“You’re a masterful schemer, it’s true. Let’s see if that helps any in the alligator pit..”
– Dread Empress Malignant I, holding court
They all knew me well enough to leave me alone with my thoughts as I tried to get a handle on what I’d learned. Well, maybe not Diabolist, but she was better at picking up on those things than any of the others. I occupied my hands with mindless work, taking a whetstone to my sword even though it was quite sharp enough already. In the grander scheme of things, Catherine, I’m the petty warlord of a backwater kingdom. Black had told me that once, a long time ago. We’d been speaking about the gnomes, and he’d been putting in perspective the truth that a second-rate power in Calernia would be considered less than dust in the greater world beyond this continent. I was learning now that we were all pieces in a greater game even here. There was no other real way to understand the conversation between the two abominations, one still learning and the other emergent. The Bard had been considered old even in the days of Sephirah’s fall. Gods, how long had she been around?
I did not consider myself all that inclined to fear my enemies, admittedly sometimes even when I should have. But as the whetstone slid against the edge, I admitted to myself that for the first time in ages I was genuinely afraid of an opponent. Heroes, even those who could tread all over me, I could cope with. There were ways around power, around the laws of the Heavens. They could be tricked and twisted. But something like the Wandering Bard? She might have set in motion the sequence of events that would lead to my death decades before I was even born. If Black was to be believed, she could not be killed and even if she somehow was anyway she’d only return with a different face. There was no telling what she knew or how she knew it. There was no telling where she was and what she was up to. How could an entity like that be beaten? The sharp song of stone on steel held no answers, soothing as it was.
I’d believed that I understood the game unfolding across Calernia. That I could guess, if not know, the motives and intents of the other players. The Tenth Crusade, the Empire and the League: the three powers on the board, as far as the nations of mankind went. My attempts at seeing through the Dead King were now revealed to have been little more than presumption, but light had been shed on more than that mistake alone. There was more going on behind the crusade than faith and ambition. Hasenbach might have refused my terms because of political considerations, as I’d previously believed, or she might have been moved by a whisper in her ear years ago that only now clicked into place. I could no longer trust any of the actors to act according to the rules I’d believed they obeyed, because I’d been blind to half the war even as I fought it. Which now took me to the very place I’d been struggling to avoid since I took the crown: I had to take measures to insure the survival of Callow while in the dark about the objectives of all the other forces in play.
Fuck, for all I knew the Bard was interceding in my favour. I’d had strokes of bad luck, sure, but exceedingly good one as well. I wasn’t unaware that Black had been arranging things quietly in the background so that opportunities would land in my lap ever since I became his apprentice, but there were things beyond his ability to arrange. The Bard had been in the thick of it, at Liesse, when I gained back the aspect I lost and snatched a resurrection out of angelic hands. Had she been beaten there, or had that restoration been the purpose all along? Hells, had she pulled strings for me to win just so I’d fuck up with Akua the following year and Second Liesse got the Tenth Crusade going? I could go mad, trying to find the hand of the Wandering Bard behind every turning point of the last few years. But then could I really afford not to look for it? If I kept my eyes closed, I’d lose. Or whatever else she had in mind for me.
She’d admitted to the Dead King that he’d been too clever in his scheme for her to be able to crush him, but that’d been centuries and centuries ago. When she was still learning her Role. I had to face the possibility that even if I made all the right choices I might still end up broken because the Bard had shaped the choices I’d be able to make so she couldn’t possibly lose. I felt shards of stone pass through my fingers, and noticed with a sigh that I’d crushed the whetstone without even meaning to. That was my only one, too, I’d have to borrow Hakram’s from now on. I picked up my scabbard with a sigh and sheathed the longsword. So much for any of this calming me. There were no easy answers to be had. No plan to form out of thin air. Should we even finish the journey to Keter? I had a better notion of what I’d be letting out, now, and it was so much worse than I’d expected.
I would not have flinched at making a deal with a cunning undead Dread Emperor with a little more foresight, but Neshamah was something else. He’d been arranging the death of realms at a time where most the continent could barely use sorcery – and he’d had millennia to plot his next moves. I very much doubted that the man I’d seen would call it quits after breaking the Kingdom of Sephirah and conquering his hell. There would be more. And I had been sent an envoy, I thought, because he had deemed I could be useful for that purpose. My fingers clenched, then slowly unclenched. I’d get nowhere, stewing in my own thoughts like this. The pot had been freshly steered, and I was too close to the matter regardless. I’d speak with the others after my head was cleared. Besides, for once under the restlessness I felt the call of exhaustion. Not physical, though. The boon of knowledge from Masego seemed to have tired me out mentally.
I dragged myself back to camp, waved away the concern of the others and crawled under the covers by the fireside. I’d still be just as fucked tomorrow, so forcing myself to go through the song and dance now did not appeal.
Sleep found me swiftly.
I woke to the sound of soft voice, after too short a rest. The orations and murmurs of the shard could not be heard, which meant our ‘night’ was in full swing. My mind still felt sluggish but at least I was no longer wandering from one idle thought to the next, treading the same hopeless circle. I kept my eyes closed and my breathing even, at first out of laziness but the reason was swift to change: the people speaking were Thief and Diabolist. Neither seemed aware I was now awake.
“- no longer need to sleep,” Akua said. “You need not burden yourself, I can keep watch alone.”
“And you believe you’re trusted enough for that, Sahelian?” she said. “I never took you for such a hopeful soul.”
“To keep quiet in the face of danger would be utterly mindless treachery,” Diabolist said. “I am, after all, dependent on Catherine to walk the world.”
“Unless someone else takes the cloak,” Vivienne said.
“I have use to the Woe,” Akua said. “Use enough I was allowed this larger cage. There is no guarantee another bearer would have such purpose for me. A poor gamble to make.”
“You seem to think you can talk your way into a semblance of trust, Wastelander,” Thief snorted. “Best you discard that notion early. It will be less irritating for all involved.”
“Fascinating,” Diabolist murmured. “Your distaste of me has not ebbed in the slightest, and still here I am. Yet you’ve been charged with the duty of being Catherine’s conscience, which means she would not have eased the leash without your permission.”
“Her Majesty, to you,” Thief bit out. “Sweet nothings and Praesi titles won’t get you anywhere with us, Sahelian. We all remember what you are.”
“Liesse,” Akua mused. “The sum of all I am, in your eyes. You might not be wrong to think so. It was the pivot to who I am today.”
“The greatest butcher of our time,” Vivienne said.
“From a highborn, that would have been a compliment,” Akua said, a smile in her voice. “Not so here, of course. I imagine that is how you’ve made peace with the nature of the demand I be brutally snuffed out when my usefulness ends.”
It was an effort not to stiffen. Named senses would have given me away to Vivienne for sure, though I wasn’t sure how Diabolist functioned in that way.
“Not my call to make, that,” Thief shrugged. “I’m the spymistress, not the queen.”
“A poor parry,” Diabolist chided. “You already know I suspect the inner workings of the Woe and your role within them. It would have been more effective to feign conflict between you and Catherine over the matter, allowing her to position herself as my salvation while you bayed for blood.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“You’re so caught up in your Praesi games you don’t even see your blinders,” Vivienne sighed, and she sounded fairly convincing to me. “Must be the old madness. You certainly don’t sound like a woman who thinks she has a sword hanging over her head.”
Akua laughed softly.
“My dear Thief,” she said. “If I cannot carve a path to survival with such early forewarning, I deserve to be destroyed. That is the measure by which I am to be weighed. I’ve always found it amusing to hear your people speak of the Wasteland’s ways as ‘blinders’, truth be told. As if bereft of them we would then see Creation as you do. Do you truly believe Callowans to be the only lucid people in the world?”
“My tutors taught me that’s called a false equivalence,” Vivienne said conversationally. “The pretence that the obvious failings in the customs of a people that slaughter each other and their neighbours for sport every other decade are somehow the same as the flaws in the customs of Callow. We’re not perfect, of course. But I’d rather deal with the fucking elves than you and your fellows, Sahelian. The long-ears might be murderous assholes, but at least they stay in their forest. Your people make your problems everyone one else’s problems too.”
“So they did teach you rhetoric,” Akua said. “Good, this would have been quite boring otherwise. You would have served as poor moral compass, were you unable to argue.”
“There’s that most sacred of villainous traditions at work,” Thief said cuttingly. “Cutting one’s losses and bailing from the fight.”
“You speak as if you were not a villain yourself,” Diabolist said.
“I am what I am,” Vivienne shrugged. “Do you expect anguish and conflict out of me? I believe in the decisions that led me here. I would make them again. If all it takes to be estranged from the Heavens is refusing annihilation and submission, then I have no use for the Gods Above.”
“You would be surprised,” Akua said, “at the number of Empresses that spoke those very same words.”
“You’re trying to draw parallels,” Thief said, growing irritated. “I don’t know why, and frankly I don’t care. Might be some old eastern monster was just like me, though I very much doubt it. So what? There’s no angle there for you to get mercy from me, Sahelian. Your little talk about redemption is absurd: there is nothing redeemable about what you did and what you are. Your execution has been stayed. That is as much of a victory as you will ever win, Diabolist. Look that truth in the eyes. Wallow in it. That fear is the least of what you are owed.”
“The true nature of a woman,” Akua said amusedly, “is only ever revealed after she has been prodded. It is an interesting circle, the Woe. Your role in it has been the hardest to grasp.”
“Has it?” Vivienne said. “And to think they said you were clever. Lost a few feathers up there along with your heart, I see.”
“Oh, you are the spymistress of the Kingdom of Callow,” Diabolist dismissed. “It is no secret. But that is a function, not a role.”
“Am I in for a story about how Praesi understand namelore so well?” Thief drawled. “Clearly, we should all take advice from the people who have been one stabbing away from brutal civil war from the moment their empire was first spawned. Please, magical wise spirit, share the secrets about continent-burning instability with me. I have so much to learn from you.”
“Since you insist,” Diabolist agreed with pleasure so perfect-sounding it just had to be fake. “The Deadhand is the least complicated. His people have been carefully pruned by the Tower into being a soldier caste for the Empire over a hundred reigns, and as the culmination of that edifice he serves as the right hand of a powerful warlord.”
“Hakram is the least complicated of us,” Vivienne said slowly. “Hakram. Your insights are truly far-reaching, Diabolist. Reaching in the wrong direction, sure, but that can’t possibly be a first for you.”
“I cast no aspersions on the man himself,” Akua noted. “I merely state that his Name and Role are no deep secret. Hierophant, however, was an unexpected variable. Apprentices have transitioned into Names other than Warlock before, but usually when both are living simultaneously a succession through murder is the outcome.”
“An awkward but kind and sweet man with no interest in power did not end up murdering his relatively loving father for said power,” Thief said. “However will we solve this confounding mystery, Sahelian? I just don’t know.”
“There is no known precedent to his Name,” Akua continued without missing a beat, and I was reluctantly impressed by her ability to just plow through that level of scathing sarcasm. “Consequently the core tenet of it had to be understood from the man himself. Fascinating as his upbringing was to study, the pivot seems to have occurred after he met Catherine. It was the calibre of the opposition that forged him, you see. Choirs and demigods. There was need for one who could understand and oppose those entities, and so the Hierophant came to be.”
“You’re forgetting demons and a highborn murderous witch with delusions of grandeur,” Thief helpfully provided. “Admittedly the witch only ever seemed good at killing innocents and spending her subordinates like copper at a fair, so she might not qualify as true opposition.”
“The Archer did seem like an odd fit, at first,” Diabolist mused. “No real fetters to Catherine’s ideals or expectation of comradeship as shared inheritors to the legacy of the Calamities. Ranger, infamously, left the Calamities on the eve of the Conquest. And pupils of the Lady of Lake have a reputation for being incapable of playing nice with others, be they heroes or villains. It could not merely be the fighting that drew her – there is no lack of foes near Refuge.”
“It’s almost entertaining how much thought you’re giving to the actions of a woman whose notion of a plan is dumping all her rations in a well and filling her bag with identical cheap booze flasks so she won’t run dry,” Vivienne said. “But by all means, tell me everything about the intricate considerations that are behind Indrani joining a band of people that allow her to drink, fight and sleep around as much as she wants. It ought to be enlightening.”
Wait, was that why Archer never seemed to run out? Fucking Hells, I’d been wondering why she was being such a magpie about taking food from Masego’s plate recently.
“Peers not in direct competition,” Akua said. “That was what the Archer found. A luxury previously beyond her reach. And from her addition the Woe gained both an executioner and a field Named capable of independent action for long stretches, which they sorely needed. Hers is the thinnest bond by far, and I do not expect it to keep her bound past the end of the crusade.”
“And that leaves me,” Vivienne lightly said, though there was an edge beneath. “Don’t disappoint now, sagely collar genie. What has your profound discernment taught you of my hidden nature? I’ll go first: deep down, I always wanted to be a shoemaker. Shoes are the foundation on which rests civilization, Diabolist. We are literally barefoot without them. You ever think about that, in between ruminations about how you tried to conquer the world and got your heart ripped out instead? Food for thought.”
“You were a late addition,” the shade said. “And in some ways the most interesting. You were, after all, previously a heroine. I should have realized which the wind was blowing when she succeeding at turning one of Above’s own, in retrospective. The weight on the scales had grown too uneven, for all my labours. But we were speaking of you, Vivienne Dartwick.”
“Thief,” the Callowan hissed. “There’s only a few people that get to use that name. Don’t ever count on being one of them.”
“Thief indeed,” Akua said. “Not, for all your skills, an assassin. That was what first drew my interest. Archer filled that purpose, to some extent, but you seemed a more apt candidate. Yet your knives did not grow bloody after your turning, nor your Name change to reflect it.”
I heard Vivienne go still as stone. Diabolist had touched something there, though I didn’t know what.
“Looking back, the void you filled seems more obvious,” the shade mused. “You are Callowan. The only one of the Woe who shares Catherine’s ideals to any deep extent, as Adjutant would likely adapt without true challenge to a change in her priorities. After she seized Winter’s mantle in full, you became the measuring stick. It was simplification to call you a moral compass, I will confess. You are not a particularly moral woman, Thief. But you do love your homeland, and have kept some of the qualms you were taught as a child. You are a restraint, and through your function as spymistress a provider of choices. In some ways, one might argue your perspective is the crucible through which Catherine remakes herself every time she is confronted with greater strife.”
“You know,” Vivienne said, “I used to wonder why you were playing the tamed hound nowadays. Oh, you’re bound. That’s part of it. But you have to know that all the playacting and sweet whispers you’ve been up to are not strictly necessary. Being useful and not actively offensive to everything we stand for would have gotten you this far anyway. But that last tirade of yours? It says a lot more about you than me. Because it’s about Catherine more than me or the Woe. And it has to be, doesn’t it Akua? Because you ended up in the box, and there has to be a reason for that. She has to be special in some way to have beaten you, otherwise you just couldn’t stand it.”
“I lost, my dear Thief, because I prepared for a battle against my rival and faced instead her power wielded by the Black Knight,” Akua said softly. “The mistake in this was mine, and I do not deny it. And still, at the height of my wrath, I fought to a standstill a coalition of all Callowan arms of note and every Imperial army west of the Blessed Isle. Led by three Calamities and the full muster of the Woe. My fall was just, for every fall is just. But it would be a mistake to think Liesse is the origin of the laurels on her brow. That victory was hers alone in that she was the last woman standing.”
“So you’re trying to make her the Empress,” Vivienne mused. “Because it’s fine to have lost, if she was fated to climb the Tower all along. You were a necessary part of the story. You mattered. And who knows, maybe you’ll manage to be Chancellor if you play the game well enough.”
“She will climb the Tower, Thief,” Diabolist said with iron certainty. “She cannot stomach any of the remaining claimants and will not suffer to leave Praes to its own devices. You speak of fate as some invisible force, but it is a simpler thing: fate is character. And it is in hers to cut deep into her bones for her ambitions.”
“She’s not in charge because she’s been chosen, Sahelian,” Vivienne said. “Gods, certainly not because she’s chosen either. Or even because she has power, for that matter.”
“Is it the power of love, then?” Akua said, a touch drily.
“There’s plenty of people who care about Callow,” Thief said. “And if I learned anything from the Woe, it’s that caring doesn’t fill granaries or run a court. She’s certainly in the right place at the right time with the right amount of power to get things moving, but that’s not really what matters. See, the thing is that she acts. Sometimes those actions are mistake, like going after the fae and leaving you to plot under your rock in Liesse. But, most of the time, she improves things. Just by a little bit. And she draws other people who act with her. You think that’s some unearthly trait, like she’s some force of nature, but that’s Wasteland talk. The Tower’s the centre of the world for you, and the most important person in the world is the one that climbs it.”
The other Callowan paused.
“Except she’s not,” Vivienne said. “The exemplar of whatever fucked up Praesi virtues you want to sing about, that is. She’s kind of petty, her temper’s foul and if Hakram hadn’t stepped in she’d probably be a drunk. She ogles every pretty face that shows up even if they’re our enemies, and she cannot for the life of her shut the Hells up even when she really needs to. She’s not unique or irreplaceable, but even if you think otherwise that doesn’t really matter – because she’s part of something greater than her. She’s just the rock that started the avalanche, Sahelian, and she did that by doing the most Callowan thing there is: after the invasion is done, you get up and get back to work. Others will come to help you, because a kingdom’s people and not banners.”
None of this was exactly singing my praises, but then that wasn’t Vivienne’s wheelhouse. She’d gotten the part that mattered, anyway. That we weren’t supposed to stay in charge forever, that we were just a stopgap until Callow could handle itself on its own. The purpose wasn’t to rule, it was to hammer away at Calernia until it was in a place where there was no need for someone like me.
“You think that’ll make her Empress,” she laughed. “You’re thinking of her like some sort of tormented saint that’ll take up the burden of keeping the lot of you in line for the greater good. You want to know what Praes is, for us? Another mess to clean up. Like the Tenth Crusade and the Dead King and the heroes. You’re not owed anything. You’re not different or unique, just another line on a long list. And that’s your fate, Diabolist. That’s your fucking character.”
Akua stayed silent for a long time.
“It is a pretty world you speak of,” she finally said. “We will see, in time, which one of us is right.”
The silence spread again, and though I could not hear the shade move I suspected she was looking away.
“Good performance,” Thief suddenly said. “But, Diabolist, if this is all of it I’m honestly disappointed. Was that really the whole ploy? I mean, Merciful Gods, you’ve used this one before. If this were a fairgrounds play I’d catcall and ask for my coppers back.”
“Pardon me?” Akua said, voice painted with genuine surprise.
“Trust,” Vivienne mused. “That’s what fucks you every time. Like, for example, believing I’d be so ashamed about ordering you to rip your eye out repeatedly I’d never mention it to anyone. I did, Sahelian. And you know what she told me? That it makes no difference, if the same thing reforms repeatedly. Pain doesn’t increase in the slightest.”
“I don’t follow,” Diabolist said.
“You panted and you screamed,” Thief said. “You pretended it hurt, because it made me feel like I’d accomplished something while you were actually getting your way. You ‘lost’ so I’d lower my guard. Like you did just now. Getting into an argument then throwing it, just so you’d be less of a threat in my eyes. Chastened little Akua, reconsidering her choices. Gods, you really are a snake.”
“If I had done such a thing,” Diabolist said, tone even. “What purpose would telling me you are aware serve?”
“I’m surprised you don’t know,” Vivienne Dartwick lightly said. “I get to see you pretend you’re not furious. Sweet dreams, Sahelian. Our little chat’s over until the next time you need your chain yanked.”