Interlude: Zwischenzug II

“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.

“Adjutant, what-”

“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.

163 thoughts on “Interlude: Zwischenzug II

    1. Rook

      He’s really giving Cat a run for her money in terms of the whole self-mutilation thing.

      Eventually we’ll get to a point where Cat has nearly no soul left and Hakram has nearly no body left.

      Liked by 8 people

      1. Is she really one to talk before the fae queen thing. Chat’s soul was literally held together by stitches, she had a limp from an undead leg from past war injury, a huge gaping scar in her chest from when she detonated a goblin bomb.

        I mean really should do a quick face palm and then ask if anything else happened, to which Hakram will mention how thief transitioned to new name, “Thief of Oaths”.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. FactualInsanity

      Unless he specifically refuses, I’m pretty sure the nerds at the Observatory can reattach this one. It wasn’t, after all, severed by a sword made from an angel’s feather.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Rook

        There’s no way he’d allow it to be reattached. You’d probably have better luck convincing him to dress up as a pretty princess and waste a day frolicking amongst the flowers.

        The whole point is that it’s a promise made in blood since he judged words aren’t worth any amount of trust, that’s his answer to the riddle of trust. If he reattaches his hand it’ll utterly devalue the physical oath he’s trying to make here.

        Honestly I think it’s up for debate whether he even allows himself to have another dead hand put on. He might just be a one-handed orc now.

        Liked by 8 people

        1. FactualInsanity

          Not necessarily.
          I mean, I’m not disagreeing, but there’s more to consider.

          In a most mundane way, a possible factor is how the loss of his main hand (unless I’ve missed textual cues he’s a lefty) will impact his ability to do his job, both on and off the battlefield. I’m sure he’s prepared to carry that burden, but is Vivi?
          I don’t think she’s callous enough to go “Your word only has meaning if you permanently remain a cripple.”

          Time will tell (and we probably won’t get another glimpse of these two until after Cat finishes with the Drow).

          Liked by 4 people

          1. Rook

            The point is that his word – or anyone’s word – just isn’t enough. It’s not that Vivienne wants to be petty or paranoid, neither of them can really help it. That’s just the nature of trying to trust in words in a setting where words have proven time and time again to be worth squat.

            The idea is to speak through action. She doesn’t have to wonder if he’s going to stand by what he says when push comes to shove, because he’s paying the price up front.

            If he takes back his price, that’s worse than going back to the drawing board. That proves even his actions aren’t trustworthy, it’s essentially an unredeemable self-sabotage. You can’t un-ring that kind of bell.

            Liked by 7 people

            1. FactualInsanity

              You’re missing my point.
              Like I said, I don’t disagree with your assessment and am not implying he will immediately go out and seek to have his hand restored.

              What I’m saying is that I expect Vivi herself to prompt him to get it healed up, because this isn’t merely about trust issues between Adjutant and Thief. This is about the future of Calernia as a whole. There’s a lot to be said about how, if he refuses to have it restored, even if it lessens his ability to help usher that future in, it reduces Vivi exactly to the kind of instrument she already feels like (insert self-mutilation here, receive devotion and trust there) and reinforces her perception of herself as a weakness (since she would have literally weakened the Woe in such an eventuality).

              This is a lot of ifs and maybes and a grand heaping of wild guessing about how fictional people percieve the fictional world around them, but to recap simply:
              I’m not syaing Hakram will, of his own initiative, seek to have his arm fixed and by implication his word and gesture devalued. I’m saying that showing his willingness to go through with it, should be of more value than a one handed Adjutant and I expect Vivi to realize that.

              Liked by 4 people

                1. Yotz

                  And restoration of said injury have meaning also, especially if it was restored by the will of one for whom the sacrifice has been made.

                  In essentiality, his severed hand is now the property of Viv – thus, if it is to be restored by her will, it still will belong to her after the healing as a form of blood gage, linking them together. Which is a kind of a Story for a Callowan heart – and tale of “A Deadhand and a Thief (of his pants)” would be seen as a peerless romance for ages to come!..


                  Of course, she may opt to keep him handicapped, but – to my understanding – that will go against her nature even if he will understand and accept it. And for him refusing her will on restoring his arm would go in immediate contrariety to everything he tried to tell and show her in before the act, as it was abovementioned.

                  Liked by 2 people

              1. Dainpdf

                If she tells him to reattach it, and he accepts, she will forever wonder whether this was all careful manipulation to get her trust – after all, in the end, he took the action back with her blessing.

                Liked by 1 person

      2. Dingding

        It feels more likely that he’ll go for a prosthetic. A bitchin’ and wildly impractical axe-holder, maybe. They could brace it at least up to the elbow depending on how far he cut.

        Liked by 3 people

  1. Stormblessed

    Oh shit. Oh shit. Wow. Did not expect Hakram to sacrifice his own hand.

    And of course you can see Cat’s influence on Hakram, talking about ‘bargains’ and ‘conversation’. His move here of sacrificing a hand is exactly the sort of thing Cat would do as well. Ironically, this chapter is what makes me the most suspicious of Hakram for some reason. I might need to re read the last chapter to make sure Hakram isn’t trying to pull a fast one.

    This event completely opposite to how I expected.

    My guess/hope is that Hakram is completely serious. He wears so many masks because he doesn’t know how not to. And that he does want to get along with Viv. Either out of genuine concern of just concern for the groups success without her.

    Liked by 7 people

      1. Stormblessed

        See. The reason I find it interesting is the last chapter ended with “Better to be the betrayer than the betrayed.”

        But how does that statement, even metaphorically, apply to this situation?

        Did he betray her earlier with his threat when viv first joined the group?

        I’m trying to stretch, but I have a hard time reconciling that line with his actions this chapter. Do you have ideas?

        Liked by 2 people

        1. FactualInsanity

          I read it as a comment on Vivi’s semi-justified attitude and reclusion.

          Can’t be betrayed if you’re not honest and don’t trust. And since he explicitly went there to build trust and foster honesty, it was a poetic acknowledgement of the uphill battle that he expected.

          I will say however that, being fairly non-emotional myself, I find it easy to identify with Hakram and don’t see his demeanour as manipulative, or suspicious, merely professional. He is Cat’s right hand man. He’s the guy that’s *supposed* to keep the wheels turning in her abscence (and often even in her presence). “Putting on the best mask” (a wrong way to think about it, but eh) for the job is almost literally his job.

          Liked by 14 people

          1. Metrux

            I agree. Myself used to have problems similar to his own, before he got his Name, when I was young. I couldn’t quite understand people’s gestures and faces, and thus couldn’t replicate them naturally. Through my adolescence I had to manually learn which face and which gesture were used for each situation, and started applying it. It seems like a mask, because it’s somewhat forced, but is it really a mask when it shows more of the inside than the actual “face”?

            Liked by 3 people

            1. Dainpdf

              That sounds more like Masego than Hakram. Hakram used to have no motivation to do anything – and he has been said to look like a sociopath (“coldblood” – which, apparently, Hune is) to other orcs.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. It seems like a more universal non-neurotypical problem, and one that Hakram had to struggle with more than Masego, even though it’s an autistic staple/ almost stereotype.

                Masego actually cares very little about socially appropriate masks, people just have to learn to read his natural expression of his emotions if they want to get him. He’s never had this specific problem.


                1. Dainpdf

                  Masego has generally been the one who’s missed social and emotional cues. Hakram seems to have been fine at that – he’s a pretty good manipulator, in fact. He’s closer to sociopathic than autistic.

                  Masego has never had to deal with his social ineptitude because he was Named, and before that the son of one of the most powerful named on the continent. People around him had to adapt to him.

                  Liked by 1 person

                    1. Dainpdf

                      Not exactly sending the wrong ones. More sending right ones which are inconvenient. Plus prejudice and paranoia. And, well, we were talking about catching cues, not sending them.


                    2. No, the conversation was actually about coming across as forced / fake / wearing a mask. And the clues are wrong if they lead to the wrong conclusion.


                    1. Dainpdf

                      Other orcs think him weird, though. Juniper herself said she suspected he was “cold blood”, the description of which is remarkably similar to sociopathy.


        2. Dainpdf

          He could be joining with her to betray someone. Or simply making sure that he’s the one in position to betray her, without necessarily intending to.


        3. In his tower game, there are three players. Typically, two band together to betray the third.

          He’s worried about Vivi’s betrayal in some form or another, whether it’s intentional betrayal or betrayal through fear and inaction. Or something. To avert this, he’s trying to ensure that Vivi understands that they are on the same side. That they, together, can betray the third in his Tower game, instead of Vivi betraying Hakram.

          Going further, he recognizes the need for trust especially with Vivi. He realized his mistake in threatening Vivi: instilling fear in her is no way to ensure trust or a mutually beneficial long term arrangement. Remember that Black gave Cat a choice to become Squire. That manipulation through fear results in treachery. Cat successfully learned this lesson, and I think Hakram is beginning to understand as well.

          Liked by 6 people

  2. maresther23

    That was a pivot. He tied Viv with a hand. He weaponized Catherine’s self flagellation to tie the member of the Woe that represents Callow. It is so much like Black and Cat’s last talk. Brilliant way to brand a Name Hakram, all for the cheap cheap prize of a hand.

    Liked by 11 people

  3. Aze

    “She could touch the aspect but it refused to bloom. It was like trying to catch smoke.”

    Now I really wonder if Vivi isn’t going to gaina bureaucratic, the Woe equivalent of the Scribe

    And let’s not forget that this single Interlude might have launched a new ship in a weird and self mutilating way

    Liked by 4 people

          1. Insanenoodlyguy

            We got pretty clear indication of Juniper ls feelings, we have no idea how much Aisha returns them, if she even is aware of them.


      1. Azure

        She pulls the threads together for the Woe and also balances good and evil, weaving them together into a whole.
        EE may not go there due to it being one of Taylor’s names in Worm, but all the references to her web of info certainly fits.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. soma

    I mean, they say war is not her function, but being able to cripple the supplies and supply lines of armies arguably makes Vivienne more devastating in war than any of the others. She can defeat armies by herself just by stealing their food. We’ve already seen her do it.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hellspirit

      While true, that is precisely her problem with herself. All of that is her Name, not the person. She identifies her abilities (that is to say “what she is able to do”) separately from the Name, since recently she’s been losing touch with her Name the question presents itself “What good is she without it?”.
      Which among all of her paranoia is eating away at her.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. soonnanandnaanssoon

    When Vivienne Dartwick asked for Hakram of Howling Wolves’ hand, she could never have imagined how things would actually go
    – Memoirs of a former Thief

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Fern

    the ultimate connection to a callowan: “Your people and my people have been enemies for so long that you can’t trust me to not ‘buy orc lives with callowan lives,’ so here is me mutilating myself so you know that i’m not the enemy – I won’t keep myself and my people out of harm to extract even more value from callow – and that our people are in it for the long haul.”

    Bro I fucking love this story

    Liked by 5 people

  7. JJR

    “I made a promise to you, once,”

    I feel like I should know what this is, but I have no idea. Does anyone else remember the chapter Harkram promised his hand to Thief?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dan Lawrence

      I think that refers to his promise to kill Thief if she ever betrayed Catherine. I believe he made it while pinning her up against the wall with his dead hand around her throat, but that is just my vague recollection. The moment was around the time that Catherine first got effective control over Callow with the ruling council and a little time after Thief agreed to work with Catherine.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Yotz

    Hungry, eh…
    For there is no peace under the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of hungry gods…

    Also, I wonder what rumours would spread in the city as an aftermath – an Adjutant went to talk to the Regent, and lost his other hand for his trouble. All Hakram need is to tell the truth – his hand was severed by Viv’s knife, after all. Granted, Thief’s knife is not a Hashmallim feather, afair, so the hand can be reattached and healed – he’s all but Cat’s consort, no way the option will be not on the table – but it’s the gesture that matters.

    As an interesting – if improbable – option: Viv shifts her name from the Thief to the Regent, all while retaining her old Aspects – the very model of a modern politician.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Yotz

        But that’s precisely why it must be Regent – to complement and contrast the Chancellor.

        Also, another thing to baffle people with “I am the Black Queen, and this is my Regent – the Queen of Thieves. Yes, two Queens – deal with it”.

        Liked by 2 people

          1. Yotz

            Oh, snap. My eyes cast down, good sir and/or madame – I stand corrected.

            Of course. Three Queens. At least.

            “Yes, only two persons. No, three Queens. Follow my previous recommendations on dealing.”

            Liked by 4 people

    1. Metrux

      Consort is a romantic partner, I think you meant something else when you wrote, because… Hakram is a slut, but he never saw Cat this way :V


      1. Yotz

        Consort is a formal partner (of a reigning monarch, in this case) first of all – romanticism has little to no place in politics. A formal husband of a reigning queen has a lot of duties and privileges which comes with the place – but not necessarily a formal title. As for a romantic or sexual purposes – there may be (and often is) another person to fulfill that role. Said person bears a name of “concubine/concubinus”, or “paramour”. In fact, formally married pair may never even consider each other for such purposes, in fringe cases – out of mutual respect and/or friendship.

        So, even if we discard “all but” part, yes – Hakram never saw Cat this way, true.
        But I meant precisely what I meant.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow.
    Did not see that coming.

    Thief is super paranoid … and has shit self esteem. Hakram would only kill her if she turned on Cat or Cat explicitly ordered it … and the former hasn’t happened, and Cat has no reason to do the latter.
    Being the worst of the Woe in a straight fight is hardly grounds for Cat to want to be rid of you Thief. She knew you were bad in a straight fight since Summerholm.

    Wonder what Hakram’s going to do for his new hand. Neither Warlock nor Heirophant is available to make him a replacement.
    Maybe he’ll wait for Cat to get back and get a Hand of Winter.

    Thief might not remain Thief. But there’s no way she just shrugs what Hakram just did off. Hard to say how she’ll react, though.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. It’s not the first time Hide hadn’t worked – the last time was when she met Assassin.

        Besides … she was effectively right next to Hakram, with his full attention on her. Hide is an Aspect, but they aren’t perfect.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. FactualInsanity

          Yeah, but A) if I recall correctly, back with Assassin the narration stated that Hide was in effect, yet Assassin was able to keep track of her anyway, implying that was part of his skillset and B) she has used Hide with little trouble right next to Cat.

          I think the implication that she’s losing touch with her name is pretty explicit. The only question is whether it’s a temporary, fear- and insecurity-induced state of affairs, or a permanent one.

          Liked by 5 people

          1. Metrux

            My bet is transition. This is the PERFECT pivot for a new Name, one of more “worth” to her new stature, since she isn’t wrong, her actual team has not much need for a Thief, and both this promise and a new Name would solve most if not all of her immediate self-doubts.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. IDKWhoitis

      I think some screaming, or mutterings of “You stupid son of a…” is in order.

      Although I feel like Fadila (Masego’s assistant) could make some jury rigged version, since she has a concrete example to work off on the other hand.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. SpeckofStardust

    The fact that she handed him the knife when she thought he would kill her is simply.

    And then he…

    This narratively is stupidly important, and represented of what is ultimately needed for someone to get on Callows good side, willing self sacrifice.

    Best chapter of this set of Interludes.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Shane Lyndon Sale

      She didn’t give him the knife.

      She palmed it and then tried to hide, presumably to flee.

      Hakram took it out of her hand and then took it to his own.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Morgenstern

      To be fair, she did NOT hand him the knife. She meant to keep and and Hide away….

      Only her Hide didn’t work and then HE *took* the knife from her.


  11. IDKWhoitis

    Possible Names:

    Queen of Thieves

    Left Hand of the Queen (I think it’s the one Hakram just cut off)

    I dont really got much, please do suggest better ones. I don’t think she’s Thief any more, because Hak just kinda denied it (she isn’t the same girl that walked with Swordsman) and he nullified her First Aspect (Man, Hide died with a whimper).

    I’m kinda happy if this gets Viv’s spirits up. And I think Cat is going to through a fit when she sees what Hak just did to himself. With screaming, and shit getting frozen instantly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ALazyMonster

      I feel like he might get a cool hand of Winter from this though. Also, I feel like the cliffhanger with Cat implied that she might be giving out titles of winter now so there are some options and I suppose that Masego could always go with another skeleton hand if we want to go the boring route.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. My thoughts last chapter still feel pretty plausible to me.

      Vicereine (or Viceroy/Viceregent/Regent): A wealthy person who is essentially in command of the ruler is absent. Also used for the wife of a Viceroy, but we could stretch that to encompass a relationship with Cat right? (Also Vicereine and Vivienne kind of rhyme and I like that).

      Guildmistress or Grey Lady: As ruler of the dark guilds of Callow and not an outright villain, I think Vivienne could gain the Guildmistress role, especially since she is folding in Ratface’s psuedo legal guilds into her network she does far more than just spy. This could come through as Grey Lady (or Black Lady, though she’s not ruthless enough imo) to compliment the Black Queen.

      Auditor: As the weight of trust is thrust in her, she worries about her personal balance of good and evil, and has it in mind that the world should be made better for everyone, not just the good. She is truly looking to bring morality to the surface and root out the bad. The Liesse Accords hurt her kingdom but the whole world needs to be Audited before it can be healed.

      I’d love Vivienne to become the Auditor personally. It just feels right to me.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. grzecho2222

        Auditor sounds like someone that Gods down when they decide to abandon dimension, like they did with Arcadia, and need someone to close all loose ends


        1. Thief of Oaths: as she is the one entrusted to keep a moral promise to the Queen of Winter, and now Hakram she will ensure all the promises are kept and vice versa will never break her word. A truly honorable heroic name that also allows her to be equally devious and make bargains with evil villains to ensure her people’s safety.

          It also allows her to not become a hero like The Pilgrim, Saint, or WIlliam who use there names for there own means taking advantage of the “good” aspects of her name. The Thief of Oaths is beholden to those she makes a promise to no matter the individual.

          Liked by 1 person

    3. My thoughts last chapter still feel pretty plausible to me.

      Vicereine (or Viceroy/Viceregent/Regent): A wealthy person who is essentially in command of the ruler is absent. Also used for the wife of a Viceroy, but we could stretch that to encompass a relationship with Cat right? (Also Vicereine and Vivienne kind of rhyme and I like that).

      Guildmistress or Grey Lady: As ruler of the dark guilds of Callow and not an outright villain, I think Vivienne could gain the Guildmistress role, especially since she is folding in Ratface’s psuedo legal guilds into her network she does far more than just spy. This could come through as Grey Lady (or Black Lady, though she’s not ruthless enough imo) to compliment the Black Queen.

      Auditor: As the weight of trust is thrust in her, she worries about her personal balance of good and evil, and has it in mind that the world should be made better for everyone, not just the good. She is truly looking to bring morality to the surface and root out the bad. The Liesse Accords hurt her kingdom but the whole world needs to be Audited before it can be healed.

      I’d love Vivienne to become the Auditor personally. It just feels right to me.


        1. If I knew how to get rid of one I would. It keeps doing this thing when I try to post from Mobile where it logs me out when I post and by logging back in it posts twice for some reason.


    4. Azure

      Hakram kept telling her she’s not suited for war, so either she’s going to force a name change to something that is more martially inclined, or she accepts it and gains a more powerful version of Thief, something like Control or Overseer.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. ALazyMonster

    I love the way this is going and feel like Theif will reach a transition soon. Maybe it might be something like adding a specification to theif like Theif of Knowledge (makes at least some sense since because she is the Woe’s spymistress) like was shown with that theif in Keter, Theif of Stars (may have misremembered), where she shift more to a villain role but the core remains the same. I feel like a large shift to something like a purely bureaucratic name is unlikely. It just feels like the Theif name is a grey one that shifts between lighter and darker shades rather than become a new color all together, but I won’t flat out deny it.

    I was confused when Hakram said “Choir of Compassion” shouldn’t it be Contrition?

    Lastly, I feel like the suspicion and fear Viv has for Hakram was very justified and it does cast him in an interesting light but does go back to what Cat mentioned awhile back that out of the groups motivations Hakram’s is simply that he believes that lasting change is possible.

    He also has a great way with getting his points across.


    1. Metrux

      You could even say he is the only sane one. Because realy, he is. And all he is, all he has become, came from a single moment: When he chose to follow his Warlord. Alot has changed, and he even has changed his priorities (except for this most important one) but that moment still defines him as a character, especially what he said before his oath: Now I’m orc. He would have no design to help his people before, because he didn’t feel part of it.


  13. Wry Warudo

    Wasn’t the last hand animated by Warlock? Now that he and Masego aren’t around, how’re they going to animate that?

    Also I wonder if Hakram is going to get some power up from this. Malicia noted he wasn’t much of a threat, so maybe going through with an experience that ended up strengthening him once will do the same again.


    1. Novice

      If Hakram ever wanted (which I doubt), he could easily have it reattached. It isn’t, after all, severed by a sword made from an angel of Contrition’s feather.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Silverking

    …One thing I hadn’t realized until now was the sheer isolation that Vivienne’s been feeling.

    Her current political role has done her no favors: she feels the orcs are running Callow with Praesi values with her barely chiming in, the common folk grant her no authority or respect, and she feels even her Jacks would turn on her in a heartbeat.

    She’s feels isolated from the Woe: she feels like she’s a low-tier D&D character (the rest of them are freaking forces of nature while she gets knocked out by a mook, only specific circumstances can have her do things that the others can’t do better). Also, she feels that that being the Token Good character makes just seem like more of a Load.

    And now her Name is officially failing her: while Thief can hypothetically play for either team, having a Name means choosing a side, and if she won’t submit to the Heavens or bargain with the Hells, then the Name that isn’t fulfilling a Role doesn’t have enough steam to run on its own (Hierarch’s found a work-around by choosing Order, but he’s a bit crazy).

    I can think of a rebuttal for the political and part of her fitting in with the Woe: Cat needs to have an administrator who understands Callow. Cat doesn’t need more powerhouses; Heroes will always outnumber them, and Practical nations will use mundane means to bring down nations if not countered properly. Now, Hakram and Juniper are effective at what they do, but they are like tone-deaf drummers: they can keep the beat going, they can handle some of the intrigue and logistics and shouting “Vengeance!” at the right time, but they don’t GET how Callowans think. Hakram & Juniper can provide subsistence (filling, but bland), but at some point they’ll need the spice of inspiration and unity that only Cat and Vivienne know how to bring out of them.

    I don’t have a clear idea of how to fix the Name problem, though. Scribe seems to be closest to what would work best for both Cat’s needs and Vivienne’s skillsets, but I don’t know how Vivianne will reconcile her “not quite a Hero, not quite a Villain” dilemma. Hopefully, Hakram will lend her a hand.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. nick012000

    Interesting that Vivian’s Aspect failed to function right before what was clearly going to be a Pivot in the story. I wonder if it’s an indication that something’s about to change for her Name, or if it was just that the narrative that powers a Named’s powers decided that she didn’t get to run away from the Pivot?

    Liked by 2 people

      1. As a quick Ctrl-F showed, the only time we got “Thief” instead of “thief” was when Adjutant was referring to her. That should just further show that she doesn’t think of herself as Thief, which is ofc important.

        Liked by 2 people

  16. Redzonejoe

    Honestly, I expected him to cut off his dead hand. That’s the hand he threatened her with, and the one she’s constantly watching.

    I guess the problem in that case is losing his writing hand, and trouble finding a replacement. He’s not willing to *actually* cripple himself to get the message across, he’s much too busy for that.

    So I’m not nearly as surprised as some of you guys are, but still managed to miss the mark. Drat.

    Another idea I was considering is something showier, more public. Getting flogged by viv to prove to the people that he serves her instead of the other way around. Not sure about the details exactly, but something along those lines.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Vagrant

    Speechless. Loving this one. Trying not to squeal and jump around. The others in the bus would be weirded out – It’s tough to resist though!

    Wanna point out that you mistakenly wrote thief to have rolled with the
    Choir of Compassion instead of contrition.

    Many thanks and keep up the great work 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  18. magesbe

    Catherine is going to be pissed that Thief’s hangups set Hakram up for crippling himself. Now that is a conversation I’m looking forward to.

    And I also hope that Thief is transitioning, though I’m not convinced she is; she might just be losing her connection to her name (though hopefully this revitalizes it, in which case losing the hand was actually worth it).

    Liked by 1 person

  19. RanVor

    To be frank, I didn’t believe we were going to get this chapter at all. The end of Guioco Pianissimo was a perfect moment to switch the focus to Masego or back to Cat. A cliffhanger supreme.

    And I got this instead.

    I’m speechless. Well done.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In a weird way Hakram is the heart of the team and has formed a decent bond with each through some respect he appeals to each character in the band.

      Archer: He is very promiscuous and enjoys a brawl
      Masego: Intelligent curious created his own chess game routinely beats him in it.
      Catherine: He is dependable in a sea of chaos, he is her loyal dog, deligent admin, or a sledgehammer to smash through obstacles.

      Vivienne: He did not have anything until now. He appealed to her love of native people (Callowans) by showing he to values his people and will do anything for them. He also showed that similar to her who made a bargain with a villain, he is willing to make bargains with heroes if it means a successful plan. In effect he gave her meaning on par with how Catherine was the only individual that could ensure Callow’s safety, she is crucial to the freedom of his own people.

      By giving his hand he has not only attached himself to her ensuring loyalty, but vice versa he has made her more in line with the other Woe. She shares a similar relationship to them therefore she is able to understand the “monsters” around her through there connection to Hakram.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Engineer

    So from this,

    “When people make that mistake, Thief, and aim a knife at her back – they find me waiting,” he continued, still in that mild tone. “Now, what I’m doing tonight will make you hate me. That’s fine. As long as you also remember the fear in your guts right now. Listen to that fear, when you start thinking about turning on her. Because I’ll be watching, and unlike Catherine I don’t believe in second chances. Much less third ones.”

    To this,

    “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.”

    Interesting character development.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I think that Hakram created a similar story altering relationship between thief that Chatrine also caused between the lone swordsman.

      Chatharine marked the lone swordsman altering his path turning him into an anti-villain willing to do anything for justice because Chat showed how she could have killed him but let him go.

      Now Adjutant outright says how thief is only living on borrowed time until she becomes a threat(hindrance) to the queen. her feeling of doubt for even being in a band of villains were enhanced by that threat and the ver looming ax over her head. Adjutant ensured that he could possibly reverse the effects that he caused her by inflicting pain on himself. He equally ensnared her to the woes as well as showing the level of dedication that he held for her in this act of self- sacrifice.


  21. Drd

    So, Hakram’s told her that he’s basically there for the same reason she is, the restoration of his people. Even though it’s the Kingdom of Callow and the Orcs, he absolutely believes Cat to be capable of doing that, as does Vivi, and he very much sees their Roles at her side crystal clear.
    Which is why he is taken aback when he realises she doesn’t.
    She doesn’t trust her Role, or how the other Woe see her. As she can’t trust or believe even when he is honest about how he sees Callow and asks her to teach him, he chooses a very visceral, painful method to make the point he would rather maim himself to show her he trusts her and does and will listen (as he did last chapter, even if her paranoia drowned it out).
    Leaving that sort of momento on your table usually leaves a lasting impression, whether he gets another one or not. Cause let’s face it, trying to convince her with flowery philosophical arguments wouldn’t have gotten them anywhere, and he had to bleed out the bad blood between them from when she joined the Woe as a (scetchy)hero and he threatened he would always be watching and at the first whisper of betrayal would kill her and all she loved.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Drd

      Oh, and that was an a-fucking-mazing chapter EE. Hats off to you sir. Read it 3 times. That’s been hanging out there for a while, nice to see progress/resolution.


    2. am I the only one that wants them to be like tag team kind of thing where now they can be a buddy cop. Thief the short but highly emotional and driven individual while Hakram the sociopath is emotionless and does things by the number. SHe constantly looking to help the people so she goes gung ho into enemy lines to secure vital information. Then Hakram tiredly pulls her out of the fire or acts like a distraction.

      Even there aspects could be used tog ether while he is standing and taking hits she could be hiding and using her skills to steal vital weapons from enemies.

      He finds a crucial plan then she takes whatever it is.

      He goes on a rampage taking most of the mobs as he sings making a distraction, while she secretly robs the enemies supplies and munitions, as the Adjutant and thief escape. Can she take living things because if so she could sneak him into location and they could wreak havok.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Michael

    I think most people are underestimating this vow. We know the God’s Below demand sacrifice in exchange for blessings, booms, curses and cows, and that their worship is more of a contractual bargian. Hakram himself pointed this out. Our beloved Adjutant is a villian, and he just made an oath with flesh and blood. Possibly the most important flesh and blood he has as that was his dominant hand. The last bit is worded very specifically, and as a result could be the catalyst to transform Thief from a conflicted Hero siding with vVillians, to a far more nuetral and powerful name like Archer possesses. If a Villian sides with Heros their name itself rebels and is diminished, so the reverse is also true, there for, Thief is diminished because the Name she possesses, while sounding nuetral, was originally that of a Hero. For Thief to come into her own, and complete the story she has essentially trapped herself in she has to change, and Hakram Deadhand, Adjutant to Catherine Foundling, Duchess of Moonless Nights, Sovereign of the Wild Hunt and the rightfully crowned Queen of Callow just sacrificed his most powerful tool to make both a point and a promise.

    This is going to be good.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Exec

    Old unfixed TYPOS:
    1.”by staying at Catherine’s side, he could do more than his people than by returning”
    more for* his people?

    2. “He could commandeers most of these”

    3. “Who you hesitate, if”

    Not sure if these still matter but I noticed no one else mentioned them. One of my favorite chapters either way.


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