“That is the secret to a peaceful court, Chancellor. Regularly having the High Lords for dinner.”
– Dread Empress Sanguinia I, the Gourmet
“This is quite refreshing,” I admitted. “My experience with your side doesn’t involve a lot of talking. Or at least none that didn’t end with blades drawn.”
The Grey Pilgrim didn’t seem particularly offended, but then he’d never lost that vaguely serene look since I’d first had glimpse of him. Might be part of his Name. Or just the result of having seen shit that would turn my hair white. No one made profession of kickin villains in the teeth for over six decades without having stumbled over some old horrors.
“There are few interlocutors worth speaking to, on… ‘your side’, as you so delicately put it,” the old man replied. “One cannot bargain with madmen and minions.”
“Yet here we are, talking,” I said. “Should I take that as a compliment?”
He laughed quietly.
“If you wish,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Though I will not deny that Winter’s shadow looming in your soul is cause for worry, you have displayed noticeable restraint. I am not in the habit of seeking conflict when other roads are open.”
Couldn’t say the same, so I wouldn’t. Just because I’d learned that killing often caused as many problems as it solved didn’t mean I no longer recognized that there were fights worth picking. I should know, I’d yet to manage a godsdamned year as a Named where I wasn’t up to my neck in enemies.
“Funny thing to say, for a man marching with an invading army,” I noted. “If envoys were sent to achieve diplomatic resolution, they never made it to Laure.”
“And this surprises you?” he asked, seeming genuinely curious. “You have hacked your way through every opposition set before you, and twice now slighted the Heavens through their ordained servants. There are few, mundane or Bestowed, who believe you can be reasoned with.”
Bestowed. I raised an eyebrow. Another word for Named, I’d assume, but from the almost reverent way he’d spoken it there might be religious implications. More worrying was the fact that he knew how my little tiff with the Stalwart Paladin had ended. There shouldn’t have been any remaining witnesses to that aside those who wore gaudy wings.
“Look at the graves I’ve left behind,” I said. “What do they all have in common?”
The Exiled Prince, Page, the Lone Swordsman and his band, Diabolist. The pattern there was far from a puzzle.
“They were threats to the Kingdom of Callow,” the old man said. “Or at least what you perceive that should be.”
That last qualifier didn’t escape my notice, but I reluctantly let it go. Heroes would be heroes.
“And so that’s the question,” I said. “What is your merry band of comrades after? Somehow I’m guessing Proceran interests aren’t why you signed on with this crusade.”
“The Empire crafted a doomsday weapon that would have held all of Calernia hostage to the Tower’s whims,” he mildly said.
“Weapon’s broken,” I said calmly. “So’s the one who made it. You’re still invading.”
“The capacity to create another remains,” he pointed out.
“All right,” I said. “Fine. If that’s all then let’s get this done. Bring your army south, I’ll take the lot of you through Arcadia and bring you out on the outskirts of Ater. You can level the Tower and put to the sword every mage in Praes who has the know-how and inclination to make another Liesse. Hells, ask nicely and I’ll lend a hand.”
He blinked, and the serenity fractured.
“You are not lying,” he said, sounding baffled.
“Pilgrim, you think I approve of any of this shit?” I flatly said. “It’s my people who got bled for that weapon. I signed on with Evil to personally put a knife through the eye of anyone intending to pull this kind of play on Callow, among other things. You want to bring down the Tower on Malicia’s head? After last year, you can be my guest.”
“And your mentor in the Vales?” he pressed.
“Was the one who broke the weapon in the first place,” I said. “Someone’s going to need to settle Praes after the bloodletting, and if you have a better candidate I’m all ears.”
He opened his mouth and I raised my hand to signal he should let me finish.
“I don’t mean forever,” I said. “But if you approach Black with an offer that gives him say… ten years? A solid decade to make Praes into the kind of nation that’ll no longer piss in the continental porridge every generation, before he abdicates, I think you’ll be surprised by the answer you’ll get. Even if heroic supervision is part of the terms.”
His eyes narrowed.
“You genuinely believe this of the Carrion Lord,” he said.
It wasn’t a question. Chalk one up to the man having a truth-telling ability, I thought.
“With all due respect,” I said, “I know him a lot better than you do. If he wanted a crown, he’d be wearing one right now. That’s not what he’s after. And as long as he gets what he wants, everything else is expendable – including personal power.”
“This is… an unexpected offer,” the Pilgrim admitted.
“It’s one I’m willing to swear binding oath over,” I bluntly told him. “The only real question is whether or not you can get Procer to turn around if I do.”
“There are other considerations,” the old man said.
I smiled thinly.
“Like a gaggle of princes wanting to carve Callow into their own little fiefdoms?” I said. “I’m honestly disappointed, Pilgrim. You’re willing to kill your way through Callow so that likes of Amadis fucking Milenan gets his way?”
“I have been courteous to you, child,” the Pilgrim spoke curtly. “A grace that should be returned equally. Has is truly escaped your notice how much of a threat you are?”
“Which of us is invading the other’s country again?” I asked, then bit my tongue.
Losing my temper here would bring no gain.
“I… apologize,” I said through gritted teeth. “Much of this tries my patience.”
He nodded silently, the serenity back on his face.
“You are Queen of Callow,” he said. “You are also a villain.”
“Fucking Hells, am I tired of hearing that,” I replied, anger immediately flaring again. So much for restraint. “I didn’t sign on with the side that tosses around demons out of great sympathy for their philosophy, Pilgrim. I did it because I could not find a single other working alternative. Where was this coalition of yours, twenty years ago? Where were all these upstanding heroes during the Conquest? You don’t get to throw it in my face that I’m an evil when Evil was the only game in town. I may have failed spectacularly, but the other choices were either a doomed rebellion or just lying down and taking it. Callow crowned me because it’s desperate, and it got this desperate because help never came.”
“Simply by being who you are, you darken Creation,” the Grey Pilgrim replied calmly.
My fingers clenched, but he raised his hand to prevent the harsh reply on the tip of my tongue. Courtesy for courtesy, huh. I didn’t like it, but I was willing to bend my neck that far.
“This is not a condemnation, it is a fact,” the old man said. “You rule in Callow. Your story is its story. Already, I suspect, you will have seen the effects of this. Your people becoming warped by your presence, old traits grown more vicious or acute. Whether you realize it or not, you are slowly turning your home towards the Gods Below. If you rule long enough, the Kingdom of Callow will sever its allegiance to Above.”
But if losses must be had, better Proceran than Callowan, Brandon Talbot had said. Giving his approval to the slaughter of thousands. The chance the hero might have a point cooled my temper, but only so much.
“And that justifies killing people who still pray at the House of Light right now?” I replied. “Even assuming you’re right – and I’m taking this with a grain of salt – if all the Heavens have to offer is a slaughter then, honestly, fuck the Heavens.”
“Think, Black Queen,” the Pilgrim grimly said “Beyond your anger and grudges, think. Of what it really means for all of Calernia if a nation as pivotal as Callow turns to Evil. Already, to be a hero is to be the corpse that will hold the dam in the face of the flood. If the Kingdom turns, the fragile balance of this continent breaks. Procer weakens. The Chain of Hunger and the Dead King will tear into its flesh, and when it dies darkness will spread across the land.”
“What I’m getting from this,” I coldly replied, “is that that keeping the Principate propped up – no matter what it does – matters more than the lives of innocents. If that’s the argument your side is making, then you might just be praying in the wrong direction.”
“All of this rests on the fact that it is you who rules,” the old man said.
“And if I abdicate, can you guarantee that Callow will be left untouched?” I asked. “Will you swear on your Gods that if Procer tries to annex it, you will turn your sword on whoever is trying? Or even that you’ll stay out of my way and let me take care of them?”
“I do not rule Procer,” the Grey Pilgrim softly said. “And if I take the field against them, too many would follow. It would birth a war as dangerous as this one, in many ways.”
I smiled bitterly.
“The terms I offered you have so many concessions in them I’d probably have to fight a civil war to enforce them,” I frankly told him. “If even that isn’t enough, then I think we can dispense with the pretence that there was ever anything but conflict on the table.”
“And so now we are enemies, confirmed,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “And you may unleash your arsenal of horrors with peace of mind.”
I shook my head.
“That isn’t the kind of war I’m going to be fighting,” I said. “I’ve been down that road before. If I escalate, so do you. The thing is, you and I, we get to crawl out of those ruins. ‘cause someone Above or Below decided we mattered enough. That courtesy isn’t extended to nearly everyone on Calernia though, is it?”
“Oh, I won’t pretend I’m not sitting on some nasty stuff. So are you. But even if I used it, even if I won, what would that accomplish? I bleed Procer into a truce, but that truce doesn’t survive me. All that does is kick the next war thirty years down the line. Nothing is solved. I’m tired of seeing Callow turned into the battlefield of Calernia, Pilgrim. So are Callowans.”
“Heed an old man’s advice, Catherine Foundling,” the Pilgrim said tiredly. “The world can only be healed so much.”
“I don’t believe that,” I said. “My teacher dedicated his entire life to breaking this game, but that’s a reflection of his flaw – he can’t conceive a world where he doesn’t win. I’m willing to settle for the lesser prize. What I can’t break, I would regulate.”
“Some might construe such a boast as blasphemy,” the old man said.
“Aren’t you tired of killing kids because they’re sworn to the wrong side?” I asked quietly. “I know I am, and you’ve been at this for a lot longer.”
“There is not a single life I’ve taken I have not regretted,” the Grey Pilgrim sighed. “No matter the deeds to their name. To inflict death is to end the possibility of redemption, and that is the greatest gift the Gods have granted us.”
“It doesn’t need to be like this,” I said. “We’re the dogs in the pit, but what does that ever really accomplish? One bleeds, another dies, and then they release another hound. The pit’s still there even if one side gets a winning streak.”
“Some of those hounds have gone rabid,” the Pilgrim said. “I grieve their deaths, but I will not allow them to bite children.”
“And those should be put down,” I agreed flatly. “But we don’t need wars for that. We just need rules that both sides are willing to enforce.”
“An agreement,” he slowly said. “Such a thing would be without precedent. And there are many who would balk.”
“Every single Named is a highly dangerous weapon, in their own way,” I said. “Any unwilling to accept constraints placed on their actions have no business wielding that kind of power in the first place. And before you ask, I do not exclude myself or any ally of mine from that statement.”
He studied me silently.
“For such a thing to hold, there would be need for trust where none exists,” he said.
“Then we begin with something smaller,” I said. “Rules of engagement, for your host and mine. Would you be able to enforce these?”
“Within limits,” he said. “I am not without influence and the Saint’s reputation has its uses.”
“If you don’t sack cities, neither will I,” I offered.
“Agreed,” he said. “Innocents should not be made to suffer. You must refrain from using demons.”
“I’ll swear to that, if you refrain from calling on angels,” I said.
“The nature of those interventions is different,” he said. “The Choirs are not a blight, their purpose is to aid in the rectification of wrongs.”
“There kind of rectification they would have offered at Liesse when the Lone Swordsman reached for Contrition was a wrong itself,” I flatly told him. “It was ugly as the things the Empire pulls. And that’s besides the point, anyway: if you use something of that scale, then I have to deploy an equivalent or you’re just going to walk right through us.”
“The Choirs have been known to extend hand when defeat looms,” the Pilgrim told me. “There is difference between call and offer.”
“You think your side’s the only one afraid of dying?” I said. “Calling demons is probably the single worst thing a person can do, objectively speaking, but it feels a lot more acceptable when the alternative is getting stabbed in the throat. We can’t prevent escalation if your bargaining position is that we fold but you don’t.”
The old man stayed silent for a long while.
“I will concede,” he finally said, “if you swear away devils as well.”
No great loss for me there. I’d never approved of using those either.
“Done,” I grunted. “As a gesture of goodwill, I’ll add a warning. There’s a demon from Dread Empress Triumphant’s day bound somewhere in the vicinity of Harrow. My people believe it might be one of Absence.”
“A Hell Egg, after all these years?” he said, brow rising. “I thought none remained within Callow.”
“Would that this were true,” I ruefully said. “I don’t know exactly where it is, or what keeps it bound. Odds are it’s an old Legion standard but I can’t guarantee it.”
He inclined his head in thanks.
“I will discuss this with the others,” the Pilgrim said. “If we can slay it, we will.”
“So long as you keep the fight contained,” I sharply said. “If a chunk of the north suddenly no longer exists, I’ll consider that a breach of terms.”
“If have fought their like before,” the old man said. “It is ugly strife, but there are ways about it.”
I didn’t like the risks involved in this, but then I wasn’t all that happy about that unlit sharper staying buried near Harrow either. If they could kill it without making a mess I wasn’t going to complain. If.
“I want prisoners well treated, even Praesi and greenskins,” I said. “Neither beaten, tortured nor otherwise harmed. I’ll extend the same treatment to anyone I capture. I’m also willing to arrange regular prisoner exchanges when the campaign allows.”
“There are evils I have been forced to make peace with,” the Pilgrim said with iron in his voice. “Torture is not one of them. You may be certain I will allow no such thing so long as I draw breath. The matter of exchanges, however, will have to be discussed with the Princess of Aequitan. Answer will be given before battle.”
I nodded. I wasn’t sure Malanza would bite but it was worth a try. Morality aside, I needed my officers much more badly than she did hers. If she cottoned on to that she might just decide to sit on them. On the other hand, the Procerans tended to make officers of their relatives. They might want the assurance of being traded back if they got captured. We’d see.
“No killing of anyone offering surrender,” I proposed.
“So long as that surrender is genuine, and no attempt at treachery is made,” he countered.
I grimaced but nodded. Fair enough. I’d need to ride my sappers hard about the treachery clause in case they ever got captured. They did like to offer ‘surrender’ in time for the enemy to walk into a field of buried munitions.
“Those are the terms I have to offer, at the moment,” I said. “Unless you have anything to add?”
“No,” he said, after a moment. “This will serve.”
“You are right, you know,” he said quietly.
I had a few pithy responses to offer, but I kept my mouth shut. And to think they said I couldn’t do diplomacy.
“It is shameful, that Callow was left under occupation for so long,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “That we only ride to relieve in in fear of what your coronation represents.”
Limpid blue eyes looked up at the morning sky.
“This does not absolve you,” he said. “But there is truth in what you say. We stand burdened with the guilt of inaction. For that alone, I grieve that it must come to blood. You are the sin of our indolence returned to haunt us.”
“I don’t want to fight you at all,” I said. “But I will not bend my neck to the kind of ending you peddle.”
“We will try to slay you, on the field,” he said. “Even I. Much suffering can be avoided by your death, however tragic that ending.”
“Suffering is the nature of human condition,” I said. “We are what we do with that. I choose to give it a purpose.”
“It does not sound,” he gently said, “like I am the one you are trying to convince.”
“None of that, now,” I said, wagging my finger. “You want to fight for a side that’s not exactly driven snow? Fine. Disappointing, but that’s the world we live in. But you don’t get to pull the grandfatherly act afterwards.”
He smiled sadly.
“Am I not allowed to grieve the sight of a child who mutilated her own soul trying to make a better world?” he asked.
I flinched. That struck closer to home than I would have liked.
“I am my mistakes too,” I said. “Not just my victories. And I knew going in that power comes at a cost. No one gets to eat the first course then balk at the bill. Grieve all you want, but someone recently told me that grief without corresponding action is meaningless. That applies to both sides of the fence, I’d think.”
“All your plans,” he said. “They are dust, if you do not survive to attempt them. All that would be left is the costs.”
“Isn’t that always how it is?” I tiredly replied. “There’s a reason it goes ‘change the world or die trying’.”
And on that cheerful note my first talk with the opposition concluded.