“And so Triumphant said: ‘Tremble, for I am not yet content.'”
– Extract from the Scroll of Dominion, twenty-fourth of the Secret Histories of Praes
My boots scuffed the stone and a poisonously warm breeze caressed my face. I strode forward, leaving room for the others to pass behind me, and resisted the urge to drop my hand to my sword. Gods, this place was a nightmare. Though it was in the royal hall we had crossed, we’d evidently emerged outside the bounds of Keter. More precisely, on one of the four stone ramps leading into the city across the gaping maws of a chasm. It was dark for miles, down there, before flickering flames cast a light deep in the depths. The sound of the wind against the man-made cliffs was eerily akin to a dirge. I turned my eyes ahead instead of peering into the madness, but found only more of the same. Indrani had warned me that the walls of the Crown of the Dead were absurdly tall, but even then I had not expected the likes of what I saw. Jutting out of the sharp drop at the edge of the cliffs, the ramparts must have been at least a thirty yards high at the lowest point. No part of the city behind could be seen from out here, save for the spire of dark stone stretching out into the sky – and the orb of hellfire that hovered atop it, an indistinct silhouette shifting within.
This was not a city made for the living.
“Godsdamn,” Archer said, letting out a whistle. “I know he’s just a pile of scheming Evil bones, but you’ve got to respect his style. That’s as doom-like as a fortress of doom gets.”
“Drawbridges would have been more tactically sound,” Adjutant said.
I glanced at him and found Hakram was unmoved by the sight of millennia of darkness and arrogance made into a city. In some undefinable way, it was so very much like him to take his first look at the Crown of the Dead and immediately start criticising its defensive layout. Any moment now he would mention that the artillery firing lanes could be improved by further overlap, or that the barbican was overly crenellated.
“I would wager that, to the likes of the Dead King, every bridge is a drawbridge if given sufficient attention,” Diabolist spoke amusedly.
Ugh, Akua. She was not supposed to actually be kind of funny.
“Are we not meant to be honoured guests?” Hierophant said. “Making us stand outside his gates is poor manners.”
Like he was one to talk about those. Still, as if magically summoned by Masego’s complaining, our ‘hosts’ came out of the woodworks. From beyond the gate chilling howls were heard, and then the flap of great wings. Dozens of… not dragons, but perhaps the bastard child of them, took flight. Wyverns, though made of bone and leather with radiant red eyes. Each one as large as a house.
“Thief,” I said. “The seal.”
Vivienne flourished her wrist, palm becoming filled with the obsidian circle that had come along the Dead King’s message. She tossed it at me, and though I snatched it out of the air without trouble I gave her a hard look. What if I hadn’t been paying attention, and it’d tumbled off the edge of the bridge? How fucked would we have been, this deep in the Kingdom of the Dead without our proof of invitation? Regardless, the wyverns passed over us without trouble as I raised the seal above my head. The flock parted in both directions, diving below the stone bridge and passing under. With perfect timing, they came back up and landed simultaneously on the edge of both sides. The leathery wings folded back, and ahead of us the tall gates of steel began to open.
“An honour guard,” Akua said. “How mannerly of him.”
A show of force as well, though I didn’t need for her to remind of that to be aware. Though I knew, objectively speaking, that the Dead King would not have invited us for the sole purpose of murdering strangers I could not quite manage indifference was we passed in front of the perfectly still wyverns. Their eyes, I felt, followed us wherever we went. It was a pittance compared to the welcome that awaited us beyond the gates. The closer we came, the greater the chill going up my spine. Indrani had told me everything Ranger had taught her about Keter, in particular the kinds of undead that dwelled within. There were, she’d said, three kinds. The Bones, the Binds and the Revenants. The Bones were undead as I knew them, raised corpses little more intelligent than dogs when left to their own purposes. Most were ancient enough they were nothing but skeletons wearing armour. The Dead King, Archer told me, could seize control of those at any time. The Binds were corpses with souls bound to them, as sapient as humans. They were the captains and servants of the Kingdom of the Dead. The third kind, the Revenants, were a breed apart. Named stolen from the grave, keeping a shadow of the power they’d once wielded while living.
The Dead King was a kind of his own, she’d added. Without equivalent or easy description.
What awaited us beyond the gates was an honour guard beyond the ability of mortals to assemble. The avenues of Keter were filled to the brim with silent dead, bearing arms and armour spanning centuries. Bronze helms in the ancient Baalite style, iron breastplates as were long borne by the Lycaonese and more than a few longswords of the distinctive Vale make of Callow. Banners from half the continent were stirred by the warm breeze, though none stood as tall as that of the Kingdom of the Dead: ten silver stars, set in a perfect circle around a pale crown. By the regal crown you will know him, the old verse went. His horse is the death of men, his voice the fall of night and he strives doom unto all the world. Villains drew epithets, myself among them, but none quite as many as the Dead King. We advanced, six of us surrounded by silence and blasphemy. The very instant was passed the threshold, thousands of dead kneeled in unison. I shivered. There had been a single mind at work behind it. In the avenue ahead of us, the dead parted to allow a pale man followed by six palanquins to pass through. I could hear his heartbeat and my eyes lingered on his approaching silhouette before my fingers clenched at the sight of the first palanquin.
Four dead carried it, but it was the drapery falling down the side that drew my attention. Black silk, embroidered with heraldry. A set of silver scales, balancing a crown and a sword. The sword weighed heavier. The words embroidered beneath I did not need to read. He is not blind, I thought. He was never blind. Whether the Dead King had imprisoners himself into his personal hell or not, he knew of the affairs of Calernia outside it. And in much greater depth than my worst predictions had anticipated. The pale-skinned man was the only living soul in sight, and memorable for reasons more than that. Raven tresses went down his back, his body perfectly proportioned as if he were more sculpture than man. He had, I thought as he came closer, warm and kind eyes. Given the surroundings, that only added to the horror of it. The stranger came before us and slowly knelt.
“In the name of the Crown, I greet you,” he said in flawless Lower Miezan. “Black Queen, Tyrant of Callow, the King of Death extends his hospitality to your august presence and that of our attendants.”
There was a slight accent to his voice, but not one I recognized.
“We accept this hospitality with the gratitude it is due,” I replied. “Rise.”
“I cannot, for my purpose is not yet discharged,” the man said, pressing his head to the stone. “As gift of welcoming, the Crown bestows my existence upon you.”
My lips thinned. Had I just been handed a slave? No, now was not the time to make a mess. If the Dead King knew enough of Calernian affairs to know the motto on my banner, he had to know how repulsive a Callowan would find slavery. Was this a test?
“The gift is accepted in the spirit it was given,” I said. “Rise, now.”
The man did so, gracefully.
“My face name is Athal, Great Majesty,” he said. “I have been instructed to serve as your host for the duration of your stay.”
“We have a guest-gift to offer the Dead King,” I said calmly. “Though that can wait until audience is granted. Until then, we would see our quarters. It has been a long journey.”
“The Silent Palace has been prepared for your pleasure,” Athal said, bowing low. “If you would deign to enter the palanquins, honoured ones?”
“Very civilized, not making us walk,” Masego noted approvingly. “We should see about obtaining those in Laure.”
I deigned, or at least began to. I paused when I finally took a closer look at the dead bearing my litter. No mere skeletons in armour, these. Their flesh was dead but well-preserved, their faces still human and their finery fit for royalty. Which they very well might be: crowns had been nailed to each of their heads.
“If it please you, Great Majesty,” Athal said, coming at my side. “As a sign of respect, the Crown had put worthy souls to your service. You look upon-”
“Princes,” I interrupted quietly, “Princes and princesses of Procer.”
“That is so,” the man agreed. “Prince Mateo Osuna of Aequitan and his twin sister Princess Nicoleda. Princess Clemente Milenan of Iserre. Prince Friedrich Hasenbach of Rhenia. Their tongues have been sown as penance, and crowns put to their brow as a reminder of the follies of arrogance.”
They all came from principalities that had been pivotal in the war against Callow one way or another. At a guess Rozala Malanza’s own bloodline was too young to the throne of Aequitan to have a representative, so they’d drawn from the one that ruled before it. Merciless Gods. The statement here was more alarming than the show of force surrounding us, in some ways. That Neshamah had hordes of dead was well known, but this was both a reminder that he’d broken more than a few princes in his time and that he knew exactly who my opponents were. The Dead King was making a point. I got on the palanquin in silence, and allowed dead royalty to carry me to the Silent Palace.
The accommodations lived up to the name. We’d gone through the streets of Keter, passing a multitude of dead of all stripes, until we neared the infamous Hall of the Dead. I’d seen this district before, in the echoes. It had been where the powerful of Sephirah once lived in their copper-roofed mansions. Those were long gone, replaced instead by a circle of sprawling palaces surrounding the demon-tipped central tower. The Silent Palace was a strange wonder of architecture, six interlocked rings of different heights in marble black and white. Zombie had followed us with our affairs, though our personal packs had been taken by unsmiling dead, and the moment we entered the first hall white-robed servants knelt gracefully before seeing to all our bags. Every single one of them was alive, and no older than twenty. Athal followed me like a shadow, as I as watched the servants divest Zombie of her saddlebags I half-turned towards him.
“I did not think there would be so many living in Keter,” I said.
The man had been both talkative and helpful, so far, and apparently genuinely believed I owned him now. Though the thought was repellent and there was trap written all over this ‘gif’t, I could at least hit him up for some low understanding of this place.
“We are none of us from Keter, Great Majesty,” Athal said, bowing low. “All of us chose to become Hosts upon our coming of age, learning the trade of that choice. It is a rare thing for our service to be called upon, and a great honour.”
My eyes narrowed.
“You were born in Hell,” I said.
“A strange thing to call the Serenity, honoured one,” the man murmured. “It is the world beyond our guardians that is most deserving of that ugly term.”
“You’ve been outside the Kingdom of the Dead?” I asked, surprised.
“I have not. Yet we are not ignorant of the nightmare called Calernia, Great Majesty,” Athal gently said. “The Journeymen return with the tales of their time in your brutish world every season, sacrificing their first life so that we may learn through them. It is a most noble duty. If not for my facility with languages, I may very well have chosen to serve as one of their number.”
Hosts. Journeymen. The Dead King is breeding people in his Hell for chosen tasks, I realized with fresh horror. There’d always been rumours that he had human farms to swell his numbers with fresh dead somewhere in his hellscape, but I’d assumed it would be through regular reapings. No, I thought. He has taught them it is an honour. Everything they know passes through his hands – by the time he’s raised them up to the age of culling, they must actually volunteer. I should have known better. The kind of man who’d plot the death of a kingdom and a half to obtain immortality with the Bard after his hide the whole time would not have made so elementary a mistake. He didn’t treat his cattle like they were that. No, he’d tend to them lovingly and reap the benefits of that kindness again and again over the span of centuries. He must have shaped all their customs from the cradle, I thought. An entire realm turned to the sole purpose of strengthening him without forging heroes in the process.
“And these Journeymen,” I said slowly. “They’ve told you of how the rest of the continent sees the Kingdom of the Dead?”
Athal seemed amused.
“Are we to put faith in the words of those that slaughter each other for sport?” he asked. “There is no war in the Serenity, Great Majesty. No murder or sickness or any of the brutalities outsiders inflict on each other. We are born and raised to the loving embrace of the Crown, and repay that kindness when our first lives have passed. It is the least of that which is due.”
“And the devils?” I asked.
“Beasts of burden,” Athal said, sounding surprised. “Save for those of the Writhing Palace, were none trespass.”
That, I decided, did not sound like a place I ever wanted to visit.
“You’re aware the Kingdom of the Dead has attacked other nations before,” I tried.
“The Procerans,” the dark-haired man agreed. “A warlike folk that have attempted to destroy the Serenity many a time, assembling coalitions of blind hatred. Are you not yourself come to Keter to seek help against their depredations, Great Majesty?”
Well, he had me there. I was also fully intending to throw the Dead King under the cart at the first opportunity, after carefully ensuring his leash was loosened but not loose, but that was best kept quiet. Assuming Neshama had not already deduced as much, which was looking increasingly likely. And still he had invited me. Why? I needed to figure out his game before meeting him, or I might just come out of that conversation having birthed an atrocity greater than Akua’s Folly.
“So why is this place called the Silent Palace, anyway?” I said, changing the subject with all my usual elegance.
“It is so named for it had remained closed and untouched since its last and only guest,” Athal explained. “You would know her as the Dread Empress Triumphant.”
No ‘may she never return’, huh? I supposed this particular crowd had different ideas about the kind of person she’d been. I was a little unsettled at the very real possibility that the last person to sleep in the bed I’d end up in tonight was the worst monster to ever come out of Praes. Hopefully they’d changed the sheets since, because I wouldn’t dismiss out of hand the possibility she’d gotten demon all over them during her stay.
“Any notion of when we’ll be granted audience?” I asked him.
“If it please you, it has been said that tomorrow’s dusk would be auspicious time,” Athal replied.
“It pleases me,” I said, a tad drily.
I regretted it immediately. It was unkind, to mock a man so obviously twisted even if the manner of it was fairly gentle. It sometimes occurred to me that I wouldn’t like myself very much, if I met me as a stranger. That I’d ended up stabbing one of the doppelgangers in my soul seemed less and less a coincidence as I grew older.
“Then it shall be so, Great Majesty,” the man bowed.
Zombie had been divested of her saddlebags and I allowed her to be guided away by a white-robed servant without protest. Odds were there was a stable in here somewhere, and it wasn’t like I’d ever have a hard time finding her. The rest of the Woe had been led to their own chambers, save for Akua who’d denied her servant. She made her way towards me instead and my brow rose. I supposed she didn’t really need rooms of her own, now that I thought about it, but she was in for a hard awakening if she thought she could haunt my own. Athal flinched when she approached and knelt at her feet.
“There’s no need for that,” I said slowly, crouching to help him back up.
“I mean no slight, Great Majesty,” he said, still looking down. “It is simply that I have never hosted one of the Splendid before. I was not taught the proper manners.”
“Splendid, am I?” Akua drawled. “Well, I’ve often thought so myself.”
That might have amused me, if the man wasn’t so obviously frightened.
“She’s just an attendant,” I reassured him. “No need to worry about her.”
Diabolist’s scarlet eyes flicked to the man and her face softened.
“You gave no offence, Host,” she said. “And your manners, though not lacking, offered honours underserved. Treat me as any of the others and you will find your actions faultless.”
Customary annotation: she was, of course, likely faking this. It was good to remind myself of that, lest my impression of her improve. Praesi highborn were not usually kind to servants, whenever they remembered their existence, and Akua Sahelia had sent people dearer to her than a stranger to their deaths without batting an eye.
“I heed your words, honoured one,” Athal murmured.
“You needed something?” I asked flatly.
She folded her hand into her sleeves.
“Mere assurance over minor matters,” she said, smiling at Athal. “I was told that our movements within Keter would not be restricted, save for the Hall of the Dead. Did the servant err in telling me this?”
“It is not so, Splendid,” the dark-haired man said.
I eyed Akua curiously.
“The Lord Hierophant has expressed interest in sightseeing such a glorious city,” she said.
Ah. Well, it wasn’t like I’d brought Masego with the expectation that he’d be useful in the negotiations. He was here to ease our way through Arcadia, and as one of my larger cudgels in case things went south.
“Have Archer go with him,” I ordered Akua. “And tell them to be back before nightfall.”
I should not have to impose a curfew on a grown man and woman, but I most definitely did have to when it came to that pair. Indrani wasn’t someone I’d usually consider or employ as a restraining influence, but she knew the dangers of the Keter better than any of us. She’d pull him away if his nose led him somewhere they shouldn’t go. If wandering around kept them occupied while I prepared for tomorrow with the others, I’d count it a victory.
It was all about the standards, really.
“By your will, Black Queen,” Diabolist smiled, bowing.
Lower than what Praesi court etiquette dictated, even if she considered me a ruling Dread Empress. She was being careful about maintaining the illusion of her change of appearance, which I couldn’t help but approve of.
“All right, Athal,” I sighed as she walked away. “Take me to my rooms.”
“By your will, Great Majesty,” he said, bowing as well.
I detected a hint of amusement in his voice. I could grow fond of that one, I decided. I allowed him to lead me deeper into the palace before clearing my throat.
“So, about those sheets,” I began.