Chapter 31: Spectation

“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.”

Thief chuckled.

“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.”

Thief laughed.

“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.”

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74 thoughts on “Chapter 31: Spectation

  1. SpeckofStardust

    And thief is the personal representation of Callow in the group.

    The truest example of “you stole an apple from a Callowion so three generations later a Callowen punches you in the face to and take 3 back”.

    Liked by 20 people

  2. IDKWhoitis

    So what are the current odds about either Thief or Akua dying by this Book’s end?

    If they both represent the paths that Cat can advance, one will probably be closed off forcefully.

    Liked by 2 people

        1. Forrest

          “What’s that? You’re oh so proud of your tower of authority and power Malicia? Well I raise you my own, even taller tower! Beat that.”

          Like

    1. Jessica Day

      If either dies now, I expect it to be at the climax when her choice is made. Until then I suspect Thief and Diabolist will be wearing plot armor.

      Like

  3. I feel like Akua is attempting to take thief’s place in the woe.

    Similar to how the bard was able to survive the Warlock’s rampage in Book 1. The character with the greater weight usually ends up surviving the death of the “minor” characters. Akua facing off against seven heroes and having a redemption story. Her constant arguing with thief could set up a rule of three stand off between them.

    She might somehow use a loophole to slay here jailer to save Chat in some weird manner allowing her to take the place of a fallen “friend”. Her new name could be something like the Chained, Bound Chancellor, or Mad Servant. Hinting at her subservience that the old form of evil will serve the new. a new order for Praes.

    I do not think any of the woe are even close to Vivienne and each I believe is willing to accept Akua if Chat approves. Chat the villain who rides with her enemies if the share the same goal.

    So far Akua and thief have had two battles of wits
    They eye gouging tent where she is let out
    I dont know if this one counts?
    The third might come when Chat must trust Vivienne judgement or Akua’s to life the restraints, wherein Vivienne tries to kill Vivienne.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Stormblessed

      I liked what you said, although I think Jane said it better farther down. The main issue with how you present Akua’s positioning of herself in the story is that I don’t think “rule of three” is ever going to appear in this story again. There are so many tropes and cliches and story telling devices that reusing another one here is impossible by how the world is set up. In addition, rule of three seems like a main character’s story arc and not for someone with the name of Thief.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Un-Metaphorical Grapevine

      Ninety-nine hells that sounds awesome. So far Theif has been a bit boring, besides being a moral compass and representing Callow’s interests, there’s not much to her. Akua’s history with Cat goes deeper than Viv’s.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Yotz

          Eternal fate of characters of more moderate appearances. People, for some inscrutable reason, seem to sing praises to the Image of Lion as symbolic representation of Nobility – despite an unseemly eating habits, demonstrable inability to defend the food from hyenas due to cowardness, and revolting penchant for rolling in fresh elephant feces while moaning in delight. …Or, maybe, because of that – which certainly explains common disposition towards aristocracy, come to think of it…
          Regardless, Lion as a symbol of inherent Nobility is just as stupid as a Dove as symbol of high moral standards and/or peace. No one, literally no one who studied doves with more surface glance would drove parallels between insufferably stupid mindlessly aggressive flying – …calling them ‘rats’ would be a grave insult to rats – things and moral standards of any kind, much less peace, give a fresh canvas.
          And don’t get me started on swan “”””Loyalty”””” and “”””purity of spirit”””‘. Feel free to add quotation marks as you please.

          What they all have in common, however, is inherently skewed human perception. They all are flashy, in one way or another. Demonstrative in their projection. Unlike some other creatures of which I can not name a great deal on the fly – for they usually are modest in their style, unimposing, and generally mind their own business. No one sings praises to spiders and snakes – not anymore. Though Anansi still holds sway in some lands. We’ll see how it holds.

          … and I’m ranting again.
          Well, off to sleep I go, then.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Dainpdf

            Uh… That was something. As for symbols, they’re generally divorced from the real thing precisely because real things often aren’t that pure in meaning.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Metrux

              I think his meaning is that actually they have no degree of purity in the meaning. Quite the opposite, most of those symbols, all he named for reference, have gotten nothing to do with what they represent. For the lion, the only “noble” thing about him is having an harem that serves him, hunts for him, and fighting other males for territory. Thus you get to think: why do people think of lions as symbols for noblesse? So, what I myself mean is that he wasn’t talking about how symbols are not like they should, but how people take symbols out of nowhere, simply because they are more flashy, the same drawing a parallel with Akua, whose actions are not trully greater than Thief, but certainly flashier, thus it appears as a more “important” symbol.

              Liked by 2 people

              1. Dainpdf

                That’s because symbols are distilled meaning, while real things are not. Especially when we use animals as symbols for human characteristics. The lion is intimidating, noisy, and dangerous.

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  4. Raved Thrad

    I just love how ultimately unforgiving Callowans really are. It’s like they should all be wearing shirts that read “I hate everyone and you’re next.” They’re almost as vindictive as the Fremen from Dune, and that almost is only because, for some strange reason, they’ve historically been on the side of Good. And yet, despite all this simmering hatred, they’re hardly a bunch of surly curmudgeons, as one might expect. As the introductory chapter to this book showed, they’re generally chatty and good-natured. Except they’re all also ticking hate-filled time bombs, and given the right justification can see the death of heroes as a good thing.

    And now, if the Pilgrim is right, under Catherine’s leadership they’re all slowly turning evil. What does that mean in the long run? Is that hatred going to erupt in a war of subjugation (as with the Fremen) that will set Calernia on fire?

    I need to stock up on popcorn.

    Liked by 9 people

    1. Something tells me Pilgrim is not as right as he thinks. Cat may not, actually, be Evil. She’s certainly “definitely not happy with the Heavens”, but there’s no evidence whatsoever that she’s pleasing the Hells much, either. She kicks their tools in the teeth just as much.

      And, it’s not like the Heavens are helping themselves with the average Callowan. Sending waves of murderhobos to kill them by the dozen as incidental collateral is… unlikely to win hearts and minds. Especially for a group of people who have “Fuck You and the Horse You Rode In On” running through them as a cultural theme.

      In short — it’s not having a Villain on the throne that’s insidiously corrupting the nation. It’s being constantly harassed for having a Villain on the throne that is. :/

      Liked by 3 people

      1. grzecho2222

        I would say that this may be more because of the fact that Callow has been “Bulwark against Terror” for ages and not only they don’t get anything for it, but they are mocked and attacked by their “Good” neighbours. Just look at Lone Swordsman with his “Kill all Legions, kill all Wastelanders, and if Procer attacks, kill them all too” and how Exiled Prince acted. Cat is not a cause, she is symptom of bigger problem. She is just next logical step “If your side treats you like shit, is it really your side?” born from the fact that Black’s Faction is treating them far better than Good ever did. Callow is already changing its pattern with Broken Bell turning into dark knightly order and the fact that cat is out of bag with Daoine using necromancy to empower their soldiers and nobody seems to care about it (funny that they and Keter used to be very close). It is hard to tell what they will become in end, but change is already in motion. Funny enough I think is the fact that the biggest problem for Good that Cat could make is to have a heir (biological or adopted or some long lost second cousin), because then the moment she dies Callow is basically forced to go Revenge Rampage under leadership of child (bonus point for irony, if kid would get the Name of Heir/Heirness).

        Liked by 7 people

      2. Raved Thrad

        Cat is definitely not evil, at least not by modern standards. Ruthless, yes, and cynical, and even iconoclastic, but someone whose overriding goal and motivation is to “leave the world a better place than it was when I found it” is definitely not evil. Not necessarily heroic, either — she’s more of an antihero. Good and Evil, however, aren’t good and evil. Good and Evil as set down by the powers above and below are a specific checklist of allegiances and behaviors that identify you as siding with one or the other. It’s why Pilgrim can be Good and still be unrepentant about the evil he causes by letting thousands of people die unjustly through his inaction.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Metrux

        You must remember good != Good. For teh Heavens there is no “good for you”, there is only “obey and be Good”. From their perspective, those people aren’t obeying, no matter the circunstances.

        Like

        1. Well, duh… At no point did I say that Good = bestest morality evvar and Evil = seriously horrible bad-bad peoples and never shall the twain mix it up.

          In fact, I was outright saying that Pilgrim is as wrong about what is going on as the High Lords of Praes are.

          I meant “not right” as in “has made a big mistake”, not as in “oops, did a morally wrong thing which a Good person isn’t meant do”.

          In short: yeah, I know, already — don’t need telling that I must remember. 😛

          Like

  5. Jane

    Hm… I think Vivienne might be underestimating Akua here.

    Even if this ploy didn’t work, by interacting with Akua, it still reinforces her presence in the party, and creates a relationship between the two of them – if there was a stony silence between them, there would never be an opportunity for a relationship to change or grow, but by engaging with her, it creates openings for things between them to improve. It’s like how Hakram helped solidify Thief’s presence in their group by first threatening her – it wasn’t a good way to get the ball rolling, but it was necessary, and helped draw her into interacting with others. It also mirrors in a less murderous way how the Wandering Bard pushed the Bumbling Conjurer out of the party by shoving him into the narrative background – being out there and interacting with others creates narrative weight that makes her a real person and not just a fashion accessory, and thus harder to snuff out afterwards.

    And as for the two of them specifically… Well, “Two party members who fight like cats and dogs but have each other’s backs in the end” is a really classic narrative, you know? If they keep having “friendly but important conversations that everyone else thinks will end with a blade drawn by the end” talks like this, it’d be really easy for her to fall into that pattern without realizing it.

    In short… I think Vivienne might have seen one angle Akua was aiming for, while overlooking her real aim with this talk.

    Not that I know that she should be concerned by this. I mean, it makes it harder for her to murder Akua at the end, but would it be the worst thing in the world for them to be friends? I mean, setting aside the hundreds of thousands of dead that she’s privately sworn to avenge? It’s not like she has a lot of people she’s close to, and Akua can be a really good friend.

    Liked by 6 people

      1. Jane

        Well… The “Hey, why not make friends with the woman who mass murdered a city full of the countrymen you value above almost everything else?” thing was somewhat tongue in cheek, but…

        Truthfully, Akua is a pretty good friend if you can trust her. She’s charming, well-read, and was pretty much raised to make high society revolve around her. She’s Praesi to the core, but if she could ever learn to turn it down a bit… Well, manipulating someone and knowing what to say to make a conversation go smoothly aren’t that different. Especially for someone like Thief, who closes herself off to everyone around her, I think she’d be a good friend if she wasn’t scheming something.

        And from a more practical perspective, she’s one of the finest mages of her generation, can’t be killed though normal means (probably) and has a touch of Winter to her. Most of us don’t choose our friends based on their combat capabilities, but for someone who routinely gets into life and death conflicts… Well, it’d be nice to know that that kind of power has your back, you know?

        Liked by 4 people

          1. Jane

            Well, she won’t just betray her allies capriciously – only if it’s to her long-term benefit, and crippling a member of the Woe is not to her long-term benefit. At the moment, I believe her devotion to Cat is sincere, and that makes her close allies safe by extension, until such a time as Cat really goes crashing down.

            At the very least, though, I expect we’re going to get a couple of “Akua as Cat’s Loyal Pet” arcs, if for no other reason than Akua causing problems every book will start making people ask why Cat doesn’t just leave her dead.

            Liked by 3 people

            1. Metrux

              Not only do I agree she will stab Cat sometime, the only doubt being when, but also that she is exactly the type of ally you never want to have. You see, if the situation is such that her help can make a win, she will never act to help you, because without her you’ve lost and she stands with the winning faction. And if the situation is good enough you don’t need her, so… Why have someone you don’t like and can’t trust as ally? They have her now as a bound slave, and that is why she can never grow to be part of the team, because she wouldn’t be able to be part of ANY team.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Death Knight

                The practicalities of it prevents that from happening.

                She’s bound to the Cloak of Woe, which means in order for her to betray Cat in that manner she would need:

                a) An enemy faction with the capabilities of unbounding her from the cloak (I do not think she would agree to switch sides but STILL be bounded to an object)

                b) Trust that this faction would not betray her and kill her after they have won

                c) The means to actually communicate with said enemy faction covertly in order to set up this betrayal.

                If it takes at least three things for a plan to succeed then that is no plan at all; it’s wishful thinking.

                Liked by 2 people

  6. Nguyen Hong Hai

    Lul all the shipping bells just got tripped here, by all accounts our Cat is not exactly a beauty queen yet how many people are interested in her now?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. ______

    You know, I don’t think that Akua is trying to establish herself as a part of the Woe. After Pilgrim’s refusal to help Catherine in chapter 26, I suspect he saw Akua in Catherine’s body and was aiming for her to join the party from the very start. If she’s bound by the same oaths as Cat when she’s posessing her, then the story may be applied to her while she, say, is let out to fight against the crusaders in Callow’s hour of need again.

    I mean, this was before the negotiations where Catherine turned the tables (though, given how Grey Pilgrim didn’t need to signal the intermediary or prince Amadis, the redemption narrative might not have been an improvisation), but all four sentences said by the Pilgrim to Diabolist on her throne in Kaleidoscope VI can be viewed both as ones said to Cat and to Akua:

    > “Child,” he said, tone appalled. “What have you done to yourself?”

    > “Surrender,” the Great Elder said. “Abdicate. It is not too late.”

    > “You would argue this, after slaying thousands?” the Pilgrim asked.

    > “And you think your reign a better alternative?” the Grey Pilgrim asked calmly.

    The first one is obvious reference to removing her soul and making it a tool, since “Catherine” hadn’t done anything during this round of the battle he hadn’t seen her do before. Note that the second one is a response to “I see you’ve been tossing around resurrections like they’re godsdamned solstice treats, too. Charming. Not going to have any long-term ramifications at all.” The third one is a bit of hypocritical nonsequitur if applied to Catherine’s actions during the Battle of Camps, but we’ve been past that. As a reaction to finding out that Diabolist is still out and about, howerver, it sounds far more reasonable (especially as a response to “This doesn’t need to turn into a Named pissing contest.”). The double-layered dialogue is followed by Akua musing about becoming a hero and throwing around seemingly powerful punches that fail to leave a lasting wound on any of the heroes.

    In that context, refusing to help Catherine was raising the pressure that made her either fold (in which case the redemption is applied straightforwardly, since she now has to fight everyone that previously backed her to “amend her sins”), or resort to the drastic measures he no doubt saw her considering, which gives the next batch of heroes narrative advantage and makes her let Akua out more frequently, who either backstabs her (which brings us back to Evil turns on Evil) or behaves like a decent person until she has a chance to contact the Pilgrim again (which, aside from story of an artifact backfiring on its owner, would allow him more control over her “character development”, or at least trick the villains to their doom).

    I realle hope for Catherine figuring out a way of this trap, now that she heard the word “redemption” and can think about how exactly Akua is planning to get out.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. JJR

    And now I’m hoping one of the chapter headers is going to be something like. “For your aid in keeping the others in line while I planned our escape. For holding off the royal guards as I murdered my predecessor. You have earned your place as my Chancellor.”
    -Dread Emperor Schemer, speaking to the largest alligator

    Liked by 6 people

  9. ruduen

    Out of the Woe, I think Thief is the most cautious of Akua, potentially tying with Catherine. She knows what Akua can do with a bit of information, and given her spymistress position, she knows the danger of leaking unnecessary information. After learning about Akua’s little scheme, she’d likely be more on guard for the same, and she likely knows it’s better to keep that close to her chest.

    While it’s gratifying to make Akua squirm, I don’t think that’d be enough of a reason for Thief to leak that valuable information – it would be better to keep it hidden and be on guard, so you could catch Akua with it later.

    So, is there another reason for bringing it up? Is she just attempting to make her own position against Akua look weaker than it is? Or is there something we’re not seeing yet?

    Like

    1. Azure

      No she’s actually strengthening her position with Akua, letting her know she’s on to her. Akua is Praesi and Vivienne just played her at her own game and then pulled the rug out from under her. Everything they discussed was incredibly obvious and superficial in terms of the Woe and their characteristics. Vivienne seems to be trying to make Akua jump focus to someone more powerful or unique like oh say the Dead King.
      Aka did rattle her when she mentioned her Name not changing. Perhaps it has been and Thief hasn’t revealed that yet. So does this mean Thief can transition to another name? Chancellor?

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Someguy

    Cat really needs to find ex-Winter King and get her Mortal Heart back. The longer it stays with him in Arcadia the more likely it becomes a Macguffin for Heroes to retrieve-destroy in a Death of Koschei the Deathless Plot.

    Like

    1. ______

      He did put it back, it’s discussed in chapter 46 of the previous book:

      “Neither your soul nor your body could support the title without the metaphysical stabilizer the king replaced your heart by,” the blind man said. “Your power began destroying your body the moment he removed it, and the edges of your soul were fracturing.”

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Metrux

      Wrong? No. Worried? Totally. There is nothing wrong with feeling attraction to anyoneo or anything… Acting on that is another issue altogether. But her only qualities as a person are her calmness and manipulation, so… Yes, you should worry :B

      Liked by 1 person

  11. crescentsickle

    Yep, called Akua’s plot. Cat as Empress, her as Chancellor. It’s been a few chapters, but I’ve been talking about it since at least Kaleidoscope IV.

    I think the fact that Akua has come out and said it, though, may in fact ruin her chances of success. Then again, there’s always the reveal later that Akua knew Cat was awake and was telegraphing her intentions for some future pupose.

    Like

  12. It occurs to me that Cat actual has something that might well get Akua really on board for something more than “be the Chanceller behind the Dread Empress”.

    Everything Akua has ever done was to bash the gilded cage she found herself in. The problem was, the cage she thought she was in was just one of them, and the tools she thought so appropriate to break herself out of it…. only could ever result in finding the cage the first cage was in.

    Cat has evidence of the shell game all those cages are merely cups for. Nobody Akua has ever met has more tools to wreck the game that imprisoned her her whole life and undeath than Cat and the Woe.

    Climbing the Tower? It’s a trap. And, Cat has proof.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess what I’m saying is: Akua is going to have to face the fact that the world is a lot bigger than Praes, or even Calernia. And, that Praesi customs may well have been designed to confine anybody trying to break out of the cage. Just as Procer seems to have confining customs of its own.

      The culture shock has yet to hit. 😐

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Joshua Sills

    Honestly? Ever since Masego told Cat that he permanently damaged her name after the demon of corruption, I fully expected the arc to turn towards an elimination of names from the world by butchering the current bearer of that names soul. Hate the gods influence like Black? They can’t act without names. Want peace between radically different people? Remove the corrupting influence of Names from society.

    Seems like the only solution that can get Cat what she wants, she has the tools to do it, but it just hasn’t ever occurred to anyone. Hell, the story would be incredible. A final show off between Cat and Bard where Cat is trying to outplay the storyteller to remove her name, and Bard who wants her name removed so she can finally end it, but has to play the role of the Gods servant.

    Doesnt seem like this will ever come up though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. JJR

      The plan is an interesting one in theory, but corrupting names like that requires the use of a demon of corruption. It just seems like a really bad idea in practice. The crippling wasn;t even permanent, as Cat got her name restored after the short game of name hot potato with undead Chider.

      Like

    2. That’s not how it worked. It was not the name Squire itself that got damaged, but Catherine’s Name. It remained damaged until she had it. Which was not very long since she temporarily lost it in Liesse. She even tells Akua how much she messed up by accidentally restoring her name to full.
      Names are like stories or concepts. You can destroy them, but not through the Named. That’s what the Miezans did to the orcs. They destroyed their culture so completely, that there were no orc Named until Hakram.
      Of course, you can weaken enemy Named with this method, but it would only affect that person and not the Name itself. Though I seriously doubt that it could be used without very special circumstances. The only reason it happened to Cat was that she tried to claim her 3rd aspect early, and with a demon of corruption nearby.

      Like

    3. Snowfire1224

      You just got me thinking. As I recall chider was able to steal Catherine’s name through a ritual Akua set up. What would happen if someone stole the bard’s name. Would they become her?

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Snowfire1224

          It gets worse the more i think about it. For example what would happen to the person that was bard before the name is stolen? Would they go back to who they were or would they remember everything the bard remembers?…

          I think I need to to stop thinking about these things.

          Like

  14. I’m looking forward to these revelations about the Bard trickling down to Akua, Akua realizing she’s been operating within the Gods’ cage this whole time, having some real come-to-self moments about what that means, finally making some genuine character growth steps which might take her in the direction of actual remorse and…

    And then being killed as soon as she finishes polishing up her redemption arc, because choosing to murder 100,000 people for personal gain and there being the slightest possibility of you doing so again puts you on a permanent “To Evil To Let Live” list.

    Like

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