“Forty-two: should a disagreement lead one of the party to leave, you should expect combat within the week as you will either be captured to be rescued by the departed or the opposite. Let it happen, as a common enemy will heal all internal disputes and you can share a good laugh over the corpse of your nemesis’ dead lieutenant.”
– Two Hundred Heroic Axioms, author unknown
We were pretending it was a spirited debate. It wasn’t. These were the bitterest arguments I’d had with the Woe so far, and currently I wasn’t winning either of them. Figured. War on two fronts was never a good idea, but it didn’t look like I was going to have a choice about it.
“It’s a trap, Masego,” I said. “You know that as well as I do.”
“My father would not harm me,” the blind man replied evenly.
“I’m not saying he’ll knife you,” I said. “I’m saying that if you set foot in the Empire, there’s no fucking way Malicia’s letting you leave regardless of what Warlock says. Assuming he doesn’t agree with her in the first place. He and I aren’t exactly bosom friends, Zeze: we came a heartbeat away from drawing on each other last year.”
“Were I still the Apprentice, your objection would have merit,” Masego said. “That is no longer the case. Nothing short of my father’s full wroth would stop me, and he will not go that far even for the Empress.”
My fingers clenched. Then my flank got hit while I was still engaged.
“I’m not going,” Vivienne flatly said. “You need me here, especially if you’re going into the Everdark.”
I shot her a glare.
“We’ll continue that conversation in a moment,” I told her.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Because you’re going to lose your argument with Hierophant, and when you do you’ll dig your heels in about this. You hate to lose, Catherine. We settle this now, when you’re still reasonable.”
“There’s nothing to argue about, Thief,” I said with forced calm. “It has to be you.”
“I am a spymistress,” Vivienne replied. “Not a ruler. Send Adjutant instead, it is clearly the appropriate response.”
“No,” Hakram quietly said, looming tall at my back. “It can’t be me. Vivienne, think about this for a moment. Whoever is sent back will need the highest authority possible to settle affairs without trouble. You know what that means.”
The dark-haired woman frowned.
“That’s irrelevant,” she said. “Hakram, I admit without qualms that in matters of rule you are my superior. I will not achieve half as much as you given the same mandate.”
“It’s not irrelevant,” I darkly said. “It’s unpleasant to talk about and it’s unfair, but it’s true anyway: If I appoint an orc regent of Callow in my absence, there will be riots. Maybe even rebellions.”
Indrani didn’t want anything to do with this mess, thank the Gods, and I wasn’t giving Diabolist this close a look into the inner workings of the Woe so I’d sent her to keep Archer entertained. This would have been much, much worse if there’d been an audience.
“Hakram is broadly known to be your second in command,” Vivienne said. “And respected by many. His authority would be observed even without the regency. Your court has been butchered, Catherine, it needs to be rebuilt before the chaos spreads any further. That is not my wheelhouse, it’s his.”
“You know whoever I send needs the fucking title, Thief,” I hissed. “Stop being obtuse. I’ve been away from the kingdom for months, the person taking charge needs the legitimacy behind them or it’ll start coming apart at the seams.”
“Then appoint him Governor-General,” Vivienne said. “It carries enough power that-”
“That would make the highest authorities in matters both civil and military greenskins,” Hakram broke in calmly. “We are not dealing with a blank slate or arithmetic empty of emotion. I may be an organizer of some skill, but that is immaterial. The amount of resistance I would face would be much larger than yours. You argument is only correct if stripped of context.”
“I can’t handle all the balls you have up in the air, Catherine,” Vivienne said, voice rising. “You need the entire kingdom’s granaries reorganized, you need to get massive amounts of steel to arm all those soldiers the Hellhound is recruiting, you need someone to steady the treasury and rebuild the King’s Council and – Gods, do I need to go on? I can’t handle all of this, not while also running the Jacks. Hakram could. His entire Role is about taking care of loose ends.”
The thing was, she had a point. I knew she’d been very careful not to use the reason she was being so aggressive about this, of course. She didn’t want me around Diabolist without her keeping an eye on it. Not, I suspected, because she thought I would suddenly forgive Akua Sahelian for her sins. She knew me better than that. But she saw Diabolist as a weed, and thought it was her duty to burn out any attempt to grow roots. I forced myself to set that aside, and address what she’d actually been saying. Which, unfortunately, wasn’t untrue. I trusted Vivienne to run the Jacks and to undertake some other discreet matters, but it was a fact I’d never dropped so much responsibility in her lap before. She’d had the education of a minor noble as a child, even though her family no longer formally held title, but that would only take her so far. What she did remember, she would be out of practice at. And we don’t have forever, I thought.
Procer would be occupied with the Dead King for the foreseeable future, but there was no guarantee part of the crusader host would not try Callowan borders again if it saw weakness. The Dominion still had two armies on the field, and the League’s intentions were opaque to me. My instinct had been that the Tyrant of Helike and his madman of a Hierarch would be taking a swing at the Principate, but that’d been while it was still the dominant force on the board. With Keter on the march, the League might be feeling adventurous enough to aim for other territories. And that was without even considering Malicia, who sure as Hells wouldn’t let me bind the wounds of Callow in peace. If Warlock was in Thalassina and cooking up something dangerous enough he wanted Masego to lend a hand, then the Ashurans were about to get a very nasty surprise. That left me the only direct threat at the Wasteland’s gated: the Empress wasn’t going to stop after a few assassinations. She was only getting started. And the only person I trust to lead the Jacks in hampering her plans is Thief.
Vivienne was leagues above Hakram, when it came to shadow games. My second was skilled at sifting through what our informants brought us and digging out the nuggets most important, but he didn’t quite have the knack when it came to actually using the Jacks for more than spying. I needed someone to start a knife fight, and Adjutant wasn’t the man for the job. But Vivienne wasn’t the woman for the rest of it, was she? She wasn’t wrong about that. If I forced too many duties upon her, she’d only end up failing at what she was actually good at. Which left me only one way through the mess. I knew what I needed to do was poor tactics, but it still needed to be done.
“You’re right,” I admitted, and there was a glint of triumph in Vivienne’s eyes. “Hakram will go with you. For the sake of appearances you’ll still be named Regent.”
And there went the glint.
“No,” they said, more or less at the same time.
I cast a look at Masego, who seemed mildly irritated our own chat was left unfinished but unwilling to press the matter. He would be. Knowing him, he was probably mentally organizing his arguments without listening to a word of what went on between the rest of us.
“Catherine, you can’t go into the Everdark with so weak an escort,” Hakram gravelled. “This is madness. The drow are infamously violent and treacherous.”
I kept my face blank. He’d never… There was a first time for everything, I told myself. It didn’t matter. I had an argument to win and getting emotional about it wasn’t going to help.
“I’ll have Archer and Diabolist,” I said. “It’s enough. I’m not going to war with them, I’m going to secure an alliance.”
“And who will handle the diplomacy, then?” Vivienne harshly said. “Indrani? You? Or will you allow the butcher of Liesse to speak in Callow’s name?”
“Better we dispense with the drow entirely than risk you going into their realm with so light a force,” the orc said. “They would be a useful addition, but they are not crucial and results are uncertain. Not worth the dangers.”
“It was one thing to put all our coin on the Army of Callow when we had the leash on the Dead King, however laughably feeble that leash was,” I replied. “It’s another when Malicia’s the one who let him out, on unknown terms. There will be battles, Hakram, and there’s only so many Callowans of fighting fit. Only so many we can afford to lose. We need someone to share the casulaties with, or it won’t matter that we have good farmland: there won’t be enough people left to till it. If you have another candidate for alliance, I’m all ears.”
“You did not answer me,” Vivienne said.
“Because what you said was pointless, Thief,” I said. “I would prefer Diabolist to serve as an adviser, but if I need to let her do the talking then that’s what going to happen. I know you don’t like it. I don’t either. But there’s no point in letting her out of the box if we don’t actually use her.”
“There’s a difference between using and trusting,” Thief hissed.
“Enough,” I said, voice rippling with power.
Not Speaking, no, I was not that far gone. I hoped I would never be. Vivienne flinched, and Hakram looked chastened for reasons beyond the obvious. He usually brought his objections to me in private, and I thought he might already be regretting this. He should have known it would sting he’d side openly with Thief in an argument, even if he disagreed with me.
“Callow was just crippled,” I said. “You can both argue all you want, that is a godsdamned fact. And we all know the Empress is far from done. Now, the two of you can disagree with me heading into the Everdark with only Archer and a mass-murdering spectre for company, but at the end of the day I have to be the one to go and someone needs to fix the mess back home. Vivienne, you argued you couldn’t do it alone. You’re right. Hakram goes too.”
“He could-” Thief began, but I raised my hand.
“No, he can’t,” I said. “I’ve heard your issues with this plan. I have answered them and made a decision. Unless you have something new to add, the only question left if whether or not you’ll obey when I make this an order.”
Hakram stirred uneasily.
“You’re the one who gave me the speech about needing to assert authority,” I told him. “I just have. I won’t deny the risks. But you can’t deny that Callow needs the two of you to get back on its feet, either.”
The orc licked his chops.
“The drow are a gambit,” he said. “Promise me you will treat them as one. Do not carry your anger over the failure in Keter into this, Catherine. We can survive without them. If the situation spins out of control…”
“Hakram,” Vivienne cried out, sounding betrayed. “You know she won’t listen if it’s just me. Gods Above, stick the damned course.”
“There is no perfect solution,” the orc said, turning to her. “We take the risks we have to. It’s not the choice I would have made, but I’m not the one making the choices. Neither are you.”
“I won’t bet it all on a long shot,” I told Adjutant. “There’s a limit to how long I’m willing to stay there as well. But I believe it’s worth trying.”
He nodded, though his discomfort was still plain on his face. I turned to Vivienne, who was worrying her lip.
“I could refuse to go, even if you make it an order,” she said.
She could. The Woe were not sworn to me, save for Hakram, and his oath was not one between queen and subject. It was a deeply personal thing, and not one I would sully by equating with simple obedience. There were few things I still considered sacred, but what the two of us had said on that hill beneath moonlight was one of them. No, for all that I was Queen of Callow I would not call Thief my subject. She was, like most the Woe, my companion. When she deferred to me, it was out of trust and respect. Not because a sister from the House of Light had put a chunk of metal on my head and spoken a few dusty words. Forcing her hand here would shatter the fragile trust the two of us had built since we’d made our pact in Laure. I would have to convince her.
“You’re making this about me,” I said. “That is beneath us both.”
“This is about your decision,” Vivienne replied, frowning. “Not your character.”
“My decision shouldn’t matter to you,” I told her. “The question you should be asking is this: is it better for Callow if I accompany Catherine or if I return?”
Her eyes narrowed.
“You are the queen of said kingdom, in case you forgot,” she said.
“I’m a warlord who got oil smeared on her forehead,” I replied bluntly. “I’m useful to the kingdom, it’s true. There would be consequences if I died. If. I’m not exactly easy to kill these days, Vivienne. And while it’s possible my heading into the Everdark without you will end up biting our home in the ass, it’s a certainty that if you don’t return some of our people will bleed for it. Hakram will have too many duties on his plate, as you pointed out. He won’t be able to use the Jacks like you would.”
“You can’t leverage Callow against me, Catherine,” Vivienne said, sounding resentful.
“You didn’t join up because you liked the look of me,” I said quietly. “There was a reason, and you were quite blunt about it. I’m not using a damned thing, Viv. I’m reminding you what we’re actually about. It’s easy to forget, in the thick of it. I know that well.”
The expression on her face was an ugly one, but she did not contradict me. She spat to the side, after a moment.
“Fine,” she said. “Damn you, but fine. I’ll go. Don’t make me regret it.”
I let out a relieved breath. If that hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t have had anything else to trot out. Tired in a way that was nothing physical, I turned my eyes to Masego.
“You two can leave us,” I said without turning.
“Catherine,” Hakram tried.
“It’s been a while,” I mildly said, “since I’ve had to repeat myself so often.”
His fangs clicked together, but he didn’t say anything more. Hierophant had been sitting silent this whole time, growing increasingly impatient.
“Quite finished?” he said.
“Yes,” I replied without a hint of apology.
I gathered myself together for another verbal brawl.
“I spent most of your squabbling mustering arguments,” Masego admitted frankly. “I have several, some grounded in fact others in my personal opinion. It took me some time before I realized it was unnecessary to do so. I do not need your permission to go.”
“You need my gate, if you want to get there before the year’s over,” I replied.
“If necessary I will summon and bind a fae of sufficient rank to serve as a gate-maker,” he said without hesitation. “Though I would be disappointed by the pettiness of your choice.”
I grimaced. He’d be right to be. It was easy to simply think of the Woe as my companions, my closest friends, and leave it at that. The truth was a little more complex. The ties binding them to me were different for all, and though that’d never brought conflict until now I could admit that’d been mostly luck on my part. It’d been going to happen sooner or later. Masego and Indrani were not invested in my fight the way the other two were. For the latter it was an entertaining enough diversion, and she liked me enough to carouse away the ‘boring’ parts, but for all that Archer was arguably the least tightly bound to me she also had few other calls on her time. She wanted to travel, one day, but she was in no hurry. Masego had first joined the Fifteenth because he believed it would allow him to witness sights nothing else would, and in this we had delivered. He truly liked us, I was sure of that. Even Vivienne, who’d come late to the band. But his first and paramount love would always be sorcery. After that came family, and though some days I suspected we were half-that in his eyes his fathers had been entrenched in that position for much longer.
If Warlock sent for him, as the man had, Masego would go. Because even after that sting of that betrayal revealed by the echoes of the fall of Keter, he loved the man deeply. I’d almost considered not passing along the message, truth be told. He might not have heard it when I spoke with Juniper, as he’d not been so close. But that would be a betrayal, what was left of my principles had whispered. But he would learn eventually, and it would cost you, a colder part of me had noted.
“I won’t withhold a gate no matter your choice,” I sighed. “I didn’t mean that, and I apologize for implying it.”
“Apology accepted,” he said, nodding politely. “Though the choice has already been made. This a formality I will entertain until you have made your peace with that.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose.
“For future reference,” I said. “When you’re humouring people to avoid hurting their feelings, it’s best to avoid telling them that.”
The dark-skinned man frowned.
“That’s rather backwards,” he noted. “Would their feelings not be more likely to be hurt if they believed at the start they had a real chance of success?”
“That’s – you know what, we can finish that conversation at another time,” I sighed. “Masego, I know you have reasons to want to go.”
“I do not care in the slightest for the fate of Thalassina,” Hierophant said. “Some ritual components of use come from the city, but none irreplaceable. It is my understanding that the Ashurans are your enemy as well, however, so out of politeness I will kill as many as I can before taking my leave.”
“And that’s appreciated, believe me,” I said. “But I need you with me, not on the other side of the continent. If half of what I’ve heard about the drow is true, your presence would make talks go a lot more smoothly.”
Having a mage capable of flattening a mountain in attendance tended to make people a great deal more civil.
“You are quite skilled at terrifying people into obedience,” Masego said, and he sounded like he believed it was a compliment. “My presence seems like it would be helpful, but necessary is overstating the case.”
“The grand total of what I know about the drow is four pages from Surley’s first volume of Realms of Calernia,” I told him. “I’d be going in blind, without you.”
“There is little I have read on the subject that Diabolist has not,” he said. “And much of the reverse that is true.”
This wasn’t going to work. I needed a different angle.
“You won’t be safe in Praes,” I said. “I’m essentially at war with the Empress and you’re my most dangerous sorcerous asset.”
“Malicia cannot lay a hand on me without incurring my father’s enmity,” Masego said. “Which I do not believe she wishes to happen, as he would kill her brutally.”
“She could still-”
“Catherine,” Masego said gently. “I know you would prefer I remain at your side. I am not displeased by this. Yet there is nothing down your current path that matters more to me than getting answers from my fathers. We are not debating. I am awaiting your final silence.”
And there it was. I wondered if this should feel like a betrayal, because it didn’t. Hakram siding with Vivienne had, and it was still a pebble in my metaphorical boot to remember it, but this… It would be like getting angry at a fish for swimming. Masego would always do what he wanted. It was the way he’d been raised: essentially untouchable in a nest of scheming and murder, people bending over backwards to curry his favour or accommodate him. In a way, he was no less highborn than Diabolist. He’d had all the privileges of the old blood with none of the duties, and still the heart of him was pure Wasteland. His desires would always come first, and it was unthinkable to him that they would not. I passed a tired hand through my hair.