“There are no reserves, you fool, only second waves!”
– Isabella the Mad, only general to have ever defeated Theodosius the Unconquered on the field
“They’re about to split, Boss,” Robber said.
He was standing too close to the scrying bowl, which made his face look a lot larger than it should be and was just kind of distressing to see in general. Thief cleared her throat.
“We need numbers and direction,” she said.
There was the sound of struggle, a yelp and then Robber was pushed aside. Indrani grinned at us through the bowl and I sighed before she even began speaking.
“This camp is just crawling with heroes, Cat,” Archer said. “Dunno if you were aware, but they’ve got at least one mageling. Zeze’s going to have competition.”
“And how would you know that,” I slowly said. “You were under orders to stay out of sight.”
“I got eagle eyes,” she proudly said.
From behind her I heard Robber snort.
“It’s true, Boss,” he said. “I saw the eagle she took them from. Wasn’t pretty.”
“You ruined it, Blaster,” she complained. “I was going to work up to the reveal after she got snippy.”
I was too wary to be amused by the thought of Archer attacking the local wildlife, sadly.
“Tell me you stayed out of sight,” I said.
The other Named rolled her eyes.
“I was good,” she said. “Used an aspect at a distance, they never saw me.”
“We don’t know if they have anyone able to detect that,” I told her harshly. “Now there’s a chance they know you’re out there.”
“They’re not Praesi,” Vivienne said mildly. “I won’t call this anything but reckless, but unless they were on the lookout for her already the chances she triggered a ward are negligible.”
I ignored her.
“Quiet, Archer,” I said. “Quiet is what I asked you for.”
“It’s what you got,” she dismissed. “That was over a day ago, if they thought someone was out there they would have sent heroes after us by now.”
“Let’s hope for that,” I grunted. “But we’re now assuming you, at least, were made.”
“It’s just twelve heroes,” Archer shrugged. “Nothing to worry about. Worse comes to worse, I shoot a few in the eye and run away.”
Strange, it hadn’t occurred to me before now that the muster of heroes on the other side was essentially a tenth and two officers. I had been tired, and there’d been a few days a while back where I’d had vicious headaches. Must have been the lack of sleep having unforeseen consequences. We were all feeling the pressure: even Vivienne and Masego had been out of sorts.
“Don’t engage, just run,” I told her. “And get Robber back in here, unless you can tell me about their troop movements.”
“She can’t,” the goblin piped up from a distance. “She was roaring drunk at the time.”
“Barely tipsy,” Archer blatantly lied. “But this is beneath me, so Jasper can handle it.”
She moved aside, and an irritated-looking Robber filled the bowl again.
“Best we can tell, Malanza’s splitting her army half and half,” he told us. “Same for the heroes, though that’s harder to be sure. They’ve got their own little camp aside from the army.”
I grimaced. Juniper had told me that if the crusaders separated their army they were unlikely to send a host after each of my own. It’d whittle down their numbers by too much, enough that if we went to reinforce a single army we’d have them outnumbered at that particular battle. Evidently Princess Malanza intended to have numerical superiority wherever she engaged regardless of reinforcements.
“And where are they headed?” Thief asked.
“This is guesswork,” Robber warned. “But by the way they’re shifting their supplies, I’d say centre and west. There’s a few days left before they’ll be ready to move.”
Vivienne let out a breath and my face darkened. So they could tell where our gate-makers were. I’d sent Larat and the Hunt to General Hune in the east, after Nauk had struck the supply lines from the west, in an attempt to keep the shell game going. It was possible the Proceran princess had gotten lucky with a guess – her odds weren’t bad, half and half since it was a given the centre had to stay mobile – but she did not strike me as the type leaving things to luck. Which meant there was a hero who could sniff out our gates, or at least the assets who made them.
“All right, good work,” I said. “Anything else to report?”
“They’re keeping a close eye on the Watch,” the Special Tribune said. “There’s a hero on them at all times, and the two old timers visited a while back. Not sure what happened, but no fighting aftewards. They didn’t relax the surveillance either, though.”
My lips quirked. We’d known going in that the odds of a truth-teller being along with the crusade were high, and we’d planned accordingly. None of the Watch were aware of what side they were actually on, and I’d made sure Kegan planted false rumours in her commanders that the heroes could chew over. The secret order was known only to one of her mages, and even the specifics of it were nothing too suspicious on the surface: all the mage had to do was check for a signal in the sky at a specific hour, and scry after seeing it. That, and note the position of officer tents. It would be quite enough.
“No need to worry about that,” I told Robber. “Keep your people ready, Special Tribune. We’ll have work for you soon enough.”
“Looking forward to it,” the goblin said, baring needle-like teeth.
The spell died, and after a last glimmer of sorcery the scrying bowl was filled with mere water again. Vivienne drummed the table lightly, though given the sensitivity of my hearing she might as well have been pounding away.
“I know,” I said. “We need to make a decision about Headsman.”
Thief smiled mirthlessly.
“I know you worry about the fallout, and not just because enemy officers will be put to the sword,” she noted. “We’d be revealing another trick the crusaders don’t know about.”
“But,” I said.
“The means it would be carried out might be different, but Procer is not unfamiliar with the use of assassination to influence warfare,” Vivienne said. “Catherine, they murder each other over grazing rights disputes – and I’m not exaggerating there, the sister of the Prince of Orne was poisoned over that not even eight years ago. We are fighting off an invasion.”
“You know what we need to achieve,” I reminded her.
“Hasenbach at the table, without blots on our war record that would make her people unseat her if she negotiated with us,” she agreed. “But considering the woman sent all her opposition into the mind grinder that is you, I doubt she’ll balk at treating with us after ‘mere’ peasant officers are killed.”
The last part she spoke with distaste, as much for the phrasing as the people it applied to – not the officers, no, but the handful of nobles who considered them so very expendable. Not that I could talk, I’d admit. Headsman had been designed as an operation that would shake the crusader army without getting half the High Assembly howling for our blood. I was, in my own way, considering them just as expendable. The thought tasted bitter, but I did not deny it. Lying to myself had become a lot more dangerous since I’d let Winter in.
“If we pull the trigger on it, we have to act now,” I admitted.
“There is a chance their host will later reunite,” Thief said.
“If we fuck up,” I bluntly replied. “We want them split, it makes them manageable. The only way we have all their major officers together again is if we blunder. Besides you’ve already told me the longer we wait the higher the chances this fails.”
“It’s a judgement call,” Vivienne said. “I don’t envy you the decision, but it is yours to make.”
I watched her as she brushed back her hair. It’d gotten longer, though still quite a ways were left to go until it reached the length of mine. Her blue-grey eyes were untroubled, which I envied more than a little. Every day seemed to add another few pounds to what was already balancing on my shoulders. I chewed over what she’d said, but not the decision she’d brought to the fore. More the fact that she’d laid it at my feet, instead. When we’d begun, Vivienne had made it clear she was only sticking around so long as she thought I was the best game in town for Callow. And now here we were, planning how to turn back an invasion together.
“You seem amused,” she said.
“Just thinking about how far we’ve come,” I honestly said. “Can you imagine us having this conversation two years ago?”
She laughed, a little bitterly.
“It was a simpler world I lived in, two years ago,” Vivienne Dartwick admitted. “The lines in the sand were visible.”
“And now?” I asked quietly.
“Now I wonder,” Thief said, and her lips set in a hard line. “In your service, I have been part of ugly things. No two ways about that. But nowadays I look at the rest of Calernia, and all I see is vultures. You are flawed, I know that even if you’ve grown on me. But you’re also the only one who seems to care about any of this. There are twelve heroes on Calernian soil, Catherine, and every single one of them is a pawn to Proceran ambition. It is the reason they came in the first place. I thought… I thought better. Of all of us.”
“They’re not responsible for the Conquest,” I murmured. “For Malicia’s cold-blooded ruthlessness, or what came of Black playing his game with the Heavens. They get no pass from me for their own actions, but I will not blame them for that.”
“I’ve studied them, Catherine,” Thief said. “And the histories as well. When Callow as being invaded, Ashur was fighting for supremacy of the Samite Gulf. The princes of Procer were so far gone they preferred fighting civil war to taking up arms against Praes ascendant. Half the Dominion was fighting border skirmishes over trade rights, without a care of what happened beyond their borders. And the heroes… well, they had their own struggles, the ones that were already born. Yet none so great they should not have been set aside to fight against the fucking theft of an entire kingdom. It is infuriating, that it took them twenty years to suddenly find their principles. Can they really be called that, if they only surface when convenient? It reeks of pretext instead, and my tolerance for those has grown thin.”
Your people grown warped by your presence, the Grey Pilgrim had said. Old traits grown more vicious and acute. I could not tell if Vivienne had come to speak those words because she had seen the face of the enemy and felt only disgust, or because of something more insidious. A spreading influence I was unaware of. I had asked nothing of the Gods Below, since taking my Name, but I would have been a fool to believe they gained nothing from empowering me. Does it not matter in the slightest what I do? I wondered. I’d always dismissed the talk of heroes as mere religious prattle, the kind of empty sermons the House of Light garnished its true power with. But if there was truth to it, if I was a blight on Creation just by standing on the side of Below however loosely… That was the thing, wasn’t it? I was expected to take on faith the words of people trying to kill me. Or to follow the sayings of sacred texts that had been used as tools of ambition as often as not. There were no easy truths to find. All I had was what I knew, and it was always too little.
“I do not mean this as excuse of the Empire,” Vivienne softly said. “I have learned of the people within it, that they are not as wretched as I once believed. But the High Lords and the Tower, that entire edifice of bloody misery? It must be brought down. There is not other choice, because we cannot tame a dog gone rabid. But I will not mistake the horrors of one side for the virtues of the other.”
“It was easier, wasn’t it?” I said whimsically. “When we thought right and wrong had a colour code?”
Thief put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed, a rare gesture of affection.
“I will not thank you, for opening my eyes to that,” she said, withdrawing her hand. “But I understand now, why you are who you are. Why anyone would look at the sky and curse. There is a point where it is no longer about right and wrong, isn’t there? Where it’s about doing something, anything, to avoid falling in that same old pit.”
Her fingers clenched, her eyes hardened.
“They don’t get to walk over us, to kill us, just because some fucking angel handed down a mandate,” she hissed. “They don’t get to avoid the responsibility of that choice. Or the consequences.”
Villain, I thought. There was only one side that spoke this way, and didn’t pray to Above.
“Black told me, once, that Fate it the coward’s way out,” I murmured. “The abdication of personal responsibility. I hate him a little bit, for still being right after all these years.”
“We might still lose, you know,” Thief said. “That’s the part that gets me. No matter how prepared we are, it might not be enough.”
“Could be,” I agreed. “But then we do the same thing villains have always done, when their plans fall apart.”
“And what’s that?”
“You get up,” I said. “You spit out the blood in your mouth, and you try again.”
We stayed sitting there for a long time, the two of us in front of a bowl gone fallow.
“We proceed with Headsman,” I finally said, breaking the silence. “Tell Masego to prepare. And send word to Kegan. The Deoraithe are to cross the river.”
“I will,” Thief replied. “And me?”
“I’ll open the gate as soon as Hierophant does the numbers,” I said. “This is going to be… delicate.”
“Isn’t it always?” Vivienne smiled.
It’d been some time since I had worn my full regalia – if it could be called that.
Full plate from head to toe, with chain shirt and aketon beneath. I’d considered this heavy, once, enough that it restricted my mobility. Nowadays I barely noticed it. I wore the helmet Hakram had gifted me, the hinged thing of steel with the black iron crown set atop it. My shield lay hanging on Zombie the Third’s flank as it idly picked at grass it could not actually digest, but my longsword was clasped tight to my flank on the sword-belt. The satchel at my side held munitions, though not standard issue. Robber had tinkered away before his departure. The Mantle of Woe streamed down my back, its bright colours muted in the shade of a moonless night. There was a weight to wearing all of this, and not only a physical one. Black Queen, they called me, but it was not a Name. It might have been, before my teacher broke Liesse and himself with it, but the story had died and the path with it. It would have been a lie, though, to still call myself the Squire. No one did anymore. I could still feel the bare bones of that Name, some days, but the flesh and muscle over them was Winter’s. Whatever I’d done in Liesse, when I had broken Masego’s scaffolding, it had ended my tenure. I had no aspects anymore, only the power that my mantle lent me. Even what I’d ripped from Akua, what had once been Call, it was… different now. By taking it I had come to own it, and that opened doors I’d never even dreamed of.
I rolled a dark wooden whistle between my steel-clad fingers, feeling it pulse with had once been the Diabolist’s power. To be fae, and I had touched the face of that, was to cease seeing the difference between principle and object as more than thin boundary. I’d experimented with that power, under Hierophant’s supervision, and the whistle had been one of the greater successes. It was an aspect made matter. Certain limitations had not been escaped, and some had even increased – anyone could use the whistle, yes, but Take had been theft of a finite bundle of power. The whistle could only be used once, since I’d yet to figure out how to partition uses. It would, however, work with the full strength of that aspect.
“A worthy trinket, for the Queen of the Hunt,” Larat said.
I glanced at him. Of all the fae sworn to me, he was the only one willing to bring his mount close to mine. In the early days after receiving their oaths, I’d had to… establish a pecking order. Some of them had been under the impression that entering my service was only a means to enter Creation unrestricted, and that now they’d entered they could play as they wished. My eyes turned to the dark-haired woman at the back of the pack, who shivered when she noticed me watching her. She’d been of Summer, before. It had not stopped her from trying to make sport of a full tavern of people in Laure, weaving glamour into their minds so they could play out a tragedy for her where real blood was spilled. Thief had been tracking all of them, so I’d intervened before any damage was done. I’d taken power to call her to heel, though, and drawing that deep had coloured my reaction. There were only two fingers to her left hand, now. I’d made her eat the rest.
No one had tested me since, at least.
“Won’t see use tonight,” I said, and flicked my wrist.
The whistle disappeared into nothingness, returning to Winter.
“Such leashes you inflict upon your might,” the former Prince of Nightfall sighed. “You could take so much more. And you have yet to bestow.”
“I’m not going to hand out mantles to anyone, Larat,” I said. “Much less you.”
He laughed, cold and crisp.
“I have no more need of titles, save that which is owed,” he said. “But you are Queen of Winter, Catherine Foundling. No queen can be forever without a court.”
“You must take me for a complete idiot,” I mused. “Bad enough I have it whispering in the back of my mind, I’m not going to spread that influence.”
“Ah, but there are such benefits to bestowal,” Larat smiled. “Freedom from the chains of entropy among them. How many of those you love are you willing to lose to age, before bending your neck?”
My fingers clenched. Was he implying that if I titled Robber or any other of the goblins… No, I could not begin down that road. Bad enough I’d had speculations about what the Council of Matrons might be considering back in the Wasteland, if I ended up granting a sliver of Winter to Robber there would be blood.
“I am no stranger to sacrifice,” I replied shortly.
“So you say,” the Huntsman languidly shrugged. “We have all the time in the world to find out, don’t we?”
I eyed him darkly.
“Even for a treacherous lieutenant, you’re a little much,” I told him.
“Am I a mortal, to deny my own nature?” he replied. “I am Fae, my queen: be it fair or foul, I will never be less than I am. I will be monster and schemer, hound and prince, but not once untrue through any of it. Deception lies in the eye of the other, not in one’s own blood.”
“That was very inspiring,” I drawled. “Doesn’t make me want to stab you just to be on the safe side any less, but lovely little speech. Really. If I still had functioning tear ducts I might shed a tear.”
“Tears will be shed when you feel them,” Larat told me. “Your mistake is in trying to quantify, to place rules where there is only will.”
That, more than his tirade, had me shivering. Because it rang true. Place rules where there is only will. I looked away. Masego had continued to study my body, and the more I learned the more unsettled I became. He’d told me since the beginning that my flesh and blood was a construct, now, that there was nothing natural about it. To learn that I no longer sweated had been no horrifying revelation, but that while I might breathe out of habit I no longer needed to? There was a reason my liquor cabinet was well-stocked.
“You’re sure we’re close enough?” I asked.
“Your meddling practitioner tries to regulate that which is beyond regulation,” he said. “My queen, there is only the story. All else is beneath your notice.”
Yeah, that was less than reassuring. I felt the power bloom in the distance, and turned Zombie around so I could have a better look. Red lights in the night sky, to tall and bright they must have been visible even down in Laure.
“Ready yourselves,” I called out the Hunt. “You know the rules.”
There was sparse laughter, but many eager grins. I did not have to wait long before it came. I’d expected it to be different, even though I’d not really known what to expect. Like a gate, maybe, or a spell. All I felt was a window, just at the corner of my vision.
“The Wild Hunt rides tonight,” the fae who’d once been the Prince of Nightfall laughed. “Raise your banners, damned souls. Sound the horns and loose the hounds. Let us make sport under moonless night.”
I stepped through, bridging thought and act without embracing either. The water-filled bowl shattered as we crossed through it, a reflection made truth. Wind whipped at the inside of the tent as Zombie neighed, the terrified Deoraithe mage at my feet turning white. Every Callowan knew that scrying near the Waning Woods was like sending an invitation to the Wild Hunt.
We had accepted it.