“In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is lynched.”
– Praesi saying
Since my crowning I’d found it necessary to occasionally entertain ‘people of import’. It wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed, but a shared meal and a bottle of wine was a decent way to take a good look at what influential individuals of Callow were up to. Most of the time it’d been members of the Queen’s Council or envoys from my governors, more rarely emissaries from the northern baronies. Those dinners tended to be calm affairs, where more importance was placed on the conversation than the food. I rather preferred the dwarven take on it, all things told. After nibbling at rations for weeks, a slab of ribs lathered in sauce with a goblet of some kind of pitch-black liquor that smelled like berries and kicked like a mule were a delightful change of pace. The Herald had made a point out of being the one to offer them, even if another dwarf brought the plates, which I guessed to be some point of dwarven etiquette. The table was granite and low even by my standards, though it’d clearly been crafted with burlier types in mind: Akua and I didn’t even come close to filling our side of it.
The Herald and his interpreter – not that he needed one, as it turned out – had dug into their own plates without any mannerly pretences. I followed suit, rather enjoying the meat even though I did not recognize it. The liquor was a treat though, I’d own to that much. Diabolist was more interested in the fine make of the cutlery we were using than the meal, though she made sure to eat and drink enough no insult would be taken. The dwarves polished off their plates at admirable speed, knocking back the liquor all the while, and it was not long before all were finished. There’d been no attempt at conversation while the plates were on the table, not from their side anyway. I’d followed suit, in no great hurry, and Akua had followed my example. Soldiers took away the plates when we were done, bringing bowls of tepid water to the table where the dwarves soaked their fingers clean before wiping on cloths. My brows rose. They were a strangely clean people, for a race that dwelled in dirt. Still, I imitated them and saw with mild disappointment that our cups and bottle were taken away.
“Diplomacy cannot be had over such mild drinks, Queen Catherine,” Balasi told me amusedly, having noticed my look. “It would be unseemly.”
“Your people have an enlightened sense of etiquette, Seeker,” I replied. “The liquor, may I ask what it is called?”
“Black kasi,” the dwarf said. “I will part with a bottle as gift, should these talks be fruitful.”
It’d been a long time since a bribe that baldly offered had tempted me even a little, I mused.
“The stakes have been raised,” I drily replied.
Soldiers returned with four small wooden bowls and set them down before each of us. I studied mine curiously: oak, if I was not mistaken. Old and rough, never varnished or sculpted. A heavy glass bottle was brought, and the dwarven soldier bearing it very carefully poured maybe half a cup’s worth of liquid into each bowl. It looked like wine, I thought, but vapour wafted off the surface and it was very clearly near boiling. I glanced at Balasi and found him staring at his own bowl reverently.
“It must be allowed to seep,” he told me. “These bowls have never seen other purpose than the cradling of sudra, and so the taste of old toasts mixes with the new.”
“I’m honoured,” I said, inclining my head.
“As it should be,” the Herald said. “No such bottle has ever left the Kingdom Under. I doubt more than a dozen of your kind ever tasted sudra, much less properly served.”
It was utterly wasted on me, considering my tastes in drink had moved from ‘decent table wine’ to ‘nearly flammable’ since I’d taken up my mantle. It might be undiplomatic to say as much, though, and I was curious about the taste. I inclined my head again, a little deeper this time. The Herald of the Deeps responded in kind.
“You were introduced as Queen of Callow,” the green-eyed dwarf said. “Yet your second name is Foundling, not Fairfax.”
“There are no more Fairfaxes,” I said. “They were slain to the last, when the Dread Empire of Praes conquered Callow. I am first and only of my line.”
“A worthy purpose, that will have earned no small burden,” Balasi said approvingly.
The Herald turned amused eyes on him, then back to me.
“You will have to forgive my old friend,” he said. “He is quite the radical, even for a seeker of deeds.”
“No offence was taken,” I said. “There was none to be found, in my eyes.”
“I have told you before, delein,” the deed-seeker snorted. “The ways of their kind may be chaotic, but they are not without merit.”
“To each thing born, purpose and burden,” the Herald chided. “What you seek as correction is mere revelation. Our truth is absolute.”
I was missing too much context to be able to truly follow that exchange, but some guesses could be hazarded. Purpose and burden, huh. There was a weight to that, one familiar to me. Name and Role. Indrani had said that the deed-seeker were trying to win something other dwarves thought they weren’t supposed to have. Considering their way of going about it was to hunt the most dangerous creatures around, their behaviour might just be an attempt to raise their ‘purpose’ by first raising their ‘burden’. Interesting, and worth keeping in mind, but not ultimately why I was seated here with them.
“From your question I take it you’re not too familiar with surface affairs,” I said.
“They are neither my charge nor concern,” the Herald said. “Balasi is more knowledgeable of such affairs, though it has been some time since he last journeyed upwards.”
“Last I heard, Praes was trying to invade your people and getting smacked around for the presumption,” the deed-seeker said. “Queen Moirin was ruling, I believe.”
Queen Moiren, he likely meant. The grandmother of Good King Robert, the Fairfax who’d died on the Fields of Streges failing to turn back the Conquest. Anything they knew of the surface dated back at least a hundred years, then.
“Callow was conquered, and under my aegis was made independent again,” I said. “We are now at war with most the great powers of the surface, three of which have declared a crusade on Praes and would break my homeland on their march to the Tower.”
“And so you come to the Everdark in your hour of need,” Balasi said. “You must truly be desperate, to seek anything but corpses from the kraksun.”
“I’ve knocked at every other door,” I said. “The Dead King is on the march, now, and there are no limits to his hunger. This is no time to be squeamish about one’s allies.”
“The kraksun will flee, or perish,” the Herald of the Deeps said, and he spoke it not as promise or prophecy but as mere fact.
As if there could be no doubt. Gods, maybe there wasn’t. What little I knew of these people was enough to have me very, very wary – and they were just the vanguard.
“Such an outcome may very well be inevitable,” Akua said. “Yet the path by which it is reached remains shadowed, does it not? There is little purpose in entertaining us otherwise.”
Balasi cast a look at me.
“You allow your spirit a great deal of freedom,” he said.
“She has her uses,” I mildly replied. “And considering the costs of her service, she will be worked until she breaks.”
Diabolist bowed her head at me, without the slightest hint of displeasure on her face. It could be true, I thought. The right of the victor, she’d called it. It could also be a lie, and I would never know until the end. My very own viper, always dangerous no matter how tight the leash.
“How much do you know of this ruin of a realm, Queen Catherine?” the Herald asked.
I hesitated. Admitting ignorance here might see me hoodwinked. Dwarves were infamously disinclined to fair bargains. On the other hand, pretending to be an expert where I was not was just as dangerous in its own way. These were not people to trifle with.
“Little in most matters, yet I have glimpsed deep in some,” I finally said. “My power is both kin and foe to the Priestess of Night’s, in some eldritch way.”
The green-eyed dwarf nodded slowly.
“I have long studied their kind,” he said. “Seven wars we fought against them, two of them lost. Yet we won the last three, and the lands of their ancient colonies were swallowed in the Ninth Expansion. The echo of the last defeat saw them collapse, hiding behind the Gloom and turning their knives on each other. They are a pale imitation of what they once were.”
“A ruin of a realm,” I softly agreed. “And the spider at the centre of the web lies waiting in Tvarigu.”
“She is more monster than woman now,” Balasi said. “She devoured the Twilight Sages, it is said, and made them into the first of the Night. She has only grown since: her hand is on every knife, her lips wet with every red bite.”
“A creature without purpose,” the Herald said, and there was hatred in his voice. “A burden on all her kind. You surface people quibble over devils and books, but the Sve Noc is breathing blasphemy. Voices were raised, when we warred against the goblins, and Ishti’s Bargain extended as mercy. Yet there was only silence in the Deep Places, when call was made for war on the Everdark.”
“I have known little but war since I was sixteen,” I quietly said. “And so I know this: annihilation is a costly enterprise. To break an enemy is one thing, to destroy it wholesale another.”
“Yet annihilation is the only path, so long as the Sve Noc draws breath,” Balasi said. “Many will die, for this purpose. It will take decades to scatter the greatest of the Mighty and lay siege to Tvarigu itself, perhaps as long as a century. We will not have that.”
“The King of Death has turned his eyes to the wars of the surface,” the Herald said. “Yet we have seen this before. It never lasts. The dead will return to the depths soon enough.”
The green-eyed dwarf leaned in.
“The Gloom must fall,” the Herald of the Deeps said. “You fled forward, I think, without seeing our host. It is not only that, Queen of Callow. We have brought artisans and tenders, masons and runescribes. Families as well as soldiers.”
My fingers clenched under the table.
“You intend to settle the outer rings,” Akua said in my stead. “To raise fortress-cities from which you can fight the war against the drow even after the Dead King returns.”
“A long and bleak exile, for hundreds of thousands,” Balasi said. “None who felt this to be their purpose expect to see their kin for many years. The Fourteenth Expansion will be a treacherous one.”
“Yet if someone killed the Priestess of Night,” I said. “The Gloom would end. No exile, no hard decades of war severed from home.”
“Slayers have been sent before,” the Herald said. “As far as we known, none lived to reach the inner ring.”
“Yet you have taken kraksun prisoner,” Balasi said. “Used them. A dwarf would be attacked on sight. A human, of sufficient power? That would be different matter.”
I took a moment to let the implications of that sink in. Not that they wanted me to traipse through the Everdark and murder yet another demigod for their advantage – that much I’d expected – but the sheer scope of what they were undertaking. Hundreds of thousands, Seeker Balasi had said. That was all of eastern Callow, I thought. All those people sent marching across some sorcerous barrier not out of fear or desperation, but because the empire of the dwarves had deemed it strategic necessity to destroy the drow. What kind of empire could do that? The sum whole of the Tenth Crusade, which had three great nations joined, could barely muster two hundred thousand soldiers. I’d read as a child that the Kingdom Under likely spanned two thirds of Calernia underground: that to the east it reached the heartlands of Praes, to the south it touched the upper half of the Dominion. To the west a gate was rumoured to exist in the coastal principality of Brus, though one scarcely used, and the Kingdom of the Dead had long been thought to be the northern border of the dwarven kingdom. I was no longer certain that was the case, to be honest.
I’d read the words stating all that, ink on parchment, but never really understood them until now. Black had once called the Kingdom Under the only Calernian nation that could be considered more than a regional power. I’d not disbelieved him, I’d had no reason to, but neither had I truly taken the words to heart. Mighty as the dwarves were, they were barely Calernian in the end. Their presence was lightly felt, more an adjacent existence one must avoid provoking than a nation we shared borders with. I supposed that was true, in a way – could an ant really have a border with a giant? And while the great nations of the surface had been tearing each other to shreds for yards of land or points of principles, the Kingdom Under had grown so great it could afford to send a few hundred thousand soldiers and settlers into the dark for a mere gamble. A possibly century-long roll of the dice that would shatter a people’s spine over the knee of the King Under the Mountain if it worked. I wasn’t a nobody, I knew. I’d done things that would be remembered in histories. In sheer power, there were only a handful of people on the continent that could be called my equal and even fewer my superior.
All of that was dust in the eyes of the people I was speaking with. It was worth remembering that much, before I tried to strike a pact.
“I supposed most queens would find it beneath their dignity to play the assassin for a foreign power,” I finally said. “Fortunately, I have no such qualms. You need the Sve Nocte removed and the Gloom lifted. I believe I can deliver this.”
“Then we now speak of terms,” the Herald said. “You will want payment, for this service.”
“I will,” I said. “Before that is discussed, forgive my ignorance but I am uncertain of what your title means. Does it carry the authority to make such a deal?”
Balasi’s face turned stormy and he pulled at his beard, but the Herald quelled him with a look.
“I am the Herald of the Deeps,” the green-eyed dwarf said, and his voice rang with power. “Promises I make will be observed by all who call themselves dwarves.”
I could taste the power in the air, the sharp tang of it. My eyes narrowed. Named, I thought. That man is Named. Until now there had not been so much as a mote of spillover, which was worth noting. I hadn’t seen that kind of control since Black. The dwarf was either a religious or cultural figure of some sort, from the sounds of it. Some kind of priest? Curious as I was, it was not necessary to delve too deep in the ways of the dwarves to make a deal. Asking questions now would only distract from that.
“Understood,” I simply said. “Shade?”
Akua leaned in over the table. She knew what I needed, right now, and would be better at bargaining for it. Soldiers were the most direly needed. Drow would have made for useful shock troops but if I could field a few thousand dwarves instead? It was a clearly superior outcome. There was precedent for their kind warring on the surface, though only as mercenaries. After that, my desires were split between diplomatic pressure and gold. An infusion of gold would get Callow through the worst of the current troubles, at least in some respects. Trade with the League of Free Cities had not ceased, and Mercantis never closed its shores to anyone: what my kingdom lacked and could not make could be bought, if we had the coin. On the other hand, a quiet word from the Kingdom Under to any of the powers might solve a lot of my troubles. Even something as simple as declaring the Kingdom of Callow under protection for two years would free my hands to do so much. If I could actually rebuild in peace instead of sinking all the treasury into the army… No doubt the Empress would continue striking through deniable means, but Thief was becoming better hand at the shadow games with every passing month. Breathing room would be godsent, and I could ask for starker price than that.
“Her Majesty came to the Everdark to obtain an army,” Diabolist said. “As the days of the kraksun seem numbered, we will need to secure another source of soldiery.”
Seeker Balasi smiled.
“You can have right of recruitment among them,” he said. “Any you can take into your service will be spared, so long as they depart.”
That was a broad promise, I thought. If I managed to sway even a third of the drow, were they really willing to let them go? I supposed it made sense, from their perspective. So long as they left the Everdark, they were no longer a dwarven problem.
“A right we possess, strictly speaking,” Akua politely replied. “As you made it clear you have no intention of pursuit beyond the span of the Fourteenth Expansion. Dwarves have served as mercenaries before, this would not be significantly different.”
“It is against decree to war on the surface when the Kingdom Under seeks expansion,” the Herald said replied. “You will find no purchase here.”
The deed-seeker frowned, then spoke to his fellow dwarf in their tongue. They traded a few sentences, then Balasi cleared his throat.
“While not in official capacity, I could speak to a few of my fellows,” he offered. “Should you deliver, we could seek deeds in your wars.”
“And how many of your fellows could we count on, Seeker?” Akua asked.
“Two, three hundred,” Balasi said.
“Not a significant enough force, I take it,” the shade asked me in Mtethwa.
“I already have enough monsters up my sleeves,” I honestly replied. “What I need is solid foot to give the vultures pause. Three hundred wouldn’t make Hasenbach or the Dead King think twice.”
“Their deaths could be leveraged into greater dwarven involvement,” she suggested.
“We’d also have to answer for that,” I grunted. “Pass.”
“Then we return to recruiting from the drow,” Akua said. “Shall I press coin or influence?”
“Coin first,” I decided. “Best we stand on our own, if we can have that that. But try to get protection if you can. Doesn’t matter if it’s short so long as we can call in the favour when we need it.”
It would have been polite to call diplomacy what followed, but I knew haggling when I saw it. That Akua was arguing the murder of a lesser god was not cheap instead of loudly exclaiming fresh fish for silver was highway robbery did not make the substance of what took place any different. It was a delicate line to walk for Diabolist. We were useful to the dwarves, but not necessary – there was only so far she could push. I’d learned to put a leash on my temper, over the years, but I was still glad she was the one doing the talking. Balasi was near-openly trying to screw us, first suggesting a loan to the Kingdom of Callow instead of outright payment. As was always the way with these things, what was hammered out was a compromise no one was truly happy with. The treasury in Laure would be getting enough coin that Juniper should be able to raise the Army of Callow as she saw fit without picking clean every last copper, though after the expenses of feeding the southern refugees through the winter I suspected we’d have a rather tight belt when spring came around.
Though Akua pushed hard for a degree of open support from the dwarves, the Herald personally killed the notion. What we got was a little more abstract, though in some ways just as useful: for the next five years, sale of weapons to any nation at war with the Kingdom of Callow would end. I would dearly like to see Cordelia Hasenbach try to raise half the countryside of Procer without a steady supply of cheap dwarven armaments. Unlike Praes, Procer had no large set of forges and smithies directly under the authority of the ruler: her options without the Kingdom Under propping up the war effort were few and rather unpalatable. Our right of recruitment from the drow was confirmed, under condition that they left the Everdark without fighting. It was at least two hours before everything was settled, Diabolist arranging for the payments and announcements being carried out through Mercantis as swiftly as possible. We ended as we began, drinks in hand: at the Herald’s careful instruction we raised the wooden bowls and drank deep of the sudra. It was smooth all the way down, I thought, yet no sweeter for it. There was a faint aftertaste that was almost coppery. Like blood.
A fitting drink for this pact, then.