Interlude: Empires

“Spring brings southern weddings and northern burials.”
– Lycaonese saying

“I am grieved to hear of your disappointment,” Athal said, inclining his head.

The smile on the Black Queen’s face was a rueful one, tinted with self-mockery. There were times when the ruler of Callow could be difficult to read, such as when she was in the throes of Winter, but under the noonday sun she was an open book.

“Negotiations can fail,” the dark-haired woman replied. “I knew it was one of the possible outcomes even before I learned there’d be opposition.”

Athal found dismay, in the cast of her face, yet relief as well. The notion of striking bargain in Keter had never sat well with her, had it? Her defeat also brought solace: the knowledge she had toiled greatly to secure alliance, even though she had come short, and that none of the consequences of this day would be lain at her feet in years to come.

“I am sure accommodations will be reached eventually,” the dark-haired man said. “No matter is ever set in stone.”

“Now you sound like him,” the Black Queen said, rolling her eyes. “I can realize when I’ve been outbid. Malicia was always going to be willing to go that extra mile I’d balk at. We’ll see in a year whether the Dead King feels like riding a different horse.”

The Crown had hinted at later arrangements, then. Interesting, considering the depth of the treaties involved. It would have been useful to learn more, but it was not Athal’s place to inquire. He was only a servant, after all.

“As you say, Great Majesty,” he agreed. “Might I inquire as to when we will depart?”

The Black Queen’s brow rose.

“We?” she echoed.

Athal inclined his head again.

“I was gifted to you upon your arrival to the city,” he gently reminded her. “It is only natural, as your property, that you would now dispose of my days as you see fit.”

She did not quite succeed at hiding the flicker of anger and disgust that crossed her face. The Callowan had a deep and abiding distaste for slavery, as most of Calernia professed to share. It was largely a pretence, of course. Ashurans worked foreign prisoners to death in their mines and fields, having ‘bought the span of the sentence’ from other nations. Half the Free Cities either practiced slavery openly or through a very thin veil, and across large swaths of Procer the sacred rights of commoners as championed by the House of Light were more aspiration that fact. As for Praes, well, the hatred for the practice learned at Miezan hands had rarely given pause to Tyrants who needed greenskin ‘tribute labour’ to carry out their grand enterprises. Even the old Kingdom of Callow had not been above occasionally clapping chains on captured legionaries and putting them to work. It was a genuine thing in the Black Queen, however, a charming sort of naiveté for one who had risen to wear a crown.

“I’m freeing you as of right now,” the young woman said, and clapped his shoulder gently. “That should be within my rights, I think. And you’re certainly welcome to tag along, if you want.”

Athal allowed hesitation to touch his face.

“And where would we be headed, Great Majesty?” he asked.

“Callow,” she said. “Back home.”

That’d been a lie, he thought. The tells were there, though much harder to pick up on than before. There must have been more to her short conversation with the herald of the Crown than a mere dismissal.

“It would be my honour to follow you,” Athal said, fear and reluctance trembling artfully.

The Black Queen sighed.

“I’m not going to make you, Athal,” she said patiently. “I genuinely think you’ll be better off with us, but I can see why you wouldn’t want to leave and I’m not going to force you. I meant it, when I said you’re free. You can decide for yourself.”

The dark-haired man looked away and towards the floor, pose submissive. Following her would be disastrous and he had no intention whatsoever of doing so, yet it would be impolite to outright dismiss her good intentions without the pretence of silent debate. After a few moments, he met her eyes.

“This is my world, Great Majesty,” Athal admitted. “I would not leave it.”

The dark-haired woman looked saddened but not surprised.

“I guessed that’d be your answer,” she said. “You were a kind and pleasant host, Athal. I hope you’ll be treated as you deserve here.”

The dark-haired man smiled.

“Of this, I have no doubt,” he said.

Her answering smile was slightly stiff, for she clearly thought him a slave in all but name.

“Then this if farewell, Athal the Host,” Catherine Foundling said, cool dark eyes taking him in. “May we meet as friends, one day.”

“Peace be on you, Great Majesty,” Athal quietly replied.

She did not linger after that last goodbye, cleanly cutting ties. Not so prone as attachments as she’d once been believed to be, then. Rule of Callow might very well gave fostered that in her: once could not meet a hundred different faces a day and remain caring of all of them. Athal was a good host and a polite servant, and so remained standing until she’d mounted her dead horse and began leading her party towards the gates of Keter. A handful of the Splendid cast lingering gazes at his form, yet none acted or spoke a word. The Black Queen had disciplined them into at least the semblance of civility and obedience, though it would only ever be that. The likes of them could not change their nature, sooner or later it would tell. Even after the last of them was gone from sight, Athal remained standing there in silence. Quietly observed by a thousand dead eyes.

Then, calmly, Dread Empress Malicia emerged from the bundle in her mind that was her impersonation of a Keteran servant and became herself again.

“Quite the interesting day,” she murmured, adjusting the white robes her simulacrum had been provided.

The Empress had never enjoyed wearing a man’s body, nor would she grow used to it. The flesh construct was much less sensitive than a true human would be, of course – Nefarious had discovered early in his research that to build the receptacle otherwise would make the experience quite overwhelming – but the overall sensation was still quite alienating. Malicia usually wore a woman not merely to draw the eye away from the fact that gender was no consideration to the ritual. Shifting from her true body to another several consecutive times had been quite exhausting, but it should not be of dramatic import. The negotiations with the Dead King were at an end, after all, with only formalities remaining. Having come out the victor out of her little tussle with Catherine had proved her to be the worthiest interlocutor for the Hidden Horror. The Empress cast a haughty glance at an approaching undead, allowing it to kneel before her without comment.

“Your Dread Majesty,” it said. “The Crown is now ready to receive you.”

“That would be agreeable,” Malicia said. “You may escort me.”

The Dread Empress used the length of the walk to put herself in order. There would be need, over the coming days, to reconsider the events of the day with Ime and her finest practitioners in attendance. Much had been revealed in the way Catherine attempted her assassination, likely more than the younger woman had intended to offer. For one, Malicia now had a much clearer account of the combat capacity of the Woe. The Adjutant was no great threat on his own and the Thief almost laughably easy to handle, yet the Hierophant needed reassessment. In sheer amount of destructive power at his disposal, he was leagues above what Wekesa had been able to unleash at the same age. He was also much less well-rounded than a young Warlock, and quite easier to exhaust. It was useful to know what the young man could likely be captured if it proved necessary even if Wekesa did not deign to intervene. Killing him had never been on the table, as Warlock would never forgive her for it. Enough of Malicia’s attention remained on her surroundings that she did not need a reminder to emerge from her thoughts when she neared the throne room of the Hall of the Dead. Acknowledging her escort’s introduction with a simple glance, she strode forward.

“Elegantly done,” the Dead King said, eschewing greetings for praise.

The Hidden Horror lounged on his throne nonchalantly, radiating power without needing to move a single finger. Malicia had never been cowed by the display: she had lived in the Tower for decades now. She slept a mere handful of floors from centuries of the worst of her people’s madness contained by wards and steel.

“I was allowed the opportunity to weave as I would,” the Empress replied with a smile.

It had still been too close to her liking. Malicia had not expected for her contingency body to be found as well, Archer of the Woe having been marauding about the city instead of joining her companions in fighting the Dead King’s guardians. Still, she’d been granted advantages. A guise that would make her adjacent to her opponent’s deepest council, liberty to prepare however she deemed necessary for months before Catherine’s arrival. Crafting the personality of ‘Athal’ had been the work of long hours enabled only by the Hidden Horror’s willingness to allow her to interrogate his Hosts.

“She’s still young,” the Dead King mused. “In need of greater tempering. She should have killed every living soul in the city just to be certain. It will be a good lesson for her.”

“As you say,” Malicia smiled.

She believed the old monster had not ever meant for Catherine to succeed here. The point of the exercise, she suspected, had been to mould the young woman through conflict. Handpicked opponents in very specific locales to bring about a certain… enlightenment. It had not escaped Malicia’s notice that Catherine could not turn to mist as she wished. The capacity had always been there, of course, but the mentality had not. The Black Queen was being guided towards a path. Though the Empress would make alliance with the Dead King today, she knew better than to think it any sort of friendship. It was quite likely that even as they made pact, the Hidden Horror had lit a sharper and tossed back into Callow. Measures would need to be taken, beyond even those she had already set in motion. It was rather worrying that the other woman would not be immediately returning to Callow, as Malicia had predicted she would. The Black Queen still believe she had cards to play.

“Shall we deal with the formalities?” the Dead King offered.

“Let us,” the Empress agreed.

Before the day was done, she would have an alliance signed in blood.

“By all means,” Cordelia Hasenbach said with frigid politeness,” do explain to me how sixteen thousand vagabonds succeeded in sacking the largest cities of Cantal, including the capital. I await what will no doubt be an enlightening answer.”

The First Prince knew she should moderate her tone when speaking the to the handful of men and women who’d been commanding the defence of the Principate’s heartlands. Anger was rarely constructive, only to be used as a demonstration of displeasure when facing a soft position. If anger bared could not change the decision being made, there was no purpose in displaying it. Yet, looking at the five officers before her, the blonde ruler could not bring herself to lessen the ice in her voice. These fools had, while assuring her every step of the way that the legions under the Black Knight were being herded and encircled, somehow allowed a foreign army to burn a swath of destruction through every Cantalese region of logistical import unimpeded.

“Your Most Serene Highness, I will not deny we have failed you,” the oldest among the officers admitted.

Diego Altraste, a highly-recommended captain from Valencis she’d granted the command of all available hosts in the heartlands to. Moustachioed, eloquent and boisterous, as Arlesite men so often were, yet he now sat subdued.

“The recognition of that is noted, yet no the reason for this council,” Cordelia said, forcing a semblance of clam into her tone. “Cantal has been crippled for a decade, my captains, by a force I was told was quite contained. How did this come to be?”

“We cannot be blamed,” a young woman protested. “The easterners are resorting to impious powers, it is not properly conducted warfare.”

Captain Lehmer was, to the First Prince’s private disappointment, Lycaonese by birth. She should have known better that to expect properly conducted warfare from the Enemy.

“I wonder then, captain,” Cordelia replied softly, “where the blame should be laid?”

There was heavy silence at that. Altraste cleared his throat.

“We failed to anticipate the change in their operational tempo,” the Valencian said. “Overnight and without warning, they began to cover three day’s marching distance in a single night. We’d planned the movement of our forces according to the previous order, and so were caught flat-footed.”

“And have we found the reason for this sudden change?” Cordelia asked.

“Nothing concrete,” an old man with a heavy Alamans accent said. “We lack eyes within the legions. But I have a theory. The Black Knight ceased participating in fighting engagements after they sped up, so I believe it to be an aspect of his Damnation. Using it this much likely exhausts the man extraordinarily.”

Alphonse de Saliverne had been commander of the Salian garrison for over forty years now, and though he was only a passable field commander Cordelia held his learning in great esteem. His words had weight.

“They’re also listening in on everything the mages send by scrying,” Altraste added reluctantly, as wary of her reaction. “The Order has become something of a liability, Your Highness, even when speaking in coded languages. They’ve danced too neatly around our delaying forces for it to be coincidence.”

The Order of the Red Lion had been Cordelia’s own notion, and raised by her own decree. The man was being cautious not to offend even while trying to point out a crippling weakness. She could appreciate his discretion in the matter.

“Keep using them,” the First Prince said. “As a red herring. If we must resume instructions sent by horse, so be it. They cannot be allowed to continue their march.”

“That will be difficult,” Captain Alphonse replied. “As of the last report, they are headed towards Iserre. The southern reinforcements from Levant could be sent to meet them, but if they break cities at the pace they have so far most of northern Iserre will be lost before battle can be given.”

“Prince Amadis stripped the principality clean of soldiers and weapons,” Altraste added. “There are too few fighting men to raise a proper levy, much less arm it.”

“Iserre cannot be allowed to burn,” Cordelia said, tone forcefully even.

It would be a disaster, and not only because one of the few principalities left largely untouched by the Proceran civil war would be put to the torch. The Carrion Lord was wielding his army as a political knife, it’d become clear. Bayeux had been spared the kind of destruction visited on Cantal, and she knew very well why. The Black Knight was, for the eyes of all Procer, brutalizing the lands of her opposition in the Highest Assembly. Worse, he was doing so after her own uncle had allowed him to march without pursuit. The ploy was obvious, of course. There were few in the Principate that would truly believe her to be in collusion with the likes of the Carrion Lord. It was, however, a very good excuse for any prince and princess wishing to turn on her to do so. Amadis Milenan had been lionized a martyr for his voluntary exile in Callow, and if his lands were put to the torch in his absence… Cordelia’s popularity had reached an apex, after the declaration of the Tenth Crusade, but it was now melting like snow in the sun. That she would be forced to abdicate remained unlikely, but it was no longer a possibility she could outright dismiss. A servant in her line’s own livery and not the palace’s came to stand behind her, presence announced without a word. The First Prince angled her head towards him in an unspoken invitation.

“The evening is upon us, Your Most Serene Highness,” the man murmured.

The Lycaonese’s eyes flicked to the tall panes of glass overlooking Salia that led to her council room’s balcony. The sun was beginning to set, and she had appointment to keep. The First Prince turned her gaze to her assembled captains.

“I will require that a plan for the defence of Iserre be formulated,” she ordered. “A particular eye being cast on the need to preserve as much of the principality as feasible. Do not hesitate to request any manner of men or resources. You will have the full weight of my authority behind you.”

It galled her that she might have to trade favours and dent the treasury in the defence of the ancestral holdings of Amadis Milenan, yet beyond the ugly political requirements she had a duty to the Iserrans. They were her subjects, like any other, and not to be held at fault for the plotting of their anointed ruler. The First Prince spent longer than strictly required to take her leave with courtesy, carefully soothing any feathers her earlier anger might have ruffled. Already she regretted the loss of control. Her handmaidens undressed her and then helped her into her formal regalia as she perused the latest word out of Callow. The Black Queen and the Woe had left the kingdom, that much had been confirmed. Where they had headed, however, was still a guessing game. Cordelia had previously suspected that she would join up the with the Black Knight and use the man as a way to damage the Principate while preserving her own forces, yet it had not come to pass. Most likely, she had gone to treat with the League of Free Cities. The First Prince could not be certain, as the Tyrant of Helike had thoroughly purged most of her spies and paid informants in the upper rungs of the region, yet there were few other alliances left for her to seek. Agnes had been quite clear that doom was gathering south, and the League’s intentions were damnably opaque.

Three hours after sunset, Cordelia sat in the hidden room she’d had arranged for this sole purpose. Behind her seat the trinket sent by the Black Queen awaited the touch of the warlord’s eldritch power to take them both into that world of shadows. The First Prince found her centre, allowing calm to take hold of her, and waited until the holy artefacts provided by the House of Light began to burn. Night fell over the room easy as the snap of fingers, suddenly and entirely. It took a moment for the First Prince to reorient herself in this dismaying realm, eyes falling on the Black Queen facing her. The coolness of this place had her glad regal wear in even southern Procer preferred long sleeves. Catherine Foundling was not beautiful, she’d always thought. Some might call her striking, but Cordelia found her features too sharp and sullen for it. It was her eyes that softened her mien, surprisingly expressive brown orbs set in a tanned face. As always, the would-be Queen of Callow disdained the trappings of the title she claimed to wear unremarkable plate.

“Hasenbach,” the Black Queen said. “We need to talk.”

The First Prince considered her opposite with cool eyes. This lack of courtesy should not go unremarked upon. Though this was an informal conference, Cordelia disliked the pretence of friendship between them that would allow such language.

“Have your courtesies left you entirely?” the First Prince asked.

A smile flickered across the other woman’s face, gone in a heartbeat. The Lycaonese had read no fewer than seven assessments of Catherine Foundling gathered from hearsay, observation and old acquaintances. They had been of little use in understanding the Black Queen’s personality. The girl she’d been before becoming the Squire had been smothered swiftly by the Black Knight’s tutelage, and the callous warlord that’d fought in the Liesse Rebellion and Akua’s Folly had never sat across from Cordelia either. The Doom of Liesse had cast a deep shadow on the other woman, Cordelia felt, and changed in sundry ways. Still, some similarities remained. Foundling respected strength above all, like most warlords, though unlike most of those she responded well to confrontation. She enjoyed ‘spirit’, even in her foes. Her temper was also quite easy to provoke, which had allowed Cordelia to prod her along desired paths in the past.

“I’ve had a long few days,” the Black Queen said. “So let’s just pretend I danced the dance and move on, because this is me doing you a favour and I’m done smiling all pretty.”

The First Prince forced her face to remain perfectly still. Revealing irritation would serve no purpose, at the moment.

“A favour,” she said instead. “You make a strange foe, it must be said.”

“You’re amused,” Foundling shrugged, misreading her entirely. “That’s about to go away real quick. Congratulations, First Prince: the Dead King’s about to invade.”

Cordelia’s blood went cold. She studied the Callowan carefully, looking for signs of dishonesty. She found none.

“You have made a pact with the Hidden Horror,” the First Prince said, voice cold and cutting.

“Not me,” the Black Queen replied. “Malicia.”

The Empress? It was possible, Cordelia thought, the Tower was certainly desperate enough, yet-

“Well, I suppose we’re done here,” Founding casually said. “We’re still at war, after all. Good luck, try not to screw it up for all of us.”

The warlord raised her hand, as if to dismiss the darkness, and the blonde woman’s fingers tightened against the arms of her chair until they turned white.

“Wait,” she said.

The utterance had been much too desperate for her tastes, yet she couldn’t simply let Foundling end it there. She needed to know more or thousand would die. The Black Queen eyed her the way a wolf eyes a limping deer.

“You know, I was trying to think of a reason for it earlier,” Foundling said. “To give you more than a warning, I mean. Then I realized I genuinely couldn’t. I’m not rejoicing at the loss of lives, mind you, but at the end of the day you’re trying to fucking invade me even as we speak.”

“A victorious Dead King would turn his eyes on you,” Cordelia said, regaining her calm.

As long as the conversation continued, she could convince the other woman.

“Your eyes are on me right now, Cordelia,” the Black Queen noted. “You expect me to lend a hand to people trying to conquer my homeland? Good night.”

Her hand rose again but the First Prince knew that for the tactic it was. Foundling was attempting a bargain, now that there was another enemy on the field.

“Are you truly willing to mother the slaughter of thousands out of petty arrogance?” Cordelia accused.

The other woman’s eyes went cold.

“There is more at stake,” she replied softly, “than you know.”

The irony was sharp, her own word thrown back at her. The Lycaonese drew back in fury, but something in the Black Queen’s eyes gave her pause. For all that Catherine Foundling ruled with Wasteland methods, in that moment Cordelia was not looking at the Black Knight’s pupil or Malicia’s mistake. She was looking at raw Callowan spite, coursing deep and dark. For small slight, long prices.

“He will devour all of us,” the First Prince said.

“Aye, maybe he will,” the Black Queen said. “So we’ll speak again, after your people do some of the bleeding for a change.”

“This will not be forgot,” Cordelia said coldly.

“I would hope not,” Catherine Foundling replied with a hard smile. “A last word of warning, Your Most Serene Highness. If your uncle’s army is still digging at the end of the month, there will be consequences. I’ve yet to run out of lakes to drop.”

The darkness went away, and the First Prince of Procer was left with nothing but fury and fear. Doom to the north, Agnes had said.

She was never wrong.

Neshamah’s foot scuffed the stone.

Such a slight sound, barely more than a whisper. He’d not heard it in a very, very long time. Obsidian hummed behind him as the Dead King tread Creation once more. He inhaled, though this body hardly had need for it. Sorceries millennia old lent him sense of smell, or close enough. The scent of cool stone and dust was a pleasing thing. Hearing had been much easier to reproduce, a staple of undeath even in his lifetime, and his was sharper than a mortal’s. The sound of a bottle being uncorked drifted to his ear, and he turned towards it without the slightest hint of surprise. This was more than expected. It had been awaited.

“Going for a walk, old friend?” the Intercessor grinned, toasting him with a bottle.

He paid no heed to her current guise. She had worn many a face, over the centuries. Enough he could no longer remember them all, or the names paired with them. It made no difference. She was as he was, more essence than form.

“It has been too long,” he said, voice pensive. “The Serenity remains a lacking imitation. There is a… taste to Creation. A skilled pupil I may be, yet a pupil still.”

She drank deep, as had always been her game. He’d caught her, once, back when the upstarts Miezans had still fancied themselves more than guests on the shores. Carved her open, ever careful to avoid even the semblance of fatality, to see what lay inside. She’d mocked him even as the tongs kept open her ribcage and he studied her organs, perplexed by their lifelikeness. He had learned little from the study, never even confirming whether she truly grew drunk. If her body was a construct, it was so perfect one there was no telling the difference.

“You have your games even from your hiding hole,” the Intercessor laughed. “Quite the entertainment, this time.”

Neshamah strode forward, enjoying the pressure of a word he could not simply shape as he wished. There was resistance here. A will more paramount than his own.

“Were you watching?” he teased.

A little jest, just between the two of them. She was always watching.

“It was oddly nostalgic,” the Intercessor mused. “You know, watching you meddle with forces beyond your comprehension. You haven’t been that reckless since… your fourth century, I’d say? That delightful scuffle with the rats.”

“I was young,” Neshamah fondly remembered. “And still believed plagues to be valid method. You were quite severe in chiding me, I recall.”

“Lines had to be drawn, we were still establishing the rules,” the Intercessor smiled. “Both of us played rougher back then.”

“You certainly were not shy in setting the elves after me,” Neshamah said. “That was rather unwarranted.”

“You were being greedy,” the Intercessor said, wagging a finger. “Two Hells? I don’t think so. Besides, that was as much about that old mule in the Bloom as it was about you. He needed a sharp lesson about who not to trifle with, and your taking his only son got the point across.”

“The Spellblade has been a delightful diversion, admittedly,” Neshamah conceded.

“You even set him on dear Cat,” she said. “Thoughtful of you.”

She drank again, under the Dead King’s yellow gaze. Ah, she was miffed. She would be.

“I did look into her,” he said. “She’s no work of yours, which I found fascinating.”

“We don’t all work with ponds, Neshamah,” the Intercessor said. “There’s a lot more moving parts out here than in your little walled garden.”

“And yet you have not snuffed her out,” he mused. “Oh, you made attempts. Yet I know your work. It was not her throat you truly sought to cut.”

“Flipped the story on her several times,” she said. “She takes to it like a fish. I’m impressed. She’s no great thinker, mind you, but her instincts are sharp. It’d be more trouble than it’s worth to rid myself of her. She’s the kind you let burn out on their own.”

The thing shaped like a woman paused, ever theatrical.

“Or at least so I thought. You’re making me reconsider.”

“I wonder,” Neshamah murmured. “It this meant to tempt me to invest more only to then yank the rug, or is this trickery to make me abandon an opening?”

The Intercessor grinned wide and sharp over the bottle’s rim.

“Wanna roll the dice?” she offered. “I promise not to cheat this time.”

“You say that every time,” the Dead King reminded her laughingly. “No, old friend, you will not goad more out of me. I have allowed her to glimpse the threshold. She will rise or fall of her own merit.”

“You’ve been so wary, since Triumphant,” the Intercessor complained.

“And yet here I am,” Neshamah replied easily. “Returned to Creation. Let us not pretend you did not nudge that story along.”

“What can I say?” she shrugged. “I’ve been missing your company.”

“Such a sentimental creature,” the Dead King sighed, then his eyes turned sharp. “S what am I to be this time, Intercessor? The hammer or the anvil?”

She drank deep, throat bobbing as the red wine ran down her chin. She dropped the bottle afterwards, let it bounce off the stone and spill the rest.

“All right,” she said cheerfully, “so stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but there’s a joke from Levant I just love. So three princes – one Arlesite, one Alamans and one Lycaonese – and the Dead King walk into a tavern, looking for a hot meal. So the tavern keeper apologizes, says he’s out and his last bowl of stew went to the woman in the corner with her baby, maybe they can get it off of her. So the Arlesite prince, he walks up to her, and says ‘Good woman, I will duel you for this stew’. She refuses, because really fuck Arlesites. So then the Alamans prince walks up to her and says ‘Good woman, as your rightful liege I deserve this stew more than you, hand it over’. She refuses, because she paid her taxes so she doesn’t owe shit to no one. So then the Lycaonese prince walks over, looks at the Dead King – that’s you! – and goes all grim. He says ‘I’m fine with starving, so long as the Dead King doesn’t get the stew’. Then the Dead King walks up and says ‘You guys can fight over the stew, I’ll just-”

“Eat the baby,” Neshamah finished, purely for the pleasure of denying her the climax.

The ancient monster pouted.

“So you do know it,” she said. “Should have told me at the start, I got way into it.”

“I assume,” the Dead King said, “that this atrocity – and I do not use this word lightly, believe me – of a story had a purpose?”

The Intercessor grinned.

“Of course,” she said, wine red as blood trickling down her chin. “Eat the baby, King of Death. Just this once, I’ll allow it.”

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138 thoughts on “Interlude: Empires

    1. Eat the baby!

      I thought the bard was a foreigner(that maybe lost a war outside of Calernia and came here to play the long con—-and for a chapter back there t i though the bard may actually be Akua that in some fucked up magic experiment ended back in time with all those shards of history in Arcadia and just wants to fuck up all the world now)

      So basically the bard says to Dead king to massacre the Procer/Lycaones/Heroes and weaken the Calernia continent imho

      I am still waiting when the story will actually move from this backyard puddle that is just Callow in this Lore that we had in last 200(?) chapters and see more from all the promised other Continents, and if not them at least Dark Elfs/Dwarfes/Gnomes to make a big entrance int he story as moving plot already

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Anon

    Kinda guessed Athal would be end up being a bigger player (though I’m not quite sure of the logic of having him be placed among Cat’s retinue), but I’m kinda really disappointed in skipping out on Cat’s talk with the Dead King. It reeks of the conversation with Black that was purposefully withheld in the last book, and while I get that the Dead King probably just told Catherine she lost, it feels….pretty odd to skip over.

    Otherwise, interesting to see that the Bard is giving the Dead King free rein (presumably with which to hang himself), and the bard recognizes that Catherine may be becoming a bigger problem.

    Meanwhile, Cordelia is absolutely boned, now. She may get her holy war, but she has now completely lost control of the crusade.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Dainsleif

        I personally dont think the bard is woman in that metaphor, since she herself says that she is letting him “eat the baby” and in the joke theone that says that will eat the baby is the Dead King himself, which strikes me as the bard simply telling the story, shes not the woman with the baby she’s the narrator.

        I could be wrong on that but my take is that the woman might be actually catherine and the baby is callow. Correct me if im wrong.

        Like

    1. Two things about the Bard at the end there:
      1. Notice “She” is letting him eat the baby. Hmm sounds like she is forgetting that she answers to higher powers…almost like a villain in fact.

      2. She could also be running a colossal bluff because the last time we saw her, her plans weren’t exactly working out her way and she had to make a hasty retreat. It might be the case that the reason “She” is letting the Dead King eat the baby, is because she can’t stop him but doesn’t want him to know it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Komploding

        I seem to remember it being said that the bard was not truly on the side of Above, and that before Neshamah came along she was balanced for both sides equally, since he came along tho she’s had to be on the side of Above to play counterweight to him I think.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. ZorbaTHut

        *Does* she answer to higher powers?

        One recurring theme of this story is that things are always bigger in scale than you think they are. Remember that in this story containing horrible eldritch abominations and literally hundreds of hells and demons ripped from nightmare dimensions, there’s also gnomes, who apparently tootle around the stratosphere in invincible airships and straight-up wreck civilizations for laughs. Where Cat is a one-woman army, a single elf requires an entire team to take down, and we don’t even know how the elves rank against the gnomes.

        So we’ve been told for the entire story that the Gods Above and Gods Below are at war, but aren’t willing to interfere directly. Then comes along the Wandering Bard, who seems absolutely happy to interfere, isn’t obviously on either the side of Above or Below, and is herself a horrifying monstrous abomination of a construct that is not and perhaps never has been human.

        I am not at all convinced the Wandering Bard fits into the structure of the world that we’ve been given. She might be entirely separate from the Above/Below dichotomy.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. It was established earlier that The Bard was once human and became perhaps the first empowered human, to get revenge of some sort. Then she slowly lost her humanity over centuries performing her task.

          The task appears to be maintenance of the world for the God’s debate/argument regarding free will for humanity. But considering her recent actions she may be operating according to a different agenda entirely.

          Liked by 4 people

    2. Styn

      Not just the talk with Black. Captains death was similarly left to ‘our imaginations’. Whenever ErraticErrata does off screen the story suffers IMO.

      Like

    3. Metrux

      That is specifically to keep US, the readers, in the dark. It simply makes sense to increase the tension and make us guess while new chapters come out.

      Like

    1. Gunslinger

      If she knew she only had to kill Athal and she’d have negotiation rights. Maybe a suspicion but one she wouldn’t be able to test without offending the dead king were she wrong

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Jonnnnz

          Or, maybe the talks with the Dead King started with him accepting Malicia’s offer, and what he and Cat talked about was what happens after. Malicia thought the trick with Athal worked, but Cat was just playing along, showing her what she wanted to see.

          Like

          1. Dainsleif

            I like that theory. The dead king has been in this game for too long to be a piece in either Cat’s or Malicia’s board, so it would make complete sense hes the one running the game instead of them and has planned to use both.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Did not see Athal being a flesjpuppet of Malicia coming.
    And months to prepare? Totally a test on the Dead King’s part. Not sure Cat passed with flying colors, but I don’t think she failed miserably, either. As far as the Dead King is concerned, I think it’s a minor pass on Cat’s part. As far as Malicia is concerned, it’s a loss for Cat – possibly the start of a Pattern between them.


    Sucks to be you, Hasenbach.
    Might actually be kind of a good thing you and Grey Pilgrim overreached and failed in negotiating with Cat – otherwise, everything and everybody would be moving on Praes right now, not mostly in Procer.

    Wonder if Cat is going to stop by Black and try to extract him and the Legions with him.
    Hearing Malicia is making deals with the Dead King might well be the last straw for him.


    Hmmm. Not sure who or what the baby Bard wants the Dead King is supposed to be.
    But Bard is apparently seriously pissed at someone or about something someone has done.
    And they both have way more than just Names going for them, it seems.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. IDKWhoitis

      Yeah Liesse being turned into a Flying Fortress broke him.

      Dead King negotiation will probably flip him onto Cats Side.

      And it makes sense that Catherine is going to go to black, right as Procer starts moving to purge black, he will just just disappear.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Mike E.

        Maybe Cat showing up and gating Black’s army around is why they suddenly moved so fast? And Black just stayed out of the fight because he wasn’t really needed and to make it look like he can’t do both at the same time?

        Though the whole time passage thing when going through Arcadia sort of nullifies my theory.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Death Knight

          Black did not know Malicia was dealing with the Dead King. His goal at the moment is to destroy all of Cordelia’s political support. Cordelia is royally screwed because she can’t allocate men to deal with Black. She needs those men to man the border with the Dead King now. Meanwhile, Black has free reign to burn her backyard to cinders.

          It would have been better if Cat had not warned Cordelia at all. The sudden advance by the Dead King would have caught the Procerans flatfooted. With the bulk of their army digging in another country, and Black already showing he can outmaneuver and wreck an armed Proceran city, there would be no stopping the Dead King and the entire Principate would burn.

          Catherine gained nothing by warning Cordelia here and it would have been more spiteful to not warn Cordelia at all.

          Like

          1. Cicero

            Well, unless Cat (correctly in my opinion) views the Dead King as the more dangerous enemy. In that case warning Procer serves the purpose of blunting the Dead King’s attack, while Procer and the Tenth Crusade will still be bled white by the fight.

            In other words, better a crippled Procer on her border than sharing a border with the Dead King.

            Liked by 5 people

            1. Dainsleif

              Theres more to that. Remember her oroginal plan, she never intended to let the Dead King roam free in procer, she also never intended for procer to become a slaughter house. Yes she wants cordelia out of the picture and the tenth crusade over but she doesnt want procer to be massacrated, the civilians of procer were suposed to live the aftermath of the Dead King in her plan, makes sense shes warning Cordelia about it.

              Liked by 1 person

          2. Misting

            Cat has not gone full-Black just yet; she still has some qualms about mass-slaughtering of the innocent, especially after Second Liesse. Moreover, she doesn’t want the Dead King to win either. She wants him to lose after pulling Procereran forces away from Callow. By warning Cordelia, she expedites the later and minimizes the former. You are correct, it would have been more spiteful to not warn her, but it also would have been a worse move for Callow and her remaining conscience.

            Liked by 5 people

      1. Dainsleif

        Holy shit i forgot that hahahahaha, she is literally unable to control a BIG part of calernia. It actually makes her actions a lot more sense, shes desperate, she doesnt have more control and so she needs a big move to get control back.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Decius

      Procer is the soup. Cat is the Lycaonese prince, saying she doesn’t want Procer but the Dead King can’t have it. The baby is everyone living on the continent.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Vortex

        The whole thing that made him the tyrant was when the day of his death came to be and instead of dying, he killed the ruler and took up his name. That is how he ascended, by breaking all the rules and imposing his own will instead.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Dainsleif

          Kinda of awesome when you think about it. Black had to make war with his own country and the rest of calernia in order to learn how to defy the gos law. Cat learned through him and gained experience thanks to the Fae and her aquired knoledge on aspects to do tge same. The tyrant stabbed the previous ruler (cat would be proud) and “said fuck you gods i win” at the age of what? 9?

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Soronel Haetir

    I am somewhat surprised the Bard can show up in Keter, I would have expected the Serenity to be shaped by Neshamah’s will enough that she simply couldn’t appear. Ranger getting in is an entirely different thing as she overcomes all the obstacles but WB simply ghosts past them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agent J

      There’s the Kingdom of the Dead, then there’s the capital city of that Kingdom called Keter, then there’s Tower with the Demon Eye hovering over it at the center of the city, and then there’s the Greater Gate at the deepest level of that Tower, lastly, there’s the Hell that gate leads to that is inhabited by the Dead King’s living subjects. He calls his corner of Hell Serenity.

      Neshamah, to my understanding just stepped through his gate, finally leaving Serenity for the first time and entering Keter, that is, entering Creation. Bard came to greet her old friend in his tower, at the heart of his old city, outside the Hellgate.

      She did not, in fact, enter Serenity. More to the point Keter =/= Serenity.

      Liked by 9 people

    2. Amoonymous

      For what it’s worth, as far as I can tell the Serenity is Neshamah’s personal Hell.

      Keter itself is still in creation, it just houses the portal to the Serenity.

      So Bard met the Dead King in Keter and not the Serenity.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. RanVor

      If the Guide was released in my native language, I’d buy several copies for the sole purpose of forcing people to read it. Currently, I can’t, because not a single one of my friends knows English to a sufficient degree. It’s incredibly frustrating.

      I don’t envy whoever would have to translate this book, though.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Anon

    So…what does the bard get out of the dead king going ape on Procer?

    A sufficiently strong response from the gods above, maybe, but while the gods above may want that, it’s still going to depend on if the Dead King really gets hardcore with all his nastiness – of which the presumed Proceran ‘hero band’ is going to have to go against – only the pilgrim is stuck with Cat for the time being.

    And in the greater scheme of things, if Malicia’s got an agreement with the Dead King, depending on the terms, the Dead King could be used as a bludgeon against Cat at any later time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. FactualInsanity

      Technically, he’s not stuck with her.
      She got… excommunicated? I forgot the exact term used, but the Crusader part of the House of Light declared all deals with her non-binding. It remains to be seen what the people that made those deals with her (namely Milenan and the Grey Pilgrim) think about that.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Jane

          Oh, an oath to a Fae can be broken very easily. Very easily indeed. Why, it’s practically expected, in all the old stories.

          It’s just, that’s the kind of thing that usually ends with the oathbreaker dead/dancing in Arcadia for millennia/their children stolen as payment/all of their dreams made ash while the Fae laughs at their misery/etc.

          I don’t know what kind of influence Fae oaths “really” have in the Guideverse, but from a narrative perspective, there might be no faster way of losing this crusade than ignoring those oaths. As you say, I doubt the Gods Above have the authority to break them.

          Liked by 11 people

    2. Or it could be that she can’t stop the Dead King and is trying to con him, remember that her plans failed in the Free Cities and she had to flee. She might be trying to make the Dead King think that she can stop him at anytime and thus make him hold back from going all in.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Dimensional

      I’m assuming She’s backing the Grey Pilgrims – Redemption play. If The Dead king is all burning up Procer, How long can Cat stay on the side of Evil and let it go. CAllow may hate Procer, but I imagine that what remains of the house of light will want some response to the invasion.
      and once she joins with the hero’s, the redemption story is one more step along the road to Cat sacrificing herself.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. IDKWhoitis

        Which can hilariously backfire. Because Cats not so opposed to burning herself at the stake, as long as everyone else is on the same ride. Like no Hero left standing at the end type of thing.

        While The Bard may be willing to pay that price, we can’t be sure all of the heroes will be willing to pay that price. Especially Grey, since his fight is with the Dead King not Cat. He sees Cat as a side note in a larger conflict. This can turn some Heroes dark.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Novice

    I am actually very glad that the Woe’s atrocity of a plan didn’t succeed. I would have been disappointed since the story was doing so well in crafting plots and schemes, both political and tactical. I’m also glad Malicia hasn’t lost her edge.

    Thanks for the chapter!

    Liked by 10 people

    1. Matthew

      This. Malicia is better at this than cat.

      Also, what happens if Black goes against the Dead King?

      Like give him Procer’s resources gathered for the Crusade and let him eat the Dead King.

      If there is one guy who can deal with all of Dead King’s overpowered shenanigans… It’s Black.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Novice

        In this hypothetical scenario, I think Black would have been able to hold his own. But in the end, he will fail since Bard/Intercessor is gunning for him and she’s quite content with DK’s current situation. Two ancient, scheming immortals against Black wouldn’t be a fair fight.

        Liked by 5 people

          1. IDKWhoitis

            I would compare this to Catherine throwing the necrotic goats filled of goblin fire at the Fortress.

            And suddenly the moment the goats arrived at The Fortress, the whole thing just disappears into a small Arcadian portal that no one saw coming.

            Black planning the moves and Catherine executing anything violently, I think they can hammer out a strategy to take out the DK, Malica, and intercessor.

            Liked by 2 people

  6. Anon

    I think the most interesting part is that the Bard (seemingly) confirms that Cat isn’t a piece of the bard’s own creation, and that the Bard has instead ‘only’ been playing damage control.

    Like….that would mean that either Black got insanely lucky with his ‘create an anti-story story’ narrative for Cat to be shaped into, and/or someone else has been pulling the strings who is just as good as Bard, if not better.

    Also kind of interesting in that she thought that Cat would, if given enough time, eventually ‘settle down’ like the Dead King did, and mellow out – she really misunderstands Callowan ideology if that’s the case.

    Meanwhile, though, Cat’s gonna have her hands full trying to appease the Empress now, in that she ‘knows’ that Malicia is likely willing to unleash the dead king on her at any moment, for having tried to assassinate her – Cat broke the ‘illusion’ of cooperation, and if Procer clears out, Malicia has no reason to believe Cat will fall back into any sort of deference.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jane

      Like….that would mean that either Black got insanely lucky with his ‘create an anti-story story’ narrative for Cat to be shaped into, and/or someone else has been pulling the strings who is just as good as Bard, if not better.

      Luck isn’t that unlikely here, no? I mean, there’s been thousands of years for this kind of thing to happen – and there have already been many near-misses like her, who “burned themselves out”. All that has to happen is Cat to survive long enough to burn Bard, and the world is her frozen oyster.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Novice

        Does she though? Malicia is still in control of half of the entire Legions of Terror and she has Wolof’s sorceries to back it up. Malicia has the forges of Foramen which means better weapons and armor. The only advantages Cat’s army has over Malicia’s are the Woe and her general. And her general being better than the remaining generals in the Legions is debatable.

        Although, you can argue that Cat being the underdog in this universe gives her all the advantages she needs.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. magesbe

          She doesn’t have half the Legions of terror. Cat said earlier that Praes proper was so badly defended at this point that Callow could conceivably invade, though not hold it. Malacia is approaching the Dead King partially because she doesn’t have a lot of military cards to play, so she gets someone else to play for h er.

          Liked by 4 people

          1. Novice

            Huh, you’re right. For some dumb reason, I have it in my head that the Praes heartlands still has half of the Legions as a substantial garrison.

            Welp, Praes is utterly fucked in this crusade. Time to let loose all the horrors locked in the basements, I guess.

            Liked by 2 people

        2. John Laing

          Cat has knights, whereas the Legions of Terror have never had access to proper heavy cavalry. Playing defensive, she also has favorable terrain, a loyal populace, and the Observatory to counter infiltration.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Novice

            Eh, the Knights have been completely defeated before. I’m sure whatever tactics Black has employed in the Fields would have been taught in their war academy/college for the past two decades. And the current Knights are scrapped from the bottom of the barrel, quite unlike before the Conquest. I admit the Observatory would have been effective.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. IDKWhoitis

              You do forget that Catherine and the FAE are Major Force multipliers that the previous knights did not have. Also the knights may have learned from their graphic defeat and will know to just kind of avoid direct confrontation like they did previously. Calvary as a force for flanking and force recon that can move quickly are still potent.

              Liked by 1 person

    2. Cicero

      I don’t think it was luck. I think it was very careful and deliberate on the part of Black.

      Go back and reread Cat’s first meeting with Black. It has all the earmarks of the start of a hero’s story, not a villain. Then it takes a swerve towards being an anti-hero, but still typically heroic. Yet despite all the heroic markers Cat ends up a villain.

      She got a hero’s story but as a villain. And I think that was a deliberate choice on the part of Black. Which then explains why she flips stories so easily.

      Liked by 7 people

  7. Jane

    Well. I have to say, I did not see Malicia being in Athal, because it did not occur to me that the game would be that rigged. Nice training for her, though, and she’ll get her diversion either way – assuming she can get around what Malicia has planned.

    Though, I wonder what that is, exactly. It’s obvious the Empress was lying about her plan, and she’s deliberately acted to provoke Cat multiple times – but for what reason? Luring her into a trap of Malicia’s making to dispose of her would be the most obvious answer, but the timing’s all wrong for it. I suspect she’s trying to solve one problem with another, either such that they eradicate each other or create a set of circumstances such that she can bind Cat to herself, but I can’t see how launching a missile at herself plays into that. Well, I suppose it’s only reasonable that we don’t have enough clues for that yet, given the characters involved…

    I also wonder what the Dead King told Cat, but I expect that we’ll be finding that out next chapter. I’m reasonably certain he told Cat that Athal was Malicia, but there’s more to it than that – she seemed to hint that she came to some agreement with the Dead King, which suggests that he’s double-crossing her. Either to take up her offer now, while publicly framing Malicia for it, or to turn on Malicia when she uses the Dead King against Cat – I can’t see anything else that would be big enough for Cat to call on the Dead King’s help again, either this year or the next. Unless she was just trying to making Malicia paranoid.

    Something tells me the Black Knight isn’t actually using an Aspect to move, but instead some manner of unconventional tactics. Reckless constant use of an Aspect doesn’t seem like his style. He has to be using an Aspect for the sieges, though, since he doesn’t have any equipment for it, but does have one that can break through walls at will. Nice touch spying on the enemy’s scrying, though. I wonder what his escape plan is, however?

    Nice to see the Council of Immortals being all schemey and vague as usual, though. I wonder if either of them actually have any plans here, or if they’re both just bluffing each other for the heck of it so that they can both claim they planned the whole thing a century from now when it bites one of them. …Not criticizing the writing, to be clear, they’re just both playing out an archetype I enjoy mocking.

    Liked by 10 people

    1. Someguy

      Black isn’t using an Aspect to move the Legions. That’s just a modern infantry on a fast march while Procer move thair levys like a herd of sheep. The feudal idiots never experienced an actual standing army with modern training before.

      Liked by 7 people

      1. Jane

        I don’t think it’s just a difference in quality – the commander said their estimates were based on their observations of Black’s previous pace. This suggests that either Black had deliberately been reducing his speed, possibly to concentrate the enemy forces as they attempt to encircle him in order to reduce the chances of an accidental interception later, or that he’s suddenly moving more quickly. This could be accomplished by use of an Aspect, as the commander theorized, but innovating new tactics for rapid movement is a pretty common trope in military-focused fiction.

        Liked by 7 people

        1. Someguy

          That’s what I meant, Black and the Legion’s previous marching speed was done “conventionally” to lull the Proceran commanders into an intellectual trap. The sudden speed increase is probably only mid-pace. A well trained infantry battallion can outpace a horse in an overnight march and still go into battle afterwards. Black and Grem have not yet shown all their non-magical cards.

          Liked by 6 people

      2. Cicero

        Are we sure?

        Black does have the Aspect “Command” which might allow him to speed up his army marches.

        We do know that all of his Aspects tend to support leading an army instead of individual combat.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Black’s Aspects are “Lead”, “Conquer”, and “Destroy”.
          If he’s using an Aspect to speed his Legions, it’s probably an application of Lead or Conquer.

          If he’s not using an Aspect, then I see a three basic options – one, stepping up the marching pace, two, extending the time spent marching, or three, some combination of stepping up the pace and extending the time spent marching.

          Liked by 4 people

  8. Novice

    Also: “Neshamah finished, purely for the pleasure of denying her the climax.”

    I believe someone in the comments called him bone daddy last chapter? ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

    Liked by 10 people

      1. Oshi

        She meant Calernia. Everything in the story has been carefully shaped so that a Crusade is called and a threat produced. This is about wiping the slate. The Bard wants her enemies dead, her pieces strengthened and things set the way SHE wants them. As far as I can see this IS her plan.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Antoninjohn

    Cat is mentioned to be going to pick up Black if he get in trouble. I wonder what she is doing before going back to Callow is it the Dark elves, the Mighty Skaven Empire or the Golden Bloom

    Like

      1. haihappen

        In a discussion inside the Woe, it is discussed if she should Gate to Black and save him before he is captured/killed, but not before, as they do not know what his plans are, because he always has plans. But saving him was insited upon by Masego, and Cat would do it for him.

        Liked by 7 people

        1. Novice

          She’d do it only because Zeze told her to. Totally not because she still loves the man as a father figure in her frozen, lightless, decorative heart. Yep. Definitely.

          Liked by 8 people

    1. 1queenofblades1

      Nowhere near as much as the real life Fourth Crusade though. Yet. I honestly kinda hope it does lol. I’d love to see Salia sacked and Procer split apart into various successor states with a Latin Empire analogies (similar to what happened to the Byzantine Empire)

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Jane

        If memory serves, though, Mercantis hasn’t had its fleet contracted to take the Crusaders anywhere, so there’s little opportunity to suggest looting their hosts in lieu of repayment… Though I guess a variant could still work if someone “forgot” to pay their mercenaries?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. History: ramming home the most important message again and again — “makes bloody certain to keep your guards/ mercenaries/ army/ contractors/ eunuchs/ tax collectors/ civil servants happy”. Nothing but Bad Things™ happen if you don’t.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. GuidingMoonlight

    Umm, did I miss chapter?
    Where is the ending of the arc? The climax. Where is Cat realization that she’ve been played? Or is cat allowed to lose only off screen? I mean really what the hell.
    How did Cat figured out that dead king about to invaded, anyway? She walked away before Malicia revealed herself. Or she is faerie-precog now?
    Speaking of precogs, Augur continue to be useless. We know squat about her power but black and cat continue to surprise hasenbah time and time again. She didn’t even know that Woe to the north was dead fucking king. You know, biggest evil on a continent? Ring any bell?

    I adore the setting, but common, you can do better.

    Like

    1. lennymaster

      Nooo, you did not miss a chapter. Not showing Cat’s conversation with the Dead King was a means to build suspense for the reader, as has been done several times in Guide. Like at the end of the last book, in Liese. Were Malicia told Cat to preserve the doomsday weapon, despite Black beeing adamant about destroying it.
      That Malicia was gonna make a deal without Cat around to try and outbid her was clear and Cat knowing about having lost was clearly implied in the first few paragraphs.
      Augur is just not COMPLETLY overpowered, only mildly so. After all, she is the only reason why Hasenbach has not been ended by a tragic but hilarious accident due to Assassin.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. GuidingMoonlight

        “…was a means to build suspense for the reader,”

        suspense of what? its like cutting out punchline of a joke skipping straignt to crowd laughing. its annoying, to say the least.

        “…That Malicia was gonna make a deal without Cat around to try and outbid her was clear and Cat knowing about having lost was clearly implied in the first few paragraphs.”

        It was not. It said that Malicia suspected that DK hinted about it to Cat. In anyway i rather read negotiations myself, thanks.

        “Augur is just not COMPLETLY overpowered,”

        If by “Augur not completely overpowered” you mean “hasnt done a thing since the start of crusade” than sure.you are right. Black continue to outmaneuvere everyone because..? He is so random? Last arc showed that Precogs(Skein) dont care about it. And if he somehow knows how to counter Augur. than why he didnt tell this trick to Assassin? As i see it right now Augur only role(heh) in the story is to explain why Assassin didnt kill Hassy 10 years ago.

        Like

          1. GuidingMoonlight

            It seems to me that Augur practically (heh) pose zero threat to Black despite Black extensive collection of death flags (which in this setting has much more weight) and Augur (clearly overhyped) reputation and backstory…

            Liked by 1 person

  11. Silverking

    Why would the Bard give the Dead King permission to go hogwild with Procer (assuming that’s the baby in this scenario)? I can think of one or two potential reasons.

    1. Paying for Future Victory. I’m reminded of the Bard’s scheme to turn the Calamities’s murder-by-diverted-trap of the Ashen Priestess to a fatal attack to leave an opening to kill Sabah, and there was some theorizing by Cat about how the Heavens can’t create a truly overpowered Hero because that would mean that the Hells would have “permission” to balance things out. I’m thinking that the Bard is predicting that a grave threat to the forces of Good is coming, greater than ANY of the players we’ve met. So, she’s allowing the Dead King to get a bunch of “Evil wins” on the playing field, so that when the time comes the Heavens will have “permission” to put their whole fist on the scales. The main caveat is that the Bard’s promising that the axe will be coming down…but not on the Dead King.

    2. Punishment for Cordelia. Now, the Heavens love an excuse to kill Evil just as much as the next guy, but this crusade has been disappointing in a few ways. Calling down the righteous fury of the Heavens is not a mere tool for your political games, Cordelia. This is supposed to be building the hype for the forces of Good, but declaring Cat an Archvillain aside, this is barely more noteworthy than a border dispute. Where’s the nationwide call to prayer? Where are the zealots who would have fought to the last man rather than accept terms with the Black Queen? Crusades are not footnotes in history, dangit! Well, they’re going to remember this one. They will learn the cost of taking the threat of Evil lightly. They will remember that their salvation comes not from petty tactics and schemes, but devotion and submission to Good and Heroes. They will learn for generations to hate Cordelia’s name as much as they fear Triumphant’s (May she never return). And the next time some smartass First Prince thinks about how to maintain power, they’ll think twice about taking the name of the Heavens in vain.

    Liked by 11 people

    1. haihappen

      The Intercessor’s motivation is the real problem here when trying to figure out what it does next.
      1) Reestablishment of the status quo? With Praes back into old ways, Callow the field where the conflict of Good/Evil regularly produces graveyards worth of casualties in way to resolve the conflict. With the side goal of undoing the “Grand Alliance” thingy. Eternal Strive so neither Good or Evil Wins (And end the game of Creation). Then the obvious goal would be to break Malaica and Cathrine, and dethrone Hasenbach to end her Grand Alliance scheme.
      2) Breaking of the Dead King? Unlikely, but it could be goading the Dead king to venture farther from his “save” hell as possible, for some scheme to take him down, forever. Because that is its END OF THE GAME, YOU WIN moment. And she craves the end?
      3) Removal of all pieces on the board that she had no hand in creating. Meaning remove Cathrine from Creation, or being able to control her. This would be a motivation of a control-obsessed psycho-/sociopath. The current state of events may have a not insignificant change of spiraling completely out of Its control, so order, or chaos in this case, must be restored.
      4) Prevent Cat to win and thus “flip the table” on the Gods. Lesser variant of (1). The chain of events could lead to an equilibrium of Good and Evil, triggering a Stalemate in the Game of Creation. Or it is the opposite, and unleashing the Dead King may facilitate Cats rise to the Top, then being able to enforce the Accords, building equilibrium over time, ending Creation, and with it, the Intercessor.

      A lot of speculation hinges on the unanswered (or unanswerable) question “Does the Intercessor want to end its own existence, or does she enjoy it?”.
      The tiny bit of the Bard’s PoV cannot be used to solve this, I think, as the Bard may as well be an Unreliable Narrator.
      My personal speculation grows towards the Bard/Intercessor as a God, self-stripped of most of its powers, nudging stories to stack the deck to its side’s favor.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. magesbe

        I got the feeling that she was once just as mortal as The Dead King was, it would explain her talking about how she now she “knew better” than before. Gods don’t change, they’re eternal; mortals? They learn and evolve.

        Liked by 2 people

  12. Vagrant

    Oh my God. What an amazing chapter!! I’m in awe and gonna read it 2 more times now. Then maybe re-read the whole arc. I sure hope I am a Patreon already cuz it’d feel criminal to not act on the gratitude I’m feeling right now. I wanna write 3 pages of prause, seeing as I am neither particularly precise in observation nor in expressing myself I will not. It’d be a waste of anyones time. Still I couldn’t resist the urge to at least get my intention across. Maybe it makes you smile! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Raved Thrad

    Ahh, raw Callowan spite: there is no nectar sweeter to savor. Where is your haughtiness now, Cordelia Hasenbach? I can’t wait to see her have to wade through the blood of her slaughtered people. “…And down here in the mud, oh look! Another dead Proceran!”

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Yotz

    Two titbits:
    First – there is a certain probability that DK made a separate pact with Cat, and – maybe – nudged her to leak his plans for imminent invasion;
    and second – it seems, Malicia is in dark about the Sixth.

    Oh, and one more thing – our dear droog seems to be aiming for a particular brand of ultra-violence – to remind everyone hopped on fancy new stuff like “moral ambivalence” how real Evil looks like.
    Or maybe she finally pulled a spring, and just wants to see the world in flames…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ______

      Didn’t “Athal” see the “Shade of Splendour” discuss politics with the Woe and attend the eeting with the Dead King? I think she just disregards Akua as a tool of hers that had been used to build the murderfortress and then was lost to Catherine, but has no independent influence.

      Like

      1. Yotz

        That’s the thing, though – “Shade of Splendour” would be “a ghost of faerie” in non-purple. From Malicia’s point of view, Akua – indeed – had outlived her usefulness. That doesn’t mean she wouldn’t use her if there’ll be an opening, or wouldn’t use a fact of Butcher of Liesse being semi-pardoned against Cat.
        But, as you mentioned – “Athal” saw a “Shade of Splendour”. And so I’m inclined to make a jump in conclusions – Malicia saw a Shade of a Faerie, and the options for her is to make connections with necromantic fallout of the Liesse Machine, where some Faeries could’ve been turned to Shades among the others, and now is bound by Winter; or conclude that Hierophant is tinkering with LM to reproduce the effects; and either way that problem would be resolved upon the imminent betrayal of the Splendid.

        What Malicia doesn’t know, is that the Prisoner of the Mantle is now in active status, willingly serving the Black Queen, and the identity of Shade in question, probably mistaking her for a random Fae.
        If this is so, that may be a wildcard for the Cat’s straight flush against Malicia’s full house.

        Liked by 3 people

  15. kagelupus

    Just an FYI, this chapter was not showing up on the side bar list of chapters. Had to go to Ch. 47: Culmination and then click on the next chapter link from there.

    Like

  16. RanVor

    Even after all of this, it still strikes me how immensely arrogant the First Prince really is. Even as she stands on the brink, she still has the gall to demand from the person she intended to kill mere minutes ago to save her sorry ass from the mess she has brought on herself. Even when she tries to destroy Callow, she remains convinced that Callowans have a sacred duty to die in defence of Procer. Because obviously Proceran lives are the only ones that matter. Even Malicia isn’t as full of herself as this woman.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Cicero

      It’s not arrogance. It’s just a natural human self-centered tribal instinct.

      Naturally the leader of Procer is going to view things from the perspective of how they benefit Procer.

      Friends of Procer will help her when she is in trouble.

      Enemies will attack her when Procer is in trouble.

      It’s a natural thing, just as Cat is biased to see things from the Callow point of view.

      It’s just that the First Prince of Procer has to carry the burden of all the sins of every previous First Prince, which tends to make her position look hypocritical. But that really isn’t Cordelia’s fault, any more than it’s Malicia’s fault for every evil every Praes Tyrant before her committed.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. RanVor

        I’m not saying she shouldn’t care about Proceran lives or anything like that. But one does not simply demand an unconditional help from the sworn enemy without being more than a little stuck-up. Note that she didn’t even imply she intends to stop ravaging Callow in the wake of Dead King’s invasion. It’s pretty clear she counted on bleeding the Army of Callow out against Neshamah and finishing it off when the threat is over. The entire argumentation she presented to Cat can be summarized as “You must help me because I’m better than you”. She basically told Cat Callow doesn’t matter; the only one important around is Cordelia Hasenbach and it’s everyone’s duty to save her from trouble even when it’s detrimental to them.

        Bonus points for appealing to humanity she doesn’t even believe Cat has.

        Liked by 6 people

  17. Death Knight

    I sincerely hope the Dead King will not take the Bard up on her offer to invade Procer.

    That would be stupid.

    Sure, he will win alright and the Principate will enter a 1000 years of Darkness (because the culmination of this Story is long overdue) but that would bare his neck. Because the Hero rising up to defeat the Ultimate Evil and break the thousand years of darkness is a story as old as time. He himself mentions this outcome in his conversation with Catherine.

    So why would he leave his Hell now, knowing full well it would will not end well for him?

    If he needs to send in his armies, why can’t he do that from Keter? It is mentioned in the story that while he himself never takes the field that often, there have been skirmishes between his troops and the Procerans manning his border. So it has been proven that he can command his forces at a distance…

    So, why leave at all?

    Liked by 2 people

  18. superkeaton

    Oh Bard, you’re delicious. And yes, Malicia, thank you for helping teach Cat a lesson. And thank you, Cat, for teaching Cordelia a lesson.

    One big circle of happy learning, this is. With a side of baby eating.

    Also, side note, but typos are way funnier when they’re Cordelia’s line.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Someguy

      Cordelia’s in the wrong story. Cat’s the “Orphan Queen” leading a “ragtag bunch of misfits” to repell the forces of Foreign Invasion. She now has the Role of “Smug Ruler of the Invaders” about to have the rug under her feet yanked.

      Liked by 2 people

  19. Shequi

    One extremely subtle, but important thing:

    ‘Agnes had been quite clear that doom was gathering south, and the League’s intentions were damnably opaque.’

    But then later:

    ‘Doom to the north, Agnes had said.

    She was never wrong.’

    Do the Augur’s prophecies rewrite themselves in everyone’s mind to ensure retrospectively that she was always right?

    Like

  20. Captain Amazing

    I think the Bard is trying to kill herself. Her Name and powerset have changed over the years, and we know that her current abilities are painful to her. If she’s not actively doing what she should be then she’s shunted out into the void until she’s needed again. The gods torture her to ensure she does what they want. I think the Bard’s trying to sneak herself into a villain role so she can die.

    Like

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