“Beware those who peddle sweet truths, for that which cleanses is rarely gentle.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand
I tossed the bow and Indrani snatched it out of the air. She ran her hand down the length, checking it for damages, and only after she’d made certain it was in pristine condition did she turn her eyes to me.
“How much did it cost you?” she asked.
“Not a copper,” I said. “Restitution was tacked onto to a larger bargain.”
“We’re going on a hunt, then,” she smiled. “It was about damned time. We’ve been creeping around for too long.”
I wasn’t all that surprised she’d caught on to the nature of my pact with the dwarves without being briefed. I had precious little to offer the Kingdom Under save for the work of my blade. I’d sent Diabolist to gather our drow while attending to Indrani myself, though that situation felt like trouble brewing. Leaving the prisoners behind wasn’t on the table: the dwarves might interrogate them before breaking their skulls and throwing them on the nearest corpse pile, neither part of which I wanted to come about. Taking them with us on the further journey was trouble too, though. They’d know I’d talked with the dwarves, and there was no guaranteed they wouldn’t open their mouths whenever we ran into a drow powerful enough it could give me a challenge. I was currently inclined to let them go after pulling ahead of the army by a day or two. They could live and die on their own merits, after that. Ivah was the only one I had plans for, though I was still hesitating over pulling that particular trigger.
My mistakes had larger consequences than they used to, and nowadays there was no one to clean up behind me.
The prisoners were awaiting us at the edge of the camp, Diabolist standing among their number while a few companies of dwarven regulars kept an eye on the proceedings. More out of principle than fear, I thought. The shackles had already been removed but still the drow looked uneasy, as if they expected the slaughter to begin any moment. The way some of the soldiers were very casually playing with their crossbows wasn’t helping matters, and from the way grins split their beards the dwarves knew exactly what they were doing. I did not bother to offer our escorts any farewells before leaving. Goodbyes had already been traded with the two dwarves that mattered in the vanguard, and none of the other had done anything to deserve the courtesy. To the contrary, one might argue. Ivah had carefully remained close to me from the moment I arrived, and did not give distance until we’d left the large cavern. We went through another two dwarven chokepoints before finally leaving the territory they controlled, and only then did any of the drow let out a breath of relief.
We took our first break around an hour later, when they began to tire. Where before the prisoners had offered only fear, there was now a touch of reverence in their eyes – towards me, mostly, but Akua as well. From their point of view, we’d walked into the jaws of the wolf and gotten off without so much as a scratch to show for it. They might not know why, but they could not argue with the results. Our guide approached me while the others rested.
“You spoke truth, Queen,” Ivah said, and smoothly knelt. “For the offence of doubting your word, I present myself for judgement.”
I tore off a chunk of dried beef and popped it into my mouth, chewing as I considered the drow kneeling before me. Even on its knees, it was of a height with me sitting. Already I was missing the dwarves and their much more reasonable proportions. I could dismiss this out of hand, I thought. I’d often done this with my doubters in the past, especially when they had good reasons to doubt me. Those who had come into my service had done so after I’d proven myself, shown I could achieve results. This, though, this was different. I wasn’t dealing with a human or an orc, not even a goblin. My grasp on drow culture was still weak, but I suspected that if I made it clear doubting me came without consequences then I was giving an open invitation to do so again. Akua had been just right enough I couldn’t outright dismiss her, when she’d said it was worthless to offer people mercy when mercy had no worth in their eyes. I swallowed the last of the meat, then wiped my fingers on my legs. Measured response, I thought. My hand lashed out, swift as a snake, and the sharp tips of ice I’d formed at the end of the fingers raked across Ivah’s right cheek. Four bloody clawmarks began dripping blood.
The drow did not flinch.
“A reminder,” I said. “When the doubt next comes. You may consider the matter settled.”
Ivah rose on shaky legs, and I dismissed it with a wave of the hand after telling it Diabolist would see to the marks. Indrani slid next to me barely a heartbeat later. She’d been pretty blatantly eavesdropping, though I’d seen no need to stop her. She pressed a skin into my hands, and I did not need to take a sniff to know it wasn’t water. Her breath made that clear enough.
“So what’s the plan?” Archer asked.
“We go to Holy Tvarigu,” I said. “And have a pleasant chat with the Priestess of Night.”
“Seems to me like we’ll need to have a bunch of pleasant chats to get there in the first place,” she mused.
“You and I are pleasantly chatty people, by reputation,” I said.
“It’ll be a load off my back for us to return to the basics,” she admitted. “But you’ve got the look.”
I glanced at her, finding her halfway between amused and annoyed.
“The one that says you’re tripping all over your morals again,” Indrani said. “It’s led us to some beautiful scraps, mind you, but never before a long spot of hemming and hawing.”
“What do you care?” I said.
She blinked in surprised and I passed a hand through my hair.
“I didn’t mean it that way,” I said. “But this isn’t us, ‘Drani. We don’t have those talks. Did Hakram put you up to this?”
“Vivienne asked that I keep an eye out,” she said. “On account of your last advisor around being ‘Ol Portal Dazzle. Worries were had that if you got in a bad place our little friend would be eager to give you a push over the edge.”
“I haven’t talked to her about this,” I said. “I don’t intend to, either.”
“So talk to me,” Archer said. “I’m here, and mostly sober.”
“Do you actually give a shit about any of this?” I bluntly asked. “I’m not saying this to be an ass to you. You never have before.”
“I do give a shit about you, Catherine,” she sighed. “Even when you’re being an utter wench to me. You think I’m down here for the scenery?”
I bit my tongue. Taking out my mood on Indrani would be underserved, even if she was pushing me and she damn well knew it.
“Why are you down here?” I finally asked.
“Because that’s where we went,” she slowly replied, eyeing me dubiously. “How hard was the stuff the dwarves gave you?”
So that was how she wanted to play it, huh. Dumb. Usually I’d leave it at that, play it off with a quip or an insult. It was the way we worked, leaving things unspoken. But Gods, I was tiring of that. Of just… letting things go.
“You take orders from me, sometimes,” I said. “But I’ve never considered you my subordinate. If you’d chosen to go back to Callow with the others, there wasn’t anything I could have done about it.”
“Hells, Catherine,” she sighed. “Do we really need to do this?”
“Don’t we?” I said. “Indrani, there’s maybe ten people in all of Creation I can genuinely call my friends and I can barely claim to understand half of them. I keep leading you into one ugly mess after another, and for some of you I understand. Vivienne’s in this for the kingdom, and Hakram… Hakram believes. In this, whatever it’s become, even when I don’t. I’m not trying to throw stones at you, Archer. There’s just some days where I honestly wonder why you bother.”
“It’s not enough that you’re my friends?” she asked.
“If that’s your answer,” I said, “and I mean your real answer – not us laughing this off and never mentioning it again – I’ll take it. But I don’t want either of us to survive the other and look back in twenty years regretting we were too proud to actually have an honest talk.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“So, Ratface finally sunk in,” she said, not unkindly. “Was worried it might happen. You took it too well when we learned.”
“I used him,” I said, with terrible calm. “He was my friend, and I used him until it got him killed. It’s… Fuck, Indrani. He still had so much left to do. Who does she take next, Aisha? Juniper?”
How many people do I need to lose before I’m just a raving monster who just happens to lack a Tower to rave from? The utter selfishness of that thought shamed me. They’d killed him and still I’d somehow made it all about me.
“We’re not going to die that easily,” Indrani said.
“We’re not invincible, Archer,” I hissed. “We just got savagely beaten by a dead elf and a giant rat, and those were the toys of what’s waiting. All we got to show for it was Malicia taking home a victory once more, and fresh off that she took the knife to Ratface. We’re in this mess and I can’t protect any of you. You have to-”
“Have a reason we’re here,” she finished quietly. “Something worth the risks.”
“You’d be fine without me,” I tiredly said. “Maybe even better off. I’m a fool for saying that, because I need you more than I can put into words, but it’s the damned truth. You can leave this at any time and none of my enemies will follow. And let’s not pretend they’re not my enemies, Indrani. We both know they’re not really yours.”
“Sure they are,” Indrani replied.
“The moment you leave back for Refuge, Malicia and the crusaders forget you ever existed,” I said. “That’s not arguable, that’s a fact.”
She flicked my forehead. I reared back, more in surprise than pain.
“That’s the problem with you, Cat,” she said. “You say these sweet things, sometimes, but you still can’t quite get out of your head. Refuge’s not my home, it’s a place I lived in for a while. The Lady being there is the only reason it exists and the only reason I ever went. You have this… loyalty for Callow. I don’t really get it, the place is war-torn shithole, but if it’s a madness then most of your people have it too. I don’t have that for Refuge, or really anyone in it. There’s nothing to go back to.”
“You could travel,” I said. “That what you really want, isn’t it?”
She laughed, harshly.
“Gods, I can’t get angry,” Indrani said. “It’s infuriating but that’s why it works – because you’re such a fucking idiot it can’t possibly be manipulation. You think I want to leave without somewhere to get back to, Catherine?”
“Shut up,” Archer interrupted. “For once in your life, just shut up and listen. You’re right when you say you don’t understand us, because you somehow missed who you opened your home to. Do you know why Hunter was afraid of me, when I came to fetch him? Because I used to beat him in the yard. Bad enough he’d bruise for weeks even as a Named. Not because I hated him or because we had a grudge, but because seeing it happen put a twinkle in Lady Ranger’s eye. I would have slit his godsdamned throat, if it had done the same. I fought everyone there was to fight in Refuge until I could crush them underfoot, and then I went out into the Waning Woods to find harder opponents. I don’t need a cause. I don’t need a reason. Every time I come out on top, I prove that I deserve this. That I’m not a fucking charity case, some curiosity she picked up in Mercantis along with whatever artefact took her fancy that year.”
“I’m not her,” I said.
“No,” she replied. “You’re not. I trounced your ass the first time we met just so I could prove I was better than the Black Knight’s pupil and somehow that just… never became an issue. I thought you were some kind weakling, at first, too afraid for revenge or a rematch. But then you picked a fight with a demon and its minions, not because you thought you could win but because you wouldn’t accept losing.”
“That’s not a virtue,” I said. “And that kind of thinking has gotten a lot of people killed.”
“You keep your eye on the horizon, always have,” she said. “Makes it that you always end up missing what you actually do. You opened your home to me. Your family. Shit, Cat, we might make fun of you but there’s no one that doubts you’d murder your way through a kingdom for one of us. And you just handed that freely, asking nothing. Not even an oath. And now you’re surprised we’re willing to kill for it?”
“That’s not what I meant to do,” I quietly said.
“It wouldn’t work if it was,” she smiled mirthlessly. “It’s like you don’t realize who it is you took in. You think Masego asks himself whether people should be killed because he cares about Callowan justice? You found a kid who couldn’t talk to others without a chart and you told him he wasn’t mad or strange, that he was right and clever and worth something beyond his magic. Vivienne was so desperate to do something that mattered she joined a rebellion of people she didn’t like or trust in a place where those have the life expectancy of a fly. She fought you, stole from you, and instead of slitting her throat you gave her your trust and told her what she wanted to hear the most: that she’s a decent person and that she can make a difference. Hakram used to wonder why he even got up in the morning, Catherine. He was barely even a person. Now he’s got such searing purpose his own Name made it that he doesn’t need to sleep.”
“That was all them,” I thought. “I didn’t change anything. I’m not owed-”
“You try to be good,” Indrani said. “Or at least decent. So you’ve got this idea that all of us were, before you came along. That you dirty us by making us fight, that you’re somehow imposing on who we’d be otherwise. Set that aside, because it only ever existed in your head. You took in wild animals, fed them and gave them a place by the fire. Loved them, in your own terrible way.”
Shadowed eyes met mine, the glint in them a savage thing.
“None of us forgot the years out in the wilds, Catherine,” she said, baring her teeth. “It was cold and dark and lonely, and if we have to make a graveyard of half this fucking continent to never go there again then that’s what we’ll do.”
I did not reply, because after that what could I possibly say? Archer snatched the skin back from me and rose to her feet.
“Gods,” she grimaced. “I can’t believe you made me do that. Where’s Hakram when you need him?”
“Indrani,” I said. “I-”
“Don’t,” she curtly said. “I have no idea what you’re wrestling with, right now, but I’ll say this: you’ve been running scared since Second Liesse. We’ve all seen how it stayed with you, but grieving is one thing and this is another. If you let it bury you, then you’ve failed those people twice instead of once.”
“What are you saying?” I asked.
“An occasionally halfway-clever woman once told me she didn’t win battles because she was the Squire,” Indrani said. “Or because she had tricks and fancy mantle. You’re afraid of what’s coming? Then do what you need to and stand with your back straight. Let them take a swing. See where it gets them.”
She strode away without another word, already guzzling away at the skin as if liquor could wash away the embarrassment reddening her cheeks. I stayed there sitting in silence for who knows how long, never taking a breath. It had warmed me, what she’d told me. But it terrified me as well, and not only because of her own words. Your people becoming warped by your presence, the Grey Pilgrim had said, old traits grown more vicious and acute. I wanted to deny him, as or all his kindly appearance he was a man very much trying to kill me.
Archer believed all the hard edges in my companions had been there long before they came across me. That it was circumstance making them come out, not some deeper sinister influence. She might be right. Was is not, in a way, supremely arrogant to decide I was responsible for who they were and what they were willing to do? Masego had been raised by a villain and and a devil, Archer by cold-eyed thrill killer and Hakram was an orc – his people’s bouts of savagery filled the pages of history books. Vivienne had been the Thief before ever hearing I existed, and had walked that narrow line between Good and Evil for most her life. Her stolen riches had never gone to feed orphans or the destitute: she’d been settling a grudge. A deeply Callowan thing to do, but if nothing else the last few years had brought out in sharp relief that my people’s penchant for vengeance was not necessarily a thing of the Heavens.
The old voice in the back of my head gave answer soon enough. It would be easy, wouldn’t it, to eschew responsibility for all of this? To let the comforting words wash over me, to share the burden of all the woe that had come to pass. But I’d seen it with my own eyes, decent men arguing for Bonfire. A little word that meant that slaughter of thousands of innocents simply to prevent Procer from sallying out against me. The excuses came swift and plentiful, that withholding that assault had led to the Battle of the Camps and the deaths of thousand anyway. That it was my enemies who had sought the war, not I. Justifications always came aplenty. I still felt a shiver of discomfort, when I realized at some point I’d become the kind of woman that would sow justifications matter only to the just on her own banner. What a vicious joke that’d turned out to be: even while espousing the words, had I ever really stopped telling myself what I was doing was necessary? I’d clutched that whisper tight and led my soldiers, my people, into one war after another.
The Queen of Summer had called us a woe unto all we would behold, and I felt that to be the most savage kind of prophecy: the one that called not on unearthly sight but simple recognition of character. Who was I, to take such grand decisions? Not even twenty-one, taught too little and haunted by grave mistakes. What right did I have to make decrees that might resound for centuries after my death? The fear was paralyzing, that I might botch the matter badly enough a dozen generations might pay for it. I was a drunkard playing dice with the fight of nations, compared to my enemies. I’d be damned for the disaster, and rightly. And yet, I thought with a dark smile, would I not also be damned for doing nothing at all? Maybe Black was right and I’d never been meant for grace at all, for the righteous choices of a hero’s story. Maybe I’d always been who I’d told myself I had become, a deeper truth laid bare by power. Because in the end, if there was only damnation I would rather be damned out of error than fear.
And that left only one thing to do, didn’t it?
I found Ivah standing along, the red marks of the blood I’d spilled dried on its cheek. It rose when I approached, but I waved that away. We settled down comfortably, out of anyone’s earshot.
“It is my understanding,” I said, “that you seek power. To redress what was done to you, to rise above where you once stood.”
“That is so, Queen,” Ivah said, silver bright in its eyes.
“Then I believe,” I said, “it might be time for us to make deal.”
Winter whispered in my ear, promises and imprecations, the distant howl of blizzard parted by the deep crack of great glaciers.
I let it.