Interlude: Giuoco Pianissimo

“He who trusts no one finds only enemies.”
– Callowan saying

Back when he’d been an unblooded boy in the middle of nowhere, Hakram had occasionally indulged in a game of his own devising. Tower-raising, he’d called it. It’d been a simple thing, at first, more an exercise in fantasy than anything deep. Three piles of ten coloured stones, each led by a lord or a lady, and to win one of them must accumulate twenty stones and so raise their tower. For a stone to be taken from a pile, two other lords must agree on the theft and who received the stone. Hakram had amused himself with elaborate intrigues, a web of vivid alliances and betrayals explaining every acquisition. He’d only ever played alone, in the Steppes, and never once finished a game: no rational alliance could ever last long enough for a winner to emerge, after all. His mother had mistaken his hours staring at rocks as an interest in things spiritual, and so urged him to seek apprenticeship under the shaman of the Howling Wolves clan. He lacked the gift of sorcery, true, but it was rare among orcs and not all rites and rituals required the touch. Most shamans could not actually light a torch without flint and tinder, no matter what was pretended in front of outsiders.

He’d had no reason to refuse her, and the half-hearted attempt had taught him some interesting tricks and stories before he was gently sent back to train with the other warrior younglings. Hakram had not forgot the game, though, and after he was sent to the War College he spared the odd hour for refining it now and then. Rules had been added. Ways to gift a stone as a bribe to break an alliance or make one, promises that could not be broken and even a way to destroy one’s own stones to apply pressure. And still, not a game finished. Not even to one’s loss, after losing became a technical possibility. Perhaps it was because he was the only player, he’d thought, and so roped a few humans gullible or ignorant enough to believe it was an old orc game into playing with him. He’d lost coin keeping the drinks coming without any success to show for it. Hakram had first met Robber, he still recalled fondly, when the goblin had found him playing while on watch in a war game and called him a fool before baldly stealing an entire pile.

“It’s not clever as you think it is,” the other cadet had said. “There’s no kingdom without borders, my splendidly ugly and dim-witted friend. Why are they alone building their tower?”

And so, over the months that followed, they’d tinkered with the game together. It had become an experiment for the two of them, one of the few thing that could truly keep his interest throughout the dreariness of the War College. First they’d added another pile of ten stones and called it Callow, from which any of the lords and ladies could take a stone. It’d not ended the stalemate, for as soon as one player pulled ahead the other two allied to steal away what he’d stolen. There’s a fitting metaphor for this glorious empire of ours, Robber had mused after a particularly well-watered evening. No crab will ever let another leave the bucket before it does. Perhaps the issue was that Callow could be taken from with no consequence, Hakram had decided. And so he’d added one more rule: if no tower was raised in thirty turns, the wrathful Callowans would come and hang all three lords. It’d been a naïve thought, in retrospective, and Robber had been right to mock it. Neither of them ever came across a player who would rather another win than all three lose. It’d been Ratface who’d solved the riddle and given the game its final form.

“Your problem,” the Taghreb had opined, “is that you two are too honest. Everything’s out in the open, the rules are identical for everyone. It’s a shit game for the same reason any halfway decent military strategist will laugh if you tell them shatranj is a good metaphor for war.”

Robber had been mortally wounded by the assertion of honesty, and promptly demanded a duel to avenge the impugnable dishonour of goblinkind. Ratface’s immediate denial had been met by threats he would be first up against the wall when the Great Goblin Conspiracy took action, but even as those two bickered Hakram had amended the rules one last time. Three lords, with uneven piles. One with ten stones, one with eight, one with six. Their stones would remain hidden until they won or lost, and so cold mathematics were diluted with skill at the oldest of Praesi arts: the lie. Even then, most games ended in threefold loss and bitter recriminations. But now and then, oh so rarely, someone managed to raise their tower. Hakram had come into the habit of playing a game at least once a month, afterwards, fascinated by the little details that meant difference between victory and defeat. No one had ever won twice in a row, for example, for one victory meant the specter of suspicion would remain on the victor for a long while.

Aisha, back when she’d still shared a bed with Ratface and so often spent evenings drinking with Rat Company, was the only person he’d ever seen win beginning with six stones. She’d bided her time and kept the game going until everyone was too drunk to remember properly, then bargained her count up until she could steal a victory from the Callow stones. Hakram still thought of those evenings in Ater sometimes, of the reek of smoke and cheap drinks in that winesink they’d whiled away so many hours in. Now Ratface was dead, his grave bought and paid for by the same Empress they’d once served, and he’d spoken to neither Robber nor Aisha in the better part of a year. The game remained, though the last he had played it was years ago. In one of those little ironies of life, it had been the day before he met Catherine. He’d lost along with a roaring-drunk Nauk and an indifferent Pickler.

Callow had taken them all.

He’d put the rules to ink, not long before the Woe left for Keter, and the scroll had been left to wait somewhere in the methodical chaos that was his office ever since. Hakram had mused of writing memoirs, once in a while, as he knew Juniper and Aisha were doing. Juniper’s were more commentary and chronicle of these Uncivil Wars, as the campaigns from the Liesse Rebellion onwards were beginning to be called by scholars, but then she’d always disdained everything but the military side of matters. There were days Adjutant thought he owed to all that came after him to pen a history of what was taking shape here that was true to the beliefs of the few making the decisions. On others he thought, rather ruefully, that such a work would be the very same kind of manuscript his duties would require him to order burned as a threat to the kingdom’s peace. And so instead he found himself, now that he’d been able to wrestle an hour away from his work, penning a short monograph on the subject of tower-raising that was about both much more and much less.

The foundation of the game, he’d written, is the manipulation of incomplete knowledge. It is possible to win with only loose grip of the arithmetic, so long as one’s understanding of their opponents runs contrastingly deep.

He’d come to see much through that lens in the last few years. It was not, he thought, an unfair way to sum up the way the fractious nations of Calernia were behaving. The rising towers differed in nature and appearance, the stones were made of a hundred different abstract details, but the underlying exchanges obeyed the same overarching rule: for someone to measurably benefit, someone else must lose. Cordelia Hasenbach had birthed the Tenth Crusade by promising benefits to all its participants, leaving unspoken that those benefits would have to be taken from Callow and Praes. Having failed to achieve that plunder, her Grand Alliance was now clawing at itself over their own stones. The Empire remained overlord of Callow only so long as it provided protection by other marauding powers who would take from it. Yet prominent elements of Praes had acted in a hostile manner at Second Liesse, with the tacit allowance of the Empress, and so Callow had pressed for independence. He still believed Malicia had made a reasonable decision in some ways, for if she had succeeded in securing the Diabolist’s doomsday weapon she would have made herself too costly a target to plunder.

From that position, all that would have been required of her was to wait for the lack of benefits to break apart the Grand Alliance.

And yet she’d failed, for she had not accounted for the fact that a game was a game and people were people. One could be philosophically correct while being wrong in practice, as she had been when she’d estimated neither the Black Knight nor Catherine would turn on her after the Doom of Liesse. He and Catherine had fallen for the same mistake, Hakram thought, when they’d predicted that military defeats within certain bounds would both force and allow the First Prince to come to the negotiating table. We did not account for the heroes, he thought. We did not account for the priests and the Heavens and the hand behind the hands. And so the desperate alliances that were the heart of tower-raising had followed, reaching out for the bargain offered by Keter for counterbalance against Proceran intransigence. Which had failed, for the Empress had much less to lose and so could afford to offer better terms. And so Catherine left for the Everdark, intent on making miracle out of misfortune. She might succeed. She was, after all, never more dangerous than when no one believed she could possibly triumph. Or she might not.

If that were the case, what he and Vivienne Dartwick were building in Callow would be the sum total of their assets. He was forced to act with incomplete knowledge, and that ignorance dictated harsh terms: if this was all there was, defeat here of any kind was unacceptable. When Catherine returned, this machine must be well-oiled with every cog in a pristine state. Hakram set aside his quill, suddenly having lost taste for further writing. He blew dry the ink on the mostly-empty parchment and rolled it up before sliding it into a sheath. It would keep. There were matters that might not, Thief most immediate among them. The orc draped cloths over the bottled sprites that cast the light in his office, knowing it would lull them to sleep and so offer brighter glow when he returned. Not common knowledge, that. It was a secret Masego had nonchalantly shared, forgetting as he always did that there were perhaps ten individuals more learned than him on all of Calernia and that hundreds would cheerfully commit murder just to have a look at his most casual set of notes.

There was a guard waiting outside the door, one of his own. Sergeant Audun, who was broad and covered with tattoos like all adults of the Frost Tread clan. He had the almost-black skin common in the furthest reaches of the Lesser Steppes, where the isolation had prevented the old bloodlines and customs from thinning.

“Sergeant,” Hakram greeted him in Kharsum. “Where is she?”

“Sir,” Audun acknowledged, keeping his lips tight over his fangs in deference. “Last report had her headed for the Docks. As per orders, we did not tail her out of the palace.”

Adjutant nodded and clapped his shoulder before heading out. Tordis kept suggesting that they send a few goblins out to shadow Thief whenever she went into the city, officially to make her easier to reach in case there was sudden council to be had. There was no point to even trying, in Hakram’s eyes: in a city, Thief was impossible to find unless she wanted to be found. Assigning her a shadow she would inevitably catch on to would only be tossing another ingredient in what was already turning out to be a dangerous brew. The orc knew the tavern that was her favourite haunt, deep in Guild of Thieves territory, and even if she was not already there she’d hear of his coming long before he got there. Long enough that she’d show up to meet with him, if she was so inclined, though of that there was no guarantee. With Catherine away the pretence of amity had given its death rattle. He would still go. At worse, he’d have a pint of terrible beer and leave one of her Jacks a message before returning to the palace. Not the way he would have preferred to spend what promised to be his only resftul hour for the next few days, but preferences were always the first thing headed for the altar when the going got hard.

He declined an escort when heading out. Malicia’s assassins had already emptied their quiver, and there would be few who could truly be a threat to him even if she had not. He almost wished they would try him, in truth. Laure was swimming with Jacks, and further hacking away at the Empire’s roster of hired killers would be a long-term boon. He drew gazes when passing through the Whitestone, as much from legionaries as from the locals. Anyone able to afford one of the district’s mansions would know him by name and description, if not necessarily by sight. Further into the city, though, the nature of the gazes changed. Hakram was not known well enough that Callowans would tell him apart from other orcs by sight, not with gloves covering his hands and his burnt plate still in the palace. Unlike Catherine and Indrani, whose Names were an invisible bonfire drawing the eye wherever they stood, his own was a muted thing. Noticeable enough, when it left the sheath, but it had not. The reception he got was, to his perpetual surprise, rather cordial. Now that the last legions in the kingdom had been folded into the Army of Callow, even greenskins who had never served in the Fifteenth found the locals had thawed to their presence.

The same could not be said for Soninke and Taghreb. The freshly-promoted Legate Abigail had passed down the order that all Wasteland legionaries on leave must carry clear indicating mark of their service in the Army of Callow, which had prevented angry killings in the streets after Malicia massacred a third of the royal court, but a handful of altercations had forced her to go even further and order such legionaries to move only in tenths and avoid certain parts of the capital entirely. Enterprising Callowan merchants had made a killing by setting up stalls of drinks and food near the army’s camps, allowing the soldiers a taste of the luxuries without risking their neck. The orc’s lips split in amusement, baring the slightest hint of fangs. It was a rare thing for his kind to be more popular in these parts than humans, even humans from the Wasteland. He passed by a cart near the edge of Mathilda’s District – known as the Usurper’s Quarter to the locals – and found his steps slowing when he caught scent of the grilled rabbit skewers on it.

It was a ramshackle thing, not even painted as such Callowan carts usually were, and he absent-mindedly noted it was unlikely its owner had paid the proper dues to whatever guild held the rights to sales on these streets. The dark-haired man running it had done well regardless, he thought, for two thirds of the cart were empty and the grease stains left behind made it clear it’d not begun the day that way. Hakram made his way to the skewers and reached for the handful of coins he carried, mostly coppers. The dark-haired man smiled.

“Afternoon. You Legion?” he asked, his Liessen accent thick.

Refugee, most likely, the orc decided. Good to see some of them were making their way without needing to rely on the grain handouts.

“Fifteenth,” Hakram agreed. “Since the raising. How much for one?”

The man hesitated, and there was movement behind the cart. The orc’s head cocked to the side as a little boy no older than nine popped out, fair-haired and not resembling the other human in the slightest.

“Hi,” the little creature grinned.

Meat, the lizard voice in the back of his head said. Soft, small, bones easy to crack and get at the marrow. He ignored it, as all orcs who left the Steppes were taught to. He’d learned well enough there was only silence around his comrades, but it was always harder with strangers. His people had been given rules by the Black Knight and then his successor, and they were good rules. The kind that ran against instinct but helped you grow further. You can eat foes, you can eat the dead, but you must not touch any other. Still, he knew the impulse would never entirely go away. The rules were taught, but the impulse came with the blood. Orcs had to learn discipline, he thought, make it as much a part of them as the blood. Or they would forever remain beasts of the steppes, good only for death dealt and received.

“Hello,” Hakram replied gently, keeping his fangs behind his lips.

“Albert, get back behind the cart,” the man sighed.

“But it’s boring,” the boy whined.

He was unceremoniously dragged back by his collar and the cart-owner offered the orc an apologetic glance. He picked out a skewer and handed it.

“On the house,” he said. “They’ve been out for a while anyway.”

Hakram inclined his head in thanks.

“Much appreciated,” he said, thick gloved fingers closing around the wooden stick holding the bits of meat together.

“My husband went to enroll last month,” the Liessen admitted. “Ended up sent to the training camp near Ankou.”

“General Hune’s,” the orc said. “He’ll do well there, especially if he can read and write. There’s a pressing need for officers.”

“We could use the pay,” the man ruefully said. “The only decent rents in this city are Dockside, and even with the Guild of Thieves keeping order that’s no place to raise a child.”

“You seem to be doing well enough,” Hakram said, eyes lingering on the cart before withdrawing.

He popped a bit of savoury meat into his mouth, swallowing it without chewing. Ah, nothing but salt and rabbit. He did enjoy Callowan cooking. Unlike the Praesi they didn’t drown every dish with spices, you could still taste the meat.

“No telling how long that’ll last,” the Liessen replied. “Word is Legate Abigail, bless her soul, told the guilds to take it easy on the streets for a while. The guards don’t enforce permits as heavily as they used to. But now the Lord Adjutant’s back in the capital, so it’ll be out of her hands. No one’s sure when the hammer will come down.”

“I’ve noticed she’s popular in these parts,” Hakram said, mildly amused at receiving a confession concerning himself.

“She got Laure through the troubles after the Night of Knives,” the merchant said. “And without swords coming out or riots wrecking half the city. Mind you, I’m not cussing out the army. They do good work, and I saw in the camps down south how bad it might get if they didn’t keep the peace. But there’s something reassuring about having one of ours in charge, you know?”

“Lady Thief holds the regency in the queen’s absence,” the orc pointed out.

The man rolled his eyes.

“You don’t spend much time in taverns, do you?” he said. “The old crown it got split in two, one part green and the other one too. It’s not a mystery who runs the kingdom with the Black Queen gone abroad to scare the shit out of Procer.”

It was not to Hakram. Giving Vivienne the regency had been, from the beginning and Catherine’s open admission, been a way to avoid the perception greenskins now ruled Callow. Thief did not want the duties, and Adjutant honestly did not believe she would fare well bearing their burden. That the man in the street knew it as well, however, was not a pleasant surprise. We keep underestimating these people, he thought. Malicia and Hasenbach have, to their ugly surprise, but we do as well and we should know better.

“She’ll be back,” the orc said, still too taken aback to muster better response.

“Aye, she will,” the Liessen said. “And maybe she’ll drop a lake on the western borders, this time. Let them try to invade across that.”

“We can only hope,” Hakram drily said.

“Ah, but I shouldn’t blabber,” the man said. “Don’t let me keep you. It tastes best while still warm.”

“Thanks again,” Adjutant said, inclining his head.

He stepped back onto the street, already mentally adding another entry to his never-ending tally. There might be others like this one, who’d trade on the streets instead of eating on the crown’s dime if they could. Getting the guilds to waive their dues even as a temporary measure would be like ripping out teeth, and sure to unsettle a city still uneasy, but there were ways around it. The House of Light in Laure had full coffers, according to the Jacks, having entirely recovered from their scarce years under Imperial rule. If they could be talked into paying the dues for merchants as an act of strategic charity, the guilds might even lower their demanded cut out of deference for the priests. Yet another council would be required, he thought tiredly, and with people prone to the kind of squabbling that would make Thief and Juniper seem like beloved sisters. The boy popped out to wave him goodbye and Hakram waved back, waiting until he was out of sight to gobble half the skewer and lick his chops. His good mood did not last, for even as he chewed he was forced to admit the Thief situation was worse than he’d previously believed. If a wander down the streets had him hearing the rumour, how often would the spymistress of Callow have heard it?

Even a small wound could go bad, if salt kept being rubbed into it, and this one was not small. Pride always bit the hardest and Vivienne Dartwick had no lack of that. Sundown was beginning when Hakram finally reached the signless tavern that was Thief’s favourite sink, and he’d been feeling eyes on the back of his head for at least half an hour. The Jacks had picked him out and their mistress would have been informed of his coming arrival. She was waiting inside when he entered, tucked away in a little alcove with a tankard in hand and her feet propped up on a chair. As always, she forced herself to not look at his bone hand – even covered – so blatantly she might as well have been staring. The orc lumbered over slowly, making sure to keep the skeletal limb always in her field of sight and moving slowly. He’d noticed it got even worse, when he hid it away from her eyes.

“Adjutant,” Thief drawled. “Heard you were looking for me.”

He sat down, the wooden frame creaking under him, and nodded.

“I was. Let’s have a talk, you and I,” Hakram gravelled. “An honest one, for once.”

The flare of wariness she poorly hid was not auspicious beginning, but he had no choice. It could not be put off any longer. He needed to be sure they were raising the same tower, for decisions had to be made.

In the game, as in all things, it was always better to be the betrayer than the betrayed.

89 thoughts on “Interlude: Giuoco Pianissimo

      1. Morgenstern

        I don’t think the thought about betrayal was about Thief. It was about a united front against the other players on the board, imho… about their bunch betraying the others (Procer, Malicia, etc.) first next time instead of the other way round.

        But who knows, I might be totally wrong. I’d be rather disappointed as a reader if Hakram turned out to be *that way*, though.


        1. RanVor

          I personally read it this way: Hakram noticed Vivienne’s suspicious behavior and needs to know what game she’s playing. If it turns out she intends to betray Cat, he’s going to strike first, eliminating her before she has a chance to turn against the Woe.

          For Vivi’s sake, I hope she’s not plotting betrayal.


        2. I read the comment as ‘if Thief is going to betray Cat because she’ll eventually be unable to tolerate the current situation any longer then Hakram needs to know about it so he can act first’. You could be right, though.


      2. I don’t think Hakram was planning on betraying Viv. I think he recognized the mental anguish she was feeling at having the title but not the authority that went with it, and planning on offering concessions or whatever to lessen the chance of her betraying him.

        And if the concessions, etc., didn’t go well, then like Batman (who has plans for how to defeat every other superhero in case they go rogue) he has a plan.


    1. jonnnney

      Not working as hoped but probably close to how it was expected. Thieves are only good at ruling other thieves and their skill at that is middling at best. I’ve a feeling that Abigail has another promotion in her future. With getting the rioters too drunk to actually riot she has certainly embraced the Woe’s Modus Operandi of “This is just stupid enough to work”. She seems like a good mix of Catherine’s no nonsense approach to governance and Indrani’s goal to seek personal pleasure from anything that moves. Plus she had received her position through blind luck and her own effort rather than the auspices of above or below. She might be just the person to forge a new story for Callow.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Ehhhh … it seems that Thief isn’t even working as a figurehead Regent – this random street food vendor knows that Thief isn’t actually doing the job of Regent, Hakram is, and believe that Thief has neither control nor influence on his decisions.

        Thief is supposed to be the figurehead so that Hakram doing most of the work of running/ruling gets overlooked, ignored etc., by regular Callowans. That’s not what’s happening, and that’s potentially a serious problem.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Rook

          I don’t think she’s supposed to be only a figurehead. The other half was out of practicality since cloak and dagger work is not one of Adjutant’s strengths and he would buckle under the weight of the additional burden if he tried. It was supposed to be division of labor from the start.

          Thing is if the Callowans think Adjutant is in charge but actually end up not giving a shit, it’s all good anyway. The issue is making sure this doesn’t become a crack between Hakram and Vivienne, since it’s probably pouring salt in the wound as far as her pride is concerned


          1. I think you’re misunderstanding, Thief was supposed to be part figurehead, part spymistress, while Hakram did most everything else.
            Thief is formally the Regent, but the problem isn’t that Hakram’s doing most of the work, it’s that the average Callowan doesn’t think that Thief being Regent actually means anything.
            The “crown was split in two, one part green and the other one too”.


            1. Rook

              The reason a figurehead was thought to be needed is potential discontent among callowans if there’s to be too much non-callowan influence in the higher echelons of rule.

              But if said greenskins like adjutant end up being accepted by Callowans as one of them, there isn’t actually a need to have a figurehead. The concern disappears whether people know the strings are held by adjutant or not.

              This is Callow, not Procer. The key is whatever keeps the populace free and happy, not legalities and customs.

              Liked by 1 person

    1. Rook

      I feel like he’s getting ready to have Callow strike first, rather than always being the one being struck. Not that he’s considering chopping Vivienne in half.

      I mean if he’s going to turn his attention outwards, it only makes sense to make sure Thief’s knives are covering his back, rather than being pointed at it.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Hopefully he’ll resolve this situation by finding a way for Vivian to reclaim some authority so that she is not Regent in name only. That would forestall her feeling like the situation is intolerable and keep her on-side.


      1. Metrux

        I got the feelin that Vivi is loosing herself as Thief, and has been a while several characters, her included, are worried for her lack of combat potential. My guess is she is going to change Names soon, or die. I hope for the first.


  1. Very interesting. Although I greatly wish to return to Cat raising an army of Winter, it seems like that is a ways off.
    We probably have the conclusion to the Hakram-Vivi trilogy next, then something with Masego, although it could skip over Masego for now, and just return to Cat next Monday.
    Whatever happens, it was a good chapter, and an interesting look at Hakram’s train of thought, and what all he has been doing.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. soonnanandnaanssoon

        Next week I’ll be a bit busier at this hour so if the chess chapters continue till next week, perhaps you could take over? I should be able to do it this Friday as well.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t heard of the Giuoco Pianissimo before — I like to play the English opening, not the Italian ☻ ♙♙♙♚ — but it’s sound, unlike the more commonly known but obsolete Giuoco Piano.

      So basically, I’ve just spent like 30 minutes studying chess lines that I’ll probably never play (as black I always answer 1. e4 with c5 (Sicilian defense), so I’ll never see the black side of it either.

      In conclusion, I’m a big fan of relating plot events to chess concepts!


  2. IDKWhoitis

    I don’t think Hakram will want to kill Thief, and she can just keep the spy mistress job instead, but Viv’s paranoia may not allow Hakram to do what he would prefer…


  3. magesbe

    Seeing Hakram’s PoV, it’s clear just how much Vivienne’s fear… no, terror, of him warps her perception of Hakram. She’s so scared in general it’s sad; she’s scared that she’s worthless compared to the other members of Woe, she’s scared that nothing she does will make Callow a better place, she’s scared that she’s losing her Name and what little influence she feels she has (and this perception of her being a puppet regent isn’t helping), and she scared of Hakram.

    She needs to shape up. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s why she might be losing her connection to her name. Remember, it’s been said that conviction is the source of Named power, and she has very little conviction left.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Jane

      On the other hand, seeing things from Hakram’s point of view really reinforced to me why Vivienne’s so afraid of him. We didn’t see a single feeling from him, just a detached assessment of how best to fulfill his duty.

      He went to deal with Thief, but didn’t have any feelings of anger or concern, or even exasperation – just dealing with it as though it were any other problem, despite the fact that he’s still closer to her now than he currently is with any of his old friends. He didn’t have any real feelings on how the conflict between Juniper and Thief was undermining the kingdom, or feel like either of them were in the right – just noted how that it was undermining the kingdom and affecting Thief’s stability, and would need to be dealt with. He paid more thought to how he might use the church to help the refugee problem than he did his own >personal reactions to issues that normal people would have feelings about.

      To someone who’s near-exclusive business is in managing people, someone like Hakram must be distinctly unsettling, as he comes across as missing some very key elements of what makes a person a person instead of a tool.

      And, of course, he made a point of subtly intimidating Thief as they finally met, just as he has in the past. It’s little wonder that they have interpersonal issues when he’s spent their entire time playing the bad cop to ensure she stays in line, and they’ve been left alone with each other for months.

      She might need to work through her depression and recognize how important she is to the Woe, but her reservations regarding Hakram are entirely reasonable, in my opinion. He might be wholly dedicated to Catherine, but he really would snap Thief’s neck without a second thought, if he felt it was for the good of Cat’s vision.

      Liked by 7 people

      1. SpeckofStardust

        “was not a pleasant surprise. We keep underestimating these people, he thought. Malicia and Hasenbach have, to their ugly surprise, but we do as well and we should know better.
        “She’ll be back,” the orc said, still too taken aback to muster better response.”
        This was his largest emotional response in the entire chapter.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Ali Khan

        “The orc lumbered over slowly, making sure to keep the skeletal limb always in her field of sight and moving slowly. He’d noticed it got even worse, when he hid it away from her eyes.”

        You didn’t read the second sentence did you.


      3. FactualInsanity

        If by “he made a point of subtly intimidating Thief” you’re referring to the bit about always keeping his hand visible, given that the text says “it was even worse when it [the hand] was out of view”, I took that to mean the opposite entirely. I.e. he was making a conscious effort to placate her, rather than intimidate her.
        If you’re referring to something else, please point it out, because I’ve obviously missed it, or its implications.

        Liked by 4 people

            1. Jane

              In my defense, I was getting steadily more uncomfortable with him the entire chapter, and he did end the chapter by speaking of how it would be better to betray her before she betrayed him :p .

              Liked by 2 people

              1. I didn’t get the creepy vibe. What’s there to be creeped out by? Even the kid he had the impulse to eat didn’t find him creepy!

                I do think Hakram is talking about betraying whomever with Vivienne, not betraying Vivienne, though.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. FactualInsanity

                  I thought that too, but after considering what Jane said, I’m no longer as sure whether the ambiguity is not intentional.

                  Someone is getting betrayed either way and Ol’ Hak is just making sure he (and by extension Cat) is not it.


                2. Jane

                  It’s easier to understand when contrasted against the chapters of other characters; when we read a chapter from Cat’s perspective as she deals with a problem, we usually feel her frustration and impatience; when we read about Cordelia, we feel her contempt for the short-sightedness of her fellow nobles; when we read about Vivienne, we feel her looming depression, but when we read about Hakram…

                  That’s just not there. To compare it to a more conventional social situation, it’s like talking to someone who speaks strictly in monotone, or keeps looking a bit to your side. They don’t mean ill, but the whole thing ends up feeling off.

                  “Creepy” might be the wrong word for it, but it’s somewhat unsettling compared to looking at the inner world of the other characters.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. You should also consider that he is not human, but an orc. When he saw the boy in the stall his fist thought was “PREY” or “SOFT MEAT” or something like that. For what I have read here, they might not have strong empathy on their genetic code.


                    1. Jane

                      Sure, but when we see things from Juniper’s perspective, we still see emotion from her, whether it’s affection for Aisha, irritation toward Thief, or satisfaction in commanding her legion.

                      It’s not the lack of empathy that’s offputting, but rather the lack of emotion in general when dealing with concerns that would normally elicit an emotional response.


                    2. This is not a normal orc people.

                      In Hakram’s chapter when he gained the name of Adjutant he first spoke about how even as an orc he was considered “weird”. He spoke about how other orcs had fervor for battle and in this chapter even as a child only to appease his mother he became a shaman. When he spoke Chat and her practical plan to fix an empire he finally found a place where he fit.

                      This is why his name is devoted to serving her purpose whereas emotionally he does not care what she does as long as it furthers her goals he will do what he must whether that involves murder or administration work.

                      I think each of the Woe can be linked to Id, Ego, and Super Ego
                      Archer, Masego-Id
                      Vivienne- Ego
                      Hakram- Super Ego


              2. Isa Lumitus

                This chapter made me like Hakram more because of his detached, emotionless outlook. Probably because I find that easy to identify with.


      4. Azure

        I agree but how much is his name shaping him into a tool to get the job done? Names may get give you power but they also trap you into a set mindset of how to react and respond. The Fae epitomise that as their nature literally forces them to embody their names. Catherine gets a taste of how much Winter warps her mindset every time she draws on it. And Creation is meant to be a watered down reflection of Arcadia, so Named are definitely being altered by the drive of their names. Thief is definitely being effected as she’s not fulfilling her role as her Name wants her to, so she’s losing her drive and her power. It reminds me a bit of the shards in Worm driving parahumans to conflict. I think Names do the same thing to their bearers.


      5. Morgenstern

        >> And, of course, he made a point of subtly intimidating Thief as they finally met, just as he has in the past. <<

        By doing what? With his hand you mean? I am very sure you misread the paragraph in that case. He states explicitly that Thief's avoiding to look at this hand – aka her FEAR – got WORSE when he tried to hide it from her – implicitly to make her more comfortable!. He is acting like anyone who does NOT want to intimidate when near someone that is totally, reasonlessly fearful – trying to project as little aggression as they can. Thus the slowly, deliberately always keeping potential "weapons" in view for the other person – to show them you do NOT mean to attack them. If they can always keep it in sight, they feel better prepared, because they would be able to see the blow coming, IF some were coming. He's doing all he can to NOT intimidate her currently. He just has no better way and the best he's got is clearly not working as much as he'd want it to. Because the other person is simply irrationally phobic.


        1. Morgenstern

          (Yeah, I know, not quite as irriational in this case, after the intimidation when she first joined.. but still. Way over the top, really…)


  4. Yotz

    Well, there is one option to mitigate the rot, it seems. Legat Abigail may be moved from the Army of Callow into, say, the Black Guard – an internal paramilitary force reporting to the Queen/Regent only, and made a member of new Council on that premise. That will balance out the power equilibrium at the top, and will allow Hellhound to do her work without wasting her time on refugee situation. Also, can be presented as Callowans watching out for Callowans, and so on.

    I wonder, if Viv would find her groove, though – ultimately it all balances on her being able to prove her worth not only to herself, but to her people also.

    Ah, well – we shall see soon enough.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. soonnanandnaanssoon

      Adding thievery as part of things to celebrate in Callowan culture aside from zealously petty time not-withstanding revenge is kinda worrying for a culture though

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Dainpdf

      Could just recreate the Callowan Royal Guard and put her in charge of that, or make her leader of the city watch… But hells, right now I suspect she may end up being Cat’s heir.


  5. Sounds like that quote about Procer: “It is said that the founding First Prince spoke of Procer as a great tower, every principality a stone raising it to ever greater heights. I have found the sentiment more poetic than accurate. Procer is no single tower but twenty-three of them, and their owners constantly steal each other’s stones to rise at the expense of the others.”

    Also, I found the game still imperfect. You see, it is not given that you really know how many stones you have. Or how many you will need. And it’s not given that everyone does not know how many stones you have. So you need to add the special vessel for stones, that will show you your ammount in no clear numbers (say a random number counted from your number +/- two), and you need to add an ability to spy on the amount of stones your enemy has. And, most importantly, you need to give an ability to TAKE the stones.

    “Meat, the lizard voice in the back of his head said.” What is that lizard voice?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. FactualInsanity

      “The lizard brain” is a popular way of referring to instincts in humans ostensibly stemming back from before our ancestors were even mammals. The most primitive, knee-jerk, fight or flight kind of responses, like “weakness -> hunt”, “threat/unknown -> destroy”, etc.
      I guess erraticerrata just wholesale transplanted the phrase to orc culture, even though it makes even less biological sense there. (Or maybe more, if Orcs in the Guide evolved from actual lizards.)


        1. Yeah, the lizard voice in the head of magical orc who did not get comprehensive biological education does strike me as cromulent.

          I thought it is some deity or his Name voice.


    2. Jane

      Personally, I would also say that the game suffers from another critical flaw, one that is almost as ubiquitous in gaming – that they players know what the rule are. That performing x action in y circumstance will result in outcome z, with implication q for victory, and that action p isn’t actually possible under the rules at all.

      Under Tower rules, it doesn’t appear possible to invent some brilliant new stratagem that overturns the board entirely; for someone like Malicia or Akua, who can deeply consider all of their possible options and work out what will most reliably take them to victory, that’s perfect, but for someone like Cat who specializes in thinking outside of the box, it doesn’t allow their strengths to be represented at all.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Jakinbandw

        The fix would be to play with cards or something. Where some cards are worth having for raising the tower and others aren’t. Say that face cards don’t count for raising the tower. Everyone gets a hand of 10, and callow gets a hand of 10 as well. When someone gets 20 none face cards they win.

        I might work up a rule set for this.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. This sounds like something Vivienne might point out. If she were to be told of Building Towers and not too afraid to mention it. The card game might be called Building and Breaking, since it would be hands (declared and undeclared) as well as stones (your own Tower pot and the common pot of chance-lost stones from losing declared hands) you’d be trying to build, rather than just towers of stones.

          Hmmm: poker meets bridge/Jass a a with the option of both permanent or temporary partnership and cut-throat soloing… Maybe some Eucre thrown in? This game could use a changeable Bauer/Joker at contextual points.

          Unless trumps are needed to represent Heroes and Villans, instead… wonder if there’s a bridge-like version of tarot Triumphs out there… *starts to Google*

          Or, there’s always Cripple Mr Onion with new pot rules. 😉


          1. Unmentioned: personal pots would have to be rather like essential oil burners that use tea lights: the top pot that everybody can easily see into, but the “stand” under it only allowing glimpses for the other players through small patterned holes with only the player having the one access hole for stones turned towards them.

            I imagine the boost in both the pottery and jewellery trades would be welcome, with the sudden need of honest earthern or precious filligree pot stands (with matching pots). Poor common-pool pots: they’d probably be whatever was lying around. 😉


      2. Jakinbandw

        How about if during the game each player could spend some stones to make a new rule? It would need some type of veto…


        Let me work on this


      3. You can fix it by adding the three rules:
        – That if you found some pebbles, painted them and persuaded everyone that those pebbles are playable they are;
        – That if you persuaded everyone that those playable stones totally aren’t, they aren’t;
        – And number of needed Tower stones to win is random everytime and you can bring some stones from a previous game into new one. And a number of turns until Callow wins is random too.

        Also any rule that all three players agreed or disgreed upon is a rule in span of current game. Excepions are the rules like: you need stones to win, only one can win, you can’t stab two other players and take their stone, Callow is always angry.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. WuseMajor

        Yeah, Cat’s response to being put into check, is to hit the other player with the chessboard. Which, technically, isn’t against the rules as long as she could do it without moving the pieces, but only because such behavior is frowned upon by society in general and no-one thinks they actually need a rule for that.


      5. Decius

        To the contrary. It’s a move to overturn the table and punch one of the other players, and it’s not easy to predict what the outcome of that action would be.

        Adjutant independently developing Game Theory from zeroth principles suggests that he would have become named even if he wasn’t in Catherine’s story.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. > Adjutant independently developing Game Theory from zeroth principles suggests that he would have become named even if he wasn’t in Catherine’s story.

          I’m not sure that follows. By that reasoning, all philosophers in Guide also become Named.


  6. It just changes into another game. The winner is now the Tyrant, and Tyrant can every n turns tax lords for x stones. The n and x are calculated based on Tyrant stones, unless the “comprehensive tax reform” is done, which is a goal of every Tyrant as it doubles the amount of stones they can tax every time it passed. Of course, the lords can cooperate to steal the stones from Tyrant. It can make for plays like making someone a Tyrant and drowing animosity to him, while slowly building up your base.

    And there needs to be more players. Say, everyone who can paint stones and persuade other player to let him enter the game, can enter the game.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Gods above and below. Hakram basically invented the field of representative game theory from scratch, slowly and carefully building it up with the life lessons he earned and the advice he received, and at the end of the day his models do not have one single solitary rule for true cooperation, only mutually-oriented defections. And apparently it’s not that Hakram was unmotivated before meeting Catherine, it’s that’s he had seen every possible outcome of this defection-oriented madness and it *bored* him.

    Gods. That’s terrifying. That’s possibly the single scariest thing you could have given Hakram as part of his backstory. All of a sudden I realize that Thief’s view of Hakram is not an exaggeration, it’s a deep, deep underestimation. This is a person who probably could have made his own bid for the Tower in due time, but saw deeper and further than others who would make the climb and said “what’s the point?”.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Cat takes time to slap both paint and googly eyes on some of her stones and turns them into pet rocks. Then she defends all the stones she can get hold of, but especially those which are her pet rocks. And, she doesn’t use all her stones just to build a single Tower with: she’s going for towers, keeps, cattle byers, forges and tiddlywinks.

        Sure, she will spend lives to protect lives and the foundations they live on. But, ultimately, she’s trying to grow more of those stone lives to do more than just build Towers with. 🙂


      2. Isa Lumitus

        Hakram’s big revelation was that the only way to get stones was to steal them from other players. It’s a zero sum game. The actual Praesi politics are even worse. After all, sometimes a summoned demon will turn a few stones into face-eating monsters.

        Cat isn’t playing that game, though. What she’s doing is a combination of trying to ally with people to conjure more stones into the game, and stabbing everyone trying to steal stones from her.

        Case 1: The King of Winter. Cat got what she wanted (invasions ended), and the King of WInter also ‘won’ (no longer bound to the Summer Vs. Winter cycle). There was a time when she wanted to kill him for being an asshole, though.

        Case 2: Akua. She tried playing the standard Praesi way, and got her soul ripped out and bound to a piece of clothing.


  8. Dainpdf

    Not exactly a comment on this chapter, but I’ve started re-reading and I wonder if we’ll ever get to see Cat and, say, Hakram or Indrani sparring from the point of view of a normie like we did Amadeus and Sabah way back in the first book, chapter Seven.
    As for this chapter… Hakram being Hakram. Let’s hope he and Vivienne can work things out.


  9. qfeys

    I took a go at writing the rules down. Let me know what you think.

    1e version:
    3 players, called lords (or ladies), each start with 10 stones.
    You have a victory when you have 20 stones.
    A stone can be stolen when 2 players agree on a theft.

    2e version – promises:
    A lord can give one or more stones to another lord to make him agree to an unbreakable promise.
    A lord can destroy any stone they own.

    3e version – Callow:
    A fourth pile of 10 stones is added, named Callow.
    Any lord can take a stone from Callow whenever they want.
    If no tower is raised within 30 turns, Callow will kill all lords (that have taken from Callow – I’m unsure about this one).
    (Another variant could be: the timer only starts ticking when the first stone is taken from Callow.)
    (Btw: What are turns?)

    4e version – lies:
    You have to hide how many stones you have.
    One lord starts with 10 stones, one with 8 and one with 6.
    You can not know with how many stones the others started.


    1. 3e: I think the Callow timer has to only start when someone takes from Callow. Otherwise, Aisha has only 30 turns to collect 24 stones, which doesn’t match up with the statement that she’s playing the long game.

      (Also, Callow is vengeful. It makes sense that they don’t invade until someone pisses them off.)


  10. The rules are interesting, but I feel Hakram needs to do more playtesting:

    1. The lead you need to win seems impossibly far. To win the game, you have to make 20 more captures than anyone else, and possess all but 4 stones in the game! Even if you get all your opponents drunk and they’ve forgotten how many you started with, they’ll surely notice that they’ve only got 2 or 3 stones apiece. Putting more stones in the game in total might help with this.

    2. Callow causing an immediate time limit makes the strategy very limited – the only reason to take from Callow is if you’re certain that its stones will allow you to win. But that means that taking from Callow is basically signaling “I’m about to win the game,” which paints a big target on your back. It’s never a bad idea to plunder someone who took from Callow.

    Also, it’s impossible for anyone to win *without* plundering Callow (24 stones among the lords, 30 needed to win), but for the Praesi, that’s probably a feature, not a bug.

    The (unseen) rules for alliances and betrayal might include a fix for these problems, since they might allow you to accumulate enough power to gather a large number of stones in one fell swoop. I’ll have to think of some possible mechanics.


    1. 1. There is Callow so the total is 34, and at worst you need 14 captures.
      2. No, Callow comes for you regardless. I think. It’s not clear. And you pretty much have to take from Callow. If not, you’re leaving the other two lords with 4 stones combined, see how that’s gonna turn out.
      Oh, I see your problem. You need twenty. “and to win one of them must accumulate twenty stones and so raise their tower”.


  11. I don’t think Hakram was planning on betraying Viv. I think he recognized the mental anguish she was feeling at having the title but not the authority that went with it, and planning on offering concessions or whatever to lessen the chance of her betraying him.

    And if the concessions, etc., didn’t go well, then like Batman (who has plans for how to defeat every other superhero in case they go rogue) he has a plan.


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