“There is no poison more potent than hatred made silent.”
– Arlesite saying
I twisted my boot sharply, feeling fingers breaking under the steel. The fae cried out in pain, though I was less than impressed by how whiny she was being: I got broken fingers all the time, I could tell when someone was being overly dramatic about it.
“So Larat tells me you go by Lughlyn, these days,” I conversationally said. “And that you were the Lady of Bright Meadows once. That’s Summer, isn’t it?”
The thing that was once the Prince of Nightfall was looking at us with a lazy smile, sitting on an overturned stone. The rest of the Wild Hunt was watching us with varying degrees of interest, and more than a few vicious smirks. Just because hey rode together didn’t mean they were particularly affectionate.
“It was indeed of Summer, Sovereign,” one of the fae called out. “As proud a knight of the Court as there ever was.”
Good, they were getting involved. Public torture and humiliation had a way of drawing them in, admittedly, even when it was one of theirs doing the screaming. I’d had more than taking a firm stance with a discipline case in mind when I’d begun this, so their attention was more than welcome. I dug my heel into her palm and there was another sickening snap followed by a hoarse scream.
“So, would anyone care to tell me why Lughlyn is currently on the ground?” I said, opening the proceedings to the gallery.
I glanced at the dark-skinned fae wriggling on the stony shore. She’d come to my attention more than once, of late. First by picking a fight with Vivienne when she’d been on corpse-scavenging duty, and more recently when she’d decided to open her mouth after being given orders.
“She protested her sworn duties,” another fae called out.
“That’s right,” I said, smiling thinly.
“I would never,” Lughlyn gasped. “Sovereign, I was merely-“
“Are we now goatherds, to ferry your mortal cattle?” Larat quoted softly. “Ah, Lughlyn. So much pride, so little sense. It was always a guilty pleasure to flay that off of you one layer at a time.”
The one-eyed prince of the fae might be first among equals of the Hunt, but he was no caring warden of their welfare. He delighted in pouring oil over the flames whenever he could, and today he’d been handed an opportunity to indulge his darker leanings.
“Now, our good friend is beneath my boot because she happened to be loudest hen in the henhouse,” I casually continued. “So she’s going to have a bad day, because of that. But we’re long overdue another conversation, aren’t we?”
Larat laughed, bright and merry and utterly unrepentant.
“Stand tall, Riders of the Hunt,” he called out. “We must now be called to account for our many sins. Our queen is a demanding one.”
“My fashionably treacherous lieutenant has it right,” I said, grinding down on Lughlyn’s hand for punctuation. “Any of you remember the Battle of the Camps?”
“We fought under your banner that day, and slew many,” one of the fae said.
“So you did,” I mused. “When I woke up. Until then you just… watched. As those in my service died.”
Keeping the Hunt in line required a very careful mixture of violence and patience, with a sprinkle of unpredictability added to the brew at the last moment. I’d been lax in making them drink it, after the campaign up north began, and my men had ended up paying for that during the parts of the battle where I was dreaming of death. I’d added a little more violence than usual to make it more bitter a draught this time, as they very much deserved it.
“We were given no orders by your Hellhound,” one of the fae said.
Ah, finally one whose name I knew.
“Because the lot of you remained out of sight, Seldred,” I said. “Now, would any of you care to guess if I’m pleased by that?”
Heel. Lughlyn screamed.
“You would have us shepherd mortals,” another fae said, her voice lilting with distaste.
“From now on, in my absence, you will answer to others,” I said smilingly. “Thief, first, and if she is not there it will be to Marshal Juniper.”
“No oaths bind us to mortal writ,” Seldred said, fingers stroking his beard.
I took my boot off the dark-skinned fae’s hand.
“Lughlyn, would you care to earn a modicum of mercy?” I said.
“By your will, Sovereign,” she croaked out.
“Kill Seldred,” I ordered.
The other fae’s eyes widened. A heartbeat later and they were already going at each other like rabid hounds. Lughlyn was wounded, but she was also desperate and Seldred had been taken aback by the sudden turn. It evened out. Silver blades sounded against each other in furious fighting, until one of them slumped headless to the ground. Lughlyn stood panting and bloodied, a long wound scarring her torso where the other fae’s blade had gone through her mail. I strode up to her, feeling the eyes of every fae on me, and laid a hand on the laceration. Winter flowed through my veins and poured into her, the blood freezing with a snap and the wound slowly closing as my will was ordering to.
“Now, I don’t consider this a case of me disciplining you,” I told the Hunt. “The dead are dead, and you’re useful enough I won’t take your heads on a whim. This is a warning, my lovelies. About the dangers of toeing the line with me.”
I patted Lughlyn’s belly gently.
“You can be on my good side,” I said, then jutted a thumb at Seldred’s corpse. “Or you can join him. There is no middle ground, and I have no use for defective instruments.”
“So spoke the Queen of the Hunt,” Larat said, voice carrying without ever rising. “So we shall remember.”
I inclined my head towards the one-eyed fae as the others echoes him softly.
“You have you orders,” I told Larat.
“They will be obeyed,” he promised with a sharp grin, “most carefully.”
I cast a last look at the Hunt. A simple public execution would not have cowed them, not in the same way this had. Death they were no stranger to. But being made a spectacle of, so casually? Oh, that would cut pride as well as flesh and those kind of wounds were much more dangerous to fae. They were creatures that feared humiliation more than pain, in many ways.
“Don’t look so pleased, One-Eye,” I said. “I’m holding you responsible for whatever they get up to, when I’m not there to take a look.”
If anything, that broadened his smile.
“You are taking delightfully well to cruelty, my queen,” he said. “This lark has been even more entertaining than anticipated.”
Well, that was the Larat for you: never more disconcerting than when he doled out praise. I kept my face calm.
“Open the gate,” I said. “I have farewells to make.”
He rose and bowed with feline grace. It was a short stroll from the beach to the Woe’s camp, and I noted with approval that while I’d been sorting out the Hunt the three leaving had finished packing up all their affairs. Indrani was poking at the fire with a piece of driftwood, and shot me a wounded look when I joined them.
“Did you just have a fairy pit fight without me, Cat?” she said. “Because that would be extremely inconsiderate, and I expected better from you.”
“I was just making a point,” I dismissed, then threw her a bone. “I promise if I ever arrange some kind of sordid Arcadian death tournament you’ll get an invitation.”
The brown-skinned woman looked thoughtful.
“Maybe next year?” she mused. “I mean, they’ll start being more trouble than use at some point and if you have to get rid of them…”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” I muttered.
The others looked on in amusement, at least most of them. Much as I hated seeing them leave, there was no point in delaying any longer. I reached Hakram first, the tall orc towering over me in his burnt plate.
“Cat,” he gravelled. “About yesterday-”
I shook my head.
“Water under the bridge,” I said. “I already felt under siege, so I took deeper offence than I should have.”
“No,” Hakram said, shaking his head. “You were right to be displeased. We debate in private, when we differ. One front.”
I clasped his forearm, in the legionary’s salute, and after a moment he did the same.
“I won’t part with you on bad terms,” I told him gently. “Bad enough I won’t see you for months. It’d done and buried, let’s leave it at that.”
He let out a sigh that sounded closer to a kettle’s whistle.
“Done and buried,” he echoed.
I squeezed his arm.
“I’m leaving you with the roughest work again,” I said. “I’m sorry, Hakram. It always seems to end up that way.”
He offered a flash of ivory fangs in response.
“At least this way I won’t have to decipher that war crime you call cursive before passing instructions along,” he teased. “Silver lining, Cat.”
I chuckled, already missing him before he’d even left my sight.
“Don’t slack on your training,” I said. “You won’t have Indrani and I to keep you sharp anymore.”
“My bones are deeply grateful for it,” he snorted, and pulled me into a hug.
My chin still didn’t reach his shoulder, but I’d learned where to place my head over the years. The embrace loosened after too short a while. From the corner of my eye I caught Indrani tugging at Masego’s robes and messing up his braids, fingers looking for every excuse to linger. Hakram’s gaze joined mine, and he let out a thoughtful rumble.
“I didn’t think that would last,” I admitted quietly.
“She gets bored easily,” the orc agreed. “But she was stubborn even before she started rubbing elbows with Callowans.”
“Have you…” I said, trailing off.
Talked with either of them about it, I left unspoken.
“Last time I tried she defenestrated me and called it awareness training,” he muttered. “That one’s all yours, Cat.”
Well, it’d been a while since I’d last strolled across a field full of buried munitions. I was due another fool’s errand.
“Fair travels, Hakram of the Howling Wolves,” I said.
“May victory slight your foes, Catherine Foundling,” he replied softly.
We broke away, and Vivienne filled the gap within moments. Her face was hard to read, but her heartbeat was steady. If she was angry still, it was an anger mastered.
“Vivienne,” I said, hesitant. “I know you’re not happy about this.”
For a long moment, she stayed silent.
“I know the end of that story,” she finally said, discretely glancing at Akua. “You gave an oath. I worry of the journey there, but I’ll make my peace with the path knowing the destination is certain.”
“It’s going to get better, you know,” I said. “Sooner or later we’ll reach daylight.”
She smiled ruefully.
“Will we?” she said. “It doesn’t matter. I can be angry with Catherine Foundling but see the sense in what the Queen of Callow has said. They are different people, in the end.”
“I don’t want to split with things unspoken,” I insisted. “Leaving to fester-”
“Enough, Catherine,” the dark-haired woman said. “You got your way. I’ve spoken my piece, and you heard what I did not speak. Keep it in mind, before threading fingers with the Folly’s own architect. Necessity is a fickle mistress, and we’ve learned the dangers of swift gains that sow far losses.”
I bit down on my answer. This was as good as it was going to get, and opening the wound again would only make it worse. It left a bitter taste in the mouth, but what part of ruling didn’t?
“Be careful,” I told her instead. “And be wary.”
“I always am,” Vivienne Dartwick smiled. “Try not to slip up in the Everdark, would you? Fighting fire with fire tends to end up burn everything down.”
“You know me,” I lightly said. “A diplomat without peer, I am.”
“Well phrased,” she noted, amusement bleeding through. “Until next time, Cat.”
I nodded back. Indrani had finally let Masego go free, so I caught him by the arm as Thief and Archer fell into the ritual of insults and petty slights that was their way of saying goodbye.
“Zeze,” I said.
“Catherine,” he said, sounding bemused. “Please don’t touch the braids.”
My fingers twitched. It was an almost physical need to screw with them now that he’d told me not to.
“As a sign of my deep and abiding love for you,” I said. “This once I won’t.”
“What a merciful queen you are,” he drily said.
“That’s what they say,” I agreed without missing a beat. “I know I’ve already told you, but don’t forget-“
“Trust no one in Praes,” Masego said patiently. “Not even Father. We’ve had this conversation before.”
“I guess we have,” I sighed.
Asking him to stay one last time would change nothing and sour the farewell, so I forced down the urge.
“Be careful not to provoke anyone you are not capable of killing,” he instructed me gently. “And if you can get your hands on any arcane tomes…”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I smiled.
“Good,” he said, visibly pleased.
He sobered a heartbeat later.
“Take care of Indrani,” he said. “I believe she might be upset.”
She knows you’re heading into the tiger’s den, I thought. And without any guarantees, this time, or one of us to watch your back.
“I will,” I said, searching his face for any sign that he might suspect…
Well, I wasn’t sure what exactly. I wouldn’t know until I got her drunk enough to talk. But it was a sharper with a lit fuse, and the lack of awareness I got from him was probably the only thing that’d kept it from blowing so far.
“I’ll leave messages with the Observatory as soon as feasible,” he promised. “Stay alive, Catherine. I would be cross if you failed in this.”
“Well, you’ve always been a soft touch,” I smiled.
When I pulled him close he stayed stiff for only a moment before gingerly putting his hands on my shoulders. Gods, he was so horribly awkward at times. That thought should not be as fond as it was. We withdrew and I left him to pick up his bags, joining the other two where they awaited. All three of them headed towards the Hunt, already mounted, and I met Larat’s eyes before he opened the gate. He inclined his head. We had an understanding, he and I, about the kind of ugly things I would do if any of them were hurt on his watch. Indrani sidled up to me and we watched them pass into Arcadia, standing there in silence until the gate closed and the last wisp of power was gone.
“So,” Archer said. “What now?”
“We set out tomorrow,” I said. “Tonight, though? I distinctly remember you saying something about a drink called Atalantian baptismal you stole a bottle of.”
“Now there’s exemplary leadership at work,” she said.
Duty could wait until tomorrow, for once.
I dropped the bowl in the pile of dishes we’d have to wash in the lake later, having scraped off the last of the stew. I tossed the spoon after it.
“I didn’t think you’d be this good a cook,” I admitted.
Indrani snorted, sprawled against a stone she’d covered with blankets.
“You’re such a city girl,” she said. “You think I had people to cook for me, back in Refuge? Ranger passed along camp recipes, but she wasn’t the one who tended the pots. There was a pecking order.”
“I was under the impression it had grown into a respectable settlement,” Akua said, sounding mildly surprised.
She was on the other side of the fire, scarlet eyes luminous in the darkness. Diabolist hadn’t touched the stew herself: she was capable of touch, nowadays, but she required nothing to eat. Neither did I, but on occasion it was a pleasant distraction.
“Sure, by numbers,” Indrani said, pouring herself a drink of the Dead King’s finest rotgut. “But it’s not a village, Sahelian. It’s just a large camp that exists because the Lady killed the beasts that used to live there. We get traders, now and then, and the dwarves peddle things but it’s everyone for themselves.”
“Yeah, she didn’t strike me as the ruling kind of woman,” I muttered. “Not a lot of patience there.”
“Good thing, too,” Indrani said, handing me a cup. “Otherwise who’d cook, you? You’re shit with a pot and everyone knows Callowan food is disgusting.”
“I’ve seen you tear into apple bread like it murdered your parents,” I drily replied.
“Well, desserts are fine,” she conceded. “But your beer is basically dirt water and there’s not a single inn in the kingdom that can do mutton right.”
“It’s true,” Akua noted. “Callowans are infamous for being ignorant of spices and drowning their plates in that horrible Laurean sauce.”
“I’m not taking culinary trash talk from a drunken vagrant and a woman whose people think poison is actual seasoning,” I replied defensively.
“That fucking sauce is basically poison too, let’s be honest,” Indrani muttered.
Best avoid getting too deep into that fight, I decided. Both of them were much better travelled than me, so they had depth of argument I couldn’t match. Not that there was anything wrong with solden sauce, unless you were some kind of fancy noble. Thankfully, it was easy to distract half of my opposition: I raised my cup and with a cheer Indrani met my toast. The baptismal went down like a cup of goblinfire, and that was coming from someone who could barely get drunk anymore. Indrani had to be burning out some of the effects with her Name, no one had that good of a liver.
“Oh, that’s the good stuff,” Indrani rasped out. “You sure you don’t want a cup, Ghost of Bad Decisions?”
“It would not affect me,” Akua replied, unruffled by the latest mildly insulting nickname she’d been given. “Truth be told, even before my… current state of affairs, I rarely drank. Enough to prove I’d obtained the correct antidote, but it was never my sin of choice.”
“Ugh, nothing worse than a villain that won’t drink,” Indrani complained. “I thought Praesi were all about living it up. I bet you were all chaste and demure, too.”
“Hardly,” the shade replied, sounding amused. “I had my own affairs, though given my station they required a degree of discretion.”
Indrani topped up my cup and I the way I felt light-headed had nothing to do with the drink. Not yet, anyway. Gods, did she intend to gossip with Akua Sahelian? This was surreal even by my standards, and I’d turned into fucking mist this week.
“Come on,” she goaded. “Don’t hold out on us now, Murder Bitch. We’re just getting to the juicy stuff.”
“I actually spent the night with Fasili, not long before the battle at Liesse,” Akua shrugged.
“Fasili Mirembe?” I said, brow rising. “Hells, you have terrible taste.”
“He was not unskilled, if that is your worry,” the shade smirked.
Ugh. He’d had a permanent sneer on his face. Not bad looking, since he’d been highborn and the Wasteland did breed for looks, but the notion of him naked was enough to have me wince. Also, now that I thought of it…
“We killed him, didn’t we?” I frowned.
“Robber shot him in the back,” Indrani agreed. “He still has the skull. We used it when re-enacting Valerian Betrayed, just before the Battle of the Camps heated up. Sappers make a terrible chorus, for the record. Can’t reach a proper low note for the life of them.”
Well, if Robber’s bunch were badly running plays then at least they weren’t running illegal scorpion fights. Probably. I hoped.
“Woe to the defeated, as always,” Akua said, tone sardonic.
She didn’t seem all that broken up about it, but then this was Diabolist. The only person I’d ever seen her care a whit about was her father, and we’d shot him too. I drank from my cup, and watched as Indrani began working on her fourth. We’d reach drunk waters soon enough, by my reckoning. That stuff hit damnably fast.
“Akua, begin the watch,” I said, flicking a glance at her.
“She can stay,” she said. “I know what you want to rake me over coals about. Surprised it took you this long, to be honest. Besides, Collar Fairy’s part of the crew now isn’t she?”
“In a manner of speaking,” I said. “We have an understanding.”
“A slightly longer leash, as long as I behave and prove of use,” Akua said, rather matter-of-fact. “Not an unusual arrangement, by my people’s standards.”
“You sure?” I pressed Archer.
She waved my objection away carelessly.
“Please, Cat,” she said. “Her whole thing is reading people. You think she hasn’t figured it out if you picked up on it?”
I sighed. She wasn’t wrong about that, I’d concede.
“Your affections for Lord Masego,” the shade calmly said. “I did not believe the matter to be a secretive one, I must admit.”
“Hey,” Indrani said mulishly. “Let’s not get all… formal about this. It’s just a thing. That is there.”
“It’s not a crime,” I said. “To have, uh, feelings.”
“I can’t believe the killer ghost is handling this better than you are,” she said, sounding amused.
“I don’t really get it,” I admitted. “But I don’t have to. I just don’t want you to get hurt trying to get something I’m not sure can be had.”
“I know he’s not interested in bedplay, Cat,” Indrani snorted. “Come on. Last time he saw me shirtless he asked if I needed healing.”
I winced. Yeah, that sounded like him all right. Part of it was that had had a hard time reading cues, but I was pretty sure that when he got close enough to people he started just dismissing the possibility of the cue being there at all. He’d been raised in Praes, so he could at least pretend to be better at social things than he was with strangers, but in closed company he tended to drop the pretence and outright admit when he wasn’t sure about something. Which was heart warming, in a way, because it meant he trusted us. It also meant he could get a little rough around the edges since he didn’t bother to hold back.
“He has no interest in men either, if it is any comfort,” Akua said. “I tried to place such agents in his bed after he joined the Fifteenth, to no avail.”
I was not surprised in the slightest that she’d tried to honeypot the Woe, to be honest. I was lucky that back then it’d been Masego and Hakram she could go after, and neither was really the seducible type. Well, Hakram was apparently really easy to seduce, but not to get to stick around afterwards. Juniper kept calling him a word in Kharsum I was pretty sure meant ‘easy’ in a highly unflattering way after she had a few drinks.
“Huh,” Indrani mused. “I mean, I assumed, but that’s nice to know.”
“So you’re not unaware that it’s not his wheelhouse,” I delicately said. “And still?”
“Never really met anyone like him before,” she admitted. “Dangerous but without the edges. It’s soothing. And he’s earnest, Cat. How many people do you know are willing to just be like that? I just…”
Really like him, I completed for her. Yeah, I’d been there once or twice. Usually to my disappointment when I got to know the person in question better, but she’d gone about this the other way around. I put an arm around her, tugged her a little closer. She immediately leaned in and bit my neck, because even while venting she remained a wild animal, and I had to slap her belly several times to get her to stop. She laughed quietly after withdrawing.
“I’m not in love, you tart, so don’t get all worried about this,” Indrani said. “It won’t be trouble. I don’t even think he’s noticed.”
At least a little, he has, I thought. He wouldn’t have asked me to take care of her if he hadn’t.
“Of course, I’m not the only one who’s lusting stupidly,” she mused.
“Let’s not go there,” I said, frowning.
“Come on,” Indrani grinned. “I have a running bet with Hakram about how many times a day you’ll give Vivi the eye.”
Hakram, that gossipy bitch. If I found out there was a betting pool, there would be dire consequences.
“It’s just been a while,” I said. “Don’t read into it.”
Indrani leaned back against her stone.
“Right, you’ve had an empty bed since you called it quits with your redhead,” she said. “We’ll find you something back in Callow, don’t worry about it. Or maybe some drow will fit the bill. Winter Leftovers, what do drow look like?”
“Grey-skinned,” Akua said. “Humanoid. Usually of thin frame, even the women, though there is much larger appearance variance between genders than for ogres or elves.”
“I honestly couldn’t tell whether or not the Spellblade was a man or a woman,” I admitted, eager to latch on to the change of subject.
“There is no relation between drow and elves, mind you,” the shade noted. “I’ve read the former take the sobriquet of ‘dark elves’ quite badly, given that of the two they are the race truly native to Calernia.”
Indrani was warm against my side, and pleasant now that she’d stopped biting like a rabid badger. We’d just scratched the surface with our little talk, I was well aware of that. I wasn’t the only one who’d been keeping an empty bed for the last year, and it was a much larger change for her than I. But now was not the time to press, so I allowed the chatter about the people I would seek out to wash over me. I was still uncertain of how we’d find the drow in the first place, much less plumb the depths of the Everdark, a niggling worry in the back of my head. We only had so much time to spare. As it happened, it was an empty worry.
It was them who found us.