“Seventeen: always agree when offered to share in the rule of the world by a villain. The three to four heartbeats of sheer surprise that will earn you are a golden opportunity to kill them before it comes to a monologue.”
– ‘Two Hundred Heroic Axioms’, author unknown
The Dead King kept a good table, for a corpse.
It was a little surreal that after that last bit of dramatics we were expected to have a meal, but wasn’t that diplomacy? Vivid theatre, followed by long stretches of tediousness. There were half a dozen kind of spiced meats on the table I didn’t recognized but tasted delicious, with the only dark mark on the affair that it was apparently expected that undead attendants would cut my meal for me. I dug in with reluctant enthusiasm, since it was unlikely I’d get to eat this fine a meal for months yet. The cooks at the palace had been weaned off the more complicated fare they’d learned from Mazus and the Fairfaxes and gently guided into making the simpler fare I liked better – if it used to squawk and had since been roasted, odds were I’d enjoy it – but they seemed to have taken that as a challenge to put all their efforts into dessert. Which, well, I had not found it in myself to deny. Masego had a sweet tooth as well, and blueberry tarts were one of the few plates that were never at risk of coming back full when sent into the Observatory. I laid off the wine, though out of politeness I took a few sips. It still tasted like ash to me, as all lesser spirits had since I fully claimed my mantle. Setting down the silvers, I politely dabbed away the bit of sauce on my lips with the provided cloth and leaned back into my seat. Meal time with the Woe tended to be a riotous affair, but not today.
Trading barbs with the Dead King as audience would have been a little too much even for Archer. The abomination sitting the throne waited patiently, by all appearances pleased with how quick we’d been to dig in. I caught his eye, purely by happenstance, and when I faced those yellow orbs the throne room went dark. Sighing, I put down the cloth.
It’d been about time for something to go wrong, hadn’t it?
A quick look around told me I was no longer sitting in the throne room. This was the pitch black of nothingness, not deep shadow. The cloth had disappeared into the dark the moment it left my fingers, and the table had followed suit the moment I took my eyes off of it. The only visible thing around was a standing man, and my brow rose when I took him in. The throne-sitting corpse had not been the Neshamah of millennia ago. This, however, was. Pale and mess-haired, with those thick eyebrows and calloused hands. Closely-shaven as he had been when I’d last glimpsed him, a heartbeat before he wrought the doom of Keter.
“There is no need for alarm,” the Dead King spoke in Ashkaran.
I forced a frown in my face.
“I’m afraid you’ve lost me,” I said.
No amusement bloomed on his face. He did not strike me as offended by the lie, either – if he even knew it was one. What had been spoken was simply put away behind those golden-brown eyes, to be studied at his leisure.
“My apologies, then,” he replied in Lower Miezan. “Would you walk with me, Black Queen?”
I rose to my feet, swallowing a snort when the greatest abomination ever born to Calernia chivalrously offered me his arm. In for a copper, I mused. I looped my arm into his and allowed him to lead me through the nothingness.
“I judged a private conversation to be in order, before negotiations began,” the Dead King said. “As reparations for the imposition, the least I can offer is an interesting sight to accompany it.”
The darkness bled out. It was like watching a painting in reverse, I thought. Instead of splashed of colour being put to canvas, strokes of black were removed and bared the sights beneath. He’d not lied, at least, about it being interesting. The two of us stood dozens of miles in the air, watching the slaughter that took place below. It was a siege, or at least an assault part of one. Surrounding a Keter near identical to the one I’d seen in Creation, hundreds of thousands gathered beneath colourful banners to take a run at the walls. My eyes lingered on the few heraldries I recognized. Most of them Proceran, but a few Callowan ones as well. The bells of House Fairfax startled a finger clenching out of me. That banner had not flown in the wind since the Conquest.
“Sixth or Seventh?” I asked.
There could be no doubt, after all, that it was a crusade beneath me.
“Sixth,” Neshamah replied. “The depths of that failure led to the birth of the Seventh, in many ways. The Choir of Contrition is hard of learning.”
“My own encounters have left me less than fond,” I said. “The first hero I fought was sworn to them.”
“The Lone Swordsman,” the Dead King drawled. “Ah, those pesky Hashmallim. All those centuries and they still believe the right sword in the right hands can accomplish anything. Their string of failures had made them increasingly heavy-handed. Mercy is the the Choir to watch, for subtlety.”
“And Judgement?” I probed.
“That sword only ever clears the scabbard when something needs to die,” the abomination smiled. “No coincidence, that the current White Knight is one of theirs. The Heavens have pressing need of blood on the ground, and the man will serve to herd the others towards the fated abattoir.”
“They can be beaten,” I said, watching a wooden ramp collapse under stone thrown from the walls.
Hundreds fell to their screaming deaths in the pit below.
“In a manner of speaking,” the Dead King said. “Praesi have slain and tricked them into falling, as have I. Yet the Choirs stand, for their existence is fixed. A dead angel does not detract from the whole. It remains as it ever was.”
“They have to play by the rules,” I said.
“Oh yes,” Neshamah murmured. “And they will pay for that, in time. That delightful child in Helike wove a trap for them right under the Intercessor’s nose. I expect the end of that play to be nothing less than magnificent.”
The Tyrant, he meant. I forced myself not to stiffen. I’d expected him to take a swing soon, either a Procer or whatever nation was limping heaviest at the time. This was a hint there was another game afoot, though. And I doubted it had been offered lightly.
“He’s offered me eternal friendship,” I said, hoping to shake a little more loose.
The abomination grinned.
“To me as well,” he said. “And the rats, though they ate his envoy. I confess I quite enjoy his sense of humour.”
The Tyrant of Helike was mad, this was well-known. I was starting to wonder if it was perhaps too well-known. Behaviour could seem erratic without actually being so, when you failed to grasp what someone was truly after.
“But I digress,” the Dead King dismissed. “We did not take this stroll to speak of the League of Free Cities. It appears we have a common foe, Black Queen.”
“Procer,” I said. “I would have preferred not to fight them at all, but Hasenbach left me little choice.”
“She is an interesting one, their First Prince,” Neshamah said. “A shame that her understanding of what a crusade is was so lacking, but it is too late to leave the saddle once the lion is ridden. She must follow through or break the Principate for a few generations.”
“A matter of some interest to you, I imagine,” I said.
“Come now, my young friend,” the Dead King laughed. “Do you take me for such a fool I would want the Principate to fall?”
“Without Procer there’s little left to contain you,” I pointed out. “The Dominion and the League might manage to salvage parts of the south and Callow would hold the passes to the east, but you’d be trading a single mighty opponent for several weaker ones.”
“I could bring ruin to them,” the Dead King mildly said. “Drown the Lycaonese in death, devour every field and city from the Tomb to Salia. I could have done this when they were grown fragile from their war of succession, and none would have been able to stand against me. Yet I did not.”
“Because it’d have hung a sword over your head,” I said.
“Not immediately,” Neshamah mused. “They would have allowed me to glory in it for some time. Lovingly tended to my legend, my thousands years of darkness – or, more likely, my few centuries. They would have been willing to pay that price twice over, to have me bare my neck.”
“And yet here I am,” I said. “Invited to speak of war. Because there’d be two heads but only one sword. It’s how you survived Triumphant, isn’t it?”
“She was a great woman,” the Dead King fondly said. “There was a clarity to her that I’d never seen the likes of. But you misunderstand my intent. I do not seek to use you. My war on stillness will not be waged in so half-hearted a manner. This is merely a welcome, Catherine Foundling.”
“To what?” I asked.
“That most rarefied of societies,” he laughed. “We few immortals.”
“I can die,” I flatly said.
“So can I,” the Dead King said. “So can she. And there have been others before, who came close yet passed in the end. But I have great hopes for you, Black Queen. You have crawled through the cracks in a most fascinating way – never before have I seen anyone reach apotheosis by accident.”
I bit my tongue before I could deny him. He was wrong. Had to be. I’d carved away at myself piece by piece and put a mantle over the remains, but I was hardly a god. Even a lesser one. If that delusion made him civil and open to negotiation, however, he could keep it.
“She,” I said instead. “The Wandering Bard.”
“The Name changes,” he said. “The faces as well, swift as seasons. The Role has not. Intercessor she was and will remain.”
“She’s got her hands all over this war,” I said. “She was in Callow, before it all went to shit. In the League too, before the shockwaves of that rippled across the continent. I know better than to believe she won’t pop out again.”
“She encountered a nasty little setback in the south,” Neshamah said. “And has remained… discreet, since. But do not believe her absent because she is not before your eyes. She has as many irons as there are fires.”
I bit my lip. Should I? It was a risk. But when would I ever have an occasion like this again to speak with one of the few entities that might have a decent grasp of her? The Wandering Bard was a shadow cast on everything I had been trying to accomplish.
“What is she after?” I asked. “I used to think it was destroying what was made of Praes, but this is too much. Too large. She didn’t need a crusade to accomplish that.”
“I thought I understood her, once,” the Dead King pensively said. “Then she ruined me with a smile on her lips. A dozen times again did the two of us dance that dance, and yet even now she remains inscrutable in her intent. Know her to be your foe, and that in this game of ours there is nothing more dangerous than allowing the others to grasp your heart’s desire.”
“But I should trust you,” I said. “Because Evil is one big happy family, give or take the occasional knife in the back.”
“Never trust me,” he advised. “Or anyone else. Those are the last remnants of who you once were seeking to shackle you. You will betray me, if we make bargain. Or I will betray you. That is the nature of things.”
His arm left mine and he smiled gently.
“I need you to understand, Catherine, that none of it should be taken a slight,” Neshamah told me. “That even if you wound me most grievously, there is nothing to bar you from seeking me out for alliance in centuries to come. That if rip out the heart of you, it is not a declaration of war: it is simply a single tide in a very old sea, and in time it will pass. All things do, in the end. Save for us.”
“You do not sound like a man who wants to make an alliance,” I said.
“Yet I will listen to your offers, and accept them should they suit,” the Dead King said. “I am in no hurry. Neither are you, though you have yet to grasp that truth.”
He patted my hands affectionately.
“You are about to begin a journey, Catherine Foundling. They will hound you,” Neshamah said, “to the ends of Creation. No matter where you flee, no matter how you plead and bargain and reason. They will scour the impurities from you until all that is left is the devil they feared all along. And when you rise from that grave of ash, crawling through blood and smoke?”
“I will be waiting on the other side.”
I swallowed, though my mouth was dry.
“The day is yet young,” the Hidden Horror said, looking down at the slaughter that once took place beneath his walls. “Let us return, and speak of earthly treaties.”
A drop of darkness touched the world, and like ink in water is spread. It was mere moments, before I sat before the table again. The meat on my plate was still warm.
My hands were trembling, and I could not bring myself to believe it was not warranted.
I watched moonlight wash over the Crown of the Dead in silence. We’d spoken with the Dead King for more than an hour after the meal was finished, but I’d been unable to concentrate as much as I should. Hakram had done most of the talking, presenting our offer and terms of alliance. Nothing I hadn’t known before. I’d provide the invitation out of his Hell, in exchange for limits on how much he could swallow. No promises of assistance in the defence of Callow required, none offered in his battles against the Tenth Crusade – though I’d left the door open for further dealings there. I did not intend to ever cross that threshold, but the pretence that I might should be enticement in its own way. Neshamah was, after all, preying on my desperation. He would suck that teat try if he could. No accord had been reached. The Hidden Horror told us the offer was worth considering, and that he would do so with due diligence. We were to meet again tomorrow at twilight, for further discussion of the proposed treaties. It was not a refusal, at least. I suspected that if the Dead King had been uninterested in the terms he would have made that clear without stringing us along, but that was just a feeling. As Akua had pointed out afterwards, the longer we remained in Keter the better his bargaining position became.
If we stayed here long enough, there’d be no time for further preparation of Callow.
That should have weighed on me. The possibility that this dark gambit would come to nothing, and I’d walk from Keter with nothing to show for it. But it wasn’t what my mind was lingering on. To him, all the treaties in the world were nothing but play-acting. I’d gotten a glimpse of what Neshamah believed Creation was, and it was nothing that a makeshift bargain could truly change. The kingdoms, the armies, the borders – they were just ink on maps. The Pilgrim was willing to let Callow burn if it meant the Grand Alliance turned its swords to the Kingdom of the Dead, but the abomination had never once been worried about that. Gods, he didn’t even need to fight them did he? He could just wait them out. Let the petty feuds of mortals tear apart that ambitious edifice. A century or two of keeping to his borders meant nothing to a creature like that. As long as the Serenity kept churning out soldiers, kept growing within the hellscape, he would pull further ahead. Because his realm doesn’t fight itself, while Calernia is a tinder box no matter the era. And that was the entity I meant to use for my purposes. It scared me, that he’d outright said he wouldn’t much care if I did. Because it meant that all of this was a passing distraction to him. Nothing that really mattered.
The flare of the match drove back the dark, for a moment, until I flicked it away. The wakeleaf in my pipe brought a sharp taste to my mouth when I inhaled, pouring away when I spat out a stream of smoke. The highest ring of the Silent Palace offered a beautiful view of the madness below. Wyverns passed the skies, silent save for the batting of wings, while in quiet streets the dead marched in blind patrols. Athal had brought me to the balcony when I’d asked for a view, and I’d remained here ever since. My hands itched for a bottle, but I’d forced myself to indulge other vices. I could think of few things more foolish than getting drunk in Keter, much as it would have relieved me. Hakram had already come and gone, getting me to eat from a plate when I did not truly need to and then sitting in silence. Offering wordlessly to listen, if I wanted to talk. I had not taken him up on it, for once. Neither Indrani nor Masego had come up. They tended to avoid me, when I was in a mood. Vivienne had passed to discuss the treaties for a half hour, and left when she realized my mind was only halfway there. It was time, I supposed, for the sixth to make an appearance.
Akua Sahelian was a sight, under moonlight, and how I’d shaped her had little to do with it. She’d had a touch of the eerie even before the changes, that too-perfect look Praesi highborn had bred into their lines. Soninke more than Taghreb, true, but the difference was less than you’d think. Aisha was from a family long past its glory, and she was still worth more than a passing look. Diabolist’s grown of silver and blue bunched up around her body as she leant against the balustrade by my side. I drew from the pipe and blew the mouthful of smoke out.
“And here you are,” I said. “The proverbial devil on my shoulder.”
“Is that to be my purpose?” Akua mused. “Let us spin wicked weaves, then. You lack not for enemies to entrap.”
“You’ve got games afoot,” I said. “I knew you would when I let you out. But I am not in the mood for them tonight, Sahelian.”
“No,” she said softly. “Evidently not. You spoke with the Dead King, without our knowledge.”
My fingers tightened against the dragonbone shaft. I forced them to loosen.
“I did,” I admitted.
“Such a creature can foster madness with but a sentence, when speaking to the weak-minded,” she told me. “I would not put stock in what it peddled.”
“An interesting thought,” I said. “Since a lot of what it peddled sounded like Praesi rhetoric.”
“We have our exalted,” Akua said. “Triumphant, Traitorous. The Maleficents and the Terribilises. Yet there is reason we do not hallow Trismegistus’ name so. Terror and awe are not treasured bedfellow among my kind. Our favourite gods are those that bleed.”
“God, huh,” I mused. “I keep hearing people throw that word around. Been guilty of that as well. But to this day I’m not sure what it means.”
“There are those that would say the term is a mere recognition of power,” the shade said.
I inhaled the smoke, filling my lungs before releasing.
“A fulcrum, perhaps,” Akua said. “Nothing more or less than the point on which levers pivot. The weight of it is to be respected, but not held sacred.”
“Except for the ones that get capitalized,” I said.
“Oh,” Diabolist said quietly, “not even those. When Below taught us of holy betrayal, it did not hold itself separate. It might be the single truest form of worship, to betray even our patrons.”
There was a deep and abiding madness to the Wasteland, I thought. It had sunk into the bones of that land, mottled the souls of the people that dwelled within it. And still, part of me sung to hear the words. The unrelenting defiance in the face of even the Gods. Praes had shaped Callow as much as the other way around. In that tight embrace of need and hatred, we had each served as the crucible of the other. Diabolist would betray even the Gods, if she rose from that betrayal, and she was in so many ways the personification of the worst and the best of her homeland. I thought of John Farrier and his hard eyes, long lost to Summer’s fire. Of Brandon Talbot, who would ride for Callow under any banner he could. Even of William, that tragedy of good intentions. Would you hold a grudge against even the Gods? I knew the answer to that, sure as my own heartbeat. To small slights, long prices.
There were none in this world or any that stood exempt from my people’s rancour.
“You put up a fight,” I suddenly said.
Scarlet eyes turned to me.
“What you did, Akua, it’s not something I’ll ever forgive,” I murmured. “You showed me that, you know? That even as heroine I would have had no truck with absolution.”
“It should not be forgiven,” Diabolist said. “What are you, if you were wrong in this? That hatred should be stoked and kept burning, lest you forget the lessons it taught you.”
I smiled ruefully.
“But you put up a fight,” I said. “Against odds I’d flinch at. Against people that scare me still, for all the power I’ve gained. If there is any part of you that I can respect, it’s that you might have been a monster but you were never once a coward.”
“One of my ancestor once said that the spurs to greatness are never gentle,” Akua said, sounding almost whimsical. “Mother often repeated that to me, when I balked at my sharper lessons.”
“Did you really?” I asked. “Balk. Even once.”
“I had a cradle-sister,” Diabolist said. “One who shared my wet nurse. She was also charged with taking my canings until I reached an age where healing sorcery would not hamper my growth, but that was a rare enough occurrence. Her name was Zain. Common as dirt. I loved her, I suppose, in a way that children love those who so thoughtlessly love them back.”
It was horrifying, deep down, that nothing of what had been spoken came as a surprise to me.
“When I was eight years old, Mother took me to the deepest chamber of the old labyrinths and put a stone knife in my hand,” Akua said. “Zain lay prone on the altar, mind clouded by potions. Yet she was aware enough to know my face and reach out to me. She was scared, you see. Shivering like a doe. She was right to.”
“You killed her,” I said.
“My affection made her a valuable offering,” the shade replied. “I had to be slapped twice before I cut her throat, and even then my reluctance made the wound a shallow one.”
Akua laughed softly.
“That was the part I regretted most, in later years,” she said. “She would have bled out twice as quickly, had my hand been steady. That was my mother’s lesson, dear heart. Hesitation is never a virtue: faltering is only ever the mother of agony.”
“Your mother was a monster,” I quietly said.
“Mother was a failure,” Akua said amusedly. “A far greater sin, in her eyes and mine.”
I pulled at pipe again, standing silent under the insolent radiance of the moon.
“How much of that was a lie?” I finally asked.
“Not a word,” Diabolist said. “Why bother, when the truth serves my purposes?”
“It doesn’t change anything,” I said. “You still are who you are. You still made the choices that you did.”
“Oh, that was not my intent,” Diabolist said. “The most important part of this tale is the moral, as your people are so fond of having.”
The shade smiled.
“Do not hesitate, dearest Catherine,” Akua Sahelian said. “If you are to cut the world, it is best to have a steady hand.”