“Over the month I spent in Atalante I witnessed no fewer than two hundred debates take place under the gaze of the pale statues of the Temple of Manifold Truths, for the people of the city delight in such exercises of rhetoric as those of Stygia delight in bloodsport. The subjects varied from the purpose of mankind to the proper shape of apples, though the true wonder of the place was that I do not believe a single speaker left the Temple believing they had been wrong.”
– Extract from ‘Horrors and Wonders’, famed travelogue of Anabas the Ashuran
I’d come across more than my fair share of impressive fortifications, over the years. Summerholm, the river-straddling Gate of the East. Liesse, whose walls had been old and half-abandoned yet still holding sorcery powerful enough to give pause to the full might of the Summer Court. Ater, the Dread Empire’s own capital, with towering walls and massive gates that had held strong under the Tower’s shadow for millennia. Keter, Crown of the Dead, a haunting spire of rock beholden to no laws but the Dead King’s that had turned back crusade after crusade. This, though? This was laughable. There were fortifications in northern Callow, a region that had not known the touch of war for a hundred years before Procer created the passage, that were greater than this. When Ivah had called the ‘fortress’ at the edge of Kodrog territory a ring of stones, I’d thought it half-poetry. Daoine and the eastern stretches of Callow boasted old fortifications called the same thing, ancient broken-down forts used in wars that predated the unification of the kingdom and peace with the Deaoraithe. Many of them had been made into the heart of small towns and villages, the hill-forts used as a guild hall or minor noble’s seat. What I was looking at right now was not that: it was a literal ring of stones.
A few narrow tunnels had led us out of the butcher’s yard and into what had once been the lands of the Kodrog, our first approach into another large cavern almost intimidating. There were no corpses to be found, but thrice we came across trails of blood on the stone where dead drow had been dragged. The way into the great cavern was through an angle slope, narrow as the tunnel that had led us there, and part of me noted that this was a natural chokepoint. Easily defendable with a company of crossbowmen and some half-way decent infantry. The ancient drow apparently agreed, for mere feet beyond the end of the slope the ring of stones stood. The sight of it had me raising an eyebrow in skepticism. It wasn’t indefensible, really. The slabs of granite making a loose circle of upright stones could serve as a curtain wall of sorts. Or they would have been able to, without the large gap in the slabs just to the side. Anyone could just… walk right in. That wasn’t a fortification so much as a decoration. The dwarves had apparently been of the same opinion, because they’d wasted no time filling it with corpses.
I’d had dinner with Baroness Anne Kendal, after ascending to the throne, and over pheasant she’d praised me for how quickly I’d reacted to Akua unleashing devils at First Liesse. Said that most would have been stricken with terror, and that my swift decision to ‘conscript’ everyone in the city had saved dozens of thousands of lives. I’d not quite had the heart to tell her by then I’d bared blades at things scarier than mere devils. When I came knocking at the gates of Liesse with the Fifteenth, even my legionaries no longer flinched in the face of the hosts of Hell. Masego had called it horror fatigue. The way some people beheld so much terror their standards shifted and sights that would have once horrified them grew mundane. It was apparently a common phenomenon among Praesi sorcerers. On occasion it led to diseases of the mind, he’d noted, when mages witnessed so many terrors that it was the mundane matters of the rest of the world that grew eldritch to their eyes. I wondered if I was inching towards that, one slaughtering yard at a time, because the aftermath of brutality no longer stirred any great feeling in me.
Most the corpses in the fort had not been slain there. There were tracks leading to tall piles beneath the stones, and even taller ones inside the circle. If there had been marks of fighting there, they were now buried in death. I heard Archer come towards me as I stood a handful of feet from the piled dead within the embrace of raised stones.
“The trail leads north,” Indrani said.
“Did it betray anything about their numbers?” I asked.
“Hundreds, at least,” she shrugged. “Hard to tell the difference between those and thousands on stone grounds. There’s tracks though, from carts or something else on wheels. Heavy things, I’m pretty sure even the wheels are metal.”
My fingers clenched, then unclenched. It had always helped me think, but there was too little to go on here to make any real deductions. It might be carts to carry whatever they’d come for back to the Kingdom Under. They could be supply wagons. They could be machines of war, as Ivah had said the dwarves sometimes used to slay the Mighty. Hells, it could be all of that. We wouldn’t know for sure unless we took a look with our own eyes, and that struck me as a bad idea for all sorts of reasons. I glanced at Indrani.
“Do we know what’s north?” I said.
“Ivah says it’s the core territories of the Kodrog,” she replied. “We’re still in the outskirts of the outer rings. I’ll be at least a few days of travel before we reach the first ruins.”
Piecing together the lay of the Everdark from what my guide was very willing to share had been difficult, even though Ivah was trying its best. The drow considered too many things to be self-evident to be a proper informant. The outer rings, as far as I could tell, were the drow territories outside the loose web of underground cities that had once made up their empire. Those were the harshest battlegrounds of their people, and a gathering place for the strongest Sigils and cabals. The inner ring, singular, was vaguer in what it covered. From context, it seemed to mean all the territories between the old cities. There the tribes that’d been forced out of the cities fought against each other, murdering their way to enough power to try to get a foot in a city again. The cities were where the strongest of the Mighty gathered, Ivah had said, but the inner ring was where a Sigil could be wiped out in a night. Those that fled that underground sea of carnage eked out a living in the outer rings, but pickings were sparse out here. It was uncommon for a Sigil that bolted to the outskirts to make a comeback, even if they bided their time for a few decades.
Holy Tvarigu was at the centre of the madness, the handful of paths leading to it guarded by powerful Sigils who were said to rival those of the cities. We’d need to gather strength and support, before trying those.
“There’s one last thing,” Indrani said. “I found black blood.”
My eyes narrowed. That meant a Mighty. Ivah had been clear that the more Night a drow held, the deeper the changes to their body. I had no reason to distrust that: after reaping the harvest of the cavern it had visibly changed.
“Show me,” I said.
“Sure,” she said. “It’s not far. Want to grab our favourite scavenger in case there’s a survivor?”
“Might be for the best,” I agreed.
And still she did not move. I cocked an eyebrow.
Her lips thinned.
“You all right, Cat?” she asked. “You’ve been looking at dead bodies for a while. And not that long ago you were hearing voices.”
“Just the one,” I sighed. “And that was the Priestess of Night, I’m sure of it.”
“I’m sure you believe that,” Indrani delicately said.
“I’m not quite that far gone,” I reassured her. “Anyways, I’m not going morbid on you. I was actually wondering why they’re not burning the bodies. Wouldn’t it make more sense?”
“Not a lot of firewood down here,” she replied. “And you need that or oil to get a good pyre started.”
“I really doubt the dwarves ready to commit mass slaughter without tallying proper supplies,” I said. “If they’re really killing everyone to make sure there can be no harvest, it’d be logical to burn the dead. Can’t claim Night from ashes, I don’t think.”
“If they’re as prepared as you say, they’ll have a reason for it,” Indrani pointed out. “I try not to spend too much time figuring out why dwarves do what dwarves do. You’ll only end up with a headache and an empty purse by trying.”
“We’re missing something,” I told her. “I’m not gonna go digging in corpses to find out – we don’t have the time to spare – but it’s worth asking questions.”
“Somehow I doubt our little band of murderers is going to have a good explanation for you,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Come on, let’s grab our minion. We’re wasting daylight, even if we can’t see it.”
The rest of our company wasn’t far. I’d learned why the drow were so afraid of coming close to the corpses, after a little chat with Ivah. It’d said it wasn’t the death that scared most of them. It was all the Night that waited there to be taken. By beating them down, we’d established ourselves as higher on the pecking order. Drow who eyed Night ripe for harvest when stronger drow were around tended to end up killed just to make sure there’d be no trouble. Diabolist was keeping an eye on the prisoners, but Ivah was visibly itching to have a look at the corpses. It didn’t consider itself strong enough to just harvest the Night no matter what we said, then. Good. As long as it was afraid of us, it’d uphold its part of the bargain with no qualms.
“Ivah,” I called out. “With us. Archer has found a Mighty’s blood trail.”
“I follow, Queen,” the silver-eyed creature smoothly replied.
Its eyes were brighter, now, but that was the least of the changes. Where before it had been stooped by days of travel with limited supplies and little sleep, now its back was ramrod straight and its stride had grown assured. The skin was still pale grey, but now and then from the corner of my eyes I could have sworn I saw small arcane patterns of Night shine on its bare arms. I suspected there’d been other changes less obvious, though it was hard to gauge something like senses and reflexes without actually testing them. The rest of the cavern beyond the ring of stones was a great deal less bloody. There were trails and footsteps on the dust and dirt, but little else. A handful of leather tents and fire pits skirted the edge of the walls, not enough to shelter more than a few hundred drow. There was at least twice that in dead inside the fort, which meant the corpses had likely been gathered from other tunnels and caverns. Three passages out could be found. Two heading north, side-to-side, and one towards the east. It was that last one Indrani led us towards.
Unlike the last stretch of tunnels out of the Gloom, these were not carved or sculpted. Apparently even when the realm of the drow had still been worth such a name, this had been considered the edge of nowhere. We passed through a small cave half-filled by ponds of water, though they’d all been fouled by dirt and blood, and only found what Indrani had mentioned after another stretch of winding tunnel. There was a naked body, which she hadn’t mentioned, but it was easy to see why. It was a ruined wisp of a cadaver: the head had been pulped, but the rest was a ruin without needing wounding. It looked like it’d been exsanguinated, drained of all fluids and insides until all that was left was paper-thin grey skin and hollow bones. In other news, drow did have genitalia no matter how they called themselves: this one had a cock, though it was as much a shrivelled husk as the rest of it. Black blood and brain fluids formed a blasphemous halo around the wreck of the head, but that wasn’t the interesting part. From the body another trail came. There were bits of blood in it, but also some sort of transparent fluid gone dry. A sticky, stinking trail led from the corpse deeper into the passage ahead.
“Another twenty feet of crawling, then whatever came out got on its feet,” Indrani said. “From there it’s just drip. Haven’t touched the body yet, figured you’d want the honours.”
“Kind of you,” I drily said. “Ivah, anything to say?”
“This is not known to me,” the drow admitted. “Though none but Mighty would have blood so dark.”
Less than helpful. I knelt by the body, gingerly raising it. Immediately my eyebrows climbed up. The entire back was messed up, like something had ripped its way out forcefully. Almost no blood, though. At a guess, whatever had left the trail was responsible.
“Looks like our friend here had one last trick up their sleeve,” I said. “Ivah, you mentioned something called the Secret of Many Lives to me once. Would this be what it looks like in action?”
“I have never witnessed this with my own eyes,” the drow said. “Only heard rumours. Yet if this is true, we look upon the body of Mighty Kodrog. Or one who slew them and claimed the whispers.”
“Let’s find out,” I grimly said.
I left the body there. There was no Night in it, and I wasn’t sure I should let Ivah harvest it even if there was. We set out again, though the trip was amusingly short. Maybe sixty feet further, after the trail of dried fluids had ended, another corpse was waiting. Its head had been pulped as well. There was another trail, and we didn’t stop to check the body before following this time. Apparently the dwarves hunting Kodrog has lost patience, because when we found the next body not even twenty feet further around a corner it was thoroughly demolished. No flesh or bone had been left untouched, the remains more smear than corpse. And still a trail crawled away from it. I heard a rasping breath, further ahead. Had the hunters missed the last rebirth?
“There’s something still breathing,” I announced, and pressed on at a pace.
“Yeah, not surprised,” she said. “Look at the fluids, Cat. It didn’t crawl away, it was dragged.”
Honestly the trail looked to me exactly like the others, but she was the tracker and I was the city girl. Regardless, we did not make the survivor wait long. I almost winced at the sight, after we stumbled across it. This particular body was no husk like the others, though it might wish otherwise. The naked drow had been nailed to the tunnels’ wall with iron spikes through the shoulders and calves, limbs flopping listlessly. The drow’s eyes were closed, but I could hear it breathe just fine. It was still rather improbably alive. Ivah breathed in sharply, and earned a curious look for it.
“This is Mighty Kodrog itself,” my guide said. “The wound splitting the lip in half, it is famed. The blade of the Mighty Soln caused it.”
There was a rather nasty scar and chunk of missing flesh parting the drow’s lower lip in half. More interesting were the nigh-invisible patterns of Night covered Kodrog’s face, surrounding the closed eyes like they were some sort of spider web. It looked like a tattoo of arcane symbols I was unfamiliar with, though a very faint one. Apparently the repeated rebirths had weakened the Mighty considerably.
“It’s unconscious,” I said. “Let’s drag it back to camp, see if we can wake it up there.”
“You’re going to have to handle the spikes,” Indrani said. “That’s solid rock they were hammered into. Not sure I could pull them out.”
I grimaced but got to work. The difficult part was doing it carefully enough I wouldn’t rip up Kodrog’s body, not taking them out, and greyish blood began pouring out the moment they were removed. No longer black, huh. Someone had had a rough week. I froze the wounds shut, which was about as much as I knew of healing, and hoisted the drow over my shoulder when it became clear the pain wasn’t enough to wake it up. Ivah was looking at me carrying a Mighty like a bag of potatoes like it didn’t know whether it should be amused or appalled. The walk back was quicker, though I was careful not to jostle the goods. In part because I didn’t want to worsen the bleeding, in part because when strangers dangled their dangly parts against me I preferred fewer gaping wounds being involved. A rustle when through the prisoners when we returned bearing our newest addition, a few whispered words in Crepuscular being traded. Kodrog was the only word I recognized. I lowered said burden to the floor carefully and smiled at Akua, who’d silently approached.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” I cheerfully said.
“Joy,” Diabolist drawled. “More half-dead drow. My favourite. I expect you want me to attend to it?”
“If anyone’s going to know what happened here, it’s that one,” I said. “I need it capable of talking.”
“That much I can promise,” the shade noted. “How long it will remain that way is more chancy a matter.”
“Do what you can,” I said.
“Ugh, does that leave me on guard duty?” Indrani asked. “Because that’s really tedious. You won’t even let me make them fight.”
“I’m sure Ivah can inform them of the consequences of acting out,” I said, casting an eye as said drow.
It nodded slowly.
“Find me in what direction the dwarves went,” I told Archer. “Try to find out numbers, or anything more than we have. If you run into any of them…”
“Stay out of sight, head back immediately,” she said. “I’ve got it. How long you giving me?”
I chewed my lip.
“We’ll need a while for the interrogation,” I said, watching Akua begin to remove the ice I’d shut the wounds with. “We might as well make camp here. A few hours, at least, but careful not to get lost.”
“I never once in my life got lost,” Indrani assured me.
“Last month you told me you’d been sober your whole life,” I noted. “You really should start picking better lies.”
“That sounds like a horrible way to live,” Indrani said.
I rolled my eyes.
“Just don’t get killed,” I said. “Or start another war. Gods know we already have a net surplus of those, and the year’s not even over.”
She waved me away in a less than reassuring gesture, but she adjusted her bow against her shoulder and got moving towards the north-leading passages. She might give me backtalk the way sparrows flew, but I knew I could trust her to pull through when I needed her. I had few worries about her reconnaissance.
“Now would be a good time to inform your fellows we’re camping,” I told Ivah. “They’re free to scavenge tents and necessities, though they are not to touch the Night.”
“As you say, Queen,” the drow nodded.
I watched it walk over to the others, then returned my attention to Akua. I dropped down next to the body in a seat, watching her work Winter into dying flesh. There was Night in this one, though unlike the one in the corpses it was not reaching for me. Neither was it hostile, though. It was just there. A tool in someone’s hand, firmly grasped.
“How’s it looking?” I asked.
“More than halfway into the grave,” Diabolist said. “Which eases my work a great deal.”
I didn’t need to ask her why. What instincts my mantle had granted me made me aware that Winter held dominion over death and decay, among other things. I’d dabbled in necromancy as the Squire, but I remained an amateur at the art. When Akua had ridden my body, she’d raised an army of dead Procerans without even using a ritual.
“It’s a recurring pattern, with you,” the shade said. “That you use and demand others use powers in way that seem ill-suited to them.”
“Power’s a tool,” I said, repeating someone else’s words. “The only limit to its use is your own cleverness.”
“Spare me the Carrion Lord’s lessons, if you would,” Akua said. “I have heard them before. My point stands. Even as the Squire your use of your limited necromantic abilities was admittedly inspired. Never before had I seen someone kill their own flesh to better wield it.”
“Desperation is a sharp teacher,” I grunted.
“So it is,” Diabolist mildly said. “Still, you extend this philosophy beyond the boundaries I expected.”
“This entire enterprise, dearest,” Akua said. “To be frank, I am still somewhat at a loss as to why we now tread the passages of the Everdark.”
“You were there when the decision was made,” I reminded her. “I –”
“Need an army, yes,” she interrupted. “Surely that is not all of it? I surmised this to be the excuse you gave to mask deeper purpose.”
“I don’t lie when holding council with the Woe, Akua,” I said. “Even when you’re there.”
Scarlet eyes considered me skeptically.
“Then you truly came to gather a host of drow?” she said. “That seems ill-advised.”
I frowned at the casual dismissal. Still, I’d let her out of the box for a reason. She had a better grasp on the corridors of power than any of the Woe, and if she had something to say it was worth hearing. Not necessarily heeding, but at the very least listening to.
“You’re aware of our military situation,” I said.
“I am, to an extent,” she agreed. “The Battle of the Camps thinned the ranks overmuch, which led you to seek the Dead King in the first place. There was need for the hosts of Procer to be sent elsewhere and bled. This has already been achieved, Catherine, by the Empress’ own pact.”
“Look deeper,” I said. “What’s the thing that keeps Callow afloat?”
“Farming,” she replied without missing a beat. “I do not disagree with you on the implication, my dear. Your kingdom has weathered a large-scale rebellion, the invasion of the Courts and my own works. If the Army of Callow recruits as heavily as it must to be more than a border garrison, there will be lack of field hands come harvest. Which would have consequences more disastrous in Callow than most realms, admittedly, as it boasts little but fertile fields.”
My own works, she’d said. Almost nonchalantly. Three words for over a hundred thousand souls. The urge was there to simply tear her in half. Pop her head with a squeeze of my fingers, have Winter itself devour her from the inside. I pulsed with the need of it. And you feared I might grow attached, Vivienne, I thought. That I might come to see her as more than the useful devil on my shoulder. I mastered myself, kept the flare of rage away from my face. Not even a slight cooling of the air betrayed it. I’d learned the ways of my mantle well. It would not do to punish her for this, no. Best she keep speaking those words, those barbed reminders of who it was I had murdered into my service.
“Then you know why I need another force on the field,” I said. “One that can take the losses I can’t afford.”
“There are others you might have sought,” Akua noted. “Lord Black still fields legions, and his fondness for you is well-known.”
“Black’s running a game in Procer,” I said. “I don’t know what it is yet, because I don’t know what he’s really after. If he intended to depose Malicia, his opening was just after Second Liesse. He went to the Vales instead, prepared for the crusade. He had most of a year, Diabolist. To plan and plot. It’s not happenstance that the Vales were collapsed and he’s wandering the heartlands of the Principate. He’s trying to accomplish something. The Gods only know what it is, if even that. I’m not getting in the middle of that mess without a very good reason.”
“You have ties to the sole Court of Arcadia,” Diabolist noted. “Bargain might have been struck there.”
“You think that’s better than the drow?” I snorted. “Last time I went for a spin with the King of Winter, I got taken for a ride. I doubt I’ve learned enough in the last year to turn that around, and you can be sure that any pact made with Arcadia will result in the fae having a permanent foothold on Creation. I might as well start calling on fucking demons – those are easier to put away after you let them loose.”
“The Dread Empire-”
“Was a possibility I considered,” I interrupted flatly. “Of course, to get my hands on any of its armies I’d need to climb the Tower and make it stick. Which means I’ll likely have to assault a few of the most heavily fortified cities on the continent with my already mangled forces. Possibly fight Malicia’s loyalist Legions as well. Losses are certain, and even if I win I inherit a mess. Ashur’s still sacking the coasts, Akua. I can’t call myself Empress and just… leave them to it. Not to mention the dangers inherent to killing the person that let the Dead King out. Could mean he has to retreat, which would fuck over a now even more wounded Callow. We’d have to go back and negotiate, assuming he’s even willing. Or it could mean he’s loose with absolutely no leash on him.”
“I believe you underestimate the amount of support a bid for the Tower would find in the Wasteland,” Diabolist said. “There are promises that could see many flock to your banner.”
“Oh, I know all about those kinds of promises,” I murmured. “There are some prices even I balk at paying. I will not wade into a snake pit just to try turning the snakes on my foes, Akua. I have no intention of ever ruling Praes.”
“You may not have a choice,” Diabolist mildly said. “Though I shall let the matter lie. It will come to your door without any need for my advocacy.”
“You should hope not,” I replied. “If Praes is made my problem, I will not be gentle in how I solve it. Should we go over our other options? The League won’t talk with me if the Hierarch won’t, and the man is both mad and stubborn as a mule. The Chain of Hunger cannot be treated with to any real degree, the elves would shoot any envoy of mine on sight and the closest thing the Gigantes have to an ally – Levant – is currently at war with me. You think I’m stalking these fucking tunnels because I want to? I need the men and there is no one else.”
The last sentence came out in a hiss, almost like a wound lanced of pus.
“I understand,” Akua said.
“No, you don’t,” I replied. “I drew a line in the sand, after my coronation. That if all I could accomplish was make a ruin out of Callow, I would melt the godsdamned crown and go into exile. Or walk to the gallows, if that was what it took. The crusade was always going to come, there was nothing I could do about that. But now, Diabolist, even if my armies win the coming battles the kingdom is fucked. We were already a bad summer away from widespread food shortages, when I left. How do you think it will go if the fields are empty at harvest? Either this works, or I’m done. I capitulate, do whatever is necessary for Hasenbach to offer terms that aren’t complete subjugation and kill as many problems as I can before I die.”
“You are what keeps this together, Catherine,” Akua warned me. “If you abdicate, the kingdom collapses into anarchy. Malicia will likely invade and even the League might be swayed by such a tempting feast. Do you think Callow can weather the Dead King without you?”
“The question isn’t ‘will it bad?’,” I said. “Of course it’ll be awful. Even if I clean up every loose end I can before going, it’ll be a shitshow. The question that needs to be asked is ‘will it be worse if I’m wearing the crown?’.”
“The only reason Callow was more than a waypoint on Cordelia’s way to Ater is that your power gave the Principate pause,” Diabolist said. “This is… navel-gazing in the worst of ways. Do you think you are responsible for every disaster to plague your homeland?”
“They happened on my watch,” I said. “I had a responsibility. If I’d fucking bled you like a pig at Liesse, no matter the consequences to me, a hundred thousand people would be alive today. Winter went after Marchford because it was my demesne. Summer torched a third of the south to match Winter. And the Liesse Rebellion… well, you weren’t the only person I should have killed then and let’s leave it at that.”
“It is absurd to pretend to you did not mitigate the damage inflicted,” Akua flatly said. “You dispersed the Courts yourself. To clarify, you drove back forces as older than the First Dawn at the mere cost of a few leagues of burned land. Who else could have brought the invasions to an end at even twice that cost? And let us not pretend to you were the only possible pawn for Winter’s king. The Courts did not emerge in Praes, where bargains would have been eagerly taken, or fractious Procer or the squabbling lands of the Dominion. Why, I wonder? It is almost as if Callow was easiest prey, the most vulnerable locale. You ended the Liesse Rebellion on lenient terms, your mere existence enough to soften the stances of both the Carrion Lord and the Empress against those who raised banner against the Tower. Not a matter in which either would otherwise have been prone to so mild a response. Had you not been on the field at Second Liesse, I would very likely have slain your teacher and triumphed. You seem under the misapprehension that the rest of the continent fights over Callow because you bear the crown. That is disingenuous. Callow suffers because it is weak. Because greater powers can afford to make it a tool to expunge their own troubles. The Principate, the Empire, half the heroes that flocked to the Tenth Crusade. Do you truly believe your kingdom, even under a villainous queen, is greater threat to Good and Calernia than the Kingdom of the Dead? Than the Chain of Hunger?”
“There’s a balance of power,” I said. “The Grey Pilgrim admitted as much.”
“Indeed,” Akua sneered. “The Principate cannot afford too many powers sworn to Evil at its borders, is it? Yet you could have been made friend, through the right treaties. Can the same be said of the Hidden Horror? Yet is is Callow that was marched upon, and Praes beyond it. Because if the First Prince had called for a crusade against Keter, none would have answered. Because against the Kingdom of the Dead the Principate did not believe it could win, and Callow was weaker.”
“You stated the very reason,” I grimly smiled. “Against Keter, she did not believe she could win. And so the strategic reality was that a villainous queen in Callow was unacceptable. You’re also dismissing the fact that it was your own fucking doomsday fortress, built on a massacre of my countrymen it is worth remembering, that served as the rallying cry for this mess.”
“I will not defend what I did,” Akua said. “There is nothing defensible about failure, and my means were abhorrent to you. Yet I will remind you that Procer loomed at the gate long before my works took place. I served as an excuse, it is true. And for my sins judge me as you will, for that is your right and privilege as victor. Yet even had you slain me long before, excuse would have been found sooner or later – Praes ruling Callow was no more acceptable than your bearing a crown, after all. You are a justification, Catherine. You are not a motive. At best, you were ancillary to the reasons forces went into motion.”
“I could have gone the other way,” I said. “I was made an offer, in Liesse. If I’d signed up with the Heavens-”
“You would have been slain, fallen upon by the full roster of the Calamities and your own allies,” she said. “The Black Knight, deeming your existence a failed experiment, would have set to ensuring Callow was incapable of rising in rebellion when Procer came calling. I need not remind you of the manner of methodical butchery your teacher is capable of.”
“So that’s your fine wisdom?” I mocked. “Thousands died under your watch but it’s all right, because thousands would have died either way?”
“Yourself and the Woe, the Fifteenth you assembled painstakingly,” Akua said. “All of these are the only reason anyone of import on this continent considers Callow worth treating with. Gods Below, Catherine, do you think without your casting a long shadow the Empress would have waited this long to act? That the Carrion Lord would not have excised treason out of your kingdom? The First Prince may claim to despise all you stand for, yet she stills speaks with you. Because you wield power, warrant fear, and this means the land you rule over are more than a subject to squabble over after someone wins the war. Without the might you have assembled, the only Callow that exists is that which other powers allow to exist. Is this the sorrow you mull over late into the night? That your acts, though bloody, have made your homeland actor instead of spoils?”
“You don’t know that,” I said. “If I’d never taken Callow in hand, heroes could have risen. They have before, with reliability that borders on law.”
“The same heroes the Empire repeatedly smothered in the crib for decades before your birth?” Diabolist gently said. “Or perhaps foreign heroes, from the same nations now marching on you.”
“It’s better to be Proceran vassals than a wasteland, Akua,” I tiredly replied. “And despite my best efforts we seem to be headed that way.”
“I know few things about your people, and much I thought known has been proven false,” the shade said. “Yet how many of them would agree with what you just spoke?”
“A crowd has only one voice, and no wisdom to utter,” I quoted. “My people aren’t always right, especially when pride is on the line.”
“And so now your argument is that you know better,” Akua said. “That you should make the choices for them. Yet you deplore having done that very thing. With some defeats to show for it, yet also admirable successes. What brave soul do you happen to use for comparison, then? I am curious what world-shaking sage would have steered Callow unfailingly, had you not been at the helm.”
“Asking for whoever would have risen not to have lost the second largest city in Callow is hardly unfair,” I barked back.
“You turn blind eye to the realities of the time,” Akua noted. “Another Named would not have benefitted from your relationship to the highest tiers of Praesi power. They would have been forced to rebel while under hunt of the Calamities, raising essentially the same army that was crushed by your teacher with perhaps a few additions. Likely, they would have needed to rely on help from the Principate to stay afloat, which would have begun the Tenth Crusade with Callow the midst of a bloody civil war instead of when its borders were garrisoned. It would have been a nonentity at the peace table afterwards. Perhaps I would have been slain by such a replacement, perhaps not. It is arguable at best if the resulting body count would not have been superior, and beyond debate that the destruction would have been more widespread. The Courts of the Fair Folk would then have found that deeply divided and damaged land much easier to make sport of than it was under your aegis, however flawed.”
“You don’t know any of that,” I said. “It’s speculation.”
“Which does not seem to be of import, when you castigate yourself,” the shade said. “Your usual hypocrisies leave a better taste in the mouth. You are not even alone in those, truth be told. The First Prince calls you a warlord, though she herself rose through war to the throne through the same means. Levant was warring against the Principate not even two years ago, and Ashur was happily trading with the Wasteland but months before the Tenth Crusade was declared. I am indifferent to the moralities of this, admittedly, but they seem to matter to you and it rather beggars belief that all these rivals must now be considered righteous merely because they march against you.”
“I’m not saying they deserve to win any of this,” I got out through gritted teeth. “I’m saying it’s self-defeating to fight them for the kingdom’s sake if the price of that fight is to break the fucking kingdom.”
“The Kingdom of Callow is already broken,” Akua frankly said. “You’ve succeeded at keeping it from falling apart entirely after evicting Praes, which is already impressive. Catherine, four years ago there was no kingdom. There were only the provinces, ruled by the edicts of the Carrion Lord. In that span, your pried your homeland out of the Empress’ grip with minimal destruction and forced a semblance of order onto a realm that was under occupation for several decades. All the while fending off repeated interventions from the two largest nations on the surface of Calernia. This strange expectation you have that anyone, including you, taking up the crown would lead to miracles is rather naïve. Nation-building is not the stuff of months, my dear, which is more or less what you managed to wrest away from more powerful and experienced rulers trying to deny you even that.”
“So I’m the lesser evil,” I bitterly smiled. “There’s a familiar tune. Been a while since it last managed to lull me to pleasant sleep.”
“It is most easy to fall short of a paragon of victory existing only in your thoughts,” Diabolist said. “You speak as if you believe you somehow hoodwinked an entire kingdom into following you.”
“I didn’t exactly ask for opinions before the coronation,” I said.
“And yet Callow did not rebel,” Akua mused. “The remaining highborn and your officials obey your orders. You have brought every Named of note in the kingdom into your service and called the guilds, even those calling themselves dark, to heel. Your army, which is now for the most part made of your countrymen, followed you into war willingly. You are not a Fairfax, it is true. Also largely irrelevant, as they are all dead. Considering the founder of that dynasty was a mere knight, a Named with a distinguished military record can hardly be considered lesser origin.”
“Eleanor Fairfax ascended to the throne by popular acclaim,” I flatly denied.
“She was a skilled and charismatic warlord with the power to make a claim on the throne and popular backing to press it,” she meaningfully said.
“Also the blessing of the Heavens,” I drily said. “I seem to be missing that part.”
“Now we argue theology,” Akua said. “Can no crown be worthy without affirmation from Above? I’ve yet to hear of Cordelia Hasenbach receiving this accolade. Strange that it would be required of you alone.”
“You’re ignoring the part where I’m a villain,” I said.
“You have devoured your own Name and taken Winter in its place,” she said. “You share foes with Below, perhaps sympathies with some who strive against Above. I have yet to hear you offer a single prayer to my Gods, Catherine. Even if it were so, the hypocrisy here would be a deep one indeed. Where is this outrage when a Tyrant rises in Helike? Stygia pays dues only in brimstone, and Bellerophon is a maddened altar of a city. And yet no crusade darkens their doorstep. A standard upheld only when convenient is no such thing: it is merely a tool.”
“It’s a pretty song you sing me,” I admitted. “That I am not always right, but just enough. That my enemies are no better.”
“And yet,” Diabolist said, “you believe not a word of it. Why?”
I thinly smiled.
“Because it was what I wanted to hear,” I said. “And you’re Akua Sahelian.”
It was two hours before Mighty Kodrog woke, and we spent every moment of them in silence.