Court II

“Salvation is ever an act of violence, be it within or without.”
– Dread Emperor Reprobate the First

The Woe, Brandon Talbot had learned, had some very peculiar oddities. Queen Catherine’s disdain for luxuries was infamous – and had made her popular in some quarters, when it’d spread she’d sold off some of the more ostentatious Praesi inheritances to invest the sum in the army – but each of her companions has their… unusual habits. Lady Thief, he knew, could shift from displaying the manners of a noble of the old blood to those of a mocking thug in a heartbeat. And the least said about her tendency to steal for sport the better. The Archer was, by all reports, a dissolute hard-drinking brute. Yet she could also quote the classics in three languages, and seemed to be the only person in the Kingdom of Callow that could hold a conversation with the Hierophant on the subject of sorcery. Brandon would have preferred a life where he’d never heard the Lay of Lothian’s Passing strategically quoted to be perverted into a ribald comment about the skills of fair-haired men in bed, but that’d she’d done it in flawless High Miezan was rather impressive. The language was, after all, long dead. The Lord Hierophant was perhaps the least unsettling, in that he reminded Brandon of the stories once told of the Wizards of the West. Absent-minded, prone to discourse few others could understand and blatantly disinterested in anything even remotely connected to statecraft.

He also held conversations while looking at his interlocutors through the back of his head with magical eyes, which was a little less traditional.

Hakram of the Howling Wolves, the Lord Adjutant, had embraced a different sort of oddity. The even-tempered orc was, by objective study, the second most powerful individual in Callow. The queen had made it clear that when he spoke it was with her full authority, and though he lacked an official title besides his Name he had a seat on sessions of the Queen’s Council whenever he so wished. He stood higher in the court’s hierarchy than either the Governess-General or the Lord Treasurer, and if so inclined could have claimed the traditional luxurious office and rooms of either. Instead, the greenskin passed his hours in the cramped and crooked room that had once belonged to King Robert’s personal scribe. Brandon had never once seen the man that the Army of Callow openly considered the heir-apparent to Catherine Foundling either turn his back to the door or allow his axe to be further than hand’s reach. The Grandmaster’s allies had been incensed, when they’d first learned that the army would back the orc as heir if anything happened to the Her Majesty. He was, after all, a greenskin. And it would have been a lie to say that the Regals had not been attempting to position themselves for ascension should the luck of the battlefield turn against the queen.

Only the fact that the Deadhead had shown no interest in rule and that Anne Kendall was almost as unpalatable an alternative had prevented the situation from escalating. That, and Brandon’s harsh and continued reminders that any attempt to remove the orc from power would be met by brutal and unrelenting violence from Her Majesty. The Grandmaster dismissed the thoughts from his mind, schooling his face into serene pleasantness as he bowed to the orc. Hakram Deadhand, after all, outranked him in both military and courtly ranks.

“Grandmaster Talbot,” the orc gravelled, shuffling parchments aside. “Take a seat.”

The bow had been returned with a simple nod, one that matched the requirements of etiquette under the assumption that the man was of equal standing to sitting members of the Queen’s Council. Humility at work, though with an unspoken edge. Brandon claimed the chair across the parchment-covered desk, eyes flicking to the movement as the Adjutant used a paring knife to work on the tip of a quill. The orc had unusual finesse, for one with such large fingers.

“I thank you for the audience, Lord Adjutant,” Brandon replied. “I know your duties stretch your hours.”

The greenskin’s maw flicked open, revealing a swift flash of fangs in what could have either been threat or amusement. The Callowan had not made study enough of orcs to be able to tell, thought perhaps he should. For all that the Regals saw him as the authority on the newborn Foundling dynasty and its greats, that was more a reflection on the little exposure they’d had to the key members of the regime than of his own deep understanding.

“No rest for the wicked,” the Adjutant said. “Well. Should we pretend I don’t know why you requested this talk, or will we skip the usual song and dance?”

The tone was mild, as if the orc did not care either way. There was no impatience there, Brandon grasped. The Deadhand was perfectly willing to… indulge in the demands of their rank, as if they were some children’s game. The unspoken dismissal of centuries of established etiquette rankled, but did not surprise. None of the most powerful people in Callow these days had risen to rank by observing the proper niceties. Smoothing away the wrinkle of irritation, Brandon forced a smile.

“I am not opposed to bluntness on occasion,” the Callowan aristocrat said. “Campaign has taught me the virtues of it even in civil matters.”

The reminder that Brandon Talbot had fought unflinchingly for the queen on fields foreign and domestic both would not be askew, here. Now that the blades had been temporarily sheathed, his Regals were too often treated as the enemy for his tastes. The orc’s hairless brows twitched, the thick ridges of skin in movement implying mirth. As expected, the unspoken part had not been lost on him.

“Thief’s people will be combing through the court for whoever talked,” the Adjutant said. “Catherine was understandably furious that something under seal was leaked.”

Brandon kept his face calm, though worry spiked. The Jacks were skilful and thorough: it was only a matter of time until the culprit was found. After that, the only thing awaiting was the noose.

“There would be no need for any of this,” the Grandmaster said, “if any of my people were kept appraised of large developments.”

“I reminded her as much,” the orc bluntly admitted. “But you’ve also managed to cast into doubt every single appointment your people achieved. The Governess-General was pushing for a general dismissal, and it took me the better part of an hour to get that off the table.”

Under the desk, the dark-haired man’s fist clenched. He’d warned them, he had. That the moment the Regals became the enemy in Her Majesty’s eyes, she would strike thoroughly and without mercy. Having Kendall whispering in her ear would only make her less forgiving. And we can’t even claim that such a measure would result in civil war, he thought. The Regals were influential, that much was undeniable, but they did not enjoy the kind of support that the Queen’s Men or the queen herself did with the lower and merchant classes. Their power was one of tradition and wealth. At court, it made them strong. But no city would rise in rebellion if the Regals were purged from civil appointments, and the threat of gold only held when the other side did not have the men to take that gold if they wanted to.

“Your moderating influence is appreciated,” the aristocrat stiffly said, inclining his head.

“Don’t take it as a sign of approval,” the orc said. “Your clique is beginning to overstep. If removing it didn’t mean handing over the run of the kingdom to the Queen’s Men, I would have let you hang from your own noose.”

Brutal but honest. That was the reputation Lord Deadhand had, in matters such as these. While more open to compromise than the rest of the queen’s most trusted, the orc’s willingness to be diplomatic only went so far. Yet he remained aloof from the partisan politics of the court, and as a voice of reason that made him priceless – as did the fact that he had the queen’s ear more than anyone else. Brandon calmed his breathing. He was not insulted by the bluntness, because that bluntness had not been meant an insult: the Adjutant was merely clarifying his position so no confusion would ensue in the following conversation. The Callowan, swallowing years of lessons on the subject of proper behaviour, decided to follow suit. The Woe, it should not be forgot, had been mostly paupers and vagrants before their rise to power. Their appreciation for directness had deep roots, and could be used.

“It is appreciated regardless,” Brandon said. “To be frank, my people have been restless for some time. This planned partition of Liesse is only the droplet threatening to tip the cup. I hope I will not offend by pointing out that the Regals have been thrown scraps from the high table, and then expected to remain docile and quiet for that privilege.”

The greenskin’s dark eyes studied him silently. As always, the Callowan made an effort not to glance at the hand of bones that was resting atop the desk.

“Then I’ll be frank as well,” the orc replied, fangs bared for longer than previously before they were hidden behind the lips. “Your people have not proven loyal or useful enough to get the kind of appointments you’re pushing for.”

“And Kendall’s are?” Brandon flatly asked.

“No,” the Adjutant said. “We’re well aware they look to the Governess-General for instructions. But they also know that they’ll be tossed out the moment your Regals gain influence, and it’s keeping them in line. As a hanging sword, your people have proved usable. But the accompanying agitation is proving more trouble than that lever is worth, and I will not defend unreliable actors.”

Which, the aristocrat thought, you now suspect we might be considering we’re willing to have our people pass information under seal. It was infuriating, because if any of the Regals were on the Queen’s Council there would have been no such ploy. As long as Talbot’s allies knew they had a voice at the table, they would have been worried about losing accumulated influence by stepping out of line. But they did not have a seat, so more desperate means had to be used to remain relevant. And using those means disqualifies us in Her Majesty’s eyes from having a seat in the first place. It was a vicious circle, without any obvious solution but allowing what influence the Regals had to wane and hope the queen looked well upon them for it. Certain loss for uncertain gain. It was a solution that, if Brandon was to be honest with himself, he would not even attempt to put forward at a council. Not least because he did not truly believe in it himself.

“If we are removed,” the Grandmaster said, “the balance of power in the kingdom collapses.”

“Yes,” the orc agreed. “And so Catherine told me to report this conversation directly to her, instead of having Hierophant dig through the brains of your allies for a name. This is the part, Brandon Talbot, where you make your case for the continued usefulness of the Regals.”

The man’s blood ran cold. He’d sought this meeting to arrange for compromise and concessions, but he’d been reading the lay of the land wrong. His people were not the only ones running out of patience. The orc’s broad and ugly face was serene, but the warning ran clear. If he reported to the queen that there was nothing salvageable about the situation, it would not be dismissals that followed. It would be the Jacks taking people in the middle of the night never to be seen again. And Governess-General Anne Kendall would be the sole truly Callowan voice to decide the kingdom’s legacy. The roof of his mouth was dry.

“You would lose the Order of Broken Bells,” Brandon said.

The orc frowned.

“I presume this is not the threat it sounds like,” he said.

The aristocrat shook his head.

“Knights,” he said, “do not grow on trees. They are raised through rigorous training. Through learned traditions. And by allowing the existence of families that can afford to equip and support one of their own with the accoutrements of knighthood. Guildsmen and eldermen have neither the knowledge nor the capacity to replace us in this regard.”

“A mark in your favour,” the Adjutant said. “In the short term. It is not sufficient to make the unruliness of your people a pill sweet enough to swallow.”

It took a conscious effort not to react visibly. Careful now, Brandon. This is the knife’s edge. The Grandmaster knew, without needing to question it, that the Regals were necessary to the kingdom. He simply needed to make the queen see it as he did, and there lay the thorn. Marriage alliances? No, that was a dead end. To be worth wedding in the eyes of foreigners his fellows would need titles the queen refused to bestow. And marriage alliances both within Callow and into other nations would form power blocs Her Majesty would frown upon. Military officers? It had already been made clear that the Army of Callow was barred to nobility save if it rose through the ranks after enrolling in the lowest ranks – an unacceptable condition to most his allies, who would not tolerate their kin taking orders from Praesi and peasants. Ties to the House of Light? This one, he suspected, might even be a mark against them. The queen’s dealings with the priests would be much eased if she was the only possible interlocutor. He was going about this the wrong way, Brandon realized. Why were his people needed, from the perspective of Her Majesty? From three heartbeats he met the calm stare of the Deadhand, until the answer finally came.

“Ability,” he said.

“Talented officials we can’t trust or use are more danger than boon,” the orc stated flatly.

“Lord Adjutant,” Brandon said. “In all of Callow, how many guildsmen and eldermen do you believe are actually literate? Or familiar with more than basic arithmetic?”

“The upper ranks of every major city and holding,” the Deadhand said.

“Let us be generous and assume half these individuals can be spared from their current responsibilities for court and civil appointments,” the Grandmaster said. “That is a very shallow pool.”

The orc’s eyes narrowed in thought.

“You believe the Queen’s Men are running out of competent candidates,” he gravelled.

“Education, the sort that is required for the bureaucracy you are raising, is expensive,” Brandon said. “The amount of such taught individuals that can be taken from their existing occupations is limited, if you want to avoid harming the kingdom. The only group that can consistently afford to provide these people are the Regals. No one else has the tradition, the learning and the coin. Do you believe it coincidence, that the Praesi purges focused on the nobility? It was not only to quell rebellion. It was to make Callow dependent on the Empire for able rule.”

“A dependency that needs to be excised if the kingdom is to remain independent,” the Adjutant finished mildly. “You are aware, I believe, of Catherine’s opinion on rule by right of birth. What you describe could be considered informal return to aristocracy.”

“There will always be wealthy men and women,” Brandon calmly replied. “This cannot and should not be avoided. Without the ancient privileges of titled nobles checking her actions, the queen maintains supremacy by right of unquestioned appointment and dismissal. What worth is there in robbing yourself of talent for empty antipathy?”

The orc’s fangs flicked into view for a heartbeat before being sheathed again.

“Well argued,” the Deadhand said.

Brandon inclined his head in thanks, mostly to hide the relief on his face.

“All of this, of course, is contingent on the Regals moderating their actions,” the Adjutant added calmly.

The Grandmaster’s jaw clenched. He had come seeking concession, and would be leaving forced to promise them instead.

“I understand your worries,” Lord Hakram said. “Command without success is a stone around your neck. A promise to you, then: get your house in order, and the partition of Liesse will be a matter reopened to debate.”

Brandon met the greenskin’s eyes, finding only patience and calculation there.

“It will do,” he replied.

Gods, it would have to.

Lady Julienne tightened the cloak around her. She’d had to sneak out of her own home in servant’s livery with her face hidden, like a sneak thief. It was mortifying, but she was not in a position to refuse instructions when given. She was being held by the throat, and the slightest flick of the wrist could see her neck snapped. The tavern she’d been told to enter had no sign hanging above the door, the sure sign of miserliness and filth awaiting, and the smell of piss wafted from the nearly alley. She’d not even entered and already she was nauseous. The inside was barely better. A disgusting dirt floor lay at the bottom of a single large common room with a wooden counter at the back. A few tables with ramshackle benches took up most of it, with a pair of alcoves made of hanging cloth flanking each side. Left side, last alcove. That was what the message had said. The aristocrat hurried there, dismayed at the filth her riding boots was being stained with. Within awaited a woman, seated on a seat without even a cushion by a low table that was nothing more than a wheel on likely stolen pavestones. She doubted the owner of this tavern had ever paid taxes in their entire life.

“Should I order a tankard?” the Thief asked, smiling thinly.

“That will not be necessary,” Lady Julienne stiffly replied.

She took the seat across, certain she was going to need to have the cloak burned after she returned to her mansion. The Named seemed indifferent to her reply, drinking deeply from a tankard of dark and thick ale. Disgusting.

“Business, then,” the other woman drawled. “How’s your knitting circle coming along?”

The aristocrat frowned, glancing meaningfully at the common room. It was only half full, with perhaps two dozen people pouring trash down their throats, but speaking of private matters in the open was pure foolishness.

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about,” the Thief said.

“With due respect,” Lady Julienne began.

The Named rolled her eyes and sharply whistled. Without a word, every single person in the room rose to their feet and walked out the door. Including the bald, one-eyed man she presumed to be the owner by the looks of the ragged apron he wore. The sight of it had her blood running cold. Not a single one had hesitated, or spoken a word. Even the drinks were still on the table.

“I own everyone in this street, one way or another,” the Thief cheerfully said, but her eyes remained cold. “Even you, Julienne Guilford. Now tell me about the Regals.”

“I did as you bid,” she replied darkly. “Whenever Talbot is elsewhere I encourage Farron to take harder lines, and when we hold council I stand by him whenever it is not suspicious.”

“And our dear friend Samuel Farron,” the monster said. “He’s still intent on his little coup?”

“He still wants to oust Talbot, yes,” Lady Julienne said. “His support is not broad enough, but it is growing.”

“Good,” the Thief nodded. “You’re going to continue supporting him. Gather all the hardliners behind him. Every last one, no matter what bribes or cajoling it takes.”

“I know what you’re doing,” the aristocrat hissed. “You’re setting him up. Forging a pretext for a purge.”

“Come now, don’t be absurd,” the villain chuckled. “We already have one of those. The moment your clique got their hands on a matter under seal, there was going to be blood. That one is on your heads, not ours.”

“This is murder,” Lady Julien accused.

“No,” the Named replied. “Murder’s what I want to ask you about. Tell me about Valerie Hadley.”

“Brandon Talbot’s steadiest ally in council,” the aristocrat said. “She argues for moderation and seeking the queen’s favour, as a rule.”

“That’s interesting,” the Thief mused. “Since she’s been moving around large sums of gold she shouldn’t have without visibly purchasing anything. When Farron went on about having Ratface killed, what was her stance?”

Lady Julienne frowned, scouring her memory.

“She did not speak on the subject of Lord Qara’s assassination,” she finally said. “It was Grandmaster Talbot that went on a tirade against.”

“You’re going to pay very close attention to who she talks to,” the other woman ordered. “Especially if she’d been in contact with foreigners.”

“Half the Queen’s Council is foreigners,” Lady Julienne sneered.

“That’s an interesting hill for you to make a stand on, Julienne,” the Thief noted. “If you’d extended that beautiful patriotism to foreign money, we might not be having this conversation.”

“I didn’t know,” the aristocrat protested. “They presented themselves as-“

“Guild-certified merchants, I’m well aware,” the blue-eyed woman shrugged. “Shame that was a Proceran front, and you ended up both in debt and guilty of high treason. Funny how these things go, isn’t it?”

“I am no traitor,” Lady Julienne insisted. “My only fault is being fooled.”

“One of your several faults was telling Cordelia Hasenbach about the state of the smithies in Vale in great detail,” the Thief corrected. “Which allowed her to learn we were funding them, which in turn allowed her to deduce the Tower’s been tight-fisted with equipment. Congratulations, you’ve passed information about the war readiness of the Army of Callow to a nation about to invade us.”

The noble had thought the terms of her deal with the merchants were perhaps too lenient, and so been compliant when a very reasonable request about information on Vale blacksmiths had come. Her interlocutors were debating opening a smithy of their own, she’d been told. That one mistake was all it had taken for the monsters to take hold of her.

“I erred, perhaps,” Lady Julienne darkly said. “But that is a lesser sin in the face of your actions.”

“People keep telling me there’s only of those,” the blue-eye woman drawled. “It’s called defeat, allegedly.”

The aristocrat’s fingers clenched.

“I know who you are, Vivienne Dartwick,” Lady Julienne said. “Your house is still respected, in the right circles. You shame it by being the servant of butchery.”

The Named drank from her tankard, then lightly set it down.

“You ever gardened, Julienne?” she asked.

Warily, the noblewoman shook her head.

“Neither have I,” the Thief mused. “Not the kind of dirt I like to have under my nails. My father, though? He loved it. Wouldn’t hear of hiring a gardener, spent hours kneeling in dirt. There was this one tree he loved most of all, a gift from my mother. One morning, I found him in our garden. And to my surprise, he was taking a hatchet to that tree. I asked him why, and do you know what he told me?”

Lady Julienne shook her head again. The monster smiled.

“Sometimes,” the Thief said. “The healthiest thing for a tree is to prune it.”

39 thoughts on “Court II

    1. stevenneiman

      It was only to be expected. Vivienne might be smart, but the Pilgrim is quite possibly the canniest and most experienced actor on either side at the moment. Besides, there was no legitimate reason not to show Cat alive and well if they could, since doing so would have likely been enough to force a surrender. Dealing with petty nobles though? That’s a nice way to relax for someone who plays in the leagues the Thief does.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. JunkerZone

        I’m going to hijack this: the Pilgrim acted in bad faith. He was a willing participant in using terms of truce as an offensive military action (spying, giving the OK for the crusaders to advance). I’m so tired of the side of “good” when they keep doing that bullshit time and again. Rebellions with zero thought for what will come after, invasions to “save” people when they only pay lip service to caring about them, and so on. He is everything that he blames Cat of being only with angels making sure he’ll never lose – what’s really left of his soul if he’s willing to have tens of thousands die in order to expedite the pillaging of a country for some amorphous “good” that is apparent to no one?

        Liked by 6 people

        1. WuseMajor

          Procer seems to be the last and only line of defense against the Dead King and the Chain of Hunger. If Procer falls entirely or even has its army reduced, then worse things than Kat and Praes might happen to everyone.

          Plus, the Pilgrim joined up when Kat sounded like just another Akua.

          He’s probably less confident in his position now, but not enough to actually act against Procer.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. You make a fair argument that the Pilgrim acted in bad faith, but it’s still very debatable. I think what he did is perfectly kosher, and I bet you do too. I suspect you’re mostly mad that he gets to feel good about himself for being Good and looking down on others like Cat and Viv.

          If you were going to be *that* strict about interpreting the RoE, then why not rail against Masego breaking the rules by using a trick he copied directly from a demon? Or about goblinfire generally?

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Panic

          It’s not that simple and he explained as much. If Callow narrative becomes evil then balance is removed from the continent. The resulting chain of events will see Procer fall as a nation as the Chain of Hunger and Dead King overruns their borders. That alone will kill hundreds of thousand, if not millions. And from that it would spiral further and further down the well. The Dominion, evil Callow and the Titanomachy would all see the weakness of the of Procer and carve out their own slices of from it, further crumbling it and causing more death. Helike would probably join in as well but they are a minor player in all this. And if evil Callow goes to fight the corpse of Procer? Why then that means Praes can invade them from behind! And just like that we got a world war. Procer will further splinter under the weight of so many foreign armies. The Order as it is now is not perfect. People still fight in wars and people will die again and again. But it is the lesser of two evils. AND! If Cordelias plan works then that may very likely see the forces of Good win out over Evil on the continent. Even if it will take generations to achieve. And he doesn’t want to pillage Callow. He wants to remove the influence of Evil from it and restore it to what it was before. As for spying. Catherine is practical in evil. Why can’t he be practical in Good?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. The Pilgrim is willfully blind and his justifications are empty.
            Evil fights Evil as much as it fights Good. We already know there has been war between the dead king and Praes and are we supposed to believe that the chain of hunger and the Dead King are friends? If Procer falls they’d just fight it out.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I’m not sure about how willful the Pilgrim’s blindness is. The chessboard board the Heroes and Villains are used to playing on seems to be changing: to the point that the Wandering Bard is getting nasty surprises when what should be cut-and-dried trigger-response scenarios explode in unexpectedly messy and neither-nor ways, instead. Including when trying to create new and interesting Heroic Names and narratives that can successfully tell her to go jump because Neutrality, bitch.

              I think Pilgrim is suffering the same issue: not quite getting how the board is changing on him because the precedent he needs to join the dots with is lacking or just plain wrong.

              Liked by 1 person

        4. stevenneiman

          He didn’t violate the rules of engagement. He used parlay for strategic advantage, but he didn’t break the truce. As I recall, the rules only actually forbid the torture or execution of POWs, the summoning of devils, demons or angels, and possibly attacking under flag of truce. If he had gotten into the camp and used the opportunity to kill Cat (or anyone else for that matter) he would have been breaking the rules. Metagaming is not a warcrime.
          I do agree that he’s a bit to unquestioningly loyal to his particular cadre of eldritch horrors though. I think what he misses is that left alone neither Catherine nor Malicia would have had any real reason to interfere with the Principate. Yeah there was the Pravus Bank, but that was never intended to be a knockout blow, just a way to keep Procer at arm’s reach. If they didn’t invade any time they were strong enough, I suspect that the rest of Calernia would be a lot more willing to let them hold back the Chain of Hunger and the Dead King in peace, but no, they’d rather waste any margin they get beyond the bare minimum combat effectiveness required to hold back the end of the world trying to pilfer their neighbors. And their leader thinks she’s a visionary for seeing past the squabbling of the other Princes, but all she really is is someone who’s better at petty squabbling than they are. A real leader could do better than creating a common enemy out of a state that would have happily left them alone if it could expect them to extend the same courtesy. Not to mention that Procer is dystopian compared to modern Praes, with even more out-of-control nobility who regards loss of life as no big deal.
          For all his flaws though, the Grey Pilgrim is at least acting in good faith, which is more than can be said for any of his allies. Even when he believed Cat’s death to be necessary he was still willing to work with her on the common goal of keeping war from being any worse than it has to be. He’s seriously deluded, but he is acting in good faith.

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          1. Fern

            It’s worth remembering that Cordelia fears an evil alliance that could result in the decimation of Procer and the loss of balance of power in Calernia, a stance that Princess General has started to subscribe to as of a couple chapters ago. From their point of view, it’s likely that they fear an invasion by Praes or the Dead King as a very real possibility. After all, even though Malicia is practical, there’s a lot of pragmatism to be had in crippling an opponent to ensure they do not attack (which she was doing, by the way, which makes this “imagined threat” a lot more real). However, whether or not they actually attack is irrelevant if Procer is removed from the board as an actor and counterbalance to the Praesi bloc. Different methods, same result.

            Also, with the epilogue of the last book, we might see a vindication of Cordelia’s paranoia with whatever Tyrant and Dead King are planning. It’d be satisfying to see our friendly neighborhood Bully and Enementor duo putting down them bastards for good.

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      2. crescentsickle

        Actually, it’s closer to the truth to say there were no *practical* reasons not to show Cat.

        Non-practicals would naturally assume, as we saw in the chapter itself, that they were being snubbed.

        Additionally, Cat could have been scheming, letting them think she was incapacitated in order to deal a deathblow they were not expecting.

        Still, that’s not practical and not what Cat has been pursuing. If she were up, she would have met and reiterated her terms for them to pick up and leave, rather than try to scheme for a deathblow or any additional conflict.

        Her enemies don’t necessarily know that, though, and so the gambit was plausible. Pilgrim’s presence eliminated both the possibility they’d fall for it and for any remaining doubt to exist; if he wasn’t there, even if the gambit failed and they strongly suspected Cat was incapacitated, they’d ask themselves “Are we sure enough to risk it?”

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Actually Hierophant. Not in terms of actual firepower or anything, just that if you don’t have anything interesting about you, or aren’t an enemy, then he’ll most likely ignore you . Archer can and will mess with you just for the heck of it and because she can. Thief and Adjutant are likely to come down hard on you if you’re even a little suspicious, or connected to someone who is.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Daemion

        It really depends on the perspective. Thief might not be as dangerous in combat, but she can influence entire campaigns by stealing the right stuff at the right time. She’s in charge of all the dark guilds in Callow, operates as the spy mistress and thus has enough influence to decide the fate of an entire country, which in turn could change the story for the entire continent.
        It might not be as immediately impressive as Masego killing thousands of enemies with the wave of a hand but the power she holds right now is at least on the same level.

        I wouldn’t even try to rank the Woe, they compliment each other and cover for each other’s weaknesses. Together they are way stronger than apart and that is mostly because they each have their area of expertise.

        This is probably why the Calamities didn’t lose a step after Ranger left, she didn’t bring anything to the table they didn’t already have between Black, Warlock and Captain.
        If any of the Woe was to die or leave, then their entire group would crumble because they couldn’t fill that hole.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yotz

      Tarantula, coral snake… They are dangerous, yes – but hardly can hold a candle for a unassuming black mamba, or lowly brown recluse. If you’ve found a lamb living among the lions – be very, very afraid of that little cute piece of fluff, for its teeth are the sharpest among them all.

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    2. Anon

      Eh….all this really proves is that she’s good at cloak-and-dagger stuff against non-named.

      She’s certainly good in that role, but while Cat does need a spymistress, her range (right now) pales in comparison to Praes’ or Procer’s.

      Her taking a knock on the chin from the grey pilgrim will probably influence people’s perception of her more compared to this event – especially considering how Cat holds her own in social combat versus said pilgrim.

      (though admittedly, some of that is protagonist-centered action/alignment taking place)

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  1. tithin

    Not sure I understand the political implications of Thief setting up Talbot for a fall, Talbot is pro-catherine, and I thought that Thief was somewhat pro-catherine these days.

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    1. Daemion

      She’s not setting Talbot up, she’s collecting all the hardliners in the Regal faction and once they are all in one place, the hammer will come down. What’s left over are the moderates who will bow down to any and all commands from the crown lest they get crushed by it, too.

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  2. letouriste

    this is too good:) EE, you should put the extra chapters in the table of content afterall, or at least a link somewhere easy to see.too many readers are missing these pearls

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  3. RanVor

    An interesting thing I don’t see anyone talking about is Vivienne being explicitly referred to as a villain for the first time.

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    1. I don’t think she ever has been referred to clearly as Villian or Hero, though I haven’t re-read her Band of Heros chapters. It’s something I’ve been curious about for some time: what kind of connection is there between Roles/Names and the gods? Did Above power Viv at first, but Below empowers her now? What does it mean really, to be Good or Evil? This relationship has huge implications about everything!

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  4. Typos:

    but each of her companions has their… unusual habits
    Change has to had, since he’s talking in narrative past tense

    at the filth her riding boots was being stained with
    change was to were

    Shame that was Proceran front
    Add “a” after “was”

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    1. If the branches being pruned are small, a tree saw will get caught since its teeth are large and the branch will fall between the teeth. You can either go get a wood saw (which may bind anyway, depending on how sappy the tree is) or use a hatchet or clippers (basically large tree-scissors).

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  5. Actually,
    The Grey Pilgrim DID act in bad faith. *HE* was the one who traded on his status as a Hero, ostensibly offering healing in exchange for audience, when what he was really doing was only probing for Catherine’s status. Notice he didn’t offer to heal any soldiers the moment he got what he wanted?

    If Heroes run about presenting themselves as fonts of virtue and propagators of Good, but use that ostensible presentation to advance temporal politics of one side versus another, then they aren’t Heroes, they’re simply mercenaries with superpowers.

    Now, had the GP smiled, announced the Thief had betrayed herself, and then said something like “Now, let’s see what we can do to minimize the suffering of the common soldiers, who are only suffering for obeying the currently legal authority of their home nation”..THAT would be heroic.

    Nope, he cold-bloodedly turned around and went home to report Cat was incapacitated. At no time has he demonstrated that this is about anything but achieving Cordelia’s strategic and political goals. He KNOWS Amadis is already making deals to parcel off chunks of Occupied Callow to advance HIS political goals…So there is NO WAY he can make the argument that the common Callowan will be better off as not only partitioned sections of the Principate, but SECOND-CLASS elements of the Principate. The country that treats its commoners at least twenty times worse than Cat treats Callowans presently.

    No, the Grey Pilgrim KNOWS, for a FACT that if Cordelia gets her way, Callow will be bled dry, its young men used as conscripted levies against Praes, and its every shred of wealth poured into the coffers of various nobles of the Principate. He KNOWS that his actions are actively bringing over 90% of Callowans closer to a future where any one of them can be executed without due process merely for splashing mud on a passing noble. Where every young male’s only choice from now on will be a) A lifetime of crushing poverty, or b) A life as a cannon-fodder Fantassin.

    As for the women and the old? The former will be nothing but mares to breed new levies with, and squeeze for taxes, and the latter will be deprived of the necessities of survival by Principate nobles who consider the commoners literally BELOW the value of a good horse.

    No, the Pilgrim’s rhetoric about a villainous Queen corrupting Callow is empty. The future he’s chosen to back will not ONLY leave Callow devastated vastly worse than the Conquest, but the Principate’s every single historical precedent PROVES that that states will be CONTINUALLY repeated.

    I nearly vomited at the line of dialog from the Pilgrim, about “Riding to relieve Callow.” He’s riding to turn Callow into a third-rate vassal-state bled for tax revenues and levies, without regard to its well-being.

    Had he withdrawn his support upon finding out what the Principate really planned for Callow it’d be one thing. He has not. Quite…Villainous.

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