“My dear Betrayer, I resent this accusation of selling you out to the heroes. No coin changed hands, it was really more of a bartering.”
– Dread Emperor Traitorous
“I shouldn’t need to bring up the grave consequences that would of dealing with that entity in any way,” Vivienne noted calmly.
Maybe a little too calmly, I thought. She wasn’t angry – I’d learned to read that in her – but she was… weary, maybe. Like she was seeing the same lay of the land I did, and was horrified at what might come of it.
“Heh,” Indrani said. “Grave consequences. You know, because he’s the Dead –”
“Masego,” I interrupted. “Would you please smack her?”
“Do I get to pick where?” Archer leered.
There was a pause.
“No,” Hierophant replied pensively, and tried to slap the back of her head.
He ended up caught in a wristlock instead, and the two of them toppled to the floor when he called on sorcery to try to toss her away. The two of them fell wriggling as Indrani tried to get on top – no surprise there, I mused – and the council was forced off the road until Hakram rose to his feet, grabbed a water pitcher with a sigh and upended it on them both. Archer yelped, Masego looked peeved and I turned the droplets freezing cold out of petty spite.
“Back in your seats,” I ordered.
I looked away even as Masego evaporated the water on his robes, pretending deafness when Archer asked him to to the same for her. Juniper growled, which got both their attentions. Both of you could kill her with barely any effort, I thought amusedly. But all she needs to do is growl a bit, and you straighten your backs.
“Militarily speaking, cooperation with the Kingdom of the Dead would be both boon and threat,” the Hellhound said. “Its armies have been strong enough to weather five crusades: there’s no way the Proceran borders can hold if he comes out in force.”
“Which would leave us with a fresh liability,” Hakram said calmly, seated again. “Namely, that the Dead King would be out in force.”
“Forget armies,” Thief said flatly. “If it becomes known we struck a pact with the Hidden Horror there is not a nation on Calernia that will be willing to treat with us. The cost of that absurdly dangerous alliance would be that we are made pariahs forevermore. I cannot stress this enough: even the summoning of demons would go over better. The only person to have ever struck alliance with the Dead King was Dread Empress Triumphant at the peak of her power. That will be the precedent everyone sees us through, from that point on.”
“We’re already fucking pariahs, Thief,” Juniper grunted. “I won’t pretend working with the Horror would be pastries and flower crowns, but let’s be honest: what would we actually lose?”
“Any semblance of legitimacy, for one,” Vivienne hissed.
“I do not speak in endorsement,” Hakram said mildly, cutting through before it could escalate. “But Juniper is not incorrect. We are in varying states of hostility with the Empire, the Principate, the Dominion and the Thalassocracy. The League has already refused to negotiate with us, twice. It may be that situation will change in the future, but it has not yet. As it stands the costs of this decision would not be a direct loss, only the denial of possible change.”
“Eh, no need to trumpet it around anyway. We could just be secret allies,” Archer said. “Doesn’t the old guard love that kind of stuff? He’d probably go for it.”
I sipped at my aragh, leaning back into my chair. Indrani wasn’t wrong.
“There’s more than a few steps between alignment – however temporary – and alliance,” I finally said. “Ideally, we would use the King as a distraction with full deniability. I don’t think anyone in this room wants him to actually win in any measurable manner. If he can launch a failed invasion that takes the pressure off Callow, though, that might be a notion worth entertaining.”
“If the dead cross the lakes into northern Procer, it will be butchery,” Vivienne said coldly. “Hannoven might be able to resist, heavily fortified as it is, but Cleves and Hainaut? They’ll break, Catherine. You know this. Hundreds of thousands murdered and made into abominations. Akua’s Folly, forged anew half a dozen times.”
“It would be,” I said slowly. “If they were taken by surprise.”
There was a long moment of silence in the room.
“Are you proposing,” Juniper gravelled, “that we double-cross the Dead King?”
“I mean,” I hedged, “I wouldn’t put it exactly like that.”
“That means yes,” Masego helpfully informed Archer in a whisper. “It’s the Callowan uprising. She doesn’t like to admit to betrayal.”
The Hellhound opened her mouth then closed it, licking her lips. Solemnly, she reached for the bottle of aragh and poured until her cup was nearly overflowing.
“If you would elaborate, please,” Thief said quietly.
“So we have a nice chat with Trismegistus,” I said. “Shake hands, kiss his dead babies – let’s not kid ourselves, he’s bound to have a few of those – and plan an offensive. We leak the plan to Procer at least a month ahead, enough time so they can evacuate everything. We time it correctly and Malanza’s army will be in a position to march north to fight a delaying action until the rest of the crusaders can reinforce her.”
Juniper choked on her drink.
“Hasenbach would have to send most her armies to hold the north,” Hakram said quietly. “And suddenly we gain a great deal of leverage. The Army of Callow could easily strike her back and collapse her supply lines. Or, if she makes peace with us, ferry her armies through Arcadia before either Cleves or Hainaut is entirely overrun.”
“There would still be a great many deaths,” Vivienne said, but she was hesitating.
“No civilians, though,” I said. “Soldiers. Loss of property as well, but I’m less than sympathetic to the monetary plight of princes trying to invade my homeland. We can limit the terms of engagement for the Dead King as part of our deal.”
“That will no longer hold the moment we betray him,” Thief reminded me.
“We can delay that until Procer’s in a position to give a good fight,” I said.
“It should be remembered,” Hakram said. “That if it ever comes out we were involved in the matter, we’ll be discarding every scrap of goodwill we have so far accumulated through our restraint.”
“We’ll deny it. Not like they’ll have proof, so it’ll be the Hidden Horror’s word against ours if he even bothers to say anything. And, to be blunt, Juniper’s not wrong. Goodwill hasn’t cut it so far,” I admitted. “And I think we could get a lot of it back by throwing in with the crusade against the Kingdom of the Dead, even if it comes to that. If it takes leverage to get things done, Hakram, I’m willing to go that far.”
“I don’t like it,” Vivienne said. “This… scheme is not as bad as I first thought it would be, but playing with fire doesn’t do the danger of it justice.”
“Neither do I,” I said. “And I think we can all agree this is a last ditch plan, not the first arrow out of the quiver. I’d much rather cut a deal with Hasenbach herself or the Pilgrim if I can, and I intend to try that as soon as this council is done. But if they’re not game, then I think we have to seriously consider this.”
I met her eyes unflinchingly, and saw the war taking place behind them. Between the patriot and the decent woman. Better than anyone else in this room, she knew how dangerous the army standing on the other side of the Vales would be to Callow. Thief had always been lukewarm about making treaties with Procer, reminding me there was a reason Red The Flowers was a popular song in the country to this day. On the other hand, she was not a killer. She had killed, to be sure, and arranged the death of others. But it was not in her nature, and unlike me she’d never grown used to it. Making common cause with something like the Dead King, no matter how false the premises, ran against the grain for her. There was a reason it was to her I’d handed the means to kill me. Of all the Woe, she was the only one I could trust to pull the trigger if it came down to it. Her moral compass wasn’t exactly pristine. I knew that. She was, after all, a thief. And capable of dark things to keep Callow whole. But she’d yet to lose that spark of decency that none of my other friends could truly claim to have. Not even Hakram, for all that I loved him more than any other. The moment passed, and I did not need to wait to know which part of her had won. The repugnance on her face made it clear enough.
“Before this plan is seriously entertained, there is a great deal to address,” Thief said.
Your people becoming warped by your presence, the Grey Pilgrim had said. Old traits grown more vicious and acute. Was I slowly breaking down my own contingency? I shivered in a way that had nothing to do with cold.
“Agreed,” Hakram said. “Namely, why the invitation at all?”
Juniper set down her cup and it rang empty against the table. She wiped her mouth.
“That’s had me wondering,” the Hellhound said. “It doesn’t seem like he’d need us, at first glance. Out of all his possible allies the gates make us arguably the most immediately useful for an offensive in Procer, but our strategic value is limited.”
I glanced at the two bickerers in the back, since this part of the conversation was exactly why they were here. Masego as our expert in all thins arcane, one who’d had access to Tower archives to boot, and Archer as the pupil of one of the few people who was known to have entered the Kingdom of the Dead and returned.
“I can tell you a few things about how Keter is run, and the lay of the city,” Indrani said. “But not much more than that. The Lady speaks fondly of him, but that’s not surprising – he’s probably one of the few entities kicking around she can’t kill.”
Less than useful. I glanced at Hierophant, who was frowning.
“The only precedent I can think of for the Dead King making alliance is Dread Empress Triumphant,” he said. “He was not her equal, but neither was he her vassal. During none of the crusades directed at his realm did he seek Praesi assistance.”
“He’s launched offensives into Procer before,” Juniper said. “We have records of the battles. But they always seemed more like large-scale raids to me. Cities were sacked more to grab people than to grab territory, and I can’t recall an instance he went deeper south than northern Brabant.”
“Three Hundred Years Against the Dark, Amalia Holtzen,” Hakram murmured. “I have read the volumes as well, and always found the mentions of his presence with the armies to be somewhat dubious. Nowhere as powerful as a necromancer of his purported strength should be. Chronicles are the crusades are hard to get by, for us, but in those he’s said to have fought heroes. There can be no comparison between the power displayed there and in Holtzen’s volumes.”
“He can raise Named with some of their power still attached,” Archer said suddenly. “The Lady’s fought a few.”
I blinked at Indrani. Was she implying that Ranger took walks into a poisonous undead-infested wasteland just so she could scrap with – I forced myself not to think about that too deeply. Ranger was fucking insane, trying to figure her out would lead me nowhere.
“You’re implying he hasn’t led his armies in person since Triumphant,” I said, eyeing the others.
“Father has long suspected he cannot easily leave the Hell he rules,” Masego noted. “Though the scarcity of solid information on the entity prevents this from being proper theory. The Tower has suppressed most writings ascribed to Trismesgitus since Dread Emperor Revenant was overthrown.”
His brow creased, after that, but he said nothing.
“Hierophant?” I pressed.
“It would-“ he began, then stopped and sighed. “There have been always been rumours of some High Lords having records of the Secret Wars that Dread Empress Maleficent the Second never managed to erase.”
“The what?” Indrani said, leaning forward.
“Bunch of Emperors tried to invade the Dead King’s personal hellscape through hell,” I told her. “Malicia mentioned them to me once. It went about as well as you’d expect. Maleficent the Second loosed a bunch of demons to erase the whole mess, since it was bad enough Ater itself was about to be invaded.”
“That would have been…” Thief said slowly. “Well, I doubt there’s a word harsh enough for it.”
“Yeah, there’s a reason Imperial histories aren’t bedside reading,” I said. “Unless you enjoy vivid nightmares, anyway. I think I get what you’re trying to avoid saying, Masego. If any Praesi city has those records, it’ll be Wolof.”
The dark-skinned mage inclined his head in agreement.
“It has always been the heart of sorcery in the Wasteland,” he said.
I thumbed the collar of my cloak. Where the soul of the former heiress to Wolof was currently kept in captivity.
“Diabolist might know more, then,” I sighed.
“She doesn’t deserve to get out again,” Vivienne said darkly.
“It’ be a simpler world,” I said, “if people always got what they deserved.”
I breathed out slowly.
“I grant you leash,” I said. “I grant you eyes and ears, tongue and feet, at my sufferance.”
Akua Sahelian made her entrance with the languid grace of a cat at play. My eyes narrowed immediately. There should have been hole in her chest where I’d ripped out her heart with my bare hands, but she stood intact before me. More than that. No dress of red and gold clung to her form: she wore instead a long gown of trailing darkness, jewels of pure frost glittering around her neck.
“Your Dread Majesty,” Diabolist bowed, smiling pleasingly.
“Huh,” Archer said. “Even dead she’s still a looker.”
I blinked, eyes turning to Indrani.
“You can see her?” I hissed.
Masego inhaled sharply.
“Anchor,” he said, sounding reluctantly impressed. “You made your own prison into an anchor. That is impressive.”
“A compliment from a practitioner of your skill is worth hearing,” Akua said, inclining her head in respect.
“Yes, Cat,” Archer contributed helpfully. “We can see her.”
I glanced at Vivienne, whose fists had tightened so harshly the knuckles were turning white. Still and silent, she was glaring at Diabolist.
“Akua,” I said flatly. “Explain.”
“She devoured part of the mantle, I would say, and wove herself into its very fabric,” Masego said before she could reply.
“An accurate assumption,” Diabolist agreed.
“And so now you’re… healed?” I guessed.
“Bandaged might be more accurate a term,” she suggested.
“With Winter,” I murmured. “Interesting.”
I drummed my fingers against the table and exerted my will. Her hand rose, her eyes widened in surprise and she began choking herself.
“That seems unnecessary,” Masego said as the sound of rough strangulation filled the room.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do that before,” I replied without looking at him.
My eyes were still on Akua.
“Nothing without a price, eh Diabolist?” I said calmly. “You’ve given me a much deeper hold, with that little trick.”
“She cannot die through this,” Hierophant sighed. “Only feel pain, which a caster of her calibre would have long learned to ignore.”
I released my hold and her hand fell as she weakly caught her breath.
“I’ve not grown any fonder of surprises, Akua,” I noted. “You’re rapidly heading towards a place where your occasional usefulness is inferior to the risk you pose. I shouldn’t need to tell you the consequences of that, should it come to pass.”
Diabolist bowed deeply.
“Your chastisement has been heard,” she said.
“Might want to do that again, just to be sure,” Thief said, smiling viciously.
“If you want to tear out butterfly wings, do it on your own time,” Juniper grunted. “Sahelian, do you have knowledge of the Dead King?”
“I have made study of him as a worthy example,” Akua replied. “The horrors he has wrought are second to none.”
“What does he want?” Hakram asked plainly. “As an entity, what is he after?”
The dark-skinned beauty – Archer, much as it pained me to admit it, wasn’t wrong about that part – cocked her head to the side. Thief’s fingers clenched even tighter.
“I am bereft of context,” Diabolist said. “And so cannot make accurate assessment. A creature whose existence has covered the span of millennia cannot be summarized in a single sentence.”
Eyes went to me. No one was going to release information to the shade without my say so.
“He’s invited Cat to Keter to discuss an alliance or something like that,” Indrani said, picking at her fingernails.
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. Of course she would. Archer wasn’t one to keep her mouth shut around a pretty anything, much less about things she barely cared about.
“How interesting,” Akua Sahelian drawled, and there was a glimmer of something wicked in her eyes. “I suspect that what Trismegistus seeks is a return of the favour. An invitation.”
I exerted my will and she slapped herself across the face.
“Once more,” I said, “only without the smug cryptic boasting.”
“You used to have a better sense of humour,” Diabolist sighed.
I raised an eyebrow and eyed her hand. She got on with it.
“This is supposition, I must warn,” Akua said. “In matters Trismegistan, certainty is scarce luxury. It is known to my bloodline that the Dead King took the field to lead his armies during the Secret Wars. An event without reflection in his many petty wars with the Principate.”
I studied her.
“You’re implying there’s conditions to him being able to leave his personal hell,” I finally said.
“Indeed,” Akua agreed. “When crusades laid siege to his realm he took the field to humble the Heavens, yet never when he sought to break Procer. If, indeed, he ever sought such a thing at all. This absence might have been taken a weakness of contentment with what he has already achieved, if he had not also fought the Legions across a dozen hellscapes in person. I believe that asymmetry in action to be indicative of a… restraint. A leash, if you would.”
There was a spark of humour in her dark eyes when she spoke that last sentence looking at me.
“He was allied with Triumphant, during her conquest of the continent,” Hakram said quietly. “Histories have always seen that as Evil standing with Evil. But considering this…”
“It might have been a condition,” I finished. “To let him out at all.”
“That sounds,” Indrani grinned, “like leverage.”