“Do not call a man loyal who still draws breath.”
-Dread Emperor Terribilis II
There’d be no replacing the whistle, and I’d long ago resolved to keep it for a particularly black day, but there’d be no replacing Thief either. I stood by my decision. What had once been Akua’s aspect had yanked the entirety of the Wild Hunt through Keter’s wards and whatever other nasty surprises Neshamah had awaiting people trying to reach his city through otherworldly means, unharmed. I’d address the Wild Hunt in a moment, though. I had a set of scales to even first. The sorceress who’d been breaking Thief apart had hastily ended her spell when the fae came out of nothingness, then panicked when I broke the ward. The remaining three casters that’d been keeping me imprisoned staggered at the backlash, and in that moment I acted. One step, the sorceress raised a hand towards me. Two steps, her lips began to form a syllable in the mage tongue. Three steps, my fingers clasper her wrist and with a sharp squeeze I shattered every bone. Face paling, she mastered the pain and got the first word of her incantation out. Four steps, I pivoted and my elbow ploughed into her throat. The windpipe was crushed instantly, and as she choked and fell I straightened and gently set my hands against her temples.
One simple twist, and the neck broke with a crack.
“Thief, get out of here,” I called out calmly. “Hear me now, Rider of the Hunt: no prisoners.”
That was the kind of feast the Wild Hunt lived for, and they wasted no time digging in. Larat had hacked through the heads of two of my former jailors within a heartbeat of my finishing the order, grinning nastily, and the rest of them charged with wild hoots as they fell upon Malicia and her men. Vivienne tried to get up but her limbs were shaking too badly. I cursed under my breath – I might be able to walk off mage lightning, these days, but my companions were another story – and strode over to help her up.
“Will you be able to escape on your own?” I softly asked.
“Just give me a moment,” she rasped. “I still feel like my skin is on fire.”
She was burned badly, skin charred in strange patterns all over her body where the lightning had struck, and for a Named she’d always been on the fragile side of the scale. Not for the first time, I mourned that none of my powers were geared towards healing in the slightest. But Thief was wounded, not crippled, and I trusted she had the will to press on after the worst of it passed. Letting out a laboured breath, she pushed me away.
“Kill the Empress,” she said. “I’ll live.”
She’d do more than that, if I had anything to say about it. The moment Masego had healed her back up to fighting fit, I was going to teach her to hold her own in a fight if it was the last thing I did. For too long I’d waved the matter away, dismissed as largely unimportant since she wouldn’t be fighting on the frontlines anyway. That’d been naïve, and in retrospective a very dangerous kind of arrogance. We wouldn’t always get to dictate the nature of our fights with our ever-rising count of enemies. Today had been a harsh reminder that Vivienne’s lack of skills with arms wasn’t just fuel for verbal roughhousing, it was a dangerous liability.
“Keep out of sight,” I ordered, keeping the thoughts away from my face.
The entire aside couldn’t have taken more than a few moments, yet in that span the skirmish had already turned into a siege in miniature. The last of my surviving jailors was dead, his corpse impaled atop the lance of a dark-skinned fae who carried it along like some sort of gruesome trophy. Yet the Empress’ people had responded to the appearance of the fae with the steady hands of veteran killers. Colourful curtains of light had been spawned, overlapping and forming a sort of six-cornered shield over the entire delegation, and still a pair of Malicia’s warlocks were casting. The Hunt had not laid idle, of course. It tested the defences, but found blades and spears could not breach it, nor could the fae sorceries at their disposal. I recognized the wards, or part of them at least. Akua had used similar ones, called them ‘revolving wards’. A common innovation of her and her father’s, crafted to deal with the powerful but terribly direct sorceries of the Summer Court. I was less than surprised Malicia’s people had gotten their hands on the ward schematics, or adapted them to her purposes. And yet I was not worried, because one fact stood above all: the Praesi were defending, but they were no longer moving. No matter how tall the walls, fortresses always fell. Larat joined me as I strode towards the front, blade dripping with blood.
“A most pleasant excursion, my queen,” he mused. “Shall we give the dead a taste of our mettle as well, after these vagrants have been cleared out?”
“We’re not picking a fight with the Dead King,” I flatly said. “He makes sport of the kind of people that bled you when we assaulted the Proceran camp. Behave, Hunstman.”
“I always do,” Larat assured me with a too-wide smile. “My fellow riders are chipping away at this lovely turtle shell, one sliver at a time. Patience will deliver us the promised deaths.”
“Let’s see if I can quicken that,” I replied.
The Empress had holed up behind a fortress, hadn’t she? I could batter away at it, sure enough, but Black had always told me that the most dangerous of all siege weapons was a mule carrying gold and a promise. I cast a look at the Empress’ people, looking for a weak link. None to be found, sadly. They were all calm confidence incarnate. Didn’t matter, though. The masks were pretty enough, but I could smell fear’s dark stirrings beneath them. The Wild Hunt parted for me, and standing before the Praesi I cleared my throat.
“The first three to surrender get to keep their lives,” I announced. “Excluding Malicia. I’ll swear binding oath to it, with an agreed-upon phrasing.”
None replied, but I saw eyes narrow. Yeah, that was sounding quite tempting at the moment wasn’t it? Praesi loyalty was something of a contradictory term.
“An empty offer,” the Empress said. “She cannot breach the wards. Regardless, there would be immediate consequences to such a decision.”
The Sentinels stirred to drive the point home. She’d not accused me of lying, because she wasn’t a fool: these were mostly practitioners, so they knew I had enough fae in me I couldn’t break an oath even if I wanted to. As long as the phrasing held, which was on them, they’d be spared. So instead she was playing on fear and pride. For once, the battlegrounds were familiar to the both of us.
“You thought that about the last set of wards,” I said. “Look behind me. There’s a few corpses telling you otherwise. Sure, she could turn the Sentinels on you, but the moment the bubble is down she’ll have bigger problems than you. Is she really going to attempt an execution when she’s up to her neck in the likes of this guy?”
I pointed a thumb a Larat. The fae who’d once been the Prince of Nightfall idly touched the blood on his sword and brought it to his lips, licking it off with relish. As far as I knew he didn’t, uh, actually drink blood so that was purely to fuck with their heads. Good show, my treacherous lieutenant.
“This is not my true body,” Malicia reminded them.
She did not need elaborate on the possible consequences of betraying a still-living Empress. There was an entire hall of forever-screaming heads in the Tower that served as a constant reminder. And still, the pair of warlocks who’d been casting had stopped. Momentum was on my side.
“Sure, she rules for now,” I said. “How long is that going to last? She’s yet to win a battle and most her army’s deserted to other banners. Spend a year or two in Mercantis, wait it out, and you can come back to the Tower to make nice with her successor able to boast you turned on her. Hells, if you’ve got issues with Mercantis I’ll find you something to do in Callow. I’ve always a need for mages, and the pay will be generous. I’m sure most of you have respect for Malicia. It’s not unearned.”
I paused and smiled thinly.
“Are you really willing to die defending that hill, though? Because if I have to breach this ward myself, I’ll not be in the mood for easy deaths.”
“I would keep a few as playthings, my queen,” Larat added cheerfully. “It has been ages, since we’ve had proper entertainment.”
I shrugged, watching the faces of the Praesi.
“My mercy has a time limit, ladies and gentlemen,” I said. “Now’s not the moment for hesitation.”
I met Malicia’s eyes calmly. There was no appreciation for what I’d done there to be found, not when it was turned against her. The Empress paid lip service to the treasured Wasteland principle of ‘iron sharpens iron’, but when it came down to it she never settled for anything less than a victory. No matter how long that victory took to snatch. If it was Callowans I was dealing with, one of them would have cursed and folded. But I was dealing with Praesi, a people that had turned betrayal into art back when most of Calernia still used iron. One of the curtains vanished, and a Soninke in robes ran for it. That first betrayal was the collapse of the dam, no one wanting to be the soul that didn’t qualify as one of the first three, and within a heartbeat all the curtains of light save one were gone. A loyalist, how quaint.
“Kill,” I ordered the Hunt.
I had no intention of offering any of them safe harbour in Callow, and they really should have extracted the oath before turning on Malicia. They’d feared the Sentinels both too much and not enough. The Empress stood tall and proud in a man’s body even as it all went to the Hells around her. I advanced, slowly but surely. The Tower’s personal guards held the fae back, long enough that one of the traitors turned her cloak again and began reinforcing the ward, but a silver arrow took her through the throat and that was the end of that. The Sentinels began to break. Their armour held against even fae armaments, and their blades scythed down a handful of fairies, but lances and swords and arrows found weaknesses and exploited them ruthlessly. The fleeing Praesi were ridden down mercilessly, until all that remained standing was the Empress and a single sweating mage. I suspected the Hunt could have torn through that ward easy as turning a hand, but it had been left to me by the twisted fae understanding of respect.
“I wonder,” I said, looking Malicia’s simulacrum in the eyes, “if I can reach you in Ater through this puppet of flesh. Shall we find out?”
She met my gaze unflinching.
“No,” she replied, and the simulacrum dropped.
Ah. Well, that also worked. The last living Praesi turned fearful eyes on me.
“I surrender,” she said.
Then the arrow took her in the throat. A perfect arc, one I hadn’t seen coming until the last moment and that had sailed right through the last ward unhindered. She was dead before she hit the floor, the light curtain vanished.
“And once again, Archer saves the day,” Indrani called out from above.
She was standing on the lower reaches of the pyramid, posing triumphantly bow in hand. Before addressing that – and Gods, was I going to address that – I walked over to Malicia’s living but insensate simulacrum. My boot came down, pulping the skull, and then again over the throat since it usually paid to be thorough. I’d have to clean my boots later, I mused, or the stench would be horrible.
“Indrani, get your ass down here,” I screamed.
I turned to look around for Thief, but she was nowhere in sight.
“Vivienne,” I said. “Still here?”
The other Callowan winked back into sight, still looking half-dead from her hiding place behind a column.
“Good,” I said. “Collect all the corpses. I don’t want to risk any surprises. And strip away the Sentinel armour, please. It can take fae blades, it must be worth a fortune.”
I would have felt worse about looting the dead if Praes hadn’t looted Callow for two decades without a care in the world. I’d call it reparations and leave it at that. Thief weakly nodded, and I left her to the grisly work as Archer pranced her way down her perch. She saluted when she approached, using the wrong hand for a legionary’s salute and the wrong angle for a Callowan formal greeting.
“Ready to report, Your Queenliness,” she announced.
“Where the Hells have you been?” I asked flatly.
“Doing what you told me to,” she mused. “Which was, and I quote ‘take a walk and do whatever comes naturally’.”
I closed my eyes, pained on a metaphysical level. So she’d been the hidden knife I remembered thinking about in one of those unlocked memories. We must have gambled that without an actual plan about her involvement, she couldn’t be predicted by the Skein. Which made sense, but had pretty badly failed. Starting the fire was two birds with one stones, I thought. The smoke trail had been bound to get her attention and get her to come running.
“If you spent the entire time drinking and just now shot that woman, I’m docking your pay,” I told her as I opened my eyes.
“Hey,” she protested. “I did lots of stuff that wasn’t drinking. She’s my fourth kill of the day. Well, third and a half really.”
“Tell me you didn’t assault the Dead King’s patrol,” I asked.
“Nah, they never got close to me,” she said. “But while you lot were busy throwing down with the giant rat, the Praesi tried to pull a fast one. At least I think so. Two Sentinels carried out some sleeping woman earlier, so I took care of it.”
My brows rose.
“Was it a simulacrum?” I asked. “The woman, I mean.”
“Dunno what that is,” Archer cheerfully lied. “But if it was, it’s double dead. Cut off the head after just to be sure, as is our crew’s policy.”
Damnably, I could not refute that. The brains and bone shards all over my boot made it impossible.
“I think I’m supposed to congratulate you on a job well done,” I said after a moment.
“Oh, it was a labour of love,” she dismissed. “But do praise me. Loudly and elaborately.”
I did not reply, and allowed the silence to stretch.
“You wench,” Archer accused me.
“Namecalling is beneath us,” I gravely said.
She flipped me the finger and I smiled.
“You got any idea what we’re supposed to do now?” she finally asked.
“I think that –” I paused when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. “Hey, you. Give Thief that corpse.”
The dark-skinned fae I’d seen carrying around a dead Praesi on a lance earlier looked quite displeased at the order.
“He’s not dead yet,” the Rider replied.
“Then finish him off and hand him over,” I patiently said.
“It was my kill,” the fae protested.
“If I have to come over there to settle this, I’m going to make you sit on that fucking lance,” I grimly replied.
With ill-grace, the fae ripped out the Praesi’s throat and dropped him on Vivienne’s feet. I’d have to remember to ask Larat the Rider’s name later. That kind of discipline case was best nipped in the bud. I turned back to Archer, who looked rather amused.
“Right, so I think we’re supposed to gather at our escape route,” I said. “That’s where Hierophant and Diabolist will be, anyway. Did you run into Adjutant?”
“On my way here,” Archer replied. “That was also where he was headed, though I don’t know what that location is.”
“Neither do I,” I admitted. “But Thief should. We’ll move out after she’s taken all the corpses.”
“I love it when you talk dirty to me,” Indrani said, waggling eyebrows.
Ugh, the wench.
Vivienne was well enough to walk at a decent pace without my support by the time we reached our ‘escape route’, which turned out to be the front of the Silent Palace. The fires had long been put out, but the place was still crawling with undead. Masego was having a pleasant cup of tea at an iron table, a full service having been put out for Akua and Hakram as well. Athal, to my surprise, was seated at the edge of the table as well though unlike the others he was silent. I heard snippets of conversation from the other side of the plaza, snorting when I realized they were having a very civilized debate about the influence of sorcery on the development of the early Dread Empire. Hakram was actually winning, by the sounds of it, which was just delightful in so many ways. Our advance, three Named surrounded by the honour guard of the entire Wild Hunt, hardly went unnoticed. Neshamah’s armies gave us no trouble, which I took to be a good sign. We might have gotten away with murder. Well, murders technically. But it was really the one that mattered. Although, since Archer had killed a puppet as well… I’d never really thought, growing up in Laure, that I would one day have a mental debate about whether you could kill the same person twice. Truly, villainy had expanded my horizons.
“Catherine,” Masego greeted me, then glanced at my boots. “You seem to have had an eventful day.”
He seemed much better than the last time I’d seen him. The sweat and pallor was gone, though the impression of frailty was not.
“We ran into the Empress,” I lightly said. “She’d fallen down some stairs.”
Athal’s head lowered, hiding his expression.
“What an unfortunate accident,” Akua mildly said.
“Indeed,” Hakram agreed. “We can only hope the Dead King will be not be too affected by that tragedy to resume negotiations.”
I grunted in agreement, dropping into an iron chair on the other side of the table. Vivienne and Indrani followed suit.
“Found Thief for you,” I told Athal. “Sorry we didn’t stick around for the guards, but I was sure I’d seen her skulking about.”
The dark-haired man bowed to me, then offered me a smile.
“It was no trouble, Great Majesty” he said. “I had to interrupt the search myself, as I was given other instructions.”
“Oh?” I said. “Anything interesting?”
“Ensuring no bedroom was touched by the flames,” he replied. “Though I was told that should you wish for different accommodations this can be arranged.”
“We’ll be fine,” I said.
“He would not participate in our debate,” Masego said, almost complaining.
“It’s always awkward to enter a conversation after it’s already begun,” Hakram said, immediately pushing aside the unspoken reprimand.
Unlike Hierophant, he understood the weight of our words towards the servant the Dead King had ‘gifted’ me. The Wild Hunt settled around us as an honour guard of sorts, valiantly ignoring the pretty salacious jokes Indrani was making about fae flexibility and its many possible applications. I’d been about to reach for a cup of tea myself, when Athal suddenly left his chair to kneel and press his forehead against the floor. I looked to the direction he was facing and my eyes widened. A single undead was approaching, which was unusual in and of itself. But what worried me a lot more was the massive… pressure I could feel coming off what looked like a perfectly normal Keteran foot soldier.
It looked like the Dead King had come to visit.