“You could gather the stuff of all the Hells and still find less Evil within than lies in the soul of a single man. The worst monsters are always those that chose to be.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand
“So,” I said, “before we get into it. What are the odds that Athal is our good friend the Hidden Horror wearing someone’s face?”
I couldn’t exactly say I suspected that because it was what I’d do – though if Masego was to be believed, I was technically wearing a people cloak courtesy of Winter at all times – but come on. Of course the friendly servant ‘gifted’ to me was going to be a trap. Sure, it was possible Neshamah considered himself above those kind of shell games. People who murdered kingdoms for power did tend to have very particular notions about their importance and what they would lower themselves to do. On the other hand, it was becoming painfully clear that we had no fucking idea what the Dead King was really up to.
“I find it unlikely,” Akua said.
The Woe and the murderer – the one not part of the Woe, I supposed it was necessary to clarify – weren’t nearly enough to fill out the absurdly large bedchamber that had been given to me. It was larger than the entire Rat’s Nest had been, and furnished so richly if Robber had been around I might have considered looking away while he got sticky fingers. Pawning the stuff in Mercantis could have probably earned me enough to equip a few hundred legionaries.
“Possession would be difficult, if not outright impossible,” Masego conceded. “Bespelling the man for control is a different matter. It is not impossible anything his senses come across will be extracted and sifted through afterwards.”
“I hear one for mind control and soul cutting,” I said, putting a jaunty tone to my rising horror. “Anyone else feeling like putting their silver at work?”
“I bet he put some kind of fucked up devil bug in the man’s brain,” Archer mused. “You know, one he can look through?”
“One reason I’m glad I don’t really sleep anymore, straight into the pot,” I added, openly sickened. “I’m waiting on the rest of the gallery for counteroffers.”
“I’d be surprised if there weren’t enchantments everywhere taking our conversations straight to the Dead King,” Vivienne noted. “Athal himself might simply be a red herring.”
My eyes flicked to Hierophant, who shrugged.
“There are no active wards I recognize, save those surrounding the city and the Hall of the Dead,” he said. “Though everything in Keter seems touched by sorcery to an extent. The protections I set around us should be sufficient to prevent eavesdropping, or at least very difficult to breach without my awareness.”
“Reasonable paranoia, making three,” I sighed. “Hakram?”
“Negotiations in good faith,” Adjutant said calmly.
There was a heartbeat of silence.
“Playing the long odds, I see,” Akua said amusedly.
The orc’s hand rose to still the incoming tide of responses.
“We assume it a matter of course the Dead King is intent on crossing us,” he said. “I would ask you this, however: does he truly need to?”
“From an objective perspective?” I said. “Probably not. He can get what he wants out of us fair and square. That said, he’s a villain. ‘Need’ takes a different shade when it comes to those.”
“Yet we are not dealing with Diabolist, it’s true,” Vivienne slowly said.
I looked at Akua from the corner of my eye. She did not seem offended in the slightest. She might not even have been listening, scarlet eyes still thoughtfully considering Hakram.
“I do not advocate for blind trust, or even trust at all,” Adjutant said. “But let us not dismiss the possibility of forthright dealings from the onset, either. Salting the grounds prematurely is not to our advantage.”
“He’d bleed us all in a heartbeat, if it got him anything useful,” I pointed out.
“Is this not a recurrent trait in all our allies?” Masego asked, bemused.
It was a little depressing that I couldn’t really deny that.
“Point taken,” I conceded, passing a hand through my hair. “Which neatly takes us to our next point of order. Today’s lecture: what we want from the Dead King, why, and what we’re willing to give in exchange.”
Hierophant raised his hand. I eyed him darkly. Had he even ever sat in classroom?
“Yes, Masego,” I said.
“Is this a mandatory lecture?” he politely asked.
Archer smothered her convulsive laughter into Hakram’s shoulder, the wretch.
“Yes,” I patiently said. “Yes it is.”
The blind sorcerer looked a little miffed, but I pressed on before he could get it into his head to argue.
“For those of you who forgot, or weren’t paying attention,” I said, glancing pointedly at Indrani whose lips were still twitching, “Callow is about to have around eighty thousand Proceran and Levantines soldiers led by heroes invading through the Red Flower Vales. We need them, very badly, to be headed elsewhere instead.”
“Arguable,” Diabolist noted.
“Akua Sahelian, arguing that slaughter is the solution,” I said. “We are all blindsided by this turn of events.”
I bit my tongue afterwards then forced myself to look at the others in turn. We’d begun light-heartedly, and it was my own fault.
“I know levity is how we’ve kept our heads on straight,” I quietly said. “As much as Named can have those, anyway. But this is serious. We’re at a crossroads, and ahead are dead ends all around. The crusaders are in it to the hilt, and there’s no compromise to be had with them. Callow’s on the chopping block for the coming world order and we’re out of allies and alternatives – except for the Dead King. This is the deep end. So please, let’s act like the situation is as grim as it is.”
That sobered the room. I didn’t particularly enjoy doing it – it kept the pressure off my shoulders to treat it as laughable, even when we were all deadly serious. But I could not stomach making it a game even on the surface when things had gotten this undeniably bad.
“The Dead King is our counterweight,” Adjutant said, breaking the silence and continuing my thoughts. “If he breaches Proceran borders up north, the armies at our gate will be either thinned or entirely recalled to deal with him.”
I nodded my thanks to him.
“That said, we don’t want him to actually take Procer,” I said. “Aside from the horrifying loss of life that would entail, we’d be trading the hound at our door for a much larger tiger. So we need him to be enough of a threat the Tenth Crusade turns north, but not so strong the First Prince can’t win. I believe that’s possible to accomplish, for two reasons.”
“The heroes,” Akua said.
I nodded in agreement.
“The Heavens have already assembled their footsoldiers,” I said. “They’re on the field and spoiling for a fight. Crusades have reached Keter before, so we know the Dead King’s not invincible when there’s enough Named thrown at him. Baited out of the Kingdom of the Dead, he might be vulnerable in a way he isn’t while in his seat of power. That’ll draw them like carrion does flies. It’s an objectively better victory for Above to get rid of Neshamah than to topple us – the folks upstairs will push for it.”
“And our leverage,” Vivienne finished.
“To our understanding, the Dead King is stuck in his ‘Serenity’ unless he’s either attacked or invited out,” I said, inclining my head towards her. “Our current working assumption is that we’ve been called here because we can provide that invitation and we’ve been judged sufficiently desperate to actually go through with it.”
Which, in all fairness, we were. The only person in the room not already in on the plan to a full extent studied me intently before speaking up.
“You intend to add clauses to that invitation,” Akua said, eyes hooded. “Not obvious ones from an outside perspective, lest the First Prince find them out and consider herself to have options other than war against the dead. Limitation of strength? No, without a full assessment of his forces that would be too risky. Ah. Territorial boundaries.”
My fingers clenched. I knew there were few people out there who were both clever enough and knew me well enough to get to the conclusion so easily. It still worried me how little time it had taken Diabolist to see through me.
“Three principalities,” I said. “Hannoven, Cleves and Hainaut. That would be the enforced limit of his invasion. Hannoven is fortified enough it will be hard to take, and as Klaus Papenheim’s own territory it will strike bone with both the First Prince and her foremost general if it comes under siege. The other two principalities would give the Dead King foothold across the lakes, and so rally every Alamans of high birth in the Principate to the war. He’s dangerous enough a neighbour with natural boundaries in the way.”
“Preferably, we would want those principalities empty of civilians when the Kingdom of the Dead advances,” Hakram said. “Their armies retreating as well, to strike back in strength when reinforced by the crusader hosts. Once war erupts up north, the balance of power of the Tenth Crusade shifts enough we have room to manoeuver.”
“Sounds like a clever piece of diplomacy,” Indrani shrugged. “But you’re not dealing with some prick of a prince, Cat. You sure the Hidden Horror is going to be willing to put ink to that deal? To put oath to it?”
“Our game’s crooked,” I admitted frankly. “But as far as we know, it’s also the only game in town. He’d make appreciable gains through this deal, even if he went in expecting us to betray him. It’s not the finest offer he’ll ever get, but it’s the one on the table. And if he wanted to stay behind his walls, well, he wouldn’t have sent an envoy in the first place.”
“A warning, if you would,” she said.
I glanced at her and nodded.
“All of this rests on uncertain foundations,” Diabolist said. “Namely, that invitation his needed for him to escape his Hell. This is speculation, not established fact.”
“I’m aware,” I bluntly said.
“Then follow the thought to its logical conclusion,” Akua said. “If no invitation is needed and he still sent an envoy to you, what is the Dead King truly after?”
“We’re going into guesswork,” I noted. “And blind guesswork, at that.”
“If you try to ascertain objectives purely from his perspective, yes,” Diabolist said. “But that is not the full sum of the information we have. He sent for you, specifically. You are not the first cornered villain, Catherine. Yet you warranted an envoy where others did not. We can garner some knowledge from studying what sets you apart from other villains.”
I met her gaze, unblinking.
“And what would that be?” I said.
“Two facts seem most important,” Akua said. “First, you are now the crowned and recognized head of a traditionally Good kingdom. Ensuring you remain in power might represent a chance to tip the scales of the Game of the Gods on Calernia.”
There was a cheerful thought. The Pilgrim had bought into the notion, anyway, so there might be something there. We had no indication that the Dead King’s game relied on the balance of power, however, so the grounds were shaky.
“And second?” I asked.
“You are Queen of Winter in all but name,” Diabolist said. “Fae are sworn to you. You are capable of granting titles and assembling a court.”
Adjutant’s brow creased.
“Titles,” Hakram gravelled. “It’s about the titles, if Winter is relevant at all. If you start handing them out, our potential strength escalates faster than anyone else can match. All the heroes capable of fighting are already out there, and the crusade still hasn’t broken through. The Heavens are currently winning, but not by wide enough a margin to hold up. They would have to put a full hand to the scales to compensate, and if they do…”
“Below gets to do the same,” Vivienne quietly said. “It’d start a vicious circle. The Heavens push again, Below matches, and all the while the fire spreads. Winter’s the match to tinder. If Arcadia really was the sketch for Creation, then bringing Winter into this is like stealing the pieces of an earlier match to play in the most recent game.”
“I haven’t been granting anyone titles,” I flatly said. “Precisely to avoid this kind of complication.”
“If you did, however,” Akua said. “What entity is arguably the most powerful on the side of Evil?”
We all knew the answer to that. An argument might have been made for Praes, back in Triumphant’s day, but that era had passed.
“So if it all goes up in flames, he’s likely to be involved when Below makes its play,” I completed grimly. “He’d want to put his finger to the pulse before it comes to that, and have assurances in place for when the arrows start flying.”
“Indeed,” Diabolist smiled pleasantly. “Which is quite the interesting development, don’t you think? Whatever the truth of his intent, we have something that is desired. What we succeed at making of that is all that matters.”
Gods forgive me but in that moment, even after all she’d done, I was glad she was out of the box.
The white-robed servants came to help us prepare for the audience several hours before twilight, but I dismissed mine. Hakram was quite enough for me. It was soothing, to have him help me into my armour. A ritual just for the two of us. The carapace of steel grew steadily around me, until all that was left to add was the cloak around my shoulders and the crowned helmet that had already needed reforging several times. I only put them on after the others were readied, the Woe in the fullness of their regalia. There was sense of solemnity to it. Archer’s ceremonial garments were not significantly different from her usual, merely trading her usual leathers and silver mail for ones we’d had tailored for her in Laure, but it was oddly nostalgic to see her with the face covered by a hood and scarf again. Hierophant was all flowing black robes and silken eye cloth, somehow turning the simplicity of it into a statement of might. Adjutant and I were steel from head to toe, a frank admission of the nature of what we wrought. It was Thief that was barely recognizable. Her short hair had been styled and coiffed, going from haphazard to carefully arranged, and her prowling leathers were traded for Callowan court garb: a dark green overcoat bordered in brocade, over a long high-necked white tunic going to her knees. Soft and well-polished boots went up to her calves, with only a simple sheathed knife at her hip serving as a reminder of her Name. Diabolist remained as I had made her, somehow wearing her ghostly garments as if she’d been born to them.
Athal was our guide to the Hall of the Dead, along with several others Hosts. The pale man was subdued today. Not cowed, but well aware of the gravity of his duties. It was not often one was granted audience with the Hidden Horror. The inside of the spire was not as I remembered from the shards, everything within having shifted. Dimly, I could trace the pattern of our journey in my head. It all revolved around the royal hall now. The heart of the tower, where the portal and the man who’d made it awaited us. The antechamber to that hallowed place seemed filled with statues, at first glance, but a second revealed otherwise. The fifty silhouettes standing still were not stone or the remembrance of kings.
“Revenants,” Archer said, and none of us replied.
Heroes, I thought. Dead heroes, and perhaps villains as well. Ripped out of whatever ancient age they had fallen, still garbed in the armaments of their defeat. Men and women of every stripes, knights and sages and wizards. An honour guard that none but the Dead King could boast. We passed them by in uneasy silence. Athal bowed low as we stood before the bronze gates of the hall.
“We part ways here, Great Majesty,” he said. “What lies within is not for the likes of me. May you find all that you seek, and leave a friend to the Serenity.”
I nodded at him, then took a deep breath. A memory flicked back to the front of my mind, quick and silver-bright. Too clear for a mortal mind. A thumb running up my cheek as the lesser god smiled
“You are in need of a reminder, Catherine Foundling, of the difference between bravery and ignorance,” I murmured to myself, with a bitter smile.
Another king, that one, that I had only ever beaten on his own terms. Something to keep in mind when facing the king ahead.
The bronze gates opened, and we went forward to meet with the King of Death.
“Her Majesty Queen Catherine Foundling, Tyrant of Callow, Sovereign of Moonless Night, the Black Queen.”
The announcement rang loud and clear in the hall as I advanced, coming from a dead man’s throat. The others were announced behind me. Lord Hierophant, Lord Adjutant, Lady Archer, Lady Thief. The Shade of Splendour. The words washed over me, made faraway by what I witnessed. No portal there, not today. A tall dais with a throne of bones, with a long table set before it. From the tall rafters hung banners from all the great hosts of Calernia. Old and faded. Some still keeking of blood long turned to dust. Yet the greatest of all banners hung behind the throne, the deep purple of the Kingdom of the Dead’s heraldry set with crown and stars. None of it mattered, compared to the thing that sat the throne. It was a man, or perhaps just the mockery of one. Not living yet not dead, so thin bones could be made out through the parchment-thin skin. Pale locks of hair tumbled down messily, reaching down to the elaborate purple robes decorated with gold chains and riotous jewels that together twice earned a mortal king’s ransom. The thing was sprawled lazily, the ancient crown of Sephirah on its brow, watching us with sunken yellow eyes. A curtain of power hung between us and it, unseen but thick against the roof of my mouth. Illusion. The Dead King was not within the hall. It was not Neshamah’s body I was seeing, either. Not his first one anyway.
“I greet you, Black Queen,” the abomination said in a rippling voice. “And confirm by my own tongue extension of hospitality to you and yours.”
I bowed my head.
“We are duly grateful of the offered courtesy, Your Majesty,” I replied. “And offer guest-gift as a sign of our own.”
Hakram strode forward, face serene. It had been trouble, finding something that was a worthy gift yet easy to carry through Arcadia. So many of the things that would have pleased the monster would have been dangerous to us. In the end, it’d been Ratface that came through. He knew people that know some people in Mercantis, and for a cost that made me wince they’d nabbed something of worth from an auction. Adjutant removed the silken veil from the cushion he carried, revealing a small shard of black stone.
“A piece of the Tower as it once stood, before twice being cast down,” Hakram announced.
A white-robed attendant, this one without a heartbeat, came forward to take the cushion from his hands. It was offered to the Dead King, who took it in hand and studied it with a thin-lipped smile.
“A sliver of greatness,” he said. “And a reminder of frailty. A worthy gift, Black Queen.”
I bowed my head in silence. He set the stone back down on the cushion, and it was spirited away by the servant as he returned those wicked yellow eyes to us.
“Sit,” the Dead King invited. “You are my guests, after all. It would not do for you to remain standing. Would you partake of my table?”
“We would be honoured to do so,” I lied.
“I am pleased to hear it,” the thing that had once been Neshamah said. “We have much to speak of, and it would make me uneasy to do so while your throats are dry.”
I forced a smile.
“I confess,” I said, “that your invitation roused great curiosity in me. Talk is much welcome.”
“And yet you wonder, what are we to speak of?” the abomination chuckled. “Allow me to shed light.”
Yellow eyes met mine.
“We must speak of that most ancient trade of kings, Black Queen,” the Dead King said. “War.”