“Don’t be absurd, Black Knight. It would have been called treason if I’d lost – this is merely succession.”
– Dread Emperor Vile the First
It was a striking scene.
The crypt itself was the part worthiest of awe, I decided. The arched ceiling was covered in silver set with glittering jewels where stars would have been on the night sky. There was no light within save for their shine and a ring of bound sprites serving as magelights. The fallen king was being set down in a tomb with his likeness sculpted atop the lid, men and women wearing copper circlets on their brows lowering him gently. There were low whispers in a smattering of tongues I did not know, but the funeral was a hushed affair. I did not linger to watch when the orations began after the lid was shut, instead approaching the sight that had set my blood running cold. The Wandering Bard looked prettier than I’d ever seen her. Tanned and full of life, she wore red and silver robes instead of the usual stained leathers. The lute was set across her lap in the shadowed alcove where she sat, and she pulled at her flask between exchanges with the young man standing next to her. Him I took my time studying. How often did one get to have a glimpse of the Dead King before he earned that Name?
I’d expected him to be darkly handsome or strikingly ugly, but he was nothing of the sort. Pale, even compared to the other Keterans, but not near corpse-like the way Black was. More like a scholar who did not see much of the sun. He had bushy eyebrows and full lips set on an unremarkable face, the only striking part of him the light brown eyes that looked almost golden in the magelight glow. He looked like a scholar, I thought. One only an inch taller than me, though few of the Keterans were tall. No real muscle to his frame, though his hands were surprisingly calloused. The copper circle on his brow was even more slender than those I’d seen on the other royals. A mark of status? Perhaps. The others had looked older, they might be higher in the line of succession. Or he might have been from another branch of the royal family. Hard to tell when I knew nothing about how the kingdom was ruled. Even without understanding the words he spoke, I found his voice compelling. Calm and deep, it felt almost soothing. It was hard to tell much about intonation in a foreign language – everything spoken in Kharsum sounded like a threat, for example – but he did not seem worried or surprised by the Bard’s presence.
Had he known her? Had she been involved in the fall of Keter from the beginning?
“You’re sure it’s her?” Hakram quietly asked.
I’d been so lost in contemplation I hadn’t even heard the orc approaching. I nodded without a word.
“The lute and the flask,” I said. “It’s her.”
“They both look different than at Summerholm,” Adjutant said.
I blinked and glanced back at the Bard. He was right, I realized with a start. The flask was still of that same strange curved shape, but instead of old scuffed iron it was freshly-polished copper. The lute was not of the same wood, this one paler, and the strings looked different. Animal tendons of some sort.
“The substance changed,” I murmured. “But the shape hasn’t. There’s something to that.”
“Named tend to have symbols and artefacts associated to them,” Hakram noted. “Save for the Carrion Lord, though the loss seems to have been made up in epithets. The lute and flask could be hers.”
“Malicia warned me they’d moved the Bard to the Empire’s official kill list, after the war in the Free Cities,” I said. “I thought Black was talking her up too much because she pulled one over him but I’m starting to see his point, if she’s had her fingers plucking strings this far back.”
“We don’t know for certain her consciousness has been uninterrupted all this time,” Adjutant cautioned.
“You read the transcripts Black sent us,” I grunted. “Hells, I’ve had you lug around the threat assessment he had delivered to the palace – half a book’s worth of scrolls, in records and theories. She made references to events long before she popped out of the woodworks as Aoede of Nicae. That’s at least two or three incarnations. It’s an assumption to say she’s been at it this whole time, sure, but it’s not a bad one.”
“Yes,” Hakram agreed quietly. “And the voluntary sharing of that secret worries me, Cat. It would have been a sharp blade, if kept hidden. Why did she not keep the knife in the dark?”
Yeah, there was that. If there was a meddling face-changing immortal wandering around the continent, why had no one ever written anything about it? Names tended to grow stronger – if also more restrictive – the more stories were associated with them. She would have had thousands of years to build herself up into something pretty much untouchable. And even if she wanted to keep quiet and stay behind the curtains, it struck me as dubious that every single hero she’d helped had kept quiet about. Over the years, there was bound to have at least one blabbermouth that fucked up. Unless Above ordered them to keep quiet, I frowned. That was… plausible. Didn’t explain why no Dread Emperor had ever tried to get out the word there was an opponent on the field of that calibre, after being beaten or figuring it out. I was smelling a rat her.
“That,” I slowly said, “is a very good question. If she’s been underfoot this whole time and no one was onto her, why did she let that out of the bag now? What changed?”
The tall orc by my side considered the two legends speaking before us and clicked his teeth in discomfort.
“I suspect,” Hakram said, “that knowledge of their words would bring more questions than answers.”
“This is too big to walk past,” I told him. “Masego will have his hours. Tell the others we’re setting camp.”
I stayed there a while longer, watching the Wandering Bard laugh at something Calernia’s incipient greatest monster had said. I shivered at the sight. I felt like they were sharing a joke that no one else could understand.
I was really coming to hate that feeling.
“We cannot linger for too long, Catherine,” Vivienne said. “I understand the draw of learning such a secret, but it will not help Callow withstand invasion.”
I drank from the skin. Tough our supplies were beginning to run thin, at least there was no need to worry about going without water. I could fill the skin with ice with only a thought, then leave it to melt as the hours passed. Indrani had badgered me until I used the eldritch and fearsome powers of Winter to cool her wine, to no one’s surprise. The indignity was somewhat alleviated by the fact that the first thing Juniper had ever told me after I claimed my mantle was that my ability to freeze thing would ease strain on supplies for the Fifteenth. No one but Masego seemed to treat my usurpation of a demigod’s power as anything but a source of free ice and entertainment unless I was actively killing people with it.
“We’re putting all our bets on the Dead King, Vivienne,” I disagreed. “An entity we know next to nothing about. We’re carrying the finest offer our diplomats were able to put together, but we’re still going into this blind.”
“Whatever he might have been while living, millennia have passed,” the dark-haired woman replied. “Any understanding gained would be highly dated.”
“Undead can’t change nearly as much as the living,” I pointed out. “I’m guessing a lot will still apply.”
“We trade guesswork for hours, then,” Thief said flatly. “This is a gamble, let us not pretend otherwise. The decision was made on the assumption we would know little about our interlocutor. We might be able to change that, if Masego pulls through. To an extent. But we all agreed on the initial premise for a reason. Time is our most dangerous enemy, at the moment.”
“I’m not saying we should spend a sennight here,” I said. “But a few days? The payoff is worth the delay.”
“If there is one,” Vivienne sighed.
I looked at her closely. Of all the Woe she was probably the one who’d dealt with the restlessness of our journey the best. Even Hakram, island of calm that he was, happened to have a vague look of chagrin on his face now and then – like he was expecting to have work to do and was kind of irked he didn’t. Thief had been quiet, so far, almost subdued. But she’d refrained from pulling my metaphorical pigtails like Archer did and kept her eye on the horizon unlike Hierophant. The irritation now coming across clear had me wondering if she’d just been hiding it better than the others. She was certainly the hardest to read of the Woe. For others that crown might have belonged to Adjutant, but I knew him like I knew my own limbs.
“You’re worried,” I said.
She sent me a look that implied less than complimentary things about my intellect.
“Not just the usual stuff,” I dismissed. “This is about all of us leaving.”
“The Grey Pilgrim is unsupervised,” she said.
“The Pilgrim is under house arrest, allowed to speak only with goblins and Prince Amadis,” I replied bluntly. “If he can turn Robber to Good, I’d argue he actually deserves to win this war.”
“It feels like negligence not to keep a closer eye on them,” Vivienne sighed.
Most of the time, with Thief, the trick to understand her was not to listen to what she said. It might have been because of her Name, but she tended to go obliquely at matters. The only way to get a good read on what she had cooking behind the forehead, if she wasn’t willing to outright state it, was to figuring out the reasons behind what she said. In this case, she was speaking of Callow but I suspected Callow itself wasn’t the point.
“You’ve been cut off from the Jacks,” I said suddenly.
She looked away. Ah. There it was. Possibly beyond even me, Vivienne Dartwick was the individual in the Kingdom of Callow with the most information at her fingertips. Hakram was the one piecing together the reports from her Jacks, the Dark Guilds under Ratface and Aisha’s web of relatives to send up the most important reports to me, but that was more administrative than a matter of authority. I just didn’t have the time to read it all and see to my other duties as well, not even now that I no longer slept. But Thief had access to all of it as well, and as the head of my net of informants she wielded the power to send agents to unearth any secrets she wanted. It must have been like an itch she couldn’t scratch, being removed from the centre of the web to go traipsing around Arcadia.
“I understand the necessity of committing to this,” Vivienne said. “And the risks that bringing any but Named into Keter would have carried, along the vulnerability of leaving only one of us behind. But we are blind to all the happenings in Creation until the matter is dealt with.”
It’d be exceedingly difficult to scry back home from Keter, admittedly. Unlike Malicia and Black I didn’t have decades’ worth of mages trained in scrying to create relays all over the continent that delivered reports within hours. My limited number had to be placed very strategically, and had largely focused on Praes and Procer. Moving it all around so we could get in touch with the Observatory around the natural barriers surrounding Callow wouldn’t be impossible, but it would screw up our eyes abroad for months. Months where we could hardly afford to be blind to movements within the borders of our most dangerous neighbours. Not something to use except in case of dire emergency.
“It’s not a gamble if we’re in control the whole time,” I told her gently.
“I know,” she said, passing a frustrated hand through her short hair.
I’d thought the cut a little too rough, when we first met, but it had grown on me since. Long hair on Vivienne would have felt odd now.
“We are taking so many risks, Catherine,” she said quietly. “And every one of them seems reasonable when the decision is made, but I look back and wonder if what we have built is a house of cards.”
“It does feel like everyone is out for our blood, doesn’t it?” I chuckled bitterly. “Gods, we know we’re at the end of the rope when the Hidden Horror is the best ally on the table.”
“That is a too great a decision for us to really understand the scope of its consequences quite yet, I think,” Vivienne said. “It is the small things that worry me.”
The glanced she flicked at the collar of my cloak was all she needed to say. I did not immediately reply. The two of us sat on the granite tomb of some dead queen and watched Hierophant weave his runes in the distance. He’d been at it for half a bell, now, and the breakthrough he’d been speculating about was nowhere in sight.
“She could accelerate his work,” I said, keeping my eyes on Hierophant. “Masego tells me that the doomsday fortress had similarities to the Greater Breach at Keter. There’s not a lot of more knowledgeable mages to be found, either.”
I did not need to speak the name of the woman in question. We both knew who I was speaking of.
“She,” Vivienne said with admirable evenness, “has not been punished.”
My brow rose.
“I ripped out her heart and bound her soul to the cloak,” I replied. “I’ll admit it hasn’t exactly turned out to be eternal screaming torment, but at the very least it’s imprisonment with a dab of torture.”
“Yet now she plies her powers in your service,” Thief said. “Safeguarded from all her former enemies. She has made herself useful, and so the leash loosens. How long, Catherine, before practicality pries open the door entirely?”
“I haven’t forgotten Liesse,” I said coldly.
“Peace,” the other woman said, hand rising. “I helped you draft the Accords, Catherine. I’ve seen that look in your eyes when you think yourself alone and you remember the breadth of the massacre. I know the failure shames you still. I’ve seen your fury at the architect of the massacre.”
“I’m not sure what you’re saying,” I admitted.
Aside from effectively admitting she sometimes spied on me unseen, but I’d honestly considered that to be a given. The notion of privacy was something I’d resigned myself to having lost even before an invisible sneak thief joined the Woe.
“I told you once, that Akua Sahelian treading Creation again was a line,” Vivienne said. “One desperate hour after another, we have walked past it.”
I grimaced. I could have made an argument that back then we’d been speaking about the soul she put in the infant as her resurgence plan, or even that all I’d ever allowed to pull at the leash was a soul, but it would have been dishonest. I had allowed Diabolist a foothold back in Creation, like it or not.
“You want me to destroy the soul,” I guessed.
Vivienne laughed, something vicious glinting in her blue-grey eyes. It was a little fucked up, I admitted to myself, that it made her look more attractive to me. Not that I expected anything to ever come of it. Thief was so painfully straight I could have used her as a ruler.
“I have learned,” she said, “the uses of pragmatism. No, let her continue to exist. Let her out, even. She has uses, and the hour has only grown more desperate. Another face will even make Indrani less of a pest for a while.”
“But,” I said.
“For small slights, long prices,” Vivienne Dartwick said harshly. “Let Akua Sahelian see the light and taste freedom. Let her believe she has slipped the noose, so long as she remains of use.”
Thief’s fingers clenched.
“But there will be a day where the world we made no longer has place for her,” Vivienne said. “When we have faced all the horrors before us. And on that day, when she has glimpsed victory?”
Vivienne met my eyes and there was something in them that gave even Winter pause.
“Snuff her out, Catherine,” she said. “Slowly. Painfully. Excruciatingly aware of what is being taken from her.”
I shivered, both out of respect at the viciousness of what she was proposing and a little bit of arousal. Gods, it was a tragedy she only rode stallion. I pushed that guilty thought aside and gave the moment the seriousness it was due. Should I hesitate at effectively letting our Akua with the intent to murder how down the line? Gods, that I even had to ask. I would have seen no nuance there to be had, when I’d been seventeen. But I hadn’t had a kingdom on my shoulders, back then. And I hadn’t looked Akua Sahelian in the eyes as she told me nonchalantly she was going to slaughter a hundred thousand innocents to use as fodder for her ambition. Putting a knife in her back wasn’t somehow made moral by Diabolist being a mass murderer, but it was the kind of petty evil I had made my tools of trade. Fair dealing and mercy were no longer things that applied to people willing to butcher an entire city for their purposes.
“It could be years,” I warned her. “Before we’re out of opponents. We could die before that, too.”
“I know,” Vivienne said. “Let her follow us in death, if that is our lot. Otherwise my words stand.”
I spat in my palm and offered it up. Thief was not the kind of maidenly flower who balked at spit, aristocrat or not, so she did the same without hesitation.
“Bargain struck,” I said, and we clasped hands.
“Bargain struck,” she echoed.
We rose. I spoke the words, and Akua Sahelian walked the world again.
I had two of the finest mages of our generation working on a solution, and yet half a day later here I was: standing with a scowl on my face, being told nothing I wanted to hear. Hierophant at least had the decency to look as frustrated as I felt. Akua’s lips were just slightly quirked, not enough for it to qualify as a smile but enough to reveal how pleased she was to be out of the box and talking magic with one of the few people in existence she’d consider a peer.
“The issue has been the same since you interrupted me,” Masego said, a touch accusingly. “I have yet to succeed in accounting for the disparity in alignment.”
“We can hear what they say now,” I pointed out. “You managed touch for a little bit yesterday.”
“The formula was a dead end,” Diabolist said. “The runes involved would have disrupted further addition. Consider them an ore that spoiled the alloy.”
It kind of pissed me off that my dead rival was better at explaining sorcery to me without sounding condescending than one of my closest friends.
“But you were aligned,” I pressed.
“Not in the right manner,” Masego irritably said.
“The difference was not unlike reading of a river on parchment while seeking to swim in one,” Akua smiled. “Result was achieved, but along a different path than desired.”
Yeah, still pissing me off. I suspected that was going to happen a lot.
“It might be that this is impossible to achieve within the bounds of Trismegistan sorcery,” Hierophant said. “We’ve been speaking of different perspectives, but most of them are so glaringly fallible or unusable by humans my studies of the subject have been shallow.”
“We only have so much time to spend here,” I reluctantly admitted.
“You demand the miraculous on the schedule of the shoddy,” Masego muttered, then paused.
His saw his glass eyes turn to peer behind him while the rest of his body remained still.
“Could it be that simple?” he said.
“You’ve dealt with miracles before,” I encouraged.
“I’ve vivisected and employed parts of them,” he corrected absent-mindedly. “But the gap is one of understanding, and I have a mechanism at hand to correct that failing.”
I felt him gather power without ever chanting or drawing a rune. Not shaping it for a spell, I thought. Drawing it into himself. I opened my mouth to ask, but Akua discretely shook her head.
“A mystery,” Hierophant muttered to himself. “In the technical sense. Foolish, foolish. I saw, when in transitioned. Quantification is anathema to higher sorceries.”
His hand shot out and he clasped my wrist.
“Yes,” he grinned. “They will not deny me, be they Gods or fathers. I will Witness.”
A ripple passed across the world, and what it left behind was no longer an echo.