“In the East they say that doubt is the death of men, but I have seen the end of the forking path and reply this: so is certainty, only for others.”
– Theodore Langman, Wizard of the West
Panic blanked Vivienne’s mind, for a heartbeat. Her fingers clutched the tankard so tightly she felt like it should break. Was this it, then? The conversation that took place before the Deadhand snatched the life out of her? I can run, she thought. But that would be declaring treason, or close enough, and they would hunt her like an animal. How many of the Jacks would stay loyal, if there was a price on her head? Some, but not enough. The guildsmen who’d once answered to Ratface and she’d begun to fold into her own web would turn their cloak without batting an eye. She was still Queen of Thieves until someone took the stolen crown from her, but that was more custom than law and Catherine had put the fear of her in their bones. Some would sell her out, if the alternative was crossing the Black Queen’s right hand. She’d sent all her people away before Deadhand arrived, anyway, leaving the two of them alone with the hearth crackling in the corner. The thief forced herself to drink down some ale, heart still beating against her eardrums. She would, could not fall to pieces so easily. Let’s have a talk, you and I, the orc had said. He’d phrased it like it was an offer, like there was a decision to make.
They both knew there wasn’t.
“Honesty, is it?” she said, affecting a drawl. “I did not know you traded in such luxuries, Adjutant. Ambitious of you.”
He did not smile. Unsure where to look – coldly assessing eyes, lips hiding fangs or that damned hand even when hidden under a glove – she drank again instead.
“Do you know,” Hakram Deadhand mildly said, “I can’t remember the last time I was genuinely scared. I’ve been afraid for us, in fights, but actual terror? No, not even when the Queen of Summer came down. I can’t imagine what it would be like, living with that sword always hanging over your head. Colouring every sight and scent, creeping into every corner of me.”
Vivienne set down her tankard, slowly and carefully.
“To be afraid of something,” she said, “you have to care about something first.”
And do you? Did he care about a single thing in all of Creation? Sometimes she thought he loved Catherine, though not in a way that would lead to courtship. The Woe were so often like sunflowers, turning to remain facing the burning glare hung up in their common sky, and of them Hakram Deadhand had been the first. The kind of love, perhaps, that a drowning man would have for the shore. But even that could not be the sum whole of anyone, and how could she trust in the words of a creature that treated every moment like one on the stage? Vivienne was not sure which truth would be more dangerous: that there was something buried deep beneath, or that there truly was nothing at all. The orc inclined his head, thoughtful. The gesture and accompanying visage was not common to his kind, the thief had known enough orcs to be certain of that. It was learned. Presented consciously to her eyes.
“I have been thinking of a game, lately,” Deadhand said. “I will spare you the details, for they are largely irrelevant to this conversation, but there is one part of it I have been struggling with.”
The thief maintained a pleasant smile, letting him speak without interruption though her mind was wheeling. A game? It was questions she had expected, not some delicate metaphor.
“Trust,” Adjutant said. “That is the one element I could never quite figure out. The game cannot be won without the players hiding their thoughts, yet it cannot truly advance without trust either. I’ve tried to make a study of why it fails or emerges but found no success. The same answers rarely apply twice.”
“A matter best left to philosophers, perhaps,” Vivienne said, too wary to venture blindly into this. “Or theologians, I suppose. Faith and trust have much in common.”
“Do they?” the orc curiously asked. “It is my understanding you were raised to the House of Light, but I never learned its teachings in any depth. My people, not unlike the Praesi, see prayer more as bargain than oblation.”
And there it was, the itch in the wound. Not the religious matters, but the part he had casually mentioned. My people. The Praesi. As if they were two different things entirely. Perhaps they were, Vivienne thought. She’d entertained the thought often enough in the past. Why would the first orc Named in centuries subordinate himself to a human from a land that was traditional plunder and raiding grounds to his own kind? Oh, his Name lent itself well to obedience. But even if he’d ended up the Shepherd he could have returned to the Steppes and lived like a king until his death. Where was his gain, she had wondered? Her answer had been that by staying at Catherine’s side, he could do more than his people than by returning to his desolate home or remaining in true Imperial service. Cat had been, by then, as good as queen of Callow even if there had been the thin pretence of a ruling council. If the Empire was broken apart from the inside, if the Clans were supported by a Callowan sovereign whose closest friend was an orc… And yet there’d been no trace of the steps that should precede that.
There was no greenskin faction at court. There’d been, as far as she knew, no suggestions of diplomacy with the clans of the Steppes or with the powerful officers of his kind in the Legions of Terror. Even when it came to the Army of Callow, he’d been one of the main proponents of investing in training Callowan officers rather than simply relying on the veterans acquired from the wounded legions who’d joined after Second Liesse. His game was not an obvious one. The assertion that he could be driven by personal ambition was laughable. Deadhand could have taken any seat on the queen’s council with but a whisper in Catherine’s ear, and to be frank even without any formal title he’d held authority so broad and absolute some actual kings would have envied it. How much higher could he rise without holding a crown of his own? Yet Adjutant held no noble title, no lands, no significant military force of his own. He could commandeers most of these, but he had not cultivated personal loyalties or gathered supporters – even when it would have been almost childishly easy to do so. He was, in essence, the perfect loyal right hand.
That degree of apparent flawlessness in anyone would have made Vivienne’s skin crawl, but in so skilled an actor it was more than just alarming. As the silence stretched the thief realized she’d allowed the conversation to lapse, and cleared her throat.
“I’m not the best person to explain it,” she said. “I never had much interest in priestly matters.”
“And yet you fought by the side of a man touched by the Choir of Contrition,” the orc said. “Something few priests can boast of. Callowans are a study in contradiction, sometimes. You’ve birthed as many heroes as the Praesi have villains, but rare is the song sung in your taverns that praises angels or Heavens. Always the kingdom, always rebellion and revenge and old scores settled.”
“How often have your people been the invaded instead of the invaders, Adjutant?” Vivienne softly asked. “Curse not walls of your own raising.”
“Aye,” he said. “We have done that. Yet I find it fascinating, the faces nation will paint over faceless Gods. Praesi hold their Gods Below to be peerless schemers, for that is their favoured art. Goblins call the whole lot the Gobbler, a single crawling thing that will one day devour the same Creation it spewed out. Death is the only certainty they embrace as a race.”
“And orcs?” Vivienne asked.
“Below is just what they teach us to call them in the Wasteland,” Deadhand said. “We know them as the Hungry Gods. We’ve had our lesser idols, as all other peoples have. But that altar was the first and remains the greatest.”
“Kings and shepherds fit the same cookpot,” Vivienne quoted, tongue stumbling over the rough syllables of Kharsum.
She was the only one of the Woe who did not speak it fluently. Catherine had been raised in an orphanage and Indrani in the middle of the fucking woods, and still they’d been surprised she did not speak orcish. As if it was a given that everyone should.
“Have you ever seen an orc go without meat for long, Thief?” Adjutant said. “An experiment was made by some Soninke lord called Ehioze, a few centuries back, so the process is well documented. He grabbed three hundred orcs in their prime, who’d committed one of those crimes that is only ever a crime when the Praesi need fresh bodies, and locked them up for study.”
The thief’s eyes narrowed. She did not reply.
“For the first month, it’s barely noticeable at all,” Deadhand continued. “We’ll get irritable, aggressive. Slower in thought. Then at the beginning of the second month, skin will grow tight and muscles melt away. Our bodies start eating themselves alive. By the middle of the third month, we are no longer able to tell faces apart. It’s all a thick, red, pulsing haze.”
Her fingers tightened under the table, not that she remembered putting her hands there.
“Ehioze was a dutiful scholar,” the orc mildly said. “Just starving them would not have been enough. He sequestered parts of the three hundred and studied how different manners of feeding would affect the process. He suggested afterwards that it was possible to keep orcs at the beginning of the middle state, before muscles start going, if they are fed two pounds of meat a month along with higher quantity of other provisions. It’s true, as it happens. I know this because his suggestions were used as the standard orc rations in the Legions up until the Reforms. They called it Ehioze’s Measure.”
“They wanted you able to fight,” Vivienne said.
“But not think,” Deadhand finished softly. “Or we might just question why it was never Praesi that faced the charges of your knights.”
“I imagine there’s quite a few orcs in the Legions, even in the Army of Callow, who have grandfathers and grandmothers that lived under the measure,” she said.
He nodded. Not wary, never wary, for that was to be her curse and not his.
“There’s another part to that tale, Adjutant,” the thief said. “One you forgot to tell. You see, there’s quite a few Callowans in the army who have kin that got eaten by orcs. Not even thirty years ago. What the Wasteland did to your people is a horror. What they went on to do to mine is a fucking horror as well, and one does not expunge the other.”
“I know that too, Thief,” Deadhand said. “You asked, in your own roundabout manner, what it is I care about. I have answers you won’t care to hear, but this one you will. I care about seeing a world where, when I tell this story, the woman on the other side of the table can’t reply the way you did. Where we’re more than hunting hounds for those who measured our starvation.”
And there it was. Everything she had feared – hoped? It was such a blurry line, some days – he would say. The confession that he meant to use Callowan lives to secure orc interests. How long would it be, until Catherine’s fanged Chancellor whispered the right words to have her war for the independence of the Steppes? And yet… He has not prepared for this, she thought. The orc was meticulous to a fault, so where was his spadework? Where were the correspondences and the deals, the alliances made in the dark? Where were the mouthpieces for this ugliest of crusades? Part of her wanted to dismiss all the absences as him simply biding his time, but it rang false. It was fear giving answer, and Vivienne despised how seductive those whispers were. She was willing to fear for her life, for her home, but what was she if terror was the sum whole of her? Just another prisoner, yet another Callowan who’d never quite left the days of Imperial occupation. The moment she ceased looking for the truth, she was lost.
“And yet you are here,” she said. “In Laure. Working for a kingdom you love not, when you could be raising banner among the clans of your kind. Why?”
“Of all of the Woe,” Deadhand calmly said, “you should understand that best. I could raise rebel flag, I could give the Tower a war it would remember for a very long time. I might even win it and cast down that peerless tribute to murder. But what would that accomplish, Thief? The head bearing the crown changes, the world moves on and two hundred years from now we’ll be right back where we started. You don’t cure a sickness by fighting the symptoms. You go after the root, or it will linger until death.”
“The Liesse Accords,” Vivienne said.
“The Liesse Accords,” the orc agreed. “They will not come to be unless we take a hatchet to everything that holds up Praes, beyond repair. And under those rules, that agreement of nations, we change things. Not a dynasty’s name or a few battles won or borders on a map. We truly change things.”
It was perhaps the only argument he could have brought forward that would have appeased her without appeasing her too much. A perfect balance struck. The thief could feel the hair on the back of her neck rising. There were devils in the deepest Hells that did not have half as silver a tongue as Hakram Deadhand.
“And so, I now worry of you,” Adjutant said.
“I have been more ardent a defender of them than any of us,” Vivienne harshly replied.
“So you have,” the orc easily conceded. “And that surprised me, for while Callow will benefit they are not tailored for the primary benefit of the kingdom – and it is Callowans that will bleed to have it signed.”
She’d run with heroes once, the thief remembered. Men and women who’d carried the broken pieces of their old lives with them just as the Woe did, and some nights she wondered how deep the differences truly were. And then there were moments like this, where the killer across from her was surprised that she would embrace salvation extending further than her own little corner of Creation. Like it was expected that the lines on the map delimited the border between people and foes and there could be nothing between. William had been a monster too, in his own way, and Vivienne had neither forgotten not forgiven what might have taken place in Liesse without Catherine’s intervention. Rare was the day where she did not curse herself for having hesitated, having quibbled. Having allowed it to happen without raising a fucking hand. But even William would never have been surprised by someone trying to do good for the sake of doing good. I discarded those hesitations, she thought, and threw in my lot with the Woe. I made a bet on Catherine, and within the year a hundred thousand innocents were dead.
“I can hate the princes of Procer, for their rapaciousness,” she said. “I can hate those who allow themselves to take arms for a morally bankrupt cause and the heroes who would see us burn for a point of philosophy. I can do all that, and not hate the people under them.”
“And yet there is an imbalance, isn’t there?” Adjutant quietly said. “It is not equal care. Who you hesitate, if the choice was between a Callowan life and a Proceran one?”
“And that makes me a villain?” she hissed, and immediately regretted it.
Panic flared. Was this going to be it, then? The moment where he reached across the table and snapped her neck like kindling?
“You are afraid,” Deadhand noted. “There is no need. You have not spoken anything I did not already suspect. And that is my worry, Vivienne. Because deep down you still believe, you still act, like you’re the same girl who was at the Lone Swordsman’s side. You are not.”
“And so to keep my throat uncut I must kiss the feet of the Gods Below,” she said. “Is that it? Shall I eat a baby to prove my dedication to the cause?”
“Your life is in no danger,” Deadhand calmly said.
She laughed, right in his face.
“Is that so?” she mocked. “Why, because Catherine would be cross if you killed me? It would pass. She needs you too badly, and you’ll be able to tell her you tried before I so regrettably forced your hand.”
“Your murder would be seen as a greenskin coup, regardless of context,” Adjutant said. “So if you cannot believe in my own intentions, at least believe in the practicalities involved.”
“Spot on, Deadhand,” she snarled. “There’s nothing quite as reassuring as hearing one’s death would be politically inconvenient.”
“So that’s the kernel,” the orc said, sounding surprised. “You do not believe you have worth.”
She flinched. That had cut too close to home for comfort. The orc’s brow creased.
“You stole a sun,” he slowly said. “And were instrumental in the killing of several of our most dangerous opponents.”
“You do have a talent for the exact,” Vivienne said, “Instrumental is precisely the right word.”
An instrument, wielded by sharper minds and quicker hands. A bundle of aspects to be used as a surgical tool, perhaps sometimes a discreet pair of eyes. You are all Named, she thought. I am an artefact that breathes. And the moment she strayed from that function, what came but defeat? By the Grey Pilgrim, by fae, by a single Praesi mage. Lightning coursing through her veins, not delivered by some ancient power but a single woman with a speck of sorcery to her. The humiliation of it only deepened the echoes of the pain across her body.
“War is not your Role, Thief,” Deadhand said. “Forcing the matter will only result in failure.”
“Then what is my damned Role, Adjutant?” she asked quietly. “Because there’s no need for a thief, here, and what else can I be used for? I do not rule, I do not lead armies, my judgement is background drone to decisions of import even when Catherine is here. Is that all? Am I just the forced voice of morality that must be sweet-talked before we take yet another plunge. Gods, I am tired of being an obstacle instead of a speaker.”
The orc considered that in silence.
“Trust,” he said, sounding almost amused. “Always trust. I would offer you a bargain, Vivienne Dartwick.”
The deal or the grave, she thought. So it finally came to that, Catherine’s little helper tidying up all the loose ends.
“You’re right,” Adjutant said. “You never spoke the accusation, yet you are right. I have no great love for this kingdom. I see what it takes from her, from all of us, and I wonder how it could be worth it.”
The orc’s eyes met hers squarely.
“So teach me,” he said. “Why I should care for it. Show me.”
“I can’t squeeze tears out of a stone, Hakram,” she tiredly replied.
He nodded, as if he had come to a decision.
“There is nothing I can say that will convince you,” Deadhand said. “You are not wrong. Even oaths are just words.”
The orc methodically took off his gloves, one after the other. Flesh first, and the scuttling bone. He brought up the skeletal fingers.
“Your knife, please,” he said.
Vivienne’s pulse quickened. Slowly she palmed her blade, eyes remaining peeled on his face, and she saw only cold determination there. Gods forgive me, she thought. Hide. The hand remained there, his eyes on hers. Hide, she thought again, panic mounting. She could touch the aspect but it refused to bloom. It was like trying to catch smoke. Gently, the orc took the knife from her sweaty, shaking hand.
“I made a promise to you, once,” Adjutant said. “One I have come to regret.”
The tip of the blade touched the bone hand with a soft clink, artfully moved to allow it from his grip.
“Only blood can wash away bad blood,” he said. “Our peoples have that in common. I should not have forgot it.”
The knife came down, hard enough to shake the table beneath, and carved into the orc’s only flesh wrist. Blood spurted as Vivienne’s blade scraped across bones, fear and astonishment taking hold of her.
“My word is of no worth to you,” Hakram Deadhand calmly interrupted her, face pale and taught with pain. “That is not unwise. Amends must be made. So when you next doubt your value, I want you to remember this: when the choice came, I judged you well worth a hand.”
The orc’s wrist pressed down, bone shattered and Adjutant’s black blood crept across the table as his hand came fully severed.