“My dear prince, why would I settle for merely being on the right side of history when I could be on all sides of it instead?”
– Extract from the minutes of the Conference of the Blessed Isle, between the Shining Prince Harry Alban and Dread Emperor Traitorous
Black had once told me that people could get used to nearly anything, if it happened regularly for long enough. It’d been while we were having one of our evening lessons in Ater, talking of the many reasons why there’d never been a serious attempt by the Tower to forbid diabolism across the Wasteland. It was one of those little truths he enjoyed that seemed vague but ended up relevant surprisingly often. To demonstrate: arson. No matter what rumours Robber kept spreading, I didn’t actually enjoy setting things on fire. Sure, it was one of the most frequently used tools in my arsenal even if it did have the nasty tendency of collateral damage. But it wasn’t, like, my first resort. There’d even been a time where’d I’d been somewhat conflicted at the notion of dropping goblinfire on the head of the latest Named, army, entity – I supposed with the Tenth Crusade in full swing I was due to add ‘continental coalition’ to the list – that was after my head on a pike. Not without reason, either. When you tossed a match onto goblinfire, the closest thing there was to control available was damage control. Sadly, as I helped Vivienne pour oil on a wooden frame, I was forced to admit that I had gotten used to arson. It was just one of those things. I still wasn’t an advocate of tactically setting fire to things, mind you, unlike your average sapper. I was, if anything, lukewarm to the notion.
“You look like you’re trying to convince yourself of something very hard,” Thief noted.
“I’m just saying it’s disingenuous to call me a pyromaniac when I have actual pyromaniacs in my employ,” I told her. “It trivializes the word to use it like that. Is that really so hard to understand?”
The other woman cocked an eyebrow.
“I’m going to pretend you never said that,” she informed me. “And hope Hakram fixes whatever is wrong with your…”
“… everything,” she finally said. “What’s wrong with your everything.”
“Just pour the godsdamned oil,” I sighed. “I still don’t understand why we can’t just have Masego wizard it, but let’s be generous and assume there’s a reason.”
Setting fire to a palace that was mostly marble was fairly tricky, but we had it mostly under control. The walls might be stone, but the largest rooms all had crisscrossing wooden beams beneath the rafters to hang tapestries and decorations from. Vivienne had climbed her way up, but I wasn’t in the mood for wall-climbing in chain mail so instead I’d reached for Winter and spread a ramp of ice that took me there. Hakram had insisted that there be at least three different sources for the fire, so we’d rinsed and repeated twice before seeing to this particular dining hall. We’d yet to run into a single white-robed servant, which was a little odd. Had we told them to clear out last night? It wasn’t like our breakfast table would have appeared out of thin air. Thief emptied the remnants of her jug and wiped her hands on her leathers, disappearing the empty receptacle without a word. I didn’t know if there was a limit to how much her ‘bag’ could hold, but if there was she’d never spoken of it. Considering she’d once dropped a fleet of barges in the way of the Fifteenth, I supposed it would take a truly spectacular amount of knick-knacks to take up all of that space. And that was without even considering that at some point she’d stolen the sun.
“It’s done,” she said, eyeing her still-wet fingers with irritation.
“We’ll still need to actually light them,” I noted.
“Athal first, allegedly,” she said, and without any ceremony leapt down to the floor.
She managed that landing in perfect silence, to my mild envy. If I did that it’d sound like I was running around with a dozen rings of keys. I slid down the ramp smoothly, though in truth that had more to do with my shaping of the ice than any skill on my part. Hard to fall down the stairs when you controlled where they were. The ramp shattered into shards behind me and I brushed off a few pieces from my shoulder.
“Think Hakram found him yet?” I asked.
“He’s got the aspect for it,” Vivienne shrugged. “I’m more interested in why we’re starting a fire in the first place.”
“Smoke will be visible from outside,” I said. “Could be to draw the patrols.”
“We could have moved quietly instead,” the dark-haired thief pointed out.
“Not so sure about that,” I mused. “Mind you, we can sort of manage quiet. But against a seer? As long as the patrols are out there, a single message is all it takes for them to be in our way.”
“That assumes they’re all coming into the palace,” Vivienne said. “The Binds, at least, are sapient. It would be an elementary mistake.”
“We don’t really know how they function, Vivienne,” I pointed out. “It might be that the Dead King gave them the order to check on disturbances and they literally can’t disobey him regardless of context.”
“Guesswork will only take us in circles,” she sighed. “Let’s find Hakram. One assumes he knows the next step in this cavalcade of merriment.”
We ran into Hierophant first, as it happened. He’d been weaving spells at the other two bonfires, just small spurts of flame that’d get the blaze started after long enough had passed. His mood had not improved since breakfast, and he merely grunted at us on his way to the hall we’d just left.
“Nice to see you too, Zeze,” I called out as he cleared the corner.
I wasn’t a fool. I’d waited until he could no longer aim easily at my wakeleaf. Not even fifteen minutes we found Hakram navigating the corridors with Athal at his side, the dark-haired Host looking rather harried. Had he been sleeping?
“Great Majesty, honoured guest,” the man greeted us, bowing low. “I was told you had need of my services?”
“It will wait until Hierophant has joined us,” Adjutant gravelled.
I did not gainsay him, since I had no idea where we were going from here.
“I have a question or two for you, until then,” I told the pale man. “Did we happen to speak last night?”
He blinked in surprised.
“Indeed, Great Majesty,” he said. “You were wondering as to the steps the Crown took to assure your safety within these walls.”
Well, that was ominous.
“Anything in, uh, particular?” I probed.
“You were quite curious as to the nature of the measures that would be taken in the face of a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or a fire,” Athal told me. “Do you not remember this, honoured one?”
“I’ve had a lot on my mind,” I muttered.
Most of which I did not remember, apparently. So the fire had a payoff beyond just serving as a distraction, probably. Before I could think of a way to delicately ask what, in a pure hypothetical, would happen if the Silent Palace caught fire, Hierophant joined us. Masego took one look at us, hid his hand behind his back, and I felt a small flare of sorcery.
“Lord Hierophant,” Athal said, bowing once more.
“The palace caught fire, Host,” he said.
The dark-haired servant blinked.
“How?” he asked, aghast. “When?”
I clapped him on the shoulder.
“Listen,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. Those sound like details above our pay grade.”
“Are you not a queen, Great Majesty?” he said in a strangled voice.
“And, as a queen, I’m deciding this is above my pay grade,” I sagely said. “Obviously we can’t stay in a palace that’s on fire. That’d be dangerous. So were are we headed, my good man?”
“There is a passage to outside,” Athal said. “I will lead you through it, if it please you.”
He sounded a little dazed. Well, I didn’t blame him. Lots of that going around today. I checked on the last card in my cloak, but the ice casing had yet to melt. Blindly forward it was, then. The Host led us deeper into the palace until we reached the end of a corridor with two opposite-leading doors. Instead of taking one of them, Athal took out a small knife from his sleeve and cut his palm open before smearing his blood on the wall. Even as runes lit up I rose an eyebrow. Why did people always go for the palm? It made it so much harder to hold things afterwards, and it wasn’t like hand blood was better than forearm blood or anything. What had previously appeared to be a wall vanished into nothingness, leaving only the blood-red runes hanging in the air for a few moments before they vanished as well. Masego let out a noise that implied he now felt like sticking around and having a closer look so I discretely kicked him in the shin.
“There was no need for that,” he whispered.
“Maybe not,” I replied just as low. “But someone screwed with my breakfast this morning so I’m all moody now.”
He half-glared at me, which to be frank was more amusing than intimidating.
“If you would follow me, honoured guests,” Athal said.
The threshold led into what appeared to be a dark tunnel, though the moment the Host stepped within magelights began to light in sequence. By the look of them, we were headed down. Thief went still at my side.
“I forgot something in my rooms,” she announced. “Go ahead, I’ll catch up.”
I cast her a look but she shook her head. So it’d been nothing she could share.
“Honoured one,” the dark-haired man said. “Please do not. The guards will be arriving soon, and smother the flames long before anything within your rooms can be lost.”
I blinked and Thief was gone.
“She’s hard of hearing,” I told Athal. “And not very bright. Also, frequently mutinous. I’m going to start a ledger.”
The last part had no bearing on the situation, but I felt like it needed to be said for posterity’s sake.
“I must find her,” the Host gravely said. “It would be a grave breach of hospitality if-“
“Oh, look,” I said. “Adjutant is sick.”
There was a heartbeat of silence. Hakram coughed into his fist.
“I am,” he loyally said.
“It’s the fire,” I told Athal. “Orcs are notoriously afraid of it. We have to get him out of here before it gets worse.”
I felt Masego twitch and shot him a glare. Now is not the time to be a pedant, Zeze. Do not contradict my blatant lies.
“I feel faint,” the orc added dutifully. “Like a dove. A dove that is sick.”
Way to sell it, Hakram. Glad to have you on the team.
“We must make haste, then,” Athal said.
He looked like he very much wanted to express scepticism but was too polite to do as much. Ah, the joys of diplomacy. We followed him as he briskly led us into the tunnel, and I pretended not to hear Masego mutter no they are not under his breath. The entire passage felt drenched in sorcery to my senses, heavily enough I could barely sense the magelights when I stood next to them. The Host apparently knew the way by rote, as when a crossroads appeared he led us down the left corridor without hesitation. All right, so Thief was going after something. She’d been necessary to the first part of this mess because we’d needed her to put the Thief of Stars into her bag – she’d also given Masego the signal to close the doors, but we could have given that card to anyone. Diabolist and Archer were still out there up to the Gods knew what, and since there’d been no instructions to seek them most likely the next part could be accomplished by Adjutant, Hierophant and myself alone. The Empress was still inside her palace, so that was likely where we should be headed when we emerged from this. Alone? Ah, that mighe have been the whole point of Thief splitting off: that Athal would have to go after her, leaving us to our own devices after opening the passage.
The thing was, a plan with this many moving parts wasn’t going to work. I should have known that last night, but I’d gone ahead with it anyway – which either meant the plan wasn’t supposed to work, or that I was missing something. All pithy Imperial quotes about planning aside, there were too many points of failure for even the sections of this I was presuming had worked as intended. What if the Thief of Stars had taken a card, or added a fake one? To play the rebel’s advocate, it might be that the Revenant wasn’t supposed to meddle in our affairs. Only listen in on our conversations. But that was quite the mighty if, and it was making a lot of assumptions about the agency of all involved. It had to be about the Skein, one way or another. Why else screw with our own memories? Thief had called what they did ‘prophecy by spun thread’.
I’d mentally considered the enemy Revenant to be an oracle, but it didn’t quite sound right. No seer was omniscient, even those who also bore a Name, and the source of their visions tended to give a hint about their limitations. For example, as a heroine the Augur most likely took her cues from Above. I had a nifty little booklet from Black that was half speculation half observation on the nature of her abilities, which were terrifyingly broad in scope but also as fatally flawed as those of any other Named. The Eyes were convinced her limit was that she could only foresee things that were already in motion – or, as my teacher had put it, initiated decisions chains. It was why the Empire’s once-frequent assassination attempts on the First Prince and some of the most key supporters of her regime had always failed. So the Empire had managed to catch diplomatic couriers and even the odd tactical coup by leaving agents in place with no instructions except taking advantage of presented opportunities. Except it wasn’t actually that clean-cut, because there’d been an attempt on the First Prince’s life that fell under those characteristics two months after Second Liesse and it had failed. Black had amended the theory to note that it was feasible the Augur could make two kinds of prophecies.
The first would be those she got handed by Above, about whatever Above cared at that time. Those were likely to be significantly more detailed, but also significantly rarer. The Heavens couldn’t repeatedly put their finger to the scales like that without enabling the opposition to do the same – and more than that, the Augur was only one of many tools. They wouldn’t send her a flock of eagles or whatever she read the future through when whatever that prediction was about could be handled just as well by a hero they’d sent in to take care of it. If the likes of Black and Malicia had been handing out prophecies to their people, I had no doubt that trusted underling or not there would have been predictions given anyway. Just to be sure. But heroes were already supposed to win, weren’t they? Unless that loss was part of the story, meant to pay off down the line. And the whole point of the wager known as Creation was that the Gods didn’t know which of them would win their pissing contest. Black had a whole half-page of scribbles going on about how the Augur could likely read ‘Fate’ as seen by the Heavens but couldn’t go beyond those bounds, making heroes a blind spot of sorts, but in my opinion it was simpler than that: the Augur’s Role was that of a coordinator. She got the message out so troops would stand at the right place at the right time, but she wasn’t supposed to actually guarantee a victory.
She couldn’t, I suspected. If the game was that blatantly rigged, Below would have whelped out an oracle of their own to check her by now. Above had to toe the line.
The second kind of prophecies would be those she sought out herself. It was on record that the Augur had wielded visions to help her cousin the First Prince win that same title on the battlefield against the other contenders in the Proceran civil war. It was dubious the Heavens have much of a shit about Procerans slaughtering each other – if they had, a hero would have popped out to take care of the mess – so the Augur herself had likely sought out those visions. And that was the interesting part, because then she was acting as a person and not a messenger – which meant she was fallible. Odds were that was when the decision chain limit came into play, but that was too low a bar. She couldn’t be impossibly hard to interpret, since she was capable of passing coherent military information along to the Iron Prince that was usable for campaigning. That left the oldest of mortal failings: she only had one set of eyes, metaphorical or not. If she had to seek out the vision about something, it followed she couldn’t see all things at all times. And that meant she could be fooled, if she was looking at the wrong unfolding plot. It wasn’t a flawless solution, as Black had written in his notes.
If the failure was too large in scope, she’d likely receive one of the first kind of visions to make up for it. Coordinator, yes, but perhaps also a safeguard.
Sadly, I did not have one of foremost namelore experts alive and an Empire’s worth of informants to help me puzzle out how the Skein’s future-telling abilities worked. We had something of an idea, evidently, because Vivienne had given me a hint earlier. How we’d learned that was impossible to puzzle out at the moment, so I’d set the question aside to pick at later. What I wanted to know, as a stepping stone, was whether the Skein had been a hero or a villain while alive – or even one of those Named that floated somewhere in between, cast into one Role or the other depending on the story they came in touch with. Neutral was the wrong word for it: there could be no such thing as neutrality in the Game of the Gods. Even objecting to the rules was to take a side, in its own way. I was jarred out of my thoughts when we finally reached the end of the passage, Athal smearing blood on solid stone to open it up once more. We emerged into daylight, the four of us blinking until we’d acclimated again.
I glanced around curiously. We weren’t on the wide avenues surrounding the Hall of the Dead. No, this was the base of a rampart. The innermost set of it, right before the ring of palaces. Near the outer edge of the Garden of Crowns, though I could see our target from where we stood. The Threefold Reflection, as King Edward had implied, was a pyramid of faded white stone that held so much sorcery it was almost visible to the naked eye.
“Guards will soon come to guide you to a temporary resting place,” the dark-haired Host informed us. “I must return to find the Lady Thief, but I implore you to remain here until your escorts arrive.”
I smiled and put my hand over my heart.
“On my teacher’s honour,” I said.
A flicker of amusement passed through the man’s eyes. Yeah, I wouldn’t have bought that in his place either.
“May your hours be fruitful, Great Majesty,” Athal said, and after a bow went back into the dark.
The three of us stood there for a moment, and eventually I cleared my throat.
“Hakram?” I asked.
“My health has improved, thank you,” the orc drily said.
I rolled my eyes.
“I assume you remember the plan,” I said.
“I do,” Adjutant agreed. “I must proceed alone. The pyramid has three gates, leading into three different intertwined palaces. You are to take the western gate, while I take the southern one.”
“We’re splitting up,” I slowly said. “Oh Hells. This just keeps getting better.”
“Look on the bright side, Cat,” Adjutant grinned, ivory fangs bared. “How can they foil our master plan if even we don’t know our master plan?”
I much preferred, I decided, being on the other side of that brand of quips.