rely solely on them would be a great tactical mistake. they work well against riders and defensively but fail offensively and against a ranged opponent and this gets even worse in a fantasy setting with mages and fireballs. also not mainy people will know about them specifically (i didn’t know that name either, although i do know of their usage in the hussit wars).
        I can’t really say anything about the armored banners since i have never heard of them. if they are armoured riders than they would lose to knights or even the husaria when it comes to stereotyps. if they are a kind of heavy infanterie, they are in huge group of named and unnamed kinds of these and than it would depend solely on the authors knowledge of such things.
        The Janissaries were a typ of elite light household troop which also served as royal guards. They are rather specific in their origin and thus hard to use in a story unless you have some muslim ruler in it. Think along the lines of legions or their general makeup being easier to use for storytelling than the paetorians specifically.
        And Ethiopia, well ones again I’m not sure what you mean. While the kingdom of ethiopia stood for a long time and managed to evade the fate of colonization, I’m not aware of anything remotely special in the medival times which could warrent a usable stereotyp, atleast form a purly european standpoint.

        Like

      2. grzecho2222

        Husaria was part of armored banners, they were there elite and rest was this heavy horse archers. For Ethiopia I ment this unit that painted half thier bodies and used boomerangs on massive scale. It’s still kinda maddening that everything that your people had done is typecasted as evil ( real life Black Knight, Dragons of Chaos, having snakes instead of cats in houses, freedom of faith, cavalery based armies, multicultural parademocratical republic, drinking a lot of alcohol), but you say earlier and from Europa, so what formations that stopped expansion of knights to east, castle infantry or Pomeranians? Or armies that stopped legions like Parthians?

        Like

        1. A Google search for “ethiopia boomerangs midieval” (without quotes) doesn’t really return anything. Do you have a source for more reading about this?

          Seems like half-naked boomerang-throwers wouldn’t fare well against armored individuals, though.

          Liked by 1 person

      3. grzecho2222

        There is very good book series about medieval military and all (not only in holy land) crusades by Andrzej Michałek, but I don’t think it ever got translated to english

        Like

  31. Aotrs Commander

    Bahahahahahahahaha!

    Well, after the apparent suden drop in IQ from all of our… protagonists in the past dozen or so chapters (seriously, did Akua dose the Woes, Calamities and Malicia with Stupid Juice when no-one was looking…?), it’s nice to end on a positive note.

    Watching Anaxares fuck Bard over by refusing to play the game was a thing of beauty. Good on you mate… Ah I mean, *neutral* on you, rather.

    And the Dead King seems to actually be getting ready to do something so that’s a cheerful indicator. (Never send a human to do a Lich’s job, I say…!)

    Like

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