Chapter 12: Cambré

“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.”

Hierophant smiled.

“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.”

Akua smiled.

“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.

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92 thoughts on “Chapter 12: Cambré

  1. Stormblessed

    Somehow this book provides more insight into Akua in so many ways that the other books did not. It almost (I do stress the almost part) fells like we really never understood Akua and the Old Praesi way of thinking.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. RoflCat

      We’ve always seen her from Catherine’s POV, which is almost always when they’re facing off.

      So when Akua is being this…obedient?…Well, it’s kinda like gapmoe. You know, the grumpy delinquent turn out to have a soft spot for small animals sort of moment?
      This time the whole bitch queen who wanted to rule the continent is ok being a slave to her victor is….quite a gap.

      …Well, unless it turns out Akua was planning something inside the cape and has been playing along, biding her time….
      As a person who enjoy shoujo ai/yuri a bit too much I personally hope her subservience is genuine though, might even be interesting if she ends up being a semi-official member of the Woe at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ______

        Please, no. She’s a bad enough person on her own, and her next incarnation is still a toddler. I just hope that if she ever recruits a hero with a proficiency for soul-searching, she’ll saddle them with the task of finding the kid and teaching her to overcome the phylacteria’s influence.

        Liked by 9 people

          1. dalek955

            Don’t be so sure. Before Cat killed her, she did the same soul-separation ritual she used herself on some random toddler, then rewrote the separated soul into a copy of her own. That’s the ‘next incarnation’ —– was talking about.

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        1. Nostradamus

          There is no overcoming the influence. It isn’t influence. The baby’s soul was plucked out. It’s now an empty shell awaiting a new host. Had Akua’s plan succeeded, she would simply be the toddler. All her memories, personality, everything would remain fully intact. She wouldn’t even be Baby Akua, she would be Akua with a Baby Body. Think Tanya the Evil.

          Liked by 1 person

      2. haihappen

        Running theory of mine is that Akua is still the same, a Sonike highborn who sees other people only in terms of usefullness as a tool to get what she wants. And in this case, I much speculate that she is hatching at least a dozen plans on how to turn the situation around and either getting free, possession Cats body, or simply manipulating Cat to do stuff she wants until she can enact one of the former options.
        Not one thing Akua says, or NOT says, for that matter, can be trusted. She will not factually lie when it could be discovered, as this would impede her usefulness as a tool. Being is useful tool is the only excuse Cat has to herself for granting her face time.

        Cat’s loneliness is an IN for Akua, and she has definitely picked up on that. Wanting to talk to somebody, and having somebody within easy reach… thats tempting.

        Liked by 4 people

        1. Rook

          Akua will lie, that’s a given, but almost all of her words will be fully true. Falsehoods work best when they’re not known, and too many too often make them easily noticeable as well as potentially losing Cat’s ear. Not only is it a ridiculous amount of effort to try maintaining more than a very few select lies, the feasibility of it is questionable at best in the first place.

          That kind of blunder isn’t Akua Sahelian. For all her flaws, she’s never been one to waste effort or make a move without a reason. She isn’t a cudgel, she’s a dagger in your back at just the right time.

          Her lies are dangerous precisely because they’re going to be obscured by so many truths that anything she says has a very high chance of being perfectly accurate. Cat can’t afford to disbelieve everything since too much caution leading to ignoring true statements can ruin you just as easily as lack of caution causing you to follow falsehoods, and she neither has the spare time nor resources fact checking everything Akua tells her. Both Cat and Akua understand this, it’s how this game is played.

          No, it’s going to be almost all truth up until a certain Pivot, and what makes or breaks this is going to be whether or not Cat can accurately notice the little inconsistencies and catch that moment when it comes.

          Liked by 3 people

          1. haihappen

            I said what Akua should not be “trusted”, which has nothing to do with what she says is being true or factually correct. But yes, she is a dagger, akin to a coiled snake, and will strike the moment she thinks she can get away with it.

            I just noticed Akua still has the Diabolist Name. Not surprising, actually, as she maintained it with her soul apart from her body before death.
            But this has… interesting implications regarding her potential usefulness and the situations she could be aiming to produce: Her being granted at least a sliver of her former power by Cat, because the situation is desperate.
            Akua may be the most secret (and not secret, since it is an open rumor that Akua’s soul is bound to the mantle) and terrible/destructive weapon that Cat has: a bound Named at her command. Probably also the most unreliable one.

            Is it a kind of a running gag that Cat has a trove of allies that she _knows_ will betray her, and keeps saying that to their faces!
            Larat: check
            Akua: check
            This one noble in Hedges that I cannot remember the name: check
            (soon) Goblin Matrons: double check

            Liked by 1 person

      3. I suspect it’s a High Lord thing. To Akua, all is still right with the world, even in her state. She still has behaviour templates to follow as one who has been defeated.

        In short, most people would go nuts in no time having their soul ripped out, stuck in a stone and left at the whim of others. But, because of their own cultural quirks, the High Lord’s and Ladies of Praes have a chance to come through it about as sane (and that’s not saying much) as they went in.

        Which kind of explain a why punishments in the Tower take it to the next level, as in the Hall of Screams. :/

        Liked by 8 people

      4. Akua has nothing to gain by fighting back at this point. And no pride so sacred she cannot bury it for an advantage. So she will serve Catherine, and not scream and yell and throw a hissy-fit at her, because that’s what gives her the best chance of being let out in the long run.

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    2. Jonnnney

      We always saw her when she was top dog in her own eyes. A lot of what she did was because it was what villains were expected to do. Her personality was always second to her ambition and to the traditional actions of a villain. As a subordinate she is more free to act

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      1. haihappen

        Nah, she is still the same.
        Remember the discussion she had with her second in command during her Liesse Governorship, when she came into her new Name?
        He blatantly admitted aiming to be her Chancellor or similar when she eventually ascended the tower, either to overthrow her later or level the field so that down the line, his descendant has a shot at claiming the tower.
        And this is not something he is ashamed of, as it is a virtue in Praesi culture to be ambitious. Akua is very much not chastising him for it, as she has the very much same mindset, only grander in scale.

        That is the Praesi way: From a position of weakness or subordination, you bide your time until you can seize your opportunity to rise to the top. All methods are good and fair in that pursuit. Iron sharpens Iron.

        Fucked up, yes, but I guess this is very much restricted to the lords and nobles? I would be interested in what the run-of-the-mill Soninke or Tragheb peasant/commoner mindset is.
        An interlude about that would be awesome. Perhaps in how the actions of the high and mighty affect them and their opinions about that.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. danh3107

    It’s amazing how much I hated living akua, but ghost akua is really growing on me.

    Also goblins make napalm out of demons, and given what goblins do regularly in this story I’m honestly not too surprised. It’s also FUCKING COOL

    Liked by 4 people

  3. taovkool

    From wiki:

    cambré (plural cambrés)

    1. (ballet) A bending at the waist in any direction, forward, backward, or to the side

    Cambré is a classical ballet term meaning “arched.” When a dancer is doing cambré, their body is bent from the waist and stretching backward or sideways with the head following the movement of the upper body and arms.

    I have no idea how to translate this into the archetype of a story plot. The beginning of a spin or a feint? Too much speculation.

    Bit of a personal question to erraticerrata, any particular reason for your fondness in ballet terms? Are you a dancer perhaps?

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    1. It’s the theme for the book – each of them had a set of interludes for the other teams running in events, and a set of chapter titles to match. What’s curious is that the pattern seems to have been swapped here, and that the interludes are now the ones that are unconnected. Considering that it was Akua’s interludes that were closest to the theme we’re seeing, this . . . could be worth some concern.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. taovkool

        Wait, so the pattern might not be connected to whatever the hell Cat was doing, but instead it was connected to whatever the hell Akua was doing?

        Those terms of endearments she kept using. Is Akua trying to play out a story of some sort? The only ones that came to mind are genies or guardian spirit a la fairy godparent. More than that, I have no idea. Is there a story about a guardian spirit fucking its owner over? Or at least, one where Akua was released from Cat’s binding?

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        1. Letouriste

          Pretty sure there is.
          In one story they exchange places because of deceptions (forgot the name) and in at least several others the bound creature is released at their owner death (pretty sure this is even a trope) .
          For the second case, I think the creature need to suffer a lot without having provoked such harsh actions (beatings etc…).
          So, if cat mistreat severely akua without reason…Akua can expect help of creation to her escape (she need to be as subservient as possible in her attitude and to be on the good side of the readers. She need pity basically)

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          1. Faiir

            This makes me think of gods above as idealistic readers, and gods below as those more cynical ones, both trying to affect the the story by submitting comments to the author…

            Demons would be the trolls annoying the author and thus destroying the story, and angels would be the moral guardians insisting that the story follows their values.

            In this case, EE using readers’ comments to alter the story would have an in universe explanation!

            Liked by 5 people

  4. Antoninjohn

    If the pattern of Winter is cut by the Gods Above to try and kill Cat she can weave it into a new form and given that when Cat’s story of weaving in to new form is to take the power of her defeated does and add them to her Murder Cloak of Work, Winter/Cat is going to get even stronger

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Rook

        Well she could also numb herself by drawing on a Winter mantle that bleeds into her soul, or avoid the issues by drowning out the emotions in alcohol.

        See, she’s got plenty of options! Cheer up, I see no possible way this can end badly.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Micke

      Considering the matrons have murdered at least one legion general, there’s a goblin settlement in Marchford, and a goblin matron is the highest ranked commander at the other Callowan front, it would bode even less well if she ignored it until another military campaign was the only possible salvation.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Aren’t Orgim and Black ranked higher than her?
        And I believe that Ranker is too deeply involved with the empire to gain much by betraying them, Sacker is a more likely traitor.

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    2. Oshi

      It’s more like there is no one I like around me so I can’t avoid doing all the shitty things I have to be doing. Ugh let’s get Akua over with.

      Like

  5. TeK

    Well, all in all, revelation about munitions is not particularly stunning. We already now that angels can be used in pieces, stands to reason that demons can be too. I wonder, would her oath to not use demons/devils prevent her from using munitions.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mr. Nobody

    Hopefully Cat will make a good sword out of the Saint of Swords. The old hag can even cut patterns of power, just imagine what a sword made out of her would do.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Rook

        It’ll be so straightforward that she’ll have two edges, no guard, and have a handle sharp enough to count as a blunt dagger by itself.

        The ornery old hag ain’t no scheming Praesi high noble. Her price won’t be a sweet lie in your ear, it’ll be cutting off your fucking ear as a warning shot.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Nivek

    That bit about how Praesi use poison and knives to thin their inner circle seems limited. You should also have thrown in poisoned knives and knifed poison in that description. I have no idea what knifed poison even is but I have no doubt that the Praesi invented it at some point.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. nrsa

      Knived poison is obviously poison that was frozen solid and carved into the form of a dagger. That does actually sound like a fun way of killing someone

      Like

    2. Thea

      Well, there may be a solid poison shapeable into blade form. Should be easier and more applicable as small needles, e.g. for a blowpipe, but a knife might be possible. Somehow. Cut someone, blade dissolves a bit to poison them, and you hope it didn’t dull so much you can’t cut anyone else.

      Like

      1. Rook

        Please, a discerning noble wouldn’t be as base as to let practicality get in the way of frivolous manners. Blowpipes are probably reserved as a commentary on verbosity, and a knife instead of a dagger would imply that your lesser political standing made the outcome clear from the beginning. A poisoned knife would only be acceptable to show acknowledgement of ability while also criticizing that your perspective is still that of a crude lowborn.

        Liked by 4 people

    3. TeK

      It’s actually cowardness and show of a lack of both self-confidence and true affection, if you use something else than your bare hands. Bonus points for killing someone by having sex until their heart bursts (probably would need to use poison). Truly romantic.

      Like

  8. IncognitoMe

    That’s the second time the Ashuran attack on the Tideless Isles has been mentioned and it already stuck out to me in the Stairway Interlude.
    They said there that the son of Magon Hadast is leading the assault and I am certain that in a previous chapter somewhere it was discussed that Malicia owns that guy.

    You guys think there’s a revelation later that that fleet from Ashur has been lying to their crusader allies and Praes is better prepared that expected?
    Also, do you think we’ll hear from the Pirate Queen villain again, that Black at some point strong-armed into working for the tower and that is based in the Tideless Isles? That one was in one of Cat’s name dreams is a nice Chekov in my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. grzecho2222

      Malicia and legions left in Praes are definitly doing something and given that they are not marching to support Black, my guess is that whatever happened Crusaders fleet is at least not complitly out of picture.

      On the matter of Chekov Guns, there is also missing bell in chapel on angel island and considering Callowan obsession with bells (City of Thousand Bells, Order of Broken Bell, bell being kinda symbol of Callow and its royalty)…

      Like

  9. burdi

    So, thief already did her mission, whatever it was. i think its about the absolute positioning from observatory, amazing as it is, its still need a beacon, a sign to positioning its attack
    it kind like a gps

    Like

    1. Letouriste

      Why do you think there would be only one mission? She got time during that battle,she could do several critical things.

      Like capturing the princess general,stealing their suplies,hiding some beacons for masego future spells,stealing the weapons of some heroes (unlikely),hiding some traps,stealing the gold that Prince amadis use for paying his troops etc…

      Like

  10. Letouriste

    « There can be no peace (looking away, knife already in a corpse) when the very nature of Creation is contest (not enough meat, talking). »

    That sentence is so…deep,and weirdly funny^^

    Every talks with masego are pure gold:)
    And now I have a picture in mind of goblins doing horrors experiments with a creature literally tearing the fabric of the world apart by existing…gods, and I believed Warlock was the scientific madman in this story:o

    Like

  11. Gods Above, I love Masego.

    “I thought you didn’t drink wine any –” Masego frowned. “Wait, is this another sex thing I don’t know about?”

    I have had to say thing almost exactly like this far too often to not appreciate it when someone else has to struggle through and still be the smartest badass around.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Author Unknown

    Wow the whole munitions from demons and devils thing feels like getting backhanded by hindsight. It seems so obvious now, I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming. Probably because there are chemical means to accomplish most of the effects; good misdirection EE.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agent J

      And there’s the fact that the Gnomes sent a yellow letter when gunpowder was being experimented on. Yet no one bothered to question what the munitions were made of. Or, at least, I didn’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Berder

    So we know Masego is astounded that part of Cat’s mantle could be destroyed. Is it possible that it was not actually destroyed? And if not – where could that severed corner of her mantle have gone to? And if the whole cloak could regenerate the corner – could the corner perhaps also regenerate the whole cloak?

    My theory is that Akua now has a weak version of Cat’s mantle. She was in close proximity when the event occurred.

    (Perhaps a correction: Akua described an empire united behind its “Tyrant.” Shouldn’t she have said an empire united behind its Empress?)

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Naeddyr

        “Tyrant”, when not referring to the Tyrant, is like “King”; Dread Empress is the Name. There’s “Good Kings”, but not all “Kings” are “Good Kings” (or “Bad Kings” or named in general). It’s just a synonym for the ruler of Praes.

        Liked by 2 people

  14. WuseMajor

    I wonder if Cat is gonna start arranging a contingency or something so that, when the Saint cuts off the rest of Winter, she’ll end up human again and with a proper Name in the process.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. ______

    Erraticerrata, given that sappers are taught the spreads for goblinfire on various types of ground (with magically significant numbers in it), and that keeping notes on demons affects the surroundings, is diabolically charged alchemy the reason the sappers are typically perseived as mad, or the demonic essence is diluted enough to be safe in that regard?

    Like

  16. Great chapter EE!

    Catherine’s feeling of “UGGHHHH fuck all of this” was delightfully palpable. It was nice seeing some more banter with Masego and Akua little tidbits about Praesi social niceties was both horrifying and intriguing.

    I started reading last year and im loving the new book so far!

    To you the best, to your enemies your worst.

    Like

  17. RanVor

    Damn, Ghost Akua is so creepy.

    I have a feeling something bad is going to happen in an instant Masego’s attention is diverted.

    Like

  18. The cloak was cut and the power diminished, which was thought impossible. What if it was impossible to simply lose that power? What are the chances that the metaphorical cloak joined her actual cloak? What if Akua has a shred of Winter, now?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. grzecho2222

      New Squire will most likely Hero to be mirror to Cat or Robber since we know that goblins can be tradicionaly Named, Also given that Black will probably stop being Black some time soon (be it by losing Name, changing it or getting killed) new Black Knight would arise and given that all three known Squires have one thing in common (deep dislike toward some aspect of Empire) and Robber is the most martial of three people that we know that display it (Robber, Pickler, Ratface)

      Like

  19. I’m confused as to why people think Akua might have part of the cloak now. I do wonder what happened to the part that was cut off though. IMO the most likely candidate to have taken control of it in someway is the heroes–and that would be a really scary prospect that could result in another nasty tradeoff during the big battle later. :/

    Like

  20. “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

    So while this is a terrifying look into goblin culture, but I’d like to go off on a huge tangent and note that this is kind of wrong from a game theory standpoint.

    Oh total mutual defection and hostility is a very easy local optima to get trapped in, don’t get me wrong. And I don’t disagree with the statement in a narrative sense or in a realism sense, that’s stuffs been said before, will be said again, and it makes sense why people come to such conclusions.

    But in any complex game theory scenario with finite resources, especially one in which competition expends resources, intelligently cooperative agents almost always win out.

    When modern AI programmers write game theory optimizers (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-017-02597-8) they don’t write them to cooperate or defect. They just write them to *optimize*, whatever that may mean. And you know what the fascinating thing is? For complicated scenarios with intelligent adversaries? *Especially* if you can communicate with your adversary? ‘Optimal’ always means cooperative. Not unconditionally cooperative, of course not. But smart cooperators beat out smart defectors by such a wide margin that it’s all but taken for granted that cooperation is optimal in game theory. (At least, in game theory scenarios complicated enough that learning can happen).

    Although, I should note that cooperation breaks down and defection becomes valuable when three main things happen. (Well, when a lot of things happen, but here’s the three main ones). Also it’s worth noting that these things feed into one another in a *big* way.

    A) A terminal scenario exists and starting resources are imbalanced. If actors can murder or subjugate other actors or in some way “kill them, take their stuff”, and someone starts with enough resources that they can just soak early-game counter-defection losses, they can just take over the game. And ruling the world is optimal.

    B) Limited quality, quantity, or expansiveness of communication combined with impermanent group structures. If communication is restricted in complexity, hostile actors can easily spoof cooperative signals. If communication is costly or outright capped, hostile actors can restrict their actions to being malicious but not quite malicious enough to warrant people sharing information about them. And lastly, if these things are true and what information is shared isn’t universally accessible, hostile actors can move to greener pastures when eventually they are identified as hostile, either by individuals or by local groups.

    C) Inherently exploitable groups exist. This goes without saying of course, if a group of actors who can’t effectively fight back against defection exist, of course they’ll be exploited. But it goes beyond that. The existence of exploitable groups causes the proliferation of defection schemas in general and the breakdown of deontological cooperation schemas, which results in cooperative groups fracturing into local cooperation schemas rather than global cooperation schemas, and then those groups tend to get ordered into a hierarchy of exploitability.

    So stepping away from the game theory tangent …. the goblins are kind of wrong? “There can be no peace when the nature of Creation is contest” is just dead wrong. Finite resources do not push towards mutually assured defection, in fact they push towards the exact opposite. But at the same time … sometimes the bloodiest knife comes out on top and there *are* reasons for that.

    … Fuck Errata, you have the best chapter openers, I hope you know that.

    Like

    1. TeK

      I have to dissagree with you there. While I would not argue game theory with you, it’s math, and math is not always applicable to the reality. Much less to fantasy. That aside, I think the epigraph refers more to the “conservation principle”. Basically, to gain in one place, you must lose in another. Cooperation is a very loose concept. For example, you got limited food, so you need to reduce your population. Even if all agents cooperate towards their mutual survival (without reducing the population, whuch will mean loss for some agents), they, at best, will just even out their expected lifespan (which will be very small), and eventually everyone loses. And if they cooperate towards the survival of group as a whole, while technically everyone wins (if they are lucky), one can argue that given that they leave the game, they lose one.

      Like

      1. Actual game theory applies mathematical models to reality in much the same way biology population models do. Very, very well.

        Also that’s not what cooperation means in game theory. It’s a very common misinterpretation, but a wrong one. Cooperation isn’t “all individual good subverted for the collective good”. It’s “opening oneself to the possible consequences of betrayal to avoid the sure consequences of mutual conflict”. And intelligent cooperation is mutually deciding upon and taking steps to reduce the risk and cost of that potential betrayal, specializing individual’s actions to optimize resource output in ways that make a collective more efficient than a collection of individuals, and leveraging large group size into being able to win pissing matches with intransigent defectors, etc, etc.

        High-level cooperation isn’t communism. It’s bureaucracy.

        Like

          1. No problem. Always happy to share. 🙂 Game theory is really fascinating and it’s a crying shame that it typically only gets presented as the one-off, no-priors, no-mutual-information, no-communication, no-overlapping-goals, two-party Prisoner’s Dilemma. It’s like, yeah, sure, take out everything that makes game theory applicable to real life and actual people and present that as the quintessential example of the field why don’t you. That’s not underselling the discipline at allllll.

            (I am very salty about this, sorry).

            Like

  21. Is the damage to Winter’s mantle permanent? Or is it simply a temporary drain on the rest of the mantle while it repairs the damaged/cut off part? It would suck if it was permanent.

    On the other hand, the novel strikes a good balance between the endless quest for gaining personal power and character development/other practical matters of power (Black’s tactics, Malicia’s politics)…

    Also, Ubua, I’m pretty sure that Black and Malicia wouldn’t kill each other as we saw them come to a fragile sort of make-up at the end of the last book. Although, Black may somehow change in his Role to fit into Cat’s vision of things/how the world should be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. warriormonk19

      Also, I think you meant to say ‘obscenely’ instead of ‘obscurely’ in the first line.

      Masego said, sounding ‘obscenely’ pleased.

      Like

  22. crescentsickle

    I think that Akua is planning for a really long game. I believe that she sees the only way for Cat to succeed in what she wants is to don the mantle of Empress. She may not want it, but it may be the only way she can force the Deoraithe and the Orcs not to fight, to settle the Goblins, to pacify and reform the Soninke and Taghreb. She believes that either Black and Malicia will end each other or will fall to Cat in a three-way power struggle.

    At that point, Akua is hoping to have served Cat for so long as a former-rival-turned-loyal-but-still-probably-traitorous role that she automatically qualifies as Chancellor without Cat being able to stop it, and for her to assume the Role to allow her to escape Cat’s prison for her. Then she makes her own play, whether to just rule Praes, gain the title from Cat in a peaceful manner (because Cat doesn’t want it), or violently obtain it.

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  23. Rereading this I’m surprised, with the oath Cat made, that Akua is not worse off than she is. I mean having your soul bound to a cloak is bad, but it’s not “will be remembered in a thousand years” level of bad. And Cat’s pretty bound at this point to fulfill oaths like this to the letter.

    Like

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