“In a finite world, one’s gain (victory, large cave) inevitably means loss (dead female, enemy grows) for another. There can be no peace (looking away, knife already in a corpse) when the very nature of Creation is contest (not enough meat, talking).”
– Extract from a theorized translation of ‘Remnant and Ruin’, one of the few goblin texts ever obtained
“This should not be possible,” Masego said, sounding obscurely pleased.
He was in a good mood, though I did not share it. The frequency at which I ended up lying on table while he fiddled with my guts and soul was quite frankly depressing. At least this time I had pants on, only my upper body bare.
“We keep this up for another year,” I said, “and you’ll have seen me naked more often than Kilian ever did.”
The dark-skinned mage sighed, glass eyes rolling inside the sockets. Ugh. Full turn, that would never be not creepy even glimpsed only through an eye cloth.
“Your insistence I ‘buy you dinner first’ is absurd,” Hierophant said. “The only food available here is Legion rations, which you already own. I think. My attention might have waned when we had that afternoon where you explained to us how kingdoms worked.”
Ah, that’d been a Hells of an affair. The afternoon session of ‘We Are In Charge Now And Why That Matters’ had not been a favourite of the Woe, since the two people who actually needed the explanations had been less than interested in actually hearing them.
“Sometimes, Zeze, I feel like you only want me for my body,” I drawled.
“Ridiculous,” he sniffed. “Your soul is far more interesting. Your physiology is worth two treatises at most, it is unlikely to be a reproducible phenomenon.”
“Get me candles and wine, at least,” I suggested. “It just doesn’t feel special otherwise.”
“I thought you didn’t drink wine any –” Masego frowned. “Wait, is this another sex thing I don’t know about?”
For someone raised by a personification of desire, he could be surprisingly innocent. No, maybe not innocent. That implied he’d been sheltered, which I really doubted was the case. Ignorance born of disinterest. His blind spots were usually willing and damnably stubborn.
“Masego, I’m offended you would even imply that. Get your mind out of the gutter,” I chided him, smothering a grin.
He looked mighty suspicious, but did not argue. He’d learned the hard way not to engage on this particular battlefield. I cleared my throat.
“So what’s the damage?” I asked.
His brow creased.
“You’re changing the subject,” he muttered. “You always do that when you were lying just before.”
“Calling me a liar is technically treason, you know,” I pointed out.
“And that’s bad, in Callow,” he nodded slowly. “Even if you win.”
Yeah, Warlock and the incubus had not done wonders for his moral compass. It was a work in progress.
“So?” I pressed.
“The Saint of Swords appears to have, for lack of a better term, cut Winter itself,” Hierophant said.
“That much I’d guessed,” I said. “I mean, practically speaking, what does that mean? Because I was having a Winter fit before she beat me like a goblin stepchild, but after I was back to normal. More or less.”
“Temporary state of affairs,” Masego said. “If you were hoping to maintain your hold on the mantle without being subject to principle alienation, you were sadly mistaken.”
I coughed. I supposed it was too much to ask for that the Saint fuck up along the same lines as Akua had when she’d returned my full Name to me.
“I bruised, after the fight,” I told Hierophant. “It faded before I got back to camp, but it actually hurt for a while. That hasn’t happened since Liesse.”
“I’ve already told you she cut Winter,” Masego said, sounding befuddled. “The implications should be clear.”
“Oh, absolutely,” I lied. “But I need you to put it in layman’s terms so that I can explain it to other people. Like, say, if I needed to tell Archer about this.”
“She’s actually quite well-versed in arcane dialectics,” Masego noted. “Lady Ranger covered the workings of sorcery very well while teaching her to slay mages.”
I wrinkled my nose.
“Lucky her,” I said. “Black never went in depth.”
“Uncle Amadeus never did have what could be considered a proper method in this,” Hierophant shrugged. “As Father tells it, his approach has always been having a wide array of tools to employ against enemy weaknesses.”
Which only helped me so much, I thought. Unlike my teacher I did not have several decades of scrapping against all sorts of spellcasters under my belt. To avoid running into nasty surprises, I’d largely delegated that kind of fighting to Masego himself.
“Juniper, then,” I said.
The blind man bit his lip.
“I dislike using a metaphor, but so be it,” he said. “Think of your mantle as a cape. Much like your body itself, it is a fixed object in the eyes of Creation.”
“Which is why I can rebuild it from scratch when I lose parts,” I noted. “Which does happen more often than I’d liked.”
The mage’s head bobbed in agreement.
“The main difference being that your body is a shape, while your mantle is a pattern of power,” he said. “That power is, of course, finite. Not in the sense that using it spends it, but along the lines that the cape remains a cape – it does not grow or lessen, as a living thing would.”
“So she cut the cape,” I guessed.
“Essentially,” he admitted. “You might say she cut out a corner of the cape. The pattern itself being fixed, the rest of the power thinned itself as a whole to recreate that corner.”
My fingers clenched.
“Are you saying I have less to call on, now?” I said.
“Well, yes,” Masego frowned. “Which I believed impossible, as power does not simply disappear, but evidently in this case it has. It is not unprecedented for heroes to violate Creational laws that apply to everyone else, but this is rather blatant even by their standards.”
“She was a pretty straightforward old bat,” I grunted. “So why did I bruise?”
“In the absence of Winter’s full influence, Creation assumed you to be human again,” Masego said. “With all the consequences that apply.”
I rubbed my forehead, feeling a headache. That made it sound like my actual body was basically a trick played on Creation, which was exactly the kind of thing I’d been terrified of hearing for the last year. Fuck. I really wanted a stiff drink right now.
“So if she cuts me again in that manner,” I said. “There’ll be a window of opportunity where I’m mortal again?”
“You are still mortal,” Masego said. “In the sense that you can be killed, at least. I give decapitation a better than half chance of working, though for obvious reasons we cannot test this. You would, however, lose the ability to reform for a span of time. An increase in fragility, though passing.”
He didn’t sound too happy about being unable to experiment with the removal of my head from my body, but I’d learned to ignore it when he was being an ass by accident. I rose to a sitting position as Hierophant got up and began methodically putting away the silvery instruments he’d used to have a look inside me. I didn’t feel a great need to reach for my shirt, folded on a lower table to the side. Being half-naked in front of Masego was like baring my ass to a potted plant – there was no real interest on the other side.
“We’re getting close to the pivot for the campaign up here,” I told him, rolling my shoulders to limber them. “That means a pitched battle, and likely revealing our shared trick.”
“Good,” he said. “I’ve been itching to prove the theory.”
I grimaced. That proof was likely to kill a lot of people, but then there was only so far I was willing to go to preserve the lives of an invading army. Getting my own soldiers killed when I could avoid it wasn’t on the table.
“Before that, I’m going to need you to mess with their scrying,” I said. “We want them cut off from the Principate when they feel the pressure mounting.”
The dark-skinned man shrugged.
“It is possible to accomplish,” he said. “Their formulas are… rough-hewn. Easy enough to muddle. Yet doing so will require most my attention.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “We’ve got a few more days left until it comes to a fight, by Juniper’s reckoning.”
“I could simply use the connection to kill their practitioners,” Masego suggested. “It would require less sustained effort on my part.”
I breathed out slowly.
“Do it,” I said. “But spare at least five of them. I need them able to scry the Principate after the fight.”
“This ought to be amusing,” Hierophant chortled. “They’ve yet to properly master defensive wards against the law of sympathy.”
“Try not to be too brutal,” I sighed.
“An interesting limitation,” he decided. “I will take it into consideration.”
Well, at least he wasn’t going to draw it out for kicks. Wasn’t in his nature. That was really all I could ask for. I slid off the table and picked up my shirt, slipping it on as he finished his clean-up.
“I would wish you a good night,” Masego said. “But you don’t really sleep anymore, do you?”
“Might get some reading done,” I said. “Reitz is a pain to learn.”
“I am pleased you are expanding your horizons,” he said, patting my shoulder awkwardly.
I couldn’t help but smile. He really was trying, wasn’t he? I pushed back one of his tresses fondly and bade him goodnight. My tent felt emptier for his absence, and the books I had piled up in a corner were a less than attractive prospect no matter what I’d told Masego. There were only so many histories you could read until they all kind of blended together. With a battle on the horizon, Juniper would either be sleeping or planning – either way, not to be disturbed. Vivienne was still presumably making her way back from her little jaunt in the crusader camps and Indrani was both away and probably busy bullying Robber. Larat was, well, Larat. I dropped into the seat I’d once ‘liberated’ from a fae stronghold, savouring the decadent cushioning. It was a strange thing, feeling lonely in a war camp still thriving with activity even at this hour. I missed Hakram like one of my own limbs, the ache having only grown over time. It should perhaps worry me, I thought, how much I’d come to rely on him as a touchstone for my sanity. In the corner, draped over another seat, the Mantle of Woe waited silently.
“I grant you leash,” I murmured. “I grant you eyes and ears, tongue and feet, at my sufferance.”
Akua Sahelian strode out of her prison with unearthly grace, clad in red and gold. I kind of resented that even with a gaping hole in her chest she remained stunningly beautiful.
“It has been some time,” the Diabolist mused. “Longer than usual.”
“I’m not speaking with Hasenbach before things are settled on the field,” I said.
“Is that my only value to you, dearest?” she teased. “Another pair of eyes on your foe?”
“I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish with the pet names,” I noted. “It takes a little more than sweet talk and curves to get me going, Akua.”
She laughed, clear as bell. I really had to commend whoever had taught her that, it made her sound almost pleasant.
“You believe I am attempting to use the fact that you are twice bloomed?” she asked, looking genuinely curious.
Genuine meant nothing, with that one. She could make it sound like she actually believed the sky was yellow if she tried.
“Bisexual, Akua,” I said. “The word is bisexual. Seriously, what is it with Soninke and making everything sound like bad poetry?”
“Your own people have the unfortunate tendency of using simple terms for complicated matters,” she chided.
Fluidly, she sat in the seat across from mine. She didn’t actually need to, of course. She was little more than a soul, and the physical seat made no difference to her position. But villainy of the old breed did have a way of prizing style no matter the situation, I’d give them that.
“Darling, to have interest in mere gender is hopelessly rustic,” she sighed. “Power is the only valuable measure. The superior looks of my people are simply a reflection of our ability to have them. The true worth of them is implicit.”
“You’ll excuse me if I don’t take advice in that from the get of High Lords,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “As I understand it, your take on break ups usually involves poison.”
“For lesser lords, perhaps,” Akua spoke with open disdain. “It is gauche to use anything but a dagger if there was real affection. Poison is a political tool, Catherine. When employed within one’s direct circle, it represents a lack of faith in one’s abilities.”
“More ritualized murder from the Soninke crowd,” I drawled. “There’s a shocker.”
“You must learn to discern between enmity and dialogue, if you are ever to rule the Empire,” Akua said. “Your lowborn origins are not so much of a hindrance as you might think, but your Callowan roots mean you must never be anything but exquisite at the Great Game if you are to seen as more than a violent foreign thug.”
“I really don’t,” I snorted. “Want to rule the Empire, for one, but also need to learn what you’re talking about. Any culture that requires regular intervention by mass-murdering demigods to function doesn’t deserve to keep existing.”
“Then you declare war on the High Lords, my heart,” Akua said. “As your teacher once desired. There is nothing but horror awaiting you on that path.”
“There we go again,” I noted. “I’m not your anything, Sahelian. Except killer, I guess, I’ll own to that one. It did make my year.”
“What other heart can I claim, dearest?” the Diabolist smiled, lightly tapping the edge of her wound. “You have bound me and taken me into your service.”
“You’re a tool, Akua,” I bit out. “In all meanings of the word.”
“And you think this is ungainly in my eyes?” the Soninke laughed. “That is only your due as victor.”
It was an accomplishment, I decided, that even as a powerless shade she could still unsettle me. Best not to linger on the subject.
“Talk to me,” I said, “about goblins. You were aiming to be God-Queen Bitch of Calernia, you must have taken them into consideration when planning.”
The dark-skinned beauty studied me with a too-wide smile.
“They have approached you,” she said. “The Council of Matrons.”
“That’s overstating it a bit,” I said. “But inquiries were made, a few months ago.”
She folded her hands in her lap.
“And now you speak to me,” she mused. “Understandable. Among your most trusted, the two goblins are ignorant of the inner workings of the Tribes. Those that would know most are your two Taghreb, the bastard and the Bishara, yet their understanding will be… limited.”
“Yours will be too,” I said. “But you always had a way with digging out secrets, so you’re worth hearing out.”
“If you are to understand goblins, dearest, you must first grasp that their core nature is that of scavengers,” Akua said. “Never have they risen in rebellion when the Empire was strong, and even in weakness they are patient.”
“They don’t fight armies if they avoid it, I already knew that,” I frowned. “Which, considering their size and fragility as a species, is kind of a given.”
“It runs deeper than this,” Diabolist said. “Goblins will eat anything because they can never assume they will be able to forcefully claim what they need. To be one of their lot is to know from birth that most other life on Creation is larger and stronger. That death is always around the corner. Morality is, to a goblin, at best a distant concern. Bare survival always comes first, and in its pursuit they will commit acts that would given even a High Lord pause.”
“Considering the neighbourhood, I can hardly blame them,” I said.
“You do not grasp my point,” Akua said. “The mindset is not a consequence of Praesi aggression. It does not ebb and flow with threats. It is the starting point of every single goblin ever born.”
“Yes,” I said patiently. “And Praesi think demons are a valid solution to, well, anything ever. My point is that they’re not being unreasonable in thinking that way.”
“You believe they’ve never dabbled in diabolism?” she said. “My dear, the Sahelians have known for decades that one of the primary ingredients in munitions is powdered devil. Our alchemists never managed to reproduce the process involved, but it is a certainty. Now, consider that goblinfire burns all things born of Creation. What do you think that recipe involves?”
My heart clenched.
“You can’t be serious,” I said. “They’re using demons? How would that even work?”
“My people have studied both alchemy and diabolism for over a millennium,” Akua said. “And we have absolutely no idea. Munitions are only created in the deepest tunnels, and those that take part in the process never see the light of day. There is a reason goblin mages are so rarely seen among the Legions: as a rule, they are sent below and never return.”
Well, shit. Had I been throwing around burning demon juice at my enemies this whole time? Fucking Hells, that was going to take a while to process. I leant back into my chair.
“All right,” I said. “So the Matrons are not to be trusted.”
“This does not mean that they cannot be used,” Akua said. “They never plot uprising unless they believe the Empire is on the verge of collapse, and that their own people might be drawn into the matter. This implies Malicia’s hold over the Tower is not so solid as one might believe. The Matrons would not risk fighting an Empire united behind its Tyrant.”
“Ashur sent a war fleet to seize the Tideless Isles,” I told the shade. “What few reports I’ve managed to get on that say they’re hitting anything near the coast that doesn’t have walls.”
“No a threat to be underestimated,” Akua agreed. “Yet as long as the cities hold, the might of the Empire is not overly affected. Mere foreign incursion would not be enough to move them. Has your teacher returned to Praes since our… lively debate?”
“You mean that time where you murdered a hundred thousand of my countrymen,” I said very mildly. “At which point I ripped out your fucking heart and Black wrecked your doomsday weapon.”
“Yes,” Diabolist lightly said. “That. Quite the eventful day. Whatever did happen to the wights, anyhow?”
I did not reply. I simply applied my will, and her hand rose up to plunge into the wound. I had her tear at her own insides, patiently listening to her wretched screaming as she clawed at herself. After a while, I withdrew my will.
“I tend to disapprove of torture,” I said. “But we’re all cutting corners these days, aren’t we?”
She stayed silent, panting.
“Your victims were released and buried,” I said. “Even if I’d somehow been able to stomach keeping them, half of Callow would have risen in rebellion at the news. Now, prove yourself useful. Black has not returned to Praes since I carved out your soul and made it clothing. What do you get from that?”
“There has been break between him and the Empress,” she got out. “She would have him killed if he returned, or at least that he believes this.”
“Unless they’re running a game,” I pointed out. “Getting the opposition out in the open to cut them down in one stroke.”
“If that were so,” Diabolist said, “the Matrons would not have approached you. They must have reason to believe the split is not feigned.”
Mhm. That made sense. And it meant that, down line, I might be able to find an ally of convenience within Praes.
“Back in the box, Akua,” I said. “And if you ever again speak so casually of what you’ve done, I’ll sit down with Masego to figure out if shades can lose limbs.”
I withdrew all I had granted her, and she vanished into thin air. I closed my eyes, tired in a way sleep could not remedy.
This battle wasn’t even done, and already I had to prepare for those that would follow.