“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.”