“It is said that on the eve of the Maddened Fields, the Tyrant Theodosius consulted with the many Delosi soothsayers among his host. He asked them if he would find victory or defeat, should he give battle at dawn as he intended. The Delosi squabbled among themselves for hours, until the eldest among them looked the Tyrant in the eyes and spoke his answer: Yes.”
– Extract from ‘The Banquet of Follies, or, A Comprehensive History of the First League War’ by Prince Alexandre of Lyonis
I woke up, which was somewhat worrying considering I did not remember going to sleep. My fingers clasped the knife under my pillow even as my eyes opened, and with all the stunning majesty owed to my rank came flailing out of the sheets half naked with a blade in hand. It was somewhat embarrassing when I found myself completely alone in my palatial bedroom. Making a very dignified cape out of my bedsheets I took a wary look around and found nothing unusual – ah, save for one detail. There was sphere of misty ice on the stone table still strewn with papers we’d been using for planning. That hadn’t been there… Shit, what was the last thing I could remember? Walking out of the Garden of Crowns, then I drew a blank. And my head was pounding, had I gotten drunk last night? Hells, could I still have hangovers? It’d be just like Winter to take out half the fun of drinking and leave me with the worst part, but I couldn’t think of another time I’d had such a brutal headache. I’d had them once in a blue moon before I became the Squire and the Gods saw fit to relieve me of my monthlies – one of the few things for which I might actually owe thanks to Below for – but even then they’d been rare.
Had I been in a fight, then? I carefully checked my head for wounds and found no obvious ones. I did, however, stumble across what appeared to be granite coming out of the spot where my spine joined my skull. I swore on the fucking Hells, if Archer had gotten me wasted and talked me into some kind of pissing contest, oh Gods no it couldn’t be that. The stone didn’t wiggle at all when I pressed on it but I could feel it going deep into my head. Some kind of cylinder? Yeah, not even Indrani would have been on board for that. I dropped my nifty cape but kept the knife, because this was still Keter. Padding softly across the floor I neared the frozen sphere and immediately notice this was my own work. For one, it was much colder than ice was supposed to be. And though the surface was misting and weeping, there was no puddle of water around it as there would be if it’d been melting for a few hours. That had fae bullshit written all over it. I leant over and wiped away the surface, eyes narrowing when I found there were objects inside. Cards, by the looks of it. Three of them, over each other with room in between. I couldn’t quite make out the one furthest in, so I picked up the globe to turn it over.
It remained stuck to the table, as if nailed to it. Frowning, I tugged harder only to hastily stop when I heard a crack from the stone supports beneath. I checked under and found the base of the table had a sharp little fissure going through it. Shit, I thought, setting down the knife. Maybe if I pretended it’d never happened Athal would be too polite to point it out. I decided not to patch it up with ice, since it’d essentially be admitting I was responsible and the kingdom’s coffers were running low even without having to pay for whatever fortune an antique Keteran table was worth. So, the sphere had been made so it couldn’t be removed. Presumably, there was another way to get at the cards. I was already started on bad ideas for the days, so I might as well try to shove my hand in and see what happened.
“Gods that’s cold,” I hissed, as my fingers went straight in.
I fished the top card out and shook out the wetness, which apparently wasn’t making the ink on it run. Was that from Indrani’s deck? The Page of Cups stared back with his little smirk, but the interesting part was what’d been written on the card. No one else in the Woe had cursive this horrid, so it was clearly my own.
It was you.
So, I’d screwed with my own mind instead of having it done to me. That was… good?
Ask about Isabella’s deception. Don’t force the cards, you savage.
Ah, Past Catherine had evidently decided to be a smug bitch about this. Fuck her and her cryptic riddles. I flipped the card and found another few words.
Skein. Thief of – that was probably meant to be a star, but I wasn’t exactly an artist. Shoddy work, Past Catherine, you could have asked Hakram for help. And, to end it, Spellblade.
Named, evidently. The Thief was supposed to be keeping an eye on this very palace, though if I’d encountered her since King Edward’s warning I had no memory of it. I did not even need to know what this plan was to already know it was terrible.
PS, fuck you Future Catherine stars are hard to draw.
I’d have to ask Masego how feasible it was to arrange a ritual so I could go back and deck myself in the face. Who knew, maybe I already had and that was why she was being such a cranky asshole about the whole thing. I got the other two cards out, but they were encased in black ice. Bearing my worst enemy’s instructions in mind, I didn’t try to force them open. The working seemed to be have been tied off, anyway. The power within the ice was slowly trickling away, though one of them would run out long before the other. I left them on the table and got dressed. I’d helpfully – wait, no, that was too neatly folded so probably Hakram – left clothes atop the dresser last night. A green and silver tunic, with trousers of the same make. My plate was nowhere in sight, but what looked like Indrani’s spare set of chain mail was waiting next to my boots. That was… unusual. The time where a full suit of plate had slowed me down had ended around when I’d become strong enough to accidentally break tables. Which I had not in this particular place, for the record. Archer was taking the fall for that if anyone asked. I clasped the Mantle of Woe around my shoulders and idly ran a metaphorical chain that bound Diabolist to it, finding it already taut. She was nowhere close, then, and given the lack of windows in my room following the chain’s direction told me nothing about where she’d gone.
I was among the first to wake, but not the first. Vivienne was already glaring down at a cup of tea, a half-finished pastry in her plate. No servants in sight, though the table was bursting with a morning banquet. I touched the cards in the inner pocket of my cloak, right beneath my pipe and wakeleaf stash, and plopped myself down next to her.
“So, I don’t know if you’re aware,” I said, reaching for what looked like fresh bread. “But I think we tried to get clever right last night.”
“There was playing card nailed to my bedpost when I woke up,” Thief admitted. “It told me to look in my bag when Hakram joins us.”
“Can you, uh, remember anything from yesterday afternoon or after?” I asked.
She eyed me cautiously.
“Skein,” she said. “Prophecy by spun thread. It’s all I was told I could say.”
“So there’s a seer on the board,” I mused.
That did explain why apparently whatever the plan was it had to be kept secret even from us. Maybe they could only predict through conscious decisions? Black had theorized that was the Augur’s weakness, in Procer. Also that she didn’t always control what she saw, but that tended to be a staple of oracle Names. What the Gods believed was important and what mortals did were not necessarily the same thing.
“If I asked you about Isabella’s deception, would it mean anything to you?” I asked.
Vivienne’s brow rose.
“Nothing,” she said.
Way to be specific, Past Catherine. I’d finished buttering my bread and was struggling to drip honey on it without spilling when Masego joined us. My eyes widened when he came in sight, which was mildly ironic considering the reason they did: one of the glass orbs that served as his own was missing.
“Hierophant,” I delicately said. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but-”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Masego grunted.
He reached for the pot of tea, missing it by half an inch. Huh. I had wondered about his depth perception nowadays. Vivienne kindly poured him a cup and he settled into his seat, casting half a baleful glare at the world.
“So, can you see through the missing-“
He muttered in the arcane tongue and my breakfast caught fire. That twat, I’d just gotten it the way I liked it. I put out the flames with a twist of Winter, but now it was all soggy and disgusting.
“Fine, be that way,” I said. “I was just worrying for you.”
“I know where you stash your wakeleaf,” he warned me.
That was a grave threat, and with the elegance of a tried diplomat I changed the subject.
“I don’t suppose anyone knows where Diabolist is,” I asked.
“No idea,” Vivienne admitted. “Masego?”
“I am going to drink this cup of tea,” Hierophant announced. “And greatly savour the accompanying silence. Shatter that dream at your peril.”
Vivienne discretely covered her face before I could catch her smiling, wily veteran that she was. Hierophant finished his cup in the quiet, broken only when Hakram finally joined us.
“Isabella’s deception,” I said as he strolled into the hall. “Ring a bell?”
“Good morning, Catherine,” he said amusedly.
“Don’t you give me lip,” I said. “We can’t know who came up with this mess, but we can be sure we wouldn’t have gone ahead without your agreement. As far as I’m concerned, this is entirely on you until proven otherwise.”
“She’s taking to the works of queenship rather well, isn’t she?” Vivienne told the orc.
“Give it a few years and my Name will become the Scapegoat,” Hakram gravelled. “It does ring a bell, Cat. It refers to Isabella the Mad’s scheme when she fought Theodosius as the Maddened Fields.”
I finished buttering my second bit of bread, casting a wary eye at Hierophant.
“I’m listening,” I said. “Elaborate.”
“Theodosius was said to have soothsayers, or more likely a great deal of spies,” Adjutant continued, grabbing a seat at my side. “So General Isabella secretly gave her commanders wildly differing plans to carry out during the battle. She turned it into an axiom, when she wrote her book after retirement. ‘The heart of warfare is deception. Therefore, the generals who can deceive even themselves are invincible.’”
I sighed. So we were now taking operational advice from a woman whose moniker was the Mad. Lovely. What were the odds that there were actually several plans and most of them were false? Godsdamned me. I glanced at Vivienne, who was hiding away something in her palm with her other hand. Right, she’d been told to take out a card from her ‘bag’ when Hakram arrived, hadn’t she? She crumpled the card.
“Now,” she said.
Hierophant rose to his feet without warning, and flared with power as he barked an incantation. There were six doors to the dining hall. Every single one of them closed, glimmering with light.
“Domain, Catherine,” he said.
I bit into my bread. Didn’t get much out of the taste and even less nourishment, but the texture was nice. Melted in the mouth. Even as I chewed, I opened the floodgates and Winter came out to play. The darkness fell like a curtain over all the world. I felt the small bundles of warmth that were the Woe as everything froze with an ugly snapping sound, and herded the worst of it away from them. They still shivered. Our visitor was granted no such protection. Flesh hardened, bones shattered and the Thief of Stars went still. She spoke not a word, but in the darkness above a constellation of stars was birthed. The King’s Crown, I thought. Back home they said it was an auspicious sign for the rulers of Callow. I swallowed and waited. Was it an aspect? Probably. Or at least the remnants of one. But in the end a thief was a thief, and I was the Sovereign of Moonless Night. I had all the time in the world, here. A dozen eternities passed, and one by one the stars winked out.
Winter devoured everything, given enough time.
When the darkness left, the Revenant was revealed to our sight. Shivering, Masego wove binding sorceries around her through hushed whispers as I eyed the frozen remnants of my breakfast with distaste. So much for that. Within my cloak one of the cards shattered, the casing’s unmaking accelerated by the touch of my domain. I took it out, and found my writing spread across the Four of Pentacles.
Do you have the Thief?
There were two bundles of words beneath the question.
Yes, Zeze breaks first rune.
No, find Archer.
I flipped it and found a single word on the other side.
Enlightening stuff, Past Catherine. Good work, you riddling bag of crazy. What the hells had I learned about the Skein that made this elaborate a plan seem like a good idea? Everything I’d been taught about scheming screamed that multiple steps were a recipe for failure.
“I woke up with a list of questions on the Six of Swords,” Hakram said. “I assume she is the one I need to ask.”
I put back the card and frowned. Well, it wasn’t like interrogating one of us would help. We’d screwed with our own memories.
“Masego, you need to break the first rune,” I said.
Hierophant’s lone eye swivelled towards me.
“The artefact in your head,” he said. “I had wondered the purpose of it. Everyone else has a spell instead, but I suppose you would not so easily be enchanted.”
“We shoved a magic stone into my skull,” I said, quite uncomfortable at the notion. “Oh Gods. That won’t have any ill-effects, will it?”
“Your brain is mostly decorative,” Hierophant assured me.
“Could have told you that,” Vivienne murmured.
I was going to start keeping count of her instances of sedition, I decided. Probably not a list, since she’d absolutely steal it, but there had to be a way.
“Just don’t blow up my skull, Zeze,” I sighed. “I’m not sure it’d grow back.”
His lips thinned.
“If you’d just let me-“
“We have a rule, Masego,” I said patiently. “What is that rule?”
“We don’t vivisect friends,” he muttered mulishly. “Even when we could learn the most interesting things from it.”
He padded over and without any warning placed his palm against the back of my head.
“Oh,” he said. “That is skilfully-”
“There’s a Revenant overseeing every palace,” I told the others. “If my source is to be believed, ours is the Thief of Stars.”
“That is a much snappier Name than Vivi’s,” Indrani noted. “Have we considered trading in? This outfit needs fresh blood. Corpse. Eh, you know what I mean.”
I met Hakram’s eyes across the table. Idly, he shuffled Archer’s deck of cards though the game they’d played before Thief and I returned was long abandoned.
“Nothing we can do about that,” I said. “Especially if the Skein really is guiding all of them.”
I very carefully did not begin to ponder how we might catch her, even though she would need to be at least temporarily removed from the board if we were to have any chance of success. Chaos was our only best tool here. To cheat an oracle, you had to cheat yourself. We would need a touchstone, but also a way to multiply and scatter the possible trails. And, to tip it all over, a blindfolded blade. I turned to Diabolist.
“Akua,” I said. “I never thought I’d say this, but I need you to scheme.”
The smile on her lips was less than reassuring.
“-Catherine,” Vivienne said.
My eyes rolled back into their proper place.
“I’m here,” I said, brushing away her hand. “This is… going according to plan, maybe? I think Hakram needs to ask her the questions. She’s part of this, one way or another.”
“You’ll need to unfreeze her mouth first,” Adjutant said.
I rolled my shoulder, more out of habit than need, and turned my gaze to the Thief of Stars. Like King Edward she looked almost alive. Quite a bit younger than him, too. Tanned, leathery skin and sun-bleached blond hair in a single tress going down her back. I did not recognize the cut or cloth of her short-sleeved tunic, though admittedly that meant little. Exerting my will, I freed her jaws and tongue without a word.
“You people are the worst,” the Thief of Stars said in garbled Chantant.
Ugh, Proceran. Just my luck.
“Still fresh and exciting to us,” Vivienne drawled in Lower Miezan. “Hakram?”
Looming over her small form, the orc cleared his throat.
“What does Threefold Reflection mean?” he asked.
“If I were not bound, I would have taken your eyes by now,” the Revenant conversationally said. “It’s one thing to be bound here, another to suffer your tender attentions twice. I do have my pride.”
My eyes narrowed.
“We’ve done this before,” I said.
“I can see why you’re the leader,” she said. “Your wits are truly peerless.”
“Masego,” I said. “I’m not sure how to phrase this delicately, but-“
Without replying he traced a pair of runes out of red light and the Thief of Stars hissed.
“You little Wasteland twat,” she said.
“Compelling truth is not objectively possible by sorcery,” Hierophant said. “But this should compel her to answer and forbid her from consciously speaking something she knows to be false.”
“What does Threefold Reflection mean?” Hakram patiently repeated.
“There are three overlain palaces,” the Revenant snarled. “The thresholds meld.”
“How many Praesi delegates are there?” Adjutant continued.
“Forty-three,” she said.
“Where is Archer of the Woe?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Why had he asked that? No, the important part was why that’d been a question. If we’d needed to know where Indrani was right now, it’d be written on a card. So that couldn’t be the point. If us having that information wasn’t the point, then most likely the question was meant to establish she didn’t have that information either. That must matter, to some extent. Did the Skein need that knowledge to predict us? The memory Masego had freed had involved thinking we needed a touchstone. Archer wasn’t who I’d pick for something like that, but maybe that was the point. Akua’s still missing, I thought. Too many parts were still unknown to have a proper guess.
“Is the Empress currently within the Threefold Reflection?” Hakram asked.
“Yes,” the Thief of Stars said. “Gods, you could at least change the questions.”
I hummed. So, same questions. We’d meant for us to have the same information we got from her last time. So we’d make the same plan out of them? That was a chancy roll of the dice.
“That was all the questions,” Adjutant told us. “It seems unwise to simply leave her here, if we are to act now.”
“That one’s mine to solve,” Thief noted. “No card, mind you, but it’s the obvious solution.”
She got up and laid a hand on the Revenant’s arm. Nothing happened. Vivienne sighed.
“Hold,” she said.
While the sight of the undead vanishing was interesting in its own way, it was Hakram’s body-wide twitch that took my attention. He winced, and I recognized from the look on his face the signs of a dawning headache.
“Well, I know what we need to do,” he said. “We’re going to find Athal, and then we’re going to start a fire.”