“Seven battles I won on my feet, and lost the war sitting at a table.”
– Periander Theodosian, Tyrant of Helike, after the founding of the League of Free Cities
“Six hundred and thirty-two dead,” Juniper said. “Our edge has been scraped raw, Catherine.”
I was really beginning to regret that oath to Hakram, because a bottle of aragh right now would do wonders for my peace of mind. I’d guessed it was bad, when I’d taken a look from the sky, but I hadn’t understood quite how bad it had really gotten. I leaned back into my seat and passed a hand through my mess of a hair.
“You did better than I could have hoped,” I admitted. “Considering what the other side was fielding, it’s a miracle it went this well.”
Miracle was the wrong word, I decided a moment later. It was short-changing Juniper. While I’d been traipsing about the magical wonderland of Winter, the Hellhound had been dancing on the edge against an army about twice the size led by heroes. That she’d not just lasted the day but actually inflicted a defeat was a reminder that Juniper of the Red Shields did not need a Name to be one of the sharpest knives in my arsenal.
“The casualties are trouble, but there’s worse,” the Hellhound grunted. “We’re near out of munitions, and without accord with the Tower the moment our stores run dry we lose one of our heaviest advantages.”
“Goblinfire?” I asked.
“Enough for one last blaze, but not a large one,” my Marshal replied. “We’re entirely out of demolition charges. Sappers still have a decent stock of combat munitions, but you know how fast we go through those when they’re properly used.”
Even if I hadn’t been taught the logistics of that at the College, Ratface’s constant reminders that a protracted campaign would see us run dry halfway through would have served that purpose. Once again, Malicia managed to fucks us without ever needing to do anything but say no. The Snake Eater Tribe that had settled near Marchford had made it clear it could not produce munitions, which meant the vicious old crones in the Grey Eyries had a monopoly. It was illegal under Imperial law for anyone but the Tower to possess munitions, not that it would have stopped me if I had a solid way to get them into Callow. I didn’t, and there were watchful eyes at the border just in case I felt like trying anyway.
“I heard we took a hit on siege engines,” I ventured.
Which was a polite way to say that Pickler had spent exactly three heartbeats welcoming me back before beginning to rant about the Grey Pilgrim apparently wrecking her lovelies. I’d taken that to mean the repeating scorpions, and while I did not share the slightly unsettling affection my Senior Sapper had for her creations the loss of them was still a heavy blow. They were one of our major force equalizers.
“Two repeating scorpions left, no Spitters,” Juniper said. “We’ve still got our full count of ballistas and trebuchets, but they’ve already proven they can make those irrelevant with their fences.”
As our skirmishing contingent consisted of pretty much only the Watch, that left the mages lines as our only effective long-range option. Which wasn’t saying much, considering they’d have to deal with both wizards and priests on the other side. They’d be spending most their time on defence and damage control, not going on the offensive.
“Don’t count on the mages,” the Hellhound warned. “We’ve been running them ragged for two days, fighting and healing. A lot of them are on the edge of burning out.”
I sighed, fingers drumming against the arms of the chair.
“You’re telling me we can’t have another battle,” I said.
“Not if you want to have a force capable of fighting afterwards,” Juniper bluntly said. “Four to six months of recruiting and refit, and we’ll be able to campaign again. Anything else is scrapping the host.”
“Well,” I said. “That adds a certain spice to the negotiations, doesn’t it?”
The orc grunted in amusement, and I allowed myself a moment of envy as she drank a mouthful of wine. My own cup was, sadly, water. Which I didn’t need anymore, or particularly enjoy.
“Had a good look when we engaged this morning,” Juniper said. “They’re on their last rope too. Without their officers they’ve had to rely on fantassins for frontline command, and we bloodied those repeatedly. Levies got bled bad, and the principality troops were always few. Most of their soldiers are fantassins, now, and mercenaries won’t be eager for another go.”
“They’ve got heroes, Juniper,” I reminded her. “Morale’s not ever going to be an issue for them.”
“You say that, but we know for a fact they had runners after the first gate trick,” the Hellhound said. “Kegan’s already caught a few up north, trying to flee back to the passage.”
“The meat of them will stay,” I said. “Still, worth keeping in mind at least half their host is gone. Gods, fifty thousand. I still have a hard time believe we held against that.”
“Wouldn’t have, without the gate,” the orc said. “Though that wasn’t without costs.”
I couldn’t call it luck, not with the amount of contingencies I’d had waiting, but I couldn’t deny it’d turned into a gamble in the end. I’d been so sure that if we kept the positioning aligned for only a short while… No point in whining. They had used their abilities, as I had mine. A mistake had been made, all I could do was learn from it. That particular tool wasn’t going to be put away entirely, but the restrictions on where and how it could be used had to be adjusted.
“It all rests on diplomacy, then,” I said.
“Your speciality, infamously,” Juniper said, rather drily.
I hadn’t even been back for a full day and already my underlings were ragging on me. I flipped her off, feeling the weight on my shoulders lighten the slightest bit. It just wouldn’t feel like home without the sarcasm. I groaned and rose to my feet.
“Best I get started on Masego,” I sighed. “It could take the entire night, if it gets tricky.”
“Don’t linger,” the Hellhound said. “This all falls apart if you’re not at the table. He’s not going anywhere.”
I nodded. Much as I disliked the thought of leaving my friend under any longer than I had to, as long as he was in no danger of death there were higher priorities. Having him at the table with me, even if he was blatantly bored with the proceedings, would get a point across. But uncertainty would have to do, if it took too long. I clasped Juniper’s shoulder in farewell, but paused when I felt her hand take mine. She tightened her grip, face half-hidden by her fur-like dark hair.
“Good to have you back,” Juniper got out, looking away. “It’s not the same without you.”
I embrace her, awkwardly given our respective sizes, but after that I couldn’t not.
“We’re still in it, Juniper,” I murmured. “Bloodied but on our feet.”
She shook me off, but only after a moment.
“Go away, Foundling,” she growled, sounding embarrassed. “And don’t let me catch you sleeping through a battle again. It’s horrible for our reputation.”
“Yes ma’am,” I replied amusedly.
She looked highly insulted by how sloppy my farewell salute was, and the good mood clung to me all the way back to Masego’s tent. I’d know she was there without ever taking a look. People had a warmth to them that I had learned to discern. Orcs were warmer than humans, as a rule, and goblins almost feverish to my senses. Archer burned warmer than any of them. My mantle stirred, tasting the sheer vitality in the air with relish. Indrani looked, at first glance, perfectly relaxed. She’d moved the folding chair she was was on so she could rest her bare feet on Masego’s guts and was casually chipping away at a chunk of wood with a knife. The carving looked like the beginning of a fox to me, but given her dubious artistic skills that meant very little. Her body was perfectly loose and at a rest, but the eyes gave it away. It wasn’t the restlessness of a woman who couldn’t wait to move I saw there. It was the silent frustration of someone who had a problem in front of them but no way to do anything about it. Shaving off another sliver of wood, Archer flicked it at Masego’s face to join a growing pile and offered me a wan smile.
“Cat,” she said. “Wondered when you’d come.”
Part of me wanted to simply get what I’d come here to do done as soon as possible, but instead I claimed a chair and dropped it by her side. Boots resting on the edge of the bed instead of Hierophant himself, since I was a good and loyal friend, I made myself comfortable.
“Had to talk with Juniper,” I told her. “Get the lay of the land.”
She hummed, knife deftly twisting in her grip so she could change the angle she was carving at. How someone so good with knives could be so terrible at sculpting, I had no idea.
“We’re fucked, but so is the other side, so we’re all showing teeth and pretending it’s a smile,” Indrani said. “That about it?”
“More or less,” I conceded.
A sliver fell to the ground. The tent was silent, save for Masego’s spell-induced breathing and the quiet whisper of steel on wood.
“He’s going to be all right,” I said quietly.
“Is he?” Archer said quietly. “Not so sure about that.”
I turned to glance at her and found her face aloof.
“You’re angry,” I said.
“Angry’s not the right word,” the other woman replied. “I get angry, I cut a throat. This is something else.”
I folded my arms around my chest, feeling defensive but not quite sure why.
“Vexed?” I said.
Her smile was thin.
“A cousin of that, I reckon,” Archer said. “I understand the Lady a little better, now. Wish I didn’t.”
“Thought you had a pretty good handle on her already,” I said.
“As much as anyone can,” Indrani shrugged. “But I did always wonder, why Refuge? Not like she enjoys running it. If it was just about the fights, she could have found those as a Calamity. They have a regular hero body count. And she still talks about your teacher like she’s in love with him, or as close to that as she can be.”
“But now you know,” I said.
“I do,” Archer agreed. “Put an arrow in that hard old biddy the Saint, this morning. Walking back to camp, after you gave the signal, I had a thought.”
I remained silent, watching her.
“Catherine, don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t really care about any of this,” Indrani sighed, waving the knife around. “It was a good laugh when you put on that crown, and the scraps keep coming. Got no complaints about that. But they’re just enemies not… my enemies, you get me?”
“It doesn’t feel like your fight,” I quietly said.
“You’re my friend,” she said. “So’re the others, even Vivienne though she’s usually a twat about it. It’s not that I mind giving a hand, and I’m pretty sure we’ve still got legendary fights ahead of us. But it doesn’t quite scratch the itch.”
“Because it’s not your story,” I murmured.
“It’s yours,” Indrani agreed. “And there’s something to being part of this. The Woe, or whatever you want to call it. I found something here I didn’t know I wanted, back in Refuge. But I get the Lady, now, and why she left. Because this isn’t something I was meant to do, just something I’m doing.”
My throat clenched.
“You were always upfront about it,” I said. “That you’d leave eventually.”
“Stop looking like I kicked your unicorn,” she sighed. “No one’s abandoning you. I’m not Ranger, Cat. I want to see it through to the end, to see what’s at the end. I don’t have that… it’s hard to put into words. She’s old, you know, in a way I don’t think we can really understand.”
“I never got a hard number on her age,” I admitted. “At least two hundred, but that’s only rumours.”
Archer’s knife stilled, tapping against the side of the possible fox.
“It’s the half-elf thing,” she said. “You go in knowing the people you meet will be dust before you even hit your prime, and there’s a part of you that doesn’t grow roots. Because you know it’s going to pass.”
I thought of the man whose name we’d avoided saying, of a quiet conversation the two of us had had long before I loved or hated him. They never understand, he’d told me, so very tiredly. Even if they love you, they never quite understand. In this, as in so many things, I was still the bearer of his legacy.
“You look sad,” Indrani said suddenly, and I found her eyes on me. “It’s been a long time, since I’ve seen you so human.”
The gentleness she’d said it with made it so much worse.
“I only ever seem to be,” I murmured, “when I’m at my worst.”
If It’d been Hakram at my side, he would have offered comfort. Masego would have given an explanation, brought reason into it. Vivienne… I still hesitated to be that open with her. The nature of our relationship had set boundaries. You could not bare your soul to the person you’d entrusted the means to kill you with, should it prove necessary. Indrani didn’t say anything, though, because unlike the others she understood that some truths simply stayed with you. Like a scar, or a limp you barely even noticed.
“You ever miss her?” I asked.
“It’s different, for us,” Archer replied hesitatingly. “She’s not my…”
Mother, I did not say. I knew a thing or two about words it cost to speak out loud.
“Isn’t she?” I gently said.
Indrani laughed, but the mockery in it was not meant for me.
“It’s deeper than that,” she said. “She didn’t tuck me in at night, Cat, she taught me a way to live. I didn’t want someone holding my hand. Or maybe I did, fuck – I was a kid and I was scared. But she gave me what I needed instead. Being able to stand on my own feet.”
“It’s not a weakness, you know,” I said. “Loving her for that.”
Archer scoffed, looking away. I left it at that.
“You ever miss him?” she asked.
My smile was a bitter one.
“I shouldn’t,” I said.
It was admission enough. My friend suddenly snorted, jolting in remembrance.
“I had a talk with him once, after Marchford,” Indrani admitted. “I was curious after hearing so many stories so I sought him out.”
“You never told me about that,” I said.
“Didn’t think it mattered,” she shrugged. “I was going to challenge him to a spar, but he had this look…”
“Like before you even entered the room he’d figured out three ways to kill you,” I said.
She grinned, and it had her hazelnut eyes alight. She was most beautiful, I thought, in fleeting moments. Indrani was easy on the eyes yet not so striking it took the breath away, without the scarf, but now and then there would be a moment and it was the only thing you could think about.
“Yeah, that,” she agreed. “Couldn’t find the nerve. We had tea, we talked about Refuge a bit and then about the battle against the demon.”
“And then after that, mild as you please, he smiled all nice and said that if I ever attacked you again he’d have me drowned,” she added.
I blinked in confusion for a moment, before I remembered the first time I’d ever met Indrani. She’d burst out of a window without warning at the manor in Marchford, then slapped me around along with Hakram and Masego. While I was still freshly wounded from a fight with devils, no less. Gods, I’d completely forgotten about that. Archer cleared her throat.
“What I mean is, I think he does,” she said. “Or did.”
Love me, she meant. In his own way.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “He can put it in a box when he acts. It’s not that I don’t think it’s genuine, it’s just…”
“How can it be enough, if it can fit in a box?” she said.
“I think I can handle caring,” I admitted. “As long as it also fits in a box.”
Because it was one thing, to have this tangle of gratitude and affection within me that refused to go away, but it was another to let it dictate my actions. There was a chance, however slight, that I could get to the end without killing him. But there was a greater chance I couldn’t, and when the time came I could not allow myself to hesitate. Not going against a man who wouldn’t.
“You ever wonder if getting older just makes us more like them?” Archer asked, looking upwards at the ceiling of the tent. “Different roads, maybe, but going to the same place.”
My boot scraped against the edge of the bed uneasily.
“I think we can learn from them without becoming them,” I replied. “Or maybe I just want to, because the alternative scares me. Not sure it can really be called faith, when I’m more afraid of being wrong than believing I’m right.”
“They wouldn’t have called a truce,” Indrani decided after a moment. “They would have found a way to kill every last one of them.”
My fingers clenched, then slowly unclenched.
“I’m not so sure they would have been wrong to do that,” I confessed.
I could feel her surprise without turning.
“Thought you are all about victory in peace, these days,” Archer noted. “Peace after a lot of killing, sure, but making nice still being the end of the road.”
“If I’d listened to Juniper and gone with Bonfire,” I said. “A third of my army wouldn’t be dead right now.”
“You just got done sleeping off your last big move,” she shrugged. “Not sure if it was the right call to pass on the Hellhound’s plan, but I can’t say for sure it was the wrong one either. Neither can you, unless you know things you’re not telling me.”
“So I keep telling myself,” I said. “But so far, all my plan’s gotten done is a lot of bleeding by people my duty is to not have bleeding. And it might fail, Indrani. That’s the thorn on the stem. I need the other side to be willing to make a deal, and I’m less certain of that being a real possibility by the day. I thought Pilgrim was someone I could work with, but after this morning… They’re not interested in both sides getting what they want, because if we get our way even a little bit they see it as a defeat.”
“So beat them,” Archer said. “Crush them so brutally they’re not thinking about winning, just surviving. They’ll take terms then.”
I laughed harshly.
“Gods, I want to,” I admitted. “It might not be easier, but it’d be simpler. If all I had to care about was coming out on top and what it takes to get there. And that’s the hypocrisy of it. Because as much as I rail against them, what I’m after is utter victory as well. It just involves make treaties instead of invading another country.”
“I’m still not hearing a reason not to step on them,” Indrani said, frowning.
“Because Triumphant took ten years to conquer all of Calernia and five years to lose it,” I said. “Just being strong isn’t enough, because if strength is all that keeps the peace then the moment you falter it’s gone. And we all falter, eventually. You can’t dance for decades without ever missing a step. I used to think Malicia lost sight of that, when she tried to get her hands on the doomsday weapon, but now I’m not so sure. After Second Liesse I told myself she’d put herself in the corner on her own. That by fanning the flames when Procer had its civil war she ensured sooner or later there’d be a reckoning, and then made it so much worse by trying to get the weapon. Now, though, I think I get where she was coming from. She thinks the only way they’ll ever negotiate with her is if the alternative is annihilation. No uncertainty, no room for a turnaround. Just…”
I snapped my fingers.
“We rebuilding the fortress o’doom, then?” Archer asked. “I was under the impression we didn’t care for it.”
“Before I told Juniper to raise the army,” I said. “Before I let everyone off the leash to rebuild Callow and get it on war footing, I drew a line for myself. That’d I’d only keep fighting so long as what I led to wasn’t worse than surrendering to the crusade. Because if I can’t even believe that much, I’m the problem more than them.”
“No to the fortress o’doom, then,” Indrani snorted. “I think? It can be hard to tell with you.”
“If it takes Hellgates to make what I’m doing work, then it isn’t worth doing,” I replied. “The thing that gets me is, what I hate most about the heroes? I do it too. I’m furious that they think they should win just because they won’t compromise, but when have I ever done the same when I had the power not to?”
And I couldn’t just dismiss that. Because getting angry about them being stubborn didn’t hold, when I was just as stubborn. I could believe they were wrong, but I couldn’t just dismiss their right to disagree with me. The fury that burned whenever they cast their righteousness in my face was childish. I’d spent years telling my enemies that blame was pointless, that it didn’t change anything. That it was whining to demand the world be as you thought it should instead of how it truly was. It’d been my answer, when facing Vivienne in Laure, and I would not renounce it now. The servants of the Gods Above had powers my decisions had barred from me, but that was my own doing. I did not surrender the right to restrain and work around these powers whenever I could, but I could not honestly call it unfair. When had fair ever mattered? That I had to refrain from using powers I had gained because they were harmful of dangerous in no way meant my enemies had limit themselves the same way. If I could not win with this state of affairs, that was on my head. There could be no such thing as cheating when none of this was a game. And Gods forgive me, but I’d known it would be like this when I took up the knife.
“Winner takes all,” Archer said. “The law older than laws.”
“I could probably end the war in about a year,” I admitted. “If I hit Black’s army in the back while it’s defending against the crusaders, then help them move against Praes. There’d be a lot of death before it was over, taking Praesi cities, and probably just as much in purges afterwards. I’m not sure, though, that it won’t result in fewer corpses than my way. I genuinely can’t tell. If I threw it all away, if I rolled over for Hasenbach… Fuck, Callow wouldn’t be independent but I broke William’s neck because I believe the sign on the banner is less important than the people under it. I’m not after the same things I was when I started, not anymore. The amount of corpses on the ground at the end isn’t all that matters.”
“Never did get why you worry so much about people,” Indrani said. “Vivienne’s all about the good ol’ motherland and getting even, but she was upper crust before she learned wandering hands. She’s got a stake in that game. You? You’re an orphan, Cat. Never left Laure before Black took you in, if Hakram is to be believed. Why do you give two shits if this country burns? Not like it ever did anything for you. A chunk of it still hates your guts, and considering you sure as Hells don’t enjoy ruling it you’re going through a lot of trouble to keep doing just that.”
More than once I’d reflected that Archer had a lot in common with orcs, when it came to the way she looked at the world. I’d been wrong, though. Oh, they both liked blood on the floor and they measured most things through strength. But orcs had… loyalties. Not in the way I’d been taught to have them, but they were there. Follow the warlord, protect the clan, uphold what an orc should be. Indrani had none of that. If she was loyal to anything, it was herself. A betrayal, to her, would be forcing herself to do something she didn’t want to do. Pretending to be something else than she was. Black and I were creatures fettered to outcomes, if not means. Archer, and Ranger as well I suspected, could not conceive a world where fetters could be anything but a sin. The only thing Indrani had it in her to truly hate was being restrained.
“I thought I could fix it,” I quietly said. “I looked around me and thought that, if I had the power all those other people had, I wouldn’t make their mistakes. I’d use it the way it should be used. That it would be better.”
Archer studied me silently.
“And do you still?”
I made and broke the Liesse Rebellion, I thought. I bargained with fae as my people died around me, failed the responsibilities I had claimed so grandly a city was blotted out from Creation along with a hundred thousand souls. I am leading this land to make war on half the continent while the rest plots my demise.
“I’m not good enough a liar,” I said, “to make myself believe that.”
“So leave,” Indrani said. “Take your cloak and your sword, wake Masego and convince Vivienne. You have a way with her. We can be out of the kingdom before dawn.”
“Do you think we’re good people, Indrani?” I asked.
“Good people is what we pretend to be, when we’re more afraid of consequences than we are hungry or jealous,” Archer replied without hesitation. “When the living is soft and someone else takes the pain for you. It always, always falls away when you walk through fire – and we’ve been in too many blazes to still be wearing that face.”
“Right and wrong are less important than works or not,” I mused. “That’s what I was taught. And it fit, you know? Because mercy’s the privilege of the powerful. The House of Light can speak the pretty sentiments because by following them it wins. Black never followed his philosophy to its logical conclusion, though, because it’s not about logic for him. Not really. If the Heavens always win, why should anyone ever pick another side?”
“Gold, pretty boys, the power to fry anyone getting on your nerves,” Indrani suggested. “Angels tend to be pricks, too. You’re being all philosophical about this, but that’s just you. Most people don’t think that deep about it.”
“The Empire of the last twenty years was probably the most reasonable Evil has ever been on this continent,” I said. “It still involved exploiting an occupied country and habitual assassination. I don’t think it was worse than other current nations, not objectively. But if the best Evil can do is acceptably awful, then some things have to be reconsidered. The Pilgrim said I’m leading everyone down the cliff just by being in charge, and just because he’s trying to kill me doesn’t mean he’s wrong.”
“So stab the Empress,” Archer nonchalantly said, like it was just an afternoon’s work. “Climb the Tower and, you know, don’t do any of that.”
“That’s exactly what Diabolist is trying to get me to do,” I murmured. “But I think it’s a trap, Indrani. Because I’ll have to get worse to stay on top in Praes. Below wins, and just because I’d hang the Heavens if I could doesn’t meant I trust the opposition any. And whoever puts a knife in me, a few decades down the line, takes up the old banner with the scales having tilted their way. Pilgrim’s right about that too. There’s going to be consequences to all of this that won’t come out for decades, and if I ignore that I’m fucking over a lot more people than I’m trying to save.”
“You made part of this mess, can’t deny that,” Indrani said. “Promises too, to people you like. I won’t pretend breaking would be pleasant. But this is larger and older than us, Cat. It’s the Game of the Gods. Not playing is as close to victory as you’ll ever get.”
“If was a heroine,” I said, “I’d tell you to have a war you need two sides.”
“That ship sailed when you fucked over the Hashmallim, I’m pretty sure,” Archer said.
I laughed ruefully, shaking my head.
“The last time I felt like I had a grasp on any of this was when I killed the Lone Swordsman,” I admitted. “Ever since it’s been like swimming in the dark. I know I saw a shore on the other side, but the night is young and I’m getting tired. The longer I’m at it, the more I doubt I’ll ever get to land.”
“And what’s our shore?” Indrani asked.
“I call them,” I softly said, “the Liesse Accords.”
“They worth the swim?” Archer said, eyebrow quirking.
“They’re why I still have a crown on,” I replied. “Because for them to work, someone needs to enforce them from this side.”
“So we fight,” she said.
“So we fight,” I echoed.
Silence lingered between us, almost restful.
“I’m not sure I do,” I murmured. “Care. If I did, why would I need so many rules?”
“Same reason anyone has rules,” Indrani replied, with kindness like a knife. “Fear.”
I knew better, these days, than to argue with the truth. I rose to my feet and leaned over Masego, forcing away her feet and brushing the wooden slivers off his face.
“Wake me with dawn,” I told her.
She nodded silently, blade beginning to chip at wood again. I laid my hand on Hierophant’s head and breathed in, seizing his dream.
I never felt myself breathe out.